may you live in text-your-ex times

staying up late living through history

It is Hurricane Sandy and I am in Brooklyn in my room that has no windows listening to a police scanner that I found through a link on twitter and thinking about how I hope everyone I hate is safe. When big things happen we think about people from our pasts, or maybe you don’t, but anyway I do. I am very persistent about my small, stupid story, about the idea that I’m the main character here, on the couch, looking at my phone, doing nothing at all. All the people I once loved and don’t speak to anymore all crowd in real against the convenient backdrop of these big and horrible days. This is the way I know to know that these things are happening— somewhere in another living room, in front of another television, someone I haven’t spoken to in eight or ten or fifteen years is having a reaction, someone walks out into the cold to smoke, someone makes a phone call, someone has a very stupid take. 

I hope everyone who has ever hurt me is safe tonight. I hope everyone has a place to go home. I hope my worst ex’s opinions aren’t as bad as I sometimes think they might be. I hope all the people who ever broke my heart are wearing masks and not attending indoor events. I hope all of their fears keep them safe. I hope everyone is still alive, and healthy. I hope no one is a name on a list anywhere. I hope no one is in a hospital bed, is calling an ambulance, is running the numbers on their health insurance and medications and ventilators. I hope the most everyone is doing is watching the news. I hope everyone I have ever cared about and ever lost in small or large ways, through personal atrocities or simply through the gentle negligence of time and forgetting, is sitting on a couch tonight and the couch is comfortable. I hope all of your couches are better than mine because my couch is very bad but it’s my whole life now. I hope if your couch was your whole life last year and is probably going to be your whole life this year, too, I hope it’s a really nice couch, I hope it was new in early 2020 and your cats haven’t destroyed it and you still really like it and it’s still only the right amount of worn in to be comfortable. My couch remembers too much but I hope yours doesn’t. I hope all that’s happened to you in the last year is that you’ve annoyed people on social media by talking too much about learning to make bread. I hope when you’re tired, you can sleep.

In the vast plural, we can maybe convince ourselves that tragedy— which is another word for the events of history—is something we can live with, but when it gets down to the singular it is unbearable. At the level of one name at a time, at the truth of it, it becomes the desire to send a text to someone I haven’t spoken to in years, just to know if they’re ok. I guess what we hope for about history mostly is that our loved ones are as removed from it as possible. I hope no one is the main character. I hope no one is ever on TV. I hope no one ever tweets. I hope if this were a movie you wouldn’t even be a character in it at all. I hope those other people who hated me still love you. 

These differences in size, the small story and the large one, make me aware once again how selfish everything about love is, or at least the version of it that I am most familiar with, the one I lapse into without trying, when I’m tired and sad and it’s late at night. I just want everyone I have ever kissed out of the range of the blast. It is 2012 and 2014 and 2016 and 2017 and 2020 and when the worst things happen or on very rare occasions when a good thing happens, I think about everyone I otherwise no longer think about. 

Last Wednesday I watched CNN for eight or nine hours straight, until the numbing noise of it felt like it was boring a hole in my brain. Nothing is universalizing but watching CNN all day makes me feel like everybody else is watching CNN too, like in a movie where they show people on city streets from one city to another and their faces all turn upwards the same way to look at the same thing. Those movies are usually about the world ending in some fun and wild and colorful way, like monsters or aliens or a rock from outer space or something, not the dull bureaucracies and ongoing embarrassments and absolutely petty grinding atrocities of the way ours is ending. When I used to go to the airport for very early morning flights, network TV would often be on near the gate. The sound of it, always the same casual and authoritative drone no matter the topic or speaker, was soothing in a way that might have made me queasy and suspicious at an hour other than 5am. It took me back to mornings in childhood, the comforts of broadcast media and the monoculture of the 1990s, everyone listening to the same station on the radio. It sounded like a time when I was still too young to recognize anything beyond myself and my immediate loved ones, before I knew anything existed outside of what the light I happened to be standing in illuminated. The news was a distant background hum, the underscore of adult voices, talking about what someone else was going to do today. 

I remember when certain parts of the internet were still small and new and unimportant enough that people— it wasn’t everyone but it seemed like everyone— would go online at once and livetweet an episode of a TV show, because TV shows still aired at a single set time and that time was a collective event. It made the world feel as small as a house party, all the splintered off groups of gossip reforming as a single crowd if something big enough happens. Everyone agreeing on what mattered. That shared campfire sense of everyone watching the same Mad Men episode happens a lot now. The new version is sicker and more concrete; we aren’t live tweeting TV anymore, or when we are, it’s the news. 

Even when I would rather not be, it makes me feel connected to people I no longer know who were once central in my life. For all I know my exes and everyone else I stopped talking to all may have changed beyond recognition. The likelihood is that they have; that’s what people generally do, even when they don’t mean to do it. But when the big tidal waves of history come I convince myself that each of these people has remained so frozen in time that I can predict and sketch their reactions. For a minute everything comes back and it is like knowing everyone again, as though I have made no mistakes and never lost anyone and nothing has changed, as though time is optional, and redeemable, the pushpins and strings of history collected into a small handful, everything at once and no consequences. Here’s what you would do, here’s what you would think, here’s how you would be wrong, here’s why you would still be safe. Everyone in the movie in each different city on each different street turning their face upward to look at the same approaching shadow overhead. 

"May you live in interesting times" as a curse is a way of saying "may you stand close to history." There is nothing like a big historical event to remind us that love left uninterrogated is almost always myopic; I want everyone I have ever cared about, even the people I hate now, to be standing as far from history as possible. I imagine everyone on couches, I imagine everyone soft and cowardly and warm and living into old age. I imagine nothing collapses. I imagine we all get out in time. My personal histories are small and craven and mercenary and unheroic; just let all the people whose phone numbers I have ever had memorized be untouched by this. Just let everyone go inside, and sit on their couches, and stare at the television and at their phones, where, somewhere far away, something is happening.

happy middle of the night. if you enjoyed this and want to read more, I’d love it if you subscribed, or even told some friends about it and encouraged them to subscribe. normally these go out to everybody on late wednesday nights, but, you know, it’s been a weird week. on monday, we had our first open thread for paying subscribers, which was really fun and kind of like a throwback to an older and maybe better internet—subscribe to check it out here. I’m thinking right now that those threads will be on mondays, posts for everybody will be on wednesdays, and posts only for paying subscribers will be on either friday or saturday (or sunday morning?) but I haven’t decided which one yet— if you’re a subscriber and have a preference here, email me and let me know. posts coming this month about thomas cromwell and my total inability to read even one whole book last year, indoor jeans, conversation pits, maybe more stuff about how much I hate my couch and why, personal essays and the concept of confession, other stuff, weird recommendations, large moods, change, rebirth, new beginnings, january, pictures of cats probably. as always, if you want to subscribe but can’t afford it, just email me. I hope you’re making it through this week/month/whatever it is as best you can. xo