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How Sept. 11, 2001, transformed my life

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 11, 2002


SAN ANGELO, Texas -- I have never been one for joining organizations and mass celebrations. Earlier this year, I did, however, return to New York when the families of those who lost relatives in the World Trade Center attacks were honored.

I do not plan to attend any more such events, ceremonies that ostensibly say something about us as a people, that demonstrate our steadfastness as a nation. Like many other Americans -- both who lost friends and relatives and who did not -- I have made a separate peace with Sept. 11, and I have radically transformed my personal life for the better. At least I hope so.

A letter from Austin resident Carol Anne Kennedy, published in the Dallas Morning News, made me realize that I have changed as a direct result of the terrorist attacks in New York and the nation's capital.

Kennedy's letter: "I want to ask every American who continues to complain about Mondays: How was your Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001? I am grateful for my job. I am more tolerant. I appreciate the freedom, and feel the right to lift up my skirt so I can walk faster, or for any other reason. I give more compliments. I celebrate diversity, because I still believe we can all work together, no matter what. I recycle much more than I throw away. There is new life in my commitment to my teenager (he's still trying to kill it!). I take a deep breath of fresh air every chance I get."

Except for the "lift up my skirt" thing, Kennedy's letter describes me today.

In no particular order, these are some of the ways that I changed: I always had refused to spend big bucks on anything except my daughter's needs and wants, books and travel. Everything else was a luxury.

One of my worse sins of cheap-skate-ism was letting the paint on my 1991 Blazer go to pot, to the point that rust was about to invade. A fine-running SUV looked like an abandoned hulk because I did not give a damn. What nonsense, I thought one fair morning and drove straight to a paint shop and splurged for the $1,000 job that was on sale for $899.

Next, I wiped my sweaty brow and drove to Tom K Auto Service. There, I had my air conditioner fixed. For three years, I had driven the length of the state in misery because I had been too cheap to get the air fixed.

Until Sept. 11, I had used my job at the St. Petersburg Times as an excuse for not completing my screenplay. Suddenly, however, that excuse made no sense. Even as smoke still rose from ground zero, I threw myself into the script and finished the first draft in 10 weeks. Two months later, I had rewritten it and entered it in two screenwriting contests. Currently, it is being read by the folks at Sundance.

After mailing the screenplay, I had another commitment to keep with myself: In 1988, I begin writing a young adult novel about a teenage girl and an injured gopher tortoise. Using several excuses, such as teaching full time and writing a column, I put the manuscript aside after a few months, and I did not return to it until this year.

Again, the horror of Sept. 11 obliterated my excuses for not finishing the book. I set aside the original effort, started from scratch in March and completed the first draft in July. When Joan Berish, a gopher tortoise researcher in Gainesville, finishes reading the manuscript for scientific accuracy, I shall send it to my agent in New York.

My life has changed in still other ways.

When I decided to accept a one-semester professorship at Angelo State University, I also decided to do what had been unthinkable before: I gave my entire personal book collection to an area Unitarian church. The books had defined my existence in ways that I do not attempt to describe.

But I can say this much about them: They imprisoned me. I could not rest around them. They were a perpetual distraction. Each time a storm threatened to hit the area, I worried myself sick about their safety. Would Coquina Key flood? How would I get my books to high ground? Would my roof blow off, or would a tree crash through a wall? What would I do if I lost my treasure? Indeed, I feared hurricane season.

I have noticed another change: When I was a writing teacher before coming to the Times, I was impatient with the young people in my care. I am almost ashamed to acknowledge that I saw myself as the "boss." My students were problems. Now, I see myself as their ally, their mentor, their tutor, their friend. They are not problems. They are people who can benefit from my experience and knowledge.

Yes, the horrible acts and the carnage of Sept. 11 gave a new perspective. Like Carol Anne Kennedy of Austin, I am more tolerant. I give more compliments. I take a deep breath of fresh air every chance I get.

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