Coffee kills. Long live coffee!

October 31, 2009 – 9:30 pm

It’s hard to know which came first, the malady or the remedy.

Whole chunks of my life first came to be anesthetized by coffee at roughly the same time as I was losing whole chunks of my life. Patience, appetite, wit — anything that required reservoirs of energy to be deployed or restrained — all ebbed. Malaria was feasting on the underwire of personality, and the slow rot of immovement gradually set in. Most remarkably, I never noticed.

Doctors tell me I may well be able to blame the stealthiness of this metamorphosis on coffee, which had begun at about the same time to fill all neurological voids, sparked by a countertop full of hissing Capresso machines in our college newspaper office. Here was the Great Personality Putty, that which gave me what wasn’t there even as I failed to notice what had gone missing. Here, too, was a life space, caused by a disease, in which profound habits formed. Vigor would rise or fall, and like a swelling theatrical score the shift of gears would cue the thought, “I should like a cup of …”

And so a tide of caffeine obscured the underlying erosion of TSH and T3 and cortisol. The shoals of life, my adrenal system and hormonal infrastructure, were cracking up. Ten years in, at the limits of self medication, the debilitation was so thorough that a good night’s sleep suddenly began to require 12 hours. Waking up was not unlike a Lilliputian encounter in which one wonders how his limbs came to be strapped down. Dinner became an egg. To work was to exist, barely. Nothing sandbagged a day faster than a sip of wine.

As with all dominating health concerns, the medical remedy boiled life down to a corrective routine. A rehabilitation cycle. A green pill and a half-hour’s absorption and, ah, espresso shots for an immediate lift. Only coffee, once the great sustainer, then obscurer of the problem, was now a part of the rehabilitation, so it also lost its mysticism. Once a fertilizer of ideas, it was now a thin topsoil required for basic life. Exquisite single-origin beverages were reduced to their mechanical function, which was to connect neurons. I wouldn’t have said so, but delight vanished.

More than physical exhaustion, this may be the reason this space has been so silent. In a world where consumption plays such a defining personal role, it turns out no volatile foodstuff can possibly live up to the expectations one places upon it — the identity derived from it. Stripped to its essence, coffee becomes a neuron booster required by life’s tiniest transitions. This is disillusioning, of course, but in a constructive way. It ultimately freed me to enjoy the stuff quite “simply.” No fuss, no dissolved solids. Just a steaming cup of autumnal pine nuts. Maybe a hint of muscadine.

This is not to say that one can get that cup of hot muscadine juice without a proper amount of fuss, but it’s one thing to cram coffee algorithms into your head; it’s quite another to dip your head in a bit of coffee. Perhaps the clearest expression of this at the moment is the syphon brewer, all glass and curvature and open flame. It requires a command of stirring and flame tending, of course, but with an opulent visual accompaniment and nowhere near the surgical demands of an espresso machine. And when you’re done, you get your coffee out of a hot glass orb and you drink your muscadine-fig cider just like it is, and you begin to notice that your head and your musculature and life itself is being salvaged.