Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Spirituality in 333 Words

When I'm immersed in a movie, I don't bring me with me. I "lose myself" as they say, which is literally correct. My body's not experienced, nor are my memories or opinions. I'm identifying with a character utterly unlike me. So who, exactly, is immersing and identifying? Awareness, of course!

Same for my dreams. I'm the dreamer, but I don't bring my body or persona. And the same when I lose myself in work or action or tequila. Awareness loves to pretend to get lost in bits of action and role-playing. And the story of this Jim Leff guy is just more of that.

In fact, none of us spends more than a few minutes per day identifying as our worldly persona. When we do, it's experienced as hypnotism. We remind ourselves - repeatedly! - of what our story has been, what we need, and what we're dissatisfied with. Awareness really drills it in. The human persona is Awareness' big project!

We've all seen folks knotted up in First World Problems, ginning up drama for kicks because there's little at stake in their comfortable lives. That's Awareness to a tee! Thirsty for drama, things like video games, sad songs, and reveries of fantasy and worry are sought out to identify with. I'd call it a human tendency, but since the human doesn't come along, it's obviously Awareness. Again: the human persona's just another role!

In meditation, we may experience the between-roles state, where Awareness is unattached to pretending. It feels empty, because we've not yet popped in a storyline. There's only pregnant expectation.

There's nothing wrong with any of this. It's a feature, not a bug, to absorb in rich stories. We only get it wrong in assuming it's our persona doing this role-playing. Awareness underlies all the roles. By reframing perspective, Awareness chooses channels. But sometimes, when drama's particularly galvanizing, it overcommits to a role, forgetting that it's just empty drama. It feels stuck. And that's the whole problem with everything.

Many people will tell you how to get "enlightened" - to unstick perspective and realize you've had infinite freedom all along. But no one's ever offered a reasonable explanation before for how we got unenlightened in the first place. Or who, exactly, gets enlightened, given that it involves the loss of sense of separate identity (answer: no one. Awareness simply remembers its natural pliancy. Like awakening from a dream).

Our problem is that we always tell the tale from the point of view of our Persona - a collection of ever-changing atoms, thoughts, memories, and plot points (as opposed to the part that's always been constant - the deepest me - aka Awareness). By explaining it from the point of view of Awareness (the only part that could possibly even have a perspective, being the only subject for a multiverse of objects), it's nothing crazy or paradoxical or profound. Just a bit counterintuitive.

It's all just a matter of perceptual framing. Jim Leff doesn't do that framing. He's just a story. He's a frame, not the framer. The framing is done by the awareness that peers out of Jim Leff's eyes. The me at the heart of me. The part that's always been there, while everything else changes. Longer, more involved version - also linking this into cosmology - here, plus linked follow-ups therein. Theological big picture here.

Finally, if this sounds like mad gibberish, I completely understand. Nobody understood why I was so "obsessed" with food in the early 90's; people thought I was crazy then, as well. I've always been a bit ahead of the curve (a whine, not a boast, as it's made me a perennial misfit). With this, I'm a bit more ahead than usual.

If you'd like to catch up, do this twice-daily meditation, browse this (very slowly and repetitively, until it begins to unlock), and bookmark the above for later. And don't make this any kind of holy thing. It's simple. Just a mere flip of perspective framing. The deepest feeling of "you" is the part that's always been there while all else changes. It's Awareness, and it's not yours. Rather, you're its.

You know Awareness intimately, it's not a mystery. But awareness doesn't have legs or hair or SAT scores or history. It just is.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Heart of the Problem

I think I've figured it out. The underlying mental quirk behind the deprecation of expertise, the unearned superiority, the "my-gut-beats-your-book-learning", the snark impulse, the do-it-yourself reality and the all-American assumption that each of us is the measure of all that is true and right can be traced to two adolescent assumptions, both epidemic and both unconscious:

1. Spotting stupidity makes me superior.

2. My agreement makes me your equal. Resonance with any chunk of the thinking of, say, a Gandhi or an Einstein confirms that I'm firmly on their level.

This is the ultimate outcome of late-stage consumerism. While consumerism isn't quite synonymous with narcissism, it definitely leans that way once it fully metastasizes.

Monday, April 23, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #19

Monday, April 23, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 89,100 Google search results, just slightly below last time's 90,600.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Call Me Methuselah

Everybody knows getting older is all about the increasing sense that everything's being shot to hell, and important traditions are being lost. (Digression management note: my new shtick is to put digressions in block quotes...)
Here's why old people get all dried up and curmudgeonly: they stop chowhounding. Once you stop actively replenishing your bag of treasured restaurants, musicians, people, ideas, etc., the old ones inevitably start winking out of existence (or pertinence) one by one until you find yourself on a wind-swept desolate plain in a world devoid of all color and vitality. Really, the problem is just that you haven't kept up with all the new treasure springing up!

It's a cliché for people in their 30s to say they no longer seem to keep up with new good bands. That's the origin point for the dry desolation they'll experience in their 50s and 60s.
But I'm experiencing some weird much higher-level version of this. I've seen whole cultures crumble. I'm only 55, but I might as well be 5000. Call me Methuselah.

The other day, I had to explain to a not-so-young Puerto Rican youth - living in a Puerto Rican neighborhood and carrying himself with evident "keepin'-it-real" Puerto Rican deportment - about one of the mainstays of Puerto Rican culture, which he'd never even heard of. "Maví" is a drink made from medicinal herbs and tree sap and molasses, traditionally left out in the sun so it ferments a bit. It's super healthy as well as the cheapest possible buzz ("Officer, I had no idea the cheap medicinal drink I'm selling would turn alcoholic; I must have left the clear gallon containers on top of my car roof too long!").

My understanding is that maví, which is delicious and quite unlike anything else, is one of the few artifacts of the long-gone Taíno, the island's original inhabitants. It is hard to find it down in Puerto Rico, but a few maví guys in NYC continue the tradition, selling gallons of the stuff, along with sugarcane and coconut juice and papayas, from vans that have parked in the same outer boroughs locations for decades.
The Amish in Pennsylvania preserve long-extinct German language and culture from centuries past. And there was once a Neapolitan restaurant in Brooklyn that cooked dishes unavailable in Naples for decades, based on salt pork, which preceded the more recent incursion of olive oil to the region. Diaspora's a complicated thing; immigrants both dilute and preserve their parent culture. The melting pot is also a time capsule.
10-20 years ago, Puerto Ricans would tell me they'd heard of maví but never tried it. Now this guy had never even heard the word. And his eyes barely focused as I told him about it, and how he could still find some around town. I might as well have been talking about petticoats and harpsichords.

Same with my favorite Punjabi dish, palakwala (proteins - often chicken - in a sauce of spinach, tomato, ginger, and cumin). I remember when palakwala was widely-known, and then when it was "that dish my parents used to talk about", and now...nothing. It's gone. Waiters assume I must be asking for a samosa or whatever.

Same for aloo bujia, a Pakistani dish of potatoes stewed for hours (no relation to the current trendy french fry dish called aloo bhajiya). Somewhere in Karachi there exists a wizened, foggy old Pakistani gentleman who remembers this from his youth. He and I are the last of the aloo bujia eaters.
Just more of that magical realism, baby....
Yesterday, I ate at Havana Cafe in the Bronx. A mere six years ago, I waxed on about how Cuban food has a vibe, a profile, a soul that was completely different from other Caribbean cuisines. I didn't mention it in that posting (cool photos, though, plus a hot airport chow tip), but a lot of it stems from cumin - much like how the soul of Alentejan food - from the south of Portugal - is cilantro.
I don't normally like to say things like that, because they're misunderstood. Foodies put facts like these in their hoppers and figure they've got it all neatly figured out (Cuba = cumin; Alentejo = coriander). But you can sprinkle cumin in your rice and beans - or stir chopped cilantro into your cataplana - all you'd like, and it's not going to taste the least bit Cuban or Portuguese. It's not the ingredient, it's the touch - the undefinable, uncapturable, irreplicable way that a flavor flavors.

You need to taste that unique touch over time with a receptive palate and heart. You need to feel it, love it, hanker for it when it's not there. You need to build up some frickin' nostalgia! Only then will you be privy to the soul of the thing (which still doesn't mean you'll be able to evoke it in your cooking; that's a whole other level). It's about way more than the mere presence of some ingredient.
There wasn't a single grain of cumin in the food. And they used - it pains me to even type this - red beans everywhere, even in the moros. Cuba is black beans.
Which is not to say Cubans don't make red beans, but that's like confirming that New Orleanians make tuna casserole or Poles cook spaghetti.
I also asked for some "mojo", the oily garlic sauce that's the very underpinning of the cuisine. It's the edible version of "clave", the underlying pulse of all Cuban music. I should not have needed to ask for mojo, and was put off that I needed to do so. The mojo should have sat in a thick glass jar right on the counter, in front of the salt and pepper. But the waiter poked around the kitchen and finally brought me out a small plastic urine cup full of some watery substance, vaguely salad dressing-like, smelling weakly of garlic. To paraphrase the great Don Martin, brrrrehhhhhhhhhtch.

The restaurant was filled with Cubans (mostly under age 40), all of whom seemed to be enjoying it....while I, Methuselah, silently disapproved.

Look, I totally expected restaurants to close and bands to break up. I expected things that were once vital to fade and ossify. It's cool; I'm replacing stuff all the time! Talk to me about craft beer or yoga or Safari extensions! But whole cultures are not supposed to disintegrate this quickly. And, as they do, I'm not supposed to be the only damn person who notices.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Michal Hambourg

I wrote here about one of the greatest musicians I've ever known, the late Michal Hambourg. It was part of a long list of favorite recordings, and I'll replay the part about her below:
"The Hambourg Legacy"
Mark Hambourg, a peasant virtuoso from Eastern Europe who'd relocated to England, was the real deal. He was an early-recorded connection to the time when all this musty classical stuff was new and fresh and punk. Very well known in the early 20th century, Hambourg married in to Scottish nobility, and had a daughter, Michal - a prodigy who, in my opinion, was even better than him.

Michal was poised for stardom, but WWII interfered, and she never regained any career whatsoever. Rescued from obscurity in her 90's(!!) by Arbiter Records' Allan Evans, who'd recorded her on her home piano, with Liszt's walking stick mounted just above, on the wall. Arthritis cramped her technique some, but even if classical piano's not your thing, you'll instantly feel this is something else (listen to a free sample of her playing some Chopin that will make you cry). She sounds like she's IMPROVISING. No stiff, stodgy, polite, show-off piano this. Anyway, this record includes father, father + (young) daughter, and some modern recordings of just the daughter.
"The Hambourg Legacy" is out of print, but you can buy it on iTunes here.

Half Scottish nobility, half Eastern-European peasant Jew, Michal had all the majesty and all the soul; the roast pheasant as well as the chicken fat. Her pedigree traced directly to the great masters of 19th century music and she kept that flame alive for decade after decade, albeit in the most absolute obscurity. The essential loss of this necessary link and mammoth talent for a full half-century was a tragedy for her and for us, but Michal, naturally, found ways to contribute, working with gifted children and helping found the World Wildlife Fund, among other good works. Very late in life, she was rediscovered, but it was too late. There would be no concerts; no wider recognition.

But you, lucky ones, get to view the following. Here's the same Chopin from the second link above, along with video! Also with some wonderful Liszt and Mozart. This, for me, is what music aspires to be. Hardly anything comes close, even though, at age 78, Michal was far from her prime, her fingers arthritic and her energy diminished (see if you think it matters!).

I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon in Michal's living room, myself, a few years after this was recorded, and heard her play that same piano. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, you can visit Michal's living room, too. Do not miss this:

I managed to unearth the fan letter I'd written her, back in 2003 (just a bit before the events described here) which had earned me the lunch invitation (she cooked nearly as well as she played; again, half Scottish nobility and half Jewish peasant is sort of the ideal human amalgam):

Dear Ms. Hambourg,

It's not been the best year for me, but I just listened to your recording of Chopin's Etude in A-flat, and it makes me feel that life has richness and value. Your playing is too great to be measured by its therapeutic effect, of course, so please just accept this as my small personal testimonial!

I'm by no means a fitting messenger to deliver the following, but sometimes messages come from strange sources (plumbers, drug addicts, food critics, etc.). The message is: you are incredibly important for the world and you'll be remembered more than you imagine.

It can be helpful to tell people what they are.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

iPad Word Suggestion Poetry

I just had a dream
that I'd never thought of.
I just had a dream
that I'd never heard of.
I just had a dream
that I'd never had to live with.

The only problem
is that I'd never thought.

Meta Futility
You can try and not be able anymore
and you can try and try again.

Zen Marketing
The app does not work.
The problem is that
it doesn't seem like
a great deal
of a great deal.

Explaining the DNC Lawsuit

If you were wondering, as I was, exactly what's up with the massive DNC lawsuit announced today against Trump, Trump's campaign, Wikileaks, the Russian GRU, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Donald Jr., etc., check out this interesting and clear (though, per her style, irritatingly padded) explainer from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow:

Friday, April 20, 2018

Telling People What They Are

If you ever have the opportunity to tell someone what they are, take it.

This flies in the face of every standard of polite sociality. It's incredibly taboo to characterize people! Most of us know better than to poke around in the minefield of who people are and what they do. Most people agree that the best approach is for you to be you, and to let them be them, offering only vague statements of support and admiration. "You go, girl" tepidity.

And it's true that you can get into trouble with this stuff. I used to play in a weekly jam session, and a woman who deemed herself a particularly enlightened jazz fan and expert kept trying to squeeze into the elevator with me after we finished. I understood that she had a compulsion to share her criticisms of me with me. I'd manage to dodge her, week after week, by dashing out like a gazelle, or pretending to talk on my phone. Eventually, I resorted to taking the steps (from the 15th floor). I didn't want to hear her assessment; I didn't want her in my brain. We all judge everything constantly, but only a neurotic few of us feel obliged to share that mental narrative.

So don't do that! It's also not particularly helpful to tell a violinist she plays well. She'll politely accept the compliment, but it's not really your assessment to make. You are not an arbiter of quality. If you enjoyed the performance, say so. But "you're good!" sounds more condescending than you realize, and you're not telling them something they don't already know.

So there are indeed several ways you can go wrong. That's why social convention says to steer clear of the quagmire of ego and self-image. However, there are special cases in which you might be foundationally helpful, if you'll offer a brief, modest, uncritical word or two about how a person's work specifically affected you.

I once told a singer (really, just a singing waitress in a hippy cafe at the time, without training or aspirations) that I heard deep honesty in her voice. She flashed on this, and, to cut to the end of the story, she's recorded several albums and has a wide following. She hadn't understood what she was. After I told her, she ran with it (all credit goes to her, of course...not me).

She'd known all along that there was something about her singing, but it was lodged in the intuitive, non-verbal part of her brain. She couldn't access it, couldn't focus it, couldn't figure out where to go or what to do, because she had no idea of who she was or what she did. This simple statement brought it into the light. Knowing what she was, she went forward kicking ass.

When I wrote about "The Enchanted Misty Mountain of Tea and Excrement", about dinner in the mysterious and exotic tea temple being built on the side of a Marin County mountain (the final installment of my multi-thousand mile chow tour), I managed, as I occasionally do, to paint an evocative picture. The subject of that piece, tea expert David Hoffman, told me there was "magic" to the result. And that clicked for me. I'd known there was something I was sometimes able to achieve, but it was lodged in the intuitive, non-verbal part of my brain. By bringing it to light, I understood that I was an aspiring magician. A lot of this Slog is the aftereffect of that revelation.

Interestingly, the piece also told David what he was. A strong flavor was evoked, and I'm not sure - even with his masterful tea expert palate - that David was previously aware of his own flavor. Few of us are. He hadn't realized that he seemed as I described. We need to be told.

A couple of years ago, someone greeted me as I came off stage from a set of music. He told me that, strangely enough, my notes seemed to resonate somewhere in his chest, in his heart. This might have sounded appallingly sappy, but he offered it amiably and off-handedly. It was flattering, but, much more importantly, it was useful. While I enjoy a certain open-heartedness on good days (thanks to meditation and stuff), it's not something others consciously notice. And I hadn't realized that music was a contagious channel; I honestly hadn't a clue. I've written often here about the difficulties I've had trying to recapture my earlier musical skills since Chowhound disrupted everything. But now I had something new; something younger Me had lacked. This was foundationally important to know.

If you ever have the chance to tell someone what they are or what they do, take it.

Just be careful out there. Don't judge. And don't criticize or assess. You're not the arbiter. And don't be all weighty about it, because it's not about you. But do share, tersely, anything highly specific that you happened to have noticed in your experiencing.

Your genius friends might not realize they're geniuses; they may be drowning in self-doubt. Unconventionally beautiful people may not see that in themselves. Those with some super skill or faculty might not have slightest idea. Much talent comes naturally and doesn't feel special to the doer, so people often have no freaking idea who they are and what they're good at (beyond obvious, easily registered things like "plays violin well" or "runs fast").


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Chicken, Cookies, and Magical Realism

When I was in high school, my family often got takeout from Pudgie's Chicken and Ribs in Bethpage (a half hour ride from our house, so obviously this only happened once I'd gotten my learner's permit and could engage my latent chowhoundish instincts). Pudgie's was the prototypical mom-and-pop place, and it was great.

I woke up one day a few years later, and my obscure little chicken place was suddenly a large nationwide chain (good, not great, though obviously the same basic recipes). I anxiously returned to the Bethpage branch, and found in its place just another generic glossy chain iteration. Mom and pop were gone. Yet I heard they hadn't sold out. Somehow they were helming all this. What???

I found it wildly disorienting. Imagine if the Chinese take-out on your block suddenly became a sprawling franchise, mirrored from coast to coast, or if Emilio the guy at the bodega became "Emilio the Guy at the Bodega" for the entire nation. It's not supposed to work like that!

For that matter, consider DiFara's pizza. I used to be the only customer in the place (Mr. DeMarco was planning to retire due to lack of business), and now it's a treasured landmark countless fans claim to have known and loved long before I ever wrote about it. Wait, what??

Pudgie's didn't work out, they sold the trademark and secret process patent, and a handful of Pudgies/Arthur Treacher's hybrids and three standalone Long Island outlets are all that remain. I half expect the old Bethpage store to rematerialize. In fact, as the oddest possibility, it's also the likeliest.

I also used to patronize a shop called Annie's Cookies in San Francisco's Mission district. They were another unambitious-seeming obscure great local place, and I don't know what happened, but whenever I find myself in Whole Foods or health food stores, I spot boxes of "Annie's Cookies from SF" on the shelves. Not as good, of course, but still: what's happening???

This Slog needs way more animated GIFs....

I understand the concept of "selling out". I did it once, myself. But it's weird when it's some little brand hardly anyone else ever cared about, and weirder still when mom and pop turn out to have been concealing plans for a rocket ship all along.

This is among a number of discordant anomalies (e.g. a bass player who was mean to me once is currently locked up on terrorism charges) contributing to a "magical realism" flavor in my life. Being logical and scientific-minded, I try mightily not to give in to such thinking, but it ain't easy...

Monday, April 16, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #18

Monday, April 16, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 90,600 Google search results, up 9% from last time's 82,800 but still well below mid February's peak of 101,000.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Blog Archive