On the Old Apartment Rule

I wholly support the Old Apartment Rule, partly because I’ve had the good fortune to experience it.  For about half of the decade that I lived in New York City, I made my home in a tiny sixth floor tenement walk-up on Houston Street.  I first lived there for four years from ’95 – ’99, and in ’97 I got a roommate named Slink from Chicago.  I got him on the lease after I moved out, and he has stayed there ever since, although he now uses it for only a few nights a week when he commutes in from a home in upstate New York.  (It’s behind the two top left windows in the building on the right below.) The Pad

Thanks to Slink, I have continued to return to this apartment on periodic trips to New York, including a year-long stint living there again in my final year in NYC (during this year we formed a band called The Pad whose entire repertoire was songs about the apartment), and I’ve seen it go through a remarkable number of manifestations: as an art gallery, a fashion designer’s studio, a recording studio, a go-go dancer’s lair, etc.  (Just your typical Lower East Side progression — remember that we’re talking about 400 square feet here at best.)  I am always extremely grateful at the opportunity to return, and particularly to get onto the roof and see Manhattan through 20-something eyes again.


This was designed in 1898 by Henri Van De Velde, the Beligan painter, architect, teacher, theorist and all-around design polymath. It was – and this simply amazes me – the only poster he ever created in his career:


Confronted with the task of developing a creative design for Tropon, a food concentrate company, he somehow abstracted the whole idea of concentrate food into these amazing egg-yoke-meets-venus flytrap-meets-totally-abstract-shape-meets-art noveau-meets-sci-fi things. And then, the beautiful hand type, all wrapped up in a little maze of lines. It actually makes me embarrassed for my post about the boring tax project, given how much the artist accomplishes here with so little to work from.

Warehouse of lost stuff

jest1221365735In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the main character has an attack of existential dread where he envisions a giant room containing all the food he will ever eat in his life (it’s basically a visualization of the fact that we’re all organic, decaying, mortal creatures on this earth, etc etc.)

I prefer a breezier version of this idea. I think each of us is haunted by the memory of a prized possession that we somehow lost or even gave away in moment of crazed misjudgment. My list includes, among other things, a few choice and irreplaceable cassette tapes (tapes always seemed expressly designed to break your heart by either getting lost or getting eaten) and several items of clothing, some old drawings, a few vinyls, and so forth. I like the idea of a giant warehouse that contains everything you’ve ever lost or regrettably given away. You have 30 minutes to root through the warehouse and take with you anything you can find. But, the challenge lies in rooting out the prized possessions from all the piles of random junk that you didn’t care about then and don’t care about now. The most pernicious thing would be the temptation to yield to distraction– imagine all the crazy random mementos you would stumble on, and how hard it would be to keep focused on your laundry list of a few prized items that you’re intent on finding.

Now and then

Last week, I was lamenting the prudishness of this blog, its lack of sexual content, and the torrent of web traffic and popular acclaim that that’s no doubt cost me. Well, those days are over. Via the New Yorker (OK, still kind of prudish) comes this fantastic comparison of the drawings in the original 1972 Joy of Sex with the newfangled versions released in the new “ultimate revised edition.”


If you’re an American aged 30-40, you at some point stumbled as a child onto the original book in a friend’s parents’ book shelf, whereupon the illustrations instantly became lasered into your brain for the rest of eternity. If you’re of this demographic, it’s a little jarring to see the new drawings.

Of the four participants, Seventies Woman is definitely my favorite. Seventies Man looks, in the words of the New Yorker reviewer Ariel Levy, “like a werewolf with a hangover”. Meanwhile, Modern Woman and Man have this weird antiseptic progressive quality that I associate with episodes of Star Trek The Next Generation when they beam down to some planet where there’s a blandly utopian, futuristic human community living. Ho hum. One can only draw worrisome conclusions about where we’re headed as a culture.

The palette cleanser

mennenIn 31 Songs, Nick Hornby writes about catchy songs that get stuck in our heads:

Dave Eggers has a theory that we play songs over and over, those of us who do, because we have to ‘solve’ them, and it’s true that in our early relationship with, and courtship of, a new song, there is a state which is akin to a sort of emotional puzzlement.

This is a nice analogy, and nicely stated. Still, I’m more inclined to think about this phenomenon of songs getting stuck in our head in sensationalized medical terms: the song is like a alien body that infects us (albeit pleasantly, though maddeningly at times) with curiosity. Over time, the mind develops a resistance or tolerance (boredom, basically) to the alien body as we become accustomed to it that eventually forces it out.

So what, then, to make of the situations where this comparison is more accurate than we’d like and the song that gets stuck in our head is really something unwanted and annoying, and how do we get rid of it? Until a few years ago, I would turn in desperation to the Meow Mix song (‘meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow’), confident that it would blot out anything that was running through my head. Of course, the Meow Mix song then has a strong chance of getting lodged in your head instead, which is basically like trading heroin for methadone. Then, a few years ago, someone introduced me to the magical properties of the Mennen deodorant tagline jingle, ‘Byyyyy …. MEN-NEN,’ which somehow acts as a palette cleanser: it manages to clear out whatever is stuck in your head without getting rooted there itself. In the medicine analogy, it’s like Ambien or one of those other wonder drugs that makes you sleepy but politely packs up and clears out of your brain when you want to be alert again.

When design isn't sexy

One thing about design is that it’s a lot easier to make a logo for a film production company, an architecture firm or some cool record label than it is for an insurance group, a box manufacturer, or Hypercompuglobalmegamart. As a result, we’re always showcasing work we’ve done for more interesting clients, whereas the work we’ve done in the trenches- to salvage something visually interesting out of something conceptually barren- is generally glossed over, even when it often involves more creativity and persistence.

This is one of my favorite things I’ve done for a boring project. It was a proposed logo for a tax training program run by one of the major international accounting firms (I won’t say which one because I’d rather that the client not accidently Google this post, but I think you can guess who it is if you have any familiarity with the brand). What could be less promising than that?


The old apartment rule

This evening I had dinner with a friend who just bought a new car and consequently sold his former car, a dilapidated old second-hand BWM that had become totally unreliable. He described poignantly how sad it was to part with the old car, despite how much he’s enjoying having a new one. The sense of finality, of parting with an old friend, etc. I compared it to the dislocating feeling when you move out of a flat you’ve lived in for a few years, hand over the keys and just walk away.

I think it would be nice if there was an agreed-upon social convention whereupon you could show up at an apartment you had lived in before, explain that you were a previous resident and reasonably expect to be shown around for a few quick minutes. Not as some strange favor, but simply as a quirk of agreed-upon social convention.


Clarion Alley, San Francisco. This was the back exit of my old apartment on Sycamore Alley.

4 recent favorite quotes

1. “My poems may offend the dead, but the dead belong to me.” (Unknown)

2. “Everything ends badly, or it wouldn’t end at all” – Tom Cruise movie Cocktail

3. “In the war between the grasses and the trees, humans have greatly helped out on the side of the grasses.” (Unknown)

4. “There’s no I in ‘team’ but there is one in ‘win’.” – Michael Jordan

Edit: reader SP points out that quote 3 is Michael Pollan. And she should know, as I nicked the quote from her.

Robot Doubles

radio_shack1Spring is always the most listless semester in my teaching gig. Energy is low, weather is good, and class attendance basically collapses once the beer gardens open in mid-April. One weeknight not long ago, I was feeling uninspired to teach one of my more droopy classes, and remembered my robot doubles concept from many years ago:

Let’s say that everyone had (or could easily purchase, at least) a robot double that looks almost exactly like you and has about 70% of your mental capabilities. You could send your Robo off to take care of minor errands for you (say, picking up a package from the post office) and be pretty confident that he/she would be up for the task. There would probably be legalese written into many social transactions that forbid people from sending their Robos on their behalf and maybe even ‘No Robos’ stickers on certain storefronts (the DMV, for instance), but for the most part you could be confident that nobody would notice the switch.

But the question would be whether you would dare to send your Robo off to deal with more complex and critical tasks. I imagine people getting busted periodically for sending their Robo to work for them while they stayed home and slept in. In extreme cases, faltering marriages would collapse when one already-jaded partner detected that their husband or wife had sent their Robo home to deal with them so they could sit in a bar or have an affair. The Robo problem would crop up especially in school– I can almost imagine certain students of mine trying to pass off deficient robotic doubles of themselves if they had the chance. But then again, they also might notice that the person teaching them was, in fact, a Robo. The real question would be whether our Robos would be capable of detecting other Robos, and if so whether they would inform their Humans, or whether they would instead form a tacit alliance to keep it a secret among themselves.