Christmas cookies: thoughts of Sandy Hook

cookies

A year ago today, I started making Christmas cookies, put the dough in my fridge to get it ready for rolling.

Then I did a load of laundry — I’d needed to, for a while, but focused on just darks, in case I needed to pack.

In case I needed to pack for funerals.

And then I woke up the next morning and started checking my email obsessively, my work mail already forwarding to my Gmail, so I wouldn’t miss it like I’d missed the phone call on Friday afternoon.

It came while I was on the 88 bus, back from the Tea Party Museum and lunch at Flour.

I called Sarah, made plans, got in my car and went to Target, buying a new notebook, pencils — in case I was going to be outside –, Advil and tissues.

And then we left.

Before we had, I took my cookie dough out of the red melamine bowl, wrapped it in Glad Press and Seal and stuck it in the freezer.

I sent out a Facebook message, tentatively cancelling a Christmas gathering I had planned for that Wednesday. I didn’t know when I’d be home.

We drove through the rain, saving receipts at tolls, refreshing Apple Maps, looking up the NPR affiliate for each region we drove through, trying to guess which station was closest without knowing Connecticut geography.

We showed up first at the newsroom and were directed back to the highway, toward the hotel. The directions didn’t make sense. We couldn’t find anywhere to stop for food along the way, but we couldn’t eat, so it didn’t matter.

The next night, coming back from a Monroe Town Council meeting, we were starving, but the hotel restaurant had stopped serving. We ate untoasted plain bagels and Nutrigrain bars from the Shakespeare Room, and candy canes.

Candy canes and Advil and plates of soggy room service fries, passed around the table in a hotel suite, transformed into a five-person work station with laptops and chargers and Heritage Hotel notepads and cell phones that would ring when someone else left a funeral or couldn’t get close enough at a wake.

Someone handed me one last candy cane when I left, and I kept it in the pocket of my pea coat for at least a month after.

It’s on my bookcase now. I haven’t eaten a candy cane since.

I haven’t listened to Silent Night, either, not since it played at so many memorials and individual funerals.

I had a short Twitter conversation yesterday with someone I met there — the photographer who shot the picture that was my cell phone background for weeks after, luminaries on a front lawn spelling out “HOPE” — and he said it before I could:

We came back Wednesday night and were told to take Thursday off. I slept until afternoon and then spent the rest of daylight baking cookies, the dough now a little too firm after almost a week in the freezer.

I had a set of Christmas cookie cutters, trees and stars and snowflakes and reindeer. It’s not a full set anymore. I threw out the angel-shaped one, because looking at it made me cry.

Someone had decorated the tree in our hotel lobby with paper angels — six big angels, 20 little ones. One in a nationwide chorus of pop-up memorials featuring 26 angels.

I have a stick of butter on my kitchen counter right now, warming to room temperature, and in a minute I’ll hunt down the baking powder and sprinkles and my new hand-me-down mixer and the handful of cookie cutters that don’t make me cry.

I’m going to cry anyways. Christmas last year was a haze. But I get it back this year, mostly, picking out the perfect presents for the people I love, hanging an ornament from each family vacation on the fir tree in my parents’ living room, baking my favorite sugar cookies in festive shapes.

And in my heart all season will be the at least 27 families for whom the meaning of the winter holidays — to say nothing of the experience of daily life — has been forever altered.

The parents of James, Charlotte, Daniel, Jessica, Caroline, Olivia, Catherine, Josephine, Dylan, Chase, Jesse, Ana, Emilie, Madeline, Noah, Avielle, Jack, Allison, Grace and Benjamin.

In Connecticut, New York, Utah and wherever else they are, there are at least 27 families for whom the peace and cheer we wish each other this time of year no longer has the same meaning.

Christmas has always been one of my favorite holidays because everyone goes out of their way to be nice to each other, because everyone’s happy for about a whole month.

Everyone acts like a six-year-old in the best possible way, everyone loves.

What if we tried that all year?

9/11, looking back

I don’t remember where I was when it happened, when the planes hit.

No one told me it had happened — I was 11, I was in school, they made a decision not to tell, which my teachers steadfastly stuck to, I guess, even while others turned on the news, made phone calls, started to cry.

So I don’t remember where I was when it happened, but I remember the weight of the air in Londonderry Middle School that day, the feeling that something was going on, the fragments of conversations I could overhear but not understand.

And I remember where I was when someone finally did tell me. On the school bus, after a 2:35 p.m. regular dismissal. I can see the substitute bus driver’s embroidered bucket hat and and denim barn coat as she pulled up to the stoplight at Mammoth Road and 102.

I can quote her verbatim still, but I won’t, now.

She told us the country was shutting down, little by little, because the World Trade Center had been bombed. Planes crashed. They were closing airports, Disneyworld.

And when I think about it, I’m still 11, running across the street and through my yard and up to my house and bursting into tears as soon as my dad answered the door and asking him what happened.

—–

Eleven and a half years later and now that was half my life ago and now I’m standing in the living room of my apartment, hovering, late for work but unable to get going until I make a decision.

It’s Friday, April 19 and our neighboring cities are on lockdown for a manhunt, looking for a terrorist not far from my own age, someone I’ll later find out is also the alleged murderer of Officer Sean Collier, a name I haven’t yet learned, a name that won’t be in the news until I put it there.

But right now I’m standing in my living room, watching my roommate, my best friend, sleep on an air mattress, having ceded her room to her visiting mother.

It was a 5 a.m. text from Watertown that did it for me, that woke me up and picked me up and dropped me down into a new world, where it’s scary to even go outside and you don’t have answers to anything anymore and don’t know when you will again. And now I’m wondering — can I do that to Becca?

—–

In the end, I compromised. By which I mean took the easy road out. I put on my work shoes so I’d click-click-click as I walked around the kitchen, made as much noise as possible opening cabinets. That, and a similar text to the first one I’d gotten, did the trick. And then I explained.

And then I went to work, where I had more to explain, on a mass scale. Where I had to pause and take a deep breath before hitting “Tweet” that morning, almost able to see individual worlds and lives change as I did.

And I never understood the decisions made by my school administrators on Sept. 11, 2001 until today, right now, 12 years later, when I remembered April.

—–

Sometime after the fact, I think they explained it as, they wanted to let our parents tell us. We were too young to know how to deal with it — they didn’t know how to deal with it.

I have always, always hated being kept in the dark, not knowing what’s going on. It’s why I didn’t like going to bed as a little kid — not because I thought I’d be missing out on something fun, but because I didn’t know what I’d be missing out on.

So I remember being angry at how they handled it. I remember hearing after the fact that guidance counselors, administrators — someone — would pull kids out of their classrooms if a relative had called because they had family in New York, or near D.C., or flying that day, pull them out and tell them something like, “Your dad is OK.” And that would be it. And I remember not understanding why that was better, thinking how agonizing that would be — why wouldn’t their dad be OK, what had gone wrong?

But 12 years later, looking back, I’m so glad to have had those extra six hours where the world still made sense.

The Boston Marathon is everything that’s right with the world.

It can’t have been later than noon today that I turned to Torie, a ringing cowbell to one side of us and waving American flags to the other, splitting the distance between the C line train tracks and the Beacon Street curb.

Couldn’t have been more than three hours before it happened.

“I love this holiday,” I said to her. “The Boston Marathon is everything that’s right with the world.”

I was exaggerating, at the time, but I’m not now.

I’m not a runner. I don’t run. Think it’s boring. Ditto for watching sporting events, usually. I just discovered I get ESPN last week, looking for ESPN2 to catch UMass Lowell in the Frozen Four.

But I am a Bostonian. I was born at Brigham and Women’s hospital, where today SWAT teams swarmed and 26 patients were–are being–treated for various injuries.

I am a Bostonian, and so when I got to pick my day off this week, compensating for a Sunday shift, I didn’t hesitate to ask for Monday. It is not a sporting event; it is the soul of the city made tangible.

To be in Boston on Marathon Monday is to feel a buzz in the air, like it’s the last day of classes before summer break, or it’s 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve and your boss just sent out an email that you can all go home at 3. It’s feeling a sense of excitement, euphoria, electricity, and to know that sense is shared by everyone you pass. It’s high-fives from strangers, it’s sidewalk barbecues, it’s families enjoying a day together, it’s even sometimes Red Sox fans celebrating a win. It’s what Disneyworld pretends to be.

To be on Heartbreak Hill, on Beacon Street, on Comm Ave, in the home stretch on Boylston–to be in Boston–during the marathon is to feel Boston’s pulse, to become a part of it. The runners are literally surging through the city’s arteries.

And cheering them on are staggeringly large crowds of thousands, who spend the day screaming themselves hoarse, rallying strangers, exclaiming names Sharpied on to arms or stenciled on to t-shirts.

You root for the home team, right? Everyone’s the home team. Doesn’t matter if their jersey says Somerville or Greater Lowell or Mexico or Australia or even New York Athletic Club. Everyone is Boston. Everyone who runs, you want them to win, whatever that means to them. You’re not out there to catch a glimpse of the elites — it’s weirdly exhilarating when you do, these world-class athletes whose names you couldn’t guess at, but maybe you recognize his running shorts or her hairstyle from the year before — but you’re not out there to see who takes home first place.

You’re out there for the charity runners clad in tutus, hamburger suits and superhero capes, raising money for sick children, for the fathers pushing their sons in wheelchairs, for the cancer survivors running to prove they can, for the non-athletes honoring the memory of a loved one who died too soon. Runners like the ones who were crossing the finish line this afternoon, when Back Bay rattled.

They are out there to support a cause, a charity, a relative, their own dream–whatever. And you’re out there to support them. It’s a 26.2-mile chain reaction of support, and today it stretched longer than it ever has before, when a collaborative spreadsheet cropped up, full of Bostonians offering lodging to stranded strangers, when exhausted marathoners reportedly kept going until they reached Mass General and could donate blood, when the Red Cross announced they’d met their need after only a handful of hours.

When I said it this morning, I thought it was hyperbole. But the Boston Marathon is everything that is right.

Connecticut, two days out

Recent discovery: an efficient way to shut down a conversation is to somehow work in the phrase “funerals of children.”

Like, if someone asks you, “What kind of things did you cover?” you then say “For the last two days I wrote exclusively about the funerals of children,” and it’s done. Even if you endeavor to keep the emotion out of your voice, even if you exert physical effort to keep tears and tremors at bay. Instant end to discussion.

I’m sorry that is my answer to that question, to most questions right now. I’m sorry because I know it’s an uncomfortable thing to have to respond to.

It’s an uncomfortable thing to do.

But I didn’t go down there expecting to be comfortable. I didn’t go expecting it to be easy. I didn’t go thinking I’d leave without a lasting effect. I didn’t even go knowing that I could do it.

But I went knowing that I had to.

I allowed myself to be repeatedly assigned to writing about the funerals of children—put myself in a position where I had to absorb all the beautiful, magical, innocent things about these kids, only to list them following the phrase “one of 20 children killed in last Friday’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School,”—not because I wanted to. But because I had to.

Because those children deserve their stories to be told, their lives to be honored, in a respectful and sensitive way. They deserve that at least.

James, Charlotte, Jessica, Daniel, Caroline, Olivia, Josephine, Dylan, Madeline, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, Ana, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Avielle, Benjamin and Allison deserve that.

I can’t help their families, not really. I can’t ease their pain or bring back their sons and daughters or give them answers. What I could do was make sure the few I had the chance write about didn’t become just names on a list, but were remembered as a future veterinarian, a breakfast sandwich enthusiast, a rescuer of worms on rainy days, an expert shoe-tier and table setter.

And that’s what I did. And that’s why when you ask me what I wrote about, I’m not going to give you a non-answer or tell you about the municipal meeting I covered or the press conference I went to.

That doesn’t matter. These children do. These 20 lives do.

Monroe, Connecticut

As we got in her car tonight, Sarah said to me she was almost glad we were covering a meeting tonight. It’d give a sense of normalcy.

That ended up being the theme of our story, more or less. Normalcy, and how the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School are going to regain it as they resume classes, days after what Monroe Town Council Chairwoman Enid Lipeles called the worst thing to ever happen in America.

Normalcy.

Monroe has a first selectman in addition to a Town Council. I don’t know what those are. But I also don’t know where Monroe is, other than “next to Newtown.”

Sarah talked to one of the town councilors, the lone Republican, while I was interviewing the first selectman in his office. The councilor, he told her how the municipal government there works. She told me later the first selectman is like a town manager, the town council like a board of selectmen.

So that’s how I’m thinking of them, because that’s what Wilmington and Tewksbury have. Normalcy.

The first selectman in Monroe is named Steve. His older daughter went to Assumption College, played soccer there. I’m the same age as his younger daughter.

He told me this while we were talking in his office, talking about the in-progress move of Sandy Hook Elementary School to Monroe’s Chalk Hill Middle School. He told me the classrooms were being unloaded into moving trucks. One classroom into one truck, so the rooms could be recreated in the new school, for a sense of normalcy.

He gestured to a poster on his wall, to a bookcase next to it. Told me that if that picture were on that wall in Sandy Hook, it would be on that same wall in Chalk Hill. The bookcase, too. Everything. The backpacks that got left behind when they—

And then he choked up, couldn’t finish. Started talking about how he hadn’t choked up with CNN, with any of the networks earlier that day, but had for the first time at tonight’s meeting.

When I looked up from my notebook, he noticed tears in my eyes. He called me out with a smile: “Not you, too!”

“It was the backpacks.”

Look down or something, he said back, because we can’t look at each other. It’ll only be worse.

Then he told me I reminded him of his daughter.

I get the feeling a lot of people are seeing reflections of their children in unfamiliar and unexpected faces this week.

I’m seeing children everywhere, myself.

In the pool at the hotel where our satellite newsroom is set up. In booths in the Panera where Sarah and I filed our story from tonight. In photos of funerals. In my mind’s eye after a media briefing outside the Monroe Police Department, while the fire marshal tells me about crews retrofitting the middle school for use by younger students.

Things you’d never think of. Things these people shouldn’t have to think of. The handrails at Chalk Hill are designed for middle schoolers. The gaps between the railings are too big for the hands of younger kids.

I have this image in my head of tiny hands grasping frantically at the railings, flailing, reaching for the safety and security of something to hold onto. Reaching for normalcy.

I hope all those kids have a bigger, adult-size hand to hold.

A non-exhaustive list of female journalists who serve as better role models than fictional characters

Like the rest of the Internet, I grew enraged today after reading the Huffington Post College Blog piece “A struggle of not struggling.”

Okay, I’m lying to you. I didn’t read it.

Sure, I skimmed it well enough to understand that, as a freelance journalist lucky enough to be making a stable income off a series of 10-(sometimes as much as 20!)-cent-a-word pieces for a variety of outlets, fewer than two months out of college, my urban apartment must be some sort of magical blanket fort furnished entirely with bricks of Ramen noodles, to which I occasionally return after some madcap escapade for a relaxing night of pirated HBO programming.

But the blogger, in what I imagine was an attempt at levity, managed to lose me with her very first sentence:

“Like most female journalists, I assume, I only grew up with two real inspirations in my life: Carrie Bradshaw and Harriet the Spy.”

That makes me want to cry.

I did not grow up idolizing either a sex columnist too divorced from reality to know how to use her oven, or a prying child who relates to others only as objects for her entertainment. I did not idolize these people—these fictional characters—because they. Are. Not. Journalists. (Nor, I contend, would be a person who finds them inspirational.)

The women that I did and do idolize were and are muckrakers, groundbreakers and risk-takers. Here are a few of them:

  • Nelly Bly
  • Joan Didion
  • Carlotta Gall
  • Ida Tarbell
  • Helen Thomas
  • Susan Orlean
  • Anna Quindlen
  • Christiane Amanpour
  • Christine Brennan
  • Nackey Loeb
  • Katharine Graham

This list, as I said, is non-exhaustive. It’s mostly historical and disregards a lot of women working today of whom I am simply not aware. With the exception of two additions by a friend (who, by the way, is a female journalist and recent graduate already embarking on an impressive career), these were simply the first names that popped into my mind, with no research or even Googling. For every name that is there, there are several other remarkable female journalists who do inspire me, but whose names were not at my fingertips.

Also left off the list are the myriad brilliant women I know personally and have been fortunate enough to work alongside at alt-weeklies, at suburban dailies, at culture magazines, at public radio stations, in the pressroom at the Massachusetts Statehouse, in classrooms and at student publications.

They are other freelancers, they are staff writers, they are investigative reporters, they are critics, they are editors, they are photographers, they are bloggers. They follow their passion, they expose injustice, they inform the public, they entertain, they fight the system, they make me think.

These are women who do not need pop culture icons to legitimize their career choice, their ways of life.

They—and their male counterparts—did not enter this field because it looked glamorous. If I can be presumptuous enough for a quick second to lump them into a giant group and try to speak for them, I believe many of them are journalists for the same reason I am: because when they see a problem—in their lives, in society—they want to uncover its roots, not to self-indulgently theorize about them in a public venue. They don’t accept boredom and complacency; they chase what they want—be it the truth, be it an adventure—and they share it. They may not be able to fix what’s broken, but they can bring light to it, and that lets the healing begin.

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Christiane Amanpour doesn’t have Anderson Cooper’s eyes

So that makes her totally less worthwhile as a human being, right?

I’m pretty sure TMZ thinks so, based on the offensively disrespectful “news update” they titled “Christiane Amanpour — I Was Attacked in Egypt, Too!!

It’s perfectly legitimate journalism (though, for the record, I do not actually expect “journalism” to occur at TMZ) to make one of the most respected and accomplished international correspondents of our time come across like your whiny little sister who doesn’t understand why her Crayola scribble isn’t hanging on the fridge next to your Yale acceptance letter.

The contempt radiates off the first sentence:

“Not to be outdone by Anderson Cooper, ABC News reporter Christiane Amanpour just filed a report claiming she too was attacked by an angry mob in Egypt.”

Silly Christiane.  Isn’t it cute how she thinks she matters?  Look how she got harassed, too!  Just like the real reporters!

That’s nice. Now let’s go see if Anderson’s posted anything to TwitPic!

Also, it’s an awfully funny coincidence that Time Warner owns both TMZ and CNN–the network that brings us the demigod Anderson Cooper.

On Cairo

I’m currently watching the second hour of Anderson Cooper 360, live from a shadowy basement in Cairo, where it’s just after 6am and the danger hasn’t dwindled.

I pretty much lack words at the moment, but I want to acknowledge my amazement at a couple things.

One, that this didn’t become real to many people until Anderson Cooper got attacked earlier today.  As much as I admire him, a celebrity newscaster’s life is not worth more than those of the unknown journalists on the scene—nor should a reporter in danger spark more concern than an unwilling citizen stuck in a riot zone.

Two, the amazing role technology has played in this coverage.  The quality of the video from the correspondents’ Flip cams—more subtle to use in the midst of a riot—is incredible.  You can hear the sounds of glass shattering, and the colors are more vivid than most of the contents of my apartment.  Interviews are conducted via Skype in the middle of the night, allowing for the telling of compelling and elucidating personal stories without requiring dangerous transit of sources.  And of course, Twitter’s been involved from the very beginning it seems, and that’s impressive on its own.  Cooper read on-air a Tweet from the State Department, right as it was posted.

This is immediate, this is real.

And I hope it’s enough to get people interested in—and informed about—what’s going on thousands of miles away.

Knight(mare) and Day

Hey, if you like bad puns enough that you’re reading beyond the title here, maybe you also like horrible movies.

In which case, go out and purchase “Knight and Day,” which is now out on DVD.  It might be the worst 110 minutes of film to hit cinemas this year.

To celebrate this momentous occasion, here’s the review of it I wrote this summer, which, oops, um, never ended up going anywhere:

 

Less than a half hour in to Knight and Day, Tom Cruise’s character is shirtless in a cornfield, bandaging his own bullet wound after drinking tequila and crash landing a plane. It’s one of the more believable scenes the movie has to offer, and, as far as realism is concerned, the pinnacle is reached far too soon. From that point on, the amount of elements that are so obviously fake—from Cruise’s cheesy tough-guy posturing to costar Cameron Diaz’s unnaturally, artificially blue contact lenses to the over-the-top effects that would be more at home in a horror spoof or a 1980s Soviet thriller than a modern summer blockbuster—just becomes a distraction.  But maybe a distraction is necessary to keep the audience from noticing that every time there’s a particularly egregious plot hole or sticky situation that needs explaining, the screenwriters cover it up by drugging a main character and skipping forward a few scenes, a dubious little piece of trickery that occurs no fewer than five times throughout the film.