Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Meaningful Interruption

However you define the game, playing poker can be an incredibly immersive experience. Anyone who has played poker in a more than casual way has experienced being so caught up in the game that the idea of actually stopping and leaving becomes utterly shut out of one’s consciousness.

In The Biggest Game in Town, Al Alvarez tells the story of how during several weeks in Las Vegas during the 1981 WSOP he’d heard practically zero references to the outside world. To further the point that all were too involved in what they were doing to acknowledge anything else, Alvarez mentions how during his time there Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square. “But nobody mentioned it, despite the innumerable crucifixes dangling from the necks of both the players and the casino staff.”

Poker (or other casino games) can do that. But so can other activities or routines. We all can be more or less obsessive about whatever it is we do.

Speaking of routines and getting knocked from them, I had a few different ideas for topics for today, but I’ve become stymied somewhat thinking about the anniversary of 9/11.

Like you, I find myself remembering the day itself and how like everyone else I became aware of the events of that morning. And how they stopped us all in our tracks then, too, changing our plans not just for the day but for weeks and months and years to come.

The New York Times, Sept. 12, 2001I was teaching that day, my world lit class scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. It was early in the semester, and I remember we were scheduled to discuss The Aeneid, Virgil’s epic all about conflict and war and destiny and gravitas and how when it came to Aeneas getting to Rome “the man should sail: that is the whole point.”

Normally I would’ve made it to school about an hour before my class, spending that time at my desk in the large office I shared with a colleague. However, that morning I’d taken a detour to my bank to deposit a check -- the so-called “tax refund,” actually, that was sent out late that summer to try to inject some extra dollars into the economy. The idea was we’d all spend the extra few hundy, but Vera and I thought it most prudent for us to bank it, and so that’s what I was doing.

I was still in the car a little after 9 a.m. listening to sports radio. The Panthers had won their season opener the previous Sunday against the Vikings, and so the hosts were enthusiastic discussing that. However, they were distracted a little by news of something happening at the World Trade Center. There’d be no football the following Sunday, of course, and in fact when the season resumed the Panthers wouldn’t win another game that year.

I got to my office around 9:15 or so. My colleague had a television -- one of those on a roller-cart with a VCR underneath that teachers sometimes wheeled into classrooms to show videos -- and had it on. Soon I learned about both planes hitting the Twin Towers, and by the time I was walking to my class we’d heard President Bush was about to address the nation.

TV on a cartCanceling class seemed like a no-brainer to me, although as I think back on that day I recall how some of my colleagues did not do so, choosing instead to teach as usual for the entire 75-minute period. The school ultimately closed, although not until lunch, I believe. I just told my students we’d push our reading back a class and let them go, then went to a neighboring classroom where a group had gathered around another of those TV-on-a-carts.

It wasn’t long after we heard about the third plane hitting the Pentagon. That was the point when things really did seem to be coming apart. I hung out with the students for a while, then went back to my office where a half-dozen or more colleagues had gathered. We heard about the fourth flight crashing in Pennsylvania. We watched the towers fall, speculated about the numbers of the dead, and fretted about what was to come.

Before long I was driving back to the small apartment where Vera and I then lived. She was out of town, unfortunately, and I don’t think it would be until early afternoon the phones worked and I was able to talk to her. So I’d spend the day with my cat, Sweetie, then just three months old, watching the coverage unfold.

Breaking NewsI’d learn the FAA had halted all flight operations (in fact, planes would stay grounded for three more days). At some point I learned that President Bush had been in a classroom that morning, too, reading stories with a group of elementary school kids. His continuing with the class for several minutes after learning of the second plane crash would later earn a lot of scrutiny.

All of this sticks with me, as I imagine do all of the events of that day for you, too, coming back to me today to make me stop and ponder. I’ve long forgotten all of my students in that class I canceled. I’m sure they all remember their teacher -- whose name they probably can’t recall -- coming in and telling them we’d put off discussing the Aeneid until Thursday.

Later in the week we were all back in class. That Friday morning I recall teaching a seminar, a small class in which about a dozen upperclassmen sat around a large table. It was my 18th-century Brit lit class, although I don’t remember what our reading was that day.

A student had been talking and she’d just finished. I opened my mouth to respond, and in the brief space of silence in between we heard something that made us all stop for a moment. A plane.

We looked at each other, saying nothing. It was a sound we hadn’t heard all week. A meaningful interruption. I’ll bet my students probably remember that moment a lot more than all of the other ones we shared together that semester.

I know I do.

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