Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tuesday, September 11, 2001 -- Ten Years On

What I remember most is the blue.

The empty blue, and the quiet, of a sky with no jets, undivided by crisscrossing contrails, no engine noise of aircraft going and coming from Midway and O'Hare.

Nancy and I had been married only five months. We lived on the Northwest Side of Chicago just off Irving Park, under the O'Hare flight path. We might as well have been living a century earlier, for all the evidence of the skies.

I had just turned right off Irving Park onto the Kennedy Expressway onramp when the report of the first hit on the World Trade Center came on the radio. I do not have a note on this, but I surely was listening, as I did every morning, to sports-talk radio station WSCR The Score. My recollection is also a little dim on what I listened to the rest of the way downtown, although I think The Score switched its feed to an affiliated news-radio channel, or perhaps even TV audio. If not, then I surely switched over to NewsRadio WBBM 780. For some reason, even in spite of the earliest erroneous reports that it was a small plane or maybe a DC-3 that hit the first tower, I never thought it was an accident. Can’t tell you why, just a feeling.

I was driving south on the Kennedy and toward downtown when the second plane hit.

My eyes went immediately upward – to the Sears Tower, as it was then known, already visible in the distance. The Sears was at 233 South Wacker Drive. My office was in 300 South Wacker -- kitty-cornered from it. It stood with what seems, in retrospect, like a kind of innocence.

Nancy was the principal of an elementary school in a near-northern suburb, with charge of 600 children. I called her from the car and got her out of a meeting. It was the first notice to her school. She recalls that the day proceeded with great professionalism on the part of her staff. The children were not told; Nancy thought it best that the news be presented first by their parents. The most interesting datum: Only one parent asked to take her child out of the school that day.

I had the only TV in our office, a little JVC portable with rabbit ears that had awful reception in the Wacker Drive canyon. Attorneys and staff drifted in and out for updates, disbelieving and understanding at the same time.

I didn't get any work done that day. Out my window I looked directly across the street at the looming Sears. Of course, no one knew how many more symbols of American strength and success the enemy had targeted. Building management didn't mess around. They closed the place and shooed us all out of the place by late morning.

I was struck by how normal everything seemed on the street when I left the building. No obvious evacuations, even from the Sears, no crowds gathering, what seemed like normal traffic and people just walking about as one would see on any other normal workday. The wonder was dispelled when I arrived at the parking garage to find it nearly empty.

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With nothing to do, with wanting to do nothing, but watch TV, I began to write. When I began, President Bush was located just a few miles from my childhood home in Bellevue, Nebraska, at the Strategic Air command Underground at Offutt Air Force Base, across the barbed-wire fence from my backyard. (I think SAC had actually been deactivated as a command by that time, but the Underground -- did you see Dr. Strangelove, or that original Star Trek where they had to go back in time and infiltrate the Air Force Base in "Omaha"? – remained a central and highly-secure command center.)

I've gone back for the first time in ten years to what I wrote on that day and in the day or two following. A lot of it was political, and I don’t want to spoil this essay with too much of that. Here’s a sample:

-- The first word that came to mind about the attacks was not "cowardly," it was "pathetic."   I thought the attacks were a spasm -- that was the word I used -- unlikely to be repeated in any form for quite some time.

-- I was prepared to believe that it was Osama bin Laden's cadres, but I also remembered Oklahoma City -- everyone assumed that was a foreign attack, but it turned out to be some white loser. What persuaded me in the short run that the rush to judgment was probably in the right direction was that the dozen-or-so attackers lost their own lives. Not your typical Western strategy.

-- I assumed that I would know some of the victims. I went to law school in New York City. Many of my friends went to work in the Financial District, and my first boss at Kirkland & Ellis had become a senior executive at Morgan Stanley in the WTC. After contacting my New York City friends, I was relieved that I was unable to identify any acquaintance who died in New York.

-- This will sound cold: I wasn't sad or horrified or excited. My primary thought was that we know much more about the world than we knew the day before. It was a supremely clarifying set of actions. “Barbarism will face challenges that it has avoided to date,” I wrote. “This is a good thing.”   (I was surprised then as now that there were some of the political class who found no instruction in 9/11 at all.)
-- “Afghanistan,” I wrote. “The 51st State.”

-- I remarked on the composure of Americans There was no public demand for immediate retaliation.

-- Hundreds of movies were instantly dated. Their New York panoramas included the World Trade Center.

-- As we are moved by the memorials this weekend, we forget – I forgot, anyway – how much brainless crap we had to endure from much of the international (and even some of the American) Left in the days following 9/11. There were those who truly thought that America deserved what it got. They’re still around, and not all of them are beyond our borders.

-- I understood the concern over “destabilization” of Middle Eastern regimes if we made war against the terrorist-sponsoring governments of Araby. But what ended up on the page was: “Well, who with any sense feels invested in the stability of their particular brand of evil?”

-- Something prompted me to write: “I am not ashamed to say that I have not the slightest interest in what teenagers have to say about this conflict.” Also: “I am reasonably certain that pop culture celebrities (Madonna holding forth today, I read, that ‘violence begets violence’) should shut their pieholes for the duration.”

-- I fretted over the Problem of Islam. On the one hand, our large Muslim population was not and had never been a threat. Just as obviously, worldwide (and now domestic) terror was authored almost exclusively by Islamofascists claiming authority through the religion itself.  I could only hope that extreme moral relativism took a hit that day – not all philosophies are created equal, and some of them should die.

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My final memory is not a 9/11 memory at all.

It starts in September 1958 in Bellevue, Nebraska.

Nowadays when kids get to first grade, a lot of them can read. Back then, only I and one other kid had this skill when we arrived in Mrs. Duvall’s classroom at Belleaire Elementary School. We could read, if not understand, almost anything you put in front of us. Let me amend that – I’m sure I didn’t understand a lot of what I read, but the other kid – his name was Bryan Jack – probably did. Mrs. Duvall gave us a stack of books and sent us off to the corner to read them while she brought the other kids along. (Our classmates were divided into groups – the Redbirds, the Bluebirds, some Other-Color-birds. Bryan and I, for some reason, were the Snowbirds.)

Bryan was a true prodigy, brilliant even as a skinny little kid. High-strung but quite apparently a “brain,” as we called gifted kids back then. His family lived just a few doors down from us. Thrown together because we could read, we became best friends. His father, like the fathers of many of my friends, was in the Air Force, and after three or four years the Air Force transferred the Jacks to Texas and I had to say goodbye to my supersmart friend.

I kept in touch with Bryan for awhile, but adolescent boys are not good mail correspondents, and the relationship faded. Fortunately, my mother stayed in touch with his mother, so I always knew a little about what Bryan was up to.

He ended up at CalTech and Stanford with multiple degrees and a doctorate.

Eventually, I learned, he went to work at the Pentagon.

As the decades passed, I seldom thought of him.

Oddly, like me, he married for the first time very shortly before 9/11. His wife was New York City artist Barbara Rachko. On her website, she displays a striking, even startling painting of the two of them titled “Us and Them.” (Reproduction is without permission – Barbara, apologies and hoping for your pardon.)

If Bryan had been sitting in his chair at the Pentagon on 9/11, he would have lived through it. He wasn’t.

He was in the plane that hit it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


At first I did not care to see "The Help."  It was, I assumed, a "relationship movie," being a movie that doesn't have much comedy or killing or special effects or monsters or Western gunfighters. But my impression was that this one was all relationships, and all-female ones at that, with not much good to say about men.

In fact, I liked the movie. I can recommend it with almost no reservations. Relationships, after all, are important.

The movie is set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962-63. It explores the relationship between white Junior Leaguers and the black maids who raised them, and who now work for them -- a pattern that had held for generations but upon which the civil rights struggles of the Sixties were placing new and unaccustomed strains.

Emma Stone plays Skeeter Phelan, a young woman who aspires to a journalism career, and who was largely raised by a black maid (Constantine, played by Cicely Tyson in a small but memorable turn). She has the idea of writing a book (which becomes "The Help") about these relationships from the standpoint of the maids. She enlists her fellow Junior Leaguers' maids, the submissive but perceptive Aibileen (Viola Daivs) and, eventually, the much less pliable Minny (Octavia Spencer) to tell her their stories.  Skeeter's growing interest in the maids' stories places her in conflict with Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard, Ron Howard's daughter), the head of the Junior League, a woman dedicated to The Way Things Have Always Been between Southern whites and their servants.   Hilly fires Minny and blackballs her from getting any other maid positions among the society whites, but Minny eventually catches on with a cheerful wealthy outcast (Celia, played by Jessica Chastain) who does not have the proper Jackson pedigree, but who has had the good fortune to have married well and who seems to have very little racial consciousness in enlisting Minny to assist her (without her husband's knowledge) in managing the large estate that (until the end, unseen) husband has entrusted to her care.

Viola Davis
Skeeter's interest in the maids' histories is not entirely altruistic.  I mentioned her ambitions -- she wants to be published, and this motive is not glossed over in the movie.  Skeeter is in constant touch with a New York publisher (Jane Alexander).   As the film progresses, however, she identifies more closely with these tough, gifted women.  It is to the movie's credit that it does not focus overmuch on this transformation; yet we feel it through Ms. Stone's fine performance. 

Octavia Spencer
The movie is ultimately satisfying for reasons I cannot relate without spoiling it for you.  Suffice it to say that the ending, while not entirely satisfying, is far from tragic.  Hey, I cry for the neglected old toys in "Toy Story" -- I wasn't similarly moved at the conclusion of "The Help," and I got the same feeling from the attendees at the show I saw, but I count that as a good thing.  The movie doesn't overtly manipulate; it tells a story that makes sense on its own terms, with goodness being only ambiguously rewarded. 
The strength of this show is its performances.  Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are extraordinary, and Emma Stone holds her own with these two powerful black actresses.  Bryce Dallas Howard's Hilly is a formidable foil, alternately hateful and comic; her black, close-set eyes blaze with racial righteousness.  Sissy Spacek, as her mother, has too few moments onscreen, but enough to remind us that we don't see enough of this wonderful actress.  Allison Janney is also marvelous as Skeeter's mother, caught between her own social ambitions and the welfare of the woman who had served her household for decades.

Emma Stone

Bryce Dallas Howard
Go see it, especially if you lived through those times, and especially if you didn't.

I mentioned some reservations.

I agree with David Denby in his favorable review in The New Yorker that the flaws in the movie really don't seem to matter much, fading as the movie progresses.  I think this is because of the intrinsic drama of the material.  I also think the viewer may also be distracted by the thought that to some degree, the frictions that were life-and-death in the Sixties continue to linger, in a far less poisonous but uneasy social dialogue between monied people and those who mow their lawns, fix their media centers, and, yes, assist them with raising their children and maintaining their households.

So my reservations are mainly quibbles.  I did not entirely buy in to the shallowness of the Junior Leaguers or the sometimes unvarnished villainy of Hilly, although goodness knows there are villains abroad when a change that needs to happen is resisted by those whom the status quo favors.  And I thought that the maids' reactions when faced with the ladies' slights were more revealing than your average Southern maid would have exhibited.

Given the dramatic subject matter and the historical fulcrum upon which both the book and the movie balance, it is somewhat surprising that both are regarded as of interest primarily to women.  It must be because the men in the movie are almost invisible, mostly afterthoughts.  The show tries to gin up a romantic story for Skeeter, but it's slight and unconvincing.  Hilly's husband is like Hilly, bad.  Celia's husband, turns out, is good.  While the period clothing and hairstyles (worth the price of admission for those of us who lived through them) serve to highlight the individuality of the women, they tend to make the men unmemorable. 

Hey, I'm glad it wasn't a movie about the way men treated The Help.

Check it out, guys.

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