Sunday, September 24, 2006

The blue jay in my backyard.

I found him lying on the ground in my back yard one summer afternoon. I was about 5, maybe 6. There, under an oak tree, was this little baby blue jay. I knew enough about birds to know that their parents push them out of the nest when they think its time for the babies to fly. I think I learned that in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but no matter, I knew it was true. If the baby bird flew, all was well. If not, well, you get the little fella that was on the ground in front of me.

I’d seen this sort of thing before, a dead animal from time to time in my back yard or maybe in the woods behind my parent’s house where we used to play. Sometimes it was a small frog that my dad had accidentally hit with the lawn mower. A few times we’d found birds, usually sick or already dead. One time, we could tell that the bird had been killed by a tick that had swollen up with the bird’s blood. I guess that’s what killed the bird. Even now, after all these years, when I think back, I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. We had never heard of West Nile disease, or even feared anything like that. Rabies, yes, but even then, that was the stuff of science fiction. To us, back then, there was no fear, only curiosity. I hardly remember what it was like when life was that simple. When did things get so complicated?

This bird was different than the others, this one wasn’t dead. He was hurt, very scared, and based on the volume and frequency of his piercing screams, very alive. It looked to me like his wing was broken. I had no idea what to do, but figured he needed some shelter, and some food. Made sense to me; I knew that’s what I would want if I was in his predicament. I got a cardboard box and rigged a perch by jamming a stick through the side of the box. I grabbed an old diving mask: the plastic kind you get from the 5-and-Dime, and hung it from the perch. I packed that full of grass, some dirt, and some small sticks. I figured that he ought to get used to not sleeping on the ground. It was only 6 inches from the bottom of the box, but still, it was off the ground. I lined the rest of the box with leaves, grass, and sticks. This way it would smell like home.

I talked my Mom and Dad into letting me try to nurse him back to health, even though they figured he wouldn’t last long. The odds were heavily stacked against him. It was summer, so I took care of him every day. I named him Danny, for no other reason than it seemed to fit. I fed him chopped meat, because it was the closest thing to worms that I could come up with. He didn’t seem to object, and scarfed down the stuff pretty good. I gave him water with a little eye-dropper. I tried to feed him early in the morning, because of the saying, about the early bird catching the worm. Did I really learn so many things from cartoons?

I really took to this bird, and he seemed to lose his fear of me pretty quickly. He even perked up and started to look like he wanted to eat when I came to check on him. He did that thing that baby birds do, turning his head up and opening his mouth. Chirping pretty loudly. I’d like to say we became friends. To me, he seemed like a misfit, or an outcast, which is how I generally viewed myself, and still do. I’ve always rooted for the underdog, and Danny was surely that.

In the afternoons, I’d put Danny in the palm of my hands and hold him up as high as I could. Then I’d whoosh my hands down pretty quick so as to make him feel like he was falling, but not that he actually would. I don’t know why, but it just seemed to be the right thing to do. Natural. He didn’t object, and as he got stronger, and his wing seemed to start healing, he would spread out his wings and kind of flap them as he fell down. We did this, he and I, our afternoon dance, every day. We had an unspoken communication between us, a bond, an understanding. He trusted me more, and I knew that every day was a day closer to him flying away. As much as I wanted to keep him, I knew he was meant to be free.

One afternoon I held Danny high, same as I’d done so many other times, except this time he didn’t follow my hands in their rush toward the ground. Danny spread out his wings, and tentatively at first, then ever stronger, he started to fly. Hew flew up to a branch in the same oak tree from which he’d fallen those few weeks ago. It could have been my imagination, but I’d swear he stopped to look at me. I nodded and smiled, and he flew away into the blue summer sky.


I didn’t know at the time if what I felt was sadness or happiness because it was all jumbled up inside. I did know that I would miss that bird. I think that was the first time that I felt I could actually make a difference in the world. It wasn’t particularly profound, nursing one sick bird back to health. And, I suppose it pales in comparison to other kid’s trophies and awards, but it’s something I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget watching that bird fly free, against all odds, and how proud I was to be a part of that.

Thinking back, it really cost me very little effort to try to give back a life to a little bird. No, that’s arrogance to think I could give back what was not mine in the first place. I mean it cost so little to help that bird get back the life he was given. For something that cost me so little, I certainly gained so much. It’s true that nature is survival of the fittest. Natural selection. But I think that in order to claim the title, the winner has to be able to show compassion, to be able to give to those less fortunate. If we don’t, if we can’t show compassion, if we can’t participate, if we can’t give as much as we take in the cycle of life, then we will have an insurmountable weakness that will doom us all.


Thursday, September 7, 2006

Raisins, a blow-hole, and how I learned not to drive angry.

Dr. Grad Student, if you are reading this, please understand that not only am I taking the study seriously, I am enjoying it, and look forward to learning from the techniques you are teaching me. The following story, however is too good not to re-tell.

OK, so I work at a University, this you should know by now. Working at a University is a pretty cool thing, and a lot different than working in corporate America. A month or so ago, I got an email that a grad student was conducting a psychological project/study on "angry driving". Now, I'm not normally an angry person, or at least I don't think I am. However, as a 25 plus year Long Island commuter, who travels about 80 miles a day round trip on some of the most harrowing, grueling collection of roads in America, I do tend to get angry from time to time. You can read that to say, all the time. I clicked on the link in the email, and took a 10 or 15 question survey, submitted it, and forgot about it.

Until I got an email, that I almost deleted as spam, from the grad student, inviting me to participate in this study. Apparently, my anger levels matched her critical mass limits, and I was a good candidate. I do enjoy making life fun, and this, honestly, sounded like it could be nothing but. Count me in!

I meet student, soon-to-to-be therapist, and she goes over what I'll have to do, and what the "treatment" will be during the study. I had no idea there was a "treatment", but again, it sounded like it would be more fun than I could pass up. For two weeks, I would have to take a clicker in the car with me, and whenever I got angry, click the button. At the end of my trip, I was to count the times I was angry, record it in a log, and write my most memorable "anger invoking" moment. Only one? I dutifully do this, fill out my questionnaires and surveys, and send them off, but not without email prompting from Doctor Grad Student. I am a master procrastinator, but I do eventually get around to getting it done. Everything's good, right?

Of course, I take the clicker into my office with me, because I am actually nothing more than a 5 year old, and when something or someone starts to "get to me" I start clicking it. Kind of like a warning signal, say, like a cat puffing up its tail. Not that I really get angry, but I'm having a helluva good time just clicking the damn thing, and making up reasons that I'm angry. None of this is logged, in case you were worried that I may be skewing the study. In addition to being a procrastinator, I am a rule follower. And an impish little bastard.

So tonight, I meet with Dr. Grad Student, and we begin our first session. She explains that we will learn to focus on things that we normally do without thinking, such as eating. So in the first exercise she hands me a box of raisins and instructs me to take some. I happen to love raisins. I actually adore raisins, and have been known in my younger days to eat so many that I got sick. This is a key plot point to the story, so do try to keep up. Me plus 5PM plus delicious raisins in hand does not equal a situation where I can focus on anything other than the tasty raisins.

The doc tells me to take a raisin and carefully inspect it, taking note of its shape, size, texture; really look at it, as if its the first time I've seen a raisin. I consider this raisin to be my "subject". Of course I'm doing this, but I have all these raisins in my other, unoccupied hand. Have I mentioned I'm easily distracted and I love raisins? So I start popping them in my mouth and chewing while I'm focusing on my little, lonely, uneaten raisin. After I've eaten a few, the doctor says I'm to take my raisin, and then smell it, focusing on the scents and trying to see if I smell something I haven't before. This is no longer possible, because I'm eating raisins, and the lovely aroma has already back-filled my nasal cavity. I do, however take several sniffs of the subject raisin, but frankly, all I can smell are the raisins now sticking to my molars. I did try, you have to give me that.

Now the doc says to taste the raisin. Uh oh. I'm already there, and I'm not sure, but she has to have seen me eating my other raisins, right? I mean, she's just a few feet away from me. Or dare I hope that she is so focused on her raisin that she hasn't seen my not so surreptitious raisin eating? At this point, I'm trying to clean the raisin residue off my teeth with my tongue so I can taste my lonely subject raisin anew. I view it as re-kindling a seasoned love affair. With the proper care and attention, that old flame comes back. In this case, it really didn't work, but that damn last raisin was just asking for it, and the doc was telling me to eat it, so I did. Of course, focusing on the nuances of the flavor as though I was a raisin connoisseur critiquing this year's yield. I escape the raisin exercise unscathed, no worse for the wear, but I think I've learned a little bit about focusing.

Our next exercise involves a body scan, which is like a mental journey of your body's sensations. I lay down on a mat, yes, like the ones you had when you had nap time in kindergarten. This instantly transports me back to Mrs. Dingman's class, cookies and milk, and, well, nap time. See, I knew this could only be fun. Dr. Grad Student begins talking me through a focusing/relaxation routine. Having me focus on various body parts: feet, toes, legs, back, etc. and getting in touch with how they feel. Its really pretty relaxing, and I have no idea how she stays awake during this session, but she does. So do I.

The problem starts when she gets to me focusing on my head. First I have an enormous, pumpkin like head, so just the image of me laying on the floor, with my pumpkin head wobbling around like a Halloween jack-o-lantern is making me chuckle. An inside chuckle, not an outside chuckle. I'm not that rude. At this point, I have to clarify that I find the word skull funny. I don't know why, but I do. As she is having me focus on my head, she mentions for me to "feel my skull, get in touch with the sensations in my skull". Still chuckling on the inside, but the corner of my mouth, situated on my pumpkin head, turns up, ever so slightly.

The doctor is still talking, and now mentions that I should imagine that there is a blow-hole on the top of my head. I also find the word blow-hole funny in of itself. It's absolutely hysterical in this situation. Dr. Grad Student goes on. "Imagine you have a blow-hole like a whale or a porpoise. Imagine that your blow-hole is about the size of a quarter." I have a really good imagination, and I'm just seeing a pumpkin headed whale eating raisins on the sneak. Its all I can see. I can't get this damn image out of my mind, and still on the inside, I'm now laughing pretty hard. Mercifully, the exercise ends, and I can chase the blow-hole spoutin', pumpkin headed, raisin eating bastard of a whale out of my head.

This pretty much concludes my first session. Equipped with these techniques and imagery, I now feel somewhat more prepared to have a less anger filled commute home. In fact, I do, because, I cannot stop chuckling about the raisins, the blow-hole, driving angry, and how once again, a simple thing has turned into an adventure for me. How do I get myself into these things?

Oh yeah, I volunteered. I knew this would be fun. I can't wait for next week.


Monday, September 4, 2006

September 11, 2001

I'm writing this now, because I'm afraid I'll forget. Much of what happened that day, is already fading. Likely its a defense mechanism, or maybe its just because of the disbelief I experienced that day, which caused the whole day to seem more like a waking nightmare than something that actually happened. I watched the Discovery Channel's "Inside the World Trade Center" tonight, and I was reminded. This is actually the first time I've let myself think, really think, about that day. I thought I'd write this down, to remember, and honor, those who lost their lives; and those who lost someone they loved. I'm writing this down, so I never forget.

I wasn't directly impacted by the horror that happened that day. I knew a few people who worked in the World Trade Center, and it took a few minutes after I realized what was happening for me to scan through my mind, and think who might be there. I could initially think of only one friend who worked there. A young man who used to work for me, Chris, who went on to work for an investment company. I couldn't remember which, and I had no idea which tower he was in. The point of me writing this is not drama: Chris is fine, though forever changed, he is fine. Chris worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, and was late for work that morning. He'd just walked up from the Subway when the first plane hit. His late night watching football, actually saved his life. Most of his co-workers perished that day.

September 11, 2001 was a beautifully sunny day. Traffic on the way to work was typically bad for a September morning. All the kids and teachers were back to school, most people's vacations were already taken, so the roadways on Long Island were jammed, and slow moving. This did not help my usually ill tempered morning mood. If I remember correctly, the day before was raining, and dreary, but that Tuesday was sunny. My company, a bank, for which I had worked 17 years, was acquired by a much larger bank, and I was going to be laid off. I thought this was the worst thing that could happen to a person. I was wrong.

I used to listen to AM news radio on my commute in. Usually 880 CBS or 1010 WINS. I listened to both, alternately, in between cursing at traffic, and getting more irritated that I would again be late for work. Nothing remarkable about the news stands out that morning, at least that I remember. I pulled into the parking garage, turned off the radio, and took the 10 minute or so walk into the building, waiting for the elevators and getting crankier by the minute.

When I got to my desk, at about 8:50, one of the people who worked for me, came up and asked if I'd heard what happened to the World Trade Center. Since I'd just listened to the news, I was surprised there was anything new that I hadn't heard. She said a plane had just hit one of the towers, and it was on fire. My first thought was disbelief, but I turned on the radio, and there was the story. My second thought was that it was some idiot, flying a private plane, who got too close, or too low, and hit the tower by accident. It took about 15 or 20 minutes before we realized that it was something far worse. When the news of the second plane came over the radio, my blood turned cold. This could only have been one thing: terrorists.

At that time, I worked in EAB Plaza, which is about the highest office building in Nassau and Suffolk counties, which occupy the eastern 2/3rds of Long Island. The building has since been renamed Reckson Plaza, also the victim of a corporate takeover. We worked on the 10th of 15 Floors, in the East tower. The way the EAB towers were situated, the East tower extended south of the West tower by about half of its width. What that means is that from the South/West windows, on a clear Tuesday Morning, we could see the NYC skyline, about 20 or so miles away (as the crow flies).

This occurred to most of us simultaneously, so we ran to the most accessible window, and looked out at the horror. There, clear as anything, was the smoking World Trade Center. The smoke seemed to trail off for miles. It was thick, black, and looked terrible. My heart sank. In 1993, when they bombed the World Trade Center, I was working just across the river, in Bay Ridge Brooklyn. Then too, I could see the smoke, and the only information we had was coming from the few radios in the building. This time, it seemed much worse.

We alternated between that window, and the conference room we used for our department. The conference room had a TV in it for training purposes, but a few enterprising young people in our department had earlier rigged up an antennae. There they would watch daytime TV, on the fuzzy signals from NYC, during their lunch hours. That day, we watched the tragedy unfold, feeling a mix of horror, sadness, anger, and fear. And hopelessness.

I called my wife, Bev, who had spent years in the news industry, and asked if she'd heard. We talked a few times, listening intently to the radio, and trying to make sense of what was going on. As the morning progressed the phone lines went down, then cell phones, then the Internet. All were jammed with frantic people trying to find loved ones, figure out what was happening, trying to escape this madness. The only form of communication we had in the building (at least on our floor) was the radio in my office, the fuzzy TV, and the window looking at the towers.

After the second plane hit, the rumors started. There were an unknown number of other planes in the air, a plane had hit the Pentagon, and nobody was certain how many others were up there, about to strike again. Fear began to grip most of us. We were in the tallest building for miles. Thinking back, it seems foolish, but at the time, we were very afraid, and very aware of how much EAB Plaza stood out on the skyline. No one knew what to do. Should we leave? Were we in danger? Our eyes kept scanning the horizon for any planes. Soon, we would see the jet fighters sent up to protect us all.

I remember my boss was just pacing back and forth, shaking his head in disbelief at the worry we were all feeling. He didn't understand why we couldn't all just get back to work, since this had nothing to do with us. You'd have to know the man, to understand his denial, but he was experiencing it, and it wasn't making anything easier. The whole thing became more and more surreal. The radio started announcing that local schools were going into "lock down" and that parents, if they wanted, should pick up their children. The fear gripped my chest, like a tightening vice. My son was in school, and I was 40 miles away from him. I then settled down, though, thinking he was likely very safe where he was.

We were standing in the conference room, watching the news, the live shots of the towers burning, when, in the blink of an eye, one of them just started falling. I couldn't believe, or comprehend what I was seeing. I could see the image, but my mind refused to accept it. We all raced over to the windows, and instead of the two towers, standing tall, there was nothing but a huge plume of smoke. One of the towers was falling, in slow motion, and then it was gone. I still, cannot comprehend what I felt, or what happened. That people could have been in there, that thousands were dying before my eyes. I sit here now, shaking my head. The image is burned in my memory, but still, I can't believe it.

The fear turned to anger, and almost in unison, the words "this is war" started spewing from our mouths. We were all angry, furious, over what had happened. The mix of emotions churned through each of us. Depending on who you were, what type of person you were, and who you knew who might be harmed, everyone reacted differently, and yet the same. Its hard to describe.

Shortly after that, people started leaving the building. The police showed up down in the plaza below, and there were rumors, again, nothing announced or broadcast in the buildings, that we were to leave the building for our own safety. The word "evacuate" started to buzz. People, alot of people were leaving. You could hear the ding-ding of the elevators as people started making their escape. I went into my boss' office where, for the first time, I think he finally let in what we'd all been feeling. There was a look of sadness, and almost defeat in his eyes. He looked at me, and said, "let them go...if they want to, let them go". He was a hard man, who believed you should stay at your desk, no matter what. I could see the turmoil churn within him. This concession, though inevitable, was hard for him to accept. Mainly because he would then have to admit what was happening. He lost his stronghold, his inner defense mechanism. He couldn't just "work" through this. I think it was the first time I'd seen weakness, or that he showed weakness, in his eyes.

I left, and the drive home, was again, as surreal as everything else. The roads were filled with worried looking people. The maniacal driving style of people on the Long Island Parkways and the Expressway was replaced with a somewhat distracted, isolated style. People were all worried, trying to call loved ones, make sense of everything, or anything. We had each become islands ourselves, isolated from everyone else. Disconnected. Not only from news, or communication, but from reality itself. This could not have really happened, the towers could not have actually collapsed. But they did. I cried.

My cell phone was useless, so I couldn't talk to my wife, my son's mother, my parents...nobody. Now, what I write next may seem odd, but its really not, if you understand how disconnected I'd become. I got hungry, and stopped at Burger King to grab something to bring home for late lunch/early dinner. I know it seems odd, but it was strangely comforting to do something so normal, in what was an absolutely otherwise abnormal day. The people in Burger King were working like robots, on automatic pilot. Their look of disbelief was the same I'd seen on every other person's face that day.

When I got home, Bev told me that my son's mother had been in touch, and could I pick him up at his school. When I got to the school, there were the same, blank, disbelieving, worried faces I'd seen everywhere else. The students, for the most part, were not told everything that was going on. They were even more in the dark than the rest of us. This was done for obvious reasons, since many had parents or family who worked at the World Trade Center. When I got my son, his face was expressionless, which for him, means worried. He asked what was going on. What happened? He, like the rest of us, couldn't believe it.

The rest of the day is, to say the least, a blur. Almost every channel on television was broadcasting the unfolding of the events, and re-broadcasting whatever footage they could of the crash, the explosions, the collapse. Non-news channels were broadcasting a blue screen with a message that due to the events of the day, and out of respect, they were broadcasting nothing. I couldn't take it. For me, I needed to flee, to escape the media, the coverage. For my wife, as much as she cried and it horrified her, she couldn't stop watching. She couldn't tear herself away from the TV.

Oddly, I don't remember anything else about that day. I don't remember much about the next few days. Its as if they are blacked out. I do remember that we finally got in touch with Chris, and found out he was ok. Then we all started figuring out who we knew that worked there, and how they were. My friend, Larry, worked in 7 World Trade, but he was on Long Island at a client.

Watching the TV tonight, brought back all these memories, and with them, all the haunting pain. I can not imagine how the people who lost someone might feel. Seeing their stories, and how they talked with loved ones for the last time, made me hurt. My heart, and prayers go out to them. I have to say, I am now, and forever will be proud of the men and women who sacrificed their lives in an effort to saves others. Their bravery is astounding. They are all heroes. And all the men and women who are now, and who have gone before, fighting this war, and defending this country, are heroes too.

Below, the former World Trade Center. The building shrouded in black netting is the the now abandoned Deutche Bank building.
This past April, my wife and I, and two of her friends who live out of state, went down to the site of the former World Trade Center. Until then, we'd avoided going to the site. We felt that it would serve no purpose to see it, and we didn't go out of respect for all who perished. Her friends wanted to go, so we went. All that remains now is a large hole. Oddly, it looks like a gaping wound in the City of Manhattan. I suppose, that's what it is. But wounds heal, and I believe, though a scar will always be there, this one too, will heal.

A few years ago, Bev and I had dinner at the South Street Seaport, eating at an outside table, sitting in the shadow of the towers. We went to the Seaport this past April, and looked up to where the towers once stood, but all we could see was sky. But when I close my eyes, they still stand tall and strong. As long as we remember, they always will.