Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years On

     In the summer of 2001, I was offered – in a manner that I doubted had much finality or firmness – the position of manager of a store I frequented.  Would I like to work 70 hours a week, with an hour commute each way for about $20,000 a year?  At a place that was likely to not last another two years even with favorable conditions?  Never mind that my being brought on a manager would likely upset the people who worked there, who had some position of authority over me – a mere customer and occasional volunteer – and that undoubtedly felt they were more qualified for the position.  And if that offer had come a year earlier, God help me I would have seriously considered the offer.
     But, in addition to taking a job that would shackle me to going nowhere for quite some time, I had put myself in position to go back to school and earn a degree.  The first serious foray into the world of academia, and it was coming about eight years later than it was needed.  Say whatever horrible (and true) things one may about the job I kept, but it did allow me to just work weekends for eleven weeks straight and make enough money to feed myself and keep gas in the tank.  Sure, it meant that I couldn't hang out on campus over the weekend, but there is something inherently creepy about someone in their mid-twenties trying to get with the teenagers who populate the parties.  I was there for a degree, but it is also important to note up front that I didn't get it for many years – and from a whole different school when it came.
     But, being serious, I went and registered for classes that were needed.  I also applied for housing, because I knew from experience that living in something like an apartment allowed me to not go to classes.  Nothing encourages one (by which I mean me) to get the hell out and go to class, socialize, and live – to some degree – the college-like life like being consigned to a dorm room.  But I didn't even have that luxury at first.  Because the school overbooked and sent the remnants – people like me – off to go live in the hotel attached to the student union.
     Calling it a hotel room is being extremely generous.  It was exactly how I imagine a minimal security federal prison would be.  There was a tiny, nearly useless bathroom.  There was a single lamp with what must have been a 40 watt bulb.  And I was assigned a temporary roommate who didn't speak, didn't go to class, didn't leave the room, and didn't bathe on a regular schedule.  I wanted to scream at him, Dude, I know what it is like to not want to go to class, but you MUST shower if you want to live here.
     So I didn't even have a room worth going back to when the semester was starting.  Go to class, study at the library, use the computer labs for most of the writing and to check email.  I didn't even have a cell phone at the time, and given the state of the temp-mate, I couldn't rely on getting any kind of messages.  I convinced myself it didn't matter, that I needed to just focus on the work.  The temp-mate dominated the use of the tiny television in the prison cell, so even when I wanted to waste time watching something I had to settle for whatever was on in the common room on the ground level.  I think the only television I saw those first couple of weeks was the Agassi-Sampras match from the US Open (and they let us keep the TV on until it was over).
     I didn't do all of my writing in the computer labs.  One morning, I woke up early and finished the rough draft of papers, one for my Acting & Theatre class and the other for Classical Ethical Theories.  Working from only the dim glow of the laptop and doing everything I could to keep from waking up the temp-mate, I banged out the papers.  I saved the papers to a 3.5" floppy and trekked down to the computer lab.  I printed up the papers – I could do a better job of editing them from a hard copy – and gave up my spot at a computer while I went over them with a red pen.  Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that there were four or five people standing by the television.  That was mildly odd, but I had work to do.
     It was still early, so I only had about a two minute wait for a spot to open up to be able to rewrite the papers.  That took a fair amount of time, but all of us were doing class work.  I checked me student email account, printed out the final copies of the papers and went to go get ready for the long day of classes.  As I passed by the television I couldn't help but notice that the crowd had grown from four or five people to over twenty.  Hmm, I thought, I wonder what it is that has everyone's attention.  Nobody was saying anything, and there were many people like me who were just passing by in the hall.
     All was quiet on the floor of the union.  I had my papers written and ready to hand in; that's right, children, even as late as the beginning of the 21st Century, we handed in physical copies of papers in college.  I got in the elevator and took the lonely ride up eleven levels to the cell.  Low and behold the temp-mate was awake, which I would have thought would be the most surprising thing that could happen.
     Clearly, I was wrong.  Very wrong.  And had no understanding of the real world.
      To put the time frame in my perspective:
     • I woke up at about 6:45 am (Central Time)
     • I finished the drafts of the papers by about 7:35 am
     • I have the drafts printed and ready for review by about 7:45 am (about the time Flight 11 hits the North Tower, so it is likely the original crew around the television was watching regular programming)
     • I have the papers re-written and printed by about 7:55 am, and to the elevator by 8:00 am
     • I was back to the room at about 8:05 am
So, what is striking in my memory is that I was completely oblivious to what was happening while it was happening.  The first plane had struck and people knew it, but there wasn't a free exchange of that information in a timely manner.  The temp-mate was only awake because his mother had called him to tell him about the attacks.  If I had been fifteen minutes slower, I would have been clued in by him, because of his mother.  I didn't see what was on the television, but here is what I do know.  Flight 175 hit the South Tower while I was riding the elevator back to the cell.
     I felt like the Isaac Jaffe character from Sports Night, who had missed Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" because he was in the washroom.  I missed the live feed of what was undoubtedly the most important historical event to which I would ever be able to bear witness because I was printing up papers and riding in an elevator.  What was worse was that the temp-mate was not the person with whom I wanted to discuss the situation.
     I sat and watched the television, dumbfounded.  The jabber on the air seemed to give me no information.  They didn't have any idea what was happening.  I had planned on grabbing a quick breakfast but that never happened.  Eventually I got to my feet, took the books and materials I would need for the first two classes – which included the papers – and went off to try to have as normal a day as I could manage.
     I know everyone has commented on this, but it was a near perfect looking day.  There was not a cloud in the sky.  And that sky was an unbelievably beautiful blue.  It was warm but not hot.  The grass was green and the walkways were clean.  With the shortage of people out and about – because now people had found out about it – it was the least likely kind of surreal one could ever dare to conjure.
     The Acting & Theatre class was cancelled.  This wasn't because of the attacks.  The professor had fallen ill; indeed, he missed the Thursday class as well and then was replaced by Dr. Robert Schneider for the remainder of the semester.  I sat in DuSable Hall with only the books for my classes, a copy of the Chicago Tribune, and a copy of the Northern Star (a supremely sad school newspaper).  Reading the papers didn't make any sense; there could be no better definition of yesterday's news.  I didn't feel like reading one of the brief plays we were supposed to cover on Thursday.  So I opened up my copy of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and tried to make sense out of material I had already read.  I didn't want to go back to the cell, nor gather around the television in the common room.  I had people that I wanted to talk to, but I didn't know where they would be at the time; it would be easier to find them that night or on Wednesday.  So I sat, mostly numb and very alone on a padded bench and pondered the nature of the virtuous person.
     I did manage to get a brief lunch in.  I wandered back to the union and got something from McDonald's that I could take with me; I didn't want to sit alone in Neptune's dining hall.  I ate outside and saw a few people moving about.  Always in groups, sometimes just pairs but more often clusters of five or more.  There was so much spacing between spotting these people that it would be impossible to not know there was something desperately wrong.
     Dr. James King was present for the philosophy class.  We spent the first thirty minutes discussing the events of the day.  I felt small and foolish being the only person in the class who didn't know somebody, have somebody who lived or worked in Manhattan.  Dr. King worked the class through a sense of bewilderment to one of applying what philosophical tools we had (collectively) acquired to view the situation.  And then we covered the material that had been slated for the day.  It was a hard class, and Dr. King was not about to let us get a whole day behind schedule.  It was imposing a sense of order and purpose to us, we who were clearly powerless to do anything from DeKalb, IL, but he was also right.  Dr. King assigned a workload that would have been more appropriate if we were only taking his course and receiving 15 credit hours.
     I stayed after class to talk to Dr. King (which I did almost every class), but this was about the material and not about the attacks.  Should I have been seeking advice about how to understand the scope of those affected and the implications from an ethicist?  It just seemed an unfair burden to place upon him, and even if I had wanted to I don't know if I could have found the words to ask him to do it.
One of the ends of Neptune Hall with the Tower (where the cell was) rising behind it.
      I retreated to the dining hall at Neptune.  I sat and ate with a group of sophomores I had befriended the first week of the semester.  We didn't talk much, and as I was leaving their discussions turned to the topics of South Park and fat girls.  That wasn't interesting, and it wasn't much of a distraction from what had happened.
     There was supposed to be a supplemental class – to aid us with the math – for the chemistry class I had that night.  The instructor didn't show, so a few of us decided to just review the homework we had on our own.  Was he home watching television, concerned about the attacks?  No, he simply was unable to make it to the class that night.  He called and left a message, but nobody came by to leave a note on the door or even lock the door to the room.
     The chemistry class took place in one of the giant lecture room in Farraday Hall that probably accommodate 300 students.  About three quarters of the class showed up, and it was the most raucous crowd I had seen all day.  Dr. Heike Hoffstetter came in and immediately called for attention.  Yes, she knew about the attacks and sure, we'd no doubt be a little distracted, but she still expected us to pay attention and learn something.  Well, Germans aren't noted for being the most (openly) compassionate people in the world and there may have been some part that it wasn't her country that had been attacked.  I sat next to a cute young woman with whom I had been flirting – she missed the supplemental class that day, or we would have walked over together – and split my attention between Dr. Hoffstetter and her. (This student eventually stopped showing up to class about two weeks before finals, taking my expensive graphing calculator with her.)
     I went back to the cell, eager to see some news.  The temp-mate was still there, but had the television tuned to Cartoon Network (I think the Powerpuff Girls were on), Cartoon Network being one of the first to return to regular programming.  I just don't want to watch the news, man, the cell-mate told me (a rare occurrence of his speaking loudly and clearly enough to be understood).  I was stuck here watching it all day.  Like, who cares?  Well, I cared.  But I didn't want to go down to the common room.  I swapped out some materials from the bag and went off to try to study at the library.  I got about an hour's worth of work done for my German class, but just couldn't stay away from the news.
     So I returned to the cell and took my clock radio into the tiny bathroom.  The thick concrete walls and massive amount of iron in the tower prevented any AM reception.  I tuned in NPR and curled up in the back of the shower stall, glad to be clothed against the perpetual film it seemed to have coating it.  And there I sat and listened and pondered what the hell would become of these events.
     I thought about enlisting.  I had considered it during my senior year in high school.  Join the Army or kill myself.  I had met with recruiters for the Army and Marines.  I would have joined the Marines – they offered to let me go right from boot camp to OCS – if they had a two-year hitch.  That was my serious objection; what if I hate it?  I knew I could handle two horrible years (that was freshman and sophomore years at CSHS), but four years?  Four years, with lots of ignorant people, and a pretty good chance that somebody would be trying to kill me – in combat – before it was all over?  No thanks.  But in 2001, it seemed like I might be serving a need.  However, I knew that if I enlisted – forget about the chances of my getting myself killed – I would likely never go back to school.  It would be a path I would not return to.  And I was pretty sure that in two years, I wouldn't be anywhere near as enthusiastic about serving my country (never mind how long I would have had to have served had I enlisted).  I decided, rather quickly, to stay in school and put my focus there.
     Well, that worked for a bit.  Then there was an issue and I was out of school.  I eventually went and finished (and proved again that I can be an awesome student for a year or two at a time).  I lost much of my interest in some of the diversions that seemed so harmless before.  I remember being down at 3D House of Games shortly after the attacks.  Tim Scallon, an employee, was organizing a Warhammer 40K league.  People were talking about their armies and playing war.  It seemed so wrong.  I had a hard time getting interested in roleplaying games – something that had been a safe haven since the early 1980s – where my character was supposed to kill the bad guys.  I didn't ever really go back to miniature gaming.  I enjoy BattleTech, where giant robot tanks fight each other without bloodshed, but that is about it.  I did go back to RPGs, but the old bloodlust that can inhabit the immature spirit striking out against the world through a powerful character was gone.
     I couldn't even manage a hint of anger at the memory of a man that I would have likely physically attacked before the attacks, given the slightest provocation.  There was something so simple in the aftermath of the attacks.  He was not my enemy.  Indeed, other than the ones I would generate through overreacting to scholastic authority being arbitrarily exercised, I didn't really have any enemies.  Sure, my country had enemies – and those people would just as soon like to see me dead as anything – but I didn't have that burden on a personal level.
     The attacks let me know that no matter how immature I tried to live, I had a very real need to grow up.
     I haven't done as much as I should have in the intervening years.  I let myself get distracted in the meaningless bullshit of my life.  I fostered grudges that had no grounds.  And I found myself oddly distanced from those who had the courage and determination to make the sacrifice to serve our country.  I see news footage of parades welcoming soldiers home and think that such a response to me, had I served, would have been unwelcome.  I walked past a similar service for three men from my village who returned home two years ago and felt that it had nothing to do with me, as I had somehow managed to lose my way somewhere in the years.
     Ten years.  In many ways, it feels like a lifetime ago.  The me that was in 2001 was somewhere halfway between teenage me and current me, and current me feels very little comradeship with 2001 me.  I have to search for the ways the decade has shaped me and it is just coming to my attention at the end of the span.  Mostly I recognize it in the general culture.  That the American world that embraced camp and humor in films now seemingly demands cold cynicism, the jokes being decidedly unfunny and the action downright hateful.  I need to take a better look at myself, and see if current me is still capable of accessing what was a well-spring for creativity before the attacks.
     I think I have written less than ten percent of my stories – aborted novels, short stories, scripts, etc. – in the last ten years.  Which would mean that ninety percent would have been written from April 1993- September 2001, back when I didn't know anything and had no style of my own.  But there was something inside me that screamed to get the ideas out and on paper (yes, I wrote primarily by hand) that seems to have gone missing since the attacks.  What little I have written is, with one exception (and this was a project which I was a co-writer) set before the attacks.
     Ten years on and I'm not sure I understand if I fit in the world as it is now.  I know I can't go back to the old one, because it is gone.  But I would like to find out where I went during this decade.  I have vivid memories of the day, but it was so removed even as it was happening.  Like when my father died, the people I most wanted to turn to where completely inaccessible.  So I felt lost that day, and I think I carry some of that feeling with me everywhere I go.
     There are those who think that we think of the attacks too much, that they are too casually invoked.  I would agree with the latter.  But until I can come to some sort of terms as to what the events of 11 September, 2001 really mean to me, I think I need to make attempts to keep them fresh and alive.  And to find some way, eventually, to honor those who have perished on that day and since that have allowed me to live in my relative safety and with (almost) unrestricted freedom.
     Ten years on and I would like to have something more meaningful to say on the matter.  And that is a problem I ascribe to the time itself.

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