never shocked

This is what I used to do. Wake up, start the coffee, look out the window to see what sort of day it is, read a chunk of whatever novel I was reading at the time, pour myself a cup of coffee, turn on the computer, spend maybe 30-45 minutes reading and editing whatever I’d written the day before, check my email, then turn on NPR and start the actual working part of the day.

That’s what I started to do sixteen years ago. But during the editing period I got a phone call. Normally, I’d have let the phone ring; I discourage interruptions while editing and since I didn’t have Caller ID back then, I’d no idea who was calling. But for some reason I answered it, and it was an old buddy. I don’t recall his exact words after I said ‘Hello” but it was something like “Are you seeing this?”

A few months earlier I’d moved from Manhattan to a massive old farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. It was quiet there, tranquil, no distractions aside from the occasional sound of a tractor in a nearby field, ridiculously inexpensive to live — a perfect place to settle down and work on a novel.

“Am I seeing what?” I asked. And he told me a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Which was absolutely ridiculous, of course. The towers of the WTC were huge, and not in any air traffic lane. “Maybe a helicopter,” I said, “but no way a plane would crash into the towers.” He said, “Go see for yourself, it’s on television.”

About a year earlier he’d come to NYC for a visit and slept on my futon-sofa. We’d done a few tourist things — the usual things New Yorkers take visitors to see. FAO Schwartz, the toy store. The boat pond in Central Park. The Bethesda Fountain. And always the top of the World Trade Center.

“Go see for yourself,” he said, and since he’d called on the land line, I had to hang up and go to the living room to turn on the television. And sure enough, the north tower of the World Trade Center was on fire, with a large hole in the side where something big had hit it. I watched for a bit, and was about to call my friend back and admit he’d been right — and that’s when the second plane hit.

When I lived in NYC I belonged to a reading group. We’d meet once a month at somebody’s apartment, eat snacks, drink a bit of wine, and discuss what we’d read. It was easy and pleasant and fun. One guy, Joe, occasionally brought along his dogs, a pair of Cavalier King James spaniels, one of which had a heart condition and always got extra attention from the group because we weren’t ever sure he’d make it to the next meeting. Joe worked in the South Tower. We later learned he’d called his sister after the North Tower was hit. He told her his office was evacuating the building as a precaution. He’d taken the stairs down to the Sky Lobby on the 78th floor and was waiting with others to take the express elevator ground level. Nothing to worry about, he told her. The second plane struck the building between floors 77 and 85.

A friend from graduate school. Mark, worked for a social research group located north of the WTC. We figure he must have left his office and walked to the towers after the first plane hit to see what was happening. He was apparently killed by debris, probably from the same crash that killed Joe. They identified Mark’s body fairly easily, since he was largely intact. Joe was confirmed dead several months later, apparently through tissue samples. A neighbor of Joe took in his dogs until a family member could claim them.

This is what I do now, this is what I’ve done every single day for the last 16 years: I wake up, I start the coffee, I look out the window to see what sort of day it is, I say to myself “Let’s see if any planes crashed into buildings” and I look at the news. It’s a sort of mantra — a ritualized phrase and a ritualized process. I check the news to see if anything horrific happened while I was asleep. Every morning. I don’t know why; it’s not like I can do anything about whatever has happened, any more than I could do anything about the 9/11 attacks. But except for making coffee, nothing gets done until I’ve checked the news.

It seems like a pretty small life adjustment. But beginning the day by asking about a terrorist attack means the news never really shocks me. A school shooting? A forest fire? A devastating flood? An explosion at a fertilizer plant? A ferry sinking? A terrorist attack in a major European city? The news can make me sad or angry or distressed or upset, but I’m never shocked by the ongoing list of tragedies. Because I begin each day wondering if a plane has crashed into a skyscraper.

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11 thoughts on “never shocked

  1. I was at work when this happened. The entire office spent the rest of the day watching it unfold. Beautifully written Greg and I’m sorry you lost your friends.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks, Greg. I lost only the friend of a friend on that day, but I grieve for all innocent victims, and I feel a special connection to the over 6,000 US military… and the untold numbers – millions? – of civilians who have died in the resulting wars the US has started in response to the attacks. The wars continue, and are unlikely to end in my lifetime. The civilians continue to be killed, many by us; their only crime is that they are at home. This is perpetual war. So it goes. But back then, on Sept. 11, 2001, and for a couple of days thereafter, I felt so guilty for living, as I was, in such an untroubled backwoods homestead, under such an untroubled pure blue sky. There were no contrails, since all civilian air traffic was curtailed. The birdsong was uninterrupted. It was wonderful… unlike the life in New York City, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. I could predict the oncoming wave of right-wing reaction in the USA. Here we are. So it goes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No contrails…I’d forgotten that.

      I suspect a lot of us remember the weird stunned quiet of the immediate aftermath of the attacks more than the madness that took hold of so many folks such a short time later.

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  3. The only time I woke up shocked since then was when Trump won. Of course, that’s an exaggeration. I went to sleep shocked. And crying.

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    • A person could make the argument that the election of Comrade Trump was actually a direct consequence of the 9/11 attacks. But lawdy, hasn’t bin Laden suffered enough?

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  4. Because of what the day has been turned into, a premise for ever-present war and a reason to strike out against those of a different belief set with the mantra “never forget!”, I experience nine-eleven fatigue these days. Like Jeffrey Sachs iterated in the final chapter of this year’s World Happiness Report, we need to “acknowledge and move past the fear” that day created.*

    As Larry said, though, we probably won’t.

    Despite my fatigue, I clicked. I’m glad I did. Your remembrance of that day, and the routine that carries you to this day, was moving. Without rhetoric, without backlash, without fear or hate, you brought back every memory I had of that day, and the emotions I felt for all humanity as a result.

    Thank you for that.

    *I’m a big happiness fan; here’s that report http://worldhappiness.report/ed/2017/ and my brief synopsis and opinion of it (humbly submitted), http://www.tombeingtom.com/making-america-great/

    Liked by 1 person

    • That day changed us, no mistake. The days that followed changed us as a nation more than it should have, and in ways that it shouldn’t have. As a nation we have become more fearful, which has made us less tolerant and more cruel.

      In a very real way, the US is acting like an abused child. So many abused kids grow up to become abusers themselves. We need to struggle against that.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I had always set my alarm to a particular radio station. At 7 am MDT Bob in his deep rough and loud voice woke me up with “The United States is under attack”. I flew out of bed not knowing the extent of the attack. Luckily Greg I could make coffee with the TV on. Shocked, angry and yelling “find them and nuke ’em” I gradually calmed down. Our Prime Minister announced all air traffic over North America would, for the most part, be landing in Canada and asked us to help those on the flights. We did since most of us Canadians have family and friends in the US and we are neighbors. 24 Canadians lost their lives in the World Trade Center that day.

    Likely many do not know about the lone airplane that did not get the message to land. Our PM told us a year later it was the toughest decision he ever made when he ordered two F-18s to shoot the passenger plane down. It became obvious to the pilot of one fighter jet the captain could not hear the order. He and the other pilot said they bounced on the wings of the fully loaded passenger plane. They managed to force the plane down on a runway in Dawson City, Yukon. President George Bush Jr. visited Canada once during his 8 years in office to thank the people on our east coast for their help. After listening to his remarkable speech (more akin to a talk) I actually began to believe he did have a heart until he attacked Iraq.

    Did you ever think of what would have happened had the attacks taken place 40 minutes later?

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