Innocence vs. experience

Pedro the Lion’s song “Penetration” begins

Have you ever seen an idealist with gray hairs on his head?

which reminds me of the passage in Emerson’s lecture “The Transcendentalist” where he says

Talk with a seaman of the hazards to life in his profession, and he will ask you, “Where are the old sailors? do you not see that all are young men?” And we, on this sea of human thought, in like manner inquire, Where are the old idealists?

which reminds me, in turn, of late Melville. Yesterday, on the electronic discussion group ISHMAIL, the scholar Peter Norberg traced the origin of the motto that Melville is said to have kept pasted to his desk at the end of his life,

Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.

It comes from a discussion of Schiller’s play Don Carlos in Madame de Stael’s Germany. Stael reports a favor that one character asks of another, and then adds an observation of her own:

“Remind him,” he says, “when he shall be of riper years,—remind him that he ought to have respect for the dreams of his youth.” In fact, as we advance in life, prudence gains too much upon all our other virtues; it seems as if all warmth of soul were merely folly . . .

After work today, I walked down to the library at 42nd Street, digital camera in pocket, to watch the anarchists rally. On Fifth Avenue, I happened to fall in with them, and I eavesdropped. A young woman asked the young man with a crewcut carrying their furled banner to slow down, because someone in back couldn’t keep up. “You’re six foot one,” she said, “and for every step you take, she has to take, like, four.” He wanted to arrive on time; she accused him of insensitivity. “We’re all adults here,” he defended himself.

I went partly out of curiosity, partly out of remorse at having been out of town during the proper protest on Sunday. Even in my youth—especially in my youth—I wasn’t much of an anarchist. (For the record, that’s understatement.) And I am more or less constitutionally incapable of joining in chants.

Still, it was a spectacle, which I feel conflicted about having fed. Over at n+1, Marco Roth has written, perceptively, that “When you find democracy entertaining, you know you’re a little off the right track—because it suggests you’ve become a spectator of yourself as a participant—similar to watching yourself have sex.” And the photograph that I wanted to take, but which the stutteriness of digital technology more or less defeated, was of the cameras nearly outnumbering the anarchists, surrounding their little bubble of human messiness like the black, lunar probe-shaped viruses that circled a cell and then punctured its membrane in the diagram in my high school biology textbook.

A line of police kept the protesters from returning to the front steps of the library, and the protesters seemed unable to decide whether to turn their backs to the police or to address them. Where was the fourth wall? It didn’t matter; the cameras were everywhere. The protesters shouted, “The whole world is watching,” but the warning wasn’t necessary. The police themselves were videotaping.

Will it hurt the Kerry campaign? The anarchists looked very much like middle America expects them to: tattoos, head scarves, sleeveless T-shirts. After the leader announced a march to Seventh Avenue, there was confusion, and I overheard a credential-wearing photojournalist mutter, “So fucking stupid.” The professionals, in other words, were not impressed.

And there wasn’t a lot of forethought on display. The protesters chose an extremely narrow gate for their exit. The police allowed them and the audience to file out. Then the police unrolled a ribbon of orange mesh and began to charge down the 42nd street sidewalk to clear it. If you haven’t experienced this, it’s sort of civil disobedience meets musical chairs. If the police finish “wrapping” a section of the sidewalk and you’re on the inside of the wrapper when they’re done, you’re arrested. In the one round of the game that I stayed to watch, it was not that hard to escape; maybe it isn’t meant to be. The police seemed mostly to catch photojournalists—players who were disadvantaged, no doubt, by not having looked up from their viewfinders.

I slipped forward along the walkway hidden by hedges that skirts the library’s north side and debouches at the Bryant Street Cafe. There a middle-aged woman rose, drink in hand, to accost a parks employee. “I hear the anarchists have organized a protest on the internet, but how can they do that?” she asked. “If they’re anarchists, how can they organize anything?” She seemed to feel she’d hit on a real stumper.

“They didn’t,” the parks employee answered.

That’s about as much as I witnessed. I think I’m supposed to be more chagrined by the silliness than I am. I see the Times is already calling the incident at the library a “brawl.” The word implies an evenhanded situation, as if the protesters resisted or fought back. They didn’t, from what I observed. They were trying their best to look angry and nonconformist, and their enemies will be happy to see them that way. But it was difficult, in person, not to notice that they were also well-intentioned and hapless—young and imprudent. They seemed full of life.

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”