“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls…” my high school English teacher intoned at the end of the school day, but we hardly heard him, already halfway out of our seats at the sound that set us free. In one motion, we stuffed our Donne into our backpacks and leapt from the islands of our desks, swinging our packs onto one shoulder. Before the bell stopped ringing we were a moving landmass that spilled into the hallway and the bright afternoon.
For me and many of my classmates in the late 1990s, though, the bell was not a release from our burdens but a reminder to double-down for what lay ahead. My afternoons were overstuffed. Should I blow off my student council meeting to get to jazz band, which I hadn’t attended in two weeks? Could I then duck out early to run mile repeats with the track team? In a seminal essay in The Atlantic published in 2001, the year I graduated from high school, David Brooks famously called us “Organization Kids”: We were neurotic, perpetually in motion, and preoccupied with doing as much as humanly possible.11xDavid Brooks, “The Organization Kid,” The Atlantic, April 2001, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/04/the-organization-kid/302164/. The frenzy seemed worth it, because we believed that if we were bright and hard working, and our resumés contained just the right kinds of activities and accolades, the world would be ours.
To effect this, we wrenched the spectrum of art and sport and study into symbols that we could use to market our personal brands. The Organization Kids were walking contradictions. We sought those experiences that gave the appearance of devotion to some greater good, but our feverish attempt to claim them as our own ensured that we could attend to nothing beyond ourselves. Donne claimed that “no man is an island”; we were out to prove him wrong.
The most ambitious of my generation, now nearing forty, have risen to powerful positions in New York, Washington, and Silicon Valley. They have sold the world their frenzy in countless forms, most notably social media and streaming music. Now we too can strain against the limits of time and space as we advertise our most likeable moments and summon our favorite songs out of the cloud. The way we all live now, swiping and clicking our way to some better version of ourselves, is a frictionless sequel to how my peers and I passed our teenage years.
But what kinds of selves are we chasing? To begin to answer this, we must consider how the Organization Kids have molded our attention. Following the Christian contemplative tradition, Simone Weil likened attention to prayer, and when properly offered, attention should wed us to the natural contours of things—the way they really are, not as we wish them to be. To pay attention is to be drawn out of the desires of the self into a deeper connection with the world, and, ultimately, into a peace that, in Paul’s words, “passeth all understanding.” Yet my generation, as I can attest, in considering natural limits as obstacles to desire, started from the opposite premise. Whatever we were clamoring for, it certainly was not peace.
In high school, I mostly remember being exhausted. At the end of each day, I faced a half-hour drive home, usually through rush-hour traffic, and after dinner would trudge up to my bedroom to begin homework. I would drop my bookbag on the floor and fall onto my bed, trying to summon the energy to study. Before I took my textbooks out of my bag, I’d lean over to the bedside table and twist the little black knob on the analog clock radio until the speaker on the back of the unit popped loudly and settled into its tinny volume. My family lived in Rhode Island, and, unless the weather was bad, I could pick up the strongest of the Boston radio signals. Most of the time I listened to the classic rock station, or the Red Sox game, if baseball was in season. But each night, precisely at eight o’clock, I spun the orange tuner down to the bottom of the dial and listened to Eric Jackson’s jazz show.
Jackson is a legend in Boston radio. His show on WGBH dates back to 1981, and his voice still graces their signal today. Jackson speaks with rich, unrushed syllables that seem to resonate directly from his chest, and to hear his voice between tracks at the end of a day is to hear a baritone sax playing in an unseen alley, its deep tones curling into the corners of the evening. He rarely operates with a playlist, preferring, like a true jazz artist, to be moved by the spirit, and improvises his set as the night unfolds. His knowledge of artists and styles is deep and eclectic, and a regular listener to the show becomes a kind of Dante to Jackson’s Virgil, the recipient of a full-fledged education in the genre.
For many years he started his show with his theme song, pianist Tommy Flanagan’s gorgeous rendition of Horace Silver’s ballad “Peace.” Over the course of my high school nights I fell in love with it, and nearly two decades later I still consider it my favorite jazz song. “Peace” is a masterfully stripped-down composition, with a form just twelve bars long, and a simple melody laid over some of the most beautiful chord changes I have ever heard. Flanagan’s version, with an evocative introduction and meandering piano solo, does an even better job than Silver’s original of evoking the spirit of the title.
Something cosmic happened each night at eight o’clock, at least as I remember it. The station with one of the strongest FM signals in Boston, whose broadcasts flew over the rooftops of several states twenty-four hours a day, stopped its news-and-talk programming each evening to play the same simple, gorgeous song, handpicked for the occasion by an individual steeped in the tradition of jazz music. On a good night, Tommy Flanagan’s chords stretched south of Boston into Providence and out to Cape Cod and the islands, west into the Berkshires, north to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and up the Maine coast. Many were listening, but for the millions who were not, I like to think of “Peace” as still there, the unheard music playing in the air around them. As I listened from my bedroom, I swear that in the slowly descending bass line of Silver’s song I could sense the lights of New England dimming as its residents settled into the night, and into themselves. “Peace” marked the hour as a cathedral bell might have in the Middle Ages, or muezzins still do in certain parts of the world. It seemed to consecrate the evening.