When I sort everything I experience into stacks of best to worst I am reducing every experience to a summary — when in fact it can’t be reduced at all. It’s an experience all it’s own.
The matter of Taste
In 2001 I was working in a cozy nook of a wine bar in Portsmouth England, the Detroit of the United Kingdom. Rosie’s was the type of restaurant with a grumpy but loyal kitchen staff and all of the servers were trained to know something about the food and drink we served. Dave, the sandy-haired middle-aged owner is a favorite among the many bosses I’ve worked for. I have heaps of stories from that year, particularly from working in England where the American accent can garner a good tip from bored English house-wives just for the foreign mystique.
For me, the story that sticks more than others started on a Sunday morning Dave and I were opening up the restaurant for lunch. While wrapping napkins we got to talking about tasting wine and the immersion of experience.
Dave and his wife Sarah had been traveling in France and had holed up in a cute little chalet for the weekend. There in the warmth of the French Summer they’d fallen in love again. He and Sarah, had talked for hours about their dreams, nursed on bottles of the house batch grown and bottled nearby. They both commented on the rich, full-bodied taste that presented like a buxom French maid from a time long gone by. Naturally, they packed a case home with them.
They didn’t crack one open from that box again until six months later in the middle of the drudge of the British winter. Cranky with cold, and more than a little annoyed at his wife that day, Dave described the wine as average at best with a shallow presence. What had changed? He tasted another bottle in case it was just a bad egg. Nope. Same dreary taste. We discussed memory, taste, and experience till we opened the doors for lunch.
We taste with our tongue but we experience with the whole body.
Taste starts at our tongue, mixes with all the other senses and chemicals at work in our bodies at that moment, and the brain writes a note. Disposition, expectations, and environment color our feelings about what we experience.
Dave’s anecdote changed the way I thought about my memories and senses. I’ve thought about it off and on for years. Since then, I’ve noticed I sort my experiences across a wild field, like a plain. Not in stacks or piles. I observe my experiences like specimens rather than needing to evaluate them in comparison with each other.
Take 4:30 am coffee from a gas station in a part of Colorado so East it’s almost Kansas. This drink is arguably bad coffee — maybe it should even just be called “Brown energy drink”, but here’s the thing: I like it, for what it is, I like it. Those moments I drink that particular coffee are on the road, on the way out to hunt Turkey with my dad. He and I have a good decade of yelling and cursing at each other but we’ve settled our differences and now we genuinely enjoy each other’s company, for what it is — without needing to judge or compare. The coffee, as shallow as it is, is just it’s own thing. It’s a totem of that memory. It’s part of the experience. Just like my relationship with dad.
Yeah, but what about craft?
Anyone who knows me well, knows I’m a picky son-of-a-bitch. I am a self-trained designer with an eye for detail. I obsess about impressions and the service of design. If you visit my house, it feels deeply comforting but also orderly. You can see a decision on each shelf and in each corner an intention.
The soft and flowing texture of the blankets on the couch creates comfort. The dark paint creates mood and mystery. You’ll catch a whiff of Piñon pine that lets you know I’m a westerner living in the South and piques your interest for its history. The formal lines in stacks of tiles or wood, hints at my love of Japanese rhythm. All of it accumulates to the experience I want me, and you to have.
I’m often the same craftsman in my digital design work. Am I being a bit hypocritical here to suggest that in design we should strive for incredible experiences while “out in the world” we should hold things loosely and experience them as they are?
To be honest here, I don’t know. Here’s what I do know. I want to feel. I want others to feel. Maya Angelou is quoted as saying:
“People don’t remember what you said, they remember how you made them feel”.
It’s my hope that what I bring to this world in my creativity and activity brings more smile than stress. Yet, I know that some of the stress, pain, or discomfort I have that might normally be critiqued or compared as “less than” or bad feelings are part of the field of experience — the map of all things.
I’m not suggesting that all experiences are the same, or should be treated the same. What I’m saying is that if I am in a space of critiquing all of my experiences, If I’m sorting them from top to bottom, always comparing, I’ll miss the rich interest and detail of hundreds of thousands of fascinating things, people, and places. Discomfort has at least as much to teach me as the things that feel good.
The next time you’re in an opportunity to sort your experiences, emotions, a flavor, or a movie you saw (Hint: Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker), see if you can let the critic within sit beside you instead of inside you.
Watch and listen as that critical part is activated. Maybe gently ask it to try to just observe with you. See what comforts or discomforts you can experience. See what nuance of play or joy you find. Watch others, see if you can dip into their experiences a little. Like watching my kids wide-eyed take in every single Star Wars as pure visual and storytelling wonder.
My friends, this is an incredible life. The sorrows and shit have as much to teach us as the shine and the sex.
Jump in. Stay curious.