Thursday, September 11, 2008

When Life Refuses to Imitate Art


Sometimes things change for the better, and it totally screws me up.  


This morning I turn on the television in time for the reading of the names of those lost on 9-11.  The ceremony always interests me for more than the obvious reasons.  In one of my novels-in-progress, a character who lost his father in the World Trade Center attack still cannot bring himself to join his family on the annual pilgrimage to Ground Zero. Angel’s last conversation with his father Emilio was a heated political argument over who to vote for in the Democratic primary scheduled that day.  He grows so frustrated with his immigrant father’s increasing conservatism, he hangs up the phone on him. An hour later Angel learns that his father – a server at Windows on the World on the top of the North Tower – died in the attack.


Now every year Angel watches the reading of the names with conflicting emotions. While he appreciates the diversity that the organizers use in selecting those who read the names, it bothers him how the immigrants who died that day remain unacknowledged. It particularly grates Angel in the face of the rising xenophobia in the United States since the attacks. He watches the ceremony on television while sipping gin and juice and making makes sociological observations and political judgments, all in an effort to avoid the guilt of having disrespected his father for expressing admiration for then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani. 


But watching this morning’s commemoration, I immediately discover that I have some rewriting to do.  The organizers have changed little this year. The readers – loved ones of a life taken that day – still take the podium two at time. They read a dozen or so names as each soul’s name, picture and town scrolls at the bottom of the screen.  Virtually all the duos are interracial, but this year, the reader on the left has been charged with making a special pronouncement.   







“I came to read with love on behalf of the people of the commonwealth of Dominica.”


“And I’m here today on behalf of Cyprus.”


“I’m proud to have read on behalf of my fellow citizens of the Dominican Republic.”


“I’m here honoring and remember the people of Ethiopia.”


“I came today with the hearts and best wishes of the people of the Gambia.”


“And I’m honored today to have represented the people of Ireland.”


“I’m proud today to have represented my country the Iran.” 


After the moment of silence at 9:59 AM when the South Tower fell, a Latina dressed in NYPD blue takes the podium. Her father was a pastry chef on Windows on the World. She says that whenever she and her father parted ways, he would say te quiero y vaya con Dios. She says, “Today, I want to tell my Papi the same thing. I love you and go with God.” It is one of the few times the solemnity of the proceedings is broken with applause.


So this minor change throws a bit of a monkey wrench into my beloved scene about this young man who harbors tremendous guilt because his liberal politics were not changed despite the personal cost of what occurred that tragic day. Yes, I have quite a bit of rewriting to do. This is not the first time that changing tides have disrupt my creative flow like when Harvard’s decision to offer free tuition to admitted students whose families made less than $60,000 per year threw my young adult novel Efrain’s Secret into a tailspin.  The writer who doesn’t admit that the occasional change for the better doesn’t sometimes trigger a moment of petty frustration with life’s failure to imitate art is a liar.


But for the first time, a tiny shift toward progress demands a rewrite for once I will be very happy to make.