The out-of-towners

Kind of jumpy today in the New York Public Library at 42nd Street. In the midafternoon, the fire alarm sounded. And sounded and sounded. The siren is accompanied by strobe lights, which make it hard to ignore. No one got on the intercom to say it was a test, so I unplugged my laptop. A ten-year-old with hunched shoulders tried to enter the room that a group of us were leaving, did a 180 when he realized it wasn’t an exit, then raced down the stairs ahead of us.

In fact, it was a test, but the guard at the door had to make a few hurried phone calls before we were reassured. “It’s for next week,” the guard explained.

It was very next week on 42nd street today: lots of cautious-looking middle-aged couples, blandly dressed. Their clothes didn’t have the flashiness or shoddiness of real tourists, and their gait lacked the intensity of native New Yorkers, who glared at them. I was glared at once, too, probably because I had made the mistake of putting on a blue permanent press Brooks Brothers shirt this morning. It wasn’t until I got on the subway to go home that I saw a scruffy college-age person, bearing a backpack a foot and a half taller than he was and struggling with a Metrocard vending machine.

Shallow background

A few weeks ago, I bought a T-shirt from American Apparel, a company that disavows sweatshops. In the vitrine of their store in Nolita, they were then featuring a Florida voting booth from the 2000 presidential election, complete with the confusing “Do you know whether you’re voting for Buchanan or Gore?” booklet. It may still be there, for all I know.

So a detail in a photo of Benjamin L. Ginsberg on page A24 of this morning’s New York Times caught my eye. Yesterday Ginsberg resigned from Bush’s reelection campaign, where he had been the chief legal counsel, because it turns out that he’s also the legal adviser for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, so-called. In the photo, to his left and the viewer’s right, is something that looks like an oversize TV dinner, opened on a tray table. I could be wrong–I can’t find an online photo to confirm my hunch–but I’m pretty sure it’s a Florida voting booth from the 2000 presidential election. Cute, huh?

[Note: I didn’t want to see the gentleman’s face anymore, so I’ve turned the photo into a link.]

Phony beetlemania

This appeared on our kitchen counter as I was cleaning up tonight. In real life it was much smaller, only about a third of the width of my thumbnail. It was somehow too interesting-looking for me to squash it, so I took a picture and contrived to sweep it out the window. Then I panicked and wondered whether I might have wrongfully spared the life of an Asian longhorned beetle. They’ve been spotted recently in Brooklyn (there’s a fantastically alarming Bug Wanted poster here). I don’t think it is, upon reflection–wrong color–but it doesn’t really look like any of its beetle rivals, either. But that’s probably because the people over at the forestry department are relying on the public’s ability to disciminate between a black beetle and a green one on their own.


In their affect, rock songs are composed of loss, fight, and sugar. I am leaving musicianship out of the question here, which is to leave everything out, I realize, but I’m playing incantatory intellectual right now, and incantatory intellectuals do this sort of thing.

I do not assert that every rock song must have all three elements. But I do assert that if it lacks one, the absence will be felt. By inspection, since rock songs contain both loss and fight, to the extent that they mourn, it is incomplete mourning. They are not reconciled. If the singer is sad because a lover has left, one must have at least the suspicion that the singer would sleep with him again anyway, if it could be arranged, loss of face be damned. Or would take another hit. Or play with your heart.

The sugar is vital. The problem with Britney Spears’s “Oops, I Did It Again,” insofar as there is any problem at all, is not the sugar. Rock can never be too saccharine. Is there anything sweeter than, say, the chorus of Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”?

Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
We know Major Tom’s a junky
Strung out on heaven’s high
Hitting an all-time low

The problem with “Oops” is that it is not clear that the loss is real, or that if it is real, that she feels it. In fact, we’re pretty sure she doesn’t. But the song works because we appreciate the loss even if she doesn’t. And you know, on second thought, perhaps she does.

Now, in composing a mix tape, the trick is to monitor the fluctuations of loss, fight, and sugar from song to song. At its best, one should proceed like an artful diabetic dosing himself with insulin, such that the variances are not too abrupt, but not wholly without interest, either. On a five-point scale, for example, one might rate the loss in Hem’s “When I Was Drinking” at 5, the fight at 2, and the sugar at 5. To abbreviate, its profile is 5-2-5. You want to follow it with a song that varies from all of these elements, but not suddenly. For example, you could move to a song with a profile of 4-3-4, such as Ben Kweller’s “Different But the Same,” still fairly wistful but with noticeably more pep. Stepping up a degree in two out of three categories, you might next choose a 5-4-4 song, such as “Lost in the Supermarket,” by the Clash. Melancholy critique of late capitalism, with an accelerating drumbeat: high loss, high fight. You’re nearly peaking, so you should next back down to the Lucksmiths’ “I Prefer the Twentieth Century,” which, because it mourns a century, a rather abstract loss but nonetheless an irrevocable one, clocks in at a milder 4-2-5.

If we graph these progressions, we arrive at the following:

Fight is shown in red, loss in blue, and sugar in green. One might imagine constructing a mix in which the curve of fight mounted steadily, while that of loss oscillated on a sine curve and that of sugar trilled steadily in the upper registers of 4 and 5 consistently. Or a mix in which loss had a sudden onset but tapered off, while fight rose and subsided, and at last only sugar remained.

I trust that I have given a sufficient sketch here of the science behind playlists. The boyfriend asks, “Does it work, though?” Sheesh. For the record, I don’t personally believe anything I’ve written here, except the first line. And also for the record, the complete playlist under discussion is as follows:

1. Brendan Benson, “Me Just Purely”
2. Ed Harcourt, “Birds Fly Backwards”
3. Britney Spears, “Oops I Did It Again”
4. Fountains of Wayne, “Barbara H.”
5. David Bowie, “Ashes to Ashes”
6. Hem, “When I Was Drinking”
7. Ben Kweller, “Different but the Same”
8. The Clash, “Lost in the Supermarket”
9. The Lucksmiths, “I Prefer the Twentieth Century”
10. Evan Dando, “My Drug Buddy (feat. Juliana Hatfield)”
11. Weezer, “Say It Ain’t So”
12. Liz Phair, “Polyester Bride”
13. Sloan, “The Lines You Amend”