Friday, May 29, 2020

Unnameable Breakfast

I don't even know what to call this. It's a breakfast bowl that built itself via unconscious direction.

I entered my kitchen.

I poured some yogurt into a bowl.

I added blueberries and banana slices.

I plopped in a couple tablespoons of chunky/crunchy raw almond butter.

I stirred lightly - to swirl, not mix.

I toasted, intentionally nearly burnt, some leftover fluffy whole wheat pita, ripped it into tatters, and threw them on top.

Good.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Awesome Humble Stranger

You know the scene in the movie where the humble stranger's true identity comes to light, and it's awesome?

Has anyone, in the hundred years of cinema (and the centuries of literature before that) ever considered that guy's lot in life for the eternity before the big reveal? And, for that matter, what about awesome humble strangers who go to their graves without revelation?

Put yourself in their shoes. Do you internally giggle whenever you're underestimated...for decades? That amused mega-confidence may persist for a few months, but at some point you'll accept the external world's view of you. We're wired to self-calibrate from social appraisal. When evidence conflicts with what we believe to be the truth, we either bend or we break, depending on how tightly we hold on to the so-called truth.

Insanity is the inability to reframe despite clear environmental cues. Perpetually ignoring every social cue while stubbornly maintaining a certain framing is the essence of cray-cray. Even if you're right.

The awesome humble stranger will either have gone crazy, or would long ago have let go of any notion of awesomeness. Either way, the truth comes to feel like a distant daydream, so, by the time the reveal happens, he'll have nothing left. He'll be as confused as anyone else. He won't accept the mission, or the crown, or the acclaim. Rather, he'll grab his bowl and head back out to the street to continue his begging, because dinnertime's coming. Not because he's crazy, but because he's sane.


We become who we pretend to be ("fake it till you make it"), and we pretend to be the person we frame ourselves as being, and that framing is a blend of social feedback, overall general temperament, and, incidentally, actuality.

This is loosely part two in the "Explaining Demented Old Coots" series. The previous explained why people lost in the desert won't eat your foie gras.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Face Masks: The Centrist Result

Moderates on both sides show blind tolerance for the extremes of their own tribe. The other tribe's extremes, however, are sharply observed, and seem beyond the pale. That's what drives people into the "anti"-posture behind all political affiliation these days.

I abhor both extremes, and try to find a sane middle path, which makes me a Centrist. So it's only to be expected that I've got a Centrist viewpoint re: masks.

The assistant manager of my local supermarket goes maskless, standing inches away from cashiers (who don't dare complain) while waiting to switch out cash drawers. I try to stay clear while he swaggers down the middle of aisles. Spotting me, with my mask (always worn indoors), recoiling from his passage, he probably thinks "liberal pussy".

Outdoors, I walk with a neighbor up our sleepy lane. We maintain the required distance, but do not wear masks. Sometimes we pass tremulous neighbors in enormous masks and astronaut gloves, clearly terrified/furious at the transgressive MAGA brutes despite the extra space we politely give them.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Stamps: Economics Judo

As I worked through my Boxes, I stumbled upon my dad's childhood stamp collection from the early 1940s. I was dimly aware that the stamp market had fallen apart (perception of scarcity -> myriad collectors -> flooded market -> no value), but, wow. Afer a couple of solid hours researching his 19th century Imperial Russian stamps, his obscenely inflated Weimar Republic stamps (denominations of 50 million, uh, Weimarbucks?), and other beaucoup-seeming items, I was kind of hoping some would be worth more than five dollars. But nyuh-uh.

I also unearthed first-day-of-issue stamps from my childhood, sent by various friends and relatives of my parents to fund a nest egg for me. But I remain eggless. You see, everyone on Earth figured these things would appreciate into treasure, so everyone on Earth saved them, so they're less rare than toilet paper (for those clicking in from the future, that's a little pandemic humor). It seems strange that everyone missed the obvious economic fallacy, but flocking is a thing. #flockingisathing.

It's all worthless. All these stamps are heartbreakingly worthless:
Sorry, Li'l Leonard....
And all these sets are worthless, too:

All for naught, alas.


The easiest and most productive route of mental re framing (aka flip of perspective) is to turn things inside-out/upside-down. Simply flip it. I once wrote about the eureka that taught me this trick:
When I was shipped off to college, I was given a strange and foreign object: an iron. And since they don't come with instruction manuals, I had no choice but to teach myself to use it. It wasn't long before I discovered the first rule of ironing: you can't iron away a crease. You can reduce it some, but the fabric will always have an inclination to bend there, and there's no changing that, even with the brutest force.

This for some reason fascinated me. I spent time rolling it around my mind. And, eventually, I had an insight, realizing that there is, after all, one - and only one - way to eliminate a crease: flip the garment and then iron to create an opposite crease.

I realized I'd hit upon an essential truth, and have applied it all my life. For example, if you're plagued by nightmares full of scary monsters, the trick is to love the monsters (this was surely the original intent behind giving children teddy bears).
So how did I flip the sad result of Stamp Bummer? Think about it! Take a minute!

I bought some stamps! For pennies! It's a buyers market...so I became a buyer!

Sure, I could have simply enjoyed the ones I'm drowning in, here, but they don't do much for me, aesthetically. But check out what I scored (average price, including shipping: $4):

China PRC 1988 Sc. #2157 110th Anniversary of Stamps


China PRC 1987 MNH 1985 T106 Giant Pandas


China PRC 2377 MNH 1991 T167 Outlaws of the Marsh


China PRC 1997-21 Outlaws of the Marsh (there are apparently lots of marsh outlaws stamps)


China PRC 3005 MNH 2000 Spring Festival


Scott 2869 Legends Of The West


I bought these all in "very fine" condition - below the unnecessarily fussy (and marginally more expensive) highest level, but more than good enough for my purposes.

I haven't figured out how I'll display them yet. I certainly won't keep them in a book. They'll go up on a wall, in a cluster. That's why I bought "souvenir sheets", a larger and more showy format, rather than nerdy little individual stamps.

Obviously, I like the Chinese ones. But, for only $7, I also sprung, what the hell, for the Wild West set at bottom. These are impulse-buy prices, and I can always use these to mail stuff - a $5.80 value! This is why American stamps cost a tad more on eBay. Their intrinsic values elevates them slightly from utter miserable worthlessness.

One can afford to be casually extravagant. Were there ever stamps that you liked to use for mailing? Like in the last 150 years? For example, perhaps these Jimi Hendrix ones?
If so, eBay is your oyster. Hundreds of stamp nerds will glumly sell you sheet after perfectly preserved sheet for a nominal premium (even ones you'd assume to be expensive, like Star Wars themes), and then you can thumb your nose at beleaguered philatelists by using them, like a Phyllis Stein, to just, like mail stuff. Too bad for you, suckers!

I've flipped seller's catastrophe into buyer's zeal!

Fixed the Audio

The audio file in yesterday's posting wasn't playing in Chrome browser. I've fixed it. For your convenience, here it is:
I just found a note in one of my boxes, a message-in-a-bottle sent to my future self so he'd remember how kooky it was. In one month, I played with:
  • A flamenco/carnatic/jazz trio in Madrid with Indian tabla drums and Spanish acoustic guitar. Here's a brief sample:

  • (if that doesn't work, click here)
    [etc., etc.]

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Box Break for Music Career Note-in-a-Bottle

I've previously described how ridiculously promiscuous my music career was (setting the stage for my similar food writing career):
"At a certain point in my musical career, after a weekend spent running between a salsa gig in the South Bronx, a brass quintet gig in Midtown, and rehearsals for some weirdo avante-garde puppet thing Downtown, I was feeling satisfied at how differently I'd played in all these places (as I did in the dozens of wildly diverse scenes of which I was a recognized part). I acted differently, too. And talked differently. A typical freelance New York City musician, I was the ultimate chameleon (but I didn't think about this very often; I was too busy doing it).

"When my weekend was over, I hightailed it over to the Skylark Lounge out by JFK airport, a black bar where men wore hats with feathers, to sit in, just for kicks, with one of my all-time favorite jazz drummers (and friends) Walter "Baby Sweets" Perkins, who performed there with his trio. Around 2 a.m., while we took a break (and he practiced paradiddles on his practice pad in the back room), Walter asked me what I'd been up to. I recounted my weekend wryly, ala Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Walter listened, then looked up slyly. He asked me if this was just another stop on my ride. My eyes widened and I gasped in horror. "Walter, this is home!" I exclaimed.

And I meant it. However, I had to privately acknowledge that the South Bronx salsa gig was also home. As was the chamber music gig, and the avante garde thingamajib. There were many stops on my ride, none of them not "home". "I'm like a whore," I remember thinking to myself more than once in dark moods, "who really believes it."
I just found a note in one of my boxes, a message-in-a-bottle sent to my future self so he'd remember how kooky it was. In one month, I played with:
  • A flamenco/carnatic/jazz trio in Madrid with Indian tabla drums and Spanish acoustic guitar. Here's a brief sample:

  • (if that doesn't work, click here)
  • An (otherwise) all-woman samba band
  • An Irish experimental folk-rock duo with a singer/songwriter
  • A swing band led by a midget pianist (literally) old enough to have once rented a room from Scott Joplin's widow (Shorty Jackson; I'm just out of camera range in this shot)
  • A latin pop gig led by a Brazilian midget heartthrob (Nelson Ned, a helluva nice guy).
  • A rock band - also featuring a harp and cello - created by a Columbia PhD composer
  • A gypsy wake
  • A psychedelic New Orleans brass band (I think that was the week Bob Dorough travelled in from Delaware Water Gap just to sing "Conjunction Junction" with us).
  • A stream-of-consciousness avant-garde duo (with acoustic bass) that deliberately annoyed patrons of an East Village cafe run by a misanthrope (we called the group "Rainbow Love")
  • A group led by an internationally famous painter (Larry Rivers) who owned a saxophone


For a sense of my range (which enabled the promiscuousness), compare the sound sample above with this performance in the early 90s, around the same time as this kooky month.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Boxes: Midterm Note

Previous posting
First posting in "The Boxes" series
All "The Boxes" postings in reverse chronological order


A quick observation before I pick up the narrative....

I'm just shy of halfway through the boxes, and something's flipped. It's subtle, but as a veteran reframer, I'm sensitive to mental flips of perspective (I've been working on it since college).

My possessions just became finite.

I don't expect that to mean much to you. It wouldn't have meant much to me an hour ago. But it's an extremely odd way to feel after decades of nebulous blobbiness. I'm now a person with finite possessions. What a relief!


With friends in the Third World, and having spent much of my adult life scraping the bottom American echelons, I am well-aware that downsizing joy is the second most disgustingly indulgent indulgence a Rich World person can flaunt. The top one, naturally, is celebrating having eaten less food and reduced one's weight. America's "working poor" fight perpetual battles against obesity and clutter....and somehow never question their delusions of poverty.

My next projects: wean myself from the unrelenting carnal desire of multitudes of lingerie models (NOT NOW, SABRINA, I'M *WRITING*!), trim down my Ferrari collection, and stay home for a weekend rather than take another time machine ride.


Friday, May 22, 2020

The Boxes: Facile Trashing

Previous posting
First posting in "The Boxes" series
All "The Boxes" postings in reverse chronological order


When I describe the seething demonic piles of “Geez-Idunno” items (things I won’t trash yet don’t need) that have given rise to my Boxes Situation, everyone offers the same suggestion:
"Chuck it all in a dumpster," they suggest, "and don't look back. Pull off the bandaid quickly and be done with it. You won’t remember any of that stuff, much less miss it. Throw the problem away."
"Wallah," as the French say.

The advice is offered like a revelation. It's supposed to catch me off guard and surprise me. But the truth is that we People of the Boxes think of little else. Dumpster apocalypse - along with arson - is our perennial fantasy/obsession. We don't fear it, we yearn for it. But let me explain why it’s a crappy solution.

It assumes that my problem is that I'm clingy and materialistic; I'm over-identifying with my stuff and need to be freed from such bonds. And while I understand why someone might get this impression, it's comically off-kilter.

I'm unusually likely to walk away from this life and go live naked in the woods. If you told any of my friends "Hey, Jim left his keys in his car and a note on his unlocked front door reading "Take It!", and he's striding around a forest in a loin cloth," there wouldn't be much shock. Perhaps mild surprise. They might wonder "Why now?", but probably not "Why?"

Chowhound actually started out as "Jim Leff, The Chowhound", but I pulled myself gradually out of it, which is not how the world normally works.
And I shed my food-crazy persona immediately upon leaving CNET, feeling like Kevin Spacey losing his limp at the end of "The Usual Suspects":


Looks like you need to click into YouTube to watch the clip. Weird.


I have always opted to downshift, my signature move. There's less and less me as I self-combust in my work, and I started out with exhaustive letting go as a child yoga prodigy. Critical chunks can break off while I remain blithe. In short, I'm not someone who needs to restore perspective and loosen his grip. If anything, I could use to tighten up some.

So why hold onto unnecessary stuff? For the same reason I hold onto anything! Because I opt, for now, to keep the house and the car and the life, and I don't throw away my TV or toaster just because I can. I choose to pretend to be this guy in this place with this story, and the house, car, toaster, and TV are a part of it...as are my high school yearbook and press clippings and 3D glasses!

Arbitrarily throwing away significant-seeming things because they're uncategorizable would be just as ditzy as hoarding every object that comes into my possession. I want to avoid extreme solutions and keep pursuing a sane middle ground between mindless eradication and mindless hoarding.


Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Boxes: The Bad Room

In the previous installment, I described my multi-decade ordeal of accumulating and hauling a slew of cardboard boxes from apartment to apartment:
They grow as I go, and I'm pitifully unable to organize them. Or go near them. I've tried a few times over the years, and it went poorly, and I've blanked it out. Bad, bad, bad, bad. Bad boxes.
The Boxes had become my Achilles albatross, the embodiment of all failure. So when I was looking for something to work on during this bizarre lockdown - something that would, years from now, make me say "In retrospect, I'm grateful it gave me the opportunity!" - I realized it was time. So I dug in.



I dumped the first Box on my living room floor, and long-repressed issues flooded back. Most obviously: previous efforts had winnowed the chaff...multiple times. No pizza boxes, tissue paper, or non-working cheap pens remained. No obvious toss-outs. Obama used to say that easy problems never make it to a president's desk. Similarly, nothing easily discardable can be found in these Boxes. Every last item has, at some point, enticed me enough to be evaluated, and - very much against my own interest - wind up back in a Box.

None of it is quite enticing enough to be yanked into the center lane of my life, either. No stock certificates or quality screwdriver sets. This is a super-distilled syrup of things I can neither use nor discard, as dense as neutron stars.

But I persevered, working through it very calmly, without agitation or time awareness. We're on lockdown, after all. I've never knit, but I adopted a knitter's mindset of affably relaxed repetition. Tunnel-visioned away from the greater titanic burden of the Box Totality, I zeroed in on the items before me.

Over the years, I'd felt haunted by the prospect of handling every last scrap of note paper, every photo and love letter and business card. But that's just what I did. Knit one, purl two. I did, however, avoid launching into full-scale reveries. I declined to lean back and read all the letters and ancient takeout menus and appointment books. I gave each item respectful consideration, setting aside things requiring further thought or action, and moved on.

Whenever possible, I shot a photo and threw out the original. For example, this NY Press article by Caroline Knapp (a terrific writer who was under-radar at the time and later had a hit book called "Drinking: A Love Story"), which I'd been procrastinating reading for 30 years. The yellowing original is gone, and I have a tidy PDF (first link, above). God bless tech.

The long lonely silence of lockdown fostered this deliberate, patient approach. In the past, I'd felt anxious about giving previous life eras short shrift. But, this time, I wound the wind-up toys and took pleasure briefly scanning my second grade teacher's comments about my autobiography and enjoying my baseball cards as I hunted for valuable ones. I reconnected. This is a key balance: respectful reconnection without endless reveries.

I decided to summarily trash all takeout menus, food clippings and restaurant notes, since they're all over 20 years old. This purge - along with my shoot-and-scrap backup credo, plus a few other trashing mantras which I'll share in a later installment - helped me throw away more than I'd expected.

70% was trashed, 10% positioned to reenter the center lane of my life, and a few things went into an "ebay-or-donate" pile. This left one unspeakable demon pile sizzling with malevolence. A pile I knew well, though I ordinarily won't speak its name.

The dreaded "Geez, Idunno" pile contains items I can't part with yet will never need. My high school yearbook. Chowhound press clippings. 3-D glasses. My blue ribbon winning science fair project. I felt a strong urge to toss it all in a box and throw it into the basement, but that's how I'd gotten into this mess! This is what gives The Boxes their strongly repulsive charge! It hurts to even type this!

I paused for lunch, and returned to a war zone. Piles everywhere. Dust coating everything. Musty smell. And a demonic sizzling pile that was not going back into a Box if I could help it. The most traumatic memory of all suddenly flashed. Such piles, in previous organization attempts, would remain in place, often for years, as I was distracted by life stuff, until my next apartment move, whereupon I'd throw them hastily and miserably into - yeesh - boxes.

The foundations of my horror had all been laid bare:

1. Cleaning is filthiest work of all. The more you clean, the more intolerable your living space becomes. Who sees the actual clean end of it? God? Is that who? Do the angels delight in the scrubbed leading edge of it all while I sit mired in filth?

2. Let's call this Leff's Law of Taxonomy: With any project of categorization, no matter how thoughtfully you preestablish categories for every contingency, you will unavoidably produce a spillover of miscellany - uncategorizable items leaving you ghoulishly rocking and mumbling to yourself.

3. Such "Geez, Idunno" items are a virus. They have an agenda. They want to multiply until they've taken over all mental, emotional, and living space, compelling you to endlessly re-distill them into a diamond-hard state of utter invincibility.

The living room was not the only part of my house annihilated by dust and seething demonic perma-piles. My office, where the computer lives, became strewn with items brought up to research potential ebay listings. Another pile! This is how piles happen - which, in turn, is how Boxes happen. The cycle of pain floods back in a wave of deep nausea: cleaning -> piles -> boxes -> cleaning -> piles -> boxes, ad infinitum. Jane, stop this crazy thing.

But this time, I had an idea.
I'd venture to call it a brilliant idea, but only after observing that there are two routes to brilliance:

1. Actually be brilliant (which is hard, so forget it), or

2. Reversing deep stupidity.

My favorite financial writer, Andrew Tobias, insists that it's far easier to save 20% of your money via smarter consumption than it is to gain 20% via smarter investment. He notes, correctly, that it's the same 20% gain, regardless. The Brilliance of Reversed Stupidity is the same general idea. It yields the same relative elevation. And that’s what my idea did. There's nothing smart about it, yet it fixed absolutely everything.
Many Boxes live in a small room. They're not all in the basement because I figured that if I stored them all down there I'd never dive in and tame the beast. If they took an entire room hostage, I'd be forced to work through them. So I've been calling this The Bad Room.

I entered The Bad Room, pushed Boxes out of the way, and set up a folding table, a chair, a lamp, an air cleaner, a dust cloth, a dust buster, an old laptop computer plugged into AC, a Box cutter, a sharpie, multi-use labels, and tons of high-quality large-but-not-crazy-large trash bags. And I resolved that the project would happen entirely within this room.

Nothing would leave the room but garbage and packages bound for charity or postal delivery. And while I would inevitably wind up further distilling my clutter by reBoxing certain stuff, at least there'd be a lot less of it. And it would all stay right in this room, so there'd be no house annihilation or creepy frozen perms-piles. As Boxes emptied, I'd bring up more - up from the basement and out of the closets - for processing in The Bad Room. Big chaos would be processed into smaller order. Not a perfect plan, but viable.

I bought 18 gallon tubs - big enough to fit loads of objects but easily hoisted even full of books - and numbered them and created a spreadsheet itemizing their contents. One tub holds stuff to give away, another is for sellables, another holds items requiring examination/action, and a couple are slated for re-Boxing of Geez-Idunnos, which will happen not in frantic panic years hence, but methodically and smartly, with everything photographed and listed in the spreadsheet. No object would be unaccounted for, so everything would be easily accessible going forward. And no piles. And no raggedy cardboard. I'd tame my foggy warren of disconnected crap and actually posses my possessions.

Like a crazy person locked into a padded room until the madness lifts, I strode into the room, threw open the windows, cranked up the air cleaner, and got to work.


New tag/label for the Slog: Organization. Like all tag/labels, it's indexed in the left margin (below the Popular Entries), and calls up all postings thus labeled in reverse-chronological order.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Boxes: Making Hay Under Quarantine

I've hauled a slew of cardboard boxes from apartment to apartment since college. They grow as I go, and I'm pitifully unable to organize them. Or go near them. I've tried a few times over the years, and it went poorly, and I've blanked it out. Bad, bad, bad, bad. Bad boxes.

You wouldn't particularly notice them, because they're artfully scattered and concealed. A few behind the sofa, beneath the piano, atop the closets, around the basement, etc. I distribute them as craftily as squirrels hiding nuts. I'm as skillful as any alcoholic at maintaining the appearance of normalcy. If you took a photo of any room in my house, you could have endless fun playing "spot the box".



Sanity note: No, I'm not a pack rat. I do not navigate through narrow pathways between towers of teetery mouldering boxes. Nothing like that. I'm high-functioning. The three behind my sofa contain extra books that don't fit on my bookshelves. Four boxes of office supplies and lost gadgets lurk in my office closet, too densely-packed and inaccessible to be useful (so I keep buying fresh). A shocking number of historical, borderline-usable pillows gather in the laundry nook. A couple dozen boxes further out of sight harbor things like Chowhound press clippings, coin collections, Matchbox cars, Hot Wheels cars, baseball cards, wind-up toys, queued magazines from 1992, my high school diploma, my father's high school diploma, extra Palm Pilot batteries, a chin-up bar, several thousand takeout menus and business cards....
Business cards might be the single most foolish element of the human experience. I have no idea who/what any of those people or businesses are, except for a handful that I know so well that I don't need their damned business cards.
....kind, funny notes chowhounds sent along with their "Good Will" contribs (I suspect a few are reading now. Thanks for the good vibes!). My grandparents' silver wedding anniversary party photos and invitations. A backscratcher from Niagra Falls. Rolls of super 8 film from an abortive high school effort at amateur filmmaking. Forty gazillion inexplicable AC adapters, cords and dongles. Gadgets which would have had value if I'd sold them promptly on eBay, and I hate myself for sloppily missing that boat. Quisp beanies. Mounting clips for long-lost Ikea items. Beloved belongings I once took apart to try to fix but couldn't get back together and left splayed out on some surface for months gathering dust until I eventually needed to hastily dump it into a shoe box when yet another landlord gave me X days to vacate because his son/friend/criminal associate needed the apartment (the unmistakable stench of panic permeates these boxes; a pungent tang of a low-end NYC renter's heightened stress).



Whatever I accomplish in this life is trivial in comparison to my pressing, gaping, monstrous failure to tame this beast. I'm not a writer, musician, nor entrepreneur; I'm no food, beer, yoga, jazz, or community management expert. I am, at heart, the stricken, paralyzed owner/victim of these boxes. I don't live in a house. The boxes live in the house, and I'm just their hapless caretaker. They're my ball-and-chain; my cross to bear. My abomination.

Crazy perspective, right? But everyone has some arbitrary pain point they've blown up as the root cause of all that's wrong with their life and world. See "Our Albatrosses are Red Herrings" (which explains how such preoccupations can blow up into major societal issues). More tersely, I once wrote this:
I have no doubt that, in the most private corner of his psyche, Albert Einstein deemed himself a hopeless loser due to his funny-looking hair and disorganized desk.



Meanwhile, in other news...

The virus situation has stress-tested two major themes of this Slog:

1. It's folly to live in "What's Missing".
This was such an important insight for me that I've created a monster index page cataloging its evolution. It all started one Christmas Eve when I had a devil of a time deciding whether I was having a peak experience or a miserable ordeal, and it all revolved around a choice of framing. I needed to choose which was true: 1. what was actually happening, or 2. what was missing. Choosing the latter is mental illness, so I am a recovered crazy person. But I looked around, and saw, to my immense horror, that it’s the normal approach for most everyone. I've tried multiple angles (this one turned out particularly well) to persuade people to choose Heaven (What Is) over Hell (What's Missing). This simple flip of perspective flicks like a switch, and is utterly transformative. As I once wrote:
Leave a person in a quiet room, and he might meditate and one day leave in a state of vast peace. Put some bars on the window and the same person might decay into a debilitated wreck.
Pandemic version: watching Netflix, cozy on your couch, safe, well-fed, hydrated, in fine health, not under attack, no warlord compelling you to break rocks in the hot sun or demanding your spouse's sexual attentions, isn't Hell. Unless, that is, you live in What's Missing. If so, then, yes, your life truly is hell, regardless of the particulars, because there's always a vast litany of things missing. I love lasagna, but have spent .0001% of my life eating it. So is my life a tragedy?

I once recounted a story told by a woman....
...who'd worked as a driver for some Buddhist monks traveling around California for a series of meditation programs. The monks had fallen crazily in love with a certain brand of coffee they'd discovered during the trip. But while they practically jumped for joy whenever they came upon some, she found it interesting that they never showed the slightest trace of disappointment if they failed to find any. Even when days went by without finding their coffee, they were no less happy. It began to dawn on her that if they never drank that coffee again, it wouldn't bother them in the least. Yet each time they found it they positively basked in the delight.
When I first heard the story, I considered the monks remarkable. But I’ve come to realize that they were merely sane.
It's far easier to live in What Is than in What's Missing. Hell is tough to conjure up (it takes lots of mental horsepower and commitment), while Heaven's a snap. It’s where we actually are. 

2. Resilience is just reframing.
Resilience is about redirecting your attention, just after something goes wrong, toward the next handhold leading to the point where you'll say "In retrospect, I'm actually glad it happened." Rather than lingering post-crash, enjoy the climb to the next peak, like, right away. Don't pause. Don't steel yourself. Don't tighten up and curse the world. Just redirect your attention. Reframing is perpetually available. Be blithe!

I'm not naturally resilient. I've got scads of energy, but when my considerable momentum is impermeably blocked, I'm inclined to spin down into stupor. But I discovered that I can live straight through it all, come what may. Merely living shakes the dice and resets the board. I've opted out of disappointment and the "Oh, Shit" response, as well as other frothy modes of drama, amiably leaning forward like an ant. This attunes me to embrace serendipity as it arises - while other people, in their haughty world-rejecting sorrow, miss myriad lifelines and opportunities. I don't need to reach an acceptance point because I never deny in the first place. I embrace it as it comes, exuberantly playing the cards I'm dealt, and don't love the universe any less when things don't go my way. This makes me extraordinarily resilient.


The quarantine is a proving ground for both notions. There's obviously quite a bit missing in all our lives. And, rather than spin down into stupor, I can reach for a handhold leading to an outcome where, in retrospect, I'll be glad it happened. This can only mean one course of action: working through The Boxes.

The Boxes are the only wine bottle special enough to pull out for this occasion. And so I did it. I'm actually halfway done (I wanted to be sure I'd overcome the paralysis before mouthing off about how I'd done it). Along the way, I've learned about unfreezing frozen processes, and why they freeze in the first place. How to integrate the detritus of previous identities. And, most pragmatically, how to winnow and organize the ugly mound of Stuff so many of us drag around like a ball and chain. I'm far from the only one endlessly hoisting this albatross.

I've received truths. I've developed procedures. Stay tuned.

#AlbatrossHoisting

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Why Young People Don't Vote

Followup to yesterday's posting, "Why Would Democrats Sabotage Biden?", where I noted:
Ultimately it doesn't matter if Bernie people don't vote Biden. Bernie people didn't even turn out to vote for Bernie! That's why he lost!

Young people mostly don't vote, though Bernie, like every radical demagogue before him, was counting on a wave of participation by a contingent known to be far more mouthy than participative.
Why didn't the staunch Bernie fans actually come out and pull the lever for their beloved candidate? Why do young people so seldom vote, even though they're loud and energized?

On social media they feel mighty, smiting the wicked, venting their fury, and righteously delivering their enlightened message. It's like hollering into a hot microphone; a flattering echo and heft are seemingly added to their utterances. And when they attend a rally, they're more than part of a greater movement - they imagine they are the greater movement.

But voting? That's an unflattering action which reveals an unbearable truth: They're each a speck. A mere data point.


The segment that votes is old people. I used to figure it was because they have lots of time on their hands; they wake up super-early and need dull activities (mah-jongg, knitting, etc.) to fill their days before dinnertime at 4:45.

But no, that's not it. It's because they don't mind functioning as data points, having corrected the misimpression that they're starring in a cinematic experience. As I once wrote:
Maturity is the correction of the misconception that you're the protagonist in this drama.

You're not. You've never been. You're a character actor, briefly adding your bit of unique color to the action.

The evidence which accumulates to prove this only feels harrowing for those who insist on clinging to the misconception.
Old people - or, at least a lot more older people than younger people - tend to have integrated this truth. And that allows them to engage in steady, sane, unflattering actions like voting.


Saturday, May 16, 2020

Why Would Democrats Sabotage Biden?

The conundrum's been eating at me.

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.

Just my reflexive take on Shit World.


Ultimately it doesn't matter if Bernie people don't vote Biden. Bernie people didn't even turn out to vote for Bernie! That's why he lost!

Young people mostly don't vote, though Bernie, like every radical demagogue before him, was counting on a wave of participation by a contingent known to be far more mouthy than participative.


Thursday, May 14, 2020

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Framing Reopening

We're currently experiencing a framing conflict, both between segments of society, and within each of ourselves. As ever, we don't frame it as framing. We stubbornly refuse to trace our thoughts backwards to their source. We just arbitrarily adopt a frame (based on tribal cues, like flocks of birds), and freeze right there for a while, satisfied that we've selected the "correct" one.

It is brutally inhumane to proclaim thousands of deaths tolerable in the interest of re-opening the economy. Life is precious. Let's not love money more than we love human beings. Let's wait and do this when we can spare every soul.

We accept 38,000 annual traffic fatalities, without flinching, as the cost of a functioning modern society. We continue to grow and serve peanuts even though the tiniest bit of one can threaten the life of .6% of our population. Two million Americans would have their lives imperiled by bee stings, but we've not only failed to exterminate the bees, we're actually distressed that they're dying out on their own.

Neither of these antithetical views is wrong. They're simply different framings, both of them obviously correct. It is unquestionably callous and inhumane to condemn thousands to death just so we can relaunch the economy. Yet every one of us is callous and inhumane in the face of thousands of actual or prospective deaths.

These aren't differing "opinions", because an opinion has built-in traction, whereas both these perspectives are easily interchanged (unless you've willfully frozen yourself). It's like owning two houses - each feels like "home" when you're in it.

I'm not saying we can believe two contradictory things at once, because we can't. We can only oscillate between the two, like choosing a framing for the optical illusion below. One or the other comes easily, but you cannot see both at once. That's the hallmark of framing: it can effortlessly shift (so long as you haven't frozen perspective) but only one can be experienced at a time. Serial monogamy!

Belief is contextual, and context comes from framing (an inner choice which we project onto outside circumstance). Beliefs, ethics, and opinions all stem from framing. Among many other things, this explains the apparent endless hypocrisy of human beings, who are actually quite consistent within each framing. And, once again, framing is easily shifted...just so long as you haven't chosen to freeze it - which I'd discourage, because frozen perspective is what depression is. The shiftiness of framing is a feature, not a bug.


Regarding the virus and the economy, what's not a matter of framing and is a matter of right and wrong is the need to proceed intelligently and cautiously, weighing all risks with thoughtfulness and responsibility. To open the economy impulsively, and without consideration of different framings, would be an abomination. That's the Centrist view (and most of the country is Centrist without realizing it).

Buried the lede again. Doh.

Friday, May 8, 2020

The Truth Doesn't Need You to Lie


Philly Joe

I sent a drummer friend a link to this rare video of the great Philly Joe Jones, god of jazz drumming, playing a gig near the end of his life (with a 22-year-old Wynton Marsalis sitting in toward the end). Jones sounds awful. Bombastic, spastically misfiring; he's all over the place (bassist Larry Ridley probably lost 8 pounds trying to hold things together). He was obviously stinking drunk, but, hey, it's Philly Joe, so this is still an important document.

The drummer I sent it to is much more reverent than I am. So when I sent it along with a note saying "I don't know WTF's going on with his playing that night", he got his back up. Philly Joe's an immortal great and he thinks he sounds fantastic.

My first thought was that my friend takes a religious view...and I'd offended his faith. But then I realized I'm the more religious one.

I believe so strongly in Philly Joe Jones' greatness that I can watch him throwing feces around a jazz club without worshipping him less. I admire him enough to view him without flinching; without airbrushing; without self-deception. I don't need to concoct a fictional, mythical Philly Joe whose every note was flawless. To do so would deeply disrespect the actual one, and I like the actual one.

The Truth is sufficient. The Truth doesn't need me to lie.

Arnie

I profiled my late musical mentor Arnie Lawrence a few years ago, and was intensely proud of the result. I felt I'd truly captured him and paid fitting tribute. I'm sure he'd have appreciated it.

People close to Arnie, however, were livid. I'd revealed flaws, and discussed missteps and dead-ends. I showed his pain, his rejection, his friction, his frustration. None of this jibed with the heroic legacy they wanted to project. They had some unrecognizable Arnie in their minds who’d subsumed and replaced the actual guy.

I was dumbfounded. Was the actual guy so unsatisfactory that he deserved burial in an unmarked grave and supplanting with a two-dimensional myth? They thought I'd disrespected him, but, from my perspective, their revisionism was tantamount to a kick in his face. The Truth is sufficient. The Truth doesn't need you to lie for it.

Trump

Whenever I see the Left exaggerating Trumps multitudinous transgressions, it drives me bonkers. Isn't the truth bad enough? The Truth is sufficient. The Truth doesn't need you to lie for it!

Thursday, May 7, 2020

James Carville Slam Dunk



So let me explain the beautiful operation James Carville (Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign chief strategist) is really pulling off here.

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale is an accidental genius. He showed up with no aptitude or experience and Trump pulled him into his band of merry mutants, dildos, rejects, loudmouths, and mooks, appointing him digital media director of his 2016 campaign, a just-pretend operation for a "candidate" in it just for some extra cachet and moolah.

Parscale - who knew? - turned out to be a natural. It's a big reason Trump won. So Trump made him campaign manager for 2020, but all is not well in paradise:
As he huddled with advisers on Friday evening, President Donald Trump was still fuming over his sliding poll numbers and the onslaught of criticism he was facing for suggesting a day earlier that ingesting disinfectant might prove effective against coronavirus.

Within moments, the President was shouting -- not at the aides in the room, but into the phone -- at his campaign manager Brad Parscale, three people familiar with the matter told CNN. Shifting the blame away from himself, Trump berated Parscale for a recent spate of damaging poll numbers, even at one point threatening to sue Parscale.
This was fantastic news. It would be great if Parscale joined the long list of legit talents booted by Trump for failure to be properly shitty/subservient. So rascals like my man Rick Wilson immediately began trying to goad Trump into booting him:
But then Carville went on MSNBC last night and showed us how it's done. He delivered his spiel with conviction because, following the first rule of manipulation and trolling, it had the benefit of incidentally being true. As Carville also notes in the interview, Trump's polling is awful, all elections since 2016 have gone poorly for Republicans, Parscale is massively enriching himself, and Trump's people are laughing at him while delivering the ego-fluffing he self-defeatingly demands. It's all true, and that's what gives it power. Hell, it took even me a minute to recognize Carville's trolling here, and I'm in on this ("crumbling empire" was some next-level brilliance).

But if the election is in the bag, one might ask, why try to goad Trump into firing Parscale? Because, as Carville also says in the same interview, "Dems don't need to just win, they must end the scourge of Trumpism" by a giant victory.

Here's the full interview:



Chefs, Touch, and Alice Waters' Credo

Over and over, one hears chefs repeating Alice Water's credo of "using great ingredients and leaving them alone," even though it's always been a lie.

No human being would ever willingly pay for ingredients that weren’t extensively fiddled with. If you merely slice a carrot and serve it on fine china, diners will not have some deep carroty experience. Not even if you steam the carrot. Or steam it and salt it. Or if you steam it and salt it and sprinkle it with marjoram and drizzle it with olive oil (though we're getting closer). You need to do way more stuff to even approach deliciousness. Culinary minimalism always struck me as a crock; a head fake.

Gastronomy is decision-making applied to ingredients. Deliciousness stems from two aspects: 1. the overarching structure of innumerable decisions being shrewdly conceived (hot fudge cod? maybe not....), and 2. the individual decisions (stir the pasta 17 times or 18 times? cut the onions 1.1" thick or 1.2"?) being harmoniously on-point.
Most people think it's about execution, but the magic is in the ongoing stream of subtle decision-making. Poor execution can be mitigated much more easily by smart micro-decisions than poor deciding can be mitigated by deft execution. This is why robots don't produce inspirational food.

"Ongoing stream of subtle decision-making" accounts for the mysterious and all-important "touch" people talk about. Touch isn't in the movements of one’s hands, which are easily imitated. It's in the awareness guiding those movements...which is unique. 
Subject, not object. 
Both the macro (big picture decisions) and the micro (in-the-moment decisions) are necessary. When your four-year-old prepares your breakfast by emptying out the fridge and stirring it all together, copious love might be applied at every juncture, but she lacks overall shrewdness. And a great recipe - a roadmap supplanting big-picture decision-making - lives or dies by the carefulness of its step-by-step execution.

If you haven’t invested jillions of decisions, you're just serving lifeless ingredients, and nobody wants that. Which is why I never understood why the credo of "using great ingredients and leaving them alone" is so meaningful to so many chefs. "Great ingredients"? Fine, I suppose, though I've eaten fantastic food made from humdrum fixings. But the other part seems nutty. Great cooking is the opposite of ingredients left alone. It's all about action and manipulation; imbuing raw media with the imprints of myriad micro-decisions. The more the better! That's why kitchen work is so frenetic! 

But lately I've seen the credo in a different light. Chefs don’t hear it the way I do. They take the frenetic action for granted. A violin player never questions his role of positioning notes in time and in pitch within a shrewd overall game plan. That professional proposition is a given. So what chefs are really getting at is....well, wait. Let me explain a little about chefs.

Chefs are not like you and me. First, they eat like crap. If you spot some slob shooting supermarket spray cheese directly into his mouth while driving home from work, odds are good that he's just got off his shift as a high-end chef in some shmancy eatery. Chefs patronize Wendy's, and may insist that the hot dogs at 7-11 are "surprisingly good". Two factors explain this:

1. Enough With the Food, Already
If you work around food all day, there's not much room for exuberant, aspirational chowhounding after-hours. I can relate. When I'm not sitting at a monitor drooling vacantly in tedious anticipation of the best possible next word, I write like a retarded baboon. My text messages are downright goopy. I'm the guy who doesn't use question marks, and who confuses "your" and "you're". I can turn it back on when I have to, but I'd mostly rather not.

2. Blue Collar
No matter how chefs pose and preen on TV, kitchen work is a blue collar profession. These are not Mrs. Howells, naturally drawn to refined experience. I recently wrote about how music, for all its training and supposed glamour, is a blue-collar profession  - which explains how I managed to go deaf by denying basic reality due to notions of being a get-'er-done tough guy. Both chefs and musicians talk a good game, but we’re non-lofty. 

Chefs are skewed in other ways. For example, they're hellbent on consistency. Not just in terms of quality, but also re: portioning and appearance. Me, I have fewer than seven neurons devoted to such considerations. Also, you and I are capable of shame, so we factor in health. A big reason our cooking doesn't taste "professional" is that we don't cynically pile on the grease and salt.

You don’t need to be a cynic to observe that a big part of a chef’s job is to stealthily inject pillars of salt and buckets of fat into food. That accounts for much of the added value of the very proposition of restaurants. Consider the croissant, some bygone baker's solution to the challenge of infusing the greatest possible quantity of butter into the smallest possible quantity of flour. As we customers crunch into them, murmuring with pleasure like entranced children, bakers survey us with cold, clinical eyes. The drugs have taken effect. Excellent.

Some criticize downscale restaurants for serving "greasy" food, but that just means a kitchen does a poor job of hiding it. Upscale food is even greasier, but there's an obligation to cover tracks. You can’t risk grossing out Mrs. Howell with naked truth. The mission is to get her off, via very many sticks of butter, while leaving nary a trace of the underpinning vulgarity. It's a bit like cheerful pitchers of brunch mimosas, or Mommy's big box of Chardonnay perennially in the fridge. Alcoholism may be the unspoken truth, but I’m certainly no derelict vodka-swilling lush or whatever.

All restaurant food is greasy and salty as all get out. Lousy chefs don't mind if you notice, while higher-end chefs get paid extra for furnishing a veneer of lofty cultivation, i.e. plausible deniability. 

So back to the question: Why do chefs love the notion of "using great ingredients and leaving them alone"? Here's what I‘m guessing they mean:
“Rather than cooking thoughtlessly, knowing abundant sins will be hidden beneath ponds of glistening fat and blizzards of salt, maybe I can step up and produce actual deliciousness without cynical cheats. I can work harder, investing talent, vision, and loving care in lieu of butter, lard, and sodium.”
Sure, the food would still be laboriously manipulated, primped, and processed to the nth degree. But if you eliminate the gauche shortcuts - and the contrivances required to hide their evidence - then, at least relatively speaking, you can feel that you’re letting ingredients shine. Less piggy button-pushing and more genuine art. 

There's never been any notion of rolling back to raw carrot shavings. Just rolling back to cooking as you and I have always conceived it: with real care and creativity, rather than expedient cheating. Chefs would be illuminated wizards rather than pretentious drug pushers. 

If correct, this explains why chefs raise their chins as they recite the Alice Waters credo. It's like drug lords swearing to go straight, or porn actors resolving to audition for legit roles. It's where chefs' musings take them when they're in an elevational mood.


This reads like a harsh condemnation of chefs and of the entire industry. That wasn’t my intent, and I'd fix it if I could but I don’t see how to walk it back. I actually love chefs. I love their work, and I love having my buttons skillfully pushed in any possible way (I'm both hog and Mrs. Howell). I devoted years of my life to worshipping/evangelizing/supporting all that, and don't regret it. But one can recognize hypocrisy and vulgar expedience even in beloved realms.

In fact, I suppose it took me decades to finally understand the meaning of Alice Waters’ credo because I was particularly unwilling to recognize cold hard truth. 



Tuesday, May 5, 2020

68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice

If you enjoy this Slog, you'll like "68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice" from the always-interesting Kevin Kelly, who I've been reading since his Whole Earth Catalog/ Whole Earth Review days.


Here, fwiw, are my own nubs of Uncommon Terseness (the reader who extracted them has sent me a bunch of more recent ones, but I'm having a horrible time trying to order them).

Speaking of short stuff, check out my postings tagged with "definitions".

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Online Museum Collections

I wasn't aware that many great museums have put their collections online. Fun surfing (hat tip to Andrew Tobias).

The British Museum

The Paris Museum (in English!)

The Van Gogh Museum

The Art Institute of Chicago

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Smithsonian

And don't forget the wonderful UNESCO Digital Library


Making America Great Again

Fundamentals can be the hardest to grok. The primary principle of economics still, after all these years, seems deeply counterintuitive. Even if you understand it intellectually, you probably don't feel it in your gut. Here goes: consumers lead the market.

There is absolutely a circle of supply/demand, but it's not like chickens and eggs. The circle is steeply tilted, and demand sits atop.

We are in possibly the strangest recession in all of human history. Commerce has dried to a drip but it's not due to the normal pessimism and gloom, nor are we distracted and disrupted by grand activities (e.g. preparations for war) shifting commerce to another footing. There's no footing at all, and confidence was perfectly fine until a few weeks ago. So we're like Wile E Coyote off the cliff, helplessly awaiting gravity. Business leaders are shutting their eyes, sticking fingers in their ears, and waiting fitfully.

You and I aren't just waiting, we've mostly made up our minds. When the virus comes under more control, very hard times will ensue where we won't behave normally. There will be an extended interlude as normality reboots in fits and starts, though, hey, maybe things will never go back to normal.

In both bull and bear markets, the most tenacious fountain of irrationality stems from exactly that exquisitely contagious thought: "maybe things will never go back to normal". That thought is the Great Destroyer (it's a kissing cousin to the fallacy that makes us senselessly aim for infinity.

Infinity aside, it seems a foregone conclusion that hordes of unemployed, hordes of unpaid landlords, and hordes of shuttered businesses who couldn't pay rent, will combine to create a vicious circle, dragging us all down. Inevitable!

And yet the CEO classes, again, are in Wile E Coyote mode: suspended in freefall, braced, worried, and waiting. They know what we disregard: public sentiment is everything. If we think hell inevitable, hell we shall bring. If not - if we remain partially tethered to the confidence seen before the outbreak - we'll immediately begin recovery. The key will turn and the engine will at least engage. This is what economists refer to as a "V" shaped recovery, where we immediately move toward recovery without a listless plateau. And it will be determined entirely by consumer psychology/sentiment/framing.

If the majority of the country which is not unemployed returns to buying things and doing stuff - eating out and driving cars - and the 19 million (!!!) American millionaires don't psyche themselves out by lapsing into austerity mode, the fall will be relatively mild and more swiftly self-repairing. But self-repair doesn't begin until the engine engages. And it is us who make it engage.

It's a perceptual framing issue. If we feel in the icy pits of our stomachs that we're in a depression, we'll behave in ways that drastically magnify the problem (again: vicious circle). There's little business can do to entice us unless we're willing to be enticed.

At some point, a corner is turned (it's 100% psychological, a question of framing, and it can happen anytime or it can stall for decades). The engine sputters, then fires, then recovery begins. The world always returns to some balance. We just need to release the irrational notion that perhaps things will never go back to normal.

Remember Roosevelt's "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself"?


So here's my proposition: There is one single thing Donald Trump is good at: selling. Salesmen are gifted at inducing certain specific types of reframings; of perceptual shifts. So, while I hate to admit it, he may be the perfect guy for the task. More so than an Obama or a Reagan. More than Roosevelt or Kennedy or Lincoln. He's the one with proven talent for inducing consumerist reframing at scale. This is his wheelhouse.

Wouldn't it be the ultimate irony if Trump's the guy who saves the nation from its worst depression ever? I thought America was plenty great in 2016, but we're at a critical moment, needing to re-spark the engine of economic greatness. It's not about metrics or conditions, it's purely about psyching ourselves up and shifting our perspective. We need a salesman, and we've been cursed and burdened for three years with a master salesman whose one tool was comically wrong for the job...at least until now.


If that notion filled you with such rage and disgust that you'd root against it, then you've gone off the deep end. That's what hatred does; it makes you act against your own interest. It's one of several reasons I try not to hate, though I'd have given up fingers and toes for a change of president.

Of course, all this said, a second viral wave is likely in fall/winter, and a vaccine won't be ready until months after that, so Trump will most likely not be in office when we actually require his unique and narrow talent. So this is just speculative musing.


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