"How original," my sarcastic 12-year-old son Zack says, when I tell him that I'm writing about 9/11—and what it means for the kids who grew up in the shadow of that tragedy, the ensuing wars, the fear of terrorism.
I try to explain that sometimes "unoriginal" topics merit examination, forming as they do our shared cultural fabric.
He is skeptical. "Shared cultural fabric," he parrots; he's on a jag against "fancy" language. "If you say so." Still, he agrees to be interviewed on the topic, perching uncommitted on the very edge of the couch where I lie reading my way through "War and Peace," relaxing into my 2011 summer vacation on Peaks Island in Maine.
I put the book face down on my chest, trying to decide if I really want to interview Zack now. It means standing up and walking 10 feet to get my reporter's pad out of my purse. It means concentrating to coax some thoughtful answers out of a recalcitrant teen. It means thinking deeply about 9/11 and the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and violence and human nature—which I'd successfully avoided for some years now.
He sighs back, mocking me.
"Never mind," I say and wave him away, an irritating fly. "Shoo!" I go back to my reading. Tolstoy is telling me a gripping tale of subterfuge surrounding the last will and testament of the old Count Bezuhov, an intrigue among the titled nobility of Moscow (where the children, it appears, are rightly seen but not heard). The World Trade Center attack seems very far away.
But Zack has not moved. He sits watching me read, cataloging my flaws. "You know," he says. "You wouldn't have those wrinkles if you didn't frown so much." He takes his thumb and finger and stretches the skin on my forehead taut, trying to smooth out the two vertical lines between my eyebrows.
"It's not really a frown, it's more like a squint," I say.
"Why are you squinting?"
"I'm reading. It helps me see better."
"Looks like a frown to me." He puts his hands on either temple and pulls my skin smooth. "There! That's better."
"Go away," I say. "I'm reading."
"If I let go, the wrinkles will come back."
"I can live with that."
"Okay." He lets go. "They're back."
I ignore him.
He moves his face closer in toward mine, all the better for microscopic study. "I think it's time for you to dye your hair again." He sweeps my hair back from my forehead to study the graying roots. "Yep. Time to dye."
I don't answer. If I don't encourage him with conversation, maybe he will just go away.
"Actually," he says. "I think you should just let it go all gray."
I give up; I set my book down on my chest. "I don't want it all gray."
"Well, everybody knows you dye it anyway."
"I'm just saying, I think it would look better."
"I'll take it under consideration," I say. "Now would you just go away and let me read? You're being very bothersome."
"I thought you were going to interview me?"
"It was your idea. Fine!" he says, as if I'm a fool for blowing this interview opp when Rachel Maddow sits anxious for his time in the next room.
"Okay." I get up off the couch, peeling my sweaty legs slowly from the leather upholstery, pad barefoot across the cottage's rough wooden floors, and get my reporter's pad from my purse. "Do you remember seeing the World Trade Center tower fall?" I ask, knowing he stood beside me at age 4, bearing witness to the collapse.
"What did you see?"
"It was purdy," he says, to annoy me.
"Well, it was," he says. "All the flames and smoke and then that giant mushroom cloud."
"Oh, maybe I'm thinking of the atom bomb."
The iconic images of destruction have blurred. "Do you remember seeing it, or do you just remember pictures or documentaries that you've seen since?"
"I remember," he insists.
Why do I care about the distinction, I wonder. If the reality of his experience has been replaced by a distancing media image, so much the better. There must be safety in a TV image: This is happening in past tense, somewhere else far away. "Were you scared?" I asked.
"Do you and your friends ever talk about it?"
"All the time."
"Really?" I'm surprised. "In what way?"
"Well, like when one of us is joking around and we're all laughing really hard, one of us will say—" He pauses and sits taller, teacherly, preparing for a scolding—"'That's not funny. People died in 9/11.'"
"Do people stop laughing?"
He shrugs. "For a minute."
"And then what?"
"And then we forget about it and tell another joke. And then we start laughing. And then someone says, 'That's not funny. People died in 9/11.' And we stop."
I look at him, puzzled.
"I'm hungry," he says standing up to end the interview. "You bore me."
My son had been in his New York City kindergarten a short five days when the World Trade Center was attacked.
My husband and I, alerted to the first plane hitting the tower by a phone call from a friend, quickly turned on the TV to discover that in the interim a second plane had hit its twin. As the words "terrorist" and "attack" began to tentatively escape newscaster's mouths, we jumped in the car and raced the few blocks to my son's school. Was he okay? What part of the city would terrorists hit next? Was the plane roaring by overhead a third attack? We snatched him out of his class with a whispered explanation to the shocked teacher. She had heard nothing.
Our friend, Jennifer, who had alerted us to the attacks via phone said to swing by her apartment, which was near the school, and pick her up. As we arrived, she motioned us in. We followed her up onto the roof of her apartment building on Third Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Moments after we clambered onto the roof, she pointed out the smoking World Trade Center visible across the East River. As we caught our breath from the rush up the five flights of stairs, the first tower collapsed into a billowing cloud of ash. I watched, I knew, thousands of people being crushed to death in a collapse that took less than 30 seconds.
I was too surprised to cover my son's eyes.
"So, I'm curious," I say to Zack as I follow him into the kitchen, setting "War and Peace" down on the counter and opening my reporter's pad. "Do you think 9/11 has affected your generation? Made you more violent?"
"Is there any pasta?" Zack answers, opening one cupboard after another.
"Seriously," I say.
"Seriously," he echoes. "Do we have any pasta?"
I take a box of ziti out of the cupboard he has just opened, perused for pasta, and closed. I hand it to him and watch as he fills a pot with water and then puts it on the stove to boil. "People are always violent," he says. He gets the butter and some Kraft Parmesan from the fridge. "Always have been. Always will be." He moves "War and Peace" aside and hits the Parmesan jar on the counter sharply three times to dislodge the last few chunks from the hardened bottom. Bang. Bang. Bang. He is incurious. "We didn't invent war, you know."
I nod; he is right. I scrawl Parmesan on the list on the fridge and sit down on a stool near the counter.
"I don't even know a single person that died in 9/11. Or anyone who has fought in Afghanistan or Iraq, so it can't possibly affect me that much," he says. Then adds: "That's pretty much true of most of my friends, too."
I start to point out that can't be true, since I know several parents of students at his school were killed that day, and I know plenty who've been deployed to the Middle East—but then I realize, as I start to name them, he doesn't know these particular people (old friends, work acquaintances, my grad students, folks I've interviewed over the years). I also realize I am supposed to be interviewing him, not arguing with him; I'm violating my own reporting rules. "So are you saying you and your friends don't really think about 9/11 that much?"
He hitches up the black, white, and red swimsuit that he wears all day every day on Peaks Island as his summer uniform and which constantly slips down his skinny hips because salt water has done a number on the elastic. He puts both hands on the wooden countertop to lean toward my face.
Did he sleep in his swimsuit last night?
"Mom," he says, mustering patience for his obtuse parent. "Just because a person doesn't talk about something doesn't mean they don't think about it. Not everybody is like you and has to blah, blah, blah about everything." He swings my knees aside from where I sit perched on a kitchen stool, so he can reach the cupboard below for a cutting board. He takes a butcher knife and begins to saw off a slice of bread.
"The serrated one will work better," I say, nodding at it, clipped to a magnetic strip on the wall.
He shrugs and continues hacking ruthlessly at the mauled loaf. "This works fine."
"And anyway, my weapons obsession has nothing to do with 9/11. All kids like weapons."
"I didn't even mention your weapons obsession," I protest.
"But you were thinking it."
"I wasn't," I lie.
He sets the knife down on the counter, slathers the slice with butter that sits softening in a saucer in the summer heat, and takes a huge bite.
"Chew with your mouth closed," I say, thinking about the way he combs the second hand stores we regularly visit and, while I search for replacement dishes that match the ones my grandmother left me, he scours the glass cases for new jackknives he can add to his collection. When we go to Chinatown, he drags me to Pearl River and through every rinky-dink stall to see if he can find another decorative samurai sword for under $20. For years, he and his friends would go into the basement and use the handsaw to cut a piece of wood sword-length, cut a shorter piece for the cross-guard, duct-tape the two together, fashion a fancy handle by wrapping some bright blue Guatemalan fabric scraps several times around the tip and happily spend the afternoon fencing. And when he was younger still, 5 or 6, every visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art began with a rush to Arms & Armor wing so he could study the weaponry in great detail before choosing which was going to be his sword. The outing would culminate by genuflecting at the glass display case in the very back of the exhibition containing the pint-sized suit of armor worn by Louis XIV's 5-year-old Spanish grandson, Luis. "This is mine," Zack would say every time, by way of amen.
What about all the hippy-dippy pacifist, we-are-the-world schools we've consciously sent him to over the years? What about all the peace-themed books we read a zillion times—Dr. Seuss' "The Butter Battle Book," Leo Leonni's "Frederick," Maurice Sendak's "Brundibar"? Oh yeah, so we laced them with "Peter Pan," the "BFG," Harry Potter, "The Hunger Games." Still, how did he get so obsessed with weapons? I don't buy the "extra dose of testosterone" explanation. It seems too facile—boys will be boys, etc.—and I find myself instead wondering about our culture. Because this was just the beginning. Coveting little Luis' adorable armor morphed into raging battles with Nerf guns which begat airsoft guns which begat "Counterstrike" which begat Xboxes which begat "Call of Duty." (No matter that he doesn't own a PlayStation or an Xbox—that's what friends are for.) And I'm not arguing that such media and toys normalize violence; I'm wondering what it is that draws my child to such violent toys.
The pot is boiling; Zack tips the box of pasta. "Think about it this way," he says, a parent coaxing a reluctant child to open up, disguising the unsavory medicine in more palatable chocolate syrup. "It's more about power than violence. You know, being powerful. And it's fun to pretend you're someone else." He dumps the ziti into the water and disappears behind a cloud of steam.
After watching the first tower collapse in a cloud of debris, we scrambled back into the car and drove 16 blocks to our house on Brooklyn's 18th Street. Zack chattered and we pretended to listen—"Really?" "That's nice." "And what did you say?"—while the scene we'd witnessed consumed our thoughts, this horror we weren't able to express. As usual, parking was hard to find in the middle of the day, and we ended up with a spot two blocks down from our house. My husband swung Zack onto his shoulders for the uphill walk and immediately, instinctively we looked behind us, detouring slightly onto the adjacent overpass spanning the Prospect Expressway spur to the BQE—a clear line of sight to lower Manhattan. But we could see nothing, only a massive white cloud of smoky dust blowing slowly outward in shifting directions.
Each time my husband turned, compulsively drawn to see the cloud of burning Manhattan, my son turned with him on his shoulders to follow his gaze. No one said anything as we trudged a bit, then turned back to look, trudged a bit further, turned back to look. We were trying not to think about how many people just died in the tower's collapse, how many more lay buried—possibly alive—beneath the burning heap and surrounding buildings, packed wall to shared wall like an interdependent house of cards. We knew nothing—and we were trying hard not to voice the thoughts that were relentlessly streaming in, like the cloud of dust that rolled steadily toward us across the East River, its trajectory unstoppable. We did not yet know that 2,752 people just died, but we felt it in our bones.
We were trying not to say anything in front of Zack. We were trying not to look back, but as with Lot's wife, the impulse was too strong to resist.
We looked again.
That day on Peaks Island, my son calls me on the phone asking me to come over to his friend's house where, after finishing his two bowls of ziti, an apple, a slice of watermelon, some goldfish, a handful of pretzels, two cookies and complaining that we have nothing to eat in the house and could he please have a few bucks to bike down to the ice-cream store, he has spent the afternoon.
"I wanna show you a statue we built," he says.
I hesitate. It is so cool and pleasant, lying here on the couch under the whirling ceiling fan reading—and Andrey Bolkonsky has just ridden into his first battle; I am on tenterhooks. "Must we?"
"Yeah," he says. "Bring the camera. And bring dad. I need you to take a picture of this sculpture we built."
The word change is not accidental. Zack's devious mind is at work: If I call it a sculpture, Mom will be pleased I'm making art.
"Please—" I remind him.
"Please," he concedes.
"Well, lemme finish this chapter," I say.
"Okay, but don't take long. And don't forget, bring Dad. We need his help."
"I'll explain when you get here."
"Oh, all right."
We have been coming to Peaks Island every summer for years and Zack regularly seeks out his old friends each summer when we arrive. He particularly enjoys hanging out with his buddy, Charles.
Charles is a child of the island. A shock of deep red hair and a lanky frame, he lives Zack's fantasy: a huge yard, indulgent parents, a couple of dogs, a clubhouse constructed by his architect dad, kayaks, bikes, and a pond off the side yard that is good for mucking around beaver-watching in summer and for ice-skating in the winter. Best of all, though, is the massive shingled workshop steps away from the house. Because Charles' parents built their lovely seaside house by themselves over the course of seven years, they have accumulated every sort of power tool and building material imaginable. Over time, they have gradually introduced Charles—and Zack, when he is around—to each of their uses. The boys have learned to solder, use a table saw, calibrate an air-compressor, sharpen an ax, sweat copper. This summer, for some reason, Charles' parents have given the 12-year-olds total run of the workshop.
When I pull up in the truck, wheels crunching over the gravel drive alert the boys and they come running out.
"Okay, you gotta film this," they demand as my husband and I climb out of the cab.
"Film what? And 'please,'" I say.
My son declines a "please." Charles offers it. "Please," he says. He holds out his video camera.
I take it and follow the boys to the backyard where they present their "sculpture." They have spent the afternoon in the workshop—and maybe combing the nearby town dump?—constructing a larger-than-life villain. Part scarecrow, part Dada trash-art, he is a solid, looming fellow of 8 feet with a 2 x 4 inch skeleton, a cardboard head topped with a fedora and bearing a leering magic-markered expression, outstretched arms of PCV pipes, and slightly off-balance wooden legs that have him lurching forward, precariously balanced on a ragged plywood pedestal that grandly announces his name in orange spray paint: Lester, the Molester. Lester is dressed to fly under the radar in a flannel shirt and pair of low-riding skater shorts (checked boxers exposed).
On the steps of the nearby clubhouse the boys have carefully lined up an array of newly sharpened weapons: a machete, an ax, a mallet, a scythe, a crowbar, a pair of iron golf clubs. Avengers of evil, the fun is about to begin.
"Okay, now we're going to murder Lester, the Molester," Zack says. "We need you to film this because we're making a movie."
"Please," I remind him, ignoring the more serious lapse in civility.
"Look how sharp all this is," Zack says. He holds aloft the machete, its newly ground tip glinting in the sunlight. "I sharpened them all." And indeed, all but the golf clubs and crowbar bear a ribbon of bright silver along their edges. "Did you bring your camera?"
"Good, because we want stills and video for our movie. We're going to film ourselves destroying him, okay?"
"No trial for Lester, the Molester?" I ask.
Briefest pause. Thumb caressing edge of sharpened ax. "We're vigilantes."
Like porn, I think, plot is an afterthought.
"Ready?" Zack asks.
"Sure." I stoop for a more dramatic upward angle. "Wait!" I say. I am shooting into the sun and will only have their silhouettes. I move around to the other side, trying to position myself where I will get some good close-ups yet remain outside the range of a whirling scythe. The boys are anxious to begin, weapons poised in the air, arguing over who gets the first swing. They compromise: Zack gets the first shot, but Charles gets to go for the molester's crotch.
Within moments, I see why. As Charles brings the ax into contact with the molester's shorts there is a gushing geyser of "blood" as the plastic baggie they have filled with water and red food coloring bursts, spraying onto Charles' face. Zack repeats the scene with the molester's chest. They keep at it, hacking away, one at a time, to dismember Lester, using the brief moments between their respective turns to change weapons, grins of pleasure on their sweating, "bloody" faces. I watch them, fascinated and horrified—and hoping the neighbors aren't seeing this out their windows. Savages. They are savages.
My husband pokes his head out from behind the video camera: "Little Lord-of-the-Flyish."
"You think?" I say, dryly. I have settled back on the grass where I eventually set the camera aside—how many pictures of a boy axing through a man's arm does one need for the family album?—to watch from a safe distance. Days like these, I try very hard not to think about the implications of my kid's behavior.
"You used to be such a sweet little boy," I regularly say to my son when his aggressive tendencies surface.
"I was never sweet," he reminds me.
And it is true—and not true. As a baby, when he was drifting off to sleep, he would pat my cheek with his hand and say, "Mama. Mama." That was sweet.
But that's going pretty far back.
Even as a toddler, his moments of affection were laced with barely contained aggression. At two, he used to pet our dog Scrappy while gritting his teeth in a failed effort to "be gentle" as he pounded her back with all the restraint he could muster—which wasn't much—intoning, "Cappy! Cappy!" A less gentle soul would have taken a few nips at his nose; ever patient, our dog would simply lick Zack's face till he backed off. Even today, when he hugs me, it doesn't seem to count unless he squeezes me with enough vigor to extract a yelp of pain.
Oh, well, I reassure myself now, watching while both boys swing golf clubs at a particularly troublesome elbow joint lying dismembered on the grass, at least this is violence in the name of "art"; the boys are making a movie. Besides, they're vigilantes, not serial killers. I take my comfort where I can, deluding myself in this case by neatly categorizing the act as an "isolated incident" of vengeance.
The next day, Zack and Charles create Lester's protégé, Chester the Molester, and dress him, curiously, in the garb of a Catholic priest—only to deliver him to the same fate.
As we entered our house on 9/11, the phone was ringing. One of my NYU grad students was calling. She apologized. She had been trying to email me her assignment for nearly an hour but her Internet service wasn't working. As she spoke, I heard sirens everywhere. She was in Lower Manhattan, a block north of Canal Street. Something is going on, she told me, she didn't know what. "Maybe a fire?"
She was from the Midwest and had been in New York City for one week. The furor of sirens did not strike her as aberrant. "Do you have any friends in the city?" I demanded. "Any that lives above 14th Street? Go there!" I said. "Go there right now." I caught her before she hung up the phone and reminded her, "Call your parents when you get there."
My husband tried to turn on the TV but the screen was blank. Gray fuzz. When was the TV ever dead?
We turned on the radio and as the frightened voices of reporters began to spill out updates—we learned there may have been another related plane crash—I ushered Zack upstairs for a nap. "Where?" I ask over my shoulder as I climbed.
"Wait, I'm listening," my husband said.
When I got to his bedroom, I smiled at Zack. "What'll I read?" I asked. Oh my god. Oh my god, I thought, trying not to think.
He pulled out a book he brought home from the school library, "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," and handed it to me. "Here," he said, and climbed into his bed.
I sat next to him, read: "We were all sitting around the big kitchen table. It was Saturday morning. Pancake morning. Mom was squeezing oranges for juice. Henry and I were betting on how many pancakes we each could eat. And Grandpa was doing the flipping."
"They hit the Pentagon," my husband said loudly from downstairs.
The children's story went on, the chronicle of a perfectly ordinary day that takes a dark turn when Grandpa starts a tall-tale of disaster that rocks the small town world of Chewandswallow. "The only thing that was really different about Chewandswallow was its weather," Grandpa tells his grandchildren. The sky rained things like soup and juice and snowed mashed potatoes and green peas. "Life for the townspeople was delicious until the weather took a turn for the worse….The food was getting larger and larger, and so were the portions. The people were frightened. Violent storms blew up frequently. Awful things were happening….Many houses had been badly damaged by giant meatballs, stores were boarded up and there was no more school for the children."
"Confirmed," my husband said, craning his neck around the door. "Terrorist attack on the Pentagon."
"What's that?" Zack asked.
"Oh, it's an army building," I said. "Far away."
"No that," he said, pointing to an illustration in the book.
My husband disappeared back downstairs where he could hear the radio.
"Oh, that's a hamburger," I said, studying the disaster picture where one man tries to hoist a giant burger off another man who lies crushed beneath it, where a woman with a stroller before her runs down the street screaming as she is chased by a pair of massive donuts, where a man's head is crushed by a giant ziti—one of hundreds that fall from the sky obliterating the town. I turned the page quickly.
"What's that?" Zack repeated, this time pointing to the open window. Then gleefully answered his own question: "It's snowing!"
The billowing ash from the WTC collapse had reached Brooklyn. Could it be that this snow flurry of white ash that floated across our skies, filtered through our screens and blanketed our yard was part paper stock from the financial district but also part pulverized human flesh coating my roses, my window sill, my coffee pot? "Go to sleep," I said and reached up to shut Zack's window.
On Peaks Island, my husband wants me to go with him for a four-mile hike around the island. My son wants me to go with him to the ice cream store. The dog barks, wanting a walk. I weasel out of all three. As my husband leashes the dog and begins his stroll in the direction of the ice cream store with Zack, a blissful silence falls on the house. I return to my spot on the cool leather couch, sliding back into "War and Peace".
I have never read the book before. From the way people talked about it—I could never get through it, Hemingway once said—I assumed it would be a grind. On the contrary, I tumble into 1810 Russia and can barely crawl my way out. Even the extended battle passages that some readers complain about do not strike me as dull, a fact I file away as significant. Battles = excitement. Tolstoy is so sly and funny and wicked about human nature that I begin to hear him sitting beside me all month: He dishes my friends at dinner parties; grows snarky as he reads The New York Times over my shoulder; wedges himself into bed between my husband and me to dissect our marriage; tilts his head to ponder my son's dismemberment of Chester. It grows dangerous. I fall into this novel and find it difficult to emerge, Moscow more real than Maine. I struggle to ration my reading. I know that I will surface in my real life in a few weeks and regret that I blew my family vacation worrying more about little Petya's war-fever than Zack's.
Today, I vow to spend the afternoon on the beach with my son. I can always read on the beach. For now, I'll just dip into the book for a half hour then I will hop on my bike and catch up with them, enjoy the day, enjoy the island, enjoy this company. Really, I think this—The road to hell…etc., or, Blah, blah, blah, as Zack would say. Then, I stop thinking this.
Because I can't think this.
I am reading.
I go on and on and on. After a few hours I pad into the kitchen and have a lunch of Cheerios, the book propped in front of me, eating spoonfuls, pausing occasionally to consider Prince Andrey's dull domestic life and the distraction war provides, noting—a footnote, really—that three hours is a long time to spend at an ice cream store, and then returning to my lover, Tolstoy, who teases me, seduces me, draws me deeper and deeper into his obsessive quest for answers to life's big questions. Each of his characters in succession grapple with their drives and passions—"Why war?" they ask —but skirt definitive answers. I flip back to the beginning, to a passage I'd underlined. Here, the hero, Prince Andrey, is preparing for battle with Napoleon's forces while discussing the nature of things:
"If every one would only fight for his own convictions, there'd be no war," he said.
"And a very good thing that would be too," said Pierre.
Prince Andrey smiled ironically. "Very likely it would be a good thing, but it will never come to pass…"
"Well, what are you going to the war for?" asked Pierre.
"What for? I don't know. Because I have to. Besides, I'm going…" he stopped. "I'm going because the life I lead here, this life is—not to my taste!"
I set the book down, shocked. Boredom? Soldiers go to war because the life they lead is not to their taste? Because they are bored?
I hear a dog barking and realize she is scratching at the screen to come in. The walk must be over. I remember we are having company for dinner that night and I have not been to the grocery store. My son's friend Charles has a birthday party the next day and we have not gotten him a gift. Did we agree to have cocktails on the backshore with our neighbors? Or was that tomorrow night? If I don't set "War and Peace" aside and attend to my life, the dog will soon claw a hole in the screen door.
On September 12, 2001, I used my press pass to get past the National Guards who were barring folks from Lower Manhattan. A block south of the barricade an EMT sitting on the back of an ambulance, waiting for the survivors who never come, told me I should wear a mask. He handed me a thin, paper mask that I place over my nose and mouth.
Grey dust coated the cars, the buildings, the park benches, the sidewalks, the roads—and the streets were eerie, mostly empty in this hub that would ordinarily require a concentrated maneuvering to navigate the hoards of pedestrians on the sidewalk. The wind huffed, apathetically, but even this was enough to keep the air clouded with ash and to send billows of financial papers down the canyoned streets. One printout, hundreds of pages long and still connected—freakishly—in a continuous sheet swirled beautifully in the high drafts between skyscrapers.
A woman in her 40s came down the sidewalk toward me, carrying a garbage bag over her shoulders. My reporter's pad in my hand, I asked her what was in the garbage bag. "I wanted to get my family's photographs from the apartment," she said. Some of these photos had survived the Civil War—"I have daguerreotypes' here," she explained—and all had been rescued again from the attic during a major flood in Missouri in the '20s. "And some clothes," she said. "I need to go to work tomorrow." She shrugged. "Seems trivial." I put my reporter's pad away in the back pocket of my jeans. These were not the "reaction" quotes the newspaper would be looking for. She looked south toward the devastation and I followed her gaze. The city, the park, looking downtown, resembled an old Alfred Stieglitz photograph, iconic images of New York City blanketed in snow, monochromatic, a ghostly wonderland.
She walked north, I south.
I moved closer to the site of the twin towers, knowing barricades would keep me from Ground Zero itself, knowing some adjacent buildings were still in danger of collapsing, understanding that I would soon be denied further access but marveling that no one stopped me and wondering, since I was collecting no usable quotes, why I proceeded at all. I considered the surface peace, the undercurrent of violence, the reflexive drive for normalcy—"I need to go work tomorrow," the woman said, so matter-of-fact.
Five blocks from Ground Zero sat the smashed and burned hulk of a car. Its color and make were no longer distinguishable, but oddly, its front windshield was still intact. I took out my camera and peered a little closer. Someone had used their finger to scrawl a message in the oily ash that coated the windshield: "Fuck the Arabs."
Not a quote I could use, again. But here on the streets of lower Manhattan I heard it as an echo. The night before, President Bush had addressed the nation: "Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America." Instead of solace for the still-unknown number of dead, he offered revenge: "[We'll] find those responsible and bring them to justice."
Was this a battle cry? Would the U.S. march into a war of revenge? Our buildings had been leveled. Out of the ashes, a message: "Fuck the Arabs."
I turned my back on the car, the peaceful streets so sinister, kept making my way south.
The evening after the savage demise of Lester and Chester, respective Molesters 1 and 2, still on our island vacation, I sit on the back steps of our friend's house nursing a beer and drinking in the peaceful scene that rolls out before me. Evening sea-fog is creeping in, softening all but the foreground: a vivid green lawn and a jungle garden of zucchini, bush beans, tomatoes and Jerusalem artichokes so tall and aggressive that they have been lassoed together with twine, lest they invade the rest of the plot. My dog scratches her ears, thumping her leg on the deck. Crickets whine. A foghorn moans. Zack and Charles sit hunched over a laptop on the deck muttering over the merits of two separate plans for constructing a potato cannon.
My friend, Perry, who has just returned from a family reunion in Tennessee, is telling me about some genealogical work his extended family has been doing. "We've traced the family back to the 1700s," he says. "Three hundred years of dysfunction." Lately, he adds, relatives have unearthed some detailed information about the family's role in the Civil War, a sadly familiar story of brothers divided between Confederate and Union soldiers—and mothers fearful and anxious. "There is this letter," he says, "from 1865 that this mother wrote to her son who was a Union soldier. Makes you think." He doesn't elaborate, raises a glass of wine to his mouth and sips. He stares out at the yard, adjusts his position on the steps so that his worn work boots stretch out straight in front of him, a new piece of foreground jutting into our pastoral scene, and explains that the letter made its way into the public archives via another mother, who in 1943 brought this family heirloom to the offices of the local newspaper because her own son, the great-great grandson of the letter writer, was then serving overseas in World War II.
"Strange," I say, though it is not. A logical sense of continuity here. "Interesting," I correct. My curiosity gets the best of me. "Can I see it?"
"Yeah," he says. He goes inside the house to hunt for a copy of it.
I sit tight. The foghorn on the other side of the island continues to blow its rhythmic warning. The road beyond Perry's gate is now visible. A mother goes by pushing her baby in a jogger stroller. A chicken pecks at the ground across the street. The dog, Mandy, raises her head, looks, sniffs the air, vigilant for danger—or prey. A pear falls from the tree onto the wooden steps beside us with a thump.
"Here," Perry says, returning. I take the letter and begin to read:
Hawkins County, Tennessee, March 18th, 1865.
Dear Son: I seat myself this evening to drop you a few lines to inform you that your kind letter came to us the 15th of March, dated 2nd of February, which found us in the enjoyment of good health. We was exceedingly glad to learn that you was well with the exception of your wound and it was still mending. You would like to know how we are getting along? We are doing as well as could be expected….Times is tolerably calm here now; all the boys is at home that don't belong to the army."
I ask Perry who "the boys" are and he explains the family had five sons.
The letter meanders a bit through some local news, who bought the Isaac White place, who moved to the Creech farm, how Thomas is "near as large as you are" and then shifts: "Write as soon as you get this and tell how you come to get wounded and also I want you to be a good boy and make that necessary preparation for death and great Eternity. Remember we are all passing away…death is thick throughout all the land and rides on every breeze and if you die unprepared you must go down to the dark regions of eternal misery and undone, for evermore."
The mother's language, a poetic mix of high and low registers, settles around us as dark falls, a mantle of history that weighs heavy as night fog, World War II, Civil War, Napoleonic War, "War and Peace". Neither of us speaks for a few moments and then I wonder, "What happened?"
In fact, Perry tells me, this particular son survived the war, but the woman's four other boys perished in it. Her husband would go on to hang himself—in sorrow, folks speculated—but the mother would trudge on, presumably "as well as could be expected."
Another rotting pear thumps out of the tree onto the deck and the dog jerks out of her reverie, danger, and captures it in her mouth, sinks her teeth into its flesh.
"Are you still reading that book?" Zack demands a few days later, plopping down in the hammock near my feet and nearly upending it.
"It's long!" I say. He scooches closer, his wet swimsuit a shock of cold on my thigh.
"Not as long as 'Harry Potter.'"
"Oh, please, this is much longer than any of them." I flip the book to its ending. "1,386 pages."
"Well, 'Harry Potter' is longer, at least the seventh one is, and I read it much faster."
"Did you have a job?" I ask. "A nagging 12-year-old who interrupts you all the time?" I add: "Incidentally, none of the 'Potters' are more than 1000 pages."
"The seventh one is!"
"Five bucks says it isn't." I put my hand out for a shake.
He declines. "I don't wanna shake."
"Because you know you're wrong."
"Because I don't wanna take your last five bucks."
"Actually, this book is kind of like all seven Harry Potters folded into one giant one," I tell him.
Harry Potter is Zack's best friend. He lives with us in our Baltimore guest room as a kind of exchange student from the magical world. We know everything about him, how he thinks, feels, behaves—and why. WWJD morphs into What would Potter do? in our house with Potter as the benchmark, a reluctant hero against whom all decisions are compared. "The protagonist Prince Andrey reminds me of Potter."
"I haven't finished yet," I say, "but so far I see a lot of similarities."
"Yeah?" He's skeptical.
"They're both bored with their lives. Harry hates living in suburbia with his muggle relatives. Prince Andrey hates living Moscow with his socialite relatives. Andrey goes to war with Napoleon and the French. Potter goes to war with Voldemort and the Death-Eaters. They're both tortured by all these big moral questions."
He picks up "War and Peace" and rifles through it. The print is small and the book is hefty. He tosses it back up onto my stomach. "You lost my page," I complain.
"You bore me," he says and stands up abruptly. The hammock careens wildly, the impression from the weight of his person in the woven rope lingers for a moment and then, the ropes tightening with each swing, disappears.
I resume reading and—Zack is right—frowning. I suppose I picked up the book for assurance, the same reason people have always read, to affirm—Others have felt as I do; I am not a freak—but also for answers. Nine years after 9/11, I find myself still questioning the inevitability of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and as my son moves into his teenage years, I worry about war's draw for youth like himself, curious about enlistment, combat. I comb "War and Peace" for insights trying to believe that old trope, if we study our history well enough (even war in fictional form), we won't be condemned to repeat it. And yet, Tolstoy's novel turns out to be one grand repudiation of this theme. He takes me through the blow-by-blow of the Napoleonic wars and does little but confirm my worst suspicions: History will repeat itself; war is inevitable; boys shall be drawn to it; parents resist; sons die; families mourn.
The Countess Rostov reluctantly watches her oldest son join the military, but resists mightily years later when her youngest son, Petya, announces his similar intent—and enlists:
"The countess could not sleep nights, and when she did sleep, she dreamed that her sons had been killed."
This was not a feeling shared by Petya, who comes back to Moscow on leave, just as the city is about to be invaded by Napoleon. Petya and his sister, Natasha, feel alive. Tolstoy writes, "And above all, they were both gay, because there was a war at the very gates of Moscow, because there would be fighting at the barriers, because arms were being given out, and everybody was rushing about, and altogether something extraordinary was happening, which is always inspiriting, especially for the young."
I re-read the passage. It is deeply troubling. Yet my lover Tolstoy seduced me two-weeks-and-900-pages ago with his wickedly accurate assessments of Moscow's high society and keen eye for what motivates us humans. I don't suppose I get to discount this one because it sounds so awful—again, in a way, war as drama, flight from boredom? I want Tolstoy to throw me a bone that allows me to believe in the possibility of a moral, peaceful world if we will only study our behavior carefully. He undercuts me at every turn: What does he have to say but, Silly humans who remain consumed by the mini-dramas of their daily lives while war on the global stage rages? (And he is right; how can I, in good conscience, fret about where my son's violent tendency will take him when all over the Middle East such violence is not speculative but a brutal daily reality?) Clearly Tolstoy is the wrong one to climb into bed with under these circumstances. I miscalculated. I took a wrong turn and strayed into dangerous territory. I thought reading "War and Peace" would lift me out of the confusion with insight and hope. It was rife with the former, lacking in the latter. First of all, Tolstoy is fatalist. And secondly, he pointed out that I fall right into an unremarkable pattern. I'm a stock character, the Mom-Who-Worries-About-War. I march lock step with the Countess Rostov—and this is not a savvy protagonist who, by anticipating the worst, averts it. Rostov, who fights mightily to keep her soldier sons from danger ultimately proves unable to prevent the excitement of battle from luring her youngest to his death. I keep returning in my mind to the passage where she and the rest of the residents of Moscow are weighing whether or not to flee as Napoleon's troops march on the city, thinking about how some residents froze in the face of this, finding it "difficult to remember the days of patriotic fervour and enthusiasm, and hard to believe Russia was actually in danger" of the encroaching battle. Tolstoy wrote:
At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal force in the heart of man: one very reasonably tells the man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of avoiding it; the other even more reasonably says that it is too painful and harassing to think of the danger, since it is not in a man's power to provide for everything and escape from the general march of events; and that it is therefore better to turn aside from the painful subject till it has come, and to think of what is pleasant.
I set the book down on my stomach. I stare up at the pear tree, its branches gnarled, its fruit mottled with some disease, its form misshapen by the wind, and try to erase the images of Lower Manhattan that I saw on the heels of the terrorists' attack—and I understand the impulse to "turn aside."
Still well north of the World Trade Center on September 12, I turned off Broadway and began to weave my way downtown via smaller streets. Only three blocks from the barricades that surround the World Trade Center disaster site, thousands of financial documents blew lazily down the ash- and rubble-strewn streets, tumbleweed in a bad western. In the midst of this, a pair of Sanitation Workers methodically, ironically, made their rounds, dumping the mostly empty wire trash cans that sat on each street corner.
It made no sense, what I saw all around me. Nothing made any sense. I traveled through a ghostly gray dreamscape that bore the faint outlines of some alien, dystopian New York City, recognizable in form but not content. What street in New York at any time of day had ever been unpeopled? I looked hard and approached a few of the lone pedestrians I finally found picking their way along the streets, interviewed some first-responders, collected some quotes—none of them very good; few of them usable—and realized, what was there to say? It was really about the images, seared in my brain, what I had seen (a massive skyscraper of metal and concrete and glass crumbling to dust in less than a minute with thousands inside) and could not see (those on the upper floors who recognized they were trapped, those on the lower floors who scrambled to escape and weighed how much help to give those alongside them), how my imagination insisted on filling in the blanks and demanded that I answer the question, what would I do?
I turned away from Ground Zero and began to trudge back uptown. Several blocks north two elderly couples sat in the deserted courtyard of their senior housing project. No one but press were allowed into this southern tip of Manhattan, but these four older New Yorkers didn't have to get past the multiple barricades staffed by cops and the National Guard; they had never left. In the eerie silence, the two men and two women had casually parked themselves around a card table. They were playing gin rummy, blue dust masks on each face.
Sometimes when I am composing an essay, two or three seemingly distinct ideas present themselves for examination; I see no link but have learned to respect their nudging insistence on pairing. Eventually, the connection makes itself known to me. Often, this happens when I am just waking from sleep, semi-conscious, my mind a murky pool where, like two pebbles tossed into the water, they send their rings outward till they overlap in a rippling Venn diagram.
And sometimes not.
Sometimes I am just stuck. Sometimes, deep in my primitive cortex, the ideas just keep chasing each other in circles—9/11, war, violence, power, loss. And in my semi-conscious sleep state, as I lounge in the hammock on Peaks Island in the summer of 2011, I see this mismatched cast of characters rove the ruins of a deserted Ground Zero, coated in ashy dust, seeking something they have lost: Prince Andrey and Harry Potter, Lester and Chester, Zack and Petya, the Civil War mother from Tennessee and the Countess Rostov. None of them know each other and yet they each seems to recognize something of themselves in the others and I watch them from afar, wandering through the devastated landscape with my reporter's pad in hand, looking for signs and shadowing this disparate crowd as they mingle, wondering if they might piece together a coherent answer to the whys of war and violence, what I might gain from eavesdropping.
And then I wake up. "What the hell?" I rub the tender dip of my stomach just inside the hipbone. A rotting pear has fallen on me, bombing me right where I think my kidney or liver lies beneath the surface of my flesh as I dozed on the hammock. And I was so close to solving all the world's problems in my dream. I roll to the right and push the rotting fruit off my stomach, squishing the pulpy remains through the rope of the hammock.
I pick up "War and Peace" from where it snuggled in the crook of my armpit, and begin to read again. I am cruising past the thousand-page marker, still marveling at Tolstoy's ranging and discursive storytelling style when he goes off on his most interesting tangent yet, the mini-drama of Pierre's friend Platon Karataev—which seems like the heart of the novel. But to tell Karataev's tale and its connection to my own, I'm forced to echo Tolstoy's tangent. I must detour past a hedgehog and a fox.
Some years ago I read the famous 1953 essay by Isaiah Berlin called "The Hedgehog and the Fox." Today, as I sit reading "War and Peace," my thoughts keep returning to that essay. Because I couldn't remember exactly what Berlin said about Tolstoy in this piece, yesterday, I walked the two miles to the little library on the island to find the essay. Of course, the one-room library had a limited selection; no Berlin. I walked the two miles back home and mentioned my fruitless quest. "I've got it on my laptop," my husband said. He printed it out for me.
In this essay, which I promptly sat down to re-read, Berlin, for the sake of argument, divides all the world's great "writers and thinkers, and, it may be human beings in general" into two opposing categories, wide-ranging foxes or homebody hedgehogs. Riffing on a line from the Greek poet Archilochus which says "The Fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing" Berlin argues that that a "great chasm exists" between those who "relate everything to a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral aesthetic principal." Folks are either centrifugal or centripetal, he insists. Dante, Dosteyvesky, Plato, Hegel, Ibsen and Proust were hedgehogs, Berlin says, while Shakespeare, Pushkin, Aristotle, Montaigne, Moliere, Balzac and Joyce were foxes. "But when we come to Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, and ask this of him—ask whether he belongs to the first category or the second, whether he is a monist or a pluralist, whether his vision is of one or of many, whether he is of a single substance or compounded of heterogeneous elements—there is no clear or immediate answer," Berlin writes. "The hypothesis I wish to offer is that Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog; that his gifts and achievements are one thing, and his beliefs, and consequently his interpretation of his own achievement, another…"
It is true, I realize. "War and Peace," in its very structure, reflects Tolstoy's struggle with these two ideas. Tolstoy divides the novel into two separate tracts. Some passages chronicle in great detail the Napoleonic War battles, down to explaining how this or that flank cut off the enemy in this or that bog and how this or that soldier managed to guard this or that hill or cannon or supply wagon. And then there is story of our protagonists, the Rostovs, Pierre, Andrey, and Marya who live through this period in Russian history from 1805 to 1812. These two separate story lines connect and overlap and in many ways mirror the way we live our lives—buffeted by the forces of history but also consumed with the mini-dramas that so powerfully affect our daily experience—but Tolstoy struggles mightily to keep them apart and to see the forces of history as divorced from individual motives; he sees people as victims of history but not shapers of history. (A very Russian fatalism, he acknowledges himself at one point.)
According to Berlin, Tolstoy was obsessed with history and in writing "War and Peace" he was responding to many thinkers in his day who argued that history was a science. Ideally, by studying and understanding history, one could begin to quantify it and spell out a set of rules which could be used predictively—to prevent such things as brutal power grabs and wars in the future. That was the thinking at the time that Tolstoy was writing "War and Peace" (based on Hegel, Marx, etc.). Tolstoy pored over the history books but he could not make the theories work persuasively. It did not mesh with his experience of how folks operate; man's fickle nature could not be reduced to a science; unaccountably, free will would always rear its head to subvert a pattern.
This is the problem Tolstoy grappled with in "War and Peace".
For his part, Berlin put Tolstoy's internal debate into the larger social context of the period, explaining that he marched lockstep with some of his compatriots in their struggle to answer the accursed questions. This, Berlin explains, was "a phrase which became a cliché in nineteenth-century Russia for those central moral and social issues of which every honest man, in particular every writer, must sooner or later become aware, and then be faced with the choice of either entering the struggle or turning his back upon his fellow men, conscious of his responsibility for what he was doing." Berlin notes that Tolstoy struggled mightily to answer the accursed questions with the study of history, writing:
[H]istory, consequently, could throw light on the fundamental ethical problems which obsessed him as they did every Russian thinker in the nineteenth century. What is to be done? How should one live? Why are we here? What must we be and do? The study of historical connections and the demand for empirical answers to these proklyatye voprosy [accursed questions] became fused into one in Tolstoy's mind, as his early diaries and letters show very vividly.
Tolstoy wanted to believe he could find an explanation for life in the careful scientific study of history, but the reality of his experience—what he knew about human nature, decision-making, love, spirituality, man's allegiances, affections, and free will—kept tripping him up. The pattern had this random element that one could not reliably anticipate.
Berlin's essay is in my head, rambling around when I think of Tolstoy's similar effort to make "War and Peace" fit a proper pattern—how he carefully mapped out a structure for a philosophical and rigorously intellectual exploration of the Napoleonic War, which he regularly undercut with his "randomly motivated" protagonists—but his profound curiosity about human nature and his profound skill as an artist foiled even this strict plan. Tolstoy regularly gets distracted by random characters who grow so charming beneath his pen that they elbow their way into bigger role, stretching and expanding and undercutting his mission at every turn.
"What are you doing?" Zack demands, plopping down beside me on the couch with a bowl of popcorn he has just zapped in the microwave for his after-school snack. We are back home after our Peaks Island vacation, summer has ended, September is rolling in, I am no closer to answers about war and violence than I was a month ago when I opened "War and Peace" and began reading.
"Working," I say. "Don't sit so close to me," I wave him further down the couch. "That popcorn smells too good."
He encircles the plastic bowl with both arms—Gollum guarding Precious—and slides down a bit, swinging his feet, clad in filthy shoes, up on our couch.
I swat his feet off and scowl at him.
He kicks his shoes off, replants his feet, worming them under my butt for warmth. There is a chill hint of fall in the air.
"Can I use the laptop? I was in the middle of a book-on-tape," he says, referring to the audio book he had downloaded onto my desktop before I went out of town on a business trip. "I was vexed when you took it for three days."
"Vexed?" I laugh. "Fancy language."
He looks a little sheepish, I, a little triumphant; if "fancy" vocabulary lies dormant in his psyche, bubbling up unbidden, maybe the ethics and values I've been hammering away at will similarly surface with age?
My triumph is short lived.
When I refuse to hand over the computer, he reaches behind the couch to his stash of nerf guns and begins firing, pinging the back of the laptop with a rain of sponge bullets.
"Stop," I say. I give him the evil eye. "I'm trying to work."
"What are you working on?" he demands.
"The essay about 9/11 that I told you about."
"You're still working on that?"
"You're the slowest writer in the world."
He has a point.
"I mean, you should have written that in like—" He flips through his mental timeline of dates to isolate the year of the attacks as 2001. "In 2002, not eight years later."
"Nine," I correct.
"Whatever," he says. "No one cares anymore, you know."
"You think that's true?" I say. "People died in 9/11."
He is silent as it slowly dawns on him that I'm repeating his line. That's not funny, people died in 9/11. Then he says, "They jumped out of windows, you know."
"I don't think I would jump," he says, and I can see that he is imagining the scenario, wondering what he would do under those circumstances.
"What would you do?"
He doesn't answer, thinking. Accursed questions. He beans two pieces of popcorn right at my chest, not vindictively but in an absent-minded way, as if my sternum were a bull's-eye.
"Well?" I prompt, popping them in my mouth.
"Well, what?" he says.
"What would you do?"
He slips out of his reverie. "You bore me," he says and stands up to leave, but not before throwing a third piece of popcorn at me. This one hits my shoulder and ricochets off onto the floor. The dog, napping at my feet, lunges—and it is gone. Just like that.
This essay, written in 2011, is part of a forthcoming book, "Reading, Interrupted: Reflections on Parenting."