My Fellow Shennyer:
Happy 2023. I’m coming home today after nearly four weeks of travel. Writing this Shenny, I can feel out of shape at writing. This feeling right here is what’s made I need a vacation from my vacation such a cliche.
Are you at home right now, reading this? If not, I hope you get home soon. There are plenty of nights when I’m sitting at home and hating it, wishing I could be out somewhere, ‘really living.’ Today, that all sounds like the dreams of an idiot. If you are reading this at home right now, I envy you. Enjoy your space, and the people and things you’ve been able to fill it with.
Are our Christmas decorations staying up for a while? You bet your homey ass they are.
1. A Brisk Cadence on Your Next ‘Happy Birthday’
I was reminded of this over the holidays, every time they played ‘The Little Drummer Boy’, a carol that often moves slower than a Muni bus. (That ‘Silent Night’ is usually performed at a faster tempo makes no sense given what the songs are about.) But because we sing it throughout the year, our tempo habits re ‘Happy Birthday’ are of far greater concern. The song always gets sung at nearly half the pace it should be, thus compounding that excruciating feeling of having to stand—on your own birthday—and endure a roomful of people singing at you. The problem, I’ve decided, is a wavering conviction on how and when to start: one person decides to be the first to sing ‘Haaaa—’ and look around to goad the others into joining, and by the time they’ve all come in on ‘—py birth’ you’ve set yourselves a tempo that’ll eat up the next 35 seconds, delaying the vital wish-making moment. Take a beat, if you will, from Frank in Rocky Horror Picture Show, who sings it at the tempo of a spirited waltz:
2. Agnes Callard’s ‘Art is for Seeing Evil’ (from The Point)
‘Life,’ Callard writes in this ingenious essay, ‘is censored.’ What she means is the habitual way we turn our attention—by reflex, or by moral righteousness—away from bad things. Art’s vicarious experiences of evil are all we have to actually face it. It is a simple and convincing argument for the greater purpose of what we do. I especially love her bit about Leontius in Plato’s Republic, who once on a walk came across some corpses. Initially, he turned away, but his eyes, overpowered by the appetite, opened again and took a good long look. ‘Perhaps we, like Leontius, will judge this rebellion as an instance of some kind of perversion or sickness. But another way to think about this is that your eyes, and something in your soul more generally, want to see what’s there—but you won’t let that happen. You are the censor of your own reality.’ How difficult it is as an artist to go where life has inured me away from! Imagine all the times you’ve been told, by a parent or partner, Don’t make a scene. What if you’re meant to become a person whose job is to make scenes, a basic tool of narrative? There’s a blog post brewing on the need to peep evil when the news is all lied-to white guys shooting innocent people, but Callard’s essay is helping The Writer in me go to places The Person In The World in me gets nervous about.
Peeping on Manhattan
I’ll spare you the details on how this happened, but over the holiday break, N and I spent 13 nights in an apartment on the Upper East Side. The apartment was on the 23rd floor, with 180° views to the north, east, and south. We couldn’t see Central Park, but out the south windows of the bedroom I could behold all of midtown, with the MetLife sign lit up in boldface, and the gleaming spire of the Empire State Building.
We found a pair of binoculars in a closet, and most evenings, once the sun fell and the windows surrounding us started glowing with life, I wandered from window to window to see what I might see up close. I saw very little. A little finger shape sliding from one edge of a distant window to the other. Some Christmas trees lit up happily as late as January 9. Once, I saw a man showering, the bathroom window cut right out of the shower wall, and unfrosted even. Interior design for exhibitionists.
The most interesting thing I watched was a man sitting on the floor with either a dog or a baby squirming in his lap (his back was to me; it was a broad back). Next to him, a woman knelt and took pictures of his lap with her phone. Other than that, I saw stillness, absence.
The first couple days we arrived in Manhattan, I couldn’t handle the speed of everyone, the mass of them swarming in every direction on the streets, the streaming rush up and down every subway staircase. It was too much energy, too much stimulation for this now-Californian.
So what a thrill to realize that once you get up off the streets, even just a few meters, the city freezes and gets still. Thousands of lit-up windows surrounded me, yet nothing moved inside them. Little surprise, of course: people’s activities in the home tend not to happen along the perimeter. When we’re home, we mostly sit.
Yet I kept looking, because I like to look. But also: every lit window is a frame. Every frame signals that what it contains is worth looking at.
Earlier in the trip, we stayed some nights at my sister’s house. Her husband, Adam, works for a company which has satellites in orbit that photograph the planet. One day, he told us two new ones were scheduled to be launched together that evening, and we could watch the live stream. Have you ever seen a satellite get launched on a rocket? Had I? Jenny and N and I agreed to pause that night’s Hallmark Christmas movie to watch it.
Around 8:45, Adam cast the feed to the TV, and it was like another movie started. Serious-looking faces behind computers staring up at a large monitor at the front of a dark room. Cut to the rocket standing very still on a launchpad far away. It looked both enormous and too thin to get itself all the way up in the heavens. Soon, they started the T-minus countdown, but in French.
At décollage, an explosion in the darkness. The rocket rising straight up in the air, seemingly in slo-mo. People in the big room clapping. The commentators on the livestream explained the launch stages, how soon another booster would fire to kick the satellites even higher into the atmosphere. On the screen was an X-Y graph of two parabolic curves: a steady green line for the expected course, and an ever-lengthening white line charting the course in real time.
About four minutes in, the white line starting sinking away from the green one.
The commentators were silent. One tried to ask the other what was happening, but he wouldn’t answer. There was commotion in the big room. The white arc kept falling closer and closer to 0. And then it hit 0.
We’d just watched, at a series of removes, hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment fall into the ocean. A launch that had been years in the making. Thousands of people working to make it happen. Adam was phlegmatic; the company had enough other resources to rebound from this. And of course, nobody died.
But I couldn’t get over it. The loss I felt didn’t have that familiar sickening quality of a mortal tragedy; I couldn’t settle my unsettledness on a narrative like Grief. Instead, I felt overwhelmed by the world’s sudden enormity. It is, this world, the whole of it, incomprehensible. That night, it was not a comfort.
Do you know the myth of Peeping Tom? He’s really a secondary character in the myth of Lady Godiva, who agreed to her money-grubbing husband’s dare that she ride nude through the streets if she wanted to give the townspeople tax relief. Devoted, those people agreed to lock up their shutters and not look at her—all, that is, but Tom, a tailor, who cut a little hole in his shutter to catch a peep during the one second she rode past his window.
In none of the versions of the myth I’ve read do they explain how Tom got caught. How did the town find out about his little cheat? Peeping on Manhattan, and writing about it here, the answer’s suddenly obvious: he told. He didn’t confess. He told what he saw like you tell a tasty secret.
Now that we’re finally home, this week’s natatorium is in San Francisco, just across town at the Olympic Club—free to swim in if you have $20,000+.
I want to hear the backstory on how you ended up in that sweet apartment for a week!