The Burden of Knowing (And The Bliss of Not Knowing)

I think it all started when I watched Stephen King’s The Stand, shell-shocked, at a friend’s house as a 16-year-old. Then later I saw Outbreak. Shell-shocked again. After that, I read a paperback copy of Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, a rare jaunt for me into nonfiction. That shocked my shell again. Then in college, I saw 28 Days Later. My shell? You guessed it.


I have been terrified by plagues and pandemics off and on for a few decades. It’s not something I’ve fixated on, thankfully, but when I encounter viruses in film or literature it always unnerves to the core. I’ve said for years that there is no horror movie, no slasher flick, that is scarier than a film depicting the spread of a highly contagious disease.

The most bone-chilling depiction I’ve seen was likely the 2011 film Contagion, which re-infected me with a fear that at that point had been largely dormant in my mind for a decade. I don’t think I could ever bear to watch that film again. In terms of unsettling horror, it’s on par with The Shining.

But it’s one thing to watch a movie about a horrifying thing you know in the back of your head could theoretically happen, but which seems somehow… unlikely. And it’s another thing entirely to learn firsthand that pandemics do actually happen. In our own world. During our own lifetime. Despite all of our modern technology and epidemiological advances. Right here in the United States of America. (And everywhere else too.)

Once you see that with your own eyes, as we all have now, you gain a new burden. Something you will carry with you for the rest of your life.

The burden of knowing.

And for me, that is perhaps the most destabilizing aspect of all of this. For the time being, my family and I have been spared from the financial and health ravages of this virus. But none of us have been spared from the sobering, soul-shaking realization that all those fictional Hollywood virus thrillers were in fact not fiction. They were warning us — with Hollywood embellishments, to be sure — of a real life supervillain that is far scarier than Thanos. A villain both invisible and devoid of motive. A villain so ruthless that it has robbed us of 100,000 (and counting) of our fellow U.S. citizens and a third of a million (and counting) of our fellow citizens of earth.

That knowledge is a heavy burden for any sensitive soul to bear. And in times like these, I wish I could grow thicker skin. I wish I had an N95 mask for my soul.

I envy anyone who is scientifically minded enough to have long realized in a matter-of-fact kind of way that something like this was possible, or even inevitable — given enough time — and are thus perhaps not reeling quite as much to see it all play out. I admire anyone who, either because of this or because they are simply level-headed, is able to keep their head… level.

For me, it’s all scary. And it’s all demoralizing. The burden of knowing is a weight I carry between my shoulder blades, wishing that I could somehow unencumber myself. That I could somehow un-know this truth. The truth that despite all our best-laid theologies and orthodoxies, some of which may well be entirely accurate, the world sometimes feels to our linear minds like ungoverned chaos. And that we appear to be at the mercy, for the time being, of a ruthless virus that seems to thwart our efforts at every turn.

But here’s what helps lighten my load. And please know that I fully realize that I’m in a small minority who enjoys this unearned luxury. I hope you won’t hold it against me.

Because of the dumb happy luck of our belated family timing, I currently live with not one but two human beings who are small enough that they have not yet accrued that burden of knowing.

It is true that Danielle and I have had a few very rudimentary exchanges with 3-year-old Greyson about the need for social distance, and we will need to strongly reinforce this messaging before an extended family convergence slated for this summer. But our little boy is, for the most part, charmingly unaware of the spread of the virus — or even what a virus is. Not to mention any details about the intense toll it has taken on society. And 20-month-old Violet has no inkling of any of it. The 4 of us live in a hermetically sealed little haven out here in the countryside, and our errands (beyond groceries) mostly involve exploring every corner of the woods across from our house.

As I carry around my burden of knowing, I draw strength from the lucky bliss of their not-knowing. And I am deeply grateful that we will someday be able to solemnly tell our children the story of this era, once they are older and able to process it. Somewhere down the road, when we are all detached from the immediacy of COVID-19’s horrors.

I imagine the wide eyes of my older children when they learn about the scourge they lived through as toddlers. A pandemic that ripped through every country, ravaged every economy, poured gasoline on everyone’s summer plans, and planted fear in just about everyone’s hearts.

All while Greyson and Violet happily played with their little animals and puzzles. And repeatedly slid down their plastic orange slide in the living room. And excitedly visited the woods and farms near our house. And curiously paged through their little books.

Unburdened by the weight of this dark knowledge.

And untouched by the virus of fear.

Just as children of all ages (in the perfect world we don’t inhabit) should be.


Caspian Provides the Antidote

Every once in a great while, a band comes along that composes the original motion picture soundtrack for your life. Their music makes you see your life anew, as if you’re finally catching a glimpse, for the first time, of the world as it was truly meant to be seen.

That band, for me, is Caspian. I’ve stood in awe of them for 10 years, and my admiration grows deeper with every album they put out into the world. Their last release, On Circles, is a towering achievement that conjures up a deeply intense and deeply reassuring vision of the world. A vision we badly need in these days when we feel disoriented and beaten down on a daily basis.

“Wildblood” starts things off with an open-throated, liberating, and barbaric yawp that would have made Walt Whitman proud. (Assuming, of course, that he was a fan of instrumental rock.) Rarely have a flute and a saxophone been deployed in the service of such a massive, pummeling rock opus.

That imposing opener leads smoothly into “Flowers of Light,” the sun-drenched, hope-soaked anthem we had no idea we would so desperately need when the album was released in January. But here in May, the song is a beacon of light emanating from a strangely distant realm, beckoning us to somehow resuscitate our faded hope while the world reels and staggers backward.

Next up is “Nostalgist,” a wistful foray into emo-rock that lacks any trace of self-pity. It reveals once again — this time with the rare addition of vocals — the bruised, splattered hearts that the Caspian boys have always displayed without ego or irony on their short black sleeves.

Then, 4 tracks deep, Caspian turns the universe inside out. They patiently bury their best song — not only of this album but of their entire gem-packed career — halfway through the tracklist. Despite being written prior to 2020, “Division Blues” somehow feels like it was dreamed up specifically for this unthinkable moment in time. It is bruised and battered, covered in blisters and blood. It bears the weary weight of the world. And yet it positively aches with life, with tenacity, with the inextinguishable spark of survival.

Musically, “Division Blues” is the most thrilling and innovative thing Caspian has ever written, filled with jaw-dropping guitar work, mind-bending time signatures that shift repeatedly, and truly ear-popping sound design. I’ve listened to the song close to 50 times and it still feels like I’m discovering it each time. I couldn’t say it any better than Benjamin Daniel did on Twitter: “The last minute of ‘Division Blues’ sounds like the soundtrack to the most important moment of my life.” I will add without exaggeration that it is one of the most breathtaking, overwhelming songs I’ve heard in my life.

If the first half of the album ends with a mind-expanding requiem for our collective innocence, the second half begins with a rebirth. “Onsra” is a delightful electronic confection that sounds like nothing Caspian has done before. Its palette recalls Digital Ash-era Bright Eyes but gradually ascends to a cresting wave of sound in the final minute that only a band with matchless rock chops (and no fewer than 4 guitars) could manage to construct.

Speaking of rock chops, the next song brings the straight-up heat. Caspian always throws a few sticks of kerosene-soaked dynamite into each album, and On Circles is no exception. “Collapser” wastes no time melting your face with its punishing snarl. It’s satisfying to see Caspian bring the full musculature of their guitars to bear on a song unburdened by sentiment or mercy. Pure adrenaline, pure catharsis.

Right on its heels is “Ishmael,” which feels like a resonant coming-of-age story with a philosophical bent. It starts with a kind of faltering adolescence, conveyed by the quavering sounds of a digitally altered cello. Then it gradually builds in confidence, adding guitars to the mix, one at a time, followed at last by drums halfway through the 8-minute runtime. Each ensuing minute brings a new layer of clarity and propulsive momentum, with expanding time signatures that mark the beginning of each new chapter of evolving consciousness. By the end, it feels that you’ve somehow witnessed the hatching of a soul into the world. “Ishmael” is vintage Caspian, brandishing its heart with disarming earnestness.

Then the album concludes in the most unexpected way possible. “Circles On Circles” is a gorgeous wisp of an acoustic ballad, anchored by an exceedingly rare vocal turn by co-lead guitarist Philip Jamieson. The fluttery finger-picking by virtuoso Erin Burke-Moran evokes the work another guitar master, Mark Kozelek. There is no epic build, no crashing payoff. Just tender vocals, evocative harmony, haunting lyrics, and some of the most aching and delicate guitar work Caspian has ever recorded.

On Circles begins with a wild-blooded howl and concludes with a gentle reverie reminding us in its final bars that “the shadow remains.” But despite that ever-present shadow, everything that fills in the circle of the album manages to ennoble the listener and elucidate the darkened corners of existence.

And this feat is no surprise to those of us who have long loved Caspian. Because even beyond being bona fide masters of soaring and searing guitar rock, they are above all else purveyors of clarity.

And clarity is, above all else, what the world needs right now.