Monday, January 31, 2022

Shmuckiness and Christianity

In my recent posting "Sunk Cost Prolongs Idiocy", I noted that adults don't learn (because it requires conceding ignorance), or change (because it requires conceding wrongness), or improve (because it requires conceding inadequacy). We must feel stupid to become smart. But we'd much rather be idiots than feel like idiots. This explains the vast preponderance of idiots…and also the epidemic of zany self-overestimation. 

But there's an exception. One proposition poked through and persuaded people - loads and loads of people! - to eagerly acknowledge shortfall and seek closure.

Christianity became the greatest success of the past millenium by marketing the proposal that you are a sinner, but (the "Good News"!) you can be saved, if you merely let go and let God (that specific credo is a late arrival, but it's a goodie, as even a crusty old Indian swami I knew had to admit).

Christianity played a certain angle, targeting a specific sense of shortfall people were willing to cop to - especially once the movement reached critical mass. And, just like me baiting delicious yummy cupcakes, it came with its own easy solution - one far less daunting than learning, changing, or improving. Surrender’s literally a no-brainer (and it really does work).

The Church somehow persuaded millions of humans, who normally cling to lofty self-images, to concede their shmuckiness (aka sinfulness). An incredible feat, akin to making dogs dance on hind legs. No wonder it was a smash hit!

Of course, it no longer works. Hasn't for a while. While Christianity remains a potent tribal identity (like rooting for a football team), the meat of the thing - "I'm a sinner submitting to salvation" - has been largely erased from the picture and replaced with things like prosperity gospel, i.e. "I DESERVE THE VERY BEST!"

As rich, comfortable, narcissistic moderns, we've sealed all gaps, glimpsing no self-shortcomings. "I am neither miserable nor a sinner. I am not, in any way/shape/form, a shmuck." That level of self-delusion, ignoring mounds of evidence, is what modern society deems healthy. Now that we’re all immaculate, we project the palpable sense of shortfall back onto the World itself, which, it goes without saying, TOTALLY SUCKS.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Survival Kit: Coping with Paranoid Schizophrenics

A friend is having problems with a paranoid schizophrenic in his life. I've had a couple of those, plus I've dealt with a broad swathe of mental illness while managing a million people online for a grueling decade (one of Chowhound's moderators was a doctor who'd spent years treating indigent addicts in the South Bronx, who, a few weeks in, was shocked to have observed more twisted and demented behavior than she ever had in her day job. She described it as a "a post-graduate seminar in aberrational psychology.")

I was going to send him a note, but perhaps this will be useful to others. So here you go. I don't know a lot, but I do know some things.

1. It Feels Like Knowing

The kookie untrue beliefs don't feel like beliefs, nor do they feel kookie. They don't feel like propositions that have been considered, accepted, and incorporated into their world view. They're not workshopping new lines of thought. Nothing like that.

Rather, it feels like knowing. Solid, fundamental, unswayable knowing. The way you know you live in a country called America, and have two feet, and that chocolate tastes good. You know these things, and they are not up for argument. That's how their kookie untrue beliefs feel - even if a new set arises every few days/hours/minutes.

And it's not a matter of over-tenacity, any more than you're overly tenacious in knowing the things you know. It's perfectly healthy to remain steadfast in one's fundamental understanding of the world. The infirmity lies not in the tenacity but in the filtering and error-checking.

So don't expect to "talk them out of it". How receptive would you be to being "talked out of" the fact that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, or that people eat turkey on Thanksgiving? How closely would you listen to someone's arguments to the contrary?

This problem is not confined to schizophrenics. We all "know" plenty of wrong stuff, and it all feels solidly known. Recognize this and let it feed your empathy!
While creating my smart phone app, Eat Everywhere, which I fact-checked to death, terrified of looking like a gringo dilettante, I discovered to my horror that a half dozen or so of my favorite foreign dishes don't exist.

I'd remembered wrong, or made assumptions, or had repeatedly eaten the dish in one single immigrant restaurant which concocted it to pander to clueless American customers. I've evangelized some of these dishes - in print! - for years. They were bedrock to my view of world cuisine. Yet they were ghosts.

That was an eye-opener. Man, I knew they were real! 
So was I "hallucinating" them? Not exactly, no. Just applying good faculties to bad data. The depth of my belief was not the real problem. 

Calm Contradiction May(?) Be Useful

If someone substantial in your life tells you that you do not, in fact, have two feet, the statement will not persuade. Yet it will be tabulated and stored, minutely influencing the greater Well of Conviction. It goes into the pot. If, one day, you look down and see only one foot, you'll remember.

You cannot argue paranoid schizophrenics out of believing the CIA implanted radio transmitters in their dental fillings. But you can register a quiet, mild "no" vote on the proposition. Be confident, be calm, be kind (but not condescending) and accept that you will not change minds. Even without acceptance, you've spoken truth. There is truth in the pot.

This is counterproductive if you can’t manage it calmly, quietly, and without condescension. Parenthetical voice, not confrontational voice. And if, despite best effort, you rile them up, nix it for a while. Stress is counterproductive.

However, along the same lines (and I suggest this part with greater confidence): resist the urge to patronize. Don't lampoon their beliefs to underscore the absurdity. Don't "show them how crazy they look." That might register as a "yes" vote! Schizophrenics, like Twitter users, parse sarcasm poorly.

Permission to Be Generally Dumb and Unpleasant

Paranoid schizophrenics can be very unpleasant. If you love one enough to stick around, it's reasonable to insist that they not burden you with unessential unpleasantness. Don't be problematic in ways you can actually control! Do the dishes! Don't drink milk straight out of the container! Don't use the hot water while I'm in the shower!

But that's not reasonable at all. Humans - even healthy ones - have bad moods, harsh words, behavioral lapses, and poor judgement. It is not fair (though completely understandable) to expect them to be immaculate above/beyond their uncontrollable dysfunction. Factor accordingly (more here).

And, as you do take this into account, note that this is you becoming saner. The situation can leave you saner or it can leave you nuttier. Why not choose sanity?


People get to be wrong. They're allowed to make horrible decisions and do harmful things, even life-threatening things. This is a lesson learned by everyone who's cared for aging parents (at least those who haven't driven themselves and their parents batshit crazy).

Sure, we draw a sharp distinction for the infirm. They're not in proper control of themselves! But we're all infirm and lack healthy control in some respects at certain moments....and rightfully expect not to be strapped to gurneys until the bad impulses go away. And we mostly don’t strap schizophrenics to gurneys. So we don’t get to control them, even if we decide, with good intentions, that they really need it. 

All human beings get to be stupid and self-destructive. That’s part of the package of basic rights. So unless you're prepared to strap someone to a gurney, you're going to have to respect their autonomy. There's no choice. Short of criminality or mortal self-harm, they get to make their own calls. Even wrong ones. So long as they’re classified as human beings. 

In the end, you'll discover it's largely an issue of your own missplaced sense of control and authority. Your rock-solid certainty of what's best isn't always so solid. You're not THAT sane, either. Releasing your false notion of control can be your own mental health therapy.

Loving and Caring Without Getting Personally Spun

The item above requires developing some detachment. That's a tough call with loved ones, given that love is nothing but attachment.

You need to say "This person is currently in another universe, behaving very poorly, and I'm not coming with them...or bringing them back. They will continue to reject love and effort, and it's not my (or their) fault. It's simply how it is, and I don't need to hold the horror in my corpuscles. I will accept the unacceptable, while unconditionally loving this person, regardless of her current galactic address."

Note: I myself can't do this.

I know how to hold on tenaciously. And I know how to let go completely, dissolving all sense of caring and attachment. But I’m unable to detach selectively.

When I let go, I really let go. I'm terrific with infinity, but pitiful with gradations. It's a terrible shortcoming.

So I have little to offer on the subject of partial detachment - detaching enough to respect the person's autonomy (and preserve one's own mental health) while simultaneously remaining engaged, present, and caring. Find yourself another jnani for that part.

I'll say this, though: It's the same issue I once confronted atop a ladder while trying to quell a rising sense of panic via a holistic (not selective) "letting go". That was, duh, a really bad move, and I've been trying to come to grips with it ever since.

More "Survival Kit" postings

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Sunk Cost Prolongs Idiocy

Repeating some themes previously discussed, but tying them together a bit more neatly.

Sunk-Cost Fallacy(noun)
The phenomenon whereby a person is reluctant to abandon a strategy or course of action because they have invested heavily in it, even when it is clear that abandonment would be more beneficial.

"Important" Means Never Letting Go

An acquaintance of mine has spent a full decade anguished over a single finite loss. She'd insist that it was a finite IMPORTANT thing. Fair enough. I get it!

But the universe won't bring it back just because she insists and fixates. Tagging phenomena "important" garners no special dispensation in this immersive cosmic swirl of unending creation and destruction we've opted into. We knew the rules going in.

Her friends try to soothe her. None would ever utter the obvious thing they're all thinking: "Let go! Move on!" Contemporary civilization is built upon an immutable law that the whiny must be consoled, and never have their assumptions challenged. While consolation only reinforces the false premise, sinking the person deeper into a mental tarpit, we want to seem helpful much more than we want to actually help. So we reinforce frozen perspectives rather than risk the friction of inducing a shift of perspective (aka "reframing").

Etch-A-Sketch People

Every torturous passing year adds greater incentive to tighten her clasp rather than let go, simply because of sunk cost. If she were to lightly shrug and simply move on with a hopeful spark in her eye - if it were that easy - then what was all that Sturm und Drang for? Opening up and reframing and letting go and moving on would reveal that the closing-down, holding-on, and paralysis was willfully unnecessary. And that is the last thing she wants to reveal to herself. She wants to avoid feeling silly far more than she wants happiness.

So she just keeps doubling down, planting herself so deeply in mental mud that she's become what I call an Etch-A-Sketch Person: so unflinchingly committed to a counterproductive dramatic trope that she'll drop it only upon the ultimate reset (i.e. Etch-A-Sketch shake) of death. She is tightly strapped in for this ride she’s decided to characterize herself as taking.

Improvement Requires Owning Your Shmuckiness

Please don't be an Etch-A-Sketch person. You needn't commit to a preposterously grim pretense of immobility. I've previously explained how we freeze perspective and how effortlessly we can self-liberate via reframing, but the insidious component is sunk cost. If my shackles could be effortlessly cast off, why have I been lavishly lamenting my plight? What was I, a shmuck?"

"What was I, a shmuck?" is the biggest problem.

Why can't adults learn effectively? Because that would mean acknowledging previous ignorance. What was I, a shmuck?

Why can't people change? Because that would mean acknowledging previous stuckedness. What was I, a shmuck?

Why can't people let go? Because that would mean acknowledging previous grasping. What was I, a shmuck?
That asshole Dylan Thomas really messed us all up with "Do not go gentle into that good night...burn and rave...Rage, rage against the dying of the light." NO! Opposing the inevitable is not admirably staunch and feisty. It's just poor mental health. Heed, instead, the incomparably wiser Anthony de Mello!
Why do people double down when caught, deny indisputable facts, and stick with hopeless causes? Commitment! It's a choice: Strap in tenaciously, rather than humbly concede your shmuckiness. Don't worry, your impulses are solid gold, baby. Remain fully inflated at all costs!

A Shmuck Never Has Far to Fall

I've come at this world ass-backwards, always presenting shmuckily. My underlying assumption is that I know nothing, am horribly skewed, deluded, error-prone, and sadly, pathetically clueless. In today's America, I sound like I require medication, if not institutionalization. I suffer from a POOR SELF-IMAGE, an unthinkable proposition for this society. One must fervidly hypnotize oneself back into delusion:
I am powerful and competent and people love me! I am powerful and competent and people love me! I am powerful and competent and people love me!
Stand tall! Straighten your spine! Accept without doubt that you are indisputably above-average in every respect! Be a WINNER, for chrissakes!

Nah. I never did any of that. I did recognize when I was right - because when you're right, you're right - but I never identified as "Mr. Right". I was always a zaggy hairball of wrongness who occasionally spat up an errant gem or twelve. I still feel that way! Have a look at this Slog's subtitle!

I've held onto this framing because it's worked out great. We all must choose between being right or feeling right; being smart or feeling smart; being wise, creative, insightful, or feeling those things. You can’t have it both ways, and I've blithely sacrificed the latter for the former. It was a rough ride, but, finally, teetering on dotage, I enjoy some perqs. I sit at the keyboard and some level of insight somewhat reliably flows. I once dreamt of that (of that HAPPENING, not of being able to be the sort of guy who makes that happen. I want to sing way more than I want to be a singer).

I still stick with this framing, registering my rightness as it arises, without trying to act the part. It doesn’t need to get all over you. One is not, it turns out, compelled to savor one’s own farts through haughtily dilated nostrils. It can feel like play, and be done as if by a child. With unbridled enthusiasm and no grippy grown-up dramatic hooey.

And so I have nowhere to fall. Whenever new information, insight, or perspective reveals that I've been wrong all along, I swoon with delight. Being shown I've been wrong all along fills me with hope that one day I'll feel genuinely right! Who knows, maybe I'll turn this thing around!

The normal cure for feeling shmucky is to fix the feeling. I've always figured it made more sense to strive to become less shmucky. This approach is widely rejected, though, because it leaves people feeling starkly under-elevated. So it's a non-starter.

One advantage I enjoy is laziness. It takes vast energy to create and maintain a lofty self-image. You must strenuously reject fact, truth, change, improvement, and The Universe At Large. But with no self-image to maintain, I'm unattached. While I may occasionally feel smothered by pain and sorrow, I’m not attached to such scenarios. With no sense of obligation to portray Smothered Guy, I can drop it - drop it all! - in any moment without existential crisis. Without sunk cost. Without looking back and saying "What was I, a shmuck?" The answer to that question is eager affirmation. And so I get to enjoy fresh, lithe responsiveness.

Better Cupcakes

Haughty food experts used to newly arrive at Chowhound, pronouncing this or that cupcake "The Best." Period. Truth has been revealed. Thor has spoken!

Inevitably, chowhound B would pipe up, "Nah. Try this other cupcake. It's better!" And chowhound A would grow huffily combative. Because if his cupcake isn't the greatest fucking cupcake, that means he's a shmuck. And, as he will assure you, he is certainly no shmuck. Whence flamewars.

I'd enter the conversation.

"Hey, buddy! :) You really like cupcakes, no?"

"And how!"

"Then wouldn't you want to know about even better ones? Wouldn't that be a welcome outcome? Me, I'm a recognized food expert, but nothing on gawd's green earth would make me happier than for someone to inform me that all my favorite places suck, and then lead me to greater deliciousness, amen. That's my dream! I want it! Don't you want it? Don't you want even better cupcakes?"

"I don't know that his cupcakes are better!"

"Sure, but isn't it worth finding out? Isn't it enticing? Why would you fight so tenaciously against the hope of possibly-more-delicious cupcakes?"

It often worked. Even though I was implying even broader shmuckiness than he'd feared.


I'm abnormally successful at changing people's minds. My success rate, when I'm not being ignored, misunderstood, argued with, patronized to, spat upon, or face-punched, can be as high as 5-10%!

My trick is to deal directly with perspective (framing!). I don't traffic in the usual clichéd talking points. I don't shame people or make them feel stupid. I don't ram into them from the opposite direction. Heck, I don't even offer crisply logical argument, which is persuasive only to a computer (and, even then, only computers deliberately programmed to parse argument).

Rather, I try to coax a shift of perspective. You know the old canard of "Make them think they thought of the idea?" This is how that's done. Coax them into a fresh perspective, and let them draw their own conclusions. One can't force a conclusion, but one can certainly induce a shift of perspective (that’s what art is, and coaxing shifts of perspective is also the only viable route for a would-be Messiah).

The Cupcake Dialog was successful more than 5-10% of the time. Maybe a whopping 25%. Though it was often hard to tell, as they'd never come back and admit it. They'd retreat to go lick their wounds. It was never really about cupcakes. It was about misguided notions of who they are and what this life is.

I try hard not to manipulate. So, as I write this, I realize the Cupcake Dialog maybe was too much. First, their sunk cost is enormous, so it's quite a violent drop into sanity. Plus, many people need to feel absolutely fantastic to even get out of bed. Shake them into questioning their infatuation with self-splendor (much less question that status in and of itself) and you can leave them with absolutely nothing, because that’s all they’ve got. It's not always helpful for an Etch-A-Sketch to reset prematurely, in mid-show.

This is why I've started viewing the conceited, the bullies, and the control freaks (have you ever noticed the latter are always the people least deserving to be in control?) as the puny unfortunates they truly are. I frame them as adorable toddlers posing in cheap superhero Halloween costumes. Best to hug them, offer some candy, shut the door, and hope they go knock elsewhere. Nothing else to be done, nothing to, like, change, because, in most cases, if you were to strip off their preposterous cheap garb, you’d behold only trembling gelatin.

Trembling gelatin. My God. No wonder they're terrified.

So even the practice of inducing reframing - aka art - might be yet another hapless Messiah misfire. There really is no good reason to ever, ever raise the house lights. Just talk to the mask. Always talk to the mask. Never stop talking to the mask.

Problem is, I’ve conditioned myself - via titanic effort - to transcend that. I look behind the mask, and speak, sotto voce, directly to the mask-wearer, and have developed clever means to help people break free of facade. I went through a lot (a LOT a lot) to discover that clear vision. But it’s as useful as having mastered Neptunian. Because I am not here to sadistically expose trembling gelatin.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Film Tips

"Compartment No. 6" is a fantastic Finnish/Russian film, currently showing. It won tons of festival awards, but critic/audience ratings here are mixed, because it doesn't fully comport with the political doctrine of the sort of Americans who go to indie films. This is in no way a political movie, but many of us view everything through that filter. So even critics who loved the film have been careful/tepid in their praise, terrified of attracting mob ire.

I won't discuss the film, because it's a gentle, subtle story best experienced freshly. It's not streaming anywhere, still in theaters (e.g. Angelika's two theaters in Manhattan). I'll add that sitting in a movie theater watching a not-super-popular movie not-on-a-Friday/Saturday-night is about the greatest degree of social isolation you can experience outside your living room.

In other movie news...

I bought the 3-D blu-ray for my favorite movie of the century, Bi Gan's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (nothing to do with the O'Neill play), but I don't have a 3-D TV to play it on, and it really needs the effect (it's subtle - no shtick - but still necesary to conjure the movie's magnificently singular vibe). I was considering buying a used Sony Playstation with VR headset as my route to playing 3-D blu-ray, but these days digital projectors are the way to go.

I haven't bought yet, but have done extensive research, and this one and this one are the cheapest ones that do a movie justice. You can sit them on a table 5-10 feet away from a screen (there are cheap screen options) and get a good-sized image. All you need are glasses.

Yes, it's a lot of money to pay to view one movie - even a favorite one you want to play for everyone you know (Cate Blanchett apparently agrees) - but 1. they sometimes go on sale, and 2. you can buy used on eBay (be careful to use vendors with 100% feedback and long ebay histories), and 3. there are other cool 3-D disks to play on the thing, even if you're not super stoked about 3-D generally.

I'm not stoked about 3-D generally, and haven't seen any of the following (at least not in 3-D). I'm just sharing the list (and a few notes) I've compiled from around the Internet. All said to be good movies with really good (i.e. not dark and headachy and shticky) 3-D effect.

Yeah, I know. Jim Leff's Slog once again sits on the cutting edge. "3-D home theater's gonna be HUGE, man!" Anyway...

"Doctor Strange"
"Terminator 2"
The triple box set of Attenborough docs ("Galapagos", "Insects", "Plants")
"Life of Pi"
"The Last Emperor"
"Jurassic Park"
"TRON: Legacy 3D"
"3-D Rarities, Volume II"
"Dial M For Murder"
"Tangled" ("the lanterns scene is wonderful")
"Hubble 3D "
Imax docs like "Ultimate Wave", "Grand Canyon", and "Under the Sea"
Enchanted Kingdom
"Step Up" 3D's dance off scenes ("have some of the best 3D reference material to date").
"Sammy's Adventure: The Secret Passage" ("absolutely stunning. Import from hong kong")
And, obviously, Avatar, if you don't hate its writing as viciously as I did.

Free 3-D stuff to download

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The Narcissism Trap

We underestimate how narcissistic everyone is because we’re too narcissistic to notice.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Trip to Baghdad

The proprietor of the great Juma Kitchen at London's Borough Market was born in Iraq and raised in UK. He's making his first trip to the old country since he was a baby, while documenting food (and other) finds on his Instagram feed. Now in progress. Don't miss this terse treasure. Best quote: "Lamb, but good".

Start with the photo of Baghdad airport (and don't forget to read the text, or to swipe forward on multi-photo entries). Even better: back up a bit first, from before the trip, to get a sense of who he is and what he does.

Thanks for the tip to friend-of-the-Slog Limster.

The Death of Shame was a Murder

The Left spent a generation overplaying its go-to tool: the shame choke collar.

So the tool naturally began losing its potency. But the Left failed to notice. It kept pulling tighter and a point of ultimate high absurdity (when you're holding a hammer, all problems look like nails).

Then along came Trump, who deftly, easily snapped it.

Three results:
1. The tool has lost all effectiveness even for reasonable purposes.

2. Nearly half the country stands proudly, exuberantly shameless. Think antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

3. The Left keeps reflexively returning to its broken tool, like endlessly flicking an empty lighter.
The Taoists are right. No effect is without cause, no child without parent. Excess breeds excess, and a pull is a push from a different perspective.

Friday, January 21, 2022

The Stranded Ballerina

The stranded ballerina pointlessly leaps and twirls

with heart-breaking vehemence,

but the bus never arrives.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Wordle Tips

I think I've cracked the code on Wordle, the rare trend I'm full-heartedly conforming to.

I've guessed correctly in row 3 three days in a row now. Here's Saturday's result:

...and here's Sunday:

...and here's yesterday:

Here's my actual screen for yesterday:

1. I always start with "Early", to start pinning down vowels. I used to have an even more vowely word, but it is, alas, lost.

2. "Tries" was not a guess. Don't guess! It's not that game! Tries has "S" last (very common), and adds one of the missing vowels, plus the common "T". It also tries to locate the "R" and "E". Your second row should have no wasted letters. Every letter should introduce new common letters and/or reposition known letters (in this case, two repositions and three introductions).

3. By row three, if you followed the above strategy (no guessing!!), you have more info than you might initially think.
Obviously, "I" is #3.

"R" is #1,#4, or #5. We can eliminate #5, as I couldn’t think of a common word that worked with these included/excluded letters. So "R" is either #1 or #4

"S" is #1, #2, or #4. I can't think of any words that would put it #2. So "S" (like "R") is either #1 or #4

"E" obviously can't be #3. And it can't be #1 or #4, because they're occupied by "I" or "S" (one way or the other). So "E" is either #2 or #5. It was unlikely to be #2 (“EI”), so it's #5. I got lucky that it wasn’t “reign” (and “deign” and “feign” don’t use an “R”, and also are too obscure for Wordle).
So here's where we’re at: (S/R) (?) (I) (R/S) (E).

There are two possibilities: SPIRE, or SHIRE (it can't be RAISE because "A" is excluded).

Wordly only uses common everyday words...and spire's a bit obscure. Shire might seem uncommon, too, but remember: the puzzle's produced by a Brit.

Update: I just did it again today. I won’t spoil todays puzzle for you, but here is my result:

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Projection Booth

I used to assume that people who thought highly of me saw the real me. Women who smiled at me saw something deeper. People who satisfied my needs were good solid people.

Those who took a dim eye to me, or refused to give me what I needed, just didn't get it. They didn't get me. They were too occupied with their own narcissism to see clearly. To see me.

I'm not sure, but I think this is universal. And it's self-obviously cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs.

I've previously noted that fame's a phenomenally superficial thing. You - the substantial real you - can't be famous. Only your name can be famous:
[Fame can feel] quite disturbing and artificial. For one thing, it's never truly directed at you; it focuses on a facet of a layer of a static image which happens to have your name affixed to it. And you play little part in choosing which facet of which layer of which image is focused upon. The assignment process is remarkably similar to the way children get dubbed with nicknames.
The first three paragraphs, above, explain why many people are nonetheless quite happy with fame. The whole world - by virtue of a fuzzily imprecise, intrinsically fickle positive predisposition to the letters of your name - appears to really GET you!

During the years I spent with that perspective, it never occurred to me that I was the narcissist; too occupied in my own head to recognize that people don't need to see me correctly, or clearly, or even at all, much less smile or meet my needs. You're just another turkey in this farm, bub.

Eventually, I caught on (I'm slow). And my comprehension helped immeasurably. I'm far more accepting of being ignored, distrusted, or disliked. I respect everyone's right to hold whimsical preferences and to ignore vast swathes of the world. I myself do it all the time!

But there's a downside (in this binary zero-sum world, there's always a downside): by learning to blithely accept neutral and negative reaction, I've lost my zeal for positive reaction. I no longer project fine and noble qualities onto those who agree with me, like me, smile at me, etc. I don't feel better "seen" by such people.

In fact, some of my most unpleasant life experiences have been with people who a few moments prior pronounced me AWESOME.

It doesn't take penetrating observation to recognize that, for most people, AWESOME is one chain link from ASSHOLE. Neither is a very meaningful assessment. AWESOME is when I just said something you agree with. Or told you you're right. Or smiled at you. And ASSHOLE means I didn't.

Under the hood, it's truly that goofy and superficial. People are actually that narcissistic. And I strive for consistency, so, when I learned to blithely accept "ASSHOLE", I felt obliged to become equally blithe about "AWESOME". In either case, it's just stuff they're saying. Human assessment is not super meaningful! Just relax into it and take it all lightly!

So where do I go from here? There are people for whom I feel genuine respect. They are magicians who can conjure wholes greater than the sum of their parts. Or they're courageous, doing the right thing even when it's hard or counter to self-interest. They're risers-abovers. Or they're just quick-witted or interesting. And I can't help but smile at them, and say nice things to them...which, quite unavoidably (and unintentionally on my end), makes them find me awesome. So I let that assessment blow right past me, but still stick around because, again, I respect them. That's the best I can navigate this house of mirrors.

But what about love? Well, per the old Palmolive commercial, we're soaking in it. That's the default state, period. All the drama and the rich people problems and the egoic neediness and willfully frozen perspective - all the games we play and movies we pretend to star in help us forget that we're soaking in an eternal and infinite field of love. That's what the sunlight is. That's what the oxygen is. That's what it all is.

And, in fact, we are not foreign objects in that field. We are in it and of it, radiating while basking. Disgustingly sappy though it sounds, the truth is that at our foundation - beneath the pretending and the stories and the grippy fear and stress - we are love loving love.
But that's not what you meant. You were asking about earthly love. Red pill choosers: pray proceed.

I may be the only human who registers that when someone says "I love you" it has nothing to do with you. It's a statement of mere preference. And while it's a very nice feeling to be on the receiving end of the news that you're someone's preferred thing, that nice feeling is also impersonal and autonomous. Parallel lines all the way.

The best human beings can do is to say "You're my favorite figurine in my glass menagerie", and, if they're very lucky, the other person will declare them their favorite figurine in their glass menagerie. That's the height of human relationship. The best it can apparently get.

It's even more troubling than "parallel lines". It's co-narcissism, like binary stars self-servingly leveraging each other's gravity to accommodate their respective trajectories. "She says she loves me, and it feels nice, and to be loved is to be seen and understood, because people who think highly of me see the real me."

Why did I love the women I loved? In retrospect, I have no idea. They were attractive, they smiled at me, and they told me I was their favorite. Honestly, I think that's about it ("Isn't that enough??"). I felt seen, because I ran on the conviction that those thinking highly of me saw the real me. They were good solid people! So those who made me their very favorite figurine, well, those people were, obviously, paragons.

Am I renouncing love? No way! Again, we're soaking in it!

Dale Carnegie deconstructed things rather nicely, but did not go far enough. If you keep pulling the thread he found, the whole thing unravels. Which, again, is fine. This is not a deep ride. It's a light and delightfully varied entertainment (our baseline - eternal sea of infinite love - gets boring), and we literally wouldn't have it any other way.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

What Atrocities are They Hiding?

Yesterday's posting, “Healthy Cooking vs Mouth Hacking,” made the case that healthy cooking needn't be austere. We need to flip our perspective on expedient shortcuts - the traditional profusions of grease, salt, and sugar so frequently resorted to in order to cover up mediocrity.

A reader on Chowhound responded:
I had my 13 year old read it. I'm hoping that one of these days he learns to differentiate between tasty-because-it-is-well-made i.e. good quality versus cheap and loaded with unnecessary crud to mask the junk.
Excellent. But that's only halfway to the flip of perspective - the reframing - I was suggesting. Let me explain.

For decades now, the rap has been "Stop eating that awful junk full of unhealthy crap!" But it's pretty clear that this won't persuade any teenager. Hell, it won't persuade anyone who hasn't bought into nutritional sanctimony. Smokers realize they're inhaling cancerous gases, and many of them even like the idea.

There's another way to frame it that's less primly virtuous, and which jibes better with our actual experience of pleasure. Here's how I arrived at that perspective.

I noticed that from-scratch chocolate chip cookies taste good. Even if they're talentlessly baked from a stupid recipe and lackluster ingredients, they're still pretty delicious. So if someone sells ones full of artificial flavors and chemicals and stuff, what atrocities are they hiding? How unthinkably awful are the cookies to need all that stuff? Someone would need to, like, defecate in the batter to require such desperate cover-up. The ingredients are veterinary-grade. The nuts are rancid. The cheap awfulness must be beyond imagining to necessitate such a level of fuckery.

That is the core problem. Not the xanthan gum or high fructose corn syrup in and of themselves. Strident lectures re: "food additives are bad, m'kay?" are unpersuasive outside organic cult circles. But "what atrocities are they hiding?" (WAATH) is a whole other line of attack, and it stands up much better to scrutiny.

From there, I made the small jump to recognizing that the melt-a-stick-of-butter trick mid-priced restaurants wield to justify their premium is, likewise, a cover-up. And same for gratuitous blasts of sugar or salt. It's not that butter/sugar/salt, or even additives, are deadly neurotoxins to be avoided like sunlight to a vampire. That's crazy. Much more sane: Real food tastes delicious without extreme measures, so WAATH?!?
I can make string beans taste awesome with a half tablespoon of olive oil. Exactly how icky are your stick-of-butter string beans that you need to cloak them so desperately?

And I've had fresh donuts that were absolutely delicious - and pleasingly sweet but not viciously so. So when they gob on sugar, WAATH?

And I've eaten nearly saltless food that slayed me with scrumptiousness. So WAATH with blizzards of salt?
The assertion that additives, butter, salt, and sugar are demonic agents of evil is ineffective. And kooky. Those things are perfectly healthy in moderation, and even acceptable in occasional profusion (e.g. croissants). We need to stop parsing it as "That Awful Junk", and start framing it as "The Atrocities Being Covered Up Via Extreme Measures".

I found the donut experiment and the chocolate chip cookie thought experiment transformational. And I'm not a stern nutrition cultist who'd never let his kid eat a cookie or a donut. Let's expunge the notion of "virtue". This isn't a clash of Good vs Evil. Let's pay more attention to the cynical mouth-hacking; the "turd in the batter" proposition. Then, to yesterday's point, from there it's a question of how healthy you, as a home cook, can make it without sacrificing deliciousness.

This works better than holy war against THAT AWFUL JUNK, which exasperates the normies, makes for cooking as horrific as health food has tasted for time immemorial, and entices kids to walk miles for the cheap embrace of Dunkin Donuts.

Interesting connection. When someone arrived at Chowhound in the early days, enthusing over, say, Olive Garden, I tried never to shame them. Rather, I'd coax them to try other places, realizing that snobbery and shaming don't help. What really helps is exposure to greater deliciousness. I don't need to kick your Cheesecake Factory appreciation in the teeth. Once you've experienced how good food can be, naive infatuations drop away on their own.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Healthy Cooking vs Mouth Hacking

The Bad Donut Experiment

Want to learn something useful about food? Here's an easy fun experiment.

Buy a crappy chocolate donut. Entenmann's, Dunkin, any supermarket brand. Anything mass-produced and other-than-fresh. Take a scientific bite, paying attention to only one aspect: sweetness. Pretend it's your job to tweak the recipe. Could we get away with less sugar? Exactly how much less?

I think you'll find 35-50% of the sugar unnecessary. Counterproductive. Ugly, really. Isn't it odd you never noticed before? We're accustomed to blasts of grimly unnecessary sugar. We just are.

Keep visualizing. Use your detective skills! Why, exactly, have they overdone the sugar?

Perhaps it might help to probe for non-sugar flavors, for a fuller picture of the situation.

What? You can't find any? Yeah. That's the problem. Remove the sugar and you're left with nothing because these are junk. Not food. And that's why there's way too much sugar. Without it, there's nothing to reassure the mouth that it has reason to chew, swallow, and repeat.

It's not that people love "too much sugar". We enjoy sweet things, sure, but the excess isn't the prize. It's the cover-up! So this isn't a food experience so much as a hacking-your-mouth experience. And the sugar's the hack. Let me map it out for you:
Sugar? Ok, you may pass.
Sugar? Ok, you may pass.
Sugar? Ok, you may pass.
Etc. etc.
Thus the donuts get eaten. Despite how much they suck.

Mouth Hacking

No one ever ate a shitty mass-produced chocolate donut and went "Mmmmm!" "Mmmmm" is beside the point. We do not expect to glory in such things. But they do get eaten. Because they hack your mouth.

"Hack your mouth" is what a lot of food does. Not just donuts. Say you're a lazy, grindingly uninspired chef working in a shmancy restaurant. You're sautéing string beans, for which the restaurant charges $14. Those babies had better convey a premium $14 experience, but it's not like you're going to kindle stunning magisterial beauty via masterful nuances. No, you're standing in a hot kitchen with flop sweat, and you need this job to pay gambling debts, so what's the easiest way to convince customers their stupid string beans are worth 14 bucks?

You hack their mouths. You melt a stick of butter all over it. That'll get the bastards. Enjoy your $14 string beans. Customers, registering the greasy jolt, feel like they've had a premium experience. Mouth-hacking is the most efficient means to evoke the dopamine hit that opens wallets.

Home Chefs

Among the myriad problems currently blighting our society, home chefs these days try to emulate restaurant chefs. And restaurant chefs hack mouths. So lots of home chefs are clobbering with the butter, salt and sugar so they can evoke the cheap dopamine hit and feel like rock stars. And they invariably work from cookbooks written by authors with similar flop sweat.

Recipes are Bullshit

HUGE FOOD WORLD SECRET: if a written recipe could result in sure-thing deliciousness, MacDonald's would be churning out splendiferous burgers, and a night at Olive Garden would be like a trip to Naples. Recipes (as the great food writer John Thorne insightfully explained) are, at very best, loose roadmaps to be read off-handedly and set aside while you pretty much go back to your usual thing, only perhaps folding in the egg whites a bit earlier in the process.

Cookbook writers have flop sweat for the exact same reason chefs do. Readers paid $35 for your damned book, so they expect to produce something noteworthy, however unaware that no recipe is sure-thing. So cookbook recipes are designed to hack mouths. And it's always that same trinity of coverups: sugar, salt, grease.

We've all had our mouths hacked so many times that excess no longer bugs us. Much as we expect to wince in pain at the volume of rock concerts, or cringe at the crippling bitterness of a New England IPA, the hack becomes part of the experience. We accept the hacking, and few of us expect to go "Mmmm" much (though we do text "Yum!", much as we "LOL" while stone-faced).

We've lost "Mmmm".

Feast, Not Famine

The best food I ate in the 20th century was cooked by an Italian grandma in Queens who used virtually no salt. There was no effort to hack my mouth, and my "Mmm"s were pornographic. Her unforgettable lunches left me with an unusual attitude toward low-salt cooking: it needn't taste like austerity. It can be full and luscious and to-die-for.

I've spent years trying to reconstruct her magic. And it's surprisingly easy. First: stop cooking like restaurant chefs. Second: stop following recipes. Just keep iterating with constant improvement. Taste your food the way you tasted that crap chocolate donut, asking yourself how much you can reduce the hacks: the sugar, the salt, the grease, without losing the soul. The answer, you'll find, is a lot. And as you keep pushing, you'll keep finding more space to push into.

You needn't flail with compensatory moves. Don't shake all sorts of spice into your food, eager to offer your palate something to grab hold of. Make your food foodlike - way better than the insipid commercial donut under the globs of sugar - and palates will be more than happy. Good food makes you go "Mmmmm." Nobody misses the coverup. Nobody even likes the coverup. We're just inured to it, that's all.

But you have to actually do it. You need to cook with great care. Because careless cooking requires coverups. Blotchy skin calls for tons of makeup. When food doesn't taste food-like, that's when the mouth starts feeling empty, probing for the grease, the salt, and the sugary sugar. We don't actually deeply enjoy those things. But, as any addict will attest, a paucity of love turns one's mind to seamier, less subtle attractions.

Concentrate on Sucking Less

Hi. So, yeah. I've reached a pretty banal conclusion. Hey, deep insights often reduce to banality. Salt covers don't make problems.

Then keep easing back further, firm in your faith that while we're accustomed to "way too much", that's not where the deliciousness ever was. That's just cover-up; saving gracelessness; copious spoonfuls of sugar to make the medicinal go down.

Healthy cooking is not an austere xerox-of-a-xerox of good food. Rather: unhealthy cooking is a cheap move to make mediocrity palatable. Frame it that way.

Follow-up here

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

When to Up-Spend

Carpenters should always buy the most expensive hammer. That's obvious, yet few of us seem to really internalize that lesson.

For example, it’s crazy that most people spend a third of their lives nuzzling a cheap uncomfortable pillow. Even at my financial low point as a freelance jazz musician, I slept with a $$$ down pillow (with fancy hypoallergenic cover). The same people will jump to buy a BMW the moment they can afford one. I don't understand their priorities.

I use a portable vacuum several times per day. I want to encourage that habit, and for it to work reliably well. So I own a Dyson - which, even at its blow-out sale price, was still a luxury purchase. But I've never regretted it.

Here's the counterintuitive formula: Up-spend on items used most frequently. Not your most enjoyed or valued things, nor the things you most depend upon. I immensely enjoy my bottom-of-the-line iPad, greatly value my second-hand dvd collection, and depend on my house's merely-decent water heater. None were spendy. But the scrub brush I use on my back in the shower every day is the best one. I use it daily, and it never does anything to erode my joie de vivre. Over time, that adds up.

Anything that delivers daily irritation or disappointment gets improved if possible. My doors shut well and my light switches make a nice noise. This may seem petty, but improvement of improvable fine points is far more sane than rumination over the unavoidable. People mess up both sides of the Serenity Prayer.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Husk

I just watched the 2000th person from my past bug their eyes out, gasp slightly for air, and scramble to compose themselves after the shock of seeing how poorly I've aged. This, to their shock, is what I've been reduced to. Haplessly vacant, grimly detached. Sad! Yet, discordantly, also highly-intense and unwaveringly present (I'm eleven). The striking discrepancy makes for the creepiest possible affect. Yikes.

I appreciate how concern for my feelings compels them to recompose themselves, rather than simply gape in horror at the poor sad man. And I do sympathize with their gut reaction. Hell, I'd react the same way if I met me. But here's the thing: I'm proud of it.

You know in sports when they talk about "leaving it all on the field"? I've done that.

Everyone tries hard, even slackers. Life is hard; an upward march into a headwind. We meet resistance at every turn, eerily sensing some omnipresent strata of malice. Many of us collapse. I look like I collapsed. The poster child, perhaps, for Psychological Collapse. But, no, that's not it. I didn't collapse.

The very opposite, in fact. This is how it looks like when you've applied yourself with the heat of a thousand suns to every task. This is the Energizer Bunny at 59. Depleted, yes, but from massive effort, not crestfallen collapse (like many opposites, they closely resemble one other). This explains my odd combination of wasted countenance and simmering aliveness.

Remember when I realized that my cooking was merely excellent because I keep forgetting that merely trying fervently is nowhere close to sufficient? Remember how one of my most striking epiphanies was the recognition that people work very hard to attain mediocrity ("Authoring a shitty book takes a year off your life, turns your hair grey, and gives you ulcers")? Remember my advice for young people who want to succeed ("However good you are now, get way way better, and then, when you're certain you're good enough, get way way better still. And then get better. Finally, realize you absolutely suck and triple it.")? That's a taste of it.

If I had anything to show you with my presentation - with my facial expression, or the jaunty angle of my hat, or sparkle in my eye - that would mean I'm not spending it all. No, I'm not showing, I'm occupied with doing. I suppose my image collapsed, but that was inevitable. Full-out trying requires undivided attention. You're not truly giving your all if you keep pausing to glance at the mirror. Or reposition your hat. Or cultivate sparkly eyes. Presentation - looking the part - is a cheap graft-on. One can be smart without seeming arrogant; successful without seeming superior; sympathetic without uttering the emblematic words; etc. etc.

When I die, I aspire to amount to nothing more than a pile of dust to be swept up and tidily dumped in the nearest waste receptacle. Forget "good-lucking corpse", I don't want the slightest consideration for my remains or even my memory. I tried just because...and not as a ploy to be treasured as "The Guy Who Tried Just Because" (I'm fully wary of that trap; if I hadn't been onto that bullshit from an early age, that might have been me).

Ferocious doing takes a toll, and leaves no energy for cultivating image or status. "Looking good while you do it" is a whole other level of doing, and it's not my level (nothing wrong with it; we're all here to work our chosen realms!). Don't expect conjurers of real magic to look great in a tux and smile big cheesey smiles for the people. Dividing energy and attention means only part of your effort goes into the actual doing. And that's not how magic is made.

Real magic is contriving a whole to exceed the sum of its parts. Fake magic is the mastery of trickery and deception. Very different! Real magic is messy, and its practitioners are far too occupied to concern themselves with image. Fake magic is suave, and its practitioners look absolutely fantastic.

I look like a dried-out husk because there's nothing here. No doer at all. Just the doing. Insofar as I'm anything, "empty husk" suits me fine.
"Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing."
But wait....if I've renounced self-consciousness, then how can I account for this self-conscious posting? As I've explained, my mind desperately needs to have things verbally explained to it - stuff that's understood intuitively - or else it makes a fuss. That's what this Slog project mostly is: My mind laboriously deconstructing and explicating intuitive knowledge.

I'm describing karma yoga. You can look it up on Wikipedia, or read a bunch of books, or even go live in an ashram in India and have some wizened swami explain it all, but you will understand it progressively less and less. You'll keep getting colder. Above is the unadulterated low-down, baked fresh.

Friday, January 7, 2022


Casper the Friendly Ghost, in his heart of hearts, felt great shame for his neurotic need for widespread approval and admiration.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

LEFFtovers: Perfecting and Applying Pan-Toasted Tortilla Shreds

A trio of recent LEFFtover treatments, all building on the same tortilla move:

Chunky Central American-Korean Breakfast Hash
  • Egg white omelet.
  • Pan-toasted torn shreds of thick leftover Guatemalan tortillas.
  • Morsels of leftover Korean whitefish pancake.
  • Leftover broccolini.
I should have started by pan-toasting black mustard seeds, South Indian style. My bad.

LEFFtover Goat Curry
  • Leftover Goat Curry
  • Leftover tortillas, torn and pan toasted
  • Baby spinach

Punjabi Chole with Guatemalan Makki di Roti*
  • Leftover Punjabi stewed chickpeas
  • Leftover tortillas, torn and pan toasted
  • Coarsely-chopped baby bok choy drizzled with olive oil and zataar
* In case you missed the droll witticism, Punjabis actually make corn bread (makki di roti, most often served with sarson da saag, or soupy greens).

Making Of

Several things coming together here:

1. Frying is the dirty route to crunchiness
I thought I liked fried foods, but I mostly just like crunch. Some may get off on the overpowering oil flavor and heaviness of frying (and while I'll acknowledge that elite soul food chefs wield copious lard for results lighter than light itself, good luck finding cooking like that). I've always considered the oiliness to be something to tolerate if you want crunch. Which is insane, health-wise.

I perennially have loads of leftover thick Guatemalan tortillas in my fridge, because Guatemalans descended a few years ago and are everywhere and I love them. But their tortillas are so thick (ala Mexican gorditas) that I just can't finish a pile of them....along with the humungous mound of rice accompanying everything. Guatemela's just not super keto.

So in pursuit of giving them crunchy highlights, I've been working on alternative crunch production (ACP), finally settling on this formula: low heat, very lightly oiled cast iron (i.e. quick rub with an oily paper towel), and plenty of patience and care and timing. To create fast easy crunch, chuck your food into a vat of hot oil. But if you want nuance (bit of chew 'neath the crunch) and a >6 decade lifespan, you need to work harder.

2. My Carb Problem
Between the aforementioned Guatemalans and the Indians and the Dominicans and the East Asians, I ingest rice like a rural Chinese serf from a Pearl Buck novel. And most rice contains arsenic, which is cumulative in your system. So I'm trying to diversify carbs.

My go-to standby would be bread, but since I'm already way into panini, I don't have open bread slots. And potatoes take time to cook. So corny Guatemalan rounds seem more and more attractive. But I don't crave spongey, stale, leftover tortillas. I want something more appealing. Something a bit crunchy. But without the frying. So, yeah. This is where I'm headed with that.

3. Stew + Rice = Nice...but Tedious
I'm getting righteously tired of stewy stuff on rice. If I had more time to make mashed potatoes, I'd head straight there. But this is faster and lazier. I do need to buy some kasha, now that winter's here. And, of course, there's always pasta, but I can't imagine kasha or rigatoni would serve toothsomely in these contexts. So viva Guatemala! 

4. Fatah and Fatah
The "Yemen" section of my smart phone app, "Eat Everywhere" ("Your personal eating assistant in any restaurant at home or abroad") describes their much beloved Fatah:
Yemenis go crazy for both bread and butter, and fatah is the ultimate expression of both together. It's easy to remember the name - the more you eat it, the fatah you'll get. These buttery, bready croutons are moistened with broth and cooked with meat or vegetables until totally soggy. Really, it's a way of reusing stale bread (Yemenis go through a ton of the stuff).
Fatah is cousins with the better-known (hereabouts) Lebanese fattoush, which I've been told predate French salad croutons by like sixteen thousand years. So this toasting-torn-leftover-bread trick is done all over the Middle East, and northern South Asia. Also: Mexico. While this may not be precisely the move a Mexican grandma would make (i.e. chilaquiles), abuelita would surely nod her head approvingly.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Where Do I Go When the Charade of My Identity is Dropped?

Completing the trilogy that began with "Unifying Framing, Learning, Creativity, Depression, and Narcissism" and continued with "Improving Your Foreign Language Accent"... 

In "Improving Your Foreign Language Accent", I described the existential terror driving us to stay in character:
People imagine that if they're not THIS PERSON (this character they made themself forget they chose to play) they'd be lost or erased or snuffed or fallen-off-a-cliff into a dark pit of non-existence.
This wasn't true, but I published it anyway. Sorry. Lazy. Let me try to do better.

No one imagines they'd die or fall of a cliff or be erased. It's a deeper terror; much more murky and unconscious. In a posting titled "Jnani Train", I painted this picture:
You arrive in the midst of the story, like in a dream, finding yourself standing in the aisle of a speeding train, greatly stressed from carrying a titanic load you can neither view nor explain.

Your hands clutch many handles, your shoulders tremble with unseen weight, and the burdens on your back, hips, trunk and neck are impossible to account for - you have no idea where your body ends and the load begins. And you've been here a very, very long time; since before you can remember.

Two things seem certain: 1. The burden is nearly unendurable, and 2. It's crucial that you not drop any of it.

Why must you not let go? Strangely, you'd never considered the issue. Here you are; self-evidently the bearer of this load! Does Atlas, who holds up the entire world, ever take a moment to ponder the necessity of his sacrifice? Of course not; he's got a world to hold up!
We can't remember how we got here, and we can't say exactly what we're afraid of, but the visceral certainty resists all questioning. If you point this out, you'll only irritate them:
With all they've got to struggle with, there's no patience for your nonsense.
In "Memory Trick #2", I pondered why brain farts are so uncomfortable for most people to endure:
The brain's spigot normally gushes effortlessly. Information simply arrives. When it doesn't, deep-seated issues of control and identity arise from the subconscious. If my thoughts stop, where does that leave me? A curtain has pulled back to reveal my impermanence!
Since people are terribly confused about who they actually are, these gaps freak them out. This explains the counterproductive impulses. Feeling as if we've crash-landed in an eerie silent abyss of non-existence, we flail for a sense of control, trying to reboot our mental continuity like a smoker frantically flicking her empty lighter. We’re engaged not in data recovery but in a struggle to restart the ticker tape of mental narration that establishes our sense of continuity.
What's the fear? It's hard to say, but it must be real, because I’ve been here all this time, grabbing and grasping to maintain a continuity which might halt if I let go for one second!

Like Atlas, we stress ourselves unnecessarily with the absurd notion that dropping character means oblivion. How did we get into character? The same way we identify with characters in novels or movies or dreams, daydreams, fantasies: suspension of disbelief followed by eager immersion. It's what humans do, the way beavers build dams and squirrels collect acorns. We live to shift perspective into this character or that, but it doesn't work unless you really buy in. And buying in means you shudder to let it go; to lose the continuity of this glorious self-story you're so invested in.

This is the primal fear, too ambiguous and visceral to articulate, much less justify. And it’s hilarious nonsense, because everything happens around you, not to you. Not only are you quite obviously continuous, you are the very continuity! We are our pattern of framing; of attention-paying. We are subject, not object.

To add meta-commentary, hopefully without confusing things too badly (and only because if I get hit by a truck I may never get the chance to bury this Easter egg)....

What I'm doing here, and in other postings, is a fresh thing. Zen and other mystical traditions address the persona/character, breaking the news that you don't exist. It's notoriously difficult to articulate, for obvious reasons, and even harder to swallow. In fact, those guys concede that it's all entirely incomprehensible. Yet they nonetheless offer, in the spirit of hope, a higher viewpoint for any edge cases who happen to be ripe for casting away facade. If you're already teetering, maybe their stuff will push you over.

I'm going the other way. I've flipped that script . Rather than speak to the pose, explaining its nonexistence, I speak to the underlying awareness (nothing distant or trippy; it's the most intimately familiar you), reminding it of its primacy. This way is more comprehensible, requiring fewer contortions.

Awareness always knows, at some level, that it's posing, no matter how committed it may be to the charade. Even the most diehard Yankees fan recognizes, in some deeply repressed strata, that he's deliberately heated himself into a furor over a trivial thing. He might not confess it in words, or be made to waver in his staunch devotion. But, in his core, he knows he's pretending. The control room lights have dimmed, but it's still his shop. He's the prime mover. It's all whim, and he's the Whimmer.

And you know, too. And this knowing awareness is the strata I address. I'm speaking to the depreciated real you of pure awareness - and doing so informally so it doesn't seem like some fancy/holy big deal. Because it's not.

I didn't quite invent this move. Dzogchen Buddhism, little known in the West, attempts something similar. But they make a grievous error by supposing everyone needs to awaken fully from their posing and storytelling, which they see as disease. That's wrong. A newbie mistake. No, we're here pretending because it's fun, even when (especially when!) it's sad or horrible. This is the greatest show of Earth, and it would be rudely disrespectful to shake people awake as they entrance themselves. As I wrote last week:
If you imagine that the truth really heals, the joke's on you, asshole. You’re like the lunatic in the audience who rushes to the stage to protect Caesar from the stabbing knives. There's no denying that falsehood would be thus dispelled; the sham nature of the enterprise entirely illuminated. Good job on that. However, you'd ruin the experience for all present.
Layer by layer, I make the case to peel away gratuitous suffering; the unnecessary assumption of stress and burden. I don't force it, and I go gently, not to spoil the pretense for those still enjoying the drama. I know better than to oppress a crowd with a blinding flood of houselights.

But fewer and fewer of us in the unimaginably rich and comfortable final level of this massively multiplayer online role-playing game are enjoying it. It's soured. The rich feel poor, the entitled feel bitterly victimized, and nearly everyone seems bored and depressed out of their skulls. There's more and more self-destruction as everyone scrambles to crank up the difficulty amid all the First World's comforts. My god, they're even starting to see it! It's fraying! A fourteenth century yogi or sufi would be astounded to see that everyday people these days have some insight into the notion of "rich people's problems" - the delusional self-inflicted stress that's been humanity's vexing problem all along. We’re beginning to ask for the check…and we really mean it this time!

I think this is the best response. Help induce some litheness of perspective - mild unfreezing - to soothe and salve people so they can can run back to the ballpark and howl in pain as the Red Sox pull ahead. Operate a well-disguised rest stop. That's the most that can be done (you can flip that if you'd like: the good stuff is found in well-disguised rest stops, not atop shiny spotlit center stages. Don't fall for highly-composed self-confidence; haggardly shellshocked, discordantly overheated nonconformists are the real truth-tellers, though damnably tough to distinguish from crackpots and losers).

It's not much, but this meager purview came at extraordinary expense. It's the modest nugget that ultimately popped out of a machine I’ve spent decades feeding all my quarters. This is as messianic as the world will stand: quietly urge modest shifts.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Conspiracy Theorists Overestimate Intelligence

It's been noted that conspiracy theories make stupid people feel smart.

This explains the appeal, but not the belief. Here's my explanation for that: Stupid people believe conspiracy theories because they overestimate smart people.

Smart people recognize the severe limitations of intelligence. They know human beings are nowhere near competent enough, visionary enough, or discrete enough to pull off big conspiracies. If you're smart, you understand that smart people are slightly less oafish...but still oafish. Earth's where they put the oafs.

In my recent posting, "How to Respond to Conspiracy Theorists", I made this comparison:
How have our trillion dollar attempts at nation-building panned out? That’s a pretty useful high water mark for societal orchestration skills. In the end, I think Gary Larson had it right. We are slightly clever livestock. And often not even that clever.
Convincing stupid people that intelligent people aren't all-knowing and that powerful people aren't all-powerful is like trying to convince poor people that billionaires experience discontentment and frustration, or homely people that the highly-attractive can be lonely.

My plumber's super short. We were in my basement last week and I conked my head on a lead pipe. He winced in sympathy, and I boomed "See? It's not all it's cracked up to be!" He assumed I was being witty, but I saw no flash of recognition in his eyes. He figured I enjoy an elite "tall person" lifestyle, and a few errant head conks are a small price to pay. To me, it's nothing but head conks.

Monday, January 3, 2022

My Case for Shitty Revere Pots

I've used my mom's cheap Revere pots, which she used for 40 years, for 40 years. They suck. And they're absolutely perfect. I would not trade them. Here's why:

● Thick heavy pots "retain heat". But I don't want to retain heat. Ever. If I desire heat, I have a stove for that, allowing me to precisely and predictably control the thermal situation. When I cut heat, I don't want a laggy time lag. Thick heavy pots are like over-eager AI, thwarting your efforts out of the conviction they know better. "Oh, no-no-no-no-no," admonishes your $184 Le Creuset Tri-Ply 3 Quart Stainless Steel Saucepan. "We do not cut zee heat; we nurture zee heat." Meanwhile, my shitty Revere pot says "Sure, boss; you got it!"

● I can use the highest heat I want. Fancy French manufacturers assure me that I don't NEED as much heat with their pots (like they know what I need), so I should keep it gentle. But if I want to bring a half cup of water to 175 degrees for some matcha, I can do so in 20 secs with my shitty Revere pots...or in a minute and a half at gentle heat to protect the materials and craftsmanship of the elite pot. One coddles them because they're SUPER good. Super good at what, if not helping you heat food? Super good at making the owner feel elite. Me, I use pots to heat food, which expensive pots actually suck at.

● If I burn my Revere pots, I can hit them with anything from steel wool to caustic acid to cruise missiles, and they'll be shitty-as-new in a jiffy. If I burn a fancy pot, I throw it away and hang my head in shame for being unworthy of fabulousness.

● Do they have hot spots? Of course they have hot spots! But who sautés in a pot? You fill pots, making hot spots irrelevant. Same for their warped-out bases, which affect not in the slightest the transfer of heat to the pot's liquidy contents (I don't have, and would never have, an induction cooktop). My skillet's a nice one, with no hot spots, flat bottom, and very even heat transfer. But my pots are highly effective in their unapologetic shittiness.

● The handles never ever heat up. This is one of those tough problems humanity managed to solve once but then lost the knowledge, leaving everyone scrambling. The fancy French answer? Wrap the handle in a towel if you need to touch it with your stupid hand (have you not heard the term "pot holder"?). That's the kinetic way professionals do it, eschewing the disgustingly dilettante convenience.

Second-hand copper-bottom Revere pots for sale on eBay, nearly all of them in far better shape than the ones my Mom gave me decades ago.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Improving Your Foreign Language Accent

Spoiler: this is a follow-up to this.

It's a cherished activity for my friends in Spain to give me crap over my lousy Spanish. I'm lazy with verb forms, lazy with vocabulary, and lazy with accent (other than that, not bad).

"Should I speak like a TV newsreader?" I once asked, launching into a loud, stiffly pompous, basso profundo mockery, ostentatiously trilling my "rr"s, wrapping my vowels in rich corinthian leather, and popping my bilabial plosives like spitting ping-pong balls.

"THAT'S IT!!" hollered all pals present. Even the otherwise disinterested bartender cocked an approving eyebrow. I was so startled that I waited a few moments to see whether they were putting me on. They weren't. The highly affected accent I'd just tried on wasn't an absurd spoof of Spanish. It was Spanish. The way I normally speak was under-exaggerated and under-affected.

You're not speaking a language correctly until you worry you might cause offense by lathering it on much, much, much too thickly. If you speak some French, you gotta Inspector Clouseau that mo-fo.

Beneath this all was a deeper issue. The ostentatious approach didn't sound like me. I'm not that person. I don't talk that way. Sure, I speak Spanish. That's something I'd do. But the crisply fricative articulation - the full Ricardo Montalban - is something I'd do only mockingly. Speaking Spanish correctly meant sounding like someone other than me.

I still don't, by the way. I continue to slur my half-assed Spanish with the whiny slack-jawed laziness of a cool daddy NYC jazz musician. 'Cuz that's what I am. Even though I no longer live in NYC and am no longer a jazz musician. That's the character. That's this Jim Leff guy, I guess.

As I explained last time, adults have trouble learning because learning requires "changing from the type of person who doesn't speak French to a person who pretentiously trills "No no no no no!" through pursed lips."

And the inhibition is powerful, because people imagine that if they're not THIS PERSON (this character they made themself forget they chose to play) they'd be lost or erased or snuffed or fallen-off-a-cliff into a dark pit of non-existence. "We inhibit it with all our might," I noted, "hooking it in to our very survival instinct."

To understand the power of this inhibition, consider this. I play my character particularly lightly. While most people are so invested they forget they're even posing, I barely suspend disbelief. Plus, again, I do speak Spanish (that's something I'd do!). Yet, even still, I can't make myself go full Montalban, because it's out of character.

I've shared this tip with many friends who speak heavily-accented English. I ask them to IMITATE an American. They always manage it surprisingly well. And they always express surprise, wrinkle their noses, and go back to speaking heavily-accented English. Why? Because they're foreigners.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Unifying Framing, Learning, Creativity, Depression, and Narcissism

This edges closer to a grand unification of the ideas that occupy me. For newcomers, I’m insatiably curious and trying to work through insight as it errantly arrives (see the Slog's subtitle at stage left). Fitting pieces together. I’m like Columbo, only more foggy and with a slightly shabbier raincoat.

I've often noted that children learn easily and adults learn painfully. Adults obviously ought to emulate the learning style of children, and it's insane that we have, since the Victorian era, forced young people to learn in the most adult way. Hey, kids! Learn more like a grown-up! 'Cuz we do it super-badly!

I've explored the reason children learn faster/better (check out postings tagged "education"), attributing it to their uninhibited playfulness and adaptability. They haven't yet frozen into the pose of someone too distinguished to pilot a unicycle. They haven't yet decided they're the sort of person who doesn't speak French. It's all about pliancy of perspective.

I've also previously noted that I've been eleven ever since I was eleven. Looking around me at that age, I observed that teenagers appeared to have lost their minds, and grown-ups were stiff, stodgy, growly, boring, plodding ogres. Powerful but dim and blinkered, they were classic examples of strong drunks.

Most kids can't wait to advance to the next level, but I realized I'd never be more pliant, exuberant, curious, and receptive than I was at that moment, and saw no reason to level up - to graduate into some new persona, discarding my current perch. I’d found a good perch! Why unperch???

At that stage, I hadn't framed framing. I recognized, intuitively, that I had great fluidity of perspective, and that it was helpful, but I couldn't explain it all to myself (perspective on perspective arrived only a few years ago....epiphany chronicled here in this Slog). But the thing about me that seemed usefully pliant and quick and magical - and which teenagers appeared to half-lose (becoming dumb and dramatic and heavy) and which adults had lost entirely (becoming stiff and slow and dull) - was my faculty for reframing, aka shifting perspective.

I didn't clearly understand it, but I knew I needed to retain it at all costs. When I say I'm still eleven, I don't mean this weirdly tall and hairy body, and I don't mean that I chew bubblegum and play Pong all day. It's not the outward eleven year-old, it's the lithe inner perspective. The pliancy. That’s what I inarticulately meant. We are our pattern of framing; of attention-paying. We are subject, not object.

This also explains why some people (never women, oddly) mistake me for gay. The palpably light core of this grizzled 59 year old, who you’d expect to be gruffly sluggish, suggests that I'm hiding something. If gayness is a preoccupation for you, it makes sense to assume I'm that. I also get other odd projections. I'm a human Rorschach. But it's natural. I bought the ticket, so I've taken the ride. I really can't complain. It was the correct move to stay eleven, despite the drawbacks.

Grown-ups, super occupied with playing a character, congeal and lose pliancy. "Maturity"! This role-play requires obsessive upkeep, expending enormous energy (explaining why adults are so sluggish), and it's tremendously counterproductive. It's all about freezing perspective, which is what depression is. Even non-depressed grown-ups seem pretty depressed to an eleven year old. The less-depressed ones are a bit more carefree in portraying the character they've made themselves forget they’ve chosen to play. Just a bit.

At eleven, I wasn't playing a character. And while I've lightly dabbled over the years with role-playing, I never really bought in (I plied my eager/daffy Chowhound persona entirely as broad comedy). At a certain point, I dropped all pretense (and charisma with it, which led to weirdly troubling social encounters, which I used to call my "curse").

Despite the drawbacks, this "letting go" returned all my childhood energy, and I'm more eleven (i.e. pliant) than ever. I learn like an 11 year old. Long time readers surely have noticed my eager all-embracing curiosity...and this explains it. They say people don't change, yet I'm unrecognizable from previous iterations....and this explains it. I'm a moderately talented, reasonably intelligent guy who's managed to excel far beyond his potential in seven different fields....and this explains it (I'm not here to boast, I'm here to share my tricks so you can do way better than I did).

You can't learn if you're fully occupied with playing a character, with the exhaustingly self-referential perspective of starring in some movie. First, it ties up all your attention. Second, it inhibits the playful curiosity necessary for learning. And, third (this is the subtle one), learning is change, and adults are notoriously phobic of change. Why? Obsessively maintaining your role as This Person inherently means avoiding becoming Some Other Person.

Learning means changing from the type of person who doesn't speak French to a person who pretentiously trills "No no no no no!" through pursed lips. You go from someone who's bad with computers to a nerd preoccupied with his disk cache. Learning turns you into another character.

And that's not just unpleasant, it's downright existential. The highest possible stakes! We fiercely defend ourselves from losing the character we've convinced ourselves we are. I don't want to play a Francophone or computer nerd because I'm playing this guy!

That's the x-factor. That's why adults tenaciously resist change, growth, learning, and pliancy. It's not that we sadly lose some crucial cognitive faculty. It's that we inhibit it with all our might, hooking it in to our very survival instinct.

I observed here that "Creativity is the ability to generate and wisely choose among a complex set of options." That requires pliancy of perspective which allows creative people to make art. Creative people work a bit less hard to deliberately inhibit their pliancy.

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