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Sept. 11

This piece was published by the Chicago Tribune, September 10, 2003


A slip of paper arrives, haunting memories arise

My father-in-law, Seymour, knows that a successful evening out isn't always based on luck. The details need to be taken care of. He is an expert at the fine points. He works the phones. Takes down the names of those he as spoken to. Makes sure the reserved table, usually a round one, has a view.


So when for my 50th birthday three years ago he decided to make a small family party at one of the flashiest restaurants in New York City, it came as no surprise that the evening, except for the weather, was perfect. But until this week I had no idea just how much work Seymour had put into planning the night out. Not until I found a letter in our mailbox addressed to me.

The first thing that slipped out of the envelope was a short note written in my father-in-law's hand. It began "Dearest Claudia." In it he said he wasn't sure if I would want what he was sending. But he had come across it in a suit jacket pocket. Now that they live in Florida, dressing up doesn't happen often. His pocket had been unexamined for quite some time.


I unfolded the yellowing paper. I recognized the logo at the top at once. It shows a starry sky, with a rising sun.


"Windows on the World." The restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center.

It was the reservation form from my birthday dinner. And stapled to the top left corner was another piece of note paper filled with details written by Seymour.


Apparently the first person he spoke to about the birthday dinner was a woman named Trish. From his notes it appears that the choices he was given for dining times were either 6:30 or 8:30.


He chose the earlier.


Next he spoke to a woman whose name was Skye. Perhaps it was with her that he discussed the shape of the table and what we would be able to see while sitting there.


A few days later, according to the reservation sheet, Seymour spoke to someone names Diane. She, apparently helped put the finishing touches on the dinner plans. Between them all, these three women, my father-in-law, the busboys, bartenders, wait staff, and everyone else that that evening, my birthday celebration was a success. Almost dreamlike. Especially since it can never be repeated.


A couple of weeks ago the Sept. 11 transcripts were released. Thousands of pages filled with last conversations between families and friends and strangers. Bits were reprinted in the paper. I read, mesmerized. Horrified.


A woman named Christine who was working at the restaurant at the top of the world had called for help. She was frantic. They were losing air. Could she break a window, she wanted to know.


They couldn't breathe.


Reading just that little bit I could see it clearly.


The staff of workers dressed sharply. The plush carpet. The views that could weaken one's knees.


I could hear the sounds of dishes being stacked and carried to the kitchen.


Hear coffee being offered to diners. The conversations buzzing like bees from table to table.

And then I could imagine the roar. The dazed disbelief. The beginning panic. The phone calls asking for help, which surely must be on the way.


I could see Christine , holding the phone to her ear, asking what she should do. Believing there must be a solution. Unable to imagine that there wouldn't be.


I keep looking at the reservation sheet sitting on my desk. Keep reading the names of the women written down by my father-in-law.


He would have called in the morning, so as to be able to cross it off his list of his things to do. So that he would be able to go off and play a round of golf or go down and pick up some bagels for lunch and not have to worry about anything.


He spoke to three women. Women who must have had friends and families. Women who went to work each day and got in an elevator to ride to the top of the world.


They must have known each other. Maybe they chatted in the elevator. Perhaps they spoke of their kids. Or of classes they were taking in school. Or their husbands or boyfriends. Maybe Christine was waiting for them each day when they arrived.


I don't know. I'll never know. If I called the phone number on the faded piece of paper, there would be no answer.


It haunts me. I want to know what happened to them.


I read in the newspaper the words that Christine spoke on that morning in September. I can see her looking around the dining room as it begins to fill with smoke. He co-workers are watching her. I can feel the panic as their lungs begin to tighten.


I wonder if they were there, Trish, Diane and Skye.

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For the Birds



For that past few weeks every Thursday evening my husband and I meet up in Watsonville to look for birds. We have joined a class filled with enthusiastic watchers. I believe I am the least experienced of the group. I believe they would all agree with this statement.

I am not very outdoorsy. My friends might be surprised at my new hobby. When I told my friend Kathy I had joined this avian-curious group she raised one eyebrow and cocked her head slightly. In my mind, even after only two classes, she looked exactly like a bird I had seen the previous evening. Perhaps they were both thinking the same thing. "What the what?"

Kathy's partner, Jonathan Franzen, is a true birder. He keeps lists and travels to all corners of the world, binoculars in hand, appropriate walking shoes on feet, to search out tiny flying creatures while they may still be found in the wild. He, being a writer, writes about what he sees. Some of his essays are heartbreakingly beautiful and up lifting. Some are simply heartbreaking. He sees the devastation that climate change is causing in the bird world.

I try not to think about that when out walking along one of the sloughs as the sun begins to hang low in the sky and the blue herons are perched on driftwood poles, reflected beautifully in the shimmering water. I attempt to just live in the moment and feel gratitude for my good fortune. I live here, in this place, in this time, where I can go out and look at birds as they make their way to their next destination.

Our instructor, Nancy, is a real pro. She has been birding for years and knows her stuff. I love when she opens up her well read book and shares pictures of a particular bird, explaining how its colors change as they age and seasons progress, how the males often sprout lively, colorful plumage to attract females who apparently are so confident they see no need for fancy feathers.

This is who I am, they seem to say, take it or leave it!

My mind does wander after an hour or two. Often, as I stand with my binoculars held up, I imagine the birds watching our group. I imagine they are as interested in us as we them.

Look, a towhee might say to a wood pecker, an older female right below. You can tell by the grey feathers and the arm flap-doodles!

And once my mind has made that leap, it is difficult to recalculate. I am off on my own birding adventure imagining the tweets and trills to be all about our little group.

Now that my eyes have been open to this new world I have found many ways to enjoy the sport. We have French doors in our bedroom and from my bed I can see blue jays, woodpeckers with their crimson bonnets, crows, hummingbirds and once in a while a tiny mouse darting out from under the ivy.

This past week Jonathan had an insightful essay in the on-line New Yorker. It was all about climate change and the trouble ahead. The challenges we will experience over the next few decades will have a profound impact on everyone and everything. It is depressing and yet in some ways hopeful. While we most likely won't be able to clean up the mess we have made, there are actions we can take to provide support to organizations as well as individuals who are determined to help us navigate this next chapter in our existence. But man, it is a heavy read. Thoughtful, accurate I am afraid, and honest.

Get ready. Climate change is here and not going away.

After reading the article I emailed J.F. and thanked him. Then poured a shot of tequila into a glass of grapefruit juice with lots of ice, grabbed my binoculars and went out into the back yard and thrilled at the falcon perched in the top of an old redwood, happy to be here in this moment, in this time.

To read Jonathan Franzen's article click the link below.

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It's a Man's World Darlin"

It's a Man's World, Darlin"


Well, I suppose there are those who might say I asked for it. Dressed in a thin cotton gown and nothing else. Greeting the two men with a smile when they entered the room. Plus, I was obviously woozy. And again, that smile.

I grew up in an age where girls were taught to be polite. To make nice. So, when two men in scrubs entered my hospital room and lowered my hospital gown and examined my breasts, even though I was recovering from having my tonsils removed just hours earlier, I said nothing. I was 22 years old and on my own. Later, I told a nurse what had happened. She blamed it on the medication.
"Must have been a dream darlin'", she claimed, not quite looking me in the eye.
Yes. That must be it.

And then there was the blind date. I was 24 and working two jobs while attending classes at a community college. My neighbor had a friend who wanted to meet me. We went to a local steak house. He glanced over at the bar where two women sat chatting, drinking, laughing. My date made some kind of comment about "dirty divorcees". I felt my stomach drop. Should I tell him I had a failed marriage? I decided I must. He raped me before taking me home. What did I expect? I was damaged goods, so why shouldn't he have his way with me?

Okay, I did wear shorts to work almost every day. An invitation to stare? To gawk? One might think so if it wasn't for the fact that I was working at a tennis club and that
was the uniform. I was 29 and working 40-50 hours a week. Sunday mornings while I was matching players with courts and booking lessons with one of the pros the telephone on my desk would ring. Cradling the receiver under my neck to keep my hands free for front desk work I would listen as my employer whispered in my ear, describing the things he wanted to do to me if I would go with him to his cabin in the woods. He was calling from a phone booth at his church while his wife taught Sunday school. He gave me a deadline. I would make him happy by the first of the year, or I was out.

I told my roommate. I told a co-worker. But to be honest I wasn't sure what to say. The term sexual harassment had not yet been brought into the public conversation.
The deadline passed. I convinced myself, although not entirely, that nothing would happen. Then, after running a week long tennis tournament my boss came into my office and fired me.

It felt as if I were in an elevator and the cables had been cut. I was falling through space, waiting to hit bottom.

There was no HR. There was a Board of Directors who wanted to fight my firing. But within a few days I was offered a job at another tennis club whose manager had heard I was free as a bird when it came to being employed so I declined the Board's offer. I didn't want to be a "problem" in the tennis community. I was terrified that I would become unemployable.

Decades later I recall every incident with embarrassment, shame and finally, fury. I wish I could go back and defend that girl in the hospital. I wish I could bash my rapists face in. I wish I had put my boss on speaker phone so all could have heard what was being hissed into my ear.

This past week my grandson came to stay with me. He is five-years-old and sweet and loving. I wonder what I can do to help him grow into a young man who would never even think to treat girls, women, with anything but respect.

No more talk of what a lady killer a small boy will grow into. No more "atta boy" when it comes to males as they pursue females. No more "boys will be boys" bullshit.

It is a fine thing that we are now empowering girls and women. We are teaching them to say no. Then shout it to the heavens and report it to HR.

But we need to nip it in the bud. We need to raise men who do not see women as targets but as partners in creating a world where sexual abuse is a shameful part of our history, never to be repeated again.











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Dear James B,

Dear James Buchanan,

You are off the hook! While many historical scholars have labeled you the worst president in our country's history, you may have actually been moved up to second-worst president in American history.


It is true you made some real bone head moves when it came to the issue of slavery in our Southern states and you totally blew the Dred Scott v.Sanford decision by lobbying the Supreme Court to deny Scott, as well as all other black people citizenship therefore denying them the right to vote.

And to top things off you sided with those who wanted to see Kansas admitted to the Union as a slave state.

Historians who participated in a 2006 survey voted your failure to deal with secession as the worst presidential mistake ever made.

Sure, you sided with the North once the Civil War broke out, but hey man, it seems to me you might have been one of the movers and shakers who brought us to that very dark place in our nation's history.

As a late night talk show host once asked Hugh Grant after he was caught with a hooker, "What were you thinking?"

I have read that you had visions of being remembered as one of our greatest presidents, right along side George Washington. Oh Jimmy, that was not to be. In the end, according to many polls, you rank last.

But, Jimbo, there is a new kind of president residing in the White House. And according to my own ranking of presidents, thanks to him you are no long at the bottom of the list!

Jimmy, you would not believe this guy. If you were given a pass to come back and visit for a day I believe you would be flabbergasted by this big, belligerent, buffoon now living in the People's House.
He has brought us to the brink of a constitutional crisis which our founders could not even imagine. He lies and cheats and steals and believes if he just keeps saying something often enough it will be accepted as the truth.

Back in the day when you were running for political office your interactions with the public were fairly limited. Today Jim, you would not believe how easy it is to get your opinions out. We have 24 hour news shows on television. I'll try to explain. Television is a large flat screen that now many of us have hanging on our walls. Sounds and images are broadcast through it. It is as if you have been transported to another place.

Okay, I can't explain the technology, but there you have it. It's like a portal we can all go through.

Then there is a thing called Twitter. Our President Rump uses it to communicate with millions of followers dozens of times a day. Mostly he is complaining about whatever pops into his head. Or he is bragging about The Best Economy Ever, Or His Amazing Friendships with Russia, North Korea and cheeseburgers as well as his Unbelievable Physical Shape.

One receives these missives in real time on one's cell phone. A cell phone is also something you would not be familiar with. But no mind. Just imagine if everyone carried around a device to receive telegraph messages at any time. Then imagine it click-clacking in your pocket every single time some self absorbed liar felt like venting.

I could go on. And on and on and on. But the fact that we are in this mess, The Biggest, Most Amazing, Never Seen Before in History, Mess is on our current president, not you, Sir.

So cheers to you J.B.! You have risen to number two!

And hey, Mr. President, you are now Number One in my book!





Claudia Sternbach is the author of two memoirs, Now Breathe, Whiteaker Press and Reading Lips, a memoir of Kisses, Unbridled books

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