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The Syndicate

 Sharing My Birthday   
 Author:  matt
 Dated:  Thursday, August 28 2003 @ 05:28 AM PDT
 Viewed:  1218 times  
LifeThis is not what I had intended to post about this week (or even next week), but I started writing a comment at Michele's blog, and it kind of became its own thing.

When I woke up that morning, I wasn't really happy with the life. I was running a little late, and had to rush out the door to an 9 AM dentist's appointment, which I turned out to be early for. It was only a cleaning, but I was fresh off of a root canal, so I was still a little gun shy about my first stop of the day.

My dentist's office is less than a mile up the road, and about halfway there I heard the radio DJ cut in to say that an airplane had just slammed into the World Trade Center. Given that the radio station in question had a fairly notorious morning show staff, I wrote it off as a really poor practical joke (I later found out this was a common response) and pulled into the parking lot behind the office. I remember thinking that it was a pretty nice day, and that I might put the top down for the drive to work.

I walked into the dentist's office and, predictably enough, sat in the waiting room for a little while. A few minutes in, the receptionist turned on a radio she had, presumably because somebody had told her something was going on. Scattered and vague reports followed until it was time for me to get into the chair. My hygienist started working with a furrowed brow, talking about how horrible it was that a plane had crashed right into the tower like that. During a rinse break, I told her about the bomber that hit the Empire State Building in the forties, and how not that many people were actually hurt. I remember thinking that barring a miracle, the death toll on this crash would be at least a hundred, maybe as high as three hundred.

It was only a minute or so later that the second plane hit, and my world took a turn. Like so many other people, that's when I realized that I had no means to explain these events away. Something sinister was afoot, and I needed information.

Thankfully, she was almost done when it happened (or if it wasn't, I think that having probably had the same realization would have caused her to wrap things up anyway), so I scribbled something on the form on the way out the door, and started driving to work.

Most people, I realize, would have the instinctive response to go home in a situation like this. For me, there were three reasons that my office was a better choice. First, and foremost, I was having a little reality disjunction, and that's where I had been headed anyway. Second, my office had a fantastic telecommunications system that I helped build, with enough phone lines and bandwidth for an office of fifty, and due to layoffs, there were only about twelve of us that were going to be in. Third, and almost as an afterthought because I hadn't yet gotten around to pondering ramifications, the building I worked in was nicely ensconced in a wooded and grassy office park in the suburbs, whereas I lived within the city limits of Boston. The mass exodus from office buildings all over the city that would come an hour or so later as people realized that terrorists of some sort were torpedoing skyscrapers with airplanes was actually going in the same direction I was headed already, away from my apartment and toward my office.

When I got to the office, I walked to my desk, dropped off my stuff, and went to the other side of the building to a large conference room. The guy that was heading up project management was already futzing with our several thousand dollar videoconferencing gear to get it to act like normal televisions, and we, those of us that stayed, spent the rest of the morning, and most of the afternoon, flipping between the three networks on two big-screen televisions. Five or six guys, sitting in a conference room fighting back tears, and occassionally throwing things in fits of impotent rage.

"Usually we just send them baseball players." somebody quipped dryly, referring to the fact that the planes took off from Boston. Nobody, including the guy who said it, laughed. For some reason the black humor stuck in my mind, I think it might have reminded me of the kind of remarks my siblings and I were making to each other to keep ourselves sane at my grandfather's wake, when hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people were filing past for two days straight, two shows a day. The same hollow, weepy, tired, repetetive, emotional shock feeling of that wake was there in that conference room.

When the first of the towers fell, I had to leave. I couldn't cope. I had just watched, on live television, the deaths of I didn't even know how many people. I felt sick. I wanted to curl up in the fetal position. I wanted... I wanted to wake up. I wanted to wake up in my bed and have that release you get when you finally understand that it was just a nightmare. I did the only thing I could do: I walked outside and chain smoked for ten or fifteen minutes, before walking back in because I couldn't stop watching. Like everybody else, I had to know every gruesome detail, every table scrap of data went from the source to the media outlets to me. After I finally went home just about at the normal time, I watched the news until 2 or 3 AM, and I didn't go in the next day but instead sat in my living room, glued to the TV until I had finally had enough and shut it off sometime in the afternoon. It was a half hour or so after that that I came blinking out of a thousand yard stare, still looking at the screen.

A lot of people believe that the 2001 terrorist attacks will inevitably fade into history, and we as a country will again become complacent. Superficially, I do think that's true to a large extent.

Most people, given the opportunity, will choose not to think about things that are unpleasant to them. It's probably the single most prevalent coping mechaninsm that we as Americans use (I suspect that the rest of the world works the same way, but I could be wrong). For example, most men don't like to think about getting kicked in the balls. They'll instinctively flinch when it comes up in conversation, not because they're even replaying memories where it happened to them, but because the spectre of recalling those memories is unpleasant enough on its own to warrant a physical response.

So, as I said, superficially, I believe quite a bit of that is already going on. Under the surface though, every body is more alert these days. Overnight, a fundamental shift occurred in the way we percieve the world around us, and that aspect is not going anywhere. For evidence of that fact, you don't have to get on an airplane or walk into a government building. You don't even have to leave your home town. All you need to do is ask yourself, "In August of 2001, if I had been walking down a sidewalk, and a police cruiser drove past me with no lights or sirens, what would my first thought have been?", then ask the same question for the here and now. Keep in mind that the assumption is that you don't have any reason to fear the cop. You're not wanted, carrying anything illegal, driving at all, etc.

Personally, my response would have been either to mentally shake my head remembering one time or another when I did have one reason or another to not catch the officer's attention, or to idly wonder if there was a Dunkin' Donuts in the direction he or she was driving. It isn't exactly the respect for authority figures my parents would've liked to have seen from me, but it's honest.

These days, when I see a cruiser I'm curious whether it's doing anything interesting, and wondering if there's any way I can make the officer's life easier. I never would have guessed that my perception of police officers would shift from focusing on whether or not I respected their authority, to not really caring one way or the other about the perceived authority, but instead respecting them as people whose job it is to help other people. It kind of threw the whole authority question out the window, and I don't mind in the least.

Last year, as the one year anniversary approached, I was disgusted with the world.

International news was filled with ugliness. We were rooting out an entrenched enemy in a country that the Soviet Union had given up on. Pakistan and India were having a pissing contest with nuclear bombs. The European Union was grumbling about all of the above.

The national news was filled with a thousand and one ways to relive the nightmare that had torn away the last vestiges of what I had been able to cobble together as my own version of an idyllic youth.

A bit closer to home, I had been unemployed for eight months, and I had just buried my father.

One day, while in a fit of anger and depression, I said to myself, "And on top of it all, those fuckers took away my birthday."

America has changed. I see it every day, and I'm not just referring to the inconveniences that additional security has added. I'm talking about watching a little league game (what I can see of it) from my porch and remembering what it was like to be a kid playing baseball. I'm talking about getting to know my neighbors better in the last year or so than in the five previous years I've lived in the same place. I'm talking about the jocularity of my friends, and recognizing and holding as sacred the way that it makes me laugh. I'm talking about a difference in the way I see things.

I spent a lot of energy in my teen years wondering about the value of life, and trying to grasp what a life is worth. Now, it's very simple math. I've realized that all I needed to do was stop worrying about everybody else in the world for a moment, and understand that my life had value, immense value, to me. Whether they're aware of it or not, almost everybody probably feels the same way, and for each person there are going to be two or three or ten or a hundred people that place the same value on that individual's life. I've tried for the last couple of years to really get my head around just how much value was stolen that day, and I still haven't been able to even come close to fathoming it.

Now, try to imagine the strength of character that it takes for a person to sacrifice their life to save other lives. Somewhere along the line, as best as I can figure, each one of those people must have had a similar realization, that their own life was no more or less inherently valuable than the lives of others, which of course makes those people invaluable to those others.

I'm not claiming to have reached that same level of character but it's a goal worth attaining, though it may never be tangible or demonstrable or anything other than wholly ineffable is beside the point. Character has inherent worth. It adds to the value you place on your own life, and by extension, the value you place on the lives of others.

I can feel justified in my statement that America has changed because I know I have changed, and I know I'm not the only one. September 11th happened to all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, and while we may not all have changed the same way, we all have changed.

Whether or not the changes in America overall are for the better remains to be seen. There certainly exists the potential for an orwellian nightmare, where The Government has far too much power and the citizenry is left with little or no recourse. Aspects of this are already becoming apparent with Ashcroft's recent power grabs and moral crusading. Something that I would love for conspiracy theorists the world over to understand is that Congress, for the most part, is not out to get anyone. They just write the occassional poorly worded law that power hungry people find loopholes or special cases in that they then exploit to get power, which they use to lobby congress for what seem like fairly inconsequential edits to new legislation, and the cycle continues.

There's another side of things though. Yes, our country has the potential to become a place with a more inefficient and unfair government, but it also has the potential to be something better. Something even greater than it already is. That's the potential that I would love to see realized.

Greatness comes from within, and we've got it more than I think most people are aware of. All we have to do as a country is take a hard, unflinching look at ourselves, find and cultivate strength of character in all its forms, and I guarantee that we can change the face of the world all over again, just as we've done several times already.

If we can pull that off, I, for one, will consider September 12th, 2001 as the date of birth of a new and greater United States of America, and that's an event whose date I would be proud to share my birthday with.

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