Fancy a Cup

Last week I read this post written by an author describing his favorite cups of coffee on the Penguin blog and quite enjoyed it. I love coffee, being the only substance I really imbibe in any large quantity that has literary capacities. (Did I really just type that sentence?) Authors certainly have a way with alcohol, or perhaps it is vice versa. But one can't really write about alcohol in a way characteristic of its consumption. One can write about about feelings, yes--or depression, or love, or that no good bastard/tramp who did this to me. But one can't really get shit-faced and write about getting shit-faced, as an example. (Prove me wrong?) The alcohol puts the consciousness into the extremities, letting you feel like vomit or weave your way through thoughts like a drunk on a bicycle, but yet not be able to describe these processes with any real good grasp.

Caffeine, on the other hand, pulls you way back, and then hands you a pair of Zeiss binoculars. Of course, stimulants can also make complete shit flow out of the pen without stopping for air. But if you really hit that stride, pages will fly by, which, with a bit of proper editing, can be absolutely brilliant. You can write about anything all stimmed up, and it will all read like the truest words ever spoken. Whether they actually are or not is something to look at later. But despite the bullshit that might occur, you also have a good chance of describing something in a way you never would have thought about without your corneas vibrating.

So coffee, and writing about coffee: good good good. But I had this problem with the five "classic" cups of coffee described--none of them were mine. Coffee, as a stimulant, is directly tied to your sense of conscious lucidity (a reason for its effect on writing, in my opinion) and as such, consumption of it is tied to other cycles of the consciousness throughout the day--eating schedule, sleeping cycles, Circadian rhthym, etc. Benjamin Obler, the author of the piece, seems to be a strictly 8:00-22:00, person, or thereabouts. I am not. I lead this strange (not so strange, in this day and age, really) double life (okay, more of a 1.5x life) in which I work a day job with a shifting schedule, and also write at night. In addition, my partner works a night shift on a 4-on-3-off cycle, so between our strange overlaps of homelife, and the grinding sleep-transmission clutch-popping of the weekends, I don't know if I've eaten a dinner that wasn't at least half breakfast in the past year and a half, ranging anywhere from 16:00 to 4:00 local.

But I love the idea--because each cup of coffee does have a certain character to it, related to time, place, activity, quantity of day light, and of course, the ever-important current level of conscious wheel-spinning. So, I'm going to write my own favorite five cups, in no particular order. Does this count as a literary remix? A re-do? A reset? I don't know. But I'm going to get to it before my introduction totally dwarfs my actual piece.

First Cup
The Worker's Cup

There are at least ten ways to avoid this cup, all of which are significantly kinder to the beverage, as if there was somewhere an avatar of the drink like a minor goddess, lounging a small marble coupola, scowling into her bronzen bowl, Clash of the Titans-style view-screen of reflective black liquid at anything packed into a round metal tin, or (shudders with greco-indignation) "pre-ground". One could brew it at home, drop past the local coffee shop, or even go through the Starbucks drive-through, if necessary. But no--instead, as you hit the snooze button for the fourth time, you doomed yourself to both the goddess' ire and the horrible grittiness of the "shop cup".
The urn looks professional enough, clad in stainless steel. But one must remember--it is called an urn for a reason. The plastic lid seals the process from eyes that would be really better off not knowing that the same guy who always turns in his forms sloppily-written and smeared also was in charge of rinsing the pot the night before. Hopefully no one has found your mug in its hiding place behind your computer tower and your speaker, because the same rusted sediment in the bottom which you face every day is the only standard of hygiene you can rely on.
But the coffee--oh the coffee--from its watery lows to its highs of 5W20 viscosity, is really what matters here. If you think you would be better off without this ghastly morning ritual, the morning someone forgot to order more coffee should be the only proof you need of this process' spastic veracity. This cup is the source of the grit you keep in your teeth all day as you selflessly shoulder your boss' load; it is the fire burning caustic holes in the retaining walls of your stomach so you do not fall asleep and catch your face in the press; it is the antidote to the zombification that would otherwise see your co-workers colliding into each other with all the slow-moving deadly force of boxcars in the yard, just waiting to pierce men through and amputate limbs. This horrible excuse for coffee is the single thread between insanity and insanity wrapped in a straight-jacket.
And why? If the stimulant content is mixed, the quality and taste all over the map, and the consistency spelled "conk-cyst-an-sea", what does this cup have to offer to us poor working souls?
Heat. Pure, roof-of-mouth scalding, fresh-from-the-fissure-in-the-earth heat. If you burn three layers of skin off of the tongue, you are probably able to drink at least three cups of the swill while tasting next to nothing. The heat will open up the pores of your mind like hot water loosening the feathers out of a chicken carcass. You'll be ready to belch wooden-puppets from your entrails as if you were Monstro himself. So go, pour yourself another cup, and get those bile-dripping, flaming puppets dancing across your workspace, because you know you're going to be here for at least another eight hours. And this is why I will pray to this goddess until the day I die (or quit my day job).

Second Cup
The Apocalypse Cup

This cup, in many ways, is the opposite of the worker's cup. Rather than symbolizing an every day collision with the horrible routines of life, this cup is the conscious description of the breaking with the routine. In this way it isn't, as you might of thought, a cup to end all cups, the drinking of which will cause the fabric of the universe to rip and fray from the seams. No angelic wheels, vials, or whores of Babylon here. (Though if you are able to brew this sort of cup, let me know what roast and seep method, so far my experiments are getting me nowhere.) This is more akin to the literal meaning of apocalypse: that sort of textual encounter that reveals eschatological and cosmic knowledge through its symbolism and historic descriptions.
How, you ask, does a cup of coffee manage this? Well, it has to do with the context of the consumption. The previous cup is one marked by the daily return to the place of work, and all the unsavory connotations of that particular point in your experiential space-time. This cup is taken at a totally different time and place--one that we don't dread, so much as do not expect, and are always a little bit awed by result.
The sip of good coffee provides a point of reflection--a pause in which the mind accelerates. From the entrance of the aroma into the nose, until the point at which the caffeine actually reaches the brain, the mind is re-acquainting itself with the experience of accelerated thought via the stimulant. There is a pause, as the mind relishes the empty space between sensations at the base rate, before it picks up and tunes in to the new time signature. Similar to when you slow down a tape, and then realize how awfully long the pause is between tracks--like minutes. This is what your brain is doing with time-space in those first minutes.
What is a shame is that this period of acceleration is normally occupied by other things, so there isn't much noticed. For instance, you are waking up, or making breakfast, or talking with friends, or reading the Internet before it is time to get down to work. The distraction takes away from the lengthening of time's harmonic period, and you miss the opportunity for consciousness-bending experience.
Not as if this is the place where all the missing god particles fly out of the space between space in the delicious black liquid, negatizing your concepts and turning your signifiers inside out as it will be in the end. No, that's salvia divnorum.(Actually the experience is somewhat akin... but let's turn away from that for now.) Nor is it a zone for optimal creativity, as I am apt to call certain opportunities for gnosis in everyday life.
But if you are doing the right sort of thing, you might feel a sensation of change. This normally happens to me when I am heading out of the house for a three AM drive, or going on a walk in a deserted area, and I decide to quickly drink a cup of coffee to highten the perceptions a bit, or gain a little bit of wakefulness. Or, even when I'm getting ready for a night of drinking, and I get a double shot of espresso to carry me through. As I set out on this mini-adventure, whatever it is, ready to see what there is to see in the world about me, I get the sense that things are changing. I'm not presented with anything specific, but all of a sudden I realize things seem a bit brighter, music sounds a bit better, and I can speak a bit more directly. The world has a large possibility of change all the time, and if you get out a bit, you can realize it. Not so much the end of the world, as looking outside your interior monologue, and seeing there was a world around you the whole time. Like Enoch visiting the houses of the winds and stars. Or something like that, but coffee. It's awesome.

Third Cup
The Bezerker Cup

There are certain times, friends--certain times that call for certain measures. There are occasions when you need a little extra something, a little bit of a performance boost. And I'm not talking about Official Bezerker Corps Blood-Washed PCP Cough Drops, now with MDMA! Oh wait, yes I am. There are times when you need these, so you can rip the heads off goblins as you make your way to the throne room, wielding your 55-gallon revolvers.
But there are other times that are not those times, like when you have a job interview, a class presentation, or an important meeting in which you are going to say things to people that they do not want to hear to get them to agree to do something they don't want to do. In these times, even a little edge can totally make the different.
In grad school, every single time I was going to lead seminar discussion, half an hour before I would go around the corner to the coffee shop, which was such a coffee shop so that I was assured of the quality of their brew. I would get, what is not really an official coffee drink, but which goes by various "street" terms in the dark, student infested coffee shops of large towns, maybe even your own. They don't have it on the menu--oh no. You have to whisper it quietly to the barista, so the kids sipping they're caramel mocha crap don't hear you. Ask for a "red eye", or maybe a "depth charge", or an "all-nighter". What it is: a double shot of espresso dumped into a large coffee. No cream. No sugar.
It's delicious, by the way. But it also does not have any of the milk products, the fat of which counteracts and slows the stimulant, in my opinion. Nor any of the sugar; Red Bull may give you wings, but only for about twenty minutes, because half the rush is sugar. I would be able to drink most of this beverage in the thirty minutes before class, having the last bit as something to sip on while speaking. The rush is strong, fast, and continuous, totally pulling me through a three-hour session.
Now, you can't be chugging coffee all day and expect a bezerker cup to have the proper effect. You have to plan ahead. The heat is a factor, as I've said before. The warmth of a large cup of coffee (talking 16-20oz here, I'm not sure what the corporates are selling you as a large these days) will set the proper core temperature for full coffee absorption. This is why you need both the coffee and the espresso. And if you are the sort that right now is thinking to yourself, "that's nothing, I regularly drink a quadruple shot of espresso and then take a nap!" then heaven help you, because your heart is going to explode... RIGHT NOW. Did that scare you? Stop drinking too much espresso.
This cup is perhaps the most proper, judicious, and social use of coffee, and it is why I love it. It is harnessing that stimulus rush for a good cause, being, conversing. There are no awkward pauses, no stammering for a word, no leading down a illogical pathway only to have to turn around and come back. Of course, you have to watch your speed (I was told three times while presenting on Heidegger to slow the f--- down) but on the other hand, I had no problem getting through my eight to ten pages of notes for my opening statement (okay, I also have a consumption problem in no way related to caffeine). If you want to try this in a non-pressure situation, try grabbing a friend with whom you have a similar, properly technical interest, and treat him/her to coffee. By the end of two hours, you'll have a business plan in an industry that hasn't been invented yet. Just don't name it then. Sit on that one for awhile.

Fourth Cup
The Mistake Cup

Man, I hate this cup. I love it too. There are times when one has to sleep. I am well aware of the need for sleep, thanks to my bizarre, shifting labyrinth of a daily schedule, as already discussed. Because of this schedule, opportunities for uninterrupted sleep are visable ahead of time. Okay: get home from work, sleep for four hours, wake up, have dinner, and write until 5:00, see Megan, sleep for three more, and then wake up. Ready, break.
Until Megan says, upon me arriving home from work, tired as shit from only sleeping four and a half the night before, "hey, want to make some coffee in the french press?" Shit. "Oh, I was going to, but... fuck yeah, I want some coffee from the french press!" And my carefully planned world falls apart.
I'm a sucker for coffee from the press. We have three machines: drip, Bialetti stove top espresso, and the press. I can't afford the espresso machine I really want, so for now I rent the skills of the local barista when needed. The Bialetti is alright--it makes great coffee, but there is always a little taste of aluminum there, and I don't like milk. The drip is solid. I have a good gold filter, and when making a full pot it doesn't let me down. It also stays warm without reheating, which the press won't do. And I love the press. It's so tasty, thick, and lucious. So I save it for special occasions: bezerkers, apocalypses, and the like. Megan drinks her coffee in small portions, mixed half with foamed milk, because caffeine hits her really strong.
I would like to get into turkish/greek coffee. Almost bought one of the little copper pots when I was is Greece, but I've never learned how to make it, so I didn't want to just get one without some idea of what I was doing. Also, I like that sort of coffee only sometimes; for me, coffee is a beverage, and I like to drink it, not just sip. But a good, Greek coffee... the oh-so-bitter sludge in the bottom just daring you to take one more sip....
You see, this is the problem. I love coffee, and I love making coffee--the aroma in the air at the mere idea of a brew, the warm look of the beans in the jar on the shelf, the way they sound falling into the grinder, healthy just-green light roast, or the dark roast burnt so dark the beans look as if they will explode into dust if they clatter onto the hard stone of the counter, the purr of the grinder when you know those lovely granules are just the right combination of substance and powder, the steam filling the kitchen while you try not to watch so the process will hurry, and finally--the swoosh of hot coffee filling that good stoneware mug, blowing off a bit of magical steam across the top of the perfectly dark liquid like spray off the ocean.
Not to mention the first sip. How can you turn that down? Tell me: how? And so, I write for five hours, watch a film, get four hours of sleep, and then feel like crap the next day at work. Until I have a cup of coffee.

Fifth Cup
The Writer's Cup

Here it is--the cup, which for me, is the raison de etre. It is almost mystical. Shit, it is mystical; it's almost actual mana from heaven, with a legion of seraphim presenting a signed scroll of authenticity.
I like to sleep first. This makes sure I'm actually rested, not just propped up with stimulant. A two-hour nap at least normally fits the bill. As I wake, my body still desperately struggling for something, anything to set its internal clock by, I go about the business of making the coffee. If it is going to be a night of writing, I go for the pot. An afternoon, or only five hours, I do the press. Sometimes, if I really want it to go well, I do a cup in the press as a teaser while the pot brews.
The coffee is always sensational. If it isn't, and I've somehow screwed it up, I throw it out and start again. No sense being hasty and starting on the wrong foot. While I drink the first cup, I read. Typically I read something along the lines of what I plan to write, to get my head in the right place, and to get the word factory tuned. Not too close, because that will screw it up. But in the neighborhood, something that might form a good harmony.
About the time of the second cup is when I start. The second cup is drunk pretty steadily, keeping me occupied while I think, and giving me something warm to sip. By the third cup it is cooling off most of the way before it gets finished, because I've picked up the pace and can't get my fingers off the keys or my attention away. I often leave about 3/4 of an inch in the bottom of the cup, over top of which I pour my refills. A refill or a bathroom break every hour or so provides good thinking opportunities. By the time the auto-off has taken effect on the pot warmer, I've either finished the pot or don't need anymore.
It isn't magical, however. It doesn't always work. Sometimes the writing just won't come, because its like that. I also don't do the coffee all the time. I started this little piece on two cups in the morning, and I am finishing it now at night, when I'm desperately wanting a cup (especially after thinking about coffee so much) but avoiding it so I can get up and go to work tomorrow. (Tomorrow's sleep schedule is going to include some major shifting, so I want to make sure I fairly baseline so the stim can do its work.) Can you tell a difference in my writing between the intro and the first two cups as opposed to the last two? Maybe I'm a bit wittier and quick-moving in the beginning, but all my essays seem to slow the pace at the end, as I put the thing to bed.
Other than this essay, I can think of only one piece in which I've written about coffee specifically. It is a piece about a diner, involving a character very aware of the things around him, but not aware of himself. The narrator's omniscient description of his first sip of coffee is quite good, I think. I don't think I put much of it in this essay, which is good. I've recently discovered myself repeating myself. Self-plagarism--not good if it happens without you wanting it. When I wrote that bit in the story (it is a short story, by the way) I wrote it while drinking a fresh cup of coffee. This worked pretty well. I think you have to have memories of things if you want to be able to describe them. Even for speculative writing--the only way to understand an idea is to present it in terms of things that make sense (either explicitly, or surrepticiously). The trick is presenting the memories as if they are not your own, because that memory is something you already have, and words are something different. It would be difficult to write about anything else while doing it, for practical reasons as well as thematic. You could take notes perhaps, but actually composing while running a mile or meeting a future lover would be difficult. In addition, coffee-drinking, in the way that I think of it, which you might have gotten a bit of a taste of over the course of the last couple thousand words, is an experience of presence, because it alters the way one experiences everything. Not by much, of course, but still in a way to which the mind reacts and can sense. As one feels this sort of a change in perception, one might be inclined to attempt to describe it, to make sense of it. Or, one could just try and go along with it, and enjoy it. I suppose it depends on what one finds enjoyable. Here I am, finishing an essay about writing and coffee, so I suppose you already know what I think.

1 comment:

Oliveslav said...

In Bosnia, each cup of coffee is named according to its role in a particular context. The "Razgalica" is the first coffee of the day, meaning "the little opener". The "Razgovorusa" is the one you have with friends or coworkers, meaning "the conversationalist". My favorite is the one served at the end of visit, used to indicate that it is time for the guest to leave without the awkwardness of saying, "Boy, I'm tired, how about you?" This coffee is called the "Sikterusa", and its etymology is found in the the Turkish "sikter", meaning, roughly, "piss off" or "flee"! Imagine a dinner party that has reached "that point" in the evening. The host would come out with a tray of coffee and invite each guest to partake in a sikterusa. The guests sit around, politely drink the coffee and, when finished, head on their merry way. It is also just as rude to refuse coffee as it is to fail to offer it... proper social interaction requires it.

There is an interesting documentary by Tone Bringa about the Bosnian war "coming" to a Bosnian village. As the sounds and reports of war drew closer and closer to the village, the multiethnic community banded closer together. Then one day the coffee visits stopped, quickly followed by ethnic cleansing.