Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Fundraiser to Bring Impoverished Young Haitian Musicians Here

Would you please do me the favor of reading this and consider throwing in a few bucks? It would really help these kids.

This, FYI, is the same brass quintet program I reported attending during my first of several post-Chowhound pushes to restore my musical skills. It’s a good one; a direct descendent of the great brass chamber music program I attended as an 18 year-old, and to which I owe a lot.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Naples Diet

Want to get into shape and lose weight while eating lots of the world’s most delicious food?

Consider Naples, the ultimate walking city. Really, you don’t have much choice. Mass transit is minimal, taxis are rare, Uber’s not to be found, and everything’s a 20 minute walk from everything else. I’ve been averaging 7-10 miles of walking per day, more than enough to burn through the rigatoni and sfogliatelle. 

In fact, as body builders will tell you, you lose weight faster if you increase eating along with increased exercise. Many dieters make the mistake of eating less and less, putting their bodies in starvation mode (the medical term is “metabolic syndrome”, and it’s bad news). My fingernails are growing 3 times their normal speed, and I’ve tightened my belt a notch. And it’s all about frequent small meals - the healthiest way to do it - in this most noshish of towns. 

I’m here on another super-budget travel deal. There was once a tech bargain alert site whose motto was “Go broke saving money!”, and I’ve been thinking about that more and more. I’ve been to Bogota, Barcelona, Dallas, Savannah, and Singapore in the last couple of years, jumping on freakishly low plane fares and checking into cheap AirBnbs, but though I rarely spend more than $500 on air and lodging (most often a lot less), it’s beginning to add up.

But my bankruptcy will be your gain once I start posting photos. For now, I’ll leave you with this one perfect little pile of ragú ala Genovese. Remember this formula: Genovese = onions. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Paradise Lost

If you could enter a person's head and listen to their thought stream, you'd hear a nonstop litany of complaints about what's missing.

Most acute is the immediate scanning: If only it were a little warmer. Or a little cooler. If only I'd slept more, or eaten more, or if my chair were more comfortable, or this person with me were more interesting or attractive or attentive. All the food I'm not eating and the sex I'm not having right now! This moment simply won't do. I reject it.

If, despite best effort, your scanning finds nothing immediately vexing to lock on to, it pulls out to a wider view to re-explore the familiar bundle of long-standing vexations If only I were thinner, or better-looking, or wealthier. If only my job were better, my home bigger. If only my spouse were more understanding. If only my parents had never said that terrible thing.

Finding fault with the moment and picking at scabs is what most people's minds do most of the time (it's no wonder nothing ever gets done!), though we're no more aware of it than a fish knows it's perpetually swimming. We elevate cooked-up mental drama above reality; an indulgence entirely untethered from the here and the now. I've offered this same observation many times (chart my progress here, or else cut to the chase and know that Hell is the realm of What's Missing....while Heaven is What Is). But this time let me ask an odd question.

Before I do, think of the last moment when it all felt perfect; when you wouldn't have changed a single thing. Try to remember. I'll wait.

Now here's my odd question: what took you out of that moment? How was paradise lost?

Did some fearsome warrior assault you, and put you in chains? Did your pet die? Did blood suddenly spurt from your ears? No. Nothing like that. What happened (if you could remember, which you can't, because we don't focus our higher perspective on such shifts) is that your scanner - perpetually operating in the background - locked on to something. You felt a bit too warm. Or cool. Or hungry. Or sleepy. Or you suddenly remembered that you don’t drive a Porsche, or you latched onto that thing your parents said. Your abrupt exit from Heaven was triggered by minute and gratuitous mental perturbation, sending you straight back to Hell, i.e. the reverie of What's Missing.

The ultimate expression of this is depression - another term for frozen perspective. This is a state where you ratchet onto maximally obsessive reverie over some "What's Missing" issue. Depressives are wholly immersed in mental drama (there’s great wisdom in the urging to "come back to your senses!"). There are less immersive dramatic states, but, as a whole, we pay more heed to the phantasmagoric than to the actual. In fact, detachment from What’s Really Happening strikes people as completely normal (if you read one link, make it this one...and be sure to also read the first sentence of the first comment).

The instant you opt out of the habit of conjuring up reasons to quarrel with the current moment, you depart the Hell of What's Missing and enter the Heaven of What's Actually Happening. Burdens drop and problems seem to magically disappear (they were illusions - mere thought-knots, aka "First World Problems" - anyway). We call such interludes "peak moments", but they aren't flukes - lucky haphazard occurrences afforded by grace. They're a perpetually available framing choice. You can live there if you’d like.

Reframing to the actual world - diligently returning to your senses; to the raw feed of it all - provides a particularly useful perq aside from the happiness, the unburdening, the disappearance of problems, and the access to Heaven. When your mind isn't occupied with maintaining a regimen of self-torture and malcontentedness (because that’s where you choose to place your attention; you vote via your attention and the mind accommodates), it finds other ways to serve; other things to do. Poetic things, creative things, insightful things.

The free-flowing insight you may notice in labors like this Slog doesn't stem from natural intelligence or talent. For example, I'm not "gifted". I just don't spend every second desperately seeking reasons to be at odds with the universe, and this frees up tremendous resources (cognitive, emotional, creative, and energetic). I haven't elevated myself in the slightest, nor do I enjoy any genetic edge. I'm a hapless shmuck who blundered into opting out of behaving like a lunatic. You can, too. Right now.

If you can recognize, even just as a matter of principle, the self-indulgent and self-defeating idiocy of a life spent ruing What's Missing - i.e. quarreling with the current moment - you are 95% of the way to breaking a habit no more fearsome, really, than sugar craving. This is a choice. It’s not a popular one, so it would never occur to those who frame their world in line with contagious trends. But it’s perpetually available.

If you make this choice, which takes effect instantly, you'll have one foot in heaven and your mind will surprise and delight you with on-demand insight and truth. There's no "personal growth" involved, because it's a letting-go rather than an improvement. It's neither woo-woo nor holy, and it is certainly not the exclusive domain of certain people. 

It's not even hard! Just break a habit that never did you any good anyway! Obsession is far more difficult, requiring dogged work and relentless attention. Letting go is easy....even lazy (it’s bizarre that we consider forgiveness - one means of letting go - challenging when forgiving happens effortlessly within the wink of an eye whereas grudges and resentment are ambitious, sprawling, labor-intensive projects that must be diligently nursed).

If you find it's too much to do in one step, try meditating first (fwiw I like this stripped down, de-mythologized method). Meditation expands perspective, showing that you are not your thought stream, but, rather, an observer of thoughts that were never under your ownership to begin with. There's no need - nor ability - to "improve" your thoughts, nor to repress them, but you do always have the option of giving them less attention; of letting the engine race without engaging the drivetrain. But this requires a recognition that hasn't dawned on many people: that we are not our narration. Meditation opens breathing room between you and your thought stream.

From there, it's easier to blithely let scanning happen without giving its reports your attention; without reframing yourself into Hell whenever some nagging tinge arises. You'd had it wrong all along; you never needed to abandon heaven for every itchy toe, full bladder, or strand of recollected mental drama. Happiness can exist when things don’t turn out as envisioned. It never all needed to go any certain way.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Your Flawed Life as Reflected by Your Poor Knife Skills

It's hard to live in this world if you haven't internalized your multiplication tables. When you see someone bottlenecked amid a complex task because they never invested that effort, you want to implore them to just take a couple hours and learn them. "9 x 7" is not a wheel you should be reinventing every damned time.

Same for amateur musicians who haven't made familiar friends of all 12 major scales. If they don't happily fly out from under your fingers, that just means you're lazy, and it will repeatedly drag you down. Just learn the scales! It's not rocket science! Get it over with!

I once attended a cooking class with a gaggle of local housewives who gasped at my speed and efficiency in cutting up carrots. My proper use of a knife was...magic! They approached their carrots as if their knives were hammers. Shoulders hiked up in tension and fear, they'd raise the tool and swing it down. THUNK.

If you don't have servants to cook for you and you are not an investment banker who eats out every single meal; if you periodically enter your kitchen with intent to prepare food, just, for godsakes, learn to use a knife. Get it over with! Watch a video, take a class, have a friend show you...and then practice for the 45 minutes or whatever it takes to get up to speed so it's never ever an issue. 45 minutes to spare yourself countless life hours of ineffective nonsense.

Similarly: if you spend 1/3 of your life laying down your head on a shitty, flattened-out, uncomfortable pillow, you need to not only replace it immediately with one that costs $10 more; you also need to reexamine your life and how you live it.

Monday, April 15, 2019

It Bugs Me That Your Kid Is Hungry

A few years ago, I made a case for philanthropy as a form of consumerism. I buy things to solve problems that affect me, both here (e.g. I'm out of toothpaste) and there (e.g. your kid's hungry). It's not generosity, it's selfishness. It bothers me that your kid's hungry, like it bothers me to be out of toothpaste, so I buy relief for myself. Your kid enjoying her lasagna is just a bonus outcome.

Most of us stop shoveling snow at our neighbor's property line. But even the selfish must conceded the nagging truth that it's all the same snow; all one problem. The distinction of my problem/your problem is always arbitrary and abstract. If your neighbor's elderly or under the weather (or even able-bodied!), it wouldn't exactly be saintly to clear a path to their mailbox. It would just feel like doing a little more of the same.

"A little more of the same".

It holds up even in the aggregate. Let's say I burn through all my savings before I'm old (a distinct possibility). If it's because I was careless or stupid, I might feel awful living as an old man in a cramped secondhand RV eating instant ramen. But if that's my fate because I’d over-helped, that would be different.

Whenever my mind, in that sordid RV, scans for someone to blame, it will zero in not on shiftless, idiotic me, but on people out there somewhere enjoying a slightly easier/better life. And that seems...what's the word? Not "noble," not "heroic," but...prudent. A reasonable tradeoff no one could quarrel with. Tidy, fine, acceptable. When that mental image flashes, my mind will let go...and there's nothing sweeter than the sensation of a mind releasing its grasp. “Letting go” is the most rewarding framing (surrender, along with the related letting-gos of forgiveness and self-sacrifice, are the spiritual oldies-but-goodies, no matter how unappealing they might strike us modern aristocrats).

It's taken me a lifetime to recognize that unhappiness stems not from circumstance, but from perspective. Heaven and Hell are framings, both perpetually available in any given moment.

Housing, Parking Garages, and the Selfishness of Bill Gates
Philanthropy: The Factor of Time Urgency

Letting go is the most beautiful of framings.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Smoked Chicken Pasta

My Year of Pasta continues. This follows my Year of Tacos, which, in turn, succeeded my Year of Panini. 

I undertake these obsessive cooking binges for a few reasons:

1. I find that I can't cook anything really deliciously until I've worked the category many many times, experimenting with permutations. What can I say; I'm a devotee of John Thorne.

2. I've told this story before: my Dad was a sculptor who dreamed of painting, but felt overwhelmed by color. He had a brainstorm: he'd paint only with prime colors, taking the issue entirely off the table. It was a brilliant idea that I've tried to emulate. So when I felt overwhelmed by the idea of learning to cook (having no interest in souffles or dug-out potatoes or hollandaise sauce), I decided to take most of it off the table. To this day, I can't make roasts or soup or a conventional omelette, and I haven't fried (much less deep-fried) in many years. But what I do make is hyper-delicious.

3. In order to satisfy dish cravings, I go out. When I cook at home, it's strictly about healthy eating, comfort, and whim indulgence. So I don't require versatility, I just need to be really good at making the sort of thing I like to cook and eat. And who doesn't like to eat panini, tacos, and pasta?

Ok! Smoked chicken pasta!

I don't believe in precise recipe quantities. Like "Door Open" buttons on elevators, they're fake-outs, installed solely to let people vent their anxieties. Use your taste! More or less of something will make the result different, not worse (and your result will unavoidably be different from mine, anyway, due to thousands of micro-decisions you'll make differently). Precise recipes are for people with no commitment to sustained iteration (first efforts are like first-batch pancakes).

Leftover sauceless smoked chicken. Leftover is fine, and the smokier the better (this place in Dutchess County will sell you a whole cold smoked bird that works optimally)
Pasta (enough for two)
1/2 onion
2 cloves garlic
1 small tomato, 3 "cocktail" sized tomatoes or 6 grape tomatoes.
Baby spinach
Parmesan cheese
Extra virgin olive oil
Leftover barbecue sauce (optional)

Boil pasta in enough salted water to cover plus 2 or 3 inches (i.e. much less water than most people use).

Pull chicken meat off bones with your fingers, then chop.

Chop onion and finely-slice garlic cloves.

Grate a small amount of parmesan cheese (mostly for umami; you don't want a cheesy effect).

Thinly slice tomato (easiest with a serrated paring knife or steak knife).

Sautee onion on medium heat with a tablespoon or two of extra virgin olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.

Once onions soften, add tomato and garlic. Stir frequently for a minute.

Add chicken. Stir thoroughly then cover. When sizzling resumes, reduce heat a bit and let sit for 2-3 minutes (until hot on bottom and warm on top).

Stir chicken mixture, then cover until heated through (monitor carefully to avoid overdoing it).

Drain pasta when al dente, conserving a few tablespoons of cooking water (which will be thick because you used less of it).

Return pasta to pot, turn heat up to medium, generously drizzle in extra virgin olive oil, dump in cheese and a generous handful of baby spinach. Stir violently in wide churning circles with wooden spoon or spatula until spinach is soft. Turn off heat, add chicken mixture, stirring violently, adding several small splashes (maybe 2 tsp at a time) of pasta water as you go (this is what adds the shimmer to the pasta you see in the photo).

Assuming the chicken came with barbecue sauce, and assuming it's good quality, stir a tablespoon in when you add the chicken mixture. Don't overdo it; you don't want a sweet pungent clobber. This is just to help unite disparate flavors. If you don't have decent barbecue sauce, skip it.

Friday, April 12, 2019

West African Buffet

B&D Halal Food (163 W 29th St; 7 days 11am to 3am) is the best West African restaurant I currently know in the US. They're also the best NYC buffet of any type (the Sunday-only buffet at glorious Nawab blows it away, but it's up in Yonkers).

The offerings at D&B are bountiful and uniformly superb. I don't understand how they make the (very low) pricing work with NYC rents and halal meats - which cost more. The woman with the white turban working around the buffet is helpful if you have questions. And, as always when eating less familiar cuisines (or looking for new angles on known cuisines), my app, Eat Everywhere, is like having me shoot you in-restaurant advice via text messages (we don't have a Guinean section, yet, but the Senegalese one will serve well).

While everything's of uniformly high quality, I'd suggest making a beeline for the following dishes: okra (even if you don't like okra), sweet potato leaves (or cassava leaves if they're out), whichever meat is available in peanut sauce (against the wall and close to the cash register). Oddball tip: jerk chicken seems like a sucker/tourist order, and it's hilariously non-Jamaican, but it's slammingly good as a unique entity.

One thing about buffets: they wrangle so many huge pots of food that every pot eventually burns, and forevermore imparts subtle burnt flavors into the food. As at similar buffets, everything here has a telltale trace, but somehow a virtue is made of it. If I hadn't eaten a lot of West African food at smaller scale, I'd have assumed the slightly metallic/sooty flavor was a distinctive part of the cuisine (it may be one of those serendipities that eventually becomes parsed as "authentic").

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Did You Miss the Part About How We're in Utopia??

In yesterday's posting, "Lost Perspective", I concluded:
Scientists keep trying to tweek the Drake Equation to explain the absence of evidence of advanced civilization in the Universe. What is the X Factor obliterating civilizations before they can build Dyson Spheres, capturing the totality of a star's energy, or find a way to communicate over the void with brutes like us?

Comfort and wealth, baby. That's the perilous X Factor. Comfort and wealth.

Humanity has persevered over illness and lions and warlords; famines, droughts, and extreme poverty, and its pain has only grown in the process. Comfort and wealth will prove an indefatigable challenge.
A reader wryly commented that this seemed like "a downer". I get his point, but please reconsider (or reframe, if you will): I also noted, albeit in passing, that we're living in Utopia. 

We're living in Utopia! This is not a small thing. WE...ARE...LIVING...IN...UTOPIA, even with the shithead president, the school violence, and the robo marketing calls. It only feels awful because we're hyper-sensitized to ever-decreasing pools of grievance, discomfort, and dissatisfaction. And while immense jangled irritation with remaining mattress peas will kindle humanity’s eventual undoing, getting to live in Utopia is no small thing. The fact that a reader could skip over the "Utopia" part, and see my posting as a "downer" perfectly illustrates the very framing problem I've been describing!

We're at the sweet spot. We are blessed not just to be living in Utopia (living in Utopia!), but we're not yet close to the end game. It’s the ideal moment! No longer eaten by lions, nor succumbing to ordinary infections, nor starving. Relatively few of us remain doomed to lives of back-breaking labor for our weekly handful of rice. Yet there’s time before the inevitable apocalyptic Crazy fully erupts (when a world full of furiously entitled and self-certain rich folk get "woke" into peak grievance). Perhaps decades or even centuries. 

We are fantastically lucky to be alive when cars never stall, few adults ever experience physical violence, there's more great food, entertainment, education, and information than we know what to do with, and ambulances pick us up for free and bring us to free ERs for swift fixes to maladies that previously would have killed us. I can drive to Chicago this weekend (toll free, and cheap gas!) if I'd like, on a whim, and crash in an AirBnb for $30, and no tyrant/warlord/feudal overlord needs to grant me permission. This is INSANE. It's GASP-worthy. And I didn't even get to the part about having all human knowledge, media, and music - plus, oh yeah, infinite free worldwide communication - on a slab of glass in my pocket.

So, no, this is not a "downer"! If you’ll simply adjust your framing - habitually locked on the tidbits of displeasure - you can enjoy the best human life that's ever been lived and ever will be lived. Even if you work at Walmart. Even if you don't drive a nice car. Even if you've been told again and again that you're poor or persecuted or beaten down or victimized or ugly (or whichever characteristic you blame for your apparently woeful lot). That’s all in your head, the product of obsessive framing leaving you blind to your unimaginable good luck.

One of my best weekends of this decade was spent in a hospital in cardiac crisis, with one of the nurses crying as I was brought in because I'm so young, and counselors doing their best to make me feel properly grave and frail. I felt taken care of. The tech was absolutely magical. The cardiologist became a pal. And my heart's 100% okay, thanks to a stent inserted through my wrist. On my way home, with my hospital wristband still dangling, I detoured to see a friend who'd been especially upset about my predicament. I stood outside her office window waving with both arms from the street, exuberantly jumping up and down on the sidewalk (middle-aged men aren't supposed to jump) and saw awed radiant delight dawn on her face. In that brief moment, she recognized the Utopia we're in. This is absolutely not your father's planet.

So don't you dare tell me this is all coming from a white dude feeling smug in his bubble of privilege, oblivious to the suffering and subjugation of those with legitimate gripes. I've bottomed out in Utopia - in multiple ways, actually, but one sad story will suffice - discovering that it's Utopia all the way down. The only real downer is that so many theatrically grim and dreary people have needlessly frozen their perspectives. 

Enjoy the Good News, if you can. It's for you to notice...or not. If you do, you’ll not insignificantly “be the change” (framing is contagious; the downer - the downfall - is you). 

FWIW, I am working on a book of exercises to help re-connect with one's latent ability to re-frame perspective. The world doesn't determine your framing, it's been completely under your control all along. You are not a slave to the dramatic view of It All that's been drilled in via endless repetition. Watch this Slog for an open call to beta test the exercises (sometime late this year).

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Slog Ahead

So who was first to tell you about this black hole photo? Like, back in 2012?

Lost Perspective

For those who haven't keyed in yet on my MO, I like to approach a point from several angles, trying to weave in connections to other ideas that occupy me. It might seem repetitive (there are thoughts below that you've seen a number of times here), but I'm building momentum via multiple running starts, hoping to crash through to further insight. The following ties together several familiar Slog points in a fresh way, though you may need to read it a couple times to fully follow the thread.

Human beings compress extremes. We regress toward means. In plain language, we narrow our perspective, which means we "clip" the ends of the scale, mentally compressing extremes into a nondescript paste. When every bad thing is The Worst Thing and every good thing is The Best Thing, there's no room to accommodate the exceptional on either side.

If I served you a freezer burnt slice of toast alongside a mound of barbed wire Parmigiana, you'd quickly (if temporarily) acquire a keen appreciation for the vast terrain between "Bad" and "Worse". But serve someone just the toast, and they'll grimace, describing their displeasure with extravagant superlatives. Extremes are hazy until a concrete example gets shoved in our faces to restore perspective.

For another example, a few weeks ago, I noted that “crazy and stupid” is not evil.
“Crazy and stupid” is awful, corrosive, exasperating. It seems like The Worst Possible Thing. But it’s not. There is genuine evil in the world, so anyone (including the crazy and stupid) who’d never imagine going out of their way to deliberately harm is a “5” at very least.

A person can be nasty, selfish, derelict, uncompromising, unreasonable, willfully ignorant, and astoundingly unpleasant without scratching a nanometer toward actual evil. They can inadvertently ruin lives and knock over every worthy thing without being evil. The end result of “crazy and stupid” may be indistinguishable from the end result of evil, but intentions do matter.

All non-evil people are on our team, and that, alas, includes “crazy and stupid”. “Crazy and stupid” is the bottom rung of acceptability, not the bottom rung of humanity by a very long shot.
Crazy/stupid feels like the absolute worst, yet it’s only half-way to serious badness. Perspective gets compressed!

Similarly, George W Bush once seemed like a malevolent boob for many of us who presently view him as a flawed-but-menschy statesman now that we find ourselves balls deep in the Donald Trump Experience. Yet, as I recently wrote, Trump himself is perfectly typical of the sort of vulgar, vain, shallow, narcissistic, ignorant, racist men who’ve run most every institution in the world for thousands of years. He only strikes us as appalling because we've compressed the extremes. We've lost perspective.

In fact, GWB was a “7” (I'd give Obama an "8.25"), Trump’s a “4” , and if we ever landed ourselves a “3”, let alone a "1" or "2", Trump would seem as mild as freezer burnt toast (and GWB would be compared to Lincoln, ‘cuz we’d be compressing the other end) - at least for a moment, while the difference was shoved in our faces.

This is more of the perceptual framing I keep going on about. It’s endlessly lithe, and that's ordinarily a good thing. But without a firm baseline, mere displeasure - for us wealthy, comfortable First Worlders living in a Utopia too sublime for our ancestors to even dream of - strikes us as OMG THE WORST NIGHTMARE I AM SO STRESSED FROWNY FACE FROWNY FACE because our president's a typical vapid boss when we expect only above-average experiences. We compress perspective.
Standard disclaimer: I detest Trump. But, per this very posting, that doesn't make him The Worst Thing Ever. Refusal to compress does not constitute approval.
The world has perpetually seemed to be going straight to hell just as it's gotten fabulously better and better. Why? Because we're spoiled princesses increasingly vexed by smaller and smaller mattress peas. We're Mrs. Howells endlessly piqued by poor picnic weather and inattentive servants. This explains why the merely wealthy are beginning to foment class warfare for unfettered access to the trappings of super-richdom. This cadre fights not for bread and shelter for the disadvantaged, like their righteous forebears, but for their right to smart watches and Beemers.

When our grandparents urged us to "count our blessings", it wasn't so much an endorsement for Positive Thinking as a means to regain perspective.

Scientists keep trying to tweek the Drake Equation to explain the absence of evidence of advanced civilization in the Universe. What is the X Factor obliterating civilizations before they can build Dyson Spheres, capturing the totality of a star's energy, or find a way to communicate over the void with brutes like us?

Comfort and wealth, baby. That's the perilous X Factor. Comfort and wealth.

Humanity has persevered over illness and lions and warlords; famines, droughts, and extreme poverty, and its pain has only grown in the process. Comfort and wealth will prove an indefatigable challenge.

As I noted here:
By the time we're down to our very last Nazi (some geezer raving and saluting from his electric scooter), we'll all be so unhinged by his presence that we'll jump in the ocean and drown en masse like lemmings.
Follow up posting

Tuesday, April 9, 2019


The reason current Conservatives still feel conservative despite having turned their back on nearly every conservative principle is that most Conservatives were never conservative. They were anti-liberal.*

The reason candy factory workers quickly lose their taste for candy is that they were never real candy cravers. They were anti-deprivation.

* - This also accounts for why conservative politicians have always rejected their own policies when liberals propose them (e.g. Obamacare, which came right straight out of the Heritage Foundation, with a bank shot off Mitt Romney's governorship). They're not for what they're for, they're against what The Other is for.

I can relate, having for years assumed I was some breed of liberal simply by virtue of my revulsion at the far right...and in spite of my agreeing with few actual left-wing proposals. I suspect many - perhaps even most - moderates on each side are entirely reactive to The Other...and, if they ever really dissected the actual policies supported by their own (nominal) side, they'd realize they're as Centrist as I am.

The really smart move would be to embrace our perfectly appropriate misanthropy more consistently and completely.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Peace & Quiet

Not one person in the history of the world ever uttered this sentence:
I really value my peace and quiet; maybe I'll try to get laid.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Rich, Richer, Richest, Super-Rich

Rich - No risk of death from curable disease; hunger rare and minor; lavish portfolio of modern comforts/conveniences/entertainments; days off; personal possessions; car owner (or access to mass transit).

Soccer Mom Rich - Overabundance of possessions and food seems like a negative; vacations; spare time for hobbies; savings. Children attend college via student loans.

Dentist Rich - Late model car; investments; parking garages; frequent $20 meals and infrequent $50 meals; nest egg. Children attend state colleges, get scholarships, or are funded by grandparents.

Lawyer Rich - Occasional business class; fancy car; hires people for jobs they could do themselves. Children assured of college.

Entrepreneur Rich - Business class; prestige car; default question is "do I really need?" rather than "can I afford?". Children financially assured.
Fwiw, "Entrepreneur Rich" circa 2004 was merely dentist rich.

The "Rich" in America (what we here call "the working poor") enjoy a lifestyle of comfort, health, security, and entertainment beyond the imagining of aristocrats of past centuries, and are the envy of most people in the Third World today (though, even there, extreme poverty is down almost 36% over a mere 25 years).

The young - as has been the case for time immemorial - are geared up about inequality. In the past, such radicalization has served to focus attention on the impoverished, but it's become perverted in an era when rich people feel poor. The extreme Left embraces Marxist constructs in their struggle for the perks not just of the rich (they're all rich) but of the super-rich. Class warfare between the have-lots versus the have-tons. I've dubbed this strange phenomenon "Liberal Materialism."

Sunday, March 31, 2019

50% of Dropouts are Undercover Rejects

It's impossible to distinguish a dropout from a reject. And nearly all rejects pose as dropouts.

Your friend who entertains you with crazy horror stories about his nightmare ex who he's finally decided to let go? There's a 50-50 chance he was dumped, and that he deserved it.

Your friend who quit her much-hated job? And feels wonderfully free to pursue new opportunities? Just as likely, she was fired (and deserved it).

You do not know. You cannot know. The truth is indeterminable, because such people mask the truth not just for your eyes, but for their own. Their deep cover stems from deep denial. They could likely pass a lie detector test.
I once recruited someone to help out with some Chowhound business issues. He'd been a player in the first dot.com bubble, but had dropped out to take on much smaller work, and was infinitely happier with this "downsizing". It seemed like a terrific opportunity to get help from the sort of figure who was normally too busy to pitch in with the likes of us.

At some point, a distant slightly scary possibility arose. The sort of prospect normal people shrug off, since, of course, no action in this world is without risk. But this affable, non-emotional, grounded, sensible person went into utter freakout mode, forcing us into some very painful, very expensive restructuring to rule out the contingency. He threatened, with uncharacteristic belligerence, to walk away if we didn't. Oddly, a year later, he could not remember any of this. It was like he'd had a small stroke.

Being less experienced back then, I called this same person to help with a subsequent project. And it happened again. That time I let him walk away after he issued his ultimatum, having recognized that he was no drop-out. He was damaged goods.
Be careful with dropouts. 50% are what they claim to be, but 50% are in deep denial regarding flaws and fissures that spurred a pattern of rejection. And you’ll only know after those flaws and fissures have become painfully obvious. 

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Crew vs. Talent

There are two kinds of people: Talent and Crew.

Talent always considers Crew to be wannabes. They're the remainders who can’t cut it; the sad unsparkly souls who don't clean up well and who've let themselves go.

The Crew knows the Talent thinks this (this is not a symmetrical situation), and they know something the Talent doesn’t. Crew recognizes that Talent's perennially desperate, hovering in a state of anxiety, recognizing that they're a few extra quarts of ice cream, or a plastic surgery disaster, or a gaffed social media statement away from being revealed as the Crew we all are under the facade.

No one’s born Talent. We all come from Crew; Talent elevation is a fleeting contrivance of vanity. And we'll go out as Crew, too. Few of us have the capacity for delusion to complete this trip imagining themselves Talent the whole way.

I once noted that "Maturity is the correction of the misconception that you're the protagonist in this drama." So the Talent is immature. Circumstance chipping away at their facade does them a kindness. It's a necessary adjustment to their outlook; a gentle reminder they've been Crew all along.

Ich bin ein Teamster!

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

More Backsplashing

I've taken to heart the cook's mantra "never catch a falling knife". Let it drop, let it clatter, don't move. To reaffirm the habit, I mutter the mantra to myself each time. Never catch a falling knife!

The problem is that now that it's engrained, it happens when anything drops. Pens, scouring pads, TV remote controls, Pop Tarts. Just now, I passively watched my heavy gym lock clatter to my previously immaculately finished wood floor, morosely intoning "Never try to catch a falling gym lock."

Mental/behavioral programming always backsplashes. For instance, my clever technique for unwinding at night so I could fall sleep was making me weirdly sleepy during stressful daytime moments.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The POTUS and the Pea

Vulgar, vain, shallow, narcissistic, ignorant, racist men have run every institution in the world for thousands of years. Trump is only abnormal because in this one country and this one office, we’ve been spoiled - and even here, only lately so - with unusually elevated figures, even, in retrospect, GW Bush (that reframing, btw, offers a useful glimpse of the larger truth).

The fact that we’re all swooning and stressed over this guy is evidence of something I keep pointing to again and again: the downside of life being so wonderful here in The Future is that we're hypersensitive to mere displeasure. We're all princesses more and more vexed by smaller and smaller mattress peas. In utopia mere normality (which this guy absolutely is, in the long view of human history) strikes us as unendurable hell.

When I posted the above to Facebook, a friend answered:
We should expect better. We’ve evolved.
Here's how I replied:
Have you evolved your ability to frame situations realistically, per my posting above? Or are you still exhibiting the ancient fussy neediness, where we need conditions to scan as "just right" before we can get on with enjoying our precious time here?

In my view, evolution consists of expanding perspective, not wrangling a more favorable gift bag of preference results and checkboxes checked. Evolution is measured by changes in me-in-here, rather than in you-all-out-there.

A peaceful, open, and appreciative internal perspective trumps the default human drive of unquenchable entitlement; of How It Must Play Out For Me to Feel Grateful to be Alive. That, to me, is the potential evolution. And there's no hope of evolving our politics, or anything else, until that happens.

If we've evolved in any conceivable way (and I think humans have progressed miraculously over the millennia), it's been almost exclusively under the stewardship of vulgar, vain, shallow, narcissistic, ignorant, racist men. We work awfully well in spite of them. Any/all evolution happened on their watch.

This isn't my endorsement of that approach, of course. Nor am I complacent about this guy, who I loathe as much as anyone. But this is not the worst life experience any generation has ever felt. On contrary, we are overwhelmingly, obscenely, ridiculously more comfortable, secure, healthy, fed, and entertained than any human beings ever dared imagine, and our forebears surely hate us for our spoiled, disgusting, ungrateful failure to appreciate it. I sense their roiling anger.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Why Simplicity is Hard

In many lines of work, professionals will tell you that the simplest tasks can be the hardest to really master.

I've usually attributed this to exposure. A band of fourteen screeching electric guitarists can hide issues/problems more effectively than one spotlit dude introspectively strumming. Lamb stew may conceal many a shortcut and still be delicious, but a decent spaghetti carbonara requires meticulousness. There's simply nowhere to hide when you're doing something simple.

But as I recently reheated some leftover lasagna (lasagna!!!) with brutish vapidity (belying the many years of experience behind my reheating choices), thunking the cold carby slab into a nonstick skillet at medium heat, drizzling a tablespoon or two of chicken stock into the pan, covering, and cutting heat back to low at first sizzle, I experienced a flash of self-awareness, showing me how Philistinian I looked.

Not a pretty picture. I appeared like some elderly British pensioner futzing around mournfully in his bathrobe, dutifully executing a series of tasks beginning with the opening of a reeking can of cat food. This is not how magic conjuring is assumed to look (yet again: magic is messy).

But then I transferred the lasagna to my plate and beheld a thing of beauty. The bottom was just starting to crunch/caramelize, and the rest was perfectly melty and moistened. As is often true, my reheating turned out better than the original. So-so lasagna was transformed into something that could make you weep. All via my dull, dutiful, uninteresting actions (it reminds me of Von's inability to account for the magic of his legendary cookies cooked from the recipe on the oatmeal box).

But thinking back on it, I realize that I'd done one really clever, advanced, amazing thing: I stayed out of the way. There are infinite ways - many of them smart-seeming - in which I could have made it worse, and I did none of them. Very few people can downshift to this lowly level of utter brutish vapidity. No one wants to be Nigel in his shabby bathrobe. They all want to be brisk, confident David Copperfields. They want to execute moves.

Simple things are hard because of the exposure, sure, but, just as much, it's because we're sorely tempted to screw things up with counterproductive complexity.
My favorite Yiddish word: "undgepotchkied", the term for something hopelessly over-tweaked. It's a subset of FUBAR.
In fact, the very essence of being human is the inclination to fuck up simplicity via heavy-handed complication. It's what we do.

As I wrote in my explanation of why god lets bad things happen:
Consider America. 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, draughts, 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!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Pepin's Chowhound Manifesto

From Jacques Pepin's Washington Post op-ed on eggs
The ham and eggs of the corner diner can be as superb as the caviar omelet of Michelin’s most touted triple-starred restaurant.
I never thought I’d see the day when Jaques Pepin would be caught publicly saying something like this. Jesus, he sounds like me, circa 1997. At that time, as was true for decades prior, such heresy would have marked you as a lunatic. Believe me, I know.

Many readers will have no idea what I'm even talking about. It's been forgotten that until fairly recently restaurants without linen napkins, or serving cuisines other than the handful deemed "serious" by tastemakers like Pepin, were gastronomic outcasts to be ignored or else described with dripping condescension ("These wonderfully inexpensive little 'ethnic' places" - thus is literally the entire world tossed casually into a 'miscellaneous' drawer - "offer surprisingly tasty quick fill-ups for those without the refinement or funds to enjoy proper dining").

Always "little" places. "Grandma" places. "Greasy spoons". "Holes in walls". Restaurants that couldn't cough up cash for shmancy digs represented a whole other ilk - dare I say class? It was 100% snobbery, with nothing to do with food or quality.

People don't think like this anymore - the preceding two paragraphs will seem alien to anyone under 30 - because a couple generations of food writers fought tenaciously to bash through long-standing gates of snobbery painstakingly maintained by the likes of Pepin, who needed to justify their premium branding as they fed and/or informed status-seeking "gourmets" and foodies.

Those guys were always in on their own con. They privately winked at people like me - and ate like people like me - while publicly scowling at our lack of refinement. Now you've seen the truth revealed.

I like and respect Pepin and his work. He was far from the most egregious of the old guard of snobs, periodically expressing delight for the "lusty rustic fare yadda yadda of the provinces" (always with a touch of condescension to preserve the elevation of his own position). He was not an utter French chauvinist, sometimes cursorily covering other cuisines.

But he made such moves only after tides had turned, when it was not only safe but lucrative to do so. And, to my knowledge, he never before went as far as this corner diner quote, which comes 25 years too late (frankly, I could have used some cover from someone as established as Pepin back then).

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Why 100% of Mueller Report Should be Public

Frank Figliuzzi, former Assistant Director for FBI Counterintelligence, is the only talking head who says surprising things on TV. Here's a whopper, from a couple minutes ago.

Frank demanded 100% public disclosure of the Mueller Report.

Host Katy Tur asked the correct follow-up question: But what about parts of the report revealing secret intelligence or intelligence-gathering techniques?

Frank batted back with a reply so utterly reasonable, yet so missed by literally all other pundits, that I felt compelled to record it and post here.

Viva Frank Figliuzzi.

Pizza Protocol

During my heart problems a few years ago, I was ordered on a permanent low fat diet. After the subtle shrug that firmly shuts down (if I catch it early) my mind's eager inclination to make things A Whole Drama, I set myself to thinking about how I'd handle my pizza situation.

I resorted to a tactic I like to call "reality". It's the alternative to self-indulgently spinning up ditzy drama (e.g. pouting about how life as I know it will never be the same whenever something changes). And I cooked up the following ground rules:
  • I'd eliminate all bad pizza.
  • I'd eliminate all so-so pizza.
  • Really good pizza is permissable, but only one slice.
  • If really necessary, I could occasionally enjoy two slices.
  • Since I already cooked healthy at home, I'd cook at home a bit more to offset the errant slices.
This policy eliminates 90% of my normal fat-ingestion-via-pizza, while removing only 10% of my enjoyment:
  • I never liked the bad or so-so pizza anyway (and I'd simply work harder when hungry with nothing else easily within range).
  • The first slice is the best slice, anyway. And the third slice is pleasureless gluttony.
  • There's not a single hard denial here of anything really meaningful to me.

Along similar lines, see "The Best, Easiest, and Most Sustainable Diet Tip"


Welcome the latest label/tag here at the Slog: “Definitions”.

Here are all postings with that label (they're pithy enough that you can read all nine in a couple minutes).

Speaking of pith, here are some uncharacteristically pithy statements a Slog reader once extracted.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Why Hacks Think They're Geniuses

I write a lot about commitment. The degree of dedication, focus, obsession - whatever you want to call it - required to create something with some magic to it is not just extremely high, but downright repulsive to view from up-close. I like to remind people that Beethoven composed in a diaper (that expression of revulsion that just crossed your face says it all. Hold that thought!).

As I keep saying, magic is messy...even though we innately expect our magicians to be suave David Copperfields. If people knew what truly went into the magic tricks of creativity - the demented level of over-the-top caring - they'd cross the street to avoid the pathetic, kicked-in wretches who traffic in such work.

I offered this quote a few months ago which gave away the formula:
"When you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely." - Zen dude Shunryu Suzuki
Burn victims aren't real suave. A pile of ashes is in no position to impress you.

Practical example. I once challenged a chef friend to try something difficult - it was a playful, informal thing, with no stakes at all - and two hours later I glimpsed him in his kitchen throwing ingredients at the wall and sobbing uncontrollably (and he was a tough-assed, unfussy sort of dude). You might imagine that I dashed, ashamed and alarmed, into the kitchen to call off the challenge. On the contrary, I felt immense satisfaction. Not because I'm a sadist, but because I knew I'd inspired him to create, and this is what real creativity looks like. It's a dirty job that breaks you if you do it right. (P.S.: his final result totally killed.)
My thoughts on this seldom seem to land for people. It's impossible to drive any of this home to uninspired, uncreative creators (the ones who churn out the usual crap, leaning on formula and emulation, and who are constitutionally incapable of a good sob). And I just realized why.

It's super hard to write a lousy book, compose a lousy symphony, direct a lousy film, or paint a lousy mural. It takes 10 years of instrumental training plus another decade of improvisation experience to even begin to call oneself a jazz musician - far longer than med school! - so it's little wonder that every unexceptional player considers himself some sort of genius.

Every purveyor of crap feels - with good reason! - like they've made the Big Sacrifice. They've tasted commitment and suffered for their art. Every one of them. That's why uninspired hacks nod along in weary agreement when you discuss "commitment". Just getting to square one, assembling and presenting something with some minimal degree of competence, is inhumanly difficult. They all believe they've done the thing because they've done the thing!

Here's what I'd say to such people: Remember how hard it was just to generate and organize that material and have it be coherent? Well, what if some impossible-to-please tyrant loomed constantly over your shoulder, screaming at you to demolish perfectly adequate chunks and rework them for a result that's far better than it needs to be; far better than audiences will likely even notice, much less appreciate?

What if that belligerent asshole required you to treat every trivial decision like a matter of life or death?

What if every facile choice and easy cliché stabbed at him like a dagger to the heart?

What if, amid the overall death march, he compelled you to weigh yourself down further with seemingly unnecessary extra compulsions and requirements?

What if he demanded perpetual self-questioning, leaving you perpetually unsure whether you've committed the sin of settling for "good enough" rather than riding the curve of diminishing results all the way to brilliance (100,000 times harder...when it's already so, so hard)?

What if you needed to spend time soothing collaborators who might otherwise feel smothered by the intensity of the demands he compels you to satisfy?

And what if you could never, ever evade this person, because it was you?

And what if you - broken, bedraggled, and having been entirely (per the Zen quotation above) consumed by the task - needed to put on a tuxedo and go out there and feign ease, because people won't even notice magic unless it's conjured/marketed by some shiny, toothy, theatrically effortless David Copperfield?

Thursday, March 21, 2019

There's Framing and Then There's FRAMING

In my recent posting "The Wellspring of Great Results", I noted, in reference to a photo I once took, that
...my driving goal is to accept all elements and conditions as they are. I found a framing that made it perfect.
This applies well beyond photography. We have infinite latitude in how we frame our reality - but forget we possess that freedom. Which is a shame, because there's always a framing that makes it all perfect. All of it. Including the pain and catastrophe we pretend to loathe and reject.

If you're drawn to this, even just a little bit, know that you're close to discovering that the framing that "makes it all perfect" is actually the default framing; the one requiring the least effort and contrivance. In fact, we work tirelessly (like princesses scanning for peas) to reframe the innate perfection as problematic. That's sort of our gig.

I also wrote that I maintain "a stubborn refusal to shoot until I giggle with surprised delight....maintaining a nearly religious faith that such a result is always a few millimeters away. For any given scene, there are billions of delightful framings, always." 

Further Reading
All postings on Perceptual Framing (I'd suggest reading from the bottom up)
My "Consciousness" posting makes a good starting point (along with the two links in the second paragraph above.
"The Visualization Fallacy" was the first of a series of postings (linked via footers) offering a sense of how vast and foundational the little-acknowledged faculty of framing might actually be.

College Admissions

My friend Jon made a good point about the college admissions scandals. Most of the people raging about the news of inequities in college admission have, themselves, benefitted from inequities in this process.
  • Legacies - family members of alumni - have always had an edge (and if your family went to college, that's privilege, right there).
  • Articulate kids with good grades have an edge, and it helps enormously if you speak nice grammatical English because it's in your ear from the house where you grew up (which is normally the case only if you've come from privilege).
  • Kids requiring no financial aid (i.e. grandparents have set money aside) have always had a leg up in the admissions process. Privilege!
  • And, shoot, if you're even talking about college, that's already privilege. Lots of people can't take four years out of their prime earning years for optional education.
Though I didn't come from a fancy background, I benefitted from three out of four of those.

The First World is unimaginably wealthy by all previous standards, and this wildly distorts everything. The admissions scandal is just another ironic and delusional example of slightly-less-fabulously wealthy folks getting indignant about being denied the extra-special perqs of the super-rich. As I wrote last month, in a posting titled "Liberal Materialism", the thinking boils down to this:
We fight not for bread and shelter for the disadvantaged, like our righteous forebears, but for their right to smart watches and Beemers. The have-obscenely-much will be compelled to share their Riedel stemware with the have-slightly-less-obscenely-much. Vive la revolution!
Americans (especially the younger generation) love to pose as anti-privilege. From a more level-headed perspective, it's aristocrats demanding access to the most excessive excesses...which have come to seem like birthright. If I were a genuinely poor person, in some African or Asian village (there are no poor Americans, unless you've mistaken discomfort for poverty), hearing about supposed class warfare in the West, I'd either be laughing hysterically or else sharpening my sticks.

Anyway, no one ever claimed college admissions were like Olympic trials or game shows. Colleges can accept whoever they damned well want to, and it's crazy to imagine that the kid of the guy who funded the new library wouldn't get an edge - or even that he shouldn't. Again: how many edges got you into college?

The conversation continued with a discussion of whether college is even necessary these days.

Me: I've had six careers and no one ever asked about my degree

Jon: Well, but you're a special circumstance. You've been working freelance outside the mainstream.

Me: Ok. But if a degree seems necessary for mainstream work, why not get the cheapest possible state school degree? Unless you're a scholar or pre-med, why spend $$$$$$?

Jon: Yeah, your degree might get you in the door for your first job, but your second job plays mostly out of the first (and so on).

Me: Yep. If, as an adult, you're still boasting about where you went to school, that shows you haven't done much. The luster of that super-expensive credit fades awfully quickly.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Tech Didn't Do The Thing It's Supposed To Do and I Must Scream

I just paid $149, with tax, for this 3TB external hard drive.
In case you don't know, OWC ("Other World Computing") hard drives are considered the gold standard, with an unbeatable three year warranty. It's not that they're bulletproof super-high end kit; just think of them as business class: you pay a 25% premium to bypass absolute crap.
Over five years ago, I ordered a drive of the exact same size, also USB 3.0. And it cost $120. Five years ago.

Gordon Moore, why hast thou forsaken me?

That earlier drive was, in fact, crap. It was from Western Digital (I was very lucky it lasted a half decade). And, yes, it was a special sale deal from Amazon. But still. Five years. This is not how the tech universe is supposed to work. I am completely disoriented, writhing like an upturned bug, pathetic stubby limbs flailing, grievously unable to find the ground beneath my feet. I may not survive this.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Wellspring of Great Results

I've been trying to help a friend take more porny food photos. He'd been under the impression that there are things to know and techniques to learn, and I've been struggling to explain that it's a matter of intent rather than knowledge.

I think I've finally managed to express it coherently here:

This example shows how - without moving anything around - you can try a little harder, and wait a bit longer until you find a delightful framing.

You need to experience some giggling “that’s it!” delight, rejecting the easy satisfaction of a shot that looks like lots of photos you’ve seen before (i.e. the clichéd postcard/magazine view).

I giggled while shooting this. If I don’t giggle, I don’t push the button. Simple as that. No “technique”, no “learning”, no “talent”. Just a stubborn refusal to shoot until I giggle with surprised delight.

Plus, I maintain a nearly religious faith that such a result is always a few millimeters away. That’s critical! For any given scene, there are billions of delightful framings, always. Even with empty milkshake glasses.
The above applies to any pursuit. But some purely photographic notes: If I'd taken a less precisely framed shot and trimmed it down later, I'd never have arrived here. This shot is palpably the product of myriad interdependent small choices made in the moment. Similarly, if I'd moved the objects around before shooting (you can just feel that I didn't), I'd have lost the beauty of the haphazard. For example, if I'd removed the paper place mat behind the right-hand glass, the result would have been a prettier, more postcard-ish picture. But my driving goal is to accept all elements and conditions as they are, so I didn't take the shot until I'd made that element add something. I found a framing that made it perfect. The photo provides a vicarious experience of my snakey, patient, persistent quest to capture the perfection of the haphazard. That's why it seems lively.

In one of my favorite postings, "The Times Everything Worked Out", I explained how I'd stumbled into surprisingly good results on a few occasions in a few far-flung realms. My first example was photography.

I'd fallen rapturously in love with Portugal on my first trip to Lisbon. My nights were spent playing jazz in a local club, but afternoons were free, so one day I took a trip to Sintra, a mystical mountain renowned for its lush beauty. I brought along a camera, though my photography skills were minimal (I'd point the thing toward whatever I wanted to document and push the button. There: my cousin. There: the boat. There: the building. After all, isn't this what you're supposed to do? I was following the instruction manual to the letter!).

But this day on gorgeous Sintra, I was moved. I saw beautiful scenes, but, raising my camera, felt the daunting near-futility of trying to do justice to them on film. So I applied unfamiliar levels of time and care, refusing to snap the picture until what I was seeing through the camera expressed precisely what I was feeling. Until then, I waited, patiently peering through the lens, micro-adjusting the composition by a millimeter in one direction or another. There were still subtler nano-adjustments, where the shot didn't change but my intention somehow did. Only when I felt an inner swelling of exultation, moved by what I saw, did I push the button.

To my flabbergasted astonishment, the photographs were gallery quality. Everyone who saw them fell in love with Sintra just as I had.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Only Weight Loss Free Ride

A few years ago I wrote a series of postings explaining how I’d managed to lose 35 longstanding pounds. Everything in that series was scientifically legit - a few biologists and nutritionists over the years have given it their “ok”. The following is not scientifically proven, but it makes sense, and works empirically for me and for the hordes of body builders who do weight loss a few times per year (they call it "cutting") and have it pretty much worked out.

I call this the “Free Ride”. It’s a feat of judo that makes a virtue of my schlubby condition (various injuries led to me gaining back a lot of weight I’d previously lost). As with most out-of-shape people, my heart takes a long while to fully recover from exercise. A couple months from now, that will no longer the case, but until then I enjoy this free ride!

When I finish my cardio workout, rather than shutting down the machine and going home, I reduce the speed to a brisk walk. It can't elevate my heart rate, but it can lightly tap the flywheel of my heart rate’s long slow-down, decelerating my already laggy recovery. It doesn’t take much. A perfectly comfortable walking pace keeps my heart rate in the cardio zone for a long, long while, just as if I were actually exercising.

It wouldn't work to do this at the beginning of my workout, when my heart rate's normal. But once my heart rate is already 140-ish, and would otherwise settle to 100 within 10 minutes, light walking keeps me north of 125. It’s like drafting in auto racing. A free ride!

The only problem is that this light walking can be boring. You may not want to spend 15 or 20 minutes ploddingly walking a treadmill (three words for you: Pod Frickin' Casts). I just bear closely in mind I'm getting work-free weight loss. It's the only such opportunity in the fitness game, and I’ll be damned if I’ll miss it!

Since walking is limitlessly viable for most people, the only issue is available time. If you can stretch this coda toward 30 minutes, you’ll get a level of workout fit people would need to kill themselves to attain. And you’ve gotten it nearly for free! It's the fatty's ultimate revenge.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Strange Fact About Me

Within five miles of the house I grew up in were Harry Chapin, Jack Kerouac, John Coltrane, the Karate Kid, and one of the world's preeminent Taoism teachers.

I knew about Chapin, and I went to school with Ralph (he was a great dancer but a totally wooden actor who never got lines in school plays; he must have really worked hard). I did not know about Kerouac, Coltrane, or the Taoist guy at the time.

I thought it was boring where I lived.

A Little-Known Perk of Aging

There's a fantastic perk of aging that no one ever told me about. Let me try to explain it with two examples.

As I recently wrote....
I checked out programmable remote controls years ago, and found them to be a non-solution solution, swapping mere annoyance (too many remotes) for a confusing hobbyist mega-brick. Ugh.

I didn't realize there'd been a huge shift in how these things operate. These days, they're transparently contextual, running what computer nerds call "macros". If you haven't fooled around with one lately, you won't understand why they're so essential.
Two weeks in, I'm still gleeful. My universal remote control transmits long streams of complicated commands to multitudinous devices, arranging everything in perfect configuration at the touch of a button, like a magic trick. I'm a big fan of macros and keyboard shortcuts, and have yearned for this efficiency in my offline life. This is the first step.

The fruits of tech innovation are enjoyable for all ages, but older people can experience the extra pleasure of having longstanding aversions and assumptions pleasantly contradicted. Some part of me still expects my car to stall. That it never does offers a perennial small thrill never experienced by those who weren't driving in the 80s. Having surfed online at the dawn of the Internet, when useful content was few and far-between, it amazes me that so much (virtually everything!) is available online. It's like a dream. But if you popped into this world with an iPad in-hand, it's just not the same.

Second example:

I was chatting with my long-suffering tax accountant over Guatemalan tamales (I compensate for my hand-holding neediness with food). She told me she hates to fly out of NYC airports because of the parking hassle. I started to mention off-property parking, but she cut me off. "You mean those vans that bring you to faraway lots? I don't need that aggravation or risk."

For anyone over 50, thoughts of such arrangements conjure up memories of fly-by-night car rental offices in remote industrial parks, or air courier arrangements where you'd check someone else's packages (can't imagine this today!) in exchange for cheap flights after waiting for hours in grungy off-property boiler rooms. I'll stay in the damned airport, thank you very much. Off-property there be dragons.

But no. Now there are gleaming parking facilities where you drop off your car right in front and jump into a clean, friendly van straight to the terminal, all much easier than airport parking systems. Returning, your car's been pulled from the garage, engine running and heater engaged. Step off van, into car, and you're off, having pre-paid. It's super-cheap, mega-efficient, and every element's controlled by smart phone (this operation, near Newark, is my fave).

As I explained this, her jaw dropped. She hadn't realized airport off-site parking had evolved.

Phenomena that don't disintegrate often improve, and the ongoing surprising recognition of this is a fantastic perk of aging no one ever told me about. Why is it so little-discussed? Because almost nobody knows.

My aging parents remained typically ignorant of new tech and new solutions. Whenever they'd brush up against anything unfamiliarly current, they'd throw up their hands in helpless consternation. It's not their universe. Otra cultura. This, alas, is the normal progression of things.

Just don't do that! Never throw your hands up! Keep living in the actual universe! Remain curious and open and informed, and the world just gets better and better. Or else you can shut yourself off to all that and watch your world crumble, as favorite restaurants close, favorite bands break up, and friends all wither and die. If that's where you direct your gaze, it all looks like doom and destruction (hence MAGA, btw). If you ignore the improvements, you'll only notice the disintegration.

It can all be going to Hell...or else to Heaven. As always, it's entirely a question of perspective, and Heaven is the version more grounded in reality.

As a precocious kid, I noticed that while a nice person is delightful, a scary-looking person who turns out to be nice is a greater delight. Same here. It's far more satisfying to have a longstanding gap filled than to be born into gaplessness.

Here's the very first joke I ever learned (from "The Bozo the Clown Show"):

Q: Why are you hitting yourself in the head with a hammer?
A: Because it feels so good when I stop!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Shostakovich, Eddie Barefield, and The Evolution of Western Art

The following posting from August 2018 was a challenging read, much as Shostakovich is a challenging listen. But it offers a rare big picture view, from a musician's perspective, of the evolution and degeneration of artforms.

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.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Pathetic Joy From Hanging the Razor Scrapers

I bought some razor scrapers from Stanley-We-Want-To-Help-You-Do-Things-Right. I had to get three, and they sat for a short while on my kitchen table, along with:
  • The magic mushroom sculpture I brought back from Oaxaca
  • A house number decal for my mailbox which can't be properly installed until the temperature rises to 70 degrees
  • A weird British steamer contraption for sore throats
  • A yellow blown-glass Castillian olive oil pourer
  • A small bottle of Maggi seasoning ("Improves the taste!") I bought on eBay last year and am not sure what to do with
  • Several envelopes of Turkish Salep ("Fox Testicles in Arabic!") I bought on eBay last year and am not sure what to do with
  • A new container of Guardsman Dusting Cloths (ironically unopened amid a dusty tabletop)
  • One travel pack of Kleeenex
  • A cheap squeegee sent along by the decal people
  • An inexplicable unopened shaker jar of lowercase "ariosto" seasoning (rarely do I season - "A Man For No Seasoning" - yet I can't stop buying all these things)
  • A mug full of pens and pencils
  • A can of extraordinarily rare imperial stout
  • Indian Khaman mix ("Best Quality!")
  • A Bed Bath & Beyond 20% off coupon
  • Battenkill Brittle "Energy Bars" (I call them "Calorie Bars")
  • A small pile of junk mail
  • A gooseneck microphone stand adapter
...and this amusing-looking item:

....which I don't recall buying and which is of utterly mysterious functionality.

My house is nice, I'm not a pack rat. But like most people I have my loci of unavoidable clutter. At least my clutter's interesting; more mad scientist than knick-knack collector.

Anyway, it dawned on me that I have a pegboard tool center set up along my basement steps, with one particularly well-positioned rod perfect for hanging the three mini scrapers, whose packaging includes convenient hole punches. I slid the scrapers onto the rod, and immediately broke down in sobs for about a second and a half. A short squall. And then was absolutely normal again.

"That was weird!" I self-narrated. Mulling it over, I realized what had happened. I was happy. Overcome by happiness, in fact. The razor scrapers were perfect, the pegboard was perfect, my life felt like it was really coming together. It felt like a "win".

The unavoidable next thought was, naturally, that I'm the most pathetic schlub on god's green earth. If I've decayed to the point where this was my idea of a "win", please, someone, come shoot me (and sprinkle the body with Salep). But because I no longer indulge concocted drama, my mood didn't sag one bit. The obligatory self-reflective movie scene passed by like a dust mote as I continued to curiously reason through it all.

What would be an appropriate reason for joy? Getting elected Senator! Winning the lottery! Getting the the girl! I'd just experienced that same jubilation from the most trifling experience. I hadn't needed to run a campaign, or buy a ticket, or seduce anyone. I won't spend six years working in a snake pit, or worrying about mo' problems, or squabbling about my kitchen table's clutter.

Neither the Senator, the lottery winner, nor the Lothario have it in them to derive joy from hanging their razor scrapers (nor, I'm guessing, from blow-drying their temperamental TV). Their emotions, not mine, are out of scale. Jaded ease requires ever more momentous wins to feel anything at all, and then one faces the inevitable sugar crash, leaving one thirsty for bigger scores (most lottery winners keep buying tickets, most seducers quickly begin looking around, and every senator wants to be president).

Everyone goes bigger and bigger, while I, ever contrarian, go smaller and smaller. Less jaded and thirsty over time, and hardly ever sugar-crashing. So who exactly's the schlub again?

I'm a nano-aesthete.

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