Sunday, April 21, 2024

Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Stick Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

It's been a minute. To spare you from rescanning previous installments, here's a...


The title’s click bait. This is about Process. That refers to projects, endeavors, and issues actively ongoing. The plates we keep spinning, small and large. Think of this as a meditation on plate-spinning.
I know things about this because I experienced an epic crash/burn after founding an early online community which scaled way, way out of control sans funding, tech, or really anything but a phalanx of part-time moderators and my puckered adrenal glands. I hurt myself.
I describe four levels of processes:

Daemon Processes
Reminders, alarms, alerts, vigils, etc., sane and otherwise. These mostly just glide along. (I never should have spelled it "demon" in previous installments; this computer science spelling works better.) More on daemons here.

Engrained Processes
Tying shoes, brushing teeth, locking doors. Little effort or attention required. When we are severely overburdened, these, to our abject horror, can deteriorate. That's a very bad look, and often leads to a vicious circle where processes of shame, self-loathing, and bandaid application are launched, compounding the overextension. In extreme cases, even daemon processes start to glitch, which is a ghastly prospect. Trust me, I've been there (I know overextension like Navalny knew Novichok).

Workshop Processes
This is how engrained processes are developed. Effort and attention are front-loaded, so we can later whip up delicious panini or a charming watercolor with relative ease. I've always had a lot of these, which makes me a rather content 61 year old, enjoying the fruits of so much investment. Thanks, younger me!

Workshop processes are precarious before they become engrained. It’s like trying to strike a match in a hurricane. They require time, space, peace, and commitment, but they're frequently interrupted by....

Imposed Processes
The issues du jour. A fallen tree just knocked a hole in your roof! You've got the flu! These are the bane of our existence, but (shhhh!) we'd be bored out of our skulls without fraught challenges dropping on us from time to time. Consider this: why do we always design them into our games and entertainments? Why do we pay to experience challenge, puzzle-solving, and obstruction-removal? Why do so many people willingly invite needless complexity and mayhem into their lives? The truth is self-evident, yet we pray incessantly for God to stop fucking with us.

Multitasking is not a thing. We are serial computers, not parallel. And our headroom is lower than we imagine, so overloading is a constant risk. New processes can't be freely popped in, like tapes into a player. This explains why earnest New Year's Resolutions usually turn out to be feckless conceits.

Rest - even "time-wasting" - is a process, and a critical one. Respect it! Budget for it! Shake off the Puritanical notion that taking a nap or reading a comic book constitutes loafing when there's work to be done. Guilt and shame are processes, and entirely counterproductive. Of course, don't use this as an excuse for extreme, ruinous avoidance!

Headroom must be managed. Which means you need to consider whether a process is worth the assets it consumes. The most expensive process is also the least helpful: self-drama. If you perpetually star in a movie in your head - particularly if it casts you as a victim while you enjoy your unimaginably comfortable and secure life here in Utopia - your whimsy saps copious time and energy. Best to pay attention to what you're doing, and not to what you've done - or failed to do. Keep your channel clean and available, allocating extra space to new workshop processes (added judiciously!) and imposed processes (accepted amiably!).

The Juicy Stuff

Last time, I concluded with what I described as "the juicy stuff":
When you get a respite between imposed challenges, and eagerly take on a new workshop process, do not imagine you've achieved a New Normal. Respite is an exception, not an entitlement. Most people imagine that an undisturbed, unmolested, uninterrupted life is their birthright. Interruptions bubble up from some other realm, forcing us to pause Life until we can once again restart the clock and continue living.

Opt out of this insane framing to be less pained and stunned (less interrupted!) when tumult arises. Reframe the tumult! Deem it not interruption, but just another process to work!

The life clock never stops! Remember the closing line from last time: Living never pauses. Process = Life. Own it all. Don't frame yourself as sidelined just because it didn't go how you expect!
Consider a short order cook who clenches and curses whenever a new order appears. The guy is doomed. And it’s a question of perspective; of framing. He could just as easily accept new orders happily. Eagerly, even, making a light-hearted game out of meeting pressing need. After all, that's the proposition of games and sports; the epitome of leisure fun time! So why not opt for salvation rather than damnation, when it's just a trivial flip of perspective?

Heaven or hell: the choice is yours. But remember that stress is a grueling process of its own, which expands to fill all space. You may clench harder and harder and curse louder and louder while sinking into a vicious circle of overburden where everything eventually breaks. Just see it for what it is!

The Curveball

As previously noted, I work like an ant.
I'm like an ant. I'll very contentedly reconstruct a smashed anthill, one grain at a time, even amid multiple re-smashings.

To human beings, I suppose this seems sad. Humans aspire to grander dreams than endless drudging anthill reconstruction. They're taught to rage at the smashing.

But to ants, human beings - who grow ever more crippled and demoralized with every inevitable reversal, and who only with great weighty effort manage to soldier on - are the sad ones.
Life is enjoyable if you eagerly accept imposed processes (the disruptions du jour) with the same affability and engagement as your super-fun workshop tasks. That's the juicy epicenter of my message, and it is both 1. an extreme curveball and 2. eminently available, just like any reframing.

The proposition is radical and eccentric, but conformity is not always safe. One can follow a crowd straight off a cliff! Given how most humans appear so needlessly harried and clenched and stressed and unhappy, it's worth thinking twice before following the pack when it comes to process (and the processing of process). In just this one aspect, consider being a weirdo!

You could just as easily embrace disruption with the same delight as whatever you were working on before. This is how you make disruption disappear. You undercut it via embrace. You reframe it as a boost rather than hindrance. You incorporate it.

An ant reaches the same conclusion because, lacking higher-level thinking, it never frames counterproductively in the first place. For people, it's more involved, because we forget that perspective is volitional. We imagine ourselves persecuted by stuff we’ve arbitrarily decided to be persecutive. But we’re free! We frame the world, the world doesn't frame us!

At some point we've seen enough movies and TV shows, and observed enough role models, to absorb the deep conviction that disruption's bad. We are conditioned to clench and seethe! But here's another angle: doesn't that presuppose that you were expansively happy and delighted two seconds earlier? And will be once the interruption has been handled?

No. You weren't so delighted before, and you won't be so delighted after! And you could choose delight right now, even while searching for your car keys, preparing for the tax audit, or getting your scary lump x-rayed. You don't need to follow the script. You get to choose.

The choice is effortless, but it's a tough sell because the behavior I'm describing is "weird". But perhaps I've convinced you that it's at least possible to accept imposed tasks like an in-the-groove short order cook, or like an ant amiably grabbing another sand grain. Perspectives are hot-swappable, and re-framing is effortless and instant. You control this thing! You've just been pretending otherwise!
The fact that our society has somehow managed to contrive an aphorism as clueful as "Play the cards you're dealt" shows that, beneath the fraught drama, we really do know what's what. We just pretend not to know.
A blithe approach opens space to sustain an extra workshop process or two, even while handling the gaping hole in your roof and your kid's dislocated shoulder. I'm revealing the secret to versatility and high productivity. Frame the imposed task as an acceptable part of the greater flow - which is never interrupted!! - and you can transform "disruption" into, well, fodder. More life stuff to chew on! More doing what you're here to do! More of what corpses, claustrophobic beneath all that dirt, wish they could still be doing! Simply decline to ever pull a Gandalf, demanding/commanding that things go some certain way.

In the long view, much of the disruption we attribute to imposed tasks is just the friction of a dynamic world rubbing against our frozen perspective. We expected this, but then came that. We may not love our status quo, but we mourn it bitterly when it's been upset. For modern entitled humans, who have the chutzpah to imagine they get a vote in how things unfold, such an indignity feels like persecution from a wrathful God. It takes gobs of time and rivers of tears to come to terms with it and to move on. Or so I'm told. Me? I just go pick up another sand grain.

Like any point of sanity in a demented world, this curveball is profoundly counterintuitive, so let me run it through a slightly different lens, hoping it might sink in better:

We are conditioned to imagine we're battling imposed tasks. But there are far more effective framings. Try seeing imposed tasks as benevolent, not malign! Maybe life isn't so fantastic while you're working on your stamp collection or ballroom dancing steps, nor so catastrophic when the septic tank overflows or the car stalls! These are learned reactions, needlessly stanching happiness. Response can be reprogrammed with silky ease. Taught from childhood to "stick to our guns", we feel like losers blithely accepting detour. But that's a dangerous mindset in an endlessly dynamic world where the flow never stops and nothing disrupts unless you’ve set rigid and ridiculous requirements.

A continuous series of challenges, shifts, and mishaps is what we're here for. You signed up for this! So relish the obstacle course, like a bratty kid firing away on his Playstation. Redirect your relish - the relish currently directed to the lifelong project of needlessly stressing yourself. This extremely short posting might help. Doing Life means the whole bundle. Life doesn't stop when you stub your toe. It's one Big Process!

The Framing of All Framings

This is the framing of all framings, and it's just as easy and instant as any other. Simply opt out of the "Oh, shit!" response. Pop in a different tape!

If you find it hard to cultivate the habit of reframing into a higher perspective when you've shattered your phone or burnt the steak (the flip is effortless; the only struggle is remembering that the flip is available), at least strive to be more strategic. More clever and resourceful.

Work imposed tasks - however unthinkable - with the same passion and eagerness as your hot tango moves. You will sometimes forget yourself and snap back to wallowing in THE HORROR OF IT ALL. Just keep the other perspective close and periodically take stock of the larger dance. Instill the habit. I promise it's not hard, even when the very worst thing happens. It's all a game, and clear cognizance of this needn't feel deflating. Passion remains an option even for the mildly bemused. Do I strike you as the least bit blasé?

"Take stock of the larger dance." That's something an ant can't do, and it adds beauty to the equation. Which is something ants are missing, the poor little fellas.

Rather than curse your fate when circumstance forces you to cancel your vacation, keep one toe in the recognition that the deeper beauty is in playing the cards you're dealt, and doing so full-heartedly (see postings on karma yoga).

The Structure of Process

Understanding the structure of Process helps you elevate beyond the cartoon image of yourself as a lazy susan to be loaded with dishes, to a more realistic view of how you, your life, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune intertwine. Step back and behold the machine. Take stock of the larger dance.

In terms of process, I hope I've at least convinced you that you are not a computer, blandly available to launch a given app upon command. We can't force that result; it's like trying to push a string. We can, however, cagily play at it, like a game, coaxing new processes into limited capacity while sensitively avoiding overburden. More like eye surgery than popping in a DVD. 

A Great Feast, One Plate at a Time

I play the cards I'm dealt. I endeavor to make the tastiest possible lemonade from any surfeit of lemons. I'm a coaxer, not a forcer, and this approach has worked. I've done accomplished work in seven fields, while marinating fresh insights and juggling myriad hobbies and fascinations. And I've now explained how I went about it so you can surpass me. It's not a talent thing, or an intelligence thing. It's a process management thing and a framing thing. My one unusual attribute has been my insatiable curiosity to fiddle with parameters and try to figure stuff out. And this is what I figured out.

Once you've developed a feel for how process works, it gets easy to playfully fit in more of them, remaining emotionally stable if they must be back-burnered when it's necessary to call a plumber or a cardiologist. Results are delightfully cumulative. A great feast can be built one plate at a time! Ant hills appear, magically, after a few days of trifling sand grain manipulation. They surprise you. Ants never drudge; they're perennially surprised and delighted by what's arisen, without self-conscious compulsion to take credit (credit-taking is a sapping process of its own, part of the cinematic approach I warned about earlier).

Once you hit a stride, you'll find yourself thinking very differently. You'll viscerally understand that inaction - rest - is a critical process of its own, to be nursed as sensitively as other spinning plate (I have always felt like a repulsively lazy slacker, and my affect can be slothful, bleary, and foggy for long periods between brief flashes of bristling intensity, and it took decades to realize that's okay). It's not the on/off situation it appears to be. Inaction is a process, so, until the day you die, your toggle will remain solidly "on" regardless of your particulars. Breathe easy; you’re doing it!

It's all process. You can't separate yourself from the greater flow! You can try, but cultivating a sense of separation is just another process! All this mental stuff is process. Consider depressives languishing in bed, incommunicado, tirelessly constructing internal towers of brooding discontent. They're very busily working on ambitious - though entirely futile - internal projects. They're the busiest of all!

I promise this isn't just Jim's kookie stuff. It will work for anyone, though your results (your "water jets", returning to an analogy from part two) will look completely different from mine. It takes all kinds to maintain this vast collaborative art project. And you can encompass multiple “kinds”, if you understand process. Even amid cascading disasters!

Back to New Year's

After spending several postings intermittently ridiculing New Year's Resolutions, let me flip it around.

They can work! But not like loading apps onto your smart phone. Wait, no, actually, it's exactly like loading apps onto your phone. Downloading an app does nothing; changes nothing. You must launch the app and use it. Nothing else matters, including your best intentions and carefully crafted policy positions.

The goal of this series hasn't been to discourage you from adding tasks or implementing resolutions. It's been to explain how to do it effectively. Remember my description of kindling a campfire by generating a precious spark, coaxing that spark into something just a bit greater ("You don't create the fire; you only cultivate the spark, which, in turn, makes the fire").

Also remember the level of effort and commitment required to actually fulfill a goal, as explained here and in the "get good" section here.


Lots of words, lots of explanation, simply to persuade you (remind you, really) that the world is not a roiling tar pit of obstruction and persecution. It's actually quite benign, but it's up to us to structure, layer and pace our lives prudently, and to enjoy the big view of it all; to take stock of the larger dance.

We obsess over controlling outcomes (it’s a fantasy; we really can’t!), while completely ignoring our internal framing (where all our actual free will is!). The 5000 year written record of humanity as a species shows us ceaselessly trying to game out the former while scarcely considering the latter.

All process is "our" process. The only possible disruption is from our own resistance. Choosing to embrace and surf and play - to encompass - reveals our true ownership of It All.

Life, alas, comes without a manual, but I've reverse-engineered a chunk of it, and I sincerely hope it helps :)

Further reading:

Saturday, April 20, 2024

AI Switcherroo

A Facebook friend's account has obviously been hacked, and the hackers are posting bizarre boasts about her massive profits from crypto. And she, naturally, is receiving dozens of "thumbs ups" from her circle, including copious "You go girl!" affirmation. Human beings increasingly can't pass Turing Tests.

Meanwhile, AI is disparaged for its freewheeling ad-hoc approach generating the blunders characteristic of all real intelligence (as opposed to the canned faux-intelligence of conventional computers which require copious instructions for every damned move and which never err). I never saw coming that true AI would be denigrated for its ability to actually pass a Turing test.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Dallas 2024

I've been hitting Dallas every couple years, and have worked up a circuit of eats and hangs. With the total eclipse running straight through town last week (see my coverage here), a return was a no-brainer, though quite the journey from Portugal.

London Layover

My 22 hour layover started with Al-Hyderabadi Mandi Biryani, right near Heathrow Airport.

They serve a mash-up of two cuisines nearly unknown to NYC: Hyderabadi and Arabian. It's run by Hyderabadis who've lived in UAE or Saudi. So they make biryani and mandi, the Arabian rice dish. Biryani (especially Hyderabadi dum biryani, widely deemed the best in India) is a festive extreme of textures and flavors, no two bites the same. Mandi is the very opposite: unseasoned rice with a hunk of meat. Both great when done well. And this place does well!

Best dish was actually the baby lamb haleem, i.e. meat mashed within an inch of its life and poured over rice. Hardly exotic, but devastating.

This is a serious place, not for looklyoos. Women are in full burkas, and diners eat, seated upon floor, in curtained rooms. It took effort to convince staff I was serious, but if I went twice more, I'd be family, inshallah.

I didn't take photos (acting like Mr. Influencer wouldn't serve the purpose of putting denizens at ease), but do scope out the link above (here's a repeat) for tons of photos.

Breakfast, next day, was at Bermondsey Corner. This is nobody's landmark, but is in my weirdo pantheon. I've only been twice, but have already discovered:

1. Their matcha is the best I've had. I mostly drink high-end matcha shipped in from the legendary Ippodo in Kyoto, occasionally even their top-of-the-line luxe stuff. This, sourced from Good & Proper Teas, is even better. I have no idea where those guys get it, or why it's priced so low, or what's going on, generally. To scale matcha heights without paying $$$, mail order via link above from anywhere.

2. I'm not a jam guy. I get excited by the idea of it, and keep buying jars, but then I open it and spread it and it's always just jam. But here I bought Puckett's Gooseberry & Orange Blossom jam, and it didn't just sound terrific, it actually made me gasp. I can't describe it in words. And I suspect their other flavors are equally good. Gawd.

3. Top-level cortado (espresso shot with a glurk of warm - not frothed - milk). I'm not a coffee maven, but I know "great".

Wines and cheeses are also lovingly curated. Plus, it's a great hang. A Unesco World Heritage chowhounding gem.

Finally, a quick Frenchie lunch at Casse-Croûte.

It was perverse of me to order cassoulet, coming from Portugal, where essentially the same thing is a national dish (i.e. feijoada). But after many months of primitive soulful deliciousness, I crave touch and skill. And even being the most grandmotherly French dish, this cassoulet was still far more meticulous than anything found in Portugal. (I hate to sound like Mr. Genteel, but no matter how much you love yin, you will, with sufficient deprivation, eventually go crazy for some yang).

Same thing with wine. Portugal is full of amazingly good $4 bottles, but its $14 and $24 ones are no more graceful. Here, I had a glass of 2020 Domaine de Roudéne Jean de Píla Fitou. Grace!

Spotted on the Tube or the Underground or the Perambulator or whatever the hell, this grafitti diptych represented the perfect encapsulation of British wit, being both dryly subtle and broadly irreverent.
On my long, long British Air flight to Dallas, I discovered these superb potato chips (the best potato chips right now are all British and Catalan, though the very best are, as ever, fried by the legendary Mark Kobayashi of Maui Potato Chip Factory).
Difficulty Rating 10 Chowhounding Airplane Score

Dallas Barbecue Hero

Last time, I raved over Parry Avenue BBQ. I'll let you re-scan those bbq porn photos (some of my most remarked-upon food shots ever).

The place never caught on, even though proprietor Leo Morales is obviously, to me, anyway, The Guy right now for central and south Texas barbecue (Dallas is a bit too north to include in "Hill Country").

I had my first Texas barbecue in the mid-1980s, before it had become a hipster sacrament and foodies elevated it to heritage status. Hell, that was before there were even foodies. BBQ then was turned out by older grumpy guys in the tradition of their forebears - German butchers extending via smoke the lifespan of pricy cuts like brisket (as opposed to Southern barbecue, where African Americans transubstantiated scrap cuts like ribs).

It was possible back then to find a lone unheralded genius, but that's seemingly unthinkable in present day. So I was dumbfounded to find the best barbecue cooked a mile from the skyscrapers of downtown Dallas in a place earning a crappy 2.7 stars on Yelp, where I was the sole customer on a bright Saturday afternoon.

One single human being appears to share my assessment. This guy Matthew Shrum reviewed, on Google:
"I live in Austin and regularly get BBQ from the much celebrated Franklin’s, Black’s and La Barbeque. Had brisket from Parry Ave BBQ today. Every bit as good. Maybe better. Plus the potato salad is perfect."
Amen, brother.

I was heartbroken to hear about Parry Avenue's closure, and had tracked Leo's progress through a series of other ventures. It was looking unlikely I'd score this time, but after reaching out via Facebook (follow him here), he told me he was doing a pop-up and would save me a couple slices of brisket.

We met at the Dallas outpost of Fraternal Order of Eagles, a sprawling lodge boasting a huge swimming pool stocked with super-friendly bodacious Texas babes and a friendly, diverse crowd of Central Texas characters (I'm exasperated by people calling MAGAs, generally, and Texans, specifically, "racists". I see way more respect and acceptance of Hispanics, Blacks, and Asians around here than I do in the supposedly enlightened coastal metropolises. Folks here are legit upset about undocumented immigration - which doesn't happen to bother me much - but it's not the skin color or culture that bugs them - though of course every area has its idiots).

Leo kindly showed up with this vundertray:

...and it turns out, he's from Elmhurst, Queens. Because of course he is. And he's half-Colombian, which made a lightbulb go off in my head. Last trip, I reported that "finally, I understand baked beans." Trying those beans again (no photo, sorry), I realize that they taste just a little bit Colombian, which, to me, is like home. It takes a genuine TX pit master from Queens with Colombian heritage to make me love baked beans.

The moral here is that Texas barbecue is not an "efficient market", after all, where all the good stuff has been sussed out. Slamming greatness remains undiscovered. And Leo Morrales just gets better and better. Like all my favorite chefs, he's all about making the next batch his absolute best.

Note that you can just show up at the Fraternal Order of Eagles; a $15 guest pass lets you enjoy the pool and drink cheap beer! This is not my photo (it's stolen from the above link), but it's the same table where I scarfed my brisket:

Bubba's Made Me Cry

I go to Bubba's every trip for the same meal, and it never fails. But this time was particularly devastating, with every component a 10 out of 10 (using my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating things):

I've been eating extremely well all along, but hadn't had anything remotely like soul food for nearly two years. As I lumbered back to my car, with a big dopey smile plastered across my face, my body, oddly, began to sob. I hadn't realized I was so deprived. I'll need to be more liberal about traveling.

Two Completely Obscure Mexican Spots

There are several big shiny gringo-friendly mega Mexican food restaurants here, most of them quite good. But my instinct is always for the grandmotherly hole-in-wall, and here are two great ones completely off-radar:

La Estrella is a bakery serving a limited food menu, just one or two rotating dishes. Cabeza tacos, on proper small tortillas, were a pure breath of Mexico. Cabeza is misunderstood; it's not some weirdo cut from the sinuses or something, it's essentially pork cheeks. Nice tender pork cheeks. Friendly!
Also: superb licuados de melon (melon juice). Served in an enormous cup because Texas. Their pan dulce is all great, but I was disappointed that, despite signs everywhere for their famous conchas, I couldn't find the conchas. Late the next night, it came to me in a dream: the weird metal cabinet actually housed the conchas. I had failed to look inside. So back I went, and a blast of yeasty beatitude issued forth as I opened the magic cabinet, and the dizzying variety of warm-from-the-oven conchas were meltingly tender and absolutely delicious. A peak experience.

If I lived here, I'd be a regular. Nothing high-energy. No blasting happy mariachi. Just mega-chill. The real thing.

Pambazos are a holy grail of mine. I've had them in several regions of central-ish Mexico, and abroad. The version at La Hechizera Tortas is one I've seen a lot - comically over-sized, the saddle-shaped bun lightly dipped in red sauce and the choripapas (chorizo + potatoes) filling very delicately doled out. A paradoxically delicate gut bomb:

It's not my favorite style. I prefer the kind where the bread is actually fried in the chorizo, not just french-dipped in sauce, and with a heartier, sloppier, more seared choripapa filling. That sort usually comes on more modest-sized rolls (lest they face manslaughter charges). But, hell, I'll take this any day. La Hechizera Tortas is a chain. Rule of thumb: Mexican-owned, immigrant-facing chains in Texas are GOOD. Especially if no one ever heard of them.

Note: don't read Wikipedia or food blogs or shiny books to try to better understand stuff like pambazos. World food has not been figured out. People - including natives - make confident claims which inevitably apply only to one certain style, and then others glom on to the assessment, building Jenga towers of dubious - or even flat wrong - conventional wisdom.

For example: mentally block anyone claiming to define "quesadilla". As I explained in my app, the same food words are used up and down La Republica, but mean different things in different states/counties/villages/homes. Be skeptical and eat widely. You become the expert!

Disarming Cantonese

I hadn't had a bite of Chinese food, either, in 18 months (aside from a single meal of dull faux-Shanghai in London). I needed it badly, so I surfed online and settled for a place called, lord help me, "Bushi Bushi". All indications, from the name on out, were suspicious. But no matter. I'm not chowhounding here. I'm satisfying long-stifled yens.

I entered a place that could have passed for an airport steakhouse and plonked myself down at the bar, where I was greeted with this ill omen:

Yeesh! Also, I'd read about their system of automatic ordering and robot serving. Yikes! And the place had no vibrancy whatsoever. Ugh!

I ordered dim sum. The price was very high. But look what I got (brought out by a smiley Cantonese grandma):
Snow pea leaves, impeccably fresh and expertly stir-fried.

Shrimp dumplings. Not the very best or most delicate har gow, but with gobs of honest shrimp flavor and a properly melting texture.

Radish cakes. Not just correct and authentic, but downright soulful.

Rice. Beautiful. Why the small cup (too small to drape greens over)?
I'm sure it's because locals never finished normal-sized cups,
so the thrifty Cantonese owners cut the portion size.

The automatic ordering system appears to be an artifact of 1. COVID plus 2. a thrifty Cantonese gambit for not paying waiters. I still don't fully understand how it all works. It's weird. But after the first bite, my attention was otherwise occupied.

I left unexpectedly touched and delighted. I'm a big admirer of anyone working this far up the curve of declining results. It's quite underrated, so add it to your list.

Reuniting with Old Faves

Breadhaus in Grapevine is still excellent (see, once again, my last Dallas report for lots more info). Last time I was puzzled by an unidentified pastry. Got it now: it was an almond square.

Click these to expand:
Cool artwork hanging above the door!

Old West Cafe in Grapevine (strenuously raved about here and here, and reported seriously downhill here) appears to have leveled off into good-not-great. By Grapevine standards, that is. It's more than good enough for the likes of us.

I had migas again. I hadn't previously noticed how good their flour tortillas are. I try to force myself to go flour in Southern Texas and Northern Mexico, though I'm really more of a cornhound.

Mrs. G's Tacos

...alas, has closed. A real nail in the heart of old-timey border cooking. Sigh. See, yet again, previous report for details.

Haitian Cheesecake

In my eclipse report, I mentioned hanging out at great Haitian-owned Val's Cheesecakes, which created a special chocolate black-out cheesecake for the occasion and also made griot (fried goat). Here you go:

Sprung for Fancy; My Bad

I try not to be a reverse snob. I really do. I like expensive food just fine when there's value. But so often extra cash buys shininess rather than deliciousness.

I hit up Encina for their famous blue corn pancakes.

They were fine. Nice recipe, somewhat sloppily rendered. Thanks for the butterscotch squirt, but how, exactly, is that supposed to harmonize with the maple syrup? Has anyone thought this out beyond the stratum of menu description bait?

Also, it's hard to forgive stingy portions when it would cost them another seven cents per order to double that stack, or expand diameters to normality. I suppose the small-ish serving size telegraphs luxeness or whatever. My cocktail ("Mokonuts": mezcal, velvet falernum, lime, cream of coconut) was...sweet. This meager and not-bad breakfast, served by a bartender too cool to spend even a moment engaging with the likes of me (I'm not sure he ever quite stood still to take my order), cost gobs of money. My only regret of the trip. Still tasty, though. God bless Dallas, the food paradise Austin only poses at being.

Previous Dallas reports:
2022 Dallas Trip
Bolero and Breakfast
West Texas Breakfast Insights / The Deeper Meaning of Salt
Southwest by South Trip Installment #1
Austin/Dallas Trip

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Truth Is Always Far Dumber Than You'd Imagine

Chowhound wasn't a success because it was useful, or heartfelt, or presented a fresh perspective. It wasn't a success because I'd herded a huge crowd of savvy iconoclasts who instinctively resist being herded. It wasn't a success because I set a tone people found irresistible, or because the moderators and I worked overtime expunging marketers, vandals, and psychos.

None of these attributes hurt. But it was mostly a success because it was a web site in 1997, and, in 1997, web sites were cool.

I keep meeting Slog readers, or occasional Slog browsers, who ask whether I'm writing anything these days.

Like, real writing. Sure, I have my [little] blog where I indulge myself. Nice job, little buddy. But why'd I drop out of writing?

Blogs aren't cool or sexy. Not even in 2008 when I launched this one. We know what blogs are. Yawn.

So, sure, this can be a challenging read. And people prefer to have their biases confirmed, not their fallacies debunked. And though I’m thought of as a food writer, there's not much food porn. None of these attributes helped. But it was mostly a failure because it's been a blog in the 2000s, and, in the 2000s, blogs were uncool.

It's all about the form of the thing. This is yet another instance where Seeming supercedes Being.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

TV Check-In, 2024

I think this Slog has done a decent job of tracing the highlights of ambitious TV over the past 16 years. If you’re looking for binges, start off with my “You’ll Never Be Whole Until You View” list from 2021 here, and then browse, in reverse chronological order, my other TV writings.

The following is more of a spot-check than a thorough catch-up. Just me hollering from the couch. As always, my main source for recos is Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall, whose taste comes reasonably close to my own. I suggest subscribing to his (free) email newsletter here, in addition to reading his Rolling Stone critiques.

If Alan doesn’t review a series, I read Donald Feinberg at Hollywood Reporter. And, for comic takes of series in-progress, I sometimes scan Brian Grubb’s feed at Uproxx (if you ever rewatch Succession, definitely follow up each episode with Grubb’s “Power Rankings”).


I have a pretty exciting to-watch queue (these are all current or very recent shows). I haven’t supplied links, but just Google “[Show Name] Sepinwall”:

The Jinx Part 2 on HBO/MAX. You may recall the wildly popular true crime series ten years ago about Robert Durst, the extremely strange and sinister real estate scion who “killed them all”. Durst died a few years ago, after serving some time. But director Andrew Jarecki (himself a super-rich scion) never stopped digging, and apparently has new juicy revelations. Nothing’s leaked; we just need to tune in.

Ripley (Netflix) Yet another take on “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Along with Shogun, this is the current hot show among TV nerds. As Sepinwall notes in his newsletter, the Matt Damon film really stands up, and is worth another view, too.

Three Body Problem (Netflix) I’m a super-fan of Liu Cixin’s sci-fi trilogy, a deliberate invocation of 1950s-style sci-fi, particularly Asimov. No one goes Cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs for Netflix’s TV adaptation, so it seems to be no substitute for the book (which I recommend even though characterization - ala 1950’s sci-fi - is pancake-flat and pacing can be maddening). But people I trust dig the show as its own thing, and say it’s a big improvement in terms of drama.

The book’s very worth plowing through because the ideas; my god, the ideas are just astounding. Don’t sweat any spoilers, just definitely read the book (or, better, listen on audiobook) and maybe check out the series, too. I'd think of them as different entities.

The Pigeon Tunnel (Apple) The great Errol Morris interviews the great John La Carre. What more do you need?

Mr & Mrs Smith (Amazon) I’m a huge Donald Glover fan due to his series, “Atlanta”, which I’ve written about before. This is nothing like Atlanta, but everyone seems to really enjoy it.

Formula 1 (Netflix) I’ve been watching this series all along, not for revelation or subtlety, but for top-drawer brainless entertainment. Very well produced. New season recently dropped.

Against All Enemies (Apple) Sepinwall raves.

The Sympathizer (HBO/MAX) Sepinwall raves

Einstein and the Bomb (Netflix) Curious about how Einstein fit into the atom bomb development?

Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War (Netflix) More meaty Manhattan Project exegesis, filling in around “Oppenheimer” et al.

Fallout (Amazon) with the great Walter Goggins. Supposed to be solid sci-fi (Feinberg liked it better than Sepinwall did).

Silo (Apple) I watched this in its original run. It’s one of those shows I didn’t love while watching it, but it really stuck with me. I’m gonna rewatch. It hits some Logans Run nerves.


In no particular order (though all are at least somewhat recommended; I’m leaving off shows I disliked, e.g. “The Crown”, “Yellowstone”, “The Peripheral”, “Raised by Wolves”, recent seasons of “For All Mankind”, etc.)

Deadwood (HBO/MAX) Yeah, I’m late to the party. But great. Shakespeare. Deeply moving. Viscerally inhabit 1870s South Dakota and participate in the camp’s growth from untamed frontier outpost to legit American town. A legend.

Cockpit Casual (YouTube) A sardonic airliner repo guy casually circles the world bringing this or that huge empty plane from here to there, dressed like a slacker. If this sounds dull, this might not be for you. But if it interests you even slightly, I promise this will exceed expectations. I lap this up like candy, wishing it would come out more frequently (as-is, the guy’s doing all the shooting and editing himself, plus he’s got a company to run and planes to fly).

Boardwalk Empire (HBO/MAX) I recently caught up on this. It never made me feel like I was wasting my time, and it has its moments, but, like everyone says, it’s not greater than the sum of its parts. Yet, like Mad Men, it’s sunk into the culture so deeply that you almost need to have watched it to be fully literate.

The Story of Film (Prime) Quirky, personal look through the history of cinema. An overcompensated effort to deemphasize Hollywood and pump up “foreign” cinema, which is fine by me (just never imagine it’s authoritative). I took a jillion notes of titles I need to check out (refer to for streaming availability). I’ve been pretty hooked on (quality) TV, which has left me reluctant to dig into film. This reignited my interest.

Telemarketers (HBO/MAX) I just loved this. Hard to describe this portrait of the lovable shmucks, losers and creeps working in the industry, produced by those very same lovable shmucks, losers and creeps. But it works as pure art.

Peaky Blinders (Netflix) Ala Boardwalk Empire, this tale of Victorian gypsy gangsters is very good, very atmospheric, and very expensive, but never quite great. But, also like Boardwalk Empire, it’s baked into the culture, so you should probably watch it.

The Booth at the End (free with ads on Prime) Mind-fuck actorly series shot on a shoestring, extremely well-done, not at all flamboyant. I won’t spoil it, but this is a good series to watch on your phone. Short compact episodes are useful at moments where you don’t want to commit to anything longer. Perhaps the ideal content for airplane travel.

How To with John Wilson (HBO/MAX) Started off seeming like yet another self-indulgence by a quirky filmmaker (I imagine the producer telling the director, who also narrates, “let’s try it again with more stuttering”), but blossomed into something devastatingly beautiful. Stick with it. Watch carefully.

Beef (HULU) Everyone’s talking about it, I took my time finally viewing, but it’s GREAT. First, just a terrific piece of writing and ensemble acting. Second, it’s the most true-to-life look at restaurant culture you’ll ever see.

Primal (HBO/MAX) Hard to describe. Maybe you think you don’t like animation. This is different.

Scavengers Reign (HBO/MAX) Hard to describe. Maybe you think you don’t like animation. This is different. Also: totally different from Primal. And this is wildly popular, while Primal was cult-only. I loved both.

Reservation Dogs (HULU) I hated late seasons of MASH, when the cast and crew started feeling like they “had something special,” and it went from a funny war satire to a show where every damned week we were force-fed another Very Special Episode. 

It’s great to see a real native show produced by real natives about what things are really like on the reservation. But they got high on their own supply, and  while this is a very good show on purely artistic terms, it might have been great had the creators focused their sights on purely artistic terms rather than making this a flamboyant ONE FROM THE HEART or whatever.

Steve! (Apple) Steve Martin, before/after his phenomenal rise as a stand-up comedian, and the eject button he suddenly hit to completely bail out from it. I’m hardly subjective, having experienced a disorienting trajectory of my own, at 1/100000th scale. But I understand how he feels, and I can see his lingering disorientation, and I understand. It may be less interesting for others, Idunno.

Shogun (HULU) Everyone’s talking about it. Real plotty, so I need to read recaps (Vulture’s are reliably good). I’m not quite as berserk over this show as everyone else seems to be, but it’s definitely well worth watching.

Tokyo Vice (HBO/MAX) Basically Shogun set a few centuries later, a tale of warring yakuza factions. And I’m way more into this than Shogun. Another series where I require Vulture recaps, though.

Bad Surgeon (Netflix) The story (which I won’t spoil) is so eye-bugging that you won’t initially notice what a lazy, crappy job the filmmakers did (read this Reddit thread after viewing). Still, don’t miss it. How on earth is this not a bigger story?

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Explaining the Excitement Over Total Eclipses

It’s a life-changing experience. Unforgettable. Do whatever you need to do to be there, whatever the expense. People endlessly testify to the profound and transformative nature of total eclipses, while I’ve been skeptical. It gets darker. You wear uncomfortable eye protection, peering through essentially black duct tape. Then it gets lighter again. Unless one grafts on some woo-woo New Age significance, it’s hard to understand why it would be some big deal.

But these are smart people. Folks not prone to effusive testimonial. So I’ve been eager to investigate. During my previous total eclipse, as a child in the early 1970s, I remember staring into a cardboard box at a tiny crescent which struck me as bogglingly unimpressive. I contemplated myself as a wrinkled, wheezing, bleary-eyed geezer viewing the next one in the unimaginably futuristic year of 2024, if I’d somehow live that long.

Well, yesterday the enfeebled geezer hunkered down in a Haitian cheesecake store in Dallas on the central line slated to get four minutes plus of life-changing TOTALITY.

I’m a big fan of Val’s Cheesecakes to begin with. Plus, they were making griot (fried goat), which I love, plus a special blackout eclipse cheesecake, draped in chocolate, which in itself would deliver the superlatives this cosmic event was promised to deliver, inoculating any disappointment. Also, I’m sort of a minor Haitian celebrity, having played for a stretch with Tabou Combo, the legendary compa band. Haitian cab drivers ask to take selfies with me. It’s a thing.

When people find it hard to explain a transformative experience in words, it’s generally a matter of reframing. Especially with scientific types, who are often locked into a certain perspective, so, when their ground shifts, they struggle to express it in their familiar geeky jargon. Since framing is my fascination, I had traveled far to try to understand. So me and the other Haitians anxiously awaited the magic hour, while, across the street, two workers welded a broken gate, oblivious to it all despite their $200 helmets that were surely the fanciest eye protection in town.

Partial eclipses I know about...and dislike. I have a particular aversion to having my eyes dilated. Like everyone, I dislike the feeling, but I particularly hate how the world looks. I’m no fan of the unique lighting of partial eclipses, either, which turn everything sickeningly beige. A bit like sunset, but with the sun vertical, rather than filtered through layers of horizon atmosphere to produce sweeping color bursts. It’s a ghastly otherworldly beige - like you’re on Europa - which my higher functions deem disgusting, and which my more visceral functions deem off and wrong and yuck. I understand why birds and beasts get so freaked. I’m edgy, myself.

But I’d been assured that totality’s different. Like, totally. As I mused about this, things turned much darker with jarring suddenness. So sudden that we Haitians were surprised to observe streetlights turning on. It was no longer the mild amusement of watching a bite disappear from the Sun. It was a whole other thing. Nothing like the ultimate consummation of a partial eclipse. It’s a smash cut. A black-out - literally. A never-before-experienced segue, a doorway to oblivion. Even lightning has foreshadowing - roiling dark clouds and ozone and such. This comes out of nowhere.

All of a sudden we (and by “we”, I mean the broadest possible we) were presented with a sci-fi glistening knob above us, in what we’d previously thought of as the sky. If you told me it was falling straight toward me, I’d have believed you, staring blankly upward like a hen in a downpour.

There are countless Zen proverbs about how a painting of the moon is not the moon. A poem about the moon is not the moon. Abstract isn’t a paler shade of concrete; it’s a discrete realm. We imagine that we know what an eclipse is, but we really only know paintings and poems. That’s not knowing.

Indulge, please, a digression. This nicely conveys the visceral gut-punch of Actuality colliding with expectation. I never expected the hoariest show biz shaggy dog joke to shed light on the mystery of eclipses, but….
A washed-up actor lives in squalor, his career on its last legs. Problem: he can never remember lines. His agent’s on the phone (perhaps his last-ever call), exultant at having found his troubled client the perfect role.

“All you gotta do, Herbie, is get on a plane, be at the theater by 8:45, and open the second act. And the good news is you have one line - one single line, Herbie! - to speak. Do you have a pen so you can write this down? Ok, here’s your line: “Hark, is that a canon I hear?” Got it, Herbie? Can you do this? Put down the phone, pack a bag, and the car service will be there in ten minutes to bring you to the airport. What’s the line, Herbie? I wanna hear you say it!” 

“Hark, is that a canon I hear?” replies Herbie, with a trace of the dashing elan which had burnished his sterling reputation before it all fell apart.

Herbie hangs up the phone and showers, magisterially proclaiming “HARK! Is that a canon I hear???” He dries himself, packs his bag, and bounds down the steps, saucily asking “HARK! Is I hear?”

In the backseat of the car service, Herbie’s preparation continues. “Hark is...that...a canon I hear?” Over and over. Herbie is laser-focused on the task. This is his last chance, and, by golly, he’s determined to ride it to a glorious come-back.

On the flight, he runs every permutation. “Hark: is that a canon I hear??” “Hark is that! A canon, I hear!”

Plane lands, Herbie gets in the cab, the driver floors it to the theater. He’ll barely arrive in time for his big entrance, but he’s more than ready, having honed the line to a thespian high sheen. “HARK is that a canon I hear!! Herbie magnificently intones. He’s back!

Cab screeches to a halt in front of the backstage door, and Herbie bounds out. The assistant director, waiting in the doorway, barks to hurry up and slip on the costume. Herbie is calm, controlled, confident, ready. Finally, the stage manager screams “Go!” and shoves Herbie on stage, into the spotlight, just as an immense explosion rocks the theater. Centerstage before the expectant crowd, Herbie hollers “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!?”
So you figured that having seen twelve million eclipse photos - and possessing some scientific understanding of the process - had prepared you. But then you look up and there’s this terrifying, wrong, insanely beautiful throbbing artifact in the sky which 150 of your neurons placidly identify and categorize while your guts and toes and limbic system gasp “WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!?”
A surprise within the greater surprise is that you can remove your glasses during totality, because total eclipses totally block the sun (except its corona, which can’t hurt you so long as you don’t get close).
We have experience with cool sky stuff. We’ve seen meteors. Planetary conjunctions. Particularly nice sunsets. Maybe aurorae. This should be like that, only even cooler and stranger. But no. It’s rivetingly unfamiliar, and however we reach, we find nothing to compare it to. This isn’t a cooing “wow”, but a tizzying “WTF”.

And even that shouldn’t be so startling. After all, we experience other tizzying WTFs in the course of our lives. You bump into your landlord in a Malaysian grocery. Four coins fall, all of them landing on end. The Mets win the World Series. Etc.

But those things are only surprising because you’ve calculated odds and assessed outcomes - a cold, mental, abstract process propagated by the same 150 neurons which yawn at eclipses. Squarely oblivious mental accountants look up startled from their slide rules upon spotting some nerdy aberration. That's all.

The tizzying WTF of an eclipse is not propositional. You don’t have to think about it. The 150 neurons are summarily outvoted by the remaining 36 trillion cells. This is visceral, not intellectual.

It’s a whole other thing in the sky, and while it’s instantly identifiable via intellectual pattern-matching, it feels like something you weren’t supposed to see; like God revealing some bit of stagecraft; like an aberrational leaking-over from some other reality. It feels wrong, and beautiful, and we weren’t by any means prepared by a lifetime of photographs and cultural references. We falsely imagined we knew eclipses, just like Herbie felt well-prepared to speak his line.

The surprise is that we’re so surprised. There’s no other element. No mysterious smoky cloud of juju provoking all those testimonials and avowals. Just a phenomena that’s infinitely gorgeous (yet normal) and infinitely surprising (yet expected). And a tectonic reframing spurred by intense surprise - and by the heady paradox of the collision of bland expectation with the splendor of immediacy. Of actuality. With complacency dislodged and perspective unfrozen, anything is possible. We start fresh. It's a screen wipe. We are free, and have always been thus.

The canon has fired. Not “canon fire” as some empty phrase, but an actual skin-tingling gut-wallop. You are dislodged; your continuity disrupted. And in that very moment, you peer upwards to behold startling beauty. We are moved like we’re moved by great art.

I wrote here that “Art is any human creation devised to induce a reframing of perspective.” This time isn’t human, but it very much fits the bill. And, as with the best art, beauty cradles you in your vulnerable discontinuity.

To experience totality for yourself, the next eclipse is, oh god, kill me now, in fricking Portugal in 2026. This is how my life works!

Monday, April 8, 2024

Show Us Your Utter Lack of Self-Awareness

He decries narcissists, trying to control how we see them in light of the evident failure of his effort to control their behavior.

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Thursday, April 4, 2024

Nietzsche Thinks Some Might Be Less Eager for Truth

"Sometimes"? Freddy, seriously?

We live in a world devoted to pretending (essentially a massive playground for self-dramatists), where one avenue of pretending is to feign a thirst for truth. To shift metaphors (though none of this is as metaphorical as you'd imagine), it's a multiplex filled with movies, any number of which are about the swashbuckling  effort to transcend cinema! This is why I spend so much time distinguishing seeming from reality.

Almost no one genuinely wants genuine truth. I don't mean 10%, or 1%, or .1%. It's more like .0001%. A handful of perverse kooks genuinely thirst for truth, even if it's not good news; even if it doen't make them look good; even if being a "truth-knower" brings more punishment than reward.

Why punishment? Because being a truth-knower firmly associates you with the thing 99.9999%  desperately recoil from. We say we want a breath of fresh air, but we run berserk with the caulking gun at first sign of a draft.

I hope you understand that, by truth, I don't mean "That dress is ugly" or "you're fat". "You'll never get a raise" or "your wife hates you" or "that moustache makes you look like a porn cameraman". I'm not talking about being a dick, I'm talking about understanding deep things about who we are and what we're doing here, and offering these truths to those we see suffering to help them feel better...and then being crucified for it.

Why crucified? I once wrote:
Those who've shifted perspective and tasted some truth may feel poised to heal the world. But such people have historically been swiftly slated for crucifixion. Because if you imagine that the truth really heals, the joke's on you. 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, tragedy prevented, and the sham nature of the enterprise entirely illuminated. Good job on that. However, you'll have ruined the experience for all present.

In a MMORPG world, eagerly devoted to drama and affectation, the truth - with all its vaunted power of illumination - is as welcome as glaring house lights suddenly switching on mid-show, shocking dark-adapted eyes and spoiling the deliberate suspension of disbelief.
I deliberately flipped viewpoint midway through this posting (this one here, not the posting I just quoted). I started off describing everyone as ditzy hair-on-fire lunatics, defiantly rejecting truth. Which is true! But then I concluded that those trying to add some truth to the equation are worse; spoiling all the fun. Which is also true!

So what's the sane thing to do? Best is to join the fun and be a ditzy lunatic and enjoy it. You don't enjoy it more by "winning" more on whatever daffy terms your cohorts have arbitrarily defined (one of the rules is that winners don't win, though we pretend not to have observed this 10,000 times). You enjoy it by remembering it's a game. A rave. An acting out. And the really best way - the post-grad Cordon Bleu Unesco World Heritage sine qua non move - is to summon passion while remaining blithely amused. It's not actually hard, but you have so few models that you'll need to "roll-your-own", framing-wise, which is tough because you don't realize it's even possible (note: I've just buried the lede of the grand unifying proposition of my entire Slog).

If you forget yourself, and begin taking it too seriously, and life turns torturous, and you're not the type who derives pleasure from screaming and weeping and gnashing your teeth about the hell you deliberately foisted upon yourself, and you don't sink into an enduring depression, you will likely be drawn to two activities. First, you'll start paying way more clinical attention to what’s actually going on than any of the other participants, eventually recognizing that none of it really stands up to close scrutiny. If you're courageous and clear-headed and can find some spaciousness in which to frame a bit more lithely, you will experience threads unwinding and truth revealing itself (which, along with four dollars, will buy you a cup of coffee, because, per this very posting, the truth is not popular). The second activity is meditation, which clears your head and creates the spaciousness to frame more lithely (I use this very stripped-down system, and strongly suggest skipping the rest of the web site).

But if you conjure a glorious movie about your spiritual quest, you're just ditzing another way. Which is perfectly fine, because - again! - the best activity is to relish the drama (but wear it all lightly). If you really want to know truth - not just as a well-lit theatrical production, but soberly, with glaring house lights turned way up so it's no longer the least bit sexy and captivating, then do what's necessary to achieve spaciousness and clarify view, then go back in and try again. Dip your toe into the drama with clear cognizance that it's only a game. A rave. An acting out. And you can ratchet up the zealousness for more intense gameplay, but do so via passion rather than sweaty clenching. 

And then, eventually, get lost again. Rinse and repeat. This is the tidal cycle of the universe; the inflow/outflow of framing. Spirituality is a pit stop for the slow children.

The Toddler and The Steering Wheel and...
Jnani Train

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