September 11

As luck would have it, I was starting a new position as the leader of a nonprofit on September 11, 2001. I got up early that morning and was, more or less, absorbed with the triviality of putting together just the right thing to wear.  Nothing too corporate, I remember thinking.

That great task satisfied, I walked the two blocks from my house to the subway station, where I was met with larger-than-usual crowds. Perfect, I thought, first day and I’m going to be late because of San Francisco’s perpetually bad mass transit system. I ran into a neighbor who said, “God, can you believe it?” Thinking she was referring to the mass of humanity waiting on the subway platform for the next train, I simply nodded in agreement.

“I know,” I said, “the city can’t even get a simple train system right.”

“What?” my neighbor replied. “What are you talking about? Haven’t you heard? Don’t you know what’s going on?”

“Uh, no.”

“They’re attacking us. They flew planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.”

I’d always considered my neighbor to be the type with her feet firmly on the ground, but at this moment, I sincerely thought her mad. She talked, manically, at me for the entire ride downtown. And, little by little, I came to realize that she was, more or less, telling me a story that was the truth, as hard as it was to wrap my head around.

When our train arrived downtown, I tried to climb the stairs to street level, but hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people were streaming back into the station from above. It was a completely disorienting moment.

It wasn’t until I reached my new office and turned on the radio that I slowly began to understand what had happened in New York and Washington and in that Pennsylvania field that morning.

My parents’ generation had experienced the feeling before, after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Their calm, quiet world had been shattered, “like a fire bell in the night.” But people my age had never experienced anything remotely like it.

We, of course, were very lucky. We had no collapsing buildings, no debris, no choking dust, no dead where I was, in San Francisco. And despite the endless hours of TV I watched that night and in the weeks that followed, when I think back to that date, it is my own disbelief and disorientation I remember most vividly.

A Change of Season

To Autumn
      by John Keats
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

A Real Holiday

Yesterday was Labor Day hereabouts, an American national holiday when most people enjoy a final long weekend of summer, barbecues and beer, stretch out on a blanket at the beach, catch a game in the sunshine. As with many of our national holidays, the intended meaning of the day has been largely lost to the reality of a long weekend of rest and recreation.

And, in this case especially, that’s a national shame.

This holiday was created to honor labor, organized labor, hardworking people who built cars and roads and bridges and the high-quality manufactured products that used to be made here in the United States. Their fairly-paid and stable jobs created a market for goods and services our economy had never previously known. Organized labor created what was by far the largest engine for economic growth and demand in America. More, they created the expectations we have about our worklives, and which we very much take for granted today.

Before labor organized and exerted influence on the way businesses were run (often, sadly, at the sacrifice of their own lives), too many forget, working days weren’t expected to be ‘only’ 8 hours long, children were forced into work and workplaces were unregulated hell-holes of unbreathable air and ubiquitous (and often fatal) hazards. And these humane working conditions, thought unaffordable luxuries by the monied capitalists of the day, came to be commonplace, not only for labor union members but for all of the workforce.

Before organized labor:

No weekends, much less long ones.

No minimum wage.

Children losing their childhoods to near-slavery.

No safety rules or inspections.

Again and again, I hear in political speeches calls for a return to pre-union laissez-faire capitalism. Does anyone really want to go back to those ‘simpler’ times?