24 September 2007

A conspiracy in every corner; Goodbye Mr. Peet

You can read a remembrance of Alfred Peet here as I did this morning -- he died about a month ago. I was lucky enough to land one block from his original coffee shop when I went to school in Berkeley and that is where I got the first notion of coffee being great, not just very good. I have many fond memories of huddling in small groups and communing with hot cups of fine, rich coffee, variously engaged at all levels of discourse, from befogged to brilliant. It is to his credit I think in this time of celebrity worship that I knew nothing about the founder of Peet's -- it was all about the coffee.

I dropped in at our local, new Peet's Coffee again the other day for an espresso tamper that turned out not to fit our machine: little did I know that there's a plot among espresso-machine makers and the manufacturers of those little stamp-like devices baristas use to pack the finely ground coffee into the filter baskets. The conspiracy is in making you go online to spend heaps of money on a lump of metal or wood or some combination thereof by making the filter baskets an obscure size for every different brand of machine. The effect is much like the way the prices of office supplies are inflated because most buyers are corporations, not individuals; and the way medical services and supplies are inflated because they are billed to insurance companies. Imagine what would happen to prices if people started declining to buy insurance and paying for their health care out of their own pockets. Well, astoundingly, it's the same thing with espresso tampers for the home coffee enthusiast: most people appear to assume this is a restaurant expense and charge $48 US for rosewood-stainless steel works of art that will be used thousands of times, rather than just hundreds.

Sure, I can find a handful of espresso tampers at the various foodie-supply houses and coffee temples around town, but none of them is quite right for our machine's parts. Grr. Maybe it's time to look for some substitute device not intended for this use that can be adapted for our purposes. Hmm. I'll have to think on that. Any ideas? I'm imagining a giant nail or the base of something...

While I was in Peet's buying one of those ill-fated tampers, I had that hopeful feeling for a moment: the cafe was full of people and felt like something of a meeting place. Perhaps, I thought, it has more life than I gave it credit for a season ago. Yet perhaps it was that every surface was so polished and gleaming and bright: it completely lacked that sheltering, cavelike ambiance of the admittedly cramped original cafe and lacked any of its intimacy as well. Despite the failings of the replicas to represent the experience of that first shop, I remain forever grateful to Alfred Peet. He showed me something not only about the quality of the things we savor the most (coffee, and by extension food) but also about something equally important: the quality of the shared rituals in which we engage every day.

18 September 2007

What they don't tell you in gluten-free school

I went on a little odyssey recently into the gluten-free world. I found much that is good and available, and also experienced how difficult it is to consistently find gluten-free food when you are traveling. But the biggest shock was when I made a cake with bean flour and was totally horrified at the smell of the batter -- it was the most noxious scent I can remember in a long time. I had to finish mixing and pouring the batter while avoiding breathing through my nose.

Basically, I went down this road because we had neighbors who discovered they needed to quit eating gluten, and I was curious when I read about it whether it might explain some things. One book in particular stoked lots of questions: Dangerous Grains. Could eating wheat be responsible for immune disorders, developmental issues, my health issues over the years? Could that be weakening us in a way that we refuse to consider because we are so strongly acculturated to eating wheat that we won't even consider that it might not be health-giving?

My mind reeled at first at the notion that I have simply eaten what our culture has said was good for me. I couldn't help wondering if my buying the cultural myths about eating had prevented me from being healthier and more energetic. Just recently I'd had a little internal loss of faith in refined wheat flour, what we call "white flour," but I had not figured out a way around it. The gluten-free path seemed to have potential: I felt relying on a more diverse range of flours and grains would be a healthy thing I could do for myself and my family.

The mechanics of it weren't so challenging -- there are good flours available in our grocery stores. I spent a week eating gluten free (except for that first batch of zucchini cake, which I baked in pans that I -- d'oh! -- sprayed with oil-and-flour spray). I found it doable, even when I was out. I realized people are just starting to be sensitive to the gluten issue and I could see how people who can't eat any gluten at all are constantly at risk at restaurants and other places where other people's priorities aren't so closely aligned. I plan to keep some gluten-free mixes and things on hand for friends because I like being able to support them.

But it took a little chat with my sweetie to realize that none of us in our family really seem to be one of those so adversely affected by gluten: eating bread never makes us sick. I felt I'd been quite impressionable up to that point. I find myself still wondering, though, whether there's a different way to look at our food. There's food that gets us through the day, sustains us; then there's food that nourishes, that adds to our health. How do we choose the foods fall into those categories?

I still want to explore this question further, but mixing up that beautiful cake batter and finding not the sweet scents of egg and sugar and butter but the vile scent of bean flours wafting up out of the bowl doesn't make me eager to bake the next batch of gluten-free goodies very soon. I'll stick with the occasional batch of pancakes from the Pamela's line of mixes for now and get back to you on further experiments and observations.

13 September 2007

What we like is who we are

Have you noticed how we make up our minds about things? This seems to me sometimes the most profound thing about aging. Everyone talks about the aphasia and the aches and pains, but in noticing my daughter's and hence my own sensory likes and dislikes, I'm thinking there's something else that calcifies, too.

I thought of this when I was attaching my iPod, sliding cords under my shirt and clipping them to its edge. Some people would hate all those cords. They wouldn't ever think a portable stereo was worth it because of all of the stuff clattering around their bodies.

And I notice that my ability to screen background noise is poorer by the day; all the same, I still have my high threshold for loud music. My self-knowledge has helped me do things like wear earplugs on flights to mute the loud engine sounds so I arrive more rested, even after shorter flights, and I wear noise-canceling headphones when I vacuum, but I still find myself picking loud restaurants and regretting it later.

My preference for quiet -- especially when I am not at my best -- gets more acute as I age, I notice. I don't mind a bunch of cords hanging from my head and neck, but I never get in a shower before it's hot. And I know people who can talk endlessly about whether their extremities get cold or what they snack on before bed and it's only going to get more so as I go on.

05 September 2007

I've already done three good deeds today

and it's only 9:03.

My friend sent me a link to a new online toy, where you can get Bob Dylan to sing "Subterranean Homesick Blues" while your message goes by on his cards -- it's fun.

I liked it so much I sent a note to the agency who developed it. They sent me a note. I even found a typo on their website and sent that to them.

I made my own Dylan message and sent it to my mom and two of my friends. Then I posted it online so other people can go play with it.

Oh, and I wished a bunch of people happy birthday. Now I've lost count.

I feel like a good fairy this morning and I haven't even started writing my book yet.

p.s. I even called that guy from outside the bookstore, the fellow who almost got pinned under his car but for my intervention at the right moment. I talked with him. He's an interesting guy who was in the Merchant Marines in WWII and served as an English Prof at Berkeley and CU and ran marathons ten years ago. Now he seems to be in some shock because his wife is an invalid (has a pinched nerve). He has spinal stenosis and can hardly move, much less run or racewalk anymore. He didn't sound like he's doing any better than he was last time I spoke with him several months ago. I'm going to see what I can do about that. Really, I just want to give him the info that the city's adult services folks sent to me when I requested a packet. He needs to know there are resources available. The tough question is whether he would ever use them. There's something intractable about this guy (and I think I know what it is, but that would be between me and him -- and his caseworker, should it come to that, and it may).

It's weird: I have been thinking about my own PTSD and I feel my daughter has a similar malady, too. That's something I really want her to know I understand. And lately my PTSD has been rearing its pointy heads. I was on my bike and heard a strange yell from an alley and had to make myself keep riding and not assume the worst, that I'd just heard someone fall off a ladder or something. Part of my thought process, I admit, was that I had a child on the trailer bike and didn't want to enter some kind of trap. How few ingredients I require to conjure such horrific scenarios: thoughts of my fellow oldster above forgetting once again to set any of his automobile's brakes, this time fatally; the store clerk I was working with when she fell off a ladder during an epileptic seizure; Susannah Chase, a victim of abhorrent violence near the same alley where I had this recent bout with fears of ladders and traps; and JonBenet Ramsey, another victim of appalling deeds whom everyone still remembers ten-plus years later. I am not feeling safe, I believe, with so many things happening like my child going back to school and family events coming up and knowing the fellow I just wrote about is still up on the mountain ailing in so many ways and not getting any attention.

I've asked myself if in saving him once I have made myself feel responsible for him, and I don't think that's it. I just need to let him to know he has some options, and I seem to be the one who was picked to tell him that, at the very least. He told me that his wife tells him he doesn't know how to take care of himself. If people tell you who they are, he was giving me a message and I feel an obligation not to let it go until I've seen to it that he gets some help with that.