Dotage

by MADELEINE MYSKO

One friend told me her daughter tries to spot me every day on her drive to work. I’m embarrassed to have become such a character. I also feel a bit like an imposter...

In the summer of my sixty-ninth year I’ve become a determined walker. Each morning I snap on my lightweight backpack—recently purchased for the seriousness it lends to the routine—and head out to walk at least three miles. I live in the heart of Towson, the seat of Baltimore County, Maryland, just over the Baltimore City line. The route I walk is mostly along busy streets and includes several business blocks.   

Sometimes when I’m standing at the curb, waiting for a light to change, I feel exposed. Friends and neighbors have made a point of letting me know they’ve seen me out walking. “Good for you!” they say. One friend told me her daughter tries to spot me every day on her drive to work. I’m embarrassed to have become such a character. I also feel a bit like an imposter, because it’s not as though I’m some sort of fitness freak. Walking is good for my health, yes.  But nowadays I walk because it’s crucial to my writing life. 

The house I live in now is not far from the houses I lived in as a girl. (My parents moved us several times, but always within Towson proper.)  And so each day I’m traversing sidewalks that years ago took me to and from school, and my grandmother’s house, and Immaculate Conception Church, where I went to Confession on Saturday afternoons and to Mass on Sundays. 

This morning I had to step carefully across a broken square of sidewalk in East Towson. I noted then that the root of an old silver maple had split the concrete in two. I looked up at the old maple, and then glanced down the street. It hit me that almost all the other trees that once shaded that block are gone. No doubt they died of old age. I walked on, noting broad stumps of old silver maples and perfect squares of new sidewalk.

I grow old . . . I grow old.  Suddenly I could hear the nasal drone of T.S. Eliot—that recording, English 101, 1973.  I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Trousers. Back in English 101—when I was rapt over the poetry—would I have imagined slacks? Or pedal pushers, if the day outside the windows of English 101 happened to warm and the slacks appropriately styled short?

I grow old . . . When Eliot wrote the “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” he was in his twenties. That means he was younger than my grown children are right now. And that line about the bottoms of the trousers he will wear? I’ll be frank: it was really annoying this morning—how I couldn’t get it out of my head, but also couldn’t force it into a walking meter, rhyme be damned.

Dotage. Out of the blue came my mother’s voice, saying that some old person in the family was in her dotage. She meant that old person was getting feeble-minded--but doesn’t “to dote” also mean to be extraordinarily fond of someone or something?

I say that walking is crucial to my writing life. And I tell this story about sidewalks and dead trees and T.S. Eliot and trousers because that’s how it works for me. I’m a writer. I’m growing old. (Like everyone born—Is that what that brainy kid Eliot was saying?) Sometimes I get panicky about losing my grip on words, and the thing is, I’m extraordinarily fond of words. But when I’m out walking, the words—the precious names of things and the verbs to go with them—just rise up from the sidewalk, so to speak.  Later, when I stop for coffee, I take pencil and paper from my nice new backpack. I get a grip. No need to panic.

 

***

Madeleine Mysko’s poetry and prose have appeared in literary journals that include Smartish Pace, The Hudson Review, Shenandoah, Little Patuxent Review, and Bellevue Literary Review. She is also the author of two novels, Bringing Vincent Home and Stone Harbor Bound (Bridle Path Press, 2015). A graduate of The Writing Seminars of The Johns Hopkins University, she has taught creative writing in the Baltimore-Washington area for many years. Presently she serves as contributing editor at American Journal of Nursing.

Something About Coffee

And why it's so good, and how to get from a non-carer to a coffee person.

by DAN TASSE

A bit about you and me and the goal of this post

am into coffee, but I'm not into wine. I get that there's something special about really great coffee that plain old blah coffee doesn't have, and that it's possible to do it yourself, and that it's worth it. I don't get these things about wine. So here's the post about coffee that I wish someone would write for me about wine.

You don't really see what the big deal about coffee is, or you know that there's probably something to the art of good coffee, but you have no idea how to get started, or if it's really worth it. If you're already making good coffee or work in the business, this is probably too basic for you. If you don't really care, then this might be a waste of your time. (It might be surprisingly interesting, though.)

I'll try to avoid extensive detail to keep this short. Once you know what to do, you can google around for how to do it, or of course ask a local barista.

What can you get from good coffee?

Better taste, a better moment, accidental community, and a slight positive effect for the world around you.

Benefit 1. Better Taste

This is the most obvious reason to care about coffee, so I'll talk the longest about it. Let's assume you're drinking Folgers from a Mr. Coffee at home or a Big Old Pot at work. Here are some steps that will make it taste better:

  1. Get better beans. This is, I think, the most important thing you can do, and if you don't do it, the coffee won't taste better. And probably the most important thing about the beans is that they're lightly roasted. Most mass-market coffee is roasted dark. This makes it consistent, which is why Folgers and Starbucks like it. It also makes it bitter. Get light roasted beans, and you'll cut the bitterness already.

    Bad signs: French, Italian, Vienna, or other place-name roasts. Beans that look dark and shiny. Good signs: Beans that look medium brown and not shiny. Packages with roasted-on dates that are within the last few days. Beans bought directly from a local coffee shop with "roaster" in the name.

    If you can't find any good coffeeshops locally, try a service like Mistobox, which will source and send you good coffee directly.

  2. Grind them fresh, so they're more flavorful. Now that you've hopefully got less bitter coffee, you might get some nice flavors out of it, but you won't if it's all old and dusty. Grind them right before you use them.

    You can get a blade grinder for $15. But spring for a "burr" grinder for about $100, and the quality goes way up, mostly because the grounds are a lot more consistently sized. Most baristas I talk to recommend the Baratza Encore (~$130) as a good first grinder.

 

  1. Get hotter water, so you extract more flavors out of the coffee. Most Mr. Coffee machines or Big Old Pots use water that's about 160 degrees Fahrenheit (70 C) to avoid people spilling it on themselves, but coffee should ideally be brewed at about 200-205 (about 96 C). You can get a cheap electric kettle, let it boil, and then let it cool for about a minute.

  2. Measure the beans and water, so it's not too strong or too watery.

  3. Try it without milk or sugar, at least at first. It's possible that when the coffee tastes better, you won't need it. That said, don't let anyone tell you you can't add it. Do you.

  4. Brew it yourself. This is not so much because the Mr. Coffee is terribly flawed, but mostly because you can't control points 1, 2, 3, and 4 with a Mr. Coffee. The easiest way to do this is called a "pour over", and it's just what it sounds like: pour hot water over a cone full of grounds that drips into a cup.

To do this:

  1. Buy: beans ($10-20), a grinder ($15-130, the 130 is worth it), a dripper (the $7 Hario v60 is popular, as is the $15 Bee House), corresponding filters (probably $8), a cheap gram scale ($7), and a cheap electric kettle ($15). Even better: go to your local coffee shop and buy them all from them.
  2. Boil water.
  3. Grind 18g of beans. (Probably medium-fine, but do whatever your grinder suggests for pour-over.)
  4. Put a filter in the cone. Run some hot water through it so it's wet, or it will taste papery.
  5. Put the grounds in the cone, and put the cone over your mug. Pour a little water on it so the grounds are wet.
  6. Pour more hot water over the beans. You want about 285g water total. Let it drip through.
  7. Ask any questions to a local barista. It's good to get to know them anyway.

What will it taste like?

All kinds of things! I can honestly tell you that I've tasted coffees that taste a little like berries, plums, chocolate, nuts, flowers, herbs, and tomatoes. A way to develop your taste is to taste your coffee and then look at a chart like this one from Counter Culture Roasters and see if you can get any hint of any of these flavors. It's okay if you're making it up a little bit.

Benefit 2. A Better Moment

Now that your coffee tastes better, you might enjoy it more. But, you may say, it takes longer! That is fine. Enjoy it. Maybe you'll start to enjoy the ritual of it. Get all zen and stuff.

This is a side benefit of coffee shops: they are often nice places to spend a little time. Some coffeeshops are worth it despite the coffee. But coffeeshop atmosphere is a subject for another post.

Haus, San Francisco

Haus, San Francisco

Voluto Coffee, Pittsburgh

Voluto Coffee, Pittsburgh

Victrola, Seattle

Victrola, Seattle

(Haus, Voluto, and Victrola, three of my favorite shops in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Seattle respectively.)

Benefit 3. Accidental Community

You might find that you meet other people who are also into coffee. You might find you can teach other people about coffee. And with little extra time and effort! It's this sort of phatic action; your day could go on just fine without a fancy coffee, but you can all pretend it's a quite important thing for a minute.

Really, that's kind of the best part about coffee snobbery, or any other snobbery for that matter. You and I both know that nobody's going to die if they drink bad coffee, and drinking good coffee is not really this rapturous experience that transports you to another plane. But it gives us this chance to play the role of the aficionado, in as high or low fidelity as we like, while doing this thing we were already doing.

Benefit 4. A Slight Positive Effect For the Rest of the World

That said, it sure doesn't hurt to buy sustainable coffee. Some good words: single origin, direct trade (better than "fair trade", though that's also fine), shade grown, and organic I guess. Ask a barista what any of these mean when you see them on their coffee.

Try not to flinch at the prices. Cheap coffee is artificially cheap through a bunch of crummy environmental and labor practices. If it helps, figure a 12oz bag will get you about 20 cups of coffee, so if it costs $15, that's only 75c/cup.

Finally

Enjoy it, and don't be a jerk. You don't get cosmic bonus points for drinking good coffee, much like you don't get bonus points for drinking good wine. Yes, there are professional sommeliers and coffee tasters; you are not one of them. Make and drink fancy coffee because you like it and because it's fun.

***

Dan Tasse: CMU HCII PhD student. Using public geotagged social media data to make cities better. Also: bikes and coffee.

What Does it Really Mean to Fit In?

by CAROLINE CUNNINGHAM

There’s a sort of loneliness you get used to after years of never fitting in. When you’ve grown up more comfortable around adults than around your peers; when you’ve gone through every group of loners, outcasts and weirdos and been the outcast, the loner, the weirdo even among them. You look for explanations that make you feel less broken and alone: Maybe you’re just an introvert; Those shallow brats wouldn’t understand Jane Austen anyway. You come to grips with the fact that band geeks, choir kids, 4.0-ers, and sci-fi fanatics are all in their way associated with the mainstream. You get involved with the queer kids and after a couple friendships and one long-term romance gone terribly awry, you realize the queer kids have their own conformist stamp too. There’s a hierarchy, and they may not be at the top, but they’re all somewhere in it. And it doesn’t seem that you are.

This was me the winter I was seventeen. I had dropped out of school with a 3.4 GPA after a long, harrowing experience of harassment from teachers, a school counselor, administrators - and one fellow student whom I had thought was a loyal friend. I was struggling to figure out how I would succeed in the labor industry now that I couldn’t seem to follow a career path based in academia. I had known I would go to college and get a doctorate in aerospace or newspaper comics since I was a small child, and now I was a high school dropout. I was even more isolated than previously, with my few friends all in school, and to compound matters my mother and I moved out of the house and into my grandparents’ for a month following a violent incident with my stepfather. My grandparents live in a gated community within walking distance of just about nowhere, and I couldn’t drive. The cabin fever I developed was overwhelming.

There’s a hierarchy, and they may not be at the top, but they’re all somewhere in it. And it doesn’t seem that you are.

Somewhere in this miasma of loneliness and frustration, I met Quinn, and I got a job. My mother put me in touch with a woman who sold jewelry Avon- or Mary Kay-style; that is, you bought a kit, set up an account on the company website, and from then on were essentially self-employed. There was no interview required, no directives of any kind to follow, no training, and it required exactly the autonomy and contact with people that I lacked. You can imagine it was a big flop - and to be honest, I hated the idea of being a salesperson. It wasn’t that I felt I was being dishonest. It was that everybody and her shih tzu thought I was. After a particularly heinous party where a comment on Nicki Minaj and sex positivity led to a guest ranting about the evils of feminism and then crying about her manifold encounters with sexism (an experience that was equally bewildering and completely, overwhelmingly repulsive) - a party whose host kept declaiming that she never wore jewelry anyway, and was merely looking to generously give me business - I simply ran out of steam.

That April, just before I turned eighteen, I got to visit my sister in Arizona. She was working on her Master’s in vocal performance, and had landed a role as the first of the Queen of the Night’s three ladies in the University of Arizona’s production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. I had seen her a year before in a production of La Clemenza di Tito and cried all over my silk dress (actually a present from her) during “Ah, Perdona al Primo Affetto” - even though she was wearing a wig that looked a lot like a massive blonde brain. But Die Zauberflöte was something else. The three ladies’ towering blonde-and-pink hair, the Queen of the Night’s massive rhinestone-encrusted petticoat, Papageno’s feather mohawk - it was simply a spectacle. An enormous, gaudy, unapologetic, in a certain sense, devotional spectacle. A glorious sacrifice to the gods of beauty. I knew it. I knew it looking at my sister, and seeing her presence and command of the stage. I was going to sing. I had to sing.

(Here’s a good video of “Ah, Perdona”)

The next few months were slow going. I found a voice teacher. I applied for my high school’s running start program to finish out my last semester. I learned from a university advisor that the advisors from my high school hadn’t exactly given us the right information - I could attend college with a GED. More importantly, I could attend classes  as a non-matriculated student before getting my GED and being accepted to the program. With all my GECers taken care of by AP tests, I was able to dive right into the music program fall quarter. By the end of September, I was a high school dropout, in college, studying music. It was like having a whole new identity, and even better, a direction. I was gonna be a singer, an idea that on its own simply thrilled me in a way that the thought of being a scientist or even an author never had.

***

I came out as queer when I was fifteen, and as trans the summer before my senior year.

I came out as queer when I was fifteen, and as trans the summer before my senior year. But until I dropped out of school I didn’t engage much with specifically queer spaces. I met Quinn on my first foray into this foreign social group - at a social held by my local queer youth center. I’d come with friends, but they’d abandoned me for their own relationship drama within minutes. Quinn and his friend Jamie were the first friendly faces I saw - and they seemed a little out of place too. We stuck together for the rest of the evening.

Quinn and I got into a relationship pretty quickly, but I always felt somehow off center around him, a feeling I didn’t even identify until after we broke up. That social was the only queer youth event I attended until about a year and a half later, when my partner Rowan and I attended the center’s “Queer Prom.” I knew Quinn would probably be there, along with his whole entourage. But even ignoring that, I knew I’d feel a little out of place among the pastel undercuts, menswear, and mass of gaudy rainbow accessories.

All the feelings I remembered from my days as an outcast rushed in: the simultaneous sensations of invisibility and exposure, the desperation to attach myself

Boy howdy, did I feel out of place. I had felt classy and attractive in my white sundress before I stepped into the darkened room, festooned with balloons and crowded with hyperactive teenagers. Now I felt thirty. All the feelings I remembered from my days as an outcast rushed in: the simultaneous sensations of invisibility and exposure, the desperation to attach myself to Rowan (who, in a short red prom dress and galaxy combat boots, fit much more easily into the group) before fey was completely drawn from me into a crowd of more comfortable, better-dressed, successfully-conforming strangers. It was a hard few hours, until the photos. We did a silly pose, then a sultry one. A week later we were emailed conclusive proof that we are a real, genuine cute couple: quirky. Unique. Compatible. It struck me that although Rowan fit better with the other queer kids than I did, I had no trouble fitting with Rowan - it struck me later that I hadn’t fit with Quinn; Quinn who had always made me feel out of place the way these strangers did; Quinn whom I had gradually realized was abusive.

When you’ve been isolated for years - when you’ve gotten used to loneliness - you don’t really understand what brings people together. Every group whose mechanics I’d seen up close used the same shortcut, some superficial commonality that distinguished them from others much more than it connected them to each other. They were miserable and elitist at the same time, seeing themselves as outcasts while they carefully restricted access to the group. This was what Quinn had in common with the people he surrounded himself with - things like pastel hair, an anime obsession, a blanket hatred of anything associated with Christianity. What drew Rowan and I together had been similar; a sort of angry geekery that recoiled from makeup, pop music, and smartphones. But we’ve stayed together for six years, through abusive relationships that isolated us, through confusion and anger and crises of faith, because we are deep thinkers and protectors of the weak. Because we know and respect each other. Because we have trusted, confronted, and protected each other for years. We belong together, in the end, because we are two different people each of whom truly appreciates the uniqueness of the other.

***

We gather to make music.

At school, I’m a member of two choirs. They’re diverse groups. Not every member likes every other member. There are tensions and conflicts. I’ve been embroiled in a few myself.

But we gather to make music. In rehearsal, in performance, it’s irrelevant whether the person next to me is self-righteous or gossipy or makes crass jokes. What matters is that we are working towards a common goal. I do my part. I trust the other singers to do theirs - even if I would never trust them with anything else. It’s strangely freeing to see that I can have boundaries within a community after years of expecting intimacy from every interaction. After years of identifying myself by whatever group I was a part of, I just don’t have the heart to call myself a “choir kid” the way I used to be a band kid or a geek. Keeping myself safe and sane means keeping my autonomy. But at the same time, as a singer (and there is no question that I identify myself as a singer), my place is in the choir. As I’ve learned, grown, and simply been around, I’ve come to be indispensable.

(This is a gorgeous song that I’ve had the pleasure of singing with the EWU symphonic choir: “The Coolin,” the third in a series by Samuel Barber called “Reincarnations”)

The knowledge that I belong somewhere, that I’m good at what I do, and that people respect what I have to contribute, is like a high.

In other groups I’ve belonged to, I have never felt indispensable. In my desperation to belong, I never did anything that set me apart. In my desperation to maintain my individuality, I never accepted the constraints of the group. I’ve mentioned that I used to tell myself I was an introvert: let me say now that I am not. I am the noseyest, noisiest, PDA-iest, let’s-be-friends-iest, overshare-iest extrovert in probably the galaxy. I am constantly communicating even if no one is around. I exaggerate my reactions to everything hoping that the humor of it will put people at ease. I make silly faces at you from across the room, I bounce up and down when I’m happy, and I see silence as an invitation to say whatever is on my mind. The choir director wants to know who will try a solo: my hand is already in the air. I get songs so ingrained in my mind that I just might start singing along with the tenors if the sopranos are on a rest - without even noticing. The knowledge that I belong somewhere, that I’m good at what I do, and that people respect what I have to contribute, is like a high. The same goes for the energy of a group of people all working together to produce something beautiful - and let me tell you, you can tell when it isn’t there, too. A choir that doesn’t appreciate the piece they’re learning is about as sorry a sight as a cat in the rain.

Learning to love yourself is an incredibly difficult process in a world that tells us self-respect is vanity and confidence is arrogance. Even knowing who you are (or want to be!) in the first place isn’t easy when you have an endless palette of pretty much the same options set before you. You have to think outside the box. But as I’ve gotten to know and appreciate myself, I’ve been able to share myself with others. In giving myself permission to do whatever it takes to be most honest and most real, I’ve set myself apart and at the same time, I’ve found where I belong - and never looked back at where I don’t.

***

Caroline “Keio” Cunningham is working on a BM in vocal performance at Eastern Washington University, where fly is a member of the EWU Symphonic Choir and Collegians, a vocal jazz group. In flights free time fly writes, draws, and paints. Fly is currently in the process of writing the next great American novel, to be published whenever fly has the time - probably at the end of a longstanding opera career.

**Some names in this essay have been changed by the author out of respect for privacy**