Monday, April 30, 2018

Crispy Leftover Pasta

I've been trying to achieve brown crispy highlights in leftover pasta for a very long time (my inspiration is Sicilian fried ziti, another nearly-obsolete food I yearn for).

It's been frustrating. Part of the problem is that my people do not traffic in crunch. Another is that I try to eat healthy, so I really don't do pans full of oil - and it's damned hard to produce crispness without sizzling oil.

My friend Paul suggested using a wok. I bought one, and while I've managed to make some damned good beef chow fun...



...I found that I could stir-fry pasta till the cows get home, but the combination of my low-b.t.u. stove and my pesky oil aversion leads to scorching, not crisping.

As I've previously mentioned, I tried Blue Apron for a few weeks, mostly to try to break out of old cooking habits. And one of their techniques is to add an ingredient to a hot pan and leave it there a good while without fiddling with it. That's how they recommend doing shisito peppers, for example, and it does work like a charm.

So here's what I just did:

1. Rubbed a skillet lightly with an oily paper towel.
2. Heated pan to medium and waited till it was fully heated (a minute or two longer than I ordinarily wait).
3. Dumped leftover salmon pasta and spread it out evenly.
4. Left the room (something I normally never do while cooking).
5. Flipped pan contents with spatula. Then performed Frank's Water Trick (added a TBS water and quickly, tightly covered pan and reduced heat).
6. I happened to toss in some leftover chopped kale at the end. 
7. Wait 2 minutes and serve.

And look!




Here, FYI, is how I originally prepared the salmon pasta. I stir-fried slices of wild Alaskan salmon carelessly in a wok along with finely sliced garlic. Then added chopped leftover broccolini and very coarsely-chopped tomatoes (my wok's well-seasoned so the acid won't react). Finally added - big secret ingredient! - chopped pea shoots, cooking only a minute or two past that addition.

Meanwhile, I boiled Trader Joe's fancy "Gigli" pasta, saving a couple tablespoons of cooking water. I returned drained pasta to pot and added a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil (healthy oil, not degraded by cooking heat), some grated cheese, and chili flakes (I like Penzey's Aleppo Peppers). I stirred the pasta like a madman, gradually added salmon mixture, and stirred more (I kept the burner on low-medium while stirring, but cut heat immediately thereafter). Then serve. It was good.



All recipes in reverse chronological order

Sappy Shawn and Studly Steve

Sappy Shawn walks down the street, day-dreaming, as usual, about his childhood poodle, Noodles. Noodles, he firmly believes, watches over him from Puppy Heaven. Noodles cares about him in ways that no one else does. Shawn's loopy grin sometimes discomfits people. His shirt has a poodle print. And on his smartphone, Noodles is his wallpaper image. He glances at it when something upsets him.

Shawn arrives at work, where he's decided that the cubicle village in which he labors was feng-shui arranged to direct grace his way. Whenever the front door opens, a slight breeze filters through the baffles, finally wafting, barely detectably, past his desk. He lives for these moments. They soothe him. The world feels like a sweet place.

Shawn takes Flintstones vitamins, which he imagines give him super strength, and, when necessary, uses Flintstones bandaids, which remind him of the love he received from his dear-departed mother.

Even at age 42, Shawn still doesn't step on sidewalk cracks, not wanting to chance breaking backs. Also, he honestly believes he's Luke Skywalker. At any moment, the Rebels might call him up for a brave new mission. His Flintsones vitamins keep him ready.

Sappy Shawn is, we can all agree, out of his gourd; just barely functional. His sad, flimsy emotional bastions are plainly inadequate for the rigors of adult daily life. One thing seems certain: Shawn's living in a fantasy, not in the real world.

=============
Studly Steve walks down the street, reliving, yet again, the devastating final argument with his first high school girlfriend. She said terrible, awful things, and he's replayed that mental tape thousands of times. It's what he does when his mind's otherwise unoccupied. Striding down a lovely street on a beautiful day, in perfect health, well-fed, and comfortably provided for, Steve's temples throb in anger, and his gait is pugnacious and aggressive. Cortisol rages through his bloodstream from the self-inflicted stress.

This is what Steve does: he manufactures stress by dipping into his treasured collection of painful moments of humiliation or by transporting himself to future imagined outrage and disappointment. None of it is actually happening in any given moment, but he's made this his permanent reality via sheer hypnotic repetition. The world sucks.

Steve arrives at work, where he sees his cubicle as puny and beneath the dignity of a 42 year old with his talent. He settles into his chair, registering once again its cheap uncomfortableness, and submits to the burdensome aggravations of work. He doesn't hate his job - is "just ok" with it - but it's a far cry from his dreams of glory. And that rankles. Steve's seething disappointment - at reality's failure to match fantasized expectation - is diligently fed. Countless daily trivialities funnel into this narrative, even as he makes good money doing non-back-breaking work for a solid company with mostly friendly coworkers; even as he generally enjoys a life utterly free of bona fide problems.

=============
Steve, like Shawn, lives in mental reverie, oblivious to the reality of moment-by-moment circumstances. He distorts his outlook via such a multitude of mental obsessions that he's entirely unhinged from reality - from the "raw feed" of it all. Yet Steve, unlike Shawn, seems absolutely normal. Steve is all of us....while Shawn is a nutty Pollyanna.

As I've written several times (originally in my discussion of the film Marwencol):
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 bizarre reason, childish and loopy.
Perpetually festering in imaginary pain is completely normal. Same for spending every waking moment obsessed with What's Missing. But we're disgusted and alarmed by those who use the same imaginative faculties to conjure up happier landscapes. There is only one conclusion to draw: we prefer it the other way.

We like the grind, the stress, the festering, the pain. We enjoy the murders and fires and wars and kids dying of cancer (or, at least, we enjoy bitterly gnashing our teeth over those things). The prevalence of such reports on the News is not random. It's played up because we yearn for it (we slow down to peer at accidents, not at art or sunsets or children playing). If we're not generating sufficient poison in our own lives, we look to our entertainments to top us off, so to speak - to ballast our happiness. Whatever it takes to stave off becoming a sappy, deluded Shawn, who strikes us as broken. I explored this more deeply in my "Why God Lets Bad Things Happen" posting. Spoiler: He lets it 'cuz we like it that way.

=============
But there's another level. Studly Steve creates gnarly friction and drama for himself, as we all do. So what's Sappy Shawn doing, exactly? Is he making lemonade from lemons? No. The lemons are delusional in the first place. We conjure them from memory or imagination. Steve's long-ago girlfriend is not yelling terrible things in any given moment. His job's fine (so's his chair) and his carefully nurtured woeful tales of disappointment are just that: stories. It's all perfectly fine; there are few actual problems beyond the stories we tell ourselves. Returning to my "Why God Lets Bad Things Happen" posting...
After millennia spent desperately seeking cheat codes for this world, figuring the whole while that things would be so much better if only we could purge the illness and lions and warlords, the famines and extreme poverty, we've done it! This richest of rich-world countries has expunged the vast majority of its nemeses! Yet look around you. Most of us spend most of our time building needless drama, stress, and sorrow for ourselves. We are far more depressed than any human beings anywhere, ever. We build internal towers of brooding discontent, and spend vast tracts of time lost in tumultuous TV shows and video games and sad songs and memories of pain and worries of loss, desperately seeking out whatever snatches of drama we can find to identify with. Having finally slayed the monsters, we are bored, discontent, and hellbent on creating new monstrous worlds to inhabit as deeply and as continuously as possible. Virtual reality technology is right around the corner, and one senses that the public can hardly wait. Do you imagine we'll use it to build lovely realms without violence, pain, or menace? Of course not. We like those things! We plainly crave them! Even in our "real" offline lives, we creatively find dire stress and drama amid our ridiculously safe and comfortable American existence!
So Shawn isn't dodging the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, which are extremely few and far between. He's mostly just deflecting his inner Steve; his obsessive inclination to replay memories of pain and loss and to toss every petty disappointment into his lifelong narrative of woe. Shawn has created shielding to block damage from his own Steve-ish instincts. It's quite a tightly-packed vicious circle.

Shawn assumes the world persecutes him, when, day in and day out, it's just his inner Steve feeding him a salad of unnecessarily harsh interpretations of what's happening, recycled memories of previous harsh interpretations, and anxieties about harsh future happenings. His countermeasure is to cover that salad with a thick, gloppy dressing of sentimental puppy memories, nostalgia, and cinematic projection, hoping to stave off The Monster that is his own obsession.

Hey, that's one way of handling it. The other is to just stop Steveing. Drop the whole thing, and immerse in the raw feed. Literally come back to your senses - to what's actually happening right here right now.


Shawn is Stympy, Steve is Ren. But as explained above, Shawn is Steve. Shawn is one desperate reaction to the Steve tendency.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Bigger Picture with North Korea

I said on Facebook last week that:

(Quotes lightly edited for style and brevity)
The South, petrified Trump would provoke or initiate war, had no other choice but to push ahead hard toward conciliation.

I must admit that in this one case, my Trump-supporting friends may have been correct that the "something new", dice-shaking approach may actually have been what's needed (though we'll see what ensues). However I don't for a second imagine that Trump saw this outcome coming.

My bet, fwiw, is that he and Bolton never envisioned the upcoming USA/DPRK "summit" as anything but an excuse to storm from the negotiating table (reporting "Hey, we tried!) followed by some military action. But now that's all beside the point. And we'll see what S Korea gives up. I suspect it will be big; the scope not fully revealed until later....maybe much later.

Finally, it seems very non-coincidental that Kim Jong-un recently had his first sit down with the Chinese.

A friend replied:
What possibly can the South give up? If (and when) there's reunification, the South will foot the bill for everything. Kind of like East and West Germany but even more so! What more is there?

I replied:
Less American presence and influence. More Chinese presence and influence. And less democracy. This could, in final estimation, be seen as "The North finally won the war".

It's little understood that kookie North Korean-style racial/genetic notions, etc. actually have considerable support in the south. Much as we falsely imagine most Chinese citizens hate their government and yearn to be free, it's also mistaken to assume that South Korean citizens all see the north as repellently whacky as we do.

Unification would absolutely NOT be ala Germany. That's not the model here. Much more balanced, or (due to aforementioned pressures), somewhat north-favoring. Watch.

Full disclosure: I'm a food critic, not a North Korean expert. However, I've been very careful and a little lucky in having come across smart sources for overall understanding. It turns out that the North Korea experts we see on TV, and, in many cases employed at top of US Gov, are shockingly ignorant. Many don't even speak Korean. If curious, start here, chase down some links, and enjoy the rabbit hole. This is also real interesting.

For instance, the whole "juche" thing (N. Korea's predominant "idealogy") turns out to be a red herring. It's only spelled out in English language docs, which is why non-Korean-speaking "experts" fall for it (some have even made juche scholarship their life's work). Somewhere in the above rabbit hole you'll read about the bona fide expert who travelled to N Korea, took a tour, and grilled his handler on juche. She didn't know a damned thing about it, it turned out!

We are, in other words, so shockingly ignorant on this stuff - even most of our experts - that a food critic, by having read the right people, can maybe get a half-decent handle on it. Or....I could be totally wrong. Who knows.

Another friend interjected:
I’m dubious. North Korea would be insane to give up its nukes. This is a familiar NK tactic, play nice, stall, make promises, etc. As Trump is about to demonstrate yet again, the US doesn’t stick to its promises. So why should they trust us anymore than the world trusts them. Still I’m happy we might have a few years of less belligerent NK behavior.

My reply:
Nukes are strategic, not cherished playthings. If the North can use them to get what they need - Americans out, South Koreans conciliating on more or less their terms, and China and Russia falling over each other to curry favor and fill the American vacuum, that's certainly a greater strategic objective. That's potentially the long play, but we won't see any of that for at least a year or five.

Right now, the short play is for the S Koreans to stave off the charade of Bolton and Trump pretending to negotiate this phoney summit with complete uncertainty as to true intentions with all these mortars and chem/bio weapons pointing at their heads. They have LOST (this isn't peace after the long-ago war, it's surrender) and are negotiating from utter weakness. Which is still way better for them than 100M dead, and better for us than ICBMs pointed at Chicago and NYC. But it sure ain't the glorious unification of Germany, at least not from the perspective of freedom, democracy, and American interests.

And it's not a familiar NK tactic, because absolutely every aspect of this situation is new and unique and potentially apocalyptic for the South.

But wait and see.

Today a stink bomb was fired into whatever peaceful results (however coerced) might be flowering. The despicable John Bolton said this morning on Face The Nation that "We are looking at the Libya model" for nuclear disarmament for North Korea.

Undestand what this means. Libya's leader, Qaddafi, played ball with us. He gave up his nukes, and, having lost all leverage, we invaded his country and slaughtered him. That's the Libya model.

The "Libya model", perhaps Obama's worst move, set a precedent that will forever discourage countries from giving up their nuclear leverage (the "Iran model" will strongly reinforce the precedent if/when we break the agreement despite Macron's clever behind-scenes efforts).

This is, in other words, Bolton 1. trying to break up the inter-Korean lovefest, and 2. rattling Kim Jong-un out of any notion of serious negotiation with Trump. Trump himself, and his advisory circle of misfit toys, will likely not understand the sabotage Bolton's just committed.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Gender Hopefulness


As I tweeted back (here's my Twitter feed, which mostly retweets insightful stuff I stumble upon, and also announces new Slog postings):
More than anything else, it's a poorly constructed polling question. E.g. I do not "hope to see a female president". I do hope to see an honest, competent president. I have no preference whatsoever as to gender.


Permitted To Freely Split Infinitives

"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint". - Hesiod, 8th century BC.


When I was a teenager, I loved to quote, to people of my parent's generation, ancient Greeks griping about the lazy, disrespectful new generation. Similar observations having recurred for 30 centuries straight, it would follow that either our race has 1. devolved, by this point, to invertebrate slime, or else 2. this had been, all along, empty pique from crusty twits rigidly intolerant toward inevitable change.

Similarly, every language has been seen by academics as having been ruined ("bastardized", in the original meaning of the term...which has, itself, fittingly, been bastardized) in every era. It would follow that by this point we must be grunting at each other like apes, or else such observations were empty pique from crusty twits rigidly intolerant toward inevitable change.

There's no such thing as "bad" cultural change, because culture is change. By the time culture - even good culture! - congeals into tradition, it's ready for hospice care. For example, I can hardly listen to a note of jazz today. And compare the current crop of stiff, desiccated classical musicians to the lithe freshness of a Michal Hambourg.

Bad news for crusty twits: The Economist has finally ruled split infinitves to be ok. Those of us who have, all along, used language not to conform but to express can, I suppose, rejoice or whatever.


More on language pedantry:

A delightful video from Stephen Fry, reformed language pedant.

My original posting on the issue, including a link to a little-remembered but influential-at-the-time article by lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Spirituality in 333 Words

When I'm immersed in a movie, I don't bring me with me. I "lose myself" as they say, which is literally correct. My body's not experienced, nor are my memories or opinions. I'm identifying with a character utterly unlike me. So who, exactly, is immersing and identifying? Awareness, of course!

Same for my dreams. I'm the dreamer, but I don't bring my body or persona. And the same when I lose myself in work or action or tequila. Awareness loves to pretend to get lost in bits of action and role-playing. And the story of this Jim Leff guy is just more of that.

In fact, none of us spends more than a few minutes per day identifying as our worldly persona. When we do, it's experienced as hypnotism. We remind ourselves - repeatedly! - of what our story has been, what we need, and what we're dissatisfied with. Awareness really drills it in. The human persona is Awareness' big project!

We've all seen folks knotted up in First World Problems, ginning up drama for kicks because there's little at stake in their comfortable lives. That's Awareness to a tee! Thirsty for drama, things like video games, sad songs, and reveries of fantasy and worry are sought out to identify with. I'd call it a human tendency, but since the human doesn't come along, it's obviously Awareness. So the human persona's just another role!

In meditation, we may experience the between-roles state, where Awareness is unattached to pretending. It feels empty, because we've not yet popped in a storyline. There's only pregnant expectation.

There's nothing wrong with any of this. It's a feature, not a bug, to absorb in rich stories. We only get it wrong in assuming it's our persona doing this role-playing. Awareness underlies all the roles. By reframing perspective, Awareness chooses channels. But sometimes, when drama's particularly galvanizing, it overcommits to a role, forgetting that it's just empty drama. It feels stuck. And that's the whole problem with everything.


tl;dr
==================
Many people will tell you how to get "enlightened" - to unstick perspective and realize you've had infinite freedom all along. But no one's ever offered a reasonable explanation before for how we got unenlightened in the first place. Or who, exactly, gets enlightened, given that it involves the loss of sense of separate identity (answer: no one. Awareness simply remembers its natural pliancy. Like awakening from a dream).

Our problem is that we always tell the tale from the point of view of our Persona - a collection of ever-changing atoms, thoughts, memories, and plot points (as opposed to the part that's always been constant - the deepest me - aka Awareness). By explaining it from the point of view of Awareness (the only part that could possibly even have a perspective, being the only subject for a multiverse of objects), it's nothing crazy or paradoxical or profound. Just a bit counterintuitive.

It's all just a matter of perceptual framing. Jim Leff doesn't do that framing. He's just a story. He's a frame, not the framer. The framing is done by the awareness that peers out of Jim Leff's eyes. The me at the heart of me. The part that's always been there, while everything else changes. Longer, more involved version - also linking this into cosmology - here, plus linked follow-ups therein. Theological big picture here.

Finally, if this sounds like mad gibberish, I completely understand. Nobody understood why I was so "obsessed" with food in the early 90's; people thought I was crazy then, as well. I've always been a bit ahead of the curve (a whine, not a boast, as it's made me a perennial misfit). With this, I'm a bit more ahead than usual.

If you'd like to catch up, do this twice-daily meditation, browse this (very slowly and repetitively, until it begins to unlock), and bookmark this post for later. And don't make this any kind of holy thing. It's simple. Just a mere flip of perspective framing. The deepest feeling of "you" is the part that's always been there while all else changes. It's Awareness, and it's not yours. Rather, you're its.

You know Awareness intimately, it's not a mystery. But awareness doesn't have legs or hair or SAT scores or history. It just is.


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Heart of the Problem

I think I've figured it out. The underlying mental quirk behind the deprecation of expertise, the unearned superiority, the "my-gut-beats-your-book-learning", the snark impulse, the do-it-yourself reality and the all-American assumption that each of us is the measure of all that is true and right can be traced to two adolescent assumptions, both epidemic and both unconscious:

1. Spotting stupidity makes me superior.

2. My agreement makes me your equal. Resonance with any chunk of the thinking of, say, a Gandhi or an Einstein confirms that I'm firmly on their level.


This is the ultimate outcome of late-stage consumerism. While consumerism isn't quite synonymous with narcissism, it definitely leans that way once it fully metastasizes.

Monday, April 23, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #19

Monday, April 23, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 89,100 Google search results, just slightly below last time's 90,600.


All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Call Me Methuselah

Everybody knows getting older is all about the increasing sense that everything's being shot to hell, and important traditions are being lost. (Digression management note: my new shtick is to put digressions in block quotes...)
Here's why old people get all dried up and curmudgeonly: they stop chowhounding. Once you stop actively replenishing your bag of treasured restaurants, musicians, people, ideas, etc., the old ones inevitably start winking out of existence (or pertinence) one by one until you find yourself on a wind-swept desolate plain in a world devoid of all color and vitality. Really, the problem is just that you haven't kept up with all the new treasure springing up!

It's a cliché for people in their 30s to say they no longer seem to keep up with new good bands. That's the origin point for the dry desolation they'll experience in their 50s and 60s.
But I'm experiencing some weird much higher-level version of this. I've seen whole cultures crumble. I'm only 55, but I might as well be 5000. Call me Methuselah.

The other day, I had to explain to a not-so-young Puerto Rican youth - living in a Puerto Rican neighborhood and carrying himself with evident "keepin'-it-real" Puerto Rican deportment - about one of the mainstays of Puerto Rican culture, which he'd never even heard of. "Maví" is a drink made from medicinal herbs and tree sap and molasses, traditionally left out in the sun so it ferments a bit. It's super healthy as well as the cheapest possible buzz ("Officer, I had no idea the cheap medicinal drink I'm selling would turn alcoholic; I must have left the clear gallon containers on top of my car roof too long!").

My understanding is that maví, which is delicious and quite unlike anything else, is one of the few artifacts of the long-gone Taíno, the island's original inhabitants. It is hard to find it down in Puerto Rico, but a few maví guys in NYC continue the tradition, selling gallons of the stuff, along with sugarcane and coconut juice and papayas, from vans that have parked in the same outer boroughs locations for decades.
The Amish in Pennsylvania preserve long-extinct German language and culture from centuries past. And there was once a Neapolitan restaurant in Brooklyn that cooked dishes unavailable in Naples for decades, based on salt pork, which preceded the more recent incursion of olive oil to the region. Diaspora's a complicated thing; immigrants both dilute and preserve their parent culture. The melting pot is also a time capsule.
10-20 years ago, Puerto Ricans would tell me they'd heard of maví but never tried it. Now this guy had never even heard the word. And his eyes barely focused as I told him about it, and how he could still find some around town. I might as well have been talking about petticoats and harpsichords.

Same with my favorite Punjabi dish, palakwala (proteins - often chicken - in a sauce of spinach, tomato, ginger, and cumin). I remember when palakwala was widely-known, and then when it was "that dish my parents used to talk about", and now...nothing. It's gone. Waiters assume I must be asking for a samosa or whatever.

Same for aloo bujia, a Pakistani dish of potatoes stewed for hours (no relation to the current trendy french fry dish called aloo bhajiya). Somewhere in Karachi there exists a wizened, foggy old Pakistani gentleman who remembers this from his youth. He and I are the last of the aloo bujia eaters.
Just more of that magical realism, baby....
Yesterday, I ate at Havana Cafe in the Bronx. A mere six years ago, I waxed on about how Cuban food has a vibe, a profile, a soul that was completely different from other Caribbean cuisines. I didn't mention it in that posting (cool photos, though, plus a hot airport chow tip), but a lot of it stems from cumin - much like how the soul of Alentejan food - from the south of Portugal - is cilantro.
I don't normally like to say things like that, because they're misunderstood. Foodies put facts like these in their hoppers and figure they've got it all neatly figured out (Cuba = cumin; Alentejo = coriander). But you can sprinkle cumin in your rice and beans - or stir chopped cilantro into your cataplana - all you'd like, and it's not going to taste the least bit Cuban or Portuguese. It's not the ingredient, it's the touch - the undefinable, uncapturable, irreplicable way that a flavor flavors.

You need to taste that unique touch over time with a receptive palate and heart. You need to feel it, love it, hanker for it when it's not there. You need to build up some frickin' nostalgia! Only then will you be privy to the soul of the thing (which still doesn't mean you'll be able to evoke it in your cooking; that's a whole other level). It's about way more than the mere presence of some ingredient.
There wasn't a single grain of cumin in the food. And they used - it pains me to even type this - red beans everywhere, even in the moros. Cuba is black beans.
Which is not to say Cubans don't make red beans, but that's like confirming that New Orleanians make tuna casserole or Poles cook spaghetti.
I also asked for some "mojo", the oily garlic sauce that's the very underpinning of the cuisine. It's the edible version of "clave", the underlying pulse of all Cuban music. I should not have needed to ask for mojo, and was put off that I needed to do so. The mojo should have sat in a thick glass jar right on the counter, in front of the salt and pepper. But the waiter poked around the kitchen and finally brought me out a small plastic urine cup full of some watery substance, vaguely salad dressing-like, smelling weakly of garlic. To paraphrase the great Don Martin, brrrrehhhhhhhhhtch.

The restaurant was filled with Cubans (mostly under age 40), all of whom seemed to be enjoying it....while I, Methuselah, silently disapproved.

Look, I totally expected restaurants to close and bands to break up. I expected things that were once vital to fade and ossify. It's cool; I'm replacing stuff all the time! Talk to me about craft beer or yoga or Safari extensions! But whole cultures are not supposed to disintegrate this quickly. And, as they do, I'm not supposed to be the only damn person who notices.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Michal Hambourg

I wrote here about one of the greatest musicians I've ever known, the late Michal Hambourg. It was part of a long list of favorite recordings, and I'll replay the part about her below:
"The Hambourg Legacy"
Mark Hambourg, a peasant virtuoso from Eastern Europe who'd relocated to England, was the real deal. He was an early-recorded connection to the time when all this musty classical stuff was new and fresh and punk. Very well known in the early 20th century, Hambourg married in to Scottish nobility, and had a daughter, Michal - a prodigy who, in my opinion, was even better than him.

Michal was poised for stardom, but WWII interfered, and she never regained any career whatsoever. Rescued from obscurity in her 90's(!!) by Arbiter Records' Allan Evans, who'd recorded her on her home piano, with Liszt's walking stick mounted just above, on the wall. Arthritis cramped her technique some, but even if classical piano's not your thing, you'll instantly feel this is something else (listen to a free sample of her playing some Chopin that will make you cry). She sounds like she's IMPROVISING. No stiff, stodgy, polite, show-off piano this. Anyway, this record includes father, father + (young) daughter, and some modern recordings of just the daughter.
"The Hambourg Legacy" is out of print, but you can buy it on iTunes here.

Half Scottish nobility, half Eastern-European peasant Jew, Michal had all the majesty and all the soul; the roast pheasant as well as the chicken fat. Her pedigree traced directly to the great masters of 19th century music and she kept that flame alive for decade after decade, albeit in the most absolute obscurity. The essential loss of this necessary link and mammoth talent for a full half-century was a tragedy for her and for us, but Michal, naturally, found ways to contribute, working with gifted children and helping found the World Wildlife Fund, among other good works. Very late in life, she was rediscovered, but it was too late. There would be no concerts; no wider recognition.

But you, lucky ones, get to view the following. Here's the same Chopin from the second link above, along with video! Also with some wonderful Liszt and Mozart. This, for me, is what music aspires to be. Hardly anything comes close, even though, at age 78, Michal was far from her prime, her fingers arthritic and her energy diminished (see if you think it matters!).

I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon in Michal's living room, myself, a few years after this was recorded, and heard her play that same piano. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, you can visit Michal's living room, too. Do not miss this:



I managed to unearth the fan letter I'd written her, back in 2003 (just a bit before the events described here) which had earned me the lunch invitation (she cooked nearly as well as she played; again, half Scottish nobility and half Jewish peasant is sort of the ideal human amalgam):

Dear Ms. Hambourg,

It's not been the best year for me, but I just listened to your recording of Chopin's Etude in A-flat, and it makes me feel that life has richness and value. Your playing is too great to be measured by its therapeutic effect, of course, so please just accept this as my small personal testimonial!

I'm by no means a fitting messenger to deliver the following, but sometimes messages come from strange sources (plumbers, drug addicts, food critics, etc.). The message is: you are incredibly important for the world and you'll be remembered more than you imagine.



It can be helpful to tell people what they are.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

iPad Word Suggestion Poetry

Dream
I just had a dream
that I'd never thought of.
I just had a dream
that I'd never heard of.
I just had a dream
that I'd never had to live with.


Thoughtless
The only problem
is that I'd never thought.


Meta Futility
You can try and not be able anymore
and you can try and try again.


Zen Marketing
The app does not work.
The problem is that
it doesn't seem like
a great deal
of a great deal.




Explaining the DNC Lawsuit

If you were wondering, as I was, exactly what's up with the massive DNC lawsuit announced today against Trump, Trump's campaign, Wikileaks, the Russian GRU, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Donald Jr., etc., check out this interesting and clear (though, per her style, irritatingly padded) explainer from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow:



Friday, April 20, 2018

Telling People What They Are

If you ever have the opportunity to tell someone what they are, take it.

This flies in the face of every standard of polite sociality. It's incredibly taboo to characterize people! Most of us know better than to poke around in the minefield of who people are and what they do. Most people agree that the best approach is for you to be you, and to let them be them, offering only vague statements of support and admiration. "You go, girl" tepidity.

And it's true that you can get into trouble with this stuff. I used to play in a weekly jam session, and a woman who deemed herself a particularly enlightened jazz fan and expert kept trying to squeeze into the elevator with me after we finished. I understood that she had a compulsion to share her criticisms of me with me. I'd manage to dodge her, week after week, by dashing out like a gazelle, or pretending to talk on my phone. Eventually, I resorted to taking the steps (from the 15th floor). I didn't want to hear her assessment; I didn't want her in my brain. We all judge everything constantly, but only a neurotic few of us feel obliged to share that mental narrative.

So don't do that! It's also not particularly helpful to tell a violinist she plays well. She'll politely accept the compliment, but it's not really your assessment to make. You are not an arbiter of quality. If you enjoyed the performance, say so. But "you're good!" sounds more condescending than you realize, and you're not telling them something they don't already know.

So there are indeed several ways you can go wrong. That's why social convention says to steer clear of the quagmire of ego and self-image. However, there are special cases in which you might be foundationally helpful, if you'll offer a brief, modest, uncritical word or two about how a person's work specifically affected you.

I once told a singer (really, just a singing waitress in a hippy cafe at the time, without training or aspirations) that I heard deep honesty in her voice. She flashed on this, and, to cut to the end of the story, she's recorded several albums and has a wide following. She hadn't understood what she was. After I told her, she ran with it (all credit goes to her, of course...not me).

She'd known all along that there was something about her singing, but it was lodged in the intuitive, non-verbal part of her brain. She couldn't access it, couldn't focus it, couldn't figure out where to go or what to do, because she had no idea of who she was or what she did. This simple statement brought it into the light. Knowing what she was, she went forward kicking ass.

When I wrote about "The Enchanted Misty Mountain of Tea and Excrement", about dinner in the mysterious and exotic tea temple being built on the side of a Marin County mountain (the final installment of my multi-thousand mile chow tour), I managed, as I occasionally do, to paint an evocative picture. The subject of that piece, tea expert David Hoffman, told me there was "magic" to the result. And that clicked for me. I'd known there was something I was sometimes able to achieve, but it was lodged in the intuitive, non-verbal part of my brain. By bringing it to light, I understood that I was an aspiring magician. A lot of this Slog is the aftereffect of that revelation.

Interestingly, the piece also told David what he was. A strong flavor was evoked, and I'm not sure - even with his masterful tea expert palate - that David was previously aware of his own flavor. Few of us are. He hadn't realized that he seemed as I described. We need to be told.

A couple of years ago, someone greeted me as I came off stage from a set of music. He told me that, strangely enough, my notes seemed to resonate somewhere in his chest, in his heart. This might have sounded appallingly sappy, but he offered it amiably and off-handedly. It was flattering, but, much more importantly, it was useful. While I enjoy a certain open-heartedness on good days (thanks to meditation and stuff), it's not something others consciously notice. And I hadn't realized that music was a contagious channel; I honestly hadn't a clue. I've written often here about the difficulties I've had trying to recapture my earlier musical skills since Chowhound disrupted everything. But now I had something new; something younger Me had lacked. This was foundationally important to know.

If you ever have the chance to tell someone what they are or what they do, take it.


Just be careful out there. Don't judge. And don't criticize or assess. You're not the arbiter. And don't be all weighty about it, because it's not about you. But do share, tersely, anything highly specific that you happened to have noticed in your experiencing.

Your genius friends might not realize they're geniuses; they may be drowning in self-doubt. Unconventionally beautiful people may not see that in themselves. Those with some super skill or faculty might not have slightest idea. Much talent comes naturally and doesn't feel special to the doer, so people often have no freaking idea who they are and what they're good at (beyond obvious, easily registered things like "plays violin well" or "runs fast").

.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Chicken, Cookies, and Magical Realism

When I was in high school, my family often got takeout from Pudgie's Chicken and Ribs in Bethpage (a half hour ride from our house, so obviously this only happened once I'd gotten my learner's permit and could engage my latent chowhoundish instincts). Pudgie's was the prototypical mom-and-pop place, and it was great.

I woke up one day a few years later, and my obscure little chicken place was suddenly a large nationwide chain (good, not great, though obviously the same basic recipes). I anxiously returned to the Bethpage branch, and found in its place just another generic glossy chain iteration. Mom and pop were gone. Yet I heard they hadn't sold out. Somehow they were helming all this. What???

I found it wildly disorienting. Imagine if the Chinese take-out on your block suddenly became a sprawling franchise, mirrored from coast to coast, or if Emilio the guy at the bodega became "Emilio the Guy at the Bodega" for the entire nation. It's not supposed to work like that!

For that matter, consider DiFara's pizza. I used to be the only customer in the place (Mr. DeMarco was planning to retire due to lack of business), and now it's a treasured landmark countless fans claim to have known and loved long before I ever wrote about it. Wait, what??

Pudgie's didn't work out, they sold the trademark and secret process patent, and a handful of Pudgies/Arthur Treacher's hybrids and three standalone Long Island outlets are all that remain. I half expect the old Bethpage store to rematerialize. In fact, as the oddest possibility, it's also the likeliest.

I also used to patronize a shop called Annie's Cookies in San Francisco's Mission district. They were another unambitious-seeming obscure great local place, and I don't know what happened, but whenever I find myself in Whole Foods or health food stores, I spot boxes of "Annie's Cookies from SF" on the shelves. Not as good, of course, but still: what's happening???

This Slog needs way more animated GIFs....

I understand the concept of "selling out". I did it once, myself. But it's weird when it's some little brand hardly anyone else ever cared about, and weirder still when mom and pop turn out to have been concealing plans for a rocket ship all along.


This is among a number of discordant anomalies (e.g. a bass player who was mean to me once is currently locked up on terrorism charges) contributing to a "magical realism" flavor in my life. Being logical and scientific-minded, I try mightily not to give in to such thinking, but it ain't easy...

Monday, April 16, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #18

Monday, April 16, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 90,600 Google search results, up 9% from last time's 82,800 but still well below mid February's peak of 101,000.


All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

The Center is a Super Tribe...but Doesn't Know it Yet!

As a musician and writer, overeducated and based in New York City, I always assumed I was a liberal, in exactly the same way I'm Jewish: i.e. tepidly. I never particularly identified with - much less celebrated - either affiliation, but they felt inevitable. My discomfort with liberal positions felt hazy and semi-conscious. I was appalled by bible-thumping, Ayn Rand-humping, trickling down conservatism, and that aversion kept me loosely in-tribe for years. My political affiliation ran on sheer inertia.

Only later in life did I realize that I had never been a liberal. Who knew one could despise Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh without embracing Hillary Clinton and Michael Moore! The Center's a precarious perch, but I'm much happier having found it. And there's never been a better time for it.

(Here, FYI, is my political platform, from 2016.)

There's nothing particularly fresh about my story. Tens - perhaps hundreds - of millions of Americans, on both sides, probably feel similarly ambivalent, even if they remain as fuzzy-headed about it as I once was. But here's the interesting part:

For years, I'd hear peers say extremely left-wing things (Bernie-ish ravings about the federal gov's role as all-purpose paternal provider; rigid and sanctimonious adherence to the ever-expanding taboo list of beyond-the-pale speech and thought; outrage culture, identity politics, and neo-Dworkinism; harshly condescending attitudes toward non-urban cultures and traditional values; anti-science positions on nutrition, vaccines, GMOs, nukes, and fracking; Soviet-style intolerance toward free-thinking nonconformity per the Tolerance Paradox, etc.), and I'd conclude that I simply disliked those people.

"No, Jim," some wiser voice should have uttered, "those are liberals, part of a political tribe you happen not to belong to." These people hadn't just, like, thought all that stuff up. They're mostly just conforming. Recognizing this, I see that they're not obnoxious people. They're nice folks caught up (as virtually all of us are) in viral, tribal mindsets, drafting off the tropes of their peers and their favored media outlets because they're way too busy with actual life stuff to persistently question trendy intra-bubble thinking. They have insight and intelligence to offer despite their unexamined ideology.

Their talking points, in other words, don't necessarily reflect their core personhood. It's the equivalent of lighting Sabbath candles simply because "that's how our people do." They're herding, and it's nothing deep.

I had always clearly understood this about rank-and-file conservatives. But clear vision is tougher when viewing your own side...and toughest of all when extricating yourself from a side you were never really on to begin with. Since this was the pervasive tone where I grew up, I hadn't realized it was ideology. I'd figured it was just what people are like.

But from a slightly higher perspective - my comfortable centrist perch, from which the vapidity of both sides is clearly evident - I'm surprised to find myself bifurcating everyone less, not more! The vast majority appear to have recognizably soft and malleable edges, in spite of the credos they parrot. None of that stuff is as entrenched as it appears (which explains, for example, how most Republicans managed to blithely flip their values 180º over the past two years). From the center, practically everyone - aside from hot-headed zealots - seems strikingly sympathetic to my position. I can converse with liberals and conservatives without triggering either into their dumb talking points. Despite my sharp distaste for virtually all noisy political positions (aside from civic-mindedness, empathy, and the rule of law), I have, oddly, never felt more politically kindred to nearly everyone.

The center is a super-tribe that just doesn't know it yet.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Four TV Series

Rick and Morty (Adult Swim) is more of a religious experience for me than just some TV show, but the new season's not coming for a long, long time (console yourself with the Pocket Morty game and/or Rick and Morty comics). Here are some other recos, for the meanwhile, for TV worth your time at a moment when there's so much entertainment out there:

Atlanta (FX) actually may be as good as Rick and Morty, though it's a wildly different show. I watched back when no one did, and wondered why they didn't, and I watch it now that everyone loves it, and still don't understand why they don't love it even more. Rigorously disciplined, unpredictably surreal, ridiculously nuanced, subtle, and honest comedy about the black experience in Atlanta, though you don't need to be black to enjoy it. The protagonist is a hip hop artist, but you don't need to like hip hop (he's a pot dealer, too, and, sorry, but you really do need to be a pot dealer). This series is so good it creates an obligation to review you. How much subtlety can you appreciate? How wide can you open your perspective? How flexibly can you stretch your expectations and assumptions? Above all, how much dense, luscious quality are you able to absorb? This show respects its audience's intelligence as much as Rick and Morty does, and it's more insightful than I'm able to insightfully appreciate. Whoever and whatever you are, it's got you beat. Resistance is futile.

Legion (FX) is the only comics-based (but live-action) series I watch, but it's totally different from the rest of the genre. This is an experimental, batshit-crazy, sizzlingly creative show about the razor's edge between the insane and the extraordinary. I normally don't like showy indulgence, and I generally need stuff to make sense, yet this show is 100% indulgent and non-linear and I absolutely don't mind. I drop everything and let it process me, and that's not my usual groove. It's only possible via immeasurable workmanship and brilliance. Watch on the best quality display you can.

Trust (FX), a limited series on the Getty kidnapping directed by the great Danny Boyle, is sort of in the mode of HBO's "The Young Pope", which I loved but wouldn't recommend to absolutely everyone (please give it a try; you'll know quickly if it's for you, and I think it's truly brilliant). It presents a richly absorbing slice of an unfamiliar life with gorgeous technicals, inspired acting, and just enough loopy surprises to keep you properly entertained. I'm a big fan of Donald Sutherland, who plays Getty.

Barry (HBO) is about a hit man who decides to go into acting, the sort of broad set-up you'd expect a SNL alum (Bill Hader) to make his shticky vehicle, but it's way deeper and better than that. What if the creator/star of some shticky vehicle just absolutely poured himself into the task, giving it thoughtful, deep polish and making it all meticulously truthful? Not everyone got the memo; Henry Winkler unsurprisingly adds 80's sitcom-style broad overacting, and, despite palpable spit and polish a few labels still show. This isn't a breathtaking work of art ala Atlanta, but it's pretty terrific.

I guess I'm an "FX man", whatever that even means...


Quick notes:

I've finally got around to Narcos (Netflix). Good immersive entertainment, but the heavy-handed narration (in every single episode) is a drag, and there's nothing real deep about it.

I just binge-watched Halt and Catch Fire (AMC), and I get why people love it, and don't regret the time spent, but will I grab you by your collar and scream in your face you until you agree to watch? Nyuh.

I will, however, collar-grab you over The Leftovers (HBO), which has finished. Absolutely sublime, and every season blows away the one before (and it started great)!

The Americans (FX), one of my favorites, is still terrific in its final season, though it's built such lofty expectations for itself that fans whine about any less-than-sublime moments. On my must-binge all-time list, it's just after Breaking Bad. Poor Martha!

The Expanse (Syfy) is just starting up again. If you hate sci-fi, this won't convert you, but if you're the least bit open-minded, this is worth it. Note that it gets better after the first season (but you must watch all; it's very plotty).

I'm just starting to watch the new series Killing Eve (BBC America) and The Chi (Showtime). No opinions yet. I'll also be watching season 2 of Westworld (HBO)...skeptically. I'm still actually watching Homeland (Showtime), purely for mindless entertainment (which it still provides), and also to enjoy a refreshing drink every time Claire Danes' chin trembles.

I can't wait for Better Call Saul (AMC) to start up again.

As always, I highly recommend reading Alan Sepinwall's recap/review after each episode. Here's his abbreviated index, or just google an episode title plus Sepinwall.

Friday, April 13, 2018

A Glimpse of Madness

I've always taken on the neuroses of girlfriends. I once dated a woman who had trouble mailing stuff - she'd try to find The Perfect Mailbox (they kept shutting off her phone and electric due to non-payment). I never understood what that even meant, but I nonetheless began to insist on The Perfect Mailbox. Right around then the USPS in NYC was doing a poor job of pick-up, so I kept running into post boxes on the street with letters backed up all the way to the slot, which really burned in my aversion.

I never fully shook off the mailing phobia, plus I have a longstanding problem with paperwork, bureaucracy and postal stuff in general (alert readers will recall that I once had a bad scene in a post office). Want to see the handwriting of someone doing three phobic things at once, frantically determined to crash through the barriers and get it done?

Behold, in full blown-up glory, the look of madness:



Every five characters or so, you can see where an undulating wave of anxiety sent my pen just slightly haywire before I wrested back control. I find it hypnotic, in a bad way, to look at. The zip code went ok, but those final two 2s look like the valiant last actions of a man running just ahead of an avalanche. They actually dented the paper a little; see the circular crater around "4122".

Now to find the perfect mailbox....


Thursday, April 12, 2018

Ethical Alignments

Moments in history like this are a good opportunity to step back and ponder what makes people tick, ethically. The Dungeons and Dragons system of alignments is one of several thoughtful ways of organizing it all.

I really like this application (not sure about an institutionalist like Comey being anything but "lawful", though, but I guess it refers to the dodgy, precedent-defying way he handled the Clinton investigation announcements):



And, for reference, here's the classic alignment explainer (not sure about Jefferson, though):



I'm pretty sure I'm neutral good. But creative people are often mistaken for chaotic. To the Margaret Dumonts of this world, the Grouchos ruin absolutely everything.

Students

I used to tell music students that they could pay me $150 for me to tell them they're geniuses, or $75 for me to tell them they suck but offer them the solution.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Cynicism, Tyranny, and Blueberry Pie

I’m paying for my stuff and the clerk asks:

“I haven’t seen the news today. Have they killed Trump yet?”

Unsure of where she stands, I answer diplomatically:

“Well, I think he’s pretty tough to kill, really.”

She says “They’re certainly doing their best. Once they can simply ignore attorney/client privilege, where does that leave all of us?”

I reply “Nothing simple about it. There are procedures in place, and it’s not something the system takes lightly. You need sign-offs from high-level judges and justice department officials. It’s very rare.”

“Ugh, judges. I don’t trust them!”

“Really?”

“In fact, I don’t trust anyone!”

“Wow, that sounds like a terrible way to live! A world of chaos, 100% dog-eat-dog?”

She smiles bitterly and nods in satisfied agreement.

“But that’s obviously not the case! When you went into the back to get my pie, it would have been easy for me to steal all sorts of stuff. But it never entered my mind. Or yours. You’re predisposed to trust, and that impulse is right way more often than not. And, for my part, I trust you not to poison my pie.”

“I don’t trust,” she says. “I just hope.”

“I don’t think that’s the case. If you didn’t trust me, you’d keep a rifle under this counter, and you’d have been eying me suspiciously from the moment I walked in. You’re not, and with good reason! I love your pies! And I’m a nice guy, just as most people are!”

And that’s where we left it. I don’t believe hearts and minds were persuaded. In fact, I may have rattled her some, with all the talk of rifles, poison and theft (hey, I was improvising!).

Anyway, this is what happens when people lose faith in institutions. When you feel everything’s wholly rotten after being subjected, year after year, to Fox News, et al, and their sordid, alarmist, highly lucrative bullshit, stoking a toxic Soviet mindset of cynicism and fear, it’s hard to imagine reaching any other conclusion.

And if that’s where you stand, then what’s your move? There’s only one possible salvation: “Belligerent strongman, protect me!”


You can't deny her internal logic. And I, for one, am loathe to scorn people doing their best to apply internal logic to faulty assumptions which ring emotionally true to them.

So Twisted It's Straight

I went to school with a sax player, Rick Margitza, who went on to play with Miles Davis and others. Rick was (and is) of a school of jazz musicians so terminally bored by the lazy complacency and facile lick-playing of earlier styles that he more or less reinvents harmony within every moment. If he's playing in C-minor, he'll find ways to play everything but the standard C-minor scale. Playing in the key of E-flat, he'd chew fiberglass before he'd willingly land on an E-flat. Immersed in highly advanced and abstract harmonic models, Rick avoids "right" notes with the same diligence other musicians apply to avoiding "wrong" ones.

I used to joke that his next step should be to play nothing but E-flat in the key of E-flat....but only with the most refined harmonic justifications. In his mind, it would be the ultimate tricky sidestep. E-flat, man! HOOOONK. E-flat! So twisted it's straight!!


The other day I had a flash of realization about myself. It felt a bit complicated, so I struggled to articulate it. Finally, it popped out: I'd never join any club that wouldn't have me for a member.
For those unfamiliar with the classic Groucho Marx line, he famously said "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member."
It's the epitome of bland non-neurosis. It's mayonnaise on baloney. It's a fat E-flat on an E-flat chord. But can you even begin to imagine what it took to arrive there? The detours and hairpins and dead-ends? And to say it without a trace of arrogance or sullenness? I cheerfully assume I'm just worthwhile enough - and not an iota more. The elusive Golidlocks point!

It's another way of accepting that one deserves to be here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

SAWR (Shit Actually Working Right)

SAWR ("Shit Actually Working Right"): A Tonic For the Cognitively Wearied and Bedraggled.
(at least that's my title for it!):

Individual videos
One big compilation


This goes to the exact same brain centers (note that the older comics are better)

Browser Notepad

Go here, tap or mouse click in the middle of the page, and start typing. It's a browser notepad. So cool!

This isn't actually a web page. It's just a bit of code instructing your browser to open an editable text window with certain characteristics. While most of us prefer to enter text into word processors or text editors, there are moments when it's handy to do so right in the browser. The downside is that when you close the window (or tab), all text is lost.

The gist of this is surprisingly unsurprising in and of itself. You've encountered countless thousands of text fields. But in this context, where the functionality is unexpected, it feels magical, kooky, even subversive. The mind starts eagerly cooking up possibilities.

Check out what this browser notepad thingee has fostered. Delighted coders and tinkerers (I want to say "hackers", but, like "southern heritage" or "Louis CK", the term's been removed from polite usage by our social overseers) have cooked up a profusion of improvements, modifying every element, and even adding auto-save routines to overcome the lost data issue (there's no reason why one couldn't, with sufficient determination, recreate most of the functionality of a full-fledged word processor...which would be, of course, laughably beside the point). See the comments here and here.


That outpouring illustrates why early web sites like Chowhound fostered a sense of wonder and unleashed such unexpected generosity. We'd all swapped food tips in various contexts; it wasn't so fresh a notion, really. But doing so online felt utterly new, and the shiny newness gave the proceedings an aura of kooky subversive magic.

And, like Chowhound, whoever first brewed up this little trick invested great care in configuring the parameters...which only seem inevitable.

Monday, April 9, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #17

Monday, April 9, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 82,800 google search results, down a solid 11% from last time's 93,200.


All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Ron Perelman does Donald Trump

...or his speech pattern, anyway. With input from a linguistics professor.


Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Generosity Impulse

Before I started Chowhound, friends asked me "Why would people provide food tips for free? What's their motivation?" This incredulity seems hard to fathom after the fact, much as few of us seem to remember a time when immigrant food was considered cheap crap, scarcely worth respect, much less evangelization (serious food was served on linen tablecloths by deferential servers). What a difference twenty years makes!

But it was - and still is - a reasonable question. Why would people help each other? The entire field of economics is predicated on the assumption that people act out of self-interest, even when they appear to be helpful or generous. Indeed, many people offered advice on Chowhound to augment their social cache or feelings of self-worth. But that doesn't explain everyone. Some helped purely to help.

The biggest saving grace of humanity is that we really do have a strong visceral impulse to help. At our deepest level, we're empathic beings who make other people's problems our problems. Ants heroically sacrifice for the good of the colony, and we never lost our primeval ant DNA.

You'd never know it to observe us, of course. We don't ordinarily display this side of ourselves because countless factors inhibit it. Shyness, fear of random crazies, fear of people "getting the wrong idea", fear of getting over-involved, etc., etc.. But the anonymity of the Internet relaxes those inhibitions, and demonstrates how generous people really are at heart. Queue tasks for people - strangers without self-interest - and they will come out of the woodwork to chip away at the queue. Look, for instance, at Ask Metafilter. Do you not feel at least a small tug upon spotting a question you're able to help with? That's it, right there. It ain't huge, but it's baked in.

I had an idea some time ago for extending innate generosity beyond the safe haven of computer screens. It's an online/offline solution for removing the inhibitions blocking helpful urges (i.e. allowing us to finally be fully human) here in the physical world. Unfortunately, for the time being, I seem to lack the ability to get people the least bit interested in a unique, sorely-needed, and meticulously crafted app in the food realm where so many people obsess and where I'd thought I had some cache. So I'm reluctant to pursue more ambitious and far-flung ideas for now. Maybe later, when I'm younger.

But while I've devised a possible solution to the inhibition problem, what's more intriguing is the generosity impulse itself. We didn't know we had one! It took the Internet to fully bring it out. That said, most current day social media is doing everything possible to squelch it. Facebook, for example, is utterly narcissistic: "my favorite bands, my favorite movies, here's where I went on vacation, and here's a cat video I found cute. Please "like" this so I enjoy a meaningless unit of reward, and then please share it to spread my brand." Seeing this selfishness - this wasted opportunty - 21 years after Chowhound launched, I feel like the crying Indian from the ad. We had it so good! Why, for heaven's sake, did we ever choose this?!?


But none of that erases the fact that the generosity impulse will always be there. Let's do what nobody does, and take a close look at an instinct so radically surprising that it disproves the fundamental tenet of a field of study that has, for centuries, engaged our brightest minds. Having observed it up close with Chowhound - and fostered it, basked in it, and been so seduced by it that I'd stay with that hell for all those years - I now spot it, in tiny expressions, everywhere. It's a cliche to observe that people want to "connect", but that's the shallow interpretation of a much deeper drive. People don't just want to connect, they want to sacrifice and fix and help and elevate. My instinct - which, come to think of it, is the very same instinct I've just described! - is to concentrate on what impedes that impulse. But for now, again, let's stay with the impulse itself.

I begin the exploration armed with only one single thought: Maslow's Hammer. To paraphrase (the original quote was horridly wordy and stammering, per my third writing tip):
"If you're holding a hammer, all problems look like nails."
I don't completely understand how it applies to the generosity impulse. But here's the thing. If you cultivate that impulse - by peeling away inhibitions - you'll discover that there's no essential difference between addressing someone else's problem and your own. It's all just problems. True generosity isn't proffered with radiant mirth. Even angels don't work that way. You just get it done. True generosity doesn't come with a big cheesy smile or a wave of some sparkly wand. True generosity doesn't stick around to accept a kiss from the distress-relieved damsel. It's like solving problems for yourself: you toil some, and then, remark "Whew! That's done!", and you move on to the next foible. It's doing, not basking. There's no cinematic view.

So back to the image of Maslow's hammer. I'll sketch the connection lightly: "If you're holding a solution, all problems look like your problem." That's not great, but let's see if the Slog elicits anything more interesting next time. Maybe you can think on it, too?


To be continued....

Postcards From My Childhood Part 13: The Invisible Man

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order



"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.


I was in the early childhood stage of feeling anxious about people watching me going to the bathroom. Meanwhile, I was reading a comic book about The Invisible Man. So I worried, of course, about the possibility that in spite of my diligent effort to shut and lock the bathroom door, the Invisible Man might be present, watching me pee.

But then I realized, with relief, that The Invisible Man watches everyone pee. So it's no problem. No shame!

As with the rest of these postcards, a simple childhood insight was deliberately sent forward, to my great benefit. On a pragmatic level, I don't get uptight during my female doctor's prostate check. On a spiritual level, I've become less ashamed of past misdeeds. If anyone - real or imagined - were tallying them, I take comfort in knowing that my mound of wickedness and transgression pales in comparison to humanity's cumulative towering mountain. To anyone who might take stock, I'm an unexceptional parasite.

This helps, because I've had a problem with shame all my life. It's not from my parents. I'm to blame (ha!), by choosing to hold myself to a moral standard that I frequently miss. A terrible combination! But as my "Invisible Man" epiphany continues to expand - even now, five decades later - I no longer cringe at my remembered failings. And I only very rarely blurt out random stuff after flashing recollections of embarrassment. When wrongly accused, I chuckle and shrug, no weight added to my burden. And when I'm genuinely to blame, I apologize sincerely, and, if I'm lucky, enjoy absolution via refusal of my apology (thankfully, few people graciously accept apologies nowadays; it's a major saving grace of this world).

As a result, while "deserve" isn't a word I use much (it's one of those theatrical terms humans concoct to keep themselves miserable), at age 55 I'm starting to feel like I deserve to be here. That might sound odd, but most people subconsciously feel undeserving of existence (and largely blame it on whichever personal characteristic they spend their time obsessing about).


How do I know most people feel undeserving of existence? Because I sense their ruminations. But they needn't worry. The Invisible Man watches everyone pee.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Psychology Behind Trump's Trade War

So Trump imposed his damned tariffs, and China, naturally, shot back with tariffs of their own - precisely targeted to impact on Trump's base. Never fear, though. Trump is threatening an additional $100 billion in shock-and-awe tariffs. That will show them! China, predictably, is prepared with a "major response".

Trump couldn't possibly be too dumb to spot the futility of all this, could he? The average fifth grader could easily grok where this is going. Trump's not a smart man, but could he really be this dumb? I have special insight into this phenomena.

Tl:dr: it's not a question of intelligence, and this is how humans historically always behaved.


Many years ago, I found myself in stop-and-go traffic, and the 18 wheeler behind me was twitchy and belligerent. He was right on my tail, which is not where you want a large truck to be in jerky, unpredictable traffic. I needed him to leave more space, so I lightly tapped the brakes to flash my stop lights at him. But he remained three feet from my back bumper.

Moving to another lane was not possible, nor was there a shoulder. So I waited until there was a bit more separation and I advanced and slammed my brakes, hard. And he slammed his, fishtailing a bit and screaming his hydraulics. It was a calculated risk. I knew his attention was riveted and twitchy. He was high-strung enough that, for all his other issues, his reflexes were primed. I was driving a crappy car (insurance money would have been welcome), this was happening at low-speed, and as a rear-ender he'd be in the wrong. His insurance would skyrocket and he'd lose his livelihood. He had much more to lose by hitting me. Not to say I actually wanted an accident, of course. If I gave him sufficient space - just barely - to stop (and left myself a bit extra in front to advance if he came too close), he'd stop. Painfully. And thus better appreciate the advantages of leaving some space.

We continued driving, and he closed in to my bumper once again. So I repeated. Twice. Each time, he snorted up his engine and stayed right on my bumper, never relenting, never learning. Finally, we reached an exit, and I bailed out.

None of this was remotely in his interest. I'd made things simple for him: if you don't want to chance a career-ending accident, it's unwise to hug the bumper of cars that might unpredictably stop. But his internal dialog was impervious to even this small nuance. He wanted to go and I represented everything that had ever impeded him. He gladly would have fishtailed a thousand times. In his mind, he was demonstrating backbone and exercising his better self. Engaged in holy war, he was staunchly opposed to letting The Enemy win. You fight me, I fight you.

Was he the stupidest person in the world? He was clearly no genius. But the problem was more of perspective. He was functioning from a reptilian perspective - pushing and pushing for gratification of momentary urges (he wanted to go, whereas all the assholes in front of him weren't going) with no higher level awareness whatsoever. A baby screams for food, and explaining mommy's flat tire en route home from the grocery won't impact that pique. There is no strategic thinking; the sole satisfactory answer is food now, or I will lash out in every conceivable way. If necessary, I will annihilate the entire world, and myself along with it.

 (That's the problem with technology; there will always be some someone who'd press that Big Smash button...and that person is also the most likely person to have risen to a button-pushing position. Just look at Trump himself. This is why there's likely no advanced life in the universe. Yes, Donald Trump explains the absence of advanced life in the universe!)

If perspective's frozen, even an intelligent person won't reason themselves into a higher perspective. Intellect and perspective are largely unrelated. People can't shift gears unless they want to.

But here's the good news. If the mindset I describe - the same mindset that makes Trump think each new volley in his trade war is really sticking it to The Enemy - seems grotesquely childish and patently irrational, understand that humanity functioned like this for its entire history. This is what humans do! Or did, anyway. They do it so little these days that it's no longer just a few wise souls who spot the folly, but everyday people, as well. In fact, most people can spot it. Even fifth-graders! And that's truly a spectacular evolution.

As I keep saying, the Trump era is the un-self-aware assholes’ last hurrah (which is not to say great damage can't be done amid this last gasp).


If things are getting better, and we're snapping out of our brutal irrationality, and Trump and his ilk are a mere last gasp, why do we feel so hopelessly miserable about our lot? As I wrote here, it's due to a collision of two phenomena:
1. As situations improve, dwindling remnants sting disproportionally (this is why Stephen Pinker's observation that violence is decreasing feels so counterintuitive; the remainder feels increasingly intolerable). So brace yourself. The better things get, the more sensitized we'll be, and the worse it will feel. Prepare to hate the rest of the ride up the curve of declining results to perfection.

2. One can understand American behavior much more clearly by recognizing that we are a bunch of horribly spoiled rich assholes. America has always been called a rich country, despite the poverty. But these days, even poorer Americans are ridiculously wealthy by world standards, and downright regal by historical world standards (just try to get a non-immigrant American to do anything for fifty bucks). And rich people are best characterized as princesses interminably vexed by their mattress peas. (Read the part about the "cheat codes" here.)


Monday, April 2, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #16

Monday, April 2, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 93,200 google search results, up from 2% from last time's 91,000.


All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

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