31 May 2006

Always learning

Okay, time to lighten up. Goodness knows, there’s enough bad news out there to fuel a bonfire with, and plenty of other very, very good bloggers are right on top of them all. I think I’ll bow to their expertise for a while.

My suggestion? Check out Pachacutek’s thoughts on the big whopper called the “global war on terror” over at Firedoglake. It’s good. Real good.

Or, for a biting run-down of the day’s news, try Swopa at Needlenose. It’s a near perfect combination of hard news and commentary, with some snark mixed in for flavor.

Have I mentioned I love that word? Snark, snark, snark. It’s just so ... fitting.

But for now, I’m going to talk about coffee.

First, let me say I’ve been a coffee-addict since I was teen-ager, which means since the Dark Ages, when just about the only coffee on the grocery store shelves came in 2-pound cans and had names like Folgers and Yuban. If you wanted decaf (no one really wanted decaf, but even back then, doctors were telling some people to lay off the caffeine) then you had one brand to choose from: Sanka.

When I was in my mid-20s, living in Tacoma, Wa., I discovered fresh-roasted coffee beans. It was, I believe, the beginning of America’s long love-affair with noisy little home coffee grinders, drip-style pots and the inevitable grounds all over the counter. It certainly was the beginning of mine – and I fell hard.

Today, I enjoy still enjoy buying my coffee in the form of crunchy, aromatic little beans, but I found over the years that I didn’t have the patience to deal with the home grinder. The blades go dull, the coffee grinds unevenly, and lord, that unearthly, brain-shivering noise. So for many years now I’ve been grinding them at the grocery store prior to purchase.

Enter Mr. Wren, who does not share my coffee jones but who does get a kick out of my love for the stuff. One day not so long ago he was making his way around the local Costco, filling his giant basket with giant things – he’s a big guy, and Costco baskets and products are just his size – when he happened across a sale display of coffeemakers that had the grinder built-in.

You spoon your beans in to the grinder, put the fresh, cold water into the reservoir, put the pot under the filter thingy and turn that sucker on. It grinds the beans, they pour into the filter, the water trickles through and a few minutes later, you have nice, hot, fresh coffee. Wow.

He bought one for me, brought it home and presented it with a flourish.

It wasn’t even my birthday or Mother’s Day. I was all agog.

I put the old coffeemaker away and got started with my new, fancy one right then and there. It was fun, even though the grinder still made that tooth-dissolving racket. At least I didn’t have to wipe spilled grounds up off the countertop. And the coffee was absolutely sublime.

But like all wonderful things, there were a few drawbacks to this one. Like, for instance, for every single pot of delicious coffee, there was The Ritual to follow.

First, there was the Grinder Cleaning. I’d have to lift out the little grinder cup and blades, and its little clear cover, and wash them before starting each pot. And then dry them thoroughly, so the ground coffee wouldn’t fur up the inside of the cup instead of flowing through the little chute into the filter.

Once that was done, I measured out the spoons of coffee beans into the grinder cup. The instructions called for 10; after some experimenting, I learned to adjust that amount to coincide with the variety of beans I’d purchased and my own particular taste. I love strong coffee the way I love a strong man, but 10 spoonfuls of, say, French roast beans, came out so strong I had to dig the coffee out of my mug with a fork.

Then there was getting the paper filter into the basket thingy just so. If it was skewed even a little, the flow of ground coffee might skew it even more, so that when the water dripped through, it would overflow the filter and the grounds would end up in – and all over -- the pot and the heating plate under it.

Now, if I’m making coffee pioneer-style, over a campfire in a camp-pan, I can deal with messy, crunchy coffee. It’s part of the Great Outdoors experience. In the Great Outdoors, you’re just glad to HAVE coffee at all, even if you do have to chew it. But when I’m making it at home, in a nice, clean, mosquito-less kitchen – and not squatting at over a campfire at 6,000 feet up a mountain with smoke blowing in my face -- and with the very Mercedes-Benz of coffeemakers at hand, I have higher standards.

That done, it was a matter of pouring water into the reservoir. I have one of those handy aluminum jugs I keep on the counter next to the sink, the kind they use in restaurants to refill your water glass with. It pours accurately so I don’t slop water all over the place, trying to get it into that narrow reservoir.

Next – and this was a very important step – the pot itself needed to be checked, just in case there was any unconsumed coffee left over in it. Sounds easy, I know, but the glass pot fitted perfectly into a jet-black cave beneath the basket, and just glancing at it to see that it was empty was ... deceptive.

The reward for this attentiveness to detail was a gloriously brewed pot of delicious coffee.

But there were, I discovered, a myriad of ways I could fuck The Ritual up.

Most often, this happened when I was coffee-deprived, or when I’d only been out of bed for five minutes, or upon coming home from work wiped out, or if I got distracted during some part of The Ritual.

And so, I fucked it up at least three times a week.

Invariably, the PRICE for messing up The Ritual was discovering my lovely, freshly brewed coffee all over the counter and dripping gently down the cabinets to pool on the floor, often with grounds in it.

After several unfortunate experiences, I named that damned thing my Zen coffeemaker, and the coffee it produced (when I got it right) my Zen coffee.

Because, you see, it took Zen-like patience and concentration to achieve that perfect pot of coffee. As a neophyte student of the Tao, learning the kind of discipline that allows one to accept that one can accomplish something by doing nothing, this coffeemaker was most instructive.

I could not multitask while making coffee with my Zen coffeemaker. By multitasking, I mean like talking to a family member, or watching the goldfinches quarrel over seeds at the feeders outside the window. Or stopping midway through the process to let the dog out.

And so, I would get up in the morning, sleepwalk my way to the kitchen, and proceed with The Ritual, but not before taking several deep breaths – in through the nose and out through the mouth, slowly, to get the blood moving in my brain – and prepare everything for my Zen coffee. Then I’d push the little brew button and flee, my hands over my ears at the ungodly grinder noise.

If I didn’t do this right – be calm, Grasshopper – I would forget a step in The Ritual. One morning, it would be forgetting to check the pot for leftover coffee, which meant the new coffee would mingle with the old and overfill the pot, so when I got back from my shower, I would find in the blessed morning silence ... coffee, everywhere.

Or the paper filter wouldn’t be right. Chewy coffee, often all over everything.

Part of the Zen coffee experience was learning to contain my fury upon finding the mess, having to clean it all up and, in the little time remaining before I had to tear out the door to get to work on time, do it all over again.

Sometimes I didn’t get to have my Zen coffee at all.

Some people would have pitched that damned coffeemaker after the third or fourth massive clean-up. Not me. I was determined that it wouldn’t get the best of me, that I was learning patience. Serenity in the face of adversity. Discipline in the form of one-task-at-a-time. Besides, that coffeemaker cost Mr. Wren a bundle. I wasn’t about to give up. No frickin’ coffeemaker was going to beat me.

I worked at it for almost a year, perfecting my Zen-ness but still often finding coffee everywhere but in the pot. I grew very good at holding my temper in check, breathing, and starting over.

And then, one dark morning in the frigid depths of winter, I pushed the “on” button and the grinder didn’t start. The little red light didn’t come on. Nothing happened at all. I checked the plug – yep, it was firmly fixed in the socket. I checked the grinder -- nice and clean, full of beans, firmly seated on the little motor that spun the blades. I re-seated it. Nada.

I no longer have any other grinder at home. I was reduced to serious cursing and instant coffee for my go-cup. It was that or just eat the beans.

That night when I got home, Mr. Wren had a pot of coffee waiting for me. He hadn’t had any trouble with the pot, except that when he went to pour water into the reservoir, it instantly overflowed because I’d left the damned thing sitting there full when I took off for work.

He was slightly peeved.

We discovered that the “on” switch had developed a short. Which meant that, no matter how closely I followed The Ritual, for each pot of coffee I actually brewed, there were two that didn’t.

Heheh. No more excuses -- I PITCHED that sucker. Got a NEW coffeemaker, without a built-in grinder. After only three months of finding brewed coffee all over the counter, at least every third pot, I have finally figured out that if I jam a tiny metal hors d’oevres knife between the glass pot and the heating plate, the top of the pot will push the little springy thingy at the bottom of the filter basket up far enough, every time, to let the water flow out into the pot, rather than backing up in the filter and overflowing.

I’ve named this one the Fucking Coffeemaker. My Zen education continues.


Kevin Wolf said...

My Zen education would have ended sooo fast it'd scramble yin and yang toger.

Kevin Wolf said...

Yeah, I can type...

Wren said...

We do what we have to do, Mr. Wolf. I', approaching Nirvana.