The culture of relationships

perfect measurements and imperfect cultures.

When I was 18, I nearly failed out of high school. In fact, to this day I’m convinced some strings were pulled to push me through. So somehow, despite my 1.9 GPA and missing foreign language credit, I passed.

My partner, however, graduated with a 4.4 GPA. She aced school and then some. This gave her the ability to pick any college she wanted to attend. She chose the University of Florida, which at the time, was the hardest school in our state to get into.

Although never explicitly stated: I knew if I didn’t go with her, the odds of our two-year-old relationship surviving, would be slim. So I started scheming.

I enrolled as a business major in community college. Then switched to fine arts, before ultimately landing on anthropology. I didn’t even know what that word meant, but I started getting A’s in my classes. I was learning about ancient Native American tribes, human skeletons, and sexuality. The material was captivating, despite being useless in real life.

Two years later, I graduated with honors from the top ranked school in our state.

Those four years were the most profound, and transformative, of my life. I can attribute my love for travel, capacity for hard work, and adoration for reading, to my time in college.

Now the interesting thing is my partner never explicitly told me I needed to be a better student. There were no late night arguments about me getting my act together. There were no expectations or ultimatums. Instead, I was following a set of conditions our relationship implicitly suggested.

When she would venture to the library at 8pm on a Wednesday, I would follow (at first, reluctantly, but over time, with enthusiasm). When she would share something interesting she learned in class, I would listen extra hard during my next lecture, so I could respond in kind.

Unbeknownst to her, she was creating a set of norms, a boundary of what would be expected in our household. She was creating the same thing that bakers cultivate when nurturing the millions of bacteria that make our bread so tasty. She was creating a culture.

Perfect pastries and rustic sourdough

There are two very distinct types of baking. The first, pastry. This type of baking requires meticulous attention to detail. One extra teaspoon of butter, or a slight miscalculation of sugar, and everything will be off. Your cakes will turn to mush, your croissants will taste like glue. Pastry is an art of precision.

Then there is bread baking.

Bread baking is an act of god-like creation. With only the simplest ingredient—flour, water, and salt—these bakers perform a type of alchemy unmatched in the culinary world. And they do so not by means of precision, but through an understanding that they are just one of the artists in the kitchen.

Their counterparts are the microbiota; a mixture of billions of unique bacteria and yeast that will populate, thrive, and ultimately ferment the dough they’re working with. These microscopic organisms are entirely uncontrollable, floating freely from the open air and into the bread before baking. In doing so, they imbue each loaf with an unique texture and flavor. In this way, no two loaves are exactly the same.

Great baking is an art of perception; mastery requires bakers use their eyes, nose, and mouth to gauge exactly how the microbes are affecting each batch. If the little critters are beginning to make a loaf too acidic, maybe they add a bit more flour. If the yeast are fermenting a dough too quickly, maybe they change the temperature in the room. By how much? Well that’s the craft of nurturing a culture, isn’t it?

A great baker is a referee. Their only job is to ensure the game is played within a narrow set of rules, but they do not, and cannot, determine the outcome. 

Control and Culture

Many of the problems we face in our careers, and in our relationships, are byproducts of our need for control.

Too often we try to force our way—and our opinions—on our romantic partnerships; only to see them become brittle and crack with such rigidity. Had my partner issued an explicit ultimatum, rather than creating an implicit culture, the relationship I value most in the world would likely have ended prematurely. I too, would be a radically different man than I am today.

For those of us who have made the transition from employee to business owner, this problem sounds all to familiar. After finally escaping corporate culture—and taking up the mantle as head-baker in our own kitchens—we forget that there are microbes in the mix. We act as if we’re not fundamentally working with, and creating for, other people.

It’s one of the more unfortunate pitfalls of the human experience. We’ve built cities, skyscrapers, and rockets all with profound success. But with that success comes the belief that everything is controllable, and by virtue, should be controlled.

After eons of shaping the world in our image, we’ve forgotten a fundamental truth. We are not masters of nature, but rather its counterpart.

Eighty years ago, we tried domesticating the microbes in our bread. The result was a perfectly controlled, perfectly replicable, white, fluffy loaf, void of all nutritional value. It was so dead and lifeless, that our body metabolized it in the exact same way it does a bowl of ice cream. This miracle of human hubris was christened “Wonder Bread”.

In that moment, we should have realized that the opposite of culture is not control, but sterility.

—Zac

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