A Little More About 9/11

Twenty years ago as the Twin Towers disintegrated into a cloudy gray mass of ash, I was on a Lufthansa plane diverted to Gander, Canada. There, on the ground, inside the airplane we sat in stunned silence for twelve hours. Outside our window were scores of other planes similarly diverted. Before any of us could disembark, Canadian Customs had to process untold and unexpected thousands. The flight crew fed us leftover snacks. Passengers remained eerily silent save those few who conversed in hushed tones. “It’s bad,” someone whispered behind me.

Cellular communications were primitive then compared to today. The airplane’s passenger phone service did not work. Only one man could connect, and he shared his cell phone with others who desperately needed to touch base with loved ones. My son was in college in New York City. His dorm was not near the towers, but still I was worried. Had he visited friends who were in dorms nearby? I could not reach him.

Finally, at 1 AM, we cleared customs and boarded a yellow school bus bound for an elementary school. For the first time we saw the horrific events unfold like scenes stuck in instant replay, looping continuously on the school’s TV screen. We sat mesmerized for hours. At 4 AM and sleep deprived, I staggered to my assigned first grade classroom and slept on the floor, cushioned by blankets and sleeping bags brought in and arranged by the kind residents of Gander who also nurtured us with food nonstop. Many locals even welcomed us into their homes so we could shower and clean up.

First chance I got, I lined-up to use one of the school’s computers with Internet access. Upon checking my email, I exhaled with great relief when I saw my son’s, which said, “I’m okay, are you okay?”

For security reasons, we did not have access to our luggage and could only bring our carry-ons. I had my airplane neck pillow, moisturizer, and my laptop. I started documenting our days. My article was published in The Washington Post while I was still in Canada en route back home to DC after almost a week in Gander, thanks to my son who was able to call the editor and relay my story. While the entire world was mourning losses, this article shed a glimmer of light on human kindness during a tragedy. To read more: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2001/09/18/a-new-perspective-courtesy-of-newfoundland-samaritans/33755790-4cda-4fc3-a925-85884edf5fc3/

With a few exceptions, my experience was similar to that depicted in the play, Come From Away, still on Broadway. It’s theater that excels in highlighting the drama and friendships made that unfolded on an American Airline flight also forced to land in Canada. Unlike those the American passengers, who were not told why they had to change their route, our pilot had alerted us immediately, “There’s been a terrorist attack at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We are being diverted to Gander.” I doubt I’ll ever forget those words. That said, I was engrossed in the play for something it reveals I never thought about then: the massive behind-the-scenes efforts the town made to accommodate all of us with such grace.

The abundance of compassion from strangers is something I will never forget.

A Fond Farewell

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

— Albert Einstein

Essay just published on Medium:

View at Medium.com

Gone. Vanished. Almost as quickly as cicadas swarmed the Washington, DC, area this spring, no trace remains, and my late summer, early evening strolls are not the same. I hear robins chirping and crows cawing as insects hum and occasional fireflies flicker, but I miss the crescendo of cicada mating songs in surround sound.

Just as we began to emerge from our Covid-19 hibernation, cicadas had gone underground. Their brief visit with us left holes in the earth from which they surfaced, empty shells scattered and crunchy under foot, and dismembered wings. But my impressions of them persist.

During their time with us, corpses littered the landscape. Squished, smashed, or compressed corpses sideways or straight up, wings splayed or detached. I still see their perfectly formed, gossamer wings crinkly to the touch often separated and sprinkled about, shimmering in the sunlight, but now silence prevails. How long did we have together?

I contemplate our collective lost time, our transient nature, our legacy. And I look to cicadas for inspiration.

For centuries cicadas enlivened literature and art, music and sculpted objects. Numerous cultures revered them, drawing philosophical and moral lessons from their seventeen-year cycle of existence. Aristotle in his History of Animals reflects on cicadas, observing their life as symbols of resurrection and immortality. Among his other suggestions, he recommends snacking on them — a delicacy he enjoyed — and boiling them to cure bladder disorders. (No thank-you, I did not feast on them despite numerous food writers’ recipes.) Socrates relates his myth of the cicadas, wherein the music of ancient Muses enchants men who twirl and dance until they turn into cicadas, whose lyrical song suggests art and erotic love. In Aesop’s Fables, a cicada outwits a fox with a leaf, as a substitute for dinner. Journeys of self-discovery, change, and possible upheaval — professional, political, and personal — are embodied in the lives of cicadas.

So, I gaze upon them in my mind: Martian-red beady eyes, Halloween orange-veined cellophane-thin wings — aerodynamically designed for flight. As someone who has no particular interest in nor love for insects, I was fascinated, a strange feeling for me. Having worked at the Smithsonian for twenty years, I always wondered how entomologists could spend their whole career studying one creature. Mostly, I avoid insects. Though gnats and mosquitos love feasting on me, the love is not reciprocal. Bugs annoy me. But, inexplicably, billions of Brood X appear and I’m captivated.

I don’t remember my fondness for cicadas when last they surfaced. But I was seventeen years younger then. Yesterday’s annoyance is today’s fascination. Today, I think about them. I saw cicadas clinging to trees sucking sap, I felt cicadas buzz and breeze pass, harmlessly bumping into me, always whizzing away quickly. I watched them dive-bomb to the ground, searching. Were they crawling away from predators or creeping toward their demise? Did they find the lovers they sought?

Their deafening evening symphony desperately seeking a mate had thrilled me and resounds still in my head, though gradually their song diminished, their chorus missing members. I hear only faint echoes now of their vibrating membranes from their magical life. Was their death violent or peaceful? No matter. It is Nature’s way, this odd life cycle. Their species will revive underground as it has for eons.

I still conjure their multitude of silent wings in their wake. I gingerly pick them up and arrange artistic patterns. Look, I can create a dragonfly, a sea turtle, a tulip, or a work of abstract art to contemplate. The wind blows them away. But impressions remain.

As this round of cicadas edged toward their end, I wondered about mine. Will I be here when they re-emerge? My older brother just died unexpectedly at 73. Compared to a cicada’s seventeen-year stint, long, but still too short. I have a granddaughter on the way, will I see her graduate high school? Already I miss all that I once knew.

But I have hope. Despite our losses, I see life stirring around me again, resurfacing stronger from our COVID-19 hibernation. A celebration of our own enduring humanity and our generational changes. As a newborn cries, Nature constantly renews us with radiant sounds.

A Veterans Day Story for Children

In honor of Veterans Day, I had the pleasure of reading Stubby to elementary school students @Murch Elementary School in DC via Zoom.

Stubby: Inspired by the True Story of an American Hero in WWI is a tale of friendship between an American Soldier and his best buddy, a dog that became a hero in WW1.

Thank you to Shirley Payne, Regina Bell, and all the students and teachers for zooming in. A special thanks for all the great student questions.

Available at:

*Bonjour Books

*Amazon

*Museum store (second floor, near Military History Hall) at Smithsonian’s American History Museum

‘We’ll Always Have Paris’ … Just Not This Year

Recently gave a Zoom talk for the Levy Center in Chicago about Paris Off the Beaten Path to over 400 people!

With Covid-19 limiting foreign travel, my armchair tour around Paris was warmly received by both those who had never visited as well as those who have made multiple trips. The Evanston RoundTable profiled me and the Levy Center posted my virtual presentation on YouTube.

Click here to read the article.

Click here to view the talk on YouTube.

Notre Dame de Paris: A Celebration of the Cathedral

After 11 months of shoring up Notre-Dame, the scaffolding came down. It seems the powers that be in Paris have decided to go traditional on the hope that the restoration will be complete by 2024 for the Olympics. In my opinion this is a mistake, especially regarding old versus new material. And I believe the 19th century visionary, architect Viollet-le-Duc, who did the major reconstruction, would agree.

Viollet-le-Duc believed in preserving the past while creating something new. Most of the Cathedral’s gothic appearance is his 19th century recreation. Among other changes, he restored the western facade, replaced damaged sculpture, updated the flying buttresses, made the spire taller, and added gargoyles and chimera. To read more and celebrate Notre-Dame through pictorial history, order my book, Notre Dame de Paris: A Celebration of the Cathedral.

Reviews of Notre Dame de Paris: A Celebration of the Cathedral

Reviews of my most recent book:

https://www.secretjourneys.travel/gazette/notre-dame-de-paris

https://www.dosafl.com/2020/01/02/a-celebration-of-the-notre-dame-cathedral/

ND Cover

Recent Publication

My Children’s Book Published!

A heartwarming tale of friendship between an American soldier and his best buddy, a dog. Stubby is the true story of the most heroic dog in World War I. From stray puppy to the only dog ever promoted to the rank of Sergeant through combat and winner of the Purple Heart, Stubby’s remarkable journey is appropriate for all ages.
Available on Amazon

81Q9tG8PcBL

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Find my most recent personal essay online at PurpleClover.com: It’s Not Easy Being Green.

Milan’s Moonlight Castle Concerts

Castle at night

Castello Sforzesco

Under a moonlit sky in Milan, my friend and I discovered a rare evening treat: an ingenious pairing of art and music. Enclosed behind the Castle walls, for only 15 Euros, we thrilled to dramatic staging of details from the paintings of Caravaggio accompanied by the Milano Chamber Orchestra playing Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and Monteverdi among others.

Three actors from Teatri 35 captivated us as they deftly draped fabric around themselves changing scenes, positions, and dress 19 times using only the billowy material. They enacted images from Caravaggio’s artwork, then adapted final postures, posing like statues for up to a minute or so while Baroque music enveloped the emotional staging. How they held the poses for as long as they did was astonishing to witness.

Called Vivant Tableaux (Living Paintings), this performance technique of scenic representations originated in the Eighteenth Century and gained popularity in the Nineteenth.

Another night we watched an operatic rendition of Cinderella, using student actors in a parody of the fashion industry as a setting. Among the more amusing takes we recognized were four men in white, pony-tailed wigs and sunglasses lampooning Karl Lagerfeld, and a blond-wigged woman spoofing Donatella Versace in expression and gestures. Though clever and amusing, the performance–accompanied by the beautiful operatic voices of students–went on too long.

We noted (but did not go) that Notturni in Castello (Nights at the Castle) planned a fantasy Harry Potter performance another evening. Clearly, the Castle has something for everyone.

Innovative concerts starting at 9 PM en plein air at Castello Sforzesco run from June through August. You can buy tickets in advance on the grounds during the day. For more information: https://www.notturnincastello.it/