Who Invited the Russian Judge?

I am the Russian Judge. It’s possible I’ve been bribed by Don Carlos, or the little girl I call the Candy Lord (she’s mastered the art of manipulation using her endless supplies of hard candies). I can be bought, and I know nothing of what I speak. I could hold up a “10” when all the other judges are holding a “6”. Just stand back and be ready to gasp at the results….

Breathing a big sigh of relief I woke up from this morning reality TV dream and got my bearings. It was day 2 in Monserrate, Colombia, and I was there to judge 59 coffee farmers’ hard work with a sniff, a slurp, and a pencil. The top 5 winners would take home cash prizes, and enjoy extra per-pound profits as a result, not to mention earn the respect and envy of every neighbor on the coffee growing hill top. That’s a lot of pressure, and the hopes and dreams of these coffee farmers were waiting on the judgment of 9 people, one being me.

My dream wasn’t far off, because among the room of judges were experienced Q Graders, coffee roasters with several years’ experience, and coffee industry professionals who’ve collectively slurped and spit more coffee than I’ve roasted in my career.

So here’s the gig: “Cupping” is the act of “tasting” coffee. There is a strict protocol to create an equal playing field for the coffees to compete. All must have been roasted the same way, ground the same, measured to precisely 12 grams, brew using water at 203 degrees for exactly 4 minutes, and then be tasted on characteristics ranging from aroma to acidity to body to aftertaste, among others. Scores are tallied and compiled to widdle these 59 coffees down to the top 10 on the final day for a showdown between the best.

I tentatively dipped my spoon into the first cup of joe for a slurp. Nope, it’s not a dainty act. It’s a big airy suck of wind that sprays the coffee into your mouth in order to expose all the flavors the coffee has to offer. A quick swish and the coffee is spit into my personal little spit-cup. Within that mini-moment, I’m supposed to get my head around that coffee. Does it taste like mango dancing in the sunlight of a lemon field laced with a cashew velvet? It was up to me to decide.

At first it was really really hard, and although I wasn’t completely off base, I felt like my assessments were contrived and unnatural. I talked with the others as they all gave me tips on what “body” really felt like, on what number to assign “aroma” and how to detect what really was a “nuttiness”. I was really trying to pick apart every bit of the coffee and mechanically decipher its features and benefits (the downfall of being a boxes and squares kind of gal). I quickly realized this just wasn’t going to work for me, and began wondering where the bribers were hiding because I was pretty sure my vote could be bought at that point.

We came back to the cupping table number 2 and I just decided that I was going to block out all the noise and words that I was trying to put to the coffee and just taste. The clouds parted, and I believe the Virgin herself paid me a visit because all of a sudden this coffee cupping pace gained a momentum and ease that could only be matched by a near effortless downhill ski run in fresh powder. I know, cheesy, huh? But really….just the same. If someone would tell you how to ski and describe every angle of the turn from your knees’ degree of bend, to the pressure assigned to each foot, to the intensity of the grip on your pole, you’d crack. Your first turn would end with a faceplant and yardsale. But instead, if you eased up, let go, and just felt the snow and what it needed to provide you a pillow upon which to arc your perfectly glossed boards? Pure Warren Miller ski movie magic baby.

In two and a half days of tasting, some tables were easier than others, but I seemed to be getting it. Even though my descriptions of the coffees lacked more than 3 adjectives, I could say yum, yuck, and so-so to every coffee on the table right at pace with the group. They taught me so much, gave me so much insight, and made me happy that I wasn’t the only one who could accidentally dip my nose into the cup, or choke on a slurp.

The grand finale was on the final round when we discussed our rankings of the coffees at the table. I knew which coffees I liked and wanted to share with my customers, and I knew what I didn’t like. I learned that not everyone has the same favorite, but I also realized that when a coffee was great, it was great. It was such a joy to realize we’d all voted on the winning coffee when all 9 of our hands went up in unison, and I was not, in fact, that crazy Russian Judge at all. Suck that Candy Lord.

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Just Getting There

At 8 p.m. last night I was casually sipping the last of my cold beverage, and enjoying a slice of pizza with friends at a local pizza joint. This is otherwise known as “skillful delay of packing for a trip.” With a 7 a.m. departure, I figured I had all night to pack if I wanted it, and I could sleep all day during the flights to Colombia.

At about midnight I put the finishing touches on the packing and climbed into bed for 5 hours or so of sleep–Total panic– I realized I’d left my boarding pass at my store, along with the pictures of kids whose gifts I was on a mission to deliver to Colombia. Arg!!! I just figured I’d have to get up half a crack of a you know what earlier to fetch this stuff, then I’d be on my way.

At 5 a.m. I was up and at ‘em…so far so good. I was out the door at 5:30 to fetch the stuff, and transfer a few computer files to the travel laptop….still good. 5 minutes and I’d be outa there. Five somehow turned into twenty five, and when I looked at my watch I had one of those pure freak-outs that comes when you realize you’ve just inflicted pain onto yourself that is now irreversible, un-repairable, and would require the most advanced of pleading and manipulation of airport personnel you are humanly capable of delivering.

Ok, into the car I went, with the gas pedal at full throttle to get to the airport in time for the flight. I grabbed my driver (my husband) with a 25 mph “get in the car- I’m late” move, pulled up to the airport, jumped out, ran to the ticket counter, and to my total (not) surprise, I was too late to drop off the pre-checked extra bag I had. (The bag that contained the soccer jerseys. The whole purpose of my trip, bag. The bag that now was going to require me to beg with TSA or someone else to allow it onto the plane with me.)

All I can say is that living in a small town has its perks. Not one of my ready-for-action skills of manipulation was called into duty, and I had full permission to just put it on the plane-side baggage cart (yes if you didn’t catch that, we actually have such a small airport that you walk across the pavement, unprotected and sort of wild-west like, and walk up the stairs into the awaiting 30 passenger prop jet.

Suweet! I’m on the plane, I’ve got my bags, and all I now have to do is get it checked in during my next stop. Perfect. Start the engines! Um, START the ENGINES, Ya…hello engines, did you hear me? Really I don’t know enough about planes to know if those are the “engines” or just the “props”. Bottom line? Plane has 2 props, one on the right, and one on the left. The left one just didn’t feel like starting. Are you kidding me?

Off the plane we went with no time to spare! My trip is a long dance of coordinated pick ups, rides, and rendezvous. I can’t show up late unless I want to be finding my own way through the back roads of Colombia, and I certainly can’t cancel. I had to figure out a way to make this work. After 45 minutes of line standing, new line standing, calling, bag grabbing, line standing, phone calling, and did I mention line standing? (My particular favorite line standing moment was when I stood behind 2 quite metropolitan ladies off to what looked like a fun weekend in New York, who were utterly perplexed by what they were going to do if they couldn’t get to their pre-booked $1000 per night hotel reservation refunded by the airline. Hmmm….I’m thinking if you’re booking $1000 hotel suites maybe you don’t need to be giving the completely un-empowered ticket agent a hard time right now. I’m guessing she’s not feeling too sorry for you.)

So, the bottom line? If I want to make it to Colombia, I’m going to have to get into my Soccer-mom mobile and drive it like the wind for the next 4 hours to make my flight at the next destination. Ok, then, game on.

I was pedal to the metal for the next 4 hours. Me, my music cranked, the roast beef man-sandwich that I stole at the last minute from my husband’s lunch, and my cell phone feverishly making calls to try to fix the big snafu that had now been created. I didn’t count the laws I broke, but just crossed my fingers, hoping everything would be ok.

Man Sandwich - high in protein

Man Sandwich - high in protein


I made it to the airport in time again (the luck I’m having at this point might have had something to do with my 85 mph in the 65 zone maneuvering). I parked my car in the “value” parking, which basically means that I was out in row D23, which is 23 miles removed from where the row D might be situated in any regular parking lot, found the courtesy bus, made it into the check in line, had the auto check in tell me “you’re too late to check in for this flight” (gulp, panic), got in the “agent” line, and had the nicest ever human on the planet check me in, calm my nerves and tell me to have a great day. Phew. I will!

I’m here in Houston, about to get on the red eye to Bogota, and hoping that all the strings “Juan” pulled are going to come together perfectly!

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Just Say Yes

The ticket is booked. Somehow there’s available credit on the American Express and I don’t care that I’ll be eating cereal for dinner the next several months to pay it back. If you get a chance to go on a trip like this, you say “yes”… then figure it out.

What started out as a spark of kindness by my son is now dropping me right in the middle of the home of Juan Valdez and his mule. It’s possible that Juan is now retired, after working his butt off in the 60s, 70s and 80s, hand picking beans and showing up at the back doors of housewives all across America with cans of Colombian coffee, perfectly timed to relieve the stress of preparing the coffee for the ladies luncheon. What would our moms have done without him? Colombia sits as the 3rd largest coffee producing country on the globe behind Brazil and Vietnam. I’m sure they could do better if they slowed down a little on the cocaine production. Who has time for coffee when you’re producing 80% of the world’s cocaine supplies? I laugh, but I give mad respect to those working their tails off cultivating coffee to make a legal living.

So how, you might ask, did I end up ticket in hand? Pretty cool story, actually. My son has been way into learning about coffee. Back in the late fall he was looking at the giant world map, marked with coffee origins of the coffees that I use in our blends, and asked what it was like for the kids who lived in these places. I told him about how the kids live a lot differently than he does. They don’t have 16 sweatshirts and talk about the latest game they played on Wii. They don’t go skiing for fun in the winter, and sneak episodes of “Ben Ten” on the TV when Mom and Dad aren’t watching. A lot of these kids work in the family business of coffee, don’t necessarily have shoes, may or may not have the privilege of going to school, and sometimes find themselves hungry when the cash is low and harvest is still weeks away. He pondered and said to me “I want to do something nice for a kid there”, with “there” being anywhere that coffee is grown.

I picked up the phone and called my coffee importer, and have to admit I felt a little bit like I was going to be bugging him with this little request. I told him that my son wanted to do something for a kid “there”, and asked if he had any ideas. Almost as though this was the exact phone call he’d been waiting for all day, he told me not only could he do something nice for one kid, but he could do something nice for a whole community of kids if he wanted to. He explained that the kids in the town of Monserrate, Colombia are soccer obsessed, but play in their multi colored tee shirts, and would be out of their skin with joy if they had real soccer jerseys. I hung up the phone, proposed this idea to my soccer-obsessed child, and it was game on without a blink.

Oooookaaay…so now my kid, who I thought might be getting a book or a pair of shoes for one kid in Colombia, is about to outfit the whole soccer team in uniforms. How the heck is this going to go down? Never underestimate the power of a kid, his school teacher, or the simple desire to just make something happen. My son talked to his teacher about his idea, because clearly he’d need some help, and she jumped on about as fast as I suck down an espresso. Before we knew it, we had the entire 3rd grade on board.

We made a learning experience out of it by bringing each of the classes to my store for a coffee field trip (See Raise Your Hand Please). Then, each of the kids in the classrooms created a potential coffee label, and the kids voted for their favorite 3. We sold enough coffee online to buy the kids in Monserrate 30 soccer jerseys, and that was that!

So back to the ticket? I called my importer again in May and said…”ok, the kids did it! I have the jerseys, hand-written letters, and a signed soccer ball here. What’s the best way to get this to Monserrate?”
He quickly replied “Well, the best way to get it all there is for you to join us as a guest cupping judge during the August harvest, and deliver the kids’ gift in person”.

The thought of this opportunity…seeing the special community of Monserrate, getting to know the people who harvest this amazing coffee that I buy, playing a game of soccer with the kids (and getting whooped), and just experiencing the unknown….Like I said, you say “yes” and just figure it out.

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…and you are?

The other day I was dropping off some coffee for a customer and one of the employees at the store came out….blah blah…talk talk….we introduced ourselves. I was happy. I was very happy, and I’ll tell you why. The man stood there with a gift from heaven. Yes, if you can imagine this: He had his name “Mike”, embroidered to his shirt. There it sat, happily perched upon his left chest, embroidered in a contrast blue stitching to his baby blue button down shirt. What I loved about this is that, unlike my typical lame self, when I forget a person’s name about 1 minute after I meet them, I had his little shirt to tell me who he was, and I could say in style as I walked away, “nice to meet you M-I-K-E”. Yeah. Nice touch, I know.

I’ve met a few hundred new people in the last months, and I have to say, I’m much better at remembering names than I used to be. Inevitably, though, someone will walk in the front door of my store, know exactly who I am, and I’ll have no idea what their name is. I scan to the left chest to see if by chance I’m blessed with an embroidered reminder, or a plastic badge bearing the two legged human’s name without looking like I’m checking if it’s cold outside. Why couldn’t this person just have come back from “Learning to Talk to Your Teenager” seminar and have the “Hello My Name Is” sticker still conveniently pasted over the chocolate doughnut stain on their shirt? Come on…help a sista out.

Here’s the unfairness of it all. I’m aware that half of the faces who “know” me are cheating anyway, as they walk in my door and say “hello Lizzy”. Nice work, but they’ve just read the “Lizzy’s Fresh Coffee” store hours on the front door. Anyone who has met me knows that I NEVER introduce myself as Lizzy. I don’t go by Lizzy, I don’t smell like a Lizzy, and I only have one friend on the planet who calls me that, and it’s usually after I’ve had a cocktail or two. I’m Liz, and my brand is someone else. I’m not near nice enough to be called that anyway, where as she (my company) is a nicer, sweeter, more patient, and much more bubbly version of Elizabeth (a name only saved for my mother and friends who knew me in the 3rd grade).

Once a person proclaims the “Lizzy”, as I like to call it, I feel like I know something about the person standing before me that they don’t know that I know (like maybe they cheat when they’re the banker during a game of Monopoly). I laugh a little inside, smile back, scan for the name tag, feel defeated, and say “nice to see you again”. I muddle through a couple minutes of conversation that ends in the victorious hand over of the credit card….Ah the glory of retail. My heart pounds, I feel relieved, and I say as the person turns to leave….
“Thanks for coming in, J-I-M”.

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Raise Your Hand, Please

Fifty pounds of 3rd grader, not more than 4 feet tall sat on the floor with her arm straight up in the air. She sat quietly, but her arm, supported at the elbow by her other arm, was quite obnoxiously throwing me off my game. I did say to the group “If you have a question, just raise your hand”. I guess you have to tell 9 year olds…”but wait for a natural pause in my very impressive presentation so as not to interrupt the rhythm of my infinitely interesting story”.

I couldn’t take it anymore. The question she had cooked up must be so important that I can’t possibly continue with the current subject. And I clearly haven’t mastered that teacher’s skill of the “raise your hand take-down”, where the teacher notices the upheld arm, but challenges it to a sort of game of chicken. The teacher knows she can out-talk the arm into total submission. After all, blood does need to get to the finger tips. Keep talking, and the kid’s arm will soon succumb, starting with the need for support of the other arm, followed by head bobbing from the child herself, followed by a complete and utter blank of what the question was in the first place. And ahhh…there it is. The take down. Victory. Teacher-1, Kid-0.

……..I can’t do it any more…”Yes, what’s your question?” I said as I pointed to her. The little girl, looking completely victorious that she kicked my butt in our silent battle of “raise your hand chicken”.
“Um”, she says, “is it true what my Dad says that coffee stunts your growth?”

I thought about this one for a flash as 20 sets of 3rd graders stared at me along-side the 5 sets of “adult chaperones” awaited my perfect answer that would, of course, completely corroborate with their “I’m feeling like a lazy parent and want to take the easy way out on this one” answer. Seeing no escape with any hope of blurting the correct response, I said “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that one. Would you research that on the internet and send me a report on what you find out?” Her eyes were big and happy as she bravely took on the responsibility of digging for the truth to her question.

This really was the only question that slipped me up over the last 3 weeks as I had each of the local school’s 3rd grade classes up to my coffee store for field trips. To be fair, I had been challenging the kids to a sort of geography, science, and social studies smack down during their tours, so getting a reverse challenge wasn’t exactly unfair.

The field trips started with the legend of the discovery of coffee by Kaldi, the famous goat-herder in Ethiopia. The kids danced on cue when I told them to pretend to be the “dancing goats” who’d become so hopped-up on caffeine from eating the magical cherries that they were acting like complete spazoids (again, not a difficult stretch for a 9 year old to act out). I was impressed by their ability to identify continents around the globe, and to understand that countries near the equator had warmer temperatures than areas farther north or south. Good stuff kids, you’re in front of the statistics so far! We rounded out that section with coffee harvesting and processing techniques used, and dug our hands into the piles of green coffee beans right in front of them.

We moved on to the science of coffee roasting from there. Why is it that kids have this freakish desire to be the “closest” one to the person talking? This one, I can do. “Kids”, I said, “take 2 steps back”. Ahh…breathing room.

The chemical changes that happen during coffee roasting are extremely complex, and the kids got to see first-hand examples of coffee going through its evolution from green bean to fully roasted bean. They repeated “ENDOTHERMIC” and “EXOTHERMIC” as a group, and again, on cue, had it all figured out within seconds. I swear I’ve explained this stuff to intelligent adults who don’t make it half that far!

I asked the kids “should we start up the coffee roaster?” “YEEEEEESSSS!” they screamed. Of course, how would I not know the answer to that? We fired up each of the parts of the roaster, the drum, the air, the gas, the cooling bin agitator, and the door. The kids each pushed their way to the front to see the “blue flame” of the gas inside the roaster’s viewing window. Wow, who knew that a little blue light was better than Xbox?

Looking for fire

Looking for fire

Next came my favorite part of the tour. To complete the travels of the coffee properly, we’d have to brew some up and taste it, right? The look of horror on the chaperones’ faces was indescribable. Everything from, “Are you out of your fricking mind giving kids that stuff?” to “Our church doesn’t believe in the beverage of coffee” came my way.

Preparing some coffee to taste...can we be any closer?

Preparing some coffee to taste...can we be any closer?


go on...taste it

go on...taste it


“Ok kids”, I said, “Here’s the deal. Coffee contains something called caffeine. It’s a stimulant that can give you energy, and everyone’s body reacts differently to it. It’s in lots of different places like candy, medicine, energy drinks, soda pops, and other foods. It’s up to your moms and dads to tell you if it’s ok with them to have it. Got it?” Yep, they got it. This is a smart bunch these 9 year olds. One by one, the kids dipped a vertical spoon into the freshly brewed cup of coffee and touched it to their tongues. Did I feel a little like a dealer lining up my future customers? You bet, but it wasn’t about that at all. It was about letting the kids get a total hands-on experience and completing the circle of what we had learned. Some of their eyes lit up with joy at the amazing taste of coffee while others squinted and puckered with disgust. Sorry moms and dads, your court now.

They all scampered off at the end of our time together, and seemed to love every minute of it. I know I did.

P.S. I still haven’t received that report on coffee and growth rates in children, but as soon as I do, I’ll be sure to share it with you all ;).

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Gotta Be Nimble

So today I was at the gym. It was a beautiful sunny day, with the mountains all covered in white snow and the sky as blue as could be. Why was I inside you might ask? Answer: 4 degrees. That was the temperature. No one in his or her right mind goes outside to exercise when its 4 degrees. Ok, I though, Ill just hit the gym and finally try one of the yoga classes Ive been meaning to go to for the past 6 years. I could use the relaxation, I thought, after the busy holiday. I show up with 4 minutes to spare to class time, only to find a line out the door, and nothing but wall to wall yoga toned people already filling the classroom. Bummer. Id have to find something else to do since everybody else whos been meaning to come for 6 years just showed up too.

So I hit the gym instead, and 15 minutes into my glad Im actually not at yoga right now routine, I was on the floor doing sit-ups. I was on the gyms matt minding my own business near a row of machines, the closest of which was one that Chuck Norris sold in the 90s on TV infomercials at 2 a.m. Out of the corner of my eye I see a large black mass coming toward me with an increase in noise. I shoot away from the shape and sound knowing that something will be landing on me if I dont. One and a half seconds later I look over to see what I avoided. It was a man, lets just say who wouldnt have fit in at todays yoga class, in mid-back summersault hurling to the exact spot where I was turbo-cising just a split moment ago. Hed lost grip of the straps and went tumbling backward off the machine. Chuck would have been so proud. I could only imagine his embarrassment as I reflected back on my own treadmill incident not too long ago. I laughed, he laughed, and everyone carried on as though it was the plan all along. Whew. .7, 8, 9, and 10ok done with that exercise.

What the heck am I supposed to do with that one, universe? What does that one mean, and how can I cheese it out and blog about it? Oh, did you think I’d resist?

Anyone who started a business in 2008 probably feels the same way as I do. The craziness of the economy and the publics hesitance to try, buy, or move outside its newly restricted comfort zone forces anyone trying to start up a company to be nimble as hell. There is no time at all for wallowing in a no or a failed plan. There is no time either to bask in the joy of a successful sales day, a good result, or what a great business idea accolades. No good or bad, high or low, we have to keep moving and doing every single minute of every day. If yoga is full, go to the gym. If a large object is hurling your way, move. Plans are good, but plans can change in a split second and you have to adapt.

Im looking forward to what 2009 will be bringing.

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Rainy Day

One of my favorite things to do is to host parties and gatherings. I love the feel of a room full of people talking and laughing. I love giggling until my eyes water and my belly aches in pain and Im gasping for breath. Im a bit spoiled when it comes to being a hostess, I have to admit, because Ive been cast out of the kitchen for years now by my uber-chef husband whos taken over the cooking since our son came along. He figured that someone had to do the cooking, and someone had to deal with the poopy crying thing, so hed take the cooking. Now days, Im knee deep in 3rd grade math while my husband is preparing dinner, trying to explain how one is to count change back when something is purchased. Im a little annoyed that this is even being studied, because, first, the chance that actual bills and coins will still be tendered by the time my kid has his first minimum wage job is unlikely, and secondly, the cash register will tell him how much change the customer is supposed to get. If that doesnt work, use a calculator, or if that doesnt work, use your cell phone to call someone with a calculator, or heck, but then Im sure the customer can walk out the door and the RFID in the exit will automatically bill the entire cart directly to his or her Visa.

Anyway, being more or less kicked out of the culinary action of a dinner party has left me in charge of what I call the three Ds: Thats drinks, decorations, and dessert. Today I got to indulge in drink making to my hearts content, because my coffee roasting shop was filled with a giggling, talkative crowd, gabbing about everything from hair products, to the vice-presidential debate last night. I was on the espresso machine making one cappuccino after another (which I might say had about a 90% good foam success rate, which is not a bad rate for simulteaneous talking and foaming). I informed everyone that if they talked to me while I made their drink that it would take twice as long to get their beverage. I think this may be due to my uncontrollable need to flap my hands around as I talk. Its genetic, Im sure of it. People didnt seem to care much about the speed, though, so I had some wonderful chats with some people Id never met before.

This group happened to know each other pretty well, as they are the local masters swim club that swims together 5 days a week. Many of them regularly spend a few minutes after practice sharing a cup of coffee at the clubhouse. Today, I invited them over here, although Im not myself a swimmer (something about staring at a tiled blue line while going back and forth trying not to suck water into my lungs every time I gasp for air just doesnt work for me. It could also be related to my flapping hands issueIll have to research that). I can see how much fun they have together, though, and loved being in the midst of this joyous crowd who seemed to relish in the simple pleasure of hanging out and sharing laughs.

It must be the slightly rainy day today, or this mornings unexpected phone calls from a couple of missed friends that got me thinking about this, but I find that so many people just dont make the effort to visit, call or make simple connections with others. We get so busy that we delay the phone call or email invitation. People make the lamest excuses, like thinking their home is too messy to have visitors, or they feel weird about inviting someone over who they dont know very well. I think thats crap, honestly. Youre really not that busy, and no one cares if your house is messy, and you dont have to make a Food Network masterpiece. If you have friends who care about the mess in your house, or the quality of your meal, they suck. Find new friends.

I wouldnt be honest if I didnt say I realized today that this is the biggest joy of the business Im in. I love that a simple invitation, with a simple little drink of coffee and milk can bring people together and fill us up more than anything else we may choose to do, this week or any other. Im one lucky girl.
******

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Thanks for a Good Time

Roaster hooked up, website done, space organized, green coffee delivered, espresso machine working, occupancy permit approved. Finally after all this there was only one thing left to do yesterday… roast coffee! Game on. Right around 9 a.m. I pushed the 3 button startup sequence on my roaster’s system: drum, blower, gas…gas..gas….gas….um, yeah, that’s not 3 buttons, that’s 6, and the pilot won’t light! Continue reading

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Just a Tiny Giggle

I have a constant running joke going on in my head as I take in the quirks and comedy around me, even in situations that aren’t quirky or comedic, like, say, the Olympics these last 2 weeks. Impressive athletes, every one of them, but isn’t there something just too funny to ignore about the gymnastic dismount salute, or the fact that the US relay team didn’t hold on to a 1.5″ inch stick, as though they’ve had no practice with objects of that shape? Just saying. Continue reading

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