I spent the weekend in Lerner Hall at Columbia University. Lerner Hall is this gargantuan glass building that you wouldn’t forget if you’d ever been there – there are basically no strict right angles in the place, and the initial impression one gets of it is akin to being at sea or perhaps down the rabbit hole. Long ramps ring the entire main five-story lobby, occasionally cut-away by Escherian staircases while diagonal rooms of glass and stainless steel offer a disorienting place to work, study, and play. Imagine Hogwarts’ path to the Gryffindor common room with all the moving pictures replaced with glass and all the the wood replaced with shiny metal.
Lerner Hall is one of the all-time Significant places in my life. It was the site of the 9/11 vigil at Columbia Novice on September 14, 2001, the one that more or less created the last ten years of my life. On September 15th, after the all-night talk in Tom’s Restaurant, it’s where Emily and I wandered and chatted and eventually admitted that we were each afraid the other would get sick of us after 10, 12, 16 straight hours of talking, where it first occurred to me that I would tell our unborn daughter that falling in love is just having a conversation that you never want to end. I would be sugarcoating things if I said that I never once looked over the high fifth-floor balcony and contemplated what Em and I finally said to each other on September 24, 2001 and thought about poetry and the full view of history. But I’m still here. And the nice thing about poetic opportunities like that when they are bypassed is that it puts a certain caliber of pressure and significance on the act that is hard to run across in future. But it also makes one think altogether too much about possible worlds.
I was in Lerner to help run a debate tournament, of course, my relationship with the Columbia team roughly diametric to that with the team that helped make Columbia 2003 the all-time Dirt Standard of poorly-run contests. It’s nice to be on the beautiful urban fortress campus and feel an affinity for its denizens that contrasts so highly with the prior impressions I had in an epoch that feels mostly like it happened to someone else, at least when I’m not passing certain crosswise benches in Lerner Hall. The weekend was ultimately long and disjointed, despite being highly productive I was in a turbo-overworked mood that mixed poorly with the filter of memories made so indelible by the glass casing of a building that hasn’t changed in a decade. I felt disconnected from my own team and came to the point of contemplating how much I’m going to help run other tournaments, how much more I ought focus at these competitions on merely maximizing our own morale. Still, I had fun at times and things went well, so like everything these days, there were highs and lows.
There has been a huge kerfuffle of late of the changes made to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg’s constant drive to open the doors of what is possible in connection on the Internet. And it’s taken me a week of meditation on it to realize that what’s wrong with the web is exactly parallel to what’s wrong with Lerner Hall for me.
The Internet is an ever-changing, ever-evolving universe. There are no constants, no rules, no expectations of consistency. There is a thin under-layer of HTML and protocol that serves as the barest of physical laws to govern an otherwise completely dynamic environment. And since it’s constantly in flux, since it alters itself every nanosecond of every 24 hours of every eternal day, there’s the constant drive to keep changing or get left behind. It is this that drove the rise of Facebook, but also the plunge of Facebook into its current sudden state of overshared disarray. It is this that drove the rise of Google, but also Google’s own descent into irrelevant distrust of the words that a person has actually typed and the barrage of over-sponsored information atop the page. And I’ve realized that the Internet’s lack of buildings is exactly what will make it a landscape where what is right and what works is never constant.
I have long lamented that the Golden Age of Blogging was fleeting and is now merely a wispy memory that current generations barely believed. When I was in college, it seemed inevitable that everyone would blog, improving their creative expression and ability to connect and engage with their peers in a format that one could digest, internalize, and interact with at ongoing leisure. It was a world that, needless to say, I embraced wholeheartedly, a world I still try to pretend exists through avenues like what you’re reading at this moment despite my awareness that blogging is now almost entirely a political vehicle or an extension of capitalism. The personal blog is not dead, but it is badly wounded, careening around the wake of its injury like a moaning quadruped mammal. Most people find blog content too long to read, too un-instantaneous to care about. It has been replaced by Facebook.
But Facebook itself already seems obviously on the decline in the wake of its bifurcation of tickers and adaptation to the “innovative” pressure placed on it by Google+. Rather than trusting in the security of a system that had worked to build the largest single network of human beings in the history of the species, Zucky and friends decided to chase the dragon of a competitor’s suggested alterations and are on the verge of destroying their own genius in the name of constant change. Not to mention they are doing so in pursuit of a competitor that already ruined their own best offering with tools like auto-complete, constant spelling correction that makes searching for a name like “Storey” almost impossible, and individualization of the algorithm that sacrificed knowledge and connection for the sake of something like solipsism and the insulation of everyone’s personal bubble.
How can this happen? Precisely because there is no glass online. There are no beams of stainless steel, no walls of brick or blocks of stone or columns of poured concrete. There is only the ether, the crackle of invisible waves that circulate globally to express an unceasingly instatic reality.
When one builds a building, one plans it. One designs it. One knows that even in the worst of scenarios, this building must stand for years. Most buildings are designed to last decades and centuries, some for a theoretical perpetuity. There is a mentality innate to that undertaking and a reality to engage for those maintaining those structures thereafter. You can’t simply change the underlying support structure of a house, a dorm building, a hall on an ancient campus. You have to deal with the physical realities, the unmovable objects, the blocking and layout and blueprints of bygone architects.
This has a lot of drawbacks. 85% of people are mailing it in at all times and some of them are inevitably engineers. But when it works, when it cobbles together to create something viable, the results are bordering on the eternal. We all can picture the Eiffel Tower (ironically designed to be impermanent, of course), the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. These places, buildings and bridges, the output of human capacity for design and creativity, stand the test of time because they have to. But there is nothing on the Internet that carries this weight, this constancy, this static nature. And while critics of my conceptualization here might raise screenshots of the 1994 web and ask if we’d always want to be stuck there, this is like pointing to the first huts and cave dwellings and asking us to stay there forever too. Just because some early buildings are ugly or fail does not mean that all buildings innately ought be impermanent and subject to alteration. We would never accept someone adding a few floors to the Empire State Building, redressing the Statue of Liberty, knocking the glass out of the Notre Dame. And similarly, we should demand a certain consistency from what works best on the Internet if we are not doomed to writhe in the nostalgic quicksand of only fleeting success.
There is, it occurs to me, a model for this inconstant wrestling, this deliberately impermanent environment. You guessed it folks, it’s capitalism. There are almost no companies that survive even a hundred years, and those that make it that long have reinvented or reimagined themselves so thoroughly that they carry only the barest nominal trappings of their prior incarnations. You can call this innovation and evolution if you want, but it’s more that the nature of the corporate thresher is fickle, demanding, cutthroat, and prone to exterminating things. The core reason for this is the completely irrational demand for constant growth, the bizarre expectation that stability and constancy are the enemy in the face of carcinogenic consumption. Capitalism goes one step beyond sharks’ need to always move and demands that this movement carries eternal expansion as well. In a fixed universe, or at least a fixed planet, this means that beings are constantly unsound and unstable and doomed to fail at an effort whose very premise is flawed from the outset. The nature of the corporate landscape is far more Internet than college campus, institutions mere fleeting tools for the purpose of constant random change.
Which brings us back to Lerner Hall and the contemplation of the failure of all that was supposed to be constant in my own life. Is it coincidence that the rise of the capitalist worldview has corresponded so closely to the rise in divorce rates? Is it random that the Internet’s advent has, in bringing us closer together, also raised the demand for an unending change in partners, living arrangements, extolling the self over permanent connections? I submit to you that these are almost directly correlated. That in espousing a perspective where nothing can reliably be unchanging, our very view of the bonds and pacts people make with each other has also slipped into fungibility. I have said at times that change is the only constant, that there is incredible flux in our universe beyond our very comprehension and thus that traditional ideas of stability are illusory. But at the same time, the middle-ground permanence of a building, of fixed angles and supports and walls, this seems like it might not be too much to hope for. But if our model is to be corporations who constantly eat each other to survive, a landscape of a brutal ocean or savannah of unending danger and consumption, what hope do any of us have of carving out a life for ourselves that can be trusted and thus provide a platform for fulfillment?
Come back to me. Come back to Lerner Hall. The bench is still here.
A day when the phone doesn’t ring. Not that this is a measure of anything, much, save for the busyness of the friends and family who make up a lifetime of communication and contact. One can argue how many of those people would call if they knew, call if they wanted, but one must respond to the vine-grasping inertia of proximity and visual resonance. How we are ultimately these silly biological tethers to limb and eye-socket and bloodflow, or at least locked therein while trying to elevate the scope of our mental reach and capacity. And that as long as we are trapped in separate skins, it is oh so hard to ever feel truly sufficiently surrounded.
Every second alone is a waste, in some ways, and yet the way of the introvert is to prefer this low-risk expenditure of time to even that which makes us feel most elevated, most transcendent. The high-flying antics of sharing and absorbing, of the mutual vulnerability of nine nightbound souls, inhibitions unlocked by mutual expectation and the dark of the sky and the possibility of youth that so many of their elder peers will lose over time, they themselves becoming those elders in the name of wisdom or safety. What a cosmic magic to be able to position oneself eternally in relation to this transitional time, ancient insect in the eternal amber of crystallization, getting perhaps just a bit older and lonelier as the ongoing rent for all this connection. Every human being so raw, so yearning, so similar in the basic bonds that make us all what we are. Tomorrow we will go box ourselves up again, gird our armor anew, but the impact of lines jointly crossed will never entirely fade.
And yet why the preference, in a world of true apparent universality, why the preference of some to others? No wonder some could cite Huxley as utopia, cite individual taste as sheer irrationality. How marvelous to not demand or expect or hope for more from one than another, to merely breathe and be and take solace in any incidental mind/flesh/voice combination and the wonder of that amalgam’s interest in one’s own. And yet, such is not the way of this incarnation. We are trained and developed, crafted and honed, maybe even irreparably and impenetrably predisposed, to like some more than others. To foster and cultivate vast imbalances in how we perceive others, to weep over the absence of one while tiring to the point of vague nausea over another. How shallow some of these distinctions, how cruel, and somehow still inescapable. An irrationality as deep and undeniable as sexuality itself, as time in its plodding passage, as the unpredictable mortality of our fickle casings.
We are, all of us, lakes, presenting an image consistent, horizontal, reflective, and opaque. The simplest manifestation of surface tension, a color or outline of our surroundings, silent and still. And yet what life teems below! What cataclysm the response to any stimulus, movement, disruption of the surface! What depth, what invisible capacity and precipitous absorption may be undertaken! Woe to any who presume the careful balance of the waterline cannot be disturbed, is sufficient to hold even the lightest of breaches, the smallest of pebbles.
Come. Wade. Splash. Skip not the stones upon the level, but rather slam them down. I am tired of reflecting, weary of mere surroundings on display. The water’s fine and there is much to be explored.
Yesterday I went to Philadelphia to play cards and see Ariel and be social on a day when I expected to be overwhelmed and over-tired after reconnecting with the debate circuit (see here for how that went) for another season. It was a pretty decent day overall, even if I mostly learned from the poker experience that I still haven’t gotten the formula for when to leave the table down yet. Turns out that playing with overtly bad players (spot the sucker at the table, etc.) is actually usually more costly than it is profitable. Still left up, but could have left up a lot more.
In any event, I was really sick of 9/11 yesterday. All I wanted was some NPR or talk radio that wasn’t about ten years ago, and that just wasn’t happening. I get it, I guess, but I was simply completely overwrought with the references and remembrances, especially given their personal context which I’ll outline a bit herein. Basically, 9/11 has become rebranded with a trauma for me that it never had to begin with, which is kind of weird and melodramatic, but nonetheless true for my emotions. I’m not exactly sure why I feel compelled to chronicle all this when I was so OD’ed on it yesterday, but my perspective is a fickle beast these days, to say the least.
As far as my actual perspective on the 9/11 event itself and most of its remembrance, I think Ariel summed up my feelings beautifully in her post yesterday. I include the link not only to highlight her spare but poignant description of said feelings, but also to highlight that she’s back to blogging, something that few people are doing with any regularity these days (self somewhat included), so you should check it out. And it was this same shared perception, the idea that 9/11 itself was, while tragic, vastly overblown in significance by a country and city steeped in complacency, that was so much of the baseline of Emily’s and my connection that led so quickly to our near-decade union in life.
Emily and I shared spots on APDA’s governing body, the APDA Board, with roughly similar levels of ambivalence at the outset of the 2001-2002 debate season. And three days prior to the opening tournament, the Columbia Novice contest in New York City, the events whose description need no reviewing unfolded on a Tuesday morning. The APDA Board, like so many other leadership councils, scrambled that night to determine the fate of the weekend and APDA’s President (from the host school of Columbia Novice) insisted that not only would the show go on, but so would the celebratory party on Friday night. The Board somehow concluded that it would be appropriate to cancel elimination rounds, but not the late-night festivities.
It is easy to forget in the light of a decade without terrorism in the United States how much paranoia was abroad in the land in the days and weeks following September 11th, 2001. I had friends, several of them, who unequivocally told me I was committing likely suicide by driving to New York City on September 14th and a possible atrocity by bringing college freshmen with me. I felt serious responsibilities to APDA and especially those new recruits on the team who wanted to attend that I had to lead them in whatever decision they preferred and enable a real choice on the matter. And I felt driven, as did Emily, to make sure there was a viable alternative to going to a bar on Friday night for those attending the tournament. And thus she and I planned the vigil that would ultimately yield our all-night diner talk that would single-handedly put us on a course for marriage.
It was a permanent fixture in our relationship and marriage that 9/11 directly caused our union, a serendipitous quirk that gave the historical event a greater legacy for our lives than either of us had personally found it to have for the world. And in my first e-mail to friends in the wake of her attempted over-the-phone-from-Liberia divorce salvo, I cited how this silver lining had gone gray overnight, how what once felt like a sign that all could bounce back in the universe now felt like a monument to the meaningless trudge of life’s ongoing hardship. A more draconian interpretation might instill a lesson that tragedy is tragedy and one ought never take solace in it, no matter how redemptive it seems. But most of my mind went back not to the event itself, but my tenterhooks feelings on that unfolding evening itself.
I had developed a crush on Emily for years prior to 9/11, but sometime just before 2001 had resolved to actively try to eradicate it from my mind. Her judgment and perception of people seemed fatally flawed in the context of certain overtly disastrous public incidents with her then-boyfriend and I concluded that no matter how intelligent, attractive, and vibrant she seemed, she simply lacked the judgment required for a trustworthy foundation. It was this internal argument that I mulled for hours in Tom’s Restaurant as night became day and I was forced to conclude in her flirtation and the ambiguous silence on the topic that she must finally have shed the relationship and demonstrated that I had judged her judgment a bit too hastily.
This was incorrect, though. She was still with that boyfriend at the time. And it was a much eerier and less comfortable joke sidelining our marriage that my not knowing that on that night was as responsible as 9/11 itself for our forging a life together. It was only the increasing though ultimately disproven conviction that she’d made a good decision that convinced me to quiet my own pre-committed voices against pursuing her any further.
By the time I found out her true status at the time (not that she lied about it or that we did anything that violated the relationship), I was already mentally invested in us having a future. And the rest, as they say, is history. Creepily foreshadowing history, as it turned out.
Emily asked me late in our Stateside disassembly of our mutuality whether my story on our time together would be all about the betrayal. I blinked at her and asked how it could be anything else. And she returned to platitudes about the time that we spent together for its own sake, the love that we shared, and especially her cloying refrain that I would be the better for our parting. And despite its seriously grandiose overtones, I can’t help but find a parallel to the question in the event of 9/11 itself. After all, the power and prestige of Osama bin Laden was purchased by the United States of America. His military interest, knowhow, and capability was all facilitated by the country he ultimately attacked. It is hard to imagine US officials close to bin Laden feeling like the partnership paid off overall, like it was somehow worth it in view of its fiery catastrophic conclusion.
Of course, there is an underlying asterisk to that whole angle on the story, namely that the US itself, or more broadly certain interest groups and factions within same, did probably end up better off for the experience of 9/11, despite its horrible upfront costs. It is this reality that prompts such widespread belief in the Inside Job theories that I myself share a sufficient sympathy with to make almost everyone I talk to about this wildly incredulous and uncomfortable. Almost as incredulous and uncomfortable as I feel every year that the dire predictions of in-country terrorism subsequent to 9/11 go unsubstantiated. The evidence of negligence in the face of threats is irrefutable, and the evidence of Pearl Harbor-style ignorance in the face of an impending reality is nearly so. The next step to active crafting is more ambiguous and will always remain so until someone can at least build a lifesize replica of the twin towers and send a remote-controlled jetliner into it to see if the theories invented to cover apparent empirics have any validity. You have to remember that the reason so many police and firefighters (and, frankly, regular people) died that day is because literally no physicist or architect believed it was possible for the buildings to fall. Had structural collapse even been the remotest inkling of a possibility in the minds of anyone witnessing the events as they unfolded, the death count for the day would stand around 400. And that has to give you pause, regardless of how crazy you think questioning the official story is.
Suspending that thorny, divisive, and potentially alienating question, though, part of the 9/11 story (as with any tragedy) is trying to find redemptive outcomes and hopeful plotlines that mitigate the sheer horror of the unprecedented and unpredicted death of innocent humans. Indeed, my marriage itself was key among these. Which brings us to an unsettling conundrum that has underlied a great deal of my life in the last year. Anything good that happens in my life – from the success of the Rutgers debaters to any future relationship I might have to simply having a day where I don’t cry and contemplate giving up – can be used as a justification for Emily’s destruction of my previous life. If I wind up happy in a year or five or twenty, Emily gets to come back and say “I told you so,” to justify her callous and cavalier betrayal as a necessary step in both of our lives. I would no more hope to thus be unhappy than I would myself fly a plane into a building with people in it, but the insidious extent of her poisoning of my life puts a tarnish on any future joy or success I have. Anything I hope to find or build or do is asterisked as an argument that I had to lose what I most cared about, that I had to be betrayed.
I was going to say that the difference between that seemingly irrefutable reality and people making the same claim about 9/11 is the obvious irrecoverable destruction of 3,000 lives and a certain sense of American security (and ultimately, rights). In other words, no one would ever claim that this could be somehow “worth it,” no matter what benefits were reaped, while I’ve had to endure countless close friends already lobbing the “you’re better off without her” tripe because that’s permissible in the wake of divorce in our society, but not death. But I don’t think divorce/death is actually the key distinction here. I think it’s that even Osama bin Laden didn’t have the temerity to claim that his attacks (if they were his attacks, which he [uncharacteristically of all terrorists] denied for years) would ultimately be for the good of America and its people. Yet that’s exactly the kind of claim Emily’s tried relentlessly to make.
I know how this looks. The point of this post isn’t to say I was married to the moral or functional equivalent of Osama bin Laden, or even a more audacious version thereof. Indeed, the character flaws that led to her unraveling actions had nothing in common with terrorism so much as the weakness and distractability and poor self-awareness already identified before we even kissed. In other words, I knew exactly what I was signing up for, or should’ve. The fault, as I’ve shouted over countless eye-rolling friends, is mine. Not that this itself justifies her not checking her own immature proclivities, but neither does it render them entirely responsible for surprising me. So forgive me this melodramatic comparison. It is, as discussed with Ariel yesterday, merely my inclination to intertwine themes that have an echoey resonance, to contextualize the significance of an event that, in spite of itself, carries enormous world-changing weight even in my life.
But this counterpoint helps serve another function, namely to illustrate and reemphasize the depth of pain that actually brought me to, for the first time in three decades, cut off communication with another human being. It is only by being this visceral and thorough that I can truly show how hurtful the claim that her betrayal was for my sake is. How hurtful and endlessly compounding, a domino chain of exponential increase, cascading with doubt and haunting as I am left in the wake of wondering if all my suffering is for my own good. It is also to articulate across the void, I suppose, to a person who may or may not be reading this, that that one thought, baseline of her own self-righteous defense of her actions, was the tipping point in my being able to keep her in my life or not.
It may be fundamental to Emily’s future happiness and even functionality that she believe this malicious notion. But it is anathema to my own. And as long as we both maintain this, unsoftening, we will stand as hard and opposed as the World Trade Center towers themselves. Twinned, unyielding, so similar and yet never touching. And ultimately doomed to fall.