Mark and Todd were an unlikely duo. Mark was gay. He worked as a public relations executive and was adored in San Francisco.
Todd was married with two children and one on the way. He was a Christian, born and raised in a small town in Michigan. He worked in sales.
Somehow, be it by God or the universe or divine intervention, they found themselves on the same early morning flight.
On this particular morning, Mark had overslept. So much so, that after what felt like a high-speed chase to the airport and an all-out sprint to his gate dragging an old beat-up canvas duffle bag behind him, he had just moments to spare to board his flight.
Once seated, Mark nipped at an orange juice and called his friend who had rushed him there, thanking him for driving like a mad man.
By the time Mark boarded, Todd was already in his seat, reading a Tom Clancy novel or perhaps eyeing his bookmark that had the Lord’s Prayer inscribed on it.
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name...”
At this point, the two men had never met before.
The plane was delayed forty-something minutes. But, eventually, its engine roared and lept from the runway.
Once in the sky, coffee and breakfast were served.
It was an ordinary flight. Until it wasn’t.
Roughly an hour in, three men with red bandanas stood up from their seats. They rushed the cockpit. They slit the throats of both pilots. They hurled them out onto the floor where they laid motionless, their blood painting the carpet below them.
Within six minutes, the plane scheduled for San Francisco had changed course and was heading straight for Washington D.C.
At first, there was screaming, there was hysteria, there was madness.
Then, as the passengers understood their fate, they began making phone calls to loved ones.
Mark phoned his mother. He told her he loved her and then quickly hung up.
Todd avoided calling his pregnant wife, as not to worry her, and instead called an airphone operator and got a hold of a woman named Lisa. She speedily got the FBI on the other line. Lisa would later say the call changed her life forever.
After this, the timeline of events gets fuzzy.
What we do know is that on September 11, 2001 flight UA93 aimed for the White House fell to the Earth in Somerset, Pennsylvania.
But, that it did not fall without a fight.
At some point, Mark, Todd and several other brave passengers rushed and overtook a motherfucker who claimed he had a bomb and then scratched and clawed and tore their way into the cockpit with a Spartan-like ferocity.
One of the last lines caught on audio came from Todd, right before he followed Mark and several other American heroes into the fray…
“You ready? Okay. Let’s roll.”
Where were you when?
If you ask any Amerian alive and conscious in the year 2001 where they were on 9/11, they can tell you without hesitation.
I was playing at my friend’s house in Southern Indiana.
My mom came to pick me up early.
She was crying.
She held my hand as we walked home, trying desperately to find the words to explain to a seven-year-old boy the tragedy that had just taken place.
Even with a child’s imagination, I struggled desperately to wrap my mind around it all. Still, twenty years later, I can’t quite figure it out.
In a decade, two decades, three decades and so on…
I imagine not just Americans but humankind as a whole will have the same reaction to the question below…
Where were you when the Coronavirus hit?
For anyone alive during this time, our lives will forever take place in two worlds. Pre-coronavirus and post-coronavirus. This piece is my way of helping myself (and hopefully you) navigate the latter.
Since the world went to hell in a handbasket, I like so many others have been searching for purpose throughout all of this, here are a few thoughts I’ve had that have helped me thus far.
I hope they help you, too.
We’re all in the same storm (but we aren’t in the same boat).
When two planes fucked the World Trade Center to pieces nearly two decades ago, the United States was devastated and rightfully so. We had been victims of one of the largest terrorist attacks the world had ever seen and it left us feeling raw, vulnerable, deflated and morning the losses of our fellow Americans.
However, while all of us were in the same storm, we weren’t all on the same boat.
Very few of us were in New York City when it happened, even fewer of us were the family, friends and loved ones of the nearly 3,000 people who perished in the World Trade Center and nearly none of us were the brave men and women who had to make the fateful decision to rush the cockpit or stay in their seat.
I say all of this to now say this…
If you’re fortunate to be in a good boat during this Coronavirus… if you’re fortunate to be someone who hasn’t been hospitalized, who hasn’t watched a loved one suffer or move on from this life, who hasn’t lost a job, etc… your responsibility is to help those who are in a shittier boat than you.
This can be as simple as surprising a waitress or a delivery person or a clerk with a $20 bill or helping your friend or even a friend of a friend find a new job.
During this time, it’s wildly important to recognize that while we are in the same storm, few of us are in the same boat.
If you’re in a yacht right now, throw down a rope.
Take this time as an opportunity to look within.
The other night, I was having a call with one of my best friends, Ian Holbrook. He’s only twenty-six but wise beyond his years.
He shared a metaphor; a way he’s been looking at the virus…
“You know those stories about the parents who catch their kids smoking a cigarette and then they make them sit down at the dinner table and smoke the entire pack?”
I murmured an ‘mhm’ to signal that I was following (not entirely sure if I was following).
“At times, I think that’s what this Coronavirus is. It’s a higher power catching humanity toying around with social media and technology and not appreciating other humans and then saying… Oh, so you think thumbing around on your phone at the dinner table is cool? Well, now you can sit in your house all by yourself and thumb around on your phone for weeks at a time. You can smoke the whole fucking pack!”
I don’t know. Perhaps, I applaud dark humor. But, I needed the metaphor. I think the rest of humanity does too.
For a little while now, humanity has lost touch with the shit that makes us human. We’re crowding around screens like moths on a lamp post and hoarding followers and attention from strangers like greedy mice.
And, it’s costing us.
It’s costing us more than we realize.
If you are someone that has the luxury right now to treat this period like one massive never-ending snow day, find the courage to unplug for an hour each day and allow all those thoughts and feelings and insecurities you’ve been shooing out of your mind to come pouring back in.
It’s going to get uncomfortable.
Exist in it.
So much of being human is learning to live with pain; with uncomfortable thoughts. It’s not unlike the professional athlete.
I would venture to say Serena Williams has never played a tennis match pain-free. It’s the price she pays for taking to the court over and over again. Her muse, her talent is paid for in blood. This is her sacrifice.
The deal we make with the heavens when we step foot in this world is that we may have the gift of life but not without pain.
I’ll call this letting the tigers through the door.
To close out this thought, a line I find myself coming back to again and again is something Hunter S. Thompson once wrote…
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
I think it’s worth remembering.
Lean into the little things, like coffee with her.
There was an interview that took place once.
Nobody seems to know when nor where.
To which the American legend responded…
“This morning, with her, having coffee.”
I would encourage you to ask yourself the same question during this tragic lull… “What is my definition of paradise?”
We have this misconception that it takes grandiose things and experiences to make us happy. The newly remodeled kitchen. The brand spanking new car. The vacation in Tahiti. The house. The bigger house. The bigger house after that.
But, I’ve found that when I look back on the moments that I cherish most it’s the wildly simple pleasures like having coffee with someone I love, or grilling and enjoying some whiskey with close friends or spending an afternoon, holed up, nose-diving into a novel.
When we realize that paradise, more times than not, is simply having coffee with her, we stop wearing ourselves out chasing greener grasses.
(For more on this particular topic, looking into the story about the fisherman and the banker.)
If this quarantine has given us anything, it’s perspective.
What we miss most isn’t the shit that money can buy but rather human connection. Something that feels lightyears away as our masks mask not only our breaths but our smiles.
Find peace in knowing that we simply don’t know.
One day an old farmer’s horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbor came to visit. “Bad luck,” he said sympathetically.
“Maybe,” replied the farmer.
The following morning, the horse returned and with it, three other wild horses. “Good luck,” his neighbor said in celebration.
“Maybe,” replied the farmer.
The day after, the farmer’s son tried to break one of the untamed horses. Unaware that you can’t put a saddle on a mustang, he was thrown off and broke his leg. “Such a misfortune,” said his neighbor.
“Maybe,” replied the farmer.
The day after that, military officials showed up to draft young men in the town. Seeing the son’s leg was broken, they didn’t give him a second look. The neighbor congratulated the farmer. “Such a fortune,” said the neighbor.
“Maybe,” replied the farmer.
Remember this: “Maybe.”
For the next year, there is a very good chance that your life will feel like a whipsaw; that you will experience a decade’s worth of ups and down in a matter of months.
It will be easy to place judgment on these events.
In poker, they call this being “on tilt”.
It’s when you allow a bad hand to put yourself in a state of turmoil and frustration, which causes you to make aggressive and at times even reckless decisions.
Remember to breathe, to take a step back.
When writer Joan Didion would find herself feeling blocked, she wouldn’t place judgment, she wouldn't attempt to fight back, she would simply place her manuscript in a ziplock and stick it in the freezer.
As you take a few to the chin, don’t place judgment, don’t go on tilt. Instead, grab an icepack and say “maybe”.
If your work feels trivial, find pride in showing up.
As Coronavirus cases continue to climb like some hellish elevator, some aspects of the human condition begin to feel trivial.
While our brave nurses, doctors and scientists slug away at the virus we can’t help but feel like the work we’re doing is meaningless.
This is a crisis I’ve experienced lately whilst running my creative writing business where I work with brands on selling their products and services with pretty words.
For the past couple of months I’ve had the same thought looping around my mind like a hungry vulture…
When people are sick and dying, how much do words really matter?
The truth is, they don’t.
Not in the grand scheme of things.
The shit I do is never going to change the world, neither will the accountant, nor the trashman, nor the mechanic, nor the hairstylist, nor the guy cutting your lawn.
But, I truly believe, that collectively, those who take their jobs seriously make the world a little prettier of a place to live in.
Your responsibility to yourself and the human race isn’t to change the world but to show up.
It’s to show up and do your fucking job.
In Steven Pressfield’s book, The Afghan Campaign, he writes the definition of a “solider”…
“You’re wondering what a soldier is, aren’t you?… We’re mules, lad. Mules that kill.”
Every time I read that damn line it sends chills down my spine.
All of us are mules.
Writers are mules that type.
Accountants are mules that crunch numbers.
Doctors are mules that heal.
Your job right now is to be a mule for the human race.
And, if you still have some energy left over after your 9–5, find ways you can help the cause with the skills you’ve learned punching away at your job.
Over the past two months, I’ve taken my marketing newsletters (Sticky Notes and Stranger Than Fiction) and used them to not just share my thoughts on marketing and writing but share my thoughts on fighting through this shitstorm emotionally, mentally and physically.
That’s my very small contribution.
And, finally, don’t go down without a fight.
On Monday, March 30th, I watched with mixed feelings of uneasiness and intrigue as pandemonium sparked by the virus closed every restaurant, bar and coffee shop in Chicago.
I saw on the horizon what was coming, a quarantine of some kind… maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe more.
So, that morning, I rented a U-Haul, packed up my flat and high-tailed it down to Southern Indiana where I’ve crashed with my parents as I’ve looked for my next home in Nashville, Tennessee.
Late one night, I ran into my father in the kitchen.
He was eating a ham sandwich. I asked him how he was holding up amid the turmoil; if today was better than yesterday.
“You know… I’m just not going to let it beat me.”
What happened in the 2000s took me places I never want to be again… and, I just refuse to let this one take me there, too. This one just isn’t going to beat me.”
So, lastly, I will leave you with this.
The world isn’t falling apart but it’s falling into a stranger we can’t recognize and that’s terrifying.
What we can do right now is help others who are in the same storm but weathering it in a shittier boat.
We can power down the screens and look within, letting the tigers through the door.
We can learn to love the little things, like coffee with her.
We can slow down, toss aside our reactive emotions, stick the manuscript in the freezer and say “maybe”.
And, finally, when the plane begins to shake, we can stand up from our seats and refuse to go down without a fight.
By Cole Schafer.
P.S. If you decide you want to stay in touch, I write here.