Chapter One: German Words Are Hard to Pronounce
There’s this brewery located in the small town of Yellow Springs in Southwest Ohio. Creatively the owners named it Yellow Springs Brewery. I am going out on a limb here, but it’s probably named after the town.
Tucked off a side street on a gravel lot, the brewery sits back near a bike path with surrounding beige industrial buildings. A few small Caterpillar dozers line one side while sedans and minivans line the other. The scene conjures a location you would go to fill up a truck bed with mulch for your garden.
Yellow Springs is unique to say the least. It’s near a small liberal arts school that’s always struggled to keep its doors open. Residents of Yellow Springs live in a separate world completely. The town has several small boutique shops where you can purchase anything from good luck stones to bongs of all shapes colors and sizes. If you happen to dabble in marijuana it is a cannabis enthusiasts’ paradise. You can get it from just about any local with a pulse. Despite how primitive and different the whole town’s culture is, there is clearly a sense of community.
Part of this community is the comedian Dave Chappelle. He lives on the outskirts of this town on a farm with a few goats. While attending a university a little outside Yellow Springs, I would hear students claiming they saw him at one of the local coffee shops cracking jokes with the local baristas or dancing at one of the dive bars in town. I actually didn’t see him until two weeks before I graduated, but he was at Two Dollar Tuesday at Fox and the Hound in Beavercreek, a town a little west of the Springs. He was the only one smoking in the restaurant. You’re not supposed to smoke at Fox and Hound but it was Dave Chappelle so everyone was cool with it. What is the wait staff going to tell Dave Chappelle? “Hey Dave, no smoking in here alright?”
I thought about saying hello to him but I wouldn’t know what to say. I’ve hardly watched his stand up and he probably gets asked to take a picture with some joe blow every day. No one wants to be that guy in retrospect.
I played the scenario in my head.
“Hey Dave, I heard Charlie Sheen ruptured a hernia while laughing at one of your standups. How come my hernias are fine?”
I quickly stopped coming up with hypotheticals to introduce myself after that thought. I don’t know what Dave would say or do to me after a comment like that but I’m a pretty small guy so I didn’t want to entertain the idea any longer.
Enough about Dave.
A friend and I recently went back to this brewery in Yellow Springs. We’d been out of school for a little under a year and wanted to come back to the town. We ask the bartender for the Wobbly Wheel IPA but they were out that day so we had to settle for the Breaking Edge IPA. It wasn’t as good but you can’t get everything you want in life.
If you do get everything you want in life, you have really low expectations like the Danes or your parents have no self control and you only have friends because you have a boat.
The small interior seating area was crowded so we went out to the back deck. The deck was just as full, consisting of mostly thirty year-olds either donning Ohio State t-shirts or ill-advised placed tattoos and outdated man buns. One guy unfortunately met all of these requirements with a tattoo that looked like a tree growing behind his ear down his neck.
What led you to that decision? Why behind the ear? Why is the tree growing upside-down? Sorry, I just have so many questions. Mostly about the direction of the tree.
We stood near the wall and sipped our IPAs as we discussed our ever-changing, disoriented twenty-two year old, post-grad lives like we just returned home after fighting off Viet Cong and mosquitos in Nam.
It was a nice afternoon. 70 degrees. Someone said it was supposed to snow that weekend.
Only in Ohio can the weather shift fifty-plus degrees in a matter of a day. If you haven’t experienced Ohio weather, you have probably been around a fifteen year old girl. It’s very similar.
While sipping our beers, I started looking around. Surprisingly, no one was on their phones. They were all engaged. Actively conversing over drinks on a nice spring day.
My friend took note of this too.
“It’s actually really interesting if you think about it”, my friend said after surveying the group.
“That’s gotta hurt.”
“What?” He replied, confused at my seemingly irrelevant comment.
“Oh, sorry, nothing.”
I was staring off at a local skatepark, beyond the bike path, watching a kid attempt a kickflip. His board got caught on a rail as he tumbled to the ground. I never attempted skateboarding as a child because, let’s face it, you could kill yourself.
My friend got back to his point when I turned around.
“It’s interesting, everything is retreating back to more primitive experiences.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, still wondering how many times this kid would attempt this kick-flip/grind/manual I only would attempt on Tony Hawk behind the safety of an XBOX controller.
“Breweries for example. Before craft breweries were in every city, you would simply buy a six-pack at your convenience store and head to your barbecue. There’s an experience now.”
He continued as I wiped my hand on my jeans of the building condensation on my glass.
“Coffee shops are similar too. Coffee simply served as an intermediary between getting yourself out of bed and getting to the office. Now it’s a social activity. There are countless ways to get your coffee brewed because people want more than just the drink. They want to see the process. They want to be involved. Everyone wants to be closer to the source.”
He was right.
The more I thought about everyday activities as an intimate experience, the more I realized it was already apparent in so many facets of life.
Music has shifted in this respect.
When I graduated from college, my brother and cousin got me this pear-green, Crosley Cruiser turntable. It looks like a suitcase, but when you open it up, it’s a record player. I went out and bought Death Cab for Cutie’s We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes the very next day. No one wants to admit it, but records don’t sound better than an MP3 recording on Bose speakers. So why are record players and vinyls selling like it is the summer of 1953? Because it’s an experience. You can pick it up; hold it in your hands. You have to turn it over to listen to each side.
You have to interact with it.
You are no longer a spectator.
You are a participator.
You are closer to the source.
To some degree, we are all longing to find the source in the various facets of everyday life.
What I realized drinking out on the back deck that spring day is that the more and more we get connected on a technological basis, the more and more we get disconnected on a personal basis.
Before you think this is a sales pitch to throw away your phone and move to Lancaster to join the Amish community, I want to state that the technological advances we have made even in the past five years are truly incredible. With a click of a button and a question your phone can tell you where the best fish tacos are in D.C. (Taqueria de Plabano) or tell you the boiling point of tungsten all in a few milliseconds. It is a sunny 10,030 degrees fahrenheit if you were inquiring. However, because of this instant access we have at our fingertips we have come so dependent on our various devices to control our every decision and answer our every question. Gone are the days when we started a conversation with a stranger at a concert over our favorite songs because we are too busy picking our Instagram filters of the band that is right in front of us.
We are no longer present.
We have stopped interacting.
We have stopped participating in life and started spectating in it.
We have lost the source.
If we were honest with ourselves I think we would admit our proudest moments that stick out in our minds involved us being present. Being engaged. Participating. Maybe for you those moments are when you tried to launch that business when you were broke right out of school. Maybe it was when you summited a mountain after hiking for two days in the snow and rain, fighting off hypothermia. It might have been painful at the time, but the views from the top made the whole thing worth it. I don’t know what your moments look like but I doubt you would think back to the times you were staring at the little screen in your hands thinking of a clever tweet.
Deep down inside our anima is a longing for meaning. I am not simply talking about having meaningful moments in our lives. Although meaningful moments make up a meaningful life, I am talking about something much deeper.
What I am talking about is the feeling for something that you would describe as a yearning. A pining. A longing. A craving. An intense missing. It is that feeling and desire to reach that goal of finishing school when you didn’t grow up with the same opportunities as the other kids. Publishing your life’s work. Achieving that thing deep within you that would capitulate the pinnacle of your time on earth. It is your life’s longings.The Germans have a word for what I am getting after. What I am describing is your sehnsucht.
Pronounced “ [ˈzeːnzʊxt].”
Oh, you are not an expert in German phonology? Sorry, I wrongfully assumed. I will write it out in my own phonology. It is pronounced “zanezookt,” where “zane” is pronounced exactly like it should be and the double “o” sound is pronounced like the word “book.” Now say all that in your best Christoph Waltz accent.
I should teach a phonics class. The class will be slightly different than the one you may have taken in elementary school in the sense that I’ll make up my own rules and you have full autonomy to come or not to come to class because you are most likely an adult. We’ll probably just quit the phonics thing by mid September and start watching Quentin Tarantino films or listen to our favorite records instead. Class is only offered in the fall. Don’t ask for a syllabus.
Back to zanezookt.
I mean, sehnsucht.
Sehnsucht represents thoughts and feelings about all facets of life that are unfinished or imperfect, paired with a yearning for ideal alternative experiences. It is an individual’s search for happiness while coping with the reality of unattainable wishes.
Notice how sehnsucht isn’t the result of your life’s longings. It isn’t the goal. It is much more than that. It is the thoughts and feelings. It is the yearning. The doing.
The getting there.
Back when I was in middle school my family and my grandparents took us out West one summer for an entire month. We had this ginormous twelve passenger, dark green Ford van with a trailer that was obviously put together in the early 1980’s. The trailer stayed intact for the most part, but by the end of the trip, we realized there was a colony of ants that were staking a claim on any food groups they could find. Have you ever seen a group of ants work on a sandwich? It is truly incredible. They all join together and attack the thing from all sides. All pitching in and carrying small chunks of sourdough bread and Hormel ham back to base camp. I am not a fan of communism but if you are an ant, you live and die by your community’s output and work ethic for the common good of your group. Sometimes I wonder if Vladimir Lenin had an ant farm growing up as a child.
An ant farm to creating communism. No one saw it coming.
My grandfather taught earth science and geology for years. In fact, he even got a degree in geology. The study of rocks. Leaving from Dayton, Ohio, we ended up caravaning across the plains states to see some of the most serene corners of the United States. We experienced the quiet and calmness of The Badlands with its tan and pink desert hills stretching for miles, housing an array of bobcats and prairie dogs, all living in unison in one of the most arid regions of the country. We saw the majestic waterfalls and shooting geysers of Yellowstone. We conquered the peaks of the Rockies while elks and bison roamed in the wild as well as the roads, reminding families in Honda Odysseys how regal and powerful wildlife really can be.
During the trip my grandfather gave my brothers and I a notebook. During each stop at the various national parks we visited, he would teach us everything there was to know about the geology and topography in the area. At the time I was only interested in getting use out of my mountain bike that summer and eating pancakes and bacon for breakfast. During the first week as my grandfather would describe to us the compound structure of sedimentary rocks, I would zone out and start coloring in the states we had driven through. However, as the trip progressed, geology was actually becoming more and more interesting. I no longer wanted to gouge my eye out with my coloring pencil. It was truly amazing that my grandfather could give you the elevation change over the entire state of Kansas or provide you with the chemical composition of feldspar without blinking an eye.
Is it just me or does “Feldspar” sounds like a family-owned Jewish deli shop on the south side of Bronx?
“Hey uh Carl, let me get uh two heros on rye. Hold the mayonnaise this time alright? Sandys’ all concerned because my doctah told me my low density lipoprotein cholesterol levels are too high. Not sure how somthin’ that’s low density can be high but I’m no doctah. I’m just hungry.”
Feldspar, unfortunately, is not a deli in Bronx. However if it was, I would love to go. I am sure the Feldspars would make great sandwiches. They’d be open every day until 2 AM except for Jewish holidays of course. Which is like a quarter of the year. Sometimes I wish I was Jewish because they get so many holidays. I was raised a baptist so most of our holidays were just your standard American holidays. No one likes to admit it, but most of them honor slave-owning Presidents or explorers that slaughtered Native Americans.
Yeah I know, Christopher Columbus looks GREAT on paper until you are in high school and find out the real truth. It is a lot like finding out Santa Claus is just a creation by Hallmark to recover from poor summer sales on birthday cards. My brothers and I practically grew up knowing Santa was just a phony. I think my parents just didn’t want to deal with tears later on so they just ripped the bandaid off before there was even a wound. Every year in our community in Northern Virginia, Santa would come down our street on a big red fire truck throwing out candy to children. We made it our mission as a six through ten year olds to let the other kids on the block in on the news. Soon my mother was getting calls from neighboring parents telling us they ruined their child’s Christmas. We were indefinitely banned from attending Montclair’s own “Santa’s Ride.”
One of my friends grew up in Long Island and he told me every Jewish holiday on the calendar was a day off of school for everyone. So even if you weren’t actually a Jew, you would just skate by being whatever you are and get the whole day off. Being from Virginia, there were not enough Jewish kids to warrant a day off from school. We still had earth science class on Yom Kippur.
Feldspar is actually a rock-forming mineral. The word Feldspar, like sehnsucht, comes from the German word feldspat. Which means “a rock not containing ore that is from a field.” My grandfather kept mentioning feldspar during the trip. What is the deal with feldspar? Well, I realized it’s a pretty big deal in the world of geology. Feldspar happens to be over 60% of the Earth’s surface. Not only that, but feldspar has hundreds, if not thousands of uses. It is a common raw material used in glassmaking, ceramics, and is even used in paint, plastics, and rubber. Millions of tiny mineral composites all coming together to make something useful. I am not a geologist like my grandfather, but feldspar seems pretty important.
Why am I giving you a detailed description of feldspar? Well, for two reasons. The first reason is that feldspar is the source of thousands of objects you use every day. The glass you are using to keep you hydrated while reading this book is made up of feldspars. Hopefully this section isn’t THAT dry. Bear with me here. You can’t see it, but it’s woven in the thread of the formation of the glass. It is in a sense, the origin of the glass. It is the beginning. It is the source.
As humans we are naturally curious about our world. We are constantly discovering new insights about our planet every day. Another trait that makes us human is our desire to create. You might not think you are a creative individual, however you create stuff every day. Creativity isn’t a trait only the Bob Dylans or the Pablo Picasso’s received from the gods of art. It is a human trait that all of us possess deep down inside of our being. You really are creative. You are a creative. Creativity looks different for everyone. It is not simply an activity that involves a canvas or an instrument. You might create schedules and methods to help you finish projects at work. You might create activities for your kids to enjoy when they complain that there is nothing to do anymore. Isn’t it amazing how children can come to the conclusion that they have completed every activity possible in their lives to stay entertained at such a young age? We are constantly curious and creative. I believe this is why we are on a mission to rediscover how things in life are made through everyday activities. To create something beautiful we have to discover the bare bones, the raw materials. We have to know what we are working with before we can create something of value.
The second reason I bring up feldspar is because it is a piece of my grandfather’s sehnsucht. He is fascinated by geological formations. He wanted to know everything there was to know about our earth’s raw materials so he could teach students how intricate and important it is to our physical universe they live in. He wanted to take high school students out West to give them a front row seat to feed their curiosity and creativity about our world. But he didn’t get there overnight. He told me he would wake up at five in the morning so he could drive over fifty miles to make it to his geology classes on time. He would then drive all the way back home to go work. He was married with two children on the way so he would head over to a local dairy bar serving ice cream and cleaning out milk vats at night to put food on the table. All in all after six years of school and 12 hour work days he was finally ready to teach geology and physical science in the Dayton Public School System. He fell in love with the work and taught hundreds of students for over thirty years.
He was curious about life. He created one he could hang his hat on.
He found his sehnsucht.
After that trip, studying rocks wasn’t so boring after all.
We all have a sehnsucht for something. The question is: what are we doing about it? Are we acting upon it or are we simply waiting around for someone to give us the end product?
We can recreate activities like beer and coffee and music to make them more intimate but that’s just a mere taste of what I think we are really after.
Whatever you believe about science, the meaning of life, or how we got on this earth, there is a common thread woven in our DNA. At our barebones, we have few differences. That common thread is the feeling to contribute. To push ourselves to be a little better at whatever we do. To make our communities a little more complete spaces to live, work, and play. Not just through clocking and clocking out at our day jobs, but finding out our true passion in life.
By this point we were sitting on a wooden picnic table. Our glasses were empty. I looked back at the teenager skateboarding. He attempted another kickflip-grind. He tumbled off his board once more. I wondered what his sehnsucht looked like for him.