Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Happy New Year in Paradise

Every New Year, I hear pandemic complaints about how lousy, obviously, the previous year was. I've been through 57 of these things now, each of them unanimously considered an absolute turd. Man, how do we even get out of bed in the morning?

But wait. In terms of personal safety, comfort, miraculous life-saving healthcare, freedom, tolerance, and infinite cheap-or-free information, communications, education, entertainment, transportation, food, and water - in other words, every benchmark that counts - our lives are vastly superior to anything ever imagined by any previous generation. Even if you're paycheck-to-paycheck in the First World, Julius Caesar would eagerly swap places with you (for the antibiotics alone!).

Consider that two of the most pressing problems for most people (including for what we call our "poor") are 1. too MUCH food and 2. too MANY possessions.

Consider that the current crop of young radicals have their dander up not over starvation and suffering (extreme poverty is swiftly evaporating worldwide), but over more equitable distribution of the trappings of extreme wealth; our human right to beamers and Apple watches.

That's not rain. It's your ancestors spitting down at you for your appalling ingratitude.

Your life is so good that having a president who's a corrupt racist buffoon (corrupt racist buffoons ran everything for millennia, and, in fact, delivered us to this Utopia) curdles your pampered life experience. We can't bear a president who's less than a wise, honorable statesman (this one’s a "5", but comes after we've been spoiled by a long run of "7"s and "8"s, and I almost perversely hope we get a truly bad one just for the glee of watching everyone reframe to concede that Trump was comparatively sufferable...by which point George W Bush will have been retconned into Abraham freaking Lincoln). Everyone's like Mrs. Howell distraught on the sofa because one of the servants nicked a priceless vase, or raving about life’s intolerability because the champagne's a bit warm.

"How DARE you call this "paradise," Leff, when we are clearly suffering here? Do you even read Twitter? The volume of pain, misery and melancholy is off the charts, and that can only mean these are awful, awful times. How else could one explain this pandemic despair?"

Easy one. FRAMING.

Happy New Year, if you can manage it. Stiff upper lip, coddled sparkly princes and princesses. Try to despise just a bit less your continued enthronement on the only speck of color, of action, in a vast cold, dark, tight, empty, lethal universe, swathed in warmth and life-giving sunlight, water, and oxygen - and devastatingly beautiful trees - where even strangers will make sacrifices to help you not die, for yet another insufferable year.

With clarity at an all-time low, all I can say is "nice touch!" to the cosmic show runner....though, come to think of it, maybe “2020” was a bit on-the-nose.

Followup #1, "Half Empty or Half Full?"
Followup #2, "Daddy Knows Truth"

If we live in Paradise, why doesn't it feel like it?

Two reasons. First, humans require a rich array of dramatic stories, so if we lack violence, heartbreak, pain, etc., we conjure them up via our imagination and entertainments. We get, in other words, bored with Paradise. Second, we have a natural compulsion to expel ourselves from Paradise via petty shifts of mental framing, hence Paradise Lost.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Giving Thanks

Sorry about the recent personnel problems. I’ve worked it out.

It's a good idea during the holiday season to take a moment to tip one's hat toward those who've provided help and support. I'd like to particularly thank you, the Slog readers, as well as my saintly-patient personal assistant, Shlawandra Tucker, and Maureen Flanagan who heads up HR. I’d also like to introduce my brilliant new editor Bánh-Miguel Florenti, who we’re excited to have on the team for 2020 and beyond. It's impossible to express how important it is to have an editor one can really trust. “Selamat datang,” Bánh-Miguel!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Apologies for the Mess (cleaned up as of 6:58 AM EST)

Hi, all. Jim's editor, Jean-Gregory Tizimono Fust, here. Why am I posting to Jim Leff's Slog? Let me explain.

When I first accepted this position, I negotiated into my contract a "steam-release" clause. If Jim ever became excessively difficult to work with, I can use my administrator's password to block him out and to prevent his posting for up to 48 hours. It's for his own good. This is simply a way for Shlawandra, his personal assistant, and I to protect him from himself when he goes into one of his states.

So to make a long story short, Jim had a bad night last night. It triggered when his "Unhinged" posting received the following perfectly friendly comment on Twitter:

Shlawandra and I agree that there was nothing the least bit wrong with the tweet, but it put Jim in a very bad state. He wouldn't stop repeating, over and over, in a childish mocking voice, "A VERY GOOD PIECE!!!" If I understand correctly, he found this tepid, coming in response to a posting favoring full-throated praise. Jim was also aggrieved that she'd sent this as a direct reply rather than retweeting to her Twitter followers, when the article also urged everyone to spread word about worthwhile things.

Whatever. I told him,"Jim, you sound - dare I say it? - unhinged! Do you accept only the most superlative praise? There is nothing wrong with ‘very good’! People will get the impression that you're a conceited monster!" He replied that he normally has no demands or expectations about praise levels, but "the irony of it, Jean-Gregory; the irony..."

So then he goes and posts a slew of extremely offensive entries late into the night, including photos of body parts that no one - no one - would ever want to see. Shlawandra calls and wakes me up at 6am, on a Sunday. She's in tears, insisting that I do something STAT, saying she's never in her life seen a grown-ass man carrying on like this.

I have finally managed to clean up the mess, and started the clock on Jim's time-out. So now my cell phone's ringing, as is my land line, and it looks like I have a scad of new text messages. So it seems that Jim has noticed this posting as well as the deletions. Have another look at my contract, Jim. I am fully within my rights here. C'est la vie, my friend.

Jim, if you see this, I can only plead with you to calm yourself and perform some of that "reframing" you won't stop jabbering about. Shlawandra and I are trying to help you, but our patience only goes so far.

Saturday, December 28, 2019


Several people have responded to my posting about Wolf Restaurant ala:
Wait a minute. Hold on. All that florid praise, that over-the-top verbiage, over one lousy plate of spaghetti? You seriously didn't try anything else (except an app which didn't particularly slay you)? From just that you're screaming from the rooftops like some lunatic?
I've been hearing versions of that for my entire writing career. Take it easy. Hold your powder. Focus a reasonable, non-kooky eye at what, exactly, you’re going on (and on) about.

For example, my review of the Arepa Lady, a Colombian street vendor in Jackson Heights, Queens, was rejected by my NY Press editor in the early 90s, because I was told it's nutty to moon lengthily over some stupid snacky item grilled on some greasy street cart in some grim ethnic neighborhood no one ever goes to.

In fact, an editor there, one Sam Sifton, mocked me in the same pages shortly after I finally managed to have the piece published:
"There's little I hate more than the wide-eyed rubes who tell you how if you take three trains and a bus on the third thursday of the month you can get an eggroll off this woman with a butane-operated wok that's, SERIOUSLY, MAN--UNBELIEVABLE. Nudge-nudge her a little, drop a five-spot into her apron, she'll give you a plate of stewed dog that'll have you crying with happiness. Yeah. You go do that."
Sifton went on, not to a position in the Trump administration, but to New York Times fame...while I took his advice and went and did that.

There are two things going on here, just generally. The first is that passionless people don't behold passion and say "Yup, that's the good stuff!" The world doesn't work like that. Snark is a defensive maneuver contrived by bored-ass drones to prevent their own obsolescence. The passionless maintain relevance via two lines of gaslighting: 1. "nothing's worth passion", and 2. "passionate people seem awfully loopy".
Let's just simmer down, people. You and I see the world as it really is: through a narrow slit. If anyone claims to see more, and we feel a pull (the demented do offer a certain manic attraction), we need to come down to earth and check ourselves squarely back into reasonable conformity. Come back to Poppa.”
Calvin Trillin is clever, articulate, and witty, but he couldn't trigger a human-presence lighting sensor. And he once wrote (regarding the very same Arepa Lady article, though I have actually published other things):
"In this almost sacred ground, Leff cautions, you have to search among the venders for 'the tiny, ageless woman with the beatific smile"--the Arepa Lady, serving what Leff has called his favorite food in New York. "The arepas themselves are snacks from heaven," his special report says. 'You try one, and your first reaction is 'mmm, this is delicious.' But before that thought can fully form, waves of progressively deeper feelings begin crashing, and you are finally left silently nodding your head. You understand things. You have been loved.' When the Alpha Dog finds something he likes, he eschews restraint."
Reasonable minds might hear that as said affectionately, with a chuckle. It certainly wasn't, but no matter. This isn't my big Revenge Posting, I'm just dissecting a recurrent criticism.

Restraint seems like a highly-commendable quality, especially for the lettered set. And if nothing's worth unbridled passion, the passionate must be loopily unrestrained. This brings us to the second factor making people like me appear daft to people like them.

As I've previously noted, humans over-compress extremes. We place "fabulously great" adjacent to "competently okay". "Greatness" is "goodness" with some extra oomph. Food that makes you clench your eyes shut and pound the table with your fist is the very next stop on the same train as food that makes you stolidly declare "Tasty!".

It's not true. Greatness is nonlinear. "Great" is a quadrillion times better than "Good", which is a hundred times better than "Fair", which is a smidge better than "Poor". So the loopy part of all this isn't me digging deep to give greatness its due, it's the rest of y'all obliviously chalking it up as just another check-able checkbox. No; greatness is a whole other thing!

Most of us contain ourselves. We peak out at "yum". Well, I’m sorry, but "yum" doesn't always cut it. And if you stubbornly limit your range of appreciation, then you will never duly recognize - nor reward - miracle workers who apply quadrillions more talent, labor, and care.

And this is why miracle workers are so rare. Perhaps more of us would commit irrationally to our endeavors if the unhinged practice of climbing a curve of declining results to the 10,000th floor struck the world as appropriately laudatory. As-is, people who undergo that route must hide their work, plastering on a shiny, toothy David Copperfield smile to mask their exertions (way, way, way beyond the already substantial exertions of producing mere rote competency). I may have previously mentioned that Beethoven composed in a diaper. Does that strike you as admirable? Does it make you think more of him or less? You‘d need to think about it, no?

I don't have to think about it. Beethoven's music is part of a modest pile of reasons to choose continued existence. I understand what he went through, and I'm sure as hell not going to stolidly declare "Tuneful!" while politely golf-clapping at Ode to Joy.
[Folks, hi, I'm Jim's editor, Jean-Gregory. Sorry to intrude. Let's just all take a moment to cool things down a peg. Not all of us are as, heh, bohemian as Jim. So let's try to bear that in mind, and let's have no more disgusting talk of composing in diapers, bokay? Also, if you're considering self-harm, please call 800-273-8255 immediately.

In just a moment I'll be introducing Maureen from HR, who'll give us a talk about work-life balance, as some perspective after all this wildness...]

I've been dodging the central point of criticism that I started off addressing: that I only had one plate of food before going all cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs over the restaurant.

If that seems strange, it's the very same compression effect. Consider this: How much do you need to eat to know food's awful? A single bite, no? But as for greatness, well, not so fast, pal. Geez - greatness??? - I don't know. It's tasty, for sure. But I'd need to try more things.

Here's a fun game. Search Amazon for the bajillion consumer reviewers who express utter delight for the product, yet award it only four stars. What are they thinking? The answer is right there: "Well, geez....greatness???".

We drag our feet on the upside. We mentally compress our assessment of quality. We miss the non-linearity. We have been deliberately blinkered by the myriad stolid pud-puds trafficking in the wide part of the bell curve; in mere competency. To point to just one single line of pressure, the billions of advertising dollars streaming out of the Olive Gardens of the world push hard against any notion of duly recognizing and supporting bona fide greatness.

I attended a home-brewing club meeting in Connecticut one night. Per normal at such things, people were sharing each other's work, and some was good and a lot was mediocre. Then this gigantic Deadhead plumber in a tie-died t-shirt poured me a glass of lager. I took one sip and knew he was a genius; among the very best brewers in the world.

How did I know? Because the highest levels of deliciousness cannot be attained by accident. Our universe is a realm of entropy; nearly everything we do will make things worse; will add to the pandemic disorder. To defiantly order your work to the "quadrillion" point in this titanic headwind requires unimaginable talent, intelligence, and commitment (I stumbled into a glimmering of this via real life experience, as recounted here, in the second most essential Slog posting after the Christmas Eve thingee). That’s my framing, and it hasn’t ever failed me.

A few local beer-lovers sat near me, and I approached them with wild eyes, demanding to know whether they'd registered the significance of what we were drinking.
"Oh, yeah, sure. John's definitely one of the best homebrewers in Fairfield county. We all know that."
These guys actually had great taste. It's not that they'd missed the quality. It's that their stupid restraint made them vastly undervalue the actual reality. This happens, by the way, about 100,000 times per second. This is why the world seems tedious and boring (much as we're too mulishly oblivious to recognize the angels clamoring to aid us, or the heady paradise that is our day-to-day experience). If Pablo Picasso grew up in Akron, Ohio, he'd have been considered one of the best painters in Summit County.

I knew from one sip; not because I'm so perceptive, but because I eschew senseless restraint, appreciating the world as it is, including extreme ends of the bell curve. I'm the level-headed one! I know when to drop my jaw and holler! And, damn it, I want to encourage - via appreciation, patronage, and full-throated evangelism - lots more people to work at this level! I want more occasions to be special, and I see how enticingly possible that is!
[Jean-Gregory here again, folks. Sorry again for the intrusion. Phew, Jim's on fire today - or he's definitely "on" something, hahahaha. Anyway, we'll now have that brief word from Maureen in HR, for those of you who can stick around. You know, balance is sooo crucial....]

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Reduced Fat Potato Chips

If you're curious about how reduced-fat potato chips are made, and perhaps want to try the process yourself, this patent application is surprisingly plain-language, and includes helpful instructions. Their example calls for fancy equipment and esoteric fats, but there's no reason you couldn't do the same with olive oil in a conventional oven.

Note that this was devised by General Foods (now Kraft Foods), and neither General nor Kraft is known for good potato chip brands. I'd imagine the superb Cape Cod reduced chips (I really like their new "Waves") are manufactured via a different process.

Maximal Deliciousness Alert: Mesmerizing Meal in a Department Store

This is sort of flabby and digressive because here in Slogsville I luxuriate in not needing to meet expectations or do things "correctly". Hopefully it conveys, expressionistically, how thrilled I am about this place...and why it's so rare a thrill.

Wolf Restaurant, in a corner on the second floor of the Nordstroms on 57th Street in Manhattan, is amazing, and you've got to go immediately. Their marquee chef, Ethan Stowell, has departed back to his Pacific NW empire, but his protegé is spectacular, and you can say you were there early, when his cooking cost a mere $55.
But wait; a department store restaurant?!? Yeah, no. Expunge whatever you're imagining. Deliciousness is deliciousness. Let's not waste time marveling over the incongruity.
I don't eat many $55 meals. I can't afford to do it often, but that's fine because that price level is full of scams. There's much great food in New York City for under $25, a sprinkling of it for over $75, and a vast wasteland in between. The reasons are complicated, and I'll riff at length about it one day. But most insiders I know would readily agree with this assessment.

I nearly always leave $50 meals wishing I'd spent $20 somewhere better. Mid-priced places almost never deliver value commensurate with their premium (micro-explanation: they stake their premium not on elevated quality but on class signals).

High-end places ($75+) may earn their price by offering luxe treats unavailable at lower levels, but, for me, their exorbitance raises unrealistic expectations. A $100 meal competes with my stupendous bullpen of grandmotherly delights. And, at any price range, deliciousness is rare, for reasons that have nothing to do with economics.

But what if a pricey meal earns its tab with quality? What if it's every bit as delicious as my grandma places, plus beaucoup ingredients, careful prep and consistency (along with the expected service, comfort, and ambiance upgrades)? What if a pricey meal delivers exactly the experience people who can't afford pricey meals imagine pricey meals to be?

I've experienced this with fewer than a dozen restaurants, which burn in my memory with hot lust; places like Picholine, Il Buco, Grange Hall, and Blue Ribbon (I also found Jean-Georges Vongerichten, with all his overexposure, actually underrated...if you could get the actual guy to cook for you, which you now can't). It was never a matter of the grungy trombonist elevating for some magical moment to The Way It Is At the Top. Again, this sort of thing is highly aberrational. In every case, the swells around me also recognized something was up, as did the staff, who were working not for Hasbro but for Santa. There's a palpable inertia that comes from being on an extraordinary winning team. You can feel their thrill at being part.

Wolf is one of those places, one of the vanishing few. The buzz doesn't stem from pretentious posing, but from assurance all around that they're absolutely killing it. Exceptional talent creates a sizzle, and its polished execution delivers an energetic snap. I recognize the symptoms. I knew before I sat down. To be honest, I knew from scanning the Yelp photos. Not just "that looks good", but a gut-level impression that I was viewing snapshots from Heaven.

To be sure, I'm also excited about places like Nawab in Yonkers (best North Indian I've ever had), Hardena in Philadelphia (spectacular Indonesian; run by the daughters of the chef who once worked in the basement of the Indonesian Consulate in Manhattan who I wrote about in my first book) and Parrillada Las Americas (an Ecuadoran buffet in Ossining with the only rotisserie chicken that reminds me of my beloved House of Garlic Mayonnaise outside Barcelona). Nothing could be better than what those places serve, and they have both sizzle and snap. That's why I resist spending four or five times their price!

But truly exciting up-ticket places are much rarer - like meteors - and they offer perqs unavailable at the lower end, where I've trained myself to overlook a lot. A place with outstanding fajitas and terrible everything else strikes me as a great place; I placidly step around the sand traps. I'm no ingredient materialist (The Arepa Lady squirted frickin' margarine on her blessed corn cakes), but there's a different (though not inherently superior) result when every carrot slice, every garnish, is super fresh and artfully cut. If the food's great and all the touches are on the money because everyone in the kitchen is as sharp as a knife and strongly aligned like magnetized iron shavings, that's not an experience that can be enjoyed for fifteen bucks.
Nothing's "better" than super-delicious. I reject the notion that super-deliciousness plus crisp linen napkins equals something even better. As a Chowhound, I appreciate the whole range. I like Cantonese food (when it's good) for its modular finesse, and I like Rich Guy food (when it's good) for its ingredient palette and fine touches. It's all ethnic food; all evoking some tribe or another. I guess I'm a demographile.
One learns to do without "touches" on the low end. Wilted lettuce and stale bread are overlooked. The salad dressing may not, um, delight, and the wine-by-glass might be toxic for human life. Fine; I laser-focus on the good stuff. But when they're on-point, touches are an awfully nice extra. Same for quality ingredients. Having been moved to tears by margarine, I don't imagine that imported butter, in and of itself, is The Answer. But it contributes a certain color to the artist's palette, and while a great artist can create wonders with black and white, intense shimmering rainbows do have their appeal.

But back to Wolf. Every few years there appears, among the mid-priced scammers, a genuine article. An extremely talented and dedicated figure who never got the memo that it's really all about pose, and whose unnecessarily miraculous skills will prove irrelevant once he's blossomed into stardom and spends his days consulting with media fluffers while hard-working Central American minions produce grub under his distant imprimatur (Ethan Stowell's photo still smiles down at diners here, though the dude's split back to Seattle).

So we have a narrow window here. For the moment, this guy will actually cook your food if you merely go there and pay the bejesus out of him (Jean-Georges, by contrast, will cook for you right about when Kim Kardashian arrives to helpfully boost your social media cred).

I'm good at being early, but, still, I've only been party to this sort of situation a handful of times in my life. And each time the window slammed shut sooner than expected, leaving me aggrieved for not having taken better advantage. Eating so well for 20 bucks, I'm awfully resistant to paying $30 or $40, much less $55. But at times like this, I feel a profound desire to shovel bills from my wallet and profusely thank them for accepting my money.

This isn't any sort of serious review. Just my mental notebook after trying a mere two plates, starting with rabbit salad - revealing impeccable touch along every possible axis though perhaps not particularly devastatingly delicious in the long view - and following with spaghetti with uni, leeks, chili, and pangrattato, aka breadcrumbs (don't miss this Yelp photo) that slayed me. The single fat chunk of sea urchin was the best I've ever had (he did stuff to it), and the rest I can't describe or explain because 9s and 10s leave a person unable to analyze. I wafted out through the garish, brightly-lit department store like it was the Garden of Eden scented with opium perfume, cackling like a madman at the stark framing incongruity between me and the agitated, tight-faced shoppers bustling around me.

There's not an iota of pretension or bullshit at any level. Just a stunning minimalist dining room (including a ginormous bar), stupendous view, genuinely friendly staff, and every aspect on-point. I don't even need on-pointedness; again, I'm trained to Overlook in the pursuit of Magnificence. But that fiendishly miraculous spaghetti, in this setting, with the service, and this view, and the touches, and the pointedness, left me woozy. Shoot, just give me the damn spaghetti. Fill my room with it and let me eat my way to the door.

I asked my waitress whether everything's this good or if I just ordered especially well. She wagged her head gravely, with a touch of exasperated awe. "It's all really that good," she pronounced in a lowered voice. She did single out, however, the cacio e pepe and the bucatini (here's the current menu). But I feel a profound sense of trust. I'd be bewildered if anything - so long as this guy's still in-residence - were to disappoint. I want to work through it all; to soak up all facets of the art.

With my happy hour-priced $10 glass of Barbera, I paid $55 plus tip, and all I could think of was returning. Maybe I'll break into my neighbors' houses and hock their jewelry. Maybe I don't need that Miata.

I've left fewer than a dozen mid- or high-end restaurants with this degree of daunted woozy invigoration. My friendly, awed waitress suspects that nameless protegé chef may soon be drawn away to open a restaurant of his own. So while I still can, I want to learn his name and work through the menu.

This isn't my normal tack. I let expensive condiments go bad; I have nice wool sweaters growing mothy while I don sweatshirts more befitting my non-fabulousness. I hoard frequent flyer miles and never use them. I didn't eat enough at Il Buco or Grange Hall or any of those other places, and I regret it. I seem to have the darndest time gettin' while the gettin's good. But I'll try to do better this time.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Deeper Implications of Holiday Blues

After a gajillion postings about perceptual framing, I invite you to revisit this seminal posting from December, 2009, which you've likely read before, to see whether you now view it in a different light.

This was the nudge that led to my finally assembling a coherent and fully conscious understanding of how we use perspective to needlessly delude and torture ourselves. As I read it, now, observing the difficulty I had weighing the comparative merits of reality versus cooked-up mental drama, I barely recognize that guy.

I don't really celebrate Christmas. I guess that's to be expected, considering that my family is nominally Jewish (though I find the teachings of Christ as inspiring as those of any other spiritual tradition, notwithstanding the chunkheads and psychopaths who've commandeered his message over the centuries).

But even an outsider like me can feel so thickly hypnotized by the holiday script of what we're supposed to do and how we're supposed to feel that it's surprisingly hard to get through the day without comparing myself (unfavorably, of course) to the idealized image.

Never mind that no one really lives that idealized image. Even affable families in big creaky houses full of rosy-cheeked children, hot chocolate and earnest singing of carols come up short. Really, the only person having a duly peak holiday experience is some bratty eleven year old who got precisely the PlayStation shoot-em-up game he'd been whining, pining, and begging for since summer. Settled contentedly in front of his screen, blowing up his fellow man in a pleasant flush of adrenaline, he is the only one experiencing the true American holiday spirit. The rest of us feel a little sad this time of year, because real life never matches the image in our head. We never seem to fully achieve Christmas. It's always a miss. Who can possibly live up to the promise of candy canes and Bing Crosby?

But it's a valuable illustration of the central dysfunction in the human experience. Disappointment, pain, suffering, and alienation all stem from the clash of experience, which is real, with mental constructs, which aren't.

Many of us address the problem by trying to force the world to hew to expectation. That is, naturally, a game of whack-a-mole. Utterly futile. Better to drop notions of how things ought to be, and immerse in how things actually are. Let life simply unfurl, and partake of the rich serendipity missed by those trying to muscle their way to a canned result.

Our problems aren't in the world. Problems stem from the conceptualizing. If you stop telling yourself stories about how things are, then life can be enjoyed as-is, rather than in the context of these hollow stories. My favorite book title, "What's Wrong with Right Now ...Unless You Think About It?", says it all.

The holiday season provides a perfect laboratory for exploring all this. Last night, I sat watching a terrific DVD, with a delicious glass of wine, sunk deeply into my comfortable couch. I was warm and well-fed. Yet my mind would periodically flash on the fact that it's Christmas Eve, and suddenly my experience completely shifted. Suddenly, I felt lonely, isolated and missing out. I was actually having a crummy, small, pathetic night, but hadn't realized it until I'd put it all in mental perspective! Hey, thanks, mind!

Each time the mental construct of "Christmas Eve" flashed into my awareness, my present situation instantly reflected against that context...and my mood fell. Each time I opened my eyes and realized how content and snug I actually felt, my mood rose. This repeated several times, an emotional ping-pong match between reality and conceptualizing. Which is real? Why do we feel so attached to the unreal? Why do we willingly live our lives in a haze of abstract mental concepts, rather than in reality itself? Why, above all, do we make ourselves miserable over nothing?

Regardless of what the gurus say, we can never purge the concepts. The human mind can't help concocting them; it's what we do. But we can bear in mind their insubstantiality. A smidge of awareness is tremendously liberating and joy-bringing; as empty concepts fall away, only peace remains.

So all this, I suppose, amounts to my extraordinarily contrarian expression of holiday joy. To experience Christmas, you've got to expunge "Christmas". Peace on earth good will to men, indeed.

Note: This insight (which really has nothing at all to do with holidays, per se, and which I later called The Pivotal Slog Posting) inspired a series of follow-up postings, such as: "Labeling and Post-Processing", "The Stories We Tell Ourselves", and "Depression Resuscitation Kit". Years later, in a mega-posting titled "The Evolution of a Perspective" I tied it all together.

Monday, December 23, 2019


I'm pulling a line out of my previous posting ("Dosa Musings"), so I can make it one of my "Definitions" entries (which I try to keep short).

Deliciousness describes a condition where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Note: same for all fields of artistic endeavor.

All postings labeled "definitions"

Dosa Musings

I know a Gujurati restaurant that, typically, has dropped all regional pretenses and offers only the standard Punjabi greatest hits (nothing wears down a restaurateur faster than trying to present regional Indian food to gringos, who huffily demand their saag paneer, butter chicken, etc., preferably in buffet format). Also: zero spice.

Having accepted this fate, management has extended their pandering a few thousand extra kilometers by offering a (South Indian) dosa station for their weekend brunch. Thick, dark, spongey, masala dosas are cooked low-and-slow in a nonstick pan, absorbing much grease, and filled with unseasoned, non-oniony mashed potato. Gujuratis have as much business making dosas as a New Hampshire diner does offering jambalaya.

They deserve credit for at least trying to offer sambar, but it's hilariously wrong; so thick-textured that husks, seeds, and spice fragments bob atop like chunks of meat. I counted a mere 4 miserable black mustard seeds in my cup, clearly not skillet-popped as the first prep step. Hey, welcome to Gujurat.

But a miracle happened. I somehow persuaded the dosa attendant to slip in some green chilis (on-hand for staff meals?), and was astounded by how much better it was. Still nowhere near authentic, but certainly a delicious bite of food in the rough shape of a dosa.

Why was it so much better? Two answers, one knee-jerk and dull, the other subtle and interesting.

Dull Knee-Jerk Explanation: Everything's better spicy!

Subtle/Interesting Explanation: Deliciousness describes a condition where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Note: same for every field of artistic endeavor.
There's an unexplainable magic to this (which people are increasingly attuned to, and I see this as evidence that the Rationalist/Romantic pendulum is swinging back). And there's a nonlinearity to it - a math/science word for when results skew disproportionately (for example, consider anger: people remain calm in a wide range of settings, but, when anger arises, it can be stoked into greater intensity with ever-increasing ease).

In fact, deliciousness is extremely nonlinear. "Great" is a quadrillion times better than "Good", which is a hundred times better than "Fair", which is a smidge better than "Poor". You need some extra juju to get to deliciousness (which is why it's so rare).

If you do get there - to the magic result of a whole greater than the sum of its parts - then plucking away one part (e.g. neutering Indian cooking by subtracting chilis) implodes the magic, lowering quality disproportionally. That's why unspicy Indian food is so awful. And, by the same token, adding chilis back in can disproportionally raise quality. Remember, we're playing on a crazily-tilted (i.e. nonlinear) field.

So those chilis carry weight beyond the mere fact of their spiciness. By restoring je ne sais quoi, we reassemble the magic trick of deliciousness.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Wrong Side of History

Every generation seems to believe it’s the first to recognize that future people look back. We say "If you keep doing what you're doing, you'll be on the wrong side of history!", smugly assuming we’re blowing your mind, opening up an awesome new perspective. Yet I've never seen this trope make anyone behave better.
We’re such babies with matters of subjectivity - framing, perspective, etc - that when we touch upon even a tritely obvious one, it feels like potent ammo and we eagerly await the big "Whoa!" reaction.
In fact, every single historical villain has understood that future people look back. This flip of perspective wasn’t invented by today’s millennials. And yet it never fails to frustrate when this judo flip of perspective doesn’t stop people from acting out of self-interest, fear, hate, tribalism, and all the other factors that have motivated humans since year one. It’s not a magic wand after all. 

I do give credit for trying, though, heartened to see even feeble recognition of the power of perspective. But as with any art form, real power can't be kindled with the easy one-size-fits-all approach of clichés (prospective messiahs, bear this in mind!). Perspectives can only be shifted if you bake fresh. Moldy clichés won't cut it.

“At the end of the day...” might still have the power to induce a scattered few people into mildly broadening their perspectives, but the rest of us just grind our teeth at this point.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Impeachment Reframing

Are you punditted-out on impeachment news? Sick of hearing the same stuff being endlessly restated? Here's a 6 minute piece by Lawrence O'Donnell where he offers that rarest of rarities, a fresh perspective.

If you're bummed out about the process, unsure how to feel, and/or just looking for fresh context, give it a view:

I posted the following rant to accompany it on Facebook:

We're all so incredibly passive....yet loudly entitled at the same time. We demand that someone FIX IT (whatever "it" is) to our satisfaction. Our contribution consists of the incensed dissatisfaction bellowing from our great big mouths.

O'Donnell's statement flips the perspective to the reality that all that really matters - the source of all power and change - is your vote. So we must overcome our laziness and apathy and Russian-brewed feelings of cynicism and hopelessness and use our voting rights...and encourage others to do the same. Actually do the one thing you can actually do!

Having organized a number of human activities, one large and ambitious and the others merely ambitious, I can report that most people can't budge a finger even if their lives depend on it. That's the problem. The film Wall-E is no longer futuristic:

In Good Form

I'm in a doctor's waiting room. A elderly patient emerges from an examination room with the exhilaration of post-woke Ebenezer Scrooge, heartily wishing the doctor "Merry Christmas", repeating the same greeting to the nurse/secretary staff, and, trodding mirthfully into the waiting room (occupied only by me), bellows "Merry Chr...." Having glanced at my schnozz, he stops cold in his tracks, and, in lowered voice, wishes me a Happy Hanukah. I reply, with black power fist salute:
Praise Allah!
Then it's on to lunch at the astoundingly great and lavish pan-African B&B African buffet restaurant on 29th Street. The customer in line before me prattles at the cash register woman in some unrecognizable language. The woman, with fine features, elegant head scarf, and take-no-shit attitude, says "Sorry, I don't understand". The customer, flummoxed, asks, in heavily-accented English, "You don't speak bee-dongo???" She placidly smiles down at the change she's making and replies, with just a trace of gentle mockery, "No, I don't speak bee-dongo." Mind blown, customer silently accepts his change and walks off. She glances up at me, literally the only white guy in the entire bustling, cavernous space, and I say:
Don’t feel bad, I don’t speak bee-dongo, either.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Google Barely Indexes the Slog

I recently did a bunch of maintenance on the Slog's back end, but there are still many unindexed postings. They don't appear in Google searches, even if you search from the search field at upper left of the page. These postings remain invisible to the Internet, as well as to you and me internally searching right here.

The reason? An almost complete absence of incoming links. People need to publicly register value from a site (by linking, sharing, etc, anything but stupid Facebook “liking”) for Google to ascribe value to that site. 

With Chowhound, I implemented a fiendishly clever search engine optimization scheme: I created a useful site, worked ceaselessly to stock it with indispensable information, and figured crowds would notice and link to it and that Google, tracking this, would elevate our ranking. It worked, and for many years a search for, say, "scrambled eggs los angeles" would inevitably include Chowhound results on the first page.

My groundbreaking approach is now fatally old-school, yet I can't shake my cheerfully fatalistic perspective. I agree with Google. If the Slog were any good, people would enthusiastically spread the word, links would arise, and Google would deem it worth indexing. If not, well, the market has spoken.

After a lifetime convincing people to evangelize things they value, I can only giggle at the irony that folks avidly reading here year after year don’t share or link. It’s a favorite restaurant they keep under their hat, 1996-style. But, again, I'm cheerfully fatalistic. If this effort is to fade into utter obscurity, that's not on me. The crowd's voted, and Google's registered the vote!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Writing a Character Who's Smarter Than You

I was complaining earlier this week about the quaintly embarrassing nature of Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land", but there's one thing that deserves great praise: Jubal Harshaw is one of the only super-smart fictional characters who actually is super-smart.

It's famously hard/impossible to write a character who's smarter than you are. That's why smart characters in Hollywood films always seem more like a regular guy's idea of smart guys. They wear glasses and bluster, or are witheringly arrogant. They produce amazing machines, but never say anything impressive. They signify intelligence - rather than exhibit actual intelligence - because the screenwriter, like the actor reading his lines, probably just stepped away from some LA juice bar or hot yoga class.

It's an interesting question: how do you conjure up a character who's smarter than you? I think it's a matter of using the time advantage. While smart people are smart in real time, writers have the luxury of laboriously building every seemingly effortless insight. Given sufficient time, even a very slow mind can create an impression of snappy quick-wittedness. You just need to be willing to sit drooling at your keyboard, patiently/stubbornly rejecting un-brilliant impulses!

And it finally struck me (because I'm slow!) that that's exactly what’s happening right here: a slightly dim and unremarkable guy investing disproportional time and effort (have you ever seen "The Red Shoes"?) to write way over his own head (and encouraging readers to pull off the same trick by committing more and aiming higher).
I recently heard Larry Storch - the actor who played Corporal Agarn in F-Troop; a legendary comic/entertainer - on Gilbert Gottfried's podcast. Voice-wise, he sounded every one of his 91 years, yet his skills as a mimic are still uncanny. I would love to hear him try to imitate his younger self.

Sometimes it helps to pass stuff through a loop, adding some infinity to the process.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Helping Older Folks Reframe

Before I framed my intuitive understanding of framing, I tried to help people who felt stuck shift perspective, with varying success. With older people, it usually amounted to this: don't sweat the deficits; your situation doesn't compel you to be optimal! The saving grace of aging is that responsibilities decline along with capacities. The decline is only daunting if you ignore half of that equation. Which, alas, most of us do.

In "A Tale of Two Chowhounds", the foundational chowhound origin story, I recounted how my friend Howard Turkell struggled, after his stroke, when names and numbers didn't come easily. He'd sputter and rage at every impasse, while I kept pleading with him to remember that, since he no longer ran a business, he had all the time in the world to connect from point A to point B. He could relax!

But Howard's sense of self required sharp recall, even if his actual life didn't, and he had no fluidity in his sense of self. A classic case of frozen perspective. And, alas, I wasn't yet skilled at inducing reframings.

I've gotten better at it (see dialog below with an octogenarian friend). It's not so much a matter of what you say (mere words can't coax a reframing) as how you say it. And there's no one canned response that reliably gets the job done (you've got to bake fresh every time). And, above all, you must realize that the popular impulse to sympathetically buy into a person's drama by turning solemnly serious in a cinematic gesture of solidarity only stokes the problem. A frozen perspective hardly benefits from corroboration.

A frozen perspective can only be fixed via a light-hearted, casual, and preferably well-humored flip. Light as a daisy! No one has ever been liberated by affirmation of the horror of their perceived monsters. You needn’t laboriously slay the dragons. Simply shift your attention.

If you do induce a reframing, no sobs of grateful relief will be heard. Big drama is just more frozen perspective. Real shifts of perspective often yield only a subtle experience of dislodgment."Oh...right! Okay!". Mild sheepishness at most.

Read a previous example of inducing perceptual reframing. In that rather dramatic instance, not one drastically-transformed person recognized what had happened (let alone who'd coaxed it). Again, enormous shifts can feel tiny; a mundane experience of dislodgment. You simply move on to the next thing. Liberation is often so non-stupendous that it doesn't even register.

If you could magically animate a sculpture, like, say, Michelangelo's David, he wouldn’t shower you with thanks, or questions, or demand clothing. Sculpture David would scratch his ass and try to recall the task he’d been in the middle of. “Hmm...what was I just about to do, again?”

Monday, December 16, 2019

Creepy Heinlein, Creepy Kubrick

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange World". It reminds me very much of Kubrick’s "Eyes Wide Shut" in that I find myself squirming uncomfortably as I'm exposed (and exposed...and exposed) to the embarrassingly moldy and phenomenally unsexy sexual fantasies of some guy from a bygone era who I otherwise respect very much.

It's like hearing your parents disclose their boudoir secrets. Way, way too much information.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Framing Disjoints

The previous three postings, "Gutters", "Dear ReFraming Abby", and "Vertigo, Framing, Extermination, and Narcissism", discuss mysterious behaviors that instantly clarify simply by recognizing that the other person frames the world differently.
The entire world is nothing but framing disjoints. That's what Earth is: eight billion people starring in eight billion unrelated movie scenes oddly assuming it's all somehow part of one overarching film.
Once you recognize this, mysterious behavior loses its mystery. Sticky moral quandaries also clarify themselves:
I don't see a grand distinction between good and evil (for one thing, everyone who's ever tried to define a clean border has failed). I think we're all just following the dramatic storylines in our heads, setting ourselves on courses which gradually cycle us through all the various movie genres, where we do our best to aptly play out scenes that come up. The scene in one head seldom syncs with the scene in another’s. There's no superseding movie, no single calibrating point of moral truth, because we're all caught up, and spun out, in our myriad parallel individual experiences.
This higher perspective is elusive. The bedrock presumption is that everyone out there is a part of my movie, which I imagine to be The Movie.
(This delusion is, among other things, the very fundament of all narcissism. We’re all narcissistic, but the medical diagnosis is reserved for those who are most tenaciously stuck in it. Insanity is the inability to reframe despite clear environmental cues.)
Before you can understand another person's framing, you first must recognize that your framing is, in fact, just a framing. Your movie is one choice among an infinity.

It’s tricky for most people to find a neutral perspective where they’re able to consider the existence of other framings. Tap the shoulder of a stranger engrossed in a horror movie to remind him he’s safe, and he‘ll likely holler back “How can you say that when the monster’s right in the next room??”
(If I haven't lost you yet, congrats. 95% of humanity would declare most of the preceding inexplicable word salad. Human beings, for all their clever achievements, are like babies with this stuff.)
From such a vantage point, one can apply empathy - an unusual trait! - to shift into another person's perspective. To the multitudes who’ve forgotten that reframing is even possible, and that there may exist perspectives other than the one they’re frozen into, you've just pulled off a magic trick.

At this point, one can recognize - if not fully accept - the framing of another person. But even then, your previous perspective will be tightly coiled and ready to spring back. Consider my friend in the "Dear Reframing Abby". He was quickly able to shift himself into the other guy’s perspective (his "non-player character" observation was shrewd), but notice how his own movie wants to yank him back; to undo the shift. It‘s evident right here:
Weird because we gave him a great deal, gave him leads that led to big sales for his company, etc.
That's his usual framing reasserting itself. I countered with a bracing reinforcement of the judo flip:
He’s pinned against a rock by some assault force and you’re texting him to sternly demand a headcount for next week's barbecue. "You're the one who suggested the bbq, Ken!!!”
Humor helped me coax him into a few more moments of reframing...but the clock was ticking.

Helping people reframe is a nano-miracle anyone can learn to execute. As I wrote in "You Can Be The Messiah"
Framing comes from within, but it’s contagious. If you’re empathetic, and people are willing to have their lenses refocused [big “ifs”!], it’s not hard to induce a reframing.
One’s perspective is just an arbitrary choice. You can always easily reframe with infinite latitude. But this process, like many other human processes, is prone to habit. Your habitual perspective coils, ready to spring back, even though we require lithe, flexible perspectives to be creative, resilient, and happy. So it's (literally) a blessing to cultivate the ability to shift, to flip, and to leap, shaking free of habit (I'm working on a book of exercises).

I've spent the past months harping on the basic aspects of Reframing 101, having discovered that deeper dives send readers fleeing in droves. But I'll nudge forward again now on the chance that some have developed a feel for this, preparing them to digest larger chunks. I’ll just touch-and-go quickly so no one gets hurt!

Once again, every person has the strange conviction that everyone else is in their movie...even though no one really is. No one's ever been in your movie. You’re in their movie, and it’s assumed that you accept this. Imagine if I were to read these three recent postings to the people being explained. They'd see nothing clever! Just..."duh"! Of course that's how I see things, because that's how it is! Everyone assumes their perspective is The Real One.

It would take some doing - some creativity, some judo, some cleverly deployed humor - to make my gutter cleaners see the situation like I see it. Same for the irresponsible exterminator, and for my friend’s MIA subtenant. Consider the trouble I went through to piece together their framings. I'd need to work equally hard to help them grok mine. And it would strike them as counterintuitive. For example, here’s how I’d imagine the subtenant struggling to reframe:
Ok, Jim, I think I understand. I'm going through hell with my family, my daughter's in ICU with flesh-eating bacteria while her psycho ex-boyfriend continues to stalk her, and my wife is blackmailing me to fund a new life with her pilates instructor, but, ok, I suppose I can try to shift perspective and recognize that this dude I barely know who keeps bugging me about my stupid office lease or whatever doesn’t know all this background, so he feels like his part in this is important and it looks to him like I'm rudely blowing off his kind assistance..."
He arrives there with effort, but the tight coil is palpably poised to spring back to a reality that seems more real. We wave goodbye while he waves hello.

Your framing is literally the fabric of your existence. So if you're able to raise your head above the fray for a moment and recognize the alternative universe inhabited by another person, you will have visited another reality, another universe. Reframing is a portal between parallel realities in the multiverse. Portals don't remain persistently open (remember the snap-back!), so they afford mere glimpses. One's home universe feels ever so much more "real".

Wait...what? I didn't see that coming. It's like Leff's meds wore off right there, pulling him to some eccentric conclusion that seems ludicrously overblown, no?


[Chuckle] Ok, so you're just discussing regular old perspective, using colorful exaggerated metaphors. Hahahaha! But of course, perspective is a perfectly familiar concept; nothing really so weird and cosmic!

But is it perfectly familiar? Work through the issue of perspective (aka subjectivity), and you'll find that it’s like a movie set where city streets appear perfectly normal but dissolve after a few feet where things are less shiny and spotlit. We've come up with these names - perspective, subjectivity, framing - and, once labelled, we feel that we have a handle on the matter. Nothing vast or mind-bending here! I know my toaster is not a demigod because it's just my damned toaster for chrissakes. I may not have examined every inch of it, but it's obviously a toaster, and we know what toasters are, so don't be ridiculous!

Problem: unlike a toaster, subjectivity/perspective/framing is not a thing. Despite the names we've assigned, there's no there there. We've only pretended to name the unnameable and to comprehend the incomprehensible. It’s a sham. It doesn't hold up under sustained examination. That’s why we’re like babies with this stuff. Humanity, which has built grand palaces and symphonies and space ships, has let the question of perspective and framing lie fallow (aside from some dry, nerdy, largely useless philosophizing, which this isn’t, btw!). It’s far deeper than you've imagined.

I'm not leaping so very far to connect perspective to parallel universes, multiverses, portals, etc.. If you'd like to swing to the next branches, read through the (difficult) series beginning with "The Visualization Fallacy". It starts out by explaining the eponymous fallacy, then tumbles down a rabbit hole. And (don't imagine that saying this comes easily to me) it's correct. Also, for the extra juicy part, ask yourself “Who is The Framer?”

Some readers may get the mistaken impression that I’m saying it works like“one person/one framing,” so you must shift to some other person’s perspective to reframe. No, every possible perspective (including ones never previously adopted) is instantly and effortlessly available to you in the moment. It’s infinite. Reframing (just you sitting there all alone shifting perspective to literally anything else) traverses the multiverse. This posting discusses a vanishingly narrow slice of it: the perspective of another person at a given moment, in relation to your own.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Vertigo, Framing, Extermination, and Narcissism

An exterminator visits to spray my house. He tells me he's been feeling dizzy but doctors don't know what to do. I ask whether it's worse when his head is in certain positions, and he confirms. This means 1. his doctor is a quack, and 2. he has what I have: Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo.
This is when crystals in the inner ear get misdirected. A series of head movements called The Epley maneuver can return them to their correct position, but the Epley maneuver (which makes you super-extra-dizzy for 30 seconds) is difficult to do on your own, so you need to go to a physical therapist for guidance. And physical therapists don’t love this, because it's common for patients to throw up on them!

I have an extremely clever gadget called the DizzyFix (it's a twisty plastic straw filled with oil that you wear like a hat, and, as you move your head to direct the ball through the twists, you're executing the Epley maneuver). It allows you to fix yourself, and it works like a charm, though you need to re-do it every few months.
DizzyFix is no longer sold - and you can't find it second-hand - so I loan mine to the exterminator. A month later, I ask for it back, but he won't respond to multiple texts. Finally, I offer, in a very neutral tone, to come pick it up at his home address, which I note, even though it's unlisted and he'd never given it to me. Dah dum.

This gets his attention. He responds testily/defensively (noting, in passing, that his dizziness is better) but leaves it in my mailbox that very night (without instructions, which he promises to mail separately, and never does).

It's yet another framing disjoint, much like with the subtenant and the gutter cleaners (these three very different postings are a triptych).

From his perspective, I’m one of the people making demands on him, a gaggle of incessant naggers who need stuff, who want favors. If it stems from a commitment he freely chose to make, well, that's just background information. In the foreground, these needy frigging people are on his case for him to attend to their various needy needs. Everyone wants a piece of him, and they need to chill the F out. He'll get around to them (i.e. he won't get around to them).

The entire world is nothing but framing disjoints. That's what Earth is: eight billion people starring in eight billion unrelated movie scenes oddly assuming it's all somehow part of one overarching film. As I wrote a couple months ago:
I don't see a grand distinction between good and evil (for one thing, everyone who's ever tried to define a clean border has failed). I think we're all just following the dramatic storylines in our heads, setting ourselves on courses which gradually cycle us through all the various movie genres, where we do our best to aptly play out scenes that come up. The scene in one head seldom syncs with the scene in another’s. There's no superseding movie, no single calibrating point of moral truth, because we're all caught up, and spun out, in our myriad parallel individual experiences.

Minor writerly aside: we were taught in school to always add an ellipsis when we skip words in a quotation. And you should do so when quoting Shakespeare or Boutros Boutros-Ghali or anyone else important or authoritative. But here's the advantage of being Just Some Shmuck: you really don't need to sweat it (which explains why I didn't with my self-quote above).

Unless you deem yourself a world historical figure, whatever you're presently trying to communicate to the reader is eons more important than preserving a formal accounting of your yaddda yadda. So anything I can do to make the writing marginally clearer, neater, or more digestible, I'll seize the opportunity every damned time. I'm not acting as a journalist here, and, even if I were, I am not the story.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Dear ReFraming Abby

A friend writes in...

A tenant I’m friendly with hasn’t been in for a month. I sent him an email asking if he's ok. He answers back, about family issues and other stuff and says “I hate to say it but I may have to give up the office.” I say “Sorry to hear. Give me a call if it’s not working for you, I can try to work out getting someone in there.” I go out of my way to try to let him work around his contract, but he ignores emails and won't return phone calls.

I’m confused by his behavior.

Framing disjoint!

Imagine him in the third act of an action movie. The rebels are laser-bombing his location...while you’re the friendly dude down at the hardware store. You’ve ceased to be a real person for him. Does that help?

Yes. I was trying to help him, but I’ve become a non-player character for him.

Yes, though not in an unfriendly way. Just a shift of attention. Either cover your ass as best you can or else become an equally daunting monster to get his attention - i.e. reappear in his reality.

It won’t get to anything like that. The building owner would be happy to have him pay and not use the office...and if he leaves we'd be able to fill it quickly. We're ok either way.

Me: Fine. Don’t expect thoughtful good behavior. Make HIM a non player character and just do everything by the book and give him his space.

Yeah, that’s it. Weird because we gave him a great deal, gave him leads that led to big sales for his company, etc.. But your explanation seems to be right.

Me: He’s pinned against a rock by some assault force and you’re texting him to sternly demand a headcount for next week's barbecue. "You're the one who suggested the bbq, Ken!!!”

Thanks, very helpful

no prob

Wednesday, December 11, 2019


Every gutter cleaner in my area wants $150 to do the $75 job. Because they’re not, like, some stupid slobs who clean gutters.

And not only that, but you must beg them to actually show up. Because they’re not, like, some stupid slobs who clean gutters.

When they do show up, they do a poor job. Because they’re not, like, some stupid slobs who clean gutters.

We are coddled aristocrats living in Paradise. We are all Mrs. Howell.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Eschew Intuition

Here's why you never want to develop intuition:

Consider the selfish, inconsiderate, uncivilized, deluded, and vaguely malevolent qualities you observe every day in people's words and actions. How could you possibly imagine that the unspoken stuff they're silently brewing up is, like, sparkly sunshine? People actually present their best side, disappointing though it might be. So why would you ever want to delve into the gurgling subterranean sludge (ala the "river of slime" from Ghostbusters II)?

Here's proof: How many times in your life have you ever coaxed/provoked someone into revealing what they were really thinking - into coughing up the thing they obviously didn't want to say - and found yourself glad to hear it? Has it ever once brought a good result?

If that can't convince you, then flip it around. Has anyone ever coaxed/provoked you into saying what you were really thinking and the truth was something they'd possibly enjoy hearing?

Why on Earth would you want to know what people are thinking??

Intuition's the ultimate be-careful-what-you-wish-for.

Don't fear intuitive people, btw. The Invisible Man sees everyone naked.

See also Flipping Your Street Smarts


Late last night, some part of me itched (I'm not being discreet; I honestly don't remember where...I was 99% asleep at the time). En route to the itch, my hand was astonished to confront my abdomen extended considerably forward from where it ought to have been.

Perpetually skinny readers will find this horrifying description puzzling and unrelatable. The rest understand.

I might easily have launched into a mental reverie of despair for letting my weight get to this point (I'm ten pounds shy of my all-time peak). But then I recalled that I've been at the gym every day this week (after two months off due to injuries and illness) where I've been working out like a Tasmanian Devil. I've been eating very modestly, as well.

I also recalled all the morbidly obese gym newcomers I'd glimpsed over the years seeming uncomfortable and self-conscious. I always wanted (if I weren't so shy) to reassure such people:
This is not the place for you to be self-conscious. The gym is where you should hold your head high. If I see you in a doughnut shop, that's another thing. But here? You're like a shaggy-headed person in a barber's chair. You're like a muddy-handed person standing over a sink. You're in exactly the right place, doing exactly the right thing. This moment isn't your insecurity; this is your strength.
Thoroughly inoculated, I turned over and contentedly fell back asleep.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Fixing Recent Posts

Sloppy mo-fo that I am, I forgot, in "Fake Lamination" to explain how the product actually works. I added explanation toward the beginning of the post.

And in "Karma Yoga Dialogue", I forgot to explain why you'd actually want to adapt the perspective of a playful child. I explained this at the end of the post.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Slog Assist

The Slog's back end needed some adjustment after 11 years, so I turned to a company called Confluent Forms. Its proprietor, David Wil-Alon Kutcher, is on the Expert team for Google/Blogger's support forum, so he's got this stuff down cold. Confluent Forms does web development, branding, digital marketing and more - including advice/coordination for issues like web hosting, app development, etc.

Jillions of brash kids and dodgy offshore characters purport to do the same (I've been down that road too many times with Chowhound, my smartphone app, and sundry tech schemes), but David's a solid, experienced person who actually knows stuff. Also, his turnaround (even though I was far from his top priority) is impressive; David consistently replies more quickly than I'm able to process. I'm the slow gear. Highly recommended!

Also highly recommended: friend-of-the-Slog Paul Trapani of LISTnet has been providing ongoing tech help and advice all these years. Paul's skilled in a number of tech and biz areas, and if he can't fix a problem, he knows who can. LISTnet is a network for tech/biz needs, with solid local presence in Long Island (LISTnet = Long Island Software & Technology Network).

Fake Lamination

There's a really good cheap way to "laminate" cards and bits of paper without the use of fancy plastic-melting gizmos. Scotch Self-Sealing Laminating Pouches, Business Card Size are the answer.
It's just sticky plastic stuff that surrounds the paper, and you trim with scissors. Which sounds sort of cheesy and half-assed, but it actually looks totally professional - like magic! - and feels like it would preserve the paper inside for years.

Here's what I use these for:

1. A small print-out I stick in my wallet containing my medical info, proxy and contact phone #s, and prescriptions (in Ariel 10 font). I headline it with "Medical Info" in red-colored Ariel 19 bold, and size/format the printout so the title appears conspicuously just above the wallet slot.

2. The same in Spanish (for trips to Spain and Latin America).

3. Contact info while traveling (hotel, Airbnb host, local friends...plus emergency contacts back home).

4. A card with frequent phone numbers (I don't know a single number by heart these days, and phones do run out of juice, get stolen, etc., and cloud versions seem especially prone to failure at such moments).

If there's anything you keep in your wallet that gets shredded over time, just fake-laminate it. It's surprisingly professional in quality. And if you don't keep the above in your wallet, that's fine until there's an emergency, at which point you will be deeply, deeply screwed.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Karma Yoga Dialogue

-- What do the Zen masters and the yogis, etc., mean when they talk about transcending attachment?

That nothing matters. You absolutely don't need it to matter!

-- So, total nihilism. Just drop out, make no effort, and stop giving a crap....?

No, quite the contrary. Dive in, try hard, and do everything like your life depends on it!

-- You do realize you've contradicted yourself, right?

Well, it's a little bit paradoxical. Try it this way: care mightily about the thing you're doing right now - whatever it is! - but don't care in the least about the result, the reception, how it affects you, how you look, what it means, etc. Do the thing, but don’t make it A Thing.

-- How can you care about what you're doing without caring about the result? Don't they go together?

Not at all. There's a difference between caring about the Doing and caring about being the person who Does. Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing. That's why most singers are so awful.

-- Separating those parts sounds like it would take a lot of practice. Plenty of meditation, learning to "stop the mind" or whatever?

Nope. Actually, you yourself were a master of it once. You just forgot.

-- You mean in a past life?

No, as a child. When you played, say, cowboys and indians, you did so intensely, immersing all the way. And yet you always knew you were playing. You never lost track of that. You were deeply involved in the pretending...yet you knew it didn't matter. And you never paused to consider whether you were a convincing cowboy.

Then you came to consider that perspective juvenile. Under the guise of "growing up" and "getting serious", you locked yourself into the pretending and threw away the key - by deliberately forgetting that you're playing. Suddenly everything seemed to matter a great deal. It became a much more adult-seeming game.

Your priorities flipped, so you barely immerse anymore, but you're endlessly obsessed with how you come off. That's backwards to how you used to do it! And your perspective has frozen so tenaciously that when I remind you of your old way, it sounds like paradoxical nonsense!

-- So why is that way better?

Well, young children learn languages (even hard ones!), and assimilate a huge chunk of human knowledge and culture, in just a few years. Adults, by contrast, are considered pretty much unteachable. Young children have much less stress, and they're relatively lithe and energetic, not rigid and sluggish. And they can reframe easily at will, while adults nearly always wind up stuck in some frozen perspective or other.

You had to grow up. It was inevitable. But you made the mistake of assuming you needed to push this change - to play the role and pretend to be the changed person you saw each morning in the mirror - rather than be pulled to new obligations, remaining comfortably as you were. You could have grown up without blotting out your childhood self. But even now, if you simply let go (e.g. via meditation) of the reigns you‘ve pretended to grab, you'll find that the original, fundamental you has remained alive and well and eager to play. The only obstacle is your crusty super-reinforced sense of identity.

I've created a new tag/label for entrees in dialogue form - there are five such entries so far.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Housekeeping Note

I've expanded my previous posting, "Lining up the Ducks", with bagel porn and more.

Lining Up the Ducks

“Man plans, and God laughs.” - old Yiddish adage

“People with goals generally burn the toast.” - yours truly

I have blindly stumbled, scorning myriad opportunities, throughout my life, leaving me stranded high and dry on a remote island separated by vast seas from my hopes and dreams. On paper I'm an utter failure in many respects. And yet this is how I toast my bagels:

One of my favorite postings, "Decision Factors", discusses the ultimate futility of planning and choosing:
Big-picture scenarios are like cartoons, and we don't live in cartoonish big-picture images, we live in trivial moments. This is not a movie. We're raindrops slowly working down windows, not heroic protagonists.

Rich opportunity awaits at every juncture of every decision tree. Any choice, no matter how bright or disappointing, can yield a jackpot or a dud. In the end, it's not about the choice, it's the chooser. It's you, playing the cards you're dealt - both good hands and bad - with delight and exuberance. If you focus on the rich immediacy, rather than the cartoonish big picture...you literally can't go wrong.
So... "where do I see myself in five years?" Continuing with my earthworm emulation - i.e. ingesting soil all day while expelling slightly improved soil. It's only a downer if I dramatize it. Which I don't. And, oddly, with that one little flip, I appear, perversely and magically, to win. Slothy ambitionlessness somehow yields surprising results. Not that it's something I think about much. I've got bagels to butter.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Hearing Aid Adventure

Could there possibly be a lamer, less enticing and sexy title? Beige thingie stuck in your elderly wrinkled ear lobe so you don't need to keep hollering "HUH???" at the grandkids. Awesome! Pure click bait! "Save to Favorites"!

Despite the seeming dullness of the topic, I'm going to go long with this one, because I was surprised every step of the way...and surprises are the stock in trade here in Slogsville. Also: this totally cracks me up, though your mileage may vary.

Betcha can't wait to scroll down! Hell yeah, hearing aids! Here we go!

In the 80s and 90s I was (here’s video proof) one of the hardest-working musicians in New York City. I spent thousands upon thousands of hours laboring directly in front of screaming guitar amps, PA systems, and corn-fed trumpeters whose sense of self worth revolved around playing higher and louder than the human auditory system can tolerate. Unsurprisingly, mine couldn't.

I imagined I'd be ok; that I'd be an exception. Full-time professional musicians are essentially blue collar workers (though better trained than doctors or lawyers), and we have that familiar stoic toughness. I remember watching the guys toiling atop the smoking Trade Center pile after 9/11, all of them figuring that their tenacity, combined with the sacred nature of their mission, made them indestructible. Tough guys don't sweat fumes.

I was horror-struck by the tableau of inevitable cancer. Yet, in my own irrational tough guy pride, I kept returning to my position in front of guitar amps, PA systems, and brutish trumpeters, certain that I was exempt. After all, I performed miracles, screaming my head off on a difficult instrument for twelve hours at a stretch (often doubling or tripling up my gigs), maintaining high standards even while dead tired. I could tough it out through anything. As someone who could "get 'er done," I was like a Conway Twitty hero plowin' fields with his all-American John Deere slide trombone can I get a "hallelujah"?

Sure enough, I wound up, shmuck-like, with more than 50% hearing loss, mostly high-range (kids' voices might as well be the chirpings of birds). My audiologist didn't just suggest a hearing aid; he was shocked that I'd managed without one. Huh? Managed without one! Huh? MANAG....

Deaf jokes never get old.

Search the Internet all day long and you'll find no hiply wry accounts of "that time I got my hearing aid" on, say, Reddit or McSweeney’s. No amusing stories on The Moth Radio Hour, or comedy sketches from Upright Citizens Brigade. The topic's akin to catheters and walkers: bone dry and inherently "too much information." You do whatcha gotta do, grandpaw, but I don't need to hear about your ear canals...

I get it. Ladies, I don't want to hear war stories about your diaphragms, either. Canals of all sorts are inherently private.

A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!

Thing is, though, that this widespread aversion will soon evaporate, once Ira Glass loses bladder control (sorry for the image) and Generation X turns the corner. But, for now, I find myself once again at the leading edge, the first of his brashly self-aware generation of writers to undergo this. Or, at least, the first to admit it.

In 1997 I was the first food blogger (sample here). Now I've blazed a trail with hearing aids, and look ahead to one day tackling liver spots. Oh, and also, man, don't you just hate it when the worms have eaten through the wood and start wiggling around the box? Remember to tip your waitresses! Home safe!

Funniest hearing aid posting ever! :) :) :)

Tim Conway
My audiologist's waiting room is stocked with folks who can nostalgically recall a time when they'd have been described as creaky. On my last visit, I watched with bated breath as the door opened and remained ajar a very long time until there finally appeared - from my viewpoint to the side - a stooped, stone-faced gentleman eking forward in shuffling micro-steps. His body was so rigid that he appeared to hover, like a ballerina executing a lateral sweep of the stage in delicate mincing steps. Brava, grandpa! Brava!

I maintained a poker face, but he seemed to read my mind as our gazes briefly met, him smirking oh-so-faintly in ironic self-recognition. As a child I watched Tim Conway play the decrepit old guy on the old Carol Burnett show, and decrepit old guys at that time were definitely not in on that joke. But Grandpa Ballerina sure was. The look he gave me was as cocky as his body was frail. Message received: "Laugh up, deaf boy; your time's coming!"

There's no generational divide in an audiologist's office. Welcome to the end of the line.

Deaf Folk Ain't Picky
Here's the aid-iest lemonade I've made from the lemons of 50% hearing loss: I no longer sweat audio quality. At all.

I've never been much of an audiophile; just enough to feel ashamed for doing it wrong and missing The Full Experience. I've up-spent a few times out of this sense of guilt. But no more. My ears are scratchy transistor radios, so I keep nice light low-sample-rate MP3s on my phone, make all audio connections via lousy bluetooth, and will waste no more time lurking on AVSForum.

I also can't drink any more, either, which means no more hangovers, fewer calories, lower expenses...plus (though I was always conscientious) not an iota of a chance of DUI from accidentally going over the line. None of this is "positive thinking"; it's just accurate thinking; a rejection of the commonly-held delusion that negativity is the realer reality.

The average person with hearing loss waits seven years before getting a hearing aid. It's a question of vanity and stigma, and I - still a baby at 56 - certainly felt my share of reluctance.

But in the middle of all this, I realized, thunderstruck, that I've worn, since childhood, a highly intrusive medical device on the front of my face, revealing to one and all the feeble weakness of my vision; my deficit. Yet not only are my glasses no big deal, but I've been deliriously happy to see that, for example, trees have leaves (and not just blurry green halos).

So I can also put on a far less conspicuous gadget and hear individual leaves blowing in the wind and crunching underfoot? Awesome! More perception-boosting gizmos, please!

Having reframed the situation, I felt no hesitation in moving forward.

Truly, this thing is invisible. The days of bulbous beige mushrooms are gone. A stylish sliver hides behind my ear, and you can't spot the filament extending into my ear canal even if you're looking for it. Ear buds are 10,000 times clunkier, and they're stylish; a status symbol. So why did I wait all this time again?

Nobody Wants the Middle Hearing Aid
My health insurance seems to say they'll pay 70% of the cost. As you know, health insurance is a non-transparent con game where they make up the rules as they go along and benefit payments are opaque crap shoots. But, thankfully, hearing aid companies offer generous trial periods and easy refunds...so I went ahead and ordered the Cadillac of Hearing Aids, which comes in three levels of exorbitance. 

I kept asking the audiologist to explain the price levels and their respective bangs-for-the-bucks, but he remained maddeningly vague, and I finally pieced together why. This isn't like buying a hedge trimmer, where you look for a sweet spot between inadequacy and extravagance. If you're getting a hearing aid, you wanna frickin' hear. Not "modestly sufficient" hearing; you want, of course, duh, to hear extravagantly. My audiologist knew that I would - that everyone does - order the top one. I'm not sure the other models even actually exist. What sane person goes "Geez, that sounds like more hearing than I really need!"

If you have crappy insurance (I might; we'll find out when they actually send the check) or can't afford even the copay, that's a different matter. There are dodgey off-the-shelf alternatives, Costco options, etc. But unless you’re paycheck-to-paycheck, you'll scratch together the (considerable) cash for the good one. Of course you will. Your audiologist only pretends to offer a choice. It’s a charade.

Is This Thing On?
Give a nearsighted person their first pair of glasses, and they may weep with joy, wondering why they didn't do it sooner. It's night and day. But hearing aids aren't like that...for many reasons.

At first I thought the device wasn't doing much. The world sounded like the world, and the differences were awfully subtle. But then I realized the paradox: this is the benefit of getting the best model. Cheaper ones surely make you remember you've got it on! You're paying for this subtlety; for a familiar impression of the familiar world aside from the key targets of delicately precise improvement. Strategic brushstrokes, not augmented reality.

And there are more fundamental reasons why the first reaction to a hearing aid is less revelatory than the first reaction to glasses:
1. The two senses work differently. The world requires reasonably good visual focus, while a blurry blob of hearing serves decently. There's a big difference between not being able to read the menu and having some trouble in certain circumstances making out certain speech from high-pitched voices. So when you put on your first hearing aid, it's not "night and day."

2. Glasses give your retinas exactly the input they'd receive with naturally good vision. Hearing aids are an imperfect, unnatural solution. You need to get used to a new way of hearing. So when you put on your first hearing aid, it's not "night and day."

3. Your brain is less plastic with hearing. Clearer, keener signal is disorienting at first, and the confusion is compounded by the fact that, per above, this is not a natural or perfect solution. So hearing aids take practice. So when you put on your first hearing aid, it's not "night and day."
Everyone embraces glasses from day one. The improvement makes you an instant believer. Hearing aids, at first, leave you agnostic.

Shit's Deep, Bruh
So you're trying to decide whether to move forward and buy. Or whether to keep what you just bought. Here's the crux as it will immediately strike you: How much trouble and expense and discomfort and gizmo management are you interested in withstanding for a slightly better edge on hearing what people are saying?

If you're the least bit introverted, that’s an easy excuse to bail. In your rational, logical mind - where everything that happens is like a two-dimensional comic strip panel - you've been merely not hearing people well. A finite problem. But in the deep gurgling primordial DNA pits of your personhood, not hearing people well is profound impairment....even if you feel like you can still kinda-sorta make out good enough.

The margin between "barely hearing good enough under most conditions" and "hearing good enough" may seem not worth much trouble or expense. But you need to try a hearing aid for a length of time and in a variety of situations. I've had mine for five days, and experienced two momentary intimations that, despite the subtlety of the difference, it's a whole new ballgame.

(One such moment was when a friend told me I was speaking more softly than usual. You mean I’ve been blaring all this time? Shudder! But it felt more relaxing, less stressful to talk. So I stuttered less, and was less at a loss for words. It felt like my 1990 self speaking, and I hadn’t realized I haven’t been him since 1990!)

Distorting your decision is the fact that hearing loss is such a long and gradual process that you're surely worse than you realize. That's why it's very common for other people to notice your hearing problem before you do. And that's why people with hearing loss socialize less without quite understanding why. They often blame it on a blasé disinterest in people - who, not coincidentally, they've spent years straining to understand! Like the lobster in the the gradually-heated pot of water, there's no alarm tripping point to let you know you're in trouble.

What's more, the average seven year wait to correct the problem allows new social habits to harden. If you're thinking there's no one you’re particularly keen to raptly listen to, anyway, consider that this may be your hearing loss at work; a classic wag-the-dog situation. Flip the script, and 1. Improve the hearing and 2. Go out and forthrightly overturn taciturn habits. It doesn't get better if you wait longer.

The Freakier Freakiness
In a posting titled "Expert/Layman Triage Fallacy", I pointed out a problem with talking to experts. When they're not telling you that your freaky observations are actually perfectly normal, they're rolling their eyes at reports which are merely freaky. You, not being expert, can't possibly anticipate. So you look ditzy when your reports fail to hit, because experts are oddly blind to this phenomenon.

Audiologists seem to be an extreme version. With no remote idea of what's normal, I blurted out every random observation that occurred to me when I first tried them on. Sure enough, some made him say "Actually, that's not weird at all....", while the rest made him furrow his brow and try to suppress a visceral WTF.

My hatha yoga teacher, Priscilla (who provided the wonderful insight about aiming for infinity) reported about the experience of getting cochlear implants a few years ago, in a series starting here.

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