Eating Well: Food Doctrine of the Mean

Scallops and Juniper
Photo Credit: Netflix

Food is the most universal language. In many places of the world, you can get by without knowing a word of Spanish, Mandarin, or French. They are widely spoken, but not wide enough to encompass all of humanity. No single, literal language does. But if you’re a human being anywhere, you cannot get by for more than a handful of days without consuming and digesting some kind of edible flora or fauna. The cultivation and intake of food are some of the most fundamental activities of being a person. We have to eat. As such, much of our civilization and culture has emerged around the things that constitute a meal and their sources. Over the course of the last few hundred years, many and varied branches of a thoroughgoing food industry have grown, and we now find ourselves high up in the canopy of the culinary tree without a view or an interest in the trunk and roots below that led to its growth.

We now watch food competitions on television and take smartphone pictures of food seemingly as much or more than we spend time eating it. We order out, drive through, and snack on the go while our pans and pantry collect dust at home. We readily recognize the sight of plastic-wrapped packages of meat in bulk without having any idea of how the animal was raised and butchered. We have kids who struggle to identify tomatoes and potatoes in their original, just-picked state. There are chefs and food industry experts who are nearly as popular and well known as Hollywood celebrities are for film.

We are enraptured by the consumption of food. There are two polar extremes. On the one hand, trying too hard: bombastic, absurdist gastronomy with excessive technique and uncomplementary ingredients forced together (which the average person will largely never be able to taste or learn to make anyway). On the other, indolence: processed junk with grotesque amounts of sugar, fat, and carbohydrates encouraging us to indulge in foods that undermine our well-being. In both, there is a lack of understanding true craft—knowing the essential interconnections in ecosystems where edible plants and animals grow, what constitutes quality, true skill, and approachability. Food is the universal language, but few of us are fluent anymore—even many chefs. We live in one of the two extremes. We’ve lost the meaning of a well-prepared meal and the proper amount of reverence it deserves.

In such a paltry conceptual environment, Netflix’s original series Chef’s Table could not have been released at a better time. It’s food television, to be sure, but it supersedes existing programs in a way that makes it more of an artistic philosophical reflection than pop entertainment. Chef’s Table compellingly presents a middle ground between the extremes of fetishized gastronomy and profane processed foods. Each of the chefs featured are struggling to break free from the status quo of the culinary world and provide people with a resonant, grounded food experience.

Massimo Bottura has established the third-best restaurant in the world by simply capturing the essence of traditional small-town Italian flavors and presenting them with the playfulness of a child sneaking tastes in a grandmother’s kitchen. Dan Barber is a prophet for understanding that the best flavors are inherent to the best ingredients, which is ultimately dependent on the health of the soil and the rhythms of nature. His literal farm-to-table restaurant at a barn in rural New York just won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant—the Best Picture Oscar of cuisine. Francis Mallmann is a revered chef with the utmost classical technique, who prefers to cook over open fire on a remote Patagonian island with the closest of companions—journeying through life as a sort of renegade band. Niki Nakayama uses the memory of past meals and personalization to every diner to imbue her cooking with additional layers of curated thoughtfulness and relatability. Ben Shewry shows that exceptional food need not be haughty or showy, that creativity often comes out of necessity, and that care of family and friends is just as important as aspiration for brilliance. And in the season finale, it becomes fully clear that eating well is not limited by place or expectations of how a restaurant and its kitchen should function. Magnus Nilsson prepares some of the most renowned food in the world by picking and preserving what arises in each season in remote Sweden—later preparing it in the intimacy of a 12-seat, tightly-staffed lodge.

Each chef narrates their journey of ambition and failure—of perseverance and gaining insight and originality. Like Aristotelian virtues, flourishing occurs in the balance or mean between the extremes. Culinary arts as a genuine art is about: humility in relation to the dirt that produces everything we take and use to eat; learning and sometimes failing at technique to be able to later freely play with it like a virtuoso instrumentalist; and connecting with other people by prioritizing simplicity and enjoyment over pride and recognition. Show creator David Gelb hopes people, “watch these films and then look at their own lives and the places where they eat and see how it changes their perspective.”

In The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly writes, “The secret of happiness (and therefore of success) is to be in harmony with existence, to be always calm, always lucid, always willing, ‘to be joined to the universe without being more conscious of it than an idiot,’ to let each wave of life wash us a little farther up the shore.”

This kind of harmony—such moderation between trying too hard and indolence—is the way the chefs in Chef’s Table engage cooking, and the earth that brings about the bounty of what can be cooked, in preparation for the people who eat it. We, too, can find genuine happiness through food by coming to see the culinary mean between the extremes as we dine.

Space: The Necessary Frontier

Nothing lasts forever. Nothing we know of now, anyway. Our favorite athletes retire and move on from the sports stage they once starred on. Shows like Mad Men inevitably arrive at their series finale and conclude the stories they began years ago in their pilots. Jazzercise is no longer a trendy way to work out; the popularity of CrossFit today will likely fade in much the same way over the next decade or two. Young siblings grow up and move out—the days of everyone coming home from school and work every night for dinner together can never return. As difficult as it is to fathom the length of time, the universe is just under 14 billion years old, which means it hasn’t been around forever—and it won’t be around forever in the future. It’s hard to anticipate the forthcoming end of something when you’re right in the middle. It seems too far off, or too unlikely to happen. That’s just getting started. There are lots of seasons left. It’s cemented its place in society. That’s at least several years away. I just can’t ever see it changing from the way it is. Change of home is probably the hardest to process. You grow deep roots with the friends you make, the schools you attend, arts and cultural centers you frequent for entertainment, neighbors, favorite places to eat and drink, annual celebrations, the recognizable contours of local topography, seasonal transitions, and overall way of life—then uproot everything to go try to settle in elsewhere. Will the roots go as deep there? What do you do with the trauma of the severed, irreplaceable roots from where you left? Whether you’ve called a place home for one year or twenty, it’s difficult and disorienting to come to the end of something that was such a constituent part of who you are. The reality is that even if we’ve built a sturdy, comfortable home to pass on to our family for generations to come, one day home will have to change for all of us. Our planet, Earth, will no longer sustain the lives of people—whether we’re trying to live out of a cabin near one of the Poles, a hut close to the Equator, or anywhere in between. Eventually, our sun will run out hydrogen to burn and turn into a white dwarf. Before that, the sun will gradually get hotter and hotter as it turns into a red giant. In a little over a billion years, much of the earth will be completely uninhabitable: no plants, no animals, boiling bodies of water. This, of course, assumes that we won’t first completely wreck the planet through more anthropogenic climate change over the next several years. But whether we’re looking at 100 years or 1 billion, it’s become increasingly clear that Earth will not be our sustaining home forever. Space is not only the final frontier, as Star Trek has spiritedly suggested: it is the necessary frontier. We have to find somewhere else to journey to and make home. To do that, we obviously need a place to go and a means to get there. NBD. That colossal project is only in its infancy. We haven’t truly identified any proper earthlike planets. Mars is sort of a half-option: it’s in our own solar system, and with the right kind of engineering we could probably survive there in smaller colonies for a while. But even beyond the difficulties of radiation, bone loss, lack of indigenous oxygen, cramped living space, limited water sources, and the rest, it will succumb to the same fate as Earth with the decay and death of the sun. And though Mars is relatively close, we do not yet have an existing transportation structure to even make a one-way trip. SpaceX, the most innovative space technology company at the moment, recently had viewers around the world on a seat’s edge as they nearly landed a rocket stage for the first time, which would make it reusable—cheapening the costs of space travel and quickening the rate at which missions and innovation could take place. But comparably, that’s like someone being able to only mispronounce “bonjour” and “merci” in relation to free-flowing fluency of the entire French language. It’s stages prior to baby steps. Even infancy may be a bit of a stretch—cosmic exploration is prenatal right now. It’s all kind of a real life, race-against-time drama. Maybe we have several million years, but if we cannot reduce our negative impact on the planet and stabilize the global warming trends, maybe we only have a handful of decades. We can’t count on millions. Can we find a new home in time? Can we develop the complex, powerful technology to get to wherever that is and survive—even flourish—on it? The reality of this urgency and necessity is part of what made the underappreciated film Interstellar so compelling. It’s not merely fiction. Even if you have artistic critiques of Christopher Nolan’s film as a film, its story is solidly founded on one possible version of our future as human beings and the challenges we face to endure (as well as why we should endure). Whether it’s from blight, unmanageable global warming, the death of the sun, or something else that makes earth inhospitable in the end, we need to adventure well beyond the frontiers of the place we call home now if we want to ensure that our own story continues. Like all things, it will not be home forever.

The Emperor of All Maladies

Emperor“Hope is a funny thing. You have to base hope on something.” “In medicine, you always want to believe.”

Sometimes the truth is difficult to confront. Who wouldn’t rather reside in a happy place in our minds that makes us feel like everything is going to turn out splendidly than engage uncomfortable or undesirable realities? If only merely putting on a pair of yoga pants suddenly made excess weight and cholesterol dissolve without the sweat, soreness, exhaustion, and discipline of real exercise and healthful diet. If only we could just wish that our lazy, credit-stealing boss was less of a tool and he would become better without having the awkward, status-quo-disrupting conversations to actually make it happen. If only all of our financial, relational, ecological, and other mistakes of human nature would sort themselves out well without any of the ugly, painful consequences. If only we were not mortal creatures and could live forever.

Science and technical innovation are perhaps the most optimistic and hopeful human endeavor of our lifetime, and nowhere has belief and reality collided more than in the area of cancer research and treatment. The quotes at the lead are two of many poignant ones from the excellently crafted recent PBS documentary series Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, based on the book of the same name by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Through the all-encompassing history therein, it is apparent that the crucial questions at the core of any discussion about cancer are: What do we really know? What can we now do to address it? We always want to believe that we have the right answers and that we know how things will turn out, but cancer has challenged our understanding of our bodies and our world in ways that few other things have. As Mukherjee states early on in the first part of the series, “to imagine that we will find a simple solution doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the problem.”

Over the course of human history, medical experts of all kinds have run the gamut of nearly every possible explanation for cancer’s causes and viable cures. Is it punishment from the gods? Is it black bile run amok? Is it from a virus, genes, or chemicals? Is there something in the apothecary for it: boar’s tooth, fox’s lung, or crab’s leg? Can’t it just be cut out? Maybe an intravenous combination of some potent synthesized chemicals will wipe it all out? Can’t our immune system do this on its own?

It all is, or at least should be, rather humbling: humbling in both the sense of being humbled—lowered or destroyed—and to be humble—not arrogant, honestly assessing one’s power and understanding. Our bodies are humbled by this debilitating, complex disease that attacks from within: the very constituent parts of our bodies that keep us alive and healthy will under different circumstances kill us. And also, the mysteriousness of cancer and our feeble inability to fully perceive and treat it, despite many and varied efforts of trial and error, should remind us of the limitations of our understanding of the world and our capacity to control it in directions of our own will. Somehow there has been little humility of the latter sort despite the persistence and even increase in cancer’s ravaging humiliation of the former. We always want to believe. We want to believe there’s nothing we can’t understand and course correct it the way we want it to go.

With little or no truthful understanding of cancer’s genetic origins and unpredictable, metastatic spread, we spent decades administering more is better therapies. More cutting: notably the radical mastectomy—barbaric removal of not only a breast with malignancy, but the entire musculature and other tissue below it. More drugs: ever-increasing doses and combinations of chemotherapy—pushing patients closer to the brink of death from treatment than the cancer had itself. One of the most heart-wrenching personal stories shown in the documentary is a young boy who receives aggressive chemotherapy for his leukemia, only to develop a second cancer from the chemo and later die from graft-versus-host after a failed transplant to try to treat the second, medically caused cancer.

Is it better to do something than nothing? What lengths are we willing to go to before we have a better understanding of what’s going on?

Though we now have more accurate concepts like genes, mutations, and pathways rather than humors, we’re not necessarily this close to cancer being fully manageable—as much of the rhetoric of researchers, popular news sources, and some physicians would suggest. After things like smoking, obesity, radiation, viruses, and sunlight, the other 40% of the causes of cancer are not yet known. Prevention and early detection can go a long way, but we’re still seeing through a glass darkly about how the switch is flipped on for a huge set of cancers, and have not found low side-effect treatments that will cleanse and heal the body of the majority of cancers. A few bright spots like the drug Gleevec, a once-a-day pill especially for a form of leukemia, and some immunotherapies—different versions of empowering a body’s own immune system to fight the cancer itself—are exactly that—just a few bright spots in the strive for full cures for all cancers.

Importantly, the documentary spends a meaningful chunk of time near the end exploring the importance of palliative care. It’s difficult to watch as some patients are told there is nothing medical science can do to help them. They will have weeks or maybe months before cancer ends their life. The conversation shifts beyond even a glimmer of hope in this or that treatment to be tried to what is a good death? Eventually, mortality and bodily fragility catch up, and medicine—however advanced and powerful—reaches the limits of its ability to restore. There is no medical expert in eternal life. But doctors still have an important role to play in helping people live out the last days of their lives as well as possible.

As we continue the worthy fight of trying to subvert cancer’s enigmatic power, we need to perpetually ground ourselves in a posture of humility. Too often, medicine (like many other scientific disciplines) has told stories about what cancer is and how it can be defeated that amounted to false hope—acting in overconfidence, and worsening bodily health beyond the destruction of cancer alone. The fight requires ingenuity, patience, a willingness to be dead wrong, collaboration, an emphasis on sustaining the highest level of well-being of patients, honesty, and a tempered optimism, rather than buoyant expectation, that perhaps one day we just might get it all figured out. It’s not a given, though. It’s not inevitable, it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be without setbacks. Hope has to be based on something. The way to that something—to truth—requires a humble approach. The limits of: what we know, what we don’t, and what we’re willing to subject people to. Our power to investigate, learn, and understand is as personal and finite as our vulnerable bodies.

Meaning

IMG_0007 Meaning. It’s a weighty word. When let slip in any conversation, it suddenly feels like something’s blown a hole in the hull of the ship and no one knows what to say to plug it. Usually it ends up being a lot of cheap, temporary filler.

What is the meaning of capitalism? What is the meaning of morning coffee? What is the meaning of celebrities? What is the meaning of love? Pain? Natural disasters?

What is the meaning of life? Why are we all here?

Our lives are governed by a deep sense that there should be purpose. Try living for a week, or even a day, as if each and every activity you do and every person and thing you encounter is truly meaningless and has no ultimate purpose. It’s not only difficult–it’s depressing. It’s hard to digest even the considered notion that the people you know and love are just meat hung up on bones, acting out self-centered, evolutionary impulses largely out of their control, and will soon be merely dust–their lives a pointless accident and all but forgotten. That work, family, travel, ethics, food, exercise, love, health, education, rest, ideas…all mean nothing.

Meaning is something that we cannot live without.

Meaning may simply be a constant exercise in utility: doing one thing to accomplish a specific end or result. The purpose of morning coffee is to get caffeinated alertness; alertness is to get through the workday; getting through the workday is to do enough work to keep your job–then get the hell out of there and go home for a beer and some takeout; all of this done Monday through Friday simply to get closer and closer to the weekend when you can do more of the stuff you like. Perhaps everything that you do is to try to arrive at ends like happiness, pleasure, status, wealth–whereby those things serve as the ultimate meaningfulness of your life.

Or, for many, meaning has a more detailed and traditional metanarrative. Religions at their core, across the spectrum of belief systems, are all stories about what imbues life with meaning. They try to make sense of the world of our experience by things like: following such-and-such laws; appeasing the deity; taking care of what the divine has made; becoming a player in a cosmic plan to make the world a different sort of place; doing the right things to arrive at a different sort of place when you die; self-denial. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and on and on, are all different versions of a transcendent story of purpose. Secular humanism, atheism, agnosticism, and the like, are simply more recent shared-narratives with a particularly non-theistic articulation of purpose at the core.

We all adhere to patterns, practices, and systems of meaning–new or old.

But for as much as we need meaning from an existential standpoint, we don’t reflect much on the attachments we’ve made, and whether they actually lead to a fulfilling way of life. We hold them out of habit, complacency, and fear of change.

Most employees at any given business can’t really articulate why the business even exists; and yet, everyone shows up and grinds the gears each and every day. Is a paycheck meaningful enough? Why spend 10 or 20 years working somewhere that you hardly care why the business is there?

Why do cigarettes exist? Are they cool? A harmless indulgence? If not, should they exist?

Why do cubicles exist? Are they effective? Are they worth the physiological and psychological toll they take on people who spend hours in them week after week? Does it make a difference if one day you might earn the corner window desk?

Why do plastics exist? Are all those containers tossed on sidewalks and in landfills and oceans outweighed by the convenience of being able to buy a bottle of water at a gas station or individually-wrapped servings of coffee? Do we have an obligation to repair that damage?

Why does pornography exist? Is it a true representation of romantic passion–of real love and connection with another person? Are its working conditions healthy and dignified for its employees? Is it a harmless dalliance for its viewers?

Why does religious fundamentalism (atheists included) exist? Does it do anything more than create animosity and paranoia by dividing the world into groups of us and them, and either looking down on, subjugating, or trying to convert the them to the us? Does it actually appear that a violent storm is some deity’s wrath for the sins of a group of people? Are all believers of theistic religions either violent terrorists or naive, unsophisticated hillbillies?

The eternal question is, “why?” Why this instead of that? Why do they do what they do? Why does this happen the way that it does? Why do I do this? Why do I believe this? Why did my parents believe this? Why does this exist?

“Why?” should govern every idea and action in which we each partake. No matter our background and the culture we live in, there should be sense to what we do, and good sense. When we’re all asking “why?,” we start growing closer as individuals and societies toward a way of life that is fulfilling and flourishing and humanizing. We might actually come to be on the same page about some things–no matter what the differences in our ultimate meaning or religious attachments are. Things we could call common sense. We’ll look back and say, “Why did we ever think and do that?”

Life is meant to have meaning; we can’t live without it. But the way that we make meaning and the structures of meaning we attach ourselves to should make sense, and we should never cease to dig and discover new depths of meaning by asking:

Why?

Hard Work

Work. Hard work. Work ethic. Career path. Menial work. Temp work. Career ladder. Dream job…

We spend a significant amount of our lives applying ourselves to various efforts for which we are compensated, and contemplating the nature of those paid efforts and whether or not they match what we truly want for ourselves.

Life is short. We only have so much time to make a mark in the world, and each of us longs to do something that brings us pride; that brings us some kind of notoriety; that will outlast us when we no longer walk on the earth.

In former generations that was all more straightforward. Whether you spent decades working your way up through the ranks of an institution–a police department, a university, a law firm, a commodities company, a branch of the government–or you were an entrepreneur trying to build something from humble beginnings (including artists), there were more obvious paths to take to fulfill the longings for status, income, recognition, impact.

For anyone working today, this traditional framework holds less and less all the time. The internet and the devices connected to it have decentralized cultural capital. Corporations, universities, media, executives, public figures, and more, are no longer the kingmakers they once were. There are less dues to pay for self-growth and broadening one’s horizon of influence. This is surely a good thing.

The dissolution of the traditional framework of work was also undoubtedly catalyzed by economic collapse. The path of the PhD no longer had a reasonably expected outcome; more than one PhD-holder was forced to take an hourly job for which she was extremely overqualified. The reliability of paying dues has faded just as much as the dues themselves have.

Because of innovation and economic fluctuation, the marketplace of available and sustainable careers has shifted immensely in the lifetime of Millennials–the ones who have come to dominate the workforce. Work isn’t what work used to be.

This, too, may be a good thing. If the opportunities for a lifelong career are dwindling, there is likely less pressure to try and figure out what just the right one is that will cover the next 20-30 years of one’s life. A Millennial is apt to work a dozen or more different jobs in their lifetime. Maybe that will help find the right field to apply oneself too. I’m doing something much different now than what I was thinking I would be 10 years ago. And I’m sure 10 years hence will bring more surprises.

But without the traditional paths we’re also left in a bit of a vocational purgatory: many of us want the pride, success, income, notoriety, recognition, influence, but there aren’t direct ways to get there. In fact, I would suggest that we want all of those things with little effort at all.

Everyone thinks they’re going to be their own popular, highly-successful brand: the amateur writer thinks she’s going to become a New York Times Bestseller (which, ironically, probably doesn’t mean as much as it used to either); the maker thinks his Etsy is going to turn into the next great goods company, but even better than the rest; the food blogger thinks she’s going to be the next Anthony Bourdain or cookbook author or restauranteur; the musician thinks a couple clever social media posts of tracks and video is going to turn him into an overnight world-renowned artist.

Pick a field of interest, and you’d be hard-pressed not to find this kind of thinking going on. And once in a while it works out. There are some incredibly talented people who have become successful in a relatively short amount of time by taking advantage of non-traditional routes. But they didn’t do it without genuine hard work.

No one knows what it means to work hard anymore.

The roads to success are manifold now, and savviness certainly helps. The recent book Smartcuts by Shane Snow has some great insights on smarter self-growth and advancement. But there is still no replacement for actual, real, gritty, sometimes-tiring, coffee-fueled, midnight-oil-burning, scheduled, regular, perseverant, don’t-take-anything-for-granted, hard work.

Many Millennials have this weird existential crisis about the gap between life-dreams and where they actually find themselves presently. The tools for interaction and creation, the dwindling of tradition, the flattening out of authority over who gets to decide who’s doing something of value, the appreciation of things that were previously undervalued, are all more ripe than ever before. So the question for anyone dissatisfied with the work they do is: how are hard are you working for what you really want?

Do people still get manipulated, spit in the face, under-appreciated, ignored, rejected? Of course. But how much are you really pushing for what you are capable of and believe is possible?

You may have to be your own patron.

You may have to work in a sweaty, dirty job, or a cubicle, or serve food and drink–probably for less money than your abilities are worth–so that the rest of the day and into the wee hours of the morning you can invest yourself into what you’re genuinely amped about “doing for a living.” Nowadays, you could probably do just about anything you want to for a job, but only if you’re actually working hard for it.

Do you save your best energy for at least a couple hours of time every day toward what you really care about? Do you even schedule for a couple hours each day to do that? Or do you binge-watch some show you haven’t yet, toot around on social media, and tell your friends and family how you could have been that blogger-turned-author? Do you work your ass off in whatever your current employment entails–if only to remind yourself about doing hard work and that you’re not above it? Do you exercise and spend time outdoors to give your life balance and perspective? Do you figure out which new things you need to learn each day to get closer to doing the work you want to do full-time?

Life is short. You want to make an impact.

Do the work.

Motion

Rain vis-a-vis ChildHuman beings treat most of life as if “the way things are” was inevitable, and that it can be expected to endure. When we go to sleep, we should be able to wake up the next day and take a long, hot shower, whip together a few organic items for breakfast, commute about town in a trendy vehicle filled with a tank of reasonably priced gas, pick up a quick, well-made latte on the way to work, and settle into our workplace–a climate-controlled environment replete with all sorts of technology we want to use to complete the tasks at hand. And that’s just the basics of everyday life.

Thanks to “progress,” we have a whole spectrum of innovations and comforts that have made our lives easier, faster, more convenient, and more predictable. The way things are now seem like the way they were alway meant to be, and tomorrow will bring more of the same–or better. We’re on the upslope to the (really) good life–thanks in large part to more “stuff” and more manipulation of the world around us to achieve the ends we desire. “We can drill way down into these shales for natural gas and be energy-independent!” “We can brew up great coffee at home on a Keurig, skip the coffeeshop, and save time and money!” “I can stream Game of Thrones on my smartphone way out here in the woods!” And all of that. It’s been a pretty great setup for a while, and feels exactly like the kind of pleasant, ideal path humans were meant to tread. I enjoy many of modern life’s great comforts myself: I’m typing this on a tablet, connected wirelessly to happenings across the world via WI-FI, and sipping great coffee recently shipped over from a country thousands of miles away.

The thing about the inevitability, and the expectation, and the comfort, and the predictability, is that as much as it feels like things are supposed to always be this way, it’s only been so for a relatively short amount of time. We, and our planet, have never known what it would be like for human beings to be able to explore, and dig, and reconfigure, and use just about anything, anywhere, for years and years of time. In recent decades, we’ve had our eyes focused a little more carefully, our ears to the ground, and some of the devices we’ve constructed out and about collecting data to try to understand how the world we are manipulating–which is also the environment in which we live–is changing in response to our dominion. We’re finding out, rather unsurprisingly, that its servitude has led it into a dilapidated state that’s in stark contrast to our perceived “progress.”

If you’ve followed the news in the past several weeks, you’ve likely heard about both the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the White House reports on the status of our planet and its climate, and watched the ensuing–often partisan–furor. The news wasn’t good. If you were open to the notion that the planet is changing in a dramatically negative way–particularly in ways less hospitable to people living on it–they were a fresh reminder that the hot shower-gasoline-Keurig-smartphone dream is actually taxing our world ecosystem in unsustainable ways. If you were unsure or doubtful about an (anthropogenic) changing climate–especially because those with political views you can’t get on board with won’t stop talking about it–these reports and the ensuing activism likely only exacerbated your doubt and irritation.

The problem is that those who actually research such things professionally have had near one-hundred percent unanimity about a human-caused changing climate, in a negative direction, for years now, while the opinion of the general public is that things are probably A-OK on the whole. Or if our opinions are otherwise, we’re tacitly accepting the unsustainable status quo the majority of the time with our action and inaction.

What will it take for us to be shaken out of our expectations-filled, denialist/avoidance slumber? What thing will be the splash of cold water that gets us to jump out of bed and alter the harsh dominion we have held? Will it be when good coffee disappears, potentially later this century, because the growing regions of the world no longer support the plant or climate-change-friendly fungus destroys everyone’s crop? Perhaps we’re willing to settle for much less delicious hybrid varietals of coffee bean, or some other drink altogether–thought tea and cocoa aren’t expected to fare well either.

Will it be a couple of decades straight of debilitating drought in places like California, where I live–resulting in overwhelming water shortages, intolerable heat, and the complete loss of one of the country’s major food-growing regions?

Why is it human nature to wait until it’s too late or too close to home before we actually do something about the challenges before us–especially when we’ve caused them in the first place?

The earth will likely go on just fine long after the planet no longer supports human life at all. It might take a new age or era of time to stabilize from the ways we’ve messed things up, but the world should go on clicking for millions or billions of years pleasantly without any people around. We are not inevitable.

It’s our own future as people who can live and flourish on this planet that is in the balance, and in our power to control toward either a sad end or a different kind of progressive future. And it’s not just the future of generations after us–it’s the future of how we will live, struggle to live, or be overcome as the earth continues to change in our own lifetimes. The most urgent change we need to make is with energy. Fossil fuels, which took hundreds of millions of years to develop, are being culled and combusted in a matter of decades–contributing to an exponential increase in the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is driving the changing climate. Natural gas, a recent darling, is an imposter of an alternative. A quick watch of Gasland, despite its rather propogandic ethos, makes that quite clear.

But before we can make large sweeps in energy policy, we have to get everyone to even agree that the climate is changing in troubling ways. Maybe it needs to be selfishly personal: coffee, maple syrup, drinking water, local air quality, whatever. Find something the skeptic and the complacent will be compelled by. And then, when the furor is a more united voice gaining volume and influence, we have to convince the economic powers in the energy sector to do what is, for them, unthinkable: leave the fuels in the ground. There’s more there to burn than can run out before it’s too late for the climate. But we’re culpable in that too.

Michael Pollan, professor of journalism at the University of California-Berkeley, has famously reiterated with regard to food that we get to place “a vote with our fork” of what we want the food industry and food policy to look like. If we stop buying certain things altogether then there will no longer be a market for those things that aren’t getting purchased. The less we all use anything powered or shipped by means of fossil fuel, the smaller the industry will be. It costs energy corporations $1.8 billion daily just to explore for new sources; it’s doubtful they’d continue if there is no longer a future for them.

While we pursue meaningful energy change on a worldwide scale, it’s up to us all locally to decide each and every day the kinds of things we want to support with our purchase, consumption, and use, and the kinds of things we wish and need to disappear. They will if we all stop supporting them. Life as we know it will disappear if we don’t.

“Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go on forever…This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilization that won’t be a movement, because it will rest upon the earth.” (E.M. Forster, Howards End)

The Life You Choose for Yourself

Human beings are motivated by many things. When we’re young, we do our best to avoid the punishment and disappointment of our parents. As we grow up a bit and move through young adolescence, we do what we can to fit in with our peers–to prevent being thought of as uncool and ending up an outsider. Moving into high school and academics beyond, the unwanted wrath of teachers and professors, and the negative consequences of a transcript with letters that come after A and B, keep us on a steady track to completing assignments and scrambling to produce desirable test grades.

Mysteriously absent much of the time is the motivation we inspire in ourselves–intrinsic or self motivation. Parents, peers, professors, embarrassment, advertisements for things you don’t have, your public image, and many more extrinsic forces are powerful and effective at shaping the kinds of things that we do and the people that we are.

Some of these forces pull us forward by their attraction like a carrot on a stick: the allure of a high salary or possessions, prestige and popularity among friends and co-workers, the raw pleasure of sex or a drug. These things aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re quite dangerous when they become the primary or sole motivators of our behavior and decision-making.

Similarly dangerous is the other side of things–the external forces that function like an actual fire under your ass whereby you have no choice but to get up and move. They push, and often without your consent for them to do so. Finding a mediocre job just to pay the bills or cramming for a test just so you can pass and not get kicked out of school would fall into this category. Trying not to disappoint others is the absolute worst push motivation possible. It doesn’t matter if it’s the intimate relationship of a parent or the mostly superficial one of a co-worker: you’ve prioritized someone else’s hopes and expectations without a healthy consideration of your own, and bend over backwards just to keep them seemingly happy. It’s probably not even successful much of the time.

A healthy consideration of yourself should really be the center of whatever you feel compelled to do. Not because of some socially constructed reward like money or popularity, or primal pleasure like a hook-up or something only enjoyable once you’re inebriated. And not because this or that pushes you into making a decision that wasn’t good for your wellbeing. You should move into the next decision or chapter of your life because the center of your being drives you in that direction–you feel the contentment, progress, significance, and jouissance that comes with becoming who you yourself are choosing to be.

To be sure, there is definitely a growing process to this. Early on, we are motivated by trying not to disappoint or put off others, and by the potential of acquiring wealth to have money available for whatever. But over time we need to come to understand that we are most capable of living a flourishing, enjoyable life when we stop being tossed to and fro by the waves of forces outside, and instead live with the overflowing, delighted intentionality from within. What is the next Act you’re going to write in The Play of Your Life?

Mindfulness: The Fascination of Sherlock Holmes

SherlockBBC’s Sherlock (which airs on PBS in the States) has enjoyed three seasons of incredibly high praise. Season 3 (or Series 3, if you’re a sophisticate) just aired after a two-year gap from when Season 2 finished, and it was one of the most anticipated TV premieres in recent memory. It also was just plain brilliant. If you’ve never seen Sherlock, or if you’re not caught up, you should really do yourself a favor after you finish this post.

I bring up this modern-day interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic character because there is an intriguing renewed interest in Mr. Holmes in recent years. Most classic works don’t enjoy a resurgent favorableness like this. The Benedict Cumberbatch rendering is one of three active adaptations alongside CBS’ Elementary and the Robert Downey, Jr. version in film. Not to mention a bestselling nonfiction book entitled Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Maria Konnikova, Viking Adult, 2013). Why so much Sherlock?

All three contemporary iterations are edgy, energetic polymaths who exude their own kind of suaveness through the success they achieve by their brainpower. But anyone can be smart, of course. The compelling thing about Holmes is not that he is just a bit more intelligent than any Joe on the street or professor in a university—it’s that he has an incomparable ability to observe and capture detail and context that everyone else misses. He exhibits a particular quality we might call mindfulness or awareness. By practicing some intentionality of focus in the moment, he is able to be fully present with what’s before him and notice things that fly by people who are preoccupied. A lot of holistic experts have made this quality a point of emphasis recently.

Our world is saturated with things demanding our attention. We can see upwards of a few thousand advertisements in a day. We conspicuously update the presentation of ourselves that we like across a variety of social media platforms. Some people experience phantom vibration syndrome because their smartphones have conditioned them so thoroughly to expect a notification at any and all moments of the day. We try to text while we drive, and fail at both in the process. Our cumulative technological innovation has all but erased the distinction between the rhythm of night and day, resting and waking (or working).

We’re disconnected from any natural cues in front of us: sunrises and sunsets, changes in the smell of the air, the story in the facial expression of the person next to us, the nuanced flavors of our morning coffee, the gentle touch of a loved one full of longing for uninterrupted conversation, and so many more. Instead, we’re surface deep across too extensive and too disparate demands for our attention, which leads to us not doing much of anything particularly well.

In this kind of a climate, Sherlock Holmes seems virtually superhuman.

We’re compelled to an artistic presentation of someone like Sherlock because we wish we had that prodigious awareness ourselves, and it seems like an unachievable skill. But as Holmes often declares, his observations and deductions are “obvious.” The ability is actually rather unremarkable—it’s what anyone can do if they took the time (but maybe a bit less perspicaciously than Sherlock). It seems remarkable because most people don’t carry out the patient, intentional “tuning in” to be truly mindful.

Few of us will use mindfulness to solve crimes like Holmes, but a little more attentiveness in our everyday lives could go a long way. For starters, there’d probably be a lot less accidents or near accidents on the freeway—particularly where I call home in Los Angeles. But beyond collisions and everyday annoyances, there are friends giving you signs that they need a shoulder to lean on but don’t want to burden you by asking; coworkers who are overwhelmed by what life has thrown at them and need even just a small moment of relief; whole neighborhoods, streets, and communities that need someone to have their eyes open long enough to notice their distress and that political deadlock isn’t fixing anything.

Here we have an opportunity to go much further that the “high-functioning sociopath” that the Cumberbatchian Sherlock describes himself as being. His talents are astounding until we realize that we are quite capable of such things if we actively practice being present in the present, and that our mindfulness can have an impact far beyond criminal mysteries or showing off. The game is on.