Striving for the Sky
Creativity, skyscrapers, and my remembrance of September 11, 2001, ten years later

September 11, 2011

The week of September 11, 2000, I spent a lot of time thinking about someone falling from the top of a city's tallest skyscraper.

If you reread that sentence carefully and note that I did not make a typo, you might wonder why. One day, if I ever publish my novel Altitude, readers might think it's decidedly “post-September 11” – a name for a distinct body of literature that even on 9/11/01 I expected would emerge. I imagined people reading that literature, and discussing it in college lit classes and looking back on us from the comfortable distance of a several decades.

The thing is, Altitude is absolutely sopping with post-September 11 influence, but the image that seems most obviously post-9/11 was something I had written exactly a year before. I first published the pivotal chapter of what was then Twilight Star in late September 2000, ending on a cruel cliffhanger with a character falling from a skyscraper after being thrown out by what was, essentially, an international terrorist motivated by religion. After the events of a year later, I couldn't work on it again for a long time. After that had actually happened to so many people, it felt profoundly disrespectful.

In the days following September 11, 2001, I screamed at the TV that they should stop showing people jumping to their deaths, that it was indecent that they should let us gawk at those poor souls like that. While I don't take back what I said then, ten years later, I have come to feel that watching that footage (though I'm glad it has been minimal in the coverage I have seen so far) has become the opposite: an act of respect. It makes me imagine what that moment must have been like for those people; and it makes me feel ill, or my eyes glaze over with tears, but that is what happened to those people, and the least I can do to connect with these fellow human beings is to imagine what their last moments were like.

The reason I write stories is to try to convey these feelings in such a way that they will be less likely to happen in the future. Not because I want to see the most horrifying parts come true.

This weekend, we are reliving 9/11 through retelling the stories of what was, for many, many people, the worst, most terrifying, cruelest day of their lives. I feel very deeply for those people whose pain I surely can't even imagine. I don't believe it's for them that we have all this coverage. I admit somewhat guiltily that it is for people like me, who can't tear our eyes away from it. You may argue about where September 11, 2001 ranks among the pages of a human history that includes the Cuban Missile Crisis, where humanity almost was wiped out, to the Holocaust, where millions died due to hatred, but I think the thing about September 11 is that it demonstrates for all but the most senior generation alive that day the sheer destructive power that a few people fueled by hatred and misguided anger can unleash.

And so we keep looking at the images of the planes crashing into the buildings. It feels like maybe we shouldn't watch, but we do. I was at the gym this morning, where four monitors above the treadmills all showed different channels. It struck me that while Local 4 was talking about liberty vs. security and about the experience of Arab-Americans over the past ten years and CNN was talking about the boat operators who ferried terrified Manhattanites to safety, Fox News was showing the rubble of Ground Zero on what seemed a constant loop. The other two stations had hardly showed them at all. Isn't there a balance? I agree that it's important to remember the images; but there needs to be analysis and and reflection as well.

For me, the worst of the images is that of the buildings falling. On 9/11/01, I didn't yet have a drivers' license, but I had a dentist appointment that morning, so my mom took some time off of work and drove me. (I was still on summer vacation, waiting for my college to start the following week.) I remember saying to her in the car, “but...what are they going to do with those two buildings? With those two awful gaping holes in them?” We imagined those black scars looming over the Manhattan skyline.

We never imagined that the towers would come down.

My mom watched it on the waiting room TV while I was having my teeth cleaned. Then she told me in the car. This weekend my mom has told that story a couple times, about how I started sobbing so hard that she thought she should pull off the road.

For a long time afterward, the Twin Towers stared back and me in the form of two letter L's whenever I saw the word "collapse."

And so on the surface I'm writing, in a sense, in memory of the buildings. What matters is the human souls inside of them, of course. But as I did not know any of those people, I cannot tell their stories; fortunately, those are being told on plenty of documentaries this weekend. And so I talk about the buildings, which are not what matter, but which are powerful symbols, icons loaded with meaning.

It was always like that for me, though. I am somewhat obsessed with skyscrapers. The first one I visited was the Sears Tower, at the age of almost 8 in 1990. After that, it was a given that the first thing I'd want to do is go up to the highest observation tower when I visited a new city. It always seemed to me that if you were going to build a church, the top of a skyscraper would be the best place you could put one. (That's how it works in the society I invented for Altitude, which is otherwise so much like ours that, with all its post-9/11 influence, it's closer to contemporary non-fiction than to YA fantasy.)

And so, ever since I was a little kid, I have always craned my neck (sometimes until it hurts or until I run into something) staring up at the tallest building around. The Sears Tower in Chicago, the CN Tower in Toronto, the Eiffel Tower in Paris: these were all the towers I had visited before 1997, when I had the opportunity to go visit my friend Cecilia, who had recently moved from Michigan to Pennsylvania. I flew home via Newark Airport, which meant that Cecilia's family would take me to New York City to drop me off. (Cecilia also had to catch a flight.) I had never been there before, and we would have half the day to do sightseeing before we had to be at the airport. They asked me what sort of things I might like to do.

Go to a skyscraper, of course! And what was more iconically New York than—remember, this was 1997—the Empire State Building!

So I remember saying something along that line, but they had a better idea. We ended up not at the Empire State Building, but at another observation deck, one I had never really thought about before: the South Tower of the World Trade Center. As we approached the city, I remember those twin towers reaching out of the horizon, their presence entering my consciousness for the first time—and my chin getting attached, as always happened in cities, by an invisible line to the top of the building, continually craning my gaze upward.

We stepped inside. I remember the big, expansive lobbies with a wide wall of escalators. I remember being shocked at how small the Statue of Liberty (which I'd never seen before) looked from the top of the tower. I remember that Cecilia and I were both wearing Detroit Red Wings 1997 Stanley Cup Championship T-shirts (as surely everyone in New York would be jealous). I remember touch-screen monitors on the observation deck that let you use the opposite tower's big antenna to beam messages to extraterrestrials—mostly, I think, along the lines of wishing them peace. I remember that a wire track ran around the ceiling above the panoramic windows with ping-pong-like balls rolling through it. I remember going up on the roof, where they wouldn't let you get too close to the edge because those ignorant of the laws of physics might throw pennies and kill people below. I remember that you could buy Dippin' Dots.



(I took this picture of Cecilia and her brother Chris on the roof of WTC 2.)

When I was sobbing that the buildings couldn't have come down, I remember saying, “They had Dippin' Dots there.” Who blows up a place that sells Dippin' Dots?!

Kind of stupid, perhaps...or kind of the heart of the matter. This wasn't a war zone. This was just where happy kids and families go about their business being happy, and wishing for peace on Earth and also on whatever planets might be out there listening. Now, of course, we are used to imagining terrorists targeting fun, happy places—but that was my reaction on that day.

People on the ground on 9/11/01 compared it to a scene out of the 1996 alien attack movie Independence Day. Who would have thought that it was the alienation of people right here sharing this very same little rock that would bring those images to life?

And so, that same invisible string still connected to my chin even when I'm 500 miles away in Detroit, I can't tear myself away from staring at the images of the plane crashing into the buildings, and the buildings falling down. I can safely say that that latter image in particular is the most awful thing I've ever seen in my life.

For at least two years afterward (judging from the dream journal I started keeping in 2003 to deal with this), the World Trade Center made regular appearances in my dreams – sometimes in nightmares, mostly in positive ways. In one, the North Tower was melting off of its TV antenna as though it were a popsicle melting off a stick – but it was okay: no one was hurt, because everyone in the building just slid off down the popsicle stick like it was a fireman's pole.

In March 2002, my family decided to head to New York City for Spring Break. When we got there, we were shocked to find that far from the stereotype of New Yorkers being rude and horrible, people practically wanted to hug us. Souvenir shopkeepers told us how bad business had been. We tried to help out by buying as much as we could. They thanked us profusely. (And you could tell they weren't just pulling one over on us to make money. Trust me, you really could.) A lady in a car pulled over when she saw us standing on a corner looking at a map and asked us if she could help us find something. Everyone said how glad they were to see us. Tourists are annoying, they told us, until they vanish. Then you miss them.

To mark the six-month anniversary, they had set up two spotlights to beam into the air, filling in the gaping hole in the skyline.

Of course we visited Ground Zero. At that point, it was a pit of grey dirt, with most excavation complete. On fences on the next block over were hung banners and signs of all types; we added our own messages to them. I wish I could find a photo of the one that was most memorable to me: a big crescent and star with the message “PAKISTAN LOVES AMERICA.” I am sure that, whatever the disputes between our government and Pakistan's, whoever wrote that meant it.

We also visited the Empire State Building on that trip. It was the only place in New York, they told us, where the number of visitors was actually up.



You can see my mom signing one of the banners across the street (with my sister, in the bright yellow coat, behind her).

I think in all the 10th anniversary coverage the other day, I saw a shot of this very station, blanketed in all that terrible dust.


I loved this sign then and I loved it now, because it reminds me how good most people are in the world.
The twisted, cruel, evil ones are such a tiny minority. The full sign says "Human decency is up a point and kindness is making a rally."

This past summer, at the end of July 2011, I returned to New York City for the first time since 2002. (I also visited the Pentagon memorial and the crash site of United Flight 93 in Shanksville just a few weeks ago.) I met up with my grad school friend Erin and my JET Program friend Pam, and when they asked me what I wanted to do, Ground Zero, of course, was on my list. Neither of them had ever been to Ground Zero before (Pam grew up in NJ and Erin just moved from LA), so of course it was their morbid friend from out of town who dragged them down there. (Erin no doubt was unsurprised, as I had brought along a book by an anthropologist who interviews jihadis to see why they do it when we went to Universal Studios in May for graduation; I had been sitting there doing such leisure reading when we heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed. I bought a copy of the 9/11 Commission's report from the 9/11 temporary museum.)

Erin had to go home after Ground Zero, but Pam and I went on to the Top of the Rock – the observation deck at the top of 30 Rockefeller Center, which I'd never before visited. As we looked out over the cityscape below, Pam mused about much human effort—how many millions of hours of work!—had gone into building allllll those buildings, spreading around us as far as the eye could see.

That thought had also struck me, a few hours earlier, when we were at Ground Zero. Ten years later, the new One World Trade Center is more than halfway complete. I hadn't realized it was as far along as it was, and it was truly inspiring to look at that building and realize that was it: that was the new World Trade Center!

It takes so much effort to create, and so little to destroy. I'm not saying destruction takes none—bringing down those towers might be the closest thing I've ever heard of to work of a genuine evil genius. But American Airlines Flight 11 hit the first WTC tower at 8:46 and collapsed 102 minutes later. The South Tower went even faster: United Airlines Flight 175 hit at 9:03; it fell at 9:59. At nine o'clock, it was standing safely. At ten o'clock, it was gone. It took about 10 seconds for each tower to fall; how many years will it take for us to rebuild them?

Evil tends to have the brute force of destructive energy on its side, but goodness is by far the more dominant in the human spirit as a whole. There's that word: evil. What is evil if not to cast others out of the human family and seek their destruction? To wipe out so quickly those souls that other human people have poured their lives into raising and caring about? To tear down what can never be rebuilt: each individual human soul?

Those terrorists hated America, and to them, each American was a dehumanized symbol of what they saw as an evil empire. How truly idiotic, as all they have done is kill individual human souls, while America lives on, rebuilding. This is why I am happy to join the rest of my fellow citizens and those of our friends around the world in declaring that you cannot destroy the American spirit. We will rebuild, however long it takes. Your theft of irreplaceable human lives has not accomplished your goal.

While human beings became dehumanized symbols to mass murders, the towers have become humanized to me. I could not fathom that they could come down, and certainly not in 56 minutes. Creation takes so much energy; destruction goes so fast.

I've kind of got a little collection of World Trade Center and 9/11 stuff now.
I guess this is to be expected of someone who wrote this essay as a first grader in 1988.

I was therefore very happy that one of the post-9/11 films focused on Philippe Petit, the highwire artist who, on August 7, 1974, before the towers were open to the public, snuck inside and climbed to the top, where he and his team strung a highwire between the North and South towers. Petit then climbed on to the wire and, as described by one security officer sent to chase him down, danced on the wire for the crowd over a hundred stories below. So many necks were craned up that day, staring up at the sky and the person who danced across it. My friend Myra sent me a copy of that movie when I lived in Japan; when I visited Ground Zero in 2011, I saw it at the temporary memorial's gift shop and wasted no time in plunking down the cash for it. I've seen it twice already but I plan to watch it again tonight.

I will always remember September 11, 2001, but I also want to remember August 7, 1974. I want to remember the acts of creation and art and grace and humanity that capture our attention, too.

And I want to write a story about the 99.9% of us in the world who are good, caring, creative, constructive people coming together and finding a lasting peace.

Maybe one day that part of the story will come true, too.

© 2011 JLM

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