It's a sad anniversary today. Rather than comment on it directly, I thought I would post an essay I wrote for an open mic night held on September 11th, 2002.
I like to think that each generation of Americans has what I call its "where were you?" moment. Anyone in my parents' generation can describe the moment in exhaustive detail when they heard the news of Kennedy's assassination. For my grandparents it's Pearl Harbor; for their parents, perhaps the 1929 stock market crash.
I've always assumed my generation's "where were you?" moment would be the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1984. And I still believe it's a defining moment for Generation X. But it pales in the enormous shadow of September 11, 2001.
People often remember a trauma in seemingly unrelated fragments -- a certain facial expression, the weather, or even background music. For me, a lasting impression of September 11th is the taste of coffee.
I've been a coffee snob since I was twelve years old; but in the last few years my relationship with coffee has fizzled. It's the caffeine. Either I get so high from its effects that I virtually hallucinate, or I sink so low afterwards that the inevitable crash can be devastating. In my gourmet snootiness I went without coffee for several years rather than sully my delicate taste buds with the unmentionable decaf. Then last year, my nostalgia for the taste of coffee won out, and I decided to try an experiment. I found a small bag of the most promising -- and most expensive -- decaf I could find. If I liked it, I'd consider switching to gourmet decaf. And if not...my roses needed the compost anyway.
I woke up a little early on the morning of September 11th. After walking the puppy, I had some toast and brewed the decaf. It smelled wonderful, and I appreciated it for a moment -- in my favorite cup, with the perfect proportions of cream and honey. I took a cautious sip. Not bad at all!
That was when I got the news. The phone rang, and the news director called me into my journalism job an hour early. As he put it, "some idiot flew a plane into the World Trade Center." My minds' eye conjured some drug-crazed loner in a rusty Cessna, and I told him I'd be on my way. I fought the temptation to linger over that coffee, because I knew I'd have to wait too long for it to cool off enough to drink. Crap. First coffee I'd had in years and I won't even be able to drink it.
We all know what the rest of that day held. Most of us watched the devastation in Washington and Manhattan as it unfolded. I also spent a few hours sprinting between the federal building and City Hall in my city, nearly getting trampled by the frantic officials and security personnel I hoped to interview.
As a reporter in the Midwest, as opposed to New York or Washington, I was lucky. I only worked about 12 hours that day. I'm grateful; I don't know how much longer I could have fought back my own shock and outrage to get through the next newscast, the next interview, the next hour of programming. Like many reporters, I have never emotionally processed the impact of that day -- I was too busy at the time, and since then it's been buried under the weight of subsequent events, both political and personal.
I'm not sure what time I got home that night, although it was well after dark. Left unsupervised for too long, my puppy had scattered the garbage and nibbled some of my paperbacks. Strangely, the coffee was untouched. I like to think that on some level, my pets understood there was a grave crisis, and respected that coffee cup as a tiny offering to the nation's recovery through one reporter's peace of mind -- as sincere as the millions who lined up to give blood in the coming weeks. That morning, a universe ago, I brewed a perfect cup of coffee as a special gift to myself. I had eggs and toast. Now, the cup sat in my dark dining room as a mute reminder that things would be different in unforeseeable ways. It was cold; a tiny layer of cream had congealed on top. I stared down at the wasted cup, trying not to think of the true losses of that day -- the uncounted victims, the unfathomable rage of perpetrators willing to die, even the fantastic architecture decimated. And the obligatory retaliation to come.
Finally, I poured the coffee down the sink and went to bed. It'll be a busy day tomorrow.
There was a thread recently on the issue of debt, and it touched on our motivations for spending beyond our means. I feel that on one level, it stems from a starvation of the spirit; we feel isolated and fearful, and like infants we reach out to any object within our grasp for reassurance. One unintended consequence is that this infantile clinging to possessions can isolate us even further. We become infatuated with status symbols, and even get territorial. I'm not calling for a property-less world, but I suspect a deeper perspective of "it's only stuff" would go a long way toward a healthier world. It would enable us to let go of things when their usefulness passes, enriching community for everyone as we respond to one anothers' material needs on a more personal level.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in one of the finest school districts in the United States, but I've noticed that over the years I've become a little complacent in my intellectual pursuits. It's easy to let habit take over in the absence of some outside force holding one accountable. Last year I decided to push back with a reading program to fill the gaps in my formal education. I read a lot of authors from the literary canon in school, but somehow I missed several heavyweights like Dante, Plato, and Darwin. I'm a free spirit by nature, so I've let impulse guide me though a list of classics. My dog has been helpful as well with his own program of eating some of the finest offerings of my own home collection. Border collies really are natural leaders! I know I'd be lost without him.
My library card has been my best friend through the process. It was a great partnership until a flash flood devastated my city's main downtown branch a few weeks ago. Not only did the flood close down the physical facility but several citywide online resources as well - gone are the interlibrary loan service, the ability to transfer any books to another branch for pickup, and even sections of the overall catalog. In the meantime I've plumbed the depths of my own bookshelves, but I've been a little frustrated. I haven't enjoyed that "kid in a candy store" sense of fun in a while now, and it's affected my motivation. My fearless leader solved the problem this morning. We were out on our morning walk when he pulled me toward a small cardboard box brimming with paperbacks. I looked down expecting to see a stash of bodice-rippers, but I was overjoyed to find several serious authors. Mailer! Thoreau! Atwood! Nin! Burgess! And that's just the top layer of the box. I did find a couple of mildew spots, but otherwise they were in perfect condition.
This box should keep me off the streets for quite a while. When I'm done? I think the only appropriate course would be to share and share alike, as the previous owner did. I used to donate my used books to the library until a friend with a checkered past made a very compelling argument. Books are a lifeline for a literal captive audience, and all his reading inspired him to write a novel of his own. It was a critical step in his own recovery as a productive citizen. So I'll drop them off at the county jail and give the inmates respite from the back issues of Better Homes and Gardens I saw littering the bin last time I made a donation. I hope they enjoy them. And if they don't? That's all right.
After all, it's only stuff.
This post is a test; I've never blogged before and I wanted to see how it works. In any case, the thought below would be a good starting point for a blog, so maybe I'll get back to it.
Separate names with a comma.