The Swirl

I've got the day off--no responsibility for ferrying anyone anywhere, entertaining any guests, running any errands, or getting anything in particular accomplished. I'm nursing a slightly sore right shoulder, either from overdoing the upper-body work at the gym yesterday or just sleeping on the thing badly, but other than that, I'm pretty much free from complaints.

Naturally, this gives me time to consider the issue of coffee.

I'm a coffee drinker. Hell, in any realistic sense I'm a coffee addict. I want/need multiple cups of coffee every day, and I typically put away three or four. I get other caffeine, typically from iced tea (unsweetened) and diet colas (which I'm trying hard to kick), but the vast majority of my caffeine intake comes through coffee. During the work year, I may get a cup at home, but the majority is the industrial-grade stuff supplied by the Woodberry food services department; it's caffeinated, and if you make it right it's a reasonable shade of brown, but that's about all there is to say for it. It's fuel, nothing more, nothing less.

It's not an addiction I worry much about, though, because I know I can kick it. I know this because I had to. Back in 2005, the requirements for the Outward Bound course I took included breaking any addiction to substances that would be unavailable in the woods. These substances included tobacco (no problem) and caffeine (uh-oh). I wasn't stupid enough to go cold turkey, which would have resulted in pounding headaches and a general decline in quality of life, but as soon as exams were over, I started weaning myself. For one week, I limited myself to two cups of coffee a day; for the next week, I was down to ONE cup a day; the week after that I drank only decaf--getting trace amounts of caffeine, I know, but in effect cutting myself off. Once I made it to Asheville, I was ready to face the worst nature could throw at me--forty-five-minute lightning drills, rattlesnakes, three straight days of rain--nothing could be any harder than going without coffee, right?

I'm not a coffee snob, though. I couldn't tell you the difference between a latte and a venti, or even if they're comparable. (I think one is a size.) I'm fond of cappuccino, certainly, and will recommend the Dante Trattoria just across the Arno from downtown Florence as the place to get the best one you'll ever taste, but I've seen no real need to get snooty with labels or roasts or other such games of coffee provenance. I mean, jeez, if I wanted to do that kind of crap, I'd drink wine. The standard brew at our house is totally declasse: Eight O'Clock Blend, cheap and right there on the shelf at Food Lion. Heck, it's usually the hazelnut flavor, too, which totally freaks out the purists.

Oh, I'll experiment. I'll give most sorts of coffees a whirl now and again, just to see if there's anything new and good out there. Free-trade and shade-grown beans are the ones I sample most often, since I do have a long-standing concern about neotropical migrant species. I've tried roasts from Ethiopia, Guatemala, Colombia, you name it. I've sampled the Kona coast's wares, and on several occasions have been the recipient of the legendary Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee. It's nice for a change, but there's nothing I've tried that has made me sit up and say, "Right--that's what I'm drinking from now on."

At least, not until recently.

The loss of our local coffee shop, Not the Same Old Grind, has forced me to travel a few miles to get the same kind of ambience--you know, the one where there are fresh scones, and Putuyamo world music CDs, and copies of the Sunday Post and the NYTBR and a couple of chess boards, but most people seem to be working on their laptops, writing novels about the alienation of the individual in an age of incessant social media intrusion. But that's what I like, at least sometimes, so I'll haul my laptop to Culpeper for a fresh scone and a big ol' mug o' java at the Raven's Brew coffee shop. Raven's Brew offers a variety of coffees under the slogan "The Last Legal High," and the coffees all featuring unusual and amusing names, which is always a good way to get my attention: the exotically unconventional Dharma Beans... the alluringly aboriginal Skookum... the mythically resonant Wicked Wolf... the cheekily irreverent Resurrection Blend... and the uniquely alarming Three Peckered Billy Goat.

But the brew whose beans have me rethinking my allegiance to Eight O'Clock Hazelnut Flavor? It's named for a stretch of water off the Aleutian Islands (not that far from Raven's Brew HQ in southeastern Alaska), and it comes with a slogan guaranteed to appeal to the undercaffeinated: Deadman's Reach.

Deadman's Reach.jpgI'm not saying I'll be giving up the Eight O'Clock, since for one thing Deadman's Reach runs about twice the price, at $12.99 a pound, but I'm giving serious thought to laying up a supply of DMR for those occasions when I've got time to actually enjoy my coffee, as opposed to those when I'm streaking out the door to work.

And I'm also thinking about investing in something else: glass mugs. I love our standard coffee cups, the multicolored Lindt-Stymeist thumb-dot mugs (seen here)

lindt_stymeist_mug.jpg
I'm also fond of many of the various mugs we've picked up from friends and relatives and occasional gift shops, but they do all share one quality that I don't ordinarily see as problematic: they're opaque.

Today I had a moment to watch what happened when I poured my coffee into our one glass mug, a present from our friend Q that has a caffeine molecule diagrammed on the side. The coffee's entrance into the mug was nothing spectacular, but when I poured in the half and half, I was treated to a gorgeous spectacle of fractal motion: a current of opaque white forcing its way through a translucent brown field, spiraling into the background and turning the negative space into the figure itself. It couldn't have lasted more than a few seconds, but in the glass mug I could see it happening throughout the coffee, more completely and complexly than I had ever realized when I could see only the surface.

And that's my metaphor of the day: thanks to the constant ebb and flow of events, it's often hard to fully appreciate the spectacle of the ordinary. It's a fractal that we can see only in microcosm, but like any fractal, the pattern is duplicated in both the larger and smaller scales. The swirl we're in may be beautiful, but the swirl itself keeps us from seeing it... unless of course we get a moment to sit and look for that same swirl in our cups.

The spiraling shape will make you go insane
But everyone wants to see that groovy thing.

--They Might Be Giants

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on June 17, 2010 10:15 AM.

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