Twenty Years Later: Remembering 9/11

Last year at this time, I wondered how it would feel to recall 9/11 from the other side of a global pandemic. How many major tragedies do we witness in a lifetime? I know there’s no number. It depends on the life–how long, when one lives. You cannot hold up one event and compare it to another. Each one resonates differently for each of us. And today, after twenty years, 9/11 still feels shocking and visceral in a way nothing else does.

The 9/11 memorial: Two beams of light shining up into an evening sky in lower Manhattan.

People hold complicated opinions about New York City. They love it, hate it. Admire it. Find it too dirty/busy/noisy. They consider it dangerous or magical or full of itself. And frankly, all of those opinions are fair. But New York also represents things that many people strive for; success, wealth, culture, creativity, importance, excellence. There’s the old line from the song: “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.” NYC serves as a proving ground. A challenge. It’s part of what made it a target.

On the Day

In September, 2001, I worked at 100 Park Avenue, for a mutual fund firm, in corporate communications. Finance. The sales team had desks one section over on the same floor, with TVs suspended from the ceiling so they could have CNN and CNBC running all day. That’s how we all learned what was going on.

Some people were still on their way to work when the first plane hit, but I was at my desk. We thought it was an accident until the second one. The morning turned upside down. Like everyone watching, we were horrified. But also, every person in that office knew at least one person in the towers. Nature of the industry, plus many of us had grown up in the tri-state area. There were friends, family, work associates.

Everyone got on their phones. People spoke to loved ones inside those burning buildings. Early on, things seemed under control. They weren’t evacuating. But that changed fast. Coverage was live, so every terrible moment played out on the news. And the worse it looked, the harder it became to connect. Calling my mother in Connecticut, I learned she’d been trying to call me with no success; phone lines were swamped.

First one tower fell, then the second. Those toppling towers destabilized the nearest buildings, and the remainder of the morning became a tense wait to see which held on and which succumbed. You didn’t want to watch. You could not stop watching. I know I was breathing that entire day, but I only remember holding my breath.

Beyond the towers, there were bomb threats. Everything shut down. Bridges and tunnels closed to traffic; trains and buses halted. Anyone who lived outside Manhattan was trapped. We stayed at work, not because we were working, but because it wasn’t safe to leave.

Getting Out

Finally, word came trains were running out of Grand Central Terminal, starting early afternoon. I packed up and headed over. There was one train for each of the three lines: Hudson, Harlem, and New Haven. No schedule, no departure time. They packed us on, as many as fit, and started a slow chug out of the city.

It was silent on the train. No one spoke. People stared off in front of themselves, unseeing. One older man in my train car wore a dark suit covered in a grey film of ash and dirt, and had a bleeding cut on his forehead. Shock and exhaustion clung to him. I had no doubt he’d run to escape a collapsing building.

Paramedics waited at each train station, and as we slowly pulled into each stop, they scooped up the injured from the platforms.

When I finally got off the train, my cellphone blew up with messages. Everyone who hadn’t been able to get hold of me while I was in the city. I went to my mother’s house. My family sat and watched the news. I felt like I was coming down with the flu; exhausted, shaky, unreal. It had started as this beautiful, early fall day. The kind with a cloudless sky and the perfect temperature and endless sunshine. And then everything changed. What came next?

Aftermath

For the next week, I split my time between my mother’s house and my own apartment. I watched too much news, dreading each time they replayed significant moments from that day, but wanting the updates. The internet served as a lifeline, allowing people to check in and announce they were safe. So many people walked out of the city in the days following the attacks, some hiking over bridges to get to their apartments in outer boroughs. Others crashed with friends. After a few days, people who had not appeared began to be considered missing.

My office was closed, because we were one block from Grand Central, which continued to have bomb scares. I called a hotline each morning to get the status. The idea of returning to the city was nerve wracking, but I needed something to do. Staying home felt worse.

When my office finally reopened, new security measures were implimented. The lobby, once open, gained a security/ID check. But we were incredibly busy. Financial markets don’t appreciate chaos.

Flyers papered the city. Photos of those who had not come home.

Eventually I learned that four people I knew had died in the collapse of the towers. Countless had managed to get out. Somehow.

That winter I came down with first bronchitis then walking pneumonia. I lived on antibiotics. My lungs refused to clear. “It’s the air,” a doctor told me. “You work in the city, so it’s worse. You’re inhaling debris from the towers.”

I moved to California late the following September. Not because of 9/11. If anything, I delayed the move because of it. Leaving felt like deserting. But I needed a change, for many reasons, and so finally, I went.

Missing NYC

I was born in New York and I grew up with one foot in the city, even after we moved to the ‘burbs in search of lower taxes and good public schools. I spent many years working there, and even after moving away, I’ve returned for visits and work trips. It’s my city. I love it. It’s in my heart.

But we live in a different world. I watched how the pandemic hit New York, and I understood why people moved away, even as I also understood the ones who stayed. Because for me, New York is a microcosm of the nation, and I’d been feeling the same way. When the place you live feels unsafe, when you’re frustrated by your inability to fix anything, it’s natural to look elsewhere. To wonder if you could make things work if you just made a change.

This tragedy is not that tragedy. And I think more than anything, I miss living in a time and place where the answer to adversity is unity. Where we pull together instead of tearing each other apart.

Do I miss New York? Yes. Always. But more than that, I miss the spark of hope I felt returning to New York the week after the 9/11 attacks, to find nearly everyone pulling together and doing what was necessary to get things back to normal.

 

Finding Reasons to Be Thankful

I ignore Thanksgiving most years. I find it difficult to get behind a holiday linked to so many troubling aspects of our history. But that said, I still believe in taking a moment to be thankful for the good things in my life. This year in particular calls for gratitude.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

At its core, Thanksgiving in the United States revolves (supposedly) around being thankful for survival in the midst of adversity. It’s evolved to be about family and food and excess, but those weren’t the initial intentions. I think a pandemic that has killed more than 260,000 people in the United States and infected nearly 13 million Americans counts as a time of adversity. We’ve lost so much this year.

I tend to be a glass-half-empty person. It’s how my brain works. I see the negatives because I want to fix things. Things that work don’t require as much attention. But focusing on the bad can wear you down, so today I’m ignoring the projects and the politics and the pandemic (while staying home, very much by myself). Today, I’m thankful not to be ill. I’m thankful for food in my kitchen and my mother still on the other end of the phone line. For friends around the world who are healthy, and for those who are not but still manage to hang on. I am so grateful for my lovely co-workers and clients. For the existence of books in the world, and music and streaming TV and the delightful pen pals who fill my mail with something other than bills. I’m especially thankful for a few glimmers of hope that maybe, possibly, we can pull ourselves together and do better in the new year.

Wishing you all a day to be thankful for.

Year-End Reflections: 2019

I planned to tackle all sorts of end-of-year chores today, but instead I lay on the couch and contemplated the year. I blame this in part on nearly six hours of delays (across two flights) coming back to LA yesterday. It was extremely late when I walked in my door. The rest I blame on the state of my back, which I wrenched just prior to said adventures in air travel. The past day encompassed much of my year: forward momentum accompanied by pain and frustration.

Lately I’ve found it difficult to separate my personal goals and experiences from my world view. Politics bleeds all over everything. And while there’s plenty of progress being made, it is, as ever, nonlinear. The level of hatred and vitriol coloring social media, news reports, public events and more private interactions concerns me. There seems to be so much less harmony, understanding, compromise. No one listens; they just scream out their side of the situation. Nothing escalates gradually. We are full throttle, at war, all the time. And that’s exhausting.

The reality of the world means I can’t afford to disengage with what’s happening out there. It’s too important. But self-interest demands that I pull back to a certain extent. Getting angry over every injustice solves nothing; I need to pick my battles. Obviously, the upcoming presidential election is foremost on my mind. But that means being informed about the candidates, not tracking every upsetting thing Tweeted by our current president. Instead, I plan to focus on issues closer to home; my aging parents and their needs, my friends, my clients, promoting diversity and fair treatment in the publishing industry, my concern over climate change, my personal health, and a few other goals for the year.

It’s been years since I boiled down my life into very distinct categories, but I think it’s time for me to do so again. The older I get, the more aware I am that time moves far faster than we realize. It’s the old adage about the days being long while the years are short. I don’t want to waste time and energy being angry over things I can’t control or that won’t matter in a few weeks. It’s important to narrow my focus, and segment my time accordingly. That means dividing things into boxes: myself, my immediate circle (friends and family), my personal community, my business community, and a worldwide view. I’ll be slotting my goals into each specific box and going from there. And no one box is allowed to overwhelm my life.

Most years my goals involve specific tasks, things I want to achieve, and I’ll be coming up with a few of those, too. But my primary goal is to improve my outlook–my quality of life. Because without that change, I’ll continue to struggle with all my other goals.

How does your big picture look? Are you laying the foundations for any major changes in 2020? I’d love to hear what you’re up to.

 

 

 

Holiday Gift Guide: What to Get for the Writers in Your Life

‘Tis the season of shopping and gift-giving. But what do writers want? (Or what hints should you drop to friends and family?)

Truthfully, most writers would like a book deal, but assuming that’s not within the scope of your powers, I’ve a few more practical suggestions. Some might overlap with other gifts-for-writers posts this time of year, but I hope to spark some fresh ideas. I’ve tried to provide items within a range of budgets and for varying tastes. Apologies for the late date of this post, as I know a few of these might be difficult given shipping times, etc. Have fun, and don’t forget to leave time between shopping trips to get your own writing done!

Assorted Gifts for Writers: 2019

I love software gifts for writers with technical inclinations. Scrivener sits high on my list of great gifts. For writers working on a series, historical novels, or anything with world building, Aeon Timeline offers a simple way to keep track of dates and facts. Check out 4 the Words for writers who like gamifying their lives; it encourages a daily habit with low minimum word counts and fun monsters to battle.

Shopping for a writer looking to work on their craft? Gotham Writers Workshop offers a wide range of online classes in addition to their in-person courses, and gift certificates are available.

Subscriptions for writers keep giving all year long. Check out popular writing magazine options like The Writer or Poets & Writers. Or try a literary magazine subscription like Slightly Foxed, The Paris Review, Asimov’s Science Fiction, One Story, or Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Do you know a writer with a stationery habit? Check out Goulet Pen Company or JetPens for fabulous fountain pens and ink, rollerballs and ballpoints, journals, and pencases. FYI: the Lamy Safari or Pilot Metropolitan make reasonably priced gifts for anyone just getting into fountain pens. And Field Notes currently has a wonderful selection of pocket-sized notebooks with illustrations of national parks on their covers.

Bookish Gifts

Let’s not forget books. Writers love books, because writers read long before they wrote. For beautiful editions of interesting classics, old and modern, visit Folio Society. (Note: I’ve linked to the USA site; there’s a separate one for the UK.) Persephone Books reprints lovely editions of titles that have gone out of print, mostly by mid-century women authors. The ladies at Slightly Foxed have a similar mission to reprint books–often intriguing memoirs–that are worth reading but have slipped out of the public eye in recent years.

As far as specific titles go, I love this year’s Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dryer. It offers advice on (writing) style with a great sense of humor.

Health and Wellbeing

Writers spend long hours hunched over desks, so consider giving the writer in your life something to help keep them healthy. Gift certificates for a massage, bubble bath, healthy snacks, or some soothing scented candles might all be welcome. I’m a fan of the S’well water bottles; they keep drinks cold for 24 hours and can sit on a desk without worry about spillage, plus they’re great at conferences. Keep your favorite writer hydrated!

Odds and Ends

If you’re shopping for writer-themed odds and ends–mugs, T-shirts, jewelry, printed scarves, etc.–check out these diverse sites:

The Reader’s Catalog

Out of Print

BookRiot Store

Storiarts

The Literary Gift Company

You might also consider giving the gift of cultural appreciation. Writers need to refill the well from time to time, so membership to a  local museum, gift certificates to a cinema or theater, or tickets to some sort of event can get them away from their desks and spark their imaginations.

Finally, give the gift of time. If you know a busy writer who has a hard time carving out time for their craft, offer to watch their kids for a few afternoons, sign them up for a meal delivery service or give them gift certificates for their favorite take-out place, or pay to have someone clean their home a couple times a month. Especially for writers on deadline, this type of personalized gift can really lighten the load.