Monday, June 26, 2023

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Shitty Pizza and Wynton Marsalis

Shitty Pizza

Sometime in the 1980s, New York City slice pizza began sucking. It was an open secret that the mob was forcing everyone to buy their supplies - gluey, tasteless cheese and sweet, pasty sauce. Or else.

A very few bastions enjoyed exemptions for various reasons. Others bought the crap ingredients and threw them away so they could use proper fixings (explaining the puzzlingly high prices in, ahem, certain beloved pizzerias). There sprung up a profusion of "brick oven" places ("no slices!") desperate to work around the monopoly.

No one, to my knowledge, has ever mentioned this in print since a couple brave souls mumbled a few things in the early 1980s (and no one's ever made that last connection, ever). In fact, there was a time when I'd have taken a substantial risk in writing this. You can scour the Internet, and mum's pretty much the word. Which leaves me seeming like a raving paranoid loony.

Because, at this point, the company, which still dominates NYC slice pizza supplies, is considered terrific by foodies who know none of this history. Their crap ingredients are widely considered the good stuff. The serious providers from the 1970s, of course, are all long gone and forgotten.

I feel gaslit. So many of us watched, forlorn, as quality sharply dropped, but, decades later, all is well, and foodies far and wide crow about how FANTASTIC New York City slice pizza is.

Wynton Marsalis

When Wynton Marsalis first came to prominence in the early 1980s, nearly the entire jazz community despised his playing. Despite his connection to a father (Ellis Marsalis) with impeccable jazz credentials, Wynton played like, well, a conservatory-trained white dude. Slick and superficial. No soul. No swing. Remarkable virtuosic chops (technique), for sure, but jazz is about feel, not the showing off of instrumental skills. I remember when Wynton began to pretend to miss notes - intentionally - in order to sound less slick. Yikes. He fooled audiences, but certainly not musicians.

Wynton went on to attain a position of such pivotal power that few musicians and writers would bad-talk him. You can find rather strident anti- commentary from the 1980s (and this fabulous on-the-money analysis by Keith Jarrett), but criticism went suddenly silent around 1996 when Wynton assumed leadership of Lincoln Center Jazz. In fact, I sound weirdly cranky saying any of this. What sort of jazz lover dislikes Wynton Marsalis?

Wynton never got any better. But, at this point, most people both inside and outside the music view him as the consummate jazz musician. Irreproachable. The real deal.

If you don't like New York City slice pizza, you don't like pizza. And if you don't like Wynton Marsalis, you don't like jazz. It's "category" stuff, and there's logic there. When your baseline is nonexistent, the relevence of your opinion is zero.

I'm the one out of synch! I like so few NYC slices, and so little jazz, that I'm barely an edge case in either realm...despite loving both as fervently as any human alive.

Why does every cultivated and refined film critic occasionally single out a mass market movie or two to champion? Because if you hate them all, that means you hate movies, and no one will hire a film critic who hates everything but a weak stream of foreign and indie productions hardly anyone knows about.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Real Estate, PTSD, and Your Amygdala

I've got some PTSD. While a bunch of it, yeah, is from Chowhound, some precedes that adventure (mostly to do with housing insecurity).

It's all nearly vanished, having been unclenched via ample meditation, yoga, self-inquiry, reframing, etc.. But an iota remains, and I'm stuck with it. It's never going away. The iota must be addressed, and here's the routine:

Every day, or couple of days, I get a visceral sense that The Bad Thing might be happening. What "bad thing"? I could always offer some current beef or concern, but what I'm describing is the very definition of indefiniteness. Indeterminate dread and false urgency. It's like the gut punch kids feel when teachers tell them something's going on their "permanent record." Urk.

Despite my ability to meditate myself into a state of bulletproofness, this lightly insidious wind still cranks up from time to time, and I need to do a thing. A tiny thing, totally internal. I tell myself "It's okay". That's all.

But I need to mean it. I remember to look around, noticing that I'm surrounded by life-giving oxygen and free sunlight, and acknowledging, via my perceptions ("come back to your senses!!") that I'm literally safe. I can relax. I'm okay.

No biggie. I'm not wildly sputtering like an asphyxiating turbot. I don't need to unbutton my collar and sip cooling drinks to unclench my fists and un-grind my jaw. I don't let it get that far! At the first sign of grippiness, I tell myself "it's okay", and I mean it, and it's back to the flow, baby.

After decades of doing this move, I can't shrink it further. I can't save this password to my keychain, or make it some sort of macro routine. It's a thing I've got to do. A minuscule flick of perspective to stave off a process that might otherwise eventually consume me. Caught early, at the point of incipience, it's laughably non-daunting.

The move works wherever I am, including places I'd rather not be. Whatever I'm indefinitely dreading is way worse than being stuck at the DMV, or saddled with a rude waiter, or being caught in the sweltering subway car with broken air conditioning. I can remind myself I'm okay in such backdrops because it isn't about disgust over imperfection. It's about visceral horror. I'm reassuring myself re: trepidations far grimmer than the daily shit we put up with.

But you know what helps? Being somewhere "nice".

Again, that damned word! I've been wrestling with it lately (first here, then here). It's phenomenally easily-misunderstood, to the point where it's barely a real word at all. For plenty of people "nice" means when there's no poor people around. Or people that don't look/act/think/eat like them. It most often means "exclusive", in either the distasteful or the deplorable sense. But all that icky cruft aside, it can also evoke something else - something stoking tender open-heartedness. That puppy is awfully nice to your great grandfather!

So here's where I'm going with this. I've been self-mystified by my pattern of buying/renting homes more substantial and grown-up than I need. Not to impress anyone, but because when I tell myself "It's ok", it helps if I'm in (or can easily return to) a home that feels as comfortable as the substantial lower-middle-class house I grew up in.

That house boasted no pool or tennis court, and was the last on its block to get color TV, but the carpeting was soft and clean, the furniture was better than Ikea, and there was unnecessary extra space, even a whole extra room (60s suburban living rooms were the weirdest thing). Plus decent views from the kitchen window.

I can tell myself "it's ok", and mean it, without any of that stuff. But if my domecile seems stable and comfortable and grown-up, it's marginally easier to make the case to myself. When I look around at my immediate surroundings, my amygdala are more easily soothed. I could calm myself amid curling linoleum and a faint scent of mold, but there would be more asterisks in the process. More to explain and transcend.

So what's that worth? For my first 42 years I was too poor to consider the question. But now I have savings, which I dole out to myself sparingly. While I don't desperately dump every available sheckle into homes with impeccable crown moldings, I do live in slightly "nicer" places (not fancier, not more expensive....just nicer) than someone like me would ordinarily live.

I just thought of something, and I'll share even though it makes me look douchey, undermining this whole posting:

If you subtract everyone with a distasteful or deplorable sense of "nice", and everyone trying to impress others with their home, I wonder if the rest, too, are all just trying to soothe their amygdalae. Mr. and Mrs. Howell, who grew up with polo and servants and formal gardens, might need all that to feel "nice".

Tuesday, June 13, 2023


There's a Yiddish word which nearly crossed over into English in the mid 20th century, but has since receded (though it's still used by garment industry veterans, both gentile and jewish): zhuzh.

Do you remember how, back in the day, respectable men's clothing salesmen would give a little pull here, a smack there, just generally touching things up and "making it nice"? It was part of the ritual. Old-fashioned barbers did the same. They were zhuzhing. And it’s way more significant, and broadly applicable, than it seems. 

The essential part is the most banal: "Make it NICE." This plummy Mittel-European wheedle makes an insipid impression on moderns. But it's a missing vitamin. "Nice" (a word I’ve been pondering since we toured David Sanborn’s house) implies some open-heartedness. One can’t malevolently zhuzh.

Zhuzhing, the antithesis of snarking, is a key to the kingdom. Tender minor adjustments are (if you do it right) how art gets made, and children get raised, and love gets stoked. It's not just the way to build; it's also an approach to appreciation. Finally, it's how life gets lived if you'll allow yourself the possibility of happiness.

I once claimed that I was able to create an almost magical sense of comfort in my last couple of homes, despite having no flair for design, color, decoration, any of it. It was gradually induced via a disjointed and tentative set of adjustments. No overarching plan, I was just attentive. I removed every point of micro-irritation, adding elements sensitively and sporadically, with little intellectual calculation. All done with love, but not sopping in some pushy florid display of DEEP CARING. I just wanted to make it nice. I zhuzhed my houses!

Remember when I analyzed what's required to be a great chef?
From my seat at the counter in front of the open kitchen, I watched Nudel Restaurant's highly-skilled chefs churn out plate after flawless plate. Since I've been on a quest to boost my cooking skill, I paid careful attention, hoping to pick up some pointers. What I noticed was the softness of their hands. They weren't wrestling ingredients into submission. Their actions were gentle and sweet. They coaxed rather than compelled. 

Artists appear to zhuzh for hours, even years, making their process seem grander than "little tugs" and "making nice." Yet execution is built upon myriad aggregated zhuzhes. Inspiration arrives in an untidy flash (it's a whole other thing), but execution is polishing. That’s why it’s frequently observed that writing is mostly a matter of editing.

As with all simple answers to thorny mysteries, you can't selectively ignore parts. Simple notions require enhanced attentiveness. For example:
  • The tender-heartedness must be sustained. A robot pushing things here and there won't conjure deep results. It all just gets worse and worse. 
  • This is less thinky, more feely. So when nothing instantly pops up - so your mind gets impatient and demands to grab the wheel - don't yield. Dilatory patience is required, not clever machination. Wait till there’s something real. You can’t polish a turd. 
The observation, above, that "Inspiration arrives in an untidy flash, but execution is polishing" tells you what's ok to belabor and what isn't. You can't belabor inspiration. You can only wait for it (leaving yourself susceptible by hovering comfortably in the impasse - the same gambit that empowers my Memory Trick #2). The zhuzhing, however, can (and likely will) be energetic once it commences. Squares call it “obsessive”.

Zhuzhing, once you grok the concept (simple though it is, it’s quite easy to get hilariously wrong), is a helpful framing to create wholes greater than their parts. This is how you cook (or write or dance) with love. This is where "soul" comes from, and "quality", and "feeling". And the sky’s the limit. The option is always available for you to zhuzh everything. Zhuzh the world!

That last part was yet another angle to convey the notoriously slippery concept of karma yoga. Here's a more direct explanation, and here are all postings labelled "Karma Yoga" in reverse chronological order

When much younger, I concluded that quality (deliciousness, for example) is aggregated by tens of thousands of careful, sensitive microdecisions, all stemming from a certain mindset. From love. That was good, but I think “zhuzhing” is better. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2023


I'm a gambler.

This week, an old friend of mine, who didn't have a depressive bone in his body, threw himself in front of a train. I understood why he did it (it was this). But that's not my topic today. I’m here to confess that I did a horrendous and shameful thing. I sent an email to his widow outlining my thinking. This was - let me choose terms carefully - "Audacious"? "Atrocious"?

It illustrates why some people think I lean towards the Asperger/Austism spectrum. It goes almost without saying that I’ve been obliviously un-empathic. What sort of shithead peppers a grieving widow with his breathless "theories"?

But there was nothing oblivious about it. Nothing impulsive or thoughtless. I'm self-aware, and fully understood that my gesture might fail to click. If so, I'd have sparked a burst of antipathy (excruciating for me, but surely not day-wrecking for her). Fun fact: I actually do not enjoy upsetting grieving widows. Or losing relationships. Though I’ve lost more friends than I can count because I'm willing to take hits on the slim chance I might substantially help. I don’t lack for empathy, but the "seeming" versus "being" distinction has already discussed to death here. True, deep empathy can superficially resemble a lack of same.

But, again, sometimes it helps. Sometimes a lot, though the other person has no way of knowing this history, leaving my motives opaque. And the potential benefit (for them) of helping someone in extremis vastly outweighs the social risk (for me). 

FWIW, this time it worked:
I am so grateful you reached out. I don’t have time to write much more but I just wanted to tell you that your insightful ideas gave me a large amount of clarity.
I'm not here to boast. I'm focused on the gamble, not the outcome. For the opportunity to provide a devastated, bewildered widow with even a small amount of clarity, I'm willing to be punched in the mouth a bunch of times. I don't have many teeth left at this point. My face is like a smashed cauliflower. But sometimes it I deem it worth it. Fool that I am.

I haven't raised the issue of whether my thoughts are usually right or not. But they are. I'd never send banal bullshit. I do know the difference, and I think long and hard (and self-skeptically!) to decide whether I'm offering substantial nutritional value, and not just some clever blah-blah-blah. I'm really not, as it happens, an oblivious asshole. So the issue here isn't rightness. It's appropriateness. And helpfulness. I'd much rather be helpful than appropriate, so I’ll take my lumps and likely be deemed an asshole on the chance that I might be of service. I am, in other words, a gambler.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Apple Vision Pro

Apple's "Vision Pro" - the AR headset just announced an hour ago - looks fantastic, but misses a lot of potential.

Tim Cook reads his mail, so fwiw I just sent this (framing-oriented) suggestion:
Fantastic job. But you’ve missed half the potential.

You’ve contrived fantastic things to look AT, but ignored the background - the looking “from”.

AVR tech maps audio/video of current-room locale. Save that data so when I’m in a hotel, I can feel like if I’m using the platform from my couch back home. Or from the mountain cabin on my last vacation. Or any other setting where I previously used AVR and mapped that data.

Sure, such environments could be foregrounded. “Capture and relive memories”. But I don’t want to look AT my living room from a Best Western; I want to do work, check email, and watch movies FROM my living room (aurally/optically). Background! AVP could let me return to anywhere I’ve previously used it, so I an work/play from a familiar, transportive, and/or nostalgic vantage point.

The value grows geometrically over time. 5, 10, 20 years into this platform, I’ll enjoy an expanding funnel of mapped background data to call up, so I can “hang out” in - not LOOK at, like a photo, but actually exist within - cherished inaccessible locales. Obviously, keeping/managing this stored data (plus creating fresh vantage point “experiences” for users) would be a “Service”.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Small Adjustments

I'm republishing this posting from 2012.

Not coincidentally, I do so with my favorite baseball card, 1970 Tom Seaver, beside me on my desk. I've had a rough six months, and having learned the consolatory power of silly talismans, I've been careful to keep it close. It helps to have your favorite baseball card nearby while things fall apart (it's all building back better, as things inevitably do if you've learned the magic trick of resilience, i.e. opting out of infinitely-looping self-story-telling). But I digress.

When I published this eleven years ago, I hadn't figured out that my go-to magic trick was perceptual reframing. I couldn't quite find the words. But that's what the following is. And a powerful example, at that.

A New York Mets pitcher (Ron Darling?) was in the midst of a horrendous slump, with no end in sight. Retired Mets pitching legend Tom Seaver traveled to Shea Stadium to offer him the following advice (I'm paraphrasing):
"You feel like you're a million miles away. But you're actually not. You're off just the tiniest little bit."
That image stuck with me, and I refer to it whenever strike zones start to seem unhittable.

Blog Archive