Life is Better on My Terms

A tweet reminds me of a life I didn’t like very much.

On January 14, 2008, I tweeted:

I’ve gotten very good at making my coffee in the semi-darkness so I don’t wake my parrot.

I don’t know where I was when I tweeted that, but I do remember too many mornings when I tiptoed around our Phoenix condo before dawn so as not to wake my husband’s roommate. As an early riser, every morning at the condo when his roommate was around was an ordeal for me.

You see, when I was in the condo, my parrot Alex was there, too. If I woke Alex up, Alex would start her morning routine, which is very vocal. That, in turn, would wake my husband’s roommate and make him hate me even more than he already did. The result: an even less comfortable situation the rest of the time we were all there together.

So I tip-toed around, making my coffee in the near-dark. And then I sat silently on the corner of the sofa in the dark, drinking my coffee, waiting for my husband or his roommate to wake up so I could make noise, too.

Things are different now. I don’t have to pretend to like something I don’t — namely, living in the cavelike condo my husband selected as a real estate investment — one that immediately went under water and made him a slave to a job he hated. I don’t have to keep the same hours as someone else. I don’t have to live my life a certain way just to make someone else happy.

Seeing this tweet today, copied to my Facebook timeline, really reminded me of how much better off I am finally living life on my own terms.

Penny and the Peanut Butter Bone

An odd solution to a puppy problem.

I am an early riser. I have been for at least the past 15 years. I’m usually up and out of bed by 6 AM. My body wakes up and, since I either didn’t want to wake my soon-to-be ex-husband or I had things to do, I’d get up and start my day.

My day starts with a routine that I’ve shared with Alex the Bird for almost 10 years — since Alex the Bird came into my life. I throw on some clothes, come into the kitchen, and brew some coffee, often reciting the mantra “Coffee is the most important thing” — a phrase that Alex the Bird still hasn’t picked up. While the coffee brews, I prepare Alex’s scrambled egg in the microwave. I cut up half of the egg and give it to Alex in a little dish atop her cage. Then I settle down at the table with my coffee and my laptop or iPad and enjoy the very first cup of coffee for the day while catching up on Twitter or writing a blog post — like this one.

(When I was home in Wickenburg or Phoenix with my dog Jack and then Charlie, the routine also included letting him out for his morning pee, putting a scoop of food into his dog dish, and topping off his water. He’d get half of Alex’s egg, then wait around Alex’s cage for the pieces of egg that dropped and gobble them all up. But those days are apparently gone for good, so it’s best not to dwell on them.)

The routine is pretty much the same when I live in the Mobile Mansion in Washington. After all, coffee is the most important thing.

Enter Penny the Tiny Dog. Or Tiny Puppy right now. Her routine is a bit different. After her morning pee, she comes in and cleans up after Alex the Bird’s scrambled egg droppings. And then she comes to me where I’m invariably sitting at my desk and starts jumping up on me. She wants to play.

Of course, I’m just getting started on my coffee. Not even half of it is gone. I’m not ready to play. Heck, I’m not even fully conscious sometimes.

A side note here…yesterday, one of my Facebook friends shared one of those images with a message — you know, the kind always floating around Facebook. This one said:

My favorite coffee in the morning is the one where no one talks to me while I drink it.

My reply was:

Mine is the one where a tiny dog doesn’t jump all over me for attention while I’m drinking it.

Making the Peanut Butter BoneThe solution is to distract her with something more interesting and rewarding than me rolling around on the floor with her. And that solution involves a beef soup bone and some peanut butter.

I bought the bone at the supermarket about a month ago. It didn’t take her long to eat the marrow out the ends. The bone is nice and dry and kind of clean. The holes on either end go in pretty deep. Sometimes she still plays with it.

I bought the peanut butter to bait the mousetraps. I don’t really like Skippy because it has sugar in it and I don’t think peanut butter should have added sugar. And although I like peanut butter, sometime over the past 10 years or so I’ve developed a sort of allergy to it; after eating it, I just don’t feel quite “right.” I switched to cashew butter, which is harder to find but very tasty. Of course, it’s not on my diet, so I don’t have any around for me or the mice. So I went to the supermarket and bought the smallest, cheapest jar of peanut butter they had. It turned out to be Skippy. I don’t care about feeding sugar to the mice.

Penny and her Peanut Butter BoneOne day, on a whim, I put a bit of peanut butter in each end of the bone and gave it to her. I was rewarded with about 15 minutes of peace and quiet to finish my coffee. Afterwards, she found something else to keep her busy.

Now it’s part of our morning routine. When she’d done cleaning up after Alex and she starts jumping up on me to play, I prepare the peanut butter bone and give it to her. I can then enjoy my coffee in peace.

The only problem is, she’s getting really good at licking that peanut butter out of the holes.

Pet Peeves: Coffee Edition

It’s the little things that drive you nuts.

Mr. Coffee, 4-Cup ModelPicture this: Every morning, a person makes his morning coffee in a Mr. Coffee 4-cup drip coffee maker. He then pours the coffee from the little pot into the same thermal travel mug he uses every day. Although he’s made 4 “cups” (6-oz each), the thermal travel mug only fits 3 cups. He throws away the extra “cup” of coffee.

He does this every morning.

My question: Why does he brew 4 cups when he only drinks 3? No one else wants the remaining 6 ounces of coffee. He throws it away every single morning.

Am I missing something?

Why in the world would a person choose to make and then discard 33% more coffee than he drinks? Every day? Am I the only person who thinks this is a waste of coffee?

For the record: I occasionally use the same coffee maker. My very large mug holds 3 “cups” of coffee. I brew 3 cups of coffee. I pour it all into my mug. The coffee tastes fine (or as good as it can coming out of a Mr. Coffee coffee maker). So the you-must-make-a-full-pot-for-it-to-taste-good argument won’t fly.

And no, I won’t ask him. It seems like such a little petty matter. Don’t know why it drives me crazy, but it does.

I guess that’s what a “pet peeve” is all about.

My Morning Cup of Joe

It has to be just right.

I start each morning with a cup of coffee. That’s not unusual in the United States. Coffee is a pretty standard breakfast beverage. It’s why we drink coffee and the kind of coffee we drink that varies from person to person.

And my morning cup is special.

First of all, I don’t drink coffee because I rely on that jolt of caffeine to jump start my day. If all I wanted was caffeine, I’d get it from a double espresso at the local Starbucks or allow myself to become addicted to one of those idiotic “energy drinks” that young guys like to get hopped up on.

Instead, I drink coffee because I actually like coffee. I like the flavor. I like the aroma. I like the way it feels going down my throat when it’s just the right temperature: good and hot.

The trouble is, I don’t like just any old coffee. I like a certain kind of coffee the way I like it made.

And that’s the rub.

The Ingredients

Coffee ingredients are very basic, right? Well, to many folks, they are. But to someone as picky as me about coffee, they’re special.

  • Coffee. This is the main ingredient in a cup of coffee and, for me, it needs to meet several requirements:

    • Freshness. I buy coffee beans so I can grind them myself at home. The beans never come out of a hopper in a supermarket, where they may have been sitting for who knows how long. They always come in a vacuum-sealed package.
    • Bean type. This is where I differ from many self-proclaimed coffee connoisseurs. I don’t like Columbian coffee. To be fair, it may be the way it’s normally roasted: dark. I prefer Arabica beans with a light to medium roast. I also like Kona from Hawaii. These are smooth, mellow beans, roasted in a way where the roasting process doesn’t impart a bitter or burnt taste.
    • Roast. As mentioned, light to medium roast is my preference. Dark roast coffee tastes bitter or burnt to me. This is my big gripe against Starbucks and other “high end” coffee shops.
    • Eight O'Clock CoffeeBrand. The brand of coffee isn’t nearly as important to me as the other criteria. These days, my coffee of choice is Eight O’Clock coffee. I tend to buy it in bulk — 4 to 6 12-oz bags at a time — when it’s on sale at the local Supermarket. I store the unopened (very important) bags in the freezer. (They say that freezing coffee doesn’t do anything to maintain its freshness, but I do it anyway, just in case.) I’ll also buy any brand of light to medium roast pure Kona (not a “blend” — whatever the hell that means) and, in a pinch, Starbucks Breakfast Blend. I should mention here that a recent “coffee snob” house guest turned her nose up at my coffee choice and would make a special trip to Starbucks every morning for her cup. I guess if you’re not spending at least $1/ounce for coffee, you just can’t make some people happy.
    • Caffeine content. I drink caffeinated coffee. While I’m not in it just to get the caffeine, I don’t see any reason to drink coffee that has been tampered with in a lab to remove a naturally occurring ingredient. The resulting buzz I get if I drink two cups of coffee is what keeps me from drinking a third.
  • Water. I’m fortunate enough to live in a home with excellent and tasty well water. When I’m at our Phoenix place, however, I will use the tap water, which tastes like chlorine to me. The way I brew my coffee, the taste of the water is usually not a factor.
  • Milk. Yes, I put a small amount — about 1-1/2 tablespoons, if you were to measure — of milk in my coffee. Not cream, not half and half, and certainly not some powered crap with ingredients I can’t pronounce. I prefer 2% milk but can use 1% or whole milk. Skim milk is pushing things a bit.
  • Sugar. I also put about 1/2 teaspoon of sugar in my coffee. I like plain granulated sugar or evaporated cane juice sugar (often touted as “organic”). I don’t like Sugar in the Raw, a popular product that has a distinct molasses flavor. Ick. I also won’t use artificial sweeteners. There are 16 calories in a teaspoon of sugar and I’m using only half of that. Surely I can put another 8 calories into my body each day?

The Daily Grind

Before I got a decent grinder, I’d buy one or two bags of coffee at a time and grind them using the supermarket’s grinder. It was important to shake out any trace of the hopper coffee that the previous user might have left in the machine. I once ruined a package of coffee by letting it mingle with what some flavored crap.

Krups Burr GrinderBut now I have a nice Krups Burr grinder which I like. It got mixed reviews on Amazon.com and I do agree with some of the points brought up by negative reviewers — for example, it can be a bit messy — but, in general it’s perfectly suited to my needs.

Almost perfectly. The least coffee it’ll grind is for two cups — even though the setting says it’s for one cup. But that’s okay. I usually do drink two cups of coffee a day. If I don’t drink the second cup, I don’t mind using coffee ground the day before. I’m not that picky.

I grind my coffee more finely than what’s recommended for drip coffee makers. Not quite an espresso grind, but certainly more fine than a basket or cone drip. That could be why the darn grinder gets messy.

The Coffee Preparation Device

A year or three ago, the big chatter on Twitter was about an $11,000 coffee maker. It brewed one cup at a time. At least they got that part right.

Brew and GoMy coffee maker of choice is a Black & Decker Brew ‘N Go. Designed for people who want to grab their cup of coffee as they head out the door on their morning commute, it comes with an insulated thermal plastic travel mug. I don’t use the mug unless I’m heading out to the car, too. I use a large ceramic coffee mug. It probably holds about 14 ounces.

I don’t use the reusable “gold” filter that came with the coffee pot. Because I prefer my coffee ground finely, the coffee grinds make their way though those gold filters and get in my cup. So I use #2 cone filters in the filter basket of the machine. I’m not picky about brand or paper bleaching. (Sheesh.) Because I go through so many of these things, I like to buy them cheap. I’ve actually found them very cheap in the coffee maker area of WalMart. So on the rare occasion that I’m in there, I stock up. And yes, when I’m at home, I compost the filters and coffee after brewing.

The Brewing Process

To brew a cup of coffee, I go through this routine.

  1. Fill a coffee cup with cold water and pour it into the coffee maker’s well.
  2. Refill the coffee cup with hot water to prewarm the cup. If I can’t get hot water from the tap right away, 2 minutes in the microwave warms whatever water I can get.
  3. Put a clean coffee filter in the filter holder.
  4. If necessary, grind enough coffee for a cup.
  5. Using a measuring spoon, measure out enough coffee for that size cup.
  6. Tamp the coffee down into the filter paper and close the lid.
  7. Dump the hot water out of the cup and put it on the coffee machine’s cup shelf.
  8. Push the button.

What comes out about 2 minutes later is a steaming hot, fresh cup of very strong coffee. This is what I like.

The Coffee I Don’t Like

I don’t like bad coffee and won’t drink it. What’s bad coffee? This:

  • Weak coffee. If I can see my spoon while I’m stirring, it’s too weak for me.
  • Coffee brewed from inferior ingredients. Yeah, I know the 3-pound plastic tub of Savarin was on sale at Costco last month. But don’t think I’m going to drink it.
  • Coffee that has sat in a pot on a warmer for more than 10 minutes. Yes, just 10 minutes. I have experimented with this at home using our bigger coffee maker. I’ll use that to make enough coffee for a group of people and the first cup is usually fine for me. But the second cup from the same pot ten minutes later? Keep it.
  • Columbian or dark roasted (or both) coffee. If it’s brewed right and fresh, I can drink it. But it’s normally not brewed strong enough or not fresh enough for me.
  • Most restaurant coffee. It usually falls into one or more of the above categories. Occasionally, you’ll get a good cup of coffee at a good restaurant, but I won’t even consider ordering coffee at a diner or cheap restaurant.
  • Flavored coffee. Are you serious?
  • Instant coffee. I stopped drinking instant coffee about 20 years ago and have seen no real reason to go back. And no, the new Starbucks instant coffee does not impress me. At all.

I prefer to drink no coffee than any of the above. In fact, I have. If I’m traveling and need a hot beverage and can’t track down a place to get a latte — freshly brewed, with enough milk to cut the bitterness of the dark roast — I’ll order tea. Or iced tea. Or juice.

Picky, yes. Snobbish? I don’t think so. If I were snobbish about my coffee, I’d buy expensive coffee, brew it in some fancy gadget, and turn my nose up at everything else. Instead, I buy relatively cheap coffee and brew it in a cheap machine the way I like it: hot, strong, and fresh.

What’s in your cup?

Writing Tips: Soaking Up Creative Energy

What is it and how can I tap into it?

The other day, I posted a blog entry about distractions. In it, I shared an exchange between me and one of my Twitter friends. He’d tweeted that the coffee shop he was trying to write in was distracting. When I asked why he’d try to write there, he said the place had “creative energy.”

On “Creative Energy”

I should start out by saying that I don’t really believe in “energy” as the term is used by New Age folks. I’m a skeptic about most things and the older I get, the more skeptical I get. So if he was referring to some kind of weird, new age “energy” fields — like the vortexes supposedly in Sedona — he completely lost me (and much of my respect).

But I don’t think he meant it that way. (At least I hope not.) I think he meant something I do believe in and understand.

Did you ever go someplace or do something or read something or see something that made you feel almost feverish about writing (or painting or doing something else creative)? It’s as if this place or thing gave you a poke with a creative juice taser. After (or during) the experience, you must create. You’re driven to create.

I really can’t describe it any better than that.

On WritingThis happens to me once in a while. Stephen King’s book, On Writing, made me feel like this. Although I couldn’t put the book down, I also couldn’t wait to get back to my novel in progress the whole time I was reading it. (And no, I’m not a big Stephen King fan.)

I’ve also felt this way other times. It’s a great feeling. It reminds me of why I wanted to be a writer.

It’s frustrating, too, because when it hits, I’m not always prepared to drop everything and get to work. Sometimes, it hits when I’m traveling on vacation or for business and I simply can’t make the workplace I need to get the words out. Or by the time I can, I’m too exhausted by the day’s activities and can only sleep.

I think my Twitter friend was referring to this feeling. I think he feels this way in the coffee shop he tweeted to us about, or in other places like it with “creative energy.”

Soak it Up!

I don’t think that places with creative energy are the best places to write if they’re also filled with distractions. But that certainly doesn’t mean a creative person should avoid them. Instead, why not use them as a place to soak up that energy?

Take my Twitter friend’s coffee shop example. How could you tap into the creative energy you might feel in a place like that?

Sit down with your coffee at a corner table, facing the room. Have your journal open and your pen handy. Take notes about what you see and hear. The woman with blue streaks in her hair is carrying a molecular biology text book. That guy’s accent is weird, like a cross between Australia and New Jersey. Those two women are talking about the guy sitting in the opposite corner, staring into space. There’s a crack in the ceiling that looks as if it might have been dripping last week. The smell of coffee is strong in the air. A song you haven’t heard in years has just come on over the speakers. It reminds you of the road trip you took during college.

Any of these people can be characters in a book or screenplay. The things they talk about can be ideas for articles or nonfiction works. What’s going on around you can trigger ideas that can get your creative juices flowing and help you break the writer’s block that may have sent you to the coffee shop in the first place.

But not if you try to build your workplace among these distractions by keeping your eyes on your laptop or notepad and earphones in your ears — which is what my Twitter friend was apparently trying to do.

Work in your workplace. Soak up the creative energy of other places by actively paying attention to it when you find it.

There’s More than One Work Mode

For a writer, there’s more than one way to work.

Sure, you can go into your distraction-free working place, as I discussed in my earlier post, focus on your writing, and churn out the words. That’s one work mode. The one that actually produces finished (or nearly finished) text.

But you may need to do things that generate the ideas and get you fired up about writing. If going to a coffee shop with “creative energy” does that for you, it’s an important part of your writing routine. I might think of it as the “pre-work” mode. And for folks who write fiction, there’s nothing better than an hour or so of people watching with your journal nearby to get those creative juices flowing.

And people watching isn’t the only pre-work you can do. Take a walk in the park and jot down notes about what you see. What’s the weather like? What does it smell like? What do you hear? Go to the supermarket at a weird off-hour. What’s it like? Hang around outside an office or retail space before it opens or as its closing. What’s going on? Think about the scenes in your work-in-progress and go to places like them to get the real-life scoop of what they’re all about.

Pay attention! You’ll be amazed by what you come away with.

Remember: Characters, dialog, and plot are only three components of fiction. Scene is another. Doing your homework can help you write about realistic scenes.

As for journals…well, I need cover the importance of those in another post.