Monthly Archives: July 2012

Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Predictability

In the Linfield cafeteria sat an automated espresso machine, newly installed, that poured out cappuccinos in layers. First, push the button—with your mug underneath, of course—and watch the coffee spill through the spigot, followed by brown-tinged milk and a sludge of foam. These ingredients are basic enough, but calling the monstrosity an espresso machine pushes the line on what is known, mysteriously, as truth. Although I never glimpsed the inner workings of the machine [for all I know, hapless monkeys might have operated it using hand cranks], I doubt it forced steam through finely ground, packed coffee.

Still, it was coffee with foam, and it satisfied many a tired college student who stayed up nights high on ecstasy, performing research on the best way to catch an STD. For my part, if I could afford to, I walked into downtown McMinnville to buy my coffee at the Cornerstone Coffee Roasters. These were the early years of the nineties, and the freshness of a new decade pervaded the air. In my mind, I picture my roommate and I sitting at an outdoor table, grasping at stray rays of sun. The pavement is wet from rain, and the fragrance of rain-sun-stone steams off the sidewalk. Ironically, the local homeless personality weaves up to the cafe on his bicycle, and this adds to the idyll.

Early in the year, I struck up a friendship with this homeless man, Bill*, and consequently, he joined us for coffee on more than one occasion. It wasn’t the first time I’d befriended what others considered to be the dregs of society. In high school, I sometimes dragged home young, smelly homeless boys, and not because I was the type to rescue strays. I desperately needed a connection with a kindred spirit. Homeless people are eccentric, on their own elliptic, because they don’t live in the center of society. Neither do I. But, as in the cyclical nature of things, young concentric people of the nineties often attempted to be on the fringe, too. They dressed as Bill did, in old tattered flannel jackets and t-shirts and jeans. In keeping with this “new” ideal of concentricity, my college friends and I frequently bought bottles of cheap wine, hid them in paper bags, and climbed up the railroad trestle until we were on the beams just below the train tracks. From there, we waited, by the schedule, for the train to rumble over us.

I first met Bill on the Linfield campus, as he sorted through the dumpsters behind the frat houses. He pulled his worldly wealth from these dumpsters, and stowed it in enormous garbage bags. Bill was a recycler. He was an alcoholic who recycled the bottles and cans of up-and-coming alcoholics who partied in a predictable manner. He knew the party schedule just as we knew the schedule of the trains. Year after year, the party predictability set a routine, and Bill detected when he would dig out the greatest treasure. Frat boys didn’t change, he insisted, not even as they moved in and out of their sacred houses.

He was right—not much about people changes. Small towns have their homeless characters writ across their souls. College students slum it in order to create new, independent selves. And frat boys never stop partying. Certainly, this is a lesson I’ll never forget, even if I’ve quarantined some of my life lessons, just as the body creates warts when it’s overcome with an infection it can’t fight off.

I only managed a year at Linfield, and that year taught me far too much. At the end of it all, after I’d survived my finals, and after most students had already left campus, I walked from my dorm building to the dingy one behind mine for a last confab with my friend Derek*. When I entered the vestibule, I immediately sensed danger, but being in an all-male building that housed multiple new fraternity recruits always gave me a bad taste in my mouth, if not a bad smell to light up my olfactory nerves. This was different, though. A group of about ten drunk frat boys instantly surrounded me when I neared Derek’s closed door. Their rage, as evidenced by their taunts and shoving, took me by surprise. What had I done? I had no idea.

The conversation went something like this:

One drunk frat boy whipped out his genitals and said, “Take a look at this, bitch!”

I responded in my usual, unimpressed way, “You know, I’d really like to, but I’ll need a microscope first.”

Further enraged, but inspired, several others exposed themselves to me while backing me up against Derek’s door. I pounded on it, hard. Derek tried to open up, but one of the boys grabbed the handle and slammed the door closed. In that short space, Derek realized I needed help. He [apparently] climbed out his window to rescue me because, in the blink of an eye, he was there.

Let me tell you about Derek: he’s an ex-physics-geek-turned-art-major. He’s tall and gangly with a shock of red hair and enormous glasses. He stood up to the obnoxious, buffed-out wrestlers or footballers, or whatever they were, and threatened to call the police. These being the days before cell phones, it was a simple matter for them to block the hall phone from Derek’s reach. So Derek ran off to find another one. Meanwhile, I took advantage of their distracted state to slip down and crawl out of my human prison. I hightailed it out the back door and catapulted into Derek’s open window, half expecting them to follow me. The mention of police, however, seemed to sag their sails.

Speaking of predictable, the police didn’t show up until long after I’d left the safety of Derek’s room [out the window again]. Later, however, they didn’t hesitate to respond to a trespass call. While in one of his physicist-turned-artist moods, Derek broke into the campus pool and swam lonely laps in the deep blue water. They arrested his ass because property and insurance liability, as we know, are more important than people.

People are predictable. They’re like automated espresso machines gushing out sludge at the push of a button. Homeless Bill–he was, perhaps, the most predictable of all. He drank. He weaved around town on his bike, and he collected cans. Once, while walking around town with him, he brought me to the backyard shed he rented from a friend. Bill wasn’t even homeless.

But some people’s predictability entails honor, and I’m ever-grateful to my friend, Derek. He was my true kindred spirit, not Bill. I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing these days. But I do know he’s on his own elliptic somewhere–perhaps welding art installations in his spare time. Maybe he’s a dad. Maybe he’s a techie. Wherever, whatever–I raise my coffee to him, brewed strong from freshly ground beans, and remember Oregon in the nineties.

*I’ve changed these names because I don’t have permission to use the real ones.


Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Hindsight Bias

The two books I’m currently most engaged with are Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide and Carl Jung’s Man and his Symbols. Setting Jung aside for a moment, allow me to discuss Lehrer a little. Lehrer is one of those names that pops up if you read Wired or Scientific American, which I do–and The New Yorker, which I don’t. His writing sounds young, as well as a little soft.* He writes soft science. That’s fine. I don’t always know when he (or any writer of his ilk) commits factual errors, but I have a heightened sixth sense for manipulation that prevents me from being completely duped. However, I can look past even blatant manipulation because I engage with this sort of writing for its squishiness and not despite it. Yes, you read that correctly. I want glimpses of hard science, even illogical ones, in order to engage my imagination.

What does this say about how I make decisions [that is, after all, the subject of Lehrer’s book]? I’ve long relied on what I thought were my analytical faculties and suppressed my instincts as inherently wrong. But as I examine my life decisions, I wonder how many of them I’ve actually made, or continue to make, by primarily using my prefrontal cortex, which is supposed to be the party spot for rational thought. In hindsight, I appear to be nothing more than an imagination junkie searching for the feeling mix that juices my life. But as you might already know, hindsight is nothing if not biased.

In the grand paradox of how I view myself today, I’ve relied too much on imagination in my decision-making processes, and I’ve simultaneously neglected the creative spark in my soul–the essence of who I am. My assumed reliance on imagination gives me pause and takes me back to those early years of my adulthood, the ones that turned me into a barista rather than a student.

While still at Linfield College, I had a number of friends who were studying physics. I don’t remember how it happened, how my creative writing studies attracted me to these people in a magnetic way. To my current biased way of thinking, I imagine [there’s the imagination again] that they were rational and I was creative, and so we fed off each other for those missing parts of ourselves. The ideal of myself as creative fed my energies and still feeds it, even if the truth is something so apart that it unsettles me to consider it.

What if none of the above is true? What if imagination has nothing to do with my decision-making properties at all? What if my choices in science literature and friends have more to do with fear? What if all my decisions have bloomed from the seed of anxiety planted in my soul by early failures to live up to my expectations? Perhaps I stood by physics geeks because I desired to be like them, but was afraid to study anything more difficult than creative writing. Maybe I (present tense) read soft science magazines because I’m still afraid of the incomprehensible nature of the world around me.

Now turning for a moment to the Jungian book on symbols, I have to admit I’m reading this book for the direct purpose of understanding myself better, and not for the purpose of understanding the world around me, although the net effect has added up to a little of both. Recently, I’ve dreamed a series of vivid stories, all of which have contained what Jung would call the Divine Child archetype. My divine child, according to Jung, is the essence of my pure self, or, as I view it, the core of my creativity unspoiled by the world. In my dreams, I’ve neglected this child and, furthermore, I don’t recognize the little person in his diaper and blue sleeper who wanders into my space unbidden.

What I’ve failed and continue to fail at is perceiving my Divine Child as my personal potential, which may have nothing to do with my dampened creative spark. As a young adult, I squelched my potential by quitting school and finding the first job available at an espresso shop. I convinced myself, in the forefront of my nonunderstanding mind, that writing poetry would save me from the disaster I had become. In the recesses, I convinced myself that studying the finer points of roasting and growing coffee would suffice as knowledge of the world.

As humans, we all suffer from disjointed thinking that we mistake for clarity, even if not all people suffer from my particular problems with anxiety and pretense. And, in a moment of clarity, I’ll proclaim that to be the purpose of this memoir. The books I’m currently reading have revealed truths about myself that I hardly expected when I turned over the first pages. We could all use a little honest self-examination now and again. Your book choices or lack of them reveal truths about who you are. Your dreams reveal the parts of yourself your outer ego is attempting to suppress.

In a choppy kind of conclusion, I seem to have stumbled on memoirs as a way to understand how memory works, which is ironic, to say the least. Hindsight isn’t 20-20. Hindsight carries with it biases I don’t know how to lobotomize from my understanding of self and the world around me. When given the opportunity, I look falsely at my past in order to integrate my cognitive dissonance. But hindsight can pierce deeply with that double-edged sword of truth if we stop overriding our egos and allow it to accomplish its healing job.

*To be fair, I believe Mr. Lehrer is young. And he’s obviously quite intelligent, but by writing for a general audience, he’s softened the science.


Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: The Awakening Part II

How can I change my tone to reflect what I’m about to write? I ache for the lost tone in my writing, the one inspired by poetry and the notion of myself as a poet. High school girls cling to these ideas because the world is what it is: a place without dreams. When they look around, they witness most adults sacrificing their dreams to reality. Their mothers, fathers, teachers, friends offer their dreams as sacrificial lambs to appease the tangible world, so that the world won’t destroy them. And these young people witness those who refuse to give over their dreams, and they see the addiction and failure and unhappiness of dreamers. At the very least, they witness the failure of dreamers to soar beyond the tremors of their inside worlds. But the magma presses upward, and the plates shift until dormancy is no longer a viable option.

Consider for a moment that my dad gave me a journal just before I entered into the reality of marriage, and he inscribed it with these words: “Catch your dreams before they slip away. Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind. Is life unkind?” I can hear you asking why a sensible Christian father would advise his daughter via Keith Richard’s Ruby Tuesday. I have an answer for you– because he is a sensible person. He’s sensible because he doesn’t believe in the superstitious giving over of dreams.

For better or worse, Portland and the Pacific Northwest are entangled with my dreams. They’re a web in my imagination, giving voice to what’s left of my poetic framework. This is why I use Oregon places as backdrops for my Gothic, supernatural tales. At their essence, they provide me the words I’ve lost, words from wild, wet weather and the icy, gray Pacific. Imagine, with these words, stepping over the bricks of a square to enter into the depth of a cafe, where strong coffee provides heat and stimulation to the rain-slow brain. Imagine stepping up a raw sidewalk and entering the clinking-clanking refuge of a brewery, where craft beers provide happiness and hops to the cloudy soul. That’s my world, my inside life, the landscape of my youth.

But you might be surprised to know that Portland and its environs weren’t always colored by water birds on amber bottles or red paper cups bearing the logo of a couple who could have graced a Grateful Dead album. In Portland’s early years, it was an enclave of conservative working class folk. Even though Portlanders weren’t snobs, they did drink beer. In fact, Henry Weinhard opened up his Portland brewery in the 1850s, and this beer-brewing business gave Portland its distinctive hoppy smell for more than a century before it moved to Washington in 1999. Gourmet coffee, though, and its elegant companion, fancy food–these came about as Californians moved up and recreated Portland in their own image. In my younger years, my parents still preferred instant coffee. And in my father’s youth, most restaurant menus featured the not-so-exotic roast beef and whipped potatoes.

Were these changes good or bad? They were neither. When culture shifts and adapts, it loses some of its essence, its original heart, but brings new and exciting elements to the fore. Do you remember when I wrote about Rue in my last Nineties Coffee Girl? Rue was a San Franciscan, my sister’s boyfriend for a while, and my default brother. For all his good points, he was a snob. And this gave us cause to take him down a notch or two. Once, for example, we poured my grandpa’s can of Hamm’s in his expensive bottled beer–after dumping the precious elixir down the drain, may God forgive us–and he either didn’t notice, or was too dignified to respond.

We took what we wanted from him, though, and that was his enlightened attitude toward good coffee (good beer, yes–we took that, too, but not before taking him down a notch). Who knew that coffee didn’t have to taste like acrid, oil-greased dirt? Things–black and white pronouncements–begin to blur and run all shades of gray when you mix in the complexity of people and culture. Were Californians really responsible for the shift in culture? Oregonians love(d) to make this claim. But did we forget that my mom was a Los Angeles transplant to Portland? Did we forget, when we visited my grandparents at their Big Bear home every year, that they served up water for coffee and used mild salsa as if it were an exotic condiment–that my grandpa drank Hamm’s and that my grandma enjoyed cocktails, but was so stingy in her later years that she bought Manischewitz wine off the clearance rack?

Admittedly, this not-so-elegant California is enmeshed in my dream world, as well. One year, Rue travelled with us for our Christmas visit to Southern California. He was, then, a part of the landscape that inspired dozens of poems I wrote about the iced-over Joshua trees, the snow-cracked desert, the yawning mine shafts, the whirring or still windmill blades slicing at the blueness of the sky. Where has that poet gone? Why can’t I summon one more poem from these old images, or from the new topography of my mind? Where will I go to rewind the tone of my writing?

That Christmas, the one with Rue and my family in Southern California, holds me captive with its strangeness, offset by black and white photographs I took with my 35 mm camera. The coffee was no good, and beer meant little to me, but Rue gave me a book of Dylan Thomas poems as a Christmas present, and it was the kindest sort of gift. When I cracked it open for the first time, I read the intro, and silence filled the space of the log cabin. Thomas captured the air around us, and after I finished, Rue claimed he had never heard anyone read it as well as I had–I with my unemotional voice and deadpan pronouncements.

I was a poet, an unemotional poet, who read Dylan Thomas with no expression whatsoever, allowing the words to contain their own emotion and power.

And, now, as an adult who has never fully given up my dreams, I wonder what they were to begin with. What should I not let slip away? What should I not let slip away before I lose my mind?


My First Epic Video Blog

Galadriel’s Memoirs

I think I might have a head tic. This, as you might imagine, was a difficult video to film. A ninja boy kept walking on the set and standing nonchalantly with his sword, and the phone rang, and the dog barked, and and and…All considering, I think the final version (sans ninja) turned out reasonably well. I plan to make as many of these as I can over the summer. Hopefully, they will be more and more amusing and outlandish. This is far too tame, I think.

p.s. I don’t know what happened to the top of my head. It was not like this until I loaded it on You Tube. I don’t know what I’m doing–that’s what I’m trying to say.