Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Idiocy

I like to be told that I'm being an idiot. This helps me be less of an idiot.

By contrast, most people recoil quite strongly from acknowledging to themselves any idiocy in their thought or behavior . They'd much rather be idiots than feel like idiots.

It's taken me a very long time to learn not to apply the golden rule on this one.

Slog Depression

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the latest "label" (aka tag) here on the Slog: depression (click for all entries so labeled in reverse chronological order).

You can see lots more labels in the left-hand margin if you'll scroll down.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The National Disgrace of How We Treat Exonerated Prisoners

You were wrongfully convicted for a crime you didn't commit, enduring pretty much the worst thing that can happen to a person. You spend years or decades in jail. Then, through some miracle, you find yourself exonerated. You're free to go. You're one of the lucky few wrongly-convicted prisoners to find justice.

What do you do then? You've lost a big chunk of your life, you're traumatized, you have trouble "catching up" to technology, and whenever you apply for a job you must mark "Yes" when asked whether you've been convicted of a felony. The profound blight on your record will always come up on web searches, you're flat broke, and nobody in the system has apologized...or will. In fact, many prosecutors refuse to even acknowledge exonerees.

There is nothing within our system to help, guide, or reintegrate exonerated prisoners. They reenter society with nearly all the same burdens as ex-felons. It's a national disgrace.

Three things you can do:

1. Watch a superb TV show fictionalizing one such situation. The short first season of "Rectify" just ended, and it's been renewed for a second. Catch it on the Sundance Channel, or occasional reruns on AMC, but be warned: it's a slow-paced, subtle, contemplative show. Don't expect 21st century pacing or lots of "action".

2. Listen to this informative 34 minute report from NPR's "Talk of the Nation" on this subject.

3. Join me in donating to Resurrection After Exoneration, a tiny, grass-roots group run entirely by exonerees that is pretty much the only place in the country these folks can turn to for support.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Human Freshness Dating

I was one of the busier NYC freelance trombonists in the 1990's, playing and recording regularly with a couple dozen bands, plus a wide circle of colleagues who'd call me for this or that. There was also a still wider circle of casual connections - near-strangers who'd once taken my business card and who might at any time call out of the blue. This is how freelancers cobble together a living.

I knew it all didn't run on its own momentum. I needed to be out there playing constantly to maintain old connections and to forge new ones. But I'd circulated so widely that I assumed there was some buffer; that at least some interest would persist even if I wasn't beating the bushes.

Then Chowhound launched, quickly exploding in popularity. It never really stopped exploding, so I spent a decade trying to manage a tidal wave, with no time for music, much less networking. My music career slipped away from me.

At no point did I announce I'd quit. I didn't have time to quit! I just stopped returning calls. I figured offers would still drizzle in for a year or so, then gradually thin. With my massive network of contacts, I'd still get calls for busy nights like New Year's Eve, as distant associates, desperate to fill gaps, worked down their lists to me. A fine mist of offers would waft my way for years.

But, as it turned out, within two months my phone went completely dead. The "fine mist" thereafter added up to maybe three calls, total. It wasn't that word had spread about my going incommunicado; my contacts were far-flung and disconnected. Yet within just eight weeks, it was as if I'd never existed.

Moving ahead through the Chowhound years, I was constantly interviewed and profiled by major media, fielding hundreds of media requests per year. I tried my damnedest to be entertaining, and came to be known as a reliable source for amusing commentary.

Finally, I finished my mandatory term with CNET, which had bought Chowhound, and ran for the hills. I didn't announce retirement from the food world (though I did begin directing my attention to other realms). And I don't think I lost any drollness. So I figured even if I wasn't helming Chowhound, I'd occasionally be called for a quote, or invited back to some of the dozen or so public radio programs where I was considered a "friend of the show". There'd be a trail-off, but it would be years before it all dried up.

Nope. There were very few calls (I ignored most, being tired of acting the part of the whacky, food-crazy Chowhound), and, within two months, my phone went dead. It wasn't that word had spread about my going incommunicado; my contacts were far-flung and disconnected. Yet within just eight weeks, it was as if I'd never existed.

It was revelatory to experience this twice, in different realms. If it had happened only once, I'd have taken it personally. But seeing it twice showed me that this is a natural process and that it's entirely impersonal.

Whatever slot you fill in this life, other people focus on the slot you occupy rather than on you, the occupier. Very little in this world is personal, including the most personal relationships.

If you feel you've reached some enduring position, you ought to keep firmly in mind that it's not about you. It's never been about you. The essential message of life on Earth is: it all churns. You will be replaced...quickly. And thank goodness for that! Irreplaceability would be tragic in a mortal world.

This isn't a harsh reality - unless you were laboring under delusions to the contrary. It's just a reminder that we're all here to engage in a vast, endlessly morphing collaborative art project. So we may as well wear our roles lightly.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Postcards From My Childhood Part 10: Perils Are Not Infinite

Previous installment
First installment

"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget.


As a small child, I had a terrible fear of being lost in crowds. It wasn't the fear of separation, per se; it was that I didn't understand the world well enough to gauge the actual downside - to know whether I risked permanent separation. What if I never, ever found my parents? Would I wind up in some orphanage, dressed in rags and being served gruel?

Eventually, I came to understand that even if I did get badly lost, I would - by hook or by crook - that night undoubtedly find myself back home safely in my bed. I might need to undergo some fraught drama and run down some dead ends, but, really, that ending was inevitable. Lost kids at shopping malls don't simply plunge into an abyss.

Other kids, smarter than me, instinctually understood all this. They seemed oblivious to peril, with their innate understanding that risk doesn't extend to infinity.

This realization has applied widely: to broken hearts, crushing disappointments, disastrous failures, bracing humiliations, and bad situations of every stripe. Whenever I feel on the nauseous brink of permanent smoldering extinguishment of life as I know it - permanent total pain, permanent total inability to ever get back to my life - I recall my lost toddler self. I remember, viscerally, his sense of clammy dread at the prospect of infinite peril. And I walk with him through the instant when he realized that even if he made wrong moves, and adults in charge made lots of stupid decisions (as they so often do), and dead-ends were hit and gulping drama was experienced...he'd ultimately find himself back home safely in his bed*.

One problem is that an over-abundance of limp cliches apply. "One day you'll laugh at all this", "Tomorrow's another day", "This too shall pass" and the rest all roll way too easily off the tongue and can't match the deeper emotional wisdom of my childhood flash of insight, which evoked a deep-seated understanding, beyond words, that I'll still be me, living my life, no matter what. Perils are not infinite.


* I actually save this for particularly upsetting situations. My first line of defense is the "Oh, Shit!" Antidote.


Read the next installment

Wave at Saturn

Set a reminder for tomorrow afternoon, from 5:27 to 5:42 p.m. EDT, to go outside and wave at the sky. We're going to be doing a group photo.

The Cassini orbiter, currently orbiting Saturn, will be in position to do a spectacularly rare thing: shoot a photo of Earth. There have only been two prior shots of Earth from the outer solar system, because, first, the Earth is incredibly far away from Saturn - ten times the distance of the Earth to the Sun (so far that the Earth will only register as just a few pixels - so don't worry too much about what you're wearing), and, second, the Earth, from that vantage point, is right next to the Sun (sort of like Mercury is for us), so it's hard to get a decent shot.

Here are the only two previous shots of Earth from out there: the famous "pale blue dot" shot by Voyager in 1990 from 3.7 billion miles away, and a previous Cassini shot from 2006. The difference this time is that we'll be doing our first intentional portrait. The previous two photos were serendipitous candids, where the Earth essentially photobombed the shots.

So this time, the plan is for everyone to go outside and wave.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Vicious Pendulums

When you or one of the groups you belong to is vilified or persecuted, you have two choices: 1. vilify/persecute back, or 2. rise above. Thank you, Christ, Gandhi, and King...and anyone else who's advocated for this wiser response.

As I've wondered a few times here on the Slog (starting here): Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?

Here's a related thought about nationalism. Pfft, on second thought, what the hell, I'll just reprint it below:
Nationalism is always a noble-seeming mask for xenophobia.

Show me someone who loves "Us", and I'll show you someone who hates "Them".

Monday, July 15, 2013

Profiling and Counter-Profiling

From the Zimmermanite perspective, a young black kid in a hoodie was acting suspiciously in a suburban neighborhood. Hey, everyone knows what that means! We've seen that movie! And so people on that side began sounding off long before it came out that Martin was unarmed, or that he was simply returning home. No matter! Again, we've seen that movie! Go with your gut!

From the Martinite perspective, a white dude shot an unarmed black kid. Hey, everyone knows what that means! We've seen that movie! And so people on that side began sounding off long before it came out that Zimmerman isn't quite as white as his name implies, or that he'd had his head bashed in. No matter! Again, we've seen that movie! Go with your gut!

I agree with Alan Dershowitz that the prosecutor did an incredibly crappy job. But I agree with our legal system that the onus should be on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt, rather than make judgements based on ignorant gut instincts - by "profiling", if you will - re: the participants and the situation.

And while I wish the prosecutor had brought a stronger case (and feel optimistic about the Martin family's chances in a civil trial) I'm relieved that the notion of "doubt" remains possible in a court room, if not in society at large, where everyone seems to have known exactly what went down that night in Sanford the instant they first heard the headline.

But my question for the Martinites is this: if Zimmerman's knee-jerk suspicion of Martin exemplified the ugliest, most unfair and ill-considered sort of profiling (which you consider shameful, racist, and completely inappropriate), then what faculty informed your knee-jerk suspicion of Zimmerman?

Blacks have been unfairly persecuted and victimized for many years. Absolutely true. But it's also true that young black kids in hoodies have done bad things. Neither general observation should have any bearing on a real-world situation, however (much less warrant the death of an unarmed child). Individuals are individuals, and should be treated as such. In fact, that's the very problem with profiling, isn't it?

Friday, July 12, 2013

Classy Endings

The last ten years have been a disgusting decade for journalism. From the press' collusion with Bush/Cheney to stir support for the Iraq war, to ignoring stories like the Texas legislature filibuster, to getting stuff wrong (from the Supreme Court's Affordable Care Act decision to Trevon Martin to Newtown to the Boston Marathon bombing), plus an overall disinclination to really dig or challenge, we've devolved to the days of Yellow Journalism...only the press back then was actually good at yellow journalism.

And print journalism has performed no better than broadcast. Newspapers have been doing a horrible, lazy job for years now (note: there are still superlative reporters out there doing brilliant work, just as you can find shimmering counterexamples amid any overall decline; I'm speaking here in broad generality).

One might point out that print journalism is dying, so the degeneration's to be expected. But it's not. Newspapers are dying economically, but that has no direct effect on quality. As print reporters have seen the writing on the wall, they've faced a choice: 1. rise, en masse, and do such a superlative job that their profession's demise would be seen as the tragedy it truly is, or 2. collapse haplessly into irrelevancy. Most chose collapse. I can't tell you how many times in the past few years I've picked up a newspaper and grimaced to see besieged reporters and editors doing so little to prove their worthiness.

Having observed restaurants for a long time, I've seen countless failures. And the normal way of things is for failing places to nonchalantly repel customers. Blazing with disgust over the lack of business, staffers and even management irrationally take frustrations out on diners, treating those who do show up with indifference or even outright hostility. The cooking falls off, too. And that's that.

Only once did I see a place push full-throttle to the bitter end. As I wrote in my report for Slate of the final night at wonderful Bo restaurant:
...the place never caught on, though it wasn't for lack of effort by Maria, her intensely loyal cadre of fans, and New York's food writers, whose rave reviews plastered Bo's walls and windows. Sometimes when I'd drop by, Maria would tell me I was her first customer in days. It was heartbreaking, but, amazingly, she never slackened. On the contrary: As the situation grew more and more desperate (the waitress, unable to live on 15 percent of nothing, went back to Korea months ago, leaving Maria no choice but to wait and bus tables herself), she responded by determinedly making everything even better. Nearly every meal I'd eaten at Bo was superior to the preceding one. She was daring the world to eat elsewhere; creating food that might, via the sheer magnetic pull of its almost diabolical goodness, lure customers off the streets. Yet only a trickle of business was ever conjured up.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Postcards From My Childhood Part 9: Aging

Previous installment
First installment

"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget.


As I wrote in my account of Chowhound's latter days:
I don't remember much, aside from day after day of waking, going to the computer, and, many hours later, getting back up and going off to sleep. I'd often forget to eat. Days would drift by where I didn't go outside or talk to anyone. Literally everything in my life was eventually let go of: my health, most of my friendships, my musical career (even my trombone technique), and any notion of romance.
When the smoke cleared, I found myself in a Rip Van Winkle situation, and my emergence from suspended animation has provided a unique perspective.

Having lost track of many friends for a decade or so, I've gradually reestablished contact over the past few years. Of course, most are not as I remember them. In 1998, we were young. Now, we're not. Fifteen years is a surprisingly long time. So there's grey hair galore, and, through my eyes, the transition has been jarringly sudden. Normally, friends age so gradually that the process is barely noticeable. But to me, it's instant-on. It's as if they'd been baked overnight in kilns.

And here's what I've noticed. Old friends divide into two camps: those who are exactly the same beneath what seems like stage makeup, and those who seem squarely (in all senses of the word) middle-aged.

Naturally, I gravitate to the former. I feel they've kept alive something that others have let die. But I'm not certain I'm right about this. Might it be more flowing, more grounded, more sane to fully inhabit one's age? After all, "Peter Pan" is never a flattering association when it appears in the titles of self-help books.

The other day, as I ran up a flight of steps, a stranger tightened his face and asked if maybe I wasn't "a bit too old" for such undignified behavior. The suggestion struck me dumb; I didn't know how to even process it. Am I really supposed to constantly rejigger myself to meet people's expectations of how someone of my nominal age ought to act? If so, geez, I'd need to rethink pretty much everything!

When I was seven, and just beginning to send messages ahead in time to my adult self, the most urgent one was this: grown-ups who sever all ties with their childhood selves lose something essential. The perqs of maturity should be fully embraced, but a certain essence must be retained. I observed that this essence rarely survived to adulthood, but my childhood self, precociously aware of being father to my adult self, was determined to see it through.

So I know his answer: he chooses perpetuation, and releases a jolt of righteous satisfaction when he sees himself in me and in others. Dad, in other words, approves.

But is he being a tyrant? Is the original protagonist in this story blocking the natural progression out of some narcissistic determination to remain central to the narrative? Or is it simply a matter of clarity and freshness and light declining to be crusted over by bitterness, psychic baggage, free radicals, and other empty sedimentation?


Read the next installment

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Software You Live In

When I was a professional writer, I "lived" in Microsoft Word. Everything was done there, from to-do lists to reminder notes.

When I was running a web site and editing online newsletters and books, I did everything within my text editor, BBEdit.

When I worked for CNET, mostly serving as a communications nexus, I did everything within my email program, Eudora.

These days I'm back to BBEdit again (using Markdown to write blog articles and such, having primped up the font and interface prefs to make the app more writerly, and making great use of tabbed windows, "projects", and Dropbox synching to segregate my diverse activities and interests and synchronize between devices) and in my to-do program, The Hit List.

My accountant friend, Leslie, does everything in Excel, even composing brief notes there.

It's all part of the trend that's made software environments the new operating systems.

There's turbulence and light trauma involved in switching software "lifestyles". But as your tasks and interests evolve, it can become painfully obvious that using spoons to butter bread ain't working for you anymore.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Outstanding Swiss Chard Recipe

I find this dry slow sautee approach with swiss chard yields great results - very different from steaming, and even from the faster sautee Brazilians use for collard greens in couve. Separating out the stalks is a big key.

Don't let the simplicity of the recipe fool you. This one's a killer (thanks, Dave Halpern, for turning me on to it).

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Traffic Topography and Goodness Amplification

Here's an interesting and touching bit of wisdom from the science of traffic topography. The mathematics of traffic flow - when and why it slows down, what effects lane additions have, etc. - are unbelievably complex. It makes rocket science look simple. And I don't pretend to have any depth of understanding, but there's one gem that's stuck with me ever since I first read about it as a child:

If you never, ever come to a stop in heavy traffic, then, even if you just creep along at 1 mph, you will have a profoundly positive effect on cars for miles in back of you. Untold dozens, hundreds, even thousands of drivers behind you will have a much better experience. You will, in other words, "be the change" you want to see.

As I've written before, I don't "get" conservation. I think it's a crock. But this is not. Here, results of one's individual actions are profound and concrete. One can leave, literally in one's wake, slightly happier hordes of people. If you have ever halted in slow moving traffic, you've served the forces of unhappiness and evil. Prior to reading this, it was unthinking evil. But now I've put you on notice!

I have a friend who once did important work helping poor people in the Bronx, but now writes and produces television shows in Hollywood. And while he's making great money, I don't get the feeling he's particularly satisfied, or that his talents are being fully channeled. So I asked him about his choices, and his reply was interesting. He said his work in the Bronx helped a few dozen people profoundly. But his work in Hollywood helps a few million people slightly (and maybe a few hundred or thousand people more than slightly). Every positive sentiment, every insightful nugget he manages to inject into his shows creates powerful ripple effects. More can be accomplished via small acts of goodness over a loud microphone than via unamplified large acts.

Of course, a combination of the two is best. But, for god's sake: please don't ever stop your car in traffic!

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