9.11.2001 – Reflections

September 11th Memorial Tribute In Light 2014
Tribute in Light, in 2014, by Anthony Quintano [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons
Like so many people today, I’m reflecting on the events of that awful day 17 years ago when so many innocent people died, and so many more felt the world had turned upside down. Every American who was old enough to remember that day will probably be processing their reactions to those events for the rest of their lives.

I have very rarely said anything public about 9/11. I have several reasons for this. The biggest reason is that my own experience of that day was very unusual.

Far from Home

I don’t have the same kind of “where were you when” story that most Americans have, for the simple reason that I wasn’t here. I had left the United States five days earlier, and I was in Germany for a week-long training conference. When I first got word that something had happened, I was playing a pick-up game of basketball at a private conference center in a very small village in the German countryside, largely cut off from the world.

Breaking News

The first indication that something was wrong was when somebody ran by on an elevated walkway, yelling urgently. I couldn’t quite make out the first sentence; I think it was, “There’s a fire in New York.” The next is seared into my memory: “The World Trade Center is in the street.” And just like that, the runner was gone.

It took a couple of minutes for those of us on the court to decide what to make of this. We didn’t even fully agree on what we had heard, much less what it meant. Several of us thought it meant that there had been some sort of market crash or economic disruption; others thought it meant the WTC’s occupants had evacuated because of a literal fire. After a few moments, we decided to call the game and go looking for more information.

The Hunt for Information

It took a while to find any. First, we had to find other people. But when we did, no one actually knew anything. We had only one landline for almost 200 people to use, and the few cell phones people had stopped working almost immediately due to network congestion. So, the first fragments of information we got were just fragments. We heard all kinds of wild rumors: both towers had collapsed; neither had collapsed; the Capitol was gone; the President was dead; the President was alive but in hiding; and on and on. We even heard really outlandish things about bombers, nuclear weapons, and more. The only source of information was phone calls limited to 30 seconds at first and later relaxed to two minutes. Facts and rumors given in soundbite form over the phone (with a terrible connection and multi-second delay due to distances) were repeated, misunderstood, and repeated again. In a group of people who were all far from home, not all native speakers of English, and with only one staticky phone line for information, it was impossible to fact-check faster than rumors could come in.

After a couple of hours, we started to catch up. A friendly, local couple down the road happened to have CNN via satellite and had started recording the feed when it became clear that a big plane, not a Cessna or something, had crashed. They started sending over videotapes and summary updates every hour or two.

By the time we were able to see anything on a TV screen, we were roughly three hours behind real-time. This meant that we mostly heard about developments—real and fictional—long before we saw them. During a national tragedy that so many Americans watched live, huddled together in living rooms, classrooms, conference rooms, break rooms, and sandwich shops, we watched on a delay, thousands of miles from American soil. We grieved together, of course, but we did so with almost no contact with family or friends at home, at least for those first few days.

Processing

That conference marked the start of a year-long trip. With the exception of a couple of people whose families were directly impacted, none of us were heading home to family or friends for many months to come. And with the exception of a half-dozen or so people, I had never met any of the people around me until a couple of days earlier.

My little team was in France a few days later, where we spent much of the following year. My French at that point was rudimentary, but it didn’t take much to figure out the news headlines. At first, they wept over “La Catastrophe.” Then they screamed of “Les Attaques!” Then, when it became obvious that America would react with force, they coldly updated us on “Les Accidents.” I had hundreds of conversations about these things with French, German, Spanish, Italian, Algerian, and Moroccan nationals, among others, before I had my first chance to speak in person to anyone I knew at home about them. I felt I had heard the collective thoughts and feelings of the entire world, but only a hint of the sentiments in my own country.

Cut Off

The next year was brutal and surreal for many reasons. We tried to keep up with news from home via the Internet and phone calls home, but we were surprisingly isolated. Many events at home that year just passed us by. I remember waiting for my flight home nearly a year later and picking up a copy of USA Today (not something I regularly read) in hopes of filling in gaps in my knowledge of non-terrorism, non-war events at home. Two of the top stories asked who would be the American Idol and who would be kicked off the island. I had absolutely no clue what they were talking about. Many other stories left me just as befuddled about everything from politics to sports.

For those of us who were abroad that year, 9/11 was a horrifying short-circuit, making it even harder to stay connected with “ordinary” life in the United States. While we wish as much as anyone that the 9/11 attacks had never happened, we also felt—and will always feel—isolated and cut off by that day. Our answers to the “where were you” question will always sound alien, strange, even weird. To some people I have met, those answers even sound un-American or somehow hostile.

Silence

I have mostly kept these things to myself because most people have had a hard time relating to them. In the first few years after 9/11, people tended to react in one of two ways to anything I might say: (1) silence, followed by a quick change in subject, or (2) anger, as if by being abroad during a national tragedy I had somehow chosen to cut myself off from my country.

Reactions in the last few years have mellowed, and now I mostly get the kind of look you might get if you said something completely unintelligible to someone you had just met: an uneasy stare, an unsuccessful attempt to form words, another second of silence, and a sudden shift in conversation.

Why Am I Writing This?

So, why am I speaking about this now? Why does it matter what I have to say? To be honest, a big part of it is just to let it out, to say the things I have mostly kept to myself for 17 years. But another reason is this: I hope it might be helpful to someone. Maybe someone out there is still struggling with their own feelings about that day and feels they can’t share because they don’t have a “story” that sounds “good enough” or “American enough.”

If that’s you, you’re not alone. Please reach out to me or someone else to talk about it.

I also hope this encourages at least a few people to be more empathetic. American life is full of anger, especially around politics, right now. But one of the lessons of 9/11 is that we are all human, and we all hurt, even though all of our stories are different, and sometimes we really can come together in a meaningful way that transcends our tribal squabbles.

If you’d like to talk for any reason, shoot me a note. If anything in this offended you or seems self-centered somehow, please accept my sincere apologies; that is not my intent at all.

Never forget those who died that awful day. And go hug someone you love.

New Job – Quick Thoughts

As many of you know, I started a new job with the new year. Yesterday was my first day as a Senior Attorney in the litigation group of the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP. It was a great day, and I’m very excited about the work ahead. I will be doing two types of work: both representing clients in their litigation matters and developing software platforms to augment and streamline the practice of law. It’s a truly unique opportunity to combine two of my skill sets and passions, and I can’t wait to get started in earnest.

I will, of course, miss the outstanding justices and wonderful former colleagues at the First Court of Appeals. But all good things in this life must come to an end, and this next chapter promises to be a great one!

What I’m Up to Now

If you read this blog regularly, you know I have a lot on my plate. Here’s a quick snapshot of what I’m up to.

It’s safe to say 2016 is off to a busy start.

Cereblitz has LAUNCHED!

Cereblitz makes the first fully-customizable cart for customizable products

As you know if you have been reading this site, I have been working on Cereblitz, a first-of-its-kind e-commerce platform for selling custom and customizable products. I’m proud to announce that IT’S ALIVE! We have officially launched our platform!

Cereblitz makes the first fully-customizable cart for customizable products

As of right now, you can sign up to run your site on the Cereblitz platform. Plans start at $50/month. If you sign up for our email list today, I’ll give you a special discount that you can use to save 20% on a monthly plan or 40% on a yearly plan.

If you want to see the system in action, please check out SportAndSafety.com, a small business that Sarah and I have launched to sell sporting goods and safety products. You can also look at safeathand.com, a business that I helped found many years ago (and have since sold) and that now runs on the Cereblitz platform.

Don’t forget to bookmark the Cereblitz blog and follow us on your favorite social network:

Getting Started and Moving On

This is my first week running my new company, Cereblitz. So far, it has gone wonderfully. I’ve already had a couple of meetings with clients, and my ecommerce platform is close to launching.

If you haven’t already done so, please remember to sign up for our email list, follow @Cereblitz on Twitter, and like the Cereblitz page on Facebook.

Decorative Scales Of Justice In The Courtroom

One of the side-effects of this, of course, is that I have left legal practice behind. I started law school ten years ago, and started my first legal job exactly seven years ago today. And now, I am not practicing law at all. It’s a little surreal. On the other hand, I have been programming almost my entire life (since I was learning to read), and I was running a software development company before law school, so this is not really a second career. It’s more like a return to my first career.

Anyway, thanks for joining me on this thrilling, crazy ride. Please remember to sign up for my newsletter so I can keep you up to date on everything!

Fatherhood

In case you haven’t heard, I am now a proud daddy! Our adorable little girl, Catherine Jane Cottrell, arrived last month. Mom and baby are both doing well.

   
     
Needless to say, I’ve been busy ever since. It’s so worth it.

Stack Overflow Moderator Elections, Part II

In case you missed my first post on this topic, I am a candidate in the 2015 Stack Overflow moderator elections. I made it through the nomination phase (32 candidates) and primary (30 candidates), and now I’m in the general election with only 10 candidates for 3 spots remaining! I am extremely honored and humbled to have received so many votes in the primary phase, especially with so many amazing candidates. Thank you to all who supported me!

I would really appreciate your vote in the general election! I would also urge you to vote for Martijn Pieters and meager, though I don’t think you can go wrong with anyone in this amazing group.

Larry Niven Programming Quote

Please remember to read all of the remaining candidates’ nomination comments and candidate questionnaire answers.

4 Lessons from Moving

Well, it has been about a month since we moved, so it’s time for me to share a few thoughts about it.

You Need Professionals. Moving is a huge pain. So are the processes of selling and buying houses. You know that. I know that. But there are people out there who refuse to let it get them down. We worked with some amazing people. Our real estate agent and mortgage broker made an awesome team and headed off a potential disaster when one of the other parties involved ran into problems. Our movers were similarly, awesomely efficient and professional. If you are looking to move in the Houston, Texas area, give me a shout; I would love to recommend them to you.

Keys Were Everywhere. One of the biggest surprises for me was just how many unidentified keys we had floating around. When I was a little kid, I thought old keys were awesome. Now, they are just unrecognized but potentially important clutter, the worst kind of tchotchke. My solution: henceforth, every key we own gets cataloged in Evernote, with a photo, a description of what it does, and, if we have multiple copies, both the number of copies and where they are stored.

Paper Was Everywhere. We also have a veritable sea of paper floating around. The solution to this is easy: go paperless. The best way to do this, hands down, is the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 Deluxe Bundle Scanner for PC. It includes the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 scanner, which is incredibly fast, accurate, flexible, and user-friendly, as well as a full copy of Adobe Acrobat (Standard). It has already helped us digitize a tremendous amount of paper, with more to follow. Of course, Evernote is indispensable for this task, too.

You Need a Budget. Finally, of course, You Need a Budget (affectionately known as YNAB), about which I’ve written before, was also indispensable for the budgeting and money-management side of things.

Disclaimer: the Evernote, YNAB, and Amazon links in this post are affiliate links. I may receive site credits or a portion of the sale for purchases and registrations made through those links.

Ch-Ch-Changes

As many of my readers know, I have a lot going on right now. We’re expecting our first child, Catherine, in May!

Face 2 Color - fixed

Profile - fixed

Meanwhile, my wife and I are selling our current house in Houston later this week and moving to a Houston suburb (more house, less money, good times). Things are a little busy.

That said, I am going to try to post here a lot more frequently. After all, I started this blog almost 14 years ago, back when “blog” was barely a word, and not one I’d ever heard before. Feel free to hold my feet to the fire! I really want to make more use of this space.

Want to follow what’s going on here? Subscribe by filling in the box on the left, and I’ll keep you posted!

Site Move

This site has found a new home, on a VPS (Virtual Private Server). My prior host had let me down far too often by failing to install current technology and by repeatedly installing spam filters that silently blocked (and in some cases, permanently deleted) only about half of my spam, along with hundreds of good emails over the last few months. This, even though I asked them repeatedly to disable all spam filters on my site permanently, which they swore they had done. Very disappointing.

Fortunately, the move went smoothly. The result: the site is about 2000% faster than it was 24 hours ago. If you run into any problems, let me know!