Arts, Entertainment, Living
Watching the anniversary coverage on 9/11 real time as it played on MSNBC with Matt Lauer and Katie Couric took me back to that mourning time in a way few things have. It is odd because ten years ago I was at an English department meeting at the University of Pittsburgh occurred, having just moved to Pittsburgh from Los Angeles for what my wife Natalie and I believed would be a one year sabbatical. I had never been to a department meeting of any sorts before, having spent the past two decades as a screenwriter and TV writer/producer, and, had not lived in Pittsburgh since I left for college in 1978.
When the department head Dave Bartholomae announced that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center—all I could think of was that I had once heard that some relative of Screech-- Dustin Diamond, the actor from “Saved By the Bell”—had crashed a small plane into the Empire State Building. Having not seen the images, I was making nervous jokes as I walked out of the meeting down the stairs of the Cathedral of Learning, the tallest education building in the country. I noticed that others were walking with us—almost the whole building. And then I got a call from Natalie, telling me in no certain terms that she was on her way—picking me up with our small daughter in the backseat. I could tell from Natalie's tone that something bad had happened in the way that we had experienced Earthquakes in LA. She said that a plane had gone down in Pittsburgh and it only made sense that the Cathedral, the tallest building in Oakland, might be a target.
We had not realized then, back for only a couple of weeks, that Pittsburgh these days would be an unlikely target, compared to NY, D.C. or even L.A. That the Pittsburgh I had come back to was one that was largely off the map in terms of the national stage—even as a terror target.
But, ten years later, I am struck at how this city of three rivers seems to find itself, even in hard times, at the center of things. Ten years later, Shanksville, which is identified with the heroic efforts of the passengers and crew of Flight 93, is often described as the Pittsburgh area. It is one of the few hopeful things one can feel in reliving that day of 9/11, in watching the MSNBC anniversary program-- as we watch hoping, like when watching a movie, that somehow the outcome will be different, that those who were forced to jump out the flaming towers-- that that part was not true, but something we imagined-- that the second plane won’t hit-- that the people in Tower 2 won’t have been told to stay in the building as the building is secure, that the Towers won’t collapse. That this was all just like a movie, but it wasn't a movie. It wasn't a dream you can wake up from and everything is okay.
And one wonders about one's own life and the country, and these past ten years, and whether we have spent them right, given the tragedy that occurred.
My wife and I were already in somewhat mid-life crisis mode by moving here from L.A., even for a year—a move which my L.A. friend Jenji called “brave.” A couple years later our mid-life crisis was officially sanctioned in that we ended up as a guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on a show called “What Should I Do With My Life?” for of all things, leaving Hollywood and moving to Pittsburgh. Shortly after that appearance, Pittsburgh lost its favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers, and then other bad things happened here, including the city being the first major American city of the new Millinium being declared “financially distressed.” We questioned often then, did we do the right thing in coming here? Will Pittsburgh--as city which people talk about like it were a person-- be okay?
But, as one wonders about 9/11 and what if, as I look back, I cannot help wonder if there is a destiny, a reason, a guiding force in the universe. And not just for one person’s life, but for a city, a country, a planet.
The journey to Pittsburgh led us not only to Oprah, but to a feature documentary, “My Tale of Two Cities”, which tells the tale of the unlikely Pittsburgh comeback story. In the movie, we use the metaphor of Fred Rogers and Mr. McFeely, the delivery man in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” who used to show Fred films of things we make. Many of those factories they visited are closed-- the things they made are no longer are made here. Though told in a personal way, the film is really about a once great city that built America with its steel, conquered polio, and invented everything from aluminum to the Big Mac, which is now being challenged to reinvent itself.
Much to our own amazement, we have watched, and been part of with many of Fred Rogers’ real life neighbors, an amazing Pittsburgh comeback story—as companies like Google have come to Pittsburgh and expanded; as Steelers have won unlikely Super Bowls not once, but twice; and as “the new” Pittsburgh which has been the setting for a world G-20 summit, how the city that struggled to retain young people, is now hosting the World’s Youth Summit. Even Hollywood’s largest franchise, Batman, has decided that Pittsburgh is cool and has filmed here. In these tough times, Pittsburgh is doing all right.
So, is life random or is there a destiny involved?
Some do not know this, but Fred Rogers came back to Pittsburgh (he actually grew up in Latrobe) during the 1950s after working at NBC in New York to both study to be a minister and with the deep held belief that this new technology called television could be used for “good” in the world. He was a behind the scenes floor manager in New York, working on early pioneering television shows where if he stayed he probably could have done quite well. Instead, he came back to Pittsburgh to study theology and would end up being part of the world’s first community supported public television station, WQED. Fred went from being a behind the scenes puppeteer on a show called “Children’s Corner” to a man who influenced millions of children’s and adults. It would be hard to argue that Fred’s journey was anything but destiny.
How does this tie to 9/11’s anniversary and all of our destinies?
When Fred was inducted into the television hall of fame, he said to the audience of television producers that “our greatest challenge was to do (programs) that would make good attractive.” And he had spent his live dedicated to that mission.
Among the things which Fred Rogers helped pioneer through television was helping children deal with traumas—whether they small like getting a haircut or a goldfish dying—or large like the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the Gulf War.
Over and over, I have heard commentators this past weekend saying that 9/11 took our innocence, made us as a country less naïve. In that way, we were all children who experienced trauma. And our job, as Fred perhaps would see it, is to heal.
Now that my wife and I are back in Pittsburgh much to our own surprise for ten years, we continue to wonder if it is destiny that we are back here, or just some randomness of the universe. But I now work in an office across from the Fred Rogers Company, and every day, I think about what Fred said, and hope that we are doing something which might build on his legacy, and “make good attractive.” For it seems, after all the words are done, that this is perhaps the best response to the horrible events of 9/11-- to do what we each can to remind the world that is possible, even in the face of great tragedy.
I guess it should also be noted that Pittsburgh is a place which shines best when everyone works together-- whether it be the Steelers, Dr. Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh who pulled together with the city and the country to conquer polio, or Fred Rogers and his neighbors who began public television. And that this also was the spirit of America right after the 9/11 attacks.
Most people who watched "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" had no idea it was set here. Fred's wife, Joanne Rogers, once told me that Fred would come back from trips observing how many wonderful "neighbors" there were-- and keenly observing that "we are more the same than we are different." In trying to move forward even ten years after 9/11, it might be good to remember that the whole world really is "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."