now collected here: stephperry.tumblr.com
On the Monday after the first weekend of the academic year in 2001, about fifty honors program students and I turned in a Global History 9H assignment: a timeline of each of our lives up until that point. By chance, I found this timeline a few months ago, and performed the chronological calculus of determining its date of manufacture: September 10, 2001. Until that date the four most important events of 2001 for me were, in chronological order, the birth of my cousin Rebecca; the death of the dog I had received as a puppy months after my grandfather, with whom I was very close, died during the winter when I was in kindergarten; the removal of a foot of my hair for Locks of Love donation and personal appearance purposes; and the commencement of high school. Beside a mark on the timeline to designate the new millennium, every event on the timeline is strictly personal in nature. I have memories of acknowledging elections, political scandals, the Oklahoma City bombing and the OJ Simpson trial, the last two of those events having a “Buffalo connection” and having been covered relentlessly by the local media in Western New York, where I grew up and now live again. None of those events had enough relevance to me to qualify for enumeration on the assigned timeline.
On the afternoon of Monday, September 10, 2001, my best friend and I skipped cross-country practice in order to goof around, go jogging and generally antagonize the well-intentioned middle-aged male coach who was ill-equipped to manage a roster of ten young women. My friend and I joked about the earth-shattering consequences of our transgression, indulging in worst case scenarios that would somehow result from our decision to disobey the order of the universe and the varsity cross-country team practice schedule: The school would implode! The city would burn! That evening, like all other Monday evenings in high school, I probably went to magnet math classes at a nearby university.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was in Art 1: Drawing and Painting, second period, when news of something outside the high school trickled into the Art Department office adjacent to my classroom. An accident, or something, a plane crash in Manhattan, a place I had never been, was cause for alarm, surprise. One art teacher, an elegant Jewish woman from Brooklyn, who still strikes me as being among the most graceful, regal people I have known, expressed apprehension and then relief about the safety of her relatives and friends in New York. Another student in that art class would later become a good friend of mine, and I believe her dad was at the World Trade Center during a business trip that morning. In that time before ubiquitous cell phones, I am not sure the confused news of the accident, no, coordinated attack, in Manhattan, and the fact that that her father had been so close to the catastrophe was relayed before his safety was already ascertained.
I never asked my teacher or my friend for details about that morning. As births and deaths dotted my personal timeline, the families of those murdered in the September 11 terror attacks must mark that date as one of personal relevance. For that enormous group of people, I felt the sadness of being just a person or two removed from anxiety, from somber funerals and from the grief that accompanies a sudden, unexpected death. A decade later, I still have not felt the acute loss of a friend or family member to an accident, attack or incident completely unforeseen. Bearing witness to the friends of friends who have, I hope that I never experience that loss.
It was not until roughly noon that the significance of the terror attacks had been determined and televisions were brought into classrooms so that we students would see the day’s events unfold. It was in that same social studies class where I had turned in the personal timeline 24 hours earlier that my classmates and I were told an event of great historical significance was unfolding. In less than four hours, contemporary panic had become history, and as an historic national event, not as a personal event, I would come to know September 11. I had no insight, no meaningful consolation for the people I didn’t know five hundred miles away who were directly impacted by that day’s losses.
In the weeks that would follow, I experienced vague irritation for country musicians whose patriotic songs seemed like eulogies delivered by funeral-crashers, general distaste for garish cable news reports, sad concern for world events still to come. Years later, I would be inconvenienced by flight safety regulations and agitated, discomforted by nearly every mention of 9/11 by a politician or warmonger.
A decade removed from September 11, 2001, I feel sadness and guilt whenever I see a man or woman in full military uniform, especially onboard flights or in the security-cleared zones surrounding airline gates: where are they coming from and where will they go as they participate in the consequences of the world conflict that came to a head ten years ago, mixing history and countless personal timelines? Encounters with these Americans remind me how deep the experience divide is between Americans fortunate enough not to be directly impacted by Qaeda terrorism and those who must bear great loss, suffering and horror in its wake.
Profound sadness and hopelessness engulfs me when I see military personnel, the same profound sadness and hopelessness that I first felt ten years ago: were it that this world was not so cruel, that demagogues and hate-motivated campaigns would not bring so much senseless loss. I am fortunate that the grief of so many individuals over so many years stops a person removed from me; I am unspeakably fortunate.
A friend driving down Interstate-90 on her way home for the holidays stopped over in Buffalo on Sunday. We made dinner at my apartment, and then we drove the dark, snow-covered streets arrayed in grids, radiating outward from a traffic circle on which sits the monolith* of City Hall. We drove past the unnerving Richardson psychiatric center and down Grant Street, a north-south thoroughfare in a low-income section of the city center, parallel to but a half-mile from Elmwood Avenue, the upscale retail-dense revitalization darling of Buffalo enthusiasts. We cut back to my nice neighborhood from the dingy West Side via one of the few one-way streets that allows this socio-economic crossover. We passed by the mansions and the museums and old Allentown.
We stopped at my favorite bar for a nightcap, a Tom Collins for me and a g&t for my visitor. We left at 1:30 a.m., passing a few tables of Monday morning drinkers and, outside, occasional huddled smokers in clusters, their figures spotting the snowy sidewalks like their cigarette ashes. We drove up Elmwood and a police car slowed in the approaching lane and shined a bright flashlight through the windshield. Startled by the intrusion, guest and I agreed to being somewhat unsettled by police and the general suspense-avec-fear that follows being singled out when nothing is amiss.
I told my guest of one police officer I had met in the recent past and had liked. After working late, my coworker and I had gone to said favorite bar for a nightcap. To lighten the mood after a 12-hour workday I stealthily adhered a faux-mustache I happen to keep in my purse to my upper lip. Imitating a sneeze, I lifted my hand to my nose and my coworker got some amusement out of the facial hair that materialized. It turns out all men with real mustaches love a lady with a impostor ‘stache, and they sent quite a few drinks to my coworker and me.
One man who had a mustache introduced himself and said he grew the mustache because he was a cop. He was a cop because there isn’t much else to do with a master’s degree in English literature and a dissertation on authority and the savage in Conrad’s work. Fitting.
He was a decent man who later left a voicemail (a rarity, personal if not also inconvenient) inviting me to see a play with him. I wish I had, but I was too uncomfortable to tell him I had a boyfriend at the time. It is difficult to make friends with men who are complete strangers sometimes. The default romantic/sexual possibility of any male-female heteronormative meeting is difficult to defy — even if the lady is groomed as a man.
Two friends have told me in the last two days that they signed up with the dating website OK! Cupid. One was shy about it and reported little else than enrollment; the other feigned modesty, but admitted to “hanging out” with an e-match, by which she meant having sex.
My own OK! Cupid experience ended with a panic attack at the local science museum and a message from the unfortunate date asking for a refund of my museum admission. (I did not oblige.) This anecdotal failure need not portend failure for my friends who live in large Eastern seaboard cities. I live in a small city without the critical mass of educated, socially maladroit singles required for successful online matching. Also, I likely live on the outskirts of social normalcy, and strain the statistical model that makes the magic of robot-Yente possible.**
* Friend and I in wandering discussion about semantics, accents and other things linguistic mentioned “monolithic,” and the way in which people sometimes use it to mean, more or less with a negative connotation, setting and enforcing a norm. Without consulting the OED, that seems like an awkward, abstract use for a word whose Classical roots indicate something tangible: a single big rock. I like when “monolith” is used in the “big rock” sense, which is how I am using it here. You could read into it the secondary meaning as well.
** Compared to the social mean, I value correct grammar more; I care less for hysterical hygiene regimes; I look more disapprovingly on undue interest in cars, disinterest in current events and, unfairly, short people.
Over lunch at my friend’s suburban house, we were talking about some truly miscellaneous things. Or, rather, I was talking about how much I want to go to a Civil War-inspired dinosaur alterna-history theme park. Which, naturally, brought up the time I ripped off Dinosaur Comics in order to answer a philosophy of language question about true negative existentials. If you really want a better explanation, I can provide it, but the conversation may dissolve into a small personal crisis — is anything not contingent besides numbers and the truths of math?
My obsession for the past month has been The Reporter, the liberal “fortnightly of facts and ideas” published by Max Ascoli between 1949 and 1968. Not many historians take much of an interest in it (with the exception of a Dutch American studies scholar named Elke Van Cassel, whose very serious Ph.D. works just blows mine away) and I likely would not have known of it at all, except that I had to do a research paper on *something* for a history class and Ascoli’s archives happen to be at BU.
Ascoli was a harsh critic of what passed for journalism in his day — you know, that day, the heyday, the Golden Age of Journalism. Reading over his response to both the uncontextualized and shallow reporting of the McCarthy era and the sometimes immature expectations of American readers at that time, it seems the conceptual problems in American journalism have not changed all that much over the last 60 years. He published a critique of The New York Times, already then the preeminent American newspaper, written by Dwight Macdonald (an article about whom appeared in The Times three years ago).
Macdonald’s complaints concerned everything from the layout of the front page to the way arguably useless information was routinely presented in stories (e.g. “that the court adjourned at 12:35 p.m.; that the prisoners shook hands with the lawyers (instead of slugging them, as is the usual custom); and that it was a long trial (you’re telling us)”). The essence of what he said, though, is that the Times failed to discriminate. It printed what it wanted, when it wanted, because it could, without being challenged. He likened the organization to a rock that “has just kept rolling along, gathering lots of moss” and a dinosaur, “an unwieldy bulk of matter directed by inadequate consciousness.” The reader and the news organization suffered because The Times failed to prioritize important stories or to say no to inane trend stories. Macdonald listed “the fox that was captured in a Bronx housing project, the electrocuted cat that blacked out Price, Utah, and, of course, any and all items talking about fish” as the fetishes of Times reporters and editors around February 1950, when the Macdonald piece was printed. I suspect Macdonald would not be impressed by the Times’s coverage of Bo Obama or Twitter.
Ascoli himself turned the Times’s motto on its head in his editorial that ran in the same issue: “The classic formula of the New York Times, ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print,’ ought to be re-examined — particularly the ‘all’ and the ‘fit’ — for it results in rushing too much news straight to the printing plant. The London Economist said recently that the American press suffers from too much paper; actually, it suffers from too much news, verbose, often-meaningless news, promiscuously thrown at the reader.”
What Ascoli and Macdonald would say now, now that the Times “happens” far more often than once a day and paper has nothing to do with the limits to its content, I can only imagine. They — both tough, strong-willed editors — bemoaned the lack of responsible editing going on at the nation’s news organizations in 1950. With everyone who has a computer now able to be a reporter and a one-man news organization, it begets the question: where are the editors?
(Picture taken by phone camera in the library where I read The Reporter, since I can’t check it out and it doesn’t exist online.)