9/11, 20 years on

9/11, 20 years on

On Tuesday, September 4, 2001, a book called Fooled by Randomness hit bookstores. In it, author Nassim Taleb wrote that we should be aware that we don’t know what’s coming, and we should be ready just in case. Just in case what? Well, who knows, maybe a plane could fly into a building I’m working in. What then?

Well, what then? It happened a week later. People asked him how he predicted it. They put him on news shows, on talk shows, on campuses, and he told them all the same story, until he got tired of it. “I didn’t predict it, and you didn’t get the point.” That’s not what he said, but it’s the gist of it.

We don’t know what’s coming, and some things aren’t predictable. Just like COVID-19 shut the world down, no one saw 9/11 coming. Except it was always a possibility, merely a not-very-likely one. For most of our lives, we don’t waste our time protecting against something that’s probably never going to happen. And then something happens, like planes flying into buildings.

If we’ve learned anything, maybe it’s vulnerability. Maybe we’re living a little more like we might die tomorrow because it showed us that we might, in fact, die tomorrow.

But we’ve shown on the larger level — large systems, like TSA and the federal government — that we’re very reactive, never proactive, and we rarely revisit our reactions.

If you are old enough to have flown before 9/11, you’ll remember that your friends and family used to be able to walk you to the gate. Yes, they had to go through security, but security was largely the x-ray machines (small bins for your keys and change, but none of the gray bins we currently put our shoes in, and our belts in, and our laptops in) and a metal detector. Sometimes you had a real metal belt buckle and the detector went off, and you got the wand. Back when we were able to wear our belts through security.

Jim Jefferies has a great bit about it. Language warning.

Humans build our greatest tributes first to our gods, then to our dead. Here in Savannah, there’s a gorgeous cathedral erected to St. John the Baptist. As a Jew, churches often make me uncomfortable — they’re simply foreign spaces with a very different feel from a synagogue, even if the activities taking place there are similar — but I really love this space. I recommend it as a stop for most people who visit, and I bring a lot of people there.

The cornerstone was laid in 1873, and the stucco and spires that completed the building were finished in 1896. In 1898, it burned down. They took what was left and immediately started to rebuild, and managed to hold a Christmas Eve Mass in 1899.

The terror attacks of 9/11 are really our national crisis, at least for the current generations. Pearl Harbor had been the previous attack that devastated the country, killing many Americans. There was the assassination of President Kennedy, which killed two people (Kennedy, of course, and Lee Harvey Oswald, shot by Jack Ruby). Apart from that, very few other things over the past century have happened to “us” as a collective.

And so it had to be remembered. I’ve never visited the 9/11 Memorial, but it looks meaningful. In fact, it’s more than that, as Malcolm Gladwell outlines in an episode of Revisionist History. It had to be completed by a certain date. It had to be a certain size. They had to build below the memorial to keep it from falling onto the subway tracks (or trains) below it.

We don’t do this for the dead, of course, the way we don’t build cathedrals and other houses of worship for God. We do both things for the living. We do it for solemnity and remembrance. To impart importance.

But maybe we do it for a more sinister reason, too. Maybe, just maybe, we build grand cathedrals to keep people in line, not necessarily before God, but before the clergy, the humans who claim the power of the space. And maybe, just maybe, we build memorials to the dead to remind us that the thing that befell them could befall us if we don’t follow new rules we’re told are designed to prevent that thing happening again.

10 Septembers, 20 Septembers »

What we did get out of 9/11, was a national story, surrounding our individual stories. Families and nations, like gods, are built on stories. America was built on George Washington’s cherry tree, on Paul Revere’s ride, on Ben Franklin’s kite. So far as we can tell, only one of those stories is actually true.

We’ve had other stories, of course. Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe, Manifest Destiny, Ford, Disney, the Kennedy clan, and the bulk of the names and events mentioned in “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

And so, when I was driving from a meeting at our main office to getting set up for my week in our satellite office, I heard Dee Snider, on his syndicated radio show, tell me about the newest American story.

The national story was always going to be part of us, but it would only stir some of us. For the bulk of us, we spent a few days scared or unsure, and within a week we had air travel and baseball again. Some signed up for the armed services. And for some — a not insignificant number — our national story was wrapped up with a new family story, with thousands of family members and friends lost.

My friends group lost Amy, who had been setting up a presentation on a high floor. We got to keep Carol (not her real name), who was just getting a retail shop on the ground floor open when the first plane hit. She managed to run several dozen blocks north and get the last train headed her direction out of the city. We got to keep Jarod (not his real name), who had been in a building nearby when the towers came down; if the wind had blown a little bit in the other direction, his building would have taken a devastating hit and he was probably on a high enough floor that he wouldn’t have gotten out.

One family has the story of The Falling Man. Many people stuck above the impact spot either fell or jumped rather than wait for the inevitable. Esquire photographer Tom Junod was out on assignment when he heard about the first plane hitting, and he ran over to get photos.

One of the photos wound up being the famous Falling Man photo, a picture of a man mid-fall, inverted (that is, upside down), in an apparently casual pose, waiting for impact. After some reflection, it’s clear to the viewer that this “casual” pose is really just a moment in a fall. It’s not a 100-story swan dive. It’s just the luck of the camera shutter.

We don’t know who the Falling Man is. Several families believe he’s a relative, but the photo is taken from too far away to zoom in enough to get a definitive look at his face. He is all of ours, and he is none of ours. Another story.

Cal Fussman has his own special story from 9/11, one that took 10 years to tell. He wanted to learn about wine, and Esquire gave him the go-ahead to take some classes. He got so into it that he spent a night as the sommelier at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, not long before 9/11. With the story partly written, everything changed, and his story was finally published in the September 2011 issue of the magazine.

A story interrupted, a story created.

***

We learned, in the days and weeks after 9/11, what Americans are made of, what we stand for. We wrote and rewrote our stories, and our myths. But we’ve learned in the ensuing years, as well, what Americans will put up with. Tell your story, tell our story, but stay vigilant.

Luck, coincidence and shooting stars

Luck, coincidence and shooting stars

It’s a common esoteric trope that all the decisions you make, big and small, lead to where you are, and that even one small change could lead to a drastic difference in our lives. Some people call this the sliding doors effect, after a 1998 movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah in which two versions of a life are narrated: one in which Paltrow’s character makes her train, and one in which she misses it.

I saw a shooting star a couple of days ago. Not the one at the top of this post; that’s just something I found on a free photo site to accompany the text here.

It was about 5:20 a.m., and just as I turned onto the street while walking the dog, I saw it streak across the sky, a blue tail, and then it disappeared. It was framed, perfectly centered, between the two houses at the top of cul-de-sac at the end of the street. It was beautiful, and unexpected.

I immediately thought of the sliding doors effect. All the different choices I had made that morning allowed me to see that shooting star. I set my alarm for 5:02 a.m., intending to get to the gym by 6:00 so that I could come home, do a couple of things and get to work on time. But my daughter woke up at 4:55 and needed some snuggles, so I was out of bed just a few minutes before I had planned.

Normally, I wait for the Keurig to warm up and make a cup of coffee with collagen peptides, but I decided on an energy drink instead. I filled two water bottles to make sure they were cold when I got back; typically I would have done that the night before. I woke up the pup, gave her some love and a little stretch time, then clipped on the leash and wandered out the door.

She sniffed around the bushes at the front of the house; we’ve had some cats spending their nights sleeping there — generally it’s safe from predators and we always have plenty of anoles running around for a midnight snack. Then she followed a trail down the lawn, paused by the mailbox to take care of some business, and then we were able to proceed on our walk, turning left just in time to see the shooting star.

How many of those must I have not seen because I made coffee or the pupper sniffed a little longer or I slept until my alarm instead of getting out of bed a few minutes earlier?

***

Shooting stars are, of course, not stars. They are space debris burning up in the atmosphere, leaving a trail of dust that forms a visible contrail. As they’re falling, they’re called meteors. If any of the debris hits the ground, it becomes a meteorite.

In many cultures, shooting stars are a sign of luck, or of impending change. In other cultures, they are bad omens.

Either way, shooting stars are beautiful, but fleeting.

Here’s what was really weird about the morning. I got in the car to go to the gym, and, not enamored with whatever low-energy interview was going on just before 6 a.m. on a Sunday on the last radio station I had been listening to, I switched to the local classic rock station (broadcast locally; I’m sure it’s controlled from elsewhere). What song had just started? “Shooting Star” by Bad Company.

I wouldn’t even have thought to lie about that.

It’s a song about a kid who gets a guitar, becomes a big rock star, then dies in his bed with whiskey and sleeping pills nearby. A shooting star — it puts on a big show for a brief time, then poof!, it’s gone.

***

I’m not much for signs, or omens, or whatever. But I’m into urges. Sometimes they come to encourage us to do something we should be doing. Sometimes they come to encourage us to flex our will power muscles.

The urge that came after I saw that shooting star this morning, was to formulate a little something for the blog. The urge was reinforced by Bad Company.

Perhaps, then, I’ll be back here more often for a while. I need to flex that writing muscle.

what are the things in your life telling you?

Build || Rebuild

Build || Rebuild

Among my favorite stories about Gandhi may or may not be apocryphal, but it goes something like this:

A woman walked many miles for hours with her young son to see Gandhi and ask him to tell her son to stop eating sugar. He told her to come back in two weeks. She did, and upon arriving, asked, “Why did you send us away after we traveled so far?”
 
“I had to stop eating sugar myself,” he told her, “before I could tell your boy to stop eating sugar.”

Take care of your own house, first.

I let the chaos of 2020 get me, these past few months. In September, I was down 20 pounds. I was running double-digit miles. I caught some bug, which turned out not to be COVID. It knocked me out for a few days. While I was out, both races I had been training for were canceled.

I never got back. I sat by and let the year hit me.

As I write this, I’ve just finished a round of antibiotics after a bronchial infection (also not COVID). I put all the weight back on. I feel like garbage. I’m drinking kombucha and eating an Asian pear. I guess those are steps in the right direction.

If you listened to the kicking off 2021 episode of JKWD, you heard me say I’ll post less here, and try to write more elsewhere. I’m doing that, and I’m doing other stuff to build, or rebuild, my own house.

This is not a Baldessarian effort; it’s more of a Gandhi dump the sugar effort. It feels wrong to tell you to dominate your day when I’m barely dominating a few hours of my week, it feels like.

I’ve submitted to a couple of writing contests, got some training programs set up, with accountability partners. JKWD is doing well; if you haven’t listened, please do. We’re having some great guests during the first quarter of the year.

In an effort to give myself some grace and get through 2021 healthy and happy and leading my family to greatness, I’m going to put this here: expect not much in public spaces from me this year. Most of those who know me have my phone number or can connect on WhatsApp; you can also go over to the contact page and fill out the form to be in touch by email.

Be well. Win your day.

CTRL+Z: Biden and Trump in the perspective of bad code

CTRL+Z: Biden and Trump in the perspective of bad code

When you’re iterating software and something goes amiss, you have two options: write a patch or roll it back.

If you patch the code, it’s like putting a bandage on a wound. You take something that didn’t do what you intended it to do, and you put something new you hadn’t intended to create on top of it to attempt to nullify it. It might have not have immediate unintended consequences, but three or four iterations down the road, it’s another piece of code that could get in the way.

It’s a piano top, if you will.

But unlike a wound, you have the option to just simply delete the iteration. Roll it back to what came before it, and try writing something new again.

Before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, I noted the parts of my life that were verifiably less safe under President Donald Trump’s watch than they were before. Those will take a long time to correct, if they ever do in my lifetime. I’m no particular fan of Joe Biden — who’s been running for president since 1988 — but this election seemed to be more a referendum on Trump than on Biden.

Biden isn’t a new iteration to improve on Trump, he’s a roll-back. An undo. A CTRL+Z on the keyboard of the American presidency.

People wanted a new direction, and Trump certainly offered something new. If you remember back to 2016, the Democratic Party establishment wanted Hillary Clinton in so badly that they worked to stop Bernie Sanders from winning the nomination, and there were a lot of people who were in the give-me-Bernie-or-give-me-Trump crowd, so give me Trump it was for them.

When you try something new and you don’t like it, you can either put something else new on top of it and see if you get something else you like, or you can pull back to the last thing that was minimally acceptable, even if it’s not exactly desirable.

If you don’t like your pulled pork with whipped cream, you can either take the whipped cream off it, or you can toss some clam sauce on it and hope it gets better.

In this case, we took the whipped cream off. Biden isn’t something new and improved on Trump. He’s the minimally acceptable previous step.

With the exception of the four years during Trump’s presidency, Biden’s been part of the federal government since 1973. He’s been a part of the system that led us to want something different for almost 50 years.

So what’s next? Sometimes your game needs a sequel instead of an iteration, a full overhaul that keeps the storyline moving forward but is different enough to make you want to play it instead of its predecessor.

Flipping the calendar: Our greatest creations

Flipping the calendar: Our greatest creations

We build our greatest creations to God, or the gods, or whatever it is we worship. From Gobekli Tepe to the pyramids at Giza to Stonehenge to Sagrada Familia and the Sistine Chapel, we build extraordinary monuments, sometimes over the course of generations or even centuries, to what some people dismiss as mere superstition but what some other people are willing to die, or kill, for.

It is said that the Judeo-Christian God created people in His image, so maybe we should consider building some of our great things for us, too.

I don’t know anyone who will be sad to see 2020 go, but if I dig deep enough, I don’t find anyone who isn’t willing to admit that the things that irked us in 2020 won’t still be there in 2021. It’s a matter of flipping the calendar of our own perspective.

Build something great in the new year, and build it to whatever, or whomever, you lost in the old one.

A gratitude for today, and this moment

A gratitude for today, and this moment

There’s a catch-all prayer in Judaism for gratitude. I’ll use my own transliteration here (that is, I’m going to write the Hebrew words using English letters in a rough pronunciation), but the prayer is called the shehechiyanu. The full prayer roughly translates to, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this day.” It goes like this:

Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, shehechiyanu v’kiyamanu v’higiyanu lazman hazeh (hear it here).

It’s said a lot. The beginning of every holiday. When friends gather for the first time. When family gathers for the first time in a while. The first time you perform a commandment in the new year (such as giving to charity or going to synagogue). The first time eating a particular food in the new year.

It’s an eleven-word gratitude practice you can utilize any time you need one. Twenty words if you want to use the English translation I gave.

In case you want to go deeper:

• My Jewish Learning points out the shehechiyanu is a reminder to stay present.

• The Trust Center for Early Education at Temple Ohabei Shalom points out that the shehechiyanu is a good marker for observing otherwise overlooked events in our children’s lives; birthdays, sure, but also physical growth, science projects and recitals.

• Two rabbis at a Texas synagogue give a sermon on shehechiyanu, including the importance of being alive in regard to prayer.

• Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff takes a deep dive on when the oral tradition tells us to recite shehechiyanu — and when not to. Note: Bracha means “prayer” (some translate it as “blessing,” but the context is “a blessing over a meal,” not “the post-op nurse was a blessing”).

• Here’s more deep discussion from Rabbi Avi Zakutinsky.

Incidentally, the way rabbis Kaganoff and Zakutinsky discuss the question of when to say shehechiyanu — with reference to various texts, many of them conflicting — is how Jews discuss matters of faith throughout history. It can be very interesting. One example is the argument several rabbis have in regards to when you can say evening prayers. Some say they should be said after sundown but before midnight. Others say evening prayers can be said after midnight but not after first light. Still others argue that the prayers may be said at any time before someone goes to bed, even if it is before sundown or after first light.

George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation

George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation

I’ve been watching, sporadically, the lessons on Thanksgiving they’re teaching my five-year-old niece over Zoom, since that’s how kindergarten is taught these days.

It is, of course, the child-friendly version, during which British religious refugees pilgrims spend a couple months struggling under harsh conditions to cross the Atlantic in a too-small ship called the Mayflower and land in a strange place and thankfully bump into some very friendly native peoples who welcome the settlers, show them where the fish are and which land is arable and then sit down to a nice meal at harvest time.

In 1621, if you saw an unexpected boat coming, it was probably someone who wanted to steal your stuff. This meal might have happened, but it probably didn’t happen the way it’s taught.

Last year about this time, I wrote a bit about the Thanksgiving origin myth. Really, it’s a gratitude-for-the-harvest holiday, which is something practiced in many traditions.

In 1789, George Washington, early in the first presidency in our nation’s history, declared a day of Thanksgiving for November 26, which happens to be the date the Thanksgiving holiday falls on this year.

It was declared as a day for Americans — a newly minted collective — to thank God for the gift of a new nation. Here is his proclamation, laid down October 3 of that year.

By the President of the United States of America. a Proclamation.
 
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
 
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
 
and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions—to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually—to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed—to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
 
Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
 
Go: Washington

Think about your pumpkin pie a little differently this year.

Banned

Banned

That brief, fairly-well supported (I thought) piece I wrote last week on forming a more perfect union?

Facebook didn’t want it. In fact, Facebook seems to think my blog is simply not OK for their platform. And Instagram (owned by Facebook) seems to not want me at all.

This seems like a win. I mean, yeah, Facebook is a good place to share, since everybody’s there, but I’d really checked out of Facebook for the past six months, and now, other than a couple of groups I’m involved in, I suppose there’s not really a reason to go back.

And I was already finding Instagram sucking up too much time so I’d deleted it from my phone (which made it really hard to post), so I guess that’s no longer a concern.

While I do have something planned in this space next week, you may see a bit of a dropoff. You may not, but I have a couple of other writing projects I’m excited about. Hopefully they’ll see the light of day, but the risk of moving off my own publishing platform is that maybe they won’t. Onward.

In order to form a more perfect union

In order to form a more perfect union

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

I barely remember writing about our divided nation in the wee hours following the election last week, so we’re going to go there. And we’re not going to touch on (or link to) the Barack Obama speech that has been dubbed “A More Perfect Union.”

It comes, of course, from the preamble to the United States Constitution. It describes the very reason for writing the document that sets up the basis for our laws, and allows for amendments: in order to form a more perfect union. That’s one of the reasons America’s founders decided to establish the Constitution — importantly, it’s the first reason listed.

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

It’s why the words we use matter: when we’re gone, we have communicated the words, but not the intent.

A union, by definition, is what you get when you combine two or more things. Unity, on the other hand, is a feeling of harmony or oneness.

We all need a regressive eduction in this topic, I think. Thankfully, the National Endowment for the Humanities offers up a pretty intense curriculum for elementary school students to practice actually forming a more perfect union.

If the genius written into the Constitution is the ability to amend it, understanding that we just can’t predict what the world will be like in the future and we don’t know what we don’t know or what we might have missed (hence the “Bill of Rights” — actually the first 10 amendments, added and ratified because the founders realized they forgot a few things), the genius of its initial creation is the compromise of all the delegates to get it done.

In a two-party system, there’s no requirement to build consensus. Whoever wins gets to make the decisions. It’s why George Washington warned us against political parties. Yes, it’s a faster process when people don’t peacock (if you watched any of the Amy Coney Barrett hearings you know what I mean: 32 hours of speeches and the vote came out exactly as predicted), but maybe when we’re writing the rules and regulations that govern over 350 million people we should spend a lot of time on ironing out the details and not so much time preaching to our respective choirs.

Let’s do better.

United we stand, untied we fall

United we stand, untied we fall

It’s after 4 a.m. here on the east coast of the United States, the morning after the 2020 election.

Lots of local races and ballot questions were decided, most of them important to somebody. Here in Georgia, we had a ballot question about requiring the government to spend money on the things they’re supposed to spend money on. No, really. When the government collects a fee for, say, tire disposal, and the fee sheet says that $1 from the disposal fee will be used on environmental cleanup, there’s nothing actually requiring the government to use that $1 on environmental cleanup.

Our government is full of loopholes.

As of this moment, the Senate is 47-47, Democrats and Republicans. The House is nearly even, and the presidential race stands undecided with millions of uncounted ballots. Some of those are absentee ballots that will be segregated because they’ll be challenged in court. Some of those are absentee ballots that won’t be challenged in court, but it just got late and the states want fresh eyes to go back to counting.

North Carolina is accepting ballots postmarked before election day until late next week.

When all the ballots are counted — or at least when all the ballots that are going to be counted are counted — there will be about a difference of less than two percent. Joe Biden still has an outside shot at 300 electoral votes, but more than likely the difference in the electoral count will be no more than twenty or so.

Neither of the candidates is likely to be a gracious winner or loser, but they’ll express it very differently.

What this election has taught us, maybe even more than the 2016 election, is that there are no consensus candidates. We are divided. Period.

Let’s find a better way.

I’m just going to leave this here.

ArticlesOfUnity.org