Monday, September 12, 2011

After

My 9/11 story isn't particularly exciting or insightful.

That morning I had a phone interview for a job--I had been unemployed for about eight months and was really looking forward to the opportunity. It was with a start-up company that seemed very, very interested in me, so I quite literally locked myself in a room with no distractions (such as television or radio) and just my notes. The phone call was scheduled for 10:00am, so imagine my bewilderment when that time came and went, and I heard nothing. Hoping they hadn't forgot, or had rescheduled, I called then back, with no answer. Eventually I left the room and found out what had happened; but up until that point I had no access to any form of news or communication. (This was in the days before I even had a cell phone.) The employer eventually called in the afternoon to reschedule, and I did go to a live interview much later, but nothing came of it--no doubt because of the changed conditions of the economy.

9/11 didn't trigger any particular emotion in me. I didn't really feel angry or perplexed or frustrated. Maybe that's bad of me, I don't know. I didn't get any sudden swelling of patriotism or a sudden overly jingoistic desire to burn the rest of the world. I just knew things would be different in the short term, and the trajectory of American history probably got knocked a few degrees one way or the other.And since we weren't asked to grow victory gardens or send used tires to Fort McHenry, but just to go shopping, that's exactly what we did.

Of course, like most Americans during that time, I just didn't know how to react. What did this mean? Was it a future of roadside checks, national ID cards, and a retreat from globalization? Or would it be absorbed into the American experience like so many other tragic events have? I certainly had opinions at the time--most, I am sure, I would be embarrassed about today--but as far as conceptualizing what 9/11 did, I didn't know.

A few weeks later, I remember standing in our local Wal-Mart. I remained frustratingly unemployed, so it was in the middle of the afternoon. I was standing in front of the magazine rack--still, week after week, a collage of headlines and covers, all gray and black and smoke and Bold Impact. A well-dressed, middle-aged woman walked up beside me, transfixed by this panorama of emotions in newsmagazine form. She was clearly out of her element--her clothes were too expensive for 1) being in my small town, and 2) being in a Wal-Mart. I always assumed she was driving somewhere instead of flying, and just had to stop at an exit to get something. I don't know.

She turned to me and said, "I still can't believe this happened."

I replied, after a pause, "I know. It's all too surreal."
 
I could think of nothing to say, so I said the exact sort of thing I try to avoid.

It was most definitely not surreal. It was quite real, and staring us both in the face, as it would for months. But no one knew what else to say--or at least I didn't--so we fell back on platitudes and comfort.

Even now, I don't know what to say. Over the weekend, many people told their 9/11 stories on social media outlets and the airwaves were crammed with heart-wrenching tales of heroism and tragedy. I didn't watch any of it. Not because I didn't care, or wasn't interested, but that I still don't know how to digest it. I wasn't originally going to write a post about 9/11 because I have nothing useful to add. And, still, I really don't. But back then, as now, you fall back to that which makes it easier to process.

About the only thing that conjured up in my memory was that feeling of--I don't want to call it bewilderment, because it wasn't a particularly confusing time. It was kind of this blank, malleable feeling that no matter what decision you made, you could no longer predict how it would end up. It made people like me that routinely use strict cost-benefit analysis to figure out what brand of kidney beans to buy uncomfortable with the world. Perhaps that is the appropriate adjective--uncomfortable. 

I tend to disdain such shallow superficiality when it comes to tragedy, since I find that most people use empty words to replace hard choices and specific actions that have a legitimate impact. But sometimes grinding down both edges of blind patriotism and irrational hatred is exactly what is needed for this world to proceed. Maybe I'm just a hypocrite. Or, most likely, both.

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