Saturday, October 29, 2005

Matt Makes Espresso part 1

I've been searching for a way to take things to the next level. I decided it was time to learn more, so for the past few months I've been reading, researching, trying to find new ways to enjoy coffee. I've learned a lot and I'll share it with you in time. One of the results of this research was that it instilled within me a desire to make espresso.

Quite frankly, I'd never been impressed with espresso. It just seemed like a yuppie drink. Overpriced for a small amount of strong coffee that still had a fraction of the caffeine of a real cup of coffee. But then I read all sorts of people waxing poetic about espresso, and the transcendend experience it can be when done right. But there are a lot of conditions to doing it right, and somehow I don't think the stoned teenagers that staff the coffee shops where I'd gotten my espressos before really put the time and talent into doing it right.

So I decided I'd have to do it myself. It might take years of practice, but ultimately I'd be able to "pull a God shot," as the espresso fanatics refer to it as.

I did some more research and ultimately settled on the Rancillio Miss Silvia espresso maker and Rocky grinder combination. They have such a cult following. There are even websites devoted to modding the Miss Silvia, and people write eloquently about how much they love the pair but...

I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Miss Silvia, I'm sorry to say, is butt ugly. There's no design going into the exterior. Just a big ugly cube of stainless steel, trying to be osequious and hidden in spite of the general ostentatiousness of espresso. And the cult following and people anthropomorphizing their devices was a turn-off, even if the idea of a community I could go to for more information was nice.

Then I found it. The Francis! Francis! X5. It was at TJMaxx for almost $400 less than the retail price.

It is heavy. It is really ugly in an almost beautiful awkwardness like a Stealth bomber painted pink. Pink! This color does not exist anywhere in my house for a reason. But for $400, I'd deal with it. And you know? It isn't bad. Somehow the fact that it doesn't try to blend in makes it easier to ignore. And pink is the new black anyway, so I can just pretend.

Still, there's something I like about the Francis! Francis! in-your-face attitude. Not many companies manage to work two exclamation points into their name. Not many company owners would have a picture of their daughter sticking her tongue out as their company logo.

I've only tried making "real" espresso twice. I've been using up the free package of Illy pods that came with it. The pods are disgustingly convenient. They're little hocky pucks of coffee, ground, compressed and wrapped in a paper filter. You pop it in, make the espresso, pop it out and throw it away. The espresso made this way doesn't taste nearly as good as the shots I ineptly made using my own freshly ground coffee, but they're soooooo easy. Soon, I'll have a proper tamper though (the tamper was missing from the box, unfortunately, so I had to order a new one) and I'll start working on that "God shot." I'll let you know how it works out.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

how much is it worth?

My blog is worth $2,258.16.
How much is your blog worth?

... but I'll take $2000 for it...

Honestly, I have no idea how they come up with that number. It seems very generous to me.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Hot Lunch!

Sorry everyone. Right now I'm taking the equivalent of 4 grad level classes, while teaching 3 college classes. My bloggery will be sporadic until next year at the soonest, if I don't kill myself with overcommitment & stress. Drinkng shot glass of Aloe Vera gel twice a day keeps the stomach ulcers within acceptable parameters. Guess I should see a doctor about those... but he'll just tell me to cut down on the coffee. Yeah, that'll happen. My plan is to get an espresso machine as soon as I'm not poor. Espresso, while tasting stronger, extracts less caffiene. The caffiene is what's hard on the stomach. Then I will regale you with tales of learning to make coffee!

In the meantime, get your food writing fix at the wonderful Hot Lunch, where my friend Dustin and his friends write about what they're eating.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Naked Coffee

In the introduction to his book Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs says, "The title means exactly what the words say: NAKED Lunch - a frozen moment where everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."

Sometimes the "fork" is a cup of coffee. I was down in Guatemala a decade or so ago. There I learned that average Guatemalans don't ever get to drink their own coffee. It is too expensive. Less than 1% of the population makes more than $500 a year. American importers have paid as high as $2 and as low as $0.30 a pound for the coffee. Even 30 cents is a huge amount for most Guatemalans. That really floored me. I just couldn't believe that they didn't even get to enjoy their most famous product. Then I saw something else. A man heading out to work to spray pesticides on the coffee plants. He had a big vat of poison strapped to his back with a spray hose attached. He was just wearing plain clothes. Just a cloth t-shirt and pants. No protective gear of any sort. No respirator. There's no OSHA in Guatemala. I'm sure he'd never been told that the chemicals he was carrying were harmful to him as well, or been given any instructions on how to avoid getting those chemicals in his community's drinking water...

Naked coffee... that frozen moment where you see exactly what is in your cup. Maxwell House, Folgers, Starbucks... these companies pay the barest minimum they can for their coffee, and they knowingly encourage practices like unsafe pesticide use. Lest you think this is somehow justified, consider that a few years back, growers were getting around $2 a pound for their beans, but due to changes in the market they now make around 30 cents a pound. Are you paying 85% less for your coffee than you were a few years ago? No, because the consumer is getting exploited along with the grower. While corporate coffee gets a huge increase in profits, the consumer gets screwed, and the growers get less than they need to survive. If you buy coffee from these companies you're paying for this to continue.

My new hero is Dean Cycon. Dean makes it really easy to make a moral stand in a cup of coffee. Dean ONLY sells fairly traded, organic, shade grown coffee.

A quick explanation of what that means. Fair Trade sets a minimum price cap on what the grower gets paid (currently $1.41 for organic, as opposed to the 30 cents Starbucks etc. pay). That's just the start of what Fair Trade does, but essentially it means if your coffee has the fair trade designation, you can be reasonably sure that the growers aren't being exploited. Organic means (and here there are many standards and definitions, but generally speaking...) that the coffee was grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. It is good to see because you know the grower wasn't poisoning themselves or their community to grow the coffee, and you know you aren't drinking trace amounts of pesticides. Shade grown does organic one better. It means the coffee is grown while disrupting the local flora and fauna as little as possible. It means growing with the environment. Just because something is organic doesn't mean there wasn't a forest clearcut to create a field to plant the coffee in.

As I said before, though, Dean makes it easy to be moral. You should be buying nothing but organic, shade grown, Fair Trade coffees because it is the right thing to do. But sadly, too many people don't really care what's on the end of their fork. As long as something is cheap and convenient it really doesn't matter who suffered to get something into your mouth. And to be honest with you, even though I've seen that suffering first hand, I need that cup of coffee. If Starbucks is the only thing around, I'll get my coffee there because caffiene withdrawals will render me nonfunctional if I don't. And if money is tight, I'll go with the non-organic products to save a buck.

But Dean's Beans don't cost any more than other specialty coffees, at least at the Belfast Coop where I shop. And if one cares nothing about the rest of the world, and only about one's own pleasure, they still win with Dean's Beans. You can compare for yourself. Take any brand of coffee that has organic and shade grown versions and do a taste-test with the non-organic options. Organic coffee tastes better than non-organic. It is noticably richer, fuller. Shade-grown coffee tastes that much better again than ordinary organic.

Dean's Beans make the best coffee I've ever had. Nothing else will do for me now. I had a few pounds of Alta Dena, which is darn good coffee, but I gave that to my sister. I even carry some ground up beans with me when I leave town so I can make my own when I'm away from Belfast (in the base of my Planetary Designs French Press mug, of course!). If you're a friend, relative or student of mine, let me know and I'll be happy to pick some up for you. Otherwise, you can find a Deans Beans reseller near you, or order beans here.

Hurricane Katrina did a number on New Orleans. Although we didn't here about it much in the news in the US, Hurricane Stan has done much, much more damage to Guatemala, El Salvador and other Latin American countries than Katrina did to NOLA. Sadly, I think many of us have overdosed on compassion, and don't have much left over. But just by buying Fair Trade coffees exclusively you are doing something. You are helping. At least it's a start!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

My new favorite thing: Planetary Design's Double Shot French Press

I love gadgets and spend an inordinate amount of time and money on them. Very few of these things, however, have altered my life on a day-to-day basis. Planetary Design's Double Shot French Press Mug, however, is one that has.

I'd passed by the Double Shot, sold at the Belfast Co-op where I do my shopping, many times before and never really gave it much attention before. It seemed just a little gimicky to me. But a few weekends ago friends Dustin and Hillary were visiting and Hillary just couldn't stop talking about how cool it was, so I gave it another look. Thanks, Hillary, for making me notice!

The idea is pretty simple. Take an insulated coffee mug and build in a French press, thus making it portable. Not a bad idea, really, since French presses tend to be made of glass, and are easily breakable. Planetary Design's Double Shot French Press Mug is more than this. It is a design masterpiece. Bodum gets the credit for making the best French presses in the world, but after having the Double Shot in my life for a couple weeks, I have to wonder if Bodum's more honest claim is just that they have the best marketing. My Bodum press has been sitting on the counter since I got the Double Shot, even when I'm not taking my coffee on the road.

For starters, look at the heart of any French press, the plunger mechanism. It is a patented design, far superior to any I've seen. It has a plastic flange with a built-in spring to ensure that it is constantly pressed against the side of the mug. Some French presses just use a solid plastic disc. The Bodum uses the slightly better method of coiled spring to press the screen against the side of the carafe. The problem with these methods is that if the plunger tilts you wind up with coffee grounds in your drinking coffee. Planetary Designs provides the best seal I've ever seen, far more effective than Bodum's, and it is also very forgiving. No grounds even if the screen tilts. And yet it is a simpler mechanism. The screen just has one part as opposed to Bodum's three, making it much easier to clean.

The lid is also well thought-out. It actually has a rubber O-ring that completely seals the lid to the mug. There's an additional screen where the coffee comes out. I'm not sure if it is the addition of this second screen, or if both screens use a finer mesh than Bodum and other French presses do, but the end result is that you can actually drink your coffee down to the last drop. Fans of French presses know that you have to avoid that last swallow of coffee in the cup. That's the one drawback to brewing coffee using a screen instead of a filter. You wind up with a certain amount of sediment at the bottom. It is a small price to pay, but even still it catches me off guard when I'm hurriedly quaffing my last bit of coffee before running out the door and wind up with a mouth full of grounds and powder. This isn't an issue with the Double Shot.

The Double-Shot is made with marine-grade stainless steel (whatever that means) and is insulated. Insulated mugs are something I tend to avoid for around-the-house use. They're fine for traveling, but (and of course this could just be my overactive imagination because stainless steel is supposed to be nonreactive, so there's no way this could be true... could there?) I find that even in stainless steel travel mugs the coffee tastes different to me. Not as good as it would taste in a ceramic mug. Maybe it is the "marine grade" stainless steel that makes a difference, but coffee in the Double-Shot tastes just as good as it does if I made it in my glass French press. Even better, since it doesn't have the sediment and the insulated cup keeps the coffee consistently hot, seemingly for hours, giving me time to savor the taste before the coffee goes cold.

I was initially resistant to the directions that came with the cup which said to add the cream to the coffee grounds BEFORE pouring in the hot water. Usually the cream is the thing that cools the coffee off enough to drink so you don't have to wait, so I worried that adding it before brewing would make the water too cool to brew a decent cup. The insulated mug, however, more than compensates for the cooling effect of the cream.

All this is cool enough to justify the price ($28 online from Liquid Planet, $22 at the Belfast Coop if I remember correctly. If you're a friend of mine let me know and I'll pick one up for you...) but the Double Shot still holds one feature that'll make you say, "Oh, that is SO COOL!" Pull off the bottom (sealed with another rubber O-ring) and inside that is an air-tight cannister that will hold enough ground coffee for two more cups (or secret documents or whatever other contraband you need to smuggle). You know, I've always hated those people who, at the coffee shop or restaurant say, "Can I just get a little hot water for this?" and pull out their own tea bag they brought from home. It's always seemed like a totally cheapskate thing to do. But with this massively cool hidden canister thing I may just be losing cool points this year.

So, there you have it. My latest "all-time favorite thing EVER!" I'm sure I'll have another one shortly. I usually do, but I'll be enjoying it with my Double Shot in hand.

yeah, yeah

Obviously, it "didn't take" this time around. I blame the weather. It has just been too beautiful. Turns me into an airhead. I need the cold, gray days of fall/winter/spring to get anything done. You should visit the Castles journal though. I've actually been writing there, and it is way more interesting than 100 Cups of Coffee anyway.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

cup 6: Beach Pea

Where: Beach Pea, Kittery, ME
When: 8 am
Who: Ethel LeClair
What: house French Roast

cup 5: only half a cup?

Where: Curti Residence, Kittery, ME
When: June 29, 8 am
Who: Chip and Ernie
What: Equal Exchange

No chance for a picture this morning. Sorry. I should have known. Mom said she'd pick me up at 8:30 am to go to Brenda's, but of course she showed up 45 minutes early, and I only had time to chug half a cup of coffee before she wanted to leave.

Brenda's was remarkable, as expected. Brenda is the self-proclaimed "Bag Lady of Lee." She is the queen of, well, stuff. She goes to yardsales and picks through trash at the dump to find things of questionable value and then finds ways to give them value. Today she had a case of what appeared to be 8.5" x 11" paper cut into thirds, the long way. She was trying to find a way to make these 7500 2.8" x 11" sheets useful. She'd tried glueing then ends of stacks of them together with a hot glue gun with acceptable results only to realize that just one pad was enough to take down all the phone numbers and create all the shopping lists you'd want to for years to come. So she was looking for other uses. Mom needed a stand for her new apartment so we went through the basement and the shed looking for furniture. So much stuff! Floor to ceiling of years are yardsale finds. There's one room devoted entirely to McDonald's Happy Meal Toys (just McDonald's, other fast food toys are in a different area). Another room is just for Legos. An area of the shed has so many baskets hanging from the rafters that you can't see the ceiling, and there's another area devoted entirely to prints of every sort. The stuff goes on and on.

Brenda has rules when going to yardsales: You can never pay asking price for anything at a yardsale. You can never leave a yardsale empty-handed. The latter rule has led to some interesting collections. Brenda let me in on the secret to never leaving empty handed. You choose something to collect every yardsale season, and make sure it is something that most people would consider so worthless that they wouldn't even put it in the yardsale. One year she choose plastic flowers. At the end of the summer she made a giant mountain of flowers to engulf her mailbox. She left it like that for a while, then sold all the flowers at her own yardsale the following summer. She's more selective about her fake flowers now. She gets very realistic ones, and matches the flowers to whatever is in season outside, leaving them up only while the real flowers are in bloom outside and changing them to match the changing season. She delights in fooling people into thinking the fake flowers are real. It is important to note that she often has the real things growing right outside the door and could go out and cut the same flowers to have inside, but that wouldn't be as fun. Now Brenda is acquiring fake fruit. She doesn't know exactly what she's going to do with it all yet. That is half the point of getting it, though. When she has enough, inspiration will strike her and the fruit will take its place in the grand scheme of things.

Sadly, this trip, coming so soon after my big move, I wasn't so much in the mood to acquire more stuff. I think in a couple months I'll take a trip down again. I did manage to find a candy dot maker in amongst all the stuff. Seemed like a perfect way to use some of those 7500 strips of paper.

On returning to the Curti house, I found the remaining half cup of coffee sitting on the counter where I'd left it. I took a swig. Yeah, it had been sitting on the counter in 90 degree heat all day, but the acid in coffee will keep cream from spoiling (I think) so as long as it doesn't tast bad or have chunks, you're OK. Unfortunately, there was a chunk, and I had a brief moment of "swallow or spit?" thinking it might be just a breadcrumb. I spat it out into the sink and it tried to crawl away. A black and had found its way into my coffee. I was pretty grossed out by now. My addiction must be somewhat subsided now, because I dumped the rest of the coffee out and didn't make any more.

So THAT is why I only had half a cup of coffee today.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

cup 4: friendly again

Where: The Friendly Toast, Portsmouth, NH
When: June 28, 8:30 am
Who: Jessica Brakeley
What: house

cup 3: pug ugly

Where: Curti residence, Kittery, ME
When: June 26, 7:30 am
Who: Chip & Ernie
What: Equal Exchange something-or-other

cup 2: The Friendly Toast

Where: The Friendly Toast, Portsmouth, NH
When: June 26, 8:30 am
Who: Jessica Brakeley
What: House blend

Cup 1: Marky

Where: The Bohemian, Brunswick, ME
When: June 25, 10:30 am
Who: Mark Leaman
What: Bohemian Uprising

Yes indeed, the Bohemian still exists. On my previous visit to Brunswick I got the mistaken perception that it was gone, replaced by Little Dog. Actually, it had just moved around the corner. Mark met me at Little Dog, then dragged me over to the Bohemian. It was the only place in town that met Mark's criteria at that moment: WiFi and air conditioning.

I'll probably get letters for saying this, but honestly, I liked the old Bohemian better. I can understand why it moved. The old place was crappy and falling down and had nowhere to sit indoors, but it was, well, bohemian. It felt like a West Coast coffee house, one of those places that existed before the masses discovered you could make money selling good coffee. The new place is about as bohemian as a Starbucks. It is crisp and clean and polished and air conditioned and wi-fied. The coffee is an order of magnatude better than Starbucks. BOHEMIAN : STARBUCKS :: STARBUCKS : FOLGERS, and the people watching is better also. The Bowdoin College crowd is just lovely to look at.

The Bohemian was a stopover on the way to my sister's, where I'd be spending the week looking after their pugs and chickens while the family vacations.... (more later, gotta run...)

Friday, June 24, 2005


Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Where: Home, Belfast, ME
When: 8 am, June 23, 2005
Who: just me
Coffee: Avalon Organic French Roast
Mood: happy

Welcome to my new home! This isn't particularly a good shot of it. I was trying to capture as much as possible of it, and include the coffee resting on my knee. To my right are peonies. There's actually a whole wall of them beside me and I can sit there and drink in the smell. The scent of peonies, I've come to realize, is the Platonic ideal flower smell. Every other flower scent is just a variation on this smell (well, except for carrion flowers...). Peonies throng the front window, too, and when the wind blows just right it is pure wonderfullness. Just above my knee is a lupine. "Pine cone and tassel" is the official state flower. Lame. It should be the lupine. This time of year the lupines are in bloom, and you'll be driving down the road and turn the corner and there'll be a hill or a field turned purple by lupines. The site is so magnificent I've almost gone of the road because of it. The patch of mud on my right is what will be a flower garden. I've planted a mix of short and medium annuals and perrenials. I need to find something tall for the back. These will grow and fill in, hopefully. Behind the hedge of lupines I've started a perrenial herb garden. Peeking out between the house in the middle and the trees is the Atlantic Ocean. That's right. I can see the ocean when I drink my morning coffee!

I'm loving this place!

Meanwhile, I wrapped things up in Pembroke last week, which, except for a few days in July, I'm on "vacation" until September. I'm going through withdrawal at the moment. After months of being on the go from waking in the morning to collapsing at night, I am free to do what I want. I feel like one of those poor saps in the Allegory of the Cave, though. I've been in the cave of constant work for so long that now I am out of it I am just dazzled by the light, paralyzed by freedom. The real world hardly seems real. The responsibility of choosing my own destiny, even if it is just deciding what I'll do this one day, is overwhelming. So I'm taking this week to chill, veg out, think no deep thoughts. Next week I'll start engaging with the real world again.

Meanwhile, here in a new town, I've realized that my relationship to humanity in general is pretty messed up. In a nutshel, I've forgotten how to make friends. It seems like I knew how at one point, but when you've been a workaholic for years you start making sacrifices. Making friends was something I cut out. So here I am in a new town and I don't know anyone but Jessie, who moved here with me, and our landlords, who live upstairs, and I'd like to meet new people and make new friends, but I just have no idea how. No idea.

So, I'm going to start another 100 cups of coffee. Sunday is my tentative starting date, but I've got a lot of driving/hanging out with friends & family that day so it might get pushed back. I hadn't planned to, but I'm feeling the need. The first time around was for artistic/learning purposes. This time around it is for personal growth. My whole life has changed. There's been a whole lot of endings in the past few months, and now, after an interlude, things are beginning. My therapist was always after me to write things down, but I really have a hard time writing without an audience. So please, join me as I live and pay attention and drink coffee and talk about it. Feel free to jump in whenever you want!

Oh, and you're all cordially invited to join me for a cup of coffee if you're in the area. Just drop me a line!

Friday, June 03, 2005

Interlude 2: Serenity

Thursday we woke up to the sunrise over the Atlantic ocean, and then noticed the sunlight reflecting off the ocean onto our ceiling. It was the first sunrise we've seen at our new home. It rained almost constantly for the month of may, so seeing the sun for the first time felt miraculous. Then it hit us: this is our home. We really, honestly have a plce with a bedroom that overlooks the ocean. And that is just one of the little wonders that keep catching us off guard. Things we knew all along, but there's a difference between knowing them as a fact and actually experiencing them. Like walking through the park that overlooks the bay and seeing that incredible view and realizing that this isn't just some place we're visiting, this is our home now. Or walking home from downtown along the ocean. Or discovering a vegetarian restaurant just four blocks away from our apartment. I didn't even realize there were vegetarian restaurants in Maine other than Little Lad's.

Wednesday was the first full day I'd been able to spend in Belfast. It was also our first sunny day in weeks. I spent most of the day outside in the garden, weeding, planting the handful of perennials I rescued from my former home in Orono. It was the first time I really started to feel like I was living in Belfast. The morning before I went to 17 Margin St., Orono, ME 04473 for the very last time, to help my mother finish packing and cleaning the last few things before the new owners took over. The past weeks have been heartbreaking. This has probably been the most difficult time of my life since my dad died. Letting go of Orono and the family home really has been like losing a family member, and losing part of who I am. The new owners had started moving furniture in before we moved out. Big, tacky, expensive leather crap that stunk so badly of cigarettes that I had to close the doors on it because it stank up the house. In the garage they left a HUGE bar, larger than I'd seen at most real bars. So my ancestral home will become a party house for rich kids whose daddy is buying them a house to go to college in. I really hoped for better for it. Tuesday was cold and rainy, a perfectly depressing day, a perfect day for endings. I stood in the cold after everyone left and wondered how I felt. I'd gone numb. "I'll just have to blog about it later, and then read the blog, and find out how I felt," I told myself, and drove away from 17 Margin for the last time.

I talked to my mother on Tuesday night, after she'd made it down to her new home in Kittery. "I'm not going to miss the place," she told me. "Too many bitter memories." She's right. We moved there because after my dad's brain aneurism he couldn't hold a job anywhere, and we needed a place to rent, and Nana LeClair rented us the top half of the house for cheap. But she was an absolute bitch, and dad kept getting sick again and again, the neighborhood went downhill, we had Faye the psycho lawn mowing neighbor...

A week ago I had Faye for the view out the front window. Now I have sunrise over the Atlantic. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Sometimes you can be holding onto something so tight you don't even know what you're holding onto. And then when you let go, there was nothing there at all. You just didn't realize it because you were clutching so tight. Suddenly I find myself in a place of beauty and opportunity where all I saw was loss and heartbreak, and all I had to do was let go.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Elsewhere in this blog, I said something about the fact that when I am living a life worth blogging about I have no time/energy to write! The time since my last entry has been no exception. This past month my life has been undergoing some of the biggest changes ever, and I haven't written a word about it. There's the usual hectic work stuff, what with one semester ending at the University and the school year coming to an end in Pembroke with lots of projects needing to get wrapped up, a Mayterm starting, where I teach an entire semester's worth of content in three weeks. On top of this all, I've been prepping an online class. For some reason I thought it would be a really great idea to create new content for it rather than just videotape my live class and put it up online the way most instructors who teach online classes do. That struck me as lame, like charging the full price for something used, it seemed like cheating the students. But now that I've actually engaged in the process of creating all this material, I'm thinking cheating the students wasn't such a bad idea...

There's no way I could have been writing about cups of coffee this past month. Consumption hasn't been measured in cups. I'm back up to the level of coffee consumption I was at when we were writing the books. Two pots a day, or more. A cup of coffee is never far from my hand, and I'm drinking it all day long. I can't remember when the last day I just relaxed was. I think it was my birthday, April 17th, but even then I think I was running around.

This level of business is manageable under ordinary circumstances. I work better with a full plate. But there's more: we're moving. I've moved around a lot. That's nothing new. But this time it's different. Four generations of my family have lived in this house (three of them LeClairs, the fourth my great-grandfather's mother-in-law). The family's been here in three different centuries. My parents moved into this house twenty-five years ago. While I haven't lived here all that time with them, it has still been home. A constant. A place where I know I can go, and where I can keep "that stuff" that I didn't want to move.

It has been hard. I feel like I'm losing my home and my history. Mom has deemed me incapable of ownership because I don't have a house, so everything she owned that isn't going into her new apartment got divided amongst my siblings. The only thing I have of any sentimental or family historical value is a brass lamp my father made. So all the historical artifacts are gone, the physical objects I could point to and say, there, that belonged to so-and-so, and feel that tie to the past and know that I came from somewhere. This house, so many years, so many memories... someone else's now. "That stuff" stored in boxes that I didn't want to move before. Love letters from old girlfriends, stupid little trinkets I'd hung onto for sentimental reasons... but it is all evidence. Time passes, and I repeat the stories of the things I did in the past and after a while I'm not sure if these things really happened, or if they are just stories. But going through these boxes and finding evidence, proof that I really was there after all, and I did those things and knew those people and it was all real. And then it all goes into the trash.

I may sound melancholy about this, but overall I'm feeling very positive about it all. Sure, there are frustrations, and any change is difficult and stressful, even when it is for the better. I am losing my past, but I'm seeing it as pruning off the dead branches. I am losing my home, but the soil here is spent, so my roots here will never grow past where they are right now if I stay here. The neighborhood my house is in has been in a decline for a long time, and doesn't show signs of improving. The old families are almost all gone, and when they move their houses are bought by landlords who rent out to college students. There are houses on this street that have so much peeling paint they look like they are shacks, and other houses where the occupants moved furniture and other big garbage out to the curb to be picked up by spring cleaning last year. Only the town doesn't do spring cleaning anymore, so the crap has just sat outside in front of the house for over a year... I'm not going to miss any of these things! And I'm not going to miss Faye W**dc**k, my insane, obese, ignorant, racist, homophobic, anti-semitic, loudmouthed neighbor and her riding lawnmower fetish. Picture Jello molded into a vaguely human form, clothe it in grey sweat pants and sweat shirt and perch it on a riding lawnmower, and then make it mow the lawn for hours, while chainsmoking. It isn't that the yard is really big enough to warrant mowing it for hours. It is just that she goes over the same spot over and over and over again. I've counted. Five, six, seven, eight times around the same tree, the same spot, like the lawnmower is some demon, possessing her. It is especially surreal when she does it during a drought, and the lawn has basically turned to sand and there was no grass to mow in the first place, and she'll still be out there kicking up clouds of dust for hours on end. Sometimes, if the neighbor's yards aren't up to snuff she'll go and mow theirs, uninvited. It'd be amusing if it wasn't so annoying. She usually does it on a nice sunny weekend day, making it impossible to be outside enjoying the day. Yeah, I'll be really happy not to have her for a neighbor anymore!

Mom's moving to Kittery, and this is a good thing. She'll be closer to the rest of our family, just five minutes away from my sister. Jess & I are moving to Belfast where we have a great apartment overlooking the ocean and there are at least two good places to sit and get a good cup of coffee just a few minutes walk away. I may be losing something of the past, something of my own history, but when it comes right down to it, life in Orono has been OK at best. It is relatively safe, relatively predictable. I feel like nothing super bad is going to happen to me here, but also that nothing super fantastic will happen either. I don't know what the future will bring. In Orono, at least I had that illusion, but that isn't necessarily a good thing. Now anything is possible. That's scary as hell because everything could fall apart from here on. But wonderfulness can happen, too!

"MY heart has spread its sails to the idle winds for the shadowy island of Anywhere," to quote Tagore. Well, not yet, but soon it will be true. Today I am stressed, overworked, overtired, overcommitted, terrified. But soon I'll let go of all this extra baggage and set sail.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Starbucks Delocator

This is a great thing! I've already talked about the evil that is Starbucks, so I won't go on about it again. Here's a handy little page that will help you find alternatives when you're on the road, don't know where to go, and want a decent cup of coffee. There goes the only reason to patronize a Starbucks!

Sunday, March 27, 2005

The new project has begun!

Pop on over here for my latest project. Last year I wrote a novel. I intended to rewrite it and publish it online, and charge, like, a dollar for it. Not that it isn't worth much more than that, but I was thinking about the first book I co-authored, Digital Prepress Complete, and how, after everyone took their cut, we made about a dollar off ever $50 book that was sold. Hence, when I hear about all these copyright laws that are supposed to be protecting my rights as a creator. Protecting everyone else's profits is more like, since we had a fairly good contract when it came right down to it, which meant that only 92% of the profit of the sales of the book went to everyone else. So I was thinking if I could connect directly with the reader, eliminating all the middle leaches, I could sell the book for a dollar and still make more money.

I still plan on doing that. However, I realized that it is going to take a lot more rewriting than I initially thought. This is because I initially wrote the novel to be a serial in the old movie matinee sense. A series of ten episodes, each with increasingly perilous cliffhangers and shocking revelations. I intended for there to be a gap between reading each chapter, to build anticipation and make the reader anxious to find out what happens next.

I just didn't find it to be as much fun when I put it all together as a novel. So here I am presenting it as it was intended, in serial form. I am rewriting it now to be a better serial, not to be a better novel. I'll be adding a new episode every week. I'll also be maintaining an accompanying blog. When it is all done, I'll rewrite it once again to make it into a novel, which I will sell online and try to publish, for reasons I've written about in the new blog already, and won't repeat here.

I really want lots of feedback on the new project! I want to take it from "pretty good" to "totally cool" and feedback from you, dear reader, can make all the difference in the world. Or multiverse, as the case may be. Heh.

It is a fun serial, called Castles. It is a kind of mystical action adventure coming of age story. It is also about castles in every interpertation of the word. Someone once said, neurotics build castles in the clouds, psychotics live in them. Both kind are in the book, as are the castle walls we build around ourselves for protection, but also wind up keeping people out who might be friends, allies or lovers at the same time. It is also about the castle, an important chess move.

Go give it a try! Click on Episode One for a pdf file of the first chapter. I'll be adding another every week. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

100 Cups of Coffee: Thank you, and Good Night!

Thanks for coming, everyone! This experiment is essentially at an end. I've got to do a few tweaks here and there, and make sure I filled out all the placeholder entries, but I'm done with the regular updates.

Was the experiment a success? I'm not sure. I learned from it, which was the point. It would have been nice to have more comments, but then, I never went out of my way to promote this blog, and my entries were, for the most part, pretty mundane and non-controversial. Not the sorts of things that really warrant comments! I also picked the worst time to do this blog. December through March are my most boring months out of the year. I strive to be a complete recluse, hiding under the blankets and seldom doing anything more than watching TV. The rest of the year I lead a life of action and adventure, I assure you!

I recommend doing something like this to everyone. Take a subject that is static and non-controversial and write about it for far longer than is sensible. Try to keep it interesting. Try never to repeat yourself. I've never heard of this as an excercise for developing one's writing skills, but it is definately a good workout.

I think I cheated too many times, though. I am dissappointed in myself for that. I think too many entries were shaggy dog stories. If you're not familiar with that term, a shaggy dog story is a long, rambling tale that purports to be about a shaggy dog, but after going on and on about nothing to do with a shaggy dog, the narrator says, "and then a shaggy dog walked by..." and continues with the rambling. I felt like too many times I said, "blah blah blah, and then I drank a cup of coffee, blah blah blah." I think a bigger challenge would have been to write about 100 cups of coffee but not bring in any information that doesn't directly relate to the cup of coffee. It'd also be a good way to go crazy! But what a divine madness it would be. You'd be the best writer about coffee in the world by the time you were done.

I am more pleased with the photos than I am with my writing. I think they managed to stay focused specifically on the coffee more than the writing did. I also think they improved more over time than the writing did.

I am not sure I actually wrote anything good in this blog. But it is hard to have perspective. When I feel like I've written something good is when the writing writes itself and it just flows out, and when I stop I can't really remember what I've written. That never happened with this blog. It happened with my novel, mid-way through the third chapter. After that the effort was just keeping my body moving long enough for the words to get out. The book wrote itself.

I doubt that I'm done writing about coffee. I'm planning on pitching to the Bangor Daily News that they let me do a regular column on coffee. Only this time it will have a different slant. I want to find the best cup of coffee in Maine. When the SCAA gives its Golden Cup Award, they don't actually visit the coffee shop. Instead, a sample of the coffee and the water used is mailed to them, and they analyze it in a lab. To me, this is useful in establishing the ballpark, but the chemistry of the coffee is just one small part of the equation of what makes a great cup of coffee. It is atmosphere, mood and je ne sais quois. Context. So I want to travel around the state to find the best cup of coffee in it. I want it to be a community effort, too. I want people to contact me about the places they think are the best, and I will go and meet them there, and drink coffee with them, and chat. Part restaurant review, part travelogue... I want to be the Hunter S. Thompson of coffee!

You can help make this happen. If you've been reading this blog and enjoying it, please write a few kind words of praise that I can quote from. I'm putting together a press kit to send to the Bangor Daily, and having positive reviews to include would be a great thing!

I said that the next thing I wrote about was going to be about quitting coffee. I lied. To do that I'm going to need a few days when I can be completely out of circulation while I go through withdrawals, and I've got too much going on right now. It looks like July, maybe August I'll be able to spare the time.

So, next I'm going to be blogging about John Milton's Paradise Lost. Why? It is a challenge. It is a great poem, but it has been analyzed and written about so much. What new does anyone have to say about it? I certainly bring nothing to the table when it comes to talking about Paradise Lost. So that is my challenge: find something new to say about Paradise Lost. Oh, and to up the ante, make it interesting reading for people who've never read it and could care less about literary analysis.

Why do I feel compelled to do these things to myself? Do other writers set out to make things difficult for themselves? When I wrote my novel, I decided to write an entire novel in four months (while I was also teaching and taking classes). I need to write another novel. I also need to edit the first one and actually do something with it, like try to get it published. My experience with the publishing industry has been so awful, though, that I am reluctant to ever deal with it again. I know there are a number of writers out there who use blogging as part of their writing, but I haven't investigated them yet, suprisingly. I should.

Anyhoo... I'll post a link to this blog when I start my next experiment, and if there's some interesting epilogue, I'll post that, too. So, thanks for reading, everyone! Have a safe drive home. Let's meet for coffee some time soon!

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Cup 105: Cafe on the Corner

Cafe on the Corner
Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Where: Café on the Corner, Dover, New Hampshire
When: March 8, 2005
Who: Jessica Brakeley
Coffee: Port City Rocket Fuel
Mood: Happy

Here's a rundown of the Portsmouth area towns and their nicknames:
Somersworth = Scummersworth
Rochester = Raunchester
Dover = Dirty Dover
Portsmouth = Pretentious Portsmouth

The other town either don't rate nicknames, or I don't know them. Scummersworth and Raunchester, but I've lived and worked in Dirty Dover and Pretentious Portsmouth, and I have to say, Dover's alleged dirtiness has been its salvation. Portsmouth looks pretty, but it has become unlivable. The people who run that city should be shot as traitors. They've betrayed the people who lived there in service to the landlords and business owners. Portsmouth was a great city once, but in recent years all efort has gone into atracting more business and tourism with no concern for the people who lived there. Now it is a bedroom community for Boston. The families who lived there have moved to towns like Kittery and Elliot, while the younger people have moved to Dover. Dover may be "dirty" to Portsmouth's clean, but it is the clean of a hooker who's done herself up to attract johns. Beneath the pretty surface is disease, addiction and despair. I'm so glad I don't live in Portsmouth anymore!

Dover, on the other hand, seems to be trying hard not to become Portsmouth. There are concerts in the park that actually seem to be for the people who live in Dover, instead of the same musical every night all summer long that Portsmouth puts on to entertain the tourists. There are affordable restaurants and pleasant people. And there is the Café on the Corner, where people gather for good coffee and pleasant coversation. Sure, there may be places like that in Portsmouth, but in Dover there is a pleasant lack of people who are out to be seen, who are more concerned with how they are dressed and who is looking at them than with actually enjoying life.

The Café on the Corner is a microsm of Dover. It is a big place, but not so big that it feels cold. Windows wrap around the whole place so you can see the entire corner it takes its name from. It isn't that pretty a view, but the openness is nice. And you can see Baldface Books acrosss the street on the other corner. Used bookstore fans, Dover is worth a special trip just for Baldface books! There are rooms and rooms of books. If I hadn't already gone broke on the bookstores in Portland, I would have done it here! They also have CDs and a great vinyl selection, too. So you can pick up something good to read, then go hang in the big, comfy chairs at the Café.

The coffee at the Café made me happy. Of these past hundred-odd cups the coffee here was the best. The coffee was Rocket Fuel, from Port City Coffee Roasters out of Portsmouth (Port City, The Friendly Toast, and Jumpgate, a scifi/game/comic book store are Portsmouth's three redeeming qualities). Port City, as I've said before, is the best coffee roaster I know of within a day's drive. It was a rich blend, deep and authoritative without being agressive, like a kettle drum in an orchestra.

Suprisingly, the coffee here is better than at Port City's own café. Maybe it is the Dover water, or maybe their equipment is better, or maybe it is just the atmosphere. The café is very welcoming. You don't have to be trendy or beautiful (or a young urban professional) to set foot in there. While we were there, a woman hung out with her two kids. In the window seat a grandmother chatted with her granddaughter. College kids lounged in the overstuffed chairs and did their homework. It was a variety of people you just don't see at the cafés in Portsmouth or Portland, for that matter. It was a good place to end our vacation with, and a perfect cup of coffee for the last cup in this blog.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Cup 104: Double Capuccino at Arabica

double capuccino at Arabica
Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Where: Arabica, Portland, ME
When: 12:30 pm, March 7 2005
Who: Jessica Brakeley, Lisa O'Quinn
Coffee: Arabica's Capuccino
Mood: content

I usually don't do capuccino. Despite what most people think, the process used to make espresso extracts less caffiene from the beans than coffee does, so really, you're paying more and getting less. But Arabica's coffee, well I make an exception there, because their capuccino is a work of art. It is has a swirly sensuality that would get Georgia O'Keefe excited. The ones made by the owner are truly beautiful, to the point where I almost hate to drink them and make that beauty go away.

I don't know if Arabica is still run by the original people, but I was very impressed by them. I wish I knew their names so I could give them credit. I was a regular when they first opened, so I know the look and feel of the place was all theirs, not something they hired someone to create for them. The tables, for example, were built from old barn boards because they were free. Instead of covering up the bare brick walls, they scrubbed them down. The place has a beautiful, warm, rustic feel to it, and I'm so impressed that it came from creative problem solving. For a while Arabica was open for reduced hours. The owner couldn't find staff that he thought was good enough. Most places would have been content with just any warm body keeping the place open, but he didn't want to compromise the quality.

Again, I am missing... well, not the city, exactly. I don't think I'd want to live in Portland again. I don't miss the traffic, or the crime. I remember the first week I moved to Portland. I put a door mat in the hallway outside the door of my second-story apartment. It said WELCOME in big, flowery letters. Someone stole it. But I miss being able to go to a used bookstore and finding so many books I want that I feel overwhelmed, as opposed to searching in vain for something to buy. I miss cafés. I miss having options of breakfast places.

We were hanging out at Arabica, in the window seat. I had a remarkably awkward moment where I'm sitting, hoping that Jessie isn't noticing me checking out that hot chick walking by, and then realizing that the hot chick is actually my best friend's wife. Double-secret-guilt-whammy!

Cup 103: Monday Breakfast at the Friendship

Where: The Friendship Café, Portland, ME
When: 10 am, March 7, 2005
Who: Jessica Brakeley
Coffee: unknown
Mood: relaxed

In 1998, Portland, Maine had the highest per capita of both lawyers and restaurants in the USA. I don't know if this still holds true, but I do know that Portland has one heck of a lot of places to dine. That's one thing I miss most about Portland. What I don't get, though, is why everything is closed on Monday. Our first choice for breakfast was The Porthole, currently my favorite breakfast spot in the city. The Porthole is out on a wharf and the walk to the front door is skanky, filthy and has an air of danger... or is that just rotting fish? The Porthole used to be a depressing mediocre diner, but it is now under new management and has new cooks. You can actually get an omelette with brie and portabello mushrooms there. The food and service are consistantly great, but the city doesn't seem to have discovered how much the place has changed, so you can usually get a table without a wait. Just not on Mondays.

Fortunately, The Friendship Café is open Mondays. The Friendship is a great restaurant on Congress, but I always forget about it since it is past all the useful things on Congress. I do it a disservice. The Friendship has never let me down. The food is always good, and they seem to want to make the "Friendship" part mean something. At least, the waitresses seem to be a degree friendlier than most other restaurants, a genuine friendly, not the "I'm being nice to get a better tip," friendly. The Friendship is a clean, well-lighted place, always bright and cheerful, even in this winter's bitter cold dreariness. Today's breakfast was an asparagus omelette with green coconut curry sauce. I never would have thought to make anything like it, so it was an exotic twist to an old standard. I think the chef might have felt a little insecure about it, because I heard the waitress saying to her, "He really likes the omelette a whole lot." Props to the waitress for knowing the vanishing art of proper coffee timing. Too often, and you're an interrupting nuisance. Not often enough, and the diner winds up drinking cold dregs. You have to be able to sense when there's about half a cup left, and be there to refil it. This keeps the coffee at optimum drinking temperature throughout the meal.

Today is a grand day in Portland because Jessie and I have nowhere to be, no plans to do anything but wander around and spend money and do the touristy thing in a city we both used to live in.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Cup 102: Sunday Night at the Friendly Toast

Where: The Friendly Toast, Portsmouth NH
When: Sunday, March 6, 5 pm
Who: Matt & Mike Curti
Coffee: unknown
Mood: Happy

I am bruised and sore from sledding. You know, sledding just didn't seem this self-abusive the last time I went. That was 25 or so years ago and an hundred pounds lighter, though. It was still fun after all these years, though! The afternoon trip to Portland didn't pan out. My friends never called me back. I'd be upset about that, but it means I get to have boys night out with my favorite brother-in-law and favorite nephew. Of course, they are my only brother-in law and nephew, but I'm sure they'd still be my favorites even if I had dozens of them. I'm always happy that my sister married such a great guy, and I couldn't ask for a cooler nephew. Caritha and Sofia didn't want to go out to dinner, so it was just us men. Two of my favorite people at my favorite restaurant!

A word about The Friendly Toast. You are going to think I'm making this up, but I swear it is true. My friend Matt Jasper was married to Melissa Jasper. The marriage kind of fell apart when Melissa, as Matt put it, "ran off with the 6 foot tall lesbian guitarist from the band Motorpussy." They divorced. She kept the name Jasper. Matt remarried to Beatrice Weathersby, a Costa Rican circus performer who co-authored medical textbooks with her dad even though she dropped out of high school. Melissa and Beatrice became friends while they were working at the Salvation Army in Dover, NH. They took home all the best artifacts from the Salvation Army. Bizzarre or kitschy paintings, old advertisements, weird sculptures and so on. Then Melissa and Beatrice opened a restaurant and decorated it with all the stuff they'd been saving. Matt washed dishes. It moved a couple of times, settling in downtown Portsmouth. The location may have changed, but the eccentricity only increased. Now it is the size of small warehouse, and its walls are a museum of bad art and design mayhem. A non-nostalgic look back at a past many would just as soon forget, but others find beautiful and hip. Like pointy-tipped eyeglasses and Russ Meyer movies. Beatrice sold her half of the restaurant to Melissa. Melissa remarried, to a man. He changed his last name to Jasper...

The Friendly Toast could probably get by just on the decor, but that is just where it starts. The menu is vast, containing a hundred or more items ranging from ordinary to exotic to things you might eat on a dare, if your honor was on the line, or if you were really, really drunk. There is a wonderful variety of vegetarian items, and even the non-vegetarian items you can usually get with meat substitute. I've never been disappointed by anything I've eaten there, and I've eaten there a whole lot. And all the food comes in astonishing quantities. And the toast? Yes, it is friendly. Fresh baked just for them, usually about two inches thick and fried in butter. Again, it ranges from the mundane white and wheat, to the exotic, like the chipotle chili and cheddar bread I had this evening.

Mike got egg-in-a-hole. Egg-in-a-hole is fun. Take a slice of bread and a glass. Mash the glass, top-down into the bread to cut out a circle from the middle of the bread. Then put it in a frying pan, drop an egg into the whole, and fry it up! Matt had the Almond Joy pancake. Chocolate chips, coconut, almonds in a pancake that put the "cake" back in pancake. I got the Peasant Breakfast. Not sure why it is called that. It was two piles of food on a plate. The first was tofu, carrots, corn, rice, and other fun, and the second was black beans, spinach and other things I can't remember right now, but it was wonderful and delicious and I ate way more than I should have and enjoyed every minute of it.

I usually don't drink coffee that late into the evening, but I still had a drive ahead of me. The Friendly Toast has a distinct coffee. Not sure where they get it from. There is a charred harshness to it that is not unpleasant yet is uniquely Friendly Toast.

Matt wants to go there regularly. He makes me such a proud uncle! He loves the food and the atmosphere. It was the first time out with just da boyz. I guess that is one advantages to Matt and Sofie getting older. They can start doing things without each other and without both parents and have it be okay.

This time away from Orono has been good for me. I haven't felt depressed at all since I got out of town.

Cup 101: Pinewood Derby

pinewood derby
Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Where: Curti residence, Kittery, Maine
When: 8;30 am March 6, 2005
Who: Matt, Sofia, Caritha & Mike Curti
Coffee: Avalon Organic
Mood: jovial

So much to do today! Matt has to get ready for the Pinewood Derby. We've got games to play on the Nintendo DS. We're going sledding, and I have to leave for Portland in the afternoon... better fuel up for a strenuous day!

The coffee is Avalon Organic, which my sister got from me during her last trip home. She was quite mortified when I publicly dissed her coffee during my last trip, so she said she'd keep the Avalon Organic on hand so I'd have coffee that I couldn't complain about. Of course now she's probably pulling the old bait-and-switch on me, and is serving me Market Basket coffee and telling me it is the coffee I gave her, just to get revenge...

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Cup 100: Little Dog

little dog
Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Where: Little Dog, Brunswick, ME
When: 4:00 pm, March 5, 2005
Who: the regulars
Coffee: Little Dog's house blend (from Coffee by Design)
Mood: nostalgic

The Bohemian is gone. Too bad. I used to detour there on my way from Kittery to Orono because the coffee was really good and it had the shabby coolness of a West Coast coffee shop. Fortunately just up the block Little Dog has opened. It's much bigger than the Bohemian, and it has that East Coast fastidiousness, but the coffee is good and they have big comfy chairs and couches, and plenty of tables. It appears to be "the spot" in Brunswick. The place was absolutely packed! I was able to snag the last overstuffed chair.

They serve coffee from Coffee by Design. Times have changed! When I lived in Portland, Coffee by Design was this long, narrow hallway of a coffee shop where the Maine College of Art students hung out. I was a regular, it being a five minute walk from my apartment. Now it appears they are moving up in the world and are selling their own blends of coffee to other shops. Good for them. I just hope they don't go the way of Green Mountain. If I start seeing Coffee by Design in Mobil stations, I'll know we're in trouble. For now, though, Coffee by Design is as good as ever.

Sitting in my big, comfy, purple, overstuffed chair I realize something. I miss this. I miss being able to go to a coffee shop and sit, hang out, read, people watch. In Orono there is nowhere to go and just be, and have a friend happen to be walking by and stop and chat. Here there is no "just happened to come across so-and-so." You have to plan every social encounter. It makes me furious to think that there were places like that on campus, but the University destroyed them.

These are important realizations as I try to decide my next move. Within the next few months we have to decide whether to stay in Orono or move to a different town. The closest town to Orono that has a coffee shop is Belfast. Maybe it is time for a change?

(I was going to stop at 100, but that would leave me in the middle of a trip, so I'll stop when I head back to Orono)

Cup 99: Jim

Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Where: Jim Moulton's, Bodoinham, ME
When: noon, March 5, 2005
Who: Jim Moulton
Coffee: unknown
mood: thoughtful

Jim appreciates a good cup of coffee, even if he isn't a heavy coffee drinker. He uses that odd coffee filter that is sort of the autodrip filter shape only it sits on top of the mug. They make fine coffee, but I don't usually use them. Like Bing says, don't mess with Mr. Inbetween, and those are midway between French presses and ADCMs.

Spending time with Jim gives me a headache, but not in a bad way. It isn't often I get to talk about my Really Big Ideas with someone who understands and agrees with me. We've both devoted years of our lives to researching learning technologies, educational reform, and constructionist learning theory. When I talk with most people about such things, the conversation usually gets to the point of me introducing the ideas and explaining why they are important, but with Jim I'm able to start where all these years of thought have led me. It is always very exciting.

The other exciting thing about conversations with Jim. Usually conversations about the problems of the world are never more than just that. With Jim it is more like, okay, we're agreed that this is a problem. What are we going to do to fix it? And then we come up with a plan that is so crazy it just might work. Today was no exception!

Cup 98: On the Road Again

Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Where: Orono
When: 9 am, March 5, 2005
Who: Dot & Dash
Coffee: Port City Capone
Mood: exhausted

Why oh why did I think it was a good idea to be in Bodoinham at 11 am? Got back around 7 Friday night, had a couple of hours to veg out to SciFi channel's friday night lineup, then up early to get ready to go. If it was just a trip to Brunswick it wouldn't be such a big deal, but this was just the start. Bodoinham to Brunswick to Kittery saturday, Kittery to Cape Elizabeth Sunday, Cape Elizabeth to Dover to Orono on tuesday... the plants needed watering, the cats needed loving, the dishes needed washing, and life in general had to be put in enough order to leave it alone for a few days since Jessie was already down south at an art educator's conference.

Of course I was late. Hopefully Jim wouldn't hate me too much for that. It was a pot of coffee this morning, from the ADCM. Quitting coffee soon, so I'm overindulging and also I want to be alert for the drive south. Heading east the traffic gets thinner and thinner and you only need to be half-awake. South of here, though, the traffic thickens, the drivers get more aggressive and less considerate, there are more streets, more options, more lanes... I was used to it once, but now I've been in the quiet, laid back life for too long and it all seems big and scary and I get anxious whenever I head south.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Cup 97: Malaise

Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Where: Pembroke Elementary
When: 7:30 am, March 5, 2005
Who: everybody! everybody!
Coffee: Folgers
Mood: anxious

I skipped the Mobil station with its marvy coffee lids this morning. I had two Nature Valley Granola bars (Marden's had store display-sized boxes on sale for a couple bucks) in my pocket for breakfast, so I figured early in the morning the coffee at the school would be drinkable enough. It was.

There's a definate malaise about the school today. Fascinating that kids can pick up on things even if they don't know what is causing it. For the first time I actually had kids out to get me. There are always kids who are obnoxious jerks, but that is just their nature, and as annoying as it is, I don't take it personally. But today I had kids who were deliberately trying to test my limits and make me angry. Paula's leaving is part of it. A number of the teachers left early to go to a veteran teacher's funeral, too. Not easy to teach when you're burying a friend. The kids pick up on that stuff. This was the least enjoyable day I've ever spent in Pembroke.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Cup 96: Where's Your Indignation?

Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Where: from Orono to Pembroke
When: March 3, 2005
Who: me
Coffee: Port City Capone (ADC)
Mood: angry

I am on a bender. This blog will conclude on Tuesday, after the hundred-ish cup of coffee (actually, the hundredth would be tomorrow, but I'll be travelling, so I figure I'll just go until I'm back from vacation). So today I made a big pot of coffee in the ADCM and I'll be drinking as much as I can for the "grand finale" and then starting my next blog, Cold Turkey, where I pause from drinking coffee completely and write about withdrawal. It isn't going to be permanent, though. Long enough so that the caffiene starts effecting me again. So today I have a really gigantic mug of coffee sitting beside me on the drive in, oh, and that picture? That isn't a coffee mug. It is a soup bowl...

But anyway, there's something I need to rant about for a minute. Paula Smith, principal at Pembroke, is leaving. She's retiring early, which will mean about a 10% reduction in the amount she'll be making when she retires. This is bad. You know, I don't need to drive two hours to find a school to consult to. I can find places much closer, but I make the drive because Paula is principal in Pembroke. She is regretably unique among school administrators in that her priority is to create the best learning environment possible for the students, and to give the teachers the support they need to make that possible. With Paula, I can explain what technology the school needs and she'll find the money for it. Dealings with other administrators are not so productive. Typically, they'll say something like, "Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Do up a proposal and get me an invoice and I'll bring it up before the board..." and I'll do that and never hear about it again. In Pembroke, though, I can make things happen. Educational consultants are often hired by administrators to let them feel like they are doing something. It is sad, but my fees are the same whether my recommendations get implemented or not. But you know, I am in this because I want to make a positive difference, and in Pembroke I can see that happen. That is primarily because of Paula.

But Paula is leaving, and one of the reasons is that she's being forced to enforce State and National standards that actually prevent teachers from teaching. Students in Maine spend weeks out of the year taking standardized tests. This flies in the face of all recent research into education that shows that standardized tests are not an accurate assessment of what a student has learned. Only very shallow level thinking can be measured in a standardized test. There are many other flaws, but all that aside, ask yourself what you've observed in your own life. I'm operating on the assumption here that schools are supposed to be preparing kids for the real world. How many times in your life outside of school has your success on anything you've done been based on taking a standardized test? Other than a Cosmo quiz, that is? And yet schools are punished if their students don't perform well on these pointless tests. Schools are told "Don't teach to the tests" and then are punished if they don't. What do you think is going to happen? So educational time, instead of being spent preparing for life is being spent preparing for the tests. Meanwhile, veteran teachers are being asked to prove in more and more different ways that they've been doing what they've been doing for years. So much time is being spent proving that teaching and learning is happening that there's no time any real learning to happen. Innovation and creativity in teaching is being stifled. If it doesn't help students on the MEA or meet the Learning Results or No Child Left Behind it doesn't get taught.

As principal, Paula is being asked to make sure her teachers comply with all these new standards. She has to force her school to use educationally unsound practices, and to increase the amount of work and stress in her teacher's lives without giving them any more pay. For many administrators, this wouldn't be a problem. These are the administrators who don't know anything about education and who don't care about their teachers. But Paula cares and she knows what good education is. So she's getting out.

I'm sure she's not the first. She won't be the last. In Maine and in the rest of the country, public education is becoming a horrible place to be for any teacher who cares about their students and who knows anything about educational best practice. We're going to lose all our best teachers: those who care about their students and want what is best for them. What we'll be left with are teachers for whom teaching is just a job. Given that Maine ranks 47th in the nation in starting teacher salary, subtract those who are teaching because they are teaching out of love and a desire to create a positive change in the world, and you're left with those who can't get a job anywhere else. Just the kind of person you want teaching your children and influencing the future of the state!

It doesn't have to be this way. It got this way through the best of intentions. The legislature realized that Maine's schools needed to be improved and tried to do something about it. Unfortunately, their solution (increase testing, increase standards) is making things worse, and preventing other solutions from happening. These aren't bad people, though. Just uninformed. If we want something better for our kids and for the future of our state, though, we parents, teachers and students need to school them. The time to do that is now, though, before we lose all Paula Smiths from the school system and we're left with educators who are just going through the motions and collecting a paycheck.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Cup 95: Glow

Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Where: my office
When: 6:30 am, March 2, 2005
Who: Dot
Coffee: Avalon Organic Italian Roast
Mood: mundane

I switched to the macro lens so I could get way close to the coffee. I was trying to capture the oil slick on the surface of the coffee. You don't get this when you use a paper filter, so, IMHO, an essential part of the coffee gets lost then. So I recommend a gold filter, or a French press. Even a gold filter will still strain out some of the essential coffee-ness, so a French Press is really the only way to get the full-on coffee experience. I was almost dipping the lens in the coffee, but before I could snap the shot, the lens fogged up. I couldn't get the shot I wanted, but the fog on the lens made everything beautiful and glowy and romantic. Now I'm thinking maybe I should carry hot coffee with me wherever I go, and take every picture this way. It certainly would make the world a lot prettier! And I could call it my coffee filter!

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Cup 94: Dash

Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.

Where: my office
When: 8 am, March 1, 2005
Who: Dash
Coffee: Avalon Organic Italian Roast
Mood: humdrum

Dash is usually Jessie's cat, but she decided she wanted to get in on the act today and got all cozy beside my computer.

In an effort to brew the perfect cup of coffee I picked up a thermometer at Marden's for 88 cents this weekend. According to the SCAA, the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the ideal cup of coffee is brewed at 96° C. So I got my water up to that temperature before I poured it into the French press. I really couldn't detect any difference, though. Maybe their standard just applies to ADC makers. Or maybe I need to warm the press first and insulate it, since immediately the temperature of the coffee dropped to 80-some degrees. Oh well, more investigation is necessary. I need to find a scale, now. The SCAA also requires a ratio of 64 ounces water to 3.25 to 4.25 ounces of cofffee. Time for another trip to Marden's!

Monday, February 28, 2005

Cup 93: Pay Attention to Me!

pay attention to me!
Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Where: my office, Orono, ME
When: 10 am Feb 28
Who: Dot
Coffee: Port City Capone
Mood: groggy

Coffee with the computer today. Vacation is here, Jessie's headed south and I have the place to myself. Paralyzed by this wide open space of unprogrammed time! Dot decided she wasn't getting nearly enough attention, so she got up off her perch beside the computer, got up and took a walk on my laptop. She perched right there on the keys, right between me and the screen.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Cup 92: With My Feet Up

Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.

Where: Livingroom, Orono
When: 8 am, Feb 27
Who: Dot
Coffee: Port City Capone
Mood: content

Welcoming sunday with quiet ease. Dot is hanging out under the tree. Dash is still curled up with Jessie. TiVo's caught new episodes of Ghost in the Shell and Fullmetal Alchemist for me. A perfect morning!

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Friday, February 25, 2005

Cup 89: not enough coffee in the world...

ring 2
Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Where: home, Orono
When: Friday, Feb 25
Who: dot & dash
Coffee: Avalon organic Italian Roast
Mood: down

Today the depression is the worst it's been all winter. Depression is like a living thing. I read a book a long time ago, Colin Wilson's The Mind Parasites. I remember not liking it very much at the time, but maybe I should give it another read. The Mind Parasites were alien beings that lived in our minds and afflicted us with things like depression in order to keep us from ever rising to a level where we might defeat them. Today I can almost believe that is true. There are things you can do to fight depression. Diet, exercise, socializing, walks in the sunlight... all the things you're least likely to want to do when you're depressed. Instead you just want to go sit in a dark corner, alone, eating chocolate and other comfort food... all the things that are going to guarantee that the depression persists. There's other things too. Low self-esteem comes and paranoia come with depression too, as does low energy and lack of focus. What is a sure boost to self-esteem? Getting things accomplished. What is going to happen with low energy and no focus? Nothing. I'm sitting in front of the computer for hours at a time, only to discover I haven't done a thing, and I have no idea where the time went. And the lack of getting things done contributes to the paranoia, because I'm all to aware of the responsibilities I have that I'm not meeting... and so on. Depression really does seem like a living thing, doing what it needs to to perpetuate itself.

Depression makes the coffee stop working. When the depression isn't here that cup in the morning gives me that extra boost to shake off the sleep and get focused on the challenges of the day. When the depression is here there just isn't enough coffee in the world to clear my head, make me feel motivated and directed. It is like this thick, viscous substance has coated my brain and is squeezing my heart, and I try to drink more, to make it go away, but it doesn't.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

cup 88: Battle Royale

Originally uploaded by matt_leclair.
Where: Orono, livingroom
When: 8am, Feb 24, 2005
Who: Dot & Dash
Coffee: Avalon Organic Italian Roast
Mood: tense

The book is Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, and on this, a day of "vacation" I am lounging around drinking coffee. The book is gripping, to say the least. The premise is simple. 42 middle-schoolers are put on an island and forced to kill each other until only one remains. Reading it is like, well, have you ever seen the old style fans with the metal blades and the screens that have such wide open gaps that you can fit your whole hand through it? And there's something about it that makes you want to stick your hand in, just to see if it really would hurt, or would really cut your fingers off. You know it would, but it is just hard to believe. The fan at full speed is just a blur, a solid disk, not blades at all... Open the book is like sticking your hand in a fan and believing it isn't going to hurt. You know that everyone you care about is going to die, but you have to keep reading. The first few are like potato chips. None of the characters who die have been around long enough to really care about, and the descriptions of their violent deaths are graphic and entertaining. I found myself saying, "Okay, I'll just read until the next kid dies, and then I'll get busy." But then after the first 20 or so kids die, I'm at a point where it is painful to continue, where there are only 2 kids left who I actually want to see dead, and the rest I want to see miraculously escape and live happily ever after. That's not going to happen, though.

It certainly isn't a book I'd recommend to just anybody, but if you like your entertainment disturbing and thought provoking, a la A Clockwork Orange and Lord of the Flies, this book fits the bill. Though neither of those can hold a candle to the grand guignol of Battle Royale.