Wednesday, November 29, 2017


Black people have always had a tough time making the rest of us understand the extent of police harassment across the racial divide. White America was freaked out by black America's reaction to the OJ verdict only because they lacked awareness of the situation for black people - particularly in Los Angeles. As I once wrote:
I was one of the few white people at the time who knew how police treated black people in Los Angeles (I toured there in 1989 with an all-black band, and was surprised to see my normally nonchalant bandmates waiting anxiously for lights to change before entering crosswalks. It was explained to me. I gulped. Hard.).
Now the problem is more broadly recognized...while black people, understandably, wonder why the hell it took us so long. But, at the same time, some black activists overreach. Every white policeman who shoots a black person is instantly assumed to be a homicidal racist monster. Policemen (who walk into hideous danger) are thought to deserve no slack whatsoever. We go too far. We always go too far (will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?).

Now tons of public figures are under fire for sexual harassment. And woman, who've been putting up with this for years, wonder why the hell it took us so long. But, as always, there will be overreach. For example, even consent is no longer sufficient (congratulations, Ms. Dworkin!). And we've seen mass infection with a disturbing viral notion: anyone so much as tiptoeing into the hot societal outrage cauldron du jour must lose their job - their ability to make a living for themselves and their family - and be shunned forever by polite society and prohibited from plying their trade or contributing in any way. Total personal and economic annihilation, without trial. Crawl up and die.

Extra-judicial annihilation feels right to us, it fills us with righteous satisfaction. But only when applied to the trendiest rages. Arsonist? Counterfeiter? Terrorist? Let judicial process handle it! But re: the grievance du jour, let's go ahead and toss them in the furnace and walk away. Literally no severity of outcome is too severe.

It's dangerous to advocate restraint amid an angry mob, which inevitably equates restraint with sympathy for the Person Who Did the Unforgivable Thing. Swept up in mass outrage, people can lose their morals, their humanity, with unsettlingly ease as they righteously expunge bad-doers. Hey, we're weeding out evil; isn't that a worthy result? No. Restraint is always appropriate, even when we're talking about A GODDAMN MONSTER WHO SHOULD HAVE SHOWN HIS ***OWN*** RESTRAINT BEFORE HE...(etc., etc.)" 

Those hollering that sort of thing most loudly now are the very same folks who (correctly!) object to the use of torture, Guantanamo, and other exceptional measures for certain classes of criminals - and whose stance, in turn, gets equated with sympathy for the bad guys and provokes a bellicose insistence that THE GODDAMN MONSTERS SHOULD HAVE SHOWN THEIR OWN RESTRAINT BEFORE THEY...(etc., etc.)"

Let's stop considering restraint to be optional. Let's at least question our thirst for the total annihilation of those who appear to be beyond-the-pale (per current outrage boundaries in either idealogical camp), shall we?

Why are sentences ridiculously high for drug offenders? Because drugs provoke periodic mob outrages, and nobody ever wants to be seen as advocating for moderation in that ugly realm. So it's an upward locking ratchet. The same gloves-off approach is also how we get to Louis CK being unwelcome to ever again delight us with his creation because of his ugly activity, having shown some people his junk with their consent (not to say, of course, that this was acceptable behavior, or that I'd ever be caught sympathizing with a GODDAMN MONSTER WHO SHOULD HAVE SHOWN HIS ***OWN*** RESTRAINT BEFORE HE...etc., etc.)


I have a friend who just bought a $20,000 sound system. "It sounds exactly like you're in a jazz club!" he enthused.

"But how great do jazz clubs sound?" I asked. "When you're hearing actual live music, are you orgasming over the scintillating aliveness of the sound? Do you think to yourself, 'Man, this is a $20,000 experience'?"

If true-to-life sound is so magnificent and luxurious, how come more people don't swoon the moment anyone picks up a flute?

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Paying Attention to Crazy People, i.e. People

If I had it all to do over again, I'd change one thing: I'd pay way less attention to crazy people.

I've felt a burning curiosity about the thinking and perspective of crazy people, which has driven me to pay them far too much attention, and listen way too deeply. I've worked tirelessly to find resonance with their worldview so I can see things as they see them (you can't really understand someone unless you resonate with them in some way).

At this point, I get it. Immediately. I see their perspective - I can inhabit it - and, really, I'd rather not. It turns out that's not such a good skill to have. Knowing isn't helpful.

I've had more crazy people in my life than most people, but running Chowhound, with its inevitable psycho load (scale's a bitch), was a few steps beyond. As I wrote years ago:
One of Chowhound's moderators is a psychologist who's spent years treating indigent addicts in the South Bronx. After just a few weeks working with us, she declared that she'd been shocked to observe vastly more twisted and demented behavior in a given week of moderating Chowhound than she ever had at her day job. Helping to manage Chowhound amounts to what she describes as "a post-graduate course in aberrational psychology".
The larger problem is that everyone's at least a little nuts - and often more than a little. I know this because I can spot and understand the cray-cray so easily. So if I were to lose my understanding and empathy for them, that would mean less comprehension of humanity, generally.

But that would be fine. Too much understanding of people (which should be the subtitle of this Slog) is as troublesome as any other excess.

When I was a kid, I had no understanding of people whatsoever. All I knew was that these mysterious, irrational entities kept blocking me from doing the stuff I was into doing (which rarely affected them). They were needy, aggressive, and deluded, and one couldn't talk sense with them.

Rather than shrugging dismissively and blithely turning back to my interests, I pivoted, spending years exploring the mystery - unknotting the irrationality, accounting for the neediness, explaining the aggression, and discounting the delusions.

Mission accomplished, but I should have trusted my childhood instincts - always better than I'd realized - and plowed ahead with my stuff. I've gotten very little out of this detour. I can offer insights here on the Slog, but, as I said in my previous posting, understanding people doesn't help. There's not much practical application for empathy, which I suppose is why it's so rare.

Maybe if I wanted to manipulate people, this sort of knowledge would have been useful. But a firm prohibition against that sort of thing is one of several childhood creeds I continue to respect and obey.

BTW, I hope you've enjoyed my bitter post-holidy mumblings. For my previous burst of misanthropy, see this posting composed immediately after a jaunt to Trader Joe's at peak shopping time.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Art and Expectation

I was taking a music arranging class in a place where I was considered a lousy musician. No big deal; I was there to learn, not to impress. I plowed forward.

The previous summer, I'd arranged a piece for four trombones, and my trombone teacher (a veteran who'd toured with Buddy Rich and Woody Herman) was kind enough to record the result, multi-tracking all four parts. I played the recording for the arranging teacher, who suggested a different arranging approach, and had his four top trombone students perform both versions. He asked which I preferred, now that I'd heard my version played by really GOOD players.

He'd assumed it was me on the recording. Which had soured him on the whole thing. Because I'm a lousy player. But it wasn't, and, anyway, I'm not. As my mind processed it all (and the class awaited my response) I felt both surprised and disoriented to discover that I could empathize with his perspective while simultaneously knowing the truth. That said, knowing what to actually do with this comprehension was another thing, entirely. All that came to me was a near-overpowering yearning for a nice tasty beer.

Years later, someone (can't remember who) suggested I nix the amateurish paella-cooking video I'd posted here on the Slog. They assumed (as with the previous example, not without reason) that I'd whipped it up myself. In this case, I indeed have no talent for that sort of thing, but it was actually created by its subject - David Cid, one of his country's most respected animators.

I remember, as a kid, seeing Bob Hope on TV talk shows not saying one remotely funny thing, yet leaving audiences in stitches.

One more! Audiences, unfortunately, applaud after jazz solos. Even if you ignore this - even if you quietly spitefully reject it - you will notice - and at some level be manipulated by - the variance of enthusiasm from solo to solo. Same thing with those damned Facebook "like" counters.

I'd hate to see you injure yourself trying to tie together all these vignettes, but to me they're all part of the same crazy-making machine. I'd love to report that I've seen clearly through the miasma of expectations, and can navigate it all clear-headedly. But I've got absolutely nothing to offer here besides a nice frosty glass of hypothetical IPA. Cheers!

As I wrote earlier this week, "I keep my head down and do what I do." That's as far as I've gotten in all these many years.

Sunday, November 26, 2017


There are two aspects to consciousness: cognition and perceptual framing. We know an enormous amount about cognition, but few of us spend even a moment considering framing. It is assumed that external factors frame our perspective for us; that it's not under our own volition.

We'd freely acknowledge that a given city block is experienced through completely different eyes, depending on, for example, whether we've just been kissed by a new loved one or been ditched by a previous one. But we assume we must wait for external circumstances to provoke emotions for perceptual shift to occur. There is no reason for this assumption. All frames are available in any moment. We just get lazy, and forget that we can actively choose.

We're wrong about cognition, the other direction. We assume that we own our thought stream, though we obviously do not (just try to not think about the thing you're currently worried about).

Framing is chosen, not imposed (you can't make me angry, only I can make myself angry), while cognition is imposed, not chosen. Our confusion about the operation of our own minds is a profound problem.

Leave a person in a quiet room, and he might meditate and one day leave in a state of vast peace. Put some bars on the window and the same person might decay into a debilitated wreck.

This post builds considerably on the above distinction. And here are all postings on perceptual framing (I'd suggest reading from the bottom up). This one is particularly useful, and this one starts a series that goes deep.

Christopher Nolan, Charlie Kaufman and the Creative Death of Hollywood Film

I finally finished my rewatch of Interstellar. When I first saw it in-theater, I was confused by some plot points, and figured it would settle better if I could watch again. Uh-uh.

So Matthew McConaughey and Company are sent through a specially created wormhole to find a new home for earthlings by their distant future descendants - who'd only exist if that new home had been found.

He manages to achieve this by sending messages back in time to himself which could only be received if he'd gotten the message in the first place.

Finally, he contradicts all previous actions by sending himself a message of "don't go", which, if followed, would make most of the players and events in the movie (including himself) not exist. Immediately thereafter, and after no discernible change of mind, he contradicts himself yet again by sending information that will lead to everyone's rescue and happy future.

This all is made possible via his rescue by the aforementioned distant future descendants, who give him a communication channel via an awfully specific bookshelf in an awfully specific room that they somehow know about, but couldn't communicate through, themselves, necessitating the entire convoluted and logically absurd set-up of the film. Why? Because Morse code can only be sent via, like, Love.

I'm not one of those moviegoers who insists on meticulous realism and who gets all crazy about plot holes. I just need some "there" to be there; anything beyond fancy pretentious horseshit. But this is how it nearly always goes with Nolan, a supposed stickler for detail and for science who depicts a Saturn V-style rocket launch from inside an office building while workers continue to blithely work.

Nolan is considered a brainy, geeky presence in Hollywood because he is merely 99.5% mush. He's like the dull-headed kid deemed a smarty by the other dull-headed playground kids because he's always going on about quantum this or that and drawing pictures of terribly complicated-seeming machines.

Much like how Charlie Kaufman, another poseurish mess, is seen as a penetratingly insightful commentator on human psychology for his audaciously lofty and vacant bong hit-fueled nonsense.

Nolan and Kaufman are the two horsemen of cinematic apocalypse; the ultimate naked emperors baffling with bullshit for lack of any ability to dazzle with brilliance - and getting over because they're the only ones even making an effort to transcend the standard moldy, suffocating formulas.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Why Singers Get All the Attention

A friend who's super into music was observing the poor overall quality of singers. I explained to him that the entire situation resulted from a musicians' strike in the 1940's.

It's quite a story, though it's been almost completely forgotten. I'm a repository of such information, because, in my early twenties, I befriended many musicians in their 80s and 90s. So now, as I edge toward my 60's, I find myself full of forgotten lore.

With the advent of recordings in the first half of the 20th century, music was suddenly a big deal - center stage in the culture for the first time since the dawn of man. For all previous history, musicians were itinerant bums, traveling from town to town, putting out their hats, and barely getting by. A select few might get a symphony gig and teach in a conservatory, but that was the furthest one could rise - a lower-middle class existence in near-complete obscurity, working as a nameless servant for famous impresarios and conductors.

Suddenly, thanks to new technology, your playing could reach a wide enough audience to be commercially successful. Music became a huge business, and while, needless to say, musicians didn't see much of the money (which was intercepted much higher up in the food chain), they at least enjoyed very steady work. My nonagenarian friends would wag their heads, marveling about how everyone worked and worked, constantly and widely, for comparatively good money.

What's more, there was, finally, a pinnacle to shoot for. The top of the crop garnered success comparable to top artists in other arts, like painters or novelists. Stars like Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Harry James, Louis Armstrong, - so famous you even recognize their names today! - were all instrumentalists, and they supported an entire economy of lesser luminaries - the guys who were left wagging their heads in perplexed dismay forty years later.

At the height of all this, the musicians' union, flush with money and power, lost its mind and instituted a recording strike. All of a sudden, the red-hot pipeline of recorded music had no product to push, and capitalism abhors a vacuum. So the money guys looked to singers, who belonged to a different union, to fill in.

There had always been singers, of course. They'd tour with bands, but were far lesser creatures than their musician-leaders. Sinatra sat dutifully on a chair in front of the Dorsey and James bands, eagerly awaiting his few minutes of featured time while the trombonist and trumpeter (respectively) soaked up the serious adulation and made the real money.

Now, the story you'll hear literally everywhere is that Sinatra's career inevitably blew up as adoring fans demanded more and more of him, his fame inevitably eclipsing that of his former bosses left in the dust blowing their stodgy horns. But it wasn't inevitable. It was manufactured.

Singers were pushed very hard, and the public bought it. This was the moment when the execs, managers, agents, and other money people came to realize how generic the star slots were. Cultivate the right image and publicity, and you could throw just about anyone in there to serve as an instant profit center. So by the time the musicians strike ended, the scene had flipped and singers were the sensations. The execs liked singers because they tended to be dumb, malleable, and so obsessed with fame that you could lead them like lemmings. Instrumental musicians, on the other hand, are a whole other thing.

Becoming a top musician requires more training than doctors or lawyers. It's unbelievably hard to reach a point of real excellence (and professional-level consistency), so they tend to be shrewd, highly-motivated, and obsessed with silly irrelevancies like quality. If you're a recording executive, who would you rather anoint and exploit: those wily rascals or some skinny dude with a pleasant voice who, this time last year, was delivering packages or fixing bikes?

The music business never looked back. Instrumentalists were shoved into the shadows, the public stopped paying the least bit of attention to the band, and singers were everything. Every package deliverer and bike repairman imagined they could sing as good as the person on the radio....and they were often right. To this day, singers remain predominant, enjoying all the fuss, the billing, and the money while the saxophonist who spent 20 years mastering his craft at least gets to enjoy a doobee or two while practicing scales after his package delivery day job.

It's not entirely one-sided. In every era, some instrumentalist manages to claw his way to the top of the mountain. Herb Alpert, Herbie Mann, Chuck Mangione, Kenny G - guys like that*. Every single one of them is a pitiful example of shoddy musicianship. To the rest of us musicians, the message is very clear: our Masters let exactly one of us in the door at a time - the most scant-talented but dentally shiny - as a reminder of what our advanced skills and astute savvy are truly worth.

* - Chris Botti, the latest flavor, is actually solid, but he's not anything like the thing he's sold as being. He's a fine session player - good for playing pads and pops in a horn section on record dates - who's been weirdly (and successfully) marketed as a shiny/moody jazz/pop virtuoso/messiah. But at least the guy can play his horn.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

International Travel Tips

I've traveled to 26 countries (including 25 separate trips to Spain), mostly as a touring musician. I've developed some pre-trip to-dos that might look like a bit much, but it's the result of deep experience.

While you're in trip prep mode, ticking down a 100 item to-do list, it's easy to forget that not every step's of equal priority. You'll need to invest a solid hour in the following, but it prevents huge potential pain; way more so than if you, say, forget to pack suntan lotion (Globalism is your friend, by the way; you can find Pepto Bismol or bobby pins most anywhere now).

I'm preparing this for The Niece in Greece (she's headed over to cavort with shiftless millionaire sponge-diving playboys), but hopefully this will be of use to others, as well.

Cautious Stuff

1. Make a copy of the photo page of your passport, and carry it in a different place than you carry your passport. If you lose your passport, this puts you way ahead of the game in getting a replacement (and/or temporarily keeping you cool with local authorities)

2. Your phone may house beautifully organized trip info, but what if you lose your phone (or it runs out of juice at the wrong moment)? Write up a one page document with all flight and ground transportation details, hotels, credit card cancellation non-800 numbers, etc. Print up a jillion copies, and put one in every suitcase and carry-on, plus one in your pocket or pocketbook.

3. Start a word processor document with a big, bold 14 pt header titled "In Case of Emergency" (google-translated into the local language). Beneath, in 9 point text, with very narrow columns, add a name and local contact number (hotel, Airbnb host, local friends or work contacts), and make clear (again, using Google Translate) that this person is local (e.g. "En Barcelona"). Also add your email address and any medical information (allergies, conditions, medications - remember, if you're in a health crisis, you won't otherwise get your usual meds for a few days).

Print it out, scissor-trim it into a tight, narrow strip, and feed it into a wallet slot, prepped so the "In Case of Emergency" header is clearly visible. Also: save the document on your computer to use as a template for future trips.

Take a moment to carefully consider your choice of contact. This will be your sole lifeline and means of referral back to friends/family in USA. Consider adding an American contact (most foreigners have a cheap way of calling abroad these days...more so than Americans do). Set up the number carefully, with local international call prefix plus American country code, and specify (in local language) the languages your American contact speaks (e.g. "Ingl├ęs solamente").

Don't rush this step; you want it done right! Imagine how various scenarios would play out.

4. Prepare a similar document, without the medical info or American contact. Just include a local contact plus your email address (local EMS will check your wallet; this one is just for a lost phone or informal street help in the event of a problem). Photograph this document, and make it the "lock screen" on your smart phone, so it's what everyone sees when they turn on the phone, prior to enterring passcode (take the time to make it look right, and save the document - not the photo - on your computer so you can use it as a template for future trips).

5. Call your credit cards to let them know you'll be abroad, otherwise they may assume someone stole your card.

Using Smartphone Abroad

You want lots and lots of data abroad. Many people shut off data to escape roaming charges, and only connect via wifi. They're horribly wrong. This is when your smartphone shines! You want to use tons of Google Maps, Yelp, Uber, local mass-transit apps (add research/downloading these to your to-do list), plus stay-in-touch email and US news checks. You want loads of data! But don't pay thousands of dollars by doing so on your home mobile plan. What you want is a local SIM (which gives you a local phone number plus a daily/weekly data allowance plus text messages). Again, get one with high data allowance (upwards of 10g/week). Don't be cheap on this!

Note, per #1 below, that you'll need an unlocked phone.

T-Mobile, last time I checked, offers free local data everywhere, but it's super slow. Know what? Screw it! Even if you're on T-Mobile, spring for the local SIM with fast data. It's never expensive (figure $15-30/week). Live a little!

Downside: phone calls to your normal home number won't ring through. You can give important correspondents your foreign local number for emergencies. And call back to your home phone number via Skype to grab voicemail (always keep a balance on Skype). As for text messages, see #4, below.

Smartphone Pre-Travel

1. A week or more before you leave, call your smartphone carrier to verify that you have an unlocked phone (so it can take a local SIM). If not, and they balk at unlocking it (they can do so remotely), threaten to cancel your plan with them (if they mention penalty charges for breaking your contract, tell them T-Mobile offered to pay the penalties for you).

2. Google your destination plus "local SIM", and ignore all results over a year old. Find out which week-long packages are available for travelers. Often, there's not much choice or price variation (seriously, don't waste too much time comparison shopping here), in which case, great, get it done right in the airport as soon as you land. Otherwise, hit a cellphone kiosk in the most touristy town center. And bring your passport, they usually ask for it. 

3. Bring a small paper clip for opening the SIM tray. When you buy the SIM, they'll take care of that for you. But you'll need the paper clip to open it up to pop back your original SIM when you arrive at your home airport.

4. Send text messages to all your frequent correspondents saying you'll be out of range, but inviting them to email you. Note that you SHOULD be able to connect via text even with a new SIM, but only if your correspondent uses the same platform (iOs or Android) as you....and, even so, it won't work if your phone's not properly configured (and Apple keeps changing the config options, so I'm never quite sure). Text messages are voodoo, so be safe and assume it won't work (if you use WhatsApp, you're all set, of course...and that app's super popular abroad, fwiw).

5. Make sure you have my app, "Eat Everywhere" loaded on your phone to help not just with the the local cuisine, but also for other cuisines cooked by local immigrants. We offer helpful local pronunciations and background on the food. Don't eat out without it!

Smartphone After Arrival

1. After the insolent kid in the cell phone kiosk tells you you're good to go with your new SIM, step to the side, turn off wifi, and try to load a web page. If it doesn't load, don't leave until it does. Also, ask him/her to text you, and you text back.

2. Guard your old SIM with your life. I shove it, hard, into an unused bottom corner of my wallet. Sure, you can always get a replacement back home, but you really want a working phone once your plane lands back home.

3. Go to the "Cellular" section of your device's settings and make sure LTE is enabled for voice and data (it probably is at home, but for some reason this setting often gets toggled off when you add a new SIM).

4. Sometime that day or the following (most often at the 24 hour mark after buying the SIM), data may stop working. If so, follow the instructions (probably dialing a number with some asterisks and pound signs) for initially setting up data (carry the SIM instruction paperwork in your wallet). Often you just need to do this again...every day (after calling, a text will tell you you've already been set up, and data should now work). No idea why.


ATMs are expensive. Not just due to the usual fee, but also the hefty foreign transaction charge. I've tried alternative ways of getting money, but they're all bad (trust me: you don't want to fool around with traveler's checks). So I take a huge ATM withdrawal right at the airport. Several reasons:

1. I won't need to make as many subsequent withdrawals, each with terrible fees (they add up!).

2. I won't have to use my credit card as much (again, terrible rate plus an international fee - though some cards are better than others; do some research if you travel a lot).

3. If the big withdrawal is lost/stolen once every ten trips, I'll still have saved money overall compared to paying multiple int'l transaction fees.

4. My thief will be far happier with me (and less inclined to conk me over the head) than if he'd found just twenty five bucks for his trouble.

Other than this big-gulp strategy, I don't stress over foreign transaction fees. Certain travel expenses can/should be squirmed out of, but this one (like the high data local SIM plan) I just suck up.

One ATM tip: always request a granular amount of the local currency, so you don't wind up with a wallet full of the local equivalent of $50 or $100 bills (which nobody wants to break). Ask for 310, 320 or 325 rather than 300 or 350. This will allow you to purchase whatever doodads you need right from the beginning. And start trying to break up bigger bills as soon as you get to your hotel.


If you carry it everywhere with you, you may be sorry (if it's lost or stolen).

If you leave it in your hotel room, you may be sorry (if it's required and you don't have it with you).

My rule of thumb is that the more authoritarian or alien the country, the more likely I am to bring it everywhere with me. But if you leave it in your hotel, leave it well hidden, or even in the hotel vault (leave out a big, honking, hardcopy reminder to yourself to re-claim it before you leave). Don't leave it in the same bag as the copy of the passport you made before leaving.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Wheat Grass Juice and Hollywood Shallowness

I'm rewatching Interstellar on blu-ray. The imaginative sweep is impressive, and the technical filmmaking is, of course, breathtaking. But the subtleties of acting and writing are so embarrassingly tinny that it's hard to imagine how something so expensive could have wound up so "off". Hollywood films often leave me feeling this way. But I just realized the answer.

The actors portraying these brave, brainy scientist/pioneers - as well as the people who wrote, edited, and directed them - are all shallow Los Angelenos just back from yoga class, doing their thing while periodically sipping wheat grass juice.

And while actors may don eyeglasses, make their "serious" faces, and spout mumbo jumbo - and writers can try to simulate work of actual depth - it's just not possible to act or write smarter than you actually are. That's a hard limit. When wheat grass juice people are writing lines for other wheat grass juice people to speak, what on earth would we expect?

You can smell the wheat grass juice from the audience. You can feel the yoga class afterglow, and the drive thereto in the Porsche. And none of this is the proper vibe for a tale of a desperate multi-dimensional mission of mercy (at least not in an era when moviegoers expect some degree of authenticity and realism).

This is exactly why Kubrick was so good. He was every bit as smart and as deep as any of his characters. I suppose his tendency to shoot dozens upon dozens of takes was his trick for expunging every iota of downward dog.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Inside Story on Asceticism

You know how, by level 20 in a video game, you start noticing that all the levels are essentially the same, in spite of changing color schemes and updated monsters? You begin to see past the facade of diversity. The spell has broken. As you keep playing, you might sport a new gizmo, or develop a new skill, but the repetition becomes more and more crudely obvious, eventually making the game a complete bore. Check, please!

That's how I feel about life, and it's been a concern for a long time. I've had abnormally broad-ranging experiences in a wide variety of scenes and locales. I've been several different people, working five or six careers, and thinking and acting in different ways. It's all been about trying to stay ahead of the repetition by perpetually seeking out freshness. As I wrote here:
I agree with Jerry Seinfeld's insistence that life's not too short, it's too long. We do the same crap over and over for decades; it's mind-numbingly repetitive. While some people are comforted by familiar routines, I'm not wired that way. And I'm surprised less and less often as I get older, compelling me to try harder and harder to seek out fresh surprise.
See this, for example.

I spotted the repetitiveness early on as a child, prodding me to explore myriad branches, sussing out hidden snatches of surprise and delight. Fearful of being enervated by the repetition before my clock ran out, I scrambled avidly up the curves of declining results.

But you can't avoid the inevitable. Resources deplete swiftly as a mining operation scales up. Voracious for surprise, one finds oneself digesting it all faster and faster. It's a vicious circle. As I wrote here:
Things can hyperaccelerate. You find yourself learning and experiencing in lots of different realms in lots of different ways, perpetually thirsting for value and diversity (imagine a dog with his nose sticking out of a car window, hyperstimulated by the myriad passing scents).

The world is optimized for dawdlers who endlessly wander the same corridors. The world does not stand up to the scrutiny of those who resist the cheap allure of the various Skinner boxes. God, it turns out, pads like a motherfucker.
I mulled it over until the way forward was clear (this must be what people mean when they say middle age is about figuring out who you are and what you want):

Eventual boredom seems inevitable. Most people my age are, above all, sullenly, stoically, crustily, bored out of their skulls, and fated to remain so for the duration. As a kid, I felt I'd noticed a fundamental flaw in adults but couldn't quite put my finger on it. The truth was that in spite of their engaged appearance and get-it-done outlook, most grown-ups live in a state of abject zonked-out boredom far beyond anything even the most spoiled child could possibly imagine.

I refuse to accept this fate, as someone who's always been deeply galled and offended by bored people. Bored people are the cause, not the effect, of boredom, and I'd rather die than join their team. So I needed to figure out which realms of repetition I could zealously embrace ad infinitum.

Only three passed the test:

1. Finding and enjoying the fruits of human creativity. This quest is what chowhounding's always been about for me. I'm not a kooky glutton fetishizing toothsome yum-yums. I'm a devotee hellbent on discovering and appreciating the Easter eggs of creation. As I refine my appreciation, I find myself doting on ever smaller examples. Even mere specks can keep me going.

2. Committing fully to my own work - weighty or frivolous, appreciated or not - and working, if necessary, like an ant. The idea is to give myself over so utterly even to trivial tasks that it seems a bit demented. The fruits may or may not be worthwhile - I have no idea; that's for other people to worry about. I'm not here to view a cinematic experience of The Story of Me. I keep my head down and do what I do. And that never gets old for me.

3. Helping, whenever and however I mindlessly, stupidly find myself compelled to do so.

These are the aspects of the video game I can partake beyond level 10,000 without falling victim to the "B" word.

Since I figured all this out, I've been slightly alarmed by how many common interests have been let go of. To people who don't know me well, I seem diminished, detached, faded. Small, almost to the point of immateriality. It's because I've settled so deeply into what satisfies, and renounced so thoroughly what does not. To external appearance, I am a renunciate; an ascetic. But ascetics, perennially misunderstood, only look austere. Their internal reality is completely different. Shake off the ash, and the embers glow brightly.

Our president has everything he ever dreamed of, but beneath his preening gold-plated surface, he's clearly miserable - hungry, needy, insecure, retracted, gnarled, knotted, angry, resentful, jealous, and desperate. Ascetics - having dropped their dreams (but not glumly!), leaving them with, effectively, nothing - are inwardly full and content. This dichotomy has never before been so intensely hammered home as in the age of Trump. So: which side has it better?

Monday, November 20, 2017

David Cid

My Catalan friend, David Cid, is a very imaginative and talented animator, artist, and performance designer (also a cook!). I always enjoy his stuff, because he's always surprising, never content to serve up the expected thing, the usual beat, the standard gesture. Of course, that alone is insufficient. It's not so hard to fly off the rails and "baffle them with bullshit." But the gold key goes to those who can actually create inspiring results without lazily dipping into the dependable sack of "same-old".

At some point, one of his eclectic stage shows will travel to USA (and I'll post a heads-up). Meanwhile, check out his web site (it's in Spanish, but you should be able to get around ok), as well as the following reel:

Saturday, November 18, 2017

"Good Enough" Sucks

I've revealed, twice now (here and here), a key secret of professional musicians. The first was a right-brain explanation, and the second more left-brain:
If a musician tries to play in tune, he'll, inevitably, sometimes play out of tune. But if you try to play really in tune, you'll play reasonably in tune even at your worst. This is a critical life lesson!
The professional musician's trick to playing consistently in-tune is to aim to be far more precisely in tune than you need to be. A serviceable A-natural can be conjured up anywhere between 439.7hz and 440.3hz, but if you relax into that full latitude, you will unavoidable miss those goalposts from time to time, whereas those who shoot for 439.999hz to 440.001hz never miss so widely.
I know a serious chowhound who runs a tavern that serves great beer, but merely so-so food. He explains that the food doesn't need to be so great for such a place. It's "good enough."

Here's the problem with that (and, by extension, with the world): "Good enough" sucks. If you are not trying to do great work, you will do terrible work. If you aim for good enough, results will often not be good enough. You can't get around this fact (actually, it's a law...the much misunderstood Murphy's Law).

People who try to do great work usually wind up doing merely good work, unless they're absolute OCD kooks. But if you hope to just keep up with the predominant quality around you - among colleagues and competitors - and try not to suck, I have bad news for you: You suck.

"Keeping up" means sometimes not keeping up (you win some and you lose some, amiright?). This is how under-average performance happens - nobody tries to be below average - and this is how everything turns to crap, generally.

...until an absolute OCD kook arrives to set a new standard, forcing everyone else to aim higher for a while, until it all starts collapsing once again. Entropy is the way of the Universe, and the ultimate human goal is to work against this inevitability. If you're going to fight that fight, you might as well give it all you've got.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The TV To Get At the Best Possible Price

The 55" LG OLED55B7A cost, until a short while ago, $2000, and was a bargain at that price (OLED technology is a whole higher level of picture quality). It's just dropped to $1400 (with free shipping) as a freak sale at, and will settle in, starting Black Friday, at $1500 (including, surely, at Amazon), for at least a couple weeks before the price goes back up again.

$1500 is a lot for a TV, to be sure. But it's tomorrow's technology, so it's future-proof, and it's beyond the beyond, quality-wise. You won't need to do a lot of research. If you need a TV, and can possibly afford it, this is the one to get. If you've been following OLED prices, you know it's ridiculously cheap.

Here's the great David Katzmaier's rave review of the model, and here is his strongly-worded recent suggestion that "this sale is the time to pull the trigger, and this is the OLED TV to get" ("If I was spending my own money now to buy a new TV, I would get the B7A"). I'd recommend reading carefully through that second link.

You should probably skip the $1400 NewEgg offer, though, and wait for Amazon, et al, to drop to $1500 next Friday. As Katzmaier notes:

Also, don't forget that many credit cards offer price protection, so you won't get burned if it drops further (but few people think LG will drop this low again until next fall).

Jeremiah Tower

I caught Anthony Bourdain's company's film "Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent" (it's playing in Bourdain's usual slot on CNN as an extended episode of "Parts Unknown," if you want to record a rerun or search for VOD).

I enjoyed the film. I don't know Tower, and never tasted his food, but we have a degree of separation (my buddy, director Les Blank, was close to Alice Waters in that era - in fact, he's briefly referenced in the film - just before a shot of him twirling around with Alice - as "a film guy"). And I savagely panned Tavern on the Green, where Tower eventually wound up for a few months, before it was fashionable to do so. I'm sorry he apparently missed that article, which dissuaded at least one restaurant veteran from hiring on there. 

The friend who recommended this film described it as "sad and infuriating": "He certainly was (is) very talented but there's a serious disconnect somewhere."

For those who haven't seen it yet (I wouldn't sweat the following minor spoiler), Tower had a lonely, loveless childhood, and faced decades of relentless opposition and disrespect as he tried his damnedest to conjure style, quality, and celebration. Having played an important role in the creation of New American cuisine, he remains underrecognized and appears, at age 74, to be embittered and diminished (though it may very well be that they just shot and edited the film to make him seem that way).

In my view, the greatest human tragedy is to face sustained adversity without being transformed - without coming away with some lozenge of wisdom. Regardless of appearances, the universe is not grinding us into pulp. It's trying to clear our windshields and unfurl our clenchings...if we'll only let it. If we'll simply release to What Is.

Most never do. They endlessly re-tighten their grip on tired and useless impulses and delusions, and the friction wears them down to a joyless stub. Even among those who do surrender - who accept the universe on its own terms - it's often done mutteringly at first, as a sour act of disillusionment. Only later do they fully release into a clearer, more equanimous and open-hearted surrender, hearts cracking open. That's where this is all leading. You can go with the flow, or you can scream, over and over, "This shall not pass!" I have trouble understanding someone who'd choose the latter for 74 harrowing years.

Creative visionaries are treated the harshest, not because the world fears and loathes vision and creativity (though it certainly does), but because such people have been prepared for deeper, harder lessons. Travails and agonies are like finishing school; the toughest and loving-est of "tough love". But from the (probably skewed) impression one gets from this film, Tower appears to have endured hell without claiming his reward. No brass key!

He remains worked up over his legacy and his place in things - The Grand Story of Me, which is precisely what finishing school aims to reveal as empty drama. It's never about the doer, or even the done. It's about the doing. If you can reach old age, having gone through all Tower has gone through, without that realization, and clinging to memories of disappointment and ill-treatment, that means the travails were for naught. And that's very sad, indeed.

As I wrote here:
There are people whose lives have been a never-ending stream of undeserved calamities, and while such people often wind up broken and embittered, they may also wind up illuminated.
...and as I wrote here:
We're so adept at immersion and identification with storylines that we easily lose ourselves. Our problem as a species is that we immerse so deeply in the drama (especially the parts that seem deadly serious - the grisliest, saddest, most turbulent storylines) that we forget we're the ones who signed up for this. The solution is to try to wear it all much more lightly, and to remember that the rollercoasters are merely rides (we waited on line!), not oppressors.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Criterion Collection 50% off at Barnes & Noble

Barnes & Noble's exciting biannual 50%-off deal on Criterion Collection's entire great line of DVDs and Blu-Rays has just begun its fall event. I wrote about it extensively this summer, if you'd like to take a look.

Here's a link to's Criterion page

I'm definitely ordering Repo Man (long live Harry Dean the way, his final film, Lucky, was terrific).

Comedy Just Died

Appalling behavior is not entertainment. Harassment - sexual and otherwise - is not the least bit funny. Watching people be awful to one another should not be how we get our jollies.

This all sounds completely reasonable, but only because it's the new normal. New normals can arrive with startling speed (no one in 1985 would have imagined Americans taking to raw fish). But here's the question: All those years I spent watching the Three Stooges smash each other, and guffawing at "What knockers!" jokes in Young Frankenstein, and seeing Jerry Lewis portray poor motor function and cognitive disability for laughs....was it all a depraved fever dream of me-as-monstrous-brute?

Have we evolved beyond that? Should we view characters slipping on banana peels with due empathy, rather than laughing at their pain and misfortune? Our laughter reflects our ability to desensitize, and human desensitization is the root of all evil. Are we waking up from a long civilizational sickness, and, finally, rightfully spurning the central propositions of comedy?

That seems to be where we're headed. And it's accelerating wildly. I recently predicted that, within 50 years, Marx Brothers films would be viewed as appalling, barbaric, and unfunny. There's nothing to laugh at while watching that asshole Groucho harass that nice Margaret Dumont woman as she tries to throw her parties, or to sing her lovely opera arias! But I'm stepping up that prediction. I believe that within five years, Groucho will be an obsolete relic. No thoughtful parent will let their children watch Roadrunner or Bugs Bunny cartoons. Because we're better than that.

Comedy may well be over, because it's based, fundamentally, on the notion that appalling behavior is entertainment. Harassment - sexual and otherwise - is hilarious. And watching people be awful to one another should be the preeminent way to get our jollies.

Are we evolving into something kinder, gentler, better? Hey, perhaps! I don't discount it! On the other hand, humans deny their darkness at their peril (it's no coincidence that holier-than-thou types so often turn out to be the most secretly depraved). Comedy's a release valve for our crueler instincts, even though it often pushes past uncomfortable lines, just as pro sports are a release valve for our warrior instincts in spite of the concussions and fan hooliganism. The more sensitive we become, the less tolerant we feel toward release valves, because they carry too much whiff of the full-throttled thing.

I can see both sides. Comedy is appalling, if you think about it. It will very likely cease to exist under currently shifting fashions. But when I think of Groucho and Bugs and Wiley Coyote and the Stooges, I have trouble mustering a fashionable sense of disapproval for those assholes. I guess I slightly favor legacy (i.e. decades of enjoyment) over new-fashioned social waves; I lean slightly conservative, at least in this matter.

But here's the thing. When the Marx Brothers films become cultura-non-grata - and they will, soon - many will sincerely believe they always hated those films. Consider how, by 2015, nearly everyone was a crusading gay rights proponent unable to fathom any other position. That was strange, given that only a few years earlier there was virtually no full-throated condemnation of gay persecution (much less support for rights like marriage). I've supported those rights for some time, but I remember when homosexuality creeped me out. But only me, apparently. Everyone else seems to have acquired a weird amnesia. They always approved of sushi.

Watch. Groucho's going down. And no one will have ever liked him.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Empowering a Government That Might be Run By a Trump

If you're a liberal who can't understand why everyone doesn't share your desire to see social justice goals enshrined in law, the following does an elegant job of tersely explaining the downside.

In fact, it's a keyhole into the moderate view of such things. It's not that we want to keep good people down, it's that we're just leery of using government as a tool for addressing an ever-unfolding profusion of grievances, movements, and trendy crusades:

Libertarians are wrong: government is not our enemy. However, a year of Trump should be enough to convince you that the government is not always going to be our friend, either, and that we must plan accordingly. Take it from Gary Kasparov; he ought to know...

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Bypassing the Brain, Straight to the Spleen

If you're someone who aims to maintain rationality and balance even when upsetting things are happening - if you don't want to be reverse-spun into the sort of stupidity and extremism that set you off in the first place - then you'll see things like this - which stoke your outrage and stroke your confirmation bias - and have the discipline to run it past your brain, where you'll recognize the hollowness and overreach:

Putting Moore in the Senate will not sacrifice the innocence of any children, duh. That's hysterical, empty nonsense. We don't need to keep him out of the Senate FOR THE CHILDREN (if he's still molesting - and there's no reason to assume he is - he can do so as easily in AL as in DC), we need to keep him out because his history of lawless predation and hypocrisy disqualifies him from leading the nation.

Statements like the above make our spleens pleasantly throb, in the same way that a given scummy hunk of Steve Bannon demagoguery resonates with his people. It completely bypasses the brain.

Don't let anyone bypass your brain. The brain is certainly not everything, but it's our only hope for maintaining rationality and balance in troubling times. The brain is what's missing on the other side. Don't be jerked into imitating them.

Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

How to Fall Asleep on Cue

Having practiced meditation for 45 years, I've learned to navigate several states of consciousness. Yet I've never been able to fall asleep on cue. It's bugged me, so I've been working on it. And I've finally cracked it.

I just returned from Singapore, which involved a ghastly 25 hours in the air (the Sun rose and set twice; I thought that was something only experienced from the International Space Station!). So I've had a chance to test this with worst-case-scenario jet lag...and it works!

It's simple - as stuff like this tends to be:

1. Increase the weight of your head

I don't care how relaxed you think you are; you are holding your head oh-so-slightly above your pillow via neck, shoulder, and trunk muscles. Tension! Let your head get heavy, so it sinks further into the pillow. Maybe even push downward, ever so slightly.

2. Let your thought stream get whimsical

Once your head gets heavy and sinks into the pillow, your thoughts will immediately turn dreamlike. And here's the shocking part: you are already asleep. Mission accomplished! Sleep isn't distant. Sleep is always right around the corner...and you've turned that corner. You just don't know it. So there's truly nothing further to do, except....

3. Answer "Yes".

A thought will very soon surface, through the surreal dream imagery, questioning whether you're truly asleep. Just say "yes". And let your head drop. And let your thoughts unfurl. Don't think about this process (it's so simple, there's nothing to think about!). Don't monitor. Don't manage. Just let it go. You are already asleep. Nothing more to be done.

Here's why it took 40 years to develop this (it involved stupidly repeating one of my stupidest-ever mistakes):

For my first twenty years of meditation, I could easily unhook myself from my mental noise and plunge down to a repose of silence (I'm not talking about sleep here; that's a different thing). But quite often, a great big crass thought would trumpet through: "Crap, did I leave the car windows open?" or "I forgot to call so-and-so!" Everything seemed ruined. I was back at the surface, expelled from the depths, needing to start again. I was a terrible meditator!

After two goddamned decades it finally occurred to me that these loud thoughts were just more thoughts; more noise to unhook from. They weren't special. They might trumpet, but they couldn't disrupt my meditation unless I chose to disrupt it by paying them heed. I'd been an idiot to imagine there was an "up" and "down", or that external phenomena could control me. Silence is right here, right now, and it's entirely a matter of where I choose to place my attention.

The issue was prioritization. Garden-variety thoughts ("I'm tired", "I'm hungry", "Am I meditating correctly?") are easy to let go of. Just let them be! But if the house might burn down, well, that seems worth ceasing my meditation for! So my mind learned to produce thoughts which coaxed me into heeding my mind.

The task was to let go of these seemingly high-priority thoughts. To do so, I needed to deepen my commitment to meditation - to convince myself that nothing else was a higher priority. The car windows may be open, and I may hear rain, but the car can fill with water, I don't care. The gas might be on, but my house can explode, that's fine. I'll lose work if I don't return the call,! Deeper commitment meant no disruption could disrupt. I've enjoyed thoroughly peaceful meditations ever since.

I figured this out - that the loud thoughts are still just thoughts - twenty years ago, and yet I've always allowed the "Am I truly asleep?" thought to snare me back into a thinky awake state. Thoughts can't snare you! Only your responsiveness can. Answer a distant, dreamy "yes" and let the sleep you were already in fully envelope you.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Even Consent is Insufficient

The Louis CK situation should be considered differently from Weinstein, Trump, Cosby, et al., because he always asked - and received - permission first. But it's currently believed that even consent can be insufficient. As Louis himself said this morning:
"When you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them. The power I had over these women is that they admired me."
Let's leave aside Louis' weirdo sex prefs (aren't we all supposed to be non-judgemental these days?). Let's also leave aside the obvious fact that power itself is attractive (people with no power have a rough time getting laid). Let's leave aside that beautiful people enjoy a great deal of power over others, and often milk that power for all its worth (for sex and for countless other advantages) with impunity. Let's leave a whole bunch of meshugas on the table and get to brass tacks.

It's been made clear to me that it's "gross" to date women who are younger, and it's "creepy" (and perhaps harassment) to even politely proposition a woman who might be deemed "out of my league" (i.e. has more power than me). I also must avoid sex with women who admire me (because then I have power over them), who might ever conceivably be employable by me or helped by me in their careers (again, POWER), and who have fewer connections and assets than me (POWER!). When there's a power imbalance, even consent is insufficient*.

So who, precisely, am I allowed to fuck? Can someone please tell me?

* - Except for the power of physical attractiveness. If you've got that, go nuts. Enthrall, exploit, and dump as you wish. You're good to go.

Even if consent were sufficient, I still must be prepared to instantly retract and recoil, physically, at any sign of equivocation at any moment in any relationship, because anything less than explicitly/verbally corroborated ardor might be deemed rape. And, as we know, women always know exactly what they want, are never ambivalent or hard to read, never offer positive feedback to assertive men, and they really really love it when guys keep nervously re-verifying their ongoing consent. Consent is a slippery thing, to begin with, and if it's not even sufficient, that means we've gone stone cold crazy.

Update: Facebook discussion of this posting here (be sure to uncompress all the replies).
One last note, since I'm tacking on here:

If Louis CK's sexual preference (which I personally find icky) is to be publicly excoriated because it's icky, then that leaves the door open to relitigate all sorts of sexual preferences. Hey, I don't feel particularly rosy about the practice of chopping off one's penis to "become" a woman, but I've been persuaded - quite rightly! - that I should live and let live. How did that suddenly stop being a thing?

Slick In-Flight Wi-fi Move

Fun fact: you can pause your time with in-flight wifi. This means you can buy just an hour and spread it out. Check email quickly a bunch of times during flight, and pause the service while you compose replies, etc., etc. Of course, if you want to spend the entire flight merrily surfing, you'll still need to pay for full-flight wi-fi.

To pause, just return to the web page where you paid for the service. Somewhere on there (you may need to read a FAQ) is a control to pause service.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Slimy Conniving Toads Burned by Sunlight

This July I wrote:
Historian Consensus Circa 2117

Nixon: Should have burned the tapes.

Carter: Weak; paralyzed by minutiae.

George W Bush: Late to disengage from Cheney's enthrallment.

Obama: Deliberateness is noble; equivocation is not.

Trump: Campaigned to enhance brand and ego, never intended to win. Victory ensured punishment for lifelong criminality that otherwise would never have come to light.
Consider Paul Manafort, a wealthy, powerful man who's now disgraced and destined for serious cell time (on state charges if Trump pardons the federal ones). What in hell did he need this for? The first rule of slimy, conniving toads is always keep a low profile. Of course, Manafort never expected Trump to win, and, man, was that ever an expensive miscalculation (you thought you were harmed by that surprise outcome!)

This will eventually be the long view rap on Manafort: victory ensured punishment for lifelong criminality that otherwise would never have come to light. And the same for Flynn and Cohen, and, finally, Trump and Jared. With the mobbed-up money laundering and all the rest of it, there's way more than just treasonous colluding with a hostile power to swing an election. Mueller has Manafort's and Gates' tax returns, and a granular financial transaction record via FinCEN. He surely has Trump's, too.

He never should have run. Mistake of his life. When all is said and done, that will be the clear assessment.

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