9/11: When Irish Eyes Stop Smiling THEN…A Wish for Dreams NOW

THEN: WHEN IRISH EYES STOP SMILING

Photo of O'Donoghue's Bar in Dublin, IrelandSEPTEMBER 11, 2001: The week prior to 9/11 Jeffrey and I had been in Ireland doing a photo shoot for the Los Angeles Times about Irish music and culture.

Even though our stock agency was frenetic at the time with a recent merger and multiple daily deadlines, we decided to leave our employees in charge for a week so I could jump on a plane with Jeffrey and spend some much-coveted time together.

Prior to that, Jeffrey had been on the road, off and on, most of the year, photographing all over Asia and Europe—everything from a story on Confucius for Smithsonian to Basque terrorists for Reader’s Digest to Thai Boxing for Travel Holiday and Chinese Traditional Medicine for Aperture. When this assignment came along, we knew it was a perfect project to do together, especially since I’d always wanted to celebrate my Irish roots.

And indeed our week together was magic. Jeffrey’s assignment unfolded flawlessly and the Irish people charmed us to no end with their kindness, humor and legendary generosity. When we left the Emerald Isle my half-Irish eyes were smiling big.

Photo of Irish Music

Photo of Irish Musicians

Photo of cycling in Doolin, Ireland

Photo of Tommy O'Brien in Doolin, IrelandPhoto of Temple Bar in Dublin, Ireland

But then everything changed…

(Excerpt from Chapter Twenty-One of my upcoming book)

… We arrive home from Ireland on the evening of September 10th, both exhilarated and exhausted, having flown from Dublin to New York, then on to Denver, before finally reaching Aspen.

The next morning as I’m getting dressed for work, I inhale a large cup of coffee, then flip on the Today Show, hoping to distract myself from the post-travel fatigue chomping at my energy. Weariness is not a luxury we can afford today; we have a full day ahead of us in the studio catching up on calls and emails, along with all of Jeffrey’s film to get processed, edited and captioned in time for our client’s deadline.

While searching through my closet for an outfit to wear, I hear Katie Couric’s familiar voice on the television. Something is different about it though: her usual chirpiness is replaced by a shaky, somber tone. Then I hear Matt Lauer clear his throat, then pause for a moment before saying something about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

At first it doesn’t register, but as I pull my head out of the closet and glance over at the television, sure enough, there’s a jetliner smashing into one of the twin towers.

I stand there speechless, staring at the TV. As the image is repeated over and over, I eventually manage to holler, “Honey, come in here. There’s something going on in New York.”

Jeffrey can tell by my voice that whatever this something is, it’s not good.

“What is it?” he asks.

All I can do is point to the sickening image on the screen.

“What the …?” he sputters.

World Trade Center on September 11th

Photo of the front page of the New York Times

The two of us stand there frozen. Then Jeffrey grabs the remote and turns up the volume. Minutes later a second plane crashes into the other tower and erupts into a huge ball of flames.

We know instantly this is no accident.

As we watch the horror unfold, the only words that emerge from my constricted throat are “Oh…My…God,” as my hands cradle my face in disbelief. Many of our friends and colleagues live and work in Manhattan, and our thoughts immediately turn toward them. It suddenly feels hard to breathe.

It’s also impossible not to think back eighteen hours earlier when we were on an airplane in New York. My blood stops moving knowing that it just as easily could have been our plane smashing into the World Trade Center.

Jeffrey and I reel from the devastating images before us, then, like the rest of America, we’re cuffed with more breaking news: the Pentagon has been hit. “Holy shit,” I stammer. Fear begins to crawl up my skin as this massive attack spreads. Who is doing this? we both wonder. The newscasters are asking the same thing. Al-Qaeda is the first suspect, but nothing is clear.

Then, just when we don’t think it could get any worse, the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapses. Jeffrey’s face turns white as he yells at the TV in anger, as if his words could stop it all from happening. I feel nauseous as we watch the devastation.

“This cannot be happening,” I say, as I shake my head, hoping to wake us from this nightmare. But the carnage does not relent; moments later another plane heading toward the White House crashes into the Pennsylvania countryside. What kind of madness has overtaken over our country? I wonder as we brace ourselves for what could possibly be next.

It doesn’t take long before we find out: in the midst of chaos, the other tower of the World Trade Center collapses. Anguish tears at what’s left of our already shredded hearts. We don’t even know anybody inside the towers, but it feels as if part of our own family has just been murdered before our eyes. I can only imagine what the families are feeling whose loved ones are trapped inside.

AP/NYPD

Jeffrey’s instinct as a photojournalist is to jump on the next plane and get to New York, so he immediately picks up the phone and begins making calls. First it’s to United Airlines trying to book the next flight to LaGuardia or JFK or any other surrounding airport. The shaky voice on the other end of the line tries to remain professional, but is clearly fighting back tears. “I’m sorry sir, but we are unable to schedule anything right now. A national State of Emergency has been instituted and every airport in American has been shut down. The only thing we can do is wait until we are told otherwise.”

Jeffrey’s mind races, and he continues making calls, but he hits nothing but roadblocks. He even dials a well-connected friend in Aspen to see if he can catch a ride on his private jet. Sadly, his friend has employees in the World Trade Center, but he can’t get there either; nobody is flying.

After several hours, Jeffrey finally relents, and like everyone else, he and I stay glued to the television, flipping from Tom Brokaw to Peter Jennings to Dan Rather then over to CNN, as we try to gain a better understanding of what is happening. Very little is clear, except that America is under attack and nobody knows if there’s more to come.

American F-16’s fill the skies and every division of the military and police force is on high alert across the country. We feel safe in our isolated little mountain town, but worry about Jeffrey’s family in Los Angeles, and my family in the Pacific Northwest. We’re also horribly concerned about our friends and colleagues in New York, especially since we can’t reach them; the phone lines are overloaded.

As we watch the broadcast footage of people walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, trying to escape from Lower Manhattan, our thoughts turn to our dear friend Bill Black at Reader’s Digest. All the subways have been shut down so he and thousands of others are forced to make it to the safety of their homes by foot. We also think about our colleagues at Time and Newsweek, and  The New York Times on West 43rd Street, and know that while they must be terrified, they’re also surely trying to piece together all the horrific details of the day to get the news out to their readers.

It isn’t until nearly midnight when Jeffrey and I finally collapse into bed. So much has happened in less than twenty-four hours that our trip to Ireland seems like a distant dream, and Irish music seems about as important as a tiny speck of lint of the colossal carpet of life.

We are both physically and emotionally exhausted, but neither of us can sleep. Instead we lie in each other’s arms and count our blessings that so far, everyone we know is safe…

Click here to see Life Magazine’s 25 Most Powerful Photos from 9/11

NOW: A WISH FOR DREAMS

Graphic of A Wish for DreamsSEPTEMBER 11, 2011: When George W. Bush addressed the nation after 9/11, it was the first time EVER that I felt remotely, semi-somewhat-slightly okay about this man and his ability to run our country. Well, that might be an overstatement…but somehow this guy who called himself “The Decider, Not the Divider” spewed out enough of the right words composed by his speechwriters to temporarily put a band-aid over the massive hole in my heart.

Even when he said such absurd things like, “When I take action, I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive,” his fierce rhetoric made the solution seem clean, simple and quick, and it also made us feel like The Good Guys and those other people The Bad Guys.

As we all know though, it was infinitely more complicated than that, and in no time, our country dove into the dark, murky waters of wars, weapons of mass destruction, leader-topplings, Homeland Security, and a plummeting national economy. By the time Bush left office our nation was handed a massive, complex pile of muck intricately woven and delivered on a silver platter.

But enough Bush Bashing (although that felt good—thank you for indulging my rant).

My real point is this: ever since 9/11 I haven’t felt particularly proud of the direction our nation is going. Don’t get me wrong, I’d never want to live anywhere else, and I do appreciate the freedom and opportunities that only our country affords, and I’m also proud of our service men and women—even if I have a hard time believing in any type of war—but I can’t help wonder if we might be able to raise the bar, and start striving for excellence again instead of trying to control what everybody else in the world does?

As I sit here daydreaming about all the possibilities, I wonder what would happen if we started focusing on our own country for a while and started leading by example rather than bombs?

For instance:

Graphic for Question MarkWhat would happen if our nation’s education budget was larger than our military budget? Instead of the Department of Defense spending a staggering $714,000,000 and the Department of Education spending a mere $50,000,000, imagine if that were reversed?

Graphic for Question MarkWhat would happen if instead of outsourcing things like the new Martin Luther King Memorial to China, we supported our own artists and workers at home

Graphic for Question MarkWhat would happen if instead of giving subsidies to oil companies we gave them to environmental or technological innovators?

Graphic for Question Mark

What would happen if we used the insane amount of money spent on political campaigns to fund arts or mentorship programs?

Graphic for Question MarkWhat would happen if pharmaceutical companies used all the moolah they spent on advertising things Viagra (along with the 500 possible side effects) to find a cure for AIDS or cancer?

The possibilities are endless.

I realize I’m a dreamer, but what is life without dreams? On the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, my wish for America and our leaders is that we all start dreaming again.

Graphiic for What is Your Dream?

Universes Collide THEN…. Mgunga Magic NOW

THEN: UNIVERSES COLLIDE (Excerpt)

Photo of a Pilgrim at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet

A pilgrim at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet © Jeffrey Aaronson

September 1988: Arriving back home in Aspen after nearly two months in Asia, Jeffrey craves nothing more than a real breakfast and good coffee from his favorite restaurant. He’s eaten little more than jasmine rice and vegetables for weeks in Tibet and has lost so much weight he has to tighten his belt two notches.

Sitting behind the steering wheel of his white Saab in the crisp autumn morning, he turns the key, only to hear the tired revolt of neglect.

“Shit.”

He tries again.

The battery is dead.

Having no desire to jump it, he decides instead to knock on the door of his friends, David Hiser and Barbara Bussell, three condos down. He knows David will let him borrow his van to drive into town for breakfast. Being a photographer himself—often working for National Geographic for months at a time—David knows all too well what it’s like to come home from a long, grueling trip.

As Jeffrey knocks on the door, then watches it slowly swing open, his eyebrows fly up. “You’re not David,” he jokes as he stands face to face with a young brunette.

Portrait of Becky Aaronson late 80's

Becky Green Aaronson, late 80's

“You got that right,” she chirps.

“Well, what have you done with David?” Jeffrey laughs. “Should I be worried?”

The young woman tilts her head and smiles, mischief sweeping across her face. “I’m not telling.” Then she crosses her arms and leans one shoulder on the door frame. “What do you want with David anyway?”

“I was hoping to borrow his van. I just got back from Asia and my car battery is dead.”

“Hmmm…Well, David’s in Mexico right now and Barbara’s in Bhutan, and I can’t loan out his van to somebody I don’t even know,” she says, looking at him like he’s just been let out of an insane asylum.

Jeffrey, while slightly annoyed, can’t help but laugh at her feisty attitude.

Portrait of Jeffrey Aaronson

Jeffrey Aaronson, late 80's

“Who are you, anyway?” she grills him as she eyes his dark leather bomber jacket, noticing how it accentuates his chiseled chin and five o’clock shadow.

Taking off his sunglasses, he flashes his green eyes. “I’m Jeffrey. Jeffrey Aaronson. I’m David and Barbara’s friend and neighbor. I’m a photographer, too. Now tell me who you are…and what you’re doing in their house.”

“I’m Becky,” she laughs as she shakes his hand, feeling a slight flutter in her stomach. “Do you want to come in? It’s kind of a long story.”

.    .    .    .    .    .

NOW: MGUNGA MAGIC

September 2011: When I look back at my photograph from more than two decades ago, first of all I can’t believe I’m sharing it with all of you. “Big hair” was definitely not a good look, but that was the 80’s, baby! Mostly though, I can’t believe how young and green I was when I took off on my improbable adventure to Aspen.

That same thing struck me again this summer when we were in Aspen visiting our friends, the Carpenter Family. Not only were we back in the Rockies again after having moved to Santa Barbara several years ago, but we were in the exact same condo where I first met Jeffrey.

You see, our friends Curt and Cindy Carpenter bought David Hiser’s condo in the early 90’s and have lived there ever since. For many years Jeffrey and I lived and worked a few doors down from the Carpenters, and vividly remember when their daughter Cornelia was born twenty-two years ago.

Portrait of Cornelia Carpenter

Cornelia Carpenter, author and illustrator of Mgunga

This summer as I looked at Cornelia’s shining face during our visit, it struck me that I was exactly her age when I moved to Aspen. On one hand, it seemed impossible, but on the other hand, I could see in her eyes what I felt when I was her age: the enthusiasm of a recent college graduate filled with drive, knowing the whole world was out there waiting for her.

This girl is well on her way, too, having already published her first illustrated book, Mgunga: A Day in the Life of an Umbrella Thorn Acacia. Inspired by her semester abroad in Kenya, she created a book of illustrations well beyond her years. And now she has just returned from a project in Australia.

When I watched my daughter, Olivia, gaze at Cornelia with awe when she handed her a signed copy of her book, I witnessed Cornelia unknowingly paying it forward and inspiring a 7-year old—just by being a brainy, adventurous, and creative role model.

I feel compelled to share a few images with you from Cornelia’s book because there’s no doubt in my mind this is the beginning of a brilliant career. In fact, if I ever find time to write that children’s book I have bumping around in my head, I know who I’ll be calling for the illustrations.

All illustrations ©Cornelia Carpenter 2011. You can click on the images to view them larger.

Mgunga Book Cover

Mgunga Book Inside Illustrations of Babboons

Mgunga Book Illustrations of Giraffes

Mgunga Book Illustration Owl and Elephants

Here’s to Mgunga Magic…and to being twenty-two…and to having the whole world out there waiting for you. And to those of us a wee bit older, here’s to remembering that feeling, and knowing anything is possible….even the improbable.


Improbable

Improbable: Unexpected. Not likely to happen. Events of rare coincidences. Hundred to one. Outside chance. Rare. Slim. Unimaginable. Fanciful. Incredible.

As Madame de Stael once said, “In matters of the heart, nothing is true except the improbable.” And nothing could be more accurate when describing my life or that of my husband’s…and even more so, the life we have created together.

As a young college graduate, it was an improbable moment that changed the trajectory of my life and sent me on a plane heading to Aspen, Colorado. And it was another improbable moment that dropped my husband, Jeffrey Aaronson, onto my doorstep and launched me into a career I never could have imagined. And yet another improbable moment that inspired Jeffrey to trade in his job as a biochemist and cancer research specialist to become a photojournalist.

Our worlds blissfully collided more than twenty years ago from this series of unlikely events, and soon after inspired us to begin working side-by-side in the field of photography. As an international photojournalist, Jeffrey traveled around the world on assignment for many of the nation’s top publications—everyone from Time, Newsweek and the National Geographic Society to Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and The New York Times.

Time Magazine CoverNewsweek Magazine CoverNational Geographic Book CoverSmithsonian Magazine CoverGEO Magazine CoverNewsweek Magazine CoverTime Magazine CoverNewsweek Magazine CoverTime Magazine CoverTime Magazine Cover

While Jeffrey was off gallivanting around the globe on assignments, I ran our busy stock photo agency, Still Media (formerly named Network Aspen before relocating from Aspen to Santa Barbara). As Director of the agency, I focused on all the marketing, sales and promotion, and also oversaw the staff and coordinated assignments. On a few occasions I also managed to jump on planes with Jeffrey, learning first-hand the challenges involved in not only getting an assignment done, but getting it done well, and on time.

Photo of Jeffrey Aaronson taking picturesPassport scan

During those two decades, Jeffrey flew over a million miles crisscrossing the globe in pursuit of photographic stories. His passports (all four of them) quickly became colorful art pieces, with stamps from every corner of the world. From the shores of the Pacific to the high peaks of the Himalayas to the heart of the Sahara Desert—he pursued Komodo Dragons in Indonesia, boated down the Yangtze River in China, outmaneuvered the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and ventured into some of the most remote regions of the world. He also photographed everything from China’s Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square to Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in South Africa to life behind North Korea’s Iron Curtain.

Photo of Moroccan woman in a burkaSouth African woman with new flagPhoto of Japanese woman in Kimono, TokyoPhoto of Kim Il Sung statue in North KoreaPhoto of Evzones in Athens, GreecePhoto of Buddhist monk in Lhasa, TibetPhoto of boy with AK-47 in CambodiaPhoto of Muslims praying in VietnamPhoto of Moscow, RussiaPhoto of the American SouthwestPhoto of Rice Paddies in Sichuan, China

We shared both an exhilarating and exhausting life—one that was not only fast-paced and unpredictable, but also deeply gratifying. We breathed news, cultures and world events and felt the pulse of the media through the many talented editors we worked with on a daily basis.

Even though it wasn’t unusual for Jeffrey to be on the road for weeks, if not months, at a time. we still managed to live a completely normal, deeply romantic, and rich life together. Well, normal, I suppose if you consider it normal for a wife to count her lucky stars that her husband wasn’t arrested or killed by an oppressive regime. Or that the airplane he was flying on didn’t go down during a hell-on-earth thunderstorm in the Himalayas, or the duct tape on the antiquated Russian helicopter in Cambodia didn’t fall apart in mid-air. Or simply that he didn’t contract malaria or dysentery while working in one of the many hot spots of the world like Africa or East Timor. Or if you consider it normal to master the fine art of suitcase-packing and airport departure routines, or learning how to speak to each other in code when communicating via phone, fax or email in countries in which it wasn’t safe to talk openly.

Portrait of Jeffrey and Becky AaronsonThis blog, The Art of an Improbable Life, is meant to be a head-spinning look back at the simply complicated, fortuitous, improbable life Jeffrey and I have shared  in the world of art, photography, writing, and more recently, parenthood. On many levels it’s a love letter to my husband, a celebration in words and pictures of all the extraordinary moments we’ve experienced together, and those he’s captured through his lens as a photographer; and all the stories he’s planted deep in my heart after coming home from assignments in far-flung locations.

My blog will contain moments from THEN that are worth re-telling—particularly some of the improbable moments that helped Jeffrey create several of his most important photographs—and moments unfolding NOW in the lives of two creative types trying to chisel out time to write, create contemporary fine art photo projects, and raise a young child with the same amount of love and tenderness they’ve always given each other and their work.

Thanks for joining me on this journey. I hope you enjoy the adventure as we travel to foreign lands and navigate through exotic cultures and historic world events. I also hope you’ll join in the conversation by posting your comments, questions or thoughts.

–Becky