Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Mystic Art Of Strangling Gremlins

What is that I hear? A complete lack of demand for yet another post about coffee and lifestyle choices? Well, here's one anyway. One of the benefits of largely writing in an echo chamber is that I can pretend there's an endless hunger for these types of bloggery. Screw you, Chrome, "bloggery" is totally a word.


I was brewing coffee this morning and it struck me that I've learned quite a bit about life from learning to be better at making coffee.

The more complicated I make the coffee-brewing process, the worse the end results will generally be. Simpler process, fewer problems.

Complicated drip machines? Lousy coffee. Measuring everything out with instruments? Lousy coffee. Weird technology? Lousy coffee. Rushing the process? Lousy coffee.

The more complicating factors between me and my joe, the more there is to go wrong and the less happy I am with the end results. I get farther away from the essence of my morning routine and the process obscures the goal of the exercise.

After months of fucking around, trying every permutation, trying every hair-brained trick some idiot posts on the internet about the Real Ultimate Secret To Awesome Coffee, the more I realize that I really only need a few things: a glass funnel with something below it to catch the coffee (*cough* Chemex *cough*), a filter, quality ground beans, hot water and the right amount of time. That's it.

If I go by my gut the end result is usually pretty damn good. If I don't, it sucks. Period. The more I turn the process into one of Rube Goldberg's fever dreams, the farther I get away from the platonic ideal of coffee and the more miserable I make myself.

My process spits out about three cups of coffee at a time, assuming you use big cups as I do. I enjoy them and move on with the day, satisfied that I'll be able to do it again tomorrow and have it be just as good. I make a lagom amount of coffee, because to drink more will make me uncomfortably jittery and wired throughout the morning and take me on an annoying roller-coaster ride of dips and crashes throughout the day.

That's life in a nutshell. I move through the motions of making my morning brew pretty deliberately, because I've learned that by doing things in a certain way I can efficiently get through a lot of mildly annoying morning preparations before I sit down to write, in such a way that I don't even have to think about it much: dress, pack the gym bag, make my bed, etc and so forth. And at the end, I have a steaming cup of coffee and the knowledge that all the annoying morning stuff is finished and I don't feel rushed at all. I leave for work unhurried, knowing that half the day is already sorted out and my mind is freed from clutter so everything big I need to do has my full attention.

It's all very zen.

It's all about pacing and removing complications you don't care about.

I take the same approach with the rest of my life. Not the organization: I'm a complete fucking mess as far as that goes. I'm late all the time for social engagements, I don't always wear socks that match. I don't use lists or calendars or an intricate system of reminders to remind me of things. I couldn't even tell you where my car keys are at this moment. That way, somewhere, maybe. Crap, I should go look.

I'm back. They were on the kitchen table. Anyhow.

I'm a big fan of minimalism. Life is already plenty complicated as it is. You're constantly being bombarded with stuff that demands to be cared about. The more of these distractions that you can identify as simply that--distractions--the better.

It's hard work, though. As Edward Norton once said in a cool movie, "We buy things we don't need with money we don't have to impress people we don't like", but one of the things nobody ever makes clear is that the people we don't like is often our imaginary selves.

We have a ton of mental baggage in our skulls, all loaded there by an imaginary person inside of you which has a ton of things it feels obligated to do that nobody out in the real world actually cares about. You're doing things simply because you think someone, somewhere, must think it's important. Sometimes you can't even pretend that anybody outside your skull even cares about it but you do it anyway and for reasons you don't really understand. People are weird like that.

Let's take an example.

I live on the bottom end of Michigan. My parents live on the top end, in the Upper Peninsula. It's a long drive to get from one side to the other because you have to drive up the mitten, cross a really cool bridge and then drive west from there. I've measured the drive from where I am to my parent's house: it's roughly 430 miles, or eight hours in the car.

Most of the time I really enjoy the drive. During the summer, it gives me eight hours to myself with a good excuse to do nothing but gather wool and listen to stand-up comics on my XM radio. Sometimes I get lost on purpose and enjoy the scenery on the way up. It's pretty great.

During the winter, however, that drive turns evil. Sometimes I've had blizzards follow me all the way up, transforming eight relatively relaxing hours behind the wheel into a sixteen hour death-march of white knuckle driving and constant impending doom.

I can usually count on the drive being like this any time in December, January, February or early March. It might not hit me on this trip, maybe not even the next, but sometimes you hit the crap lottery and the next thing you know you're doing donuts down the Interstate in thick traffic, wishing you weren't an atheist because suddenly being able to pray to a higher power sounds like a fairly compelling ability.

I'm trying to say the drive sucks in winter here, in case you missed it.

I would dread the Christmas drive for months ahead of time. The thought of having to do it would darken a sunny day in July. When I did the drive, I'd get up early, watch weather reports for days ahead of time to see if I could plan an optimal path through the clouds so I didn't get nailed by a storm. Most of the time, I'd get beat up by the weather anyway, particularly up near the Gaylord region near the top of the mitt, where all the lake effect snow bands converge like some kind of meteorological prison blanket party.

I'd get there, spend a couple happy days with my parents, then do it all over again. And the dread of the drive back south was enough to screw up my enjoyment during the stay.

After a while, though, I realized one thing: I already go up to visit in November, for Thanksgiving, a mere 30 days earlier. My family and other relatives usually don't swing by, meaning it's just me, my mom and my dad. And I'm an atheist. The holiday itself doesn't mean shit to me. We're not even very big gift-givers. I could go up any time. Including....badumpbump...after the spring thaw.

So I broke the news to my parents, who expressed mild regret and then promptly started getting the hell out of the UP during that period of time. They really didn't care one whit as long as I stayed in touch and visited relatively frequently.

The only person who cared about all this misery I'd been putting myself through for over a decade was the imaginary gremlin in my head.

But it took me awhile and a certain amount of social bravery to admit that. By simply getting rid of that trip and being honest with myself and my parents, I removed a great source of stress in my year.

Slicing through illusions is hard work. Sometimes you have to ask some difficult questions about whether something in your life is worth doing and whether or not it actually matters.

And that's what I like about being as minimalistic as possible. Life throws you a baffling huge cloud of chaff all the fucking time. The more complicating factors you've got in your life, the less streamlined your process of living, the harder it is to focus in on the shit that actually matters to you.

The more stuff you have around, the more that stuff tends to be a prison. Lifting weight off of you gives you more mobility, more ability to identify and deal with problems. It's really that simple.

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