August 28, 2011

A Good Run

Born to Run. It's a song to many, a book to some, and lunacy to others. Which means, of course, that it's all of those things. But to me, it's also false. One look at my feet, and you'd caution against a brisk walk. You might prescribe inserts, orthotics, motion control shoes, and lots of sitting on my ass. You might, in other words, tell me that I got my childhood right - at least as it relates to my feet.

We're going to skip ahead now, past the part where I wax nostalgic about virgin laps and track-stained Nikes. We'll skip past previous races, all of which were probably more dramatic, on some level, than the most recent. We will arrive at our destination - a well manicured golf course - and toe the line. Literally.

But before the gun, a couple things: This post won't ever wind around to have anything to do with coffee. Sorry about that. It's basically a race report, with a little something else tacked on at the end. And that something else isn't a barefoot advocacy piece.

Still, that's a point that needs to be addressed. I knew that going in, and I knew it once I decided to ditch my Trail Gloves. Though they may be in Merrel's "barefoot" line, no shoe really is. And certainly, one that has any EVA, a rock plate, and rubber lugs doesn't qualify. Even still, the Trail Glove is decidedly minimal. It's light, zero-drop, and flexible. It protects the foot, but doesn't really get in the way. It is, in short, a good shoe for a lot of things. But it wasn't right for this morning.

But while the shoe didn't feel right, a lot did. The temperature crawled near 80, the air just thickening, but not yet suffocating. The grass was soft, trim, and uniform. It felt good on my - yes, bare - feet. I hadn't tapered, really, but had done enough to leave my legs feeling capable - if not altogether fresh. And even my stomach - frequently unhappy - seemed appeased by the engineered nutrition I had choked down at 6 AM - a sticky sweet vanilla Powerbar.

And so, as I warmed up, I felt good. Physically, yes. But mentally too, which marks a departure from my first several races. For those, I felt some mixture of terrified and exalted, ready to run - if only to run away. But with experience comes perspective, knowledge that my legs can do this, that no distance is a monster, and that respecting all of the present truths yields positive results. Respect your body; respect the distance. And then run. Not against the distance, or the clock, the other people in the field, or even yourself. Don't run against any of that, but with it.

There is a purity to that line of thought, which I have to admit, felt more tangible because of what I was - or wasn't - wearing. No shoes, feeling the grass between my toes, the Earth at my soles. Short shorts, slit up the side, and a tank top. My body was free to move, and as the sun shone down on the green hills, it was hard to imagine a more appealing surface to move over.

Preparation complete, myself and the other runners began to trudge towards the line. We looked left, right, and forwards, evaluating the course and each other. How fast does he look? Where is he lining up? Do we have to start on a hill? The tension vanished as the gun sounded, spooked like a dear. There were no voices, no music, just shallow inhalations and soft steps.

I started at the front, and opened comfortably. My feet found the ground, and I let my body go. I pressed my thumb to my pointer loosely, like a politician driving home a point, and lifted my feet. My body went, and as it happened, it was going faster than anyone else. I hadn't intended to lead the race - but then, I had intended for there to be a faster pack at the front. The role of rabbit could have been played by several experienced locals, or even one over-eager neophyte. But the bodies behind me sank back, as I found my pace. And as I made the first turn, I saw that I had opened up an already comfortable lead.

I smiled, and bounded down the hill. I lifted my feet, letting them land softly under my hips, my arms dangling acutely in front of my chest. I wouldn't have a rabbit to chase - but neither would I be anyone else's. I had started relaxed, eager more to run than race. And now, alone with the hills and the grass, I felt that this could be a very satisfying run indeed.

The course undulated over hills and around them, the grass varying in thickness, and once, giving way to gravel. I let my legs to what they would, moving naturally, going along for the ride. There was a degree of effort to this, of course, felt in my tightening calves and dry mouth. But there was no pain, and no exhaustion. I felt like I could do this all day - and moreover, I felt like I wanted to.

As I passed staff and onlookers, I heard shouts of encouragement, and snippets of whispered queries. Mostly, they focused on my lack of footwear. I saw a mass behind me, bright colors and driving knees forming a procession. I hoped that they were enjoying themselves as much as I was. I hoped that they were running with the course, and not against it.

I continued, surging and slowing when my body told me to, blissfully ignorant of my pace, the distance covered, my cadence, or any other complicating factors. I crested the final hill, and that ignorance disappeared, replaced by a time. Some part of me felt a surge of frustration. Why wasn't I ahead of that pace? I should be faster. But the anger couldn't hold, not against the other stimuli. This had been a beautiful run, invigorating and satisfying. 19:30 wouldn't alter that.

The finish was a mass of congratulations, high fives, and more barefoot comments. I milled about, discussing my run, their run, my "shoes", their shoes, and other sorts of things runners discuss post-race. You ran well. You too. I wanted to go faster. Me too. This hurts. That hurts. Yeah. Next time. Next time. I drank water, then coffee, then chewed an orange half. I accepted a purple protein drink sample, considered dumping it, then swallowed. It tasted like medicine.

I received a medal declaring me "Top Male", and a litany of jokes sprang to mind. But it was a family show, so I held them. Begrudgingly. The ceremony finished, and people began to drift back towards their cars. I stopped, briefly, to discuss the pros/cons of barefoot running on grass once more, before returning to my car. There, I deposited my medal, and my Dad removed his stuff (I told you, a family show).

I tip-toed back over the gravel, and returned to the course. My legs felt lively, and my mental state was somewhere like nirvana. I set off, once again, at a comfortable pace, even more calm this loop than the previous. I finished, in what must have been another 20+ minutes, feeling like I had just set out over the hill for the first time.

I began to run a third loop, then stopped, thinking it better to quit while I was ahead. Better to end a run feeling like you could do more, rather than knowing you couldn't. Better still since I was present for the running I did, engaged in the whole of it rather than the minutia.

"To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now."

Thich Nhat Hanh

August 26, 2011

The Young Man and the Rush

*With sarcasm. Lots.

The sun crested the horizon, amber rays washing down the hills. They swept across the street, and poured through the glass of a building, illuminating the dim visage of an espresso machine. Like honey, it stuck and dripped and covered, until the room was lit.

And then there was movement. A crack of a door, and shuffle of feet and a large red bag, dropped to the floor.

A man followed, dressed for doing. Black jeans, black shoes, and a black shirt, only discolored by accumulated espresso, hung from his bones; wispy stubble and just-out-of-bed hair grew like stalks from his skull, waved like a field of grain.

He went to work. The cafe was soon alive with clicks, whirs, hisses and pops. There was coffee then, food placed at the ready and espresso tinkered with, until it too was ready.

The light dripped, the clock ticked, and he pulled back the gate.

The customers approached warily at first, testing and teasing with glaces and questions. Some grew bolder, approaching with orders at the ready. Still more took the coffee for their own, with nary a word and hardly a gesture. The man stood before them all casting aside their initial advances. Too easy.

The next wave was more, in every sense. It loomed, ominous and quiet, before breaking and casting tumult in its wake. There was chaos, movement everywhere and a sea of noise, nothing discernible from anything else, all a swirling, teeming froth. And the man stood against it, unmoved, like a buoy made to withstand a storm of just this magnitude. The wave broke on him, but he did not break.

But while the first behemoth loomed, it served to block the army of giants following. Standing against one had required resolve, had been a challenge. To stand against them all would require that, and some degree of luck as well. Mostly, it would require the knowledge that there was nothing left but to angle directly for it.

And so he did, keeping his mind set to the task before him - to this breath, to that shot, to that button and that "haveaniceday".

And still they came. More, when more seemed impossible. The reservoir seemed infinite, and in the epiphany, he took solace. If there was no victory, then there was no defeat. If there was no hope, then there was no fear. There was only the next grind, tamp, twist, and pull. There was only that crema, that rosetta, and then the next.

Until there wasn't. Until there was calm, and then a breath, taken without threat of drowning.

He drifted then, his destination inevitable, until the final drop of amber dissolved in to the black.

August 24, 2011

Of Baristas and Boots

The question of what shoes to wear is an important one for baristas. After all, it's a profession that requires many consecutive hours spent standing, usually on less-than-comfortable tile. And so, if you're going to spend 8+ hours on your feet, comfort is an issue, perhaps more so than aesthetics.

Appearances still matter, of course, especially to those who have a certain character to play. You might "need" Toms, or Chuck Taylors, or maybe even cowboy boots, to complete the hipster wardrobe. (Full disclosure: I kinda like all of those options, although I own none of them.)

Old school racing flats, from Puma and Onitsuka (Asics now), seem to be creeping in to the picture as well. I certainly like these options, both for their relative practicality and awesome homage to 1970's pavement pounding (and mustaches).

But speaking of practicality, what does wearing Frank Shorter's old shoes - or any of the other options - do for you? Mostly, they're all relatively level, and feature a featureless rubber sole. Both of these things provide optimal balance and stability. It's not that you really worry about slipping and falling, so much as you'd rather not have to start. And as for the profile, no one wants to spend any length of time standing in even slightly high heels.

Unless you opt for the cowboy boots. Fashion over form, unless there are stirrups at your place of business.

For me, I've yet to find my perfect pair. I've tried on Chuck Taylors, and found them a bit narrow and stiff. As for Toms, I simply can't bring myself to jump on the bandwagon. I'm sure I'd love them, but I just can't. The vintage running shoe look appeals to me, except in that I couldn't stand to get any dirty. I have used my modern Asics Hyperspeed 4's, but the foam compresses over the length of a shift, and the (very minimal) heel raise and arch support become irritating over those same hours.

I've rotated an ancient pair of cheap, Target brand dress-ish shoes with Merrel Trail Gloves recently, with decent results. The former has no traction, and is a bit heavy; the latter is too lug-heavy for tile, and the total lack of cushion wears the legs down a little. Still, both have served well, and will keep doing so, until I'm able to justify buying another pair.

Ideally, I think I want a lighter, more flexible skate shoe. If such a thing exists. They're flat, grippy, and soft - because they're intended purpose requires it. And, not unrelated, they seem to work well for scrawny people in jeans.

August 21, 2011

Practicing and Preaching

If there is one singular problem plaguing the luminaries of the supposed food revolution we're undergoing, it's this: A lack of abs.

Perhaps I'd be better off as a vegan until six, or eating "food, not too much, mostly plants". But Mark Bittman (despite running a marathon somewhat recently) is pudgy; Michael Pollan is scrawny; and Jamie Oliver looks like Jamie Oliver.

Perhaps it's not surprising then that America chooses to take its food and fitness advice from the Jillian Michaels' of the world. An erudite and complex review of the issues at hand is not so convincing when compared to abs.

The point is this: Appearances matter. It's a question of practicing and preaching. People want to believe that you have the answers, really; but you have to look like you do first.

This issue of keeping up appearances has been brought to my attention several times recently. I was spotted by a couple customers drinking the coffee of another shop - charlatan! - and even once drinking gas station coffee.

The first matter was, teasing aside, no problem at all. There are a lot of very good shops in Lawrence - too many to limit yourself to just the one that happens to employ you. And despite my monetary allegiance going one direction, there's no clause in the contract that forbids taste-testing the competition.

There may be a rule about gas station coffee, however. Specifically, there may be something in the fine print about the insipid hot-plate variety I consumed. To my great shame. Or so I pretended. For a moment.

The fact is, while I may project the image on occasion, the hat of pompous third-wave barista extraordinaire doesn't fit me too well. It is, well, pompous. And it flattens my hair. More accurately, I'm a kid (though somewhat too old for that title now, I suppose) who likes coffee. And yes, if it's 10 pm, and I'm getting gas at Kwik Shop, I'll drink that broth... er, brew.

So yes, image matters. Yes, Michael Pollan needs to do a few push-ups. Yes, Jamie Oliver is both frustrating to look at and listen to. And yes, I'm quite content to drink bad coffee on occasion.

August 16, 2011

Opening Question

The best thing and the worst thing about the barista position is the same thing: There is no standard for entry. You must not be a certain height to ride, nor do you need any paper with any initials stamped on it. You need only the job, and thus someone willing to give you the chance.

As such, many unqualified candidates are no doubt hired, and often enough, left relatively untrained. This leaves too many cafes poorly staffed, and too many customers improperly served.

But that same door lets in those who lack tangible credentials, yet end up finding themselves in the job. I do not mean merely that they stumble in to the job - although often enough, it feels that way - but rather that they find a sense of self in doing the job. Being a barista becomes a part of their identity, rather than just a job.

As someone now faced with hiring people for the first time, it's dawned on me how impossible it seems to sort these two out, before the fact. Most inquiries lack experience with an espresso machine, which is fine. We all start somewhere, after all. But how do you tell which blank canvas promises the more realized portrait?

Thus far, the best guess I've settled on is just that: I guess. I might call it gun instinct, or sixth sense, but I think that implies a greater degree of certitude than I feel. Most think it "looks fun", and "kinda like coffee". It's tempered, ignorant enthusiasm, the kind still malleable. It can be broken, or as easily, made solid.

And you don't truly know what you have until you've got it. So yes, this is both exciting and terrifying. But if I'm forced to choose, my leaning is toward the former.

August 15, 2011


I've made no secret of the fact that I love my job. There are any number of reasons why, but I'll not expound on them here. There is one reason to think that I might better be employed doing something else, however. It's not a complicated matter, and requires only one word in the way of explanation: Pants.

Well, perhaps I'll need a few more.

It's not that I mind wearing them. Ok, it's partially that I mind wearing them. But mostly, it's that I mind what happens to them.

Espresso happens to them. And when espresso happens to a thing, that thing is frequently marked for life. Now I like pants. And, if it comes down to it, I prefer nicer pants to cheaper ones. However, espresso shows no such bias.

It stains Merona to GAP to Levis to Hollister to nicer brands than I can afford. All with equal prejudice.

This is a problem. It's a problem because, unlike cooks, baristas prepare consumables in full view of the public. That necessitates pants, and something beyond the pajama-esque cook attire. But these pants, as we've established, will most likely get stuff on them - either grounds or milk or chocolate or espresso.

The solution? Black jeans. Hipster cred intact, and any stains fully hidden.

August 12, 2011

To Boldy Go Away From Bold

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. You've heard it, and maybe, in your younger days, you said it. But few would argue that it's true. Words have power, whether to hurt or do a myriad of other things.

They are used, in the realm of coffee, to describe flavor. We here about assertive acidity, or perhaps soft fruit notes, and at least vaguely, we now have some idea what to expect from that coffee. The idea is, armed with these descriptors, a customer or employee can select the "best" coffee for a given palate.

Whether this works well, or even at all, is debatable. Perhaps it has something to do with taste varying, but I think it has more to do with variance in meaning. People don't all mean the same thing, when using a given word; that's especially true when discussing something as amorphous as taste.

Still, some words function better than others. One I find particularly troubling to deal with is "bold". It's a common descriptor, which probably plays in to my disdain for it. But beyond that, it's also nearly meaningless. If something is bold, it's fearless, challenging, daring, brave, and maybe, if the show is right, beautiful. None of those, you'll notice, are a taste. And while I don't doubt that certain beans are indeed quite fearless, I wonder what that has to do with their palatability. Sadly, outside of "bold", we're frequently left with "strong" - equally useless in most contexts.

Ideally, I'd like to see a shift away from qualitative descriptors, except insofar as they're used to elaborate on specifics. Thus, a coffee should not be described merely as "bold", but perhaps "boldly earthy". Ideally, we should strive for greater specificity in describing what's there, without telling customers how they should feel about it.

August 9, 2011

Running From the Past, and to the Future

There was a time, not so long ago, when the idea that I might jog around the block seemed ludicrous. Running was something you did if chased, but otherwise, was best left to the sadly anemic looking people prancing about Lawrence's pavement. Perhaps, if pressed, I could keep up with the older generation, who wore fluid belts and shuffled more than ran. But then, maybe not. I was, to put it nicely, out of shape. I didn't suppose that I looked it, but perhaps today told me otherwise.

I was in line to buy frozen yogurt (which somewhat contradicts the point to come, I'll grant), when I saw a former high school classmate. A few seconds passed, and then a mutual recognition took place. It took a moment because, to use his words, "We've gone opposite directions since school." I am, in the barista tradition, thin. Or, to use his words again, I weigh "Like, nothing." I smiled, and conceded that I'm a touch more active now than I used to be.

Moments like these are revealing, because they expose the extent of change that our own perception is blind to. We see only increments, and so we see nothing at all.

But that progress is there, and to have it noted by an outside source is especially gratifying. It's not that I need to be told I look thin - I'm not that self conscious - so much as that's an aesthetic marker of the changes I've implemented. I can, for instance, run for just about as long as I care to now, occasionally indulging in several short (2-3 mile) runs on an otherwise open day. I've raced 14.5 miles, and though I nearly broke my right leg in half doing it, I survived.

I am now one of those sadly anemic looking prancers, jaunting along sidewalks (and that nice strip of grass placed usefully beside them) in shorts that earn the name. And though I'm not fast - not really, honestly - I've never been passed by someone shuffling with a fluid belt.

This is, in so many ways, analogous to my barista efforts. When I first laid eyes on a coffee bar, it never occurred to me that I could (or would even want) to work behind that counter. There was foreign equipment that, if handled improperly, roared like a balrog. (Yes, that reference was needed.) I saw the pours, the artistry of it all, the urgency of it all, and decided that I had best stay away.

And now? As with running, I wouldn't say I'm good - not really. But I might allow myself to think I am. I might entertain the thought that, given the local population size, I could compete around these parts. And unlike running, since there are not competitions, there's really no way to dissuade me of this private fantasy, no one to leave me gasping and flailing, minutes behind.

In both cases, however good I am, it took me years to get to this point. And in both cases, how good I am is ultimately beside the point. Alchohics Anonymous lists, as one of its signs of addiction, that you couldn't go six months without a drink. That, I could do. But I could not go six months without spinning my legs, or without steaming milk. I couldn't go six weeks. Six days, even, would be hard.

And that's the point. It's not how good you are, but what you are. And that's defined, largely, by what you do. People will notice the changes, whether for the better, worse, or somewhere in between the two. Maybe they will comment, maybe they won't. Regardless, you'll keep doing, keep progressing, keep being and becoming.

August 6, 2011

Comfortably Ironic

Irony, as a word, is often misused, but frequently invoked nonetheless. But as a thing left unsaid, it's at least amusing, and sometimes inspiring. It's the sort of thing James Joyce wrote in his notebook, the minutia that made his writing so insightful, specific, and intimate. It's these details that make up the jokes in life, make things seem a touch sitcom-y.

You notice these moments - or don't notice them - because they happen anywhere, everywhere, and all the time. It's someone asking you to justify paying $110 for running shoes, perched on an $8,000 bike. It's amusing, because the joke isn't said, and because it's not really a joke at all. There is a genuine inquiry, a point to be made; but that point sticks its wielder.

A coffee bar might as well have a glass visage in front of it, for all that it approximates a zoo. It gives a blissfully detached view of the human condition, with irony on full, glorious display. Of course, there is not glass visage, and any sense of detachment is pure artifice. The people you watch are aware of you, and probably, they're noticing you as well. And there is interaction too, of course, albeit strained through the filter of customer service, twisted through the fibers of forced smiles and repeated pleasantries.

And so, even when there are words shared, more often than not, some detachment exists. This allows for those sitcom moments to creep in, for the laugh track to sound from imagined speakers, as one (or both) of you stand oblivious to the comedy.

There are skim mochas, and other botched attempts at calorie (and waistline) reduction, ordered by those for whom another ~100 kcals would make nary a difference in either direction. I see that, and I see irony, and comedy.

But the visage is dually transparent.

There is the barista on the other side of the counter - me - necessarily ignorant of the part I'm playing in others' mental comedy. It just wouldn't be as funny if it was on purpose, or even if I knew about it at all. (Hence the lack of specifics.)

In either direction, this is not voyeurism. It is, rather, the sort of thing that makes coffee bars more than the sum of their parts. Coffee is great, and so are people (broadly speaking). But the environment - all of it taken together - makes it the sort of place people like to visit, and like to work at. It's the pithy daggers we needle each other with, insults and slights never spoken, left as private punchlines, that make our shared presence so enjoyable.


August 5, 2011

The Bright Side

If you're always waiting for the weekend, it's probably time to evaluate how you're spending Monday-Friday.

The sunrise is a global event, shared at different times by different people, all doing different things. Only they're not. They're getting up; they're getting around; by in large, they're getting ready for work. There is probably coffee involved at some point in their morning ritual, but this isn't about that.

This is about how they all put their pants on one leg at a time (don't they?), maybe brush their teeth, grab a granola bar, and drive to somewhere listening to people talk about celebrity gossip in radio voices. This is about that drive, that destination, and the whole miasma perverting it.

But mainly, it's about something decidedly the opposite of that. I'm talking about the mornings where you bound down the steps, stopping at your car even though you feel like a couple laps around the block. You ate already, had a good cup of coffee, and both are settling well. There is work to be done, but better that than the alternative. Better to have something to do than nothing; and lest I forget, better to be paid than not.

Your car starts (as if anything else could happen...), and there is music (!) on - good music! You do not hear anything about Lindsey Lohan, and maybe, you dance a little bit. (Or at least, you bob around in the car in that way that approximates dancing.) You drive to where you need to go, and the traffic mostly does not make you want to hurt anyone.

You are eager to get things done, knowing that you will be productive. The diem is there to be carped. Or something.

Then something happens. Or someone happens. More broadly, shit happens, as it's prone to do. It doesn't matter the job - even if you're a barista - shit will happen. And it will be shitty.

This is about all of that. Mostly, it's about that initial feeling, and how that's yours to keep hold of, your paddle when shit creek starts getting turbulent. That feeling of unbridled optimism as you looked at the virgin light cresting the horizon, spilling like grapefruit juice over an inky canvas, smarter and stronger and hell, maybe even better looking than you ever thought possible.


August 2, 2011

Milk Curls

(Note: Biceps written about below may be somewhat smaller than those picture above)

People will tell you that curls provide no benefit when it comes to functional strength. And they will tell you, furthermore, that functional strength should be your goal, if you spend any time at all pursuing fitness. They might say something caked in physiological terminology, or they might appeal to some romantic notion of an imagined past.

These people are wrong. They are wrong that the only viable reason to work out is to develop one's ability to chase down an antelope on the Paleolithic savanna, and then carry the carcass home. And they are wrong, specifically, that the biceps aren't important enough to merit targeting.

How do I know this? I'm not a strength coach, or an athlete of any merit. And I'm not even jacked. But I did carry three gallons of milk in each hand today, up two flights of stairs, then a couple hundred yards outside.

The Crossfit brigade can keep their kipping pullups.