The Yellow Phone

The woman on the train has a yellow handset for her Blackberry. It’s a classic from what could be the rotary age and plugs into her mobile with what must be several feet of spiral stretch cable, also yellow, replete with that curious kink I swear must be a design feature, not a casualty of over-extension — because no cord was ever big enough for the American kitchen. The handle of the receiver seems so wonderfully ergonomic in her hand, so sculpted and branch-like. I want one.

The Phone in repose.

The Phone in repose.

Too self-conscious, I probably wouldn’t use it. Now, I think I want to try it just once, feel it in my hand, not because it is new but because it fills that hole in the heart we forget is there — because I recognize it, because if I held it, I know for a fact that I’d remember things I’ve forgotten. Now, having seen it, I will for a short time imagine everyone on the other end of every line has one, and they are looking out the window of a moving train. This one, good glimpse of it has set memories afire. I have my laptop out so I can type these thoughts right away. I have WiFi so I can get as far as opening the Universe, thinking, I can find this thing in seconds and know just how much it will cost me. I could look up that little kink. I do neither. To do so seems strangely intrusive, anachronistic, bringing such technology back down memory’s lane. Maybe later.

AURORA laughs at this. “The kink is a defect,” she says. “The plastic has retained the memory of a traumatic event.” She smiles. “You’ve forgotten it. The plastic remembers.” She thinks it cute when someone waxes nostalgic. This coming from someone who carries absolutely everything she needs with her at all times. I remind her this is a unique trait of character hailing from a universe of sound. “Yes,” she says and reminds me she’s also largely imaginary. She does this by pulling out her own mobile phone. She puts in on the tray table, which rattles because it must. She looks at it and then at me. Yes of course. Rumor has it, her tiny machine already has more than a few tricks up its headphone jack.  

The Phone Agressive.

The Phone bristles.

As I’m editing the first 6 episodes of Polar Voices, listening to each iteration Kelsey slaves over, and then writing / rewriting, I am constantly surprised by the vastness of the medium. A character pulls out a phone and everyone listening will have a completely unique image of what that phone looks like. If I say the phone has slipped out through a hole in a pocket, the imaginations adjust. If I casually mention that the phone has asked a lecturing scientist about what it’s like to work in the remote, isolated, unconnected parts of the globe… It not the same as reading about the phone in a novel, where details tend to obliterate the wonder of the abstract. The audio script and play is more like a poetry. The words are deliberate, and the listeners engage by lugging their own memories. The width of their imaginations expand and collapse from moment to moment, like breathing. A character can say that a penguin is running across the museum lobby, that a great, grey zeppelin is parked outside — and it’s real, or perhaps not. Perhaps it’s absurd. Perhaps you have to decide for yourself.

We chose this story for Polar Voices, the story you have yet to hear, because the medium allows us to go very big, very fast. Anything we can define in a word or a sound is fair game. We can develop a globe-trotting story about change and the invisible with somewhat less concern for the spirally constrictions of budget. We can snap our fingers and a helicopter lands on a glacier. We can snap them again, and our characters are aboard a train.

I’m not often on trains anymore, not since college, but I have a fondness for them and when I’m aboard I can’t help but pull out a microphone and record the sounds of the cars gliding across the country, the upholstery-muted clacks in the pews of the passenger cars, the hard steel and squeak and groan in the vestries. It’s the sort of sonic ambiance that always sounds good later. It is complex and changing and perfectly recognizable to anyone. It’s the sort of sound you relax into and just want it to go on and on and on. It’s hard to hit stop on the recorder. You can spend time on trains. You can image people spending time on trains.

The Phone sulks.

The Phone sulks.

We were never meant to get from A to B in a blink of an eye. Trains accomplish this — so well. Airplanes seem to compartmentalize space in the same way, but 30,000 feet is terribly divorced from the world. And driving? I don’t think travel is travel unless you can safely turn your mind inward. Feet were made for traveling, not hands. They should be free to use the phone. We shouldn’t have to pay attention to where we are going. We should be looking out at where we are. Turns out Amtrak is going to host writers-in-residence. Heck yes! Travel isn’t travel if you can’t run the threat of catching a cold from a writer, if you don’t have the chance of navigating a conversation with a stranger. Trains are for stories. Buses? Well, buses just make me ill, almost as bad as video screens in yellow cabs, flashing away at you a foot and a half from your nose.

AURORA has nothing to say to this. She either agrees with me, or is just looking out the window, or is just waiting for the next plot point to drop.

I read something earlier this winter decrying the amount of time fantasy novels spend on characters getting from one place to another – as if all stories should take place within a single area code, or should dance past all the tedious getting from A to B. This is probably true for some series, but adventure is about travel and it’s about the time it takes to get there. I’m thinking about how when our characters start to really travel, that they are going to pop from one place to another in the blink of a scene change, just as the good author recommends, in the hard cuts between one audio track and another recorded months and years apart. The seeming immediacy is necessary to the story and the running length of the episodes, but even if we follow our heroes quickly on their way out into adventure and the world, I want to bring them back slowly. Open scene: AURORA will snap from the museum in Alaska to the thick woods of upstate Vermont in the blink of an eye. Even she will be confused by this. It will feel unnatural and wrong. It should. But getting back? I think we all have be able to sit back and enjoy the sounds of a train on the move. Come back the slow path.

AURORA rolls her eyes at that one. “There comes a point,” she says and then lets the thought go.

airships for science

Airships for science.
(NASA/Eric James, Oct. 6, 2009)

I point out it’s not just about trains. Ships are probably my dream mode of travel. All the wonders of the train, but I would willingly sacrifice the purity of the line for the level vastness of an ocean. And travel needs the vast like it needs time-of-flight. Travel’s not travel if you take for granted the wide-spaces between where you were and where you need to be. And if you pretend to be concerned about the future, these are the places that will live there. Now, something more perfect than an ocean-going ship? Well, I’ve never had the opportunity to ride a zeppelin, but I expect cruising in the gondola at a height not so far to the ground would be…

AURORA grins like the Cheshire Cat. She nods as if to say, write that one down. I remind her that airships are now completely stuck in an alt-universe trope. “So what?” she says. “Go willingly. The first time we travel, it’s almost always as circumstances dictate. We don’t know what the true goals are going to be. But then… It’s not as if we’re traveling because no one has ever been there before. We’re traveling to meet those who think a place a home and to compare perspectives.

Aurora's sketch.

Aurora’s sketch.

“Airships for science?” I say, hedging my bets. “Yes,” she says, brushing aside the bluff. “There is a growing need.” I tell her I have recordings on-board trains going back a couple decades. Boston, Ireland, Maryland… “I’m not just recording for the show, I remind her. I’ve always done this. I think there will be trains in your future,” I tell her. “And zeppelins,” she says. “Okay,” I say. “For travel though, not just filling in the corners of the frame. Who do we know who has an airship for hire?” She pulls out sketch she’s had Hannah draw-up. “Well, that’s not what I was expecting,” I say. “I thought it would be more – grey?” She shrugs. 

This is how ideas become real. The dropouts in a phone call are filled in by the imagination. Everyone’s dream of an airship is unique, and in a universe of sound, that’s all perfectly okay. Before a short couple hours on a train between New York and Philadelphia, I had a completely different picture of AURORA’s phone.

I could never carry around that yellow handset, but AURORA can get away with it. Because it is an instrument of sound, in her universe, made wholly of sound, it will appear and disappear with ease, as mobile as any mobile. Because we cannot see it, it will be exactly like every giant, tiny, or multi-use/tooled/functioned phone we’ve ever seen. In a month, I could forget my new image of the phone, and it will change again. I think it important that it does. Hannah will draw us another airship, something completely different, not because the sketch AURORA shows me is wrong, but because any sketch will be absolutely right, and every sketch will make us think a little differently about how things really are. Polar Voices is an audio adventure story about the science and realities of climate change, and I’m talking about the science here. Every little trigger, every little unique perspective has weight and it has sculpture. The world is defined by how things change.

We forget things for reasons that are mostly, completely beyond us, but the rediscovery of forgotten memories is one beautiful adventure into the invisible. Nothing brings back the past like travel. I need to hop on a train, or a ship, or an airship (oh yes please) once in a while — and remember while going slowly, think while going slowly, change my perspective while going slowly. Nothing allows us to better reorder our misconceptions about the world. Those little kinks are everywhere, and there is where the adventure is. There is where we learn about all the traumas in between. The world makes sense if you pay attention to it. The phone too. We’re live in May.

–Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits and Digital Media)