Three Hours in the Air
347 · 20 September 01
I am in seat 20A, looking out over the trailing edge of the left wing, on United Airlines flight 726, from Denver to Boston. Arguably I am being faintly heroic just by sitting here. My original Saturday-morning flight home was canceled, and I called up and had myself booked on the first available replacement, so now, a few minutes after takeoff, Monday evening, I am part of our national display of defiance. Fuck you, we will not be afraid of our own air. I don't feel very heroic. "Thank you for flying the friendly skies", says the guy on the little video screens, after a "safety" video whose calm confidence in its procedures for turbulence, exiting and "water landings" now seem conspicuously naive against the total absence of a recommended course of action if the plane is taken over by box-cutter-wielding suicide bombers. "All cell phones must be in the complete power-off position", the purser reads from an awkwardly-written script, just in case there was any tiny lingering doubt about how far the airline industry is from understanding how much the world has changed in a week. Andrew and I dropped off Mike at a Hertz office in Durango, and he drove back to Dallas; I seriously considered renting a car myself and driving from Andrew's house in Denver to mine in Cambridge. My presence on this flight is less a vote of confidence in our airline system's post-11-September ability to carry me three hours across the country without incident than a vote of low-confidence in our pre-autopilot highway system's ability to support thirty hours of frazzled solo driving without some sleep-deprived Iowan smashing into me, or vice versa. I wish the decision felt more momentous. There were some obvious signs of increased security at DIA, and random people were getting their bags searched, but despite instructions to arrive three hours before flight time, my own personal course through the airport was the same on this return leg as it was coming out. "Have your bags been out of your control at any time since you packed them?", inquired the United ticket agent, solicitously. I resisted the urge to scream back "Have you people been hiding in the mountains for a week? Never mind what other people might have put in my bags, worry about what I might have put in my bags."
It is, in fact, me who has been hiding in the mountains. On the morning of Tuesday, 11 September, I was standing on the platform of the Durango-Silverton narrow-gauge railway in Durango, Colorado, waiting to take a train in to a flag-stop in the Weminuche Wilderness for a three-day hiking/camping trip with two childhood friends up Chicago Basin, with a slated ascent of Mount Eolus, a 14,083-foot peak in the southern San Juans. We had been planning this trip for months, and for months I had been planning to begin the subsequent column "I did a new thing last week." For some of you, camping may be routine and unthreatening. For me, it was almost entirely novel. To the best of my recollection, the only previous times I have ever in my life spent an entire night away from electricity were during city-wide power-outages. It is in no way deceptive to point out that I ventured into the wilderness carrying, from the long list of requisite equipment, only two objects I owned before beginning to plan the trip; I already had a bandana (thanks to a high-school New Wave phase in which I wore dozens of them tied around one leg), and I happened to already own the exact recommended flashlight (which in the end I never used). But Mike's wife got him a subscription to some smug outdoors magazine for Christmas last year, and he'd become convinced that all these twenty-something skydiving/sea-kayaking/ice-fishing lunatics in the magazine were having more fun than we were, or perhaps just fun of a more profound type. So he proposed we go camping. My initial inclination was to point out, reasonably, that camping is not my sort of thing. But these are exactly the scattered friends I've written before about wanting to spend more time with, and besides, why shouldn't camping be my sort of thing? So, many hundreds of dollars of gear later, including a whole new wardrobe designed to do something called "wicking" that I hoped wouldn't hurt too much, there I was standing on a train platform, wearing a backpack we never got around to weighing but Andrew estimated at forty pounds and I at fifty, apprehensively waiting for the "adventure" to begin. Andrew and Mike went into the little station cafe to get coffee, and came back out to report that on the fuzzy television above the counter they'd seen both the World Trade Center towers burning after being hit by hijacked passenger jets. In what now strikes me as an almost unfathomable leap of faith, we got on the train anyway. Some old tourist, climbing into the seat next to us just before the train pulled out, reported that the Pentagon had been hit, too.
And that's what we knew. The towers hadn't collapsed, the fourth plane hadn't crashed. We left civilization, in retrospect, not at all sure how much of it would be there when we got back. If there had been enough time to be anything but dumbfounded by the news, I'm sure we would have quit the train, at least until the boundaries of the horror were better defined. What if there were five strikes? What if there were fifty? But the first three were so incomprehensible that it didn't occur to us there could be still more, and the whistles were blowing, and nobody could immediately think of anything the three of us could do to respond other than go back to our hotel and sit and watch television, so we let the train take us. It carried us into the wilderness and left us there, wispy Austrian tourists waving goodbye as it continued on its sight-seeing loop to Silverton. And since we weren't to be picked up again until Thursday afternoon, there was little left to do but pretend that this trip was still urbanites' recreation, rather than survivalists' retreat.
Camping, it turns out, is not so scary. Or to be more precise, the camping part of camping, by which I mean sleeping in a tent and not bathing and drinking funny-colored water because we all agreed that the neutralizer tablets made it taste stranger than the iodine, was uneventful and fairly pleasant, and I suspect I'll enjoy it even more once I perfect a mummy-sack sleeping method that doesn't require my usual amount of thrashing. We didn't see any bears, there were no bugs to speak of, we didn't break or run out of anything important, and it only rained on us coming out. My hundreds of dollars of camping gear will be used again. Next time around, though, I will know to scrutinize the "hiking" parts of the itinerary a little more closely. The Needleton flag-stop is at 8,200 feet, and the head of Chicago Basin is at about 11,200, just over six miles away. We camped a little short of that, in both distance and height, but I can now authoritatively report that the low standard of physical fitness required to participate in recreational soccer and volleyball leagues at sea level is insufficient for making a five-hour, six-mile/3,000-foot pack-encumbered climb comfortably. I basically reached my tolerance point about two-thirds of the way up, and continued under physical protest. The second day, Mike and Andrew made the summit-assault on, after observing a feature called The Sidewalk in the Sky necessary to reach the top of Eulos itself, the somewhat less intimidating North Eolus (14,039). I stayed in camp, basking lizard-like on a rock by the creek, reading a book, and developing an intense personal friendship with Lester, an equally slothful (and, as best I could tell, stone-deaf) marmot who lived near our campsite. The descent, on the third day, despite being done in a mild drizzle, and eventually engendering quite a bit more muscle soreness than the ascent, was far less trying cardiovascularly, and even at my slow pace we made it in three complaint-free hours, leaving us ample time to lounge around at the flag-stop being ridiculed by other hikers for having overestimated, by at least a factor of two, how much gorp and jerky three people could eat in three days.
Andrew had actually got cell-phone reception from the summit of North Eolus on day two, and called home for a capsule news update, so for the second half of the trip we had a little better idea of what was going on. On the train ride back to Durango, smelly and grizzled, we bullied aged vacationers out of their newspapers, and caught up a little further. We watched some news at our hotel Thursday night, Andrew and I listened to the radio fitfully on our way back to Denver on Friday, and once at Andrew's we had the full array of communications technology once again at our disposal. I checked in with my family and the most likely friends to have been involved. I have close friends who lost close friends, and know far too many traumatized eye-witnesses, but so far I don't know of any victims I knew personally. It is also entirely possible that I am the only person you know who didn't see any video footage of the crashes until Thursday.
For all practical purposes, I might as well have stayed ignorant. Andrew is an airline pilot and a former military officer, and probably ought to be on television explaining what's wrong with everybody's stupid new security proposals. Mike is an intently politically-aware EPA lawyer who could probably take over once we began contemplating the moral fabric of our possible responses, and his wife, an in-house counsel for one of the airlines in question who was actually in DC at the time, will almost certainly be the most involved of anybody I know. Me, I try to design business software that makes your work life marginally less exasperating, and I write about records. I am a very smart, thoughtful person, but events on this scale do not fit into my comprehension. In the world I thought I lived in, there is no problem to which flying a hijacked commercial passenger plane into an occupied office building is a conceivable response. In the world I thought I lived in, I can go away for a week, having written ahead of time a gentle remonstration about giving Melissa Etheridge another chance, and it can be automatically posted in the middle of the week without events having rendered it surreally irrelevant and unresponsive. I don't understand these attacks, I don't know how they can be answered or atoned for, I don't even speak the language of the discussion. Here is a very simple rule: music is what humans are best at, so anything that seems to supersede it, we should not do. Or phrased as semi-solipsism, in a sort of inversion of Wittgenstein's point about what language can't express, anything I cannot comprehend, should not exist. We, as a species, must be past this, or we will not survive. Every day the planet shrinks a little further, and with it decreases the amount of ideological diversity we can tolerate. If I really think about it, of course, as desperately as I don't want to, I realize that the root subhuman insanity, the willingness to kill other human beings because they have different beliefs, was already on display all around us, in clinic bombers, judgmental evangelists, homophobes, ex-boyfriends and persecuted high-school students. The aftermath of these attacks, I have no doubt, will at times amount to a parade of our own grotesque forms of malignant ignorance and evil. I have to believe I am not like those people. I believe evolution is in the process of producing a human creature that knows, instinctively and incontrovertibly, that violence is not a conflict-resolution mechanism. While that transformation is going on, we are living among animals.
It is more complicated than just not resorting to violence, though. To be part of a post-violent species we must also be able to avoid situations in which there are no non-violent solutions. Actions to which you can only respond by flying a hijacked commercial passenger plane into an occupied office building, if there were such things, would be just as subhuman. I can't think of any, myself, but this is not my field. The coverage of these events, though, has also spent strikingly little energy trying to discern their purpose. Even the search for the organizers, which if this were a smaller crime would inevitably entail an inquiry into motives, has been single-mindedly incurious and unreflective. The perpetrators are unanimously referred to as "terrorists", as if this were a consensual and uncontroversial designation, like "baker" or "sophomore", but presumably that's not how they think of themselves. Nineteen men, at least, cared so passionately about something that they were willing to move to a country they evidently hated, learn to pilot airplanes, and die in the very acts that would constitute their triumph. And so perhaps the most incomprehensible detail of all, so far, is that we have no idea what they thought they were accomplishing. There should be a manifesto. Some unknown faction has meticulously planned what in some senses is the loudest single statement on a world stage in the last fifty years, and yet it says nothing. There were no threats beforehand, no demands afterwards. Except for some telegenic Palestinian children, and god knows what they'd been told, everybody who ought to be celebrating, if this were a vengeful blow in a determined struggle, is busy sternly denying their involvement. I have little trouble imagining, frankly, that there was business transacted in the World Trade Center that qualifies, under any sane criteria, as evil. It wouldn't particularly surprise me to find that some of it, if carefully analyzed, would prove to be as barbarous in its own way as these attacks. I despise the stock market, personally, and am nauseated by the idea that the "engine" of the "greatest economy on Earth" is the manipulation of symbols for human effort, rather than the human effort itself. I hated those towers, even, icons of exactly the inhuman scale and relentless hubris that makes New York City, for me, uninhabitable. But whatever evil was poised to be done in lower Manhattan, Tuesday morning, was delayed mere hours, and is now whirring away again in temporary offices in New Jersey. The passengers on those airplanes, though, and the firefighters who went into those burning buildings, and the people who worked in the offices of companies that never hurt anybody, they are all irrevocable and unavoidable victims of the nature of the attacks, regardless of how many of the attackers' underlying beliefs they shared. I believe the most terrifying aspect of these attacks is that they appear to have been carried out not so much by enemies, or fanatics, or militants, as by movie villains, who make insane and inexplicable decisions that serve no other end than furthering inane plot contrivances and increasing visceral shock value. If these people just wanted to take lives, they could have dropped an LA-NY red-eye into the new Mile High on Monday night. If they wanted to cripple the US stock market they could have walked a bomb into the NYSE, or spent all that flight-school time learning to write a rogue program-trading virus. If they wanted to make a pure military statement they could have stolen an empty jet at National and flown that into the Pentagon. If this is about Israel they should have hit something in Israel first, while a suicide hijacking would still have had the advantage of surprise. The damage to the Pentagon, in fact, was comparatively minor, and unless you think they knew the precise thermo-structural implications of the fires in the WTC towers (which they might have, but note that our own fire-fighters and officials didn't), the damage they thought they were giving their lives to cause might have been far less. Their souls would be forfeit, in any religion on the planet, for the people on those planes, but if they thought they were dying just to punch holes in the most prominent available buildings, it's hard to see how that amounts to much more than architecture criticism. We will make them pay, of course, no doubt we will make a lot of people pay for a lot of things, and with a lot of assistance. And if we are very, very lucky, luckier than we have ever been before and luckier than we've probably earned the right to be yet, the substance of our revenge will not be our retaliation (even if that's what it takes), it will be the end of anonymous violence. Let this be the cause noble enough for thousands to have died for, let these acts have been so arbitrary and so unambiguously unconscionable that no living person can endorse them. Let us stand on the timeline of the human race, and push behind us the last nineteen creatures that looked like us who could still kill strangers. Let the last thousands to die this way manifest in our hearts and our consciences and our shattered cities, and take up our souls in talons, and finally tear us free from the horrors we used to have the capacity to become.
Which is a stirring idea, and a great place to stop, but real things don't stop. This is vanishingly unlikely to be the end of violence. It was my long-standing opinion, before this, that the practically infinite variety of potential human beliefs is fundamentally and irredeemably incompatible with practically finite living space. I would have claimed, at one cynical nadir, that there were exactly two ways in which humanity could avoid self-destruction: a program of rigorous population control starting millennia before anybody could have conceived of its necessity, and escaping this planet. If you've fallen into the easy trap of thinking that space exploration is an academic's abstract indulgence, walk outside tonight, take hold of Mars in the sky, and hand it over. If we can't live with each other, we have to have somewhere for one of us to go. That red dot in the sky? That's Palestine. Venus? Israel. Anybody who thinks the rest of us can't be trusted, pick a dot. Hell, I'll go. Find me a terraformable rock spinning around Proxima Centauri, and a ship large enough to hold everybody else who believes that there is no afterlife to release them from accountability for what they do while they're alive, and we will start over in the sky. Those of you who want to pour blood on the meaningless ridges we leave behind, feel free to start as soon as we clear control.
Before I can get away into space, though, I've got to get out of Denver. My scheduled return flight was canceled, unsurprisingly, and I spent a couple unexpected but intensely therapeutic extra days in Andrew and Trina's arid, Monopoly-house-lined suburb playing with their cheerfully oblivious nine-month-old daughter and their uncritically affectionate golden retriever. Now I'm on this plane, and we are back in the air. Haven't our bodies always told us, as emphatically as they know how, that airplanes and skyscrapers are bad ideas? But we claim to know better. Nobody puts the tension on this plane into palpable form, but it's easy enough to perceive. For the first time in my life, the prettiest girl I picked out in the waiting area is in fact seated next to me, but in quick succession I notice 1) her wedding ring, 2) her in-flight reading material, which appears to suggest that she is employed as a rodeo clown, and 3) my own temporary disinterest in any form of social interaction. I get my CD player out. I have brought eighteen discs with me on the trip. The comfort disc was Emm Gryner's Girl Versions, but I've listened to that a few times, now, and I'm ready for something else. What makes me think Radiohead's Amnesiac, which I've played at least ten times and still cannot remember a moment of, will suit this particular moment and mood, I have no idea. The only reason I haven't given up on it is that I keep not not liking it, and usually I have no trouble not liking things I don't like, so maybe the fact that Amnesiac vanishes from my mind the moment it's over implies something obliquely positive. Or maybe it's just insular and antisocial, which is how I feel like feeling. Or maybe I've been out of touch with music, too, long enough to want to hear something that seems like a public frame of reference.
And as this airplane carries me towards my home, Amnesiac begins a parallel emotional journey that maybe I'd momentarily stopped believing music could sustain. I am finally, in this haunted interlude between the beginning of horror and the beginning of my own ability to really start processing it, torn between new furies and old, in the right mood for Radiohead. A week ago I would have told you that Amnesiac is Kid A without "Idioteque", and since I said that Kid A amounted to a very long CD-single for "Idioteque", it's hard to take that as a compliment, but in fact, removing the focal point is a stroke of genius. Maybe I should have guessed, from the title of "How to Disappear Completely", what they were after, but I didn't, and here on a frightened jet, in a pool of light from the reading lamp, casting furtive glances at the beautiful rodeo clown sleeping in the seat next to me, I finally get it. Or I make it up, I don't know. I'm too caught up in this discovery to disentangle Radiohead's agenda from my own, and too frayed by tensions to care. I still couldn't hum anything from this album other than Thom Yorke muttering "Get off my case, get off my case", and that's exactly why I've decided it's a masterpiece. I hated OK Computer because I thought it was nihilistic, but that's because I kept stubbornly trying to treat it as a story, with Yorke as a narrator and a character, and his vocal presence as the signature element. But Amnesiac isn't a story, and Yorke's singing is just a sound. This album is a portrait, albeit a stylized and symbolic portrait in musical form rather than an attempt at a faked field recording, of background hum, and of the entire context and environment of industrialized and systematized life. It would be dystopian if it were prescriptive and exhaustive, but it's exactly the opposite, descriptive and methodically incomplete. We complained about Radiohead, the guitar band, ditching their guitars, but that only made sense if they meant to keep being a band, and they didn't. Taking away the guitars wasn't a stylistic decision, it was the first necessary step in finding out what was under them. We complained about them assembling Amnesiac out of the same pieces as Kid A, especially since they never bothered to contradict whoever said this was going to be a rock record, but it's the nature of the statement that individual moments are not precious. The mysterious thing isn't that they made two albums out of one recording session, it's that they fucked up the first one by giving it a single. This isn't a record, it's the inherent sound of streets and data and buildings, of all the wreckage we surround ourselves with even if it hasn't fallen yet. This is an emotional baseline against which you have to calibrate yourself, or else our values and aspirations will seem alien to you because you don't understand that this is what we'd have without them. You imagine we've planned everything, but we are as lost in these streets and rooms as you could ever be in deserts and caves. If you think you only have time for one track, listen to the third one, "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors". A bleary percussion loop cycles and stutters, a brittle computer voice mumbles raspily to itself, tiny flutters of bells periodically drift through like sunlight piercing smoke. It's four minutes long, and very nearly nothing happens. Or, more to the point, it's four minutes long and if you get to the end and nothing has happened, that's your fault. How long do you need, anyway? This is what Alan Ball and Sam Mendes were trying (too hard) to get at with the plastic-bag ballet in American Beauty, not the mundane revelation that trash can be beautiful, but the truths-we-hold-to-be-self-evident insight that beauty is a transformation, not an absolute, and so no amount of trash can preclude it. I'm crying and shaking, for the first time since Tuesday, not because I've started to comprehend the extent of the atrocities, but because I realize, listening to this record, that I can't give up. It may take them a year to clear all the debris out of the hole in New York where the World Trade Center stood. When it's empty, we will gather around it and say goodbye to whatever pieces of ourselves and our friends and our friends' friends lived and died there. And then, when we decide what to put where there's nothing, we will find out what kind of people we've really become.
I have the shades down, and we're above cloud-cover anyway, so I don't know where we are when Amnesiac ends. Nearing Chicago, probably. The sleeping rodeo clown has had a manicure, but she's only wearing clear nail polish, and the marks of her profession's abuse are not very well concealed by the gloss. The sun-leathered skin and dusty boots clash oddly with her delicate features, two short, pixie-ish pony-tails and an odd glow across her closed eyelids that I can't decide whether to attribute to cosmetics or bioluminescence. So though it's a leap of hemispheres, I feel compelled to listen to Björk next. Vespertine, as it happens, has been resisting me similarly. I became a Björk convert through the kaleidoscopic dementia of Post, and spent Telegram and Homogenic wondering what she thought she was accomplishing by perversely sublimating all that frantic energy. Gifted and/or burdened with one of the most distinctive presences in modern music, why would she make records that seemed to pine for anonymity? Up until now, at least, Vespertine hasn't had an answer either. But because I've been thinking of Vespertine and Amnesiac as equivalent puzzles in my life, I've been rationing them interchangeably into my more amenable listening, and this is the first time I've played one right after the other. Doing so mandates an interpretation so obvious that I'm appalled it didn't occur to me without literal juxtaposition. Vespertine is what you get when you introduce a single radiant human soul into the empty, humming, mechanistic shell of Amnesiac. The music isn't quite exactly the same, Björk's a bit twitchier and sparer than Radiohead's, with little ballet-orchestral flourishes intermittently blooming out of it, but it's easy for me to imagine that that's just what happens to mechanism when humanity brushes against it, that this kind of life is potent enough to take root in metal and cement. Björk's swooping, alternately waifish and stentorian voice, careening around and among the noises as if massless, is a creation myth to itself. In the beginning were twisted girders and fractured concrete, and gray shapes shifting in a blinding night, and we thought the night, and our isolation, were inviolate. But daylight came, and with it this irrepressible sprite. And we thought she was crazy, but then we decided to be crazy, ourselves, too.
Laurie Anderson: Life on a String
But Amnesiac and Vespertine are still both a long way from New York, certainly a lot farther than I am as this plane edges through the dark. And they are beautiful through subtraction and then addition, but now I'm ready for the kind of beauty I used to mean, for the deliberate, constructed beauty that I think of as the primary idiom of art. I'm ready, frankly, to hear the song I wrote last week, but I forgot to bring it with me, and Andrew and Trina didn't have real speakers connected to either of their computers. I knew when I wrote the words that I wasn't entirely sure what I was talking about some of the time, and a few of the least explicable passasges, notably "I'm reeling in all of the languages" and "America flows through our averages", seem to have found pieces of tragedy to which to attach themselves. Small minded reporters immediately went looking for victims of coincidence in the music business (and will badger some imbecile at Elektra into redoing what would have been an immensely heroic front cover to Dream Theater's poignantly named Live Scenes From New York, with the two towers and the Statue of Liberty silhouetted side-by-side against the flames from a burning, barbed-wire-wrapped apple that might as well be a heart); their time would have been better spent trying to find songs that rise to the occasion instead of being stomped on by it. I'm sure, if I'd been home all this time, that I would have been playing records frantically, looking for something to intervene between me and the television, but I've been away from all but these few records, and in the backcountry I had no music at all (three days without records being another first for my adult life, come to think of it), so I have no songs to associate with these events, which probably makes the events harder to assimilate, but is a mercy for the music. What I have, instead, is a three-part soundtrack for this simultaneously momentous and banal flight, which I couldn't conclude any more appropriately with my whole library to draw from. Laurie Anderson is easily one of the four or five most distinctively New York artists in recent musical history (Lou Reed, David Byrne, Larry Kirwan, Joe Jackson?; or substitute your own list), and she hasn't put out a sung album since 1994's Bright Red / Tightrope, or any kind of album since 1995's The Ugly One With the Jewels.... I've read it asserted that Laurie is better at spoken audio than sung music, which is certainly a defensible contention given that she is most famous for recordings on which she is an extremely talented speaker and a rather limited singer. I like Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Jane Siberry and Emm Gryner, myself, so I'm hardly qualified for any kind of grouchy Shane MacGowan reverse-elitism, but I'd take Jean Smith and Pauline Murray over Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston in a second, and clearly my general sympathies tend toward generous allowances for commitment over technique. There is really no need for them here, though. The halting, minimalist melodies of Big Science were a long time ago. We could argue about Mister Heartbreak, but by Strange Angels, at least, I think Laurie had matured into as plausible a singer as, say, Sara Hickman or Dar Williams, and that was 1989. Bright Red / Tightrope made my 1994 top-ten, and then fell off it when I revised the decade, and now I feel bad about that and am wondering when I'll have an excuse for a re-revision.
Life on a String, while it traces a clear sonic line through Amnesiac and Vespertine, harbors none of their aspirations to ambience. There are pop songs, sunny strings, keyboards, sample loops, stories and raptures. The principal players are cellist Eric Friedlander, bassist Skúli Sverrisson, drummer Joey Baron and co-producer Hal Willner, but David Torn, Mitchell Froom, Van Dyke Parks, Bill Frisell, Mocean Worker and Lou Reed all drop by to play at various points (mercifully, Laurie has the sense to keep Froom out of the production booth). The brief opener "One White Whale" has airy keyboard sighs, an elegant ululant intro vocal from Tom Nelis and a hushed lead from Laurie. The bright, jumpy, tropical "The Island Where I Come From", with beepy horn bleats and layered percussion, is a bit of a throwback, and "Pieces and Parts" starts out in storyteller mode, but after the preface it shifts into delicate pop on the order of Jane Siberry, with Friedlander's cello and Eyvind Kang's violin twining around Laurie's voice like extra backing singers. Laurie herself takes up a violin again for the deadpan neo-classical instrumental trio "Here With You", but switches back to keyboards for the dense, keening world-music dirge "Slip Away". "My Compensation", with accompaniment from Willner's turntables and samples and Sverrisson's percussion programming, is the closest thing here to Vespertine, but Laurie mutters through it as if not quite sure what kind of singing the clicky backing calls for, and then abandons modernism completely for the delightfully florid New-York-summer-musical fling "Dark Angel". "Broken" is murmuring and evasive, like Magic-8-Ball answers surfacing murkily. The album's one explicit New York diptych, "Washington Street" / "Statue of Liberty", butts a diffident, ticking mock-spaghetti-Western against a quietly gonging set-piece. There aren't any World Trade Center references, but "Statue of Liberty"'s tag-line is telling: "Freedom is a scary thing / Not many people really want it." "One Beautiful Evening" is an intricate, pulsing collage Laurie mostly talks through, but the title track, which is also the finale, unfolds like a clockwork chrysalis. "Some people know exactly where they're going, / The pilgrims to Mecca", Laurie concedes, "But me I'm looking / For just a single moment."
As these words leave her mouth, the plane starts its descent into Logan. I open my window shades. We've left the clouds back in the Midwest somewhere. As we start a slow bank, the row of reflector fins on the wing forms an extra constellation against the sky, and when we level again the lights of Massachusetts contribute a thousand more. We're almost home. Never one to leave a metaphor to chance, I have been reading Edward Abbey's trenchant environmental-extremist memoir Desert Solitaire during the camping trip, and after finishing it midway through Vespertine I switched to a collection of Greg Egan's wildly technophilic science fiction. For these last few miles, though, I put the book down. The rodeo clown wakes up, beside me, and together, silently, we hold vigil over our approach. I have had ample opportunity to turn against my world. We could have stayed in the mountains for quite a while more. You who were here watching, you were prisoners, transfixed. I came back to join you of my own accord. I have returned from pristine wilderness into a cacophony of death and fear, narrated by people so oblivious to the hypocritical nuances of their own value systems that they would edit the "holy shit"s out of a bystander's video of the death of thousands. Abbey differentiates between something he calls "civilization", by which he mostly means the selflessness to coexist with the earth without demanding concessions from it (plus refrigerators), and "culture", by which he means the horrific and ungodly mess we make of everything in our attempt to impose ourselves on it. I shift both of those terms one notch over: civilization is the milieu and mechanism of our collective survival, culture is the use to which that survival is put. The wilderness is beautiful, yes, and it's beautiful in large part because there aren't any people in it, but to me the soul of the beauty is in our restraint. An uninhabited mountain is an achievement to me only to the extent that we've subdued our usual myopic inclination to blast a road up the side of it and install a Starbucks on top. It is the people and the cities and the languages and beliefs I really care about, all of which pours into our art. I love music, and to love music I have to be willing to love all the abilities and flaws that both make it possible and stand in its way. I have been presented, in the starkest possible terms, with this choice: safe, serene silence, or deadly, hideous noise. I take noise. I take civilization and culture, even if it turns out, at the last second, that this flight is doomed, too. We will get through this, all of us if not each of us, on every side of every possible question, even you would who die to teach us random terror. If it cannot be done without hatred, we will hate as beautifully as we can. If it cannot be done without a hundred horrible things I can't comprehend, then I will go slowly crazy, clinging to each escaping belief with bleeding fingers, but I will still believe it is worth it. Progress and disintegration are equally impossible to retract. Maybe this was all inevitable as early as the aqueducts, and maybe we have no idea how ugly it's still waiting to get. But we will win. We go back into burning buildings and doomed airplanes with empty hands, and they fall. We go back into burning buildings and doomed airplanes trying to hold them up by force of will, and they still fall. We go back into burning buildings and doomed airplanes, even knowing now that will is not strong enough, and they fall again. We go back into every burning building and every doomed airplane, more than you will ever steal enough fire for. Nothing accepts what you've done. Eventually the buildings and airplanes themselves will rise up and defy you. Eventually the air itself will refuse your breath. Or else in your final apostasy, if we have to, we will die in awe beside you, and our children will come together to our graves and believe that we were friends.
I am in seat 20A, looking out over the trailing edge of the left wing, with a beautiful rodeo clown beside me and a world's pain in my hands, as this fragile but not yet doomed airplane lands on our fragile but not yet doomed Earth.