Arranging a vinyl album, labor-intensive manual coffee brewing equipment, short story compilation, and bag of coffee beans for a photo is an intentional and somewhat laughable action. The items have little to do with each other except for that they are all favored by subscribers to a certain aesthetic affectation, or, at the very least, those who value affordable luxuries. And even though I will spend the first several hours of the day alone, not speaking a single word aloud, I can share a little slice of my life through the sweeping impressionism and ego-stroking that is Instagram. Though one can make plenty of compelling arguments for coffee, writing, and music as indispensable, in the basest sense of survival, none aid us in any way.
And yet, we spend money on hard-to-transport physical copies of music in the free and digital age, take ten minutes to make a single cup of coffee when a machine can do it faster and without our attention, sit down to read without anyone telling us to do so. Whether the alarm sounds at six AM on a weekday or a lazy nine thirty on a rainy Saturday morning, dropping the needle on some music, grinding some recently-roasted coffee beans, and spending a few minutes contemplating the process is a ritual I value immensely. My mind lazily wanders as it waits for caffeine, thinks about the musicians sitting in the studio and the sound technicians and the vinyl cutting factory, all the people and machines responsible for the soundtrack to my morning. I look at the coffee grinds blooming in their filter and envision Ethiopia or Columbia, misty mountain plantations where red berries burst from giant bushes, unrecognizable as predecessors to the black gold currently dripping into my mug. Who farmed it, who picked the berries and separated the best of the best from the Folgers, how did it get to the roaster?
There is a beautiful codependence in the world. Even on the collaborative album spinning in the other room, frontmen of two bands got together with filmmakers to score an artsy documentary on an aesthetic cult hero, Jack Kerouac. To get coffee into my cup, untold dozens of people did specialized jobs. Ditto to make the album that allows me to feel and to feel understood. In art, we express ourselves in terms other than the literal. And oftentimes we need that deflection to be honest or to get at something that speech alone simply cannot. Music in another language (or no language at all) is capable of moving us for a reason. Paintings, drawings, and sculptures cleverly circumvent the Babel Problem by foregoing language altogether.
So does art, then, serve a survival purpose by allowing us to communicate in some way with people who we cannot speak to for want of a common word? Lacking anthropological background, I can’t speak to this as a historically-backed truth, but isn’t that the point of true art? Unlike displaying Buddhist sculptures or tribal masks as “art” when their original intent was something decidedly more purpose-driven, true art doesn’t offer an explanation or a direct raison d’être. Instead, its creators have day jobs, patrons, or are fortunate enough to sell their work to people who want that daily distraction/inspiration/beauty in their own homes. They strive to express, whether to be understood or to tell others that they understand, or simply to compile the beauty or the ugliness in the world in a way that we can palate.
A Kenyan coffee gently scalds the roof of my mouth and I think about the flavors it reminds me of. This is no Proustian exercise in the time I had a Kenyan coffee at age seven and the thousands of pages worth of recollections it inspires, but rather a free associative exercise in the infinitely dissociated but connected world in which we live. I taste blackberries, some chocolate, a mild saltiness that allows the body of the coffee to last long after I’ve swallowed. It holds up beautifully as it cools, a cup of coffee for those of us who sip and ponder rather than slam and run. I could wax poetic endlessly on the terroir and how thankful I am that it rained in Kenya when it did and the farmers chose to dry the coffee cherries the way they did and how the roasters at Klatch in Upland really nailed it when they roasted on February 27th (a day that by purely perfect coincidence holds up as perhaps the best I’ve ever had). Coffee isn’t a science, there is too much chance involved. Like winemaking or whiskey distilling, it is an art in the truest sense, roasting until you hear the green beans ‘crack’ at the frequency that is most pleasing to your goals and personal preferences. It takes traveling to mountainous tropical regions and meeting farmers and understanding the varietals they work with and the way they dry their fruit to know what is expected of you as a roaster to maximize the beans’ potential. Even then, every roast is dependent on ambient conditions and the particular batch of beans inside.
Music is equally fickle and infinitesimally beautiful. Temperature and humidity affect the timbre of wooden instruments, what a person ate for breakfast can nuance their vocal chords or their mood when they decide whether to harmonize in a major or minor third on the second chorus of the third track of the day. There were infinite possibilities, but it all conspired to be the one that resulted. Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard sing about a particular Amtrak line because moviemakers decided it was noteworthy after studying Kerouac’s life. That’s a lot of artistic co-dependence, and it makes a song whose plaintive displacédness resonates profoundly. Later on I’ll read the liner notes closely and realize that the subtle slide guitar in the background is being played by a famous virtuoso whose name only appears in the fine print if one bothers to look for it. I resist the temptation to think that I like the song more because I know this—avoiding the creator-creation issues that could spawn unabridged volumes of thoughtful consideration—but smile at the crafty humility behind it. It continues to rain outside as my hot coffee’s steam imitates the swirling clouds on the obscured mountains to my north. This is unduly pleasing, part of the cultural milieu we’ve created that says acoustic indie music deserves weather indigenous to its likely roots in the Pacific Northwest.
Whatever, the coffee I’m drinking was roasted just down the street in a sleepy industrial sub-suburb of Los Angeles, very near the area where Joan Didion set many of her most powerful essays from the anthology that lies before me. The sweeping impressionism may suggest bougie Portlandia aspirations, but the particulars are distinctly Californian. Didion roots rending personal honesty in a series of seemingly-unrelated arcana set in her surroundings. A master and founder of the ‘creative nonfiction’ movement, she puts so many brushstrokes over the factual snapshots she examines that the end result is recognizable but not familiar. I’d emphasize the creative more than the nonfiction, but the stories she uses to springboard into dizzying tales of drug use and depression are appallingly true. They are the sort of true that could never be believed if it were made up.
So when she makes an edict about the way we use all the information that flies at us, be it a tasty cup of coffee or the latest news story about something twisted and irrelevant, it is worth listening to. She has looked at it all with unprecedented access and an unblinking gaze that Nietzsche would call “true genius”.
We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.
Whether that means slowing down and appreciating the sensory nuances of your meal, music, book, or artwork or trying to make some sort of poetic sense out of the breakdown of the California dream in the late 1960’s, a few moments of thoughtfulness can turn your lazy weekend morning routine into a mental vacation in its own right. And that is a large part of what good food and art are all about.
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drinking: Klatch Kenya Makwa (AB) 22g/300g at 203 degrees in Kalita Wave
reading: We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live – Joan Didion
listening: One Fast Move Or I’m Gone: Music from Kerouac’s Big Sur – Benjamin Gibbard and Jay Farrar