When we experience extremely traumatic or particularly emotionally arousing events, our brains produce a protein called Arc in the hippocampus, the region of the brain that processes long-term memory. The affected synapses—connections between neurons—are strengthened by this protein, thus creating a stronger long-term imprint of the event in our memories. The end result is the detailed recall we have about where we were, what we were doing, what things tasted, felt, and smelled like, etc. when we think about that event.
We can share those imprints with one another when conversation turns to specific points in history. For my grandparent’s generation, it was Pearl Harbor; for my parents, it was the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, of Martin Luther King Jr., or perhaps the moon landing. I remember leaving school for the day to the news that Ronald Reagan had been shot; I also recall my principal (with his chin beard and silly sweater) saying a few words about violence before telling us someone had just shot Pope John Paul II. I remember watching the shuttle Columbia taking off on its maiden voyage, from my vantage point in our school’s gym, seated with classmates in front of a TV too small to really see much. I was cutting into a frog in biology class when my friend came in and announced Challenger had exploded. Years later, my wife awakened me with news that Columbia was no more.
There are few among us who do not have instant, detailed recall of hearing about airplanes hitting the twin World Trade Center towers in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, or of watching the abysmally sad, infuriating, maddening events that followed. I write this in a coffeehouse on the ninth anniversary of the attacks, having awakened to the reruns of that day’s coverage that my eleven-year-old son was watching. He was two when it all happened, and, in an act of protection only a new parent can truly appreciate, I had to make sure he was okay, even though I knew he was only a few miles away from my location, safely ensconced in my parents’ home.
The ensuing years have seen the tragedy of the day filtered and politicized to an extent that disgusts me. The loudest voices who claim the legacy of September 11 for their own are often coming from the most intolerant among us, or those seeking fortune or fleeting recognition by tying their worldviews to our emotional imprints of the day, the detailed recall our memories produce. From Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell blaming gays, feminists, and the ACLU for the attacks; to Rudy Giuliani, who used his extraordinary display of leadership on that day to further his own political career and narrow purview; to Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and their ilk, squeezing every last bit of sympathy and patriotic fervor out of our memories to advance their quasi-religious, quasi-conspiracist, quasi-coherent nonsense toward the lowest common denominator; to opponents of building an Islamic community center on the “hallowed ground” of an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory; to an ignorant fool who set off an international incident by threatening to burn Korans at his church/used furniture business. To Dick Cheney and George Bush, who used the emotional resonance of the day and its aftermath to plunge America into a ruinous and untenable ethical and financial fall, from which I have doubts we as a nation will ever recover.
I wonder, quite often, whether I am part of the problem. My intransigence in the face of opposing viewpoints has hardened to a diamond-like core in the last nine years. I don’t want to hear their arguments any more than they want to hear mine. I have grown intolerant of their intolerance.
I do so while still cognizant of the very real human toll of September 11, 2001—of widowed wives and husbands; of children left without a parent; of lovers and friends and colleagues interred in the dust and wreckage. Thousands of real people died, people I did not know, but whose lives I could, in a small way, share through the “Portraits of Grief” tributes and obituaries published in The New York Times from September 14 through December 31 of that year—an extraordinary public service that put human faces to the victims who might have, in absence of the paper’s efforts, gone nameless and unknown outside the circles of their families and friends.
Art Alexakis, who for all intents and purposes is Everclear, used “Portraits of Grief” as the central image in the ballad “The New York Times,” which expressed with varying degrees of eloquence the human faces behind tragedy. The final track on the band’s lackluster Slow Motion Daydream album, it strains to express meaning in words, but winds up doing it through melody instead.
The lyrics mine the incoherence of grief in very simple terms. “It makes no sense to me,” he repeats throughout the song. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t hurt inside,” he sings in the second verse. “I would like to believe we could learn from this / And maybe some day we can make things right.” It’s not exactly trenchant analysis, but the sense of bewilderment and uncertainty are heartfelt.
The song’s melody, though, eloquently states what the lyrics fall short of, particularly in the chorus. The slowly descending chord structure enables Alexakis to lift his voice to its upper register, resulting in an almost stately procession, a proclamation of sadness and strength simultaneously. The wall of guitars behind him blasts his sentiments home with uncommon power. It’s hard to come up with another song in Everclear’s catalog that pulls this off, which makes “The New York Times” a one-of-a-kind expression in more ways than one.
I hope the families of the subjects in those “Portraits of Grief”—the September 11 attacks’ victims—have found some modicum of peace in the last nine years, have found some voices that can be called their own through the static of politics and punditry. I hope at some point our collective attention turns back to the human toll taken that day, and away from the muddled collection of political and religious narratives and the attached agendas that have slithered up from the wreckage. I hope we emerge from this period a stronger collective of peoples, all huddled together under the umbrella of a nation. I am not optimistic, but while there is still time, there is still hope.