Monday, August 19, 2019

"Go Back to Your Country"

A Chinese-American friend was approached in a parking lot by a tight-faced older woman who snidely told him "Go back to your country". He replied, naturally, that he was from Brooklyn.

He's been telling the story to everyone in his circle like a war story - a traumatic experience demonstrating the hellscape we currently inhabit. He found it deeply wounding.

But, as I frame it, the fact that this encounter seems like a horror/trauma proves he's living in Paradise. One can almost hear peels of muffled laughter from graveyards around the globe as generations who sacrificed to bring humanity to the brink of Paradise watch their descendants feel completely wrecked by mere trifles.

The woman was neither performing nor threatening violence. She was wearing no uniform - i.e. in no position of authority. No bloodthirsty mob arose to egg her on. She just got into some grim crappy car and drove away. Was this pleasant? No, it was not. But if brief unpleasantness was the worst thing that happened to my friend on that day, it can mean only one thing: he's living in Paradise.

Practically only yesterday we strode around savannas, bashing each other senseless with clubs for no good reason. One brief generation ago (I still remember it from my childhood!) it was considered perfectly acceptable - even admirably "manly" - to occasionally slug people in the mouth if you didn't like something they said. Now that we've reached a point of ultimate civility, safety, and pampered comfort, some rando uttering an unkind sentiment can aggrieve us just as much as famines and plagues and warlords and lions and 46% child mortality once did.

As I wrote here:
By the time we're down to our very last Nazi (some geezer raving and saluting from his electric scooter), we'll all be so unhinged by his presence that we'll jump in the ocean and drown en masse like lemmings.

"If this is the worst thing that happens today, would that mean it's been a good day?" That's always the key question when rich, comfortable entitled people feel compelled to frame trivial slights and discomforts as The Worst Thing Ever. This question, which I treasure as a magical amulet, is a red pill with the power to reveal that we're princesses increasingly vexed by smaller and smaller mattress peas. I've lived through heart attacks and heartbreak, sadistic authority, curses, and more, but I've never had cause to not answer "yes" to the magic question.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Grease, Sugar, Junk Mail, and Cinematic Manipulation

I exasperated my friend, hiking buddy, and favorite documentary filmmaker Les Blank by describing a film I'd recently seen as "manipulative". He was incredulous; nearly sputtering. "All movies are manipulative!" he hollered. "That's the whole point!"

We had six miles of trail ahead of us, so I had time to sharpen my thoughts. Finally, I produced a revision he deemed reasonable: the film seemed brazenly manipulative. The emotional manipulation itself wasn't the problem. It was the failed application.

Whenever someone pronounces food "greasy", I can't help grinning. That person - along with every other human - undoubtedly loves croissants, mankind's crowning achievement in the saturation of starch with fat. A croissant is a delivery system for the maximal fat per volume. No one who's ever curled her lip at a "greasy" dish would ever turn down a competently-baked croissant. So it's not the grease, it's the application.

A phrase that exasperates me is "Not-too-sweet". It strikes us as reasonable praise even though we'd all be bewildered if someone were to praise a steak as "unburnt" or an apple as "non-rotten".

There seems to be universal agreement that desserts shouldn't be too sweet. Yet (thanks, The Diabetes Council!) the average American scarfs down 25 teaspoons of sugar daily. We crave sweetness more fanatically than a swarm of fruit flies.

Everyone despises direct mail advertising yet it works very effectively (guaranteeing the existence of junk mail until the heat death of the universe).

The underlying dope is what entices us, of course, but it must be artfully disguised to spare us revulsion by the bald-faced truth of the unseemly underpinnings. We attribute our attraction to the frills and specifics of execution, which allow us to feign sublimation. Please, good sir, cease this unseemly talk of opium and pass the hookah. I am no addict.
Most high-end wine tasters are raging alcoholics. They maintain a certain veneer by up-paying for lofty grog, though every blessed one of them would go all Bartles & Jaymes if that were all there were.

I've framed these four examples of a certain psychological hiccup a certain way, but they connect in other ways, as well. I'm offering a cognitive lozenge, and invite you to ponder it (ideally for more than three seconds) and see where it leads you. I suspect it reveals something more fundamental than an addict's self-delusion.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Smiley Quiet People with Sweet Demeanors

A lesson I'm incapable of learning:

Smiley quiet people with sweet demeanors can have titanic egos.

It shocks me every time.

Monday, August 12, 2019


My favorite pundit, Rick Wilson, tweeted this:
After decades of invective about us godless depraved NYC assholes, these guys have chosen to worship the very worst of the ilk.

One day they’ll line up solidly behind a Mexican rapist/criminal socialist, just wait and see.

BTW, this move dates all the way back to the beginning with a crowd that maybe wasn’t always super pro-Semitic following a Jewish dude.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Aging: The Video Game

I'm only 56, but I think I see how old age works.

You know how, in video games, you keep leveling up to acquire greater strength, skills, and weapons, but the opposing monsters keep getting commensurately tougher to maintain an overall balance?

Aging is just like that, but the monsters get tougher just a bit faster than you get better.

Eventually, you reach a tipping point where the monsters start winning, and your strategy turns to preserving as much as possible for as long as possible amid increasingly indomitable opposition.

I'm not at the tipping point yet. I'm still gleefully leveling up and slaying monsters. But I sense the imbalance - monsters getting tougher faster than I'm getting better. Each new victory takes just a bit more doing, and my sack of resourcefully clever tricks is not infinitely deep.

I previously answered (on Quora) how old age feels.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Grinders Always Win in the Long Run

Yesterday I saw a woman, about 5'6" and 175 pounds, wearing a fancy new gym outfit and doing terribly ambitious and exhausting things: pulling heavy ropes, leaping up onto boxes, etc. I watched this grimly in my wrinkly beige gym shorts (I think they started out blue; I can't remember) while grinding away on my treadmill, just after having completed my standard grunting circuit of unsexy weight machines. Behold my mindless zombie workout, sweat-and-soreness-producing but certainly not optimized nor scientific. No gym balls, pilates, high-intensity interval stuff, trainers, etc..

Scattered around the gym, inevitably, were several other grim grinders. It's hard to focus on us; we blend in with the furniture. We're like the "townies" of the gym, and we range from marginally overweight to haggardly underweight (i.e. don't know when to stop). None of us are fat, but we see lots of fat people showing up and doing very fancy and ambitious workouts. We can’t remember any of their faces because they never stick around.
Think about that fancy gym outfit for a moment. If she were really gunning for weight loss, why make such an investment in her current size? Me, I curate a full portfolio of homely beige-faded shorts of every size, including the exalted and gleaming "32"s, which still retain a bit of color and which I can barely wedge my thumb into.
Here are the best workouts, in declining order:

1. Half-assed, wimpy, short, easy, barely effective workout every other day that you easily commit to.

2. Half-assed, wimpy, short, easy, barely effective workout daily that you occasionally need to cancel.

3. Exertive workout that leaves you sore and aggrieved and with a bad taste in your mouth (unless you're really locked into the long-term groove).

4. A scientifically optimized highly-effective diligently full-body workout that feels like you've climbed a mountain (non athletes are not wired to climb a mountain every day).

The best workout is the workout you commit to (i.e. the "worst" workout). So I think you've got to tailor your workout to commit-ability above all else.

Resuming after a lapse, I always start with #1 (sometimes even less than #1; once I just sat in the parking lot, lazily checked my email, and drove home...and deemed myself successful). I max out at #3, but only after I've really locked into the long-term groove and actually crave it.

Comfort zones are a deep-seated thing, so I protect mine vigorously. Faithfulness/consistency is my overriding objective, followed by frequency, with exertion/calories/pounds/durations/reps/laps only barely relevant. By the time I’m addicted, I hardly notice that I’m lifting heavy weights and running long distances and sweating buckets. It’s the routine that matters, not the content. Hardware, not software.

This is true for most worthwhile human aims. The creator of the stripped-down meditation style I practice makes an analogy to tooth brushing. If you brush with enormous zeal, you'll just irritate the bejesus out of your gums, ensuring that you miss the next few brushings, thus setting you back in the end. And the fact that your teeth won't look any better even after a couple weeks of eager brushing can break your morale.

That's not how you approach it! You need to recognize that while no one nor ten nor even hundred sessions makes much difference, a locked-in daily practice - even a grim, grinding, semi-conscious one - makes an enormous long-term difference.

Settle down and do the work. Momentum quickly dissipates; it is not a viable ongoing fuel source. The grinders always win in the long run.

Have I ever posted anything to this Slog that didn't carry the underlying message that "It's all in how you frame things"? Even before I started zeroing in on the whole framing thing?

Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Water’s Just Fine, Regardless

An old friend who's one of the best musicians in NYC just told me he's in rehabilitation after having been institutionalized for several months for mental issues. I knew he was perennially depressed, and had struggled with substance abuse while coping with some bad childhood trauma. But it apparently came to a head. I sent him this.

It's the third in a series of examples of induced perceptual reframing, along with this and this. Those two "worked"; this one, we'll see (the payload, tied to his specific background and prompting him to use his toolset, is the short final sentence; the rest is just prep):

I'm very sorry to hear that. Let me know if I can help with any real world issues. I have a car.

I’ve been having the converse experience, probably not much more pleasant.

Most people find a way to make their generally pleasant life experience a living hell. I’ve always been curious about this, and even did it myself for a while. Finally, I tried the opposite move, just for shits and giggles. I dropped my resistance to whatever happened, and to whatever my mind conjured up (worries, memories, etc.). No flinching. No judging. I lean in. It’s all “acceptable” (ha, like the world cares how I label it!).

I made that my move. Whatever happens, I embrace. Not stoically/dramatically (I gave up the dramatization habit), just gamely up for the experience. I just live right through it all, come what may. Not trudging/shlepping amid persecution, just curiously receptive to the latest. Even when it’s horrible.

And it’s been kind of horrible (almost like my resolve's been tested). So while everyone else dramatizes and ruins a pleasant life, I’ve been gamely embracing a life that’s horrible on paper. It only feels horrible if I resist, or take the drama view, though. So I just don’t. It’s sort of like one of those Chinese finger traps, on grand scale.

I recognized that the move that's always made me miserable was to frame the world as events happening to me. That sounds so normal it’s impossible to imagine another view. But the other view is that things happen around me, not to me. I'm just sort of there, blinking and watching, same old me, unaffected.

I know I’m unaffected because the awareness peering out of my eyes hasn’t changed since as far back as I can remember. My body may be completely different, and the contents of my memory and mind may be completely different (that stuff does get affected by what happens) but the awareness, the presence, has never changed, so it’s never been touched. It’s always curiously taking it all in. And that’s who I am. As such, nothing ever happened to me. And I’m gamely receptive.

Like I said, often it feels like a test (“Oh, yeah? Try gamely embracing THIS!!!”) I’ve had horrific things thrown at me, and if I lapse into my old habit of resisting (and self-consciously watching my dramatic character suffer), the suffering can be remarkable. But I don’t lapse as much now. I’m not in a movie. I just live straight through it (not as some insipid “personal growth” bullshit, but as a commitment that required insight and courage and gnarly life experience). As I do so, the water’s just fine, regardless.

Anyway, that’s my story. It’s nice in one view, horrific in another. It’s a fresh perspective on great pain, not a negation of it. We have infinite freedom to shift perspective, which only gets as stuck as we want it to be. The world does what it does, but we can view it in an infinity of ways. I think maybe that’s what creativity is: ingenious reframing.

Your friend,


Wednesday, August 7, 2019

El Paso is a Better America

El Paso is a place where women who look like Mexican telenovela actresses speak better English than I do, and seek out regional Japanese cooking and write knowledgable Yelp reviews about it, yet also speak in rapid-fire Spanish with their abuela.

This is a border town, and we assume we know what that means from movies, but that's mere gloss. A border town can be a profound scenario; less like brotherhood and more like co-joined twins. You can't draw lines, much less build walls, because there's an inseparability, a morphing from one into the other and back again. It's disquieting. It's wonderful.

There are people here descended from the original inhabitants, and others from their Spanish successors, both long predating Texas' statehood. Both lines experienced some "neither-here-nor-there" malaise for a few generations, but as America has become a more comfortable place for Hispanic people - and, not coincidentally, more thickly composed of Hispanic people - there's been a flowering. No longer forlornly rejecting both, many have flipped to embrace both; identifying readily with American culture while feeling renewed pride in their roots.

Folks in El Paso don't like to be called "Hispanic" or "Latino" or (hoo boy; worst of all) "Mexican". It's not that there's some ethnic chip on their shoulders, it's that they're very proudly American - even "'merican", the conservative corn-fed variety of patriotism coastal Americans love to mock. These are pickup-trucks-and-barbecue folks who do not take kindly to hyphenation. The identity empowerment politics of a South Bronx community center has no place here.

El Paso preserves village warmth and charm in a metropolitan area of nearly a million. Many non-Hispanics here speak at least some Spanish. Not the cavalier pigeon Spanish of a Beverly Hills homeowner instructing the pool guy to limpiar la agua pooor favor, but a more heartfelt Spanish representing the same cross-culturalism that resulted in many New York Puerto Ricans speaking decent Yiddish in the early 20th century. This is what magically happens when you pack different people together; they morph into each other a little. They understand each other. They may not always love each other - Benetton's a clothing brand, not a bona fide planetary movement - but the blending goes too far to reverse.

It works both ways. I'm a bit Puerto Rican from having eaten tons of pasteles and arroz con gandules and playing salsa gigs and generally being exposed to the culture. Jews and Puerto Ricans, like Jews and Italians, are somewhat co-joined where I grew up. There's overlap. Anywhere can function like a bordertown, and it's always an improvement. The rest of American could use some El Paso/Queens-style cosmopolitanism. We should all talk a little Yiddish and a little Spanish.

When Trump first started yapping about his damned wall, I didn't need to read polls or listen to man-in-the-street interviews around El Paso to know people there would be furious. Show me a xenophobe and I'll show you a fearful provincial lacking personal experience with The Other...and thus unable to overcome hearsay and stereotype. Most -phobias and -isms stem from unfamiliarity, while border towns like El Paso forge deep familiarity and are improved for it. Blessed with multiple vantage points, they are better suited to triangulate truth. We should look to them for our answers.

I've added an ancient El Paso report ("El Paso to Silver City: A Make-Do Romp Through a Desert of Chow") to the archive of old articles on my web site.

Fired in Two Minutes Flat

As a musician, every once in a while I'd give a younger, less experienced musician a break and call them for a gig that normally would be out of their league. I could tell immediately - by how they walked in the door! - whether I'd made a mistake.

About 25% of the time, the player would walk in quietly, perhaps a bit nervously, and with bristling excitement. It would go well. He'd be on top of his game, listening hard, ever-alert, and eager to contribute. These things would more than compensate for a few inevitable gaffes and inadequacies. He'd be a "team player", helping foster a positive vibe that would lift us all.

75% of the time, the player would walk in bored and blasé, as if it was just another damn gig. Hey, he was sharing a stage with us, which made him, obviously, an equal colleague. Whether his attitude was a contrivance (he was scared stiff) or delusional (he was clueless re: his place in the scheme of things), I'd brace for a bad night. He'd be just as off-handed as a really good player...but without the really good playing. Ouch.

I once needed to recruit writers for a project, and invited a blogger who lacked the expertise and experience of the rest of the crew. I figured he'd work extra diligently, flattered at having been included. On his first day - first minute, really - there was a group meeting about a nuanced decision. He ignored several of the fine points I'd laid out, and barreled forth as informally as if he were chatting idly on Facebook. After listening inattentively, he blurted out whichever idle thoughts occurred to him.

I fired him on the spot.

I'm sure he hates me. But I saved both of us a lot of pain. It would have been much worse if I'd postponed the inevitable.

You might hear this as "I demand to be shown proper respect." Not at all. It's not inter-personal. My point is that if you're not awesome, you need to bring your very best game. And I know, with the certainty of long experience, that you won't elevate your game unless you arrive with a respectful attitude. I'm not looking for respect, per se, but for the sort of results that flow only from that attitude.
From that framing.

Attitude stems from framing, not vice versa. So I know your framing from your attitude. I know which universe you exist in, and what you're capable of, from your attitude. One cannot directly change attitude, but one can effortlessly shift framing...which instantly transforms attitude. "Emotions", same. They, too, stem from framing, are hard to change directly, but effortlessly shift with reframing.

That awful thing your mother once said that you've paid shrinks $$$$$ to help you grapple with? If you found out your mother was mentally ill, or joking, or rehearsing a line from a play, you'd be fine in a flash. You'd reframe, and emotions would fall in line easy-peasy. So what if you reframe just for shits and giggles, recognizing, say, that everyone's spinning like a top from their own issues, with a long chain of separate reasons for saying/doing silly stuff, none of it having anything to do with you?

Forgiving is reframing. Laughing is reframing. Recognizing other people's long chains of cause/effect is reframing. Realizing other people's errant statements are no more deeply significant than your own is reframing. You can also just go ahead and reframe anytime just 'cuz and without a reason. Flip!

The only thing holding you back is a conviction that the grimmer framing is truer, while more free-spirited framings are lightweight and “unrealistic”. That's an illusion stemming from a perspective frozen in Grim-land. Our most habitual framing feels truest. Try another! Any other! Flip!!

Framing is not a nerdy conceptual mind trip. It's the motherlode of who we are and what we're doing here. It's humanity's ground zero. It directly impacts and centrally underpins every issue in the human experience.

Check out "The Joy of Stepping Up", describing the thrill of my lifetime, when I was lucky enough to be the very worst player in the band.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Day Vandals Wrecked Chowhound

Late in the painful saga of hosting a web forum for nearly a million people without any resources, a horde of strangers stopped by one day to add to our pressures and woes.

Several hundred random vandals blitzed our message boards with smart-aleck comments for a few minutes and were gone. Imagine a crowd of kids bursting into your home with spray paint cans. And imagine the aftermath, as you painstakingly remove the damage.

It was really painstaking. Our software offered no modern deletion system; postings had to be nuked manually one-by-one. If we worked too quickly, it could corrupt the database. So we set to work sloooowly deleting several hundred garbage postings.

Our volunteer moderators - busy people with real lives - treated this like a biblical plague, with much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. For my part, I regretted imposing this extra work (keeping their job loose and fun was my job), but I could view the situation in two ways.

Bugs Bunny was constantly annoying the bejesus out of Elmer Fudd (even when the latter wasn't wabbit hunting). The Marx Brothers kept crashing parties of stuck-up rich lady Margaret Dumont, interrupting her warbly arias and taunting her and her stuffy friends. I loved both. I love it when giddy tricksters collide with self-seriousness. I subscribe to the "keep it light" credo even while at my most serious. Elmer may not have had many days off to enjoy west and wewaxation, but I never considered that. I applauded Bug's efforts to disrupt his twanquility, however sadistic they might have actually been.

As I helped scrape away the garbage postings, I found a lot of them funny. We were an awfully self-serious bunch, oblivious in our warren of foody foodtalk, obsessing - at first ironically, but eventually not-so-much - over yum-yums which, in the scheme of things, maybe weren't the most important thing in the world. And though I'd sweated blood to keep it running, and these people were wrecking the joint and upsetting my crew, I could nonetheless adopt their point of view; their framing of us, and even of me.

I couldn't hold both views at the same time, however. Perspectives are monogamous in a given moment, though they can be flipped sequentially. Each framing felt enormously different. In fact, the entire world felt completely different when I was 1. chuckling at the wisecracks and viewing Chowhound as slightly Margaret Dumontian, or 2. lamenting the heartless defacement of my labor of love. The flip - back and forth, like the two choices of an optical illusion - was instant and effortless because I'd chosen to loosen the reigns and to opt out of the impulse to freeze perspective on the viewpoint I DAMN WELL HAD EVERY DAMNED REASON TO....blah-blah-huffy-blah. Even at the meta level - framing my framing choices - I was more of a free-wheeling Bugs than a tightly-wound Elmer.

Just because the current movie plot appears to call for a certain scene doesn't mean you need to play that scene (realizing this once may have saved my life). You're the screenwriter. You write the script. You get to choose what kind of movie this is. Try something different! Try loving red lights! Or per the video embedded in that link, try framing an insufferable sound as beautiful music.

You needn't play out a sad scene just because someone just said or did something that correlates (in your mental database of social consensus...or of previous conditioning, aka trauma) as sad - "They're messing with my web site! Cue fury and stress!" You can be creative. 

This posting has offered an example of reframing, and of how we're always free to do so but mostly choose not to (and, over time, forget we even have the option). It should be obvious that a lithe, flexible willingness to reframe is helpful and happiness-causing, whereas frozen perspective makes life a tedious torture.

It should also be obvious that a playful pliancy of perspective (PPP!) can really piss people off (the other moderators, understandably, absolutely did not think the vandalism was THE LEAST BIT FUNNY). So be careful out there. Don't get crucified!

Blog Archive