The Landscape of Love

“If you know one landscape well, you will look at all other landscapes differently. And if you learn to love one place, sometimes you can also learn to love another.”
― Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

Image 1

I walked the long block in the rain. The only other people I saw were in cars driving past, on their way to work at 7:50 a.m. The door to The Boiler Room stood open, and as I walked in I was greeted by Michael, the owner and sometimes barrista. He asked, “How many days left?” When I said, “Three,” he replied, “Wow! That went fast!”

He doesn’t even know the half of it! Michael was referring to the brief weeks since I’ve known I would be leaving Minneapolis. But his comment made me think about the entire two years I’ve lived here and how they have flown past. Time is such a strange and fickle construct – after all, the first winter I was here was one of the longest, coldest, snowiest on record. Every moment of that winter time seemed to crawl miserably by. Yet now, it all feels like a flash of light passing ever so swiftly before my eyes.


I arrived in Minneapolis just in time for the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Mike and I spent two days celebrating: a Twins game, riding bikes back and forth across the Mississippi River, eating great food at local restaurants. The other two days were a marathon of driving, loading, unloading and more driving to get me officially moved. Once that weekend was over, though, Mike went back to work and I was left to my own devices in a new and, mostly, unknown city.

That first day, I got on my bike and rode. I found The Midtown Greenway, and rode until I hit the river. Now I know I took the West River Parkway, but then I had no idea where I was headed: I just kept riding as long as there was a trail. Eventually, I ended up at Minnehaha Falls (though I didn’t know how to find the falls and rode right past). I took a photo of the train depot there, and texted it to Mike with the caption, “Guess where I am?”  Looking back, I laugh at the fact that, actually, neither one of us knew where I was!

Before that ride, I was drawn to this city for many reasons. But that was the day that Minneapolis took up residence in my heart. The day I felt for the first time that we truly belonged together. Like most relationships, my love affair with this city has had its ups and downs. During the Polar Vortex of 2013-14, I seriously considered a break up. Often, when I was poor and discouraged by an interminable and dehumanizing job search, I thought that perhaps love was not enough to live on. Through it all, though, there was a thread of joy that kept me feeling that this thing between Minneapolis and I was just “right” somehow.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned from loving this place:

For attraction to deepen into love, you have to see beyond the superficial. Early in my time here, I happened upon a local resident’s blog. The purpose of the blog was to showcase how, in the mind of its creator, the city was becoming uglier every year. While I understood the author’s points and the political statement he was making, I just couldn’t comprehend taking such a negative view. In my response to his blog were the seeds of one of the best things I did over the two years I’ve been a Minneapolitan: my #dailypicofmpls Instagram project. I made it a point to get out and about, both in my own neighborhood and in the larger city, to really SEE things. Big things (like the iconic Stone Arch Bridge) and little things (like quirky messages hand-chalked on sidewalks). I chronicled the sights I saw, indelibly imprinting the city on my heart one block at a time. I tried to embrace it all: the good and the bad; what was ugly and what was lovely.

When you love a place, the issues that matter to that place become issues that matter to you. After the fall elections of 2013, I found myself celebrating representation by people who value similar things to me. For the first time in my adult life, I attended events featuring my ward’s councilwoman; our mayor; the city’s bike and pedestrian coordinator. On a bicycle tour of “The Grand Rounds”, I saw firsthand the unequal distribution of city funding. At Open Streets events I visited both affluent and less affluent neighborhoods, but was able to celebrate the vibrancy and unique character of each. On my own street, I spent time in places where I was the only non-Somali person present, I visited a powerful exhibit of Native American Artists at the First Nations Gallery, and I silently filed past the ghost bike commemorating a cyclist struck and killed by a drunk driver.

Love (like growth and most other worthwhile things) takes seed and flowers when you push yourself outside the confines of your comfort zone. For much of my life I let my introvert tendencies have ascendency – meaning I mostly sat back and waited for things to come to me. Living in a large metropolitan area, working part-time, and knowing exactly four people here when I arrived meant that mode of operation was not an option. So I pushed myself – to attend events, to talk to strangers, to make connections. I went to group bike rides solo. I walked and biked all over, often stopping to enter coffee shops and strange places (a chandlery, a visual arts center, a tiny neighborhood fresh foods market). I tried paddle-boarding, mountain biking, alley-cat racing. I volunteered as a bike parking attendant and as a photographer. I went to odd places and famous venues to see live music by musicians I’d never heard of. I joined a writer’s group and a joyful community of cyclists. Not every experience was wonderful, but each one helped me understand the value of being proactive rather than passive in my own life. And some truly beautiful souls entered my life as a result!


As I walked back to my apartment from The Boiler Room I thought about the many things I will miss about Minneapolis, then about how little effort I made to love Cedar Rapids during the seventeen years I lived there last time. While there are many people I love(d) in Iowa, the only patch of ground I made any effort to care about was the hill on which Mount Mercy University stood.

I know now that I have to extend my own boundaries in ways I never did before I came to Minneapolis. I’m willing to concede that my failure to love Cedar Rapids as a place may have been a failure of my own imagination rather than a failure of the city to have anything to offer. More than that, I never invested myself there as I have here. Hopefully, I’ll be able to put what I’ve learned from my sojourn in Minneapolis into action in Cedar Rapids.

In the meantime, I’m going to let the rain today express my sadness about leaving the City of Lakes. Don’t misunderstand: I am excited about the new opportunities opening in my life. But for a little while, I need to feel the emotions connected with leaving this city I’ve grown to love so deeply. And, because there’s no equivalent to The Boiler Room in my new neighborhood, I may have to brave the downpour for another Americano.

Image 3
Our bikes outside The Boiler Room, Thanksgiving Day, 2013


Big Coffee – It is What it Is (My life in Coffee, part 2)

Note: Last week, I shared my personal history and love for coffee. This week, I’m sharing about my experience working in a coffee shop. Plenty has been written about coffee baristas hating their jobs and, especially, their customers. For examples of what you are NOT about to read here, check out these links: Why Your Stabucks Barista Hates You, Starbucks Gossip: Starbucks Barista: We’re Not Your Friends. I can’t deny some of it rings true, if hollow and one-dimensional. Because so many have asked, this post offers a glimpse of my experience working for Big Coffee in a licensed store – meaning, I have been trained on the “Big Coffee Way” and attempt to provide that same “Big Coffee” experience, but I am actually employed by another company. 

Black coffee and a Minnesota sandwich cookie from Gigi's. (never mind the missing upper right arm of the state. I took a bite first, photo second!)
Black coffee and a Minnesota sandwich cookie from Gigi’s. (never mind the missing upper right arm of the state. I took a bite first, photo second!)

When I resigned my professional position in higher education and relocated to Minneapolis, my friends and I repeatedly said, “If nothing else, you/I can get a job as a barista!”. This was a nod to my love for coffee and the hours I’d spent in my local coffee hangouts, and an acknowledgement that I wasn’t in any way certain about what the future held. In some ways, it was also the real-life equivalent of Monty Python’s famous line, “And now for something completely different!”. We all knew I had loved my job for years, but was seriously burnt-out and experiencing a deep sense of betrayal – so much so that the thought of continuing my career with a simple move to a different institution was anathema for a time.

At the beginning of my job search, I applied for a variety of professional positions, primarily in nonprofits throughout the Twin Cities. As weeks went by with barely a word from prospective employers, I began to think more seriously about hourly jobs as a means of tiding me over, financially, until the right full-time professional position came along. And that, my friends, is how I began working for Big Coffee.

I remember talking about customer service at my interview. I said, “Its important to read the customer. Some will come in looking for a pleasant exchange or to be recognized/known. Others just want to get their coffee and be on their way. How well you read what they want can make or break their day.” This has proven true. Very few of our customers want to chat at any length, but most are seeking a smile and expect me to ask how they are. In fact, a surprising number of them ask how I am first – and their question is more often than not a genuine one. The only customers who sometimes get on my nerves are the ones who can’t decide but don’t step aside to let the next in line go ahead of them. Ok, they’re not the only ones. As a licensed store, rather than a franchise, there are a few things that don’t work exactly the same way – I am also irritated by customers who get irate and yell at me because the corporate negotiations left these gaps in service. I sympathize, but am powerless, so please stop yelling at me.

I was surprised, as I trained, to learn that Big Coffee actually wants its baristas to be fairly knowledgeable about coffee. There were tastings of different blends with discussion of the flavor notes. There are strict standards for coffee brewing and the length of time a pot is allowed to sit before being replaced. And then there is The Machine: the fully-automated espresso machine which means that the barista never actually pulls a shot – s/he simply pushes a button. The shots are produced with a perfect crema on top. I already possessed a good grasp of steamed milk and the right quality of foam, but this was the first and most time-consuming part of my training.

My co-workers are an interesting lot. I didn’t expect to work with so many people who don’t actually like coffee. One of the difficulties for our store is that, due to not liking coffee, some of our baristas don’t understand the point of the standards for brewing or the time constraints placed on how long a shot of espresso can sit before it is served to the customer. To these baristas, it all tastes terrible anyway, so they cannot tell the difference between old coffee and fresh coffee. The lack of coffee-love also shows in the difficulty some have had in memorizing the recipes. On the other hand, with perhaps occasional lapses, my coworkers display excellent customer service…except for the somewhat high percentage of wrongly made drinks, which we remake with a smile, following the recipe the second time rather than relying on faulty memory.

The store I work at is located in an affluent community. People throughout the Minneapolis area refer to this community in negative terms, suggesting that they are particularly difficult because they carry a sense of entitlement. While I have certainly had a few experiences with customers who fit this stereotype, a much larger percentage of our customers than might typically be the case in other Big Coffee shops, are elderly. By and large, these individuals have manners and use them. Though an older clientele may sometimes slow the pace, it also offers the opportunity to engage with people who truly appreciate the extra assistance as we carry their coffee to the cafe or explain the differences between roasts.

As with all new experiences, working in a Big Coffee shop has been a learning experience. There are things that surprised me, things that bum me out, and things that I truly enjoy. I’d like to share a few in each category:

Things that surprised me:

  • Because we are a licensee rather than a franchise, our corporate owners have decreed that baristas may not accept tips. What surprises me, and warms my heart, is the number of customers genuinely outraged to learn this. (More on this in the “things that bum me out” list.)
  • Customers who know the exact recipe for what they are ordering – helpful on special orders, annoying on regular orders. There are customers who order their drinks made to a specific temperature – how do they determine their optimal temp? I just know I like my coffee very hot – but I am at a loss to quantify that.
  • How many children are allowed to order highly-caffeinated beverages. Yes, there is caffeine in most of the blended drinks.
  • How much I enjoy making caramel macchiatos, even though I would never order one (too sweet for me). These are basically the only coffee order that requires some artistry on my part.
  • How many people throw their money at you or drop it on the counter out of your reach. What is that about?

Things that bummed me out:

  • The Machine. I wanted to be a coffee artist, not a button pusher. The Machine allows consistency and is faster than hand-pulled shots. But. If I compare a Big Coffee Americano with one pulled by my black-and-green-haired barista at The Boiler Room there’s no comparison for taste. The hand-pulled shots win every time. Granted, some of this may also be the brand and roast of the espresso used – but it is also the care and consistency demonstrated by the barista.
  • Working for a licensed store can suck. There are a handful of us at Big Coffee, while all of our other coworkers are Union employees, which creates a glaring pay disparity. When hired, we were told that tips would be allowed – in Minneapolis this translates to hundreds of dollars per month of extra income for baristas. Without tips, what I make working 30 hours a week doesn’t pay for much. Big Coffee benefits such as health care, much lauded in the media, do not apply to us – even down to a cuppa during our work shifts. Official policy is that we must purchase anything we consume (including brewed coffee, despite the fact that we dump pots of it out every 30 minutes), except for testing samples when a new product is rolled out.
  • Schedules are produced on a week-by-week basis, without reference to the previous week’s schedule. This means that I never know in advance what my schedule will be, and I might have worked four days in a row at the end of the last schedule and four at the beginning of this one, making an 8-day week. This prohibits planning as well as doing in my off hours. Volunteer work? No one wants a volunteer who can’t commit to a set time. Job interviews translate to begging others to trade shifts. Time off requests mean that you are penalized those hours that week – it is always assumed you would have been scheduled for an 8-hour shift during that time and those 8 hours are “counted” against your total of 30 or fewer for the week. The upshot is that no one requests time off, resulting in a cut-throat trading free-for-all the minute a new schedule is posted. Health codes require us to call in sick under certain conditions. But no one does, because none of us can afford the lost income.
  • I remember a faculty member in graduate school saying that the higher your earned degree level, the more control and autonomy you would experience in your work life. Altogether, these bummers are teaching me a lot about things I may not have valued as deeply as I ought to have in my previous career.
  • The final bummer I want to share has to do with our elderly customers. Big Coffee is expensive. Every shift there is at least one person who approaches and says that they’d like to “have a treat today”, and asks the price of coffee or a pastry item. When told the price, s/he is crestfallen. Not irritated that it’s expensive, though we get that too. But genuinely, clearly unable to afford a small coffee. We have one woman who comes every day and asks for a sample of brewed coffee. She then sits in the cafe for an hour, nursing that thimbleful of coffee. Technically, this isn’t quite above board. But who is heartless enough to address it with her? It may be an affluent community, but it is clear who is living on a strictly limited income.

Things I enjoy:

  • Working the coffee bar when we’re busy. There’s a pleasure that comes with testing yourself to work fast with accuracy, and still manage to connect with the customers.
  •  I like being assigned to sample products. Many of my co-workers don’t like sampling, but I enjoy this process – a soft sell, answering questions, delighting people by giving them something yummy for free. Its the little things, right?
  • When I first started the job, I was disappointed that it wasn’t a more hip location. One where I might meet interesting artists or writers or…just a more diverse crowd. But as I’ve gotten to know our clientele, I’ve really liked working with the older customers. One customer orders a pour-over or a French Press every day, and every day with enthusiasm instructs us how to make it while also waxing poetic about how good it is compared to what he makes at home. Another older gentleman came in daily when we first opened, and garnered a reputation for being surly, cranky, and unfriendly. A month or so later, he showed up with a woman in tow – his wife who had been ill. He actually smiled, throwing everyone off. He still comes in daily, but with his wife – and the change in his demeanor has endeared him to all of us. There’s a quite elderly woman who has never ordered anything from us, but she is often waiting for her ride for 40 or 50 minutes. When I see her, I get something out of the case to sample. She’s particularly fond of anything chocolate!

There was some speculation, on my part as well as among my friends, whether working at Big Coffee would adversely affect my relationship with, my deep love for, coffee. I can happily report that it has not. Which is not to say that it hasn’t had an impact. For one, if Big Coffee is the only option available, I will go there. But now the idea of voluntarily spending my money and time at Big Coffee is much less agreeable to me. Not because I’m a hater – I’m not. But you know what they say about familiarity…some things are better with more separation. Besides, I’ve always preferred independent and local to chains anyway, and I have not come close to exhausting the coffee shop options here yet!

Some days, I wake up and all I can smell in my little apartment is coffee. I don’t know if it is something I bring home on my work clothes, in my nostrils, or if it is a remnant of the last pot I made in my galley kitchen. It doesn’t really matter which it is. I inhale deeply and think, “Hmmm. Time to make some coffee.”

The coffee bar at The Boiler Room.
The coffee bar at The Boiler Room.

The Very Things

“We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.”
― Cynthia Ozick

Who hasn’t had weeks or days like this? When it seems that everything that can go wrong does. When every item that lands on your plate is a challenge to your ethics or your knowledge or your compassion. When your plans are derailed time and again by forces outside your control: the weather, mechanical difficulties, other people. At times such as these we have few options other than to just do our best as we find a way through. Even though objectively I know I can only do my best as each challenge presents itself, subjectively many times my best feels woefully inadequate.

So when I came across the quote, above, from author Cynthia Ozick, it seemed like a good idea to take a few minutes in the midst of this week to be grateful for some of the things I take for granted.


Healthy, fresh food: This was my Sunday brunch, a frittata made with sweet potatoes, asparagus, onion, grape tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and eggs. With a rich cup of French roast coffee to wash it down, of course! When I stop to think about the fact that I have both the means and the access to acquire the freshest, healthiest ingredients – and how many people in this country, this world, don’t –  I am truly humbled and grateful. At the same time, if I really think about this, I am also energized to find ways for all people to have this simple abundance.


Natural beauty, even in winter: This photo of the Cedar River was taken in February on a day when I just needed to have a calming moment of stillness. I drove out to a rural access point, and spent a while just gazing at nature (mostly from inside my car, as the temps were dropping rapidly that afternoon). I have, only lately, come to appreciate nature and its direct impact on my mood. It seems miraculous to me that we live in a world where such beauty is, literally, just around the corner.


Kindred spirits: On a recent trip to sunny Florida, I optimistically wore sandals to the airport, despite the bitingly cold wind here. I knew it would be in the high 70s when we arrived at our destination. My friend, Molly, saw my toes and asked if I had recently had a pedicure, which I had. Turns out, so had she – and we had selected the same shade of sparkly orange polish! One of the things I value greatly about my friends is that we are all so different from one another – in age, temperament, experiences – yet on a level deep beneath the skin we “get” each other. The love and respect inherent in these friendships with my kindred spirits is such a gift – one that I rely on heavily in difficult times. Sometimes, it is hard not to take them for granted due to the ease and natural fit of our friendship. I need to remember that my friends and family are people to treat with true appreciation on a daily basis, as that is how often they lighten the burden and increase my joy in life.


Sunshine: It is March. In Iowa. Every moment of sunshine is a little miracle that needs to be appreciated.


Serendipity: It just so happened that I arrived at the Merritt Island Bird Sanctuary on the morning after something or someone had trashed the bird feeders next to the observation deck, spilling the bird seed on the ground and offering a veritable feast for a variety of species. Including these painted buntings – which the volunteer at the sanctuary informed us were a rare sight. Another example of serendipity: my friend Wendy gave me a gift certificate for a 60-minute massage (she gave it to me for my birthday in July). I realized several weeks ago that the certificate expired at the end of March, and scheduled the first available evening appointment – which was last night. Not knowing, at the time I scheduled the appointment, what would be happening this week, the massage could not have come at a better time. Appreciating these moments when the confluence of events creates just the right and needed experience to salve my soul is an important form of gratitude. These are the moments that remind me that all good things come as gift and grace, rather than through my own deserving.


Simple Silliness: I tend toward the serious most days. My work involves people and their life issues, which are serious business. When moments arrive which allow the freedom of letting go of all that seriousness, it is a big deal to let go and relax into them. I love that Mike captured this photo of me engaging, with silly abandon, in a misguided attempt to make a snow angel on the hard, crusted snow covering Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis a few weeks ago.

So, there are six things that I tend to take for granted which are richly deserving of gratitude. There are many more – education, clean water, fresh air, family – the list may, in fact, be endless. Endless, because I suspect the truth is that gratitude should be the center from which I live into each moment of this precious life I’ve been given. Each moment experienced as gift – I wonder how that would change my perceptions? My interactions? My creativity and flexibility when faced with life’s challenging and emotionally depleting days? What if I could also add my own imperfections to the list of items I am grateful for? Wow, that would likely be a game-changer. Imagine saying, “Thank you for my fear.” “Thank you for my confusion.” “Thank you for my flawed nature.” Hmmm. That, my friends, may be fodder for another post!

Note: I invite you to share in the comments some thing(s) you take for granted but would like to be grateful for – I would love to hear your thoughts!

The Return of Flashback Friday


Flashback Friday returns as the result of reader requests. Generally, the photos shared are from the deep past, though occasionally one from the more recent past (such as today’s) will creep into the mix. I thought this photo was fitting for the return of F.F. since we are clearly toasting an occasion.

The moment was Saturday brunch in April 2011, at a great restaurant in Chicago (name escapes me now – Uncommon Ground?) with wonderful food and – here’s the important part – a wide selection of caffeinated beverages. Around the table: Wendy Jo (friend of the family), my niece Zoe, sister Annie, brother Matt and his wife Maria. My fully-leaded beverage was in a huge bowl-style cup, like Anne’s, which is why I couldn’t lift it and snap the picture at the same time.

I belong to a family of caffeine addicts. My brother Jeff and his wife Marsha own a coffeeshop. My dad makes the morning pot of coffee the night before, just to shave a few minutes from the lag time between waking and pouring hot coffee down his throat. We are forever on the look-out for cups just the right size – big enough not to be refilled every 30 seconds, small enough that the coffee stays hot while you drink it.

It is possible I never married because I never found a man who would do what my father did every morning for my mother: get up, make the coffee, and carry a steaming hot cup to me before I got out of bed.