The Breakfast Table

The 9/11 Itch

Good morning, Kurt,

Last time we did this, I remember having no idea on Monday morning that so much anxiety would be involved in writing twice a day for four days. This time, I find myself wondering about people like Andrew Sullivan and Mickey Kaus, who seem to do it six times a day, five days a week, every single week. I love reading these guys—I especially love Andrew Sullivan’s Web site’s lovely blue color—but how do they do it? In fact, last night I had an anxiety dream about the entire question: I had somehow agreed to host some sort of radio talk show, and there I was, on the air for three hours, with nothing whatsoever to say. I was awakened from the nightmare by the pitiful sound of a bird caught in the chimney. Great drama ensued as we peered into the chimney and shouted scientific instructions at it like “Up! Up!” and closed the flue. A few minutes later the bird flew off, leaving me grateful for something to put into this first paragraph.

We are in a season where whoever said “The unexamined life is not worth living” must be rolling in his grave. (It’s Socrates, I just discovered by going to Google and entering “The unexamined life.” There are 8,250 listings there, including one from someone named Jessica, 21, who lives in Cincinnati and who promises that if you read her Web site, “The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living,” you will discover “my dreams, my desires … basically anything that is of significant importance to me. … I love shopping, makeup and shoes. :) I love self-expression in any shape or form.”)

In yesterday’s Times Adam Cohen wrote about a man named Erving Goffman, a sociologist who, like Socrates and Andy Warhol, apparently pretty much anticipated not just the Osbournes but, it seems to me, Jessica’s Web site and just about everything else. Goffman, Cohen writes, suggests “that we are all actors on a stage … and a main plot line is the struggle over stigmas, in which we endlessly search for defects in others and desperately try to dupe these same people into not noticing our own.” What a perfect description of life as we know it. Goffman writes: “People are actually desperately insecure about who they are and are constantly putting on little performances designed to present acceptable selves to the world.” And it’s clear that people don’t just give little performances but spend hours in rehearsal for big ones. When I was a newspaper reporter, I was always stunned at the vast numbers of people who’d just survived some awful tragedy but were willing to talk to a local TV reporter about it. My guess is that everyone in America has rehearsed an Oscar speech, and I’ve always thought that part of the reason for the uncanny hold the Miss America contest has on so many women is that they have spent hours fantasizing about that moment when they get to walk out on stage, burst into tears, and thank their parents.

Speaking of little performances, yesterday Robert Mueller was on Meet the Press attempting to sidestep questions about what the FBI knew about the terrorists. Interesting how long it’s taken for the buck to start passing, and it was no surprise to see in this morning’s papers that the FBI has now managed to hand off the blame for 9/11 to the CIA. This reminds me that I hope someone will look into what both agencies actually knew about Timothy McVeigh. Right after the Oklahoma City bombing, two men were arrested who’d followed McVeigh’s exact route prior to the bombing. It was a five-minute story, and they were released almost immediately. Their itinerary was just “a coincidence,” authorities said. I’ve always suspected they were undercover federal agents, tailing McVeigh, but just enough behind the curve to miss what was actually up.

Did you read Margaret Talbot’s piece in yesterday’s Times Magazine about the mysterious 9/11 itch affecting young girls in faraway states? A fascinating piece. It’s been a bad season for girls, I think. (A bad season for women, too, but we’ll get to that at some point.) First this alpha/beta/gamma/delta stuff about how all teen-age girls hate each other, and now these younger girls are supposed to be imagining rashes and itches and hysterically whipping themselves into some sort of mob insanity of back-scratching. I am allergic to all sorts of things, and all I could think when I read it was, did anyone check the soap in the girls’ lavatory? On the other hand, all teen-age girls do hate each other.

It’s a beautiful morning in New York City. Your turn.