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What Might Have Been 9 min read

What Might Have Been

A September 11th remembrance, plus 9/11 journalism, lightning bugs, Coach Prime in Colorado, Goodreads and Rotten Tomatoes, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

I’m sure there’s been a lot of ink spilled wondering about a world in which the terrorist attacks of 9/11 didn’t happen, those 22 years ago. I wonder about it, too. Like “What would have George W. Bush’s presidency looked like?” or “How would airport security lines look now?” 

But that’s only so useful, because as we all well know, they did happen. They defined American life forever going forward. I think not just about the what life would have been like had they not happened, but I think about different ways life could have gone, for me, in their aftermath.

It’s hard for me not to view 9/11 as another sort of Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day. I think about how fever-pitched American pride was in the days, weeks, months after the attacks. I think about how many people inevitably enlisted into military service as a result. And I think, inevitably, about how I did not.

I was in the seventh grade in 2001. I, in many ways, was too young to be caught up in the national pride and let it drive my decision-making at that point. I did not enlist as a result of it. Nor did many of my friends. It undoubtedly shaped the world we lived in, and that was still very much the case when we graduated in 2006,  but we, by and large, were not thinking of it as we planned what came next. 

I wonder about what I might have done if I were either older or younger. If I were older, closer to that moment when I would be leaving high school, would I have enlisted and served? Would I have viewed it as my generation’s Pearl Harbor? I honestly don’t know.

If I were younger, perhaps it would have coincided with a time in my life when I was obsessed with the thought of being in the military. I’d stare at my dad’s yearbook from his time at Parris Island, South Carolina, which documented his early time as a U.S. Marine. I thought it was the pinnacle of coolness, of manliness, of patriotism, of tradition; I liked the idea of following in his footsteps. I set up little obstacle courses around the three acres of our property, and I’d run them imagining it was boot camp. I did hundreds if not thousands of sit-ups in my room, thinking I was preparing for a drill instructor’s wrath. I wonder what it would have looked like, to young eyes already predisposed to thinking military service was in his future.

I think about the subsequent War on Terror, and how the fight was dramatized in popular culture and the explosion in notoriety given to Special Forces units.

Maybe I don’t even have to wonder. Maybe my little brother is a close enough stand-in. His service in the U.S. Navy certainly started from a place of wanting to be a Navy SEAL, and he was surely shaped by the post-9/11 world. Maybe he would have served anyway. Maybe he would have seen those depictions of U.S. Special Forces and always been inspired by them. Who knows?

But on today of all days, I can’t help but think of those who served. Not in general, but in response to those attacks. Caught up in a patriotism that, honestly, felt pretty amazing to see in what we thought back then were divided times. Vowing that they will never forget and meaning it in a way that many of us can’t as honestly claim to. Our lives were shaped that day, every single one of us; that’s how strong the reverberations were. But to those who took that extra step, well, you’re in my thoughts today as much as the victims, their families, and first responders are, and we thank you for your service.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. A September 11th tradition: Rereading Tom Junod’s classic Esquire piece “The Falling Man” and Colson Whitehead’s essay in the New York Times Magazine.
  2. And here are some additional September 11th pieces, one old and one new. The older one comes from The New York Review of Books (and luckily, its website just released this from the archive so non-subscribers can read it as well) where Michael Tomasky goes deep on the history of World Trade Center. In it, he wrote that, despite opposition from various fronts, they were no match for its supporters, which included The New York Times, whose word is typically the last one in such matters and whose editorial page, in 1961, gushed that ‘no project has ever been more promising for New York.’” Which leads us to the newer piece, in Airmail, about how the Grey Lady reacted to, and grew after, 9/11.
  3. Though assuredly it wasn’t the first time of the year a firefly lit up the night in my front yard, I only remember seeing such a sight for the first time a few nights ago. I remember it mainly because I remember the conversation my girlfriend and I had about how I identified the critter: “Oooh, look. There’s a lightning bug,” I said as we pulled into the driveway. She, for her part, does not call them lightning bugs, but that’s OK. And it felt fitting that I came across a sort of book review on the website UnHerd by John Jeremiah Sullivan about his Samuel James’s new book of photos in which he’d set out to document the vast number of fireflies near his family’s Appalachian home. Sullivan wrote:

It’s hard not to feel a little melancholy, in this summer of climate horrors, looking at pictures of fireflies. There has always been something utopian about them (in my notebook I have a newspaper clipping from 1810 reporting that the “streets of Washington were lighted for the first time last week with glow worms and fire bugs, 500 of these insects being confined in every lamp…”). Their habitat is threatened — as Stacey had pointed out, they need darkness —and I see far fewer of them than when I was a kid, or even 20 years ago. God forbid there should come a day when a child will be forced to consult a book, to know what it was like to experience fireflies in full array. But if the day does come, Samuel James’s Nightairs will have safeguarded a glimmer.

  1. The past week or so has been obsessed with the return of football, both collegiate and professional. I even attended my first Mizzou football game this weekend, a feat I never managed while I was a graduate student. Week One in the college ranks was dominated by Deion Sanders’s first game as head coach at Colorado, in which they’d go on to beat TCU, a team that had played in the national championship game the year before. This weekend, Coach Prime extended the winning streak. But college football is in a brand new era, and Sanders represents perhaps its purest form. Check out last month’s feature story from Robert Sanchez in 5280 about Sanders’s arrival in Boulder, for both good and ill. It spares no details about Sanders, but it’s much sadder still to read accounts of some of the students affected by his arrival.
  2. It is no secret to readers of this newsletter that I remain captivated and awestruck by magicians. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the sense of the indescribable. I got a magician’s kit for Christmas one year, around seven or eight years old, and I became aware of just how unglamorous the performing of magic is compared to the viewing of magic being performed. That, in a nutshell, is why this National Geographic story about the Olympics of magic, where magicians perform for audiences of their toughest critics: other magicians.
  3. Have I mentioned before how much I don’t like ChatGPT? (Kidding. Of course, I have, no fewer than a million times.) Here’s a pretty humorous interaction published by The Guardian between author Elif Batuman and ChatGPT as she searched for a particular quote from Proust. Spoiler: The A.I. not only didn’t help her find it, but if she hadn’t been so persistent, might have misled her into believing that it had helped her.
  4. I don’t much think about Goodreads, even though I technically have an account. I don’t use it as intended (a social media app) nor as a reading tracker nor anything else really. I know people who do, and I get email updates that they’ve made progress on things or have updated stuff, but I rarely check on it. So when I saw a recent essay in The Walrus titled “Goodreads Is Terrible for Books. Why Can’t We All Quit It?” I had to give it a read. It paints a bleak picture of how Goodreads real role in the literary world: pre-publication hype machine.
  5. From books to movies, websites that are supposed to help the consumer make “better” choices are at the mercy of the chaos that is the internet. That’s what the author chronicled in the Goodreads piece above, when trolls come for books before they’ve even been published to tamp down excitement with a rash of 1-star reviews. Coincidentally, Vulture just published a piece about the vulnerability of Rotten Tomatoes to chicanery, most egregiously in the form of PR firms simply paying for positive reviews. But the piece goes deeper than that, looking at how the service, which is now 25 years old, has skewed the ways movies are marketed and released.
  6. And then there’s the reality of today’s movie-going experience, which it appears not even Rotten Tomatoes can influence; we’re in the age of the non-existent movie. We’re hopefully about to emerge from the fallow period that’s been much of the summer (outside of Barbenheimer) and enjoy the festival and awards season. But this piece from one of my favorite critics working, Adam Nayman, published last month on The Ringer, highlights the degree to which countless movies have come and gone and few people are the wiser. (He rattles of a list of films at one point, and I had to concede, that while I was aware of them and could probably have given a generalized description of what they were about, I had not watched a single one of them.) “They’re less a victim of Barbenheimer hijacking the collective consciousness—which absolutely is a factor—than of their own strange, hapless ephemerality. For the most part, they’re the cinematic equivalent of trees falling in some empty, faraway forest.”
  7. Speaking of criticism, I found this lecture (thanks to the wonderful Arts and Letters Daily), in printed form, from professor and New Yorker contributing writer/critic Merve Emre on the role of the critic and the function of criticism in the present, in which she analyzes four historical concepts: wit, discrimination, judgment, and advocacy. I especially loved the section on wit, which she calls “the germ of the critical practice.”

More From Me

Over on my blog, I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

Give Me So Much More 'Strike Force Five'

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film,  Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

9/4: What We Do in the Shadows, S4 (5); TOMBSTONE*
9/8: FRIDAY*
9/9:The Deserter-Nelson DeMille and Alex DeMille; Missouri Tigers vs. Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders
9/10: Only Murders in the Building, S3 (2)