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 the Upper West Side of 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 that friend had 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. 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. Nothing.
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 deadly tornado. 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.