In My Other Life, I'm a Barista

Hello Big Team—

Thank you all for your responses and reactions to last weeks newsletter. Your support and kind words mean the world to me. And here’s this, as contributed by Big Teammate Leticia Ochoa Adams, as a cherry on top:

I’m on deadline for two different stories that are both due on Monday (lol), so forgive this newsletters relative randomness, and look out for some High Quality Farm Stuff on other channels in the near future.

But in the meantime, drop what you’re doing this Saturday night at 5pm and come to this event at The Pug in DC to hang out with me and Reana Kolvacik.

You can hear us chat and lightly debate how to best get involved with the local food system, buy books, and meet some of The Best People in the DMV (no brag). And in case you’re from out of town or not keeping up-to-date with the latest COVID news, we’re going to be mask on, because DC is only like 54% fully vaccinated.

My Other Life

Truth time: in my dreams, I’m a barista.

I tell you this because I was having a phenomenal conversation yesterday where the topic came up, of why I do what I do and how, and midway through a stumbling, confused answer, I started to say “I don’t know what else I would do,” and added, “actually, I’d be a barista.” I mentioned a few reasons; liking the smell of coffee, liking the taste of coffee, but most importantly, getting the chance to be a part of bringing joy to someone’s day. Getting paid to receive a request, do some physical work, and hand over a creation that makes someone smile in a matter of minutes seems pretty nirvanic to me. I’m sure some baristas or former baristas out there are screaming no, you don’t want that at your computer screens. Or maybe not.

This life, the one where I research and write about farming and food in various capacities, is not really like that. Instead, I mostly (sometimes to rarely) get paid to receive a request, do an unnecessary amount of exclusively mental work, and in the end hand over a creation that usually really bums people out— even if it’s well crafted. Case in point, I actually had a few different people ask me, after I announced that the book was being split into two, whether they should wait to read both at the same time because the first one might be too depressing on its own. Honestly, I didn’t know what to say, because much of the reality of our modern ag system is, to put it mildly, a bit of a downer. In the end, I said that I thought it had a hopeful ending, and I assume that the preponderance of three star book reviews on the Internet is my comeuppance for being the bearer of bad news.

It brings me a lot of solace to imagine myself in my other life, where I wake up really early, don some ill-fitting t-shirt with a cutesy logo, stuffing an apron into my bag. I arrive at the shop with just enough time to brew some drip before the first early bird arrives, and I smile as the bell over the door tinkles and it’s Herb, an older gentleman who lives down the street, a regular, and I smile and welcome him to the day and he’s so happy to see me and we are one with the universe. And I could do it you know. There is really nothing stopping me from going, first thing tomorrow, to almost any coffee shop nearby and getting a job, maybe even on the spot.

But I don’t. There’s a lot of reasons for that, money not least among them. Also because I know my fantasy is an ideal, and doesn’t capture the misery of dealing with all the grumpy morning assholes or the people who do a real paint job in the bathroom or abusively long hours, short breaks, and mean bosses. But I think more than that, it feels like it would not be a good use of my knowledge and skills. It would not optimize me. (I struggle with this kind of thinking. I don’t believe humans are natural resources to optimized, who must be put to their maximum beneficial use to be considered good. I think what we want and makes us happy matters too. But at the same time, I do hate waste. So I guess my desire to avoid waste is greater than my instinct to seek my own satisfaction.)

It’s more than that, too, though the rest is harder to explain. I think I also do the work I do, and leave the barista-ing for another life, because I think it’s good to feel bad.

Don’t get it twisted—I’m not saying it feels good to feel bad. In doing this work, I regularly come face to proverbial face with frustration, anxiety, existential dread, despair, fear, anger, worry, shame, confusion, regret, embarrassment, disappointment, exhaustion, and apathy. None of it feels good, and in the average week, I experience all of the four stress responses; fight, flight, freeze, and frolic (admittedly, its mostly frolic, I have a strong nervous laughter response and I say “It’s fine” so much it’s lost all meaning). I still think it is good to feel those things.

Because negative feelings are the fruits and vegetables of the emotional food pyramid.

Airports Suck: A Case Study

Consider for a moment, the airport. Airports are stressful. They’re simultaneously cramped and cavernous, usually full of people who are overwhelmed, exhausted, anxious, and emotional. They’re places where confusion is common, interacting with strangers is unavoidable, and though everyone’s hoping to be somewhere else, for now, they’re here, using the outlets, grumbling in long lines for overpriced coffee, and laying around the gates in uncomfortable heaps.

It doesn’t have to be the airport. There are many places and experiences that expose us to accidents, discomfort, shame, pain, cultural and expectational collisions. But for me, the airport is the (physical) sweet spot.

For some, having an excuse like a global pandemic to avoid the generally negative experience of airports might be a good thing. Surely the prolific use of private air travel amongst the wealthy is evidence that as soon as most people can afford not to fly commercial, they are more than willing to pay to avoid it.

But what people who opt out of long security lines, eternally changing gates, and pricey in-flight food will never understand is how important it is, to us as people, to get the chance to share and to have shared negative experiences.

To understand public suffering, it’s important to think about what it feels like to have negative experiences that are relatively private.

When we get in trouble at work, someone cuts us off, or a stranger (or friend) snaps at us, those feelings are often and largely experienced internally. Our isolation in our sense of hurt allows us to feel like a victim of a personal injustice, unfairly attacked because of something accidental or beyond our control, or worse, because of a mistake on the attackers part. These experience quietly erode our self worth or worse, create a feeling of victimhood that can easily morph into self-righteous anger and a need to fight back, an unconscious recognition that others should suffer because we suffer, because that would make the whole situation more fair. We lash out, because hurt people hurt people, and the world gets a little bit crappier all the time.

But the thing about being on a flight with a crying baby, languishing on a plastic seat for hours waiting for a delayed plane, or covertly covering your nose to stave off the nauseating scent of your seat-mates homemade cuisine, is that you are confronted immediately and irrefutably with the fact that you are not suffering alone in any of these situations.

It’s incredibly humbling to come face-to-face with the fact that bad things in the world aren’t happening to you because you’re a victim or an underdog. Bad things just happen in the world. To everyone. And rather than fight back and make things worse for others, when we see and recognize that in some situations, everyone is suffering, it’s much easier to sit back, come to terms with the difficulty, and not make it worse for those around us.

That’s what the airport (and the DMV, and many other real and virtual spaces) does for us. It’s the anti-Instagram. A place where we share with strangers how messy, mediocre, boring, inconvenient, and even painful life can be, and not through a screen, but sitting shoulder to shoulder.

The long term benefits of the airport are also beneficial. Because modern conveniences have largely eradicated negative experiences from our lives, it can be easy to find ourselves in a mental/emotional place where relatively small inconveniences take an outsized negative toll on our emotions (hypothetically, say, like when you get really angry that a book you ordered from an author doesn’t arrive two days after it’s released like books from Amazon do). But the airport is so chock full of actually unpleasant moments— from having to argue with a stranger about whether they’re sitting in your seat to getting flagged for a full pat down by TSA— that works powerfully to clear out our mental/emotional system, acting as a kind of experiential fiber that helps us put other negative experiences in perspective.

Sometimes we react gracefully to the mess, by finding tenderness for the overworked airline employee who’s been tasked with helping us track down our lost bag or offering a “no problem” to the apologetic parent whose child just can’t stop kicking the back of your seat. Sometime we snap — we yell after the guy who hit us with his backpack while finding his seat, or we unplug our headphones and play music out loud to annoy the business-guy taking a very long and very loud phone call in the gate area.

Sometimes we add to the mess, sometimes we get a chance to rise above, and sometime in adding to the mess, we give someone else the chance to rise above. And though in the moment (and frankly, upon reflection) airports make for pretty rotten experiences, they are all very human experiences. They are the vegetables of social and emotional health. They are unpleasant, but they are also really important to keeping us regular and healthy.

In a world where every perfectly manicured social media account reminds us that good things seem to happen to everyone else all the time and bad things happen only to me, the airport is a monument to the idea that bad things happen everywhere, to everyone, and the only way to get through them is with a little patience, a lot of grace, and becoming one with the unavoidable truth that This Isn’t About You. It’s about all of us.

I Am Not a Barista (?)

So here I am, writing a newsletter (ostensibly about agriculture?!) at 10pm on a Thursday night rather than resting up for my early morning shift slinging lattes and chatting with Herb. I do it in part because I know I can handle the emotional vegetables that come with this job, and maybe I’ve even learned to appreciate their bitter taste. I’ve certainly learned how to keep the temperature in a conversation at just the right level to productively surface disagreements without a discussion frothing into a shouting match. I’ve learned how to craft questions for a source I don’t agree with that invites them to share their finest arguments while folding in a firm challenge to their conclusions. And I’ve learned how to serve up stories that (hopefully!) spread not only the knowledge but the feelings around, and not all sugary sweet, whipped-cream-on-top kinds of feelings either. Strong, dark, bitter feelings too.

So I’ll be here a while longer, slinging words and memes and punny subtitles, trying to figure out how to get people to swallow the bitter brown bean water that is The Truth about American food and agriculture without making them want to ask for my manager. It’s hard work, convincing folx that if they just give it a try, and some time, there’s a good chance they’ll discover it’s one of the pure pleasures of being alive.

Either way, I guess it’s good practice for my next life.

Farm Stuff, Get Yer Farm Stuff Here

If you’re looking for some of the most interesting stuff I’ve come across in ag this week, check out this article and accompanying thread from Big Teammate Ryan Ackett.

Also, just a warning, I’m on a mission to find the coolest person in the Big Team Farm community. Is it you? Very possibly. I’ll be in touch.

An Announcement from Big Teammate Claire Cushing

“My company is hiring for an ag-adjacent role right now to deliver energy efficiency consulting services to industry and ag (and in particular, trying to get out ahead of the burgeoning cannabis market to try to redirect a bunch of would-be indoor growers to outdoor production instead). It’s more of an engineering role, we want someone who understands the flaws in the existing ag system and can see the big picture. The job is posted here:

Their women-owned and led y’all.

Last F(ew) Thing

  • Need a laugh? Check out these memes from the ongoing Twilight renaissance.

  • I briefly talked about freelancing on a podcast last week. Check it out here.

  • I’m going to be in California for the last week in August. Is there anyone out there who would be interested in hanging out? I’m debating hosting some kind of low key event, but I am anxious that no one will come. Reply to this email to share your thoughts.

  • My “Invites” tray remains open if you’d like me to say a few words at your tractor pull or rodeo, or back by popular demand, I’m still willing to fist fight the town tough guy. I may not win, but that will not phase me. Shoot me an email.

  • If you’re new to Big Team Farms and want some explanation for what the F you just read, check out The Intro Newsletter and more recent additions by visiting Big Team Farms online.

  • Do you have announcements that would be relevant to the 1,400 or so members of the Big Team? Feel free to shoot me messages about projects, resources, job posting, etc. And to everyone who’s done that already, or who has asked questions that I haven’t yet responded to, look out for those in the next couple of newsletters.

  • Home from the yurt y’all and first of all, Apple TV is The WORST and is putting out episodes of Ted Lasso season 2 one at a time?! What the hell. It’s 2021. That’s just not the way things are done anymore. To fill in the time between Ted Lasso episodes, we watched Tidelands, which is a show I’d describe as a gritty Twilight but sirens instead of vampires. It was *not good*, but we did watch all of it. We’re on a break with Atypical but expect to circle back around to it. Also been quoting a lot of I Think You Should Leave, and relistening to the podcast Nice White Parents to get myself hyped for a project I’m working on…😎

  • Don’t forget to share this email!

Stay safe out there friends. Don’t forget, if you have funny gifs, thoughts, comments, stories, questions, feedback, catchy song lyrics, good podcast recommendations, or anything else to tell me, I’m right on the other end of this email.

Rock on,