Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Rare Musical Treat

I don't like pop. But Ariana Grande gave an astonishing, inspiring performance the other night on The Tonight Show. There was even a bit of this going on.

Being Bob

Back in the day, I was friends with a brilliant guitarist, who I'll call Bob.

Bob had devised his own harmonic landscape (for non-musicians: the chords he played were unlike anyone else's), and it was a joy to hear him play. He was freshly unique. We all assumed he was "going places".

However I found playing with Bob a frustrating experience. First of all, he used lots of reverb, making him sound like the Voice of God in some cosmic cathedral while I was forced to toot my trombone in the dry sonics of the actual room. And Bob's unique approach to harmony forced everyone else to navigate an obstacle course. As soon as I'd scaled some impossibly dense and puzzling sonic boulder, a fresh impediment was laid in my path. It was exhausting, and I could never comfortably express a musical thought, because there was always some twist.

I'd run his gauntlet, ala Super Mario, doing my best to survive and make do. Fun for kicks, but not something I wanted to make a habit of.

I couldn't be annoyed at him, because I understood that Bob wasn't trying to be a bully. He was just playing the music in his head, which is what we all aim to do. Often, I didn't feel like navigating Bob World. And Bob didn't work much because many others felt likewise. But I was Solieri enough to understand that every musical collaboration means navigating someone else's world, and the distinctiveness of Bob World was a feature, not a bug. Real artists create new worlds.

It took me a while to connect my thoughts, but I've come to realize that while my musical sensibility is much more conciliatory, I am in other ways an annoying Bob.

Most people (I know from eavesdropping!) speak in highly scripted bursts, much as most musicians play the same tired riffs and licks. I'm not saying there's no surprise or provocation, but those things come in tinges, not clobbers. People say the usual things the usual way, adding dabs of personality via adornment: a nuance here, a slightly skewed upshot there.

I get bored with that. And, following the golden rule, I long ago resolved not to be boring. So I rejected the dull same-old and became a conversational Bob.

Of course, no one wants to run a gauntlet. From the standpoint of a Bob, everyone seems sluggish, rigid and stuck. They seem like squares, unable to escape convention. But that's not entirely true. Bobs never understand how specific they are. Having transcended the boring same-old, they assume they're working at a higher level, but they fail to see how they've seized an unfair advantage. You operate in You World. Not their world, and not some greater and more expansive Every World, but the world of your own creation. So if others seem sluggishly unable to keep up, that's not surprising! It's not that you're superior; it's that you've got the reverb, and you're planting the obstacles!

I'd like to say Bob wasn't trying to be one-sided in his music, nor do I in my conversation, but there's an uncomfortable truth. Bob and I share an aversion to comfort. Comfort is the essence of dull uniformity; it's the thing all creativity seeks to overturn (the Gods of Creativity inevitably do double duty as the Gods of Chaos, despite their sincere protests that they're just trying to make things better)

So although I complained, above, that I could never comfortably express a musical thought with Bob because he was forever adding twists, I myself live to add twists. I enjoy other people's twists - so long as there's some give and take, and we're operating at a level of mutual comfort (rarely possible with Bobs, who game the system to stake out a higher ground in order to "be themselves") - but others don't really appreciate twists. They prefer comfort. Creativity abrades.

It's not that they're sheep and I'm clever, it's that they simply don't want to run someone else's gauntlet; navigate my twists. To them, a conversation with me feels like an overbearing imposition of Jim World. (At least this helps me remember this).

I get it. And I'm mortified, recalling my exasperation, to realize I'm a Bob. But at least I have some Jims, who, while weary and exasperated, recognize I'm just playing the music in my head, and who appreciate it even if they don't want to make a habit of running my gauntlet.

Feel free to pass this on to any Bobs in your life.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Evolution of a Perspective

Most human dissatisfaction is the result of asking yourself: What's missing? What don't I have? Who or what is not here? How does my current circumstance fail to measure up to expectations? What about the current moment is imperfect? We are princesses constantly scanning for mattress peas.

None of it has anything to do with what's actually happening (what's happening is what's happening!). It's about indulging a conception of yourself as living in a movie, and viewing your outcomes from the vantage point of the audience, measuring how far circumstances stray from the script as you envisioned it.

It is, quite literally, insane; a narcissistic fantasy world, none of it real. But this is how people with idle time (an unusual human condition found only among the rich, and you - yes, you! - are very very rich) make ourselves needlessly miserable.

I've broken this particular habit; I simply stopped indulging it. The evolution can be traced via the following postings, especially the third one, which was quite a "eureka" (it's helpful to understand that this Slog isn't where I share my knowledge, it's where I get my knowledge, during the process of writing. It's like an oracle):

The Monks and the Coffee
An Adult View on Preference
The Deeper Implications of Holiday Blues
Labeling and Post-Processing
Lasagna and Depression

Once you've found ease in the repose of what's actually happening (opting out of the business of what's not happening), the next step is to find that same ease amid unexpected change. I greatly admire my GPS, which accommodates surprise with infinite equanimity, always calmly "recalculating" as I ignore its instructions. The following are postings about that part:

The Real Secret
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
The Key to Happiness is Rolling With It
Resilience Means Giving Serendipity a Chance (see also the links at the bottom of this one)
Resilience Postscript
"So That Happened"
Pharaoh's Tombs, Movie Theaters, and Consciousnes
...and, most recently of all, The Problem With the Serenity Prayer

It's a lot of reading, and I readily acknowledge that I'm expressing the same point from multiple angles, but the repetition is intentional and useful, because while the points are simple, they're extremely counterintuitive, and if you'll actually put yourself into this in a practical way, rather than ponder it intellectually, you may find your bumpy life more of a ride and less of a torture test.

Getting to the root of it all, in the end, it's about letting go. Because our tight grip never helped in the first place. Consider The Toddler and the Steering Wheel.

FWIW, some of these postings appear to be listed out of order because I've replayed a few of these, which screwed up the posting dates.

Monday, September 19, 2016

What Can I Do to Defeat Trump?

A friend ponders:
"I find myself wondering what I can do as an individual to help try to defeat Trump."
Easy one. Encourage registration and voting. Drive elderlies to polls.

Even in a "safely" blue state like NY/NJ, it's critical that he lose by wide margin 1. to send a message to world that USA hasn't gone crazy, and 2. to remove Trump's ability to say he lost via fraud and cheating.

Lots of of people don't vote because they assume their state is "safe". So consider on a quiet, one-to-one basis (social media is just noise), I'd suggest working to convince apathetic friends, neighbors, and relatives to 1. register and then 2. Vote. Remind them of how British non-voters felt the day after Brexit, after assuming the electorate would do the sane thing, so their vote wouldn't be needed.

I wouldn't even mention Trump. If you persuade a few dozen people to vote and a couple happen to be quiet Trump supporters, fine. Aim single-mindedly to get people registered and into voting booths, period, and leave it there. If you make your message explicitly pro-Clinton or anti-Trump, your voice will be lost amid the political noise (i.e. stating the obvious). In other words, you'll lose the one-pointedness of your message that this time, we all really need to vote.

As a centrist, I like mixed governance, and a certain amount of gridlock, and I wouldn't want Clinton to completely stack the Supreme Court (I'd prefer to see it more or less balanced). But the Republicans are so crazy this cycle, and have been so emptily obstructionist for so long, that I'd like to see Democratic majority in the Senate, as well as a Democratic president, at least for one term.

I may, therefore, donate to DNC (or to individual Democratic campaigns, e.g. the candidate trying to bring down the loathsome Darryl Issa), but not to the Clinton campaign - solely because I don't think more pro-Hillary ads will help. The smartest thing Clinton can do is let Trump be Trump . There's been no indication - in two previous national campaigns where she's squandered wide leads against seemingly unelectable opponents - that a strategy of increasing the visibility of this extraordinarily recognizable figure is the least bit useful.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Einstein's Self-Image

I have no doubt that, in the most private corner of his psyche, Albert Einstein deemed himself a hopeless loser due to his funny-looking hair and disorganized desk.

If you fully grok what I'm saying, and object that none of us are Einsteins, I'd urge you to bear in mind this quote: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." - Albert Einstein

That quotation elegantly addresses my posting about the limitations of individual human nature in my "Manager's Dilemma" posting).

More great Einstein quotes

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Using iPhone as a Bedside Clock

I charge my phone in a stand next to my bed, so I've tried a number of apps that turn the screen into a bedside clock. Unfortunately, they're all way too bright, and if you crank the brightness way down, the time's hard to see.

But I found a $3 app called Disappearing Bedside Clock, and it's perfect. The screen remains dark, but if you wave your hand anywhere near it, and/or tap the surface it's sitting on, the time appears, for a configurable number of seconds before fading back to black. I didn't even know iPhones had these sensors!

You can't set an alarm, strangely, but the developer says iOs handles alarms better than 3rd party apps are allowed to, so he suggests letting Siri (i.e. the native "Clock" app) handle wake-ups. One problem with that is that you're stuck with a 9 minute snooze interval (read this fascinating exploration of that odd interval). Apple won't let you configure it.

My favorite 3rd party alarm clock app is Wake. The problem (to loop back to the top) is that it's either too bright or unreadable. But the wake-up sounds are awesome (here's a discussion of native wake up sound options on iPhone)

Deplorability: Segments of Trump Support

The worst part of this election season is learning that 44% of the country believes Trump is a good idea. It's astonishing to realize that we're a nation of people who'd support someone like that (though, admittedly, Sarah Palin was pretty obvious foreshadowing).

And don't imagine there'll be redemption, even if he's elected, and even if he's as bad as we fear (perhaps unreasonably). The crowds who supported the rise of figures like Hitler, Franco, and the rest, often remained in support even after these people showed their true colors and started persecuting huge swathes of the populace. The mobs weren't duped. They saw what the others saw, but they liked how it looked. There are people who like authoritarianism. It is, again, astonishing.

But before you sink into horror, notice that even the most prominent recent expression of frustration from non-Trump America - Hillary Clinton's much-condemned statement that half of Trump's supporters are deplorable - recognizes that half of them are not. Plenty are in it for the reality TV spectacle. Not without reason, they imagine that a sociopathic lunatic will be more entertaining than a Hillary Rodham Clinton. As we approach the Wall-E vision of the future, our faces constantly peering at screens, why would we not vote on the basis of entertainment value?

So that means we're 22% deplorable, max. Are you shocked? How many yahoos do we come across in the course of a day spouting conspiracy theories or other ignorance? We chuckle and move on. But we always knew they were there. And, really, even most of them are more ignorant than truly deplorable.

The real awful segment of Trump's support - the thugs who cold-cock protestors, want to send all their Muslim neighbors "back home", and who think Mexicans really are rapists (I'd love, by the way, to see statistics comparing sex crime frequency among Hispanic immigrants versus real estate developers) is probably more like 10% of the country. And 10% is edge case territory. 10% of us can be anything. It's fine.

We're not a nation of Yahoos. And the deplorables aren't taking over. 10% of us are scum, 22% are yahoos, and 44% are tired of the status quo....while the rest of us are duly horrified.

So let's definitely stand up to Donald Trump (please register to vote even if you're in a safely blue state; we need to reject him so thoroughly that a message is sent to the world and the Republican party swears "never again"). But bear in mind that this is still the country we thought it was. It's just that this time, the yahoo/scumbag/fed-up contingents have come together for a shot at running things for a while (odd coalitions like this are the very basis of how our country works).

If they do, there's no way they'll hold the middle for long. I'd bet literally anything that President Trump would get no more than four years (consider the buyer's remorse of all those capricious “send-a-message" Brexit voters)! His hardcore fans will stay with him, but the coalition will break up faster than an ice cube in a hot yoga class.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Problem With the Serenity Prayer

The problem with the Serenity Prayer....
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference. that it doesn't offer any help with "knowing the difference". And that's the most important part. So here's a way to recast the whole thing:

Every problem is either 1. a problem in the world, or 2. a problem with your perspective.

Hint: it's nearly always the latter. Problems of perspective (e.g. this) account for 99% of perceived problems in the rich world. We mentally manufacture problems to fill the vacuum of actual ones.

How to distinguish? Easy. If the problem is truly in the world (e.g. bullets suddenly start firing, or your stomach growls from emptiness, or a child starts wailing), you don't need to ask yourself whether there's a real problem. Real problems spur action, period. Problems of perspective, however, make you think about it.

It's a lot like this diet tip: "No one in the history of the human race has ever asked themselves 'Do I want to eat some more?' while still hungry. Genuinely hungry people just eat! The fact that you're asking means that you have, in fact, eaten enough!"

The Magic Trick of Writing, and the Inhibition of Creativity

Me, minus my copious stupidity, equals my writing.

It's a magic trick I'm surprised more stupid people haven't discovered. Writing is an opportunity to fool everyone by presenting ourselves as seemingly intelligent, insightful, and articulate. All that's required is a willingness to face your stupidity, vapidity, and incoherence with clear eyes, and a resolution to not quit working until all that is expunged.

If you don't write in a perpetual state of fraught anxiety at the prospect of exposing your idiotic true self via unthorough self-editing, then you're not really a writer.

What's more, I'm also a bit aphasic - I have trouble thinking of words. It's hard to talk to people, because I get stuck, and must choose between stammering/stalling or else swapping in fuzzy placeholder words which don't quite fit. It makes me sound slightly loopy - and shocking for me to have chosen a career as a writer. But when I write, I can take a half hour to summon the perfect word. It turns out, in the end, as smoothly as I wish I could speak, and that's immensely satisfying. I sail on that momentum, trying to optimize each word. The first step is a willingness to recognize that most of what I say or write is complete slop, and the second is a resolution to not quit working until all that is expunged.

I've written a lot about how our worst faculties can be our best launchpads. Creativity thrives under impediment, so we're less creative in the realms where we feel assured. The really good stuff stems from struggle.

Unfortunately, most people run as fast as they can away from their points of struggle and deficit. Those things are the ground zero of their deepest dread. This is why we live in a world so seemingly devoid of creativity. People cling for comfort and safety to their strongest faculties, where little creativity is required. And so creativity goes dormant.

We're all creative, but it only arises in the comparatively few of us willing to take ownership of (and make hay with) our least competent selves.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


At a certain point in my musical career, after a weekend spent running between a salsa gig in the South Bronx, a brass quintet gig in Midtown, and rehearsals for some weirdo avante-garde puppet thing Downtown, I was feeling satisfied at how differently I'd played in all these places (as I did in the dozens of wildly diverse scenes of which I was a recognized part). I acted differently, too. And talked differently. A typical freelance New York City musician, I was the ultimate chameleon (but I didn't think about this very often; I was too busy doing it).

When my weekend was over, I hightailed it over to the Skylark Lounge out by JFK airport, a black bar where men wore hats with feathers, to sit in, just for kicks, with one of my all-time favorite jazz drummers (and friends) Walter "Baby Sweets" Perkins, who performed there with his trio. Around 2 a.m., while we took a break (and he practiced paradiddles on his practice pad in the back room), Walter asked me what I'd been up to. I recounted my weekend wryly, ala Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Walter listened, then looked up slyly. He asked me if this was just another stop on my ride. My eyes widened and I gasped in horror. "Walter, this is home!" I exclaimed.

And I meant it. However, I had to privately acknowledge that the South Bronx salsa gig was also home. As was the chamber music gig, and the avante garde thingamajib. There were many stops on my ride, none of them not "home". "I'm like a whore," I remember thinking to myself more than once in dark moods, "who really believes it."

My promiscuity extended to other parts of my life, as well. The fortieth or so time a Peruvian or Cantonese waiter praised my evident deep love and feeling for their cuisine, I glowed in the acceptance, while some part of me felt intense shame, knowing I'd soon (often in a matter of minutes) be expressing native-like deep love for any of dozens of other cuisines. I felt like I was forever kissing a wife goodbye as I went off to one of my dozens of other secret families. No disingenuousness, though. The kiss was fervent, heartfelt, and offered without the slightest self-consciousness of my larger-picture situation.

I couldn't reconcile the two drives: my dissatisfaction with anything less than a feeling of deep connection to whatever I was involved with, in contrast with my immense fickleness. At one point, I was known as a "regular" in over 100 restaurants. "Oh, Jim comes here all the time; we're his favorite place!" They had no idea! Yet, paradoxically, they were all quite right. I saw the paradox, but couldn't explain it.

Same with many other aspects of my life. To this day, no one knows all of it. I'm not sure even I do. I'm so sincerely dedicated to the current thing - as if it were the only thing! - that the rest falls away. Never once have I rubbed my hands together smugly at the thought of my many waiting lovers (this is all metaphorical, as I've always been strangely monogamous with girlfriends). I'm just playing - by which I don't mean dabbling, I mean the sort of absorbed play children engage in. I don't pull back the camera for long views to self-consciously assess. Long views are never beneficial. That's what grown-ups do. What's happening now is what's real.

The promiscuity is seen on a subtler level, too. I can adopt and act from a number of perspectives and voices, and feel absolutely sincere in all of them. Each time, I feel like I've found the innermost one; my actual "home". I believe myself so deeply each time that I've periodically worried whether I'm a psychopath.

And perhaps I am, some weird sort of do-gooder, highly empathic psychopath. To me, though, I feel that I've been in an endless search for what I'd hoped the world would be; the small outcroppings of quality and clever creativity, the fleeting bursts of joy among the grimness, the Easter eggs of creation. They're too diffuse in any one realm, so I keep moving. Like a scramjet engine scooping up oxygen molecules through its huge intakes, relying on sheer speed to harvest sufficient quantities of sparse fuel, I've spread out to many cul-de-sacs in the maze, gleefully absorbing power-ups just as my exuberance begins to wane. I'm like an animal who needs vast habitat to support itself. It's a pain, frankly.

Yet I'm not radically different from people who take a narrower approach; who settle in and become experts in Sichuan food, or who only play 1930's swing jazz, or who go every day to the same restaurant, bar, or cafe. People who've only worked one job in their one specialty, and who have one dream, one big idea, one religion, one philosophy, one credo.

I could easily have gone that way. When I first discovered Jackson Heights, ate my first Colombian plato montaƱero, and fell in love, my ardor quickly mushrooming into the resolution to experience and master the many, many other cuisines represented under the el of Roosevelt Avenue, I could just as easily have stuck with Colombian. I could, to this day, be listening only to cumbia music, reading only Colombian literature, and hosting a proud web portal for "All Things Colombian". I could be less of a mercenary, a whore. I could have stopped right there and then.

But I didn't. I'd love to say I kept going because I wanted to grow and learn and experience, but I could have done all those things within the borders of Colombian culture. I might say it was an overarching desire to experience the whole world, but you can't eat the whole world, that's just a narrative. You can only eat what's in front of you right this minute. We are small beings, living moment-by-moment, like raindrops descending a window. Any grand narrative we assign ourselves is strictly a graft-on (hence my disdain for long-views and camera pull-backs). Life doesn't work that way. We're not grand.

It was only the tiniest thing that diverted me from that path: I was too oblivious to recognize a limitation. It had never occurred to me, keeping my head down, that loving, believing in, and identifying with A meant not loving, believing in, and identifying with B. And so I became benignly and unselfconsciously promiscuous. And it wasn't until years later, when I occasionally caught myself in the mirror fervently kissing one lover goodbye en route to another, that I noticed I'd stumbled beyond boundaries.

It's no harder to go broad than to go deep. But it's also possible to go broad and deep. I think it's a matter of sincerity, fervency, and obliviousness.

As I wrote here:

Life consists of a series of revisitations to tired cliches, certain with each new pass that we now really understand them. And so it is with Edison's "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration." That quotation used to conjure up images of wild-eyed fanatics banging hammers in garages in the middle of the night. But it's just a matter of normal people blithely but indefatigably putting out. The Colorado River, etcher of the Grand Canyon, is just some shitty little river. The best among us are shitty little rivers. To me, that's what Edison was saying.

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