Being There

oh my god! I’m NOT kidding!!!!
A plane just ran into the World Trade Center!!!

Those are the first words of the blog post I wrote from my office on the 21st floor of the Woolworth Building at 9:20AM on September 11, 2001. I was working as an interactive producer at the NYC office of Fallon Worldwide and my desk had a spectacular, unobstructed view of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. It was a beautiful sunny day with a bright blue sky, I had spent the preceding weekend at the beach trying to stretch out the summer. The economy was cratering and we knew the end of the dotcom bubble was upon us, but still I felt secure in my job. I was rested and relaxed, ready to get back to work. I sat down at my desk and reached down to turn on my computer, when I heard a loud bang and looked up to see a gaping hole in the World Trade Center out of which flames and smoke were spewing.

It has been over a decade since that morning and sometimes in September, when the sky is clear blue and the weather just so, the images come back and I find myself weeping. You’d be surprised by the details you can see – or think you can see – from that distance: the look on someone’s face the moment she chooses to let go of the side of a building and just fall, bodies silhouetted by clouds like black rain; countless reams of white paper glittering in the sky, the incomprehensibly gentle arc of a jet plane navigating into a building and the unimaginable eternity of the microsecond lag between seeing the impact and hearing the explosion. And again, bodies in free-fall, clutching at sky; office paper drifting like horrible snow and later, from the street below, the thunderous clack-clack-clack of more than one hundred floors falling onto each other like dominoes, a skyscraper flattening like a Chinese lantern and vanishing, in a billow of flame, smoke and debris that blots out the sky. Darkness, a moment of silence, then shouting, panic and chaos.

Mostly I just try not to think about that day, but it comes back at unexpected times and in all kinds of unexpected ways. That 9/11 changed my life is no surprise, 9/11 changed the world; what surprises is that while my stress and trauma ebb and flow over time, my determination to find hope in the wake of tragedy persists.

As far as I know, I was the first person to blog an eyewitness account of 9/11. Before that day the blogging community in NYC was relatively insular, small and close-knit. There were several different subgroups of bloggers around the city and they occasionally overlapped, but it was still a niche interest, none of us fully anticipated what blogging would soon become. We would gather regularly for drinks and social outings, our online lives reflecting and intersecting with our in-person lives. It felt small, intimate, personal. But in the hours, days and weeks following the attacks I was astonished by the outpouring of sympathy I received from around the world by people who had read my blog and those of my friends.

Back then, the commenting system I used was remotely hosted, I have no idea if those comments still exist somewhere, but people from all over the planet shared with me their thoughts, feelings and sympathy. Slowly I began to realize that this was the first time in history where a first person eyewitness account of a world-changing historical event was available to the entire rest of the world in real time. It is hard to explain what that felt like.

I’m predisposed, I suppose, to feel-good humanitarianism, and I would retroactively describe it as a feeling of expansive and encompassing empathy. For this brief moment in time it felt like I was immediately and personally connected to people from around the world I had never met and would never meet. It seemed that we felt called upon to show up for each other; to bring our best, most compassionate selves to the table, to be there for each other in this moment of unspeakable trauma and loss. Through the destruction and brutality I felt a glimmer or hope and possibility. The psychic shock of unanticipated violence on such an enormous scale created a kind of rupture in time, a dislocation of the un-interrogated assumptions of social behavior. We found ourselves in a world that was at once all-too-familiar and completely unknown.

Even in NYC, this notoriously prickly city, people were open in ways that one would never have imagined, strangers started conversations with strangers, helped each other in ways both prosaic and profound. One never knew whether the person you were talking to had been at Ground Zero, had lost a loved one, or was merely traumatized along with the rest of us. We were gentle with each other, prudent, circumspect. For a brief moment, there was an indication of what might be possible if we figure out how to be in the world differently, to treat each other differently.

I lost my job in December of that year and my relationship fell apart in February 2002. In March I watched the Naudet Brothers’ documentary 9/11 on CBS and froze in disbelief when I saw myself on the television, running from the dust cloud of the falling building, eyes wide with terror. I spent the winter traumatized and depressed, broke and alone. My friend Scott, in much the same condition, convinced me to take a trip to San Francisco to meet some bloggers we’d befriended and visit some of my old college pals.

That trip was the first time I realized how far away I’d gone. I was riding the bus when I overheard these self-righteous politically correct whitey-do-right-y Bay Area types talking to each other about 9/11, talking “chickens come home to roost” or conspiracy theories or some such nonsense and I got so enraged I had to leave the bus. Maybe, maybe, maybe, okay I can understand, intellectually, the chickens, etc. I suppose everyone is entitled to an opinion, but not everyone owns it in the same way. If you weren’t there, if you didn’t see it, hear it, smell it or feel the earth tremble beneath your feet and the sky close in above your head, then you don’t really know. Being there makes a difference.

When I got back from SF I found two job opportunities waiting for me, one was managing an integrated customer relationship management program for Seagram’s liquors. The pay was good but I’d have to move to Connecticut – and I’d have to hawk booze for a living. The other was a marketing director position at Performance Space 122. The pay was pathetic, but I’d be working in the arts. Maybe it was the PTSD that skewed my judgment, but I chose the arts gig.

Soon after starting at PS122 in the spring of 2002 I began planning what would eventually become Culturebot.org. I wanted to bring blogging to the arts.

One of the things that had gotten me through the aftermath of 9/11 was a community of bloggers that functioned as both support system and social network. Even before 9/11, blogging had provided a platform to connect people that shared interests, values and sensibilities, people that might never meet otherwise. But after 9/11, especially in NYC, blogging seemed to pull people together.

Because it took at least a little bit of technical knowledge and effort to publish, there was a certain amount of self-selection involved, and because you met people and grew through cooperation and sharing, there was an incentive to write thoughtfully and constructively, to keep the flame wars and ad hominem attacks to a minimum.

From that small group of friends and its spirit of supportive community came the first-ever all-blogger reading and performance series. My friend Chris Hampton had the idea to put on an anti-Valentine’s Day reading and in February 2004 Performance Space 122 hosted the very first edition of The WYSIWYG Talent Show. With some promotion from the newly launched Gothamist.com we attracted over 250 people to that first show and had to turn people away. The excitement was palpable, people had developed strong relationships with these bloggers online, and bloggers had developed strong relationships with each other. Here, for the first time ever, representatives of multiple blogger subcultures – and their readers – were getting together en masse, in real life.

Those early days of blogging and the first year of WYSIWYG reminded me of other moments in my life where people got together around common interests and seeking community – punk rock shows at Jules’ loft in Baltimore, rock shows in Seattle in 1991, the poetry scene in the mid-90’s – before they became too big and imploded.

Not to simplify matters – there were a lot of factors contributing to the demise of the early blogging era – but Gawker kind of ruined everything when it irrevocably changed the tone of the culture. Nick Denton’s parties were fun for a while, but soon what had been a relatively nerdy, mostly friendly and often earnest, supportive subculture became a bitchy competitive snarkfest and attracting a slew of media whores seeking book deals and page views at any cost.

The proliferation of high school kids on LiveJournal, the acquisition of Blogger by Google, all kinds of things combined to put an end to that moment, and it was probably for the best. Internet writing has evolved greatly over the past eight years, past its awkward adolescent phase and into an unsteady but promising young adulthood.

Somehow, in my mind, the dawn of the Gawker era coincided with a shift in NYC’s relationship to 9/11. Maybe it was the brief economic recovery from 2004 – 2008, maybe it was the influx of new people from around the country and from abroad, maybe it was just time passing, but the flash and irrational exuberance of this internet mini-bubble wiped away the last vestiges of any kind of community sensibility in blogging. The mini-bubble, the influx of new arrivals and a general shift in the fortunes of the city all conspired to dull the memory of 9/11 in the popular imagination. Even here it transformed from being a local event to a global event.

And New York City was back: brash and unapologetic, conspicuously consuming and riding high, the 2008 crash only a bump in the road. By 2011, ten years after, it felt like we were ready, finally, to put it behind us, not to forget, never forget, but move on. Even The Occupy Movement in some perverse way reinforced NYC’s sense of having recovered somehow; the encampment at Zucotti Park, directly across the street from Ground Zero, changed the city’s narrative from terrorism to the economy, from World Trade Center to Wall Street.

And then, just under a year ago, we had Hurricane Sandy. I was once again working in Lower Manhattan, once again displaced from my office for months in the wake of disaster. We were reminded once again of the fragility of our city; of the way of life we take for granted. Most people were starkly reminded of the ecological peril the march of progress has created and the looming crisis of climate change. It seemed like everyone was reading The World Without Us.

I was living in midtown east at the time, and the morning after Sandy I watched as a flood of refugees from the East Village wandered uptown in search of food, electricity and a shower. We had spent the night safe and strangely unaffected by the storm, by now accustomed to watching first hand accounts of disaster – now with pictures and video – shared in real time, not just on blogs but social media. Everyone, everywhere, could see the flooded cars on Avenue C, the luxury boat somehow stranded on railroad tracks.

Walking through Lower Manhattan just a week or so after the hurricane, looking at the empty, boarded-up storefronts at The Seaport, the vacant lobbies of the office buildings on Water Street, the hydraulic pumps and generators, the Verizon trucks and dumpsters filled with debris, I thought back to those days after 9/11 when Lower Manhattan was cordoned off by the National Guard, when I went with my friend Elite to pick up her things at her apartment one block below Ground Zero and a military escort was required. I reflected back on the eerie silence, an apocalyptic presentiment of the built environment bereft of people, our tenuous hold on “civilization”, how quickly we might revert to barbarism and our own heedless pursuit of progress at the peril of our own destruction.

Today, upon reflection, it seems that it might be worth examining our accepted notions of progress and success. I look back at 9/11 and my life in the ensuing years and, as futile as it might be, try to draw some kind of connection, some kind of learning arc that allows me to believe that I am somehow wiser than I was, that I have somehow learned something. Above all else I would say I have learned the difference between being there live and only experiencing life through media.

We inhabit a moment where nearly every waking instant is mediated, we receive our information from radio, television, film, the Internet; we are “always on” and “always connected”, we communicate by email, Skype, SMS, Twitter, Facebook and, occasionally, telephone. Increasingly, we receive our information only through media, often visual media, not even solid printed matter that at least creates a sense of pause and reflection. It is a wonderful thing to always be able to be connected, it is a less wonderful thing to never be able to turn off.

All around us we are experiencing the world, experiencing our lives, from within an isolated Self that yearns to connect with other Selves. When you live through a 9/11, through a battle, through a hurricane or a flood, when you live through the loss of a loved one or a personal crisis, as much as it is a shared experience, you still experience it alone. So many of us here – and even moreso in the war-torn and disadvantaged parts of the world – are moving through the world in a state of constant, low frequency (or disabling) PTSD that we don’t acknowledge, either in our interpersonal interactions or our social policies. We talk about waging a Global War on Terror, which is not only incomprehensible, but inherently contradictory – how can you lessen Terror through War, which is by definition terrible and terrifying? The only way to lessen terror is through compassion, and the path to compassion is connection.

While our connected age helps us share what we see in real time, helps us locate each other,  it is worth nothing at all unless it brings us together in real life, in the material world, to look each other in the eyes, to hold each other close, to try and teach each other through physical proximity what it means to be in community, to appreciate how we are different and what we share. We must endeavor to bridge the unbridgeable ontological gap between I and Thou and learn how it is to be with each other here and now.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Internet, but having lived with it for about 20 years I think we are due to grow up. We are entering a new era. As fast-evolving technology enables us to move into a completely mobile, connected space, we will become increasingly mediated in our everyday lives. Just as writing on the Internet has evolved from confessional diaristic blogging to more sophisticated discourse, we must evolve our ability to negotiated mediated and unmediated space, to be intentional about when are connected and when we turn off, to insure that we control the machines, not the other way around.

When I look back at 9/11 I remember the horror, but I also remember the extraordinary humanity that arose in the aftermath of disaster. Rebecca Solnit writes about this phenomenon in her book A Paradise Built In Hell. From 9/11 to the blackout of 2003 to Hurricane Sandy, I have seen the remarkable transformation that happens in NYC when our media fail and we are forced out into the streets to find each other and take care of each other, in person. When Being There is a necessity, not a luxury.

Even as we move into this brave new hyper-mediated, always-connected world, let’s not allow the lessons of disaster to be in vain, let’s take this opportunity to re-imagine progress and civilization not merely as technological achievement or increased productivity but as a deepening of human understanding, a commitment to reweaving the social fabric that connects us. I have said it before but it bears repeating, we are so much more than we have given ourselves credit for, and yet we perpetually settle for so much less. We needn’t accept the terms we are given, we can negotiate more, we can imagine greater, we can change the conversation. But we have to show up for each other, we have to be there.

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