Chinese Satellites

Until last Friday, I had never seen a shooting star.

I thought I’d seen shooting stars. A few, at least. Over the years, I’d look up and maybe see something flash from the side of my vision, just out of focus. I’d think, “Sure, that was probably a shooting star,” and then I’d move on. I’d go back to what I was doing.

August 2021: Chinese Satellites

  • “Rage of Plastics” — U.S. Girls
  • “Gold Soundz!” — Bomb the Music Industry!
  • “EPMD 2” — Nas (w/ EPMD & Eminem)
  • “Body Rock” — Mos Def, Q-Tip, & Tash
  • “Steam” — Leon Bridges
  • “Distant Mode” — Gary Bartz (w/ Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad)
  • “The Shallow End” — Dead History
  • “A New England” — Billy Bragg
  • “Similak Child” — Black Sheep
  • “Runnin’” — The Pharcyde
  • “Poor Fake” — Kelsey Lu
  • “Stoned at the Nail Salon” — Lorde
  • “Chinese Satellite (Copycat Killer Version)” — Phoebe Bridgers & Rob Moose
  • “Love Letter” — The Easy Access Orchestra
  • “Safety Dance” — Angel Olsen
  • “Alec Eiffel” — The Get Up Kids

Listen on Spotify. Listen on Apple Music.

I didn’t think much of any of these flashes. I figured seeing a shooting star is pretty low stakes, like seeing a black squirrel, or the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile. I certainly never wished on one. I’m not a “wish on a shooting star” kind of person.

But last Friday? I saw a real one. The stakes immediately felt higher.

“I saw two shooting stars last night / I wished on them but they were only satellites / Is it wrong to wish on space hardware / I wish, I wish, I wish you’d care”

The philosophy of shooting stars, if there is such a ridiculous thing, can be summed up in two songs: Billy Bragg’s “A New England” and Phoebe Bridgers’ “Chinese Satellite.” Two songs, pointing in two directions. One blindly wishes and then regrets the mistake. One knows the mistake and begrudgingly wishes. One shoots and misses, one resigns to fate.

I believe, deep in the core of these two directions, there is a kind of balance. When I was younger, I fought to stay relevant. I didn’t understand the ups and downs of creativity and would panic when things had dried up. I had convinced myself that certain tropes were true: that the measure of my work is the measure of my worth, and that people cared more about what I do than who I was. It’s the origin story of this blog — in fact, the namesake quote of both the early versions of this blog and the newly phoenix’d newsletter refers directly to the idea of making something real. To keep wishing, keep swinging.

In the last decade, I’ve been more selective. Selective in what I consider worth my time, sure: I’ve stopped frantically wishing on every flash in the sky. But, also, I’ve been okay with good enough. I’ve thought, “Yeah. That will do for now.” It’s a relaxed tiredness. An understanding that real might matter, but it’s not the only thing. There are times when a knock-off is acceptable.

How we determine these boundaries — how we decide what’s real and important and what’s very whatever, honestly — this is, I hope, a measure of maturity. I envy those confident enough to not worry about perfection — or, more to the point, those who understand when perfection matters. Who don’t riddle themselves with anxiety over some kind of unattainable measure.

I work in a nuanced industry. The web is filled with pedantry and gatekeeping. It’s also filled with good people, and as I’ve grown as a person I’ve also grown to understand that it’s not a matter of which stars are real, but in which cases it even matters. The people who have stayed brightest in my life are those who balance skill with kindness — mentors who care less about whether something is right and more about whether something is good.

“Took a tour to see the stars / But they weren’t out tonight / So I wished hard on a Chinese satellite.”

My friend Jim often answers questions with a simple phrase: “Whatever’s right.”

It’s a way to accept the need for a decision without investing too much in the answer. Because not everything needs a solid answer. “Whatever’s right” sometimes feels dismissive. It’s not; it’s inclusive — it’s not about yes or no, or acceptance, or disapproval. It’s about being cool with whatever. It’s not about what’s “right.” It’s about what’s right for you.

When I saw that shooting star last Friday, a switch flipped. I knew what a shooting star actually looked like, and I knew that I had finally seen one, and I knew that every shooting star I’d seen in the past might have been something completely different. I saw a second of success. I also saw years of mistaken identity, all at once.

Isaac was next to me, watching with us. At twelve years old, he also hadn’t seen a shooting star. He still hasn’t: he wasn’t looking when mine burned through the sky. I’m still not a “wish on a shooting star” kind of person, but at that moment I wished for another. A real one.

Maybe I wanted him to have that frame of reference, to know for certain. To know they’re real. To save him the resignation of wishing on satellites.

Instead, we eventually gave up. The stakes were low for him, too. We shook it off and let it fall away. Next time. Not today.

We got up and went to bed. Whatever’s right.

This was lovingly handwritten on August 27th, 2021