A birthday that will live in infamy

If you were born on the 11th of September, you can make a wish and blow out the candles, but that silly old song will never sound the same.

Published December 21, 2001 8:14PM (EST)

This year for my birthday I got a terrorist attack. I was hoping for an Adirondack chair. In late September it warms up out at San Francisco's Ocean Beach, and I was planning to spend long, drowsy afternoons sitting in my new chair out on the back deck reading the New York Times Magazine.

Since the attacks, that chair in which I was going to read has become the chair from which I will perhaps watch the end of the world unfold in the eastern sky. As novelist Robert Stone said in a recent interview, "History has come for us, it's here; what we feared is beginning to happen to us."

And I still haven't had a decent birthday party.

I was planning to take most of the day off on Sept. 11, as is local custom on my birthday, but an editor at work called early that morning and said, "Wake up, birthday boy, turn on the television." So like everybody else I turned on the television and participated in that big national stretching of the conceivable.

It took such stretching that, perhaps like you, I'm still a little sore from it.

My wife baked me a birthday cake late on the night of Sept. 11, but being in the news business I had to work that day and many days after that, and never really got to enjoy the cake. And then by the time events at the World Trade Center had slowed down a little, we'd forgotten about my birthday and were trying to figure out who was sending the anthrax.

And then the troops went into Afghanistan.

And then that plane crashed in Queens.

And to top it off, since my birthday, people have been saying things that I translate in my head as "Since Cary Tennis' birthday, I've been having sudden fits of crying in elevators"; "Since Cary Tennis' birthday, I just don't want to go outside"; "Since Cary Tennis' birthday, I don't trust anyone."

Consumer confidence is down, too. It's been a hell of a year.


When I was young, for my birthday I would sometimes get green plastic soldiers. To a little boy craving power in a frightening world (this was in Florida during the Cuban missile crisis), a gift of toy soldiers is a gift of command; to receive such a gift on one's birthday is significant beyond what grown-ups might assume. And my birthday was mine; though it was recognized widely by family and friends as a time to celebrate, there was never any question about who was at the center of the celebration. That's what I liked about my birthday: It was all about me.

Next year, Sept. 11 will be about everything but me. While I'm trying to celebrate my birthday, the newspapers and television will be filled with dark soliloquies straining for eloquence and patriotic images that border on kitsch. Flaming buildings will fall endlessly into a sea of dust and fleeing faces. And there I'll be, making a wish, blowing out candles.


In addition to army men, I sometimes received building blocks for my birthday. With blocks you could build a tower. With little howitzers you could protect the tower. With kneeling riflemen you could repel invaders. With a wall you could surround the tower. But with a plane pinched between thumb and finger, the neighbor boy could fly right over the walls, evade the howitzers and crash the tower of blocks to the floor.

And then, because you were children, you could laugh and start over, building the tower, surrounding the tower, waiting for the neighbor boy to knock it down again. You could talk about how many people would have been killed, whether the pilot ejected safely, whether the Incredible Hulk would have been crushed (he wouldn't), whether Spiderman could have survived (he would have slung some web to the next building and swung to safety) and whether a lone rifleman perched in a window could have blown up the approaching plane and sent it crashing down (we always wondered about that, and never had it settled).

As adults, we also like to sit around and speculate after the disaster: What if the pilots had been armed? What if all passengers were restrained in their seats for the duration of the flight? But we don't get to pick up the blocks and rebuild the tower. Unlike that green summer of rehearsals for life that is childhood, adulthood is a long series of tough seminars in the unundoable character of action. You learn how cruelly constrained are your actual choices, how locked into cause and effect is each college, each job, each city, each lover. You let go of the fantasy about becoming a circus acrobat. You give up the dream of the Princeton professorship and the brilliant girlfriend who invents a formula to make you invisible, suede elbow patches and all. There go all the birthday games with the toy soldiers.

When childhood was freshly lost -- in the late teens and 20s -- birthdays became a drunken time of stiff, ironic mourning for the bright, frictionless narrative of youth. There were barroom sessions of whisky drinking dimly remembered the next blurry day; there were scrapes with the law and the neighbors, who did not grasp the importance of my birthday. And then for a time I did not grasp its importance either. It was not clear whether the birthday was something to celebrate at all; it seemed just another station on a long backward crawl into a world of dashed ideals and compromise. And yet time could still be halted with a few stiff drinks, and the birthday continued to be an occasion for gifts, so there were still celebrations, if a little hollow.

Not until middle age approached did the miracle of simply being alive become significant again; not until then did birthdays regain their lustrous aura of magic. And then, having finally with ironic cheer accepted the truism that the only alternative to getting older is dying, I found my birthdays becoming more and more like victory celebrations of the type that call for open touring cars rolling down Parisian boulevards.

But then this happened. It is as though over the theatrical floodlight that illuminates the day, some stagehand had placed a dark and sinister gel, rendering everything on stage the color of dried blood.

Perhaps it would be a mark of maturity to consider Sept. 11 as simply a random date; after all, the attacks had to happen on somebody's birthday. But the search for patterns is a deeply human habit; you might argue that it lies at the root of all our sense of meaning in the universe.

In fact, speaking of finding meaning in coincidence, I happen to have recently been reading "The Intuitionist" by Colson Whitehead:

John needs patterns, and labors after them even when circumstances betray him. Because there must be patterns, experience is recursive, and if the pattern has not announced itself yet, it will, eloquent and emphatic in a mild-mannered sort of way. He's still searching for a concordance between the loss of his virginity (purchased) and an ankle sprain (accidental) exactly three years later, give or take an hour. John is sure it will come, awaiting another item in the series or a new perspective on the extant ones.

Was this past Sept. 11 simply "another item in the series"? Is it just coincidence that Sept. 11, 1973, is the date of the CIA-engineered Chilean coup in which President Salvador Allende was assassinated?

In her chart for the Sept. 11 attacks, astrologer Lisa Dale Miller writes, "The first thing I immediately noticed was the sensitive and critical placement of the Pluto/Saturn opposition. Pluto, the planet of death/rebirth/transformation, is in the 12th house, which rules darkness, secrets, imprisonment; and Saturn, the planet of death and limitation, is in the seventh house, which rules our country's relationship with others. Both Saturn and Pluto make a square to the Sun in Virgo, the "authentic" identity of the terrorists. Virgo rules the martyr, a search for spiritual purity through the body, a deep commitment to service, and careful detailed planning. Put this Sun in the ninth house and you get martyring oneself through a commitment to a belief system or a religious cause."

The theme of martyrdom struck a personal chord. Could it be the common trait that links those born on that date with the event itself? By phone, Miller explained, "Virgo is the sign of service. But the negative aspect is that the service aspect can become extreme and you can become a martyr. Virgos also tend to be very analytical; they go over things over and over in their minds. It makes them great but it also makes them overly critical ... They might become obsessed with the sorrow and the sadness."

Indeed. Obsessed enough to write about it at some length. But then, if the date held such significance, if what happened seemed so perfectly preordained, then why didn't astrologers predict it?

"Human beings have free will," said Miller, "and we create our lives every day." She said astrologers can only point to tendencies.

"We can tell the government, and our clients, what is the optimum time," she said. For instance, "Bush went to war at the wrong time. Astrologically, he should have waited another three weeks."

This tendency to be overly critical, to be obsessed with the sorrow and the sadness: I've been hearing that from people my whole life. But Virgos are not the only ones thinking a great deal about the events of Sept. 11. We're all thinking about it, which makes it not simply a private matter; one person at a time, the beliefs we form and the emotions we experience will form the way we as a nation think about it. So it is worth considering the private and mysterious ways the event becomes a part of our permanent makeup, our character, our memory.

For one thing, terror, like torture, affects its targets not only on the surface but underneath, in ways that even those who suffer its effects can only dimly articulate, if they are aware of its effect at all. The danger is that in giving so much consideration to the event, each of us unwittingly feathers a warm nest in which the memes of insidious fear can be incubated and hatched. We become hosts.

For instance, when playing tennis recently, I felt a sudden sharp pain in my calf. I was limping for days. One morning shortly afterward, limping into my car, settling into the driver's seat, I slammed the door on the tip of my finger. I didn't break the bone, but it scared me, because I thought: Cripes, I'm falling apart! Look what those terrorists have done!

They'd gotten me off my game just like a tennis opponent who keeps surprising you with spin and unexpected shots, keeping you out of rhythm, wearing you down until surrender begins to look like an attractive way to end the torment of long, fruitless battle. Those terrorists are really messing with me, I thought.

Of course, to make oneself the focus of the world's capricious malevolence is the error of a child, or a paranoiac. To wonder even for an instant, "Why is all this happening to me? What does it mean?" is to become distracted from the task of understanding the real threat and doing what's realistic. In this way, the quest for meaning and the quest for survival can find themselves at odds in the human heart.

So to guard against self-doubt and fear requires more than what can be achieved by baggage screeners and counterintelligence. It requires a kind of emotional baggage screening, to prevent us from crippling ourselves before we realize what we're doing, before we just stop going outside and don't know why.

It's not as though it's a simple matter to come to a conclusion about the meaning of the events. In fact, what is most disturbing is the possibility that the attacks of Sept. 11 are only the opening chords of a complicated, challenging piece of diabolical music whose patterns, much as we seek to find order in them, may forever resist us. The game being played against the West is not designed to be understood, but to destroy us.


Sometimes after a birthday celebration, when we kids had eaten too much cake and had been inside too long, we would wander to the woods, or a field, and find an anthill, and poke it with a stick. Unlike bees, against whose sting a keeper will devise elaborate protections, the ants had nothing we wanted. We just liked to stir them up, just because we could.

But if in our fascination we stared too long, if our minds drifted too far off in the hot and humid September air, a sudden sting on the back of the thigh would bring a shiver of panic; we'd freeze in terror and then run, covered in ants, screaming, crying, realizing that we'd been standing in the ant pile all along.

Our stunned amazement after the Sept. 11 attacks has some of that quality in it as well, as if after a long period of drunkenness, not by wine, by poetry or by virtue but by power, that cognac of geopolitics, we came to consciousness like the drunk on a bender who took a taxi out of Manhattan and woke up on a traffic island ... in Jerusalem.


There were two reasons why I wanted an Adirondack chair for my birthday. I wanted to relax on the back deck, and I wanted to commune with a symbol. The Adirondack chair was a symbol of childhood visits to my grandmother's house, of long afternoons on a lawn, drinking iced tea, playing croquet and listening to adults talk of mysterious things. It also stood for a certain solid East Coast ease that I knew I would never attain, but which attracts me. After all, I come from Florida, land of escapes: to which the worst of the North have escaped and from which the worst of the South never will. Aside from wanting it as a symbol, I also wanted the Adirondack chair as a practical device for achieving a state of easy relaxation. It was not meant as a vehicle for deep meditation, but for simply a pleasant obliviousness of the type that is easy to indulge in when things are good.

And things were good; even with the downturn in the tech economy before Sept. 11, life was more comfortable and more secure than it had ever been. As a writer, I had always been prepared to be dirt poor. The economic boom had removed the threat of dire poverty, and my Internet job had let me make a decent living doing what I enjoy. I knew that even if I lost my job, I would still be a lucky man, owner of a house in San Francisco, possessor of relevant skills, not about to starve or face eviction. And miraculously, I had weathered heartbreaking layoffs but was still employed, still enjoying my work, still able to plan for the future.

So rather than the nagging worry of poverty and despair, a vital, dollar-rich optimism had seeped into the psyche like spiked ground water. It had formed a refreshing underground lake of good cheer into which I could effortlessly dip to emerge refreshed and ready to face the world. It was not necessary to meditate deeply to achieve this sense of well-being. Nor was an Adirondack chair necessary; I could sit in a $6 plastic chair and still bask in my good fortune. But the Adirondack chair was to be an upgrade, an intentional psychic travel seat, a place in which to journey with relative ease from the kind of surface irritation that is inevitable in urban life to that more "real" world of true optimism and security that lay just below.

But the attacks of Sept. 11 replaced that bright, warm general optimism with a kind of turbulent, murky dread. After the attacks, to sit in an Adirondack chair on the deck would be to relax into a state of, basically, abject terror.

That boom-era narrative of unending opportunity had been replaced by something more like historical reality. And now an entire nation stands poised to replace its cherished illusion of invulnerability with the realization that it can be gravely hurt by a determined foe within its borders. Perhaps we are finally ready to live in history like everyone else. No doubt our reentry into the world of mortal nations will be clumsy and sentimental; we are still groggy from our nap; but we will nonetheless hammer out an American version of the British stiff upper lip and the Gallic sang-froid. It will look like the clenched-teeth smile of Clint Eastwood -- half grin, half grimace -- the sign of a steely, carnivorous and classless warrior bonhomie, alloyed with pitiless efficiency under God.

Historical reality is a good thing to live in. But it does not mean that existential truths have changed, or that all our optimism was simply childish. That state of mind in which fear of death and terrorism are silly phantasms when compared to the great unified reality beyond, that state still exists just beyond the veil of consciousness, should one care to seek it.


Remember when the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran called America the Great Satan? It was a comically primitive turn of phrase, but some time after the Sept. 11 attacks, that very image of the United States as an unthinking ogre astride the globe came chillingly home when a reporter and a military expert appeared on CNN, with a lack of self-consciousness and irony striking even for their ilk. They were walking around on a large relief map of Afghanistan that had been laid on the floor. The military expert was indicating salient features with a pointer, and the pair was discussing the terrain with all the sunny confidence of newlyweds checking out an apartment.

In some way, the quality of self-assured arrogance those Americans displayed as they circumambulated a miniaturized Central Asia in their expensive shoes resembles the kind of privilege that I would symbolize were I to carry out my plan and purchase a new Adirondack chair and sit on the deck reading, listening to CNN through the window of the den. What could be more symbolic to our enemies of our shallow self-absorption than me, placidly reading the New York Times Magazine as their world is blown to bits with bombs whose explosive power is matched only by their gymnastic precision?

And yet, for all that, it is we who have been attacked. So even as I have distrusted and feared those decorated hawks whose will to power seems tempered by no moral scruple, I am a stockholder in the war now, voting my proxy by quiet acquiescence. By the time my birthday rolls around again, I will be out there again on the back deck at Ocean Beach, having finally purchased an Adirondack chair. And though when I close my eyes I may see at first a battlefield and not a pool of clear water, it will not take long to become reacquainted with a world in which all of this is folly, in which no living body exists as anything but a whim in the eye of God, a world in which man's greatest wars are but the senseless struggle of insects, a mystical world that in fact remains our only enduring reality.

By Cary Tennis

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