My hometown's library was named the Herndon Fortnightly, after the mutual improvement club that founded it in the early 20th century. When I was young, I joined Mom every time she needed to return library books, because I loved the building so much. It was two rooms, each with a fireplace, and kitchen and office space behind the circulation desk. Built back in 1927, the library had wobbly, creaky floorboards, a sag in some of the doorways, and that perfect smell of paper, board, and glue.
'Fortnightly' is an outdated word nobody uses unless they're being arch, but it's also a word I learned early, and so my heart's long had a soft spot for anything occurring every two weeks. As happened quickly with The New Yinzer, I've begun wondering whether a fortnightly publishing schedule is too rapid. Is a monthly Shenny better? I'm not taking an informal poll here so much as sharing what's on my mind as this newsletter experiment develops. Plus, the Main Matter this week is long, so I want to keep this letter brief.
I leave Santa Monica today, and I don't want to.
1. Rhea Seehorn
Kim Wexler—the character Rhea Seehorn plays in Better Call Saul, which I've been watching every day in Santa Monica—is from Red Cloud, Nebraska, which Shenny's Nebraskan subscribers will recognize as the hometown of Willa Cather. (Well, the town she moved to after growing up, like me, in Virginia.) It's apt, in that Cather is underrated as a U.S. modernist the way Seehorn is underrated as an actor. Any time BCS has earned Emmy nods it's to the 4 male leads on the show, and the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild have only ever nominated Bob Odenkirk (who, granted, deserves every award he can get). Seehorn doesn't get a lot of menacing or heartbroken monologues that play well during awards ceremonies; where she shines is in swallowed outrage. I've watched 5.5 seasons of her and I think the word Kim says the most is 'Okay' after some man has said an unjust or selfish thing, or has put forward a rotten idea. When she does explode in anger it's like seeing a goal in soccer.
2. Andrea Lawlor's Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl
I abandoned this book back in 2018, for reasons I touch on in an old blog post about abandoning books. But then I returned to it and just finished it last week, and now I think of it as one of the most important books of the last decade. I wrote a whole blog post on why (linked also below), but in short: Lawlor's novel is queer in form, with a protagonist whose sexuality is less about promiscuity (though anyone would say Paul is that) and more about plenitude. He is to traditional understandings of sex what a fiscal progressive is to scarcity economics.
I Took a Surfing Lesson
When you first stand up on a surfboard, there's a half-second where your body warps to a different space. You're moving in all three dimensions in ways that both are and are not in your control. A dozen things occur there: you use muscle memory to get your feet, ass, chest, and arms in the necessary position to hang loose (if you will); you feel in your hips and legs the board's pivoting on its lateral axis as the wave hits it from the back; you feel a shift of momentum; you fix your eyes on the shoreline; you try to make your surf instructor proud; time slows, did I mention?, which feels like a paradox because it's one half-second stuffed by all of these experiences, thoughts, feelings, and memories, but perhaps it's that stuffedness that aids in the feeling of time slowing; you try to remember to be alive in this half-second, and feel grateful that after a lifetime of wanting to surf, you're here doing it.
Then you warp out of it as you hit the bottom of the wave and do your best to keep riding it in.
Or, at least, this was my experience last week when I took my first surf lesson. I didn't plan to surf while in Santa Monica, but when I started taking walks to and along the beach from this apartment, I'd pass a little hippie VW van with surfers sitting outside it and a sign pasted to a boogie board: SURF LESSONS.
One day, I walked up and asked the two kids if there was a certain day or time of day they'd recommend, as I was here for 3 weeks with a wide-open schedule. The consensus between both: early morning any weekday. 'Okay so like 9, 9:30?' I asked, hopeful. 'More like 7,' they said.
I committed to 7. When I got to the van that morning, there was Tyler sitting in a camp chair. He reached into the back of the van and handed me a clipboard. 'Just need you to sign your life away,' he said in that casual way of tour guides who tell the same jokes to strangers many times a day. I lucked out in that this school, Kapowui Surf Club, was top rated, bonded, certified, all of it. The instructors knew CPR, etc. etc. He gave me a wetsuit to pull on over my swim trunks, and then I watched him wrap a towel around his shorts and stand behind the VW van to drop trou and shimmy the wetsuit up under his towel, and this was such a classic surfer thing to do that I felt a pang of envy. I wanted to be butt naked in my wetsuit, too.
In the earliest sexual fantasy I remember having, I was a surfer. I was maybe 7 or 8, and the scenario was that I had an apartment overlooking the beach. I'd peer through my venetian blinds, watching all the people walk by, looking out for the hottest blonde in a bikini. After a while, I'd find her and then say to my butler, who was waiting in the corner, 'Bring her to me.'
I now find this fantasy very charming, and in writing about it previously, I focused on the voyeurism and selection elements (and of course the presumed heterosexuality). But what's also worth holding onto is my role as a surfer. I didn't even know what sex was back then, but I'd picked up that surfers were sexy, and so to also feel sexy I turned myself into one.
Surfers always looked good shirtless, but more important were the vibes, I think is the right word, that attended every surfer: no worries, hang loose, be with the wave, etc. A surfer got to live every day at the place I felt the happiest every time summer vacation came around, and just like Be A Dude there. Growing up on the East Coast, the closest I got was boogie boarding in the Outer Banks. And then I grew into an indoorsy intellectual who avoided situations where he had to take his shirt off. Maybe it was the ethos of my family, or the friends I grew up among, or perhaps it was just a factor of the time and place I grew up in, but I felt very fixed into roles whose boundaries other kids were quick to police. (We didn't have Stay In Your Lane metaphors, but trust us we would have deployed them.) For most of my life, I understood that there were surfers in the world and I was not one of them.
In the last few years, I've started paying more attention to behavior than identity. 'Creating is more interesting than being,' is how I put it in a recent Instagram post on the imposter syndrome many of my students tell me they feel. A surfer is only a person who surfs, and my whole life I wanted to surf, and last week I let myself be a surfer for a while.
My goal in the 90-minute lesson was to try to ride one wave all the way to the shoreline. I rode 4 waves to the shore, and whomped off the side of the board thrice as many times, which was its own kind of fun. Thinking of trying it out, and you're also a 44-year-old with lower back issues? Expect some tweakings. And some better lingering effects. Six hours later, I still felt the ocean's buoyancy as I napped on the sofa. That night, all my dreams were of surfing. A first.
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