Saturday, December 6, 2008

From Origin to the Disconcerted Consumer

As Published in the Specialty Coffee Chronicle, October 2008

The previous day's sunburn was causing my nose to peel as I climbed the hill behind the William Botnan Learning Center in Santa Avelina, Quiche (Key-ché). I’d lived in Guatemala before, but my skin, white and snowy from the Minnesota winter, has always burned in highlands of the country. It was January, and as I reached the hill’s plateau, I met an Ixil (e-sheel) woman raking coffee beans in the sun.

Though only the size of Tennessee, Guatemala’s diversity is remarkable. Twenty-eight languages are spoken among its ancient Mayan peoples; women wear hand-woven blouses and skirts according to the region in which they reside. The topography ranges from western mountain ranges to southern beaches and eastern jungle where ancient pyramids in Tikal
still stand from the fourth century BCE.

Santa Avelina is located near Nebaj in the Ixil triangle of Guatemala. It was in this mountainous area that some of the gravest atrocities occurred during a 36-year civil war that officially ended just a decade ago. The area on the hill in which I stood was roughly the size of a soccer field, and half of the space was filled with tarps of beige beans. Children from the school giggled and scattered as I crossed the field’s drying, brown grass.

Surprised as I greeted and approached her, the woman put down her rake. She told me the beans were compiled between her and her neighbors and that she received seven quetzales per pound of green coffee. I converted the price to dollars and realized she was earning roughly 90 cents for her work.

Her clothing was rumpled and she wore a faded blouse. Its lavender color matched the purple in her plainly woven skirt. She was barefoot. She smiled as she handed me a fistful of green-gray beans, peeling away their tissue paper skin. “Smell them,” she said through crooked teeth. Unroasted, the aroma was faint but marvelous.

I return often and the country is always familiar, but this woman and her beans remain a vivid memory among the colorful, amicable people of Guatemala’s countryside. But this scene is mundane for those who travel regularly to origin—an ordinary business trip in the specialty coffee industry. You who work at the top of this industry understand coffee’s standing as the world’s second most traded commodity. You see that matters of sustainability are entwined with the production of a quality bean and product. You know fair trade to be one option, but not necessarily the perfect or only option to remedy poverty among coffee farmers. Understanding these ideas is essential to the successes of your businesses. Yet the stronger issue is that the consumer rarely understands anything at all.

Last weekend, a friend of my father’s—a Peet’s coffee devotee—was astonished to learn her beans begin as fruit on a tree. A round, fervent woman with stylish glasses and an asymmetrical haircut, Geri organizes charity benefits and travels annually on medical missions.

“You’re kidding,” she said, and urged me to tell her more.

As I continued, she interrupted, saying, “You mean you can actually eat the cherry?”

An eavesdropper then entered the conversation.

“You know, I love a good cup of coffee, but it’s those flavored coffees that just aren’t quality.” It was of no use to explain that a bean’s flavor actually varies according to its tree, growing conditions and origin.

I’ve had such a conversation before, and most who regularly drink coffee know nothing about it. Often, a habitual coffee consumer is genuinely confused and, when prompted, cannot explain how coffee certifications like Rainforest Alliance or Fair Trade function to provide a more sustainable product.

This is the problem I see: While those involved in the business of specialty coffee understand the intricate network of coffee supply, consumers rarely have enough information to make purchases based upon their own beliefs about farming and sustainability. Because of this, they often look at the price of a pound of coffee and take whatever seems less expensive without understanding that their purchase has a direct effect on the farmer. Either that, or they cannot decide between
the coffee that claims to help an endangered hamster in Tanzania or the other that is marked with a photo of diminishing rainforest. They think, “Is one better than the other, or is it an advertising game?” Stores sell bags of coffee labeled according to regions in distant places a customer cannot often locate on a map. Origins are far away from storefronts and colorful displays, and such places are an incomprehensible part of the world to the majority of coffee consumers.

I consider myself lucky to have happened upon the Guatemalan woman I met in January. Because of her, I have sought conversations about quality, cupping and certifications with individuals directly involved in the specialty coffee industry; I see more than precise packaging and keen advertising when I ask for a pound of coffee. I see the woman’s bare feet and remember how dusty my feet had become in my own sandals that afternoon. She wasn’t just another indigenous woman fighting to stay afloat. She was my connection to origin, and somehow, not such an unfamiliar stranger.

In a city like Minneapolis—where neighborhood communities have distinct presences—frequenting local mom and pop coffee shops is easy to do. Whether known as an artsy hiatus or for its local produce, each neighborhood has its correlating cafés, and while common chains also spatter the sidewalks, I am able to make my own choices about the coffee I drink. But I am able to make these choices because I understand that purchasing coffee is more complex than laying two dollars down on the

In frequenting new places, knowing the right questions to ask is essential: Where are these beans from? Do you know the farm? The farmer? What is their quality, and how much was paid for them? Even if they are not certified Fair Trade, what can you tell me about the condition in which they were grown? Unless the owner of the shop is present, though, the area is usually gray.

I’ve also found that firing any number of these questions at a barista can be particularly overwhelming—especially for the one who got the gig as a summer job and is just learning to pull a shot of espresso. Because of this—that many of these baristas do not know about the beans they are preparing—I find myself clinging only to fair trade or others that are advertised with a certification in cafés. There are other, unmarked options for sustainable coffee, but if a barista lacks knowledge about the shop’s practices, I have no other option than to choose the brew that is certified and labeled.

It seems, then, one solution for the confused consumer relies in part on the barista who prepares his or her coffee. If baristas are well versed in the espresso they pull and can engage a customer in a conversation about it, we have found a way to both incite a consumer’s personal interest in his or her coffee and bring light to the system itself.

Kelsey Kudak is a senior at the University of Minnesota pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English and dance with minors in photography and journalism. She grew up in St. Cloud Minn., and moved to Minneapolis in 2005 to begin her successful undergraduate career. After moving to the Guatemalan highlands to volunteer as a medical translator in 2007, she realized her interest in the coffee industry was intimately tied to her time there. She is currently focusing on the education of the coffee consumer while writing her undergraduate thesis, “Exposing Cherries: An Examination of the Coffee Supply Chain in Light of the Fair Trade Industry.”

Monday, September 22, 2008

A bridge anew.

It was quiet. Punctual.

The gathering on the sidewalk on Thursday morning was small: a cluster of media, students in sweatshirts on foot. Bleary-eyed bikers perched on pedals and frames as their taillights blinked in unison with those of the adjacent dump trucks at the intersection. As a MN DOT worker clad in neon climbed into his dump truck, a sign above his rig read, “Stay back. Stay alive.”

State troopers removed their cars from a makeshift barricade, and turned their headlights north to the river. Moments later, a simple progression of vehicles rolled down a ramp from University Avenue. The morning was cool, and streaks of dawn were somewhere in time’s impending distance. A slope of tripods dotted the hill toward the interstate; shutters clicked. Camera phones were held in the air.

From the ramp, traffic flowed to form five lanes streaming southbound that were met halfway by others heading opposite. As they passed waving markers lit by LEDs, those in vehicles were suspended on a white concrete cloud above the Mississippi.

And then they had crossed the bridge.

The general stillness had broken by bleats of horns in the moments before—some short blasts, others long and blaring. Helicopters chopped at the air suspending them above the river. A few cheered as if we’d conquered something.

We’d built a bridge in record time. But it was a bridge that required no groundbreaking ceremony because its ground had already been broken. There was no unveiling because the project hadn’t ever had a covering to keep its progression a surprise.

But since its reinception after the I-35W bridge crumpled and fell, passersby have paused on 10th Avenue to gaze over the gap at what was wrecked in the river. First it was gawkers who “came to see for themselves,” and then locals began to watch its progress as workers embarked on a round-the-clock regimen. Ceremonies had surrounded the bridge’s tragedy and anniversary while renewing the strength of the city of Minneapolis. Commemorative artwork had been commissioned and realized in brushstrokes that depicted the “Thirteen Flowers” lost when the first bridge collapsed in a matter of moments.

What is it that draws the city of Minneapolis to this new bridge, and the memory of the other? Bikers on the 10th Avenue Bridge are perpetually stopped in contemplative states along the wired fence that held the new bridge plans. The community had voted on the design of the bridge: its efficient LED lighting system and, sound, protective technologies. Families have crossed the path to take photographs and portraits along each part of the building process. Observing the bridge, and the research surrounding its failure has been the city’s greatest spectator sport for the last year.

We continue to ask ourselves, “How does a bridge fall down?” and “What prevents any other bridge from doing the same?”

The new bridge has superb technology, and was carefully created in spite of 24-hour work and daily glitches. Three hundred twenty-three sensors have been installed in the bridge; some reside inside its concrete. According the Minnesota Public Radio, these will examine changes over time, and measure how much and how quickly the bridge moves as traffic travels across it. Other sensors keep track of temperature and corrosion. MPR continues to note that one of the only other bridges with such technology is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, but the sensors on our St. Anthony Falls bridge outnumber the Golden Gate’s by 150 or so. Additionally, the Golden Gate spans 1.7 miles, whereas our bridge is just 504 feet.

The information gathered by these sensors doesn’t have far to travel as specialists at our own university will be examining the data for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Mn DOT will be able to monitor early problems immediately, making the new bridge one of the safest and most closely monitored bridges in the nation.

The bridge was built with a higher strength, higher performance concrete. Its plans say it should last a hundred years. Gusset plates were replaced with steel tendons, making the bridge more human in some way. Its redundancy is sound.

We can tell ourselves the technology will keep us safe. But regardless of these advances, it is because this tragedy happened within such normality that it remains so fervently haunting: a beautiful August day with hints of fall in its air. The end of the workday had come, and many were traveling home with dinner in mind. At the interfaith service at the Basilica of St. Mary on the anniversary of the collapse Methodist Bishop Sally Dyck, President of the Minnesota Council of Churches, spoke to this. “We cross bridges every day,” she said. “And I’m not speaking in metaphor.”

For those in the proximity of this bridge, for those who have heard the sounds of pounding planks and poured concrete for the last year, the neighborhood suddenly seems quiet. The noises of its progression, and fighting traffic on alternative routes have become the background of daily life.

Though traffic remained sparse at 5:20 on Thursday morning, the quiet of a regained normalcy resounds more loudly than cars that cross the sweeping width of a new bridge.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Missing Roses

So I've been on a bit of hiatus. Not from writing, but from writing here. I could offer up my excuses and say that I've been pursuing credits toward my B.A. in Dance for the last three weeks (which is true). Or I could note that I've been taking notes as a reporter and photographer for a couple of local bi-monthly papers (also true).

But to be honest, I just haven't written--haven't known what to write (perhaps untrue).

I still don't, but I do have something to share. It's a piece of writing I tinkered with over Spring semester of last year, a piece about my grandmother Rose who passed away this week. The piece remains unfinished, but since its beginning, it has functioned as a lens with which to view what was happening to my grandmother's deteriorating health. To consider how I might write the scene I was living was my way of getting beyond what was really happening.

And even in the quiet of Thursday's dawn, as she lay in lavender pajamas, breathing shallowly beneath a hand-stitched quilt, I was writing. Taking notes, remembering times, smells and the way the light shone on her quiet face. I was writing from a fragile necessity that morning.

But the piece. It was edited some for a space constraint and I haven't refilled in the spaces I cinched together for class. But I'll stop with the explanations and excuses.

From "The Destrcutors"

Last Christmas Eve, the house had been filled with family and friends who appeared annually for the holiday. From my seat at the bar I spotted my grandmother and my uncle’s mother in a corner where both women seemed younger versions of themselves.

Lois and Grandma were perched on the couch, their arms entwined. I watched as they laughed; their heads of grandmother curls doubled over and the women came up with wet cheeks. She looked different from the way I remember her as a kid; she looked different from the way I had thought of her lately. Her wrinkles and frailty had recently overwhelmed me. And she had finally succumbed to the idea of Chandler place.

Jan walked to the center of the room and tinkled the glass containing her own drink, “Rosie has a little something to say to everyone.”

The men in the room began to shout obnoxiously: “SPEECH! SPEECH!”

“OOkay, Shutchyour damn mouths.” Grandma spoke from the back of her throat and ambled to her feet before laughing and then letting tears fill her eyes as she looked around the room. Her lips pursed and her face smushed in creating the kind of silence that exists before a child cries after he falls.

She sniffed and her words came in spurts. “I just… want to… wish everyone a Merry Christmas… and… thank… you all for… coming.” She’d had a speech prepared, but faltered. “You all know what you mean and you all have the memories so I don’t need to bring them up.” Looking small and frail, she raised her drink in the middle of basement. Her clothing was rumpled as much as her face, and the tears trickled down before her last sentence came out in one breath. “You all have a good time,” she said and eased slowly toward the couch before collapsing onto its cushions. Lois patted her on the back. Her voice sounded naturally congested.

“You did great Rose.”

That was to be the last Christmas Eve at 3511 NE Main.

I sighed and rubbed a finger through the dust on the horn-rimmed glasses pinned to the bar by a thumbtack. They had brought on the memory and their joints had been crudely repaired with stiffened hot glue. The hardened material held them open as if Grandpa had removed them for a moment to chew on the edges while he mixed a drink. They remained the glasses Paul Auster’s father left behind: “scattered throughout the house: on kitchen counters, on tabletops, on the edge of the bathroom sink—always open, lying there like some strange, classified form of animal.”

“There is a poignancy to it, and also a kind of horror. In themselves, the things mean nothing, like the cooking utensils of some vanished civilization. And yet they say something to us, standing there not as objects but as remnants of thought, of consciousness of the solitude in which a man comes to make decisions about himself: whether to color his hair, whether to wear this or that shirt, whether to live, whether to die. And the futility of it all once there is death.”

I read these lines only a day after my aunt’s voice pulled me from the place where the glasses hung near the bar. I climbed the carpeted stairs to the kitchen.

“Grandma wants to know if you want her china,” she asked. The kitchen was filled with boxes and the cupboards were wide open, their gutted insides spread over the countertop. Newspaper and old towels were intermittent with vases and candy dishes.

“Sure, but you’ll have to send it with my parents. I have no room for it in my apartment.”

As Grandma pushed on the table’s surface to stand, her navy corduroys fell back around her ankles and re-covered her bony legs. She carefully started in the direction of the adjacent living room, clinging to the walls and its doorway for support.

I said, “Thanks Rosie,” and she turned to me.

“Oh you’re welcome.”

“How’re you doing?” I asked, rubbing her back.

She answered with a singsong, “Oh I’m fine.” But as she turned on the TV, I can only presume how she really felt. Perhaps that she missed my grandfather more than I’d ever understand. Perhaps that she was giving up, surrendering to the move. Feeling obligated after such a stroke.

She’d be giving up her car, no longer trusted to drive. Giving up her house, where she’d raised two children and buried and third, days after her birth. Where she’d washed dishes and forced my father to eat beets at the kitchen table after they’d gone cold. She was always cold now, wearing sweatshirts year round. There was a time when climbing the stairs was not an event and she made kool-aid in a crystal pitcher on summer afternoons for her kids.

As she looked up from the television, she might have remembered a time when she could see for miles from the front window, before someone from train yard across the street had built up the earth and created a man made hill to deafen the sounds of trains at night. But the freight cars on their tracks were still audible during the early hours of the morning, even though it was decades ago their whistles stopped registering in her ears.

• • •

The huge prints of Grandma and Grandpa on their birthdays’ were framed in the basement and hung above the end table holding an old rotary telephone. On her head of curls, my grandmother had a birthday crown made of tin foil. In his, Grandpa was wearing an enormous sombrero and grinning. Though the photograph is noisy and soft, the black frames of the glasses on his face seemed to jump out of the relatively gray scene.

I twisted the screwdriver to the left, loosening the lower corner of Grandpa’s frame on the wall. The rough wood poked a sliver into my palm and I held the frame steady. It left a growing red spot as I ignored it and continued to dismantle the frame, detaching it from the wood paneled wall.

Screw after screw, I loosened and removed, until I could no longer reach the tip of the Phillips flush into its screw.

I dismantled the frame in a methodic nature that reminded me of Graham Greene and Mr. Karn’s tenth grade AP lit class. We’d read ‘The Destructors” during the term, and I would recall it six years later when I was dismantling my grandmother’s house. Though my father and I had not been destroying the floorboards of an old man’s beautiful house, new paint covered cigarette-stained walls and the year-round tinsel and Christmas lights in the basement has been thrown in the trash.

“Dad, will you help me with these last screws? I’m not tall enough.”

• • •

“I went down to dinner today,” Grandma told me over the phone. “But it wasn’t so great.” She’d taken to eating dinner with a new group of women. They flock down to the ornate social room for happy hour, but Grandma turns her nose up at the fact she’s only allowed two vodka cokes.

“How are your new lady friends?”

She giggled, “Oh they’re fine. Just fine.” Even though she was in her apartment alone, her voice dropped, indicating gossip. “But there’s the one lady… oh she bugs me. She’s just a little bit… slow, you know. And I know I shouldn’t say that, but every time I see her I just get so upset. She’s completely senile…”

“I know what you mean,” I said. “Did you go down to happy hour today?”

“No, that’s only on Friday. So tomorrow the Helen and I will go. We like to get together and… toss the air. So what are you up to tonight, Kels?”

I briefly recount the relentless details of my semester’s end and three jobs.

“Goodness. Don’t get yourself all tired out now. You’re so busy, I just worry about you sometimes.”

Thursday, June 12, 2008

And they say it's not just a trend.

I found this in Wednesday's edition of the New York Times.

UPDATE: Yesterday, (meaning Friday) I mentioned this to my coworkers at the restaurant in which I work. One particular coworker seemed he would defend the organic vodka to his grave - that it not only greatly differed from other vodkas, but that even after the distilling process it was more fresh. (Though when I think of vodka in general, I have to say that fresh isn't among the first descriptors that come to mind). It's too bad I prefer rum, otherwise I'd challenge his theory. Well, that, and the fact that drinking alone implies certain social shortcomings from which I'd prefer to stay dissociated.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

eavesdropping in the waiting room

"I bought a great vintage frame in a rummage sale a few weeks ago, and my husband needs to finish building my new commuter bike. But in the meantime, I'm riding this heinous dog-walking mountain bike."

Saturday, May 24, 2008

And then I looked at the cover: the yellow margins, the date.

I've just begun reading Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent: Travels through small town America.

After what is a standard beginning for most books--acknowledgements, publication, dedication and title (each prescribed with a miniscule roman numeral)--Bryson's prose begins on page three. By page seven he has managed to successfully coerce an audible laugh from me (which, when you're reading amidst a group of people in a crowded shop is a commendable feat in itself), and bring me to a place it seems all young kids avouch for early recognition of the larger world around them: National Geographic.

Though Elizabeth Bishop certainly published this notion years ago, its validity remains universal without epic or further publication; I am writing here, in an untrafficked place, with my own modest memory of the magazine.

I played piano from the age of six until I was a sophomore in high school, and practicing the keyed instrument was my least favorite part of the day. I'd tinker with Bach's Minuet in G, and thereafter avoid my Suzuki book entirely. Instead, I supplemented the classics with rags or jazz I'd memorized months or years before, and afterward, would slip from the corduroy cushion on its bench to the storage cupboards next to the piano. In addition to old photo albums from my parents' college years, the cupboards housed an archive of National Geographics aligned by date. Their spines created an overwhelming rectangle of gold when I climbed atop the bar's counter to open the narrow door next to the windows of the wine cabinet.

One afternoon, as I avoided Vivaldi and went to the cupboard, a Kayan woman with golden rings around her neck stared at me through the golden frame of the cover. As a child of probably six or seven, I was astonished. The necks of her and the other women were "wound round and round with wire like the necks of light bulbs". Sitting cross-legged on the carpet and devouring other photos of the giraffe woman, I didn't understand the physics or the medical nightmares that occurred when the clavicles of the woman were crushed and the apparatus rendered her neck muscles so weak they could no longer support her head without the device. This beauty was painful, but I only imagined the place in which she resided. It was so far removed from anything I'd ever seen, its actual existence was unfathomable.

When I asked my mother about it, I'm sure her reply was something about other cultures having different perceptions of beauty--which is why even the small children in the magazine had pierced ears and I had to wait until my eighth birthday to have my lobes punctured. But I considered myself lucky because my best friend Karen was waiting until thirteen, an age tardy by both her standards and mine.

When my time came, I discovered my allergy to nickel and other inexpensive metals and the healing process had been a mess. My ears became pussy, bloody and painful when I exchanged my original stainless steel studs with golden ballerinas, and, from then on, I was forced to don the plain jewels reserved by the "sensitive ears" section of Claire's.

But I've digressed from the point.

The floundering magazine that was created in 1888 to increase the "diffusion of geographic knowledge" was supported by Alexander Graham-Bell's father-in-law, and originally read like a textbook. It wasn't until photographs were a haphazard addition to an edition in 1905 that our country, from Bill Bryson and Elizabeth Bishop, became and remained entranced by the worlds in its pages they would have otherwise never been able to see. And that's where Bryson left off when I bookmarked page fourteen to write this: with his desire to leave his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa and move to England. And he did. But his following pages are not of the places he discovered in his years abroad; they are a rediscovery of our own and his own small town escapades.

But perhaps I'm making a grandiose statement prematurely. Giving a book fourteen pages is like judging its cover, even though I'm looking forward to giving Bryson a few more days.

" I began to read--no, I began to consume--National Geographics, with their pictures of glowing Lapps and mist-shrouded castles and ancient cities of infinite charm. From that moment, I wanted to be a European boy. I wanted to live in an apartment across from a park in the heart of a city, and from my bedroom window look out on a crowded vista of hills and rooftops. I wanted to ride trams and understand strange languages. I wanted friends named Werner and Marco who wore short pants and played soccer in the street and owned toys made of wood. I wanted my mother to send me out to buy long loaves of break from a shop with a wooden pretzel hanging above the entrance. I wanted to step outside my front door and be somewhere."

Thursday, May 22, 2008

a comment on impossibility

Paul: Does he know who you are? Then the feeling's mutual.
Me: What do you mean does he know who I am?
Paul: If he knows you by name, then the feeling's mutual is what I'm getting at.
Paul: Maybe that was a stretch. You know, I don't know, I just live in China.
Me: That doesn't make any sense.
Paul: Yes it does!!
Me: How?
Paul: To know you is to fall madly in love with you.
Me: You are ridiculous.
Paul: C'mon. Think with that brain of yours and understand me.
Me: Well you're writing in complete sentences, and those I understand. But your theory is seriously flawed.
Paul: It might not be true. But as a hypothesis, I think it's solid.

This happened back in March, but I found it in the small pile of school things on my desk during my scuffle to shorten it this morning.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

apples to apples

Recently, I have taken to buying yellow apples from the grocery store. Even though I prefer Fiji or Braeburn, these golden friends have been the least expensive denominator as of late. And, because I generally eat a ton of fruit, that's a good thing.

Every time I bite into one, I think of Beth Lehman, my childhood best friend. As a kid, I found it particularly special that Beth's full name was both my middle name and the name of my godmother in Wisconsin. We both had blonde, bobbed hair and blue eyes and were confused for sisters whenever we spent any amount of time together (that time being every possible moment between the ages of two and eleven). Though Madison Elementary and Sts. Peter, Paul and Michael Primary separated us only by a city block and two playground sets, I attribute our high tolerance for one another to the fact that we went to different elementary schools. We spent long weekends in the woods at her cabin with her dog. We played dress-up with her old skating costumes and my sequined-lined leotards and tutus. We watched hockey games and swam in her pool when she moved to a new house after we turned eight. Our fathers were colleagues in the same dental practice and we'd never had cavities. Before I was in preschool, I spent afternoons with her mother, Kris, while my own mother worked part-time as a dental hygienist with our fathers.

Though her favorite color is yellow, my mother only bought red and green apples and grapes; yellow fruit only came from the Lehman kitchen. Beth and I would be called into the house after running through sprinklers in matching hula skirts and bikinis on summer afternoons, leis askew, the fabric flowers in our hair matted and frayed. We spent hours gyrating our hips, practicing the perfect hula, and I'm certain the afternoon humidity bore down like it does during all Minnesota summers: so thick that it's hard to breathe. But kids, tuned only into their work of play, never notice these inconveniences and surely we cared more about the dandelion butter we rubbed on our wrists than the soppy air of afternoons.

So we'd run inside, stepping on old towels with our wet and grassy feet in the entry way of the kitchen, which, as I remember it, was a replica of the kitchen in my parents' first house. Kris would be standing at the counter with a knife, slicing yellow apples as MPR murmured Reagan policies the background. The linoleum was a muted mustard with a pattern from the seventies and the oak country table fit the country kitchen well, its chairs cut in a synonymous design. But we always snacked at a playskool table instead its proper relative. Its plastic legs and crayon-yellow miniature chairs sat in the adjacent living room, just near enough to fake a semblance of belonging amidst the dining room set. We'd engulf our plate of apples and cheddar cheese before racing into the heat once more.

But while I'm still eating yellow fruit, the best friend to whom I'd promised a spot in my wedding, and who had told me the truth about Santa Claus in the pop-up back seat of my mother's wood paneled station wagon, seems to only exist among the semi-fabricated vignettes of my childhood memories. It's been more than ten years since we've spoken, and while our fathers still reside in the same office on Northway Drive and Kris makes it to office functions and smiles and says it's so good to see you, Kelsey, and I still have the Lehman's home phone number memorized, I didn't even think to ask of Beth when I ran into her older sister in Barnes and Noble on Thursday. Perhaps I was merely preoccupied and trying to avoid the former co-workers and managers with whom the place was crawling. But more likely, as ten years implies and as a wedding for which I'll wear white is currently and thankfully unforeseeable, we've just become too old to run through the sprinklers in grass skirts.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Fair Trade or Fairly Traded?

Fair Trade ensures consumers a proactive stamp of approval, but it is not the only solution to issues of coffee origin.
• • •
“It’s extraordinary to think that dozens, maybe even hundreds of hands, touch every coffee bean that is in your cup of coffee,” said Ric Rhinehart, Executive Director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. We spoke during the annual conference for the SCAA—the world’s largest gathering of coffee connoisseurs, technically perfect baristas and coffee growers. Last weekend, Minneapolis was not only home to the conference, but also to discussion of sustainability and quality within the market of great coffee.

While those directly involved in the specialty coffee industry understand the lengthy chain of supply that ensures a quality cup of coffee, the average consumer thinks little of this. Yet whether we drink our morning coffee at Dunn Bros. or at home, a significant number of individuals have cared for it before we even take a sip.

The production of coffee beans often begins several years before reaching the consumer. On average, coffee trees take five years to begin producing marketable cherries—a grape-like fruit from which coffee beans are extracted. At the point of maturity, often during our winter months of January and February, harvesters are paid not only for the amount of cherries they can handpick in a day, but for the quality of the cherries they harvest. These cherries are then sold to a processor who extracts the pit of the fruit—our coffee bean—and ensures that beans are washed, dried and exportable. He then will sell these green beans to an exporter, who sells them to an importer in the United States, who sells them to a roaster, and then to a retailer who either sells the coffee by the pound or brewed cup. Though the chain exists in variations with omitted links, this basic model is the way coffee has been sold for hundreds of years.

A current trend that works to decrease the numbers involved in this incessant game of hot-potato is the Fair Trade industry. Through Fair Trade, direct cooperatives are formed between roasters and individual farmers, thus eliminating the middleman and ensuring a better profit for the farmer. Fair Trade beans are purchased at a fixed price above the ever-changing market, and the Fair Trade logo is typically well advertised by the roaster. After organizing cooperatives in Nicaragua for 11 years, Paul Rice became the CEO of TransFair USA with the belief that Fair Trade is a testament to the power the awakening consumer has through a simple cup of coffee. “We’re turning a daily act that is not conscious into an act of goodwill, and that’s a compelling notion in a nation where people care, but that don’t have time,” he said. “We don’t have time to go to the PTA meeting, or write a letter to the editor—half our nation doesn’t have time to vote. But we all eat, and that means most of us shop. So if the act of shopping and the act of consumption can become an act of reaching out, that is a powerful thing.”

Peace Coffee in Minneapolis functions in this way. Selling all Fair Trade, Organic beans, the local roasting company works with Cooperative Coffees to receive beans directly from farms around the world. After roasting and packaging, pounds of Peace Coffee are delivered to their respective retailers by bike through the humid summers and biting winters of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Full time roaster Megan O’Brian spoke of the relationship: “We put a lot of emphasis on knowing from where our beans come and who grows them. After a year at Peace Coffee, all staff members are able to go to origin. Though business does get done on these trips, we have an opportunity to see our beans grown and say to the grower, ‘This is where your beans are going. This is what people think of your coffee.’ Those direct relationships are central to what we do.”

Fair Trade ensures consumers a recognizable stamp of approval when they purchase coffee. With the confusion of emerging certifications today, a customer can see the Fair Trade logo and be certain the product he or she purchases is supporting a proactive practice. But Fair Trade is not the solve-all solution to the issue of sustainable practices at origin. Currently, there are more certified beans produced than demanded annually in the market. In reality, about one third of the Fair Trade certified beans are actually sold to roasters. As the demand for Fair Trade has not risen to 100%, the other two thirds of the beans are sold at market price. Additionally, Fair Trade certification is only granted to smaller farms, and therefore excludes larger farms with similar practices.

In the specialty industry, the market price for beans is always the lowest common denominator. This is the price at which canned, commercial coffee is purchased, but never the price of specialty beans. The price of quality coffee is always higher than market and often higher than Fair Trade; each coffee differs in value. It is the cupper—the professional who determines its characteristics and value—who is given the most power within a particular chain of coffee supply. If a farmer does not know the quality of the bean he is producing or does not trust the person who tells him its value, he may be losing significant profit.

Traditionally, cupping has occurred higher up the chain, at the export or import level. But Ted Lingle, Executive Director of the Quality Coffee Institute, is working to return cupping to origin so that farmers are able to make their own business decisions about the prices at which they sell their beans. “The benefit,” he said, “is for a producing country. If you teach farmers how to separate their coffees for the market in advance, they have a greater opportunity to catch to coffees that are sold at premium prices. Because farmers had no idea what happened to their product once it left their farm, it was placing them at a big disadvantage in the marketplace.” The Institute, which has worked throughout Central America and is currently working in Kenya, Ethiopia, Colombia, and Indonesia, certifies cuppers from each of the respective countries so they are able to work with their own farmers. “This ensures a grower the ability to have one of his own countrymen, someone in whom he has confidence, to cup his coffee and give him an independent report on its quality,” said Lingle. If a farmer is able to independently access a qualified cupper, he is less likely to sell his coffee at an underrated price. Lingle’s system directly empowers farmers because the bean determines its own price, instead of an organization like TransFair.

It is often stated within the specialty coffee industry that the quality of coffee is directly tied to the quality of life of the farmer. One cannot be raised without raising the other. If farmers are able to produce less coffee at a higher value, then we have found a beginning.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

disastrous manipulation

I know this blog has already been featured as a blog of note on blogger, but because I couldn't tear my eyes away from it, I simply couldn't help myself. This is for my friends in photography, and this is why I don't manipulate my photos other than simple tricks of noise and color balance.


Monday, May 5, 2008

one day like this a year would see me right...

Highlights from tonight's ride:

• My 1991 magenta Murray.
• A clashing red bike helmet.

• Scents of barbeque.
• Downhills.
• Soft air.
• Finally putting my new point and shoot to work.
• Its full manual option.

• My ipod on shuffle.
• Ben Lee, Benny Goodman, Ani DiFranco and Duncan Sheik.
• A glance at some spectacular graffiti beneath the Franklin Avenue Bridge--only visible to those on the river road.

• Waving back at two small girls in a second story window.
• Noticing gas was $3.49 at bp, then subsequently noticing my speed was 22mph without gas.
• The Murray's chain disengaging on University Ave.
• My resulting blackened fingers.
• My no longer white brakes.

• Making my way to the house on 3511 NE Main, but not actually passing it.
• Climbing the fence and sitting instead, on the turtle fountain in the empty wading pool in Hi-view park, where Grandpa used to take me as a kid.

• Seeing my grandparents' old deck chairs from my perch in the park, and avoiding nostalgia knowing I've couched enough of it in my writing lately.

• Elbow on my way home.
• Racing beneath the old train bridge on NE Main.

• Orange-Banana-Pineapple juice after 16.62 miles.

More photos here.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Generation gap.

Though my grandmother is one of my best friends, we can't talk about politics.

A few weeks ago our usual pleasantries were exchanged with a furious altercation when she maintained that, "Mr. Bush is a very nice man. We just have to wait for time to tell his legacy," and proceeded to scold me about my own political disposition. It obviously goes without saying that the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States would thereafter induce a crazed socialist regime in our nation. How could I consider voting for him with any other result?

Don't get me wrong, she's an incredibly educated seventy-something. And though we both enjoy painting porcelain and a good margarita on the rocks, we favor different news stations, and of course my generation never had to walk to school barefoot. Through a field in Marshall, Minnesota. Uphill. In the snow.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

23 Indications you have an old(er) soul.

1. When you got in the elevator at 4:31 yesterday afternoon, the drunk girls who had fallen over inside apologize for having such low tolerance and call you 'mam in the process.

2. You are incapable of participating in a conversation with the guys in the elevator at 10:12 about what time you started drinking because you haven't started drinking yet.

3. Fishbowls gross you out. You got over grape kool-aid at fifteen. You think of your mother and how much she hates artifical grape flavoring.

4. You loathe places like the Library and Blarney's where they mix the drinks strong and you can't hear a thing above all the damn noise.

5. All the damn noise being shoddy live covers of "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Bennie and the Jets" with too much static and atonal vocals.

6. You yawn at 10:37.

7. The girls in the bathroom are discussing whose tabs on which to place their next drinks.

8. The guy who walks from the bar as you leave the loo leaps at you like a leech. He initiates conversation by complementing your cute hair cut.

9. He wants to introduce you to his friends, who are silent clones of their ring leader.

10. He, a 22 year-old International business major who, wearing an all too tight t-shirt and faux army hat, introduces himself as Anton doesn't impress you when he said he wanted to travel with his degree.

11. In fact, you don't believe him at all, though you're certain he uses his latin complexion to claim he is bilingually impressive in an attempt to impress women like yourself.

12. Except he hasn't been privy to the fact you speak Spanish fluently which therefore places you outside the category of women like yourself.

13. You yawn again at 11:46.

14. Your civility causes you to refrain from punching his face when he puts a hand on the back of your neck to yell over the racket into your ear.

15. You don't offer you are a writer and especially not a dance major because you know his eyes will bug out at the prospect and he'll immediately picture things with you you'd rather he not be picturing with you.

16. These things being the kinds of things that would make you ralph your Blue Moon if you pictured with him.

17. He realizes the possibility you might like books and quickly vacates, saying maybe I'll see you here Thursday night or something.

18. You thank the gods for setting you free and providing shitty music to fill in the gaps of your un-conversation with said Anton.

19. But you still CAN'T HEAR ANYTHING ABOVE THE DAMN MUSIC! as you attempt to recount the sleaze-bucket story to Sharkey.


21. You yawn at 12:32.

22. You drop Bill and Sharkey off at their respective apartments and drive home knowing you would score an A+ on a sobriety test given by any of the five squad cars in your neighborhood.

23. You get up at 8:00 the next morning to write this.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Dame Hillary Clinton: The Black Knight

Today, I received an early morning e-mail from my older brother. "Thought you might be interested in an incredibly accurate, fresh spin on the election..." he wrote.

He then hyperlinked me to this remarkable blog at the Huffington Post. And yes, I just used hyperlink as a verb.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Cheezus Crust

I love NPR. As I don't own a TV, I turn it on in the morning and listen to some of the best reporting in the nation. Additionally, I'm privy to things like this when I make lunch on a Saturday afternoon.

Perhaps I'll have to create my own Gorgonzola Mind Controlla.Though I'm not sure I can induce a Hyper Cheese Brain Freeze like Linda Williamson, and it looks like I'll have to wait until next year to compete, I do have a squash in the fruit basket in my kitchen.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Adventures in Skateville

So, I've been putting off writing this because it's such great material.

I'd planned to allude pieces of my own roller skating adventures with excerpts from Mary Karr's Cherry, which I'm currently reading and love.

However, my life is pretty crazed and aside from organized outings to coffee shops to write manuscripts and papers that refuse to write themselves, I've had few organized outings since my trip to Skateville two weeks ago. Skateville being a dive equivallent to the roller skating rink in which I spent my own childhood and tenth birthday. Being ten and dressed in elastic waisted jeans and my favorite tye-dyed t-shirt (the one I'd actually dyed myself), I toted my purple and electric lime rollerblades to the Skatin' Place where I'd invited ten girls to my party. But when a couple of girls ended up in tears because I apparently didn't skate enough with them, Mom gave me the "I told you ten was too many kids" look. Though I might be manufacturing this detail, I pacified them by opening my birthday presents and cutting the Cinderella cake my mother made. Kids are such jerks, but Cinderella trumped the party anyway. She was standing up and her gown was comprised of marble cake covered in baby blue frosting.

Exacting in detail to the Skatin' Place, Skateville is equipped with enough wheeled shoes for entire populace of Burnsville. Their leather is exactly as you would picture it: far too broken in and containing the essences of the hundreds of feet they had blistered before your own. But you lace up nonetheless and are on your way to the Snack Shack where they sell fun dip for a quarter and blue raspberry slushies that give your friends brain freeze.

You teeter on the immaculately waxed maple floor, praying you don't fall as zillions of prepubescent kids zip by you on skates. One girl who has actually hit puberty seems to be chasing a boy years ahead of her with her midriff. You watch as she skates ahead of him, and glances back letting him pass. She does this repeatedly though he remains in oblivion. Even the forty-something Mom whose teased hair and pants from the 90s flies by you--pom-poms catching the wind with her speed. You push off and recall the side-to-side movement required for momentum, contrary to the forward-backward motion the task would otherwise imply. The swirling disco-ball does nothing to aid your balance.

But when the tubby DJ introduces himself as Mike and floods the speakers with MC Hammer's "Can't Touch This," the tots get bored and head for the snack shack and you and your friends leap for joy (though not literally as you're aware the result would be a heap of orange wheels all over the floor). You spend the rest of the night beneath the ceiling's bulbous, flashing lights and wait for your New Kids On the Block request that never comes. Maybe if you'd tried to write it six times in a row like the kids who wanted to hear "Cyclone" did, you'd have gotten what you wanted. After all, it was repeated twice in a three hour period, each time inducing the kind of shrilly noise from them that NKOTB would have done for you and your friends.

You catch yourself wondering if they really understand the song's raunchy lyrics, and suddenly feel like your mother when she would say, "That's terrible" when Meredith Brooks's "Bitch" came on the radio in the car after school. You begrudgingly changed 104.7 KCLD to another station that didn't play Ace of Base and the like.

There was one time, however, when your older brother permitted you to hang out in his room to listen to the new Matchbox Twenty album. Unlike the kids and "Cyclone" you dared to ask your brother what Rob Thomas meant when he sang about "the hand that touched me" in "Push." Though he could explain the mechanics of any kind of computer and take an entire toaster apart only to immaculately reassemble it, he turned red in the face and said he wasn't going to explain that to you before kicking you out of his room. You didn't understand what the big deal was all about.

Now, as the print of the inline skates on the fluorescent carpet threatens nausea, you realize these kids will eventually figure it out. Though it'll probably happen after T-Pain goes out of style and someone else is coming up with the pop euphemisms for sex, it's safe to say natural disasters spell adolescence more than pop music.

And though I've written an ode to Marry Karr in the second person instead of quoting Cherry, I hope you enjoy the pictures.

Photos by Katherine Lung and Julia Pevan

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Umbrellas have existed in nearly the same form since 1000 B.C.

It's raining today in Minneapolis.

I've been writing all morning, and have gotten the desire to come down from my fifth floor apartment and go for a walk. I dive into bowels of my closet to search for my umbrella. It doesn't take long for me to emerge from its bottommost corner with the black, compacted device in my hands. The tags from TJ Maxx are still attached and I remove them before opening it's ribcage beneath the airy ceiling of the studio. I've never really been superstitious.

Back in February, Susan Orlean wrote a piece for the New Yorker about the umbrella and its prevailingly faulty design. I think of it as the smell of newly waterproofed nylon invades my nostrils. I collapse the device and hope the wind isn't strong this afternoon. Orlean is right, after all. Everyone knows the slightest wind can knock an umbrella inside out and even if it doesn't, there exists an updraft that wets the front of the thighs making anyone uncomfortable upon reaching his or her destination. And this afternoon, because I have no particular destination, should be especially damp.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Alexander in Art

"So he's a prisoner?" my Dad replied. "You don't eat meat for that reason, but you're going to cage him up anyway." I bought a betta last month, and this was my father's reaction.

"Dad, it was more like I saved him from Petsmart. He came in a container. It made me want to buy them all."
"That's my tree hugger..."
"Aren't you the one who always says, 'Fish are peaceful... Sometimes all you want to do when you're a college student is sit and look at fish'?"
"Well they are..." He paused. "So is he green?"
"Does he have spots?"
"I wasn't so much into the speckled ones. They looked sort of ill."
"So now you're discriminating..."
"Dad!" I was exasperated.

Later on, as I sat down in the three and a half hour art class to which I'm obligated to attend on Wednesday nights, the Semi-Attractive Guy Who I Have Sat Next to for an entire month But Still Has No Name, said hello.

"How are you?"
"I'm well. I bought a fish today."

The beginning of class interrupted our conversation.

At its end, the Semi-Attractive Guy Who I Have Sat Next to for an entire month But Still Has No Name asked, "Goldfish?"
"Red. I'm rather partial to the color."
"Well good luck with that, and have a good week," he replied before vacating the oversized classroom.

The following week, SAGWIHSNTBSHNN asked, "How's your fish?" before taking a sip of black tea. He always has black tea in class - and now that I consider it, often wears black.

"He's well - was sick yesterday morning, but is okay now."
"Does he have a name yet?" asked SAGWIHSNTBSHNN.
"No, but I was thinking about Liam Finn, who I've been listening to lately. But I can't so much appropriate a name. He kind of needs his own. I was then thinking Emerson or Wallace, but I'm not so fond of those either."
"Well now you're getting literary," said SAGWIHSNTBSHNN.
I opened my mouth to object in offense - and then realized he wouldn't know that about me. I mean, I still don't know his name nor have I figured out if he's gay. He's older and rather androgynous - not that those two are synonymous.

SAGWIHSNTBSHNN interrupted my thoughts. "There are a lot of British names there."
"Yeah, and I am pretty literary, but I was just thinking you wouldn't know that about me."
"All I know is that you have a a fish." SAGWIHSNTBSHNN continued, "But I think it's too late to name him now. He'll just have to be Fish."

I became slightly horrified by this idea, and then caught myself. My largest fear in adding a fish to the other live things in my apartment (e.g. my plants), was that I was going to become one of those crazy pet owners who get their dogs ready for bed as if they were their children and chastise them like they would understand the consequences of their actions. Though I don't know how you could do so with a fish, I'm sure those kind of people would find a loophole and sprint through it in record speed.

Class began, and our delightfully spacey professor dimmed the lights and fumbled with the apple laptop on the podium to start a video.

SAGWIHSNTBSHNN leaned over, "I always thought I'd choose John Vonnegut as an alter ego, you know, if I ever have to flee and change my name."
"Are you planning on fleeing anytime soon?" I asked, leaning over while keeping my eyes glued to the projector screen.
"Not unless I steal a lot of art." he said.
I whispered, "I've never considered a new name. I'll have to get back to you on that."

"So your fish..."
"My fish. I also thought about naming him Kitty, because I've always wanted a cat. Somehow that seemed wrong. He's kind of ridiculous actually. He lives in a one gallon fishbowl, but he thinks he's king of the world. He puffs up his fins and darts around. I mean, he attacks his food as if its not already dead. I put my face up to the bowl and he looks like he's ready to fight me. But I'm pretty sure I'd win. He's, only what, two inches long."
"Then how about Alexander?" answered SAGWIHSNTBSHNN. "I mean, if he thinks he's king of the world."

This wise man's not so wise.

I just found out I missed Liam Finn when he was here in Minneapolis in March.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

So my literary nonfiction professor assigned a few blogs for our reading tomorrow, and, in addition, wanted us to bring a few postings from blogs we currently read. I figured that on the off chance any of the people in my class would somehow end up here, they should have something to read other than the rehashings of my newspaper column I occasionally post.

But after such an image, that I yes, constructed and shot with my own camera, they'll probably never return and/or think me some other kind of unmentionable crazy.

Seeing these outcomes are rather unfortunate for both my readers and me, perhaps I'll admit the entire event was an insouciant escapade and that I'd forgotten how heavy wet snow is.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The piano lady is no longer Mrs. Anderson

So after grocery shopping for the first time in three weeks, I came home to a typical e-mail from my mother.

As I'm a lucky kid whose parents still feed her, and because my so-called permanent residences typically change annually, my bills are send to my parents' address. Mom's always great about letting me know what kind of money I've spent.

It went something like this:

Hi Kelsey,

How was your day? I'm paying bills.

She then interjects that $24.99 is due to my credit card account.

And closes with:


But, it was her post script that prompted me to write:

The piano lady says hi! She's not Mrs. Anderson anymore.

My mother must have seen her in the dental office. With a father as a dentist and a mother a hygienist, I typically both brush and floss and receive greetings through the grapevine. But if she's not Mrs. Anderson, who is she?

Such a statement aptly jogs the memory: the soft hearted woman in whose basement I'd spent nearly all my childhood Monday afternoons is no longer the same. Unlike my mother's former teacher, she never hit my knuckles when I stuck a G instead of a C, and never reprimanded me when I'd blunder through a piece of music I'd obviously not practiced. When I started at six, I played by ear and learned staff lines and key signatures as an afterthought. I memorized and performed competition pieces and played a duet on Northrop's stage in an honors concert at eight. But by sixteen, I was enjoying her company during my hour long lessons more than I wanted to learn Bach's piceces in my Suzuki classics. She'd adjust her glasses beneath her salt and pepper hair as I painstakingly picked through a piece, before gently indicating it could use some work. But she never squirmed or stopped me; her patience was probably a direct gift from God. She drank warm, red juice from coffee mugs and loved her cats and her baby grand. She encouraged me to play more jazz and embellish the pieces on which I was working. And I did. I'd add new syncopation in a rift of eighth notes, fermatas as the bass line plunked away... It was the only thing I ever practiced in those last few years of lessons.

But it's amazing the kind of bubble that surrounds you as a child. You learn piano theories, while theories of love aren't holding true. Not that love has ever been scientific. As it turns out, gentle Mrs. Anderson had been verbally abused by her husband for years and finally broke away during the last. How do you enter someone's home 52 times in a year for ten years and have an indication of her pain? Perhaps you're allowed naivete when you're sixteen, but why should that be an excuse for tunnel vision?

Friday, March 14, 2008

From a work still in the works.

I just thought I would share a scene from a larger piece I'm currently working on about growing up Catholic.

From "Of Catechism and Crosses"

As a kid in the church, my involvement began with the children’s choir and vacation bible school, culminating in the fifth grade, when I was allowed to begin altar serving. For years I’d watched older kids bring the chalice and water and wine to the right place at the right time, and I was itching to climb the stairs and sit next to Fr. Ed on the altar. Even more, I was anticipating a look into the “back room” – the sacristy – where only servers, lectors and priests were privy.

The first mass I served was a cool morning in September, and like any other event in my life, the whole family – grandma included – had come. She warbled when she sang, and throughout my childhood managed enjoyably to bring her volume above everyone else in the church. I was pleased that I would hear her praises from a distance. The mass began like any other; five minutes before, I lit the candles and after the lector welcomed everyone and invited the congregation to “stand and greet those” around them, I pretentiously took the church’s steel cross out of its stand for the opening procession. I banged it on the doorframe of the sacristy and turned red, grateful that everyone was standing and only a few could see the scene. The song continued and I struggled to carry the cross up the aisle. At twenty-one I tower just past five feet, and as an eleven year old I was wrestling a giant with spaghetti for arms. The cross teetered forward and backward and I grit my teeth as I staggered up the stairs at the end of the song.

Placing the cross in its stand was like threading a needle. Its post was round but scarcely an inch in diameter. To support the rest of its heavy shape, its stand – a round tube just larger than the diameter of the cross – rose nearly a foot off the ground. With the cross's top towering over my head I stabbed at the stand and missed to the left, then clanked it too far forward. I had broken a sweat by the time I wiggled the cross back and forth and the friction of steel on steel met its post with support. The service began and I flawlessly held the gigantic book for the opening prayer; the lector read and the choir sang the responsorial psalm.

While my success had been limited up to this point, I had made a cardinal mistake as an altar server. The morning had been cool and I’d chosen a wool sweater to wear beneath my cassock. As the mass continued on, my insulating layers cooked like a crock pot. The intensity of the heat came in waves, and waves of nausea came with its intensity. My face was a lobster and my hands clams. I ran their sweaty surfaces down my thighs and slowed my breathing. Just relax, Kelsey. Get through the mass and you’ll be fine. You’re just nervous.

And then I was swept with the feeling you get just before you vomit. Your muscles drain themselves of power and you tend to shake like you’ve just run a marathon. Your mouth goes dry like you’ve swallowed soda crackers without water.

Was I going to ruin my years of anticipation as an altar server? Not if I could help it. I stood my ground and swallowed gingerly. And swallowed again. And closed my eyes.

As I perched on the bench next to Fr. Ed’s ornate chair and he delivered his homily, I kneaded my palms and then clenched my fists while the congregation took no apparent notice of my struggle that went something like this: The crackers, the marathon. The crackers, the marathon. Lobster face. Clams. Lobster face. Crackers. Clams. Marathon. Face. Clams. Crackers.

I couldn’t swallow.

But I couldn’t leave my post and abandon my responsibility. I was only eleven, and what was this going to say about slacking off and its relation to the rest of my life? Somebody still needed to symbolically pour the water over Fr. Ed’s hands before the consecration. And I knew how to do it and wasn’t going to leave him out to dry.

But I had a marathon in my muscles and clams in my hands and…

I lost the battle as my breakfast hit my shoes.

I ran to the Sacristy. My mother met me there as tears of stress from both vomiting and sadness squeezed between my eyelids. “I’ve ruined the mass!” I sobbed, “And there’s puke all over the carpet up there!”

Mom took me home and Dad stayed after mass to apply vinegar and water to the soiled, gray carpet of the altar. We dry-cleaned my white cassock, and I could never figure out how my mother was allowed to come back to the sacristy without permission.

Friday, February 29, 2008

But you've gotta love perspective.

So, remember that little incident with the newspaper I was griping about yesterday?

Well, it hardly makes an impact after you go to work and an elderly gentleman looks you in the face with blank eyes and convulses slightly before he collapses at table 14.

He woke up slightly to tell me to not trouble him and that he'd be fine; in those intermittent seconds I managed to fire off enough questions to know he wasn't. And even though he didn't want trouble or an ambulance, he got one anyway. It only was after a paramedic pointed to me and said, "thank you," rather forcefully as I began to bus the table that I felt okay and the shakes I had acquired subsided.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

So I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing. That is, until I saw the paper this morning.

I am not a person of great embarrassment.

I flush if a professor puts me on the spot, and might become flustered in that "ahh shit" moment when I stumble around my mouth for an answer. But things like falling? Hardly. After a backward tumble down the stairs on Christmas in a pencil skirt with my camera in hand, I popped up unscathed while the rest of my family reeled in panic. They claim I fell on my neck, but I interpret the event as a backward, downhill summersault after I made the choice to fall. And because of a pair of brown, suede boots, I spilled across the West Bank a couple of weeks ago. I had finally used the gift card I'd gotten for DSW last Christmas; I love them. But I might have reconsidered my decision had I known the heels were going to cause me to careen, avoiding the splits every time I walked from point A to B. Yet I wear them nearly every day. This time, I was carrying my computer. Controlled falling, though, is one of great those skills I've acquired as a dance major. That, and frequently lying on the floor.

But today, too, I scarcely looked like an imbecile when the last three paragraphs of the column I wrote two weeks ago was tagged on the end of today's paper. Of course the Exxon oil spill of 1989 caused the rise in soldier suicides in the last year. Somehow I guess the copy desk wasn't among the 50,000 readers of the paper.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Of Soldiers and Suicide.

The second occasion on which Harper's saved my life this week was in writing my column. Until I opened to the Index of the month, I had begun to research a topic entirely unbeguiling: U.S. Customs and the recent rise in the confiscation of laptops at the borders.

Of Soldiers and Suicide
Published by the Minnesota Daily
14 February 2008

I was thumbing through this month’s Harper’s and on my way to the David Foster Wallace piece on page 17 when I detoured through the “Index,” and spotted a few noteworthy statistics among the usual collage. (e.g. 79 percent of 152,000 Greenpeace votes wished to name a humpback whale in the South Pacific, “Mr. Splashy Pants.” Or perhaps more appropriately for the holiday the, “Number of states where a court has held that women must return engagement rings if the wedding doesn’t happen: 18.”)

Juxtaposing these was the, “Chance that an Iraq war veteran who has served two or more tours now has post-traumatic stress disorder: 1 in 4.” And lines beneath this read: “Number of confirmed suicides in the U.S. Army in 2006: 102.” Let’s just say I haven’t made it to David Foster Wallace yet.

Harper’s Index goes on to cite that since accurate record keeping began in 1981, the numbers have never been as high.

And the numbers are rising.

On Tuesday, the Associated Press exclusively published government data on the suicide rates of the National Guard and Reserve troops who have left the army. From 2001-2005, these troops comprised 53 percent of the suicides in that time period. Because the leaders of the military have leaned so heavily on the Guard and Reserves in these last years, many individuals have done several tours away from home – removing them from their families and careers for often 18 months at a time.

But when troops do come home, they are expected to carry on with their lives as if they have never left and the war does not exist. Let’s face it, for much of the general population, while we may oppose Bush’s decision to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, it is an event that occurs outside of our world. Like poverty and deficits in education in Africa or the Americas, it’s that thing that’s happening somewhere else. Unless we are witnesses, we remain unmoved. Unless our relationships are personally invested, we often let an event run its course. But if you’ve ever spent that semester abroad or that summer in the wilderness you may have only begun to understand a soldier’s dissociation to the rest of our nation upon his or her return to the States. Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iran and Afghanistan Veterans for America notes that soldiers are, “literally in Baghdad one week and in Brooklyn the next,” and that, “a more long term, comprehensive approach is needed, especially in the first six months a soldier is home.”

In November, President Bush signed the Suicide Prevention Act that directed the V.A. to improve the mental health training of its staff and to heighten levels of screening and the treatment illnesses like PTSD and Depression. As part of the Act the V.A. created its first suicide hotline last year, and according to the article from the Associated Press, one in five veterans have visited a V.A. facility. The trouble is getting suicidal veterans to utilize the line.

But the government’s study fails to involve suicide that happens in war zones, or those who remained in the military after returning home. What, then, of those who remain deployed? Those numbers are also rising.

Chris Scheuerman, a retired master sergeant, spoke of his son Jason’s suicide on National Public Radio last month. The event happened while Jason was deployed in Iraq, and eventually Chris was told his son had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But the army was unwilling to provide details of the incident and Chris was forced to file requests for the Freedom of Information Act for two years before requesting help from his local congressman.

Through the documents he finally received, he discovered that his son had been feeling suicidal. Months before his death, Jason had seen both a chaplain and a military psychologist; both had rule Jason unhealthy. The Army chaplain had noted he was obsessed with suicide, but the psychologist ruled that he was capable of “feigning illness in order to manipulate his command.” Less than six months later, he had used his firearm to kill himself.

Jason Scheurman was 19. And according to a publication on January 31st on most of the suicides that happen are among the youngest of the deployed: 18-24 year olds. The army rates reflect those of the Guard and Reserves with a 17.3% increase per 100,000 troops last year.

Ironically, the election buzz seems to be focusing away from the war. In December, the Iraq war wasn’t even on the agenda for the final Democratic and Republican debates sponsored by the Des Moines Register. Maybe, because the American public has something new on which to focus in the election, this new focus is usurping trends of war discussion in these last years. But we cannot forget the individuals whose absences are remembered by their families.

Stressed relationships and access to loaded firearms are two of the largest factors in successful suicides. Our troops are tired; we cannot simply bring them home, change their oil and expect them to run as if they are a brand new vehicle. But as they remain in Iraq, they must know our support regardless of our political standings. We must not allow these individuals to merely exist in another part of the world while we continue our lives here. It was not their decision to begin the war in 2001, nor is it their choice to end it.

Of this, Chris Scheurman said, “It is horrible that we lost the soldiers we have to. It is a tragedy when we lose a soldier that we shouldn’t have.”

In praise of the Harper's gods.

This month's edition of Harper's has now saved my life twice in the last twenty four hours. Please note my Mass Comm 1001 assignment below. (As you may have read a few weeks ago, my loathing for the class remains. James Frey and A Million Little Pieces was cited for the zillionth time in a classroom as unethical. However, this time a bright student raised his hand and said, "It was so popular because it was so graphic, and helped so many people, and Oprah loved him, and then it was like, what the hell?" But in redeeming light of this, I got to defend the status of the published word in society this week. Admittedly, it's rather melodramatic.)

As an English major considering the decline of physical books, my instincts are to cringe and quell the concept entirely. Call me a fan of the old fashioned; I prefer a pen and paper to digital media and I don’t even own a television. However, as a technical savvy individual, my older brother keeps his e-books on his iphone and praises its capability and accessibility. “Staying Awake, Notes on the alleged decline of reading,” was published in Harper’s this month and speaks directly to the subject. In her first paragraphs, Ursula K. LeGuin writes, “In 2004, a National Endowment for the Arts survey revealed that 43 percent of Americans polled hadn’t read a book all year, and last November, in its report, ‘To Read or Not to Read,’ the NEA lamented the decline of reading, warning that non-readers do less well in the job market and are less useful citizens in general.” She continues her discourse to discuss the social qualities of literature. While she criticizes the written quality of published books, citing Harry Potter as an anomaly to the situation, she notes the “social quality of literature is still visible in the popularity of best-sellers.” Though we are reading less on a whole, books are not obsolete. It is the publishers who are getting away with “making baloney-mill novels” popular. So, physical books remain a commodity, even if by publishing standards a “good book” is merely something that will sell instead of a creation of prose with substance.

But concerning the e-book. Companies like Google that have recently placed scanned versions of rare books online are properly taking advantage of what digital media can offer a reader. It aids research and yields access to works that would otherwise be left unutilized by the ordinary person in society. Having used Google’s collection of books myself, I can attest that I would not have found a copy of Rhetoric and Wonder in English Travel Writing, 1560-1613 by Jonathan Sell in any other library. This volume selects the exact time period that John Donne was composing much of his literature, and specifically a poem titled: “Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward.” Donne’s wonder of God as a traveler was exactly the premise of the essay I was writing. It was like I had struck gold.

We gaze at LCD screens and the glow of our computers and Blackberrys for hours on end to check e-mail and read articles, and in my case, write them. The radio is even streaming online. I’d prefer give my eyes a rest and read several hundred pages of text in a chair and in physical form. There is something to be said about holding a physical copy of a book in one’s hands; I believe physical books to be a large element of Intellectual Property. Because the Internet remains so accessible, and books like Jonathan Sell’s are not only available but copyrighted, pirated materials are ubiquitous. As a writer, there is something to be said about having a physical copy of your work in your hands. While publishing online makes one’s work accessible, it also give the author a less tangible sense of accomplishment.

The nation still flocks to the National Archives in Washington D.C. to gaze at the original copy of the Declaration of Independence. While we can look at a replica or photograph of this document’s brittle page over the Internet, it will not suffice for the actual document itself. We are not creating icons like the Declaration with the use of the Internet, as what is published only online does not manifest physically. If we continue to rely upon an abyss of invisible networks we will lose a tangible sense of creation within society.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Best Part of Waking Up... Or is it?

Two weeks ago, in the town of Santa Avelina in the mountains of Quiche (Key-che), Guatemala I met Josefa, as she turned her coffee beans in the sun. I was in the country translating with a medical team, and as the others were eating their lunch, I walked up the hill behind the school and struck a conversation. The beans were laid on tarps to dry in the sun; there was roughly a quarter of a football field in small, beige pellets. She explained to me the process of coffee trade as she ran her rastrillo, or rake, over the beans and lifted handfuls in various stages for my examination. “It takes roughly four days to dehydrate coffee,” she said in Spanish. “See, these have been out for two, and these have been out for three. Look at the difference in the skin.” Her family picks coffee cherries from the plants on their land, and their neighbors combined their crops in a joint drying effort. Several families in the area had procured the quarter football field on which I was gazing, and these families would have to peel the shells from the beans before selling them. The coffee is purchased from the grower by the pound. “Do you get a good price for your coffee?” I asked. Though puzzled by my inquiry, she replied, “Yes, seven Quetzales per bag.” In Guatemala, seven Quetzales is the equivalent of 90 cents. The latest Guatemalan coffee from Starbucks, called Casi Cielo, translates to “Close to Heaven” and costs $12.95 per pound. It comes from farms near Antigua, a beautifully ancient, colonial city. Though I am bias, most Starbucks employees couldn’t name the town nor explain where Guatemala is on a map.

The worst part is that Josefa is right when she says she gets a good price for her coffee. “Black Gold,” a documentary directed by Marc and Nick Francis from the United Kingdom, reports coffee growers in Ethiopia receive, at best, 23 cents per kilo or 12 cents per pound. Last month, the film was made one of Guardian’s top 10 Non-fiction films of 2007 in the UK and has been successful in generating conversation about Ethiopia and the coffee market as a whole. Ethiopia, the birthplace of the coffee bean, is the largest producer of coffee in Africa and represents nearly 67% of the country’s export revenue. In other words, more than fifteen million people in Ethiopia depend on coffee farms for income, but 50 cents per pound on a good day is hardly dependable. It is not to be overlooked that these numbers are only representative of Ethiopia and fail to mention the rest of the coffee growing world.

Tadesse Meskela, managers a union of farmers in Ethiopia and was featured in the film. In an interview with NPR he spoke of his farmers and a particular conversation they’d had. “Ethiopia grows the best coffee in the world, but farmers need to live a decent life,” he said; his farmers couldn’t guess the cost of a cup of coffee in the Western world. “Eighty cups of coffee are made from one kilogram of coffee. One cup of coffee costs roughly 25 birr ($2.90).” Therefore, a retailer makes $230 per kilo. Converting this to pounds, 160 cups of espresso in a coffee shop is more than $500. The farmers are paid a fraction of one percent of this revenue. But the farmers have no leverage to their sales. A trader will come to them and say, “I’ll buy your coffee for this much today,” and if they don’t sell their produce they earn nothing. The trader will not increase his price if the farmer decides not to sell his coffee because the trader is also invested in his own salary.

The trader’s price is based on the market price of beans. Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world and the national value of trade is roughly 140 billion dollars. Before its collapse in 1989, the International Coffee Agreement was a relative regulator of the world market. Since then, according PBS’s Frontline World, retails sales of coffee have risen 30-80 billion dollars per year since 1990. Because the prices are based on trade, the international price of coffee is established in New York and London, places that are driven toward profit. The retailers that buy coffee want ensure the earning of a certain profit after distribution and sales. Therefore they set the price of coffee according to their financial budget, and mostly ignore the budget of those who procure their product. This is where the largest problem lies. It does not matter whether Folgers or Caribou wakes you in the morning when price is concerned.

But what of fair trade coffee? The concept here is to cut out the middleman so the coffee passes through fewer hands before reaching the roaster and retailer. If growers follow fair trade regulations, they are guaranteed $1.26 for every pound of coffee procured. This helps, but farmers are still making less on one pound of coffee than 12 ounces of drip coffee costs a consumer. Additionally, fair trade coffee falls into the genre of a market of “specialty” coffee like Starbuck’s Casi Cielo and, according to PBS, only comprises two percent of this market.

So, if we stop drinking coffee altogether and boycott the major chains our problem would be solved, right? Hardly. In addition to unpleasant people everywhere, we would be adding more coffee to the world’s surplus. But it’s still a double bind. Though Starbucks and Caribou are the reasons these farmers have jobs, the coffee industry is also what keeps people like Josefa and her family in poverty in Guatemala, and leaves the growers in Etiopia struggling to send their children to school.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Presidential Paintball

So the beginning of the semester was a slight shock. That is, a shock in a cultural sense as well as a shock to the weather and to my body (Thank you Carl Flink), and to my cognitive skills. I did, however, sit down in my Mass Communications 1001 course yesterday to this.

Games at - Presidential Paintball
Presidential Paintball

Hillary, Obama, Giuliani & more play paintball for the USA Presidency!

Play this free game now!!

My professor, TK Chang, a bubbly Chinese man in jeans and a navy blazer, didn't claim to be very good as he (as Barack Obama) was pelleted by Hillary Clinton. It was more apparent that his giggles were obscuring his aim. The freshman behind me was muttering, "f-this" and "f-that" under his breath in the lecture hall of 150 people and I began to remember how I'm not cut out for lecture classes with people who don't care. It could be a long semester.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

From "Four Quartets"

Burnt Norton


At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure.

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time is time conquered.


T.S. Eliot

Monday, January 7, 2008

Double Stuffed?

I have this theory that if I keep sweet things in my apartment I won't be prone to eating them. My other option of course is to buy sugar only occasionally - though this usually results in a swift ingestion of their entirety. So I bought oreos the other day, and so far so good. This, along with the fact that I'll be leaving the country for a good ten days on Saturday, makes me feel sort of home free.

I am returning, however, to the land of brown faces, fresh tortillas and taquitos, helados y crema: the place where I gained an extra few pounds last spring. And I cannot wait.

I cannot wait for deteriorated roads, and stalls in traffic where people wait without question for the construction workers to reopen the roads. To see fellow Americans who have never been in the country scream as rock falls from construction around the busses, or to believe we are going to fall directly off the unguarded sides of CA-1 as we switchback into the mountains.

More still I cannot wait to travel through Chichicastenango on a Sunday - the largest day for market in the country and the largest market in its borders.

I can't wait to be mobbed by small children who call me gringa and hug me with runny noses as I read them El Arbol Generoso - The Giving Tree. They usually crawl into my lap and latch around my legs as I walk through the hospital. The last time this happened they wanted to take apart my glasses and wear them. I had to convince the kids that I wouldn't be able to see or do my job without their lenses. But they didn't seem to believe it would be a problem.

It is my idea of vacation - translating in the middle of nowhere, and I often forget how normal such an idea is for me. And because Guatemala has been in my family for so long, I sometimes forget that medical missions, traveling for purposes other than tourism or studying makes me sort of an anomaly. But the whole thing makes me feel less self absorbed, espeically in the midst of studying and a new semester. By nature to be in school is to be selfish. Hell, just yesterday I was wrapped up in an A- that affects my GPA and my potential as high honors graduate. I forget that being at a University makes me privilieged. I'm worried about the oreos in my cupboard. So what does that make me?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Pistachios and Public Speaking.

Back in July, my grandmother called me and asked me - as I was still afresh from Guatemala - if I would like to be the January speaker for the St. Cloud Reading Room Society. Being that Gram is one of my best friends and she is head of the Speakers Committee, I obliged and only learned later I would receieve a stipend for my efforts. But as it turns out, this women's society has been around for some 100 years and made some big changes in the history of the little town in which I grew up. They began with a book collection for women near the end of the Civil War. While most would now consider St. Cloud the size of a suburb (and to this there may be relevance as it's almost entirely filled with things like Barnes and Noble and Starbucks), the local grocery chains prevail. Still, the downtown area is a far cry from the booming place it was back in the 20s. The origianl 44 women promoted literature among themselves, and Andrew Carnegie donated some $25,000 to the buildling of the St. Cloud public library that housed even a Shakespeare club in the late 19th century. While the original buildling was replaced in 1979, these women are responsible for the fact that I had a library in which to read when I was a kid. Reading, and well, old apple computers with word munchers.

A few weeks ago, I receieved an official letter signed, "Sincerely Yours, Helen Catton" in the mail. It cordially thanked me and breifly explained the meeting. The trouble now, is that January 10th is Thursday, and I'm alloted 45 minutes to speak and answer questions. And I'm the granddaugther of one of the leading ladies.

And I don't know what the hell I want to talk about.

I tend to let public speaking events fly slightly off the cuff - to write a "speech" for myself would be an excruciatingly long endeavor. And I supposed my casual attitude toward speaking events is probably the remnants of the speechie I was in High School. (I guess least 4th place in the State meet still does something for me, right?) This time - due to the duration of the talk - I feel like I should have some kind of direction. At the moment, though, I seem to have only directed my pacing between my desk and my kitchen counter, where I've opened a bag of pistachios - hoping the salt will do something more than make me thirsty.

But once I'm down to the nubby shells that I couldn't possibly pry open with my bare hands I'll have no other choice than to drink my water or go back to my book.

I'd like to be effective in my speaking as Tracy Kidder is writing. I'm reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, and while it's about Tuberculosis in Haiti, I feel like it's also about Guatemala. Kidder has the cabaility to infuse a reader with the feeling of traveling in a packed pickup through the mountains and their desolate, desperate confines. Babies living in shacks with TB are babies in Guatemala, malnourished and surviving on coffee because a mother won't lactate. Kidder underwhelms the nature of what he writes to effectively allow the reader to meet his text with his or her own sentiment. He is fantastic - and does well, what I seem to garble about Guatemala in my own writing.

Mostly I want to tell stories to these women. I guess it's time to begin scouring the journals again. I'm not out to hound some kind of message, but to talk about another place I tend to call home.