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September 09, 2011

Talking To My Kid About 9/11

There is always a need to say something. The ability to define a thing in some sense gives one the ability to control it - this, this is a bungee cord, and while people use it for this this this and this, I use it to keep the sleeping pad rolled up, and thus I own it, the concept of a bungee cord, what it is, what it is not. Parents explain the Why of things - earthquakes, brushfires, thunder, lightning - to give us the illusion of control; not over Nature, but over our kids' inate fears. And our own. 

We saw the Captain America movie a few weeks ago, and naturally there were questions: was HYDRA real? Why did the Germans want to take over the world? Did a lot of people die? The kid knows a bit about World War II: he knows that it happened, that there were Good Guys and Bad Guys, and that the Good Guys won. The stuff about Dachau and Dresden, Hiroshima and Nanking...that will have to wait until he's older. You reveal the world layer by layer, and the dark mantle that surrounds the core is best explored when the risk of nightmares is low.

If he asks, I can tell him what I remember.

I walk out of the shower, still rubbing sleep-snot from my eyes as I click on the TV and see the second plane fly - no, not fly, it looks like it just drifts, floats, right into the side of the tower. The brain, it clicks into a logic-processing mode - the emotions are shut off, for they'd cause everything else - sight, balance, even the ability or desire to breath - to shut down. The first thing the brain comes up with: this is not an accident. The second thing: I am watching hundreds of people dying in real time. Everything following has since fragmented. The breathless call from Beth, working downtown; she's at the Convention Center, with a few thousand other people, and again the brain steps in - you live in the third largest metro area in California, and there are many, many things that would make dazzling targets, from the collection of Navy ships at anchor in the bay to the nuclear reactor not more than thirty minutes from your house to that very large, densely-packed Convention Center. The drive in to work, flanked by an endless procession of police cars and convoys of Hum-V's, Marines in gun turrets. Numbly keying in payroll for the dozens of people that depended on me for their paychecks, reading live updates on CNN.com - people are jumping to avoid being burned alive, and they hold hands with strangers as they leap, so as not to die alone - while typing in the hours worked for this employee and that employee, because these people depend on me today, they have bills to pay and kids to feed and so I can do at least that much.

And the fighter planes. All day. Fast and low. So low that you can see the Sidewinder missiles slung beneath them, and you think, find someone, anyone, make them pay, make them burn.

Yesterday afternoon I was thinking about all of this. It stood to reason that it being the Thursday before the weekend of the 10th anniversary of 9/11/01, the kids would be talking about this in school tomorrow. (9/11/01/10? 9/11/01/X? How will the networks brand this?) He'd come home with questions - yes, he has a vague knowledge of What Happened, but that was gained last year, and since then he's figured out that murder and evil really do exist. More than that, he's wrapped his head around big numbers. 2,751 will not be an abstraction.

And then the power went out. There was a CLICK!, the lights and the TV and the air conditioner all shutting down at once. 

My first thought: the goddamn AC. My second: shit - did we pay the bill? The kids were roaming around the house doing kid things - Zoe had lined up her My Little Pony dolls and was giving them stage directions, Lucas was fretting over a writing assignment that was due tomorrow. I went outside and checked the breakers - all good. While Beth dialed San Diego Gas and Electric, I pulled up Twitter on the iPhone. People in Carlsbad, La Jolla, and downtown San Diego were tweeting about there being no power. As were people in Dana Point and Yuma, Arizona. And then I started hearing the police sirens. Information started to trickle in: massive blackout in southern California, Arizona, and parts of Mexico; could be as long as 48 hours; a tweet from SDGE: "Conference on now. An event happened between AZ and CA". I sent a couple of wisecracking tweets about zombies and Bigfoot pissing on a transformer, in response to a third thought - a whisper, really - that had crept into my head. "An event." That thought lingered for just a few moments - I looked out the window, and the stoplights down the street were blinking, red and off, red and off. Then the thought passed. And as I told the kids that the electricity wasn't working, and we need to keep the fridge closed, and asked them to open some windows and find their flashlights, I decided to put the 9/11 talk on the backburner. We spent the rest of the afternoon getting stuff together - candles, flashlights, pajamas. I barbecued some hot dogs and ahi tuna steaks; we ate out on the patio, and then went down to the pool to tire the kids out before the dark settled on us. The day passed, and night fell - with all of the lights out, the stars and the moon were that much more brilliant. The kids eventually went to sleep, and Lucas dreamt of things that a seven-year-old should dream of, and I was relieved. Because had Lucas asked me what I was looking for as I gazed out that window at those flashing stoplights, the answer would've been fighter planes.



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