February 27, 2013

The Things We See

The view from the service side of the counter is not omniscient, but it does provide frequent perspective. That perspective, when combined with the attentiveness that's required of a good barista, means you notice things.

You pick up on things about customers that they don't tell you, that they perhaps don't notice themselves. You see them every day, always at the same spot, often at the same time. This is life as a sitcom of sorts, and we're all characters in each others' dramas.

There was a couple that came every day. Both got coffee and would ask for soy milk to put in it. Sometimes, though not often, they would get soy lattes.

Now only one of them comes. For two weeks I haven't seen the other. The one that still comes now orders a coffee and uses half and half, never soy. I notice this and the connection is clear to me, clear as if we'd discussed the whole situation at length; although we've never shared words on anything but the drink order at hand.

It feels voyeuristic, at times. The job gives you a window in to peoples' lives. Sometimes, you see things through that visage, real things that make up real life, things that are not small talk. You say nothing because there is nothing to say. You make the coffee and say "Have a nice day", careful not to mean it too much or too little. You deliver your lines just so, and never get out of character, playing your part as best you can.

February 23, 2013

Heavy Ass Weights

You could be forgiven if, looking at Ronnie Coleman, you took him as a poor source for wisdom. This is why I've not included a picture of him here - though you can certainly Google all you like. Ronnie was a 7 time Mr. Olympia, and as such, looked to most eyes a grotesquely massive figure. This is not the aesthetic people associate with pithy quotes to live by. And yet, he gives us this:
"Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wants to lift no heavy ass weights"
You can cross apply this to nearly anything. "Everybody wants to be a marathoner, but nobody want to do no long ass training runs", perhaps? 

But this isn't a running post, and it certainly isn't a bodybuilding post. It's not really a coffee post either, specifically. Though it could be all of those things, or anything else, if you wanted it to be. 

It's a post about this: Don't consider the end goal, so much as the process. If you don't lift said heavy ass weights, you aren't going to get jacked. (Steroids help.) If you don't run long, you won't race long. So find something you like doing, do it, commit to working your ass of at it, and see where it gets you. This is not to say that your work will always be fun; but if it's meaningful, if it matters to you and adds value to your life, you'll do it. 

And you'll get there, wherever there is. 

February 22, 2013


She ordered a wet cappuccino, after asking if I could make one well. I said that I could, which was the truth.

I made it, and it was good.

She called it perfection, and I didn't argue. You can't, really, when someone pays you a compliment like that. Good is, well, good. And great is great. But perfect? That's fucking perfect. It is the ideal, the best case scenario, Zeus' lightning in a cup.

And I did it!

Well, at least she said I did.

The truth is, the shots were a tad blond. Obviously, I didn't taste them, but I'd be willing to bet they were a little sour. Not bad, though. Certainly not awful. Just a little over extracted, is all.

But perfect? No. Not perfect.

But hidden behind a veil of 14ish ounces of well coifed milk, she couldn't tell.

Probably, most people couldn't. That's the thing about capps, lattes, mochas, whatever. They hide the espresso to such an extent that you can get away with sub optimal shots.

Which is not to say that you should. She may not have noticed that her shots weren't "perfect", but I did. The customer may not know, may not have ever had your best or even seen halfway decent espresso. But you have. You've seen good work, and know what it is to do good work. You've tasted properly bronzed nectar, and the acerbic shit on the other end of the spectrum.

You know. And you can't unknow. You can't forget, and you shouldn't.

The next drink up was an americano.

I followed my own advice. I was totally present, dosing and tamping by well practiced feel. I didn't rush it, didn't let my mind wander from the task at hand. I did my job, and nothing else.

And the shots? They were perfect.

February 19, 2013

A Quick Note on Tamping

Tamping is considered something of a science, insofar as there are usually specific numbers attached to the pressure one is to apply. That's a worthwhile place to start, I think, but not ultimately very useful. Eventually, you just know. You tamp until you don't need to tamp anymore, until the espresso no longer gives way, until its a perfectly uniform and compact puck, ready to yield its treasure.

Just pay attention. The goal is not to smash the whole thing, or grind it all down. So don't be violent. Neither is the goal to apply a uniform amount of pounds per square inch. The goal is to get a good puck. So, tamp until you have a good puck. Trust yourself to know when this is. Gain this trust by careful and attentive practice. There is no other way.

February 15, 2013


This is a Sawada, not my work. But today, I practiced my triples, and dammit if I didn't produce something pretty close to this. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm getting pretty damn good at this latte art thing, and maybe that should count for something? I don't know. But it's pretty cool, and it makes me happy. So there's that.

February 14, 2013

Moving Forward

In general, I'd like to think this is a blog with an optimistic viewpoint. In between the vaguely stream of consciousness rambling, I try to infuse a sense of being grateful for what you have and making the best of it. 

Yesterday's post was a stark departure from that.

It was such a departure that I came here today with the intent of deleting it, which I'm not going to do. I meant everything I said, when I said it; and there is still quite a bit of truth in that. When profit maximization becomes the prime motivator, I get a bit grumpy, simply because that's not what drives me. When I get the sense that I'm hopelessly naive, that the world is driven by things I will never understand and never desire, it can feel a bit hopeless. 

So for the sake of honesty, the bitching stays, even if the tone does not. Sometimes work is, you know, work. Sometimes I have to manage a real coffee bar, rather than playing at it. And in that, does money matter? Fucking right it does. But that's no reason to whine, certainly. I have a job I enjoy, serving people I like while working alongside people I like.

This. Is. Good. 

Can it be better? Of course. Forever and always, yes. And I'm working on that. I'm working on being proactive, on making the best of what are, frankly, pretty good circumstances already. 

Today I ran hills comfortably, and dropped a hard 5k in the middle. Sometimes you have to do hard things to reap the benefit. 

February 13, 2013

Cost of Doing Business

You're aware, probably, that this is nominally a coffee blog. Furthermore, you've probably noticed that my last three posts have been about running, with nary a mention of coffee. I'd like to rectify that. I'd love to write something as verbose and passionate as my odes on running about coffee.

But that's not going to happen. Not today, anyway. That's because, for the last couple weeks, I haven't really thought much about coffee at work. It's been pushed aside by that big omnipresent bitch: Money. And if it sounds like I resent this fact, it's because I do.

We are told that death and taxes are the only sure things in life, but I'd like to suggest this: Coffee will always get more expensive. Beyond that, people will always lament this fact, as they do gas prices, or other not quite optional purchases.

You can tell them about a leaf rust epidemic or just shrug. You can explain why this needs to happen or just say that these things do. I've tried all of that, and nothing seems to make much difference. There is no good way to ask people to spend more money on the same product, no matter how good it is.

I get it. I don't love spending money either. But I also understand the economics on the other side of the counter.

And so you're left, trying to pinch pennies here, dollars there, grabbing at straws or rearranging deck chairs or whatever cliche metaphor strikes your fancy. However you phrase it, you're doing this: Stressing.

You're stressing about money, then stressing about the fact that this otherwise beautiful exchange of courtesies and stories and pleasantries has to be marred by base currency exchange, and that ultimately, that's what you have to worry about; because without that, none of the other stuff happens at all.

I can't say much more than that I really wish this weren't the case, but it pretty clearly is.

February 10, 2013

The Forge

I have raced again, for the first time in a while, and the lucidity that only maximal exertion can get you made clear to me several things.

First, this: I am neither as strong nor as fast as I want to be. And this will always be the case.

Then, this: There is a sense in which I love running, the specific act. But more wholly and honestly, I love training. I love having a rock of purpose at the center of my life, and breaking myself over it, to be remade stronger, better, faster. Running is the fire; training is the forge in which we purposefully recast ourselves.

Training means doing things that you don't want to do. It means lung searing and muscle aching. It means waking up and feeling stiffness and soreness in places and ways young men of supposedly good health and fitness should not. It means not stopping when stopping seems like the greatest thing in the entire world, when no one would know but you. But you would know. And you do know that these are the sorts of things you have to do in order to be the kind of runner - the kind of soul crushing RACER - that you want to be.

Finally, this: My foot is healthy now, and my motivation is too. Thus it is time to resuming training in earnest. It is time to submerge myself in oxygen debt and swim in lactic acid, to run laps around the deepest circles of hell.

I cannot tell you how happy it makes me just to type this. I am giddy. Elated. Ecstatic. Anticipatory. There are words for things like this, but none sufficient. You just have to know.

February 9, 2013

Psyco Wyco 10 Mile Trail Race Report

I am standing at the start, quite cold, looking to my left. There is the man who will win the race, I think, based on everything I know about him and the field. I try to gauge how he looks and can only discern: cold as well. I look for others who have an aesthetic of speed, trying to gauge who might go hard, and with whom I will have to reckon.

I am twitching and bounding and skipping and doing things that might be called a warm up, but really, are just an expression of nervous energy. I have not really raced in months, spending that time half training, half recovering from injury. I am healthy now but not terribly fit. My training has been decent, in terms of recreational volume, but has lacked anything resembling intensity. I have taken only a handful of trips to anaerobic hell, content to cross train and leisurely run hills instead. And so I am nervous, because a race well run requires a degree of pain I have not calloused myself to.

I look across the field and know that there are ten miles and several thousand feet of ascent/descent there, thick with mud, and I don't quite know what I'm going to do about it. It's a silly thing to wonder, of course, because there is only one thing to do: Run like hell. Whatever fitness I've got is what I've got, so let's fucking see where it gets me.

3... 2... 1

I am bounding near the front, conscious of the fact that only 200 yards in, I'm huffing. I let the leader go, and several follow. Two more surge past me and I think that they are racing far too early. This is the first hill of the course, and quite small comparatively. Surging here is either inexperience or hubris. I count my steps, keep my head down, and try to ignore the competitive voice in my head that's screaming to keep the leaders in sight.

I am successful and hit the first aid station in 5th place. I tell myself that this is a good thing, that this is where I should be right now. I tell myself that I will reel in 4th, then 3rd, then see what happens.

4th is wearing blue Adidas shorts that I own but am not wearing today, and blue Kinvaras. They are caked with mud and his cadence is slowing. He asks me how far we've gone, and is obviously dejected when I say that it's not yet been 3 miles. Moments later he steps to the side and lets me pass. I surge just a bit, trying to dissuade him from making any effort to chase. The switchbacks make for comical cutting, and I grab at trees for stability.

3rd is wearing black and has a bottle on his waist. He is 20 yards ahead of me, and appears to be comfortable. I am breathing hard and could not answer clearly if you asked what my name was, but I will not let him get further away. When possible I run on the fringe of the trail, hoping to find some purchase and keep my turnover respectable. When the hills appear, there is nothing to do but spin, and so I do, trying to drive my heels down and engage the posterior chain.

Having gained nothing, we descend a series of steep switchbacks. I fall and a tree branch goes up my shorts. This is very nearly a disaster but I only take mud away from the exchange. There is a clearing next, and the race's longest climb; half is on grass and half is on pavement. By the top of the hill he is looking back, and I am there, right there; I could talk to him comfortably if my breathing would allow.

I think that I have him then, that he has gone out too fast and that I have reeled him in. I am quickly disabused of that notion when the singletrack begins again. He sprints down the hill, so narrow and slick as to resemble a luge, with speed and agility I have neither the skill nor the heart for. I am vaguely aware that there are rocks underneath me and think that I would rather not die here today.

He is gone. I am running still, pulling myself up hills with bungee cords and maintaining decent pace on the flats. I am either gaining confidence on the downhill portions or simply losing whatever shit I was giving previously. But I can no longer see 3rd. Neither, however, can 5th see me. I don't know who occupies that spot now, but am glad for that fact; I don't want to know until the race is over.

I am resigned to my place with 2.5 miles to go, though still churning up hills and through mud with enough urgency to, I hope, keep the gap between myself and the man I had chased respectable. I am trying to decide whether I am happy with 4th or not, then scold myself for worrying about things like that. This is not the Olympic Trials; that shit doesn't matter. I tell myself that I ran like hell and that my shoes look pretty badass muddy; this is a good day. The cold breeze now feels good and so I agree.

The final hills are a cruel joke, but still funny, and so I smile and laugh my way up them. There is the characteristic lactic acid buildup in my legs, which feels as if I've somehow absorbed the mud via osmosis. But I go on, and am pleased to find that my hips will still open up and allow for good pace on the runnable stretches that remain. The finish is one such stretch, a slight downhill grade that allows for a perfectly photogenic finishing kick, chasing no one.

February 6, 2013

Self Determination, a Statement on a Lack of Statements

When asked if I'm a runner, I always look away for a moment, and mutter a mild confirmation. We are our actions, and to that extent, I am one. I run, of course; but beyond that, I read blogs and magazines devoted to the sport, from its stars to its shoes. I know the heel/toe drop of most shoes currently on the market, who Killian Jornet and Geoffrey Mutai are, and how to pronounce quinoa. That is to say nothing of my race results, which are a documented reality.

And yet, when asked, I don't say "yes" emphatically. I don't meet the eyes and declare that I am what I am; I don't advertise or proudly endorse this thing that is nonetheless a large part of my life. Customers ask me if I'm racing, and I tell them. If they ask how far, I share that too. When they later ask how I did, I try to talk around my time and place, opting instead for vague descriptors like "I felt good" or "it was a solid effort".

There are stickers now that read 26.2, or even 13.1. You see them on the back of vehicles, indicating that the owner has covered the stated distance on foot. Many of my running friends have them, or similar ultra equivalents. I certainly don't fault people who feel that measure of pride. Running is a powerful statement that you're going to take accountability for your health and fitness, that you're going to do something real and tangible, that you're going to chase the horizon. To some, that is worth sharing. And to be clear: There is nothing wrong with that.

But you will see no stickers on my car. While I do take pride in what I've done, the feeling is personal, bordering on intimate. Running a marathon or an ultra is not a stunt to garner attention or inspire awe; I don't do it to impress anyone. It is wholly about personal satisfaction, about independently doing this thing. To flaunt such a private achievement would feel vulgar.

And yet there is hypocrisy, of course. There is this blog, on which I write occasionally about running itself, and sometimes even about specific races. This is, as best I can explain, the anonymity of the internet. While this is me writing, it is not me standing right in front of you. And while these are my words, this isn't my voice.

But I can't wholly account for it. I can't balance the person who would rather not mention Heartland to people with the guy who wrote about it here, the guy who just mentioned it now. A runner? I suppose so. But human also. And both categories imply foibles that can never entirely make sense.

February 5, 2013

I'll Manage

It would take far too many words and be a terrible misuse of your time to attempt to catch you up on the state of business at my shop.

Thus, the abridged version: The owner owns a new restaurant, which is not yet swimming in cash. As such, our belt is being tightened to compensate. Today, it went a notch too far. That's all I'll say about that.

A few hours ago I was contemplating some sort of rant here, a vile verbal binge. But since that time, two things have happened: 1) I've decided that would be in bad taste. 2) The problem is solved. I've managed a creative solution that saves money, jobs, and my sanity.

So I find myself, instead, in something of an exultant mood. I've never been called inspirational before today; and while I hardly think I'm deserving of the accolade, I'll enjoy it for now.

All I'll say is this: I believe that a good manager ought to put the shop and his/her employees first. Your job is not to maximize your own income. Do the right thing.

Today, I think I did.

February 2, 2013


I made a cup of Ethiopian and sipped it while eating an apple and driving to the trailhead. I stopped and got a cup of shitty gas station coffee after finishing my good stuff because my quads were sore from my first flat tempo effort in months and this, this was supposed to be a hilly long run. I choked it down and arrived to a nearly full parking lot.

One baby loop, and I was back at my car. It had only been six miles but for some reason, things never opened up. I never felt fast or slow or much of anything really; there was neither a runner's high nor a runner's low. I sat there and listened to someone on college radio doing a Bob Dylan impression, took that cue and drove to campus.

I ran six more miles around the football stadium, a big empty building with a suspicious amount of Escalades parked out front. I imagined there was some sort of mob meeting going on inside but just kept circuiting the hills anyway, sometimes taking the stairs, sometimes trudging up the grass. I turned and sprinted down, arms out, fingers open, pretending to be Killian Jornet, and then feeling immature since he's less than one year older than me, and shouldn't we leave that shit in grade school?

I know that I ran six more miles after that, all on flat road, but I can't really recall. I know that it happened because I saw my reflection in the windows I went by, and I received that sensation that is unique to seeing and then hating one's own running form. I finished and ate probably too many rice cakes with peanut butter, some berries, an apple, a pear, and then two shots of espresso. Blunted by the sugar I had just ingested, the shots tasted like not very much, which was okay since the shop I purchased them at only usually does a mediocre job.

I went to three bookstores but didn't buy anything, drank an iced tea instead while watching a homeless man do a crossword puzzle.