Sunday, November 28, 2021

Legit Comfy Sofa

I've been hunting for 20 years for a sofa with narcotic-level comfort. I think I found it. New-ish company, Albany Park. Online only. Cheap-ish. And huge black friday sale. Their Kova collection is the super comfortable one. If you order one of the couches, consider adding a matching ottoman (I do not understand people who don't use ottomans). Also consider a matching "console" to stow throw blankets and remote controls.

Everything's marked down right now, plus there's a further 10-15% discount until December 1st if you use BLACKFRIDAY promo code.

Wired's "Favorite Couches on Sale for Cyber Monday" included this tack-on:
It is not yet featured in our couch roundup, but WIRED reviews editor Julian Chokkattu is currently testing this couch and likes it a lot. He says it's super comfortable and very easy to assemble, though the pillows do need to be fluffed up frequently.
I know how writers and editors think, and how items get selected and added into these sorts of features, and this is a smitten writer sliding a big find in as a kindness to readers. The editor starched it up some, but you can smell the enthusiasm.

Two customer reviews (I spent eight years mastering the art of spotting fake/shill customer reviews, and these strike me as legit):
If we could actually LIVE on this sofa and never get up, we would definitely do it.
and another:
This is THE MOST comfortable couch I've ever sat on! It wasn't the first day no doubt but like I mentioned before-within the first couple days it really fluffed up and became 10x more comfy. Everytime I lounge on it, it makes me sleepy. My kids always ask to sleep on it and even my toddler has claimed it as his new nap spot.
Here's what I've learned from 20 years in the desert, thirsting for a righteously comfortable couch. Comfy cushions require fluffing, which is why most sofas aren’t comfy. If a company sells a comfy sofa, they’ll get tons of 1 star reviews from readers complaining about sagging, even if they supply copious warnings about the need to fluff daily/weekly. That’s the big problem. The Internet, and its ubiquitous customer reviews, killed comfy furniture.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Someone Call an Ambulnz!

Wow, it's 1999 all over again! An absurdly incomprehensible company popping up after presumably raking in venture capital investment! Behold the "ambulnz" (gotta love the twee lowercasing; perhaps they transport corpses to "#funeralparlor"). I decline to google, but imagine this was pitched as "UBER for emergency vehicles!"

There's so much wrong here (e.g. the logo looks like fornicating snails), but the highlite is their failure to anticipate the requirement to display the actual word "ambulance", clusterfucking the branding and emphasizing the ugly unmemorablity of their faux-zippy company name.

Update: curiosity got the better of me, so I did google, and they're like Uber for emergency vehicles.

Black Friday Madness God Help Me

I posted a cute animal video once (YouTube seems to have removed it), so I'll complete my descent into vulgar mass appeal with, yech, a Black Friday rundown. In no particular order...

I love Today only they have - for $79, not $203 - an excellent digital projector (you'll need an HDMI connector to your mobile phone, i.e. this one for iphone which is much cheaper on eBay, but be very careful you're not getting a knock-off), plus they throw in a totally crap 100" screen. $6 shipping plus the inevitable sales tax. This is a fantastic gift idea: a cool thing no one would ever buy just for fun, yet it'!

Ice maker for $120 off! Cool!

I'm a Chinese tea and pu'er snob, with no interest in Japanese teas other than matcha, which I'm addicted to. No fattening lattes; I drink it straight, briefly heated to 175 degrees and then shaken vigorously with cool water (and, btw, my daily matcha habit is the only dietary change I ever made that substantially reduced my cholesterol).

Trader Joe's matcha is surprisingly good and well-priced (I wrote about it here, and definitely take a look because TJ's sells a confusing ton of different matcha products). But Ippodo matcha is absolutely top quality, and they offer free shipping, this weekend only, for Black Friday.

I recently wrote about J Crew's great Waffle Cut shirts, which are like thermal shirts that went to design school. They're 40% off right now.

Also, the fleece-lined sweat pants from Lands End I raved over in that posting are on super discount right now, as is their fleece-lined hoodie sweatshirt.

Cool cult video subscription for an amazing 50% off. Too rich for my blood, and I'm already awash in un-viewed second hand dvds, but this would make a heckuva gift for any film person...or anyone bored.

Shark ION WiFi RV761 Robot Vacuum, refurbished, for $89 (not $260) plus $6 shipping from’s sister site. I researched it, and it appears to be the best budget one, just like Endgadget says.

For a more mid-range robot vacuum with higher suction (i.e. for pet hairs) and more features, this one was Wired's runner-up choice: Roborock S4 Max Robot Vacuum for $280 rather than $430 (if you click the coupon)

Not Black Friday, just some unbridled recent consumption:

Yesterday I watched the Charleston episode of Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" (free on HBO Max) and did two things: 1. dug up a $92 roundtrip fare to Charleston, and 2. made a $40 order from Anson Mills, which does fancy heirloom grains so distinctive that they warn you not to try to use their stuff for any normal recipe. I bought Carolina Gold Rice, Colonial Coarse Pencil Cob Grits, Heirloom Sweet Flint Popping Corn, and Charleston Gold Brown Rice. It hasn't arrived yet, butI already feel a wonderfully light my wallet.

I never got into black pepper. Not for decades. Then I tried Indian Tellicherry black peppers, ground with a decent pepper mill, and finally saw the light. Now I've learned that there's a step-up level for Tellicherry black pepper called Tellicherry Garbled Special Extra Bold (as usual, the best discussion is on Chowhound, here and here). I'll let you dive into the nerdery on that, but while it's more biting and dominatingly flavorful, I haven't found anyone on the Internet who stepped up and regretted it.

I usually buy spices from Penzey's (they have the fancy kind, as well as normal Tellicherry, which really isn't so much cheaper), but Penzey's kills you on shipping unless you buy a ton. I'm nearly out, so I bought this time from highly-regarded Spice Lab via Amazon (the jar's a rip-off - compare per-ounce price to the 4oz resealable bag - and since it's going straight into the pepper mill, anyway, who needs a jar??). Also from Spice Lab, I threw in some of my favorite chili flakes from Aleppo (a real culinary magic versatile), which I also normally buy from Penzeys.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

LED Bulbs

I really liked Cree soft white LED bulbs. They're no longer made, so I spent like five hours diving into LED bulb quality, issues with the current crop, etc., and, to make a very long story short, determined that this is like the first generation of VCRs, answering machines, etc: the original models (i.e. Cree) were over-engineered and great, while succeeding generations were flimsy and problematic. You can maybe get by with EcoSmart, Phillips, GE, et al, but they're not as good, and I'd imagine quality will keep degrading.

Cree 40W and 60W equivalent bulbs are still available new on eBay for a decent price (though considerably more expensive than when Home Depot sold millions of them for just a few bucks each, alas), and I'd strongly urge stocking up. Buy "new" and in original packaging to be sure someone's not just cleaning up their old bulbs and selling them; also, as always, consider user feedback rating.

I like soft white (2700K), which is more like incandescent (i.e. yellowy), but if you want more of a whiter-than-white vibe, go for daylight (5000K).

J Crew's Waffle Cut shirts

So J Crew has marked everything down 40% for Black Friday.

And I just bought some thermal shirts from them. About my third round of J Crew thermal shirts. And these are...better. Way better. They feel great and even look great. They seem tailored. And they're not overly warm. I'm so happy with them that I don't mind having missed the sale. That's how good they are. Here's the henley version, and here's the crewneck.

Actually, as I've foraged for the links abvoe, I see they're not actually thermal shirts. I was serendipitously confused. These are a new thing, called "waffle cut". I guess that explains it. I love waffles! Also, they cost way more than thermal shirts, which also explains it. But now they're 40% off. You're welcome.

PS - These are the greatest sweatpants ever. They're warm, but not crazily so. This is lazyware, not activewear, perfect for cold winter mornings when you feel chilly and the thermostat's not cranked up to 72. Pay close attention to the site's sizing guidance, I use a size lower than my usual.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Slide Hampton

Backstage Encounter

It was around 1982, and I was backstage warming up to play for the biggest audience I'd ever confronted. I was 20, still in school, and while some veteran musicians considered me a contender, I had the sense to recognize that while "potential" is fine and dandy, my slice wasn't fully toasted.

The crowd size wasn't the most daunting factor. My student group was opening for an all-star group featuring a who's who of jazz luminaries like Frank Wes, Billy Taylor, and my then-and-now trombone hero, Slide Hampton.

I was nauseous with terror, and Slide, who'd been compelled to spend the preceding week coaching me one-on-one via a deus ex machina intervention of fate I still can't explain, leaned in to offer what I expected to be words of encouragement:

"If you play well," he whispered in my ear just before I took the stage, "they'll remember for a minute. But if you screw up, no one will ever forget."

It was an unimaginably horrible thing for anyone to say to anyone, much less a veteran to a 20 year old student, much less a hero to his worshipful admirer. At the time, I accepted it as well-intended guidance. Realpolitik. Tough love. But as I've gotten older, it's remained a tiny inner gnarl; a mental lozenge of malevolence lodged in memory with the razorish edge of a nearly-dissolved cough drop.

I'm not one to fester on painful lozenges. I try to use such foibles to better understand people. Calm examination normally reveals mitigating factors. There are reasons for things. People are confused, and contend with issues and blocks, and it's hard just to get up in the morning, much less say/do the right thing with any consistency. We all unwittingly cause injury, so we ought to grant plenty of slack. Very often I've ascribed to malice what could have been better explained by incompetence. Processed from a higher perspective, this is a far less daunting world than we imagine.

This memory, however, is one of a tiny few that worsen with examination. What twisted insecurity makes a jazz legend destroy a skinny little kid in shorts before his crappy little student combo opens for an illustrious cavalcade of stars? It's like Usain Bolt deliberately tripping a child jogging alongside, or Rocky Marciano slugging his sparring partner in the balls. I've had trouble coming to peace with it.

My Hero

Slide Hampton is not only my favorite jazz trombonist, he's also pretty much the only trombonist I really like. There are others who I respect and admire for certain skills and qualities. But if I ever want to listen to music that happened to have been played on a trombone, rather than listen to someone playing trombone, he's the one. The only one not wrestling a difficult horn to produce (successfully or not) some veneer of fluidity. Slide is lyrical and swinging. He's free-wheeling. He sings up there, not just wrestling cleverly with five pounds of brass tubing.

Well, all that's true on a good night, and under certain conditions.

Slide spent his early career as an unabashed disciple of the more famous JJ Johnson, who hailed from Slide's home town of Indianpolis, and who'd struck it big while Slide was a kid. JJ handled the tube-wrestling aspect with a droll facade of burnished confidence. While sax players gushed eighth notes, and trumpeters spat staccato flurries, JJ would lay back, genteelly expelling wry burrs of cognac. Aloof doodads and effetely pat asides. To me, it sounded affected and passionless. He never dug in, or broke a sweat. It was like the ash never fell from his cigarette. JJ never popped out of character; never riled to catharsis; never transcended. And the very point of music (or any art) to me is surprise, catharsis, and transcendence.

Slide tried to follow in JJ's footsteps, but he was naturally more of a preacher. He'd get riled up and his tuning might turn a little funky, his technique showing seams. He just wasn't that guy. But under the right circumstances - with a really swinging rhythm section, late at night on a gig with no career stakes - Slide might let his hair down and be himself, and he'd move you and surprise you. I've heard it, and will always be a Believer, as is everyone who ever experienced peak Slide.

Unfortunately, those moments were vanishingly rare. Slide, like many black musicians of his generation, had been through some stuff, and he staunchly insisted on dignity preservation. He always wore nice suits, conducted himself a certain way, and insisted on being paid in reflection of his status. Which is to say, Slide didn't work much. And, when he did, it was high-stakes, big-money gigs where he'd reflexively return to his comfort zone, playing safe by imitating JJ Johnson.

I'd have given up a couple toes to hear Slide play a humble gig with a sparse audience where he could just let 'er rip. But that scenario didn't comport with his (understandable and well-earned) sense of dignity. Which, alas, boxed him in.

Leveraging His Late Career Rennaissance

Happily, Slide had a career renaissance in the early 00s, at long last drawing wider attention. And while he was already getting up in years, he was more than technically ready. Slide was famous among musicians for his herculean practice habits. Young musicians would cycle in and out, like sparring partners, as he practiced 8, 10, 12 hours per day.

So what was Slide working on? Toward what end was he investing all that work? And how would he channel his late-blooming attention? In light of the vignette which started this tale, you won't be shocked to hear that he was settling a score.

I wrote several years ago about Bill Watrous. Bill was the hot trombonist in the 1970s, blessed with unbelievably agile technique, which he used (to my preference) to little musical purpose, but which brought him bright commercial heat for a while. Bill never really impressed the mainstream jazz community, though, so by the 80s he was well-settled into the anonymity of the LA studio scene, earning a living recording Dorito's jingles and film scores...and maybe once in a great while playing a jazz gig or two.

Slide, meanwhile, had become the grand old man of jazz trombone, with all the credibility in the world, and enjoying international tours with the best of the best. But Slide never forgot how this Watrous guy had sucked all the trombone oxygen for a hot minute 30 years prior while Slide labored in obscurity. So in 2002 he called Watrous east to make a two-trombone record. It was an odd proposition. A has-been hotshot lured into the inner sanctum to collaborate with the incomparable Master. Come play a song with me, my pretty!
I know Slide's side of the story. He'd deny all that vehemently. He’d honestly never had a bad word to say about Watrous. He admired his prodigious technique. And Slide conceived himself as a lifelong learner, so he'd been simply trying to pull even, that's all. The recording gave him an opportunity to try to match up with the one-time phenom. That's how Slide spinned it, and I think he even made himself believe it. Slide had articulate policy positions on things, and they all painted him as 100% all-about-the-music.

I don't think Slide saw, much less owned up to, his darker impulses, which (I'd bet the remainder of my toes) compelled him to bait Watrous into that studio, with impeccable cordiality, to settle a long-simmering score. To cut him down and destroy him. It was a mop-up operation. The vestiges of a trombonist who'd once risen, gallingly, to "sensation" status would be shredded, leaving Slide supreme on a proving ground existing only in the murky recesses of his own mind.

This was what had spurred those 100,000 hours of intense practice: a lingering Ahabian obsession with Watrous' already-irrelevant white whale. And while there's no denying that the new, improved Slide could play really really fast, you just can't "defeat" people in art. If it vexed the Arepa Lady that Jean Georges was given greater respect and a fatter paycheck, and she reacted by spending 20 years in Paris honing the art of French cuisine, I'm sure she'd cook that stuff fantastically but it wouldn't render JG, like, vanquished, you know? That's not how it works! 

Actually, that was backwards. Slide was by far the more famous and respected player by that point, so it was more like JG devoting himself to mastering Colombian corn-cakes in order to put down the street vendor who’d once garnered some attention.

On the recording, Watrous did his usual spectacular, uniquely personal and (to my preference) rather unmusical thing, while Slide sounded like he'd wrestled the tubing into full and utter submission - which was very far from Slide at his best. It wasn't at all free-wheeling. In trying to supplant Watrous (who, let me emphasize, had not posed a professional threat in three decades), Slide only diminished himself, while Watrous, that rascally rabbit, simply did his thing.

Watrous was the best Watrous that ever Watroused, and while Slide had figured out how to play really really fast, he couldn't match that glib ease any more than he'd been able to perfect JJ's burnished wryness. If ego compels you to not just be the top guy, but to slaughter and liquify all the rest so you can be The Only, that's a fool's errand. Artistic rivals can't be occluded or subsumed. One can't, like, eat them. This, after all, is bebop trombone, not the Mongol horde!

Slide went on to play really really fast for some years, which added absolutely nothing to his greatness (and made him the sort of player I listened to more for trombonistics than for music) while Watrous returned to LA. I'd imagine his Slide Hampton experience felt a bit like my own: thrilled to be in his circle, but disturbed to note, despite all the cordiality, the loud, discordant sound of sharpening knives.

The Bad News

Slide passed away this week, and I'm devastated. I've been going through YouTube bootleg videos to see if anyone ever bottled the lightning; maybe a late-night set in a little club somewhere. I already own every legit recording Slide ever made, and there's lots of greatness, but nothing at his best. Nothing free-wheeling. It's all safe playing, pressured by self-imposed high stakes. He kept getting in his own way, always self-conscious about legacy, always trying to be The "All-About-The-Music" Guy rather than being all about the music. But that's the takeaway from a breathless fan paying way too much attention to fine points and shadings. By any standard, Slide was a legend, and he brought me immense joy, and I can't imagine how I'd have played if he'd never existed.

During the week I spent with him, Slide went on and on about how he'd toured for a full month with JJ and never heard him miss a single note. I somehow found the nerve to respond with this:
"JJ never missed notes because he never took chances!"
Slide fell silent. Reflective. His jaw throbbed lightly, leaving me expecting an indignant chew-out. But Slide, who I loved for being surprising in unguarded moments, surprised me with his reply:
"True. That's true. It's our job to take what we learned from him and make it more musical in our individual ways."
That wasn't just a policy statement. It was profound, honest, and disarming. Free-wheeling, even!

Backstage assault aside, Slide had encouraged me that week (much as Watrous had two years prior). I suppose he had to, given that I'd slyly played almost all his own recorded solos at him, verbatim, as we jammed together (the coolest of cucumbers, he never betrayed a trace of recognition).

Finally, I've decided to seal the tomb on his backstage words, deeming them tough love, well-intended. In fact, I find myself mentally scanning the full length of my career (as a writer, too!), and concluding that Slide was absolutely right about audiences, and that it helped me far more than it hurt to hear this so early on.

So having laboriously ungnarled the memory, I'd like to express this with my full heart: RIP, Slide. You absolutely preserved your dignity down here, so please take humbler gigs up there. Let your hair down and enjoy playing without pressure. You've earned some glee and wild abandon. Just let it slide!

Friday, November 19, 2021

Stock Market Investment Updates

I bought a slew of Apple shares in Fall 2020 at $105 - $115. Once its price ($160 as I write this) plateaus, I'll sell (for a >45% gain) and await the next frothy crash to buy again, repeating my trusty method. This autonomous car story is absolutely nothing new, and the market will soon realize this and back off from its momentary excitement. But the crash will come when some new story of neglible worry ("Antennas! Bendy screens!") propogates and sends investors into needless panic. My sole legit worry is China. If the PRC for some reason decides it no longer likes Apple (e.g. wants to compete with it), it could do real and lasting damage.

You may have forgotten that I bought a ton of stock in SIGA, a company with a reliable, FDA-approved, VERY low side effect cure (not vaccine) for smallpox (including monkeypox, cowpox, vaccinia, and weaponized versions of the virus currently stockpiled by the countries evil enough to stockpile such things, e.g. us).

I first recommended it here in 2008, at $2.92/share, and it's currently in the mid $9s. I sold most of my holdings some time ago, but still own a bunch. If you bought shares, this wouldn't be a bad time to sell some. But maybe hold on to a few, because momentum finally appears to be building. See these links:
European Medicines Agency Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP) Recommends Approval of Tecovirimat (SIGA's smallpox drug)

Terrorists will try to use smallpox as a biological weapon, according to Bill Gates

Maryland Department of Health confirms single case of monkeypox in a Maryland resident

SIGA Technologies, Inc.'s (SIGA) CEO Phillip Gomez on Q3 2021 Results - Earnings Call Transcript

SIGA extends gains amid lab incident involving smallpox vials
That last link is pretty fluffy, but, ironically, it's the one currently moving the market, which behaves like a frazzled meth-head. Beyond fluffy fluff, tectonic movement seems to be building, and I expect at least a couple of foreign orders, renewal/extension of their contract with the US government, new formulations, and/or more attention on cowpox, monkeypox, and vaccinia in the coming year or two. That said, if it ever ekes beyond $15, I'm out. This is a one-drug wonder, whose product will be bought only by nerdy gov counterterrorism agencies. SIGA will never do brisk business ala Merck or Pfizer. It's not that scenario.

I still haven't pulled the trigger on buying more PRKR shares. It's cheap enough now, but I found the following in Qualcomm's most recent 10K report, referring to their ongoing patent dispute:
ParkerVision has subsequently reduced the number of patents asserted to three. The asserted patents are now expired, and injunctive relief is no longer available.
This has gone undisclosed, to my knowledge, by Parkervision, and unreported by the press. It makes me wonder what else is undisclosed. Their outcome of trial may not affect my investment strategy, which involves selling before the trial even begins, but the calculus has shaken in ways I don't understand, so I'll wait on the sidelines for now. If you bought, it seems likely that one of the imminent big trials will actually happen (no idea how the decision will go), and you should get profit when at least some of the people who liked PRKR before return to try to cash in.

The Nice People Network

Selfish people feel overly generous. Generous people feel overly selfish.
[from here]

A public radio show some years ago did an episode on the "Nice People Network," postulating an invisible association of good people who do favors for each other. The narrator hoped to crack into it so he could get lots of free stuff and special treatment and generally advance himself. He completely missed the point...which explains why the door shut on him and he didn't get anywhere.

If you're trying to score freebies and special treatment to advance yourself, that's not being a nice person. That's being an asshole. Well, self-advancement, alone, doesn't make you an asshole. But the pretense of trying to milk nice people for special treatment certainly does. It’s like trying to sneak into the Fresh Breath Club after munching raw garlic.

The network exists, though there are no handshakes or ID cards. But it won't advance you, because it’s for nice people, who, by definition, don't try to advance themselves at others' expense. So while, yes, you get free stuff and special treatment, you'll wind up giving more than you're getting. Likely way more. Because that's what nice people do. That's their nature. (See the pithy tale of the frog and the scorpion.)

I'm not talking about nice-seeming people, who rub your shoulders and tell you how awesome you are, and who have 12,000 Facebook friends, and who'll never, ever come get you at 2am if you break down on the NJ Turnpike. I'm talking about genuinely nice people, who couldn't imagine not helping...but who don't make a show of it. Genuinely nice people often seem crusty, curmudgeonly, and un-empathic (autistic people are often very, very nice, even though "normal" - i.e. nice-seeming - people deem them unempathic because they don't make the faces and utter the platitudes which signify sympathetic characters in this movie most people imagine themselves to be in).

There are bars, for example, where I drink free. It's not because I'm Captain Awesome. It's because I tip really high and knock myself out for staff and other customers. There's one place where I used to sneak into the kitchen after-hours to whip up home fries for the house, or bring dozens of fancy chocolate bars for bar-wide tastings with strangers, or, in the aftermath of local tragedy, anonymously had free drinks brought to anyone looking particularly down.

I wasn't shooting to become free-drinking bar MVP. And it didn't leave me ahead. It just (partially) repaid my generosity, allowing me to ramp it up further. I tipped way more, brought still better chocolate, and bought even more drinks, because I had a fuller tank to draw from. It became very expensive - nearly ruinously so - for me to go there. But that's how the Nice Person Network works.

Are you surprised? If so, why? Can you not parse the notion of genuine niceness? Is it so odd to learn that niceness is about you making it nice for others, not luxuriating in other people's niceness-making?

It struck me as a virtuous circle: I got to enjoy free drinks while enabled to give more. Sometimes kindred spirits recognize that a person can be counted upon to act this way without needing to establish, like, some agreement. That’s when one gets this treatment. That’s how the Nice People Network works. With Nice People, nothing needs to be said. An asshole, by contrast, would consider the whole thing a vicious circle. A trap. Two steps forward and three steps back!

I'm long resigned to my essential selfishness. At heart, I’m a real asshole. I have genes for that, so I don’t really fight it. When I spot the opportunity to come out ahead, I pounce. And I enjoy my win - the acquisition of free stuff or of special treatment. I relish it! My incisors drip with villainous glee! And then I happily drive 50 miles to buy that person some certain cookie. Or spend hours trying to solve a problem for them. If the opportunity arises to give, I eagerly pounce. And I relish it! My incisors drip with villainous glee! It's the same exact instinct. No difference at all. I surrender to the virtuous circle, whoozily taking and taking and taking.

God help you if you ever hit a hole-in-one at a Japanese golf club. You'll owe drinks to every single club member (even if there are hundreds of them). Most foreigners would view this obligation as a kooky cultural quirk, and might swing slightly off-center on their tee-shots. Nice people, by contrast, would see it as a fun way to share good fortune. Win/win!

Here's the funny thing: I don't know anyone who ever went broke from being nice. You can absolutely go broke with grand gestures if you're a nice-seemer. Buying Camaros for each of your peeps to demonstrate that You’re The Man or whatever. Stoke your legend or whatever. But genuinely nice people, who are too crusty, curmudgeonly, and un-empathic-seeming to be noticed (again, this network is invisible), occupy every economic rung. They make out just fine.

See also this

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Lighting is Everything

Thesis: The world you ignore is your personal cache of delight and surprise.

Corollary: The more starved you become for delight and surprise (most people grow so bored by middle age that their boredom becomes as inescapable as a black hole), the more essential it becomes to probe beyond the shiny center of your field of view.

I spent 1984 in the graduate jazz program at University of Miami, where every student gave a yearly recital. Always the same guys in the same sweaty band room, all playing the same sort of arrangements. A right of passage, nothing more.

But one student, Joe, took a different route for his recital. He booked a small campus theater run by the drama department, and persuaded/bribed a drama tech student to professionally light it. I was performing, and had to sit on my stool for hours while gaffers adjusted filters and aimed scoops, strips, and spots. This was not a situation jazz musicians often find themselves, and it was uncomfortably "show biz" for me. Finally, I began to quietly mutter, and Joe turned to me and said, with grave authority, "Lighting is everything. You'll see."

I rolled my eyes and carried on, but his recital was a completely different thing in a completely different universe, and, mind-blowingly, we actually played differently. This one recital wasn't a dull affair under the fluorescent fixtures in the sweaty band room. It felt exciting. It felt professional.

Of course, I didn't take the lesson with me. I'm just not a "check the lighting" sort of guy. But every great once in a while, I'd find myself intrigued by something that normally wouldn't capture my attention, and I'd carefully think it through until a distant voice echoed somewhere in my brain, "Lighting is everything!"

"I know! Let's throw some books in a van and call it a mobile bookshop!" said someone with a crappy van and a crappy idea that was doomed from the start. But then someone stapled nine bucks' worth of string lighting around the frame and rigged up six halogens on the ceiling, and turned it into this via the insane magic of small lighting touches:
Note to tweeter: you would absolutely not get into that van willingly if it were lit with cheap drug store fixtures or naked bulbs.

That's the power of lighting. Yet I've lived 99.99% of my life without consciously noticing or caring.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Get a Health Insurance Plan That Doesn't Require Referrals

In 2021, my health insurance (Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield/Blue Man Group/Kinda Blue) started denying my claims, including procedures they’d pre-approved. After hours and hours and hours on the phone with their reps, I finally wound up paying a bunch of bills out of pocket, and my credit rating is now something like "high-functioning wino".

Finally, I befriended a sympathetic claims supervisor, who explained what's happening via euphemism and code (because my call was Recorded For Training Purposes):

It’s a combination of “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence” and...well, malice. The claims people are all working at home since COVID. Not sure they’ll ever go back. And the chain of referral (between insurer and doctors) mostly runs via fax machine, and the fax machine is, naturally, at the office. Yup, it's that stoopid.

Even fax aside, there was a PROCEDURE to handle referrals and the procedure breaks with work-at-home claims people, and it hasn’t been a priority to fix (which I attribute to malice). So when clerks processing claims don’t see the appropriate referral right before their beady little eyes (and they often don’t because the procedure’s broken), they blithely deny, and blame the patient. Easy/peasy!

This checks out. My GP always got paid, but specialists and procedures seldom did. Even when I had immaculately provable proof (fax receipts from docs, preapprovals, etc).

In October I shook myself awake and realized what this really means: in the event of medical catastrophe, they might not pay, which meant I was effectively uninsured - a galling predicament considering the $$$ I pay every month. So I sucked up the loss of my year-to-date deductible tally, and switched carriers to MVP, an obscure upstate NY operation which I believe is an artisinal small dairy farm dabbling in health insurance (kidding). Slightly cheaper plan, way fewer doctors (which is awful), but no GP referrals necessary.

Post COVID confusion is not a good time for procedural complexity (a mantra to bear in mind in all one's dealings), so a referral-free plan is now way, way more important than ever. I strongly recommend sacrificing other desired features to get such a plan.

E.g. I have a stomach condition which remains untreated because the good gastros don’t take MVP and I didn’t trust BCBS to reimburse, and the helicopter has not appeared to deliver capable fixers who'll make everything okay. Welcome to healthcare 2021! Hey, at least I’m not intubated and gasping!).

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Curb Your Enthusiasm on Watermelon

Great segment on Curb Your Enthusiasm this week where Leon admits he refuses to eat watermelon in public due to the cliché.

It rang home for me. I've turned out to be surprisingly generous (it's not something I consciously aimed for), because if I so much as round up in my favor, I'll feel like a conniving greedy Jew. So I go the other way, and treat more often than I'm treated, never take advantage of anyone, tip 25-30%, and, if I spot a dollar bill on the sidewalk, I'll encourage someone else to totally snatch it up (I'd rather grab a live rattlesnake).

But the best part of the bit was Leon's inner conflict because he, frankly, loves watermelon. As well he should! It's delicious! The cliché really amounts to "Black people enjoy enjoyable things!" Racists might just as well snarl about how Black people are super into a good night's sleep, or immaculately cut toenails. So odd.

I'd swap clichés in a second. No biggie for me to avoid public watermelon consumption, plus I'd be able to put away more cash.


Click here to read about one of my most surreal experiences, when I was welcomed to Japan as part of an almost all-black big band via a formal presentation of...watermelon.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

How to Remain Amiable While Your Life Hangs By a Thread

An acquaintance named Rob, a very good and unassuming guy and a talented writer, has serious cancer way too young. He's an army vet with kids, and he works in a beer store while publishing in places like Paris Review. He's been working on a book rumored to be a big deal (at least, so say our beer geek and bartender mutual friends). He does not come off like a hotshot writer, but, hey, neither do I.

Please consider joining me in contributing to Rob's GoFundMe. He is not the type who'd normally launch his own GoFundMe campaign. That's how I know there's legit panic.

I'd like to share with him the story of an epiphany I had a few years ago while near death in the hospital, but I don't know him well enough to approach him and start blabbing about my shifts of perspective or whatever. So I'll put it out there for general purpose, and perhaps he'll stumble upon it and find it useful.
Important: people are way too terrified of heart stuff. I had to go through all the events described below to learn this invaluable truth, so please read this posting explaining why a small heart attack can actually give you a leg up, health-wise.

This is not 1965. "Heart attack" is a whole other thing due to awesome advances in medical tech. There's no need to hold onto it as a horrific blurry monster in your peripheral vision. It's very often not that big a deal. I, for example, am absolutely fine. In fact, I never felt better!

But I did not know any of this at the time...

I'd entered the emergency room at 4am with a wonky EKG and heart attack symptoms, was transfered via raging ambulance to a hospital with an elite cardiac center, deemed stable, and left on my own for a few minutes. I was told to speak up if symptoms returned. They did, and I did, and nurses literally ran to my bed, shouting orders that all ended in "STAT". Very, very M*A*S*H.

So that was two heart attacks right there: the one that brought me in, and the sequel, quickly stanched. An IV hovered over my bedside, bulging with potent blood thinners and nitroglycerine. I was finally truly stable, but if you'd taken away the IV - or knocked it over, or clogged the line - I'd have died sooner than later.

On the other hand, I was in no pain, with no symptoms. My heart was happy, obliviously gobbling yummy oxygen, its clogged plumbing temporarily hacked open via the industrial medicines in my umbilical drip. I was, essentially, suspended in a sci-fi state one nanometer from death.

It would take another day to arrange an angiogram to explore the gory details. But a few hours later, blood results came back, revealing telltale markers of heart attacks. The news was stiffly broken by a senior cardiac nurse with the demeanor of a Swedish mortician.

Me, I was having a lovely day. First, the hospital meals included something I hadn't seen since childhood: sherbert. I'd forgotten how good sherbet was. Sherbert is amazing. So I was still blissing from the sherbert. Plus, loads of people in the hospital were sincerely interested in how I felt - quite an unfamiliar and touching position for a middle-aged dude. Plus, I'd made friends with the nurses and orderlies, many of whom were legit nice. Plus, I'd had an epiphany.

Everything was happening around me, not to me. And it had eternally been thus. Nothing had ever touched me. I was not this ever-changing body, this ever-changing mind, this ever-changing set of memories and stories. I am the unchanging ever-present payer of attention. The framer, intrinsically aloof from the action.

I'd realized this already from many years of meditation and contemplation, but there's knowing and there's REALLY knowing...and then there's knowing while in suspended cardiac animation with an expiration date of "several-seconds-after-the-IV-runs-out".

If this body were to die - and it easily might have - that would be just more change. More stuff happening around me, not to me. The world changes, the body changes, the thoughtstream and memories change, the constituents and particulars of this Jim Leff character (and all the other ones) change moment by moment, but the humming awareness peering out from these eyes - my unnameable subjective presence - had never wavered. It's perennially rock steady; the only constant amid the tumult. Objects change and die while the pure awareness of Subject simply Is, taking it all in, framing at will.

Awareness/presence had observed the heart attacks, the ingestion of the almighty sherbert, and would also - sooner or later - observe the death of this body and of this Jim Leff character. That sounds eerie/spooky, but it's literally the most familiar process for any of us. I've awoken from zillions of dream worlds, where I'd played zillions of dream characters, effortlessly surfacing into another strata, another storyline, another bag of swirling, changing stuff. Same whenever the credits roll in a movie and I realize, with surprisingly little disorientation, that I'm not actually, say, Luke Skywalker. Same after every daydream, fantasy, or reverie. Our presence blithely pipes in setups, identities and circumstances (We LOVE this stuff! Just as bees make honey and birds build nests, we cook up drama to identify with!). And we blithely tolerate the violent transitions into and out of character like the veteran actors we are.

The dour head nurse squinted uncomfortably at my oddly bemused smile as she glanced up from her clipboard full of bad news. "Ok, so what's next?" I asked, as chipper as Bugs Bunny assuring the mobster that he'd totally love to be "taken for a ride"!

The nurse, startled and revolted by my oddball response, began speaking louder and more slowly, like to a crazy person: "Sir, you have had a heart attack. You now suffer from cardiac disease. This is who you are now!"

She needed me to act the part. But I honestly just couldn't. I was 100% certain I was still me. The same me who's received loads of good and bad news, and who's been mesmerized by this kaleidoscope of a world all along.

Most cardiac patients moderate their dramatic performance to reflect the somber new development in their plotline. But my perspective was far above that drama. We are all far above the drama, but most choose to pretend otherwise (suspension of disbelief being key to keen dramatic immersion). So my unusual choice to opt out of pretending confused the bejesus out of the head nurse, who began writing up an order for a psychologist to come pay me a little visit.

"That won't be necessary," piped up my dapper Indian cardiologist, who'd just arrived at my bedside, and to whom I'd previously introduced myself as a yogi. He recognized that my state stemmed not from denial but from transcendence. It gave him a charge, leaving him mirthful, even delighted, like me. The nurse swiveled her head hopelessly between this pair of fools and quickly stormed off, thoroughly appalled.

I left the hospital with a spiffy cardiac stent (a bona fide miracle!) and lived happily ever after. My job in this movie was to be terrified for the weekend, and to take on the role of frail sick heart dude going forward. But all that seemed silly and gratuitous. I'm not that guy. It all happens around me, not to me.

At some point this body will be written out of the script. I'll miss it as much as I miss the character I played in my dream last night - which is to say, not at all. I barely even remember. I've zealously identified with characters in millions of dreams, movies, novels, daydreams, recollections, worries, and reveries. And I've spent much time being nobody at all while absorbed in work. And for all that time, through all those transitions, I've remained entirely, comfortably at home within my presence; my nameless awareness. That's the constant. Beyond that, it all happens around me, not to me.

Here is the same observation approached from a more philosophical angle.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021


Selfish people feel overly generous. Generous people feel overly selfish.

People in Dubai understand air conditioning to a level we can't imagine. Same for Siberians and heat. If you go to Dubai, don't sweat the heat. If you go to Siberia, don't worry about cold.

Smart people live in a stupid world. The strong live among weaklings. If you're insightful, your world is blindly superficial, and if you're beautiful and meticulous, you live among pigs, mired in slop.

Defy the will of a control freak and they will see you as trying to control them.

Amateur musicians sometimes play out of tune because they try to play in tune, which means when they fail - and they will! - they'll be noticeably out of tune. Professional musicians always play in tune because they try to play really, really in tune, which means that when they fail - and they will! - they're still reasonably in tune.

Talented people can't operate talentlessly. The rest are able to grind through semi-competently, because that's their thing. But the talented, lacking that ability, fall into a dark pit. (This explains the allegory of Samson.)

If a wine tastes overly tannic, that means it's either 1. overly tannic, or 2. lacking in everything else, so the tannins stick out. (That one's from my old friend Elliot.)

You can be smart or you can feel smart...but never both (and the former feels dumb).

Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing.

Why do we see Atlas as a god; as a hero? The poor shmuck could have let go at any time. It'd have been fine.

Flipping perspective is often productive.

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