Once upon a time in a very hot land there was a house on fire.
Nearby, in an air-conditioned office there was a cool white, middle-class, vegan, gay atheist man in an ironic t-shirt and a cold white, middle-class, omnivorous, heterosexual, religious man in a suit.
One day the man in the suit left the office and walked out into the sunburn of the main street. It was a very hot day. There, he met the man in the t-shirt and they began to speak at each other:
"I am right," huffed one man. "You are wrong."
"You believe you are right because you are wrong," the other one puffed.
"I am right because I am surrounded by people who think like me," said the first, red-faced. "You are wrong for the same reason."
"I am right because my thoughts are my own," said the other, wiping the sweat from his forehead. "You are wrong for the same reason."
"I am in the majority," said one. "A million people can't be wrong. Remember Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement?"
"I am in the minority," retorted the other. "A million people can't be right. Remember the KKK?"
"I am right because my thoughts are very old," said one, his shiny chin raised. "You are wrong for the same reason."
"I am right because my thoughts are very new," snarled the other, furrowing his sweaty brow. "You are wrong for the same reason."
"Your thoughts will unstitch the fabric of the universe!" screeched one man, fists clenched. "You are bad."
"Your thoughts will turn back the hands of time to a dark age of backward, miserable living!" shouted the other. "You are bad."
Suddenly each man remembered he had a mortgage to pay. Side by side they walked back to their shared air-conditioned office.
Meanwhile the house just kept on burning.
The truth is, I don't really like coffee. But that's not the whole truth.
It tastes nice enough, compared to most other brown water, but I don't like how it gives me that double-time drummer in my chest, that twitching under my skin or the sensation that everything is taking too long. I don't like my sense of dependence. I don't like needing it, even if it's normal to do so.
I like the preparation, though. I like heating the water, cleaning out the pot, opening the jar, waiting for it to be ready. I'm fairly certain this feeling also applies to religious people and druggies: we like the ritual. And, like most modern Westerners, I don't really have many rituals.
The word 'ritual' derives from the word 'rite' - "the prescribed or customary form for conducting a religious or other solemn ceremony." More than a century ago, Nietzsche let slip that Gott ist tot and that we had killed him. That's fine, but just because nobody's religious any more doesn't mean our customary forms for conducting ceremonies aren't as weird as ever. No more baptism, blood-drinking or somesuch. We drink coffee, prostrating five times a day, facing that sacred, steaming cup.
As Nietzshe's madman put it: "God is dead... What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What sacred games shall we have to invent?" What water is there? Well, obviously it's water with coffee in it. What sacred games have we invented? Making coffee in ever more interesting ways, drinking it in newer, hipper locations. We use the stuff to chemically accelerate our collective heartbeat until our collective body is convinced we're running all the time so we can work harder, faster, better, more.
So, I don't really like coffee. It makes me twitch, when what I really I want is to be still. It speeds me up when I really need to slow down. It makes me dependent on things, when I am mostly inspired by non-things.
But I suppose I'm really not talking about Gott or kaffee, am I? I just feel a profound need for ritual for me and us and I don't really know what to do about it. And that's the truth.
Do not be afraid.
Sometimes the heavens feel heavy. Or infinitely empty.
Sometimes the stars are bright enough to burn your forearms. Or give you freckles.
Sometimes an unwritten song is loud enough to steal your sleep. Or give you deep-sea dreams.
Sometimes a semitrailer delivers you one solid piece of marble. And leaves it on your doormat.
Sometimes the snarling dog behind you snaps at your heels. Or she licks your gravel-flecked knees.
Sometimes it's all too much.
Usually it is not enough.
Sometimes they will speak of your demons.
Do not be afraid.
You're only given a little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it.
I feel as if I am a character on 90s sitcom Friends, trapped inside a TV, looking out at all the open-mouthed ordinary people, waiting for a laugh. And yet my sitcommy life goes on. And I'm having a great time, half an hour at a time.
Out there, things looks so very different to my three-walled imitation of life. People starve and die out there. Or get blown up because they happen to be in the wrong place - such as a school - at the wrong time.
In here, I get to hang out with Jennifer Aniston, crack regular jokes for which someone offscreen has prepared me, and disappear from the spotlight after thirty minutes of scrutiny. My life is well lit, uninterrupted by the silent extras behind me, and generally lovely. Full of friends.
Sometimes the coffee is cold, though. It looks better on film, but it's very unpleasant. Nothing worse.
So much of pop music, just like so much of pop culture, is white folks in blackface.
It started out with actual white people doing actual blackface, but matured into Elvis and rock n' roll, disco and hip hop. There is even a pop singing accent ("bah" instead of "by", "mah" instead of "my") which is so normal we hardly hear it but, for me at least, it belongs to someone somewhere else.
So, it should come as no surprise that freedom is such a popular subject matter. We used to be slaves, remember? We've been downtrodden and oppressed for centuries, you know. Remember Martin Luther King? Che Guevara? Malcolm X? Gandhi? Patron saints of the ordinary freedom-yearnin' man...
I don't know what freedom is any more than a fish knows about water. Sure, my great-great-great grandfather was a convict, but he was buried in an unmarked grave by his son. And us Townsends have been free ever since.
The chances are you're free right now. Flick on the TV and see what free people do. We cry over food and houses. So, with the greatest respect to Nina Simone, I've rewritten I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free:
I wish I knew how it would feel to be free
I wish I could pay off all the chains holding me
I wish I could buy all the things that I could buy
Buy them now, buy them cheap, and then I would be free
I wish I could sell all the love that's in my heart
Renovate all the bars that keep us apart
I wish I could own every film that's being shown
Then you'd see and agree that entertainment should be free
I wish I could fly like a bird in the sky
How sweet it would be if I found I could fly
Oh, I'd soar to a branch at the top of a tree
Then I'd feather my nest, decorate all the rest
Of the twigs in my view, paint the trunk to look new
Sell the place for a gain, then go do it again
In a much better tree with a birdbath and seed
With a view of the sea: What it means to be free