Friday, June 18, 2021

My Nemesis

For the first time in like 45 years, the name of my childhood trombone nemesis suddenly flashed into my head. So I googled him, and found that he's still playing, though he moved out of New York in the late 80s. I found his bio online, and its high point is the student band he beat me out for in high school. That band remains, all these years later, the apotheosis of his musical life. If only I could go back in time and inform my 14-year-old self. Or, really, any kid with a nemesis.
I supposed this is the trombone version of the high school football star who spends the rest of his life nursing bygone memories of glory
When I got a little older, and made my way through college and grad school, I came to realize it was all dress rehearsal. My grades, and my teachers' esteem, and which band I got placed in...none of it mattered in the big picture. I was there to get better, not to be King of School (actually, at age 58, come to think of it, I'm still here to get better, not trying to be King of...whatever this is). But in high school, it still mattered. Not making the cut for that student band was a big deal. Maybe my last truly big deal (subsequent denials and failings hurt aplenty, but I recognized other good stuff would happen if I just kept going).

So here's the kicker. After chuckling at the irony of his bio, I found a video, and discovered that he plays really well in the little gigs he's doing out there. Not daunting; not some kind of hotshot; just real good. I like him and respect him. My kind of player.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Fake Sun Tzu Quote

In my list of oft-referenced quotations, I forgot one:

“If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.”
   ~ falsely attributed to Sun Tzu

I don't do revenge. Sometimes I think about it, but I never carry it out.

It's not a matter of morality. And I'm not laying the groundwork for a self-esteem lozenge I can suck to constantly remind myself of what a GOOD PERSON I am. It comes from the recognition that revenge is an indulgent distraction. It's a form of scorekeeping, and I don't keep score, in any way/shape/form, because it's nonsense. In this world, there are no winners. Even an overweight person getting into tiptop shape - the dream of all dreams for a wide swathe of the populace! - will discover that he's only moved laterally, not ascendently. So it's just a matter of losing gracefully...or, better, shifting your perspective to embrace it all as-is, enjoying the ride (ideally while always doing your best, to perhaps help improve the ride for others). Other people's behavior runs along a separate track, so I just keep doing my best (like an ant!) regardless of injuries or obstructions arising from their actions.

But the universe seems to do revenge for me. If I wait long enough.

Of course, everything dies in the long run. And, even before that finality, everyone takes knocks. So, in a sense, I'm just relaxing smugly into the obviously banal. But to me, it's comeuppance. Not quite joyful (I don't cackle delightedly, nor do I passively allow harm come to people I dislike....I'd stave it off if I could). I just enjoy a quiet assurance that they'll get theirs without my lifting a finger. The ultimate refuge of the patiently non-vindictive is in knowing that people are so fantastically good at making themselves miserable that they'll do all the work for you.


How about me? Will I, in the end, "get mine"? I don't think so. Because the perspective that makes me patiently non-vindictive also inhibits me from framing setbacks dramatically. For instance, my primary memories of a weekend in the hospital for scary heart problems were 1. sherbert (hadn't had it since childhood, didn't remember how good it is), 2. strangers sincerely hoping I'd get better and not die, 3. my kindly Indian cardiologist practically swooning from the contact high of my surprising blitheness (the head nurse, figuring I was in denial, wanted to bring in a psychologist, and he assured her it was unnecessary), and 4. a quick side-trip I made on my way home from the hospital, as reported here):
On my way home, with my hospital wristband still dangling, I detoured to see a friend who'd been especially upset about my predicament. I stood outside her office window waving with both arms from the street, exuberantly jumping up and down a few times on the sidewalk (middle-aged men aren't supposed to jump) and saw awed radiant delight dawn on her face.
So, apologies to any detractors out there, vindictive or patient, but I'll never get mine. My frame of perspective makes me bulletproof. This is why I try so hard to laud the benefits of reframing (and to explain how easy it is to recover that dormant, slippery faculty)!

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Hypnotizing the Barber

I finally culled the remains of my once-epic hair. The move was years in the making. Not an easy one, because I'd always been "the guy with the hair," even though that was years ago, before my pate started Gene Wildering.





It was hard to finally let go. I bought a hair clipper in mid-pandemic, and it sat unused on my kitchen table for six months before I took a deep breath and did the deed and sheared the beast.

My reaction, after relieving my scalp of its burden, was complete and utter indifference. Because I don't have to look at me. My eyes face the other way. So I felt exactly the same. How could it be otherwise, unless I told myself stories about it?
The sensation of sameness was the Truth, while cooked-up mental drama about "What This Means", or "How I Present Myself" would have been pure indulgence. Perhaps fun, or perhaps self-pitying, but ultimately unnecessary.

It's like the Christmas Eve I spent bouncing between feeling happy and comfortable, and seeing myself like an on-screen movie character, alone for the holiday, pathetically sad and miserable. It still gobsmacks me that I had such trouble divining the truer of the two perspectives. The one where you're not telling yourself stories about what's happening is reality, while story-telling is inherently indulgent fantasy. I have nothing against indulgent fantasy (aka contrived bullshit). I don't consider it sinful or wrong. Just unnecessary and best suspended if it's not making you happy.

The burning question was: How had I become so deluded that contrived bullshit felt as real as reality? How could I wind up flailing so hard to distinguish obvious truth? To literally come back to my senses? This so rattled me that I felt compelled to figure it all out, which led to whatever it is the Slog has turned out to be (I charted the trajectory here).
To my enormous surprise, I turn out not to be a naturally skillful barber. I looked like a rambunctious three-year-old's crayon drawing. So I let the chopped salad grow out a bit, and finally headed to a barbershop, where I asked the barber to keep it all super short, and mostly just clean up my atrocities. He laughed politely, and asked me how much FADE I want.

I said not much. Nothing ostentatious. I don't want to look like I'm trying hard. If a "10" were a Hummer-driving mid-level coke dealer, and a "1" were Homer Simpson, make me like a "3".

Silence.

The barber had fallen into a hypnotized trance (if I'd urged him to cluck like a chicken, he'd surely have done so). Why? Because I'd said something no one had previously said to him, and barbers are in a groove of doing the usual things to the usual people making the usual requests. Then in walks this lunatic, and just the mere phrase "Hummer-driving mid-level coke dealer", much less the whole unorthodox - however expressive - manner of explaining my desires, was so utterly outside the bounds of his constricted and comfortable slice of the universe that everything stopped cold for a moment. He'd been disrupted.

Realizing I was not going to be getting his best work, I begged off, saying an emergency had come up. And next time I'll try hard to state my request in the affably muddled manner to which barbers are accustomed. Because not only is everyone (including, of course, me) "a foggy incompetent heedless feckless dweeb," per my paraphrase of Matt Groening's brilliant insight in my previous posting, but the world counts on it. Runs on it. 

If you work on a chain link fencing assembly line and thoughtfully add your link in novel and delightful ways, you will disrupt the process. You must not make people stop and think in this life, prompting them to respond freshly and spontaneously. Your extra effort is not only wasted, it's counterproductive.

Really, the world hasn't been failing me; I've been failing it. Creativity does not pay. Surprising behavior, alas, breaks things.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Hispanic Day Laborers are like Amazon Web Services

Contractors are overpaid for the same reason CTOs are. They, and they alone, have the magic formula for wielding the tremendously useful and economical - but essentially non-user-configurable - back-end toolset.

If you have reasonable tech competency and spend an afternoon or four trying to get an image up and onto Amazon web services so it appears when its URL gets called by a web browser, you will inevitably be reduced to tears, even though that's precisely what Amazon web services is built to do....and does it beautifully well and ridiculously inexpensively, if you can actually make it happen.

Same thing trying to get a talented, diligent Ecuadoran carpenter into your house to install a tile or cut a beam.




I speak Spanish, too! And lots of these guys are my friends. But I swear on my children's health, it was easier to build and run Chowhound while penniless than it's been to get my bathroom done by going directly to day laborers (who are great and friendly and hard working and honest and diligent). It just can't be done.

And the funny thing is that all those guys aspire to being contractors. They look at their fat-cat contractor overlords driving around in expensive pickup trucks and doing no work at all, and figure "I can do that!" But if they had the organizational skills and administrative clarity to schedule, plan, and answer questions in an organized and timely fashion, they never would have dropped out of high school, and never would have become day laborers. They're day laborers precisely because they hate needing to clearly answer questions and plan and schedule and be organized and think about anything beyond where to hammer the next nail.

Same, to a lesser degree, for American-born tradesmen. If they had a flair for clear-headed linearity and timely on-point communication, they'd be friggin' lawyers or whatever. And, to pull back the camera and behold the nauseating ultimate futility of it all, those fancy contractors aren't all that great at it, either. They're just slightly more coherent hammerers. And, truth be told, even the lawyers are usually pretty messed up.

"The Simpsons" was incredibly incisive social satire. Chowhound Matt Groening had one brilliant flash of insight: pretty much everyone's a foggy incompetent heedless feckless dweeb. So do not redo your bathroom, ever.

And don't imagine for a moment that your own stupidity doesn't contribute amply to the shitstorm. It's insane of you to imagine that people will do better by you than they do for themselves. If your laborer, or contractor, or lawyer were capable of shaking off the malaise and elevating into clear-headed 100% smart responsiveness, that would be immensely more helpful to them than to you.


Friday, June 11, 2021

Friday in the Park with Jim

Crescendo


Green Beard


Cool blue moths!


When you’re walking around a beautiful place with an urge to capture it in photographs, and you sternly remind yourself it’s OK to simply be there without needing to incessantly document, then, and only then, is when good photographs seem to happen.
Note: I'm not sure these are good photographs. I suspect they're merely pretty (the very thing I object to below). But I'll continue riffing, even if I haven't offered fitting examples.
The creative urge requires friction. If you freely indulge a photographic urge, for example, you're doomed to produce postcard shots. Art needs something to grind against. That's why actors insist they perform best with a little stage fright.

Why postcard shots are a bad thing (at least if you aspire to be creative):
The Wellspring of Great Results
The Crux of Creativity
The Times Everything Worked Out

There needs to be a process of reflection before you press the button or play the note or write the word. The subject must be processed for the output to acquire some all-important skew. To produce a shot that’s not merely lovely but interesting and capable of inducing a shift in the viewer, it must pass through your perceptual digestive system (note: I do NOT mean you should "think about it". For best results, leave cognition out!). This consideration imparts all the power. Viewers might glean a spidey sense of the artist's perspective, and perhaps briefly experience a sympathetic shift. Skew, deftly applied, is highly contagious.

When we talk about the "touch" of a chef or a painter or other artist, that's what we mean. We project it as existing within the meatloaf, but it's our very perspective that's touched by touch. The meatloaf is the medium (take that, Marshall McLuhan).

The thing is, it's hard to tell the difference. A flatly pretty postcard shot doesn't look so different, at a glance, from a more interesting shot with skew - with personality and touch that can induce viewers to reframe. If the slippery quality were squarely discernible, we’d be living in a completely different world.

Here in this world, most people overlook touch and skew most of the time. We even skoff at those who claim to be affected by this mysterious, hard-to-pin-down quality. They seem kooky. For many of us, Jackson Pollock‘s work is indistinguishable from random paint splatters. When you're less sensitive to touch - because it's not something you're interested in, or pay attention to - you become less susceptible to having your perspective shifted. Hold fast enough for long enough and you'll find yourself living in a purely material world sans subtext and subtlety, where abstract art is just spatters and meatloaf's just meatloaf (unless there's some obvious wrinkle, e.g. truffle oil...which, by the way, pretty much accounts for the existence of truffle oil).

As weeks go by, I find myself growing more sympathetic to the commentor beneath this posting who was exasperated by the notion that a few unremarkable - even hackneyed - words spoken to a friend in duress might have swung him into a different trajectory. I should have respected the skepticism, even thought I'm certain it's wrong, and that unimpressive-seeming snatches of word or action, wielded with great sensitivity and flawless timing and deliberate inflection, really do have the potential to shift someone's perspective, much as we can be shifted (aka "inspired", "transported", "elevated", etc.) by more conventional forms of art. I've seen it happen many times, from both sides of the fence. But I mustn't lose touch with the fact that, being inherently slippery and implicit - forever relegated to peripheral vision - the very idea of it parses to many as delusional.

Art is any human creation devised to induce a reframing of perspective, and it can be subtle to the point of invisibility without losing its power to coax a shift. This represents the fulfillment of my Nano-Aesthetics rallying cry, and the ultimate goal of Devas, who aim to maximize their helpfulness while minimizing the part they apparently play.


It also gets me a notch closer to accounting for the mysterious ju-ju of Paleolithic cave art.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

LEFFTOVERS: Korean Ecuadoran Salvadoran Breakfast Sampler

Nothing particularly creative here, but the combo was interesting. All were patiently heated in a very lightly oiled nonstick skillet (I did the omelet in a second pass).

Let's spin the clock:

12:00: Leftover riguas, which are the nth Salvadoran iteration of corn, with a modest vein of beany mash. This item is surprisingly widely available - in any supermarket with a decent Latino/Hispanic (here's the diff) refrigerated section for, say, cheeses and such. It's pretty commercial-tasting, but makes a fun variety carb to add to a leftover meal and break up monotony.

2:00: Leftover kimbap from the wonderful Doorebak (aka "Hi, Cook Catering") in the Closter cluster. I was always taught that when kimbap (vaguely sushi-looking rolls, can be stuffed with anything but raw fish, which would make it actual sushi) loses its of blush of freshness, you pan sautee it.

6:00: Egg white omelet with leftover broccolini (I do not eat protein-less meals, and you shouldn't, either).

9:00: The Ecuadoran ají (hot sauce) that shows up in my cooking or on my plate more often than not.

11:00: Korean jun ("pancakes"), again from Doorebak (aka "Hi, Cook Catering"), made with, as close as I was able to determine, penguin meat (see previous link).

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Quotations

These aren't necessarily the "best" quotations, whatever that would mean. Just the ones I most often reach for.


"One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
   ~ Albert Camus

"Enlightenment is absolute cooperation with the inevitable."
   ~ Anthony de Mello

"What we are looking for is what is looking."
   ~ St. Francis of Assisi

"It's better to see God in everything than to try to figure it out."
   ~ Neem Karoli Baba

"Develop a scope of mind that is like the sky, which has no limit to the east, west, north, or south."
   ~ Shri Singha

"Imagine a dreamer saying, ‘May all these dream people wake up before I do.’"
   ~ Ramana Maharshi's reaction to the notion of Bodhisattvas

"God-consciousness is not sublimated sexuality; sexuality is repressed God-consciousness."
   ~ Ken Wilbur

"Duality Is embedded into brains, taught and retaught. Quiet the concept and see that suffering is also only embedded into brains. telling heart how to feel. Hush your thoughts to control emotional reaction to such ideas and allow feelings of love for the potentials of all, as well as the experiencing of here and now. Heart is unfolding. Focus with this. You are Not an endpoint, nor were you the beginning. only the continuation of seeing-knowing, leading mind to reward for discipline in acknowledging, pursuing only what truly resonates with heart. Finding peace in the quiet of acceptance of the moment."
   ~ Random Web Comment

"I'm not looking at silence anymore, I'm looking from it."
   ~ ????


Here are some terse pull-quotes from Slog postings (mostly not as metaphysical as the above).

Thursday, June 3, 2021

The Closter Cluster

Exploring the gastronomic wonders of Closter, NJ, a mere ten miles south of the Tappan Zee Bridge.
I dug Mario Cuomo ok, but will never give Andrew Cuomo - who changed the bridge name in the ultimate Uday Hussein move - the satisfaction, and neither, apparently, will Wikipedia.
I just can't do long eating surveys. Can't. I did way too many as a freelance writer, then the Chow Tour I was assigned by the company which bought my web site damn near killed me (here is the result, if you're curious).

I've had like 17 of these on hold, including delirious runs in places like Singapore ($435 r/t thanks to TheFlightDeal.com) but they're not gonna happen. Too much PTSD. But I'll try to grind this one through via blithe sloppiness. First draft, very rough, sorry I didn't finely masticate the worms and guide them down your expectant throat. This is all you get.

I used to fantasize about staying a couple weeks in Worcestor/Framingham, MA, which boasted great Brazilian, Tamil, Sichuan, and also my favorite diner. I haven't been back in a while, but few of my standbys remain standing. Now it's all about Closter, NJ. There is a cluster in Closter - The Closter Cluster - and it is one for the ages.

First of all, understand that Closter is one of the north Jersey towns that's gone Korean. Nobody writes about this (did someone proclaim it "racist" to point it out?), but it's A Thing, and it's GREAT. Closter used to be like 50% vibrant Korean eateries and 50% clutching, stubborn, fading generic Jersey American/Italian/etc places, but the latter have dissolved and been replaced by either more Korean or else seriously artisanal miscellany, side hustling vistors to the Korean wonderment and delighting resident Koreans, with their smart, demanding, versatile palates.

Enough damn intro. Oh, and I shot only a few random photos. Because I don't love you anymore.



Doorebak (aka "Hi, Cook Catering") is the pinnacle of Korean grandma storefront cooking, exactly what every chowhound quests for. Real home cooking, lots of love, good price, nice lady (she learns about one word of English every two years. This year, she seems to have acquired "potato", which, to me, makes her fluent).

Great jun (pancakes) of various type. I scored some kimchi fried rice, some scorched rice, some jun of a flavor she tried to pantomime via penguin movements (I asked "Penguin?" and she frowned and considered, but did not think that was it). Also some sweets. It's just perfect. The perfect store. You want this. Takeout only, even pandemic aside. She somehow anticipated all this.

You'll understand better if you scan the yelp photos at above link (Yelp is not at all useful for tips or ratings. It is useful purely for its photos, which enable chowhoundish triage without burning gasoline).



The Fish Dock is, as you surely guessed, yet another Icelandic fish shop. Their fish is flown directly from over there. So if there's a storm in Iceland, they won't have any (read details here). I bought cod cheeks, which you just never ever see around here, marinated in black garlic. Also crab cakes. The whole scenario sounds expensive, but nope. $4.25 for each crab cake, and like $11 for three big fat cheeks. Nice Icelandic lady with white eyelashes and scary tattoos gave me helpful cooking tips. They will hopefully return to making fish and chips on Thursdays once the virus thing chills out a little more.



OH MY GOD NO WAY THERE'S A KOREAN WALNUT PASTRY PLACE. Had these once ages ago in Toronto, never found them again. Cocohodo does not have the customer volume to continually be making them fresh, so they're good-not-great, but they're frickin' Korean walnut pastries, a serious holy grail. I think the trick is to find out exactly when they prepare them and show up then. Though actually these might be the sucker order, as they're more famous for their taiyaki, which are hot and made to order. Taiyaki are filled waffle fish. Search through Yelp photos (link above) to get their vibe.

I also got "Grain" latte, which was whoozy-makingly great. It's made from Korean "misu", a powder combination of 7-10 grains which turns up in myriad contexts in Korean cooking (much like, for that matter, "miso"). I like this lady's description, though she's writing about a place of the same name in California which I'm pretty sure is not related so I'm totally confused, yet her description fits:
It's made with a combination of seven to 10 grains such as brown rice, barley, black beans and sesame seeds, the drink was a healthier choice from the menu. It had a frothy layer that created a thick, creamy texture. The warm latte had plenty of nutty undertones that paired perfectly with the walnut pastries. This drink is great for those looking for non-caffeinated, healthy options.
"Healthy", sure. It's so creamy and sweet, it's surely about 800 calories. But WORTH IT. Great people. Happy place. They know they're bad mo-fos. They run a walnut pastry place. God.

They also make this inexplicable item:
Occasionally Korean stuff can leave me utterly kerfuffled, like Archie Bunker irately demanding a turkey club. But let's persist, because this place is such a point of light that we need to take them seriously and not disrespect their blatant trend mongering.

Dalgona coffee, aka "quarantine coffee" has become popular during COVID. You make it by...
whipping equal parts instant coffee powder, sugar, and hot water until it becomes creamy and then adding it to cold or hot milk. Occasionally, it is topped with coffee powder, cocoa, crumbled biscuits, or honey
And because Korean food is considered by young Korean hipsters to be modular (sort of like Chinese cuisine is for iconoclastic Hong Kong kids), they're turning it into a whole thing, with boba and everything. Hey, I'm sure it's tasty as 좆까. Especially with a turkey club. See what I did there? That was a "call-back". Lends a zingy professional food-writing flavor. Damn, I'm good.



I've been going to Farm Cafe (formerly "Demarest Homestead" or something like that) for 20 years. It's this weird little farm stand run by a very nice lady who's addicted to having the absolute bejesus scared out of her by Fox News, and she assumes all customers share her indignation (this time she was grumbling about "Kids wearing masks! Can you believe it???"). I feel badly for her, she deserves happiness, seeing as how her task in life is to serve all of us reasonably priced burnt chocolate chip cookies. Here, I'm eating one now:
Also delightful pies, chicken pot pies, soups, muffins, lemon cake, stuff like that. Very fresh eggs. Some stuff is underpriced, some overpriced, I don't think she totally understands retail. She makes panini and other pizazz-sounding things, all delicious but wrong, like she saw panini in a movie once and tried to recreate it.

Your best move here is to over-order. Impulse buy whatever strikes you. Freeze what you don't eat. You'll be glad. But don't expect anything to be better than the burned chocolate chip cookies.

All the other places in this report are in a tight cluster (the Closter Cluster) but this one, appropriately, is on the fringe. Oh, and definitely not Korean. Like, at all.



Isabella's Fine Foods & Catering makes exotically non-Korean artisanal sandwiches, and is run by friendly, solicitous non-Koreans who seem to really care. I had meatball parm, which was pure Jersey (fine grained meatball with ample filler, black peppery tomato paste-heavy sauce) but on awesome bread and with a winning personality. The Platonic Form of shitty Jersey meatball parm sandwiches.

Sorry, this is happening all over right now as rusty food writers remember too late to take the fucking shot.


Their most popular item is something called a French Kiss (roast beef, french brie cheese and carmelized onions with horseradish mayo). Not really my jam, but it's supposed to be great.



Deja vu. La Tabatiere is another in a long line of pretentious Korean French-wannabe coffee shop/bakeries with a pretentiously small and concentrated selection of individually wrapped and fetishized yet oddly banal-seeming baked items. But my god. I got a "blueberry danish", particularly fetishy and track lit and expensive, and it tasted like it was made in a French country oven in 1881. That is not the accustomed outcome with fetishized Korean-French banalities.

You know how some Americans or Europeans go totally Japanese or Korean, cooking (or whatever) more authentically, staunchly, dogmatically classically Asian than any actual living Asian ever would do? That's how some Japanese and Korean bakers approach French baking: with a convert's meticulous zeal. So suddenly I'm in a Godard film, munching elegant baked goods in black and white, within stroking range of Catherine Deneuve's shimmering wavy hair. Welcome to Closter.

The "blueberry" in the blueberry danish isn't Acme jam smeared between layers of puff pastry. It's perfectly fresh, unblemished, fat, juicy glorious fruit, macerated via some deep and archaic technique, making this more of a tart than a danish (though, again, it's on puff pastry), blasting more beautiful butter flavor (imported, surely) than any shlub like me is used to - or deserving of.

I also bought soy bread, which I don't really understand. I asked whether I needed to warm it, and counter chick spoke the four most irritating words that can be uttered in such a scenario: "It's up to you!"

I feel so empowered!



I didn't try it but very much liked the looks of ma mi, a homey little Vietnamese joint. Now that I'm home and looking online, holy crap do their Yelp photos look great (yet again, via link above). I am very fond of absolutely everything about their menu.




I'm figuring a Korean restaurant can't possibly be bad here in the Cluster. But I've been fooled before, when it turns out that a dominant immigrant population cooks their own stuff at home and doesn't require restaurants. The local Koreans are probably going out for Icelandic fish and meatball parm sandwiches, so Tao Haus may be purely for tourists. Idunno. Menu looks good, vibe looks good, Yelp photos (see link) look good.



Zendiggi Kebab House is Persian, with much yelp love. I feel like I've tried it once before, but Chowzheimer's affects the best of us. But, anyway, I was pondering the question "what does Closter lack?" And Persian was the first thing I came up with. After "Icelandic fish store". Call-back.

But, seriously, it may be a very VERY smart move on the proprietor's part, given Koreans' love for non-Korean barbecue meat restaurants to break up their bulgogi monotony (this is why Koreans own many of this country's Brazilian churrasco-rodizios). It's just so exotic and titillating to NOT wrap your meat in lettuce, y'know?

Here's the menu (which, oops, I touched; go ahead and queue up jokes about Elvin prison):




The following are not clustered in Closter....but close to.

I haven't been, but got a tip from a real live Moroccan (the person who cooked this glory) that Mazagan Restaurant, a Moroccan place down beneath the cliffs in the weird hamlet of Piermont, is terrific, albeit pricey. As always with Moroccan restaurants, there is some anachronistic Middle Eastern stuff on the menu, because Moroccans know how to accept - and monetize - condescending ignorance from outsiders. That might have sounded harsh. Did that sound harsh? Wasn't trying to be harsh.

Roost is a cool-looking spot in the impossibly idyllic village (looks like "Willoughby" from the old Twilight Zone") of Sparkill, just north of Closter, so not quite of the cluster. I haven't been here, but get a good vibe (and, for those not aware, my chow-dar seldom fails).

Noble Cafe is a cool coffee shop also in Sparkill with good baked goods. Not Catherine-Deneuve's-wavy-hair good, but good.


I dream of booking an airbnb in Closter and soaking in local culture for a few days. But higher priority right now is Providence, RI, which has tons of Cambodian and Laotian, both rare cuisines (I don't think there've been more than five Cambodian places in NYC in the past 30 years). That's the golden destination right now. Also Mali. But for now can anyone direct me to a TURKEY CLUB???

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Four Incredibly Great Obscure TV Shows

Many tens of billions of dollars are spent annually on TV content creation right now. It's insane. But, per Sturgeon's law, 90% of it is crap.

Of the remaining 10%, even with all this expenditure, and even though we're in a zeitgeist - the golden age of "Peak TV" - you still must search far and wide for devastating greatness. And, when you find it, you will inevitably discover that only a few thousand others are watching. Or even noticing. Because there's so much TV that, as with restaurants circa 1997, gleaming gems are neglected amid the vast field of contenders. Cream, alas, does not always float.

In 2016 I offered a survey of recent TV series divided into four buckets:
  • You'll Never Be Whole Until You View
  • Excellent; Well Worth Watching
  • Acquired Pleasures
  • Bitter Disappointment
Back then, the three series I filed under "You'll Never Be Whole Until You View" were "The Leftovers" (HBO), "Fargo" (free on Hulu, but well worth buying), and "Rectify"(season 1 free on Amazon Prime Video; the rest you've got to buy, and it's well worth it). Since then, I'd add "Atlanta".

I've been pointing out fresh treasure via the "Television" tag/label (view all such postings in reverse chronological order). But let me now lop four huge fish onto your deck for consideration in the YNBWUYV category. All are fairly recent (one's still unfolding), and you've probably never heard of any of them. Critics mostly ignored them, nobody watched them, and even social media like Reddit gathered only a few lonely fans to discuss them. But you'll never be whole until you view them. These treasures have been lost amid a torrent of TV content, none of it nearly as good.

I mostly won't tell you what they're about, because....well, I'll explain via italicized riff:
I'd make a terrible movie/tv critic, because there's nothing I'd less rather do than recap a storyline. Not out of spoiler concern, but because it's so beside the point. "That sounds like the sort of story I'd like to watch!" presupposes you're in it for genre - the most superficial level. Who does that now?

When I was five, I Iiked cowboy stories. Now that I've grown up (kinda), I like stories that are well-crafted, shot, acted, and directed, which draw me viscerally into a world, respect my intelligence, and leave me with a shifted perspective. I couldn't care less if they're cowboys or astronauts or if they're hunting for a murderer or a diagnosis or a super robot or a big pile of dope. I'm not looking for iterations of stuff I previously liked. In fact, I'd prefer a great iteration of something I previously didn't like (I recently wrote a whole post on the sublime pleasure of a great version of a disliked thing).
These all transcend genre, so I won't describe the genre. They're about what happens "along the way" rather than about the overarching story, so I won't tell you the overarching story (aside from a grudging effort re: "Patriot", the first one below). I'll mostly just rave like a lunatic and hope you trust my taste; that I won't send you to watch dumb crap. Ok, here goes.

Patriot

"Patriot" (free on Amazon Prime Video) was created by Steven Conrad, my new hero. I'll flock to anything he does. As I noted back in March, before I'd reached the latter half of season 1, where it shifts into high gear, this show is uniquely quirky and bursting with thoughtfulness and small subtle touches and rich imagination and creativity and laughs even though it's a dark show about a spy pushed way (no, way) beyond all limits by his handler...who's his dad.

Before the tale of mayhem and mishap (theme: intelligence services are just as messed up and poorly-run as other government functions) even gets going, this decent, competent, devoted, patriotic guy, trying to live up to his dad and country's impossible demands, wound up, due to a blunder by the incompetent hacks he works for, in an Iranian dungeon, subjected to personality-erasing "white torture", cooped up in a tiny cage with bright lights and "American Pie" blasted at top volume 24 hrs/day for months. Coming right out of that horror, he's sent, foggily, into the travail of unimaginable aggravation and futility that is this show.

He does his best, which is actually impressive. The poor shmoe is so devoted, and so well-trained, that he just keeps going and going, long past any point of wondering why. And the people he meets along the way - mostly in his cover as a consultant for a midwest piping firm run by the pompous jargon-spitting poobah of American piping - eventually form a family-like band of support, which makes zero sense explained like this, but I'll be damned if Conrad doesn't sell it as near-realism. Oh, and his sole outlet is to sing hilariously earnest original folk songs at open mic nights about the necks he's been forced to slit, etc. He’s even got a small following.

Perpetual Grace, LTD

With Patriot cancelled after two seasons due to a profound lack of interest from viewers or critics, Conrad went on to create "Perpetual Grace, LTD" (you have to pay for it via Apple or Amazon) with the same actors (in different roles and different genre), salted with inside jokes and plot references from "Patriot" which are offered as generous easter eggs for the 35 souls who've stuck with. And this one adds BEN FUCKING KINGSLEY, who is magnificent.

Perpetual Grace, LTD is even better than Patriot, and was even less successful, cancelled after its first splendid year. Oh well. Next from Conrad: "Ultra City Smiths", due to premiere any moment now on AMC. One day everyone will claim to have followed Steven Conrad all along. Get in now (remember, I told you about Breaking Bad in 2009 when no one had heard of it)!

Oh, and if you do watch Patriot and Perpetual Grace, LTD, before showering me with tearful thanks and homemade brownies, also check out Steven Conrad's ultimate futility, a podcast devoted to fake impenetrable piping jargon (plus some stories that presumably would have occupied Patriot's non-existent third season) hosted by the fictional - though perhaps not to Conrad anymore - grandfather of American piping, Leslie Claret. I may be the only listener. I'm not kidding.

Get Shorty

"Get Shorty" (free on Amazon Prime Video) has nothing to do with the movie, aside from the broad arc of mob muscle finding himself suddenly in the filmmaking business...and finding he's good at it because it uses the same skillset.

Which is trite. However not one episode - not one moment - is the least bit trite. My eyes grew lazy from non-rolling. The show consumes more plot per hour than you'd have imagined possible, yet it's all both swallowable and surprising, quite a feat. No predictability and precious few false turns. You'll watch as toddlers do, perpetually surprised and delighted. Not because you're too young to spot the tropes and bullshit, but because the writers are geniuses from a higher plane of existence, and they never wink at you (sole exception: notice the final shot of each season). They never drop the ball or cut corners or call attention to their own cleverness, so you just watch and grin and love it in a buttery cocoon with hardly any loose strings, clumsy contrivances, plot holes, suspensions of disbelief, or pacing hiccups to interrupt your immersive fiction injection.

On top of that, there are some microdots of tremendous subtlety. The show functions as a well-shot, well-written, well-acted ripping yarn, ala "Justified", but, if you look deeper, there's depth and subtlety, snuck in for those few who feast on nuance.

Also, oh yeah, just in passing, the cinematography is astonishing. And did I mention that Alan Arkin's son, Adam, arguably the greatest current TV director, directs many of the episodes? Of course it was cancelled after three seasons (2-1/2, really).

Mr. In-Between

"Mr In-Between" (free on Hulu. Amazon has the first two seasons - the third season, currently playing, is spectacular, and you can record it - and catch up on demand - if you get FX channel. Remember, though, that Hulu has a 30 day trial period, and this show, alone, is well worth paying for a couple months @$6-$12) is one I've written about before (see below), and it's improbably as good as the three gigantic monsters of creative excellence above. This humble no-budget Australian show is about thug Ray (essentially the Aussie version of the guy in Get Shorty), played by series creator/writer Scott Ryan who nobody had previously heard of and who has risen to the occasion and then some.

Ray is a 3-D person with a family and an inner life, not painted as a monster (though Jesus F Christ does he ever do monstrous things), but just a bloke trying to make a buck with the skills he has. It's crime as job, totally unglamorized. But, as with any job, you need skills and smarts to do it well. Watching Ray skillfully do his thing, you see neither an omniscient cackling psychopath nor a tormented soul desperate to exit The Life. He's just a bloke trying to pay bills, and every moment feels probable. For the first time since the novels of Donald Westlake, you feel like the writers themselves are petty criminals, revealing what it's really like.

The third season just started and it's fantastic so far, though I hope Ryan doesn't start Hawkeye-ing his character too much.

Here's what I wrote after last year's second season finale:
People aren't cartoons. People can be lots of things at the same time. The guards at Auschwitz went home every night to their families, and some were surely loving and lovely spouses and parents. The Sopranos felt fresh because never before had we seen villains as just people. But even the Sopranos was light brushstrokes and heightened drama and a bit broad. Show biz. So the creator/star of Mr. Inbetween tried to go all the way and produced a dead-realistic, thoughtful, non-judgmental portrait of a hit man who's a real human being (and great dad) who - like all of us - isn't entirely defined by his day job. It's not some cheap manipulative play of making us like/dislike the guy. And, no, he's not "trying to get out", because he's good at it. The whole thing is subtly superb and hugely entertaining. I can't recommend it enough.


Lagniappe

There's another show (this one vastly better known) that is, impossibly, even better than these four. It's the only TV show ever that I'd describe as "Shakespearian," a word I normally avoid. In this case, the Bard himself would watch squeezing his head in his hands, giggling excitedly about the cleverness, the keen insight, and the language subtlety. "Succession", on HBO, is due back for its third season late this year, and I can't wait. If you haven't seen it, run, don't walk. If you have seen it, watch it again. I'm now on my third rewatch, and finding tons of delicious nuggets I'd previously missed. Succession is so dense (yet easily watchable) and subtle that you could mine it for years. It's an Everlasting Gobstopper.


It's a great time to watch TV. I've enjoyed the hell out of this pandemic. But, like with food in the 90's, you do need to mine for grandeur and eschew the shinier options. It takes work! Be careful out there!

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