Friday, November 30, 2012

All Things Old....

Way back in 2001, Seth Godin offered me some good advice. I'd added a pitch to Chowhound's front page to sell our newsletters, and Seth suggested we try a range of different wordings (and fonts, etc.), and then track how well each "converts" (i.e. persuades people to actually buy), eventually determining the optimal recipe.

It's a brute force method useful only when there's a large enough flow of people to create statistically significant results - and when there's an effective and inexpensive means for tracking their behavior. This makes it ideally suited to high-volume web sites. But while I appreciated the idea's ingenuity, I opted not to try it, for various reasons (foremost: I needed to focus ever-decreasing time on either improving the site itself or on improving our business, and, not being a businessman, I chose the former...hoping, perhaps naively, that a great, useful site with lots of traffic might eventually be of interest to someone).

Twelve years later, the Obama campaign used the same approach, and is being roundly congratulated for its cutting-edge geeky cleverness (note: they were, indeed, very, very clever; I'm not trying to diminish that).

Interestingly, Reed Harper, the guy running this aspect of the campaign, started out as Godin's intern!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Dustbowl Politics

I just caught the second part of Ken Burn's superb "The Dustbowl" about a seldom-covered but shocking chapter of American history (Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath", which was by no means a complete account, was such an all-encompassing blockbuster that media for decades has hesitated to retread that period).

The parallels to current issues like climate change, short-sighted greed, and the role of the federal government in fiscal stimulus and in calamity relief are quite clear. But I was even more fascinated by the conservative side, which wasn't covered directly. The program filled in a few pieces for me.

I've long understand how the South turned Republican. Nixon's Southern strategy was cemented by the unholy coalition between evangelicals and billionaires. What I've been less clear on is why so many western ranchers, so flagrantly enjoying the federal dole, have a hypocritical Libertarian streak. And I haven't at all understood what made Orange County, California so staunchly conservative. Neither question was directly answered in the program, but one can connect the dots.

First, Orange County. When thousands of "Oakies", starving and desperate, fled the Dust Bowl for fertile central California, it triggered, naturally, a backlash against the flood of paupers by locals fearing overburdened social services, grimy human blight, and just the whole overall bummer of all these poor people who don't "share our values". Ok, that certainly accounts for the firm foundation of conservatism in the most emigrated-to part of the state.

(Their ungraciousness seems utterly heartless, considering what those folks had gone through, but I can remember back in the 1960s and 1970s how twangy-talking people wearing overalls crammed into overloaded trucks were cliched images of derision. Whether they were "hillbillies" (impoverished Appalachians) or "Oakies" (impoverished Dustbowlers), I myself laughed at parodies of these shabby hayseeds and it's only at this late date of 2012 that I really see who those people were and what they went through. So I myself am capable of the same ungraciousness.)

Back in the Plains States, post-Dustbowl, the government, trying to keep too much soil from being worked (over-development had caused the dust/erosion problem in the first place), began paying farmers and ranchers not to grow things. And the speculators who'd greedily torn up their soil with unsustainable plowing (causing the catastrophe); and who'd bailed out during the dust bowl years, making them much more severe (small farmers who'd stuck around practiced new techniques of soil conservation during the crisis, but the abandoned farms' soil kept blowing over and burying their own fields), ran back as soon as the drought abated. They accepted the federal dole, and started growing lots of water-intensive hog feed, draining the Ogallala Aquifer below the region, which will spur a new dust bowl (this time with no drinking water) in a couple of decades. And those short-sighted, predatory, hypocritical dole-taking assholes are, unsurprisingly, Libertarians (or, I should say, cynical Libertarian poseurs...I do understand what true Libertarianism theoretically is).

Of course, the full story is surely complicated. For one thing, it's hard to grok why the descendents of suffering Dustbowlers saved by the New Deal went nearly entirely Republican - with an innate preference for Hoover-ish budget austerity during massive unemployment. Though if there's one lesson to be learned from all this, it's that we have extremely short memories...so I shouldn't be surprised.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Limitation

A reader writes:
"I went back and read your entries from the ChowTour 2006 – and I still remember your Kugel Catharsis article – and your review of the International Food Store in Lodi --  and my eyes tear. Being an Orthodox Jew – Ill never get to partake in 99% of what you had reviewed. Now – back to our memories of NewfoundLAND...."
I talk to lots of eaters, and everyone has limitations of one sort of another. Some have allergies, some are vegetarians, some have health problems, others are obese and trying valiantly not to be. Some simply live in areas with monotonous food choices, while others can't afford anything beyond rice and beans. And lots of people are just naturally picky (I was the pickiest child on Earth; my father sneeringly referred to me as "Charley Gourmet").

But the most mournful of all seem to be those who keep kosher. Deprivation of bacon and scallops (and, for some, anything lacking the stamp of just the right rabbi) makes them rue the vast swathes of deliciousness they're missing. I'll resist the impulse to make a crack about praying for a miraculous alleviation of piety, and tackle the issue directly:

I must be one of the freest eaters ever. I'm familiar with lots of cuisines, and feel comfortable striding into restaurants filled with people who don't look like me. I can't afford to eat high end every day, or even every week, but I can try such places once in a while, plus all-I-can-eat pizza slices and tacos. I can travel pretty easily; being a New York jazz musician is a little bit like being a Japanese karate pro - I can quickly find work anywhere in the world to help defray costs. I'm extremely omnivorous; I'll eat anything (except blu cheese, liver, stinky tofu, olives, and hot dogs). And I can go explore at the drop of a hat, thanks to being single and having a flexible freelancer schedule. Best of all, I like to drive!

But even I am extremely limited. Crushingly limited. Downright hog-tied! I can't eat before the gym or twice-daily meditation, which creates huge logistical burdens. I can't eat at night or I get heartburn. I can't eat a lot, or I get fat. I can't eat sugar or I get addicted. I can't eat salt or I bloat (I do all these things sometimes, of course, but must choose my battles). And I can't eat what's not here. The supernal roasted chicken from La Llar De L'all I Oli just outside Barcelona is not available to me right now. And it's worse for me than for you, because while you can only dream of shrimp chow fun, I have unlawful carnal knowledge of this poultry. It haunts me so.

There's unavoidable limitation in any human pursuit. And even sterner limitations apply, paradoxically, to those who've scratched out some extra freedom. Like any candy store worker, I've been taught tough lessons. I don't spend every waking moment darting to places like Worcester, even though I nearly could. The last time I did that for a sustained period of time, I wound up exhausted, sickened, bloated and jaded. Have a look at the slideshow documenting all food eaten during that two month Chow Tour assignment. As one eye-buggingly succulent dish after another zooms by, you'll go through Elisabeth Kübler-Chowhound's five stages of food grief: wonder, hunger, nausea, pity, and death (my boss at CNET simply couldn't understand why I insisted on scoring it to such sorrowful music). The next time you regret food limitations, just replay that slideshow. See freedom and retch.

Creativity thrives under limitation. If you can only eat snickerdoodles, well, just work your ass off to find (or to bake) ridiculously great ones! I once met a guy who suffers from Homocystinuria, a rare condition where you can't tolerate gluten or protein. He eats sublimely, with the infinite care not of a sufferer but of an aesthete. Under such conditions, you can either mourn (a calamari kaddish?) or else do what every human being is challenged to do in every realm and in every moment, anyway: play the cards you're dealt, hoping to make the best of it by investing all creativity, drive, and passion into coughing up something stupendous in spite of it all!

In other words: go find some ridiculously great glatted-up snickerdoodles, and make me jealous!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Ids and Dust

Every generation thinks something essential has been lost from the previous. And, indeed, it always has been. Progress is destructive. Even shifting status quo is destructive. Time itself, really, is destructive.

What's destroyed is usually cultural, though. Languages die, bits of knowledge are lost, nobody appreciates a swinging rhythm section anymore ever since those four British kids with the funny haircuts started selling all them records. Styles change, but the essential qualities of human nature never vary.

Or do they? I've been watching Ken Burns' The Dustbowl (currently on PBS, and great), which included this quote from an Oklahoma resident at the height of the catastrophe:
"We are trying to hope that the worst is over, Yet today, after we thought the drought had been effectively broken, we had another terrible day of violent wind, drifting clouds of dust, and russian thistles racing like mad across the plains and piling up in head-high impassible banks. We feel as if the administration is really making a sincere effort to improve general conditions, but they have a tremendous task."
That strikes me as a communication received from another galaxy. I recall widespread bitter outrage at the government's failure to foresee and prevent a few guys from hijacking airplanes with box cutters. I see Hurricane Sandy victims who ignored evacuation orders venting righteous fury at the government for its lagging efforts to rescue them. I see a nation of pure, raging, childish id.

Iddy Americans demand omniscient omnipresence from their government, while demanding lower taxes. We didn't pass Obama's jobs bill - composed almost entirely of Republican proposals - and while unemployment has improved nonetheless, we scream bloody hell about how he - personally! - hasn't improved the situation fast enough. It comes down to this: where's my damned job?

We want, and we want right now, and extenuating circumstances are just not our problem. Romney was right about "takers", but he was wrong about that 47% figure. It's closer to 100%. And the fact that he himself apparently paid no tax at all for years, yet muttered about freeloaders who pay no taxes, is just the perfect icing on my argument.

Hypocrisy is the effect, not the cause. What's happening is the extreme endgame of unbridled, imperious, screaming/grabbing id. And it wasn't always thus. The more I think about it, the more it stupefies me: Starving Oklahoma farmers, walking around with heads wrapped in wet cloths, their babies dying, the dust up to their barn roofs, their crops and livestock dead, acknowledging that the government's doing its best, but, hey, this is a really tough problem. Can you imagine such a reasonable statement being made - even in situations far less dire - in this century?

Postcards From My Childhood Part 4: Backsplash

Previous installment
First installment

"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget. As my fiftieth birthday approaches, I'm revisiting them.


As a child, my technique for relaxing and falling asleep was to visualize a stressful moment I'd experienced during the day, and to imagine myself, in that moment, falling down into a cozy bed.

It worked well, but, after a while, I discovered to my horror that whenever anything stressful happened, I'd find myself growing sleepy and wanting to fall down into a cozy bed.

I felt it was important to remember this backlash effect...hence the postcard.


Read the next installment

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Cosmonaut Can't Be Sam Kinison

The reader replies to my last posting:
"I was a few degrees from the warlord fantasy, however I think the problem was actually getting myself to believe the simple fantasy I came up with, so a more fantastic fantasy might not have helped.  I really think I would have been fine if I could have convinced myself it was my old buddy or a kind relative in the next room watching TV. I just couldn't sell it to myself, which is what I need to work on, I believe."
I see my mistake. I've appeared to be selling this as some sort of self-help "solution". But it's not that. I've left out an essential step: first, you need to recognize, at some level, that the key to life is learning to want what you get rather than learning to get what you want. It's only useful for those who've already developed (or been born with) a bit of equanimity; who've already sanely realized that (as I wrote here): "Amid all the childish Sturm und Drang in a world where petty, arbitrary predilections are grasped for with utter tenacity - and little lasting satisfaction - it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that, really, it hardly matters, one way or the other."

You have to really feel that. Otherwise, you'll imagine this is about tricking yourself into believing that "bad" things are really "good" things. If you see those labels as absolutely ironclad, none of this is for you. In fact, the labeling is the problem! Equanimity is the capacity for loosening up on that labeling.

There are two paths to equanimity: via meditation, or via lots of abrasive time spent in a state of agitated frustration with the obvious ineffectiveness of one's toy steering wheel. Either route eventually alleviates the compulsion to viscerally need this or that result. It releases the delusion of control; it's not a shiny new means for imposing control.

The problem is that a bit of perspective and equanimity won't completely settle everything on a dime. Hormones and emotions and memories and the oceans of unconscious urges and fears remain in play. Also, we tend to forget and flip back, because old habits die hard. It's at times like this that the Cosmonaut/Warlord move helps. It's a dab of emotional salve allowing our bodies, emotions, and unconsciousness to catch up with our wisdom.

It's a way to sooth errant wafts of anxiety, just as we lull children - innate sweet-sleepers who can nonetheless get worked into tizzies from their comparatively mild little anxieties - via bedtime stories and teddy bears. Most grown-ups are too encrusted with aggregated urges and aversions to benefit much from mere lulling.

If the cosmonaut were, like, Sam Kinison, this move wouldn't have helped in the least. The cosmonaut didn't say "I'd better figure out what to do so I don't go berserk from that GODDAM BEEPING! I know....maybe I'll pretend it's friggin' angels or something so I won't be bothered by that GODDAM BEEPING anymore!" It's not a move to exert control by pretending to want what you get! It's not reprogramming. It's just a playful gambit to shift perspective. But if you can't for the life of you see that beeping is, on one level, just beeping - if you make your annoyance paramount, and decide that beeping just inescapably sucks - then you're stuck. No mere trickery can help you flip. You'll die in the space capsule with your face twisted into a tortured grimace.
"I definitely need to put more effort into it.  I think I will start meditating and see if that helps me control where my thoughts go."
Let me save you time. You can't. We don't think our thoughts. They just appear, wafting up from deep unconsciousness; from deep in the crud. The answer isn't to try to better control it all, but to flip to the extreme opposite tack - letting things be. And meditation brings a letting go - the very opposite of control. So beware (but don't worry; you won't fall, you'll float)!
"I can see how it will be a handicap if I can't tame my brain to allow me to sleep with a little TV in the background."
You can relieve your bondage to your chattering brain via meditation. But nothing short of a lobotomy can "tame" your brain. Remember, it's all crud, down to the very core. Don't polish the turd, just escape self-delusion by recognizing the futility of straining for a given result. Recognize that it's about calmly playing the hand you're dealt. Do as my GPS does whenever circumstances don't match with preference: recalculate!
"Yeah, next time I'll tell them to knock it off.  That's part of the problem, they are a constant nuisance so the moment I hear that TV (music, partying etc.) I go straight to super pissed because there is a history with them.
Going inward to avoid the friction and pain of external interaction is a very bad idea. It will just atrophy your real-world skills - your ability to calmly play the hand you're dealt. And telling yourself fantastic stories to empower inward escapism is worse still. That's a route to madness. The cosmonaut wasn't looking for an easy escape from a challenging problem. He was just beautifully accepting what he truly couldn't change.

The Frustrated Cosmonaut

A reader writes (in response to that video I keep flogging over and over again, wherein a cosmonaut transforms hellish noise into heavenly rapture via a shift of perspective):
" I tried really hard late last night to turn the sound of my downstairs neighbor's television into 1) the sound of people I care about chatting and 2) the sound of people I care about watching TV.  I knew I wouldn't get far trying to turn it into music a la the cosmonaut since it was only audible at random moments.  I failed, but eventually got to sleep anyway.  I guess it takes some practice."
You didn't put enough effort into that!

You are from Uganda, and your young children were taken from you by warlords. You passed an agonizing decade not knowing whether they were dead or alive and assuming you'd never see them again. Then, while traveling to another city, you were serendipitously reunited. They'd escaped the warlord but couldn't figure out how to get home. Overjoyed beyond words, you packed them into your car and drove them back home, where you all enjoyed a celebratory feast, and, after many hugs and tears, you finally went to bed. Your kids, happy and relieved to be back in the family living room, stay up watching television. As you turn out your light and pull up your blankets, you notice the noise, and your immediate instinct is to ask them to turn down the volume. But, no; you decide the sound of your beloved long-lost children right there in the next room, safe and cozy, enjoying the TV, is so dear to your heart that you wouldn't change a thing. After a decade of starkly silent nights, you drift off to the first deep slumber you've experienced in a very long time.

Seems like a long way to go? Is it a bit bit loopy and deranged to invest so much mental energy in sheer fantasy? As I wrote here:
"Human beings spend their lives in conflict with imaginary people: mentally rearguing old arguments, worrying about faceless attackers and detractors, reliving bygone humiliations, and generally using our imaginations to make our lives a living hell. That's considered "normal", but using the same faculty in positive ways to help us cope seems, for some reason, childish and loopy."
On the other hand, while it's critical to cope well with what can't be changed, that imperative oughtn't be used to avoid dealing with what can be changed. So your best solution might be to tell those idiots to turn down their damned TV!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Rage and Love

I was driving out of a store's parking lot, while an old geezer, who was driving poorly, did likewise. He became confused, reaching the (incorrect) conclusion that I'd cut him off so I could exit first.

The guy absolutely flipped. Started honking his horn and screaming out his window at me. It was so over the top that I grew alarmed - worried he might be having some sort of medical problem. So I backed up until my car was parallel to his and opened my window.

No medical problem. He was howling and screaming and cursing at me, his face twisted and red. I waited patiently, then asked, mildly, "Do you always scream at strangers?" His response "No! Only at @#$*s like you, you mother@#$@#ing @#$@ $#@$@#!"

I completely understood how he'd misconstrued things, so there was no call for me to get my own dander up; I just waited for him to finish so I could explain the misunderstanding. But my calm patience only goaded him further, his fury finally reaching a point so over-the-top, so urgently personal, so operatic, that the encounter had come to feel, in the strangest way, incredibly intimate.

It dawned on me that I've never in my life had anyone share quite so much with me. He was hemhoraging his vital energy, shooting stress toxins into his bloodstream, showering his presence and locking his attention, all for a total stranger. It struck me as a staggering display of generosity. I recalled the phrase "I'll give him a piece of my mind!". But it's really heart, I think, not mind. When we get angry at someone, we give them a piece of our heart. It's bewilderingly tender.

When witnessing rage - in yourself or in others - if you can dispassionately disregard the facial expressions and the semantic meaning of the words being uttered, it's clear that rage is love filtered through a colored gel.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Postcards From My Childhood Part 3: The Iron

Previous installment
First installment

"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget. As my fiftieth birthday approaches, I'm revisiting them.


When I was shipped off to college, I was given a strange and foreign object: an iron. And since they don't come with instruction manuals, I had no choice but to teach myself to use it. It wasn't long before I discovered the first rule of ironing: you can't iron away a crease. You can reduce it some, but the fabric will always have an inclination to bend there, and there's no changing that, even with the brutest force.

This for some reason fascinated me. I spent time rolling it around my mind. And, eventually, I had an insight, realizing that there is, after all, one - and only one - way to eliminate a crease: flip the garment and then iron to create an opposite crease.

I realized I'd hit upon an essential truth, and have applied it all my life. For example, if you're plagued by nightmares full of scary monsters, the trick is to love the monsters (this was surely the original intent behind giving children teddy bears).

The cure for ennui: make life exciting for others. If you feel you're not getting your due, work to give others their's. If you feel helpless, help others. If no one understands you, show people you understand them. If you're lonely, ease others' loneliness. If you're sad, cheer people up.

Gandhi's entreaty to be the change you seek in the world, Kennedy's appeal to ask what you can do for your country, and Roosevelt's fear of fear all involve the same mental jujitsu.

I learned to never expect payback. That just creates a new crease. You've got to put all attention on the flip itself, keeping the fabric crisp and well-ironed.

One of the easiest, quickest examples: if you're scared, reassure someone. If there's no one around, an imaginary someone will do. (Human beings spend their lives in conflict with imaginary people: mentally rearguing old arguments, worrying about faceless attackers and detractors, reliving bygone humiliations, and generally using our imaginations to make our lives a living hell. That's considered "normal", but using the same faculty in positive ways to help us cope seems, for some reason, childish and loopy. Noticing this, by the way, entailed yet another flip.)

The biggest/greatest flip of all is well-illustrated by the story of the Russian cosmonaut, re: this movie clip I keep linking to:




Read the next installment

Friday, November 16, 2012

Rare Upstate Oaxacan Outpost

La Amistad Bakery in Newburgh, NY (at 74 Mill St.) sells that rarity of rarities, Oaxacan black mole paste. And also tlayudas, the big rounds of bread traditionally topped, pizza-like, with meats, vegetables, and Oaxacan string cheese (which they also sell).

Naturally, there's also a food concession in the back - which I've never caught at the right time for actual food service - and tamales early on weekends.

There's more Oaxacan stuff further north in Poughkeepsie, I understand.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

My Thoughts on Petraeus

I can't for the life of me understand why anyone ought to care who a capable government official is fucking.

What are we, high school students?

Postcards From My Childhood Part 2: The Piano

Previous installment

"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget. As my fiftieth birthday approaches, I'm revisiting them.


I started taking piano lessons when I was a mere six years old, and it wasn't long before I did what every child is irresistibly compelled to do: I used my forearms to mush down all the keys. And I listened very keenly to the result, which I recognized as more than mere cacophony.

I found, to my delight, that within this jumble of notes was every song. I could, if I concentrated, pick out Row Row Row Your Boat...in any key! TV commercial jingles. Concertos. Every song ever written, and every song that ever might be written was there to be selectively tuned in to. Nothing was "played", yet everything could be "heard".

I had learned a new faculty; focusing attention to create the perception of change, as opposed to the more normal passive perception of change. The sound entering my ears was unvarying - "out there" was an unchanging jumble. But "in here" played exquisite symphonies. It wasn't imagination; the notes had actually been struck. It was just a matter of internally moving one's attention around static notes, rather than having notes externally moved around one's static attention.

On a gut level (I wouldn't have been able to articulate any of this at the time), I came to suspect that this was how it all works. We live surrounded by a static Everything, and apparent movement and change are created by movements of your attention. All notes are struck; we spend our lives arbitrarily tuning in to this or that.

For one thing, where's Heaven, assuming there is one? We've mapped much of the galaxy, but have yet to find an immense cloud populated with happy reclining people. Yet lots of wise people assure us heaven exists. Indeed, I've experienced it, for fleeting moments, and so have you, but we didn't transport up into the sky - nor have we descended for fleeting moments in Hell. Both were experienced (and are always available for re-experiencing) right here.

And what isn't experienced right here? Even when we travel, isn't it always with the same eery, unshakeable sense of right-hereness? Who can fail to suspect that this pervasive Presence isn't the bedrock of it all?

All notes are struck. That's the postcard.


Read the next installment

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Footnote

I've added an asterisked footnote to the previous entry.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Postcards From My Childhood Part 1: The Tree

"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget. As my fiftieth birthday approaches, I'm revisiting them.


Like many kids, I was into lots of stuff. I juggled, did magic tricks, collected baseball cards, read astronomy and science fiction books, played trombone, piano, and basketball, led jazz bands, acted in school plays, published an underground newspaper, shot super 8 movies, and practiced yoga, meditation, and self-hypnosis. I didn't particularly care if I was any good at these things, though. Like Max Fischer, the lead character in Rushmore, I ran on pure fascinated zeal.

One day, while meditating, I managed to accept and forgive the entire universe, and to earnestly offer my body's component molecules to the four winds. It was perfect surrender, accompanied by a profound shift of perspective. My heart contained everything. It contained the universe. I'd had everything backwards - the universe doesn't contain us, we contain it. I knew this with the sober certainty of someone waking from a dream. I understood that it's all perfect.

My reaction, as a twelve year old, was along the lines of "Whoa, that was cool!" I told my mom, who said it sounded very nice and suggested I go outside and play.

I couldn't talk about what I'd experienced, because it was impossible to describe (the above was just a cruddy metaphor), and also because I discovered, over time, that it wasn't something people could relate to. I ranked it on par with single-ear-wiggling as another cool little trick I could do which others can't. And, as I grew busy with other activities, I lost touch with it. I did, however, foresee that I'd later try to reclaim it, and that it wouldn't be easy to do so as a grown-up. So I sent myself this image:
You're sitting on a tree branch, facing the trunk. Use a saw to cut the branch in front of you, crazy though it seems. And have faith: you won't fall, you'll float!
One reason I'd been sanguine about letting this stuff go was was that I knew it didn't matter. The underlying truth is what it is, regardless. If I were to pass decades lost in foggy delusion, it wouldn't make any difference, because upon rediscovering the perfect, timeless truth, nothing would seem to have been lost - the very notion of lostness being part of the delusion. So I sent myself that message with a playful wink, because it absolutely didn't matter. But I knew I'd forget that it didn't matter. Hence the tip.

It's paradoxical, but while it made sense at the time, after several busy and untranscendent decades, I found myself, for the past eight years, determinedly steeping in hours of daily meditation...and endlessly revisiting the tree image. How encrusted I'd become! With all that practice, I passed through the various milestones, and enjoyed some interesting experiences, but my heart, while open, wouldn't expand. I was sawing away at branches, but the damned tree was just a tree!

During Hurricane Sandy, I spent a few days cooped up in the guest room of my mother's apartment. My mom's great but....well, you know how that can be. Plus, I was stressed about the storm damage and my refugee status. I wasn't getting much sleep, and had been surviving on Chinese food delivery and skipping meditation (and stopping meditating can be worse than never having started). In that lousy condition, I trudged out to find gas at the height of the shortage.

After waiting an hour in line for a gas station still a half mile away, my tank nearly empty, a driver cut the line just ahead of me. I jumped out of my car and went apeshit. Yelling and screaming...it wasn't pretty. This was completely unlike me, and I felt deeply shocked and ashamed at myself.

Only for a minute, though. I value moments when errant bits of rabid stakedness gurgle up from my depths. If I can quickly snap back to equanimity, the door remains open for a moment, and the source - the unconscious contraction - can be sussed out, dredged up to awareness and surrendered in meditation along with my better-lit parts. You can't, after all, surrender what you're unaware of.

So a few moments after my shameful display, I caught myself, calmed deeply and probed for the source. To my horror, it wasn't some foggy fearful bit of primal grasping. Rather, it had flowed from my center; my ground zero. The rage had stemmed from the very core of my being. It wasn't something that could be shaved off!

I saw that the years I'd spent meditating, hoping to shave off all the crud, were - enjoyable and salubrious though the practice is - the ultimate example of turd polishing. It's all crud, all the way down. I'd been "letting go" only in the sense of someone standing safely on a concrete ledge, dropping unwanted baggage into a pit. I had to actually jump in, myself! It all needed to be let go of. Anything here [I gesture toward my body] is, in the end, just a mass of congealed urges, fears, and drama. One can peel away at it forever, but that's all there is. To the very core.*

So I smiled and allowed myself to fall blindly backwards into oblivion - to throw away the thrower-awayer. A quick jolt of fear made me hesitate. But suddenly I remembered: Cut the branch in front of you, crazy though it seems. And have faith: you won't fall, you'll float.

Thanks, kid.


* - which isn't to say worthiness never emerges from the crud. It does. But, tellingly, the really good stuff arrives via epiphany, eureka, and inspiration - "out of nowhere" and hard to claim credit for.


Read the next installment

Saturday, November 10, 2012

I Think the Right Will Split...Hard

On election night, I posted that "Hispanics/Latinos Won". Now everyone - including Romney's staff - is chalking up Romney's loss to his immigration stance.

But I haven't seen anyone hitting upon my other point - that we are about to see both parties falling over each other to push through generous immigration reform, and to reach out, generally, to Hispanic and Asian immigrants. It will be a tremendous shift.

But xenophobic blue collar whites aren't going to like it much. So I'll make another prediction: a third party will arise to channel their fury. Like the various European ultra-nationalist parties, it won't be pretty (and it won't win many elections). It will embolden and amplify the very worst outlying elements of the current Republican base, and make the ire of the Tea Party seem mild by comparison. But it will at last finally drive the mainstream Republican party back toward the center/right.

The pendulum of the right has over-swung too far to simply swing back again. Rather, my guess is that it will split. And the portion that swings toward still farther extremes will, I'm afraid, break some windows.

Friday, November 9, 2012

What I Learned From Two Weeks Off the Grid

When the power went out a couple of weeks ago, I'd just finished watching the season finale of Doctor Who. At the end, the time traveler's companions wound up stuck in the early 20th century, forced to live out their natural lives out from there, unable to ever reconnect with modern times.

Just as I was contemplating what that might feel like, a particularly seismic wind burst roared through, knocking out the electricity. Between that and the gas shortage, I've had neither power nor fuel for most of the past two weeks. So there was plenty of time to contemplate the stuck-out-of-time scenario from an unexpectedly personal perspective.

Back then, before corporate models of human interaction had metastasized into society at large, people were friendlier and more genuine with one another. Things hadn't gone meta; the world was not yet World World, all cloned up and corporate. The fabric of daily life was much richer. Each bakery's chocolate chip cookie had a unique flavor, every bowl of chicken soup was a snowflake, and bookstores and hardware stores had distinctive personalities. Arriving in a new town made you feel like you were really somewhere else (just typing that, as if describing something remarkable, shows how sadly homogenized it's all become).

But, in spite of all that, coming off these past two weeks, I've got to confess that if I were permanently relocated in an earlier era, without my iPad, DVDs, central heating, and car (let alone antibiotics), I'd howl and whine like Eva Gabor stuck in Green Acres.

Two weeks of doing without ought to have left me feeling grateful. And it did. The problem is that I'm feeling a bit too grateful. I never realized how fundamentally tied to my gizmos, comforts, and entertainments I am. I'm chilled by the sudden recognition of what a complete ditz I am.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Blow-Out Film Sale

Tons and tons of Criterion Collection DVDs and Blu-Rays are 50% off at Barnes and Noble thru November 19. This never happens.

[Update: no, this happens twice per year. And Amazon usually quickly matches the prices for the length of the sale. However, the rest of the year, good luck getting discounts on this stuff]

For those who don't know, Criterion Collection has fantastic taste in films, and puts out brilliantly produced editions with tons of extras. Many are limited runs, and their value goes up over time. The only problem is they're a bit pricey. But not this week.

It's almost enough to make up for nine days without power and five without gas.

Note: you may want to check second-hand prices on Amazon Marketplace and Half.com.

To get you started, here are all the Criterion films I either own or have on my wish list (sorry I'm not feeling OCD enough to dig up links):

3 Women
4 by Agnès Varda
A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman
Alexander Nevsky
Antonio Gaudi
Bicycle Thieves
Brand Upon the Brain!
Brazil
Breathless
Burden of Dreams
Burmese Harp
By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volumes One and Two
Contempt
Days of Heaven
Earrings of Madame de...
Eclipse Series 31: Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin
Fanny and Alexander
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Great Adaptations
Grey Gardens / The Beales of Grey Gardens
Harlan County, U.S.A.
Hiroshima Mon Amour
I Know Where I'm Going!
Ikiru
In the Mood for Love
Ingmar Bergman - Four Masterworks
Jules and Jim
La Jetee/Sans Soleil
La Ronde
Last Year at Marienbad
Le Plaisir
M. Hulot's Holiday
Mala Noche
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Nanook of the North
Olivier's Shakespeare
Orphic Trilogy
Pickpocket
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Pierrot le Fou
Rashomon
Rushmore
Scenes From a Marriage
Shallow Grave
Short Cuts
Solaris
Stories of Floating Weeds
Stranger Than Paradise
Tanner '88
The 39 Steps
The Battle of Algiers
The Devil & Daniel Webster
The Lady Eve
The Lady Vanishes
The Last Emperor
The Leopard
The Passion of Joan of Arc
The Rules of the Game
The Seventh Seal
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
The Vanishing
This Is Spinal Tap
Throne of Blood
Tokyo Story
Umberto D.
Videodrome
Viridiana
Wild Strawberries
Withnail and I
Yi Yi

Hispanics/Latinos Won

It's a great night for Latinos and Hispanics. This was their victory as well as Obama's.

It will be a very long time before we see another mainstream national candidate scorn this segment. And Republicans will trip over themselves to work with the president to pass immigration reform this term. Spanish-speaking voters can consider themselves, from this day forward, Ohio.

It wasn't the shameless flip-flopping that cost Romney the election. It wasn't the 47% comment. What lost Romney the presidency was his anachronistically hard-assed stance on immigration - specifically, his "self-deportation" meme. Hispanics and Latinos are not just an up-and-coming population. They've already upped and come. They are our demographic future, and the Republican party committed the political blunder of the century by ignoring this.

It was especially dumb considering that the Mexican-Americans and, uh, Central American-Americans who are a large part of this population tend to be hardworking, pious, family-values, law-and-order, don't-tread-on-me squares. They are natural-born Republicans. All they needed was for the party to embrace them.

George W Bush understood this very well, and the party of his era made it a top priority to reach out to that community. But today's Republicans, utterly infatuated with - and terrorized by - the Tea Party, let that drop. The 2010 midterms frightened them into abandoning all other constituencies. So during debate after primary debate, Republican candidates outdid each other with tough talk on immigration, hoping to score points with their base of immigrant-hating blue collar whites. And Romney tacked right of every one of them, cavalierly suggesting that undocumented immigrants simply "self-deport" (and then declined to shake the Etch-A-Sketch).

That base knows its primacy is over. They understand, and fear, that "the minorities" are on the brink of becoming the majority. And Republicans short-sightedly deemed this a leverage point. Unable to resist an opportunity to stoke fear, they sided with the shrinkers. So immigrants gave Obama Virginia, Nevada, Iowa, and more. And he didn't even have to work for it. At Romney's urging, they self-deported right into the Democratic Party.

Republicans will pivot, fast and hard. They can't win a national election until they fix this. So, congratulations, Spanish-speakers (and, also, Asians). You are now personas muy, muy "grata".

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Intense Beauty of Bloomberg's Crappy Spanish

I find Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to offer Spanish language advisories in his emergency news conferences heartbreakingly beautiful. If you'll look beyond his impassive face to the heart of what he's doing, you'll see it, too.

Yes, Bloomberg's Spanish is poor, and his accent is horrendous. So why does he do it? Why would a billlionaire - who could be playing golf or throwing parties, who's been up for days handling an emergency while New Yorkers jeer at him because they want their power back on, who has nothing to prove to anyone, who faces no reeelection and therefore has no reason to pander to Latinos - put himself out there, in the hot lights, drawing ridicule by offering his crappy Spanish?

Even Rachel Figueroa, the ridiculer-in-chief, who writes the (pretty amusing) "@ElBloombito" Twitter feed, asks this same question:
"I don’t know why he does it....You get this sense that he thinks we should be honored that he would even attempt to speak Spanish"
The article's writer describes these efforts as "stilted stabs at multiculturalism".

I enjoy Figueroa's Twitter feed, but I really abhor her comment. Interestingly, she doesn't speak Spanish, though she has a Puerto Rican father. She understands it some. So I'm not sure she'd be the proper person to assign any such honor. The mayor's not speaking to you, Rachel.

He's speaking to the very large number of city residents who speak only Spanish, and who could especially use the steady, soothing reassurance from their mayor in a time of crisis that the rest of us enjoy. Even during good times, non-English-speaking immigrants feel marginalized and neglected. It's that much worse in times like these.

I feel like a fully enfranchised New Yorker, but, like everyone else, it makes me feel better to see a Bloomberg (or, god help me, even a Guiliani) on TV telling me it's all going to be ok, projecting the aura of competent authority, and offering me detailed information. It helps. It's soothing. It's part of what a mayor does. Millions listen raptly to transistor radios during these news conferences.

So he's addressing Dominican waitresses and hard-working Mexican young men and the isolated grandmas of busy Peruvian yuppies. They are as worried as the rest of us, but also confused and feeling very much out of the loop. New York City's two million Hispanics need a mayor's personal assurance more than anyone.

In order to reassure them and make them feel remembered, connected, and looked after, this hugely successful billionaire, who could easily be in a resort somewhere sipping mai tais, puts himself out there on television, letting everyone see him doing something he knows he's not good at. His sole motivation: kind compassion and earnest sense of duty. He thinks it's important. It's love.

How often does one see such a thing? Did mayors like Abe Beame, John Lindsay, or even David Dinkins give a rat's ass about personally reassuring Colombian families after a terrifying event, much less putting themselves on the spot to do so? And would any of them have kept their compassionate motivations to themselves, letting contemptuous assumptions stand unrebutted?

Bloomberg is too modest and high-minded to point out any of this, or to lash back at the criticism. His sole response to the ridicule was this:
"Tengo 69 años. Es difícil para aprender un nuevo idioma." (Translation: I’m 69 years old. It’s difficult to learn a new language.”)
This sort of selfless compassion and courage could stem only from shakti. That's why it's heartbreaking and beautiful. It doesn't appear often. As with Steve Jobs, people will only notice the shakti contrails once he dies.

In that same article, Figueroa concedes that, in light of her own lousy Spanish, "I would not be able to give a press briefing in Spanish." Oh, really? But what if you were the mayor, Rachel, and a couple million people might feel soothed in a time of crisis if you rose above your inadequacies to make a heartfelt effort to speak directly to them; to make them feel that they, too, have a mayor? Would you willingly make yourself vulnerabile on TV so you could be of service beyond the call of duty? Could you, an anonymous chick in Brooklyn, even come close to the egolessness of the city's most successful person in order to reassure a population you're related to and he's not?

Nationalism

Nationalism is always a noble-seeming mask for xenophobia. 

Show me someone who loves "Us", and I'll show you someone who hates "Them".

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Obama's Better

In the article Explaining Centrism/Moderation, I described partisan zeal as a sort of delusion. No candidate will bring us to the promised land, because 1. the promised land doesn't exist, and 2. if it did, no politician - even a president - would have the power to get us there. Politics is all about lofty statements, some of them perhaps even sincere. But governing is another thing. It's a grind, riddled with endless compromise; the unloftiest thing imaginable. So those caught up in partisan zeal at moments like this have been misdirected via tribal cues. And I'm not big on tribalism. Hence my low zeal.

That's not to say elections don't matter, or that individual policies can't hurt or help. I make my choices, but it's not a white-hats versus black-hats thing. There's no one to love, and nothing to join. The coded language coming from both sides sure ain't speaking to me. So I have, as best I could, weighed how competently these candidates would contend with the grind. I'm choosing an administrator, nothing more. It's not sexy, and it has nothing to do with my self-image or my resonance with one or the other "vision for our future", or any other such rhetorical nonsense.

I'm for Obama. It's not about belief in liberal values (not that Obama's been ruling as a liberal at all; to anyone clear-headed, he's been barely left-center). I'm for him because:

Republicans jumped the shark with that shameful debt ceiling brouhaha, one of the most unpatriotic chapters in American political history, whose long term effect hasn't even begun to be widely apparent. It deeply shocked me, as it did the world.

I want to see a balanced Supreme Court - not too liberal, not too conservative. But I'm certain that President Romney, however moderately he might rule, would need to follow through with his pledge to appoint another Scalia/Roberts/Thomas if he hoped for reelection. And we all know how craven Romney can be when it comes to elections. But as a moderate, I like balances. Another liberal judge would bring balance, but another conservative would upset balance.

I despised the Bush administration's neocon-influenced approach to foreign policy, and Romney's got a full slate of those same neocon assholes on his staff, so it's a good bet that's the direction his administration would take. I don't think the country could stand much more of that. Anyone who proudly uses the term "Exceptionalism", embracing arrogance and hypocrisy as core values, is going to make poor foreign policy decisions. Romney's recent trip to Europe revealed a tendency for Bush-ish klutzy, empty-headed conceit in dealing with the world that I don't want repeated. I prefer realpolitik, and I believe Obama's pretty good at that. He's also skilled at framing his actions to reassure the world that America's not run by petulant children (anyone with friends abroad knows that's no exaggeration of how even moderate foreigners viewed the Bush years).

Regardless of one's views about deficits (Republicans have, until lately, always loved them and blithely inflated them), a recession - or sputtering recovery therefrom - is not the time to address them. The recovery would be jeopardized if the Congressional tea partiers were accommodated in their desire to impose Hooverish austerity at this delicate time (actually, their proposals radically out-Hoover Hoover). Romney, for all his pro-austerity rhetoric, certainly knows this, but I don't believe he has the backbone, or the political base, to oppose it with any force. Counting on Romney to show backbone isn't a winning bet.

As a life-long freelancer, it's hard to express my sense of gratitude for health insurance reform. In New York state, freelancers (even young, healthy ones) pay over $1000/month for not-totally-crappy coverage. This squelches entrepreneurship and locks workers into corporate wage-slavery - a dreary, economically catastrophic long-term scenario nothing like the plucky, free-wheeling, ingenious America we love. Listen, I don't pretend to have read the Affordable Care Act...and neither have you. We all just rely on other people's talking points. But it can't be all that impractically leftist, given that it's so close to what was proposed by Bob Dole and implemented by Mitt Romney, neither fervidly Marxist. And it's a miracle that any sort of reform actually got done.

Finally, in that other entry, I wrote that government is "a never-ending series of drastic compromises which squelch idealism and favor steady-handedness." I think President Obama has the steadier hand. Nowhere near perfect, but at least reasonably steady. Even diehard Republicans know, in their hearts, that Romney is anything but that.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Rogue Winds?

So here's my Sandy story. Where I live things weren't too bad. Lots of downed trees, no one has power, but there's been no flooding or major damage. The highest reported gusts anywhere near me were around 50mph. But at 6:45pm that night, a freight train crashed into my house, which was rocked to its foundations. I've been in earthquakes less violent. A very heavy metal ladder, tightly folded, was instantly blown twenty feet across the porch. I've never experienced anything like it - and didn't again for the whole night, which was spent huddled in a windowless stairwell.

The gust had to be over 90mph, though no such winds were reported anywhere near here. We know about rogue waves at sea, but I've never heard of a rogue wind gust - at least not one twice the velocity of anything else for miles around. But there you are.

A bit later, Governor Cuomo closed the Triboro bridge, reporting that there'd been a 100 mph gust nearby. This left radio meterologists scratching their heads, since no such gusts were recorded anywhere near there. Same effect?

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