A day in the life


There are two parties in history I badly wish I could have been invited to. The first one is fictional and takes place at the end of Mrs. Dalloway. The book happens over the course of a single day, mostly surrounding Clarissa, her wandering memories, and party preparations. Woolf lets us float by the minds of characters like Septimus, a first World War veteren suffering from traumatic stress, and Peter Walsch, an old lover and friend.


The party is sacred to Clarissa. It’s the least and most important thing. The men in her life don’t understand why she’s entirely preoccupied with the ritual. I empathized with Clarissa, and thought of the party as a moment of perfect unity that she felt she could offer to the world, because she didn’t have particular talents, or a profession. She was good at choosing flowers, though, and bunching up the fabric of a day so that it could feel like more than just passing time.


The second party wasn’t billed as a party, but must have felt like one. In the late 60’s, after the Beatles wrote A Day in the Life, they recorded the song with a 41-piece orchestra. Paul asked everyone to come dressed in formalwear, and the musicians were handed things like fake noses and silly hats when they walked in. Apparently the psychedelic crescendo you hear twice, once after the second verse, then another time at the end of the song, was intended to be improvised. George Martin directed everyone to start from the lowest note of their instrument and play all the way up to the highest.


They couldn’t do it. In the end, Martin had to write out the score himself, an ode to the end of the world. I love this anecdote of planned chaos and how the results arrest us, much like a Kandinsky painting, much like a perfect party. All four Beatles and George Martin banged on three pianos to produce the final chord together.


A Day in the Life is considered to be one of the best Beatles songs, even one of the best songs ever. What’s it about? There’s a deadly car crash, four thousand potholes that need to be filled, a man getting out of bed. There’s war, too. This confluence of the mundane, absurd, and real actual tragedy is what makes me relate the song to Virginia Woolf. Lennon wrote the first line, “I read the news today oh boy,” while looking at a copy of the Daily Mail propped up on his piano.


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Maybe there’s no such thing as a day in the life, and if there was, you wouldn’t have remembered to write it down. We demand special things, someone to bunch up the fabric for us, or make a really grand plan. Sometimes we’re George Martin and other times we’re the guy reading his sheet music. It’s not always easy to tell who’s driving, though.


I’m going to spoil one of my favorite video games for you, in a protracted example of when you can’t tell if you’re driving. It’s called Emily is Away, and is played entirely through an A.I.M. chat with your friend Emily. It spans from senior year to college, and you talk about blink-182, whether or not you’ll go to Travis’s party, and how Emily should respond to Brad’s advances. You’re given three choices of how to reply every time, and the game warns you when they have consequences by flashing “Emily will remember this” under the chat. You can choose to console or deride when she and Brad split, and you decide what to do or what not to do when she comes and visits for the weekend.


It’s not until the end of the game, when the two of you are finally about to face your feelings for each other dead-on, that choices a, b, and c become increasingly terrible. All paths begin to lead to the same response options, and you realize it’s impossible to tell Emily how you really feel. The game even simulates the act of typing out a confession, then backspacing and refilling the chat with a non-answer. I was shocked the first time I played it. It couldn’t have occurred to me that I never had any control over the ending. The indie internet screamed about it.


Here’s a second, more direct example of when you can’t tell who’s driving. On Halloween, we were at Ocean Beach, and Amelia pointed up to a flight of birds. She sighed, said it was sometimes exhausting to live and make choices. How it would be a relief if we could just follow a flock. Eric then asked her what the aliens must think about our pathetic little version of free will, when they look down at rush hour traffic patterns.


Thinking about how the aliens see us never gets old. I was reading an article in National Geographic about a study from 2017. Two astronomers, Svetlana and Jeff, outlined how they could map the surface of alien planets from light-years away. They’d need a 130-foot telescope.


As a proof-of-concept, the astronomers simulated images of how aliens pointing the telescope at us would see Earth. When they analyzed the light curves, they could identify which parameters corresponded to land and cloud cover. Basically, they’d use images of what Earth looks like from far away to understand how other signs of life in the universe should appear to us. I originally misread this article, entitled “How Aliens Could Detect Life on Earth,” and thought that the entire purpose of the study was to build the alien telescope and see ourselves as they would.


The thing is, I wasn’t that far off. I think we’re still always looking around for mirrors. Remember the Voyager Golden Records? In ‘77 we sent two phonograph records of Earth into space. There’s Bach, Goro Yamaguchi, a photo of a woman in a grocery store. Jimmy Carter called it “a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings.” He declared, “we are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.”


What? Imagine receiving a record from 25 trillion miles away and just thinking dude, we don’t want to hear your playlist. One of the first Youtube comments on the Golden Records recording is “should’ve just sent the Beatles.” Rumor has it that Carl Sagan wanted to include “Here Comes the Sun”, but EMI Records refused.


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We demand to be known and we beg to be seen. The impossibility of knowing another person, no matter how close they are to you, is one of the themes of Mrs. Dalloway. Throughout the book, Peter and Clarissa reminisce separately about each other, meet briefly in real life, part ways again and continue to ruminate. Peter repeatedly tries to explain Clarissa back to himself, but his concluding thought (and the last line in the book) is “there she was.” She just was.


I’m starting to think that all someone can truly understand about you is the mess of impressions you have to offer. Your collection of things: your flowers, your playlist, a party, a thousand potholes. The light curves someone could glean from their alien telescope.


Why is any of this important? Why do we need to be known, and have our lives read back to us? It probably has to do with death. I love this poem called “The Sensual World” by Louise Gluck. In it, she says


"Earth will seduce you, slowly, imperceptibly,

subtly, not to say with connivance.

I was not prepared."


Then she recounts watching her grandmother stew summer fruit as a child. She was about sixty when she wrote this, and much of the book discusses aging and reckoning with the passage of time.


"...it will feed you, it will ravish you,

it will not keep you alive."


We’ll never be satisfied, we’ll always be feeding. Our senses can’t save us, but they’ll be loyal until we depart. During Clarissa’s party, news arrives that Septimus, the war veteren, has committed suicide by jumping out of his window. At first she’s upset that death should dare make an appearance at her party, but later in a moment of reflection, she identifies with Septimus and actually admires him for preserving the purity of his happiness. Plus, his death renders her party all the more extravagant. None of us know how the end will come, but we can use its looming promise to reframe the days of our lives, to give them urgency and color.


One more thing: The very very end of “A Day in the Life” comes about 45 seconds after the final chord, when a high-pitched, maniacal voice starts chanting “NEVER COULD BE ANY OTHER WAY” on a loop. It’s creepy and surprising. Paul McCartney said that at parties in the 60s, most people would be so drunk or stoned that records would tick until they reached the outer loop. So unless they wanted to keep hearing the nonsense at the end of the Sgt. Pepper’s, they had to stand up and change it.


It’s as if the Beatles are imploring us to wake up and drive. What makes it better is that the snippet recorded while the band was messing around at a party. When the end of the world comes, surely it’ll just sound like another day in the life.




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