Response: Radical Individualism, Satisfaction, and Irresponsibility

Why I push myself to make things

Isaac issued a challenge to me on Friday. This is my response.

Chuck, I must ask, what possesses you to engage in so many demanding hobbies?

Isaac, my friend, coworker, and employer, I'm afraid that if you have to ask that question you and I will never fully understand each other.

I think it primarily comes down to two things: Radical individualism and personal satisfaction.

Each of us has the ability, and the responsibility, to direct his own life. It is on each of us to get what you want out of life. Cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all things simply will not do. We each have individual tastes and preferences. It is up to each of us to satisfy those preferences. No one else will do it for us.

Why do I hand grind my own coffee each morning and spend the time making a pour over? I have particular tastes in coffee that a Keurig or Bunn will never be able to match. I have a bit of Epicurean in me and I strive to make each meal, each drink, each each snack I consume something delicious and worth savoring.

I find that a hand-crank coffee grinder that aids in this in two ways:

  1. First, it has a great grind consistency for its price range, which is essential for good flavor extraction during brewing.

  2. Second, it is so much quieter than the electric ones. Who wants to start their day with that awful racket? (Yes, you need to grind your coffee every day if you care about the flavor. Oxidization happens within 15 minutes of grinding and you really can taste the difference.)

Once I've gone through the effort of hand grinding, I make a pour over with a Chemex. No machine I've tried can make better coffee than I can by hand at home. I can watch the brewing and respond to it in real-time, adjusting as needed. I'd gladly take a machine if it could do a better job, but I haven't found one yet.

Similarly, you can build better saw horses than you can buy in stores with just $15 in materials and two hours of time.

Also, I happen to enjoy using hand tools, for what that's worth. I just took a hand powered espresso maker apart and fitted it with a new chamber that will allow me to generate higher pressure. It works pretty well!

I use basically the same reasoning for cooking what Isaac calls "elaborate meals." (I just call it dinner.) I adjust dishes to fit what my family likes. I want dinner to bring us joy, not just sustenance. It is a time we get to spend together at the table and enjoy each other’s company while the world passes by. Then we take the leftovers for lunch the next day. Why not add a little effort to make it nice? Acts of service are my love language.

Yes, there are some days when we are too busy and have to phone it in. Tradeoffs, tradeoffs.

  • I'll drink Starbucks when traveling, but I'll go out of my way to find something better, which usually (but not always) correlates with local "hipster" coffee shops. You know the kind. But I've gone to some that are truly awful, and I've also had coffee brewed by a Starbucks Clover machine that is excellent.

  • Sometimes we pick up a rotisserie chicken for dinner or a sandwich from the local sandwich shop instead of cooking. In those cases I'll usually opt for the local Mexican place that makes better Cemitas than I've been able to manage. Or I'll embellish the rotisserie chicken with various homemade sauces that I keep in the fridge at all times. Or maybe a special spice from the cabinet.

With most things food-related, you can make better versions at home than you can get anywhere else by paying attention to the ingredients . Basically, you have to give a damn. Smoking your own meat, curing your own bacon, and fermenting your own vegetables are great places to start. The barrier of entry is low and you can create fantastic results with medium-level effort.

Yes, it takes time and effort. I don't mind it. The trade-off is worth it to me. If it wasn't, I'd stop.

There are some things I think are great as-is and I will likely never try to make myself.

  • I buy corn tortillas from a few local producers here in NY. They are so delicious and only $1.25 for 25 of them. I can't even buy the raw ingredients for less than that, and I love the taste of these, so I don't make my own tortillas. I will if we ever move away from a tortilleria, though.

  • I'm not that into tea, so I don't blend my own. A friend is into it and she blends her own herbal teas and I have immense respect for that. But I can get teas I enjoy at Kalustyan’s, so I do that. One day I might get particular about tea in the same way I am about coffee, but right now is not that time.

  • Isaac likes to make jokes about knowing I've gone off the deep end when I make my own "artisanal mustards." Well, I've tried and I just can't make a better mustard than Schaller & Weber, so I moved on to making my own mayos and aiolis while I get my mustard from S & W.

Now, don't confuse my particularity with "high-brow" taste. I'm not into molecular gastronomy, endless tins caviar from the rarest of sturgeon, or only eating hand-massaged Wagyu beef. Hell, one of my favorite snacks is Corn Nuts and I can only find those at gas stations. It is all about suiting my tastes and preferences.

Personal Satisfaction

What about carving spoons, building kayaks, lock-picking, etc? These are not so easily explained by the "I can make better things than I can buy" argument. That is where personal satisfaction comes in.

I get immense satisfaction from building things myself and using them. If I used the time I spent building my kayaks and paddles and did freelance work instead, I'd have been able to buy much nicer versions than I built myself. I'm not a world-class carpenter. I have a list of things to improve for the next one I make. I'm decent, but I'm certainly better at my tech job. But every time I take my kayaks out on the water, I'm over the moon. I know every inch of those kayaks–every lashing, every rib, and every tenon. I can see the improvements I made in the second one after making mistakes on the first. They are mine and I wouldn't trade them for 10 better kayaks.

Spoon carving? I enjoy taking raw material like wood, envisioning what lives inside it, and carving away the extra to reveal that hidden gem. There are much better carvers than me, but I don't get the same satisfaction from using their spoons (I have a few of them) than I do from using mine. The individualization factors in here a little bit–I carved my coffee scoop out of black walnut to hold the exact amount of coffee beans I use per person. (It is always within a gram or two, which isn't worth weighing, IMO.) It brings me joy every morning.

Gardening and foraging? I want to know the physical world around me better and I get satisfaction out of cooking things I grew, picked, or found.

Lock picking? I enjoy understanding the mechanisms inside locks and learning how to circumvent them. It is like a puzzle to me. This has come in handy a few times, but not enough to justify the time I've put in. I like knowing that I can pick most locks in my house and can repin them if I need to.

I'm not a perfectionist, though. I get things to the level that I'm comfortable with and then move on. That is why I'll never be a world-class programmer. I'm not on the constant lookout for optimizations. I'm pretty pragmatic–if it works, I ship it. This is true with my hobbies, too. I don't study locks anymore. I know the basic types and can pick them. It takes me a few minutes and I usually have to get my bearings, but I can do it. I'm not trying to become a locksmith here.

Same thing with the kayaks. One guy in the shop was a perfectionist and took about twice as long to build his. I think it only looks 5% better than mine and they both float equally well. I want to improve to make things better where it counts, but I'm not the type to obsess over it. On to the next thing.

Perhaps that is why I don't play sports. I tried, but I'm not very competitive. I don't obsess over beating my personal best at every opportunity. Yes, I have pretty high standards for most things. But once I meet those standards, I call it good and move on.

Creative Outlet

There is a possible third explanation, which is a subset of the personal satisfaction argument: Creative outlet.

I work on the computer all day for my salary, and sometimes it is a grind. Those days I take refuge in making dinner, which is kind of a creative "work with your hands" outlet for me. I have to be very precise at work. Code doesn't work with misplaced semicolons or misspelled functions. But 1/4 tsp more paprika in a dish or a splash of rose water is probably fine. There is room for creativity there and I don't need to be precise about it.

With spoon carving or wood working, I get to design things on a piece of paper and then make it a reality. That kind of creativity is exhilarating and fulfilling.

Don't get me wrong, I get some of that at work. I love figuring out implementation details for a new feature and having an idea come together. But I also like getting that fulfillment in other areas of life, too.


Are these activities relaxing, or do you force yourself to do them because you feel it makes you a better person? (It undoubtedly does.) Do you ever just sit down on the couch and drink a beer while watching mindless reality TV instead of pickling vegetables?

Some of these activities are relaxing. Working in the wood shop after a long day at work clears my mind. It is physically demanding, sure, but it also completely engrosses my mind, which allows me to forget about work for a little bit. I always feel refreshed after that.

Some of these things are just extra work and make me even more tired, but I push through anyway because I like the benefits. For example, I was exhausted by the time I was finished making dinner last night. But every Sunday night I make our breakfast for the following week (usually some frittata variation). I want our breakfasts to be tasty, healthy, and fast. Making a batch every Sunday is the best way I've found to make that happen. I usually don't want to do it when 8pm rolls around on Sunday, but I'm always glad Monday morning that I did.

Do you ever just sit down on the couch and drink a beer while watching mindless reality TV instead of pickling vegetables?

When we got married, Amanda and I decided that we don't want a TV in our home. That said, we do watch Netflix on one of our computers with a cocktail in hand (I'm into barrel aging cocktails and making my own bitters right now.) We actually did that on Friday night. Using the small computer screen keeps tuning out and watching shows from becoming the default. Most nights I prefer to read before bed. And yes, sometimes it is fun sci-fi or pop fiction. Other times biographies, essays, or whatever my current hobby is. You can see what I'm reading here:

Have you always been this way?

Probably. My Dad is much like I am in terms of hobbies (though he drinks Keurig coffee, gross.) My Mom and Dad both have a similar love of food, cooking, and experimentation. A great visit with them usually includes my Dad and I building something together and all of us cooking together.

My grandparents are (and were) makers who can't (couldn't) sit still if something needed doing. I come from a long line of people like me and I don't know much of a difference. The Appalachian disposition mixed with the immigrant work ethic is a strong cocktail.

This all grew over time and continues to evolve, though. I started with a French Press and a whirlybird grinder in college, then eventually worked my way up to where I am now. I started with sauerkraut like everyone else before I began pickling everything I could get my hands on. I bought chicken stock for years before I started making my own. It is all trade offs, growth, and reevaluation.

What's next? Since Amanda and I just bought a house, I'm now feeling the urge to learn how to build furniture for particular parts of the house. We haven't found anything we love for those areas, so I might as well build it myself. I want to get as into wine as I am into bitters and amaros. I want to tackle Chinese cuisine at home. I want to make different kinds of sausages. I want to build a canoe. I picked up a netting needle and want to make my own nets for fly fishing. So much to do! One step at a time.

Amanda’s take

I also asked my wife Amanda about this and told her what I just described to you above. Her response?

"Oh, it is simple. You are incapable of turning off your brain, so leisure for you is getting to choose what you focus on."

In the past she's joked, "You are kind of like a puppy. If you don't have a project, you'll chew the furniture."

I sometimes joke that I have to keep doing things to keep from getting depressed.

So maybe that is it. Maybe I'm broken in that particular way. Or maybe I just like doing new things and challenging myself. I want to get as much as I can out of life in both the broad strokes and the details, you know?

Utterly Irresponsible

My current project in the shop is building some of my own tools: A mallet, a froe, a shavehorse, a miter box, a spokeshave, and a frame saw.

Why? Because I can. Because I want to. Because it makes me happy to make tools to make things with. They'll be 100% mine and there won't be another tool like them in the world.

Isn't that what The Remnant is all about?