A POLYMATH OF WORDS
After 53 years in journalism, I have no idols but some great favourites. I have interviewed some of the most famous people in the world, but have never asked for an autograph. I treasure my memories instead, but I have just been reminded that memories can leak through the holes of your nostalgia like bathwater leaving the tub.
Some of that, of course, has to do with seniors' moments, which apparently expand as old farts age. I have just read that one of my great favourites, Nora Ephron, who is only 69, also can't remember some of the more notable events of her life, like meeting Eleanor Roosevelt, Cary Grant and Dorothy Parker.
Now I am at the melting Swiss cheese stage of my anecdotage, where if I had had a drink with Parker at the old Algonquin in New York, I may not remember that repartee but would still be able to quote some of her great lines. Like "women and elephants never forget." Or "you can't teach an old dogma new tricks."
I remember interviewing an explorer who says he found Noah's Ark but not his name or anything else. (He gave me what he said was a splinter from the ark, which is lost somewhere in my home along with a mummified finger (don't ask) and my first wedding ring.)
I remember interviewing Sir Edmund Hillary and remember that he was a bluff genial sort, but apart from asking the predictable question about whether he or Tenzing were first to the peak of Everest in 1953, I can't recall anything beyond the reply that they climbed as a team.
For 15 years I was a member of the prestigious International Press Institute which met in difficult foreign locales for press freedoms and always attracted the cream of national leaders plus a smattering of Nobel laureates, former PMs etc. Most of them are a memory blur, and only if I refresh myself with old notebooks from the basement does their voice and thoughts come back...a bit.
Ephron's latest book of musings, I Remember Nothing, deals with how seniors' moments have become the Google Moment of our time, because of the irrevocable forgetting of names and faces. One example for her? She no longer knows anyone in People magazine. That resonates with me. Thank heavens, I'm not the only one who finds its people and facts to be baffling trivia.
Ephron has been making the rounds of the arduous book tour. She was on the final show of the season for Bill Maher and didn't talk enough. She was interviewed in the National Post by a fan, Nathalie Atkinson. who writes and edits, stars allegedly in that weird comic strip The Posties, and is a great cottage guest.
Let me borrow her quotes, where Ephron explains that it's not because our brains become wise enough to realize that it's not important to recognize the latest 15-minute celebrity in People.
That's just a rationalization, she says. "But the truth is when you're young, you are in a desperate need to accumulate friends and information. And you clock it all. You file it all. If you meet someone at a party, there is no chance you won't recognize them if you bump into them several days later ... That stops in a way that you have no idea. You think you have an idea because every so often something slips your mind and you go 'oh my god, am I losing it?' But you don't. But you will."
I was rereading the interview, wondering whether she was stretching it when she said she couldn't remember meeting Eleanor or Cary, when the phone rang. My friend Ted Aver wanted me to come to the Tory holy-of-holies, Toronto's Albany Club, to hear a former colleague. And Aver reminisced about politicians he had invited me to interview over the years.
"Remember that Tory from England that you wrote about. He's doing quite well. I see him on TV all the time, "Aver said. I said I had never interviewed anyone from the British Government at the club. Aver is older too, and he blanked on the name but remembered the wife had a unusual name.
So I resorted to Google, which has replaced our memories, and after 10 minutes or so, determined that yes, I had interviewed a British Tory whose wife's first name was Ffion. To my embarrassment, it is quite a famous Tory, the former party leader who is now Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague.
Maybe it's just Tories who blank out most for me. A Tory friend, Jeff Lyons, who is in disfavour due to City Hall shenanigans, once asked me to interview a western friend who was running for leader. So I had breakfast with the friend, and we talked for three hours. I drove him downtown, and thought he was a bright agreeable politician without a chance. And I forgot about him. Then when Joe Clark became leader and then PM, I couldn't find my notes and there was this black hole in my memory space.
It wouldn't be so bad but I used to be consulted when reporters needed a fact in a hurry. (I didn't remember their name but I remembered the fact.) I was the institutional memory for some organizations. I never had the photographic memory of prominent people like Senator David Smith or Conrad Black but I could hold my own in trivia contests.
Then Google made recall irrelevant. I phoned a friend, Ralph Pohlman, the psychiatrist, trivia maven, and former Sun columnist, and lamented that Google had replaced us. (My example to him is that at a party we were arguing about the height of Conan O'Brien because of his Jumping Jack style of physical humour. Within 15 seconds and Google, I knew he is 6' 4.)
Dr. Pohlman's comment on the erosion of memory is that some of his older colleagues end up with patients who know more about their conditions than the doctors remember because they've been surfing the Internet.
Fortunately, I don't have to Google many of the great Ephron lines from her romantic comedies, books, plays, articles, musings etc .... The orgasm line from her Harry Met Sally movie. The line about her second husband, Carl Bernstein, in the movie Heartburn, after his fictional double was caught in an affair with a mutual friend. He was capable of "having sex with a Venetian blind."
I once interviewed Bernstein and introduced him as a banquet speaker. I really wanted to talk more about Ephron than Watergate, but I was afraid he would stampede. He had threatened to sue Ephron but never did.
Ephron says her love affair with journalism is over, that her "pretentious days" as a scribe writing "the first draft of history" are over, just as her illusion died of reaching objective truths. "Eventually, when I started writing about what you might call fiction, it became clear to me that there was no such thing as the truth. That, except for a very few things for wont of a better word we call facts, everything is a story, a point of view. And that was a kind of revelation."
Yet she says she loved journalism, that there's no better job when you're young.
Now that is something that I will never forget.