Memories of 9/11

I was slightly more than half the age I am now when 9/11 occurred. I’d graduated college in May of that year and was living with my parents, attempting to start my career as a writer and author of novels and short stories. I had no outlets but writing, and so my writing suffered. Instead of being distracted by my smartphone or social media (both of which didn’t exist back then), I had to contend with dial-up Internet and boredom.

Still, it wasn’t all bad. I was planning to visit some of my friends from college in late September. I also decided on something fortuitous. I decided to keep all the emails we sent back and forth, starting after graduation and continuing through the beginning of 2002.

It seems appropriate that the year I entered “the real world” is when the real world went to shit. This was the start of the Patriot Act (with parts still enforced to this day), the TSA, and ICE. After the USSR fell apart in the early 90s, people growing up then (including me) thought that the world would be less dangerous and more hopeful. 9/11 changed that.

I had an on-again, off-again regiment when it came to writing, but that Tuesday I was prepared to wake up early and do some writing. From my diary entry for Tuesday, September 11:

When I woke up at 9:25, Mom told me I had to come down + see this (not telling me what). What I saw was a replay of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center + exploding out the other side. Dad called around 10 to see if I had seen what was going on, forgetting Mom went in late today. After he called, the third plane hit the Pentagon, thought at first they didn’t know what had happened (or did Dad call after this?). The fourth plane later crashed into a rural part of Pa.

Mom was there when the 1st tower of the WTC fell (about 10:15 or so). She had left by the time the 2nd one fell (at 10:29). Throughout the day, I watched the TV, stunned. Dad came home early from work (I think around 12:30 or 1). All airports had been closed in the US w/ no domestic flights taking off since soon after the Pentagon was attacked. Military were dispatched, the Speaker of the House +VP + Pres were brought to different secure locations, Congress adjourned, NYC essentially shut down – as did D.C.

What I remember most about that first week were two things. One, I used to hear planes fly past my parents house all the time. Those sounds stopped. And two, how fearful I felt because it took a few days before we had a full picture of who was responsible. I’m pretty sure I experienced PTSD watching all the news programs interviewing survivors and showing scenes from Ground Zero. And remember, I was planning to visit friends in late September, yet at the time, all flights were grounded. From my diary entry of Thursday, September 13:

Had a hard time getting to sleep last night. I doubt I will sleep easily again for a long time. I fall asleep scared. Although I have still decided to fly down to Dulles + back, my fears about hijacking last night while trying to go to sleep manifested themselves despite the fact that I never would have been on those flights…

Planes only started flying again maybe a week before my visit. The plane I took there was pretty empty (maybe 25% full). The woman sitting next to me introduced herself, shook my hand, and wished me a safe flight (as I did her). Then the pilot got on the intercom and along with the usual information concerning the weather and ETA, he told us the flight would be very safe, as his wife was on board.

This trip was my first visit to Washington, D.C. The National Archives and the Washington Monument were closed (though the former might’ve been due to the time I arrived), and the White House had snipers on the roof. I did get to see, however, the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial. The latter deeply impressed me.

First, the wall is only one block tall. Then, it gets larger and larger as you descend, and more + more names are listed. Then you ascend, + the reverse happens…Seeing all those names there an eerie calm fell over me. I felt I was in a holy place + tried not to speak too loud or too much lest I disturb the place. In fact, I didn’t take a pic until we were past it + I could get the whole thing (or most of it) in my camera [lens]. However, it just looks like a black wall from where I took it.

When I headed back to the airport on Sunday, I got a spectacular view of the sky. In my diary, I mention it looking like a painting. And while they did have curbside check-in…

Dulles has really high security. My little buttons on my jacket + jeans set off the metal detector (I guess they did, as I was wanded + patted down). I felt safe flying, though. Full flight. I got middle seat. Guy w/ window seat…talked to me a bit during the flight. He has a 7-year-old who’s a little freaked out over what’s happened + his dad flying.

And then I saw an even more impressive sight from the plane.

As we descended through the clouds to land, we could see horizontal rain (that looked like snow) and a red glow illuminating strands of cloud parallel to the plane + horizontal to me. At first, I thought lights on the plane were causing this to occur, but those lights were white. This phenomenon stopped for a bit, + then reappeared. This time, though, I could see where this red light was coming from – the sun…I actually saw it set from the plane, illuminating all the clouds between it and us. It was absolutely breathtaking.

As we dropped below the clouds (after it had set), there was still a red glow above where it had disappeared. Above us, a single long bank of puffy cumulus clouds w/ no gaps in their ranks glowed a reddish-pink. After we landed, my dad said he had gone outside a few times to see the sunset cuz it was so amazing.

After seeing that sunset, I knew we’d be okay, but oh what blunders my country made after 9/11! We used goodwill for revenge and fought unnecessary wars, the first of which only ended last month. Our fear became anger; we made others suffer because we suffered. The ramifications of the Patriot Act continue to haunt us. Guantanamo Bay is still open.

Here is the concluding paragraph of that September 30th diary entry. I’m not sure that my attempt at profundity in the last sentence works, but I stand by the sentiment:

On the aisle seat next to me was a man of Middle Eastern or Near Eastern descent. I wonder how he felt flying w/ us. I know how I felt flying w/ him. At the airport (Dulles), I saw all different kinds of people pass by my gate, including Orthodox Jews + a really colorfully-dressed woman (who was on my flight), + I saw all of them in a different light. These were the people of the world; many were the people of the U.S. All different, yet all one people. Hopefully, one day, we will all learn to appreciate + respect our differences, realizing that we are merely many different snowflakes coming from the same cloud.

Phantom Birthdays

To this day, my mom keeps a calendar crammed with details of every anniversary, birthday, vacation, doctor visit, and celebration to be observed, all kept up with the upmost accuracy.

Many years ago, however, she participated in a practice that only spread widely with the creation of Facebook. She continued to list birthdays even after the people celebrating them had died. This in itself wasn’t a problem, except that she kept adding to their years. Someone who had died at 83 would find themselves miraculously turning another year older the following year, despite being dead the entire time.

One day, my dad noticed that the dead were aging and stopped it with much humor and incredulity. Facebook doesn’t have the benefit of my dad, so unless one of the living has access to the account and takes it down, these phantom birthdays will continue, and like with my mom, you can see how old someone would have been had they not died years ago.

The first person I discovered this phenomenon with was Roger Ebert. His wife Chaz chose to keep both his Twitter and Facebook accounts active, and so every year on what would’ve been his birthday, she celebrates his life.

At least in his case, most people know he’s dead. With people who aren’t famous, it’s easy to wish someone a happy birthday without looking at their page, and so not see the large post announcing that person’s passing — particularly if they weren’t that active on Facebook.

When my friend Shigemi passed away, I didn’t find out until a year later, and so became the person who tried to tell her other Facebook friends that she was no longer alive. It was a shock when she died, as she wasn’t that old. More recently, another person I knew died, and while one hopes the number of tributes that line her page will alert anyone wishing to post birthday messages that she is no longer around to receive them, that’s only if you go to the page itself. She also sold her artwork through her own website. One wonders if people, even now, are attempting to place orders that will never be fufilled.

So that got me thinking about COVID. How many people have passed away who still have active Facebook accounts? How many birthday wishes are celebrating phantom birthdays? Unless the living have access to the accounts, there’s no way to close them. Depending on the permanence of Facebook, these accounts could survive long enough for their grandchildren to come across — a chilling reminder of a year like few others in history.

Nowadays, my mom only celebrates the living on her calendars. And I don’t have to worry about her becoming a phantom birthday on Facebook.

She doesn’t have an account.

One Year Ago Today…

One year ago today, I lost my job to the COVID-19 pandemic. I woke up that Friday the 13th to an email that the theaters were closing and all cinema staff were being let go. Over the ensuing weekend I witnessed how strong and giving our film community and my friends could be.Y’know that scene at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, where the townspeople only have to hear “George is in trouble,” to come running to help? It was like that.

I cannot possibly detail, in one blog post (or a hundred), what life has been like since then. Mostly I’ve been staying at home, only venturing out for food or other essentials, occasionally meeting with one or two people at a time (when it was allowed), and quarantining completely when it wasn’t. With the new variants appearing over the winter, I even limited my trips to the stores and got my food and other essentials online.

For mental health purposes, I’m lucky that I live with my girlfriend and our cat. Even so, it has suffered. Since the weather has gotten better, I’ve tried to go outside at least once a day, and on especially nice days, I’ve gone for 20-minute walks. Luckily, I don’t have major issues with depression or anxiety, and since Cheetos Jesus is no longer in the White House, my minor to moderate issues have gotten better, particularly since early January, where –due to world events and the weather — my anxiety was at its zenith.

I’ve also had to grapple with the false narrative that more free time = more productivity. If the US had a working safety net, then I would’ve had a more productive year, but worrying about if your money is going to run out and when a vaccine will be ready doesn’t help with concentration. Now, things look more stable, but I’m still not working, movie theaters are still closed, and I haven’t seen the majority of my friends in person for over a year. Even with Zoom calls and FaceTime chats, I miss meeting people in person, or going out to a show and sitting amongst strangers. At least I know I’m not gonna catch COVID if I walk the streets of my neighborhood (especially if I’m masked), but I’m still not riding the bus.

Just as the nation and the world has grappled with truths revealed during these COVID times, so have I. Before we know it, the world will be whole again. It cannot be the same world we left, unless we want present-day injustices and suffering to last several more generations. And I cannot be the same person I was, but must become the person I wish to be.

On March 22, Washington State will go to Phase 3 for the first time since the pandemic started. And with everyone eligible for the vaccine by May 1, combined with a ramp-up in vaccine production, the future is looking brighter than it did a year ago, when the lights went dark in the theaters.