#2.03 | Tell me about your tongue

Others’ thoughts? Tastes? They’ll always be mysteries. Still, it’s important to try to know them.

It was one of those vacation mornings where there’s nothing demanding to do and you’re prone to unironically say something like, “Ah, this is the life.” On such days, the mind wanders into alleys that don’t have anything to do with the shrieks of your inbox or whether you should apply for that promotion or those all-caps texts from your dad. 

We were in Mexico City, on our way to the Frida Kahlo museum, and my mind had landed firmly on tacos. A strange announcement in a little girl’s voice — of which I could only make out lavadora, the Spanish word for washing machine — pulled my mind away from my stomach long enough for me to notice that our Uber driver had a peculiar habit. I watched from the back seat at a red light as he picked up a newspaper advertisement, held it against the steering wheel and considered the sales. 

His head moved left to right, up and down, over coffeemakers, TVs and Playstations. He turned the page and drew a quick breath through his nose as he continued to read.

This troubled me. What if he missed the green light? What if he kept reading after he hit the gas? What would I do?

I chewed on these questions for the duration of that light and the next until I found a comforting thought. His red-light newspaper perusing wasn’t much different from me fiddling with my touchscreen car radio or checking my texts. What difference does it make if the words we use to pass the time are made of ink or pixels when you’ve got a foot firmly planted on the brake? 

So I joined in. I peeked over his shoulder and squinted at the products and pesos in bold fonts. As he licked his finger and turned the page, I wondered what his family was like, what they were doing and whether he had children. The answer, in my mind, was most certainly yes. As he looked over a page of electronics, I imagined he planned to surprise them with an iPad Mini. In another ad with fruits and vegetables, I thought of tiny fingers peeling the skin from a naranja, juice dripping onto the floor as they laughed together on a sun-speckled weekend morning. 

Were my guesses correct? I’ll never know. If my meager Spanish wasn’t enough of a barrier, you don’t just ask your Uber driver what he’s thinking about as he’s reading a newspaper at a stoplight. 

It led me to think of an underappreciated English word. Sonder. It rhymes with ponder, but not wonder. It means, “The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one's personal lack of awareness of it.” 

Heed my warning: Consider that definition for too long and you’ll start to feel like a speck of sand on a stretch of beach. 

It requires you to recognize that, yes, you are the star of your own show, but everyone else is the star of their own show, too. In America, that’s not just an uncommon mindset — it feels like a foreign one.

Most of us would consider ourselves our world’s unsung protagonist. We have an omnipotent view of our feelings and ambitions and hold private rationales for even our most bewildering decisions. Even when just about everyone is mad at you, you probably think you’re right. Right? (Conversely, some of us may think of ourselves as the antagonists of our world. I cannot presume to know what the inside of those minds are like.)

I know a guy through work whose last name is Sonderman. I think of the definition of sonder every time I cross paths with him, which is often, and I wonder what his life is like and how his inner monologue sounds. He has a reserved nature and an apprehensive smile. I can’t help but think that his life is infinitely complex, his monologue more of a deluge than a flow, his calm face a dam holding back a torrent of thoughts. But it could also be slow, steady, peaceful. How could I know? 

If you can never truly understand what’s in someone’s brain, how about the closest muscly organ? The tongue.

Unfortunately, taste is taste! It’s about as subjective as it gets. There are inexplicable people out there, for example, who prefer the taste of hard water. 

I mostly joke… but let’s stick with drinks.

You might pick up hints of peach and pear in a New Zealand sauvignon blanc where I might just find the sharp taste of wine. You might notice dark fruits and warm spices in a Californian cabernet sauvignon while I’m just left with a sanguine tongue.

On a season one episode of “The Wine Show,” a delightful British series available on Hulu, host and wine expert Joe Fattorini struggled to explain some of his favorite wines to tasters in China. The flavors he described to them — dark cherry, stone fruit, ripe mango — didn’t match their lived experiences. A few good days with a local host touring restaurants and farmers markets expanded Fattorini’s palate and connected him with his clients through their tongues. The same wines suddenly tasted to him like green tea and dragon fruit; flavors they could relate to. 

I wonder how that plays out on a micro scale every time I sidle up to a bar for a good beer. When I drink a Bench Beer from Green Bench, my favorite bar and brewery, I think of the hot February afternoon spent with some groomsmen before my friends’ wedding. A sweaty bottle of Budweiser reminds me of a day at Busch Gardens with my brother when both our lives were still pretty simple. And good champagne might as well offer an instant trip to the chilly chalk caves in Reims, France. 

What do those taste like to other people? Are they transported to faraway destinations? Close ones with vivid memories? Do they taste figs and fresh-cut grass and orange creamsicle? Or do they just taste beer? 

Perhaps it makes them think about splitting an orange with family. It could distract them from a deluge of thoughts that are invisible to the rest of us. At Green Bench, maybe the man next to me at the bar is focused on the police headquarters a block away — a proximity I had never considered until the past few months — and years of American trauma that I will never fully understand. 

I don’t know. But I do know that as uncomfortable as it can be, it’s important to ask. And, unlike taste, that’s not subjective.

Here’s a weird old ad

“I had a little drug business in Paris, Tennessee, just barely making a living, when I got up a real invention, tasteless quinine. As a poor man and a poor boy, I conceived the idea that whoever could produce a tasteless chill tonic, his fortune was made.” — E.W. Grove

So… we meet again

Hi. Hi! It’s been a minute. Wondering where I’ve been? So have I. 

I sent out the last edition of this newsletter on March 4, almost half the year ago. Keeley and I had just gotten back from a trip to Los Angeles. That day, I had taken on what I thought was a temporary role as Poynter’s managing editor. 

The entropy of the world slowed a week later.  

On March 11, I went to a surprise party for a local brewer at Green Bench. While I was there, NBA player Rudy Gobert announced he had COVID-19, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson followed him, the president shut down most flights from Europe, and the NBA postponed its entire season. Two days later, I went back to Green Bench to see how the staff was handling the cancellation of Foeder For Thought, their big annual beer event.

That was the last time I had a drink at Green Bench, or anywhere public for that matter.

My workplace mostly closed the next week. Since then, I’ve had FaceTime calls with friends and family, said yes to being my brother’s best man, tipped musicians on Facebook, mourned the deaths of some incredible humans, been both dismayed and uplifted by struggles over race, paid off credit cards, yelled “you’re on mute” countless times, felt guilt over not being able to visit my parents, and made my managing editor position permanent. 

Mostly I have established a permanent dent in my couch and mourned the 2020 I had planned. 

I hope you’re healthy and doing as well as you can right now. 

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