Saturday, September 10, 2011

Once in a Lifetime: Ten Years of Telling My 9/11 Story

Originally posted at

There’s a curious lyric right after the famous opening lines of the Talking Heads song, “Once In A Lifetime.”

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down…

It’s curious because when you think of “letting the days go by,” you think of “going with the flow,” you think of “floating.”

This lyric seems to say, “Allow yourself to drown.”

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down. Letting the days go by, water flowing underground. Into the blue again, after the money's gone. Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground.

:As written out in Frank Olinsky and the Talking Heads’ What the Songs Look Like.

I think I’ve said all I’ve want to say about 9/11. I’ve told you about the night before. The heavy rain and the fight I had with my live-in girlfriend (who would become my wife and the mother of my first child). On the day of the attack, it was cool and sunny. A beautiful day. My girlfriend and I weren’t arguing anymore. We made plans for lunch.

When we were told it was a plane – a plane had flown into the World Trade Towers -- we thought it was a Cessna, one of those little private planes flown by amateur airmen. Just a few weeks before Aaliyah had died in a Cessna crash in the Bahamas. We never imagined that it was a commercial airliner that hit the Tower. We never imagined another would follow soon after. And we never imagined it would all be premeditated. 

A neighbor told us that one of the Towers had fallen. We looked downtown to where the Trade Center Towers were visible over the horizon and saw nothing but a column of smoke. I couldn’t believe it. Those Towers couldn’t be broken. It was a trick of light and smoke. They wouldn’t fall.

But we watched the devastation on TV. We had no phone. We couldn’t reach anyone. We just watched the second Tower fall over and over again. My girlfriend cried.

Same as it ever was…

Same as it ever was…

Same as it ever was…

Same as it ever was…

That’s the other refrain from “Once In A Lifetime.”

After the smoke had cleared there was a big push by Mayor Giuliani and other city officials to get back to “business as usual.” I was eager to do so too. We all grieve differently.  Some like to hid in corners, letting the sorrow wash over them and then run off. Others like me need to keep moving, distancing themselves from the Tuesday the Towers fell as far as possible.

I was going to have a family now. The Saturday after the Towers fell, my girlfriend told me she was pregnant. We got married and prepared a home for our child. My coworkers wanted to celebrate but I said, No. I didn’t want to attract bad luck by celebrating so soon after the tragedy. In hindsight, I should have said, Yes. Everyone seemed hungry to celebrate something. I needed something to celebrate too but was too timid, the weight of the tragedy compounded by the superstition surrounding death and the unburied (Wandering Ghosts). 

1109060006Chee Wang Ng addresses the Chinese aversion to “death talk” and “ghosts” in his rice bowl installation: The depiction of bowl of rice with the tabooed placement of chopsticks stuck straight into the mound. I had an opportunity to speak with him at a reception for his installation in the Manhattan Borough President’s office. 

Several candles on a low circular table like a coffee table or a side table, draped in a red tablecloth, topped by a sculpted bowl of white rice impaled by two enormous chopsticks. It was interesting to listen to his rationale for the choice of objects and their placement. And their size. If you were not paying attention, you might easily walk past the installation. Chee effectively explained his rationale for this: It is not a celebration or something we should single out and promote. It is something to be pondered, low key, and reverent.

It was the year after the Towers fell that shirts depicting the Towers still standing or smoking became popular. Accompanying the images,  the words “Always Remember” or “Never Forget” were written.

But what exactly don’t “they” want me to forget? The hysteria that followed after – Guantanamo, the racism, and the hate? Or the images of droves of scared and confused people holding onto each other (to assist in support and for strength), helping each other through the toxic cloud? 

In the version of “Once In A Lifetime” they perform in their concert film, Stop Making Sense, they include the verse:

Time isn’t holding us, time isn’t after us

Time isn’t holding us, time doesn’t hold you back

Time isn’t holding us, time isn’t after us

Time isn’t holding us


That’s the word that used over and over again from the site to the site for the National Association for School Psychologists (NASP) when the conversation is about speaking to children about the 9/11 tragedy. I tell my children that sometimes people want what they want so bad that they don’t care who they hurt to get what they want. I tell them to take care not to become one of these people.

I tell them sometimes you lose more than you gain when you win.

I tell them everyone is different even when everyone else says they are all the same.

I tell them not to give up so quickly on broken objects, sometimes the pieces can be brought together and put together into something just as great.