Saturday, December 28, 2019

Unhinged

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 back 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 office 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 their 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-loving friends were with me that night. I approached them with wild eyes, demanding to know whether they'd registered the significance of what they 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....]

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