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Poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz describes my son Alex as her arch-nemesis during high school. The two were competitors, each trying to outdo the other as writers.

They continued the competition in the dramatic writing program at NYU. And then they pretty much went their separate ways, Alex intent on making movies and money (he’s working his way there), and Cristin intent on saying something important with her words, intent on understanding the world.

Cristin, if you don’t know of her, is founder of the three-time National Poetry Slam Championship Venue, NYC Urbana, at the Bowery Poetry Club, and the author of four books of poetry, including Oh Terrible Youth, which will be published by the Wordsmith Press in January 2007. She also has a history of slam poetry in the works.

This evening she gave a talk, Words That Comfort: How Terrorism and 9/11 Affected the NYC Lower East Side Poetry Community, at Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, and we were there. Her parents were there to cheerlead, and I suppose it’s fair to say so were we.

But she didn’t need a cheerleader. Her talk, part lecture, part memoir, part poetry reading (hers and others’ poems) and all performance had us weeping and laughing.

I had spent the day avoiding all references to 9/11. So Cristin’s performance made up for that. She read–no, performed–poems she and others wrote, words that brought back the silence following the disaster, the notes on the walls, the smells, the obsessive television coverage, the searches for missing loved ones, the people who survived by some chance change in schedule.

I thought about how different each person is. Here was Cristin who was maybe a mile away from Ground Zero, and who was deeply affected by what it all means. She uses words to reach those feelings and seek the meaning of what happened. I thought about my son, less than half a mile from Ground Zero that day, stoic and ostensibly barely affected by what he witnessed with his bare eyes. He uses words to create fantasies that let him forget. I took the time to wonder about how people who are interesting kids become amazing adults, people who you could not have imagined until they grew into themselves.