Monday, December 5, 2022

Hiatus Advice

As I work through some keenly orchestrated self-torture, pinging the precise receptors of my PTSD (fun!) and discovering for not the first time that there are levels of pain no quantity of equanimity can counterbalance (it’s actually nothing - Jesus, listen to me carrying on - but I warned you I’m really bad with three-or-more simultaneous channels of pain), I realize I’ve been neglecting the Slog. 

Question: have you read through all the “hits” indexed at left? Or re-read them? As I periodically explain, I’m not aiming here to present stirring reads. I’ve concocted lozenges to be mused over and periodically re-read. I hope they’re worth it. I think many of them are, but what the hell do I know…

Brief story. An online friend told me he’d experienced a shift of perspective that left him framing things differently. He was plowing through my stuff, finding that it was the only place guiding him to understand and expand his mysterious shift. 

Nice, right? But it wasn’t thanks or praise. He was registering a complaint. “There’s so much to read!” He protested. He asked me to boil it down. Point to the essentials. Maybe write a book. Give him the shiny tome that could be one-stop-shopping for everything he wanted to know (as if I - or even he - could possibly anticipate this). Frustrated by too many answers to the vexing questions vexing him, he left in a huff. 

Another one bites the dust. Oh well. But then don’t imagine you don’t have anything to read here. If I get run over by a bread truck tomorrow and never write another word, there will be more than enough to sustain those kooky enough to get a charge out of this sort of thing. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go throw away yet another cache of painstakingly acquired treasure.




Sunday, November 27, 2022

Gurwinder MEGATHREAD

Gurwinder is a good Twitter follow (he's part of my Must-Read list, which you're welcome to follow).

Like me, he's fascinated by fallacies. And he just posted a master list.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

The Class Implications of Resorting to Nano Double-Sided Washable Removable Transparent Sticky Tape

You've likely never heard of Nano Double-Sided Washable Removable Transparent Sticky Tape. This is obviously specialist tape, but the nerdy specificity doesn't mean it's not extremely useful.

Have you ever found yourself propping up a smartphone against a dashboard or car radio or cigarette lighter or whatever, so you could use it for the GPS directions? And suffered the pain of hitting the brake or making a turn and seeing the phone go tumbling around the cabin?

The standard solution is a cumbersome and unsightly suction cup stand like this:

Dreamy, no?

Unsightliness aside, it's an over-engineered solution. It's overkill - and looks like it! You just need some stickiness where it counts.

The aforementioned tape is like flattened soft silicon gel with tacky top and bottom. Adhere one side to any sort of horizontal surface, e.g. the skinny plastic ledge beneath the speedometer. And set your phone down upon it, for some modest grab on your phone.

Is it perfect support? It is not. The phone, lightly stuck just on the bottom, might still tumble over. Just not nearly as easily. It's like 90% better, and you don't have to live with a stupid plastic extensor arm suction-cupped to your windshield.

The tape is admirably reusable. If you pull it up, it won't leave residue. I always bring a little roll with me when I rent a car, and have used this in every car I've ever driven (that doesn't have CarPlay), replacing it every six months or so as it loses tackiness.



Ok, so I know how this lands on contemporary ears. Good-enough quasi-solutions seem shoddy; fumbling; weak. They might even elicit class prejudice. "I'm not someone who puts cheap tape on my dashboard to hold up my phone. I'm not that person. I do things nicely. I do things properly."

There was a time when only aristocrats expected their domain to be uniformly Nice and Elegant and Solid. Then this became a bourgeois expectation. Nowadays, it's everybody. I recently tried to give old clothing to an unemployed friend, who looked at me like I'd offered a wad of snotty tissues. Just because he incessantly complains about his oppressive poverty doesn't mean he's some hobo! He's a nice person (implication: poor people aren't nice people) experiencing temporary setbacks, that's all!

A "good-enough" solution wreaks of lower class. Mrs. Howell does not seek workarounds. Mrs. Howell tears out the wall, or the whole darned building, if necessary, to ensure it's right! She's a nice person with nice things who does things nicely! And Jim's stupid tape idea is NOT NICE. NOKD!



The young couple who bought my house want to add HVAC (central air) first thing, to evade the shabby tyranny of wall unit air conditioners (the house came with a slew of them).

I told them that HVAC is indisputably great if you can afford it. Totally smart move! But why not live in the house for a year, and suffer a bit from the inadequacy of imperfect comfort? That way, when you finally install the HVAC, you'll be relieving something. It will feel like an upgrade!

And, by waiting, they might discover that the wall units work well enough. No one has ever stood in a house where HVAC replaced decent and plentiful wall units and said, "My God, that's so much better!" Despite the lofty price tag, it's just not that sort of life improvement. So why not experience the baseline first?

They listened patiently, but I could hear their thoughts. Dude. Well-intentioned shabby old dude. We're getting central air. We are not farm animals.



Being aristocrats, we've lost all touch with the notion of "good enough". The phrase evokes poverty. Grubby. Not-nice. Like someone offering you their shabby sweatshirts.

Indeed, I can read the above while visualizing myself as a stubborn old coot futzing around with plastic tape to mock up his stupid smartphone, which still falls over a bunch of times. Jesus Christ! Then setting his calendar to remind him to REPLACE THE TAPE every six months. So grubby! So suboptimal! So poor!

I didn’t change. Everything else did.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Spurning the Cookie

If you undergo any sort of extended ordeal, or stressful slog, or false accusation, bewilderingly persecution, or never-ending stream of weirdly overblown unpleasantry, and you don't extract from the experience some small redeeming kernel of wisdom - a cookie, if you will (like the cookie they give you after you donate blood), that is, if you just walk away, rattled, tightened, melodramatic, and empty-handed, you're a failure.

That's a word I rarely use. It's not really my groove to describe a full, three-dimensional human being via one flat term of contemptuous dismissal. In fact, I've got a very low bar for success. For me, you can be homeless and not be a failure. You can have a string of unsuccessful ventures and not be a failure. You can be hated by everyone and not be a failure. You can die young or live depressed and not have been a failure.

I'm the guy who sees self-destructive people as simply having chosen to increase the difficulty of their gameplay for an extra-intense experience. I'm the guy who sees addicts as simply stuck - nothing depraved or wretched. I'm the guy who thinks autistics are on to something. I'm the guy who sees the rewards as chintzy and the punishments as oversold. I'm the guy who realizes that God lets kids get cancer because we like it that way.

I don't see the world in terms of binary success/failure, so I'm making an exception to a cardinal rule here. Yes, you're a failure if you go through trials and get so tensed-up and stressed-out and freaked-out, melodramatic, and self-pitying that you take away no wisdom and glean no higher perspective from the trauma and sacrifice. If all you have to show is “PAIN-NO-LIKE!” For me, that's the only way you can fail in this life. Do not spurn the cookie!



If you're prone to musing, you'll want to know what happens if the volume's turned up via even greater suffering, travails, and friction. Might that pop out an even heftier and more delicious cookie?

How much wisdom is attainable if you don't tighten up or freak out? If you don’t smack away or insolently disregard the cookie? What if the travails multiply in chain reaction, to the point where you recognize the absurdity of it, and feel less gripped by it, and stop contracting against it? What if you go the other way, and relax? Dilate? Embrace? What if you frame yourself as dancing, like a reed assaulted by violent wind?

What if you choose to wryly observe it all, amiably awaiting the cookie from within what looks like hellish inferno? What's the ultimate outcome if you go all the way through the tunnel? What do you get?

This Slog.
If you read any of that as bitter self-pity, then you missed it. Read again! I'm one of the most curious humans ever. Very early on, I recognized that I wanted to Know - needed to Know - and would sacrifice any in-game victories to Know. All chips on the table.

My wish was granted (my wishes are always granted; the trick is not to wish for the standard crap). So I have no complaints. If you're a tightener-upper rather than a 
letter-goer, prone more to anguished whelps than to wry observation, you [understatement] would not have enjoyed my ride [/understatement]. I can't say I much did, either. But it's been worth it. I wanted what I wanted, and I got what I wanted.

If, by the other token, you think I'm boasting, you also missed it, and you, too, need to re-read. I have nothing to complain or boast about. I bought something extravagant, paying full price, and was left neither in surfeit nor deficit.

But I do have something to offer: this fourteen year effort to open-source the priciest and most unattainable insights, for the cost of only your attention and consideration. I can't imagine many/any people willing to purchase it the hard way, so I've done my damndest to offer it pre-masticated and conveyed with professional writerly pizzazz (this stuff's way less entertaining in the original Sanskrit, believe me).

Monday, November 21, 2022

Explaining Human Sociality

Types

You know how people are types? There are only a few dozen human personas in a given era, and nearly everyone has picked one to portray.
If this is news to you, that means you've been unconsciously doing this, yourself. Dissidents will easily recognize the truth of the observation, because it's been unnerving us all along.
There's the husky-voiced high-energy female who’s loads of fun and everyone's instant best friend. Or the chill dude in the fuzzy sweater who says "It's all good" a lot. The snide, glaring sourpuss. Nearly everyone is a familiar flavor. You've known dozens, maybe hundreds, of each type.

I noticed this very early, and was always proud of not being a “type”. But the joke’s on me. There's a reason for this set-up, and my opt-out has cost me dearly.

Making yourself a recognizable Type make things easy. Others know what to expect. You exude familiarity, and this familiarity feels soothing.

People like known quantities. They like to feel soothed and comfortable. A known quantity doesn't challenge comfort zones. There are words for people who threaten comfort zones (even if benign and well-intentioned), and none of those words are kind.

We are biologically wired to repel the unclassifiable. So if you’re not a type - if you speak, act, and think in surprising and unscripted ways - you will confuse and irritate, regardless of benevolent intentions.

Projection Booth

If others can't place you, then, in their confusion, they will project a motivation for you. And it won't be flattering, because the projection stems from their own preoccupations. If someone is sex-obsessed, you must be some sort of pervert. If someone is paranoid, you appear to be scheming.

The most-feared thing inevitably gets projected onto the inscrutable. Even the word "inscrutable' carries a slithery, menacing connotation. Few of us expect lovely surprises. That's not how our minds are set up. Confused people don't brew up benign accountings. They scarcely reach for the poetic. Rather, they project their issues, complexes, and dark obsessions. Stir people from their complacency and you won't get their best selves.

To be seen in your unique individuality would require attention, empathy and intuition. Rare traits, and people aren't very curious or perceptive. That's why we adopt recognizable personas! By making ourselves known quantities, it all stays nice and buttery. Humans aren't adventurous. They're hardly eager to start from scratch with some unknown quantity, exploring who you are and what you're like. That's hard work! That's scary!

Unfamiliarity provokes anxiety, and no one willingly seeks out anxiety, so nonconformists become outcasts. It's a natural winnowing process. You're neither comfortable nor familiar. You require work, and you're scary. Plus, again, amid the confusion, gruesome qualities are projected onto you. If you're not an obvious Someone, that means you're the Other, and it can't have escaped your attention that humans have deep-seated issues with Otherness.

Not Me!

You may assure yourself that you are not a "type". Few would recognize it, much less admit it. In fact, type-portrayers never feel more uniquely "themselves" than when they're really leaning into the character. But if the situation I'm describing doesn't hit a nerve (explaining why everything's so weird and menacing), and you're not quite sure what I'm going on about, then, sorry. You've gone along with it.

But, then, good for you! You've enjoyed heady societal perqs unimaginable for us dissenters. You have no idea how menacing it gets for us, particularly in times of elevated stress, when people are even more eager for comfort and resistant to surprise and otherness.

Movies

This all took a quantum leap with the dawn of movies and TV. Before, we imitated parents, teachers, etc. Our “role models”! Now role models are professional role-players. A much richer palette of options.

This explains why so many of us imagine ourselves starring in a TV show. You sometimes spot folks playing to an imaginary camera, or spewing canned snatches of prefab scripted dialog. Memes and catch-phrases. Being that guy/gal. Hey, it's me doin' it!

The worst thing for people starring in movies is when someone ignores - or flips - the script. They need others to flatter their performance - to play along - but if you're grounded in the here-and-now, that makes you the ultimate buzzkill.

This accounts for still more of the malevolent weirdness. You didn't mean to spoil their performance. You merely failed to buy it! But they easily sense your disinterest in playing along. Your non-artificiality. And it's the worst thing. As I once explained, truth is like turning up the house lights.

CRAZY!!!

So let's talk about "crazy" for a second. Many people have deemed me - even to my face - as "crazy". Or "eccentric". Or lots of similar descriptors. Even though I'm patently quite sane. It took fifty years to feel secure about that, amid the gas-lighting. For all my faults, I'm pretty sure I'm lucid. At least that.

But if you're not a type, the quality most commonly projected onto you will be "crazy". And here's how those wires get crossed: Crazy people are unscripted, due to their dysfunction. They're unable to produce the standard patter and project a standard persona type. Therefore: anyone unscripted must be dysfunctional.

Sane people follow a script! Sane people are a type! Sane people are predictable! So if you're not doing those things - whether you're a schizophrenic battling inner voices and dark impulses or just some regular nice person opting not to spend her life role-playing - that signifies CRAZINESS.

We hear it enough that nonconformists get provoked into leaning into it. Consider this Apple ad, "Here's to the crazy ones":



It's an attempt to "take back" the term, like black people reclaiming "nigger." Hey, we're PROUD to be crazy!

But there's an enormous difference between nonconformity born of frail incompetence and the nonconformity of defiant creativity. It's simple enough to distinguish: defiant/creative noncoformists get good results. But no one considers the results. Off-scriptedness, in and of itself, signals dysfunction. Everyone else has a recognizable character they play! What the hell's wrong with you?

Opting out of playing a type condemns you to gaslighting and rejection. And you can't help but be affected by the warped mirroring. In the determination to hold fast, you can veer further and further from the well-trodden conformist path, eventually sending the car over a cliff. Sustained gaslighting can make a defiantly creative person legit crazy.

If you're a nonconformist, maybe don't proudly label yourself hahaha crazy. How about "surprising" or "spontaneous" or "creative" (especially if you do boast good results)?

The important part, though, is, as always, the framing. Hopefully I've armed you with a fresh perspective on how it all operates. Here's a concise boildown: You've opted out of spending your life pretending to be someone you once saw in a movie. But nonconformity has its perils. Resistence inexorably sows friction.



Let's return, for just a sec, to the example of driving the car off the cliff.

You needn't go to an extreme to stake out your freedom. Nuance is better.

Just as the antithesis of hatred is not love but indifference, the opposite of adopting a canned persona isn’t a brash or flamboyant display of nonconformity. It’s living a stable, comfortable, honest, three-dimensional existence...with good results!

That's the healthiest foothold from which to utter the timeworn words: "Fuck 'em!"


Friday, November 18, 2022

Permanent Shmermanent

Everyone asks me the same question about my impending move to Portugal: "Is it permanent?"

The question irritates me, which shows it's a harbinger. It's a key, a lens, a Rosetta Stone, uncoding a pervasive human tic I've chosen to eschew. I once wrote:
Big-picture scenarios are like cartoons, and we don't live in cartoonish big-picture images, we live in trivial moments. This is not a movie. We're raindrops slowly working down windows, not heroic protagonists.
That's the best I ever expressed it. More often, I just mockingly point out that "we're not starring in movies". But that isn't the best metaphor, because it sounds like I'm urging humility. Keep your nose down. Don't be expansive. Be small.

But that's not it. Expansive grandiosity is as good a way to play this game as any other....just as long as you recognize that it's a game. We're all acting. That's what this is. So if you can briefly turn away from the big silver screen in your mind where your Life Journey has appeared to triumphantly play out, you may enjoy a moment of lucidity. In that reframing, ask yourself what you've ever done that was "permanent".

Are you even capable of doing anything "permanently"? Does anyone really live in a big sweep narrative where such words apply?

Like all musicians, I've been a detached observer of strangers' weddings. I can report they all palpably mean it when they swear to remain together forever. But many won't. And they SWORE! In front of everyone important to them! At a party costing thousands - or tens or hundreds of thousands - of dollars! That's as high-stakes an oath as one could imagine! What more elaborate proof could you possibly contrive that you really mean it this time?

Lofty pronouncements often prove worthless, because we don't live in the loft - in the grand narrative arc. No, we live in the muck; in the moment, swayed by pheromones and endorphins and unconscious anxieties and gastric volatilities. While our mouths utter noble intentions and initiatives, the status of our digestive, eliminative, and sexual release cycles are far more causative factors.

Humans love to flatter ourselves, but, in reality, we ricochet wildly, like pinballs, from whatever just happened - including stuff that only happened in our heads. Really, it all happens in our heads, because whatever seemed to have just happened was perceived through a heavy fog of pheromones, endorphins and unconscious anxieties.

We realize all this, at some level, but we suppress the recognition, persisting, despite towering evidence, in the loopy and unsupportable notion that our lofty pronouncements and dramatic trajectories are meaningful.

Why don't we fully frame ourselves as we are - raindrops slowly working down windows rather than heroic protagonists? It's because we're addicted to telling ourselves stories about who we are and what's happening to us (spoiler: it all happens around us, not "to" us). This is the starring-in-movies issue I'm speaking to. It's a matter of framing, not of behavior.

I've opted out of that one, and it was as effortless as any framing choice. So my move abroad is not accompanied by a soundtrack of tremulous violins. I don't visualize myself as "on a journey". And I have no clue what the term "permanent" even refers to. It seems as preposterous a conceit as "happily ever after". That's not how things work. That's not who we are. I am not a protagonist. I'm awareness.

I don't even know what a permanent decision would look like. I've never made one (I've pretended to make them, but it was 100% dramatic bullshit). I've never seen a human being do anything permanently - though death inevitably freezes the film.

Hell, I might be back in a month! Stuff happens, conditions change, opportunities arise, epiphanies dawn. That rich and unpredictable unfolding is what life is, no? If so, I won't waste energy being embarrassed or disappointed. Per the Slog's tagline, I play the cards I'm dealt, striving to be a diligent earthworm (who shits out - hopefully! - ever-so-slightly more nutritious earth as he goes), proceeding with the uncomplicated industriousness of an ant. All of this, on a good day, with the blitheness of a reed.

Low glory. No journey. Permanent shmermanent.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Mac Magic Trick

A new magic trick: Command-comma opens preferences within most Mac apps!

30 years of fervant Mac use, including hours spent pouring over lists of obscure keyboard shortcuts, and I never knew this! It's a new day!


I love nothing more than being shown my gaps. My ignorance, my short-sightedness, my wrongness, my illogic. You can do me no greater favor than showing me that my favorite taco place is nothing special (by revealing how good tacos can actually be!), or that my conclusions are based on faulty assumptions. Of course your logic - and your taco - has to be on the money!

For one thing, this helps me course-correct, so I can be even more of an obnoxious know-it-all. But that's not the ultimate reason. It's that nothing great ever comes from knowing. The real treasure is leeched out of the ether by the enormous vacuum power of my yawing ignorance.

Possibly the greatest moment of my life came when I stepped up from being the best player in the bad middle school band to the worst player in the good one. I improved 1,000x every minute in the new setting, ecstatically discovering how complacent I'd been in my own wretched mediocrity.

It was an Awakening, but you can only wake up by realizing (and fully conceding) that you were previously asnooze. So I'm eternally thirsty for evidence of my own somnolence. Heaven's where I'm the very dumbest, wrongest, most limited, ignorant, blinkered, mulish sonofabitch.
Here's the big problem: I reflexively follow the Golden Rule, which is ruinous when you're the only person who enjoys being done unto a certain way.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Chowhound Moderators Discuss Elon's Twitter Conundrum

Discussion of my previous posting ("How Elon Went Wrong with Twitter") with a longtime Chowhound moderator (I'm on the right). Click for greater clarity (note that there are two screen captures).



Sunday, November 13, 2022

How Elon Went Wrong with Twitter

I can't find the original tweet, but the best analysis I've seen of Elon Musk’s Twitter misadventure - amid all the absurd noise about how we're simply seeing what a stupid stupidhead he's been all along - was someone drawing an analogy to science/math/technology grad students smugly declaring how comparatively easy all that social science bullshit is.

They figure that if you can master differential calculus or machine language or analytical chemistry, then all that soft-headed human realm stuff is just a bunch of loosey-goosey crap, easily faked through.

Yup. Bingo.

Engineering types are susceptible to the fallacy that humans and human communities and societies can be engineered (it's a classic example of Maslow's Hammer).
To digress, this is the thinking that hatched all our ultimately dystopic Egghead Utopian theories. Communism, Libertarianism, Anarchism, and Totalitarianism all stem from applying engineering thinking to human societies. Nazi Germany was a precise, efficient, highly rational engineering machine, and it ran fabulously aside from its barbaric disregard for the humanity of humans. That's not something one can instill in a machine. And that's the problem.
Bright intellects at the time proposed shiny and highly-efficient solutions for Chowhound's moderation agonies. But as I've written, the bad online behavior content moderators work to thwart is not defeatable. It's more of an chronic condition, like diabetes, requiring elaborate ongoing management rather than a curative pill. Impressive weaponry might help you win a battle, but not the war.

Engineering types invited in would peer at our elaborate, laborious human filtration system and dismiss it as inefficient and unviable. Quite rightly, but it was also necessary, because you cannot "solve" human problems. You must manage them, and that's not an enterprise engineers or scientists have chops for.

The issue is that humans are creative. Unlike light waves or cadmium isotopes or bits and bytes, we behave unpredictably, irrationally, and we fight back with purpose. So as you engineer your side of the spy-vs-spy, the other side will engineer back at you - or hack around your engineering - to thwart your thwarting. It's messy and irrational and emotional and psychic and intuitive. It's an undertaking far better suited for a mom than a rocket scientist (not that one can't be both, of course).
Rocket scientists falsely assume they outrank moms. In their minds, "mom" is like the "chop" setting on a blender, while they're all the way up at "liquefy"...and "liquefy" is intrinsically better because it's more resource intensive.
Come to think of it, the only engineering mindset that might be usefully applicable to the human realm is fluid dynamics, which boasts a truism which actually applies to human groups: Water Finds a Level.

Water, alone, is creative.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Wealth

My Moderately Comfortable Upbringing in Purported Splendor

My confusion about the concept of wealth began in early childhood, when my parents drummed into me how very wealthy we were. I believed it, though it was evident we were not wealthy. I've suffered from lifelong bronchitis and easy dehydration from my mother's adament refusal to buy me drinks during long drives, shopping trips, etc. Drinks are cheaper at home! The discomfort certainly didn't make me feel "privileged", but kids can be made to believe things amid direct evidentiary conflict. They're pliable that way.

The wealthy feeling was certainly true for my parents, though, as recent emigres from the dreary slums of Yiddish Brooklyn. And it was contagious, so I framed that way, too. It held fast even during visits to the mansion of my uncle, a highly successful anesthesiologist. He lived on several rolling acres with a swimming pool and Japanese gardens. A childish dysmorphia convinced me that our house, a boxy little suburban number, was equally fabulous. Which, in a way, it was (who wants to live in a mansion?) but...well, you get the idea.
I found it hard to find level ground as a kid, and this chronic confusion kindled my lifelong curiosity (confusion and curiosity being two sides of the same coin). This Slog is where I attempt to piece it all together!
Disillusionment

I know fat people who believe they're skinny and skinny people who believe they're fat, and this is exactly like that. My parents kept telling me we were rich, and I kept believing it, and the spell didn't break until I was 45 years old, and my mom was fixing to sell the house to move to an apartment, and a fancy lady came over to give us an estimate on the value of our best stuff. Our heirlooms. Our treasure.

The lady did a yeoman's job attempting to mask her sneer, but I noticed it. She very, very politely let us know that the market for second-hand goods is just so particular. "Buyers like what they like," she explained, with a hapless shrug, thanking us for having her over and wishing us the best of luck with our home sale.

The scales dropping from our eyes, my mother and I both peered around and clearly saw ourselves standing in a sagging generic mid-century suburban house with paneled basement and olive green fuzzy carpet, and that literally all our stuff was worthless shit. The new owners demolished it - appliances and all - and started fresh.

None of of this felt demoralizing, because I had no real stake in any notion of privilege. It was just a thesis I had never thought to question, so I easily moved on to another thesis (I reframe well).

Years in the Desert

For the 25 years since I'd left home, I'd struggled financially, even while finding success in both of my main careers. Food writing at that time did not pay well. And jazz trombone never paid well. I was working constantly, but could barely survive.
Musician's joke:

Q: What does a jazz musician do with a million dollars?
A: Work till the money runs out!
I was averaging 200 to 250 gigs per year, some of them impressive, and was a cult favorite food writer. But I would never crack 30 grand/year, and there were nights when I went to bed hungry.

It was particularly confusing because, by my 30s, after all my nonagenarian black musician friends had passed, I was running with a rather fast crowd. Back in the 1990s there weren't many people who knew where the good food (or good anything) was at. You couldn't check your smartphone! I was pretty much it (and I'm only barely exaggerating for comic effect).

So I was an essential person to know, and the people I met, via music or writing, tended to be highly successful, even illustrious. Oddly, they looked up to me, because while they knew all the usual places to go spend $500 or $5,000, none of those places offered the satisfaction of the soul food diner in Jamaica Queens with jazz jam sessions in the basement every Wednesday, or the little Chinatown haunts not listed in Zagat, or the secret German bar on the Upper East Side run by an old lady who only let in friends (I was, naturally, a friend).

I had my finger on such pulses (and zillions more), and so I attracted a crowd of adventurers well above my economic class. Disorienting!

The Excruciating Weirdness of Inspiring Envy While Whipped Like a Dog

Then I started Chowhound, and was attracing tons of press and everyone assumed I was extraordinarily successful because my name was frequently in major media. And, for the first time, I had to deal with jealousy.

Not jealousy for running a cool thing, or for my publicity. That was an issue for a crowd of would-be food poobas, who I kept at a safe distance. No, I had actual friends jealous of my supposed elevation, which was horrifying, given that I was dead broke, horrendously overwhelmed, and in a state of panicked dread so thick and irresolvable that I avoided walking near busy streets due to an unceasing impulse to throw myself in front of cars. To plummet to such a horrendous low point - afflicted, stressed and desperately dead-ended - while a significant number of one's friends turn snide from envy - is a level of hell even Dante never catalogued. Talk about "worst of all worlds"!

My Vast Wealth

My confusion only worsened when I sold Chowhound. To this day, most of my friends and family assume it made me titanically rich. A bar owner once invited me to invest a couple million to help him expand his operation (my reply: "DOLLARS?????")

The more I deny it, of course, the more certain they all become, including those who understand that I'm moving away in part to extend my savings to avoid a cat food diet in my old age.

But here's the thing - the deepest confusion amid all the greater topsy-turvy confusion. Going from desperately poor to reasonably comfortable (dentist comfortable) actually felt like a huge step-up; much more meaningful than a reasonably comfortable person coming into a billion dollars. So I actually do feel massively wealthy.

You see, I'm POOR-guy-rich, just like my parents fresh out of Brooklyn in their proud little suburban house. I take pay bridges! I buy not-the-cheapest-wine! My phone's less than a year old and has no cracks in the display! I'm living the life, baby!

Deeper Truth

Wealth confusion and dysmorphia have been with me from the start. Compounding it, I recognize a few truths that others miss. Like that everyone in America is rich. Even our "poor" are rich.

Whenever I hear young progressives bitching on Twitter about those damned RICH PEOPLE, friends of mine in Oaxaca and Morocco come alive within my cranium, howling with laughter. America's a place where rich people bitterly complain about marginally richer people. What deluded and entitled asses!

I know that the difference between the self-styled struggling American proletariat and Elon Musk is way less practically significant than the difference between me, circa 1985-2005, and the poorest of them.

I appear to be the only American who realizes we're living in Utopia. We are akin to gods, with infinite entertainment, communications, comfort, security, and health care; and more discretionary income and time than any generation that's ever lived. Julius Caesar would eagerly trade places with any of us, for the antibiotics alone.

Defining Wealth

What is wealth, in the end? Is it being able to afford the BEST car and the BIGGEST house? If so, well, that certainly serves the aspirational need of humans to keep climbing ladders mindlessly until they croak from exhaustion.

But that's the only insight I can offer. The whole thing is a house of mirrors. A meaningless tally on an imaginary scoreboard for a game existing only in our fevered imaginations. Yet here's the truth: even I, in my highly detached bemusement, still get caught.

Real Wealth for a Hot Minute

As I recounted a month ago, my net worth (on paper) more than doubled for a few weeks, while a bug in my electronic scale had me convinced I'd lost a slew of weight. I was practically floating on air!

Ah, good times! That was wealth! That was attainment! I hardly recognize what's become of me since those brief, heady salad days on paper!

Nah, I know. I'm the exact same dude, living the exact same life, bearing up quite well despite the tragic shift in a meaningless tally on an imaginary scoreboard for a game existing only in my fevered imagination.

Nothing Changes Beyond the Frothy Storytelling

I've been that same guy all along. All through a youth that felt normal, but was framed as rich, but was actually working class. Through a young adulthood that felt poor, but was the envy of a high-toned set. Through apparent fame and fortune that was an actual kick-in-the-teeth. And through landing on my ass as a reasonably comfortable dentist feeling like a trillionaire in his poor-guy wealth, actually far below other people's expectations. And let's leave aside the unfortunate up-and-down I experienced earlier this fall - a mere blip from which I swiftly recovered, mostly just wryly ashamed of myself for having gotten caught up.

It all shifts and changes and churns around me, like a carnival ride, but it's somehow always me in here. The same me. Never not him. The numbers go up or down, expectations and assumptions weave into confusing patterns inspiring tectonic nausea (if I pay too much attention), but, in here, it's the same me.

These days I'll sometimes eat a $50 sushi lunch, giggling giddily to myself. It never gets old! I hardly recognize this guy! Yet I'd easily concede that a $7 chicken parm roll is no less toothsome.

A $7 chicken parm roll is no less toothsome.

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