Tuesday, May 14, 2013


Photo credit: Andy ˆÀçŒ
Today is Tuesday, May 14, 2013.

I can't believe that May is nearly half over.  We've had snow and a hard frost, but today the temperature is 92˚F.  That's 33.3˚C.  We're fortunate, I guess, that it's also windy today, which takes some of the discomfort out of the heat, and the humidity is ridiculously low – only 18%.  I'm not complaining, just observing. 

No matter how hot it is, I love to have a cup of coffee in the morning.  Most days, I try to limit my consumption of coffee to that one cup.  I drink only Colombian coffee, and I use real, heavy whipping cream (2 Tablespoons) and honey (1 teaspoon) in it.  The cream makes me feel less deprived while I'm on Weight Watchers, and the honey is local, and definitely helping with the seasonal allergies.  This morning cup of coffee is worth 5 points in the Weight Watchers' point system, due to the cream and honey, but I allow myself this little luxury and plan the rest of my meals around it. 

The first time I drank coffee for real was the summer that I worked as a camp counselor, between my freshman and sophomore years in college. It was a Girl Scout camp, located near Decorah, Iowa, in the extreme northeast part of the state.  I was there for eight weeks.  We had a one-week training session, then three 2-week sessions for girls 10 and up, and a 1-week session for younger girls, aged 7 to 10.  I would say it rained at least six of those eight weeks, and my mom commented in her yearly Christmas letter that my sleeping bag smelled like mildew when I brought it home. 

Each day, we would trudge up a steep hill from the camp sites in the cold, rainy weather, having spent the night in soggy tents.  At the top of the hill was the lodge where we ate our meals, a swimming pool, because the lake was too polluted for swimming, a "trading post" where the kids could blow all the money their parents sent them with on trinkets and candy, a "crafts" building that housed art supplies, and cabins for the camp director and the cook. 

At breakfast one rainy morning I noticed that the older counselors were warming their hands on mugs of steaming coffee, so I got myself a cup and indulged.  I didn't use cream or sugar in those days, just drank the stuff black.  The big draw wasn't the taste, anyway; it was the warmth on a cold day.

They say that our feelings about something have a lot to do with the associations we make the first time we are acquainted with it, so it's not surprising that coffee quickly became a comfort food of mine. When I went back to the university for my sophomore year, the coffee cup with my name painted on it that I had been given for high school graduation by my favorite instrumental music teacher got daily use, until it broke.  It wasn't the cup, anyway.  It was the coffee.  And I didn't realize it, but the caffeine had hooked me.

When I went to Japan, I learned to drink tea, but I still loved my coffee, and I was introduced to "coffee shop culture" there.  That's where I learned to drink really strong coffee with cream and sugar in it.  When I visited Hong Kong, I found that they used sweetened condensed milk in their coffee.  Trust the Asians to make a good thing better.

While living in Osaka, I taught for a few years at Berlitz, and drank a lot of coffee there.  Then I began to teach English conversation at home to a stream of students – individuals, pairs, and small groups – who came to my apartment almost every afternoon and all day on Saturday.  I often had a cup of coffee on the table in front of me.  Around this time, I was also drinking Coca Cola, daily.  I had no idea how hooked I was, or what damage I was doing to my stomach.

My marriage finally dissolved and I moved to Tokyo.  The first few weeks I was as poor as a church mouse, and my appetite was near zero due to stress and anxiety, not to mention all the other feelings that crowd in on one after a divorce.  I could only afford to drink one small can of Coke on Saturday afternoon, as a treat (cost: 100 yen, which was worth maybe 25 or 30 cents when I arrived in Japan, and worth a little over 50 cents when I left.  No matter how much it was worth in American dollars, you couldn't buy a pencil for 100 yen in Japan.)

In Tokyo I re-joined Berlitz and continued my coffee habit.  At first, it was because I was eating so little that I needed the warm bulk of coffee in my stomach to fend off stomach rumbles.  I lost weight like crazy, but that wasn't a very healthy way to do it.  I must say, though, that I sure did have a lot of belts in my wardrobe, and I had a waist to show them off to good effect.

I moved back to the U.S. in 1986, and taught Japanese language in a high school.  Guess what I drank in the teachers' lounge.  After four years in Oregon, I moved to Minnesota and spent a year working before starting a postbaccalaureate Master of Education program at the University of Minnesota.  I was poor again, and guess what I drank to keep my stomach full.

When the coursework for the degree was finished (I wouldn't actually do the paper to get the degree for another four years or so), I started work at St. Paul Public Schools as an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher.  Still drinking coffee.  One day I was asked to substitute in the kindergarten room for a teacher who had to go home to tend to a sick child.  I got to the room at nap time, so I lay down on the floor with the kids.  One little girl crawled over to me and said, "Miss L, you smell like coffee."

That was it.  I decided I would quit drinking coffee.  I knew from experience, though, that if I quit cold-turkey, I would have a huge withdrawal headache that no amount of aspirin could touch.  I decided to quit during winter break, when I wouldn't have to deal with anybody during the withdrawal phase.  On the last day of school before break, my colleagues in the ESL department gave me a huge gift set of various flavored coffees, "because we know how much you love coffee."  I didn't have the heart to tell them that I'd decided to quit.

When I went home that night, I decided to make a pot of coffee – my last – using the chocolate-raspberry flavor coffee.  It was not that good, which was probably for the best, but I could cheerfully and truthfully say that I had tasted the coffee.  I drank the whole pot, savoring the awful taste, hoping that the memory would deter me from starting up my coffee habit again. Once the caffeine was out of my system, I actually felt more clear-headed in the morning.  This was a revelation to me, because I had always thought I needed coffee to wake me up in the morning.  The grogginess was probably induced by my dependence on caffeine.

I stayed off coffee for quite a while.  During that time I also gave up Coke, regular tea, and chocolate, knowing that all of these things contain caffeine.  I learned to like herbal tea and I patronized restaurants that served it.   I learned that if a waitress didn't know what I meant by "herbal tea," chances were that they didn't have any.

I started drinking a little coffee again a few years later, but when I got cancer, I was advised to stop.  I used coffee to make an enema, instead.  When I finished chemo, I was in such bad shape that I felt I needed some comfort again, and I started drinking chai.  That eventually led back to coffee.  Fortunately, I was able to limit myself to one serving a day.    Each serving was like two cups, though, and it was loaded with calories, which translated into weight gain.

Once I retired, I started to make coffee at home instead of buying it at Starbucks, and I loved having the time to nurse my cup of coffee all morning while checking email or fooling around on Facebook.  When I joined Weight Watchers, I decided that coffee would just have to be my one indulgence. I don't have any other vices; I guess everybody needs at least one.  At some point, I may quit again.   :-)

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