Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Big Con

Early in my musical career, I was hired to take part in a concert titled "A Tribute to Duke". I soon understood the con. We'd ply our standard jazzy shtick, but we'd do so over some Duke Ellington compositions, which would make more people come and pay more money because Duke Ellington's more famous than we were. They wouldn't be getting Duke himself, as he was dead, and they wouldn't get the sound or feeling of Duke, because, to repeat, we'd be plying our standard jazzy shtick. But there'd be a big shiny "Duke Ellington" sticker stuck over it, and, voila, money would be made.

Did the audience recognize the con? Did they object to the bait-and-switch, and demand refunds? No, because we were good players and they heard just enough Ellington-ish compositional flourishes to check the box (it's not like their jazz scholarship ran super deep). It was an excuse for them to get out of their houses, and an excuse for me to cover my rent that month. Win-win!

Over the following decades, I noticed this same "shiny sticker" con in every realm of life.

"There's a beer festival happening? Wow, I like beer! So that's for me!" I'd eagerly plunk down $50 to trudge around some tent with a tiny, sticky sample glass, waiting in long lines amid obnoxious pukey drunks for trickles of ale I might just as easily - and much more comfortably and inexpensively - enjoy in some bar, or even my living room. But, hey, it's a festival! And it's beer! And I categorize that way!

Has anyone ever noticed that parties always, always suck? You can't possibly talk to 30 or 200 people. At best, you'll talk to 4 or 5. So why not just take those 4 or 5 to dinner? You don't need that shitty guacamole dip, you don't need that shitty music. Have you ever in your life uttered the words "Wow, great party!"? Yet amnesia returns, and we're lured in again and again just because the word is alluring. "Party!"

It's a celebratory upbeat word, and we live in an abstract imaginary world of words (I call it "Worldworld"), so we unconsciously fear that if we're not able to demonstrably cross-reference ourselves with celebratory upbeat terms, that makes us dreary downers. Uh-oh...bad words!

Nearly all the big shiny hyped up things - even in realms I happen to like - are inevitably less comfortable, less enjoyable, more expensive versions of things that can be normally enjoyed in normal settings. I learned it early (we didn't play any better than usual at "A Tribute to Duke", and the big sterile auditorium was a far worse listening environment than an intimate smokey nightclub). But it took many years for me to settle down into a pervasive faith in Nano-Aesthetics, the core tenet of my religion.

I came to recognize that we generally fake ourselves out by imagining that some big exciting gold label experience awaits us around the next corner. I guess the notion that this, right now, is as good as it gets is unbearable for people who conceive themselves as starring in a movie full of heroic sweep and drama.

And just as we mess things up by projecting drama in our lives, we also mess up by projecting our lives into drama. I once wrote (specifically in reference to "Westworld") that when TV and movies are built around some hidden mythology, the big reveal is never mind-blowing.
Mythologies are wonderful things to bounce characters off of, to see how interesting characters respond to interesting circumstances. But if you make the puzzle the focus, you create impossible expectations...because TRINTG ("The reveal is never that great").

Human narrative is not as mythic as we'd like to imagine. We're clever livestock. The ways in which we creatively grind against the banal contours of our worldly dramatic narratives can be beautiful and surprising. That's our saving grace; our transcendence. But the contours themselves - including juicy conspiracies and mysteries - are non-awesome. That's what makes our desperately hopeful overuse of the word "awesome" so adorable.
The party and the beer festival will disappoint. "Tribute to Duke" has nothing to do with Duke, and The Reveal Is Never That Great. We're mere clever livestock but the creative grind against banal contours is gorgeously uplifting. That grind is small and quiet, and you must discover examples of it yourself. If anyone tries to turn a given instance into an Experience - sticking a shiny sticker on it - the result will always be crappified.

Developing immunity to the "shiny label" con lies at the core of the Chowhound credo: Unsung greatness is everywhere - it hangs low on the trees! - so resist being guilelessly pulled by hype toward fakery (also: notice if the fakery isn't pleasing you! Don't just keep coming back again and again because the words are alluring!). Instead, proactively push outward to find genuine treasure, which is always quietly undersold and deceptively ordinary-seeming.

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