Friday, January 20, 2012


We go up Liberty Street (this choice perhaps deliberate, something America would totally do) to Greenwich, through sluices of concrete blocks to slow movement, to where a surprisingly small number of people point cameras at the construction. The entrance to the 9/11 memorial is laid out to process large crowds, but it’s cold and just after the holidays, and once we present our passes we’re directed past a nearly block-long zig and zag of ropes instead of through it. Everyone and everything tells us to KEEP PASSES OUT, which we do, and they are repeatedly checked. We follow the arrows down a tunnel made from white concrete barricades topped with blue-netted fence to a glass building. A young guard dual wielding hand-held lasers scans our passes. The building turns out to be an airport-style security checkpoint, so we squish our hats and puffy coats into the bins on top of our cameras and phones. We don’t have to remove our shoes, which is good because mine happen to be complicated. The detectors don’t find us or our stuff suspicious (no one really seems to be watching that closely anyway), and we spend an equal amount of time on the other side gearing back up. To exit we must show our passes, which we do, and then we follow more barricades and arrows pointing and making the path up to Ground Zero, this time right along the West Side Highway with New York in a hurry. A guard at the entrance to the memorial proper asks for our passes and, once satisfied that we belong there, waves us into the site.

Most of the area is still a promise, an idea slowly unfolding. The museum, looking like a chipped box sinking on one end, isn’t open yet, and cupping our hands on the glass reveals a deep and broad space with a long way to go. The new swamp oaks stand in place, but they have given up for the season. We all take pictures — The Boy already has his mother’s eye — and the wind searches for our bones through our clothes. I loved to look straight up at a twin tower from its base, the way eyes work bending the top back toward me. You would swear they were built on a dare. But the new main building, now thankfully referred to simply as 1 World Trade Center, doesn’t have a precarious thing about it. Its heavy base leads the eye to compress it, to hold it down. Perhaps when I can stand close in the finished plaza I will see things differently.

The waterfalls, however, are complete. I remember the fraught memorial design competition, and of the finalists, this one was not my choice.* I thought the emphasis on the tower footprints was too literal and heavy-handed, dwelling on the holes blown in lives and not the healing. Still, realized, they do make a powerful impression. Each is a sunk black box with water falling geometrically for about forty feet then pooling into a smaller square in the center. Lights run around the base edge of the pool, and the water coming down carries the light up into it, multiplying it in interesting ways. The names of the dead, so many names, have been cut into the black metal that frames the waterfalls. I pull out my phone and use the memorial’s web app to look up my wife’s law-school roommate. We locate his name near a corner of the north waterfall, and as the evening comes on we can see it glow from below. I have read that the sound of the water was designed to muffle the city and to promote contemplation. But when I close my eyes, the evenness of the roar conjures up airliners in flight — cruising, though, not accelerating, not approaching on a violent angle. Still, I assume this was not intended.

And contemplation does not bring comfort. Memorials can provide places to offload grief, but so much remains unfinished even now, ten years out from 9/11. My thoughts about the attacks, ruminated into neater shapes over the years, have begun to show their original ragged edges. The war in Afghanistan, becoming medieval in its duration and destruction, is somehow older than Q and The Boy. I remain mostly proud of my city, less so of my country that became a wildly flung fist. I don’t know what to do or to think about any of it.

After only a little while, the cold wins, and we go back through the barricades and out into New York to eat. Always go back to the body. We order burgers and fries just a few blocks over at a place we’ve been wanting to try, and we crack peanuts from their shells while we wait for the food to arrive. Construction and change are everywhere; this neighborhood can’t become itself fast enough.

Remember, but don’t let memories get in the way. Write down the names where they can be touched and traced. Yes, a pool, too, but a small one with its own shape. And leave the surface still so that it can borrow the blue of the sky, can reflect the rising buildings and the office workers on their lunch. Make the place easy to enter and cross. Invite the whole loud, living city here, on foot and by train. Remember why we dig graves so deep and cover them with earth.

Most of all, make people look up.

*I am, of course, precisely nobody.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Giving season

My lovely wife and I have promised ourselves bigger gifts for some time now, but that promise has had a fair amount of give in it. We’ve talked about moving for a few years, either to a larger apartment in the city or to somewhere altogether different, perhaps even to a place with yards and cars and weeds thriving in the sidewalk cracks. But this giving season we finally made good: My wife, who tracks nearly every apartment in the city, saw a three-bedroom open up in our building (and price range). The rents drop in the winter, mainly because people don’t like to move in the cold and the middle of the school year. Neither the cold nor school presented issues for us, and the third bedroom presented opportunities.

It was all rather sudden. We looked at the apartment the Saturday night before Thanksgiving and decided the next day to take it. This year, unlike most, we had booked travel to Southern California to spend the holiday with my sister-in-law and her family. Our work and school schedules makes holiday travel tough, but they just moved into a new big house with lots of room for us and for new memories. We know what it’s like to have small kids while far from family, and there aren’t many opportunities to get my wife’s family together. We found ourselves packing what we could of everything else along with our suitcases before flying out on Monday.

Thanksgiving on the opposite coast, though quick, was just how it was supposed to be. We all made bits of the feast, the shared work in their large open kitchen the sweetest part of the meal. Q crafted most of the name cards, including one for my brother-in-law’s father who came for part of the time without telling his wife.* (After saying his thanks and goodbyes, he left the table, then came back to quickly slip the name card into his pocket.) We went to Sea World, and the kids eventually agreed to pose for pictures in a giant snow globe. Since we traveled both ways off-peak, the planes were empty enough for us each to have our own row. I give thanks for the visit.

We returned late Friday just after Thanksgiving to a half-boxed house. The new place had become ours while we were away, and we started taking things up, small cart by small cart, all weekend. The Boy began mourning the old place in earnest, which is understandable given it’s where we’ve spent the last eight-and-a-half years, including all of Q’s life and most of his.** My wrist was still fixing itself in a cast, and I wasn’t much help with the heavier stuff — we have an absurd number of books — but our building’s maintenance staff muscled the big items*** (and most of the small) up the padded service elevator into the new place. No moving truck, no layers of subcontractors between us and our destination. My wife spent moving day on the new floor unpacking and helping place the big things as they came in. Which meant that Q and The Boy left their shared space for school and came home to separate rooms that each looked as if they had been lived in for years.

We unpacked our traditions in the new place just as quickly. We determined the apartment’s natural spot for a Christmas tree (in the corner joint where the big windows meet), and strung our lights across the limbs and the jambs. My wife and I found fresh hiding places for the kids’ presents until they appeared under the tree disguised to be hefted and shook. We like to dedicate a good part of December to connecting with people, and we kept up with that, too. We spent Christmas Eve with our good friends and their daughters gloriously failing to build gingerbread houses, as we have for the past several Christmas Eves. We had new friends and their daughters over for my wife’s crème brûlée French toast, which is as French and good as it sounds. Q and the boy were like squatters in their friends’ home across the street.

The kids didn’t ask for much for Christmas, never do, and they deserve lots. We strove (like always) to find a rough mean between asking and deserving, and grandparents and aunts and uncles generously helped fill out our tree to the deserving point. Both Q and The Boy loved their new LEGO sets (Hagrid’s Hut and LEGO Architecture Falling Water respectively), the magnets maneuverable into surprising lattices, the books (including another volume of Calvin and Hobbes), the kits for making and spying, the obligatory but necessary winter clothes, and many other wonderful things. My parents gave my wife and I a box of Kansas barbecue, which we, reluctantly, shared with the kids. And we appreciated the familiar park and river from new directions and heights.

To give a gift is to entertain another’s beliefs and desires. We as a species do this so often and so well just making our way everyday, though, that I think we tend to forget the magic of it, and the difficulty. To give well — to give, as we say, a thoughtful gift — is to inhabit a whole mind as it is in motion and not as one pictures it. Now and again I still see Q and The Boy as they were when they fit easily on my shoulders and lap, even though these days The Boy and my wife can share shirts. I like to think of myself as still better described by what I have yet to do than by what I have done. All of these ideas have had to give.

My wife and I always find it difficult to give to ourselves, but with the new apartment we have more than promises this year. We live in the same building, but everything seems new enough to give us the change we needed. We’ve made a few promises, too, of course. We want to take the kids somewhere new, perhaps to Paris or London, or to where you can see right through the ocean to the sand. We could also use a new mattress and fewer broken bones. And I want to finally let go of at least one book and see where it lands. Might as well give it all a try.

Happy and Merry, everyone.

*Long story.
**His mourning consisted mainly of crying quietly in his old room’s closet with the accordion door closed. My lovely wife and I decided to take these moments as indicative of how much he enjoyed the place. And further confirmation that the boy is as subject to sentimentality as his father. He still hasn’t quite run to the end of his grief — or so he says while ensconced in his own room behind a sign reading “Boys Only: Enter & DIE!”