September 11

I’m in the shower when I’m startled by something that sounds exactly like a lawnmower. Except it’s much louder than a lawnmower, even if it were right outside my bathroom window, which in any case fronts a cement courtyard. Unable to come up with any plausible explanation, I stop thinking about it as soon as my heart rate subsides.

I dress quickly; I’m late to work. By now G and I de facto live together, but a few nights a month she’ll stay at her place, typically when she’s completely out of clean clothes, and last night was one of those. She has to be at work earlier than I, and without her alarm I invariably oversleep.

On the way out I scoop up my cell phone. Eleven missed calls. Most from Nick, a close friend and the fiancé of G’s sister. I try to check voicemail as I lock the door behind me but I get a busy signal.

The day is perfect. Conspicuously so. Even though I’m late I do something I don’t ever remember doing before. I pause and breathe in and smile, like someone in a commercial. I actually say “ahhh” in concert with the hydraulic sigh of the my building’s front door. Then I turn east and head down 12th Street.

There’s a clump of people standing at the corner of Sixth Ave. No one’s talking and their posture reminds of people watching snow fall for the first time of the year. I follow their gaze south and of course there are the towers. Many – I’d say most – New Yorkers actively dislike them; they’re widely regarded as a blight foisted on the city by indifferent corporate interests. But I’ve always found them reassuring, the way they tether the city at its base like a ship’s anchor. There’s comfort in how even very late at night there’ll still be a checkerboard smattering of lights on, people in there, working, looking out over it all. And then there’s the simple gee-whiz factor: they are so tall! Many of the buildings in the financial district are huge, but next to the towers they look like models built to a different scale.

And they look as solid and reassuring as ever, the towers. The only thing is there’s now a hole in each, quite small and from this distance at least, almost surgically neat, with just a wisp of smoke wafting out. It looks like a magic trick, a David Blaine illusion, maybe even some PR stunt. The symmetry of the wounds seems whimsical in a way.

So I don’t worry about G. Or if I do, that worry immediately flickers out in a gentle breeze of rationality. Her office is on 33. The towers are 110 stories, and those punctures look to be about two-thirds up. She’s a solid city block vertically removed from whatever mishap has apparently bashed in a bunch of windows. I try to call her at work. Busy.

I don’t break the strange silence on the street corner, but when I get to Murray’s Bagels I ask the guy if he knows what happened.

“Cessna,” he says over the AM radio blaring news in the background. “Pilot lost control.”

“Huh. It’s both towers though.”

He shrugs. “Maybe two Cessnas?”

An armada of ambulances sail by as I approach University. The odd thing is no other vehicles close ranks behind them. When the sirens’ dopplered peals fade the street’s silent and oddly empty except for a line of people at a payphone. Some are crying, but except for the woman actually using the phone, no one’s talking.

As soon as I get to the office I try G on my landline. Busy. I try Nick. Busy. I try Natasha, an ex who lives in the Woolworth Building not far from the towers. Busy. I try my brother, who lives and works near midtown. Busy. His girlfriend. Busy. I’m eventually able to get my Mom back in Boston, who says she’ll try G. She calls back to report the line was busy.

Internet’s sporadic but my partner Doug is able to IM with one of our developers in Sweden.

“Terrorism,” Doug says. It’s the first time that day I’ve heard that word, even in my internal monologue. “They also hit the Pentagon. Maybe the White House too.”

And then Tom bursts into my office.

“It fucking fell! It just fucking fell!”

“What fell?” I genuinely have no idea what he might be referring to.

“The tower! The fucking tower! I just saw it fall. It was there, and now it’s not there.”

“Which tower?” I hear myself say. G is the South Tower. I’m not worried. I’m not anything, other than profoundly puzzled: how could a tiny flesh wound possibly take down that Goliath? But my body suddenly feels very light.

Before Tom can answer, my phone rings. It’s G, crying. She’s at a payphone on Mercer, making her way to my office.

I go downstairs to meet her. The streets belong to pedestrians now, and University is thronged. Many are crying, and many more comfort them. People hold people who you can tell they don’t know, given disparities of race, age and (based on attire) class that even in this most diverse of cities are rarely bridged, and by the touching formality of many of the embraces. The day is still perfect and the tower, the one tower now, still winks back at us all, sheathed in brightness except for the hole, and the hole seems somehow smaller now, insignificant in and of itself, merely the first mitosis of an incipient tumor. But the smoke spiraling out is so heavy and black is seems solid.

And then the smoke is everywhere. In the space of a second it cloaks the whole tower head to foot, a column of soot, a black tower, a negative afterimage of that rectangle of light.

And then just as quickly the cloak falls.

And behind it: nothing. Just that impossibly blue sky.

Everyone starts screaming, screams like I’ve never heard, of actual terror, like they’re in imminent danger. That lasts for maybe five seconds. And then there’s only the sounds of sobbing.

And then there’s G, running towards me up University. I catch her in my arms and she’s sobbing too. And as I kiss away her tears I feel safe, perhaps safer than I ever have before or since.

Later there would be losses. At my urging, G eventually enrolled in a government program offering free psychotherapy for people traumatized by the attacks. That therapy led to certain things that led to the end of our relationship a couple of years later (though these things probably would have transpired eventually anyway). Her therapist also referred me to a colleague for my debilitating insomnia. If you’ve seen my show The Mushroom Cure, that colleague was Dr. Wilson (G is Annie by the way – both slight pseudonyms). Many years later, when all pretenses of professional distancing had melted away and he was just my friend Chris, Wilson told me about his own 9/11 experience. On September 12th, Cantor Fitzgerald hired him to counsel family of their employees. How he happened by that job and why Cantor didn’t retain a more experienced practitioner is a long story, but Wilson, barely 30 years old and with no experience in grief counseling, spent 16-plus hours a day for the next several weeks absorbing first the hope, then the terror, rage, and shattering grief of husbands, wives, parents, and, most devastatingly, children. It was the trauma of that experience to which Wilson attributed his subsequent substance abuse, which may have led to his death (“may” because there was no autopsy performed when he recently died at age 42). So in a sense I may have lost Wilson that day too, though I wouldn’t meet him until more than a year later. And in the broadest scope, I mourn the unprecedented possibility for human compassion and unity that was squandered by the invasion of Iraq and all the dominos that have fallen since. I think the world is a darker place now, and I don’t think anyone who spent the weeks following 9/11 in NYC can doubt that the potential was there for it be a much, much brighter one.

But that was all later. As I held G, I felt safe and, above all, lucky. Lucky G was OK, that in that moment, really, everything was OK. Lucky that I’d been here when the towers still stood, that I’d winked back at them a thousand times. Lucky that the day was so perfect, the sky so blue.

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I am incredibly proud (of the self-satisfied variety, personally my favorite vintage) that I have no idea what twerking is. I had an urge to google it a few weeks ago but then thought, why? Why sacrifice another chunk of my attention at the altar of some ephemeral cultural totem for the scant payoff of momentary distraction from my own at-times painful but ultimately still miraculous existence? I’ve since assiduously protected this tiny untrodden corner of my innocence, which has mostly entailed not reading anything about Miley Cyrus (I know – or strongly suspect – that she either originated or popularized whatever this thing is). I feel like if I can make it another two weeks I’ll be home free.

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Prohibition Works (Sometimes)

Any analogy between prohibition of drugs and that of firearms is fundamentally fallacious. The desire to experience altered states of consciousness is (at least for a segment of the population) a primary drive that cannot be satisfied by other means*. Like any primary drive, people will seek to fulfill it regardless of the difficulty and penalties entailed. The desire to own firearms is a secondary or probably tertiary drive, i.e., it serves more fundamental drives (e.g., for safety, for power, “independence” etc.) that can themselves be met in any number of ways.

If you doubt this, simply look at the data. Drug prohibition has failed (to varying degrees) everywhere it’s been introduced, in that rates of use typically don’t significantly decline and the deleterious societal consequences of use (drug-related violence, untreated addiction) always increase. Firearms prohibition has succeeded (to varying degrees) in every case, as measured by rates of “use” (i.e. ownership) and the consequences of ownership (gun violence).

There are many complex issues facing American society, but this isn’t one of them. I truly sympathize with the vast majority of responsible gun owners who would be deprived of something they value because a tiny minority can’t handle their shit – I don’t minimize that loss. But I don’t think anyone would argue its tantamount to the loss of of life we saw yesterday. I’d love to have faith that we can address the underlying issues (widespread alienation from self and community, fetishization of violence, etc.) – and indeed, I believe we have no choice but to address those issues if we’re to survive much longer – but as an immediate palliative, the data are unambiguous that drastically curtailing access to firearms will drastically reduce the likelihood of what happened yesterday recurring.
*meditation and certain other forms of psychospiritual practice notwithstanding

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Edinburgh – Day 4

Just a cursory rundown today, I really need to crash so I can wake up relatively early and work on VRE. I have a workable hour right now that preserves the most critical elements, but I really need to listen to a recent recording to try to get some perspective as a listener. One of the things that drew me to stand-up is that there’s a fairly objective criterion for success*: if people are laughing you know they’re enjoying it. Here I don’t have that real-time, involuntary feedback**, and I still find it unnerving. I want to know if this is working for people, less out of an obligation to entertain those particular people*** than to just gather data so I can edit and rewrite in response.


* Obviously there are other criteria, but that one seems fundamental to the form

** I do get feedback after the show, but it’s a) usually non-specific (e.g. “I really liked that”) and b) of questionable validity given it’s volitional, i.e. people can choose what to say, and that choice may be informed by desire to be polite, personal sympathy or affection for me, etc.. There is another type of feedback I get – tips – but that requires a dedicated post to expound on.

*** Not because I don’t feel such obligation, but because unlike in stand-up, if they’re not enjoying themselves there’s not much I can do beyond just trying to really up the intensity of perfomance. I don’t have a bag of material I can reach into and pull out something else or change course with crowdwork, going dirty, etc.. The story is the story, for better or worse.

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Edinburgh – Day 3

Wow. I’m gonna* try to keep this one real quick, but I’m still reeling a bit from today’s VRE show. So I sort of figured today would be a light turnout. Saturday was 32 people and Sunday was 9, so I assumed that the latter would be typical of weekdays. But today was 100% packed, and we had someone sit in the stairwell, which brought us to 37. And the intensity, for me at least, was unparalleled in my admittedly limited experience of doing this piece (or doing any sort of performance outside of stand-up, and that form can never match this one for intensity since laughter serves fundamentally to release tension – that release is the visceral payoff that draws comedy audiences). One woman was actually weeping silently, which in an odd way gave me a huge jolt of energy. And at the end someone asked if they could hug me, and what struck me wasn’t the request but how totally natural it seemed.

Also, today clocked in at exactly one hour. I made a different cut than yesterday and it seemed to work better; at least it felt better to me.

As for the New York All-Star Comedy Hour, it’s really starting to endear itself to me. I hosted today, as I did the first show, and just had a great time. Which isn’t to say I got a great reaction – that was highly variable. For whatever reason, my material just isn’t working that well here, so I once again racked up around a half-hour of crowd work, most of which revolved around the premise that I resented the fact I had to do crowd work**. A sort of shared connection between me and the audience over our ostensible mutual antipathy as it were.

Ok, bedtime.

* ok I could write a post on this particular colloquial contraction. But the short take is that I use it because language to me is above all auditory (which is why I can only write stand up by talking out loud, hence my notoriety for pretending to be on my cell phone outside clubs when I’m trying to do some last-minute polishing of material). And “going to” is just so far from the actual sounds that issue from my mouth when I say that phrase – it’s always disyllabic and there’s never that interstitial “g” sound. Whereas I still avoid “wanna” because the way I say it actually has a hint of the “t”.

** the operative word being “work”. At least for me, crowd work requires more actual energy/attentional resources than material, which it now occurs to me is one reason I like it – it forces me to be fully present, which is a massive challenge for me when I’m telling jokes that I don’t really care about in any sense beyond their sheer utility for evoking laughter, which describes almost all my jokes.

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Edinburgh – Day 2

This’ll be a real quick one as the lids are feeling rather ponderous and still have more work to do on VRE. I was literally falling asleep as I finished last night’s missive so I left out the fact that I didn’t get to the end of the story in yesterday’s performance. Time has been my bane since I first started doing this piece. The first show clocked in at 1:53, the second at 1:41, the third at 1:18, and the fourth at 1:15. I thought (hoped) I’d gotten it down to about 65 minutes, and figured that a slight increase in delivery speed would bring me under the Fringe-mandated 60 minute mark.

But I was very wrong, and yesterday’s audience got all the build up but none of the release, which I truly felt terrible about. So today I made some fairly brutal cuts. It was hard for me to gauge if they worked, because while today’s audience was lovely, they were also quite small (9) and probably as a result, rather subdued. Whereas yesterday I got laughs at absolutely every line I consider funny (and a few I don’t – or didn’t before yesterday), there were only a few quiet chuckles today.

It’s increasingly clear to me that this show should ideally be around 90 minutes, and anything under 80 entails some heavy trade-offs. I think I can put on a good 60 minute show – in fact I feel I did that today – but it simply won’t be as good as the longer version. Needless to say my perfectionism doesn’t take kindly to this. At the same time, I relish the challenge of cutting this down, and I know at some level the exercise itself will prove invaluable and inform my writing in ways I can’t quite know yet, even if the product itself suffers a bit.

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Edinburgh – Day 1

Given that it’s 2:35 AM, I’ve opted for a utilitarian rather than creative title here. This pains me not a little, particularly as this is the maiden blog post on But creativity is no different than anything else*, in that all other variables equalized, it’s pretty much a linear function of time**. And given my well-documented*** perfectionism, my tendency is to post nothing rather than post something that falls far short of that mark.

But no more, dear reader(s****)! I hereby pledge to update this things daily for the duration of Fringe. I also pledge to break that pledge – it’s inevitable, really, given how frenetic this place is (right now I have the benefit of jet lag to keep the digits tapping at, wow, 2:40, but that will hopefully pass). But when I do, I’ll post double the next day. So, 22 posts in as many days, starting now. But to do that I’ll need to compromise not only on quality (meaning, zero rereading or rewriting) but also quantity of words, so I’ll keep this one brief.

i arrived in Edinburgh Thursday, but today (meaning Saturday) was the first day of shows. I’m doing two shows here each day*****. My main focus of course is Varieties of Religious Experience, but I’m also running a daily stand-up showcase that I’ve billed (purely for marketing purposes, as virtually all the comics I’m booking are Brits) as the New York All-Star Comedy Hour.

The Comedy Hour is first up, at 4 PM, and it was packed. Packed with audience that is; due to complete lack of planning, I had only one other comic booked (the format calls for 5 comics including me). But it turned out to be a solid show. I did a ton of time, mostly just talking to the crowd interspersed by some half-written ideas inspired by things I’d noticed in the last day (in my experience the quickest way to win over a crowd it to comment on their city, and interestingly negative works as well if not better than positive). And then at a certain point I decided to wow them with my most surefire material, and… nothing. A few polite/nervous titters. The reason was obvious, but one that would take a fair degree of expounding to elucidate for a non-comic audience, and it’s not really germane and I’m thankfully starting to get drowsy. But the point was at that moment I felt that thrill, that sense of almost awe, that there’s just no way to figure out this game. You can always bomb. I know in my heart that if that weren’t true I wouldn’t love stand up half so much.

As for Varieties, the moment of awe for me came when I walked into the room – it was packed. Of course, it doesn’t take much to fill the Royal Mile Tavern – it seats an incredibly tightly packed 36. But every seat was taken save the four right up front, which really are uncomfortably close to the stage area. These people were almost all drawn by my description in the fringe brouchure. I’d agonized over this (surprise!) as I wanted it to not only attract but also repel – I wanted to draw an audience that would not only be sympathetic to the story but more so appreciate the dense (some might say self-indulgent) language. But how many of those people are there really out there? And the answer I got, at least today, was way more than I expected.

The performance itself was I think my strongest to date, a function I imagine of my excitement at the turnout and at being at the Fringe generally, as well as the room itself. Everyone is right on top of each other, just eight rows of cramped folding chairs, and that compression of energy was electifying.

Ok, I’m suddenly fading hard. More tomorrow. Smooches.


*and really, IS there anything else? I don’t mean that metaphorically, or rhetorically. I genuinely wonder.

** i.e., if I spend twice as long on something it’s generally twice as good, and I’m going to pass on the temptation right now to define “good” since it’s now 2:37. Jeez.

*** by me, of course, most obviously in Varieties of Religious Experience

**** hopefully!

***** meaning, two I’m running myself – I’m also performing as much as possible on other people’s stand up shows.


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Review in The Scotsman

This is in the August 25th, 2012 edition:

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