9/11 Never Really Goes Away…Nor Should It.


The hashtag #NeverForget, a seemingly cliche sentiment that is trotted out every September 11th without fail, is also just a truthful description of my feelings about that fateful day.

I will never forget. Even if I wanted to, I can’t forget.

Having spent the past few days in New York City for the first time and staying in a hotel that was about a block from the 9/11 Memorial, my memories of and emotions about the events of that devastating Tuesday were more palpable than they usually have been in the subsequent 16 years.

For my work with Catholic Extension, I was traveling to the Big Apple with a group of about 35 religious sisters. Even in a city that’s seen it all, many people stopped to take photos of our caravan as we roamed the streets of New York.

I arrived a day before the sisters and explored the neighborhood surrounding my hotel, which included all of the new World Trade Center structures and the memorial. As I walked the streets, I wondered how many of the businesses I passed were there in 2001. How many of the people walking and working around me had experienced those acts of terrorism firsthand or knew someone who had died? How did they even begin the physical cleanup process, much less the emotional one?

I have read so many accounts of the chaos in the streets after the planes hit — as the buildings swayed precariously and bodies fell from the sky. I have seen hundreds of photos and video of everything covered in dust — including people who walked around in an astounded, confused daze after their workday or New York vacation had taken a turn for the horrific.

I had nightmares about the attacks and the haunting images of people jumping from the burning buildings for months after September 11th — and I had no direct connection to anyone who lived through or died from the experience. I can’t imagine what it was like for the people who did…or what it continues to be like.

The effects of 9/11 continue to rear their ugly head to this day. Even while I was in New York, there was a headline about a ferry captain who saved hundreds who just died of cancer related to the toxins released by the collapse of the buildings — like so many others who lived through the experience only to tragically die from it years later.

The memorial itself is beautiful and moving. Two separate square fountains take up the footprint of the twin towers, with water flowing endlessly downward into a square hole in the middle of the base of the structures. The outer edges of the squares are enscribed with the names of everyone who perished: office workers, firefighters, police officers, tourists — I even saw a reference to the unborn child of one of the victims who was pregnant. Loved ones commemorate the birthday of their beloved deceased by placing white flowers on their name. There were several flowers on display yesterday.

The sisters — all from Latin American countries — prayed a rosary next to one of the memorial fountains. A young sister from Puerto Rico — who couldn’t have been very old when 9/11 occurred — seemed particularly moved by the experience and led a beautiful prayer asking for God’s grace on the victims and their families and for mercy for the people who commited the atrocity.

Of all the exciting attractions that I wanted to experience in New York, this was one place to which I always felt called to make a pilgrimage. The experience reminded me anew of why I will never forget — and why we can’t.

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I Happen to Like New York

In the past week, I have taken two trips for work: The first trip was to rural southwest Kansas, which involved hours of driving through country where the only views were desolate plains and herds of cattle.

The second trip was to New York City — my first trip ever to the city — and I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Since I’ve traveled quite a bit in my life, it’s hard for some people to believe that it took me so long to get to New York. The truth is, I just never really had a compelling reason to go and it wasn’t enough of a priority to take a vacation there.

I also have a bit of an internal conflict over the city.

As a lifelong Chicagoan, our status as the Second City is both a badge of honor and a point of contention. We’re not as prideful as New Yorkers, so we’re fine with being #2, but that’s only because we secretly know that we’re better than them. I’ve often heard New York described as a bigger, dirtier, less-friendly Chicago. Why would I want to spend time there?

As a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, I will never forgive the Miracle Mets for 1969 and the only recently avenged heartache they caused every older Cub fan in my life. Also, the Yankees. That’s all I have to say about that.

On the other hand, as a movie buff and connaisseur of pop culture, I have to admit that New York City has an undeniable mystique about it. A town that has inspired or been the setting for so many great TV shows, movies and songs can’t be all bad. The New York City-themed montages in Elf alone are enough to make me curious.

Now that I’ve spent my first day in New York, I have to begrudgingly admit that — while nothing would ever get me to say that it’s better than Chicago — it’s a really awesome city. I get the hype now.

As my plane descended over the city, I felt myself getting chills as I first saw the Statue of Liberty — even though it looked incredibly tiny from the plane window. With great-grandparents who immigrated to the United States via Ellis Island in the early 20th century, I couldn’t help but think about the experience of them and everyone else welcomed to this country by Lady Liberty. It feels cliche just writing that sentence, but it’s honestly how I felt.

I was a bit taken aback by the enormity of the city from the air, and once again after I landed and Uber’d through it. The complex geography of Manhattan Island and all the waterways and bridges is somewhat astounding from a civil engineering perspective. I knew that NYC was bigger than Chicago, but I didn’t realize just how much bigger until I was looking at it from above.

As a member of the 9/11 generation — I was about to start college in 2001 — seeing the city’s skyline and all the surrounding buildings instantly transported me back to that horrific day. That was the first time in my life that I really paid any close attention to New York outside of sports or pop culture references. I’m staying in a hotel mere blocks from where the World Trade Center stood, so all the coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath that I consumed at the time and afterward has come flooding back to me, restoring the kinship or intimacy with the city that I (and many others) felt so keenly after 9/11.

As I walked around this evening, I found myself imagining what these streets, shops and buildings looked like on the day of the attack and thought about how many people’s lives were disrupted in the moment and ultimately changed forever. I’ve been watching The Looming Tower, too, so that probably has something to do with all of the sad post-9/11 reflections. As I looked at the beautiful new tower in the World Trade Center complex, I marveled at all the work that has gone into rejuvenating and rebuilding this part of the city. It’s really incredible.

On a more upbeat note, my first move once I got into the city was to meet up with a former Northwestern student whom I taught a few years ago and who now works in the NBC Page program. This meant that I got to engage with my other New York-centric obsession — late night TV.

On a private tour, I was able to see the studios where Jack Paar and Johnny Carson originated The Tonight Show and where Jimmy Fallon currently plies his trade. I also saw Seth Meyers’ stomping grounds, as well as the old studio where David Letterman and Conan O’Brien once roamed and Megyn Kelly now hosts a later hour of The Today Show.

Best of all, I was able to peek in on the set of Saturday Night Live, as they prepped for the evening’s dress rehearsal and live broadcast. Guest host and living SNL legend Bill Hader was rehearsing a sketch with cast member Cecily Strong, while crew members finished painting a set and others set up the scenery for the cold open. Later, I saw Hader blocking out his movements for the monologue and how he would shift into the first sketch.

As a fan of SNL from the first time I was allowed to watch the show, this was a bucket list level pilgrimage for me. Just like when I finally attended a taping of the Bozo Show in Chicago as a child, it was extraordinary to see how much smaller in scale everything is than the wide angle TV camera lens makes it appear. The iconic center stage where the guest hosts make their grand entrance and deliver their opening monologue looks more like a comedy club stage than a professional theater. The musical guest’s stage is similarly tiny. In person, everything about the SNL production seems more intimate than epic.

The tight geography of the studio makes it so that the audience has a decidedly bad view of most of the show’s proceedings. I kind of assumed that the sets were all moved to the front of the stage one-by-one for each sketch, but they are far too large and complex for that, so they stay put in a few designated stage areas. One of the stages — where the infamous Cowbell sketch was performed — is positioned in such a way that it is completely obscured from the studio audience. The performers literally have their back to the audience. Another of the stages is reserved for “messy” sketches that involve water or fake blood or anything else that requires extra preparation and cleanup. Peering into the studio, it was incredible to be reminded of just how many people’s jobs revolve around putting on a comedy show every week. All that hard work probably makes the sketches that bomb even more painful for the cast and crew.

I saw a few of the current cast members wandering through the halls and could just feel the history and electricity of the place, as the show was set to go on this evening. It was extra intriguing to watch the live broadcast tonight, as I had seen a lot of the sets and watched some of the preparations without knowing exactly what they were for or what would happen. All in all, it was a fantastic experience.

After my tour, I perused the NBC Studio Store and decided to just wander the area around 30 Rock a bit. I happened upon the ice rink from Elf, Radio City Music Hall, the Nintendo store, and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral — on Saint Patrick’s Day no less!

I’m excited for the opportunity to explore more of the city over the next two days and see a few of the more traditional tourist attractions. It’s only been a day, but I definitely heart New York a lot more than I thought I would!

Processing A Hoax

A few months ago, my wife was taking our daughter for a walk in her stroller and accidentally left the garage door open. When she returned, the door in the garage that led into our house was also open. She couldn’t find her house keys, car keys and wallet — which usually hung on a hook just inside that strangely ajar interior garage door. It was freaky.

She made sure no one was in the house, retraced her steps, and tore the house apart looking for the keys and wallet. Since there had been quite a few recent incidents of people stealing unlocked cars and intruding into unlocked homes in the middle of the night — even in our very safe neighborhood — we decided to file a police report. The cops recommended that, if we couldn’t find the keys, we change the locks the next day. As an added precaution, we ended up sleeping at my parents’ house that night. My wife got the locks changed the next morning, but soon after doing so, she found the keys under a random flap on my daughter’s stroller. All turned out to be OK, but not without some tense moments of losing all sense of security that we had moments earlier completely taken for granted.

This story played out on a grander scale today at Northwestern University, my beloved alma mater. The stakes were obviously much higher: Evanston police received a call from someone claiming to have killed his girlfriend in a Northwestern graduate residence building. Northwestern’s emergency communications protocol swung into action, sending texts and making calls to all students, faculty and staff to alert them of the situation and urging them to take cover in a safe place.

It was more than an hour before the official “All Clear” message was released, and the incident was revealed to be a hoax. The call had come from somewhere near Rockford and the woman referenced was unharmed and in no danger, according to police. While this is probably the best possible outcome for a harrowing situation like this, the incident still caused a university-wide panic.

While for many people following the news, this was simply a moment of relief from “what might have been,” to me it was so much more than that.

Having studied and worked at Northwestern for more than 13 years, this was the equivalent of a home invasion for me. I also spent six years working in the office tasked with handling emergency communications (and was there for some tough stuff), which made receiving the news of today’s events particularly jarring.

I had just turned my phone back on after landing in Dallas on my way back to Chicago, when it immediately blew up with text message. Several other former University Relations coworkers were trading what little details were available via text and pondering what must be happening at our former office in these moments. Another former coworker and a fellow alum were sending me several tweets related to the situation.

Most importantly, my Mom texted me to say that my youngest brother — a current junior — was not on campus when the alert went out and was safe.

Scanning my Facebook and Twitter feeds — filled with posts from students I had taught and staff and faculty I had worked with — painted a horrifying picture of the terror that gripped the place that was my home as a student for 5 years and as a staff member for 8 years. There’s a photo of 18 students huddled on the floor of a professor’s tiny office. There’s a photo of a classroom door with all of the chairs and desks stacked against the door. There are accounts of students running to closets and other hidden away areas of the student center upon receiving the emergency alerts.

While the shooting might have been a hoax, everything else that happened this afternoon was for real: the emergency texts, the police activity, the chaos, the uncertainty and the immediate coverage of little old Northwestern by national media outlets. It prompted visions of an alternate reality in which NU joined the statistics of all the other recent shootings in schools and public places.

Even though I wasn’t there to experience it in person, I feel that with today’s developments, the long shadow of gun violence in our country has finally touched me on a more personal level. I don’t pretend to have the political answers or perfect gun control policy changes, but something’s got to give. The value of human life is too sacred and our safety is too important for us to allow these kinds of things to happen so easily.

The reason that a hoax had to be taken so seriously today is because current events remind us that this is so often not a hoax. It is our sad new reality — a reality in which I can get on a plane for an hour and land to the news of violence and terror engulfing the people I love in a place that I love.

I’m praying a little bit harder tonight for all of the victims of the many violent incidents that resulted in far more than fear and false alarms. May their pain and loss be a constant reminder to us of the dignity of human life and the need to care for one another.

 


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Four Years in Our House

Four years ago today, I moved into my house. In that time, it’s safe to say that I have fulfilled the cliche and turned this house into a home. 

I remember the first time I pulled up to it — back when it was still just a house. It was one of those fluffy snowy days in Chicago when the flakes are falling furiously and beautifully and the accumulation is swift. My then-future in-laws had endured the weather to drive up from southern Indiana to check out this house’s potential to be a home for me and their daughter. We weren’t yet engaged, and I already owned a condo in another suburb. My longterm visions had us getting married eventually and her moving into the condo with me, where we would save for a house and move out whenever the timing worked.

But when a family friend offered me a once-in-a-lifetime deal on a house in the suburb where I grew up — 10 minutes from my parents’ house — it was too good not to investigate the possibility. The friend was not listing the house, so I hadn’t even seen any prettified, wide-angle real estate photos of the interior, just the Google Street View exteriors, via my limited Internet stalking of the property.

I can still remember exploring the largely empty rooms for the first time with my girlfriend — what an odd word to use for her now — trying to picture a future together in rooms that have since been filled with our furniture, our thoughts, our feelings, our offspring and four years’ worth of memories. As I wandered around the basement, growing more fond of the house itself and my imagined version of that future, I remember praying that my Mr. Fix-It father-in-law wouldn’t find any devastating structural dealbreakers. I also remember being silently grateful for my Can’t-Fix-A-Thing self that the house was recently flipped with a new paint job and new appliances. I liked this house.

The house ultimately passed the test and has been silent witness to so many momentous and mundane moments of my life ever since. I asked my wife to marry me in the living room. I jokingly carried her through the front doorway on our wedding night.

We have played countless board games in our dining room. We have watched hours of television and worked through countless fights on the living room couch. We have hosted outdoor parties and built a shed in our backyard

I slept off the effects of chemotherapy in our bedroom and spent six months working remotely from the confines of this house. We keep adding new mementos to our Chicago Cubs bathroom. We have hung wedding photos and baby photos everywhere.

We have passionate debates about if or when we should knock out the wall between the living room and the kitchen.

Our guest bedroom turned into a nursery where I rock my daughter to sleep every night. My Northwestern University-themed office room turned into the guest bedroom. The office-turned-guest-bedroom is now transforming into another nursery, where I’ll rock my son to sleep. The house is constantly evolving to meet the needs of our home.

Our unfinished basement holds memories of our past stacked against the walls. It stores our bikes during the winter. It hides some still unused wedding presents. Most excitingly, it holds the promise of the future evolution of our family. There are new rooms still to be created that will be the setting for even more memories to come.

We’ve crammed so much life into this house in four years.

It’s our home.


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In Praise of Longer Days

When you live in Chicago, Mother Nature wages a winter-long competition between cold and darkness to see which can break you first.

While I despise the cold, I know that my real enemy is the darkness. You can always warm yourself up eventually, but there’s no way to make the sun emerge during Chicago’s winter hallmark: endless weeks of dreary gray skies. There comes a point each year, as I trudge to the train station in frigid darkness after work, that I wonder if it will ever be 80 degrees and sunny again — and realize with despair that we are still at least four solid months away from that warm reality. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing, even if you only have a mild case of it.

But then there are days like today — a random Tuesday in late February — when cold and darkness both stay their hands. We are graced with unnatural 60-degree temperatures and an even more important reminder that spring is on its way: sunlight that lasts beyond 6 p.m.

There is something indescribably important about leaving work before it’s dark outside. Since childhood summers, the dying of the light has always represented a sort of sadness — the day is over, the fun has ended, it’s time to go inside. When you end your workday without the opportunity to see the sun setting in the sky, it feels more like your life in the cubicle has robbed you of a day you’ll never get back. If there’s at least a shred of daylight left when you emerge from your occupational cocoon, you’ve won.

I love these brief weeks before our clocks even do us the favor of “springing ahead,” when the sun lingers in the sky and ends its workday along with me. This evening I strolled through the beautiful streets of downtown Chicago with a spring in my step that matched the spring in the air.

The majestic Second City skyscrapers are extra magical when the sun has slipped down below their massive height — so the tops of the buildings are still brightly illuminated and reflecting the dying embers, but the street below is cast in shadow with an orange glow burning brightly above it. I board my train, and the sun and I race home together. The orb creeps ever closer to the horizon as I speed toward my evening plans.

As I arrive home in the gloaming — which has lasted a bit longer each day this week — I can feel the page turning. Soon the days will stretch and the warmth will increase to allow me to come home and eat dinner outside on my back patio, or go for a well-lit run, or take my daughter to the playground down the block.

The mere thought of it begins the annual healing process of the scar tissue earned from shoveling the driveway and scraping windshields and walking in the darkness.

The days are getting longer. Every day, there is more day to seize.


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