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.

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!

Disneyland By Wheelchair: Rolling Through the Happiest Place on Earth

Last week I celebrated my little brother’s high school graduation and my completion of chemotherapy with a family trip to Disneyland in California. I should note here that my family suffers from an untreatable form of Disney insanity. While we love most things that spring from the House of Mouse (even more true now that they own the Muppets, Marvel and Star Wars), we have a special addiction to Disney vacations. Lots of bloggers, columnists and other critics have opined that a vacation to central Florida in the July or August heat is tantamount to suicide or child abuse. Don’t tell that to a family who has taken that very trip more than 20 times. While you malign our vacation destination preferences, we’ll be riding Space Mountain again or hitting up another glorious Disney buffet.

IMG_1296But this post isn’t about Disney World. It’s about Disneyland. Specifically, it’s about my family’s first trip to Disneyland in 10 years and the first vacation I have ever taken on which I could consider myself (very broadly defined) disabled. Six months of chemotherapy and couch-sitting have left me incredibly weak and uncharacteristically worn out. While you might not notice this if you’re just spending an evening with me or seeing me in passing, it’s nevertheless true. I’m regaining weight and some of the hair is slowly coming back, but I’m not the man I was before Lumpy. My immediate post-chemo wellness is a lie that I often buy into myself, but when I push too hard and find myself in need of a nap, I remember that I have limits I didn’t have before and that getting back to 100 percent will be a process, not a switch that gets flipped as soon as you’re done with chemo.

This reality presented a bit of a problem when we realized that the Disneyland trip was scheduled for 9 days after my last chemo session. My still-debilitated immune system meant that an airplane ride to faraway California was a recycled air, germ-infested hazard that could land me in the hospital with an infection. And while California weather is not Florida weather, it would still be hot and sunny (I’m not supposed to be in the sun while taking the medication that I’m on). Most difficult of all, Disney trips are inherently physically demanding, with long hours in the parks and lots of walking–especially in Disneyland, where there are only two parks and a few hotels crammed within the developed city of Anaheim. There would be no bus rides from the hotel to the parks. Even the monorail is a 10-minute walk from the hotel.

But there was no way that I was going to sit out this trip! We decided that the only realistic solution was for me to wear a mask on the airplane, wipe down my seating area with disinfectant wipes and hope for the best. We would also rent a wheelchair for the duration of the trip, and my wife, parents and brothers could fight over who would get the honor of pushing me around.

This would not be my family’s first Disney rodeo with a wheelchair. In our early days of Disney World trips, we brought along my grandmother, who lived with us for 14 years before she passed away and attended nearly every Disney trip we took in that time. Her arthritis confined her to a wheelchair on these trips, and we would all take turns pushing her through the parks. But I don’t think I ever really considered her experience of the trip until I was the one being pushed around.

airplaneThe airplane ride to California was thankfully uneventful. I wore my mask and didn’t get too many odd stares from people or flight attendants. Just to be safe, my Mom bought a heavier duty mask than the ones they hand out at the hospital, which had a bendable metal strip on the top. I don’t know if I just didn’t bend it properly or if my broken Roman nose made comfort impossible, but the top of the mask rubbed destructively throughout the flight, and when I got off the plane, it looked like I already had a sunburn on the top of my nose.

When we disembarked, I had my initial taste of the wheelchair life. An airport attendant was waiting for us on the jetway with my first black-and-silver chariot. My Mom tried to convince the attendant to let one of my family members push me, but she said that she wasn’t allowed to leave the wheelchair and had to do it herself. Whatever stares I didn’t get when I was on the airplane were immediately made up for when those waiting for their flights at LAX got a look at a young man in a mask being pushed around in a wheelchair by a woman who was half his size. At this point, I decided to at least lose the mask.

IMG_1294When we arrived at our hotel (Paradise Pier Hotel, for those of you that it might mean something to), I received the wheelchair that would save me from miles of walking over the next four days. According to Theresa’s FitBit pedometer, it saved me 19,000 steps on the first day alone–and that was only a half day of park hopping! You’d think it would be easy to get used to the good life of being pushed around in a wheelchair, but at least for me, it was not. I greatly appreciated my family’s willingness–everyone happily took a turn and sometimes even fought over the privilege!–but always felt like it wasn’t really necessary, even though I knew that it was. Whenever I decided to disembark for a bit and walk around on my own two legs, I was always glad to have the chair to come back to. Even so, I learned several lessons that illuminate my experience of Disneyland in a wheelchair and will definitely inform my future behavior around anyone who is using a wheelchair.

  1. A wheelchair is the ambulance of the sidewalk.
    When there’s a wheelchair in your group at a crowded place like Disneyland, it’s easy to use the chair as an instant Moses’ staff that parts the sea of tourists and clears a path. The only exception to this rule is the oblivious tourists who stop in the middle of the path without looking around or the small children who don’t yet know the rules of the road and dangerously dart out in front of the chair’s path. I got used to using my hands a lot to both direct my driver as to where we should go and to try to fend off children (or adults) who were about to get the backs of their legs rammed by the feet of my wheelchair.
  2. Don’t let the wheelchair be the wart on the front of the group.
    While the wheelchair is great for parting crowds, sometimes it’s easy to forget that there’s someone actually sitting in the chair. Before I made my feelings known to the rest of my family, I felt somewhat isolated from group conversations, as the group was always walking behind me and I had no way to participate. Everyone soon made an effort to spend some time walking alongside me so that we could chat that way. Nevertheless, part of the reason that I made sure to get out of the chair at times was so that I could be the master of my own destiny and walk wherever I wanted and with whomever I wanted. It’s a strange and sometimes frustrating feeling to have your mobility limited by where your chair can go and who can take you there–and I wasn’t even that limited!
  3. Don’t judge a rider by their wheelchair.
    I don’t know if this is just a “Matt Is A Terrible Person” thing or if everyone does this to some extent, but as a frequent theme park-goer, I would often see young people riding around the park in a wheelchair with their friends or cutting to the front of the line and rising from the chair with no sign of a cast or limp. My immediate thought was always “Nice job cheating the system, moron.” Now I wonder how many of those morons actually had cancer or some other invisible right to be pushed in a wheelchair. Who’s the real moron? Too bad I had to roll a mile in their shoes to get that wakeup call.
  4. Disneyland knows how to treat its wheelchair customers.
    disneylandIf you do have a legitimate reason to be in a wheelchair, Disneyland has an awesome (and rather fair) system in place to ensure that you can still enjoy the park to the fullest. In our case, it allowed us to enjoy the park in an even fuller way than we would have without it. Basically, it’s a system of rides-by-appointment. You go to one of the many info centers around the park, tell them which ride you want to go on, they scan your pass and tell you what time to come back based on the current wait time for that particular ride. When you come back, you enter through the exit or through the Fast Pass entrance and get to board the ride almost immediately. We used these “chemo passes” (as we decided to call them) in conjunction with the regular Fast Passes and got to ride (at least once!) pretty much everything in Disneyland and California Adventure that was on our list. Thanks, Disney!

All in all, it was a fantastic vacation–both as a celebration of my imminent return to normalcy (and honestly it felt like the kickoff of my delayed summer!) and as an eye-opening glimpse into what people in wheelchairs experience. It was wonderful to be able to travel again and to get a chance to spend so much quality time with my family. It’s definitely a trip that I will never forget!