Saturday, September 22, 2018

Why Do We Type LOL When We're Not Laughing Out Loud?

Thirteen years ago a friend and I devised a surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating food (and other things) on a scale of one to ten. I continue to be amazed at how useful and effective it is. But there's one problem: "8" devaluation.

Here's how the system distinguishes 8s:

The problems began when I first found myself 8-ing without any actual vocal expression of pleasure. Over time, it's gotten worse and worse, to the point where now anything merely good strikes me as 8-ish. And "good" should be 7.

There's no such problem with 9. Either rational thought breaks down or it doesn't. But "Mmmm!" is a mental concept as well as a sound, and if you divorce the two, the concept becomes awfully slack. "Store-bought cookies! Mmmm! Of course, I don't literally mean 'Mmmm!' I'm not making that sound! But I'm typing 'Mmmm' just to express my general affection for cookies!"

Once 'Mmmm!' becomes more conceptual than literal, 8 starts devaluing until it covers anything decent.

This is surely the exact same process that makes us type 'LOL' even though we're not laughing out loud. Once the concept untethers from the physical act, devaluation begins. At this point bona fide LOLs likely account for less than 5% of all LOL reportage. There is peril here (LOL!).
I tried to come up with more examples of this phenomenon, and struck upon a connection that's slightly half-baked. (but, really, what's new? Half-bakedness is pretty much the Slog's entire brand). See what you think:

You know how people in long-term relationships eventually start giving each other those utterly loveless perfunctory kisses? They're more gestural symbols of kisses then real kisses. Tepidly theatrical "Mwahh!" kisses never appear early in a relationship. It's where things devolve once love becomes more of an abstraction rather than an actual thing.
The first time an early girlfriend kissed me like that, I told her that if she ever again kissed me symbolically, the relationship would be over. I was pretty uncompromising back then, but it's not like I didn't have a point.
When "laughing out loud" is framed in a purely abstract way - as something I would do (or might do), even if I don't actually do do - then anything even vaguely amusing starts to fit that bill. Same for "Mmmm". And same for kissing. This is what happens when the actual dissolves into the conceptual, losing its gist and power.

So I sit stone-faced, munching a merely decent cookie while joylessly reporting "Mmmm!". Or I barely crack a grin at a minor attempt at wit while reporting uproarious laughter. Or I cursorily peck at someone with a tightly puckered mouth as a report of loving affection.

Does it work? Do all three examples stem from the same function? I think so...but am not sure!

Friday, September 21, 2018

A Centrist Appeal for Sanity

Extremists on both the Left and the Right, I make this futile appeal to your perpetually deaf ears:

Criticism of your tactics for solving a problem does not signal approval of the problem, nor alliance with the problem-causers.

If I could break into some central control room somewhere and make one single alteration to the human psyche, I'd rekindle this obvious and mundane logical connection, which seems to have gone completely dead for practically everyone.

To the Left: One can question the tactics of Black Lives Matter without being a racist who wants to see black people terrorized. And one can question the assumptions of #MeToo without excusing violence against women. To the Right: One can support a woman's freedom to choose without deeming embryos worthless, disposable scraps of tissue (more here). And one can support gun control without wanting to deny guns to people for whom hunting and vigorous defense of property and family is culturally important.

To those of you so deep in the Duality of it all that you've lost your minds, try to hang on to the seemingly obvious truth that everyone refusing to adopt your mantle, buy your doctrine and unquestioningly join your team is not a monster, and not your enemy!

Benjamin Witte is a legal commentator and editor of the Lawfare Blog. He's a national treasure who's done as much as any American this side of Robert Mueller to track and thwart the excesses of this administration. A few weeks ago, Witte was mass-harrassed by a furious mob for daring to oppose a line of attack that he considered unjust. Intellectual integrity being unfashionable these days, many thousands of his previous allies and supporters decided that this could only mean his mask had fallen, revealing Witte as hellbent on enslaving women's bodies (never mind that the next SCOTUS nominee will be just as opposed to Roe vs Wade, or that Witte's positions have no power to affect the Senate's vote).

If you're not delving into social media and real life conversations, you may have found my last few few political postings overheated. They weren't. Left extremism right now is every bit as deranged and dangerous as right extremism. The true cancer isn't one ideology or the other, but extremism, period. And extremism on one side always begets reciprocal extremism on the other. 

Please at least consider moderation. In times of turmoil, it takes some discipline and contrarianism to favor rationality over emotion, but it's worth it. In the face of awfulness like Trump, we can choose the slightly more disciplined option of pressing for a return to moderation, rather than indulge the compulsion to careen to a reciprocal extreme; to monster-ize ourselves in response to the monster.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Snark Fallacy

If you want to understand the world, recognize this extremely common cognitive error, which I'll call The Snark Fallacy:

"Spotting other people's flaws proves my superiority."

Another version: "Catching you being stupid makes me smart."

If you watch for it, it's everywhere. It underlies every judgmental person, and humans are incredibly judgmental. It's the mental tic that gives rise to The Dunning Kruger Effect. And it's strange that this mistake is so widespread, given such clear evidence to the contrary. Consider:

1. Every slightly bright 14 year old is a leading expert on flaw spotting. Yet scant few are genuinely superior.

2. The most intelligent and accomplished people (if they're emotionally healthy) tend to be non-superior and non-judgmental. They spot your stupidity, yes, but they spot their own, too....and realize that we're all mixed bags.

Read "A Confederacy of Dunces"!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

"You'll Miss Trump One Day"

I'm in love with this hilariously funny and deeply insightful short Windsor Mann piece for The Week: "You'll miss Trump one day" that elegantly makes a few of the points I've been grasping at here all week.

It's never been so easy to make fun of a president. All you have to do is quote him. "It's tremendously big and tremendously wet," Trump said last week, referring to Hurricane Florence. On Twitter, you can correct his grammar and call him a racist. If you're a grammar Nazi who hates Nazis, this is a busy and wonderful time for you.

Trump's presidency has been a tragedy for America and an ego boost for Americans. If you're an average human being, you are superior to the president — mentally, morally, and many other -lys. ...

Sanctimony, I've discovered, is intoxicating. I don't want to give it up. This may be our only chance to exhibit moral superiority without doing anything to earn it. Simply by opposing Trump's lying, venality, and subservience to Vladimir Putin, I stand for what Superman stands for — truth, justice, and the American way. I'm just like Superman: a fake hero.


Scolding bad people makes us feel better about ourselves. In his essay "On the Pleasure of Hating," William Hazlitt wrote, "There is no surfeiting on gall: Nothing keeps so well as a decoction of spleen. We grow tired of every thing but turning others into ridicule, and congratulating ourselves on their defects." We hate other people as a way to love ourselves.

In the 1990s, William Bennett warned about the death of outrage. We are witnessing its resurgence. I'm not talking about faux outrage, the kind that ensues after a celebrity says something insensitive. I'm talking about real outrage, the kind that ensues after a husband betrays his wife or after a president betrays his country, both of which Trump has done.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Hungarian Cheesecake, Redux

Remember that Hungarian cheesecake I found in dowdy Floral Park, Long Island?

Here's a reminder (NSFW):

Friend-of-the-Slog Paul Trapani did some research, and found that this is indeed A Thing, known as túrós lepény. Here are some Google images, which don't have all that much resemblance (originally, it was a savory and bready item). This one seems to come closest:

I think my guess was correct...that this is likely a telephone game situation where a Hungarian owner handed the recipe to his head baker, and it was passed down a bunch more times over the years, inevitably morphing over time. Just as cultures grows deeper/richer with cross-pollination (yet another reason to embrace immigrants), foods often benefit from the telephone game treatment - if (and only if) all parties in the chain are quality oriented.

In this case, I think they were.

Another Way Smart Phones Mess Up Your Writing

It's commonly observed that writing has decayed into a trashy thicket of abbreviations, truncations, and emojis in the age of thumb typing. But I just noticed that writing can also be distorted in the opposite direction, thanks to dictation.

In reaction to this tweet about a NY Times story about Michael Bloomberg considering a run as a moderate Democrat...

...I shot the following text message to a friend:

I wouldn't normally type out "Republicans" or "Democrats". The long-form versions of these terms - in the context of an informal text message - lend a formality I hadn't really intended. Writing precision, I just realized, is a two-edged sword.

In other news, Gary Kasparov, one of my heros, has gone to the dark side (read the whole thread). This is emblematic of the shift I wrote about in yesterday's posting (though this particular end of it isn't specifically about dehumanization). This is a very bad and extraordinarily viral mindset, and it will make the post-Trump world extremely unpleasant for at least a generation, likely more.

But do check out this brilliant reply from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an interesting and mega-smart guy (he's the fellow who coined the term "Black Swan" to describe unpredictable major disruptions). Taleb is, alas, an old school thunderingly arrogant intellectual of the Gore Vidal mold, for whom everyone is an uncomprehending simpleton. But unlike Vidal, he's usually right. I highly recommend his Twitter feed, even if you and I only understand 30% of it (if you thought my cognitive lozenges were dense, his are like neutron stars).

To counter Kasparov, consider my moderate perspective (from this posting), which - I can't believe I'm typing this - I know reads sharply out of step with current norms in its distaste for the cleansing glory of angry mobs:
What if we let racists live and work among us, in peace? What if we tolerate their free use of language as part of that same glorious rainbow? And what if we club them over the head with the full weight of the legal system if they ever ever act on it by discriminating - i.e. doing actual harm? What if you can be a racist, think like a racist, talk like a racist, but we prevent you from acting on it? Conveniently, we have a legal system, with lots of preexisting legislation, to handle exactly that.
A Facebook friend once posted this screed:
Reminder: Presumption of innocence is a special legal principle not a general philosophical one. There is no compelling or practical reason to suspend your normal human judgment in the course of your regular life. You can read the news and judge it to be factual without having to have it proved in court.
My comment was: "Angry mobs, unconstrain yourselves."

If you lean Left and feel a visceral attraction to the righteousness of angry cleansing mobs, despite intellectual and moral hesitations, I'd suggest you explore that ambivalence. Doing so earnestly will shed light on - and cultivate empathy for - the plight of the current Right. We're all infected with the same bug, though it takes two forms. Consider joining me in the center, advocating moderation and reconciliation even amid tribal consensus and emotional turbulence. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Throwing Anita Hill Under the Bus to Oppose Kavanaugh

If I were Anita Hill, I'd be furious with the Democrats for this Kavanaugh attack.

Update: his accuser just decloaked. I withdraw the above observation - there's now weight - though I still need to process this.


Do you find this at least faintly amusing?

You monster.

I'm not kidding. You've just revealed your ability to desensitize to another person's misfortune. For the time being, it's reasonably tolerable to do so in reaction to random viral videos. But that same degree of desensitization in certain realms could outrage mobs, get you fired from your job, and have your life (and your family's lives) entirely ruined.

Don't you dare ever post even something as mild as "Ha!" in response to such a video. Don't ever go on the public record as enjoying Road Runner or The Marx Brothers, both of which will surely soon be taboo - a shameful relic of our barbaric past. Can you believe people used to laugh at other people's misfortune???

While I sound acidly critical, I'm actually slightly ambivalent. I crave Utopia as much as the next guy, but I defy you to envision a human utopia that would tolerate a snorting guffaw. We claim to yearn to do away with bullies and violence and intolerance and "negative emotions", but that's an empty precept not one of us embodies - or, truly, even wants to embody. As I once wrote:
We want monsters and stress and drama and loss and violence, along with laughs and love and bliss. We have an innately abusive relationship with the universe, and, as with every abusive relationship, we subconsciously choose this dynamic 'cuz the making-up part is so, so good.

This world is exactly what you asked for: a huge, collaborative story ripe with exciting joy and sorrow, and it perpetually churns for our entertainment. If it were all cookies and pixie-dust, we'd be bored out of our skulls, and build even more chilling video games, movies and rollercoasters
It's trendy to excoriate desensitization and intolerance with every screechy bone in one's body. A sanctimonious wave of neo-Sovietism relishes identifying and punishing transgressors. A certain crowd is so deluded by their pious precepts that they imagine themselves to exist on higher moral ground...even as they channel the exact same dehumanization (ever seen "Dexter"?).

I don't know where we're going as a society in the long run. While I can feign seamless sensitivity as well as anyone, honestly, I don't think I'd enjoy utopia, nor would any of you. I must reserve my right to guffaw. But one thing's for certain: it's easy to sit in one's cell of snark, surfing the cyber realms and thundering piously at those failing to embody the precepts one flouts, and feeding off the staunch mob momentum that's become the extreme left's surrogate nationalism. Mark my words (I first predicted this just after the 2016 election): the Trump backlash will be worse than Trump. Soviet or fascist, either route leads to tyranny.

Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal....ahhh, screw it.

If this Slog had an order of magnitude more readers, I'd be fucked for having posted this, much less this. As with Trumpian fascism, the neo-Soviet current I'm describing is no longer latent; it's fully in play. So be careful out there. 

What? You’re already measuring your words much more carefully these days? You do understand, don’t you, that this shows we’re already in the thick of it?

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Big Con

Early in my musical career, I was hired to take part in a concert titled "A Tribute to Duke". I soon understood the con. We'd ply our standard jazzy shtick, but we'd do so over some Duke Ellington compositions, which would make more people come and pay more money because Duke Ellington's more famous than we were. They wouldn't be getting Duke himself, as he was dead, and they wouldn't get the sound or feeling of Duke, because, to repeat, we'd be plying our standard jazzy shtick. But there'd be a big shiny "Duke Ellington" sticker stuck over it, and, voila, money would be made.

Did the audience recognize the con? Did they object to the bait-and-switch, and demand refunds? No, because we were good players and they heard just enough Ellington-ish compositional flourishes to check the box (it's not like their jazz scholarship ran super deep). It was an excuse for them to get out of their houses, and an excuse for me to cover my rent that month. Win-win!

Over the following decades, I noticed this same "shiny sticker" con in every realm of life.

"There's a beer festival happening? Wow, I like beer! So that's for me!" I'd eagerly plunk down $50 to trudge around some tent with a tiny, sticky sample glass, waiting in long lines amid obnoxious pukey drunks for trickles of ale I might just as easily - and much more comfortably and inexpensively - enjoy in some bar, or even my living room. But, hey, it's a festival! And it's beer! And I categorize that way!

Has anyone ever noticed that parties always, always suck? You can't possibly talk to 30 or 200 people. At best, you'll talk to 4 or 5. So why not just take those 4 or 5 to dinner? You don't need that shitty guacamole dip, you don't need that shitty music. Have you ever in your life uttered the words "Wow, great party!"? Yet amnesia returns, and we're lured in again and again just because the word is alluring. "Party!"

It's a celebratory upbeat word, and we live in an abstract imaginary world of words (I call it "Worldworld"), so we unconsciously fear that if we're not able to demonstrably cross-reference ourselves with celebratory upbeat terms, that makes us dreary downers. Uh-oh...bad words!

Nearly all the big shiny hyped up things - even in realms I happen to like - are inevitably less comfortable, less enjoyable, more expensive versions of things that can be normally enjoyed in normal settings. I learned it early (we didn't play any better than usual at "A Tribute to Duke", and the big sterile auditorium was a far worse listening environment than an intimate smokey nightclub). But it took many years for me to settle down into a pervasive faith in Nano-Aesthetics, the core tenet of my religion.

I came to recognize that we generally fake ourselves out by imagining that some big exciting gold label experience awaits us around the next corner. I guess the notion that this, right now, is as good as it gets is unbearable for people who conceive themselves as starring in a movie full of heroic sweep and drama.

And just as we mess things up by projecting drama in our lives, we also mess up by projecting our lives into drama. I once wrote (specifically in reference to "Westworld") that when TV and movies are built around some hidden mythology, the big reveal is never mind-blowing.
Mythologies are wonderful things to bounce characters off of, to see how interesting characters respond to interesting circumstances. But if you make the puzzle the focus, you create impossible expectations...because TRINTG ("The reveal is never that great").

Human narrative is not as mythic as we'd like to imagine. We're clever livestock. The ways in which we creatively grind against the banal contours of our worldly dramatic narratives can be beautiful and surprising. That's our saving grace; our transcendence. But the contours themselves - including juicy conspiracies and mysteries - are non-awesome. That's what makes our desperately hopeful overuse of the word "awesome" so adorable.
The party and the beer festival will disappoint. "Tribute to Duke" has nothing to do with Duke, and The Reveal Is Never That Great. We're mere clever livestock but the creative grind against banal contours is gorgeously uplifting. That grind is small and quiet, and you must discover examples of it yourself. If anyone tries to turn a given instance into an Experience - sticking a shiny sticker on it - the result will always be crappified.

Developing immunity to the "shiny label" con lies at the core of the Chowhound credo: Unsung greatness is everywhere - it hangs low on the trees! - so resist being guilelessly pulled by hype toward fakery (also: notice that the fakery isn't pleasing you! don't just keep coming back again and again because the words are alluring!). Instead, proactively push outward to find genuine treasure, which is always quietly undersold and deceptively ordinary-seeming.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

AAPL Tenacity

I sold off the last of my Apple stock in August at slightly over $200. The price is now approaching $230. So I left 15% on the table, and maybe more if it goes higher. I'm feeling like an idiot. I'm questioning my methods.

I felt the same when I bought shares at $130 and watched it drop to $92 (I did buy more at $95, though). It's emotionally grueling. You question yourself. My grandfather used to say that you can eat or you can sleep, but not both.

I keep reminding myself: buying low and selling high only works if you're not foolish enough to imagine you can buy at the very bottom and sell at the very top. The market operates on greed. Those few of us who are patient and non-greedy have a superpower. If it were easy, everyone could do it.

Going forward, the plan remains the same. As I said last time,
Once it's dropped 15-20% (manipulated via the usual familiar media/analyst scare tactics over some trivial setback), I'll start buying again. Rinse and repeat.
I have a professional investor friend who bought Apple at $40 (pre-split) and has held it forever. She doesn't want to pay taxes. I told her that it would be easier to avoid paying taxes by locking the money in a vault and forgetting about it. Voila, problem solved.

Dark Adaption, Obsessive Toasting, and The Best Trombonist in Akron

"This American Life" recently opened a show with Ira Glass reminiscing about his childhood magic performances. He wondered whether he was any good. He certainly felt good at the time. But maybe he wasn't. He wasn't sure.

I have the answer: yes. You were very good, Ira. Yet you were also awful.

Quality (in any realm) isn't gauged along a linear scale. It's exponential. "Great" is like 10,000,000 times better than "very good". To ratchet up by a mere notch is to traverse astronomical distances. So with the frets this far apart, one can completely suck compared to a great many people while still being quite good. It's a little like Italian geography; wherever you are, everything south of you is Southern Italy, and everything north of you is Northern Italy.

I once spent an afternoon hanging out with Akron's best trombonist.
For those who don't know: I was a busy freelance NYC musician for 15 years or so. While I certainly was no star, New York's the most competitive market for that sort of thing. "Make it here/make it anywhere", yadda yadda.
I was cordial and friendly, but inside I yawned as he explained, with great pride, how he was the guy who was called to play in the pit for local performances of traveling shows, or holiday chamber music in church. He rehearsed with the town's only big band at the VFW once per week, though gigs were few and far between. It all struck me as unrelatably moldy and small (though I certainly didn't reveal my true reaction). And when I heard him play, he seemed horrible. Poor tuning, no range, stuffy sound. With each note, I heard a dozen problems I was dying to help him fix. I forced myself to treat him with collegial respect. Hey, this was the best trombonist in Akron!

I didn't realize it then - it took me years to wrap my head around it - but he was actually good. He was a good, solid trombonist. Compared to a sophomore trombone student at some conservatory, he was good. Compared to an amateur, he was great. Compared to a beginner, he was a trombone god. But he was so much worse than what I was accustomed to that he was completely off my chart.

He was good and awful, both at the same time. With a spectrum so vast, it all depends on where you draw the line.

Our eyes' ability to adapt to darkness is remarkable. Once adjusted, they become nearly a million times more sensitive in low light than normal. It takes 20 minutes to complete this adjustment because it's such a vast shift. This is to say: our range of light sensitivity is so enormous that we can only approach it in discrete chunks; special measures are required to distinguish beyond a given chunk.

Remember how last month I confessed that my completely obsessive approach to toasting was still slack-assed compared to top chefs? Gauging quality, given the complete lack of absolute markers, is tricky. But actually producing quality - at a level that's high up the curve of declining results - is monstrously hard (that's why it's rare).

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Expectation of Versatility

I ate lunch in a Guatemalan deli in the white-breaded/blue-blooded Hudson Valley yesterday. Nothing I was consuming would be recognizable to someone unfamiliar with Central American cuisine (shoot, one item mystified even me!).

Suddenly, an affluent-looking elderly couple wandered in, as if they'd bled through from an adjacent movie set. Were they searching for a bathroom? For lunch? I'm still not sure. They glanced around in slack-jawed bewilderment and hastily fled out the door. I considered offering to help/guide/translate, but it dawned on me that they wouldn't see me as a familiar face; a bridge across the cultural divide. I was inseparable from the alien tableau, myself more Guatemalan than grandee.

When I was a full-time musician, from the mid 80's into the early 00's, classical musicians were stiff-asses. They couldn't swing or improvise, and that seemed completely normal. There was a sharp border between styles. But after putting Chowhound behind me and shifting my attention back to that world, I learned that there'd been a profound shift. An old tubaist friend, who subs with the Philharmonic while also playing funky/jazzy gigs all over town, explained it to me one day.

He and I had been early chameleons, surfing between styles with fluent ease. But that was never the norm, and, in fact, we kept it on the down-low, knowing that versatility can make you seem unserious (to this day, food editors think of me as "that trombonist who writes about food", and musicians think of me as "that food critic trombonist"). But in the intervening years, not only had musicians come to appreciate versatility, they now insisted on it. If you can't improvise and swing convincingly, and get genuinely funky when called upon to do so, and tear through a Mozart concerto with starchy precision, you're not much of a musician.

It was strange hearing this, because that was always my secret suspicion anyway - that limited musicians are functionally disabled. The world had been so out of whack with my perspective that I figured it was just my own kookiness. Yet now it's caught up.

So what about that elderly couple? Will it always be perfectly understandable to be befuddled by cultural divides? Am I oddly pliant, sopping up curtido juice with my fluffy homemade tortillas and calling for quesadilla (the cheesey Central American pound cake, not the Mexican antojito) in comfortable Spanish? Or will there come a time when the lack of this facility will seem oddly - even sadly - deficient?

Two tales of my chameleon-like experience in the music business:
Thomas Chapin

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

So-Called Hungarian Cheesecake

For the last 10 years I've been pilgrimaging to the otherwise moribund Long Island hamlet of Floral Park for a unique kind of cheesecake found only in one obscure bakery: The Tulip Bake Shop (138 Tulip Ave, Floral Park, NY; 516-354-1105).

It's much flatter than normal cheesecake, quite lemony and the texture is more cakey than custardy. Lots of crunchy/cinnamony crust presence. It's simply better. And addictive!

I work slowly (by comparison, Robert Caro's like a tabloid hack) sometimes, so it took me a full decade to eke out the information that this is called "Hungarian cheesecake". It makes sense, as I occasionally spot strudel or Austro-Hungarian cheese puffs here, along with the usual mainstream offerings.

But we seem to be very advanced in this particular telephone game. I'm guessing it's been a long while since actual Hungarians walked these halls, so the recipes have been passed forward a few times. But while other offerings are good-not-great, the cheesecake remains devastating.

So now I need to find out: is "Hungarian cheesecake" even a thing?

It could be the capricious term the founder came up with for his own unique invention. You need to be very careful with this stuff. When I was working on my Eat Everywhere app, and, for the first time, was forced to do a rigorous accounting of all my empirical food knowledge, I discovered, to my horror, that a number of dishes I'd attributed - for years! - to a certain cuisine were just one-offs concocted by one single restaurateur. I'd fallen in love with these dishes, attributed them to the advertised cuisine, and lived in falsehood for years thereafter.

See an update here

The Death of Irony

I sent this around to a few friends:

It sparked the following discussion with one of them:

I've snipped the exchange there, but he immediately accepted the point. Most people never would. And many would be infuriated by my even-handedness to begin with (for example, the sane and brilliant Benjamin Wittes, a national treasure, was just run off Twitter for daring to suggest that one of the lines of attack against Brett Kavanaugh might be unreasonable).

God bless Mother Russia for fanning the flames on both sides. If you've never seen the Twilight Zone episode "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street", you will need to do so to endure the years ahead:

Twilight Zone - The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street on Vimeo.

Trump is awful, but the backwash will be far worse (as Russia fully understands, while we, in our pique, do not). 

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

Monday, September 10, 2018

Distinguishing Brilliance from Cray Cray

Just because you don't understand something doesn't mean it's crazy.

But, on the other hand, we can't endlessly rake through seeming nonsense for nuggets of unsung brilliance.

It's damnably hard to distinguish between unconventionality and dementia. "Off the rails" is a pejorative phrase, yet it also describes the fruits of great insight and creativity. Leaps like the Theory of Relativity were remarkable for their rail-lessness.

Of course, there's bad "unhinged" and good "unhinged", and vastly more of the former than the latter. But good luck distinguishing. To do so requires plunging in all the way...and who wants to plunge fully into apparent craziness?

I know a writer who's about 5% brilliant, and 95% cocoa-for-cocoa-puffs. In her case, I have taken the plunge, and come up largely - though not completely - empty-handed. But it troubles me, to the point of nausea, to outright dismiss anything she writes, because of that shiny ribbon of brilliance. She sees things I can't, and therefore she deserves slack. While my impulse is to dismiss what seems like pure whacky cray, she's earned the benefit of my doubt. So I fight my impulse.

She'd insist that everything she's written is equally truthful and useful, and that I've just failed to see the wisdom in the stranger-seeming material. Maybe, maybe not, but I can certainly relate. Slog readers inevitably tell me they love "some" of my postings. I always ask which they particular like and dislike, and, of course, it's a completely different bag for everyone. I seem astute in certain realms...which others consider froth and balderdash. A reader might love one posting, but be infuriated by another making the exact same point from a slightly different perspective. One thing's nearly unanimous: I am inconsistent, if not erratic. Sometimes smart, sometimes Cocoa Puffs. Which may be true, though, like that other writer, I'd insist, plaintively, that it's all equally truthful and useful (unlike her, though, I register the potential for self-delusion in that insistence).

So how do you distinguish illumination from dementia? Happily, there's a trick, made possible by an undocumented human feature.

You have an internal truth detector. If you come across something deeply truthful, even if you're not in a position to ascertain the truthfulness, you'll get a small jolt. A buzz. A charge. It doesn't come from your mind, which mostly seeks the strokes of confirmation bias, and rarely enjoys surprising, unfamiliar material. Rather, it's intuitive; in the body - perhaps the chest - and not in the brain. The signal is available to all of us, though we may be conditioned to ignore it (scientists and other analytical thinkers must train themselves to ignore "emotionality", and "emotion" covers a very wide terrain for such people to include all nonverbal and intuitive faculties).

Want a test? Here is (in PDF form) one of the most notoriously opaque books of Eastern wisdom ever written: "I Am That", considered a great classic. I gnawed at it for years, opening randomly and reading a page or two, rarely understanding a word. But something drew me to persist, because it kindled an undeniable buzz. I trusted that buzz, even if I didn't yet trust the material. And, over the decades, it unravelled itself, to my delight and benefit. Skip the introductory stuff and go to straight to "1. The Sense of 'I am'"...or just dip in randomly at the start of any chapter. And see if you experience that inexplicable charge. Consider it a calibration tool for your internal voltmeter!

This trick distinguishes illumination from dementia in others. How about yourself? How do you know whether you're on to something or simply chasing your tail? Simple! No form of neurosis or mental illness leaves you happy. You may feel manically geared up, and convinced you're Ms./Mr. Awesome for a moment, but that feeling has a very short expiration date. If, over time, you ain't happy - if you feel no equanimity - you ain't getting it. In that case, stop trying to pivot the world to what you want; instead, let go and let the world pivot you to what it wants.

Deliciousness is never an accident. So many parameters must align for deliciousness to happen that it can't ever occur by chance. The odds are a billion to one against. So I offer enormous slack to anyone who's ever fed me something great. I'll tolerate gaffes and failures and keep coming back like the ultimate diehard. Because I know there's no such thing as a complete fluke when it comes to deliciousness.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Reconsidering That Pizza

A pizza master friend, Matt S, who'd previously raved about PQR, saw my previous posting and challenged my glib praise, pointing out that my pizza shots show slices that are overcooked and really quite dry.

He's right. He caught me grading on a curve. Plus, being Mr. Jewy Jew, I was mindlessly digging on the crunchy bread...just as I enjoy mushy leftover pasta straight from the fridge (at least with pasta, I know to reset my peasant preferences when sitting down to a serious plate).

This also explains the bad oily fried-into-the-bread-on-the-reheat problem I reported. The counter guy (who was a taciturn clod, btw), messed up the reheating.

Anyway, I thought you might enjoy our dialog - plus some shots of what he'd gotten there a few weeks ago.

Manhattan Food Frenzy

Yesterday was diet-break day ("Breakdiet"?), and I did it in style.

Big discovery. Tamales Lupita is a little side-street joint at 154 E 112th St hailing from Guerrero, a rare Mexican state for immigrants hereabouts. I had my first-ever goat tamales (they're on the left; pork on the right):

Very nice server told me they make a rare sour soup, purely vegetarian, on "Wednesdays or Thursdays", usually by 5pm. He himself didn't know the name in Spanish. I have no idea (I'm more of a Mexico City/Juarez/Puebla/Veracruz/Oaxaca guy; Guerrero is like Mars to me).

Then on to PQR, the new Roman pizza place on the Upper East Side which I'd heard great things about. I got a portobello slice. Beautiful work, unlike anything else local (fwiw I did recently try an interesting, under-radar, good-not-great Neapolitan pizza place in Franklin Square, Long Island).

Problem: the pizza is copiously dosed with olive oil, and properly so, but when they reheat the slice, it cooks the oil into the bread, creating an unpleasant twice-fried effect. Even so, still very good. And while everyone complains about slices costing circa $7, I was served two for the price. Not sure if that was a special treat or normal procedure.

A bit later, pork-and-chive dumplings from Shu Jiao Fu Zhou Cuisine , the down-home Fu Zhou place on Eldridge Street in Chinatown. Right on the money, as always, and convenient to the Milton Resnick/Pat Passlof foundation, which opens its gallery next weekend (Resnick is my favorite painter and his wife Pat Passlof was fantastic, too). I didn't get a dumpling photo, but stole this one from Adjanie T on Yelp:

Then a reference-quality slice of coconut custard pie from Petee’s Pie Company on Delancey, which I hadn't previously noticed. It's better if you click to expand (kindly note the striation).

I followed with one beer each at Top Hops and One Mile House Bar. I took an interesting photo at the latter - a normally impossible angle made workable by shooting through the connecting passage between their double-sided bars:

This hardly constituted a full-out bender, but I think I scored well in quality/diversity with a few far-flung bites.

See this update/reappraisal of the pizza

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Consciousness Spumoni

In their conscious thought streams, people are as unique as snowflakes.

Beneath that, in their subconscious, they're are like peas in a pod; some notes a bit louder or softer, but always the same song.

Beneath even that, at the ground zero where pure attention chooses perceptual framings - before getting lost in identification with a particular framing - there's only one awareness, neither colored nor individualized.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Provoke Him but Protect Us

The most disturbing pattern I see in the Trump era is anti-Trumpers recognizing a dire need for Trump's circle to at least try to moderate and restrain him....while demanding that everyone in his midst bitterly renounce him and walk away. The contradiction hits me like a migraine.

I suppose their rationality recognizes the need to take every possible step to avert apocalypse, while their emotionality thirsts to see him provoked, trolled, and isolated to the brink of apocalypse. Hatred, as usual, trumps rationality.

This is the lesson for future historians. This is the only truly surprising element.

Normally I make an effort to empathize with irrationality. But I can't excuse the application of indulgent emotionality in such dangerous circumstances. I suppose the Taoists were right; extreme begets extreme (or, as I keep repeating, "Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?"). Put a demented toddler in charge, and opposition will inevitably take on the characteristics of demented toddlers.

Asshole or Crazy?

By this point, nearly every variety of suboptimal human behavior has been categorized as a syndrome, with big pharma, naturally, gunning for cures. Poor dresser? No sense of rhythm? Undertipper? Blame my genes!

It's true and it's not true. Genes may indeed be to blame, but they can be transcended. I've got a complete set of narcissism genes, but have spent so many years methodically sticking hot needles in those impulses and willfully pivoting from that frozen perspective that I've likely overshot, and tend to ignore my own interests (the whiff of sanctimony in that statement struck me like a stream of battery acid to my eye. Seriously, I'm a victim of Clockwork Orange-ish Beethoven aversion therapy, only I've done it to myself).

I do understand that some problems can't be overcome by force of will. A schizophrenic cannot train himself to ignore hallucinations (the film "A Beautiful Mind" did a terrible disservice), and a depressive can't simply "cheer up". I do believe there's often a trail out via introspection, but when your introspector itself is impossibly skewed, it's like a house of mirrors. Some - not all - people really can blame their genes for their behavior. But that's a tough call to make.

In my 55 years I've noticed two things I'm certain about: first, everyone's nuts (just some people hide it better). And, second, some people wield their neurosis like a cudgel, while others make an effort to shield those around them. As with nearly all other minor societal atrocities, it stems from a willful lack of situational awareness. As I once wrote:
I am, it appears, the only remaining human being with situational awareness. But the crux of the problem is not that others lack it. To accommodate other people, you first need to register their existence. Once you recognize that there are other human beings - and if that fact holds any interest for you - you may then, and only then, proceed down the path of developing situational awareness. You must 1. know, then 2. care, then 3. learn, then 4. apply. The problem lies at step one, not step four, for our sour-pussed, self-involved population of oblivious rich-world narcissists.

Yep, I just got back from Trader Joe's.
I have a friend who's a control freak. All the way - it's not just that he's "bossy". If you're going to meet him for dinner, it will be grievously hard for him to accept a time or place you set, even if they suit his preferences. It's literally painful for him to be in a situation where he doesn't call every single shot. While I can't get inside his mind, I imagine the sensation is like holding a conversation while workers hoist a piano directly over your head with a frayed rope. You may try to maintain decorum, but first comes the sweat, then comes the panic, then comes the freak out.

Thing is, he hates all this. He's a nice guy. He understands that nobody wants or deserves to constantly submit to someone's will. He firmly disapproves of the social politics of it. So he tries to hide it, to channel it, to soften it. He works very hard. He has a great big bag of tricks and workarounds to help prevent those around him from feeling pushed around. It doesn't always work, but he does all he can.

How many control freaks give a damn? Most pursue their programming, period. If it feels right to seize control, it must be right. They essentially behave like hamsters or ants; via rote instinct, without an iota of self-examination or empathetic consideration.

If you deal with neurotic people (and you do; once again, everyone's nuts) and you find yourself trying to navigate the tricky question of what to overlook and what to forgive - what's indulgent volition and what's intractable - just watch for situational awareness. Is the person trying, however feebly, to shield the effects? If so, is it all about passing for normal, or is there real empathy for those around them, too?

If there's consideration for others and an effort (however flimsy) to shield, the person has character. Forgive their impulses! If not, the person's an asshole in addition to whatever else is going on with them. Any allowances you make for them will be processed narcissistically; looped back into their unbridled impulses, often to your detriment.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Second Freebie

In my previous posting, about Kenny Shopsin, I lied:
"I never took a dime, or a morsel of free food, from any restaurateur...except Kenny."
I did accept one other freebie. There was a bbq place in Jamaica, Queens. It was literally a shack in a vacant lot, and it was insanely great; better than places down south. I raved over it in NY Press, and literally every other critic soon piled on, turning it into a SENSATION. Lines were crazy-long, and you'd spot food luminaries eagerly queuing in this ghetto nabe.

The owner, who knew me as a regular, managed to figure out that I’d made this happen. I waited in line there for an hour once, and as I entered the shack, and no one was watching, he came around from his station behind the building, touched my shoulder, and quietly handed me a single rib wrapped in paper towel. It was literally the best rib; I'll never have better till the day I die. He walked off wordlessly.

He didn’t offer to let me shortcut the line. He didn’t grovel or profusely thank me. He'd taken care to consider and measure his gesture; to make it pure.

I definitely ate that rib (and then paid full price for dinner).

I've added my original review of Mississippi BBQ Shack, from way back in 1993, to the Writings section of my web site. Here, FYI, is Eric Asimov's review from The NY Times

Kenny Shopsin: White Knight

Kenny Shopsin passed away last weekend. See this remembrance on Grubstreet. And, unusually, the New Yorker offers free reading of Calvin Trillin's classic profile from 2002. Don't miss it.

So much was always made over what a character Kenny was. That aspect never phased me. I'm old enough to remember when NYC was full of characters. Shoot, I'm a character, myself. And to be perfectly honest - what the hell, it's not like he ever held back! - I thought Kenny had crossed over into the realm of shtick, locked into playing this Kenny Shopsin character. Pandering to feather-ruffling expectations rather than genuinely ruffling feathers. He was hardly the first fuck-you iconoclast to wind up a treasured cultural landmark (slip a quarter in the slot to receive your "fuck you"!). The eccentricity racket can be an awfully sticky wicket.

I was much more interested in the deliciousness of his cooking. We musicians had found him early. It was pianist Uri Caine who first tipped me to Shopsin's, describing it as "this great soup place". Uri offered no titillated stories about the eccentricity, because, compared to us and our friends, Kenny was downright straight-ahead. Musicians had him on our radar purely for his food - both its deliciousness and its singular creativity. Who else had invented so many genuinely successful dishes? We considered him an artist, period. Same with the Soup Man, for that matter, despite Seinfeld's disrespect.

I never spoke directly to Kenny, though I made infrequent visits to both his restaurants over the years. For a peripatetic chowhound, always questing for new greatness just over the horizon, it was hard to find patience to work methodically through Kenny's twenty zillion offerings. I did really like everything I tried, however. I was an early adopter of mac-and-cheese pancakes.

But I do have a story to tell you about Kenny. It's a secret. As I once explained, I've always taken ethics very seriously. There were only two instances where I intentionally relaxed my self-imposed rules. I ate anonymously everywhere (to the best of my ability) except at Astoria's Kabab Cafe, where I was friends with owner Ali. And I never took a dime, or a morsel of free food, from any restaurateur...except Kenny. When Chowhound had scaled from a fun hobby to a time/money sucking nightmare, and I'd exhausted my own meager savings to keep the damned thing open as a public service, and had to ask for support from users, Kenny sent a couple of checks. Big checks. With no notes attached, no self-identification, nothing. Just mutely generic checks in plain white envelopes, signed by one Kenneth Shopsin.

To this day, I'm not sure why I accepted. It wasn't greed; it's not like I was tempted or anything like that. I just felt a deep certainty that it was the thing to do. The quietness of how he'd gone about it spoke volumes. I understood no strings were attached; that it would never bring me grief. In fact, we moderated discussion of his restaurant extra vigilantly from then on, to be sure we weren't playing favorites. Kenny wrote in a couple times over the years to politely (believe it or not) complain about the moderation. Our staff politely explained the specific issues, and he amiably accepted those explanations. That's it.

To his great credit, Kenny never once mentioned his support when he wrote in. Or at any other time. Class guy. I know terms like "quietness", "class", "amiable", and "polite" were not his brand, so I've waited until today to tar him with this slander. But I felt him.

I was championing quality; trying to awaken consumers and coax them into more thoughtful choices, to help support the good guys. He understood I was chopping a decade out of my life to work an essential angle no one had previously thought to work. While other restaurateurs tested our defenses, scheming to pollute and dilute the resource with fake raves, or sent us furious objections for allowing people to post negative opinions (if I had a dime for every threatened defamation lawsuit...), Kenny, and seemingly Kenny alone, understood that it was all a big fat wet kiss on the lips for dedicated, talented people like him. Don't ask me how I knew this, but I did, from the silence of his gesture. So we cashed the checks.

While a slew of people at that time failed to help, and even sometimes hurt, Kenny Shopsin never hurt, and did really help. Mr. Asshole turned out to be a white knight.

His cookbook, "Eat Me", is wonderful, by the way. Very underrated. It's currently out of stock, but I'd imagine they'll reprint if there were demand. Order at Amazon to help make that happen. If you enjoyed Chowhound, this would help return the favor.

Monday, September 3, 2018

A Brazilian Horror Story

Yesterday, Brazil's national museum burned to the ground, taking with it millions of artifacts and artworks, including the skeleton of the oldest hominid found in the Americas. All their formative national documents, everything, completely gone, reduced to ash.

Let me tell you about a trip I once took to Brazil. My Brazilian girlfriend was headed home for a few weeks, so I grabbed my trombone and a bathing suit and joined her for a couple weeks of fun in Rio-by-the-sea-o. Here are some snapshots from the visit.

The first curiosity is that in Rio, everyone’s famous. Over and over, I'd pass seemingly regular-looking people and be told that they were elevated and...fabulous. One lady was known far and wide for her bumbum (the local term for butt), which struck me as good-not-great; another for being the mistress of a billionaire; and a slew of people were simply famous for being famous. They weren't canny stokers of their personal brands, ala Hilton or Kardashian. That requires skill and effort. These folks were simply anointed, period.

I spent an afternoon drinking shots of cachaça with this guy, "Tim", no last name, just Tim. He was an American who'd insinuated himself within some TV star’s entourage, and had become famous for the connection. He was so impossibly Kato Kaelinesque (this was a few months before the OJ trial) that he actually lived in a guesthouse by the pool. He was perfectly down to earth with me, but whenever a Brazilian came within range, he'd change all his mannerisms along with his language, becoming the haughtiest and most affectedly languid straight dude you've ever met. He was rocking it old school...ala 15th century. I hadn't realized anyone could still do "princely". I suppose my own caché increased from having hung out with him, not that I'd have even noticed. I imagined locals pointing at me and whispering "he drank cachaça with Tim!"

Most nights, when she wasn't out on the town preening in her tight black dress amid the hoi polloi and the faux-famous-polloi, my girlfriend would get quietly drunk in front of the TV, puke, and fell into bed. We hadn't done much of anything during the day either, as a crippling dull lethargy gripped her, her family, their apartment building, the neighborhood, the city, and the country. But one morning she rallied and told me she'd bring me to a jungle paradise, full of waterfalls, a few hours out of town, and she'd decided - over my strenuous objections - that we'd hitchhike there. The first car that picked us up was driven by a creepy drunk who we forced to drop us off a few miles later. We walked back to the apartment. Drink, puke, sleep.

Music-wise, I expected a vibrant scene, with streets full of samba and clubs full of bossa nova. What I found was the shiny music of everywhere-but-Brazil. You know how when you hand a kid an open microphone he'll do his version of the most obnoxious and affected sports announcer? All I heard was the most exaggeratedly vapid American-style pop, hip hop, and fusion jazz, and equally vapid Caribbean Latino pop, performed, always, with blindingly white teeth. Flashy trashy bullshit.

We went to a concert by renowned singer/composer Chico Buarque (billionaire mistress chick - who weighed like 17 pounds and survived on mints and cigarettes - had scored primo tickets from her "boyfriend"). Like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, Buarque had done some good early work, though a bit pop-ish, but all three were now caught in the same shiny tractor beam as everyone else, producing lame bloodless affected pap. The entire nation seemed a couple pints low on plasma.

It made no sense. This was a great and beautiful country, with a cultural heritage of pure poetry. But, unable to live up to that heritage, it had been captivated by empty, shallow flash, which felt  more current and fabulous than their own stuff, which felt local, dowdy, and unfabulous. Above all, one felt a thick restlessness. Something similar is subtly experienced in other has-been countries like England or Spain, but here it was full-blast. Brazilians have a love/hate relationship with Brazil, and they choose 180° wrong, loving the hateable and hating the loveable.

Finally, I hit the streets, searching for a vestige of the real Brazilian spirit to rescue my trip. On a mountain in the outskirts of Rio, in a very dangerous neighborhood very late at night, I heard, to my shock, live real Brazilian music. I entered the restaurant, where they were playing chorinho, the style which had preceded samba and bossa nova, sort of analogous to our ragtime. It's great. Get a sense of it here:

There was joy. There was bloodedness. I whipped out my trombone and played all night. And returned the next.

The players sat informally around a table in the restaurant strumming myriad guitars and shaking percussion and stacking their shot glasses. They were alcoholic vagabonds who did little else but sleep all day and drink and play all night, and only a few dozen people knew about them. There was a fuzzy dream quality to the whole scene; no one ever talked to me or asked my name. There was no time for it; I never once saw them take a break. And the entire room - musicians, audience, and servers - perennially hovered near the point of alcohol poisoning. Booze was their Popeye spinach.

I hear they're still there, still doing it, decades later. In my mind, I view it through the wrong end of the telescope as a tiny, distant, sharply focused gem, the final glowing ember of the national culture and soul.

I've written about how depression is caused by a frozen perspective. Brazil - a place where even the recent past seems faded and crusted - is an entire society cursed with frozen perspective. Nothing really works, and no one really cares.

As a disconsolate Brazilian raged on Twitter this morning (read her short thread, please):
If you are not Brazilian, it may be difficult for you to fathom the fact that the museum had absolutely no mechanisms that could possibly help extinguish the fire.

Not even the hydrants were working properly when the fire brigade arrived.
To her, and to me, this wasn't so much a tragedy as the culmination of a tragedy. García Márquez would have rejected this development for being overly heavy-handed. Too damned on-the-nose.

I've been wondering lately what to expect from the ongoing decline of the American empire. While I've never felt particularly jazzed to be part of the Number One Country, and would be perfectly happy with #20 or #30, I worry we'll congeal into a hellscape of ennui, corruption, soullessness and incompetence. That we'll foresake indie rock and blues and jazz in favor of shitty English language versions of the latest Chinese pop. That we'll wind up lost, restless, and too distracted by our own self-loathing to prevent it all from burning down.

Poe on Creativity

"I am excessively slothful, and wonderfully industrious — by fits. There are epochs when any kind of mental exercise is torture, and when nothing yields me pleasure but solitary communion with the “mountains & the woods”—the “altars” of Byron. I have thus rambled and dreamed away whole months, and awake, at last, to a sort of mania for composition. Then I scribble all day, and read all night, so long as the disease endures." - Edgar Allan Poe
That's a nice echo of my posting from two years ago titled "Creating a Vacuum to Leech Out Eurekas":
Creativity requires space. You don't tighten your belt to foster your best creativity, you loosen it. You don't bear down, you dilate.

If you were to observe me, you'd think I was the biggest slacker in the world. When not in mid-project (actually executing the things I've dreamed up), I spend an awful lot of time sitting around, watching TV, ruminating, hanging out, not doing anything productive. This used to mortify me. I figured I was lazy, shiftless, and broken. I've constantly worried about wasting my life. It's been a huge source of shame since early childhood. But at a certain point I turned around, looked back, and noticed, to my surprise, that I'd actually accomplished stuff, and developed a range of skills, even in my seeming sloth. Magically, stuff got done!

I know now that it's easily explained: creativity is fostered by loosening the belt, by making space for epiphanies. An awful lot can get done via relentless hard work (and I eventually learned how to knuckle down into that in order to execute my ideas), but creativity is a different animal, and it looks lazy.

Here's a related topic: Procrastination.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Mickey Rooney’s Potato Fantasy

I thought Mickey Rooney's Potato Fantasy restaurant was a real thing until Barry Strugatz sussed out the hoax's originator, Chris Shapan, who does a miraculous job of spoofing old-style print media. Don't miss his FB page (expect to fall down a very deep hole).

Saturday, September 1, 2018

John McCain

If, like me, you're too moderate to entirely spurn the memory of John McCain for the real harm he did to the nation by bringing us the loathsome Sarah Palin, setter of our current stage; too measured to dismiss him outright for his frightful hawkishness; too forgiving to damn him for abandoning principle to pander and tap dance through his final race for the presidency; and you choose a more nuanced view, recognizing that just because John McCain, the man, was a very different entity from his own legend doesn't mean he didn't damn well earn that legend the hard way...then I would suggest that you:

1. read Charles Pierce's wonderfully balanced portrait in Esquire, and...

2. share my fervent hope that McCain, in death, will fully transmogrify into the John McCain we all wanted, and provide timely inspiration to the Trump property junior managers of the US Congress to summon some courage and character, or, at least to keep alive some of their fading rational ambivalence.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Orwell and Gun Control

This National Review cover (of last week's "Gun Issue") caught my eye at the newsstand. Re: that Orwell quote....

I understand where 2015 Republicans were coming from with this. But I don't understand how this fits into 2018.

We're in a situation where, for the first time, totalitarianism is an actual immediate concern. And the vast majority of the people with the guns have sided with the would-be tyrant, and are much more likely to direct their weapons toward democratic (small "d") dissenters than toward the tyranny.

I understand people don't try very hard to be consistent in their thinking. We're able to hold contradictory beliefs and opinions with ease, scarcely ever noticing. It's a feature, not a bug; if each time we changed an opinion, it involved a major unraveling and reevaluation of our entire thought systems, it'd be impossible to get on with our lives.

But still.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Shostakovich, Eddie Barefield, and The Evolution of Western Art

Riled up by Christopher Lydon’s terrific Open Source podcast on Shostakovich, I ventured to Tanglewood last weekend to hear his Fourth Symphony. It’s always a powerful, emotional experience; a triumph born of failure. As so often happens in the arts, the composer tried to imitate (in this case, Gustav Mahler) and failed magnificently.

Mahler wove popular songs and motifs, gestures and dogma, commentary and meta commentary, seamlessly into his majestic symphonies. You always know when an orchestra is outfitting itself for Mahler. Every half-decent brass and percussion player in town gets called in to fortify those sections. In this, his most Mahlerian effort, Shostakovich beefs up the band aplenty. A furniture store of basses, along with a complete second set of timpani and a redundancy of tubists (scary gleams in their eyes, awaiting the bloody meal) are just a few of the upgrades.

But I'm sorry, Dimitry. You know I love you, but you've produced no bold smash of schweinefleischy indomitability, because you're just not that guy. Rather, the Fourth Symphony plays out like a nerdy, nervous, soulfully acerbic patchwork of musical tchotchkes. Pravda was foolish to call it "muddle not music", but, political pressures aside*, you can't blame them for failing to appreciate such a sharp turn. Shostakovich's brilliant cornucopia helped usher in a more ADD approach to 20th century art, eventually culminating in postmodernism (as well as at least one soulfully acerbic blogger). In retrospect, it was a glorious muddle of profound musicality.

A style was born, even if partially the product of serendipity. Charles Mingus tried to write like Duke Ellington, but he lacked Duke's jaunty elegance and formal structure, so the result was a rumbling slurry of primal soul. Many of us prefer that slurry.

Mahler has inevitability. His music may sound dissonant and clashy to the uninitiated ear, with more dense cross-talk than a Robert Altman film. But it dependably presents as a unified whole, all elements seemingly preordained. As disparate as the strands might seem, one cannot imagine revision. By contrast, Shostakovich's work feels like more of a ride, a personal journey through 1000 ingenious inflection points. Inhabiting the composer's point of view (Mahler had no POV; he was channeling God or whatever, and you will obediently sit and you will listen), any effort to anticipate where he's going is swiftly toppled by tsunamis of feverishly fertile invention. One’s expectations are methodically and craftily defied.

It amounts to open warfare against expectation. Whenever a passage turns prettily tuneful, some unimagined dissonance - spitting trumpets, kooky double reeds in buzzing half-steps, or WTF jungle juju percussion - descends like a Terry Gilliam animation to wreak havoc and avert complacency. It all hangs together beautifully, but it's pastiche; a dense warren of delightful interludes rather than a structure of momentous revelation.

While Mahler preaches at you, Shostakovich endlessly fucks with you. Temperamentally unwilling to erase his own tracks, he obviously wants you to know you're been fucked with. Never is the listener allowed to feel comfortable; ears are deliberately denied what they want to hear. Instead, you get something fresher, more nuanced, personal, and rife with bittersweet irony. Like a great used bookstore, there's scant hope of finding what you were looking for, but you will assuredly take away greatness.

What, exactly, does the ear want to hear? This is a thoughtful question with a thuddingly banal answer: the clichés of the previous generation, that's all. Bach piously adhered to rational principle - principles he himself had largely initiated. Before art can go “off the rails”, rails must be established, and there was no greater rail-builder than Bach. But the obedience was short-lived. Mozart applied his genius to gleefully, wittily, brilliantly flout those rails, barely skirting wreckage. His music, as heard at the time, was a delight (or a misery, depending on your disposition) of elusiveness, never quite yielding the expected. "This is the part of the meal where you're traditionally offered an ornate chocolate petit four, but here, instead, is a thimble of rich hot cocoa dosed with a provocative touch of black pepper." Mind blown! (By the time Shostakovich appeared, a few centuries later, the metaphor might be scorching cocoa beans shoved up your nostrils while your temples are tenderly massaged, the burn extinguished in the nick of time via a dainty spritz of chilled champagne infused with a note of nightingale sweat.)

Every great creative artist both rebels against the previous generation and lays down updated rails to be defied by the following one. Art advances via a chain of generational defiance, deliberate or accidental. In all eras and in all arts, a few are compelled to shatter complacency - denying the audience the anticipated tropes, and offering, instead, something enticingly skewed.

Shostakovich's rebellion was both deliberate and accidental. Failing to fully embody Mahler, he was diverted by Gustav's gravitational field into a path of his own, following an instinct to mischievously sideskirt convention. Every snatch of tunefulness explodes like a trick cigar; every lovely bit is spiked with bitter bite; every soothing flow chafed by an intractable grind. Blessed with exquisite taste, he was sensitive in doling out surprise, startling open-minded listeners into astonishment rather than pummeling them into confusion.

It's shocking, as a jazz musician, to recognize how far classical composers of this period had progressed. At that time, jazz was flattering its audience with unashamed facile conventionality. Jazz had started as a movement of inventive rebelliousness - marches, waltzes and sappy popular drek were cheekily adorned, defiled, swung up, profaned and debauched. It was beautiful. Mozartian irreverence...and funky! But then it grew popular for a while, and commerce does not encourage the deliberate defiance of expectation ("The film I'm envisioning will be sort of a cross between Forrest Gump and Shrek...")

While jazz had grown docile in its eagerness to gratify audience expectations, classical composers were building sophisticated terrains of dissonance that wouldn't influence jazz until decades later. It was only its death knell as a popular form that recharged jazz' original spirit of rude rebelliousness and invention.

By the mid 1960s, jazz had nearly caught up, but, by then, classical music had painted itself into a corner. Movements like serialism and microtonalism had seemed destined to open up vast landscapes of possibility, but, paradoxically, vistas only contracted and desiccated.

The vitality of an art form derives from the friction between rail hugging and rebellious invention. Creativity is kindled by confrontation with status quo. Thousands of microdecisions emerge from this confrontation, aggregating to imprint a creator's vision, personality, taste; perhaps even soul. Without any rails whatsoever (or with a new, theoretical set of rails that haven't been - and likely never will be - internalized by one's audience) you're left with sound rather than music. We hear many composers mucking around amid infinite space, rather than purposefully blowing up a railroad. Which strikes you as the more engrossing proposition?

Both jazz and classical music have settled into a steady state. Rails fully obliterated, it's now all about performance rather than creation. There's money to be made in reviving old repertory, and armies of conservatory graduates deliver technically accomplished renditions of each era's status quo without a trace of rebelliousness. The performance even of dissonant music once considered subversive now carries the edgy gleam of a Perry Como tribute.

The greatest creative docility is now found at the intersection of composition and performance, in improvised music. Since leaving Chowhound I've roamed unsung nightclubs like Rip Van Jazz Cat, searching for the indomitable creative spirit of thoughtful defiance. But I've heard nothing but flat conventionality, without a scintilla of invention. No bombs thrown, no expectations ingeniously baited-and-switched. To the contrary, expectations are dutifully, even eagerly, coddled. That's become the whole game - the unabashed goal of an entire generation eager to recapitulate the same-old, unskewed by a nanojoule of spontaneity, let alone sabotage. Status quo has, alas, finally become the status quo. And so the universe cools.

Having spent my 20s hanging out almost exclusively with elderly semi-forgotten black jazz veterans, I shudder on their behalf. For example, in 1990 I gigged in a bored Williamsburg watering hole with a musty band of oldsters including Eddie Barefield, a direct link to the earliest days of jazz (he'd played with freaking Bennie Moten!).

Though Eddie had been a fixture in every subsequent era (he'd mentored Charlie Parker, dead 35 years at the time), few remembered him (even his home town of Scandia, Iowa had long-ago faded and died; today it doesn't even Google), hence his presence at this $50 gig. He sat, mildly choleric, in his chair, occasionally hocking loogies to the bandstand's sawdusty floor. His technique was no longer supple, but by the second or third chorus, his spirit would sometimes rejuvenate back to 1936 - the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony's birth year - and, amid the moldy swing tropes, he might slip in some astonishingly oblique ear-defying run that left me and the other musicians startled and breathless. “WHAT IN JESUS HELL WAS *THAT*??” I'd silently scream to myself, whipping my head around toward Eddie, impassive as a wooden Indian, while bored patrons continued to blithely sip their beers. Eddie had gotten from Point A to Point B in a manner never before heard.

Such miracles were strictly of his era, too. Not modern anachronisms. They stretched 1936 conventions, never snapping them. Eddie was recalling fallow branchings that had spawned no twigs or flowers; forgotten Shostakovichian tchotchkes of rebellious glee; the sort of material deviously inserted by lesser-known players of the time who hadn't fully shaken their subversive instincts.

* - As for the pressures inflicted on Shostakovich by Stalin's regime, that's interesting history but it's a serious mistake to draw conclusions about an artist's work from events in his personal life. My travails with the DMV coincide with my writing of this article, but I'd much prefer that you consider the material at hand full-on rather than recast this as my oblique rejoinder to a repressive bureaucracy. Great art seldom refers to our planetary day jobs - our day-to-day yadda yadda - despite efforts by the small-minded to reduce a heavenly sweep to something more consciously manageable; to force-translate poetry into prose.

An index of some of my previous music writings

All previous music writings (reverse chronological)

A recently discovered video of me performing on trombone on a particularly good night in 1992.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

A New Way of Teaching

In my previous posting, I described an exasperated observation I'd offer while teaching jazz workshops:
You guys are sitting there, slumped in your chairs, mopey and dead-eyed. You're honking out jazzy notes like it's the latest dreary task in your daily grind, along with vacuuming the living room or tying your shoes. You're not working hard and you're not particularly trying...even though you absolutely need to, because you're not good yet.

Now, consider me. I'm a professional. I'm good. In fact, I'd sound good even if I sat back like a mope, treating this like some dreary task. Yet I don't. Look at me here, trying phenomenally hard. I'm sweating bullets and considering every note as if my life depended on it. Why are you working and caring so much less than I am? Does it make even the slightest bit of sense?!?
It struck them like thunder. Every time. And it often stuck with them. Here's a similar one:

I was taking a yoga class taught by the great Ramanand Patel. It was a very warm day and the studio was not air conditioned and he was working us hard, having us do impossible things and hold positions long beyond our normal limits. There was much moaning and groaning in the room, and some of us were starting to crumble in resignation. Here's what he said:
While you enjoy your lovely afternoon of yoga, untold millions perform unforgiving manual labor in the hot sun with empty bellies for pennies.
After that there was nary a sound. Only lightness and ease. All week.

I once wrote, in a posting titled "Disrespect Your Teachers", that
All learning is self-learning. Your doctor can cure you without your participation, and your stylist can make you look sharp while you chat on the phone, but no teacher has ever taught anyone anything. Teachers are mere aids in a learning process that's student-owned.
You can't teach people much by pushing your knowledge and experience at them. If you're lucky, a few will draw those things toward themselves, but it's their initiative, not yours. Nor can you help people by pushing forward a directed solution. Again, most will remain impervious, while a few might choose to draw and to drink. If you sense no pull, there's literally no use for you. You may be right as rain but you won't make a lick of difference (this accounts for people who never learn; who've fallen in love with their pain and ignorance, their drama and desperation).


What you can do, via words, arts, example-setting, or even just attitude, is to coax people to shift their frame of perspective. Framing is everything in this life. It's the preeminent human faculty, though it's seldom spoken of, and rarely intentionally practiced (I'm working on a book of exercises...stay tuned). 

So if you want to seem like a magician, develop some litheness in your shifting, and you'll find that others can be brought along with you. When it works, this is what miracles are. No one will ever levitate or mind-read, but you absolutely can instigate a shift in perspective, and a new framing is a new world; a new life. A number of my students went on to be highly-committed players, and I never again found yoga unpleasant, even when it was very difficult.

Creativity is directly related. We value art, music, cinema, cuisine, etc., for their power to help us shift our framing, and the best creators are akin to magicians.

Here are previous writings on perceptual framing, in reverse chronological order (I'd strongly suggest starting from the bottom and working up).

Why My Cooking Isn't Great

From my seat at the counter in front of the open kitchen, I watched Nudel Restaurant's highly-skilled chefs churn out plate after flawless plate. Since I've been on a quest to boost my cooking skill, I paid careful attention, hoping to pick up some pointers.

What I noticed was the softness of their hands. They weren't wrestling ingredients into submission. Their actions were gentle and sweet. They coaxed rather than compelled. And pains were taken. Vast concentration, vast attention, vast levels of caring. It’s not that they were projecting an image - impressing others or themselves with their theatrical intensity. This was a deep and non-self-aware sense of commitment, period (which I rewarded with whiny jaundice in my review).

It was inspiring to see, but highly ironic that I’d be struck by this at such a late date.

I used to teach jazz improvisation workshops around Europe. Among my clever exercises and useful bits of advice, the thing that most helped students was a simple, exasperated and brutal observation:
You guys are sitting there, slumped in your chairs, mopey and dead-eyed. You're honking out jazzy notes like it's the latest dreary task in your daily grind, along with vacuuming the living room or tying your shoes. You're not working hard and you're not particularly trying...even though you absolutely need to, because you're not good yet.

Now, consider me. I'm a professional. I'm good. In fact, I'd sound good even if I sat back like a mope, treating this like some dreary task. Yet I don't. Look at me here, trying phenomenally hard. I'm sweating bullets and considering every note as if my life depended on it. Why are you working and caring so much less than I am? Does it make even the slightest bit of sense?!?
It struck them like thunder. Every time. And it often stuck with them.

As I said a couple of postings ago, it's devilishly hard to distribute insights evenly into all aspects of one's life. I needed to learn the power of commitment twice; once with music and then again with writing. Now, after a decade of effort to improve my cooking, and feeling that I was still missing an essential piece, it turns out that that piece was my very own signature hard-won lesson. Sigh.

It's not that I don't commit at all in my cooking. As I recently wrote, I'm actually a bit of a kook in some tasks:
I've made toasting a spiritual practice, honing my tolerances to milliseconds, aiming to extract the bread at its peak. That's working out quite well, but it's just a matter of vigilance and commitment - of wanting it (watching me peer expectantly into my toaster oven, you'd think I was slicing atoms). But tea brewing, with multiple moving parts to its process, each ridiculously sensitive to minute variation, is so, so much harder.
However, that's not enough. Why is my cooking delicious and not devastating? Because I'm merely super-hyper-mega committed, which makes me a piker. Seeing the chefs at Nudel, I instantly flashed: they could cook better than me without even trying. So why do I try so much less than they do?

I could have written a perfectly acceptable version of this in ten minutes flat. Instead, I've sat here for hours, fiddling with every word (and fretting over that last comma) as if the fate of the universe hinged on perfect, seamless clarity. I'm a much better writer than a cook. This is why.

A follow-up posting

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