9/11, in the mirror

To ask how 9/11 changed me is to assume that I could imagine life without that day. 9/11 became a line in my definition of myself, alongside father, husband, journalist, teacher, writer, blogger, child of the ’60s, tall klutz, odd liberal, and now middle-aged man.

I was reluctant to join in the alarm-clark nostalgia and self-examination coming with the 10th anniversary of the event. But I just decided that I’d best look in my own mirror before my landsmen in media try to define us for ourselves.

9/11 helped make me who I am; then again, it didn’t. That is, a life is not defined solely by its sameness and banality. Life is also defined by its exceptions and how one absorbs the impact of their blows. War, disease, loss: so many people suffer trauma worse than we did on that day–just look to the Middle East today–and have no choice but to carry on.

9/11 happens to be mine. I catch myself assuming that people know this about me because it was once what described this blog and thus me. I forget sometimes that it has been a long time.

My story in brief: I came into the north tower of the World Trade Center on the last PATH train from New Jersey just as the first jet hit above.

The scenes I remember vividly include empty women’s shoes on the silent, just-smokey concourse; their owners ran out of them that fast … the woman cop who shouted at us–“RUN! RUN!”–as we came out from under WTC5 … standing across the street when the second jet hit, feeling the heat and pressure of its explosion from the other side … running away … the first responders’ faces as they ran into the buildings … mundane paperwork everywhere on the ground … listening to the news of the Pentagon around a manhole cover, on a utility worker’s radio … talking to a woman there, dazed, who’d just escaped the towers, her blouse dotted by the fire sprinklers there … the tourist who wanted me to take his picture in front of the burning towers (I refused) … the top of the south tower tilting slightly to the left … running away … being overrun by the dust and debris … utter blackness … banging into cement and glass while around me things fell and people screamed … finding refuge in a building, covered in that dust, which also filled my mouth and ears … when it began to clear, back outside, I saw a black woman passing, all white except for the dark trails of tears on her face … emergency workers asking me how it was as they, too, ran in … walking uptown, people looking at me with some fright … Times Square shut up, practically abandoned … waiting for hours by the Lincoln Tunnel until it reopened and a kind stranger from Staten Island drove me to my car … opening the door to home. There are worse scenes I refuse to recount.

Then the aftermath began. There are many obvious changes in my life with 9/11 as the cause.

For years, my son, then 9, would not let me leave without saying he loved me and hearing that from me.

To this day, I cannot watch even the most obvious, manipulative emotional crescendo of a movie or TV show without feeling the reflex to well up. It is as if my pathos button is now exposed on my sleeve and anyone can push it.

The dust gave me pneumonia and when I was given a lung test, that triggered a heart arrhythmia that’s under treatment with drugs, though it threatens to return anytime. It’s nothing next to the diseases of first responders and others. It just happens to be my physical scar.

My politics took a detour. From a war-protesting liberal student in the ’60s, I became a hawk in this new war on — what? — terrorism. Though I certainly did not link 9/11 to Iraq, it was that hawkish turn that steered me to endorse war there, which I regret as a mistake — especially in light of the Arab Spring. Today, citizens are claiming their own nations rather than seeing others come to claim them. I have learned a lesson.

The most profound change of 9/11 for me was this very blog. Though I’d followed blogs since Nick Denton himself showed them to me, I didn’t write one because — and I say this with no irony — I thought I had nothing to say. After 9/11, I wanted to share more memories and thoughts. So I started a blog at first called Warlog: World War III (irony’s obituary had been written by then). I thought I’d use it for a few weeks. Instead, it changed my understanding of media, my worldview, my career. All that emerged from understanding the power of the simple link. The blog also led me to meet and become friends with people in Iran, Iraq, Germany, all over. This blog changed my life more than 9/11 but I have this blog because of 9/11.

There is a recitation of the obvious impact on me. To go much beyond that, I’d have to speculate about what life would have been like without 9/11 but, as I said, that’s impossible to do. Life includes 9/11.

Thinking through the impact on us as a city, a nation, a people is even more difficult. I am dubious of those who claim to examine how it changed us. How do they know? It’s a logical impossibility to catalog what we are now but would not have been without that day.

On this 9/11, I haven’t decided whether I will go to the site, as I have in all but one year since, when I was traveling. In the first year afterwards, I was among many there, listening to the names, and also listening to a one-year-later replay of Howard Stern’s show from that morning. When I hear that show still it hits my pathos button. Every year, I have retraced my path from that morning. Every year, I give thanks for surviving. No, I don’t know whom I’m thanking. I think about those who were not as fortunate as I am. My wife still wonders why I do this. I figure it is a rare privilege to be able to visit the grave one could have but have not yet inhabited.

If you’d asked me in the days after the event what I’d be feeling now, on the 10th anniversary, I think I’d have told you this would be a momentous anniversary with much introspection, many lessons learned. I’d have vowed that we must never forget and thus must revisit the scene and our memories, as I did even days later (that’s why this blog was born). I’d have been wrong.

I find it quite odd that I don’t want to watch any of the documentaries or read others’ recollections (why am I subjecting you to this then? I don’t know; it’s more feeding the blog god and therapy for me, forcing memory). I agree with friend Bill Grueskin, who was at the Wall Street Journal then and is at Columbia now and who suffered the impact of the day in many ways more directly than I. He posted on Facebook that he’s not really up to immersing himself in 9/11.

I don’t know why. It’s not that I want to forget. I can’t and won’t. It’s not that it’s too painful. It was more painful then, though I will say that all this 9/11 talk is giving me a renewed if slight sense of dread. It’s not even that I think media have been too exploitive. In fact, I’m shocked they haven’t been far more exploitive.

I guess it’s that life isn’t defined by a day, no matter how momentous.

: Here are my audio recollections of 9/11, recorded some days afterward.