My son is writing his undergraduate thesis for Honors Meteorology on the topic, The Genesis of Tornadoes. I was wondering if The Revelation of Tornadoes might be easier to write. Tornado prediction is a non-linear dart tossed into the misty morning fog. It’s fraught with downdrafts of hope and gusts of unfounded certitude.
Yet we want to know. The weather man even trumps the sportscaster on the evening news because we want to know. We want to know what to wear, how to plan, where to hide, when to hide and what to cancel. My son says that we examine the storm by it’s path in a forensic sense and the weather pros have made some progress in the way of identifying the beginning of a tornado but there is much to learn. So we look at the debris field…the result of the power…rather than the germination because it’s simply easier to see the aftermath rather than the genesis. But the holy grail is the genesis…to find the bud, the birth, the incubation of the tornado. As I discussed this idea with Brandon, the thought occurred that my vices are similar. I have no idea how they begin, but I do know the swath of destruction they wreak, like ravenous locusts devouring a cornfield, stalks to stubble. Sometimes we take pride in our vices.Take coffee for instance. Please…I’ve had enough.
It began with a lousy cup from a college dorm vending machine, foul-swill infused with white gunpowder creamer and three packets of sparkling white sugar masked the stale, sour-earth undertones of low-grade brew. I lived that lie for years until encountering the stiff dark slap-in-the-gut woody body of greek coffee from Mastoris Diner, in Bordentown, New Jersey. Now, I’m up to three cups of premium a day and my disdain for inferior coffee is a point of shameless pride. My brother the physician, prefers the sappy-sweet gas station latte spewed from high volume low-expectation dispensers. I’m an intolerant coffee prima donna preferring the ability to name acidity, body, aroma, finish and flavor. Does it tingle? Is it heavy or light? How does the aroma affect the senses? What’s the aftertaste, the finish on the palate after swallowing the coffee? Is it nutty, balanced, winey, woody?
And so I stood along a cold and wet soccer field yesterday, longing for a better cup, watching my niece Anna compete while remarking to my sister Debbie the teacher and my brother Greg the preacher that I had a problem. Well, I didn’t actually say that…I thought that…in the context of our triangular discussion about what makes up a vice. I thought, “Coffee is my vice,” in a wistful and blindly nostalgic way, the way I once looked at the Marlboro man smoking a cigarette and herding five hundred cattle all alone…just a man, a horse and cattle and the power of nature, smoking tobacco against a setting sun. Surreal, powerful, romantic addiction…the kind that looks and smells and tastes and feels right. Like it empowers me to greater heights and far more creative moods and spurts of enlightened living.
I know. It’s a lie. But it’s a legal addiction. And so a Grande Starbucks Americano with a half-inch of steamed soy and one packet of natural cane sugar enriches my veins with supernatural energy and fluid ambition. Coffee, with it’s accompanied rush of caffeine, sharpens my focus, prevents lethargy and refreshes my brain–with minimal negative side effects.
Coffee isn’t just a social lubricant or sensual rush. It’s promotes professional excellence also. My sister Deb is taking a new position teaching mathematics this coming school year. My wife Karen and three sister-in-laws Jill Taylor, Debbie Sue Taylor and Jill Davis have invited my sister Debbie, into the fraternity of mathematics (all have degrees in Mathematics and all have taught math or once taught math). Taylor and Davis boys know how to pick analytical women. Karen walked over and high-fived Debbie, welcoming her into the professional circle of élite mathematical women in our family. What does coffee have to do with math? It’s only the key to all mathematical theorems. “A mathematician,” Erdös liked to say, “is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”
But when does the tornado begin…when does a good stiff cup of brewed coffee become a habitual vice? One of my favorite albums from the early Doobie Brothers years was titled, What Were Once Vices are Now Habits. My vice has become my habit has become my vice…it’s a vicious circle. So I search for scientific justification for my vice thus converting vice to virtue. Therefore, I become aware of my faulty clinging to coffee. Coffee stimulates greater creative power and promotes attentiveness. Coffee is filled with antioxidants. Coffee calms my moods and empowers my world. On the other hand I largely ignore research promulgating the negatives of caffeine addiction and the heeby-jeeby-jitters. And I search spiritual justification also relying upon the sound reasoning of thinkers like C.S. Lewis to assuage my guilt-ridden habitual cravings. Here’s what Mr. Lewis says about stuff we think about giving up as a mark of spiritual pride. “One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting everyone else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons–marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who use them, he has taken the wrong turning.” And so I hold fast to that thinking, not wanting to be an abstaining bore viewing addicted unclean coffee drinkers from my righteous tower of right living.
I gather inspiration from great writers and great books like a bee gathers honey, but great coffee is the mysterious elixir, the genesis, the flowering bud, the incubation. I’m hanging my writing hat on that scientific axiom. For example, here is what Balzac wrote about coffee:
“Coffee glides into one’s stomach and sets all of one’s mental processes in motion. One’s ideas advance in column of route like battalions of the Grande Armée. Memories come up at the double, bearing the standards which will lead the troops into battle. The light cavalry deploys at the gallop. The artillery of logic thunders along with its supply wagons and shells. Brilliant notions join in the combat as sharpshooters. The characters don their costumes, the paper is covered with ink, the battle has started, and ends with an outpouring of black fluid like a real battlefield enveloped in swaths of black smoke from the expended gunpowder. Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live.”
And then there’s Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who “had his own quite peculiar way of having coffee,” According to his biographer, Joakim Garff, Kierkegaard took his coffee in this manner. “Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid.” Then he gulped the whole thing down in one go.”
Thought it worth a go, so I’m trying it here, but I can’t seem to string together thoughts for very long. But I am alert…yes indeedy. So just be careful not to trust coffee to fuel your creative ideas. It should only be a means of turning on the spigot, not a substitute for creative energy. Not to mention the obvious similarity to alcohol. Abusers of both claim inspiration, but as most folks know, coffee and strong drink only tend to make bores more boring.
I still don’t know how tornadoes germinate…nor how I came to crave the java bean…nor how words wondrously jump onto a blank page like splashed coffee on my white polo. It’s like my brother the preacher sometimes reminds me, “It is what it is”.
Sometimes things just happen…enjoy another cup and embrace the swirling mystery.