Eight years ago today

Eight years ago today, I was sitting in an office in Kendall Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, planning for a conference I was set to attend the next day in Washington, DC.

Someone said something about a plane hitting a building in New York.  My first thought was, “not likely,” and my second was, “if it did happen, it had to have been a small aircraft.”

Shows what I know.

I don’t remember how it was that the urgency of that morning swept through our open-plan office, or why I ended up standing in front of the tiny television in our break room, staring at a commercial jet jammed into one of the Twin Towers, and then – the other.  I do remember the receptionist asking me to pick up the phone: a friend, knowing I lived in Boston and traveled a great deal, had called me from Louisiana to make sure I was safe.  I numbly told her I was.

A few hours later, we were told we could go home, encouraged to hug our families.  I fled out into the incongruous fall sunshine, darted towards the apartment that was only recently “home” to me.

My mother came over.  I know we hugged.  We must have cried.

I used to work for a company that had its headquarters across the street from those tall, tall towers.  I had left on good terms a few months prior, and my boss and colleagues treated me to champagne at Windows on the World.  That spring day, the fog was thick outside the windows and the famous view replaced by a vista of flat gray.  Inside the bar, white uniforms had moved among dark business suits.  Fleet Week.   We had laughed.  Only in New York.

I spent a lot of time that day trying to track down former colleagues, friends.  One had been driving in to work, saw the first plane.  She had called human resources from her car, told HR to get everyone out of the building as the unthinkable unrolled in front of her.  When I spoke to her, her voice was a thread.  My former boss, the woman who had treated me to champagne that spring day, had walked 50 flights of stairs to get to ground level.  I don’t know how she actually got home.  Those 50 flights were only the beginning.

John drove up, and we sat on the front steps, drinking and talking.  Confusion and helplessness seemed to be all we were capable of.  The luxury of the everyday was going to be a while coming.

Hitting the wall

John asked me the other day if I had given up blogging completely.  I don’t think he was kidding, either.

The short answer is, “no.”  The longer answer has something to do with the combined effect of summer, school, and a full-time job.  I haven’t felt much like doing a lot of the things I usually enjoy doing: writing, running, and knitting are all on that list these days.

In the past, I might have freaked out, decided that I must make myself do these things I enjoy doing — else, who am I?  Enter identity crisis, then insert frenzied period of making a job out of things I enjoy, which is pretty much a one-way ticket to aversionville.

It only took me a couple of decades to figure out how utterly insane this is.

So, my new method of dealing with that feeling is to use the old “if you love something let it go” philosophy.  I have a pretty solid notion that these things I do truly love to do will return to me in their own time without my insisting that they Come. Back. Right. Now.  (A negotiation tactic that is only slightly less effective on one’s own desires than it is on our dog — which is to say, on a scale from “not very” to “not at all”).

In the interim, apologies for the light posting.

What I meant by that.

A few days ago, I posted this, which I admit was rather cryptic:

Hey!  Do you dislike some Thing?  Has someone else expressed an appreciation for that Thing?  Well, by all means – the most appropriate thing is to crap all over that Thing!  Otherwise, how else would anyone know you’re too cool for that Thing!  Now go – be scathing!  Extra points for using a really limited data set to express how little you know about that Thing!

What did I mean by that?  Well, I have been thinking lately about how much harder it can be to enthuse than to sneer.  Sneering somehow has a patina of respectability, whereas enthusiasm is often considered a bit twee.  If you scoff, the implication is your tastes are higher and purer than those who love (or even appreciate) the thing you scoff at.  Conversely, if you enthuse, you are shallow.

It takes a certain amount of bravery, I think, to simply say that you like something.  And the word “simply” is there for a reason.  It takes far less bravery to attempt to defuse the potential scorn of your audience by saying, “Well it’s not highbrow, but…” or “I know you may not like it, but…” or any other apologetic phrases that preemptively excuse your egregious cultural lapse.  

This is not to say that I believe that everyone must appreciate everything.  But how hard is it to say, “Oh – yeah.  I tried that and it wasn’t my thing,” or even, “Well, I heard about it and it didn’t sound interesting to me.”  Instead, all too often I hear people expending huge amounts of energy on vast verbal rampages of withering scorn that not only label the thing they are discussing as utter and complete trash, but state or imply that anyone who does like that thing has the taste and discrimination of a toddler.  It is not enough to dislike it — you must make sure that everyone else either dislikes it too, or is shamed for their preference.

Worse yet, if you intimately know the thing that the speaker is ripping to shreds, you may detect that they are only familiar with a tiny piece of the entire work.  The first chapter of the novel is taken as a stand-in for the whole or the one movie is emblematic of the director’s entire body of work.  It makes sense that the person who didn’t appreciate the work didn’t go on to find out whether or not it grows on them or if their single experience was an anomaly — who hasn’t given up on something they’re not enjoying?  But the assumption that everything that flows from that source must be identical to the part the speaker didn’t like is absurd.

When you agree with someone that the thing they decry is pretty shoddy and the speaker has a certain amount of verbal facility and a cutting sense of humor, these rants can admittedly be entertaining.  But it strikes me as an adolescent kind of entertainment: ripping down rather than building up.  And if those in agreement start piling on, doing their own share of the ripping, then the results can be downright adolescent in their ugliness.

Let me be clear and say also that I am not saying that criticism itself is bad.  I don’t believe that at all.  But the particular type of criticism that doesn’t just say, “I don’t like this,” or “I think this was badly done and here is why,” or “This story has been told before and done much better,” but must go on to ravage the entire landscape and salt the earth by saying something akin to, “This is utter crap and anyone who likes it must be intellectually and culturally deficient,” well, that for me is a bridge too far.  What does the speaker mean to achieve by such a statement?  Will the people who are the objects of his scorn suddenly say, “Oh – you are so right.  I do have terrible taste.  Please take me under your wing and show me the right way to think and feel.”  I’m thinking the answer to that one is no.  So what is left for the speaker?  The satisfaction that no stone was left unturned in the pursuit of expressing their loathing?  

I know I’ve done my share of ripping.  You have to be pretty saintly to be immune to the lure of looking clever and sharp, especially before a certain audience.  But henceforth I’m going to put my energies towards either appreciation or constructive criticism, and I will try to make sure that my expressions steer clear of the sort that either say or imply that I believe that the appreciation of something I dislike represents some sort of moral failing.  The scornful may keep their scorn with my compliments.  I like what I like.  

One other Thing…

I do want to do a follow-up to the hateful phrases post. In the meantime, I would like to say something about nonspecific hateful phrases.  Call it a PSA:

Hey!  Do you dislike some Thing?  Has someone else expressed an appreciation for that Thing?  Well, by all means – the most appropriate thing is to crap all over that Thing!  Otherwise, how else would anyone know you’re too cool for that Thing!  Now go – be scathing!  Extra points for using a really limited data set to express how little you know about that Thing!

A few phrases I would be very happy to never hear again

What follows is a small catalog of annoyance.  I am sure I have uttered these words.  I am sure those I love have uttered and will utter these words.  Those of us who live on the planet are bound to irritate someone at some point.  But henceforth, anyone who hears these words uttered around me is going to know what’s going through my head, even if I am sporting a socially correct veneer of facial politeness.

“Doesn’t [person] have anything better to do?”

Blogging, Twitter, Facebook, knitting, reality TV, insert your guilty pleasure here.  We all have them, but some killjoy is just dying to make you feel like a fool for your choices.  This cute little number is intended to make the target feel like a frivolous, time-wasting moron.  On the other hand, I suppose one is to infer that the speaker is a virtuous ascetic who only expends effort to create great beauty or value.  Right.  Get back to me when you’ve won the Nobel Prize.

It also makes me wonder, “Why do you care so much?  What about this activity gets up your nose so much that you feel the irresistible need to sneer?”

I would also venture to guess that the subset of people who are superciliously passing judgment and who have also tried that thing approaches zero in nearly every circumstance (which would tend to account for the fact that speakers of this phrase seem to think that typing out 140 characters a couple of times a day takes So Much Time).  Therefore, I shall now respond to all such questions by saying, “No, actually — and don’t you have anything better to do than to make fatuous judgments about stuff you don’t understand?”

“I am the kind of person who…”

This one reminds me of the quote often attributed to Margaret Thatcher, “Power is like being a lady; if you have to tell someone you are, you aren’t.”  (I can’t find an authoritative source for this — at least not swiftly).  The point is, all too often the quality that follows this statement would rarely be attributed to the speaker by anyone who knows them.  It’s almost a guarantee of willful blindness to one’s own personality.

A close cousin to this statement is a manager’s boast that he has an “open door policy.”  Generally, this person only has the door open the better to swing it firmly shut on your ass and your ideas.

“I have to be honest with you.”

After hearing this, I always think to myself, “Okay… how many lies did you tell me prior to this statement?”

“Get a life.”

You first.

Got any choice hateful phrases you would like to see banned from polite conversation?

A short statement with which I heartily agree

Today’s musings on more or less random thoughts come courtesy of John Scalzi:

It’s not hard to apologize, incidentally. I have a big fat ego, but I like to believe that ego isn’t invested in having to win, which big egos often are; it’s invested in being correct. The correct thing to do here was to say I was wrong and to say I had thoughtlessly offended people, for which I apologize. Because I was, and I had, so I did.

The tendency to sometimes conflate the need to be correct with the need to win is one that runs through my family’s DNA as surely as broad shoulders and a love of songs written in minor keys.  This is a cogent reminder of the not-so-subtle difference.

Thanks, John.

Gracious living

Several of my friends attended the Inauguration.  All of them have told me how nice everyone was, how generally happy the mood was, and how somehow the immense crowds didn’t degenerate into pushing and nastiness – at least from the stories I have heard.

Mom brought something else to my attention today: there were approximately 2 million people on the Mall and not one arrest.

Let’s put that in perspective.  The estimated population for the entire District of Columbia in 2006 was under 600,000.  More than three times that number packed into one area of the District, with only minor injuries and a few lost children who were quickly returned to their parents.

This is a powerful example of civility and I intend to follow it.  It has been far too easy over the last few years to divide people into “us” and “them” along any number of arbitrary lines.  The more it happened, the more frayed my nerves got, and the more I made my own arbitrary and meaningless judgments based on irrelevant data points in a clueless and reactionary haze of non-thinking:

“Bumper sticker says X — no wonder that person is driving like an idiot.”

I am here now to stand up and say I am done.  This is me, striving for a measure of grace and goodwill to all.  In my fear for my country and my society I allowed myself to start to mirror that thing I feared.  While I know I will not manage this new mode of thinking and acting perfectly, I have made a start.

Crazy Aunt Purl: the sanest woman around

I really hate worrying about things I can’t control, and as a general rule I don’t.  So it’s not surprising that I find the following incredibly sane:

The economy doesn’t call me each day to see how I feel about it. If I choose to think about something else, like green beans and herb gardening and vacuuming the house, the economy doesn’t get worse. It doesn’t get better either, in fact I have no control at all over any of this! All I can control is how I choose to see this whole thing. So I am choosing to opt out of all of it. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen whether I freak out or not.

Truer words were never spoken.

Truly interactive memery

The general run of question-answering memes are pretty much only interesting to the people writing them, I believe.  However, when Harriet posted this one, it seemed more interesting to me because it was more personalized.  The rules follow the question-and-answer session.

1.  Your house is on fire.  All the people and pets are already out and safe.  You can take only one thing with you.  What will it be and why?

My artsy-fartsy ego would like me to say I would grab a painting, but knowing myself the way I do, I’m afraid I would probably grab my laptop.  We only do local backup, y’see, and my MacBook has all of my schoolwork, finances, photography, personal writing – a lot of the stuff I value.

2. A benefactor has agreed to fund you for a year. There are no strings attached – you can do whatever you’d like for 12 months, practical or frivolous, and have it all paid for by this person. What will you do?

This is a really hard one, I have to say.  At this point, I can only think about it in pieces, and those pieces seem to be: Europe, art, knitting, eating.

I guess I would fund a pan-European trip involving learning language(s), lots of train travel (knitting time), museums, and cuisine.  Not very inventive, and certainly not practical, but it sounds lovely.  If I could manage to wangle a tour with Rick Steves along the way, that would be fun.

3.  Tell me about your favorite place (you can take this any way you like it — a cozy chair, an interesting continent).  Why is it your favorite?  When did you first go there?  When did you last go there?  What is your favorite memory there? Is there someone you would especially like to take there?

Wow – I don’t really do absolute “favorite” because so many things appeal for very different reasons.  But one of my favorite places is actually our den at home.  It’s cozy in a slightly cluttered way, it has a fireplace, and it has a tendency to contain my favorite people and animals.  Some of our favorite art is also on the walls there.

4.  Of all the things that you have made or done in your life so far, what are you most proud of?  Why does the thing you picked mean the most to you?

I think I’m proudest of being smart enough to seek John out after a breakup and absence of over six years (see #1 and #2 here for a brief explanation).  I was pretty sure he was The One, but our initial timing wasn’t right for a bunch of reasons (we first dated when I was in law school and John didn’t really know what he wanted to do with his life).  It was scary to try to find him again (I feared he would be happily married with 2.7 children, a Volvo, and a golden retriever), but it was definitely a gamble that paid off.

5.  What made you decide to go back to school?  Was it a gradual realization of wanting to change directions or more of an epiphany?  Was there someone who inspired you?

It was sort of a gradually sudden epiphany.  At first, I think I subconsciously ignored the idea because it seemed like I was “copying” John instead of paving my own way.  But when I consciously confronted that notion, it seemed absurd.  There’s plenty of room in library science, and me taking this degree enables us to contemplate a lot more geographical possibilities down the road.  John inspired me, as did Marie – I envied the fact that they liked what they did and it seemed like something I would like also.  Actually making the decision to go to school now was one of those spooky instances of a bunch of things independently clicking into place: my job got outsourced, Maryland started a program at the campus closest to me, and they also waived the application deadline.  I don’t go in for the phrase “it was meant to be,” but if I did, this would be an instance of it.

Thanks, Harriet – that was fun!

If you want to play along, leave a comment and ask to be interviewed and I’ll think of 5 questions to ask you. After I email you your questions, post your answers on your blog, then link back to this post.

First ice

After some recent whoops-a-daisy with the thermometer, we seem to have settled firmly into the cold:

First ice

A thin rime of ice in the old watering can – Rime of the Ancient Geranium, perhaps.  In point of fact, the geraniums came in weeks ago, and are still behaving like overly-corseted Victorian ladies: weeping and sighing and coming close to fainting as they wonder how on Earth anyone would be so cruel as to haul them inside into the warm.  Not known for their brains, geraniums.  But pretty when they’re not turning yellow and fussing.

We have today off, in honor of veterans.  John is running up and down ladders, in hopes of finishing the  house project that Will Not End – repainting the master bath.  We’ve been camped out in the guest bath for about a month now, and while I am grateful for the fact that we have a guest bath to camp in, I am well and truly ready for this project to be over.  In a master stroke of poor planning, we had the main mirror in the master bath removed right before the busiest time at work for John – late summer.  So even though we have been able to use the room until very recently, it’s been… challenging.

Such first-world problems I have.  What a brat.

School colleagues are set to come over later today to finalize a project, so I must off.  So odd to have this day in the middle of the week.  But nice.  Thank you, veterans.

Until next year