Monday, May 31, 2021

Highly Imitative Aliens

If you go to Barcelona, one in three local women will strongly remind you of a female character from a Pedro Almodovar film. But it's not that Almodovar brilliantly portrayed the culture. It's the other way around. They act that way because they've all watched Almodovar films.



It's frequently been observed that mobsters since the 1970s have taken inspiration from the Godfather (and, later, The Sopranos) for their notions of gangster style and attitude.



There are a few dozen clone lines in any society, no more. People are types, which is adaptive behavior because it lubricates social interaction. When you meet a brassy lady with a gravelly voice and energetic good humor, you feel that you know that person. Love her or hate her, you can deal with her comfortably due to long experience with her clone line. Same for the aloofly ponderous academic. Or the BAD BOY. No one's born as these things. The personas are adopted via modeling, these days mostly via movie and TV actors. In the old days, one modeled the persona of a family member or another local "role models" (turn that phrase around in your mind for a moment!).

We really commit to the role. A person never feels more expressively uniquely himself than when he's being most flagrantly clone-ish. That's exactly how the millions driving VW bugs or listening to "indie rock" manage to feel fiercely nonconformist. ("Hey, I'm a free-thinking type! One of those!")



There was a Star Trek episode where a starship had accidentally left a book about 1920's gangland Chicago behind on a planet populated by particularly imitative aliens. When the Enterprise visited, everyone acted like gangsters and spoke with thick Chicago accents.

We are that planet.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Misery

"We inhabit a bright, beautiful planet full of promise and peril, lovingly tailored to our precise specifications. We need the sad and horrible parts. If we don't get enough of them - if we've implemented cheats to override them - we pay to get our fix, and/or brood, worry, and stress our way there. We need all the movies."
      -- "Why God Lets Bad Things Happen"

Most people spend most of their lives making themselves miserable over the prospect of future misery (which only rarely materializes) and the recollection of previous misery (which no longer exists). We can even make ourselves needlessly miserable by recalling the times we made ourselves needlessly miserable over future misery that never materialized!

If misery's so bad, then why are people so endlessly thirsty for it?

In "Grief Survival Kit", I asked
If you're so phenomenally upset about death, that can only mean life is truly amazing. So why ruin so much precious alive time with unnecessary drama? If the departed saw you doing this, they'd slap their foreheads and holler "Stop! That's just crazy! Don't do that!! Especially not in my name!" They'd want you to mourn for a while, and then go out there and kick ass, relishing every moment.
Even real misery - right now, in the present moment - often turns out, in hindsight, to have been unnecessary. Very few of my unrequited crushes were so great. The balloon that floated away was just some balloon. Bad days with good people were good days. The wallets lost and fenders dented didn't matter. Physical pain fades, and that which doesn't becomes easily tolerable once accepted.

All that remains once you've disregarded the flotsam, the drama, the entitlement, and the trumped-up hoo-haw, are an isolated few horrors I could either suck on like lozenges of woe, stoking my misery (to counterbalance moments when I worry I might be feeling inappropriately happy), or else embrace like rich chile heat in the stew of it all.


Further Reading:
"New Cars and Pizza and Needlessly Making Ourselves Miserable"

The Nourishing Song of Autistic Shrieks

A severely autistic kid, who I've never met, lives up the hill from my house. And for several hours per day, he blasts piercing owl-like hoots and shrieks down the hill. The volume is remarkable. When guests visit, they're startled when he launches his latest program. Are aliens invading?

You might think it would be hard to sleep, or write, or think with this as my sonic background, day after day, year after year. But it's not. You may have read my theory that, despite their inability to participate in empathy theater, autistic people are actually more empathic than normal. They're aware, and they care (deeply), but they couldn't imagine displaying the usual performative indicators. They're too busy caring to arrange expression and body english, and utter the clichés, that make people seem caring. The supposed dysfunction of autism amounts to a seemingly opaque condition of utter genuineness. Being caring, they couldn't fathom how to - or why to - seem caring.

So while my neighbors hear disturbing shrieks of haunted dysfunction, I frame it differently. I hear singing; an effort to blanket the hill and all its inhabitants with exactly the sounds this person has decided we require for nourishment. And I trust him.


You might argue that I've simply "gotten used to" the shrieking. And there may be an element of that. But that, too, is a process of reframing. Reframing is the same thing as a shift of perspective, and perspective shifts via placement of attention. Attention is instinctively directed to the unfamiliar, and familiarity accrues with experience. We deprecate needful attention to things which previously have proved themselves harmless and unproductive (attention will always be rivetted by, say, frying onions or angry dogs, despite their familiarity, but the yadda-yadda fades into background). The unfamiliar is gradually reframed into mundanity.

I suspect that my neighbors never get used to it, because they've chosen to associate this sound with anguish rather than benevolence, and chosen to deem it a rude disturbance; a daily torment. Such instilled emotions are destined to be freshly triggered every time, attracting heightened, rather than diminished, attention. We distinguish our frying onions and angry dogs from our fading mundane yadda yadda via engrained patterns of emotional response. We frame internally, though we nuttily imagine that external factors frame us (very short poem, please give a quick read).

So the process of "getting used to" something is just another process of reframing. Our entire experience of the world, in fact, is the culmination of sequential framing shifts (an inner process that we project outward...remember the golden retriever!), mostly instinctual and unconscious, but, per my repeated urgings, also potentially volitional if you're playful enough to flex atrophied muscles. For example, by reframing a shrieking kid as a benevolent protector.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Trust Mah Benevolence!

This happens all the time.

You start to ask someone to PLEASE not say a word of....

....and already they're nodding in assurance, waving you off. Gotcha. 'Nuff said. I won't breathe a word.

"Won't breathe a word of what?" I ask. I haven't actually explained what mustn't be repeated, or to whom. And that strikes me as a rather essential chunk.

Confused and interrupted, the person stares blankly. This isn't how this script is supposed to go.

"I just won't....say a word! About anything! To anyone! Ever!" they think, dopily, knowing better than to speak it out loud. "You want me to not do the bad thing, and I'd never do that! I'm a good thing doer!"

"But having cut me off before I could explain what the thing actually is, how could you possibly oblige?” I ask wordlessly via my perturbed scowl.

"I don't need to hear," they continue, silently, with increasing distress. "I'm virtuous! Whatever it is, I would never in a million years do it! Blanket statement! Total coverage! Don't worry, I'm safe because I'm a GOOD PERSON! You can TRUST ME!"


No, I obviously can't. Good people listen closely, paying careful attention to the request, and let it sink in before agreeing sincerely. People who cut you off before you've even made the request (>75% of people will do this) have no intention of following through. In fact, those are the Bad People (as any writer of quality fiction will tell you, every villain feels righteous). They've clearly marked themselves.

Good people listen up at such moments, because they know they might otherwise go the wrong way. They are good people because they know there's always a choice, and it’s precarious, and they earnestly strive to choose right. Bad people pay scant attention, because their presumption of virtue trumps any need to actually behave virtuously.




Meanwhile, I'm an impolite asshole for taking a PERFECTLY NORMAL exchange and dragging it in a whole other direction, creating friction and discomfort for people being kind enough to take the trouble of signalling their totally totally benign intentions. Signalling benevolence is a precious gift of respect and kinship, and I've rudely ignored this gift, making these people feel bad just when they're taking pains to soothe and placate me with extra-sincere benevolence theater. Shameful behavior!

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Wagon Hitching, Credit Taking, and Reframing

In my posting on Devas, I wrote that I have
...an unusually lithe ability to shift perspective; to reframe. Sometimes I can induce such a shift in others (though I often fail miserably). Oddly, when it works, I'm never recognized as having had anything to do with it. That's how devas roll. When it's clean like that, you're doing it right.
I thought of a relatable example. It will take me a few minutes to work up to it, though. But, to reward your patience, it will include a fix for procrastination. 

Say there's a task someone's procrastinated. Not because they hate the task. It just slipped away from them, launching a vicious circle of shame and aversion. The symptoms are familiar (if you're someone who can watch your mind work): whenever you try to tackle the task, you suddenly get REALLY HUNGRY....or think of someone you need to call...or remember you haven't picked up the mail or marinated the chicken. You have a sudden need to drink a glass of water or lie down because CAN'T YOU GET A GODDAMNED MINUTE OF PEACE AND RELAXATION??? Your brain helpfully fires off a creative blitz of enticements and distractions. That’s how procrastination works.

There is a cure. You simply need to hitch your wagon. I'll explain.

You can't execute an abstract proposition. The reason it's hard to lose weight is because losing weight is an abstract proposition, not a doable thing. Try it! Reader: LOSE WEIGHT! Go!

Nothing, right?

Trying to pursue an abstract proposition makes us a little nutty, prompting shame and confusion rather than pragmatic action. You can persuade yourself (or others) to take a walk, or do a push-up, or eat a healthy egg-white omelet. Those things are eminently do-able, and will eventually, if repeated, lead to weight loss. But a person cannot be persuaded to LOSE WEIGHT, because that's beyond the human ken.

You can take a single step toward a larger process, but it will feel like a measly step, not a grand process. The grander you frame it, the less doable it becomes.

So here's how you hitch your wagon. Identify a single nugget of pragmatic action. Preferably one that's reasonably pleasant, and somewhat intriguing. Start thinking, playfully, about this nugget, just as an isolated thing, without any reference to the over-arching goal. Coax yourself into absorption. And, before you know it, you'll be up and doing it. Just don't let yourself pull back the framing to a painful long view. If you do, look past it. Guide yourself gently but persistently into the finite task at hand. Reframe it, in other words, in close-up, rather than a long shot.

Say someone's procrastinated listing his household clutter on eBay. It's the bane of his existence, but he can't seem to get to it. How could you help? By guiding him away from the monumental storyline (which is enticingly familiar; he's visited it 10,000 times in his head) of pain and futility. Frame him down to one manageable task:
"Is there anything really valuable?

"I have one book that might be worth something!"

"Geez, I wonder what it's worth! Enough for, like, a steak dinner?"

"Let me fish it out of the box and check, just to satisfy my curiosity!"

"I'm curious, too!"

"[Pausing, body suddenly freezing in mid-action] I really need to organize all that stuff. [Scowl, stress, moan]."

"Well, don't sweat that for now. Let's just check price for this book!"

"Ok, ok. Let's see....here it is, and I see on eBay it's worth....$150!"

"Wow! Y'now, if you hit that link "Sell One Like This", your listing publishes instantly!"

"[Freezing again] I wasn't planning to get involved in this big project right now...."

"No, of course not! But if you list this book, you'll break the ice! You'll prove you can do it!”
You creep quietly away, leaving him to it. His wagon's been hitched. Four hours later, he reappears, proudly proclaiming  serious progress.
Nothing momentous was said. It was entirely mundane. I'm assuming lightning bolts didn't shoot from the page as you read that. So, upon reflection, I have to concede that the commentor here made a fair point. If there's no "there" there, what's the difference between powerful slippery guidance and just sayin' some shit? The difference is art, which I define as "any human creation devised to induce a reframing of perspective".

Jackson Pollack's work looks, superficially, like mundane paint splatterings. Great art works on a deep, subconscious level, inducing a shift of perspective (leaving one moved, inspired, transported, etc.), often with little indication at the surface level. And a deva works at the extreme end of the indication curve...ideally to the point of invisibility/cleanness. That's who a deva, ultimately, is. But I digress.
Now here's the question I've been building up to: Would your friend notice what you'd done? Would he call you after this productive afternoon to say anything like the following?
"I want to thank you for the way you shifted my perspective from a painful monumental task into a more manageable finite task, enabling me to finally tackle this project. You ignited my curiosity and I tore through it like a champ! Thank you so MUCH for reframing this situation for me and allowing me to get going! What a brilliant and generous bit of persuasion that was!"
No. Nobody says that. Nobody even sees it. When perspective shifts (not just to some new tangent of thought, I mean a fundamental shift of perspective), we don't register a cause. That's because, unlike thought, we don’t view perspective from a higher vantage point. The world seems to shift, because we project our perspective, and you’re a whole different person and it's a whole new day. Born again!

No one ever goes back and fishes through the weeds for an impetus. That would require the converse shift, which is hardly enticing. And it would also require facility with a framing function everyone steadfastly ignores. We figure the world shifts externally; we don’t see it (frame it!) as arising from an adjustment of internal perspective.


Imagine opening a door for a bored golden retriever who runs exuberantly out into the meadow. House? What house? No house! No door! No person-who-opened-door! Just glorious MEADOW, everywhere! What individual could possibly trigger GLORIOUS MEADOW EVERYWHERE? “GLORIOUS MEADOW EVERYWHERE” is a universe. How could such enormity possibly stem from some stupid arm opening some stupid door?

No, this was God’s work, conjuring GLORIOUS MEADOW EVERYWHERE via command, ala Genesis. And so long as we posit a Supreme Being upon whom we project our framing faculty, we will remain oblivious to stupid arms opening stupid doors, much less to rediscovering our innate freedom to shift at will.

This explains why no one ever shares Slog postings. I could publish Jesus Christ's personal cell phone number, and it wouldn't ripple. That's because I offer shifts of perspective - reframings - here. Many readers roll their eyes at what seems like overheated bullshit, or are puzzled by the "weirdness", but those who draw value run out into the meadow without looking back. It’s “clean”.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

LEFFtovers: Pork Chop Curry Penne


This consists of:

A leftover pork chop (sliced)

A leftover serving of spicy Indian vegetable curry

Some really good penne.


Before cooking, as I went about my day, I backburnered a process of visualization, envisioning not how I, as a cook, would approach it, but how I, as an eater, wanted it to come off. I never push with the cooking, I always pull from the eating. The best route, I've found, is to reverse engineer a clearly envisioned result. Work it out carefully in your imagination, like a puzzle, then execute.

The pork chunks, being leftover, were bound to be slightly dry. So I didn't want to "feature" them. They had to be buried in sauce. But I didn't want to give them the "meatball" treatment. I wanted the pork flavor to remain pure, and not be lost in the curry. I even wanted the caramelization from the rewarming to come through.

So I didn't rewarm the pork chunks in the curry, nor did I add curry over the reheated pork to heat in the same pan. I braised the pork chunks by themselves, removed them from the pan, then heated the curry, finally stirring it together with the pasta at the very end. Leftover flaws in the pork wouldnt be obvious, but it wouldn't be stewed, either. You knew you were eating pork chops, but they didn't particularly stick out.

Do I sound obsessive? Well, that's what it takes to produce quality. You have to care to a degree that would be off-putting if people knew.

Deva Redux

As of now, Tuesday morning, yesterday's posting on "Devas" has been much improved. You might want to give it another look (many of these postings are intended as lozenges, anyway; deliberately rewarding multiple rereadings).

Monday, May 24, 2021

Devas

A group of pilgrims was wandering around the Himalayas, visiting remote shrines, when the weather suddenly shifted and it was snowing and blowing and unimaginably cold. White-out conditions. Their destination was not far, but if they tried to find it, they might fall off the mountain under those conditions. The only option was to stand in place and be frozen by the howling winds.

Suddenly, a figure appeared, and gestured for them to follow. At last they spotted the shelter and ran to the door. But the figure was gone. Where had he gone? Who was that??

A few days later, a local monk offered an explanation.

"Oh, that sounds like a deva. Yeah. Just a deva."

"What do you mean, 'just a deva'? There are people who stand around deserted mountaintops during blizzards, like, just in case? And that strikes you as normal?"

"That's his gig," replied the monk with a hapless shrug. "He's the guy who points the way."

"Where does he live? Who signs his paycheck? Does he just stand there for 30 years waiting for that one lost dude to show up?"

"No frickin' idea. Devas exist, but we don't know anything about them."

I'd read this story as a 13-year old, in the autobiography of an obscure tantric swami who interested me (his language was more formal; I've presented, above, my teenaged impression). And my own visceral response shocked me: I couldn't escape the feeling that it sounded like a great job.

Wait, what? Dude, there are no pizzerias on Himalayan mountaintops. Or anything else you like. And you are not physically hardy. Nor are you particularly charitable - at least not in any obvious way. You're not the sort of person people think of as kind or generous. You do try to help - pretty much always, come to think of it - but you don't make a display of it. In fact, you cover your tracks. You prefer it when they don't even notice.

Oh. Ok, I get it. All of that is actually what devas do. Huh. So I'm a deva already. Devas don't accept tips or pose for selfies. They don't stoke their mythologies. They help and get the hell out. They remove themselves from the equation. It's not about them. And that's why I'd like the gig. It's already my preference!

So that's how I became a deva.

No, it's not. That would be the line if this were a "tale of adventure," with momentous decisions drawing me to extraordinary experiences. What I am describing is the opposite of that. I'm talking about making it not about me. To an extreme. The furthest distance from "about me" that human existence can be pushed. And you can't remove yourself from an equation while feeling momentous or extraordinary. There's no "journey" without a shiny protagonist. All that's left is Need being served. Pfft.

A deva is pure helpfulness with no bullshit or self-mythology. You can't "become a deva" because that would require an overarching dramatic narrative, and narratives require a protagonist. Rather, this is "Thy will be done." "Let go, let god." I know I sound like a ham-faced TV preacher, but the source material actually has value, go figure.

So if I didn't become a deva, how did I become a deva? Well, first, I already was one, but hadn't realized it (it was a song I habitually picked out of the piano smash). I'd always tried - sloppily/stupidly/erratically/comically....but, most of all, unnoticeably - to help make situations better and to be supportive, in my way, to those in genuine duress. At least when I acted from my deeper self. When I acted in conformity with those around me, or out of fraught neediness or fear, I was an obnoxious prick. At age 13 I was, shall we say, a work in progress.

I was (mostly) selfless, and also empathic - if you stubbed your toe around me, I'd howl in pain. So I was already kind of doing it, the deva gig. But, as I've noted several times in this Slog, I have a disability: I'm intelligent. Unless my brain understands, my confusion can grow unmanageably thick, leaving me weak and shaky. My brain sputters and grasps, making its unease known until it's absorbed all my attention, forcing me to stop and explain things to it.
"It's better to see God in everything than to try to figure it out."
      - Neem Karoli Baba
My gut might offer wonderful guidance (the deva's deva!), but my stupid smart brain requires explanation, so there's always a lengthy (sometimes years/decades) delay as I patiently try to explain my gut to my brain - essentially explaining myself to myself; accounting for why I do what I do and feel as I feel (and there was plenty of 'splaining to do; in contemporary America, self-diminishment is an alarming dysfunction).

In fact, that's what this Slog is. I'm explaining myself to myself while you eavesdrop. If you ever had the eerie sensation here of watching someone who already knows stuff struggling to uselessly codify that Knowing, yup, that's right. The brain must be fed. It needs to know. If not, it will endlessly question until all momentum is lost in the mounting confusion and paralysis.

Think of my brain as a camel with a particularly large hump. Large water capacity! What a blessing! But you must constantly refill the fucking hump, and it takes fucking forever. That's my life: dutifully refilling the fucking hump. Can't just wander around and enjoy, like other dromedaries. There's an awfully fine line between "gift" and "special need."

So I already was a deva, but, having read the story, I gained perspective on who I already was, and what I'd been doing, and, sort of, why. I didn't need to know any of those things; I could have simply let it happen; but smart brains are cumbersome and needy. A great disability.

Thus clarified, I relaxed into the momentum - the flow - that had already been carrying me all along, without the distraction of a zillion nagging questions (e.g. where I'd keep my treasured baseball card collection if I lived in the Himalayas).

None of it made a lick of sense from an outside view. I was a suburban teenager obsessed with Space Invaders, Frank Zappa, foosball, NY Mets, sci-fi novels, and a certain strata of cheerleaders who wouldn't dream of ever speaking to me. I was hardly deva material.

But on the other hand, I was also spending hours per day in lotus position, wailing in Sanskrit (my parents completely tuned it out) and having high-level spiritual experiences (not realizing their level until decades later). So maybe I was deva material, after all.

The ambivalence, which has only worsened with age, was, itself, puzzling. My deva inclination was a pull, not a push. I wasn't aiming to act this way; I was fully content to remain the same suburban yahoo....who happened to do certain stuff that wasn't at all the sort of thing such a person would normally do. I couldn't imagine creating some new facade to signal my new proclivities. I'm not corny enough to don a purple robe, grow out my beard, change my name to Swami Lasagnanda and make a display of smiling benevolently. I'm out of the "seeming" business.

Facades (aka personalities aka identities) are light things; mere veneers. There's something deeper and truer, and, if you stay connected to that level, and don't let yourself be too distracted by the drama and the cheap temptation of the myriad Skinner Boxes, you will eventually flip perspective. You'll find, to your surprise, that you're a deva lightly pretending to be a person rather than a person inexplicably acting like a deva.

I didn’t become a deva; the deva that I always actually was became me. Perspective shifts to the flip side.
Chowhound was a deva effort (having started as "Jim Leff, The Chowhound", it deliberately became less about me as time passed, even when I ran it). This Slog is a deva effort (which, I'm starting to understand, is why no one ever shares or links to it). And, in daily life, if I see a chance to add a missing chunk, I quietly offer that chunk.

Looking ahead, it's been dawning on me that every talent I have stems from an unusually lithe ability to shift perspective; to reframe. Sometimes I can induce such a shift in others (though I often fail miserably). Oddly, when it works, I'm never recognized as having had anything to do with it. That's how devas roll. When it's clean like that, you're doing it right (the deva in the story was a bit of a newbie, I think).
It's a tough job. For starters, it's not easy to grasp, much less embody, a role that's "not about you". Plus, you need deep certainty about where, exactly, you point. That's a hard call for sincere people who are painfully aware of their biases, fallacies, and general shmuckery. We live in a world full of self-certain dipshits and nincompoops trying to shove us hither or yon while they, themselves, remain supremely lost. So vast effort must be spent objectively gauging (and endlessly re-verifying) your own level of oblivious dipshittery. You must be bulletproof in your blithe equanimity to know you're standing upon solid ground. A helluva prerequisite! But those struggles aren't even the hard part. The real problem with the deva thing is the response. It's not at all what you'd imagine.

A certain number of people you try to help after spotting them lost in a blizzard, freezing to death (speaking metaphorically) will punch you in the face. Any lifeguard will affirm that some people resist rescue with violent belligerence. Truth-tellers and helpers have a notorious tendency to get crucified, especially when they're right, and I understand why.

Many more people will simply ignore you, or seek a second opinion from someone more credible-seeming. Having declined to make a big shiny show of yourself, you hardly inspire respect or confidence. People are impressed by huge egos, which seem to augur bona fide wisdom. As I wrote here,
If you don't project superiority - if you're not a pompous, boastful, stuck-up "Do You Know Who I Am?!?" prick, leading with your accomplishments, playing the part, and prepared to pee at least as hard and as far as any alphas in your midst, it's surprisingly tough to be taken the least bit seriously by anyone.
A significant number will thank you vehemently, vow to follow your directions to the letter, walk in the opposite direction of your pointing finger, and promptly fall off a cliff. And curse you wildly during their lengthy drop.

In the end, people don't want devas. They have willfully positioned themselves in stress and trauma because they like it that way. To offer guidance out of that predicament - toward safety, peace and liberation - is like dashing around a theater during a horror film, tapping anguished moviegoers' shoulders and reminding them "it's only a movie!" Not a useful enterprise. Not likely appreciated.

Everything you need to know about the predicament of devas in 21st century America is contained in the popular catch-phrase "Don't try to fix me!" Coddled, bored, jaded aristocrats froth up Rich People Problems for themselves, eagerly contriving drama and angst (suddenly we're all goths and drama queens) while others are expected to play along, supplying the scripted responses and honoring each other's aggrieved victimhood. Relief or liberation would deflate the fake suffering with which they so tenaciously identify.

And to think we actually have the gall to demand a messiah.


Further Reading
Angels From Both Perspectives
Jnani Train
Karma

Also: here's a follow-up to this post, clarifying an important point.

I’m leaving this for future arrivals: All jnanis are devas, but not all devas are jnanis. Jnanis are the ones who've explained it all to the satisfaction of their cumbersome brains. Per the Neem Karoli Baba quote, above, the brain doesn't need to be explained to. Its satisfaction is completely beside the point; a needless detour. But, per above, poor slobs like me are unable to flow on gut assurance without the pre-approval of brain-satisfaction.

Most devas, I'd imagine, haven't the slightest clue what's going on, but are perfectly ok floating peacefully in the incomprehension. To a jnani, that's an unimaginable superpower. I'm so envious that I can barely stand it. OTOH, jnanis can explain themselves to others (albeit via maddening paradoxes and slippery metaphors), so that's gotta be worth something I guess.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Music and Food

When it comes to music, I'm like a sybarite who requires ever more novel and kinky ministrations to ignite his jaded passions.

When it comes to food, I'll weep over a homely, soulful corn muffin.

Monday, May 17, 2021

ParkerVision

ParkerVision, Inc (PRKR) is a company protecting its patents via litigation. It sounds a lot like patent trolling  which is disgusting, but my favorite financial writer, Andrew Tobias, insists that this isn't what's happening here. Also, the company has more than patents going for it.

In February, ParkerVision's multi-billion dollar trial against Qualcomm was imminent, and the stock (which I'd bought at 40¢/share) zoomed up to $1.86 in anticipation. If it won the lawsuit, it would pay off like a lottery, and if it lost, it would plunge some, but there's other big litigation on the horizon, plus, as a sweetener, the aforementioned other stuff.

But the trial was delayed to late 2021 at the earliest. So of course the price fell, and continues falling, because investors are twitchy and NOBODY (except ratty little me) wants to tie their money up for 6-12 months waiting around like dopes (patience is my superpower).

I do not recommend investing in PRKR in the hope they'll win their litigation. First, it's speculative, and I'd hate to see you lose your money. Second, at it's current price ($1.08) it's no longer the cheap lottery ticket it was at 40¢/share.

However....

At some point the trial will reschedule. And as that date draws near, interest will perk up again, raising the stock price again. And I just can't see how anything fundamental will have changed. Either the patent was previously violated or it wasn't, and the market has previously priced that question at $1.86. So it should go up to somewhere near $1.86 again, give or take, as the new trial date draws near. It will almost certainly rise from $1.08. So what I’m suggesting is: buy now (or in the near future), and sell before the trial. 

If it does hit $1.86, that would be a 72% gain over today's price. That's beaucoup. And it doesn't hinge on the trial result. The company could lose at trial, at every trial. It could crash and burn miserably but you'd be out and counting your money long before that happens. And while I could devise sci-fi scenarios for disasters between now and the trial (Congress legislates a completely new canon of patent law? Management caught operating a white slavery ring?), I can't see the risk.

But risk is there, whether I can see it or not. It always is. Only invest what you can easily afford to lose. This is one of the safest, surest ≈70% profits I could imagine, but please be careful, as I've been wrong before!

The following are Tobias' writings about the company, in chronological order. They assess its litigation chances, and, again, I'm not suggesting you bet on that litigation (though you may want to let a few shares ride, as a lark; $50 might turn into like $500. Or be sucked into a gaping pit of judicial pain and never seen again).
Jan 24, 2018, Dec 10, 2019, Mar 11, 2020, May 4, 2020, June 10, 2020, Jul 7, 2020, OCTOBER 9, 2020, Nov 17, 2020, Nov 24, 2020, Dec 31, 2020, Jan 24, 2021, Jan 27, 2021, Jan 28, 2021, Feb 3, 2021, Feb 11, 2021, Feb 14, 2021, Mar 2, 2021, Mar 11, 2021, Mar 29, 2021, Mar 30, 2021, Mar 31, 2021, Apr 6, 2021, Apr 17, 2021,
I've been a big fan of Andrew Tobias' writing (I copy his style sometimes) since college, and have followed his blog for almost 30 years, and also know him personally a little bit, and he's not just super smart, successful, and dialed in, he's a sweet guy incapable of deception or manipulation. And even if he wanted to manipulate, his sleepy little blog is too sparsely read to move markets, and he knows it. So (just like me right now) he offers tips as a gift to his small circle of faithful readers. You might want to bookmark him. But this side play isn't something he's pushing. It's my big idea.

Here's the catch: the timing will most likely compel you to take a short term capital gain, which is taxed highly (depending on your bracket). But this level of profit should still be well worth it (check with your tax person).

Also, you may want to wait to buy, because the price keeps falling (markets hate a becalming, and there probably won't be meaningful PRKR news until the new trial date is announced). But if you wait too long, the announcement might come before you can get in, and the price will have begun rising. My wild guess is trial won't be announced until September, so I plan to buy shares for this side-play in late August, hopefully for 85¢ - 95¢. OTOH the current $1.08 is already plenty low. (Edit: now it’s $1.05!)

Sunday, May 16, 2021

I Loathe Geniuses

I'm sad that I'm no longer a musician. But there is one big fat juicy advantage: I no longer associate with geniuses.

All musicians think they're geniuses. Without exception. Maybe not, like, some amateur dulcimerist, who jams with the local dulcimer community group at the library every Sunday. That person dreams of imminent genius, but perhaps isn't quite there yet. But any musician with the least bit of a viable career, or following, or any association with a person or enterprise with a following, is a GENIUS.

The problem is that I fawn poorly. I talk to people like people, and that's the worst affront to geniuses, who merit great deference ("I'm not just anyone, I'm the rhythm guitarist for Floyd and the Bozos, and we have a RECORD DEAL").

Musicians spend so many years facing uphill - first during the arduous journey of developing skills, then the lengthy period of shat-upon dues paying as they climb the ladder - that once they arrive "there" (i.e. any degree of acceptance or success), they feel world-crushingly elite. Those years of aspiration would seem worthless if you didn't emerge from the interminable chrysalis as a regal star child. It's MY TIME!
Why do the abused so often become abusers when they get some stature? Because it's THEIR TIME!
Want to rile up a musician? Tell her she's improved. The implication that she was ever less than sublime will drive her to apoplexy. You can get away with "better than ever!", but she'll swirl the phrase around her mouth, probing for stinging hints of non-glorification.

There's a cliché that's become a nonsense mouth sound via overuse among musicians. "Sounds great, man" is the standard thing musicians say to each other. It's not quite a euphemism for "you sound just ok, but you're such a turdish egomaniac that I don't dare use anything but superlatives," even though it totally means exactly that, and we all know it. But it still works because, just on the face of it, "great" is a word we like to hear. Good word. Hey, say "great" some more! C'mon! Don't worry, man, you don't have to mean it!

I know many brutishly untalented musicians who feel like geniuses. I used to work with some, and it bugged them that I out-played them. I saw one a couple years ago, after I'd long been out of the business. He begged me to sit in with his band, which I did only after much persuasion on his end and explanation, on my end, about how I'm very very out of practice.

I didn't embarrass myself, but I did not exactly impress. And afterwards, he got on the microphone to tell the crowd about the long journey of his development as an artist, and how gratifying it is to finally have reached a pinnacle where he's surpassed musicians, like this guy [gestures at me], who he once looked up to. The passing of the baton. The lifecycle of genius.

This really happened. I guess it's like a prize fighter knocking out chumps to work up the food chain. You still feel like an absolute beast landing your right hook on the jaw of some boozy, bloated rube and sending him to the canvass. People cheer, bells ring, just like it was real. Hey, look at you! You're doin' it! That's YOU up there!

I wasn't the least bit surprised, because the guy had identified as a genius all along, back to when we first met as kids. And one thing about being just a regular person (which I've been the whole time) is that you must accept having your bacon stolen by geniuses. It's the law of the jungle! Geniuses gotta genius!

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Blockbuster Video is Back, Baby

One Blockbuster Video still exists. In the form of a "Take a Movie, Leave a Movie" box in (naturally) Detroit.
Wait, they're springing up everywhere! It's a little bit like my "Dead Malls" scheme!


Thrillist (naturally) has covered the movement.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Failure and Recovery

I keep mentioning what a screw-up I am, which seems weird since this Slog makes me appear wisely on-target. Which, of course, is one of the reasons I do it. I sop up that artificially induced image of clarity and composure. I feed off of it like a retired actress peering at her old promotional glossies.
I've explained the trick many times (and even shot a video once). Consider the all-powerful Wizard of Oz - a masterful parable about art and artists - who was actually powered by a hiding fraught little nebbish. I like to note that Edison's "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration" oughtn't conjure up wild-eyed fanatics banging hammers in garages in the middle of the night. It's about fraught little nebbishes blithely but indefatigably putting out. The Colorado River, etcher of the Grand Canyon, is just some shitty little river. The best among us are shitty little rivers. Do not judge me by my works! The work is the juice; me, I am just the raisin.
This posting's about me at my lowest. But also the subsequent redeeming recovery (redemption is the perennial desperate target of the error-prone).


Last year a friend sent this:
Well I have not had an easy time
4 months ago I wound be in a mental hospital then a rehab now I’m on heavy
Medicine everyday
Trying hard to keep interested in my life
I flipped my lid
I responded poorly. I cooked up 500 words of gurgling mind food, my eager attempt to help expand his perspective beyond the pinpoint I could feel him occupying. I did this via large blocks of intellectual text and terribly clever insights. I spent hours laboring over it, giving it everything I could, and the result was actually a near-masterpiece, I see upon rereading. But, of course, he couldn't possibly take in a word of it. Someone in that predicament can't parse windy clever explanations. The last thing they need is vast blocks of sweeping text!

Perspective needs to be reasonably expansive to begin with to tackle clever concepts. So it came off as confusing verbiage, blah-blah-blah, talking way over his head, to boot. He's not a conceptually pliant person, even on his best days. Jesus, what was I thinking?? These are the deranged failures that keep me up at night (this is also why I'd make a poor Messiah, even though I have some of the basic skills).

However, fwiw, I do have an explanation...which is, itself, smugly clever and conceptual, so fuck me. I usually put it in dialog form:
Question: What does a ballerina do when she needs to cross a raging river but there's no boat in sight?
Anwer: She dances.
I was dancing as hard as I could for my friend. But that's hardly an excuse, as I am, alas, actually versatile. Big blocks of clever text are not the only tool in my belt. I should have tinkered less with the execution and more with the overall approach. I got stuck in the former, like a blithering idiot.

He, quite understandably, didn't talk to me for a year. But then he sent this:
After a couple of nightmare years and
Now a divorce
I’m hoping a new start will turn things around
So I'm moving across the country.
Here's what I wrote back. Just this:
Every moment starts fresh.
This, too, was met with silence. But it was a very different silence. And then he started a dialog with me about some other stuff. And he sounds so much better. Like his old self. And, as always with reframings, he didn't seem to recognize what hit him. I'm pretty sure he doesn't even recall my email. Which is fine...even optimal. Pay no attention to the little man behind the curtain.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

"Resurrecting the Bartok": An Open Letter to Jazz Musicians

Dear Jazz Musicians,

I speak to you today as the rarest of rarities: an ex jazz musician. There are numerous unemployed jazz musicians, day-jobbing jazz musicians, and dead jazz musicians, but I've never heard of anyone with any sort of established career who got out completely. This gives me a unique perspective, which I'd like to share.

As a civilian, I've been going out to hear live jazz under unfamiliar pretenses. I'm not networking. I'm not making myself visible. I'm not angling to sit in. I'm not scoping out the competition. I'm doing something I rarely did as a jazz musician: I'm simply there to listen, nothing else. Just another consumer of entertainment product. I am, yikes, a jazz fan.

Shifting into this new and disorienting role has given me fresh insight on an issue that always nagged at me. Jazz musicians overlook all sorts of irrationality to maintain their arcane pursuit, and this was the deepest of my repressed frustrations.

On my very first night as a jazz fan, I got dressed up and left the comfort of my home to drive for a half hour, line up on a cold sidewalk, pay a surly doorman way too much money to sit at a crappy little table and drink crappy overpriced drinks, and shut up and pay rapt attention to the people on stage. And after sixteen bars I realized that they really didn't deserve all that.

It's not that they weren’t competent. They were all fine instrumentalists who navigated through chord changes with skill. But that's all they did. And that's just not enough.

After a few such evenings, the problem came into clear focus. The proposition offered to listeners is "You dress up, drive, pay, sit, shut up, and pay attention and I'll navigate skillfully through chord changes. Then you applaud - preferably with enthusiasm - for my skillful navigation of chord changes. The entire proceeding is a testament to my skillful navigation of chord changes."

Well, okay. But shouldn't you pay *me* for being there to attest to your skillful navigation of chord changes? Since that's all it's about? I mean, what's in it for me, exactly?

I’m not suggesting, of course, that musicians play more accessibly, or, perish the thought, entertainingly. I respect the artistic choice to remain opaquely inaccessible. I don’t, however, respect the artistic choice to be unartistic. And fluent forward movement through harmonic structures is not an artistic enterprise.

There was a time when jazz was supposed to be played with deeper purpose. Players were expected to have an original, inventive approach and a personal sound. Improvisation was spontaneous - wildly unpredictable and sensitively impacted by the happenstance of the moment. You'd go out to listen to jazz with some reasonable chance of being affected, moved, inspired by the experience. Certainly you'd expect to be surprised and delighted. That's what good art does.

Then those things became exceptional.

Then those things became the unattainable hallmarks of the Great Men Who Came Before, Who We Merely Emulate.

Then the emulators were emulated by a generation that skillfully navigates, period (some less skillfully).

It's tempting to blame jazz schools, where that's the entire goal. Students who attain fluency receive praise and status. Today, middle-aged jazz musicians play like they're in their 25th year of jazz school; still seeking praise and status for their skillful navigation. It's a hollow endeavor with no discernible payoff; like striking a profusion of nails into a discarded length of plywood.

But I don't think jazz education is to blame. This is what inevitably happens when a fresh, vital art form congeals into a repertory genre. Bartok was a wild man in his day. He'd warp your ears with his unbridled harmonies and shocking trajectories. Now his music is listened to politely in concert halls by bourgeois seeking a whiff of high culture. It's lost its spontaneity and its shock and danger, and the musicians who resurrect it go through the motions like photocopies of photocopies. If they pull it off competently, they are applauded; a testament to their skillful navigation.

Jazz musicians would say I'm talking crazy talk. They've worked their whole lives to skillfully navigate and been (mildly) rewarded for it since music school. It's what their colleagues do, and their teachers before them. Inspiration and inventiveness, surprise and delight have nothing to do with it. They don't aspire to anything greater because it never occurred to them that more was possible, much less necessary. They're doing the Thing - resurrecting the Bartok - and they're pulling it off competently, so what's to complain about?

Further reading: This explains some of the broader forces at work here.



Jim Leff performed with Sahib Shihab, Eddie Barefield, Cecil Payne, Ted Curson, Major Holley, Walter Perkins, Illinois Jacquet, Lionel Hampton, Tete Montoliu, and many more. In his more recent guise as a writer and entrepreneur, he founded the popular web site Chowhound.com and created the smart phone app "Eat Everywhere", and he slogs at https://jimleff.blogspot.com

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Sanitation

You never want to be interesting to your garbage man.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Blame Me for Vaccine Hesitancy

It was 1990 and I was playing a week-long gig in Martinique, at their Carnivale (which is to Mardi Gras what a 1975 Oakland rent party is to rich teens with nose jobs dancing to "Super Freak" at a suburban bar mitzvah), with the Haitian super-group Tabou Combo (kompa at its finest!)

We had a day off and a few of us wanted to go swimming. I'd brought along a guide sheet to local beaches, helping steer visitors away from the ones downstream from sewage jets, and towards the cleaner and more picturesque options. Our trumpet player, a fellow white mercenary, wanted nothing of my annoying need to question everything. Let's just hit a damned beach, like everyone else here. For once in your life, just go with the flow without making some big fuss.

I tried to explain that this is the Third World, where people actually do bathe near sewage jets. In a place like this life is cheaper than you're accustomed to, especially if you're not cloistered in the shiny tourist hotel zone, which we never even saw. He just ground his jaw and rolled his eyes. "Fuckin' guy!"



Shortly after, I launched Chowhound, whose prevailing credo was "Never settle!" We all need to try a little harder, and drive a little farther, for better! That crap everyone else eats? Not for you! Don't stupidly follow the crowd! Instead, strategize to ensure that every occasion's a special occasion. That was an actual marketing point: "every occasion a special one!" We all need to commit more tenaciously to uncompromising higher standards!



So I've been watching interviews with vaccine skeptics. Not the loudmouthed crazies who are loudly certain that Bill Gates tracks our thoughts via vaccine-borne nanobots. I mean nice, normal people who are just unsure whether they can trust these meds that came out only fairly recently. It's hardly extreme paranoia to feel trepidation about rushed-out radical new treatments.

At least that's my enlightened take, after time spent empathizing with their perspective. My initial reaction to the hesitancy was more like yours: I ground my jaw and rolled my eyes at their annoying need to question everything. Just get your damned shot, like everyone else! For once in your life, just go with the flow and don't make a big fuss. Fucking people!

Oops.


This post's title was an obvious exaggeration for ironic effect. I did start a few things, but not uncompromising consumerism. However, I certainly championed the latter as forcefully as I possibly could.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Immense Stature of an Attractive Person Making Idle Small Talk

I once hung out for an evening, in my current guise as creepy middle-aged loser, with an extremely attractive younger woman. It wasn't a date, she was the daughter of a friend, and we caught a movie together about a topic we shared interest in. Then bites and drinks. Fun!

I expected guys to be hitting on her constantly. And I expected to be sneered at for being the gross sugar daddy I wasn't. Those two bits of awkwardness were fully baked into my expectations. But I was still gobsmacked.

We hit a bar where a musician I know bartended. His singer-songwriter girlfriend, who I hadn't met, was hanging out with a clutch of friends, and conversation was struck up. Music-wise, I've played with most everyone they'd listened to as kids, plus they were all acquainted with Chowhound. These things had been mentioned by the bartender in his introductions. But I declined to dominate attention, wanting to give my young friend a chance.

She was perfectly poised and pleasant. A comfortable conversationalist! And they were absolutely fascinated by her. She was so interesting! I can't remember her saying anything particularly interesting, or funny, or smart, or kind. She didn't need to! She simply kept the ball rolling while being pretty, which struck everyone as amazing.

At one point, she went to the bathroom, and as she vanished, there was a strident cacophony of barstools being dragged and pivoted. En masse, the clutch of musician/foodies turned away from me to resume conversing amongst themselves. An Amish-level shunning straight out of a Judd Apatow film! When my friend returned, they re-shifted, and, when we finally left, they hugged her, swapped her contact info, and nodded indistinctly at me.

This is not what you think. It's not a tale of alienation; a whiny wail of "nobody gets me". I'm well past the Rodney Dangerfield point. What fascinates me is my friend's result. I can't help but wonder what life would be like if merely keeping the ball rolling were sufficient...not just to getting along, but to killing it. The notion, to me, is as alien as contemplating chromium-based life in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

I've been compensating and compensating and compensating my whole life, to the point where, like some shaggy dog joke punchline, I've wound up orders of magnitude more interesting than would remotely interest anyone. Hey, I didn't know what else to do! If the world keeps insisting you're not good enough, you keep doggedly improving, no?

At this point I must accept that there's nothing I could accomplish, no bell I could ring, to yield me any fraction of the stature of an attractive person making idle small talk. It's an unattainable pinnacle. I realize this sounds like I'm being bitterly snide and sulky, but I'm not. This is one of the few aspects of earthly life that fills me with uncomprehending awe. My friend's performance struck me like Jesus walking on water.


Two strangers at the gym once were discussing nearby food options with the telltale relish of serious hounds. I amiably offered a quick tip. Not with any weight or condescension; just another sweaty dude chiming in. The conversation froze. Jesus, do we really need to talk to this guy? Sensing their disdain, I flailed for relevance, asking them if they'd ever heard of Chowhound. They nodded affirmatively, I told them I created it, and they wordlessly stepped off their treadmills and switched to ones a few rows back.

Regard isn’t easily available to me. And flailing for it only makes it worse. And overshooting by twelve hundred light years, to my enormous surprise, turns out not to be the answer, either.

I know from experience that if I'd managed to convince them that I really was that guy, they'd be super-impressed for a few minutes (which I don't enjoy - overshooting discomfort goes both ways), and then all sorts of extra-weird stuff would happen. The only thing worse than having to cope with a chatty loser is the notoriously disagreeable experience of meeting a hero. Losers and heroes both suck. What doesn’t suck? An attractive person making small talk!

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