Twelve Years

This is an unusual 9/11 anniversary for me. I turned twenty-four a few weeks ago, so this twelfth anniversary means that tomorrow I’ll have lived more of my life in the post-9/11 world than in the pre-9/11 one.

I had lived on the West Coast my entire life until recently so I didn’t see the World Trade Center get hit live. My mom came in and shook me awake as soon as she’d woken up and told me “America is under attack.” I couldn’t even process it until I got downstairs and saw them replaying footage of smoke and flames. By the time the sun rose in Nevada, both towers had fallen, the Pentagon was on fire, and thousands of my people were dead. I went to sleep in one world and woke up in another.

I remember the entire school talking about it, despite knowing nothing about it. (I was in seventh grade at the time.) I remember the principal using the school announcements to tell us we were safe and had nothing to worry about. I remember kids chattering excitedly at recess to hide their fear. We declared triumphantly that we were going to war with whoever did it. We had no sense of the gravity of what that meant. Having known nothing else, our faith in the swift, unyielding power of American hegemony was still absolute.

I remember getting home and finding out my birthday present from my aunt had finally arrived, a LEGO set whose details I can’t remember. My birthday’s in late August but she lives in Hawaii, so it always took longer to get there. I built it while George W. Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office. He spoke of “huge structures collapsing” and how the attacks “have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger.” I don’t think, even today, I ever felt anger about the attacks. It remained too abstract. The disbelief and terrible sadness, however, was endless.

That’s what fills my memories of the aftermath too. I remember the numbness most clearly, when you put on a brave face when everyone else is around and then lose it the moment you’re alone. The only other time I’ve felt that was after Newtown. And I was 3,000 miles away from everything. I didn’t even know anyone who lived on the East Coast back then. What right had I to grieve?

But most of all, I remember the changes. I first flew again a month later. Reno was a small airport then and the security increase was barely noticeable, but a connecting flight took us through Los Angeles. There, the main concourse still had men in body armor armed with automatic rifles standing every fifty paces. The absurdity of it all — did we expect an entire battalion to attack the terminal in broad daylight in the middle of California? — struck me as much as in the seventh grade as it does now that I’m twenty-four. Soon it became commonplace.

I wish I hadn’t woken up that morning. Every anniversary, I hope that I’ll open my eyes in my old childhood bedroom, and that I’ll still be twelve years old, and that the last twelve years will all have been a dream. But I know it isn’t. It’s a nightmare from which the whole world is still trying to wake.

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Housekeeping

I haven’t posted much on this blog over the past month. Fortunately, it was for a good reason. Four weeks ago, I applied for a summer fellowship at BuzzFeed and was asked to contribute some content on my own for their evaluation. My posts ranged from subjects close to me, like Star Trek, Game of Thronesanalyses of North Korean military forces, and awful Twitter accounts, to topics with a broader appeal like sad koalas and cinemagraphs.

I’ve been looking for work ever since I returned from studying abroad in France last August and so far it’s been formulaic. I wake up in the morning, look at relevant job postings online, and then figure out whether I’d have a decent chance at each one. Unpaid internships are out — moving to the East Coast is one thing; doing it without an income is another — but any paid position for which I meet the stated qualifications and at which I’d be good is fair game. Some days I don’t find anything. When I do, I hammer out a fresh cover letter, rearrange the bullet points on my resume as needed, then email it to whatever address the posting requires.

Then there’s just silence. No job application I’ve sent since August has elicited a phone call, e-mail, or other response of any kind.

With the exception of asking questions or making passing remarks, I’ve avoided writing or tweeting at length about being unemployed. I didn’t want to complain or commiserate when I’m just one among millions, many of whom are in worse situations than me. But mostly I avoid lengthy discussion of it out of shame. I follow and interact with some outstanding people on Twitter and through this blog. You’re probably one of them. For a kid from nowhere, living in the forested mountains of northern Nevada and dreaming of moving to a major city like New York or Washington, those interactions are a lifeline to which I’ve tightly clutched over the past ten months. The last thing I’d ever want to do is give you or them a bad impression of myself or to let them infer anything from my inability to find a job.

So, throughout the past month, I avoided telling anyone aside from a close friend or two that my BuzzFeed posts were part of a job application process. There were other reasons as well. A few BuzzFeed employees follow me on Twitter and I wanted neither to make things awkward nor to appear like I was pressuring them by campaigning for myself. I also didn’t want people to redistribute my posts solely out of support for me personally or to campaign for me. (To my surprise and deep gratitude, a few people on Twitter did so spontaneously.) Only when a person or two saw my links and thought I had begun working there — I don’t think many people know how easily you can sign up for an account and start posting things — did I correct them to avoid misrepresenting myself. I wanted to prove to BuzzFeed that I could make my work go viral on its own merits and that I could be a valuable member of their team. And after almost a year in this jobless wilderness, I also wanted to prove it to myself.

Unemployment, with its crushingly repetitive cycle of applying for jobs and hearing nothing back, takes a toll. After a few weeks your optimism fades only to be replaced with disappointment. Months later, you feel the sting of self-doubt and a creeping sense of shame. And as autumn turns to winter and spring turns to another summer without success, you lose faith in yourself almost completely. Persistent joblessness, almost to the degree that it’s an economic condition, can be a mental and emotional paralytic.

BuzzFeed removed the fellowship application from their site on May 1. Since I’ve seen indications that others already found out they were accepted for the fellowship, it looks like I haven’t. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t saddened about this. It’s a great fellowship at an emerging media superpower and an incomparable opportunity to be part of building something great. For me personally it was also a chance to move east, away from the cold mountains of Nevada and into the greatest of American cities. I could, at long last, get my life started.

This experience was different, though. By giving applicants the chance to demonstrate their skills, BuzzFeed allowed me to elevate myself above my origins. With every post I made, I became less like a faceless resume or a few paragraphs on LinkedIn and more like a human being with depth and substance. So I worked even harder. I taught myself new skills, like how to make GIFs and curate dozens of images. I spent the past four weeks searching for and creating content that would actually (hopefully) want to read. Since BuzzFeed distributes user-submitted content like mine, almost two hundred thousand people actually did. That’s never happened to me before. I may have fallen short, but the chance to prove myself was a thoroughly edifying experience. And I’m thankful for it.

Joel Stein would likely dismiss my desire for more than silence from potential employers as self-absorption, symbolic of all that’s wrong with my generation. TIME even sweepingly proclaimed in its cover for Stein’s article that millennials like myself “are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.” The claim’s breadth makes its absurdity clear. When I realized I wouldn’t be working for BuzzFeed this summer, I didn’t feel that anger that springs from undeserved entitlement. I wasn’t selfless about it either, but only insofar as I’m saddened that I missed out on a great opportunity.

I can’t move to the East Coast just yet. But what I can do is move past this temporary setback, continue blogging and tweeting, and hope that all my future job applications receive that which BuzzFeed gave me and to which millennials rightfully deserve: a fair chance.