Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Just Slow Down Already

THIS IS NOT A RANT ABOUT TEABAGS. And I know from rants about teabags, believe me, having read countless articles, blog posts, Facebook entries, and Twitter complaints-in-140-characters-or-less on just this topic. That being said, I come not to praise the teabag, but to bury it.

{ A truly epic rant.
Sorry for the cursing, but dang, this kid knows how to emote. }

A Facebook friend who lives in Nantou City, Taiwan, wrote the following today.

Oh, how I loved seeing this in the Guardian today! Guess how many teabags are used in the UK only: 55bn, amounting to 370,000 tonnes of waste per year!

And another tea friend wrote the following comment.

Well, also good to point out that they're not getting the best tea taste from those bags.

{ These tea bags are appalling
on levels even I hadn't thought of. }
Right. No disagreement there. Teabags are evil, because they account for enormous waste, and they make the tea taste worse, and a host of other reasons. (Though lots of the tea in the bags is often of such low quality, making it taste worse is a challenge.) The article Philip was referring to in the first instance was called, "How to make perfect tea without teabags." The delightfully named Henrietta Lovell writes the following:

But the question should be, why do we need any kind of bag when loose leaves make better tea? In 1968, only 3% of households in Britain used teabags – a foreign, American invention that went against our love of leaves. Loose leaf tea, on the other hand, has been made for around 3,000 years, and just requires one brilliant bit of kit – a teapot.

I have never understood why so many of us think it's a real hassle to make proper tea, but happily use a cafetiere for coffee. You get better flavour when you allow the leaves room to unfurl as they infuse. No chemicals, no waste and it's really not complicated.

And the waste isn't just limited to the bags. If you're using good tea leaves, you'll find they can be infused several times. Each time you brew the tea, different subtleties of the delicate flavours will be released. In China it is widely believed that the second or third brew of fine tea is the best.

Good question. Why do we use teabags when we could take a tiny bit of extra time and engage in a nice gongfu sitting? That's the question Henrietta hasn't explored. She does hint that she's aware that there's a real thought provoker here when she writes, "I have never understood why so many of us think it's a real hassle to make proper tea, but happily use a cafetiere for coffee...."

teabags: the symptom, not the cause

One of the great gifts the West has experienced is the explosion of choices, which are made possible by the combination of enormous freedoms and unprecedented prosperity. Never in the world's history has so much been available to so many. In previous centuries, only the aristocracy had any degree of freedom or wealth to enjoy more than the same thing, day in and day out. The reason an orange is a traditional gift that gets dropped into the bottom of a Christmas stocking is that it was such an extravagance, brought from such a great distance at a time when distance meant something, that it could only be purchased at great cost for special occasions, like celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. This points to the dearth of choices and the well-documented lack of variety in the lives of normal people who did not have titles or enormous resources.

Coming to the current day, the people of India and China are experiencing explosions of modernity, with growing (and struggling) middle classes beginning to expect the amenities that have become second nature to those living in the industrialized West. As the Chinese slowly open up their marketplace to freedoms unheard of in their civilization's long history, their middle class is starting to express a desire for, say, decent tea. Incidentally, when 1 billion Chinese decide they want something, it sends shock waves through the world's supply-and-demand chains, and prices will rise as an effect thereof. But if the instabilities in that same economy arise because of inefficiencies in the governmental system they labor under, that causes shock waves, as well. (And fluctuations in the supply of tea leaving China will result in price variances that can make decent tea difficult or too expensive to attain.)

the magic of "no"

With that proliferation of choices brought about by economic and political freedoms, normal people's lives have become busier and busier as they work harder to have the money to purchase. Shortcuts like the teabag and the far newer Keurig coffee gadget were invented to accommodate the acceleration of people's lives and the relative shortage of free time. For a modern person to slow down and make tea loose-leaf style (the only good style), they have to say, "No," to some other activity they could have been doing had they just dropped a teabag into some water. So the discipline of "No" is one that would allow us to un-busy our lives a touch, allowing simple joys like tea to become possible again. The Italians have a useful term for this: Basta! which means, Enough! Back off! No more! Stop! Knock it off! Don't involve me in your plans, you little weirdo!

Look at the daily schedule of a typical family in the suburbs of Chicago. Up at 5:30, shower, shave, find clean clothes that match, take care of the kids' breakfasts and getting them ready for school, find the lost shoes, get the backpack ready for class, leave the house 10 minutes late, rush to drop the kids at school, zoom to work (in traffic moving 5 miles per hour), work hard all day, rush out to pick up kids, zoom home (in traffic moving 5 miles per hour), pick up dinner along the way home at some godawful fast-food place because the kids are too starved to wait, get back to the house after the sun has gone down, get out the whip and chair to compel the kids to do homework, prepare kids for bed, send the kids back to bed five or six times after many calls for water or snacks or the missing stuffed animal, collapse on the sofa, stare at nothing for a half hour, crawl into bed, rinse, lather, repeat. Hardly any room for a nice, focused tea flight, is there.

{ If I didn't know this was Hasenpfeffer,
I'd swear it was carrots. }
For those of you whose schedules are less hectic, thank the living God that you are blessed with free time. Use it well. But many people experience variations on this theme, with (fill in the blank) that fills up every cubic inch of their waking day. Weekends are filled with shopping at a grocery with 1.4 million items to choose from; and movies by the dozen; and available outings; and healthful activities at the club; and classes; and basketball practice; and work-at-home issues; and romance; and football games to watch or attend; and the occasional gallery opening, or book reading, or new restaurant to explore, or camping trip, or whatever. On, and on, and relentlessly on it goes. Glutted with choice, we become like the monarch in the 1962 cartoon, Shishkabugs, who shouted at his chef [and I quote from memory], "Day in, day out, always the same thing: variety! I want Hasenpfeffer!" We have an embarrassment of riches in the form of choices we have to make every day, and maybe we need a time out. Well, maybe I need one.


death to teabags

Okay, so we need a time-out. This is no new idea, nor is it a particularly original thought nor a deep one. But does it need saying occasionally? Indeed, I'd say so.

{ Gerard Dou,
Old Woman Reading a Bible }
Christians are encouraged to have what is often called a "Daily Quiet Time," in which upon waking or at some other good time during the day, we get away from people, get with the Bible, and get quiet before God. We need to listen, to separate ourselves from the madding crowd, and give ourselves room to think. The Sabbath was created with this fact about our human nature in mind, to allow us to get quiet, to practice being introspective for a change, and to get to a place where we can hear from God when he speaks to our hearts.

Other people's religions have their own versions of this, though I can't speak to their meditation rituals because I do not practice them. Some sports-- swimming, running, and so on-- have a meditative aspect to them as well, because it's just you and the road, or you and the bubbles and the motion of your own body, which allow you to pull away from the constant stream of distractions and requirements on your time and attention. If you take enough quiet walks on the beach, and glasses of red wine, and a video camera, you'll have a wonderful recording to share on or whatever. See? That's what I'm talking about. It all sounds so cliché when you describe it, and yet how often do I come to a full stop and let my subconscious get the attention it deserves? Not so often.

and so I drink tea

Though I don't approach brown leaf juice with the religious reverence of a Japanese tea master, nor as a Brit who views tea as part of her national identity, I drink it to slow down, to engage in an activity that is self-consciously crawling along because I choose it. I could pop a cup of water into a microwave with a teabag floating sadly inside it, and I could drink a mediocre cup of tea while I busily keep working, typing, Skyping, Tweeting, blogging, flogging myself along, and I'd never notice how poor the tea was. I probably wouldn't even bother with that at all, but rather just drink the horrid institutional coffee that always seems to be within reach wherever I go.

Why do you think the slow food movement has taken root? Why do the Amish reject modern conveniences that arose after about 1860? Why have Westerners run to ashrams in India to sit at the feet of gurus on mountaintops? Why do we hungrily watch Corona commercials with pictures of silent beaches?

It's because we moderns hunger for silence; for the joys of being apart; for the simplicity of nature; for the dignity of pre-modern, pre-industrial man. Because we feel like we have lost ourselves in the crowd, and we need to find I and Thou in spite of all the distractions pulling us in every direction other than inward.

AND SO I DRINK TEA. By drinking the good stuff and forcing myself to pay attention to what I'm imbibing, by taking the time to let my obsessive-compulsive nature have a proper playground, by creating a bubble around myself for a few moments, I can keep the crazy at bay, push the anxieties down, listen inside myself for solutions to problems, and just breathe. And by doing so, I'm standing athwart modernity, yelling, "Stop!" for just a few moments as I gather myself together to throw myself once more into the breach, and the lights, and the words, and the noise, and the distractions; but hopefully, with a little bit of silence distilled into my soul to keep me whole and healthy a little bit longer.


If you like this post and hate teabags, you may like: A Serial Killer's Guide to Making Sweet Tea (and possibly murdering people)


Snowball said...

I drink tea by the pot. I was raised on it and can't imagine my day without it. As my grandmother was wont to say, "Tea. It's good for what ails you." I have decided that I deserve "the good stuff" all the time. Life is too short for bad tea.

The combination of a busy schedule and bad memory have necessitated a switch to using the Trinitea, which I love.

I do make special times - quiet time for me, tea parties with the grandkids, etc., but drinking tea is as much a part of my day as eating and going to work.

The only time I use tea bags is when I order hot water at a restaurant. (Yes, I now do that thing that used to make me cringe when we took my grandmother out to dinner.)