Winning Some, Losing Some, and Ramping Up the Effort

I am late for my walk this morning, having slept in until 7:10. It’s a crisp, clear morning; I bundle up and head out.

At the corner, I meet the mail carrier. He is pulling packages from the truck and stashing them in his bag. I wave at him and prepare to keep walking, but he flags me down.

“You got COFFEE,” he said, “and it smells good.”

I take a minute to process, and then light cracks through my darkness.

“The coffee!” I say. “It’s here already?”

“Yeah,” says the mail carrier. “And it smells so good.”

Jovan at Yeah Me Too roasted decaf Peruvian beans yesterday and packed up two pounds to send me. (I hope my check arrived as quickly as his beans did.)

I walk what we call the big block and hurry home, where the package waits, snugged between the storm and inside doors. The mail carrier is right: it smells wonderful. I cradle it, grab a book-shaped package addressed to Jim, and head around to the back.

Inside, I put the mail on the table and unpack the coffee. There is no plastic in its packaging; two brown paper bags of coffee are wrapped in strong white paper. I open one bag and breathe deep. The smell is dark and rich and roasty.

And I realize that the mailman knows who I am, knows my face and my name, and knows, now, that I love good coffee. I don’t know his name (yet), but now I know that he loves at least the smell of good coffee, too.

And Jovan, the coffee roaster, has become a kind of friend, as well, invested in my plastic free project. He lets me know when the beans are roasted; do I still want some?

I email back an emphatic yes, and a flurry of correspondence ensues: I ask how much for a pound of fresh-roasted beans, where to send the check. He doesn’t wait to receive the payment before sending the beans, and he sends me a picture of the package the day it goes out. It’s sitting on a countertop, surrounded by letters and correspondence. I notice one letter has that John Lennon stamp that I love to use…a little ping of appreciation.

And it occurs to me that I am meeting people in a different way because of the whole plastic-fast thing: I have a coffee-roaster guy! I know my mail carrier!


Before I left for the walk, I put French bread ingredients into the bread machine. We discovered that, if we mix the ingredients up on the dough cycle, then shape the dough into a round loaf on a scarred old pizza pan, we get a wonderful result.

It takes about five minutes to batch up the simple ingredients. I add least an extra quarter of a cup of water; when the mix cycle starts, I check the dough. If it looks stiff, I add even more. When it’s mixed and risen, I decant it onto the pan and let it rise. I heat the oven to 400; I mix up some salt water and glaze the round loaf, then bake it for 20 minutes or so.

A wonderfully fragrant, yeasty loaf results.

Mark and I are still wheat-abstaining (although sometimes we can’t resist hacking off a heel of freshly baked bread and eating it, butter melting on its soft, white surface), but James survives on sandwiches, and this is homemade bread he can live with.

I am happy that it has no preservatives; all its ingredients are fresh.

And it does not arrive at my home wrapped in plastic.


It occurs to me that ‘plastic’ and ‘plastic-free’ might be metaphors for certain kinds of living.

Plastic is fast and separate; contents don’t touch other foods. I don’t need to talk with anyone. I just grab and go.

Plastic-free slows me down and requires interaction. I have to search and find the right shops; I have to talk with the shopkeepers. I arrange delivery, which, again, involves some kind of human discourse.

I take time to mix ingredients in my kitchen, cooking from scratch. I shave soap and mix it with borax, stir in boiling water and making my own dish soap. It does not foam like Dawn, I’ve found, but the dishes seem squeaky clean.


Gauze bags arrived in the mail this week.

This week, a package arrived from Amazon; inside, I found a clutch of gauzy washable bags. These are perfect for shopping. I can take them to the produce section and package up lettuce, zucchini, greens, or onions. When I empty the bag, it can go into the washing machine with a load of white, and then, next week, I’ll use it again.


I feel an uplift of possibility: a plastic-free life is possible. Then Mark and I go to a luncheon, where proud young students in a disabilities services program serve our food. There are plastic bottles of water. There are sandwiches wrapped in foil and nestled in a Styrofoam go-box, with a plastic bag of chips and a plastic cup of fruit cocktail, hermetically sealed with—of course—more plastic. There is a knotted plastic baggie holding two cookies, mixed and baked by those student cooks.

I look at the beaming faces of the young people who put this meal together for us. And I take my Styrofoam box back to our table, and I eat my sandwich.

Beth, an outreach librarian who shares our table, leans over and tells me about visiting Greece last year with her husband. They would never have used all this disposable, non-degradable packaging, she says.

“They’d be appalled,” she said quietly.

The waste containers fill up with Styrofoam, and I wince.


I wince because I have been seeing more and more about the results of plastic disposal. My friend Kimberly posted two links on Facebook this week that rocked me to the core.

One was about a dead whale; when scientists performed an autopsy, they found its belly was full of waste plastic. (

The other was a video that illustrates, graphically, what plastic use adds up to. (


This week, I am going to add two actions. I am going to write letters…to grocers and retailers, and to politicians, too, and I am going to ask why we don’t start looking for different packaging solutions. Maybe they’ll laugh and toss my letter in the circular file; maybe they’ll make some snarky remark about that crazy ol’ Birkenstock lady who wants us to do away with plastic.

But maybe I’ll connect with a person who shares my concern, and then we’ll square our efforts. I know I’m compelled to try.

I might call a friend who works with those proud chefs, too, and see if there are packaging solutions we can share with those eager young people before the next banquet date arrives.

And I am going to look for ways to use the plastic I have. Instead of recycling, which seems to have a pretty unhappy result, maybe I can take waste plastic and turn it into something useful, or into something attractive and uplifting.

I’m looking for ideas; if you have them, I hope you’ll share.


More and more, it seems like time is running out.

More and more, it seems like we need to find solutions now.

Now That I Know Your Backstory, I Love You Even More

It was early on a frigid day, one in a long string of ‘em. The house was cleaned and polished; the walks and drive were shoveled. The afternoon stretched ahead, as untrammeled as new snow.

The boyos, who had been avoiding the face-freezing air for several days, were restless. They decided to pack up and drop off the recycling; then they would go out to lunch. They stomped up and down the basement stairs and gathered things together, sliding boxes and bins out onto the little back porch, bundling themselves into bulky jackets, pulling stocking caps down to cover their exposed and tender ears. They hugged and waved and slammed out the door, and the house settled in.

And, oh the quiet! I put the teakettle on to boil; I would infuse a pot of rich decaffeinated coffee. I lit the fire, and pulled my old fuzzy blanket from the TV watching chair. I gathered up my books and put two cookies on a plate, and I placed all that on the table next to my reading chair.

The teakettle whistled. I poured steaming water over freshly ground beans, swirled a wooden spoon to start the alchemy. I wrapped a towel around the French press, and I went and warmed myself in front of the fire while I waited.

Finally, I slowly, slowly, pushed down on the infusing filter, and then I poured rich, dark, fragrant coffee into my special Christmas mug. I wrapped my hands around it and I lowered myself slowly into the reading chair.

Books and quiet and a crackling fire. I lifted the cup and bent my nose to pull in the wonderful scent.

“You and me,” I whispered to the coffee as its warmth spread through my palms. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather spend this time with.”

We go back a long, long way, me and coffee. Coffee knows all about my history: how I started drinking it when I was twelve or so; how I turned to beer and cigarettes in my fast and furious college days, and coffee became the taken-for-granted reliable friend who always picked me up on the mornings after, who provided a soothing counterpoint while I puffed foolishly away.

Coffee was with me in times of midnight worry and when a baby cried in the deep of night. It prepared me for long journeys and revived me on the way.

Coffee stayed with me, even when a cold, hard doctor dropped the word, “Decaffeinated,” from his uncaring tongue.

Yes, coffee knew all about my past and my present. But, staring into its chocolate-brown depths, I realized how little I knew about coffee.

“We’ve been together 50 years now,” I murmured. “Don’t you think it’s time I learned a bit about your past?”

The brew was unforthcoming. I sipped and sighed, and I decided I’d have to do my own research. I had come to a point where I needed to know more about this old companion’s roots.

Turns out a lot of folks on the Internet were eager to spill the beans.


Long, long ago, “About Coffee” ( tells me, a goatherd named Kaldi pastured his flock on a plateau in an ancient Ethiopian forest. And he noticed, Kaldi, did, that the goats would nibble on the berries of a coffee bush, and then they would be so bouncy, so energetic, that they could not settle down to sleep.

Kaldi took this revelation to a local abbot, and the holy man brewed a drink with the beans and drank it. And, oh the joy for the abbot! Now he could stay awake during evening prayer!

He shared the brew with the other monks, who hallelujahed its praises.

The bracing story of coffee, from its simple beginnings of buzzed up goats, would percolate ‘round the world.


The Arabia peninsula, the website tells me, is where the mindful growing and trading of coffee began in the fifteenth century. It started in Yemeni; it spread to Persia, Egypt, and Syria by the sixteenth century. And everyone who tried coffee, it seems,  wanted coffee.

Coffee houses sprang up in the Middle East; they became important social enclaves where essential information was exchanged, and where dynamic discussions took place. The coffee shops were known, says “About Coffee,” as schools of the wise.

And pilgrims came to Mecca, drank coffee, went home, and spread the word about it. By the 1600’s, coffee was in Europe, and a furor was taking place. The clergy in Venice didn’t like the new coffee-drinking trend; they didn’t like it one bit. (They must not have had any trouble staying awake for evening worship.)

Venetians were not inclined to listen to their pastors on this account. A controversy brewed, and the Venetian clergy decided they’d call in the big gun, someone their flock would not dare dispute. They took the question of whether coffee was wholesome and proper to Pope Clement VIIII.

The Pope asked to have some coffee brewed.

He drank it.

He loved it.

He approved it.

The Venetian clergy were vanquished; the faithful of Venice rejoiced at the holy sanction of their java.

(This makes me think, for some reason, of that sassy papal rejoinder to obvious queries, as in…

“Do you enjoy chocolate?”

“Huh. Is the Pope Catholic?”

From now on, I’m going to replace that. When a silly question is posed, I’m going to snap back, “DUH! Does the Pope drink coffee???”) tells me that coffee shops appeared in Damascus and Constantinople and Vienna in the 1500’s. The Viennese were the first to add sweeteners to their brews.

Coffee shops appeared in England in 1652, and by 1700, according to my friends at Driftawaycoffee, there were somewhere between one thousand and eight thousand coffee shops flourishing in Britain. Coffeehouses were GOOD things, say the authors; they promoted sobriety. Water was not very potable in the days before public sanitation. To avoid the germs and illness available drinking water provided, people drank beer and ale instead. That, of course, led to its own set of problems.

Coffee’s brewing process also eliminated the unsavory ingredients in drinking water. But, instead of promoting drunkenness, it promoted thought and conversation. English coffee shops became business hubs, public houses where clearheaded commerce could take place.

But what England’s coffee houses were NOT, back in the day, was female-friendly. Women were not allowed in coffee shops unless they worked there. Their “Women’s Petition Against Coffee,” says Driftawaycoffee, was “mostly tongue-in-cheek, but does provide this lively description: ‘…the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE.’”

Maybe excluding women from the coffee craze is one reason many English still prefer their tea.

On I find a section called ‘Coffee Chronicles in America.’ This notes that the Tea Act of 1773 pushed colonials to consider coffee as a serious hot beverage contender. Before the Act, Colonists mostly used coffee for medicinal purposes; it was pricey and rare.  But by 1793, coffee beans were roasting  in New York City, and the beverage had taken hold in the USA.

According to the Coffee Chronicles, a Coffee Exchange was established in New York City in 1882, and coffee quaffers were then guaranteed a certain standard of bean. The Exchange was a response to the great coffee crash of 1881, when unscrupulous sorts tried to corner the coffee market. They were unsuccessful, and we are still the beneficiaries of healthy competition among coffee-growers, insuring all tastes are amply provided for.

Satori Tato, a Japanese-American chemist, developed instant coffee in 1901, I learn from Two years later, German coffee trader Ludwig Roselius was stuck with a batch of ruined coffee beans. Roselius decided to experiment. His staff noticed that the water that soaked and ruined the beans also leached away their caffeine. They deliberately repeated the process, coming up with Sanka. The first commercially available decaf was born.

And coffee laced itself through United States life, bolstering business discussions and card parties, becoming a morning ritual for millions of folks. When Prohibition became law in 1920, United States citizens turned to coffee (in addition to their bootleg liquor) for beverage stimulation. It heartened soldiers and fortified those they left behind. It was a staple in break rooms and private kitchens.

Starbucks placed the coffee shop in the mainstream of United States society in the 1970’s; its own shops, and responses to them, proliferated.

The tells me that decaf coffee, my brew of choice, has had its challenges. It’s been embraced; it’s been rejected. A quick internet search offers a cacophony of competing decaf views. I read about health benefits and I read about the dangers of decaf. I read that decaf coffee still contains caffeine. I read about different processes, some of which are healthier than others, the writers report.

I think about the 60-point drop in my blood pressure, and I think about my ability to have a steaming cup of joe every morning, and I stop reading.


I write this on another cold morning, and as I write, I steadily drink my morning pot of medium roast decaf. And I realize there’s an awful lot to learn about my old friend, Coffee; my Internet ramble has not even scratched the surface of its depths. I remember, for instance, learning that coffee was used to treat hyperactive children in the 1970’s, before other drugs were identified; I remember reading that coffee may be one effective tool in individual arsenals that help people deal with depression.

I remember reading that agricultural coffee workers are victimized. Does coffee production harm the environment? There are sustainable, organic, free trade products I can buy. And there is much I still don’t know about my lifelong companion.

But my relationship with coffee emerges from my brisk study undamaged. We are still tight, coffee and me; we still share our mornings, our social times, our after-dinner dessert moments. I know that I’m not the only one; coffee has helped millions of people over hundreds of years enjoy and savor, and stay awake for, life. I can live with that. I can share.

Knowing coffee’s history just makes me love it more.





My Life in Clan MacCaffeine

Fueeled by coffee 2

Thank goodness I do not have to work tomorrow; it it is 3 AM and I am nowhere near sleep.  It’s my own fault:  I made half a French press pot of coffee to fill my travel mug when I took James to his writers’ group in Westerville tonight, a 50 minute drive.  That was at 5 PM or so–a time when I usually start fading, so I thought I’d better fortify.

Then we got to the meeting site–which, it happens, is a Panera.  I ordered coffee and a pastry, and I pulled out my battered little IPad and typed, sipping lovely fresh-brewed dark roast at a  corner table. The writers, meanwhile, went off to talk writing.  When a friendly Panera guy walked by, I asked about their refill policy; he assured me, cheerfully, that as long as I was using my Panera-issued cup I could refill 800 times if I wanted.

Eyes gleaming–you gotta love a place with a policy like that–I took him at his word.

Clearly I am out of practice. Jazzed up, caffeinated, I trundle out of bed and head downstairs to put this wide-awake time to some sort of practical use.  Oh, I’ve come a long wimpy way since childhood, when two cups of coffee just before bed was commonplace.  I grew up in Clan MacCaffeine, and I have never fully left it.


The smell of coffee and the sound of coffee perking are among my earliest morning memories.  My mother, mostly a stay at home mom, got up early and started brewing coffee before the sun rose.  She would heat a prepared pot from the night before and drink it, companionably, with my father; then, while he got ready for work, she would brew another pot for his lunch box.  That coffee, liberally laced with milk and sugar, went into a huge red plaid thermos bottle.  Mom would usher my father out the door, handing him his metal lunch box and the thermos, sending him off with a kiss and a squeeze. Then she put another pot on the stove, brewed it to accompany her morning prayers.  She would sit with coffee and an ashtray and her prayer paperwork–books of prayers, an old missal, readings about saints, and lists of people to pray for.  She would smoke and sip coffee and spend some quiet morning time having a breakfast cuppa with the Maker.

If you had asked me in those days what big people had for breakfast, I probably would have answered, “Maxwell House and Lucky Strikes.”


My parents, early on, preferred Maxwell House or Chase & Sanborn; they bought their coffee in large metal cans, which they kept in a highish cupboard, above child-height.  They would liberally scoop the coffee into the percolator basket, add a dash of salt (I don’t know why, except that we were probably as addicted to salt as we were to caffeine), and sometimes crushed egg shell. (That, my father said, cut the grease. Greasy coffee? I shrugged and took him at his word.)

My mother brewed the coffee in a battered old stove top percolator, which saw use throughout the day.  To hear the coffee perking, just like the sound from that old TV commercial–Doppa doppa DOP dop!–was to be reassured that life was under control.  Whatever else this day might throw at me, I knew there was coffee, fresh hot coffee, brewing on the kitchen stove.

When I walked in, after school, coffee was perking.  There was always, of course, an after supper pot.  And every night, just before bed, my mother would brew a fresh pot to have ready for the morning–but, nightly, without fail, it smelled so good, that she and my father and whichever of the children had reached the Age of Coffee would grab thick white mugs and drink a cup.  Then another pot–a pot for the morning for real–would go on to brew, and then the family would go to bed.  No one ever seemed to have a problem sleeping.

Much later, in college psychology class, I read about caffeine being used to push hyperactive kids over the threshold of manic activity and into some sort of calmer state, and I thought of my parents, my brothers, and me, self-medicating with percolated Maxwell House.


I started drinking coffee in earnest when I was thirteen and pudgy.  I wanted to lose weight; I had read that black coffee filled you up and added no calories.  It also gave me more energy, which helped me to exercise more.  I liked it.  The weight came off.  I started high school eighty pounds lighter than I had been in eighth grade.  I was, by then, also a confirmed black coffee drinker; I drink it that way to this very day.

Sometime in those heady years, the percolator got traded in for an electric drip coffee maker; Folgers hit the local market and became my parents’ go-to brand.

Through the seventies–through the days when I vied [amongst wicked competition] for the title of Party Queen, always a strong runner up, and determined to try, try again,–coffee was my lifeline, the brew that got me re-energized after three hours sleep. That phase, fortunately, did not last out my twenties, and then coffee became the fuel that fired long marathons of weekend paper grading and class prep.  I started making, for a while, a half-caff blend that Maxwell House marketed; I drank it all day long, and it seemed to me, in its diminished caffeination, sort of like a health food.

We drank coffee when the Knuckleheads got together once a month for rambling pinochle sessions lasting until the wee hours.  Birthday parties and family get-togethers revolved around the coffee maker, never allowed to cool or rest.  I bought a lot of eight dollar coffee makers and literally burned right through them–I remember, once, my landlord David running across to rescue me, sprinting out of my apartment gingerly tossing a flaming coffee maker from hand to hand.

Back to the drugstore, where a GE model was on sale, I went.

Somewhere in those days, a friend introduced me to the concept of fair trade coffee, and I read a little about the coffee business, and I became concerned and proactive.  I started buying only fairly traded beans, and in the process, discovered a whole new taste in coffee.  Dark roast–that was my brew; preferably Italian, but French was good too.  And no more buying coffee in a can.

The boyos bought me my first coffee grinder.  At night I would grind the beans and get the coffee ready–filtered water and all–for an early morning brew.  Mark, up first and not a coffee drinker himself, would shower and run downstairs to turn the coffee on and welcome me to the waking world with a lovely hot pot of fresh-brewed dark roast.


Along the line, another revelation.  Our friend Sharon worked, at the height of the coffee shop craze, at an infamously funky little place in Buffalo, New York, and she came to speak coffee fluidly and intimately.  One year she visited to celebrate my birthday and brought me a French press.  After a lovely supper, she expertly ground the beans, put them in the press, swirled in boiling water with a wooden spoon.  I was dubious–would this be a beefed up version of that anathema, instant coffee?  Ignorant, I was about to be initiated.  Sharon let the stirred brew steep for three  minutes, then slowly, slowly, pushed down the sieve.

The smell was incredible.  She served me a steaming mug with a smiling flourish; we sipped, and I was hooked.  The brew tasted like smoke; the rich coffee flavor–ah, it was right there.  You can French press a pot, Sharon suggested, for a treat.  With a special nosh.  When you just need to pamper yourself.  And to this day, although Mark still turns the electric drip pot on every morning, I use the French press on snowy Sunday afternoons or when coffee-drinking company shares dessert.


For a long time, my coffee drinking shrank to just early mornings, and I lost the habit of all-day consumption.  But just lately, I’ve been involved in offering professional development–which always cries for coffee–, and I have moved my office to a building that offers a Keurig.

(When my office began offering more and more professional development events, I allocated some funds in my tightly squeezed budget to buy my own K-cup brewer.

The fiscal officer called me into her office and asked me about the request.
“It’s….a coffee maker,” I said, and I explained that a participant could make a  cup of whatever her favorite drink is; she isn’t constrained to one choice.
She looked at me puzzled, and I wandered all around the topic, trying to explain.
Finally, I asked, “Do you…speak coffee?” She confessed she did not.
Never mind,” I sighed, and left her pristine office.)
How lucky that I had the chance to move to the land of K-Cups. I keep a hidden stash of French roast pods for days when moral stamina is needed.


But still.  I am a caffeine wussy compared to the championship days when I sipped a steaming brew for most of my waking hours.  When I try–oh, it tastes so good, but my eyelids refuse to close, my leg starts to jiggle, and I find myself, like now, awake and typing at…let’s see: 3:45 AM.

I know there are those who don’t drink coffee–in fact, I married outside of the Clan. Mark, he likes him a strong steeped cup of tea in the morning, but I’ve never known him to quaff coffee.  He loves, though, that good morning smell. And I have colleagues and dear ones who’ve gone over to the decaff side; I suspect they are healthier and less stressed, and probably, on the whole, a great deal more balanced than I.

But, my friends…I do not care.  I have peeled away my vices: I may indulge in a glass of wine or a bottle of beer a scant once or twice a year.  And I haven’t had a cigarette in, oh, sixty pounds or so. We limit red meat.  We’re sparing with salt. But the wakeful hours of a dark Thursday morning are a small and occasional price to pay for the enjoyment, the energy, the elixir, of dark roast, brewed to perfection.

I am a member of the Clan MacCaffeine; it’s a lifelong membership and a proud one. And, as with any good clan, belonging to this one comes with rules.  I have pledged to honor the bean. And I have pledged to share it.

So, please know this…if you are ever wandering by my house, and the need for caffeine strikes you, I will take you in and set you up.  I will press a pot of coffee; I will set a steaming mug before you.  I will offer cream and sugar; I will pluck a silver spoon from the ‘company’s coming’ drawer.

And I will keep you company.  I will peer at you through the fragrant steam, and I will ask you what brought you to walk down the quiet streets of my neighborhood, and I will listen close to your reply.  I will savor that talk, and I will savor the dark, bold brew we share.

I’m of the Clan MacCaffeine.  This, dear one, is what we do.