The empty space I found in New York

A week has passed since I left New York City after making what I once considered to be a pilgrimage to the site of the World Trade Center.

On the other side of my intial, more cynical reactions, I’ve come back to the experience with a much deeper sense of ambivalence and confusion.

Comments from best friend and fellow Midwesterner Nick Hurwitch had me questioning how I felt about the events and about my visit to the site. I’ve had to ask myself, what did I expect from it? People crying in the streets? After all, eight years has passed.

Even so, for something that has bothered me so deeply and for something that I’ve envisioned for at least a year, the trip was nothing like I expected. Regardless of the reactions of other people at the site (I guess I expected something just a little reverent), there was nothing about the WTC site that gave me the closure or answers that I had hoped to find.

I’m left wondering what I should feel about the whole situation. Part of the trip was to takee a city that was, for all intents and purposes, fictional, and make it real for me. That, in turn, was to make the entire 9/11 event become real for me.

My problem has always been one of distance, metaphorical and physical. From my vantage as a Michigan teenager going through high school, New York was a shining city that existed in film. Nothing like that place exists in our state, and I never even made it to Chicago until I was in college. Until recently, I’d never seen a place like New York outside of a screen or a photo of some kind.

So how was I to feel about a national tragedy? I’ve never even felt very connected to the United States as a nation. The U.S. you see on TV (and therefore, extrapolate as the experience of other Americans in the American places that matter) is not the one you experience in the Detroit suburbs.

The Midwestern U.S. is far more muted.

Reading about and seeing depictions of Americans lining up to fight for their country after Pearl Harbor had particular resonance. When there was an attack on our country, ALL Americans felt attacked.

I didn’t feel attacked on 9/11. I still feel an isolation in this state, which is ass-backwards in as many ways as possible. Our largest city is so corrupt, government officials are stealing from their own children. We’re losing people and jobs so fast there might not be much more than a sinkhole where Michigan is now in 10 years.

How am I supposed to feel about two planes being crashed into the World Trade Center?

It’s a question I’m only beginning to answer, and I didn’t find that answer at the site of the tragedy. What I’m feeling now is confusion because if that answer wasn’t there, where the hell is it?

I hurt for the people who died, but do I feel community with them? No.

More than anything, what I’ve experienced in regards to the national tragedy is seeing identification in others. A feeling of belonging. A feeling of camaraderie. A feeling of community. A feeling of needing to reach out to help those among them who have been hurt.

There’s identity in that.

What identity do I have?

The trip to the WTC site was a search for a mirror that I thought would help reflect back at me a greater understanding of what it means to be an American. But that mirror doesn’t exist.

I’m still wondering what my reflection looks like.

Impressions of a Tragedy

The subway goes to the World Trade Center site again. For a while, it was closed.

We emerged from the station into the bright sunlight, like rats into a tight maze. To the right were the collossal buildings of New York City, static and strong despite their location. To our left was a bright blue fence, stretching eight feet high, covered in big photos at intervals of the spectacle that will one day be constructed on the site of the destroyed World Trade Center.

The entire corridor, which is what is created, was packed to the brim with people. Foot traffic flowed quickly, but it was tight and claustrophobic.

The sun was bright and hot because there was nothing to block it.

I was struck most by the disorganized chaos. We were quite literally walled off from the construction site of the Freedom Towers, and by extension, from the tragedy.

People bustled through, most totally untouched by their proximity to the site.

I, however, felt stained by it. I’d never seen the World Trade Center in person, but I felt the temporal shadow of those buildings and what happened stretching out over me. Others just hurried on about their business.

We walked the perimeter of the site, but there was no seeing in from street level. I felt a mix of disappointment and a dull, throbbing sort of anger. I couldn’t even see into the site. I didn’t see mourners or people even thinking twice about what they were walking past.

Finally we found an information kiosk that pointed the way toward the Tribute WTC Visitor Center. Pushed along by the river of indifferent humanity, we passed a man handing out photocopied maps that he’d highlighted.

“It’s history, it shouldn’t be a mystery,” the man shouted into the crowd. “Do you know what you’re looking at?”

That’s a good question, I thought, as the man was chided by people who must have regularly walked by. The only person I would encounter in New York who seemed at all passionate about the event, and he was treated like a joke.

We continued along the outside of the site, always accompanied by the blue fence. I stopped and studied some of the artists’ renderings of the Freedom Towers. Of course, these renderings included all the retail opportunities that would be present in these new, improved towers. Shops like Bulgari were included in the drawing. Quite a tribute.

But it wasn’t as disgusting as the street vendors who wheeled out coolers filled with water bottles available for a premium, or large piles of “tribute photos” of the World Trade Center. You can’t spell Capitalism with capitalize, I thought bitterly.

We passed the Visitor Center and pushed past to where one wall of a fire house had a large bronze wall plaque commemorating the rescue workers who died in the towers. A few people gathered around and snapped photos. But not many. A few other people hurried by, walking through photos without realizing or without caring, and without even glancing over.

A few moments later, we headed back to the Visitor Center. I flashed my student I.D. to get half off our tickets, despite no longer being a student of anything. I felt cynical and dishonest. I saved ten dollars.

We entered the gallery, which had a few too many people in it and seemed a little small compared to the size of the event. Caitlin and I walked along slowly, reading quotes on columns that made up a timeline of events stretching from the first attack on the Trade Center in 1993 to the aftermath of the event.

On the wall beside us were copies of various missing posters that had been found around the city during the tragedy. As we moved across the timeline, the fliers became thicker and closer together, until they papered the entire wall. We moved past a twisted steel girder and into a room where two entire walls were covered in photos and personal items from victims of the tragedy.

Caitlin started to cry. I held my composure, but only just barely.

We continued down a flight of stairs into the Visitor Center’s basement, past several thousand origami cranes, to a room that contained hundreds of fliers filled out by international visitors, detailing their feelings about the tragedy. Beyond that was more information about the Freedom Towers. And then we were back upstairs, passing the “gift shop,” which was sad first because it existed at all, and second because it was both pathetic and miniscule.

I pushed my way out of the building, Caitlin close behind. Clouds were rolling in over the WTC site. We dropped back into the flow along the sidewalk, passing the street vendors at a fast pace.

“What are you thinking?” Caitlin asked as we headed away.

I didn’t know what to tell her.

We stopped on a elevated walkway where, for the first time, there was glass between us and the construction site. Caitlin told me about the disrespect she felt she was seeing as the rubble had been swept up and placed off to the side, as she put it.

I didn’t know what I felt. I still don’t.

I held onto her for a long time and didn’t say anything. There was no closure here. There was no reconciling tragedy or paying respects to the dead. There was a tiny apartment that served as a museum and memorial, at ten dollars a ticket.

There was bustling by and pretending it never happened. There was building over top of a tragedy. Maybe that was the only way this city could have moved on.

For me, it feels like covering an amputated limb with a band-aid.

I’m more confused and disconnected now than ever.

Research trip: NYC

Halfway to New York, and I’m in the car working and now blogging. As I’m nearly to my destination and the purpose of this trip is directly related to my future as a writer and novelist, I feel like I should explain the trip’s significance.

I’ve already spoken about the trip’s conception, in a vague way. Allow me now to give that situation context.

I started about a year ago working on a series of short stories that eventually will compose a novel. The working title for the whole project is “Millennium Men.” It concerns a number of topics of great interest to me, and many feelings and conceptions about growing up as an American Midwesterner man at the turn of the century that I hold close to my heart.

The largest and most important of these is the effect of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, on me as a resident of Michigan, as an American, and as a young adult at the time. Ever since the tenth grade, when I sat in physics class, watching the event unfold on the class room TV, I’ve felt this sort of strange dichotomy about 9/11.

On the one hand, I feel a great deal about the national tragedy. In a very real sense, it’s still a fresh wound for me. But on a personal, individual-people-who-died-in-the-buildings sort of way. And NOT on a larger, I’m-an-American-and-we-all-grieve-together scale. I’ve never felt “connected” to the tragedy.

In “Millennium Men,” the climax of the story, and the experience of the main characters, has to do with coming of age in a climate where everyone is shaped by a series of events to which the characters feel no strong connections. They (and I) are actually shaped more by the ABSENCE of connection — to the tragedy, to the country, and to each other.

The characters in the novel travel to NYC to deal with how they feel about being American men, and their time at the WTC site is a key moment to the story I want to tell.

So I have to experience that myself, and get my own head on straight about the tragedy, before I can write about it.

That’s tomorrow. I honestly don’t know what to expect.

One of those existential moments, but also involving ‘Star Wars’

A ludicrous Twitter exchange involving my sister and one of her best friends threw into sharp relief how ridiculous my life is.

For the better part of an hour, we jokingly discussed starting a 1950s-style leather jacket-wearing gang not unlike what you’ve seen in “West Side Story.” After discussing possible names (involving crushing, skulls, lasers, souls, and being old and obsolete), we started to talk about being in the gang, where we’d have our clubhouse, training ourselves for extensive snapping, etc.

The entire discussion included no fewer than:
19 references to “Star Wars”
2 references to “The Venture Bros.”
1 reference to “West Side Story”
1 reference to “Star Trek”
2 references to Oprah
2 references to Dr. Phil
2 references to the Jonas Bros.

This while the laptop sat on my lap and I played the new “Ghostbusters” video game. On a Saturday night. Alone.

What’s insane is not that I was freakin’ great at the game of making totally obscure “Star Wars” references during this conversation (and I am); what’s insane is that I remember so much from movies and, often, large portions of my own life are a little hazy.

For example, I was trying to think back on my childhood the other day, specifically the areas of right around fourth and fifth grade. I can’t remember much of anything from those years, except that I was, in a vague way, unhappy. Picked on, probably.

But I can recite most every line from “A New Hope” in succession with a high degree of accuracy. I could act that entire movie out with improvised sets and costumes if I wanted, on very short notice, by myself.

That’s sad in a lot of ways. How is it that “Star Wars” had a greater effect on me than fourth grade?

It’s not like I’m ashamed of my intense nerdiness. “Star Wars” is a morality tale of our time. It’s a quintessential battle between good and evil. Aspiring to be like heroes from movies isn’t a bad thing, I think, especially when it was experiences like laying on the living room floor, chin on hands, watching “The Empire Strikes Back” with Dad that shaped me into the man I am today. I want to be a writer because of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and Stephen King and George Lucas and Michael Crichton and Chuck Palahniuk and Philip K. Dick. I want to make movies because of Alan Grant and Ian Malcolm and Johnny Five and Rick Deckard and Arnold Schwartzeneggar and Ellen Ripley and George Romero.

But it is a little ri-goddamn-diculous.

I write this post as I dig away at a new zombie story for the “Wrath of the Damned” blog. There’s another ridiculous nerd outlet. And what I do remember of school included a lot of being made fun of (like when I wore this Vader t-shirt mocking an old Uncle Sam poster that said “I want you! For the Galactic Empire.” And douches were like, “you want me?” “No, Darth Vader wants you — to die!” Should have said that). Specifically for things that I liked and was passionate about.

Guess my point is this: The things we like, the things we make, have the potential to be huge. I don’t think I’d be the same person I am today if Indiana Jones didn’t exist. I’m almost positive I’ve never had an impact like that on a person.

And I can count on one hand the people who have had as much an impact on me as Luke Skywalker.

Makes you (or me) think about to what exactly your life amounts. And your work. I wonder if anyone I know would count me on the same hand as Luke Skywalker. Or hell, even Flash Gordon. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Timon and Pumba.

And on a similar note, I guess I need to get writing, because I know exactly where the bar is set.

Iran, the Internet, politics

Two blogs in one night. I’m talkin’ crazy.

The media is all ablaze over Iran, it’s government-imposed social networking blackout, and that whole “twitter’s still free” thing.

Last night at around 2 a.m., I tried reading some of those #IranElection posts on Twitter. And like everything that comes over Twitter, it was an unmitigated flood of idiocy, repetitions of idiocy, and half-information.

Just a day after talking about the interesting opportunities a service like Twitter offers in the realm of creativity, I’m going to go ahead and chastise it for contributing as much to being stupid as it does to being smart.

I bring up this IranElection/Twitter nonsense because tonight I saw various retweets of people encouraging me to “Support the Iranian Election” by laying a green tint on my Twitter avatar user icon thing.

What a ridiculous waste of time. What a joke of an effort. What a trivialization of what a symbol stands for when the people who are using that symbol are being persecuted or worse.

Meanwhile, we (and by “we” I mean “we jackass Internet-soaked westerners, and specifically my early-20s generation”) are “showing our support” by turning our pictures green on fucking Twitter? Honestly?

And my generation might be the dumbest ever. We’ve found a way to take a spectacular tool for organizing passionate people with like views on important issues (the Interweb) and render it nothing more than an instrument to masturbate our own egos by pretending we give a shit and pretending we’re doing something to help. Assauge your do-nothing guilt and stoke your inflated sense of self-importance while staying firmly planted on your ass — click here.

In college I did a project studying the apparent political apathy of the student generation. I also wrote a few stories on it for Central Michigan Life based on a big survey I conducted and some research into the archives of that newspaper. What struck me at the time, and what I learned from the project, is that most people in the Millenial Generation are turned off to grand-scale politics (I’d hazard a guess and say our disillusioned, post-60s parents never taught us to care) and instead choose to volunteer on a local level, where we can actually see a change. That’s great, except politics in this country are totally screwy and none of us seems to want to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, something like Twitter actually makes a difference for some people, so we go ahead and spam it full of idiotic b.s. Then we pretend we’re helping when really, we’ve just found a really really big water cooler to shoot the shit around.

Take note: If you don’t have shit to say about the #IranElection that will actually help people to understand it or help the people on the ground, please stop typing. And if you think turning your buddy icon green makes you an activist, or even shows “support for democracy,” you’re fucking deranged. People are getting shot for what they believe in. You’re on your goddamn laptop.

You support democracy by standing up and marching. Activism is protest. Letter-writing. Appealing to elected officials. It requires actual action. It does not include signing of virtual petitions or the online equivalent of coloring in a picture with a crayon. If you were in a position of power and you saw a bunch of green Twitter photos, or were sent a virtual petition, would you for a second take it seriously?

I’d laugh.

Sigh. End rant.

Caitlin M. Foyt, muse

All kinds of inspired the last two days. This very much the fault of one Caitlin M. Foyt, whose excitement to create is contagious. So I started a new zombie story in one document window, another houses half a story I’m working on for a separate short-story compilation project (called “Millennium Men,” and we’ll get to it later), and I’m interrupting both those projects to post here only one day removed from my last post. That sort of regularity is a little bit unheard of.

Chiefly what’s driving me is a rash of interesting new perspectives, most or all of which are borne out of a relationship with someone who is not only extremely interesting and in many ways different from me, but who is also a writer and sees the perspectives in those experiences that I see. Caitlin and I talk about things we’re writing kind of frequently. She is definitely inspiring, and what’s more, she’s enthusiastic.

Here’s a good example: The first night she and I saw each other (and spoke for more than 90 seconds) after our six months of more or less noncommunication, Caitlin remembered something I’d mentioned to her probably almost a year earlier. I’d planned to make a “research” trip to NYC to visit Ground Zero. The trip is directly related to “Millennium Men,” the short-story novel thing I’m working on. I was supposed to go with one Nick Hurwitch, but plans fell through and he moved out west. I never did make it to New York. And before long, I sort of forgot about that ambition.

But Caitlin remembered, and she remembered the passion and planning I had attached to the trip. And then she volunteered to go with me — right there, out of the blue, five minutes into seeing me again. I immediately accepted, which might have previously been out of character for me. But it’s a sort of spontaneity and belief in possibility that she creates and brings out in me.

So we’re going to New York next weekend, with nary a plan, hopefully a couch to sleep on, and with Ground Zero firmly in the sights. We’re also planning to hit D.C. for a visit with Frank Wiswell and (I hope) Abraham Lincoln.

I was excited to see these landmarks and to study the effect they would have on me for the sake of my fiction. I’m sure Caitlin’s presence is going to make everything I learn deeper, more poignant, and more interesting. Best of all, a person whose opinions and writing chops I seriously value will be right there with me to discuss all the crazy feelings I’m expecting it all to drum up in me (I’m weird about my American heritage and its affect on my life).

I cannot freakin’ wait.

…I’ll stop gushing now.

How I found a real use for twitter

I’m fascinated by this Twitter stuff.

Tonight Nick Hurwitch and I worked pretty extensively on the “Wrath of the Damned” multi-author Twitter story, which consists of an on-going short story created by whoever happens to sign on and add to it. Caveat: We don’t tell each other what we’re doing until it’s up. Therefore, the story goes all over the place in a really organic, interesting way. (That’s @wrathofdamned if you’re interested.)

It’s a different sort of writing, that’s for damn sure. For one, the 140-character limit means you get right to the point. No screwing around. It minces things like description and complete sentences, but it also means a really pure story — find the best way to convey your thought or abandon it.

And not knowing what the other authors are going to contribute is extremely interesting because it means making up a new story at pretty much every turn. I had more than one good idea for what the story would become at key moments. Then Nick stepped in. Now we have something wholly new — like a dead main character. It’s really quite exhilarating, from a writing standpoint.

Just wandering around reading Twitter is a lesson for a writer, though, really. Snapshots of people’s days, of their lives, of their thoughts — you get quite a bit of information. It’s also a good way to see what is not interesting, at all. It’s almost better to follow boring people than interesting ones. I’ve learned some new stuff about authenticity, to be sure.

It’s kind of stark when you see reality condensed into tiny bites, especially when you read something profound. Fabricating that experience makes it all the sweeter once you’ve found the real thing.

Oh, also, I can get tidbits from Oprah.

I'm blogging! Brock, I blogged!

I keep trying to do this and failing. For a journalist, I’m not much for keeping journals.

Still, at the past suggestion of Caitlin M. Foyt, and because it’s always a struggle to keep writing and this is yet another outlet, I’m typing life down. Just in case you weren’t getting enough Phil Hornshaw. That is, assuming someone else sees this and I’m not just reading it myself in a year.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about and working on stories about zombies. Anybody who’s been reading “Wrath of the Damned,” a multi-author ongoing zombie apocalypse short story blog project (adjectives, anyone?), probably has heard me rant about the zombie genre, its place among the horror genres, and the way it’s been mistreated pretty much always (with a few noteable, but slightly campy, exceptions).

If you haven’t heard that rant, I’ll spell it out. As a genre of stories, I feel zombie fiction is, on the whole, fairly horrible. Occasionally zombie stories are treated with the reverence and seriousness they deserve, but that’s usually not the case. Such stories largely amount to little more than gory monsters gorily munching on screaming victims. These victims, more often than not, could have avoided certain death merely by being a little more vigilant, a little less petty, or a little more respectful of the danger around them.

Therefore, “Wrath,” to which I contribute along with authors Nick Hurwitch, Robert Bernardi, Rich Bronson and Angie Hornshaw, is supposed to be a more realistic, high-minded, and possibly spiritual look at the idea of the living dead. Specifically, I have questions: what do zombies mean to the idea of a soul; if the dead return to life, what does that mean about life after death; is it mercy to kill someone to prevent them from becoming a zombie, or to kill a zombie to “release” it; if you kill a zombie, is it murder; Can zombies be saved?

So we’re trying to do some cool stuff. We’re also trying to do some story-type stuff with our wrathofdamned Twitter account.

Hopefully more people will read it.