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Of Coffee, Creativity-& Immortality- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Of Coffee, Creativity-& Immortality- This post is co-written with Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.

Of Coffee, Creativity, and Immortality


I am at a point in life where I do not want to be surrounded by broken things. I’d rather not have the thing at all than it be broken. I want everything to work.


The Denial Of Death


Perhaps this is a denial of death and decay, the cruel one-way nature of time and entropy. Perhaps it is just being tidy.

This is a time of year of gifts and things, so my introspective nature turns to the nature of made things and their purposes.

This obsession with functionality has gotten me to the point where my eye sweeps the room and I no longer think, “There’s yet another undone job.” 

Now I see mostly things that have been checked off, like a sailboat leaving her mooring with all lines coiled and winch handles in their pockets. Books have been written about tidying up, notable Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art Of Decluttering And Organizing.


HMS Surprise (replica), poop deck

HMS Surprise (replica), poop deck


Phase Transitions


Perhaps there is a phase transition in functionality. It stands to reason there might be such a transition in our daily environment.

The objects of our daily lives have networks of functionality (I still wonder who bought the first fax machine), and a gradual decrease in the proportion of dysfunctional things could yield a big and seemingly sudden jump in systemic behavior. After a lot of slogging, suddenly everything is humming along nicely.

I feel that one’s daily physical surroundings mirrors one’s inner state. Nancy thinks about inner state all the time, I think about physics and the world of things, forces, and motion.

The psychologist John Gottman has talked of a phase transition in the relationship between a couple, and how being in the land of “yes” radically increases the chance of them staying together. This is a network of two peoples’ inner states, agreements and conflicts intertwined and interdependent.

For two years I have lived with a broken coffee machine. It turns water into copious clouds of steam, snorting like a restive dragon in its lair, much commotion and no coffee.


Generic coffee machine

Generic coffee machine




So we’ve adapted by going old-fashioned—boiling water in a teapot and pouring it into a cone-shaped filter. It’s tasty, but the old coffee machine just sits there, demanding to be fixed, mocking me with its mute brokenness. 

It seems that nobody fixes anything anymore, they just pitch it and get another one. Things are cheap, time is valuable.

First I try to fix it, purchasing special tools to take it apart. Online instructions say, “just pull on Hose A, it comes right off.”

It doesn’t. In fact it requires what I call “annihilative force,” the use of a force so large it would reduce the machine to flinders.

Applying such force, perhaps with an axe raised overhead, would give a frisson of momentary pleasure. With a deep sigh, I decide to be a capitalist lemming and look for a new one, one that will last.



Drawing of axe


I hurl the old one in an aesthetically satisfying parabolic arc.


Parabolic trajectory

Parabolic trajectory


Reading online reviews for coffee machines yields interesting and disappointing results. No matter how much money one spends, reports of coffee machines failing in a short time or never working at all are common.


Loose Correlations


There is a tacit belief that more money will get more quality, but it is a loose correlation. And there’s a belief that if one spends a boatload of money, one will get something that will last practically forever.

Apparently not.

Serious quality is not on the menu at any price.


Things built and bought are like Platonic cave-shadows of their ideals, mostly imitative form with only a hollow gesture towards function, weak and ephemeral.


Perhaps they are artifacts of an age of devaluation and alienation, the churnings of an unstoppable machine like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Do we run the machine or does it run us?


Paul Dukas - Theme from Sorcerer's Apprentice

Paul Dukas – Theme from Sorcerer’s Apprentice



Dispensing With Function


What if one were to dispense with the idea of function entirely?

This starts to sound like Art. Art doesn’t have to “do” anything in the physical and functional sense but move the person who experiences it, although sometimes it might have to match the sofa. 


Art and Sofa

Art and Sofa


Art is usually a physical thing, but it is not subject to the constraints of utilitarian physical things. Concepts like “fixed” or “broken” do not readily apply, let alone “new and improved.”


Art decays with time, paints fade, marble etches and stains, steel rusts, but it still persists.


Some art, like music, is continuously made anew by new people and instruments, a property coffeemakers can only dream of. 

This is a different kind of decay, not planned obsolescence like industrial output. Creativity is deeply connected with our inner lives, only peripherally connected with transient external physical reality.


Since artistic creativity is decoupled from usefulness, it is also decoupled from the exigencies of time.


Art Abides


A utilitarian device needs to fulfill a certain need at a certain time (coffee now!), but art abides.


Art has one foot in the unchanging and the immortal. The other foot is in the physical realization of it, the blob of impasto paint, the rosin on the cello bow, the granite and the chisel. 


Cello strings and bridge

Cello strings and bridge


It is this straddling of the everlasting and the immediately manifest that evokes the adjacent possible, a portal into a world beyond the boundaries of one’s life and understanding.

Perhaps it is even some of the motivation behind buying art – it is like purchasing medieval indulgences in church to ensure one’s place in Heaven.


Art confers the option of immortality by association. 


The holiday season is a time to reflect on what matters in our lives, and how much those things have in common with creativity. Pour yourself a cup of coffee to go with your contemplation.


Cup of coffee

Cup of coffee



With gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. If you enjoy this blog, I think you’ll love my books on creativity. The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity is named by BookAuthority as one of the Top 100 Books On Creativity.

The Artist's Journey Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity

The Artist’s Journey Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity


The Artist’s Journey: Creativity Reflection Journal is a self-help journal to spark your imagination with prompts, poetic musings and stories to help you activate the inner sources of your creativity,

The Artist's Journey Creativity Reflection Journal

The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journal





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