Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Going Meta

Dozing this morning, I dreamt about being a barista. Earlier tonight, I did a read-through for a webseries about baristas. Then just now, I came home to work on a blog post about being a barista.

It's not who I am beneath the apron, but what I do that defines me.

Here we have the Indian elephant in its natural habitat. That is, scrutinizing nalgene bottles and begrudgingly toting around sets of tourists.

"But Jim," you ask, "aren't you jealous?"
"Why would I be?" I respond. "After all, I was riding elephants all the way back in 2004. Sure, that elephant consisted mainly of stone, and the Japanese people all stared at me, and after I climbed up I had trouble getting down. But if we're talking chronological order in terms of riding elephants, I. WIN.

oh god I want to ride a real elephant.

That "days until elephants" counter grew so schizophrenic over the last few postcards that I'd stopped paying attention to the number.

But now the number's 0! And I'm gonna sit here and not be jealous. I'm gonna not be jealous of you so hard.

fffffffuuuuuuuuuu so jealous

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Let's talk about gratitude.

It's easy to be grateful for some things. The kind of things we all say when we're at a non-traditional mass (or something) and the priest (or youth minister or pagan brotherhood leader or something) asks us to say aloud what we're thankful for. Family. The blessings god(s?) gives us. Central heat and air conditioning.

And yes, those things are great. Especially family, especially my family (and, not to diminish the importance of the aforementioned, especially central heat). But this week, I'm thankful for something I rarely acknowledge, something most of these blog posts seem to diametrically oppose:


I have not had the hardest life. I'm not even in the top ten, the top fifty, the top hundred. In the American Idol of hard lives I'm getting voted out after the first challenge (did that metaphor make sense? I've never watched American Idol). It's rather easy to forget that, because in my first-world, pampered, soft jelly marshmallow-like state the slightest adversity can seem like gorram perdition.

Slaving away for people who--if you cross them--might just try to get you fired ain't the greatest gig. But a gig is a gig is a gig is a gig, and I wouldn't trade away the friends I've made or the people I've met or the amazing drinks I can wow even regional managers with for all the bao in China.

I've served horrible people and fished shit out of toilets, all for around ten an hour with benefits. In this same city a few decades back my grandfather built railroad tracks for pennies, then spent the pennies on night school. In this city right now, people scrape by on less than nothing while jackasses argue about tipping them. Others beg for cash outside our coffeeshops and then have the incredible, respectable decency to give us tips once they can afford a cup of our coffee.

There's always someone worse off. Unfortunately, complaining is fun and reasonably entertaining, so I often lose sight of that. This Thanksgiving weekend I'm grateful for the perspective my job and my experiences occasionally give me, and I pray I keep hold of it next time I surrender to anger. Or fear. Because fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate...leads to suffering.

Oh look! Postcards!
Here we are somewhere between Hayao Miyazaki and Middle-Earth, which the postcard informs me is Chemre Gompa just east of Karu, a monastery built--or, as I like to imagine, CARVED OUT OF THE ROCKS THEMSELVES--by Lama Stag Tsang Ras Pa.
High-altitude exposure to the elements (or as I like to call it, A CONSTANT BATTLE WITH SOLAR RAYS) saps prayer flags of their color the longer they've been there and the closer they're placed to the top.

I suspect the real stray dogs around Chemre are far less adorable than the ones on this postcard, but I wasn't there, so perhaps Jess and Lisa waded up to this mountain Monastery through hordes of puppy mountaineers. You know what? I'm thankful for that image. Puppy mountain climbers. Puppies wearing hardhats and toting little pickaxes. Maybe one of them is actually puppy Indiana Jones.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Some people.

We're not asking for much, you understand. We--I, specifically--don't expect a lengthy treatsie on the human condition each morning. I don't expect deep, empathic concern over how I'm doing at 7:15AM on a grey saturday. I really don't, nor do I want it, because every time a customer gets too talkative during a rush, the rest of the line wants to murder me for indulging him.

But I'm asking for acknowledgement, man. We--baristas, specifically--are required to check in with you as you come in (assuming we get the chance) and again as you come up to order. Some of us consider this duty a chore. I consider it basic courtesy. Sometimes I'm the first human being a customer interacts with during his day. And I want to make it a good experience, and so I say:

"Hey! How ya doing?"
"What's up, how's your day treating you?"
"Nice weather, huh?"

These aren't mere niceties. They're an invitation to communicate, an effort to check and see how you're feeling. When you walk into my coffee shop, I want to see where you're at emotionally, and make sure you walk out at an equal or higher emotional state. It gives me job satisfaction and personal gratification.

So when some people just...don't acknowledge me (us! this is not an exclusive experience!) at all, just...bark their hurts more than it should! Picture yourself in a waiting room across from a stranger. You're both stuck there, yeah? Nowhere else to go. May as well make the best of it. So you cross that awkward social barrier and ask the stranger:

"Hey, how ya doin'?"

And the stranger responds, monotone, not even looking at you:

"My appointment is in fifteen minutes."

And then they keep waiting for their appointment. That's a dick move, right? Common courtesy indicates they should at least look at you, respond with an awkward "fine," then go back to struggling through Angry Birds. This courtesy doesn't exist in coffeeshops. Sometimes we feel like smiling robots, It's a Small World automatons who simply sing while swiping credit cards. And anyone who's reading this who doesn't return that simple courtesy when ordering--take heed. Who knows, something terrible could happen. Perhaps a disgruntled barista could give you your change all in ones.

but hey, look, another postcard!
I've written articles about naan before, gotta love the food writing pedigree, but I'd never actually visualized naan cooking. And have any of you ever tried naan? This stuff is the greatest appetizer there is, or the greatest side dish, or hell, the greatest meal centerpiece. Give me a plate of bismati rice and garlic naan and watch me live the dream until the plate is empty.

At which point I just order some more.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Did you know yaks are often said to have the strongest odor of any domesticated animal? And that this is due primarily to their dense coats and the urine/fecal matter which can get trapped inside? Did you know that yak butter tea is--in addition to being a highly caloric beverage well suited to mountainous or nomadic living--an excellent way to prevent chapped lips?

Sorry, wiki overload there. Did you know that when the rut (or "mating season," if you're not into that whole brevity thing) begins, male yaks engage in threat displays and sparring? Man, I wanna see some yaks fighting! These yaks, they're just kinda rollin' along, man. Which is still awesome, mind you--

Apparently whenever Jess attempts to photograph these magnificent beasts, something--be it the click of a shutter or the flash of a...flash--drives them to a frenzy. Her camera is the Rage virus. Her viewfinder is the Fear Gas from Batman.

She seems perturbed by this. Dismayed, even. I'd take it a different way: with one push of a button, I can turn tame yaks into killing machines. Cities will fall.

The Wee Monklets

One tuesday night at work (a very gras mardi, if you get me), I met a friendly man in stylish clothes: designer jeans, nice shoes, and one of those sport coats that looks beat up, but really costs hundreds. One thing out of place: around his neck was a necklace of phalluses. Giant plastic pink penises. Flesh-colored monoliths rising from sizable sets of balls. Wrapped around each of these turgid towers was a stylized, bare-breasted woman. We made pleasant conversation as I prepped his drinks. Finally, at the handoff, I couldn't resist:

"On your way to mardi gras?"

He smiled that little smile I usually save for people who ask for free coffee.

"It's a religious symbol, actually."

I sputtered apologies, but he simply nodded and strolled away, looking like the most stylish mothereffer to ever rock a sacred penis necklace in a neighborhood coffee shop. Point of this story is, religion is a fascinating thing. What looks strange to one person is the height of sanctity to another.
So while I could snark about these monks' sweet hats, or imply that those dhungkar conch shells(? google is unclear) are full of booze, I can only imagine how it'd feel to watch the rite in action.

Because I'm in Chicago.

Okay, no, seriously. Back when I was an occasional world traveler I got to check out a Buddhist ceremony at a Japanese temple at, oh, 4:30 in the morning. And despite the fact I'm nominally Catholic and mostly too fond of pornography and swearing to be actually religious, I could sense how sacred the experience was. The devotion of the monks. Their dedication as they chanted. The collected awe of a group of college students who'd, moments earlier, bitched about removing their shoes in chilly fall weather. Of all the postcards I've gotten so far, I think I'm most jealous of this one.

Especially because of the WEE MONKLETS! Experiencing a lengthy sacred ritual on a freaking mountain: awesome. Watching young monks have as much fun as they can while still sort of adhering to the tenets of that lengthy sacred ritual on a freaking mountain: AWESOMAZING.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Wait, how did I miss this one? Also AAAAA BEDBUGS AAAAA

Okay, so: I'm terrified of bedbugs. And since I'm a pampered suburb kid at heart, every time I move to a new apartment I'm terrified the bedbugs are waiting for me. If I ever wake up itchy, if I ever see any kind of insect scuttling across any floor: the bedbugs are here, the bedbugs have always been here, we must burn everything, BURN EVERYTHI--

Uh. Yeah. I really don't like bedbugs. News features and radio docs don't help either.

But no worries, there's no bedbugs here! Just a lovely postcard I'm posting out-of-order!

This is Hemis Gompa, one of the largest monasteries in Ladakh. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage site, and some records (cough, wikipedia, cough) say it's been there since the 11th century. Give the wiki a read!
Speaking of reading, let's look at the other side of the postcard, shall we? I'm sure it'll be lovely and not contain anything horrifying


Okay, breathe, Jim. There are no bedbugs even drawn on the postcard. Just--just breathe, it's not visceral in any way, you can handle this