Growing a Garden with a Broken Bodum

the corner of the room where the bodum fell. Framed by a wall on the left and a chest freezer on the right.

It didn’t occur to me to take the picture until after I cleaned up the broken glass.

This post isn’t about gardens or bodums. It’s about thinking and mindset.

Last July (~15 months ago) I had an interaction in my house’s laundry room, where I moved something on a shelf, which knocked off a bodum (aka french coffee press) which fell to the ground and shattered. I mentioned this to Jean (the likely purchaser/user of the bodum) that it had broken. But… the shelf was in a corner, with a chest freezer making it even more secluded, so the broken glass wasn’t a threat to anyone. So I decided I’d clean it up later.

Of course, as we know, later never comes.

So when it came time in August to leave for a four-month internship at Twitter in San Francisco, it still wasn’t done. I swore to Jean “I need to finish packing, but I’ll do it tomorrow morning before I go.” Not too surprisingly, I was packing basically all night. So morning came and I was running around and she said to me in my stress and frenzy, “Don’t worry; I’ll clean it up.” I was hugely relieved because I had felt an obligation to clean it.

Interlude: Malcolm in San Francisco / Berkeley, then home for Christmas

When I returned to the house in January of this year, I went downstairs to do laundry, and glanced in the corner. Lo and behold, a broken bodum remained. “Huh,” I thought.

Over the course of the following 8 months of living at the house, I often thought, “Oh yeah, I’ll clean it up” but I never did. Until tonight. Why? Why so long, and then why now? I’m not sure, but I have a few ideas. First, let’s go to Stone Age South America. Not so much to learn something from them, but to unlearn something. Specifically, work.

The Continuum Concept: what is work?

A young writer, Jean Liedloff (hereafter referred to by her last name; not the Jean I know personally who appears in many of my stories) traveled from the US to South America on what was originally a diamond-hunting trip, then ended up living with a few local families for several years. In her book, The Continuum Concept, she tells several stories to illustrate how fundamentally different the locals’ understanding of concepts like work and play. (Spoiler alert: they basically don’t see a difference between them.)


Another hint about human nature and work came later.
Two Indian families lived in a hut overlooking a magnificent white beach, a lagoon in a wide crescent of rocks, the Caroni and Arepuchi Falls beyond. One paterfamilias was called Pepe, the other, Cesar. It was Pepe who told the story.

It seems that Cesar had been ‘adopted’ by Venezuelans when very young and had gone to live with them in a small town. He was sent to school, learned to read and write and was reared as a Venezuelan. When he was grown, he came, like many of the men of those Guianese towns, to the Upper Caroni to try his luck at diamond hunting. He was working with a group of Venezuelans when he was recognized by Mundo, chief of the Tauripans at Guayparu.

‘Were you not taken to live with Jose Grande?’ Mundo asked.

‘I was brought up by Jose Grande,’ said Cesar, according to the story.

‘Then you have come back to your own people. You are a Tauripan,’ said Mundo.

Whereupon Cesar, after a great deal of thought, decided that he would be better off living as an Indian than as a Venezuelan and came to Arepuchi where Pepe lived.

For five years Cesar lived with Pepe’s family, marrying a pretty Tauripan woman and becoming the father of a little girl. As Cesar did not like to work, he and his wife and daughter ate the food grown in Pepe’s plantation. Cesar was delighted to find that Pepe did not expect him to clear a garden of his own or even help with the work in his. Pepe enjoyed working and since Cesar did not, the arrangement suited everyone.

Cesar’s wife liked joining the other women and girls in cutting and preparing the cassava to eat, but all Cesar liked was hunting tapir and occasionally other game. After a couple of years he developed a taste for fishing and added his catches to those of Pepe and his two sons, who always liked to fish and who had supplied his family as generously as their own.

Just before we arrived, Cesar decided to clear a garden of his own, and Pepe had helped with every detail, from choosing the site to felling and burning the trees. Pepe enjoyed it all the more because he and his friend talked and joked the whole time.

Cesar, after five years’ assurance, felt that no one was pushing him into the project and was as free to enjoy working as Pepe, or any other Indian.

Everyone at Arepuchi was glad, Pepe told us, because Cesar had been growing discontented and irritable. ‘He wanted to make a garden of his own,’ Pepe laughed, ‘but he didn’t know it himself!’ Pepe thought it hilarious that anyone should not know that he wanted to work.”

(More on the continuum concept qua concept here.) This story is central to the project that we’re undertaking at my household. I wrote earlier that:

We don’t have any rules that say anyone has to do the dishes, ever. In fact, we encourage people to only do dishes when they feel attracted to doing so.

This intention of not wanting to coerce people into doing the dishes comes directly from the understanding revealed in this excerpt of The Continuum Concept. Imagine, for a moment, how Cesar might have felt if after a year of being with Pepe, he had been passive-aggresively guilt-tripped into starting his own garden so as not to be a freeloader or defector (though I’m sure their language doesn’t even have those words). You can imagine that he would have had a subtle frustration with that work, and it would have felt like work. Rather than like play, as the task of tending the garden felt like for all of his relatives.

Thus we see that not only did the Tauripan have a consistent model of the world that created a different experience of living, but they were able to convey that culture to someone else who had grown up with an understanding much more similar to what I expect readers of this blog post would have. It took 5 years for them to create that shift in one person, so this totally doesn’t scale in that format. But could it, in some other format?

With some conscious design, I think so.

Back in Waterloo, Ontario, 2014

So we return to the story of the broken bodum. Why did I clean it up tonight? I think I had, like Cesar, finally reached a place in my relationship with the house and its culture (and with Jean) that I felt totally relaxed about cleaning up the bodum. I didn’t feel like I was being expected to do it. Nor did I feel like Jean was actually just going to do it either. And with all of that pressure lifted, it felt easier to just do it.

I think though, that that is only an answer to the question of why I did it this month. The relationship comfort has been growing gradually. Why tonight?

To answer this, I turn to this facebook post by Kaj Sotala, which I read just before I went down to do the laundry. It talks about walking past an opportunity to save money (by buying seasonal tickets rather than single tickets) and continually failing to notice, then reconfiguring his thought processes so that he would notice in the future.

Having started the washing machine, I walked past the broken glass for the hundredth time, and thought about doing it for the hundredth time, and realized, “you know, maybe the behaviour I want to have here is to do it, so I don’t need to think about it in the future.” This might cost some time, but it frees up attention. And it’s also an act of caring for the space, which is something I’ve been growing more and more enjoyment around (going back to, I think, the continuum concept story). So I did it. It only took 10 minutes, in the end.

What are we thinking? How are we thinking?

I suspect there’s kind of a running joke with some of my blog posts where I talk about the most basic of household activities as if they’re profound. And I think they are… but it’s not the content—the series of events of the story—that is profound. It’s the thinking, and the mindset, behind it.

It took me about 10 minutes to clean up the broken glass and throw it out. It took me another 20 minutes to debrief the whole thing with Jean, and explore our thinking around it. And I’ve now spent an hour writing this blog post. (Edit, now at least 2 hours with editing etc.) The whole thing was a waste of time with respect to the act of cleaning itself. But it’s not about the cleaning. Just like Kaj didn’t share his story with the tickets because tickets are interesting. He shared it to integrate some thinking and feed the result back to others. Jean doesn’t care about the bodum, really. She cares about my thinking.

Jean would rather have [me not doing the dishes] than [me doing the dishes] + [me feeling forced to do the dishes]. She doesn’t want to be interacting with me if I’m feeling like she’s forcing me to do things. Same with Pepe and Cesar. This freedom of not having to do things for the old coercive reasons is what creates the space for developing new reasons—new kinds of thinking.

If we’re interacting—if we’re affecting each other—then I care about the quality of your thinking, and want to give you space for it to grow.

And the world is moving closer to a place where we’re all affecting each other.

I care about your thinking.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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Kaj Sotala » 9 Oct 2014 » Reply

Nice post, and I’m glad to hear that my post was of use.

Any thoughts on how to best reprogram one’s brain to consider everything play? It’s been something that I’ve been trying to do for a while, but it’s kinda hard to really do when you’ve got deadlines breathing down your neck and you’d rather just be playing computer games instead of working on the said deadlines.

One trick that I’ve been trying to use is to remind myself that all of my pressures are ultimately self-imposed ones: at least using a broad definition where “self-imposed pressures” also includes things like “being afraid of running out of money to pay the rent with”. That’s something that I really really really wouldn’t want to happen, but then if it did actually happen someday, I could always find some friend whose place to stay at or even move back to my mom’s until I found a cheaper place. Which would considerably hurt my pride and also violate my desire to avoid being an inconvenience to others, as well as being massively inconvenient to myself… but it wouldn’t actually kill me. (And notice that “want to avoid hurting my own pride” and “want to avoid being an inconvenience to others” are also, at least to some extent, self-imposed obligations. They’re things that I wouldn’t like, again not things that would kill me.)

Nate’s “It’s your time” trick has also been somewhat useful.

But neither of those tricks has really solved the issue. Though, hmm… now that I think of it, most of the time I just haven’t remembered to even try either trick. Maybe I could apply the same pattern with them as well – one leg-tap for noticing a situation where they might be applied, two for actually using the mental reframings in question? I’ll try that out and see if it does anything, thank you for causing me to have this idea. 🙂

    Malcolm » 16 Oct 2014 » Reply

    I’d read that post by Nate before, and found it valuable to read it again. I think I might make the “It’s your time” reframing my focus for next week’s habit.

    One interesting connection with Nate’s post I noted is that this:

    I’m not wondering whether I will be able to convince myself to study each day. Instead, I’m gauging whether I’m reading the most effective material.

    When I’ve done my maniac weekends (fresh on my mind since the most recent one ended just 3 days ago) they’re working on a project (my startup, Complice) that’s really important to me (and worthwhile). So I’m excited to spend that weekend “working”; rather than locking myself in, it feels like locking everyone else out. So then yeah, I’m spending a lot of time trying to figure out what is actually the most important stuff to do. Because as Paul Graham writes: starting a startup is where gaming the system stops working. There is no boss to trick [I would add “nor teacher’s passwords to guess”], only users, and all users care about is whether your product does what they want. Startups are as impersonal as physics. You have to make something people want, and you prosper only to the extent you do.”

    So trying really hard doesn’t work. I’ve needed to learn that in the startup arena, I must stop trying hard and start actually just doing the things I need to do to succeed. I’ve spent enough time in gameable contexts like schools that it’s taking a fair bit of time to unlearn this. And unfortunately I’m still in a school context for another 6 months or so.

    Though I guess what Nate’s post suggests is that I could refactor my understanding of the game-playing I’m doing for school as being also moving-directly-towards-the-goal, where the goal here is to get my degree with minimal time invested (so I can spend the rest on building Complice and building relationships) and without people resenting me. So if, in order to do that, I need to do a silly assignment, then I will do so. Without complaint or hem-hawwing or angst. Because those features don’t help me achieve my goal!

    So thanks for causing me to have this idea!

    Have you tried the tapping thing for these? How’s it working?

Melanie Heisey » 22 Oct 2014 » Reply

Your thought is prompting half-formed thoughts in me. Very resenty thoughts. Which are even more resentfully smothered before I can properly think them.

It’s clear that your house rules are a VERY different dynamic from what I’m used to.

    Malcolm » 22 Oct 2014 » Reply

    Huh! I’d be interested in hearing more about these thoughts if they manage to be thinkable for long enough to write about.

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