In this remarkable book, Anna Quindlen gives us wisdom, opinions, insights, and reflections about current events and modern life. “Always insightful, rooted in everyday experience and common sense…Quindlen is so good that even when you disagree with what she says, you still love the way she says it,” said People magazine about her number one New York Times bestseller Thinking Out Loud, and the same can be said about Loud and Clear.
With her trademark insight and her special ability to convey the impact public events have on ordinary lives, Quindlen here combines commentary on American society and the world at large with reflections on being a woman, a writer, and a mother. In these pieces, first written for Newsweek and The New York Times, Loud and Clear takes on topics ranging from social change to raising children, from the political and emotional aftermath of September 11 to personal values, from the impact on individuals of global events to the growth that can be gained by spending summer days staring into the middle distance. Grounding the public in the private, connecting people to each other and to the greater world, Quindlen encourages us to develop authentic lives, even as she serves as a catalyst for political and social change.
“Anna Quindlen’s beat is life, and she’s one hell of a terrific reporter,” said Susan Isaacs, and Quindlen’s unique qualities of understanding and discernment, everywhere evident in her previous bestsellers, including A Short Guide to a Happy Life and Living Out Loud, can be found on every page of this provocative and inspiring book.
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 grateful.
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 capital letters I REALLY NEED TO HEAR YOUR VOICE.
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 living.
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 TO HEAR YOUR VOICE.
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.
Excerpted from Loud and Clear by Anna Quindlen Copyright © 2004 by Anna Quindlen. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.