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From the President
Etta G. Saxe, Ph.D.
While I began my presidency with some ideas in mind for my first couple of president’s columns I find myself writing this one, the first since September 11, filled with dilemma. Facing as I do and as I assume most of you are also, the challenge of “going on being” in a situation of very changed context and surround, I find myself unable to not write something associated with these shocking and tragic events but also unable to find something to write which has the qualities that I consider suitable for this column.
To not write something related to September 11 would to my mind be an act of avoidance contrary to that which I believe psychoanalysis teaches us about human experience and the value of speaking the unspeakable, the difficult and the conflictual. As an abdication of leadership and a taking of the easy way out, it would go against how I have chosen to lead my professional life and the obligation to keep myself educated, as best I can, about that which is in my mind, that is so large a part of this choice. On the other hand to write at this time seems premature as I am yet unable to find among my many thoughts that which seems worthy of saying in this forum. Additionally, it seems to me that while it might be tempting to think about these events “psychoanalytically” there are numerous risks in doing so. Such risks include the risk of simplification and reductionism especially in musings about cause; of intellectualizing and thus dehumanizing the experiences of creating meaning in the face of fear/terror, loss of illusions about safety and great inner dissonance; of distancing oneself from one’s own struggles by demonizing, pathologizing, normalizing, generalizing, and being politically correct; and of trivializing the events of September 11.
The solution to my dilemma came to me from what at first blush seemed an unlikely place, a place (and person) which on further thought seemed to me the very living of my attempts to “go on being” in the moments of living. It came from a humor magazine called “We’re Living In ‘FUNNY TIMES,’” a magazine to which I was introduced by a colleague.
I was deeply touched by this piece, by its profundity without intellectual pretentiousness and its so very human and humane capturing of the author’s moment to moment creative living/experiencing of her very personal meanings and reactions to the events around her. While in the author’s permission letter to me to use her writing in my column, she spoke of herself as a “non-hero,” I believe her writing says otherwise, at least from my psychoanalytic perspective. To me she demonstrates the creative and interesting ways people speak with themselves in living the ordinary being of everyday life and the courage to know and experience this being and to risk sharing these moments.
I offer this piece to you as my column, in the hope that you each will find in it some associations relevant to your psychoanalytic thinking, as well as some meaning, comfort, self tolerance, humor, truth or whatever for “going on being,” both individually and collectively, in an ever changing surround.
Impressions from 37th Street
Flash Rosenberg New York--Thursday, September 13, 2001
Yesterday, I baked bread as usual, as a gesture honoring the fragile miracle of Life Goes On. The smell of tomato basil whole wheat helps mask the bad smell that pinches the tongue. I can't really describe the smell as acrid--because what is acrid? This is more of a metallic, burnt yellowy seepage into the skin, not really “like” anything. It mingles with the ice already crunching my bones as an allergic reaction to unspeakable evil. My windows are closed. Fans on.
What is it like to be here in New York City? The media are diligently and heroically presenting intricately detailed news of those intimately involved in the horror. Their news is the most significant. But on the edges, for those fortunate people like me, who are in the “not news,” there is a creepiness that is hard to express: the strange humor of being alone in an apartment in Midtown.
Tuesday morning, when I get the news, in a call from a dear friend in Philadelphia, (why is it I always get news about New York from out of town?) I am in the midst of showing a photo portfolio to a potential client for a Bat Mitzvah. We switch on the TV and see, live, the second plane crashing into the tower. Ohmygod. And then we politely finish our meeting. Business as usual, like some dumb cosmic prayer for it to not be so bad. Mrs. Kahn writes a deposit check as if we will live to celebrate Oct. 6, and leaves.
Now I have time to be upset. The magnitude of the horror sinks in as I see the Tower implode. I put on my running shoes. You can't run away from terrorists in platform mules. At this point, I am not thinking about how this heinous act will affect air travel in the future. All I know is this will forever change women's footwear at work. I began hopping around the apartment packing a backpack. Towel, water, sweater, Hmmm. What does one take to flee disaster? Shit. I hardly know what to pack to go away overnight. What on earth do I need to go away for the rest of my life? Back up zip drives. Call mom (I want to pack my mommy!) Can't get through. My camera. Film. Get out bigger bag. A bathing suit. Maybe there’ll being nice weather wherever I'm going. Where in the hell am I going? To swim to Westchester?
I never finish packing. Because I get distracted. Email works! I am flooded with inquiries. A seemingly infinite scroll of Subject: Okay? Safe? okay? alright? OK? okay? OK? hello? OKAY? k?... Punctuated by the stray phone call that can get through. I spend most of the day telling people I am all right. Like some goofy proverb, it dawns on me that: As long as you can keep on telling people your all right, you are in fact, all right. I tell A LOT of people how darn all right I am... just to make sure.
Most of the reassurances go to my connections from out-of-town. My function is to be “The Person You Know In New York.” Every single message of “yes I’m okay!” gives a face to those outside. I am like a metaphor for all of New York City to my friends and family, allowing them to personify their feelings, and experience a moment of relief in the midst of being horrified.
It must be worse to NOT be in New York. Ironically, I feel safe here, because I can KNOW that I’m okay. Thousands are tragically not okay. But millions of us are. I can see healthy representatives of those millions out my window. The sky is a gorgeous blue on 37th Street. The ordinariness of looking out the window, in the mirror, at my toothbrush, pillow, shoes, turtles, the phone, all reflecting that my life is normal. But as I pace around inside the fairy tale of my own safety, I feel like some version of all the seven dwarfs at once: Lucky, Guilty, Weepy, Eerie, Goofy, Ready, Talky.
I go up on my roof to see if I can see anything. (Instead of back yards, we have “up” yards in the city.) I am shocked to see NOTHING, except the usual Empire State Building hogging my sky. So I give it a pep talk: “Just because you are architecture, doesn't mean you have to just stand there and take it. If anything comes at you DUCK!” Fortified by this lame joking, I find the stamina to go back inside to watch TV.
The Tape Loop “theloop theloop theloop” of the crash (surreally resembling that famous photo of a bullet hurling through an apple) then implosion—until I can't bear to see it anymore—and then I see it some more--becomes strangely comforting. NOT AT ALL because its grotesque impact is diminished, nor have I become anesthetized to its pain. But because, upon returning to the TV (after a pause to recover from with-standing the TV), I see “theloop theloop theloop,” and know that signals no NEW traumatic incident has developed. Nothing has occurred during my gap in the requisite TV vigil. Worry stabilized, breathe.
The media cannot over-sensationalize this story. Its magnitude exceeds all attempts. This is a new attitude towards the media for me.
This atrocious Act of Godlessness is an innovation of non-narrative conflict. War has become as postmodern as art. We don't know who the enemy is, what he wants, what he did, or what we should do. It's a level of abstraction I can appreciate in painting, but abhor in news. We will know some version of the story in time, I suppose. But its logic will forever be as incoherent as speedily buzzing through all the channels with a remote.
Wednesday around 4 p.m. I finally gather the nerve to take a walk around my block. A patrol of my little patch in this city I love. I am surprised to see my corner fruit vendor all set up. How did he get here? He explains how he parks his cart in Manhattan, so all he has to do is take the subway in from Queens to join his produce. “It is too important for me to not come in,” he says, “People need fruit in a disaster.”
I am convulsively annoyed to see people SHOPPING for clothes in my Garment District. What kind of insensitive, self-absorbed person would be buying a dress TODAY? Later I offer this news of “shopping as usual” to my 13 year-old niece in Delaware. She reasons, “Maybe people need to get nice outfits to feel good about SOMETHING.”
I stop in my corner bodega to force myself to get something to eat. The sickest joke hits me, “What goes with disaster?” A bagel? Pizza? No appetite. So I buy a wine cooler. Never had a wine cooler before. And I will probably never have one again. Perhaps they were never very good, but now its taste is indelibly the taste of disaster to me.
These random dispatches are collected from the tape loop of my mouth exploding. Now that they are written, I can stop saying these observations over and over to the concerned. Compared to the enormity of the suffering, I have a gnawing guilt of being trivial. But in feeling trivial, there is damage as well. The whole point of the crisis is that each one of us is significant, each experience matters. I am desperately seeking out what to think from the rubble of my emotions. Consciousness mixed with spunk offered as some form of prayer. I can't help dig through steel. All I can do is help those around me feel just a little more “all right” in the context of a catastrophe that will never ever be “all right.”
Reprinted from FUNNY TIMES, November 2001, with the consent of the author.
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