Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Leff's Seventh Law

When you find it difficult to express yourself, the problem's always in the conception, not the expression.

See "Fix the Thinking, not the Writing" here.

Fwiw, here are my other laws

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Preference and Lasagna and Depression

I just inserted a link into my previous entry, "Lasagna and Depression" (see "empty drama" in the sixth paragraph). If you enjoyed that posting, you may also like the posting that link goes to: "An Adult View on Preference". Here's the money quote:
"The real zest of life is not in frantically scrambling to get - and keep - your ducks in a row. It's in relishing the experience of playing the hand you're dealt, remaining gleefully fluid as the hand constantly changes. Fretting about the cards is an indulgent - and futile - waste of energy."
See all postings tagged "depression".

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lasagna and Depression

I love lasagna. Sure, everybody loves lasagna, but I love it more. If you ever saw me eating lasagna - even just pretty good lasagna - you'd be watching a happy fellow. You'd figure I was born to eat lasagna. But do you know how many times per year I eat lasagna? Maybe once. If that.

There are lots of reasons. It's hard to find good. And it tends to be overpriced. And I try to eat healthy. So lasagna doesn't happen much for me. But the weird thing is how absolutely okay I am with that. It's like The Monks and the Coffee, I suppose.

I could easily work myself into a lather about the lack of lasagna in my life. If I really festered on it, I could create an entire mental landscape of non-lasagna. In the old days, I knew great places I could go for lasagna. They're all gone. Frozen yogurt everywhere now, but no frickin' lasagna. It's all turning to crap! And how about the indignity of needing to eat healthy? When I was younger, I could eat whatever I wanted. But now that I can afford to go to a decent restaurant and really enjoy a lasagna, I need to be austere. A guy who knows all the food in the world, doomed to counting carbs. How ironic and pitiful is that? Worked hard all those years, and can't even enjoy a nice lasagna, which is, after all, something I just love. I'm just not getting enough enjoyment in this gloomy existence, and will doubtless enjoy still less as time goes on, because that's the way of it. Lasagna is just one example of all I've been denied, all injustice and cruelty. I'm living my dark ages! No lasagna, and I love lasagna! I love lasagna!!!

I could whine on. Pages of it. Hours, even days, of it! I have a brain which makes connections, and analyzes the basis of things. I could direct those faculties toward my lasagna deprivation, and easily spin up a mental world of grim desolation, weaving together all previous disappointments and bitter ironies; a dystopia in which I, unhappy wraith, am forever imprisoned.

But for some reason I just don't.

It's not that I exert mental discipline, or have learned to think positively, or to count my blessings in order to soldier on within this traumatic, tragic situation of non-lasagna eating. I just don't identify with that narrative, because I see it as empty drama. There are so many things to eat, to do, and to enjoy. It takes way more mental energy to obsess over the absent than it does to simply immerse in what's at hand! That's why depressed people feel so worn out; it's tremendously sapping to create, perpetuate, and inhabit a fantasy world built upon What's Missing!

If I don't obsess over lasagna, then lasagna remains what it actually is: something I love when it's in front of me....and a happy memory when it's not. I don't make its absence a symbol of all that's ever gone wrong. Its absence adds no weight to my burden. I hardly think about it. Why would I?

And here's the thing: aside from basic human needs like food, health, and shelter, anything grieved for is unnecessary baggage arbitrarily loaded on by a hyperactive, capricious mind. Anything else is just stories we tell ourselves.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Arnie Lawrence

Here's a shocking revelation for jazz fans: those guys you're listening to, who seem to be playing as one, aren't listening to each other. Almost nobody listens to each other. Players mostly just go about their jazzy business, mechanically fulfilling their roles. The drummer keeps a beat, the bassist walks, the pianist plays chords, and horn players take turns showering notes atop it all, ala karaoke. They have on their "game faces", but, underneath, they're nearly as bored as you are.

They're proffering a skill set rather than creating beauty or conjuring miracles of spontaneity. In fact, words like "beauty" or "spontaneity" are foreign to jazz musicians (at least when they're not giving interviews). They ply their trade, like plumbers or dry wall specialists. They're rarely surprised or surprising.

One might blame Miles Davis, who dressed sharp and acted cocky, yet played trumpet with the raw plaintive emotional honesty of a vulnerable little girl. The contrast was compelling, and won him stardom. Ever since, musicians have emulated the easier piece - acting cocky - but, when it comes to emotional honesty, well, they can stick a mute in their horn and play long willowy notes just like Miles. That's the same thing, no?

Jazz musicians at some point became a tribe of posers, phoning it in, barely listening to each other, playing the same drilled-in patterns over and over, and faking their emotions. Watch the faux-impassioned faces in this video, as a long procession of them try to sell a hoary old "lick":

There was a musician who tried to go the other way, who only played what he honestly felt, who was spontaneous, and who listened so hard that his ears became more than just passive receivers, nearly attaining the power to pull from the air music which was not there to begin with. He was, I'm proud to say, my mentor. A saxophonist named Arnie Lawrence, whose 76th birthday would have been yesterday if he hadn't died much too soon.

I met Arnie at the impressionable age of 14, attending one of his legendary master classes. At this one, he spent hours getting a room of hot shot high school-aged musicians to play the swing-era standard "Lady Be Good" - just the melody - over and over like a sacred chant until we all played as one; until it swung. He played along with us, concentrating so fiercely, his bushy eyebrows knit together with such intensity, that I had the uncanny feeling that his ears were actually drawing music out of me. Naturally, I assumed this was what the music business must be like. This was was the big leagues; this was jazz. I instantly resolved to become a musician, and to always swing, and to never not listen.

The other teachers at the seminar treated Arnie with great deference. He'd been a hot player in town during the 60's and 70's, when Johnny Carson (a big music fan with exquisite taste) taped his show in New York and would return from commercials with the big band's alto saxophonist wailing his heart out for a brief second or two until Johnny tapped his pencil to bring the music to a sudden halt. "Arnie Lawrence, ladies and gentleman," Johnny would sometimes cry, clapping wildly himself.

I stayed in touch with Arnie, who would later mentor swarms of other 15-year olds, including some who went on to great success (e.g. John Popper of Blues Traveler). I popped in on as many of his classes as I could, where I loved to watch him confuse the bejesus out of students by challenging them to swing so hard they'd make the lights go out, or to play a happy blues, or to play the one note they'd play if they only had one note left in them.

Arnie had released a record way back in the 1960's where his group made disjointed, frankly sort of noisy sounds in a recording studio while his toddler son traipsed around banging on things and giggling. The band was called "The Children of All Ages", and the idea was typically profound yet over-earnest: try following the musical instincts of children rather than reigning them in. But while he was at the bleeding edge of the avante garde, Arnie also was totally comfortable accompanying torch singers and playing straight-ahead jazz and blues. He was a chameleon, deeply integrating with whatever was happening around him.

He didn't think of himself that way, of course. In his mind, it was all the same - always listening, and always ready to find the most beautiful, honest, soulful note to play after whatever just happened; the note that might be the perfect cure for the ills of the moment, or the cherry on the sundae when swing had already fully ignited. The music never ended. Ears were always open, and saxophone was close at-hand, leaving him ready to resume his contribution at any moment, under whatever circumstances the universe might present. It wasn't that Arnie was versatile, it was that he was completely responsive, come what may.

When I turned professional, I started hearing stories about him. For example, at the height of her post-Cabaret stardom, Liza Minnelli toured with what was surely one one of the greatest bands ever assembled. Her show began with a solo sax wailing, a capella, in the darkness before she was introduced; Arnie consistently left audiences mesmerized. He didn't read music, and so couldn't participate much in the rest of the show. Arnie was simply the secret weapon bands would roll out when they needed a home run.

In the midst of this high-paying, ultra-prestigious tour with the hottest act in show biz, where he was featured and given free reign, legend has it that Arnie went up to Liza and told her, without venom, "You don't swing," (pretty much the only mortal sin in Arnie Lawrence's universe), "and I quit."

Arnie never really got his career back on track. He floundered for years. The Johnny/Liza generation, which recognized and respected the cantorial magic of an Arnie Lawrence, was fading, and Walkman culture had arrived. Jazz became simply another flavor of sonic wallpaper. Unless you had a big name with the general public - carefully-fashioned by expensive publicity professionals - bandleaders expected you to keep your head down and to blend in; to play merely competently and not attract undue attention. This, obviously, wasn't Arnie's specialty. And it was harder and harder for him to lead his own band, as fewer and fewer people were around who remembered his heyday.

But right around then Arnie had a brainstorm. He'd start a new kind of jazz school; one run like a mentorship, rather than via the model of classical music conservatories. And he did it! He launched Jazz at The New School, and it was, for a while, like one long Arnie Lawrence master class, complete with metaphysical challenges and trippy group incantations. I was a professional by this time, having already matriculated through a more informal Arnie University, but I hung out there when I could. A few early students went on to become big names.

At the time, they complained about the chaos and ambiguity, but today they all look back with vast gratitude. It goes without saying that the program eventually snapped back to a more traditional format and Arnie was forced out. But a great deal of good was done. A minor miracle, this program changed the course of jazz in small but important ways.

I'd drive around the tristate area catching every Arnie gig I could, and often sat in. He frequently found himself in strange or even ridiculous situations - hired to play in a supper club alongside a non-musician owner who fancied himself a jazz drummer...or playing with dodgy rock bands at the invitation of one of his students (Arnie somehow became known as a mentor to rock and rollers, too). Every gig Arnie ever had - and I went to a ton of them - forced him to play into a stiff headwind. I never once saw Arnie fully comfortable, but I came to so enjoy watching him navigate obstacle courses, that I finally decided this was Arnie at his best. If he ever played with a proper group in a proper setting in front of a proper crowd, he'd probably have had a heart attack. I really can't even visualize it.

Playing terrible music in terrible places with terrible crowds for terrible money, Arnie would nonetheless play like his life depended on each note. He'd sanctify the room. And he never stopped listening. He listened with Buddha depth to musicians who had absolutely nothing to offer, and it was contagious; you'd find yourself listening to that non-drummer owner, your ears somehow locating his primal humanity, the pure soul behind those regrettable movements of hands and feet. You'd find the place where it was music.

Arnie's ears processed it all and made it all okay. Even chatty customers sometimes found themselves caught in Arnie's deep listening, and shit would transform to pearls. Sometimes. Mostly, though, shit remained shit. Yet Arnie never flinched, never closed his ears, not even for a moment. Jesus may have died to redeem our sins, but Arnie spent 66 years keenly listening, with much the same intent.

I once stood with him in the back of a suburban jazz club where a crowd of local musicians held forth with the gravitas typical of big fish in small ponds. It was a special event, and all the "names" were there, posturing their way through standards in tribute to the birth or death of some so-and-so. Arnie and I sat there, waiting to go on, and nary an honest note had been played all night, despite the crowd's whoops and cheers.

This, in the end, was the music business. This was jazz. Yet Arnie stood there, like Diogenes with his lamp, eyes tightly shut and head nodding intently, trying, as always, through the sheer power of his superhuman attention and concentration, to pull something profound from the din. Not me. Dejected by the empty bluster and discoordination on the distant stage, I peered over at Arnie, and said, with a sneer, "You know, Arnie, I'm sorry I ever met you." Arnie (known for his great sense of humor), froze for an instant, but then his eyes twinkled, a grin started spreading wider and wider, and he began laughing in great guffaws, nearly choking himself. I think, for a brief moment, he might have even stopped listening.

Late in his flock mentoring period, just before he moved to Israel to launch a series of projects bringing together Jewish and Palestinian musicians in dangerous basement rooms in occupied territories (where I have no doubt Arnie wove the sounds of shells and sirens into his solos as if they were musical gifts from angels), every gig of Arnie's was beginning to include a great many of his current followers, each of them invited to play (as I was, back in the day). You'd need to wait a very long time to hear Arnie blow. Again, every Arnie gig had a headwind. And some of the problems - e.g. audiences forced to listen to kid after long-winded, untalented kid - were self-inflicted.

The really distressing thing is these flocks of students - who followed Arnie everywhere and appeared to appreciate his magic - didn't listen, or swing, or play any more honestly than anyone else. To be sure, they all acted the part. Like mini-Arnies, they'd furrow their brows and make a theatrical display of deep seriousness. But it was always all about them, rather than the music. They had absorbed only the most superficial layer. To this day, I never attend Arnie tributes, because I know I'll be hearing exactly the sort of playing Arnie urged against. I feel his friction and frustration even years after his death.

I know very well that I ought to attend anyway, and use my ears to hear my way back into the divinity of each musician, transmogrifying careless notes into something deeper and more touching. I can do it, too, but I lack the stamina, the concentration, the open-heartedness to keep it up for long. I am, alas, not Arnie Lawrence, either.

The last time Arnie ever heard me "play" was at a public jam session in a Manhattan club. It was my turn to solo, so I stepped up to the microphone. The rhythm section was scrambling. The pianist and bassist were in their own worlds, not hearing a thing, and the drummer was playing so densely and show-offishly that it sounded like a non-stop drum solo. I brought my trombone to my mouth, and listened, patiently, for a point of entry....for the drummer to calm down and for the others to notice something was missing - the very thing I myself might then contribute. I waited and waited, but space never opened. It was like entering a crowded freeway; sometimes, no matter how sensitively one moves up the ramp, there's just no way to gracefully merge without bashing other cars.

I waited longer still, but no one aside from the baffled audience seemed to notice my non-solo. Finally, I lowered my horn, shrugged, and quietly walked off the stage. Not with any anger or embarrassment, though; there was simply no call for a trombone solo; nowhere to actually put one. Another horn player might have bashed through, muscling his way in. I could have done the same, but it wouldn't have been musical. It would have disrespected the music. And respect for the music - even bad music - comes first. Sometimes the most musical thing one can play is silence.

I knew I'd "played" well. But I'd violated a taboo. One doesn't walk off stage during one's allotted time. To the other horn players, and to the audience, I seemed to have contracted some sort of stage fright. Spooked and confused, they gently leaned away, en masse, as I strolled back toward the bar. Finally, I passed Arnie, who looked over, grinning, and said "nice solo!". And I knew he meant it.

Here he is (the sax player with the beard) playing with Dizzy Gillespie, soloing near the beginning, and again, later, on a different song (and playing a little better), at 18':30':

Consider buying "Renewal", one of his best straight-ahead records.

The Middle-Eastern funky trance jazz of Arnie's group "Treasure Island" is long out of print, but a couple tracks are up on YouTube:


A quick, easy test to determine whether you hate someone:

If this person were to disappear - to move to another country and never, ever be heard from ever again - would you wish them an unhappy life?

Monday, July 7, 2014


If you ever find yourself in a room with 100 people who are big fans of what you do, here's what you can expect:

35 of them will show positive vibes. Such people are a pleasure to meet, but also a bit creepy. We know how to meet new people, and we know how to be admiring fans. But meeting someone whose work we admire is unfamiliar social ground (when even familiar social ground is hard enough for most people). So, weird things are said and strange things happen.

One problem is they see you primarily as an image. And images don't comfortably translate into flesh-and-blood (or vice versa). As I once wrote:
"[Fame can feel] quite disturbing and artificial. For one thing, it's never truly directed at you; it focuses on a facet of a layer of a static image which happens to have your name affixed to it. And you play little part in choosing which facet of which layer of which image is focused upon. The assignment process is remarkably similar to the way children get dubbed with nicknames."
20 of them look a lot like the previous group, but as you talk to them, it becomes eerily clear that they know almost nothing about you - haven't read a word you've written or listened to a note you've sung. They just recognize your name, and that you're well-known in a field they think is cool.

If it seems crazy that such people would consider themselves fans, take mental stock, yourself. Have you actually read every writer, heard every singer, and viewed the work of every filmmaker for whom you have a reasonably positive feeling? I'd bet good money that more than one person has approached Ann Coulter to tell her what fans they are, and to encourage her to keep giving hell to those damned conservatives.

25 of them will cringe at the solicitousness of the crowd. Resisting conformity - not wanting to, like, kiss your ass - they'll feign cool indifference. If you're a sensitive type, such people will unsettle you, because their efforts to appear uncaring are difficult to distinguish from genuine ill will.

10 of them will unsettle you whether you're sensitive or not. They'll go too far with their feigning, to the point of open hostility. They try to provoke attention - any attention. If you'll show them the slightest kindness, they'll fall all over you....and in that, too, they'll go to far, making you wish you'd kept ignoring them.

5 of them are egotists who feel challenged by your very existence. Their being fans of you, but not vice versa, is an asymmetry which they can only blame on you. They can only surmise that you're an arrogant, stuck-up, conceited asshole...before you've even said a word. They will put everything they've got into taking you down a notch, because, really, who do you think you are, anyway?

The remaining 5 aren't offended by their admiration of you, don't try to provoke your attention via bad behavior, don't pretend they don't care, actually know what you do, and understand that you're not the embodiment of some static image. They see you as a person - no more, no less - but with a positive disposition due to their admiration of your work. Repeat: this only happens 5% of the time.

See: also Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories"

I'd imagine highly attractive people draw attention in roughly the same proportions. I'm grateful not to be handsome; my looks don't make people act weird; there's no image-versus-reality confusion. And the cool 5% aren't like needles in haystacks; they're the only ones who want to talk to me!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

More Old Writings

I fixed some broken links on the "Selected Writings" page of my semi-dormant web site, including one to a rather provocative (and not yet proven prescient) article predicting utopia, rather than dystopia, in the future of artificial flavorings.

I've also just added the introduction to my Eclectic Gourmet Guide book, which offered some tips for restaurant spotting.

Also noted on that page, I did an ambitious tour for the company that bought Chowhound, eating my way across thousands of miles of unfamiliar landscape, proceeding entirely via the seat of my pants (I shunned tips, experts, and even Chowhound itself). In a truly unsurprising development, the series was soon made unreadable due to design bugs which have still not been resolved. But you can read a nice clean version, starting here and navigating via the table of contents on the right. Here are some highlights (as listed on that same "Selected Writings" page):

The Greatest (Chowhounding) Story Ever Told (in rural Kentucky)
36 Sublime Hours in Newfoundland
The Enchanted Misty Mountain of Tea and Excrement
Chow Tour Redux (or, Lots and Lots of Millet) (thinking back on What It All Meant)
Vacation Tamales (incredible tamale place in Puerto Vallarta)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Sucking....and Pretending to Suck

I always check out new potato chips brands as I spot them. It's an area of intense interest for me; I've tried most brands available in this country. In fact, I once hosted perhaps the most ambitious potato chip tasting ever, where we tasted through dozens of great brands (in the aftermath, I noticed that each guest had consumed an average of one entire gallon of bottled water). (These are unquestionaly the best)

It's seldom money wasted, because most upstart chip companies make damned good chips. It's not a business people enter unless they're died-in-the-wool spud-ficionados. True believers.

But today I bought some "Billy Goat" chips, which come in an appealing little brown paper sack.
Looked great, but the potatoes were abysmal - every other chip had a big black/purple splotch undetected by their quality control - the slicing was thinner than Lays, and the oil had no character. My tiny 3oz sack of chips cost a big $4, and the chips were utterly blah. A "5" on my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating foods from 1 to 10. These were way, way, worse than the most commercial supermarket brands.

I was trying to figure out what I can learn from this experience when I noticed, on the back of the bag, a long list of things these chips are not:
No preservatives
No Trans Fats
Kosher Certified

....and, presumably, no animal testing, no radioactive fallout, and entirely peanut-free.

When a product's defined by what it's not (and the manufacturer's plainly reaching to come up with stuff to list), it's safe to say the product isn't primarily intended to wow.

I once had a heated argument with a baker of gluten-free desserts. I pointed out that she was essentially putting down her own products by defining them by what they're not...when, actually, they're estimably delicious even for those unaffected by the gluten fad. She couldn't even input my point. Her products were gluten-free, period. That was always her intention, and that's that. Any deliciousness was purely corollary.

This brings me to a seldom-discussed chowhounding phenomena. Every once in a while, someone opens a restaurant parroting someone's disgusting, soulless formula, but the food, almost by accident, is surprisingly good. A plastic, antiseptic, shiny, bullshit place turns out to actually be delicious. The proprietors never imagined marketing on the basis of quality. It never would have occurred to them; that's not their business model. So they pretend to suck, hoping to horn in on the success previous sucky businesses have reaped.

It's extremely easy to overlook such places because we assume imitators of suckiness must stem from the lowest circle of hell in the chowhounding pantheon. What, after all, is more pathetic than a Kenny G clone?

But a Kenny G clone can, I'm forced to admit, move you in spite of himself. And a cookie engineered to be nothing more than gluten-free can wail. And a plastic shiny chain wannabe can be awesome (my fave of the moment: Potatopia).

Anything can be great. But, alas, so can anything - even fried slices of yummy potatoes - suck. It's all in the iteration.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Kickstarter Ethics

I just participated in a Kickstarter campaign by contributing a premium. And when I examined the other premiums, I noticed something unusual.

The campaign was being run as an act of charity, and more backers would allow more charity to be done. In this case, more copies of a book could be published and distributed to poor people for free. If the campaign raised $20,000, 1,000 extra copies would be produced at $4 per copy. $55,000 would mean 8,000 copies at $4 per. And $95,000 would mean 16,000 copies at $4 apiece. Etc..

This puzzled me, because it doesn't take into account economies of scale. More books cost less, per book, to produce! I asked the campaign's organizer about this, and was told that the reasoning was complicated, but that, for one thing, the savings at higher scale would allow her to recoup some money for her time and effort (it's more work to produce/distribute at higher scale).

It seems eminently reasonable. But it's also not disclosed. And I'm not clear on the ethics. It calls to mind when we asked Chowhound users to pay, on the honor system, for their use of the site (which, at its height, was costing $3,000/month in bandwidth overcharges, plus accounting/tech/graphics and other expenses). The question sat in the back of my mind: what if we raised more than we needed? Would I be ethically at fault if I took a few bucks for my work? The only reason my work wasn't increasing the site's financial burden was that I was, insanely, working for free. That was not long-term viable, and not being evicted from my apartment was unquestionably vital for the web site's survival.

It never became an issue, because income never came near our expenses. But, in hindsight, taking pay for myself would have been perfectly appropriate, because we weren't a charity. We'd installed an honor-system customer payment system for services rendered, period. If I'd spent the revenue on hookers and blow, that would have been my business.

But a Kickstarter campaign isn't a charity, either, and rigorous disclosure isn't part of the model. So it's a no-man's-land. Buying staples for the office is obviously an appropriate expense to take out of contributions. How about reimbursing yourself for your own staples that have been used? How about your cab ride to Staples to buy the staples? How about your time spent taking that cab ride? How about your rent while this is all happening?

When you're part of the campaign, how can you separate yourself from the campaign? Must everyone on Kickstarter (and similar sites) have a saintly devotion to poverty? If not, that creates a hell of a slippery slope.

Dunning–Kruger Effect

A number of my writings here on the Slog turn out to have retreaded something I didn't know about until today (thanks, Paul Trapani). It's called the Dunning–Kruger Effect. Take it away, Wikipedia:
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias manifesting in two principal ways:

Unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.

Those persons to whom a skill or set of skills come easily may find themselves with weak self-confidence, as they may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.
The Wikipedia page is blessedly terse and clear, and well worth a read. Also, it shows that I'm far from the only person to have independently noticed this via observation and intuition (see the "Historical References" section). But I believe Dunning and Kruger have pinned down only a chunk of a larger problem - one this Slog often blunders around and obliquely alludes to, without ever quite nailing it.

The related Impostor Syndrome is, in my view, a feature rather than a bug. One's failure to "internalize ones accomplishments" is another way of describing a reluctance to puff up into an arrogant putz just because something's gone well for you. Arrogance is elective, and I feel tremendous dismay for a society that would deem someone damaged for choosing another route.

There's no surer way to dry one's flow, to kill the golden-egg-laying goose, than to take one's temperature; to live in one's own contrails; to sniff one's own farts. Or to forget Banksy's wise observation that doing inspired work to garner acclaim is like eating a great dinner in order to take a shit.

Pardon my vulgarity, but I find the assumptions behind Impostor Syndrome too repulsive for more genteel terms.

Here's a list of more-or-less related postings.

Blog Archive