“This summer I went swimming / this summer I might have drowned.” Anyone listening to the radio in 1973 may recognize the opening lines to Loudon Wainwright’s “Swimming Song,” which continues: “but I held my breath, kicked my feet /and I moved my arms around.” This summer I did go swimming, a lot, underwater and for hours at a time. Breathing through an airline, I swam along reefs and over sandy plains, among fishes, corals and waving plant-creatures. The only sound came from the bubbles I exhaled. It’s something like flying in a dream—except when the air stops suddenly, as it did this past weekend, and my diving partner and I had to race to the surface without pause. Even at the shallow depths we keep to, under 35 feet, the surface can seem awfully far away, especially if you’ve been swimming for a couple of hours. It’s in such moments, when the routine of breathing comes to the fore of consciousness, that I think about the phenomenon of drowning. “Drowning is the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid,” according to a report issued after the 2002 World Congress on Drowning. One strange thing about drowning is that it doesn’t always even involve water in the lungs. Free divers sometimes intentionally hyperventilate before going under, which deactivates the breathing reflex. But without that reflex telling the body it needs air, swimmers can black out and suffocate underwater. Another strange thing about drowning is what a drowning person looks like. Stevie Smith had it wrong in her poem “Not Waving but Drowning”: If you are waving, you are not drowning. When someone is drowning, something called the instinctive drowning response takes over, and the person becomes physiologically unable to wave, call for help or splash about in the water. Seasoned rescue personnel learn to recognize the often eerily calm behavior of a person who is about to go down for the last time. Unfortunately, thanks in part to erroneously staged drowning scenes in movies and television (Baywatch was a shameless culprit) showing a panicked, thrashing victim, many people drown each year in full view of others, who think they look just fine. In 2002, a U.S. Coast Guard airman at the scene of a capsized boat reported, “two of the victims appeared to be looking up at us treading water.” The rescue helicopter’s pilot commented that they looked as if they were not in immediate danger, but fortunately the first airman recognized the behavior: “No, sir,” he corrected, “they are drowning!” The instinctive drowning response is a set of involuntary behaviors; as the autonomic nervous system takes over, the body is able to respond only to the need to take in air. The arms extend to the sides and begin pushing down on the water in order to elevate the mouth above the surface. The body remains upright, the legs stop kicking, and the person quietly bobs up and down. A key signal is the mouth, alternately rising above and slipping below the surface. Once the instinctive drowning response has kicked in, submersion often occurs within a minute. There are plenty of songs and poems about drowning, but like Wainwright, I prefer to stay on the swimming side of the equation.
Every year around mid-August I begin to feel the impending anniversary. I can be writing, driving or on vacation. I don’t even notice it at first. The sadness is subtle, like a low-grade fever or a toothache. Then I see the sky. With barely a warning, the summer sky shifts from hazy white to crisp, beautiful and impossible blue. It is the sky from September 11th, 2001, that I remember most. I was waiting for my husband, Dave, at a coffee shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn to celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary. I remember thinking the sky was the same blue as on our wedding day, only dotted with a few white clouds. I don’t know whether to blame the sky or the day’s events for how vivid everything looked. The smoke looked blacker, the planes looked shinier, the dust and fire more dramatic against that ludicrously cheery backdrop, like a children’s theater set for a Shakespearean tragedy. My son, Aidan, then five years old and attending his second day of kindergarten, sat in his classroom oblivious that our lives would change forever. The sky stayed stubbornly blue for weeks as a blur of cards, flags, teddy bears and quilts poured in from strangers around the country and the world. Every surface of the kitchen was covered with homemade lasagnas, hams and soups delivered by my neighbors. Aidan and I hunkered down in our apartment together—life rafts for each other as we helplessly watched the world change. After a week, Aidan’s principal called and gently suggested I keep bringing him to school. Each morning, I reluctantly dropped him off, squeezing his clammy hand as parents patted me on the shoulder, their eyes wet with tears. Soon, my sister began walking Aidan to school while my world spun with endless wakes, funerals, phone calls, protests and meetings. I came home exhausted and desperate to see Aidan. His rituals grounded me in time: dinner at six p.m., a bath at seven, books at 7:30, two songs and a kiss good-night. When the parade of families in Park Slope became too much to bear, I moved Aidan to a carriage house on Staten Island I know his father would have loved for its history and wide, wooden beams. I wanted a fresh start in a place that didn’t remind me of Dave, but single parenting seemed even more pronounced in the suburbs, where minivans were adorned with stick-figure stickers advertising large families. To keep myself distracted from the dull ache of grief, I kept endlessly busy. I wrote a book, served on boards, ran a nonprofit and shuttled Aidan to guitar lessons, tutoring, art classes and karate. The ritual was now a 7:30 p.m. bath followed by an 8:30 book. We read The Wind in the Willows, Harry Potter and Narnia. I often looked up from reading to see him falling asleep, his eyes like petals closing in the dark. In second grade, Aidan was diagnosed with a learning disability and I spent long hours coaxing him to finish homework packets and projects for school. He discovered music and made friends while I met and fell in love with a photographer from Brooklyn, who moved in shortly after Aidan’s 10th birthday. Aidan stopped taking baths and wanted to read on his own, but he still let me kiss him good-night. In middle school, Aidan disappeared behind a curtain of stringy hair and covered his walls with Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix posters. He played guitar in his room and formed a band called Tasting Neon with a girl and two boys from his school. Soon he read only books he’d been assigned, but he often confessed things to me in the quiet of his dark bedroom: “Our band broke up.” “How come?” “Julia stuck her tongue in my mouth.” After becoming engaged to the photographer, I moved Aidan to a private school in Brooklyn for seventh grade. His hair grew so long it covered his mouth but he enjoyed reading again. He asked me to read To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby with him. In the summer before Aidan entered eighth grade I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I thought I might have been Hitler in my past life, especially when my second book was abruptly cancelled and I called off my engagement. I quit all my boards, stopped writing and slept all day in my bathrobe. But I kept up my routine at home, picking Aidan up from the ferry, making dinner, taking him to lessons. He started taking long showers and asked me to buy him razors. I kissed him good-night, but on the cheek. I survived breast cancer and began writing again, but nothing prepared me for the challenge of full-throttled adolescence. My therapist warned me that Aidan’s separation would be difficult based on our closeness and the trauma of losing his father, but his defiance and rebellion left me feeling like I had been dragged behind a car. Aidan’s one saving grace was that, even in the tensest moments, he can make me laugh. “If you weren’t funny, I probably would have eaten you by now,” I tease. I met and fell in love with a lovely man after struggling on the dating market for nearly a decade. Three years in and I love him even more for his seemingly endless patience with the slamming doors, the angry rants, the tears, the loud music, the cursing. Best of all, when I fall into his chest and cry when it all seems too much, he tells me I am a wonderful mom. I try to believe him. Aidan graduated from high school this past spring and, after a long and torturous consideration, decided to defer his acceptance to college—to “let my frontal lobe develop,” as he says. How could I argue with that? He works five days a week as a busboy at a busy Manhattan restaurant and was a production assistant on the set of Boardwalk Empire a few times this summer. On his second day of shooting, he stood on a hot Long Beach boardwalk for so long, he got a severe sunburn on his neck and face. It took every cell of my being not to shake him and scream, “Did I not slather sunblock on you your entire life?” But parenting a teen is counterintuitive: It often requires no response at all, which is the opposite of what I’ve done his entire life. He is on his own and never home before I go to bed. I sometimes text him, “Good-night. I love you.” Today, for the first time in many years, Aidan and I will spend September 11th together. If the weather permits, we’ll go to Jones Beach, a place his father loved and lifeguarded for 16 years. The other lifeguards built a small, beautiful memorial there. I will tell Aidan about the deep holes Dave used to dig for him to jump in. I will try not to miss Aidan’s small clammy hand in mine. I will try not to expect too much and simply accept what the day brings, blue skies and all. Photos courtesy of Marian Fontana
When my husband went missing on September 11th, my first instinct was to create a shrine. I replaced the piles of mail on top of my television cabinet with an Irish flag, Dave’s favorite photo of himself and a candle—even though, as a firefighter, my husband hated candles. Days turned into weeks and my small apartment filled with friends, family and food as we waited. When Mayor Giuliani told us in a crowded hotel ballroom that the “rescue” was turning into a “recovery,” I realized I probably wouldn’t get anything of Dave’s body at all. This tortured me. Looking back, the need to have his body recovered felt primal; it was the essence of my grief. As I attended funeral after funeral with no gravesite, my sadness turned into desperation. To combat my despair, I started an organization that advocated for firefighters and their families. As rumors swirled that the recovery at Ground Zero was being mishandled, my organization became a kind of watchdog for the site. I met with the mayor, the police commissioner, the fire commissioner and the medical examiner. I visited the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. I returned to Ground Zero, where rescue workers complained that truckloads of “debris” were being carted off to Staten Island before they had a chance to search them. We managed to slow down the recovery effort, but as I spent more time at Ground Zero, it became obvious that if my husband’s body were ever found it would only be a small piece. I held Dave’s funeral on his birthday, October 17th. I purchased a grave at Green-Wood Cemetery under an old beech tree, but the coffin we buried was empty. In December, while I was in Hawaii, Dave was found. Three parts—more than I expected. I was grateful beyond words. A few months later I was asked to be on the Family Advisory Council of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the state agency in charge of creating the 9/11 Memorial. I dutifully attended the meetings. This was six months after the attacks, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was too soon. At that time, nearly two-thirds of the victims had not been recovered. I began to think about what it means to memorialize. The ways to keep the memory of loved ones alive are as personal and varied as the dead. Tattoos, plastic flowers on the side of the road, stickers on cars, sarcophagi: We’ve made tributes to the people we’ve lost since the beginning of our existence. Then I thought about the great memorials I had visited in my life: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., the Holocaust Museum, the Battle of the Bulge. All of them had been built at least a decade after the event they commemorated. When Ground Zero closed as a recovery site, my organization reevaluated how it could be useful in the future. We dispatched newsletters to victims’ families from our offices overlooking the giant hole, now surrounded by a chain-link fence and permanently named Ground Zero. When the LMDC announced a memorial contest, I was relieved to have a place to send the countless ideas pouring into my office—everything from elaborate architectural drawings to ideas hot-glued together like a science project. While these efforts moved me, I was concerned that what the families needed (a final resting place for their loved ones) and what the public needed (a place to visit and memorialize) were at odds. Open forums for the submissions process were attended by a parade of special interest groups from naturalists concerned about migratory bird paths to citizens against high rises. But even the families couldn’t agree. One Family Advisory Council meeting involved a panel of memorial experts including Maya Lin, which asked us what we wanted to see in a memorial. When it was my turn, I said I would like to bring my son and show him how his father had saved so many lives. The members of the panel nodded and took notes. I added that it was important to me that not only the day itself be remembered, but the profound aftermath in which the city, the nation and even the world felt a moment of unprecedented unity. Next up was a family member who, upon taking her turn, sighed, shook her head and said, “Firefighters were not the only heroes that day…” That was the last meeting I attended. Very early on there emerged a hierarchy of grief: the firefighters, the police, the civilians, the widows, the fathers, the mothers and the siblings. I refused to acknowledge these divisions and thought comparing grief was as fruitless and painful as trying to decide who was sickest at the palliative care ward. It all sucks. Meanwhile, my organization was planning its own small museum that would serve as an interim place for people to go until the larger memorial was built. TributeWTC opened in 2005. While I was proud of the museum and the tours we offered, the united sense of purpose I felt in the immediate aftermath had shifted. There is a misconception that tragedy and loss bring people together. Perhaps this is true at first, when we join together in our shared sadness and shock. But people are who they are. Grief only exaggerates the best and worst of us. In the long aftermath of 9/11, I experienced acts of amazing generosity and acts of dizzying cruelty. When the corruption, politicking and financial waste became more than I could bear, I left the organization I had started five years earlier and never looked back. When the larger memorial opened this past spring, I ignored the invitations to go. The box of items I’d planned to donate was still sitting on my desk. I wondered why the commemoration I’d felt so strongly about did not inspire me to visit. I still believe that the memorial and museum serve a noble and necessary mission: to teach those who were not there what happened that day. But for me they are a reminder of a trauma I have fought hard to overcome. I know many of the families are disappointed that the unidentified victims are housed in a subterranean vault below the museum, and angry that the gift shop has commercialized their loss. I support their advocacy, but have grown weary of the confusing, sad, complicated mess the act of memorializing has become. It is not that I don’t miss Dave or feel the deep pain of his loss, but for me the best way to memorialize his life is to live mine fully. It is a choice I have made, as personal as a tattoo or flowers on the side of the road. Photo courtesy of Flickr
In the eye of the storm that is New York Fashion Week, creative agent Micole Rondinone found a moment to sit down with us and indulge our curiosity about the industry. Rondinone works at fashion photography agency Management + Artists, where she represents hairstylists and makeup artists working for clients like Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Target, Dove, Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein, Hermès, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and H&M, as well as up-and-coming brands and magazines in art and fashion. How many hours a day do you put in during Fashion Week? My hours depend on how busy it is, and Fashion Week is definitely busy. But I can do a lot of my work with email or a cell phone, which is both a blessing and a curse. So Fashion Week or not, I’m always looped in and technically “working.” It never stops. Have you ever had to help build a set or do someone’s hair? I once worked for a photographer who shot ad campaigns for prime-time shows, like Nurse Jackie, Weeds and The Borgias. He always had amazing sets. On one of the Nurse Jackie shoots, they were building a small, complex set—a city skyline made completely of pill bottles, needles, syringes, etc. I got to help out a little on that, which was awesome. I can’t say I’ve ever done someone’s hair, though. I’ll leave that to my artists! What’s the biggest clusterfuck you’ve ever fixed? In fashion there are constantly debacles, big and small. From missed flights to wigs getting stuck in customs to looking for absurd, random props at the last minute—you name it, it’s probably happened. You have to try to be one step ahead. That said, I haven’t always been the one to fix the problem. I once completely mismeasured the dimensions of an exterior wall where we were going to hang a massive custom-printed sign for a photographer’s gallery show. It was only hours until the opening when we realized the sign didn’t fit. It was definitely one of the biggest clusterfucks I’ve ever created, and thankfully some crafty photo assistants were there to help. They devised a way to hang the sign using rope, and we made it work. That was a pretty tough one to live down. Which designer do you think is going to be the next big thing? Public School is the first that comes to mind. The two designers, Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, won the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award in 2013. This award is a really big deal—past winners include Alexander Wang and Joseph Altuzarra. While Public School started as solely menswear, they introduced their first line of women’s wear this past February, and it was really well received. Also J.C. Obando, who we’ve been very lucky to work with the past three seasons: His beautiful eveningwear and accessories are absolutely stunning and so luxurious. I always leave wanting to steal a few dresses off the models—plus a few inches of height, so I could pull them off! The same year Public School won the CFDA, J.C. was a runner-up. Another brand that has just come up on my radar is Hellessy. The designer, Sylvie Millstein, worked behind the scenes at Chanel for eight years, and her aesthetic is beautiful. Which movie is more realistic, The September Issue or Brüno? Ha, well, since I’ve never actually seen Brüno, I have to go with The September Issue. But Brüno will be next on my list! Also The Devil Wears Prada is pretty spot-on. People think those movies are full of industry clichés, but they’re kind of legit. Does your enthusiasm for fashion wax and wane, or are you pretty much a booster? I wouldn’t say I’m enthusiastic about fashion per se. I have a degree in photography, so I’m passionate about fashion photography and the energy in that aspect of the industry. It’s a constantly moving, evolving and chaotic beast, which means it’s not always easy to be enthusiastic about it. I definitely admire my artists. It takes a lot of artistry, business sense and people skills to be successful as a makeup artist or hairstylist. Finally, what’s the least fashionable thing you’re wearing these days? Since being unfashionable is now officially fashionable (think normcore), this is actually a really tough question to answer. Can I get away with saying nothing I wear is unfashionable? Birkenstocks are back in the game and even Teva is doing fashion collaborations now. I mean, if Tevas are considered fashionable, then anything is fashionable. I’d say Rihanna is my style muse. I generally keep my color palette neutral, always go all out with gold and let my “Swagger” nameplate ring speak for itself. Photo courtesy of Micole Rondinone