Saturday, December 17, 2022

Oblivion Tour: Paterson, NJ Turkish/Arab Wonder Zone

Welcome to Jim's Oblivion Food Tour, where, homelessly awaiting my visa, I amuse myself by driving aimlessly in a rented car, half-heartedly seeking out interesting eats (my cruise idea crashed when I learned I'd need a passport - no good, because Portugal's been holding mine for 3-1/2 months).

I already did a similar tour back in 2006, but that time my bills were paid by a corporation.

I won't be doing lots of glossy reporting here, as I'm still post-traumatic from that previous Chow Tour. But this is too surprising not to mention.

Paterson, NJ has always been an intriguing food town, just off-the-beaten-track enough to host little gems and pockets of surprising immigrants. I haven't been here in years, and, my god, it's now turned into a Turkish/Arabic metropolis nearly as teeming with restaurants, cafes, and bakeries as Dearborn, Michigan.

Most prominent is their Turkish community, very welcome since most Turkish places in the five boroughs have had the life sucked out of them. New Jersey Turkish boomtown was exactly what we all needed, and Allah provides.

I got a little obsessed with Taskin bakery. Like all Turkish bakeries, there's as much savory as sweet, and I drastically over-ordered on two consecutive breakfasts.

Sorry for the hasty photos. I am not your dancing monkey.

Note that they heated that stuff up for me (in an oven, certainly not a microwave).

Under the Taskin sun

Day one breakfast:

Front row(!) left to right: Lahmacun (mouth-melting), Taskin borek filled with meat (unimaginably crusty), Bazlama potato (home fries stuffed into a pancake). Second row: chocolate thingee, sarma pistachio (done properly with slightly rancid butter), Turkish coffee with a generous free lokma (fried dough ball)

Day two breakfast:

Front row: Cut-up su böregi (noodles and cheese; more on this below), UFO roll thingee, meat pie. Second row: Turkish coffee and kadayif.

I'd like to call special attention to su böregi, which I rediscover every few years, always making the same astonished connection to Jewish lokshin (noodle) kugel, which is the exact same dish. Here's the slab plus a close-up:

Some Jews make this dish sweet, and even add (yeeeeech) raisins. These are dangerous, unhinged Jews known as Litvaks, and you must avoid them and their kugel at all costs.

Moving on, this shot gives you a sense of the splendid local restaurant density:

Driving around, my dawning intuition bloomed into a conviction that Palestinians are here, and that they are making kunafeh. Palestinian kunafeh bears no relationship to the Lebanese or Turkish versions. This is cheese-based, and, as I wrote in my smart-phone app "Eat Everywhere", it's "one of mankind's most triumphant creations." I honestly believe it's the world's greatest dessert.

Problem is I'd just consumed a boatload of Turkish sweet and savory baked goods (not everything in the photos in single sittings; but close to it). So when, while driving around looking for a pharmacy, Nablus Sweets cropped up in my peripheral vision, and a buried connection linked it to Jordan, which linked it to Palestinians, which linked it to Palestinian kunafeh, I groaned. But facing the inevitability, I parked, and entered a bakery as vacant as a salt marsh and filled with treasure.

The photos are way way better if you click to expand them:

So many versions of basbousa that it made me a little dizzy:

The baklava, while obviously crazy-fresh, seemed to shimmer in a sepia haze from a distant century. It's not a photography trick. It really looked like this:
And here's the blessed kunafeh:

And a close-up:

So great. And no rosewater. The owner, a cool dude who speaks perfect English and immigrated in the 70s, told me that kunafeh from Nablus, Jordan never has rosewater. He was amazed I'd ever had it that way. But I have, in Palestinian kunafehs in Astoria, Brooklyn, Austin, and Dearborn.

We got into a long discussion of this, and of the world, and of human imperfection, and of politics, and I didn't agree with much of what he said, but I could see - as is often true - that opinions are like stick-on labels, completely arbitrary and not self-defining. I've lost the ability to confuse people with their stick-on labels. Opinions are flimsy and cartoonish, while individual people are neither.

The words coming out of his mouth were not my words, and included some phrases I'd normally deem disqualifying (though I'm no roaring progressive), but we were friends by the end. Actually, from the beginning. We agree on the big picture stuff that's what matters. He latches onto certain "takes" in his bewilderment, while I latch on to certain others. But we're both bewildered. Brothers in bewilderment.

He would not allow me to pay for my kunafeh. Which broke my heart because there should have been thousands of customers vying to get in, but there was only me. And even I wasn't a paying customer.

The moment when I earned my free kunafeh was when he explained how money interests had ravaged Syria, Sudan, and other places. Behind the authoritarianism, t's all about the money. Like most/all Palestinians, the guy was freely loquacious, but I stopped him cold in his tracks when I asked, with enormous sincerity, "But what's so great about money?"

He froze. He considered it. And he melted into a recognition as soft as his kunafeh. 

"Your beautiful baking makes people happy. I never saw a rich person get anywhere near as happy from an extra few bucks."

He couldn't argue.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Postcards From My Childhood Part 16: Remember to Take Profit!

First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

"The child is the father of the man," they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I willfully sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget.

Of course, "Remember to take profit!" is not how I phrased it as a child. It was only much later that I learned that, until investors "take profit", by selling their investments, gains are strictly propositional. But my old-dude mind sometimes expresses things in boring, stodgy adult-speak. My inner eleven-year old tolerates this, so long as I haven't diluted his message.

I was fascinated, as a kid, by the psychology of saving. I still use the budgeting scheme I came up with at age seven. I wrestled with the question of exactly what we save for. Squirrels understand, at some level, that they’ll retrieve those acorns during winter. Their savings process is necessity, not luxury. But human saving is more abstract.

We spend on essentials - because they're essential - while saving comes out of the rest. It's deliberate deprivation, and it's a bit bizarre. We endure deprivation to asssure future enjoyment, which means either 1. your future self is a tyrant (who therefore doesn’t deserve it), or 2. you expect to know when to pull the trigger; i.e. when to stop saving and start spending. Neither seems quite rational.

I couldn't wrap my head around the issue, but I did send a postcard to my older self, reminding him/me to keep a keen eye so as not to miss the trigger-pulling point. When it’s time to spend, I need to actually do it!

I have, alas, failed momentously. I just gave away my beloved collection of aged Belgian ales and port wine, because I'd blindly awaited tyrannical future me to arrive, zestfully yanking corks and swigging grog. That guy never appeared. And if there was a clear moment for me to about-face and get drinking, I never noticed. So the bottles just sat there.

It's not just drinks. I've recently thrown away countless fruits of herculean effort, vast profit sadly unrealized because I never made a withdrawal. Nothing but deposits! I've ignored my childhood maxim. I failed to keep a keen eye.

But, after that recent experience, the issue was on my mind. And this week I found myself homeless, my house and car sold and my stuff in storage while I await a residence visa from Portugal - which should have arrived weeks ago but god knows when it's coming - leaving me with nearly just the shirt on my back and nowhere to go and nothing to do. With all my careful planning exploding on me, keenness finally arose.

My inital plan was to couch surf, book cheap AirBnBs, and generally crouch into a holding pattern, grimly awaiting the damned visa with a clenched jaw.

But no. I'll book nice hotels in cool places (none of them abroad, since Portugal has my damned passport). This won't be a grinding austerity. I''ll make it a blow-out. And I won't sweat the money one bit, because it's time to take profit.

I may even take a cruise. I'm not generally that guy, but in present circumstance, the easy infantilization of cruise ship life, padding around and catching some comedy or some solar radiation or a shrimp cocktail, maybe spending hours in my room reading, sounds good to me. Fewer decisions and less stress than driving around in a rental car, booking hotels and constantly loading and unloading suitcases in the dead of winter.

No one one could deny that my youthful deprivations were worth helping 60 year-old me avoid a hideous chapter, especially when this is the very thing youthful me urged me to do. I will take profit in a moment of genuine need, and not look back.

But I'll also execute a nuanced counterstep. A finishing touch; a coup de grace; described by Buddhists as "The Middle Path" and by mathematicians as "regressing to the mean." Any guesses? Take a moment to ponder!

As I loosen the buckle, allowing myself this profligacy, I'll also oh-so-gently feather back the other way. I'll stay at good hotels, but not exorbitant ones. And I'll find deals. I won't opt for the fanciest cruise in a high-status cabin. I'll find bang-for-the-buck last-minute offers. Just because you're blowing out doesn't mean you can't also pare down. Calories don't magically devalue in the presence of lots more calories.

I will not economize to the point where it no longer feels like a party. I'll be strategically profligate. To me, that's the sweet spot. There's a Zen art - or at least a level-headed maturity - to keeping firm-not-fraught attention on the opposite thing without spoiling the contour and spirit of what you're primarily trying to do.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Relief Fallacy

I'm an inveterate hacker. A yogi. A persistent mo-fo. I plug away at mysteries, impasses, and issues, propelled by titanic curiosity. But there's one issue I've given up on. It's the only human problem I know that can't be solved or worked around or reframed.

If you're in great pain and manage to find relief - a 25% or 30% or 50% or 75% improvement - you will feel all better. You will not sense the remaining pain; at least not right away. It will be invisible to you, your perceptions overwhelmed by the relief. Ecstacy accompanies alleviation of great pain, and nothing can cut through it. It's like an opium cloud.
The first joke I learned as a very small child:
Q: Why do you keep hitting yourself in the head with a hammer? 
A: Because it feels so good when I stop!
This is dangerous. Unaware that you're still bad - even maybe excruciating! - you will stop treating yourself gently/carefully. You'll resume larding on stress and exertion, until made aware that you were skating far closer to the threshold than you’d imagined. It's a horrifying discovery. 

Note that I'm talking here about real trauma. Not garden-variety pain. And it can be physical or emotional.

A 50% improvement can still leave brutal pain. Ugly pain. Killer pain. No one - not even an experienced yogi - can register, much less gauge, that remainder.

My posting, "Don’t Stuff a Rising Threshold", makes the related point that there are levels of pain no quantity of morphine can touch. It's another warning to avoid letting pain stack up, or packing stress into every available gap. Don’t be John Henry!

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Real Men Do Not Want To Be Feared

Check out Real Men Do Not Want To Be Feared ("If your definition of 'a real man' comes from insecure, foppish charlatans like Gorka, Tate, and Cawthorn, it's time to find new role models who actually are 'real men.'")

More and more often, you don't need to read the article. This is why Twitter works so well, or used to, before Musk's crazy decision to increase to a 4000 character limit. 

 A few more:
Secure heterosexuals don’t try to act flamboyantly heterosexual.

Secure non-racists don’t try to act flamboyantly anti-racist.

Genuine people don’t try to project genuineness.

Honest people don’t try to project honesty.

Kind people dont try to project kindness.

Smart people don’t try to project intelligence.
5000 years into Civilization, we’ve compiled mounds of experience with the human race. So why do people still find this basic, self-evident stuff so phenomenally hard to grok?

For one thing, I repeat my assertion that autism - a disinclination or inability to traffic in the "seeming" end of things - might be an evolutionary improvement. Severe cases, of course, do bring stiff downsides, but you can't present an improvement while simultaneously fitting in smoothly.

Further reading:

Seemers Always Win: Posing as Someone Like You

Going All the Way in One's Shmuckery

Monday, December 5, 2022

Hiatus Advice

As I work through some keenly orchestrated self-torture, pinging the precise receptors of my PTSD (fun!) and discovering for not the first time that there are levels of pain no quantity of equanimity can counterbalance (it’s actually nothing - Jesus, listen to me carrying on - but I warned you I’m really bad with three-or-more simultaneous channels of pain), I realize I’ve been neglecting the Slog. 

Question: have you read through all the “hits” indexed at left? Or re-read them? As I periodically explain, I’m not aiming here to present stirring reads. I’ve concocted lozenges to be mused over and periodically re-read. I hope they’re worth it. I think many of them are, but what the hell do I know…

Brief story. An online friend told me he’d experienced a shift of perspective that left him framing things differently. He was plowing through my stuff, finding that it was the only place guiding him to understand and expand his mysterious shift. 

Nice, right? But it wasn’t thanks or praise. He was registering a complaint. “There’s so much to read!” He protested. He asked me to boil it down. Point to the essentials. Maybe write a book. Give him the shiny tome that could be one-stop-shopping for everything he wanted to know (as if I - or even he - could possibly anticipate this). Frustrated by too many answers to the vexing questions vexing him, he left in a huff. 

Another one bites the dust. Oh well. But then don’t imagine you don’t have anything to read here. If I get run over by a bread truck tomorrow and never write another word, there will be more than enough to sustain those kooky enough to get a charge out of this sort of thing. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go throw away yet another cache of painstakingly acquired treasure.

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