Friday, November 29, 2013


A "challenge" is an aggravation with an insipid sparkly bow tied around it.

Accounting for Bourbon and Rye Variation

SKU, of the Sku's Recent Eats Blog (a great source of cutting-edge info on bourbons and ryes), was kind enough to post an informative comment to my "Rye Whisky Tasting" post:
Great tasting! As a matter of background, Riverboat is distilled by Midwest Grain Products, a large contract distiller in Indiana which also makes Bulleit, Templeton and many other popular ryes, including the two year old rye used in High West Double Rye. They use a 95% rye mash, which is much higher than any of the Kentucky ryes (though lower than the 100% ryes made in Canada, such as WhistlePig). Overholt is Beam Rye with a bit more time in the barrel.
It's interesting and useful to know what's distilled where, and I thank SKU for the posting. But it offers a good opportunity to share the big lesson I learned from a week spent in Bardstown, KY at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival (where I reported, with photos, in five installments: So Where's the Bourbon?, Barrels, Barrels, Everywhere, The Greatest (Chowhounding) Story Ever Told, Madly in Love with Maxine's, and Bourbon Redux).

The lesson is this: it's all about the barrels. At Four Roses, we had a chance to taste newborn bourbon straight out of the distilling process, and, much to my surprise and dismay, it was indistinguishable from vodka. It's a neutral grain spirit with no detectable aroma or flavor.

As my bourbon buddy JB and I toured lots of barrel houses (and we hit a bunch of them, because there is no greater smell on Earth; I compared it to "angels puffing into your unearthly aroma of luscious caramel and vanilla which sneaks up on you in an undulating wave of divine consolation"), we learned that the whole game is in barrel selection and placement. Temperature varies by a few degrees between interior-stored barrels and ones closer to the walls. And cycling them between locations as they age folds in another layer of complexity. Tiny aging decisions like these - plus, of course, aging length and grain proportions- account for nearly all variation. The actual spirit is so generic that it doesn't matter all that much who makes the stuff. It's all about the barrels.

Every few months, some media outlet will report how the dozens of brands are made by the same tiny handful of distilleries. The implication is that aficionados are chuckleheads who've been conned into buying the same damned stuff in a range of snazzy bottles. But my blind tasting demonstrates the tremendous variation.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


I find myself increasingly finding inspiration and delight in the tiniest of things. A mere gesture, a glance, a single word choice, in art or in day-to-day life, can sustain me for hours. At times I feel able to experience the richness and breadth of thick Russian novels within the blink of an eye.

I call it nano-aesthetics, and it's a core tenet of Apprecianity. Sweeping statements and ambitious undertakings are often contaminated by ego and vanity. The raw divinity of human beings is most purely expressed via tiny things, which most often go unnoticed. As an Apprecianist, it's my obligation to notice.

Truthfully, I'm a bit embarrassed about this. In a society where everyone dreams giant dreams of cataclysmic delights, here I am quietly doting upon dust motes, like a hobo greedily pulling grains of rice from the trash. Smallness in America can feel awfully....well...small. But after my revulsion at the bigness of my Chowhound experience, I've gone thoroughly nano. My ego hates it, but my soul loves it.

The Apple iWatch May Be a Red Herring

I've said before that I don't like the idea of Apple's heavily-rumored under-development iWatch. But here's what I'm thinking now: I don't think it's real. I think it's a fake-out; a red herring. 

I suspect they're fueling these rumors to drive competitors to waste time and money ramping up their own watches to compete, when Apple has no intention of launching any such thing....because, per the reasoning in the above link, it's really quite a dumb idea.

I may turn out to have been embarrassingly wrong on this, but....let's see!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Ben & Jerry's Butterscotch Ice Cream

How much do you love butterscotch? Do you love it enough to submerge yourself in a tank of tacky butterscotch syrup, rub butterscotch crunchies from your sleepy eyes, and lard butterscotch onto butterscotch onto butterscotch onto butterscotch onto butterscotch?

Are you eager to not just welcome back an old, nearly extinct flavor, but to lavish in it, to roll around the floor with it, to have it tear all your clothes off and have its way with you? How deep is your love...of butterscotch?

Ben & Jerry's latest, Ron Burgundy's Scotchy Scotch Scotch (yet another B&J show biz tie-in) is very strong medicine, a semi-consensual rape via butterscotch. It's intensely potent butterscotch ice cream with a huge ribbon of the richest butterscotch syrup, littered with butterscotch micro-crunchies. It's likely more than you can handle. I can't eat more than a couple tablespoons at a time, myself, and I'm a huge butterscotch fan. I've been yearning, pleading, begging for the stuff on Chowhound since back in the 1990's, but, Jesus Christ, this may be more butterscotch than even I can handle.

Here's where to find some.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Sport Jacket (or: "The Nigerian Ambassador Composed His Features")

I was headed for an awesome trip via frequent flyer miles to Spain and Morocco (I've started recounting the food side of the trip here). Spain to play some jazz gigs (a nostalgic return; up until the mid-1990's, I used to tour all the jazz clubs there two or three times per year) and Morocco because an old bass player friend had been appointed as the Belgian ambassador, and had invited me to come hang out at the residence...and also play a couple of gigs (including one where we'd literally rock the casbah in the old part of Tangiers).

I'm not really a dresser-to-impresser, but I needed at least one good, hip sports coat to wear on stage in Spain and during my stay in the embassy in Rabat. So I went shopping, starting at Nordstrum's Outlet, which I'd heard offered Nordstrum's quality at deeply discounted prices. The place was indistinguishable from other low-end retailers, ala Marshall's and TJ Maxx, and so was the clothing. None of this stuff had ever been anywhere near an actual Nordstrum's; the whole operation's a sham. Sure, I could buy a $72 blazer, but it was the cheapest crap imaginable.

I've now invested 45 minutes in this quest, and my trip is one week away.

So I hit up Macy's, where I found a bunch of $150 blazers, all of them so unhip that my own hipness was sucked out of me just by standing near them. This is what assistant branch managers wear for prime rib night at the second best steakhouse in some suburban hell. Not quite navy blue blazers with nautical buttons, but close to it.

Now I'm ninety minutes into the quest, and my trip's five days away.

So I headed to SOHO, where I tried Uniqlo (imagine Ikea - and Ikea quality - for clothes) and Original Penguin (Uniqlo quality at thrice the price). At those shops and others, the XL size jackets were so skimpy I was ready to hightail it out to a Big & Tall Man shop (I'm 6 feet and 200 lbs....not slender, but, geez, no Chris Christie). Shiny and skinny, these jackets were apparently designed for European pimps.

Ted Baker is for people who blithely shrug at paying $650 for a jacket. Such people can go to Ted Baker, and, yep, they've got lots of $650 jackets there. Nice, and nicely tailored. But for that price, I'd expect "wow", and this is not a place for "wow", it's just a place to blithely drop big money on merely okay jackets. Except: everything has a horrible obtrusive Ted Baker logo sewn in. Jesus.

I'm now at the four hour mark, and the trip's four days away. And, again, I really need a nice sports jacket. I can't show up at the embassy looking like something the cat dragged in. Effort is required. One peril of being fifty is that you need to try twice as hard for half the result.

In search of a genuinely great brand at serious discount, I tried Ina Men, an upscale consignment shop, where I fell in love with a $130 Prada cotton jacket exactly one size too small for me. With only 3 or 4 jackets of any given size, it's suit roulette, and I lost.

Five hours, four days from departure.

Figuring that Prada was my thing, I innocently headed into their shop, where I threw off the room's suave vibe for the ten minutes I spent wandering around, disoriented by the absence of inventory and posted prices. I grubbily rooted around a couple jacket linings for price tags (I'd never before realized that I move Jewishly), and, reading all those digits, nearly fell over dead on the floor.

Six hours, three days.

Someone suggested I try the sales rack at Sak's Fifth Avenue. I knew the name, of course, but didn't know where the store was or what it was about. But I ascended six or seven escalator levels to be greeted by a men's department saleswoman whom I regaled with my tale of jazz gigs, homecomings, embassies, and casbahs. She agreed I needed the perfect jacket, and snatched from some unseen corner a radiant, creamy hunk of fabric which she glided onto my body in a single buttery-smooth motion. Woosh. I stood there, blinking into a mirror, realizing that I was wearing exactly That Jacket. Saleswoman grinned approvingly. She'd nailed it.

All that remained was the trivial matter of cost. I asked, she answered, and I wormed my way out of That Jacket with distinctly ethnic haste. I asked to be shown the sales rack, and was obliged. But after That Jacket, everything else seemed like remainders. My memory may be distorted, but I recall one jacket missing a left arm, and another being made out of sandpaper.

"You know," the saleswoman confided in her low voice - suddenly just a tad more ethnic (Puerto Rican in her case), "if you buy That Jacket, it will serve you well for many, many years. It will save you from needing to buy a succession of cheaper jackets, none a shadow of the quality of this one. And you'll look sharp as a tack at your performances, which means one less thing to worry about."

I had, at this point, spent seven hours on this frustrating quest during the busy lead-up to my big trip, and didn't have an acceptable jacket anywhere near my sights...aside from That Jacket, in its radiant creamy perfection. That Jacket was quite obviously the jacket. And while I'd be spending more on this garment than any member of my family had ever spent on a single item of clothing since the dawn of the Leff line, the saleswoman had a point. Buying once and right is better than consecutive half-assed struggles. And I needed a goddam jacket for this trip and was completely out of time.

All the blood drained from my face as all the money was drained from my bank account. My stupor was interrupted with a follow-up question: Would I like a pocket square? Uh, sure. Yes! What do I look like, a farmer?

I was shown a gorgeous $150 pocket square, and instantly understood the trap I'd set for myself. That Jacket could never really fit into my life, because I don't have That Shirt, Those Pants, Those Shoes, Those Socks, That Belt, and That friggin' Pocket Square. Gathering all those items together would amount to a mortgageable undertaking. And even if I managed it, then what would I wear on, like, Tuesday?

I decided to stop the train right then and there. I spoke a few sentences never before uttered in Saks Fifth Avenue. I said it a bit too loudly, and everything around me froze into shocked tense silence:
I can't buy this. I've spent all my money on the jacket. I have nothing left.
Hushed astonishment all around. Another salesmen who'd been standing nearby murmured something into my saleswoman's ear. The charade over, the spell broken, she spoke to me in full-out Puerto Rican, with coarsely borough-ish body gestures, telling me, with genuine warmth, not to worry. They had one for fifteen bucks in a drawer somewhere which they could iron up and make look nice for me. She actually said the phrase "make look nice for you". Also a Saks first, I believe.

In a state of deep sticker shock and buyer's remorse (really more like buyer's crippled nauseated paralysis), I left the store, having left That Jacket for sleeve adjustment with the oily, aloof, patronizing tailor who'd taken one look at my sneaker/shoes and decided he abhorred everything I stood for.

So I got to Spain and found out that the gigs hadn't materialized. No problem, I'd play around informally and build back my reputation; that's how I did it the first time, plus I had a great time with my many friends there. I did show up to sit in on my bassist friend Nono's gig in That Jacket, and as soon as he spotted me, he started laughing uproariously. "Leff, what the fuck are you wearing?" he asked between peals of hysterical giggling. I snarled at him, figuring I'd fit right in when I got to Morocco.

A few days later, I found myself encamped at the Belgian ambassador's residence in the Moroccan capital, a glamorous, sprawling villa with indoor palm tree terrariums, designed by a fellow who'd clearly been instructed to whip up something resembling a Bond villain lair. That first night, there'd be a diplomatic reception, and I'd be supplying the music (with my ambassador buddy on bass). I had no intention of glad-handing diplomats; my plan was to stick with the musicians. So as the hour rolled near, and I was finishing preparations - kicking equipment cables out of sight and adjusting music stands - I took one last walk across the residence to grab my horn, moving swiftly to avoid the influx soon to arrive.

As I passed through the main hallway, the first guest was arriving. The Nigerian ambassador was a bit early, still slightly discombobulated from the process of coming out of his car, snapping shut his cell phone, and adjusting his tie. It was an unguarded moment; he figured he had three or four footsteps before he'd need to get fully into character. But then I crossed, some twenty feet in front of him. He didn't have time to fully survey me, but, on sheer instinct, the Nigerian ambassador composed his features.

The Nigerian ambassador composed his features.

I'm not normally a person who inspires much in the way of feature composing. I'm more the guy you mistakenly hand off your overcoat or car keys to, or, at least, go have a beer with after the caviar tasting. So having the Nigerian ambassador bloom radiantly into solicitously smiling "show time" in my presence was just about the strangest possible thing. It was, of course, That Jacket. I instantly understood why people buy such jackets, why they spend those sums. And I saw what an idiot I'd been to walk that road, because I'm not one of those people. I don't yearn to be someone for whom features are composed. More than that, I didn't like it. So I just kept walking. You're mistaken, excellency. This may be That Jacket, but I'm not That Guy.

I played well, but it goes without saying that I spilled some food on the jacket that night. Not a big conspicuous splotch, just a deeply demoralizing and world-crushing little dab of color on the sleeve (a few weeks later the Mexican kid at my local dry cleaners took a Brillo to it and got it out, no prob). It's safely in my closet, to which I've considered adding a lock. And I think I probably won't ever take That Jacket out again. The lesson cost dearly, but it was a hell of an interesting insight I never would have otherwise received.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The "Dessert" Memorization Trick

This works whenever you need to memorize something just a bit too long to remember in one swoop. For example, I had to copy the following password into an app on my iPhone: vze179wnv. I could have easily memorized any six digits of that, but the whole thing? No way. So here's what I did:

As I said, six digits seemed memorable. So I mentally separated the overflow - the final three digits. I stared at them for a couple of moments and told myself I wouldn't need to memorize them. The "wnv" portion I'd just know. The rest, I'd memorize. This part would simply come, without effort.

Then I used my familiar memorization technique to remember "vze179": repeating it over and over aloud and typing it in an agitated rush - all while completely disregarding "wnv". Then, relaxed and blithe, I pecked in the characters "wnv", which seemed to come from a very different part of my brain.

You know how dessert goes to a different part of the stomach? Like, even after a cripplingly filling meal, dessert somehow seems like another thing? It's exactly like that!

Monday, November 18, 2013

"Social Media"

Spotted in a suburban storefront:

So that's over. Time for something new...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"There's a Soldier in All of Us"

TV commercials aren't supposed to inspire deep thoughts, but this one threw my mind into overdrive, contemplating issues of violence, masculinity, repression and sublimation of primal instincts, the fragility of modern civilization and the viability of human survival. I doubt even Solzhenitsyn could inspire all that in a 60 second TV spot!

What's more, do I dare confess that it strikes me as a really cool game?

Previous Slog articles about violence:

The Better Angels of Our Nature`
"...It strikes me as obvious that evolution favors the most violently competitive (which explains why there aren't indications of intelligent life in the universe). That said, a subtle evolutionary process does work the other way..."

Does Peace Have a Chance?
"...The development of the notion of an "us" relies upon the contrasting presence of a "them". From primitive societies to American anti-Muslim bigots, one hallmark of provincialism is the dehumanization of the barbaric tribe across the river..."

Give Carnage a Chance
"...Aggression drives everything, even evolution. In a pasture full of blissfully moo-ing cows and a few angry bulls, who's going to run the show?..."

Brazilian Bus Driver Syndrome
"...Bus drivers there have an unwritten but firm agreement with gangs and drug lords: they do not interfere with or testify against crimes and violence perpetrated on their buses, and, in exchange, they themselves are spared. The question is: what does this situation do, psychologically, to those drivers? ..."

A Case For More, Not Less, Calling of "Nazi!"
"....Isn't that the supreme lesson to be drawn from the horrors of the twentieth century? That humanity is capable of heinous evil, and it may recur in any era with a f├╝hrer du jour? That we need to remember how low we can go, and try to stanch situations before they devolve to the ghastly point?..."

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rye Whiskey Tasting

My favorite rye - which I like so much that it's become a category killer for me - is Riverboat. It's something of a fluke. The makers were aiming to create a cheap bottom-shelf product for bartenders to use in cocktails, so it's young, unfiltered, unrefined, and, quite by accident, incredibly delicious. Persuaded to market it as a consumer product, it costs around $20/bottle and everyone I serve it to goes crazy for it. Which makes it awfully hard to justify paying much more for rye.

But most of the others do cost more - some way more. The most expensive, WhistlePig at $65, was among my least-favorite. And a brand I'd always regarded as near-rotgut, Old Overholt, though flawed, beat the competition in one respect (its long, long finish). With spirits, you don't necessarily get what you pay for!

We sampled everything blind, which led to some surprises, none more startling than the positive reaction to Old Overholt. And High West, though an old favorite of mine, was even better than expected (their double rye blends an intense 2-year-old rye with a smooth 16-year-old. As they put it, "the older rye has a 'barely legal' rye mashbill of 53% rye and 37% corn. The extra age and corn provides some extra sweetness to calm the "bite" of the younger rye"). I was certainly taken aback by the poor showing of the Rittenhouse, but suspect this might have been an off bottle.

Here's the upshot:

Most friendly rye: Riverboat
Most fun rye: High West
Most stately/deep rye: Willett

Here are the tasting notes, in the order in which we tasted:

Riverboat, $21
Lots of rye character, but it's all the high mid-range flavors - no deeper/darker flavors. This makes for a friendly character and easy/breezy drinking. Sweetness is exactly, precisely what it needs to be. Aftertaste is well-baked cookies. This would work incredibly well with a wide range of foods.

Old Overholt, $15
Very little aroma, and the flavor itself starts out confined and chintzy, tasting like tongue depressor sticks. But then it all opens up into a beautifully long, deep, round finish which hardly seems like it belongs to the same drink.

WhistlePig, $65
An intense, concentrated, in-your-face wallop of flavor, including some off notes (I suspect they're not careful with their grain bill - the important procedure of inspecting the grain delivered to the distillery). No structure, just that big vulgar hit, and, unsurprisingly, the finish is muddled, finally leaving a sticky candy-ish aftertaste in the mouth.

Willett, $35
Nice spicy aroma. Flavor is as intense as WhistlePig - rich, broad, and bracing - but it's also meticulously clean and refined and multi-layered. So much deeper, and light years more elegant. This one's a ride, a tad bombastic but classy all the way. A Wagnerian opera in a glass!

Rittenhouse, $25
Turkish taffy aroma. Just not much here; can't really find much to observe, much less appreciate. No elegance or depth, just gestures of rye flavor.

High West Double Rye, $35
Smells like Chanel perfume, but not in a bad way. Lots of flavor drama (nearly as operatic as the Willett, though nowhere near as deep), all against a unified background structure which I compared to a string section holding a long note while the brass and woodwinds blast. A wild and delicious ride.

Catoctin Creek Organic Roundstone Rye, $40
I get skeptical whenever I see the term "organic" appearing where it doesn't belong. And, indeed, I found myself missing all the yummy toxins and pesticides. Or something. This one's lackluster and unworthy.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Here's how it always works: I find something great, fall in love, and quickly discover that no one else is paying the least attention to the obscure thing that's been captivating me. I'm forced to drive to the ends of the earth for my fixes, and everyone thinks I'm nuts for my devotion to something no one else cares about (as I wrote last month, "we're only supposed to go apeshit for the things we've previously been told to go apeshit about. Independent, uncorroborated apeshit-going is the mark of a crazy person").

Then, after a few years, the mainstream latches on, and for a brief moment, I enjoy easy availability and a profusion of kindred spirits. But soon after - right around the time the money and attention have begun to subvert things - it becomes yesterday's thing, and I'm left feeling ridiculous once again - this time for being one of those unfortunate people who cling cluelessly to stale trends.

Check out Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog ranking on the annoying legions of craft beer freaks, just as I was beginning to celebrate the mainstreaming of beer appreciation (ironically, I was a Robert Smigel fan long before he became popular):

I had a fantastic idea for a reality TV food show in 1994, before there was reality TV. By the time I was in a position to pitch it, I was perceived as just another sad wannabe trying to scratch his way onto the receding tail of a big trend.

Hey, it even happened with chowhounding!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Who Elected Rob Ford?

With all the press coverage of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, no one has taken time to explain how this clown was elected in the first place. He clearly has his supporters...lots of them.

Here's an explanation from a knowledgable local. Amid the over-written trolling comparison lies this nugget:
[Ford's constituency is] the Ontario equivalent of the Tea Party. Peel back the veneer, and you find someone who truly, deeply feels that "Toronto The Good" doesn't work. Who feels that it works for someone else. For downtowners, or liberals, or cyclists, or unionized employees, or something else.

Ford Nation thinks Toronto is all about "someone else," not about them. To Ford Nation, Toronto looks down upon the suburbs and taxpayers, and Ford Nation is angry about that
Anarchism exploded in America at the turn of the last century. The movement's little-remembered now, though it terrorized the nation for a few years, and even led to the assasination of President McKinley. And it all stemmed from an economic crisis, the Panic of 1893.

The financial crisis of 2007–08 brought its own anarchistic reaction, from the Tea Party (launched in 2009) to the angry nihilistic mobs who put Rob Ford in office in 2010.

Writers both liberal and mainstream conservative have always warned of the gruesomeness lurking in the right wing fringe. Yet conservative politicians have long pandered to that fringe, stoking it to a critical mass where it's now able to elect its own candidates who, in turn, consume the panderers.

Of course, the explosive combination of the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960's empowered a left-wing fringe with equally harsh "tear it all down" objectives. But neither fringe has ever held real power until now. And those who pine for the days of moderate conservatives ought to temper their nostalgia with an awareness that those were the guys who stoked and empowered these loonies in the first place.*

Republicans who cynically pretended to believe that evolution's just a theory and that the president was born in Kenya, etc. etc., have been violently replaced by kooks and morons who actually buy all that. Is crack-smoking really so far beyond?

* For that matter, bear in mind who inflamed and armed radical Islam in the first place (hint: it was a country that really really wanted to see the Soviets pushed out of Afghanistan).

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Never Sad Time

I hadn't planned to share this, but what the heck. A friend lost a hard-fought election yesterday, and here, for whatever it's worth, is what I sent him:
The world says we're supposed to be sad when we don't get what we want. But if what you want is to fully immerse in the ride - to exuberantly learn stuff and gain experience - there's never reason to ever be less than 100% gleeful, even when the world tells you it's a "sad time".

Because there's no such thing as Sad Time. Life's short and you've just experienced a whole lot of cool stuff.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

More on "Tips For Art Critics"

Re: my previous posting, I was asked:
"I'm not sure I buy the part about ignoring motivation. Certainly your best chowhounding was all about understanding who made the thing and why, no?"
Yes, but I always kept my eye on the ball. I'd broach that stuff in order to try to heighten a diligently fleshed-out story which hopefully conveyed a vicarious experience of the thing.

But that stuff would never be the sole focus, or serve as an easy way to get me off the hook of doing the hard work of doing justice to the thing.

Think of movie or book reviews that talk almost entirely about the topic of the movie/book, rather than the work itself. It's self-indulgence. Film critics tire of the narrow confines of discussing direction, acting, lighting, etc. all the time. This guy's saying: too freaking bad. Critics ought to invest 1% of the creativity and resourcefulness of the folks they're judging into finding fresh ways to work within those confines.

It's absolutely a fair point, and it alludes to the higher indignity of creative people being criticized by uncreative hacks. That's the point I'd stress, but I admire Zak Smith for keeping his criticisms so sharply pragmatic. Much food for thought therein, though.

Zak Smith’s Tips For Art Critics

Arts criticism (including film, music, food, etc.) is almost universally lazy, superficial, wrong-headed, lazy, and hackneyed ("lazy" intentionally listed twice). I know a lot of those guys. Shoot, I was one of those guys. The notion of an obligation to truly do justice to the person or thing one is writing about barely exists.

It's tough to articulate the many ways in which critics fail to do even a reasonably competent job, but Zak Smith has (for the most part) nailed it, and with great economy. It's always revelatory to see journalism viewed through the eyes of its subjects. If only critics had the keen and penetrating eye for their subjects that he focuses on them.

Obviously, most of his tips apply to critics beyond the realm of visual art.

Monday, November 4, 2013

James Booker

I've been a huge fan of New Orleans pianist/singer James Booker since childhood. Booker, a perennially under-acclaimed honky-tonk genius, died in 1983 but his name still sparks gleams in the eyes of musicians and others in-the-know. James Booker is just The Guy. He's as good as it gets, and even those from that scene who've risen to fame and fortune (Dr. John, Harry Connick, etc) will freely admit it.

He's becoming a little less obscure thanks to the new film "Bayou Maharajah: The troubled genius of James Booker". I've heard it's un-frickin-believably terrific (musician friends tell me it's one of the greatest music films ever), but it's near the end of its festival circuit, and will likely never get a full release. I'll be sure and let you know when the DVD comes out.

I'd suggest you buy his CDs, buy the transcriptions of his miraculous piano work, and await the DVD. But don't take my word for it. Check this out, if you can even stand hearing music so honest, funky, gorgeous, and brilliant:

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Beauty of Water, of Whiteness, and of Silence

Just as spices and herbs were originally used to mask the off tastes of decaying foodstuffs, anything that flavors water has its origins as a masking agent. Most of what we enjoy about cuisine has its origin not in delighting the palate but in hiding rot.

It's only recently that un-doctored water has been widely safe to drink, and many of us retain an aversion to its seemingly lackluster flavor, much as people habituated to chile pepper find un-spicy chow horridly bland. Accustomed to masks, we are recoiled by purity!

If you're not drinking water, you are drinking something designed to mask water, not improve it. Call to mind, say, Pepsi, Yoo Hoo, or supermarket orange juice. Can you even think of water while drinking such things? I challenge you to sip a soft drink while visualizing a pristine mountain spring. You can't. The water which makes up the vast majority of the content is unrecognizable. It's thoroughly masked. We've gotten good at it!

The same is true even with delicious drinks. A terrific strawberry milkshake, a fine pint of beer, or a fancy glass of wine are still just premium-quality water-maskers.

But here's the thing. Having tasted 1929 Chateau Lafite, and many of the very greatest sakes, wines, beers, Chinese teas and spirits of the past century, I can report that those diverse experiences all triggered a similar observation: they all struck me as improvements on water. They uplifted its essential purity rather then masked it. All I've thought about while drinking those masterpieces was....water. I reveled in water. It's a miraculous feat! While anyone can mask water, improving on it is a seemingly impossible task because water is perfection.

Similarly, nearly all artists mask the blankness of white, rather than improve upon its perfection. And nearly all musicians mask silence rather than improve upon its perfection. The masks may be beautiful, brilliant, and inspiring. But it's important to understand the stagecraft - the intentions behind the things you're appreciating. Nearly everything humans do involves cleverly masking perfection.

The beauty of water, whiteness, and silence is perfect and unsurpassable. So improving the unsurpassable is quite an accomplishment. It's a magic trick pulled off only very rarely.

If you're about to play or compose music, try holding back until you have a note to offer that can improve upon the perfection of silence (if you haven't yet fallen deeply in love with silence, you have no business making music). If you're about to paint, try holding back until you have a brushstroke to offer that can improve upon the perfection of the white canvass. And if you're creating some sort of drink, try holding back until you can improve upon the perfection of water. With this perspective, you can't fail.

It's only after realizing that everything's perfect, as-is, that one is in a position to make a contribution that contributes.

Mamma Grimaldi's lasagna was an example of this reported in real time.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

New Label: Right Whispering

One of the perqs of being a moderate is that I can pretty much relate to what both sides are trying to say. And I've found that I'm sometimes able to convey what the Right is feeling to people on the Left  - which is something people on the Right seem incapable of doing, themselves (of course, the reverse is true, as well).

I've launched a new "label" (see a list of all labels along the left side of the page, just beneath "Popular Entries") called "Right Whispering".

Here are all entries with the new label.


Hello, John, how are you?
I am fine Sally, and you?
Very well, thank you. Beautiful day, isn't it?
Yes, it is a beautiful day. Good bye, Sally!
Goodbye, John!

Whether you're a beginning language student or a native speaker, cliched dialogs are mindless bits of conversational fluff requiring little thought. The cadences of such conversations are delivered on auto-pilot, and this can be problematic if one party needs the other to pay close attention. The most dangerous example is "Keep this to yourself".

The next time you need to pause a discussion to ask someone to keep something confidential, pay close attention to their response. They'll hastily and effusively assure you of their complete and absolute discretion the moment they catch your drift - before you've actually explained what needs to be kept secret and why.

They won't hear any such explanation, because they'll have flipped into "keeping a secret mode", which isn't about secret-keeping, per se. Rather, it's about effusively assuring the other person via the usual yadda-yadda so that the conversation can continue. That's all it is: moving the dialog along. Beautiful day, isn't it, Sally? Yes, it is a beautiful day, John.

These snatches of canned conversation take place in a semi-trance state. It's a little bit like how when two people speak at the same time, and one invites the other to go ahead, he will often begin with "I was just gonna say...." That verbiage is devoid of information, and the person who says it isn't fully conscious at the moment. It's about rhythm, pace and continuity. Flow. They're revving themselves back up to conversational speed after the interruption, and doing so with a snippet of unconscious patterned dialog they've heard others use. Nothing's actually being said, even though someone's vocalizing.

"Keeping a secret" mode is, similarly, a canned conversational placeholder delivered in a light trance. What's essentially being said is non-informational; it's all gesture and posture, as if to say "Of course I'll keep this secret! You know me; I never say anything to anyone about anything! My default setting is to shut my mouth and assume complete silence as I go through my day to day life! You can trust me!"

Nonsense. We share things we're told all the time. It's what human beings do. If close, solicitous attention isn't paid to what, specifically, must be kept quiet, then it's just empty assurance. If you've ever met a special forces soldier or an Apple exec - or anyone else who really, truly needs to keep secrets - you'll observe that there's effort involved. Such people have put thought into what can and can't be said, and discipline is exercised. Keeping secrets is hard work. It's not nothing. But given that we've habitually reduced the request for secrecy to sleepy patterned behavior, it's extremely difficult to establish a bona fide secret.

Indeed, secrets are broadcasted all the time. And it's not that people are compulsively loose-lipped. It's just that it's nearly impossible to get them to focus on (much less execute) a commitment to keep quiet. Tranced-out, patterned gesturing represents the very opposite of the keen attention required to establish real discretion. It's a serious problem.

Some time back, a lawyer friend was trying to drum up investment for an enterprise we were working on together. I asked him to fill in one of his contacts about our project, but only after swearing the guy to secrecy. He got back to me to say that the investor wanted me to know he really liked the idea, and that he had a friend who was also interested in investing.

I blinked for a moment. Wait a minute. How did that friend even hear about what we were doing? The lawyer stammered something about how the guy hadn't blabbed or anything; that he'd just briefly filled in his friend. But wasn't that precisely what he'd promised not to do?

The lawyer (who should have known better) had allowed the confidentiality assurance to be canned and unconscious. It hadn't sunk in. It's not that the investor was being duplicitous. He hadn't, after all, made the slightest effort to cover up the broken promise. It's that no conscious promise was made; just a fluffy bit of yadda-yadda (I refused to get involved with the guy; not because he was dishonest, but because I couldn't trust him to steadily respect his commitments.)

This is why many people in such circumstances ask people to sign non-disclosure agreements, threatening legal action if secrets are blabbed. Such documents are laughably unenforceable; all they are is a means for getting a person to focus - really focus - on exactly what's being asked of them, and what they're promising. But, predictably, even the signing of these things has sunk into unconscious habitual behavior. There are no easy routes cutting through this hindrance!

Human beings appear to be uncontrollably blabber-mouthed, dishonest, and duplicitous. But much of that behavior stems from foggy-headedness rather than villainy. Per Leff's Fourth Law, 95% of apparent maliciousness is actually incompetence.

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