Saturday, January 31, 2015

Does the Social Universe Bend Toward Informality?

Continuing from my last posting - where I noted that all it takes is one person to break the spell of self-seriousness and make anyone else affecting that pose come off like a complete buffoon...

One of the things I did right with Chowhound (I did plenty wrong, too) was cracking that nut early and often. When I launched the site, I was a reasonably well-known food writer and author. I wasn't stuck up about it; I never imagined (as a well-known colleague once confessed to me) that no one's food is truly eaten until I'd eaten it. I knew I had reliable taste, knowledge and experience, but I also knew lots of other people did, too. In fact, that's exactly why I opened Chowhound; to give them a podium.

And since I - the established expert guy who ran the operation - never pulled rank, neither could anyone else! This, more than anything, helped the site grow into a non-heirarchical community. It's impossible to act like a regal know-it-all when the regal know-it-all in charge opts out of all that. Like I said, it's a magic trick!
If just one person knighted by the Queen makes light of being called "Sir", something magical happens; anyone who doesn't is instantly transformed into a prig. It's a wonderful trick (and one Pope Francis has mastered....the papacy will never be the same).
Perhaps this is why we seem to be becoming, over time, a less formal, lower-gravitas world. As people keep breaking that spell, a ripple affect discourages others from affecting the pose. In the long run, this process may eventually wipe out self-seriousness and arrogance (or at least public displays of those things).

But while we're a much lower gravitas culture than we once were, we're still not all that far along in the progression. My goofy informality has never really worked out for me.

Doctor Superior

Never trust anyone with a PhD who calls themselves "Doctor".

Why? Because so many people with doctorate degrees don't do this that it leaves those who do looking plainly ridiculous (and proves, once again, that arrogance is elective).

I used to occasionally make public appearances with another food writer - a very pompous one. When we'd take questions from the audience, and someone would defer on a question of taste to my more "expert" palate, and I'd point out the absurdity of the notion of anyone having an authoritative digestive track, my colleague would get furious with me. By downplaying my expertise, I was undercutting his, too. I was ruining everything! I can't tell you how much I relished this.

If just one person knighted by the Queen makes light of being called "Sir", something magical happens; anyone who doesn't is instantly transformed into a prig. It's a wonderful trick (and one Pope Francis has mastered....the papacy will never be the same).

Groucho Marx was deeper than you might have realized.*

*- In fact, one might describe Pope Francis as the first post-Groucho pope.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Fourth Wave

There was a (drug-spurred) spirituality craze in the 1960s, a ("self-improvement" oriented) meditation craze in the 1970s*, and a (fitness-minded) yoga craze in the 00s. None was very deep, but that's normal. The "gourmet" craze of the early 1960s would have made present-day chowhounds wretch, with its canap├ęs, fondues, and other empty frenchy gestures. Pretentiously superficial, and remarkably unconcerned with actual deliciousness; hey, at least it was a stepping stone!

*- This is a classic must-read

An incipient movement toward more sober spiritual practice has been approaching critical mass for some time. I doubt it's driven by errant maturation among "hot yoga" adherents (having bent and stretched themselves to profundity), but however it's happening, it's happening. If this Slog has sometimes struck you as a notch or three too woo-woo (or "out there"), consider that the majority of my friends in the early 1990s found my fascination with food incredibly ditzy - perhaps indicative of psychic breakdown. Being perennially ahead of curves isn't something to boast about; it's as uncomfortable as any other way of being out of step with one's world. But at least maybe I can be early in pointing out that this is coming.

To understand what's previously been lacking, consider the rallying cry "Be Here Now", the title of an incredibly influential (over two million copies sold) book which defined its era. Since its publication in 1971, millions have struggled to follow that instruction; to "be here now". To live wholly in the present.

There's something to that...kinda. But for fresh perspective, always try flipping stuff. In this case, ask yourself whether anyone's ever not been right here, right now. Have you, or anyone else, ever spent even a moment in the past or future?

"Tomorrow never yet
On any human being rose or set."
-- Joshua Marsden

"No matter where you go... there you are."
-- Buckaroo Banzai

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Let it Not Snow

Well, #Snowmageddon2015 didn't happen - or, more accurately, happened 150 miles east of where it was expected to happen - and a surprising number of people have been threatening and berating weathermen (like this great indie forecaster working in the Hudson Valley, who was actually one of the first to reduce the snowfall forecasts, and who offered a well-humored explanation of yesterday's failure here).

Something happened differently than authorities said it would, and a few of us have gone absolutely nuts. When people act irrationally, it often helps to consider the opposite cause. In this case, I don't think it's disrespect for authorities doing their best with uncertain models and unpredictable circumstances. I think it's a question of over-respect on the part of their critics. People who get their dander up over scientific shortfalls are people who never understood how science works in the first place, and who therefore placed too much confidence in it. The rest of us laugh off this result, or perhaps grumble a bit, but there are those whose worlds are rocked when authorities (political or technical) fail them. As with idealists imploding into cynicism, their bitterness surprises the rest of us.

These are the same guys who brought out pitchforks and torches after the government failed to spot and prevent a dozen scruffy terrorists from taking over planes with box cutters and driving them into buildings. They weren't fellow citizens with a more vehement sense of outrage. They're a different element entirely. They're people who'd assumed authorities are omnipotent (the same misconstrual fueling conspiracy theorists). As a result of their daft pique, we all must endure security theater at airports, where the government makes damn sure that highly visible measures are in place to prevent scruffy terrorists with box cutters from ever flying planes into buildings again.

In this case, it will be that much harder to get certain folks to take future weather emergencies seriously. Most of us will continue heeding forecasts, knowing full well nothing's ever certain. But for a certain element, the paradigm's been blown wide open, and they'll never fully trust again. The problem of course, is that no one ever backs down from "full trust" to a more appropriate level of trust. They back down all the way. Human reaction is always a matter of reciprocal pendulum swings.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Sherlock Homeslice Strikes Again

Check yesterday's post for the answer to "Name that Nationality!"

Name That Nationality!

I'm feeling very proud of myself. I looked up at this deli and instantly knew where the owners are from. Can you guess? I'll post the answer tomorrow.

They're Moroccan. Specifically: Berbers!

I knew it, went inside to confirm it, and the guy didn't seem particularly surprised I'd figured it out. Go figure....

Friday, January 23, 2015

Aficionados, Snobs, Hipsters, and Garbled Writing

I did a crap job with a recent posting, "Aficionados, Snobs, and Hipsters". It was originally written as an epilog to " Aficionados and Snobs: The Money Angle ", but I just put it up as a stand-alone...where it seemed incoherent.

I've reworked it, and now it's better. So please consider re-reading.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Unconventional Means of Establishing Familiarity

I so admire this spamming gambit. Spammers Kevin Lantz, Carl Ashton, and someone named Charlize have been emailing me for many years now. Their stuff goes directly to my junk folder, but I browse that folder periodically to ensure I'm not losing good mail. And as I do, I become more and more familiar with their names. So much so that it's only a matter of time before an email from one of them evades my spam filter, and I remark, pleasantly, "oh, look, an email from Carl!" and do something I've never done before: click and read. I won't actually buy anything of course, but in the fervid battle of spammers trying to attract my attention, it will be their biggest win in two decades.

In the 1980's, my friend Frank lived at the corner of First Avenue and 10th Street in Manhattan - a notorious corner for pot dealers at the time (nowadays, you're more likely to be offered a share of a limited liability partnership with favorable tax benefits). Each time he came home, he'd be mobbed by guys hissing "Smoke? Smoke? Smoke?". He tried reasoning with them. "Look," he told one dealer, "I live right here. And I don't buy pot. Is there any chance you can just leave me alone?" "Sorry, dude," he replied. "A ton of people go by here every day; it's impossible to remember every face."

I proposed a solution. Every time Frank went in or out of his building, and was approached by a dealer, I suggested that he look meaningfully into the guy's face and say, simply, "Rice Chex". Repeat for a day or so with every dealer he encountered, and Frank would forevermore be the guy who says "Rice Chex" (he wouldn't even need to keep saying "Rice Chex"). And the guy who says Rice Chex doesn't buy drugs. Problem solved!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Anti-Muslim Backlash

I like most Muslim people.

However, I don't like crazy hateful murderous Muslims (or, for that matter, crazy hateful murderous anybody).

See what I did there? That's a distinction. The ability to make one of those might not seem like much, but it's a rare feat in year 2015. After 7000 years of human civilization, even our best and brightest seem incapable of drawing the simplest of distinctions when their emotions (particularly their fear and anger) are the least bit roused.

So, once again, it pains me to observe that a great many Muslim restaurant and business owners are presently getting the cold shoulder from their erstwhile friends and proudly multicultural neighbors. Consider going out tonight, or some night soon, for Egyptian or Persian or Indonesian or Lebanese food, to show these neighbors some human solidarity.

Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?

Aficionados, Snobs, and Hipsters

Completing my trilogy of musings re: aficionados and snobs (part one here, part two there)...

Chowhounding (or fashionhounding, or any other sort of hounding) is hard. There are a thousand cheese danishes in the naked city, and nearly all of them suck. Scoring a great one is like finding a needle in a haystack. Faced with that dizzying task, most people would reluctantly turn to "the best place in town", which is usually the most expensive place in town with the biggest publicity budget in town. Such places may churn out fancy-looking stuff with fancy-sounding ingredients, but it's usually a loveless shiny show, unlikely to provide deeper deliciousness. Somewhere, an elderly Polish woman stolidly bakes unloved splendor in her unexceptional-appearing bakery, praying earnestly under her breath as she rolls out the pastry. She is our grail.

Redemption isn't to be found in heightened splendor, it's in the quest for the heartfelt. And that quest is a tough one, so while we may fight the good fight in one narrow realm or another, we all inevitably settle for mediocrity in most realms. Your clothes are complacent. Or your furniture. Or your pens and pencils. So there's no good reason to judge people for being lazy or clueless about the area in which you happen to focus.

I really respect hipsters. They, alone, aspire to a consistent level of all-consuming omni-fetishization most of us (me included) consider supremely annoying.

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