The new year is upon us. After their victory today, Detroit is now on pace to go 162-0 in the 2015 season. I have no reason to doubt this.
Go Tigers. Happy New Year.
Just recently I sent an email to all of the students I’ve had since 2012. I was surprised to see that the number was in the hundreds by this point. Of that pool, a handful wrote back with some very nice things to say. Surprisingly, though, a trend emerged that I hadn’t quite expected: several, independent of one another, thanked me for being so open in the classroom. They noted how their other teachers never seemed as comfortable and as free to talk about themselves and admit their own flaws.
I guess it surprised me for a number of reasons, the first being that the word “comfortable” is one I’d never use to describe myself at any point in my life. It’s not even in my vocabulary. But second, these notes presumed that it was a conscious decision, as if I could have done it any other way.
It reminds me that I’ve heard that insecure people who are scared of letting people in tend to be the people that talk the most about themselves. Lots of people mistake it for arrogance or narcissism, but it’s really a defense mechanism: by preempting the conversation you can control it in some small way. You may also wear the you-as-conversation out before others have a chance to jump in.
That about sums it up for me, I think.
But these email compliments also overlook that teaching, at its best, is a kind of performance. In many ways my teaching is raw and overly personal; I take literally everything to heart (sometimes too much so). But at the same time, it’s not really me. It’s a version of me that I’ve created in the classroom and that I turn on each morning and turn off on my way home. I’ve often said that I’m who I truly want to be when I’m in front of a class, but I also think that’s because I’m playing the part that I’m the most comfortable slipping in and out of.
Which is all to say that this annual list, and these annual entries are public, confessional, and a bit performative, too. I honestly don’t know if they’re me at my most essential, or me dolled up expecting an audience. Maybe it’s both, or one or the other when I’m feeling more or less vulnerable. I dunno.
But it’s been fun. And I think it demonstrates, for me at least, how closely aligned writing and music are, how little space sits between fact and fiction, how privacy is a fantasy that I don’t allow myself to indulge in for at least one time each year.
And how like me I am.
Maybe in writing all of this and putting it out there you can see that you are too.
Like you, that is.
Memories include your acupuncture place. The double storefront in the Western Addition that you found so unassuming you weren’t sure if it was quaint or shady. But on second appointment you knew it was the best thing you’d ever experienced in San Francisco. Just $20 to nap openly with strangers in mismatched reclining chairs. You always picked the corners, the ones that faced up to the violet-leafed tree out front that shook in the wind and filtered the morning light to the rest of the room.
Your memories included the white noise machines, like low fans, playing over the looped recordings of wind chimes and waterfalls. They include how the acupuncturists always asked you, “How long?” and you always said “One hour…give or take” although you were always up before then, needles erect as you lay partially exposed under blue felt blankets.
In your memory the place is more Berkeley than San Francisco, more 1990s than 2000s, but just as gentle. Just as sweet. And for only $20. Can that be right? Just that to take a nap in the middle of the day in the middle of the city and have someone wake you up at an appointed time, see yourself out.
But next to that are the things you remember.
Like seeing Damien Rice in Oakland with her. Taking BART back to 16th and Mission and for some reason waiting with her outside the McDonald’s as her roommate (who you secretly hated) came to take her away. You remember it being a near magical night. The kind of night where you were yourself but didn’t fuck it up for once. You remember it going so quickly, including her being led away–in your memory, different, as if she was being physically pulled away.
And you remember her looking back. A goodbye like an invitation.
And here what you remember becomes your memory. As if they were different. As if it could be any other way. You always knew it would end this way.
So you picture yourself alone and relaxed, reclined and in a room full of strangers. Everyone’s eyes closed. The thin glass barrier between the calm you feel and the world outside. And you look at the clock and see it’s only been 50 minutes. You have time still. There’s still time. And gently, gently you remember the words:
And we can’t take back
What is done, what is past
So fellas, lay down your fears
‘Cause we can’t take back
What is done, what is past
So let us start from here…
It becomes your memory. What you take with you when you’re tapped on the shoulder and the needles are taken out and she says “Did you rest?” and you say “Yes. Thank you.” You slowly put on your shoes before looking around, realizing you won’t be back but won’t forget. Letting yourself out.
With a goodbye like an invitation.
Well, at least I’m consistently inconsistent. For the past five years I’ve put my year-end lists on indefinite hiatus as I’ve ended one (school) year, started another, and tried to find a new job at the same time. Last year I pre-empted the whole thing by not writing a single post. So why should this year be any different?
But then I do suppose I owe some sort of explanation. However ladies don’t kiss and tell so I’ll simply say that I’ve been all over the country, including a week out of the country, served on a pointless committee, taught classes that deserved so much more than I gave them, been a better Dad on the weekends than I’ve ever been, been a better husband at times, been a worse husband at times, been a fairly decent son, ditto for friend, and–let’s face it–let myself go physically. I mean, seriously, would it kill me to exercise at least once a week?
Still, I don’t give up that easy, and so here I am to finish out the final three songs. Granted I’ve completely forgotten what I was gonna write for each, and my worldview has been supplanted with excitement and disappointment in the early parts of the new year, but I’m still committed to what I started (despite what those bastards said in my supposed Senior Predictions in HS; I’ve never forgiven them for that by the way.)
So here we go. For better or worse. Just two more. Hang with me.
Last year I flew to Chicago in the middle of the infamous Polar Vortex. Interviewed with one school in a cramped hotel room, my chair, mismatched, placed in front of the hallway in which I came. I thought it went well. I really did. I didn’t. A few days later, back in San Francisco, I received the news and literally thought my life was ending. I had no hope. No future.
This year, just this week, I repeated the same process in a new place: Vancouver, different school, chair in the corner this time. Though I didn’t think it went well. The people, well, it just didn’t feel right. I couldn’t tell if it was ignorance or arrogance that had someone from a different field currently doing the job they’d want me to do. I kinda knew. But I didn’t. But then I did. My daughter was on my lap as I opened the message on my laptop.
But this year felt a bit different. No immediate loss of hope. No immediate sense of doom or a lack of future. Maybe the drugs help. Maybe I’ve matured to realize it’s not the end. Or maybe I’m just used to it.
What’s most striking about this process during this time of year is that it’s a new year with new classes. Optimism should reign, and instead I have to fake it. And it’s cold. And the sun comes down in slanted rays. Last year we introduced our daughter to a new nanny, her first. This year a new nanny, with my same mix of guilt and anxiety and fear. Last year I drove around listening to The Tragically Hip’s “Nautical Disaster” on repeat. It sorta helped. This year I’m just gonna keep reading, and playing, and moving forward. As I’ve said in a past post: what other choice do I have?
Almost exactly one year ago I also penned this poem. It’s gone unrevised so it’s not in the best of shape. But the sentiment is there. I think that’s worth something.
for this time of year
the temperatures so cold
and the wind-
chill (to say nothing of the blowing snow)
they cancelled school
and work and special events
It’s only the first week
of the new year, not even,
and the snow has surpassed
last year’s totals
No one went out
and no one was happy
At just over 5”
it was the driest year
on record in San Francisco
and this time of year
the street corners look
like Christmas tree lots, or
miniature manicured forests
Some you pass and you
get the scent of sweet sap
Some you pass and they
just look dead, not even dying
I took ours to the corner
in broad daylight
which may be against some code
I abandoned it, didn’t
When I got home there was
a hole where it used to be
and pine needles
I tried to forget it
throughout the neighborhood
but each time I circled
our block I’d see it
standing alone still
with its familiar shape
where we hung our memories
I walked home crying
in broad daylight
breaking some unwritten code
of how men should act
We’d been together
for over six months
every waking hour, literally,
and when my disappointments came
as they tend to do
this time of year
she made it not matter
I knew it mattered more
eventually, but I gave her away
left before the goodbyes
because I knew I couldn’t take it
Took a picture of her
and Shannon walking
down the street
like some first day of school
like a happy time
like we all agreed to this
When I got home
I wiped my eyes and read
an email notifying me of another
rejection, no explanation
as if the entire world
and all those within it
are telling me something
telling me the same thing
about how what I’m doing
Tomorrow I teach again
and hide my eyes
I filled up the car
saw our tree
hoping expecting that maybe
someone would take it home
so it would no longer be
my problem my guilt
Scanning then I hear
the worst song about missing someone
“I ain’t missing you”
or something like that
the song that dawned on me
years after first hearing it
as a child
that he did miss her, it was ironic
but there’s nothing metaphoric
about a line
“like a telegraph to your soul”
and still I keep listening
like in that first time
suddenly ashamed that I
let it speak to me
such arbitrary breaks
this is not my story
but it was
and no one
is working today
except this stupid song
We’re still hungover from last night. We poured on the compliments, made eye contact, struck up conversations with strangers because we knew we’d never see them again. The bartender gave us free drinks, talked to us between serving other less-inviting customers. We felt the charm, the confidence in saying, “We’re not from here…We’re from California.”
We stayed out late, stumbled like we were in college. The fog hung low to the cobblestones of this city, Vancouver, like some gentile vision of the future. Like a dream inside a cloud. We briefly debated what a donair was before buying one. We spent all morning regretting it, wishing the cleaning ladies would take out the trash to erase the smell of humus and cold french fries.
So we decide it’s best to walk around Stanley Park: literally. Take the seawall around the perimeter and watch as the mist and fog climbs over the top of mystical cedars like the visual echo of bonfires. All around us we see fathers and children. One father pushes his small daughter, no more than a year old, in an umbrella stroller. She’s sleeping, with her little head to the side and a calm, if bored, look on her tiny face. We know she’s safe. Her entire world is being taken care of for her. Her dad is so lovely.
It all makes us very sentimental, and sad. All we want to do is hug our children. At times we’re alone on the path, and in those moments we feel triumphantly independent. But yet we have the urge under us at all times to call the people we love, to tell them we miss them, to tell them we want them. We know that if they were actually there the magic of solitude would evaporate. And so, again, on the shaded eastern side, with snow-capped peaks in the distance to the north, we feel suddenly very sentimental and very sad.
And we wonder if we forgot to take our meds, because it was before our meds that we always felt sentimental and sad, and things that make most people happy make us sad, like looking at old photographs or thinking of family trips when we were young, and we try to recall if we popped that pill bottle open last night after the donair, whatever that is, and whether just missing one night can account for feeling so out of control with emotions, emotions that, no doubt, are pure and real, but nonetheless feel like they can push us over the edge, don’t get too close to the seawall now.
When we notice a memorial bench, with a brief, almost laughable nameplate: SoandSo: He made people happy. Just that. He made people happy. And for the first time in our lives we realize that maybe it really is as simple as trying to make others happy. That in a somewhat unselfish way we had always thought it was about making ourselves happy. But this guy made others happy, and someone thought enough of that to memorialize it here. What a revelation.
But the revelation passes as we realize the inherent fallacy in such a summation. That we can’t always make people happy. That sometimes we have to make people unhappy. That our daughters can’t always get what they want. That sometimes we need to be alone to be better lovers. That sometimes telling people they’re wrong or bad is the only thing we can do. And everyone’s unhappy for a time. And maybe they’re happy again in the future and it’s never clear if it’s a causal relationship or what.
And the scale of it all makes us think about God, and how God maybe faces the same dilemmas. Except that she understands the scale. Or we hope she does. Has an understanding of the infinite expanse of compassion and love that we can only glimpse in pockets, at most, if we’re lucky, once or twice a day. Sometimes we don’t see it at all.
But today, in Stanley Park, we do, and we continue walking, slowly turning counterclockwise back to the city, wondering if tonight we should treat ourselves to the cute bistro down the block, and how the coffeehouse inside the art gallery is open till 6 and we can make it if we speed up a bit. And then all the emotion is gone. All the introspection. It’s been a while. It’s cold. We’re tired. We suddenly feel that our inner-thighs are cold and chafing to our stiff jeans.
We just want to go home. We were who we were, and we allowed ourselves to be selfish. Just as we think this we pass Siwash Rock, which was supposedly a person (being?) rewarded for his unselfishness. He was rewarded for being unselfish by being turned into a large rock structure next to the island. Later we try to confirm this on Wikipedia and read a different story. We’re confused. We don’t know who to believe.
There’s a day left in this trip and we’re already checking our flight times. We’re already ready to be ourselves again. We’re already ready. But till then we just think about the people we love. And we make sure to take our meds. Because that’s important, too.
All I wanted was to be left alone. Alone to read. Alone to prepare. Alone to be alone. I try to explain that it’s hard-wired in me, but it never comes out clearly. Saying without hurting, “I just want to be alone.”
And then I was. Flying across the country alone. Back home. Stepping out into the 60 degree California night en route to a dark, cold house. Alone. But then I got into the shuttle, just a short trip between SFO and my car. And there I was face to face with 20-somethings. Beautiful. Big diamond rings on the women’s hands. Smart clothes on the men. Tanned. Actual surfboards taking up the luggage rack. My overpacked suitcase between my legs, I looked down at my winter coat, now covered with cat hair and dry skin from a week away and a day of travel. I wondered if it was all worth it.
Immediately, though, I thought about this actual draft I composed before the trip, while I was still surrounded. Not alone. Not home. You can tell why I saved it as a draft, but never planned to publish it in this form:
There’s something quietly humbling about being here. In small town, rural Minnesota in the depth of winter. I live most of my life feeling insecure and out of place: knowing that I don’t make enough, that I’m not good looking enough, that my future isn’t as bright as I once hoped it would be. I’m convinced that my shoulders have grown hunched to reflect my inner feelings of inadequacy.
And then I come here, from sunny, futuristic San Francisco, teaching at Stanford, with several degrees to my name, seemingly a world away and so much to feel confident about. And here it means nothing. Instead I’m surrounded by men who built their own houses, women who sacrificed their careers to take care of their children and parents, and a historic downtown that keeps bumping along, unwilling to give in to the economic decline and drain of recent generations.
But here it’s different. It’s not inadequacy or insecurity. Here it’s a mutual admiration; that we live our separate lives in our separate ways
No one is at a loss for me not continuing in that vein. But the sentiment was at least partly right: at home I feel undervalued, and away I feel, well, perhaps just a bit full of myself.
But what does that say about being alone? The urge to be alone in the latter, the consequential loneliness I feel alone in the former?
I arrived home, as expected, to a house that had been locked up for a week. It was dark, and cold. I put things in order without music or sounds. I drank a beer by the light of Christmas bulbs we hadn’t taken down before leaving. I got into bed and never felt warm. And this, for what it’s worth, is pure coincidence, but today (the day after) I listened to Chet Faker’s “Cigarettes & Loneliness” on repeat at least a dozen times. I’m not feeling particularly lonely, but it still felt like the right song for the right time. It still does.
This song may just be my favorite song off of my favorite album of 2014. Against a lot of odds perhaps since I had never heard of him until my friend Christian dropped his name. Even then I didn’t get around to listening to the LP until CBC Radio 2’s The Signal started adding “Gold” to their rotation. And even then I was more dialed in to the R&B that anchors the front of the album more than the introspective, DIY nature of the back-end. In fact, this song really only came to my immediate attention when I fell asleep one night on the train back home. As we were pulling into 4th and King this song was humming in my headphones. I awoke, startled to be into the city already. I restarted the song, rediscovering it for the first time. Listening to it on repeat for what ended up being the way home.
And because Christian thinks that 1998 and C&L go together (they’re back to back on the album) here’s a live version, which–it should be noted–should probably be played first, before the video above.
In honor of this song’s entry, I’ll share what I believe to be the cheapest, quickest way to roast quality coffee at home. Ever since I started roasting my own several years ago, I haven’t bought any beans from stores or other roasters. You won’t either once you perfect your own personal roasts and blends.
What you’ll need:
Where to get the stuff:
There are many places to buy green coffee online. It’s a bit more difficult, however, to find places that are high in quality, consistent, and low in prices. My favorite is Sweet Maria’s, a really reputable importer out of Oakland, CA. Their website has beautiful descriptions and flavor profiles, and their selection is typically can’t-go-wrong quality.
Beans, like anything, are cheaper when you buy them in bulk. However, I typically buy between 2-5lbs when I’m trying a new bean; you don’t want to get stuck with a bean you don’t care for. I love fruity, rich beans from Ethiopia (and sometimes amp up the berry profile by getting dry-process beans; though that’s a bit controversial in some parts.) However, I also love dark, caramelly beans that coat your mouth with a rich cup. So I also buy beans from Java and Sumatra. To make a really balanced blend, I combine them both, typically at a 2:1 ratio of Java:Ethiopia. But you can play around.
I bought my hot air popper off of Craigslist years ago for $10, but you can find good ones new online for $25 or under. The best ones have air vents on the side of the chamber, and not the bottom (I’ll explain why later.) They also have an on/off switch. Mine doesn’t, which means I have to unplug the machine every time I want to stir. The plastic upper part doesn’t matter; you’ll remove that and throw it out anyway.
The basic process:
1. Pour your beans into the popper
The less beans you roast per roast the easier it is to control, but obviously the longer it takes to accrue any significant amount. As a result, I typically roast about a cup per roast.
2. Set up bowl under popper to catch chaff
Beans have several layers of skin that they shed during a roast. The popper will blow them out into a waiting bowl that you can dispose of later.
3. Cover the top of the popper
Like popcorn, the beans will fly around when you turn the popper on. I cover the top of mine with a vegetable steamer. Just make sure whatever you use has vents to let the hot air escape.
4. Turn it on
The beauty of this method is that it’s a one-step process. Incredibly easy. The nuance (and dare I say, skill) comes in how long you leave the beans roasting.
5. After a few minutes, turn off popper and stir beans
This is where side vents have an advantage over a bottom vent. Side vents will blow the beans around in a circle, typically resulting in a more even roast and less required stirring. However, in a bottom vent popper (like mine) you need to stop and stir so that some beans don’t get stuck at the bottom and burn while others pop free and stay green. You’ll need to gauge for yourself (and your popper) how many times to repeat this step, but I typically only do it once per batch.
6. Listen for the cracks
This process largely involves judging beans’ roast level by the sounds they emit. There are three basic stages of cracks that correspond to beans’ doneness:
7. Turn off popper and pour beans into strainer
After the first crack your beans are ready to take off. However, depending on the flavor profile even these “done” beans may not taste like much. Getting closer to the second crack gets closer to a medium roast, or what most people are used to. Again, though, it depends on your beans. Some beans take really well to a dark roast, but be ready if you push it that far, the beans will continue to roast for a while after you dump them, and you may get a strainer full of burnt, undrinkable beans. It obviously depends, but I typically go to the second crack (which, admittedly, I often can only barely hear) before taking off most beans.
8. Pass beans between strainers, preferably outside
Again, beans will continue to roast even once removed from the popper. By passing them from strainer to strainer you’re helping them to cool down quicker. By doing it outside (or, in my case, out a 2nd floor window) you’re not only cooling them down, but helping to remove extra chaff. After a few minutes they’ll be good to go.
9. Store in an air-tight container for at least a day
A lot of coffee roasting guides will say you can drink coffee at this stage, but I generally don’t agree. Put them in an air-tight container like a jar (if you put them in a plastic container they’ll be fine, but the emitting gas will probably blow the cover) for at least 24hrs. When you next open the jar up you’ll not only be ready to drink your first home-roasted coffee, you’ll also be treated to a nose-full of the freshest coffee you’ve ever enjoyed.
That’s it. Cheap: about $6/lb. Quick: about 4-8min. Simple: just the steps above. Experiment. Don’t be afraid: it’s just coffee.