Personal Mythologies II: 9/11

Where were you when it happened?

During first period English class, our social studies teacher popped his head into the room and announced, “A plane has hit the world trade center,” and promptly disappeared like a prairie gopher. We were dumbfounded. What is the World Trade Center? Why did a plane hit it?

In the hall, our normally jubilant and compassionate health teacher was weeping. Her partner was apparently a pilot for American Airlines and flying the east coast that day. This was before cell phones.

I got off the bus and my mom was outside gardening and listening to NPR. She had a calm but wild look in her eye about it all. I was upset I couldn’t watch the Simpsons. News was on every channel.

I wrote about 9/11 at length earlier this year. Obviously it is still on my mind. I have more to say.

The Simpsons had to be disrupted for me to understand the enormity of what happened. With age, I’ve come to associate the moment I realized I didn’t get to watch another Simpsons re-run with my loss of innocence. I was 13, a little angsty, and in the early throes of puberty. Something shifted in that instant and never shifted back.

I’ve been itching to write a story about a world where 9/11 didn’t happen. It always stalls out during development. How do you tell a story based on the negation of an event? Even though the whole genre of alternative history is based on this conceit, I can’t figure this one out.


In 2011 I found myself in New York City. I had been dispatched with a small cadre of Columbia College Chicago seniors. We were representing our school in a portfolio showcase. Between obligations, I photographed the city. One day, I shot the Freedom Tower construction site. Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty. That night I was in Times Square and another thing happened. Osama bin Laden: dead.

It has been difficult for me to suppress developing superstitious beliefs from this coincidence.

Times Square 1

Times Square 2

Freedom Tower 1

Freedom Tower 2

Statue of Liberty


In Ramy Youssef’s HBO special, Feelings, he posits that 9/11 actually “worked.”

Did we ever heal from 9/11? Why do I feel like we never talk about it anymore? Did the catharsis happen in the early 00’s and I was just oblivious to it all? Are there other people my age out there who are still totally confused about the whole thing? I don’t have closure. Why do I want closure? Why do I feel entitled to closure? How everyone else ever heal from Vietnam? MLK? Kennedy? Hiroshima? WWII? WWI? The Civil War? Did we heal? Or are they all permanent cultural scars? What other things of this magnitude happened that have been utterly forgotten?


I visited the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall this year. It was 4th of July and I went with my dad. We talked with a kind docent, walked the entire wall, read many of the names, wandered a forest of American flags.

Maybe I ought to plan a pilgrimage to the 9/11 memorial.

Vietnam Traveling Memorial

American Flag Forest


Addendum

It seems either there is something in the air or I’m particularly sensitive to apophenia (again). I read two articles from Wired after I published this that are perfect compliments:

Personal Mythologies I: Tao Te Ching

The more clever and crafty the men,
The oftener strange things happen.

Tao Te Ching, Ch. 57, John C. H. Wu Translation

Ain’t it the truth? My anxiety of the news on any given day is allayed by these two lines.

We teleported a photon to a satellite? Of course we did.

We maybe figured out how to cure aging? Okie-dokie. Excuse me while I devise a strategy to forget these 500 ethical questions about that one…

We found a mysterious void inside the sphinx? Nothing thought provoking about that. Nope, nothing at all.

Stories like these typically send my imagination into places I do not enjoy. But still, I seek out this type of news. I do this because I am curious about the world. I am almost in a perpetual state of awe at everything that happens on this little speck of dust we call Earth.

I am an existential athiest with a frosting of Taoism and Zen to account for the rounding errors. I’m not sure when I first read the Tao Te Ching, but the evidence points towards early high school.

I’ve had numerous translations over the years. My favorite is the John C. H. Wu translation. I keep a pocket version of it with me all the time.

Tao Te Chings

I think this makes me something of a materialist-naturalist-mystic. I don’t believe in a spiritual world. I believe the fundamental interactions (electromagnetism, gravity, strong and weak nuclears) are sufficient describe the happenings in the material world.

Our understanding of these forces is not - and probably never will be - complete.

There are probably other forces.

Whether you believe mind gives rise to matter or the other way around, I think it is unarguable that we don’t have everything figured out yet. In high school and through most of my twenties, all I cared about were the “big” questions: ontology, eschatology, epistomology… These days, my mind usually spends energy pondering the “little” questions: family, friends, relationships, society, culture, the next 50 years of human civilization.

I always assumed the Tao Te Ching was more readily applied with the big questions, but I’ve increasingly turned to it for help with the little, human ones. The ones the Standard Model can’t touch. Context is everything. For me, I need some type of mysticism to account for all the messy and complicated human and cultural interactions out there. Perhaps this is an act of bad faith on my part, but I haven’t found any better explanation. And maybe there isn’t one.

Pedestrian Train Incident

I wonder if they knew it was going to happen? Or if they were caught by surprise? Worse… if they weren’t. Was it a tragic slip? A fatal miscalculation? Or was it pre-meditated?

I live in Fox River Grove, Illinois. Fox River Grove is famous for two things. The first is the tallest point in McHenry County - the Norge Ski Jump. The second is the horrific school bus train incident that resulted in numerous fatalities in the early nineties. I don’t know the details. I have a story in my head that the incident resulted in the mandate (law?) that all school bus drivers have to stop and look both ways before crossing train tracks. Apocryphal or no, I think about it often.

There is still a memorial to the kids, almost 30 years later. I pass it twice a day.

In Chicago, the commuter rail is called Metra. I’ve been riding Metra almost every week day for the last six years. The trains are enormous, 2-level centipedes with bathrooms, air conditioning, and electrical sockets. Decades ago some of the trains even had full bars. You can still drink on the trains, a privilege festival revelers and sports fans often enjoy. Sometimes I get a Modelo from CVS and drink it on the trip home.

During my commutes with Metra, there have been approximately three pedestrian train incidents.

With each, there is a pattern. An announcement over the intercom. Unknown time tables. Information about what station we are going stopped at. Which train cars will be open. Some people get off. Some people stay on. After approximately three hours, the trains move again.

I’ve never felt annoyed or inconvenienced. Instead it is a strange sense of sorrow and camaraderie. The sorrow is for the one who - presumably - died. The outcomes other then death for a pedestrian train incident seem as rare as they are likely. The camaraderie is for my fellow commuters with all their parallel feelings of sorrow.

There is more sorrow for the family, lives forever changed. The phone calls could be going out this very moment. Or perhaps there is no family. I will never know.

This time I got off the train. Now I’m on a bench in Arlington Heights, writing about the whole thing. Two incidents ago I was in Park Ridge or something. My train pretty much emptied and it seemed like everyone went to the same bar. Strangers, we entered. Strangers, we drank to the fallen. Strangers, we left. No small talk. No, “How about them Cubs?” Just several dozen middle class professionals contemplating their mortality together. Through some form of osmosis we knew the train was going to start moving again so we headed back.

Isn’t it amazing? Without such an “incident” (can we just stop to appreciate how hideously inane that word is in this context?) everyone’s night would have gone according to schedule. But with the “incident” dozens of trains were delayed. Hundreds of people were thrust into a new environment, disembarking at stations they have no reason to visit, writing blog posts that were never meant to be.

During one of the incident announcements, the conductor uttered the word “forensic” on the intercom. The word stuck with me. What a job. Pedestrian Train Incident Forensic Analyst. Put a dot on the map where it happened. How many dots are there? Across how many lines?

I don’t believe in fate or predetermination. Nor do I believe there is a higher organizing principal assigning meaning to everything. Our awareness ebbs between chaos and serenity. Some things make sense. Others don’t. Our job is to create meaning out of it all and try to help each other out along the way.

Tonight, my father was generous with his time and agreed retrieve me from Arlington Heights. On the drive back we passed the scene of the accident. There were a dozen emergency vehicles parked on the side of Route 14. Two pockets of activity. One towards the back of the train, the other at the front engine. In that moment I knew this was a suicide. This was a barren expanse of track: no crossroads, sidewalks, or houses. Kids would not play here. This person knew the express trains during rush hour would be barreling down the tracks at maximum speed. Half a mile away loomed the quasi-brutalist silhouette of Arlington Heights Race Track. A strange place, the Race Track. You can gamble on the horses there.

At the front of the train, a man leaned back in the unmistakable gesture of iPhone photographer’s the world over. He was framing the cowcatcher.