A Life in Pods

“You push a button. You count to thirty. You have a sensational cup of coffee, as fresh as it is frothy.” So says the instruction sheet for my new coffeemaker, a gift from my husband, who, it might be noted, has never been a coffee drinker. When questioned about the gift, he confesses to having picked it up for free at some promotional event at the mall. Upon reading the fine print, I understand why the company is giving the machines away: “Our coffee pods are specially designed and pre-measured with our coffee blends. One pod makes one sensational cup of coffee.” It’s not the machine they make the money on: it’s the pod.

Because I am not averse to the occasional new experience, I decide to give the machine a whirl. As promised, there is no labor and mess involved. All I have to do is add the water, drop in the pod, and wait. Within 30 seconds, the coffee is dispensed directly into the cup, not unlike those vending machines one finds at auto body shops and in the lobbies of highway motels. If I were making a cup of coffee by the antiquated method to which I’ve become accustomed, I’d still be measuring the beans at this point.

But already, I am disappointed. I miss the rough texture and heady fragrance of the beans, the noisy whir of the grinder, the slow gurgle of water making its way through the filter basket. I take a sip and am unsurprised to find that the prepackaged concoction, Vanilla Bistro, resembles the instant coffee I subsisted on in college. Instead of the complex, layered flavors of a well-roasted coffee bean, there is a cloying chemical taste, sugary but not truly sweet, with a vanilla-ish tang that is to real vanilla what a McDonald’s apple turnover is to a homemade apple pie.

I recently spotted one of my graduate students outside the university where I teach, sitting alone on the stoop, eyes closed, head tilted to the side. A thin white cord stretched from each ear to her open palm, on which rested a rectangular white disk, narrower than a business card and not much thicker, bearing the tell-tale pome. I half expected to see a professional camera crew rounding the corner, for Apple could not have designed a finer advertisement for the ipod shuffle. Or rather, Apple had designed this image almost verbatim (it towers over 101 on a billboard drivers can’t miss), and my student—attractively slim, fashionably dreadlocked, trendily oblivious to everyone around her—had, intentionally or not, mimicked the ad with precision.

The ipod, like the coffee pod, offers not the experience of the thing itself but instead a simulation of such, neatly packaged and conveniently sized. Both pods promise a tidy singular experience: just enough coffee for one, thank you very much, just enough music for me. Gone is the chaotic café, the boisterous concert hall. Gone are the coffee grinds littering the kitchen counter, the friends gathered around the living room stereo. What remains is a pared-down product from which the soul—and the society—has been neatly extracted.

My earliest experience with the pod was as a young child, sitting on my grandmother’s porch in rural Mississippi, shelling peas. My grandmother and I occupied identical wooden rocking chairs, three metal bowls arranged on the small table in front of us. One contained pea pods, green and fragrant and plump; one held the shelled peas, which plinked pleasingly against the sides of the bowl; another was reserved for the empty pods, ripped open at the seams. We were accompanied by my sister, my mother, and a few aunts and cousins.

The front door of my grandmother’s house stood open, a screen in place to keep out the flies. Added to the green scent of peas was the smell of coffee percolating in the kitchen just a few yards away. The percolator was a ceramic affair, big enough to serve all the adult women who had gathered for the shelling. Every half hour or so, I would take a break from the monotony of peas to help my mother with the coffee. What anticipation I felt, watching the dark liquid bubbling up into the little glass dome. Upon removing the lid, my mother would lower her face to the urn and breathe deeply, blissfully, before pouring the coffee into an eclectic assortment of mugs, which I would then deliver to the adults. The endless peas that needed shelling, combined with endless mugs of coffee, made the conditions just right for socializing.

The term kaffee klatsch was coined in Germany in the early 20th century, a derogatory reference to the way women gossiped during afternoon coffee. It is unlikely that the women of my family would have heard the phrase, but they could easily pass an afternoon talking about who had been saved and who had backslidden, who had married and who had died, what local girls or boys had run off to Jackson or joined the Army or taken up alcohol. Over a string of steamy summers, I gladly suffered the achy hands and blistered fingers that invariably resulted from an afternoon shelling peas in exchange for my seeming invisibility at these gatherings, when the women divulged all kinds of secrets they wouldn’t ordinarily utter in front of the children.

Chocolate, one of the most coveted natural elixirs known to man, has its origin in the pod. The cocoa pod looks nothing like the pea pod. It is large and tubular, generally yellow or light green; when fully ripe, it resembles a gourd. The cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao, is cauliflorous, which means that the pod grows directly from the trunk, giving the tree an oddly tumescent appearance, as if it is in the clutches of some exotic disease or the victim of some parasitic growth. Whereas pea pods are geographically widespread, cocoa trees, and thus their coveted pods, exist only within twenty degrees of the equator.

The inception of a cocoa pod is a delicate business: the flowers of the cocoa tree open at night and have only 48 hours to be pollinated. Among the insects that take part in this particular botanical waltz are midges, ants, aphids, wild bees, and thrips (the latter of which are known as “thunder bugs,” because they are finicky flyers, preferring to remain at rest except during thunder storms.) Given this limited window for romance, it’s not surprising that only about one out of every hundred flowers on the cocoa tree eventually yields a pod. By the time the pod has ripened, 150 to 180 days after pollination, it contains rows of white beans encased in a sweet, milky pulp. A split-open cocoa pod has an unmistakably sexual look, which is appropriate, given the cocoa bean’s aphrodisiac quality. (The last time my husband wooed me with truffles from San Francisco’s famed chocolatier Joseph Schmidt, we ended up with a pea, as they say, in the pod.)

A full pea pod of the inedible variety is seductively curvy, its miniature hills and valleys formed by the treasure hidden inside. The pod is covered with fine hairs suggestive of the languo that coats newborn human infants. The peas in a pod are arranged in a row, each pea touching the same seam.

Snow peas and snap peas have edible pods, so the pea need never be separated from its natural container, while garden peas or “English peas,” those tender, round bits so popular in chicken pot pies and casseroles, are, in modern-day life, almost always divorced from the pod before we lay eyes on them. Garden peas were considered such a delicacy in France toward the end of the 17th century that one Madame de Maintenon wrote in 1696, “Some ladies, even after having supped at the Royal Table, and well supped too, returning to their own homes, at the risk of suffering from indigestion, will again eat peas before going to bed. It is both a fashion and a madness.”

Might the small, boat-shaped pod—gorgeously curved, unexpectedly hairy—have contributed to this insatiable lust for peas? Or was it the thrill of ingesting a tiny, taut bit that had been divested of its protective shell? The uncontained thing enjoys a kind of sensual quality that the neatly ordered thing does not: a mound of rolling, plinking peas; loose coffee beans spilling through one’s outstretched fingers; a riff emanating from an acoustic guitar inches from one’s ears.

In the Wachowski brothers’ 1999 film The Matrix, all of humankind is reduced to a podded existence. Human beings pass their lives in complete solitude, each trapped within his or her own pod. The pod system has been orchestrated by the computers that run the planet, and people are little more than expendable battery power for the bio-electrical energy on which the computers exist. The pod here is a symbol of imprisonment and isolation. One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is that, save for the messianic Neo, the prophetic Morpheus, and a few stylishly clad disciples, humans are oblivious to their enslaved condition. Within the darkened pods, entire lives unfold in rich Technicolor. A person’s life is not actual, but virtual. He or she loves, suffers, bears children, ages, eats, plays sports, reads, makes love, composes music, commits acts of kindness or cruelty—everything that could possibly occur within the span of a life occurs also in the pods, as each individual slumbers alone and untouched through a lifelong dream of living. Only in death are the machines’ unwitting victims, like Randall Jarrell’s ball turret gunner, “loosed from the dream of life.”

Should you find yourself near the Empire State Building during regular business hours, and should you be feeling sleepy or over-stimulated or simply at odds with the world, you might be tempted to take the elevator to the 24th floor, home of MetroNaps, where, for 14 dollars per session, you can drift off to dreamland in the comfort of your own private sleep pod. The ad copy on the company web site reads like something straight out of a futuristic horror flick. In the MetroNap pod, a glowing white egg-like contraption in which one reclines for the prescribed 20 minutes—no more, no less—customers receive “the quick recharge needed so they can do more with their day, both professionally and personally.”

Remember the infamous pea that kept the delicate princess from getting her beauty rest? In the sleep pod, whose “contours are perfect for napping” and whose “mechanical processes are perfect for waking,” the urban professional prince or princess becomes the pea. In a small room lit by softly glowing sconces, the MetroNap customer listens to “tranquil, relaxation-inducing music,” waiting to be awakened “with a gentle combination of light and vibration.”

Unlike cocoa beans or peas, which nest in comfortable proximity to others of their ilk, the pod-bound urbanite is the very emblem of isolation. Gone is the passion of the illicitly shared bed, the side-by-side collusion of matrimonial slumber. Gone is the thrill of rubbing limb to limb, the delicious shiver of skin touching skin. To be a sleeper in a pod is to be both product and proponent of a flawed equation, a heartless modern mathematics which insists that to be relaxed is to be alone.

Whales, dolphins, and seals travel in groups called pods. The groupings are often matrilineal, although there are many variations on the composition of the pods. The stronger whales within a pod protect the sick, the young, and the injured. Pods comprised of females and their offspring allow a mother to dive deep for food while her calf is protected by the other adults. When one member of a whale pod seeks shallow water due to sickness, the other members follow along; marine biologists speculate that this may account for the fact that whales are often found stranded in groups, entire pods risking death to avoid abandoning a single member. Members of a dolphin pod play together and engage in sexual relations with one another. The size of dolphin pods tends to increase with water depth and openness of habitat—in other words, with proximity to danger. Sometimes several pods temporarily join together to form herds comprised of hundreds.

Far from the isolationist tendencies of the techno-pods which have become a part of our daily existence, these marine pods are the very emblem of sociability and fellow feeling.

Whether synthetic or organic, biological or technological, all pods share the function of containment. The pod protects, holds together, creates symmetry; simultaneously, it excludes, isolates. In the case of marine mammals on the open sea, this exclusivity is key to survival. In the case of the land mammal homo sapiens, its implications are far less elegant.

All across the United States, from major metropolitan centers like Los Angeles and Chicago to smaller, lesser-known cities, a dazed-looking populace shuttles frantically from pod to pod, activity to activity, along a discombobulated network of freeways and frontage roads, sides streets and subdivisions. Even our mode of transportation, the glassed-in automobile, which grows more pod-like with every concession to aerodynamics, serves as a sort of insulation, keeping the crowd at bay. In a document entitled “Traditional Urban Design and the Municipal Zoning Ordinance,” Demetri Baches, former planning director for Belmont, North Carolina, calls for a return to a traditional, integrative approach to urban design, lamenting the fact that “the city has been broken up into pods of identical product, each pod unrelated to the other.”

It is this very un-relatedness that drives the current passion for pods. One may listen to one’s ipod while sipping coffee brewed from a pre-packaged, single-serving pod. One may do all of this in the confines of the office cubicle before racing off to nap in a gleaming white pod. It becomes less and less necessary to speak or be spoken to. The modern pod in all its permutations is designed to deliver the greatest amount of individual satisfaction with the least amount of social interaction. Our passion for the pod is symptomatic of our growing elevation of luxury over society, singularity over community. What matters is what you have, not who you enjoy it with.

I know it is old-fashioned and painfully out of style to long for a lifestyle aesthetic in which the word “company” refers to the people you’re with instead of the economic entity that produced your latest gadget. I am aware of the myriad arguments for how technology brings us together, and I don’t deny that there are many ways in which technology makes human connection easier than it has historically been. But there is no question that it is also much easier these days to disconnect, to implant oneself for hours, days, even weeks at a time in a self-styled pod of personal convenience in which productivity may be increased but pleasure—pleasure as it has been known for millennia, in every civilization—is exponentially decreased.

To be civilized is to live in harmony with other citizens, to accept one’s place in the crowd, as part of a larger whole. The pod, of course, cannot eliminate the crowd, but it can and does make the crowd, for the purposes of the individual, temporarily disappear. It is a deceptive kind of magic. No matter how melodic the music, how frothy the coffee, how cozy the space where we prop up our feet to enter the world of our own dreaming, we must eventually emerge from the pod. Like Hanta, the accidental hero of Bohumil Hrabal’s haunting mediation on literature and loneliness, we may wake one day to find that we have endured too loud a solitude.

Michelle Richmond is the author of four books of fiction, including the New York Times bestseller The Year of Fog, and numerous essays. Visit her at Life in Pods originally appeared in The Kenyon Review.