Friday, July 10, 2020

Criterion Collection Films 50% off at Barnes and Noble

Barnes and Noble's biannual 50% off sale on all Criterion blu rays and dvds starts today (it's the most wonderful time of the year), and will last for several weeks. In celebration, I'm republishing this posting from 2017. I haven't updated the links to blu ray decks on Amazon, but they're easy enough to search for.

Note: Blu ray is much better quality than streaming, and streaming doesn't give you extras, booklets, and commentary tracks. And if you never care about any of that stuff, then you probably don't love any movie enough to want its Criterion edition.

Barnes and Noble (online and stores, both) is running their biannual Criterion Collection sale, with everything (including box sets) 50% off.

The Criterion Collection is the Rolls Royce of film distributors. They only carry great films, using the best available prints, and they take considerable trouble to improve image and sound when necessary. Their releases include copious extras (usually a printed booklet, too). Their release is the last word on any great film.

A lot of people lose their minds during these biannual sales, because every film is so damn attractive. I've been gaming them for a few years now, and have a few tips to share:

1. Don't buy on the basis of how good the film is (they're all great). You can often get much better deals on non-Criterion releases, or find ways to stream. And unless you're some fussy nerd, you generally won't need the very best print, so don't factor that in at all (unless you've got your sights on some lost film of the 1930s where the standard release is raggedy/terrible). Buy Criterion when you really want lots of extras. So: either favorite films (which you'll periodically rewatch) or else difficult, landmark films which you'll want to "chew on" - films by profound, challenging directors like Bergman or Tarkovsky. In both cases, you'll probably enjoy deep dives into special features and essays. If you'll just watch a film and put it back, Criterion is a waste of money.

2. Check price of used Criterion releases at Amazon Marketplace,, and eBay. They may be even cheaper than 50% off new.

3. The new Criterion release everyone's most excited about is Tarkovsky's "Stalker".

4. There's great discussion in Amazon reviews, and, especially, in user comments on the individual film pages at Criterion's web site (Here, for example, is the page for "Stalker"). Also: Criterion Forum

5. There's no reason to still be using a DVD player. Blu-ray decks are cheap, and they play DVDs, so you won't obsolete your previous disks. This one costs just $46, and this one, for $139, will play DVDs and Blu-Rays from any region (note that some constricted players can be made all-region by entering certain codes with the remote. Google your model number for more info). This one, for $549, is the cheapest great/expensive one with lots of bells/whistles (the manufacturer sometimes has refurb units cheap - email them for more info).

6. Bear in mind that Criterions can go out of print. When that happens, their price may shoot up. So you may want to move quickly (keeping tip #1 in mind) and then hold on to your films as an investment. On the other hand, I've bought $200 used copies of out-of-print Criterion films, viewed, and sold mine back again for about the same price. There's always demand for Criterions.

7. If, like me, you're a huge fan of "The Leftovers", consider "Walkabout", the Australian film which inspired this last season, and starred David Gulpilil (who played the aborigine Kevin's father tried to get the song from).

8. If you're buying "blind" a film you've never seen, be sure to check it through Movielens to make sure it's a film you'll actually like.

Criterion films I either own or am considering buying this time:

The 39 Steps Director: Alfred Hitchcock

The Battle of Algiers Director: Gillo Pontecorvo

Brazil Director: Terry Gilliam

Breathless Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Burden of Dreams Director: Les Blank

Burmese Harp Director: Kon Ichikawa

Dekalog Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Don't Look Now Director: Nicolas Roeg

Eisenstein: The Sound Years Director: Dmitriy Vasilev, Sergei M. Eisenstein

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Director: Terry Gilliam

A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman ("Through a Glass Darkly," "Winter Light," "The Silence")

Grand Illusion Director: Jean Renoir

Great Adaptations Director: David Lean

Grey Gardens / The Beales of Grey Gardens Director: Albert Maysles

Hiroshima Mon Amour Director: Alain Resnais

In the Mood for Love Director: Wong Kar-Wai

Jules and Jim Director: François Truffaut

La Ronde Director: Max Ophuls

The Lady Eve Director: Preston Sturges

The Lady Vanishes Director: Alfred Hitchcock

The Leopard Director: Luchino Visconti

Mala Noche Director: Gus Van Sant

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters Director: Paul Schrader

Naked Director: Mike Leigh

Olivier's Shakespeare ((Henry V, Hamlet, Richard III) Director: Laurence Olivier

Orphic Trilogy ("The Blood of a Poet," "Orpheus," "The Testament of Orpheus") Director: Jean Cocteau

The Passion of Joan of Arc Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Paths of Glory Director: Stanley Kubrick

Picnic at Hanging Rock Director: Peter Weir

Pierrot le Fou Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Rashomon Director: Akira Kurosawa

The Rules of the Game Director: Jean Renoir

Rushmore Director: Wes Anderson

Safe Director: Todd Haynes

Scenes From a Marriage Director: Ingmar Bergman

The Seventh Seal Director: Ingmar Bergman

Solaris Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Stalker Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Tanner '88 Director: Robert Altman

This Is Spinal Tap Director: Rob Reiner

Three Colors: Blue White Red Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Throne of Blood Director: Akira Kurosawa

Videodrome Director: David Cronenberg

Walkabout Director: Nicolas Roeg

Yi Yi Director: Edward Yang

Monday, July 6, 2020

The Nazi Paradox Meets Bubba's Noose

Here's what I don't get about neo-Nazis, and have tried to grok since grade school. If I understand correctly, this is their essential rap:
The Jews are subhuman parasites who should be exterminated. And the Holocaust was a hoax. It's a slanderous lie to say the Nazis exterminated the subhuman parasites who absolutely deserve extermination.
Weird, no? They're indignant that their peeps would be accused of doing the central thing they advocate. It's like the NBA screaming bloody murder at accusations that their players dribble.

The odd thing is that in the 35 years I've been slowly grinding away at this paradox, not one speck of additional evidence has materialized. No connections have crept up, no metaphors conjured, no corollaries developed. It's just a singular puzzle, unique so far as I can tell.

Until now.

Bubba Wallace, the NASCAR driver who reported finding a noose in his garage after demanding that NASCAR drop the Confederate flag, has been accused (mostly/only by President Trump, so far as I can determine) of lying about it.

Which, hey, is possible. With a population of 328 million, anything/everything imaginable can and will happen here and there. So that's not the interesting question for me.

What draws my interest is the fact that the sort of person who'd cry "Hoax" is precisely the sort of person who'd leave a noose in the garage of someone attacking the Confederate flag. The pro-noose people are also the noose skeptics. I have trouble processing this, and, as I made the effort, it immediately associated with the other paradox.

If I understand correctly, this is the rap:
"God bless the Confederacy, and god damn the darkies, who ought to be strung up from trees, and who push the slanderous lie that there are people out there who'd string them up from trees."
I'm still confused - by the paradox, not by the hatred part, which feels completely non-mysterious.
In fact, the hatred part is, more than anything, boring. An old meme. A last gasp.

When, in 1977, the American Nazi Party marched in Skokie, a town with many concentration camp survivors - a demonstration which many of us supported as a civil liberty test case - those guys were bona fide scary, but we all laughed at the absurd goose-stepping relics, dismissed as lunatic fringe. Forty years later, a gaggle of pasty-faced citronella-bearing douchebags gather in Charlottesville, and scabby losers like Steve Bannon claim hilariously to be the master race, but the intervening decades of comparative tolerance make them seem like a titanic threat. As hatred slowly fades, remaining specks strike us as disproportionally worrisome.

As I wrote here
By the time we're down to our very last Nazi (some geezer raving and saluting from his electric scooter), we'll all be so unhinged by his presence that we'll jump in the ocean and drown en masse like lemmings.
While the hatred part of the equation strikes me as a last gasp of a fading perspective (consider the elderly demographics of the hardcore MAGAs) the other part - the paradox - continues to puzzle. But I now have two data points to consider; not just one. Thanks, President Trump.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Misfires and Bullseyes

The greatest kindness one can pay a creative person is to amiably tolerate misfires.

I don't trust people who hit all bullseyes. It means they're holding back and not giving their all. Or they're cheating somehow.

Shiny David Copperfield always nails it.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Precipice and the Virus

The fear you feel in high places isn't really about the danger. The fear's palpable even if the danger's removed; by, for example, installing a barrier. It's your own inclinations that you're afraid of.

It’s not the fear of jumping intentionally, with kamikaze exuberance. It’s the sudden gulping recognition that your error margin - your grey area of uncertainty - encompasses "death plunge". A scenario is imaginable where...whoops.

The fear stems from the unholy juxtaposition of trivial/comical "whoops" and oblivion. The two are so disparate that they can't be framed simultaneously. We must flip back and forth, like with the alternate perspectives of an optical illusion. Whoops....Oblivion. Whoops....Oblivion. The flipping is what causes the vertigo. The most daunting precipice isn't the one between current position and prospective destination. Far steeper is the distance between "Whoops" and "Oblivion". That's the truly nauseating drop-off.

I have a perennially self-defeating and neurotic older friend who hasn't left his apartment since March. Hasn't seen a human being, hasn't breathed fresh air. He will not converse through the window when I deliver his groceries. His windows remain firmly shut.

He doesn't own a mask because he's not going outside - perhaps ever. He doesn't follow the guidelines, because he's uninterested in skirting the edge between safety and danger. He'll remain far, far back, in safety, thank you very much. Even if it kills him.

At first I assumed he felt like he was being extra safe. But after consideration, that's not it.

I tried encouraging him (via phone) to put on a mask and enjoy a nice walk down his breezy, deserted suburban street. But as he ranted - citing opinions from the television (dodgy to begin with) that he'd misheard, misremembered, and misapplied, about persistent viral clouds and uncertain modes of transmission - I glimpsed the actual precipice. It wasn’t the virus he was afraid of. A perfect clarity settled in. I could envision the truth as clearly as if I were the Oracle of freaking Delphi.

If he did finally go out, he'd do so in the fraught state of shaky failure he reserves for urgent circumstances. His nose would stick out from his mask, if there were any mask at all. He'd walk, inexorably and hopelessly, toward the sneezes. He'd touch only things lots of other people had touched. And, returning home in a state of mindless agitation, he'd find a way to 1. not wash his hands, and 2. touch his face. Whoops...oblivion.

My urgings were wrong-headed. He unconsciously senses his fraught self mismanagement, and that’s what keeps him - appropriately, I suppose - indoors. His choice is to either retract to the opposite end of the universe from the danger (putting himself in converse peril), or else self-immolation. Simply going about his business is unthinkable.

I know what you're thinking. "Huh. Crazy people. What are you gonna do?" But consider this: how many of us can stand with our toes against the ledge of a 10,000 foot drop-off while remaining calmly normal?

Also factor in this scenario, if you can (it's a tale about reaching for the comically/tragically wrong tool in the face of danger).

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Biden Does it My Way

"Never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself"

In May of 2016, I published a posting titled "The Smartest Thing Hillary Clinton Could Do".
Two points are inarguable:

1. No one who likes Donald Trump will have their mind changed by anything Hillary Clinton has to say.

2. No one who dislikes Hillary Clinton will have their mind changed by anything Hillary Clinton has to say.

There's nothing for her to do. It is not in her power to increase his negatives or her own positives. For those rubbed the wrong way by her love-it-or-hate-it voice, six months of Clinton grinding over what a prick Trump is will only work against the intended narrative. And in the course of those six months, she and Bill will commit many unforced errors. All while Trump trolls the bejesus out of her (America's brashest troll meets America's tightest coil).

This election is Clinton's to lose. She's got as strong a margin as she started with (and feebly squandered) against Obama and Sanders. So the smartest thing Hillary and Bill could do would be to rent a nice house in the south of France until November, and disappear. Not say a word. Let her proxies (not Bill) snipe at Trump. Let Trump be the only candidate committing unforced errors. Give him the total spotlight he craves. Let the nation experience nothing but wall-to-wall Trump for six months. Let Trump undo Trumpism.
This time around, Biden's been doing precisely that. It's debatable whether he'd have gone this route without the cover of Covid-19. But all parties seem to agree that it's helped him to give Trump - increasingly out of step with the country, as tiresome as an old meme, and incapable of adaptation - loads of room to stumble.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Rise of Pseudo-AI

I just read an article from back in 2018 that reports that much supposed AI is fake, because "it’s cheaper and easier to get humans to behave like robots than it is to get machines to behave like humans."

AI is expensive and it's hard, and in many cases (especially, though not exclusively for new start-ups), it's easier to have zillions of tiny people in your computer typing really fast to make it look like the computer's working automatic magic. Those people, more often than not, are drawn from the vast hordes working, for micropayments, within Amazon's Mechanical Turk set-up (here's the 18th(!!) century origin of the name, and here's more on Amazon's operation).
“In 2017, the business expense management app Expensify admitted that it had been using humans to transcribe at least some of the receipts it claimed to process using its “smartscan technology”. Scans of the receipts were being posted to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourced labour tool, where low-paid workers were reading and transcribing them.

"I wonder if Expensify SmartScan users know MTurk workers enter their receipts,” said Rochelle LaPlante, a “Turker” and advocate for gig economy workers on Twitter. “I’m looking at someone’s Uber receipt with their full name, pick-up and drop-off addresses.”
It used to be that people would have all sorts of highly personal conversations in front of "the servants." They were like a lower form of life, so, somehow, they didn’t count.

Now we say lots of personal stuff in front of mechanical turk workers, whether disguised as AI or not. They don't seem to fully count. Really, that’s the new servant class.

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Problem With Parler: People Prefer Shitting in Clean Toilets

"All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again." - Battlestar Galactica

In case you haven't heard, Twitter has begun to police its hate, propaganda, and cray-cray. They're purging the worst, pasting warning labels on the marginal, and banning those who've rejected multiple warnings.

Naturally, the crazies and assholes are less than perfectly content with this, so a mass of loopy raging blowhards has begun to migrate to an alternative service called Parler, hollering predictably about FREE SPEECH (which, as sane people know, applies to congressional legislation, not to the actions of private media companies which have no obligation to allow every human to scream into their microphone).

Parler has positioned itself as a safe zone for raging lunatics. And, inevitably, people are realizing that a community composed of raging lunatics lacks a certain sheen.

There are smokers who reserve no-smoking hotel rooms, because smoking rooms smell bad, and then smoke in them. The same principle applies here. A certain type wants a civilized, intelligent discussion they can smear their feces around in. It's just not the same to do so in, like, a toilet.

The Bulwark has a hilarious new article up today about the alleged migration to Parler. The authors are skeptical it will actually happen, because, essentially, people prefer shitting in clean toilets.

As the founder of, a very early and popular online community, I have some experience with, oh, every part of this. Don't imagine that jerks are only jerky about politics. They can be delightfully versatile; able to switch over to tacos and crawfish with great aplomb.

Chowhound started off like Twitter, sincerely devoted to weaving together every last voice. Like Twitter, we came to realize that not all children play nicely, and that a loud microphone becomes an irresistible magnet for users more interested in screaming into a loud microphone than in using the service for its intended purpose.

Like Twitter, we were forced to moderate discussion in order to protect the quality of our operation against the encroaching kudzu, and were met with screams of "FREE SPEECH NAZI CENSORSHIP", because screaming ridiculous bullshit was always this element's go-to move.

Like Twitter, we reluctantly began kicking off the worst of them, and, like Parler, alternative operations cropped up to serve as safe havens for those cruelly persecuted by our FREE SPEECH NAZI CENSORSHIP. I wrote about this here.

The Bulwark is correct in predicting that a garbage can is a less alluring environment for wreaking havoc. And so these people will feel an irresistible draw back to Twitter; back to the spotlight. But let me explain what comes next.

Parler, having drawn off the scumbags, trolls, malcontents, and crazies, will come to be moderated with enormous brutality (the guards are naturally tougher on Rikers Island than the ones in elementary school). So new safe haven garbage cans will arise to welcome users they repel. As the cycle endlessly recurs, a fractal pattern of loudmouthed nightmare communities will fan out to host Twitter-like interaction "but with FREE SPEECH!"

Finally, once the worst of Parler (or whichever service becomes the established FREE SPEECH alternative) has been driven off, it will gradually accumulate a decent number of relatively well-behaved shitheads (plus some oblivious normals), and remain, for a time, the Avis to Twitter's Hertz, until the inherently belligerent management, prone to poking sticks at its usership, mismanages the operation into the ground.

And thus unfolds the heat death of the universe.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Chowhound's Reading List

I just resurrected the old Chowhound Reading List. Take a look!

I'm particularly proud of my profile of John Thorne. If you don't know, he's the food writer's food writer - by far the best of the century, if not of all time.
John Thorne thinks deeply about food. In his personal, utterly unaffected voice (which is actually a hybrid of himself and wife Matt), he ponders the minutia of meatballs, the inner meaning of rice and beaning. Aptly illuminating quotations are cited, seemingly unrelated concepts elegantly connected; Thorne's rhythms are so honest, his erudition so copious and his iconoclastic conclusions so clever that the reader never suspects the daunting legwork that goes into it all. Thorne, the hardest working man in the food writing biz, erases all traces of these labors, so his prose goes down as easily--and as deliciously--as the most soulful polenta.

When the ruminations conclude--and you've discovered historical, cultural, scientific, and spiritual depths to, say, pancakes that you'd never suspected existed--Thorne presents recipes. Not dozens of variations on a cooking theme, but a few concentrated treasures, the distillation of the preceding essay's meditations. The recipes may or may not be to your taste, but such care went into their developement that they're manifestly more than tested, more than polished...they're downright perfected.
I like to flatter myself by imagining that this was the most befitting short profile of Thorne out there. He, in turn, had reviewed my first book, and his writing had the power to teach me who I am (most people don't know and really need to be told). It wasn't the praising that dazzled me. I'd have appreciated his perspective nearly as much if it were tepid or even negative. I was affected by the insight. With Thorne, it's always the insight. The rest of us are mere pikers.

John was also the only food "authority" to grok my smart phone app, "Eat Everywhere":
Eat Everywhere is the distillation of a lifetime of adventurous eating deftly brewed into an impressively designed and wickedly ingenious app: endlessly useful, surprisingly entertaining, and highly addictive.
A snarky reader would surely view this as a disgusting display of shameless back-scratching. But it was more than that. Yes, we were providing mutual support in a world that doesn't often comprehend, much less reward, heartfelt and idiosyncratic work. But more than that, we paid each other the honor of digging deep to extract real insight, the greatest gift a writer can offer one's subject and one's readership. Thorne and I both subscribe to the old-fashioned credo of a writer giving subjects their full due. Those of us who have the audacity to encapsulate a person or their work for crowds of other people have a duty to evoke and express the authentic heart, and not just blab descriptively (here are my Slog postings tagged as "profiles")

Chowhound and I received metric tons of press, all of it useful. But hardly a drop of it was insightful.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Sautéing Onions

In yesterday's posting about salmon pasta, I wrote:
Roughly chop a small onion and sauté in minimal oil. Cook it about two notches cooler and twice as long as you ordinarily would. "Gentle" is your mantra..
That's a perilous instruction for unskilled cooks. During the first 45 years of my cooking career, when I poked around in kitchens, able to rotely conjure up a handful of familiar dishes but with no real idea of what I was doing, I recall lots of time spent watching ingredients lie flaccidly in pans not doing much. Standing around waiting for stuff to boil, to sizzle, and to brown. Heat was scary, and was applied with hesitance, because I was afraid to burn stuff.

Picture a driving student, puttering hesitantly forward, afraid to press the accelerator 'cuz speed's the thing that makes you crash.

You cannot simply tell a newbie cook "C'mon, turn up the heat" any more than you can urge a driving student to hit the damned gas. First they need to be able to control the power, and that takes time. But sporadic cooks and Sunday drivers never gather enough experience to develop control. The former are perpetually not-burning, just as the latter are constantly not-crashing. Not-burning is not cooking, and not-crashing's not driving!

So my instruction to be gentle with the onion (which, by the way, applies for most onion applications, and for all garlic ones) will just further tie the hands of many home cooks, who'll spend long periods of time flustered about the onions basically just sitting there.

It was transformative for me to read, years ago, an article about a famous chef who’d been  invited over a famous food writer's house to accept the challenge of improvising dinner from leftovers in his fridge. First thing the chef did was turn up all the stove burners to high and crank the oven. When I read it, I understood that cooking is all about heat. It's kinetic. So conjure up all the heat you can, and then, if necessary, cut it down here and there. Wield all the power, but do so with control.

I eventually learned that burnt food isn't like a sore throat. It's not an inevitable bad thing that occurs from time to time. I haven't burned food in years. Burning is what happens when you don't just stop paying attention (i.e. caring), but stop paying attention brazenly and flagrantly. Car crashes are not inevitable. They only happen if you're stupendously inattentive.

I once wrote that
Amateur musicians sometimes play out of tune. This is because they're trying to play in tune. If you try to play in tune, that means that when you fail (and you will fail!), you'll be noticeably out of tune.

Professional musicians don't try to play in tune. They're preoccupied with trying to play really, really in tune. So when they fail (and they will fail), they're still reasonably in tune, though not precisely enough for their standards. They'll wince, and feel like failures, but you won't hear it.

Amateurs conclude that professionals fail less. Wrong. They fail as often as anyone, but they work within narrower tolerances. We're all failures, but pros fail well.
If you're trying not to burn, that means you'll occasionally burn. If you're watching like a hawk to spot extremely subtle degrees of doneness, you'll never burn. You'll still feel like a failure, because, being human and thus doomed to periodic failure, you'll sometimes miss the OPTIMAL point. But burning? That's not inevitable. It's not even imaginable.

So when I said to cook the onion and garlic gently, I didn't mean meekly and feebly. I didn't mean sullen chunks languishing in tepid oil. I meant that the robust inertia of kinetic heat powering your entire cooking enterprise should be confidently tempered to the lower end of the curve.

Imagine an eight year old scratchily playing a cheap plywood violin told to play a certain passage softly. She'd produce especially hesitant scratchings, some barely speaking due to all the tense restraint. Now imagine Pinchas Zukerman asked to play softly, fluently channeling every iota of his normal power and rich expression into a galvanizing whisper.

That's how you do the onions.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Salmon Pasta

I've made several dozen versions of this basic dish over the past few months. Cooking's all about iteration. Forget the recipe, forget technique, forget ingredient quality. Those vaunted X factors are dwarfed by the magical power of iteration; fine-tuning your moves (and, even more importantly, your micro-moves). The easy informality of it all, combined with absolutely full attention and deep caring, is the trick.

My guiding principle is to be as lazy as I can get away with. Not because I'm lazy, but because I want to focus, and if I'm navigating a fraught obstacle course where every single task is a demanding stressor, my attention gets diluted and I find myself acting more like a harried project manager than a deeply attentive artisan. I know where to invest my care. That's one thing the iterations show you (of course, you need to carefully analyze your results, or else the iterations won't improve on each other).

The caring part has to be way more extreme than you'd ever imagine. That's why you're lazy; to clear space for excessive caring. Not a cinematic display of furrowed brow where you tell yourself stories about your own diligence. Don't pose, but really do it. Lose yourself in it. Cook like you're saving a life.
See the religious tract I once posted about the devotional level necessary for producing a properly toasted and buttered bagel.
Ok, here goes.

Have some leftover salmon that was broiled first flesh side up and then skin side up until the skin nearly burnt. The skin won't remain crispy in the fridge, but you'll be rejuvenating it.

Heat water in a pot (use minimal water so it becomes starchy and thick and useful for adding later to make final results glisten).

Roughly chop a small onion and sauté in minimal oil. Cook it (seasoned with salt/pepper) about two notches cooler and twice as long as you ordinarily would. "Gentle" is your mantra. Stir infrequently (laziness!).

When you start the pasta, add thinly-sliced garlic to the onions (if the pan's actively sizzling, you'll brown or burn the garlic, so be sure the heat's tame before you add).

Roughly chop salmon and place atop the onion/garlic mixture. You don't want to use a ton of salmon. One full handful, roughly chopped, is sufficient per person. Don't do the ugly American move of deeming your protein the equivalent of a steak dinner. Be poor tonight.

Cut the salmon skin into small strips with paring knife, and add to sauté pan, keeping it separate from the other items.

Slice some tomatoes (I used Camparis) and place above the salmon which sits atop the onion/garlic. You don't want to cook the tomatoes to mushiness.

Drain pasta, saving water.

Hastily sauté a handful of spinach per serving in a little too much olive oil in the pasta pot (excess oil will help compose the sauce).

Critical checks before proceeding:
Salmon skin must be dry and crisp - almost starting to curl up.
Onions and garlic must be soft and golden.
Tomatoes must be relaxed but not gooey.
Spinach must be limp but still deeply green.

Remove salmon skin from pan, and keep handy on a plate.

Mix salmon, onions, and garlic.

The following should take about 30 seconds:

Add cooked pasta to pot with spinach, hoist the pot with one hand and stir aggressively and disrespectfully with the other hand, using a wooden or bamboo spoon or spatula.

Add a dab of cooking water.

Add salmon/onions/garlic/tomato (don't stop stirring!).

Add a dab of cooking water.

Stir in some seasoning (I used leftover Ecuadorian creamy hot sauce from a previous day's takeout, but sky's the limit: chili flakes, za'atar, any fresh herbs, etc.).

Add a dab of cooking water.

Add some grated Parmesan (not too much; this needs to be subliminal; cheese is great with salmon, but you don't want to flaunt the broken taboo).

Keep stirring violently until it looks like something you'd be eager to eat.

Transfer to plate.
If you're using lengthy pasta (linguini, spaghetti, etc), use tongs and give the mound a twist as you plate it. Carefully study 2'29" in this classic short video for spaghetti limone, where Frank Prisinzano makes that move look way too easy.
Arrange salmon skin atop.


Read this followup posting more closely explaining about the onions.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Optima for PC Users...and Breaking the Word Processor Habit

A few days ago, I highly recommended the Optima type face for writing (though not necessarily for publishing/printing).

It looks like Optima is only free for Mac users; Apple paid the price to make it one of the system fonts. PC users need to buy it here. You want the first choice, "Optima Pro Roman, which costs $35. If you want the font, you need to pay, because no PC system font looks anything like Optima, and you don't want to download freebie Optima knock-offs, which will likely be malware.

Italic and bold versions cost more, but I never use those styles, because I write in a text editor, not a word processor. Text editors only handle vanilla plain text. If I need to signify "bold" or "italic", I do so via tagging, in either Markdown (easy - it looks like *this* or like _this_) or HTML (higher learning curve - it looks, roughly, like [b]this[/b] or like [i]this[/i]). These tags, written in plain old text, get translated into visible (aka WYSIWYG, aka "What You See is What You Get") styles later, when I set up the finalized text for printing or publication in a different environment with different fonts.

I understand this is puzzling to those caught up in the 20th century word processor model, but millions have made the leap and feel deliriously free and happy. Writing is just writing (whether for work, email, reports, your great unpublished novel, or whatever), stripped of fidgety layout/design considerations. You work on words, not words-as-graphical-elements. Styling and layout enter into the equation once you're done writing, and you can set up templates and automation so the tagged text pipes right into your desired finished format (just for starters, your hoary word processor can easily import tagged text from text editors).

So plain old Optima (the best writing font) is sufficient. You don't need bold or italic because a writing font is strictly for wrangling words. And while that's a low-pizzazz undertaking, you still need to stare at these characters for as long as it takes, which makes the $35 a worthwhile investment.

If you buy and load Optima, you can certainly use it in word processors, but it won't do bold or italic. If you insist on sticking with the word processor, you can workaround by using all-caps, or else just spend the money on the bold and italic versions (but know that you're up-spending to service a moldly and archaic word processing habit!).

More on Markdown:
An extensive screencast by an affable Brit. Requires 7 day free trial, but you might want to consider joining the site (their library of tech screencasts is extensive and terrific).

This $9.99 e-book goes deep into Markdown but also extends a helping hand to newbies.

This overview is a bit geeky but makes a handy guide

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

An Epiphany on How We Got Here

I just had a realization of something completely obvious (I can be very, very slow).

Bring me some recipe or restaurant recommendation you got from network TV or some other mainstream channel, and I'll just smirk. I'll assume it's crap. I'm skeptical of mainstream media food reporting, which supplies bland fluff for thoughtless masses. The parties disseminating this information have ulterior motives. They've been bought, or are complacent to the status quo. I disregard such mainstream pablum, sticking with extra-good tips ferreted out by in-the-know types like myself.

This is how the extreme right and left consume news! They're connoisseurs. Mainstream channels are stupid and gullible and malignant and bought out. You can't trust those people. That's not the good stuff. Stick with reliably kindred sources.

Same with science news, medical news, etc.. A vast consensus of experts may agree about climate change or vaccines. But these mainstream channels, representing shady Big Science, Big Medicine, etc., dish out dodgy bla-bla-bla to the thoughtless herds. That's not the extra-good elite information they require, ferreted out by connoisseurs like them.

Extremism is a useful trait for a chowhound. High eagerness benefits trivial pursuits. Less so when it comes to health and public policy, and any important civic sphere requiring serious training to duly comprehend (and radical indoctrination is not a substitute for that "serious training")

I really like being able to occupy the mindset of people who mystify me. I know I'm supposed to scream at them and hate them, but my curiosity wins out. A lot of times, I share my findings under the tag right whispering. These days, with both extremes increasingly engaged and scary, I'm working both ends of the horseshoe pretty evenly (though I'll keep using that tag for now).

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Fonts and Type Faces for Writing

This isn't ultimately Mac-only...if you're a PC dupe user, just skip the first few paragraphs.

The latest MacOS has all these cool fonts built-in. It's like someone spent $$$ on font licenses for you. Strangely Apple didn't announce this, and you need to go to extra trouble to load them. Quick explainer here.

So I went to the trouble, and loaded Domaine, Produkt, Canela, and Proxima Nova. While I was at it, I got some advice on good writer's fonts in this Reddit thread (here’s a polished survey of actual writers). Garamond isn't available on Mac, but the others are, if you search for them (google: [font name] for Mac).

So I created a new Collection in my Font Book app, called Writing, and stocked it with candidates.

Note that this is about fonts for writing, not for printing or publication. If you're still caught in the 1980's word processing model of composing in whatever font and app will represent the final output, see the "Stop Using Word Processors" section of this posting to unchain yourself from unnecessary constraint.
  • Arial
  • Avenir
  • Baskerville
  • Bembo
  • Bodoni
  • Calibri
  • Cochin
  • Courier Prime
  • Georgia
  • and Times New Roman
I quit Font Book, opened BBEdit, my text editor which I use as a word processor (per previous link), created a page full of text, selected all text, typed Command-T to bring up the font selector, and flipped between the type families. Here are the results (click the font name to see a text example). I'm not judging how they "look" - i.e. this isn't about final presentation. It's a question of what you'd want to stare at and work with all day.
Avenir: Squat and slightly wispy.

Arial: The store brand version of Avenir.

Baskerville: Busy and dense.

Bembo: Slightly less busy and dense, but still pretty busy and dense.

Bodoni: Exactly the same as Bembo; what's up with that?

Calibri: Is screen space so expensive that everything needs to be squashed together horizontally?

Cochin: Are you trying to give yourself a migraine?

Courier Prime: Just no (unless you're a screenwriter).

Georgia: Spiders nesting in your monitor.

NewTimes Roman: Comfortingly familiar but would you really want to land your cursor between those intricate characters hundreds or thousands of times per day?
I also tried Domaine, Produkt, Canela, and Proxima Nova. Like the above, these are all exquisite-looking fonts, and would be nice to read in, and to use for certain end results. But not to write in.

The Optima I've always used seems perfect. You'll say that's 'cuz I'm used to it. But I honestly don't think so.

Optima, FYI, is Latin for "best". It's right there in the name.

Followup for PC users (and further discussion of the obsolescence of word processors) here.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

John Cleese on Extremism

I keep repeating the following statement, hoping to nag everyone into recognizing the problem pretty much everywhere we look:
Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?
The great John Cleese gets to the core of the issue in a two minute video clip:

I agree with Stephen Fry (whose own wisely delightful video I linked to here), who tweeted out this reply to Cleese:
"If I didn’t already think you were a genius I would now..."
Take the insight one step deeper by considering The Segregating Outcome of Selective Attention...
We notice the flaws to which we're all heir much more precisely in The Other, whom we instinctively observe with great care. Me and my tribe receive a blurrier, more forgiving appraisal, due not to vanity but to familiarity. We're less instinctively alert to the familiar, because it's innately safer.
...and you can get pretty close to a holistic view of the Human Problem (do also factor in the sorely-missing recognition that noticing stupidity and craziness doesn’t mean you’re smart and sane; it just means you’re observant). 

Thanks to Dave Feldman for hipping me to Cleese's video.

So much of life - including life well beyond politics - is explained by this dynamic. I've spilled much virtual ink hunting down its corollaries and origins. But I'll add a fresh (for me) one: Young people are particularly attracted to extremism out of eagerness to jump-start a sense of personal grandeur (it's easier than developing talent or knowledge). In fact, to widen the framing, anyone frustrated - whose grandiose self-image fails to jibe with real world evidence - is susceptible to extremism of one sort or another.

That's the thesis of Eric Hoffer's classic book "The True Believer". I'll beg you to read it. It's short and written with brilliant clarity. A fantastically quick and life-changing read.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Defunding the Police

For the love of god, people (or, for those less ambitious or religious, for the survival of the republic and our way of life): Don't make the rallying cry this summer and fall "Defund the Police". It would be less insanely self-defeating to strip off all our clothes and devote our lives to meekly servicing the president's corpulent flesh.

"De-Militarize the Police"
"Purge Bad Cops"
"Restore Decency"
"Black Lives Matter"

All fine! But "Defund the Police"? How about we offer some faint quantity of vaunted "#Resistance" to the ogres and scumbags scheming their way toward a second term? How about we don't cut our own throats and drop our bodies on their doorstep with a massive "We Surrender" sign?

Monday, June 1, 2020

Corn and Egg Panini

Carefully cut a savory Hispanic "pan" (bread) in half with a serrated bread knife.
If you're mystified by the non-sweet end of the Hispanic "pan" spectrum, the panini treatment is your first step to enlightenment. Savory breads are either crumbly (which works great in panini), or eggy, which works great in panini. This one was more crumbly (with added cheese). I got it from the best hispanic bread bakery in the Tristate Area, Sabor Ambateño (which has branches in Peekskill, Ossining, Elizabeth, and, Jesus, I see they just opened in Danbury (they're everywhere all of a sudden). They do highly regional breads from the part of Ecuador most local immigrants aren't from, always with a great selection and friendly service. Sweet stuff is hit or miss (though they play up their intricate cakes...see the Ossining branch's Instagram account).

Trader Joe's Chili Onion Crunch is my current go-to agent of je ne sai qua. I smeared it sparingly on one side of the bread. You could butter the other side, or drizzle good olive oil on it. I'm too austere for that.

I steamed an ear of corn and cut off the kernels (serrated knife!) and arranged them on the bread.

I flopped over over an egg white omelet, heavy on the black pepper, and added some split grape tomatoes.

I press/toasted in my panini machine.

....and cut.

Note that the cutting step is essential. Home chefs sometimes ignore it. It's a mistake, especially with panini. The cutting changes everything. I use one of these KAI Ultimate Utility Sandwich Knives, which Williams Sonoma has been trying to unload for months now. At a crazy-low $10, it's a steal and I highly recommend it (great for splitting bagels, btw).

This was my latest kooky pandemic cooking experiment (see also Unnameable Breakfast).

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Busting Up the Place

"Busting up the place" originated, way way back, with people who were being persecuted without anyone giving a damn, and who had no other channel for protesting their plight.

That's a far cry from busting up the place when the entire society knows about the persecution, and the majority's sympathetic, and you enjoy a rich and diverse set of communication channels. "Busting-up" is not a strategy to keep handy in one's social action toolkit.

Busting up the place is a last resort, not a strategy for advancing an argument. If you'd insist that your justifiable anger makes such action righteous, then I invite you to enjoy the gunfire on election day when Trump's angry followers bust up the place*. This is one of many excesses that can and will come back to bite you.

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

* - If, that is, he doesn't cannily use recent events to convince a few thousand people in key electoral college counties of the need for an authoritarian leader amid the chaos, thereby barely eking out reelection.

The Segregating Outcome of Selective Attention

I've managed, finally (I'm slow!) to connect two insights familiar to Slog readers.

I've spent all these years trying to tie frizzy strands of comprehension - errant corn chunks studding my brain's excreta - into a coherent unifying conclusion. Perceptual framing (which I finally latched on to in January, 2018 after frustrating decades spent dancing with a conceptual ghost) appears to be it. As I note here, it explains disparate mysteries, finding a common basis for art, creativity, spirituality, hypnosis, insanity, depression, and self-destructive behavior; offers a fresh and credible theology and cosmology; and accounts for the most elusive phenomena in the human experience: inspiration. But glimpsing a unified end point doesn’t instantly resolve the myriad frazzled strands into coherence. One still needs to put in the work. So I'll get to work....

In "Giving Misanthropy Its Due", I wrote:
We study the Other...and we don't like what we see. Men rue the cruelty of women; women rue the cruelty of men. Both are quite correct, really.

Racism, sexism, classism, etc. are nothing more than the incomplete registration of a perfectly appropriate misanthropy.
We notice the flaws to which we're all heir much more precisely in The Other, whom we instinctively observe with great care. Me and my tribe receive a blurrier, more forgiving appraisal, due not to vanity but to familiarity. We're less instinctively alert to the familiar, because it's innately safer.

So let's make the easy connection to the observation that people who notice stupidity always think it makes them smart, and noticing craziness makes them sane. That’s wrong. It just means you're observant. You’d need to direct those observational skills back at yourself for the complete, and far less flattering, picture. Why do we decline to do so? Not so much vanity as familiarity. We are adapted to scan the unfamiliar. And nothing's more familiar than Me.

This also explains why our albatrosses are red herrings (which in turn explains lots of other things). There are profound discrepancies between our view of Me/Us and of You/Them, and the disjoint is (per above) perceptual - baked into our innate framing - not moral, as we've long imagined.

Friday, May 29, 2020

A Centrist View of Police Violence and Race

A few years ago I made a case that there's actually not much gap between mainstream left and mainstream right positions on guns and abortion. But I was referencing private positions, not public ones. Big difference! If only each side would talk straight with the other - rather than posture and lie in reaction to extremists on the opposite side - these issues wouldn't be so intractable.

The hot topic of police racist violence offers similar common ground. The problem, as always, is that amid all the heat, few are willing to stipulate, out loud, truths they well know to be true. Anger inhibits the ability to access extenuating truth. Just as we learn to steer into skids, we must aim to remain deliberately connected to our full corpus of knowledge and rationality when it conflicts with our emotional momentum.

I will stipulate below some points most people might privately concede, but would never say out loud at moments like this. The first is an exception. It's a crucial point that not everyone knows, and is crucial to bear in mind.

1. Police in America, at their worst, can be shockingly and systematically racist. It's far worse than white people realize, though we're beginning to see it now thanks to cell phone cameras. I once travelled to LA with a black band, and while none of my colleagues were meek, they not only refused to jay walk at deserted intersections, they throbbed with fear at the suggestion. LA cops were notorious, at least among black people. White people, however - including white Angelenos - had no idea. This wide gap of experience helps account for the profound disjoint between black and white reactions to the OJ Simpson acquittal.

2. Policing is dangerous. Cops run toward gunfire, and that requires a certain type. It's a high-testosterone job, and while we expect them to act fully professional - to switch off their adrenalin and physicality when the bad guy's caught, downshifting immediately into calm administrative dweebs - human beings don't always work like that. You don't work like that! Society needs  thousands of law enforcement officers, so we don't have the luxury of selecting only freaks of immaculate emotional control, which means there will always be imperfect control of police violence. If we want police, and we do, we must accept this (while finding ways to vigilantly watch the watchmen).

3. Cops need to be able to shoot and even kill people entirely by accident once in a while. We offer this latitude because we expect them to run toward the gunfire, and they have wives and kids, and they deserve to stay alive just as you and I do. Their service is heroic, and we owe it to heros to tolerate rare mistakes or overreaction.

4. A mistakenly shot/killed civilian nationwide every few weeks isn't an abomination. In a nation of 330 million, with 700,000 law enforcement officers, it's a statistical likelihood. In fact, I'd say they're doing tremendously well.

5. Racist and corrupt policemen shamefully use #3 and #4 as a shield to justify bad-faith acts and flagrant atrocities up to and including murder. We need to get as close to zero tolerance as possible...while recognizing that they're a slim minority.

6. The rest of the police are conditioned to look the other way, due to a culture of solidarity that serves useful supportive purposes but makes it damnably hard to detect and expunge bad cops.

Fighting this institutional issue will require fresh solutions (outrage just tightens the blue line). For one thing, I'd like to see a channel for anonymous dialog with everyday cops-on-the-beat, most of whom are true public servants. Not a tattle line, but a way to hear their candid suggestions for improving the system (they aren't loving this, either).

7. When you turn on the TV and hear that "another" black civilian was hurt or killed by police, and you immediately draw conclusions, you are doing the same stereotyping and pre-judgement you're condemning. WE ALL KNOW WHAT THOSE GODDAMN COPS ARE CAPABLE OF. The antidote to a pattern of harsh pre-judgement isn't reciprocal harsh pre-judgement. It's calm, smart, competent action.

The excesses of the anti-cop mob - reflexive condemnation of every cop who gets it wrong and agitation for punishment before facts are known - are maddeningly similar (though thankfully less lethal) to the excesses of police violence itself. If we destroy a good cop because we mistake him for a bad one due to our predisposition about cops, haven't we committed the same injustice we oppose? Should our visceral feelings toward police affect our responsibility to be fair-minded? If we demand punishment before the wheels of justice have fully turned, aren't we favoring gut-level summary judgement and extrajudicial punishment?

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

Unnameable Breakfast

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

I entered my kitchen.

I poured some yogurt into a bowl.

I added blueberries and banana slices.

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

I stirred lightly - to swirl, not mix.

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


Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Awesome Humble Stranger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Face Masks: The Centrist Result

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 25, 2020

Stamps: Economics Judo

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

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

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

All for naught, alas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

China PRC 1987 MNH 1985 T106 Giant Pandas

China PRC 2377 MNH 1991 T167 Outlaws of the Marsh

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

China PRC 3005 MNH 2000 Spring Festival

Scott 2869 Legends Of The West

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

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

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

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

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

Fixed the Audio

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

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

Sunday, May 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Boxes: Midterm Note

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

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

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

My possessions just became finite.

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

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

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

Friday, May 22, 2020

The Boxes: Facile Trashing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Boxes: The Bad Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The foundations of my horror had all been laid bare:

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Reversing deep stupidity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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