September 11, 2011

"I thought I’ll only be alive for maybe a minute longer, so I only have to keep trying to figure out how to save my life for one more minute."

"I told myself I can’t give up until I pass out. I remember that I hoped for a fast death. Then something switched in me. I was okay dying.... Now I realize that the time when I could not breathe was probably less than a minute. I had accepted the pain and my death after only 30 seconds."

Penelope Trunk describes her post-9/11 path, from high achievement in New York City to retreat, of a kind, in Wisconsin.

Who would seek this gift of knowing what you would think if you believed you were living the last 30 seconds of your life? But if that gift arrived... what would it look like?


Mel said...

It is all God given grace.

Shouting Thomas said...

It's a good bit, and certainly true of the high achiever type.

From the article:

In New York City, anyone who can manage living there with kids is doing something great in their career. For those who have kids, there is only room for high achievers in that city.

No, plenty of high achievers decide to raise their kids in the far reaches of Brooklyn, Queens, Westchester and the Jersey suburbs (where you don't have to make millions to survive) while still availing themselves of the rat race in NYC.

Manhattan is not all there is to NYC.

I can understand, however, that the trauma of 9/11 would send you running as far away as possible.

PatCA said...

Loved the essay.

As someone who survived cancer, I can relate to leaving the achievement track, or at least the perpetual anxiety of it. Well, sort of. One's nature always resurfaces, but being in the moment is fabulously easier.

edutcher said...

Her description of her survival reminds me of the account of a recon lieutenant in Merrill's Marauders, as the outfit was wracked by mental and physical exhaustion, typhus, malaria, and constant privation.

"All you have to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other", he noted.

Sometimes that's enough. Sometimes it's all you can do.

PS She hasn't really slowed down yet - but she's getting there.

The Drill SGT said...

I still see a bit of NYC over achiever behind her eyes:

What if the payoff for being together for three meals a day is not enough to compensate for the opportunities my kids miss?

How about the pleasure of letting your kids walk to school alone, and catch frogs in the creek on the way home. Breath clean air andwhat the moon come up over a crystal cear lake while cooking smores over a fire.

relax... Enjoy your kids...

Don't obsess about having failed to get them into the correct NYC pre-school.

sydney said...

From the article: I find myself continually obsessed with being great, making my kids great, finding the best opportunities

The epiphany didn't stick. It rarely does. It's our lot to continually struggle against the temptation to slide back into the error of our ways.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

I live on a farm outside Darlington, WI, a very, very small rural community where most people are happy. Most people grew up here. Most people do not expect to leave. Most people do not expect to be the greatest at what they do. They just want to have a nice life. I do not fit here, to be honest.

Good article.

It is sad that she doesn't have any friends in the town she lives in, or doesn't count them among her friends. She would fit in if she could only allow herself to do it.

Re: Death
My husband nearly died many years ago (before I knew him) from a bleeding ulcer. He was almost dead from blood loss and has said that the experience at the end was one of peaceful acceptance and reflection. And that it changed his outlook on life and death.

Life is precious and to be treasured. Life is to be used to do something for others whenever you can. To do good even it is not remarkable or a 'high achievement'.

Death isn't fearful. Dying is but death is not. Death is the ultimate mystery of the end and should be accomplished after you have lived a good life. Otherwise you have wasted your opportunity.

Thus sayeth the Dumbplumber.

vet66 said...

The reality of near death should be a peace that comes with it's cold breath on your neck. The grace that calms in the knowledge that we are in the loving arms of a forgiving GOD trumps our fear of dying. That is a strength that knows no bounds.

Our time on this earth is short. It should be spent welcoming each day for it's possibilities. The riches that count are not bought at a store or online but in the glorious things we take for granted. Life and love are miracles to be enjoyed. You might run from the truth but you will just die tired while missing a lot of really good scenery.

Scott said...

After 9/11, there are many times I have wanted to move away from New York City and the financial industry. But given what I do for a living, it's harder to do as I grow older. My new job is in Jersey City further away from the Hudson River, and I'm only 9 stories up, so I don't have to feel the building sway in strong winds. It helps a bit.

But when I see Port Authority or JCPD cops at PATH stations wearing flak jackets and carrying M4 assault rifles, I feel that the "security theater" is just as brutalizing as the event which is used as its justification. I feel trapped by circumstance. I just have to live with it I guess.

DADvocate said...

We need all sorts of people in this world, over achievers, factory workers, garbage men, etc. Sometimes they are mixed together with interesting results.

Ms. Trunk strikes me as continuing to be a high achiever, just in a different location. I've met many people who think that changing their location changes them. Doesn't necessarily work like that. I'm sure she's more comfortable in a relatively remote area where acts of terror are much less likely to occur and she doesn't see daily reminders of her 9/11 experiences.

One of the things I like best about where I now live is that I have no memories of the first 38 years of my life associated with it. I'm glad Ms. Trunk has found some peace in her life, but I don't think she's changes as much as she believes she has.

m stone said...

Mel: It is all God given grace.

No greater truth.

pm317 said...

I am sorry that I am not inspired by her story. It would be inspiring if she told it straight without being so judgmental about whatever way of life that she feels is inferior and is forced to suffer through now because of those 30 secs. You make your choices and have the courage to own them up. There are plenty of people who went on with their lives in the city after 9/11.

Brent said...

In a world of cynical, self-centered, and damaging writers such as Andrew Sullivan and Maureen Dowd, Penelope Trunk is a breath of fresh air.

Penelope is a unafraid to be real, wherever that takes her, and yet she builds up and doesn't play to the us vs them agenda of almost every other writer and blogger in the world. The Sullivans, Dowds, et al are pus-oozing robbers of all that's good in life. Penelope, even with her harsh realities is the complete opposite. She is an inspiration to all.

And it's not just about different jobs writers have that explains the difference between the Sullivan's and their ilk and Penelope; it's the sickness that has been self allowed to linger. In Sullivan's case, that is not his HIV. It is his , as others have pointed out on this blog, his hedonistic impulses that inform every bit of his agenda. He denies it. And that makes him, like so many others, a sad liar, someone with no credibility left to benefit them in their explanations on any subject.Sullivan made his choices. It's not too late to repent and turn. But until he does, nothing he says or writes has the possibility of being inspirational to anyone.

Thank you for turning me on to Penelope 4 years ago, Ann. I have loved her ever since.

MGR said...

Most of us do NOT have such a dramatic life altering event. Most of DO have some type of life altering event. That's just life.

... and over time, it's been my experience, that we become more closely or more of what we are. I've never been blessed with patience, and as i've gotten older, I've become even less patient.

As Gus McCrae said from the movie Lonesome Dove, it really is the simple things that are the best things in life.

ndspinelli said...

When I was a criminal investigator in KC, I had a shot fired @ me in a neighborhood I had been investigating a nasty gang rape. I was off duty, heading toward Bryant's bbq in the hood. My bride and a couple from St. Cloud, Mn. were also in my car. The shot hit the passenger window and believe me the pop of a car window when hit w/ a bullet is real loud. My wife's head went down. I started looking for the wound. The bullet had missed her, she just buckled over in reflex.

About 15 years later I was working a surveillance on an insurance fraud in rural Wi. An angry, alcoholic man armed w/ a shotgun snuck up to my van and pointed the gun @ me. I was quite certain he was going to kill me. By the grace of God, both myself and my loving bride were spared. I can tell you the more terrifying time was thinking my wife had been shot. Incidents like this, that too many people have experienced, are double edged swords. They give you a clarity that few will know. However, they leave scar tissue. But, it always reminds people who have endured this, La vita e bella! I truly admire people who have the life is beautiful attitude w/o having gone through trauma.

ndspinelli said...

MGR, Gus has to be one of my all time favorite characters. And, Robert Duvall nailed him! He absolutely hit it out of the park.

ironrailsironweights said...

But when I see Port Authority or JCPD cops at PATH stations wearing flak jackets and carrying M4 assault rifles

When I see them, I think that if there actually were any terror threat, they'd make a nice juicy target for suicide bombers.


BJM said...

My thirty seconds was after a pre-seat belt 60's car crash when we were t-boned at an intersection and my door flew open.

As I flew horizontally a few feet above the pavement it was so surreal that I thought, okay this is going to really, really hurt or I'm already dead.

You know the scene in Gladiator when the dying Maximus is skimming above his surroundings? It was exactly like that.

Luckily I landed on a wet lawn with only minor scrapes and bruises (thankfully, everyone involved walked away with minor injuries).

In my early twenties at the time, I was too young to have much of an epiphany and am by nature a glass half full type, but I no longer fear death or the space just before.

As I sat beside my dying mother in the summer before 9/11 I recognized that space again. It is peaceful.

I believe that we draw solace and inspiration from many sources, but a catastrophic event or near death experience has a way of clarifying one's life and priorities.

Trunk is still skimming above her old life.

Michael K said...

I feel for that young lady but, when I think of 9/11, I think of this man. Because Morgan Stanley hired Rick Rescorla as their chief of security, the entire firm survived 9/11. The only employees (of over 3,000) who die that day, were Rick and two of his security guards who were caught looking for stragglers.

He defied the Port Authority which told Tower 2 occupants to stay at their desks after Tower 1 was hit by the airliner. His response was "piss off!" and he marched the whole company down the single fire escape using his bull horn to sing Cornish drinking songs to calm people down as they descended 40 stories.

He saved a lot of lives in the Ia Drang Calley when he was a platoon leader. That was earlier.

Jeffrey said...

I just looked around Penelope's blog. Jeez, that was some awful reading. That is one woman I would never want to meet. Who writes an "about" section in which she uses the third-person and praises this "Penelope" person?

Penelope started writing career advice for a new generation of workers just as generation Y was becoming a hot topic. That was lucky for her career. Or she is good at spotting trends. Or both. In any case, today Penelope is the author of a bestselling career advice book and the number one career blog.

George is getting angry.

Also, on her blog she includes this on the front page:

Penelope Trunk founded three startups, including Brazen Careerist. Her career advice runs in 200 newspapers. Inc. Magazine called her "the world's most influential guidance counselor."

Um, if Penelope herself didn't write this, who did?

This is taking over-achieving to a whole new level.


EDH said...

I'm reluctant to say this, but I'm suspicious of everything this woman writes.

I first became aware of Truck when her "Brazen Careeerist" columns used to appear in Yahoo Finance well after 9-11.

Eventually, I returned weekly to read what I thought was extremely superficial and worthless career advice just to read the brutal reader comments that followed.

Anthony said...

I am also rather unimpressed with Trunk in general. She seems incredibly shallow and fixated on material success. I recall she had a post about whether to pursue a graduate degree and decided it was worthless because it rarely paid off in career/monetary terms. . . .until quite a lot of people pointed out that certain advancements in certain fields are impossible without it (my Spousal Unit, for example, cannot advance without a master's in information science). Not to mention that not everybody's idea of fulfillment equates to a big paycheck and being famous. She seems unable to contemplate much outside of her own experience.

Still, hot little thing and she can . . .advance my career if she wants to. . . .

ALP said...

I have worked for, and alongside, such overachievers: business owners, "super" lawyers...etc

The common thread seems to be a desperate need to have the approval and admiration of others 24/7 - even in areas outside of their expertise. On many occasions, MY approval was sought by my over-achieving superiors for such trivial things as: the tie they chose to wear that day, a little sketch they made they thought was especially clever, or that that took up yet another hobby (usually a hobby one of their subordinate employees was involved in - they simply could not be shown up by one of their employees). When I was a competitive weightlifter, the attorney owning the firm I was working for had to tell me each and EVERY time he made it to the gym and regaled me with a description of every single weight he lifted while there. He simply could not have one of his paralegals appearing to be accomplishing more than he! They make a point of telling us underlings how little they sleep each night. What is the point of me knowing this information other than to remind me you are oh so very hard working and special, and to glean yet more of that approval they are so desperate for? It makes me wonder if such drive starts early life with trying to please over-achieving and cold, distant parents - who are NEVER happy. Thus begins of lifetime of trying to please mom and dad through one surrogate after another! No victory is too trivial for these types.

I am sure the world is a better place for such people. But they annoy the hell out of the rest of us along the way!

Brent said...

Jeffrey, Anthony,

You guys sound pretty bitter to me, man.

Hope your day goes better, especially for the people around you.

Jeffrey said...


Hey, I'm not bitter. Twisted? Possibly. Sarcastic? Could be. Anyway, I don't find Penelope Truck a "breath of fresh air." Just a difference of opinion, Bud.

Have a nice day, Brent.



HKatz said...

@ Anthony, who wrote:
I recall she had a post about whether to pursue a graduate degree and decided it was worthless because it rarely paid off in career/monetary terms

You have oversimplified her posts on grad school in order to make it seem as if she's shallow.

She specifically wrote in one post that it's probably best to avoid grad school if your chief purpose for going there is because you're trying to escape the recession (as opposed to going there because it's really the only way to advance your career, or because you have a real fire in your belly and intellectual passion). There are people who use grad school as a last resort and an escape from life circumstances - and more often than not they burn out and accumulate tons of debt. There are also many grad programs that offer little of worth, both in terms of job prospects and quality of intellectual experience (go read discussions at the Chronicles of Higher Education to get a sense of the level of frustration from a number of grad students, post-docs and adjuncts, particularly in the humanities - and the programs in the humanities are the ones she criticizes most harshly).

Even if you ultimately disagree with her points, she makes very valid ones and urges people to stop and think before making the commitment, which is the best first step to take.

Also many of her posts involve discussions of life-choices that are not centered on pure material success.

Still, hot little thing and she can . . .advance my career if she wants to. . . .
Really classy comment to make (especially given her childhood). And you're trying to convince people that she's the shallow one.

Chase said...

What HKAtz said

Simon said...

The only problem that I have with Trunk's comments is that I question her definition of notions like "success" and "achievement."

She says that in New York City—a place in which, try as I might, I cannot imagine why anyone in their right mind would want to live—"there is only room for high achievers…." She "gave up" and moved to Darlington, WI, a city which one infers she means to contrast with New York. And contrast it does: Darlington, she says, is "a very, very small rural community where most people are happy. Most people grew up here. Most people do not expect to leave. Most people do not expect to be the greatest at what they do. They just want to have a nice life." It strikes me that the people in Darlington are much more successful than the people in New York. Trunk is, too: She's raising children, she lives on a farm, she seems happy. To excel at useless things, to successfully cultivate an ulcer, to achieve a heart attack—to live in a tiny box of an apartment two dozen stories in the air... These do not strike me as good things. It seems to me like Trunk is the first of her friends to come to her senses and realize that the rat race is meaningless.

If what Trunk says about it is right, then I would venture that in moving to Darlington, WI, she has not left the greatest city in the world but moved to it.

Anthony said...

She specifically wrote in one post that it's probably best to avoid grad school if your chief purpose for going there is because you're trying to escape the recession

Uhhh, no. She used that as a launch point to pretty much dismiss it for nearly everybody:
"In a world where people did not change careers, grad school made sense. Today, grad school is antiquated."
. . .

"1. Grad school pointlessly delays adulthood. "
. . .

"Military is the terrible escape hatch for poor kids, and grad school is the terrible escape hatch for rich kids."

I'll not argue that she makes a valid point here and there, but that post especially is an exercise in projection with a few facts tossed in, which her commenters rightly ripped her for.

HKatz said...

but that post especially is an exercise in projection with a few facts tossed in, which her commenters rightly ripped her for.

Among those who objected were probably people who went to grad school for the right reasons. If you're able to come up with good arguments against the post and justify why it absolutely doesn't apply in your life - and here's the proof, you can say - then you're likely on the right track.

However it probably gave many less committed people pause.

I have a feeling this is the case because I emailed that post to a bunch of friends. A couple of them, who are fulfilled in their programs, shrugged it off saying that it might be valid for some people but not for them (and they also, from their POV now, have no intention of changing career paths - they're in PhD programs in the sciences and they know what they want to do with those degrees). However some of the others, who were toying with the idea of grad school (and not for the greatest reasons) or who started grad school and are deeply disappointed and feeling lost, took more away from it. It at least made them contemplate more seriously the prospect of putting in that much time and money. And to consider what the programs actually give them intellectually and/or financially - crucial when there are so many bad programs out there. Some people also have the mistaken belief that they need a certain degree to do well or advance in a particular area, and find out this isn't the case at all; another reason to stop and think is this really necessary?

Because there are a lot of problems in higher ed; she might be exaggerating in some aspects of her post, but depending on the field of study not necessarily that much. (And in her grad school posts overall, she tends to target non-science degrees more than any other, unfortunately for good reason.)

Titus said...

There were a couple of interesting stories I read, while leaving Wisconsin, about a couple in Cross Plaines, Wisconsin and a man in Lodi, Wisconsin, who were living in NYC that day.

Now the couple in Cross Plaines, who both had very successful jobs, run a small farm with "rare" and expensive cows.

The guy in Lodi, retired and lives on Lake Wisconsin.

I thought I was ready for that life...but I am not.

Freeman Hunt said...

I'm starting to get a Ramona Dixon vibe.