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.