Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Mochajava State of Mind

Today, most of the northern half of South Dakota is hunkered down mid-blizzard. I-29 is closed from Watertown north, into North Dakota. It’s the last day of February—practically spring already—and I guess Jack Blizzard wanted to make this leap day extra special, lest we let down our prairie guard too soon. Here in the southeast corner of the state, we have only a little dusting of snow, but the 35-mph winds whip it into the air, turning our little farmyard all grey and blizzardy. I have a pile of papers to grade, but thankfully, I don’t have to leave home today, so it’s a delicious, woodstove-fired, coffee-fueled, tucked-in day. 

And speaking of coffee, part of my utter joy at staying home stems from long, lingering, pajama’ed coffee mornings. You can read about the coffee origin myth, and my own re-discovery of the magic brew during my college years, on this previous blog post:

But my obsession with coffee goes back much further. When I was in 3rd grade at Florence School in Omaha, Al Vaccaro dared me to eat a whole clove of raw garlic. I felt compelled to take the dare, both because Al was my boyfriend and often brought me snapdragons to school (making Lori Boonstra, my arch nemesis, gloriously jealous), and because, well, I’ve been a rebel from the get-go. It didn’t take Mrs. Lindsay, my teacher, long to discover the shenanigans. She marched me to the cafeteria, where the Evil Lunch Lady made me chew up a few…my life will all make sense to you now…coffee beans! 

Lunch Lady’s evil deed was designed to override my garlic-breath, but what it actually did was to set me on a path that would eventually become my passion. My kitchen is decorated in "coffee kitsch;" I own every kind of coffee apparati made (Bunn auto drip, Moka espresso pot, French presses, Melitta, etc.); I have a potted Arabica plant in my greenhouse; I collect coffee cookbooks; my anniversary present from Ray was a burr coffee grinder, for which he scored major partner points; my entire wardrobe is various shades of brown and black. As the song goes, “I love the java jive, and it loves me.”

So I’m settling in today with my second pot of elixir, and I thought I’d offer a bit more coffee lore to warm up this snowy South Dakota day…

Today, nearly half of the coffee plants in existence are the progeny of one tree that was smuggled into Martinique by a French soldier in the 18th century. 

The coffee beans we know & adore are the pits of a cherry-like fruit that grow on evergreen trees. Coffee trees (cultivated to grow only 10 feet high for easier picking) cannot tolerate frost, and they prefer volcanic soil, indirect sunlight, and high altitude. The higher the altitude, the better the coffee. The annual yield of a coffee tree is about a pound of beans.  

There are only two species of coffee, Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is the stuff most of us drink. Robusta is generally lower in flavor acids and higher in caffeine but is sometimes mixed with Arabica to give the brew an extra caffeine kick.  

Contrary to popular belief, the darker the roast, the less caffeine, since caffeine is broken down in the roasting process. Espresso roasts have the least caffeine.  

Coffee is the second most widely used product in the world after oil. We drink 1400 million cups per day, and it’s the world’s most popular drink after water.  

Coffee was declared illegal 3 times by 3 different cultures: (1) In Mecca during the 16th century; (2) By Charles the II in Europe; (3) By Fredrick the Great of Germany in 1677.  

Medicinal Benefits – People who drink coffee have less colon cancer, Type II diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, gallstones, and cirrhosis of the liver. Coffee can protect your teeth from cavities, and it can help manage asthma and help stop an asthma attack in progress if no meds are available. People who smoke or drink alcohol and also drink coffee get some protection from liver and heart problems.

Other Coffee Uses – sprinkle used coffee grounds around your garden plants to stop snails and slugs, and to keep cats away from the garden. Coarsely ground coffee makes a good exfoliating facial scrub. Greasy pans can be cleaned with the leftover ground beans you used to scrub your face. Rubbing coffee beans between your hands for a few seconds will get rid of food prep odors, and you can suck on a coffee bean to freshen your breath (or chew a few, if you’re a daredevil 3rd-grader).

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Midwestern Manners

I'm sure Jack Blizzard is somewhere snickering in his sleeve. On my way home from town yesterday, I ran onto a patch of ice, and MiniPearl (my Toyota minivan) and I slid off the road into a snow-filled ditch. When something like this happens, it reminds me why I love living here in small-town mid-America: The people here are awesome.

My slide into the ditch was a beautiful, almost graceful movement that seemed, as the cliché goes, to happen in slow-mo (imagine Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 in G Minor wafting through the Universe as a soundtrack). Mini and I scuttled along the shoulder for a bit, then arced sideways (pirouette?), left the road, and drifted down, down, down until we settled, tipped sideways toward the passenger side, in about 3’ of snow and a good 6’ below the road. Amazing little ice-ballet that actually took only seconds.

Thank Skadi (Norse goddess of winter) there were no trees, fenceposts, road signs, or cows. Thank Skadi MiniPearl didn’t tilt sideways another foot or two and roll. Thank Skadi I was belted in and didn’t fly into the windshield. Thank Skadi that ditch was full of cushioning snow.

So there I was, sitting at an odd angle in Mini, eye-level with the road I’d just left, and bracing myself on the passenger armrest so I wouldn’t fall into the passenger door. I was chock full of adrenaline and too fight-or-flighty to reason out what to do. So, of course, I called Ray (in his car, driving home from work), who told me to call my daughter, who gave me the number of our Little Town tow guy. Thank Skadi for cell phones.

I knew it would take Tow Guy a while to get to me, so I took a quick inventory and made sure I wasn’t hurt. Then I just sorta settled in. It was actually a beautiful day out there. Except for the deep ditches, the landscape in that area is very flat and open. The wind was gusting west to east, toward me, and the gusts picked up snow from the open fields, blowing it along the ground in horizontal sheets (hence, the sudden ice on the road). But the sun was shining, turning the snow into brushstrokes of glitter. The sky was a subdued greyish-turquoise and mottled with clouds.

I thought maybe I’d meditate, both because I had the time and because it would ease the adrenaline rush, but then the miracle of prairie neighborliness began. Every car that passed me stopped to make sure I was okay, except one (I have your license plate number, pal, and I’ll be turning you in to the Midwestern Mandatory Hospitality Police). One man offered to make calls for me. One woman offered her husband’s tractor to try and pull me out. One woman offered her home, in case I wanted a warm place to wait for Tow Guy.

Tow Guy finally showed up, a white haired grandpa-ish guy in his 60’s or 70’s, in a light spring jacket, with no hat on. It took some time, some careful maneuvering of his truck (which slid at one point, and I thought, oh great…), hitching, unhitching, and re-hitching, but he finally got Mini up on the road again. When I said I didn’t have any cash, he asked if I drove to town every day. I said yes, and he said I could just stop by Monday and pay. No invoice, no I.O.U., no collateral…just stop by Monday. Then he said, “Drive slow.” I said, “Yes, sir.” That may be the first time I’ve ever addressed anyone as “sir,” that’s how brimming with gratitude I was (I am).

I’m a little stiff and sore today, maybe from the sudden pre-crash muscle lock, or from bracing myself for a half-hour while I waited for Tow Guy, but I know I got off easy. Mini’s undercarriage is packed with snow, ice, and mud, so her wheels don’t wanna turn right now, but I think a good car wash will fix her right up. I have no desire to go outside today. I have some good movies on DVR, a fresh pot of coffee, Advil, a heating pad, and some homemade minestrone soup. And maybe I’ll knit up a quick winter hat to take in on Monday when I stop to pay Tow Guy.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Anniversary Advice (to be taken with a grain of salt)

Today’s our anniversary. Ray and I have been together for 26 years, married for 23 of those. As any of my family members or close friends can tell you, I am no expert on love & relationships. But I can tell you what’s worked for us, so here are my tips for staying together:

1. Be competitive. Find a couple that’s been together longer than you have. Convince yourself that time is a false human construct, and that you COULD someday not only catch up to them, but leave them in the dust. Secretly go for their record. Imagine a spectacular prize when you surpass them, like a pound of Kopi Luwac coffee or an extra two hours of sleep.
2. Mix it up. If you’ve been walking around the house in the same threadbare Cornhusker sweats and Moose Drool t-shirt for the past six weeks (or 16 years), surprise your partner by greeting her/him at the door in your grandma’s flannel nightgown and a Snuggie. Variety really IS the spice of life.
3. Don’t hold a grudge. No one, no matter how convinced that time is a false human construct, can go back and undo the past. That blunder(s) didn’t mean as much as you think. It wasn’t highly charged with significance; it didn’t reveal your partner’s true, suppressed feelings, which only you can accurately interpret. It was just a stupid human mistake. Let it go. Concentrate on NOW.
4. Plan time together. No one just HAS time anymore. One has to MAKE time. Take a few minutes each day to look each other in the eye and say nice stuff. Don’t use the time to complain, whine, ask for something, criticize, or gossip about someone else. Use it for endearments, like, “I admire the cut of your jib,” or “You can remote start my minivan anytime, Sailor.”
5. Travel. Sometimes, you need to force yourselves into a small, enclosed space in order to renew your sense of togetherness. And long road trips can be the truest test of a couple’s compatibility: Who died and made YOUR iPod king? This car smells like French fries and gym socks. Are you SURE there are mountains in western Kansas? Pull over…this is SO much prettier than the Interstate shoulder I photographed five minutes ago (repeat every five minutes).
6. Turn off the TV. Television, not religion, is the opiate of the masses (think of religious TV as a lethal overdose). It’s hard to be attentive to your partner, let alone romantic, when you’re snoring in your La-Z-Girl or all “coked up” on Bridezillas, Finding Bigfoot, Ice Road Truckers, or anything on the Food Network. But do set up the DVR to record Justified, and watch it together, religiously, both of you wearing only boxers, boots and cowboy hats.
7. Read together. Read in bed together. Read aloud to each other. You read a Dr. Ruth book aloud in a bad German accent, and she/he will read a Dr. Suess book aloud in a bad Shakespearean actor voice.
8. Don’t EVER fight about money. In fact, ignore money. Pretend you’re independently wealthy. If your partner asks why you spent a ridiculous amount of money on a boxed set of Pema Chodran lojong meditation cards, roll your eyes back in your head and, in a chant-like voice, mumble something about not wanting to roll over budget funds into the next fiscal year.
9. Eat together. I know our society is waaaaay too focused on food, but maybe there’s an underlying reason. After all, food is an expression of our shared humanity, our collective survival, our communal nature. So sit down every day and eat a meal together. In a pinch, Subway or Hy-Vee Chinese will work (but plate it, and use the good chopsticks). If you think it’s impossible, try this: For ONE week, keep track of the total amount of time you spend eating. If you can’t spare some of that time to share a meal with your life partner, it’s time to re-think your scheduling priorities.
10. Laugh together. When I went to the dentist for my first root canal (not that marriage is like a root canal), I was terrified. Then, as the dentist leaned over me, the dental hygienist slowly rose up behind him with a pencil hanging out of each nostril. All that fear melted away. Laugh at yourself. Find an oldies station on Sirius and dance like you’re on Hullaballoo ( Black out two teeth with a grease pencil and smile when your partner walks through the door after work. Never be afraid to be silly.

Honestly? I’m amazed we’ve made it this far. I’m amazed ANYONE makes it this far. But as Walt Whitman said, “Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.” So tonight, Ray and I will celebrate a quarter-century of miracles. We’ll celebrate with good friends (the minister who married us, and her husband who sang “Blackbird” at our wedding), fine wine, Brazilian food, live music, and lots and lots of laughter.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Treatise on Love

I [heart] you. Blech. Phooey. Let’s not talk about how, on this one day of the year, we will all pause to remember that we love our girlfriend/boyfriend, spouse, partner, etc. (or that many of us forget it the other 364 days), as we stuff our faces with Brach’s mystery chocolates and watch our Wal-Mart roses wilt. Let’s talk about the real deal—the kind of lasting love that takes work, effort, elbow grease. EVERY day is the day for that.

Ray and I have been together for 26 years, married for 23 of those. I don’t think he’d mind me telling you that, like many long-together couples, we are usually somewhere on the relationship Matterhorn—that roller coaster of ups, downs, occasional blessed straightaways, twists, and a black-out tunnel every now & then. There are days when Ray doesn’t like me much—I am decidedly unlikeable some days. There are days when I don’t like him. There are days when we’re both fuming and retreat to our respective hidey-holes for hours of sizzling silence. But we NEVER stop loving each other, and that’s because we’re both committed to the work.

In the giddy flush of new love, humans somehow become convinced (volcanic brain activity caused by too much dopamine, I believe) that love is spontaneous, effervescent…that it magically bubbles up as a refreshing, cleansing mist of goodness & light from cracks in the earth, or it rains down on us in sudden delightful showers of…oh, I dunno…happy, Smurfy, tickly glitter. And yeah, I totally LOVED that all-too-brief phase. But PHASE is the key word.

Once that dopamine rush levels off, you’d better roll up your sleeves. Because suddenly, you’re gonna notice the toilet seat’s up, or he left the space heater on, or she forgot to pay the light bill, or he brought home another stray animal, or…huh? When did you start living in pink sweats and an old gas station shirt?

The real work is holding ever-present in your mind the notion that you signed on for the long haul. Yes, you might throw up going down that next roller-coaster freefall, but once you reach the bottom, you will still be alive (and sometimes, with a renewed sense of the thrill). Most of the time, you have to willfully, consciously, remember what you love about each other. You have to listen—find out about, and tend to, each other’s needs, even when you don’t feel like it. Even when you just downloaded a new mystery on your Kindle. You have to stick it out. As my friend LuLu says, the secret to a lasting marriage is not getting divorced.

I should say here that it takes TWO of you working. Sadly, no amount of working on your own can save love from someone who’s already (mentally, at least) jumped off the ride.

For the rest of us, yes, the bloom WILL come off the rose eventually. This will happen even to those of you deep in the dopamine/endorphin throes, vowing that YOUR love will always be flame & fireworks. But know that in the coming years, if you do the work—and it’s DAILY work—you’ll end up with a more profound sense of trust, an amazing shared history, and a more peaceful and abiding kind of love than you knew was possible.

And I know I’m badly mixing metaphors here, but don’t throw out the rose—every blue moon, it will suddenly, mysteriously burst into full bloom. Just this morning, for example, I noticed that Ray had scrubbed shiny-clean the glass top stove when I wasn’t looking. I smiled and thought, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”