Benjamin Dolson

Benjamin Dolson is a writer from Michigan. He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with his lovely wife and an orange cat named Mr. Brown.

The Keurig Invasion

On the morning that I started my first office job, a coworker walked me to the kitchen and pointed to a sleek looking appliance on the countertop. This was a response to my question about the “coffee situation” in the office. Apparently this machine was the answer.

Realizing that I was uninitiated, my new coworker selected a small plastic pod from a variety in the cupboard, inserted it into the machine, and pressed brew. Sixty seconds later I had a mug full of coffee. The quality was passable. There was no mess. It was simple, clean, automated.

This Jetsonian convenience is the Keurig’s pitch to the coffee drinking public, and judging by the nearly $5 billion in revenue that Keurig Green Mountain, the maker of the Keurig system, pulled in last year, that pitch is working. What does it mean that the Keurig system and its colorful little coffee pods are so popular?

Like many workplace technologies before it, the Keurig has successfully migrated to domestic life, bringing with it the sterility and efficiency that make the system so popular. But it’s hard to argue that the actual coffee is better, unless maybe you’re comparing it to something instant and stirred. Rather, what Keurig has done is streamlined the production of a single cup of coffee. You can have whatever type of hot drink you’d like, and so can your friend.

But there is a shared cost to this individual convenience. In case the #killthekcup campaign did not reach your corner of the internet, those little plastic pods, called K-cups, are not recyclable, reusable, or compostable. They will inevitably join the collective time capsule found in our landfills.

While many coffee drinkers now prefer more labor intensive, hand-crafted methods, like hand-grinding and pour over, the Keurig is an example of total defiance, like the Hummer in the age of the hybrid. Broth-making and home canning are growing in popularity, and yet making coffee is too much work? Even the Keurig’s creator, John Sylvan, recognizes the product’s failure. During an interview with The Atlantic earlier this year, he referred to it as “a cigarette for coffee, a single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance.” Even so, the system’s revenue numbers offer a compelling counterargument: $5 billion speaks for itself.

K-cups are made of #7 plastic, a category for mixed layers of plastic and other materials, which prevents it from being melted down into a reusable medium. For a sense of scale on the waste bomb that this creates, an article last year in Mother Jones offers that if all 8.3 million of the K-cups discarded in 2013 were laid end to end they would wrap around the earth 10.5 times.

Let that image sink in: all those mini junk pods orbiting the Earth, surrounding us, almost a dozen times over. Now turn up the horribleness a couple of notches, if you can bear it. Keurig Green Mountain’s stated corporate mission is to place “a Keurig System on every counter,” a depressing thought for anyone who cares about the environment, that sterilized euphemism for the Earth, our home, the single planet on which human life exists. How many times can our discarded K-cups circle the Earth before it’s too many?

What about our own small environments at home or work? For many of us, the routine of making and drinking a cup of coffee in the morning may offer the best chance for reflection and peace, done in the quiet moments before commuting or before our phones begin delivering the urgency of work, news, and social media. Reducing the craft of coffee-making to vending machine convenience seems to miss the point. Must we apply the logic of the electric toothbrush to our coffee routine?

Strip away the branding and the pretentions of method, and coffee is simply water, heat, and beans. That’s a rather simple recipe. Wrapping it in #7 plastic and sticking it into a countertop robot seems like a strange way to enjoy something as wonderful as coffee. Unlike more labor-intensive processes, the Keurig is a highly inorganic process where you never actually lays eyes on the organic good, the coffee, until it is ready to drink. It may as well be neon green slime in the K-cups. The word perversion comes to mind, as does one of Michael Pollan’s helpful food rules: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

K-cups look less like food than carefully measured doses of something medicinal, like pediatric vitamins made to look like gummy bears. But with coffee another comparison comes to mind. There is an old (and incredibly tired) tradition of joking about coffee as “fuel” for humans, in part because it is a stimulant and can make you feel more alert and energized, and in part because of its color. But that joke feels increasingly uncomfortable as our food technologies encourage us to behave more like the machines that fossil fuels power. What is a fast food drive-thru if not the human imitation of a vehicle pulling up to a gas station? The very existence of the energy drink, which tends to be chugged, suggests that our relationship to food has been fundamentally corrupted by the way that we see ourselves.

There are times when I do indeed feel like a machine—a broken down and clunky one, in need of nourishment and repair. But perhaps I’m misinterpreting these symptoms. The body is not the only thing that requires nourishment. The soul, that thing in your self-consciousness that oscillates between dormancy and moments of blossom, needs your attention as well. Nourishing your soul can take time, quiet, and a bit of wandering. It’s a very inefficient process. Perhaps the next time I’m feeling like a human-bot in need of fuel, I’ll put down my iPhone and walk away from the screens and sensors and automated efficiencies of modern life, even if it’s just long enough to make a good cup of coffee.

Ballet for the Young Folks

It was the second intermission at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theatre and the suspicion was audible in the second row. “Am I going to like this?” a fur-clad matron asked a younger woman, perhaps a niece. Before the younger woman could respond an usher swooped in and described the next piece as “ballet, but modern,” a description both women politely chose to accept.

The piece in question, Everywhere We Go, was something of a curiosity for some patrons of the New York City Ballet. With a score by folksinger-turned-composer Sufjan Stevens, Everywhere We Go was in its second season by the autumn of 2014. Stevens’s status as a prolific indie musician seems to have attracted a slightly younger crowd to the ballet. One could spot them scattered along the outer rings and upper balcony, or in the far flank near the front where my wife and I sat. 

This was not the first time Stevens’s music had been featured at NYCB. In 2012, Justin Peck, NYCB’s resident choreographer and all-around ballet wonder boy, wrote a ballet for Stevens’s 2001 electronic album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, which a Times reviewer admired, referring to it as “a triumph.” Peck, though only 27, has already produced six ballets for NYCB, an accomplishment that one has to Google and cross check before accepting.

Justin Peck

Justin Peck

If Peck is representative of a youth renaissance onstage at NYCB, the institution is working hard to replicate this in their audience. It is not clear whether the Stevens contingent in the crowd would produce a sustained “youth bump” for NYCB, but like many of its peers in the performing arts, NYCB has a Young Patrons Circle. The program offers various experiential and social perks to attract patrons under 40, which, it must be said, is a pretty low bar for “young.”

At a party I attended last year in a suburb of Philadelphia, a middle-aged couple spent a bit of time telling everyone how unfortunate it is that Millennials don’t attend the symphony, opera, ballet, or support the fine arts in general. They were genuinely worried about the preservation of our most treasured cultural institutions. As the only representatives of our generation, my wife and I chimed in that, actually, we were attending an opera in a couple of weeks—in a box at the Metropolitan Opera, in fact. This really pleased the middle-aged couple, and we were briefly celebrated as the best of our generation, exceptions to the norm, bravo. But then, I clarified that we had won the tickets during a raffle at my work and that we could not have otherwise afforded the experience. This news returned everyone to their drinks and their somber mood over the future of arts patronage. One has to question what would happen if this middle-aged couple arrived at an opera house and found it full of Millennials, milling about, Instagramming the architecture and each other, trying to use their credit cards at the cash-only refreshment stands.

We didn’t win box seats for the ballet, but we were quite near the stage and far enough in the flank so that our seats cost slightly less than a student loan payment. Just one seat to our right, the cost rose by almost $100. Beyond the affordability of our seats, part of the charm of our position in the flank was that it provided a useful angle for peering into the orchestra pit. Throughout the intermission, a harpist sat and practiced a complicated arpeggio, over and over. Soon, her colleagues found their seats and the intermission bell chimed. The orchestra lifted their instruments, tilted toward the maestro, and tuned in crescendo to A.

To describe it in simple terms, Everywhere We Go is a joyful ballet. The music moves gracefully among many moods, from pensive to celebratory to grim. The brass section seemed to have its number called quite often, having the effect of making the music feel more prescient, louder even. A reviewer from the Times bristled at the score’s occasional cinematic, almost soundtrack-y, choruses, referring to them as “Broadway-style manipulative.” Even if one accepts that critique, Stevens should be immediately pardoned. It was hard not to notice that the musicians, whispering to each other when their instruments were at rest, and the dancers, wearing breathless grins in the periphery, were clearly having a lot of fun.

Courtesy of NYCB | Photo © Karl Jensen

Courtesy of NYCB | Photo © Karl Jensen

Peck’s choreography matched the score’s mood and energy through its display of athleticism and the sheer number of dancers moving around the stage. An ensemble of 10 dancers might charge across the stage, leaping and lifting each other, and cross the path of another ensemble destined for another part of the stage. A Times reviewer, writing about Peck’s first collaboration with Stevens, described the choreography like this: “What is usually the frame is the picture here, and it keeps moving.” Peck’s ballet all but abandons the traditional pas de deux, a ballet trope in which a male and female dancer do a “step for two” that often serves to provide shape and narrative. Instead of two central dancers, Peck creates a choreographically dense world with many leaping bodies, none with sustained relationships to one another. This isn’t to say that Peck is operating in the avant-garde, but rather that he is widening the lens so that we can see a little more.

In the performance we took in just before Everywhere We Go, that lens was rather fixated on one ballerina. After a brilliant and exceptional thirty-year career, Wendy Whelan had just given her penultimate performance at the ballet. She would retire the following week. In Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, she and partner Craig Hall were alone on the stage. They moved both toward and away from each other, while the orchestra remained silent but for a single violin and the piano playing quietly.

At nearly fifty, Whelan’s body revealed not an ounce of anything extra, only what was necessary to sustain her work. Wearing a small, skin-toned leotard, Whelan’s length and musculature appeared raw and pure, like a grand tree without its leaves. The piece concludes with Whelan perched on the strength of her partner and suspended in the air, her arms prepared for flight.

pk-after-the-rain-wendy-whelan-craig-hall-spirit_1000

Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain. © Paul Kolnik.

The chronology of these two ballets, a simple and delicate pas de deux performed by a veteran dancer followed by an energetic ensemble ballet from two younger artists, may encourage a study in contrasts. And yet, what was so inspiring about Whelan’s performance and the career that it helped to celebrate was also evident in the Peck-Stevens collaboration: the artist’s demand for innovation and evolution.

At this point in his career, Stevens’s exploration of ballet is not outside of his musical lexicon, which has grown to include genres as diverse as folk, electronica, pop, hip-hop, and classical—to name a few. Whelan’s pursuit of reinvention within the discipline of her form is perhaps more subtle and biological, exploring the limits of the body’s capabilities and defying assumptions about the arc of a dance career.

The institutions that host our artists evolve too, albeit at a different pace and with wholly different inspirations. But the value of our institutions may be in their stubborn stability as places, with roofs and walls and doors, that act as the organizing principle of art: something for the engine of creativity to push up against and create friction. As victims of the frantic pace set by life via social media, we consume art in great hyperventilating breaths: this band, this exhibit, this book, this film. The novelty of a place with seats arranged to face one stage is that it slows us down and suggests: just this for the next several hours.

What does it mean that the world’s premier ballet commissioned a score from a folksinger? Is ballet suddenly dance for the people? Hardly. And that is probably for the better. Artists of exceptional talent are rare, and seeing them is, and should remain, a privilege, but one hopes that entry is not limited to the privileged.