(xposted Books Are Pretty)
You know what bugs the ever living hell out of me?
Pseudoscience. Pseudoscience bugs the ever living hell out of me. The fact that every single day my facebook feed is filled with stuff and nonsense for which no empirical evidence exists–vaccines cause autism! not eating gluten will cure depression! antioxidants will fix your cancer!–bugs the ever living hell out of me.
Barbara Enrenreich’s Bright-Sided, which I cannot believe it has taken me this long to read, is essentially a giant debunking of another kind of pseudoscience: the power of positive thinking.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, well, positive thinking HELPS US! It helps us to be healthier and strengthens our immune systems and that which does not kill us makes us stronger so slap a colored ribbon on your car and lets run a 5K!
God that bugs me.
Ehrenreich’s book, which I tore through in an afternoon, includes a fantastic exploration of the history of positive thinking, which rose, essentially, in objection to Calvinism–I agree constantly monitoring yourself for sin to see whether you are predestined to burn in hell seems a perfectly dreadful way to live. I am just not sure that replacing with the constant self-monitoring for negative thoughts is a whole lot better. A little better, but not a whole lot. And as Ehrenreich shows, there are a lot of parallels between Calvinist thinking that you ought to cast out the sinners from your life and the exertions of positive thinking gurus to stop associating with negative people–even if they happen to be, say, your spouse. There’s a lot of what she calls (heehee) “inescapable pseudoscientific flapadoodle” inherent in much of the guru-led nonsense, like The Secret and its ilk. Tell me “inescapable pseudoscientific flapadoodle” is not the exact phrase you have been searching for to explain your facebook feed!
I’m not even going to try to explain all of the ways in which Enrenreich disproves the various IPFs, but I will say that she provides some damn compelling evidence that America’s over-reliance on positive thinking–with its genuinely fascinating historical and religious roots–contributed significantly to the economic collapse. This is one of the more interesting chapters in a text where no chapter disappoints. For me, though, the highlight was the chapter on cancer. Enrenreich, who had breast cancer, talks about the pervasive belief that getting cancer was somehow a Good Thing: it was meant to happen! It would lead her to better things! She could get a pretty wig and a free makeover! She should look at cancer as an oppurtinity to find her true self!
Well, if you will pardon my French, bullfuckingshit. As Enrenreich discovered, this relentless focus on positivity actually meant that she, and other patients, didn’t have a chance to think critically about treatment options–which in the world of cancer, where chemo can hurt as much as heal, is pretty damn critical. It made it hard to pull out important information from malarky.
America has some weird strains running through it. One of these is our idea that if we just work hard enough we can all become President, or at least a ballerina. This is garbage and we should really stop saying it. Yes, you can achieve a lot of wonderful and amazing things with the right amount of determination–if a lot of other factors are also present. I can dream lots and lots of things. I can do very few of them. This is not a defeatist attitude. This is an attitude that reflects reality. This is part of why I think social programs can be so hard to get through politically–a strain of America believes that people don’t need the government to help them, because if they just worked hard enough, they wouldn’t need health care because they wouldn’t get sick, and they wouldn’t need federally funded early childhood education because they’d make enough money to send their kids to the 30K a year preschool down the road. Again, this entire notion is garbage. That’s not to say that having goals and sticking to them and working incredibly hard and paying your dues are not all important. They are tremendously important. It’s just that in addition we have this thing called reality, and the fact is that there are people for whom the deck is stacked right from the beginning, and for those people the traditional American dream requires more than hard work. It requires luck and help. This is true for everyone, actually, its just that its infinitely truer for some than for others.
So there’s that, and related to that I think is our idea that wishing can make it so. That if we just will ourselves to get better, or assume that we got sick or hurt or poor for a reason, we can Make Something Of It and Come Out Stronger and whatever other cliches you want to throw out there. This is nonsense. I can tell you right now that struggling with chronic depression does not make me a stronger or better person, or more in touch with reality. It makes it harder for me to do the things I want to do. That’s it. Having cancer did not make my father stronger or better or wiser. It meant that he had to go through a lot of pain. That’s it. Sometimes there is no deeper meaning. It is tantalizing to believe that there is. I get that. I wish that having had depression brought me some sort of special powers of empathy or clarity or artistic talent. But sometimes shit just happens. Oftentimes that shit does not make us stronger or better or wiser. Suffering is part of the human condition, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get to be angry about that suffering. If you have cancer, if you are dirt poor, if your parents beat you, it is okay to wake up in the morning and curse the universe. The universe can take it. The universe is not going to turn into a spiteful third-grader and smite you for cursing it. Some things are not fair and some things never will be. Sometimes there is nothing the fuck up with that.
This isn’t to say that science knows everything. It doesn’t (scientists would be the first to admit that). There are not explanations for everything. There are lots and lots of things about the universe that we don’t know and probably never will. But science is and remains the best way we have to measure actual truth. Actual truth, in the way I am thinking of it, is different from your own truth; actual truth is, say, evolution, or gravity, or the way that the earth is round. You can have all sorts of truths of your own, things that you believe way into the fabric of your gut. You should have those things. It’s just that those things are beliefs. They are not fact. And there are all sorts of things we will discover that may well change the way we currently conceive of the world; chemicals that we think are safe now may prove not to be, for example. Actually I think we can all agree that’s going to happen. But we have to do the best that we can with the science and the facts and the medicine that we have now. I am not going to try to repeat the ways in which the book refutes various studies on happiness but if you are into science I suggest it.
Ehrenreich is not suggesting that we suddenly start looking at the world with mud-colored glasses–in fact, as she points out, depressed folks tend to do just that and it is certainly no healthier than unrealistic optimism. Rather, she is suggesting that perhaps we look at the world as it really is. That we use critical thinking skills–those of us that were lucky enough to learn them in school, and I am not being remotely snarky here–and reality testing and evidence based claims to decipher our world. As she says, “the alternative to both [overly pessimistic or optimistic thinking] is to try to get outside of ourselves and see things ‘as they are’ or as uncolored as possible by our own feelings and fantasies, to understand that the world is full of both danger and opportunity–the chance of great happiness as well as the certainty of death” (Ehrenreich p.196).
So if you are diagnosed with breast cancer and it makes you feel better and more able to face the day and make informed decisions about your own health care to fill your room with pink ribbons, go for it. Just don’t expect it to cure you. It will not.
Last year–and maybe even at Classics and Nationals this year–when Gabby Douglas was falling all over the place, especially on beam, who on earth would have thought that Gabby–our Gabby!–would win the Olympics?
Not me, that’s for damn sure.
So what happened today?
we started with five. Larissa Iodarche was never a huge contender after her showing in podium training and the team competitions. So Larissa was out.
And then there were four.
Vault started out with a bang, with Gabby doing a terrific Amanar. Her biggest mistake came on the landing when she very nearly stepped out–but she didn’t quite, and had to bend her body severely. But she kept her foot in. Aly Raisman, meanwhile, did a nice Amanar with a large hop. Vika Komova did a beautiful in the air Amanar but failed to fight for the landing, stepping off the mat. This is basically where Vika lost the meet.
On bars, Aly hit a bar routine for the first time in AA in major international meet. Aly has always been able to hit for the team, but this is the first time I’ve seen her be able to hit bars for herself. Both Aliya and Vika did just beautiful bar routines. I cannot tell you how beautiful they were. The trouble, of course, was that Gabby’s was just about as good. HUGE releases, beautiful form. Her usual self.
Beam was the make it or break it event…kind of.
For Aly and Aliya it made a huge difference. Aliya came off on her arabian but was otherwise very solid. Aly–for basically the first time I’ve ever seen–wobbled like crazy, including putting her hand down at one point. It was totally uncharacteristic of her. Aly basically never lets beam get to her. But today she did.
Meanwhile, both Vika and Gabby–who used to be known as headcases on beam!–both hit fantastic routines. Oh maybe 1 or 2 bobbles here or there, but overall, these two were just fantastic on the event. Clean, crisp, confident.
So it came down to floor.
Aliya hit extremely well. So did Aly, although she took out her punch fronts.
Gabby went up. And Gabby hit. Every landing was not perfect, but her routine overall was terrific. She came off the floor not sure if it would be enough.
Especially not once Vika went up. Vika has long been known as an inconsistent floor worker, but she went out during this meet and hit the best floor routine I’ve seen her do, and one of the best floor routines I’ve ever seen anyone do. It was amazing. Beautiful, great landings that she actually fought for–just incredible.
But it was not enough. Even though Vika and Aliya stood praying, it was not enough.
Here’s what it comes down to. Well, first lets address the bronze. Aliya and Aly tied exactly, but because the IOC sucks, no ties are allowed, and the tiebreaker went to Aliya. This is probably fair as it was based on execution, and Aliya’s is better, no question. Aliya did fall, but Aly was very very wobbly, and although part of me wishes Aly had won, she has done better at these Games than anyone expected . More on that tomorrow!
But here’s what happened with Gabby. It was quite simple, really, simpler than I think some folks on the gymternet are making it out to be.
Vika Komova made one major mistake when she did not fight for her landing on her vault.
Gabby Douglas made no major mistakes.
Gymnastics is an unforgiving sport. It just is. And tonight, Gabby was more perfect than Vika, and that’s what the medals reflect.
Well, today is the day when we do what I suspect Al will call “crowning the queen of gymnastics.”
There are basically two gymnasts battling for gold:
Gabby Douglas and Vika Komova are the most likely contenders for the top honors. Gabby is coming into this meet with the experience of hitting all four routines in a pressure packed competition; she was only US gymnast to compete All Around in team finals and she did fantastically. She is also coming in with a sky high AA score from TFs and the feeling of having already won big. In this case, of course, Gabby will be competing not for her team but for herself. This could either work for or against her; there is less pressure, which helps some girls and seems to mess up others. And although Gabby has hit beam wonderfully here, let’s not forget that she can be quite headcasey on the event. I’ve never seen her miss bars and her vault and floor should be basically fine–its possible there might be a stumble here or there–but her beam can be either wonderful or a disaster.
Komova is coming in with the highest qualifying score and a strong need for redemption after having a somewhat rough day in Team Finals. She didn’t mess up too too much, but she made some mistakes at the end of her beam set. She also did not compete floor in TFs but is capable of hitting well. However, Komova has an annoying tendency to headcase, especially on beam and to a lesser extent on floor. It is not at al unheard of for her to be on beam, feel like she going to fall, and jump off. I hope she can go out there and hit cleanly without talking herself out of it, but that’s an open question.
Aliya Mustafina is one pissed off diva (expect NBC to use diva roughly eight thousand times in their coverage tonight; for them “diva” means “tough competitor”). Musty wanted to win team gold badly, and she was the best gymnast in the world for awhile until she tore her ACL. Like Vika, she is looking for redemption here; she is also looking to reclaim her previous position as the best. However, Musty doesn’t have all of her old skills back, and although she usually has nerves of steel in TFs she wobbled all over the place on beam. If she busts out her rumored Amanar, lands it without breaking anything else, AND hits everything else, she’s a contender.
Aly Raisman: She won’t medal without big mistakes from the others because of bars. Aly just doesn’t have a great bars set. Now, she has done just a TON of work on this event in the past year or so and it looks better than it used to–but it is nowhere near as good at the other three gymnasts I’ve discussed. It just isn’t. Furthermore, Aly has never hit bars in an All Around final in a major international meet. She seems to be able to hit just fine when its for the team, but less so when its just for herself (which is kind of endearing actually). But look for her to hit big on beam and especially floor.
Larissa Iordache: This Romanian pixie is crazy cute. She was a favorite until she got to London and it became clear that she is a bit injured. She will still compete, but I don’t expect her to medal without major mistakes from the big three. Her bars also kind of suck, like most Romanian bars, which will hold her back from real success. Her beam and floor can be awesome though.
Rounding out the field are 19 gymnasts who don’t have a prayer unless the above five all falter quite badly, but they will still provide some exciting gymnastics. In particular look for Vanessa Ferrari on floor, Hannah Whelan of GBR to make a strong showing in front of her home crowd, and watch the Chinese to see if they can manage to hit as they are capable of doing.
So. Russia vs the USA, once again.
Oh. One more thing. Yes it sucks that Jordyn Weiber is not in this race. It really does. But let’s let the girls who made it have this, OK? We don’t need to discuss Jo constantly. Two per country sucks especially now that the Soviets are gone, but that is the rule, and Jo is a good enough sport–and friend–to be there cheering her friends on. Would the competition be tougher and more interesting if she HAD made it? Yes. But she did not, and so let’s accept reality and move on.
1. Gabby Douglas
2. Aliya Mustafina
3. Vika Komova (I just think she is going to wobble too much!)
4. Aly Raisman
5. Larisa Iordache
6. Vanessa Ferrari
7. Hannah Whelan
8. Huang Quashang
I think that is the only way to describe what the United States women’s gymnastics team did today.
The girls were the favorites going in, but we all knew that Russia and possibly Romania/China could fight them for it. However the US did qualify in first, and they have been close to unbeatable this quad.
But we also knew there were some issues. Jordyn Weiber, as we know, missed out on an AA berth. McKayla Maroney was competing on a reinjured broken toe and coming off a concussion and nasal fracture at Nationals. Gabby Douglas would be on beam, where she not infrequently falls. What would happen when the pressure was really on, in an unforgiving three up three count format?
The US started on vault, and holy shit was it big. We are now the United States of Amanar, with Jo, Gabby and McKayla all doing the very difficult vaults. Jo and Gabby were both clean with nearly stuck vaults. Best Amanar Jo has ever done. McKayla, meanwhile, did what might be the best vault ever done. It was stuck cold, it was crisp and clean and tight and beautiful, and really there is no excuse for her getting such a low score–and it was still the highest score of the meet. McKayla should have gotten a 10 E score, period. Seriously.
The Russians, meanwhile, did their best, with a stuck DTY from Mustafina, a step on the red fir Komova and a big step off the mat from Pasaka.
On bars, Russia did a great job. A really great rotation for them, for real, and they narrowed the gap. After three spectacular routines (Komova, Mustafina, Grishina) they were behind by .399.
But the US also hit. Weiber kicked things off with a good, if not fabulous, bars set; she was a little muscled but it was definitely hit. Then Kyla did her job, with a clean, lovely bars set. And finally Gabby came around and did her usual bars routine, with its crazy-high releases. Seriously. Crazy. JUST SO HIGH.
On beam, the US went first–more on that in a sec–and the pressure appeared to hit Mother Russia. Mustafina and Komova were both extremely wobbly, and in fact the latter was overscored. Surprisingly, Afanasyeva–not always known as the best competitor–was nearly flawless on the event.
But the US? Well. Kyla went up and hit with maybe 2 tiny bobbles. Gabby went next, and I had a hard time watching to be honest. But she was so, so good. She hit better than I’ve ever seen. There were again a few tiny bobbles, but it was fantastic. And Aly came up and was quite
and hit her usual routine (although she actually played it safe with her first pass, taking out the punch layout). I hope she had fun. Aly was a great leader throughout the meet. At one point I heard her tell Gabby that her bars score was one of the highest, and that now she needed to go to beam and be steady, hit her landings like Marta says, etc. It was adorable.
And of course it was enough. They won. They won big, by five points. They were utterly dominant. They were basically untouchable. They made a few mistakes, but they were very, very tiny mistakes.
Other stories that came out of TF? Well, Russia did an OK job, but really their only excellent rotation was bars. They were fantastic on that event–truly fantastic–but it was nowhere near enough, if you are going to then headcase the other three.
Romania, who has had to rebuild their program after 2004, did a nice job getting bronze. Cata Ponor especially was awesome on beam. China basically just kept making dumb mistakes but still landed in 4th. Meanwhile, Canada had an amazing story, ending up fifth! That is by far their highest finish ever, and good for them. Great Britain, Italy and Japan finished in the final three slots.
But what this evening will be remembered for is the utterly dominant showing of the American woman. What a night. Of redemption for Jo. Of confidence for Gabby. Of doing the best vault the world has ever seen for McKayla. Of being clean and crisp for Kyla. Of leadership for Aly.
Congratulations, Fierce Five.
For many years now Jordyn Weiber has been the Next Big Thing in the sport of women’s gymnastics. after 2008, focus naturally shifted to the next cycle, the next Olympic Games. For a long time Jordyn was considered the anointed one. Breathless commentators talked about her big skills, her fairly clean form, the fact that she was basically unbeatable for years, the way her coach rested her for 9 months with a hamstring issue.
All the praise was–and is–absolutely deserved. Jo is one of the best gymnasts to come along in years. Her consistency especially has been just extraordinary. Jo wiped the field in virtually every competition she entered. I saw her win one of her first junior nationals over Sami Shapiro, and even then, she was amazingly steady.
After she turned senior, Jo turned into the It Girl of gymnastics. Although especially after her amazing (and unofficially Jo-beating) performance at the American Cup Gabby Douglas was starting to take that label, I think pretty much everyone believed that Jo would make a strong case for herself in the All Around, quite possibly winning.
Then in prelims yesterday, something shocking happened. I am not using the word shocking lightly. It was really and truly a giant shake up. I don’t know enough about sports to really offer any other comparisons, but it was shocking.
How did it happen? Well, for that we will need to look at 2 different things.
One is Jo’s performance. She was quite, quite good, but she made a few small mistakes, out of bounds on floor, missed a handstand on bars–again, nothing huge, but mistakes. Her connections on beam did not credited, which even her coach admitted a few months ago might be a problem. Why he did not fix that is beyond me, anyone could have told him that!
The other is the depth of the US program. The fact is, the US has enough very talented gymnasts that we could probably have fielded two complete teams that would be very competitive.We always knew that Gabby Douglas would be the other AA competitor if she hit, and in fact she was.
But people always tend to forget about Aly Raisman. One of the things that pisses me off about the gymternet is how much flack this girl gets; no, she cannot dance, but we are not watching fucking ballet. These are athletes. They do not have to prance around. I give her frankly less of a pass for her form in some areas, but Aly has worked very hard to get her form and flexibility up to par. Still, I don’t think I heard a single person suggest seriously that Aly would make AA over Jo.
But she did. Aly did some of the best routines–especially on vault and bars–that she has ever done, and she and Gabby were both just a little better than Jo.
That’s the genuinely hard truth about how it is at the top. Gabby, Aly and Jo are ALL tremendous gymnasts. They all do crazy-hard skills. They all work harder than most people can imagine. And the part that really sucks, and that is also the entire point of sports? Not everybody can win.
I hope sincerely that Jo can put those past her. She remains one of the best gymnasts this country has seen. She is a great, great athlete. I hope that she can pull everything she knows together and kick some ass, for her team and then, in floor finals, for herself.
Bars! I like bars.
Let’s start with the USA’s best bars worker, one Gabby Douglas. Here is her routine from Trials.
For a completely different bar routine that we will NOT see in TF, check out Aly Raisman at Visas.
Why won’t we see Aly’s bars in team finals? Well, if you have eyes, you probably noticed there were differences between Gabby’s routine and Aly’s. Gabby has her toes pointed. Her legs are glued together. Her arms are straight. Her releases are so freakin’ high she could pause and paint her toenails. Her body is tight throughout, with no breaks in form. And especially importantly, Gabby has great rhythm throughout. Each skills flows freely into the next skill. She doesn’t look like she is muscling anything, but rather just moving smoothly through her routine.
Aly, on the other hand, has flexed feet throughout and minor form breaks on virtually every skill. I love Aly but her bars are…pretty bad (in part because Mihai refuses to hire a bars coach!) Her kips (that’s where the gymnast uses momentum-not pure strength, like Aly–to get her hips to the bar) are pretty muscled. Her handstands are not usually totally vertical, and you always want to hit your handstands. One thing you will notice amongst a few top athletes is their ability to hold a handstand for a weirdly long time, as if daring the judges to notice.
Which reminds me: there are several requirements on bars. Gymnasts must show a variety of things, and I’m not going to go through all of them because it can get overly complicated. But you SHOULD watch for transitions for low to high bar and vise versa, to start. Gymnasts can do this in a couple different ways. My favorite high-to-low is the Pak salto, a laidout front flip after releasing the high bar to catch the low. My favorite low-to-high is a Shaposh, which is a free hip circle on the low bar and then the gymnast uses sheer momentum to catch the high bar. Sometimes they add a half twist. Anyway, there are a whole bunch of different ways they can transition. There are also–and this is the exciting part–release skills. That’s when the gymnast releases the bar and performs some gravity defying move, like a flip or twist of some kind, and then regrabs the bar. These are done off the highbar. Most gymnasts get the majority of their difficulty this way. Some gymnasts will get more difficulty through various turns and pirouettes; Liukin was known for a one handed pirouette called an Ono. These are hard and everything but I much prefer releases.
So! Routines we will see at the Games:
from the Big Four teams (this is all just for TF, we dont need to think about quallies)
US: Weiber, Ross, Douglas (above) (note: Weiber has about a 1 in 6 chance of missing her routine, which will leave the US with a much lower score. She’s unlikely to fall altogether but it is not super uncommon for her to have fairly major form breaks. She’s been hitting the last bunch of routines though. Ross has very clean bars and of course Douglas is amazeballs and should challenge for an EF medal)
(this will not be a good rotation for them. We just want them to look halfway decent)
(will either be truly amazing or a splatfest; He could make finals)
Other contenders for bars EF:
Beth Tweddle, GBR (my sentimental favorite for a hometown gold medal. I really, really hope she gets it. She just needs to hit, hit, hit. Her set is just insane.)
Elisabeth Seitz, GER (IF she hits, which she often doesnt)
Youna Dufronet, FRA (again, not super likely, but not totally out of the question)
Beam is by far my favorite event, and I’ll tell you why; because it is such, such a mental thing. I don’t know if y’all know this, and if you don’t, Al will tell you roughly eighty thousand times; beam is only 4 inches wide. That’s why so many meets, and championships, are lost on beam. Because it is so, so easy to headcase it.
So what do you need to watch for on beam?
There are a couple really important things.
One is obviously not falling off. Another is not wobbling. Most gymnasts will wobble at least once, but a tiny little wobble is not such a big deal. A huge wobble, or worse a hand coming down to steady, IS a big deal.
The less obvious thing to watch for is connections. One of the primary ways gymnasts get bonus and even start value is through connections, which is where they do one skill and then another with virtually no break between. This is not the time to pause long enough to get a cup of coffee. Connections should be fluid and quick. One obvious example of missed connections is Jorydn Weiber; although her beam set tends to be quite good she almost never connects her hardest tumble, which is a front “handspring” (tends to really be a walkover) to standing arabian (back tuck with a full twist) to back handspring. Its quite rare for her to connect all three. Sometimes judges will give a sketchy connection, too. But its quite easy to lose connection on beam.
And like all other gymnastics, form is key. Toes should be pointed. No wonky arms and legs. If a skill, like a front or back salto, is supposed to be done piked, do not tuck. Make sure turns are fully rotated. Etc, etc.
The requirements on beam include two connecting dance elements (which can be any kind of jump, hop, leap, whatever, but one must have a split)
; acro series with at least one salto; at least one backwards element and at least one fowards or sideways element; full turn on one foot
Who will compete for the big four? Glad you asked!
Ross, Weiber, Raisman (Douglas is beautiful on beam but often headcases it. Ross is fine, Weiber is good and Raisman is very very solid and has HUGE tricks, including the hardest dismount out there, a Patterson-handspring double front with half twist. Weiber/Raisman both have a chance of making EFs. MAYBE Ross).
Mustafina, Komova, Grishina (Musty should stay on. The other 2….well. sometimes they wobble a tiny bit and jump off preemptively. I would not be super surprised to see that. Sometimes they also kick ass. Anyone’s guess! They are also quite prone to losing CV, or connection value. IF they hit, could make EFs)
Deng Linlin, Sui Li, Yao Jinnian (Deng actually falls in this routine but i dont feel like looking up another one. Anyway, she quite rarely falls. The same cannot be said of the other 2; Sui especially can be brilliant or awful).
Lauren Mitchell, AUS--quite well known on this event, does some beautiful work
“Ten years ago, as we all know, ‘everything’ changed. And then some things changed back.”–Henrik Hertzberg
“In the end, J.K. Rowling may have outwritten us all.” –Laurie Moore.
My memories of 9/11 are mostly fragments. I was still pretty young–two days from turning 16–and that’s part of it, but part of it is also that they must be fragments. It is too hard to hold together a coherent picture of the day, from beginning to end.
I remember having a dream the night before that something horrid had happened. I remember going to school the next day. I remember Norman, our principal, calling us into the Big Room and saying, with a catch in his voice and an expression I’d never seen on his face–he was normally quite calm–telling us what had happened. I remember his voice as he said he was thinking about all those people. I remember Anne, the math teacher, one of the gentlest women I will ever have the pleasure to know, saying that it had to be Osama bin Laden. I was, as I said, not quite sixteen, and I was totally unaware of the world around me: I’d been as angry as any other teenage burgeoning progressive wannabe when Bush was “elected” and I’d happily tell you that the GOP was made up of morons, but of the larger world I knew inexcusably little. Or perhaps not inexcusably: perhaps my excuse is merely that I never had to, I could live in my own little world, spill my own little dramas. I did not know what was going on in Iraq, Afganistan–I’m not sure I would even have recognized the names. I was concerned with my own private hell–I was not as desperate and depressed and self-destructive at sixteen as I would be at seventeen, but I was getting there–and I could not see outside myself. Even after 9/11, it would take several years before I learned to look around me, to open my eyes and see the rest of the world. For many years I lived as a ghost might, flitting between home and school, lost in books.
And so I had no idea who bin Laden was. I did not understand what was happening. I did not know what the World Trade Center was. When Dylan asked if this was a terrorist attack and Norman said well yes, it looks that way, I had little concept of what a terrorist attack even is. It would take me a long time to even begin to understand that.
A couple of years ago, I was walking some kids home. At the time, I think that S and N were in 1st grade and C was in kindergarten. As we walked, S told me that they’d learned about 9/11.
Oh? I said.
He was solemn, serious. People were–they flew the planes. Into buildings.
I could hear the wonder in his voice, the utter astonishment. We don’t raise our kids to understand that things like this can happen in the world. And that is not a bad thing. But it makes it much harder to explain, then, at the moment when suddenly you have to.
The kids asked me what had happened. Who were these bad guys who flew planes, and did they mean to fly them into the buildings, or was it an accident? If it was an accident, they could understand it well enough: accidents happen. Milk is spilled, crayons are dropped, sometimes grown-ups say or do things they do not mean. But they couldn’t fathom someone flying a plane into a building to kill people on purpose. And I’m glad, of course, that they cannot.
Do you remember all the “well now we are a better country?” crap? I do. And it turned out to be a grand lie. We are not a better country. We are just as fragmented as we were before 9/11. Probably more so. Oh, there were a few nice moments of national unity, and then we went right back to fighting about butt sex. We do not have a sense, still, of what is right and what is wrong. And I am part of that, of course. I have less than no tolerance for Tea Partiers and racists and insert blank here. I just don’t. And I am not convinced that I should: while I think it is important to be tolerant of ideas, being tolerant of behavior that actively oppresses someone else is another thing entirely.
Hmm. That doesn’t really help clarify matters, does it?
This morning I watched the video footage. I don’t think I’d ever seen it before: that day I was not glued to the television. I could not stand to watch. I have avoided it ever since, but I think that it is important, too, to bear witness. So I watched. And I reacted exactly as you’d think: I gasped, I stifled a sob, I gasped again. I cannot imagine (and I have a fairly fertile imagination) the terror of actually seeing that. I really cannot. And I cannot imagine being a newscaster and suddenly seeing that plane fly into the second tower–how did I miss that video? I’ve never seen it, not that I can remember. If I have, I’ve forgotten, or I very carefully did not notice in the first place. Anyway, I cannot imagine suddenly realizing that this was, in fact, not an accident.
I don’t (as is surely obvious by now) have any sort of unifying theme or comforting conclusion to offer here. I remember what it was like. I mourn for the people who died. I remember how stunning and strange it was to have heroes, actual heroes, among us. I remember how my views on what the nation was like were altered, completely and totally, on one day. I remember how scary it was, to realize that we were not in fact invincible, that on the most beautiful of days the world can suddenly turn to ash.
This morning I happened to be supervising a couple of kids. One was 6, one 4. The 6 year old turned to me suddenly.
Osama bin Laden is dead now, she said.
He is, I agreed.
My mom said he was the boss of all the bad guys.
Your mom is right. He was the boss of all the bad guys.
The 4 year old looked up. How did he die?
Well, the girl said, he killed himself. I think with a bow and arrow. Or a gun.
I said, that’s what you think, huh?
The girl said, let’s build the Pentagon.
They built a tower out of the wooden blocks. The girl got the little plastic helicopter. Let’s fly this into the Pentagon, she said.
They flew the helicopter into the Pentagon. What happens now, I asked.
Everybody got dead, she said matter-of-factly.