A.J. Ja­cobs’s Thanks a Thou­sand

A.J. Ja­cobs loved his morn­ing cof­fee so much, he thanked ev­ery­one who made it. And we mean ev­ery­one

Newsweek - - Contents - BOOKS BY MARY KAYE SCHILLING

a.j. ja­cobs isn’t re­li­gious, but he likes to be­gin din­ner with a prayer of thanks for all the peo­ple who con­trib­uted to the fam­ily meal: the farmer who grew the veg­eta­bles, the trucker who brought them to the store, the cashier who rang him up at the su­per­mar­ket. You can imag­ine the eye-rolling from his three sons. One night, the youngest said, “You know they can’t hear you, right?”

Ja­cobs pon­dered this and re­al­ized that his pre­meal thank-you ses­sions were a lit­tle per­func­tory. He de­cided to com­mit more fully. It oc­curred to him that ev­ery ob­ject he en­coun­tered in a day re­quired the ef­fort of thou­sands of peo­ple, many of them be­low the radar. Ja­cobs de­cided he would thank ev­ery­one in­volved in some­thing he can’t live with­out.

Thus was born the “Great Cof­fee Grat­i­tude Trail,” a project that has be­come his sixth book, Thanks a Thou­sand (Si­mon & Schus­ter, $17). Ja­cobs doesn’t do things half­way. For his 2007 best-seller, The Year of Liv­ing Bi­b­li­cally, he spent 365 days abid­ing by the rules of the Old Tes­ta­ment—or, as he put it, trans­form­ing from a New Yorker who is “Jewish in the way the Olive Gar­den is an Ital­ian res­tau­rant” into a fol­lower of “the ul­ti­mate bib­li­cal life.” This in­cluded grow­ing a ZZ Top beard and sac­ri­fic­ing a goat.

The ide­al­is­tic aim of his fol­low-up book, last year’s It’s All Rel­a­tive, was to prove that ev­ery­one on Earth is re­lated, so can’t we all just get along? To that end, he built the world’s big­gest fam­ily tree, un­earthing, among other things, that Ted Cruz is mar­ried

to Barack Obama’s eighth cousin, three times re­moved. The project cul­mi­nated in Ja­cobs throw­ing the big­gest fam­ily re­union ever—a party, at­tended by 4,000 peo­ple, at the for­mer site of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. Sis­ter Sledge sang “We Are Fam­ily”—well, three of the sis­ters; iron­i­cally, they weren’t speak­ing to the fourth.

The thing about all of Ja­cobs’s books is that while they are tech­ni­cally stunts, the re­sults are of­ten mov­ing, in­spir­ing and laugh-out-loud funny. Pre­oc­cu­pied with un­knot­ting the moral prin­ci­ples that rule and di­vide us, and com­mit­ted to his im­mer­sive ap­proach, Ja­cobs is our Hou­dini of eth­i­cal phi­los­o­phy.

“If there’s a big­ger theme to Thanks a Thou­sand,” he says, “it’s that, in the cre­ation of any one thing, there are hun­dreds of peo­ple in­volved from around the globe. With the in­creas­ing calls for trib­al­ism and iso­la­tion­ism, it re­minds us of how in­ter­con­nected we are.”

We’ve met at the start­ing point of his trail: Joe Cof­fee, on New York’s Up­per West Side. Ja­cobs de­scribes his de­fault men­tal state as gen­er­al­ized an­noy­ance and im­pa­tience. All of his books, to some ex­tent, are about har­ness­ing that non­stop anx­i­ety— his in­ter­nal bat­tle be­tween his Larry David and Mr. Rogers sides. “Most of the time,” says Ja­cobs, “David has had the up­per hand. It’s an amus­ing way to go through life, but not so great for your men­tal health.”

His year of liv­ing bi­b­li­cally in­tro­duced the idea of rad­i­cal grat­i­tude, which de­fines ev­ery mo­ment as a bless­ing, even the worst. “That was when I started press­ing el­e­va­tor but­tons and be­ing

grate­ful that the el­e­va­tor came,” he says, “then be­ing thank­ful that it didn’t plum­met to the ground and break my col­lar­bone.”

Thanks a Thou­sand is, then, rad­i­cally rad­i­cal. There are, in­deed, 1,000 peo­ple thanked at the back of the book (in­clud­ing Pope Cle­ment VIII, who, it is said, gave pa­pal ap­proval for cof­fee circa the 17th cen­tury: “We shall fool Satan by bap­tiz­ing it and mak­ing it a truly Chris­tian bev­er­age”). And, as Ja­cobs dis­cov­ered, each thank-you on the trail yielded dozens more. “The book could have eas­ily been 800 times longer,” he says.

So thank him for that. In­stead, you have a slim, charm­ing, fact­packed vol­ume that does a nice job of il­lu­mi­nat­ing the many things we take for granted. Ja­cobs’s grat­i­tude com­mences with the barista at Joe’s; by the end of the book, he’s pick­ing cof­fee beans with a fam­ily of grow­ers in the moun­tains of Colom­bia. But there are less-ex­pected stops: truck­ers and health in­spec­tors and steel plant work­ers and a com­pany that makes the in­valu­able pal­lets that move the heavy bags of beans through­out the process. “I came to ap­pre­ci­ate pal­lets like I never had,” says Ja­cobs. (Me too.) “Forty-six per­cent of wood in Amer­ica is used for pal­lets!”

Ja­cobs was reg­u­larly dis­armed by the pas­sion and in­ge­nu­ity he en­coun­tered—like that of Jay Sorensen, who came up with the idea for the now-ubiq­ui­tous Java Jack­ets that we slip on hot pa­per cups. “I love a lit­tle de­vice that has saved bil­lions of fin­gers from ex­treme dis­com­fort came from a guy who spilled cof­fee on him­self be­cause his fin­gers got too hot,” says Ja­cobs. “He said, ‘I have to fix this.’ It wasn’t the R&D depart­ment at Gen­eral Foods; it was just a guy. That that can still hap­pen made me very happy.”

He thanked peo­ple in per­son, by phone, by email and hand­writ­ten note. The re­ac­tions he got ranged from hugs to frank puz­zle­ment. “Thank you for keep­ing the bugs out of the cof­fee at the ware­house,” he says to the woman who picks up the phone at a pest con­trol com­pany. She is amus­ingly unim­pressed but agrees to hear his spiel. At the end of it, she says, “You’re wel­come,” and hangs up.

Grat­i­tude ap­par­ently isn’t for ev­ery­one. In a 2016 New York Times op-ed, Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich ar­gued that grat­i­tude was es­sen­tially self­ish—a right-wing plot to keep Amer­ica’s work­ers com­pla­cent (as in Wal­mart em­ploy­ees be­ing thank­ful for a min­i­mum wage). “She’s a great writer,” says Ja­cobs, “but the em­pir­i­cal data in­di­cates she’s wrong, and I feel this per­son­ally. When I’m de­pressed, I’m fo­cused solely on my­self. When I’m grate­ful I’m hap­pier and more likely to help oth­ers. Grat­i­tude is an en­abler.”

Ja­cobs is among those who be­lieves our be­hav­ior shapes our thoughts. But he ad­mits that sti­fling his Larry David can re­quire ef­fort. Ev­ery day, he forces him­self to act as if he’s grate­ful—fak­ing it un­til he feels it. At one point in the book, he con­sults a psy­chol­o­gist about the CEO of Exxon, a man he feels, re­luc­tantly, he should thank. “That was a chal­lenge,” says Ja­cobs. “The trucks that brought cof­fee to Joe’s use gas from Exxon—not my fa­vorite cor­po­ra­tion as we hur­tle to­wards an en­vi­ron­men­tal apoca­lypse.”

The psy­chol­o­gist had a nice spin on the prob­lem: Thank him be­cause that might make him hap­pier. “And if he’s hap­pier,” Ja­cobs ex­plains, “he might act in a proso­cial way and not have this inse­cure de­sire to pil­lage the world and make bil­lions of dol­lars.” (Ja­cobs con­cedes that it would be hard to ex­tend that think­ing to, say, Adolf Hitler, but you get the idea.)

As we’ve been talk­ing, Ja­cobs has been nurs­ing a cof­fee. He ad­mits that he silently apol­o­gizes to Ed, Joe’s main bean buyer, when he adds milk to his brew (cof­fee con­nois­seur sac­ri­lege). “I was not born a sa­vorer,” he says. “But know­ing the hun­dreds of hours and peo­ple in­volved in mak­ing this cof­fee, I force my­self to take two sec­onds now—to think about the acid­ity, the tex­ture, the sweet­ness.”

It’s a phi­los­o­phy he tries to ex­tend to ev­ery mo­ment—sa­vor­ing and stretch­ing them out. “If you don’t make the ef­fort, your life just flies by and you’re done.”

Pope Cle­ment VIII is thanked for giv­ing pa­pal ap­proval for cof­fee. “We shall fool Satan and bap­tize it, mak­ing it a truly Chris­tian bev­er­age.”

HAPPY TRAIL Ja­cobs meet­ing peo­ple men­tioned in his book, in­clud­ing Colom­bian cof­fee grow­ers.

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