Saturday, February 13, 2021

Expectation, Surprise, Love, Delight

Marques Brownlee

I'm completely uninterested in social media "influencers", YouTube channel hosts, that whole scene. It's not my world. And yet, there's one social media influencer with a YouTube channel who's so unworldly good at it that I can't stop watching. Not for the first time, I concede that there's nothing I dislike that can't be redeemed by transcendent quality.

Marques Brownlee (who has tens of millions of followers and frequently interviews guests like Obama and Musk) is a kid from Newark doing video tech reviews. He's bright and witty, but not sensationally so. He has good opinions on tech, but so do many people. I've watched and watched, trying to parse the trick; probing for the hidden wellspring of super-intelligence or super-creativity.

But it's not there. No vein of talent deep enough to explain the hold of his output. He's just an articulate, bright, informed kid born to be unimaginably great at something I ordinarily don't care about. If he'd arrived 30 years earlier, he'd be an assistant copper wire salesman. But he's perfection for the moment.

At first, I watched his stuff with a jaundiced, critical eye, bracing for the inevitable micro-atrocities: irritating slack that should have been edited, eye-rolling self-aggrandizement, flagrant love-of-the-sound-of-his-own voice, etc. But my sensitive geiger counter never blips. It's never blipped once. Not one slack moment, not one conspicuous self-indulgence, not one embarrassingly ill-considered choice.

Here's the secret: He does something I was taught to do as a journalist by a long-forgotten generation: serve his readership/viewership and do justice to his subjects.

As a food writer, I never felt that I worked in the restaurant industry. I was on the other side of that equation, on the side of its customers - my readers. Every action taken, every ravioli scarfed, every word written, was absolutely 100% for them. I nominally worked for editors, but when they got in the way of my giving readers what they fully deserved, I'd either defy them or go work elsewhere. I wasn't fucking around; not pretending to serve readers while stoking my own greater good. No pose. It was heartfelt.

In my seventh week of twelve-meal days researching my first book, waking up every day putridly unhungry before going out and doing it all over again, I forced myself to eat like a reader. My expression was bleary, bloated, and glum, but my pen outpoured rapture. I was their surrogate, their servant. And I never smugly boasted about it; I just shut up and did it...while my colleagues were mostly insecure egomaniacs, in it to curry favor with food celebs, take bribes, pump their brands, and revel in their positions as elite lordly tastemakers. It was all about them. Most sucked as food writers, which I saw as the inevitable result of distorted priorities and unseemly neediness. They couldn't put their heads down and work their asses off to do justice to their subject and be fully of service to their readership. This perspective was inaccessible to them.

Marques Brownlee, in every utterance, every shot set-up, every editorial cut, serves viewers, not him. He does this thoughtfully, skillfully, and with unlimited commitment. He never once forgets who he's working for, so nothing ever trips a skeptical viewer's geiger counter. It's all butter. That's why I'm a fan of a guy working in a realm of no interest to me. Anyone who loves me this sincerely, I can't help loving back.

The Blazer Pub

A cool 1920s roadhouse in Purdys, NY called The Blazer Pub is purported to make the best burgers in Westchester County (I actually slightly prefer the ones at Squires of Briarcliff). They also serve a cream of tomato soup that's life-changing. And I don't like tomato soup.

In fact, I suspect I like Blazer's tomato soup even more because it improbably defies my aversion.

Eugene Goodman

One reason I'm such a staunch Eugene Goodman fan (I actually wrote my congressman to ask about the hold-up on his Congressional gold medal) was because when I first saw him, live, on the news on January 6, he was irritating me. "Why does he keep backing up??" I exasperatedly wondered. Then it came to light that he was baiting the mob to bypass the area where Congressmen were secretly hunkered. Goodman was backing up because he was extremely competent, tactical, brave, and cool under pressure. And now I count myself as an especially fervent Goodmanite.

The Piano Tuner

Most of my musician friends were scary. I didn't hang out much with the shiny, composed front men. My crowd was the pot-smoking unshaven sidemen; the hardworking, unheralded wise-asses at the back of the stage who made the shiny front man sound good.

One of the most barbaric and disheveled of the lot was a drummer who bore a striking resemblance to Charles Manson - wild eyes and all - and who daylighted as a piano tuner. I had him come to my parents' house to work on their piano, and when my mom returned from the store and walked in the house, glimpsing this malevolent fiend taking apart the family piano, she froze, dropped her grocery bags, and nearly fainted.

She eventually came to discover that he's actually a super nice good guy, funny and whip-smart (he's now a highly successful lawyer, naturally) and became best friends with him.


Why am I a devoted fan of a disgracefully mainstream "video influencer", a term I can barely type without gagging?

Why do I like Blazer Pub's tomato soup extra because I hate tomato soup?

Why do I cheer Eugene Goodman with extra vehemence after assuming he was incompetent?

Why did my mom become extra good friends with the Tasmanian Devil who made her shatter her apple sauce jars?

Surprise. We love surprise (in small doses). That's why we love comedy. Jokes are effective agents of micro-surprise. They trip us delightfully into viewing the world a bit differently. Same for drama, stories, music, travel, or expectation-defying tomato soup. We shift a little, and humans need to keep shifting perspective to be happy and healthy.

If you grind down into a frozen perspective (aka depression), your perspective will be largely impermeable to surprise. A set of stand-up comedy or a bowl of supernal tomato soup won't cut through the torpor.

Once depression resolves and we've rediscovered the freedom to shift/flip perspective, relapse can be avoided by seeking out and relishing surprise in all its forms. That seeking is nothing less than a holy quest. Chowhounding, I guess, is a quasi-religious proposition.

It's hard to escape the throes of major depression because a frozen perspective inherently rejects the variety that spices life. There is no difference between "impermeability to surprise" and "frozen perspective". The frozenness - initially an indulgent caprice; a melodramatic ratcheting on to some bleak mental fluff just for kicks - seizes more and more of your fluidity of attention until you're eventually trapped in an unremitting bleakness as inescapable as a black hole.

The timeworn brute-force escape tactics - drugs (prescription or otherwise), alcohol, sex, travel, deadlines, overwork, etc. - are desperate means for wrenching perspective out of its frozen lock. Unsurprisingly, those things become addictive as they come to be seen as lifelines; the sole means of redemption from Hell.

But we don't need things, means, or tactics. We are always free to reframe - to shift attention and flip perspective - in any moment in any direction. It's not even necessary to choose wisely. We don't need the perfect perspective, or even a particularly "postive" one. Any shift will do. We just need to keep our shifter lithe. The frozeness is the problem; the framing, not the content. We are always free to self-redeem ("the kingdom of god is within you", yadda yadda).

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