Monday, December 31, 2012

Letting Missing Eggs Lie

If you order steak tartare and it doesn't arrive with an egg, it's a mistake to ask the waiter about it. He'll just go back to the kitchen and grab any old egg (rather than an extra fresh one earmarked for raw ingestion).

This is useful knowledge well beyond the realm of food. It's a life lesson I find myself endlessly relearning.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Clever Little Online Ordering Move

I got this message when I was about to complete my order at Zingerman's Deli:

Save On Shipping
You can add up to $7.50 without increasing your shipping charges.
***Show me merchandise under $7.50 or stuff that ships for free!***

It's a small thing, but very clever, and I wouldn't be surprised if it meaningfully increases their revenue, along with other benefits (like customers ordering - and potentially falling in love with - items they wouldn't ordinarily have tried).

Monday, December 24, 2012

Piece Unearthed; Good Veal, Too, Man!

Here's wishing all sloggers out there the merriest of Chistmases (or, if you don't roll that way, hey, keep the "X" in Xmas!). Yes, 2013 is one ugly-sounding prime-numbered year, but here's hoping it defies appearances.

Appropriate to the spirit of the season: in installment #2 of "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out", my epic tale of the sale of, I noted that the site got more and more expensive to run, and...
A very small group of regular Chowhound posters, none massively wealthy or powerful and none bugging me to take them to dinner, was bearing much of that load. They were so small a group, in fact, that if one ever went on a diet, the entire enterprise would have sunk.
Here's one of the scariest things I know: all good causes hang by a thread. All of them. Your $25 or $100 or $200 donation is way more helpful than you'd ever imagine, because almost nobody donates. It's a rare mutant gene, and those few of us born with it face heightened responsibilities.

If you can imagine writing a check, don't think too hard. Just do it. Shopaholics should know that donation offers exactly the same endorphin buzz as buying any other sort of stuff. I'm not saying not to buy shoes or golf clubs; just add to your shopping list a couple of items to make the world a little better. It's addictive. You'll like it!

Again, a tiny, tiny few people support all the good works out there. You'll be compensating for hundreds of selfish, lazy slobs who feel like civic-minded nice people but who never actually pull the trigger.

Also, show some imagination. Invest the same savvy and diligence you'd apply to buying shoes or golf clubs, and suss out a worthy organization or two that can really use the support. Here are some great-sounding ones recommended by Chris Hayes this morning:

Give Directly
Solar Electric Light Fund
Partners in Health
Architecture for Humanity
Doctors Without Borders
Guiding Eyes for the Blind
Farm Sanctuary
The Humane Society

You can get some descriptions (after watching the annoying ad) of all these organizations in the video below.

As always, you can do nerdy research at Charity Navigator. And if you've been cutting back donations due to the recession, know that everyone else is, too...making your donation even more critical. Finally, don't forget to opt out of having your information shared (just click onto the "privacy" page for whatever organization you support).

Read my previous postings about this sort of thing (including some other tips for cool under-radar organizations worth giving to).

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Expert's Innate Condescension

Another bug in the human operating system: when you're really good at something, it's very difficult to respect people with intermediate skill. Anyone less than fully proficient seems like a rank beginner.

For example: expert chowhounds might consider someone who slavishly follows his Zagat guide a ditzy know-nothing. But actual no-nothings don't care at all about food. They've never heard of Zagat; they just go to Wendy's. To a wine expert, those who drink super-buttery Chardonnays or vulgarly bombastic Zins are idiots, even while tons of wine drinkers blithely suck down generic boxed wine.

We seem unable to register the fact that just because we're super good at something doesn't mean people who are merely good at that thing are lousy.

Some more bugs (I eagerly await the Humanity 2.0 upgrade):

"Selfishness and Generosity"
The weirdly reversed self-images of selfish and generous people..

"Common Strange Shifts of Perspective"
More weirdly reversed self-images.

"Ceding to the Idiots"
When things get dumb, conscientious people bail, leaving behind an ever-greater proportion of dumbness. By contrast, the idiots, who inherently act from a less high-minded position, always stick around.

"Arrogance is Elective"
We innately assume that arrogance is the inevitable trait of smart, accomplished, distinguished, successful people.

"Kafka Time"
The converse of the previous. If you're not arrogant, it's surprisingly tough to be taken the least bit seriously by anyone.

"'The Age of the Unthinkable' - Why Life May Not Return to Normal"
Humans have the damnedest time grokking cycles. We always expect highs to stay high and lows to stay low.

"Giving Misanthropy Its Due"
Racism, sexism, classism, etc. are nothing more than the incomplete registration of a perfectly appropriate misanthropy.

"Flipping Your Street Smarts"
It's more natural to learn to scan for dark depths than for divine heights, though both faculties are useful.

"Always Talk to the Mask"
Our mythic self-images are remarkably impermeable to contrary evidence.

"Natural Egocentric Dispositions"
Nine ways our natural egocentricity steers us wrong.

Postcard From a Bar Brawl

Just a quick housekeeping note to point out that my posting, "The Strong Drunk", has been reformatted as a part of my Postcards From My Childhood series.

Also, I'll be posting another entry in that series this week.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The NBA Dreams of Deranged Shooters

Why is the NBA dominated by black people? Why are all the best sprinters from Jamaica? How did Jews develop a reputation in medieval European as money lenders? Why have women been thought of as natural-born cooks? Why are so many cops Irish?

Is it that black people are genetically faster and more agile? And that Jews are innately greedy? Do women have baking in their blood, and are Irish naturally officious? Many people think such things. But, no, that's not it.

In each case, a minority found a way up and out through one of the few channels open to them. If you're a kid living in a Jamaican slum, you don't dream of launching a Silicon Valley biotech firm or attending law school. Such options aren't available to you. The only established route out of your situation, established by those who came before you, is running. Running like crazy. Thousands of hours of training to the point of nausea - a level of dedication others, with wider options, can never match. And so Jamaicans usually dominate.

In the Middle Ages, Jews weren't allowed to do much other than loan money (which for most of history was considered lowly work). Women were kept at home baking brownies - unwillingly fostering a stereotype as brownie-bakers. Irish-Americans were barely tolerated a century ago, but police work, low-paid at the time, was an area where they had entrée. And in America's inner cities, hordes of kids dreamed of becoming the next Michael Jordan because, until recently, there were no Obama dreams. So they practiced relentlessly, and a few went on to stardom, crushing competitors who lacked their live-or-die motivation. Never underestimate the fevered effort a certain type of person, cornered by circumstance into stagnation, will devote to a pursuit which might transform him from desperate nobody into glorious somebody.

Smart, motivated nobodies fervidly climb the ladders available to them. But there are countless people in this world who see no clear route to potential glory. And, for some of them, that fervid pull may fester into horrific forms. If the Devil finds work for idle hands, you can imagine what he does with idle fervidity.

For some of those people (few of whom, thank goodness, act on the impulse), the prospect of becoming a jihadi martyr, or shooting up a school, or assassinating a president or a Beatle, is their NBA dream. It's their only shot to glory. Some take that route consciously for the glory. Others are drawn by a murkier, more unconscious drive toward general empowerment, or personal expression writ large ("I was here!"), and/or the devotion to a larger cause (read Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer" for a classic explanation of the latter).

And the media is in the habit of turning the John Hinckleys, the Sons of Sam, and the Adam Lanzas into celebrities - anti-Michael Jordans, if you will. But don't blame the media; they're accommodating the public's thirsty demand for anti-celebrity news. If we cared more about victims than perps, the channel would close and there'd be far much less glory to be reaped by committing horrific acts.

Conscientious media types are trying to kick this back. CNN's Anderson Cooper made a valiant stand last week in refusing to name the killer, or to delve into his motivation or history. Kudos, Mr. Cooper, but....good luck with that.

It has dawned on me, sickeningly, that the mighty vortex I was pulled into last week wasn't due to my knowing a tragic victim, but because I knew the mother of a major celebrity. In fact, I experienced a brief moment of celebrity myself merely by my association with the association - to the point where a respected media outlet deemed it appropriate to run - as breaking news - an article connecting my comments about the tragedy to my background as founder of Chowhound (the previous mountain of press had only described me as a musician). Another piece of the puzzle revealed by a hard-hitting journalist (the anti-Anderson Cooper?).

The notion that mental illness incites violence is as misguided as the notion that blackness makes you speedy, or Jewishness makes you greedy, or being Irish makes you want to direct traffic, or being Moslem makes you terroristic, or that a woman's just gotta bake. No, it's that there's a clear system of reward in place, and human beings always clutch at rewards.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hobbit's New Tech is a Graft-On

I just saw The Hobbit - in a theater offering a grand slam of IMAX, 3-D, and high frame-rate (here's a list of which theaters are playing which formats). And I have an observation to offer which I haven't seen others making.

It's true that the high frame rate yields a sharp video-ish look more reminiscent of television soap operas than what's normally thought of as "cinematic". And, yes, the extra sharpness sometimes reveals stagecraft (makeup, fake-looking sets, etc.). But I tried to lose myself in the storytelling rather than obsess over technicals. And it quickly became apparent that the only time I was disturbed by the new technology was when the film aimed to look old-school cinematic.

The problem is that Jackson seems to be adopting this technology as a graft-on. He's carried over his bag of filmmaking tricks from the Lord of the Rings films, changing only the theater presentation. This is, in other words, a conventional film unconventionally projected, which results in a gap so distracting that many viewers report being taken out of the story. Indeed, each time I found myself wincing at the "soap opera" look, I noticed it was a moment when Jackson was misapplying an old-school move which no longer washed. Viewers at this higher frame rate have too keen a vantage point; filmmakers can't get away with falling back on old ways. They need to not just step up their game (e.g. makeup and sets); they also must reinvent it.

Technicolor films weren't just black and white films with color added. Nor were talkies silent films with attached soundtracks. Each advance forced deep rethinking; in fact, innovation usually wasn't fully absorbed until a new vanguard of filmmakers arrived to completely digest and incorporate what at first had seemed an empty gimmick.

But The Hobbit is nowhere near that. I wish it was a good enough film to merit multiple viewings, so you could sample various formats and judge for yourself. But unless you're a Tolkien fanatic, this is one you'll only watch once. And since (with a few exceptions), Jackson is using the exact same approach as his previous work, I'd suggest you view it the way he himself was obviously visualizing as he shot: in 2D, with normal frame rate, just like The Lord of the Rings.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Translating Obfuscatory Cuisine Labels

"Spanish food" means Dominican

"European food" means Russian

"Korean/Japanese food" means Korean

"Brazilian/Portuguese food" means Portuguese

"French/Moroccan food" means Moroccan

"Himalayan food" means Nepali

"Indian/Chinese food" is cooked by Nepalis but is its own thing

"Chinese-American food" is usually cooked by Fuzhous but is its own thing

"Szechuan/Cantonese/Hunan food" means Chinese-American

"Chinese-Mexican food" is contrived by Taiwanese

"Tibetan food" is increasingly made and marketed by Chinese (who truly consider Tibet a part of China).*

"Uyghur food" (aka Xinjiang food): ibid

"Creole food" (outside Louisiana) means Haitian

"Mediterranean food" means Middle Eastern (often Lebanese)

"Jordanian food" means Palestinian (ask for kunefeh, pronounced koo-NEF-uh)

"Afghan [plus anything else] food" means anything but Afghan

"Indo/Pak/Bangladeshi food" means Bangladeshi (i.e. Bengali)

"Gourmet food" means marketing

Rule of thumb: restaurants advertising hyphenated cuisines are usually run by immigrants from the lesser-known, poorer, and/or less culinarily renowned country...unless the hybrid includes "Chinese", in which case the cuisine is usually a true hybrid (unless "Mexican" is involved).

* - look for a photo of the Dalai Lama to confirm bona fide Tibetan ownership.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Things Grieve Better With Scapegoats

Having Aspergers in the 2010s is going to be like being Muslim was in the 2000s.

Help the Cambodian Cuisine Food Truck

Sign a petition to allow the Cambodian Cuisine food truck to serve yummy Cambodian food on-premises to NYU students (those lucky bastards).

This, however:
Jerry Ley was the first to open a Cambodian restaurant in NYC a lie.

Anyway, don't ever say this Slog doesn't foster hard-hitting social action! (Actually, signing would in fact be doing a good deed; read the sad tale of the truck's proprietor in the article linked above.)

You can follow the truck's location via Twitter.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Chat With a Friend

I just had the following discussion with an old friend:

Friend: Jim, I read the NY Times article, and I don't understand what the problem is. You were adding to public knowledge of this person. Isn't that a good thing?

Me: Well, first, why does the public deserve knowledge about this private person? How does it help anything? Why is it any of the public's business, aside from satisfying their morbid voyeurism? And, second, you and I are friends. If, god forbid, something terrible happened to you, you wouldn't want me mouthing off about you, would you? I'd be betraying our friendship!

Friend: Ouch. Ok, I get it. So why did you speak up?

Me: I was upset, and when I get upset, I do what I do best: I write. I sat down and tried to work out my feelings here on my sleepy little blog [read my remembrance here]. I had no way of knowing that, at that moment, I was the only person in the world publicly speaking about this person. Disaster reporting abhors a vacuum, so out-of-context quotes got sucked into a huge vortex. [read a description of how this happened here]

Friend: Why wasn't anyone else talking about her?

Me: Because my extremely non-media-savvy buddies up in Newtown turn out to be a lot savvier than I am. I can't tell you how much I respect the way they've handled all this. They're amazing. And I hope they're still speaking to me.

Friend: The Times article includes a quote from you about her interest in guns. I don't see that anywhere on your Slog. Where did they get that?

Me: It was an idle comment buried in the discussion beneath one of my postings. Should I have said it publicly? No. Did I realize the entire world would be hearing about my idle blog comment? No. Was I a naive fool? Yep.

Friend: So are you going to sue the Times, or write a nasty letter or something?

Me: No! The reporter was just doing his job, which was to pull out informative nuggets, not to faithfully convey the dignified tone of some blogger's remembrance. I'm actually not sure the extraction could have been done much more sensitively. And the fault was mine. As someone with extensive press experience, I should have remembered the prime directive: anything you say publicly can be extracted and played as a stand-alone quote. That's why Obama always speaks so haltingly.

But here's the thing: I'm so accustomed to speaking freely here that it never occurred to me to switch into press-defense mode. I never thought I'd need to again, post-Chowhound. There were a couple of press hit-jobs during those years, and they weren't much fun - it's a big reason why I jumped out of the spotlight so fast. But, alas, here I am again, and it's excruciating (though I'm having a sublimely happy week compared to some of my friends, and you can bet your ass I won't forget that).

Friend: Wanna go get some beers?

Me: Yes. Yes, I would.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Small Upside

I've been feeling worse and worse about seeing my blog piece carved up and quotes extracted sans context in tomorrow's NY Times (the reporter was the first who contacted me, and I made the mistake of returning the call to say, essentially, "no comment" to all his questions, which gave him leeway to claim an interview with me and to lift quotes from the blog piece). I pray that I don't come off like the victim's cousin's barber, pontificating about a dim acquaintance to horn in on the spectacle. The article's already been picked up elsewhere (again, disaster reporting abhors a vacuum), and no one's linking to my original piece for context.

It's been a surreal day. I'm used to happily giving interviews about brownies and tacos, not to stonewalling tides of desperate reporters. But I just spotted the following kind responses to my original remembrance, on the Book of Faces, reassuring me that I've done at least some small good in all this:
"Thanks for sharing this. Stories about the people, for me at least, add much more meaning than just names and photos."

"This is better insight into the whole situation than you will ever see, hear, or read in the MSM. Thank you for sharing."

Heartfelt thanks to the many who've emailed praise for my original piece and sympathy for the butchering.

The paper's out today, but I find myself relaxing within a serendipitous bubble. Times readers assume I'm a loudmouthed opportunist. But those who venture here to read the original article know I was trying (naively) to do something sweet and dignified. And while there are millions of the former (including syndication), and mere hundreds of the latter, I'm not getting feedback from the millions, because they have to come here to talk to me...and if they do that, they'll read that article and see what happened!

So for all I know, you guys are all there is, and I'm sticking with that conclusion. This attitude could be seen as childish denial; a willful attempt to replace reality with fantasy.But I had a huge insight recently from viewing a fantastic, warm-hearted and revelatory documentary called Marwencol (which is on streaming Netflix). I've said this once before here on the Slog, but it bears repeating:
Human beings spend their lives in conflict with imaginary people: mentally rearguing old arguments, worrying about faceless attackers and detractors, reliving bygone humiliations, and generally using our imaginations to make our lives a living hell.

That's considered "normal", but using the same faculty in positive ways to help us cope seems, for some bizarre reason, childish and loopy.

Pity the Reporters (Seriously)

The press blitz fascinates me. By "press blitz", I mean my email box. And my unlisted cell phone's voice mail. As I just posted to the Book of Faces, disaster reporting, like nature, abhors a vacuum. No one's been tap dancing on-camera about victims, and the media's gone batshit crazy, practically begging casual acquaintances to come forward and sate the voracious thirst. Reporters hate doing this - they well understand that everyone's grieving - but it's their job. Gotta feed the machine.

It would be easy, especially if I were more closely linked to victims, to label these reporters as vultures (in fact, I myself used the term "vulturish" somewhere around here today). But the fact is, these guys are plainly mortified about doing what their job compels them to do today. Here's a representative example, nearly heartbreaking if you read between the lines:

I have the sorry job of trying to explain to an inquiring world who Nancy Lanza was, and what happened with her son. I loved the story you told on your blog, and would like to join the queue of those who'd like to speak with you.


It obviously sucks to be them now. In the world of drugs, the poor coca farmers are only responding to a voracious, unrelenting demand. Same with the poor reporters. The vultures are us. Those guys are just scrambling to deliver our fix.

I've started writing more sympathetic kiss-off responses. I'm really afraid some of these people are on the verge of cracking. Can someone get them some coffee and blankets or something?

No Further Comment (and the need for slack)

Dear Media,

It was naive of me to figure I could offer a quiet little remembrance here on my sleepy little slog in the midst of a highly competitive reportorial frenzy where journalists are desperately scurrying for any nugget of info they can find.

As I stated in my piece, I didn't know Nancy well. In fact, what I said was pretty much all I've got to say. She's a friend-of-friends who I periodically would briefly bump into, and who always seemed kind-hearted...and, yes, a bit high-strung. But with ample reason, as it turns out.

That was actually the main reason I shared the story. There's a lesson I keep needing to relearn: one never knows what people are dealing with in their private lives. During my Chowhound years, I was highly stressed, and people who didn't understand this may have concluded that I'm naturally anxious or uptight. So I shouldn't need to be constantly retaught that I ought to give people lots of slack. We all ought to give people lots of slack! You never know what someone's quietly putting up with.

But back to the media frenzy thing...I've dumped everything I've got. It's not for me to speak up and be the person who paints the picture of who Nancy Lanza was. Perhaps someone who knew her a lot better than I did will step up. Lord knows every reporter from here to jabip is trying to scratch their way to that person. But the truth is, no one who really knew and loved her is going to be speaking out at length so soon after this (insert weary aside about the vulturishness of the 24 hour news cycle here)

But since I'm not that guy, I have no further comment. So please, reporters, if you're reading this, don't waste time by emailing or calling me.

Support Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

If you're in the habit of giving support to victims of tragedies, but feel stymied because the Red Cross has nothing physical to rescue or rebuild in Connecticut, please consider sending a nice fat check to Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

These guys are not right-wing or left-wing. And they're not trying to take anyone's hunting rifles away from them. This organization, named for Ronald Reagan's stricken press secretary, is just a voice for sanity.

If you're into guns and hunting and all that, I'd suggest that it's extra incumbent on you to support efforts to stave off violent scenarios you'd certainly never defend, by imposing grown-up limits on gun ownership. With the power of firearms and the freedom to buy them comes a responsibility to diligently help stave off depraved results.

I can't understand why events like yesterday's only make the NRA more strident and more extreme. They should be investing millions into organizations like Brady's while lobbying for the rights of responsible owners. That's the sort of conscientious approach I'd expect from Americans defending a right out of principle, and who share my horror at the thought of dozens of helpless kindergarden kids shot to death (or of the many underprivileged neighborhoods in this country whose inhabitants are terrified to walk the streets for fear of gun violence).

Friday, December 14, 2012

Personal Thoughts on Newtown

Nancy Lanza, mother of the gunman and his first victim this morning, was a lovely person. I have friends in the area (all of whom were good friends of hers), and am around there a lot (in fact, I was there just last night, when the town was characteristically peaceful). I didn't know her well, but one memory keeps replaying tonight.

A mutual friend was in trouble, and I'd driven up to Newtown to discuss a loan. It wasn't for a ton of money, but more than just a few bucks. We discussed drawing up a letter of agreement, and that I'd hold the title to his little sailboat as collateral. Nancy overheard the discussion, and, unblinkingly, told him she'd just write him a check then and there. While I'm far from the most generous guy in the world, it's not often that I feel stingy. But I learned something from that. I should have just written him the check. She was right.

I never really befriended Nancy, though we exchanged greetings whenever we crossed paths. What held me back was my impression that she was a little high-strung. But now that I've been filled in by friends about how difficult her troubled son (the shooter) was making things for her, I understand that it wasn't that Nancy was overwrought about the trivialities of everyday life, but that she was handling a very difficult situation with uncommon grace. Plus, she was a big fan of my trombone playing. My next jazz solo's for you, Nancy.

Other scattered thoughts:

Whenever the press reports on something I'm familiar with or close to, it's painfully obvious how much they get wrong. I've been hearing nonsense from major media all day. The info I received via text message from friends early today was much higher quality than press reporting even hours later.

Speaking of which, if I read one more report about the shooting in "suburban Connecticut", I'll scream. This is a small town, not a suburb. It is, in fact, pretty much the Platonic form of a small town - which makes the events that much more horrific.

I'm in favor of gun control, but as a devout civil libertarian, I'm susceptible to the guns-don't-kill-people-people-kill-people argument. I want the government to exercise extreme restraint in determining what's too dangerous for people to do or to own. But, y'know, we (quite properly) don't allow people to own anti-aircraft guns, or tanks, or lots of other deadly instruments, though that same argument could apply. And while I understand the slippery slope perils of government intervention, human beings are just too damned crazy for guns to be so freely and easily available.

Finally, it really infuriates me to hear right wingers, at times like this, insist that "this is not the time to discuss gun control". I remember how, during the worst of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Mitch McConnell said the same thing: this is not the time to discuss regulating deep water drilling. Was September, 2001, not the time to discuss counterattacks on al-Qaeda? Was Katrina not the time to discuss levee engineering in Louisiana? I respect those whose opinions on guns differ from mine. But people taking this particular tack are loathsome.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Postcards From My Childhood Part 5: The Strong Drunk

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I willfully sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget.

When I was 16, I took the train into Manhattan for my weekly trombone lessons in a claustrophobic little music studio near scary Times Square. This was 1978, the era of unending strikes, racial unrest, corruption, budget defaults, crumbling infrastructure and rampant muggings and car thefts. When it came out in 1981, the sci-fi film "Escape From New York" didn't seem like so huge a stretch.

So I picked up a book about "urban survival", which turned out to be pretty silly, though highly amusing. But it did contain one insight which I've retained. In the chapter about surviving bar fights, it explained that drunk people are sluggish and clumsy, so it's easy to outrun or outmaneuver them. But if they ever get their hands firmly on you, watch out, because drunks are stronger than sober people.

I've never been in a bar fight, but the image of the strong drunk has become a touchstone for me. Time and again I've found myself confronting people (or institutions) functioning as Strong Drunks, and who therefore needed to be finessed or adroitly outmaneuvered. The mantra is: don't ever let them get you in their clutches!

Cops, for example, are strong drunks. If a policeman decides, rightly or wrongly, that you're on the wrong team, and has you within his grasp, you will be out of options. There's ample maneuvering room in defusing that determination, but if it goes the wrong way, and you're within their range, you'll find yourself utterly powerless.

Cockroaches are the opposite. A roach can't hold or harm you...but they hide well and they run fast. If you manage to catch one, it can be effortlessly stamped out, but there are always more of them craftily evading you, and you can't do much about it. To a cockroach, you are the strong drunk.

Read the next installment

Monday, December 10, 2012

Jerry Seinfeld's Tiny Masterpieces

One theme of this Slog is the joy of lavishing effort on small - or even publicly invisible - creations. For example, I wrote the following in my explanation of JD Salinger:
"What makes me writing well and playing music well. Period. "Full stop", as the British say.

My most cherished moments have been spent embroiled in the creative process. After that comes only problems. I detest having to find channels for my output; the touchy ritual of petitioning unhip, haughty gatekeepers. And then there's the issue of reaction. While I'm pleased when my work happens to be appreciated, I understand that the active pursuit of acclaim is a house of mirrors.

Creative people quickly learn to expect a zany mix of zealously wrongheaded admiration and flat out rejection in response to their work. And the killer is that success rarely correlates with quality. So one must labor within a madness-making, completely erratic feedback system (it's worth noting that lab animals become mortally stressed when reward and punishment are randomly meted out). There's no predicting or controlling how your work will be perceived - or whether it will be perceived at all. Those lucky few who attain some perspective on it all (usually via great success or failure) quickly realize that it's foolhardy to stake one's self worth on an uncontrollable, capricious system. Far better to just do the best work one can, and let chips fall where they will.

Of course that's not how you build a career. That's not how you get your playing heard and your writing read. That's not how you cultivate contacts and build a following. That's not how you "become somebody". And such things can hardly be disregarded if you aim to live off your creative work. That's why I deeply respect artists like Charles Ives, who plied a humdrum day job so he could compose in the spirit of pure creation."
As commenters pointed out, Salinger was far from the only person who reached the same conclusion. For example, there were John Hughes, Bill Whithers, Sam Shephard, and Irving Rosenthal. And we can now add, of all people, Jerry Seinfeld, who's created a superb series of heartfelt little web videos titled "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee". This is about as small as things can get and still be visible: humble concept, tiny crew, minimal production values, short length, no marketing whatsoever, all playing out on a site nobody's ever heard of. They're just hovering out there - rhapsodies in small awaiting discovery.

There's nothing conspicuously impressive. These quietly personal little films are funny, but not guffaw-inducing. Yet they somehow stick with you - none more than the Carl Reiner episode, where it's revealed, over coffee, that Mel Brooks comes over Reiner's house each night to watch TV. Seinfeld asks if he can join in, and the result is as amusing as you'd expect, but also unforgettably touching - and it offers a glimpse of something rarely caught on film.

The sole dud is the Ricky Gervais episode, which never quite sparks. Aside from that, I'd strongly recommend them all, including the "spare parts". Jerry Seinfeld may not be the warmest guy in the world; any remnants of his heart were long ago dry cleaned from his sleeve. But he loves cars and he loves comedians, so he went from there, bravely resisting any impulse to biz it up, or to even need have people watching it. He just did it. And it's beautiful.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Not Getting Pushed in Subways

Regarding that poor Queens guy who was pushed onto the subway tracks....

There were a rash of these in the 1980's, so I trained myself to be conscious of my center of gravity while on subway platforms, and to lean ever-so-slightly away from the track at all times, even when I'm not close to the edge. I still do this.

Studying judo as a kid, I learned that you can't move another body very far via brute strength (consider how tough it is to move a corpse). You can only disrupt someone's center of gravity, so they move themselves as they flail to recover balance. So small balance adjustments can yield large defensive benefits.

I'm not saying that by planting feet and leaning imperceptibly away from tracks you'll become utterly impervious. But, as any martial artist will attest, this small move makes you much, much harder to push. Surprisingly so. Furthermore, in so doing you send a signal which others unconsciously pick up on: You seem less pushable (as, indeed, you are.)

Another example of an unconscious signal: if you're walking in a busy area and someone's aggressively walking straight toward you, and there's no way for you to easily/safely get out of the way, slow down a little. The other person will be unconsciously compelled to walk around you (please wield this trick only for defensive purposes!).

World's Greatest Quote

"We are here on Earth to help others. What the others are here for, I’ve no idea."
- W.H. Auden (as quoted by John Lloyd)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

iPhone/iPad App Tips

Fantastical is a new iOs app, just released. I'm a big fan of their Mac app, and this one shows the same slick functionality. Basically, it replaces your Calendar app. You type (or, if you have recent hardware, dictate) something like "Lunch with Joe on thurs at 1", and it creates a "Lunch with Joe" calendar entry perfectly configured for the correct time and date. This is how Apple's Calendar should work, but doesn't, and for $1.99 you can fix that (twice the price if you wait; this is a special launch pricing). The interface is a joy to use. Just get it (here's a review).

If you don't have Siri, you ought to know that a recent update of the free Google iPhone app adds powerful voice control. Ask it when Tom's Diner in Mamaroneck closes today, or what time Skyfall's playing near you (btw, here's some Internet dude making a plausible case that Bond died at the beginning of the film, making the entire Bond series a dream) or what "fecund" means, and you'll not just get search results but an actual out-loud voice answer. It's great for driving. And, actually, it's worth using even if you do have Siri, as several web demonstrations show that Google's comprehension is keener.

Downcast is a much better podcast manager than the incredibly buggy native iOs app. It's worth $1.99 if you have even a nodding interest in podcasts (and if you don't, you should. Check out The Tobolowsky Files, Radio Lab, Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, Alec Baldwin's "Here's the Thing", Elvis Mitchell's "The Treatment", The Nerdist or WTF with Marc Maron for starters).

Flow Free is an awesome addictive game. It's hard to describe, but the best way to check it (or any iOs game) out is via video demo. FWIW I dislike their follow-up game, "Flow Free Bridges".

Other games I love: "AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!" (an adrenalin-pumping base jumper game that's so clever and funny; so meticulously crafted); Dark Meadow, a droll horror adventure with great ambiance, loosely based on the mind-blowing Bio Shock (which, by the way, is a must-play for your Mac). And anything at all by Pangea, whose games look juvenile in screenshots, but play like crafted treasures. I also love Osmos and MiniSquardron.

You probably figure viewing Wikipedia via web browser is more than good enough. No. It's not. Believe me, I understand the reluctance to have separate apps for every damn thing, but Wikipanion just makes Wikipedia so vastly more surf-able and enjoyable (not to mention bookmark-able). Unlikely though it sounds, it's one of my most-used apps. And it's free for both iPhone and iPad versions.

iPhone cameras are poor at photographing documents, signs...anything flat and hard-angled and informative. I use Scanner Pro for that stuff. Among other things, it makes my collection of takeout menus in Evernote that much more readable.

The big, expensive dictionaries for iOs periodically go on sale. I track expensive apps like these on AppShopper, which lets me know if one of them has a price drop. For example, I scored the $29 New Oxford American Dictionary for a mere 99 cents. AppShopper also has its own free app, making it even more convenient to monitor your wish list.

Did you miss my rave for the freebie Bongiovi DPS, which makes everything on your iPhone or iPad sound miraculously better? Or my recommendation of Hopstop to recoup the transit data stricken from iOs 6's lousy Maps app? Or my suggestions for using iPad as a laptop? Or the trick to resurrect lost browser tabs in iPad? Here are all Apple-related postings in reverse chronological order.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Hillary's Running

Hillary Clinton, yesterday (as quoted in Haaretz):
"That fragile cease-fire is holding, the skies above Israel are clear... but the world knows - and always will know - that whenever Israel is threatened, the U.S. will be there. What threatens Israel threatens America, what strengthens Israel, strengthens America."
I taught myself to write by dissecting other people's writing, both good and bad. In the process, I learned to decode intentions via word choice and rhythms. And to me, that quote is extraordinarily revealing. The first sentence is a good, crisp bit of diplomat-speak, burnished and conveying the requisite clarity. Nothing further was needed; the communication was effective, and complete. Done. Nailed it!

But the second sentence was a graft-on, and the clumsy, greasy thumbprints weren't even wiped away. It's patently redundant, and bears a jarringly different tone. That's no longer the voice of the Secretary of State, it's someone else - someone shamelessly political. And it doesn't present itself as a mild thrust of political option bolstering. Rather, it's a full, headlong, cheesy, sanctimonious lunge, to the point of overreach. It is, in other words, a classic example of Hillary Clinton's distinctive campaigning style.

And I'm definitely not a fan.

Friday, November 30, 2012

All Things Old....

Way back in 2001, Seth Godin offered me some good advice. I'd added a pitch to Chowhound's front page to sell our newsletters, and Seth suggested we try a range of different wordings (and fonts, etc.), and then track how well each "converts" (i.e. persuades people to actually buy), eventually determining the optimal recipe.

It's a brute force method useful only when there's a large enough flow of people to create statistically significant results - and when there's an effective and inexpensive means for tracking their behavior. This makes it ideally suited to high-volume web sites. But while I appreciated the idea's ingenuity, I opted not to try it, for various reasons (foremost: I needed to focus ever-decreasing time on either improving the site itself or on improving our business, and, not being a businessman, I chose the former...hoping, perhaps naively, that a great, useful site with lots of traffic might eventually be of interest to someone).

Twelve years later, the Obama campaign used the same approach, and is being roundly congratulated for its cutting-edge geeky cleverness (note: they were, indeed, very, very clever; I'm not trying to diminish that).

Interestingly, Reed Harper, the guy running this aspect of the campaign, started out as Godin's intern!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Dustbowl Politics

I just caught the second part of Ken Burn's superb "The Dustbowl" about a seldom-covered but shocking chapter of American history (Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath", which was by no means a complete account, was such an all-encompassing blockbuster that media for decades has hesitated to retread that period).

The parallels to current issues like climate change, short-sighted greed, and the role of the federal government in fiscal stimulus and in calamity relief are quite clear. But I was even more fascinated by the conservative side, which wasn't covered directly. The program filled in a few pieces for me.

I've long understand how the South turned Republican. Nixon's Southern strategy was cemented by the unholy coalition between evangelicals and billionaires. What I've been less clear on is why so many western ranchers, so flagrantly enjoying the federal dole, have a hypocritical Libertarian streak. And I haven't at all understood what made Orange County, California so staunchly conservative. Neither question was directly answered in the program, but one can connect the dots.

First, Orange County. When thousands of "Oakies", starving and desperate, fled the Dust Bowl for fertile central California, it triggered, naturally, a backlash against the flood of paupers by locals fearing overburdened social services, grimy human blight, and just the whole overall bummer of all these poor people who don't "share our values". Ok, that certainly accounts for the firm foundation of conservatism in the most emigrated-to part of the state.

(Their ungraciousness seems utterly heartless, considering what those folks had gone through, but I can remember back in the 1960s and 1970s how twangy-talking people wearing overalls crammed into overloaded trucks were cliched images of derision. Whether they were "hillbillies" (impoverished Appalachians) or "Oakies" (impoverished Dustbowlers), I myself laughed at parodies of these shabby hayseeds and it's only at this late date of 2012 that I really see who those people were and what they went through. So I myself am capable of the same ungraciousness.)

Back in the Plains States, post-Dustbowl, the government, trying to keep too much soil from being worked (over-development had caused the dust/erosion problem in the first place), began paying farmers and ranchers not to grow things. And the speculators who'd greedily torn up their soil with unsustainable plowing (causing the catastrophe); and who'd bailed out during the dust bowl years, making them much more severe (small farmers who'd stuck around practiced new techniques of soil conservation during the crisis, but the abandoned farms' soil kept blowing over and burying their own fields), ran back as soon as the drought abated. They accepted the federal dole, and started growing lots of water-intensive hog feed, draining the Ogallala Aquifer below the region, which will spur a new dust bowl (this time with no drinking water) in a couple of decades. And those short-sighted, predatory, hypocritical dole-taking assholes are, unsurprisingly, Libertarians (or, I should say, cynical Libertarian poseurs...I do understand what true Libertarianism theoretically is).

Of course, the full story is surely complicated. For one thing, it's hard to grok why the descendents of suffering Dustbowlers saved by the New Deal went nearly entirely Republican - with an innate preference for Hoover-ish budget austerity during massive unemployment. Though if there's one lesson to be learned from all this, it's that we have extremely short I shouldn't be surprised.

Friday, November 23, 2012


A reader writes:
"I went back and read your entries from the ChowTour 2006 – and I still remember your Kugel Catharsis article – and your review of the International Food Store in Lodi --  and my eyes tear. Being an Orthodox Jew – Ill never get to partake in 99% of what you had reviewed. Now – back to our memories of NewfoundLAND...."
I talk to lots of eaters, and everyone has limitations of one sort of another. Some have allergies, some are vegetarians, some have health problems, others are obese and trying valiantly not to be. Some simply live in areas with monotonous food choices, while others can't afford anything beyond rice and beans. And lots of people are just naturally picky (I was the pickiest child on Earth; my father sneeringly referred to me as "Charley Gourmet").

But the most mournful of all seem to be those who keep kosher. Deprivation of bacon and scallops (and, for some, anything lacking the stamp of just the right rabbi) makes them rue the vast swathes of deliciousness they're missing. I'll resist the impulse to make a crack about praying for a miraculous alleviation of piety, and tackle the issue directly:

I must be one of the freest eaters ever. I'm familiar with lots of cuisines, and feel comfortable striding into restaurants filled with people who don't look like me. I can't afford to eat high end every day, or even every week, but I can try such places once in a while, plus all-I-can-eat pizza slices and tacos. I can travel pretty easily; being a New York jazz musician is a little bit like being a Japanese karate pro - I can quickly find work anywhere in the world to help defray costs. I'm extremely omnivorous; I'll eat anything (except blu cheese, liver, stinky tofu, olives, and hot dogs). And I can go explore at the drop of a hat, thanks to being single and having a flexible freelancer schedule. Best of all, I like to drive!

But even I am extremely limited. Crushingly limited. Downright hog-tied! I can't eat before the gym or twice-daily meditation, which creates huge logistical burdens. I can't eat at night or I get heartburn. I can't eat a lot, or I get fat. I can't eat sugar or I get addicted. I can't eat salt or I bloat (I do all these things sometimes, of course, but must choose my battles). And I can't eat what's not here. The supernal roasted chicken from La Llar De L'all I Oli just outside Barcelona is not available to me right now. And it's worse for me than for you, because while you can only dream of shrimp chow fun, I have unlawful carnal knowledge of this poultry. It haunts me so.

There's unavoidable limitation in any human pursuit. And even sterner limitations apply, paradoxically, to those who've scratched out some extra freedom. Like any candy store worker, I've been taught tough lessons. I don't spend every waking moment darting to places like Worcester, even though I nearly could. The last time I did that for a sustained period of time, I wound up exhausted, sickened, bloated and jaded. Have a look at the slideshow documenting all food eaten during that two month Chow Tour assignment. As one eye-buggingly succulent dish after another zooms by, you'll go through Elisabeth Kübler-Chowhound's five stages of food grief: wonder, hunger, nausea, pity, and death (my boss at CNET simply couldn't understand why I insisted on scoring it to such sorrowful music). The next time you regret food limitations, just replay that slideshow. See freedom and retch.

Creativity thrives under limitation. If you can only eat snickerdoodles, well, just work your ass off to find (or to bake) ridiculously great ones! I once met a guy who suffers from Homocystinuria, a rare condition where you can't tolerate gluten or protein. He eats sublimely, with the infinite care not of a sufferer but of an aesthete. Under such conditions, you can either mourn (a calamari kaddish?) or else do what every human being is challenged to do in every realm and in every moment, anyway: play the cards you're dealt, hoping to make the best of it by investing all creativity, drive, and passion into coughing up something stupendous in spite of it all!

In other words: go find some ridiculously great glatted-up snickerdoodles, and make me jealous!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Ids and Dust

Every generation thinks something essential has been lost from the previous. And, indeed, it always has been. Progress is destructive. Even shifting status quo is destructive. Time itself, really, is destructive.

What's destroyed is usually cultural, though. Languages die, bits of knowledge are lost, nobody appreciates a swinging rhythm section anymore ever since those four British kids with the funny haircuts started selling all them records. Styles change, but the essential qualities of human nature never vary.

Or do they? I've been watching Ken Burns' The Dustbowl (currently on PBS, and great), which included this quote from an Oklahoma resident at the height of the catastrophe:
"We are trying to hope that the worst is over, Yet today, after we thought the drought had been effectively broken, we had another terrible day of violent wind, drifting clouds of dust, and russian thistles racing like mad across the plains and piling up in head-high impassible banks. We feel as if the administration is really making a sincere effort to improve general conditions, but they have a tremendous task."
That strikes me as a communication received from another galaxy. I recall widespread bitter outrage at the government's failure to foresee and prevent a few guys from hijacking airplanes with box cutters. I see Hurricane Sandy victims who ignored evacuation orders venting righteous fury at the government for its lagging efforts to rescue them. I see a nation of pure, raging, childish id.

Iddy Americans demand omniscient omnipresence from their government, while demanding lower taxes. We didn't pass Obama's jobs bill - composed almost entirely of Republican proposals - and while unemployment has improved nonetheless, we scream bloody hell about how he - personally! - hasn't improved the situation fast enough. It comes down to this: where's my damned job?

We want, and we want right now, and extenuating circumstances are just not our problem. Romney was right about "takers", but he was wrong about that 47% figure. It's closer to 100%. And the fact that he himself apparently paid no tax at all for years, yet muttered about freeloaders who pay no taxes, is just the perfect icing on my argument.

Hypocrisy is the effect, not the cause. What's happening is the extreme endgame of unbridled, imperious, screaming/grabbing id. And it wasn't always thus. The more I think about it, the more it stupefies me: Starving Oklahoma farmers, walking around with heads wrapped in wet cloths, their babies dying, the dust up to their barn roofs, their crops and livestock dead, acknowledging that the government's doing its best, but, hey, this is a really tough problem. Can you imagine such a reasonable statement being made - even in situations far less dire - in this century?

Postcards From My Childhood Part 4: Backsplash

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I willfully sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget. As my fiftieth birthday approaches, I'm revisiting them.

As a child, my technique for relaxing and falling asleep was to visualize a stressful moment I'd experienced during the day, and to imagine myself, in that moment, falling down into a cozy bed.

It worked well, but, after a while, I discovered to my horror that whenever anything stressful happened, I'd find myself growing sleepy and wanting to fall down into a cozy bed.

I felt it was important to remember this backlash effect...hence the postcard.

Read the next installment

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Cosmonaut Can't Be Sam Kinison

The reader replies to my last posting:
"I was a few degrees from the warlord fantasy, however I think the problem was actually getting myself to believe the simple fantasy I came up with, so a more fantastic fantasy might not have helped.  I really think I would have been fine if I could have convinced myself it was my old buddy or a kind relative in the next room watching TV. I just couldn't sell it to myself, which is what I need to work on, I believe."
I see my mistake. I've appeared to be selling this as some sort of self-help "solution". But it's not that. I've left out an essential step: first, you need to recognize, at some level, that the key to life is learning to want what you get rather than learning to get what you want. It's only useful for those who've already developed (or been born with) a bit of equanimity; who've already sanely realized that (as I wrote here): "Amid all the childish Sturm und Drang in a world where petty, arbitrary predilections are grasped for with utter tenacity - and little lasting satisfaction - it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that, really, it hardly matters, one way or the other."

You have to really feel that. Otherwise, you'll imagine this is about tricking yourself into believing that "bad" things are really "good" things. If you see those labels as absolutely ironclad, none of this is for you. In fact, the labeling is the problem! Equanimity is the capacity for loosening up on that labeling.

There are two paths to equanimity: via meditation, or via lots of abrasive time spent in a state of agitated frustration with the obvious ineffectiveness of one's toy steering wheel. Either route eventually alleviates the compulsion to viscerally need this or that result. It releases the delusion of control; it's not a shiny new means for imposing control.

The problem is that a bit of perspective and equanimity won't completely settle everything on a dime. Hormones and emotions and memories and the oceans of unconscious urges and fears remain in play. Also, we tend to forget and flip back, because old habits die hard. It's at times like this that the Cosmonaut/Warlord move helps. It's a dab of emotional salve allowing our bodies, emotions, and unconsciousness to catch up with our wisdom.

It's a way to sooth errant wafts of anxiety, just as we lull children - innate sweet-sleepers who can nonetheless get worked into tizzies from their comparatively mild little anxieties - via bedtime stories and teddy bears. Most grown-ups are too encrusted with aggregated urges and aversions to benefit much from mere lulling.

If the cosmonaut were, like, Sam Kinison, this move wouldn't have helped in the least. The cosmonaut didn't say "I'd better figure out what to do so I don't go berserk from that GODDAM BEEPING! I know....maybe I'll pretend it's friggin' angels or something so I won't be bothered by that GODDAM BEEPING anymore!" It's not a move to exert control by pretending to want what you get! It's not reprogramming. It's just a playful gambit to shift perspective. But if you can't for the life of you see that beeping is, on one level, just beeping - if you make your annoyance paramount, and decide that beeping just inescapably sucks - then you're stuck. No mere trickery can help you flip. You'll die in the space capsule with your face twisted into a tortured grimace.
"I definitely need to put more effort into it.  I think I will start meditating and see if that helps me control where my thoughts go."
Let me save you time. You can't. We don't think our thoughts. They just appear, wafting up from deep unconsciousness; from deep in the crud. The answer isn't to try to better control it all, but to flip to the extreme opposite tack - letting things be. And meditation brings a letting go - the very opposite of control. So beware (but don't worry; you won't fall, you'll float)!
"I can see how it will be a handicap if I can't tame my brain to allow me to sleep with a little TV in the background."
You can relieve your bondage to your chattering brain via meditation. But nothing short of a lobotomy can "tame" your brain. Remember, it's all crud, down to the very core. Don't polish the turd, just escape self-delusion by recognizing the futility of straining for a given result. Recognize that it's about calmly playing the hand you're dealt. Do as my GPS does whenever circumstances don't match with preference: recalculate!
"Yeah, next time I'll tell them to knock it off.  That's part of the problem, they are a constant nuisance so the moment I hear that TV (music, partying etc.) I go straight to super pissed because there is a history with them.
Going inward to avoid the friction and pain of external interaction is a very bad idea. It will just atrophy your real-world skills - your ability to calmly play the hand you're dealt. And telling yourself fantastic stories to empower inward escapism is worse still. That's a route to madness. The cosmonaut wasn't looking for an easy escape from a challenging problem. He was just beautifully accepting what he truly couldn't change.

The Frustrated Cosmonaut

A reader writes (in response to that video I keep flogging over and over again, wherein a cosmonaut transforms hellish noise into heavenly rapture via a shift of perspective):
" I tried really hard late last night to turn the sound of my downstairs neighbor's television into 1) the sound of people I care about chatting and 2) the sound of people I care about watching TV.  I knew I wouldn't get far trying to turn it into music a la the cosmonaut since it was only audible at random moments.  I failed, but eventually got to sleep anyway.  I guess it takes some practice."
You didn't put enough effort into that!

You are from Uganda, and your young children were taken from you by warlords. You passed an agonizing decade not knowing whether they were dead or alive and assuming you'd never see them again. Then, while traveling to another city, you were serendipitously reunited. They'd escaped the warlord but couldn't figure out how to get home. Overjoyed beyond words, you packed them into your car and drove them back home, where you all enjoyed a celebratory feast, and, after many hugs and tears, you finally went to bed. Your kids, happy and relieved to be back in the family living room, stay up watching television. As you turn out your light and pull up your blankets, you notice the noise, and your immediate instinct is to ask them to turn down the volume. But, no; you decide the sound of your beloved long-lost children right there in the next room, safe and cozy, enjoying the TV, is so dear to your heart that you wouldn't change a thing. After a decade of starkly silent nights, you drift off to the first deep slumber you've experienced in a very long time.

Seems like a long way to go? Is it a bit bit loopy and deranged to invest so much mental energy in sheer fantasy? As I wrote here:
"Human beings spend their lives in conflict with imaginary people: mentally rearguing old arguments, worrying about faceless attackers and detractors, reliving bygone humiliations, and generally using our imaginations to make our lives a living hell. That's considered "normal", but using the same faculty in positive ways to help us cope seems, for some reason, childish and loopy."
On the other hand, while it's critical to cope well with what can't be changed, that imperative oughtn't be used to avoid dealing with what can be changed. So your best solution might be to tell those idiots to turn down their damned TV!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Rage and Love

I was driving out of a store's parking lot, while an old geezer, who was driving poorly, did likewise. He became confused, reaching the (incorrect) conclusion that I'd cut him off so I could exit first.

The guy absolutely flipped. Started honking his horn and screaming out his window at me. It was so over the top that I grew alarmed - worried he might be having some sort of medical problem. So I backed up until my car was parallel to his and opened my window.

No medical problem. He was howling and screaming and cursing at me, his face twisted and red. I waited patiently, then asked, mildly, "Do you always scream at strangers?" His response "No! Only at @#$*s like you, you mother@#$@#ing @#$@ $#@$@#!"

I completely understood how he'd misconstrued things, so there was no call for me to get my own dander up; I just waited for him to finish so I could explain the misunderstanding. But my calm patience only goaded him further, his fury finally reaching a point so over-the-top, so urgently personal, so operatic, that the encounter had come to feel, in the strangest way, incredibly intimate.

It dawned on me that I've never in my life had anyone share quite so much with me. He was hemhoraging his vital energy, shooting stress toxins into his bloodstream, showering his presence and locking his attention, all for a total stranger. It struck me as a staggering display of generosity. I recalled the phrase "I'll give him a piece of my mind!". But it's really heart, I think, not mind. When we get angry at someone, we give them a piece of our heart. It's bewilderingly tender.

When witnessing rage - in yourself or in others - if you can dispassionately disregard the facial expressions and the semantic meaning of the words being uttered, it's clear that rage is love filtered through a colored gel.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Postcards From My Childhood Part 3: The Iron

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I willfully sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget. As my fiftieth birthday approaches, I'm revisiting them.

When I was shipped off to college, I was given a strange and foreign object: an iron. And since they don't come with instruction manuals, I had no choice but to teach myself to use it. It wasn't long before I discovered the first rule of ironing: you can't iron away a crease. You can reduce it some, but the fabric will always have an inclination to bend there, and there's no changing that, even with the brutest force.

This for some reason fascinated me. I spent time rolling it around my mind. And, eventually, I had an insight, realizing that there is, after all, one - and only one - way to eliminate a crease: flip the garment and then iron to create an opposite crease.

I realized I'd hit upon an essential truth, and have applied it all my life. For example, if you're plagued by nightmares full of scary monsters, the trick is to love the monsters (this was surely the original intent behind giving children teddy bears).

The cure for ennui: make life exciting for others. If you feel you're not getting your due, work to give others their's. If you feel helpless, help others. If no one understands you, show people you understand them. If you're lonely, ease others' loneliness. If you're sad, cheer people up.

Gandhi's entreaty to be the change you seek in the world, Kennedy's appeal to ask what you can do for your country, and Roosevelt's fear of fear all involve the same mental jujitsu.

I learned to never expect payback. That just creates a new crease. You've got to put all attention on the flip itself, keeping the fabric crisp and well-ironed.

One of the easiest, quickest examples: if you're scared, reassure someone. If there's no one around, an imaginary someone will do. (Human beings spend their lives in conflict with imaginary people: mentally rearguing old arguments, worrying about faceless attackers and detractors, reliving bygone humiliations, and generally using our imaginations to make our lives a living hell. That's considered "normal", but using the same faculty in positive ways to help us cope seems, for some reason, childish and loopy. Noticing this, by the way, entailed yet another flip.)

The biggest/greatest flip of all is well-illustrated by the story of the Russian cosmonaut, re: this movie clip I keep linking to:

Read the next installment

Friday, November 16, 2012

Rare Upstate Oaxacan Outpost

La Amistad Bakery in Newburgh, NY (at 74 Mill St.) sells that rarity of rarities, Oaxacan black mole paste. And also tlayudas, the big rounds of bread traditionally topped, pizza-like, with meats, vegetables, and Oaxacan string cheese (which they also sell).

Naturally, there's also a food concession in the back - which I've never caught at the right time for actual food service - and tamales early on weekends.

There's more Oaxacan stuff further north in Poughkeepsie, I understand.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

My Thoughts on Petraeus

I can't for the life of me understand why anyone ought to care who a capable government official is fucking.

What are we, high school students?

Postcards From My Childhood Part 2: The Piano

Previous installment

"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I willfully sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget. As my fiftieth birthday approaches, I'm revisiting them.

I started taking piano lessons when I was a mere six years old, and it wasn't long before I did what every child is irresistibly compelled to do: I used my forearms to mush down all the keys. And I listened very keenly to the result, which I recognized as more than mere cacophony.

I found, to my delight, that within this jumble of notes was every song. I could, if I concentrated, pick out Row Row Row Your any key! TV commercial jingles. Concertos. Every song ever written, and every song that ever might be written was there to be selectively tuned in to. Nothing was "played", yet everything could be "heard".

I had learned a new faculty; focusing attention to create the perception of change, as opposed to the more normal passive perception of change. The sound entering my ears was unvarying - "out there" was an unchanging jumble. But "in here" played exquisite symphonies. It wasn't imagination; the notes had actually been struck. It was just a matter of internally moving one's attention around static notes, rather than having notes externally moved around one's static attention.

On a gut level (I wouldn't have been able to articulate any of this at the time), I came to suspect that this was how it all works. We live surrounded by a static Everything, and apparent movement and change are created by movements of your attention. All notes are struck; we spend our lives arbitrarily tuning in to this or that.

For one thing, where's Heaven, assuming there is one? We've mapped much of the galaxy, but have yet to find an immense cloud populated with happy reclining people. Yet lots of wise people assure us heaven exists. Indeed, I've experienced it, for fleeting moments, and so have you, but we didn't transport up into the sky - nor have we descended for fleeting moments in Hell. Both were experienced (and are always available for re-experiencing) right here.

And what isn't experienced right here? Even when we travel, isn't it always with the same eery, unshakeable sense of right-hereness? Who can fail to suspect that this pervasive Presence isn't the bedrock of it all?

All notes are struck. That's the postcard.

Read the next installment

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


I've added an asterisked footnote to the previous entry.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Postcards From My Childhood Part 1: The Tree

"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I willfully sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget. As my fiftieth birthday approaches, I'm revisiting them.

Like many kids, I was into lots of stuff. I juggled, did magic tricks, collected baseball cards, read astronomy and science fiction books, played trombone, piano, and basketball, led jazz bands, acted in school plays, published an underground newspaper, shot super 8 movies, and practiced yoga, meditation, and self-hypnosis. I didn't particularly care if I was any good at these things, though. Like Max Fischer, the lead character in Rushmore, I ran on pure fascinated zeal.

One day, while meditating, I managed to accept and forgive the entire universe, and to earnestly offer my body's component molecules to the four winds. It was perfect surrender, accompanied by a profound shift of perspective. My heart contained everything. It contained the universe. I'd had everything backwards - the universe doesn't contain us, we contain it. I knew this with the sober certainty of someone waking from a dream. I understood that it's all perfect.

My reaction, as a twelve year old, was along the lines of "Whoa, that was cool!" I told my mom, who said it sounded very nice and suggested I go outside and play.

I couldn't talk about what I'd experienced, because it was impossible to describe (the above was just a cruddy metaphor), and also because I discovered, over time, that it wasn't something people could relate to. I ranked it on par with single-ear-wiggling as another cool little trick I could do which others can't. And, as I grew busy with other activities, I lost touch with it. I did, however, foresee that I'd later try to reclaim it, and that it wouldn't be easy to do so as a grown-up. So I sent myself this image:
You're sitting on a tree branch, facing the trunk. Use a saw to cut the branch in front of you, crazy though it seems. And have faith: you won't fall, you'll float!
One reason I'd been sanguine about letting this stuff go was was that I knew it didn't matter. The underlying truth is what it is, regardless. If I were to pass decades lost in foggy delusion, it wouldn't make any difference, because upon rediscovering the perfect, timeless truth, nothing would seem to have been lost - the very notion of lostness being part of the delusion. So I sent myself that message with a playful wink, because it absolutely didn't matter. But I knew I'd forget that it didn't matter. Hence the tip.

It's paradoxical, but while it made sense at the time, after several busy and untranscendent decades, I found myself, for the past eight years, determinedly steeping in hours of daily meditation...and endlessly revisiting the tree image. How encrusted I'd become! With all that practice, I passed through the various milestones, and enjoyed some interesting experiences, but my heart, while open, wouldn't expand. I was sawing away at branches, but the damned tree was just a tree!

During Hurricane Sandy, I spent a few days cooped up in the guest room of my mother's apartment. My mom's great but....well, you know how that can be. Plus, I was stressed about the storm damage and my refugee status. I wasn't getting much sleep, and had been surviving on Chinese food delivery and skipping meditation (and stopping meditating can be worse than never having started). In that lousy condition, I trudged out to find gas at the height of the shortage.

After waiting an hour in line for a gas station still a half mile away, my tank nearly empty, a driver cut the line just ahead of me. I jumped out of my car and went apeshit. Yelling and wasn't pretty. This was completely unlike me, and I felt deeply shocked and ashamed at myself.

Only for a minute, though. I value moments when errant bits of rabid stakedness gurgle up from my depths. If I can quickly snap back to equanimity, the door remains open for a moment, and the source - the unconscious contraction - can be sussed out, dredged up to awareness and surrendered in meditation along with my better-lit parts. You can't, after all, surrender what you're unaware of.

So a few moments after my shameful display, I caught myself, calmed deeply and probed for the source. To my horror, it wasn't some foggy fearful bit of primal grasping. Rather, it had flowed from my center; my ground zero. The rage had stemmed from the very core of my being. It wasn't something that could be shaved off!

I saw that the years I'd spent meditating, hoping to shave off all the crud, were - enjoyable and salubrious though the practice is - the ultimate example of turd polishing. It's all crud, all the way down. I'd been "letting go" only in the sense of someone standing safely on a concrete ledge, dropping unwanted baggage into a pit. I had to actually jump in, myself! It all needed to be let go of. Anything here [I gesture toward my body] is, in the end, just a mass of congealed urges, fears, and drama. One can peel away at it forever, but that's all there is. To the very core.*

So I smiled and allowed myself to fall blindly backwards into oblivion - to throw away the thrower-awayer. A quick jolt of fear made me hesitate. But suddenly I remembered: Cut the branch in front of you, crazy though it seems. And have faith: you won't fall, you'll float.

Thanks, kid.

* - which isn't to say worthiness never emerges from the crud. It does. But, tellingly, the really good stuff arrives via epiphany, eureka, and inspiration - "out of nowhere" and hard to claim credit for.

Read the next installment

Saturday, November 10, 2012

I Think the Right Will Split...Hard

On election night, I posted that "Hispanics/Latinos Won". Now everyone - including Romney's staff - is chalking up Romney's loss to his immigration stance.

But I haven't seen anyone hitting upon my other point - that we are about to see both parties falling over each other to push through generous immigration reform, and to reach out, generally, to Hispanic and Asian immigrants. It will be a tremendous shift.

But xenophobic blue collar whites aren't going to like it much. So I'll make another prediction: a third party will arise to channel their fury. Like the various European ultra-nationalist parties, it won't be pretty (and it won't win many elections). It will embolden and amplify the very worst outlying elements of the current Republican base, and make the ire of the Tea Party seem mild by comparison. But it will at last finally drive the mainstream Republican party back toward the center/right.

The pendulum of the right has over-swung too far to simply swing back again. Rather, my guess is that it will split. And the portion that swings toward still farther extremes will, I'm afraid, break some windows.

Friday, November 9, 2012

What I Learned From Two Weeks Off the Grid

When the power went out a couple of weeks ago, I'd just finished watching the season finale of Doctor Who. At the end, the time traveler's companions wound up stuck in the early 20th century, forced to live out their natural lives out from there, unable to ever reconnect with modern times.

Just as I was contemplating what that might feel like, a particularly seismic wind burst roared through, knocking out the electricity. Between that and the gas shortage, I've had neither power nor fuel for most of the past two weeks. So there was plenty of time to contemplate the stuck-out-of-time scenario from an unexpectedly personal perspective.

Back then, before corporate models of human interaction had metastasized into society at large, people were friendlier and more genuine with one another. Things hadn't gone meta; the world was not yet World World, all cloned up and corporate. The fabric of daily life was much richer. Each bakery's chocolate chip cookie had a unique flavor, every bowl of chicken soup was a snowflake, and bookstores and hardware stores had distinctive personalities. Arriving in a new town made you feel like you were really somewhere else (just typing that, as if describing something remarkable, shows how sadly homogenized it's all become).

But, in spite of all that, coming off these past two weeks, I've got to confess that if I were permanently relocated in an earlier era, without my iPad, DVDs, central heating, and car (let alone antibiotics), I'd howl and whine like Eva Gabor stuck in Green Acres.

Two weeks of doing without ought to have left me feeling grateful. And it did. The problem is that I'm feeling a bit too grateful. I never realized how fundamentally tied to my gizmos, comforts, and entertainments I am. I'm chilled by the sudden recognition of what a complete ditz I am.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Blow-Out Film Sale

Tons and tons of Criterion Collection DVDs and Blu-Rays are 50% off at Barnes and Noble thru November 19. This never happens.

[Update: no, this happens twice per year. And Amazon usually quickly matches the prices for the length of the sale. However, the rest of the year, good luck getting discounts on this stuff]

For those who don't know, Criterion Collection has fantastic taste in films, and puts out brilliantly produced editions with tons of extras. Many are limited runs, and their value goes up over time. The only problem is they're a bit pricey. But not this week.

It's almost enough to make up for nine days without power and five without gas.

Note: you may want to check second-hand prices on Amazon Marketplace and

To get you started, here are all the Criterion films I either own or have on my wish list (sorry I'm not feeling OCD enough to dig up links):

3 Women
4 by Agnès Varda
A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman
Alexander Nevsky
Antonio Gaudi
Bicycle Thieves
Brand Upon the Brain!
Burden of Dreams
Burmese Harp
By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volumes One and Two
Days of Heaven
Earrings of Madame de...
Eclipse Series 31: Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin
Fanny and Alexander
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Great Adaptations
Grey Gardens / The Beales of Grey Gardens
Harlan County, U.S.A.
Hiroshima Mon Amour
I Know Where I'm Going!
In the Mood for Love
Ingmar Bergman - Four Masterworks
Jules and Jim
La Jetee/Sans Soleil
La Ronde
Last Year at Marienbad
Le Plaisir
M. Hulot's Holiday
Mala Noche
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Nanook of the North
Olivier's Shakespeare
Orphic Trilogy
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Pierrot le Fou
Scenes From a Marriage
Shallow Grave
Short Cuts
Stories of Floating Weeds
Stranger Than Paradise
Tanner '88
The 39 Steps
The Battle of Algiers
The Devil & Daniel Webster
The Lady Eve
The Lady Vanishes
The Last Emperor
The Leopard
The Passion of Joan of Arc
The Rules of the Game
The Seventh Seal
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
The Vanishing
This Is Spinal Tap
Throne of Blood
Tokyo Story
Umberto D.
Wild Strawberries
Withnail and I
Yi Yi

Hispanics/Latinos Won

It's a great night for Latinos and Hispanics. This was their victory as well as Obama's.

It will be a very long time before we see another mainstream national candidate scorn this segment. And Republicans will trip over themselves to work with the president to pass immigration reform this term. Spanish-speaking voters can consider themselves, from this day forward, Ohio.

It wasn't the shameless flip-flopping that cost Romney the election. It wasn't the 47% comment. What lost Romney the presidency was his anachronistically hard-assed stance on immigration - specifically, his "self-deportation" meme. Hispanics and Latinos are not just an up-and-coming population. They've already upped and come. They are our demographic future, and the Republican party committed the political blunder of the century by ignoring this.

It was especially dumb considering that the Mexican-Americans and, uh, Central American-Americans who are a large part of this population tend to be hardworking, pious, family-values, law-and-order, don't-tread-on-me squares. They are natural-born Republicans. All they needed was for the party to embrace them.

George W Bush understood this very well, and the party of his era made it a top priority to reach out to that community. But today's Republicans, utterly infatuated with - and terrorized by - the Tea Party, let that drop. The 2010 midterms frightened them into abandoning all other constituencies. So during debate after primary debate, Republican candidates outdid each other with tough talk on immigration, hoping to score points with their base of immigrant-hating blue collar whites. And Romney tacked right of every one of them, cavalierly suggesting that undocumented immigrants simply "self-deport" (and then declined to shake the Etch-A-Sketch).

That base knows its primacy is over. They understand, and fear, that "the minorities" are on the brink of becoming the majority. And Republicans short-sightedly deemed this a leverage point. Unable to resist an opportunity to stoke fear, they sided with the shrinkers. So immigrants gave Obama Virginia, Nevada, Iowa, and more. And he didn't even have to work for it. At Romney's urging, they self-deported right into the Democratic Party.

Republicans will pivot, fast and hard. They can't win a national election until they fix this. So, congratulations, Spanish-speakers (and, also, Asians). You are now personas muy, muy "grata".

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Intense Beauty of Bloomberg's Crappy Spanish

I find Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to offer Spanish language advisories in his emergency news conferences heartbreakingly beautiful. If you'll look beyond his impassive face to the heart of what he's doing, you'll see it, too.

Yes, Bloomberg's Spanish is poor, and his accent is horrendous. So why does he do it? Why would a billlionaire - who could be playing golf or throwing parties, who's been up for days handling an emergency while New Yorkers jeer at him because they want their power back on, who has nothing to prove to anyone, who faces no reeelection and therefore has no reason to pander to Latinos - put himself out there, in the hot lights, drawing ridicule by offering his crappy Spanish?

Even Rachel Figueroa, the ridiculer-in-chief, who writes the (pretty amusing) "@ElBloombito" Twitter feed, asks this same question:
"I don’t know why he does it....You get this sense that he thinks we should be honored that he would even attempt to speak Spanish"
The article's writer describes these efforts as "stilted stabs at multiculturalism".

I enjoy Figueroa's Twitter feed, but I really abhor her comment. Interestingly, she doesn't speak Spanish, though she has a Puerto Rican father. She understands it some. So I'm not sure she'd be the proper person to assign any such honor. The mayor's not speaking to you, Rachel.

He's speaking to the very large number of city residents who speak only Spanish, and who could especially use the steady, soothing reassurance from their mayor in a time of crisis that the rest of us enjoy. Even during good times, non-English-speaking immigrants feel marginalized and neglected. It's that much worse in times like these.

I feel like a fully enfranchised New Yorker, but, like everyone else, it makes me feel better to see a Bloomberg (or, god help me, even a Guiliani) on TV telling me it's all going to be ok, projecting the aura of competent authority, and offering me detailed information. It helps. It's soothing. It's part of what a mayor does. Millions listen raptly to transistor radios during these news conferences.

So he's addressing Dominican waitresses and hard-working Mexican young men and the isolated grandmas of busy Peruvian yuppies. They are as worried as the rest of us, but also confused and feeling very much out of the loop. New York City's two million Hispanics need a mayor's personal assurance more than anyone.

In order to reassure them and make them feel remembered, connected, and looked after, this hugely successful billionaire, who could easily be in a resort somewhere sipping mai tais, puts himself out there on television, letting everyone see him doing something he knows he's not good at. His sole motivation: kind compassion and earnest sense of duty. He thinks it's important. It's love.

How often does one see such a thing? Did mayors like Abe Beame, John Lindsay, or even David Dinkins give a rat's ass about personally reassuring Colombian families after a terrifying event, much less putting themselves on the spot to do so? And would any of them have kept their compassionate motivations to themselves, letting contemptuous assumptions stand unrebutted?

Bloomberg is too modest and high-minded to point out any of this, or to lash back at the criticism. His sole response to the ridicule was this:
"Tengo 69 años. Es difícil para aprender un nuevo idioma." (Translation: I’m 69 years old. It’s difficult to learn a new language.”)
This sort of selfless compassion and courage could stem only from shakti. That's why it's heartbreaking and beautiful. It doesn't appear often. As with Steve Jobs, people will only notice the shakti contrails once he dies.

In that same article, Figueroa concedes that, in light of her own lousy Spanish, "I would not be able to give a press briefing in Spanish." Oh, really? But what if you were the mayor, Rachel, and a couple million people might feel soothed in a time of crisis if you rose above your inadequacies to make a heartfelt effort to speak directly to them; to make them feel that they, too, have a mayor? Would you willingly make yourself vulnerabile on TV so you could be of service beyond the call of duty? Could you, an anonymous chick in Brooklyn, even come close to the egolessness of the city's most successful person in order to reassure a population you're related to and he's not?

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