On Sept. 11

When I turned on NPR in the kitchen that morning, Robert Seagall’s voice was somber and uncertain. It lacked the confidence, I soon realized, that comes with knowing what you are going to say. He was reporting off the cuff, and I turned up the sound while my bagel toasted. He repeated the events: a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers in New York, then a second plane, hitting the second tower. I understood that these were grave events, but I remember thinking that I couldn’t understand what he meant, that a plane had crashed into the tower. I couldn’t conceive of it, and for the first time ever I thought that the radio wasn’t conveying what I needed to know. I turned on CNN, and watched, transfixed, as they replayed footage of the burning towers, of the planes hitting them.

At some point I knew I had to leave for work, craved, in fact, the analysis of my current events-obsessed colleagues at the business newspaper where I was as an editor. I felt the loss of information as soon as I turned off the TV. The disconnection made me uneasy. I hurried to the train. I remember studying each of the other passengers and wondering if they had heard the news yet. I remember wanting to tell them, the man reading yesterday’s news in the paper, the other 20-somethings looking dazed and still asleep in the rocking of the train. The cars seemed quieter than normal.

I did not feel scared until I exited Montgomery Station downtown and was immediately engulfed by throngs of workers walking the opposite way — into the station. Everyone was going home, and I was pushing through the crowds to get into the Financial District. We did not know yet what was happening, or why, and all those people were going home because it seemed safer. I felt that I was the only person walking against the tide, though surely I could not have been. I made it to my office and immediately my colleagues and I asked each other, “Did you see?” Some had managed to arrive without having heard news of the events. We began scrounging about the office for a radio. We were a small paper that, unlike many news organizations, did not have CNN going in the office. There wasn’t even a TV. I think eventually one of the editors went to Walgreens and bought a clock radio. We listened all day, heard the emotion in the newscaster’s voice when he announced that the first tower had fallen, then, later, the second.

When enough reporters and editors had arrived, we met in the conference room. Our editor began by saying if any of us felt uncomfortable being there and would rather go home, that we should go. That I should go home had not really occurred to me until then, and I felt a twinge of fear. No one left. It was decided that we’d drop what we’d been working on, and get to work finding out what businesses with offices in the towers had Bay Area ties. We were a local paper, looking for a local angle. Because this is what we did every day, every week, this is what we did that day. We paired up, with editors and researchers feeding leads and information to reporters who made the calls. I remember the adrenaline of it; frantically looking up companies on the web, struggling to figure out what businesses had been in which towers. A reporter might hear something from a contact – speculation that a particular Bay Area businessperson might have been on one of the planes, for example, and then the race was on to find out as much as we could about that person, their business, and what the loss of he or she might mean to the company. The adrenaline carried us through early afternoon; that and perhaps some fear – we as a country still believed there might be other hijacked planes out there and we had heard that at least one had been headed for San Francisco. All of those workers fleeing downtown that morning, that was what they had been avoiding. We in the newsroom had considered possible targets, read these rumors online. The Transamerica Pyramid was two blocks from our building, the Bank of America tower (the tallest tower in San Francisco), three. I imagined these scenarios, as well as the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, that day and for many days and nights following.

By afternoon, the act of trying to spin this loss of life, destruction and fear into news stories began make me feel ill. One of the seasoned reporters noticed my discomfort and reminded me that it was our job to report the news, that people needed information, now more than ever. I understood that, and in some way felt proud of our obligation and yet — I had never felt so revolted by my profession. I suspected I was not cut out for the job, yet I continued to research, dig up phone numbers and plan additional coverage with the other editors.

By mid-afternoon I needed a break. I rode the elevator down to the lobby and walked out into a desolate city. The sun shone cruelly over everything. I walked around the Financial District for 20 or 30 minutes and in that time, I passed not a single person. Restaurants and stores were closed, office buildings locked. Many had makeshift signs in their windows that read “Closed for national tragedy.” The beauty of the day was at odds with events at hand, and with my emotions. I am not a religious person, but I wondered if God was cruel or whether he was mocking us with the sunshine and warmth, or whether, in his kindness, the weather was meant to soothe a grieving people. I remember thinking that the weather was beautiful in New York, too, according to the images I had seen, and that there must be some kind of solidarity in that. In retrospect my thinking about the events of that day was strange and disoriented, I suppose because the events themselves were so disorienting.

Not long after my afternoon walk, I decided to go home to Billy. We had spoken on the phone that morning. Unlike me, when Billy heard the news on the radio, he understood immediately the gravity of the situation, and pulled his car over to listen. His company had sent workers home right away and he’d been in our apartment watching news coverage all afternoon.

By the time I reached our apartment I felt truly ill, sickened by the horrifying deaths of all of those people, and by the daylong attempt to turn tragedy 3,000 miles away into local news.

My instinct was to hide in the apartment for the night, to try to push the news away with some kind of diversion, but our good friends invited us to their house for dinner. I remember thinking I didn’t want to go, that I couldn’t eat — but when I arrived I felt so grateful for the company and the shared discussion and the homemade meal. 

Events of the next weeks and months and years point to our collective jitters as a newspaper, as a city, as a country. Our office was evacuated for bomb scares several times in the weeks after Sept. 11, and we received mail containing fake anthrax powder in the newsroom. The cover of a special publication I had been working on about fast growing companies had to be scrapped because it (not so subtly) depicted a rocket taking off, complete with fireball to indicate speed and power. It was deemed insensitive. Always when I think back to that time, I remember the heart-quickening sound of the helicopters that flew so frequently overhead. There were war protests. I dreamt more than once that terrorists flew a plane into the Golden Gate Bridge, and that I climbed the hill near my apartment to watch it burn. One night I dreamt that I sold a photograph of the bridge engulfed in flames to the Associated Press, and I awoke feeling sick about it. On the way into work I encountered war protests that had turned into riots. One morning a protester flung a newspaper box across an intersection and it skidded to a stop at my feet.


T is for Taro, and for tsunami

The year was 1996. Four friends on the equivalent of an American post-college road trip — except this trip was in Japan. I had been traveling alone, by train, northward from Kyoto to Tokyo, where I met my college roommate, Hiroko. Two years before, we had graduated from a small liberal arts college in Indiana, where I had majored in Japanese.

We stayed with Hiroko’s family for a few days in Tokyo before meeting Mariko, a Japanese woman who’d been an exchange student at our alma mater some years before and remained a friend. The three of us got on the Tohoku Shinkansen and headed north to meet by another good college friend, an American named Pete. Pete was teaching English in Morioka for a few years, and he had a car and an apartment there in Iwate Prefecture.

The four of us piled into Pete’s car and drove into the mountains. Northeastern Japan is rugged and cool, with fall colors to rival New England’s. It was late summer, nearly September, and the smell of fall was creeping into the air. We visited small, out of the way tourist stops: A dairy farm, a cave, a hot springs resort nestled in the woods. We snapped pictures of ourselves at the tops of mountains, with the dark green hills in the distance. We took winding hillside roads down to the coast, where fishing villages were trapped between the mountains and the sea.

Pete drove us to  Taro-chi, a small town clustered around a protected cove. A narrow inlet offered a view of the open ocean. The sun dropped and softened rocks along the shore. We took pictures. We read a plaque on a memorial at the docks.

Taro was destroyed by tsunamis in 1611, 1896 and 1933. In 1933, the village lost nearly half of its total population and most of its buildings. The town decided to build a protective tsunami wall, 26 feet in height. It became the largest such seawall in the world. The problem, aside from the earthquake-prone geology of Japan, was that narrow inlet, which protected the boats in storms but channeled powerful tsunami waves inland.

We were respectful, reading that plaque in Taro on a late August afternoon, but the thing about being in your early 20s is that the world seems full of unlimited, shining possibilities. The kind of destruction that comes from stories-high walls of water is unbelievable, an impossibility. A seawall seems like it could be enough. The bravery of those people who lived in Taro, some of whom remembered the 1933 waves, surely could not be tested again.


Taro was destroyed by tsunamis in 1611, 1896, 1933 and on March 11, 2011.


The Wall That Taro-cho Built. An article about Taro’s residents who remember the 1933 tsunami and about the building of their seawall.

A photo of Taro’s sea wall, before.

Video (in German) of Taro before, during and after the March 2011 tsunami.

The Red Cross is helping victims of this disaster in Japan. Please donate if you can.

Writing links: Election Day/World Series hangover edition

Hello friends,
It’s a sunny, 75-degree fall day in Northern California. We Californians, unlike most of our American compatriots, yesterday elected a Democratic governor*, and have reelected a Democratic Senator. The San Francisco Giants have won the World Series for the first time, well —  ever, really, but since 1954 if you’re one of those people who looks at the entire history of a team and not its geographical location, but that’s neither here nor there. And you wanted to see some writing-related link goodness, didn’t you? Perhaps, like me, you’re avoiding reading the political news. Well, here you are:

Just in time for NaNoWriMo: How to Write a Novel, from San Francisco-based literary agent Nathan Bransford.

Some ebooks now priced higher than hardcovers. The times, they are a-changin’.

How to promote your book A great series from Booktour.com. You know, if you have a book.

Lorrie Moore on MFA programs, writing from a male perspective (“I like being a guy for about 25 pages.”), and getting her start — from The Rumpus.

In addition to being a successful novelist, nonfiction writer, publisher and philanthropist/champion of kids’ writing programs, Dave Eggers is a pretty talented artist. His sketches/interviews from the World Series. (The Bay Citizen)

The Sorry State of the Rejection Letter. (via The Millions)

Are you a nonfiction writer? Does your work happen to fall into the normally unpublishable 90-pages-or-less category? Amazon wants you.

Finally: A sure sign that you’ve made it? You have your own font, a la Zadie Smith.

*Fun fact: The Republican candidate for governor of California, Meg Whitman, spent more on her campaign than the entire 2010 budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, approximately $163 million. Another fun fact: Her campaign was focused on cutting government spending.

Writing links for May

It’s the end of May already. The end of May means the end of spring — the season — and the end of that metaphorical spring, youth. It’s time for summer, and for growing up, and for journeys … [insert needle dragging across record noise here]

Yeah. So I was writing up this post full of yummy May writing links yesterday and somehow it got all depressing and maudlin. This is not to say all of the links I want to share this month are depressing or maudlin. I’m not sure what happened — one minute I was happily writing up a list of links, the next I was using phrases like “that metaphorical spring, youth.”  Perhaps more caffeine (or sleep) was in order.

In any case, I’d like to start off this month’s links post with a preemptive strike against depressing topics. What better way to accomplish that than with Brontë Sisters Power Dolls?

Ahem. Ok. On to meatier clicking:

Is this the part where I tell you what I learned? San Francisco MFAer Margaret LaFleur wraps up her coursework and considers what it all means:

It’s the end and it’s the beginning and someone once told me that in any great story the ending should circle back and lead, somehow, back to the first sentence.

Some things to consider when tackling a case of writer’s block.

Over at The Millions, a beautiful essay, Elegy for a Stillborn Story:

One moment, I thought I had the story by its shoulders, but I was simply holding a shapeless protuberance of ice.  Other times I wrested it up with frostbitten fingers only to find it had changed.   It was born, or stillborn; I couldn’t tell the difference.  I mourned in the midst of celebration.  I buried it and dug it back out.  It was always ending and beginning.

Finally, Bay Area author Michelle Richmond considers what’s ahead for the Alabama beaches of her childhood in this lovely blog post, a kind of elegy of its own:

A whole way of life stands eerily close to extinction. If I sound alarmist it’s because I am very alarmed. What’s happening in the Gulf right now would make a great premise for some dire futuristic film–were it not for the fact that the film is real, and we’re all caught inside it, and everybody knows we’re in trouble but no one really knows what to do about it. My five-year-old son has been very concerned of late with the idea that perhaps we are not entirely real. “What if we’re just a book and someone’s reading us?” he asks again and again.

It’s easier, I suppose, to think of some things as not being real. Perhaps that’s why I like writing. (I love the idea that we’re a book and someone’s “reading us.”) I wish, as no doubt many people do, that the oil spill in the Gulf was some kind of fictional eco-thriller, but alas. If you feel helpless to do something about it, as I have for the past weeks, here’s a list of things you can do. There are a number of worthy organizations working in the Gulf to clean up the wildlife and shoreline, and they could really use your support.

January writing links, part II – the State of the Union edition

Since my links post yesterday was all about fiction, I had to veer back into territory I’m more comfortable with: nonfiction. Alas, a lot of nonfiction these days is focused on the state of the publishing industry:

Ted Genoways, the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, weighs in at Mother Jones on the death of literary magazines and the proliferation of MFA programs. Coincidence? He thinks not. And man, is debate raging about that, on the Mother Jones site, and in the comments of a related VQR blog post.

While we’re talking about demise, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed the “Death of the Slush Pile.” But wait a minute.  Not so fast.

Since this is the State of the Union edition of January’s writing links, I give you the wisdom of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz, on President Obama’s first year in office:

A President can have all the vision in the world, be an extraordinary orator and a superb politician, have courage and foresight and a willingness to make painful choices, have a bold progressive plan for his nation—but none of these things will matter a wit if the President cannot couch his vision, his policies, his courage, his will, his plan in the idiom of story.

Finally, a beautiful short essay by author Edwidge Danticat on the Haiti earthquake and her family there.

October writing links

Hello, reader. Here’s a little tidbit for you: I’m a mad documenter of the past. This, no doubt, has something to do with having two historians for parents. I grew up knowing words like “archive” at a very young age. Anyway, I’m always trying to preserve moments in time. For example, October.

I thought I’d share the writing-related links* from October that most moved, inspired, thrilled, saddened, and in the case of two book reviews, surprised me. In other words, worth reading:

Alexander Chee‘s wonderful essay on Annie Dillard and the Writing Life.

An excellent question posed on Practicing Writing. I could probably write a blog post about my experience with age in my MFA program. Oh wait, I did. All I can say is, if you’re not in your 20s, make sure you visit the program and/or find out some specific age demographics before you go to make sure it’s a good fit.

The decline and fall.

A pretty rough review of John Irving’s latest novel from Michiko Kakutani. One of several harsh book reviews I’ve read recently. This one follows the nearly complete evisceration of Richard Powers’ entire body of work in the New Yorker. I’m not against negative reviews…it’s just, well, it’s always unsettling to read a harsh one, particularly when it’s the work of an established writer.

Scrivener, the helpful writing software, is offering a discount to NaNoWriMo participants. The more you write, the cheaper it gets! I don’t use Scrivener all the time, but I absolutely love it for organizing lots of shorter documents, or trying to get my head around a big project. I’m a big fan of the cork board.

This has made the rounds but it’s an amazing story of almost giving up on writing (but not!) and so I include it here.

*There’s a nice little feed of what I’ve been bookmarking on de.lic.ious on the right side of the blog  that you can see if you click through from that handy feed reader you use to keep up with all the bloggy goodness out there. But if you’re in a hurry or just don’t feel like clicking, I’m here for you. Thus the October roundup.

the day after my birthday

morningToday is the day after my birthday. It’s a strange day, in which past and present keep overlapping. I woke up at 4am, hungry, and couldn’t go back to sleep. The boy slept until 7, a rarity. Waking up at 4am when my son is not awake is doubly annoying — I did not want to be awake AND I had a brilliant 3-hour opportunity for further sleep. I tried going back to sleep but instead tossed and turned and thought. I got up and ate a bagel and read about Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I couldn’t process the information, and that, too, felt strange.

I tried to write, in those hours before my son awakened, and in doing so remembered a post from a while back on red Ravine in which a single mom said she got up before dawn, before her kids disturbed the silence, to write. I wrote that I didn’t think I could do that. But then I couldn’t, before my son was born, imagine waking up before dawn for months and months on end. Dawn is no longer an important marker of whether I should be awake or not. And so, before dawn, I re-wrote a C is for … piece for Alphabet: A History. There is something I don’t like about the piece I’ve written, but I can’t quite figure out what it is. And so I tweaked and edited until the sun began to light the sky and the boy woke up.

As I wrote I stopped to look at a bouquet of flowers my husband brought home for me yesterday. I could smell them — a couple of the blooms smell, improbably, just like chocolate — and I thought of another birthday and other flowers.

I suppose it’s the nature of birthdays that cause me to think about the past, but I got to thinking that things seem to happen on or around my birthday. Some of these things are significant: For example, Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize this morning. This of course has absolutely nothing to do with my birthday, but here I am writing about it anyway. I have a habit (tradition?) of writing journal-ish sorts of things on or around my birthday that encompass current events. For example, eight years ago, I wrote:

“The day before my 29th birthday, they began a war.”

I’m sure I could write something about these anniversaries of war and peace falling so close to each other. But I don’t want to link them. I wish they were not linked. I watched Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech* on TV and felt the weight he now carries. I have a lot of respect for him, a young president on whom the whole world hangs its hopes and for whom the past has leaked into the present and threatens to stain our futures.

*full text of Obama’s speech here


I was browsing Amazon’s Kindle Store the other day, and I noticed a book that I’d read about in the New Yorker a few weeks back. It was Free: The Future of a Radical Price, by Wired editor Chris Anderson. The basic idea behind Free is that information wants to be free, and with the Internet, mostly, it has to be. “In the digital realm you can try to keep Free at bay with laws and locks, but eventually the force of economic gravity will win,” Anderson writes. I haven’t read the book, and the New Yorker review by Malcolm Gladwell, was not entirely positive for reasons I won’t go into here. (Incidentally, the review’s available online in its entirety. For free.)

But. The point is, I was browsing Amazon not long after reading about this book, and there it was, the digital Kindle version. Selling for, you guessed it, nothing. And I thought, “Ha! Clever book marketing! See the book’s called Free, see, and, get it? It’s free! And that was the end of it. I continued browsing.

It turns out, that it was indeed clever marketing, but the $0 price tag has little to do with the title of the book. An AP story I came across today revealed that a number of publishers are giving away e-books as a promotional tool. Say, for example that an author comes out with a new book. The publisher might offer the digital version of the author’s previous title for free to boost actual sales of the new book. Apparently it’s working. It would seem that Chris Anderson was onto something.

I thought back to that free version of Anderson’s book, and it occurred to me that despite the fact that it was absolutely free, I didn’t download it to read on my iPhone. (No doubt there are economic principles at work here, but alas, I dropped out of my college econ class, so you won’t be hearing them from me.) After reading the AP story I wondered whether I’d made a mistake not downloading Free since the price of information is an issue that will no doubt affect me in the future as an author and/or journalist. I went back to Amazon, and found that the “force of economic gravity” had been reversed and the book was now selling for $9.99 like most other Kindle editions.

On a somewhat related note, it looks like Kindle is getting a rival. Sort of.

Time is a tough boss.

see-through tourists Today is a leap day.

I’m always surprised by leap years; during the four years that go by between them I forget they exist.

It seems strange that there’s a day that only comes about once every four years, as if the day itself is some kind of mirage.

Others are wrestling with how to handle a leap day too:  This article looks at who “owns” today. … If we’ve been given a “gift” of a day’s worth of extra time, it asks, should anyone have to go to work today? It’s a bonus day! Plus, it points out, if you’re on an annual salary, you’re working one day without pay this year, an argument for a holiday if ever there was one.

You could argue that Feb. 29 is less a “gift” than a debt of time, and that today is the day we have to pay what we owe.

That BBC article also refers to a book whose premise is that the way we perceive time is “more real” than the way we measure it. Which might explain why February 29th feels so … unreal. In the end, it’s a day like any other, except that next year, it will, according to our calendars, disappear again.


I’d been having trouble concentrating today. I flitted from email to reading the news to attempts at drafts of articles I’m working on to phone calls and interviews to talking to the dog to blogs to photos to…just thinking.

Sometimes, it helps to limit the input.

I went to the gym, hoping a break and some exercise would revive my focus. It did, I suppose, revive me. But while there I was held captive by the 10 or so different TVs that were on. I watched, though I didn’t want to. It was hard not to. When all you see are TV screens, where else do you look while you’re on the cardio machine? I watched Maury Povich show off a lineup of celebrity look-alikes. I watched some soap opera featuring a character named Starr. I watched “Project Runway.” All at once. And then I watched as the soap opera halted for breaking news, and Charles Gibson came on to say that a shooter had let loose in an Omaha mall. Nine people dead, he said. So far. Authorities say. More as it becomes available.

Meanwhile Maury Povich blathered on in pre-recorded unawareness with a girl who looked (sort of) like Angelina Jolie, and I thought, jesus, it’s the holidays, and it’s going to be a hard Christmas for some families in Omaha.

Breaking news is never good news. They never interrupt “General Hospital” to say that the economic outlook is rosy, or stop “Survivor” to let everyone know that there are Middle East peace talks going on, or pause “the Sopranos” to share that a missing person turned up alive and well.

It’s always something horrific and terrifying.

Later, I was at the park with the dog and a cold wind was pressing at my back, right off of the Pacific. The wind brought fog that the sunset tinged with reds and oranges, like a fire raging at the edge of the sky. The tall buildings downtown burned in color, until the fog, graying in the loss of daylight, erased them from sight.