Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Random Rambling Reflections . . .

. . . on the Tenth Anniversary of September 11, 2001[1]

Our memories may be the single faculty separating us from the animals.  But memory is a tricky and often deceptive gift.  Wallace Stegner was able to construct an entire novel – his nearly flawless final effort Crossing to Safety – out of the blurry line between the seen and the remembered.  And of course the great English romantic poets – Wordsworth supreme among them – employed their memories to sublime artistic effect:

The music in my heart I bore
Long after it was heard no more.[2]

What do I remember about September 11, 2001?  More than I probably would have if I had not written a detailed journal entry of my experiences in midtown Manhattan that day.  And here, already, I am confronted with a question:  do I really remember these things or do I just think I remember them because I have re-read my journal entry several times over the past ten years (usually around the anniversary of the attacks).

A good way to test my memory is to try to recall the days and weeks immediately following 9/11 – the things I did not write down. 

If memory serves:

I did not go into Manhattan on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.  I seem to remember the financial markets were closed for a few days.  My office was also closed – for what is a Wall Street law firm to do when the markets are closed?  I had previously scheduled to spend Friday at my alma mater, Seton Hall Law School, interviewing potential summer associates for my employer Davis Polk & Wardwell.  There was no reason to cancel those interviews because they did not require travel into the city. (We lived in Clifton, New Jersey.)  I remember going to the interviews but little else about them.

I am fairly certain I went to work the following Monday – September 17th.  I have no specific memories of that first day back in the office.  But I do have flashes of memory about what it was like commuting into the city from September 17th onward.  I used to take a bus from near Allwood Circle in Clifton to the bus terminal in midtown Manhattan.  This involved a trip through the Lincoln Tunnel every day.  Immediately after the attacks, they began stopping everyone entering the tunnel for a detailed security check that involved sliding bomb-detection mirrors under the vehicles.  I remember thinking how hard it would suck to die of drowning if someone managed to blow up the tunnel while my bus was going through it.

In the Port Authority bus terminal, safely on the other side of that underwater death trap, a large ad hoc display sprung up containing photographs of missing people and touching letters from their loved ones.  It started as a small affair but it grew into a massive spread of several tables with posters, cards, and photographs.  At some point, I don’t remember exactly when, someone started playing a looped recording of “Amazing Grace” – the dreadful Scottish bagpipes version.  This God-awful music echoed non-stop throughout the entire bus terminal.  I do not remember it ever ceasing from those first days after 9/11 until I stopped going through the Port Authority in March of 2002.  I sometimes wonder if it is still playing there – in all of its dreary monotony.[3]  (In fairness, one should not expect the grieving families of lost firefighters to subordinate pathos to musical taste.)
One day, probably several weeks after the initial clean-up had taken place, I was downtown to take notes for my boss at a hearing in the federal bankruptcy court. (Davis Polk represented a large Enron creditor.)  The courthouse was close to Ground Zero so I took the opportunity after the hearing to peer through some of the chain-link barricades surrounding the still devastated area.  There was a massive glass and steel globe-shaped thing lying on its side on the ground.  It looked like something out of Mad Max’s Thunderdome.

More than any specific image, however, I mostly remember how it felt in those first weeks and months: as if civilization was beginning to unravel.  It was a completely helpless feeling.  Someone, somewhere – probably on one of the right winger websites I frequented in those days – had posted lines from W.B. Yeats’ great poem “The Second Coming”:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . .

The best lack all conviction while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity . . .

Another staple of right winger websites at the time was Rudyard Kipling’s poem about the terror and peril awaiting societies who reject the ancient moral verities (“copybook headings”) in favor of embracing fashionable, trendy, politically-correct bullshit:

As surely as water will wet us, as surely as fire will burn
The Gods of the Copybook Headings in terror and slaughter return. 

For weeks, I was in a stupor as I went through the motions of showing up to work and pretending I gave a rat’s ass about JP Morgan’s rights as a creditor in the Enron bankruptcy.  Everyone seemed concerned about my well being – even an old girlfriend who looked me up and called to see how I was doing.

I needed to get as far away from New York City and the East Coast as I could – and fast.  Was that a snap judgment?

Fast forward ten years.  I marvel at all the changes in my personal life as well as out there in the big bad world.  Back then, I was a brand new lawyer (a glorified paralegal, if truth be told) working at a large Wall Street firm.  (Would I stoop to representing Wall Street for a good salary today?)  It was before 9/11, of course, but it was also before many other important events:  Before two costly and unnecessary wars.  Before Abu Ghraib, secret torture prisons and widespread illegal wiretaps (all in the name of security).  Before relocating our family to Colorado and away from the East Coast.  Before Hurricane Katrina.  Before the Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman scandals.  Before I had any clue about Peak Energy or climate change or the “tragic-comedy of suburban sprawl.”  Before the BP Oil Spill.  Before the rise of the Tea Party, FoxNews, the conservative media, and their perfect exemplar (in anti-intellectual bufoonery) Sarah Palin.  Before Facebook, iPods, iPads, texting and "sexting."  Before collaterized debt obligations and the financial crisis of 2008.  Before my Dad died.  Before the kids were out of diapers.  Before Sparks Willson or Wood & Ramirez.  Before I gave a shit about gardening, or poetry, or the important difference between a "Hamiltonian" America and a "Jeffersonian" one.  Before reading some two to three hundred books – especially life-altering ones like Walden, Angle of Repose, Affluenza and The Long Emergency.   

Lots of change, to be sure.  But looking back at my journal entry for January 8, 2001, I am struck by how little my core values have changed:

            I have such mixed feelings about life as a Davis Polk associate.  It is certainly a great firm offering unmatchable opportunities for young lawyers.  I like the work and love the people (and of course, the pay is nothing to sniff at!!).  Yet in many ways I feel out of place there.  I'm convinced I have the intelligence to succeed at a big firm like DPW -- though I'm not sure that I can embrace the "lifestyle" (or perhaps I mean the "persona") of the big city corporate lawyer. 

            When you get right down to it, I'm just a blue-collar kid from a small town in New England.  I want to earn a good living -- sure -- but time at home with family is much more important to me.  I don't care about many of the things that my co-workers care about -- professional prestige, opportunities to rub elbows with the rich and powerful, status symbols, etc. etc.  Maybe this is related to my small "l" libertarianism and my desire to just be left alone.  Cliché though it sounds, I'm a firm believer in the saying "I work to live, I don't live to work."  Basically, I want to earn a decent living and be done with it.  At Davis Polk, the controlling mentality is diametrically opposed to my point of view.

            To the ultra-rich, my current DPW salary ($135,000) would appear extremely modest.  Yet if I could make this kind of money for the rest of my life (adjusted for inflation), I would consider myself the luckiest SOB on the planet! 

            I mean, how much does one need?  Right now I've got a very modest, but comfortable 4 bedroom house, two cars, plenty of cash to pay my bills and eat well, and enough spending money to take vacations once or twice a year.  I'm richer than probably 90% of the people on the planet.

            American standards of living have changed so much in the past few decades. So much so that my current level of comfort -- modest by today's American standards -- would have been undreamed of by the overwhelming majority of people forty years ago.  L---- sometimes chides me for using standards of 40 (or 400) years ago to say that we have it really great -- but I think it's an entirely fair way of looking at things.  How can we say that what was good enough for a king 400 years ago -- a fucking king -- is not good enough for us?  Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (a.k.a. William Shakespeare) -- who lived in relative luxury 400 years ago -- did not have 1/100th of the creature comforts that I enjoy today.  Yet he was able to lead an amazingly rich life.  Gee, how could he have led such a rich live without SUVs, satellite television, junky decorative knick-knacks, and over-priced (e.g. Starbucks) coffee -- to name just a few of the outrageous things that I waste money on?

            Madison Avenue has got us all thinking we must have so many things that we could frankly do quite well without.  Most Americans would be immeasurably better off if they would just work hard from 9 to 5, save 10% to 20% of their wages, turn off their fucking TVs, and read!!  Instead people waste countless trillions on crap that adds little or no value to their lives.  I'm as bad as an offender as the next guy.  I would love to go cold turkey on a lot of this crap -- but I have more than myself to consider.  When it comes to material possessions, give me a kitchen to cook good meals in, a warm bed to sleep in, my guitar and CDs, and a small room (i.e. library) to keep this computer and all my many books in and I'm as happy as a pig in mud.  (Notice how even this modest list exceeds the typical possessions of 99.999999999% of the human beings who have ever breathed air upon this earth).

I cringe a little bit at the writing but not at the essential content.  What is perhaps most striking is this:  I was a hard-core, free-market, libertarian true-believer when I wrote those words.  Shouldn’t I have been exactly the type of person who wanted to make a killing on Wall Street while raping the planet? 

And yet, after all the sturm and drang of the past ten years, I am mildly astonished to find that I am still “the stupid old kid from 28 Blake St.”[4]:  overly introspective, almost to the point of distraction (if not paralysis); “spiritual” – though that word does not mean what it meant ten years ago (much less thirty years ago); mostly ambivalent about money and material possessions; generous, I would like to think;  somewhat lacking in social confidence, especially with “cool” men and all women; drawn to interesting or quirky people but wanting mostly to be left alone.

            But I am different in many important ways, too.  I get on Facebook for about 10 or 15 minutes every day and I am struck by what appears to be a complete lack of what I will call “personal growth” on the part of so many of my homies back in New England.  One of my favorite quotes – in fact it’s on my Facebook profile – is from Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr.:

            Man's mind, stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimensions. 

I recently finished reading Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason and it left me feeling rather depressed about how militantly anti-intellectual our culture has become.  We will never solve any of the bigger problems out there if we have lost the ability to think. 

We will not find any help in the book of ancient Jewish fairy tales.  (Shout out to Bill Maher.)  Nor will praying accomplish anything.  Nor will we get anywhere by pretending that “We’re number one.”  Case in point:  during halftime at the Air Force Academy’s homecoming football game – one day before the tenth anniversary – they rolled out this gigantic flag that covered almost the entire football field (in case anyone forgot what country they were in).  They then blasted over the gigantic stadium scoreboard PA system several patriotic tunes including “Grand Old Flag.” The reader will recall that this song contains the lyric that America is the country where “there’s never a boast or brag.”  Maybe one in a thousand people in the crowd caught the irony of playing that song while that giant boastful flag was on display.  (The pre-game show featured a few boastful fly-overs by military jets.)

We have a major presidential candidate who recently issued an official proclamation asking citizens to “pray for rain” – and most Americans see absolutely nothing wrong with this, when in fact, it is about the most disturbing fucking thing I’ve seen come out of a politician’s mouth in a very long time.  Ten years ago, I was not very far removed from supporting people like this.

            The country has changed tremendously – and mostly for the worst.  We got hit on 9/11 and we lashed out like the spoiled entitled babies that we are.  Listening to the minute-by-minute rebroadcast of 9/11 that MSNBC was playing on the tenth anniversary, I was struck by how many times the news people said – spontaneously – that the attacks will demand a swift “retaliation.”  But why “retaliation”?  Why not hunt down and punish the people who did it.  “Retaliation” suggests “getting even” by killing an equal number of innocent people and destroying an equal amount of their property.  Ten years later, we should be ashamed at what our “retaliation” has done.

[1] I began writing these reflections on September 11, 2011 – exactly ten years after everything supposedly changed.  I discovered there was far too much to write down on a single Sunday afternoon and so I am just now concluding these thoughts several weeks later.
[2] From “The Solitary Reaper,” by William Wordsworth.
[3] If you must loop something without end, why not something beautiful and transcendent like Beethoven’s “Hymn of Thanksgiving” – the middle movement from his late String Quartet Op. 132?  Most people wouldn't know that it's a hymn of “thanksgiving.”
[4] How I once referred to myself, at around age 11, in a pathetic self-pitying letter to my father.