Saturday, April 4, 2020

Toothbrush Zeitgeist

A short toothbrush dialog with friend-of-the-Slog Paul Trapani (in reference to yesterday’s post about toothbrush hounding):

The following, from my posting "Unhinged", explains about admiration compression:
Here's a fun game. Search Amazon for the bajillion consumer reviewers who express utter delight for the product, yet award it only four stars. What are they thinking? The answer is right there: "Well, geez....greatness???".

We drag our feet on the upside. We mentally compress our assessment of quality. We miss the non-linearity. We have been deliberately blinkered by the myriad stolid pud-puds trafficking in the wide part of the bell curve; in mere competency. To point to just one single line of pressure, the billions of advertising dollars streaming out of the Olive Gardens of the world push hard against any notion of duly recognizing and supporting bona fide greatness.
More here, and this is related.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Toothbrush Hound

If you could somehow turn the physical sensation evoked by very advanced meditation practice (this is a great time to start, btw) into pill form, it'd be worth $10,000/pill. I can't explain the biochemistry, but it has to do with natural endorphins, which are way, way better than the standard prescribed opiates. People risk jail to get their hands on Vicodin - said to produce some of the most blissful states available to human beings - but when I popped one once after dental surgery, I needed to vomit it up. It was a complete buzzkill. Just awful.

So that's where I'm coming from on the issue of pleasure.

For the past years, I've been tracking the creative progress of whatever wizard designs REACH toothbrushes. That is, one certain REACH designer. As with Kashi cereals, there appears to be one wizard plus a few lackluster pud-puds at work.

While I can finish a cereal box in a couple of weeks, allowing me a solid overview of the uneven Kashi lineup, toothbrushes last much longer, so it's been a long, languorous odyssey tracking the REACH genius' work. The datapoints have spread so widely that it's like Bugs Bunny wafting down the long staircase:

But a couple nights ago, I hit pay dirt. I unboxed a new model, and...jackpot. Ladies and gents, I present to you the REACH Total Care Floss Clean Toothbrush Soft Full Professional ("this brush does not replace flossing").

It may not look like much (in fact, as I squint for a closer look, "ick"), but the REACH genius has outdone himself. This toothbrush offers more than fresh breath, invigorated gumlines, and outstanding dental hygiene. It also delivers something akin to divine consolation; a tiny taste of the benefits of advanced meditation.

I can't account for the hows and whys, but I'm constantly on the watch for the banal erupting into inspiration (the world's crud, I figure, is in plain sight, so I feel compelled to vigilance), however loony that makes me look. I wrote in my posting "Unhinged" that:
My review of the Arepa Lady, a Colombian street vendor in Jackson Heights, Queens, was rejected by my NY Press editor in the early 90s, because I was told it's nutty to moon lengthily over some stupid snacky item grilled on some greasy street cart in some grim ethnic neighborhood no one ever goes to.
The juju behind the Arepa Lady also applies to the REACH wizard: any item, no matter how prosaic, can be invested with such enormous creativity and care that it's not only worthy but full-out mesmerizing (see Leff's Second Law, as well as my explanation of Steve Jobs).

You gotta get the model with soft bristles (I'm ordinarily a medium bristle guy), and the full-sized brushing head.

Here's a four-pack on Amazon, 'cuz, believe me, you're going to want more than one.

Please do not persecute me for my religious beliefs

I am fully aware that there’s a non-zero chance I’ve gone insane. However, even when I brush absent-mindedly, forgetting the previous experiences, I'm caught by surprise (“Why do I feel so good? OH.....").

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Don't Do MORE

I just posted this rant to Facebook, and figured I'd throw it up here as well.

I heard the normally sharp Nicolle Wallace say on her show yesterday that "One sick person in the grocery store could infect EVERYONE". So much ignorance and misunderstanding.

This isn't a plague. An infected person in your midst can't infect you with his presence. People aren't radiating virus. The air does not sizzle with homicidal microbes.

It's transmitted via large-ish droplets and personal contact. So try super hard not to cough or sneeze on anyone, or be coughed/sneezed upon yourself. For extra safety, stay 6 feet away, out of large droplet range.

WE'RE ALREADY DOING THAT! So we're GOOD! It's enough! Just do that! Not more!

We don't need to view other people as evil contaminators. You can talk to them. You can be in a room with them. You can be around them. Just STAY 6 FEET AWAY. 20 feet won't make you extra safe.

We're being told to stay home because some people are too dumb and sloppy to enforce distancing. But that doesn't mean you can't chat with your friend or neighbor from 6 feet away. Which actually feels pretty normal.

The distancing guidelines are pretty draconian....and they are sufficient! We don't need to do lots of OTHER stuff on top of those guidelines! It won't make you extra safe and healthy!

If you're passing someone in the supermarket aisle, and need to reduce to 5 foot separation for a second, you don't have to hold your breath and squirm. Your viral geiger counter doesn't start clicking.

If you're not coughing/sneezing at them, nor they at you, and nobody's licking their hand and rubbing it on the other person's nostrils, everybody's cool. Regain full separation when you can, just for extra safety's sake, and chill the F out.

The Earth Calms and Greens Amid Pandemic

Couple of interesting sciencey things:

Earth Is Literally Moving Less Now That We're All on Lockdown (h/t Tara Cox).


The environmental upside of the virus shows the green way ahead.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

More Pandemic Reframing

In my posting "The Grief Survival Kit", explaining how to escape grief that refuses to dissipate, I saved my best flip for the very end:
If death's so unthinkable (because living's so wonderful), then why would you pollute your precious alive time with unnecessary drama? If the departed saw you doing this, they'd slap their foreheads and holler "Stop! That's just crazy! Don't do that!! Especially not in my name!" They'd want you to mourn for a while, and then go out there and kick ass, relishing every moment.
By the same token...

If you're currently healthy but feel burdened and stressed and neurotic and depressed due to the pandemic, because health is paramount and desirable, then why on earth would you deliberately make yourself sick over it all? If health's so valuable, why wouldn't you be exuberantly enjoying every second of good fortune?

The ultimate framing reset move is to literally come back to your senses. Look and feel around you, right now, right here where you are. How are you? Feeling okay? Cozily nestled in your sofa, nibbling yum-yums and catching up on Netflix? If so, is siege mentality truly the proper framing?

Yes, there are problems in the world and people are suffering. That's always so. And, as always, we do what we can to help. But our misery does not help the cause. It makes a mockery of our freshly dawned recognition that good health's a blessing.

Great Succinct Explanation of India's Turn From Secularism

With our media caught haplessly in loops, chasing each new bullshit tornado and agonizing over every Chauncey Gardiner-ish Twitter utterance, how'd you like to hear a genuinely smart and objective person explain something extremely clearly and fairly?

Back up. A couple weeks ago, I bemoaned the brazen anti-Moslem violence in India. Kapil Komireddi, author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India, went on a podcast last week to offer the best half hour explication one could ask for of the conflict. He paints recent history clearly, soberly, and with impressive balance – it’s impossible to know which side he’s on - outlining both sides' many grievances and sins while condemning in no uncertain terms the dastardly anti-Muslim measures instituted by Modi’s government.

As with most things, the story is more complicated than you'd think. Listen to this to learn how this mess happened. Listen to be surprised by some of the background. And listen for the soothing tonic of a very bright guy whose agenda is truth and clarity, period. Remember truth and clarity? This level of clear, clean authority is like a cool glass of water in hell.

The big takeaways:
1. Modi isn't some vaguely malevolent sphinx with historical baggage. It's worse than that (listen for the chilling assessment of India's preeminent psychologist, who had a close-up look at the guy early on).

2. India is in a similar position to Yugoslavia post-Tito, ripe for the likes of a Slobodan Milosevic. In Komireddi's view, the backlash against India's proud secularism/pluralism has already crossed a point of no return, and the country is doomed to behave more and more like a Hindu version of Pakistan's paranoid theocracy.

3. There are three sides to this dilemma: Hindu nationalists (largely though not entirely Northern), Indian secularists (largely though not entirely Southern), and Moslems (who were never as happily assimilated as Indian textbooks - which blame the British for all the strife - have long held).

Handy listening link (this segment comes first, ending at 24:28).
Background on the segment

Note that I have no idea who this Komireddi guy is. I've only heard the 25 minute interview, so caveat listener. He may turn out to be horrible in some way (though his recent Twitter feed confirms my positive impression).

Monday, March 30, 2020

Walking Proves You're Alive

Proving I Still Have a Working Heart

As I've written, I had some heart problems a few years ago. I'm fine, don't worry, but to get from "heart problems" to "I'm fine, don't worry" took some doing. Regardless of my dry medical report, which was rosy, I needed to rekindle vital confidence in this thumping mystery in my chest. It had broken, and once something so vital breaks, it's no easy thing to step down from the fraught state of high alert.

After I'd passed a stress test, my doctor smiled and told me to go nuts with aerobic exercise. No limits. The more the better. It's rehab!

I didn't need to be told twice. I started walking and walking and walking and walking. I dimly put two and two together: I live at the bottom of a hill....and needed to go nuts with cardio, on pure instinct, I threw open the door (seriously, I'm not sure I shut it behind me) and brutishly, stupidly walked up the damned hill. Day after day, while commuters and dog walkers shlepped morosely up the slope with tight faces, I was in a whole different movie, beaming with ecstasy. I chugged FAST up the steep slope, feeling POWERFUL. I had a green light, so my heart was okay beating up a storm. It was THRUSTING me magnificently and I WASN'T old and I WASN'T sick and I didn't have some hardened, grizzled, grotesque thing in my chest, no, it was EAGER. Walking didn't just rehab my health, it reset my fear and broken confidence. Walking was my victory. I walked so aggressively, so pugnaciously, that once, as I headed, mid-circuit, into a supermarket to pick up a few things, I swear I very nearly walked straight through the back wall.  

Proving You're Still Alive

This week a friend who'd been in precautionary quarantine (no symptoms) finally busted out of his apartment, away from the fraught sweaty worries with which he'd been cooped up. He's always been a big walker, and told me how ebullient he felt to finally hit the streets.

I completely understood. I've been hill walking 3-4 miles most days during this pandemic, and it's provided some of the same return-to-your-senses reset I'd experienced during my rehab. As I texted him:
Walking was the antidote to my lingering heart worries and it’s the antidote now. Walking is the most defiant and visceral possible declaration of having remained alive.

My grandfather walked faster than any human alive into his 90s. I figured it was the result of his anxiety, or that he was being competitive with the youngster. But now I get it.

Proving You're Burning Calories

I'd been using the native iPhone Health app to track my walking, and the interface is awful and it doesn’t compute calories burned. Turns out there's a free app called Activity Tracker that pulls in stored Health app data and organizes and renders it much more nicely, plus calculates calories (add your height and weight in the settings to ensure that it calculates correctly).

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Broccoli Rabe Likes Me Back

I've never heard a word from @Potatoes over the years...

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Broccoli Rabe

It's time to reveal the official vegetable for my pandemic experience:


The Savior of the Budget Chowhound

There were many, many, weeks of my life where broccoli rabe was pretty much the only green vegetable I ingested. There isn't much, like, Swiss chard served in the sorts of restaurants I once hyper-patronized. If broccoli rabe didn't exist, I'd likely be dead by now.

Broccolini Rivalry

I really like broccolini (aka baby broccoli) and it tastes great simply steamed, so I never learned to prepare serious broccoli rabe, which is fussy to clean, trim, and endlessly sauté. Plus, I'm on a low fat diet, for which the aforementioned broccolini is a wonderful boon, while broccoli rabe...not so much.
Speaking of broccolini...some types of produce simply are what they are. Two equally fresh carrots or cucumbers will taste pretty much the same. But the best broccolini I ever had, from an organic farm in East Islip, Long Island run by an Italian guy, was 100x better than the second best. They hardly ever have it, and, when they do, it vanishes quickly. But it's as richly delightful as fudge.
Daniel Gritzer's Method

I was inspired by chef Daniel Gritzer, who I didn't previously know about despite his amazing credentials:
Daniel cooked for years in some of New York's top American, Italian and French restaurants - starting at the age of 13, when he began staging at the legendary restaurant Chanterelle. He spent nearly a year working on organic farms in Europe, where he harvested almonds and Padron peppers in Spain, shepherded a flock of more than 200 sheep in Italy, and made charcuterie in France. When not working on, thinking about, cooking and eating food, he blows off steam (and calories) as an instructor of capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art.
I like how Gritzer writes - no snobbery, just down-to-earth explanation. I also like that he engages in the comments section (a handy asshole "tell" is non-famous people limiting access/feigning aloofness; people often reveal embarrassing truths via efforts to display status).

First there's the real article, then there's the near-pointless recipe they forced him to create for search engines and recipe clippers.

Nothing mind-blowing, but I appreciated a few points:

1. Don't be too precise about blanching duration because you'll want to overcook the rabe, anyway.
2. Reduce bitterness not via long blanching (which sacrifices flavor), but by long sautéing (he doesn't actually state it this way, but it's implied).
2. Overcooking is encouraged, but do it via a trailing very low heat sauté after the proper cook (which is convenient, because you don't need to fuss with it much at the low heat).
3. The green color can fade in the trailing sauté (so watch for it if that matters to you).
4. His quantity of oil (1/4 cup per 1 lb of broccoli rabe) is ace. Not a drop of excess, but any less would obviously degrade the result.

Mine turned out great! Look!

Foreign Proxies

I served it tossed with gnocchi, because, I think, I was subconsciously craving Shanghai/Taiwanese-style rice cakes with chopped pickled cabbage:

(photo stolen from here)

...and this actually scratched that itch.

I do lots of foreign proxy eating in many contexts. Just as frequent travelers can't help shuffling locales in their heads, I do the same with cuisine. It's all modular for me, like Legos or Garanimals. Examples:
• - A beloved Korean restaurateur once told me she cooked french toast for her kid each morning, and I showed up once at her opening hour, 11 am, begging for french toast. I wanted HER french toast.

• - I once asked a Queens Pakistani restaurant to serve me chicken tikka with raita wrapped in naan. The owner told me “Dude, just go down the block and get a greek souvlaki sandwich!” I said “I know, I know….but I want it from YOU”

• - A fantastic Thai place (as good as Sripraphai in some ways, though the curries are sweet) opened recently in the Westchester suburbs, and they make particularly good pad see ew. I've been building up the desire to have them do beef pad see ew completely mild (I usually request "very spicy" - btw, for the trick to doing that convincingly in Thai restaurants - along with a zillion other tricks for a zillion other cuisines - see my app, Eat Everywhere). Why? Because I'm hankering for Cantonese beef chow fun and don't know any great places for it right now.

Matt Stanczak, founder of legendary Stanziato's Brick Oven Pizza in Danbury (no longer his operation but still pretty good), and the legendary EGGZ breakfast truck, as well as myriad other creative food adventures, offers great tips:
I learned how to prep/clean/cook b’rabe about 4 years ago from my Italian mother in law. Before that I was messing it up by blanching until soft in salted water, then finishing off in olive oil with slivered garlic and chile flakes. Now I score the bottom part into 4 (like you would a scallion), so the flowering part cooks at the same rate as the thick stem. I also usually hack it up into 1-2” pieces. Low to med heat in a good amount of olive oil and slivered garlic, adding a splash of water only late in the process to help steam. At that point it’s so versatile...
Matt walks you through:

Friday, March 27, 2020

Indulging Neurosis is Like Going Home

First, a preliminary bit of amusement, not particularly pertinent to the rest of the posting:

An old dude, in front of me in line to get into Trader Joe’s, was wearing a full Vietnam-era military gas mask. He asked me to give more space. I told him “I’m twenty feet from you, not coughing, and you’re wearing a full military gas mask. I'm pretty sure you’re ok”.

Pandemic Neurosis

Look around you these stressful days and you won't see people's best selves. Stress exacerbates our worst traits, and gives rise to some new ones that - who knew? - were latently waiting in deep storage the whole time.

Ghostbusters 2

As I once explained, intuition is a lousy faculty to possess, because people's thin outer veneer of civility is, in nearly all cases, the very best they have to offer. Vanishingly few of us bear beneficial secrets. So one would do well to heed the Wizard of Oz' advice and not peer behind the curtain.

Ghostbusters 2's proposition, that countless tons of psychomagnotheric slime lurk below street level, wasn't just light comedy. It was also powerful psychological allegory.

Mamma's Girl

I've known a remarkably unpleasant woman since childhood. She was toxic and bitterly resentful from the very beginning, and never varied. She had a daughter who started out lovely. She was able to see her mother clearly for what she was, and resolved herself to never follow suit. But over the course of her life, as worldly abrasions took their cumulative toll, the daughter oh-so-gradually hardened and curdled - so slowly she herself didn't notice - into her mother.

The Brother

I have a friend with a ne'er-do-well brother whose life spiralled until he finally landed in a mental hospital with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. My friend naturally wondered whether the same fate awaited him. I suggested that each of us, when we break, breaks in some characteristic way influenced (if not entirely determined) by genetics, but that we should concern ourselves less with our particular potential mode of breaking and much more with avoiding breakage; with learning to properly handle stress and improve resilience. I imagine he goes through life like a bowler mortally fearing the tightly-adjoining gutters.

Incompetence is the Father of Skill

I came a step closer to understanding the truth when I wrote about the trials of learning (or relearning) to play the trombone:
It is not natural to press a narrow circle of metal against one's mouth for many hours per day. It can cut into the flesh and push back the front teeth. You must apply enormous strength, wind, and force while holding this large hunk of brass like a delicate lily at one's chops. It's hard.

One of the essentials is that you need to "plant" the mouthpiece on the lower lip. This frees up the upper lip to stay delicate and do lots of free vibrating. To anchor on the top lip is self-defeating. It squelches those all-important vibrations. The instrument becomes hard to play, and you lose your high range.

So for the past week the instrument has been hard to play, and I've lost my high range. Low and behold, I noticed that I'm anchoring on the top lip. If I were a computer, I'd reprogram and be done with it. Stop doing the bad thing, start doing the good thing, voila. But alas, we sloppy meatbags are logy on the uptake. So I've had to correct myself 10,000 times. Not the top lip, the bottom lip. Nope, that's top lip. You're doing it again. Bottom lip! Nope, that's top lip again. By hectoring myself day and night, eventually I'll learn.

But why do I do it the wrong way in the first place? It's not comfortable, and it doesn't work. How does the habit creep in? There is a clue: any musician (or anyone who's perfected a skill) can tell you that under stress, bad habits come flooding back. Put me on a big stage in front of 1000 people, and I'll have an especially juicy inclination to anchor on the top lip, kill the vibrations, and sound like crap.

Why? Because it feels like comfort. But why would an uncomfortable and ineffective method feel like "comfort"? Should't "comfort" stem from the choice that brings the happy result? Isn't that how human psychology - positive reinforcement, etc. - is supposed to work?

No. "Wrong" is comfort. "Wrong" is home. "Right" is what we do when we're dressed in our starchy best, with rigid good posture, while "wrong" is the spine-harming slouch we assume when allowed to stand "at ease". The choices that hurt and that don't work are the soil our intentions must fight and grow through to fulfill themselves. Just as the child is the father of the man, incompetence is the father of skill. And one maintains a soft spot for "dear old dad".

You Actually Can Go Home Again

Mulling over the varied evidence, above, I experienced a Eureka.

When stress pushes us into darker, sloppier, less composed and benign habits and impulses, it doesn't feel like a gutter ball. Rather, it feels like comfort. It's the safe-feeling place. It feels like home. The mamma's girl, the brother, the frustrated musicians, and the pandemic neurotics all wind up where they wind up not from getting lost, but from seeking comfort.

The fuzzy dim world behind the veil, which we call The Unconscious, isn't some alien realm. It's our core; our kernel, our ground zero.


Earlier this week, while explaining the ways I've found to coax myself into faint familiarity with unfamiliar material to help catalyze learning, I noted a peril:
If, over the course of drilling, I get the same question wrong a few different times in the same way, that wrong answer starts to supersede the in-my-ear truth. The answer I wrongly coughed up a few times starts sounding right, out of sheer familiarity.
That's how neurosis becomes our comfort place. It's not that we're inherently flawed, or drawn toward dysfunction. The cozy familiarity is created, duh, via our habitual focus. If we choose to go there, "there" comes to feel like home.

In so many ways, your body's just trying to accommodate you. It perpetually tries to return you to the familiar. So we need to take care with our habits of framing, i.e. where we persistently direct our attention! Magnetic familiarity (right or wrong, crazy or sane) is built up by attention over time.

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