Saturday, October 29, 2011

So This is Why Trees Shed Their Leaves For Winter

In Hudson Valley, with three inches of snow fallen and eleven to go, I'm hearing two or three explosive snaps of big tree trunks per minute. This is not good.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Evil That is Panera

I've touched up my massive rant against Panera (and everything else evil in our society). It reads a lot better now. If you've never seen it, take a look - if you can stomach a view of the future where branding wins and independent restaurants go the way of independent bookstores. Plus a bite of horrid, horrid, unthinkably horrid pineapple upside down cake.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Naomi Wolf: How I Was Arrested at Occupy Wall Street

It ends in huffy hyperbole (eroding the power of the piece, which otherwise is wisely cool and factual), and describes what most of us recognize as the inevitable result of defying a cop with his back up (in societies both fully civil and less so). But, still, there are troubling things in this tale of "a middle-aged writer in an evening gown arrested for peaceable conduct".

I don't like one bit what Wolf describes as "the web of 'overpermiticisation' – requirements that were designed to stifle freedom of assembly and the right to petition government for redress of grievances." And I like even less implications that police may be fabricating new rules on the fly and lying about law in order to make their work more convenient. Protecting the expression of civil liberties must always take precedence over the inevitable inconvenience such expression causes authorities.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Poverty is Relative

It's a horrendous recession, everyone's unemployed, their homes underwater or teetering on foreclosure, but, man, just try to get anyone to do an odd job at a reasonable price. Last spring I invited an unemployed, in-foreclosure friend to build a new deck for me at an hourly wage that would help pay his bills for a while, but wouldn't kill me, either. He agreed, but, six months later, he's still "too busy" to get around to it.

Many years ago, I was friends with a talented photographer who constantly complained about her lack of work. She could never go out and do anything; there was literally no cash on hand. Things were really tough.

A magazine I wrote for didn't have time to shoot a restaurant facade to accompany my review. I recommended my friend, and they agreed. So I called her up to tell her the good news - that she could make a quick $75 by simply walking a few blocks from her apartment and snapping a photo. I figured she'd be thrilled.

Her reply?
"$75? Tell them they can go fuck themselves!"

Monday, October 17, 2011

Six Writing Tips

I once was a writer (entertaining examples). Nine books as author, coauthor, or contributor, columns for Newsday and NY Press (back when it was good!), frequent contributor to Newsweek, Bloomberg News Radio, and many others.

My writing here on the Slog sometimes springs from the writerly part of my mind, but usually is more personal - ideas and observations offered informally, without particular care taken in their expression. The following are hard-won writing tips for occasions when you need to take particular care. Many are actually editing tips rather than writing tips. But writing is 75% editing (in fact, that's the best tip of all!).

1. Keep Switching Formats to Edit

After you finish editing on computer, print it out. You'll be shocked by the number of new problems you find. Then try reading it out loud, noting problems (there will be plenty) as you go. Then print it out again with a different font and line spacing to uncover still more issues. Another trick: have someone read and offer their general impression. Then return to the writing, and you'll view it in a new light - and spot even more flaws.

2. Time Lends Perspective

If at all possible, put the writing aside for a few days (or, at least, a few hours). And pity theater critics, who must always get their reviews in the next day's paper. I honestly don't know how they do it.

3. Close Shave

Now, at this point, pass through looking to relentlessly cut every single unnecessary word (as if you were aiming to trim it to fit an arbitrary word count). You need to do this as dispassionately as possible, because we all have habits of using certain extra words, so they can seem perfectly ok at your first glance. But you'll find that if you remove them, the writing gets sleek and easier for people to read.


Now, at this point, pass through looking to relentlessly cut cutting every single unnecessary word (as if you were aiming to trim it to fit an arbitrary word count). You need to Do this as dispassionately as possible, because we all have habits of using certain extra words, so they can seem perfectly ok at your first glance. But you'll find that if you remove them, the writing gets sleek and easier for people to read.

4. Butcher Your Favorite Children

Every creative person, without exception, has had the unenviable experience of cutting out their favorite material because it failed to serve the greater good of a given piece of work. Join the ranks of The Miserable, and get used to the idea that literally anything's fair game.

5. Change the More Changeable

It's very common for inexperienced writers to fix the wrong instance. For example, the repeated word problem in this sentence:
I decided to move to suburbia, but, boy, was that ever the wrong move!
gets corrected to this awkward result:
I decided to move to suburbia, but, boy, was that ever the wrong action!
rather than this better one:
I decided to relocate to suburbia, but, boy, was that ever the wrong move!

6. Fix the Thinking, not the Writing

When you get stuck, you may feel certain the idea itself is well-formed and the problem is in the expression. You'd be wrong. Well-composed thoughts always express fluidly. If you can't express something, you haven't fully fleshed out the idea. So stop writing, mull over the subject, tighten up your understanding, and then return to writing. You'll find that it flows easily.

(Anecdote: I used to play in a big band alongside a trombonist who was a great player but couldn't improvise. He often complained that he had really great solos in his head, but could never seem to get them out on his horn. I finally asked him to hum one of those great solos. What came out were just vague, unspecific shapes and gestures.)

Finally, see the "Audition" portion of "The Times Everything Worked Out" for a taste of the commitment required to really excel.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I'm Not the Only Bozo

Google says "thnaks" appears 1,900,000 times on the Internet.


I'm incredibly thnakful for the validation....

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Times Everything Worked Out

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.

Tasting Notes
A friend and I were invited to a high-end port wine tasting. My friend loved port, but fell ill and couldn't attend. I felt badly, and vowed to capture the experience so evocatively that he'd feel as if he'd tried everything.

The tasting evoked treasured memories of drinking low-end port in Portugal, and I drew on that as I sat alone, blissfully sipping and furiously scribbling, intent on doing justice to these rare and fantastic wines.

Not being a trained wine taster, I lacked vocabulary. But I funneled my writing skill, my vast admiration for the wines, and my fervid desire to create an evocative account into the task. And the results so impressed the tasting's host (a major wine collector) that he spent the next several years opening the best wines of the century for my enjoyment and education.

The Audition
There was a call for restaurant critics at a small Manhattan newspaper. Never having written professionally, I prepared three sample reviews of favorite restaurants, and I did not look up from my computer until these articles were honed to perfection. Each word - every phoneme - contributed to the picture I was painting, and it was all painstakingly arranged to create a seamless rhythm. I applied the minute care usually reserved for poetry or haiku so the reader would immerse in a vicarious experience of eating in these restaurants I loved so much.

I got the job.

Here's a secret about Chowhound. We were not the first restaurant forum. When I built it in 1997, there were a couple of other sites devoted to user-contributed restaurant reviews. They consisted of bland (or cutesy) listings of restaurants, each of which contained a space where you could write your review. Ok: Go! Review!!

Of course, no one did, and these flat, corporate, soulless sites remained empty edifices. I opened Chowhound, and filled it with personality. Every element was chosen with loving care. People arrived and instantly felt at home. We eventually pulled in nearly a million of them with no budget or advertising.

Romantically, I discovered early on that if you commit to never touching your partner with less than 100% of your full love and affection, and to focusing 100% of your attention on their every touch - and extend this commitment to the subtlest possible level - nothing else matters.

The Upshot
I wasn't trying to take great pictures, much less have people think I'm a good photographer. I wasn't trying to write great wine notes, much less impress wine honchos. I wasn't trying to become a well-known food writer, or start a massively popular web site, or impress women. I was simply caring...a lot. Possibly too much. Likely to a degree the mainstream would consider odd.

Don't get the wrong idea. My victories have been few; I've failed much more than I've succeeded. I've recounted a few singular high points amid a life mostly spent in a state of rushed, anguished obliviousness, so I can't be smug about any of this! I am, however, confident that I've dumbly stumbled upon the key, even though I only rarely remember to apply it: Love. Care. Fervor. Attention. Intention. Subtlety. Detail. Commitment. "Doing justice to..." Or, as I more succinctly explained in my article explaining the magic of Steve Jobs, it's about "lavishing heart-breaking love and caring generosity and ingenuity into something - so much so that you almost can't stand it."

This is all that's necessary to transcend humanity's needlessly grey, grim, grinding experience. It's the open doorway of the divine. Shakti makes the choice and shakti empowers the result. You only have to give a damn (about what you're doing, rather than about reaching a specific result).

Pot Roast Postscript
My mom, a poor cook, always burnt the pot roast. Literally always. I kept trying to problem-solve the situation, which had evolved into an exasperated family joke. But as we discussed it, over many years, I gradually recognized the truth, which shocked me: it didn't really matter to her. Feeding the family, period, felt sufficient. Food was on the table. She'd pointed the camera and snapped the button.

An eternal problem makes all of this extraordinarily slippery for most people. Here's the thing: anyone who does anything (most people do nothing) labors to do that thing, even if their work is pedestrian and uninspired. It takes exertion and discipline to write a crappy novel or cook insipid chowder! Sloppy, ordinary hackwork requires serious effort (though a mere fraction of the effort required to produce greatness), so even complete hacks figure they've dug deep, paid dues, and know all about commitment. Hordes of shiftless shitheads would read this posting while nodding their heads in sage affirmation. "So true!"

500 miles is a long journey, and so is 20,000 light years, but the fact that both could be described as "long" doesn't make them similar.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Best Coconut Water

Coconut water's a big craze right now. I've tried many brands, and they all taste more or less the same. But I just discovered Taste Nirvana Real Coconut Water, which is made from a different variety of Thai coconuts than we're used to.

This stuff's so much deeper, clearer, and more alive-tasting; I don't think I can go back to other brands now that I've tasted this. Here is a store locator (I see they're for sale at Whole Foods, and at a reasonable price in bulk from Amazon).


Friday, October 7, 2011

Explaining Steve Jobs

I'd like to try to discuss the thing about Steve Jobs that everyone's dancing around - the thing Jobs himself danced around on the few occasions he tried to explain himself.

I'll give it a name. But I'll dance around some, too, because I won't try to define that name. The naming will help, though, because once you have even a vague, intuitive notion of what I'm describing, you'll start seeing it everywhere. It's the thing that made Jobs Jobs - and made Apple so successful and capable of changing all our lives.

People never get to the root of this thing which I haven't yet named. They poke around surfaces, trying to reverse-engineer a recipe, figuring they can achieve similar results by reducing it to rules and then following those rules. Silly humans! JS Bach composed deeply beautiful and inspiring chorales, which musicologists later explained via a series of rules which theoretically allow anyone to whip up chorales of their own. Composers follow those rules even today, though their work is seldom beautiful or inspiring.

Whatever it is, it ain't in the rules. The rules always come after. Bach wasn't following rules. You don't get anywhere great from canned recipes. And, yes, I've just restated one of the primary rules Jobs-watchers (and even Jobs himself) have frequently cited. But, you see, the rule is never the thing. And "the thing" is too slippery to explain directly. I wrote about magic several months ago, describing it as the last undefined term, and the only one with any power left. So here's another facet of all that:


Like "magic", I won't neuter it by trying to define it (you may google and wiki it all you'd like, but you'll only drift further and further away). But you've seen shakti at work. It's what powers those moments when humans do extraordinary things.

Remember how Chris Rock was just so-so on SNL, but then he did that first TV special, and he wasn't just funny, he was deeply, deeply brilliant; so lucid, so razor-sharp, so oh-my-god-I-just-can't-stand-it that you knew a whole other thing was happening? It wasn't just a good comedian getting better. It was an entirely new level. Shakti!

Keith Jarrett's legendary Koln Concert was a great big wave of Shakti, and you can hear it mounting if you listen closely. Einstein's theory of General Relativity, which popped out of nowhere from the 37 year old mind of a respected but not exceptional scientist (who never reached those heights again) was another example.

Whenever someone pushes their game up to Infinity, giving chills or changing the world (regardless of whether the world notices), that's Shakti. It's the ozone one smells during the lightning flash of profound creativity. And it's the fabric of the lightning itself. We know it intimately, because without a squirt of Shakti, we're all just bags of meat. With a full jolt of it, creativity is boundless, and we are elevated, for a moment, to the Divine.

An indescribable sense of elevation galvanizes your attention. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Picasso's Guernica. The kindness of New Yorkers on 9/12/01. The first hug of new love. Susan Boyle singing her heart out on that sappy song. Stephen Colbert's wit, at least once per show. The Arepa Lady on a good night. Rising unexpectedly to an occasion...that's Shakti. When someone kisses you so ardently you have to breathlessly pull away, that's shakti. Most of all, when you recognize, with astonishment, that someone's lavished heart-breaking love and caring generosity and ingenuity into something - so much so that you almost can't stand it, that's Shakti.

"Almost can't stand it." That's it right there. People love their iPhones so much they almost can't stand it. And their iPads. And there was always a buzz to be caught from the unlikely childlike sincerity of Jobs' keynote speeches. Such feelings don't make you a fanboy or a materialistic yuppie. Apple's devices are transcendent, because they are steeped in Shakti. It's incredibly contagious.

What's the source of Steve Jobs' Shakti? He tried to explain in his Stanford commencement address. Ironically, he condensed it into rules. That's always what happens. Again, the rule's not the thing (must one dutifully obey a command to "Think Different"?). You can't codify it. You just gotta surrender to the Shakti. Simple as that.

How does that come about? While I've not used the actual word (except here), I've been quietly writing about just that here for several years - especially in the entries you may have least felt like reading. This is territory few modern, sophisticated, educated people want to go near (as much as they may covet the results). Jobs wasn't actually very sophisticated. He wasn't even a college grad. What he was, even with all his deep flaws, was one of our era's foremost karma yogis. And the ozone-like smell in the air this week - so palpable, as multitudes feel unexpectedly crestfallen over his death, and suddenly realize that his creativity was of an entirely different, transcendent level, utterly permeated with love and caring generosity and ingenuity - is the contrail of his shakti.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Here's the problem with finding oneself middle-aged yet still feeling youthful and pliant:

As you keep appearing older and older, the feedback you receive from others increasingly conflicts with your inner reality. And the result feels oddly similar to adolescent alienation ("nobody really understands me," etc etc). Which is disturbing, but also, come to think of it, unquestionably youthful!

So, it appears you've got to take some of the bad side of youthfulness along with the good...

After Happily Ever After

If yesterday's "Happily Ever After" post explains the roots of stress, this previous post offers a practical approach (plus links to some related thoughts). You might especially want to check out the short article about The Monks and the Coffee

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Happily Ever After

I honestly believe that the lion's share of unhappiness in western society can be traced directly to the five words ending most children's fairy tales:
"...and lived happily ever after."
Many of us loved "The Graduate", Mike Nichol's film starring a young Dustin Hoffman and Ann Bancroft. But almost no one remembers the ending - which was the movie's fulcrum, transforming it into a 105 minute shaggy dog story.

Benjamin, an aimless recent college graduate, is discontent with his family's suburban bourgeois values. In his torpor, he allows himself to be seduced by Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father's partner. He then falls in love with Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Elaine, but her parents, to say the least, disapprove. They drive Elaine away from Benjamin, and when she's about to marry some jock named Carl, Benjamin storms the church. Elaine, realizing she always loved Benjamin, runs hand-in-hand with him out the door.

What happens next, which few remember, is that Elaine (in full wedding dress) and Benjamin (a sweaty mess), in their euphoria, get on a bus. They find seats, and the camera fixes on them for far longer than you'd expect while they catch their breath, compose their faces, and leak, visibly but ever-so-slightly, into the next story, whatever it may turn out to be (and "happily ever after" ain't it). Nichols has undermined the fairy tale structure upon which his simple story hangs. Ok, we've got each other...for now. But, um, now what??

The truth is that no one has ever "lived happily ever after". There are no happy endings; only uncertain beginnings. Yet we believe in happy endings, almost as a birthright, because the notion was instilled in us at such an early age. Indeed, I see myself and my friends scrambling desperately for a sensation of having landed...of having ducks in a row, needs met, entropy under control, pain averted, noise quieted, tasks completed, and destination reached. Finally, some repose, please, so the real living can begin!

We yearn to be nouns, but life's a verb, with no actual repose. For those with happy-ever-after dreams, existence seems like a crazy-making never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

The girl says "I do", but transforms into a wife, and relationships are hard. You sell your company, but queued life issues aren't solvable with money. You find the house of your dreams, but, woops, what's this nasty cough?

Nothing ever ends, much less ends happily. It's a dynamic swirl, a never-ending question of "Now what??". Problems and change are the very fabric of living, not distracting turbulence to be negotiated en route to an imaginary landing strip. We live in the verb form of unceasing transition, and "happy" is the adjective we might choose to affix to that verb. It's an optional tint for the glasses through which we view change, both pleasant and unpleasant.

Update: if the above explains the roots of stress, this previous post offers a practical approach (and links to some related thoughts).

Monday, October 3, 2011

TMDTIATW: Kitch'n Cook'd Potato Chips

The most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW) were potato chips from the legendary Maui Potato Chip Factory. I sent $32 (to: Maui Potato Chip Factory, 295 Lalo St, Kahului HI 96732), waited a good while, and my hero, Mark Kobayashi, sent back four bags like this:

...except full of potato chips.

Here they are, viewed in their natural habitat (please click to expand):

You can't buy these anywhere, including on Maui, where they hardly make it off the delivery truck and onto store shelves before they're snapped up. Mark Kobayashi could increase capacity, and sell them all over Maui, the Islands, the country, and the world, but he doesn't want to expand. He just wants to make the world's greatest potato chips. Frito Lay has offered him big money, but he won't sell out. He doesn't want big money, he just wants to make the world's greatest potato chips.

He just wants to make the world's greatest potato chips.

None of those "Hawaiian style" potato chips you see in supermarkets - some even using term "Maui" - are Mark Kobayashi's chips. That's just Frito Lay expressing its extreme displeasure, with laughable impotence.Mark Kobayashi's chips have nothing in common with them. His thick, brown, soulful spuddy steaks are better than anything you ever had.

The greatest wine in the world is only slightly better than the second greatest wine. The fastest sports car in the world is only slightly faster than the second fastest. But thanks to talent, diligence, love, and a very clear picture of what he wants out of his life (and a willingness to discard the rest), Mark Kobayashi is able to produce chips that are, by my calculation, exactly 3200 times better than the next best.

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