I had to take Oscar (our illustrious Shih Tzu) to a vaccination clinic yesterday. As I began observing the many…interesting people I found there. The descriptions were writing themselves in my head, so I came home and scribbled them down. What began as a writing exercise in describing people emerged as almost a story. I slapped an ending on it just to give it a stopping point, and because I was feeling a bit ironic.
This is an unedited first pass. I enjoyed writing it, but your mileage may vary.
* * *
When they arrived, there were already dozens of people. Some were milling about outside in the cold, each tethered to a dog, sometimes two, all of them waiting for their chance to step into the back of a mysterious white van parked at the curb. The van itself was a Dodge Sprinter, awkwardly tall and cavernous, and through the tinted windows he could darkly see figures moving within.
Chewie had finally stopped shaking. He had been trembling the entire trip there, vibrating at a frequency Rob was pretty sure was biologically impossible. He was excited, pulling at his leash, making his way toward the store. Rob made his way to the back of the misshapen huddle of people, wondering if the light hoodie he’d worn was going to keep him warm enough. The weather had been erratic lately, and despite spring-like temperatures earlier in the week, today it was cold. Rumor had it there might even be snow.
A middle-aged woman with an eighties perm and denim jacket smiled at him. Her eyes were like slits in her face, squinty, but with no visible eyelids until she blinked.
“You filled out your paperwork yet?” She asked.
“Me? No.” He said. “I wasn’t really sure how that worked.”
With a motion of her head, she gestured toward the store, winding the leash she was holding around her hand an extra time.
“Inside.” She said. “There are two lines in there. The first one you see, the long one? That’s for people paying. The second line is farther in, by the pets and reptiles. That one is where you fill out your paperwork before you come out here.”
“Thanks,” he said, and turned to walk toward the door.
“I just didn’t want you to find out after you’d already waited on this line.” She said helpfully.
“I appreciate it.” He said.
He made his way inside. She hadn’t been kidding about the line. It was at least 20 people deep, each of them strapped up to an animal of various shapes and sizes, mostly dogs, but a few cats, too. The animals looked out of place inside the store, but he supposed that pet stores like this didn’t exactly have conventional rules about such things. After all, they were probably of the mind that “pets are people too.”
He made his way past the line of people shifting from foot to foot on the hard, department store tile, waiting their turn to shell out big bucks for their pets’ annual vaccinations. It was cheaper doing it this way than it was to just go to the vet, which was why so many people were here giving up their Saturday mornings to stand there and have a turn. He passed a gigantic Saint Bernard that appeared absolutely iconic, and he checked himself as he began instinctually to look for a little whiskey barrel around its massive neck. Chewie was roughly the size of the big dog’s head.
The girl signing people up for paperwork looked the part somehow. Late teens, maybe early twenties, she wore a gray and black striped long-sleeve tee under a teal polo shirt. She had a caution yellow stocking cap on her head, and it held back stringy blonde hair that framed an unremarkable face devoid of even a hint of makeup. Her khakis were dirty, and they were tucked into a pair of fur-lined gum boots. He thought she looked like an eco-terrorist.
A woman in a dark green apron sporting a pin that said “Nature’s Best,” which he assumed must have been a brand of pet food, approached Chewie and began petting him.
“He’s so cute!” She said.
“Thanks.” He said. Please don’t ask me what breed he is. I know nothing about dogs.
“What kind of dog is he?” She asked.
I should be working my story right now. I’m at 37,000 words, which is half of a real novel, and only 13,000 away from the NaNoWriMo novel goal. I have a basic idea where the plot is going, and plenty of scenes to flesh out, but I’m stuck because it’s gotten hard. I don’t know that I like my book. I don’t know that my story idea will pan out. I’m freaking out about continuity. I am doubting that my BBTTGTH (Big Bad Thing That’s Going To Happen) is a compelling enough conflict to drive character motivations. I’m struggling to write all the in-between stuff that strings together the really important plot-development scenes or the really fun-to-write action scenes. “Jade put on her shoes. They were brown. Jade walked down the boring gray street to the other place I haven’t really thought out where she’s going to do that thing that still isn’t very important, but it’s building up to it. Dear God, why am I so stupid and unable to do this and fill THE DAMNED SPACE ON THIS PAGE WITH WORDS THAT PEOPLE WILL WANT TO READ?!?!”
Larry Correia, novelist extraordinaire, covers this on his post about “The Writing Process.” Says Larry:
Here comes the dirty little secret of this business. Writing is hard work. Now, work can be lots of fun, but it is also work. You need to set a schedule, put your butt in the seat, hands on the keyboard, and friggin’ TYPE STUFF.
This is the part that stops most aspiring writers. They have a great idea. They’re enthusiastic as all get out. They sit down and start writing… and writing… and writing… and about 40,000 words in they discover that this is HARD.
Yep, now finish the book.
Give yourself time to work. Don’t kill yourself over it, but you have to put in the time to produce words. The reason I’m blogging right now is because I’m too sick and high on cold medicine to work on my current novel. I’ve got a killer deadline looming, but a man has to know his limitations.
Writers write. If I have only a limited amount of time, that’s when I’ll go back and edit bits and pieces or tackle small scenes. I save the good stuff for when I’m in the proper frame of mind. If I’m working on a part that’s not clicking, I’m not going to stop the whole project until it does. Nope. I’m going to skip ahead and write the next scene that I feel like writing. I can always go back and fill in that earlier scene when I feel like it.
Writer’s Block is a filthy lie. If somebody says they have Writer’s Block, they’re either being lazy and they really want to go play some Call of Duty, or they’re working on something that they’re just plain not interested in. Okay, fine. Stop that particular project that is boring you and go work on something else instead. If you’re absolutely stuck, go Free Write something to see if you can kick up the creative juices.
Let me tell you though, once you become a professional, and you’re doing this for a living, it doesn’t matter that you don’t feel like writing a particular thing at that time… Because your publisher has paid you an advance for that book and it is now on the schedule to be released at a certain date. You like having a job? I bet you do… Try telling your boss at your current job that you have Accountant’s Block and you just don’t feel like completing these taxes. “Oh, I’m sorry you’re having a cerebral hemorrhage, sir. I’ve got Brain Surgeon’s Block and I just can’t perform right now.”
See? Put your big girl panties on and write the darned book.
You put in enough time, eventually you’re going to have a finished book. Yay!
I wrote to Larry recently, and asked him about this whole writing thing. I talked a little about my struggle, and about how I have 57,000 kids who interrupt me when I’m in the zone (yes, I blamed the children, can you believe that?!?!) and yadda yadda.
He kindly responded:
On the writing, it just comes down to butt in seat, hands on keyboard. Even with the kids, I’d say just pick a time and schedule it as Daddy’s writing time. Sort of like going to the gym. You just have to do it. Then it just comes down to practice.
I agreed with him without ever telling him I never go to the gym.
Anyway, tonight, as I was procrastinating along, I decided to write back to him.
Said I, in a manner reminiscent of someone on crack:
So I’ve been thinking about all of this, and I’d like to submit a question for “Ask Correia.” You’ve mentioned that nobody will ever see the first novel you wrote because it sucked, even though you drew characters and concepts out of it for other stories.
But for people like me, grappling with this first, ugly, unwieldy draft of this first, ugly, unwieldy novel, what I’d love to hear about is what you learned from writing that first novel? How did it teach you in ways that changed your writing on future books? Was that whole process really just a trial run to figure out all the things you could never know about writing a complex work of fiction without actually writing a complex work of fiction? I’ve heard people say the whole reason you write a first novel isn’t to get it published, but to figure out how to do it at all so you’re better the next time.
I’m learning a lot already about how poorly I planned this out (I *did* just go with the first thing that came to mind for NaNoWriMo) and how little thought I really gave to the complexity of creating a self-contained, isolated, dystopian world. All the logistical problems of that command-and-control structure, the problem of food supply and manufacturing, of border security, of what the outside world was really doing that allowed this little bubble to continue, etc., it all didn’t even enter my mind.
I just thought, “Oh, yeah! PLOT REDACTED took over a city-state after a crazy war and used a PLOT REDACTED to fool the people into PLOT REDACTED! And there are all these weird animated-corpse cyborgs (like in the Black Hole but more ninja-esque) who do the PLOT REDACTED’s bidding and our hero is a young hacker chick with an anti-authoritarian streak and technokinesis put there by her father who worked for the government and saw this all coming but PLOT REDACTED EXCEPT HER MOM WHO WAS ACCUSED OF KILLING HIM AND IS NOW DRUGGED UP IN AN ASYLUM TO PLOT REDACTED?!?! F@*K YES!! I CAN’T WAIT TO SELL THE MOVIE RIGHTS!!!”
Anyway, grappling with this weird North-Korea-esque world I created and making it cohesive and interesting and not implausible is killing me, Smalls!
So I would be comforted by hearing what you learned. Sorry if this was a bit ranty and run-on. I’m procrastinating about writing, and searching teh interwebz for advice that will warm the cockles of my fearful, ADD-riddled heart.
Did you honestly think I was going to reveal critical elements of the plot here? COME ON! Sure, I told Larry, because while he might read my email is probably never going to read my book so, you know, caution to the wind and all that.
You see, though? These are the things that go through my head as I sit down to write. And I haven’t even opened the document and I’ve been here for an hour.
Make. It. Stop.
OK seriously. Time to dive in.
I’m really going this time.
Not even kidding.
A few days ago, someone posted a list of “46 Reasons My Three Year Old Might be Freaking Out.” It was the first thing I read after I woke up as I waited for the shower to get warm. I laughed so hard I was crying. I might have drooled on the floor a little bit.
Since I have five kids running through the house and one arriving soon, I have some experience with three-year-old freak outs. Our current 3-year-old is the reigning champion. I thought I’d add some of my favorites to the list.
His eggs are falling off his fork.
He wanted his eggs prepared differently.
He tastes pepper.
He doesn’t want fruit.
His sleeves are wrinkly when you pull them up.
His sleeves are too long when you don’t.
His pants got a few drops of water on them.
The house is “shaking.”
I cut up his pancakes.
I didn’t cut up his pancakes.
He thought I was getting him water.
We cleaned up the toys he’s not using.
His bed is too squishy.
I covered him up when he’s cold.
I put the wrong shirt on him.
I put the right shirt on him but he wanted to do it himself.
A vegetable touched his plate.
I put kale in his “hamburger spot.”
His fingernails are “smoky.”
It’s time to go to church.
I want him to wear pants.
The light is off in the bathroom.
His cheese fell on him.
His cheese slice is too small.
His cheese is the wrong kind.
He wants to sit in a different chair.
He has to buckle his seatbelt.
I got him the wrong beverage.
I asked him about something he said.
I misrepresented something he made up.
His cape isn’t tied.
He can’t transform the robot.
He hates the day.
He hates everything.
I told him he’s freaking out.
UPDATE: As I was hitting “publish”, he started freaking out. Because he was asking a question and nobody was answering him.
Tonight, I was looking at photos of the March for Life. As I was scrolling through them, Ivan, my six-year-old, came into the room.
“What’s that, Daddy?” He asked, as he looked over my shoulder.
I found myself wondering if I should tell him. But then again, why not? Evil exists. It’s part and parcel of the world he is growing up in. I tried to find a way to tell him gently.
“Well,” I said. “There are some pregnant mommas who don’t think they can take care of their babies. So they have an operation that makes their babies go away. They don’t like to think about it, but that operation kills their babies.”
“But why?” he asked, looking confused. “Why would they do that?”
I pointed to my wife, standing in the kitchen, 8 months pregnant.
“You know how mommy has a baby in her tummy? We don’t know him yet. We haven’t ever met him. We’ve seen some pictures, but it’s not the same as when they’re born, is it? These mommies who do this, they don’t think about it. They don’t know their babies. It’s easier for them not to think about it because they haven’t seen their babies yet. And unfortunately, our government — the people in charge — they say it’s OK to do this. It’s not against the law. So all these people you see in the pictures? They have something like a parade. They all go and March in Washington to tell the people in charge that it’s not OK to let people do this.”
“But why would they allow that?” He asked, his face transforming into an angry scowl. “That’s SO MEAN!”
“I don’t know, Ivan. I really don’t understand it.”
At that moment, his mother called him to dinner, so he left the room. I didn’t. I just sat there, tears welling up in my eyes. How do you explain to your children that in this country, a country that is supposed to represent freedom and justice for all, it’s legal to exterminate children in the place where they should be safest? How do you tell a child who knows nothing of motherhood except unconditional love that there are mothers willing to end their babies’ lives, just like that?
It’s impolitic to talk about this at all, of course. I can’t have a discussion this rational with many adults, because somehow we’ve come to a place in our national discourse where we have to “agree to disagree” over whether dismembering an unborn child is murder. Both sides of the argument have heard the same positions laid out again and again, countless times. It’s a rhetorical war, a sort of endless cultural détente, that keeps us civil and goes nowhere.
But children know. Show a 2-year-old a picture of a 12-week-old fetus and ask them to tell you what it is, and they immediately point and say, “Baby!” Their minds are simple. They have not yet developed the capacity for guile, for nuancing away the truth of a thing. A toddler will come right out and ask you why you’re so fat. A kindergartener will tell you that your cooking tastes bad. They don’t mean anything by it, they just don’t know any better. They see reality for what it is and call it that way.
I mourn for this country. I mourn for a people who can’t see what a six-year-old boy can see. I mourn for adults who have become so intellectually dishonest that they refuse to acknowledge the humanity of a helpless baby.
How can you explain such incomprehensible evil to the noble mind of a child? It’s not the kind of thing they can process. There is no room in their way of thinking for such self-deception.
I wish they didn’t have to know. But it will be their fight soon enough. Evil thrives when it is hidden. It needs to be dragged out into the light. They are the second-generation survivors of Roe v. Wade, just as I am the first. 40 years of this senseless bloodshed in what was once the greatest nation on Earth?
How will we survive it? I don’t know for sure. But the people who love children keep having them, and the people who want the freedom to kill them don’t. Maybe it will just come down to a demographic equation. I can’t say. But the truth is on our side. We can’t lose this battle forever. I give humanity too much credit.
After all, children can see the truth. Maybe if we teach them now, they won’t forget it when they’re old enough to complicate things.
(Images courtesy of Alicia Skojec Photography)
Seriously. It’s a brilliant choice if the reports are true. Look what he did with the Star Trek reboot.
Still, if the same guy directs both the Star Wars and Star Trek movies, I’m pretty sure the ensuing paradox will destroy the space/time continuum. Nerds everywhere will never be the same.
Yesterday, I got an email from Amazon. It read:
Dear Steve Skojec,
We thought you’d like to know that eligible songs from 3 CDs you have purchased from Amazon are being added to your Cloud Player library. This means that high-quality MP3 versions of these songs are available for you to play or download from Cloud Player for FREE. You can find your songs in the “Purchased” playlist.
In addition, we’re excited to announce AutoRip. Now when you buy any CD with the logo, the MP3 version of that album will instantly be delivered to your Amazon Cloud Player library for FREE.
I don’t know if I squealed in excitement like a girl, but I probably should have. This is a major development in intellectual property distribution, and it will undoubtedly influence any number of other decisions in the ongoing debate over who owns content, and in what form.
It doesn’t matter whether you buy a CD or a digital version of music, you bought the music. Having Amazon recognize this and ensure that you have access to both after purchasing the physical medium is a logical step. First, because it’s likely to curtail piracy. Think about it: have you ever lost or damaged a CD you bought and downloaded the album illegally to replace it, figuring that you already owned it? Don’t lie.
Secondly, it’s undoubtedly a strategic move to shift more content in the direction of digital and away from physical media as painlessly as possible. This will win over many of Amazon’s customers who like having actual CDs of their favorite albums on their shelves and aren’t yet ready to move to digital. Many of those people probably still buy physical albums out of habit, or even distrust of new technology. Once they become familiar with the ease and convenience of non-physical media, any number of those individuals may make begin making future purposes of digital media alone, thus alleviating shipping costs for Amazon, reducing overhead and fulfillment center staffing, and increasing profit margins.
This needs to happen with books. You may recall that I wrote something a while back about this very topic, albeit from a different angle. My proposal was intended to give print an extended lifespan by providing free ebook copies of any work to a person buying the hardcover. I wrote:
I got a Kindle Touch for Father’s Day, and I absolutely love it. The compact size, the convenience, the built-in book light in my case, the ability to store hundreds (or thousands) of books all on one tiny device – all of it is very appealing to me. Since I got it, I haven’t picked up one of the many, many physical books that are piled around my house.
At the same time, I wouldn’t dream of replacing them. Books that are worth owning are worth displaying, and if I read a good ebook I want a physical copy on my shelf. I want to know that when the EMP strike comes that will take out the American power grid and all of our devices, I can still read. Books are a status symbol. Books should be seen by the people who visit your office or your home. There’s nothing like the smell, feel, and heft of a book. When you have your head buried in the pages, everyone else gets an advertisement about what’s inside by looking at the cover.
But they say the print industry is dying, and the sales numbers I linked to are hinting that this is more than anecdotal. So here’s my proposal to book publishers:
With every physical copy of hardcover book you sell, package a free copy of the ebook as well.
That’s it. Simple. No magic there. It doesn’t cost anything to distribute an ebook. You can charge more for a hardcover. But if you’re like me, you want the hardcover on your shelf or for your lazy afternoon Sunday reading, and you want the ebook for the plane, the train, and the trip to the beach. I want to know that if I’ve purchased a book, I can read it in whatever format I damn well please. That doesn’t mean I think I should get a free hardcover if I buy an ebook; I understand that there’s a cost to produce something and that it needs to be covered. But if every hardcover came with an ebook version free of charge, I guarantee it would shore up the print industry in a real and immediate way.
Interestingly, my opinion on physical books is beginning to change. Now that I’ve had a Kindle for half a year (and with a recent upgrade to the new Kindle Paperwhite, I’m moving even faster in this direction) I am losing the impetus I had to keep buying physical copies of books just so I can display them on my shelves. It starts feeling like a waste of space because I now absolutely prefer, every time, to read on my Kindle. That said, I still like to display the cover art, be able to hand someone a copy (I’m no fan of DRM – I want to be able to loan books I own to anyone, even if they are in electronic format) and to know that if the power goes out, S.M. Stirling-style, I still have a library of good reads at my disposal. There’s a real value to physical books in a way that there isn’t to CDs. CDs still need a power source to be used. Paper books will be good even after the bomb.
But I do believe that regardless of whether print is doomed or you want to keep it alive, the idea Amazon is applying to music simply has to also be applied to books. The time has come. And honestly, if you give me an ebook with the hardcover, I’m probably going to spend the extra dough on the hardcover more often than not, because I’M GETTING TWO THINGS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE. Decision: made.
I doubt the product strategists at Amazon are reading this, and if they are, they probably already know this is an inevitability. So get to it! Let’s make it happen. And if that just means that people transition away from print (thus fulfilling the profit motives I intuited above) and toward digital, well, that’s a consequence I’m prepared to deal with. There will always be a market for paper books, even if it’s small. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.
At the prompting of a couple of authors whose works I have enjoyed, I joined Worldcon this year (via LonestarCon3 – yes, it’s complicated; no, I don’t really understand why either.) so that I could nominate and vote in the 2013 Hugo Awards. I’ve already written a bit about my personal interest in the Hugos, but for those who don’t know I should also say that for most authors of science fiction, the Hugo and the Nebula are two of the brightest lights in the constellation of winnable awards. The Hugo is more of a “people’s choice” award, while the Nebula is more of an academy (SFWA) sort of thing.
In any event, I’m working my way through the ballot, and I realize that I primarily have contributions to make in the “Best Novel” and “John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer” categories, with perhaps also something to say in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category, provided it includes movies and audiobooks. (I’m still looking into the audiobook angle. I sincerely hope it does, because I’ve heard some outstanding performances this year by Oliver Wyman and Bronson Pinchot.)
The rest of the categories, though, are a mystery to me. If you know of things you think are deserving of Hugo nominations in these categories, please let me know in the comments. I have a month to read and review materials for best Novella, Novellette, Short Story, Graphic Story, and others so that I can include them on my ballot.
Until then, I get 5 slots for each category. This is how my ballot is looking so far:
- Monster Hunter: Legion by Larry Correia (Baen)
- Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey (Orbit)
- The Rook by Daniel O’Malley (Little, Brown and Company)
- The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (HarperCollins)
- Faith by John Love (Night Shade Books)
John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer:
- John Love – Faith
- Daniel O’Malley – The Rook
I’ve got a lot of slots to fill in. Feed me, people. There are a whole bunch of categories I haven’t even scratched the surface on yet.
I realized over the weekend that we had just reached our 1-year anniversary of going primal. This is a moderately big deal. I’ve never done a dietary change that has lasted a whole year before. I’ve also never done one that I intend to stick to for much longer than that.
It’s been a year of success, for both of us. Jamie and I collectively lost 70 pounds (I lost 40, she lost 30) but I’ve gained about 15 back out of laziness and she is pregnant so all bets are off for a while. I will say, it’s the best, healthiest, lowest-problem pregnancy so far. And she’s gained very little weight. She’s just this normal, beautiful woman with a basketball in her stomach. Or as the nice Asian lady at Costco said to me the other day, “You lucky! You wife have 6 kid and she still sexy!”
Um, yeah, lady. Why do you think we have six kids?
In any event, I need to get back on the wagon. I stopped exercising way back in May of 2012. I got busy, the weather got hot, and I just stopped. The weight loss continued for a couple more months, then tapered. Jamie got preggers and started craving carbs, so potatoes and rice made more frequent appearances at the dinner table. The Holiday season went fairly well, with some minor indiscretions, but I still gained. My biggest problem remains my fondness for bourbon and red wine. I have at least one drink most nights, and that tends to put the brakes on the no-exercise metabolism.
Still, I’m consistently at a weight I haven’t seen since 2003, and I feel better overall and have a kick-butt immune system. Blood pressure is lower, cholesterol good, and bacon is tasty on everything. My waistline is still four inches slimmer. I’ll take the improvement, but I’m looking for more.
This year, I want to re-lose that 15 pounds, and then go for another 30. Then I’ll be sitting in butter. Literally, I plan to celebrate by sitting in a tub of butter. With a straw. Okay, I’m grossing myself out now.
Also fantastic, I continue to hear from people who have gone primal due at least in part to our recommendations. Not one of them has had a bad thing to say, and most have lost weight and feel great. This makes me really, really happy.
I had started a blog over at primalfamilyliving.com to document our progress, insights, recipes, and all that jazz, but I honestly just don’t have time to keep up with it. And frankly, there’s like 47 quadrillion paleo blogs out there now, most of which are written by people far more attractive than I am, with really impressive abs. I’ll let them do the heavy lifting (har har) and post all the coconut and bacon-related food porn.
So yeah. 45 pounds this year? Guess I better start walking.
Food is a pretty essential part of our lives. After air and water, it’s the most important in fact, right before shelter and love.
And since here in America we’ve more or less got an abundance of good shelter, edible food, and potable water (we’re all breathing and trying to figure out how to get the whole love thing right, so we’ll leave those aside for now) it’s not at all surprising to me that our focus has shifted from quantity (ie., “do I have enough to eat”?) to quality (ie., “should I do a balsamic glaze on that and/or add truffles to it?”).
I’m a big fan of food. It’s one of the reasons that more than once in my life, I’ve tipped the scales at over 300 pounds. Jamie and I met, in fact, by way of an at-work lunch invitation, and we’ve been pursuing gustatory hedonism with reckless abandon ever since. (Okay, that might be overstating it a bit. But we both love to cook, and to eat.) There was a period of time, before it became a very hipsterish thing to do, when we even called ourselves “foodies.” (Momentary digression – is the popular cultural distaste for hipsterism becoming a new, reactionary meta-anti-hipsterism? Discuss!) A year ago last week, Jamie and I and the kids embarked upon the Primal Blueprint lifestyle and collectively lost enough weight to equal an entire teenager. We felt better, we looked better, and we didn’t have to compromise on the quality of our food. We did, however, learn that the best food is often the simplest. It’s a lesson that perhaps gets lost sometimes in the pursuit of PhDs in molecular gastronomy.
But there’s reasonable evidence that for us first-worlders, food has become a sort of graven image, an approachable artisan false god sourced from local ingredients and worshiped au flambé. This is evidenced by the fact that we’re a nation OK with the fact that we’re fed an incessant barrage of imagery best described as “food porn.”
About five years ago, my personal obsession was gourmet coffee. It started when I went looking for a good coffee shop that could deliver a taste above the average Green Mermaid experience. I stumbled across reviews for a little place in Clarendon called Murky Coffee. It sounded fantastic, so I went there, and it was absolutely better than I could possibly have imagined. You know how even people who don’t like coffee thinks it smells great? This was a place dedicated to making coffee taste like it smells, and they were remarkably close. The place was mismanaged by the mad coffee genius Nick Cho, and wound up being shut down only a couple years after I found it, but I would still give a kidney to have another one of those lattes. Nobody else in the city even comes close.
At the time, I wanted a piece of that action, and so I went out and dropped about $400 on prosumer-grade coffee equipment and started buying really good beans so I could practice making espresso drinks at home. I was dedicated. It wasn’t long before I decided I wanted to start a coffee shop of my own, and Jamie and I even came up with a business plan and a logo. Seriously:
We were stoked. We tried several times to get the investment capital to make it happen, and on one occasion came pretty close to succeeding, but in the end, it wasn’t meant to be. Still, I was all over the third wave coffee movement, because I had become a true believer. I even wrote a piece about the analogous relationship between coffee rubric and religious ritual for a major publication. (And, speaking of food porn, check out the crema on these naked portafilters!) But without funding or specific direction, my dream slipped away and died, and the energy in the coffee movement moved in new directions. People started hyping the $11,000 Clover machine, that supposedly made a perfect cup of coffee. People who were die hard about the French Press method started waxing poetic over pour-over instead. The Synesso Syncra, once the Bugatti Veyron of Espresso Machines, had competition from new players and old. The game continued to change.
And as it changed, I lost track. I had quit my job and moved to Arizona to help out my fellow man and follow the coffee dream, but I got bamboozled in the process. Pretty soon I was too broke to buy a tall black decaf drip, let alone a $22 12 oz. fair trade flavor extravaganza. I didn’t have the energy to keep up with it all anymore. That heartwarming story involves trailer park fires, crazy men burying axes in the side of their homes, tenant battles, ditch digging, fatal drug overdoses, family betrayals, broken job contracts, heroic financial rescues, and an eventual return to Virginia, followed by a long (and ongoing) period of redemption and re-establishment. That’s a yarn I won’t spin here. Suffice it to say, though, that during that period of time my economic reality knocked me off the foodie wagon. And it was a very good thing.
I rediscovered my love of home-brewed drip coffee, made from grounds that came in a can. (This is heresy – beans should be fresh ground in a conical burr grinder and brewed within two minutes of grinding. Further, beans should be no more than 14 days from roast date, and should NEVER go through a drip machine. Press pot, pour over, portafilter or nothing, buddy!) I also got cozy with cheap wine. I learned to pass on that $21.99 a pound brie, except maybe on special occasions. In a way, I guess you could say I broadened my range. I still liked and appreciated the good stuff. But I had learned to love the stuff that had gotten me into my interest in good food in the first place. The basic, economical entries into the world of high food that could, done right, still be made to taste pretty damned good.
And let’s be honest. Some of the good stuff is overrated. Back in the day, when I was at the height of my coffee hysteria, I had heard about a place called Grape & Bean, in Alexandria, Virginia. It was a wine bar and good coffee kind of experience. Yesterday, I was out that way, and remembered the place. Pining for the days of coffee sophistication, I headed over there.
The place is situated in an iconic setting. Old Town Alexandria is picturesque, and it fits every aesthetic criterion for foodie culture.
I went in wanting a latte, looked around, and realized they had no espresso machine. Disappointed, I remembered hearing they had a Clover, but didn’t see one of those either. Still, they had specialty coffees, and I ordered a Guatamela Finca el Injerto – Bourbon from Stumptown Coffee Roasters. First, because I saw the word “bourbon” in it (and bourbon always has a positive connotation in my book) and second because the description was enticing: “Milk chocolate fuses elegantly with flavors of lime, melon and cognac in a cup embellished by a cinnamon aroma.”
A dude attired in something along the more professional side of barista-style (ill-fitting suit hanging loosely over gaunt frame, ill-kempt beard, wireframe glasses) came at last to my drink. He ground the beans (which smelled amazing) and then popped them into something called a Trifecta. I had no idea what this was, so I looked it up. It apparently involves hydrolysis. Who knew? To me, it looked like a super-fancy-automated-French-press machine. That spins.
In the end, I wound up with a steaming cup of pleasant, but fairly average tasting coffee. I’m a creamer but no sugar guy, but I tasted it black first. Meh. This was a four dollar cup of something not that special, and I found myself wondering if maybe all this gourmet foodism has just gone too far. We focus so much time, effort, and money on getting the best flavors we can out of something, I think we forget to just enjoy it. I don’t miss spending 20 minutes making a single cup of coffee in the morning. I brewed two cups with less than 2 minutes worth of effort today, and they tasted just fine through my $12 Mr. Coffee drip machine. In fact, I preferred them. It’s not that my palate lacks the sophistication to taste subtle nuances of…okay, actually, maybe it does. Because I can taste that coffees are different, but I can rarely say why. I do better with wines and whiskeys, but even there, you hit a wall at some point beyond which you’re just paying too much money for an almost imperceptible improvement in taste.
In high school, I determined that I needed to learn to like coffee because it was the ubiquitous beverage, offered everywhere, often for free, and I hated it. That seemed impractical. I learned to like it, then I learned to love it, then I loved it too much, and now I’m back to a more balanced appreciation of it. Heaven isn’t something we find in a cup. We have to work harder than that for paradise. I don’t want to have to work this hard on coffee, on food, or anything that’s going to do a quick detour through my digestive system and wind up back in the ground again.
It’s okay to love food that tastes good. I just think we sometimes get a little too crazy about it.