New York City, Part II, 9/11 Memorial

My daughter was born a couple of weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She’s 15 now, and this was her first trip to New York City. In the back of my mind I was thinking it would be good to hold off visiting the city with her until the site at ground zero had been repaired and the new tower completed.

On the first full day of our trip we took the subway to lower Manhattan and walked to ground zero. One thing that seemed odd to me is that even though the new tower is the tallest structure in Manhattan, you can’t see it as you approach. I was looking for it as a visual clue on how to get there, but the view of it is blocked by other tall buildings, so I had to use the map application on my phone for navigation.

Finally, you round a corner and there it is. Another odd thing is that it doesn’t look that tall when you’re right up near it. I think there must be an optical illusion at play related to the tower’s wide footprint and narrowing shape as it rises skyward. When you see the tower from a distance (e.g., from the Brooklyn Bridge), it is very impressive and there is a direct correlation between how far away you are and how tall the tower appears in relation to the rest of the skyline.

I remember visiting New York as a child and seeing the twin towers. By comparison, the new tower struck me as kind of an only child; somewhat lonely. The choice to build one tower instead of two probably had to do with the building site. The tower competes for space with the footprints of the twin towers, which incorporate the memorial and the museum, so my guess is building two towers was never a possibility. That said, they did a nice job of the fitting the new tower into the site without creating a shoe-horned feel; it looks like it belongs there.

If you plan to visit the 9/11 memorial, I recommend that you visit the museum first, before contemplating the fountain memorials inscribed with the names of those lost. The effect of the fountains will be much more profound that way.

Kudos to the people involved in creating the memorial and museum. I can’t imagine the difficulty of conveying the experience New Yorkers went through that day, while respecting the sanctity of the site itself, which is, in effect, the final resting place of those whose remains were vaporized in the collapse of the towers and could never be recovered. So, here is my subjective perspective on the memorial and museum.

To me, the most important aspect is that the footprints of the twin towers are incorporated into the museum experience. By that I mean there is an above ground structure that you enter, and after passing through security you go through an introductory exhibit that leads down into the ground to an overlook. When you get to the overlook you instantly realize that you are looking at the actual excavated area below where the towers stood; you recognize it from the innumerable television broadcasts that showed the workers digging out the debris. When I walked to the edge and looked down, my breath caught in my throat and my eyes moistened.

Care has been taken to retain features of the footprints; there are still pieces of metal supports sticking out the sides of the walls. The space hasn’t been prettied up at all, except for removal of the debris. A sloped walkway leads you down, down, into the ground, past a sign that says here is the epicenter of where the truck bomb exploded in the first terrorist attack on the towers back in the 90’s. You continue going down the sloped walkway until you are at the bottom, which is decorated sparsely with a few items: a crushed fire truck; a huge steel beam bent back on itself like a pretzel; a display case of personal items recovered from the debris field. There is also the so called “last column,” a rectangular monolith of steel and concrete that is covered with the names of various fire companies and other memories of the first responders. It’s devastating. There is nothing they could have created in that space more impactful than the simple space that was left when the debris was removed; it is unique, haunting, a bit claustrophobic, and evocative of the experience of those who died there, and of those who toiled there in the aftermath.

But nothing can prepare one for the museum within the museum; a structure that you enter through glass doors, and which contains a comprehensive multi-media recitation of everything that happened on 9/11. Through the use of video, news reports, photographs, sound recordings, recovered personal items, and projections, the museum re-creates the events of that day. I can’t imagine that someone can walk through it without reacting emotionally. For me, there were moments when I felt like I was going to lose it completely and I had a strong urge a couple of times to run and get outside. I imagine different people will react to certain things more strongly than others. For example, they have sound recordings of goodbye messages from the doomed left on voicemail and answering machines – the final calls to loved ones from the airplanes and the buildings. They also have children’s pajamas, toys, and blankets from the airplanes that somehow escaped destruction.

All of the people I met on the trip who live in New York, when I told them I had visited the memorial, said that they couldn’t go. They lived through it once already. I think the point of the place is for people who were not there on that day. While people who were not there have their own memories, visiting the memorial connects them more closely to the terrible events; something approaching but never matching the experience of those who were there.

Visiting the memorial is not a “fun” experience, but, I think, essential for anyone who wants more than a superficial understanding of what happened. People will react to it in their own way. For some, it will be cathartic; for others, painful; for others, life affirming; and, I think, for most everyone, a reminder of the best and worst of humankind.

 

 

Kindness Amidst Chaos

Tebow

There were two news stories yesterday about air travel. One was about the terrorist attack at the airport in Istanbul, Turkey. The other was about a man who had a heart attack during a flight he was taking with his wife and her friend. Which one would you guess had the most emotional impact on me?

It was the one about the man who had the heart attack.

The reason is that the man’s fellow passengers on the plane tried to help him. In particular, the former football player, now sports broadcaster, Tim Tebow, left his seat in business class and came to the man’s aid. He led prayers for the man along with other passengers around him while the man’s wife and her friend cried on his shoulders, picked up the family’s luggage when the plane landed and went with them to the hospital, staying until the family was told that the man had passed away.

You might think that it’s insensitive to not have a more emotional reaction to the terrorist attack. In fact, I thought that to myself after reading both stories. I think the reason the Tebow story impacted me more is because the terrorist attacks have become routine and have numbed my senses. Also, because there are so few positive stories that make the news. Indeed, I wonder if this story would have made the news were it not for the fact that a celebrity was involved. I suspect that there are many such occurrences every day that go unreported because the people engaging in such acts of kindness are regular, ordinary people, doing the right thing in obscurity.

That’s a shame, because I think that reading about acts of kindness promotes that type of behavior, just as the terrorists think that media coverage of their doings recruits some people to that type of behavior.

I wish the media would run a story about an act of kindness every day, not just when it involves a famous person. Maybe doing that would balance out the negative stuff and encourage the type of behavior the world desperately needs right now.

My thoughts, prayers, and condolences to all affected by the attack in Turkey.

Film Review: Star Wars, The Force Awakens

Kylo Ren

This is a spoiler-free review.

I asked my 14 year old daughter if she wanted to see the new Star Wars movie and she said that she didn’t because she hadn’t seen any of the previous ones in the series. I don’t know if that’s a sign of bad parenting on my part or a measure of the cultural schism created by age, but it shocked me to think she’s been blissfully unaware of something that was a part of my growing up. Anyway, I went to see the new film by myself. And she was right in the sense that you really need to have seen at least the first three films in the series to have a fair chance of fully enjoying this most recent entry. That’s in part because the film makers assumed that everyone who will see The Force Awakens is already aware of certain plot points, like Darth Vader’s familial relationship with the series’  original hero, Luke Skywalker. So, there’s quite a bit of exposition left out, or mentioned only in passing.

That having been said, The Force Awakens is sure to satisfy Star Wars fans, though I suspect that the extent to which they love this film will depend in part on their expectations going in. In my opinion it is the third best entry out of the lot, exceeded only by The Empire Strikes Back and the original Star Wars, which was subsequently titled A New Hope. My opinion may change after repeat viewings. One thing for sure is that it is orders of magnitude better than all the prequels, and that is due in large part to the casting. There are two new heroes, a disenchanted Stormtrooper named Finn, played by  John Boyega, and a scrappy scavenger named Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. There are also old friends brought back from the original series, with a stand out performance by Harrison Ford reprising the role of space scoundrel Han Solo. But the best thing about this film, in my opinion, is the performance by Adam Driver as the villain Kylo Ren. Ironically, his performance is the emotional heart of the film and packs the most punch. There is also a new droid character named BB-8 that is a fine addition to the series.

The plot echoes the original film, which seems like a conscious compromise intended to ground it in Star Wars lore so the stage is set for subsequent installments. It will be interesting to see whether the next film can break out and offer something fresh.

Viewers may be struck by the same feeling I had of consuming the film as comfort food, rather than a fine but perhaps more palette-challenging gourmet meal. There is a lot to like in the visuals, with fantastic vistas and complex battle scenes that seem more real than other installments due to less reliance of computer generated images. There’s also the pitch perfect score by John Williams, which complements the action and keeps things moving along. It also struck me that this film gives itself permission to have fun and pierce the seriousness that over-saturated the prequels.

Another thought I had watching the film is the seeming difficulty the film has creating a sense of dread and menace when it comes to the bad guys, who in this installment are called The First Order. They are presented in a Nazi motif reminiscent of a Nuremberg rally, but in the context of recent events they seem quaint by comparison. Not to say that the Nazis weren’t menacing, but there is a certain lack of explanation as to what is driving their actions, other than a will to power. The film plays more on the eternal balance between good and evil and those forces being functions of each other; one not being able to exist without the other. My guess is that the next film will explore that theme more deeply, but what do I know.

If you like action adventures this should be on your list for holiday viewing. Have fun and may the force be with you.

 

 

 

 

 

Until the End of the World

Bono Paris

This is a photograph of Bono, the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, performing in Paris on December 7, 2015. U2 was originally scheduled to perform in Paris in November, with the concert to be broadcast on HBO, but the band had to postpone due to the terrorist attacks in Paris, which included an attack on a rock concert featuring the California band The Eagles of Death Metal.

The rescheduled concert was broadcast on HBO the evening of December 7th and I watched it and recorded it for repeat viewing. Of course, the terrorist attacks upped the ante for the rescheduled show and created, at least for me, an expectation that it would be in some way more meaningful, especially given the band’s tendency to wade into political matters. So I was anticipating a great performance, but was also a bit cynical about the prospect of these wealthy rock stars getting paid a ton of money to play a show and thinking they could somehow convey something more than the pleasant buzz one might associate with popular musical performances.

The show started out quite serious, with a mix of new and old material and plenty of seemingly heartfelt pronouncements, such as we are all Parisians tonight. A standout was the U2 standard Sunday Bloody Sunday, which evokes the period of Irish troubles deriving from religious and political conflict between north and south. The band had the good sense to have the members line up at the front of the stage, with the drummer playing a shoulder-hung drum like in a marching band. The visual was like something out of Les Miserable; the revolutionaries pushed up against the barricades.

Then things became even more serious, with Bono explaining the genesis of the material on the band’s new album and drawing a loose connection between experiences the members had growing up during the troubles and current events. This part of the show ended with Bono imploring a higher power to bring comfort. At this point I was thinking that the show was doomed to linger in a tone of sadness and maudlin pomposity. But then a curious thing happened. A full on rock concert broke through the gloom.

The band’s guitarist, known as The Edge, launched into one of my favorite U2 songs, Until the End of the World. The opening lyrics are as follows:

Haven’t seen you in quite a while
I was down the hold just passing time
Last time we met was a low-lit room
We were as close together as a bride and groom
We ate the food, we drank the wine
Everybody having a good time
Except you
You were talking about the end of the world

The implicit message was that despite all that had happened, it wasn’t (isn’t) the end of the world. During the guitar break, The Edge was performing behind a scrim, onto which Bono was projected larger than life, drinking water from a bottle and seeming to spray it out of his mouth onto The Edge. He says, “I’m sorry, Edge.” Then he says, “No, I’m not sorry.” A moment of humor that pierced the sanctimony. The song continued, until the final verse, which goes:

In my dream I was drowning my sorrows
But my sorrows, they learned to swim
Surrounding me, going down on me
Spilling over the brim
Waves of regret and waves of joy
I reached out for the one I tried to destroy
You…you said you’d wait
’til the end of the world

That line: I reached out for the one I tried to destroy. It was a transcendent moment; at once a battle call and a moment of tenderness.

I’ve been thinking for a couple days now whether this concert was important. It occurs to me that the terrorists thought it was important to kill a lot of people at another concert, and not because they were pissed off that the band made money off it. Maybe that’s because they realize that music does have meaning beyond the business side of things. On that note, U2 struck a blow for the good.

Bullet the Blue Sky

Eiffel Tower Dark

The Irish Rock Band U2 was supposed to play in Paris tonight, with the show to be broadcast on HBO. Instead, the show was postponed by the band “until an appropriate time” due to the terrorist attacks that hit Paris on Friday night. I wonder if the terrorists were thinking about the fact that it was the 13th.

I was reminded of the time that my wife Lisa and I saw U2 in Paris at the Parc de Princes. We were on our honeymoon and it just so happened that U2 was playing in Paris during that part of our European itinerary. We bought tickets from a scalper outside the stadium. That particular show was played on the same date of Princess Diana’s funeral; she had died in the car accident in Paris when Lisa and I were in Nice. It was a memorable show, but two memories in particular stand out: U2 playing the song “One” in honor of Diana, with a royal portrait of her projected on the screen behind the stage; and, U2 playing “Bullet the Blue Sky.”

I thought about Bullet the Blue Sky when I heard that U2 had postponed their Paris concert because of the terrorist attacks. The song is a critique of violence and conflict and when performed live it can come across as political theater. When I saw U2 play it in Paris, they extended the out-tro for several minutes while the lead singer, Bono, performed an exquisite pantomime of a man walking a highwire while holding an umbrella over his head as if for balance. The umbrella he was holding had a colorful red, white, and blue American flag motif. Bono’s theatrical interlude came across clearly to me as a metaphor of Europe as the daredevil, protected by the security umbrella provided by the United States. I could hear many of the audience members around me muttering in French, “c’est vrai, c’est vrai.” (it’s true, it’s true).

A lot has happened since then and I’m not writing this to grind any particular political axe. One could say that we are less secure due to American adventurism in foreign affairs, or because we’ve chosen to “lead from behind.” I think most would agree, though, that for whatever reason, the security umbrella is looking a bit frayed these days. U2 reacted to the terrorist attacks on Paris with “shock and horror.” Yeah, me too. For people who’ve visited Paris, it’s hard to imagine something like this happening. Hard, and sad in a way that rips at your heart. Paris evokes an ethereal innocence. To see that shattered is heartbreaking.

Maybe it was inevitable that the security umbrella wouldn’t last forever. But it will certainly be replaced by something better, or worse. I get the feeling we’re going to find out real soon.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the French and all the others affected by this terrible situation.

Loving on Oakland

Oakland Lake

I have a co-worker who is originally from Chicago. I told him that I visited Chicago and thought it was a great city. He told me that he likes Oakland better, because in Chicago people are divided into ethnic enclaves, even if you’re caucasian. There’s an Italian neighborhood, a Polish neighborhood, etc. Since I’ve lived in California my whole life, that’s hard for me to imagine. At this point I’m going to share a somewhat non-sequiter funny picture of a concert poster.

Cake Poster

It’s a bear in sheep’s clothing. A riff on the California State flag.

Anyway, if it’s hard to imagine ethnic enclaves in California, it’s even harder to imagine them in Oakland, California. Oakland is eclectic. How eclectic?

I just went out for a coffee break. Down the street from where I work is a place called the Brown Coach Cafe. It is owned and operated by Muslims and the women behind the counter are wearing traditional headscarves. At one of the tables is a Caucasian woman conversing with an African American woman, next to a table with an Asian couple, next to a table with a Caucasian guy working on a laptop. The Brown Couch is right next door to an Afghan restaurant, run by Afghanis, which is across the street from a Japanese restaurant, run by Japanese, which is kitty-corner to a surf shop, run by a Caucasian surfer dude with blond hair. Two blocks away is Oakland’s Chinatown, which is as close as you can come to an ethnic enclave. People live there by choice, though, not because they aren’t integrated into the rest of the city. In fact, the current mayor of Oakland is of Chinese heritage.

Here’s a picture of a painting of Oakland’s shipping cranes that is hanging in the Brown Couch Cafe.

Cranes

It was painted by a local artist named Dave Platford.

The thing is, everyone gets along just fine. As my co-worker and I walk back to the office (we’re both Caucasian) an African American lady who we don’t know walks past us and greets us and says good morning. If you lined up various cultural niches along a spectrum, Oakland would be at the far opposite end from the words “sectarian violence.”

I’m posting this today because my last post mentioned the tragic situation in Syria and Iraq.

There is hope for this world and for humanity. Oakland is one of the places on Earth where that hope resides in warmth and comfort, nurtured by people who have come here from all over the planet.

When you are feeling down and wonder what the world is coming to, visit us. It will make you feel a whole lot better.

 

 

 

Awwwwww…Geek Out!

IMG_2300

You may have heard that the European Space Agency landed a spacecraft on a comet today. Enough has been written (already!) about the historic event, so I’m going meta and talking about what it means to me.

I was very young when NASA put humans on the moon for the first time, but I still remember it. That event did three things to me. First, it expanded my understanding of the world. I understood that we live on an isolated, but interconnected world. Second, it made me wonder if there are other worlds out there that might support life. Most importantly, even at an early age, I was able to realize that the people who live on Earth are in the same lifeboat and that we share common interests; and in that moment I realized that human interactions across governmental and cultural divides are less important than our common human experience. The event was also the genesis of my interest in science fiction novels, and afterwards I spent my childhood reading the science fiction canon.

Now, let’s connect my memories to contemporary reality. There are people who are trudging through the deserts of Syria and Iraq engaged in behavior reminiscent of the 15th century. It’s horrible, and I can’t understand how we, as humans, have been unable to move forward together as humanity to realize a more hopeful future.

Perhaps this achievement will inspire young people to have the same epiphanies I had when I was their age.

By the way, the photo in this post is not intended to denigrate or be dismissive of the magnitude of this incredible, historic achievement. I just think that humor is a great way to engage people on the front end into what is a profound and important discussion.