Monday, November 30, 2020

Another Perspective on Anti-Maskers

I'm taking another stab at this.

Blue collar guys take health risks with reckless disregard because they feel tough, and it's their job. Reckless disregard becomes their default. They don't read safety instructions and don't agonize over the health risks of chemicals, coal dust, etc.. They just get it done. And we're grateful to them. You and I are far too delicate for exploratory strolls around our own septic tanks. We call less delicate guys for that stuff. We could not live without them.

These are the guys who stood atop the toxic mound of smoldering plastic on 9/11, digging for bodies. We deemed them heros. I certainly was not there with them. After one whiff from afar, I high-tailed it out to Long Island to preserve my delicate lungs. Thank heavens for guys who don't sweat such things; tough guys unrestrained by delicacy who actually get stuff done.

Masks strike them as silly overreaction. As the guys we outsource our risks to, they're used to the rest of us behaving like delicate ninnies. But this time's different. This time we're furious about their recklessness, because this time it affects us negatively.

We've turned on them, suddenly demanding that they behave conscientiously; prudently; carefully. We need them not to act like the sort of brutishly ignorant low-class baboons who'd dig for our bodies below smoking rubble or fight our wars or dive into our septic systems. Now that we have skin in the game, we've betrayed our true feelings, and we're the awful ones, not them. They've been consistent this whole time.

If the virus had a >25% death rate - something immediately tangible - these guys would be religious about masks. But it's a minuscule fraction of that, so this seems like yet another thing they'll blithely survive (or won't), along with the dry cleaning chemicals, the transmission lubricants, and the pipe sealing chemicals whose effects they stoically ignore. Just another vanishingly small risk freaking out the delicate classes. But this time, we're demanding that they behave like us.

Yes, a virus is different, due to the network effect. But that's awfully subtle. And these guys overlook subtle risk explanations every damned day, with our staunch encouragement - and even celebration. We love their can-do perspective when they fix our cars and plumbing and septic tanks. We idolize them when they become war or disaster heroes. But the moment their attitude affects us, we find them stupidly insufferable.

Unsurprisingly, these guys aren't super-appreciative of our flip. It makes them dig in. It makes them vote for people like Trump, who give voice to their indignation.

Don't expect people to self-repair to accommodate you

More postings labeled "right whispering" (trying to explain conservatives to liberals).

Maybe We Should Investigate Trump

In my posting "Maybe Don't Lock Him Up", I made a case for not "extending the lease on a madman's inhabitation of our psychic space" via exhaustive public investigation that would make the next few years more "All Trump, All the Time."
"As much as we'd all thirst to investigate the Trump administration - and as convincing as some of the arguments to do so might be - in the end, not investigating would better serve the greater public good.
The great Rick Wilson dissents convincingly:
"Some people believe we should enter a new era of comity and goodwill... We should offer a soft landing and a gentle exit from the Trump cult, right? To this, I must issue a hearty 'fuck no'.
Only exposure, pain, humiliation, and (inshallah) incarceration will lead to a moment of reckoning for the GOP. It should start at the top and work down from there. ...."
I can't escape the foggy impression that there's a means for Trump and his enablers to have due comeuppance without extending his chokehold on our national attention. But I'm foggily unsure how that would happen. Like all of us, I'm numb and exhausted. I'm pretty sure Rick's right, and I'm pretty sure I'm right, and perhaps there's a way to thread the needle. Don't ask me how, but I'll let you know if anything pops up.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Liberation and Addiction


Reframing is liberating. If life teaches us anything, it's that freedom is not achieved by optimizing conditions "out there". It's a matter of how you view it all from "in here." Imprisonment is a state of mind, so liberation lies in the reframing.
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.
Since liberation requires reframing, an effective Messiah would need a flair for inducing shifts of perspective. And comedians are mini-Messiahs. They make us reframe a little. Jokes hinge on surprising shifts, and surprise is reframing (you can't shift perspective without surprise, and you can't surprise without inducing a shift of perspective). Major shifts are transformative, but minor ones provide a laugh and a lift. And maybe more than that. If you're stuck in a humorless frame of mind, a well-aimed laugh can really liberate. Suddenly it's a new universe, a new life, a new everything. It's all fresh.

Have you ever had a peak experience where everything felt completely fresh? That's the aftermath of a fundamental shift of perspective. You may not even fully notice. Liberation is vast yet subtle. Our human adaptability gobbles up reframings effortlessly. And it yearns to do so. This process must be constantly fed. As the song says, "I need a miracle every day." Reframing is liberating, and liberation is miraculous.

People suppose, wrongly, that the world dictates their perspective for them. This meta-framing (i.e. framing of framing) sticks. We feel like the victims of an oppressive, irritating world, comically/tragically failing to realize that it was entirely our doing. We chose to view it as such...and got stuck in that view.

Consider the crazy phrase "You're making me angry!" It strikes people as reasonable, but can anyone really make you angry? Can anyone make you anything? You own your perspective; your placement of attention; your conclusions.

You probably decline to engage with raving crazy people on the street. This disengagement stems from how you frame them, and yourself. Their ravings persist, often quite loudly, but you choose not to tune in or be triggered. You have that choice. You are the director of your attention; the producer of your inner experience. You, and only you, frame it. That's your freedom, and the exercise of this freedom is liberating. You only need to remember that you can.

Isn’t it interesting that some people rarely get angry while others remain permanently so? The outer reality is no different. Neither lives in a perfect world, free from abrasions and oppressions. They've just chosen different ways to frame it all. The overarching happiness level of your life - its tone - is a choice you once made (and continuously act to preserve).

Recognizing your underlying freedom is, itself, a liberating shift of perspective. It’s the key to the kingdom. It’s like the proverbial genie-wish for lots more wishes. And since one only feels free while exercising one's freedom, reframing must be an ongoing process. 

The Darkness of Frozen Perspective

Unfortunately, some people - hell, nearly all people - are rigidly stuck. And that's a big problem. Frozen perspective accounts for nearly all human darkness.

Here we are, coddled on a gorgeous planet full of life-giving oxygen, water, sunlight, food, and rich action to explore; possibly the only speck of color and comfort in a vast, dark, empty, airless universe. Those of us living in the First World are ultra-comfortable, ultra-entertained, ultra-safe, and enjoy all human knowledge, art, and entertainment - plus instant planetary communications - via a slab of glass in our pockets. Among our most vexing problems are an obscene surfeit of food and personal possessions. The only way to overlook our fantastic good luck would be to skew perspective and lock ourselves down tightly in that skew.

And we do. Oh, man, we do. Having forgotten that we choose our perspective, we find ourselves rigidly stuck. We forget that we control this thing (reframing's like a forgotten cell phone feature), so we flail and suffer, fake-mourning the fake-absence of our omnipresent definitional human faculty. Intentionally directing our attention to frame our inner experience in any of a multitude of ways is the thing humans do, just as fish swim and birds fly. That's why it's so seldom discussed or practiced. Fish don't contemplate swimming - though surely the more neurotic ones torture themselves by thinking "If only I could swim!" as they slice smoothly through the water.

Shifting perspective, aka reframing, is literally the easiest thing in the world. You don't even need to worry about shifting to a "better" perspective. In the large view, perspectives are neither good nor bad (the one you're currently inhabiting always seems best...until the moment you shift, as anyone who knows an ex-smoker or new religious convert will readily confirm). A shift - any shift at all - yields liberation. Your old perspective was not the problem. The problem was that you got stuck in it.


It's not even that shifting is so great; it's more that freezing's awful. We’ve devised a familiar term for frozen perspective: Depression (see link for full explanation; this post is long enough as-is!).

Here's a huge surprise: all the familiar depression symptoms arise even when perspective freezes on fantastic loveliness. Very advanced meditators discover that sitting in a lump all day enjoying gushing fountains of internal bliss looks unsettlingly similar to sitting in a lump all day ruminating over a romantic breakup. Or here's a more relatable example: per above, rich people (i.e. everyone in the First World) tend to be bored, jaded, inured, cynical and depressed. The luxurious stability of their circumstance lulls them into a frozen perspective, leaving them, ironically, miserable.

Human bodies don't function well when perspective freezes, regardless of the perspective. When perspective gets stuck, your body gets stuck and your entire world gets stuck. That's what depression is - the world getting stuck. Liberation - the restoration of vibrancy and dynamism and freedom - is eternally available if you'll just remember that you always have the option to reframe in an infinity of ways at any moment.


We may grow quite desperate for liberation - for an escape from the monotonous world we've framed via a monotonous perspective. To rouse ourselves from depression, or to attempt, in our desperation, to stay ahead of the stuckedness, we clutch at straws. Things like booze, drugs, gambling, casual sex, and the other addictions serve as blunt instruments for forcing cheap momentary wisps of relief; of freedom. It's a last resort for those who've lost all interest in re-tuning their own perspective, and find themselves burdened and bored by a burdened, bored existence in an apparently burdensome, boring world.

A violent kick to the head is hardly an apt substitute for real liberation. It's not subtle, nor entirely pleasant, and you must contend with repercussions, rebounds, and a build-up of tolerance. But at least you’re temporarily jarred out of the monotony of a frozen perspective. If this is your sole avenue of relief, it will come to feel like salvation.

In the long run, dependence on kicks to the head just heightens the monotony; the freezing. You're imprisoned more and more tightly as you distract yourself from your innate facility for swapping in a different perspective. Reliance on a head kick reinforces the wrong-headed assumption that perspective is dictated by conditions "out there", rather than by your own choices "in here". So your entire life comes to center on some chosen kick (which becomes, itself, a monotonous freeze). You cling to this means of momentarily shaking things up to glean pitifully faint sniffs of the full freedom you’ve chosen to spurn.

Ernest Hemingway had surprising self-awareness of the catalyst behind his alcohol addiction (though insuficient wisdom to recognize that we frame the world, despite our demented and persistent efforts to coax the world into framing us).

Any Shift Will Do

Let's retrace steps and turn away from that ghastly cul-de-sac. The good news is that while we must shift easily and frequently to remain psychologically viable, it's the shifting that liberates, not the particulars of the impending perspective. Since the freedom's in the shift itself, there's no need to frame things optimally. Phew!

Many of us seek a better world which we hope will improve our perspective...with horrible results. A few of us struggle to instill a better perspective - a more "positive" one - also with horrible results. All this effort is neither necessary nor effective. We don't require an optimal world, an optimal perspective, or a kick in the head. We just need to periodically dislodge ourselves.

The game is about staying fluid. In fact, capricious dabbling - a carefree, child-like exploration of myriad perspective options - is the best approach.

Can You Let Go of Your Mythos?

There's a reason we resist a carefree, ad-hoc approach: It means letting go of certain things. Primarily, we need to come to terms with the fact that our lives are actually not weighty, significant, or dramatic.
This is not a movie. We're raindrops slowly working down windows, not heroic protagonists.
That's the bottleneck, right there. That's why we freeze. We're reluctant (often terrified) to lose our notion of a heroic/dramatic life trajectory; to let go of the impression that we're starring in a movie. No mournful cellos accompanying the sad lonely bits nor timpanis thundering as we accelerate to beat traffic lights. Pay raises don't elevate us, nor do firings crush us. It's all just stuff - happening around us, not to us. We are blithely curious travelers. We are not the protagonists in this drama.

For many/most/all of us, that's a daunting come-down (from a pedestal that was conceptual to begin with: again, this is all framing). But it needn’t be. We just need to understand that letting go of that fluff is ultimately liberating, not deflationary. There's no need to stoke a patently false self-image of primacy and centrality. It was always a lie...and, ultimately, a horrendous burden. It's the most deeply-frozen perspective; the one at your core. Its intransigence underpins much of the darkness, monotony, pain, and, especially, depression.

There's another choice; another perspective. Wear the world - yourself included! - lightly, for greatest enjoyment.

Some will feel repulsed by this timeless advice. Such people are sold on the notion that it's dramatic intensity that makes life worthwhile, failing to recognize that the people urging lightness tend to be extraordinarily well-acquainted with dramatic intensity, so they know whereof they speak. Postings like this - Slogs like this - appear when someone's traveled to the end of those corridors, discovering where they ultimately lead. The heady attractions (aka "temptation") have been amply tasted and deemed a sugar high at best. Meh.

In a Comfortable World, We Must Learn to Remember to Shift

Once again, the shifting itself liberates, not the shift-to arrival point. We always get this wrong, pinning our sensation of liberation on the new perspective...which always seems terrific for a short while (you've finally got it!), until the buzz inevitably fades. Liberation never lasts; that's the core human complaint.

I offer a novel explanation and prescription: Keep shifting, preferably with eager relish. Failure to do so explains why depression - aka frozen perspective - has remained so mysterious (we don't need a bright shimmering pathway out. No "healing". Just stop feeding the monotonous rumination which makes the world seem heavily monotonous! Flip to another perspective!), and, likewise, addiction (having forgotten that you own your own perspective, a cheap kick to the head became your sole liberation; your only way out. Flip to another perspective!).

The foundational human tragedy stems from the mistaken assumption that the world creates our frame of perspective for us ("You're making me mad!"), so liberation (which we always imagine will be permanent next time) must await better conditions and clearer weather. That outlook worked ok for a long while; humanity thrived for millennia under this misapprehension. But now, as poverty evaporates and we grow unimaginably wealthy, healthy, comfortable, and secure, we can no longer coast passively through it all, perspective-wise. The world is no longer the wild, terrifying ride it was. The weather’s nearly always sunny.

Per one of the foundational Slog postings:
After millennia spent desperately seeking cheat codes for this world, figuring the whole while that things would be so much better if only we could purge the illness and lions and warlords, the famines, droughts, and extreme poverty, we've done it! This richest of rich-world countries has expunged the vast majority of its nemeses! Yet look around you. Most of us spend most of our time building needless drama, stress, and sorrow for ourselves. We are far more depressed than any human beings anywhere, ever. We build internal towers of brooding discontent, and spend vast tracts of time lost in tumultuous TV shows and video games and sad songs and memories of pain and worries of loss, desperately seeking out whatever snatches of drama we can find to identify with. Having finally slayed the monsters, we are bored, discontent, and hellbent on creating new monstrous worlds to inhabit as deeply and as continuously as possible.
We coddled moderns are mired in misery, consumed by anxiety and depression (cleverly escaping self-awareness by absurdly framing ourselves as living in Hell; e.g. we bitterly kick every horrible, no-good year in the ass on its way out every New Year's Eve. Lord, how we suffer!). Without the attacking lions, marauding warlords, impending famines, grueling warfare, and all-consuming mythologies conspiring to keep things juicy, we struggle feebly to trick ourselves into unforced shifts of perspective. If the world no longer stresses us into frequent shifting, we manufacture fake stress via our imagination (worries, fantasies, "Rich People's Problems", etc.), entertainments (movies, video games, etc.), or else we simply kick ourselves in the head for a squalid buzz. We traumatize our comfortable, blessed lives (perhaps even willingly wrecking our own beloved country) to raise stakes and experience a jolt; something strong and epic, like in The Old Days.

This explains, among many other things, the Drake Equation. As I once hypothesized:
Scientists keep trying to tweek the Drake Equation to explain the absence of evidence of advanced civilization in the Universe. What is the X Factor obliterating civilizations before they can build Dyson Spheres, capturing the totality of a star's energy, or find a way to communicate over the void with brutes like us?

Comfort and wealth, baby. That's the perilous X Factor. Comfort and wealth.
Spurning Utopia

The stability mankind has always sought has made us miserable, because we still depend on wash cycles of fraught drama to force the shifts our psyches require. In our desperation, we resort to stupid, self-destructive channels for a whiff of liberation. A world of tamed dangers and ample gifts can't coax passive aristocrats into shifting perspective (a lion rushing at your throat will really seize your attention!), so we turn viciously on Utopia, viewing its remaining puny hurdles and annoyances as super-oppressors. Per the princess and the pea, subtler and subtler irritants seem increasingly galling. It all turns to shit while we, at long last, are enthroned in Utopia. That is the current trendy, contagious reframing, and it's already lost its freshness, so the clock's ticking.

Thirsty for deeper, more liberating shifts, we will contrive ever more gripping drama and grievance, even though, as with Dorothy and her ruby slippers, everything we were looking for was right there with us all along.

While You're At It...

Thanks for reading. Tip your bartenders.

Since you've shown the patience to tackle long form explanations, I offer some slightly less fully-baked but still interesting and novel efforts I humbly consider worth your attention:

Mankind has had a devil of a time trying to bottle lightning and get a handle on the most fleeting of phenomena: Epiphany, Eureka, and Inspiration. They've long remained elusive because we've been foggily amnesiac re: our innate reframing ability. Work on that a bit, and the fickle Muses grow more responsive.

A really useful testing ground for reframing is the application of Forgiveness. Not big showy huggy dramatic gestures; I mean the internal process. Shift from seeing it this way to seeing it that way. That's what reframing is, and it's stupendously, maddeningly easy (don't tell yourself a story about having done it. Don't just pose. Really actually do it!).

The most interesting question of all: Who, exactly, is The Framer?

The Visualization Fallacy is a series of extraordinarily wide-ranging postings explaining that framing doesn't just color our world, it creates it. The insight is quite simple, but requires great effort (and lots of words) to explain, because so many false assumptions must be hacked through. This series sheds light, among many other things, on parallel universes.

I sketched it out quickly as it spilled into my brain, and didn't try to polish it much. But I've spent the subsequent three years retracing - organizing, streamlining, and struggling to express it more accessibly (this present effort is by far my best effort to date). But I never returned to the deeper, more speculative parts, because, frankly, I'm way out of my element; over my skis. I'm nowhere near smart enough to properly explain it. Oddly, my insight vastly exceeds my intelligence...and I ain't getting any smarter.

Soothing the Baby fills in the back story of the lifelong "letting go" which led me to realize the primacy (and perqs!) of framing. I trace some of the steps I took to open myself up, as a spiritual child prodigy.

I've linked to it, above, but, in case you missed it: “Why God Lets Bad Things Happen” (Spoiler: it’s ‘cuz we like it that way).

One lifelong perspective gave me a hell of a hard time: the tendency to keep asking myself "What's missing?" Before I began diving into framing, I traced my progress dropping that persistent and highly destructive perspective, finally indexing those efforts in a posting titled "The Evolution of a Perspective".

As I note in that last link, I began to recognize what was going on one night when, in a spectacular (and spectacularly self-indulgent) feat of reframing, I helplessly watched along while my mind kept flipping a wonderful evening into devastation...and then back again. Back and forth. The experience was the genesis for all of this, prodding me into spending twelve years untangling it all. Go back in time and ponder with me "The Deeper Implications of Holiday Blues".

I realize postings like this seem densely cumbersome. It's true that they're written with the expectation of multiple re-readings, but this was actually a feat of simplification. Entire canons of theology and fields of mythos have been distilled into a few down-to-earth paragraphs. As unwieldy and opaque as this may seem, it might be the simplest, clearest explanation of what makes humans tick presented to date. It's way less challenging than spending decades contemplating in a frigid, pizza-less Himalayan cave. And even the shivering swamis never boiled it down and un-knotted it to this degree.

Aspects of these insights have been recognized and explained, piecemeal, by sages over the eons, but, to my knowledge, it's never been so stripped down, de-mythologized, and integrated. It's never been stated without resorting to overblown woo-woo contrivances. I'm not bragging (I'm plenty confused and cloudy and oafish in plenty of ways). I just want you to understand that, despite the lack of self-important weightiness, this is worth consideration. Crap, even that sounded la-dee-dah. Lord, grant me gravitas...

Does reframing seem abstract? Too hard to wrap your mind around?

I understand (and will offer some suggestions, below), but first I need to emphasize that you can't wrap your mind around reframing because reframing is, by definition, an unwrapping. That's why our best stuff - our creative inspiration, eurekas, and epiphanies - evade formulization despite mankind's incessant efforts. It's not like discussing some concrete, material Something. Subjectivity is squishier than objectivity. That's why I've developed this fresh approach to meta-frame it all.

But, sure, let's get practical. If you do nothing but play chess for days and someone suddenly comes along and kicks the board and all its pieces up into the sky, revealing that you've been sitting in a beautiful garden - failing to notice because your attention was so fixated that your chess board had become your universe - that's not a recognition you'd have "wrapped your mind around" prior to the disruption, because it didn't involve movements of knights, rooks, or pawns! There's no "kick the board" move in chess!
That last sentence deserves much contemplation (I have a bad habit of burying ledes). It offers a visceral experience of the foundational shift characteristic of reframing. It serves as a tidy parable for everything I'm saying here.
The board kick was an application of pure Creativity - which always manifests as surprise, which is the hallmark of a shifted perspective; of liberation from the imprisonment of frozen perspective. So here's my question: if such a thing happened to you, leaving you delighted by liberation and freshly enjoying the lovely garden (assuming you'd mananaged to overcome your initial sputtering outrage at the startling disruption), would you think to yourself "Geez, who can I hire to come kick the board for me periodically?" Or would you keep a vial of crack handy as a distracter, filling the role of lunging lion? Or would you, could you, perhaps entertain the option of simply remembering to look up once in a while? It's so much easier; so much cleaner. No fuss; just change your channel for a moment. It's what you should have done, anyway, rather than wait for a kicker to randomly come around! You needn't wither within a perceptual dungeon of monotonous chess, nor force a reset by smoking crack. Just look up sometimes!

This is what this all ultimately amounts to: Look up once in a while! Or, if you're already doing that, look down! Whatever! Be lithe! Recognize your freedom to adopt infinite perspectives! That's the ridiculously simple and easy path of liberation and freedom! It required 4000 words of explanation because, for those who've forgotten that they always possess the option (i.e. 99.9% of humanity), the suggestion sounds like crazy talk. There's no "up" on a chess board! “What, precisely, do you mean by 'up', you deranged lunatic?" [Here's a similar scenario of oblivious rejection of an easy reframing suggestion.]

If you require more concrete examples (there's a dandy one in the second paragraph - "Leave a person in a quiet room...", plus the link in the previous paragraph, plus the entire chess parable...c'mon, reader, you're drowning in examples!), this Slog offers many. Here's one, and here's another. And here's the tale of distraught mourners being immediately restored to their everyday selves via five minutes of some goofy dude stringing words together. It was seamless, so none present consciously recognized what had transpired nor identified a cause. Liberation happens in your head and is projected outward into a revised world, so there's no reason to look for some character hoisting a magic wand. Reframing is an "in-here" move. In its aftermath, the outer world seems fresh. That's the formula - simple but highly counterintuitive.

Special thanks to reader Lynn W for affirming that I'm not annoying/confusing every last person out there with these framing postings.

I'm mortified that they make me look like a kook, or, worse, a prophet. I'm just desperately trying to get through life with less disorientation than during my first half-century. I'd truly prefer to keep this stuff to myself, but when I consider the stars that aligned to evoke these insights - a perfect storm of arcane talents and cruel life lessons - I realize it's unlikely to be so deeply understood and accessibly expressed any time soon, and I might save some hypothetical someone some trouble, confusion, and pain.

If such a person stumbles into this Slog and feels a buzz of truth, I hope they'll take time to really plunge in...and, eventually, surpass my understanding and/or expression. Leap frog straight over my arduous work, relieving me of the burden and embarrassment of serving as the awkward larynx for this wisdom. And then, maybe, step quietly aside, yourself. That'd be best. We're ants.

As I wrote here:
Life consists of a series of revisitations to tired cliches, certain with each new pass that we now really understand them. And so it is with Edison's "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration." That quotation used to conjure up images of wild-eyed fanatics banging hammers in garages in the middle of the night. But it's just a matter of normal people blithely but indefatigably putting out. The Colorado River, etcher of the mighty Grand Canyon, is just some shitty little river. The best among us are shitty little rivers. To me, that's what Edison was saying.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Maybe Don't Lock Him Up

I agree with this outspokenly anti-Trump and anti-corruption former federal prosecutor that as much as we'd all thirst to investigate the Trump administration - and as convincing as some of the arguments to do so might be - in the end, not investigating would better serve the greater public good. He makes a well-rounded case for it, so please check out the op-ed (it's a very quick read) before you read my uptake (which doesn't restate all his points).

1. The very worst aspect of these past four years, psychologically, has been the fulfillment of Trump’s fondest wish: an entire nation (supporters and opponents, both) entirely obsessed with Donald Trump. We ate Trump for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The next four years can’t continue to be all about Donald Trump. We must not extend the lease on a madman's inhabitation of our psychic space.

(That said, we’ll see whether mainstream news can resist the ratings candy of his tweets and utterances as a private citizen - which they’ll no longer have a duty to report. If they do remain locked on to that stuff, we’ll see whether weary viewers can create pressure on them not to. It's not a necessity. Alex Jones, for example, has been saying horrific crap all day every day with very little of it reamplified by mainstream media. Trump could and should be relegated to similar irrelevance, though it will likely require viewer/reader/reporter boycotts to convince networks and publishers to do so.)

2. “Lock him/her up” can't become our new normal refrain. Defeat and disgrace must be sufficient (plus less publicly spectacular legal proceedings in, for example, New York State - if litigation and punishment are what you wish for this guy, fear not). As I wrote in "Some Real Talk About Face-Eating Hyenas”:
Here's a simple adjustment to avoid getting your face eaten: satisfy yourself with milder punishment for your perceived opponents and oppressors.”
I may have also offered this observation a time or two:
History always unfolds via a succession of immoderately reactive pendulum swings. Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?
Anti-Trumpers must unravel a few mental knots. We want to purge Trump from our psyches, but we also want to be consumed for years by big flashy investigations and trials that would make OJ and Mueller look puny. And we've been profoundly shocked and outraged by the dismantling of norms and institutions, yet we bristle at the proposition of maturely reassembling and abiding by old norms in his aftermath. Reciprocal extremism is notoriously alluring, but the antidote to extremism - the correct move after the extended rat-fucking we've just experienced - is the least satisfying and most boring of all options: restraint.

I never claimed that restraint in the face of extremist excess would be easy, or satisfying. Restraint does not give your gut what it's certain it needs. But civilization means not always indulging gut instincts. Done correctly, civilization is tantamount to an extended case of blue balls. We don't rape attractive people, we don't smash and grab people's cameras and jewelry, we don't shoot people when they're rude to us. We often must decline to take the action that would bring immediate satisfaction. Cool dull repression is the price we pay for the perqs of human civilization. Civilization is moderate; extremism is barbaric. At this juncture, I'd implore you to choose wisely.

Friday, November 20, 2020


If you're notable for something (you don't need to be a full-fledged celeb), there's a weird thing that happens: 100% of long-lost people claiming to want to reconnect are actually trying to connect you to someone else.

I've seen it happen over...and over...and over again. Most often, it's that a long-lost person (LLP) recently became friends with a fan of yours, who mentioned your name in conversation, prompting LLP to say they know you and can introduce you...and their new friend holds them to the promise. Or an ex-girlfriend has pushed a more neutral LLP to profer reconnection. Whenever LLPs get in touch, there's always a third party waiting in the wings. It never fails.

Notable or not, friends don't breezily (i.e. without some stated purpose) reconnect out of the blue beyond a certain point. A vague "Hey, just wondering how you are, let's catch up!" might happen after a gap of a few months or years, but never after 5 years. 5 years is a threshold past which out-of-the-blue LLPs have some agenda beyond the breezy catch-up they claim to seek.

Private message to one particular reader: I'm sorry for your loss and wish you the best, but I'm unfortunately not interested in what you're interested in, and I've seen through your effort to connect via the Ruskies.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Footer Added

I added a footer (in italics) to tonight's posting "Finally Understanding My Republican Friends". It's an important addition.

Finally Understanding My Republican Friends

I try to understand how other people frame things. If you don't try to inhabit different perspectives, you'll suffer through life in a world of seeming fools, where no one seems to see correctly. I held this world view for a long time, until I began to understand that it was an empathy failure on my part. If you grok where people are coming from (beneath the material content of their thoughts, down to their subjective stance), it's much easier to tolerate and respect their divergence from your own perspective. You know the old chestnut about never judging a man until you've walked a mile in his mocassins? There's more depth to that than it seems.

In extreme moments like now, my brain smokes a little, straining to empathize with people brazenly unwilling to mask up during a deadly pandemic (and who continue to support a president who's the epitome of the sort of leader our founders were worried about). I grok the spittle-flecked, middle-finger hoisting, hopped-up ghouls at the MAGA rallies. They're easy. But my Republican friends and neighbors, at this point (when I'd have expected their fever to have broken), baffle me. The nice people - reasonable and coherent, politically unsophisticated but in no way evil - are a tough nut to crack.

Until now. I've just come to understand their framing.

When I was a kid, my mother smoked in bed a lot. Naturally, she’d nod off with cigarettes in her hand, so her bedspreads were full of burns, some horrifically large.

In fire prevention programs at school, we were warned that smoking in bed is the top cause of catastrophic fires. So I spent my childhood terrified that the house would burn down. I trained myself to remove my window screen and jump out in just a couple seconds. When I'd ask (and, eventually, beg) my mother to stop smoking in bed, she'd respond with unexpected anger. "I take care of you all day," was the gist of her thinking. "This is my thing. This is what I do. This is for me.”

As a logical, clear-headed kid lacking a sophisticated grasp of human psychology, I figured she just needed correction. "Is smoking in bed really so wonderful? Couldn't you choose a better hobby? One offering something more productive than lung cancer, and which wouldn't risk the lives and possessions of your loved ones?"

One couldn't argue with my logic. But logic wasn't the missing element, so this cogent analysis was not graciously received. Logic had no connection with her visceral desire to do this thing she wanted to do. She stubbornly pretended not to recognize the flagrantly obvious stupidity, uselessness, and danger.

And that's what's happening now. Trumpism is people's pet thing, an indulgence they grant themselves and stubbornly refuse to be talked out of, despite the flagrantly obvious stupidity, uselessness, and danger.

Like my mother's bed-smoking, it's not something they're able to contemplate (much less discuss) reasonably. Republicans I know who are able to rationally converse about political issues - even hot button ones like abortion and guns - can't broach Trumpy topics without spewing fury and nonsense. One can't argue with a visceral desire.

Trumpism is their little indulgence - the irresponsibly stupid thing they know to be wrong and can’t possibly defend. And if you try to coax them to clarity, you will not be received graciously. It's their thing. This is what they do. This is for them.

"Pretend" is the key word ("She stubbornly pretended not to recognize the flagrantly obvious stupidity, uselessness, and danger"). Trumpers understand who and what he is. They know, just like my mom knew the danger of smoking in bed. And don't imagine you're incapable of this, yourself. None of us unfailing follows our best judgement. We all have willfully and knowingly walked toward a dead end while people screamed "Dead End!!!" at us, as if we didn't have eyes. As if we were stupid.

Stop treating them like they don’t know. My mom didn't lack awareness of the perils of bed smoking. She knew. Of course she did. Treating her like she just needed to understand better - patiently explaining the obvious as if she were a damned child - rankled her. She didn't need to hear it. She wasn't an idiot. She knew.

We all know what it's like to choose poorly, and to obstinately double down on that bad choice. It doesn't make you blind or stupid, however blindly stupid you might look from a distance. You were just wrong, and willfully so. You felt (with justification) like it was your right to be intentionally wrong sometimes. Our wrongness is a deeply personal thing - perhaps the most personal thing - so it's particularly infuriating when people aim to deny us that latitude.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Surging Benevolence

I've tried, fitfully, to offer this observation before, but it's slippery. The problem is that it resembles more banal observations. The miraculous part is subtly elusive (the miraculous part's always subtly elusive, isn't it? We expect miracles to involve, say, mass drownings amid parted waters, when real miracles lurk in the grout and are easily missed).

I stretch out my back every day by lying on the floor and pressing the soles of my feet into the wall. It's fussy to get my positioning right. The first few hundred times I needed to back up a little, or scoot forward a bit.

If I were a more serious person, I'd have marked the floor or taken note of where I needed to position myself. I'd have trained myself. But I conserve my attention for more important matters (e.g. perfectly toasting bagels). I never tried to perfect this because I don't mind backing up or scooting forward. I'd happily have done so forever. I live to scoot forward!

But after a few hundred iterations, I always lie down in the prefect spot...without trying. Without having ever tried, even the tiniest bit.

There was no effort to improve. I never marked the floor, or catalogued any adjustment tricks. From my perspective, the world improved, not me. It's like a gift. I lie down and the wall perfectly obliges me. A benevolent wall has been added to my circle of friends.

At age 57, this effect has manifested in ways too numerous and diverse to catalog. I never expected aging to provide the sumptuous experience of an effortlessly improving world; of surging benevolence. So many tiny hitches and shortfalls resolve themselves of their own accord - mostly below conscious recognition, so the aggregate easing is delightfully impossible to account for.

I've worked hard at many things, and can take credit for all sorts of improvements. But such improvements have improved me, not the world. And that's nowhere near as good. What's the benefit of staunchly improving within a seemingly devolving world? Isn't it more alluring to sloppily let go into a world growing increasingly benign and solicitous?

Iteration (repetition of life's mundanities) delivers gifts. I don't mean the purposeful iteration which spurs quality, per my explanation here:
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.
Again, that's self-improvement. World improvement comes from stupid rote iteration; iteration sans aspiration (or, most interestingly of all, with just the tiniest feathery touch of aspiration, which yogis refer to as samyama). No one ever told me that the walls would settle into perfect position as a gift of aging.

There are, of course, more widely-discussed benefits of aging, but they always struck me as apocryphal. As I once wrote,
As a kid, I never understood the "wisdom of old age". Sure, old people had specific skills and narrow areas of expertise, but I rarely spotted much wisdom. Most continued to pointlessly shadow box with themselves, refusing to love the universe unless it gave them precisely their expected results. Like everyone else, they were entranced in toxic foolishness, and the only difference was their impenetrably thick crust of irritability, built up over a lifetime of frozen perspective. Some wisdom!
Same for "experience". By the time you're 35 doing whatever you do, you're probably pretty competent at it (or never will be). 60 year old plumbers and pianists aren't, as a rule, better at any of that stuff. We plateau.

But, yet again, that's self-improvement, not world-improvement. World improvement occurs in the grout; in the tendons. Unless you've wasted your allotted decades feeding feelings of victimhood, anxiety or depression, occluding serendipitous progress (and any cognizance of this progress) and paying scant attention to this beautiful world as it actually is (as opposed to the conceptual world we frame as an oppressor), it all gets better as your toes more and more effortlessly touch the wall.

Who could possibly blame old people for their notoriously shrunken comfort zones? Outside one's luxury palace of mega=iteration, the intoxicating easefulness swiftly dries up.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Some Real Talk About Face-Eating Hyenas

The people wielding the face-eating hyena may laugh and laugh as it eats peoples’ faces, but it’s just the strangest thing how surprised they look when their faces eventually, inevitably, get eaten.

Martin Niemöller put it much more elegantly, but this way’s more visceral. If your darkest instincts ever push you toward hyena ownership, resist. Satisfy yourself with milder punishment for your perceived opponents and oppressors.

Extra Bonus Material
If, for instance, you support a leader who you consider "a psycho, sure, but OUR psycho!!", consider whether that might be immoderate punishment for the opponents and oppressors. Consider, also, the unpredictability of psyschos. Consider that disturbed people can't straighten themselves out to rise to occasions. They have no better nature. Their main thing is face-eating.

A large chunk of America (right and left both) polls as being ok with autocracy, so long as the autocrat was ON THEIR SIDE. Let's set aside the entire founding concept of the United States of America for a sec and just examine the brass tacks.

The basic deal of autocrats is that you surrender your power to them. So if they suck, you can't get rid of them. You have submitted. So if/when they try to eat your face (because that's their main thing), goodbye face.

Also, who comes after? Don't imagine you'd have a say in the matter, after surrendering your power. The autocrat's son might be super-dumb - and/or extra hungry for your particular face - and you can't do a damned thing, because autocrats (and their offspring) don't work for you, you work for them.

Much of the nation would welcome a face-eating hyena ON THEIR SIDE; i.e. who parroted their tribal signifiers and talking points. Such people haven't thought it through very well. But here's a simple adjustment to avoid getting your face eaten: satisfy yourself with milder punishment for your perceived opponents and oppressors. Don't play with power tools. Don't go to "11". Even if you're really super riled up about whatever. If you tell yourself that you want to see it all burn, hold a lighter under your hand, then readjust your vision.

If that was too much "philosophizing," here's one word to suck on (while you still have a face with which to suck): RESTRAINT.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Conquering Insomnia, Oppressed by the Cure

I'm always working on something. There's always some something I'm grinding away at. I can't always list these things for people, because they're deep inside, like a burp not quite ready to express.

Grown-ass men don't usually work on stuff. At least not the sort of stuff I do. Maybe they work on their cars, or build a deck, or add to some collection. But they don't travel down unfamiliar streets, and, if they do, they don't go very far, much less to the end.

Kids are always eagerly exploring some new street, and I've been eleven ever since I was eleven (I saw no reason to swap in an adult persona, because "mature" people never much impressed me). We work on ear wiggling or hand shadows or dinosaur names or zillions of other things. Ask a kid what he's been working on, and he won't easily pipe up with a list (e.g. "Whistling, tying slip knots, and juggling oranges"). These pursuits are always on his mind, but not on the tip of his tongue. A grown-up will report lengthily on his progress with French lessons or wine tasting, but kids' pursuits don't make for snappy dinner party repartee. Hell, it's barely fit for a blog...but here we are.

So here's what I've been working on for the last while: falling asleep on command. It started with my quest for a full night's sleep despite a reflux problem that won't respond to medication.

I've written previously about this quest (e.g. here and here), but I've refined my technique. Here's where I'm currently at. I go down this checklist:

1. Un-smile your mouth
2. Yield your body fully to gravity (not just a corny "relaxing" gesture. Use muscle memory to recreate what you find your body doing when you wake up in the morning).
3. Let your benevolent pillow suck out all thoughts and mental narration.
4. At this point, all that's left is breathing. Observe the breathing, but don't interfere. Let the bellows pump.
Until I was 50, I felt that I couldn't breathe naturally while paying attention to it. Eventually I realized that my body wouldn't let me asphyxiate. I proved this to myself by paying attention, letting breath stop, and watching it return on its own. The issue was just a story I was telling myself, which had bloomed into needless anxiety. So I let go of this, very quickly learning to pay attention to my breath without touching it.

It's an accomplishment I'm proud of, but since it's not a grown-up achievement, it's not something I could put on my resumé or converse about, except with children, and I keep running out of kids to talk to because they all keep growing up.
5. Slide into whimsical irrationality. You can create an off-ramp you habitually go to. Here's one I've used since childhood: I exist in a lightbulb, reclining comfortably against the curve of the smooth glass.

6. You are now asleep, whether you know it or not. If self-consciousness intrudes - i.e. you notice yourself grumpily commenting on your sleep progress - don't assume it's all ruined. That's just another head fake! Rather, remind yourself that you ARE asleep, so the preoccupation is happening in a dream. You are dreaming of insomnia!
I believe this is actually what's happening! It's well-documented that insomniacs who report getting no sleep at all are often getting hours and hours of it. My theory is that they are dreaming of insomnia. The antidote is to simply remind yourself you're actually asleep whenever doubts arise. All is fine, you're just having an anxious dream about falling asleep. So return to whimsical irrationality - the lightbulb, or a raft in a peaceful lake, or a friendly tribe of magic giraffes, or some other dreamy/stretchy mental scenario (this is why counting sheep is popular!). And be prepared to repeat this self-reminder whenever in-dream insomnia anxiety returns. Like all reframings, it gets easier with practice. You become familiar with the flip of perspective.

Meditation helps with these shifts by lubricating your shifter, making it easier to relax your body, to pass thought processes off to your eagerly awaiting pillow, to slip into easy irrationality, and to reassure the interruptor that the interruption is happening inside a dream. FWIW, this is the stripped-down, non-dogmatic, non-religious meditation technique I use (skip the web site, and most of the other lessons, except this one).
I've learned to fall asleep in a snap. But there are downsides. We live in a zero sum world with (despite the legends) no clean upward trajectory in any realm. Every “advance” brings ironic deflations (I first discovered this as a small child with my very first attempt at an insomnia cure). So here's the downside with this one:

Having taught myself to fall asleep on command, I'm now always a fingersnap away from falling asleep. I can feel it, waiting for me. Dreamland no longer lies across a vast sea; a separate realm for darkness and p.j.s and quiet horizontality. Sleep feels clammily, disquietingly accessible while shopping at Trader Joe's or washing pots. And this sleep adjacency feels like sleepiness! I've cured my insomnia only to feel perennially sleepy!

Sleep has become an omnipresent choice. Much as an alcoholic chooses - moment by moment by moment - not to have a drink, I must choose not to nod off. Which is weird and takes getting used to and I'm not sure I like it.

If you sawed a hole in your floor - large enough for a body to pass through - you might live many years without falling through the hole. But you would never again walk freely in your house. You will always be proactively not falling in the hole. Everything would seem different.

Choices are good. We feel like we want as many as possible. But we don't live a cartoon life where choices are candy-colored power-ups we keep in our fun knapsacks. A choice means it can happen. A choice means it can happen, and that reframes everything. This is yet another reason we unconsciously fear/resist change, and try to lock down our natural reframing facility (i.e. our freedom). We sense the potential for holes to open up unless we shrink ourselves into tiny cells of banal familiarity.

This explains why I'll never carry a gun. First, I would surely kill many, many people. But even if I surprised myself with my self-control, I'd spend my days studiously not killing many, many people...which doesn't strike me as a productive use of my attention. So no gun for me. I don't want that choice.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Why Do We Feel Like Crap Even Though Trump Lost?

It's the big baffling question of the week. And I can answer it.

If you've been in enormous pain for a very long time and the pain improves 50%, you will not process it crisply. You will not proclaim "Why, I'm half relieved by this half reduction!" You will, depending on your temperament, make one of two irrational declarations:

1. I'm completely better!
2. I'm still completely fucked!

And since there's pain - and pain, being bad, does not put you in a particularly world-loving mood - you will almost certainly choose #2.

Trump lost, so it all just got much better, but it's not all better, so we still feel completely fucked because there's still pain and you’re sick of it.

I hinted that this was coming last week. Remember this?
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?
If non-Republicans had taken the Senate, we'd still feel fucked. If wormy Lindsay Graham had been put out to pasture, we'd still feel fucked. Hell, if MAGA world issued an apology (consider the Armenians and the Turks in link above!), we'd still feel fucked. The following line (from this posting) cuts close to the issue:
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.
We are as traumatized as ISIS survivors - though we haven't actually suffered to any remotely similar degree (I'll explain how that happened in a moment). So our pain has been quite high. And we react to different pain levels (and healing therefrom) differently. Upon healing a sprained ankle or broken heart, we freely celebrate. But when emaciated filthy prisoners were liberated from Auschwitz, I doubt there was much fist bumping or hearty laughter. They didn't all go have a drink together to blow off steam and commiserate about - phew! - how harrowing it had been. So that's the other factor here.

We haven't actually suffered much. Trump was roughly a "5", which felt awful because we've enjoyed a long run of presidents who were 7s, 8s, and 9s. If we ever wound up with a truly brutal president - a "2" or "3", or, god forbid, a "1" - we'll be as warmly nostalgic for Trump as we've felt lately about Bush/Cheney (I imagine George Bush cuts off approaching strangers with "Yeah, yeah, I know; you freaking hated me for eight years but now you realize I wasn't so bad after all. Thanks for the day brightener and have a good one buh-bye").

We haven't been through great trauma, but we've traumatized ourselves greatly over minor trauma. We've framed ourselves in Auschwitz (framing is powerful). As rich aristocrats, we absolutely can't bear to be afflicted with the sort of dishonorable, corrupt, racist, perpetually lying king our ancestors lived under for time immemorial.

So as we emerge, with squinted eyes and sunken cheeks, from the gates of our imagined Auschwitz, pain points remain, and we're not disposed to fist bump. And so we feel completely fucked, and will continue wailing “DOES IT EVER END??” at every utterance by this humiliated, desperate POTUS, who will, obviously, never shut up. And so it goes.

That's why we feel like crap. We've framed ourselves into hell, and will remain self-confined there until we grow bored and try shifting - just for kicks - to some other perspective.


The coronavirus doesn't care which party you belong to. The coronavirus doesn't care how much money you make. The coronavirus doesn't care how important you are. The coronavirus doesn't care what you had for lunch. The coronavirus doesn't care which color socks you're wearing. The coronavirus doesn't care how you pronounce Kamala Harris's name. The coronavirus doesn't care how many Java programmers it takes to screw in a lightbulb. The coronavirus doesn't care if you're gluten intolerant. The coronavirus doesn't care what's in your Netflix queue. The coronavirus doesn't care if you ever managed to get through "Godel Escher Bach". The coronavirus doesn't care if you chew your food 34 times before swallowing. The coronavirus doesn’t care if you blanch the spinach. The coronavirus doesn’t care if you’re so vain that you think this song is about you.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

A Personal Experience of the Election

I just posted this to Facebook, fwiw:

If any Trump supporters read my feed, I'd like to offer this personal perspective on the election.

I worked my local polling place, because I was afraid that the old folks who normally do the job would be afraid to show up due to the virus. Also, I felt a strong compulsion to protect the sanctity of the election...and I confess this concern stemmed from my anti-Trump position (I feel that his side has been working hard to suppress the vote). I clearly remember on November 2, 1972 when President Nixon went on TV and strongly urged the entire country to vote - REGARDLESS OF WHO THEY INTENDED TO VOTE FOR. It gave me goosebumps. It stuck with me, and this paragon of democratic egalitarianism was, again, Richard M Nixon.

So I dragged my sleepy butt to my polling station at (gasp) 5am, and something odd happened. Voters came in who I could intuitively identify as Trump supporters (my district is 50/50), and I made them feel as welcome as I possibly could. I thanked them, sincerely and even eagerly, for voting. I like people who vote. What seems like our most divisive national process is also where we come together as one, as something united and big. It's a delicious paradox.

At one point, a Biden guy, who'd been electioneering just outside the 100 foot border of the polling station, came in to use the bathroom with (I've got to use all caps, because I'm truly ready to scream as I type this) HIS GODDAMNED BIDEN BUTTON ON, and wearing his "VOTE DEMOCRATIC" HAT. I suppressed an urge to rip his arms and legs off. He assumed I was a hardened MAGA. No, I'm a hardened American. That's not how we do it here. HOW **DARE** THIS GUY. I was up at 5am, working 15 hours with a heart condition and a history of asthma amid a deadly pandemic and he's walking around with a campaign button at a polling station like it DOESN'T MATTER???

I know this sounds like me bragging about my fairness and patriotism. Blah blah blah. But it wasn't just me. It was everyone working at the poll (and every other poll, from what I've heard anecdotally). We were absolutely united in purpose, and there wasn't an iota of suspicion or contempt. The Dem workers and the Rep workers got on great, working toward our common goal of fairness and inclusion. Dem and Rep lawyers were there watching, and they sat together and made friendly conversation.

Who knew that America's not like cable TV, or like Twitter?

At the end of the night, a young black democrat and a Republican grandmother sat struggling to make sure the count was right. They weren't jockeying for advantage. They were sweating bullets, after a VERY long day, to make sure it was correct. They helped each other kindly, even lovingly, supportively error-checking each other's blurry-eyed calculations, both gratefully accepting the other pair of eyes. We just wanted to get it right. Every last vote.

There are strident extremists on both sides. But they are a minority. There are fair people who love this country on the other side, whichever side you're on. And those are the people who work elections. I'm actually having trouble typing this because I'm still shaking with fury over the poor Democratic shlub, who simply *forgot* to take off his hat and button, and didn't deserve to encounter an enraged brute. The Republicans didn't even notice him. But I did, and you can bet your sweet ass he slinked out of there with his damned button and hat covered up, and probably peed into a soda bottle for the rest of the day. He'd never have imagined that I voted, eagerly, for his guy.

However this turns out, I can assure you that people at least as nice and patriotic and fair as you ran this election. I felt real gratitude for every Trump voter who voted, even though I think the guy's a plague. "Hate the candidate, love the voters", I guess. That's how we do in this country.

The Cambrian Implosion

You likely come here for surprising opinions and contrarian analysis, and this posting is more surprising/contrarian than usual.

Surprise comes from (and leads to) reframing, and my reframings sometimes can make me appear unsympathetic. Either 1. I'm stone-hearted and unable or unwilling to properly say the standard platitudes, or 2. I opt out of all that because I feel like I'm being more helpful by sharing fresh, lithe, surprising shifts of perspective.

Spoiler: it's #2.

Rolling in Dough

I once held a public potato chip tasting in a computer retail store in midtown Manhattan, where a small-but-toxic element of jerks seized the opportunity to shoplift.

I apologized profusely to the owner, who waved it off. "Shrinkage is expected," he said. What he was saying was that this was simply a cost of doing business, but what it really meant was that his business was so profoundly profitable that money could be left on the table. And it struck me that this was not normal.

The restaurant business is the high point of abnormal profitability, which is why restaurants are ubiquitous. Consider the proposition: any slob able to churn out bread covered with canned tomato slop and mucous cheese (plus: rent and equip a location) can charge dollars for a couple pennies worth of ingredients, oven heat, and labor, and make quite an excellent living so long as he doesn't completely mess up.

This explains why 95% of restaurants are so awful. Given that awful ones print money, there's no reason not to be awful (as I once wrote, Adam Smith's invisible hand reaches for lousy chow).

Yet despite the foolproofing, the restaurant business is notoriously volatile. A huge percentage of new operations go out of business in their first year. This makes us figure it's a tough business with slim margins, but, no, it's an easy business that makes gobs of cash for clueless slobs. So how to resolve this contradiction? Why do places go out of business so frequently if it's all so easy?

Here's the reason. It's such easy money that imbeciles are attracted, many so lavishly incompetent and greedy (petty enough to shave corners off a wheel) that they can't follow even a foolproof forumula. Also: work's involved, and humans have trouble actually doing stuff.

Just because a field is highly competitive doesn't mean it's hard. This can be seen in many realms, perpetually throwing talented, diligent people off-guard and psyching them out. They falsely assume a high failure rate means you've got to be fantastic, but there are few realms in human society requiring bona-fide excellence. You just need not to be a total nincompoop - plus actually do stuff (and, often, cajole others into doing stuff). For many slackers and fuckups attracted to easy money in the restaurant business, that is an impossibly tall order. And this accounts for the high failure rate.

So long as you can get the thing done without accidentally slicing off your own arm or getting stuck en route because you glimpsed cupcakes in a window and wasted hours slobbering with your nose pressed against the glass, you're good to go. It's a dauntingly high bar if you're a cretin, and a disquietingly low one if you're not. I'd ask you to read The Shallow and Self-Defeating Illusion of Competition, but you likely won't click that link (because that would require doing something). So, here, I'll kindly vomit the sundae cherry down your expectant throat:
Explaining how to break into TV comedy writing, one of Craig Kilborn's writers sums up the situation:

There aren't many jobs. Less than 100 total talk show jobs, maybe another 50 asundry game show jobs.

And there are lots of people trying to get those jobs. We are a nation of 250 million or so. Of whom probably about 25 million think they can be comedy writers. Of whom maybe about 25,000 actually pursue a comedy writing career. Of whom probably 15,000 or so do some standup and even move to LA or New York.

That's the layout of the comedy talk show occupation. You have a huge morass of people trying to get a few comedy writer jobs.

Is there any hope, you ask? From the scenario I've set so far, you wouldn't think so. But there is a rub, and here it is:

Most of the people applying for these very few jobs... suck.
It's all just a shaggy dog story, this whole life on Earth. It's not so hard to succeed. Just be a notch better than ridiculously self-defeating, stupid, and greedy, and possess the rare ability to actually do stuff. The most stringent barriers and competitive battlegrounds function as coarse filters to remove absolute slobs.

We realize this, subconsciously. This answer is blowing in the wind; glimpsed in jokes and aphorisms. Woody Allen once noted that "80 percent of success is just showing up." In the food world, which is nearly foolproof, this is especially true. And that brings us to the story of Duane and Biff (whose names I made up, fwiw).

The Sensationally Easy Triumph of Duane and Biff

A pie shop I know closed permanently in April due to the pandemic. And what makes me crazy is that I've hankered for pie this whole time. What does a person crave under adversity? Comfort! And what's more comforting than pie?

This business should have been rocking. But that's our view from out here. From their view in there, Duane and Biff had a formula; a workflow. And it was disrupted. And, since they were capable only of rotely following formula, they were gobsmacked. As helpless as upturned bugs, they just stopped coming to work.

Duane unlocked the place every day at 5 and started making dough. Biff came in at 8 and arranged the wares, mopped the floor, and opened the cash register. And as customers arrived, Biff, with his signature attitude of thinly veiled contempt - and the brisk efficiency of a sow on a hot day - sucked up money and emitted pie. There was never any value added to the enterprise, nor did there need to be. A nickel's worth of ingredients and another few pennies of oven heat, labor cost, and rent/insurance money, produced a $22 pie, and that was the entire proposition. Why on Earth would customers be greeted cheerfully? Why would captivating new flavors appear? Why adjust the egg wash, hone the sugar balance, or explore evolving market opportunities? Why would ANY DAMNED THING outside this stupid, plodding, formulaic workflow ever be considered when the stupid, plodding, formulaic workflow produced great big wads of cash - just so long as Biff didn't actually attack the customers and Duane didn't save a penny per metric ton by switching to veterinary grade flaked coconut?

Duane and Biff felt elevated by such choices and self-restraints. Not-totally-sucking was their source of pride. Other operators might shit in the food and shortchange customers and run out of pie early, but they had standards. And as highly successful businessmen with six figure incomes, Duane and Biff would take umbrage to any critique of their complacency and lack of imagination. "WE'RE FUCKING GENIUSES," they'd bray; "JUST LOOK AT ALL THE MONEY!"

I once explained that since a chicken is basically a biological device for pecking endless grain, you just need to set up your Skinner box (a process systematically rewarding a particular behavior) to feed the chicken, which will never stop responding in the way you've trained it to. Nor will it want to. It never wises up to the game. Blessed with the result it most seeks, it doesn't ask deep questions. The chicken thinks it's just killin' it.

For years, Duane and Biff figured they were killin' it. But then the pandemic hit, and despite my desire for yummy pie in my quarantine den, they were unable to muster the imagination or the gumption to contrive a way to connect my desire with their endeavor. They froze, baffled, waiting for the Skinner Box to start working again. And now their shop's gone forever.

The Duanes and Biffs of the food industry have been getting killed. And some very small number of them were good. Even without imagination or gumption, a diligent touch and refusal to cut corners can deliver quality. Top-notch Duane/Biff-style operations are worth knowing about. But such places had been coasting for years, and nothing lasts forever. If you can make a killing selling sand castles at the beach, thank your lucky stars, but don't be shocked and indignant when the tide comes in.

At the other extreme are the survivors; the super-geniuses who managed to hire some kid to deliver, or figured out a new distribution model and modified their offerings to suit it, circulating word to customers about their exploits. These people remain in business, though it's no longer a money machine.

Not all these survivors serve good food (plenty of competent, smart restaurateurs don't give a damn about food quality - or they give a damn but don't have a clue about conjuring it up), but, for the most part, those who can pivot are the ones with the spare bandwidth required to pursue higher-level aspirations such as deliciousness.

Receding into a Tight, Mean, Self-Defeating Crouch

Much structural rot in the restaurant industry was exposed by the pandemic. Even at the public-facing level, we've seen how rigid and limited many of these operations actually are, and also how untethered they'd become from their mission of serving those who patronize them. Foundational considerations of hospitality have proven to be a thin veneer swiftly abandoned as things get rough.

For months I've strained to keep tabs on a slew of restaurants which exist like Schrodinger's cat - in a weird twilight state of open-closedness. You know the ones. Their latest Facebook posting is happy-talk from June or July, but you can rake through their website, their Instagram, and even peer into their front window without ever figuring out their current Deal. If you can get someone on the phone, you'll be told "We're re-opening next Tuesday". But, no, they won't.

Why are they so opaque? Well, they're sad. Duane doesn't know how much dough to make, and Biff can't figure out how to install plexiglass over the cash register. It's all just way too much, so when it comes to keeping you, their loyal customer, in the loop, well, if they need you, they'll let you know (not really; mostly they'll just resume mulishly doing their thing and figure you'll somehow hear about it).

I've spent countless hours trying to get information so I could help out and support and spread word about favorite places, but communicating with customers would be a task, and these guys exist to bake pie/take money, not do loosey/goosey crap like "spread word" or "reach out".

I've seen places go belly-up with nary a word, or continue to operate without offering a clue as to their particulars, because our customer concern and curiosity are vastly overshadowed by their operator angst and confusion. Making dough while spruicing up the back patio for open-air dining requires 130% of their capacity, so there's nothing leftover for posting a note on their door or social media page. Remember: they went into business for an easy moron jackpot, so we're wanting them to act smart even though you can't expect damaged people to self-repair to accommodate you.

Fervidly Repelling the Solution

I wrote, in Slate, back in 2000, about a wonderful little restaurant called "Bo" that never caught on despite the mighty efforts of chef/owner Maria. As crowds failed to materialize, Maria just kept improving until every bite was pure magic. She kept getting better up until the very last customer (me) took the very last bite and Maria had to take the sign down.

I've eaten in something like 30,000 restaurants, and been a regular in maybe 800, so I've watched countless places go out of business. And I was deeply moved by Maria's diligence because hers was not the normal course. Most places decline when they have trouble. Food quality slides (corners get cut, less is prepared fresh, expiring ingredients are kept on-hand longer), and waiters get pissy serving sparse rooms. I've seen this phenomenon over and over, and it always shocks my dining companions. If the place desperately needs customers, why are they treating us and feeding us so poorly?

Here's what's going on: they're mad and sad about the lack of customers, and you're there, so they're mad and sad at you, even though you're their potential salvation. That's it. Simple as that.

It's far from the only example of human beings counterproductively putting their emotions first, nor is it the only indication that many people are of poor character (they discard their values as stakes raise...even when those values are their sole hope for reversing misfortune).

Pandemic Darwinism: Herd-Culling

I'm sorry for the turbulence and suffering. I'll miss the better Duane/Biff operations. And I recognize that the most savagely entrepreneurial operators will find fiendishly clever ways to assert yet greater dominance, leaving us with more useless garbage to need to photoshop off of our chowhounding window screens (the cliché of "pandemic crap" may take on fresh meaning).

But I see the broad arc of all this as unsurprising and non-tragic. The herd was due for culling. The easy jackpot finally dried up - sandcastles smashed by incoming tides - but the industry will shuffle itself and interesting, innovative new places will emerge. Space is being cleared for new shoots to bloom with deliciousness. As a faithful chowhound, I'll be eager to suss out this new treasure.

Sanity Checks and Caveats

1. As I said, babies have been lost amid bathwater. I grieve for the good places. So, quality Duane/Biff operations: I mourn for you, and was proud to have tried harder than anyone to support and evangelize you.

2. Duane and Biff have families. I don't lack sympathy. And I recognize that their jobs - as grindingly blinkered as they plied them - required hard work and fortitude. This conditioned them to feel they'd earned their enormous good luck. But mulish head-down work has never been lavishly rewarded, historically. Duane and Biff had it way easier for way longer than they had any right to expect, and no one's entitled to eternal status quo, much less a miraculously lucky one. Again, selling sand castles ahead of the tide is precarious.

3. Some operators have diligently tried to innovate, and shared with customers (helping us to help them), but faced obstacles that couldn't be beaten even with creativity, smarts, and hard work. I'm very sorry for such people, their families, and their communities. If you're one of these genuinely good guys who truly cared about quality and customers, and who tried valiantly to pivot and innovate - then you already know I'm not talking about you. You also recognize that I am speaking truth about the industry, as a whole.

It's Not All Going to Hell

I was in Manhattan this week, where I saw tons of people eating tons of food in, from, and around tons of eateries and vendors. Pretty much every creative channel of commerce was on display, aside from the traditional model of squeezing bodies into tight indoor spaces. Clever innovation provided a glorious display of resourceful adaptability. COVID-19 is not fatal to restaurants. It's just culling those unable to adapt.

And while I'm far from saying anything like "good riddance", I acknowledge that the coasting lasted far, far longer than the industry deserved. Complacency left them ill-equipped to handle turbulence. Whereas most industries expect stress tests (and this expectation keeps them agile), restaurant owners felt immune from such peril, and their failure of imagination led to the inevitable winnowing of a great many sluggish, outdated, sclerotic operations (as well as a few agile and diligent ones, per caveats above).

Sacrifices to, and Blessings From, the Goddess Kali

Conditions always change in this world, and the constant churn fuels creativity, perpetually scraping out at least a small, flimsy foothold for Quality.

As I wrote here, the Hindu goddess Kali, known as the goddess of destruction (remember those depraved cultists in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"?), is poorly understood.
She gets a bad rap. What she actually is is the goddess of creativity. But to those who tenaciously cling to status quo, her bottomless thirst for change and the immense energy she wields in empowering the world's ceaseless churning represent all that is destructive, dangerous, and deathly. She's the very root of all our fears because, being infinitely surprising, over time she breaks absolutely everything.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Lincoln Project's Closing Statement

So this was my pitch for the Lincoln Project's closing statement (per my tease here):
[Open on ocean waves crashing softly, twilight forests with crickets, quiet nighttime streets, wind blowing across wheatfields...]

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful, as the pandemic recedes and election season passes, if we could finally enjoy some peace and quiet? Without all the tweeting, the insults, the dividing, the [bleep]y grabbing, the cruelty, the immorality, the racism, and the never-ending Reality TV theatrics?”

[Long luxurious fade].
I figured this would be the best last-ditch ploy to reframe swing voters, moderates, and exhausted Republicans who hadn't previously been moved by the standard condemnations. Subtle but inevitable-seeming propulsion for hesitant stragglers (plus an unconscious nod to my late mother, which I only just realized). My contacts at Lincoln Project eagerly agreed, and they've kept this on ice since May.

And this is the very fine version they just released (which they were kind enough to preview for me last week). I'm not sure it has the reframing power I was hoping for but they've added smart and beneficial elements (hey, it's a collaborative process!).

I had a few other well-received ideas in their hopper that never got produced at all due to fast-churning news cycles and overall LP frenzy factor (I don't think any of those guys has slept more than 4 hours in a row in months). I'll post scripts if anyone's interested.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Ray Charles: Vote for America

Looks like my Lincoln Project closer idea (which they actually produced and had ready to go) was bumped and replaced with this Ray Charles one. And that suits me fine. Take it away, Ray:

It's kind of amazing that it doesn't need to pitch a candidate. It's self-filtering...even though Ray Charles was a devoted Republican.


A wizened Indian swami I knew wasn’t a fan of western culture, much less its spirituality, but he did eagerly love one Christian homily:
“Let Go; let God.”
He considered this phrase the high water mark for evangelical Christians. He beamed ecstatically as he repeated it.

If you want to make an Indian filibuster - talk themselves into circles so intently that you can pretty much walk away without their even noticing your departure - ask them to explain “karma” (fwiw the way the term’s used in the West is ludicrous).

It can be complicated to explain. But here’s a concise and apt shortcut, courtesy of corn-fed megachurches:
Karma is what compiles as you choose not to let go and let God. It’s the cost of holding on.

Karma is all that weighs you down and oppresses. It’s your immense unconscious burden. And it can dissipate effortlessly, by merely reframing. “Let go; let God” is just a framing choice, and it doesn’t even require God. Make it “The Universe” or “Nature” or some dead ancestor or the memory of your childhood teddy bear or any other cherished entity, real or imagined, that you can pass it all off to (because, as Atlas, poor shmuck, failed to realize, none of us actually needs to hold up the World).

Further Reading:
The Toddler and The Steering Wheel
Jnani Train (also linked above).
A Surprisingly Uplifting Examination of Suicide

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Sunday, November 1, 2020

Viewing Tips for Election Anxiety

A Facebook friend asked for viewing tips to help with her election anxiety. Here was my reply:
Here's my magic bullet, dating back to the Chowhound years. These are ad/documentaries about an impossibly idyllic summer camp. Both are great: this one's for campers and this one's for staff.

"Baltic Coasts" was the most soothing TV series ever created. Absolutely obscure and long gone (I showed an episode once to Les Blank, and he hated it viciously, which makes sense as "soothing" was the furthest thing from his filmmaking agenda). View these on the largest screen you've got.

Also: read this posting on Election Anxiety


The term “soul” was invented by poseurs to identify the mysterious and unobservable part that’s not posing.

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