July 26, 2012

Death at the Bar

"My doctor says I shouldn't have these. But I don't care. It's my life, and if I want them, I can have them."

I remember her vividly, leaning heavily against a cane. She was big, nearly immobile. Walking to our cafe seemed a great inconvenience for her, but she did, and there was no doubting why: She liked the drinks. Not all of them, mind you, but the seasonal ones. The fancy drinks with syrup, powdered something or other, and cream. She got one every week, no matter what it was, asking for extra syrup and extra whipped cream. Every time, she told us about her looming health crises, her diabetes, her blood pressure, her peripheral neuropathy. Her body was quitting, and not even slowly. She looked twice her 40 years, and talked openly about not seeing 50. She sorted her pills and took several of them, before getting the drink I had made, and then ambling to a nearby chair.

I always hated serving her. Not because I disliked her - although the above description isn't flattering, no could argue it isn't true - but because it was hard, in those moments, not feel some part the executioner. She knew better, and I knew that she knew it. Every time, she told me about her declining health, the numbers that were too high, or too low. And she was not ignorant as to why. She knew the constant and massive sugar infusions had put her body through metabolic hell, and that the damage was severe. She knew she needed to stop, if there was any hope at all, but she didn't. Maybe she couldn't. Addiction is a powerful thing, and sugar a potent narcotic. Or perhaps she had just given up. She never did elucidate the reason behind her continued unhealthy indulgences, beyond asserting that she wanted them, and that that was enough.

I don't pretend that mine is the tragedy here. She was dying, and she knew it. No matter the external front, that can't be an easy conclusion to make peace with. All I had to do was make the drink, and move on. I simply had to make peace with capitalism, with providing what was being paid for. Ultimately, I just had to do my job.

And is that really so hard? I got to sell an expensive drink to willing customer, an exchange of money for a good. It wasn't my fault, nor that of the company. We simply make the drinks; we don't make anyone drink them. And then there's moderation to consider. No one becomes diabetic on one splurge ever week. In fact, there was a bodybuilder who came in as often, and ordered the same sort of drink. He had veins in his biceps the size of my wrists, and looked as if he'd never so much as heard of body fat. Clearly, we weren't killing him.

I told myself those things. The guy working on the line at Chevy needn't feel guilty if someone wrecks his car, right? Even a gun manufacturer doesn't make anyone pull the trigger. She wants the drink, she can have the drink. Like she says, it's her life, she can live it how she wants. I told myself those things, and even believed them, mostly. But it's hard, still, whether it should be or not, to hand someone their death, even as they thank you and smile.

July 23, 2012

Muffin Anxiety

You can see it in how they stand, how they purse their lips and avoid your eyes. There is consternation written on their face, guilt about ordering what they want. Watch a customer eye a muffin, a starchy wad of forbidden fruit, delicious, decadent, but no, so much sugar, so much fat. They glance back and forth, say that they shouldn't, hoping you'll coax them one way or another. And you stand there, neutral.

This will probably not come as a surprise to anyone that knows me at all, but to others, perhaps this needs to be made clear: I am a bit of a health and fitness nut. I have very definitive opinions on how food quality fits in to that picture. However, despite that, my role at the coffee bar is not as a personal trainer or weight loss coach. I'll answer questions about ingredients honestly and clearly, but won't offer an opinion. It's simply not my place.

And yet I don't think that knowledge would help those customers. Paradoxically, we're a society that provides access to nearly endless decadence, and yet values abstinence from those things. Our hypothetical customer may want a mocha and a scone, but will abstain simply to show that they can.

We see this in a group setting. The faces and apprehensions are more exaggerated, as are the claims of how bad they want this particular food item, and how much they love it, but they can't, just can't, and so they won't. People want you, and everyone else, to know how bad they want the muffin, and thus how impressive it is that they can resist. It's flexing your willpower, not unlike the guy who makes love to his own image in the weight room mirror.

To be sure, this is a first world problem, and decadence in itself. To have the ability to decline calorie dense food is a luxury, and moreover, a suggestion of willpower. The resolute person is thin, because they're strong enough to make it so. This, of course, is a trait to be sought, and so we do.

Of course, I say all of this as a skinny guy, and not by accident. My friends are well aware that there are many things I won't eat, so they stopped offering me hot wings a long time ago. So I am not, in any way, criticizing the pursuit of health. Our bodies are all we really own, and there is nothing more important than what we do with them, and what we choose to fuel them with. It can be a decision fraught with guilt, with media pressure and personal values all coalescing. It can be complicated, and I get that.

But while it can be all of those things, it most certainly needn't be public drama. Order the latte with skim, soy, whole, whatever. Have the muffin or don't. Have whatever you want for whatever reasons you want.

And then, having what you want, relax. The freedom of choice is a beautiful thing. That we have everything from espresso to Coke to mochas to orange juice to plain black coffee is a beautiful thing. That the hardest decision you have to make in a given day is whether or not to eat a muffin is a beautiful thing. That you can basically eat or drink whatever you want is an unbelievable luxury, one the vast majority of humanity will never know. So at the very least, enjoy it. Guilt is not delicious.

July 21, 2012

Appreciating Customers

I was watching CNN last night, in the wake of the Colorado shooting, spinning on an elliptical machine, still trying to will some pop back in to my fatigued legs. The anchor, I forget who, asked the guest, a congressman, something about potential legislation to prevent assault weapons from being so readily available. I forgot all of that, because I only remember than answer, or more specifically, the gist of it. The interviewee dodged, said that this was not the time to look for answers or solutions, but to mourn. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims," he said.

And, no disrespect to thoughts, prayers, or those who indulge in either, but neither of those save lives, especially after the fact. It's easy to feel sorry; it's a lot harder to do something, especially when that something might be politically disadvantageous. But going on TV, and saying how sad you are? That's good PR, not to mention damn easy.

If this feels like an out of place political rant, misplaced on a coffee blog, give me a second to bring things around, because I don't mean it to be.

I returned from an abbreviated long run this morning, feeling rejuvenated, drenched with sweat and pleasantly sore. Still, I couldn't help but think back to another part of last night's coverage. The segment focused on the suddenness of the whole thing, on how, as we always hear, people can be taken from you so quickly. There were significant others, friends, and parents, hysterical with grief. I changed the channel last night, and I changed my thoughts this morning. I couldn't help but feel voyeuristic on both occasions, watching from a comfortable distance.

So I logged on to Facebook, hoping to ground myself in the usual trivialities. There were those things, but here was also an update from a coffee shop I'm friends with, with a link to an obituary for a customer of theirs. (To be clear, his death was not related to the Colorado shooting.) Again, I found myself witness to the sadness of others, listening and reading about the ablation of life.

Humans are social creatures. This is not a revelation, and is basically accepted as fact by anyone with a passing interest in either anthropology or biology. But this job, standing opposite hundreds of people a day, many of them every day, uniquely satisfies that primordial piece of humanity. Sure, I give them coffee and they give me money, but there is a deeper exchange. We trade in stories, emotions, expressions and sometimes, nothing much at all beyond mere presence.

I'm not saying to hug your customers or obsess over the negative aspect of "you never know". What I am saying is that they are people who choose, however often, to involve themselves in your life, and you in theirs. Most of all, I'm saying that that's significant at the most basic and beautiful level, and we can't possibly appreciate it enough. Still, it can't hurt to try.

July 19, 2012

Be Quick, But Don't Hurry

There was a line this morning, people waiting for me, watching me, eyeing me with something like "hurry up", but might be more like "hurry the fuck up, I haven't had coffee yet, and some part of my brain is about to wither in to further decay".

I met all their eyes, asked how they were doing, and told them I would be a second. Well, more than a second. Maybe several. Maybe lots of severals. But I would get there, as fast as I could, and as well as I could. "Be quick but don't hurry." I don't even remember the sport, but some old coach of mine told me that, and I think it's good advice in the coffee bar. Hurry makes bad drinks, messes, and mistakes. Hurry usually ends up taking longer, and pissing people off. So no, don't hurry.

Experience matters, in this context. Work through enough rushes and you learn that the only way is to hit them head on, like a small ship attempting to split a mammoth wave. Turn, try to run, and you'll be swamped, flipped, and screwed.

I remember working at Pizza Hut, my first job, in high school. And I remember the dinner rushes that came every Friday and Saturday night, the hours cursing every new ticket that appeared out of that beeping reservoir of paper and spite. And that was less busy than my first campus job, a food court called the Underground, where we would serve crowds of up to 8,000 in an hour.

Those were not glamorous jobs, not even "real jobs", by some measures. But there were lessons there, about how to handle pressure and persevere, among other things. I count both of those experiences as being every bit as educational as the time I spent in class. I like books, but life, and learning how to live one, doesn't happen there.

Working jobs like that - and like this - teaches you how to become the kind of person who works, who keeps at things until they are done. It seems absurd to say that food service helped me finish the race this last weekend, but it's probably not far from the truth. "Be quick, but don't hurry" would make a great running mantra, especially for longer distances. And when things do go wrong, you can't just quit in the middle of a shift, you have to finish the job.

Maybe I'm digging a bit deep here, trying to ascribe false significance to menial labor. Maybe I'm romanticizing a kinda crappy race performance, by making it less about my bad time, and more about my melodramatic jogging/hiking. (I probably am doing that, if only just a little.) But maybe there is a lesson here, in all of that, and maybe it's worth making a little explicit.

July 15, 2012

Psyco Psummer 50K Race Report

Running up a soft dirt hill, my calf seized, and I fell. I felt my toes curling, and the entirety of my lower leg quivering. I found myself wondering if I had torn my achilles, and then hoping that I had. I sat on the dirt, dripping with water and sweat, utterly spent.

That's not how this story ends, thankfully. But it's not how it begins either.

We'll start at the start, because that seems appropriate. I left for the first loop, running with Carl Specking, former University of Missouri cross country runner, and certifiable fast dude. Both of us had run the February edition of this race, and knowing what lay ahead, were content to let others tackle a more ambitious pace. We talked, about shoes and future race plans, gliding through the first 7.5 miles without noticing. Nothing hurt, and although it was hot, I was icing, drinking, salting, taking gels, everything. I felt good, like whatever semblance of a plan I had was working.

Carl began to gap me a bit, when I chose to hike a massive hill that he ran. This was me pacing myself, being smart. I adopted a similar strategy for the bigger climbs over the last couple of miles, and finished the first third of the race in 1:40. This was on pace for a 5-hour finish, which, given the course-lengthening and 104-degree heat, seemed like an ambitious goal. One lap down, I was pretty sure that that time would lead to a high finish, and so it became my goal. (As it happens, no one would come close to that time. I wouldn't even come close to coming close to it.)

The second loop was lonely, and I began to feel the heat. I had settled, as I seemingly always do, behind the leaders, and in front of the mid-pack. Still, I was running everything but the steepest inclines, and continued to ice/hydrate/eat/salt at planned intervals. 

And then, somewhere around the halfway point, my radiator blew. I stopped in the middle of the trail, put my hands on my knees, and gathered myself. I started to run again, but stopped just yards later. I felt heavy, lethargic, and above else, anxious. Some part of my brain had panicked, and decided that we were stopping this silly endeavor, right now. 

But I shuffled on, because the middle of the trail is no place to stop. I reached an aid station, put down as many calories as I could, iced myself down for a few minutes, and started running again. Not a mile later, the feeling came back. I stopped again, put my hand on my forehead, and decided that this, probably, was heat exhaustion. 

My anxiety increased, not because I was worried that I might hurt myself, but because I could feel my goals evaporating in the smoldering heat. I had put in too much training for this to happen, PR'd at 10K and 13.1 in training, spent hours climbing imagined mountains on a treadmill. And I was going to stop because it was hot? No, I thought. Fuck that. And so I ran, digging in to the powdery dirt and ascending the incline in front of me. 

And then my calf seized. I eventually did stand up, began to walk, hobbled, sat down again, hopped along for a bit, yelled choice expletives, and then just stood there. I stared in to the trees, breathed, felt my heart racing, my clothes dripping, and my calf knotting. Someone passed me, asked if I was OK, and I think I said that I was. It was a lie, of course, but one you have to tell. 

I turned off my watch then, because I couldn't stand to see the minutes pass. I stood there, alone for I don't know how long, until finally, my toes uncurled, and I began to walk. Some time later, the muscle loosened up enough to allow for a clipped running gait, but nothing with any real pace. I decided that I would drop out when I arrived back at the start/finish.

The rest of the loop consisted of limping, hobbling, jogging, hiking, and getting passed. Normally, this is nothing to be pleased about. But in my condition, I was glad for it. Misery loves company, and all that. I tried to hang on to people as long as I could, be pleasant, and commiserate about what hurt. Everyone was a saint. 

But something more needs to be said for the aid station volunteers. It's cliche to express thanks by calling someone a lifesaver, but in this case, it may literally be true. Were it not for their patience and assistance, things would have been worse.

So, going aid station to aid station, I stumbled across the line. There was a large crowd there, my parents among them. Had they not been there, had so many people I know not been there, I may have dropped then, as I had planned. But I couldn't, and didn't. I was suffering, but I decided I could endure another 2+ hours of it in return for the knowledge that I had done so.

I went back out, calf screaming, head burning. I may have decided to continue, but my body wasn't quite willing to oblige. Still, it would keep moving forward, so long as I limited my running, and kept icing and eating. 

As more and more people streamed by, my mood improved. I was no longer angry that I wasn't really racing the race, and their positive feelings about finishing rubbed off. Still, it wouldn't be accurate to say that I was having fun, or that I felt good. I could not, no matter the amount of ice or water used, cool myself down for more than minutes at a time. And I could really only run a half mile at a time, before my calf would again seize, tremble, and force me to stop. It's a funny thing, feeling so utterly defeated, your fitness not doing a damn thing for you. Your body has quit, and that's that. 

But that wasn't quite that, not yet at least. There were still a handful of miles to go, and they crawled by. The largest hills of the course lay at the end, and I wobbled up them, hands planted on my knees, barely keeping myself upright. But I loved those hills, at that moment. Maybe it was delirium, but I smiled every time I reached another, knowing that I was that much closer to being finished. 

When the finish line did come, I ran across it, adopting a gait I hadn't used in hours. The clock read 7:04, and I thought, seven fucking hours? I laughed a bit, felt my calf cramp again, and nearly fell down. 

July 12, 2012

The Proverbial Midnight Oil is Probably Bitter and Not as Delicious as Espresso, But Drink the Latter and You Burn the Former, Usually

I am writing this, not exactly as a public service announcement, but at least as an acknowledgment. I had a fair bit of espresso this afternoon, after having a fair bit of coffee in the morning. I then spent somewhere around 3 hours in the gym, because I look at tapering for a race like setting up expectations.  And frankly, I'm not quite sure enough of myself yet to have those. If I taper, then it's a target race. And if I blow a target race, well, that's not very good at all. (I guess this part only makes sense if I explain that I'm racing a 50K this Saturday. So, yeah, there's that. I'll probably write a really long race report about it. Get excited. Or stop reading for a week. Your call.)

But I digress. I had espresso, lots of it, and then went to the gym. I spent some time on the treadmill, the elliptical, then the treadmill again. Then I did core work until I couldn't, and dips and chinups until my arms went limp. Then I went back to the treadmill, jacked up the incline, did some sprints, then lowered it, and did some more. Then I did headstands for a bit, and tried to do handstands, but failed. I almost fell on my head a few times, but always landed safely, if gracelessly.

I decided that was probably enough, so I cleaned up, went across the street to the grocery store, and bought some kombucha (a delicious little money vampire that I hate that I like), sweet potatoes, and pears.

Happy with this haul, I ate a bit, and then sat down to read, if not the whole internet, most of it. The thing is, people keep adding things, like, all the time, so you never really get a reprieve. And so I read, about coffee and mitochondria and a kid getting eaten by an alligator, almost.

I decided that, since it was getting late, I should probably turn my computer off. And so I did, but since I wasn't tired yet, I started reading the latest edition of Running Times, which really makes me want to root for the Kenyans this Olympic year, which isn't patriotic, but oh well. But doing that made me want to check a couple running websites I had missed during my previous internet rounds, because there was too much other neat stuff in the way, so I did that.

Finally, reading made me thing about writing, that maybe I should do it, but I didn't have a story idea. But, you know, lack of a coherent narrative never stopped me from putting digital ink down, and so here we are.

Maybe there is a lesson here, which is why I decided to post this. Maybe you shouldn't inhale espresso late in the afternoon. Of course, they do say you can sleep when your dead, but I don't know about that. Really, I hope they're wrong, because if we get to sleep when we're dead, that means whatever afterlife you believe in doesn't have espresso, and seriously, fuck that.

July 8, 2012

Express, Oh

Writing about espresso for my last post reminded me, though I had never really forgotten, that espresso was invented as a beverage of utility. Those wayward tongues that emphasize and imagined "X", as in "expresso", are perhaps not as wrong as we think. Espresso was "express coffee", quick and dirty, enjoy your stale bread crust and then get back to work.

It's come a long way, since then. Granted, you see the occasional customer tossing a double shot down the hatch, quiver a bit, bite their lip, shake it off, and return to their life, now caffeinated. But it's usually not like that. Usually it's ordered by those looking for intensity of flavor, rather than an infusion of exogenous energy.

And that feels right, I think. It's not that other drinks don't, or can't, taste good. But no drip coffee can match the bite, the cutting acidity and the full, deep body. Not ounce for ounce. Not the punch. And not not the experience.

Allow me a moment, not to digress, though it may seem so at first. Caffeine takes a while to do its magic. And yet, when you drink coffee, or anything else caffeinated, you get a boost right then. Maybe your tongue is tasting the caffeine, and preemptively boosting your cognitive function. Maybe there is some other chemical at work, as yet undiscovered. Maybe it's placebo.

But whatever the effect is, and regardless of what it's caused by, there's no denying it, not with drip coffee, and certainly not with espresso. Hold a demitasse, a toasty little doll-sized ceramic cup, filled with amber and bronze. Smell, inhale the promise, and then drink it. It doesn't trickle down your throat, to your stomach, and so on. No, it explodes on your palate, and it's everywhere, right then. Espresso is on your mind immediately, because it damn near feels like it's in your mind too.

You finish, and look at the demitasse. There is something left, maybe a few errant grounds, a crust and a splatter. There is a reminder of what was, even as you're still experiencing what is. You see the remnants in the cup, feel them on your tongue, hold the taste like a sunburst in the mind's eye.

July 4, 2012

The Great American Coffee Pot

On this day, some time ago, our brave forefathers declared their independence from England, as best I can tell, because they were sick of paying sales tax on tea. We've had some ugly spots since then, some rather poor race relations, gender inequality, nuclear bombings, etc. But here we are, America, land of the free, home of the brave, still bitching that our caffeine delivery vehicles are too damn expensive.

But while some things don't change, others do. Sarcasm aside, we do live in a more open and equal society today, one that is sometimes even willing to discuss said openness and in/equalities. That's what I'm here today to do, in a sense.

My last post posited a question: Is there such a thing as masculine/feminine coffee? And, well, no one stepped forward to answer, which didn't really surprise me. It's an odd topic, first of all, one that I imagine no one really thinks about. And even if you did think about it, it's a hard question to answer. What do we mean by masculine and feminine? Do we mean simply that men and women like different flavors, or different drinks altogether? Are we inferring things about cultural suppositions, or about base biology? How do we even begin to address these questions without sounding like a bigot?

Given all of those problems, it's no wonder that we shy away from these sorts of discussions. The minefield is simply too difficult to navigate.

However, I'd wager that, if you've worked at a coffee bar, you've probably done your fair share of stereotyping. Asian girls get caramel machiattos; asian guys get americanos; hipsters get coffee, then load it with cream and sugar; chubby valley girl types get "skinny" lattes; middle eastern guys get mochas; the list goes on. You don't really like that you think these sorts of things, but you do, in the part of your brain that cares for neither wholesale accuracy nor political correctness.

Of course, all of this is why we like cafes, and coffee in general. It's an Ethiopian bean, first made popular in Arabia, then brewed in Europe. It became mechanized and made a commodity, as with many things, during the Industrial Revolution. It was that desire for haste that gave us espresso in the first place, as an Italian factory owner wanted to cut down on coffee break time, and increase productivity. Skip forward a few decades, and now we've got an army of smarmy hipsters, with their tight jeans and shaggy bangs, pulling shots for the craft, and making all sorts of other drinks for all sorts of other people, thinking things that maybe aren't polite, but mostly, loving it all.

I do, at least. There is some part of me that would probably like working in a more "elite" setting, serving nothing but black coffee, get the fuck out if you want dairy or sugar. But most of me likes seeing those more diverse cliental, even if some part of my brain starts to assume things about them. Maybe I think the guy who gets the white mocha with skim is "girly", or that the any number of other people are either playing in to or thwarting whatever stereotypes I might have formed for them. Maybe they've got similar assumptions about me, and probably, a lot of them are true.

Optimistic sorts tell us that this holiday is about embracing these differences, and celebrating them. They tell us that we are a nation of immigrants, of leftovers and mismatched parts. We are square pegs that fit improbably well in the round holes we've found ourselves in.

Maybe, but I don't know. What I do know is that I like being sent, in all forms, the tired, poor, and huddled masses - so long as they're not too poor to pay, of course.

July 1, 2012

The Sexual Politics of Coffee?

A quick question, for which I don't yet have an answer: Is coffee gendered? That is, is there such a thing as masculine/feminine coffee? If so, how would each taste?

I'll get around to my thoughts, once I've formed them. But for now, please leave a comment.