Wednesday, June 24, 2009

An evolving relationship with coffee (part 1)

I live in a borderland region between idealism and pragmatism. Nothing has made me realize such borderland living than raising children.

Life in idealism says that I have control in my life. I do not need the typical human aides for day to day life. Life in pragmatism says that I need to make choices that will allow me to uphold my values even when those choices may go against personal preferences in the short term. I do not write of a deep ethical deliberation, I write about my evolving relationship with coffee--from the place of idealism to pragmatism.

The prominent adults in my life, except for my father, began their day and jolted their mid-day with a terrible product I knew as Taster's Choice instant coffee. The brown crystalline powder smelled of landfill dirt laced with acid. My Mom and Granddad drank it, and it was the one drink in the house (besides booze) that it was easy from which to keep me. Despite its mysterious aversive qualities, that green or red decorated glass jar was a morning icon of sorts. This instant coffee, in all its putridity, signified grown-up culture. The grown-ups knew something that the children did not know. For all I wanted to know about being a grown-up, this coffee substance was a mystery for which I had no complaint. Occasionally I tried to drink from this mystery, only to send shudders throughout my nerve endings. It was something that my love for straight sugar could not serve. Though I could eat straight sugar cubes and spoonfuls of brown sugar, not even piles of sugar at the church coffee stop could make that dirty liquid taste appealing, even with a deep desire to be a grown-up myself, it still tasted terrible.

I avoided coffee throughout most of my teenage years. When my friends started drinking coffee on late night trips to Denny's or local coffee houses, I discovered a more palatable bitter beverage. Earl Grey became my bitter beverage of choice--it provided an enjoyable jolt and for some reason I enjoyed its bitter better. I think it may have tasted better because it became the beverage of my ever expanding ideas of the world--late night discussions with friends.

For some reason, I moved away from Earl Grey during my undergraduate days at the University of Kansas. Somehow the name Earl Grey doesn't match Kansas. While some drank coffee at all night study sessions, I surmised I needed to make the cultural leap toward coffee. At the church that opened its doors to late night studiers with coffee and donuts in Lawrence--I took a sip of coffee and thought I needed to find something else--all of the awful memories of this drink did not change. The commercials for General Foods International Coffees gave me an image of hot cocoa with a jolt. This beverage still tasted putrid to me. I moved on to Mountain Dew to get me through the study session. After attempting 4 all night sessions, falling asleep during one of my Russian History final examination, I learned that studying throughout the semester and sleeping well was a better equation for academic success than stimulant beverages.

When I continued my academic career in Minnesota, I was more immersed in Lutheran culture than ever before, and that jokes about coffee culture that I thought were exaggerated were not tall tales. Some said that along with Baptism and Communion coffee was the "third Sacrament." Coffee appeared to be a social pillar like cigarettes or alcohol--I wondered if a group of Minnesotans couldn't get together without sharing coffee. I loved Minnesota, and it represented a huge positive shift in my life, but this was a cultural institution I wanted to avoid. Looking back, I still wanted to maintain my own identity in this powerful cultural milieu. If you don't believe that Northern Great Plains/Upper Midwest Lutheranism is not a powerful cultural milieu, consider Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. I once believed this was a comedic exaggeration I would never understand, but learned in 16 years of living in the heart of Northern Great Plains/Upper Midwest Lutheran culture, that it is no comedic exaggeration, but only highlighting cultural idiosyncrasies with gifted storytelling with a willingness not to take self too seriously. Avoiding coffee was my way of still maintaining self in the midst of strong formational cultural presence. These cultural distinctions appear not to matter much, but I think these cultural interactions we witness in the midst of a mobile society offer all kinds of points about how we create culture and how we as humans build relationships and societies.

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