Monthly Archives: January 2013

Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Diner Coffee From Bygone Days

As an old friend wisely advised me in the early nineties, I would do better drinking coffee from a diner than drinking badly brewed gourmet stuff. Although the sentiment did smack of snobbery, I forgave her for it because she hailed from Seattle. If nothing else, Seattle-ites did know a good brew when they tasted it. And speaking of Seattle-ites, they orbited the Portland area back in those days, culture watchers that they were. San Franciscan’s wended their way up, Seattle-ites their way down, and one does wonder if, perhaps, Portland was the superior place, after all, despite its inferiority complex. For example, as an inherently inferior Portlander, I once ceded an argument over The Kingsmen’s residency. Were they a Portland band, or a Seattle band? Seattle!! my friend insisted. This little tiff was, no doubt, owing to the confusing history of the song Louie, Louie. In fact, we were arguing over two different bands, both of whom had covered Richard Berry’s strange proto-punk ditty. Portland’s The Kingsmen were the ones to make it a national hit, however. Sorry, Seattle.

When I was not yet twenty, espresso was still a mystery substance for many who didn’t live in the Portland area, and even for many who did. Hence, winning an argument over Louie, Louie wouldn’t have cut it, anyway. Still, the fad had hit, such that one could drive down the rural lanes of Sunset Highway and glimpse green flags, emblazoned with Espresso! Here!, flung from the windows of unpromising strip mall diners. Dotty’s Home Cooking and Jean’s Country kitchen squatted in parking lot seas with their red-checked curtains and Espresso! signs billowing. Hey, I hate to break the spell cast by the dying gasp of roast-beef culture, but there’s really nothing country about $5000 espresso machines. Still, countrified Dotty, who could only brew coffee the way her restauranteur magazines told her to, was the heart of my friend’s criticism. Now I sound like the snob around here. That’s fine. I’m guilty as charged. Honestly, how can I blame the Seattle-ites? We all became snobs after a while.

In those days, though, we pretended we were Jack Kerouac, hitting the road from truck stop to diner, and back again, after too many orders of two eggs-over-medium-hash-browns-and-toast by the side of perpetually full mugs, which were glazed brown to hide the lack of rich color in the Farmer Bros brew. We made pyramids out of the creamers at these establishments; we catapulted straw paper balls at the pyramids, and they crumpled if the cream cups were empty. That was, of course, if there were cream cups to be had. Often, we were stuck with those revolting packets known as powdered creamer which were crammed next to the colored packets of bitter “sugar”. Although nobody I knew reached for the sugar, real or fake, sometimes we added a few grains of salt to the coffee. This was in no way necessary, mind you, because Farmer Bros was so tasteless it lacked the bite of acid that required a PH balancing act. But if we could, for one moment, pretend we were chemists rather than philosophers, we would look smart. Really smart. And not at all snobbish.

During our stint in Southern Oregon, we used to hang out at the Talent Truck Stop. Yes, that’s right. By day [some of us] worked in espresso shops; by night, we supped at the greasy spoon. We sat at sticky tables and waited for Bobby to shuffle over on her slippered feet and drawl, “What would you like tonight, honey?” Her act was accessorized by the Texas rhinestone pin she wore on her apron and the grey beehive she wore on her head, except, of course it wasn’t an act. Bobby was the real deal. She was a sweet old lady who, apparently, liked rhinestones. And Texas. So sue me if you think I’m telling stories. I’m not. I documented it all in a work of fiction that I care not to think about these days because it was one of my earliest attempts at magical realism. But Bobby was real; I’d swear to it!

Here’s the kicker: as the Jack Kerouac version of me, I used to carry around an object that appeared from the outside to be a suitcase. It was actually, once I sprang open the buckles, a portable Royal typewriter dating from the 1940s. It was, in a sense, my first laptop.* I liked to drag it from a Medford diner–don’t remember which one, but they made to-die-for omelets stuffed with potatoes and sausages–to the Medford Coffee Company, where I worked. Generally, I achieved this long-haul trip in our ’79 Olds. Once, however, I decided I could walk the distance while swinging the typewriter in my carefree poetic hand. I have a recommendation for you. Don’t try this. Portable Royal typewriters aren’t meant to be swung by one’s side as Maria might have done with her suitcases in The Sound of Music. Those suckers weigh a ton. Eventually, I arrived at work, exhausted, so very weary that I couldn’t manage, before my shift started, to pound out the rest of the play I was writing on the life of Emily Dickinson. Instead, I gasped out double shot and then wet my parched mouth with a few lifesaving drops of espresso. Take it slowly, Jill, they advised me. Don’t drink too much at once.

I tried to heed their advice. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. And now I’m back where I started. I would rather drink diner coffee than bad gourmet stuff. Thank you, Seattle-lite friend, for suggesting such a crude ideal. Seeing as I’m no longer of a Jack Kerouac persuasion, writing poetry and dragging around 2000-pound typewriters to better bang out Emily faints. She whispers: A fly is buzzing; it must be time to die, I ultimately prefer to drink my coffee at home, ground fresh from the same coffee grinder I’ve been using for the last twenty years. Somethings are best left unchanged.

*The Royal belonged to my friend Sallie, a San Franciscan who jerked espresso with me. Go figure that she encouraged my Jack Kerouac ways. Although I was using it on [semi] permanent loan while still in Oregon, I returned it before long-hauling to New Mexico.

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News of the Week: Warning, Sarcasm Ahead*

11 Body Parts Defense Researchers Will Use to Track You But don’t worry. As soon as we merge with machines and become human robots, they’ll only need to track us by our simple hardware. God’s complexity is a lot for the government to contend with, after all. All that complexity-tracking really just makes the top-level researchers feel really brilliant and geekier than the rest of us. Once we’re all robots, the playing field will be levelled. We’ll all be geeky geniuses, unless the researchers code us to be dumb-asses who pick our noses while watching reality TV. I can’t wait for the future–you?

Want to Tell the State to Stick It? Homeschool Your Kids Ah, yes, homeschool families really are a bunch of gun-waving, flag-toting right wing nutjobs…or was it flag-waving, gun-toting xenophobes? Oh, well, the point is they’re all a bunch of whack-job religious fundamentalists who are trying to stick it to the state and brainwash their children. You suspected it. But now Bill Flax is here to confirm your biases. Thanks for letting the cat out of the bag, Bill–being anti-progressive was a terrible burden to carry around. Now that the State, along with everybody else, knows the truth, they can get on with forcing our gun-toting children back into school (after replacing their guns with armfuls of daisies or pencils or whatever).

Military leaders lift ban on women in combat roles It’s about time equal opportunity involved sending women into combat! I can now sigh with relief because this means that women can and will be drafted when, not if, a draft becomes mandatory again. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, I say. The best part of all of this is in knowing that women in the military don’t have the faintest notion of what it means to be pregnant until they’re gasping with labor in Afghanistan. This will be one way to finally bring about the end of our empire and civilization. I’m sick of the American empire. I’m sick of our propensity for invading sovereign nations. This will, undoubtedly, do the trick. Once both men and women are drafted, the researchers spoken of in the above Wired article can finally implement the Robot Program, in which the vestiges of our families (starting with peaceable–I mean violent–homeschool families) can be turned into robots who always do what they’re told. Picking one’s nose is a lot better than picking this week’s enemy.

Hillary Clinton Retires It’s just as well. She’s done her duty. And, honestly, she’s part of the old way of American politics–those days when we didn’t have the sophistication necessary to truly track Americans. What will she do with herself? “…high on her list is catching up on her favorite HGTV show ‘Love It Or List It,’ where couples get to check out new homes while decorators overhaul their old home. Madam Secretary said she found the show ‘very calming.'” I don’t know about you, but a deep sadness fills my heart as I see the golden century of politics set like a Dionysus sun behind the hills of a once bright civilization.

Time and progress must march on.

*It has come to my attention that my sarcasm may not always be appreciated for what it is.

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Why Brave is an Important Movie

I tend to lightly toss around terms that are meaningful to me, but may seem odd to outsiders, such as “archetypes” or “gothic”. To others, I may even sound more than a little obsessed. Focused on particular ideas would be more accurate, however. My entry into the world of the gothic corresponded with my studies of the British Enlightenment and, although archetypes can be found in stories dating from ancient times, my fascination with these tropes grew with the gothic monster. The gothic is and was a study of the shadow archetype of mankind; this appeals to my human core, to my understanding that I have a shadowy side to my persona that I fear and desire to keep hidden. I don’t want to acknowledge this side of me, but neither can I deny it. Denying it is, in fact, dangerous because it means I’m no longer in conscious control of it.

To exemplify this archetype, as well as some others, I’d like to discuss a movie of the past year I considered to be both well-done and important, albeit often misunderstood: Pixar’s Brave. To feminists, the brave female Merida is not a symbol of feminine power. To others, the lack of the typical romantic ending is a form of trickery [this response I read in forums–critics wouldn’t dare to complain about a lack of someday my prince will come]. And to those on the cultural fringe, such as the Botkin sisters, Merida is hardly a female worth emulating because she creates yet another “unhealthy stereotype” for girls to follow–too feminist, in other words. Frankly, as a female, I find these opposite and varied reactions to be false, or even worse, to be obtusely missing the point.

The heroines that make up our post-feminist culture generally follow two models: women desiring to fill male archetypes–most notably the warrior archetype–or women discovering themselves through princes who rescue them. Both of these models imply a worship of the male and a degradation of the female. But ironically, the male idolatry we involve ourselves in has created a counter-phobic reaction against men because, ultimately, women will never be men, no matter how hard they try. And so we find ourselves at this strange cultural crossroads of reviling the feminine and masculine alike, rather than discovering the ways in which the sexes may mutually benefit each other in this modern egalitarian patriarchy we currently live in.

In Merida, we see a young woman who is consumed by the worship of the masculine. She’s wild; she’s a warrior; she resists all attempts her mother makes to cultivate her into a feminine princess. While her mother works behind the scenes to bring about a marital alliance that might save the clan, her father encourages his daughter to be as rough and tumble as her three little brothers. The masculine, or the animus, as Jung would put it, is ruling Merida’s person.

To run through the story very quickly–Merida turns to a witch for magic that will change her mother’s mind about forcing Merida into an arranged marriage. The magic, of course, takes a strange and dangerous turn when her mother transforms into an enormous female bear. Meanwhile, the plot of the hateful masculine is formulated through a warrior who has transformed himself, using the same magic, into a giant black bear. At some point in the past, this bear warrior has left Merida’s father as a one-legged warrior. Those of you who are familiar with archetypes probably already see where I’m going with this–the enormously dangerous male bear is Merida’s shadow. It threatens to consume Merida after she falls into its lair (subconscious, anyone?); it has already left her father as half a warrior, or half a man, in a sense, limping along on one leg. As a young woman who doesn’t want to be one, Merida doesn’t approve of men any more than she approves of herself or her mother. This hatred is demonstrated through her ridiculous male suitors. Are men really as foolish as these cartoon buffoons? No, but they’re certainly foolish as viewed through Merida’s mental filter.

This movie could have gone in any direction. Merida’s family could have produced a prince for her to marry. Merida could have become a female warrior, thereby fulfilling the deep feminist longings of women wanting to be men. But, no, the story writer chose to uphold the feminine. Merida’s mother, as the big black she-bear must defeat the warrior bear spirit that’s threatening to consume her daughter. After the mother accomplishes this, she changes back into her human form. Merida then has a renewed relationship with her mother, which also represents the feminine in Merida’s soul. At the end, the buffoons sail away, and Merida and her mother ride their horses off into the sunset, so to speak, and they’re together–united. Merida has been united with the feminine.

Will Merida ever marry? No doubt, if her parents present a worthwhile man, she will concede that the clan needs her to marry. But that’s speculation. Not every female is meant to marry, and that isn’t what Merida’s story is about. It’s about the restoration of the feminine in a girl who’s being ruled by her masculine side. It’s about the rightness of females and the beauty of being one. And it’s not about filling a personality stereotype or denying who one is at core. The mother acknowledges this–Merida is a female, but she’s a female unlike her mother. Still, a woman, of any personality, possesses a feminine spirit, and who would want it any other way?

Too many people would like it to be different, actually. And so, here we are, shuffling uneasily at this bizarre cultural crossroads in which we have learned that women are to be despised because they aren’t men, and that men are to be despised because they are naturally men. I applaud Pixar for defying the cultural norms and giving us strong women who are naturally women. Brave’s archetypes resonate with me, and they prod me forward and away from the crossroads, into the gothic forest of the subconscious, where my shadow waits–that female inside me that’s still waiting to be discovered.

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The Cryptic Life of Me and Ötzi

I’m an annoyingly cryptic person, to the point that I can’t figure myself out. I’ve been searching for a missing document, but my document titles mystify me. At the time I write them, however, they make perfect sense as answers to some arcane riddle running through my shrivelled grey matter. Sad. I’m a sad, sad, silly female. In any case, I’m generally forced to open one document after another in order to eliminate the most obvious choices. The process is tiresome and time-consuming, as well as invigorating, which creates a paradox of experience. I’ve often forgotten about reflective essays or poetry or stories I’ve written, and am thrilled to read see them again. This time, I ran across a final journal entry I’d made in a poetry journal, and it went like this:

The guests are gone and the baby’s asleep and the house is so cold that I’m shivering at my computer. The pilot light is a wind tunnel for the wind that rages outside, and I can’t think of much else but the cold, cold wind. The sound of it makes me feel colder. Without any other source of heat, it’s the type of night that should force me to crawl into bed with a pile of blankets.

My mind is shutting down as though it were less than freezing in this house, even though it’s about fifty degrees, which should be adaptable. I’m not adapting. Soon I will be like the Ice Man that I’ve written about numerous times before, the one who fell down into the depth of cold snow and died like that only to be discovered a thousand years later. If only poetry survived so long. If it were a thing of flesh, it might simply lose its fluids and dry up and freeze for archeologists to tenderly open and dissect in a laboratory–oh so tenderly lest the words blow away into a nether land of parchment skin.

This is the end–the last of my journals, and I can safely say that I will probably not start another one. Well, I might think about it. I have a friend–a fabulous comedy writer–who showed me his idea journals that he’s kept for years. He simply writes article and/or story ideas in little spiral books, and then goes over them when he needs inspiration. I should fill journals simply for that–so I don’t forget all my ideas, and so I will know where to commence at some distant point in the future. Will I write poetry, though? I think I’m done with poetry for now. Maybe. I’m not certain my poetry is ready for the world, and I might work on what I have, though I wonder if it will ever be ready for the world at large. I’m thinking about what I wrote on Tuesday of this week [I had written about my words not making sense to anybody]. How can I know if any of what I write makes sense? [End journal]

Looking at the date this was written, I can claim in the affirmative that I did give up poetry (and journals). I have since (except for what I write on this blog) given up fiction. Am I sad about this? I’m kind of like the Ice Man about it. That image is so peculiarly funny to me–I used to drop this mummified man into stories and poetry and journals. Ötzi, my dear old friend. It warmed my soul to run into him in an old journal. In like manner, it awakened my mind to run into myself–the same old person, worried that my words will never make sense to others. As it turns out, my words don’t even make sense to me. I’m still searching for my missing document.

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Birth By Drowning

The night Fran went into pre-term labor, numerous guests arrived at her desert dwelling, after having travelled from near and far in their annual north-to-south migration. Her house, usually bereft of outside influences aside from what her husband brought home from work, suddenly filled to capacity with the swaying laughter of friends. If she had more closely resembled her friends, she might herself be a migratory bird. Instead, she had clipped her own wings along with the wings of the cooped-up chickens in the backyard.

She was only a few months along. How many, she couldn’t say. She didn’t have a proper sense of cycles; even her friends’ arrivals were a mystery to her. They walked in her door when they did, and that was all she knew. Her husband’s comings and goings often held this same air of randomness and, although he disconcerted her, the surprise of his tall, blue-uniformed presence walking through the door excited her empty mind. She wasn’t, after all, alone in the universe.

The pain hit her with its own random pattern. One moment, she was standing at the open door, and the next, she was doubled over in pain. She unfolded herself and gamely greeted the others; she was about to shut the door again against the onslought of uncharacteristicly rainy weather, when her tall husband swept through it with his best friend James, a male member of the migratory birds. How the randomness struck a river of peace in her soul! She beamed at the men, and then her waters broke. The fluid slid down her legs and ran in a winding fashion across the yellow, hexagonal kitchen tiles.

She stared down at the water spotted with white mucosae, then allowed her eyes to peer down at the small bump on her belly. From this perspective, without the water to distend her abdomen into a balloon, she could see the shape of the baby inside her. One of its elbows jutted out in the form of a chicken wing. She touched the elbow, felt it nudging her, and then jerked her hand away. Panicking a little, she held her hands away and watched the various baby bones mold her skin as though she were made of plasticine.

“What should I do?” she asked to no one in particular, considering her husband had ushered the group upstairs, where the space was warm and dry against the cool shadows of rainclouds. “Will I have to go through labor now?”

She wandered up the stairs. “Will I have to go through labor now?” she repeated.

Her husband kept his usual calm demeanor as he gently, with the tips of his fingers, caressed the baby under her skin. “Would you like me to check at the hospital for you? James and I just came from there, but we’ll go again if you’re frightened.”

“Yes, please.”

While she waited for the men’s return, she served her guests glasses of iced tea and chatted to them about this or that. Her mind was generally so empty that the mere act of speaking to these people created a world for her to live in. Their words, however, meant little to her emptiness. It didn’t change her landscape at all, not even when the woman with the short black page-boy hair related her experiences in dentistry school. The woman had met her husband while drilling his teeth. Fran envied this woman, but she couldn’t remember why.

When the conversation waned, Fran peered out the small window at the peak created by the sloped roof. Outdoors, the desert grasses were wild and wet and patchy. Under the large cottonwood sat the chicken coop with the red birds. In the front cage, where the chicks usually scratched around, the rain had filled the space and turned a haven into a sludge hole from which the yellow birds couldn’t escape. In fact, now that she focused on the sight of the yard, she heard the distinct squawking of the hens, who were in terror for their young.

What would she–or could she do? Why had her husband and James not returned? She tapped on the rain-spattered glass. “They’re drowning,” she moaned, and lifted the baby in her belly with her cradling arms. The way the baby clutched at her skin told her it didn’t want to be lifted. It was an alien inside her, an alien that might consume her if she didn’t soon give birth to it.

“We’ll go with you,” the black-haired dentist assured her, and Fran believed her because she could see, out of the corners of her eyes, their female shadows on the stairwell wall.

Outside, the women grabbed at the mud-soaked chicks whose wings were set like plaster, and flung them into the larger coop. The chicks probably wouldn’t last the deluge, but they’d have a fighting chance in the larger cage with their mothers, which was not likely to be the case for Fran’s baby. Her friends gently guided her back inside, where they streaked mud on the hexagons. Fran’s mind swam dizzily around the muddy shapes until the six edges met her waters, which were still heaped in a puddle on the floor.

When the men returned hours later, the others’ children had been tucked up on bunk beds in the upstairs region, in that attic space hung from the eaves. They said nothing to Fran about what they had learned from the hospital, and she dared not ask. If it was important enough, her husband would inform her of what she was to do. And so she side-stepped the waters downstairs while fetching food, and then walked up and down the stairs in agitation–for spoons, for forks, for cups. Around midnight, she pointed to the lines of rain dripping near the bunk beds where the children slept.

“The rain will drown the children,” she said.

The women looked at her–the flock of migratory birds perched in her upstairs space–and tried to move on with their ordinary conversation, which slipped through Fran’s head like water. Much to her relief, she realized the outside lamp had merely cast the shadow of falling rain on the wall behind the bunks, but it seemed so real to her, so very real. She hugged her abdomen and the little alien creature within her. She could no longer feel the baby at all. Its wings no longer molded her skin, and dismay filled the empty space. Or was that completeness she felt? Perhaps she was the alien who had consumed her own little bird.

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