David Pescovitz’s post on Boing Boing yesterday inspired a lot of comments–a few of them off the wall, many of them hysterically funny. Best of all, it led to an invitation to me to guest blog on Boing Boing in November.
There was an article in the Times about how in the aftermath of 9/11 it seemed inconceivable that people would ever work in skyscrapers again; that Ground Zero wouldn’t be instantly rebuilt; that Times Square wouldn’t be attacked by suicide bombers. What I remember most about the aftermath of 9/11 isn’t the fear (though I suppose there was plenty of that)–it was the tenderness. For a few days, there was no pushing on the subways, people made eye contact, and everybody’s voices were pitched lower. The morning of September 12, we went to Cobble Hill park with our kids. It was filled with parents that we never saw during the day, many of them with stories about missing neighbors and friends. It was awful–I mean, really awful–but at the same time I’ve never felt so safely swaddled in community.
I wrote something on the anniversary of 9/11 in 2005, the year of Katrina, that I didn’t publish. Now that I have a blog, it seems appropriate to post some of it:
It was terribly sad and dislocating, but for people like me who’d escaped without a scratch, who didn’t have funerals to attend and life insurance claims to deal with, who hadn’t witnessed the carnage first hand (what I’d seen was spectacular and bloodless, like a scene in a big budget action movie) it was also a little bit of an adventure. Before too long, I was riding my bike to work again. American flags flapped on the antennae of passing cars; homemade missing persons posters were plastered to lampposts. I’d nod at the guardsmen manning the checkpoints as my tires crunched through the gray silt that still coated the empty downtown streets.
We were filled with voluptuous intimations of our mortality, with the heady sense that we’d been swept up into history—we never lacked for something urgent and interesting to talk about. We were living in a war zone, but we suffered none of the deprivations of war; we had survived a great catastrophe, but most of us had never been in any immediate danger. Ground Zero was a mass grave and an apocalyptic wasteland, but it was only 16 acres in size. In the rest of this vast city our telephones and computers and cable TV were still connected; the supermarkets were fully stocked. Our sense of the community around us was palpable and warm and nurturing.
A few weeks after 9/11, I attended a business lunch in the Time Life Building at Rockefeller Center (where one of the first anthrax letters had just been discovered). There was much talk around the table about Bush and Afghanistan, dirty bombs and bio-terrorism, and especially about how we were all dealing with our fear. The woman next to me said quietly, “This isn’t new to me. This is what it felt like when I learned I had cancer. Only I had to deal with that all by myself.”
“Isn’t it better that we can share this?” I asked her.
“I’m not sure,” she answered. “It’s pretty personal.”
At the time, I didn’t understand what she meant. I think I do now.
Perhaps now that an American city really has been laid waste, we can begin to re-think the lessons we thought we learned from 9/11. If nothing else, it is a salutary spiritual/intellectual exercise. If we are sufficiently honest with ourselves, it just might do wonders for our national character.
9/11 taught us that there are people in the world who hate Americans so much that they’ll stop at nothing to kill us. But shouldn’t we have known that already? America has produced its own share of haters and killers, after all. September 11 taught us that death can drop out of the sky like a thunderbolt, that a mother, a father, a daughter, a son, a brother, a sister, a wife, a husband, a lover, can leave their homes in the morning, never to return. We should have known that too. Our hospitals have never lacked for patients; our cemeteries and funeral homes do a booming business every day.
9/11 taught us that, in a time of fear, people hunger for heroes. And it literally gave us hundreds of them—the firefighters and policemen and civilians who sacrificed themselves rescuing strangers, the passengers on Flight 93, the workers who cleaned up the mess and searched for the bodies. But it’s not just heroes we long for—we want a father figure too, someone who can scare the monsters back under the bed.President Bush sealed his bid for reelection by promising to defeat terror. But isn’t terror a basic fact of life—isn’t death, in fact, the ultimate price we all must pay for the privilege of being alive?
Yes, yes, I know. 9/11 was wrought by vicious men—it didn’t have to happen. I would never say that fatalism, an existential shrug of the shoulders, is an appropriate response to a terrible crime. But neither is grandiosity and paranoia. After the Tsunami, after Katrina, doesn’t it seem a bit unseemly how maudlin we all were? Not about the victims, who suffered the full measure of horror—about ourselves. We were the lucky ones. All of our numbers will come up some day, but they didn’t then. Even so, we wallowed in our fear. We were so outraged, so flabbergasted by the thought that we weren’t invulnerable.
I think I finally understand what the cancer survivor who sat next to me at that business lunch four years ago was trying to tell me. It’s a highly personal thing, this coming to terms with one’s own mortality. It requires solitude and time and it doesn’t come without pain. But if we truly wish to honor our dead, it’s past time that we begin the hard work of reflection.
I Googled “Obama conspiracy theories” this morning, thinking I might come up with something nutty; instead I found this very thorough site that documents and debunks the nuttiest claims–its name is Obama conspiracy.org.
I added a few items to CULTS last winter when it was in proofs. I thought about writing some lines about what a few prescient journalists had already dubbed “Birtherism,” but I never imagined that people would still be talking about Obama’s birth certificate this fall. In retrospect, I wish I’d known about Abraham Vereide and the so-called C Street Family–which, though not exactly a cult, a conspiracy, or a secret society, has much in common with all of them; it’s sort of a Protestant version of what Opus Dei is accused of being. But thanks to Mark Sanford and John Ensign’s embarrassments, the paperback edition of Jeff Sharlet’s THE FAMILY has put them on the national radar in a much bigger way than I ever could have.
I was on The Washington Times’s syndicated drive-time radio show this morning to promote CULTS, CONSPIRACIES, AND SECRET SOCIETIES. It went pretty much as I feared–if I sounded like a 33 rpm record on 16, they were chattering away at 78. This analogy dates me a little, I guess. Anyway, they were really friendly, if super-caffeinated, and I was torpid and way too abstract. I have to remember to be funny and concrete. But the thing is, I don’t want to sound like I’m just ridiculing conspiracists. It riles them up and it debases me.
I thought it was interesting that the Washington Times, as right-leaning as its politics (and its demographics) must be, was as open to my brand of skepticism as they seemed to be. My guess is that a lot of Republicans worry about the Tin Hat tendencies of their base too.
Less than a month in print and Vintage is going back to press! Very exciting news for me and well worth trumpeting. I will be spending the next few hours combing the text for fixable typos.
Sometimes when I’m too agitated to sleep but too sleepy to read or write or do anything useful, I log onto my computer and Google the names of people I used to know. It sounds a little creepy, but it’s not as if I wouldn’t have been thinking about them anyway. Insomnia is an occasion for revisiting old griefs and regrets. If you want to hear the dead scratching on the walls of their tombs, you have to stay up past your bedtime.
Once I Googled an ex-girlfriend and found out how much she and her husband had paid for their house. Her husband, I learned, was the man she’d dumped me for. Despite what she’d said at the time it really was me, not her—whatever her commitment issues might have been, they hadn’t prevented her from staying with my successor for almost thirty years. Tracking his cyber-spoor—books he’d reviewed on Amazon, organizations he’d joined—I could see that he was a man of a sanguine temperament, with a positive, forward-looking turn of mind. He wouldn’t have wasted a minute of his time Googling the likes of me.
One bleary night I found myself thinking about a college roommate who’d recently died. Had I known what fate held in store for him, I’d like to think that I would have told him how much I’ve always regretted saying what I did that time when I was so in my cups. Even after all these years, I’ll be walking down the street or brushing my teeth when I’m suddenly brought up short by the memory of the look on his face when I opened my mouth. I clicked my mouse and entered a website that another one of his college friends—a better one than me—had created in his memory. And there he was: 19 years old, exactly as I remember him.
I went to high school with a musician who came as close to making it as you can without becoming rich or famous. One night, I don’t know why, I typed the name of one of his bands into Google and to my astonishment discovered that fan websites, MP3s, and YouTube videos had popped up like so many mushrooms. I clicked on one of them and saw him, his eyes hidden behind a pair of wrap-around sunglasses, his face achingly young and hopeful. I clicked again and he was in concert in Osaka, Japan, older this time, and grizzled from the road. The singer he was performing with—a bonafide rock-and-roll legend—would die of a heroin overdose that same month. Jamey would follow him a few years later.
I Googled my late father’s father once and found the manifest of the steamship that brought him to this country from Poland at the turn of the last century. I Googled my father’s sister—she killed herself in the 1960s—and found her listed as a member of Erasmus high school’s graduating class of 1931. Letters that my late mother sent to Harpers magazine and The New York Times are archived and can be accessed for a nominal fee.
The great Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kis (he died of cancer in 1989, when he was just in his early fifties) wrote a short story called “The Encyclopedia of the Dead,” about a Mormonesque religious order that documents the lives of ordinary people. Locked overnight in the library that houses the Encyclopedia’s thousands of volumes, its narrator reads about her recently deceased father. Though just a few pages long, his entry recounts in astounding detail not just his vital statistics, but the textures of the landscapes he inhabited and all of his sorrows, disappointments, and joys, rendering him in all his dense and irreducible pathos and particularity. “This,” she concludes, “is the central message of the Encyclopedia’s authors—nothing ever repeats itself in human history; all things that, at first glance, seem to be the same are barely similar; every man is a single star unto himself; everything happens always and never, everything occurs endlessly and never again.”
“In the future,” Andy Warhol famously predicted, “everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” A decade or so later, he emended himself. “I’m bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is, ‘In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous.’” Fifteen minutes later the future is here. And thanks to the indelible traces that we leave on the Internet, some of us achieve a notoriety of the kind, if not the degree, that used to be reserved for the notorious alone. In the small hours of the morning, that can be a source of considerable consolation.
Cults, Conspiracies and Secret Societies has been out for a few weeks and it has already touched some raw nerves. An angry reviewer on Amazon.com writes “I am not sure which is more frightening, the fringe nuts who think everything is a alien conspiracy, or this guy, who thinks there are no real secrets, or hidden cloaked sinister agendas out there floating through our present.” Another wittily remarks that the book is “one entire flat and tasteless pudding or worse — unpalatable poo. Definitely a read for the bathroom.” I can’t blame them for being so angry; I provoked them by calling their beliefs into question–worse yet, by treating them as a sort of pathology. A sympathetic blog (Curled up with a Good Book.com) calls it “a must have resource for the student of human nature, sociology, or popular culture,” though it predicts that my accuracy and even-handedness won’t be enough to dissuade “members of the included cults from….suing Goldwag for libel.” Gulp. Another blog (Hugh Howey.com) says “it reads like a Grisham novel.” The MSM has been weighing in as well. Michael Shermer called it “a marvelous new book” in Scientific American; I’ve extracted a few more choice blurbs below:
“The kind of reference manual that the Internet cannot supplant…..Goldwag keeps the facts straight and gives the rumors — no matter how lurid and entertaining — about as much respect as they deserve.”—The Washington Post
“A messy book about messy ideologies….And here’s the beauty of it….[Goldwag is] such a damn good writer that you don’t really mind….[he] is also one of those rare authors who can write about fringe topics in a way that sounds respectful and fun without him coming across like he’s out of his mind.” –Jackson (Mississippi) Free Press
“Delightful.” –The Weekly Standard
“Goldwag is a colorful writer who makes good use of his material as he aims to explain, rather than debunk or expose, a fascinating diversity of beliefs.”—The Boston Globe
A good friend and fellow writer who is unfortunately incarcerated at the moment wrote to thank me for sending him a copy of Cults. “You’ll be pleased to know,” he related, “that this is actually the 2nd copy of the book to get into MDC [Metropolitan Detention Center]. A…..leader of a China Town gang (tong?) saw me carrying it and pointed out to me that he had it in his footlocker and had just finished reading it. He’d ordered it from BN.com. When he heard I knew the author he made me promise to tell you how much he enjoyed the volume. This is the God’s honest truth!”