Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Past Ten Years: A Life Lived, A Life Just Begun (Part II)

Ten years ago I started college as a member of the charter class of the Macaulay Honors College.  It was a time of excitement, of potential, and of the unknown.  Little did I know but as I sat down in Professor Anne Swartz's first session of the very first Macaulay Honors College seminar course, I was embarking upon the rest of my life: sitting within only a few seats of me was my future wife, Heather.  We had encountered one another at one of the numerous orientation events but we met, truly, in that class, on that day.

Over the next eight months, we got to know each other and became friends (something my mother and father always advocated as an integral component to the success of any enduring romantic relationship).  I'll never forget the events that led up to our courtship, culminating with me taking Heather down to the water to ask her out and her saying yes.  I was thrilled but wound up being perplexed by my friends' reactions.  Most responses were of the "Yeah we know" or "You weren't dating already?" variety.  Apparently, we had been flirting for months (if not since that very first day of class back in August) and it was only after a few years had passed that I was able to look back and see that I had loved her from the very first instant.

Ten years ago, I entered adulthood for what I thought was the first time.  I had turned eighteen in March of 2001, exercising my legal status as an adult only once to sign myself out of school when I was feeling ill in April of that same year.  When I started college, though, I truly began to feel like an adult (or so I thought).  I was traveling to "the city" by myself, was making decisions for myself about everything from what to eat for lunch on a given day to the career trajectory I wanted to follow.  I can say that I grew up a lot in those four years that I spent as a Macaulay Honors Scholar but that maturation and life experience pales in comparison to that which I have gained in the years since as an alumnus of Macaulay.

To begin with, I faced the first true challenge of my life when I obtained an internship at a respectable corporation in Midtown.  In a way, I was set: I would work there through the remaining two years of college and then, if things went according to plan, I would have earned a full-time position that would allow me to begin climbing the corporate ladder.  Except they didn't.  I worked there for only a few months before realizing (much to my horror) that I hated not only the job but the career that I had chosen for myself.  I felt so empty every night that I left the office and I began to think about changing fields.  To what, I had no clue but Fate would serve to hook me up.  Sitting on the 7th floor at Baruch's Vertical Campus, moping and bemoaning the lot that I had been given, Heather spotted a flier offering a tutoring position at Baruch.  I had been considering switching to education but Baruch offered no such programs; the department had dissolved the year prior.  I saw that a fellow Macaulay scholar was the contact person for the position and, well, the rest is history.

By the time May of 2005 rolled around, I was ready to graduate--to move on to the rest of my life, whatever that might be.  Of course, I had my own personal difficulties that I was dealing with at the time (and had been since May of 2001) and they would ultimately force me to reassess the way that I lived my life.  I was a compulsive worrier and that began to take a physical toll on me.  Fortunately, by the end of 2006, I had started graduate school at Brooklyn College, had sought help for the things that were affecting me, and I found that I had a new perspective on life and the world at large; it was the second time that I felt like I had become an adult.

On July 7th, 2007, I married the love of my life--the shy, beautiful, funny, smart girl I had met in the first Macaulay seminar almost six years earlier.  I enjoyed the life of a newlywed for three months before I began my student teaching assignment at the High School for Health Professions in Manhattan.  It had been looming over my for months--this gargantuan black hole that would deprive me of my free time, force me to work harder and to multi-task better than I ever had in my life, and, to challenge me to see my pursuit of a Master's degree through to the end.  Between October 2007 and May 2008, I juggled over three-hundred hours of student teaching, two-hundred hours of classroom observation time, nine hours a week of working at Baruch, and six intense graduate-level English and education courses.  I had a nightmarish tri-borough commute that never got easier: get up around four o'clock in the morning in Staten Island to be in Manhattan by six-thirty.  Teach for a few hours, then head up to Baruch to go to work, then back to Staten Island to get the car to drive then to Brooklyn for class, finally getting home around ten or eleven in the evening.  And my situation was far from the worst it could be in comparison to those of many of my classmates.  But I made it through.  A few weeks after finishing up, Heather and I took our Cross-Canadian/Cross-Country road trip up to the Alaska Highway--an experience that served to help me to grow up quite a bit as well.

And then came 2009.

The relief that I felt in April of 2009 was both pervasive and ephemeral.  The end was in sight; in only another month, I would complete my graduate studies, thus earning my Master's degree and rendering me able to begin at long last my career as a teacher.  Classes finished, I tied up the bureaucratic loose ends, and attended an unexpected award ceremony a few days before graduation.  I was notified the week prior that I was nominated to receive an award for my accomplishments as a student and a teacher.  I was flattered and was blown away when I attended the ceremony to see how much respect my professors had for me.  Professor Jessica Siegel was announcing the names in my grouping for the awards and she (along with everyone else) had been instructed simply to read the names so as to keep the evening moving along smoothly.  Instead, she stopped on my name, made me stand up, and began to tell all in attendance about how amazing a student, instructor, and person I was; it is a moment that will stay with me forever.

Then came Thursday, May 28th, 2009.

I was nervous and considerably stressed on the morning of my graduation.  For one, it had been confirmed earlier in the week that there would be an unofficial but unavoidable hiring freeze in effect for teachers for the coming school year.  I worried about the implications of the news as I got dressed.  Also on my mind was the weather (it was going to pour--the first time it rained on a Brooklyn College graduation in twenty-seven years!) and the fact that the next morning I would be leaving for Ireland on the longest flight I'd ever taken. 
Then we came home.

The plan was that we would arrive home on Saturday, then spend the day on Sunday and Monday resting up, preparing for a return to work on Tuesday.  We did arrive home on Saturday (after being held up on the plane so that Nicholas Cage could exit first) and we did rest up on Sunday.  But then Monday morning came.  It was 5:50, if I remember correctly.  I was fast asleep but I heard Heather's voice call out to me.


It was something about the way that she said my name that roused me from my slumber.  She called out again and this time I woke up.  She asked me to come into the bathroom because she wanted to show me something.  I complained that I didn't want to go in there to see something gross.  Her response was "I'm pregnant."

Believe me--I was awake in that very instant.

I remember lying still on the bed, bringing my hands up to my eyes, rubbing the sleep away, and then running them up through my hair.  I replayed the words in my mind making sure that I had heard her correctly.  Then I got up, went into the bathroom, and truly began my adulthood.

Unequivocally, becoming a parent--hell, the prospect of becoming a parent--made me feel more like a man and an adult than anything else in my life.  I saw my folly--my inexperience with each previous moment and I laughed because I knew then what it meant to be an adult: it was being accountable to and responsible for someone other than myself.

That's the secret kids: adulthood is all about responsibility.  That's the secret--the key.  I didn't understand it exactly then but it came to me tonight while I was typing this.  Adulthood is commensurate with one's quantity of life experience and responsibility.  Think about it, it makes perfect sense.  Ever notice how friends who are being raised by a single parent or grandparent and have a few brothers and sisters that they have to look after seem more "grown up"?  It's because they are.  The opposite can be said for the thirty-something year old guy who still lives with his mother not as a temporary circumstance but as his actual way of life--the one who has said mother pay for his groceries and do his laundry on occasion.  That person is not a man--an adult--but rather an overgrown child still trapped within the confines of childhood.  Why?  A lack of responsibility and accountability.

Spending four months sending out over sixty resumes, trying desperately to land a teaching position so that I could help to provide for my growing family only to come up empty-handed?  That's real life.  Agreeing not to pursue work so that I could stay home and take care of my son, thus dealing with the implications and baggage associated with being a stay-at-home-dad?  Yup.  Real life too.  And making decisions that no longer affect only me but three lives?  On a daily basis?  You already know what it is.

But I digress.  This is meant not to highlight my journey towards adult enlightenment but rather to elucidate how I came to the understanding that I now have regarding my adulthood.  It actually happened fairly recently: Wednesday, August 24th, 2011.  It was a great night--one that I was honored to have partaken in.  Earlier in the summer, I had been contacted by an employee at Macaulay asking me if I would be willing to participate in the orientation of the incoming class of freshman.  I would be introducing an author at an orientation event.  I was flattered to have been asked, especially given that I am now, myself, pursuing a writing career.  I had participated in the commencement of the Class of 2010 last year by serving as part of the Grand Marshal for the ceremony, getting to sit on stage at Lincoln Center behind author R.L. Stine, and so I was thrilled to be able to take part in another important Macaulay event.

The night of the event came and I was both nervous and excited.  I stood on stage with the guest of honor while the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs of Macaulay introduced me in a very special way.  He mentioned that I was a member of the first graduating class and proceeded to tell the story of how I had met my wife (who was then standing at the back of the auditorium with our son).  The students applauded my status-as-alumnus, with the Baruch contingent cheering raucously at the mention of my alma mater.  I walked to the podium and thought two things: I had never spoken before so many people in my life (over four, possibly five hundred were in attendance) and I was a full ten years older than the kids sitting in the seats below.

And that was when it began.

As I left Hunter College, I couldn't help but smile, for a number of reasons.  For one, some things that began with me and my friends had remained unchanged in the intervening decade: students still took great pride in being members of the Macaulay Honors Program AND they had already separated into sects based upon their respective college of enrollment (and Baruch still had the most students!  Tough, Hunter!).  Then I realized what it all meant.  Something that I had not only participated in but helped to shape through that participation had not only survived but had thrived during my years there and especially since.  My fellow Class of 2005 members and I served to help to smooth out the wrinkles in the program, finding out what worked and what didn't through our own personal experiences.  We watched the program grow and took pride in the fact that we had done our small part to help to make that happen.

And again, I am reminded of what I felt on my first day of college, this time directed through a Macaulay lens: a sense of potential in its purest form, the excitement of the unknown, and the realization that we were a part of something bigger than ourselves.  It is with great pride that I attended both that commencement ceremony last year and the orientation this past August.  The former celebrated the fifth graduating class while the latter announced the promise of the tenth.

I bought into Macaulay's mission, full-tilt.  I took great pride not only in being an honor's student at Baruch but at being part of the Macaulay Honors College.  Ten years later, that pride has not waxed a bit; if anything, it has grown exponentially.  Standing atop that stage at Hunter College a few weeks ago with a gulf of thirty feet and ten years separating me from the students in the audience, I was awestruck by how far the program had come, as a whole, and how far I had come, individually, as a man.  Macaulay has provided me with so much--an incomparable education and set of life experiences, innumerable pleasant memories, a sense of camaraderie and community, and, most important of all, the opportunity to have met my wife, which paved the way for the family that we are now building.

So from one alumnus out of a sea of many, thank you to the Macaulay Honors College for all that you've done for me over the past ten years!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Past Ten Years: A Life Lived, A Life Just Begun (Part I)

In the past three weeks I have had the unique reflective opportunity to look back on two events that truly shaped who I am today and forced me to shed the shackles of childhood forever.  Though the nature of these events or times in my life are as disparate, perhaps, as one can get, they are two experiences that are indelibly linked.  I debated about exploring this connection for it would dredge up painful memories unnecessarily...but many times pain is life--it helps us to live, to appreciate the life that we've been given, and it provides us with clarity that is often lost in the face of complacency.

During the last week of August in 2001, I began to leave my childhood behind.  I got on an express bus and rode into Manhattan from Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn for my first day of classes as a freshman at Baruch College.  It was also my first official day as a student in the then CUNY Honors College (now and at every point hereafter in this entry the Macaulay Honors College or MHC); I had so little idea of how much my life would change in the coming weeks and months--how much I would grow up and how my life's path would begin to reveal itself to me.  It was the beginning of one of the best times in my life but it would also include one of the most painful experiences of my life.

Everyone who was in New York City on the morning of September 11th, 2001 has a story of what happened to them that day.  I'd go so far as to say that perhaps every American does but certainly anyone who was directly affected by the terrible tragedy that befell my city and my country that morning does.  When pressed, people will often recall in vivid, lengthy detail, the entire ordeal that they endured that day; I am no different.  Though the purpose of this entry is not to enjoy a cathartic release of my own personal memories from that day, I intend to share them for they help to shape all that has come since then.  So here's my story.

What I remember most from the morning of September 11th was the weather.  The sky never seemed bluer, the temperature was perfect, even the breeze itself seemed lighter than air.  I remember looking forward to coming home from school so that I could go outside and do something--play basketball, take a bike ride, something to make the most of the gorgeous clime.  I got on the Command Bus that I had just started taking barely a week and a half earlier to head into the city to attend my Psychology 1001H course.  The bus ran its route as usual and nothing seemed out of the ordinary until we had neared the last stop in Brooklyn.  I think people could see smoke coming from Manhattan and there was talk of a plane crashing into a building.  When we reached the final stop, we were held up for a moment and I remember looking out through the front windshield of the bus and seeing more police, fire, and emergency vehicles than I could count go flying by on Ocean Parkway towards Manhattan.  I knew that it had to be bad not simply because they had shut down the roadway but because of the sheer speed with which the vehicles moved; I had never seen anything like it and I hope I never do again.

Fortunately, we were held up as wave after wave of vehicles flew by.  Our driver was given instruction to turn the bus around and to take us back home along the same route.  I remember feeling a brief moment of panic as we drove next to Ocean Parkway.  I wasn't too familiar with the route so I was concerned that we were going to be heading into the city but we turned around near the first exit.  The driver was calm and expressed genuine concern for each of us.  As new information became available, he relayed it to us.  I remember texting my friend James and asking him if he wanted me to come to try to sign him and his girlfriend out of school (they were seniors in high school at the time) and him saying that they were fine and were heading home.  After that, cell service was pretty much shot because of the bombardment of the lines.

I remember walking into my house stunned, thrilled, afraid, unsure of what to feel.  I'll never forget my parents' reaction to me coming up the stairs--seeing the way that they clutched at me as I walked through the doorway.  It's taken me ten years to understand what that reaction meant; it was only after becoming a father myself that I recognized it as the fear of losing one's child.  My parents brought me up to speed as we watched the news and settled in for one of the most numbing days of my life.  I remember going up to the avenue (Gerritsen Avenue) several times throughout the day, walking over towards the fields, and standing atop a guardrail to look out at Manhattan.  I could see the smoke emanating from Downtown and I knew then that the world had changed, at least for me and for the United States.  Later in the day (and the next), soot-laden papers began to rain down like giant snowflakes; a few are stored in a memory box somewhere.  They were papers from the various businesses that were housed in the World Trade Center.  In a way, each fluttering sheet was like a ghost returning to earth, asking if it all really happened--if their time had truly come.  It gives me chills to think of what that scene was like--fallout from the worst attack our country has ever suffered on its home soil.

Ever the conscientious student, one of my primary concerns was whether or not classes would be cancelled the next day; they were.  And the next.  In fact, I didn't return to school until the following Monday.  Before I get to that, though, there are some thoughts and feelings that I feel compelled to vent--things that might offend some people reading this, so I apologize in advance and beg your pardon.  You see, there were things that I witnessed in the weeks and months following that horrible event that have stayed with me.  Now, ten years later, I've been able to look back on them with hindsight and with the lens of my current worldview of personal situation.  A recent conversation that I had with a buddy of mine has spurred me to vent what I am about to unload.

I remember attending two candlelight vigils very shortly after the 11th back in 2001.  I'm not sure of the exact dates but I'm pretty confident that they were later that same week, possibly Friday and Saturday.  One was held at Marine Park and the other--almost as much of a political rally as a vigil--was held at the Point (the end of Gerritsen Avenue).  I remember the sense of bonding that I felt--that we all felt--at those vigils; it was the first time that I felt like I was a part of a community larger than that of my family or my neighborhood.  I remember bursting with patriotic pride in the weeks that followed--absorbing that indomitable New York spirit that said that we would never back down--that we would rebuild, bigger, better.  I remember seeing so many American flags; they were legion.  They were emblazoned in windows, flew from porches, from flagpoles, and, most importantly, from cars.  That's what stuck out the most: the number of cars that had flags waving from their antennae or affixed to their windows.

Then October came; there were fewer flags.  November followed and by then we were ensconced in military maneuvers overseas, so some of the flags returned...but by December?  They had all but disappeared.

Now don't get me wrong--I understand completely not only why it happened but why it had to happen that way; people have to move on.  There's no sense in slicing open a healing wound on a daily basis and, in a way, that's what those flags were beginning to represent: buildings destroyed, lives lost, friends and family deployed to faraway lands.  And so I get that and I hold no ill memory towards any of those people; you can't blame them for doing what needed to happen for them to return to their lives.

The first thing that pissed me off was Bloomberg telling us all to go shopping.  I understood his point but it was the first time (perhaps an indication or an omen) that his condescension--his "I know what's best for you so don't question me just do it" attitude came through.  It appeared again during the strike, during a few winter storms when people complained about alternate side parking, and a few other occasions.  It definitely didn't endear "Mayor Mike" to a whole bunch of us.  The second thing--and indeed the most powerful impetus for the scathing condemnation to come--was the call to arms for us to "Never Forget."

"Never Forget."  How many times have you heard that over the last ten years?  I know that I sure as hell can't put a number on it.  On paper, it's a great mantra imploring us to be careful, to look out for each other, to recall the departed with due reverence...but in practice?  Not so much.  I can't tell you how many different "Never Forget" statuses I saw on Sunday but there were plenty.  Unsurprisingly, most people seemed to have statuses about September 11th.  I understand why too: it was a significant anniversary--a full decade since that day.  But, in a way, Facebook is part of my problem--part of the issue that I take with the society that we now live in.  2001 was a year of great change in this country but so was 2004.

My issue is this: we have become a society that lives almost exclusively in the moment and for only the moment.  We have no patience; we expect everything to happen instantaneously because it does.  The things that served as distractions during those first few post-9/11 years have become the things that are the forefront of our attention--at the core of our respective lives.

I don't mean to disparage anyone who had a status up on 9/11 about their memories or feelings about the event, it's just that, to me, it was something I have seen scores of times over the past few years.  See, back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s--when Americans remembered an event of significance (Pearl Harbor is an apt example), they did so genuinely.  They gathered in stolid solidarity; they showed instead of said, and I think that's part of what my problem is.  It's not so much that I doubt people's sincerity when they share the aforementioned thoughts and feelings, it's more that those expressions strike me as empty--as simply words with nothing behind them. 

People say "Never Forget" but I think it's more "remember when you're told it's time to remember"; it's been reduced to a slogan that will stick around for the moment until it's gone, replaced with the next pop culture phenomenon.  Our collective attention span has been reduced severely since social networking and reality television have risen in prevalence; one need only look at Twitter updates and Facebook statuses to see the validity of my argument.  You can tell what's been going on in New York and in America as a whole simply by looking back through people's statuses.  You'd know that it was the tenth anniversary of 9/11, that there was a wicked hurricane that came through the Northeast, that there was an earthquake, that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, and that New York had been HAMMERED with blizzards.  But in between all of those?  You'd have the requisite pop culture and reality television nonsense that will invariably supplant all of those moments and events of notes.

THAT's what the problem is: moments of local or national historical significance are relegated to the same plane as nonsense like the Royal Wedding or how much Kim Kardashian earned last year.  "Never Forget" has become tantamount to "WINNING!" or a joke about LeBron giving only three quarters.  And when things do happen, the first thing people seem to do is run to Facebook and Twitter so that they can throw their two cents (which is really the same as everyone else's two cents when it comes down to it) into the mix.  It's the sociological equivalent of saying "FIRST!" on a messageboard where someone feels compelled to post the same inane nonsense that everyone else is posting so as not to be left out.  My beef is that I feel like so many people posted the things that they did on 9/11 not out of genuine remembrance but out of the unconscious need to raise their virtual Facebook/Twitter hands to be counted for attendance or roll call.


Remember thought: actions speak louder than 160 characters or less.