Tag Archives: obituary

David Rakoff, 1967-2012

“We are wired for unburdening. It’s what we do as a species. When I am being told, I listen, mindful of the honor, remembering all the while that the shore would be mistaken to believe that the waves lap up against him because he is so beautiful.”

David Rakoff, Half Empty

Nora and Me

I found Nora Ephron, appropriately, on the shelves of the Strand Bookstore in New York, the city she (and I) loved. I had fallen for When Harry Met Sally like every other romantic teenage girl, but it was her collected essays from her days as a journalist that convinced me I wanted to be a writer.

That knowledge took a while to dawn. I had studied for the theater and was doing badly at it as a professional. I was writing steadily but mostly things I didn’t enjoy: paid marketing pieces that followed the overblown academic papers of my college years. The writing I did enjoy – parodies of my professional work – didn’t honestly register as writing at all until I read Nora. Her light touch with grave and personal subjects alike convinced me I might be a writer after all.

Not that her treatment was ever dismissive – on the contrary, everything seemed important – but not in a self-important way.

I shelved her essays next to Gloria Steinem’s, and I wondered what it said about me and my feminism that I chose Nora. I admired Steinem, loved to hear her speak – always pithy and rational – but I was not going to be her. I wasn’t built for long-term social action. I laughed a little too easily and had too strong a sense of the ridiculous to hold it together next to Steinem. Not the 90’s version of ridiculous – “What’s the deal with airline peanuts?” – but the idea that most everything is a little serious and a lot funny if you look at it long enough. There’s a delight in that, an optimism that defies too much earnestness. Like Ephron’s best movies (and even some of the others too), it’s a wonderful place to live. Nora helped me get over my regret and self-censure that, with all my education and grooming for a serious life, I would not be a Senator or an academic, but, if I worked hard and were very lucky, I might make a serious funny writer.

Of course, Ephron was a very serious person. She knew everything and, apparently, everyone. All that knowledge and curiosity was the foundation of her humor. She wasn’t flip, she was smart and clever. She took things like romance and small breasts and her neck seriously, but, as another Esquire writer put it, Nora was not self-serious, and I could get next to that.

We should care about lunch. We should focus on the people we love. These things are true no matter what we are doing with the rest of our attention, be it politics, addressing social injustice or a day job we dislike. They are serious things that are funny and filled with joy. Nora’s intelligent voice was a reminder of that amidst the fluff of other romantic comedies and neurotic essayists.

That she was informed and serious and still chose humor was an endorsement of what I secretly believed: that we are whole people who need lunch and friends in addition to serious pursuits and political opinions, that the world can only be taken so seriously, that looking for love is not a trivial matter, nor is table salt, even when we are well-educated and engaged in the serious matters of the world around us.

As for feminism, Nora had me covered there too.

About the same time I discovered her books, I was contemplating a career change. My college mentor sent me an encouraging email that said, “You can do good feminist work anywhere.” Since I wasn’t trying to do anything feminist per se, I had to think about this for a while. My feminist belief, such as it was, was that if you got on with your work and did it better than everyone else, it would stand on its own merits. Being a woman would be incidental to the work itself but meaningful to the outcome. Wasn’t that the point of feminism after all? (It was certainly more the point to me than excluding men from my college cafeteria on the grounds that their oppressive presence undermined my college’s feminists’ ability to eat their Froot Loops and tater tots. It struck me that a starving future awaited these poor souls.) I understood my mentor’s note of support in that context, and she was right: I could do solid work anywhere and, as a woman, it would mean something to feminism if I did it well.

I think Nora believed this too. She was good at what she did – better than most, regardless of gender – and moved forward to the next interesting thing regardless of male dominance, be it in journalism or directing films. It’s not that she didn’t encounter and acknowledge resistance and restrictions, but she kept working anyway, turning out columns, books, screenplays, films and, eventually, plays, doing it well and – incidentally – as a woman. The sheer volume and force of her excellence at what she did and her wit while doing it were a statement that spoke louder than, well, a statement.

In this regard as in so many others, I am so grateful that we had Nora. I wish we had had her for longer. Forever, really, truth be told. In that – suddenly – we won’t, I am doubly glad that I hovered online a few years ago to snatch up a ticket to the lunch she made for a few fans at The New Yorker Festival, that I got to try her famous Key Lime Pie, that I was able to tell her in person what so many have said these last few days, that she was why I became a writer.

May you rest in peace, Nora, and may there be abundant pie, just the right cabbage strudel and a salt shaker available at all times wherever you are.


“Ms. Ephron’s collection “I Remember Nothing” concludes with two lists, one of things she says she won’t miss and one of things she will. Among the “won’t miss” items are dry skin, Clarence Thomas, the sound of the vacuum cleaner, and panels on “Women in Film.” The other list, of the things she will miss, begins with “my kids” and “Nick” and ends this way:

“Taking a bath

Coming over the bridge to Manhattan


– The New York Times

The woman who made me want to be a writer has died.

Goodbye, Nora. Your inspiration will be missed. The world is already poorer without you.

I’ll keep your pie warm for you.

More: Arianna Huffington on NoraLiz Smith on Nora and Lisa Belkin on Nora

Teddy Kennedy


I’ve always been proud to have been born in the state of Massachusetts and never more so than this week. I had a political crush on Robert Kennedy from the minute I knew anything about him, but it’s Ted who more closely epitomized what I love and worry about: anxiety about fulfilling a life’s purpose, about serving the common good, about converting privilege into usefulness, about steady, methodical, effective work towards broad goals, about redeeming a late start in life (not least due to familial issues). His tenacity, idealism and pragmatism, as well as his hard living response to expectation, obligation and the inevitable repression that attends those burdens all feel like New England to me and I’m proud to be part of that particular, liberal, formal, conflicted heritage.

Thanks, Teddy, for your work and your example. May we all live up to your standard.

Natasha Richardson

I am so sad about Natasha Richardson. I can’t shake it.

I think about her husband and her boys and how terrible it would be to lose her so young and so suddenly. I think about how their lives will continue to change because of her.

I have been thinking on death lately, too often maybe. My anxiety about mortality has ticked up several notches recently.

  • A friend of mine died not so long ago just as suddenly.
  • I left my job to write full time. What I will contribute – if I will leave a mark – preoccupies me.
  • I am engaged and thinking about the rest of my life with R.
  • Since it’s my birthday, I’m taking stock of who I am and where I am.

Yes, the writing and the engagement are the occasion for celebration and a greater sense of freedom. Both of those are also significant milestones in my 38th year, another reason for celebration. Yes.

However, they have also been the occasion for a rise in fear: having things I love makes me sensible to their potential loss. What if I were to die now?

How do I protect myself? How do I protect R? How can I be sure that I am making any sort of contribution? Have I done enough? What is in “enough”? (Volume? Quality? And what is the substance of it?)

In the face of a senseless, unexplained loss – an accident, unadulterated chance immune to planning or protection – first, I seize up. I look for my bike helmet, swear to wear it. I develop an instant fear of skiing. I shake my head at my younger self, at how close I came: hit by a car on my bike, innumerable accidents on Rollerblades and skis, countless trips to the emergency room, concussions and broken bones, dislocations, falls and tears. I try to construct a plan of complete protection for everything I love.

After the seizure, I am left with this: there is no way to be certain. Of anything. Absolute safety for yourself, your child, your partner? No. Certainty of your contribution? No. In point of fact, you don’t know. You can’t know.

But that is not an occasion for additional fear. The certain knowledge that you don’t know can be a place of rest. You do your best now. You live now. You write now. You love well and say it often.

I am grateful for what Natasha Richardson brought to her family and to her craft and am so sorry she is gone.



When I was 17, I met Kelly at a conservatory for young artists. She was a writer and I was an actor. We were not friends: she had what I wanted. She was calm and well-liked, especially by the boys, especially the most popular one, the rich one with the chiseled jaw and the curly blonde hair. She had long, perfectly straight shiny brown hair, the kind of straight that let her have Louise Brooks bangs without worrying that they would curl. Her eyes were a true dark brown. I couldn’t fully understand her appeal over, say, Miss Teen Pennsylvania, who also had made it into the program somehow. Kelly wasn’t flamboyant or buxom. She wrote poetry, swished her long brown hair and everyone wanted to sit with her.

After the conservatory ended, at one of the reunions, Kelly and I somehow sorted out a friendship. Despite her projection of having it together, she had a hard life at home, as did I. We stayed friends – close friends, best friends – for several years. She went to Haverford; I got into Bryn Mawr. I moved to Switzerland instead of starting as a freshman, and when I got back, she went abroad. In my sophomore year, we were in the same town at the same time and, when I had the bad luck to lottery into a maid’s quarter hallway of tiny rooms, she moved over from Haverford to live with me. There were ten rooms and only three of us, so Kelly and I took over multiple rooms, smoked, fingerpainted on the walls (for which we got hauled to the dean’s office), and lived the dissolute lives of overcommitted 20-year-olds. I spent 40 hours a week at the theater and failed classes. She dated inappropriate men and smoked weed. In between, we commiserated.

We didn’t run in the same circles and when her father stopped paying for school and I was put on a forced sabbatical for a year due to poor performance, we both strayed into the wilderness for a while, losing track of each other. She lived with a guy being staked out for selling pot. Then another guy who owned a used record shop. When I went back to school, I was different. Focused, ready to be done, living off-campus. Kelly was cleaning houses, living with another man, older. She was a survivor, but even survivors can only take so much.

We lost each other in the tides of our twenties. Too many moves too quickly. No fixed address. No common friends. I assumed though, I guess, that that wouldn’t last. After all, we were best friends, had been best friends. That thread is thin but strong and I thought – I knew – we would uncover it sometime later, after our lives settled down.

Last year, I dug a little to find the thread. Google’s well and good but Kelly O’Brien is a common name and it took some looking, but I chanced on a profile with a picture at a communications firm in Manhattan and there she was. I sent her a Linked In invitation, she sent email with a a brief multi-year update, I did the same and we promised to meet in New York the next time I was there. That was April 3rd. When I went to New York in late April, I sent a note that got no response. She had been about to change jobs, so I let it lie. It’s been a complicated year for me, so I let it lie some more.

Yesterday, I pulled on the thread again and it unraveled. On April 28, 2008, Kelly had an aneurysm and died at 37, three weeks after our first communication in twelve years.

I don’t know what to take away from this besides grief. I’m horrified at her sudden, young death, terrified for myself for not being ready for either her death or my own. While we were separated only by time and distance, there was hope that I could repay her friendship, that we could come back together on an even playing field, that we could show each other what we had become and share some well-managed envy (after all, she did live in New York). I was worried to see her, I admit (as I am to see many people) – worried that I have not done enough, compared to what I hoped I’d have done by now, compared to what she had done, that I would not be able to coherently justify the time we were apart – but I loved her more and wanted to see her more than that worry. It’s hard for me to accept that that chance has passed with finality, that her own chances have passed with finality.

“Live each day as if it were your last,” has never held meaning for me. If today were my last day, I would be in a panic. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to write or do anything but mutter and weep. I get that that’s not what’s meant by the admonition, but you take my point: the pressure to complete my life would preclude meaningfully completing my life. (That circle has been an issue all my adult life.) Then how do you live in the knowledge of your death without death overshadowing your living?

“Don’t put off til tomorrow what you will regret having put off until tomorrow,” perhaps? And I don’t mean picking up the milk. Limiting regrets can be tricky, a full-time gig that gets in the way of doing the things that matter more (“I could have reached out sooner…even if I were a mess at the time and brought down by the experience,” and so on), but if it’s within your grasp and you can, now’s the time. Be brave.

What I am left with is what I was left with after the fire that killed my grandmother: see clearly, be compassionate, love R, act with courage, write.

John Updike

updike.jpgJohn Updike died this past week of lung cancer. The NYTimes published this poem from his forthcoming collection. For the record, John, I did not think you had “died a while ago” and was put out to discover your passing.

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

— John Updike