Coffee shops

Darkness and lightness battle in my personal journal. I've decided to share something from neutral ground. 

It’s interesting and troubling discovering how much my coffee shop routine meant to me. Since my regular coffee shop, The Beanery, close, I’ve researched and ranked coffee shops and have realized all of the factors that make a coffee shop work for me. It’s easier to find and replace a beer joint. We have many of each in Ashland. We have only five grocery stores and two movie theaters, but we have playhouses, restaurants, wineries, pubs, book stores, and coffee shops aplenty. We’re lucky to be so rich in that regard.

My number one coffee shop was The Beanery, of course, fondly shortened to ‘The Bean’. Sort of dinghy and worn, the ambiance was perfect for this struggling writer. Just a mile away, it was an easy walk and the Mexican Mocha remains cherished.

My second preferred coffee shop was the Siskiyou Blvd Starbucks. Another hundred yards down from The Bean, I wasn’t fond of its coffee but the distance was a comfortable walk and the work space was very good. Unfortunately, it closed this spring.

I’ve discovered a coffee shop’s work space element is important. It’s about having a table or counter for the computer, and a chair. Space and privacy add points. I learned that at Case. They roast their coffee there. It tends toward American preference, lighter, thinner, with a less robust flavor and a sort of wine component to my taste buds. The work space, alas, was anemic. Small tables and few of them, shoulder to shoulder, a cold and noisy modern place. Case was just one and a quarter mile away so it stretched out the time required to get there and write like crazy a little more but that work space….

I discovered the same with Rogue Valley Roasting. Two miles away, Roasting is an old house converted into a business. It reminded me of a newer, cleaner Beanery. The coffee was likewise weaker tasting than the Beanery coffee but the work space seemed acceptable. ‘Seemed’ is key. I was perplexed to discover I couldn’t write as proficiently and artfully as I had at other places. I realized over the course of a week that the tables there were lower than normal. I slouched down in the chairs to find a comfortable working position and ended up aggravating an old sciatic nerve inflammation.

So off I went. Down the road was a new place, Pony Espresso. Not just a new business, but a new building. I walked in there with low expectations. Lo, there was a Beanery barista behind the counter. They served Allan Bros coffee, which was The Beanery’s coffee of choice. They even sold me the same Mexican mocha. Well….but for a dollar more…well…. The work space wasn’t large but it was clean, modern and comfortable. However, it’s 2.4 miles from the house, a sweaty hike in this heat wave, and then the walk back home a few hours later, in the jaws of the heat. Still, it was the best writing session and coffee I’ve had since The Bean’s demise.

Today, I veered off to the Boulevard. Two miles away, it’s a newer offering in Ashland’s coffee land. The owners set out to create a coffee shop environment like a living room. Well, a living room doesn’t work well for me when I’m writing. The coffee was okay. They use Noble’s coffee, which is a fine locally produced coffee, but it’s brewed to that strange American preference, and I don’t seem to like the American preference. Besides that, connecting to the Internet was irksome. The Internet is a luxury, not necessary for writing like crazy, but it’s convenient for taking a break or doing a quick burst of research on minor information. Not being able to connect after four tries was annoying.

The search continues. I’ve been to Bloomsburys a few times. Its positives and negatives are familiar. The downtown Starbucks is a small, crowded place more appropriate for reading a book than writing one while the southern Starbucks is in the Albertson’s. It’s okay but I’m seeking an ideal. See, The Bean has me spoiled.

Mix is an interesting possibility. It has the work space. I haven’t sampled its coffee drinks yet. Of course, it is 2.8 miles from home…. And the Water Street Café, across the street from Mix, is only opened nine months of the year. All of its seating is outdoors. Then there is Paradise Café. A new place on the town’s south end, it’s but a mile from home. Specializing and serving only gluten free baked goods, I’m not sure how long it will last. It was empty on my two exploratory visits.

I always knew what to expect at the Bean. I made friends there. It was a good brisk walk no matter what weather I faced and a place where writing like crazy was easy. I was spoiled. If I combined the best of all places, I would not end up with The Beanery. I’d take pieces of several to create a new favorite. Then do it, people suggest, start a business. No, I did that. Owning cafes, restaurants or coffee shops, isn’t in my aspirations.

Now I have my coffee, a chair and table. Time to write like crazy, one more time, and see if the Boulevard is the new place for me.  Just between us writers, I’m already leaning toward Pony Espresso. I’ll just need to make the time to walk there and back, or I’ll take up biking again. I do enjoy walking, though.



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Drip…drip, drip-drip, drip drip drip, drips flicked off my brim, nose tip, ear lobes and hair, rolled down my face and neck, following crevices and contours down my body. Hat and socks, and all clothing between them, were soaked through when I reached home. Walking through 90 plus degree sunshine three miles will do that. Welcome to summer.

I guzzled water, changed clothes, rested, oiled on SPF 30 and did yard work. Three hours later, the results were the same. After doing this Friday, Saturday, Sunday, today I declared no mas. And there’s the story, that I had the options of walking, biking, or driving in this heat. Ignoring the heat completely by staying in and running the air conditioning also was an option. I don’t run the air. My wife doesn’t mind. Neither do the cats. They’ll all for minimizing the footprint.

Lot of people and animals don’t share my options. Even when the temperature is expected to reach 97 F, as it will here today, they’re forced to co-exist with the earth’s weather swings. It’s good for me to walk out there and minutely experience what others routinely endure. I'd say, it adds perspective.

I enjoyed the other end of that yesterday, too, glimpsing how those better off live and cope. We were off to a garden tour, six places for $20, where the owners were throwing open their yards to let us visit their gardens. First up was Mat and Neil’s lap pool and acreage. A retired doctor and real estate agent from the SF Bay area, they moved up here over twenty years ago and turned their savings into real estate holdings. Their home features an outdoor kitchen, a formal upstairs kitchen, and the small, downstairs breakfast kitchen. Charming guys, I asked them, but what’s the garden look like in the winter? “We don’t know,” Neil replied. “We leave for Puerto Vallarta right after Thanksgiving and come back in April.”

Not all on the tour were so well off. We’re comfortable in my zone; the majority of these neighbors were a little more comfortable. One home, built out in the country on ten acres, featured six bedrooms, seven and a half baths, seven thousand square feet…and another 3,000 square feet in the finished separate garage, reached via a breezeway…and the 1100 square feet media center in the home’s basement. But Terry and his wife resided in just 3600 square feet. Renovated a decade ago, they’d created a wonderfully serene water fall and pool among granite boulders and Douglas firs in their backyard. Terry was open, polite and friendly, a joy to speak with.

All of this was for charity to fund college degrees for five young women. It was worthwhile and educational. Last stop came at a winery where I enjoyed an excellent Italian panini and a glass of smooth and full Pinot Noir. I learned that we have very nice local wineries and I learned I don’t live the world’s most comfortable life, but it’s more comfortable and easy than how many others live. And most of them probably don’t have my opportunity to write like crazy. I don’t know how long I’ll have that opportunity so I better take advantage of it now.


Time to go write like crazy, at least one more time. Mind the heat. It's not the humidity that'll get you, it's the blazing hot sun.

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A Soundtrack to Growing Up

Not long ago – I forget where – I read an article in which several writers listed the most influential books of their childhood; books that changed their lives and inspired them to become writers.

Inevitably, I thought back to my own childhood, trying to recall the books, or even one book, that had made a definite impact on me, whether mentally or emotionally.  For a long time, my mind was a blank.  I was disappointed and somewhat embarrassed.  Had I read nothing, as a child? Eventually, memories of swashbuckling novels by Alexandre Dumas, detailed longitudes and latitudes in Jules Verne, the cosiness of Louisa May Alcott’s poor but ever so good Little Women, and the exaggerated to the point of being unrealistic bad luck of Victor Hugo’s characters, began to trickle through.  Even so, I can’t honestly say that a book ever inspired me to write. 

In many ways, reading was tantamount to homework for me while I was growing up.  I started to read at six, in Italian, and was sent to an American school at seven.  At eight, my grandmother began teaching me to read Russian.  At nine, we moved to France, so it was learn French or get kicked in the shins during recess.  No sooner did I get used to reading in one language, than I had to change.  

My mother actively discouraged me from reading fiction in my mid-teens.  “Novels are for children,” she used to say, leaving on the kitchen table books about philosophy, mysticism, medicine, history and – above all – self-improvement.  At least, that’s how I remember it.  Then, at high school and university, I read what I was told to read, while an increasingly frayed non-fiction book on some highly-cerebral topic moved from my bedside, to my rucksack, to my desk, to my handbag, then back to my bedside.  The bookmark progressed at a snail’s pace...  

What did inspire me to start writing, paradoxically, was music.

I can remember every significant episode of my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, as accompanied by music.

According to my grandmother, when I was about three I avidly watched the Italian children's song contest Il Zecchino d’oro on television, and asked my mother to buy me the record of one of the songs.  I couldn’t yet hold a tune but kept repeating a couple of words from the refrain.  We went to the record shop but the seller had no idea which song I meant.  I just said those couple of words over and over again.  He humoured me, and began playing one record after the other.  I kept shaking my head.  Then, finally, after half a dozen or so, there it was – and with the refrain I’d remembered.

My earliest musical memory was one evening, when I was about four, a new Phillips record player being delivered to our flat.  I’d already gone to bed but got up and went into the living room.  My mother was trying out the new record player with a 45rpm of “Strangers in the Night”.  I stood in my pink pyjamas, transfixed by Frank Sinatra’s voice filling the room.

I always wanted Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 to be played when I built houses with my Lego blocks.  When I lost my first milk tooth, I asked my mother to tell the tooth fairy to bring me Swan Lake.  We didn’t have much money at the time, so my mother said the tooth fairy was too small to carry the heavy records.

When I was about eight, my mother sat with me on the Persian rug, the libretto of Puccini’s Turandot open on her lap.  She played the records and told me the fairy tale about the cruel princess and her three riddles.  I was swept away by the power of the music, so violent and yet so tender.  Everything about it felt so important, so overwhelming.  

A couple of years later, my grandmother allowed me to stay up late and watch The Flying Dutchman on television.  The hairs on my arms stood up at the colourful chords in the Overture.  I could feel the despair of the wandering Dutchman, and Senta’s devotion to him.  

I began writing poems and stories when I was twelve.  I’d come home from school, do my homework, then put on a record and, once enveloped in the world created by the music, start scribbling away, trying to convey words on a page the immensity of the emotions music triggered in me.  I wrote fairy tales with the mystery and melancholy of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  I wanted my words to engage in the haunting, spinning dance of Prokofiev’s Cinderella and Stravinsky’s Firebird.  

When, at the age of nineteen, I moved to Cambridge, a nightly helping of Evensong at King’s instead of the dinner I had to skip because my landlady served it at 6 pm, gave wings to my bicycle on my way back up the only hill in Cambridge.  Once back in my freezing attic room, I tried to write like the moonbeam trebles that rose and quivered beneath the fan vaulting, like the counter tenors that gave a strange, eerie yet fascinating edge to the responses, like the booming, thundering organ chords pushing against the stain glass windows.

The one and only time I was consciously influenced by advertising, it was because of music.  I didn’t know what it was.  It accompanied a clip of a pretty French girl with a heart-shaped faced and a dark, glossy bob, walking down the street, taking off her beret, looking back because she thought she heard someone call out her name, Lou Lou.  I was twenty-two.  I went to have my hair cut in exactly the same bob, bought a beret, and went to the department store to buy the perfume advertised in the spot – “Lou Lou” by Cacharel.  The magic of mesmerising music only worked so far, though.  Once the sales assistant at the perfume counter produced the baby blue and burgundy bottle – which I found deeply unattractive – and let me smell the fragrance – which made me wince and walk away – I’m afraid I went and spent my treat money on a bottle of “Cabochard” by Grès, instead.  Still, the mysterious, longing tune remained in my head for years until, one morning, they played it on BBC Radio 3, and gave it a name – Fauré’s “Pavane”.  And so I tried to write words and sentences that would reproduce its wistfulness, its haunting quality, its sophistication.

Even now, I often play a CD to spur me on when I write.  

I hear music in my head when I write.

I think I write words because I cannot compose music.

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Ken Hartke
Every time I try to make a list of important books in my life I find that the list changes... never the same books. Music usually ... Read More
Monday, 08 June 2015 01:46
Katherine Gregor
I think words are ultimately limiting. Music conveys the infinite. Thank you for commenting, Ken.
Monday, 08 June 2015 07:43
Orna Raz
Dear Katia, As a child I loved the books by Erich Kastner and I read them over and over again. I loved reading the part about you ... Read More
Monday, 08 June 2015 02:42
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The Consumption

They write and speak so easily and simply, not attentive to the muse kiting over their head, sneaking their words over to me. Stories of others' pains, frustrations, duplicity and betrayals are added to my mind's writing stacks, waiting for the time when I write like crazy and draw them out for inclusion in a book. My mind's stacks rotate, circulate and coalesce, frustrating me with my insufficient energy, drive and writing time. My hero is Balzac, drinking coffee and writing all day, but I'd alternate between standing and sitting. Sitting wears me out. Standing sometimes numbs me. There's no perfection between the extremes. 

This man's life is fading. He's struggling against cancer's crush and pneumonia's kiss, his brain's energies puddling on the floor beneath him. Shoulders bruised and rounded with weariness, she cringes, knuckling back screams, fears and crying, comforting with sotto voce words losing their comfort. The little one parties on between faux bouts of sympathy and empathy, not diverting her course between me and me. Me is her destination, her path, her sun and her moon. He, the roaming son, complains about an illness medical authorities can't define while he gloats over making underhanded deals and accuses his mother of being a terrible woman. Common and uncommon people and lives, characters and stories. 

Conversational snatches hook my hearing. Myths bloom with desert rain spontaneity. I read and think, here is another concept, plot or character. Faraway horizons summon me from the moment. I hang between writing and being. Words babble through my head in a stream. I look off and smile. 

What are you thinking? she asks beside me. I smile. Nothing, is what I say, Everything, is what I think.

Time to write like crazy, at least one more time. 

Recent comment in this post
Rosy Cole
Your memoir will be a riot, Michael. No kidding :-)
Friday, 05 June 2015 13:49
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1 Comment

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