Desiring Decaf (Or, WTF, Coffee Snobs?)

balanced breakfast
                                                                                  balanced breakfast

Today I started my morning with part of a Cupcake Royale raspberry pavlova cupcake (vanilla cake, raspberry sauce, lemon buttercream, meringue, delicious) that I’d saved from the night before, and a cup of hot black coffee. In bed. It felt so right.

The coffee, incidentally, was decaffeinated: not because I’m 36 week pregnant (it’s generally accepted that moderate caffeine consumption is just fine during pregnancy), but because I’m extremely sensitive to the effects of caffeine. Anything more than a single cup of black tea makes my heart pound unpleasantly and turns me into a jittery, anxious mess.

It’s a cliché for mainstream coffee drinkers to sniff “what’s the point?” when reminded of decaf’s existence. My partner once mistook this for acceptable banter when I ordered a decaf Americano, resulting in a fight during which I called him a dick in front of the mortified barista (we laughed about it later). Recently, I remarked to a veteran barista friend that I liked a certain coffee shop because I didn’t feel like they were judging me for ordering decaf. “Oh,” she assured me, “they’re judging you.”

But why? Caffeine is a drug, the effects of which don’t agree with some people. I’ve been a caffeine drinker in the past, but after I quit cold-turkey in an effort to address my night bruxism (aka tooth grinding/jaw clenching; it helped, somewhat), my tolerance plummeted. To this day, I reserve anything more than the relatively tiny amounts found in tea, chocolate, or decaf coffee for emergency situations (solo road trips, deadlines that require all-nighters – of which there are mercifully few these days). There are simply those of us who want to enjoy the taste of coffee without corresponding ill-effects.

I’ve heard it said on many occasions that people like me should just avoid coffee, because, you see, no one could possibly enjoy the taste of decaf. That’s news to me: I happen to like it. Admittedly, my taste in coffee is not very sophisticated. I’ve worked as a barista and received training that enabled me to understand the nuances of coffee roasted with restraint. I can appreciate the floral, citrusy, or herbaceous complexity of a single-origin shade-grown light-roast pour-over. But I still prefer the robust, earthy, pedestrian (okay, haters, burnt) flavor of a good dark roast. And, let’s face it – when you’re roasting coffee beans to a charred crisp anyway, the flavor differences between regular and decaf are negligible. There are even some roasters who do a pretty good job with their decaf beans.

Why should anyone care whether I have shit taste in coffee? Does that make me less of a person? I like what I like – why is that a problem for you? The only conclusion that makes sense is insecurity. Why else would anyone be in the business of policing someone else’s preferences?

As a server, I always liked it when someone had the chutzpah to ask for ice cubes with their wine. And if someone wants their steak cooked well-done, or wants to put ketchup on said steak, what business of it is mine?

An apparent lack of sophistication in others stirs up anxieties about the parts of ourselves that may be underdeveloped, unformed, or simply out of step with what the culture considers “cool.” A truly secure person (I’m not necessarily claiming this designation for myself!) has no need to pass judgment on the aesthetic preferences of others. A truly secure person doesn’t waste time scrutinizing someone else’s taste. A truly secure person says (and means) “right on: you do you.”

So, even when I’m no longer pregnant, I’ll still enjoy my decaf, listen to corny 90’s country music, wear brown and black together, and dip my fries in my milkshake. Snobs be damned.

I Will Do My Best to be Who She Thinks I Am

She was sitting on a huge concrete block in the wide gravel no-man’s-land that constitutes a parking lot for shipyard employees, as well as a micro-neighborhood of people who live in old RV’s. I was thinking about where I would shelter if The Big One hit right then. There was a reasonable amount of open space, free from hazards like utility poles and power lines; but the soil in the area, as I’d just learned from a color-coded map, is highly susceptible to liquefication, and I was beneath a slope that would surely collapse into a tree-and-building-laden landslide in the event of magnitude 9.0 earthquake. Bad news.

(I’ve been anxiously fixating on the danger our region faces from a massive earthquake since I read this New Yorker article yesterday. As much as I like to think that I have a deep acceptance of impermanence and the inevitability of death, the thought of being in immediate peril from a natural disaster is horrifying. Strangely, even before reading about the Cascadia subduction zone, I’d been experiencing a heightened awareness of the vulnerability of those who, like me, exist in the complacent ease of relative peace and prosperity. The truth is, it could shatter at any moment. I’d been having vivid fantasies of what it would be like to be involved in a large-scale catastrophe—like the mega-quake we’ve been promised.)

She was sucking on a vaporizer, and Ayla bounded up to greet her.

“You’re such a nice person. Wow. You’re gorgeous. I mean, gorgeous, wow.” She traced the contours of an imaginary pregnant belly.

“Thanks,” I replied. “You’re very sweet.”

“No, I’m not sweet! It’s true! You’re gorgeous. I am so happy for you. You’re going to be amazing.”

I smiled and thanked her, a little bemused, but flattered. As I walked away, she exclaimed,

“Yes. Yes, thank God!” I wondered what she meant, and surmised that she was glad someone as great as she clearly assumed I was was having a child.

When I was about 100 yards distant, she called out, “What’s your name?”

I yelled a reply, but she couldn’t hear, and started running towards me on sock feet. Ayla turned around and raced towards her, and I followed.

I repeated my name, and she launched into an impromptu paean to my beauty, kind-heartedness, loving nature, and overall greatness.

“Your energy is so beautiful! Look at the sunset. Look at it! That’s the energy I see inside you. You have so much love in your heart. You’re going to have a beautiful baby son. Can I give you a big hug? Or just a little hug?”

I assented. She smelled strongly of booze and there was a dampness of sweat between her shoulder blades. A small red bruise showed on her slender arm, and she had a Chinese character that may have been a tattoo but looked like a pen drawing in the center of her chest.

As I walked away, she began to weep.

“You’re going to be a great mother! I’m SO glad I met you. Namaste. What’s your sign?”

“Aries,” I said.

“I’m a Capricorn,” she said, and bowed, forearms drawn together in front of her face. “I love you. I love you. I love you so much!” She sobbed.

Needless to say, it was an affecting encounter. One could as easily dismiss her words as the illogical, and entirely unfounded, ramblings of a drunk. After all, I’m in the habit of dismissing (okay, attempting to dismiss) the nastiness directed my way by strangers who know nothing of me: the guy whose road rage prompted him to label me a “dumbass,” for instance. The screwed up thing is that his entirely unreasonable assessment precipitated a full-fledged emotional melt-down: Whereas the casual cruelty of strangers confirms what I suspect about myself (that I am bad, unworthy, stupid, etc.), the (often far more intense) avowals of my goodness that random people occasionally heap upon me make less of an impact. I don’t really believe them.

“She doesn’t know me,” I thought. “Where is she getting all of this?” Also: “She’s drunk.”

I’ve been feeling great guilt about bringing a child into a world that seems more frightening and unstable by the day. I feel selfish and foolhardy; even though I know that I did my due diligence in trying to prevent my pregnancy, I sometimes question whether it was morally correct to continue it. I question my ability to parent, my fitness to steward a vulnerable life, and even my capacity for love, on a daily basis.

But this evening’s encounter was a ray of hope. The total belief of a complete stranger in my essential goodness, her fulsome praise of my very being, her jubilation at my fruitfulness, buoyed my belief in myself. It made me think that maybe I can be a good, even a great, parent. That perhaps my existence is not a net loss for the world, and that, rather than hastening its demise, I might actually be contributing to society by raising a wonderfully compassionate and effective human.

And it took my mind off the Earthquake.

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Sunday Morning Danish in the Park

There’s something very fine about getting up early in the morning. But although I love to, I haven’t been in the habit of doing so. My nocturnal work schedule, and the desire to draw out my sleep by staying in bed for as long as possible, meant that, for quite a while now, I’ve been rising late.

This past Sunday, I was up at 7:00. Of course, 7am isn’t all that early for many people. But it’s the crack of dawn for me, and I was excited to revel in the solitary pleasures afforded by being (I was sure) one of the only people up before 9 on a Sunday.

Heading to Café Besalu (pastry Mecca, makers of Seattle’s best croissant) after dropping my partner off at work, I looked forward to buying a perfect pastry without waiting in line. At a little after 8am, there was already a line out the door. Still, it wasn’t snaking down the block, as Sunday Besalu lines tend to do.

besalu

After a modest wait of less than ten minutes, I held in my hand a glowing nectarine danish, its seductively twisted edge and glistening innards beckoning me to take a bite, even though I planned to save it until I got to the park. It was fragrant and flaky and gooey and still a little warm: ecstasy.

my flip-phone capture could not do this beautiful thing justice
                                                  my flip-phone capture could not do it justice.

On to Discovery park, I imagined that my favorite dog-walking zone would be pretty much people-free. As it turned out, though, lots and lots of people are up and about early on Sunday. Apparently, many of them go jogging in Discovery park.

Walking along the south bluff, it was a little disorienting to see so many people running, all in different directions, as if fleeing invisible foes. In my still-sleepy state, their vigor and energy made me a little dizzy.

I sat on a bench overlooking the sound, facing Mt. Ranier in its mist-cloaked glory, and finally ate my danish. Shards of pastry showered my protruding belly, and I was grateful.

Signs of Distress

There’s this guy who I see sometimes, on a bench by the canal. He has an old-fashioned radio, complete with twiddly knobs and a broken mirror taped to the top. He holds this ensemble very close to his face, while he raps along to the music quietly issuing from the radio and grimaces into the mirror. Sometimes he does this for hours at a time.

There’s another guy who I often see walking the canal trail. He may be carrying grocery bags, or he may be empty-handed. He is extraordinarily thin, he walks very fast, and he is always dressed for cold weather. Yesterday, it was in the mid-eighties; still, he was wearing a wool hat with ear-flaps, a winter coat, and bulky black pants. He never looks at me, or as far as I can tell, at anyone. He appears entirely single-minded in his walking.

The behavior of the first, I find incredibly disturbing, whereas that of the second elicits curiosity, pity, a strange sense of protectiveness. I dread the thought of Mirror Man observing me observing him, whereas I would welcome an acknowledgement from Walking Man, the opportunity to meet his eyes and smile. Why should this be so? Each man exists apparently outside of the social world, absorbed within his own reality. Both exhibit signs of what is commonly understood as mental illness. Why, then, does one man provoke feelings of threat and revulsion, whereas the other strikes me as completely innocuous?

I have a story that I’ve made up about Walking Man, most likely wrong. In this story, he suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, which is the impetus for his walking. Although he’s skinny and worn-looking (he does, after all, spend his life walking briskly from place to place), he has a home that he returns to, where people—probably parents—love him, and make sure that he is fed and clothed and sheltered at night. In reality, he’s probably homeless (though he may well have OCD.)

I don’t have stories about the other man—yet. I haven’t seen him as frequently, for one thing. Also, because of my response to him, he’s remained, thus far, an Other, not a person with a history and a family and a context. I assume he’s in the grip of drugs and delusions, feeding and enriching one another in a continual cycle of disordered fixation.

The walking behavior seems innocent. With his slight frame swaddled as if for winter, his hands occupied by paper grocery bags, his posture upright, Walking Man projects a kind of harmless self-possession, a stoic vulnerability. Mirror Man, on the other hand, seems like he’s practicing for a confrontation. Shirtless, hunched over his radio, head jerking, gaze fixed on his own image in the broken mirror, his performance seems like a metaphor for the aggressive solipsism to which so many of us succumb.

Of course, I know nothing about these people. My assumptions have no factual basis, and my instincts might be all wrong. I’m used to having my perceptions shown to be grossly distorted—reflections of myself, as much as of those I’m perceiving.

the walking man walks
the walking man walks

I want to believe

lockette

Yesterday was logically impossible. It was magic. It was a miracle.

I’m talking, of course, about the Seahawks’ ridiculously improbable victory in the NFC Championships against the Packers. Down 16-0 at halftime, Seattle made an insane comeback in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 points in the last 2:09 of the game, and winning in overtime.

Now, I know barely anything about football, so I won’t embarrass myself by trying to analyze the game or dissect anyone’s performance. Suffice it to say, for the first three quarters, Seattle sucked (okay, I will also say that, according to the people who actually know what they’re talking about, our defense – AKA the Legion of Boom – did a good job of keeping us in the game). But they refused to give up, and made a stunning comeback.

With just a few minutes left on the clock, Seahawks fans everywhere were dejected and somber. At four minutes, I almost said aloud, “it’s over.” But something told me not to. A stubborn voice in my head insisted, “it’s not over til it’s over!”

And it wasn’t.

As anyone who’s read this blog before has probably figured out, cynicism comes easily to me. Faith and positivity and warm-fuzzies are nice and all, but they don’t seem particularly reflective of reality. And yet… As skeptical and detached as I can be, I want to believe in serendipity, in the power of faith in yourself and your (literal or metaphorical) teammates, in seemingly impossible victories, in miracles. Yesterday, the Seahawks made me believe.

wilson

ugh

These days, all I want to do is take naps and baths and sit around reading.

I don’t want to go outside.

I don’t want to go to work.

I don’t want to write.

Although these activities are essential, seasonal inertia (in addition to other weird things happening in my body – more on that later) has engulfed me, and I feel exhausted and uninspired much of the time.

I have a dog who must be walked, so I go outside, reluctantly. The sky is moist and grey and mocks whatever nascent optimism dares to rise within me.

I like living in a safe, cozy apartment and having food to eat, so I go to work. The job that once filled me with rapturous excitement has begun to feel repetitive and routine.

I desperately long to feel effective in the world, to reconcile my creative stirrings with my actual output. And, who am I kidding: I’d love to “make it” as a writer. Trouble is, there’s nothing forcing me to write. Nothing as compelling as an exercise-hungry dog or the need to keep my job.

I know there’s really no such thing as “writer’s block”: just a lack of discipline. And while this seems like a really poor premise for a blog post, I have to write about something. Anything. Just to do it. Just to write.

Szechuan Tofu

When I was in college, I lived with several housemates right off of Aurora Avenue North, a strip of highway notorious for seedy motels, drugs, and prostitution. Around the corner was a video store called The Voyeur, a pizza joint staffed entirely by Russian guys, a dingy pet store that sold puppy mill puppies, and a Chinese restaurant called the Szechuan Bean Flower.

The restaurant was nondescript. Housed in a strip mall, with the confrontational fluorescent lighting, torn leatherette booths, and smudged linoleum typical of the genre, there was nothing in its appearance that hinted at greatness. I’d never been particularly inclined to eat there. I’ve always been an avid home cook, and with access to the incomparable HT Market (for a glorious time, my neighborhood grocery store) and a top-notch kitchen (the area’s undesirability meant that we got to live in a really nice house with a gas stove) there was little reason to take a chance on a dodgy looking strip-mall restaurant.

At some point, I ended up there anyway. My roommates had developed a mania for hot pot and I quickly caught on. Submerging tender napa cabbage, toothsome rice noodles, and cold slabs of tofu (I skipped the pork and the “beef honeycomb”) into a seething oily broth, then dipping the morsels in a spicy peanut sauce, represented an acme of enjoyment for us broke, food-driven college kids who weren’t yet old enough to drink in bars.

The hot pot was really, really good. But the true revelation came when I finally ordered from the regular menu.

I can’t remember if I was a vegetarian at the time. It’s possible. But even during the meatiest periods of my culinary life, I’ve been a tofu lover. It’s always what I order at Asian restaurants. Plus, I love spice. So I gravitated to the Szechuan tofu. Once I tasted the first bite – crispy fried tofu, alive with the beguiling heat of Szechuan peppercorns, strewn with verdant stalks of cilantro – I was addicted.

This Szechuan tofu was the perfect dish. Texturally, visually, aromatically. It had never before occurred to me to use cilantro as a vegetable; I was an uninspired simpleton. I craved this tofu weekly (or more) and ate it as frequently as I could. Until, one day, I visited the Szechuan Bean Flower with some family who were visiting from Germany. They were true appreciators of food, and vegetarians who adored spicy tofu dishes. I couldn’t wait to turn them on to my life-changing discovery. It’s hard to overstate the confusion and disappointment I felt when my “Szechuan tofu” arrived at the table. Instead of an assertively fragrant red and green pile of fiery tofu and tender cilantro, it was just another tofu dish: spongy yellow cubes languished in an insipid gravy, flanked by carrots and celery and bell peppers. I was crushed.

It turned out that the restaurant had changed owners; although the kept the menu intact, the recipes had changed.

Over the years, I’ve attempted on a few occasions to fill the Szechuan tofu-shaped void in my heart/stomach by making my own. The first couple times, I ended up with a pleasing, spicy tofu dish with lots of cilantro. Idiotically, I failed to include Szechuan peppercorns in these renditions. More recently, I bought extra-firm tofu, which I pressed overnight, and proceeded to fry into leathery dry chunks: the tofu was too dry, and too small. The flavor was good enough, though, so that the friend I’d made it for surprised me a few weeks later by requesting that I make it again. This time, I wasn’t going to mess it up.

We made a trip to the venerable HT Market, where we bought tofu from the excellent Thanh Son, plus a whole lot of cilantro and an assortment of weird gelatinous and sweet and salty and artificially colored and entirely unnecessary snack foods (my pantry was already stocked with Szechuan peppercorns from World Spice Merchants).

This time, I didn’t press the tofu; it was late, and we were ravenous. As it turned out, this was a good choice (Thanh Son’s tofu is firm and meaty, and, being really fresh, not packed in water). I also cut it into decidedly bigger chunks. I fried the tofu in a couple of inches of canola oil; it came out crisp and golden, while retaining its internal heft and moisture. Next, I stir-fried it in a big aluminum stock-pot (I don’t have a wok anymore – it probably got lost in one of my many moves) with plenty of Szechuan peppercorns (lovingly hand-ground in my trusty suribachi), a few japones chilies, a splash of soy sauce, and some Sriracha. Then I tossed in two bunches of coarsely chopped cilantro. My friend stir-fried choy sum with ginger to add green-leafy virtue to the meal.

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The result? Really, really good. I’m intensely self-critical when it comes to food (okay, to everything). But I thought my rendition of Szechuan tofu was pretty great. The tofu could have been crispier; maybe I should have dredged it in corn starch or something?

Admittedly, it’s been years since I’ve experienced the real thing. I don’t know if my version was actually that close. But a google search told me there’s a Szechuan Bean Flower in Issaquah – quite likely the very same one?! – and a pilgrimage is in the works.

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