On Coffee

Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love.

Turkish Proverb

I have a love affair with coffee. It started in college, when I switched from being an education major to formally entering into the chemical engineering program as a sophomore in undergrad. For a perpetual night owl, the shift to 8 am class starts was rough. Apparently, there’s scientific evidence that having STEM classes early in the day result in better student academic performance, so ALL my classes were before noon. Whether or not this is true, I cannot say, since if I had a dime for how many times I sat in calculus, kinetics, mass transport, or thermodynamics class watching my classmates sleep, I’d be able to afford the beach front palace I’m currently eyeing on the Gulf of Mexico. Add in allnighters when I was studying for my PhD qualifiers in grad school, when I would drink at least two pots of coffee during the day to attend classes, teach, and do research, then pound four double espresso cappuccinos in the lab at night to study, and caffeine became an intimate part of my life. Today, I’m known to have at least 5-7 coffees a day, hot and black (unadulterated, as I say), and I enjoy every cup. The first purchase I made for the new lab was a Keurig, which my boss had to roll his eyes when he saw it on the counter and say : “I bought that, didn’t I?” To which I replied: “If you want me to work at my usual high caliber and be pleasant, it’s the best investment you can make. Win-win for us both!” Enough said.

So you can imagine the puzzlement of everyone I know when I say I’m cutting down on coffee, to the point where I may quit it altogether. So far, I’ve been restricting myself to two cups per day, and before 10 am. I won’t lie and say it’s been easy on anyone. Definitely I have felt less focused, and my friends, family and coworkers say I’m a bit more, shall we say, snippy than normal (Though I did give fair warning to everyone what to expect as I cut down). I was proud of myself for making two weeks and felt things weren’t going so bad (everyone was still alive and unharmed, and my brain still functional, if perhaps underperforming; so, you know, thumbs up!) until the start of the third week, when things got a lot stressful at work, and my usual perky self was in absentia. Well, perhaps I should say my normal, bright self was missing, enough so that my coworkers begged me to drink more coffee. I resisted (I am a bit, well, stubborn) until my calm headed coworker asked me the simple question “Why?”

That question was enough to stop me in my headstrong hurtle towards total coffee abstinence and ponder exactly why, when I love coffee so much, was I cutting down? What was driving my quest?

I went to my desk with a La Croix in one hand, last bag of Funyuns in the other (ha–take that Bob!), and thought about it.

Was it because I was a bit concerned about high blood pressure that runs in my family, and coffee has been said to elevate blood pressure, and I’m getting to that age when I need to think about that?

Was it because I was trying to drink more water, and coffee was taking the place of water?

Was it because someone suggested to me part of the reason I have trouble relaxing is due to excessive caffeine intake?

Was it because I was concerned that I was addicted to it? After all, addiction runs in my family.

There are also the positives to consuming coffee, including increased mental alertness, recent scientific evidence that it can prolong life, and of course, my pleasant attitude. Plus, I LIKE THE TASTE OF COFFEE and the ritual of making it and consuming it. I enjoy coffee, alone or with friends, at bookstores, cafes, or with dessert at a fine restaurant. What was I thinking cutting down?????

That day that my coworker asked me why, and after sitting at my desk for half an hour not being able to come up with one good, convincing reason as to why I was cutting down, I had a third cup of coffee before a critical meeting. And nailed it. Well, at least I nailed it enough that my coworkers in the room said “Wow” after one of my monologues summarizing key technical evidence to support a decision, while the coworker on the other end of the teleconference who I was saying this all to that needed convincing said “Sorry, I didn’t get all that because I couldn’t hear you half way through” and I said something less than pleasant to him, followed by my curt “Well, we will do it my way then.” I probably could have used one more cup of coffee…

Sometimes, we do things that don’t make sense, that seem opposite of everything we have always done and everything we think we stand for. Ask anyone who knows me, and “she loves coffee” is one thing they will probably say to describe me (well, I like to think that would be one of the nice things they’d say about me; I won’t digress as to other things they might say; let’s think positive, people!). When I got home from work that evening, I was able to visit my paradise and watch the sunset over the ocean and reflect on why I was so hellbent on cutting this thing I love out of my life. I turned over every idea and suggestion I could think of, looked at it from all angles, and nothing felt right. (Yes. I may be logical, but there is no denying that we are all emotional beings, and this reeked of being emotionally driven). And as the last of the sun sunk below the horizon and the bell rung for the 15th time, it was clear to me what was driving this. It came down to these things:

Sometimes, things happen in life we have no control over, and to stop feeling powerless, we try to assert control over things we can impact. Sometimes, we do things we feel are wrong, and we feel the need to punish ourselves. Both of these things were intersecting at once, and for some reason manifesting in this notion to take away one of my loves, coffee. To feel I was in charge of at least one aspect in my life and, being me, a punishment at the same time (dovetailing is my specialty). But all I was really doing was denying myself something that usually I derive great pleasure from, making those around me miserable with my presence, and having trouble getting out of bed and being motivated to do things. The last thing might be attributed to lack of caffeine, but since I have been upping my exercise as well and that normally gives me energy, it’s most likely because cutting down on coffee wasn’t really addressing what needed to be addressed, and I was slowly slipping into melancholy. Until I faced what was truly the root cause, arbitrarily cutting coffee out of my life wasn’t going to solve anything, and as the diminishing drive in my life was suggesting, making it worse.

In life, we all face challenges, disappointments, loss, grief. How we deal with these things depends on many factors, but the one that never seems to do any good is denial. Many times we project our feelings onto something that has no relation to the issue, be it an object, ritual, or person. We seek to escape, perhaps using a crutch like alcohol or food or another vice to achieve this, or try a solution that has no bearing on the situation, so clearly cannot be of any value in resolution. Sometimes, we need this escape, this denial, this distraction, because it is just too much for us to handle at the time. And that’s okay, for awhile, especially if our escape doesn’t augment or create more problems. But we will not know true peace until we realize that the elephant in the room will always be with us, that we must at some point recognize what that elephant is and represents, and deal with it when we are able, once and for all.

Today, I had three cups of coffee. Not my usual 5-7 cups, but almost just right. Because when I was running 5 miles a day, I only ever needed 3 or 4 cups. The others were there to make up for the past year of not being dedicated to my health. So, I’m aiming for maintaining 3-4 cups while I slowly increase my exercise back to that level. Enough for me to enjoy the coffee I love, knowing that I am once again on track to regaining my health, and letting the two give me strength to deal with the challenges life throws at me.

2 thoughts on “On Coffee

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