Wednesday, July 31, 2013

RAGBRAI 2013: A coffee snoot's dilemma, Pt. 1

Photo by Richard Masoner/Flickr
Last week, the Bros. Jonathan and I took a break from our book-blogging series. For my part, I completely disconnected from digital technology, hopped on my bicycle to ride across the state of Iowa with my wife's family and tens of thousands of other cyclists in the proud Iowa cultural liturgy called RAGBRAI.

When I get away from computers, the slower pace - and whatever else - tends to put me in an observant, reflective mood. I notice things, something catches in my eye-and-brain, I think about it for a while, and sometimes I write about it.

And before we even got to the western edge of the state to our starting town of Council Bluffs, something struck me and stuck with me. So what follows in the next few posts is a topical travelogue of sorts for my RAGBRAI 2013 experience, culled from the pages of my diary/journal, in which I scribbled as we traversed the state from river to river, Missouri to Mississippi - seeing again after four years on the east coast the subtle beauty of my home state. Now, the entire experience for me was much more fun and awesome than what follows, but this is what got written down...

RAGBRAI Day 0: Sat. July 20, en route to Council Bluffs

A woman (my mother-in-law) in her mid-50s: Herself raised, married, raised kids, raised grandkids - for the majority of her life in the same small rural Iowa town. My wife's hometown. Where we recently moved after a few years in Virginia. My mother-in-law, in this scene, is now standing in Suburban Choiceland - in this case a chain coffee shop in a Des Moines suburb - staring at the menu. She's paralyzed.

Erin's making suggestions, honestly; I'm making suggestions, sarcastically: "How 'bout a bottle of grass water?," I ask, holding up a fruit drink that looks exactly like that. The barista (my mother-in-law likely does not know this word) starts making helpful suggestions and then it's finally settled: An icy coffee/sugar drink. We walk out, me with my black coffee in hand. I'm contented and ready to drive west for the next two hours.

[End scene.]

While making my sarcastic remarks above, I threw in a bit of faux rural drawl and raised the volume of my voice, which was a total show because unlike my mother-in-law I knew that place well: It was a Starbucks. When I walk in I know exactly what I want and I get it. But I remember once not knowing, standing there being positively baffled by the choices and the strange words. But that was then. I have now been, in other words, indoctrinated into the culture of Suburban Choiceland.

In rural communities, coffee is coffee. And coffee is Folgers. You want coffee? Here it is. You've already made your choice. Enjoy your (shitty) coffee. Living in a farm town after 15 years away - meanwhile residing in a string of college towns and suburbs - has awoken an uncomfortable self-realization: I'm probably a yuppie.

There's a tension that may or may not be resolved as long as I'm a highly educated, high-tech worker with a snooty taste for snooty coffee (made by my snooty coffee press) - living in a little Iowa farm town that only serves shitty (i.e. non-snooty, i.e. not Fairly Traded, etc.) coffee. (Full disclosure: I can and do buy Good Coffee beans at our local grocer in said small town.)

So while my mother-in-law stands paralyzed by excess choices at Starbucks, at least when she goes home, it's like "Phew, back where coffee isn't confusing and anxiety-producing" (even though she doesn't drink coffee). But me at Starbucks... I'm feeling a little sheepish about my commodity fetishism/conspicuous consumerism, thinking something like "At last, Good Coffee! ...Gah, I'm such a putz." Whereas at home, while sitting in the local uptown diner that I go to for-the-people-not-the-coffee, still a little part of me pines for some Starbucks at the very least. (The very least!) I'm such a putz.

Confession: Sometimes I daydream about some as-yet-unknown fellow coffee snoot in our little town rising up and saying "Enough with this shitty Folgers!" and opening uptown a Good Coffee Shop. And I like to imagine that it's connected to, say for instance, a local brewery with Good Beer. (Seriously, don't get me started on beer - though it's essentially the p.m. mirror image of this rant.) Oh and maybe also some major rethinking of the local "farmer's" market to integrate rural and urban gardening and farming initiatives? But...

Isn't what I'm calling for with such daydreaming the snootification of the farm town, making it over into my ideal vision of snootiness? Isn't that kind of pretentious, probably impossible, and maybe not even desirable? And doesn't that kind of defeat at least part of the purpose for us moving back to the farm town in the first place? I wonder...

Closing prayer: May the day come when I once again stand utterly baffled and un-ironically naïve in Suburband Choiceland in its many guises.

Or perhaps better: Lord, lead me not into temptation (Suburban Choiceland); deliver me from evil (snootiness). For yours is the (peaceable) kingdom, the power (of servitude), and the glory (of weakness) forever (and ever). Amen.

Read part 2...

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