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Loud And Clear


ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, I was doing what I do as well
as anyone I know: that is, not writing. This is an enduring part of
my daily routine, something like the unbirth- day party in Through
the Looking-Glass. Unlike some of my colleagues --- mainly the ones
I don't really care for --- I do not fly to my desk each morning
with a full heart and a ready hand. I skirt the perimeters of my
home office with a sense of dread, eyes averted from an empty
computer screen. Instead of creation there is always
procrastination: the call to my closest friend to chew over the
morning paper and to gossip, which sometimes comes to the same
thing; the power walk in Central Park and the interlude at
Starbucks --- my husband calls it Four-bucks --- and the triple
venti no-foam latte. Luckily the laundry room is five stories below
my office, or I could surely eke out another half hour folding
sheets and T-shirts. Several years ago my daughter downloaded a
computer game called Snood onto my laptop and for months, before I
had used up all the demonstration games, I played over and over in
single-minded pursuit of nothing more than a position on a
scoreboard that only I ever saw and on which I was known as Big
Mama. Eventually I deleted the program. I had developed a terrible
Tetris problem a decade earlier that had enabled me to put off
writing until well past 10:00 a.m., and I could see which way
things were headed.

I am a creature of habit; it is all that allows me to write in the
first place, the routine designed to ward off the moment, and then
the moment itself, when the first feeble sentence, often merely a
prelude to better things, appears as my fingers play word jazz on
the keyboard. What follows is usually a manic two or three hours
fed by caffeine and the CD of the moment. Sondheim, Tori Amos,
Rosemary Clooney, James Taylor, Alanis Morissette. I did not want
to learn to type, but the nuns insisted, saying someday I might
marry a man who would need his papers typed or be employed by a man
who needed the same done to his business letters. My fingers are
the only sure-handed things about me when I first sit down to
write. After all those years in newsrooms I am a very fast typist
indeed, as fast as any executive secretary.

But it was the variation from routine that enables me to remember
that morning in particular, remember it before it became the
morning of the most important day in the history of the United
States during my lifetime. It was my eldest child's eighteenth
birthday, and that morning at breakfast his father and I had
recalled with clarity and more than a little schmaltz the
stiflingly hot morning when he had arrived, limp and gray after a
forceps delivery. Twelve days before we had left him at college for
the first time, and we were still smarting from the fissure in our
family. Before we got into the car and drove away, we reminded him
yet again that when he turned eighteen he was obliged by law to go
to the post office and register with the Selective Service. Neither
of us felt any fear when we told him to do that; it seemed almost
quaint, that particular demand at that moment in time from the two
of us, the former boy who had lived through the Vietnam draft
lottery, the former girlfriend who had stood by breathless waiting
for his number to come up, the young couple exhaling in relief
after. If I had thought there was any chance my son would be forced
to go to war, I would have bought him a ticket to Canada instead of
driving him to Connecticut.

There were two other reasons that I remember that morning so
clearly as well. The day before my daughter and I had attended the
funeral of a family friend in Pennsylvania, and once I was done
with my nonwriting rituals I intended to write about her, about the
considerable inspiration that the lives of valiant older people
provide us. I had gone straight from that funeral to a hospital,
where my closest friend was having cancer surgery, surgery that
appeared to have been spectacularly successful. So while I have a
great deal of trouble remembering almost anything at this moment in
my life --- while I once did a column tied to my age called "Life
in the 30s," I now say that the fifties version would be entitled
"Where the Hell Did I Leave My Keys?" --- I do remember how I felt
that particular morning as I settled into the old Windsor chair at
which I finally, finished with preliminaries, sat down to write. I
felt painfully mortal, quite vulnerable, and enormously

Over the course of the next few days the entire city in which I
work, the entire country in which I live, would come to feel much
the same way.

For me there was a peculiar reason for gratitude as the horrible
events of that day unspooled in a long endless loop of cataclysmic
news footage. When my husband called to tell me to turn on the
television, we both thought there had been a freak accident. But as
I watched the arc of that second plane as it smashed into the Trade
Center towers just a few miles south of our narrow Victorian row
house, I knew that something uniquely terrible was taking place. I
also had reason to believe that everyone I cared for most was safe:
My husband across the Hudson at his office. The children at their
schools. My friend in the hospital across town. It was difficult
for us to talk to one another, of course, with the New York City
telephone lines out, the tunnels and bridges shut down, and
cyberspace hopelessly jammed. One of the mementos I have kept from
that morning are three identical e-mails from our son at college,
who could not get through on the day of his birthday or for three
days afterward. Each one is dated September 11, 2001, and says in

The morning after, a new world burned and bloomed, too, beneath an
incongruously cerulean sky. A group of my daughter's friends
gathered in our kitchen and made hundreds of sandwiches and
brownies to take to the Red Cross offices nearby. They bought
enormous bags of dog food to bring to the local firehouse for their
dalmatians and the rescue dogs looking for survivors downtown. The
familiar strangers in our neighborhood lingered on the street to
speak to one another, to pass along the newest stories about the
horror to the south and the people who knew people who'd been
inside the twin towers. Two days later the wind changed and the
neighborhood smelled sharply of smoke. "I know that smell," an old
man who lived in the apartment house on the corner said in accented
English, and someone told me he was a Holocaust survivor.

Most nights, housebreaking the puppy we had picked up the day after
our son left for school, I would run into a fireman who was heading
home after working the wreckage, his eyes burning bright in a grimy
face, his hands nicked and bandaged. He would pet our dog, rub her
ears and muzzle, finally crouch to hold her squirmy little body
close, and by the time he rose for the rest of the walk home there
would be bright tear tracks in the dirt on his face. I tried not to
cry until he was gone.

But despite the scent of death and the fighter planes flying low
overhead and the interior rat-a-tat of panic and fear, there was
also that hidden gratitude, the feeling on the part of most New
Yorkers that they might have been downtown, that they could have
gone to a meeting or a breakfast, that they somehow were still
alive. For me that gratitude was also professional. The morning of
September 12, 2001, I was at my desk first thing, no preliminaries,
no computer games, seizing the chance to write about an event more
destructive, more transformative, and more important than any I had
ever written about during three decades as a journalist. And at
that moment I thanked God, not only for the safety of my family and
friends, but for the gift of being permitted to do what I do for a

It's a strange job, covering and commenting on the news. Life
washes over us as it does all our fellows, and yet we see it in a
completely different way than they do. Disaster, tragedy,
malfeasance, change: Everything is always arranging itself into
stories, making itself tidy and suitable for 900-word retellings.
Nothing is too messy to be summed up in a headline or a sound bite.
We are the people who go to wars with laptops instead of guns, who
look at the scene of the crime without turning away, who stand in
the flickering heat of a house fire and take down the details as
someone jumps from a third-story window. We ask questions ordinary
people would be ashamed to ask. We watch. That is our job.

The greater the event, the larger the disconnect between what we
feel as human beings and how we look at things dispassionately as
reporters. I remember well arriving back in the city in 1977 after
telling our families that we had become engaged and emerging from
the Holland Tunnel, not into the twinkle glare of the downtown
streets but into darkness limned with the foreboding shadows of
buildings black-on-black, New York City absent all electrical
power. For just an instant I thought how amazingly different the
place looked, how bright the stars, how dark the streets. But
almost immediately everything coalesced into a single thought: how
big the story!

I do not know any reporter who truly managed to feel that way about
the events of September 11, although all of us knew it was indeed
the biggest story we would ever cover. It was also the one in which
the human part of us stayed in the forefront, right there beside
the notebook. The pain was too great, the loss too enormous, the
shock too overwhelming. Most of my colleagues stayed whole during
the days that followed, feeling the event and covering it at the
same time. This is relatively rare but, in this case, absolutely
necessary, not only, I think, for the mental health of the
reporters but for the verisimilitude of the stories they produced.
I have never been quite as proud of being in the business as I was
during those dreadful days, when newspapers, magazines, and
television all produced exemplary work. In the aftermath of the
terrorist attacks, The New York Times would win more Pulitzers than
it ever had, and Newsweek would be honored with the National
Magazine Award for best magazine in its circulation class. This was
no accident. The story of what happened to the people in those
buildings and to the United States was so enormous that it called
upon the best within all of us to respond. Some people did that by
combing the wreckage, cooking for the rescue crews, setting up
funds for widows and orphans. In my business we did it by writing
the truth, beautifully.

For me personally the opportunity to do this was something of an
accident of timing. I had been in the newspaper business for many
years, as a reporter, an editor, and finally a columnist, and while
I had loved it almost insanely, I had always hoped someday to write
novels. I'd managed to work on my fiction while I was a columnist,
but eventually the challenge of keeping on top of the news and on
top of three young children and ricocheting wildly between the two
while trying to live in the invented world of fiction became too
much for me. In 1995 I left The New York Times and, I thought, the
world of journalism for good. One of the most enduring memories of
my life will be walking my last night down Forty-third Street, past
the New York Times building, the globe lamps with the old English
logo glowing black against the white light. I felt as though a door
had slammed at my back, and while I'd blown it shut myself, it was
still not a good feeling.

For the first year I was a recovering journalist, not a recovered
one. Occasionally news would break out and I would feel a frisson,
like a phantom limb: I know about that! I have some thoughts! And
once one of the children, in that inimitable way children have,
went to the heart of it when we were watching the report of a
doctor murdered at an abortion clinic. "Who's going to write about
this stuff now that you're gone?" he said, chewing thoughtfully on
a Fruit Roll-Up.

But the children also agreed that what they called "that look" had
disappeared. I had not even known that there was a particular look,
but when they reprised the semiconscious mother of seasons past it
turned out to be the look a woman might have while listening to an
account of a bad call at a basketball game or a hilarious episode
of flatulence in the fifth-grade classroom while simultaneously
thinking of welfare reform or gun control. According to their
reports, I now appeared to be attending at least some of the time.
Certainly it had become easier to attend to the business of writing
fiction, and I found myself inhabiting the world of my third novel
in a way that had been more difficult to do with the two before it,
falling in and not climbing out every other day for a visit to a
homeless shelter or a wild six hours banging out a screed on
capital punishment. It was a good life, and whenever I was asked
whether I missed being a journalist, I always answered, "No."

But five years into it the editor in chief at Newsweek had offered
me a prime piece of real estate, the back page of the magazine and
its venerable "Last Word" column. My essays would run only every
other week, which left plenty of time to wallow in the invented
world of a new novel. The first column was like riding the
proverbial bicycle; you may be shaky, but you never forget. I was
nearly two years into the routine when the worst happened that
September morning and terrorists flew planes into the World Trade
Center, the Pentagon, and, because of the intervention of a group
of heroic passengers, an empty field in Pennsylvania. And at that
moment I was so glad to have a column that I could have written one
every day. I looked time and time again at my son's message: I NEED

It was not that I necessarily had something distinctive to say
about the savagery of the terrorists, the scope of the devastation,
or the psychological scars left on the nation, although that was
what I tried to produce in the long run-up to the first anniversary
of the attack. I wanted to serve the readers; I also wanted to
serve myself, to understand for my own sake as well as theirs. That
I have always done through the algebra of prose --- this word, to
this one, and so on, and so on, until by inches an idea is born,
and sometimes even an epiphany. That is one of the things
journalists do when they go about their work, one of the collateral
benefits of our hit-and-run lives. We learn to understand the
world, what is important and what is important to us, and therefore
who we truly are. The great plagiarism scandals in the profession
have always originated with people who are empty vessels and are
therefore comfortable filling the emptiness with invention, which
is a fancy way of saying lies. Real reporters are always searching
for some version of the truth so that, in the long run, they can
assemble the truth about the world out of all the stories they have
covered and the things they have learned. That is why, in contrast
to the common belief that they are the world's great cynics, the
best journalists are the world's great idealists. They have
experienced firsthand the great soothing balance of human
existence. For every disgrace there is a triumph, for every wrong
there is a moment of justice, for every funeral a wedding, for
every obituary a birth announcement.

There was no better time to be about this work than on September
11, 2001, and not because it was what we like to call a great
story. It transcended that, as it transcended so much else we had
ever imagined or known. But to try to cast light into the gray
darkness that fell as those buildings burned and fell to bits was a
uniquely important undertaking that I would not have wanted to
watch from the sidelines. And it cemented what I had always known
about the business, that it had the ability to make you better than
you thought you could be because of the ordinary courage you saw at
every turn.

Two nights after the terrorist attacks I was driving home from New
Jersey, where I had given a speech, and as I came around the ramp
that leads to the Lincoln Tunnel I saw across the river a great
plume of gray smoke with orange fire at its center, a hellish
foundry where two of the city's greatest landmarks had stood just
days before. The man driving the car and I both let out a kind of
strangled sound, a gasp and a cry together, and both of us wept.
"God help us," he said. And as he did I took a notebook from my bag
and wrote down what he said and how it looked and how I felt.

1 Heart

PERHAPS IT WAS INEVITABLE that we'd wind up with a couple of
second-generation writers around the house. All three children had
grown up thinking being a writer was as easy as going upstairs and
then coming down to get a Diet Coke, muttering "I should have gone
to med school." One afternoon I was talking to one of them about
what he saw as the trajectory of his future career as a fiction
writer --- I believe the term "working construction" came up more
than once --- when he shrugged and said, "I guess I'll start with a
thinly veiled semiautobiographical novel."

It's no more than I deserve. I've been writing about my children
since there were children to write about. And I'll say about it the
same thing I said to the guy who called in to a Chicago radio
station and complained that I was opinionated: That's what I'm paid
for. During one period of my life my job was to write a column in
which the kids provided most of my material, mainly because I had
two under the age of two and I didn't get out of the house enough
to have anything else to write about. What saved me was the fact
that a lot of that material was universal, at least among women of
a certain age. So universal, in fact, that the paper once heard
from a real nutbar who insisted that I was plagiarizing my column
from the contents of her journals. She, too, had little boys who
played with Legos and sometimes misfired when they stood in front
of the toilet.

There are various criticisms of writing about your own kids: It's
too cute, or it's not illuminating, or it's downright exploita-
tive. I ran all of them through what was left of my mind in those
years, while I was watching Christmas pageants with toddler sheep
and attending parties at which at least half the guests had a major
emotional break somewhere between the cake and the presents. And if
really pushed I would have had an unsatisfactory answer for why I
did it: For the moment, it was my beat.

But in retrospect I think I was being a little too apologetic about
the entire business. The world of children and child-rearing is
social history writ small but indelible, whether it's the minutiae
of Barbie dolls and Power Ranger action figures or the phenomenon
of books like Harry Potter or The Cat in the Hat. It's a shared
experience, not just for the children but for their parents, and a
snapshot of where we were then.

And it inevitably leads you to write about other people's kids as
well, the ones who get in trouble, who die too young, who live
hopeless lives in places your lucky semiautobiographical types will
never live and maybe never visit. If the job of a good reporter is,
as H. L. Mencken once said, "to afflict the comfortable and comfort
the afflicted," then you can easily do both at once by writing
about how tough society can be on its youngest members. And to the
extent that you can make two people who care more than anything in
the world about one small child thereby generalize their concerns
to other small children, that feels like a very good thing.

At a certain point I traded writing about my own kids for writing
about the troubles of kids in general. Plumbing the lives of the
ones you live with every day has a fairly short shelf life if you
know what you're doing as a parent. You have to be more care- ful
as they become more conscious and more literate. But there comes a
time when even taking care is not enough, and an absolute ban on
the territory is clearly in order. No teenager I have ever known
wants to read in a newspaper or magazine about that little sex talk
you decided to have one night after he came home with a hickey.
("The only sexual behavior that doesn't survive high school," says
my friend Gail, who is my mother role model and stays calm about
everything.) Actually, no teenager really wants to have the little
sex talk, so having it memorialized in print, for everyone else's
parents to see --- "Oh, I see Maria and her mom had a very serious
discussion the other day" --- only adds insult to injury. And

On the other hand, putting it all down in sentence form makes it
easier to go back and look with a gimlet eye at the early years in
a way most of us are unwilling to do when the children are small,
especially when bystanders keep insisting we must be engaged in an
enterprise of unwavering joy even though a fair amount of that
enterprise consists of disposing of waste products. There is only
one column I have ever written under duress; it came after a woman
in Texas had drowned all five of her young children while in the
grip of postpartum depression. My editor insisted, and he was
right. After many years of hearing nightmare tales of children who
did not sleep through the night until they approached adolescence
(when of course they began sleeping through the afternoon), I
became aware that the universe had arranged for me to have a pretty
easy run as a mother. But even an easy time can be hard, and so
there's probably no other issue that demands real honesty as much
as motherhood does. (It may also be the only emotional role in
which it is possible to be honest and balanced at the same time.
Writers are wont to rip the lid off the institution of marriage
once divorced, but they wind up telling only part of the story.
Usually the bad part.) I tried to be honest, perhaps painfully so,
in the wake of that shocking act of multiple infanticide, and you
could tell how seldom that happened by the reader reaction to the
resulting column about the demands of child-rearing. "Thank God"
was the prevailing sentiment from women who felt as though they'd
checked their selves at the labor room door. I was once one of
them, but I got lucky in a big way. I got to write about it.

Now most of what goes on in my children's lives becomes grist for
their own mills, episodes in their own essays and stories. Times
come, times go. Once I knew every episode of Ren & Stimpy; once
I foraged desperately for the Christmas toy you could never manage
to score, the one that was featured on the news with parents in
sleeping bags waiting for Toys "R" Us to open, be it for Power
Rangers or Furbys or Boglins. The parade has passed me by. I have
never watched SpongeBob SquarePants and the Christmas list is heavy
on Tower Records and J.Crew clothes. Someday I will return to
writing about these children, but only when they are adults and can
fight back properly in print if they so choose. The weddings,
perhaps. The job searches. Maybe the grandchildren. And when that
semiautobiographical novel appears --- oh, I am so there. Good-bye
Dr. Spock

NOVEMBER 2000 IF NOT FOR THE PHOTOGRAPHS I might have a hard time
believing they ever existed. The pensive infant with the swipe of
dark bangs and the black button eyes of a Raggedy Andy doll. The
placid baby with the yellow ringlets and the high piping voice. The
sturdy toddler with the lower lip that curled into an apostrophe
above her chin.

All my babies are gone now. I say this not in sorrow but in
disbelief. I take great satisfaction in what I have today: three
almost adults, two taller than me, one closing in fast. Three
people who read the same books I do and have learned not to be
afraid of disagreeing with me in their opinion of them, who
sometimes tell vulgar jokes that make me laugh until I choke and
cry, who need razor blades and shower gel and privacy, who want to
keep their doors closed more than I like. Who, miraculously, go to
the bathroom, zip up their jackets, and move food from plate to
mouth all by themselves. Like the trick soap I bought for the
bathroom with a rubber ducky at its center, the baby is buried deep
within each, barely discernible except through the unreliable haze
of the past.

Everything in all the books I once pored over is finished for me
now. Penelope Leach. Berry Brazelton. Dr. Spock. The ones on
sibling rivalry and sleeping through the night and early childhood
education, all grown obsolete. Along with Goodnight Moon and Where
the Wild Things Are, they are battered, spotted, well used. But I
suspect that if you flipped the pages, dust would rise like

What those books taught me, finally, and what the women on the
playground taught me, and the well-meaning relations and the older
parents at cocktail parties --- what they taught me was that they
couldn't really teach me very much at all. Raising children is
presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple
choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless
essay. No one knows anything. One child responds well to positive
reinforcement, another can only be managed with a stern voice and a
time-out. One boy is toilet trained at three, his brother at two.
When my first child was born, parents were told to put baby to bed
on his belly so that he would not choke on his own spit-up. By the
time my last arrived, babies were put down on their backs because
of research on sudden infant death syndrome.

As a new parent this ever-shifting certainty is terrifying, and
then soothing. Eventually you must learn to trust yourself.
Eventually the research will follow. First science told us they
were insensate blobs. But we thought they were looking, and
watching, and learning, even when they spent so much time hitting
themselves in the face. And eventually science said that we were
right, that important cognitive function began in early babyhood.
First science said they should be put on a feeding schedule. But
sometimes they seemed hungry in two hours, sometimes three,
sometimes all the time, so that we never even bothered to button
up. And eventually science said that that was right, and that they
would be best fed on demand. First science said environment was the
great shaper of human nature. But it certainly seemed as though
those babies had distinct personalities, some contemplative, some
gregarious, some crabby. And eventually science said that was
right, too, and that they were hardwired exactly as we had

Still, the temptation to defer to the experts was huge. The
literate parent, who approaches everything --- cooking, decorating,
life --- as though there was a paper due or an exam scheduled is in
particular peril when the kids arrive. How silly it all seems now,
obsessing about language acquisition and physical milestones,
riding the waves of normal, gifted, hyperactive, all those labels
that reduced individuality to a series of cubbyholes. But I could
not help myself. I had watched my mother casually raise five
children born over ten years, but by watching her I intuitively
knew that I was engaged in the greatest --- and potentially most
catastrophic --- task of my life. I knew that there were mothers
who had worried with good reason, that there were children who
would have great challenges to meet. We were lucky; ours were not
among them. Nothing horrible or astonishing happened: There was
hernia surgery, some stitches, a broken arm and a fuchsia cast to
go with it.

Mostly ours were the ordinary everyday terrors and miracles of
raising a child, and our children's challenges the old familiar
ones of learning to live as themselves in the world. The trick was
to get past my fears, my ego, and my inadequacies to help them do
that. During my first pregnancy I picked up a set of lovely old
clothbound books at a flea market. Published in 1933, they were
called Mother's Encyclopedia, and one volume described what a
mother needs to be: "psychologically good: sound, wholesome,
healthy, unafraid, able to deal with the world and to live in this
particular age, an integrated personality, an adjusted person." In
a word, yow.

It is good that we know so much more now, know that mothers need
not be perfect to be successful. But some of what we learn is as
pernicious as that daunting description, calculated to make us feel
like failures every single day. I remember fifteen years ago poring
over one of Dr. Brazelton's wonderful books on child development,
in which he describes three different sorts of infants: average,
quiet, and active. I was looking for a sub-quiet codicil (see:
slug) for an eighteen-month-old who did not walk. Was there
something wrong with his fat little legs? Was there something wrong
with his tiny little mind? Was he developmentally delayed,
physically challenged? Was I insane? Last year he went to China.
Next year he goes to college. He can walk just fine. He can walk
too well. Every part of raising children at some point comes down
to this: Be careful what you wish for.

Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me,
mistakes were made. They have all been enshrined in the "Remember
When Mom Did" Hall of Fame. The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the
bad language --- mine, not theirs. The times the baby fell off the
bed. The times I arrived late for preschool pickup. The nightmare
sleepover. The horrible summer camp. The day when the youngest came
barreling out of the classroom with a 98 on her geography test, and
I responded, "What did you get wrong?" (She insisted I include
that.) The time I ordered food at the McDonald's drive-through
speaker and then drove away without picking it up from the window.
(They all insisted I include that.) I did not allow them to watch
The Simpsons for the first two seasons. What was I thinking?

But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make
while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is
particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in
photographs. There is one picture of the three of them sitting in
the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer
day, ages six, four, and one. And I wish I could remember what we
ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they
looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a
hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish
I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a
little less.

Even today I'm not sure what worked and what didn't, what was me
and what was simply life. How much influence did I really have over
the personality of the former baby who cried only when we gave
parties and who today, as a teenager, still dislikes socializing
and crowds? When they were very small I suppose I thought someday
they would become who they were because of what I'd done. Now I
suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they
demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be.

There was babbling I forgot to do, stimulation they never got,
foods I meant to introduce and never got around to introducing. If
a black-and-white mobile really increases depth perception and
early exposure to classical music increases the likelihood of
perfect pitch, I blew it. The books said to be relaxed and I was
often tense, matter-of-fact, and I was sometimes over-the-top. And
look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like
best in the world, who have done more than anyone to excavate my
essential humanity. That's what the books never told me. I was
bound and determined to learn from the experts. It just took me a
while to figure out who the experts were.

Loud And Clear
by by Anna Quindlen

  • Genres: Current Affairs, Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400061121
  • ISBN-13: 9781400061129