Coffee vs. Tea: 5 Rounds


Round One: Halcyon days of my youth.  I drink apple juice in the AM.  My dad drinks coffee; my mom drinks tea.  Coffee makes a Dad-like, church-like smell.  Tea makes a dark cabinet, autumn rustle smell.  Coffee appears in Dad’s cup and on Dad’s breath.  Tea comes from a kettle on the stove that whistles, and then something you dunk in it.  Coffee is for boys; tea is for girls.  Coffee is for business; tea is for life.

Judges say: Tea by a reasonable margin.

Round Two: Age 12ish, I spend a little time down south.  Am asked at every meal, “Tea?”  My dad has to specially request “Yankee tea.”  This type of tea tastes like the kool-aid without the delightful reddy flavoring that is not precisely “strawberry” or any other “fruit.”

Judges say: Coffee, due to tea’s exceptionally poor showing, and early cultural isolation of the judge.

Round Three: After swing dancing for hours, I have a busted big toe, and I smell like the beer that has been spilled on me, but my swishy red dress still looks great.  Let’s walk down the street and hang out a little longer.  Order a mocha, I am told by boy I danced with who was dancing trained in an Austrian year abroad.  You’ll love it.

Judges say: Coffee.  I do love it, partner!

Round Four: Overseas in a Muslim, formerly British-controlled area.  Tea all the way.  I am treated to high tea at the Ritz-Carleton.  They have real, single-use cloth towels in the bathroom.  All the chandeliers you can eat, and floors more fit for eating off than any surface I’ve yet encountered.  I will have tea with milk.  All the finest varieties.  Pert sandwiches, tarts, and other delicacies still in their infancy, from the looks of them.  I would love to love you, tea.

Judges say: Coffee.  After such an impassioned rally on the part of tea, it is a crushing blow.

Round Five: In Rome.  Although some people keep raving about food I will eat in Italy, foodies tell me Rome is a culinary cesspool.  I am committed to cappuccino and red wine at every meal, regardless.  I’m on vacation.  First Roman lunch, at a place that bears a sneaky resemblance to a Jersey diner, first sip of first Italian cappuccino.  Ten minutes later, as my senses return to normal, I realize that in eight days I will have my last Italian cappuccino.  That will be devastating.  Such are the strange workings of the human mind.

Judges say: Coffee reaches deep down and brings out his best, which does not disappoint.

The final verdict: Had coffee not spent so much time in church basement styrofoam cups (ew), it might have made a better showing early on.  The ugliness of the suburban-issue drip coffeemaker, so unimpressive it did not even register, also left room for tea to get some momentum.

The early exposure of cold tea, much preceding the appearance of cold coffee, may have dragged tea down too early.  Cold drinks, other than milkshakes and martinis, just don’t grab this long-limbed, easily chilled judge.

At least tea knows all the stops were pulled, and the entire force of the British empire was called in.  Tea can’t have any regrets.

Still, it’s coffee by a strong margin.  Coffee all the way.  Central American, cowboy, Folgers, beatnik, Seattle, up all night, free refill coffee.

The Word

St. John declares that words make us human.  That words, even, make us exist.  It is words, and not pictograms or tools or logic or emotions.  And so St. John is the patron saint of writers.

I mean St. John the Evangelist, theoretical author of what is known as John’s gospel.  I don’t know or care who wrote the thing.  The prologue is one of my favorite pieces of literature.  (St. John also theoretically wrote Revelation, but Martin Luther and I don’t approve of Revelation.)

“In the beginning was the word.”  And part of Jewish, and Christian, creation tradition has held that the world was made with words.  This “God” or “Lord” character speaks to make things be.

At the art museum here, we have a stained glass window that was made in medieval Europe, showing St. John holding a cup with a snake in it.  The story is, St. John and his buddies were captured by some bad guy, and the bad guy forces St. John and his buddies drink poison.  This bad guy must be building the grand tradition of unnecessarily elaborate execution techniques honored in “Austin Powers” with my favorite “sharks with lasers.”

St. John is so uber powerful that he drinks his poison, and then his buddies’ poison, and he’s fine.  Well, maybe he has a little food-poisoning type digestive discomfort, but  the point of the story is that poison cannot kill him.  He is a badass.

Some people find St. John’s gospel a little airy.  Some people say that Jesus’ feet never touch the ground.  I don’t see that.  What I see is a writer who had an experience of the Christ, rather than Jesus the man, and painted a more abstract picture.  The author struggled to find any language that would put the power of a Christ figure into focus.  Any language that would contain the experience at all.  St. John’s gospel explodes the Jesus notion into the Christ idea.  It says, you have no idea what this Christ thing means.  You have no idea how big this is.  You have no idea the force of love over ambivalence, confusion, or loss.

When I was in Rome last summer, I searched all over the Vatican City for a St. Giovanni Evangelista medal.  I’m not Catholic, and I have never bought or owned a medal, except, perhaps, the Libra medal that my step-grandma bought me when I was little.  I don’t think that counts.  In each little shop, I walked past the counters of rosaries and small towns of statues to bins of medals.  “St. Giovanni,” I told the salesclerks.  They nodded.  “Evangelista,” I added.  Their lips pursed pessimistically.

Only at one spot, directly across the street from St. Peter’s, did I find a silver St. Giovanni Evangelista.  He wears the usual Bible-person type robes, and he has a book in his lap.  His buddy animal (the patronage goes on and on) is the eagle, so an eagle perches on the book.  St. John and the eagle are both too tiny to have real facial expressions, but I think the eagle looks like he’s thinking, “Whassup?”  I bought the medal, and put it on immediately.

At my church, St. John is the right-hand side of the triptych.  Christ in the middle, St. Peter on the left.  St. Peter holds his keys, which always makes him look like an annoying older brother.  Jesus left me with the keys, y’all, so, watch it! St. John, as usual, has his snake cup. He take the poison for himself, and for anyone else who’s feeling weak.  That’s what makes him such a good man to have around, not just for writers, but anybody who runs into a bad guy now and then.


Saturday I walked to lunch and back with my mother, under the parade of oak trees on her street.  It had rained, on and off, stopping long enough for us to make it to the restaurant and back, breathing in the beating humidity that had set up camp.  When we got back to the front door of her duplex, she pulled out her keys, and codaed our conversation: “Mothers just want everyone to be happy.”

I have watched many members of my parents’ generation mellow back into a wiser version of their hippie stereotype.  They have decided what is worth fighting about (a few things) and what isn’t (a whole lot).  Many baby boomers, who used to hiss and puff up like alley cats when you disagreed with their politics or religion, have now decided to vote and pray and smile and shrug.  My mother and a lot of the other mothers have narrowed their interests:   “We just want everyone to be happy.”

“Happy” is popular in Chinese merchandising.  One of my favorite fireworks was hung from a tree limb, lit, and spun itself wacky with sparks before poofing out into a Happy Lamp.

“Happy” takes me right into Tolstoy’s universe, too.  Saturday night, I swept my hand across the spine of every book on my shelf, looking for Anna.  I couldn’t find her.

Happy isn’t really popular in spiritual circles.  Peace and joy and nirvana, but happy?  I think “happy are those who…” just sounds like “You ought to.  You really ought to.”

Happy seems shallow.  Happy seems too light an emotion for me to wear.  I like wool and sharp seams, layers, linings, A-lines.  In my clothes and my moods.

Then again, I do recall making a childish wish at the Trevi Fountain in Rome.  It was blasting hot, all that bubbling white marble and no shade or green.  My feet hurt.  I took out a penny for my wish, since I thought I should make it clear to the ambiguous wish granter that I was American– I should distinguish my wish from the Euro and Yen thrown in.  I fretted about the wording as I sat on the edge of the water.  Of course, I can’t tell you what wish I decided on.  It had the word “happy” in it, though.  I think it won’t jinx me to reveal that much.

… in a Box.

I was disappointed to learn that the pope is not keeping God in a box at the Vatican.  Or if he is, that it was not part of the tour.

I didn’t realize it until I had been there, but my half-Catholic blood is always secretly hoping that the Catholics have a direct line to God, while I am politely relegated to the Protestant voice mail system.

After three separate attempts (feast day, papal parade, papal parade aftermath), I finally got myself inside St. Peter’s, theoretically the capital of Christianity, and I was like, This is it?

It’s similar to the way a person can secretly hope that anyone wearing a collar is God.  Even if you have clear, early experience to the contrary, of how not-God clergy are, it still burns in your belly.  Perhaps this person is God!  My priests and pastors have shown me their flaws, sometimes boldly, and I’m grateful for that.  

I should have been innoculated from disillusionment in Rome.  It’s not like I am unacquainted with the gorgeously rebellious joy of the American Catholic church, which downs its birth control pills and ducks its head just below the radar of the current, conservative leadership– both Roman and local.

God resists being put in a box, of course, which is one of the things I like most about God.  The thing that will get you a second date with a person like me is not being able to fit in a box.  And so I’ve been in a long-term, quite fractious relationship with God

I found the Vatican the most disappointing of the European treasures I’ve been so lucky to see.  When you are hoping for God-in-a-box, though, that is a setup for disappointment.  St. Peter’s is very white, and very huge, and very clean. The whiteness and hugeness, I guess, I could deal with, but the cleanliness were really not right.  The more worn and falling apart and used a church looks, the better I like it.  I don’t want to be praying someplace where nobody ever confessed to adultery, or begged for relief from a hangover on Ash Wednesday, or fought matricidal thoughts.  I need to know that very real, messy people have struggled with crazy, stupid problems.  Preferably in that exact pew.

I started attending one of the older churches in my hometown here, and was probably the only person sad to hear that they were refinishing the 100-year-old floor.  At least the pews kept their patina.

When I saw the pope waving hello, and the glamorous interior of St. Peter’s, all I could think was, this is politics.  Politics and power games, which interest me, in their own right, but don’t have anything to do with God, and quite often obscure any spiritual elements.

I still wish that God would get in a box somewhere, so I could go visit.  But then God wouldn’t be so hard to get.  And if God’s not playing hard to get, let’s face it, I probably would lose interest.