Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hearts of Gold

People who are surprised to discover that cranky old misfits and hermits often turn out to have hearts of gold miss the obvious truth that their lot is the fate inevitably befalling those with hearts of gold.

People who learn to project a facade of golden-heartedness make out far better. Well-admired, they never gnarl. Of course, a facade is only a facade. Genuinely kind people aren't out for themselves, so they don't invest a whit of concern into the image they project (caring about other people doesn't leave room for crafty personal branding). I'm extremely suspicious of carefully-branded people, even if - especially if! - their brand is loving kindness.

Once again: there's a huge difference between wanting to sing and wanting to be a singer.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Astro Agony/Ecstacy

Yesterday's much-hyped Camelopardalids meteor shower was a bust. Frickin' Camelopardalids! We've had so many post-hype disappointments with comets and meteors lately.

But astronomy buffs will be cheered up immeasurably when the Europeans land a spaceship called Rosetta on a speeding comet this November! The approaching spacecraft has already imaged the comet's sprouting coma (precursor to its tail), something I believe we've never seen before.

To land on a comet is an almost impossible task because the thing's speeding at 83,000 mph, and the landing must be gentle, so we need to creep up on it at the exact right speed and trajectory (the lander will immediately drive harpoons into the snowy dustball to keep from bouncing back off). The only way to accomplish this is via an insane trick shot wherein Rosetta's been bounced not once, not twice, but three separate times off of Earth's gravity field, and then careened past Mars for the finishing touch. Having launched way back in 2004, it's been a ten year ordeal for a rendezvous that will ultimately take place closer to Earth than Jupiter (for comparison, New Horizons took just over a year to reach Jupiter).

Check out this visualization to see the insanely complex and indirect route Rosetta's been taking. It makes the Curiosity landing seem simple by comparison!

Rosetta will ride the comet as it circles around the sun and shoots back out of the solar system. Dr. Strangelove comes to life!

Speaking of meteors and spaceships, I love this time lapse meteor photo from the Astronomy Picture of the Day site (shot by Xiang Zhan of Beijing Planetarium). It's hard to imagine a more visceral real-life indication that we're living on a rock that's hurtling through space!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Orca Atrocities

I'm not particularly animal-rightsy. The PETA crew give me migraines. But, you know, in this day and age, in a society teeming with entertainment options, we really don't need to enslave and torture animals for human entertainment. It's an anachronism.

It turns out that orcas (aka "killer whales") in the wild can live over a century, and like to swim 100 miles per day. The orcas at SeaWorld die before twenty, and live in cramped cages. According to the afore-linked article, "Orcas at SeaWorld are routinely separated from their pods, which has been known to cause huge mental and emotional strain and can prevent calves from developing normally." And these are intelligent creatures. It's sickening.

I understand that SeaWorld provides employment for people, and I do prioritize people over animals. But it's time for them to find themselves a different business model.

Consider signing the petition at that link. I doubt it'll achieve much, but it's better than nothing.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Writers As Clowns....Plus George Benson

A writer friend recently chided me for writing in a scattershot style here, failing to thoroughly support arguments or connect seemingly disjointed thoughts. That's exactly right! I use this Slog to buck a trend.

Readers used to be serious people who paid careful attention. Right around when I got into the writing racket, in 1988, the fizz and flash of life here in The Future had begun fraying the public's neurology. Writers became less purveyors of thoughtful mental vistas and more children's party clowns, festooning their catchy, grabby prose with clever edgy flips, and plying vast energies to cajole flighty readers to please please please finish reading this sentence, this paragraph, this page, this chapter. The flop sweat's palpable as writers flail to stave off the desertion of fickle eyeballs. If momentum's lost for even an instant, shinier baubles brightly beckon. Your prose is just one cat toy.

Like all gigolos servicing a passive, imperious clientele, writers are expected to supply all the energy and bring things reliably to a satisfying, exciting whiz-bam of a conclusion every time for every reader. Message, meaning, and insight - the art of it - is subservient to the commercial imperative: first and foremost, you must get Mrs. Rosenwinkle off (and, lord knows, she ain't easy).

Even thoughtful, expansive writers must focus on cajoling the reader from word to word. Every contemporary author you've heard of*, above and beyond whatever talents and insights they have to offer, is essentially a cross between a clown and a gigolo. Writers like Hobbes, Kant, and Locke didn't give a damn about enticing or cajoling; they simply set out their thoughts (in daunting prose), expecting readers to invest time and effort in proper digestion. There was mutual respect between writer and reader; almost a spirit of collaboration. If, heavens forbid, Malcolm Gladwell were ever to release a semi-digested morsel into his bouncy buttery patter, his audience would spit it out like baby birds indignant with mother's sloppy pre-mastication.

* - except maybe Chomsky

The funny thing is that I'm actually good at enticing and cajoling and pre-masticating. When I need to, I can write with great glibness and energy. I'm a deft clown/gigolo. I got lots of readers interested in food via sheer brash brio. One cardinal rule was to avoid complexity like the plague; to say precisely one thing at a time and deliver it so seamlessly that the reader couldn't help but resonate (you're quite welcome, Mrs. Rosenwinkle).

If I had an actual idea to convey, I'd gussy it up in humor, douse it with glibness, and glide it deftly into your brain stem. And then erase my tracks so you wouldn't realize what I'd done. I was a children's party clown with an agenda.

Then my situation got far worse. I found myself with a web site to run and promote, and it was all about persuasion. There were policies to explain, requests to make, and a community to acculturate. I had to explain a novel take on food (and on the Web) to journalists, and to persuade neophytes and trendies to change course and join our cause.

Ambiguity was the enemy. Effective mass communication requires razor-sharp clarity, which means expunging all subtlety and subtext. To avoid being misunderstood, you must never say anything that might later be used against you. Statements must be interpretable in only one way. It's all about playing defense, staving off regrettable sound bites and pre-defusing snark.

It was a horror. But, even back in the "fun" days writing articles and books, I had a nagging feeling that something was wrong with the writer/reader relationship. I understood that my profession required me to predigest and spoon-feed every thought, all while dancing a jig in a garish outfit. One does what one must to convince rudderless crowds to keep scanning the squiggles you've arranged on the paper (just as comedians, in the end, are paid to make diaphragms convulse, writers are paid to make eyeballs laterally scan). Everything rests on the writer. Writing commercially has become like commercial sex; customers feel no obligation to try, to work, to participate.

Yet it gnawed at me that reading should never have become such a passive activity - merely a form of consumerism. The experience will never be fully enriching if one simply lies there, flat on one's back, responsible for nothing more than the lateral motions of one's eyeballs. Wherever bucketfuls of sugar help medicine go down, you can count on a dearth of medicine.

So I've delighted in my release from all that here on the Slog. I take perverse pleasure in bundling two or even three thoughts in the same paragraph; in lightly sketching provocative ideas deserving pages of explication, in alluding rather than ramming, and, most of all, in the blessed freedom to be ambiguous; to make people think rather than just absorb. I have nothing to sell, and no one to persuade. Everyone's most welcome to click out to view cute pet videos.

I'm looking to create a collaborative process, tipping readers off-balance and challenging them to reconsider assumptions. I hide easter eggs. I bury ledes. And I gleefully scatter speed bumps - dense morsels intended to destroy momentum as readers pause to chew. I present ideas before they're fully baked, inviting readers to work them out in parallel. Maybe they'll go further with them than I can.

After Chowhound, I tried to drum up writing work, but found that no one remembered I'd ever been a writer. I was more of a "media personality", and the persona I'd adopted to promote Chowhound would certainly not freeze into my permanent cartoonish shtick. The path of Ruth Westheimer and Richard Simmons was not for me. So if I'm going to write, unpaid, an obscure little blog (also sparing myself "the touchy ritual of petitioning unhip, haughty gatekeepers" to publish my stuff), I figured I'd seize the opportunity to experiment. I'd forego my duties as clown/gigolo. More medicine, less sugar.

In my early 20's I played at Manhattan's Blue Note most nights after the last set as part of the late show. One night around 2:45am, with no one in the club besides the musicians and the bartender, George Benson stopped by and asked to sit in.

George Benson is a real guy. He wasn't groomed for stardom, he started out as a working guitarist, much-respected by his peers. So I was delighted by the prospect of seeing him relax and jam in a setting where he wasn't compelled to "entertain". He could let his hair down and be just a musician again. Nice!

The previous time I'd crossed paths with Benson was at the Hollywood Bowl, where he'd just finished a marathon version of "On Broadway", earning a multi-minute screaming ovation. The stage rotated suddenly, revealing, somewhat jarringly, the group I was with: a big band of cranky, geriatric black men in baby blue polyester uniforms, playing slightly musty (though really good) 40's swing. The crowd, obviously, couldn't wait to escape, but Benson stuck around backstage, grooving on what we were doing. He had more in common with us, really, than with the jump-suited, jeri-curled entertainer he appeared to be. This was a guy with real music to play, beyond the show biz.

So he got up on-stage at 2:45 am in the empty nightclub, and the moment he grabbed the mic, my heart sank. He held it at just the right angle to make his massive rings glitter in the spotlight. And he proceeded to dazzlingly "perform". For nobody. For no-fucking-body at all, in an empty club, at 2:45am on a Wednesday.

This is the paragraph where the writer would be expected to connect this anecdote with the rest of the article, sparing readers the effort of working it out for themselves (and certainly never expecting them to reread all 1400 words in a new light, their perspective having been subtly shifted). The density of the writing ought to start dissipating right around now, signaling that we're drawing to a close. Guide you down, gently braking to a halt, fostering the sensation that something insightful just happened. Shorter sentence here. Wry final aside.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Two Subway Photos

One shot accidentally:

...and one shot intentionally:

Friday, May 2, 2014

Music Minus One

A series of records called "Music Minus One" were big in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. They left off one part so musicians and singers could practice playing/singing along. It was a great way to practice, and was quite a novel concept (long predating karaoke, obviously).

I didn't realize the company was still in business (newer, hipper, upstarts have long since dominated the niche). Yet, they turn out to be going strong, and, incredibly, founder Irv Kratka is still running it at age 87. Hear this short radio piece by Sara Fishko of NPR (and watch for her reports - all of which are terrific - here).

I have a very personal connection to all this, and Fishko's radio report inspired me to write in with the following anecdote:

Dear Mr. Kratka,

I heard the radio piece about you by the great Sara Fishko. It had never occurred to me before to write in and tell this story, but I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy it.

I was a promising trombone student while growing up, and when I was 14 or so my parents gave me a Music Minus One record for my birthday - "The Music of Fats Waller". I loved it, and wore it out. The band was stellar - I remember, particularly, Zoot Sims on sax and Major Holley on bass. When you wear out a record as a 14-year-old, it sticks with you for life. To this day, I can hum every one of Major Holley's bass solos, which I found so soulful and lyrical.

Anyway, I went on to be a professional trombonist. And while I was lucky enough to play with a lot of my heroes, I was truly over the moon the time I was invited to sit in with a small group featuring Major Holley. I told him how I'd spent my entire youth playing with him, which amused him, and the strange thing was that I found it exquisitely easy to play with him even in real life. It was like I'd been BRED for it!

He could feel that connection, too, and we struck up a friendship and a musical relationship. I've mastered a multiphonic technique where you sing while you buzz, at a higher interval. If you do it right, you can achieve a rich, chordal sound. And, as you may know, Major Holley was famous for humming along with all his bowed bass solos. So we could make ourselves sound like a quartet while playing duo!

For the subsequent month or so, Major told me about all his gigs and gave me carte blanche to come down and sit in (a good opportunity for me to meet the great musicians he was playing with). He then departed for a European tour, telling me he'd be booking some gigs with me when he returned. Alas, he never returned. Heart attack.

Sorry for the sad ending, but it's certainly not a sad memory, all-in-all. I've played with much more famous players, but, to me, Major was a titan because of all those years we'd spent playing together in my parent's den.

I'm sure I'm not the only MMO customer you've heard from who pierced the veil, graduating from unilateral collaboration to real live in-the-flesh collaboration with the greats on your records. But I figured I'd tell my tale, because you deserve to hear how much good you've done.

At one point, Major and I played Honeysuckle Rose (one of the tracks on the album) together, and I played his own solo at him, from memory. He didn't notice, because, obviously, he didn't remember such a long-ago recording. But I had tears of happiness in my eyes.

Thanks again,

Here's Major Holley playing on the European tour he never returned from. Such humor, such swing. I also used to play a lot with the pianist in the video, the great Richard Wyands:

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