It’s Like with the Korean Skyscraper

by Ryan Sayre

Galloping_gertie_500px Though last month’s Virginia earthquake was felt as far north as New Brunswick, many of us up the Eastern Seaboard between thereabouts and Virginia were left sorely disappointed to have been entirely passed over by this rare event. Of course, for many of us, any early afternoon ground disturbance was dutifully pegged by our subconscious as construction, a passing truck, maybe a passing spell of vertigo, and then unceremoniously shuttled off to that compartment of the brain reserved for non-events and non-memories. The source of disappoint for those of us driving in cars or mowing our lawns tuesday afternoon was something akin to that felt by Major Chichester-Smith who, engaged in a wrestling match with a Yokohama bound train’s lavatory faucet at two minutes to noon on Sept. 1, 1923, was surely the only person in the whole of Tokyo not to have felt the magnitude 7.9, Great Kanto Earthquake. While, thankfully, we can’t share in the Major’s surprise at disembarking from a mode of conveyance only to be looking over a city mysteriously transfigured into total ruin, those of us who were bouncing down the road or off on a jog the Tuesday before last have it well within our rights to assert along with the Major that we failed to notice the earthquake only because we were already at the epicenter of its essence: ‘shaking.’

Watching television in Japan a few days after the recent Tohoku Earthquake, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out if the old woman being interviewed was referring to the wobbling of the earth or her wobbly legs when she was discussing the ceaseless shaking she was experiencing. Japanese doesn’t so readily permit such self-indulgent distinctions as the one between subject and object. When hurricane Irene made her way up the coast last week, a reporter enjoined: “Tweet me damage stories.” One response lent a respect to the appeal rivaled only by the level of cheek it displayed to the reporter doing the requesting. It read: “My dad left us when I was six.” Finding common chemistry with this flip tweet and with the indefinite language of the ceaselessly shaking Japanese woman, my second grade desk mate stood up in class one day to announce that he was going to be a jockey when he grew up. Our teacher matched his enthusiasm with kind curiosity, “Are you going to be a horse jockey or a disk jockey?” Caught off guard, Jeremy looked around before sheepishly admitting, “I’m just not sure yet.” Which was it? Was he drawn in by the idea of breaking of records or spinning them; leaning into a tight turn or leaning over a turntable? Was it the grooves of black vinyl that set his heart pounding or the shallow brown furrows cut into the inside lane? Jeremy was an undifferentiated track over which hoof beats and backbeats traveled in sync.

There’s fraternity between the shaking off of a cold and the shaking of a ketchup bottle, between a milkshake and the shake of the head. A firm handshake ties a knot across separate domains. Observe any dog and its owner for even a short stretch of time and you’ll need no further evidence that two entities, when brought together, quickly become caricatures of, participants with, and minglings composed of one another. This is not a mere aspect of our mental lives but the general inclusivity buried within things. Its an inclusivity that sends us untroubled from one shaky premise to the next, reminding us always to lean hard in the opposite direction when our bowling ball is headed for the gutter, and enabling us to make a pretty good life of it all.

A friend called a few weeks ago to tell me about a skyscraper that had to be evacuated after an earthquake in Seoul. For ten minutes the building made wide metronomic swings. Thing was, there had been no earthquake registered in the area. It was a mysteriously super local event. After a two-week investigation, the epicenter had been narrowed down to the building's twelfth floor gym where the side kicking, upper-cutting, and fist-jabbing of seventeen middle-aged Korean women boxercising to Snap’s 1990s hit “I’ve got the Power” seemed somehow to have hit the building’s resonant frequency, sending the whole structure into convulsions. Surely the gods thought they were doing Seoul’s Technomart a good turn when, at the beginning of time, they decided out of all possible pasts and futures, for this building’s Achilles’ heel to be the improbably collection of seventeen Korean women on the wrong side of forty paired with 1990s American infomercial exercise culture.

While a mingling of domains might have us by the scruff, everything is at the same time also a vibrating entity, a wine glass within itself composed of its own unique physical parameters offered out into the word with the tap of a spoon and threatening to burst into a million pieces when that same offering is reciprocated by the opera singer. Resonance in a thing is its sheer closeness to itself; a closeness that rips things asunder from the inside out.

Later in that telephone conversation with my friend, shortly after the topic of discussion had shifted to relationships, she suddenly and without apparent cause, began to cry. She assured me that nothing I had said had hurt her feelings, but that the conversation had just hit her somewhere close; she didn’t quite know why or how. “It’s like with the Korean skyscraper,” she explained. We had tripped upon her frequency, her cipher and secret and she was sent twisting and ribboning precariously over the phone line like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, that stretch of suspended road which in 1940 hurled itself into the river below it. I tried to slacken things, to reduce the tension with a story of amplification, with another Korean skyscraper. I told her how I had witnessed a man in the West Village just the week before hit upon his unique resonant frequency and tear himself to psychic shreds in full display on Houston Street. “Stop talking about me when you go home tonight! Stop it!” he yelled over and over. “Stop talking about me over the dinner table tonight!” To not mention this all to the friends whom I was heading off to meet for dinner would have been well nigh impossible. To keep mum and thus to void his prophesy was out of the question. He was caught in a feedback loop of his own making and was pulling everybody in the vicinity deep into the maelstrom. This crazed man was certain that we’d be talking about him later, laughing about him with loved ones. And he was dead right. He’d hit upon a frequency of humiliation in spectatorship that amplified with each protestation he tried to make.

Like seventeen out-of-shape Korean women on the twelfth floor of Seoul’s Technomart skyscraper, some tiny kernel was shaking my friend’s edifice. I felt like Nicola Tesla when in 1898 the police rushed into his laboratory to inform him that one of his experiments in resonant frequency seems to have gone amok and was causing the entire Lower West Side to shake. Rummage around in my mental laboratory though I did, there was no verbal analog in my stockpile to the sledgehammer which Tesla quickly took in hand and smashed his device to bits. Resonance works from the inside out. It’s slight and generally hard to stop once it gets going. Forget Archimedes who claimed that, with a lever large enough and a fulcrum strong enough, he could lift the world. Tesla’s work always centered on harnessing the enormous energy latent in our milieu. Many years later he would boast that his tiny oscillator (so tiny it could fit in an overcoat pocket), if connected to a beam of the Brooklyn Bridge or the Empire State Building, could reduce them to rubble within an hour’s time. He claimed further that with a ton of dynamite detonated at a certain resonance-interval he could split the earth clean in two. After a fashion, we are all Teslas of social life. All it takes is to hit the right resonance and in conversation and one’s world can be split like a watermellon.

With resonant frequency, the amplificatory echoing of the same, things just can’t help but to fall apart. This is rare, however and we live in a world where things generally can’t help but to naively fall together. A few years back, my mother, told me about a student in her second grade class who approached her at the end of class one day with a handful of the paper pennies they'd been counting in math class. “I’d like to take mine home,” he said. “Why do you want to do that?” “I’d like to put them in the collection plate at church,” he told her. “Well, Ben, these aren't real pennies, they're just paper pennies.” Ben looked to his feet with what I can only imagine to be the same slow, shy expression of my own second grade desk mate so many years ago. Still looking down, and in such a way that you could almost hear the loud metallic clanking of the paper pennies as they hit the bottom of the collection plate he said, “well that's ok, I'd still like to do it anyway.”