I’ve been a heavy coffee drinker for a long time. My relationship with coffee is complicated—I enjoy good coffee a lot, and have invested much time over the years learning about the chain of events leading up to a cup of it. But I prefer not to be a slave to any desire, and so my love of coffee has been an occasional target for disciplinary action—it’s a relatively benign habit, but one I’ve tried to break now and then just to see if I could. The bad news is that I’m heavily dependent on massive infusions of caffeine, either from 45 years of practice or (I suspect) due to natural lethargy, so I always come back to it. The good news is that it doesn’t seem to be health-threatening in any way I care about.
For a few years around the turn of the century I roasted my own coffee, but after burning through a couple of $150 roasters I went back to store bought. Still, home roasted was far superior to anything I was willing to pay for, and (except for the cost of burnt-out roasters) was even cheaper than the acceptable stuff I was buying. So I occasionally thought about buying a durable home roaster—then checked the prices and thought again.
This summer, after nine years of managing the Wernick Method network of bluegrass jamming teachers, I ended my time there and moved on to another job (something else I should write about here). It was a great job, an amicable parting, and I never felt unappreciated. But this Saturday, two months after my last day, I felt really appreciated! I was dropping off the older kids at Chris’s homestead so they could do an afternoon’s work around the farm, and he told me I needed to come inside before I left. Which I did, to find his kitchen table covered with several gifts, and this in the center:
It is a Gene Cafe home coffee roaster, exactly the sort of quality roaster I had admired but would never have bought for myself. It comes highly recommended by my longtime favorite source of green coffee beans, Sweet Maria’s, both for its durability and for its serviceability (all parts are for sale and easily replaceable). The other gifts included nearly thirty pounds of green coffee, two personalized coffee mugs with the Wernick Method logo, and a packet of cards and letters from Wernick Method teachers thanking me for my service and wishing me well. What a great surprise!
I’ve cleared a spot in the garage, roasted my first two batches of beans, and this morning brewed a cup from each. Wonderful stuff! And to honor the spirit of the gift I plan to set aside any qualms about becoming insufferable and invest some serious hobbyist effort into experimenting with the different variables and techniques that coffee aficionados love to play with and argue about.
People are more comfortable than ever inserting political asides into their non-political work, and so I read through a lot of stuff I find mildly irritating, not because the politics are different than mine—which would be difficult, since I don’t have any—but because the observations usually seem like received wisdom, parroted without much thought. Occasionally I’m brought up short by a passage that is especially unself-aware, like this one:
Pretty much everyone in my extended on- and offline social circles understands the dire outlook of our climate crisis, but very few go beyond just acknowledging it. For the vast majority of people I know it’s business as usual. Given that we all know what’s happening, why aren’t we all writing angry letters and marching the streets?
I won’t link to this because I certainly don’t want to make fun of the writer, who has at least turned his attention to something substantial and thought it worth writing about. And I will often write something like this too … which is why I re-read what I write to see how the pieces fits together, watching for mismatches. I could have written the above, but I would look back and see “dire outlook” and then make sure that the rest of what I had written was in proper proportion. Writing angry letters and marching the streets? How much worse than dire do things need to get before we do something substantial?
In contrast, I think this New Yorker piece by Jonathan Franzen is well worth spending some time with. Franzen thinks that the time is long past to address climate change—he puts the point of no return somewhere in the late 1970s. And he thinks that acting like it is still possible to fix the problem is a distraction which prevents us from dealing effectively with what will inevitably happen.
I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of Franzen’s piece, and with much of the detail. I’m on board with his recommendation, namely that we continue to do what we can to correct the problem, not because it’s possible but because it’s the correct way to behave. I’m a little bothered by how he spells that out—I think he is still too focused on the idea that we should behave a certain way because of the benefits that will accrue to us. In this case the benefits will not involve undoing the damage, just collateral benefits that are still worthwhile. My alternative is to give up weighing benefits altogether, and focus entirely on determining the correct response to the circumstances we find ourselves in, then proceeding to do that, regardless of benefits or disadvantages.
For me this has largely been a matter of looking back, trying to figure out exactly where we went off the rails—not in hopes of turning back the clock, but simply identifying and understanding the deeper impulses that led us to the bad choices, as a prelude to figuring out and then pursuing another, more grounded way to live. And the harder I look, the less I have to say and to share, because the more personalized the answers. I can’t recommend that anyone follow my path, or even look hard at the things that led me to follow it—there are plenty of equally important things I chose not to look at, ones that would have led me in very different directions, and maybe those are the ones for you.
But if you’ve done the looking for yourself and gone a different way, maybe we can compare notes at some point.
This one is balanced, fairly accurate, and goes a bit deeper than usual on some important points. The writer, Jedediah Purdy, was raised in West Virginia but went on to teach at Columbia Law School, so he has the chops to look at Berry from both a rural and an urban point of view.
Purdy’s best line is this one, which comes close to being my life verse:
For [Berry], narrowing the horizons of one’s life is the only responsible way of living, since it is how we might actually heal old wounds, clean up our own mess, and give an honest account of ourselves.
Actually, the whole paragraph is pretty good, so here you go:
Even as Berry made himself a student of the flaws of local life, he sought to refashion its patterns of community and culture into something that might repair them. For him, narrowing the horizons of one’s life is the only responsible way of living, since it is how we might actually heal old wounds, clean up our own mess, and give an honest account of ourselves. Throughout his essays, he makes this case for ecological reasons but also for moral ones. Farming on a local scale, he argues, can respond to the nuances of soil and landscape and can rebuild the fertility cycle of dirt to plant to manure to dirt. Ethics also has its limits of scale. “We are trustworthy only so far as we can see,” he insists. The patterns of care that give ethics life also require a specific space. To hold ourselves accountable, we need a palpable sense of what is sustaining us and what good or harm we are doing in return. Community depends on the sympathy and moral imagination that “thrives on contact, on tangible connection.”
(I’ve bolded his second-best line.)
It is such a good and sympathetic review that I was surprised to run across this bit at the very end:
I still carry with me many of the values that Berry praises as essential, but much of what he has evoked as a life decent in possibility is far away. At present, I live in New York City and have not dedicated my life to the fertility of the land I first knew or to any one lifelong community. I love a city of strangers, whose random sociability and surprising acts of helpfulness model a very different picture of interdependence from Berry’s.
This sense of distance from him is particularly acute when it comes to abortion. Several times over the past year, I almost abandoned this essay because of Berry’s view of it. He believes that abortion takes a life; I believe the right to it is essential to women’s autonomy and egalitarian relationships. I see it as central to the vision of humane fairness that is reproductive justice and view reproductive justice as closely linked with ecological justice. Both are about a decent way for humans to go on within the larger living world. This is my version of wholeness, but it is not Berry’s, and over the years I have struggled to reconcile his views on abortion with the parts of his work that I find indispensable. Unlike his localism or his skepticism of politics, which I do not share but seem honorable expressions of important traditions, his views on abortion pull me up short. With the stakes for women’s lives so high right now, they do so even more.
Berry’s writings on reproductive justice contain an important caveat: He does not believe abortion should be the decision of the state, and he has argued that for this reason, “there should be no law either for or against abortion.” This cannot be a complete answer, and imagining it could be is a token of his distance from modern politics. Take Medicaid and the heavily regulated private insurance industry. Must they cover abortion? May they not? The question is not avoidable, and it is political as well as personal. In answering these questions, there is no such thing as the silence of the law.
What surprised me is not the difference in views, but that this particular difference is almost enough to make Berry (in Purdy’s mind, anyway) someone who cannot be spoken of. I mean, Berry says explicitly that he think abortion should not be a matter of law, that people should be free to deal with the matter as they see fit. Maybe my anarchist heart blinds me to the truth of “there is no such thing as the silence of the law”, but I don’t see it, and I think an insistence that the law speak to all matters will shape the world into a place that even the insisters won’t want to live in.
Even after setting aside the mystical and supernatural angles, I’m always surprised at how often things come along at just the right time. I’ve moved the grocery shopping to Sunday morning, and roughly once a month that requires a 30-minute drive to Lexington for bulk supplies from Sam’s Club. I rarely listen to the radio in the car anymore, but I did this morning—when I do listen it’s always NPR—and was predictably irritated by the subjects on the drive into the city—subject, really, since media attention has not moved on yet from last week’s mass shootings.
But on the way back it was just past 11am, and programming had moved on to the really weird weekend stuff, at this point a program called Hidden Brain, and the hour was spent interviewing Iain McGilchrist. I was surprised by that—I’d first learned about his work through roundabout channels, namely some writers who take their mysticism seriously, and had a few shorter things by him on my to-be-read list—and even more surprised by the interview, which made it clear that McGilchrist’s big idea, a way of understanding the right-left brain distinction, was exactly the idea I had just started looking at closely as a way of reinvigorating my meditation practice.
I’ve practiced meditation for more than four years now, seriously, faithfully, and daily (with only a couple of short disruptions). In the beginning I was motivated mostly by excitement about what I was learning about mindfulness in my reading, as well as tangible results—not so much the pleasant stuff often used to sell meditation, but a new clarity in seeing and understanding, along with an untangling of the many different threads that compose my mind. But meditation is a practice and a path, and even though I was happy to continue on with it I felt after awhile that I wasn’t making the progress I should—not stuck, but somehow unfocused and unable to sort through the possibilities before me in a way that would lead me further up and further in.
And then a few weeks ago I came across The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa. It turns out to be exactly the thing I needed now. I’m reminded of when my son Chris first picked up the fiddle—he had a few lessons but mostly worked on his own, and became surprisingly good, enough to hold his own in a jam session. Then we met a friend who was a very good fiddler and also a long-time violin teacher. It seemed wise to schedule an initial lesson with this fellow, just to see wheat he thought he might be able to help Chris with. The fellow had him play several pieces, and after 30 minutes or so complimented Chris on having come so far on his own—but also very gently telling him that if he didn’t address some basic aspects of his technique he’d likely be stuck where he was with no hope of improvement. We scheduled the lessons, and the teacher tore down the existing structure and rebuilt it on a solid foundation with all elements up to code. It didn’t take forever, Chris is a hard enough worker that the job was done in a few months. Chris was a much better fiddler afterwards, and, most important, in a position to progress as far as his gifts and inclinations could take him.
Similarly with my practice before finding this book. I had the motivation, the basics, and an understanding of the possibilities—but any given time I would sit I wasn’t quite sure what aspect I should be working on at that point. And so what I actually did was heavily influenced by whatever mood I happened to be in, and I couldn’t really choose between the possibilities because they were all points along the path … somewhere.
This book seems to solve that problem for me. I don’t want to gush yet because it’s early days, it divides the path into ten stages and I’m only at the second one. But what has been critical for me is that the writer very clearly says by the end of such-and-such stage you should be able to do this—and I definitely didn’t qualify as having masted the key elements of stage two, even though I was well aware of them and had played with them along with all the others at various times.
The writer’s second stage is really the initial stage, because he very generously makes Stage One simply a matter of establishing a practice—really a preliminary to everything else, but surely the place where many folks give up, and so it’s good that he treats it thoroughly and encouragingly. But I had an established practice simply because that sort of behavior fits my temperment well, and I had been able to continue on diligently mostly on spec.
The writer opens the book with a model of consciousness I found very helpful. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but a key aspect is that he distinguishes between two kinds of perception, peripheral awareness and focused attention, says that both are in operation all the time, and that one job of meditation is to train your ability to direct and sustain your focused attention while fully maintaining your peripheral awareness. When you try to do this in meditation, the very first challenge you will meet is a tendency to forget what you are attending to, followed by a bout of mind wandering. This was definitely my initial experience—I would focus on something (breath), then suddenly find myself jolting into awareness out of daydreaming, realizing that it had happened but not knowing why or for how long. The trick for addressing this is to (a) actually cultivate gratitude for such an episode—after all, each time it happens is an opportunity to practice recognizing the tendency and its warning signs, and to give things another slightly more informed go. This part I actually understood already, and was fairly adept at recognizing daydreaming quickly and returning to the breath. Where Culadasa helped me was in pointing out that both the mind wandering and the forgetting needed to be conquered—mind wandering was a problem in itself, to be sure, but forgetting leaves the gap that mind-wandering fills, and if you can conquer forgetting then you will now be in a new place, able to sustain your attention on the object indefinitely.
So, two important new concepts for me already, the separation of forgetting and mind wandering, and the idea of peripheral awareness as a separate kind of perception that provides the background for directed attention. It’s that second idea that fits exactly with what McGilchrist claims, namely that the right brain is responsible for big-picture thinking and perception (peripheral awareness) while the left focuses on and analyzes the details (focused attention).
Dunno if that floats your boat, but it was enough to get me to buy and download McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary as soon as I got home from the grocery stores.
I don’t think I’d necessarily want to have lived through your adventures of the last decade but I certainly have enjoyed reading about them
Thereby reminding me of something I fully believe: I live my life a certain way, but others don’t have to. And I write about it so others can benefit from my experiences without having to live through them. And I’m grateful to those who play the same role for me.
Last year I read Tara Westover’s Educated, her memoir of being raised in a Mormon survivalist family where she received no formal schooling, yet went on to earn a Ph.D at Cambridge University. There are many similarities between her family life and the one we’ve tried to provide for our own children—plenty of differences, too!—so it was mind-expanding to see how folks who started from similar places ended up somewhere quite distant from us. And by ‘distant’ I mean not just the extreme survivalism of Westover’s family but also her own embrace of formal education and eventually academia. I’m also intrigued by what Westover’s journey from unschooled to fully credentialed says about both the states of being unschooled and being credentialed.
Not long afterwards I read Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, her memoir of many years of drunkenness followed by her successful journey out. This time around I had little common ground to stand on. I have no scruples against alcohol or bad experiences with it, but a pharmacist friend once explained to me that my liver doesn’t process it normally, so what I drink stays in my bloodstream for a long time. It doesn’t take much to inebriate me—one beer and I’m ready to take a nap—and I never learned to like the experience (unlike, say, coffee or cigarettes, both of which I had to learn to like, but ended up liking way too much). So even though I’ve been drunk a few times, it was never a temptation.
Which is why I found Jamison’s memoir helpful in a different way, an honest account of the joys and sorrows of centering one’s life around something completely absent from my own experience. But just at the surface—Jamison’s attachment to drinking has some deep similarities to things in my own life that have me in their own unhealthy grip.
And she does one remarkable thing in telling her story, one which put some readers off, namely giving an honest account of the pleasures she found in drinking. I think that a large part of the power held by behaviors that grip us in this way is our pious impulse to deny that we find them enjoyable. It keeps us from looking them in the face and seeing them for what they really are—a pleasure, but just a pleasure, likely not the only pleasure we can turn to, and probably not the one we would choose to turn to if we saw the benefits and drawbacks clearly.
I don’t mean to say that seeing clearly is enough, just that it can be a useful addition to the toolkit, always helpful, occasionally powerful enough to do the bulk of the work. I’ve given up some behaviors simply by deciding. But others had much deeper roots, and the work was painful—I smoked for eleven years, stopped cold turkey … but chewed large quantities of nicotine gum for a year, gave thanks daily that I worked in one of the earliest facilities to ban smoking completely … and even so had the urge to smoke for another ten years, and a recurring nightmare for many more years where I found myself smoking with no clue as to how it had happened.
I’ve always been prone to enthusiasms, but if I ever tried to press them onto others I can’t remember. I can remember measuring people on how well their enthusiasms matched mine—but that only vaguely.
Life got better once I switched from grading others on the content of their enthusiasms to grading them on the quality. Even if what turns them on does nothing for me, or turns me off, I can relate to their passion for the thing—enjoy it, even learn from it.
Pro tip: a surefire technique for meaningful conversation is to zero in on a person’s passions, ask a leading question or two, then stand back and watch the excitement pour out. It’s usually easy (and often delightful) engaging with what they say and how they say it, even if the subject leaves me cold. I’ll take this approach with people I don’t know well, and especially with kids.
I like this drawing by Austin Kleon on how to deal with enthusiasm mismatches:
(He offers some other conversational shortcuts here.)
People think of a role model as one to be emulated, but I think a neutral definition is more useful—an example worth studying of someone who embraces a behavior, letting me see what it is like to live it out without having to experience it first hand. I might like what I see and decide to emulate. I might not like what I see and decide to move on—but with gratitude and without judgment. I can stop at not for me without moving on to that’s wrong.
I’ll repeat this bit from Brian Eno, describing his assessment of fellow avant-garde musician Frank Zappa:
Zappa was important to me because I realised I didn’t have to make music like he did. I might have made a lot of music like he did if he had not done it first and made me realise that I did not want to go there. I did not like his music but I am grateful that he did it. Sometimes you learn as much from the things you don’t like as from the things you do like. The rejection side is as important as the endorsement part. You define who you are and where you are by the things that you know you are not. Sometimes that’s all the information you have to go on. I’m not that kind of person. You don’t quite know where you are but you find yourself in the space left behind by the things you’ve rejected.[Emphasis added]
I remembered this when reading yet another criticism of the blogging platform Medium, whose model looked so promising when Evan Williams launched it seven years ago but is now disparaged widely by people trying to figure out how to publish on the internet. These criticisms are often leveled not just at the model but at the company behind it, and at Williams himself, questioning their motives for perpetrating an approach that looks now to be more damaging than beneficial.
That may be correct, but I don’t find it helpful. All I need to know is the good and bad effects of the approach, something I can see without looking into the hearts of the builders. And regardless of what lurks in those hearts, I’m grateful they took the trouble to translate their ideas into a reality I can now evaluate.