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Lives and Times

The New York Times is running profiles of all of the victims of September 11. These mini-obituaries tell as much about us as they do about the dead.

12:00 AM, Oct 19, 2001 • By DAVID BROOKS
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SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, the New York Times has exhaustively and admirably run a daily feature called "Portraits in Grief." It is a page of small obituaries of people who died at the World Trade Center. Reporters are sent out to talk with the families, friends, and co-workers of the victims, and they come back with 250-word descriptions of the people's lives.

The lesson of these little pieces is that personality matters most. The friends and families don't talk about the accomplishments of the person who died, or give many resume-type details. The key virtues--honesty, courage, faithfulness--are not talked about much. Instead, the most common phrases running through the section are, "He lit up any room he entered," or "He never lost a friend." What emerges is a series of portraits of effervescence, of energy, and of cheerfulness.

I've got the page of October 18 open before me as I write. One little obit is headlined "Dressed to be Noticed." It's about Myrna Yaskula, a 59-year-old woman from Staten Island who worked as a secretary at Fred Alger Management in One World Trade Center. It says she spent her free time in stores like Strawberry searching for Barbie-type outfits, each more youthful and outrageous than the last. She would wear a metallic gold raincoat, pink rhinestone-studded sunglasses, and leopard-skin everything. These were not the sorts of things, her son told the reporter, "you would normally see on a woman her age."

Another obit is called "An Adventurous Spirit," about a 36-year-old foreign currency trader at Cantor Fitzgerald named Christopher Panatier. When he was 3, Panatier climbed in his father's 1959 Cadillac, put it in neutral, and rolled down his family's sloping driveway, across the cul-de-sac, and into the neighbors' bushes. His parents found him giggling like a maniac. Apparently his love of adventure was born, for he became a triathlete. "People just gravitated to him," his wife said, echoing another comment found often in these pages.

Another victim who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald was Robert McLaughlin Jr., who ran with the bulls in Pamplona, visited the killing fields in Cambodia, sailed across the South China Sea, played lacrosse in college, and wrote poetry for his small children. "He was a man of adventure and action," the Times writes, "a tough guy."

The stories go on and on, day after day. One describes a mother who spent her autumns making elaborate Halloween costumes for herself and her kids. Others describe people who organized elaborate family retreats or high school get-togethers, or young men who jumped out of helicopters in obscure ski locales.

WE THINK WE WILL BE REMEMBERED for the serious things we do, but if these little portraits are any indication, survivors want to remember their loved ones for the silly, comic things they do. It's striking what a large role leisure activities play in these portraits. At least in their first days and weeks of grief, the people left behind want to remember the victims when they were at their most vibrant, when life was fullest for them.

I don't know if this represents some decline in morals. Fifty years ago the obits probably would have been more sober and grand. Cheerfulness is not the noblest virtue, although in times of grief it seems to matter a lot to people.

But these pages in the Times are instructive in the way those 25-years-after-graduation alumni directories are instructive, the ones in which people write little accounts of what their lives have been like since college. Some of the most successful people have the most boring bios, whereas some of the interesting ones went off and became, by turns, musicians, spies, tour guides, and venture capitalists. People who jump around and do many things have more interesting lives than people who do one thing. And even in a country like ours which is dedicated to achievement, for most people what you are is still more important than what you do.

David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.