Thursday, January 16, 2020


I’m replaying this posting from November, 2017. 

A friend asked me whether I believe in an afterlife. I responded that you can't talk about believing in something without some solid idea of what that thing is (i.e. who, precisely, would be doing the afterliving, with the body dead and buried?). You've got to return to fundamentals, slice away invalid assumptions, and at least try to view things clearheadedly.

To identify the thing that might be everlasting, we need to disregard everything impermanent. For example, the device I'm typing on. The desk I'm sitting at, and the room and house around me. The light above my head, the air in the room, and every single thing outside, from the mailbox to the Orion Nebula. Everything one can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and measure is in constant change (a river becomes a new river in every passing moment), and will, at some point, end. Not one drop of it is forever.

Same, obviously, for the hands that type this, and the body they're connected to. Impermanent!

What does that leave?! But where's the permanence? Your thoughts come and go, and your memories, opinions, and knowledge have all accumulated gradually, and are subject to change or loss. There was a time when you didn't know how to drive, or to eat with chopsticks. Yet you were still you, no? Was there ever a point when you weren't you? I don't think so!

Beyond the impermanent world, your impermanent body, and the impermanent contents of your mind, the one constant that endures and never changes is your sense of you-ness. In other words: Awareness.

An intelligent receptivity has been humming along - even in your dreams - for as long as you've been you (and you've never not been you). It was there even when your body consisted of an entirely different batch of atoms. It was there before you ever held an opinion, before you knew that you had a name. It precedes all. It's the presence that has always peered bemusedly out of your eyes.

That's the unchanging part - the pole star around which all change plays out. The things of the world - external and internal - exist within this awareness. All things come and go - start and stop - but awareness is perpetually aware (what else would it possibly be?). Always that same hum beneath all the drama and noise.

Some might argue that this presence did not exist before the birth of your body. But the past is a funny thing. Have you ever experienced it? I haven't! I've never spent even a moment in the past or the future. Only the present. Since neither you nor I have direct experience of either, it's best to consider past and future as abstract (but useful) concepts. Stories! Did you understand that there was a past or future before you could speak, i.e. before your head filled with concepts? No, you knew only awareness. Time came later, along with the rest of the stories.

Anyway, given that all things - including your body - are within awareness, your body was born into awareness, not vice versa. Once again: everything changes and dies, while awareness is the perpetually unmoving part.

Awareness can just as readily identify with another set of memories, opinions, impressions, names, stories, and worlds. If that sounds odd, consider that it does exactly that all the time, whenever you "lose yourself" in dreams, novels, and movies (not to mention imagination, worry, and memory). In fact, the nature of awareness is to yearn for loads of fresh characters to identify with! Lots of stories and narratives - our use of the term "escapist" is a big clue! This world, in fact, is a playground offering exactly what we crave: a dense and ever-replenishing set of storylines to dive into and make our own.

Awareness - an always-on witness to the action - playfully identifies with the passing drama. If you doubt this is what you do, pop in a DVD and watch your identification effortlessly flip to some other character in some other reality. Then turn off the movie (or put down the novel, or cease your fantasy, or awaken from the dream) and watch yourself flip back to this role. Easy peasy!

Awareness precedes all. Your body - just another impermanent thing - was born into it, and will die into it. But the awareness that is you has never flickered. It's the omnipresent fount of Now, and Now is the only real thing.

Awareness can narrow or expand to focus on this or that - an ant or the vastness of the nighttime sky. Habits are established as we find ourselves favoring certain frames of perspective. Heaven is one such frame, and hell is another. If you haven't noticed that either is available to you in any given moment - by merely choosing to reframe your awareness - then you haven't been paying attention (literally!).

Note: The links are, as always, important.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Abbey Road

It's been a recurring observation of this Slog that life consists of a series of revisitations to tired cliches, certain with each new pass that we now really understand them. One level up from that [how lithe is your framing?], my life consists of a series of revisitations to this conclusion (about revisiting tired cliches), certain with each new pass that now I really see the cycle.

Prime example: "You can't truly love another person until you love yourself".

At level one, that just sounds gross. "Self-love" associates with vanity and narcissism at best. Then you sort of get it, then, after a critical mass of bad relationships, you begin to develop a better handle on the notion. Then, at the advanced age of 56 (despite having flattered yourself with the idea that you have some insight into human nature), you struggle to explain the awkwardly-phrased recognition that you shouldn't expect damaged people to self-repair to accommodate you [all the links are helpful, but this one's mandatory], and it takes a long four months before you realize you've dumbly reinvented the damned wheel. Again! (I did the same thing here, and, man, so many other times)

Once you reach a deeper comprehension of this surprisingly profound insight, things open up. For one thing, you notice that it works in both directions. At first, it's talking to you, i.e. "what you need to do to be better in romantic relationships" (then, as wisdom takes root, in other sorts of relationships, as well). But it also works the other way, i.e. "why people are not better in romantic relationships", and, in the most advanced interpretation of all, why people aren't better just in general. I.e. you shouldn't expect damaged people to self-repair to accommodate you.

I am happier than I've ever been, though nothing looks bright on paper. And while I could spill a million words explaining how it happened (in fact, I've done exactly that, right here), it boils down to three words of seeming brutal cynicism: I've lowered expectations.
Is there a darker and more alarming utterance that can be made in America? The horrified multitudes pull away from me as if I were infected. "Lowered expectations?" The phrase hardly makes sense. We test it on our tongues, and it comes out like gobbledygook. Lowahxpitations. Lower Expee Cations. Lowspectorcations.

Ohmygod get Leff to a clinic, pronto. He's lost his "High Hopes"; his high-apple-pie-in-the-sky hopes.

I have not actually departed for Planet Mope. I've just recalculated how I play the hands I'm dealt, accounting for the fact that everyone's stressed and distracted and aggrieved (inevitably self-created, though, Jesus Christ, don't ever tell them that!). Everyone's skewed, everyone's screwed, everyone's neurotic from struggling under a crushing, completely unnecessary burden. Johnny can't come out to play today; he's not feeling well.

For a long time I expected people to be nicer to each other (and to me) than they are to themselves, which is nuts. I was dismayed at girlfriends for their failure to be more than rotely transactional, when, in fact, "transactional" is the high bar; the nearly-unattainable ideal! If you're lucky enough to have a transactional spouse - one who isn't perpetually frozen in an intractable, dug-in posture of sourly unilateral needy imperiousness - you, my friend, have scored!

I had inappropriately high expectations, which created the strong sense that there's an overriding Problem (and it's not due to the zit on your nose, or the color of your skin, or the size of your schnozz, or the scarf on your head, or your slight limp, or your shortness/tallness/skinniness/fatness/stupidity/eggheadedness [another mandatory link]). I always attributed the Problem to failure on the part of others, when it was entirely a product of my own narcissistic expectations.

Sheesh, what did I expect from people? People sleep on uncomfortable pillows. They willingly poison their lives with drama and delusion. They eat crappy pizza rather than drive another block for good pizza. They frame themselves as miserable turds amid paradise. And I expected them to be kind and fair and engaged and, like, fun? Like they should suddenly snap out of their misery - their dazed stupor - to solicitously meet my needs and make it fun for me? Really? Was I out of my mind???

Here's how I absolutely didn't just frame it:
People suck. They're dull sheeple. By recognizing how much they suck, I demonstrate my superiority. Even though I'm just flapping my mouth bitching and judging, I'm atop the mountain, because I see how much it all sucks, and vision is only possible with elevation. It would never occur to me to work to be the change I want, because it's all useless because it all sucks - aside from me, who's clear-headed enough to recognize the suckyness. What do I offer? Why, the pearls of my wisdom, which consist of telling you how much it sucks and how bored I am and how it's not fun enough and no one's nice enough or fair enough, and how I don't get what I deserve. It all sucks except for me, and proof I don't suck is in the fact that I possess the secret knowledge: namely, I know that it sucks.
Yeah, that move is the one you don't need to do. Recognizing stupidity doesn't mean you're smart, it just means you're observant. Opt out of that hideous mind trap via a flick of your attention. And're good. You can enjoy all the exuberance of 1951 Frank Sinatra (ripely flush with booze and broads and dough) with none of those daffily narcissistic high hopes. You're not starring in a movie.

So, to review, the trick is to:

1. Lower expectations, realizing that people can barely get out of bed in the morning - but remembering that we've actually made vast strides, being exceptionally fortunate that very few people bash other people over the head anymore. (Do not undervalue this advancement even though the scattered few remaining bashers disproportionally horrify you in the same way that smaller and smaller peas increasingly vex coddled princesses from beneath their mattresses.)

2. Not depart for Planet Mope just because a zillion TV shows and movies (and zillions of aspiration-stoking advertising dollars) have instilled the notion that lowered expectations are akin to death.

3. Buy an expensive pillow. A really really crazy expensive luxury pillow. Finance this by drinking tap water rather than bottled.

4. Enjoy paradise, and contribute in some small insidious way, ideally like an ant or an earthworm (you need to go small to go big; remember the camels and the needles).

I didn't know what to title this. And I assume the Beatles said the same thing after recording their album.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Ebenezer Scrooge and The Grinch

Ebenezer Scrooge - cheap heartless bastard - dances through the streets in his pajamas, cackling merrily, patting children's heads and wishing the stunned citizenry the finest of Christmases.

The Grinch - scourge of Whoville, stealer of presents, and tormenter of loyal dog Max - finds his heart growing three sizes and makes nice with the Whos.

Think about it for a moment. What happened, in both cases? A shift of perspective. A reframing. Each occurring in an instantaneous flash. The result? Transformation. Grace.

Reframing is an absurdly easy and eternally available move, which can also be induced in others if you're creative (that's what art - at least great art - is), making this the tool any successful messiah would choose.

Reframing is the source of all miracles and transformations. It's so potent - and so undeveloped as a faculty - that we project a God who makes it happen, leaving us, hilariously, eternally awaiting fickle thunderbolts. We don't make our thoughts happen, but we do choose our framing. We've got it all backwards!

Heaven and Hell are instantly available. It's true that death is a prerequisite, but it's not the death of a body (what does your body have to do with it?). It's the death of the previous framing - which you've identified with so utterly that to let it go indeed amounts to a death.
It's quite possible that this posting will kill you. It is lethal. Reframing = creativity, and creativity = destruction (can't make an omelette without breaking eggs), which explains why, as I'm fond of noting, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction is also the goddess of creativity. If your viewpoint feels subtly different after reading any of this - if you're not quite yourself - your previous framing has been slain. Welcome to the afterlife! What's next? Which framing shall you choose now?
How tough is it to replace a perspective; to reframe? Experiment below. See exactly how much effort and drama is required:


A good second experiment would be to try bestowing - right here and right now, within yourself; external displays are unnecessary - Forgiveness. The most unearned sort of forgiveness is the most densely ecstatic, but I'd suggest building up to that gradually (though, like all reframings, it's available in the flick of an eyelash).

Even better than Scrooge and the Grinch, for my money, is "The Witch Next Door" by Norman Bridwell. Nominally a children's book, and often mistaken for a homily about tolerance, it really gets to the core of the matter.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Death of the Obvious

A while ago I noted that:
There is nothing more frustrating on god's green earth than trying to use a powerful application to accomplish a simple task.
Designer Phil Simpson (designer of the Eat Everywhere app and the "Missing Manual" book series, among other triumphs) expanded the thought while condensing the word count, coughing up this gem of wisdom:
The obvious no longer exists.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Tasting is a Preposterous Charade

It's time to taste something. We immediately start making adjustments large and small. We tighten up to a state of high alertness and zoom all attention toward the tip of the fork. We perform a number of highly stylized gestures and movements, furrowing brows to show our concentration, shifting eyes upward to signify deep processing, and chewing more determinedly or languorously than usual. We uncharacteristically pass the morsel over the full terrain of our tongues while processing the entire proceedings via the left (verbal/analytical) side of the brain, the goal being to cough up some nugget of analysis (making analogies to other things we've eaten) plus an opinion, i.e. "yay" or "nay".

There is nothing normal about any of these highly stylized kabuki actions. We do none of these things when we actually eat. And, in fact, they're all counterproductive.

Tightening up to signify to ourselves and others that we're "paying attention" actually makes us less attentive. We perceive best while relaxed-but-focused.

By zooming perspective tightly to the chunk on the fork, we imagine we've scientifically isolated it, making ourselves more objective. But you're still the same you, with all your fuzzy illogic and hormonal flows and the pain in your shoulder and your childhood aversions and unconscious needs and the countless other elements skewing your perceptions. You've made only one change: you've shifted to a much less familiar and more artificial framing, where you're actually less able to factor in those prejudicial elements.

And processing via the left (verbal/analytical) side of the brain to produce a verbalized takeaway is equally counterproductive. Eating is not a purely intellectual activity. Emotion is an essential part. As I wrote in my posting titled "Unhinged":
We peak out at "yum". Well, I’m sorry, but "yum" doesn't always cut it.
Intellects are useful. If we ate with emotion alone, we'd be snarfing from troughs, smearing sweet/greasy pleasure-center-stimulating grub all over our faces and clawing savagely at the other livestock for access to errant chunks. But purely intellectual eating is a dry and pleasureless exercise. This is why you don't want to try to "taste" food by donning a metaphorical lab coat and performing all this absurd play-acting with mincing motions of the jaw and aromas huffed upward into sinuses for the fullest possible data set. That's just as inhuman as the emotional livestock approach. You need both...which is how you normally eat. 

You have vast experience eating food. You are extraordinarily good at it; a master! So why would you imagine that divorcing the experience as far as possible from your normal routine is the thing to do when you want to do it particularly well? That's as nutty as a baseball player reserving a different batting stance for the World Series.

By adulthood, we've invested far more than the 10,000 hours required for mastery. Our normal eating approach is well-proven. By shifting into kabuki tasting mode, intentionally stripping away the context, emotionality, and pleasure that make eating eating, we lose far more than we gain.

The most extreme adjustment is the tiny sample size characteristic of "tastings". You studiously mull over some thimble full of lasagna as if it were a priceless relic, mentally composing your position paper on the specimen. But whatever you conclude will be as divorced from reality as the stilted context in which you tasted it. We are, all of us, mashed potato experts, but if you lop a gram of it onto a tongue depressor and gnash thoughtfully with faux-scientific lab technique, your analysis and opinion will be near-useless. It's a joke!

On the other hand, here's the funny thing. I'm different. Having invested 10,000 hours into scientific tasting, I actually can come up with useful data from a dollop of mashed potato or a thimble of lasagna. I don't need familiar environment, portion size, or context, because I've trained myself to divorce those things and still cough up useful judgements (serious wine tasters do the same).

Yay, me.

Restaurant critics seldom work hungry, and that's the least of the artifice. I've spent way too much of my life mirthlessly ingesting speck after speck of this or that while scrawling, in my notebook, the rhapsodic prose these things would have evoked had I been eating normally.

I once woke up, still nauseatingly full from the previous day's research, in a motel near a shack in a North Carolina tobacco farm where busy plump grandmothers served up fried chicken with fractal crunch and impossible juiciness. At 10am (I had a full day of tasting ahead of me), I took, as my first ingestion (a preparatory banana or yogurt would have been unjustifiable calories), a single bite of that chicken, recorded - with a stone-faced expression - come-to-Jesus lively praise in my notebook, shuddered lightly, paid my tab, and miserably returned to my car while busboys dumped the remaining chicken along with a small pile of plump, crispy hushpuppies.

I didn't miss an iota of the quality. I'm a professional. But the fact that I can actually do this well doesn't make it a happy thing. It feels like work. It's by far the grimmest talent in my arsenal. You don't want this.

I'll never forget, early in my career, coming along on research for a neighborhood food survey with a moderately well-known food writer who kept [every cell of my body pleads not to call up this memory, or to burden you with it, but it's necessary to make my higher point] a Food Bag. She'd grab takeout from a dozen close-clustered places, bring it all back to the car, masticating exactly one bite of every item, then pour the remainder, with a sour, revolted expression, into a gaping plastic seal bag, which she'd compress into a sludge and keep in a shopping bag under the heater in the passenger floorspace of her car. She'd often spit into the Food Bag, as well.

It's hard for me to understand why a civilian would choose to engage in enjoyment-divorced tasting, especially when they're not trained for it. But, hey, everyone wants to be a food writer these days.

Don't taste. Don't ever taste. Eat! You'll do it better! By shifting into some weird Other mode, you won't enjoy, nor will you get an accurate picture. You'll reduce your practical acuity; - your ability to assess the food in context, which has nothing to do with detecting subtle notes of passionfruit. How many olive oils bought after a brief tasting-via-cracker turned out to be useful in your day-to-day cooking? I can answer for you: none of them. You can't/won't anticipate real-world eating from stilted tasting. Stilted tasting produces stilted notes useful only in some alien parallel stilted universe.

Unless, that is, you work very hard for a very long time to develop a real knack for it. I can sprint through 75 glasses of beer and determine the good one, even while becoming increasingly drunk. I can mumble a dour "bravo" to whoever cooked the marinara I've sipped from a teaspoon, even recognizing, if appropriate, the chef as a genius (it doesn't make me unhinged to say so). But this brings no pleasure. This is not how we eat, and certainly not why we eat. It's a vocational trick. When I'm forced to do it, the very best I can hope for is to return one day to eat properly, like a normal human being.

So why would you ever abdicate an opportunity to really eat, when this is the best possible outcome of the "tasting" approach?

The impetus for this posting: a few nights ago I returned to Wolf, the sensational restaurant in Nordstrums, with two friends. We frantically doled out samples for each other on side plates and worked through what remained of our plates, furrowing brows, making tasting motions with our mouths, and coughing up analysis and opinions.

They enjoyed it, intellectually, and, to their credit (they're both serious cooks and chowhounds) did recognize the quality. However while the food was as great as ever, none of us felt any of the deep feelings I'd recounted from my first meal there, where I'd meditatively worked through a big bowl of extraordinary pasta. We were tasting, god damn it, not eating. And we paid (and paid) for the privilege.

Don't taste. Eat!

Friday, January 10, 2020

On Wine and Rubberbands

Among several fantastically useful insights I got from my old friend Elliot was this gem:
If a wine tastes overly tannic, that means it's either 1. overly tannic, or 2. lacking in everything else (so the tannins stick out).
It's applicable in every human realm. For example, I'm not particularly bright. Whenever I reread a book or rewatch a film I'm stunned to discover I'd soaked up only 60% of the plot the first time. It comes as a particular shock because I'm too dumb to have noticed my non-comprehension in real time. The glue-sniffy viscosity feels normal, sort of the way one might get used to a darkened world viewed through cataracts.
I refuse to read/watch anything a third time, because if I do and it reveals that wiser, smugger, Second-View-Me - the one revolted by the stupidity of First-View-Me - is highly spotty, as well, I...I...can't even finish the sentence.
Yet for a guy who's not super bright, I produce a lot of novel insights, and have been successful in a number of fields. How do I square the contradiction?

I don't obsess over what's wrong with the moment; over what's missing. I don't frame myself as holding up the world. I don't even think I'm the protagonist in this undertaking. With these impediments lifted, I'm not piloting into a 3,000 mph headwind like everyone else. And so I appear to be flying impressively fast, though powered only by a frayed cheap rubber band.
Remember “guileless clunk“?
I'm okay with my aging process, being the longtime disciple of a certain mangy fish I met as a child (it's a long story). But the real horror of advancing age is having to watch one's peers fall deeper and deeper into trances. By their 50s, you can barely have a conversation with them. They find interaction irritating, because it interrupts their process of endlessly telling themselves who they are and what they find wrong with the universe. You may be trying to share a joke or describe a recent quesadilla, but they’re spottily available, often wanting to be left alone to suck on their bitter lozenges.

By middle age they’ve gotten super good at this rumination business, having reached the ten millionth go-round of these cherished mental loops, so there’s nothing you can say or do to rival the familiar vibrancy of their internal go-to stories.

By the time we're in our 80s, many of us stare vacantly into space. We label it dementia - attributable to inescapable medical issues - and I suppose that sometimes it is. 

Thursday, January 9, 2020


I'm pulling a line out of an older posting, "Why We Crucify Truth Tellers (and Why They Deserve It)", so I can make it one of my "Definitions" entries (which I try to keep short):

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.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020


I once wrote about an encounter I'd had, as a student, with a massively famous trombonist, Bill Watrous, who bashed straight through the disdainful rejection I'd received from a merely famous trombonist - the illustrious trombone professor at the illustrious conservatory who had refused to teach me.
'[Watrous said] I know the guy. You go straight to him and tell him Watrous says to get off his lazy ass and teach you, and that it’s important.'

That fall, I returned to school, delivered the message, and the haughty top-string trombone professor was dumbstruck. He knew me, slightly, as the liberal arts guy who sloppily dabbled a bit in music. I was a dilettante, unworthy of his time or attention, yet here I was, bearing a directive from Jesus Christ himself. The poor fellow just couldn’t reconcile it.
The haughty local capo was interested in turning out clones (and correctly sensed that I’d never submit), even though Bill Watrous, the capo di tutti capi, saw more deeply.
In the same posting, I related this to a similar experience years later:
I’ve seen this pattern repeat constantly; the pack is inevitably smaller-minded than the top dog. I hung around a lot in Jamaica Queens in the late 80s with the guys who were developing hiphop by day and playing jazz by night. The scene included a contingent of very “militant” black Muslims who didn’t like white guys much, and they gave me the serious cold shoulder. Their spiritual mentor was an elderly trombonist who I heard a lot about, and who I expected to be as harsh as the surface of Venus, one Hassan Hakim (father of famed drummer Omar Hakim). But when I finally met Hassan, he was the sweetest guy ever and we became instant best friends, going out all the time to sit in with local rhythm sections. Hassan, who was in his 80s at the time, had little technique, but I hung on every swinging, uplifting note like a gift from Heaven. His followers, who hadn't suffered a fraction of the persecution, poverty and Jim Crow that he had, had sadly misinterpreted his perfectly admirable urgings to cultivate backbone, dignity and self-respect.

When you finally meet the top dog, it's always different.
I hope, by the way, that you experienced some small whiff of Hassan, who I miss a lot, from that short tribute.

This sort of thing repeated a number of times, which was necessary for me to really register the lesson because I'm very slow in some ways. Here's a final example.

For years I'd been posting anonymously to some online yoga forums.
Note: When I use the term "yoga", I don't mean the bendy/stretchy stuff. Yoga has eight parts, and the physical postures are just one part. I've practiced the full package for many, many years, starting as (unbeknownst to me at the time) a child prodigy.
On those forums, I'm respected by a few, but I completely piss off most of the rest, who cannot for the life of them figure out what I'm talking about...but know they don't like it. If you pride yourself on being a yoga expert, and some dude shows up spewing nonsense that seems to make a mockery of your vaunted expertise, every instinct tells you: **ANNIHILATE**.

No biggie. I've been gaslit all my life by people with a stake in realms where my thoughts, actions, and very existence undermine. I can't help it. Creativity inherently undermines status quo, and human beings defend status quo tenaciously. In the most common framing, creative people are - not to be melodramatic - the destroyers of worlds.
It's incredibly wise and beautiful that the Hindu goddess of Creativity is also the feared and despised Destroyer of Worlds. As noted in "Surprising Behavior Breaks Things: an exploration of Groucho Marx, computer hackers, beta testers, Banksy, and Kali the Goddess of Death" I wrote:
The resistance to surprise is what gave rise to the Hindu goddess Kali being known as the goddess of destruction (remember those depraved cultists in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"?). She gets a bad rap. What she actually is is the goddess of creativity. But to those who tenaciously cling to status quo, her bottomless thirst for change and the immense energy she wields in empowering the world's ceaseless churning represent all that is destructive, dangerous, and deathly. She's the very root of all our fears because, being infinitely surprising, over time she breaks absolutely everything.
Anyhoo...A number of the haughty yoga experts I'd run into online learned from a guy who'd learned from a guy who idolized a illustrious kriya yoga master who was said to occasionally answer emailed inquiries (obsequiously phrased entreaties to cure a sick kid or to shed light on some deep mystery). The guy wasn't any sort of cult leader/showbiz figure. He just quietly practiced, and had written an exquisite and highly influential book. And, like Steve Jobs back in the day, he would, once in a blue moon, respond to emails, thrilling the lucky supplicants.

So I shot him a note to the effect of, "Hey, dude, what's up, just a couple quick things if you have a sec, to verify that I'm not as kooky as some of your peeps suspect." I sketched out the gist of where I was coming from with yoga in a brashly concise few sentences without a tad of detail or explanation (I was reasonably certain it was stuff he'd been through, himself, so we could talk in shorthand). He wrote back something like "Yup, totally. Nicely stated, by the way....are you a writer?"

We may get together for jello shots next time he's in town. Super nice dude.

What I did not do is screenshot it and shove it in the faces of his students' students' students. I just ignored them with slightly greater confidence as they thunderously corrected my many misapprehensions. I'd finally learned.

The Moral of the Story: If you're creative; if you have any sort of gift (or have worked tirelessly to carve out a deeper perspective) in some realm, and the gatekeepers, henchmen, and middle managers spurn you or contrive to make you seem like a lunatic, do not feel refuted [but see footer, below]. Such people are devoted not to truth but to their political positions; their sense of self worth; their status quo. They're a separate breed, and their focus is always on their position within The Structure Devoted to The Thing rather than The Thing. You can count on it, every damned time.

Never approach the food editor; angle toward the publisher. Don't talk to the priest or even the cardinal; find a way to talk to the pope. Hierarchies are assembly lines; sausage-making machines. If your dream is to serve as sausage, go ahead and knock on the front door like everyone else. But if you have a better idea, take it to the top (where, I hardly need to tell you, you'll still most likely be bum-rushed...though at least you'll have had a sliver of a glimmering of a chance).

Like many insights gathered from multiple reinforcements via tough and protracted life experiences, I eventually remembered I'd previously realized the same thing years earlier, as a kid, and had even tried to warn myself. In the "Postcards From My Childhood" series (here they are in reverse chronological order), I wrote (in Part 8: The Director):
I saw a famous director (I wish I could remember who) on a late night talk show, complaining about how he can't find any great screenplays. The host smiled and replied, "You shouldn't have said that. Now everyone is going to try to get their scripts to you!" The director chuckled and said, "Good luck! I'm not very accessible, and scripts that come in just sit forever in a stack". The host, confused by the seeming contradiction, asked him how he expects to see the good scripts.

With a gleam in his eye, the director replied, "Anyone with the phenomenal talent, resourcefulness, and creativity to come up with a world class screenplay also has the talent, resourcefulness, and creativity to get it to me."

I understood immediately, and sent forward a postcard reminding myself to never, ever enter through front doors.

At the risk of stating the very obvious, don't even imagine that rejection makes you right. Just because they laughed at the Wright Brothers and they're laughing at you does NOT make you a Wright Brother. Oceans of grimy bathwater drain along with the occasional babies.

Ask yourself:
  • Have you invested vast effort in merciless self-critique, trying to poke every possible hole in your assumptions and conclusions?
  • Have you eagerly sought out and carefully entertained counter-argument, not taking it personally, but considering it a service?
  • Have you kept listening to counter-argument even when people say lots of otherwise dimwitted things? (If they find problems, you must ignore their dumb suggested solutions, focusing entirely on the problems they've kindly unearthed.)
  • Have you set it all aside, even for years, and come back later with fresh eyes to see whether it still holds up?
And here's the hardest part: once it's passed your intense self-vetting, can you still keep ears open, at least a crack, amid the nastiest, most ad-hominem responses - even while you confidently disdain them - in the hope that some nugget might serendipitously turn out to be non-stupid, and thus useful in your gleeful effort to recognize your wrongness

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Dictator

The problem with dictators is that none of their underlings can ever plan or act or explain because they never know when Dear Leader might suddenly and capriciously tack in some new direction, leaving them looking like clods. No one dares speak for Dear Leader. In fact, they’d prefer not to speak at all and just project a weighty air of authority. 

The advantage of a dictator is low resistance (eg congressional scrutiny) to pushing through initiatives achieving their vision (benevolent dictatorships are by far the most efficient systems, though not the most long term viable). No one can speak for Dear Leader, but his words and actions speak clearly, themselves.  

The worst of all worlds is an empty-headed all-for-show dictatorship with no vision or even comprehension, where it’s all a huge bluff - essentially Drag Show Government. #dragshowgovernment

That ensures chaos where nothing makes sense and no one can even TRY to act or explain. Toadies lash themselves to the mast, hoping the ship remains afloat, finding solace in their masks of authority and resorting, when cornered, to nonsensical word salad and slimy platitudes. 

If a nation’s course is set by the whims of one guy, that guy needs substance behind his whims. If not, it’s like a raft made of dander.  #danderraft

Kindred Pragmatic Moderates vs. the Demagogified

Here's how a centrist/moderate sees both sides:

Liberals: Yield to my trendy sanctimonious furies and oblige my flamboyant victimhood...or else you can go crawl up and die.

Conservatives: Greed is good. Settle down, let the plutocracy work its totally benign magic unfettered, and enjoy the fattening of your 401K (if you don't have a 401K, try harder, loser).
Granted, that's more Conservatism circa 2015. But if "Greed is good" why wouldn't Trump deserve a personality cult?
How could any clear-headed, moral person support either side of this gross duality?

The answer: As I once wrote, the vast majority of liberals aren't actually liberal. They're just anti-conservatives. And most so-called conservatives are really anti-liberals. This explains why both sides shift around so shamelessly. They're entirely reactive, with no permanent grounding principles. Any scenario dominated by two "anti-" elements will be as gratuitously slippery as globules of oil in a puddle of vinegar. There's no "there" there.

I keep waiting for the massive forehead-smacking recognition to set in that anti-liberals and anti-conservatives are actually close to agreeing on lots of stuff (even on guns and abortion!), insofar as they can block out the loud-mouthed extremists of either side whose excesses constantly refresh the revulsion.

Good luck with that blocking-out, though. Both sides are correct in their disgust. The problem is a slightly milder and blurrier disgust for the extremists on your own side (incomplete registration of the excesses of one's own tribe is the prime mover in human affairs, as I briefly sketched here, where I made the case for a healthy misanthropy).

Extremists often wonder how anyone could remain centrist in these starkly divided times. My answer is that aside from a few million at either end of the bell curve, the overwhelming majority of us are actually kindred pragmatic moderates habitually affiliating as Dem or Rep mostly as bulwark against the excesses of the opposite extremists. The divisions among this super-majority are vaporous; as thinly symbolic as the division between sports fans. It's only a matter of time before more people get woke and opt out of the demented polarity. 

In the meantime, if you ever find yourself not just supporting but full-out loving/adoring some candidate (e.g. Trump or Bernie), that almost surely means you've been demagogified, and I pray you'll come to your senses and realize that the goal of politics isn't to tear it all down and build something more to your taste every round, but to select someone who'll competently make the sausage.
Competent sausage-making once sounded boring (though I can't fathom how it possibly could at this point) but it's actually an art; a neat trick not every administration manages.

After four years of observing entranced masses loving/adoring a guy for tearing shit down, it stuns me (ok, not really) that people viewing from the opposite end of the curve respond by saying "Cool! I want that...only more to my specs!" Will human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?

Monday, January 6, 2020

Postcards From My Childhood Part 14: The Fish

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I willfully sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget.

Visiting a big city aquarium, I raptly watched hundreds of fish swim around an enormous tank. As always, there was one dodgy fish. He was missing half a fin, and sported a few odd bite marks. He wasn't quite an entire fish, and I became obsessed with determining whether he knew.

Lazily paddling endless pointless circles in formation with his school, was he abashed? Or self-conscious? Was he grimacing? Did he feel like less than a fish? I studied his pursed fish lips, trying to catch him uttering a weary "fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck."

After a half hour of riveted observation, I was certain I knew the answer: He didn't feel diminished in the least. Nor did he have his back up, shoving his messed-up fin in the other fishes' faces and challenging them to be okay with it. He was simply doing his thing. Just being a fish, cool as a sea cucumber.

The fish really knew how to live. I decided to imprint my memory of him as a hero and role model.

Many of the postcards I sent forward from my childhood became constant guiding principles, but this one had a time delay. As I grew older, and maladies and issues compiled, I adopted the normal framing, grunting an increasingly aggrieved "Doh!!" upon each fresh injury. But just as I began to spin it all up into a sense of cumulative burden and decline, I suddenly recalled the fish.

Since then, I've lost my hair and received a cardiac stent, a hearing aid, and a wealth of daily pills, along with more challenging maladies than I can count. I launched Chowhound as a youthful-seeming 34 and left it at 44 so haggard and traumatized that I looked twenty years older (if people asked, I'd tell them I was 73, just to hear them marvel at my spryness). Having taken to heart the Zen injunction to "burn yourself completely", I’ve wound up looking like someone who'd been sleeping in a pile of ashes.

But that's just the external. Internally, I've been blithely me the whole time. I've lived straight through it all, treating it like a ride, come what may. I’m fresh as a daisy (or whatever the non-fruity version of that expression might be). 

This involves no cinematic display of chin-trembling bravery. It was more like how glasses, for me, are neither empty or full (if there's water I drink with gusto, and, if not, I find more water....or simply move on, like the monks and the coffee). Every moment thrusts forward a challenging card hand to play, and I do so exuberantly, without a shred of stoic resignation or self-actualized "positive thinking".

I am bemusedly responsive. Here I am. That's all, and that's sufficient. I'm proud to have grown up to be the fish!

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

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Lunch Money and Asteroids

The following is a bonus third follow-up (here's the first and here's the second) to my posting "Happy New Year in Paradise".

In "Happy New Year in Paradise", I wrote:
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 which point George W Bush will have been retconned into Abraham freaking Lincoln).
You might have replied:
Donald Trump is definitely NOT a "5". He has done irreparable damage to our institutions and to our global standing. He has, time and again, acted in his self-interest rather than the nation's interest, and his self-interest is consistently tied to that of Russia, making him a de facto - if not actual - agent of Putin's regime. From kids-in-cages to the rising tide of brazen violence, hatred, and racism, he's been a curse on the presidency, the nation, and the world. I truly can't imagine worse.
Agreed on all points except the first and last sentences.

Let's take a trip in the wayback machine to the mid-2000s. How would your younger self of that era have felt about your current assessment of George W. Bush? That maybe he wasn't the worst thing imaginable (despite some horrendous decisions), that he operated from an earnest sense of honor and principle and was indisputably a patriot who cared about the country, its institutions, and its people? How would your 2009 self react to the swelling admiration you may now feel watching the video of Bush going to a mosque immediately after the 9/11 attacks and giving a beautiful speech urging love and kinship for our Moslem-American neighbors?

I'd suspect that your then-self would scorn you, insisting that, no, you greying idiot, Bush is The Absolute Worst (fwiw, my own then-self would have forcefully agreed). He’s the devil incarnate. A blight and a scourge and a shame and an ignorant dick. One truly couldn't imagine worse.

This is how reframing works. We latch onto a framing until it's forcibly ripped from us. Getting your lunch money stolen by the school bully will no longer seem like the most traumatic possible thing once you've broken your leg playing softball, and that's instantly nothing if someone starts firing a gun, and even that becomes a mere blip when you've spotted the huge asteroid in the sky hurtling toward Earth.

Trump has broken your leg, leaving your lunch money indignation largely forgotten. So don't be a shmuck. Don't tempt the fates to send you gunfire, much less the asteroid.

In the Dungeons & Dragons of religion, I'm not even a level 2 Jew (though I've gone reasonably far in the Zen/Yogi character class). But that last part somehow wafted out of me like a plume of undiluted super-Jewishness. I'm not even Jew enough to explain this recognition (I've never cracked open those books nor remained awake through a service). But via DNA alone (I'm oddly descended from a revered 18th century scholar), I recognize that that's pretty much it, right there. Curl my sideburns and blacken my hat.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Daddy Knows Truth

This is the second of two postings following up to "Happy New Year in Paradise".

The first follow-up noted that I'm definitely not an optimist, though to many people any perspective other than bitter negativity must stem from rose-colored positive thinking.

If you hurt yourself, leaving your body twisting to the left, and a physical therapist straightens you out, you'll feel sure, for a while, that your body is twisting to the right. When you're accustomed to being badly skewed, straightness seems like a skew. This works interpersonally, as well. If you refuse to oblige a control freak, you will seem, to them, to be the control freak. This is how pretty much everything works, from the private kernel of individual being to the macro of massive societal movements. For example, this is why history always unfolds via a succession of immoderately reactive pendulum swings (sparking a question I frequently ask: Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?).

When the Buddha talked about the Middle Way, this was what he was referring to: opting out of the reactive ping pong table.

So here's the second followup to "Happy New Year in Paradise":

It's odd that middle-aged white guys, as a class, are freely mocked and despised in this society. I suspect a big part of it involves the subconscious, dreamy suspicion that archetypical "Daddy" (a role that is just as easily filled by Mommy, by non-white people, or by anyone else; I'm talking here about uppercase "Daddy" as a role, not lowercase daddy as a dude) knows the truth about certain things, and we are a truth-averse society.

Archetypal Daddy - aka "The Provider" - makes things happen for his spoiled, ungrateful charges while they opt for drama, cultivating furious victimhood amid paradise, all while enjoying unearned perks of modern comfort and privilege. Archetypal Daddy wants to bring you down, puncture your bubble, and plant your feet on, ugh, solid earth where you're not actually starring in a movie. He exerts gravity, dragging you toward a flatly prosaic life of doing, like his life. Pure Hell!
So take your "we're in paradise" bullshit and shove it, Mr. Smug Whitey-White-Boomer-Privilege-Asshole-Who-Can't-FEEL-What-We're-FEELING. Daddy needs to shut the fuck up and pass the lamb chops.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Cold Storage in the Cloud

I've got 500GB of crappy useless data on an external drive, just as you almost surely do. Let's see, there's email from the 1990s, music and videos I deliberately winnowed from my active media files years ago, early versions of iPhone apps, disk images of CD-Roms (remember them?), ancient backups of Desktop, Documents and iTunes Media files, etc. etc.

It's crap, and it lives on a wheezing external drive that's three years past its natural life span. It's only a matter of time before the drive starts doing the click of death, auguring the final demise of this data. Which would be okay, I suppose, but why let data disappear when storage is cheap? This America, baby!

It's certainly not worth buying a second hard drive, so thoughts turn heavenward, to The Cloud. "Off-site" back-up is always smart (in case of fire or theft here at The Hovel), and, anyway, the last thing I need is yet another whirling USB drive next to my desk spewing heat and contributing to my power cord carbonara.

And it dawns on me that virtually every computer user over the age of 40 is probably in the exact same predicament: glancing worriedly at a wheezing aged hard drive containing unimportant files, and scheming about storing them in the cloud for pennies. I feel un-alone.

Yet, not for the first time, Adam Smith let me down. The invisible hand of the market has provided no well-trodden path. It's still wild west out there for cloud storage. Having taken the deep dive, I'll share what I've learned.

The main problem is that the tech industry has decided, as usual, that consumers want to do dumb expensive stuff and geeks want to do smart cheap stuff....and what I want falls smack in the middle.

If I wanted a friendly, intrusive backup program constantly synching - i.e. serving as a sort of Time Machine (Apple's backup protocol) to the Cloud, a thousand companies will eagerly take my money (there's consensus that Backblaze Unlimited Backup - "The World's Easiest Cloud Backup", is one of the better options).

I don't want that. I want to park a 500GB and forget it. For cheap.

There's Dropbox, but they have a maximum file size of 50 GB using their web site and 350GB using their API (i.e. various hook-in services). And, for privacy, I intend to create a 500GB encrypted disk image and upload it as a single lump. Yes, this would be unwieldy to grab files from, but, again, this is just bulk storage, so I won't be grabbing much, if ever.

We're still in the consumer range, more or less. Plenty of services will stow this beast for $10-$15/month plus a penny or two per GB to download. But I don't want to pay $180/year for redundant offsite back up of utter garbage. And that's what pulls me out of the realm of "consumers want to do dumb expensive stuff" and firmly into "geeks want to do smart cheap stuff," where the waters are choppy and poorly lit.

I used the term "bulk storage" to describe my vast lump of garbage data, but the industry term is "cold storage". And the coldest of cold storage has long been Amazon Web Service's "Glacier" storage. However they've recently introduced something colder still, which they call "Glacier Deep Archive". This lets you park 500GB for just 50 freaking cents per month. But they're not exaggerating about the breath-freezing coldness. You must give them 12 hours notice if you ever want to download the data, and the download costs a steep 9¢/GB (they call it an "egress charge"). Which is probably ok because, like I said, this data is super unnecessary and I'm just being a pack rat. Amazon knows that, and this service is for people in exactly my situation (ok, and, of course, IT managers who want to migrate from tape backups). I could store my garbagey lump for virtually free, and pay a decent amount in the unlikely chance I ever actually need it.

Problem: Amazon Web Services is maddeningly technical; the ultimate example of geeks doing smart cheap stuff. Same for Google Cloud Service and BackBlaze's professional product, B2 (which offers a nice simple web interface for files under 50GB, but with large files you're forced deeply into UNIX/Terminal territory - why they don't simply create an AppleScript to handle the rote tasks is beyond me).

Geekiness aside, B2 may be the pricing sweet spot: it's five times the storage cost of Glacier Deep Archive (i.e. $3/month for 500GB) but 1/10th the download charge (a penny per GB). Do bear in mind, though, that while Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud will almost surely be here 10-15 years from now, BackBlaze might...but I'm less certain. OTOH, the impenetrable geekery makes it moot.

One observation. Since I want to park a single 500GB blog and likely never do anything with it, and Amazon Web Service Frigid Frostbite MoFo is insanely cheap, it would make sense to hire a geek to walk me through the process. So that might be a smart solution right there.

Here's what I've decided. I'm going to use ARQ Backup software (Mac or PC) costing a one-time $50. It acts as a friendly, polished front end to all the major cloud services, including DropBox, which is a very nice plus (the DropBox app is super inflexible these days). ARQ is very actively developed, but reportedly quite processor intense - don't expect to do much more with your computer while the app is running. Here’s an in-depth MacWorld review of ARQ Backup from 2017 (which also sheds light on cloud backup, generally).

ARQ doesn’t appear to handle Glacier Deep Freeze yet, but I’ll bet it soon will. Meanwhile it does work with normal AWS Glacier, if you want still pretty crazy-cheap storage with costly downloads.

But I'll hook ARQ Backup up to B2. And here's the thing: having gone this far to find viable cheap cold storage, it looks like ARQ is so easy and powerful that I might want to use it for less hypothermic synch/backup/storage as well. I own a couple more drives with slightly more essential data, so maybe I'll sign up for a couple TBs from B2 for extra redundancy. I'll need to take a close look at privacy/security before I use their encryption rather than encrypting on my side (the latter requires the one-big-lump-of-data approach, which is less viable with data I might need more flexible access to). redundant backup (I will also carefully maintain it on my external drives), I may go big-encrypted-lump with these, as well, and swap it out with an updated version bimonthly. 

Potential point of confusion: just as there's the more famous BackBlaze consumer product as well as the geeky BackBlaze B2 discussed here, ARQ seems to make most of their dough selling storage to consumers. I'm not talking about ARQ's storage/backup monthly plans above (which fall under my description of the myriad relatively expensive and smart consumer-side offerings). I'm talking specifically about the ARQ Backup app.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Half Empty or Half Full?

This is the first of two postings following up to "Happy New Year in Paradise"

As I've written before, few things bug me more than being labeled an optimist. Optimists are ditzes who intentionally delude themselves. That's the last thing I want to ever do. But so many people favor negativity that neutral objective clarity is easily mistaken for "positive thinking".

In the "glass half-empty/glass half-full" debate, I'm for seeing the glass as it actually is, without dramatizing it via gratuitously tacked-on implications.

The characterization is completely besides the point. If there's water, any water at all, great! Drink, enjoy, and appreciate! If not, don't waste a nano-second characterizing it. Just go find water. Or else move blithely on to something else.

There's nothing else to say unless you feel like you're starring in a movie where every plot turn - e.g. the water glass reveal - is accompanied by happy or sad music. That cinematic perspective is false and immensely unhealthy. It's a self-defeating indulgence of bored rich people.

If this outlook strikes someone as "positive", it's because they're so mired in negativity that they can't see straight.

Related: see "The Monks and the Coffee"

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