Minkey Business

"Over the cage floor the horizons come."

Who needs a modernised typewriter?

A few years ago my mother sent me a link to a product called the Hemingwrite. It was a distraction-free word processor, or if you like, a modernised typewriter. It had a small screen, a high-quality keyboard, solid aluminium casework, and could do little else beyond accept your words with a series of satisfying clicks from those tactile Cherry keys, and send them via wifi to the cloud. There was no browser, no apps, and it didn’t even have arrow keys. I was fascinated.

I kept a close eye on it through its Kickstarter campaign, its agonising lead up to production, through its rebranding to the Astrohaus Freewrite, right on through to unboxing videos and other reviews online.

While I enjoy reading about technology and playing with it at friend’s homes, I’m not an early adopter. I prefer to hang back through the breakages, fires, maimings, and explosions before I commit (not that the Freewrite went though any of those new-product rites of passage). Also holding me back was the $500 price tag—it was a lot of money for one-use product in the days of your screens offering five senses and the world. And finally, I didn’t think the Freewrite suited to writing articles, so didn’t want to buy one until I was sure I had a longer story to tell.

“The $500 Freewrite word processor is pretentious hipster nonsense,” went the headline of an article on Mashable.com (Christina Warren and Karissa Bell, Feb 24, 2016). It was a brutal takedown of the product—neither author understood why anyone would want one when there were so many free distraction-free apps out there, and that it cost the same as a good tablet, but weighed four times as much.

I heard them. I still wanted one. I knew there was something in the weight of this overengineered, under-featured product that would appeal to me in a way that the authors’ suggestion of getting an iPad Air 2, a keyboard, and a distraction-free writing app just wouldn’t.

Perhaps the most controversial feature, or non-feature, of the Freewrite is its lack of editing capability. Many users say it should at least have arrow keys—even if only to go up a couple of sentences and correct typos. I was inclined to agree, especially when writing a shorter article of 600 or 1,200 words, rather than getting through the 100,000 words of a novel.

But as I write the first draft of this very article on the Freewrite, I realise there’s power in that constant forward momentum. Wanting to immediately correct errors is pure ego for me, and it’s an act of rebellion to let those typos sit there until the second draft, like dirty dishes left overnight in the sink. As I plough on, if a paragraph doesn’t work, I leave it in place, and simply start it again. I don’t tweak or tinker, I just move on, filling empty space.

When you roll a sheet of paper into a typewriter and press down on a key, you’re taking an object in this world and forever changing it. There is no easy way to go back from those hammered impressions, and the Freewrite has a sense of this heft and inevitability. You don’t sit down at one of these machines unless you mean it. Conversely, sitting down at one of these machines requires you to mean it.

Does that sound like more “pretentious hipster nonsense”? I’ll know for sure in six months when either my Freewrite is in constant use, or buried in the same dusty drawer as my fountain pen with green ink.

First published in Gulf News, January 30, 2018

The art of the two-person monologue

After a long break from social media (essentially Facebook) I’m back, but on Instagram. The photo sharing site feels more manageable than Facebook, though a few of my interactions give me unpleasant flashbacks.

Let’s take Thomas. On social media (and on the phone and in person) Thomas has a clever-clever response to everything. It annoyed me until I realised, this is what I used to do, and still do if I don’t catch myself: wander around people’s status updates or threads, and leave clever comments, sometimes nothing more. What this does, in effect, is make the other person’s story about me. When other social-media users see my comment and like it, or respond “Good one!”, the original user’s story has been co-opted.

This is a form of “narcissistic conversation”, and my desire to shame Thomas for it, was to avoid the shame I felt for having done that very thing to so many people. Narcissistic conversation has been a big part of my last year. I’m more attuned to it because on the larger arena, we’re listening to each other so much better (recognising voices of minorities and the less privileged), and at the same time reacting so strongly to events and ideas, that we’re barely listening to anybody about anything.

On the smaller arena, bad listening has always been a problem, but it seems to be getting worse. As I look over my interactions of 2017, I see how some people never ever ask about my life, not even after I solicit, and they joyfully share, details of theirs. Others ask, but seem almost pained as I speak, switching the story back to themselves at the first breath I draw. One person has the habit of interjecting with a machine-gun-like “yup yup yup yup” that makes me cut myself short because I feel as if I’m taking up his precious time with my banalities.

Even when bad listeners pause long enough to hear you, there are elaborate rituals to invalidate you. It’s a common ploy to lie in wait to criticise your choices or recommendations, whether a film, city, restaurant, lifestyle, or opinion. This doesn’t mean everyone should love everything you do, but it’s easy to spot the difference between genuine disagreement with an understanding of your context, and an insecure person hitting back at you with glee, because they feel diminished when they don’t know everything.

The character George in Edward Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? described a “declension” that perfectly sums up the norm of conversation as competition: “Good, better, best, bested.” The word he used, declension, means both the variation of form of nouns or adjectives, and a moral deterioration. When conversation becomes competition, we lessen our world.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be messy–if you can’t make mistakes and cross lines with your friends, then what use friendship? I have allowed many people months of messiness, during which I felt deeply unheard, and sometimes put down or hit out at. When it gets too much, I am often messy myself in how I set my boundaries. But people with low awareness of their narcissicism, do not take kindly to boundary setting whether neat or messy, and they will drop you.

Luckily, you can test for narcissistic conversation long before being shut out. After you talk to a person, do you feel happy and energised, or drained and disregarded? If it’s the latter, is being dropped by them such a bad thing? Protecting yourself from narcissicism is empowering, but never forget to keep a close watch on the most cunning and insiduous narcissist of all—the one inside.

First published in Gulf News, January 16, 2018

Don’t run over anyone in 2018

The sound a car makes when it crashes into a human being is a loud bang—making you think at first it’s a car-on-car collision—but with an edge of meaty wetness that makes you realise something is very very wrong.

There was a musician outside the Target that that evening, as I waited with our dogs for my wife to run in and buy something. A tall man went past me, looking down at the ground and muttering loudly to himself, stepping as if he was randomly selecting the point in front of him to put his foot down. He was covered in carabiners, loops, buckles, and straps, in filthy clothes and with greasy hair, suggesting he was one of the many schizophrenic homeless people of Los Angeles County.

I was watching the musician when I heard the tyres screech, and then that awful sound. My eyes darted to the road behind, where I could see the crosswalk between two bushes. A black car went by with what looked like a piece falling off it. It was a person, being flung into the air just like they are in the movies, to land with a thump nearly ten feet from the crosswalk.

The musician dropped his guitar and sprinted right up to the victim, kneeling and cradling the man’s bleeding head in his arms. At some point he ripped off his own shirt to help stanch the flow. Meanwhile, I dialled those fateful, storied three digits: 9-1-1. As I walked over, I recognised the pants and straps, as the homeless man’s legs started to flail, either in agony or a seizure.

Now while the poor upset young driver probably wasn’t at fault (it’s likely the homeless man simply stepped onto the road), a road culture heavily skewed to favour cars helped cause this crash. There is a high-speed state highway at a choke point that features a downtown shopping district, a Metro station and three-track level crossing, a bus stop, a pedestrian crosswalk outside a busy department store, the entrance to the store car park just beyond that, and no shoulder at all.

Sadly I don’t have the space now to segue into the story of why this man, and nearly 58,000 others like him, is homeless in the richest state of one of the richest countries in the world.

It’s only in the last few years in America that I’ve met so many people at the opposite end of the political and ideological spectrum from me. People who will assert that while the accident is sad, the man is only out there because he chose not to avail of the opportunity to live the American Dream that is supposedly given to everybody in this country. And that while cars can be unsafe, if they boost the economy, it’s fine to give over our cities, woods, fields, and dreams to tarmac, parking lots, and a life where you’re in constant physical danger as you walk and drive from work and play.

The more I encounter this selfish, utterly unimaginative way of looking at the world, the more it makes me sad rather than angry. In the end though, whether you look at that accident as no more than two objects attempting to occupy the same space at the same time, or whether you see the story of capitalism and America, I want you to carry the echo of that sound in your head (remember what I said: a loud bang with a wet, meaty edge), and drive your self-propelled metal missile with more care, compassion, and awareness in 2018.

First published in Gulf News, January 2, 2018

When desert winds blow

You’ve no doubt seen the news about the terrible fires in Southern California, some of them still burning. The Thomas fire is on its way to destroying 300,000 acres. As you may have read, they have been fuelled by a bad bout of the Santa Ana winds, a Southern California weather phenomenon that isn’t talked about much in the rafts of popular culture set in Los Angeles.

An author famous for alluding to these winds is Raymond Chandler, considered the founder of “hard-boiled” detective fiction. Forgive me if you’re a reader from Los Angeles where it is quite the cliché to remember Chandler when the desert winds blow. If you’re not, look up the opening lines of his story “Red Wind”. They sum up the dusty edginess of those evenings when the gusts over the mountains suddenly raise the temperature of cold evenings, and drop the humidity to the low teens, and even single digits. My favourite part is: “Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”

I’ve noticed that I often feel feverish when the winds are blowing, and read recently they are known to carry a spore that causes flu-like symptoms in about 40 per cent of the population. Even if you don’t feel ill, humidity that low is exceedingly uncomfortable. It’s hard to breathe, hard to sleep, and your skin turns ashy. The other evening, I rode my bike to the grocery store during a Santa Ana event. I usually wear gloves, but didn’t that day. After an hour of riding, my knuckles and the tops of my hands got so dry, the skin became rough and itchy for several days after.

It’s because of the Santa Anas, the gusts of which can exceed 120 km/h, that people spend a lot of money trimming their trees every couple of years, opening up dense canopies to let the wind pass through easily. A few days after spending a small fortune on trimming our largest trees, I found a large yellow mushroom on the trunk of an old eucalyptus tree on the edge of our property. It was both the size and shape of a human brain. Apparently it was a sign of wood rot, and the tree had to come down. A few weeks later, I found another large mushroom (the size and shape of a large hand fan) at the base of a eucalyptus that towered over our house. To our dismay, we needed to cut down this century old giant, one that would smash our house and land right on our bed, should it fall over.

The tree trimmer was about 80 feet up the tree the first day of the three-day process of removal, and was figuring out how to loop a rope around a large branch, when the Santa Anas hit. The evening went nearly instantly from not a leaf moving to the wind hissing violently through the nearby palm trees. He had to literally hold on for dear life, and then descend quickly between gusts, as the winds picked up again for the evening. “I feared for my life,” he said in Spanish after he was finally off the tree.

The Santa Anas don’t blow through very often in the year, but when they do, their effects are often terrifying. Considering that everything about LA is dramatised and iconified—from its roads and freeways to its palm trees to its proximity to an earthquake fault—I’m amazed there isn’t a TV drama or movie set during a Santa Ana event, especially as they’re colloquially known as the Devil Winds.

First published in Gulf News, December 19, 2017

Hydraulically raising low art to high art

One recent morning, as we drove past the local tyre shop here in Azusa, California, we saw the entire road outside taken up with immaculate chrome, bright paint, and vintage and classic car body shapes.

It was a “lowrider” festival, and we stopped to marvel at some of the most beautiful 1950s, 60s, and 70s cars we’ve ever seen. Some were visually stripped down to a liquid one-colour paint, but many were ornate beyond wildest dreams—whether with detailed bonnet paintings or silken upholstery or hub caps that would work on a chariot in Ben Hur.

Without context, a lowrider is a puzzling invention. Why would a grown man or woman want a car with tiny wheels that lifts and bounces on hydraulic suspension?

Lowriding was born in East Los Angeles, in the heavily Latino, or specifically, Chicano section of the city. (A Latino could be from any of the Latin American countries, but a Chicano is an American of specifically Mexican descent.)

As car enthusiasts in the 1950s focussed on speed, the lowriders picked a “low and slow” approach. Early automobiles sat high, so lowering or “slamming” cars has long been an enthusiast staple, both for looks, and improved aerodynamics and handling. Lowriders take that to such an extreme that they are intentionally good only for cruising slowly down boulevards.

Cars dropped that low are illegal, and can’t get over large irregularities, so that’s when hydraulic suspensions came in, to allow the cars to be raised on the go for both police inspections and speed bumps. But why go from there to independent hydraulics for each wheel, and bouncing car competitions?

Bob Frost in The History Channel Magazine, 2002, wrote that lowriders with hydraulics were intended to be both cool and playful, and a good example of rasquachismo, a Chicano make-do sensibility that’s often “witty, irreverent, and impertinent”.

As Los Angeles and the rest of America fell in love with the car, and the magic of driving cross-country at high speeds, the Chicanos of East LA subverted that. Cars became mobile hang-out spaces for friends and family. Lowriders offered journeys out of ghettoised neighbourhoods without invisibility. If the journey from A to B is made slowly and in style, then the lowrider’s occupants own all the points between A and B. Lowrider give you reason to be anywhere, because it’s a reason in itself.

You can see why this would be favored by gangs, and most of LA’s lowriders have to fight the assumption that they are gang members or otherwise violent. Lowriding is about community and family, and you could see this at the festival. I watched one of the many fascinated little boys hold his phone high over an open bonnet so he could get a picture to let him see the engine inside.

My wife and I were clearly outsiders, and we got a sense of guardedness from the participants. It was never hostile, we simply felt invisible after the first appraising, often challenging, glance. The joke inherent in lowriding is clearly meant only for insiders. But not for long.

Cars were first physically depersonalised by design that favoured aerodynamics and safety. Now, and in the near future, they will be conceptually depersonalised by ride-sharing and autonomous driving. Cars are turning more and more into infrastructure, to be no more different from each other than the streetlamp poles from one city to another. Imagine in this robot-car world, an elaborately painted and chromed 1950s American automobile with hydraulic suspension that lets it drive heavily canted on three wheels down a street. That’s soon going to be high art.

First published in Gulf News, December 5, 2017

Honesty is the best police?

When I was in junior school, we’d be assigned “cursive writing” practice. The exercise books had short sentences printed in a flowing font, with sets of blank lines below, like a music staff. We’d have to trace the sentences out four or five times in our “neatest handwriting”. We’d sit on long afternoons, a room full of imprisoned medieval scribes, scratching at our books, and risking punishment by alleviating the boredom with furtive conversations.

I remember one of those sentences: “Honesty is the best policy”. I read it out to my neighbour Vijay, thinking it was pronounced “police-y”. As boys do at that age, he crowed at me as he corrected my pronunciation. Though I strongly suspected he was right, I insisted my version was correct. As boys do at that age.

Cut to a few years later in a high-school ethics class where I was introduced to white lies as a concept. “What would you do,” our teacher asked, “if you went to someone’s house for dinner, and you didn’t like the food. When they asked you if you liked it, what would you say?”

And so, as you grow older, you hunt for your landing spot on the emotional honesty spectrum. You probably test limits, investigating the shades between frankness and obnoxiousness on one end, and politeness and hypocrisy on the other. A huge part of where you eventually land probably depends on the environment in which you practice your personal honesty. Many of us are forced to a place on the spectrum we’re not comfortable.

We all tell socially sanctioned lies to spare other people’s feelings. Some of us tell too little, and are called difficult. Some of us tell too much, and are called insincere. Some of us naturally want to tell more truths than lies, but grow up in environments where such honesty is punished by people who get upset or angry when they are questioned or challenged. And so we learn to agree even when we disagree. To say, “I’m okay with anything” even though we have a preference. To say we like something even when we don’t, and even when saying we like it means we get more of it.

All those little white lies add up to a grevious dishonesty to oneself. All those feelings that were spared, are a thousand cuts to your own psyche. This is why people-pleasers are often thought to have unpredictable bad tempers. They build up resentment with no outside clues, and while you think they snapped for the tiniest little thing, they see a whole line of tiny things. Half or more of their anger is at themselves for not setting the boundary in the first place.

But here’s an interesting view of this situation. When you don’t stand up to people, and when you don’t hold them accountable for their views or behaviours, you diminish them. Imagine you love a restaurant for its food and gracious service and go there all the time. Then one day, the service is bad enough to ruin your evening. As a people pleaser, you might tell yourself, “Maybe it’s an off day. I won’t say anything.”

Fair enough. But what if the service is bad the next time, and the next? What would make you go back again and again, and not say anything?

We’re told from a very young age that honesty is a good and desirable trait. Then we learn that honesty is far more complex than “don’t steal and don’t lie”. And today, 35 years after that cursive-writing class, I still don’t understand the rules, and still don’t know where to land on that emotional honesty spectrum.

First published in Gulf News, November 7, 2017

Disaster protection that fits under your bed!

Let me tell you about a “2017 Holiday Catalog” that appeared in our mailbox one recent morning. Living as we do, about five hours from two recent disasters (the shooting in Vegas, and the wildfires in Santa Rosa), the timing of this delivery was even more weighted than it would have been in this, as they say, “current political climate”.

The catalogue is from a company called 4Patriots and its main product is Food4Patriots survival rations that last up to 25 years. “Disaster Protection That Fits Under Your Bed!” is one of the first headlines, for a 4-week supply of 140 servings of items such as Traditional Fettucine Alfredo and Blue Ribbon Creamy Chicken Rice, dehydrated and packed for Mylar pouches. “The same technology NASA uses to protect astronauts!” Not the dehydration, the Mylar.

Towards the back of catalogue are other survival items such as solar generators, water filters, and even a military-grade EMP bag to protect electronic equipment from an electromagnetic pulse attack. Both catalogue and website are tantalisingly non-committal about the politics behind this venture, but a video on the website confirms your educated guesses.

In the video, the political left comprises either a bunch of lawless rioters, or a drift of precious snowflakes. Obama was the worst thing to happen to America. Poor Trump is just misunderstood.

“There’s a perfect storm brewing,” says the voiceover. “And once all hell breaks loose, only the strong and self-reliant will survive.”

And the secretive too. The video frequently stresses that your survival-food stockpile must be covert. Once the mobs are rampaging through the streets, looting and burning, they mustn’t know that you have stocks of dehydrated Heartland’s Best Mashed Potatoes at home. Viewers are assured that the food will be shipped in anonymous boxes, with the pouches stored in gray plastic totes that can slip under your bed, or on top of a cupboard.

Throughout is a thread of racism, at once subtle and blatant. For example, while talking about Katrina, a short clip of a crying white, blonde woman is followed by shots of largely black crowds awaiting relief, and the voiceover warning of “anguished families left with no choice but to pour into the nearest crowded criminally infested FEMA camp”.

Images of black looters and rioters are repeated through the video, while all the customers or potential customers of Food4Patriots are white. There are references to the voiceover speaker’s Vietnam veteran status, and an emotional play on being there for your (white) family. There’s a list of fact citations below the video. This isn’t a chest-thumping, gun-waving anarchist’s cookbook. It’s carefully orchestrated, and designed to appeal to the more educated right-winger—at least ones who are prepared to pay $497 for a 3-month supply of nutrition in pouches.

The effect is one of an eating-disorder made external. If food-related pathology is all about the one thing you can control, the food hoarding offers the semblance of control over a world that many conservatives feel left out of. The end of the video asks you to imagine the peace of mind your covert food stock will offer, even as your local grocery store is being stripped bare, as if by “locusts”.

Baked into the video is a pandering to a white fear of being overrun by the lawless coloureds, and a promise that with a little money spent, this diversifying, global world can become cosy and safe again. It seems to almost welcome the apocalypse, so that, as the world falls to pieces, you can boil some water and make yourself and your family a pouch of Granny’s Home Style Potato Soup.

First published in Gulf News, October 24, 2017

A race experience

“Anyone want any Miami Dolphins merchandise? I have houseful of the stuff to give away.”

I know nothing about sports, so assumed our instructor’s favourite team had just lost a game. “Do you understand what happened? I don’t. I’m giving it all away—its going for free.”

Someone in the otherwise silent room laughed and said, “No way”.

“This would never happen in NASCAR,” said the instructor.

The one vocal person in the room made a “hear hear” type comment, and the realisation glinted. This wasn’t about game results, it was about “take a knee”; NFL athletes refusing to stand for the American national anthem.

“And this happened in England! We’re showing our weakness abroad.”

My wife was at a race experience that was a birthday gift from close friends. I was there as spectator, and we thanked our friends several times over the day, not just because she got to rocket an Indy-500-style car for several laps around an actual circuit, but because it pulled us out of the house on a Sunday, to do something we’d normally never have considered.

But class hadn’t begun well. As I realised what the instructor was referring to, I said to my wife, “Really? We’re talking about this here?” The stranger next to me gave me a sympathetic smile. I readied to shout out a suggestion that we stick to racing this morning, but either the instructor read the room (he was a long way from Texas), or had run out of fuel, and he moved on to the business at hand.

Showing weakness abroad? On the contrary, considering how jingoistic the US is, I think these players showed tremendous strength. It takes courage to do something that makes a stadium boo at you, something that may adversely affect your career, that exposes you to online and live harassment, and might even put you in physical danger.

A flag and anthem are symbols, and presumably immutable. What the symbol stands for, however, depends on the person viewing it. National symbols aim to represent big truths, universal ideals. It’s easy to belittle someone who doesn’t get to their feet for their national anthem, but what if they’re holding their country to a higher standard? What if, to them, their nation doesn’t match the glorious truths contained in flag and anthem, and are demanding that it should?

When you hold a country (or even a person) accountable for their actions and choices, you are giving them the chance to be everything they can be. In toxic systems, whether societies, offices, or families, we’re taught to not question, to abide by the code of shame. Don’t question institutional racism. Don’t tell the abusive boss to stop insulting employees. Don’t tell the tantrum-throwing family member that’s not how adults ask for compliance. Every system has its flags and anthems, the symbols you are not allowed to question without being called a traitor.

When an athlete is accused of disrespect, or anti-national behaviour, the underlying message is that it’s easy to do what they’re doing, and that cleaving to majority principles requires great depth of character. In truth, questioning and pushing back against a toxic system (or least a system a person believes is toxic) demands huge personal resources, not just to swim upstream, but to deal with the outcome if the system isn’t ready for change; to deal with being a villain for trying to do the right thing.

I would be proud to take that Miami Dolphins merchandise off that instuctor, and by not telling him that, I didn’t find the courage to #takeaknee in that room.

First published in Gulf News, October 10, 2017

A Rottweiler rescue

The kennels of the Rottweiler rescue are in an industrial section of a town in the northern valleys of the Greater Los Angeles Area. Peeping over the trees in the area where you meet the dogs, is a line of car seats sitting high up in the automobile junkyard next door. A couple of doors down is the boxer rescue, and then the Weimaraner rescue. Directly across the street is a kennel devoted to small dogs.

This breed specificity on a single street should give you an idea of the scale of canine abandonment in this region.

When my wife and I met B. the representative of the Rottie rescue, we recognised a fellow “people optional” soul. She seems to devote her life to these dogs, arriving at the kennels at 4am to get them cleaned out before her day begins. A week later, she was at the kennels at 2am to have them done before she met us at the trainer’s by 8.

B. has a long process of approval before you can adopt from her, and after you hear some of stories, it’s easy to see why. I don’t think she’s forgiven herself for one placement that went bad, and is clearly deeply attached to all of the dogs in her care.

Our own eventual adoptee is a lovely chap called Diego. The first two and a half years of his life were spent on a tiny patio with an owner who used to beat him a lot. The next three and half were at the rescue where he was rehabilitated from a dog too fearful to be even approached, to the person he is now–nervous and hyper-alert certainly, but ready to start trusting.

The stories of cruelty get, and deserve, attention, but the stories of kindness gone wrong are more pervasive, more insidious. I’ve touched upon this issue several times here, but our recent exposure to the underbelly of pet dog world has made me even more sensitive to it.

Here in the land where dogs are pampered beyond belief, is an inevitable underworld of the rejects, fallouts, abandonments, and simply misplaced. When you walk the humane societies and rescue organisations you pass kennel after kennel of healthy, beautiful dogs in every shape and size (but a lot of them pitbull shaped).

In a post-Cesar Milan world, there has been a move from his traditional alpha-dog pecking order training to the world of clicker training and positive reinforcement. The problem with subscribing to a philosophy wholesale is the assumption that it must apply to every situation. Not every dog is suited to the gentle encouragement of positive reinforcement, and it’s difficult to apply consistently.

A dog professional recently said to me, “We’re seeing a lot of dogs needing to be euthanised because of positive reinforcement done wrong.”

In my brief poll of professionals who are exposed to a wide range of dog personalities, such as at a shelter, or dog day care, they have all said the same thing. It depends. Every dog is different, so don’t subscribe to any one methodology.

You might think a nervous dog like Diego would do well with gentle positive reinforcement. But guess what, as he settles and gains confidence, he is turning out to be what I call a “cuddle bulldozer”, managing to combine a beguiling sweetness with a heavily muscled pushiness. He needs a firm hand.

And so, we welcome another damaged personality into a household filled with personalities damaged by intentions good and bad. Sometimes we subject each other to our messes, but in the end, we’re all there for each other, hand in paw.

First published in Gulf News, September 26, 2017

What has audio got to do with tea?

Freelance copywriting takes you to some strange places. I’ve written film scripts that teach bedside manner to newly employed nurses. Brochures for a commercial shrimp farm. The copy that was etched in glass at the entrance to a fancy restaurant. Today, I’m writing content for a B2B specialty tea company, and a high-end audio dealership.

I’m struck by the similarities. Both are specialised luxury markets with their own jargon, trade shows, and range of associated brands you’ve never heard of. Both are focussed on purity and quality, and have an appeal that’s at once robust and rarified.

The owner of the tea company told me about how good tea has terrior, just like any other specialised beverage, and spoke with great passion about how a cup of tea is a journey to the plantation. You can taste the soil, the seasons, the drying process. He took me to the tasting room, where the tasters showed me how to slurp the tea off a spoon to properly taste it, though “slurp” doesn’t quite describe how little tea is ingested relative to air; “huff” might be a better verb.

Back to audio, take the story of W, the chief listener for a famous American audio brand. Like all truly high-end brands, every unit is listened to before it’s packaged to be sent out of the factory. Yes, every single one, and they’re all heard by W. Someone from the company described it as one of the worst jobs in the world, especially since he has to use the same track for months or years on end for consistency.

The company was bought by a large parent brand which provided its own solder. W listened to a production unit made using the new solder, and deemed the sound so bad that he threatened to leave if they were forced to adopt the stuff. Experienced staff screwed up their eyes and ears, and when they concentrated, could tell that yes, this new unit didn’t sound quite as good. It was barely noticeable to most people, but for W, it was almost painful.

Another time, I watched a speaker designer tweak a system. It sounded pretty good to me, but the designer obviously thought it needed work. While it was playing a track, he went over to a speaker on its stand, picking it up, holding his head right above it. He moved it about, listening to the changing sound as it went forwards, backwards, side-to-side, his movements getting smaller and smaller, until he plopped it down. He did the same with the other speaker and the sound of the system snapped into place, as if the band moved in from playing in the next room.

The owner of the tea company, knowing how much I fetishised high-end audio, worried that that I wouldn’t be interested in the intricacies of his market. But intricacies are fascinating in themselves. I’ve learned a lot, not just about tea, but shadow markets we’d never encounter as regular consumers. It’s like a playgoer being allowed to peep backstage. My most treasured find from the specialty tea industry, though, is this phrase: “the agony of the leaves”. It is used to describe the unfurling, dancing action of tea leaves when hot water is poured over them. It’s the phenomenon that’s used for blooming teas, those hand-tied balls that blossom as they steep.

The agony of the leaves. My delight with it is not just that it’s uncomfortably vivid, but that an effect I’ve barely even noticed is an event with a name; a thought as mind-blowing as knowing that solder has a sound.

First published in Gulf News, September 12, 2017