Friday, June 22, 2018

My Ethnicity

If you know a culture's food and their music, you know the culture. I've milked a lot of mileage out of that truism. I've gone broad, but I also tried to go deep. Most food writers are aloofly inflexible types who behave the same and approach their meal the same wherever they go. They're anthropological astronauts landing, ingesting, and blasting back out again; immutable gaping mouths accepting a range of comestibles neatly taxonimized in their mental database. The Chewmaster 3000.

Even though I'm an influence for some of them, I can't relate at all, having started out as a musician whose manner, mindset, and performance were unrecognizable from gig to gig. My whole thing was always about fitting in like a chameleon, so I'd rather die than stride into a Ghanaian restaurant with the mindset of Whitey McWhitedude. Ecuadorian sopa de camarones isn't just Another Ethnic Soup for me. It's an utterly unique entity redolent of unimaginable joy, poverty and nostalgia. You need to really feel that, and bring it to the experience. You need some frickin' empathy (my smartphone app, Eat Everywhere, can help).

I mean, I am what I am, and I'm neither deluded nor patronizing, so, no, I'm not the asshole who strides into Jamaican places with a rasta hat bellowing "Yah, man!" But if I'm eating Jamaican, that's more than just "ethnic food" to me. It's important. I'm there to nourish my inner Jamaican and to merge. We all contain the cultural stem cells to be anything, and I live to channel this latent potential in every possible direction. I don't even care if anyone notices. I'm not putting on a show, I'm just doing what I need to do.

I've already written about this (see here). Now I want to expand on the idea by noting that there are many levels of blending in, of immersion, of identification with a given slice of the human cultural pie. Sure, I can put on a blazer and eat Crêpes Suzette with good posture (or play chamber music with uptight prigs for a frosty audience) and make it work. I can "pass" in lots of places and in lots of ways. But that's not the very deepest level.

There are a few cultures I identify so strongly with that I feel that I legitimately belong. Here's where I think I stand:

15% African American
10% Latino
10% Mexican
10% Spanish/Catalan
5% Indian
2% Japanese
.1% Newfoundlander

I may not talk or look or act like any of these groups. I may not dress like them or celebrate their holidays. That stuff's all external, and I grew bored with external diversity years ago. I'm interested in the deeper stuff. The mind frame; the perspective; the flavor. I think like them. I dream like them. My speech may not bear the accent, but my silent breath certainly does.

I know I'm really part of a culture (and vice versa) when I can play the music like a native, without the slightest accent. But the post-grad test is to make natives laugh. If I can hit their resonance points, making them laugh - not at universal observations but from their own unique native skew - then I know I'm there. And I can. I can crack up even the most sheltered, provincial person in any of those groups. Of course, the other groups I belong to would respond impassively to those same words, but that's natural. Different stem cells serve different contexts!

In case you missed it, here is the discombobulating tale of a cultural homecoming of my own not long ago.

A curious fact I don't understand, though something tells me it's related: I've had many loved - and liked - ones pass away. I was sorry to see them go, and wish they'd had more time, and remember them fondly, but, for varying reasons, I don't particularly miss the vast majority. I wouldn't use up a genie wish for one last dinner. All the dead people I sorely miss are, for some reason, black. Rest in peace - and come back soon - Walter Perkins, Gwen Cleveland (a bonus!), Major Holley, and Johnny Grimes.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Hard-Working Menders and the Radicalization of the Center

I had an interesting talk this morning with a finance guy who's been working on revitalizing his home town, Detroit. The thing is, if you delve into tough municipal/civic issues - in a practical way rather than in the academic/theoretical way - you will unavoidably find yourself squarely confronting certain taboo issues.

There are truths that must never be expressed, according to leftist Thought Leaders. But in trying to actually fix stuff, one faces realities that aren't "nice". And you can't just paint over them with sparkly glitter. That's for the idle commentariat, not for the hard-working menders.

He outlined the complexities - including some ugly realities that local black leaders would privately acknowledge, but never in front of a wider audience - and did so with a defiantly spiteful tone. "I could be crucified for saying this, but..." was a frequent refrain. And, yep, a few things he said did ping my sensibilities, but I reminded myself that this is a guy who's actually trying to fix something. When you're renovating a deteriorating house you don't tip toe around rotting frameworks. You need to see it all clearly for what it is.

Once he'd finished his tour of the multithreaded problems facing Detroit, including some reflections that would get him banned by Rachel Maddow, he was bashful. "I know; I'm a real right-winger", he confessed. "I've been a solid Republican for years. Of course, I don't like where the party is going now, but real Republicans like me are still out there."

I think he's correct about lots of things....but not about what he truly is. So after some consideration, I sent him this email:
Your positions are all moderate. You are as close to a centrist as anyone. For example:

"Work ethic is the most important thing” : Totally moderate.

“Handouts and entitlements are a poor solution, but, all things equal, always choose the disadvantaged or minority person”: Totally moderate.

“Black people have legitimate grievances, but activists go too far when they insist black people never deserve blame, and when they offer silly justifications for bad behavior”: Totally moderate.

That’s all just common sense. These are moderate positions, not “right-wing”. You are correct that there are people who would crucify you for saying these things out loud, but those people are left wing extremists. They are 20% of the population, and they are as irrational and ignorant as right-wing extremists.

To an extremist, moderates seem extreme. That doesn’t mean you really are extreme! You shouldn’t allow extremists to reciprocally define you. It’s not binary!

Not all left-leaning people disagree with you. Just the 20% true believers. And those true believers have irritated you into finding common cause with extremists on right (just because they share your irritation) and even into finding some common cause with a monster like Trump, who also eschews left-wing extremism.

The problem isn’t liberal extremism, but extremism, period. We’ve got 20% stupid, irrational extremists on each side, and 60% moderates who are more alike than they realize, but who are locked into savagely opposing whichever extremism happens to most irritate them. I’m guessing you don’t love the fascist/racist awful shit coming out of the MAGA garbage pits, either. But that's not what you’re most zeroed in on.

Left-ish moderates, viewing the fire-breathing racist thugs on the extreme right, buy into lots of stuff that they ordinarily wouldn’t (their natural inclination would NOT be to crucify people who state the truths above). Same for moderates on the right. They’re not racists or fascists, they’re just extra reactive to liberal extremism. But they rarely buy into the whole package, because they’re reacting from the center, not the opposite extreme.

We are not truly a divided country, because we are not truly a binary country. We are a country where moderates don’t realize they’re moderates, because they’re so focused on their irritation with one extreme or the other.

The salvation - our only hope for restoring rationality - is for moderates to recognize that they are, above all, moderates, and to band together against not one extreme or the other, but against extremism, period. Human beings naturally come to feel highly oppositional to their triggers. That’s why it's hard to find a middle, even when it's our actual position!

The first step would be to take a bit less joy in bluntly, harshly stating obvious truths which offend extreme liberal sensitivities. None of what you are saying is really so transgressive; it doesn’t make you a Brave Fighter For Truth, because the force you’re opposing, from your position in the center, isn't actually massive. You’ve overestimated it, and therefore you overreact. That’s why you call yourself “a real right-winger”, when you’re clearly not. At least not in my opinion, fwiw!


Monday, June 18, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #25

Monday, June 18, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 96,600 Google search results, 11% less than the 108,000 found two weeks ago.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

I'd like to chart these results, adding new data weekly. Any suggestions re: an easy, free online service that will spit out such a chart without my needing to do a lot of fussy setup?

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Four Things to Bear in Mind in the Age of Trump

1. Until a few decades ago, when things got a notch or two warmer/fuzzier, most of our presidents were narcissistic racist pompous blowhards. The greats were standouts who (mostly) transcended that. That's why they were great! But the rest were varyingly ignorant, vain, blustering, unself-aware bossy boss predators who'd clawed their way to power. You know, like the asshole managing your workplace. Things have been that way since the dawn of time, yet we survived. In fact, we thrived.

2. History is full of odd footnote characters - aberrational dolts who squeaked into power and did unbelievably crazy shit. Such characters were infuriating to live under, and required diligent cleanup from their successors, but they are not the ones who destroy societies. Societal destroyers are different from boobish footnotes. The destroyers are smart enough and competent enough to execute their awful ideas. Remember Leff's Four Scenarios of Authority. In declining order of preference:
1. Smart ideas, good execution

2. Dumb ideas, bad execution

3. Smart ideas, bad execution

4. Dumb ideas, good execution
Trump's actually the second best possible scenario. Infuriating to live under, and messy to clean up, but never forget that societies are destroyed by #4 (and terminally demoralized by #3).

3. When you hear people complaining about how Trump isn't "normal", you're hearing hypocrisy. Back in 2015, when it looked like the 2016 race would be yet another Clinton versus yet another Bush, most of us groaned in exasperation. We prayed for someone different - someone iconoclastic - and, alas, our prayers were answered. The left, god help them, got Bernie, and the right, god help us all, got Trump. But while we all wanted a fresh start, only the Trumpers have remained steadfast while the rest of us flip-flopped (lord, what I wouldn't give for some boredom and normalcy) and even conjured up mass amnesia re: ever having wished it!

So while I condemn Trump's bigotry, his ignorance, his corruption, his narcissism, his authoritarianism, and his treason, I am not hypocrite enough to whine about his abnormality. (Everyday abnormality, anyway - the breached decorum, the Twitter decrees, the unfilled positions, etc. When abnormality is harmful - not merely surprising or distasteful - I call out the harmfulness....but never the divergence, per se.)

4. We hear constant kvelling re: Trump's lack of discipline and expertise; his unwillingness to read and to inform and prepare himself. His unshakeable confidence in his own gut instinct elevates willful ignorance to a point of pride. When Michael Bloomberg suggested he hire advisors smarter than him, Trump's inevitable reply was that nobody fit that bill.

Disgusting, no? Yes, I think so. But I'm gobsmacked by the hand-wringing. Most 21st century Americans are exactly the same. Right, left, and center, this is an American norm. We exhibit little mental curiosity or elasticity. There's virtually no interest in exploring diverse opinion; even intelligent people mindlessly ape talking points. And there's no humility whatsoever to be found. Everyone harbors delusions of superiority, deeming their guts the keenest possible arbiters of truth. We're a nation of self-regarded "stable geniuses".

While Trump's sentiments, inclinations, and tone are hopelessly outdated (his ascension marks The Un-Self-Aware Assholes’ Last Hurrah), his willful ignorance, hubris, and penchant for "winging it" perfectly mirror how Americans roll right now. It's flabbergasting that so few see themselves in him.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Canadian Appreciation Day

In treasonous support of our sworn enemy to the north, aka "The Maple Peril", I'm speaking all day today in a Canadian accent, eh. My doctor asked me three times to repeat my request to "take my stitches oowt".

Bill Burr

Man, I love Bill Burr. If you don't know him, he's got a bunch of comedy specials on Netflix and he does a podcast.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Turkey Penne

I struck upon an interesting recipe today:

1. Roughly but finely chop a few slices of turkey with a butter knife. Don't cut cleanly; be sloppy.

Use real roast turkey, not cold cuts. I like the "Simply" Sliced Roast Turkey Breast at Trader Joe's, which is also great in panini.

As for the sloppy cut, two reasons: a smooth cut emphasizes turkey's slightly slimy texture...and a more shredded cut absorbs more oil and flavors.

2. Cut several garlic cloves as thinly as possible.

3. Cook pasta (fwiw I used small penne rigate, i.e. the ridged kind).

4. In a hot wok or sauce pan lightly coated with oil, add turkey and garlic and stir rapidly for just a few seconds.

5. Add fresh spinach, a handful or two of chopped firm tomatoes (I used mini San Marzanos from Trader Joe's, cut once lengthwise and four times crosswise), and leftover zucchini (recipe below). Don't let anything actually cook, you just want to wilt the spinach and heat and combine the ingredients. Once spinach is soft and your kitchen smells of something other than garlic, it's done.

Don't worry, the tomatoes will work well even if they don't have time to soften much, but a variation would be to start them before the turkey, with garlic and perhaps some chopped onion.

6. Kill the heat.

7. Drain pasta and return it to pot. Add one or two TBS of quality extra virgin olive oil and 1/4 cup or more of grated cheese (parmigiano, normally, but gouda works well, too) and stir rapidly and violently.

8. Add the turkey mixture, continuing violent stirring (I turn up the heat for this part, but you need to have a feel for the timing....trial and error!).

9. Serve.

See if you agree that the turkey - garlicky, which is unusual - doesn't pick up some of the substantive meatiness of ground beef.

Here's how I do the zucchini:

1. Wash zucchini, don't peel.

2. Slice once lengthwise, then make 1/4" crosswise cuts.

3. Heat skillet on medium high with a light coating of olive oil.

4. Add zucchini slices in one single layer and leave them alone until light golden brown (around 3 mins).

5. Add chopped garlic and chili powder (as always, I like Penzey's Aleppo Pepper), and immediately start stirring.

6. Stirring constantly, cook another 3-4 minutes, until zucchini just starts to soften. Salt and pepper (plenty of pepper, despite the Aleppo pepper) after cooking.

Make a lot (I do several consecutive batches, wiping out the pan each time), so there are leftovers for accompanying future entries, or to add to leftover stews or soup.

All recipes in reverse chronological order

Lorraine Gordon

I eagerly greet hurricanes on the infrequent occasions when they manage to reach New York. You're supposed to stay indoors, I know, but I always go outside to sniff the air, which I know will carry the evocative scent of the Caribbean. Lesser weather systems arrive from that zone, as well, but only a hurricane - a tightly-wound and highly self-contained system - preserves that essence.

With similar trepidation, and in similarly low doses, I enjoyed Lorraine Gordon, legendary proprietress of the legendary Village Vanguard. Lorraine would freely acknowledge that she was a brassy lady, a character, a loudmouth, a real ball buster. If those terms seem antiquated, well, so was she. When I knew her, a bit, in her 50s and 60s, she seemed like a character straight from an Ernst Lubitsch film. You could smell the 1940s on her. Not a sad, moldering vestige, but the living sizzle of the era. As a tightly-wound and highly self-contained system of her own, Lorraine preserved that essence.

I played at the Vanguard a number of times in the late 1980s with Illinois Jacquet (here's an anecdote about one such night), and Lorraine would always chase me around the club with scissors, trying to tame my "crazy haircut". Maybe she had a point (here I was in a relatively groomed got way bigger):

Not long after, I found myself running to Spain a few times per year to play gigs under my own name; high pressure engagements in well-known venues. On one such tour, students of mine asked me to make an appearance with their semi-professional dixieland band way the hell out of town, in the boonies, playing for farmers. We'd begin at 10am, and I'd be playing the night before until 3, so the 8am pickup would be a crusher (they'd offered more pay than I could possibly refuse). There was no time to shower or shave (at that age, it could be chalked up to bohemianism), I was deathly hungover, and I didn't bother to warm up. When the music started I simply slammed horn to face and proceeded to phone it in. It was more than good enough for the circumstance, but I was far from my best.

In my boredom, I scanned the crowd - from the stage crowded with a motley crew of well-meaning but really-not-even-close-to-competent musicians - taking in the non-comprehending stares of Catalan villagers who'd never heard a note of jazz in their lives. There were a few dozen of them standing outdoors in the morning heat, plus - wait, what? - Lorraine Gordon. Who I later learned had a brother who lived in this village. This stupid village. Because of course he did, and of course she happened to be visiting at that moment, and of course I'd just taken perhaps the worst solo of my life on some humiliatingly cornball washboard-and-spoons Dixieland anthem, looking like a wino.

Lorraine either didn't recognize me (I'd cut my hair by then) or politely pretended not to. I'm still not sure which. Not that I, in my abject mortification, let myself get anywhere near her. I looked nowhere but down at the floor for the subsequent two hours, and I never ever "phoned it in" again. Ever. A lot of what I write in this Slog about commitment stems from that Catalan Mortification (Mortificació Catalana), a pivotal event that haunted me for years.

Lorraine took this story with her to the grave yesterday, at age 95, and, finally detached enough to fully own that ghastly experience, I thank her for being party to a life-altering moment. I'm also thankful for her less-than-nimble athletic skills (in spite of her sensible shoes). She never managed to shear a solitary lock. I thank her for the visceral whiff of 1945 that I never experienced from any other human being, and I tip my hat to the tight-woundedness that preserved it. And, not incidentally, I thank her for doing as much as anyone in the past half century to preserve the heart and soul of a great art form.

For more on Lorraine, check out Ted Panken's terrific interview here. Definitely also read this link, starting from "On a frigid afternoon in January" (and you can stop when it moves on to other topics), wherein Ted magically evokes the evocative flavor pouring out of Lorraine!

Friday, June 8, 2018

A Surprisingly Uplifting Examination of Suicide

I was 23 and had been quite depressed for some time. Returning to my bad apartment in my bad car from a bad gig in a bad venue with bad musicians for bad money, I'd hit a new emotional low and couldn't muster the will to keep driving. Pulling my car onto the shoulder, I experienced a roaring, overpowering urge to finally end it all.

But as a curious and introspective fellow, I was compelled, even amid all my angst, to question the phrase.

"End what, exactly?" I asked my empty car. I knew the next step from movies and TV shows, of course. The character in this situation slits his wrists, or carbon monoxides himself or whatever. But like (I suspect) everyone who's ever declared an urge to "end it all", I noticed a weird impasse. I had no desire at all to do harm to my body. There was no connection there. When I'm thirsty, I don't choke a squirrel or sing the national anthem. By the same token, my yearning to "end it all" didn't impel me toward bodily harm. It seemed like the most ridiculous non sequitur. If I were in a better mood, I might have even giggled.

I understood, intellectually, that killing my body would, indirectly, solve the problem. In a certain sense, it'd certainly "end it all". But it just wouldn't add up, emotionally, for me. I'm not a movie character, so I don't need to blindly follow a script; a meme. This obviously isn't the answer. So, once again: what, precisely, needs to end?

The answer blurted furiously from my ground zero: I yearned to end the painful, tedious, hopeless dreariness of worldly existence. The heaviness of it all. The burden. I desperately wanted out of all that. Not to relieve it or lessen it, but to totally die out from it. Now. Check, please.

I had no quarrel with my body, but everything else had to die, so I did it. I exhaled and gave up. Totally. Utterly. From the depths of my soul. I even moaned it out loud, "I give up!", accompanied by hot tears and shaking. Whatever I'd been fighting, whatever I'd been resisting, whatever I'd been fearing - come and get me, maul me, consume me. I'm yours. It's over. The universe wins.

The sense of burden lifted instantly, and my perspective, long frozen on negativity, felt luxuriously free. I was free, and always had been. I could do anything. And nothing really matters all that much. This world is entirely for our rich immersion and entertainment. I'd just gotten stuck, that's all! And at my point of ultimate desperation, an inner faculty had pushed me toward a reboot. Many people feel that same urge and, tragically and unnecessarily, resort to a meme, proceeding with self-harm, oddly disconnected though that feels. But that's not what this urge actually urges!

I've gotten re-stuck a few times since then (because I get bored with simplicity and freedom, and indulge the urge to obsess over what's missing). And I've re-experienced that overpowering compulsion to "end it all". But I no longer even begin to associate that phrase with guns or cliffs or bridges. Instead, I recognize - and respect - the urge for what it really is: a powerful and benign wake up call reminding me to let go. To wear it all more lightly, and to bear in mind that the only problem is my own frozen perspective.

Further reading:

Depression Resuscitation Kit
A Unique Perspective on Depression (same link as the last one, above)
Other postings about depression

Anthony Bourdain

A lot of people don't know that Anthony Bourdain was a Chowhound regular back in the late 90s, just before his first book came out. He showed up blasting with self-promotion. We politely asked him to stop, and he politely agreed to knock it off...and did. No problem. He eventually split, along with a small circle of malcontents who felt I was too uptight in how I ran the community (everyone loves a moderated discussion but nobody likes to be moderated; it's like smokers requesting no-smoking hotel rooms - 'cuz they smell better - and then smoking in them).

I didn't hear from him until years later, when I was invited to appear on his "No Reservations" show. I declined, and was glad I had when I discovered that it was an episode about "food bloggers" (I'd written/cowritten nine books and columns for Newsweek, Newsday, and many more), where I'd have appeared in a roundtable discussion with those very same malcontents. Shudder.

In the early 2000s, I was recruited by a publishing legend who wanted to pluck me from my Chowhound mire, rescue me from the insanely awful (but lucrative) music gigs I'd resorted to to keep my lights on, and make me a national sensation. If I'd say the word, I'd have a multi-book contract and frequent mass media appearances. I turned it down, as I wasn't prepared to close or neglect Chowhound. Very shortly afterward, the same fellow signed Bourdain.

Not exactly treasured memories. But through it all, Bourdain himself was always nice to me. I was snarled at by a lot of people back in the day while I killed myself throwing a great free party for a million strangers on zero budget via my indefatigable adrenal glands. But in every exchange I've ever had with him - sometimes telling him things he didn't particularly want to hear - he was unfailingly polite, and respected the fact that I - a near stranger - was a human being with feelings. That doesn't sound like much, but when you've managed a million people on the Internet you really notice when someone acts surprisingly.

That guy you saw on the screen, who was sarcastic and brashly negative, was apparently almost incapable of disrespect. You might have picked this up from his programs, perhaps not realizing he was the same even with cameras packed away. To be sure, he could hurl criticism and bile-filled invective. Ask his nemeses like Rachel Ray! But that's a different thing. Amid the slow grind of the day to day, as he interacted in his various circles, a person was always a full person to him.

That's rare. I myself didn't grow up in an environment where folks behaved like that. I've since been reforming myself, but it's a work in progress, and it's hard. The usual technique is to tamp down one's disrespectfulness beneath a veneer of corporate politesse, but that's the ultimate dehumanization; forcing interlocutors to engage with you as if with a voice mail prompt. But Bourdain was genuine and respectful with everyone, even when he reached a position where he sure as hell didn't need to be.

This isn't something I've seen pointed out about him, and, to me, it was even more impressive than his fast wit. And it was especially remarkable considering that he was a person who was so admittedly unhappy, and so full of oft-confessed demons. That sort of internal landscape isn't normally a springboard for deeply-committed humanism. It is with utmost respect that I observe that Anthony Bourdain played his best possible hand with the cards he was dealt.

Discussion of his tragic suicide - along with some counterintuitive thoughts about suicide, generally - will follow.

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