Friday, September 9, 2011

He Took Her Hand. She Took His. Together They Jumped.

The day is coming. The big anniversary of that awful day. Each year I feel it again much the same as the year before. Last year, I wrote about a day at home with family on September 11th 2010, a good day for us then, but still the old feelings were not far from the surface as that evening we stared off toward the east, toward the big beams of light shining from Ground Zero.

As the tenth anniversary approaches, I am reflecting on those events, and on the days and years following, much as I imagine many Americans are. The image that comes most clearly and poignantly for me, after the buildings falling, is from a day or two after the tragedy. I was living in southern Vermont and working night shifts at a hospital in Massachusetts back then, so my commute took me home through tiny Berkshire towns in the early morning hours when everyone else was just starting their day. There was a light rain falling on this morning, and I recall a heavy feeling in my body that was more than just the need for sleep after a long shift, and more than the clouds and rain outside. I had turned off the radio for a bit as the car wove along small main streets, past town greens and white-steeple churches on my way home. I think it was either Cheshire or Adams, Massachusetts where I saw a man out jogging. He was a handsome, older fellow with dark salt-and-pepper hair, if memory serves me. He had the kind of physique that told you that this jogging was something he did regularly, probably along with some other kind of workout. As the rain came down, he moved with purpose. This morning, after putting on his running clothes and lacing up his shoes, before heading out the door, he had grabbed a small American flag, which he carried as he ran, in silent tribute, his face stern and sad.

I used to run in those days, too. Even in the rain, if not too heavy. I used the time to unwind, and to work through problems in my mind, or to work emotions and excess energy out of my body. I wondered that morning about the man I saw with the flag, if he sometimes ran for the same reasons. I thought, “How far will you run today, friend? How far to out-distance this pain? Is there a road long enough for us?”

A few years ago, driving into the city on September 11th for a Tango event to mark the occasion--couples dancing silently together in various places in the city--I came around the curve toward the Lincoln Tunnel (they call it the helix) and traffic was slow. I sat there staring at that altered skyline, the big gaping hole in it, just as other drivers did. I noticed all heads turned that way, some with tears on their faces, perhaps thinking the same thing I was through my own tears. I also noticed less aggressive driving, more courtesy, as if the memory of those days of kindness following the tragedy still lived somewhere within each person behind the wheel. I remember thinking how lucky I was to be able to dance on this day, and how many others would never have that chance again. I remember thinking “tonight, I will put my soul into each step. I will dance for those who no longer can. Let my legs and my arms and my heart be a vehicle for them.” Crazy what goes through your mind in grief. Or maybe not so crazy. Who’s to say.

A year or so after that, my mother and my young niece (too young to remember 9/11) came to visit us in our old Jersey City apartment in the month of October. I don’t recall how the subject of police and fire fighters came up, but it did. I remember trying to tell her something about the value of what they do, about the need to respect and give thanks for people who do what they do, and I couldn’t get the words out right away. I started to cry, and I started to tell her about what they did, the sacrifices they made at WTC and elsewhere. She and my mother looked surprised, and I was, too, to find those feelings so close to the surface so many years later. I think my mom was maybe a little worried that my tears would alarm or frighten my niece, but I don’t think they did. I hope they made an impression, though.

Pentagon 9/11 Memorial

I am also remembering living in New England on the year anniversary of 9/11, and listening to coverage of a memorial service on the radio. I was driving, and I held it together pretty well until the sound of every boat in New York harbor blowing their horns came through the speakers. It was so potent, these waves of sound, like the wailing of thousands of voices, weaving together in one huge din that wrapped around the city. It streamed through the speakers and wrapped me in it, too. I felt such a strong connection to NYC then, and imagined people everywhere listening, feeling the same. The distance shrank, and a sense of peace came over me. This was the sound of grief which is, at its core, the sound of love, and it moved through the city and across the nation in a giant wave.
This year September 11th is even more on my mind, not so much because of the 10th anniversary itself, but because of new threats. Though I remember keenly each year on September 11th, I do not make it a preoccupation the rest of the year. I do, though, start at least every week day with it’s memory. That’s because Rudi awakens me each morning, if only briefly, to kiss me goodbye before he commutes into the city. I don’t mind it, even if I would be able to sleep a little later than he can. This is too important. When you live or work in the cross-hairs of zealots, the simple, painful truth is that you never know if you’ll get that chance to say “I love you” again. You never know which kiss might be your last. That probably sounds grim, and I guess it is. But it is also the way things are. True that anywhere in the world tragedy can strike. It just feels a little more real here than in any other place I’ve lived.

That said, there is a lot of talk about evil in the world. The word “evil” is tossed about rather more casually than I would like, frankly. I wrote about this upon the news of Bin Laden’s death . Most of the time, I must say, I’m not so sure I believe in “evil”, at least not in the sense that I hear many people use it. Perhaps I misunderstand their meaning. I’m not sure. But even if it does really exist in and of itself, as a force, if you will, I know a more powerful force of which I’m quite certain.

There is a program I highly recommend, which was produced by PBS’s Frontline. It’s called Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. It originally aired in 2003, I believe, but you can watch it online now. It’s focus is on how 9/11 affected people of faith, and people of no faith, and how people from all walks of life and all spiritual frameworks tried to make sense of this tragedy in its aftermath. I’ve seen it three or four times over the years, and always it’s disturbing and sad and honest and beautiful.

One of the most important points, for me, comes very near the end of the program. The then-editor of Tricycle magazine, a Buddhist publication, summed up the situation eloquently (as did many others on the program). What she said was a great comfort to me, and an important reminder, for all of us. This is what I mean by that “more powerful force” I mentioned earlier.

She said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the WTC and Pentagon attacks took time, and planning, and secrecy, and money, and organizing, flight lessons, deception, recruitment, and a host of other unseen machinations. But something arose from the smoke and flames, and it arose in an instant, and it arose in a place as notoriously jaded and pushy as New York City. It required no planning or deception, no special funding or recruitment. No thought, even.

People helped each other.
People helped strangers, carrying them to safety.
People comforted each other,
sought one another, in private and in public.
Volunteers came from everywhere.
People donated blood, money, labor.
Priests heard confessions as firefighters and police went in . . .

and that one hits me most of all. I know what that means. I grew up in a Catholic family. If you take the time to confess to a priest before entering a burning building, you are fully aware you might not be coming out.

And yet they went.

Speak to me of evil if you want, if you must. But always I will tell you it is no match for this force.
It arose in an instant from all around, in every neighborhood and around the world as news crossed the oceans, because this is what we are. Before time to think about blame and anger, this is the light that greeted that dark force.

This is what we are.

Amid the flames and destruction, as people watch in horror, a man takes a woman’s hand and she takes his. Together they jump.

This is what we are.

As I remember that day ten years ago, I must remember this, too.

Photo credit: Zafar Ahmed/AP/Newsweek

Friday, September 2, 2011

Oh, Canada!

"Hey Rocky, watch me pull some luggage out of my hat!"

Ok, I've been writing posts from Italy lately, but I'm back now and just have to post this "open letter" to Air Canada. I hope to have some more Italy posts up soon, written post-trip.
This is also a bit of a rant, meant to be cathartic.

Dear Air Canada,

You have no idea how hard it was to type “dear” up there. Seriously. I'm trying to keep this civil, but it's not easy.

The problem starts on September 1st, 2011, when I'm trying to get home to the United States after 5 weeks in Italy. Do you know anything about Italy and Italians? Well, I can tell you that they never sleep. On top of that, they never let you sleep, no matter how much you want to. They just make you eat more than you need to, and blow cigarette smoke in your face (often while you're eating). Five weeks of gorging, sleep deprivation and smoke inhalation can do things to a person, make them kind of edgy and stressed and tired and reeeeeeally eager to get home. This is without even mentioning the apparent inability of Italians to wait in line and not shove you, while simultaneously forcing you to listen to them screaming into their cellphone at someone. Don't get me wrong; I love Italy. . . kind of the way you love a narcissistic adolescent who only thinks of himself, but has his charms, like you can't help it. He's emotional and predictably unpredictable, and funny, and quirky, and a pain in your ass. But gosh darn it, you've got to love him.

Anyway, it starts at Fiumicino airport, to which I have raced very early to make sure I'm on time, further depriving myself of precious sleep. I get there after lugging baggage from house to car to train to airport, only to wait in line for check in—not security, but check in—for more than 3.5 hours. Same line, not moving, and no one providing information or estimates or, more importantly, apology. A woman with an Air Canada badge did walk down the long line asking who was for Montreal, and telling us that when we reached the end of the line in a specific place, Montreal passengers should go to the left. Of course, more than three hours later when the line started to move, there wasn't even a left turn available anymore. It seems like there were 2 desk workers trying to check in 100 people. There was another woman who came through the line with an Air Canada badge, asking to see passports and putting a little useless sticker on our bags that said “Security ICTS” upon which she had written a number. I can't see any purpose this served. It didn't make things go faster, and we still had to go through security. She didn't inspect anything. It seems like a bit of theater, designed to make frustrated passengers feel like something was actually happening.

As time marches on and it becomes more and more clear that I will not make my connecting flight in Montreal, I get a little nervous. Up until the last few years, I didn't fly very often at all, and even when I have flown, I've never experienced missing a connection, so I don't know how this works. I stop the second woman when I see her again (more than an hour after the first time she passed by), and say to her, in English (the language she was clearly speaking to us an hour ago), that this plane is clearly going to be late taking off, and I'm confused about what to do about my connecting flight that I will miss. She looks confused as if she hasn't understood me, so I say the same thing in Italian. She replies in both English and Italian “Obviously” and seems quite perturbed by my question. I say, “yes, that is obvious, but what is less obvious to someone like me who doesn't travel a lot, is how this works in terms of me getting home.” I do not punctuate this sentence with a nasty name for her, but I confess to thinking it. I ask her what I have to do to get a new connecting flight, and rather than tell me, she decides to chastise me with “Everyone is having the same problem”. To which I say “Obviously, but not everyone is going onward from Montreal, and that doesn't answer my question about what I have to do, if anything.” Honestly, I was asking in an even tone, trying to get information. This woman needs to work on her people skills—sure, most of Italy's service-sector people do, but that's no excuse to be nasty and lacking in empathy. She's representing Air Canada not Alitalia, isn't she? Canadians are, like, the nicest people on Earth, eh? She eventually tells me curtly, after again repeating that everyone has the same problem, of which I'm perfectly aware, that the person at the check in desk will re-route me (this turned out not to be the case, but at least it was finally an answer to my actual question).

Here's the even more despicable part. A couple in line near me was traveling with an elderly relative. The elderly woman needed a wheelchair, and the people said to an Air Canada representative that they had requested this in advance, and now everyone was sending them back and forth to different desks and they still weren't getting what they needed. Yes, again, Italy is famous for sending people from office to office and back again, sure. But you're Canadian, remember? Your Air Canada rep, instead of bending over backwards to help these people like she should have, given how long the line was, how long it waited, and that there was no seating anywhere, passed the buck to “my colleagues at Fiumicino” whom she said typically get the wheelchairs requested to the people once they have checked in. Then she walked away, with no intention of helping these people further. Seriously? Even when check in takes more than 3.5 hours in line?

Now, if that elderly woman (who was clearly having some difficulty and using a cane) had collapsed in that line after all that time without anywhere to sit and no assistance, would her “colleagues at Fiumicino” have come to the line for her then, or would we have had to band together and drag the woman's body to the check in desk? Just curious about that, so I know what to do next time I fly Air Canada. HaHa! That was a joke. Do you get it? As if I'll ever fly Air Canada again after I write my scathing online reviews. Oh, c'mon. .. you know that was funny. Laugh a little. It could be worse. You could be waiting in line for three hours. . . .with Italians on cell phones . . .wondering which person will die first in that line, and if it will be safe for the rest of us to eat them if necessary.

Ok, so now is the fun part. After all this time, I get to the front of the line and to the desk, and the woman there won't even look up at me. She can't—she's busy typing an all-important text message to someone. I ask a question. She doesn't answer. She doesn't even flinch or look up. Just keeps hammering away with those thumbs on her phone keypad. I can apparently go screw myself after waiting 3.5 hours standing up with my luggage. She has important texts to send. When she's darned good and ready, she looks up and checks me in, barely looking at me. I ask about the re-routing and she says I'll have to check in with Air Canada when I get to Montreal, but right now I had better hurry up to the gate because the plane is leaving.

Yes, she actually said this.

The plane is leaving? But there are passengers for this same flight who are still in line behind me. We're all in line for the same flight and we're the only one's left here. You want me to hurry along now? Wait . . . do I have time to send a text message? They're really important, you know. The text would be to her, so I could get her attention, and it would say “Which direction is it to security and the gate?” She points to the left, and looks up to “help” the next person. Classy staff you've got there, Air Canada. Really, commendable.

Oh and this is the very best part: after this point, somewhere between Rome, and Montreal, and LaGuardia (because I was rerouted there, since no more flights were going to Newark that night), you guys managed to lose my luggage. Yep. For my five week trip I packed a lot of necessities that I use on pretty much a daily basis, and I have none of it now. The extra-large, red, hard-to-lose bag with my full name, address and phone number on it is still missing, and I'm not getting any help. I'm told to wait five days, and if I don't have it by then, I should fill out a form, after which they will “expedite” the tracing. Really? They aren't expediting it now, but only after 5 days? What are they doing now--waiting for it to walk into their office on its own? My tweezers are in that bag. Do you know how important tweezers are to a woman once she passes 40? Unless you're prepared to reimburse me for a couple cans of Barbasol and a scythe, you really want to get that bag to me, pronto.

Hey, merci, Air Canada. I really appreciate how much you value my business.
Ya hosers.


Blanche DuBois