Saturday, October 31, 2020

Election Anxiety

I've had the following conversation dozens of times recently with liberal friends:

Friend: I'm sick with anxiety about this election.

Me: Relax. Trump can't win.

Friend: But 2016!

Me: He won 2016 by tens of thousands of votes in certain swing counties. He has not added a single new supporter since then, but he's activated a massive opposition and repelled a critical mass of 2016 supporters (a great many of whom were specifically anti-Hillary). He can't win...which, of course, doesn't mean Biden will be president.

Friend: You're hedging.

Me: No, I'm specifically speaking to the issue you said was making you sick with anxiety. You can relax on that one. The election goes to Biden.

Friend: But, as you noted, that may not be enough.

Me: What's ever "enough"? What's the scenario where you fully exhale and decide you like the world? Have you even fleshed that out? For example, if Biden's sworn in but Jared Kushner escapes jail and Don Jr comes to lead a zombie army, would that be enough? If AOC becomes president, all the guns are melted, and no man ever explains anything ever again, but the Supreme Court remains 6-3, would that be enough? What's the "All Better!" point? 

The first thing, I think, is to untangle blurry fears and issues into specific strands, and address them, realistically, one strand at a time. You say you're afraid about the election, and you can check that off your list. But, really, you're only feigning specificity. Your fear is a big amorphous blob. It will never fully resolve, because that's not how the world works. This isn't a movie, so there's no "living happily ever after".

Armenians I've known never stop obsessing over the Armenian genocide early in the 20th century. I asked one why they remain so immediately hung up about it. I rarely think about the Jewish genocide, which was a generation more recent. "Because, unlike the Germans, the Turks never admitted it even happened, much less apologized,” she replied.

Fair point, but something still didn't sit right. I pondered it for a long time, and finally began asking Armenians this question:
"If the Turks formally apologized, what then? What would your life be like? Would it feel, like, great?"
This question is what's known as a stopper. It turns people into frozen statues. As such, I've never received a coherent reply. Only confused stammering.

The genocide issue is the leading edge of an amorphous blob of trepidation and loathing. It seems quite obvious to me that an apology from Turkey would barely move anyone's needle. Some new voracious struggle would immediately replace it, like a vending machine pushing forward the next candy bar.

The proverbial dog-who-caught-the-car swiftly finds another car to chase. Our big huffy issues here in Utopia are merely mill grist. They're hot-swappable expansion packs for our life-game console.

We don't want what we say we want. Your current "Ask" is just a disposable wrapper covering gurgling oceans of indefinite Need. Give a kid the lollipop he's whined for and he'll immediately start whining for something else. What we really want is for it all to be good; for nothing to be disquieting or discomforting; for all those rotten bastards out there to get what they have coming; and to live happily every after.

Even an obliging genie couldn't make sense of such a vague and infantile wish.

Your current Ask - whatever you're making yourself sick over - is your ballast; the load you turn to when you notice you're straying too close to happiness; to comfort; to gratitude; to safety; to freedom. Having chosen a happiness level in early childhood (as part of our personality selection process), we maintain a psychic dungeon we go to to ballast ourselves back down to a more appropriate level of discontent.

And there's always some handy ballast we can grab, even if an old favorite goes out of stock (e.g. an election is won, a lollipop appears, the Turks apologize, or Kushner's jailed). I explained it here:
Everyone, at a certain point, decides how happy they will be (as with most such choices, cues are taken from the happiness of family members and others around them). This decision becomes a bedrock part of identity - the "I am this kind of person" inner narrative we all maintain.

Aside from truly dramatic life events, people maintain a remarkably consistent happiness level over time. Even moody "up-and-down" types are consistent in their range. We maintain the equilibrium our self-image requires by taking on and discharging ballast - like a ship. And, just as we choose our happiness level, at some point we choose our ballast of choice: worries, anger, sadness, aggravation, etc. The ballast enables us to maintain our happiness at the correct level.

The world does not lack for ballast. In fact, potential ballast is infinite. Yet isn't it interesting how people vary in their eagerness for the stuff?

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Unmovable Precept Meets the Irresistible Force

I have a precept I strongly believe in but can't live by.

Most people live in a world of limited lovability. They choose to bask fully in only a very narrow slice, and that slice is their refuge. So there's no greater evil than shaming people for loving the things they love. Snobbery makes another person's world less lovable. 

Consider the ramifications. By pressuring someone to reframe their existence into a grayer, less lovable place, you have essentially imprisoned them. You have damned them.

This is a big reason why I hate snobbery. And it's something I've had to consider and confront, myself, because some people have the mistaken impression that a food critic's opinion trumps their own. So I need to be careful. If you love certain shitty cookies, and I make you feel dumb about that preference, you might never enjoy those cookies in quite the same way (even if you dismiss my opinion). I can spoil things for people, and if those things were a refuge, I've done a terrible thing! Everything we cherish is unimaginably precious.

The proposition of my food writing career (and of Chowhound) was a feat of judo. I tried to re-channel culinary snobbery. Let me trace the evolution:
"Your favorite cookies suck!"

"Your favorite cookies suck but TRY THESE!"

"By all means, enjoy your cookies, but also try THESE (which I'll rave over like a lunatic until you're captivated into trying them)."
Snobbery suppressed, displaced, and transformed. This is how a chowhound scales Maslow's hierarchy of needs. 

Outside of food, though, it is much harder.

Say someone you respect becomes entranced by some flagrant bullshit. It's not seriously harming her - on the contrary, she glows with appreciation for the bullshit. It's a slice of lovability, a refuge. It would be evil to try to dim that light.'s bullshit. So your mission is to maintain tactfulness and avoid telegraphing your disapproval. You must prevaricate. Pose. Patronize. Ugh. Kindness requires bullshitting skills. And thus the stench spreads.

There are other (completely unrelated) issues I grapple with. For example, I have the hardest time remembering to flip my street smarts.
I always figured my street smarts - my ability to instantly know who's who, and what someone's capable of - were a good thing. There's no disputing that they've come in very handy. But I recently realized what street smarts actually are: a nonstop subconscious monitoring and gauging of the very worst in people.

That may sound anxious-making, or even paranoid, but it's actually not. On the contrary, this low-level monitoring makes me feel calmly secure, because I always know what I'm up against. And whereas paranoia is delusional, this scanning provides true, useful info. Much experience over time has borne that out.

I'm not a negative person. This stuff is all unconscious, and it never dominates. Consciously, I appreciate the positive aspects of people I meet. I'd be completely enjoying my conversation with you (not worrying whether you'll attack me!), because you're a nice person! But if the stranger sitting behind you suddenly goes nuts, I'll have spotted him first.

But here's why it's a curse. Human beings have dark depths. Some of us "go there" more easily (and I can smell those people effortlessly). But we also have divine heights. And street-smart people don't monitor for that. There may be conscious appreciation, but it's not part of the humming substructure.

Like most street-smart people, crowds make me edgy. Lots of information, lots of negative potential. But lately I've been experimenting with flipping it. I scan crowd faces (which, if you pay attention, are almost always glum, drained, self-absorbed, burdened, and/or angry in the rich First World), and intuit how close everyone is to erupting into radiant smiles.

It's startlingly, disarmingly easy. To my amazement, it's even true. My radar confirms it's in there! The potential does exist! Always!

And I'm aiming for an even bigger flip. When I talk to people, I'm trying to speak to their latent smile, rather than to their latent darkness. I don't necessarily aim to draw out that smile (which would feel manipulative); I just "get" them in their hidden light, rather than their hidden darkness.

It is, again, surprisingly easy.
Yeah, easy to do (because it's a reframing, and reframing is instant and effortless), but hard to remember to do!

Another one: I cracked the code on producing magic (i.e. transcendent quality), but have been damned by some malign force to repeatedly, stupidly, absurdly keep forgetting. As I wrote here (also see "The Times Everything Worked Out", "Epiphany, Eureka, and Inspiration", "Explaining Steve Jobs", and Every posting tagged "Creativity"):
I used to teach jazz improvisation workshops around Europe. Among my clever exercises and useful bits of advice, the thing that most helped students was a simple, exasperated and brutal observation:
You guys are sitting there, slumped in your chairs, mopey and dead-eyed. You're honking out jazzy notes like it's the latest dreary task in your daily grind, along with vacuuming the living room or tying your shoes. You're not working hard and you're not particularly trying...even though you absolutely need to, because you're not good yet.

Now, consider me. I'm a professional. I'm good. In fact, I'd sound good even if I sat back like a mope, treating this like some dreary task. Yet I don't. Look at me here, trying phenomenally hard. I'm sweating bullets and considering every note as if my life depended on it. Why are you working and caring so much less than I am? Does it make even the slightest bit of sense?!?
It struck them like thunder. Every time. And it often stuck with them.

It's devilishly hard to distribute insights evenly into all aspects of one's life. I needed to learn the power of commitment twice; once with music and then again with writing. Now, after a decade of effort to improve my cooking, and feeling that I was still missing an essential piece, it turns out that that piece was my very own signature hard-won lesson. Sigh.
Why is my cooking delicious and not devastating? Because I'm merely super-hyper-mega committed, which makes me a piker. Seeing the chefs at Nudel, I instantly flashed: they could cook better than me without even trying. So why do I try so much less than they do?
There's a big difference, however. The above two are precepts I constantly forget to apply. But my non-evil rule is something I wish I could forget.

I took another whack at making this point here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Standup Comedy

Stand up comedy is a form of live-read poetry designed to evoke diaphragmatic spasm via the induction of benign surprise.

All postings labeled "definitions"

Monday, October 26, 2020

I Wasn't Shirley Temple

I've always felt uncomfortable writing about music, particularly my experience in my 20s and 30s. I don't want to provoke clichéd impressions. Hearing about a "young white musician hooking up with old black players in their 70s, 80s, and 90s", one conjures up images of cross-cultural mentorship and a tradition being passed down.

It was nothing of the kind. I was not an adorable moppet and my friends weren't Magical Negros.

I wasn't being initiated by the OGs. Hopefully my Major Holley posting conveyed some of the flavor - that these weren't my mentors (though they were always my heroes). They were pals and co-conspirators.

You've got to turn back clocks to understand. Jazz, in the beginning, was supremely naughty. And my circle of friends - the aging second and third generation - held some connection to that original spirit. They were rawly present. They didn't follow musical rules reverse-engineered to feebly replicate the magic  They were singing, unfettered, with their true voices, and they were rascals, one and all.

Young players had begun to stream out of conservatories where they'd been taught How To Play Jazz - an institutional process antithetical to a music that is all about resisting conformity, busting out of formula, and finding one's own unique means of expression. Not only is there no "right" or "wrong" in jazz; the entire game is about challenging complacent assumptions and crossing lines of propriety. A real jazz musician lives to evoke beauty via clever transgression (that, in fact, is how Western Art has always evolved).

I was drawn to the allure of cleverly beautiful transgression, and never lost my affinity for it over the many years it took to learn to fluently improvise. Most of my generation (and those who followed) never understood to begin with, and the few who did were so broken by the machinery of the new "Jazz Education System” that they emerged proudly conformist, eagerly formulaic, and impressively skilled at aping other people's unique means of expression.

I was an aberration; gleefully naughty. And so were my elderly pals. So we co-conspired. I brought youthful energy, they brought experience. Some entirely forgot that I was young and white (because they lived in their ears, not their eyes or their internal spreadsheets). Others never forgot for one moment, but suspended disbelief during the actual playing. But at no point was I presented with the keys to a tradition. Jazz isn't the Stanley Cup. There's no matriculation. It's a spirit, an attitude, a groove, freely available to anyone so attuned. People truly steeped in the music absolutely grok that. It feels strange to me to have to explain it. 

At that moment, in the late 1980s, jazz musicians were doing lots of posing and replication, but the spirit itself was rarely invoked. Holdouts drifted together to huddle for warmth, like family. That's what we were: a family of misfits seeking to constantly renew our attunement. And I was the youngster.

Now, alas, the spirit has extinguished. One can still hear the trappings - the notes, the licks, the skillful aping of other people's unique means of expression. But canned docility has become not just the sad reality, but the overarching goal; the whole ball game. I haven't heard a naughty note - beautifully transgressive - since the 1990s. And, to my shame, I did nothing to help preserve it, my promiscuity having drawn me into other realms.

When I’m old, I’ll be the last Mohican, though no one will have the slightest idea. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Major Holley

Be-deep bee deep be-dee-deep; dop, dop, bee-doo-bee.

This short phrase from a long forgotten bass solo is one of the fundaments of my musical life.

I was a real jazzbo at age 13, so my parents bought me a couple of Music Minus One records. These were a thing before Americans had heard of karaoke. A single track was removed from a performance - like magic! - so you, at home, could play that part.

In this case, it was "The Music of Fats Waller", and some of the best players of the century were on the recording. I played along many hundreds of times, wearing out the record, and you can't convince me I didn't actually play with those guys hundreds of times. I'd come home from school, pour myself a couple fingers of juice, hoist trombone to mouth, and take the stage with Zoot Sims, Dick Wellstood and a fantastic bass player I'd never heard of named Major Holley, to play buttery, primal, urbane swing. I took youthful credit for discovering Holley (much as, at around the same time, I took pride in my discovery of international violin superstar Ruggiero Ricci).

Holley had played with Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and most everyone else, without ever making much of a name with the general public (which sort of sums up my own career, as well). And while bass solos are rarely the best part of the song, well, bus drivers don't normally give out bubblegum, either. I remember every note of every one of his solos; every micro-nuance. You could create a higher-fidelity recording by outputting my memory than you could with the original studio tapes.

Let's cut ahead years and years and years. It's the late 1980s, and I've been lucky enough to work with and befriend many great players. Out of nowhere pops up an opportunity to sit in with....Major Holley!

Major is playing in duo with a pianist, who asks me what I want to play, so I call one of the Fats Waller songs from the record, and, in my solo, I allude to The Foundational Lick, which, of course, Major doesn't even vaguely recognize from a blizzard of lifetime record dates. I don't care. The circle is complete. I'm sharing the stage with my old colleague again, only now 1. I'm actually good and 2. he's actually there.

Major's shtick was to sing along with his solos, creating a thunderous, rip-snorting effect. I'd developed a multiphonic technique, myself, so, between the two of us, we were a quartet. This tickled Major no end.

This wasn't, as you might think, a kid sucking up to an aloof veteran. We were two kids, one of whom happened to be 65. Major shared my eagerness because I was utterly adapted to his ecosystem. He was an odd-shaped screw and I was the matching nut. From that moment forward, whenever he gigged in New York, he'd ask me to come by and sit in.

We had little in common, superficially. And he wasn’t what you’d call a super-nice guy. I remember leaving a club with him one bitterly cold night when a young homeless black guy launched his panhandling spiel to the dapper, dignified bassist, starting "Hey, brother...." Major shut him down very fast and very, very hard. I learned something about black generational differences that night. In fact, I've had few black friends since my elderly circle vanished; I just couldn't help viewing the hiphop generation through their grandparents' disapproving eyes.

His hard-assedness didn't matter. I didn't need Major Holley to be "nice", or to validate me, or to teach me anything. I simply wanted to play as much with him as humanly possible, because that's what I'd spent the previous couple of decades preparing for. That's what I was made for. And he felt it. We were the most kindred of musical spirits, thick as thieves, and nothing else came close to mattering.

The last time I saw Major, he said he had big plans for me, and would be in touch when he got back from his European tour. He fell ill on that trip, and passed away soon after his return, exactly thirty years ago today. I began to stray into writing, eventually going all in on Chowhound, and never was a musician again.

This wasn't the only hero who died shortly after vaguely mentioning big plans to me. British writer Michael Jackson, who singlehandedly launched this entire beer craze, was an eating buddy, and I had a voice mail from him asking to meet on his next trip to the states to discuss some scheme. He never made it. And there was a good chance I’d be slated to play a trombone/mandolin duet with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe when he kicked the bucket. Moral of the story: do not make plans with Jim Leff!

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

What if the COVID-19 Shoe Dropped and No One Noticed?

Many have been waiting for the other shoe to drop from Operation Maskless Freedom (thanks, Trump; thanks, Murdoch; thanks, Putin). We assumed those people would get sick and die (the full humans among us considering the prospect tragic).

That was an unthoughtful and ignorant expectation. I have to admit that I was sucked into the anti-science of the Left (both sides have anti-science tendencies). Taking off your mask is not a death sentence for you or those around you. It increases your odds of maybe getting/giving an infection that might present symptoms which might become serious. That's a lot of maybes, each a rather steep plateau. The real danger is for society at large; i.e. worsening the odds for everyone by a few critical percentage points, tying up emergency rooms, etc. This is not anthrax; it's not a Michael Crichton novel where a slip-up - a small tear in your hazmat suit - means you're a goner. That's not the proposition here.

A dozen Maskless Freedom types I know have mysterious "colds that won't go away." And I find that everyone knows a few such people. They surely don't have Covid (they just know it), they're just fatigued and coughing. They'll never test themselves because Fox told them it's a hoax, and, anyway, they dislike bad news (that transcends politics; I know many people who never test for anything ever).

Some will get worse. Most won't. The possibility of lifelong neuro or cardiovascular damage - or of fresh issues emerging in victims years later, ala polio - is, of course, the terrifying x-factor (and the reason herd immunity whackos are whackos). But this is the comeuppance: loads of people with mysterious perma-colds, a handful of whom get so bad they need to go to doctors, where they're tested and diagnosed. Those are the ones counted; the tip of the underestimated iceberg represented by current upsurge stats.

The shoe dropped without any of us realizing. It was never going to be vast swathes of MAGAs perishing, because, again, the real peril with this virus is at scale. And you won't hear about this on the news, because there's no hard data on people "having trouble getting rid of a cold". We don't go to doctors for that.

I should have predicted this outcome - we all should have - but let's learn from our mistakes and try to think more clearly.

Jim Leff's Slog: Perennially trying (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to think more clearly.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Pandemic Sauce Spaghetti

I mentioned this video on Facebook but I just realized I forgot to slog about it:

Friend-of-the-Slog Paul Trapani created this "Pandemic Sauce" video to serve a very specific need: his friends were complaining last spring about how supermarkets were all out of spaghetti sauce due to pandemic hoarding.

As a Sicilian, this drove Paul a little batty, because tomato sauce is so easy to make yourself. So as a health emergency public service, he offered this video to show people how easy it is.
Of course, 90% of the value is in the bad things Paul staunchly does NOT do. Avoiding mistakes is the little-examined dark matter in a world where everyone pursues Slick Moves ($300 copper pots! The entire inventory of Williams Sonoma! Etc.!) rather than the expungement of Dumb Blunders. Nobody wants to expunge blunders because that would make them feel like blunderers. Once again, humans would rather feel smart than be smart, and feeling smart requires ignoring, at all costs, your stupidity.
Paul admirably sidestepped the expected Italian logic outcome where in trying to demonstrate an easy thing, loads of unnecessary complexity get piled on because only a stronzo would take a basic approach.

This is the most stripped-down sauce imaginable. And, if you do it right, it's good - while supermarket sauce is very very not good. There is something to be said for easy step-ups.

I've made spaghetti sauces an order of magnitude or two more ambitious. They took much time and fuss, and, honestly, were well worth it, because the end results were far more refined and nuanced. But, despite what snobs say, "refined and nuanced" isn't superior. Simplicity absolutely has its uses. I'd much prefer an excellent simple sauce to a pretty good refined one. In fact, I wouldn't necessarily prefer an excellent refined one to an excellent simple one. It depends on the context, and what I'm in the mood for. Every snobbish heirarchy stems from misconstruing wonderfully diverse horizontal options with shame-provoked vertical aspirations.

Anyway, here's my latest effort (it's way better if you click to expand the photo):

Having made a slew of Paul's pandemic sauce, I'm beginning to inject small iterative tweaks:

1. I simplified the procedure still more by crushing tomatoes (with the potato masher!) right in the pot with the garlic. That's one less bowl to wash!

2. For the first time, I added ground parmesan cheese.

I'm not a fan of the Nebraska Sprinkle - the shaggy white mound atop the sauce atop the spaghetti that screams "That's Italian!!!" to gringos. Cheese, like secret agents, does its best work quietly burrowed deep inside the enterprise. So I grated up a half cup, and, after draining the spaghetti, I returned the pasta to its cooking pot and savagely stirred in the cheese, as if I were making a cacio e pepe, along with a whole bunch of grated black pepper (I've been experimenting with potent Tellicherry Indian black peppercorns, and while there are a lot of contexts - e.g. in combination with onions - where I still rely on The Seasoning of My People - 10-year old Durkees pepper stored over-the-stove - I'm digging this stuff for pasta). Then, after the violent alloying of pasta, cheese, and pepper into a new Higher Substance, I delicately, oh-so-lightly, stirred in (still in the cooking pot) pandemic sauce. I didn't spoon it atop plated pasta because I don't like the inevitable uncoated strands from the watery borderlands, but I didn't over-stir because I also dislike the school lunchroom effect where sauce has been completely worked-in, leaving the pasta ketchup-red and every bite offering the same sauce-to-pasta ratio.

I offered this cooking tip on Twitter last week:
Every time you cook something, criticize it like it’s a restaurant. And next time, make tiny adjustments to ensure it comes closer to your pref. Think Grand Canyon: macro progress via cumulative myriad micro-iterations.
...and that's exactly what the above moves were about. I don't like the Nebraska Sprinkle or Lunchroom Effect Saucing. And it's my kitchen and my pasta, so I'm absolutely free to coddle my preferences. You can get very far as a cook by simply making your preferences conscious and gradually but persistently aiming to coddle them...even if your efforts are blindly feeble (with sufficient iterations, anything's possible, so long as you never stop trying).

3. I used really fancy expensive spaghetti (Rustichella, which is produced painstakingly in some bronze thingee or whatever).

Why? Look, I've had a slight aversion to choosing spaghetti as a pasta shape to cook for various reasons. I'm now all-in, so I'm helping myself over the hump via The Best I Can Buy. It's inevitable that I'll downshift to De Cecco. But for now, I up-pay for the psychological support.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The 4 Minute Mile: Establishing a Framing vs Following Formula

This sensational cover of "Dreams" by Fleetwood Mac is sweeping the Internet:

You see a woman singing (quite well). Me? I see the 4 minute mile. More on that in a moment. First some quick impressions:

1. To cover a song that's been so mind-numbingly overplayed (I was alive in 1977, and just barely survived with sanity intact), and make me listen all the way through - and even like it - is near-miraculous.

2. Professional musician appraisal: this woman is supremely talented. No laser-sharp scalpel of penetrating criticism could find fault with a single note, a single breath. This is Nadia Comăneci territory. Perfect 10.

3. What's more, it's effortless. It's not the sort of effortlessness that comes with hard work, however. This is effortless effortlessness. She was born this way.

That's not to say she hasn't worked. She undoubtedly has. But the perfection you're seeing doesn't stem from that work. It gave her confidence, consistency, versatility, and showed her her own limits. But the perfect timing, perfect pitch, perfect shadings of timbre and feeling? Natural, all of it, goddamn it.
Here, fyi, is another very young singer, with equal natural talent, who works the jazzier side of things.
But for all her talent and subtlety, she has not an iota of creativity. You can replay that video 14,000 times and never pick out a single nuance, intention, or shading you haven't heard a zillion times before. And the tantalizing scraps of emotion, perfectly portrayed, are 100% canned, simulated, faked. She cooly injects heat with scientific precision, like adding a precise quantity of argon gas to a beaker. She even lets us see the machinations. After her most impassioned bursts, she side-eyes the camera with bemused mirth. Fooled you!

Whipping together a grab bag of canned, clichéd moves with easy talent and charismatic delivery is suficient to achieve great things in this world, and I hope she does. But her approach is, alas, hollow and cynical.

If you don't understand, let me shake you up a little. Here's Billie Holiday in 1959, wailing her way through "Strange Fruit", her gutsy original song about lynchings. See if you detect any side-eye to the camera. See if you catch her adorably puncturing her own mock-seriousness. See if there's anything "mock" about this.

Ok, the two songs are extremely dissimilar, so I'm a dork for choosing this as a contrast. But regardless of material, it would not occur to Billie to wink at the camera - "Look at me, acting all emotional!" - because Billie isn't acting. She's genuine. Remember "genuine"?

Stevie Nicks spent years on the road honing her music. By contrast, the post-adolescent in this video likely developed her skills in showers and on school buses. And, to be honest, she kicks Stevie's butt. She does Stevie's thing better than Stevie ever did, and blends in plenty of other singers just as skillfully, pastiching a flawless result via ungodly natural talent and skill.

So here's the big question: How does someone like this kick the butt of someone like that?

Leapfrogging. Efficiency. Roadmaps. The vast difference between devising a formula and following a formula.

Stevie came up with a way of singing that was the organic product of rich life experience and a particular  stream of influences. She distilled it into a unique expression of perspective - a musical framing. And once someone creative establishes a fresh framing, it's much, much easier for people to glom onto it, effortlessly.

If you discovered a door in your home no one had previously noticed, everyone would start passing easily in and out of that doorway with nary a thought. Your genius fostered their ease. Finding and establishing hidden doorways requires vision and commitment. Stevie took years to find her door and to present it contagiously. YouTube woman waltzed through the easy open door.

I'm trying to make a larger point, and don't mean to leave this terrific kid bashed and bloodied. If she didn't have freakish talent, skill, and charisma, none of this would be worth discussing, and I wouldn't have been riveted to my screen. Credit given; hats tipped! But, in the larger picture, it’s posing. She's not doing, she's seeming (same even when she sings her heartfelt original composition about depression). This is the best seeming a seemer could ever seem. But I felt nothing deep or lasting. My perspective wasn't tweaked, much less shifted. There was no galvanization or inspiration. I was merely impressed.

Truly creative people move you more than they impress you, because it's not about them. Inspiration serves you, the observer, whereas admiration solicitation serves only the performer. The latter is like getting trapped in a spider web while the former is liberating.

In 1954, Roger Bannister ran a mile in under 4 minutes. It was a miracle; an accomplishment previously deemed impossible. Yet suddenly everyone could do it (see the progression here).

Suddenly everyone could do it.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Lincoln Project

I first directed your attention to Rick Wilson in this posting from four years ago.

I've recommended him a number of times since, and tonight, the group he co-founded, "The Lincoln Project", which has grown into the preeminent anti-Trump media voice, gets profiled on tonight's 60 Minutes (there was also a great profile of them in last week's New Yorker).

If you missed their glorious pandemic tribute to "Evita", titled "Covita", you're in for a treat. Turn the sound way up (more great Lincoln Project videos here):

I usually forget to circle back and say "told yuh" (I did take a smash dunk on something back in July), but at least I can rest assured that the scattering of you reading this stuff get at least some benefit.

There is a chance the very final Lincoln Project ad before the election - the "closer", if you will - will be an idea I proposed ages ago. At that time, they were still obscure, and loved the idea. Their queue is now full of suggestions from major Hollywood types, but I have a feeling they may circle back and produce this. If so, I'll let you know.

Update: they just told me it's currently in production. But we'll see.

Friday, October 9, 2020

How to Be a Ninja

Today I knocked over a small bottle with the back of my hand. As it fell toward the floor, I snatched it with that same hand, catching it swiftly in mid-fall. No biggie.

It dawned on me that I'd done something almost impossibly hard. And I must emphasize that I'm not well-coordinated. Yet this sort of thing happens a lot.

To solve this mystery, your first observation would be that I'm calm. So there’s no spastic flustered flailing. My face remains placid and my heart rate doesn’t budge. And, indeed, that's a big part of it. But the full explanation has to do with bandwidth.

Most people in that situation would launch a mental narrative that's lengthy but fast-playing (since it's so familiar and rehearsed):

"Aw, crap. Another thing's going wrong in this shitty day of my shitty life in this shit-tastic universe. I'd better catch the goddamn bottle. Now, where is the thing? There? Better grab fast. GO! GO! GO, goddamn it!! I'll probably miss, and that will suck even more..."
You protest, right? You believe you're nowhere near so negative! Well, let me ask you this: have you ever spent a New Year's Eve thinking "that was a real good year?" No, you haven't. Not once. We kick every year in its ass on its way out. Every damned one. To a neutral observer (say, your great-great grandfather, before he died from that infected paper cut or was eaten by a bear or shot and left to bleed out during some grisly armed conflict), we're living far more comfortable, luxurious, secure, empowered, and entertained lives than our ancestors could have imagined, including emperors (Julius Caesar would switch places with you in a heartbeat). Yet, to us jaded aristocrats, it's a nonstop toilet flush. We live in Shit World, a conceptual realm with little resemblance to the world in which we actually live, which is a unique tiny point of delight - a refuge of nourishing sunlight, oxygen, food, water, love, entertainment and infinitely rich possibility within a vast universe of dark empty coldness. Even if the president tweets like a lunatic and you have to wear a mask at the supermarket. 
The bottle has hit the ground before your hand got anywhere close. And this triggers yet another "Oh, shit!" response. Another aggravation to add to add to the immense psychic burden (every stubbed toe, every blasting alarm clock, every misplaced car key, etc.).

I wrote the following here:
Once you’ve escaped the ISIS prison camp, and made it back home, it’s a good idea, when you stub your toe, to resist the urge to cry “DOES IT EVER END??”

If you don’t watch out, that can be the rest of your life. It can really happen. And it’s needless.
While none of us have been through anything as traumatic as an ISIS prison camp, we nonetheless weave our indignities into a continuity. It's your little project. Your "Story".
There are no stories. Stories are fake graft-ons. What's real is right-here, right-now, and it's all absolutely snowy fresh in each and every moment. Nothing sticks unless we choose to hypnotize ourselves into pretending it does.
That's why we needlessly flail and stress when bottles fall. Our attention is fragmented, plus the bottle represents much more than just some bottle.

Moving on, contrast that "normal" mental narrative with what goes through my mind after I knock over a bottle:
That's it! I register and react freshly, without weaving it into an overarching tale of woe or augmenting a weighty burden. The bottle is framed as just a bottle. Fun! Catch!

My brain doesn't waste cycles with surprise or complaint. Programs don't run, violins doesn't play, dialog is not read. And in the spacious silence of my bemused response, 100% of my cognitive bandwidth is available to set in motion my snatching of the bottle. And that's how a phlegmatic elderly trombonist surprises himself with Ninja moves.
I'm not joking. That's actually how Ninjas did it. Spirituality has been the eternal secret sauce for martial artists and such. I've given away the secret, boiled down to its essence - a flick of attention; a reframing. One can easily opt out of self-defeating mental self-indulgence - and there's really nothing else you need to know. You just have to want to.
A couple postings ago, I explained how most people fritter away cognitive bandwidth on self-defeating crap. They can barely function, much less pursue secondary considerations such as the happiness of those around them. Humans aren't unkind because they're evil. It’s because they have few spare mental cycles available for non-compulsory stuff like kindness or generosity.

It's a deep problem - the human problem - and it all happens too internally to draw much attention. But there are times when it externalizes. It can be glimpsed, for example, in the spastic, flailing, grasping, stressed, aggrieved way we snatch for falling bottles. 

This Slog is full of insight made possible by the simple trick of declining to waste bandwidth on miserably self-defeating fluffy fluff. It's a feat not of intelligence but of clarity. I don't keep replaying old arguments and injustices, or endlessly find fault with the current moment. As anyone who doesn't own a TV (I didn't get one until 2006) will tell you, it’s amazing what you can get done simply by opting out of needless distraction.

There are two ways to be smart: 1. be smart (which is hard...I’ve never managed it, myself), or 2. reduce your stupidity, which is comparatively easier. The problem is that to reduce one's stupidity, one must concede that one is stupid, and people would much rather feel smart than be smart, so conceding stupidity is the last thing they want to do....which keeps them stupid.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Day Laborers, Hustlers, and Picking Loose Teeth Out of My Lawn

Several months into ambitious home renovation, I've learned a great deal about houses, contractors, and workers, while also inadvertently charting the trajectory of Guatemalan immigrants in America - and of immigrants, generally (the Guatemalans are just the fresh group of the moment). It also opens a window into the realities of the labor economy, from the bottom up.

From a homeowner's perspective, your most expensive route is to hire a contractor. That's usually a white guy - invariably a Republican in keen support of our administration's anti-immigrant hysteria - who hires diligent, skillful, conscientious Guatemalan workers, mostly undocumented, for pennies. And, of course, he charges you double what the job's worth.

I'm not a communist, because I ran something once and learned that while the front line workers of any operation do indeed perform the "real" work, brains are at least as important as brawn. And while workers go home at 5pm, leaving their work behind, the top dog carries perma-aggravation, stressing over liquidity, liability, scheduling, and myriad other Devil-details. It's a life of antacid-guzzling, ulcer-making existential concerns, not least of which is ensuring sufficient cash flow to actually pay workers their pennies.

So I'm not so quick to condemn contractors and other bosses and middlemen. I realize they're not just printing money while others do the labor. But that's not to say I don't at least try to bypass them to save a few bucks.

Naturally, I went straight to the Guatemalans; the workers who viewed me less as an aloof gringo homeowner and more as an hermano who shares their sense of humor, whips up great lunches, and turns their daily grind into Camp Jimmy. The guys who were sent by expensive contractors practically begged me to hire them for (other) jobs on Sundays, their one day off, promising me I'd save a bundle.

But I hadn't realized what was involved in hiring day workers a la carte. They don't own tools, so you need to supply the nails, the paint, the grout, the tarps, the ladders...everything. And it's not like they'll fax over a thorough list of necessary equipment. If their minds worked systematically like that - if they had organizational skills - they wouldn't be painting/nailing/sweeping/gardening all day for pennies. Don't expect people to self-repair to accommodate you!

To be sure, if you'll pay them their daily rate, get them set up and point them toward the job, they will work their asses off for you, at a very high quality level, for eight hours. And that's worthy. But that's it. That's what they do. Expecting them to handhold you and steadily self-manage is like expecting me to climb onto a roof and hammer in a slew of shingles.

Also: They don't own cars. So I had to go pick them up, and the rule of thumb is 30 miles, minimum. And you won't be surprised that they don't own the most meticulous personal protective equipment during a pandemic.

It gets even worse. One afternoon, the guys had arranged a ride home with a Guatemalan friend, who got tied up and sent still another Guatemalan friend, who showed up an hour late, enraging my pals/employees, who like to leave a job site at 5pm sharp. One took a swing at the driver, and, long story short, we spent an hour in the twilight searching with flashlights for several teeth scattered around my lawn before I drove them home in my Covid Petri Dish car, one of them bleeding profusely into the Williams Sonoma dish towel I'd hastily loaded up with ice cubes.

So, yeah. There's that.

Most of the low guys on this chain are destined to remain low, and it's not particularly society's fault. They are diligent and essential cogs in the machine, but individual cogs are not useful for those who don't run a machine. Contractors, I discovered, do earn their massive cut after all.

There's another link in this food chain, and this is where it gets interesting. These are the Guatemalan immigrants blessed with hustle and brains. They've learned to speak decent English (no small accomplishment while establishing themselves by working all day, six days per week, in the hot sun for pennies). They own cars, and can organize and manage a job and talk to a client. And they have their own stable of workers to exploit. They are, in other words, contractors (recall the ending of "Animal Farm"....but with the more realistic perspective I offered, above). And if you'd imagine they'd charge less, that's entirely a product of your racism.

Why should a Guatemalan contractor charge less than an American one? If anything, their results are better. There's more hustle and eagerness to please. And with deeper connections to the labor pool, they know who's really good and don't wind up stuck with whoever's available from a short list. To be sure, some are hacks or con men, but the same's true with American contractors. But the good Guatemalan contractors provide better service than the good American ones. And so they charge a healthy price. There's no legitimate reason for them not to.

These ambitious, savvy hustlers are in no way ignorant of market economics. And they do charge a smidge less than Americans, just because racist homeowners won't pay them quite the same. But these are not the nice, tranquilo dudes you see sweeping up in stores. They won't cut you a friendly break re: your countertop installation price. These are antacid-popping, night-school graduating, family-supporting, American-dream-pursuing bright, motivated guys who take capitalism far more seriously than you or I or anyone we know. They are in it to win it. While they may drive a 20-year old van with a cheap and mildly misspelled "Ruiz Brothers Home Repare" stencil on its side panel, they are killers, biz-wise. They have to be to have gotten where they are.

Every once in a great while you'll get very lucky and find an immigrant laborer who can show some initiative and supervise a job. A future contractor! Or an immigrant contractor who hasn't yet completely transformed into a mega-capitalist. But if that's rare even for me - a Spanish-speaker who operates Camp Jimmy, the famous Guatemalan painter day camp, and who can sing along with the guys on merengue hits, and eats in Guatemalan delis three lunches per week and knows everybody - then good luck finding one yourself.

When I do connect with someone like that, I castigate them for selling themselves short. I advise them not to buy in to the racism; to straighten their spine and charge the bejesus out of their gringo customers (while, hopefully, cutting me at least a small break).

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Junctures and Posterity

When I was a child, I would eagerly perk up at major occasions – elementary school graduations, round number birthdays, etc. – but not for normal reasons. Most people get excited about such things just because they’re taught to. It’s just What We Do. Me, I rose to these occasions because of the prospect of time travel.

If time machines were ever to be invented at any point in the distant future, my descendants might be checking me out at such moments. And, more conventionally, my future self would be teleporting back via memory. So I felt a responsibility to do a good job, and to take really good pictures with my eyes.

Time travel isn't just about bodies transporting in from other eras. I didn’t spot any audience members in silver jumpsuits at the Apollo 11 launch, but I could sense a certain pressure of attention, beyond the present-day attention, and I identified it as the presence of posterity.

This weekend, with the unimaginably twisted and bottomlessly stupid folly of this administration’s infection and infection super-spreading, and with Republicans and Fox News managing to muster grave concern for the president while continuing - because they're fully committed - Operation Maskless Freedom (I made up that name), I feel that same weight of posterity’s attention. And I’m trying to take good pictures.

I know historians will get it wrong, and that the mangling will happen sooner rather than later. I took good pictures in the weeks after 9-11, and predicted that we’d view the event, in retrospect, as a very bad, sad day when the towers went down....even though the real horror was in the waiting for the next shoe to drop. For a few months, I brought a flashlight and a transistor radio with me whenever I ventured into Manhattan, just in case I needed to track news. I was right, and more quickly than expected: 20 years later, it's remembered as a very bad, sad day when the towers went down.

So here’s how I predict they’ll get the present situation wrong:
Those barbaric historical people sure were whacky and dumb. We moderns would never let that happen.


It fills me with joy to be made to look like a shnook by people being way smarter than I can be. This Tweet is so much better than what I just wrote:

Friday, October 2, 2020

Kindness and Bandwidth

A friend lectured me, at length, on a topic any twelve year old would understand. I waited for her to finish, and then asked, innocently, "Did you really imagine I didn't know that?"

Her breathing halted briefly and her eyes refocused. I'd surprised her - in other words, prompted her to reframe. She hadn't even considered this. I watched as she surveyed the extra work I was proposing - a strictly optional side-task of 1. "Pausing to gauge what this guy presumably knows", 2. "Modifying my speech to factor in that consideration".

This brain-raking was a good sign. Many people would have just stared blankly, as if I'd spoken nonsense. Why in the world would my being who I am have any impact on their saying what they say? What sort of controlling nutjob would demand such a thing?

But she got it, and was exploring the possibility. It would require an extra cycle of cognitive bandwidth, above/beyond what's required to just let it all flow. Having taken a couple seconds to work it out, she sneered vaguely and waved her hand. Too much work. Request denied.

Some people - the ones who stare vacantly at such a proposition - don't have bandwidth to spare. Speaking absorbs 100%. For them, there's no choice. Speaking to someone - filtering and altering communication to offer custom content for the unique person before them based on prior knowledge, intuition, and body language - won't and can't happen. It's like asking an ant to sing.

Such people can still learn to consider and self-filter before speaking - applying all their limited mental resources to that job - and then, as a separate job, talk. Sequence, not parallel. But once the gusher starts, they're reading their lines, and couldn't possibly read and write at the same time. They don't have sufficient bandwidth.

I really can't blame them. I don't understand how any of us manage to edit/filter as we output. It must be an awfully complex process. But one thing's for certain: it's an extra load. A separate job. An optional bandwidth cycle. A higher-level task running in parallel with a basic action which is, itself, difficult!

Empathy requires extra cognitive bandwidth. Situational awareness requires extra cognitive bandwidth. Politeness requires extra cognitive bandwidth. Kindness requires extra cognitive bandwidth.

We know this intuitively, and mistakenly assume that many people are unwilling to make the extra effort. A conscious refusal. But it's likely that simply going about their daily affairs absorbs all bandwidth. They have no spare cycles available.

There's a problem with that theory, however. Highly intelligent people, with ample cognitive resources, often fail to be empathic, situationally aware, polite, or kind. And it's rarely deliberate. They are normally gobsmacked if you point out the lapse. They may not be trying particularly hard to be Good, but they never realized they were acting like selfish jerks.
"Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence."
—Napoleon Bonaparte
It’s not necessarily a moral failing. There's another explanation: they throw away their extra bandwidth on hopped-up mental drama.

Many people - especially intelligent ones - spend their lives in endless rumination over that awful thing their mother said, reliving some decisive moment with their boss, or lost in reverie over "The Kind Of Person I Am" or "Where I See Myself in Ten Years". They're entirely absorbed in perennial recalculation of the ways the world has mistreated or disappointed them, and - this is the biggie - the eternal forensic analysis of what's wrong with the present moment.

There's no productive end point with such vague and futile calculation. No pot of gold at the ever-receding end of the dismal rainbow. It's an infinite loop. If you ask a computer to compute Pi, it would devote all resources to the task until the processor burns out, or uses up all the energy in the universe. Meanwhile there will be insufficient spare bandwidth to compute even 2 + 2.

I once observed that
Human beings spend their lives in conflict with imaginary people: mentally rearguing old arguments, worrying about faceless attackers and detractors, reliving bygone humiliations, and generally using our imaginations to make our lives a living hell.
Such mental activity (which is the underpinning of depression) red-lines our engines. There's no remaining bandwidth, regardless of total capacity. The world's most powerful bulldozer can't budge a tennis ball if the engine's already fully screaming.

Whenever something appears to be either lacking or excessive, you must always try flipping perspective. As I wrote here:
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).

All good things in this world stem from the heartbreakingly noble and inspiring measure of applying discretionary bandwidth to nonpersonal considerations.

All good things in this world stem from the heartbreakingly noble and inspiring measure of applying discretionary bandwidth to nonpersonal considerations.

All good things in this world stem from the heartbreakingly noble and inspiring measure of applying discretionary bandwidth to nonpersonal considerations.

When we see people failing to do so, we think poorly of them. They are evidently selfish and mean-spirited. But, no. They mostly just lack bandwidth - either because they have low capacity to begin with, or they're squandering their own expense! These sorry slobs are eternally self-locked into obsessive brooding rumination and thirsty frustration; i.e. Hell. So their thoughtless behavior, dismaying though it is, is only a relatively minor problem. And you can't expect damaged people to self-repair to accommodate you.

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