Thursday, September 11, 2008

Crystal Clear Memories

There are but a handful of moments in one's lifetime that are burned into the memory banks so deeply that all the little details remain, years later. The first one for me, even though I was only three years old, was the assassination of President Kennedy. The picture in my mind of that day is crystal clear - what our house at the time looked like, what our couch looked like, the tears that flowed from my mom all day long. And there was my wedding day. It's amazing to me how clear most of the details from that day remain.

The other day is September 11, 2001. I feel torn when I write about it. On the one hand, it is proper to remember and pay some tribute to those who were lost on that day; on the other hand, my memories are so inconsequential in comparison to what others went through, that it seems presumptuous. But I'm going to write, because I think in the experience of that week there is something to capture that is worth considering seven years later.

In 2001, I was working for the Governmental Affairs office for the California State University system. The week of September 10 was the last week of that year's legislative session, which is always an incredibly hectic and stressful time. Human nature being what it is, the California Legislature tends to put off most of its work for as long as it possibly can, which inevitably turns the final week into a chaotic maelstrom of marathon floor sessions, unscheduled committee hearings, and amendments upon amendments to the point where bills become unrecognizable from their original form. Vigilance is the order of the day, because it's also a time where the sly devils who might be trying to pull a fast one are able to do so, right under the noses of the leadership. In short, more fun than a human being should be allowed to have.

I remember that I wasn't assigned the "evening shift" on that Monday evening, and that I wanted to get home quickly because it was the opening night of Monday Night Football. But just before packing up for the day, the dreaded "one foot out the door phone call" came. It was our Deputy General Counsel, who laid a little legislative crisis on my lap the likes of which I hadn't seen in my 10 years at CSU. The details aren't that important, but suffice to say that the system's statutory authority to do something very important was about to expire without a legislative extension, a fact that somehow had escaped the notice of our crack staff of attornies, and we were about to find ourselves up you-know-where without a paddle. I remember saying to him, "you do realize this is the last week of session, right?" Yep, was the sheepish reply. "Well, we'll give it a shot, but you know how they get in this last week. I'm not going to make any guarantees."

Basically, what he had asked me to do was impossible, but I didn't want to tell him that. The job of our office was to make it happen, and if it didn't, who knew where the chips might fall. So I went home that night feeling sorry for myself, wondering how in the world we could do something in the next four days that would at least make it look as if we had given it our all. Because the mission was doomed to failure before it began. And in that circumstance, there really wasn't much to do but have a couple of beers, enjoy the football game, and find something else to worry about.

I remember being really agitated the next morning, because of what the rest of the week was shaping up to be. At the time I was taking the bus into work, but the nearest bus stop was about a mile away from our house, so my wife and I hopped in the car, and I think I may have even said I was sorry for acting like such a jerk - it was just the stress talking. And I reached over to turn on the radio, and the first thing that came on was the news announcer (and this was on a music station) saying, "It appears that America continues to be under siege at this moment." The feeling was very odd - a combination of shock, disbelief and who knows what else - numbness probably describes it better than anything else. If I'd been thinking more clearly, I would have just asked my wife to turn around and take me back home; working in a state-owned building, I should have realized that they were probably going to send us home anyway. But I didn't, and went on to work, having to scramble to find a way back home when the decision was made early on to vacate and close all state-owned facilities. The day went on; you just sort of kept on going.

It was back to work the next morning, and that was when you could tell there was a difference. In all the time I worked around the Legislature, I've never seen it act quite the way that it did during the next three days. It was still stressful, and there were still marathon floor sessions, but for once, most of the b.s. was set aside, and the work got done. And the task I had before me, impossible just two days before, was completed in the course of less than 72 hours. For that to happen, people had to act differently. People had to agree to things that they had never agreed to before, and would never agree to again in the three years that I continued to work for CSU. I think it was because of the perspective everyone had been given on that awful day. That, although important, the work being done that week paled in comparison to what was happening in New York City and Washington, D.C. Given the current political situation in this state and this country, it just seems worth reflecting upon, seven years later.

That is my little story. But I also want to devote space to some other writers:

The Sheila Variations, the blog of Sheila O'Malley, is the first blog that I really became addicted to, back in the summer of 2004. She is a great writer on many diverse topics, and has written eloquently on numerous occasions about 9/11. Her post of yesterday, "The Two Days That Came Before," is a typically brilliant piece of writing.

A Big Victory by Michele Catalano is another must-read blog. Today, she has two posts worth noting. One is a link to a project she completed in 2004, Voices of 9/11. The second is a piece that she wrote for PajamasMedia to commemorate the day. An excerpt:

We don’t want to constantly remember the towers falling, the hole in the Pentagon, or the remains of a plane in a field. We don’t want to constantly think about the deaths, the sorrow, or the anger. But we do need to remember. We need to remember the hope that most of us felt that we would work together to get through this. We need to remember that brief feeling of togetherness. We need to remember how the lines between us disappeared and how we worked with each other to comfort those who needed it. We need to remember that it is possible to work as one to help our nation heal.

Seven years later, that’s what I want to remember.

Never forget.

The third post is from Jac, a relatively new blog by John Althouse Cohen. This excerpt sums up this thoughtful and well-written piece quite well:

There was a deep psychic wound left on our country's soul.

And there were people who didn't just die, but had to live their last moments hanging out of skyscraper windows and deciding to plummet to their deaths.

That's what I try to remember every year this day. But it's so unfathomable that I can't imagine it.

I don't know how you factor that into a cost-benefit analysis. I don't know how you balance that against annoying airline security measures, library records being given an extra look beyond just checking for late fees, or eyebrows raised at Arabic-sounding names.

Maybe you can't. You just have to do whatever you can, whatever tiny amount that might be, to try to stop this from ever happening again.

And as Michele says, "Never forget."

No comments: