Our New National Pastime

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Funny thing. Turns out my arm is less mobile now that I’m out of my cast. Without a steel exoskeleton holding me together I have to be muy careful until my atrophied muscles beef up again.

“DO NOT TYPE” was the last instruction given when I left the doctor’s office last week. Not because of the typing motion per se, but rather because the position one adopts while typing leaves elbows hanging unsupported, stressing them. Ignore that instruction and I might find myself typing with just a stump for the rest of my life rather than fingers.

So…no typing here, there, or anywhere else for a while, other than the odd note or brief e-mail. Forgive me if I don’t return comments, or if they seem a bit on the terse side. It’s not you. It’s me elbow.

But I’m going to throw caution to the winds today and risk a brief entry. Why? Because it’s 9/11. And as a good American, or at least one who used to work in the World Trade Center and watched the towers fall, I…oh heck, it’s just the obvious thing to write about, ok?

However just those brief few sentences above have already taken a toll. So 9/11 or no 9/11, I really do have to stop typing. Instead I’ll just cut-n-paste what I wrote last year about the day, as it still applies. If you read it over there, stop here. If not, just know that I’ve become more than a little tired of our nation’s seeming insatiable need to fetishize grief, with 9/11 as it’s apogee.

The self plagiarism begins…now:

Please don’t hate me.

I used to work in the World Trade Center. In fact, I worked there twice before I got into radio.

When the 9/11 attacks happened I was on the radio, just finishing up my on-air shift. The planes hit, the towers came down, and we watched it all from our studio windows on the other side of the Hudson River in New Jersey. I actually left work before the towers collapsed, but when I heard they did I raced back, got right back on the air, and stayed there for the next 3 days straight.

Every year since, whether as a news anchor, reporter, commentator, or just a traffic reporter, I’ve been obligated to cover the commemorations and memorials that take place around the country.

And frankly, I’m starting to despair.

I can’t help but feel that as a nation we’ve joined a cult of victimhood. As bad as the event was – and I’ll be the last to downplay any part of it after watching the whole thing happen and knowing that some of my former co-workers couldn’t have made it out – what we’ve made of it since is even worse.

We’re fetishizing grief. Every year the histrionics get more histrionic. The memorializing prose gets more purple, more overwrought. The media coverage gets more pornographic. Our new national pastime is wailing. And making sure everyone sees us wail. “Hit ‘Like’ if I was distraught enough! :)”

But, Good Soldier Švejk that I am, every 11 September I put my head down and my headphones on, and for 8 hours talk about the Horror Of It All, the grieving families, the hero first responders, the resilience of America.

Don’t get me wrong: it WAS horror. Abject, stunning, soul rending horror. And 9/11 families grieve with tears as hot as any family that deals with any unjust, almost incomprehensible, death in their midst.

And first responders? A young fireman in Brooklyn, Stephen Siller, had just come off his overnight shift when he heard over his scanner that the towers were hit. He knew he’d be needed, so he drove back to his station house, grabbed his equipment, and drove his truck to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. But all the river crossings were closed as an emergency measure. What did he do? He RAN THROUGH THE TUNNEL ON FOOT. Three miles. In filthy Brooklyn Battery Tunnel air, with a 60 pound pack on his back. After working all night. To save people.

On the Manhattan side he ran about another half mile through the soot and ash…and that was the last anyone saw of Stephen Siller. They hold a memorial run through the tunnel every year now in his honor.

Those first responders were not human. At least, not the same kind of human I am. They’re better.

Despite all that, despite the fact that the horror, the grief, the heroics, and the resiliency were all seen in the extreme that day and many days since…our way of commemorating it has become unseemly. It’s become entertainment, entertainment we feel is our due as an audience. Everything must be melodramatic, maudlin, and public. Anyone with the temerity to mark the day in quiet contemplation risks themselves being marked heretical.

Maybe I’m biased though. I mean, my job is to sit there and gorge on all the stories and sound bites and interviews that my reporters file, while keeping tabs on TV coverage and press releases and updates from agencies concerned. So I get it full in the face from every quarter for hours and hours on end, whereas others might…well, I don’t know. What DO others do? Is it common for non-media folk to digest this marathon of dolorous pomp of their own free will, getting some sort of cathartic thrill through their tears? Maybe not, but when I look at my wife’s Facebook feed it sure seems that way. It’s hard to find any cute cat or ugly grandchild pictures for all the 9/11 meme/porn they throw up. Which I practically do when I see them all.

Of course, from the time this feeling started in me – around the 10th anniversary, I guess – I’ve kept that opinion to myself. Saying “Uh, guys, your expressions of grief over 9/11 are out of proportion to the events of the day itself” is like saying “So I was fucking my mom last night, and….“. You’d get the same look of disgust, disbelief, and maybe even a fight. Certainly social opprobrium.

But…things might be changing. During my newscast(s) this morning, one of the stories I ran with was a wrap filed by our field reporter at Ground Zero. The hook of the story was that for the first time since 2001, construction in the area was not cancelled for the day. A construction worker being interviewed was asked whether he thought that was appropriate, and to my amazement he responded that he thought the parade of commemorations were getting out of hand, and people should start getting a stiff upper lip about it already and move on. Remember the tragedy, but stop opening the wound afresh every year.

Did you get that? A call for quiet dignity from a blue collar worker at the very site where the towers collapsed.

Then, on my way home from work today, I heard this on NPR (listen to the audio. It conveys more than the written copy.)

So maybe there is hope. Maybe decorum will prevail – eventually – and we can stop this ever escalating national orgy at the altar of Thanatos.

I know this is already overlong, overwrought, and generally overblown – and I get the irony, considering that’s what I was railing against. But I’m in the media. That’s what we do.

This is Dangerspouse signing off. Thanks for listening.

ps. Having said all that, the Budweiser commercial still makes me tear up.

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17 thoughts on “Our New National Pastime

    1. Oh yeah, I remember seeing the mountain of flowers and stuffed teddy bears that sprouted overnight around Buckingham Palace. And then a never ending onslaught of breast rending similar to what we had here. I think I should have lived in ancient Sparta….

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think those who make the biggest deal out of it are often the people who have never seen real tragedy in their lives – the same people who run to see what’s going on when an ambulance screams to a halt down the road. The want to see the blood and guts, be a part of the pain. A lot of it is vouyerism.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. We Americans excel at being victims. I get the need to be politically correct, up to a point. We need to rein in the things that are hateful and spiteful just to be hateful and spiteful. If your snarling intimidates someone or makes them feel genuinely unsafe, and would do so for any reasonable person in their situation, then you need to cut it out. (Hypothetical “you” here, not you personally. Though if the snarl fits…)

    The dig is “any reasonable person”. I agree that there’s a lot of hate speech masquerading as jokes, intimidation people try to pass off as humor. I get it. But frankly, a lot of people also get pissed off over a tempest in a teapot, coming positively unglued because of stupid, inane, and genuinely harmless chatter.

    The irony is we reward victims in a lot of respects, and not always genuine victims. I get it – you were wronged and deserve justice. (Again with the hypothetical “you” here.) But that doesn’t equal bestowing every victim with a duchy and catering to their every whim. There needs to be a balance. Yes, honor and mourn what happened on 9/11, and respect that it can happen again if we’re careless. But the hours upon hours of serialized grief actually inures us to the pain and the horror. Grief has a sequence: you deny your senses, you fall apart, you accept, and you move on. Step 1, 2, 3, 4. Trouble is, American consumers never got past step 2. They didn’t go through the normal and healthy acceptance and moving on. Sad to say, the media contributes to that by pandering to it and taking a wire brush to the wound on a regular basis.

    I’d step down off my soapbox, but it’s nice and cozy here now. There’s tea and cookies.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Danger,
    Ah yes, we humans have a way of ritualizing disaster and grief…and then refusing to let go of it. I agree completely that the whole thing became unseemly quickly and was ultimately embarrassing…and then disgraceful. The families, friends, and colleagues of those lost were not allowed to grieve privately and were dragged out and put on public display. The media did their part by filming everything. All dignity fled.
    You were in a unique and personal place at the time and I am sorry for your losses. I was as far away as I could be, on the shores of an enormous lake deep in Central British Columbia with no contact with the outside world at a fishing lodge. On that fateful morning we strolled from our cabin to the lodge for breakfast to be greeted by the entire staff, solemn-faced on the front porch. The owners of the lodge were German and they had heard from one of their children at home in Germany. As everywhere it seems, fears became possibilities, which became rumors, which in turn in the retelling became fact. We were told that not only had their been attacks in NYC, Washington, D.C., and the field in Pennsylvania, but in Paris the Eiffel Tower was gone, in London Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament had fallen,. and there was no communication with the old League of Nations headquarters in Geneva. There was no way of confirming or denying any of that report.
    It was departure day and we had a long day’s drive to the our lodging for the night. But there WAS at least a Sports Bar in our motel that received only a sports channel. Because one of their reporters had lost his life in NYC they were running all the reports in a loop. So it was there that we learned at last that the attack had been “ONLY” in the US and that the whole Western World was not in flames. Thus is was that we became an odd few who were actually relieved to learn the truth.
    But I can say one thing definitively: I will be forever grateful to the people of Canada who reacted
    immediately and with immeasurable compassion to do everything they could to help thousands of people from many nations and especially the United States to both contact their families as soon as possible and to have access to the best available information on how to get home again. I witnessed the many thousands of people from all around the world whose planes had been diverted to Vancouver and saw how the Canadian response was handled flawlessly. I was the recipient of untold kindness, and I saw how bottled water was dispensed free of charge to all the people standing in interminable lines at the departure terminal and how there was medical personnel walking the floors on the lookout for folks who were in distress of any kind.
    It was a frightening and desperate time and we were wave-tossed and anchor-free. But we were cared for. So on this sad anniversary my personal praise goes to our Canadian hosts who did so much to help and asked for nothing in return. O, Canada! indeed.
    I hope you made it through the day with as little stress and upset as possible, and I greatly appreciate your wise and honest words. Take care.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a great reply, Patty! I just wish I hadn’t fallen asleep hafway through 😉 Just kidding – that was quite a story. Maple syrup, hockey, AND humane treatment of the tempest tossed? If it weren’t for poutine, I’d move there in an instant!

      My day was actually fine, thanks. It being a Sunday I just sat home, watched “Girls und Panzer”, and ate poutine.

      I do, however, beg you to retract your characterization of my words as “wise and honest”. There are some insults I just will not stand for.

      Like

  3. “I’ve become more than a little tired of our nation’s seeming insatiable need to fetishize grief, with 9/11 as it’s apogee.” Yes, absolutely. I felt that way on 7/12/01, actually. I was, “Shut up, you solipsistic materialistic fuckheads. It’s been happening all over the world for a LONG TIME. What makes US special?” I don’t know why, but for me it was a moment when we could have joined the world, rather than reacting like the Planet Krikkit.

    I did enjoy the days of silence when planes could not fly over. I hiked (San Diego, California, naval air base etc. ) as much as I could to hear the world as it was designed.

    Liked by 1 person

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