The aesthetics of rock climbing

The pleasures of rock climbing and the pleasures of philosophy turn out to be strangely similar. Most non-climbers have the wrong idea about climbing – it is, in the popular imagination, a particularly thuggish way of courting death. Before I’d actually tried it, my mental image of climbing was some kind of vague blend of pull-ups, screaming and gargling Red Bull. But it turns out that rock climbing is a subtle, refined and often hyper-intellectual sport. It’s solving puzzles, with your body and mind. It’s about getting past cryptic sequences of rock, through a combination of grace, attunement, cleverness, and power.

Climbers dream of the perfect “project” – a climb that you work on, over days and weeks. At first, such a project might seem utterly impossible. The holds are too small, or in the wrong place, or impossibly far apart; the wall is too overhung, or too blank. But slowly, bit by bit, you figure out a sequence of moves that just might get you through. Place your left foot there, and balance over just so. Flip your left hand so you’re pushing down against that ridge of rock, leaning down on it like you’re in a yoga triangle pose. Then you can reach high with your right hand and take hold of a tiny pocket. Step high and then flip your hand in the pocket, so you can lean the other way. Through care and attention, the impossible slowly becomes possible. You learn the holds, you learn the moves, you learn where to throw in all-out effort and where to relax for a moment, you train your body, until one day it all comes together and you dance your way up that wall.

 

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Dana Le/Flickr

 

And dancing, I think, is exactly the right place to start to understand the aesthetic dimension of rock climbing. So let’s start there: climbing is something like dance – not just in skill, but in aesthetic reward. You can hear the similarity when you listen to some climbers talk about their climbs. They talk about climbs with nice movement, with good flow, with interesting moves. They’ll talk about ugly climbs, beautiful climbs, elegant climbs, gross climbs. At first you might think they are just talking about the rock itself and how it looks. And sometimes they are; every climber loves a clean crack up a blank face, or bold jutting fin to climb. But if you interrogate a climber, and watch as they explain where the beauty in the climb is – with arms out, legs in the air, imitating the odd precise movements of the climb – you’ll figure out that what so many of them care most about is the quality of the movement – about how it feels to go through the rock, about the glorious sensations in the body, and the subtle attention of the mind.

So let’s start with dance. Barbara Montero, a philosopher of dance, has made a convincing case that the central aesthetic experience of dance involves a dancer’s proprioceptive sense of moving through space and feeling that movement as beautiful. We don’t just appreciate dance visually; we can feel it in our muscles and neurons. As a consequence, she adds, the best people to understand the aesthetics of dance are the dancers themselves, and people in the audience who have danced – who can imagine their way more precisely into how it must feel to move that way. The beauty of dance is a beauty of embodied movement.

When I think back to my favourite climbing experiences, what I can remember most precisely is the feel of the movement, the sense of gracefulness, of being able to move with precision and economy and elegance. That movement quality is something I savour, that I daydream about, that calls me back. And sometimes that movement quality is embedded in something dramatic. It has a relationship with difficulty. Some of the most perfect climbing moments are those when I was exhausted, maybe bleeding a little, when my fingers were raw, but I forced my mind quiet and calmed my head and then pulled through, forced my trembling limbs to calm, and reached somewhere inside myself to find that elegance, that precision, that lovely movement.

So climbing is like dance, but not exactly like dance. Climbing is graceful movement that always serves a well-defined task-oriented purpose. You’re trying to get to the top, and often the harder that journey is, they better. And climbs don’t just allow graceful movement; they sometimes require it; they’ll punish you and throw you off the rock if you’re careless. The economical movement in climbing arises in response to a set of very specific demands. The rock (real or artificial) may force a sequence of movement out of me, but it doesn’t tell me what that sequence of movements is, unlike in dance, where a director often teaches a piece of set choreography. I invent it, in response to the problem. Sometimes I may watch somebody else and imitate their movements, but even then, I need to adapt those movements to my body. I ape their movements in general, and then adapt them, precisify their inner feeling, all guided by the difficulties set by the rock. By and large, climbing is a puzzle-and-solution oriented practice. My movements in climbing are always in response to the challenges set to me by the rock; the elegance that I sometimes grasp within myself is one forced on me by the necessities of economy, of preserving what little stamina I have.

Rock climbing is a game. And this is where philosophical work can help us again. Let’s turn to one of the most delightful, insightful, and under-appreciated books in recent philosophy – Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia. You will recall the parable of the grasshopper and the ant – the grasshopper is idle all summer long, and the ant works hard. At the end, the grasshopper starves to death. Moral of the story: work hard or die, suckers. But Suits inverts the moral of the story. In his book, the grasshopper is the hero, a paragon of playfulness. The book opens in adorably pseudo-Socratic fashion. The Grasshopper – the great philosophical defender of play – is on his deathbed, surrounded by his disciples. He is starving because he has refused, on principle, to work. His disciples are begging him: Please, let us feed you, let us work and bring you food. But the Grasshopper replies: No, for then you would be ants, and doubly so! I would rather die for my commitment to idleness!

So the Grasshopper gives his disciples a series of puzzles about play, and games, and then promptly dies. And the rest of the book is one in which the students work out those puzzles, and, along the way, provides a definition of the term “game”. This is explicitly intended as a reply to Wittgenstein’s challenge – that most terms in general, but “game” in particular, did not admit of rigorous definition. Suits offers his definition in versions of varying digestibility. Here’s the least technical one, which he calls the “portable” version:

“Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

This gives us a very broad notion of games, which includes board games, sports, rock climbing, and perhaps even certain academic disciplines. Suits’ definition has become rather famous, or infamous, around those corners of the academic world that study games.

In the full version of his definition, we learn, among other things, that playing games involve taking up artificial goals and imposing inefficient means on ourselves, because we want to create a new kind of activity. The point of basketball is not getting the ball through the hoop – that has no independent value in itself. If it did, we’d show up after hours to an empty court with a step-ladder, and pass that ball through to our heart’s content. Rather, we take up the artificial goal – passing the ball through the hoop – and barriers to that goal – opponents, the dribbling rule – in order to create the activity of playing basketball. Notice that what constitutes game-playing is not the physical movement, but the intentional state of the player towards that action. In short: in ordinary practical activity, we take the means for the sake of an independently valuable end. But in gaming activity, we can take up an artificial end for the sake of going through a particular means.

So let’s return to rock climbing. My chosen discipline is bouldering – conducted without a rope, on short boulders of usually no more than twenty feet, with fold-out gymnastics pads to fall on. Bouldering began as a way to train in safety for more adventurous climbs but quickly evolved into its own thing, pursued for its own sake. Boulderers actually refer to specific climbs as “boulder problems”; they are a clear kin to, say, chess problems. Boulder problems are often very short, exceedingly difficult, and the kind of thing you might fail at and fall on your ass a hundred times on the way to success. If those multi-day roped climbs up cliff-sides are the adventure marathons of rock climbing, than bouldering is the sprint trial.

Suits himself uses mountain climbing as an example of a game. The point is not simply to get to the top – after all, you could get to it by helicopter, in the case of Everest, or via the highway up the back, in the case of El Capitan. The point is to do it via a specific set of limited means. This is surely true of bouldering, as well. A regular occurrence for boulderers: we will be trying to climb up the hard overhung face, and a young child will run up the path on the backside of the rock and look down on us from above and gleefully and smugly inform us that we must have missed the easy way up. (Sometimes I have a desire to sit them down and explain the Suitsian theory to them, but usually, since it’s my one day off from grading and the academic slog, I’d just lie down and have a beer.)

So: climbing is a game, in the Suitsian sense. But it is a very interesting sort of game, for many people indulge in it for openly aesthetic reasons. If one looks at the recent history of the philosophy of sport, one will find the Suitsian analysis all over the place, but theorists have considered a fairly narrowed range of reasons for engaging in that Suitsian activity. Usually, it’s something like: we take up these unnecessary obstacles to become more excellent, or develop physical skills, or to win. But the Suitsian analysis allows any sort of reason for wanting to bring an activity into being, and if one listens to the talk of climbers, one will discover that those reasons are often aesthetic ones – and they are often proprioceptively aesthetic.

Let’s take one classic climb in Joe’s Valley, Utah: The Angler, one of the most beloved boulder problems in one of the most beloved bouldering regions in the world. As it turns out, it’s not that interesting to watch somebody climb it. First of all, non-climbers tend to like to watch really explosive and spectacular movement. During competitions on artificial rock, lay audiences will cheer for big jumps from one huge hold to another. The Angler has none of that; it’s slow, plodding, and careful. Experienced climbers tend to like watching subtle, intricate movement, but even then, it’s best when the movement is visible – when you can see the re-balancing, the yoga-like stretches, the interesting body postures. But none of the interesting stuff is visible in The Angler. It’s very gradual, delicate climb, with a slopey, slippery ridge for your hands, and tiny invisi-feet. The difference between success and failure depends on minuscule shifts of balance – it depends on maintaining your core tension, on controlling your centre of gravity and inching it around with painstaking care. And, when you do it right, it feels unbelievably good – it feels like you’re a thing made of pure precision, a scalpel of delicate movement, easing your way up the rock. But, to somebody watching from outside, it looks… like nothing. Even for an experienced climber, it’s pretty boring to watch somebody else climb this thing. I love The Anglerto death, but I’ll admit: I’ve sat with a beer by the river next to it and tried to watch people climbing it and gotten bored almost instantly. In this particular climb, all those fascinating internal movements are invisible to the external eye. The aesthetics of movement, here, are for the climber alone.

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Simon Li/Flickr

The Angler is an exemplar of a perfect boulder problem, to many a climber’s taste. It has everything. The rock itself is strikingly beautiful. More importantly, what climbers call the line is visually beautiful. That is, the feature on the rock that the climber follows is visually distinctive, and the path of the climb itself is clear and itself striking and lovely. The movement is wonderfully interesting. And best of all, these things match and fit in a pleasing way. In The Angler, the movement quality changes over the course of the problem. It’s intricate and subtle down below, but the movements become bigger and scarier as the line moves up and right. And, when the season’s right, you have to make the last few moves – which are bold but easy – over the river itself. The feel of the movement rises, as the line rises, from delicate to thrilling. Rock, line, and movement all have a wonderful consonance. And when you pull over the top, after all this pain and carefulness, with your nose crammed inches from the rock, staring down searching for the slightly better nubbins of friction – you stand up right into the mouth of a river canyon, running river all around you, wind in your hair and water burbling, and the sensation of victory bleeds into the sensation of wild, free, open nature.

I manage to be pretty focused in doing philosophy, but some of the most focused and attentive I’ve ever been in my life is on a hard climb – mind zeroed in on tiny ripples in the rock for my feet, exactly the angle of my ankle, whether I’m holding the most grippy part of the rock with my hand, the exact level of force I need to push with on my foot as I slide over to the next hold. One might be tempted to say here, if one were caught in a traditional aesthetic paradigm, that the climbing is just a technique, a trick to focus the mind on the really beautiful things – the rock itself, and nature. But I think this ignores what climbers are actually doing, feeling, and appreciating. They’re paying attention to themselves, to their own movements and appreciating how those movements solve the problem of the rock. The aesthetics of climbing is an aesthetics of the climber’s own motion, and an aesthetics of how that motion functions as a solution to a problem. There is, for the climber, a very special experience of harmony available – a harmony between one’s abilities and the challenges they meet.

I remember one afternoon I spent in the Buttermilks, a glorious collection of boulders in Bishop, California. I was trying my damnedest to solve a weird, tricky problem that involved a series of heel-hooks and toe-hooks and spending half-my time with my feet above my head, my ankle stuffed into a crack in the rock. Next to me, a far better climber was working a far harder problem on another part of the same boulder. We spent the whole afternoon at our respective tasks. He was totally, savagely into it – screaming his way up, cursing, stabbing at the rock. The critical move involved easing his way up to a bad, slopey hold for his right hand, high-stepping his left foot up almost to his crotch, and then squeezing himself up between his right hand and his left foot, popping himself between them like a wet watermelon seed, and stabbing with his left hand for a tiny set of pocket dimples. The move is typical of high-end bouldering – the hold you’re going for is so far out of reach that you need to fling yourself at it dynamically; you’ve got to jump. But that hold is also so faint that you can’t have any extra momentum when you hit it, or you’ll rip yourself right off the rock.

He’d been trying the same move for, like, three hours, with long rests between tries. He was cursing, frustrated, melting down. Then finally, in one great screaming effort, he did it – he had a little bit too much momentum, but he grabbed that next hold with extra force, muscles straining, yanking himself back into place, screaming. And he finished the problem.

He came down, staring at his fingers. One of them was bleeding.

“Nice job”, I said. I went to high five him, but he shook his head.

“That was ugly as hell”, he said, glumly. “Terrible style”. He wrapped up his finger in some climbing tape, rested himself for about twenty minutes, and then stepped up and did again. This time, it looked perfect – just a delicate little bump and step and he floated over and just dropped into place, like it was nothing.

He climbed down the back and jogged over to me, grinning hugely. “God, what a gorgeous problem!” he told me. “You’ve got to do it. That move is so beautiful. It’s just…” he mimed the move, and mimed it again. “Just fantastic! You’ve got to do it!”

Sadly, I told him, that problem was way too hard for me.

He jittered from foot to foot, grinning and trying to feel sorry for me. Then he went over and did it again.

(Originally published in The Philosopher’s Magazine, 78, 2017: 37-43)

New paper: “The Uses of Aesthetic Testimony”

My new paper, The Uses of Aesthetic Testimony, is out in the British Journal of Aesthetics. (For those without institutional access, here’s an older draft for free.)

What it’s about, technical version: There’s this debate about the seeming “asymmetry” between aesthetic and empirical testimony. We’re allowed to acquire beliefs based solely on testimony for empirical stuff (doctor’s advice, mechanic’s advice), but we’re not allowed to uptake judgments about how, say, the beauty and brilliance of Van Gogh’s Irises based solely on testimony. I say: yeah, yeah, but look over here: there’s an even more interesting second asymmetry within the aesthetic itself. There are all sorts of things I’m entirely permitted to do from aesthetic testimony: I can take restaurant recommendations, I can choose a travel destination, I can choose an art school, all from testimony. The uses of aesthetic testimony are rich and varied. There’s only this one very particular thing I can’t do from testimony, which is acquire a belief wholesale. The real mystery is how to explain the way our intuitions change between different uses of aesthetic testimony.

You might think, then, that this all just turns on speech acts vs. practical action. But consider the following case: when I’m picking out a painting to hang in my own bedroom, it would be totally weird to defer to the word of an expert and not engage my own taste. But if I were a museum director, I could totally defer to the word of an expert in choosing my acquisitions. No speech, all action, same asymmetry.

I then try to show that, if you take seriously all these intuitions about the uses of aesthetic testimony, it points us towards a moderately cognitive theory of aesthetic judgment.

What it’s really about: We act like aesthetics is all about autonomous judgment. But the really interesting thing that people don’t study is how much we profoundly trust others everywhere in our aesthetic lives.

Time-Slices of Tea: How to brew gong-fu style

This post is for my dear buddy Tiffany, who’s just discovered that she’s allergic to coffee and therefore having a minor drug-culinary meltdown. She asked for a guide into my most intense life-long culinary obsession, tea. Specifically: Chinese tea, done gong-fu style.

Gong-fu style is basically the hard-core Chinese tea addict’s delivery system of choice. Basically, you’re using a very large amount of tea in a relatively small brewing vessel, and doing lots of really fast steeps. I mean, a LOT of tea:

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What you’re doing is cutting time-slices out of the tea. Different flavors extract at different rates and times. In normal, Western, throw-it-all-in-a-big-pot-and-brew-it-for-a-while, you’re taking all these different flavors and muddling them all together. When you do it gong-fu style, you’re separating it out and slicing it up – peering into this weird, fluid, ever-changing evolution and transformation of the tea. The tea above, for example, started out sweet and dairy and thick. Then around steep four, this weird glorious intense quinine-bitter took over. Three steeps later, the dairy was back and balancing out nicely against the bitter. Then around steep fourteen, this crazy apricot-hay flavor came out of nowhere. And then they all melded into this weird fuzzy happy meaty warmth.

In the piece of food writing I’m proudest of, I got my tea mentor totally shitfaced on good rum and got this quote out of her: “‘The evolving of it, it’s like old films,’ Shan says, ‘Like when it was slow enough you could almost see it frame by frame, moving’.”

I’ve gong-fu brewed other stuff – Indian teas like first flush darjeelings – and sometimes gotten good results, and sometimes unbalanced weirdness. That stuff wasn’t really bred for this style. But gong-fu brewing is what high-quality Chinese oolongs and puerhs were made for. When you’ve got some good tea and decent technique, it becomes this… drama. This journey through like a thousand weird transformations of flavor and texture, and all these strange intense little flavor nuggets will build on your tongue, and you’ll get this ever-shifting flowing glowing aftertaste.

Or it can be just be some shots of pretty decent tea that you slug down before you walk out the door. But even then: it still changes enough to be fun.

(PS: “gong-fu” means “mastery”. It’s the same Chinese word as “kung fu”. I suspect Western tea-nerds use the newer anglicization mostly because it would sound unbelievably dorky to say you were making kung fu tea.)

A whirlwind tour of tea types. 

There’s like two billion and a half kinds of tea, and I don’t want to choke your brain. So here’s a quick run-down of some favorite styles. For the basic categories, green teas aren’t oxidized, oolongs are partially oxidized, and black (a.k.a. “red”) teas are fully oxidized. (Don’t confuse oxidization with roasting, which is an independent variable.) And then there’s puerh, which is a green tea that’s pressed into cakes and then stuck in basements and actually fermented. Sometimes for decades.

Green tea is surely fantastic, and most of it responds very well both to gong-fu brewing and longer, western-style steeps. But I’m going to concentrate on oolongs today, because they and puerh are what call to my soul the hardest. Green teas are capable of incredible delicacy and beauty, and long jian green was my first true tea love, but, over the years, I’ve come to feel that they tend to have less variability and drama. The best of the oolongs and puerh have this balance of delicacy and bottom-of-the-soul-pounding warmth, this indescribable life, this flux, that often enlivens, occasionally frustrates, frequently delights, sometimes overwhelms, and never bores.

Balled oolongs: the first kind of oolong I fell in love with. There’s a ton of styles here, split between the mainland and Taiwan. Tieguanyin is a lot of Westerners’ introduction to this sort of tea. The green unroasted kind is sort of this nuclear fresh vegetal jaw-punch. I tend to prefer roasted tieguanyin, which is an easygoing, warm, well-balanced, chilled out sort of tea. A close relative is Taiwan’s dongding. But if this kind of stuff floats your boat, a lot of people end up paying the big bucks for Taiwanese high mountain oolong. At its best – right off the springtime harvest, lightly oxidized, unroasted and virginally fresh – it’s basically throwing yourself headfirst into the oozing spirit of spring. Unbearably sweet spinachy flavors, like the umami part of fresh-cut grass, like dew and rain and moss and jungle and everything green, damp, glowing, and alive.

Wuyi oolong (a.k.a. yancha): The cliff tea, the mountain tea, the old man tea. This is some of my favorite stuff in the world. The platonic wuyi is sharp and narrow, like a mineral scalpel delicately slicing into your tongue, which then will give way to all sorts of toasty, chocolatey, earthy, dried fruit flavors. Wuyi is a good place to take sort of the big leap into true Chinese tea appreciation, because it’s often so alive on the tongue, but fascinatingly thin, flavor-wise. A lot of people with a basically European culinary background hyper-focus on just the flavors of tea. They look for richness, complexity, tons of flavor-notes. But the deeper I get into tea culture, the more I think that flavor is only a part of a larger gestalt. There’s flavor, but then there’s the aroma, the texture, and the refined drug-effects. Wuyi is the place to appreciate texture. There’s this lovely dryness, this sharp, subtle razor-blades-dancing-on-your tongue, and then this slippery, oily sliding down your throat thing. Where the standard Western aesthetic in darker teas is, I think, to go big – big, bombastic flavors, tons of complex flavor notes – some of the best wuyi is gloriously lean and delicate. Wuyi: like a razorblade of dry toast, pushed through your tongue into your soul.

Puerh: is the weirdest and most fucked-up kind of tea – some fermented insane bullshit. I just had one that tasted like a cross between a tide pool, a honeycomb, and scotch. I love it so much that it deserves a separate post all its own.

The Basic Technique

First, you need a gaiwan – a traditional Chinese covered cup.

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Everybody starts by buying them too way too big. When buying your gaiwan, look at the size and think to yourself, “Every time I put tea in this thing, I’m going to drink seven to twenty times that amount of liquid.”

You use the lid to strain the tea. And you can do that, because you’re buying good tea, right? Real, whole leaf tea, that looks like this once its been brewed:

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Because you know that most of the tea that gets sold to American and Britain is total crap, right? It’s all tea dust and fannings and it’s basically the junk that falls onto the factory floor which they sweep up and foist off on the hapless west. Most of what the west drinks is, essentially, the particleboard of tea. All those broken edges will just extract overloads of horrible tannic crap. And even when you go into some fancy American tea shops with intricately labelled tea with flavor notes and romantic vaguely orientalized tales of wandering misty mountaintops, be wary and check the leaf. Sometimes it’ll be great. But a lot of times you’re still just getting a slightly higher grade of crap in lacy packaging. Like this stuff, which I got from a well-known “luxury” boutique American tea vendor:

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Fuck this stuff.

Anyway: put some damn tea in your gaiwan. The dry leaf will tinkle a little, like crystal raindrops. The standard advice is to fill the bottom 1/4 to 1/3 of your gaiwan with tea. It’s going to expand. Balled oolongs are denser and will expand a ton, so use relatively less. Wuyi is long and uncompressed, so use relatively more.

Water temperatures. Typical advice: green teas at 176 F, oolongs at 180-195 F, puerh anywhere from 190 F to boiling. As a very loose rule of thumb, the greener something is, the lower the temperature you should brew it with, and the darker it is, the higher the temps. I have a fancy electric kettle that hits temperatures exactly, but you can also count down from boiling. Boiling and then waiting for two minutes gives you approximately oolong temperatures. For the ultimate in vintage-y tea-hipster cred, you can do what young me did: the traditional Chinese thing of estimating temperature by the exact appearance of the bubbles in the water.

First, give your leaves a rinse. Just dump some water on it and then immediately pour it out into your cups and then throw that liquid away. This starts re-hydrating the tea and warms everything up. But don’t drink the rinse. When I asked one of my tea mentors why she was dumping the rinse-water and maybe wasting some flavor, she said: “Dude. I’ve toured the tea plantations in China. I’ve seen the shit they do over there. I mean, literally: shit. Rinse your damn leaves.”

The pour is basically this: cock the lid back a little to reveal a tiny bit of space between the lid and the side of the cup. Hold the lid down with one finger and the rim of the gaiwan with the others. Pour with commitment. (Check out this video instruction, too.)

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For brewing: pour the hot water into the gaiwan. Try to avoid pouring hot water directly on the leaf, especially if the tea’s on the greener side. Put the lid on. A usual brewing schedule looks something like this: first brew, 5 seconds. Then 7 seconds, then 9s, 12s, 15s, 20s, 25s, 30s, 45s, 1 min, 1:30 min, etc. It’ll vary widely by tea-type, but you usually start going up by 2 seconds each brew, then by 5, then 15, then 30. You can also slowly start creeping up the temperature, too, if you want to be really fancy. But play around with it. Fuck up some tea and find out where its limits are.

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If the last steep tasted right, then bump up the time one step according to the standard schedule. If it was too weak, bump it by up two steps. If it was too strong, just repeat what you did last time. Don’t worry about being too precise. Especially in the later brews, I tend to get pretty sloppy. And don’t be afraid to experiment. Good tea will respond very differently to different combinations of variables, and you’ll find weird little corners – one tea will respond to lower temperatures by emitting a marvelous weird malty sweet; another will respond to a double-length steep by giving you a bitter backhand slap, but which will give way to ultra-long resounding aftertaste. Sometimes I get distracted and way overbrew the tea. Sometimes it’s awful, but sometimes it reveals something new and delightful. The dynamism and unpredictability is part of the joy.

Keep going until the tea gives out. It’ll turn either boring or horribly astringent. Some OK-ish teas will only go five steeps or so, but a lot of good oolongs will go ten, fifteen steeps. They’ll often keep getting better for a while, peak, then start a long decline. In my early days I used to give up too early. If the tea tastes weak and you’re about to give up, try blasting it with hotter water and a much longer steep. The really best stuff will just seem to give endlessly: I’ve had really nice aged puerhs go 35 or 40 steeps, just kept on emitting flavor through longer and longer steeps. The last steep was overnight, and might have given me one of the best cups of all.

Oh, and smell everything. Smell the dry leaf. Smell the leaf after the rinse. Smell the leaves between steepings. The tea was bred for this. Just smell that sexy leaf.

Wuyi has a particular love for being brewed very, very intensely. A lot of us will get a little teeny gaiwan (check out my 50 ml baby) and pack it completely full of dry leaf and brew it on a 1s/2s/4s/6s/8s/10s/12s/15s/18s/20s/25s etc. schedule. You’re basically making yourself lots and lots of teeny little espresso shots of tea. Especially good for getting that dry-mineral scalpel effect, with that ultra-long glowing aftertaste.

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More fussiness: in the classical style, you pour from the gaiwan into a cute little pitcher, and then pour it out again into the cups. A lot of us just pour directly into the cups. But the first bit of water that comes out of the gaiwan is the weakest tea, and the end of the pour is the strongest, so if you’re pouring into multiple cups, you want to move the gaiwan back and forth to even it all out. Also: have a bowl or something to dump the dregs into. With the gaiwan, any loose bits of broken tea will go right into your cup. Don’t inflict that crap on yourself. Dump it. Preferably onto an adorable clay “tea pet” that you bought from some shady Chinese vendor on eBay.

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Pay attention to: the aromas of the leaf in your gaiwan. The aromas in your cup. The physical sensations on your tongue, like various lovely pricklings or soft creaminesses or thick oilinesses. The texture in your mouth, in your throat. The aftertaste, which is where so much of the experience lives. Try breathing out to flare the aftertaste, like with scotch. A tea vendor once told me that there was a Chinese term for that flared aftertaste, which he translated as, “The Returning”. But from the twinkle in his eye, he just might have been bullshitting me.

Gong-fu style may seem like a lot of work and fuss. But you can internalize it quickly. And you don’t always have to be that careful. With really amazing tea, I’ll be really focused: counting the seconds out, watching the water temperature, coaxing the best I can out of the tea. But most of the time I’ve just got a tray and a gaiwan at my desk next to my laptop, and I’m brewing absentmindedly while I work. It’s really quite pleasant. There’s something about the very tiny packets of fiddliness that just helps me work and think. My lovely wife thinks it’s because sometimes your brain wants a break, but if you let yourself Internet then you’re doomed, because that shit goes on forever. But with gong-fu brewing, you’ve got charmingly packaged, closed-ended bits of fuss. You fiddle with the tea for like twenty seconds and then you have a nice little cup of hot tea in front of you and it’s over and now it’s time to get back to work.

Grandpa style

Or, if this is all too much work, you can also do it grandpa style. Dump the tea leaves in a normal glass and pour hot water on it. Wait for the leaves to settle. Drink. When you’re down somewhere between the halfway or one-third point, re-fill it with hot water. Keep on going like that for as long as you want. Works great with green teas and oolongs.

For my on-the-go life, I have a tea tumbler: an insulated glass with a filter at the spout. Dump in your leaf, pour in some hot water, pop in your filter, and go.

Buying it

You need a gaiwan. My two most used gaiwans are 100ml and 50 ml.

On tea pricing: don’t cheap out. Most people in the western world have basically only drunk Fifty Shades of Two Buck Chuck, tea-wise. So many people are so used to really cheap tea, and are absolutely unwilling to pay for anything past the particleboard, that they will spend their whole lives in a crap tea dungeon of their own making.

When buying tea, remember this: most times, you’re putting 3-5 grams of tea in a gaiwan, and getting, like, one or two liters of beverage out of it. Tea is extremely, extremely light. When you buy it, don’t think in terms of the actual weight, which might make you choke – think in terms of the price-per-drink. If you buy 50 grams of tea for $10, that’s 80 cents per session of tea. And really, really nice tea – the extraordinary stuff that’ll light your soul on fire – might be $30 for 50 grams. But that’s still only, like, $2.50 a session. Compare that to how much we’re willing to throw away on beer and wine and cocktails or even godforsaken Red Bull.

The best tea I’ve ever had in my life totally rocked my world and cost me a dollar a gram – so for $5, I kept myself and my closest compadres in a fascinated rapture for two hours. That’s not by any means the grade of stuff I chug in the morning on the way to work. But, as unbearable culinary glories come, it might actually be one of the cheapest.

Some favorite shops:

Tea Trekker recently beat out Seven Cups as my favorite US-based generalist. Tea Trekker has great green tea, great wuyi, and is generally trustworthy across the board. Decent prices for the quality, too. It’s the best place to start. And they’ve got some really nice white teas, too, for when you want that experience of drinking the purified sensation of light.

These days, I often order in bulk from China. Even with shipping, it’s often cheaper if you’re ordering large amounts. Jing Tea Shop used to be my go-to for wuyi, but it’s been recently displaced by the wonderful JK Teashop and an extraordinary new shop, Wu Yi Origin, direct form a Wuyi farmer in China. Awesome Wuyi, full of vivid textures and rich dense flavors, and relatively affordable for the quality it sells. Also excellent is Tea Hong, which tends towards a more delicate, clean, precise sort of Wuyi.

For Taiwanese high mountain oolong, my favorite US-based shop is the superb Floating Leaves. There are several very good vendors in Taiwan, but if you really want to throw down the dollars for some serious high mountain vegetal glory, I’ve had truly incredible stuff from Tea Masters.

Two good generalist shops: first, Norbu Tea. Great Wuyi, great rolled oolongs. The proprietor has a taste for the rich, the densely flavored, the really warm. I particularly like the variety of moderately roasted rolled oolongs he sells. Second, Tea Urchin. They’re mostly a pu-erh specialist, and you’ll hear way more about them when I finally get around to writing the big post on pu-erh. But they also manage to source small amounts of some the most extraordinary Wuyi and rolled oolong I’ve ever had. It goes from moderately expensive to holy-crap expensive, but it’s always been worth it – even when I can only afford a single serving for a special occasion.

If you’re into erratic obsessed weirdos with barely functional websites but exquisite curation, check out Life in a Teacup. And if you’re feeling particularly rich, Tea Habitat – the place I wrote about in that article – still sells some of the best tea I’ve ever had in my life. It’s dancong oolong – a delicate, subtle, aroma-oriented style – and you can literally buy batches from specific, single trees and compare.

More: Den’s Tea is a good American vendor for Japanese greens. Thunderbolt Tea has awesome first-flush darjeeling. Oh man, there’s so much more. So much, so much more.

Uh, teaware. JK Teashop has a good spread of affordable cups and gaiwans. Jing Tea Shop and Tea Masters have wonderful stuff on the nicer end. My favorite gaiwan ever came from Floating Leaves. And Music City Tea sells good tea trays, to catch all your drips and drops. And when you really feel like you have more money than you know what to do with, you can check out the world of yixing unglazed clay pots which subtly modify your teas and sometimes improve them. But beware: that world is full of asshole collectors and fakes and dead-ends, and some of us have dabbled heavily in that world and eventually gotten fed up and ended up mostly just brewing tea with the neutral, true rendering of the gaiwan. Yixing pots can be great, but some people fall down the collector hole and turn into the tea-nerd equivalent of those audiophile assholes who spend more time obsessing over the impedance specs of their transistors than actually listening to music.

Which is not to say that I don’t also have an unfortunately excessive number of yixing pots:

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What else? Greens fade quickly. They’re at their absolute best just after the harvest. Lightly oxidized oolongs, like Taiwanese high mountain, are also best fresh. More oxidized and roasted stuff, like wuyi, actually ages beautifully, getting softer and rounder and subtler and deeper over the years, if you’re lucky. And then there’s puerh, which some people think reaches its peaks after thirty years of aging in a damp Hong Kong basement, and is probably best appreciated after some poor collector dies and his hoard goes on the auction block. Puerh is basically my favorite thing, and its weird, druggy, euphoric dense bizarreness deserves a consideration all of its own, which will be Part II.

The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Games

The Journal of the Philosophy of Games is here! Here is the call for papers for the inaugural issue, deadline March 1, 2016.

In addition, we are in the planning stages for a (hopefully) annual North American conference/workshop on the philosophy and aesthetics of games. If you’d like to participate, please drop me a line and we’ll put you on the mailing list.

Food assembly and the idea of a dish

The Korean dish of bibimbap comes as a bunch of distinct little piles of veggies and meat, on a bowl of rice. You pour out a little splat of hot sauce, and mix all it up yourself.

Yukkwe Bi Bim Bap - Buga

My friend Kathy Shin told me that mixing it up yourself was part of the very meaning of bibimbap. When I asked her what would happen if they brought it to you pre-mixed, she jumped out of her seat and actually smacked me. “It wouldn’t be bibimbap! You’d be eating something, but it sure wouldn’t be bibimbap.” When I pointed out that the (non-Korean) patrons at the next table over were eating their bibimbap without mixing it up at all, she recoiled it almost moral outrage. “I don’t know what they’re eating, but it’s definitely not bibimbap either.”

Her horror and semi-comic outrage might map onto how an American might react, say, if they saw somebody carefully disassemble a sandwich and eat the bits daintily and separately, with chopsticks: they’re eating something, but it sure ain’t a sandwich.

All of this makes me wonder how culturally complicated the idea of a particular dish is. Is our idea of “sandwich” or “bibimbap” or “egg roll” made of, not just the ingredients, but how we how we assemble them for ourselves? Does the idea of a particular dish include a very specific idea of the eater’s role in assembly or disassembly?

Hsian Ju Lin, in Chinese Gastronomy, comments that, though Westerners often view the chopsticks of the East as comically uncivilized (“look at ’em, eatin’ with a bunch of sticks”), to the Chinese watcher, Western eating traditions are unbearably barbaric. European eating culture involves bringing tiny little tridents and tiny little knives to the table, for God’s sake. It’s one step away from Vikings in the long hall, eating with their hunting knives and throwing the rest to their dogs. Whereas in high Chinese cuisine, everything comes to the table perfectly bite-sized and ready, all the violence confined, out of sight, to the kitchen.

In fact, it becomes curiously evident that a lot of Asian culinary traditions involve building the final dish-entity at the table. In a Vietnamese restaurant, when you order egg rolls, you’re brought the egg rolls with a plate of fresh green herbs, and you’re supposed to wrap the egg rolls in a bit of lettuce with a few bits of fresh herbs, and eat the whole thing, glorying in the contrast between the hot crispy roll and the cool crispy lettuce. There’s the various forms of beijing duck (a.k.a. Peking duck) where you assemble just the right amount of crispy skin and soft wrapper and sweet sauce, just to your precise desire.

And there’s my beloved pani puri, the mint hand-grenades of Indian street-food culture, where you take a little tiny crispy fried hollow bread puff the size of a golf-ball, and carefully tap-tap-tap a hole in the top, and fill it with bits of chickpea, bits of potato, a little drizzle of sauce, and the fill it to the brim with cold spicy mint water and – quickly now! – throw it your mouth and bite down and feel the whole thing explode cold mint water and crispy shards of bread all over the inside of your mouth.

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And then think of the Western traditions: carving the chicken at the table. Carving the ham at the table. Carving the roast at the table.

And here, I was so goddamn excited about the clarity of this contrast, that I was pounding on the steering wheel and shouting to Melissa: “Don’t you see? The Asian traditions are all about creation at the table, and the Western traditions are all about destruction at the table, and of course it must seem so goddamn uncivilized! You’ve got to kill the thing outside, and then symbolically kill it again at the table!”

But, of course, she brought me down to earth. Western culinary tradition is full of assembly-dishes, too. Most preciously: the Thanksgiving dinner. Think of the horror if you were to come to a Thanksgiving dinner, and were presented with a pre-assembled plate. No no! The right thing, the only thing, is to make your plate yourself, to assemble just the right balance of turkey and ham and stuffing and potato and gravy, placed with just the right amount of overlap – mashed potatoes just barely spilling over the turkey, maybe – arranged on the plate to by yourself to please nothing but your very own gut. The notion of self-assembly is so deep in our soul-concept of Thanksgiving dinner, that you probably don’t even see it, until somebody breaks it.

So inane cultural reductionism doesn’t work here. Maybe there’s a practical explanation for some of this stuff – for the lettuce-wrapped egg-rolls, for the pani-puri, you have to assemble it at the last moment. Otherwise, you couldn’t get the temperature contrast, the crisp-wet contrast. But that doesn’t explain all the cases. It doesn’t explain bibimbap; it doesn’t explain Thanksgiving.

I need more examples.