Category Archives: September 11th

the agony of disconnection

This draft has been sitting in my box for so long, wordpress thought it was written in 1999. It wasn’t, but it was written well before President Obama was elected. I shudder to think of the examples of how people thrive on demonization now, but think most of what’s here is still the core of the problem we’re facing as people.

This is in memory of all we lost that day, including the opportunity to be better connected as a people. Rest in peace, Fred.

A while back, I wrote about the exceptionally personal experience I had 8 years ago, as someone one degree of separation from the tragedy of September 11. But rather than go on a rant – I do enough of that, and others have already expressed sentiments in ways more articulate and moving than I could – I’m reflecting on a result I would call the agony of separation.

Some thoughtful writers have already talked about the distance they felt from the day’s events, and from the aftermath. After all, there were no calls to reduce consumption of any sort, only to trust that people in the government would act in our best interests, as long as we trusted them. The contrary, that any question or exploration of their actions would be the equivalent of treason, kept many people quiet. Too many people.

From the start, then, we take the tragic events, the loss of lives, and decide that grieving is too much, unless met with unreflective aggression, not just in retaliatory action, but also in words, in thoughts, and what we allow people to talk about publicly. This is more then than the loss one never stops grieving. We move from the commons into a bunker.

But it’s more than applying bunker mentality to communication. It’s also who’s doing the fighting. Economic factors (extra income, the only possible path to college) have put our most vulnerable people into military service. When they return, they’re both damaged and denied the resources they need to recover – not unlike the denial of resources and information they faced on the ground, in harm’s way.

In this bunker culture, there isn’t a lot of encouragement to substantively connect – yellow ribbon magnets repel question authority bumperstickers, and vice versa. I see one of those magnets in the parking lot of my child’s daycare center, and wonder how I would talk to the mom who drives the car. We would talk about our children, I suppose, and I would ask when her family member is coming home, and wish a safe and healthy return. Anymore than that, and there is a serious potential for bunker communications, shutting down, dropping connections. Or would we not even talk at all, as the wrinkled John Kerry sticker (not exactly question authority, but close enough in our media and politically illiterate culture) would serve as an effective deterrent to even the most surface greetings.

Broadband bunker communciations fully support the agony of separation. Information sources that sides rely upon are often suspect, and the louder suspect sources tend to come from one side. You know how it goes; “You’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” Who is this “us,” anyway? It is not the citizenry. How do you listen to someone who parrots Fox entertainers? Who has the interest, never mind the time, to read comparatively? Who would raise their hand and claim to be a media illiterate?

At the same time how does that person listen to me about the state of our nation in real time across the table, words at a breathtaking clip, all citations, disdain and by most standards, obscene privilege? How does that person communicate the realities they face

Where do we find the encouragement to stop, listen, connect? Is it even possible? Blogs certainly foster communities of interest, but my limited experience shows the only tangible evidence of crosspollination being the troll. I admit it, I don’t need to read another Clinton-bashing site as long as I live. Not because I think he was perfect – far from it – but because what they say is born of hatred of him, and while the hatred is real, the accusations range from overdone to truly bizarre.

And it is that unwillingness to ask and listen that stops connections from happening, that makes for gaps, for misinformed assumptions, for danger, for a strange sort of agony – one of a nation, unable to look at itself in the altogether.

Unlike the majority of my fellow Americans, I flew within two weeks, across country. And again the following week. And then in a ping-pong trip across central and western Europe. I can’t tell you what a mess I found – a tangled mess of ideas presented to me at every turn by colleagues from all parts of the globe. It wasn’t a bad mess, though many of the ideas were unpleasant, theories from the thoughtful to just shy of deranged, and a lot of anti-American sentiments. But the best part of that tangle was the chance to acknowledge it, and to listen. Not to agree, but to listen. To connect.

Whether it was at home or overseas (I lost count of the number of times I flew to Europe in the last 4 months of 2001), it became even more important to connect. To listen. To not dismiss. To understand, if only a little, and to consider and act on solutions. To untangle misunderstandings, while seeing some snarls were beyond my abilities to know at the time.

In my own way, because of my work and its very nature (I was a Communications Director of an international technical organization at the time), I was serving as an ambassador through listening, responding, asking.

I have to say, I wasn’t afraid of ideas, of people presenting them. I was glad to have the chance to hear it directly. To give a response if I had one, to simply say “I don’t know about that” if I didn’t, and to offer my own views if it seemed as though there was any interest.

Watching some television yesterday, I noticed how tender the wounds still are for people not separated from the events of the day. Whether it was by location, or personal loss, or identification.

Back to that tragic week in 2001 – I was loading the trunk of my rental car in Downtown Boston on the way to my own bridal shower, when my friend handed me a copy of Time she had saved for me. I remember seeing for the first time photos of people jumping from buildings – the scenes broadcast in every other country around the world.  I literally screamed, dropping the magazine into the trunk, and extending my arms, my hands palms up. What I wouldn’t have given to be able to catch even one person – an irrational, impractical, emotional, visceral, true response. It wouldn’t have mattered what they believed, who they voted for, what they watched. When faced directly with the loss of a human being, with suffering, only connect.

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Filed under Complexity, exploitation, france, Grieving, loss, Opportunism, Politics, September 11th, Wars

a sad 5th anniversary

Our management meeting was just starting; we were at a site in Cambridge, and our small group was wrestling with network connectivity issues in advance of reading the agenda, when Eric pinged Ralph on IRC. Something terrible was happening in New York. We could only read Eric’s transcription, which stopped with an “Oh my god”.

In the months and years that have passed and the number of times that murder has been shown and edited into “news”, the picture in my mind always goes to my friend’s words on the screen, his remarks about trembling and having trouble typing, and seeing.

A very good friend of mine often flew from Boston to DC for work, and had her flight plans changed at the last minute, making it possible for us to have dinner that night. I wrote her to say how lucky we were she didn’t fly that day, and how I was looking forward to breaking peaceful bread together.

One line came back to me in email. “*Her husband’s name* was on United 175.”

I gasped. He never flew for work – he didn’t have to. He was a doctor who specialized in family medicine, the kind of MD who took you cradle to grave. He was funny, and smart, and he made my friend bloom. And now he was gone, oh dear god. How would they find him? (The thought of it even now makes me choke.)

I didn’t exactly follow him that day, but I left the room mentally. In the blue tangy sky, in grief. My fiance was in meetings in San Jose; his mom called him from Denmark to break the news. We touched base (all hail irc) once his meeting started, and then, with Tim’s ok, I was gone.

I drove to the town where there was a candlelight vigil, and searched for my friend. Many somber faces – many somber children’s faces – and a disturbing encounter with a former soldier talking about hell and damnation in front of his toddlers. I escaped his manic rant, and arrived at my friend’s house. Her sisters were with her, and when she saw me, her shoulders dropped. We held hands, and hugged, and I told her I was there to help her with whatever she needed. I tried to get her to eat a little bit of food (a mantra repeated by all of her friends and family), and told her I would stay the night if she wanted.

Friends and family had found a little television in one of the storage rooms (this was not a TV house) and hooked it up. Within three minutes of getting a focused picture, there it was. Oh my God. She was looking at it for the first time, the second plane, her husband, dying in the corner of her dining room. I was in the far corner of the room; I went to her and said, “We don’t have to see this if you don’t want to.” She gave me a soft look, and I turned off the set, unplugged it, and hid it in a closet.

I stayed with my friend that night, and every other night for the length of my visit. What I remember finally were the sounds – the sounds of heartbreak and loss in an old house, callously interrupted by jets overhead. The screeching shook the small town that had lost 3 citizens, echoing over the harbor, too late to save anyone and too loud, too indecent to allow for grieving.

This morning, like every September 11 morning since, I have been quiet through those hours. I woke on this anniversary three hours behind New York, PA and DC, but with it in all around me, in the warm pre-waking embraces, the need to be held, cared for, comforted, in silence.

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Filed under anniversary, Grieving, MIT, September 11th, w3c, Wars