Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Susan Feldman Incident

The seminal event of my childhood was when, in first grade, Susan Feldman - the apple of my eye (aside, of course, from the utterly aloof and unattainable Suzanne Castrino) - told me, in front of the whole lunchroom table, "I can't believe I liked you in kindergarten!"

It was my first experience with ambivalence. My immediate reaction was "What...wait...Susan Feldman liked me in kindergarten???" I'd had no idea (this was also my introduction to the opaqueness of female attraction). But the part about my having grown into an unappealing schlub struck me as sad but fair. I'd peaked, sexually, at age 6. I knew it, everyone knew it. Susan was merely stating the obvious.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Jesus Muffins

I can't say these are the best muffins I've ever had, but I've never had better. Click to expand for the full effect.

I get them from an Ecuadorian chicken place in Ossining, about a mile from the jail. They don't really know what muffins are. They don't know what to call them. They can't tell you which flavor is which. There are never more than two on hand at any time of day. They don't know what they cost. They struggle to figure out which cash register button to press. They are at a loss as to how to pack them (currently they toss them individually into large supermarket paper bags and roll them up).

There is nowhere in Ecuadorian culture for muffins. These are like alien artifacts for them. And that's why I think they're so unbelievably good. My guess is someone told the owner he could make money selling muffins to his gringo customers. So he had an employee go online and get a muffin recipe. And, only since it was all so foreign, they cooked them from scratch....CAREFULLY, using only use gloriously ripe fruit and take aching care with every step (including the sugar syrup wash that leaves the tops shatteringly glass-like in their crispness).

They don't do this because they're artists. And it's not that they care deeply. It's just that they haven't yet realized they don't *have* to. Nobody told them a big truck from Indiana could pull up and deliver them dozens of sticky sweet awful muffins from some big factory (or veterinary grade pre-made batter) for mere pennies.

So this is a temporary condition, a miracle, a cosmic Jesus accident, and I'm enjoying the hell of it. I'm like a native of the Kenyan savanna lavishing in cool breezy August weather, unable to explain or even fully describe it, but out-of-his-mind with undeserved and unexpected joy.


These are as good as the muffins at Briermere Farms in Riverhead and the ones at Coffee An' in Westport, and I think they're as good as the late, lamented Michael's Muffins of Greenwich Village in the early 90's.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Value and Salability

I've been puzzling over some recent learning experiences about economic value. I'm sure all of this would be incredibly banal for an economist. But there are plenty of known economic truisms that even educated people never connect with.

For example, I've paid my bills for years via the brutally simple strategy of buying Apple stock whenever it goes way down and selling whenever it goes way up. There's nothing clever about it, yet I don't know anyone else doing it. Savvy investors execute far cleverer strategies, making less money at greater risk. Simplicity often escapes notice, even by - especially by! - smart people.

With that in mind, I have some simple observations.

Houses

I bought my current house despite two expensive issues which the previous home owners couldn't afford to fix. They lowered the price accordingly, and while I finally came along and bought it, it had sat on the market for a good long while. This should have been a premonition!

So now I'm getting ready to sell, and had to decide whether to empty my bank account to resolve those issues or to simply pass along the discount. And the reality of it became suddenly clear to me. I could try to sell a house saddled with asbestos pipe insulation and an unsightly exterior full of curling lead paint (impossible to repaint without much exorbitant work sanding away in HAZMAT suits). The house looks like hell, and "asbestos" is a scary word, but, no problem. I could just mark down the price. It's all the same in the end, no?

No!

Houses aren't soybeans or widgets. The housing market doesn't respond rationally because it's not a faceless mob. There is a limited pool of buyers, all subject to emotion. Most don't want asbestos or ugly peeling paint at any price. They'd rather avoid the hassle even if I discounted the bejesus out of it. Serious issues, even steeply discounted, would repel most prospective buyers, who don't want a fixer-upper at any price.

Let's say I offered you a late model car that had housed a dead body for a few weeks. It stinks and the interior's stained. If the car were normally worth $25,000 but I offered it to you for $6000 with the assurance that you could have it cleaned and deodorized for $19,000, would you buy? What about $5000? $4000? $800?

That's an extreme example, but you get the idea. Every issue - every nose-wrinkling sub-optimality - filters out a swathe of prospective buyers, regardless of discount. And there is not an infinitude of buyers. So your house could sit unsold for years despite a perfectly fair price, though a misreading of economics might make you think that result simply doesn't happen.

Even extreme discounting would have limited effect. Most buyers want a nice house in nice condition that looks nice and presents no obvious headaches. Faults, even priced-in, require a fault-tolerant buyer, which is an edge case. As you increase your discount, you're still seeking edge cases the whole way down. There’s no price low enough to attract mainstream buyers. It takes a certain type of person to buy a corpse car at any price!

So...I painted the damn house (using lead encapsulation rather than abatement, a compromise solution with no sanding - the hazardous part - but they just scrape, power-wash, and encase remaining lead paint in a thick primer that lets new paint stick. The result is not super smooth, but it looks ok and costs half the price of full abatement) and I had the asbestos removed. When I sell the house, I'll ask full price, which would repay my outlay with, alas, no profit for my substantial hassle. But it will be attractive to 100% of the market rather than just to problem-tolerant bargain hunters. So I'll save hassle and delay. It will actually sell, which is more than a minor consideration!

Coins

On a similar tack, one of the first things newbie coin collectors need to learn is to ignore pricing lists. Well-respected sources might value your 1931-S Lincoln wheat cent at 87¢, and this may be correct, but you will never, ever, get 87¢ for that coin. It's an accurate value, but not one you can get - and the difference is absolutely not just semantic.

87¢ would be the average price of many transactions, nearly all involving dealers who can assure customers that the coins are genuine, and, for example, have never been washed (which drastically reduces value, but you need to be trained to spot it). If you were to spend $35 to have a grading service authenticate, grade, and encase the coin in a plastic slab sealed with hologram stickers, you might be able to sell it for $35.87 on eBay (though you'd lose money after paying shipping and eBay transaction costs). But, even then, it will sit forever on eBay because, while the price is correct, no one wants a stupid circulated penny that badly, except for rare and extenuating circumstances (i.e. circumstances which, in aggregate, led to the 87¢ valuation you found in your price list!).

To be sure, the coin's worth 87¢. You just can't sell it for 87¢, exactly the way my house is worth $X minus paint/asbestos cost...but no one will buy it. Value and salability are different things. Greater value increases salability, but it's rarely linear, much less predictable. So never assume you can simply adjust price in order to sell stuff. Economics, it turns out, don't actually work that way.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Puny Sacrifices for Infinitesimal Decency

I hired a painting company to do my house, and, mid-way, we're haggling over various issues, shortcomings, and miscommunications on their end. The latest was a fake $1500 carpentry job they tried to get me to sign off on.

The project manager, who stops by a couple times a week to check up on the nice Guatemalan guys who do the actual work, is, himself, a Guatemalan immigrant. But his English is good, and he's bright, and he's been fully accepted into this large white family business. That's quite an accomplishment for a Guatemalan, a nationality at the leading edge of current immigration.

He wasn't deliberately trying to screw me. In fact, he likes me. We talk in Spanish, and sometimes he comes by to share the lunches I cook for the workers. I've earned most-favored-client status with him. What happened was that one of the guys had mumbled something about problematic shingles (the shingles aren't perfect, though no one in his right mind would pay to swap them out), so the issue got automatically added to my roster, and the accounting guy affixed the usual shingle repair price, and the machinery mindlessly spit out a request that I pay $1500 for a job that clearly did not require doing.

Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

I made the project manager come out and look, and he freely admitted the work was completely unnecessary. He briskly slashed the line off of my file and asked whether I'd approve the remaining (legit) carpentry work. And I unloaded on him. I told him I no longer trust his company; that I am a good customer who feeds his guys and pays on time and makes no trouble. I'm not a cow to be milked (it worked better in Spanish). This was really really not okay.

He tried to explain that the worker had tagged a problem, and the system had picked it up, and, man, he can't supervise everything. I pointed out that supervising everything was literally his job, and that I had nearly paid $1500 for unnecessary work. It was effectively every bit as bad as a deliberate rip-off.

He was stricken at having let me down, plus he'd cost his company the work I'd just nixed. Serious mess-up on his end. And I could have used this tale to bolster my position in my ongoing squabbles with his company. But I didn't. I told them the project manager was doing a wonderful job. He got no blame for anything. I protected him.

Why? Because I don't like how my country is treating immigrants. By protecting him, I compensated in an infinitesimal way.

Persecution isn't fought via lofty oratory about multiculturalism, or raking through Twitter detecting and exterminating RACISM. It's not mitigated by windy gestures, righteous outrage, or the sloppy smiting of seeming villains. You mitigate it with your compensatory gentle touch. Maybe you willingly let certain stuff go by - even if you were wronged. Even if it might help you a little to not let it go by. This is how you tip scales. Again: infinitesimally.

When Trump took office, friends of mine went to DC to march, and they were offended by my comments here about such vain, empty gestures. Marching made them feel better, but did not help. By contrast, the incident with my project manager made me feel a little worse...and helped a (very) little. You know you're helping if you take a hit; if you come out a little worse. If you ever find yourself feeling grand and righteous, that's entirely about you. It's performance; an empty display of self-regard. It's silly and repulsive.

There's very little we can do to help. All we've got are micro-touches and micro-considerations (e.g. the meek puniness of voting). We're not studly super-heros, we're dweeby dweebs. But no one seems interested in acknowledging this. All around me, I see people - particularly young people - shouting into the hot microphones of social media or joining voices in street protests; gloriously projecting their outrage in the macro. But I don't see any consideration in the micro - i.e. in Reality. Nobody’s engaged in the non-heroism of micro-consideration (which, per previous link, is why young people don't vote). Enticed by the shiny allure of Seeming, it would scarcely occur to them to actually Do.

United Flight 93

I am replaying this posting from 2008 in honor of the anniversary. 

When I first heard that United Flight 93 had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, and that it was long enough after the World Trade Center catastrophe that people both on the ground and in the plane were aware that a similar fate was in store for this flight, and that its path had it aimed squarely at Washington DC, I assumed, as did anyone else with a functioning brain, that it had been shot down. And while I could argue both ways, there was certainly a case to be made for having done so. 

I remember seeing on CNN how tightly the crash area had been sealed off, with absolutely no journalists permitted within the perimeters. I remember how the story disseminated that heroic passengers had engineered this result, not military missles. I was skeptical, to say the least.

But when, months later, I learned that Linda Gronlund had been on board the flight, there was reason to reconsider. The Gronlunds were family friends when I was growing up, and Linda, a race car driver, karate expert, sailor, mechanic, EMT, environmentalist, and lots more, was pretty much the most can-do, resolute, fiercely determined person I've ever met. 

Linda called her sister Elsa via cellphone from the flight, and told her that the passengers understood the situation and that there was a plan to storm the cockpit. Demonstrating Linda's cool steely clarity of mind, she remembered to give Elsa precise instructions about where to find her will and other paperwork. Amazing. 

I haven't seen the films or TV movies made about Flight 93, but I understand that none of them much featured Linda. I'm absolutely sure, though, that she was on the vanguard of whatever happened on that flight. Linda was born to storm cockpits. 

Of course, what's unexplained is why the plane actually went down. One might guess that the hijackers, aware of a mob breaking down the cockpit door, executed a hard dive. But that would only have been a last ditch maneuver, as their goal wasn't to murder airplaine passengers, but to bomb the White House. I can't imagine geared-up fanatics executing an abortive dive without a fight. And, heroic as the passengers may well have been, they undoubtedly were aiming to gain control of the aircraft, rather than ditch it. So whence the downward plunge? 

My guess is that both stories are right. I think the cockpit was stormed (Linda Gronlund would not have sat quietly and failed to take action), and the plane was indeed shot down as it passed over the last rural landscape before entering more populated areas.  My heartfelt hope is that the passengers hadn't just prevailed over the hijackers when the missiles arrived. I must avoid imagining that scenario. But Linda would have understood even if it had played out that way.

Charlie Kaufman

I just caught Charlie Kaufman's new film, "I'm Thinking of Ending Things," which was released straight to Netflix. Since I was, for once, at home when the credits rolled instead of ambling out of a movie theater, I finally remembered to actually follow up on the mental note I always make while viewing a Kaufman film. I googled this:
"If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit" "Charlie Kaufman"
...but, oddly, no one on the Internet appears to have applied that old chestnut to him.

So now I've rectified that.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Armchair Chowhounding: Tapas in Malaysia

Welcome to the strangest food posting of my entire life.


The least cool thing to do while traveling is to seek out familiar food (American, French, Italian, etc). The slightly cooler thing is to seek out local food. Like, duh. But coolest of all would be to go all the way to Malaysia for Spanish tapas. That's the sweet spot, right there. I can't travel right now, but am remotely surveying tapas options in Penang, an especially interesting Malaysian food region (making it all the more gleefully perverse to go there for tapas)

I'm not proposing some cold-blooded hipster scavenger hunt for Insta-worthy food oddity trophies. It's deeper than that. The way Culture X cooks Cuisine Y is deeply revealing. It sheds light on the whole situation. If you order something ubiquitous like laksa in Penang, the chef would be working under loads of expectation, every nuance and deviation registered and judged under a microscope. But something like wienerschnitzel flies free. Pure id. Less Anthony Bourdain and more Carl Jung/Joseph Campbell.

While Malaysian wienerschnitzel will surely be wrong - though most likely weirdly delicious (because food matters here, so chefs are conscientious) - there's something greater to be gained by poking around the edges for the unhinged and the feral. You can learn things you'll never get from under-microscope cooking.
Dear lord. Sure enough, here, courtesy of Tripadvisor user John K, is the wienerschnitzel (plus menacing potatoes) at the cheekily-named (in a Muslim nation!) El Cerdo ("The Pig") in Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur.
Anyhoo, without further adieu, here are two restaurants serving Spanish tapas in Penang, Malaysia. The first is, confusingly, Indian-owned Hygge Dining & Bar. Photos courtesy of Peter Yeoh.

Having stalked Malaysian food for some time (I've never actually been), my distinct impression is that it's essentially Asian Mexico

Definitely Asian Mexico, though.

Here we are

Spanish omelette with truffle aioli.

My Spanish friends' heads all just exploded. I can't even begin to explain. Just know that this is an "11" on the disorienting weirdness scale. The surreality actually doubles back to make it extra Spanish in its breathtaking non-Spanishness. 

Click this, and subsequent photos, to expand. Really. Do it. 

Spanish omelette with truffle aioli (detail)

Corned beef croquetas!

An Irish touch by an Indian chef in a Malaysian restaurant serving Spanish food. Bravo, tío; bravo. Gutsy fusion that actually makes sense (though I’d like to see a croqueta cross-section). 

Pork belly with potatoes.

I don't know if they think this is Spanish. Basques do a bunch of things with pork belly, but nothing like this. I'm guessing it's a riff on Japanese buta no kakuni, or perhaps, at least, a version of buta no kakuni filtered through Taiwan, the most Japanese of estranged Chinese regions, via Fijian immigrants. I'm pretty sure it's not Indian, though whenever you make a declarative statement about Indian food, 900,000 lurking counterexamples are poised to prove you wrong.

"Ang Moh" Lamb Curry - slow-cooked lamb meatballs, served with rice, masala, and papadum.

I don’t think this is on the tapas menu, but Spaniards would agree that those are serendipitously righteous-looking Andalusian albondigas (meatballs). Crazy!

Hygge Signature Laksa, with prawns, chicken, fishcake, bean-curd and hard-boiled egg

If you eat, say, Chinese food in Spain, you'll be served bread and wine with your meal, because, c’mon, we're not savages here. Similarly, I don't think you're allowed to open a restaurant in Penang without laksa on the menu. My instinct would be to avoid it here, but that's why I travel; to scrape away caked-on expectations. Hygge‘s laksa is apparently ace. Kent Hunt Food says

"Unlike any ordinary Curry Laksa in Malaysia, the broth is cooked using loads of Prawns and Flower Crabs... simmered for hours to fully accentuate the flavors of the sea. The seafood flavor is so rich and it almost feels like eating a seafood broth soup instead of a Laksa. The dish is good on its own but even better with a dash of Lemon juice and a spoonful of their home-made Chilies. The addition of acidity increases the depth while the Chilies introduces a peculiar smokiness which makes it instantly becomes multi-dimensional. The price is a little steep [28 ringgit, just under 7 bucks] but definitely worth the experience."
Laksa detail

So trippy

Here's the tapas menu

....and here's the regular menu, with microdots of skewed kookiness.

For example "Papa's Bolognese" contains "house made beef, spiced tomato sauce, parmesan cheese". I could pick that apart for hours (for one thing, I thought only God made beef - also let's also remember this dude's Indian - and who the hell "spices" the tomato sauce, or lists parmesan cheese as an ingredient, or declines to mention, much less specify, the presence of pasta), but it's time to continue our paseo... at Patois Kafe & Bistro at @ Burmah Square, with photos courtesy of Ken of Ken Hunts Food (here's his review of Patois).

American readers might not fully grok how insanely odd this paella is.

The mini wok for one thing, the cilantro (cilantro???) for another, the chili powder, and even just the grain of the rice are all crazy. Every photon spraying from this photo represents the polar opposite of paella. Though I’m sure it’s dandy. 

Calling crostini a tapa is like calling key lime pie "cajun food". Nice tomatoes (again, this is Malaysia, so all this stuff's surely delicious), but....man.

Those onions are fooling no one. You can almost taste the fermented soy sweetness in that sauce. And also... mustard! Look, I realize Bavaria seems nearly Mediterranean from this distant viewpoint, but....no. No food (possible exception: Sugar Frosted Flakes) could look less desirous of mustard than those glazed oniony sausages. OTOH, I'm assuming, just from the presence of that mustard, that they're bratwurst or something close...which would just add a whole new dimension of head-swimming wrongness. 


Special bonus weirdness: I threw in, way above, a link to a photo of some wienerschnitzel at El Cerdo, an all-pork restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, just for laughs. I just returned to the restaurant's Tripadvisor page, and found this, which left me gob-smacked:

...but not for the reasons you think - i.e. the bright red sauce or the non-sequitur slab of meat ("NSSoM").

This appears to be an ultra-rare field sighting of an extinct Sicilian soul food that’s among my holy grails: fried spaghetti (though the restaurant calls the pasta part "Aglio Olio”).

Fried spaghetti is the most peasanty of Sicilian peasant dishes. You fry leftover pasta in a pan with garlic and maybe some chili, and set the plate down hard on the cheap kitchen table with a scornful (perhaps hungover) clatter. This is exclusively home cooking, never something you'd find in a restaurant, and - forget the sauce and the meat - the grease-saturated, pan-seared, garlic-studded pasta in that photo might strike foodies as hilariously wrong, but it's stupendously right if you're an old Sicilian (or grew up in a neighborhood full of old Sicilians, as I did).

A Sicilian I know who is ridiculously touchy about such things pronounced the garlic’s coloration "on point". Woah.

This must have been taught to this chef - or to his great-grandfather - by someone with deep Sicilian roots. This is the only restaurant in the world I currently know to be serving fried spaghetti (whether they realize what they're really serving or not), which was never really a restaurant dish to begin with (you used to be able to ask for it off-menu in an obscure joint under the elevated subway in Woodhaven, Queens that had some connection to Bernadette Peters' father, but they closed like twenty years ago).

Also while I'd rather ignore the bright red sauce and NSSoM, the former is actually more apt than you'd imagine. Early 20th century working class Sicilians went nuts with tomato paste, which resembled their forefathers' strattu, a paste of sun-dried tomatoes. I dare to propose that this might represent strattu yearnings self-resurrecting via tomato paste in a kitchen in Koala Lumpur. Jesus.

I may be reading way too much into this (what, me???), but I don't think so. Those garlic cloves are too on point for this to be a serenditous accident. I don't see any ingenuous Asian wok non sequitur here. I don't believe that's what they're shooting for, nor what they've produced. Again, it looks exactly, precisely like an old Sicilian's fried leftover spaghetti (aside from the sauce and NSSoM). I do not understand what is happening here.


ISIS and Stubbed Toes

A friend of mine has had a very bad couple of years. First there was a health crisis with excruciating pain. Then his wife flipped out and divorced him for no good reason, breaking up a family with two young children. Then came Covid19, and he works in personal care so his income shrank by 75%. The office he co-ran with his unstable business partner was still doing a decent trickle of business, keeping his kids fed, when the partner decided to suddenly shut it all down (after ten years), leaving my friend without a penny of income.

My friend has been running around, trying to turn lemons into lemonade, and it's starting to get better. He found a new office willing to sublet, and won back a major client from his ex partner. He was set to get going when some minor bureaucracy interfered, stalling his return to work. "Yup it’s always something," he texted me. 

Where most people would groan and express sympathy, I saw a way to reframe it. "Bureaucracy problems are relatively easy, though. Easier than crazy business partners and worldwide pandemics," I noted.

He accepted the fresh perspective, typing back "True!!!!" But the thing about perspectives is, when strong emotions are involved, they're often spring-loaded. You can see it happen, if you watch for it. Sure enough, he snapped right back. 

"Yeah I’m just a little frustrated," he said.

I took a deep breath and reached for a reframing that might really seize his attention. I recognized that he was setting a mental trap for himself - one that could derail him - and I needed to impart a bigger-picture view. Here's what I sent:
Once you’ve escaped the ISIS prison camp, and made it back home, it’s a good idea, when you stub your toe, to resist the urge to cry “DOES IT EVER END??”

If you don’t watch out, that can be the rest of your life. It can really happen. And it’s needless.
It was a surprising way to look at things, which was very much my intention.
Whenever I use the word "reframe", you could substitute "surprise", though I don't mean a "whoopee cushion" type of chaotic surprise. Rather, a carefully constructed, purposefully propulsive one. It's like how comedians pace and massage a punch line for maximum impact.
Re-framings are always surprising. Nobody ever, like, expects uplift or epiphany, which are disorienting breaks from status quo. Yet most people, oddly, aren't receptive to surprise during hard times, though you'd think they'd appreciate being lifted from their mire. So it's a tricky gambit. It's much safer to cluck your tongue and lazily reinforce their assessment that Life Sure Sucks.

But this time it worked.


If someone were a few notches better than me at this (for me it only works with people who know to assume I'm always trying to be helpful and who recognize that my surprises often deliver a useful jolt), they could be the Messiah.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Great French TV Series

I haven't offered any TV round-ups in a while (here are previous ones in reverse chronological order).

I just finished "The Bureau" (French title "Le Bureau des Légendes"). It was a high-difficulty binge, but well worth it. It's a terrific espionage drama, highly realistic/naturalistic, all about Process. It's quite subtle and methodical and plenty tense despite a measured pace and lack of special effects. Despite a modest budget, you get soaringly evocative glimpses of different cultures and landscapes. This is how you squeeze every last nickel out of your budget!

It's also authentic. I follow a few intelligence service veterans on Twitter (John Sipher is a particularly erudite rascal...don't just view his tweets, you've got to check out his replies), and they agree that this program shows the real deal. If you wished "Homeland" made way more sense and wasn't so hammy/pandering, "The Bureau" is your jam. It gets one of the highest IMDB ratings of any series out there.

I call it "high-difficulty" because the only way to view it is to sign up for Sundance Channel (if you already have that one in your cable package, this might be available to you for free on-demand), e.g. via Amazon or Apple, for about $7/month, then play the shows over your Roku or Apple TV or Fire or whatever. And, when you do, there's no online support. No recaps or discussion. I resorted to auto-translating the French episode-by-episode discussion here. It wasn't great, but it was something. There's also a sleepy Reddit group, and the episode summaries at Wikipedia. And that's about it. You're on your own. Good luck.

One note: The final two episodes of the 50 episode run were handed off to a different writer/director who completely shakes up texture and pacing, turning it into a whole different show. The fans were horrified, but it was just beautiful. The program as an espionage piece ends in the third-from-last episode. The last two are strictly coda - the downshifting to normality for adrenalin-loaded deep-cover spies - produced with heart-breaking and fully cinematic beauty. View them as a languid, impressionistic tapping of brakes and playing out of well-telegraphed inevitable karma. Fantastic.

Up next for me: Borgen, the famous Danish political drama, which just came to Netflix. I'm told not to expect it to always make perfect sense.

After doing some serious asking around, it looks like the two runners-up to "The Bureau" as best French TV series are "Un Village Francais" and "Spiral", both available free on Amazon Prime. Also, I remain an enormous fan of "The Young Pope" (which morphed into "The New Pope"), a kinda-sorta French production (though in Italian) available on HBO/HBOMAX. It's not for everyone, but it absolutely slayed me - every moment of every episode. All-time classic.

And, back to American TV, "Succession", which I've raved over before here, only gets better in rewatching. I haven't viewed any episodes more than three times, but there are people online who swear that the fourth time's exquisite. If you view nothing else, make it "Succession" (on HBO).

Here's a terrific round-up of great recent international tv series from the NY Times.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Deeper Understanding via Deafness

I've got a bad case of "musician's ears", my self-flattering term for "deafness" (I explained how it came to this here).

I don't always wear my hearing aids (they play poorly with the stretchy ear loops in face masks). And my hearing loss is, alas, right at human vocal range. So it's hard to understand speech, especially from a distance or in a noisy room.

But there's a lot to be learned from despecification - forcing attention from the specifics to the overarching contour. Attention determines perspective (aka “framing”), and deficiency is only deficient from a close-up framing

For example, I learned a lot one night from listening to political speeches without paying attention to the actual words (not from deafness, but just exasperation with the posturing cliché of it all). As I wrote here:
I'm watching the DNC, and every politician is giving The Speech.

Not a speech. It's always the same speech. The same cadences. The same tone. The same pacing. You don't need to speak English to get the full idea. Even with the sound turned off, you know The Speech. I don't know why I'm watching this. I know every single thing before it happens.
In that same piece, I went on to expand the observation into an all-encompassing credo for human perspective and creativity. All that from ignoring the words! Filtering out the trees is a terrific trick for seeing the forest! 

As a kid, I delighted in fleeting moments of forgetting, say, what I'd had for dinner the night before, or which movie I'd watched, or who I'd spent time with. Rather than strain to remember the details, I'd comfortably relax into the vacuum and use the opportunity to gauge my actual raw feelings toward the forgotten. Often I'd be surprised. I thought I was ambivalent toward a person or thing, but remembering the residual flavor of the pure experience, divorced from mental associations and backstories, sometimes I found that my genuine feelings were not what I'd thought. I came to value moments of forgetting, and still do. It offers a valuable fresh perspective; a new framing. 

So now, in my Helen Keller-ish deafness, rather than feel alarmed about how everyone murmurs incomprehensibly, I eagerly accept the fresh perspective: the opportunity to detach content from speech. Frankly, most people are not offering sterling, galvanizing verbal content, anyway. They're spraying memes, clichés and platitudes. As anyone who's socialized without speaking the language quickly comes to learn, the specifics are mostly just yadda-yadda. Every politician gives the same speech, and your cousin Vinnie is no less predictable. 

Snark stands in for humor, canned soothing fluff stands in for empathy, and most people are mostly just talking to themselves most of the time, convincing themselves (“It’s all good!!”)  they're a certain sort of person - an identity/personality type they originally copied from movies or TV and/or from their social circles. As I recently wrote:  
[People] eagerly make themselves clones of a certain type of person (have you never noticed there are only a few dozen models of people?).
It's especially easy to note all this when you're despecified by being too deaf to understand. It proves something you'd long suspected: everyone's mostly just doing canned movie/tv dialog, to suit the dramatic scene they’re watching themselves play in their head. How often do people go off-script? Is this really a world of freshness and creativity? No, if speech warranted attention, we’d all be motivated to listen more. We’ve evolved into a society of shoddy listeners because there’s not much to hear. 

[Related: I once explained how courtesy and politeness refer to a staunch commitment to keep up the dull patter without startling anyone via off-script improvised surprises.]


Weaving all these strands together, yesterday I sat in my car while a young woman wandered toward me, chatting on her phone. She wound up 15 feet from me, and stayed there for a while. Unable to make out the words, I heard it as music, and, spontaneously and very quietly - under my mask - began to join in. I got better and better at it. It was easy, because no actual words were involved. It was all score with no libretto. After ten minutes of singing along, I was fully synchronized. It was such an exhilerating experience that I recorded a sample into my phone:



I know; I know. It sounds like I'm mocking her. But that's not it. This is quite faithfully what I, with my shitty ears, hear. I'm not caricaturing at all. I feel like I've distilled her, captured the overarching music of her self-portrayal in the world. These are the aural gestures she deliberately projects. The words scarcely matter (I couldn't imagine being surprised by a word she ever spoke). Gleaning her soul without understanding a word makes me feel less deficient in my deafness...plus, it explains some things about the world.

This is entirely her choice. This is what she's going for. If she didn't want to sound this way, she wouldn't. There is no instinct here; it's a matter of identity preference. Remember "vocal fry", the lightly-raspy speech affected by a certain stratum of urban female in the 00s? Nobody does it anymore. It's passé. And this is one of its successors; a variety of what more serious-minded women call "babytalk".

Admit it: you know this woman! Most likely several of them! If you can rise above the oddness of my endeavor, you'll have to agree it gave you a sense of deja vu. This illuminates my recent postings on "seeming" vs "being". Seemers can be encapsulated in this way. Doers cannot. The overarching contour of a creative person's speech reveals little of value about the person. Seemers, by contrast, aim to be easily encapsulated. 


This ties into my explanation of autism. Autistic people (extra "doing" oriented, with no facility for - or comprehension of - "seeming") are unable to parse posing, aka "seeming". To them, wordless murmuring may sound superficially familiar, but the personality type being conveyed  - and which I've keyed in on - would not register. The projection of evocative personality wallpaper - a shortcut to telegraphing the "sort of person I am" doesn't land for an autistic person, who considers the literal words. This is  frustrating for non-autisic people, who are given the creepy impression that their special uniqueness (i.e. their cloned personality type) isn't landing. It's not working. The fault must be with the autistic person, who clearly isn’t empathic.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Check and Checkmate: Why Many Anti-MAGAs Need Four More Years

Progressives continue to carp about Biden (some conservative never-Trumpers are doing the same, but we'll get to that later). Given a choice between a cookie and a knot of rusty razor wire coated with anthrax, they bitch about the cookie. It's not their favorite cookie.

I figured it out a few months ago, when some on the Left were bellowing about how Biden would be as bad as Trump. Given that those same people had been pulling their hair out over Trump, it dawned on me that this is their baseline. Outrage doesn't mean the same thing to them as it does to me, as someone who doesn't enjoy that sort of thing. I put it like this:
After screaming bloody murder about Trump for three years (and appropriately so), how could the radical left imagine for even a second committing even a nuance of a whisper of an action that might harm Biden's chances of removing him?

Of course, many have done far more than that. They've noisily sworn not to vote for him, turning Twitter into a Taoist wet dream where crazy right and the crazy left find common cause in deluded cray-cray.

How can people who hate Trump so demonstratively - who prayed for Mueller, and then for Impeachment - work against the only shot at finally unseating him? I know Republicans, who viscerally oppose Biden's entire agenda, but who support him with relish. That seems a lot more to get past than "he's not my most favorite possible candidate."

I think I've got it.

Yes, they've been screaming bloody murder about Trump. But “screaming bloody murder” is their resting state.

Me? I'm not normally a screamer. So when I scream bloody murder about Trump, it's because I find him an existential threat to the republic and the world. My screaming is not just pro forma. But to radicals, Trump represents just one of innumerable furies. And they're highly adept at loathing multiple things simultaneously. Trump, Biden, and, while we're at it, this Jim Leff guy who's mocking us. Throw them all on the pile. The more the merrier.

I think I've found a way to empathize with the mindset. I often condemn the food at Olive Garden, but if one opened near me I wouldn’t protest, nor would I pressure town government to block their permit. After all, I bitch about loads of bad food…which I deem inevitable. In the end, the bitching doesn’t mean anything. I bitch just to bitch. It’s just my reflexive take on Shit World.
Discontent is their brand. They haven’t see Trump as a uniquely existential threat to democracy, like I do. They were yelling because NOT GOOD

Mental experiment. Say you try feeding sawdust to a hungry baby. Baby screams and knocks spoon from your hand, right? Then you offer strong French cheese. Baby screams and knocks spoon from your hand again, obviously. You might peer at the baby in consternation for being so foolish as to equate expensive cheese, which is edible and delicious, with sawdust, which is not. But is there not a certain baby logic to a baby wanting what it wants?

You and I may be exhausted and demoralized over Trump and ready to move to Tristan da Cunha (world's most remote inhabited island), but that's because we're unaccustomed to colicky pique. But some of us are like elite athletes, able to rise to every occasion with maximal bombast. They're like Energizer Bunnies who never wind down. After four years of screaming TRUMP NOT GOOD, they are perfectly prepared to scream BIDEN NOT GOOD right through to November. In fact, we seem loopy for having a problem with that. We look like pushovers and appeasers. Why would we settle for anything but the yummiest banana pudding?

It's not just the Left. Here's a conservative never-Trumper boggling the minds of friends and allies engaged in rescuing the nation from an authoritarian, corrosive, corrupt, bungling threat:
Only one conclusion can be drawn: Many people, on both sides, who profess to be mortally stricken by Trump simply haven't had enough Trump yet.

They need four more years, hundreds of thousands more deaths, more norms and institutions eviscerated, more chaos and division and lying and stupidity, and further brutal cooption of law enforcement, the justice department, and intelligence services. They still don't quite see the end game. It's not quite fully in focus yet. "Check" is not sufficient. They must hear "checkmate".

I once noted that most people don't actually do anything. We're now stress-testing that theory by gauging just how bad things must be to propel people into the extreme measure of strolling into a polling place and checking a box...even if they haven't been fully galvanized by creamy waves of optimally-tuned confirmation bias from a perfect candidate running an optimal campaign...and even if the opponent is an addled beast. We're seeing what it takes for rich-world people to willingly accept nutrition even when it's not the banana pudding they had their hearts set on.

It has to get worse than this, it appears. But at least we're learning. Extreme circumstance illuminates certain truths. Dr. Mengele compiled data that would have forever eluded normal researchers. If we're going to undergo obscene experiments, let's at least try to learn a thing or two.


The following should probably be filed as a "Postcard From My Childhood" (messages sent forward from my childhood to my elder self which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget; here they are in reverse chronological order), but here goes. I noticed this at age eight, and it applies to the many Americans who require something more persuasive than mere excruciation to achieve focus, perspective, and propulsion:
You shouldn't have to bash your nose bloody against every single dead end to solve a maze.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

The Barometer

The smarter you feel, the dumber you are. The dumber you feel, the smarter you are. It’s a barometer. This is why arrogance is like wearing a big red MAGA cap. You're brashly announcing your stupidity.


Further Reading
Being Smart vs Feeling Smart
Arrogance is Elective
Confidence vs Arrogance

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Perfect Being/Seeming Dichotomy

Following up on "YA Posting on Being and Seeming"...


Nowhere is the difference between "being" and "seeming" better delineated than on a film set. Even in Hollywood, humanity's great temple of Seeming, the grim sunken-cheeked dude who looks like he takes out the garbage is the one actually getting the movie made, while Ms. Radiant, in velvet and diamonds, is merely the help.

Ron Howard is exhausted, put-upon and unaffected. He doesn't care what you or I think because he's immersed in the doing, with no time/energy/interest leftover to attend to seeming like anything in particular. You can't tell much from looking at him. He's not projecting an image; he's doing. And most people don't do much at all.

Next to him, Audrey Hepburn demonstrates her "seeming" skills. It's all projection. That, right there, is pretty much what she's got. You're not seeing a gateway to some deeper world of sophistication. It's all about the surface, a projection of image.

Really focus on those photos for a moment, resisting your innate captivation/revulsion. You can learn a great deal about the world and yourself from really puzzling this out.


Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Q-Anon

Whenever I briefly remove my mask in public for food for drink, I take the opportunity to bellow Q-Anon slogans, just to dip my toe.

Monday, August 31, 2020

The Antidote to Wistfulness

Whimsicality is the antidote to wistfulness.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Mask Laxness

I worry that once we finally cast off our masks I may be unable to stop the mouth-breathing, brazen smirking, silent mumbling, old-mannish lip-licking, and shoddy face-shaving.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Older, Wiser, Richer Data Set

Aging hasn't been what I expected. There've been nice surprises (which I've been cataloging in postings tagged "Aging"). Here's one of the nicest (though perhaps the least surprising) surprises: Data Points!

As a child, I knew that I didn't know. I was smarter and more insightful than I am today, but, lacking knowledge of the world, I couldn't figure stuff out. My mind was like a vacant mill with no wheat to grind. Being all hardware with no software is an uneasy predicament. I watched adults constantly screw up, easily recognizing their fallacies, but couldn't devise better solutions. My imagination kept spitting out ideas, but, unable to mentally model results, it was like extruding confetti. And the worst part was that I knew it.

As a young adult, I was tossed around by a confusing world. I knew that the traditional course - the path of low confusion - was to put my nose down and work some narrow corner of it all, trodding well-traveled, well-lit pathways according to established procedure. But if that were a religion, I'd be the Anti-Christ. It's obviously not for me. I'm way too curious, intrepid, and promiscuous for that.

So I braved the storm, often grappling with the age-old quandary: "Am I crazy, or are they?" Even as I began finding footholds, I'd deliberately shuffle the cards, always opting for novelty. As any software developer will tell you, surprising behavior breaks things, so I often found myself chewed by spinning gears. While I came to an uneasy peace with it, I couldn't understand (among countless other mysteries) why malevolent forces kept thwarting earnest efforts. It was like I'd been denied some essential cosmic manual (I've been building that manual here since 2008). But I settled into a twofold strategy: give it everything you've got...and blithely accept outcomes. That seemed like the only sane course for those who don't understand the rules of the game.

Enlightenment is absolute cooperation with the inevitable." - Anthony de Mello

I took solace from ants:
I'm like an ant. I'll very contentedly reconstruct a smashed anthill, one grain at a time, even amid multiple re-smashings.

To human beings, I suppose this seems sad. Humans aspire to grander dreams than endless drudging anthill reconstruction. They're taught to rage at the smashing.

But to ants, human beings - who grow ever more crippled and demoralized with every inevitable round of smashings, and who only with great suffering manage to soldier on with reconstruction - are the sad ones.
I couldn't understand this baffling world, or mentally model better results, but I obliviously did my thing, marching to my own drummer, with infinite ambition and infinitesimal expectation.

Eventually, and unexpectedly, the world came to seem more predictable. I could model results. Patterns arose, recognition flickered, and expectant machinery began to hum. The news wasn't always good - as we've all long intuited, human life is even more selfish than we'd dared to recognize - but it's better to know the truth if you don't want to spend your life helplessly reeling from mysterious processes. I'm not here to mess around with obstacle courses or scavenger hunts, and I've weaned myself from Skinner boxes. I've got work to do!

There's still some (though not much) surprise, thank goodness. But it all breaks and baffles a lot less, simply because I've gone down so many corridors so many times. Having watched innumerable people think and act, it's much less mysterious, and the wide swathe of my daily life goes quite smoothly. Sometimes I feel as if I'm gliding.

I know, for example, to expect eye-rolling when I, a seemingly clueless gringo, enter a new Ecuadorian luncheonette. It doesn't throw me. I know to dutifully defuse trepidations via rapid-fire Spanish and entreaties for llapingachos. I come armed, as they say in the movies. I have moves. I've come to terms with the myriad Groundhog Day processes, having iterated so many things so many times that I'm like a deft short-order cook. It's a heady superpower.

I haven't exactly hooked myself snugly into the world's APIs, but I'm intimately aware of their specifications. With this knowledge of how things work, I've found repose. With me, it's never enough to know with my gut alone. I need to intellectually comprehend, or else I flail. It's a critical flaw (as I discussed in the introduction of "A New Explanation of Autism").

Thankfully, the newfound equilibrium seems sturdy. I still roam widely and make room for fresh unconventionality, but I do so with a sense of stability. I'm like a shrewd, conservative investor with a carefully balanced portfolio who sets aside some excess funds for wild speculations, just for kicks. Compulsive caprice has its dedicated sandbox.

Data points, the building blocks of wisdom, made all the difference. Utter bafflement is a difficult state for creative people. We need a stable launch pad. Muses are best summoned from a position of emotional security. To be incessantly thrown by the prosaic is to disrupt concentration and squander energy. Once you've achieved short-order cook fluency with the worldly yadda-yadda, you're free to laser-focus on enticingly blurry frontiers. And the fluency builds on data points. Loads of 'em.

There's peril, however. This is precisely how old people get trapped in shrinking comfort zones (per my recent posting on that). Increased comfort elevates discomfort anxiety, a splash-back effect that is absolutely unavoidable. It explains a lot about old people to understand that comfort zones shrink over time.

My workaround has been to constantly renew my sense of adventure and my compulsion to deliberately color outside the lines. I've configured my comfort zone to demand some straying from itself. I'm hardly the first human to methodically train himself to find comfort in discomfort, though it's not exactly a mainstream move. To most people, it's indistinguishable from masochism or self-destruction. As I wrote here,
Self-destructive people may seem irrational, but they're not. They're acting out a drama, just as we all are, but tweeking parameters for more challenging gameplay. They're working on a more advanced level, that's all.
Most do so unconsciously, while a few choose it consciously. But I digress.

Wherever I direct my mind, I now enjoy an ocean of supportive data points. My modeling works, I feel a sense of security, and I've freed up concentration for discretionary tasks. From this vantage point, I really sympathize with my younger self's modeling frustrations. I attributed flaky results to my own incompetence. I see now that I was doing my best with skimpy materials.
As a kid, I kept hearing a voice urging me to go easier on myself. That voice, I think, is me, now.
Three harder-won measures combined nicely with this free gift:

1. Dropping my fascination with fluffy mental drama - especially obsession with "What's Missing", freeing up my brain for more creative tasks and detoxifying my internal experience.

2. Channeling my natural fluency with reframing created some slipperiness that helps keep me from getting stuck and primes creativity.

3. Meditating restored a baseline perspective, helping me live as the framer (stable and bemused), rather than as the framed (fragile and anxious).

Those measures required sustained effort, while the data set was like a free toaster; a perq of the aging process. Data accrues naturally when you live a long while with eyes wide open; with insatiable curiosity. If a dog were to sniff from the window of a speeding car for 57 years straight, he'd enjoy a vast rich library of olfactory data to help him make sense of his world. That's me!

As a kid, I never understood the "wisdom of old age". Sure, old people had specific skills and narrow areas of expertise, but I rarely spotted much wisdom. Most continued to pointlessly shadow box with themselves, refusing to love the universe unless it gave them precisely their expected results. Like everyone else, they were entranced in toxic foolishness, and the only difference was their impenetrably thick crust of irritability, built up over a lifetime of frozen perspective. Some wisdom!

But now I can model this, and see how it happens. They've chosen the path of low confusion, putting their noses down and working one narrow corner of the universe, trodding well-traveled, well-lit pathways according to established procedure. They've been cruising highways with windows tightly shut, hardly smelling a thing. Willingly constrained to measly datasets and high comfort, there was scant incentive to develop more advanced skills such as acceptance, reframing, and creativity.


Seeing as how I linked twice to A Tale of Two Chickens - to explain about Skinner Boxes and The Path of Low Confusion - it probably deserves to be read if this posting interested you.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Luxury Hour

There is no free lunch. Delicious food's fattening. Drunken revels yield hangovers. Travel results in jet lag, sex brings STDs and/or babies, and picnicking risks Lyme Disease. We live in a zero sum world where, one way or another, we must always pay the piper.

But I've found a tiny exception. And milked it for everything it's worth.

I always liked the notion of "cocktail hour", the ritualistic imbibing of adult beverages at an appointed time. I like everything about it, really, except the calories, the expense, and the risk of perpetually cleaving one's days into "the sober part" and "the sloppy part". I've had enough WASP girlfriends to glimpse the sordid dissolution just behind the veneer of cosmopolitanism. I'll still enjoy a cocktail, thanks very much, but it's not my ritual.

Instead, I enjoy what I call "Luxury Hour".

When I announce Luxury Hour to guests, I enjoy dashing their raised hopes by informing them that the luxury's virtually insubstantial, amounting to 1.5 grams of powder plus 2 grams of hardened and lightly-sweetened bean paste. All luxury stems from foodstuffs weighing the same as 3 paper clips.

Also, it's 10 calories, total. And it's super, super healthy. Cost, at $1.50, isn't negligible, but neither is it exorbitant. How can this possibly be luxurious? Well, it is. It's free lunch. It's Luxury Hour. Follow my instructions carefully:

Buy a box or five of Trader Joe's Matcha Green Tea Powder, which, as I explained here, is way, way, way higher quality than it needs to be, and, despite what seems a high price, is crazy cheap for the quality. In the multi-century annals of matcha, the current era will be remembered as the Golden Epoch, when one could enter any TJ's location and score heritage-level stuff for a mere song.

Also: buy a dark chocolate bar, 70% dark or more. Just plain chocolate, no almonds or flavorings. And buy quality. Valrhona, Lake Champlain, Cote D'or, Callebaut or Taza are acceptable. Trader Joe's bars are ok, though you'll find foreign objects quite frequently. All those famous goor-may store/Whole Foods chocolate brands are crap. Snob up!

Ok, so it's luxury hour. You'll need a shake cup. Not a blender, or smoothie-maker, or immersion thingee. You may use a matcha whisk, but I recommend a shake cup (this one's fine). Dump in a tiny sleeve of matcha powder, then 17 oz of cold water. Cover tightly and shake like your life depends on it. Remove top and drink from the cup. Do not add, like, cactus honey. Do not attempt a goddamn matchachino. You're drinking sensationally good matcha, and it's subtle, and must be thoughtfully delected.

I always marvel the same question anew: how can 1 gram of powder transform 500 grams of water into something so utterly luxurious? It's a miracle. If you're not a particular green tea fan, I'd advise you not to question whether you "like" it or not. That's not the point. This is a ritual, a sacrament, not some banal snaaaaack. Give it a week. Make it a thing. Go deep.

Once you've finished the matcha, slowly dissolve a chunk of chocolate half the size of your thumb in your mouth (good chocolate takes time to "arrive"). Then relax and unwind for a moment. Examine your state. Your ecstasy. Your bliss. You have experienced Luxury Hour.

Dark chocolate has very little sugar, so this is actually diabetic-approved. And chocolate is only caloric in quantity. And dark chocolate and matcha are healthy in all sorts of ways. My daily matcha habit brought my cholesterol down 15%. It leaves me clear-minded but never jittery (caffeine turns me into Don Knotts).

You've just eaten three paper clips worth of food, with the calorie count of celery. There's no there there, aside from the patina of luxury. You'll savor, then you'll feel guilt, then you'll remember you've eaten nothing, then you'll savor again. Ad infinitum. The feeling is perfectly summed up via the haunting song stylings of Ms. Madeline Kahn. Take it away, babe....



Wednesday, August 26, 2020

My Commencement Address Advice

I happened to be in Lisbon 25 years ago when my friend Claus, a talented trombonist and arranger, was giving a debut performance of his big band, which had just launched a weekly residency in the city's top jazz club.

The playing was good, his arrangements were ingenious, and the packed-tight audience was raptly enthusiastic. Claus is not normally flamboyant, but, poised in front of the band, the placid Dane was actually bopping. Every few tunes, he'd grab his trombone off its stand, shut his eyes into a grimace, and solo to the rafters. He played not his horn, but the room itself. The crowd roared.

Portugal at the time was no hotbed of swinging jazz, but, on this night, escape velocity had been reached, and there was a crackling sense of something really happening. It was electric.

At intermission, Claus strolled over to say hi, playing the blithely weary musican. He was in "gig mode", not wanting to showboat. And, per gig mode norms, he began to complain about the money, and about the logistical headache of gathering all these players at the same time. Too much hassle. He planned to cancel at the end of the month and return to his lucrative (though comparatively vapid) TV and studio work.

I gaped at him with wild eyes, exhorting him, in a tone that surely struck him as way over the top, to recognize that he was peaking. This, right now - RIGHT NOW!!! - was the greatest moment of his life. When he's old and bed-ridden, this is what he'll recall.

It wasn't some new perma-state of eternal hipness and vibrancy. It was not something he could reassemble later on a whim. This was a precious confluence of luck and circumstance. I begged him to re-frame; to recognize what was happening, and not to squander the opportunity. But Claus only gaped at me in baffled confusion. He naturally understood the factors that had brought him to this point, but he was there. This was who he is now, his new normal. He could re-summon this moment with a finger snap.

I soon grew busy with Chowhound and we fell out of touch. But, to this day, I occasionally scan online listings for music in Lisbon, never spotting a reappearance of ClausBand. Claus is likely grey like me, and I'll bet he's wistful. At a certain point, these memories start to cut. I tried to warn him.


Class of 2041, I congratulate you!

I'd like to draw your attention to something magnificent that will happen to you. I want you to frame it correctly when it does.

At some point you will have an experience of storm clouds parting and beams of sunlight illuminating and warming you. You're finally getting your due. Hindrances and frustrations drop away, and things, at last, go as you'd always hoped they would. For once, reality matches expectation.

Let's briefly discuss those hindrances and frustrations. We all feel them, but we imagine the persecution to be uniquely directed at us. This oddly malevolent headwind is what makes paranoids paranoid. It spurs us to obsess over some attribute (gender, ethnicity, body type, attractiveness, financial position, etc.) explaining the chronic obstruction.

I once wrote that:
If you've got a zit on the tip of your nose, all injustice appears to stem from that. The world is "off", and it has nothing to do with you. Yet, whoever you are, including billionaires and movie stars, things seem stacked against you...and it feels personal. So we (mostly unconsciously) attribute the brunt of it to whichever personal characteristic we happen to focus on.
But, then, for a sweet moment, it abates. You've finally been embraced. And, alas, you will miscalculate, assuming that fate has turned, and that it will be smooth sailing from here.

No. That's not how it works. What you are experiencing is a peak moment. Peak moments always feel like "new normals", and that is always a tragic miscalculation, because peak moments must be relished, not merely digested. Like found money, they are to be spent extravagantly, not just thrown atop one's 401K.

This is not the world finally yielding up your just desserts. It's the very opposite of that. It's undeserved special treatment, like a birthday party. You don't earn that cake, or that song! It's a fluke; a lucky roll of the dice. Enjoy...but, for god's sake, don't recalibrate yourself. You will not be the birthday girl tomorrow!

Just don't imagine it’s your new normal. If you do, you'll fail to properly appreciate the moment, and to profit from the opportunity (i.e. strike while the iron is hot). You must work at it, full-tilt, because such moments are fleeting, and the world soon returns to status quo. Your ducks will scatter out of their row, and the whack-a-moles will start poking up their mischievous little heads, daring you to whack away.

So don't smugly parse peak moments as arrival points. The world does not do "Arrivals". You're not starring in a film. Per this posting:
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.
There are no arrivals, there are no happy-ever-after endings, and momentum's a myth. Which is not to say it's all a dismal grind. Quite the contrary, the random, unearned, lucky-roll peak moments are the sugar and spice of it all. It's only when we try to string things into some grand narrative that the inherent infrequency of peak moments casts them as wistful hindsight fuel rather than fleeting delight and opportunity.

When bad stuff happens, it's not the end of life-as-we-know-it, and when good stuff happens, it's not Arrival. Enjoy the ride - every moment of it, if you possibly can (you're here for all the experiences), but, at very least, soak in the peak moments, and put in the work to try to extend them. Don't just smugly toss them atop your mound of treasure. Don't normalize.

Scoop up the piñata prizes off the floor with the joyful exuberance of a chubby kid. That's the only way to play it.



If you imagine this was prompted by wistfulness for the public/media attention I had during the Chowhound debacle, you need to go back to the beginning of the Slog and read it all over again. I hated that part.

And I'm not wistful for anything. I'm an ant and an earthworm and a reed. I decline to fixate on what’s missing. I take it as it comes, go with the flow, and play the hand I'm dealt (while doing what I can to be of service). But, wistful or not, did I fuck up very often by assuming that certain fleeting faculties and opportunities would perennially remain at my fingertips? Oh, yeah, I sure did.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Counterintuitive Musings on Authoritarianism

I'm no history geek, but I recognize two aspects of authoritarianism that are not widely understood right now:

1. The "Strong Man", more often than not, starts out as a mockable dweeb.
Hitler, with his ranting eccentricity, was a laughingstock until he wasn't. There was, at every step of his rise, a reassuringly large public consensus best expressed as "That guy? Seriously??". Franco and Stalin were brutishly ignorant peasants. Mussolini was a cartoon chin and fist. Their names echo down through the ages, making them seem titanic, but all were petty emotional wrecks projecting cheesy Wizard of Oz thunder in cheap stage makeup.

The nauseating erosion of value in public consensus and mockery is familiar to us today, but we assume Trump - weak, cowardly, and whiney - to be an edge case, while real dictators are genuinely awesome. That's wrong. Trump's dumber than most, and is only four years into his progression to tyranny, making him seem more of a vandal/crook than full-blown tyrant, but his pettiness, ignorance, uncontrolled emotionality, and self-defeating tics are directly out of the playbook. This, in all its absurdity, actually is the model.

2. Many of us actually want an authoritarian. Polls have reported (and been met with gasps of dismay, and quickly forgotten/repressed because it's unthinkably awful) that surprisingly large numbers of Americans, including (says the 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll) 32% of young people, disapprove of democracy.

And if you think it's just those damned traitorous Republicans, think again. The sentiment is registered on both sides (though Trump’s gravitational field certainly distorts the data for both).

Liberals feel extra democratic. I suppose it stems from all the activism against US-backed dictators in Latin America in the 1960s. People tend to define themselves via the -anti, and those struggles, and all those "Power to the People!" posters, added up. So how could liberals possibly feel anything but pro-democratic?

Let's do a thought experiment. Say your most favorite dream candidate won the presidency. Perhaps it was a Bernie or an AOC, and, announcing a new day, and a time to dismantle moldy norms and build from scratch, they signed a ton of executive orders to work around an obstructive Congress, loaded the Justice Department with ideologues, stonewalled THOSE ASSHOLES trying to interfere with their obviously righteous agenda, and fought like warriors against government functionaries and so-called watchdogs, who being institutionally conservative, are unwilling to get with the movement. They're finally doing what's right for this country, and if it means bending some rules created by stodgy people in a stodgy era, well, that's just boldness. At some point, they might want to ferret out some right-minded law enforcement agents to hit the streets and arrest RACISTS and HOMOPHOBES just for being the monsters they are, ala the Charlottesville crowd. Who'd shed a tear for such people? Bold moves! Let's fix it! Let's really fix it!

I won't paint the full picture, but take time to ponder the counterfactual, yourself (it's a nifty re-framing exercise). How much of such behavior would you tolerate if it were your guy/gal pushing your program?

I'll go first. And with a real-life scenario, to boot:

When Mike Bloomberg, who I liked and supported, used shady means to blast past term limit regulations, I can't say I was gung-ho about that particular move. I gulped and I prevaricated. But, in the end, I accepted it and went along, supporting his third campaign, because the city was in a profound fiscal crisis and I genuinely believed Bloomberg could fix it better than any of his likely replacements. The end justified the means. And while I still believe that my conclusion was factually true, I acknowledge that I briefly activated my authoritarian-enablement stem cells (I didn't know they were even back there).

Not to say I dreamed of NYC's mayoralty degrading into a personality cult with goose-stepping troops and cries of "Heil Bloomberg". But nobody wants that stuff in the beginning. The fall into authoritarianism is a classic frog boil. And it's all 'bout those stem cells, yo. You've got them, I've got them, and not everyone gulps or prevaricates.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Instagram-ish Food

I would like to acknowledge the arrival of a new trend: Instagram-ish Food*. Having metastasized from the Internet, it's spreading like kudzu in what used to be known as the "real world", becoming the basis of how the food industry conceives, prepares and markets. And I'm against it.

Instagram-ish Food has a shiny veneer of slickness and symmetry that doesn't "look good", in terms of conveying any prospect of deliciousness, but has a "good look", which is a whole other thing.

And this "look" is only about the veneer of the veneer. There's rarely any subtlety or personality on display (both of which, non-coincidentally, are nearly extinct, per the links). How could there be, when the entire frame (both literal and metaphoric) is a meager 640x640 pixels?

Instagram-ish Food has a simple basis: flaunting unrepentant cliché. It's about pursuing the most camera-ready ur-form of some familiar or stylishly contrived item. Not a deeper pineapple upside-down cake or a more interesting or yummy one, but a pineapple upside-down cake projecting smug composure in stamp-size, streamlined to be flattered by filters and over-saturation. And then, of course, you up-charge the bejesus out of it.

Instagram-ish Food is also characterized by what it's not. It's often captioned but never described. Wanting to know what's in it would be gauche and passé. It is what it looks like! Why would a thing specifically configured as a sparkly image require more than a mumbled few words of description? When Brâncuși sculpted "The Kiss", it didn't come with an index card explaining what a kiss is, identifying the two subjects, and explaining the context. It is, you philistine, an objet d'art that speaks for itself.



Now, sure, Brâncuși's work is far more than a trifling objet d'art. It's a bona fide art object, with feeling and depth and subtext, while Instagram-ish Food embraces its triviality without higher aspirations. The latter is what it is: delightful knickknacks for display and consumption. No one places decorative ornaments on one's mantle to provoke deep thoughts or provocative conversation, even if they're very expensive. Exorbitant trifles are the perennial decadent indulgence of an aristocracy.

That's what Instagram-ish Food is: aristocratically decadent trifles. Nothing to discuss, or to, like, "rate" in terms of, like "quality", grandpa!

The problem is that this is becoming what food is, at least the "innovative" end of the business, for people who "care about food" and are willing to up-pay for "better". I'm using archaic words, because they're all I've got. But there's nothing more than a vacant 640x640 pixel caricature of innovation, caring, and quality. Most of this stuff isn't even trying to be any of those things.

Really, it's 1963 again. It's like the 90s never happened.

Melania's Rose Garden


Our first lady’s remarkable redesign of Jackie Kennedy’s historic rose garden reminds me of a similarly remarkable renovation in Spain a few years ago....see this link.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

YA Posting on Being and Seeming

A plumber did an ambitious oil-to-gas conversion to my heating system. He was a jovial guy whose stock phrase was "It's all good!"

When he finished the job, it was time to show me how to run the new system. I picked up my iPhone and started recording his instructions. His smile dropped and he told me, menacingly, to stop recording him.

I knew why: liability. He works for a big plumbing operation, which has put the fear of god into him re: liability issues. If he misspoke, or left something out, and my house blew up, I'd have the proof in-hand to sue the bejesus out of them. But, still, I needed to document his instructions somehow.

"Just listen to the instructions. I'll be clear!" he implored. "If you'll come upstairs," I replied, "I'll give you a five minute history of jazz trombone. Even if I'm 'very clear', by the time you get out to your truck, you'll have forgotten every word, because jazz trombone is not your world. Boilers aren't my world."

I asked whether I could shoot photos and take notes. He gravely wagged his head. My efforts to placate were putting him through writhing contortions of pain. Finally, I threw up my hands and asked "WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO 'IT'S ALL GOOD'???"

People say "it's all good" in a desperate effort to convince themselves. It's a talisman for the negative-minded. They're not talking to you. They're talking to themselves. They're acting the way they want to see themselves on the big movie screen in their head. They're being That Guy by saying the line That Guy would say. It's a solipsistic performance.



I've worn Weatherproof coats (both insulated winter coats and shoulder-season zip-downs) since I was a teenager. I always loved them, and had been despairing of ever finding anything like them...when I discovered they're still in operation and selling via Internet! Better still, their coats were discounted to like $30 per, with free shipping.

Being a supportive-minded customer, I wrote in:
Hi, I’ve been wearing your jackets since the 1970s! Question: can I see and try the "FALL 18 MEN” jackets pictured on your web site at 4 Bryant Park (12th Floor)? I realize I could buy and return ones I don’t like, but I’d rather not make you pay for all that shipping! thanks, JIM
They replied:
Thank you for being a long time Weatherproof customer , we are very pleased that you like our product.

Unfortunately the showrooms at 4 Bryant Park are for the sole purpose of wholesale practices and not open to the public.

As much as we appreciate your candor in regards to “paying for shipping “ back and forth , there really is no other way to go about this.

Having said that the only other way maybe, would be to try jackets on in a retail store ala a Macys, Boscovs, Steinmart or L&T , but they also will not have every particular style that is available on our site.

Sorry to disappoint.
Probably, in retrospect, being overly gabby and annoying, I sent this:
Thanks for your reply. Yeah, Macy’s et al don’t have much stock on these jackets at this point.

I can’t live with making you pay $30 return shipping for a $30 sale. So here’s what I propose.

I’ll order 5 jackets at once, and return the 4 I don’t want. I’ll try to arrange with your shipping people to return the 4 rejects in one shipment (to save shipping $$). And I’ll publicize your sale on social media (as a favor to my circles as much as to you!).

Ordering 5 at once, ASAP, also ensures I won’t encounter sold-out items as a result of my own publicity efforts!

If you’d prefer I proceed some other way, let me know (I want you guys in business for years and years).

There was no reply. Which made complete sense. I get it. "Dude, I answered your question, and told you it's not a big deal, and I can't devote this level of time and attention to our chatty little exchange, I have work to do." That's absolutely reasonable, and I had no hard feelings. Sometimes I can be annoying. Ugh. OTOH, would it have killed him to shoot back "Don't sweat it!"?

A few years later, after my most recent order, the guy sent this auto-mailing:
Hi James,

Wanted to take a second and thank you for your business. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing an order from a repeat customer, and I can’t express how grateful I am every time.

If there is anything else I can do for you, please do not be shy.

Thank you again, Weatherproof Team

Don't be shy! Let it blast! Get in touch! I'm That Guy!

Jesus Christ...

People who say “feel free to approach me with any questions/issues” are never particularly open to questions or issues. In fact, they're less responsive than average. They say it because they want to be someone who says that. It jibes with their self image and their aspirations. But pose-strikers are not the type who put out and follow through (as I exhaustively explained in my Autism posting).

After 57 years, I flinch when I hear "come to me with any issues or questions." I know that person isn't talking to me. He's watching himself speak those words on the movie screen in his head. He's convincing himself he's that person. And it never turns out well to interrupt a solipsistic performance with a question or an issue.

Who patiently answers questions? The person who'd never imagine creating an image of super-responsiveness.

Who truly believes "it's all good"? The person who doesn't repeat it like a mantra.

And (referencing, again, my Autism posting) who will come get you when your car breaks down at 3am? Not the person who's perfected the art of branding herself as terrifically supportive, and who frequently assures you she has your back. No. You can count on blah people, who focus not on self-imagery but on actually doing stuff.

Blah people rule. I'm a blah person. In fact, I'm the blah-est motherfucker you ever saw. Sure, I don't write like it, or play like it, or think like it, but those are all doings, not seemings. Doers are occupied by doing, while seemers merely sit there and display. Those who've got the goods don't waste effort on the "seeming" end of it.

One last bit from the autism posting:
Why would you invest effort into seeming smart once you know you genuinely are smart; contriving to seem compassionate when you already actually are compassionate; stating canned lovey platitudes when you truly are in love? It requires an odd sort of downshift to pretend to be what you actually already are.
And one more bonus thought, from this posting about surprise:
For god's sake, do we really need to relish it so much? Do singers need to feel like they're just nailing it every time they execute one of the soulful-ish vocal tricks we've all heard a gazillion times? Do they need to feel like they've gone super extra deep when they take the exact same-lengthed pause everybody takes when they want to seem like they're going super extra deep?

Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing. This is why most singers suck.


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