Saturday, July 31, 2010

Why It Sucks to Be a Musician

So I'm playing a lot better now. But I'm unsure what to do with it. I won't return to the lion's den of the New York City freelance music scene, rife with egotists, poseurs, back-stabbers, crazies, and petty gangsters. I need to find a way to do music without all the head trips and degradation. I figured I'd avoid all that by keeping my goal modest: to play heartfelt notes somewhere in blessed obscurity. I feel no compulsion to impress or to connect. I don't want to "build my reputation." I'll leave the racetrack to the hot rodders, and won't need to ask anything of anyone.

So the other day when my friend Elysa Sunshine (who sang the Chowhound jingle) invited me to her birthday party, and asked me to bring along my trombone, I figured I'd play happily along with nieces and nephews plunking out "Heart & Soul" on the piano, all of us sipping Hawaiian Punch. Nice!

There was some mildly disorganized jamming, which I enjoyed. Then, later, a guitarist appeared, playing dynamite blues. I grabbed my plunger mute - for a funky wa-wa effect - and he kept yelling "Yeah!" as we played together, afterwards telling me how fantastic I sounded. He's from New Orleans, where he leads a well-known blues band (he also regularly appears in that HBO Treme series, which I haven't been watching), and he said he's always looking for trombonists, and that if I ever came to New Orleans, I could work like crazy. The effusive praise went on and on, and seemed heartfelt.

It had been a long time since anyone was so impressed with my playing, and I liked his guitar, too. So I told him that maybe I'd come down one day and we could get together and jam a little more. He smiled enthusiastically, and told me to definitely look him up if I did. And, with that, he turned his head to speak to another partygoer.

I cleared my throat and inquired about how, exactly, I'd go about looking him up if I ever found myself there (like, I should check the phone book under "D" for "Dude from Elysa's Party? I didn't ask that out loud, of course). He stammered uncomfortably, and, finally, obviously feeling cornered, asked me, testily, whether I wanted his phone number. That would help, I replied. He dictated the first three numbers, then paused, and finally, flung me, with suspicious glibness and a flash of contempt, the remaining four. I don't need to try dialing in order to know it was a made up number.

What happened is that, being a TV star, he's being forced to guard his access. And, being a grungy musician, rather than a seasoned public relations professional, he's drawing the line a bit randomly. I sympathize, having had to draw some lines of my own due to Chowhound's popularity. It's not easy to do so without being a jerk.

But from my perspective at that moment, an unsolicited shiny bauble of bait had dropped in my lap, and I gave it only the faintest tug - triggering a gratuitous jerk-around and old familiar feelings of nauseous humiliation. Ah, it's like I never left the music business! You can just imagine how awful it is when actual effort's made to get ahead!

Even beyond music, the determination to rise above is very often futile. No matter how un-needy you make yourself, it's damned hard to maintain any semblance of dignity in this world. Which means, I guess, that the very notion of dignity requires reexamination.

But, hey, I'm just glad someone liked my playing. My musical recuperation what end, I can't possibly imagine.

Friday, July 23, 2010

"Escape From New York!" at Scouting NY

I'm a sucker for road trip blogs, and the "Escaping New York!" series, currently in progress on Scouting NY, is a particularly interesting one. The blog's proprietor is a film location scout, which means he has a keen nose for interesting, offbeat locales which photograph well, plus a smartly hip perspective. Best of all, he's traveling through the Midwest, which is full of all sorts of treasure which smug urbanites, who spurn the region, miss out on. I love the Midwest.

The site's archives are well worth a look. But this road trip began earlier this month, and you shouldn't miss it. Start here.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Marketers and Other Sex Workers

An interesting Seth Godin piece on marketing describes the friction between a marketer who's trying to seduce versus the intractable reluctance of some consumers to the amorous advances.
It's a lot easier to seduce someone who's worldview and attitude makes them open to it....and yet as marketers we seem to want to treat everyone the same, want to please everyone, want to come up with the magic words that open every heart.
I think a much clearer idea of the dynamics could be gleaned by substituting "prostitute" for "marketer".

By identifying as a marketer, you unfasten yourself from the things you might happen to market (much as a self-styled Lothario is detached from any deep loving devotion for cherished Other). Of course, for most of us, the notion of a "marketer" existing independently from whatever's being marketed seems perfectly normal. Indeed, many careers revolve around exactly that. But from my peculiar vantage point, this puts everything ass-backwards.

I was fairly successful at guerilla marketing Chowhound, but it never occurred to me to think of myself as a marketer. I was just spreading word about something I deemed cool and useful. In so doing, I often felt quite alone amid myriad other web entrepreneurs who appeared to be doing the same, because nearly all of them were coming from a very different perspective. They were
pretending - some very skillfully, others not so much. And to market for the sake of marketing is to feign passion...i.e. to whore.

I recall a meeting at CNET shortly after they bought Chowhound, where the brass was discussing strategies for cultivating a brand image of "passion and authenticity". I sat there listening with the uncomfortable sensation that my brain was about to explode.

It's jarring to find oneself decked out in cheap mascara and fishnet stockings en route to an evening with one's true love. Yes, marketers want to "open every heart". Because they're marketing, and the gig is about getting over. It's not so much about the product as about "about the product". This involves an agenda of manipulation, rather than sincerity or love. And that's precisely how big, bland, crappy crap gets foisted on us.

For most people, who consume in lockstep with this untethered marketing machine, it's never really about the product, either. We feign to enjoy soulless products marketed at us via canny feint. As in any bordello, feigning rules supreme, and neither side wants reality to intrude.

Chowhound wasn't feigned, and it certainly wasn't for everyone. In fact, the last thing in the world I wanted was for all of humanity to blow through our doors. I wasn't marketing to market, and it was never about "about the product". I wanted to find kindred spirits and genuinely delight them - not
make them feel delighted (hoping they'd take action beneficial to me). The latter is a very different - and distinctly sex-workerish - objective.

"The Web Means the End of Forgetting"

Wow, read the harrowing first two paragraphs of this NY Times article for some really upsetting examples of innocent individuals being persecuted for perfectly ordinary online behavior.

My takeaway isn't that we need to better guard individual privacy. Rather, it's that we need to stand together against a corpocracy which (unlike our nominal republic) is not in any way bound to respect cherished American freedoms.

It was a dark day indeed when the ACLU allowed itself to be rebranded as a liberal partisan group, rather than work to staunchly maintain its reputation for political agnosticism. Both left and right need to ally somehow to ensure preservation of our freedom of expression. The alternative is that we all simply learn to carefully guard our expression ("protect our privacy"), and, to me, that's no alternative at all. How would that differ from living under totalitarianism?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Slog Gaps and Trombone Talk

Sorry about the long gaps between entries. The past two weeks have been a bit fraught, because after returning from band camp with my trombone technique much rehabilitated (I've even basked in unexpected acceptance from some good musicians), my horn was stolen.

Which was not necessarily the worst thing in the world. My first trombone was a magical Bach 42 that I always considered to have a soul (it certainly played soulfully). But after literally playing it to death, I bought another, which never felt as good. It wasn't a bad instrument, but it lacked that spark. And I never got around to replacing it. But now I've been forced into it, which may be for the best.

Not that it's a simple thing. While anyone with $6000 can go out and buy a really good saxophone, and anyone with $100,000 can go out and buy a really good violin, the most expensive trombone is around $3500 and is of variable quality. You can't just go buy a trombone; I tried about 30 of the exact same brand and model to find my previous soulless horn (which at least had nothing particularly wrong with it).

So after trying several dozen trombones all over the NY Tristate area, I've settled on the bell from an old second-hand smashed up $900 Bach 42 at Sam Ash in Manhattan, coupled with the $900 slide of a bass trombone at a store out in the wilds of New Jersey. By Wednesday, my repairman will have refurbished the bell, and the Jersey guys will have mailed me the slide. And I think I'll have found magic again. Then back to yet another band camp, this one for two full weeks. By its end, I should be close to my old form. Phew!

Meanwhile, in the event of long gaps here, please bear in mind that most of the entries in this Slog are timeless (in terms of continued relevance, if not quality). So feel free, if you're bored and looking for something to read, to dip deeply into the archives. Have you read all the Popular Entries indexed to the left?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I'm a tough critic of brownies, but while I'm not saying these are the end-all/be-all, Dancing Deer makes damned good fudgey ones. You can find them at Whole Foods and other shmancy retailers.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Chowhound Demographics: Then and Now

Fascinating. Here are CBS' demographic figures for (which has subsumed Chowhound, in terms of branding, if not, by any means, in terms of traffic).

Let's compare this data to the results of market research we did way back in 2001:

2001: 57% have income over $75K (30% over $125K)
2010: 34% have income over $100K

2001: 28% are age 35 - 44, and 21% are age 45 - 54
2010: 35% are age 35 - 49

2001: 89% have college degrees
2010: 57% "college" (presumably including non-graduates)

2001: 52% women 48% men
2010: 59% women 41% men

In the immortal words of Dr. Bronner: "Dilute!"

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Slowing Down for Foreigners: UPDATE

Just FYI, I've added a long update to the entry below.

Slowing Down for Foreigners

There are people who are able to slow down and simplify their speech for foreigners, while others simply can't.

If you're the outsider, it can strike you as a lack of sympathy or patience when people rattle on in spite of your obvious language limitations. Or else you might chalk it up to sheer stupidity. But, with experience, it becomes apparent that plenty of nice, sympathetic, patient people - as well as highly intelligent people - lack the ability to adjust their speech for foreigners.

This appears to be a cognitive move which people either can or can't do; I haven't seen a murky grey area. And it's surprising that no one talks about this, because it may be an entry point for understanding deeper things about the human psyche. Plus, there are all sorts of interesting related issues. For example, why are some scientists able to explain their work to layman while others cannot?

I think it boils down to one of two issues: flexibility with language (language patterns are habitual, and some people have more trouble altering habitual patterns than others), or empathy (the ability to anticipate how another person will experience something). I'm not really sure which. But I'll be writing more about this, because I've just discovered an interesting connection....

Update: Rereading my own thoughts, it's got to be empathy. People's flexibility with language should be evenly distributed throughout the range from "real flexible" to "real inflexible". So if that were the underlying issue, there would be many people in the murky grey area...but, again, there are not. Empathy strikes me as more polar. Either you are inclined to inhabit the perspective of others, or you are not. So that would explain the black-and-whiteness of people with regard to this faculty.

I don't mean "empathy" in terms of emotional resonance. Consider: some people speak (and, even more commonly, write) as if no one is listening. They just send their words out there as best they can, and hope for the best, as a blind broadcast (and the comprehensibility can actually be quite high; the difference is in the perspective, not in the quality). Others have the ability to flip places and hear themselves as a listener hears them...even in real time, while they speak. I suppose that's an awfully tricky move, but while I happen to be able to do it, I certainly can't explain how. It's a faculty, that's all. But it's pretty much required if you want to say things in different ways to suit different listeners, all on the fly.

Friday, July 2, 2010


Some quick thoughts on de-cluttering, following up on my recent entry wondering why we only put our living spaces right just prior to moving out.

Assuming you have a clutter problem, consider these thoughts:

1. You know your inflow: mail, deliveries, stuff you buy, stuff you read. It fills your house like data fills a hard drive. But what is your outflow? As with calories in/calories out, it all boils down, in the end, to striking a balance. So how much trash do you take out per week? Could you find a way to make the outflow feel as satisfying as the inflow (it ought to, considering that outflow, like weight loss, is the solution to a critical problem)? Every item directed to trash makes your place less cluttered...and it's so much easier than losing weight. So pay much more attention to the outflow (controlling the inflow is harder)!

2. Buy a big box of those really large black Hefty trash bags (not the cheaper generic ones; spring for the big, thick, tough ones with the handy drawstrings). And fill one per day. Make it like a game - you absolutely must throw out one full bag every day. Also: get in the habit of filling all your waste baskets much more quickly.

3. That last suggestion will make you change your attitude toward your possessions. Cluttered people ask themselves "Do I really need to throw this out? I might want it one day!". But now you'll shift the question to "Do I really need to keep this? I want an uncluttered living space more than I want to keep on hand every object I might conceivably want!" You will come to look at possessions with a greedy eye re: their trash-ability.

4. We live in an amazing world where everything is easily found and purchased (often cheaply on eBay or craigslist). Books you don't read and music you don't listen to can always be re-purchased if you ever really need them (and I'll bet you don't wind up repurchasing more than a tiny handful, if even that). If you like to buy and store big packages of everyday items like toilet paper from Costco to save money, that's one thing. But anything you're saving for "just in case", which you haven't touched in a few years, is best trashed and maybe repurchased later. Because you may never need it. And if you do, you can just buy it (it seems uneconomical, but bear in mind that the storage incurs a cost, as well). And chances are that if you did ever need it, you'd be unable to find it, anyway. Your future self, who you're trying to aid with all these stored away knickknacks and doodads, will not be grateful. Rather, she will rue the cluttered existence you've doomed her to! You're not being helpful!

5. As for memorabilia and sentimental objects, ask yourself whether the pleasure you derive from them is so great that it's worth crimping your living space to accommodate them. To your heirs, it's nearly all junk, and will be brought unceremoniously to the curb upon your demise. Repeat: your "treasure" is nearly all junk. You may have a murky vision of yourself tenderly enjoying these things one day, but when, exactly, will that be? Do you truly envision your elder self saying "You know, it was worth the sacrifice of a perpetually cluttered living space in order to reexperience, in my golden years, the sheer joy of this commemorative back scratcher from Pennsylvania Dutch Country and this junior varsity soccer trophy"? Sharpen that visualized scenario to reflect reality. And envision your heirs tossing the cruddy back scratcher and soccer trophy into a big black trash bag. With that image and that clarity, you'll know what to do!

6. The main emotional deep dark pit beneath all this is the scary thought that one day you actually may want to show your son or daughter your soccer trophy, but, gulp, discover that you threw it out one day. Well, yes, that would be sad, wouldn't it? But exactly how sad? Would it tear you up for days, or just mean a quick lump in your throat? And - here's the critical part - wouldn't you endure a few prospective throat lumps of regret for a sleek, roomy living space? Isn't that a worthwhile trade-off? If so, then err on the side of throwing out too much rather than too little. The perpetual stress of clutter is far worse than a few minor pangs of materialistic regret. The new mantra should be: "when in doubt, throw it out" (rather than the clutterer's mantra of "when in doubt, hold on to it!").

It's all psychological self-hacking, but sometimes that's what we must do to jar ourselves out of old habits and previous conditioning...

Beware Rubbery Cell Phone Cases

Putting your new iPhone in a case is one solution to the (generally overblown) antenna problem. But beware that the bumper case from Apple that's been much discussed is made of rubber, and rubbery cases make phones really hard to fish out of pockets.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Great Film: Winter's Bone

If you haven't seen Winter's Bone yet, I hope you do. Everything from the writing to the acting to the directing to the cinematography is dead-on perfect. And, in keeping with the welcome cinematic trend toward complexity and ambiguity - rebuffing the Forest Gump model of telling the audience exactly what to think and feel at every moment - it tells its story of bleak cruelty without dehumanizing the bad guys into one dimensional villains.

The long era of obvious monodimensionalism in film, thank goodness, seems to be waning (I'd argue the fatal blow was dealt by Capturing the Friedmans, and the astounding - and aesthetically provocative - feat of balancing its "Did he?/Didn't he?" tale impeccably on razor's edge). As NY Magazine's David Edelstein wrote,
There are moments in the harshly beautiful Winter’s Bone in which the characters are so deeply, unfathomably mean in response to a 17-year-old girl’s pleas to find her father (or at least his body) that we search their faces for a glimmer of sympathy, kinship—anything human [but]...This director, Debra Granik, doesn’t let the actors go dead: There is movement, barely perceptible, under the surface. Some vein of compassion, however thin, must be down there. Somewhere.
Not that the film's so extremely harrowing (I jokingly described it to a friend as "'Precious' in the Ozarks", but that was unfair), given its ample courage, love, and good music - plus the thin but palpable layer of humanity Edelstein describes. It does, however, open a window into a layer of human behavior most of us keep subconscious.

And it's important to periodically be shown humanity acting out its innate capacity for heartlessness. To be reminded, as we lament the selfish callousness of daily life, that it's downright miraculous that things are as generous and compassionate as they are. A number of us can walk freely without being attacked or subjugated, and lead lives with at least some amount of peaceful self-determination...if not full-out empowerment. None of that's a "given".

The beast has been restrained more than we realize. Humanity's come far from its roots in animal savagery, and it's easy to lose sight of this as we rue the remaining traces (and errant full-out bursts).

Update: I do agree with this guy to a certain extent, in worrying that audiences would take this film to be an indictment against Ozark people, generally, rather than a story of some dastardly fictional goings on by fictional characters in a fictional Ozark community. But the book's author is from there, and lots of locals were deeply involved in the film's production. Their labor-of-love help in getting this low budget movie made, despite its dark portrait, reveals more wisdom and sophistication than their supposed defenders would give them credit for.

Keeping all tales of non-mainstream people fuzzy and heartwarming may satisfy certain impulses, but such restraints are anathema for tale-tellers. As a member of five or six minority groups, myself, I find myself cringing whenever I see groups to which I belong depicted or discussed with anxious care and glossy patina. What awful thing, after all, are they so carefully dancing around?!?

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