Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Fearful Flip-Outs versus Vigilant Intelligent Concern

Just to balance out my posting about Pittsburgh, where I said:
This is not The Age-Old. It's different now. I believe it's a last gasp of an old problem (though last gasps can be horrendous, and represent a long tail as they gradually fade out)...

Sensitized by our relative safety and comfort, micro evil seems macro. A few pathetic dipshits with tiki torches in Charlottesville feel like a grand resurgence of the Third Reich, just because it's so startling (40 years ago, it wasn't so it didn't rattle the rest of us all that much. More dismayed eye-rolling than massive outrage)...

Yes, a dipshit can run you over with their car or shoot up a church, mosque, or synagogue, and it's awful, but this is not what a civilizational resurgence of violence and hatred looks like...
It may seem contradictory that I also wrote the following a year ago about the potential for a sudden mushrooming bonfire of anti-Semitism:
The infectious smoldering of economic populism, of xenophobia, of white supremacy, and of vitriol at "coastal elites", media, "Wall Street types", etc., is not being pushed forward, I don't believe, primarily by anti-Semitic people (though plenty of rabid anti-Semites are, of course, conveniently enjoying that tide). However, The Jewish Problem is like super-dry, crackly, hyper-flammable kindling, lurking adjacently to it all, just out of frame.

Bring the intensity levels up just 20 or 30%, and anti-semitism will flash in a chain reaction so suddenly and so brightly that your retinas will scorch. It will arc, like lightning, through people who are not particularly anti-Semitic; who never quite connected their anger and bitterness to this particular scapegoat; who have Jewish friends and are generally decent people.

Millions lack clear awareness of the Nazi-ish mindset into which they've been gradually stirred. There's one essential chunk missing. Add it, and there will be a widespread, galvanizing sensation of fullness, momentum, and inevitability.
So I do not have my head in the sand. I am fully aware of the potential. But potential is not present reality. By gifting dipshit evil with the full weight of our fear and panic - by imagining systematic Nazi barbarism in the actions of an idiotic driver emboldened by a chuckleheaded president whose authoritative impulses amount to toxic trolling rather than a diabolical march to the extinction of democracy and the completion of The Final Solution - we vastly overreact and we also elevate the idiots.

Everything arousing pain and fear is not The Worst Thing Ever. By making everything an "eleven", we offer would-be propagators of twos and threes and fours corroboration of their imagined fearsomeness. Our easy apocalyptic rage parses to the lunatic fringe as applause, and feeds their narrative. Meanwhile, we make ourselves needlessly miserable in a time of unmatched tolerance, safety, comfort, and prosperity.

A viral movement has been afoot, preceding Trump, to make us view every imperfection in those heady blessings as the leading edge of Ultimate Horror. We are frought Princesses interminably scanning for diminishing mattress peas, and that unceasing dread has driven some of us mad. Those who deem themselves The Resistance must study how deranged fear was what stoked the Right's madness to begin with. Per FDR, fear is the very thing to be resisted. What can ruin us - the only thing that can ruin us! - is madness, overreaction and the unimaginable stupidity humans display when riled into anger and terror.

It's extraordinarily hard for the opposition to recognize that the ball's actually in our court. It's up to us to decide whether to flip out in fury and terror, or to reconcile from solidity and strength. As ever, we can respond to extremism with reciprocal extremism or with enlightened moderation.

Unfortunately, the present crop of humans - with its unique wealth, health, comfort, interconnection, and security - is uniquely prone to terror. We may not fully register what we have, but we sure as hell fear its loss. We may not acknowledge our wealth, but we typify the “more to lose” anxieties of the wealthy. Hence our hair trigger.

I remember the 70s and 80s when Nazis (actual imposingly scary rednecks, in real numbers, not a small gaggle of douchey kids bearing citronella torches) marched and bona fide Klansmen attained elected office, and the rest of us for the most part were content to mock them and roll our eyes. Not blinded by fear and rage, we saw more clearly. Today's societal landscape is much cleaner and nicer, which makes the residual scum stand out dramatically and magnifies our indignation at imperfections in our heady blessings. By the time we're down to our very last Nazi (some geezer raving and saluting from his electric scooter), we'll all be so unhinged by his presence that we'll jump in the ocean and drown en masse like lemmings.

Does any of this make Pittsburgh in any way acceptable? Do I not mourn the dead? Am I not tautly vigilant going forward? In a sane society I wouldn't feel compelled to reaffirm such obviousness. But for the record I agree with every flinty word of the always-eloquent former Republican operative Steve Schmidt (who, a few short years ago, would have been maxi-scorned by the Left for his role in that most extreme of evils, the 2008 McCain campaign). Don't miss the following video; it's great.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Incompetence is the Father of Skill

Once again I'm getting back into shape on trombone after a lengthy pause. This is the sixth or seventh time since leaving Chowhound (the first, repairing a ten year gap, was a massive undertaking). Deja Deja Deja Deja Deja Deja vu.

The problem is that in the old days, I'd play ten hours per day - gigs, rehearsals, jam sessions, private study. So I was perpetually ready. Now, I'm perpetually unready, i.e. perpetually striving to restore myself to some semblance of what I once considered good form. One of the central themes of this Slog is the ultra fine line between artistic commitment and obsession. If people knew the excesses that go into producing inspiring results, they'd be less inspired and more disgusted. Beethoven composed in a diaper. That's really all you need to know.

I'm no longer awed by the diaper thing, and I've danced till I've dropped in the red shoes...and I've also not gone to such lengths. I've bounced my whole life between rediscovering the benefits of investing ungodly care....and shortcutting that part and wondering why my results aren't so great. Even at this late date, I still must constantly be reminded that mere superhuman effort is for pikers.

As a trombonist, I exist in an awkward state of ambivalence, wanting to be a musician but unable to sustain the absolute single-mindedness that made me the player I once was. I'm always aspiring to a comeback; always dragging the boulder up the hill, only to watch it inexorably slide back down.

But there are benefits to finding oneself in a constant state of overhaul: you learn how it all works, and are gifted with recipes for the secret sauces. An example:

It is not natural to press a narrow circle of metal against one's mouth for many hours per day. It can cut into the flesh and push back the front teeth. You must apply enormous strength, wind, and force while holding this large hunk of brass like a delicate lily at one's chops. It's hard.

One of the essentials is that you need to "plant" the mouthpiece on the lower lip. This frees up the upper lip to stay delicate and do lots of free vibrating. To anchor on the top lip is self-defeating. It squelches those all-important vibrations. The instrument becomes hard to play, and you lose your high range.

So for the past week the instrument has been hard to play, and I've lost my high range. Low and behold, I noticed that I'm anchoring on the top lip. If I were a computer, I'd reprogram and be done with it. Stop doing the bad thing, start doing the good thing, voila. But alas, we sloppy meatbags are logy on the uptake. So I've had to correct myself 10,000 times. Not the top lip, the bottom lip. Nope, that's top lip. You're doing it again. Bottom lip! Nope, that's top lip again. By hectoring myself day and night, eventually I'll learn.

But why do I do it the wrong way in the first place? It's not comfortable, and it doesn't work. How does the habit creep in? There is a clue: any musician (or anyone who's perfected a skill) can tell you that under stress, bad habits come flooding back. Put me on a big stage in front of 1000 people, and I'll have an especially juicy inclination to anchor on the top lip, kill the vibrations, and sound like crap.

Why? Because it feels like comfort. But why would an uncomfortable and ineffective method feel like "comfort"? Should't "comfort" stem from the choice that brings the happy result? Isn't that how human psychology - positive reinforcement, etc. - is supposed to work?

No. "Wrong" is comfort. "Wrong" is home. "Right" is what we do when we're dressed in our starchy best, with rigid good posture, while "wrong" is the spine-harming slouch we assume when allowed to stand "at ease". The choices that hurt and that don't work are the soil our intentions must fight and grow through to fulfill themselves. Just as the child is the father of the man, incompetence is the father of skill. And one maintains a soft spot for "dear old dad".

See followup here

Monday, October 29, 2018

Extremism Example

I first raised this specter shortly after Trump's election, but my alarm bells have clanged harder over the past few weeks, warning y'all that splashback from the incensed radicalized Left could prove even worse than Trumpism.

Want an example? I put up my last posting (minus the two paragraph italicized footer) on Facebook, where it was shared by a FB friend. Here's how that went. First: understand that these are not random loons with mental health issues. The main character is a mutual friend of two of my smarter Facebook friends. And, FYI, a "kapo" was the term for Jews who assisted Nazis in the concentration camps. Finally, a warning: Don't read this if you have an aversion to seriously toxic and profane language and imagery.

As I've said: to an extremist, moderation seems extreme (here are some other strange flips of perspective).

The extreme Right loves to viciously snarl. But the impulse for full-on dehumanization - not just "I loathe you", but "You can crawl up and die" - seems to come easier to the extreme Left.

It's not the savage belligerence I find most troubling. It's the cartoon-ization. I'm not only the-worst-possible-thing-in-the-world, but I must be metaphorically chucked in the head with an axe again and again and again until I'm extra dead. I'm an inhuman, not a hated human. MAGAs, for all their ignorant, toxic raging loudmouth bellicosity, don't often show quite that hair-trigger eagerness for utter dehumanization. Of course, in the end this is like comparing strains of terminal cancer.

Are you among the sane? Do you prefer no one crawling up and dying? Are you finding yourself exasperated by extremism, period, regardless of label? If so, consider acknowledging the extreme radicalization of both sides and joining me in the Center.

At a deeper level, I believe I can account for the wildly inappropriate flip-out thus:

Nothing perturbs an extremist more than sane moderation amid outrage. The real problem is that it appeals at some level, much as acrophobics fear not the height itself but the faint temptation to jump.

I have 
a talent for reframing  and framings can be contagious. On a good day, it can be really helpful. For example, it can rouse a person from depression. But if you deeply identify with a certain rigid framing, anything that might loosen the tight grip - thaw a frozen stance and create some pliability - feels like an existential attack.

Reframing has always been a dangerous pursuit. It's not "the truth", in and of itself, that gets folks crucified; it's the audacity of reframing (when amplified by the contagious power of truth).

For some reason, humans have always equated unwavering framing with virtue and heroism. Our rigidity - our backbone - has always been touted as our best aspect. It's a problem. I once wrote
"Since the dawn of history, our heroes have been the staunchest of the staunch. People of unwavering conviction, adhering faithfully to a rigid code. The central problem of humanity is the intrinsic and bloody connection between our noblest quality and our most barbaric one. The connection is not often discussed, because a clear-eyed view unravels the fabric of what humanity most admires about itself."
Also, it's a simple matter of pattern matching. The extreme Left maintains a constantly-updated database of labels that, when affixed to a person, make them a non-person, plus various words and phrases correlating with that label. That's how my posting on Pittsburgh made me a Nazi collaborator. Some patterns matched - so long as you're not reading carefully or sensitively, and you're primed to jump on the button because you deem yourself a frontline defender of all that's Good.

Sanctimonious hordes pour over discourse, and when they spot a verbal construction currently deemed to correlate with a trendy label, they sound the loudest, screechiest possible alarm, and don't rest until the offender's bullied, bloodied, fired from their job, unable to make a living or contribute to society, permanently silenced and shunned. It's exactly like a video game. No, it is a video game.

If you feel a coldness in your blood seeing me saying uncomfortable things that could rile up the wrong kind of people and make trouble, and you feel an instinctual reaction to take a step away and go along with The Program (which you haven't quite found time to carefully examine): that's what tyranny feels like, folks. Left and Right have both radicalized right up to their respective ultimate forms of tyranny. No bueno.

Saturday, October 27, 2018


Just a quick take on Pittsburgh:

I'm focused on the three police officers who took bullets to try to protect these people. In the long history of anti-semitism, that was not often (ever?) seen.

In 1993, Oskar Schindler, having written some checks and taken some risks, seemed like a hero. In 2018, cops run straight into the violence, and we barely register them. This is not The Age-Old. It's different now. I believe it's a last gasp of an old problem (though last gasps can be horrendous, and represent a long tail as they gradually fade out). Consider the black church bombing in Charleston a few years ago. Horrendous. But clearly a last gasp of an old problem. I'm not building a shelter in my basement to hide black friends, and they're not doing so for Jewish me, either. That may sound flippant, but it's not. It's a sanity check.

Sensitized by our relative safety and comfort, micro evil seems macro. A few pathetic dipshits with tiki torches in Charlottesville feel like a grand resurgence of the Third Reich, just because it's so startling (40 years ago, it wasn't so it didn't rattle the rest of us all that much. More dismayed eye-rolling than massive outrage).

Yes, a dipshit can run you over with their car or shoot up a church, mosque, or synagogue, and it's awful, but this is not what a civilizational resurgence of violence and hatred looks like. Take comfort in the longer arch, and stay sane in your rebound (some of my best friends are hicks who don't like Jews very much - though they're obviously willing to make exceptions. There's a huge diff between such prefs and shooting up a congregation, and that's not a distinction the Left seems able to make these days).

If suggestions of restraint strike you as irritating, it's time to reevaluate your urges. It is not your best self that compels you to drop values when shocked by others dropping theirs; to ratchet up intolerance in response to intolerance; to ape the monsters and let their example inspire gleeful indulgence of your uglier impulses.

Our current perch as a nation is a perfect in-laboratory case for exploring humanity's worst defect: our incorrigible impulse to respond to extremism with reciprocal extremism. But what if we get it right this time? Pittsburgh aside, what if the true moral test here isn't on the MAGAs to reform themselves, but on the rest of us to avoid the usual trap, and retain our values and our intelligent composure even when we're upset? It's an individual choice, not a group one. Each of us has an opportunity to "be the change".

Friday, October 26, 2018

Music Collection Finally Going Digital

I was rich for three years when I was young. After finishing school in 1984, I lived in my parents house until 1987. I was earning around $18,000/year as a musician (not unimpressive, actually), and, with no rent or health insurance premiums to pay, I spent every damned cent. I wheeled around in a new Mazda RX-7 ($11K back then) and invested every other spare dollar into my burdgeoning book and record collection.

The collecting alone was a phenomenal education, even aside from the actual reading and listening. To this day, these collections leave me awed by how clued-in my 22 year old self had been. I was drafting on the innate youthful ability to rapidly synch up. But while most kids focus it on pop culture, sports, etc., I used it to get hip to Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Joe Frank and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

My first shared apartment was literally a closet in Park Slope, but the $250/month rent put an end to my easy spending; I was pretty viciously poor up to and through the Chowhound years, despite being respected in several fields. So I never could afford to buy CD versions of the many albums I hadn't heard in years. Lacking a turntable, I've been musically frozen in transit for a long time.

All along I've been burning the relatively few CDs I had to iTunes for mobile synching, but that's not an audiophile route, so most of my really good stuff has sat on the shelf in vinyl or CD. But last year I had the liberating experience of finding out I have 50% hearing loss (and falling!), relieving all audiophile pressures. This week, I decided to finally put everything into digital; to finally get caught up.

I went through my vinyl, checking for versions available as CD or digital download. Both are super cheap right now, as these formats are nearly obsolete. All-in-one streaming services are the future, but since my tastes are at the far end of obscurity, I prefer to own my music.

I found plenty of $4.50 used CDs on Amazon and eBay, but with shipping they'd be more like $8, and Apple iTunes or Amazon Digital often offer $8-10 downloadables. Their audio quality is a notch below CDs, but yay, deafness! So I wound up buying about 20 CDs (because they were super cheap or because digital downloads were unavailable), plus about 30 digital albums. It cost $325, probably a third as much as if I'd done this in the 90's when everyone else did it. I'll also pay a high-end service to digitize six treasured vinyl recordings that never made it into the digital age at $10/record.

Meanwhile, to hedge my bets, I managed to resurrect an old turntable. So while my vinyl collection is digitized for versatility, I'll still be able to play vinyl at home (though I'll still up-pay for fancy digital transfer of those magical six recordings). And, at long last, I'll get back to serious music listening...while I still can.

When I no longer can, I'll find other cool things to do. The world overflows with treasure, so I don't freeze my attention on what's missing

Cheap Great Flamenco

This must be a pricing error. 24 tracks of primo vintage flamenco genius for just 99¢. It's digital. You download (256 kbps, i.e. good-quality) MP3s, and can easily create a playlist in iTunes and drag the files into that playlist. They'll import complete with artwork and track titles. Just do it, trust me. If you find The Gypsy Kings "atmospheric", listen to this and see what the music's really like (though purists correctly note that Manitas de Plata isn't entirely doctrinaire, himself).

You may find guitarist Plata "flashy" (though flash is an integral part of the style). But the many tracks with Jose Reyes singing are unforgettable. Get an idea here (this performance hasn't been published anywhere...and it's a deeper level than anything on the preceding set, which is nonetheless great):


"¡Venga, Paco!", an appreciation of Paco de Lucia (with great music links).

"Recordings I've Worn Out", various music tips, including flamenco.

All Slog postings about music

Thursday, October 25, 2018

What's Turkey Up To?

The media's been doing a particularly poor job of explaining Turkeyish leader Recep Erdoğan's strategy in the wake of the Khashoggi murder. But the Washington Examiner's Tom Rogan, who's been reporting on Erdoğan for quite some time, has been offering nice clear, terse explainers. You can steam through the backlog in under 10 minutes to get a much, much better grip on what's going on.

If you have time for only one, see Rogan's 600 word overvierw from Tuesday: How President Erdogan is using Jamal Khashoggi's murder to his own advantage. Here's a sample:
Erdogan knows that he must strike a balanced line with the Saudis. Riyadh is already furious with Erdogan for what it regards as his excessive support for Islamist movements beyond Saudi control. But with the Turkish economy struggling, Erdogan has little appetite for punitive Saudi economic measures. For the Turkish leader, then, the great balancing act is extracting maximum concessions from Saudi Arabia, bringing significant negative attention to Saudi Arabia, but also avoiding a complete diplomatic breach with Saudi Arabia. That's why Erdogan is putting the ball in bin Salman's court as to whether he wants to play hardball or not. Both sides, Erdogan ventures, will choose Erdogan's blackmail choice.
The essential previous reports are all embedded therein. They're all terse, so ADD is not a legitimate reason to avoid powering through! I'll list them out below:
The madness of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Deep background on Erdogan's scariness, from February).

Severely punishing Saudi Arabia means punishing Mohammed bin Salman (Very recent).

Why Turkey released pastor Andrew Brunson (Erdogan is rethinking his split with America).

The Erdogan-Putin Idlib deal is a fraud (Russian President Vladimir Putin has played Erdogan for a fool in Syria).

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


In my Short Guide to Overextension, I wrote:
Nearly everyone considers themselves busy to the point of overwhelmed, but few truly are at that point, or have ever been near it. The following is a test to see how close you are.

You're in the midst of a horrendously busy day, driving to complete an errand. As you go around a curve, you see that the road far ahead has been closed and a solid mile of immobile vehicles is hopelessly backed up. There's no chance of escaping a delay of an hour or two (and: there is no cell phone service).

In this situation, your response is to:
A. Fret, curse, sweat, and squirm, or...
B. Recline back your seat, smile a beatific smile, and feel a profound sense of joyful well-being wash over you

Most people would answer A. Such people have not yet reached the breaking point. For those truly under-the-gun, traffic jams and post office queues are Cancun. If you've been there (the breaking point, not Mexico), you understand.
Here's a similar thought experiment, this time regarding deprivation:

Say you've spent decades stranded in the Sahara, eventually working out a viable means of scratching out a life for yourself. You've found a small murky water source, discovered places to forage berries and an occasional mouse, and patched together a reasonably safe shelter. You can handle a sandstorm, and scorpions no longer pose a threat. Great resilience and resourcefulness have brought you to the point where you must work hard and do some very unpleasant things, but you know you'll endure. This confidence is an immense gift after years of panic, agony, and regret. You can breathe. You're ok. You've made peace.

Say a Range Rover drives by, full of jolly, champagne-sipping rich swells on vacation. They pull over, and the driver informs you that unfortunately there's no room to fit you and bring you back to civilization, however they were about to picnic and you'd be welcome to join in and quaff caviar and foie gras.

Would you do it? Or would you decline?

To most people, it's a "hell yeah". You'd obviously feel eager - even desperate - to enjoy as much as possible if the opportunity arose. But those who've faced actual deprivation and experienced the grace of acceptance know better. Such a meal would echo for years, thoroughly upsetting hard-won equilibrium. Acceptance and equanimity would have to be rebuilt from scratch. The one meal would do no good at all. It would be 100% downside.

The clichéd crazy half-starved hermit who chases away help maybe isn't so crazy after all. Those who've never experienced sustained deprivation simply can't understand.

Deprivation is an interesting and multifaceted topic, though much know-how has been lost in this increasingly affluent world. One of the liabilities of wealth is a highly constricted and simplified view of deprivation, which, ironically, is an enormous deprivation. There's way more to the topic than the weepy prospect of losing your Stuff.

This posting mostly took the current view of deprivation - as unthinkable affliction - but hints that perhaps it's not as simple as it seems; that some greater value lies just over the horizon of the unthinkable. Going further, one of the Slog's most popular entries, "The Monks and the Coffee", offered an elevating example of how deprivation is merely a state of mind...which means other viewpoints are always available. "Lasagna and Depression" explored how to shift viewpoints - i.e. how the coffee-loving monks got that way - as well as the perils of indulging a mindset of deprivation. And "The Inside Story on Asceticism" turns things around entirely, asking whether the appearance of plenty truly appeals in the end, and observing that well-pruned trees grow more fully. Maybe we've had it backwards all along!

Finally, don't miss "The Evolution of a Perspective", which traces all my thinking on this, and starts with this:
Most human dissatisfaction is the result of asking yourself: What's missing? What don't I have? Who or what is not here? How does my current circumstance fail to measure up to expectations? What about the current moment is imperfect? We are princesses constantly scanning for mattress peas.

None of this has anything to do with what's actually happening (what's happening is what's happening!). Instead, it's about indulging a conception of yourself as living in a movie, and viewing your outcomes from the vantage point of an audience, measuring how far circumstances stray from the script as you envisioned it.

It is, quite literally, insane; a narcissistic fantasy world, none of it real. But this is how people with idle time (an unusual human condition found only among the rich) make themselves needlessly miserable.

Friday, October 19, 2018

"Jamal Khashoggi Doesn't Matter That Much"

Don't miss this important short article by Tom Rogan, "Sorry, But Jamal Khashoggi Doesn't Matter That Much."
I get that some readers will view my words here as callous, arrogant, and even delusional. But I would simply ask them two questions: How did you perceive Saudi Arabia before this happened, and how do you perceive Middle Eastern politics per se?

When it comes to the first question, the nature of the Saudi regime has long been clear. It is a regime that has no qualms about restricting human rights, treating women as second-class citizens, and paying off fanatical Sunni clerics in return for political patronage. The House of Saud uses force broadly and without adequate humanitarian caution or strategic hesitation. It beheads not just criminals, but also revered religious figures seeking religious emancipation.

In short, the Saudi regime is not nice.
Here's the money quote:
Mohammed bin Salman's reform program offers the best and, at present, only means of that nation being able to escape what it will otherwise become: a destitute kingdom full of demographically-explosive young men and Salafi-jihadist ideologues — in other words, a recipe for ISIS 2.0.
Much of MBS' "reform" program, as Rogan would surely agree, is cover for self-serving purges and extortions. So even that is not some white horse of virtue. But the alternative would be unthinkable.

We never seem to learn that shunning not-the-very-worst guys for their sins creates space for the very worst guys to fill. The problem is that nuanced realpolitik looks awful in the broad view; one appears to be cozying up to bad guys. And the perennial problem with weeding out the sinful is that in the end every last human would be weeded. So while it seems hard to argue against humanism - rewarding goodness and shunning wickedness - it's far more important to consider pragmatic actual outcomes. 

Unfortunately, that's impossible when the citizenry is consumed by one or another cursedly simple ideology. Beware of sanctimonious people pushing simple solutions! The much-discussed increasing distrust of experts stems from the viral conviction that simplicity always offers the truer path. Maybe we should call it Occam's Guillotine.

But how, you ask, does this relate to my athlete's foot? Deeply, it turns out, if you'll think about it. The redress for badness isn't glorious Good, but mere homely "Better".

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Blueberry Cream Cheese Pizza Postgame Rundown

I discussed last night's disturbing pizza experience with my friend Limster, who's currently living in London.

It strikes me as interesting and important to note that there's an inflection point that must be recognized when a trend becomes deeply enshrined in culture. There's a vast difference between "I hate this stupid food trend!" (which can be spoken like an insider by an outsider) and "I hate your stupid cuisine!" (which cannot).

At another level - I love the complexity of all this! - if I were to bring non-cosmopolitan people unfamiliar with Korean culture and cuisine to a place like this, they'd probably feel compelled to be extremely polite and deferential about the pizza, assuming it's The Korean Way, and therefore impolite to take issue with. It takes considerable experience with and sympathy for the culture to recognize that this is just goofy kids gone pretentiously awry. My eye-rolling is from the perspective of my Korean stem cells, not my American ones.

But this makes it that much more necessary to recognize the elusive inflection point if (heaven forbid) this sort of thing actually enshrines in the future. If so, I'll work overtime to seek out the best available version (maybe this was just a bad blueberry cream cheese pizza!) and try to experience it with the most Korean palate I can muster. If I still hate it, oh well. My pref, my bad. In that case, it's me, not them.

For the time being, however, it's them, not me....though I'd certainly never condemn anyone for their prefs. There's never anything wrong with liking stuff (I myself like mushy leftover pasta, but readily admit it's a guilty pleasure) and I believe snobbery ("You're bad for liking that!") is downright evil, reducing people's precious happiness.

There may come a point where this entire discussion would be an illegal, perhaps even capital, offense; where every stupidity must be treasured and never publicly questioned; where tolerance is infinite, so intolerance is infinitely intolerated. Once again: beware utopias, they get dystopian real fast.

The Profound Trauma of Korean Blueberry Cream Cheese Pizza

I eat very well. Probably 75% of my food is an "8" or higher (using my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating food and other things on a 1-10 scale), and something like 99% rates above a "6". But last night was quite a treat. I got to experience a full-fledged "2" ("Visceral negative reaction"). This doesn't happen every day.

A friend had been curious about the "gelato" pizza advertised by a shiny, flop-sweaty Korean lounge in the eastern extremes of Flushing. So here's how that went.

The underlying pizza was merely terrible, like a remaindered frozen pie from the Mama Celeste factory. Terrible hard dough, a cheese blend I believe was generic cheddar plus generic muenster, studded with puckered cherry tomato halves. A “3”. But, adding grievous insult to injury, it was festooned with wrong, very wrong shavings of fetid purple globs of blueberry cream cheese.

Hanging by a frickin' thread.

I didn't process the flavor. The revulsion was instant as some innate bodily process grabbed for a napkin and spat before my brain could even engage. For a solid half hour, I periodically air-flinched ala Derek Jacobi.

So what can we learn from this experience? I look at it like this: for these recent Korean immigrants, cheese is a signifier of hipster rebelliousness and the titillating allure of the culturally repulsive. A chef taking a steaming culinary dump via rude blobs of blueberry cream cheese on your pizza isn't a far worse proposition than regular old mozz. It's all treif, anyway. Our repugnance stemmed from a far more granular familiarity with the whole cheese thing than most clients at this place.

It wasn't cheap, either. The six small slices of this personal-sized pie, exuding an unholy moisture clearly visible in the vertiginous photo, ran us $20. But our reaction was one of such unmistakable nausea and anguish that the manager immediately dashed over (this was a first; in all my many years of dining out, I'd never before seen this move) to insist that we pay the check immediately because she, uh, [explanation dissolves into incoherence as she mumbles into her armpit]. She had us pegged for prospective walk-outs. Gotta get the money ASAP.

Of course we were totally going to pay. And tip, too. But as we departed, still lightly retching, I felt a surreal ambivalence. "This is what happens," obviously mused the entire staff as we walked out, "when white folks, who don't get it, come in here to eat." That's the very last impression I ever want to leave in an immigrant restaurant. I have eaten extreme things to avoid this dreaded gringo-ization.

But who, exactly, was the gringo this time?

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #28

Tuesday, October 15, 2018: It's been a while since the last "Cornered Rat" report, back in July, when the phrase "cornered rat" found 103,400 Google search results.

It's now up to 123,000, a gain of 19%.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Friday, October 12, 2018

Arranging Class

A really important teacher for me was Dave Lalama, who'd played piano and arranged for Woody Herman. I studied with him for just a week - a workshop on arranging (see footnote, below), but it taught me a lot about the music profession, about art, and about teaching.

Dave would come ambling into the classroom, a disheveled and hilariously cynical presence, and speak to us without the slightest pretense. A tumble of words straight from the slightly spacey and put-upon soul of the jazz musician.

Discussing a particular arranging problem, he'd say "I approach it this way. That's because I like it when it happens like this, but other people like it when it's more like that, so they approach it this other way...let me show you how that works. Oh, and one of my favorite arrangers, Sal Nestico, does pretty much the opposite, and it looks totally wrong on paper but he makes it sound great. Here's what that looks like...."

Every assertion came with a disclaimer and five alternatives, and the word "wrong" was used only as a compliment. The result was an unviably complex flowchart, but I understood that this was the entire point. If you try to do something creative via a flowchart, you're doing it wrong. Creative people shouldn't be instruction-followers. They should certainly be armed with knowledge - moves they can make, plus alternative moves and alternatives to the alternatives. But they should be equally comfortable with blowing it all up and doing something sacrilegious if it brings the best result. If you're someone who needs a bright, clear "procedure", you ought to be an MRI technician, not a music arranger.

The casualness - dare I say "lazy fuckdom" - with which Dave informally expanded his mushrooming flow chart was key. For every ten non-creative students who threw up their hands in despair at this apparently sloppy teacher's refusal to tell them how to do stuff, there'd be one manic little automaton geared up to input the entire gigantic branching tree of alternatives, internalizing every decision fork and faithfully rendering the entire tumbleweed in their heads.

That ain't it, either. It was abundantly clear that Dave himself was no cold-blooded walking algorithm of orchestrational decision branches. He'd hem and haw a thousand ways, lumpily recall stuff he'd seen or heard, and stir the pot until something ingenious popped out, but he didn't operate in the realm of formulae. It was a matter of bemused, savagely committed playfulness - a strange and rare combination of qualities, indeed, but one which is something of a magic formula.

I was the only one in the room who "got" it, but I really got it.

Musical arranging is the least understood part of the musical business while also the most conspicuous. Only a tiny percentage of a given musical performance involves the melody you probably key in on. The rest isn't simply "accompaniment", though it seems that way to a melody-focused layman. Those strings providing lush texture have been given notes to play, and those notes are not inevitable. Someone had to devise them and assign them, and every situation is unique (per above, it's not a matter of rote procedure...though procedures do exist and those who follow them - like formulaic screenwriters - will never create an affecting result). You need to decide when the drums come in, and whether there are background vocals, and, if so, how and where they're used and what they actually sing. Pretty much everything you hear is the arrangement. And, again, none of it is inevitable; someone applied a great deal of taste and know-how in making a zillion decisions.

The Beatles were only a quartet, but their arrangements (mostly done in studio postproduction) were breathtakingly ingenious. When you arrange a larger ensemble - say, a studio orchestra or big band - the arranger is really the auteur. A composer contributes a single line of notes, but the arranger makes it music.

Thursday, October 11, 2018


Last year I linked to "Know Thyself: 24 Cognitive Biases", a site offering a PDF that should be the placemat in the diner in philosopher heaven.

The people behind this have been busy. They now sell this material as printed wall posters and a card deck (I sent them $45, including shippping, for the full set; it goes to their non profit effort to spread critical thinking skills). Scroll beneath the storefront stuff (at the above "sell" link) for the free downloadable PDF versions.

The CEO of DuckDuckGo seems to be involved in this, and he wrote a very interesting link warren for Medium.

Thanks once again to David Lerner for discovering this.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

A Note to Posterity

This is pretty much the antithesis of a posting I made in April titled "The Center is a Super Tribe...but Doesn't Know it Yet!". How did my perspective change so much so quickly? Three factors: 1. Extremism has accelerated in a chain reaction, which found detonation with the Brett Frigging Kavanaugh saga, 2. Less regular meditation, and 3. Ask me tomorrow, I might feel differently!

Dear Posterity,

Hi, people of the future. It's me, random shmuck from the past, just offering a data point - something to bear in mind once things quiet down and the immediate experience of living in this moment seems distant and unrelatable:

To be a centrist in stridently divisive times doesn't provide the expected feeling of affinity for both sides. No conciliatory bridge of potential understanding. Rather, it feels like being locked in an asylum where everyone's ranting and raving 24/7 and there's no one sane to talk to. It's like being a high schooler disgusted with both the jocks and the nerds. Think of a child neutrally viewing her fighting parents in a state of dismayed isolation.

I'm not saying centrists in times like these don't transcend the apparent polarity to view a unified impression of humanity. Oh, we do! However that impression is of a humanity unified by reciprocal self-delusion and smug certainty; by seething intolerance and juvenile emotional indulgence. Not a pretty picture. (The answer, as always, is to do this.)

From my perch here in ugly 2018, I send forward a suggestion: don't be a centrist. Choose a side (flip a coin!) and enjoy screaming your head off at the Bad Guys. Catalog their brutal stupidity and bad faith as proof of your side's superiority, which you must never closely examine. Do like the Israelis and Palestinians - always a fine model! - and commit to your marrow the atrocities of the Other, which shall justify your own righteous atrocities.

Facing a bogeyman, there's no call for self doubt. That's why most people love a nice big fat bogeyman. There is no moral clarity clearer than the moral clarity of one's marrow. It practically sparkles.

I once described a conversation with a Catalan friend about the visceral urgings of the marrow:

Him: I'm not a totally crazed nationalist, like some Catalans I know. Though I have to admit, deep down, I do feel a strong drive of that. I can't explain it rationally, but something about it just feels right to me.

Me: Let me tell you about a deep drive. You see that woman over there? (I gesture across the bar to an attractive female). I'd like to walk over there, throw her to the floor, rip all her clothes off, and fuck her senseless. This is not a drive, however, that I choose to indulge. Responsible people learn to disregard their drives, even if they might "feel right" at some dark, primal level.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Subtle Parsing of Improvement

As I apply medicated cream, for the third day, to my poor screaming athlete's foot-afflicted toes (it's the downside of going to a gym; I can be fat, or I can be fungal), I'm reminded once again of a huge difference between my present self and my younger self:

I've learned to recognize that a situation is seriously bad while also registering improvement.

In fact, for extra points, I can even recognize when a situation has worsened amid an overall trajectory of improvement - which is, by the way, the foundation of resilience.

My phenomenally non-resilient 25 year old self could not make such distinctions. There were no long arcs (which are usually hopeful), only immediate impressions (which are inevitably vexing).

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Beehive (Armonk, NY)

The Beehive
30 Old Route 22
Armonk, NY, 10504
(914) 765-0688

Why are American IPAs so bitter/hoppy? The simple answer unlocks everything you need to know about food/drink commerce in 20th/21st century America.

American IPA is startlingly, intrusively bitter/hoppy so even the most undiscerning customer is convinced that the extra buck he's paid for his craft beer is worth that premium. The same thinking spurs upscale restaurants to offer linen napkins rather than paper. They justify the up-charge.

Real estate is all about "location, location, location", but food service is "justify the upcharge, justify the upcharge, justify the upcharge". That's the whole game. If I serve you a cheeseburger on a linoleum counter with a paper napkin in a bustling atmosphere, I can't charge you $25. You know you can find the same in any diner for half that price. I haven't justified the premium. But if I conspicuously tart it up - with Wagyu beef, or some attention-grabbing herb, or melt a stick of butter into it to add luxurious je ne sais quoi, or have it served by a stuffy French dude in a tux, you don't need to be some feinschmecker gourmet type to accept the price.

You must clobber customers over the head with the value-added. Subtlety doesn't pay. The task of craft brewers is to produce the least Budweiser-ish beer they possibly can. They compete to make the strongest, or darkest, or booziest, or weirdest brews. Whatever Bud is, their mandate is to do the opposite. American IPAs, truthfully, are nearly undrinkable unless one's palate has been so numbed that egregious over-hopping becomes tolerable. Hey, this stuff sure isn't Bud!

Twenty years into the craft beer craze, a few maverick breweries are finally starting to produce unaffected, easier-drinking ("session") beers that happen to be wonderful, but not in any obtrusive way. They depend on discerning customers who'll up-pay for subtle beer that's superficially Bud-like...only much, much better.

Likewise, in 1985, twenty years into the food craze (spearheaded by Julia Child), Danny Meyer opened Union Square Cafe, cooking what superficially seemed like same-old dishes. No status buttons were hit, but the food was subtly wonderful, and the hope was that a clientele would up-pay for unaffected greatness.

It was a cheeky leap of faith, and it worked. Alas, Meyer subsequently lost his way (if one can say such a thing of a billionaire). His subsequent restaurants were mostly conventional upcharge justifiers, and then came Shake Shack, which started out as the original USC proposition applied to a much more populist dining segment, but very quickly came to epitomize the thing he'd fought against: the same-old, hyped/tarted up for a premium. Ah, well.

Lots of people have tried to pull off upscale diner food. But none has done so quite like Beehive in Armonk. A Greek family has opened a Greek diner, erased every diner-ish vestige, and expects customers to pay a premium for unaffected deliciousness. There's no tarting up; no button-pushing. No truffle oil, nor do they Wagyu the bejesus out of the post roast. The basis of the menu is pretty conventionally eclectic diner-ish, but the room feels upscale, and the menu somehow feels likewise (despite the moussaka and gyro). And cooking quality is many cuts above the norm. I suspect I'm one of the few customers to recognize the underlying basis of the operation.

The kitchen brims with small touches, none blatantly upcharge-justifying. Their bread - not particularly lavish, just extremely good - is from a tiny artisanal bakery in Williamsburg. I doubt even a single customer has heard of this bakery. There's no cred to be gained from the namedrop. Why are they doing this? It can't possibly be just for me...???

I can't quite fathom the fine line the kitchen walks. There's nary a whiff of conventional diner cooking, yet nothing's gussied up, either. Having patronized thousands of restaurants, I find it a delightfully provocative mystery. Pure chowhoundnip! Tantalizingly unable to frame what I'm eating, I'm driven into a tizzy by the Zen-like proposition of a not-diner (even the classic black-vested, white-shirted, dish cloth wielding counter waiter is more bartender/genteel than diner/brusque). More disorienting still, the region's stocked with acclaimed fine dining places, nearly all of them mediocre, making this a stark anomaly when it comes to cooking quality. One does not expect "touch" in a place like Armonk. It's as alien to this landscape as a hovering spaceship.

Regardless of whether you buy the upscale veneer, or are hip to the underpinnings, I defy you to explain how in bloody hell they make the Thursday night $19.95 brisket blue plate so expressively flavorful. What kills me is that it doesn't taste like any other version I've ever eaten anywhere. Again: hovering spaceship! And what about the price? Should I deem it steep-for-diners (but well worth it)...or cheap-for-upscale (and an astounding value)?

Union Square Cafe was a real trip back in the day. No bullshit, high-level cooking, stripped of all rube bait. Make no mistake; Beehive isn't anywhere near as deft (nor as expensive). It seems to play the USC game from below. That's as clear as I can try to explain it, but I'm looking forward to more meals as I work to figure this all out...

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Israelis, Palestinians, and Brett Frigging Kavanaugh

As a guy with Jewish ancestry who has nothing against Muslims (and, indeed, loves Sufi poetry and Arabic literature, music, food, and culture, has dated Palestinian women, and who publicly declared himself Muslim the week after Donald Trump's election in an act of solidarity), I've settled on a framing of the Middle East conflict:

The Israelis are right. The Palestinian leaders have been awful - every bit as bad as the Israelis paint them. And Palestinians are right. The Israeli leaders have been awful - every bit as bad as the Palestinians paint them. The grievances on both sides are massive and legitimate. So anyone who surveys just one side's bad actions and concludes that the other side is noble and justified is being stupendously dishonest. There are no good guys. There's no side of righteousness. Pull back the self-delusion and it's quite obviously monstrous assholes fighting monstrous assholes, each sanctimoniously feeding off the sins of the other.

(This is an unpleasant and cynical view. It's desensitized and clinical. I'm not happy holding it, but the natural impulses that are supposed to make me pull for "my team" don't work with me - I'm not just non-tribal, I'm anti-tribal. And, besides, I'm politically impervious to dramatic narratives of pain and woe. Not because I'm a monster, but because I've observed that people who dramatize their pain and woe are inevitably trying to score points, and it nauseates me to see victimhood thrust forward as some sort of glorious trophy - the pernicious virus of the late 20th century.)

I've been a political centrist for a long time now. I've always strongly disliked the doctrine and tactics of both the extreme right and the extreme left. And I've recently watched in horror as the moderate wings of both sides have collapsed and radicalized. But it wasn't until last week that I began feeling unpleasant and cynical, desensitized and clinical, in my view of the two sides of American politics.

You know the feeling of anger and disgust you have in the pit of your stomach re: the Brett Kavanaugh saga, whether you're Democrat or Republican, pro or con? The distraught certainty that the other guys have reached a new level of loathsomeness? I absolutely feel that way about both sides. I've finally reached the point where it looks to me like there's no genuine righteousness on either side. Just monstrous assholes fighting monstrous assholes, each sanctimoniously feeding off the sins of the other.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Curse: Figured it Out

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

A year ago, I wrote a series of postings describing an extraordinarily strange period of my life that I refer to (with bemused irony) as "The Curse". Way more often than not, new people would have intensely negative and thoroughly inexplicable reactions to me. In my horror, I made myself increasingly quiet, mild, and timid, but that only seemed to make things worse.

I've finally figured it out. It took sixteen years. This was the second hardest mystery I've ever cracked (the first was explained in a series of postings on theology and cosmology, which required forty years of rumination). Like many of the tangly questions I've set myself to answer, the outcome is forehead-slappingly simple.

The closest I'd previously gotten was this (from the second installment of my "Curse" series):
If you've ever played role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, you know about "reaction rolls". Whenever your in-game character meets a stranger, dice are thrown to determine the other person's reaction. Usually, it will be unsurprising. But, every great once in a while, a stranger will want to worship you...or else immediately attack you for no particular reason, even if they're normally peaceful. As in real life, it's a matter of bell curves and edge cases. Well, virtually all my reaction rolls were edge cases.
I failed to mention the essential word: charisma. In Dungeons and Dragons, charisma is defined as "a character's force of personality, persuasiveness, personal magnetism, ability to lead, and physical attractiveness." And it affects all your reaction rolls....just as it does in real life.

Ironically, I've always had charisma. I'm not handsome, and I don't invest sustained attention in my external presentation, so I'm not saying I project a lofty or admirable image. I've never been interested in seeming awesome, and the world has diligently respected this preference. But when circumstances require, some inner faculty ensures that I get what I need. I once nearly missed a flight home from Barcelona airport (traveling on three hours sleep, I'd nodded off in the terminal). The airport's comely security director, who I'd never met, rushed me to my gate, hustled me past the at-gate security check point and through the jetway, and by the time she deposited me in my seat, she and I were in love. I'm not joking.

I'm often given free stuff, special favors, and rule-breaking slack. Not being a psychopath, I'm troubled by my potential for abuse and manipulation, and have worked to avoid anything like that. So whatever juju is behind this, I'm not "working it". It pops up, beyond conscious control, at needful times, and, thank god, it never winds up hurting people or leaving them at a loss. I'm convinced this is because I never reach for it or try to develop it. I simply leave it alone. That's a very strict rule I've set myself. So...I'm a person capable of high charisma who's deliberately opted to wield low charisma.

But about two thirds of the way into the Chowhound era, which is when The Curse first appeared, a confluence of factors led to a further reduction of my charisma:

1. Hiding

It's nice when a million people feel emotionally involved with your operation. But a crowd that size unavoidably includes a few thousand emotionally disturbed emotionally-involved people. Chowhound was never quite a massive national sensation, so I'm not claiming I was, like, Kanye West. But I did get a solid taste of what it feels like when unhealthy people pay you too much attention, and it's not pleasant. I started keeping my private life very private, and playing myself way down among strangers. Charisma drop!

This was also the point where restaurateurs were becoming aware of sensations like Difara Pizza, Kabab Cafe, Sripraphai, The Arepa Lady, Charles' Soulfood, and a number of other previously anonymous places I'd helped bring to wide attention. I'd always protected my food critic anonymity, but my countermeasures needed to escalate. I became ghost-like...which lowered my charisma.

Worst of all, smartphones were appearing, so more people 1. carried cameras around with them and 2. could instantly share photos with large networks of people. I was one social media posting away from being solidly on-radar for a large-ish crowd of people I really wanted to evade. So between the crazies and the restaurateurs and the smartphone cameras, I felt increasing pressure to retract, recede, and blend in with the wallpaper. Charisma: throttled!

2. Not About Me

Few people remember, but Chowhound started out as "Jim Leff, The Chowhound." I was never comfortable with it, and quickly remade the site as a completely non-hierarchical society. My opinions didn't rate higher, and I asked to be treated like just another hound, suppressing any impulse to assert special privilege. Again: lower charisma.

Plus...I'd been asserting myself as a leader in order to manage a few dozen site workers, to serve as spokesman for press, and to recruit the large audience to begin with. I never realized I had leadership skills, but necessity worked its magic and I'd risen to the occasion. In the late stages of Chowhound, and into the transition to CNET's stewardship, I was happily letting that drop like useless weight. As I did so, much of my charisma dropped with it.

3. Vicious Circle

I wrote above:
Way more often than not, people would have intensely negative and thoroughly inexplicable reactions to me. In my horror, I made myself increasingly quiet, mild, and timid, but that only seemed to make things worse.
My shrinking strategy just compounded my negative charisma. As so many of us do, I'd instinctively reached for a solution perfectly designed to worsen the problem (sort of like how people crave the foods they're allergic to). This caused a death spiral.

4. Identity Crisis

Once I'd finally left CNET a year after it had acquired Chowhound, I felt like Frodo returning to the Shire. No one could possibly understand what I'd been through, so I decided to just let myself be the completely random shlumpfy dude I've always conceived myself to be as a child of suburban paneled rec room basements, foosball tables, and Captain Beefheart records (my people are the Howard Stern people; the UPS delivery guys; the frickin' guys who use the word "frickin'" and who eat slice pizza while driving). This wasn't the cliche of my hiding some amazing secret about myself, because I'd found the experience excuriciatingly non-amazing. But while my neighbors had built self-esteem via successful track records as administrative assistants or contractors, I was weirdly larval/neutral. A doofy pizza scarfer blinking vacantly in post traumatic bemusement. Very very low charisma!

5. Spiritual Practice

When the Curse appeared, I was doing a lot of meditation and other spiritual practices which create a sensation of intensity and energy. Worried I might be inadvertently cultivating the juju, I became extra diligent about my non-manipulation rule. This parsed as lower charisma (charisma is manipulation!).

Also, the more spiritual stuff you do, the less selfish you become. When you're no longer primarily serving your own needs and outcomes, charisma can scab over.

6. Middle Aged Settlement

After a lifetime of desperately trying to impress people, I just grew tired of it - and stopped seeing the need for it. I knew what I was good at and what I wasn't. I had an accomplishment I could namedrop, if absolutely necessary, to justify the space I occupy and the air I breathe. And I didn't feel any hunger for external corroboration. This sort of psychological settlement is something a lot of middle aged people undergo, and as any younger, status-obsessed observer would attest, it really lowers a person's charisma.

A little charisma buys you benefit of doubt. A lot of charisma buys you an epic romance amid a ten minute airport security interlude. Zero charisma buys you a spot at the bottom of every ladder and the end of every line. But negative charisma inflames suspicions, fears, derisions, and projections of every possible sort. While charisma creates smiles, anti-charisma invites snarls. The world merely ignores a zero, but it actively persecutes negatives. Anti-charisma is the curse of all curses. careful about letting your charisma drop too low! And if it happens, don't retract and recede. Don't try to relax into this ("letting go" is a fantastically handy and versatile trick, but it's not an all-purpose panacea). Even though it feels like the universe is punishing your assertiveness and commanding you to pull back, that's not it at all. Assert MORE. Push back (friendly, not angry). Gear up, psyche up, hoist up. Light your fire and aggressively thrust your way back to the positive numbers*. It's counterintuitive, but it's the only way to escape the vicious circle and rejoin civilization.

* - Also, don't forget this.

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