Saturday, September 29, 2012


I'm replaying the following entry, because I find myself marveling more and more at how much of life, relationships, and our own selves is obscured behind the gauzy curtain of the unconscious.

Most people are instinctually repelled by that realm, but even a dab of sustained curiosity will yield interesting and useful insights about what's going on in one's peripheries (for example, this). And I never fully, viscerally, understood what the unconscious was until I observed the boo-boo effect described below. If you'll think about it, you'll recognize that the same effect applies in many things besides bodily cuts and scrapes.

Most people don't have a visceral sense of what "unconscious" means. They understand the word only as an abstract concept. Here's one way to look at it.

Have you ever discovered that you're injured, but hadn't realized it until, at some point, you looked down at your ankle or wrist or shoulder and noticed that it was bleeding, or black and blue? And then you were able to recall having been dimly aware of the injury at some level for a had been bugging you, but you'd been too busy or distracted with other things to consciously notice, until it broke through to conscious awareness?

It was real, not supernatural. You were definitely perceiving it. And it had been, at some level, bothering you. But you didn't quite "know" about it or "think" about it or identify it in the shiny front of your mind where the thinking and labeling happens. That is what "unconscious" is.

What's more, our minds are like icebergs, with the vast majority submerged. So most stress comes from down there, as well. Watch carefully when stress "breaks through" to conscious awareness, because there are clues about its roots - much as an injury coming to conscious awareness can, with effort, be mentally traced back to determine where it was incurred.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Our Loonballs Vs. Their Loonballs

Why is it that whenever people in America shoot up schools or post offices, or spout neo-Nazism or white supremacist rhetoric, or concoct hateful videos about other people's religions to senselessly provoke anger and retribution, we expect reasonable observers abroad to recognize that these are just our extreme fringe, not at all representative of most Americans...yet when we see furious "Death-to-America" Muslims on TV, we assume we're seeing the whole Muslim world rearing up?

[By the way, my understanding is that, both in Farsi and in Arabic, the "death to..." construction really functions more as a "down with...." statement. Though it's certainly used, as well, by some loonies with death on their minds.]

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Course With No Name

My first rule of home cooking is: never cook a dish with a name.

Dishes with names are restaurant food, and restaurant food nearly always requires health compromises - grease, salt, simple carbohydrates, etc.. And, worse, you won't add the insane quantities of those things that a restaurant would, so the result will disappoint. It'll be both overly healthy and not healthy enough - the worst of all worlds!

I do my restaurant eating in restaurants. When cooking at home (which I try to do as much as possible), I'm craving the opposite extreme. I want healthy food that leaves me not impressed but deeply nourished, my batteries refreshed.

So I cook like an athlete. I balance protein (clean, low-fat), carbohydrates (complex and low-glycemic), and fat (monounsaturated). But, unlike athletes, I go to great trouble to make things delicious. It's easy to make food superficially tasty via butter, cream, salt, and frying. Those are cheap shortcuts, albeit effective ones. But deliciousness is possible without those things; it just requires a bit of care, effort, and ingenuity.

Here's an example:

Take a pound of ground turkey breast (beware other cuts of turkey, which contain as much saturated fat as red meat), and break it up gently with a spatula over medium heat in a non-stick pan with 2-3 tablespoons of stock. Cook covered for 2-3 minutes, until no longer visibly red.

In a mixing bowl, mash one baked yam or sweet potato with half a package of tofu. Season with marjoram, ginger powder, black pepper, and cumin. Lightly mix this in with the turkey, and cook uncovered until excess moisture is gone and bottom of turkey is barely beginning to brown, flipping once. Toward the end, mix in spinach leaves.

Remove from heat, and cut up a juicy fresh tomato over the pan. Allow the tomato to heat, and give up a bit of juice, but not to fully cook. Drizzle with great extra virgin olive oil (I like Trader Joe's California Estate) and serve with steamed broccolini (with more drizzled olive oil).

It tasted affably easy. Not a voluptuary experience, though enjoyable. But it felt really good. I felt better, physically, after eating it than before (there will be no heartburn, blood sugar spikes or troughs, or after-dinner cravings), and that's not something I experience from restaurant cooking. It comes from fresh whole foods combined in perfect nutritional balance without any cheats or compromises.

I've come to perceive the wellbeing-after-eating feeling as a sixth taste, and one I sorely miss when I've been eating out too much.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Stalking the Albino Pupusa

I never had a rice pupusa before. Behold the Salvadoran rice corncake:

More than anything, this explained why corn is usually the grain of choice. It tastes like an evolutionary step that failed, but hasn't yet been winnowed from the gastronomic gene pool.

 What's a pupusa, you ask?

There are no hard and fast rules about Hispanic cuisine, and anyone professing one ought not be trusted. But there's one rule of thumb that's very handy, though riddled with exceptions: Tortillas get thicker as you go south.

In Southern Arizona burros come wrapped in (wheat) tortillas so thin you can read through them. Across the border In northern Mexico, tortillas are more like the ones we're used to - thinnish, and offered in wheat or in corn.

As you head south toward Puebla, they thicken just a bit as you begin to see less wheat and more corn (and things stay corn for the rest of this journey). Toward Mexico's center, gorditas become popular. These are thick-ish tortillas, occasionally stuffed.

Way down south in the Yucatan, you find panuchos, which are thicker still, and stuffed with things like marinated shark.

As you pass into Central America, the trend continues. In El Salvador (and Honduras), the rage is pupusas, which are classically stuffed with either meat, cheese, or meat-and-cheese. Then you reach Venezuela, home of the arepa, which is nearly as fat as it gets. Venezuelans cut them and stuff them, like panuchos and pupusas, but the Colombians, still further south, make them a tad thicker, and pile stuff on top.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

More iOs 6 Maps Stuff

Follow-up to the follow-up.... Chowhound David Lerner of Tekserve (where I've been buying and fixing my computers since 1988) informs me that if you're in Maps doing a search or getting directions, you can have Maps pass your query to another app (e.g. Hopstop) for transit info/directions/mapping, and it passes all the waypoints so you don't need to set up the search again. That's better. It's not an ideal workaround, but it'll suffice until Google puts out a Maps app. And as far as the new Maps' data being laughably spotty and inaccurate, I'm confident that'll get better. Apple almost certainly is pouring itself into the task of fixing all that, and lord knows they've got enough data points to do so quickly. Speaking of Apple, re: all the recent trademark nonsense, Swiss Federal Railways says Apple copied its iconic railway clock

iOs 6 Maps Workaround

Re: the lack of transit info in the new Maps app that comes with iOs 6, released earlier this week... I hadn't used the app Hopstop in a while, and it's been vastly improved. It now gives nicely complete transit information, directions, and mappings for a number of cities (mostly in the US). Google Maps offers a lot more cities, and, as a separate app, the info doesn't conveniently overlay the map you're looking at (where presumably you have your destination keyed in and bookmarks stored), but the app offers much richer flexibility (you can set lots of prefs, e.g. whether to favor more walking or more transfers; to include or not include buses, etc) and much more detailed directions.

Dishwasher Soap Causes Weight Loss?

My weight is inextricably tied to the weight of the box of dishwasher soap under my sink.

I'm not kidding. It's one of the few indisputable truths of weight loss.

The thing is, you cannot lose weight while eating out a lot...even if you're making "healthy" ordering choices. So the more I cook at home (and, therefore, run the dishwasher), the less I weigh. Seriously, you could graph the box's weight against my own body weight, and the two lines would be in perfect parallel.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wait Before Upgrading to iOs 6!

iOs 6 was just released. As usual, Apple giveth and Apple taketh away.

If you're an iphone/ipad/touch owner who uses the Map app's transit directions, hold on before you upgrade! iOs 6 replaces the old Maps app with a new one which does not do transit. So if you live in a city, this is a deal-killer. If you commute to suburbia via commuter rail, this is a deal-killer. If you ever travel to other cities where you count on your device to usher you around via public transportation, this is a frickin' deal-killer. But, hey, think of the endless milliseconds of delight you'll experience from the new app's cool 3-D panoramas of buildings!

Apple expects third party developers to fill the gap by offering apps with transportation info. But it will never overlay directly on Maps, as it has in the past. You won't be able to instantly flip between walking, transit, and driving directions. It'll never "just work". As with the unthinkably shitty "Podcasts" app (I now use Downcast) which was split off from iTunes, we can now enjoy the unsynergy of sloppy fragmentation.

The only thing to be hoped for is that Google eventually offers a separate Google Maps app, as they've released a new YouTube app now that Apple's removed the old built-in one.

But for the time being, never early adopt with Apple. Sooner or later, it will end in tears.

Oh, and we've also lost "street view". Update: see this.

Comic Strip Exclamations

It took me decades to realize that "ugh" is pronounced ala Yiddish.

But where does that leave us with "argh"?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Sanctimony Delusion

It's possible to elevate one's sanctimony so high that one's actual words and deeds scarcely matter.

In my entry "The Delusion of Tolerance and The Hypocrisy of Exceptionalism", I described how Americans use the notion of "exceptionalism" to justify hypocrisy not just in the nation's foreign affairs, but in all sorts of sub-groupings, notably including both our political left and right.

In my entry "Always Talk to the Mask", I described a type of person I call "Psycho Pollyannas", who do awful things without in the least affecting their squeaky clean self images.

It's all the same stuff. The Sanctimony Delusion is fractal; it applies to groups huge and small, and to individuals, as well. American Exceptionalism, in the classical sense, is the Daddy Bear of deluded sanctimony. The exceptionalism of each of our two political parties is the Mommy Bear of deluded sanctimony. And the Baby Bear is any individual hypocrite so narcissistic - so securely ensconced in his/her inflated moral self-image - that shame is not only never felt, but absolutely irrelevant.

Sanctimony precludes shame, and that's why it's always empowered the worst hypocrisy (see the first link for two laughably blatant examples, courtesy of The Daily Show).

I'm sorry to pick on America. Lord knows humans everywhere have their own brand of self-deluded superiority. But this latest iteration of the age-old moral psychosis is distinctively ours. And it's getting worse. All three bears are unbridled and on the prowl.

Monday, September 17, 2012

What You Should Never Say to a Gunman

There was a law enforcement study a few years ago (I can't find the link) analyzing which circumstances make it more or less likely that someone pointing a gun will actually pull the trigger.

They found one (surprisingly common!!) phrase victims say which is incredibly likely to result in the firing of the weapon:
"Just go ahead and do it!"

Obama's Way (and the Dissociation of Fame)

Regardless of your politics, Michael Lewis' sprawling, fascinating feature in the new Vanity Fare, "Obama's Way" is unmissable. It's a historic first-hand look at the presidency by a journalist who was embedded by his side off and on for six months. As you might expect, Lewis' backstory of how the project went down is interesting in and of itself. He tells it on Fresh Air and on The Leonard Lopate Show.

The article's quite insightful, but Lewis misses one important point; many of Obama's observations about the position apply equally well to celebrity, generally. For example, the president is quoted as saying:
"One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is a character people see out there called Barack Obama. That’s not you. Whether it is good or bad, it is not you. "
In my essay on JD Salinger, I wrote:
"...mass attention actually feels quite disturbing and artificial. For one thing, it's never truly directed at you; it focuses on a facet of a layer of a static image which happens to have your name affixed to it. And you play little part in choosing which facet of which layer of which image is focused upon. The assignment process is remarkably similar to the way children get dubbed with nicknames."

Two thoughts:

1. You cannot be famous. Only an image of you can be famous. (That said, even the non-famous are known to those around them only in terms of images and approximations, but at least they're more faithful images and approximations.)

2. I once read an interview with Bill Murray where he said he can't understand why anyone would want to be rich and famous. Rich, ok; maybe. But...famous?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

German Lagers Set Me Straight

After last week's troubling and trippy experience of having my aesthetics scrambled by a demonic glass of Budweiser in a dilapidated and nearly-abandoned pub in a suburban industrial zone rife with cat scat, I seem to have recovered my juju. The trick: German lagers.

The explosion of interest in beer in the 1990s was sparked by the popularity of strong, characterful Belgian ales. There followed waves of boldly hoppy American brews. But lost amid all the fervor have been subtle German lagers.

A few extreme Germans, such as the Schneider's potent Aventinus, have wrestled themselves into popularity, but most German beers are too subtle to create hysteria. In fact, many are too subtle to even make the trip across the Atlantic. Their delicacy makes them particularly sensitive to light and age. Stronger, bolder ales can withstand a bit of damage, but the more refined lagers have nowhere to hide.

But right now, German beer has been grabbing beer geek focus. The generation that first thrilled to discover huge, strong, dark, rich beers as blessed alternative to awful American mainstream drek has tired of extreme flavors. They're seeking out "session" beers, which can be enjoyed all night without overwhelming your palate. Gentle German lagers are "more-ish" - the finish makes you pine for another sip.

Last night, piano/theremin god Rob Schwimmer introduced me to Die Koelner Bierhalle (84 St. Marks Pl, just off 4th Ave, Park Slope, Brooklyn), which offers a few dozen esoteric German lagers on tap, all perfectly poured into the correct glasses.

I had an unpasteurized, unfiltered keller beer. This is the most humble, soulful, and gently seductive of Germany's many beer styles. I drank it in the proper stone mug, and it won me over. It reset my baseline. I think I'm good again.

I also tried Innstadt Passauer Hefeweizen, which is phenomenally drinkable in spite of its beautiful complexity.

Die Koelner's open kitchen is sparkling clean and the food (mostly wursts and such, but with serious artisanal touch) looks and smells good, and prices are great (see food menu at the bottom of this beer list).

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Chowhound Tip: Avoid Djelalis

Many years ago, I accompanied a restaurant critic colleague to a research breakfast at a downtown restaurant whose name I've forgotten. We made our way into a cavernous basement filled with a sea of empty tables, and were greeted by a friendly and personable manager who was very pleased to have customers break the disquieting silence of his establishment.

The menu included traditional American breakfast items along with some dilutedly Jewish-ish touches. I think I recall blintzes, smoked salmon, and various applications of challah bread. It was a perfectly commendable breakfast, really; we were pleased with the discovery when, over a final cup of coffee, a conversation was struck up with the manager, whose name was Djelali (juh-LAH-lee). He spoke with a hard-to-pin-down accent, so we asked where he was from, and he replied that he was Afghan - in fact, the entire restaurant was staffed by Afghans. We launched into a happy conversation about Afghan cuisine, name dropping all our favorite dishes and trading tales of pumpkin fritters and leek turnovers.

As you might imagine, this was mind-blowing for Djelali, who hadn't expected New Yorkers to know his cuisine - much less New Yorkers scarfing down buckwheat pancakes and cherry cheese blintzes right there in his restaurant (which had nary an Afghan dish on its menu). He rhapsodized about food back home, explaining the mechanics of proper yogurt sauce and toothsome kebabs, proud and delighted to have met a tableful of Afghanopiles.

The other critic and I caught a glint in each other's eyes. We knew, and we knew we both knew, that we simply had to arrange for Djelali and his kitchen staff of repressed Afghan cooks to prepare us some serious Afghan food. We asked if he'd consider throwing us a special dinner if we brought a reasonable number of people and paid him whatever price he asked. Djelali stood up tall and straight and set his jaw and solemnly promised to cook us an unparalleled repast, given sufficient advance notice. The restaurant usually closed at 3 p.m., but they'd reopen after-hours to accommodate us. He took the offer so seriously that it seemed akin to a patriotic oath.

My friend put the review on hold. Sure, we'd enjoyed terrific omelettes, grits, and french toast, but the story wouldn't be complete until we'd also dug into aushak, bandanjan burani, and dough (pronounced like Homer Simposon choking).

It's harder than you might think for food critics to find companions. People get busy, they go on diets, they grow jaded and unwilling to investigate unproven venues. As a result, overbooking is de rigueur; you invite ten to be certain of four. To make the banquet worth Djelali's while, we aimed for ten or fifteen by calling practically everyone we knew.

Of course, everyone said yes, so Djelali was informed that we'd be bringing 30 to dinner.

We'd neglected to settle price in advance, having expansively offered the gracious Djelali free reign. The newspaper's expense budget would be badly strained, but a major discovery like this would surely be worth the cost. Anyone who could create such magic with pumpernickel toast would surely prepare us an Afghan feast of unimaginable quality. It would be the story of the year.

The appointed day arrived, as did our 28 guests. The throng was seated, Last Supper-style, at a single very very long table. Djelali seemed different; the confidant breakfast manager, so charming and assured as we'd sipped mimosas, seemed awkward and nervous at 8:30 p.m.. He and his staff, probably there since 4:30 a.m., were exhausted. And embarrassed. And we soon learned why.

It wasn't the worst meal we'd ever had in our lives. But it was close. The hoped-for Afghan repast was literally as bad as if we'd asked the staff at Denny's to whip us up a kaiseki meal. We were served a hallucinatory hodgepodge of 1. leftover breakfast and lunch items, and 2. leftover breakfast and lunch items primitively shaped into a flimsy semblance of Afghan food. It was a joke, a hoax. As the meal progressed and stony silence fell over the crowd, the mortified Djelali appeared to be drenched in flop sweat, complete with facial tics. My critic friend had yet more sweating to do when the check came - I believe it totalled nearly a grand. We'd not had a single bite of real Afghan food. We'd not had a single bite of real ANY food.

The restaurant closed soon thereafter, even though they'd been given a good review for their breakfast offerings (without any mention whatsoever of the disastrous dinner). It was as if the shame of this meal had sucked all the life out of the place and they'd crumbled up and blown away. We'd killed them.

It was a lesson I'd actually learned several times before, but never as dramatically. Since that night, the inflictees and I have used the term "djelali" generically to describe any foolhardy attempt to persuade restaurateurs to do something other than what their operations are explicitly set up to do. Believe me: you don't want the Mexican broiler guy at the French bistro to fix your party something special for Cinco De Mayo. Let the Greek-owned diner serve you their standard moussaka and pastitsio, but don't even imagine requesting a special octopus or baby lamb dinner. Most of all, never assume inauthentic restaurants hide secret authentic wonderfulness back in their kitchens. I promise you: shlock is all they know how to do, and attempts to plumb depths will lead to the heartbreak of a djelali. Sorry, the suburban Chinese place with moo-shoo everything is never going to whip you up a serious Hong Kong banquet. In the resultant djelali, you'll lose all your money, anger all your friends, and eat food likely to forever shake your faith in deliciousness.

I'm doomed to keep attempting djelalis, though. I never learn. A few years later, I dragged thirty five people to a djelali in a touristy Chinese restaurant which I'd heard rumored to be the NYC venue of choice for state dinners by the People's Republic of China. We told the owners, when reserving, that we wanted only serious Chinese food - no Americanized dishes. Upon arrival, I glimpsed, with abject horror, little dishes of mustard and duck sauce atop each table. It went downhill from there; I'll spare you the details about the spare ribs, the canned shrimp and peas, the whole nightmarish event. It was bad, very bad.

It says something about chowhound nature that I'm irresistibly drawn to repeat this mistake. Since we hounds constantly angle and strategize - operating with the assumption (I call it "defensive eating") that everyone is trying to feed us all the wrong stuff for all the wrong reasons - we get over-enthused when we glimpse an end run to treasure, even when it requires an impossible degree of restaurant deconstructionism.

Reign in that impulse. Don't let a djelali happen to you.

[Note: the first law of djelalis - if you, too, are hopelessly doomed to keep trying this sort of thing - is to always pay ahead. Restaurants budget their food very carefully, and special orders wreak havoc with the system. If a restaurateur isn't positive you'll really show up for the djelali, s/he'll be less inclined to buy the proper fixings. Shower advance money and they may at least make an effort to have provisions on hand. But, really, just don't do it.]

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

SIGA's Frozen Winter

For background, see my first posting on SIGA, and the zillions of follow-ups

Oral arguments in SIGA's appeal will begin in early January. The soonest we'll hear a verdict is June. Meanwhile, SIGA will continue to play possum. The company that's suing, Pharmathene, has precious little going for it besides this lawsuit, so its stock price is closely linked to SIGA's. And so SIGA has taken steps to keep its stock price as low as possible (via insider selling, dismal conference calls, no press releases, no pipeline announcements, no foreign sales action, and a very relaxed timetable re: delivery of current contract to BARDA...which pushes back payments). Hence this ridiculously low price, which keeps Pharmathene starved and much more amenable to settlement and much cheaper to buy out.

In the absurdly long view, nothing's changed. Smallpox is still the worst bioterror threat, and there's still nothing to rival the safety and effectiveness of SIGA's drug. And their R&D staff may be making great quiet headway with the pipeline - we wouldn't hear a peep if they were. And there are reasons to think the fake political cloud has cleared (it had been whipped up by a competitor, Chimerix, and its lobbyist, McKenna, Long, and Aldrigde, but there's been a regime change at Chimerix, they no longer seem to be using ML&A, and they appear to have abandoned their government-alienating strategy of continual SIGA harassment). So, within the glacial slowness, amid the stark silence, and under a stock price chart evoking Edward Munch's "The Scream", everything's weirdly good to go, once the legal cloud's eliminated. Except, that is, for my aggravation level and yours.

I believe SIGA will be successful in its appeal. If so, we stand a chance of an eventual stock price of $30-50. If not, Pharmathene will keep 50% of profits from the smallpox drug, and we could see $15-25 (higher if there's success with the pipeline, which is untouched by the lawsuit). Hell, if the pipeline's entirely a dud, the appeal fails, and the smallpox drug fails to pick up foreign orders but just continues to sell to the US government (including the portion of the original contract not yet awarded), we're still worth at least $10! So the current stock price is a tremendous opportunity for investors with saintly patience (as plentiful as snakes in Hawaii?).

But what to do meanwhile? Unless there's a settlement with or buyout of Pharmathene, we won't see any stock action until June 2013 at the earliest (appeals in this system almost always take six months or more). So one strategy would be to sell and reenter next spring. But a settlement/buyout could be announced at any time, changing everything. So while I haven't yet replaced the shares I sold for tax balancing last winter, I'll hold onto my current SIGA investment, and buy some more next May.

Meanwhile, as always, it's best to disregard the day-to-day low volume ups and downs. And I'll continue to have little to say - but don't read desperation in my silence. Just patient waiting....

Monday, September 10, 2012

Two Obstructions to Learning

The same recognition arises whenever I watch a beginner learn something I'm good at, or whenever I myself try to learn something new:
It's not as difficult as you think....and it requires a great deal more concentration than you were expecting to apply.
Always, those same two contradictory missteps in bizarre tandem: fraught insecurity and blithe overconfidence.

Why do kids learn so much faster/better/easier than adults? They learn via play (i.e. the application of concentration for pure pleasure).

My 5.01 Curse (and The Flavor of America)

I was driving around doing errands one night last week when I realized I'd skipped dinner. Not much was open nearby, so I decided to hit a dive bar that had caught my attention. A rickety cabin in an industrial zone, the place has a sign over the door touting "The Best Hamburger You Ever Had". Who wouldn't want that?

I've been in some pretty primordial bars, but this set a new standard for soul-sucking bleakness. The room was done up in moldering 1950's rec room paneling, the booze sat not on a shelf but in a cheap cabinet low on the floor, and the bartender emerged only a few times per hour from a back room where she indulges her video poker addiction. Somehow she always appeared on cue, though. They apparently have a video surveillance system allowing her to monitor for empty glasses and new arrivals.

On TV was a show called "America's Got Talent (sic)", which I could only stare at in numb disbelief. A few others sat at the far end of the bar, but I couldn't make out their faces, as their features were pixelated. When I asked for a bourbon, the bartender stared blankly and asked whether Jack Daniels is bourbon. So I did something I hadn't done in fifteen years: I ordered a Bud draft.

I'd like to tell you what a traumatic experience it was, but I was shocked at how non-awful I found it. It certainly wasn't good. There wasn't an iota of worth. But I could swallow it without feeling offended.

In my system for rating foods on a one-to-ten scale, a 5 is "utterly neutral. No particular urge to eat...or to stop eating." I had remembered Bud being more of a 3 ("lousy food you might eat if very hungry and without alternatives"), but I was finding my glass startlingly fivey. Actually, it was a tad better than that. While I felt no serious desire to imbibe, it was ever-so-slightly preferable to sip than not to. It just barely tipped the scale. It was a "5.01".

And the burger was a 5.01. As was the TV show. As was the bar itself. Walking out to a parking lot strewn with cat feces, it hit me like a shockwave: the flavor of America, outside my bubble, is 5.01. Just barely good enough to keep going.

But then it got scary. The following day, I had a chance to sample two rare and acclaimed beers: Firestone Walker's "Wookey Jack" and Two Brothers' "Cane & Ebel" rye beer. I eagerly sidled up to the bar for a half pint of each, but the beers filled me with ennui. They seemed barely worth sipping. Horrified, I realized I experienced them as firm "5.01"s - exactly like Bud. Something had gone deeply wrong. Something was broken.

The next night I was scheduled to meet some beer geek buddies at my "local" pub (which you won't be surprised to hear is a 45 minute drive) where a cask of Thornbridge's "Raven" had recently arrived. One of my favorites! On cask!!

Too trepidatious to chance an upsetting scene with the Raven, I figured I'd ease in with a merely good-not-great beer. But I felt nary a twinge. Hoo boy. I switched to sangria and, amid much anguish and gnashing of teeth, filled in my friends about my ordeal (consensus advice: I need to travel to California to seek beer therapy from Vinny, head brewer/visionary of the illustrious Russian River Brewery).

At the end of the night, with no one watching, I asked for a small sample squirt of Thornbridge Raven. I took a sip. And felt like crying. I could taste everything acutely, but there was no joy in it.

My friend Pierre, who knows everything, posits a behavioral underpinning. It's common to continue an activity, out of habit, long after that activity has failed to bring pleasure, without consciously registering the falloff. In a flash, one realizes one no longer likes that activity, and it feels like a sudden change of preference even though the progression was gradual.

For instance, you might watch a TV show for many weeks before realizing you dislike it. Certainly, relationships can work this way. And this explains how Pepperidge Farm has managed to degrade those large-sized cookies so steeply over the's been so gradual that consumers haven't consciously noticed they no longer like them. This also explains the state of slice pizza in NYC.

But, no, I don't think that's it. I really liked beer (well, great beer, anyhow) just a short week ago, I'm sure of it. Beer and I weren't locked in joyless marriage. We were still in torrid honeymoon. I mean, just two weeks ago I wrote this!

No, something about my unsettlingly tolerable encounter with the King of Beers profoundly reset my baseline....and pinned me tightly to that baseline. I don't know how it happened or how long it will last.

Yesterday someone asked me how I'm doing with food. Truth is, I'm terrified to eat anything delicious.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

New Tag Word: "Creativity"

The Slog now has a new label (aka tag word): creativity. I've gone through previous entries, tagging where appropriate. Here's a list (note: you can click any of the labels in the long list on the left to see all entries so tagged).

The Golden Opportunity of Horrible Suggestions

Danny Rubin, writer of my favorite film, Groundhog Day, sporadically maintains an interesting blog. One entry offers advice about coping when non-creative people make inane changes to work you've polished to a tee.

Most such discussion analyzes the psychology of Suits, and how, being uncreative themselves, their place in the system is to torment and disrespect creatives (old joke: studio exec reads a script and says “I love it! Who can we get to rewrite it?”). Others suggest learning to let go, and be less hung up on your creation (indeed, resigned indifference is a time-honored means of getting along and getting ahead...and of enabling the forces that make things suck).

But Rubin makes a very good and non-obvious point: whenever someone makes a really stupid change to something you've created, the smart move isn't to go ballistic about the alteration, but, rather, to examine the problem they're clumsily trying to solve. Because there inevitably is a bona fide problem! Then solve it yourself...better. And be grateful for having had the problem pointed out for you!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Two Great Anti-Anti-Stimulus Lines

I'm rerunning this golden oldie from 2009:

Nice comment by one Mark W. Budwig on Andrew Tobias' blog, regarding the stimulative effect of the Republican's proposed slashing of corporate tax rates:
"Can’t you just hear the boardroom conversation? ‘People are losing jobs by the millions! Demand is in the toilet! But now we have a real chance to hire workers we don’t need to produce goods we can’t sell, all because of the lower taxes on the profits we won’t have!’”

Also, Jon Stewart got in some good lines in his Daily Show interview with John Sununu last night:
Sununu: "We shouldn't be increasing the deficit even though we've got economic challenges....This is a trillion dollar stimulus plan. A trillion dollars!"

Stewart: "I know, but we spent $700 billion dollars in Iraq. Why can't we build our country? Here's an idea. I have weapons of mass destruction. Invade me!"

Sununu: "You have to answer the question: where is the money going to come from? We have to borrow every single penny....and a future generation is going to be asked to pay that back. You have to be honest about that. We'll increase the deficit by a trillion dollars, and that...."

Stewart: "But isn't a future generation going to have to pay off the Iraq war money, too? Isn't a future generation going to have to pay back the [Bush] 1.2 trillion dollar tax cut? All of a sudden it's, like, 'Hey, we've gotta pay this back!' Why have they decided to's like history starts now!

Jazz European Style

This is such a perfect illustration of the stark difference between jazz in Europe and jazz in America. From the perspective of an American jazz musician, everything in this video is upside down:

In America, the two attractive young women would be either ignoring or glaring at the band. And the musicians would be competent. And unpretentious. And, for that matter, paid a fraction of what these guys are likely getting.

Note: there are some great, unpretentious jazz musicians in Europe, and some terrible, pretentious ones here (and, somewhere, uninhibitedly dancing young people). But, still...

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Delusion of Tolerance and The Hypocrisy of Exceptionalism

Spectacular work by the Daily Show correspondents last night on the delusion behind Democrats' proud self-image as the party of inclusion and tolerance:

Hope and Change 2 - The Party of Inclusion

You don't get to lavish tolerance on stuff you like, and withhold it from stuff you don't like, and still feel smugly tolerant! In fact, that's the precise definition of intolerance!

And it's a foundational fallacy for the left. To be sure, Republicans have their delusions, too; lots of them! Both build vapid self-righteousness upon blind hypocrisy (hypocrisy's always easier to spot in others!), and it's this symmetrical nuttiness that's inflamed our national contretemps.

There is a uniquely American brand of hypocrisy which stems from our long tradition of national exceptionalism. One problem with exceptionalism is that the mindset is infectious. At this point, most every group in America has fervidly adopted it for their own. And exceptionalism and hypocrisy go hand in hand. The two are made for each other, and that poses dangers far darker than political fractionalization. The following is a brilliant, clear-eyed plumbing of those murky depths - once again via a Daily Show bit, this one from shortly after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal:

Prison Abuse Scandal

That's it, right there. The distilled gist of exceptionalistic hypocrisy:
"We shouldn't be judged on actions. It's our principles that matter; our inspiring abstract notions. Remember, just because torturing prisoners is something we did doesn't mean it's something we would do."

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Moronic Step Shlepping

By age 35 or so, stairs become an enemy. Perky 35 year olds may choose stairs over escalators while out and about, their metabolisms cranking. But put them on the ground floor of their home and simmer them down to television-watching pace, and the prospect of a trip up the stairs will elicit a long sigh, followed by hasty calculation of avoidance strategies. The staircase might as well be a mountain. Ascension is strictly a last resort, much loathed.

As a kid, I saw grown-ups as big, sluggish creatures with tight crusty tendons and creaky joints. They lacked spring, and that's just how it was. They were sort of disabled.

But I'm now well past 35, and, as a fervid yogi with supple tendons and fully functional joints, I have the same spring as I did at half my age. Yet, now that I live in a place with an upstairs, I inexplicably suffer from the same damned syndrome. I can't avoid the micro-dread whenever need arises for a quick trip upstairs. Shoulders slump as I desperately weigh procrastinatory options. If absolutely necessary, I'll drag myself mournfully up the steps with that aggrieved face grown-ups make when forced to do, like...anything.

And it's insane. It's a put-on. It's like I'm pretending. And it does not need to be this way!

I've written a lot about preferences. Our preferences are far more arbitrary - and thus more malleable - than we realize. So here's what I do about the staircase thing. Whenever I feel that sense of aggrieved resignation re: the latest death march to the second floor, I've conditioned myself to announce "I like going up stairs!". I then bound up the staircase with glee, my day completely un-ruined by the trifling exertion.

It's really that easy.

When I typed this sentence:
"I've conditioned myself to announce 'I like going up stairs!'"
...I was going to note that I actually really do like going up steps. But wait a minute. Which do I really feel? Aggrieved or exhilarated? Which is real??

Here's the thing: what's real is what you tell yourself is real. We spend our days telling ourselves stories about how we feel about this or that. And we assume these stories stem from some sort of real experience. But the truth is that the stories precede the experience. We endlessly repeat them in order to hypnotize ourselves into feeling this way or that. And that feeling is nearly always negative. I can only conclude that this is because Earth is where they put the morons.

This realization makes me feel a bit less moronic when I, a grown man, chirpily announce to no one in particular, 'I like going up stairs!'". Cuz if I'm gonna be a frigging moron, I'd rather be Stimpy than Ren. I'll tell myself the story that makes me bound up steps, rather than the story that makes me calcify into a morose lump. This strikes me as a moron's best move.

Kids can easily recognize how malleable preference is, but part of growing up involves casting aside whimsical, detached views of our nature. So we allow ourselves, in the name of maturity, to be ratcheted more and more solidly into stuckedness and stress.

To change the experience, all you've got to do is flip the story.

Blog Archive