Sunday

Sep. 11, 2011

Crying Man

by Charles Douthat

At O'Hare, after a first jump west to California,
I thought my father was dying, as I waited

for the connecting flight. Being hungry
I ate pizza with the people eating pizza.

Feeling uninformed, I bought newspapers,
opened magazines at a bookshop wall.

Near my gate, I pretended not to watch
a dozen others waiting, as they pretended

not to watch me. But finally, in a hectic airport
restroom, I heard the crying man in his stall.

"Oh God," he cried, behind a stained steel door.
He didn't sound old. And in his privacy, not shy.

"Oh dear God," rang harshly in the close tiled room.
I stood alongside others, a simple traveler

at a public urinal. Behind me the restless waited
their turns. "Oh dear life!" came the third cry.

I shook myself, zipped, found a vacant sink for washing.
Spurting water dwindled to a trickle on my hands.

I lathered and rinsed as I'd been taught. Grabbed
for paper towel. Didn't linger at the mirror.

"Crying Man" by Charles Douthat, from Blue for Oceans. © NHR Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes. Two of the planes were crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, and a third into the Pentagon. On the fourth, which was bound for Washington, D.C., passengers attempted to take control of the plane and it ended up crashing near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Altogether, nearly 3,000 lives were lost — all the passengers and crew on board the planes, thousands of people who worked at the World Trade Center or were near the buildings, more than 100 in the Pentagon building, and hundreds of rescue workers.

In the 10 years since 9/11, many talented writers have written novels, plays, and poems in an attempt to understand it.

Jonathan Safran Foer (books by this author) wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), the story of Oskar Schell, a precocious nine-year-old whose father died in the World Trade Center and who spends his days wandering around New York City trying to find the lock that matches a key his father left behind. Foer wrote: "Dad always used to tuck me in, and he'd tell the greatest stories, and we'd read the New York Times together, and sometimes he'd whistle 'I Am the Walrus,' because that was his favorite song, even though he couldn't explain what it meant, which frustrated me. One thing that was so great was how he could find a mistake in every single article we looked at. Sometimes they were grammar mistakes, sometimes they were mistakes with geography or facts, and sometimes the article just didn't tell the whole story. I loved having a dad who was smarter than the New York Times, and I loved how my cheek could feel the hairs on his chest through his T-shirt, and how he always smelled like shaving, even at the end of the day. Being with him made my brain quiet. I didn't have to invent a thing."

The British novelist Ian McEwan (books by this author) wrote Saturday, one day in the life of a successful, middle-aged surgeon named Henry Perowne. It is the day of the mass demonstrations in Britain against the Iraq War, and Henry begins his morning by sighting a burning plane in the sky and wondering whether it is an accident or a terrorist attack. McEwan wrote: "Everyone agrees, airliners look different in the sky these days, predatory or doomed. Henry knows it's a trick of vision that makes him think he can see an outline now, a deeper black shape against the dark. The howl of the burning engine continues to rise in pitch. It wouldn't surprise him to see lights coming on across the city, or the square fill with residents in dressing gowns. Behind him Rosalind, well practiced at excluding the city's night troubles from her sleep, turns on her side. The noise is probably no more intrusive than a passing siren on the Euston Road. The fiery white core and its colored tail have grown larger — no passengers sitting in that central section of the plane could survive. That is the other familiar element — the horror of what he can't see. Catastrophe observed from a safe distance. Watching death on a large scale, but seeing no one die. No blood, no screams, no human figures at all, and into this emptiness, the obliging imagination set free. The fight to the death in the cockpit, a posse of brave passengers assembling before a last-hope charge against the fanatics. To escape the heat of that fire which part of the plane might you run to? The pilot's end might seem less lonely somehow. Is it pathetic folly to reach into the overhead locker for your bag, or necessary optimism? Will the thickly made-up lady who politely served you croissant and jam now be trying to stop you?"

Joyce Carol Oates (books by this author) wrote the short story "The Mutants" about a woman trapped in her apartment during the 9/11 attacks. Oates wrote: "She'd been a dreamy beautiful child who had become, by imperceptible degrees, a dreamy beautiful young woman of that genre American Midwestern Blond which indicates not so much a physical as a spiritual type. Now a New Yorker — downtown, Battery Park City on South End Avenue, 10280 — she yet carried with her a dreamy-golden aura as lightly borne as a cloak of Athena tossed over a favored mortal for protection on the battlefield, and she carried it unaware, believing that the myriad daily glances of admiration she encountered in the city, the smiles and lingering-eyed exchanges with strangers, and certainly the intense good fortune of her professional and personal life, were part off a general bounty shared by all, like the warm autumn air. [...] She was not only loved, which is a commonplace experience, but beloved. There is a distinction. In the heartland, she was beloved by her family; in Manhattan, she was beloved by her fiancé, an editor with a distinguished midtown publishing house. They were to be married at the romantic turn of the year. Now they lived together in an aerie of tall plate-glass windows and understated off-white furnishings on the thirty-sixth floor of one of the sparkling towers of lower Manhattan and their view — to which the exclamatory adjective 'breathtaking!' was invariably applied — was partly of the sparkling towering city and partly of New York Harbor an exquisite seagreen like washed glass on those clear autumn mornings."

Stephen Dunn (books by this author) wrote the poem "Grudges":
Easy for almost anything to occur.
Even if we've scraped the sky, we can be rubble.
For years those men felt one way, acted another.

Ground Zero, is it possible to get lower?
Now we had a new definition of the personal,
knew almost anything could occur.

It just takes a little training, to blur
A motive, lie low while planning the terrible,
Get good at acting one way, feeling another.

Yet who among us doesn't harbor
A grudge or secret? So much isn't erasable;
It follows that almost anything can occur,

Like men ascending into the democracy of air
Without intending to land, the useful veil
Of having said one thing, meaning another.

Before you know it something's over.
Suddenly someone's missing at the table.
It's easy (I know it) for anything to occur
When men feel one way, act another.

It's the birthday of novelist and poet D.H. Lawrence (books by this author), born in Eastwood, England (1885). His father was a coal miner. He wrote: "The great crime which the moneyed classes and promoters of industry committed in the palmy Victorian days was the condemning of the workers to ugliness, ugliness, ugliness: meanness and formless and ugly surroundings, ugly ideals, ugly religion, ugly hope, ugly love, ugly clothes, ugly furniture, ugly houses, ugly relationship between workers and employers. The human soul needs actual beauty more than bread." Lawrence called Nottinghamshire "the country of my heart," and he set almost all of his novels in the green hills and woods of that country.

He is the author of Sons and Lovers (1913), The Rainbow (1915), Women in Love (1920), and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). He wrote: "My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle. What do I care about knowledge. All I want is to answer to my blood, direct, without fribbling intervention of mind, or moral, or what-not."

It's the birthday of O. Henry (books by this author), born William Sidney Porter in Greensboro, North Carolina (1862). His mother died when he was a kid, and he was raised by various relatives and headed off to Texas when he was 15. He worked as a hired hand on a sheep ranch, and he fell in love with a wealthy young woman. They got married and had a daughter. He got a respectable job at a bank, and then as a reporter for The Houston Post. But the bank was audited after he left, and he was arrested on charges of embezzling money. His wife's father posted bail for him, but before his trial he ran away, heading to Louisiana and then to Honduras. His wife was too sick with tuberculosis to meet him there, and heartbroken, he went back to Texas and turned himself in so that he could be with his wife while she died. Afterward, he was sentenced to prison for five years. It was while he was in jail that his writing career really took off — he published 14 stories before he was let out for good behavior after three years. He would send his stories to a friend who would send them to publishers, so no one ever suspected that O. Henry was writing from jail.

When The New York Times asked O. Henry if he had any advice for young writers, he wrote: "I'll give you the sole secret of short-story writing, and here it is: Rule 1. Write stories that please yourself. There is no rule 2. The technical points you can get from Bliss Perry. If you can't write a story that pleases yourself, you will never please the public. But in writing the story forget the public."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









«

»

  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook


The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »