Thursday, July 31, 2014

"What Are You, Crazy?"

To grimace at someone after they've said something silly - and ask them whether they've lost their mind - is a demonstration of respect. It shows you normally expect them to say sane, smart things, and it invites them to clarify or re-think. We only react like this to people we highly esteem.

If, on the contrary, someone says something batshit crazy and you respond by smiling blandly and nodding your head in feigned agreement - never flinching or questioning - this means you hadn't expected any better. This is how one reacts to known crazy, beyond-the-pale people.

Yet these two reactions are interpreted backwards. These days, patronization feels like gentleness, while respectful challenge feels like disdain. This is a new thing.

Up until a couple decades ago, it was common to tell people you respected that they were being idiotic. But since then, corporate modes of communication have came to prevail even in private social dealings, and that style of communication is entirely about never, ever chancing even the slightest offense. So patronization has became the default reaction. There was a time when patronization was the worst thing one could do. Now, honest challenge is the worst thing, while well-concealed patronization strikes people as soothing.

As challenge grew rarer and rarer (and people perfected their poker faces - i.e. patronized much more professionally), a vicious circle was created. Less challenge, over all, makes any errant challenge sting that much more. Challenge has thus grown rarer and rarer, to the point where people only dare contradict each other with the blandly passive-aggressive jujitsu of an HR exec.

It's now offensive to let a smart, sane person know they've coughed up a conversational hairball. We've learned to smile blandly and nod; to patronize even those we respect. There's less offense, but also less respect - the institutionalization of patronization makes people feel more silently superior than ever. Also: way more stupid and crazy stuff is being said, because we've lost the vital gauge of peer feedback. Finally, this change makes people absolutely hate family events (comedians make way more Thanksgiving dinner jokes than they used to), because more naturalistic interplay feels like a shooting gallery - whereas, in decades past, it just felt normal because society itself was more naturalistic (and less corporate).

The other day I walked out of a public rest room with a bit of toilet paper stuck to my shoe. My small group of friends said nothing, but their embarrassment was palpable. I proceeded to check myself - wiping my nose with my napkin, glancing down at my fly, etc.. It was unnerving. Finally, at long last, one of them leaned in towards me, and in the most gentle, honeyed, truckloads-of-sugar-making-the-medicine-go-down tones, apologetically clued me in, letting me down very very very very gently.

If they'd just pointed at me and laughed, I'd have felt like a regular guy who just happened to get toilet paper on my shoe. But this uber-gentle coddling made me feel like my toilet paper problem is, like, congenital or something! When people let you down gently, doesn't that mean something grievous just happened?

Here's something similar.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Bug in the Human Operating System #726

If I'm driving and you're sitting next to me and I take my eyes and my attention off the road to snatch something swiftly from my drink holder or change drawer, it will hardly bother you at all, even though I completely gave up control of the car for those few seconds.

But if I do it the proper way - keeping my eyes and most of my attention on the road, and letting my hand fumble around for a while until it finds the object - that will likely drive you just about crazy.

We subconsciously interpret a fumbling action as an expression of fraught frustration and diverted attention, even when the fumbling represents the complete opposite.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

More on Kickstarter Ethics

Apropos of my recent posting about Kickstarter ethics, here's a story about con men who've been flagrantly fleecing Kickstarter supporters as well as AirBnB hosts.

It can't be helped. Ideally, Chowhound would have remained a place where earnest food lovers shared their favorite tips. In reality, after the first year all behind-scenes time was (and is still) spent staving off a blizzard of shills, con men, promoters, and social media marketing professionals.

Every earnest effort eventually gets gamed...massively. That's why there's so little earnestness in the world (and why it feels so charming when it does occasionally arise). At a certain point, either 1. the operation's earnestness evaporates, 2. the operation gets so bunkered that it's no fun anymore, or 3. the operators shift their business plan to leverage the gaming (let's call this one the Yelp approach).

Kid's Story

Here's a story I wrote this week along with my precocious 6 year old niece, Allegra, who provided the lead characters' names (no idea where she got "Heliotrope Fairy" from) and two key plot points (they had to have a swimming pool and hot tub, and had to learn their real real names). I've never before written fiction, and haven't written longhand in ages, and this was composed in a feverish sprint with my cramped hand clutching a crayon.

The Heliotrope Fairy (who got her name from the hairy purple flowers her father, The Hyperkinetic Sorcerer, planted in the garden under her bedroom window) lived in a microwave oven with her sister the Fuchsia Fairy. The Fuchsia Fairy was named for the color of those same heliotrope flowers. The Hyperkinetic Sorcerer had a very limited imagination and named everything for these flowers. He had a son, The Purple Else, and another son, The Purple Flower Elf, and he called his car, which was fuchsia with purple stripes, the Flowermobile.

When the two fairies were living with their parents they had a big house and a big garden (did I mention there were flowers growing there?). But when they went out on their own they found a job market with few opportunities for fairies, and the only place they could afford to live in was the microwave oven. It sounds terrible, but they were happy because 1. they were only two inches tall, and 2. they liked spinning around on the turntable, and 3. it was always nice and warm, and 4. they could eat baked potatoes whenever they wanted to. When they wanted to go swimming, they had an orange juice glass full of water to swim in.

They were happy. They worked a little bit whenever people needed fuchsia-colored fairy magic. For example, one time when a kid walked down the street with his lollipop, crying because it was cherry and he loved grape, the two fairies snapped their fingers and changed the lollipop. This sort of work was very satisfying, but didn't pay well (first, not so many kids love grape lollipops, and second, little kids don't have a lot of money).

Then, one day, a lady named Alice Walker wrote a very famous and popular book called "The Color Purple", which was produced as a major motion picture by Amblin Entertainment, grossing in the high eight figures. Suddenly, purple was everybody's favorite color. People bought purple shirts, purple iPhones, purple swimming pools, purple houses, and purple helicopters. The Fuchsia Fairy and the Heliotrope Fairy were suddenly the most important people in the world. People lined up outside of the microwave, waiting patiently for the two fairies to give them purpleness. They didn't even have time to swim in the orange juice glass.

But even though they were very busy, they were very kind. Anytime kids asked them to turn their lollipops purple, they never said no. They spent all morning, all afternoon, all twilight, all early-evening, and all late-night turning things purple (the fairies still called it "fuchsia", but of course it's the same color).

One day their father, The Hyperkinetic Sorcerer, came to talk to them. He was very excited. The most beautiful fuchsia color in the world was to be found in the flowers he had planted. People were starting to offer to buy the flowers, and everybody was so crazy for purple stuff that one very very very rich guy offered him 100 quillion dollars for the single nicest flower – the most perfectly purple thing in the world. So he sold the flower, and he and his wife, the fairies' mother, The Narcissistic Sorceress Queen, were going to move into a giant castle, and the two sisters would be allowed to move into their old house, with the flowers! And there was enough money left over to put in a hot tub and a pool they could go swimming in.

Very very happy, the two sisters moved out of the microwave and into the house, and with all the new room, they started to grow into normal height for young ladies. One day, while they were swimming in the pool, they figured out their real real names: Susun and Scarlet. Fairies no longer, they couldn't change lollipops. But they let anyone come over and swim in the pool, which made lots of people happy. And as people stopped talking about the book and the movie, nobody was interested in fuchsia, anyway. But still sometimes Susun and Scarlet would take their favorite people to see the magical flowers, which still grew beneath their windows. And those people would forever love purple as much as they did.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


The current issue of the New Yorker has a long and interesting article on procrastination. The writer seems to share the assumptions of Samuel Johnson, who in 1751 said (as quoted in the article):
"The folly of allowing ourselves to delay what we know cannot be finally escaped is one of the general weaknesses which, in spite of the instruction of moralists, and the remonstrances of reason, prevail to a greater or lesser degree in every mind; even they who most steadily withstand it find it, if not the most violent, the most pertinacious of their passions, always renewing its attacks, and, though often vanquished, never destroyed.” He concluded that it was “natural,” if not praiseworthy or desirable, “to have particular regard to the time present."
In the 18th century, man was at war with his nature. Hey, that's the Age of Enlightenment! It was all about the supremacy of mind, even though one's world and life play out in utter defiance of mind's earnest insistence. Damn it, I will finish this project tonight! And, yet, I find myself strangely drawn to this goblet of mead....

"Man plans and God laughs," says the Yiddish proverb. Your mental narrator states its intentions, and the universe (including you yourself) pays not the slightest attention. And yet the narrator considers itself omnipotent. It's like a particularly pompous boss who's the only one in the room oblivious to the fact that his plans always backfire.

We haven't learned much since 1751. We still hate ourselves for procrastinating because it reveals the truth about our mental pronouncements. If mind's all you recognize yourself to be, something like procrastination is an existential challenge.

Being naturally suspicious of my own mental narrative pronouncements, I have a very different view of procrastination. First, I recognize that I'm lots of different people. We're all lots of different people, but I take it to an extreme. When I play jazz trombone in a crowded nightclub, I'm not an Internet entrepreneur. When I'm hunting for restaurants, I'm not someone who struggles to make sense of human existence. When I'm practicing yoga, I'm not the guy who digs greedily into lasagna. I have friends who've never heard me discuss food. And I have friends who never hear me discuss anything else. I've had five careers, zillions of hobbies, and perpetually juggle several quests and projects. And I'm a different person in each situation. Shoot, I'm a different person when eating in an Ecuadorian restaurant than Malaysian.

It's not multiple personality syndrome; it's that I'm a chameleon. I like to blend into different scenes (it's how I compensate for growing up in soulless, culture-less suburbs). Also, I commit. So I ride it all the way.

But I don't jump between identities on a schedule. When I feel thoughtful, I write a Slog piece. When I feel tuneful, I go play music. When I crave, I go chowhounding. When I feel driven, I push ahead on projects (as a lifelong freelancer, this has always been feasible). Etc, etc.. In the words of Pete Seeger - and the Bible, which appears to have plagiarized him: "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." How strange that Samuel Johnson, a staunch Anglican, missed this pro tip!

If I try to play when I'm not feeling tuneful, I won't be at my best. Sometimes I must, and I step up when required, but, otherwise, I don't force it. I'm easy with myself. I let other selves prevail.

That's the essence of procrastination. It's the acknowledgement that you're not, in the current moment, the person for a given task. Even while flopped in front of the TV, I don't think about more "important" tasks, because my sloth-ish TV-viewing self deserves expression, too. No guilt's involved. A time to every purpose.

I suppose I've always appeared to be quite a slacker to most people around me. Yet I manage, somehow, to be unusually productive when all's said and done. I'm not sure how that happens, myself, but I'm convinced it's somehow tied up in this. When you don't force, it's all play, and play allows miracles - such as small children learning language and culture within just a few short years (while appearing to be inveterate slackers, themselves!).

My screw-ups best prove the point. Take a look at the previous Slog entry (it's super short). It's sort of blurry, right? I was making an interesting point, but conveyed it in a vague, foggy way. I wasn't really thinking about readers, I was more just jotting down what was in my head, without regard for how it would read. I was not, in other words, being a writer in that moment. And when writers write at moments when they're not writers, they often fail to write like writers. If I'd procrastinated a bit, it'd have been better! In fact, if more people procrastinated more often, there'd be far less mediocrity in the world. We need lots more procrastination, not less!

I have nearly 200 upcoming Slog pieces sitting in various states of construction. Some would be among my best work if I ever finished them. If I were being paid to do this, I'd bang them out, and be professional enough to ensure their competency. But they wouldn't be the best they could be. So each article awaits the arrival of the best possible person to finish it, and the backlog doesn't disturb me in the least.

Is my positive view on procrastination relevant only for freelancers and others who self-schedule? No. No one procrastinates when they can't. Procrastination is something that happens ahead of deadlines, not against them (people who miss deadlines are losers, not procrastinators). Procrastination only happens in situations where there's actually time to waste. But my point is that it's never a waste of time awaiting the right you for the job.

I've missed dinner to write this article. Plus, it's hot here, but I haven't budged from my seat to turn on the air conditioner. And I owe people emails! But writer me is in control, and that's something I honor (again, I commit). So: have I been procrastinating that other stuff? Of course not. There's a time to every purpose. I wrote, a couple of entries ago, about how
...there are so many things to eat, to do, and to enjoy. It takes way more mental energy to obsess over the absent than it does to simply immerse in what's at hand! That's why depressed people feel so worn out; it's tremendously sapping to create, perpetuate, and inhabit a fantasy world built upon What's Missing!
The same is true of weighing yourself down with the things you happen not to be doing in a given moment. Why do we humans find so many ways to obsess over what's not happening, when full immersion in whatever is happening is the source of all happiness and achievement?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Leff's Seventh Law

When you find it difficult to express yourself, the problem's always with the conception, not the expression.

See "Fix the Thinking, not the Writing" here.

Fwiw, here are my other laws

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Preference and Lasagna and Depression

I just inserted a link into my previous entry, "Lasagna and Depression" (see "empty drama" in the sixth paragraph). If you enjoyed that posting, you may also like the posting that link goes to: "An Adult View on Preference". Here's the money quote:
"The real zest of life is not in frantically scrambling to get - and keep - your ducks in a row. It's in relishing the experience of playing the hand you're dealt, remaining gleefully fluid as the hand constantly changes. Fretting over the cards is an indulgent - and futile - waste of energy."
See all postings tagged "depression".

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lasagna and Depression

I love lasagna. Sure, everybody loves lasagna, but I love it more. If you ever saw me eating lasagna - even just pretty good lasagna - you'd be watching a happy fellow. You'd figure I was born to eat lasagna. But do you know how many times per year I eat lasagna? Maybe once. If that.

There are lots of reasons. It's hard to find good. And it tends to be overpriced. And I try to eat healthy. So lasagna doesn't happen much for me. But the weird thing is how absolutely okay I am with that. It's like The Monks and the Coffee, I suppose.

I could easily work myself into a lather about the lack of lasagna in my life. If I really festered on it, I could create an entire mental landscape of non-lasagna. In the old days, I knew great places I could go for lasagna. They're all gone. Frozen yogurt everywhere now, but no frickin' lasagna. It's all turning to crap! And how about the indignity of needing to eat healthy? When I was younger, I could eat whatever I wanted. But now that I can afford to go to a decent restaurant and really enjoy a lasagna, I need to be austere. A guy who knows all the food in the world, doomed to counting carbs. How ironic and pitiful is that? Worked hard all those years, and can't even enjoy a nice lasagna, which is, after all, something I just love. I'm just not getting enough enjoyment in this gloomy existence, and will doubtless enjoy still less as time goes on, because that's the way of it. Lasagna is just one example of all I've been denied, all injustice and cruelty. I'm living my dark ages! No lasagna, and I love lasagna! I love lasagna!!!

I could whine on. Pages of it. Hours, even days, of it! I have a brain which makes connections, and analyzes the basis of things. I could direct those faculties toward my lasagna deprivation, and easily spin up a mental world of grim desolation, weaving in all my previous disappointments and bitter ironies; a dystopia in which I, unhappy wraith, am forever imprisoned.

But for some reason I just don't!

It's not that I exert mental discipline, or have learned to think positively, or to count my blessings in order to soldier on within this traumatic, tragic situation of non-lasagna eating. I just don't identify with that narrative, because I see it as empty drama. There are so many things to eat, to do, and to enjoy. It takes way more mental energy to obsess over the absent than it does to simply immerse in what's at hand! That's why depressed people feel so worn out; it's tremendously sapping to create, perpetuate, and inhabit a fantasy world built upon What's Missing!

If I don't obsess over lasagna, then lasagna remains what it actually is: something I love when it's in front of me....and a happy memory when it's not. I don't make its absence a symbol of all that's ever gone wrong. Its absence adds no weight to my burden. I hardly think about it. Why would I?

And here's the thing: aside from basic human needs like food, health, and shelter, anything grieved for is unnecessary baggage arbitrarily loaded on by a hyperactive, capricious mind. Anything else is just stories we tell ourselves.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Arnie Lawrence

Here's a shocking revelation for jazz fans: those guys you're listening to, who seem to be playing as one, aren't listening to each other. Almost nobody listens to each other. Players mostly just go about their jazzy business, mechanically fulfilling their roles. The drummer keeps a beat, the bassist walks, the pianist plays chords, and horn players take turns showering notes atop it all, ala karaoke. They have on their "game faces", but, underneath, they're nearly as bored as you are.

They're proffering a skill set rather than creating beauty or conjuring miracles of spontaneity. In fact, words like "beauty" or "spontaneity" are foreign to jazz musicians (at least when they're not giving interviews). They ply their trade, like plumbers or dry wall specialists. They're rarely surprised or surprising.

One might blame Miles Davis, who dressed sharp and acted cocky, yet played trumpet with the raw plaintive honesty of a vulnerable little girl. The contrast was compelling, and won him stardom. Ever since, musicians have emulated the easier piece - acting cocky - but, when it comes to emotional honesty, well, they can stick a mute in their horn and play long willowy notes just like Miles. That's the same thing, no?

Jazz musicians at some point became a tribe of posers, phoning it in, barely listening to each other, playing the same drilled-in patterns over and over, and faking their emotions. Watch the faux-impassioned faces in this video, as a long procession of them try to sell the same hoary old "lick":

There was a musician who tried to go the other way, who only played what he honestly felt, who was spontaneous, and who listened so hard that his ears became more than just passive receivers, nearly attaining the power to pull from the air music which was not there to begin with. He was, I'm proud to say, my mentor. A saxophonist named Arnie Lawrence, whose 76th birthday would have been yesterday if he hadn't died much too soon.

I met Arnie at the impressionable age of 14, attending one of his legendary master classes. At this one, he spent hours getting a room of hot shot high school-aged musicians to play the swing-era standard "Lady Be Good" - just the melody - over and over like a sacred chant until we all played as one; until it swung. He played along with us, concentrating so fiercely, his bushy eyebrows knit together with such intensity, that I had the uncanny feeling that his ears were actually drawing music out of me. Naturally, I assumed this was what the music business must be like. This was was the big leagues; this was jazz. I instantly resolved to become a musician, and to always swing, and to never not listen.

The other teachers at the seminar treated Arnie with great deference. He'd been a hot player in town during the 60's and 70's, when Johnny Carson (a big music fan with exquisite taste) taped his show in New York and would return from commercials with the big band's alto saxophonist wailing his heart out for a brief second or two until Johnny tapped his pencil to bring the music to a sudden halt. "Arnie Lawrence, ladies and gentleman," Johnny would sometimes cry, clapping wildly himself.

I stayed in touch with Arnie, who would later mentor swarms of other 15-year olds, including some who went on to great success (e.g. John Popper of Blues Traveler). I popped in on as many of his classes as I could, where I loved to watch him confuse the bejesus out of students by challenging them to swing so hard they'd make the lights go out, or to play a happy blues, or to play the one note they'd play if they only had one note left in them.

Arnie had released a record way back in the 1960's where his group made disjointed, frankly sort of noisy sounds in a recording studio while his toddler son traipsed around banging on things and giggling. The band was called "The Children of All Ages", and the idea was typically profound yet over-earnest: try following the musical instincts of children rather than reigning them in. But while he was at the bleeding edge of the avante garde, Arnie also was totally comfortable accompanying torch singers and playing straight-ahead jazz and blues. He was a chameleon, deeply integrating with whatever was happening around him.

He didn't think of himself that way, of course. In his mind, it was all the same. In any context, he was committed to finding the most beautiful, honest, soulful note to play after whatever just happened; the note that might be the perfect cure for the ills of the moment, or the cherry on the sundae when swing had already fully ignited. The music never ended. Ears were always open, and saxophone was close at-hand, leaving him ready to resume his contribution at any moment, under whatever circumstances the universe might present. It wasn't that Arnie was versatile, it was that he was completely responsive, come what may.

When I turned professional, I started hearing stories about him. For example, at the height of her post-Cabaret stardom, Liza Minnelli toured with what was surely one one of the greatest bands ever assembled. Her show began with a solo sax wailing, a capella, in the darkness before she was introduced; Arnie consistently left audiences mesmerized. He didn't read music, and so couldn't participate much in the rest of the show. Arnie was simply the secret weapon bands would roll out when they needed a home run.

In the midst of this high-paying, ultra-prestigious tour with the hottest act in show biz, where he was featured and given free reign, legend has it that Arnie went up to Liza and told her, without venom, "You don't swing," (pretty much the only mortal sin in Arnie Lawrence's universe), "and I quit."

Arnie never really got his career back on track. He floundered for years. The Johnny/Liza generation, which recognized and respected the cantorial magic of an Arnie Lawrence, was fading, and Walkman culture had arrived. Jazz became simply another flavor of sonic wallpaper. Unless you had a big name with the general public - carefully-fashioned by expensive publicity professionals - bandleaders expected you to keep your head down and to blend in; to play merely competently and not attract undue attention. This, obviously, wasn't Arnie's specialty. And it was harder and harder for him to lead his own band, as fewer and fewer people were around who remembered his heyday.

But right around then Arnie had a brainstorm. He'd start a new kind of jazz school; one run like a mentorship, rather than via the model of classical music conservatories. And he did it! He launched Jazz at The New School, and it was, for a while, like one long Arnie Lawrence master class, complete with metaphysical challenges and trippy group incantations. I was a professional by this time, having already matriculated through a more informal Arnie University, but I hung out there when I could. A few early students went on to become big names.

At the time, they complained about the chaos and ambiguity, but today they all look back with vast gratitude. It goes without saying that the program eventually snapped back to a more traditional format and Arnie was forced out. But a great deal of good was done. A minor miracle, this program changed the course of jazz in small but important ways.

I'd drive around the tristate area catching every Arnie gig I could, and often sat in. He frequently found himself in strange or even ridiculous situations - hired to play in a supper club alongside a non-musician owner who fancied himself a jazz drummer...or playing with dodgy rock bands at the invitation of one of his students (Arnie somehow became known as a mentor to rock and rollers, too). Every gig Arnie ever had - and I went to a ton of them - forced him to play into a stiff headwind. I never once saw Arnie fully comfortable, but I came to so enjoy watching him navigate obstacle courses, that I finally decided this was Arnie at his best. If he ever played with a proper group in a proper setting in front of a proper crowd, he'd probably have had a heart attack. I really can't even visualize it.

Playing terrible music in terrible places with terrible crowds for terrible money, Arnie would nonetheless play like his life depended on each note. He'd sanctify the room. And he never stopped listening. He listened with Buddha depth to musicians who had absolutely nothing to offer, and it was contagious; you'd find yourself listening to that non-drummer owner, your ears somehow locating his primal humanity, the pure soul behind those regrettable movements of hands and feet. You'd find the place where it was music.

Arnie's ears processed it all and made it all okay. Even chatty customers sometimes found themselves caught in Arnie's deep listening, and shit would transform to pearls. Sometimes. Mostly, though, shit remained shit. Yet Arnie never flinched, never closed his ears, not even for a moment. Jesus may have died to redeem our sins, but Arnie spent 66 years keenly listening, with much the same intent.

I once stood with him in the back of a suburban jazz club where a crowd of local musicians held forth with the gravitas typical of big fish in small ponds. It was a special event, and all the "names" were there, posturing their way through standards in tribute to the birth or death of some so-and-so. Arnie and I sat there, waiting to go on, and nary an honest note had been played all night, despite the crowd's whoops and cheers.

This, in the end, was the music business. This was jazz. Yet Arnie stood there, like Diogenes with his lamp, eyes tightly shut and head nodding intently, trying, as always, through the sheer power of his superhuman attention and concentration, to pull something profound from the din. Not me. Dejected by the empty bluster and discoordination on the distant stage, I peered over at Arnie, and said, with a sneer, "You know, Arnie, I'm sorry I ever met you." Arnie (known for his great sense of humor), froze for an instant, but then his eyes twinkled, a grin started spreading wider and wider, and he began laughing in great guffaws, nearly choking himself. I think, for a brief moment, he might have even stopped listening.

Late in his flock mentoring period, just before he moved to Israel to launch a series of projects bringing together Jewish and Palestinian musicians in dangerous basement rooms in occupied territories (where I have no doubt Arnie wove the sounds of shells and sirens into his solos as if they were musical gifts from angels), every gig of Arnie's was beginning to include a great many of his current followers, each of them invited to play (as I was, back in the day). You'd need to wait a very long time to hear Arnie blow. Again, every Arnie gig had a headwind, and some of the problems - e.g. audiences forced to listen to kid after long-winded kid - were self-inflicted.

The really distressing thing is these flocks of students - who followed Arnie everywhere and appeared to appreciate his magic - didn't listen, or swing, or play any more honestly than anyone else. To be sure, they all acted the part. Like mini-Arnies, they'd furrow their brows and make a theatrical display of deep seriousness. But it was always all about them, rather than the music. They had absorbed only the most superficial layer. To this day, I never attend Arnie tributes, because I know I'll be hearing exactly the sort of playing Arnie urged against. I feel his friction and frustration even years after his death.

I know very well that I ought to attend anyway, and use my ears to hear my way back into the divinity of each musician, transmogrifying careless notes into something deeper and more touching. I can do it, too, but I lack the stamina, the concentration, the open-heartedness to keep it up for long. I am, alas, not Arnie Lawrence, either.

The last time Arnie ever heard me "play" was at a public jam session in a Manhattan club. It was my turn to solo, so I stepped up to the microphone. The rhythm section was scrambling. The pianist and bassist were in their own worlds, not hearing a thing, and the drummer was playing so densely and show-offishly that it sounded like a non-stop drum solo. I brought my trombone to my mouth, and listened, patiently, for a point of entry....for the drummer to calm down and for the others to notice something was missing - the very thing I myself might then contribute. I waited and waited, but space never opened. It was like entering a crowded freeway; sometimes, no matter how sensitively one moves up the ramp, there's just no way to gracefully merge without bashing other cars.

I waited longer still, but no one aside from the baffled audience seemed to notice my non-solo. Finally, I lowered my horn, shrugged, and quietly walked off the stage. Not with any anger or embarrassment, though; there was simply no call for a trombone solo; nowhere to actually put one. Another horn player might have bashed through, muscling his way in. I could have done the same, but it would have disrespected the music. And respect for the music - even bad music - comes first. Sometimes the most musical thing one can play is silence.

I knew I'd "played" well. But I'd violated a taboo. One doesn't walk off stage during one's allotted time. To the other horn players, and to the audience, I seemed to have contracted some sort of stage fright. Spooked and confused, they gently leaned away, en masse, as I strolled back toward the bar. Finally, I passed Arnie, who looked over, grinning mischievously, and said "nice solo!" And I knew he meant it.

Here he is (the sax player with the beard) playing with Dizzy Gillespie, soloing near the beginning, and again, later, on a different song (and playing a little better), at 18':30':

Consider buying "Renewal", one of his best straight-ahead records.

The Middle-Eastern funky trance jazz of Arnie's group "Treasure Island" is long out of print, but a couple tracks are up on YouTube:


A quick, easy test to determine whether you hate someone:

If this person were to disappear - to move to another country and never, ever be heard from ever again - would you wish them an unhappy life?

Monday, July 7, 2014


If you ever find yourself in a room with 100 people who are big fans of what you do, here's what you can expect:

35 of them will show positive vibes. Such people are a pleasure to meet, but also a bit creepy. We know how to meet new people, and we know how to be admiring fans. But meeting someone whose work we admire is unfamiliar social ground (when even familiar social ground is hard enough for most people). So, weird things are said and strange things happen.

One problem is they see you primarily as an image. And images don't comfortably translate into flesh-and-blood. As I once wrote:
"[Fame can feel] quite disturbing and artificial. For one thing, it's never truly directed at you; it focuses on a facet of a layer of a static image which happens to have your name affixed to it. And you play little part in choosing which facet of which layer of which image is focused upon. The assignment process is remarkably similar to the way children get dubbed with nicknames."
20 of them look a lot like the previous group, but as you talk to them, it becomes eerily clear that they know almost nothing about you - haven't read a word you've written or listened to a note you've sung. They just recognize your name, and that you're well-known in a field they think is cool.

If it seems crazy that such people would consider themselves fans, take mental stock, yourself. Have you actually read every writer, heard every singer, and viewed the work of every filmmaker for whom you have a fond feeling? I'd bet good money that more than one person has approached Ann Coulter to tell her what fans they are, and to encourage her to keep giving hell to those damned conservatives.

25 of them will cringe at the solicitousness of the crowd. Resisting conformity - not wanting to, like, kiss your ass - they'll feign cool indifference. If you're a sensitive type, such people will unsettle you, because their efforts to appear uncaring are indistinguishable from genuine ill will. And you, in turn, will appear insecure and needy via your discomfort with people who appear to simply fail to fawn all over you.

10 of them will unsettle you whether you're sensitive or not. They'll go too far feigning indifference, to the point of open hostility (this is the deal with haters). They want to provoke attention - any attention. Of course, if you show them the slightest kindness, they'll fawn all over you....and in that, too, they'll go too far.

5 of them are egotists who feel challenged by your very existence. Their being fans of you, but not vice versa, is an asymmetry which they can only blame on you. They surmise you're an arrogant, stuck-up, conceited asshole...before you've even said a word. They will put everything they've got into taking you down a notch, because, really, who do you think you are, anyway?

The remaining 5 aren't offended by the lack of automatic reciprocation, don't try to provoke attention via bad behavior, don't pretend they don't care, actually know what you do, and understand that you're not the embodiment of some static image. They view you as a person - no more, no less - but with a mildly positive disposition due to their admiration of your work. Repeat: this only happens 5% of the time.

The best film about fame, dark though it is, was Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories"

See also "You Can't Ever Be Famous"

I'd imagine highly attractive people draw attention in roughly the same proportions. I'm grateful not to be handsome; my looks don't make people act weird; there's no image-versus-reality confusion. And the cool 5% aren't like needles in haystacks; they're the only ones who want to talk to me!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

More Old Writings

I fixed some broken links on the "Selected Writings" page of my semi-dormant web site, including one to a rather provocative (and not yet proven prescient) article predicting utopia, rather than dystopia, in the future of artificial flavorings.

I've also just added the introduction to my Eclectic Gourmet Guide book, which offered some tips for restaurant spotting.

Also noted on that page, I did an ambitious tour for the company that bought Chowhound, eating my way across thousands of miles of unfamiliar landscape, proceeding entirely via the seat of my pants (I shunned tips, experts, and even Chowhound itself). In a truly unsurprising development, the series was soon made unreadable due to design bugs which have still not been resolved. But you can read a nice clean version, starting here and navigating via the table of contents on the right. Here are some highlights (as listed on that same "Selected Writings" page):

The Greatest (Chowhounding) Story Ever Told (in rural Kentucky)
36 Sublime Hours in Newfoundland
The Enchanted Misty Mountain of Tea and Excrement
Chow Tour Redux (or, Lots and Lots of Millet) (thinking back on What It All Meant)
Vacation Tamales (incredible tamale place in Puerto Vallarta)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Sucking....and Pretending to Suck

I always check out new potato chips brands as I spot them. It's an area of intense interest for me; I've tried most brands available in this country. In fact, I once hosted perhaps the most ambitious potato chip tasting ever, where we tasted through dozens of great brands (in the aftermath, I noticed that each guest had consumed an average of one entire gallon of bottled water). (These are unquestionaly the best)

It's seldom money wasted, because most upstart chip companies make damned good chips. It's not a business people enter unless they're died-in-the-wool spud-ficionados. True believers.

But today I bought some "Billy Goat" chips, which come in an appealing little brown paper sack.
Looked great, but the potatoes were abysmal - every other chip had a big black/purple splotch undetected by their quality control - the slicing was thinner than Lays, and the oil had no character. My tiny 3oz sack of chips cost a big $4, and the chips were utterly blah. A "5" on my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating foods from 1 to 10. These were way, way, worse than the most commercial supermarket brands.

I was trying to figure out what I can learn from this experience when I noticed, on the back of the bag, a long list of things these chips are not:
No preservatives
No Trans Fats
Kosher Certified

....and, presumably, no animal testing, no radioactive fallout, and entirely peanut-free.

When a product's defined by what it's not (and the manufacturer's plainly reaching to come up with stuff to list), it's safe to say the product isn't primarily intended to wow.

I once had a heated argument with a baker of gluten-free desserts. I pointed out that she was essentially putting down her own products by defining them by what they're not...when, actually, they're estimably delicious even for those unaffected by the gluten fad. She couldn't even input my point. Her products were gluten-free, period. That was always her intention, and that's that. Any deliciousness was purely corollary.

This brings me to a seldom-discussed chowhounding phenomena. Every once in a while, someone opens a restaurant parroting someone's disgusting, soulless formula, but the food, almost by accident, is surprisingly good. A plastic, antiseptic, shiny, bullshit place turns out to actually be delicious. The proprietors never imagined marketing on the basis of quality. It never would have occurred to them; that's not their business model. So they pretend to suck, hoping to horn in on the success previous sucky businesses have reaped.

It's extremely easy to overlook such places because we assume imitators of suckiness must stem from the lowest circle of hell in the chowhounding pantheon. What, after all, is more pathetic than a Kenny G clone?

But a Kenny G clone can, I'm forced to admit, move you in spite of himself. And a cookie engineered to be nothing more than gluten-free can wail. And a plastic shiny chain wannabe can be awesome (my fave of the moment: Potatopia).

Anything can be great. But, alas, so can anything - even fried slices of yummy potatoes - suck. It's all in the iteration.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Kickstarter Ethics

I just participated in a Kickstarter campaign by contributing a premium. And when I examined the other premiums, I noticed something unusual.

The campaign was being run as an act of charity, and more backers would allow more charity to be done. In this case, more copies of a book could be published and distributed to poor people for free. If the campaign raised $20,000, 1,000 extra copies would be produced at $4 per copy. $55,000 would mean 8,000 copies at $4 per. And $95,000 would mean 16,000 copies at $4 apiece. Etc..

This puzzled me, because it doesn't take into account economies of scale. More books cost less, per book, to produce! I asked the campaign's organizer about this, and was told that the reasoning was complicated, but that, for one thing, the savings at higher scale would allow her to recoup some money for her time and effort (it's more work to produce/distribute at higher scale).

It seems eminently reasonable. But it's also not disclosed. And I'm not clear on the ethics. It calls to mind when we asked Chowhound users to pay, on the honor system, for their use of the site (which, at its height, was costing $3,000/month in bandwidth overcharges, plus accounting/tech/graphics and other expenses). The question sat in the back of my mind: what if we raised more than we needed? Would I be ethically at fault if I took a few bucks for my work? The only reason my work wasn't increasing the site's financial burden was that I was, insanely, working for free. That was not long-term viable, and not being evicted from my apartment was unquestionably vital for the web site's survival.

It never became an issue, because income never came near our expenses. But, in hindsight, taking pay for myself would have been perfectly appropriate, because we weren't a charity. We'd installed an honor-system customer payment system for services rendered, period. If I'd spent the revenue on hookers and blow, that would have been my business.

But a Kickstarter campaign isn't a charity, either, and rigorous disclosure isn't part of the model. So it's a no-man's-land. Buying staples for the office is obviously an appropriate expense to take out of contributions. How about reimbursing yourself for your own staples that have been used? How about your cab ride to Staples to buy the staples? How about your time spent taking that cab ride? How about your rent while this is all happening?

When you're part of the campaign, how can you separate yourself from the campaign? Must everyone on Kickstarter (and similar sites) have a saintly devotion to poverty? If not, that creates a hell of a slippery slope.

Dunning–Kruger Effect

A number of my writings here on the Slog turn out to have retreaded something I didn't know about until today (thanks, Paul Trapani). It's called the Dunning–Kruger Effect. Take it away, Wikipedia:
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias manifesting in two principal ways:

Unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.

Those persons to whom a skill or set of skills come easily may find themselves with weak self-confidence, as they may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.
The Wikipedia page is blessedly terse and clear, and well worth a read. Also, it shows that I'm far from the only person to have independently noticed this via observation and intuition (see the "Historical References" section). But I believe Dunning and Kruger have pinned down only a chunk of a larger problem - one this Slog often blunders around and obliquely alludes to, without ever quite nailing it.

The related Impostor Syndrome is, in my view, a feature rather than a bug. One's failure to "internalize ones accomplishments" is another way of describing a reluctance to puff up into an arrogant putz just because something's gone well for you. Arrogance is elective, and I feel tremendous dismay for a society that would deem someone damaged for choosing another route.

There's no surer way to dry one's flow, to kill the golden-egg-laying goose, than to take one's temperature; to live in one's own contrails; to sniff one's own farts. Or to forget Banksy's wise observation that doing inspired work to garner acclaim is like eating a great dinner in order to take a shit.

Pardon my vulgarity, but I find the assumptions behind Impostor Syndrome too repulsive for more genteel terms.

Here's a list of more-or-less related postings.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

About Chowhounds

Here's the introduction to the "Chowhound's Guide" series published by Penguin in 1997. It does a pretty good job of describing the tribe.

Check out some other stuff to read linked to from the Selected Writings page of my semi-dormant web site.

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