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).

However!

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

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Nudel Restaurant, in Lenox

I recently made my latest foray to Planet Tasting Menu, yanking fistfuls of twenties from my wallet in order to be showered with shiny, painstaking, highly-acclaimed wonderment. Because that is how food-lovers in this new millennium do. This time: Nudel Restaurant, in Lenox, MA. As usual, I found I'd up-paid for flawlessness. Everything done right, nothing done wrong, everything on point. But, not to get all Peggy Lee on you, is that all there is?
The difference between an elite figure skater and an ordinary one is that the elite one messes up less. There's no greater joy or beauty or shakti with the latter. The greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts halo that's the only thing that interests me in this life is not a parameter, and is therefore seldom pursued.
My meal at Nudel didn't budge my needle. I was neither moved nor inspired. No deep feelings or thoughts. I merely ate approvingly. And this raises a deeply fascinating question that is only infrequently asked: why would anyone be dissatisfied with perfection?

I've been working on a book about a pivotal change society has recently made without noticing. The notion that food (or other creative output) can be soulful, inspiring, and able to impart a profound shift in mood, thought, and perspective is rather new. Prior to a few decades ago, either the crêpe suzette were correct or they weren't. Only a daft person would wait on line for particularly great ones, or use terms like "life-changing". They're either proper crêpe suzette, or they're a misfire.

This, by the way, explains an oddity. A few of my favorite grandmotherly immigrant chefs along the way have made the error of supposing my admiration was for something, ahem, beyond their toothsome tacos and gyoza. It took me a while to fully understand the thought process. To, for example, a Mexican, a taco is a taco is a taco. If this gringo is so breathlessly exhilarated over mine, he means to flatter me personally. He's courting me. The other frequent reaction: dude's never had a real taco before. Yes, gringo, yes; tacos are fine things. Simmer down and enjoy.

Chefs who transcend often don't realize it. They're not trying to transcend; they're investing 100% of attention into the thing they do. When you lose yourself in your work, magic happens, and it's a blessed tragedy that magicians rarely perform the stock-taking necessary to recognize their own magic (tragic because they never realize their accomplishment, and blessed because such self-awareness would most likely fuck everything up. As I once wrote, "There's no surer way to dry one's flow, to kill the golden-egg-laying goose, than to take one's temperature; to live in one's own contrails; to sniff one's own farts).
 But, to close out this digression-within-a-digression, my point is that much of the world to this day assumes a dish is either correct or else it's not. My shtick - my entire career - would seem batshit inane to many people, and to virtually all prior to 1970 or so.
The notion that flawlessness could be insufficient is both absurdly illogical yet also increasingly accepted. Even non-aesthetes are starting to agree that it's not enough to play a concerto without errors - with correct intonation and tempo and sound. To be great, the player needs to make us feel something, and that special transmission - above/beyond mere correctness - can't be measured or explained. Also: who'd deny that perfect beauty can be boring? It doesn't mean one's eyebrows ought to be poorly trimmed or one's features anxiously pursed. It's not as easy as "flaws are good". You can't just add back in some muck (when trumpeter Wynton Marsalis wants to sound "soulful", he misses notes on purpose. I want to strangle him when he does this).

There's a separate mysterious parameter, beyond reckoning, that makes something better than flawless. It's the sum-being-more-than-the-parts thing. It's the thing-missing-from-figure-skating-competitions thing. It's the reason I'm not flirting when I swoon over your chalupas, señorita. This extra value derives not from super-extra-correct correctness nor from calculated imperfection. It's an entirely other thing. And if we could pin it down and wield it at will, we'd be living in a very different world.

Julie Andrews has a very fine singing voice. There are no faults at all that one can point to. But I'd rather hear late-stage Billie Holiday croak her way through four bars than listen to Andrews chirp all night. Call it subjective preference if you'd like, but it's hard to imagine even a dedicated Andrews fans, if there is such a thing, reporting being struck in the depths of their soul by her tuneful stylings, as most people describe Holiday's effect. (I hate to rank on JA. I met her once, she's incredibly nice, her work is wonderful, and she's a bona fide world treasure. But she's nowhere near the poetic, artistic level of a Billie Holiday, and I'd bet she herself would acknowledge it.)

So, yeah, the cooking at Nudel was Julie Andrews. No subtext, just an impressive display of highly controlled, meticulous skill. The skater never once fell. And while that's fine and worthy, it can rate no better than an "8" on my surprisingly non-ditzy system of rating cooking and other things.

But when I call it impressively skillful, I mean it. The radishes and carrots in the first dish tasted, naturally, like radishes and carrots, yet also faithfully carried the essence of the whole; a unity achieved from microcosmic disparates, neither overbearing nor underwhelming. A neat accomplishment. But I don't have much to say about this meal because everything was as described. This is the culinary equivalent of representational art, and you don't need to be told that a chair is a chair and a bird's a bird.

Poached Skate Wing with carrots, Swiss chard, whey, and black olives


Orcchiette with leek cream, corn, chilies, basil, and Grana Padana


Confit of Lamb Neck with curry, couscous, chickpeas, hot pepper, and yogurt


I did appreciate that even though I'd told them they could bring the dishes in any order - and the tiny kitchen imposes logistical hurdles making it much easier to produce the same dish for multiple customers at once - they actually brought my three plates in the optimal order (i.e. as shown).

Here's the menu, FYI. Click to expand (do so for the above photos, too, for full effect):



I was quite full, yet I experienced an overpowering urge for cookies. That frequently occurs after such meals. It's not a craving for sugar, or even for grounding or comfort. It's that I have a certain minimum daily requirement for some edible manifestation of love. (You happily oblige the gluten crazies, right? Well, what about my needs!).

See this follow-up

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

My Own Robert Mueller Scenario

I once wrote:
Years ago, a few horrendous assholes swaggered onto the message boards of Chowhound.com and proceeded to post in vast profusion, relentlessly pummeling anyone who dared disagree. We asked them to give others a chance, rather than monopolize every conversation, but their compulsive output continued to spread like kudzu. We expunged the nastiest stuff, and, when they howled with indignation, we begged them to start their own forum...which, praise Jesus, they finally did. Predictably, they used the new forum to prattle on about how they'd been forced out because I'd felt threatened by their superior food knowledge.
Here's the thing. Those assholes - and the assholes they kicked out of their forum, who in turn started new forums of their own, plus the assholes those second generation assholes kicked out who went on to launch third generation assholic forums - hurled accusations at me via their own operations, sympathetic bloggers, and any journalist who'd listen, and kept this up long after they'd split off. A nonstop spume of ditzy belligerence and lies.

I was busy. I had a site to run. So I tuned it out and never once responded. Ever. In fact, this posting and the one linked above are the only public utterances I've made. Yet, then and still, it is common knowledge that there was a "feud" between them and myself.

How on earth can a feud be entirely unilateral? Well, it seems that if you taunt someone bombastically enough, you can create the false impression of a relationship. A friend quipped at the time that this was a "feud" in the same sense as Rupert Pupkin vs. Jerry Langford.

The trolling and lies were never a big deal. Just a source of amused consternation with human nature (one of the many mysteries kindling the pondering which fuels this Slog). But the fact that these tactics actually landed for reasonable people was a small trauma which I'm currently reliving thanks to this supposed "feud" between Trump and Robert Mueller.

Mueller has not said one public word, nor done anything but keep his head down and perform his assigned job. There's nothing to judge him on, aside from a splendidly efficient set of indictments and guilty pleas. Yet it seems - to both sides! - like a fight. Once again, a unilateral feud! Forget the apeshit projections from Planet MAGA; even those who sanely recognize that this is nothing but Trump's empty flailing appear to project gnarly reciprocity onto the special prosecutor. Mueller will show him what's what! Mueller's gonna bust his ass!

Is it possible Robert Mueller's just doing his job? Neither a witch hunt nor a Rambo assault, and that it's entirely impersonal? Or that I was earnestly working to foster honest, civil, and useful food discussion in the most principled possible manner?

Monday, August 13, 2018

Racist Racist Racist Racist Racist!!

I'm confident enough in my sexuality that I don't feel obliged to project a particularly masculine image. I'm not constantly self-monitoring to avoid sissy-ish statements or behavior, because I know what I am, and don't need to prove otherwise. I find it strange how many people miss the irony of working to not seem gay, as many guys do. Machismo strikes me as a comic display of obvious sexual insecurity. With nothing to hide, I've cast aside behavioral filters, which paradoxically makes many guys suspect I'm gay. Oddly, no woman (including new acquaintances) ever, to my knowledge, has.

Similarly, I feel comfortable with people of different races. I don't occupy myself with trying not to seem racist, because I know my inclinations are benign. Liberals often dislike how I talk about race (here are some previous postings on the topic), because I eschew the normal filtering. Spotting my inattention to norms, I seem like I might be juuuust a little bit racist. Yet I've never heard anything like that from black or brown people.

(Yes, I realize it's not a perfect analogy. It's nonetheless useful.)



President Trump is a racist. President Trump is a racist. President Trump is a racist. President Trump is a racist.

I'm guessing you've heard this. It's repeated again and again. In some cases, it's a conscious attempt to stave off normalization; to keep calling it out and to try to remain sensitized. But in most cases, it's like feebly re-striking wet matches. The saying of these words should change something, so, when they don't, we grow confused and try again and again, falling into a loop. Did you know that President Trump is a racist?

Why do we say these words in the first place? Well, that's simply what we do! When we spot racist language or behavior, we call it out, like spraying cleaner on a countertop stain. Stimulus...reaction. We're doing a job; getting it done. Having performed the pattern matching, we speak the words. We're fighting the good fight, with a righteous feeling of being on the right side. You're a racist! Once uttered, the words enter into a higher ledger. That's what we do with racists. We announce them. We label them with our words.

And if their racism continues, well, we keep announcing. We keep flicking those matches until something happens. Ideally, they'll lose their job (i.e. their ability to feed and support themselves and their families). That's how it's supposed to go. You say the racist thing, I perform the pattern matching and utter the words, and you crawl up and die, because that's what happens to racists. If the process fails to complete, I grow confused. President Trump is a racist. President Trump is a racist. President Trump is a racist. President Trump is a racist.

I don't think it's very deep. I think it's people behaving like computers, rotely matching inputs to outputs, and getting stuck in loops when the correct result fails to ensue.

I'd like to propose a radical change. What if we simply let racists be racists, given that 1. racists are going to be racists whether we let them or not, and 2. we're all somewhat racist - in fact, nothing feels more racist to me than people who find my Jewishness absolutely delightful, or else something so potentially touchy that they feel compelled to very politely never ever mention it, though it evidently remains the top-most thing on their minds. As I once wrote:
As a member of five or six minority groups, myself, I find myself cringing whenever I see groups to which I belong depicted or discussed with anxious care and glossy patina. What awful thing, after all, are they so carefully dancing around?!?"
The pattern matching procedure never really worked. Context is everything. An Italian drinking buddy calling me a Jew bastard feels fine to me, while being indulgently asked whether it's ok if there's pork in my soup by a hyper-woke waiter who's studied my nose shape and feels compelled to diligently respect my stark Otherness in her glorious rainbow feels icky.

And it's okay. The world intrinsically feels icky, regardless, and always will. In fact, nothing could possibly feel ickier than high-handed sanctimonious attempts to cleanse public sentiment.

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.


I understand it feels insufficient. I understand the drive to purge all the ickyness, and I understand that some believe it can be purged by screaming "icky!!!" really loudly and waiting for it to be "cleaned up" (in ways that are poorly considered, because, really, why waste thought and consideration on icky people?).

Most of all, what if we recognize that much of the preoccupation with racism is actually projecting insecurities about one's own inclinations; an overcompensating effort to flamboyantly signal one's position on the correct side of things?


Saturday, August 11, 2018

My Best Shot

By fluke, I happened to land temporarily on the radar of a Never-Trump conservative with centrist tendencies who's likely to play an important part in whatever happens post-Trump - whether a third party, a fresh coalition, or a reformation of the GOP. If you find yourself with a brief window of attention from a person like that - knowing they'll actually read an email or two, so long as you keep it brief and don't sling the usual crap - how would you use that opportunity?

(On a similar tack, I once wrote about how I'd use such an opportunity with Trump - and how it might probably look pretty bad from a distant perspective.)

Here's what I sent. I don't imagine for a second that he'll proclaim that, having finally heard The Truth, he's prepared to go forward and enact my lofty vision. But I know he generally agrees, so if just one granule of my perspective lodges and later helps in some miniscule way, I'd be thrilled. So here's me giving it my best shot:

I wrote:
Your brand of conservatism was never truly right wing. Strip the tribalism, the rote anti-liberalism, and a handful of wedge issues, and it’s pure American centrism, eminently acceptable to moderates on the Left.

With Right extremism inevitably provoking reciprocal Left extremism, there's an obvious opportunity for centrist coalition. The secret sauce would be explicit agreement to unclench cultural baggage (i.e. tribalism, rote anti-ism, and wedge issues). That’s how successful coalitions - in any setting - always proceed. I see you intuitively taking these conciliatory steps yourself.

Re: wedge issues, it'd be a viable compromise to simply freeze federal gun/abortion/etc. regulation as-is for a couple cycles. I.e. “table” the hot buttons….and temper the neocon hawkishness via a firm commitment to the Powell Doctrine.

If pulled off to its full potential, sparing us the customary ping-ponging aftermath, it'd be a momentous human precedent, breaking an ancient cycle and vanquishing what in retrospect will be remembered as nothing more than the un-self-aware assholes’ pathetic last gasp. I’d do anything to support it.
He replied:
You're exactly right on the centrism. I've always believed that the political homeostasis of a series of generally center right/center left adminstrations was a positive feature, not a bug
I replied:
>>>>the political homeostasis of a series of generally center right/center left adminstrations was a positive feature, not a bug

Yes, but the downside of the gloriously tight American rubber band is that huge swings (e.g. Obama to Trump to a Harris or Sanders) could snap it.

Rarely (never?) in history has a chain reaction of reciprocal extremism been quelled by an active intervention of moderation. If we can pull it off, it would transform all this into something beautiful; marking the death throes of an obsolete way of being. The JC/MLK/Gandhi decency judo perpetrated for the first time sans messianic catalyst.

Most centrists have no freaking idea they’re centrists. Show me a centrist, and I’ll show you a non-zealot who’s grown self-aware, nothing more. As you well know, partisanship's mere tribal identification; few ever really buy the doctrine. That fact has, alas, worked in Trump’s favor, turning nominal “conservatives" 180°, but could just as easily go the other way. Actually, the other way’s easier. It’s the default. Inciting moderates into extremism is aberrational (and, as you say, it cannot endure without Trump himself).

I think a Centrist outcome is comparatively easy. Just ensure conciliation (of cross-tribal moderates) has greater attraction than the reciprocation (of escalating anti-ism). Recognition of this implicit ease is essential for structuring the correct messaging, IMO. The magnetism’s actually all lined up, even if the situation appears like the stark opposite. The Taoists had it right!



While many of us might prefer to see a new third party or fresh coalition rather than a reformed GOP, I think that's wrong. A third party would just split the anti-MAGA vote, carving two sane minorities out of a large sane majority and giving the crazies a perennial crack at running things.

The best way to confine the MAGAs to their minority status is via isolation. And that's likely easiest to achieve via reformulation of a sane GOP (once Trump's gone, and erstwhile right-wing moderates have recovered a bit). Happily, the MAGAs would readily agree to it. They'd be downright eager to exist as a tight bundle under some defiant, roguish banner...unlikely to win another national election.


Monday, August 6, 2018

Once Again: Never Count on Redemption

If you haven't heard of QAnon, it's the insanely ridiculous conspiracy theory for people too stupid for merely stupid conspiracy theories. It's where you go if you can't pronounce "Illuminati". As the great Rick Wilson explained in his classic take-down:
When even aggressive conspiracy-pusher faux-journalist loons and alt-lite thought leaders Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec find QAnon too crazy to promote, it should make you pause. Both men were aggressive promoters of the Pizzagate theory, in which a Washington D.C. restaurant was falsely alleged to be the center of a global child sex-trafficking, cannibalism and prostitution ring. Both were all-in on the cruel and false Seth Rich story, and a raft of other pro-Trump efforts to mainline fantasy conspiracies into the American body politics.
Yet QAnon is white hot right now. Untold millions are super into this thing, which is nothing more than a goofy goof propagated by a few chortling kiddies at 4Chan, the web hangout for bored, emotionally repressed smart kids with time on their hands thanks to free rent in Mom's basement. And "Anonymous" has gotten fed up with it all and threatened to expose them. So it won't last much longer.

When the whole thing fizzles, and believers should be left feeling like rubes, and sheepishly apologize to the rest of us for their poor judgement, and build up some resistance to future horse shit, none of those things will happen. Nor will any of that happen when at least one (probably two, and quite possibly three) Trump Crime Family member winds up in jail, and the horror, corruption, treason, and rot of this administration turns out to be more vast (and more moronic) than even the most hysterical Resistance hothead ever imagined.

Because, as I once wrote, you can "Never Count on Redemption."

Friday, August 3, 2018

Good Clip of My Trombone Playing Back in the Day

Hey, this is kind of nice. This video slipped onto YouTube without my noticing at the time....a gig from 1992 with the Steve Weisberg Orchestra, which I always enjoyed. This was a pretty big trombone feature, and I was having a particularly good night.



...except, that is, for my tuning in some of the middle sections, which gets a bit cringe-inducing. Explanation: my horn was literally melting in my hands, strangely enough. I have unbelievably acidic skin, and I quickly eat through any metal I touch. This was a magical trombone I refused to discard, even though it had grown too soft and goopy to be entirely playable. I was loyal to it for its gorgeous sound, which produced precisely the timbre I was going for. A year or two later I very reluctantly shifted to another horn, which was never really the same, and not long thereafter I hung it up entirely due to Chowhound turning into an ever-scaling monster. Near the end (around 8':40" and thereafter), I was so involved and riled up that I made this unplayable horn play unearthly perfectly in tune; a minor miracle of shakti.
When you're done, maybe reread this, now that there's context.


Thursday, August 2, 2018

Conservative Reaction to Late-Stage Nixon

This beautifully concise explanation of Conservative reaction to Nixon/Watergate is a mirror of our times, confirming that none of the apparent weirdness is new or puzzling. 

Most Conservatives are, and have always been, primarily anti-Liberal. A few Conservatives also have firm principles. But Watergate showed that even the firmly-principled revert to blind partisanship in a crunch, even when this lands them in sharp opposition to their own principles.

At the root is a human tribal reaction. When a Nixon or a Trump gets cornered, the Right supports, blindly, because, for better or for worse, he’s the emblem of their side, and the infuriated people are the other side. It’s not a moral choice, it’s simply human instinct to band together against attack from the Other. This is why dictators always concoct foreign threats. It makes moderates, who’d otherwise disapprove of the regime, fall in line behind the dude nominally charged with The National Interest. What I gleaned from the above-linked article is that domestic factions also exhibit that behavior. 

Liberals do this, too. We all do. But understanding the tendency will be essential for a clear-eyed view of the impending endgame of the Mueller investigation.  The MAGAs will scream their heads off, or course, because he’s their Cheez Whiz Jesus. But many moderate Republicans will shock us with their prolonged defense. Not because they find his crimes trivial, and not because they love his presidency, but just because they’ll parse it as an attack on “our side”, and will instinctively get their collective backs up. 


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Selling AAPL

I just sold the remainder of my AAPL shares (at a cost basis of $95, bought in February 2016). The price may rise further, but that's ok. I don't need to make every penny. 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.

There is something new, however. My Apple investment philosophy, which I've repeated in all my postings about AAPL stock, is that despite the periodic scares, there are no bona-fide existential threats (i.e. the company could - and surely will eventually - deteriorate, but not precipitously). But, as I noted last time, Trump's imbecilic trade war might make China take full-force aim at Apple. China being an enormous market for AAPL, this possibility complicates the calculus.

Effusion is a Red Flag

My posting "Effusion's Startlingly Brief Half-Life" noted that....
It unnerves me to be cursed with knowledge of how easily people can slip from "you're my hero" to "you're an asshole". There's a scene in Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories" where a woman is speaking on the telephone as Woody's character (a filmmaker) walks by. She interrupts her call to gush to him about how she's his biggest fan, and asks him to say hello to her son, who's on the other line. He politely declines, whereupon her face contracts into a mask of rage. "Cancer!" she screams. "I hope you get cancer and die! I never liked you!" When I first saw the film at age 18, I assumed this was surreality. But, no, it's terrifyingly true. With a certain type of person, "beloved hero" and "despised asshole" are precisely one notch apart.
It truly never fails!

Slog reader's note on Sunday morning:
"Your thoughts have been a huge help to me."
Same reader's note on Sunday evening:
"Please go on with your vanity of a blog (no one reads it)."
People get angry, I get that. And when they get angry, they stomp away sniffily. I get that, too. That's all just normal human stuff. It's the rewriting ("I never liked you/your work!") that amazes. I think the truth is that neither the praise nor the contempt were worth much. When both are flippantly doled out, neither has value.

This is why you see some people (especially creative types) flinching uncomfortably at effusive praise. It's not a matter of modesty or embarrassment so much as the knowledge that the other gun's invariably locked and loaded.

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