Although I mostly wander around to some very different places and topics, this book did begin with the events at Ground Zero. Living in downtown Manhattan and watching the towers collapse before my eyes, the bombing interrupted my day. There were less than two hours before the start time of my regular lecture at NYU, where I teach (Tuesdays and Thursday mornings that semester). My mind was busy with preparations. The inertia of life—cleaning up the breakfast dishes, preparing class notes—was in full force. But planes into buildings? People jumping from ninety stories? What was I do with this extraordinary in my ordinary? Move forward in deference to the life I had been living or stop and—stop and what? That’s a problem people face when disaster comes close by.
I also had some personal stakes. My partner of twenty-five years had set off that morning for a flight to Europe on United Airlines, and United, the news told us early on, was one of the airlines involved in the catastrophe. Was he on one of the planes? Was he stuck at Kennedy? Was he dead? Like the simultaneity of hot and cool breezes one can feel in coastal California when the Santa Ana winds blow hot desert air through the cool ocean breeze, things are oddly felt together. The private issue and public concern waft in and out, fear for a specific loved one and then back again to the public horror. Sometimes, and somehow, both at once.
This lived confusion is at least part of disaster response across the board and a basis for some of the investigations in this book. There is a need to do something, which is what being human is all about. We think and project forward. We rely on the sediments of past practice to make the next move. When something portending danger comes “out of the blue,” we are at sea: we cannot just roll onward with our past. Mental practice continues as before; we have no cognitive choice. But