The Ritual Itself

On giving, instead of paying, attention

Hello, light of the future,

A few autumns ago, after travelling in Italy with my wife and staying in people’s homes via AirBnb where we noticed over and over that many Italians make their daily coffee using stainless steel stovetop espresso pots instead of automated machines like the old-school American drip coffee makers or the fancy new (and in my opinion, unnecessarily waste-creating) Keurig coffee makers. My wife prefers coffee ground to espresso fineness, with a dark roast, over a drip-coffee grind. I prefer light roast.

At the time we had an automatic, programmable drip coffee maker that could yeild 10 cups, though I usually brewed 6 (which amounted to 2 coffee mugs for each of us). When my wife’s birthday drew near, I remember how much she enjoyed the coffee brewed in those Italian stovetop espresso pots, so I bought one for her birthday, and learned how to use it.

I was a baristo for a few years (at the aptly-named Bourgeois Pig Cafe on the North Side of Chicago, during graduate school - it is still there on the intersection of Fullerton and Halsted and apart from coffee, they make great sandwiches) and learned how to pull a proper shot of espresso from this old Italian travel agent named Giovanni, who, if he didn’t like the look of the shot you pulled, would push it back across the cobalt blue tiles of the counter and say “This is shit; make another” in his thick Toscano accent.

My wife loves the espresso pot, not just because of the coffee, but also because I make it for her, which was also true of the coffee from the automated drip machine, but it seems to mean more to her that I make the espresso and I think it’s not because it’s espresso, but because of the espresso pot itself, which has no moving mechanical parts and requires no electricity. To make it, one must fill the bottom chamber with exactly the right amount of water (too little will mean not very much coffee; too much and the coffee will be watery and also will boil over). Then the espresso must be spooned in to the funnel filter, (which sits atop the water chamber) and because the funnel is only about 3 inches in diameter, the spooning must be done slowly, with care. Then if you want that dark espresso taste, you must gently pack the espresso, tamping it down until it’s a little more compact, but not too much, lest you make the packing so dense no water can make it through (think of loose sand versus sand densely pressed together). After screwing the coffee chamber onto the funnel filter and water chamber, all that remains is to set it on a stove burner and turn up the heat, waiting for the water to boil. The coffee is ready when it begins to gurgle and steam comes out of the spout.

All of this requires that the person making the coffee pay attention, move slowly, and with care. There’s almost a tenderness to it, and over time, one develops a feel for things. For example, the amount of espresso needed to properly fill the funnel filter is around three scoops, using the scoop I use, but it’s never exactly three scoops. That’s because the density of the coffee gounds is different every day, depending on how humid the air is. But over time, I’ve developed a pretty decent sense of when I’ve added the right amount such that I can get it to tamp down to the right density pretty much every day.

Recently my wife travelled to India, and the day after she left, I woke up, walked to the automatic drip machine and was about to brew coffee in it when I realized I was the only person drinking that day. So I decided to brew my coffee in the espresso pot. I use drip coffee grind light roast, and it differs from espresso grind in that the grounds are probably half as finely-ground (think of a bag of pebbles versus a bag of sand). But in principle, I reasoned, it should work about the same. So I began brewing my own coffee in the espresso pot.

My breakfast is usually a cup and a half or so of Greek yogurt, with two handfuls of bluenerries and six sliced strawberries. Over the month my wife was in India, I developed a new ritual of preparing and starting the brew of my coffee, and then while the coffee brews, washing and slicing the strawberries, such that usually by the time the espresso pot is gurgling, my yogurt and berries is prepared.

I have grown to really enjoy this routine; it has taken on a sort of meditative quality, a ritual for myself every morning. I remember once reading the advice of Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh that when washing the dishes one should try to wash each dish as if it were the infant Buddha one were washing. My morning coffee and breakfast prep has begin to feel like that. If I’m also making my wife coffee, I make hers first, and then do my breakfast and coffee. I have learned that I like this much for the same reason my wife likes me to do it for her: the ritual itself has meaning, and part of that meaning arises from and is entwined with the work and care it requires.

The other morning I was facing a day with a tightly-packed schedule, the sort of day I like to avoid having if I can at all help it, but sometimes it cannot be helped. I was in a hurry, and for the first time in well over a year, I made mediocre coffee for both of us. My wife’s was overbrewed, and mine was watery. It was the hurrying that had led to this - in an effort to speed things I up I neglected the care required to make the coffee well. Had Giovanni been present he would have pushed the coffee back toward me. This is shit. Make another.

My wife is more gracious than Giovanni, and she would not let me make another. But I had a little Giovanni in my head for a moment.

Mostly though, as I was on the subway, sippig my watery coffee, I reflected on the fact that taking the enjoyment out of making the coffee, speeding up the process in a bid for eifficiency, made the coffee bad. This is why people use automated drip machines and Keurigs: because those can produce a consistent, if mediocre, cup of coffee every time without requiring your attention. Many folks don’t have (or feel as if they don’t have) the free time to attend to anything with that level of care, so overleveraged are our lives by the demonds of capitalism. And, for many people, mediocre coffee suits them just fine.

For myself, I would miss not just the better-tasting brew, but also the ritual itself, the opportunity to gift to my wife and to myself this little daily tenderness, this little strange dance of my hands over small, simple tools and materials. It is a way of paying attention, which, in spite of the economic thinking that has colonized all our discourse about time (we pay attention, we spend time, etc) is a relation outside economcs altogether, and outside the purview of employers or the state. Perhaps it is better to say that we can, if we so choose, give instead of pay attention. In my case, what began as a birthday present 3 years ago has become a perpetually-renewing gift to both her and to myself; the gift was, to borrow a phrase, bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. There is more of it now than when I first gave it.


Here are two recent poems, more or less fresh out of the oven:

Physical Therapy

Dancing with myself,

giant rubber band around my ankles

I chassé a wobbly path

wall to wall

hoping to train new tricks

into my trick knee. Knees trussed

& on my back I pelvic thrust

upward like I'm making love to the gods

then I step up & back down like I can't decide

between a fallen angel's hot basement

& heaven. Forgotten muscles

tug against my hip bones

& suddenly weigh more than a headstone.

This body was built for running down prey

on the plains, not workdays in ergonomic

chairs & now it must learn

evolution's hardest lesson:

old habits & mechanisms that once kept

me alive become traps

once I need to do anything more than survive.

Alternate Takes

True, I’ve sometimes wished words

were still mine after I’ve pushed

them from my mouth, like little dogs

I could whistle back to my feet.

That time in airport after my brithday,

or the time on the E right before I slipped

through the closing doors too quick

for you to follow or the time I broke

my coffee mug or the awful night

we were both our very worst.

If I could rewind & record over

when you learned how mean

I can be, if I could minimize

the monster in me or jump in a time machine

to snip my selfish, graceless & petty

strategies out of our history

then would it mean the same

when, a decade into our story

I wake to that way you look at me,

like I’m a marvel, a rarity

& you touch my eyelids & whisper

that I’m beautiful, that you feel lucky.



Recently I was, as I often am called upon to be, my wife’s arm candy at a gala, in this case, one at which she was performing prior to the dinner. The gala was to raise money for the arts orgnization McDowell, who host artist residencies every year in New Hampshire. One of the table-mates was a quiet man with kind eyes who turned out to be the composer Michael Harrison, a protogé of La Monte Young. This week, I looked up Michael’s music, and fell in love with several pieces, espcially Just Constellations, a choral peice that reminds me of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, and Time Loops, a recursive, winding, arresting peice for the cello.

Because I have been reading a book of interviews with the musician Nick Cave, I have been revisiting his discography, which I have been listening to since the 1990s. The Boatman’s Call is probably my favorite album of his, but also on steady playback in my apartment of late are Push The Sky Away and Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus. Here’s “Higgs-Bosun Blues,” from Push The Sky Away, and here’s “Messiah Ward,” from Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus, a song which now, as a New Yorker who lived here during the height of COVID-19, “hits differently” as the kids say.


Speaking of that Nick Cave book, it’s called Faith, Hope and Carnage. Compiled from over 40 hours of conversations between Cave and his friend the music journalist Seán O’Hagan, the book explores Cave’s thoughts and memories on topics ranigng from his writing process, to the purpose of art, to stories of Cave’s longtime band, The Bad Seeds, and his thoughts on family life, grief, faith, and much more. I’m not completely finished with it, but it’s been an inspiring and thought-provoking read, sometimes reminding me of what’s important to me, sometimes teaching me new perspectives about what it is to be a writer and a musician. Here’s an excerpt of it in Rolling Stone.

Rob Horning’s latest newsletter reflects on the vast distance between how marketers of new technologies (in this case, facial recognition) present their motives and what their actual motives are.

Emily Rose Kahn-Shaehan’s little meditation on the pleasures of eating at the bar is a lovely jewel, and reminds me how much I enjoy the particular delight of getting to a place early on a Saturday, before the brunch crown, with a book of poems to read, and I linger for a few hours, until the brunch crowd starts shuffling in.

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