September 11 Heralds the Value of Collaborative Storytelling

Sunrise on September 11, 2013
Sunrise on September 11, 2013

I love TED talks, and I get a new one every day in my inbox. I don’t always have time to watch, but yesterday’s by Jake Barton put the best possible spin on today, September 11. He’s immersed in designing the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York slated to open next year and his talk is a journey through that project so far, and how in the process they have designed new ways to enliven modern museums of all stripes. Their interactive museum tools are the new spring growth, the unexpected flower after the scorched earth fire. The interactive features, some of which now in use at the Cleveland Museum of Art, don’t replace the existing exhibits, but they do cool things like allow viewers to put paintings, sculptures and bits of architecture in their original contexts via an integrated digital image. You can see the tapestry on the castle wall, the gargoyle on the building, the bust in the artist’s studio. Our CGI-marinated kids will love this.

image credit: wikipedia

The 9/11 Museum also draws on the Storycorps idea of hearing personal stories fro ordinary people about that extraordinary day (if you’ve never heard Storycorps Friday mornings on NPR, they are always worth hearing – click on the link to the main site and listen to one or two – each story is only a few minutes long). They’ll have a booth and people can go in and tell their story, and some of the audio from previously recorded will be playing through the PA system as people walk through the exhibits. Real voices, real people, real stories – unfiltered by historians, TV commentators or politicians.

I’m glad that part of the legacy of this day is bring people together with technology that connects us not just as individuals but with our art, our poetry and our history.

The Age of Anxiety: Is This the Legacy of September 11?

Over the summer I asked an education professional if she had any insight into the increased diagnosis of severe anxiety disorders in teens. We aren’t talking about teenage angst – these are kids who can’t bring themselves to leave the house or enter a classroom. Her answer surprised me: “It’s the 9/11 generation.” I hadn’t thought of it that way before, and I don’t think I agree completely, but it’s an interesting theory.

One thing is for certain: the 24 hour news cycle and the widespread use of video and cell phone data made the sights and sounds of September 11, 2001, some of the most recorded and repeated events in history. I have to wonder if constant exposure to those images, along with all of the other disturbing and readily available content on the internet and cable TV, has created worrisome static in the minds of vulnerable children. Whether it creates the worry or amplifies it is up for discussion.

For my part, I have had bouts of worry since day one. If you took my life apart piece by piece you may or may not find events that fuel my worry, but I am convinced that the original spark was organic, part of my DNA. I was very young when I told my baffled mother I was afraid of both the dark and eternity as I played tea party on the floor near her desk. But I can remember the day my worry went from ember to bonfire with a single act when, aged 11, I picked up a copy of Helter Skelter from the coffee table in our living room, and read only the captions below the photographs embedded in the center of the book. They described in vivid detail the grisly crimes of Charles Manson and his cohorts against people in their own homes (none of the links here lead to those photos). What sent me into a tailspin was the randomness with which the houses and victims were chosen – the ultimate case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I stopped sleeping and started locking all of the doors in our big house in a small city. I stayed up until all hours watching the late show, hoping to fall asleep, only to be awakened by the test pattern or the national anthem. Lucky for me the late show in those days consisted of movies like The Old Man and the Sea and Jerry Lewis and Peter Sellers comedies. It took years for me to go back to reading books in bed, and when I did I took to reading the same books over and over – Gone With the Wind, The Long Winter, The Little Silver House, A Little Princess, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. New books were only for daylight hours, and more often than not they were Hollywood biographies – glamorous and gossipy, the ending already known.

I’m willing to bet that the images broadcast eleven years ago today have stayed with some children more than others – why should they be any different than those of us who cannot forget that day and look warily at a too blue September sky? It isn’t as easy for us to protect them as it was for my mother to get rid of that book and replace it with more appropriate reading – she settled on Agatha Christie for some reason, probably because the mysteries were all solved neatly at the end. She was none too thrilled with my own choice of Judy Garland, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe books but those tales were less lurid than they are now, and in comparison to the Mansons they were almost wholesome.

My organic worry is still with me and I see it glowing beneath the surface in my children, but we have plenty of tools to help address it. Diet, exercise, prayer and sometimes medication and therapy all play a part, as well as a constant effort to beat back the media beast. I am grateful to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter for providing such sublime distraction via books and movies at this key period in history; it is an especially remarkable gift to the generation of children coming of age now. The TV and the internet allow us to revisit and access disturbing content but they also allow us to curate (and password protect) what we and our children see – I love that my middle schooler can fill up on recorded episodes of Good Eats, Dr. Who and Top Gear when he’s done with his homework (I don’t care to discuss Family Guy, thank you).

Real life, of course, presents fearsome challenges of its own that have nothing to do with media. For thousands of people it is the stark reality of the lives of loved ones lost senselessly and horribly (or in brave service as first responders) on September 11, 2001, and not just the images of it, that have altered their lives. We would all like to turn back the clock and not have known it, not have seen it, and protected our children from it. But just as the generations before us endured the tragedies of their times, we can hope that our sorrow and the worry it can engender allows us to learn in ways that bind us together – if we can just tear our eyes away from the screen.

9/11 Postscript

After all of my hand wringing yesterday afternoon, perspective arrived in the evening.  After a patchy, overcast weather all day, a thin stripe of sunshine lit the trees across the pond followed by a pink sky, promising a lovely day today. 

And as I watched the full moon rise after the light faded, my boy mention as he passed me, “I planted a seed in your garden today.”

“You did?”

“Yes.  I planted my nectarine pit in the garden so that it would grow into a tree.”

Never much of a gardener before, I began planting new things each September since 2001 as a way of reminding myself to appreciate where I am now and to invest hope in the coming spring.  The result is a garden that gives me more joy than I ever imagined.  This year’s bulbs sit in a box in the garage waiting to be planted, but it’s good to know something went into the ground on the 11th.  Now, to figure out where he planted it and keep the chipmunks away from it.

Finally, we stumbled on the Science Channel’s Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero and it was gratifying to see something emerging, at last, from the ashes of that day.  No false reality TV drama, just stories and extraordinary images of the new buildings and the memorial and how they are being built.  The series is several hours long and worth every minute.  Thank you, Steven Spielberg.


Predicting the Unpredictable

Last week my youngest told me that if he could go back in time, he would find the terrorist headquarters and blow it up – he actually said he would sacrifice himself – so that 9/11 would never have happened.  That’s the lesson he brought to this day.  When I told him that we can never quite know what might have prevented that day ten years ago, he found that answer wholly unsatisfactory and I don’t blame him.  I didn’t like it either, but I also know that my childhood was laced with an understanding that we weren’t expected to control our futures, only to prepare ourselves to lead the best life we could with the blessings we have.  Among the many disillusionments of the 21st century, this responsibility to control everything in life that we are imposing on our children, and its attendant assignment of blame for every mishap, is the biggest one.  What was once the ebb and flow of daily life has turned into a lady or the tiger conundrum every single day.

Now more than ever, it seems we are trying to predict the future and we are still surprised when we are wrong.  With the 24 hour news cycle, smartphones and iPad apps, the media devotes so much time and space to people saying they know what the future holds interspersed with other people trying to say they saw the most recent disaster coming followed by a systematic and relentless assignment of blame.  What is wrong with this picture?  How do we calculate our success rate in preventing catastrophe?  Most of the time the people who saw it coming – if there are any – cannot be found on CNN, Fox or the Huffington Post, that’s for sure.

There was a time when the most we could expect to warn us of disaster was the tornado siren.  What we have now that earlier generations did not is a bombardment of information that gives us the illusion that whatever happens, we should see it coming.   We spent days preparing and watching hurricane Irene blast up the coast only to have her ravage inland rivers – apparently, no one warned Vermont.  All of the tsunami sensors in the Pacific did not dissuade Japan from placing a nuclear power plant on the coast.  And all of those big banks got hoodwinked by the ratings agencies and never noticed all of those bad loans they were underwriting.  It’s no wonder we scratch our heads and wonder how we missed it because as time goes by our mistakes seem ever more stupid and obvious.

Pick a topic – our health, the economy, or the weather – there are any number of solutions to it that are just a click away.  And yet, the flow of disasters almost seem to speed up rather than abating with all of this new knowledge and the ability to communicate it.  If we leave the TV and the internet on, we are fed, ever so smoothly, the myth that we can prevent bad things from happening when in some respects the bad things are perpetuated by us sitting in front of the screen.  And the more preposterous and untenable the theory, the better – we reward the wing nuts:  I watched the movie Network last spring and it could have been a documentary. 

The moment of revelation in youth that people do terrible things for reasons we cannot understand is one we never forget, and a certain part of our lives is indeed devoted to trying to avert the personal disasters we have known in the forms of death, illness, poverty and pain.  Those moments stand juxtaposed with the more collective events for which we don’t feel any personal culpability but then feel compelled to do something about:   My parents had Pearl Harbor as a defining moment (and that came on the heels of the Great Depression), the following generation had the death of President Kennedy (followed by the Viet Nam war and Watergate), and we have this day (followed by two wars and a financial meltdown).  What one generation does in response to its challenges defines the generation that follows, and I don’t pretend to know that that means for my children – I’m not getting into the prediction business.

Many years ago my cousin was dying of cancer, and she removed every newspaper, magazine and television from her home so that she could focus on her art and on helping others (she offered free financial advice to retirees).  I admired her focus but recall thinking that I would never shut myself off from the world the way that she did, even in those circumstances.  Now, as I watch the towers fall yet again, I understand, and yet I watch, hoping to think of something good we can do with my son’s time machine.

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