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What does it take?
August 6th, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

What does it take?

« We were flying along, and I’ve got a guilty pleasure — I’m reading Vanity Fair — and I’m on my way home. And suddenly there’s this crazy sound, like a minivan hit the side of the plane. And I thought, "Uh, oh, I’m not even gonna look up. If I don’t look up from the magazine, it’s not happening." And then it happened again. »

Everyone starts screaming, the plane is making terrible metal-in-distress sounds. Black smoke —"black like in a Batman movie"— starts streaming out of the fresh-air nozzles overhead. They turn back toward O’Hare, « and there’s that grid of Chicago, and I’m seeing it coming up really fast. » The lights flicker, and the pilot comes on and tells everyone, with panic in his voice, to stay buckled. « And there’s this little 14-year-old boy next to me. He turns to me and says, "Sir, is this supposed to be happening?" »

« And I remember thinking, No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Just that one syllable, over and over. And also thinking, You could actually piss yourself. And the strongest thing was the sense of that seat right there. » He pointed toward the imaginary seat back in front of him. « I thought, Oh, yeah, this body. I’ve had it all this time, and that’s what’s going to do it. That right there. » He had assumed that if he was ever faced with death, he would « handle it with aplomb, » he would be present in the moment, he would make peace in the time he had left. « But I couldn’t even remember my own name, I was so completely not present. I was just the word 'no'. »

Eventually he managed to turn to the kid next to him and say that it was going to be O.K., « though I didn’t think so. And there was a woman across the aisle. And finally — it was like coming out of a deep freeze — I could just reach over, and I took her hand. » That’s how they remained for the next several minutes, waiting to die.

In the end, they didn’t crash into the Chicago streets or plunge into the freezing lake but made it safely to the runway, where all the emergency-response equipment was in place but not needed. It turned out, in a detail that could have been lifted from a George Saunders story, they all nearly died because the plane had flown into a flock of geese.

« For three or four days after that, it was the most beautiful world. To have gotten back in it, you know? And I thought, If you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it’s actually going to end. That’s the trick. »

You could call this desire —to really have that awareness, to be as open as possible, all the time, to beauty and cruelty and stupid human fallibility and unexpected grace— "the George Saunders Experiment".

Excerpt from ©
Unattributed photo (everywhere on the internet, could not find the actual author).
Hugely readable (h/t +JB Kaufman) is also