The other day, I was in line for coffee and breakfast at our shop at Mint Plaza. As is often the case, the line stretched out the door and around the corner. This particular morning the line was populated with many lanyard-sporting guests on a temporary reprieve from a medical conference held at nearby Moscone Center. There were 14 of us waiting to get in the door. All of us, myself included, were staring at our phones.
We didn’t notice that the ginkgo trees on Mint Plaza were starting to bud. Or that the fog was burning off, leaving a delicate gold-grey penumbra shimmering around the historic Mint building. Or that down the block, a group of 40 or so not quite elderly men and women were waiting for the doors of a very un-luxurious bus to open so that they could board and head to an Indian casino an hour’s drive away. Most of them would come back poorer, but a few wouldn’t.
A million other stories were unfolding in front of us. Clicking away, I was immune to all of them until my phone rang. Startled (who makes calls anymore?), I actually dropped my phone. With the exception of a chunk taken out of the case, the phone was fine, but while I bent over to pick it up, I noticed the ginkgo trees. And then the rest.
I put the phone in my pocket.
These machines in our pockets (or, more often than not, in our hands) suck attention away from our world, and toward . . . what? When I dropped my phone, I was finishing reading an email (which I had no intention of answering), and about to read a sponsored twitter post from Trident gum. It seemed important at the time.
After that moment, the idea of paying attention to the world around me seemed somehow much more urgent. I’ve been trying to keep my iPhone in my pocket more, but, at times, I need a little help.
Smart design for dumb technology
I’ve often envied those who can make do with a flip phone, but in the past, I have stopped short of buying one because they are such homely objects. I finally found a dumb phone (made by Punkt and designed by Jasper Morrison) which is beautiful. It does two things: makes calls and texts. I try to use it two or three days a week so I can be freed from the ever-present temptation to see what Trident gum is telling me to do.
Punkt also makes a beautiful, simple alarm clock, so, if you want, you can get your smart phone out of your bedroom at night and into a desk drawer where it belongs.
3,000 pages of sublime detail
If you want to take lessons from a master of paying attention, please read In Search of Lost Time, preferably the Modern Penguin edition, even though, due to a quirk with U.S. copyright laws, volumes 5 and 6 need to be ordered directly from Amazon UK.
Over the course of the 3,000 pages divided into six volumes, we see how Marcel Proust pays attention to absolutely everything. Even though the novel seems packed with the trivial—dresses, parties, coffee éclairs, lime blossom tea—there is deep insight into our humanness on every page. It’s not as precious or as epic as people assume. This translation especially is hearty, fun, and approachable.
Speaking of tea, all of the English translations of In Search describe the liquid in question in the pivotal Madeline dunking scene as “lime blossom tea.” In the actual French, the tea is called “tilleul"—linden blossom—which is not a citrus at all, but an herb. The herb, interestingly but parenthetically, is often used to treat anxiety—offering a fascinating insight into the narrator’s relationship with his aunt. (She knew.)
Baking can’t be rushed. Butter needs to be at room temperature. Flour needs to be measured by the gram. My wife and I collaborated on a book a few years ago. The book is about coffee but also has delicious recipes for things that go well with coffee. Or, in this case, linden blossom tea. While sipping your tea, you could bake some madeleines.
Subtle variations in great music
If you are lucky enough to have a stereo in your kitchen, you could listen to this album while you bake. Glenn Gould dazzled the classical music world in 1955 when, as his debut album, he released a long, difficult, little-recorded piece by J. S. Bach called the “Goldberg Variations”. The album went on to sell two-million copies over the next 30 years, becoming one of the most successful classical releases of all time. The blistering tempi and lack of sentimentality were remarkable for solo piano recordings of the day.
In 1981 (the year before he died), Gould recorded the “Variations” again. This later version is introspective, unhurried, still with a great emotional distance, but perhaps more profound. Listening to the two recordings in a row makes it easy to pay attention to the subtle and not so subtle differences between the two versions and wonder at the mind of the man who recorded them both.
Sometimes I think that there are only two types of people: 1955 people and 1981 people. Which are you?
Once you realize that drinking tilleul tea is about the same as drinking great smelling hot water, it’s time to make coffee. You could use a coffee machine and check your iPhone while the coffeemaker is haphazardly gurgling your coffee into a carafe, or you could pay attention to the process and make something beautiful. You just need a kettle, a scale, coffee, a dripper of some sort, and filters. (Also, expert advice.)
It’s a splurge, but you could take some of the money you saved on not buying an electric coffee brewer and use it to buy a canister to put your precious coffee in. Kaikado is a 160-year-old canister manufacturer from Japan. The canisters patina over decades, reaching maximum beauty after 40 to 50 years. Paying attention to how mine subtly changes with daily use is one of the tiny delights of my personal coffee routine. If you are lucky enough to visit their factory in Kyoto, they will stamp your name in the coffee scoop which comes with the canister.
And, lastly, after drinking your coffee, and before you head out to work—you might want to do something about that coffee breath.