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ADD: AMY HIT THE ATMOSPHERE
ADD: JUDY EULOGY
Stories and Photos
Stories roughly ordered chronologically, starting in “childhood/high school,” then “college,” then “after college,” followed by “General Reflections” (That didn’t fit in a particular time period).
ADD: INDEX BY TIME PERIOD OR PERSON
CHILDHOOD AND HIGH SCHOOL STORIES
Eric Wiener, High School Friend
One of my favorite things to do to when hanging out with Matt was something I called “rubber chicken hands.” Whenever we were out with a group, I would wait until no one else besides Matt could see me. I would then flail my hands around in a way that made it look like my hands have no bones (it’s really quite an impressive, albeit useless, skill). Matt would go berserk, and say “look everyone, he’s doing the rubber chicken hands thing!” I would of course immediately stop, and everyone would pretend not to know what he was talking about.
Many people reading this might assume, given the story, that this is an “elementary school” era story; it isn’t. I perpetrated this clever rouse (repeatedly) in high school, college, and later. It just never got old (to us).
Rachel Delston, Hebrew School and High School Friend
Attached is a piece Matt wrote for our Temple Sinai confirmation service.
Danielle Hegedus, Debate Friend
I met Matt at debate institute at the University of Michigan the summer before my senior year of high school (1997). He was so sweet and funny, but I think I appreciated his kindness the most. Matt was a great debater and even in tense rounds, when he SERIOUSLY beat me, I never felt discouraged because he was so humble and kept me laughing the whole time. I think I became a bit of an Ornstein fan-girl my senior year, watching him in elimination rounds at various tournaments and cheering him on.
At the St. Mark’s tournament in Dallas, Matt and Alex had gotten pretty far in the tournament. I remember seeing Matt after rounds walking around with a huge plaque in the shape of Texas. I gave him a big hug to congratulate him and the plaque that he was holding between us started to slip. I went to grab it, from the bottom, but Matt had already caught it. So instead of grabbing the plaque, I had firmly grabbed Matt by the balls. Our eyes met and I remember saying, “I’ll release now,” and we laughed, totally embarrassed, like crazy. From that day on, Matt always comically guarded his crotch when he hugged me and made jokes about the time I grabbed his package 🙂
Ali Majd, High School Friend
My wife took me to a Star Trek improv comedy show on Saturday and, needless to say, it reminded me of Matthew. Here is a story that combines three of Matthew’s favorite things: Star Trek, debate, and being late.
For those who aren’t familiar with policy debate, it involved a ton of preparation, including hours of photocopying evidence. It was Friday, November 22nd, 1996 and we were leaving for a tournament that night. How do I know the exact date? Because it was opening day for Star Trek: First Contact.
I don’t remember where we were going or how we were going to get there, but because it was me and Matthew, we had left our copying till the last minute. No big deal, we had hours before we were leaving. Hours! Here is how I envision the conversation that happened:
Matthew: I got a great idea! Let’s go see First Contact now. We got tons of time!
Me: That is an awesome idea! Matthew, you are a genius.
So off we went, the two of us. I not sure who we told, but I’m pretty sure Alex and Jim (our debate coach) did not know.
Needless to say, we made it back to GDS with very little time to spare, not having taken previews or transportation (aka Matthew walking) into account. Boy, did Jim read us the riot act. Even Matthew couldn’t talk his way out of that one. But the movie was awesome!
McKenzie Anderson (aka Katie High), Debate Friend
Thanks so much to everyone for sharing your stories, and to Alex for including me on this list. This is an incredible collection and it’s just an amazing tribute to an amazing person. I’m sending my love to all of you, and to all those who were blessed to know Matt.
I went to Michigan 7 Weeks (debate camp) with Matt in the summer of 1997. We were “Raptors.” We made tshirts with something about each of us on the back. I think the line for me said: Katie (Ornstein Got Me) High. There was a joint birthday party for me, Ornstein, and Adriana, where we all got Matt a Burger King-style tshirt that said Porno King. We took lots of pictures of him wearing it. We thought it was hilarious.
Anyway, I’m from Oklahoma, and in the summer of 1997, I was a total and complete goody two shoes. I didn’t curse. I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t do anything.
So my first memory of Matt was him sitting next to me in lab, on maybe the first day. And he leaned over to me and whispered:
“Katie, say fuck.”
“Just say fuck.”
“Just do it. Say fuck.”
“Katie, say fuck.”
This running joke continued ALL SUMMER. And it made me laugh, hysterically, every single time, as I turned what I’m sure was a bright shade of red.
I have lots of other memories of Ornstein, but the nagging voice I keep hearing over the past few weeks is his: “Say fuck. Just do it. Just say fuck.”
Zach Pincus-Roth, Childhood & Princeton Friend
A small moment: My friend Jeff Vinikoor, who went on the Princeton Birthright Israel trip with Matt and me in summer 2000, sent me this photo, attached. I remember we came upon these two flags, and they inspired someone to say we should take a Sadat-Carter-Begin-style peace photo. Matt is with Jeff (right), and Seth (I forget his last name, middle).
Josy Hahn, Princeton Friend
Since freshman year, Orney would repeat the following whenever I would see him. He would ask, “Have you heard the Blink 182 song, ‘Josie’.” I would say no. He would then bop his head and sing the beat, so that I could hear the song firsthand. Last week, I finally listened to the song in its entirety. Okay, so I still hate Blink 182, and it sounds like that particular Josie is stuck in a bad relationship. But darnit, I will always like the song because of Orney rocking out to it over the years. That was likely his goal all along–to make me enjoy what he liked, even if I didn’t want to do so.
Scott Vefai, Princeton Friend
Matt and I met the first day of freshman year at Princeton, when we were moving in together with four other guys. Those four other guys were all varsity athletes (hockey, football, swimming, and lacrosse), and together with me and Matt we made for a very motley group. In the end, though, it was Matt, with his enormous sense of humor and charisma, who proved to be the glue that held us together. That year was a very challenging one for me, and Matt’s friendship helped me through it. My heart broke when I heard that he passed away, and I feel extremely lucky to have known him.
Nick Bernthal, Princeton Friend
Thanks for putting this together, Alex. I think it is really helping us all.
When I think of Stray, my mind goes immediately back to our time together in South Africa. As Billy, Addison, and Chris can attest, you mix Stray’s penchant for the eccentric with unfamiliar social norms, and you get pure gold.
Stray got his nickname because of his propensity to wander off. We’d be a group of five to start an activity, lose Stray, then he’d return, usually with some story of how a simple task — getting some McDonalds or pizza because local restaurants were “inedible” — turned into a memorable experience. He wouldn’t announce his departure or arrival, but his smile and a story of intrigue and escape (as well as the smell of American greasy food) would always accompany him back.
No where did his “Stray-ness” create more memories than our two week trip through Namibia. I’ll share a few of the highlights:
1) Addison designs a day trip that includes a 15+ mile hike through the woods. He assigns each person a task and Stray is in charge of the water. We start walking in the complete solitude of the Namibian outback (you quite literally go days between seeing other people/gas/etc). With the beautiful clean air and endless sky around us, we all start to notice that there is a high pitched buzzing sound nearby. As we haven’t seen a person, a car, a shop, or anything else in several days, we cannot place what would put a high pitched buzzing sound in the woods of Namibia. After 15 minutes of listening to the buzz and searching around in all directions, we realize it’s coming from Stray’s backpack. When confronted, Stray responds with, “oh, that noise!?!” as if there was a second buzzing sound we’d been searching for. He lets us know that the sound is his electronic mosquito repellant device from Sharper Image. He tells us that the high pitch frequency is so high that it is inaudible to humans but drives mosquitos crazy. When we remind him that it is not, in fact, inaudible, as it’s driving us all nuts, he concedes the argument. He concludes that “this is why Jews are not supposed to going hiking with people with names like “addison”.”
About 2 hours later, as Stray portions out the water according to his Sharper Image watch that says we have walked roughly 12 miles and are therefore nearing the end, he tells us that we are ok to finish off the water as we are almost to the end of the hike. Billy and Addison suggest that may not be a good idea. 30 minutes later, we see a sign that says “half way point”. Stray acknowledges that maybe “Jews should not be in charge of essential supplies when hiking in the woods with people with names like “Addison”.
2) Fast forward several days and we have made it to Swakopmund, an out-of-this-world dichotomy of a place in western namibia where everyone speaks German, lives in perfect Bavarian style homes, and eats schnitzel daily. The big activity here is ATV’ing across the sand dunes. We get to the course and the instructor, with perfect German efficiency, gives us a 45 second description of how to use a manual transmission ATV bike. He also tells us how to use the kick start on the bike. After this introduction, he tears off into the desert across the dunes. As we get started, we look back and Stray is laughing his head off, stalled at the entrance, trying to figure out how to kick start the bike. Stray’s leg is pumping the kick start 100 miles per hour trying to will it back to life, looking like a dog desperately scratching at a flea. As we circle back to see if we can help, he develops a new nickname, “monkey leg”, as his leg is pumping so hard he is about to collapse. With the help of the instructor (none of us of course had any idea what we were doing), Stray got started. Of course, he immediately veered off into the desert as only Stray would. He wanted to explore a little on his own now that he had his ATV up and running. The next thing we know, with the backdrop of the Namib desert, we see Stray racing toward a massive dune at about 50 miles an hour. The one “safety” tip the instructor gave us was to only go off the very low edge of a dune because flying off the top of a 50 foot sand dune could be dangerous. we all honestly thought that was an unnecessary piece of advice. Stray proceeds to fly off the top of a sand dune completely out of sight. Our last visualization of him, completely disconnected from his ATV, arms and (monkey) legs flailing about, quite literally flying. We all race around the massive dune to find Stray, post yard sale, laughing hysterically buried face deep in sand.
3) Finally, driving home from Namibia, Stray announces that he wants to practice driving manual transmission with our rental truck. We figure its a reasonable option — no cars around, don’t care about the clutch and thousands of kilometers of straight, dusty roads where you could probably get to 5th gear and leave it set for about three days. As we would have it, 20 minutes into Stray’s portion of the drive, we approach a dozen Namibian soldiers standing in the road with a makeshift check point. With automatic guns raised, they motion to slow down. Stray calming puts the car into neutral at our suggestion and applies a reasonable amount of the brake to ease us into the check point. The guys surround the car, looking in the windows and see what must have been a sorry sight. Apparently whatever criminal, drug mule, or warlord they were looking for did not look like a bunch of bug eyed, horrified gringo college kids. The guns were lowered and the (presumed) commander of the group asked Stray for his drivers license. After a brief inspection of a Maryland license, we were determined to be safe for passage. With little english, the commander returned the license and waved us on. Stray, still learning manual transmission and recovering from the increase in sphincter tone induced by a bunch of machine guns being pointed at you, puts the car into first gear. Stall. He restarts the car and puts it into first gear. Stall. As the tension rises, some of the military guys start looking at us a lot closer wondering what could possibly be going on. Then, after a third stall, the commander motions the window down and asks if Stray knows how to drive. With only the charm that Stray has, he looks the commander in the eye, shrugs, smiles, and starts laughing. All of the military guys around start laughing as well. Stray pops it into first gear, and we’re off…
While the stories of Stray are so vivid, and he created so many concrete memories, the thing I take most is the “feel” of Stray. He exuded warmth, with his interest in people, in stories, and in life, he made all of us better people. We are all blessed to have known and loved Stray.
Kelly O’Hara, Princeton Friend
I’m Kelly O’Hara. Matt and I dated in college and remained close after.
As you can probably imagine many of our dates revolved around movies. One day we made plans to watch the movie Avalon. Matt thought it was really important for me to watch this movie to connect with my half-Jewish heritage. Matt liked to refer to me as “just Jewish enough.” After dinner I waited for Matt to call saying he was ready to watch the movie. Around 2:30 AM I wandered down to his dorm room and found him deep in conversation with one of his roommates. As soon as he saw me he remembered we were going to watch Avalon. He jumped up to start the movie saying it’s only 2:30, the night is young. Since I was not on Matt’s late night schedule I asked for a raincheck. One year later Matt sent me a DVD of Avalon with the following card “My sincerest apologies, for this was one year too late. Despite the chronologies, it’s meant to appreciate (terrible poetry). Hope you enjoy.” It was such a sweet gesture. And Matt was right, I did very much enjoy it and felt a little more Jewish after.
Alex Peretsman, Princeton Friend
Freshman year — before I even knew him: he’s running for class president (or something like that) and gets up on a table or chair at Wilson dining hall and acts out the “you can’t handle the truth” scene from A Few Good Men. He also had campaign posters which said something to the effect of “Vote for Matt Ornstein – he got into Princeton.” Which I always found to be hilarious, even though I didn’t know him at the time. Matt was so funny, I loved seeing him up on stage doing standup.
Another favorite story from when a bunch of us took a cruise to Cozumel senior year. We’re signed up for a catamaran/snorkeling/beach excursion and I’m eating breakfast with him on deck beforehand.
It’s time to go but he’s like, I’ll just meet you there, I want to finish my cereal (we all know how long it took him to finish a meal…) – they’re not going to leave without me. But they did, as we couldn’t get the catamaran captain to wait for our late friend (as we were pulling away, we could make out Matt from a distance, casually meandering towards us, not picking up his pace at all or looking worried).
So we all snorkeled, rode the catamaran, and as we’re pulling up to the beach in the afternoon, we see Matt strolling along the beach, beer in hand. He’d figured out where we were headed and taken a taxi there. Despite operating at his own pace and on his own time, he always found a way to be successful, just like that day which was so typical Matt.
Lisa Lazarus, Princeton Friend
I have been laughing and crying along with you as you have treated us to the poignant, funny, loving stories of Matthew. This is a special community indeed, though I can’t say that is surprising. Matthew always had a way of bringing together special people.
I am Matthew’s friend from college and definitely have called him everything from Matt to Orny (sans “e”) to Matthew to MatthewMatthew.
For our senior year house parties (the three-day event held at the eating clubs in May), I decided I would rather go with a friend than go with a random person with whom I’d need to spend three days/nights of events. Matt had asked me to various dances, and I’d always said no. So this time, I knew it was on me to ask Matt to house parties. I did it in style, writing a different type of poem for each day in the week preceding my asking him. Finally, I went to his room and read him the last poem, and he agreed (with a smile) to go to house parties with me. We had a very fun weekend dancing, talking, and laughing. It was great to have decided to go to house parties with a dear friend, and specifically with Matthew.
One other note about that weekend: Everyone else had finished his or her thesis, but Matt was still trucking along with his extension. I had really hoped he would be finished before the weekend began, but that didn’t happen. And though he wasn’t finished with his thesis, Matt created an art project to commemorate the weekend. Instead of just giving me flowers (though he did that too), he also bought a wall clock, took it apart, printed out letters, cut them out, and covered the clock’s numbers so that the clock read: Lisa&Matthew:
Michele and I hung the clock in the kitchen we shared when we moved to DC after college. It was a “timeless” reminder of Matt’s thoughtfulness and creativity.
I continue to think about Matthew regularly. On Friday night I went to the MLK shabbat service at Sixth&I (a synagogue in DC that used to be a church), which included the people who now attend the synagogue and the people who used to attend the church. It was a special night, and as I read through the prayerbook, I saw the attached, which Matthew would have appreciated. I have transcribed most of it below:
Traditional liturgy reflects the belief that G-d resurrects the dead [m’cha-yeih ha-mei-tim]. Reform and Reconstructionist liturgy both indicate that G-d is the Source of Life. Reform liturgy uses the phrase “G-d gives life to all” while Reconstructionist liturgy uses “G-d gives life to all that lives.” Some interpret [m’cha-yeih ha-mei-tim] as G-d grants us a measure of immortality in that we live on in the memories of our loved ones and in the effects of our good works and creative acts.
Also, for those of you who were unable to attend the funeral, below are the reflections I shared on January 7.
With love and gratitude to all,
I stand before this wonderful community heartbroken, as we all are. While I hope Matthew is now at peace, I sure do miss him. Matt would have found just the right words, made just the right joke to help us find a way to smile through our heart-wrenching tears.
Before I even knew Matthew, I knew about him, for he was running for student government. Many of our college friends regularly quote Matthew’s phenomenal and witty campaign slogan: “Vote for Matt. He got into Princeton.” Hilarious. Matt was such a keen observer of people and the world. With his seven-word slogan, he poked fun at everyone on campus and at himself.
In addition to making us laugh, Matt was always there for his friends. He would drive people to and from the airport (in his amazingly messy car) and would take long walks late at night to pick up food from WaWa for all of his roommates. He would stay awake into the wee hours of the night to discuss anything and everything with whomever was awake. He enjoyed meeting up for dinner with people (since he was finally awake by then – I think dinner for me usually was breakfast or lunch for him!) and discussing philosophical questions or debating any idea (often, it seemed, just for the heck of it). His intelligence was evident throughout those conversations. Even when I fundamentally disagreed with him about something and had sound reasons as to why, I was struck by how adroitly he could and would argue his case. The combination of Matt’s desire to discuss and his well-earned title as “World’s Slowest Eater” meant that meals with him would last for hours.
During the years since college, I appreciated the times that Matt and I were able to spend together. He would always greet me with his signature, “Hey Lisa Lisa.” We didn’t have to have special plans; just hanging out led to deep conversation. We also were fortunate to spend time with Matthew’s family. Indeed, all of us who called Matt our friend were fortunate to have the added benefit of being welcomed into the Harris-Ornstein family. Indeed, by being friends with Matthew, I also have had the pleasure of getting to know and become close with Judy, Norm, Danny, and Aunt Pam.
The most meaningful time I spent with Matt in the past few years was during our trip to Italy for our friend Amr’s wedding. Not surprisingly, Matt waited until the very last minute to decide to join the college crew for the travels. Luckily, we knew how to travel well with Matt. All it took was telling him to be ready an hour before he actually needed to be out the door, and to give him some nudging along the way to ensure that he was on track.
During that trip, Matthew again demonstrated his special way of being a solid friend. My flight was earlier than everyone else’s, but we had only one van. Matt offered to drive me from Tuscany to the Florence airport early in the morning and then to drive back to pick up the rest of our friends. That van ride was very special, as our conversation was deep and meaningful. During our poignant conversation, Matthew opened a window into his heart and mind that he didn’t usually like to discuss or show. We talked about how difficult it was to struggle with the things going on in his mind and how he knew it was difficult for other people in his life to understand even though he knew we cared.
While today I try to take solace in knowing that he is at peace, I feel immense sorrow. I really miss my friend – our friend – Matthew. And as we grieve collectively for a promising life cut way too short, I offer the words from Natalie Goldman’s “A Long Quiet Highway”:
“Whether we know it or not, we transmit the presence of all those we have ever known, as though by being in each others’ presence we exchange cells, pass on some life force. Not unlike springtime, when certain plants in fields we walk through attach themselves in the form of small burrs to our pants, our caps, as if to say, ‘Go on. Take us with you. Carry us to root in a different place.’ This is why it is important who we become, because we pass it on.”
To honor Matthew, I hope each of us will continue to transmit the best of him, to share with others the hilarity and philosophical spirit that he brought to our lives. My hope is that, with time, we think most readily of our joyous memories of Matthew. I hope we recall his goofy nature, the absurdities he said that made us roll our eyes even as we couldn’t fully stifle our laughter. I hope we acknowledge the way he somehow got us to agree with him even as we were trying to argue an opposing view. I hope we recall his brilliant writing and his pointed wit. I hope we remember the way he showed up (even if often quite late) when it mattered. I hope we remember what it felt like to receive those glorious, caring Matthew hugs. I hope we sometimes offer to drive people to the airport, even when it’s inconvenient to do so. I hope we don’t wear white undershirts as t-shirts, but that if we see someone else doing so, we remember the long stretch of time when that was Matthew’s chosen uniform. I hope we put on a sweater that is too big for us to commemorate Matthew’s preferred style. I hope we slow down when we eat sometimes, as a tribute to Matthew and as a way to remember to take a moment to see and taste and relish the beauty in our lives.
And I hope that as we pass along our teachings to future generations – l’dor v’ador* – we will pass along the best of Matthew. We will tell the stories of the sweet man we knew. We will encourage people to keep reaching out to let others know they care. And we will laugh a little longer and a little louder – as we always did when Matthew was in our presence.
* Note: This is a Hebrew phrase that means “from generation to generation”.
Chris Meserole, friend from Matt’s South Africa Trip
I lived with Matt in Cape Town, and also spent a couple weeks with him in Rwanda.
In lieu of sharing stories here I’ve attached a letter I wrote to Matt’s family. Hopefully the whole thing will bring some comfort, but I suspect you’ll at least want to read the first story on the last page. What Matt shared then has brought me a lot of peace since, and I imagine it may for you too.
I’ve also attached a photo of Matt from our first night in Rwanda. When we arrived at the hotel we had no idea where to go or what to do, so we just snuck up to the roof and spent a while marveling at the twilight sky above Kigali’s hills. There weren’t many things that could render Matt speechless, but Rwanda’s sunsets were among them. The photo captures perfectly the happiness and joy he felt at being there.
I also want to echo the previous few notes and thank everyone for their stories. I can’t say I’m surprised by how many lives Matt touched, but especially as someone who knew him outside his main circles, it’s brought a lot of solace all the same.
— [Here is Chris Meserole’s letter] —
Dear Norm, Judy, and Danny,
I don’t believe I have ever fully shared with you the depth of the love I have for Matthew, nor the long and beautiful reach of our friendship. I’d like to try to do so now.
The thing I admired most about Matthew was the example he set. As Matt well knew, I think the most difficult challenge we face is to see the world for what it is and still remain pure of heart. You could even say our deepest scripture and literature are borne from that challenge. It’s so easy to give up on either knowledge or love, and so hard to master both, that there is tremendous wisdom merely in the reminder that justice requires each.
Yet Matthew never needed the reminder. He came closer to meeting that challenge than anyone I have ever known. From our first conversation through our last, he saw the world for what it is, yet he never yielded to cynicism; he loved fully and without fail, yet he never closed his eyes to reality. If there is ever to be peace on earth, surely it will begin with a soul like Matthew’s, so impossibly keen and pure. I will live out my days trying to follow in his example.
The thing I cherished most about Matthew, meanwhile, was that he listened. I know that’s counterintuitive. He had such a talent for talking, both to argue and to humor. But what I think a lot of people missed is that those gifts were so precious only because he could hear you better than you could hear yourself.
Matt’s ear was a lifeline for me. When we first met I was desperate to make sense of the mental illnesses that had taken so much from all I most loved. At the same time, I was also struggling with the deep faith that had always held my family together.
Matt was the first friend to really hear me when I talked about each. Over the years, as I spoke and he laughed and sighed and then butted in to say something insightful, Matt was instrumental in pulling me through all that anguish to a new faith and a new hope. I cannot conceive of what I would believe or who I would be apart from Matthew’s words and counsel.
Then there’s the reason I so loved Matthew. Put simply, he was the closest I have ever had to a lifelong friend. As a child I moved constantly, and by the time I left home I had long since learned how to build walls. Yet with Matt both walls and distance were immaterial. From Harvard to Hollywood, from seminary to D.C., Matt’s friendship was a constant in every period of my adult life. He is the only friend I have eaten with everywhere I have lived since I left for college.
Across the many years and cities there are a few stories Matthew would want you to know.
In Cape Town, as twenty-year-olds are want to do, we spoke endlessly of love and romance. For the first couple months we even had a running competition about who was more unlucky in that regard. Then late one night, after Matt had gone on a date he was super excited about, Matt barged into my room, looking a bit flushed.
“Mez, you won’t believe this!”
I shook my head and braced myself. We’d debated ad nauseam the movie he should take her to. “Matt, you didn’t.”
“Of course I did! Silence of the Lambs was great. How could we not go see Hannibal?”
Then he paused and looked off and sighed that amazing grinning sigh. “But that wasn’t even the problem.”
Oh no, I thought. Then I wondered aloud what could worse than a date movie about a cannibal.
“So much, Mez. So much! We were leaving, and it was super crowded, and then there were all these bright lights … I still can’t believe it. I fainted, Mez. Just as we were leaving the theater I fainted. When I came to she was pouring water on my face and asking for a doctor. It was so embarrassing.” Then he shook his head and grinned. “But you know the worst part? That script could have been so much tighter.”
That was so perfectly Matt. Suffice it to say our competition ended then. Even after the Topanga thing there was no question who had won.
Thereafter there were so many more wonderful moments. In Swaziland and Lesotho Matthew couldn’t get over the beauty of the night sky, of seeing the southern cross and viewing the Milky Way in full relief. In Rwanda, after visiting Murambi and meeting several survivors, Matt shared more about his grandfather and spent the next two weeks working over the problem of evil. (I’m pretty sure that he forgot to call only because he felt he was so close to solving it once and for all.) In Los Angeles, we’d grab McDonalds at the 3rd Street promenade, down by the Santa Monica pier, and debate whether Greg Kinnear might actually be the greatest genius of his generation. (Don’t ask.) In Boston we cycled back to evil and love. In New Haven, when I first set out to tackle religious conflict in earnest, Matt was so far out ahead of me that I realized I’d have to switch fields if I were ever to have hope of catching up. In Chicago, at our wedding, he gave us his stand-by gift, a kaleidscope. He told me it should be a reminder to always see Grace in new ways, but warned me not to get to distracted, lest I forget to actually love her in person too.
Then there are my most cherished memories of all: when we joined you all for breakfast and later visited Matt in Delaware for Dahae’s first trip to the ocean. I cannot put in words how meaningful that time was. I was finally able to talk with Matt about fatherhood and marriage and the weight and joy that comes with each. Even more, I finally got to watch him come to know Grace and Dahae, and begin to share in their story as richly as he shared in my own.
In Delaware there was also another story you should know. After Grace and Dahae had gone to sleep, Matt and I rehashed our camping trip to Lesotho. That led him to mention that he sometimes liked to pitch a tent indoors. I looked at him skeptically and told him he sounded nuts. He just laughed. “What Mez? Who cares! It’s peaceful. You should try it sometime.” Then he grinned and suggested we could even do so that night. That too was so perfectly Matt. When I later read how he had passed I couldn’t help but smile beneath the tears. It was so clear not only that it had been an accident, but even more, that Matt had left us in his place of peace, probably even with that same grin.
Then there’s my last story. After our son was born I reached out a few times to Matt. I knew the pride and deep love he had for Norm, and I wanted to speak with him about fathers and sons. I also wanted so very much for our son to share in Matt’s blessing as Dahae had.
I never doubted that Matt would respond when he was ready. And in his own way he did. At the memorial service I believe it was Matt’s aunt who read several lines from Auden. I haven’t cried so hard since I was a child. She could not have known that our son’s name is Auden. It’s a name we chose not only because Auden is my favorite poet, but also because the name means “old friend” – and Matthew of course was exactly the kind of old friend we had in mind. His aunt’s remembrance thus made it so clear that Matthew’s spirit was with us anew. I have no doubt that Matt was guiding her words, letting us know both that he was still present among us, and that he was sharing in our beloved Auden’s journey too.
The final thing I’d like to say is thank you. Thank you for sharing Matthew with me for those glorious months when we were young, and for the countless moments since. And thank you too for bearing with me as I’ve shared these reflections. If Matt was a rare constant in my life, you all were so clearly the firm and abiding constant in his. In all those nights we spent staring out at the southern sky, it was so obvious that your love for him was his own personal southern cross, the steadfast Las Guardas that guided him always through the dark of night. I have no doubt that Matt has now taken his own place among the stars, that he might do the same for you.
May G-d bless you and keep you, and may His and Matt’s light shine upon you always. Chris
Susan Napier, Debate Friend
When Alex Berger and I moved in together, Alex tried to bring a number of truly questionable items from his apartment with Matt and Anand: a set of crazy marble end tables that caused a bidding war amongst Eastern European immigrants when they were eventually sold on Craigslist, a set of truly terrible couches that we begged a charity to take, and a massive collection of plastic 32 oz SUBWAY cups. What did make it, was Matt’s Plant (photographic evidence below).
When Judy visited Matt in LA, circa 2002, their apartment was in such a foul state that she bought this plant to brighten up the apartment. When Matt left LA, he tasked Alex with caring for the plant. He would call Alex regularly, checking in on the plant, and when Alex would request a favor, Matt would always say yes, with the condition that Alex also do something nice for the plant (like water it … ).
When I moved to LA I inherited the job of plant caretaker. When Matt was out of touch, or just seemed far away, it was nice to have such a physical reminder of him, our friendship. In some ways, it’s even like Matt. This plant is resilient, and also forgiving if you forget to tend to it for a week (or three). One major difference I appreciated, especially around the time of our wedding, was that the plant allowed me to cut its “hair” (aka leaves) – Matt was a groomsmen and there were long discussions about hair length and pictures.
As you can see below, Plant needs a trim now. Perhaps that’s appropriate. He’ll forgive me if I wait until the weekend.
Josy Hahn, Princeton Friend
There are multiple email chains/discussions devoted solely to Orney’s hair–odes to his gorgeous locks, musings on the hair products he used, etc.
In 2007, after a strong group lobby to get Matt to NY, his response was an open invite to DC to Lauren, Jess, Houston, Mimi, and me. See below, in an 8/17/07 email: “i will try and get to ny this autumn–after all, nothing puts the spring in my step like a $75 + 2 drink minimum haunted house where the creepiest thing is a guy from the class of ’87 fondling your hair. but whatever happened to the nation’s capital? i mean, it’s not like the documents that gave rise to your entire way of life are here, or the wind-rustled leaves of brilliant color whisper softly as abe lincoln sits perched over the glistening potomac humming a song of sweet forgiveness and the promise of all being well in life and the hereafter. but there is pretty good mexican food.”
In early 2012, I finally made it down to DC, but missed Orney who was in Delaware at the time. Fortunately, Orney asked our group to dinner that June. He gave us about 2-3 hours notice, and for Orney alone, we were there without complaint. Upon request, he told us the Topanga story in its entirety. I don’t remember any details, but I will never forget how much my face hurt from laughing (the standard Orney experience). And, that I am tempted to buy (or at least browse) the Danielle Fishel/Topanga memoir to see if she mentions her pursuit of the kind and witty genius, M. H. Ornstein.
Alex Berger, Childhood and High School friend
A few photos from our wedding and recollections about them:
– During the hora, I remember looking down and seeing two of my smallest, lightest friends (Matt and Anand) under my chair, and five of my strongest male friends under Susans. But somehow Matt and Anand, despite the fact that my chair and I outweighed them, kept me afloat. Read the symbolism into that that you will. (Okay, I think maybe Ben was back there helping, but clearly he was focused on something else, while Matt and Anand actually cared about my well-being.)
– Also, Anand and Matt dancing in the center of the Hora was a particularly excellent moment because Anand had zero interest in doing that, but Matt pulled him out there. As Josy said, “That was likely his goal all along–to make me enjoy what he liked, even if I didn’t want to do so.”
– The two photos of my groomsmen giving Matt a hard time about his tie: The groomsmen ties all had whales on them. Five groomsmen had their whales facing up. My recollection is that Matt had his whales facing down, but succumbed to the peer pressure to switch them to fit with the group (Which I’m sure Matt resisted at great length.)
– Last, the only photo sans Matt is of my in-laws’ house. For those who heard me tell the “mulching” story at the funeral, this was the end result of hours and hours of Matt’s (And Ben Thorpe’s) work. Matt took great pride in his work at the brunch, and told anyone would who would listen about man’s conquest over nature.
Ali Majd, High School Friend
I met Matthew the first day of high school and we became fast friends, spending tons of time together over the next 4 years, at debate tournaments, in Spanish class, and a secret location known only as “Wiener’s Basement”. I loved Matthew and, as exasperating as he could be sometimes, honestly don’t remember a time that I didn’t enjoy hanging out with him.
I’ll tell the story of the last time I saw Matthew, as it illustrates a lot of the qualities that people have been praising. It will include details about locations that will not be familiar to most people on this list, but will make it funnier for those from the Maryland/DC area. Please bear with me.
It was a couple days before Thanksgiving 2012 and I had returned to DC for our family get-together. Two of my cousins had decided to rent a downtown apartment and, of course, we had to have a house party. I invited my high school friends, but I think only Eric and Matthew could make it. As was customary, Matthew showed up about 2 hours late (aka on time), but was delightful when he arrived. Because he was so late, however, he became our designated driver. I believe he was living in the Somerset house at the time, so he was going to drive me back to Maryland.
As the party wound down and we prepared to leave, two more of my cousins requested rides back. Since they lived close to me, Matthew volunteered. This is where it becomes a true Matthew story. While driving back, one of my cousins, all of sudden, leans out the window and throws up. His aim is bad and it gets all over the side of the car (an Oldsmobile SUV, I think). Naturally, we pull over. While my cousin is finishing up, someone else has to pee. Before long, all 4 of us are standing on the side of Seven Locks Blvd, peeing (it’s about 3am). We drop my cousins off and, as was our custom, head to the McDonalds on Rockville Pike for a snack. I order 20 nuggets and Matthew orders a Big Mac meal. As was so common with Matthew, the next two hours flew by. We talked about his situation and he opened up about what he was going through and what he wanted to write and how it looked like he wasn’t making progress, but he was really getting ready to move ahead.
It’s approaching 5am at this point and I’m fading, so we wrap things up. Matthew eats his last fry (this IS Matthew we’re talking about) and we fill up cups of cold water from the drink machine and head out to clean the puke off his car. For the next 15 minutes or so, we’re cleaning up and laughing. Remarkably, not once did Matthew complain! I know I wouldn’t have handled it as well if it had been my car. But that’s Matthew for you. He dropped me off just as the sun was beginning to come up and then he headed home. And that was the last time I saw him. But what an amazing night.
I love you, Matthew, and I’ll miss you forever, dude.
Mimi Garcia, Princeton Friend
Josy’s mention of the stuffed tiger (story to follow) prompted me to search my old emails for a picture of it. What I found in the process was a trove of emails documenting our friends’ love for Orney. Mostly it was a lot of group emails talking back and forth about fun we had with Orney or planning future get togethers in New York. Many of the threads I encountered in my search for the tiger picture simply said “Will Orney be there? I hope so.” After the birth of my daughter Lulu, Houston questioned “How come with all these babies, nobody’s named one orney yet?” For the most part Orney remained silent on this back and forth, but occasionally he would offer up some gems. Like the following exchange he had with Lauren.
Orney: I think its adorable how you all spell Orney with the an unnecessary “e”
Lauren: I like it when you call us adorable.
So the stuffed tiger: I heard about it through Houston. Lauren was getting married in her hometown of Nashville and since Houston was also from Nashville he told Orney that he could stay at his parents’ house for the wedding. Always a man of good etiquette, Orney brought Houston’s parents a gift for their hospitality. In classic Orney style his small token of thanks was a life sized stuffed animal tiger. Houston explained later in an email: first time goddards met the orn ball. It was love at first sight. Houston’s mom is featured in the attached photo—you can see she’s beaming.
Chris Sae Hau, High School Friend
I’m now going to make an attempt to lighten the mood a bit. I’m not a writer by profession so you’ll have to forgive me in advance. I remember on a trip out to visit in LA, he was giving me the tour around the apartment that he shared with Alex and Felicity. (They had all graciously allowed me to crash there). We stopped by his room, which was, in the classic Matthew style, a huge mess. The one highlight of the room was an open paper coffee cup which had been sitting on his desk for so long that it was literally overflowing with a gray fuzzy mold around the rim. I remarked to him, “Dude, that’s disgusting. You need to do something about that.” He kind of shrugged in agreement and we moved on to other things.
A day or two later I walked by Matt’s room and peered in to see if the recreation of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin had been disposed of. Matthew had not thrown the coffee cup with its offensive content out as most people would, but instead had put the lid on the coffee cup to cover up the mold. I confronted him about the coffee cup and he nonchalantly said, “Yeah dude, I took care of it.”
While absolutely hysterical (who else but Matthew?), this silly account has stuck with me because it so concisely embodies both Matthew’s incredible sense of humor, and the conviction by which he lived his life. Although unconventional, and perhaps an “outlier” to many, Matthew’s level of conviction in his principles is something that I will now and always look up to and strive for.
Rest in peace, buddy. You are more loved than you will ever know.
Houston Goddard, Princeton Friend
Thanks for putting this together, Alex. I just watched the Star Trek episode from the email Jen passed along, and towards the end there’s a great line about living on in the stories told about you. Like Mimi and I’m sure many others, I’ve found myself re-reading old emails from Orney numerous times over the past few days to help recall some of those stories. They’ve of course brought a few tears but with them so many good laughs. I also went back and found several emails from my mom during the time Orney crashed at my parents’ house after Lauren’s wedding (the stuffed tiger trip). I left the day after the wedding but Orney stayed on with my family for several days having just met them all. The first email was my mom wondering whether she should wake Orney because guests were about to arrive for dinner and he hadn’t yet emerged from the bedroom. The next was titled “Matthew” and began “you just got to love him!” All of the emails were full of great Orney stories, and I especially loved the last bit:
“After the game, Drew and Matthew carried his stuff out to the car, Drew gave him directions to the interstate and the O-man left – we were sad to see him go. He told us there was a small token for us on the screened porch. He had lit the candles and spelt out GO! in Goo-Goo clusters and Snowballs [my parents’ favorite treats]. There was also a lovely note.”
Orney was so wonderfully thoughtful, and it really came through in his gifts. While the tiger was a classic, the gift I’ll cherish most was the one he gave me when I left New York. I had asked Orney to tell me the story of his riverboat bar mitzvah countless times, and I had a real thing for his luxuriant hair (one of my favorite lines from the Orney emails: “next time you stroll through your houses haunted by no more than the cynicism of capitalist repression masked in a veneer of transient entertainment and psuedo-thrill-seeking, try to imagine life as a half-human, half-robot Borg, nanoprobes swimming through your bloodstream like amazonian piranna, linked to a hive of drones as you’re stripped of all remaining traces of your humanity. and then maybe you’ll know what it’s like to have houston constantly smelling your hair”). As I said my goodbyes, Orney handed me a plastic sleeve with the 10 of diamonds out of a deck from his riverboat bar mitzvah and a lock of his hair. It was the kind of gift only Orney could have thought to give, and it put the biggest smile on my face. As Marian said, he had a real knack for making your day/week/month/year.
I love and miss you, little buddy. I’m so very glad to have known you and thankful for the time we had together.
Lauren Beem, Princeton Friend
I’m a friend of Matt’s from college. We were neighbors freshman year and he has been a special friend ever since. I’ve been laughing and crying along with all of you reading these stories and I can’t stop looking through all my old emails from him. He was just really unlike anyone else.
I echo Nick’s feeling that I miss the feel of Orney. He was so sincere and sweet and hilariously honest. He always had an ability to make me take myself more seriously and less seriously at the same time. For example, when I wore lipstick he always told me I looked like a goblin but right before I turned 30 he said we needed to have a long talk to properly close out our 20s.
My favorite memory of Orney was a little impromptu trip we took a few years after college. Houston and I were driving from Palo Alto to Nashville and planned to make a few stops to see friends on the way. We stopped in LA and met up with Matt for lunch. Lunch continued into dinner (in fact I think that was where I first heard the Topanga story) which turned into us staying with him and convincing him to come with us on our trip. Our next stop happened to be Las Vegas where there was a Star Trek convention happening on his birthday. We had him. All he had to do was turn in a small writing assignment for his job and we could go. Well, that took about 2 days of us begging him to write, him starting to sit down at his computer and then turn to us to start another conversation which lasted well into the night. We did get to watch the Topanga- Ashley pilot of Master Debaters a few times while we waited, which was amazing. The whole time we were there I don’t think I ever saw him eat. To get him to finally finish, we made a bowl of Kraft Easy Mac, sat down next to him and wouldn’t get up until he finished his mac and cheese and his assignment. We were finally off.
On his birthday we really wanted to take him out to lunch. Since we’d still never seen him eat we were stumped. He said to us like it was the most obvious thing in the world, I eat shellfish. So we took him out, got him a plate of shellfish and true to his word he ate the whole thing and at a normal human eating speed. Our next stop was the Star Trek convention. Houston, for some reason, was more interested in playing poker than attending the convention so Orney and I went without him. I have never watched an episode of Star Trek in my life but I found myself mingling with people dressed as Vulcans, listening while Matt went through each season, explaining the significance and highlights of each and being chased by Klingons in a huge fake starship voyager, all while being yelled at by Orney to “run faster”! We even made a filmed reenactment of one of his favorite scenes. We rehearsed our lines, wore the costumes provided and delivered our finest performances. Orney, of course, thought I could have done better, while he was brilliant. One of my greatest regrets is that we didn’t spend the $50 to buy the video. In fact, the best part of this story has always been telling it with Matt around to get mad at me all over again for not delivering my lines with more passion or grasping the seriousness of being caught by Klingons. At the end of our day, Matt bought me a VHS tape of “The Inner Light”. I watched it again this week after reading his beautiful email to Jen.
As much as I love remembering that story, it strikes me how many of my memories of him are normal dinners and late night talks made special and unique because they were with Orney. He made amazing stories out of him just telling stories.
I love and miss you Orney and my heart is with your family
Alex Peretsman, Princeton Friend
Thanks for sharing all the great stories. I became friends with Matt in college and was one of his senior year roommates.
I can only echo what’s already been said — of the caring, generous friend who was such a pleasure to be around. You never quite could expect what would happen when hanging out with Matt, except that it would likely go on for a long time, and you’d be laughing for a good portion of it. I’m really going to miss his unique personality.
The last time I got to spend time with Orny [never had an “e” for me] was almost 2.5 years ago — a bunch of us went to Florence for Amr’s wedding and then spent the following week in Tuscany. One day we’re exploring Siena, all at our own pace, splitting up at times. Sameet and I got to the tower on Piazza del Campo just 10-15 minutes after it had closed, but figured we could sneak up and just pretend we were really slow going up the stairs. When we got to the top, the employee gave us a dirty look but let us up to the observation deck. We enjoyed the view and took pictures for a while, then came back down one level below. There was Orny — passionately pleading his case for the employee to let him up. While Sameet and I had had some back and forth initially at ground level about whether we should sneak in even though we’d just missed closing by 10-15 minutes (Lisa had actually decided not to risk it), Orny had thought nothing of arriving half an hour late and expecting to be let up. He made his case like only Orny could, but, given the employee’s broken English, he wasn’t able to win her over, but he did get her to smile several times. He didn’t get upset that she wouldn’t let him up — he never did — he just enjoyed trying to convince her, and though I can’t recall for certain, in the end, I’m sure he just finished it off with a “touche” and headed back down.
Joe Urwitz, High School Friend
I’m a GDS friend of Matt’s. While this story can’t begin to compete with some of the others in this chain, I was thinking back on it recently and it really cracked me up.
About a dozen years ago, Matt was in Chicago and stayed over with me and my girlfriend (now wife) Tara. We began discussing extreme eating contests, and I told Matt how amazing I thought that Kobayashi hot-dog-eating guy was (he ate like 60 hot dogs in 12 minutes). Matt looked totally unimpressed. He told me he had just been watching a show called Man vs. Beast, which featured a number of people trying to cram as many hotdogs down their craws as possible in as short a time as possible . . . as well as a giant grizzly bear. Matt told me the episode featured about two minutes of the people trying to eat hotdogs and the bear standing there, looking completely uninterested. Suddenly, Matt said, the bear reached down and scooped up 60 hotdogs and ate them all once, resulting in a resounding victory for “Beast”. He had a totally unexpected, but completely reasonable and convincing viewpoint. I’ll miss you, Matthew.
I always thought “Orney” had an “e” as well.
Devin Sidell, College Friend
I’m Devin, and I was a classmate of Matt’s at Princeton. However, I actually became closest to him after we graduated and Matt lived with Alex and Felicity in L.A. I lived extremely close to their apartment on Olympic.
We spent many a night playing Taboo (east coast vs. west coast, boys vs. girls…), and I was definitely sad when Matt left L.A.
I can’t think of one specific story about Matt, but what I do recall are Matt’s endearing smile and his silly laugh. One of my favorite reasons to hang out with him was that his philosophical musings were so utterly complicated and alluring! I remember thinking that in order to fully understand what he was saying, I’d have to ask him a thousand qualifying questions (which I did, and which he gladly answered).
He introduced me to the movie “Avalon,” and explained that the scene in which the family cuts the turkey before everyone has arrived reminded him of his family. 🙂
I’m glad to still have his “Story of the Weeping Camel” DVD as well as the action figure of Aragorn the he got me for one of my birthdays. (Best. Gift. Ever.)
When I found out that Matt was gone, all that I could think was, “what a loss for the world.” Matt gave and added so much to this life and to this world, and I’m sad for those who will not get to experience his “Matt-ness.”
Jen Miller, High School Friend
I’m Jen Miller (known to Matt as Jenny), a friend of Matt’s from GDS. In our post college years, whenever I came home, Matt and I would meet for long lunches at Politics and Prose. He wrote me the following email in 2006 after a particular conversation about our friend Ben Cooper, who died when we were in high school. As you’ll see, the majority of the letter is Matt’s synopsis of an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation. It’s quite long (as Matt himself acknowledges) but I’m including the whole thing for a couple of reasons. First, this email reminded me what a brilliant writer Matt was. He somehow turns a TV summary into a work of epic poetry, imbued with tremendous care and emotional resonance. Second, are the lessons he draws from the episode, which he relates back to us (and our departed friend) without an ounce of sentimentality. And, of course, there’s even a nod to Matt’s humor (see the Mix 107.3 reference in the first graf.)
Okay, I’ll let Matt take it away.
So I meant to send you this email a couple weeks ago, after we met up for lunch. That afternoon I thought some about Ben and how maybe he’s inappropriate to discuss b/c you were so much closer to him than I was. In many ways, Ben was sort of on the periphery for me, traveling in a concentric circle. This thought meandered around my head for a bit during the drive back home, but somewhat shamefully found itself the eventual victim of mix 107.3.
Then I arrived home and flipped on the t.v., and an episode of star trek: the next generation was on. This episode, called “The Inner Light,” was one I’d come to appreciate over the years, and was one of Ben’s favorites. I can be kind of a sucker for coincidences, but I thought you might like to hear about it, especially because this was a part of Ben’s life you probably don’t know much about, and it relates to things we’ve talked about before. And I was just in one of those write a stream-of-consciousness email kinda moods. As always, the delete button is at your disposal.
The show (if you don’t know already) is about this captain who flies around exploring the galaxy in a starship with his crew. Because of the expansive and important nature of this mission to the rest of the human race, the crew and captain don’t have much time for any kind of a family life. This tension always weighs on them, and eventually they come to think of the starship as home, filling in roles as each other’s “family,” placing exploration as the chief virtue and purpose of their lives.
On this day the ship comes across a very old probe floating around in outer space. As it’s his duty to investigate these matters, the captain decides to find out just what this probe thing is, and maybe also how it got there. As the ship approaches, the probe releases a beam that falls him unconscious on the floor of his bridge.
The captain awakes in a humble home, to a kind woman about his age who seems to be caring for him. Feverish and quite understandably disoriented, he starts firing questions at her, where am i, who are you, just what in god’s name is going on, that type of thing. She’s a bit overwhelmed, tries to explain she’s his wife, he’s been sick for days, calm down. He asks in a way that’s not really asking to leave the house so he can, what else, explore wherever he is, maybe get some answers outside. He’s being weird about the whole wife thing, but give him a break; the guy gets kidnapped and deceived by weird aliens all the time. Plus, in his own way, he’s being polite about it. She gives him her blessing despite misgivings.
The captain walks outside and wanders about, winding up in the middle of town. Looking around, his hopes diminish. This place is less advanced than where he’s from, and it has limited technology. Then again, he doesn’t seem to be in any immediate danger. The people are kind. Some greet him by name, not his name maybe, but they do seem to know him. Sure he feels nutso when he asks what planet he’s on, how he got there, what species this is. But everyone is compassionate, relieved to see improvement. They’re just concerned his illness seems to have taken a toll. They care.
After a day of trekking through countryside, he arrives back at his new front door. If this is all some computer simulation, some illusion, it’s more elaborate and real than anything he’s ever encountered. There’s nothing more he can do right now anyway. He’s confused, hungry, thirsty, exhausted. And he has to talk to his new wife. Only he’s not so new to her. Too tired to give anything but the benefit of doubt, he enters his home. She’s waiting there with a hot bowl of soup. It’s delicious.
Years pass, and the captain still can’t find a way back to the life he knew before. Could the people here really be lying to him? They seem just as confused as he, maybe more so. The whole time he’s encountered nothing but patience and understanding, especially from his wife. She gave him a flute when he first arrived, and even though he’s a poor flutist the captain enjoys playing immensely. It’s an honest instrument. If there’s an ulterior motive here, or something these people want from him, he can’t figure it out. What’s more, he’s starting to care about this world.
The captain knows his wife well enough now to live with and trust her. She’s loved him unconditionally for so long. He’s falling in love with her as well. His life before seemed so real, with so many memories. Maybe it was all just a dream.
The time comes to simply move on. Not give up necessarily, just…move on. The captain commits himself to his wife, his work, his community. They’re suffering a long drought, a planetary drought, and if there’s one thing the starship experience taught him it’s how to solve problems. He knows science better than most; he can be useful. A new life begins to take shape. He constructs a laboratory to study the drought by day, analyzing soil samples and testing atmospheric conditions. He makes a telescope to gaze through at night, trying somehow to figure out where he is and how he got there. And in time he builds a nursery.
The captain never had a real family on his starship. Children used to bother him. Now he realizes he can hardly imagine life without them. He finally accepts that the disorientation caused by his starship/illness has allowed him an appreciation he couldn’t see before, fantasy or not. His children grow up while he and his wife grow old. They’re happy. He’s happy. And finally he’s improving on the flute.
After years of analysis, the captain draws a tragic conclusion. The drought isn’t just any drought. His planet is dying. The sun in its solar system is going through nova collapse. Nothing can be done. They just barely have the ability to send small satellites into space; there’s no hope for any kind of meaningful evacuation. If only he could contact his starship! He pleads with the government to form some sort of plan, genetic samples, anything. They brush him off in public but privately assure him that something’s in the works. Don’t cause needless panic, they say. Why should he anyhow? He’s an old man. He wants to play with his grandchildren.
His wife dies. She was sick, he knew it was coming. But the captain is still unprepared for the blow. He never understood how much he’d come to love her until she was gone. In a way, he never understood love until this moment. Strangely, the fate of the planet has drawn his family close. There’s a catharsis in the vulnerability, a release. It’s cleansed them. It’s a helplessness he’s known since the moment he arrived here, just in a different form. Their love flows, and gives them comfort. They’re free to be happy, if only for a time.
Then again, isn’t that what mortal life is? A matter of time? Having it right in front of him he remembers what he forgot long ago, a memory his own fear kept hidden away. A sense of calm dawns on him. During his starship years, he’d seen and experienced things beyond comprehension. He never considered a life like this could surprise him so. The tears of mourning turn to tears of joy, and when they’re spent he feels a change. True growth. And incredible gratitude, not just for his friends and family, but for his life and, well, everything. He’s ready to die. Every moment from now on is just a gift.
The experience fades into the aches and pains of old age. Life continues, thankfully shielding him from the dread that’s surely beginning to surface planet-wide. The captain spends his days peacefully, in the company of those loved and familiar. He’s now quite adept with his flute. Occasionally it sounds like it’s glowing with beauty; a unique sort of beauty carved out by the passage of time. Still, his thoughts wander through the quiet moments. What’s this plan they have to save the species? How are they going to live on? He shouldn’t worry about things he can’t control, he knows, but it gets to him. He has grandchildren. He cares about this world. It’s his home.
One day while playing with his grandson, the captain’s daughter approaches. She wants him to see a satellite launching. The launchings are common now, but still diverting enough to hold the interest of the general public. Then again, the captain isn’t the general public. He’s tired and cranky, and just wants to spend some time with his grandson. His daughter insists.
The family leaves to observe the launching. By now the atmosphere has degraded enough that the ultraviolet radiation can be dangerous with prolonged exposure. People only gather outside for events like this, and rarely at that. Especially these days. Why are there so many of them? Launchings are popular, sure; they bring an odd sense of hope. But not this popular. Everyone seems to be at this one.
This launching is important, his daughter says. We brought you here so you could tell others about us. We brought you here so we could live again through you. What’s this nonsense you’re talking about, he demands. What’s going on? What’s so special about this thing that they’re launching?
You’ve seen it before, she tells him. It brought you here a thousand years from now.
The captain wakes up on the bridge of his starship. He has no idea where he is. Sitting up, he hears the voice of his doctor. He remembers. He remembers everything. She tells him to take it easy. His crew couldn’t separate him from the probe, for fear of risking his life. Actually, they were working on a way when the probe separated itself. He never moved an inch. How long was I out, he wonders. 25 minutes, she tells him. A lifetime in 25 minutes! He orders retrieval of the probe so it can be reset and sent back out into space. Then he heads to his quarters to absorb everything.
And that’s exactly where his first-officer finds him some time later, staring out at the universe. His orders were followed precisely, of course. He’s the captain. But there’s something else. A small box, left inside the probe. He opens it when he’s left alone again. Inside is a flute, his flute that he can touch and feel and hold to his heart. As the captain looks out to the stars, he raises it to his lips and plays.
And that’s the story of why the captain of the starship enterprise plays his flute from time to time. It’s kind of beautiful, don’t you think? The reason I wrote it out to you, if there can be a reason for things like this, is that over time I’ve come to think of Ben in that way. A traveler from somewhere else living this life as part of his journey. Not to say that we’re the ones on a dying planet–on the contrary, there seems to be a part of all of us, deep down, that feels the same way. We’re all here for a time to learn, or love, or learn to love, in all the seemingly infinite ways that can happen.
A partial contribution to the prose side of our conversations at politics and. Maybe you’ll think about the captain some gray rainy day. Hope you enjoyed, and this Shabbat email finds you well,
Marian Makins, High School Friend
I’m Marian Makins, another of Matt’s friends from GDS. I want to start by expressing gratitude to everyone who has shared reminiscences and/or photos of Matt so far. The messages bring sadness with them, but also delight, laughter, even a kind of deeper knowing. I honestly can’t decide whether it’s primarily sad, beautiful, or just plain weird that I feel like I’m still continuing to get to know Mattie better through following this thread.
I might write up something else later, but for now, I’m just following up on Alex’s suggestion to share the Facebook status update I wrote about Matt a couple of days ago. Apologies in advance to anyone who (a) read this on Facebook, or (b) is expecting an anecdote with a plot, because this isn’t actually a “Matt story” per se. More like an attempt to take some of the love and loss I was feeling and put it outside myself, so even people who never met Matt might end up loving and mourning and honoring him a little bit too.
(I guess what I’m saying is, I sort of believe that thoughts and intentions have energy, and that their power is additive. I haven’t thought it through well enough to write a Star Trek: TNG episode about it, though, alas. I like Star Trek. And I loved reading Mattie’s summary of “The Inner Light.”)
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I’m having a hard time figuring out how to write this post, so I think I just need to blunder through and beg everyone’s indulgence if it sounds trite or awkward. Also, bear with me, because this is going to be a long one.
It’s been almost a week now since I found out Matt Ornstein had died. Matt was a fellow member of the Georgetown Day School class of 1998; more importantly, he had become a dear friend over the years since we graduated. He was so many outstanding adjectives—brilliant, funny, sweet, loyal, insightful, quirky, and always blessedly HIMSELF, no matter what. I’ve had some regrets these past days. I wish I’d made more of an effort to see Matt more often, wish I could’ve been there for him more when things were tough, wish I’d written down every single hilarious thing he said or did when I was in his company. But the truth is—the truth that overrides, nullifies all those useless wishes—is that knowing Matt was a gift, full stop. The only wish I’ll permit myself, is to wish we’d all been able to enjoy it for longer.
Now, I know a lot of people reading this won’t ever have had the privilege of meeting Mattie. Obviously I can’t do anything about that now. What I CAN do, though, is make a few suggestions as to how you might join me in honoring and celebrating this beautiful soul. Not in words, but in the way you live, and love, and interact with the other humans with whom we share this planet. Without further ado, therefore (and perhaps others who knew Matt will add more in the comments, so read those too!):
**Strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know and maybe wouldn’t ordinarily talk to. Someone older or younger, maybe, or from a different ethnic or religious background. Don’t put a time limit on it.
**Have a nice lively debate with someone whose opinions you respect. Make the pursuit of truth your goal. Or else just winning the other person over to your side. wink emoticon (But then again, the debate might be its own reward.)
**Stay up really late doing something fun with some of your favorite people. Playing cards or video games, maybe; telling funny stories, or sad stories; hatching plans; listening to music or watching movies; trying to solve the problems of the world. Any/some/all of the above.
**Do something unexpected and spontaneous and wonderful. Show up on someone’s doorstep. Play some diabolical practical joke. Commit some random act of kindness or generosity. In other words, make someone’s day/week/month/year.
**Slow down. Chew your food. Sip your drinks. Think things over. TALK things over. Be curious. Don’t take anything for granted.
WRITING BY MATT
Renaissance Weekend 2001 Speech
Renaissance Speech ’01
It’s good to be back here again, at Renaissance Weekend—well, not really “back,” considering that I’ve never been to this part of…What state are we in again? Oh. Considering I’ve never been to this part of South Carolina before. But Renaissance has treated me well recently. Last year I was fortunate enough to be placed on the “Last Remarks” panel to finish off the weekend, and I also got the opportunity to moderate for the very first time. Of course, the title of the panel I moderated was “Brat Nation: How My Parents’ Affluence is Affecting Me.” (Why are you laughing? That’s not a joke.) But I did keep in touch with some of my brats during the year, and I’m trying to organize a little reunion in the next few days. See look—I got them all really big lollipops (hold up big lollipop). And now I’m up here, amongst a group of people who are frankly more distinguished, more successful, and, uh, more aged? Advanced in age? than I. But look at the bright side—I have definitely made more embarrassing mistakes than any of these men or women, and I’m willing to talk about them because I have nothing to lose. Oh, look. My parents are still over there looking for the bright side—it’s somewhere, Mom. Keep searching….
The story of my worst mistake begins about two and a half years ago, during the second semester of my Freshman year in college. I was on the phone with my mother, and, after letting her know that, no, I still didn’t have a girlfriend, she said, in half-jest, “well, when you get one, make sure she’s Jewish, because if you don’t marry a Jewish woman, we might have to financially disown you.” Financially disown—that’s the phrase she used: Financially disown. And she said “might,” too—we MIGHT financially disown you, which essentially means, “you’re probably out of the will, but just in case, you’d better show up for Passover.”
So I got to thinking, you know? And I decided to figure out just how many women this whole “must marry Jewish” policy left me with. (Slowly) I figured out that if 2% of the population of the United States is Jewish, 1% are Jewish females. Are you keeping up with me, Nobel Laureates? Because that’s not it. You see, I won’t possibly be able to meet all of these women in my lifetime. I’ll come across one out of a hundred, at best, ranging from those whom I actually talk to, to those whom I just pass by, walking on the street on my way to Loeman’s or something. That brings the total figure down to point-zero-one percent of the U.S. population. And it doesn’t stop there—for one thing, how many of these women are actually in my age group? We’ll define age group in a span of eight years around my own age, and life-expectancy is eighty, so that’s another ten percent limitation, bringing us down to point-zero-zero-one percent. Plus, I want to marry somebody who is attractive, both mentally and physically. Seinfeld says only three to five percent meet the latter requirement, but I’ll be generous and say ten percent, again. Oh, and of course she is going to have to be willing to bear my children, which, again being generous, we’ll say is another ten percent. Ok, so those are the basic prerequisites, contact, age, mutual desire for procreation, landing us at point-zero-zero-zero-zero-one percent—that’s four zeroes and a one—or one-one hundred thousandth of a percent of the population of the U.S., which is one-ten millionth of 280 million people, landing us at, let’s see here, 28 women. Well, 7, really, if you consider that I only have twenty years, or one-forth of my projected lifetime, available to look for them (assuming I don’t become either really rich, or really orthodox).
Seven women! Seven, not even counting intelligence, kindness, sensibility, or any of that other personality crap. You can see why this search has been a little nerve-wracking for me. In fact, it’s so consuming that this might just be the last time I am going to be available to any of you Gentile women out there, so, you know, take advantage while you still can. Room 443. That includes everyone, ladies—Christians, Catholics, uh, Muslims, Protestants, Methodists, Buddhists, (Breathe deep, like you’re moving on, but then continue, faster) Hindus, Shintos, Mormons, Eskimos, Voo Doos, Lutherans, followers of David Koresh, Followers of Rush Limbaugh, Daughters of George W. Bush, Calvinists, Atheists, Agnostics—really, I mean everyone. (Hold up key) Room 443. You have to leave by 10:30, though, because that’s when my parents come home.
But you can see with this kind of bleak future ahead of me, I became a bit distant and contemplative. I was showing a lack of good judgement often and at the wrong times, wanting to blow off a little steam, sew some wild challah. And then, as my freshman year in college was coming to an end, a golden opportunity arose—my father invited me on a business trip to Rome. Of course, it never really occurred to me until the plane ride that he would come along on this business trip. Nevertheless, I stepped out of the plane and into the bright and shining sun of Italy worrying only about the slight congestion that had built up in my sinuses during the flight, after viewing Kippendorf’s Tribe twice in a row. We had business class tickets, you see, and my parents don’t let me sleep on a plane when I’m not sitting coach. They tell me if I do, then I’m not taking advantage of all of the extra amenities they offer, like roomier seats, softer pillows, warmer blankets, a free little dop kit with comfy socks and a mask that blocks the light from going into your eyes. You see, you waste all of those things if you lose consciousness.
But when we did eventually make it to Rome, I couldn’t have been happier. We got picked up at the airport, checked into our hotel, my Dad bought me some tissues and suntan lotion in the little shop in the lobby—I mean, things were looking up. My Dad had to give this speech on the first night, at dinner. He’s one of those people who sat in an armchair for several years thinking, presumably about government and politics and taxes and stuff like that. So now people think he’s really smart, and, it works out really well for everybody, because all of the people that were out making money for corporations while my dad was sitting and thinking in his armchair now have an interest in acting like they’ve been thinking all of that time, too. So they pay a lot of money for my dad to go and talk for fifteen minutes about stuff that really doesn’t make that much sense, so they can act like they know exactly what he’s talking about and then disseminate that knowledge down to people who had never heard the speech in the first place. It’s a great job, and he’s gotten his speeches down to a science.
You see, the first eight minutes are dedicated to whatever jokes about public servants he’s heard recently, when he gets up from his armchair to get a cup of coffee in the office or something. You know, stuff like “Bill Clinton and Al Gore are walking through a forest,” or “Newt Gingrich and Condoluzza Rice are sitting in a diner,”—that type of thing. Then the next seven minutes are spent spouting out obscure names and really complicated numbers. “Well, if Bush works with Mukulski and Sandrich I really think there’s about a 17% chance of getting Marty Meehan’s campaign finance bill passed at 35% effectiveness, with 80% humidity, and a 24% chance of rain.” And then the executive-type people who were making a lot of money while my dad was sitting in his armchair, they all look confused for a second, and then someone young says something like “Hey Bob, what do you think about all this stuff?” and Senior Vice President Robert turns to him and calmly replies, “Oh, it’s all true. The only way campaign finance will ever get passed is if there’s 80% humidity. That Ornstein, he’s at the top of his game.” It’s all part of a process my dad likes to call (make quotes) “Political Analysis.” And, as we all know, everybody wins with political analysis.
That night in Rome was no different. The speech was great, the dinner was fantastic, the evening was fun—I was loving Europe. When I woke up the next morning, my dad had already gone down to the conference meetings, to do some more analyzing or something. So Rome was mine for the time being, and I did what any self-respecting college kid my age would have done in one of the most beautiful cities in the world—I grabbed the remote control and turned on the television. I watched the French Open for a little bit—Martina Hingis and Anna Kournakova were playing doubles together—but when it got to the commercials, I decided to try some of the other channels. I flipped up until I got to The X-Files: Fight the Future, dubbed in Italian, with the words “Pay Movie” appearing at the bottom-left hand corner of the picture. It stayed on for about a minute, before cutting to a screen that told me I had to order it at the front desk if I wanted to see the rest. So I flipped up again and found a different type of pay movie, one that lacked any real subtlety or vision, but still possessed a certain mystique that kept me watching. I believe you can find it if you turn to channel 67 on your TV upstairs, if you’re really interested. I personally found the few minutes that I saw of Pulp Friction to be a rather brilliant satire of the acclaimed Quentin Tarantino film, but some of you may disagree. Maybe we could hold a panel on it tomorrow—I know Nell Minow’s kids and Bill Nye have expressed some interest…
But I’m straying. The point is, I grew up in an environment where I was taught to take advantage of anything that’s free of charge, no matter how briefly it stays that way. So I figured I would watch some of the movie, and then when the pay screen came up, I would go back to the French Open. I waited a minute, then two, then three. Interestingly enough, the pay screen wasn’t coming up. I didn’t know what to do. My heart started beating rapidly, and all I could think in my head was “free of charge, free of charge, free of charge.” I couldn’t flip over to the French Open now—it would be like falling asleep in business class. Instead I sat there watching, listening, learning.
Then five minutes later, in an extraordinary act of predictability, my dad walked through the door. Now I’m convinced that Hollywood lobbied congress in the late 70’s, probably on a very humid day, to get a law passed forcing Duracell and Energizer to deactivate their batteries whenever an American teenager needs them to avoid a humiliating situation. Because I swear to god that remote control became temporarily disabled from the time my dad walked into the hotel room to five minutes after the incident ended. He came in to find me, in bed, (demonstrate) looking like the remote control was giving me a seizure. When he turned to look at the TV, though, it wasn’t the programming he was mad at. It was the fact that he thought I was paying for it that upset him. Oh, the irony. So I was laying there, listening to his yelling, completely mortified, when all of the sudden, he stopped. Stopped, mid-sentence, just like that.
That’s when I noticed he wasn’t looking directly in my direction—more sideways. I followed the path of his eyes down to the nightstand beside me, and it quickly dawned on me what had cut him off. Sitting on that nightstand was a bottle of suntan lotion and three crumpled tissues. “Nononono,” I said, but I was quickly interrupted. “Maybe you should go and take a cold shower,” my father said slowly. “We’re going to the Catacombs in fifteen minutes.”
I’ve decided that exploring the causes of that fateful morning is as much of an act of futility as trying to explain the coming of World War I. Was it the failing remote control, or perhaps the untimely arrival of my father? Maybe it was the glitch in the system that stopped the pay screen from coming up, or the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Perhaps it was my congestion, which caused me to buy the tissues, or quick Russian military mobilization. Maybe it was the hot Italian sun that forced the purchase of the tanning lotion, maybe it was the Schlieffen plan—who knows? The point is that these things happen, and they are embarrassing, but we move on with our lives.
If you think that experience was my worst mistake, however, you are wholly misguided. It doesn’t even crack the top ten. No, my worst mistake was something much more devastating, with consequences that will last a lot longer than those of the incident I just described. My worst mistake was telling that story to one thousand of the most successful, powerful people in the world, and alienating almost all of them. Congressmen and women, Businessmen and women, Nobel Laureates, doctors, scientists, writers, filmmakers, journalists (Breathe like finished, then continue, faster) TV personalities, Investment Bankers, Consultants, Chemists, Physicists, millionaires, billionaires, NGO workers, charity volunteers, architects, engineers, historians, economists, political scientists, cartoonists, geneticists, zookeepers, comedians, ethicists—the list goes on and on. So for all of you blue-taggers who are here for the first time, know this: you can’t start the weekend off worse than I have. Thank you all, and have a great Renaissance.
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