27 November 2007

Heathens Take Manhattan: Part V: Prologue

I was up most of Monday night. Lots of yelling, mostly crying. A love triangle I had found myself in had reached its inevitable conclusion with me on the outside and the other two points forming a love line. They were my only two close friends and I made the mistake of falling for one of them. Ryan, Cindy and I were close. They helped me through one of the darkest, self-pity soaked periods of my life. And because I wasn't used to having a girl who liked me, even as a friend, I fell for Cindy. I thought I was in love. And, of course, she fell for the more attractive and confident of the two of us-- which was not me.

It shouldn't have, but somehow it did come as a surprise to me when I found out that they had become more than friends. It destroyed me. My world crumbled. In one fell swoop I had lost the only two people I trusted, the two people who meant the most to me. In my mind, my world had been as devastated as my mom's was when her husband of twenty-five years left her for a chamber maid in Pittsburgh. Oh, to be 19 again . . .

I got up after a long, sleepless night and poured a bowl of Cap'n Crunch. I still remember how it scrapped its way down my raw throat. I waited until it was late enough in the morning to call Cindy. As I dialed I turned on the TV in my bedroom. I listened to her phone ring while on the screen smoke was issuing forth from one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. No one knew what had happened, certainly no one knew why or had any concept of how our lives, all our lives, were about to change.

Cindy answered the phone; she said "A plane just flew into the World Trade Center." "I know," I said, "I just saw that." It was right then that a second plane hit. "That's crazy," I said, shaking my head. And then I turned off the TV. I didn't want it to distract me from the important issue I was dealing with.

Six years later, I don't remember a damn word of that conversation-- the conversation I forced her to have while the world was changing around us. It's no wonder that she still hates me. I do too. I'm not filled with the self-loathing bull shit I spent ages 6 through 21 stuffing myself with, but I am deeply ashamed about how I behaved that day. I’m reminded of a girl I used to work with who, when a friend of hers was found dead, exclaimed: "Another one of my friends is dead . . . why does God keep doing this to me?!" Part of it can be chalked up to the self-centeredness of youth, but it's no excuse. I was too concerned with my own life to care about the lives of thousands of others.

After I got off the phone with Cindy, I turned the TV back on. It was only then that some of the import of this day started to break through my thick shell of self-importance. I watched as two people, holding hands, did the one thing they could do, and leapt to their deaths. Of all the images from that day, that's the one that sticks with me most clearly. I'm sure there was no audio, but somehow I can still remember the sound of the impact.

I watched all through the afternoon. I watched the towers collapse, I watched as ash and debris chased hundreds of human beings down the street. I remember the replays, the five seconds of video that they began replaying around 10am and didn't stop for another two weeks.

A lot has changed since that Tuesday morning. We all know how the world changed, the thousands of lives lost, heroes made and killed in the same day, the fear and paranoia that gripped our country, the president who used it to drive us into a war and the unquestioning public who let him. At the risk of sounding like that self-centered nineteen year old, I've been through a great deal of personal change since then too, which understandably has received far less press coverage than the rest of the world.

Initially, I supported the president, goose-stepped my way down the street with an American flag on my arm. I had a "God Bless America" sticker in the window of my car and scoffed when a friend of mine said that "the things Bush is doing now will bring about the Apocalypse."

Gradually, though, along with the rest of the country, I started to come to my senses. By the time Colin Powell was on TV showing grainy photographs and claiming that this was proof of WMDs in Iraq, my reasoning had returned. One of the worst fights I've ever had with my mother was about the impending war. She asked what I would do if I were drafted, I told her there was no way I was going to be forced to go kill people just because that idiot wanted to go to war. She told me that I needed to respect the president, and if I were drafted, it'd be my duty to God and Country to serve.

It was around this time that my faith in both God and Country waned. I had been struggling with my religious indoctrination for a while—this was my "I just don't like organized religion" phase—but the events of 9-11 and everything that followed, told me that I couldn't just be a conscientious objector, I needed to decide what I really believed. And I found that I really just didn't believe and thus began my angry atheist phase.

To this day, I still love my country, but I loathe sentiments like "I love my country." Nationalism has been mistaken for patriotism—so much so that I can't even stomach the term "Patriot" anymore. I'm a Thomas Paine Patriot, not a George Bush Imperial Nationalist.

In the wake of 9-11, many Americans (who clearly missed the point) became more religious, more xenophobic. I, and an impressive amount of others, went the other direction. Step by step by step. Which eventually lead me to New York City.

The CFI conference was held in World Trade Center building #7. Up on the 40th floor, the first night of the conference, I looked down and saw what I assumed to be a construction site. And, of course, it is a construction site, but there’s much more to it than that.

The next morning, along with a group of future leaders of the secular movement, I visited Ground Zero. There's not a whole lot to see, but then I think that might be the point. Some of what is there is vitriolic rhetoric that turned my stomach. Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel like referring to those killed on 9-11 as "The Heroes of September 11, 2001" is disingenuous (which is not to say that many of them were not heroic). I guess "victims" just made it sound too much like we were victimized and we can't have that . . . it would make us feel vulnerable.

Up close, Ground Zero looks pretty much like any other snail's pace construction site. But it's not. Standing there, the tendency is to look down at what is there-- I forced myself to look up and see what wasn't there. The footage from that day ran through my head. I saw those people holding hands, I saw the smoke, heard the cries. Standing there, at the site of the defining tragedy of my generation (and possibly even our nation's history) I felt a profound guilt.

I've spent the last six years feeling guilty for how I acted on that day, but being there the guilt slammed into me like never before. I wanted to tell how sorry I was, but I knew there was no one to tell. The people I needed to apologize to weren’t there. So I let myself experience that guilt-- let myself wallow in it until it was all I could do to keep myself from screaming. It wasn't just the guilt of six years, it was the guilt of a wasted life, of wasting life itself when so many people had it taken away from them. The guilt consumed me, it overpowered me and I let it. I encouraged it. And then, I stopped.

While I will carry the shame of how I behaved on September 11th for the rest of my life, I needn’t be ashamed of what I’ve done since then, what I’ve become and what I’ll do in the future.

A lot of the way I've acted since that day has a lot to do with the way I acted on that day. Not to sound too Catholic or anything, but my guilt informs a great deal of my motives. On that day, all I cared about was myself. Now, my perspective is more global. And while I've been a loud mouth for the better part of two decades, it's only been in the last five years that I’ve been an activist. A lot of that, too, has to do with losing a belief in the hereafter,—when you believe only in the here, there is all the more motive to make the most of it and make a difference while you can.

Looking out at the buildings that should have been there, I made a vow to myself. I suppose if I were religious it would have been a prayer. But I told myself: “This is it. This is your chance. From here on out you can’t just fuck around. You’ve been here, you’ve had your little nadir point, now it’s time to do something. Existential crises are all well and good, but now it’s time to do something about it.”

I’m not going to pretend like it was some kind of epiphany—this wasn’t the fulcrum around which my life pivots. I wouldn’t have been there in the first place if I needed an epiphany to show me the way. Instead, I see it as a moment of rededication, like every time I tell my wife I love her. It showed me that this is important, that this life is important and that the causes I believe in are worth fighting for. It is hard and I’m often not very good at it, but I need to keep trying and I’m going to keep trying to do what’s right, to make my mark, and to help.