The sky in Atlanta this morning is a clear vivid blue – the kind of sky that will always remind me of the days and weeks after 9/11, when it seemed that the attack on the Twin Towers had triggered some weird natural response. There was no rain, there were no clouds. The only airplane trails in the sky belonged to the fighter planes circling Manhattan. I could see them out of my office on the 13th floor of the HBO building facing the East River.
I had thought I might devote this post to my memories of that morning ten years ago: try to piece together the flashes of confusion and fear. But that seems to be almost a national past-time this week: not ‘where were you on 9/11?’ but where was I? Why do we all need to stake our claim to a part of the drama? I should leave it to the thousands upon thousands of other self-publishers out there to dig deeper and try again to make sense of what is insensible. And yet I can’t quite let well enough alone.
The world is surely a different place than it was at 8:45am on September 11, 2001. And I am a different person – or, rather, a person on a different path and certainly altered irrevocably. If someone had told me at the end of that day ten years ago, when I sat in the midst of a group of AOL-Time Warner employees stuck at a hotel on the edge of DC, that I would today have my PhD and that the delivery of technology that we were helping to put in place at that surreal meeting (I was in DC for a summit of all the web content department heads to determine how we would implement broadband across the corporation), well … I would probably have believed the technological progress, but certainly not my change of path.
That fall at HBO I think many people felt a hollowness and a questioning of purpose. I know I did. What was the point of producing another season of Sex and the City or Taxicab Confessions when the ash from the Twin Towers still fluttered in the air around us? I could not reconcile the job of entertainment with the realities of the new decade. And so I was pushed and I jumped out of the entertainment industry and found my way here.
I know that I am in some ways incredibly selfish in this new life of mine: I set my own schedule more often than not, and I revel in the intellectual challenges and freedoms available to me. But there is a measure of service involved in the teaching and mentoring I do that was completely unfulfilled at HBO. To be able to encourage someone to discover a truth within them, or to help them develop a skill they do not realize they possess is a wonderful, satisfying feeling; it is a rush and a high that I never felt in that hedonistic bubble in New York and LA.
The Confucian curse applies to us now: we DO live in interesting times. Times that were interesting long before that morning ten years ago. We cannot know what will happen in the ten years ahead. The United States could continue on its downward spiral – yet another fallen empire, like the Babylonian and Roman and Byzantine and British before us; or something miraculous and spectacular could affect our trajectory. In the meantime, I’ll continue to try and make sense of the world around me and help my students to do the same.