The following is part 2 of a talk I gave to UC Davis Viticulture & Enology students on Monday.
To read part 1: on Freedom, Paul Draper, and Camus: UCDavis Talk, Part 1: Freedom, Expression, and Love: A Consideration of Choice in Winemaking
Here is part 2
Freedom, Expression, and Love: A Consideration of Choice in Winemaking
by Elaine Chukan Brown, aka. Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka
Part 2: Expression: Pneumonia and Technique
For the second part of my talk, I want to consider the idea of this expression, but I want to reflect on it by telling you a story from my own life that few people know. For all the personal confessions that exist in my writing about wine, this is a story I haven’t written. It’s how or why I left my academic career.
In 2010, I was awarded a research fellowship with Dartmouth College. I had already been teaching philosophy full-time in Northern Arizona for several years at that point. The fellowship I won is given to one person a year for someone whose research is seen as a positive resource for the Dartmouth community, and academia at large. The winner is funded to live on campus and simply do the work they were already doing. I arrived, then, in summer 2010 as a philosopher in residence working on questions of Indigenous Identity.
While there, I was also asked to give the response to a keynote address at a conference occurring in Montreal, Quebec, where I had also done graduate coursework at McGill. To prepare for the response, I’d of course thoroughly considered the article itself, but also read each of the books and articles written by the keynote speaker. The day I was to respond I woke up severely ill. I was used to toughing out sickness, however, and made plans to clear my schedule until the keynote that evening so I could rest until I needed to get up for my response. Two hours prior, I discovered I was still too sick to get out of bed. In the end, though, I had to be convinced by the conference organizer that it was acceptable for me to stay in bed and let someone else read my pre-written response.
The person who wrote the keynote was one of the leaders in my field, and the occasion had been designed partially to give us the chance to meet, so as to facilitate the possibility of her acting as an ongoing mentor—it is common for younger faculty to be guided by more experienced professors. It turned out I was sick the entire week and I never met her. Finally, by the weekend, a friend took me to the emergency room, as I was having trouble breathing. I was diagnosed with pneumonia that ultimately sent me to the emergency room three times over the course of almost two months, and demanded three rounds of antibiotics.
I actually suffered a poor reaction to the first set of antibiotics that included severe headaches lasting for several hours after taking the pills. The pain was intense enough I could not do anything for the hours they peaked besides meditate through them. It was unbearable but I had no choice but simply get through it. Fighting the headaches made them worse. Stopping the antibiotics would only make the pneumonia worse. The headaches were also severe enough I couldn’t do any other work. There was no way out. You might say the illness was my boulder during this period.
In the midst of this time I made a surprise discovery. At the best of it, I would clear my thoughts entirely. But often uncontrolled thoughts would come through mind. After a little while, I recognized that when I thought about something that lined up with my preferences, the pain would subside slightly, and I would feel better. If I thought about something that did not agree with me, I would feel worse.
When I recognized this pattern I decided to test it. I would intentionally think about things I already knew my preferences on: over extracted Australian Shiraz—immediately bad; over-oaked Chardonnay—even worse; champagne—ah, better; coffee—better still. I continued testing it until I was confident the pattern was consistent. Then, I began testing things I wasn’t so clear on to see if they made me feel better or worse. During my meditations through the headaches I would treat my body as a kind of i ching making small insights into aspects of my life I hadn’t been sure about before. Over time, what I came to recognize was that when I thought about anything relating to my career in academia, I felt immediately worse. The sensation was utterly consistent, and in fact became stronger through my headaches. By the time I finished that round of antibiotics, the idea of continuing in academia in the way I had been before immediately triggered migraines.
As I recovered my health, I decided I had to change my life. I had committed so completely to philosophy, and pursuing it through an academic career I had no idea what else I could do for work. Even so, the message of my health was too clear. So, I made a different commitment. I would give myself one year to extract myself from my career in academia. By the time I finished that year, I still had no idea what I would do instead. I only had images of what I wanted—I wanted to write. I wanted my life to be full of sunlight. I needed alone time. I liked listening to people that really meant what they were doing. I had no idea what it would look like to make all those elements come together. I only knew I’d made myself a promise, and I had to act on faith that my promise was worth something.
Around the time I had planned to give my resignation I worried that my decision was crazy. By this point I had returned to Arizona to complete my last year of teaching with an ongoing contract from the university. The same moment I questioned whether I should stick to my plan of leaving, or stay another year, I got asked to a meeting with my department chair and was told that due to severe budget cuts across the state I should expect my teaching load to increase one class per term without any raise in pay. It was the only confirmation I needed, and I submitted my formal resignation that same week. I understood that I was still a philosopher. But the success I’d cultivated in academia I left behind. Though I recognized myself as a philosopher still, there was no guarantee it would ever be recognized by anyone else outside a formal philosophy program. I walked away from any guarantee of being recognized for my work by others.
Here is what I want you to know about that story: everything in me knows that I made the right decision pursuing a career in philosophy. The personal clarity I gained from suffering through the rigorous demands of advanced training in careful thinking is irreplaceable. It has shaped who I am. I am endlessly grateful. Everything in me also knows I did the right thing in leaving my career in academia. This is not to deny the benefits of academic life. It is an excellent career to consider. It was simply not the right career for me to stay within. So while I am grateful I chose philosophy, I am also grateful I left academia.
My point, however, is this: advanced training in philosophy gave me decisive access to a wealth of tools. What it did not tell me was precisely how I must use those tools. It gave me a range of possible models I could follow, but it also did not expose me to others that were also possible. An academic career in the discipline is one framework through which I could exercise my training. But through faith, and a lot of luck, and now continued hard work, I bumbled my way into an entirely different form of expressing those same tools.
When I meet with people in wine, what I am doing is listening to what they say, as well as what they don’t, listening for their values, their beliefs, and their principles not only through how they overtly express them, but also through the implications of what they do and do not say. While listening, I track the form of their expression, to ask myself who it is in front of me. I ask questions to make sure I understand where someone is coming from. In a strange way, I do something parallel to this when tasting and drinking wine.
What I have learned from this approach is that the more willing, and more often I am willing to take people, and wine this seriously, the better at hearing what each has to offer I get. Then, once I am comfortable that I do recognize the actual person, or beverage in front of me, I write about them. What I am practicing, then, is another expression of my philosophical training. I chose to leave one form of philosophical practice to instead pursue another.
What I want to suggest is that each of you have a similar choice. Most likely, and hopefully, it won’t be as dramatic as headaches and pneumonia that helps you make your decision. But you are still in a similar situation as I just described for myself. This is true in two senses. First, it is up to you to decide how open, and how systematic you want to be in approaching your practice with wine, and with people. This point connects to the second.
Here at UC Davis what you have been given, or what you are gathering, is a collection of tools. If you do choose to continue in vineyard management, or in winemaking, eventually that choice will become the rock you are committed to, but you will still have the question of how you will apply the tools you have gained here. In what way do you want to express yourself as a vineyard manager, or winemaker? To put it more simply, you have an incredible opportunity to ask yourself, what kind of wine do you want to make.
In the world of wine, it can be easy to assume sometimes that we have been handed a preset model of what is good—that Burgundy is the model for terroir, as an example. It is one of the oldest. Sometimes we assume that most established is equal to the best. Or, we might think that over oaked Chardonnay is always bad. Today, common models of wine include the idea that natural wine is best, or that it is crap; or, that only low alcohol wines are balanced. But each of these approaches to wine are actually methods developed over time by a series of tasters, and winemakers, and, just like Sisyphus’s rock, these ideas are in a sense arbitrary.
We still have to choose our views. They are what give shape to our life. But if you recognize your own ideas here about what counts as the right kind of wine, I want to ask you to consider, what is the source of that opinion? Is it what you want to commit yourself to?
From the peak of Mt Olympus these distinctions in wine do not mean much. It is us, with our face right beside the boulder, that decide they are meaningful. We get to ask ourselves which approaches we want to invest our time in.
Tomorrow: Part 3: Love: Paul Draper and Principles
Thank you to Dr. Boulton. Thank you to Nick Antignano. Thank you to all of the students that attended.
Thank you to Kate MacKay.
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