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.