September 11, 2010 at 12:10 pm (Reflection)

I was fifteen years old on September 11th, 2001. When the planes hit the towers, I was probably in English class, though in the confusion of the immediate aftermath no one in the school knew anything for at least another hour. During 4th period chemistry class, an announcement came over the intercom from the principal: all students whose parents worked in the World Trade Center were to come to the library. That’s when we knew something was wrong.

I lived in New Jersey, in a town with a big commuter population. Lots of kids’ parents worked in downtown NYC. We were all worried when the announcement came, but our chemistry teacher, looking nervous, just said, “A plane hit one of the towers. It was probably an accident.” We continued with class.

Fifth period was lunch. I sat with my friends as a second announcement declared all after-school activities canceled for the day. Rumors flew around the cafeteria, and I heard the word “terrorists” thrown out for the first time. My friend Lauren, who knew no more about the situation than I did, yelled, “Damn you, terrorists! You made them cancel band practice!” We all laughed.

It wasn’t until 6th period history that I got information. I will always be thankful to my 10th grade history teacher, Mrs. Tomczyk, for going against the school’s orders and giving us details. We didn’t have live TV in our classrooms, and the only way we were going to learn anything was if a teacher told us. Mrs. Tomczyk believed we had a right to know, and so she closed the door and told us.

When she said the towers had fallen, I let out a sharp laugh. I didn’t think it was funny, of course. But my instinctive physical reaction was one of disbelief. Gone? How could they be gone? At the time, we still didn’t know how severe the damage would be to the rest of the downtown area. A completely apocalyptic image surfaced in my mind, and it’s still one I hold, even years later. We spent the whole class discussing what happened, acting as support for each other. We didn’t learn history that day. We were living it.

The next period was gym, but I didn’t stay — my mom came and picked me up from school. She’s a volunteer at heart, and she wanted to be there at the elementary and middle schools to help the kids who might not have anyone to go home to. So she wanted me and my younger brother to be home first and foremost, so she would be free to help others. I planted myself in front of the TV and watched the news, and saw the images for the first time.

My history homework that night was to read Patrick Henry’s most famous speech. “Give me liberty, or give me death.” I cried.

I did not personally know anyone killed in the attacks. But one of my best friends lost a cousin. A girl a year below me, who’d lived in my neighborhood and worked with me on the school newspaper, lost her older brother. The tragedy was very immediate in our town, and we’re lucky we didn’t lose more people.

So though it’s been 9 years, and all that’s happened since has been hard to separate from the memories of that day, it’s still vivid in my mind, and still horrifying. I still feel ill on this day, morose and contemplative. And I thought it might be best for me to share that. This is the first 9/11 I’ve spent outside of New Jersey, and I find myself wishing I was on the east coast, to share the experience with others who lived it like I did. But, since I can’t do that, I felt I should at least share my experience with all of you.

The day after the attacks, an AP reporter came into that same history classroom to write an article about student reaction. The article is only available behind a paywall now — and is, frankly, some pretty terrible journalism — but I long ago copied and pasted it into a document, and I share it now, below the cut, for posterity.

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An Autobiographical Trip through Kavalier and Clay

June 30, 2010 at 10:59 am (Reflection) ()

I have a theory about fiction. It started as a theory about Pixar movies, but I’ve since expanded it to encompass all published fiction in all media. And that theory is this: every piece of fiction is uniquely attuned to certain people, in specific ways that do not apply more broadly.

This isn’t to say that other people can’t enjoy fiction that isn’t attuned to them. Millions of people loved Wall-E. But Wall-E wasn’t specifically attuned to millions of people. It was made for people like my friend Anika, who loves robot romances and environmentalism, and my friend Becky, who loves dystopian post-apocalyptic futures and Hello, Dolly. My friends’ specific and seemingly-random combinations of interests brought them extra joy as they watched Wall-E, even as millions of other moviegoers had a perfectly fine time enjoying the animation and the love story and the socially conscious fable. Wall-E was made for everyone, but it was especially made for Anika and Becky.

So when I say that Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was made for me, I’m not denying its universal appeal. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, after all. Many, many people love it, and deservedly so. But my own unique combination of interests and hobbies and fascinations were so well-represented in the novel that I can’t, at this moment, imagine a piece of fiction more closely attuned to me, specifically.

When I was in elementary school, I discovered stage magic. I don’t know what came first — watching magic specials on television, or seeing a box of tricks in a store. Most likely I first learned about magic from a clown or puppet show at a birthday party or community event. But whatever the impetus, I became absolutely fascinated with stage magic, and decided I would be a magician when I grew up. I bought myself a plastic top hat and wand and a dozen pre-packaged tricks to learn, wore my hand-me-down, poufy-sleeved, black “David Copperfield” blouse, and performed magic for anyone who would stand still long enough. When I attended a week-long Girl Scout summer camp with a talent show theme, I eschewed the singing and dancing and piano-playing of my peers and instead performed my tricks for the audience of parents who gathered for our end-of-camp talent spectacular. By the end of elementary school I’d mostly left magic behind, having realized I lacked most of the things necessary for a stage magician (like grace and speed and charisma and a good poker face), but bits of my fascination remain.

In fourth grade, I read The Diary of Anne Frank for a talented and gifted extra-curricular class. It was the first time I’d ever heard about the Holocaust, and I found myself both horrified and fascinated. I became passionate about learning all I could, in the hopes that I could pass on my knowledge to others and promote a more accepting world that wouldn’t forget the weight of our sad history. I read every bit of Holocaust memoir and fiction I could get my hands on, including The Devil in Vienna, an epistolary novel about two best friends (one Jewish, one the daughter of a Nazi) torn apart by the war, which remains one of my favorite books to this day. My interest in that period of history — indeed, in the entire World War II era, worldwide — never faded, and later experiences (a visit to a concentration camp during a summer trip to Europe, a college course on texts and images of the Holocaust) only deepened my knowledge and fascination.

Fourth grade was also significant as the year I fell in love with New York City. I grew up in central New Jersey, in a commuter town with a view of New York across the bay on clear days, but, since my parents were diehard suburbanites who hated the city, it may as well have been across the country. It took plenty of begging and pleading for me to convince my parents to let me visit the city, and finally, after I sacrificed a tenth birthday party in exchange, my parents drove me into New York to see my first Broadway show, Cats. It was all downhill from there. Over the years I became more and more interested in Broadway, and thus had more and more reason to enter the city; meanwhile, I fell in love with fiction that took place in New York, from the movie Newsies to Broadway’s RENT. Even as repeated visits made New York more and more real to me (to the point where, now, I often do nothing more in the city than sit in diners and Starbucks with friends all day), it remained a magical, magnetic attraction, the site of all my fantasies and the setting of all my most beloved stories.

In seventh grade, I read Hatchet, the classic middle grades novel about one boy’s survival in the wilderness following a plane crash. This is the moment I most clearly remember developing a strong interest in survival stories, the stories of unprepared individuals trying to survive in harsh conditions without modern comforts. But perhaps that interest had always been there, from the Dear America and American Girl books about surviving on the prairie, middle school games of Oregon Trail, and that Baby-Sitters Club Super Special where they got stranded on a desert island off the coast of Connecticut. Either way, I knew at that moment that I would always love survival stories, and I actively sought them out in other fiction.

Toward the end of eighth grade, my friend Nick came out of the closet. Over the next few years, almost all of my male friends (of which I had quite a few) followed suit, as did a number of my female friends. As a result, I found myself very involved in the gay rights movement — or as involved as a teenager can be. I helped my friends organize observances of the Day of Silence, launched a gay-straight alliance (which, sadly, was mostly a failure), and wrote articles for the school newspaper about the importance of gay rights legislation. My activism carried through college, where I was a member of the Pride Alliance, and continues to this day; if someone were to call me a single-issue voter, gay rights would be that issue. And in the course of all this activism, I realized how important it is for fictional worlds to be populated with gay characters, characters my friends might identify with. I began to read tons of gay fiction, actively yearning and campaigning for more gay characters in more mainstream media, while also reading up on the history of the gay rights movement, becoming particularly intrigued by pre-Stonewall gay lives. (In college, I took a much-beloved class on the American 1950s, and my final paper addressed the topic of gay lives in 1950s America, particularly in the suburbs.)

Finally, in the middle of college, I discovered comic books. And what started as a passing interest soon turned into a life-changing, all-consuming obsession. I fell in love with Captain America, and wound up writing my undergrad senior thesis about his cultural impact. I made dozens of new friends, some of whom are among my best friends, and began blogging, becoming a part of the comic book community. And eventually, I realized that studying comics — alongside other media — was something I wanted to make a career out of. I applied to grad school in media and cultural studies, and I’ll be heading there in a little over a month to start a PhD program. Though I don’t have any real desire to make comics myself, I’m fascinated by both the craft and the cultural impact of the books, and I love learning about the history of the medium and talking to creators about their work. Though I’ve only been reading comics for four years now, I’m quite content with my plan to devote much of my life to studying them.

So when I read a book in which the New York setting is almost a character unto itself, featuring as protagonists a magician character threatened by the Holocaust and a gay character threatened by homophobia, who together create comic books during World War II about a superhero similar to Captain America, and who later must survive an Antarctic wilderness and 1950s comformist suburbia, respectively, is it any wonder I would come away from the story thinking “this book, this was written just for me”? With The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon has written my Wall-E, and for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.

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Finding Myself in 90s Kids’ TV

February 26, 2010 at 10:28 am (Reflection) (, )

(Crossposted to Murmur.)

Recently, I wrote about my experiences with teen television, and how I’ve never been quite able to identify with TV adolescents, due to a general lack of diversity that doesn’t reflect my own high school memories. I still stand by that statement, but at the same time I know there have been teenage characters I’ve related to on television — particularly teens on shows made for younger children who I found myself trying to emulate when I was in elementary or middle school. So when frequent Murmur.com contributor Dave Carr asked me to share some of my experiences with early 90s children’s television, I was happy to take him up on the offer and talk about two of those aspirational characters — Clarissa Darling of Clarissa Explains it All and Doug Funnie of Doug.

Clarissa Explains it All, which premiered in 1991, wasn’t about much of anything, really. Unlike the high-concept shows that seem to populate tween TV today (Hannah Montana is secretly a regular high school student! Zack and Cody live in a hotel!), the shows of my childhood were largely about regular kids who were only remarkable in that they had a TV show about them. There was a comfort to that, a feeling that you could BE those characters, without too much effort. Clarissa Darling, in particular, was the kind of person I wanted to be. On the surface, we had a lot in common: two parents who loved each other and their children, even if they didn’t always understand them; an exceptionally annoying younger brother; a friend who was a boy, but with whom she didn’t have any sort of romantic attachment. She wanted to be a journalist (and would have become one, had a planned spinoff/final season actually happened), and she was always a little weirder than average. I related more than a little.

However, she was also ridiculously cool. She wore the sort of insane outfits that didn’t even make total sense in the early 90s when the show was created, including those floppy denim hats with the big flowers on the front (yes, I had one). She had a pet baby alligator and hubcaps on her wall and she was unapologetic in her weirdness. Every episode she talked directly to the audience (the main gimmick of the show) and enumerated her problems, always coming up with the most creative solutions to solve them. (Half the time, the problem was her Alex P. Keaton-esque younger brother, Ferguson, and I refuse to confirm or deny whether or not I ever used one of her “solutions” to defend myself against my own annoying sibling.) And she frequently designed computer simulations to illustrate her problems, something I yearned to do myself. (It would be a few years before I even got a computer of my own, and that was an already-ancient-at-the-time Commodore 64 with DOS.)

But perhaps the best part about Clarissa is that the show never left the confines of the Darling house. We knew, from Clarissa’s narration and interaction with the other characters, that a world existed beyond her front door. She went to school, she went on vacations, she went shopping. But we never saw her do any of those things. We only saw her house, her family, and her best friend, Sam, who entered her house by climbing a ladder and crawling through her window (complete with window seat — how I coveted that!). If the show had a guest star, it was because someone (another friend of Clarissa’s, a relative, etc.) was visiting. And perhaps because we never saw the outside world, it was easy for me to imagine that her world was my world, that her school was my school and her other friends were my other friends. Clarissa represented an ideal that young girls could actually aspire to, filling in the blanks with their own lives and histories, and the show, which began the year I started Kindergarten, still means a lot to me to this day. Sometimes I even wonder where the characters would have ended up as adults. How quickly would Ferguson’s political career with the Republican Party have gone up in flames when his lefty journalist sister blew open a political scandal? I’d love to see the 15-years-later for those characters.

Doug, a cartoon about an everykid and his adventures in a new town, Bluffington, premiered the same year as Clarissa, and was one of the first three NickToons on Nickelodeon. (The other two being Rugrats and Ren and Stimpy.) Before the show moved to ABC (and fell drastically in quality), Doug was a staple of my Nickelodeon viewing, and I couldn’t help forming a resonant attachment with its shy, awkward hero. Sure, Doug was a boy, but otherwise he was a lot like me — stuck in his ways (he wore the same clothes every day), slightly gullible, nervous in social situations, and a thoughtful dreamer who recorded everything that happened in his diary. He had an anthropomorphic dog named Porkchop, a wacky best friend named Skeeter, a frenemy named Roger, and an idolized love interest named Patti Mayonnaise, in addition to his parents and drama nerd older sister, Judy. Unlike Clarissa, which succeeded largely because of its focused domestic setting, the best part of Doug was its placement in a very real-seeming school. I identified with Doug’s anxieties about homework assignments and evil vice principals and looking foolish in front of his crush, and with the idea of having friends who would just as soon torture you as support you. (3rd through 5th grade were tough.) And sometimes I even envisioned myself as a superhero, as Doug did — he secretly drew comics in his bedroom about the adventures of Quailman, a version of Doug with a cape, a belt around his head, and underwear over his pants. (Perhaps my eventual descent into comic book obsession was inevitable.)

Also interesting, though perhaps more thorny, was the fact that other than Doug himself, who was Caucasian, all of the characters on Doug had skin and hair of colors not found in nature and heavily exaggerated/cartoony/impossible hair and features. This meant, essentially, that race was hard to pinpoint in the Doug universe, and while this sort of post-racial world/elimination of race concerns can be problematic in itself, it was easier for me to see my non-white friends in Doug’s universe than it was in similar shows of my childhood with explicitly all-white casts. For a show about a white, male, middle class protagonist, Doug was at least a tiny bit more progressive than most.

I could go on about other shows I related to, the shows that helped to define my childhood. I could go on for pages about Boy Meets World, possibly my all-time favorite show, and the ways in which I’m essentially the lovechild of Cory and Topanga. But I think I’ve revealed enough about myself for one day, and I want to encourage others to talk about the shows that defined their childhood — particularly the shows in which they saw reflections of themselves. What do you remember?

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