Archive for September, 2012

The Persistence of Memory

Posted in Homage to Blackie Sherrod on September 11, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

“Yeah, I, I know, it’s hard to remember

The people we used to be…” (Maroon 5)

Eleven years ago, I was driving to work (in a purple minivan, of all things), listening to what used to be the normal sports talk fare here — the Rangers were on their way to another pathetic finish, and the Cowboys had not yet entered their December swoon yet (It’s hard to convince anyone under the age of 8 that the Rangers don’t always go to the World Series). Suddenly, one of the hosts broke in with a shocked “Did you see that? Whoa!” They had a television running in the studio, and that was when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, a few minutes before 8:00 our time.

And then everything just stopped. I finished driving to work, but the people I work with were crowded around televisions. At the high school where I taught, we followed the story. The towers fell; the Pentagon was hit; the heroism of Todd Beamer and those with him brought the last plane down in a Pennsylvania field.

The President was dragged from reading a children’s book to an elementary class onto Air Force One to await further developments in the air. My dad was in California on business, but it took several hours to find out that everything was OK out there. It might seem silly now, worrying about someone across the nation from the disaster, but we just didn’t know. We expected catastrophe to strike in every city.

Slowly, of course, the country woke up, limb by limb. Just like the cloud of dust that seemed like it would never clear away from the area around the crash site, though, we were all covered with a sense of fear — and a sense of togetherness. There was a sense that we had been harmed deeply; there was also a sense that we would recover, and emerge stronger as a result.

Twelve days later, on September 23, I went to a Rangers game on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. People were smiling rather than laughing, but people seemed to be glad to be out, enjoying themselves. The sunlight that bathed us that afternoon brought us a sense that the shadows of the Twin Towers were not to last forever. When I walked up to the turnstiles, the national anthem began inside the stadium, and the ticket takers turned away from us, took off their hats, and faced where the flag was flying. Everyone quieted, and the voice of the young woman singing inside echoed way out onto Ballpark Way. Slowly, the voices of the audience swelled around hers. When the anthem was over, the applause was long and loud. Alex Rodriguez would break the single-season record for home runs by a shortstop that day, but we barely noticed, because we were so glad to be back to our semi-normal sort of lives.

Baseball would keep pushing us out of the depression into which Osama bin Laden and his crew had tried to bury us. President Bush (“W”) had not yet dragged us into the quagmire of Iraq, and so when he strode out to the pitcher’s mound to throw out a pitch at Yankee Stadium during that World Series, with snipers bristling in every concourse, expecting the worst, the eyes of the world were on him. When he reared back and threw a perfect strike, a sense came through the television that, somehow, everything would be all right.

Of course, we all know what happened next. The long search for a really tall terrorist leader hooked to a dialysis machine in the mountains of South Asia. The war that shredded much of America’s credibility. It took a while, but we forgot that it is hope and optimism that make our country a place like no other. It took strong faith to come across the Atlantic Ocean and settle a new land. It has taken even stronger courage for us to, slowly, undo the bonds of hate and prejudice that used to mark the way that we treated one another in decades and centuries past.

But our national attention span has moved on. While servicemen and servicewomen continue to toil in Afghanistan, we worry more about scandals. While we sit, rapt with attention, focused on the problems of the Real Housewives of Wherever or the patchwork offensive line of our favorite NFL team, our nation moves closer and closer to oblivion.

And so, if you really want to honor the memory of those thousands who died on September 11, 2001, if you really want to remember the brave deeds of those who saved the lives of others, then take the occasion of the day to make your own community a better place. Speak kindly to those around you; see if you can’t spread that same magic friendship that hovered over all of us when we had a shared tragedy.

But more importantly, do something to express your feelings about where our country is going. We don’t have to swirl around the Medicare/Social Security drain forever. We don’t have to twiddle our thumbs while the nation’s educational system teeters on the edge of collapse. We don’t have to spend another night watching television while too many of our fellow citizens scramble around for a place to live.

You don’t have to wrestle a strange man who is holding a box cutter to be a hero. Find your own path to greatness, and take your first steps on September 11, 2012.

Take a look at Matthew Pearl’s latest vision

Posted in Book Reviews on September 3, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

The TechnologistsThe Technologists by Matthew Pearl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It would take a vivid imagination to conjure up a way to dump enough iron in Boston Harbor to interfere with the compass of every ship that comes in — and spook thousands of superstitious sailors. Even more so to find a way to rig all of the fire hydrants on a city block so that they release a noxious gas that turns all of the glass on that block to liquid. And then to use the railway system to…well, I can’t tell you everything.

I can tell you that this latest offering from the author of The Dante Club is not only lively in terms of the hijinks that its characters unravel, but it is also dynamic in terms of presenting members of the first graduating class from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The rivalry that a practical school had with its liberal-arts sibling, the (even back then) sainted Harvard, the tensions that were still simmering years after the end of the Civil War, and even the foibles of young love all make an appearance.

The best parts of this story center on the struggle that former factory workers undergo to find acceptance on a university campus — back then, the idea that college was for everyone would have been laughable. Pearl’s historical novels are exhaustively researched, but read nothing like a research paper. The fruits of his labor take the form of a novel that is an open doorway into the past — which should be the goal of any historical fiction writer. The characterization and the research make this a book well worth reading.

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