The sky is so blue today. The sun is so bright, the leaves are still green, and the birds are singing. It’s a beautiful day, just like the eleventh of this month eleven years ago.
I remember walking home after my office closed early on September 11, 2001, thinking how impossibly wrong it felt that something so horrible could happen on such a nice day. I am one of the lucky people who easily survived the terrorist attacks and didn’t know anyone who was directly affected. But of course we were all emotionally affected, and for me the moment when it really became a day of horror was when I saw (replayed on television) the sickeningly rapid, thundering, smoldering collapse of the World Trade Center towers.
And I thought, Oh, no, no, no–WE ARE ON THE RED SIDE OF THE CARD!!!
You see, I had spent many hours that year helping my friends at Looney Labs promote Chrononauts, The Card Game of Time Travel, and the timeline cards had really grabbed me as a way of explaining the relationship of events to one another. Some events are Linchpins that cause later events (Ripplepoints) to change; each Linchpin card is purple on the side that represents history as we know it, but on the flip side it is red and represents what could have happened instead.
September 11, as it unfolded in this timeline on which I live, wasn’t the red side just because it was horrible and wrong–other very bad things have happened in history. It was red because it flipped a Ripplepoint far in the future, flipped it from what I thought I knew was going to happen someday, and the flip side of a Ripplepoint is a swirling Paradox that remains until someone plays the correct Patch card. It sounds silly, but the knowledge of that gaping Paradox in the distant future hit me hard.
You see, when I was around ten years old in the early 1980s, I read a magazine article (I think it was in Popular Science or something? 50 Earthling points to the reader who finds that article for me!) about what would happen to landmarks if they were abruptly abandoned by human beings–how long would they last, and what would their decay be like? The one that really gripped my mind was the World Trade Center, possibly because I had recently visited it but maybe just because the description was so vivid. The abandoned towers would stand for many years as the window glass gradually fell out and thousands of birds, rats, and roaches made their homes in the 110 stories and plants began to grow in the soil that accumulated. They would become like enormous science-fiction versions of the building depicted in one of my favorite books, Old MacDonald Had an Apartment House. But someday, decades after humankind had abandoned New York City, wind shear would overwhelm the now-exposed structure. The towers would twist and sway more and more, until one day too many columns would go and one tower would collapse, with the other likely following soon afterward.
That was the fate of the World Trade Center on the blue side of a Ripplepoint somewhere far down my timeline. But now, it isn’t. The towers will not be there to accept their fate. It’s a Paradox.
Anyone who remembers those next few months of 2001 probably can relate to my feeling of living on the flip side. Everything seemed different. Even the things that were still the same felt different, as if they were red instead of purple. Everything was weird, and nobody quite knew how to act, and there were various new realities that we were supposed to accept or fight or feel inspired about.
When did that fade? It’s hard to put my finger on it. I know that by early 2002 I felt better adjusted, but there was still this eerie sense of being on the wrong timeline, in the alternate universe, on the flip side. I remember that when the Chrononauts expansion set that expands the timeline through 2008 was released and I saw with my own eyes the card that depicts the September 11 attack on the purple side, I felt sick. It’s so wrong.
But no Linchpin event changes every point in the future. Time marches on, and it works out somehow. Daniel and I bought a house, taking advantage of the low mortgage rates that followed the attacks. I became a mother and explained to my child what happened on September 11. In 2011 I saw that New York is still New York, even a little better maybe. Today I walked out of my house into a bright blue September 11, 2012, and it feels like a nice normal blue Ripplepoint, not a tacked-on orange Patch. I feel safe today. I think we are okay.
On this day, though, I remind myself that there are thousands of people who because of that card flip will never be quite okay. Everyone who lost a loved one on September 11 has surely made great progress in recovering by now, yet they will never heal completely. I think especially of the children born in the nine months after the attacks whose fathers were killed that day–a bunch of ten-year-olds whose entire lives, no matter how enjoyable, have been patched over the swirling uncertainty of What if I had a father? What would be different?
Thanks, Andy, for giving me a language to think about it. I hope that Chrononauts can help other people to understand and express their feelings about time and experiences of it.
8 thoughts on “Living on the Flip Side”
I checked my daily journal from 2001. I had a few notes, e.g.,
11:36: Things will never be the same again in this country.
12:11: Can’t let terrorists disrupt my life.
Other than that, my journal for the days and months and years after that make little mention of 9/11. A bunch of criminals tried to steal the spotlight (as they do every day, including today), and I didn’t give it to them. I went on with my life. In the afternoon on 9/11 I went for a run in Frick Park. On 9/12, I went to a dinner buffet with a bunch of friends. On 9/13, I went grocery shopping and lifted weights.
The criminals wanted to make a big impact on me. I refused to let them.
I’ve been thinking about how to respond to this comment. I feel like you missed my point, or one of my points anyway.
I’m not suggesting that the appropriate response to 9/11 was to “let the terrorists win” by becoming terrified and changing our day-to-day behavior as if every public space was a likely target of attack. I didn’t do that, either.
However, I did not shrug off the impact of the attacks after 35 minutes. What I feel you’re missing is that letting 9/11 and its aftermath occupy your mind is not equivalent to giving attention to a bunch of criminals who don’t deserve it. The attacks had not only villains but also victims.
Let the victims make a big impact on you. Read their stories. Look into their eyes in photographs. Say their names aloud. Remember that every one of them was a person with a life as valuable and interesting as yours, and most of them did not have the option of refusing to let that life be disrupted. (Those who did have the option are the firefighters and other helpers who chose to do things like running UP the stairs inside the burning towers. Should they have refused to let terrorists get their attention?) Think about all the secondary victims, the people who lost someone they loved in the attacks, whose runs in the park and dinner buffets and grocery shopping and times at the gym were marred by the sudden absence of favorite companions.
Just because there’s nothing you can do to fix it doesn’t mean ignoring it is the best thing to do. Yes, go on with your life, but let that life be affected, too.
On September 21, 2001, I drove to D.C. to attend a party at a friend’s house 7 blocks from the White House; I did not let the terrorists scare me away from it. Heading south on I-70, suddenly I found that traffic was stopped and no cars were coming the other way. It was another beautiful, blue-sky day. After checking the radio for news and hearing none, I joined the people who had gotten out of their stopped cars and were milling about. We told each other our names and where we were going. We hoped together that nothing horrible was happening in D.C. After a while, a man came along who had walked up to the front of the stopped cars and was now spreading the news: A truck had overturned into the median, spilling its cargo across all the lanes, so there was a big mess being picked up, but the driver was only slightly injured and nobody else was hurt. The man said, “Two weeks ago, I would’ve been furious that this dumb accident was making me late. Today, I’m so glad it’s not an attack, I want to tell everyone the good news!” He went on as the rest of us enjoyed the sunshine and felt lucky to be there.
THAT is how 9/11 should have affected our lives. I still feel traces of that gratitude, here on the flip side.
People die every day, everywhere, for every reason. My parents grew up with bombs falling out of the sky; many still live this way, whether in Africa or Israel or Palestine. If I spent all my time thinking about death and spent all my emotional energy on that, I would not be able to live. A high school classmate of mine died on 9/11. So did other people twice removed from me. A college classmate of mine was across the street. He soon moved, out of the country.
I don’t really think about any of this stuff, because it doesn’t help me, and it doesn’t help anyone. I don’t think about the latest tsunami or flu or whatever else the media wants me to get emotional about. It doesn’t help the dead and the grieving. The single most important lesson I learned about 9/11 was to turn off the TV. That day was basically the turning point in my relationship with TV and newspapers and the Web.
I’m already grateful every single day that I live, even if I had a really crappy day (I keep a gratitude journal that I write in every night no matter what has happened). I prefer to think about the positive rather than the negative.
An additional observation that makes me very sad and angry is that I was aware of many people around me being very deeply affected in their reaction to 9/11, and these same people later were part of the reason the US went into Iraq. I never supported the war in Iraq. I wonder whether if more people had been emotionally detached, there would never have been such a war, a war whose cost in every way was a million times worse than the suffering of 9/11.
There is more than one kind of emotional reaction to 9/11. Believing that the people who died were real people worthy of our consideration, sorrow, and memory is not AT ALL the same thing as believing that they were points on a scorecard that then had to be settled by killing an equal or larger number of Arabs. I believe very strongly that violence only brings more violence. Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, but decimating Iraq and killing thousands of people (including more Americans than died on 9/11) only made the overall situation worse, and Saddam had only an ideological connection to the 9/11 attacks; the war did nothing to prevent further attacks but was politically convenient for the Bush administration. We became the evil we claimed to despise.
Rather than being emotionally detached and just “not supporting” the war, I actively opposed it by writing letters, participating in protests, and explaining my views to people. My government waged war despite my actions. But at least I tried. Perhaps my actions changed a few minds, and in the long run that could help to stop the next war, or it may have helped those people to act more peacefully in their own smaller conflicts. It was not easy or comforting for me to keep reading about the war, to march in snow and tear gas, to speak truth to angry hatred-spewing people, or to write loving letters to my cousin while he served in Iraq with the Marines, but I believe it was right to do these things.
I cried when I read that nobody has claimed the remains of the September 11 hijackers. Why? Because they were trying so hard to do what they thought God was telling them to do, but they were so, so wrong that even their own parents won’t bury them. They did an incredibly horrible thing, but they were people, too. Thinking about this kind of thing is no fun at all, but I believe it is my obligation as a human being to think and feel and not just dodge the difficult stuff.
Of course I don’t spend ALL my time thinking about death. But because I do, purposely, trigger my compassion on a regular basis, I have learned that this is not “spending” emotional energy; it does not drain me or harm me in any way. It connects me. And that might help me, or it might help someone else feel that I understand them, or it might be just the right thing to do even if I can’t measure any obvious positive effect.
We all reach a point when we can’t take it anymore–especially in today’s 24/7 media-saturated culture–and I think it’s important to recognize that point at which more “news” is only going to pull you in a bad direction. I did turn off the TV for several hours in the afternoon on 9/11. I read only one newspaper a week and don’t usually listen to the radio or read news online or watch TV at all. Some days I decide to read something “fun” instead of continuing with the week’s newspaper because I just don’t feel up to it. My limits are different from other people’s limits. We can’t all keep fully informed about everything. But I think that purposely detaching from public life, ignoring what is happening, refusing to think about things that are emotionally difficult, is not really the attitude of an adult or a good citizen. Sure, it’s good to focus on the positive, but when a gigantic horrible disaster happens I think it is worth acknowledging.
I acknowledge that being emotionless does not help things and in a fundamental way denies our humanity, and I’m glad that people like you do care and do try to make a positive difference. I like to think that in some way, the things that I do also may make a difference. It’s hard to calculate what might make how much of a difference. I was kind of being a devil’s advocate in my gut reaction to large tragedies, because I prefer to focus on smaller ones. For example, every time I hear about something terrible happening to a cyclist in the city (and I know many cyclists), I try to remember to drive in such a way as to minimize harm to cyclists I encounter. I don’t think of myself as being passively absent from the issues concerning urban cycling simply because I’m not out marching and distributing pamphlets, etc. I think I am making a difference, and that I am doing so whenever conversation happens to come up about cycling and driving and I point out what everyone’s responsibilities are.
I was thinking along similar lines yesterday… I was thinking about a Doctor Who episode from a few years ago, “The Fires of Pompeii.” The explanation of time travel used in Doctor Who (except when it’s inconvenient to the plot of a specific episode, in which case they cheerfully ignore precedent and trot out a new explanation) has never made a lot of sense to me because it assumes there is only one timeline that cannot tolerate paradox. Specifically, the Doctor can go back and change something so long as it doesn’t change what he’s already experienced. So for instance in the most recent episode, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” when he’s told he has a certain amount of time to prevent a spaceship colliding with Earth, he can go back in time to pick up companions to take with him, but he can’t go back in time to prevent the spaceship getting put on a collision course with Earth in the first place, because if he did that he wouldn’t be told that it was on a collision course, and that would be a paradox.
So when (back in Pompeii) Donna begs him to prevent Mt. Vesuvius from erupting, he says he can’t even though all the evidence suggests that he can. His objection is that Pompeii’s destruction is a “fixed point,” which I take to mean that he has already experienced it in the future, so changing it would be a paradox. I won’t give away the ending in case someone hasn’t seen it, but the consequences of Vesuvius not erupting turn out to be much worse than its eruption.
I don’t think time travel would work like that because I don’t think there’s just one timeline. On the contrary, I think we create a new timeline with our every action. And that means that the seemingly momentous events of 9/11/01 have been swamped by all the good things that have happened since then. There is always time to steer onto a better course.
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