Somebody once told me “Know your limits.” I think that’s bad advice: as soon as you start believing in limits, you start believing in what you cannot do, in what you cannot achieve. Limits are for suckers. Anything is possible.
I remember where I was when it happened. I remember getting off the train in downtown Cleveland and jumping a bus to work, and having my receptionist ask me if I’d heard someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center. I remember responding “On purpose?” I remember my entire office crowded around a tiny 13-inch television set with bad reception watching the second plane hit. I remember going home. I remember shock. I remember seeing a weary, shell-shocked Peter Jennings on TV for 5 days, his tie loosened. sleeves rolled up. I remember everything being different after that.
I remember it so well that I don’t need a play-by-play, blow-by-blow, visceral reminder on every media outlet available. I can’t turn on my radio without hearing “day of” coverage. My television is flooded with specials and interviews and memorials—and it’s all rushing back. Like picking at a scab that’s finally starting to heal. This is not to minimize it at all. How can I? It is the single most potent, most powerful event my 38 years have ever witnessed. It was seismic. The world changed. We changed. I changed.
About 3 weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to Washington DC on business. My meetings finished a day early and I decided to stay and take in the sights. See the things I’d never seen in my nation’s capital. I saw the White House and Capitol Building, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the Monuments: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the wars.
It was one thing to see the documents that forged a nation, to see the actual ideas that framed the country we live in. The monuments, those testaments to the cost of those ideas—these moved me to tears. I read Lincoln’s words from the Gettysburg Address, the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil war, telling me that those deaths should not be in vain but should remind us “government of the people, by the people, for the people should never perish from the earth.” I stood in Martin Luther King Jr.’s place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he demanded America fulfill its promises. I wept at the wall of the Vietnam Memorial. I read South Korea’s words honoring our “sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” And I thought, “This is us. This is who we are. This is what it means to be an American.”
My daughter is a product of September 11, 2001. Literally. When she was 3 or 4, Kayla watched me cut something with a pretty big knife and asked me if she could use the knife. I quickly, and harshly, told her no, that she would cut herself, and turned my back to do something else. Being as headstrong as her mother, she grabbed the knife anyway and, sure enough, cut herself pretty good. On her face. She still has the scar to this day. And after she was mended up and the tears wiped away, she still wanted to use the knife. I learned two things about Kayla that day: that it was better for me to teach her the right way to do something than just tell her no (she’ll do it anyway and damn near kill herself) and that she is fearless. Like a honey badger. It’s simply who she is.
There is an incredible amount of vitriol in our discourse these days. There is venom in our political system, angst in our economy, tumult on Wall Street, anxiety on Main Street. It is easy to be pulled into one partisan faction or another, to turn a simple difference of opinion into discord and destructive commentary. We’re better than who we have become. We’re more than who the media would have you believe or who our political parties portray. We’re more than this.
And, like I said, this isn’t a 9/11 post. It’s a 9/12 post.
It is really about who we became afterwards. After shock became realization, after conspiracy and conjecture turned into fact, we became us. They did this to us. Us! We were attacked, we were victimized. We pulled together and mourned together and found revenge and resolve together. The idle differences that separate us—race, religion, political affiliation—these mundane trappings disintegrated. The color of someone’s skin was irrelevant. Their partisan beliefs became immaterial. Our ideals reigned supreme. Our allegiance to this nation and what it stood for, what it was founded upon was the only valid test. I could look at my neighbor, look at my co-worker, sit next to someone on the train and share a collective sense of loss and identity. We were the same, this neighbor, this co-worker, this commuter, and I—we were We and Us and we were Americans. We were in it together.
Let’s get back to that, to those people. It’s simply who we are.
I admittedly have a Superman complex: I think I can do anything. Anything. Climb Mount Everest? Just give me a pickaxe, a rope and a yak. Swim with the sharks? Let me grab my trunks. Conquer world hunger? I need a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter…you get it. I often tell my wife I cannot fly and I cannot read minds; everything else is on the table.
But I have limits. I’m learning that much. I can’t do it all and juggling the multiple personae I have often gets the best of me. I am a husband, a father, someone’s employee, a business owner, a writer. And just me. Sometimes I find my rhythm and everything is clicking along like clockwork, making stride after stride; sometimes it’s like Spiderman 2 and I’m getting my ass kicked every time I turn around. In the course of one week, I’ve learned I can be a better employee, that I need to spend more time with my wife, that I yell at my daughter too much, that I really should figure how to create epubs, and that my ankle still hurts too much to walk my dog. But I do try; I do set a bar for myself in all aspects of my life that I strive to reach. And more often than not, my efforts are largely successful. Sometimes, though, I fall. I fail. Sometimes I realize I just a man.
There are things you know about yourself long before someone decides to bring it to your attention. I’m a procrastinator. I’ve known it for a long time. I just never got around to telling anybody. But I’m also a big-hearted sap who tries to save the world—at least for those around me—but I take on far too much and the best-laid plans of mice and this man often go awry. I don’t have the cape and the shiny red boots.
In Superman Returns, Lois and Supes take a flight and he takes her incredibly high, like to the top of the world and he asks her, “What do you hear?” She tells him “Nothing.” Superman says, “I hear everything. You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but everyday I hear people crying for one.” This was after he’d left for 7 years to go find any remnants of his home world. The key part here is he left. The needs of the world didn’t stop; his responsibilities never diminished. But he had to take care of himself, to recharge his own batteries so he could be who he needed to be for everyone else. Even Superman couldn’t do it all. Even Superman needed a break.
I think I’ve come to understand Superman a little bit better. Some of it has to do with the public vs. private personas I have—the person I can be behind these words, the person I have to be on my Day Job, the person I am when no one is looking. The superhero vs. the secret identity. In the comics they say the secret identity is necessary because the hero’s enemies will use their loved ones as pawns in their schemes. I think it’s because the hero needs a safe place to be herself.
We are torn as writers to do and be these multiple people, for the sake of craft and for the sake of the sanity that comes when we finally succumb to the voices in our heads. We have to do it. I have to do it. For me, putting words on a page or screen is as natural and as necessary as breathing. I can’t not do it. Any more than Superman can’t not fly. Can’t not fight for truth, justice and the American way. Juggling these multiple identities is a struggle for me: Christopher Starr the author has to be separate from Christopher Starr the husband and father. But they are both necessary and really are two sides of the same coin. Like Clark Kent and Superman. Bruce Wayne and Batman.
And as I try to figure out who to be for whom, I still hear everything.
I hear it all, see it all, know it’s coming long before it does, long before a week like this past one rears it’s ugly head. I know it because I know me. I know the man I am. And I know that I will wake up tomorrow, having taken my lumps from the past seven days, I will rise and begin to put the shattered pieces of my ego back together and I will try again. I will take my daughter to breakfast and make my wife a priority and hobble around the block with my dog and spend part of my Labor Day weekend trying to make up for lost time professionally. I will try to wear the cape again.
I can’t not do it.