Cup of Joe

In lieu of real or meaningful content, I thought I’d take a moment this morning to discuss coffee cups. Those of you who know me in the real world are aware of the fact that I had a coffee cup surgically implanted in my hand at the age of seventeen. (OK – I only WISH I did. I spend half my life wandering around wondering where I left my coffee cup on weekends.)

On your average morning – like this morning – I make myself a pot of coffee. The pot is thermal. The coffee is Starbucks Sumatra, but at about half the recommended potency. I will drink between one and three of these pots a day. On a work morning, I make my pot, give my husband a teeny cup, then fill a 16 oz mug and a 16 oz thermos. During one summer job during college, my commute was so long I made a 16 oz mug, a 16 oz thermal mug and a 16 oz thermos and would have all of it consumed by the time I got to work. During college – at which time you could tell my relative poverty by the fact I was drinking Maxwell House (although I would cut it with Starbucks if I could get any) – I used to store my coffee cup in my coat pocket. For one class, I’d have my 16 oz mug, my 16 oz thermos and a 16 oz mug for a friend in my pocket. I was a good friend.

Let us speak for a moment of the platonic ideal of the travel coffee mug. I give you this one:

Starbucks Coffee mug c1997

This might be my very favorite coffee mug (although the one with the dancing skeletons I use during Halloween is a close second).

Prime attributes:
– Perfect size
– Perfect shape
– Plastic thermal mug is ideal temperature wise (more on that in a bit)
– Lightweight
– Relatively durable (this mug is – cough – 18 years old)
– Beautiful design

Starbucks used to make these mugs all the time. They were all the same basic design, but with different pictures. I have an impressionist one, a red hispanic themed one, the aforementioned dancing skeletons… I had an extensive collection. They cost five or six dollars and came with a free drink. (For reference, my current drink costs $4.44 so that would be an excellent deal for me. Plus it’s $.10 off every drink you get in your own mug!) It’s a good thing I did since five or six years ago (more?), they stopped making them. They branched out to different designs – every mug having a different profile. They’ve innovated themselves out of something I loved!

The back of the mug, with the Space Needle in the background. 1997 represents the period where Starbucks was just beginning to explode as a global company, but was still strongly rooted in Seattle.

Right now Starbucks is basically only offering stainless steel travel mugs, to my sorrow. My problem with that is that I drink my coffee black. I pour it the second it comes out of my Mr. Coffee (not because I’m a purist – because I’m late for work). So it’s near boiling when I put it in my stainless steel mug. It stays near boiling for a looooooong time. I’m guessing the people who love these mugs add milk or creamer so they don’t burn their tongues off.

Which brings me to my last idiosyncrasy (I swear, half of my externally visible oddness has to do with my coffee habits…) I drink my coffee from these travel mugs with a straw. Always have. I learned to drink coffee and to drive at literally the same time. (Coincidence? I think not.) When I fell in love with java was when I was putting nearly a thousand miles EVERY WEEK on my parents car. (Loving parents!) I was in the car 2 to 3 hours a day, every day. Maybe more. Often first thing in the morning. If you drink out of a mug regularly in the car, you have to tilt your head back to finish it (briefly taking your eyes off the road). You also have to be more coordinated than I am, or you spill coffee on yourself. (Personally, I consider au de caffeine my personal perfume.) I neatly solved both of these problems by grabbing a straw from Starbucks and using it in mug until it breaks. In a positive innovation, Starbucks has recently started selling durable straws (for use in their cold beverages, they claim) which do not break. This is a bonus.

Thus, the on-the-go coffee.

When I’m home, as I am today, I prefer my coffee in a non travel mug. (At which time I do not use a straw, if you’re curious.) I’d never had quite a favorite, until about a year ago. I inherited a few small things from my paternal grandparents. Some pieces of jewelry. The melamine plates and bowls my grandma served me cookies on. A handthrown clay coffee mug with birds.

My grandmother’s cup
I particularly like how the birds are actually etched into the pottery. You can feel the design with your fingers. I bet this mug would be lovely to a blind person too.

I don’t know why I like it so much. I’m not even – on calm reflection – sure how I know it came from my grandma. (Relatives, can anyone confirm, or remember it?) But it’s perfect. It’s warm to the hands, but doesn’t lose heat too quickly, or scald. It conforms perfectly to the proportions of my hand. It holds just the right amount of coffee for consuming at my pace without getting cold. And the three birds on it look cheerful. There’s a name of the artist neatly signed on the bottom in bell hook-esque cursive: “betty belle”. It’s as though the fifties blew me a kiss in the shape of a coffee cup. I love it.

One of the great curses of using beautiful objects is that they are exposed to risk in the use. That platonic ideal Starbucks mug hasn’t held coffee in over 10 years because it has a crack. If I put coffee in it, that design will be gone forever. I suppose I should just throw it away, but I don’t want to. Wandering around the house doing chores in my slippers – one day I’ll move wrong and drop my grandmother’s mug and it will shatter. It is pottery, thrown and designed by hand. It is breakable. I will mourn, but I’ll have the memory of a hundred hot cups to console me. I’ll take the great memories of a mug loved and lost over an intact cup in the back of my cupboard any day of the week.

I’ve Googled betty belle and come up with nothing. I like to imagine she was a Boeing housewife who did pottery in her spare time to supplement her income. She was almost certainly a Seattle area artist.

What’s your favorite coffee cup? What’s that object you touch every day that brings you pleasure every time you use it?

An adventure of 12,000 steps

The last line of the love-note reads, “PS. Cats are already eating flowers. Disaster may ensue. Mea culpa.”

My husband left us for a weekend of gaming, leaving behind a clean kitchen and bouquet of flowers. The boys and I have consoled ourselves with his absence by watching “Back to the Future” last night. This morning, cold and gray but bearable, I hatched a plan.

Tragically, the super cool headband was lost on our sojourn.

It started by winding our way through familiar streets and over long-used routes to Oak Grove – starting point for many a foray and adventure. I held Thane on my lap to keep myself warm (I underestimated the temperature by a layer for myself) and quizzed Grey on Boston’s history. Once on the Orange Line, we whirred past miles of new construction and gleaming buildings rising out of graffiti-strewn rubble, and on to North Station. I know the North Station area very poorly. I’ve spent hardly any time there. So we carefully picked our way across streets, swimming up-current from a horde of Bruins fans come to see them play the Flyers (Phlyers?). I found the Starbucks that was a necessary first stop, and then we discovered the soaring, twirling pathway across Storrow Drive to the Esplanade.

A gray day, but above freezing means it’s worth playing!

Now, I’ve lived in the greater Boston area nearly 14 years, in three different places. As any Bostonian must, I have many times traveled the storied route up the Charles from the Zakim to Brookline, passing past the hallowed markers of the Hatch Shell and Citgo sign. Since my first son took his first steps, I’ve passed the parkingless playground and thought to myself “That looks fun! I should bring my progeny here!” On beautiful days where the sky was blue and the Charles was sparkling with waves and white sails and yellow-sculled boats, and the grass between the road and the water was hopelessly green… I’ve thought how pleasant it would be to stroll up the river.

The zipline was awesome. The kids didn’t need us to tell them to take turns, but lots of parents hovered by the line anyway.

And I’ve never once, in that twice-seven-years, set foot on the Esplanade. So harsh has this winter been that 45 degrees seemed like a downright invitation to make today that day.

I pondered “right or left?” at the bottom of the stairs, finally trusting that there was far more Esplanade to the left and I’d hit something fun if I went that way. My youngest son danced errantly up the path in front of me shouting out numbers that represented the score of some sidewalk game whose rules only he knows (but which apparently involve not stepping on cracks and stepping on anything interesting that is not a crack). My serious-minded eldest took long strides with wide eyes. We saw the very cold boaters on the water. We noticed the pile of their brightly colorful shoes like a spiral on the gangway. We dodged runners and bikers and inline skaters – all faster than we were. And then we finally came to that playground I’ve eyed for years and my sons broke into flat out runs to get there as soon as possible.

Both boys fell on this contraption, but it was designed in such a way that the falls were minor.

And it was WONDERFUL. I recently read a story which has influenced me greatly about Adventure Playgrounds and the disservice we do by trying to make even play risk-free for our children. (Which, yes. I got a call from the Stoneham police a few weeks ago because I let my 8 year old walk two blocks to a used book store by himself. I asked the officer if my son was behaving appropriately and he said he was. Which left me sorely wondering why he thought I needed to be called. I digress.)

So here, in this marvelous playground with soft, bone-friendly falls and risky-feeling fun and other children, I found a spot sheltered from harsh April winds and watched my sons be boys.

The swing did required someone else to push, but the boys just loved it.

For two hours they played. The scaled heights, and fell. They rode the zip line and struggled to return it to the next kid in line. (It was really interesting to watch just how many of the parents “handled” this difficult task for the kids. I watched Thane struggle to pull it back. And I watched him succeed. And I watched him stand a little taller at having done a difficult thing, a right thing, and having done it himself.) At a break in the play, I pushed the boys on this fantastic dish-shaped swing. Grey slung his arm around his brother and they both lay in a sunbeam swinging together – eyes closed. Thane sang a little song to the rhythm of the swing.

There were many paths to the top – some easier and more obvious than others.

A game of hide and seek broke out among the bigger boys, and Grey disappeared behind a wall. I watched his small hand snake out to draw pictures in the dirt as he waited to be found. Thane became fascinated with a wooden climbing structure – color so warm to a winter palette. He was frightened of a particular gap, and drew back afraid. I heard him cheer himself, “I’ll see if the drop hurts.” He took a big breath, swung out again, and dropped. Dusting himself off, “It didn’t hurt at all!” The next time, he crossed the chasm. Moving further around the perimeter, he came to a really high part he could not swing across. He gathered his courage and belly-crawled across a log so very high that my breath caught in my throat. I had to stop myself from singing out “Be careful!” He inched, so scared, across the great gap. He got to the other side. “Mommy, come get me down!” “Thane, you can get yourself down.” And he did. And once his feet were rooted in solid wood chips once more, he immediately went to go do it again, and again, and again. He never got blase, but he did get better.

The section to the left is the high chasm upon which Thane tested his courage and found it strong.

Finally, we got hungry & cold. I struck a path in towards the Common where I knew we could find sustenance. At the end of our blood sugar rope, we found a bistro and had noodles and orange juice and laughed in a lit window of a corner building, hundreds of years old. I showed them the Starbucks my father and I had visited some 19 years ago when I came out in the middle of a blizzard for my college tour. The august establishment was celebrating its 20th anniversary, and I realized that I had been there so very long ago.

I was here 19 years ago with my father, before I decided on the college where I met the father of these two fine young boys.

We wandered the common (wondering if any historical cow dung was still to be found there) until we chanced upon one more playground. There was much less playing before disaster struck in the symptom of a torn thumb nail – truly a painful injury.

It’s all fun and games until someone breaks a nail.

A cold quick journey to Downtown Crossing, then home again, 12,000 steps later.

I was thinking, on our journey, of this same time a year ago. Last April I took the boys to the Circus on a Saturday that Adam was aikidoing. It was, not to sell it short, one of the worst times I’ve had. Thane threw an epic fit, refused to watch half the circus and at the end I carried him a mile over my back kicking and screaming to the T. I despaired of ever adventuring again with him. But over the course of this year, my four year old has grown to a much more mature five year old who was indefatigable and cheerful the whole time (Two-hundred niney-two! Two-hundred-ninety-three! He counted his points the entire trip.) My eldest, sorely injured as he was, was a solid and cheerful companion.

How lucky I am to get to have adventures with these children as they grow!

My sweet sons

Grande, two-pump, non-fat, extra-hot, no-whip mocha

I even managed to find good coffee in my journeys through Africa
I even managed to find good coffee in my journeys through Africa

When I was seventeen, my dad and I packed a few of my most important belongings into our minivan and left my home in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, heading to an elite college in Connecticut (called, innovatively, Connecticut College). Mt. Rainier, my abiding love, disappeared over my left shoulder as I took Hwy 7 over the Cascades, to connect with I90. I left behind my family, my home and my access to good coffee.

The year was 1996, and Starbucks was in the first few years of its astonishing ascendancy. It was a matter of identity for a northwest kid to proudly announce their drink order. Were you a mocha girl? A latte guy? Or did you fancy a cappuccino? I remember horrifying my fellow youth symphonians by telling them just how unbelievably far away the nearest Starbucks was from my home (almost an hour). I had a set of four “favorite” Starbucks for the routes I took most. I bought in, hook line and sinker.

I used to bring three cups of coffee to school – one to drink in the car, one to drink in my first class and the third in a thermal tumbler I left in my locker for my second class. I was all in on coffee. That April, I’d been completely taken in by an NPR prank about Starbucks building East/West coffee pipeline. I was a little preoccupied about the coffee question on that long drive across Montana and North Dakota.

My four years at college were spent in a veritable caffeine desert. The closest Starbucks was in Cranston, Rhode Island, but I didn’t have a car. Eventually my long-suffering boyfriend got a car, but lacked a sense of direction which added a good 20 minutes to the Starbucks run. It happened only a handful of times a year. I accepted my caffeine-isolation as the price of education (although there are a few stories about what my friends were forced to do in order to get me to a Starbucks).

But when my now-husband brought me to our first shared home in Roslindale, I had high hopes that I might – for the first time in my life – live within easy access of a Starbucks. That hope was dashed – the nearest one was quite a way away. There was one near church I stopped at religiously, but certainly none within walking distance. Nor was there one near my then-office. Two years later, we moved to Malden. The Starbucks perimeter held firm. I changed jobs, and still was not near a Starbucks. We moved to Stoneham. If you draw a circle around my house, you would find I’m in just about the furthest possible location from any Starbucks. I was appalled to learn that Stoneham, when wooed by a Starbucks, didn’t enthusiastically support the project, but blocked it. Really, selectmen, the town is now sufficiently supplied with nail salons, convenience stores and liquor stores. But we’re terribly underserved by purveyors of fine caffeine solutions.

Black whole of Starbucks at home
Black hole of Starbucks at home

Since then, I’ve changed jobs twice. It wasn’t a huge surprise that the Billerica location was not close to a Starbucks. But when I got a gig in one of the most cutting edge districts of Boston, I was ready for my luck to change. At last, finally, I would have easy access to a Starbucks – for the first time in my entire life! I could go grab a cuppa in the dark stretch of afternoon. I could swing by in the morning if I was running short of my brewed coffee. It would be great.

Then I discovered that, while there are about six Starbucks at the half a mile mark, there is not a single one inside that radius. D’oh!

How is it possible to be this far from a Starbucks in Boston?
How is it possible to be this far from a Starbucks in Boston?

So anyway, if you have some local coffee shops you’d like to protect in your neighborhood, can I recommend that you hire me/sell a house to me? I can all but ensure there will be no Starbucks in your town then!

Fire Spotter

I read an article about the inevitable demise and diminution Fire Lookouts, and watched one of my dreams go from unlikely to never-going-to-happen. I have a few daydreams like this one – that required my life to take a different path in order to ever happen. See also: being a Starbucks barista*.

High Rock Lookout from the access road

But the fire lookout was one of my favorite daydream jobs. I imagined getting out of school and being shiftless for a while and landing a job for a summer as a firespotter. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for old codgers, and some of my favorite old codger stories were from firespotters from the mid century. They’d talk about backpacking in all their supplies to their remote, mountain-top eeries. There’s quiet up there, and nothing you don’t bring in yourself on your own back over miles of so-so trail. The views are, by definition, amazing. Fire lookouts have the best views possible, the better to spot tell tale tracks of white or gray where none should belong. A lookout would develop an intimate and loving knowledge of that masterful view… which valleys held mist until midmorning, the way the clouds curled over the peaks and ran like a waterfall down the other side. The lookout would know topography of their charge in full-moonlit nights, and would experience true darkness when the faint lights of their own tower were off and the clouds cut off starlight.

A firespotter’s job would be to look out the window, intermixed with the great and healthy labors of keeping one’s self fed. I imagined a life of good exercise, quietness, mastery, importance. And of course, the novel, the journal, the poetry. With so much space and so much quietness, surely my pace would slow. Surely I would coax out those words, slow-crafted, home-brewed, that would make of me an author. Surely with the racing clouds as my muse and the high mountains as my foundation I could find the words to paint my beloved Northwest, my new Albion, as richly as those before me painted the fields of England, the moors of Scotland. The fir, Oregon grape and madrona would take their right place in my mythology next to the oak and the ash and the bonny ivy tree. I even had the spot picked out – I would man High Rock.

The last time I was at High Rock – 1998. That needs to change.

Sunny weekends would bring hiking visitors – a chance to catch up with people. I imagined evenings, with the long slow gloaming of high places keeping my mountain lit to the last, with the mercury notes of my silvered trumpet sliding down the hill and traveling for miles across my beloved countryside.

Of course, the summer would end, or the year would end, and I would return to the fast world of busy humanity renewed, written and sure of myself. Then I would build a life (much like the one I have now), only with that summer of solitude behind me.

Of course, that didn’t happen. I got a job before I graduated. I married two short months after I was handed my diploma. I have never been shiftless and footloose. And now they are closing the mountains to human eyes, counting on the more reliable satellites and planes and motorists with cell phones instead of the lonely mountain spotter. I haven’t been able to even so much as backpack in a National Park for years; the closest I ever got to that kind of solitude.

Would I trade my husband, my children, my career, my home and my life to be a fire spotter? Um, no. I’m quite sure my vision was lacking in a few key details. (I mean, I’m an extrovert. How many days before I went completely crazy?! Two?) The mid thirties are an age though where you start acknowledging some lives you will never lead, and that idyllic summer is one of them.

What about you? What adventures did you always wait for just the right moment in life to invite you to partake in? What daydreams have passed irretrievably from you? Would you have wanted to be a mountain fire-spotter?

*I’ve wanted to be a Starbucks barista since I was 16. I applied a few summers, but they weren’t hiring summer help. I haven’t totally given up on this, since perhaps after I’m done paying for college I can do any job I want regardless of pay and maybe Starbucks will still be around and I’ll still want to work for them, and I’ll do it by gum.

My son the Pike

When he was born, I labelled Grey a barracuda. But Saturday morning at 9:45 am he became a Pike.

Grey, on the left, with green noodle
Grey, on the left, with green noodle

It was amazing to see the difference between swimming lessons this year and last year. Last year he was wearing a swim diaper. This year he’s potty trained. Last year I had to change all his clothes for him. This year, he gets in and out of his own clothing. Last year I held him throughout the lesson during the mom-and-baby portion. This year he bravely jumped into the pool while I sat clothed, drinking coffee and pretending to read Virgil on the benches.

I think the part that got to me most was watching his enthusiasm, energy and concentration as he listened to his teachers and followed his instructions. He was trying so hard. No one could kick more vigilantly. No one bounced up and down and the water more vibrantly. He gave the swimming lesson everything he had, fearless and without holding back. And I took the place a parent should — quietly supportive on the sidelines.

Grey has a phenomenal, amazing memory. It’s been a full year since we went to swimming lessons, right? More than a quarter of Grey’s entire life has passed since last we went to the Y. But do you believe that blessed child remembers that there is a Starbucks right next to the Y and that if he behaves himself he is entitled to a chocolate milk therein afterwards? For sure he does. How he remembers this, I do not know because I SWEAR I didn’t bring it up, but he did.

How I came to love coffee

My love is a love shared with many others — coffee.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, home of Starbucks. Around 1994, when I was coming of age and learning to drive (damn, am I THAT old? I am!), Starbucks was creating it’s second wave of franchises. Coffee creations, for the first time, became HUGE in the region. You defined yourself by what you drank, how many modifiers were applied to it, your mug — the whole thang. Cool people worked as baristas in Starbucks. (I secretly wanted to. Still do, actually.)

I didn’t like coffee. But someone convinced me to try a cafe mocha. And it was good. Oh, so good. Soon, I had the Starbucks on all my major routes identified. I remember the Starbucks I always stopped at on my way to orchestra rehearsal on sunny Saturday mornings — listening to Car Talk and delighted to be up early to play Sibelius. There was the Starbucks near the Tacoma Mall, great for when one was running errands. There’s the South Hill Starbucks (next to where the Safeway used to be), great for when I was going to a theater event with my godfather. There was the Enumclaw Starbucks — sustenance when going to visit my grandparents. Often the first and last coffee after backpacking.

Having dived into the world of caffeinated beverages for the first time, I started drinking brewed coffee with my Dad. Since I took up the habit, I’ve usually had 2 16 ounce Starbucks mugs of coffee a day. One poured fresh, and one in a thermos. I used to keep my coffee in a stainless steel mug in my locker during first period Math because Mr. Johnson wouldn’t let me drink it in class. It was still pretty warm by English time.

When I left for college, coffee became a tangible connection to HOME. Starbucks was still rare on the East Coast, and I would go way out of my way for a mocha. A friend’s dad once drove me 20 minutes one morning to get one. He doesn’t remember, but I do. My parents would meet me at the gate with a mocha.

Unfortunately, I can’t handle mochas anymore. They hurt my stomach. I still drink 32 or so ounces of coffee a day, and it still says home and security for me. (It also says headache and exhaustion if I don’t have it.)

Coffee is a comfort food — happily I take it black so it’s a 0 calorie comfort food. It’s a joy to me. And it helps make mornings bearable for me.