Coffee, Soup and Futurism

I don’t drink coffee; my interest extends to providing it for guests. When we had a mass of extended family here over the 4th of July weekend, I was surprised that almost none of them were coffee drinkers. So I was spared the fuddle of figuring out how to make modern coffee, but I know it will come up again.

I used to have a plan. It involved a Mr. Coffee machine I picked out at a thrift store, charmed by its three dollar price tag and the instructions for coffee-making, written in handwriting like my mom’s, carefully taped to the top. I used to have a pot of perfectly acceptable coffee ready for guests when they got up. On good days, I remembered to have cream on hand. A few years ago, a visiting brother-in-law brought his own coffee grinder with him. A little farther along, I became aware that my sons no longer owned a Mr. Coffee. There were French presses, something called ChemX (it sounds futuristic, and I can’t even spell it), and mysterious rituals I ignored because all I need is good boiling water for tea. When, over this past crowded weekend, my husband made himself a cup of instant coffee because there was no sense in making a full pot, his nephew gazed at the cup in astonishment and said, “I haven’t seen instant coffee in years!”

At that moment, I realized that the future is not turning out the way I always thought it would. I tended to think change would take certain shapes: stores and restaurants would only get more huge and more franchised (WalMart, Best Buy, Applebee’s), and that modern conveniences would only become, well, more convenient. I’ve watched the opposite take place with coffee. It’s no longer a predictable brew, largely the same anywhere, easy-peasy to make. The fact that Mr. Coffee is convenient does not make it the coffee of choice. There are new options that go against the tendency to bigness and expedience.

We seek out AirBNB accommodations and use Uber for rides when we travel. It feels like we’re doing a grass-roots transaction. We prefer one-of-a-kind restaurants. We avoid the beige expanses of suburban retail that rise up around every town, making Tulsa indistinguishable from Tallahassee. (James Howard Kunstler describes this as “the geography of nowhere.”) I like to seek out things that are made by hand, preferably by someone I know.

Which way will prevail? Convenience and mass-production, or one-of-a-kind craftsmanship and entrepreneurial start-ups? One lesson I’ve learned from coffee is that I’m not a good predictor. I thought the ubiquitousness of Mr. Coffees meant they’d always be the default, and I thought the hugeness of McDonald’s and WalMart meant we’d never have other options. And maybe they will prevail and snuff out our alternatives. But what I think I’m seeing is that the future is made of millions of tiny inputs. It’s not as predictable as I’d anticipated, nor is it quite as dull. It’s not going to be the average of all the influences that contribute to it — if it were, we’d end up living lives like the awful brown-gray you got when you mixed all your kindergarten fingerpaints together. I think the individual inputs stay separate and distinct, like different-colored threads in woven fabric. And our future will be made up of many choices.

It seems to me that each of our days is a mix. The world is like a huge pot on my stovetop. It holds countless events, choices, encounters, opinions. Every day we are served a scoop of what’s in the pot, and the contents of the pot are the result of many things, including our choices. Enough people choose a latte, and Mr. Coffee as a possibility sinks to the bottom of the pot, where history lies. Enough people choose to buy local food, and there’s more of it to buy. Stress rises, and more people opt for a convenient shortcut. Financial pressures make cheaper choices rise up, pressured by demand. And the soup stock, the liquid everything floats around in, is the realm of the Spirit.

Every day we live, we sample a spoonful of the pot’s contents (to extend my metaphor.) What comes up in the ladle seems random, but many many influences are in its contents. And the hand that holds the spoon, every day, is God’s.

“Many things about tomorrow, I don’t seem to understand/But I know Who holds tomorrow, and I know Who holds my hand.”