Monday, February 10, 2014

"Death is not an event in life"

     Several months ago I gave a speech to a luncheon at Chicago's Standard Club. I didn't think much about the locale beforehand — the Standard Club was founded by German Jews, who thought highly of themselves, and used to keep out their unwashed Eastern European brethren. The line I like to float about the Standard Club is, "it's the rare Jewish organization that discriminated against Jews."
     That sense of smug jollity vanished when I walked in the lobby, and realized the last time I had been there, two years earlier.  Jeff Zaslow was in town, staying at the club. We were grabbing a quick lunch and met in the lobby. Despite his great success—author of "The Last Lecture" and other huge best-sellers—we managed to stay friends, I think, because we shared a certain level of workmanlike professional pride. We were two schleppers in the same trade, two Jewish wordsmiths, peddling our wares, shrugging and sighing and exchanging tales of the difficulty of pulling into a strange town with a handcart of sentences to sell. 
     When he died, in a traffic accident, two years ago today, I thought mainly of myself. I don't have a bunch of good friends, and now one of the best was taken. I wasn't going to write about it — I owed him that, not to turn him into material — wasn't going to go to the funeral. What would be the point? Jeff wouldn't be there, and I had only met his wife once. It wasn't as if she'd miss me.
      But Eric Zorn — a better man than I am — was going, and I would be damned if I was going to let him drive by himself to flippin' Detroit in this lousy February weather that had already killed Jeff. I didn't want him to go through it alone. So we drove out there, talking about Jeff, talking about lots of things, attended the funeral, which was gut-wrenching and beautiful, in turns, attended by a thousand people, and came back, 600 miles in one day. I'd like to say that the funeral gave some kind of closure, that I was glad I went, but it didn't and I wasn't. 
     The day after I returned, I was sorting things out, or trying to, and wrote the following column. Really just to make myself feel better. A strange column. Actually, it was even odder the way I originally wrote it. My relationship with Jeff was a joshing one, the kind guys will sometimes have. He was always more serious than me. I remembered him calling up, and I asked how he was doing, and he said, grimly, "Not so good — Randy's dying" — Randy Pausch, the Carnegie-Melon professor whose parting talk was the subject of "The Last Lecture."
     "Well he better be dying," I replied — alway the weisenheimer — "or else you're going to end up weeping on Oprah's sofa." "The Last Lecture" is based on the idea that Pausch was dying, and if it turned out he wasn't, well, good for him, but it sort of kicked the book's entire premise out from under it. Maybe you don't think that's funny, but that's what kind of guy I really am, and Jeff tolerated it better than most. 
     In fact, the original ending of this column got sliced off by a concerned city editor.  It ended this way:
    It was only the next morning, waking up feeling a fraction of the chill that his close friends and loved ones will be feeling for years, a thought came that made me smile, one that might even have made Jeff smile, albeit while shaking his head: “If there were a God, it would have been Mitch Albom instead.”  Cold comfort, but a start.
      "It's like you were wishing he were dead," the horrified city editor said. 
      "Better him than Jeff," I replied. But I saw his point, and wrote the ending the column now has. Though I figure, with the more freewheeling ethos of the web, and on a blog that has nothing to do with the Sun-Times, officially, and with the passage of time, I can get away printing it now. I can't imagine Mitch Albom, Detroit sports columnist and author of "Tuesdays with Morrie" and similar treacle, will give a damn one way or the other. 
     Anyway, when I go, I'd want my friends—assuming I have friends, and I'm already one short–to remember me in some way. So I want to re-post this column from the Sun-Times, as a Yartzeit candle to Jeff, who was a really good and decent man, who left a void in my life. "It is not often," E.B. White wrote, "that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer." "Not often" is a wild understatement. I'd say almost never.

     Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is a list of numbered propositions, each leading to the next. Number 6.4311 begins, “Death is not an event in life. Death is not lived through.”
     For the person who has died, that is. That person is whisked away to whatever reward or void awaits us after death.
     It is those of us who have not yet died who live through death, big time, who must cope with it, particularly accidental death, which radiates outward, sending shockwaves, first to those at the scene, stunned to find death intruding onto an ordinary day. Then to the officialdom who must deal with death regularly and handle the particulars. Then exploding into the lives of family, who suffer the most and, finally, the thunderclap reaches the outer world, where people hear it and look up, moved to the degree they knew the deceased.
     Jeff Zaslow died in a car accident Friday, as you’ve probably heard. Longtime Sun-Times readers will fondly recall his thoughtful, human and funny advice column that ran from 1987 until 2001, or his best-selling books such as The Last Lecture.
     I don't do grief well — I'm self-centered and over-analytical, a bad mix — and no sooner feel loss then immediately start questioning it, to see if it's legitimate. Jeff's death came as a sickening shock, yet I instantly pulled back, certain that I occupy too distant an orbit among his concentric circles of friends to be entitled to feel awful, which is reserved for his wife and daughters and family, the true epicenter of suffering. Any hurt I feel must be ersatz, overdramatic.
     No matter how I tried to focus my thoughts on others — Jeff's genius, the key to his life: he was a big-hearted, generous man, a true friend — I kept returning to my own experiences with him. Memories bubbled up, random stuff, as if my brain were venting everything it knew about Jeff Zaslow, from the fact that at birth, he was delivered by Dr. C. Everett Koop, the future Surgeon General, to his sister's hand-made picture frames, to his love of Bruce Springsteen — we once went to a concert together — to the day, almost 25 years ago, Jeff was being given his welcoming tour of the Sun-Times newsroom and I hurried over, curious to discover just what kind of idiot leaves a job writing front page stories for the Wall Street Journal to advise women how to get stains out of a broadloom rug on page 27 of the Sun-Times.
     If a Russian novelist tried to create two separate characters to split the spectrum of qualities a writer can possess, he might cook up Jeff (happy, concerned for others, frenetic, sincere) and me (melancholy, self-absorbed, shambling, sarcastic).
     Jeff wanted to help everybody. He held those enormous Zazz Bashes at Navy Pier because he got so many letters from lonely people, and wanted to fix them up with each other, to give each one a shot at the joy he found with his own wife, Sherry.
     I thought he was crazy. "Jeff," I'd say, "You're not a social service."
     When I got the awful news — we have the same literary agency — I dutifully phoned it into the newspaper. "Do you want to write something?" an editor asked. I said "No." The planet of my ego is such — think Jupiter — I knew it would be impossible to launch a tribute to Jeff without having it circle back and crash into myself.
     "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" is the final line of Wittgenstein's book. Good advice. I wanted to honor Jeff by shutting up, an underappreciated art form.
     But silence felt even worse. We Jews bury our own, and standing at Jeff's graveside, mutely waiting for my turn with the shovel, I stared at my shoes and tried to block out the sound of his daughters weeping. "This is the worst thing in the world," I thought. "I hate this I hate this I hate this."
     Silence has no utility, it isn't a sharp enough blade to scrape at the icy loss that Jeff's death frosts over the world. I wish I could wrap this up tidily, with an inspiring thought that counterbalances the tragedy in the world and leaves you with a smile. Jeff was so good at that. Alas, he is not here, a hard fact that touches on the often cruel nature of life, one that we lucky enough to have known Jeff will struggle with for a long time.


  1. " For the person who has died, that is. That person is whisked away to whatever reward or void awaits us after death.
    It is those of us who have not yet died who live through death, big time, who must cope with it, particularly accidental death, which radiates outward, sending shockwaves, first to those at the scene, stunned to find death intruding onto an ordinary day. Then to the officialdom who must deal with death regularly and handle the particulars. Then exploding into the lives of family, who suffer the most and, finally, the thunderclap reaches the outer world, where people hear it and look up, moved to the degree they knew the deceased." That's some great writing right in that paragraph. You did Jeff proud!

  2. I am surprised that you were friends. His style of writing which I can only describe as "suitable for a hallmark card" suffered greatly in comparison to yours. How do I put it? There's something real that has meat to it in your writing. It's not trite as was "The Last Lecture". The idea that someone (Randy Pausch) who lived their whole life in a cocoon had anything worth saying to the rest of us was an embarrassment. If you've never been close enough to the Grim Reaper to count the zits on his face or to have faced the ruin of your dreams, then there's so much you will never understand about life. I was saddened by Zaslow's death because others described him as a nice person and for his family. However, his books will like many best sellers disappear in time whereas yours will still be worth reading. There's something solid in your writing that Zaslow could never reproduce in his books.

    1. Well, one doesn't pick one's friends based on writing style. I knew Jeff for many years before he wrote "The Last Lecture." I found it a useful book. And compared to books of that kind -- such as Albom's "Tuesday with Morrie" -- it has value and is better than most. Plus, you probably haven't read "The Magic Room" which was Jeff's last book, and truly an extraordinary piece of reportage and writing. Part of our friendship was indeed that Jeff saw something commercial and viable in me, and tried to nurture that, and I saw something raw and honest in him, and tried to nurture that, and we respected each other despite, as you point out, a possible divergence in approach.

    2. Neil,

      As per your recommendation, I'll get a copy of "The Magic Room" from my local library which has it and give it a read. I just was not a fan of Zaslow. Randy's widow, Jai, has come out with her own book and it has some eye opening disclosures about Randy Pausch that didn't make it into Zaslow's collaboration with him.

    3. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on "The Magic Room." If I recall, Ms. Pausch was a rather querulous figure in the background of "The Last Lecture." No doubt what she says is also true. Though I would point out that, without Jeff's book, no one would care what she had to say, good or bad.

  3. Hard to believe that was two years ago. I still catch myself thinking about him in the present tense, as it were. Along the lines of "I should forward this link to Jeff---oh, yeah." I'm glad you went to the funeral even if you aren' was good to drive over there with another friend of Jeff's and, if you remember, you gave me (at my request!) an extended reading of the near-final draft of "You Were Never in Chicago"

  4. Lost a longtime friend to cancer a year ago this week. Know the feeling well, NS.

    My conclusions about death were formed at thirteen, after reading James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy, which ends with Studs' death from illness and heart failure at thirty. Farrell equates his final moments as something very much like a failing light bulb. The electrical connections in his brain flicker and fade...and finally burn out.

    So, in the end, you are just a light bulb. The light is gone for good and the bulb must be disposed of, somehow, before it begins to decompose. There's no light bulb heaven...or light bulb hell.

    Farrell's words made me realize, at an early age, that "heaven" and "hell" are merely mental constructs that human beings use to stave off the fear of nothingness, which gets more real as one ages. And the realization that life will continue to proceed, just as it always has, only without you. No snow. No summer. No baseball. No beaches. In heaven, there is no beer.

    To walk through a cemetery, to wonder what sort of experiences its inhabitants might have had, and to realize that a summer will come and you will not be here to see it....that may just be the saddest and hardest and scariest part of it all.

    I think a more important question than what lies beyond is this one: When you die, who will speak for you?

    1. I really enjoy your comments on EGD Grizz. This one is quite moving.

  5. I remember Jeff Zaslow and his column. I was shocked at his unexpected death. I hardly ever read his column — not because I thought his writing paled in comparison to other columnists’ work. It was because his column seemed to be more for singles rather than married folks. Still I admired his enthusiasm for the bashes he hosted and for what appeared to be a genuine affinity for bringing people together. RIP JL.


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