I’ve decided to reinvent The Millions. The blog world is crowded. I cannot possibly add to or improve upon the innumerable blogs out there that are about music or politics. So many of the things that I have a casual interest in are covered so obsessively in the blog world that it is hard to find something to write about in any sort of compelling way. Nor do I have much interest in cataloging my daily life. I know from experience that my life is capable of producing, tops, a paragraph or two of mildly amusing reading every few weeks, which does not a blog make. Plus, I would like to try to lure some people into reading what I write, and writing about what I ate for lunch today will likely not do the trick. As for the two of you (you know who you are) who read this blog regularly, I hope you will not be disappointed by my change away from that format. And finally, after some thinking, I have figured out what these changes will be. The Millions will be about books. For a book lover without a whole lot of free time (not to mention money) it can be very hard to consistantly find new and interesting books. To do so, in my experience, requires reading dozens of book reviews weekly and trolling book stores looking for the new and interesting (or the old and interesting). The internet improves this process slightly, mainly by cutting out some of the time required, but it offers little help in locating a book that you might like to take a look at. I have yet to find anyone that has had much luck with Amazon’s recommendations. I recently realized, though, that I am singularly qualified to write a blog about books. I work in a great little book store and therefore, in pursuit of my paycheck, I see with my own eyes the hundreds of books that come out weekly and I read reviews in dozens of newspapers and magazines. Finally, I have always loved books and I have always loved telling people about books, and now I have myself a little blog that can serve both of these loves. I hope to update several times a week, if not daily, and hopefully this thing will be chock full of interesting books at all times. So there it is… it feels good to get started on this thing, and if anyone has any comments, questions or suggestions let me know.
A few years ago it felt like one could scarcely read a think-piece in any newspaper or magazine without coming across some mention of the word “meme.” Now it seems as though the new meme is the word “trope.” Trope is everywhere. One recent incarnation was in Peggy Noonan’s column about Sarah Palin in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal: “Maybe [Mrs. Palin’s supporters] think ‘not thoughtful’ is a working class trope!” This sentence indicates that a good trope can pull the wool over our eyes.This week, after finishing Philip Gourevitch’s excellent book about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, I became engaged in a conversation with a knowledgeable friend on the subject of that country’s rebuilding. She knows her stuff, my friend, but her constant references to various African tropes – the tribal trope, the central-Africa-as-eternally violent morass trope – drove me to distraction. Just what the heck is a trope? I felt like the one dry body at the trope pool party.I’d guess that trope has to do with an agreed-upon narrative, an archetypal reading of a story or situation according to the simplest and most widely-held beliefs, a kind of narrative stereotype. In journalism, the trope would appear to be a surface interpretation of words or events that skews away from a deeper understanding of the truth. Trope as I see and hear it used seems indicative of at best this sort of surface reading, and at worst a kind of falseness or even deliberate obfuscation by the invocation of the archetype. I think this is the meaning that my friend used when she talked about how the Rwanda narrative was often defined by western journalists according to a trope of simple tribal warfare – an idea that we can comprehend. But the trope steers us away from the truth of what actually happened.The good people over at dictionary.com define trope as the following: “any literary or rhetorical device, as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, that consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense.” Trope is closely related to metaphor or figure of speech. Seems deceptively simple, and I’m still dry.At Wikipedia, I found a tidbit that’s closer to my understanding of how trope is used now. I found it under the entry for trope in literature: “Various scholars throughout history… have argued that a great deal of our conceptual experience, even the foundation of human consciousness, is based on figurative schemes of thought.” The writer also notes that “Tropes (in the sense of figures of speech) do not merely provide a way for us to talk about how we think, reason, and imagine, they are also constitutive of our experience.” Here the writer has footnoted a work by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. entitled “Process and Products in Making Sense of Tropes” from a collection called Metaphor and Thought. “In modern usage,” the entry concludes, “‘trope’ often means ‘a common or overused theme or device: cliche.’ [footnoted to the 2009 Merriam-Webster online dictionary] though [sic] it is important to differentiate between an overused theme/motif/figure of speech that has lost its meaning (Cliche) and a theme/motif/figure that is used excessively owing to its effectiveness.”I ran my preoccupation with trope by the chief Millionaire, Max, and he steered me to a website, tvtropes.org. There they define tropes as “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” The site asserts that tropes are not really cliches, since cliches are by definition “trite” and what is trite is by and large not of any real interest. The site operates according to a Wiki-style open democracy. It contains a catalog of numerous tropes that pop up in the plots and visuals of TV shows and movies. There is some really interesting stuff here. It all hints at the idea that there are a limited number of story lines out there, or certain set ways that a story can be told. This is not necessarily a bad thing though. A chasm exists between trope in literature and trope in real life.Some might even argue that any and every story is bound to adhere to certain lapidary parameters of narrative arc and character development. Anyone who has attempted to write a screenplay with the help of one or more of the numerous books on the subject know what I’m talking about. In my opinion, it’s a little deflating for the fiction writer to be confronted with the notion that the basic structural elements of a story have not been significantly improved upon since they were codified by Homer.The ubiquity of trope in ideas writing these days can be explained by the memetic propagation of a cool word in the collective consciousness. This idea is a trope of sorts. And that’s the trick with trope: when you start thinking about it, not only is it everywhere, but it is, in fact, everywhere. As the Wiki excerpt above suggests, trope is one way in which we apply order and cohesion to the world. It’s history repeating itself. It’s why one story is a Greek tragedy, and another a Shakespearean romance.Perhaps that’s why events like those that transpired in Rwanda in 1994 are so profoundly troubling. They have no precedent in our store of human narratives. There is an irony here, too. As trope takes over, we seem to be confronted by more and more happenings that flip the script. 9/11 is one example, as is Hurricane Katrina and its tragic aftermath. On the positive side, the election of Barack Obama was an unprecedented event, though that too can be couched in terms of a trope. The American Dream. Horatio Alger.Trope helps us grasp inherent truths. Trope entertains us. And it helps us understand the greater narratives of our lives as individuals and members of a society. Turns out I was waist deep in the pool all along. But, as most usage of the word these days hints, trope is a trick. Easy explanations invite our skepticism.
By 8:47 AM on September 11, 2001, a lot had already happened at our house. We had walked our daughter to school for her third day of kindergarten. The baby had awoken, been fed and changed, and was back in the crib for his morning nap. And the middle, the three-year-old, was on the way to the grocery store with my husband, who was going into work at the Boston Globe a little later than usual. My sanity hinged on having an hour or two to write, every now and then; finding an hour or two was my main, my constant, goal. My husband knew this.
So when he called, I didn’t answer. Then I thought maybe he had a question about groceries. I sighed and listened to the message. I could hear the radio on in the background, the prickling of the AM news station. He said I might want to turn on the TV. He said terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center. “It might be something to watch. And remember,” he said. He was a journalist, not easily surprised.
My first thought was, there goes my goddamn morning. And I almost didn’t leave my study. But I did, and went downstairs and turned on the TV, and sat there in my bathrobe and began to understand. When he came in a few minutes later I said, tonelessly, “They hit the Pentagon too.”
“I have to go in.”
“I know.” He put down the groceries and was gone.
I don’t remember now how I distracted my son so I could watch a little longer. The TV was rarely on in our house, and never in the morning. I couldn’t cry or even look very upset, or at least I thought I couldn’t. A flat rationality substituted for grief. When they kept talking about how complicated a plan this had been, I thought instead how obvious it was. It was the sort of thing a nine-year-old boy would think up. Fly planes into towers, soaring and unguarded. They had been targets this whole time.
In 2001 it was already the twilight of TV news, and people now, used to anchors who are volatile personalities just like the celebrities they cover, might not realize how terrifying it is when a professional breaks down. That morning, I was listening to Peter Jennings. I remembered how openly jubilant he had been when the Berlin Wall had fallen, but that seemed like a conscious choice next to the horror he could not keep out of his voice now.
I don’t remember the people jumping, or the man high, high up, waving the white flag. I only remember the wide shot of the towers and how blue the sky was and how beautifully billowing the smoke. How from far away it seemed not to be moving.
When the towers began to fall, Peter Jennings was again disbelieving, but all I could think was of course they’re falling. Just as I had thought, of course they flew planes into them. I suppose it was a defense mechanism. We should have seen it coming. And if it was visible, then it was preventable. So all the fault, and thus, the control, was still ours.
Since it was a Tuesday it was a regular early-release day, at twelve-thirty, for schools in our town. The sun was golden and perfect. The air was so clear it seemed not to exist. There was an enormous parade of people walking to school, including lots of dads still in their suits: the downtown skyscrapers had been evacuated. Others had just left work anyway. We all thought more attacks were coming. They did not feel over. The disbelief and uncertainty made us giddy.
We could not decide what to say to our children but we had to say something, for we knew we could not tear ourselves away from our TVs, and also because the working parents were home, in the middle of the day.
And also because the skies were so quiet. By then, U.S. airspace was empty. I would not have thought that airplanes made such a noticeable and constant background noise, but once it was gone the sky was eerily larger. The feeling of waiting increased.
We didn’t know yet how many fathers had said goodbye that morning and not returned. How many mothers had left notes and gone to airports for business trips, and disappeared.
The narrative turned out to be pretty simple. Men had flown planes into buildings. Because the men were evil.
At the playground later that week, or maybe even the beginning of the next, I saw a friend whose husband was also a journalist, a photographer for a national magazine. “That morning, he just got in the car and drove to Washington,” she said. “And I haven’t seen him since.” Her two kids were the same ages, almost to the day, as our younger two. I could see her trying not to feel the situation personally, trying not to resent a national tragedy, but she had deep circles under her eyes.
That same day, I also heard someone say, for the first time, nine-eleven. I didn’t like it. I thought it was too jaunty and disrespectful. I still needed the drawn-out syllables, the vision of the calendar page, the more old-fashioned sense of history in September eleventh.
In those first days and weeks it was so obvious to me that not a single additional person needed to die violently, ever again, that I allowed myself to believe that our country, the wise, the mature, the grieving, would not answer the attacks with anything like the same. These had been attacks on decency, on the very idea of humanity, on the possibility of love. I felt to my core that one more innocent civilian dying would be blasphemy.
It took almost a month. When our bombs began to rain down on Afghanistan, I felt more hopeless than I did the day the towers fell.
At some point my husband said that soon, now, they’d invade Iraq.
“Why? What does Iraq have to do with anything?” I said.
He said, “They’ve been waiting for an excuse.”
I had gone off antidepressants before getting pregnant with our third child, and staved off postpartum depression with therapy. The week of the attacks, I cancelled my regular appointment. I went the next week purely out of a sense of obligation and said I was sorry, but I thought that right now my own problems, whatever they might be, were irrelevant.
My shrink said maybe we should talk about why I thought I was irrelevant.
I said maybe we shouldn’t, and that no, I did not feel the need to explain. We sat in silence, and I left early, and that was the beginning of the end for therapy for me.
That summer, we had joined a pool in a neighboring town. It cost too much, and, as my husband said, was “the apotheosis of suburbia,” but I wasn’t sure how I would get through the summer without water available. Sometimes I had a sitter with me, but often not. I would hold the baby in one arm and the three-year-old in the other, which was possible in the buoyancy of the water, and stay where the five-year-old could still stand. None of them could swim. It was a little nerve-wracking — once the three-year-old nearly drowned in front of my eyes, because we were right where the water was just above his nose, and he didn’t know he only had to step backwards. But I realized just in time, and grabbed him. His enormous eyes imploring me.
That incident notwithstanding, I felt a goopy sentimentality about the pool, even before the attacks. I knew this baby would be our last. I knew our daughter beginning school was the beginning also of a long, long change, that nothing would stay the same. Summer had seemed one long suspended moment, but in fact time hurtled forward. As if to confirm this, I began to realize that the main pool, with the waterslide, was situated in such a way that the large gym building next to it — which, conveniently, also featured an enormous outdoor clock — made the sun’s progress obvious. In July, at seven o’clock, almost bedtime, part of the pool would be shadowed by the peak of the gym’s roof. But by early August, it was six o’clock. Then five.
That week of September, September eleventh, was the last week the pool was open. All week, it was nearly empty. But there were dads around. You saw a lot of dads.
All week, the weather was heartbreaking, perfect.
When our son began preschool, a week after the attacks, we attended a parents’ orientation night. We spent a good deal of time talking about evacuation procedures. We talked about what would happen if communications were knocked out. We talked about backup locations and backup-backups. No one thought this was odd.
The holiday card we sent out that year was a family picture that had been taken at a friend’s wedding at a house on Cape Cod. My husband is in a seersucker suit; I am wearing a hat. The children’s outfits match, and are smocked. Behind us is the faraway glimmer of the Atlantic.
Our three-year-old was obsessed with tools then, and in fact had to have a toy hammer in his hand at all times. That day he must have misplaced his usual one and, being an accommodating child, had found a substitute. In the picture, he is holding a croquet mallet. Possibly he was in need of extra security, in the middle of all those strangers. He looks very serious, but the rest of us are smiling.
No one believes that the croquet mallet was not a plant. This picture is now known in our house as The Ralph Lauren Shot, but privately I think of it as The Last Innocence. It was taken on September eighth. The sky is already severe clear, but I didn’t know that term yet.
That Thanksgiving, we flew to see my parents. It was the first time we’d flown since the attacks. At the airport, my son’s Bob the Builder backpack was flagged; in the front pocket, with the rest of the tools I’d flung in at the last minute — a realistic-looking silver plastic set — was a toy box cutter, with a rubber blade. “Oh my God,” I said. “I didn’t think.” The TSA guy looked at me incredulously. “I’m so sorry. Please take it. Oh my God.”
But now we looked suspicious and he decided he also wanted to confiscate my son’s hammer of the day, a small wooden mallet designed to bang colored wooden pegs. “It’s his security object,” I said. “I know that sounds crazy. But look. It couldn’t hurt anyone. It couldn’t even fool anyone.” The guy persisted. My son’s eyes were filling. My remorse about the box cutter evaporated and I demanded to see a supervisor, who relented and said my son could keep the mallet if it stayed in his backpack for the entire flight. I said okay.
Once we were past security, I took the mallet out and handed it to him. “This is called civil disobedience,” I said. “This is why America is great.”
About a year later, I tried to write a story with the attacks as a backdrop. It was about a mother whose young son, who loved only tools, things to build with, was being encouraged to play with toy guns at a birthday party. At the party, the mother felt lonely and hopeless; she didn’t know why they had been invited, and she worried about her child and disliked the birthday child, and was ashamed. The story was set in October of 2001. Only the date gave anything away. Even so, I couldn’t make it work.
I have no doubt that the story’s failure was due to my own deficiencies, but I have yet to read any fiction inspired by September eleventh that works. It is still too monolithic an event to be refracted. It yanks us out of the dream. It was brutal, and specific, and brutally specific, and perhaps is not surrounded by enough other cultural markers and changes: we went back, almost overnight, to our patriotic shopping. The attacks did not mark the dawn of a new era, and certainly not an era with much poetry about it.
We went to the pool one last time. The large pool, the one with the waterslide, was empty, except for a father and his little daughter. All summer the waterslide, too scary for my children, had been a background roar amid the shrieks of older and braver kids. But now its splashing was almost tranquil.
Suddenly there was different roar, overhead, and the adults’ heads jerked up. All commercial flights were still grounded, and we had become accustomed to quiet skies. But these were military jets, three, in formation. Across the pool, the dad and I looked at each other.
“Going to Hanscom I guess,” he said. The air force base. I nodded.
The expression on my face, I am sure, mirrored his: terror, relief, sheepishness, and a recognition of this momentary alliance between strangers. Awareness of how large the pool was, how empty, and how small we were in this wide-open space. Of how the pointed shadow was beginning to fall over the water. Of how, unimportant, undefended, we nevertheless were targets, and always had been.
Image credit: Horia Varlan/Flickr