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20 Flights Of Stairs: Remembering September 11th

In 2001 I was 23 years old and working one metro stop outside of Washington, DC. I worked on the top floor of a 20 story office building in Roslyn, doing Government Affairs for a trade association. I had my own little office and could mostly get away with dressing business casual. That day started out quite ordinary, I took the metro to work, got a frozen mocha drink at the stand on the first floor and then took the elevator up to our suite.

When the first plane struck in New York, word ran around the office quickly and most of us were glued to our computers. I remember staring at the images, refreshing over and over again waiting for more information. At first, nobody was thinking ‘terrorist’. I remember that I called my dad. “Are you watching this thing in New York?” I asked him. He said he was. I can’t remember if we’d just finished our conversation or if I hung up quickly when I heard yelling, but I do remember hanging up the phone.

The shouting was the VPs – one of them came running down the hall telling everyone to grab their stuff and get out of the building, that the Pentagon had just been hit. In retrospect it was a total panic reaction, but I don’t blame him at all, he and the other VPs had all been in the corner office, which looked out over the Pentagon. They saw the strike when it happened, but they said later that it happened so fast they weren’t sure if it was a plane or a bomb or what, they just saw the fire and smoke and roused the alarm.

You know, rereading what I just wrote, it sounds so calm, so orderly. It wasn’t. People were literally yelling “Get out! Get out of the building, get out now!” and we did exactly that. I didn’t shut down my computer, I just grabbed my purse and ran with my coworkers, down the hall and into the stairwell. I don’t think anybody ever considered using the elevator. We ran down the stairs -all 20 flights- and as we did people from other offices on other floors joined us. A lot of women were carrying their high heels. There was more shouting. What’s happening?! What’s going on?! and answers varied. The Pentagon just exploded! The Pentagon just got hit!

At street level, everything was normal. No sirens. No visible smoke. A perfect blue sky and people going about their business. We all stood around for a moment, blinking and catching our breath, and then the VPs got everyone organized. Anyone who took the metro paired off with someone who had driven, nobody wanted to risk being underground, or have to go past the Pentagon stop. In the car I was in, which was headed out to the suburbs, we spent part of the ride trying to figure out what on our route might be a target, if indeed it was bombs, because nobody knew for sure what was going on. I don’t remember if we thought it was a third plane, but I don’t think so. Such a thing was, at the time, unthinkable, even after what had just happened in New York.

The next day, there was a tank parked on the street outside my office.

There were uniformed soldiers with automatic weapons patrolling the metro platforms.

The Pentagon was still smoking.

That first day, no real work got done. Everyone gathered in the corner office to look at the smoke. Everybody cried. There was a meeting about emergency procedures – nobody had locked up the office, we were lucky no one robbed the place. There was little recrimination, though, they didn’t blame anyone for not locking the door. In the end, the company President just made an evacuation plan and gave someone responsibility for locking up if it ever happened it again. Eventually the normal rhythms of work and life resumed.

Ten years later, I’ve moved away from the DC area and have a very different life than I did then. Around here we mostly worry about the weather, hitting deer when we drive and whether or not we have to re-gravel the driveway or can put it off another year. I look back at that experience and part of me shakes my head and thinks how silly it seems now. Running down the stairs, the tension of the drive home, the fear of bombs and getting on the metro. Another part of me thinks that we were absolutely justified in reacting the way we did because we didn’t know any better. We were assuming the worst, and all things considered that wasn’t a bad idea. There are people in the world who would love to bomb that office building, or any of the places we were so concerned about driving past. There are people who hate this whole country with terrible intensity, and aren’t interested in learning about us or finding common ground. It’s frightening, and every bit as frightening as that is the hatred in this country that’s directed out into the world, or inward at our own citizens and guests.

I am not inclined to discuss politics here. I have friends who have served, or are serving in the middle east, and I pray that they all come home safe, and come home soon. When I think about September 11th, I wish that all the people in the many places in the world that feel hatred towards our country could see that most Americans are decent, ordinary people who love their families and just want to live a peaceful life. I wish that everyone here who feels hatred towards other countries or faiths could see that most of the people there are decent, ordinary people too. No matter who we pray to or if we pray at all, I think most of us share the same hopes and dreams for the future. I think anyone worth praying to looks kindly on all people who sincerely try to be good to others, and poorly on people who fly planes into office buildings.

Ten years ago, the world changed irrevocably. I hope ten years from now we’ll find it’s changed again: for the better.


The Alien Has Landed

We just adopted another cat. We hadn’t planned on adopting a 3rd one, (we already have two: Kira, 2, and Hobbes, 9) but my sister’s 14 year old kitty was ready for a slower pace than the busy home of a young family. Our house is very quiet, with no kids, plenty of good places to nap and someone who is home all day. The cat’s name is Rose, but Rose is such a weird, alien sort of cat that my sister has always referred to her as “it”. I’ve taken to calling it The AAC (Ancient Alien Cat), because I strongly suspect that there’s a mothership out there that’s waiting for it to check in and report.

Our newest family member arrived on a Monday and spent Monday night in peaceful isolation, safe behind my office door. It was so quiet that our other two cats didn’t even notice that there was anyone in there, but Tuesday morning I opened up the door and sat myself down to supervise introductions.

Kira: Hi! Are we going to be friends?
Kira: But…we’ll be friends?
Hobbes: *asleep under bed*
Abby: Escorts Kira out & shuts door for a while so Rose doesn’t give herself a heart attack from fury.

Kira: Hi! Are we friends yet?
Hobbes: What’s going on in here?
Hobbes: *flees*

Kira: Whatcha doing? Can I do it too? Cause we’re friends?
Hobbes: Say, is this your food? It’s delicious! *crunch crunch*

*Staring Contest*
Kira: o_o
Rose: O_O
Hobbes: -_-


Hobbes: I have some string!
Kira: Hi Rose! Do you want to play with me yet?
Abby: Kira! Leave Rose alone!


Hobbes: Mind if I join you for breakfast? *crunch crunch*
Rose: *grumble*
Kira: Good morning, friend!
Rose: Damnit.


Kira: I’m knocking things off of the coffee table!
Rose: I’m napping.
Hobbes:  I’m inconsolable. My toy mouse is under the refrigerator again.
Abby:  I’m lighting candles & composing grateful hymns to Bastet….and then I’m getting the toy mouse out from under the fridge. Again.

Casual Unkindness

This beautiful, poignant, inspiring blog post came across my twitter feed earlier tonight. I read it, cried, and then shared it. Apparently that wasn’t enough, because now I’m writing about it, too.

It’s just so relevant. Not only to my life, but to everyone’s life. If there’s one thing that’s badly lacking in the world, it is kindness, simple and unselfish. It’s like we all live with a thin layer of anger running right below our skin and the slightest pressure brings it forth in the shape of raised middle fingers, scornful words or hateful looks. Jostled by a woman in the grocery store? Bitch. Stuck behind a guy going only 8 miles over the speed limit instead of 10 or more? Asshole. We make fun of strangers we find unattractive, assume that our own needs and problems are the most important at all times.

I am guilty of all these things. I try to be a kind person but I don’t always succeed. I’m a vehicular hypocrite, cursing out equally people who drive too slowly or two fast. I’m not much given to obscene gestures, but I made a comment to the woman who left her grocery cart in the parking space next to her instead of returning it to the corral ten feet away. I didn’t hear what she said back to me, but in retrospect, I’m ashamed. I shouldn’t have done that. I don’t know what kind of day she was having. Maybe she was a thoughtless jerk, but maybe she was having the kind of day where walking even 10 more feet is just 10 feet too far. I’ve had that day. I think we’ve all had that day. It’s strange how no matter how often we experience unkindness from others, it’s still so hard to offer it ourselves.

Sometimes I wonder if reality TV has played a role in the upswing of vocal judgement from strangers, or if it’s a reflection of society’s changing ideas about courtesy and privacy. It’s a chicken-and-egg question, whether society got tired of scripted stories and started creating judgement-as-entertainment (because that’s largely what reality TV is, in my opinion) or if some evil genius at MTV woke up one day with this novel idea that appeals to the baser nature in all of us. I don’t think enjoying reality TV automatically makes one a bad person, but I do think it appeals to a much more banal side of human nature than conventional storytelling. The Real Housewives shows are a good example of this – they create envy in the audience (for leisure and wealth), the women are deliberately made caricatures in order that the audience might react more strongly and be scandalized, outraged or disgusted with their behavior, but all in that schadenfreude way that makes a person feel smugly superior (Well! I may not have all that money but at LEAST I have some class!). Gossip and scandal are social pillars as old as time, so anything rich in both makes for excellent water-cooler talk (Did you SEE what she was WEARING?) and because these people are “on TV”, it is acceptable to mock and degrade them. It’s really a moot point by now whether these shows encourage us to behave increasingly badly or our increasingly bad behavior gives rise to shows that celebrate it.

In recent years, social media has stripped a layer of privacy and courtesy away from everyday life. People tweet, text and status-update information that in another age would be shared only in person, and only to family and close friends. With so much communication in text it has become all too easy to share personal comments far beyond their intended audience, one click of the ‘forward’ button and an embarrassing story told between friends makes someone the butt of jokes by millions. The internet gives a measure of anonymity to such behavior, and people say things in text that they would never say to someone’s face. This post by blogger Shawna James Ahern addresses that issue with great eloquence, and this one, by John Scalzi has interesting things to say about how gender factors in.

A lot of people -myself included- spend a certain amount of time lamenting the way it used to be. We have a longing for kinder, gentler, simpler times, but in retrospect I think we’re all just longing for ideals. There is no period in history that we can point to and say “There! THAT’S when they did it right!”. So many of our nostalgic notions are based on fiction, but they’ve become such a part of us that we no longer remember that no matter how far back you go, you’ll still find people hating their neighbors and condemning their fellow man for all manner of offenses, both real and imagined. Maybe road rage was pretty common on all those roads that led to Rome. Maybe we just feel more persecuted now because we’re so much more connected, angry words can find us anywhere these days.

If I take anything away from these blog entries and my thoughts about them, it is a sense of resolution. I will be kinder. I will be more patient. I will not rise to the bait and bitch out irritating strangers, because irritating strangers are just people we don’t know yet, doing what they do for reasons known only to themselves. Maybe they’re jerks…or maybe I am.

Maybe we’re all just having a hard day.

Woodland Creatures

I live in the woods. Not like the deep, dark, primordial forest or anything, but it’s a wooded area. There are trees all around and a lovely patch of woods behind my house. When we were house hunting I had a list of things I wanted (a certain number of bedrooms, a lot of natural light, etc) and my husband also had a list (reasonable driveway, not near anything that can flood, no radon snorkel). One of the items on his list was “no yardwork”. For the most part, he got his wish. Oh, sometimes the leaves get really out of control and I’ll do a little raking and the weeds are almost as tall as I am in some places, but we can pretty much claim that our lack of landscaping is a nod to keeping the setting natural. Our HOA is cool with it and 3 sides of the house look just fine when left alone. The 4th side is kind of a crater – we suspect that someone meant to build an addition to the house and never got around to it- but aside from pulling down some dead trees we’ve mostly ignored that side so far. In the great grand scheme of first time homeowner priorities, landscaping is pretty low on the list.

Besides…if we leave the dead leaves where they fall, we can hear the deer coming.

We’ve got a lot of deer. Last year our community was shamed in the local paper for having one of the biggest deer overpopulation problems in Pennsylvania. Since hunting isn’t allowed in our three-thousand acre hamlet, the deer come here in droves and have completely upended the ecosystem. We have almost no underbrush, so we have no bunnies near the house and very few foxes. We do have possums, skunks and at least one raccoon – which I know because I found his paw-print on my porch last week. There are bears in the area but thus far none in the yard. We do have one Red-Shouldered Hawk that visits regularly, we call him Maverick because of his penchant for buzzing the house. We have a tribe of nameless squirrels, (because who the hell names a squirrel?) and a great many chipmunks who are all named Wayne.

As far as I know, nobody names adult deer and all fawns of both genders are known as Bambi. The deer come by at least twice a day, usually cutting through our yard on their way across the road to the more extensive patch of woods on the other side. When it gets hot, they spend time napping in the woods behind the house and graze in the grassy place at the edge of our neighbors property. A small tree came down during the recent hurricane and they stripped it of leaves within a day. They’re quite used to humans and while they won’t let you pet them (nor would you want to, deer ticks are a big problem out here) they will come within four or five feet of the house, and of anyone standing quietly outside of it. You can always tell a tourist or newcomer to the Poconos when you see them slow down and start taking pictures of deer from their car. For me, it’s rather like having a lot of very low maintenance pets – since they all look basically alike, I never get attached to any particular one, but they’re such a regular fixture that I miss them if I don’t see them for a day or two.

The other thing we have out here is birds. In addition to Maverick, we’ve got a lot of woodpeckers, including the very dramatic looking Pileated Woodpecker, though he is an infrequent guest. Bluebirds are rare enough to be exciting and the flock of crows is so ubiquitous I’m more apt to notice if they aren’t hanging around than if they are. At certain times of the year we also get little flocks of turkeys, which look a bit prehistoric when you see them up close.

Over the last couple years, I’ve finally gotten accustomed to the noise of deer moving around and if I’m in my office I’ll often hear the squirrels scrabbling up and down the trees. I’ve (mostly) stopped blaming the cats for any animal racket that is actually coming from outside, but the cats probably won’t ever adjust to having Wayne the chipmunk(s) sit on the back deck and press a tiny nose to the glass. Our younger cat is also very enamored of falling leaves, which can make for a lot of MEOW-THUDing in the autumn. Autumn and winter are the most spectacular seasons here, the cold seasons bring brilliant colors and then blankets of white snow. It’s gotten so that I’m impatient with springtime and summer, I’m always in a hurry for them to be over so we can get on with the best part of the year.

A lot of people ask me if living out here is worth it – we’re 3 miles to a main road and 25 to the nearest shopping mall. We can’t even take the trash out without getting in the car, trash is centralized to minimize the threat of bears. The truth is though, especially now that I’m at home during the day, I love living out here. I love hearing the shoof-shoof sound of the dear coming through the leaves and running for the binoculars whenever a new bird comes to visit. I love the soundtrack of the leaves and branches and the way the woods smell right after the rain. I don’t mind the isolation, the mice in the crawlspace or the endless battle with the spiders that are always trying to sneak in. I’ve lived in the city, I’ve lived in the suburbs. Now we’re somewhere between rural and exurb, and while I don’t think I’d go out much farther, I am glad we took the chance on coming here.