I have a love/hate relationship with coffee. On the one hand, it is physical necessity of my existence, much like oxygen. I’m not sure what dads did pre-coffee when they were woken up at 5:02 am to cries of, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” I, of course, raise myself zombie-style and waddle around collecting kids and deposting them on the living room floor. This is where the whole ordeal would end, ordinarily. My energy spent, I would simply flop forward onto the carpet, totally unconscious, only to awaken weeks later covered in cracker crumbs and magic marker tattoos. But because of coffee, I prevail!
The problem is that, until recently, I didn’t drink ‘coffee’ so much as a coffee-flavored sugar sludge. I would generally fill the mug two thirds the way up, then top it off with a pound or so of sugar, a few pints of hazelnut creamer, maybe some eggnog or Choco Vine, a little vanilla extract, a few scoops of ice cream, a bucket of whipped cream. You get the picture.
It got really bad around the time my wife was pregnant with our second daughter, and came to a resounding and illuminating climax when I discovered I had gained the exact amount of extra weight as my pregnant wife, and had no newborn babe to show for it. I am generally a healthy person, so this was quite a shock. After the quick but tearful burial of several tons of sugary additives, I turned to instead sprinkling in a little vanilla soymilk instead. I haven’t had so much energy since, but I also have begun to loose my baby weight. Thank God I didn’t get stretch marks too.
But the real tricky thing about me and coffee and me is the way it makes me feel and act. I don’t just get a boost of energy like when I take a catnap, I get emotional. Like, three glasses of wine emotional. I’m already I big sap. I start bawling literally at the first frame of Tree of Life and generally don’t stop for about three days. So when coffee gives me an additional dose of emtion, sometimes I go a little crazy.
The most dangerous and interesting of these forays happened a few years back, when I was working at the local movie rental store. I had stepped out around 10 pm to grab a cup of coffee to keep me going till the store closed at midnight. I ordered one of these ridiculous only-in-America drinks with a name like ‘Super Grande Mega-Double Chocolate Mochachino with extra sucrose and a mound of chocolate-covered whipped cream.’ The thing was, I had a buy-one-get-one-free coupon and no one else wanted to the extra coffee. So I quickly downed two cups and jumped behind the counter.
Almost immediately I started thinking about how short and sweet life really is, how pretty my kids are, blah blah blah. By this time the store was more or less empty, but when one young lady stepped forward to rent Couples Retreat or something of equal crappiness, I suddenly found myself asking a very unconventional question.
“What do you think the meaning of life is?”
She stared at me, much at a way one might examine the contents of an ancient tupperware bowl discovered in the back of a fridge and filled with what looks like green spiderwebs.
“Um. I don’t know,” she said slowly, retrieving her DVD and giving me a final terrified glance.
I felt positively stupid, but was amazed when, as she exited the lady turned and said, ”I guess… I guess you just gotta do what you love. You know. It’s too short to be unhappy. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
And with that she left.
Here’s the thing, the caffeine was still in my system and I was quite pleased that I had got an answer, so I kept going. For the next two hours, I asked every customer that came up what he/she thought the meaning of life was, and the crazy thing was: EVERY SINGLE PERSON GAVE ME AN ANSWER. There was not a single exception.
Granted, the store wasn’t too busy this late on a school night, but I still spoke to close to thirty people, and most seemed eager to talk about it. I suppose they had never been asked about their opinion on such matters.
On several occasions all the occupants of the store would gravitate to the counter to start a group discussion. These people were coming alive at the simple asking of a rather stupid question.
What shocked me almost as much as the fact that they opened up was how selfish the answers were. Almost every said something along the lines as the first woman.
“Can’t get caught up worrying about everybody around you. Do what you want.”
“Find something you can stand.”
“Don’t f*** up. Just get through and try not to go crazy.”
I was shocked at the selfishness, the lack of compassion, the dry acceptance of how crappy they found their lives. Most of these people were church-going parents, one was even a sort of ‘evangelical Buddhist’ (the only in NorthEast Indiana, to my knowledge). For over an hour nobody said a word about God, or love, or changing the world, or anything. It was all about personal happiness. And not even good happiness. We’re talking about late-night-greasy-pizza-cheap-beer-Jesse-Stone-marathon-on-TNT happiness.
A few answers stuck out, such as one of the regulars who literally came in EVERY night and left with a stack of dollar movies with names like Torque and Ogre and a porn or two featuring foot fetishes. We’ll call him ‘Duke’ for the sake of this post. Duke is a permanent part of my little town, a sort of human stain, but one that’s worth using a tide stick on. He lives in an apartment above a greasy pizza place. He drives a rusty motorcycle and can be seen at any given time in front of one of two places: the local coffee shop or the town tattoo parlor. I know from a reliable source (a gas station attendant who also happens to be the above-mentioned Buddhist) that every two days Duke visits the gas station to purchase a loaf of white bread, a can of spam, and two little tubs of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. That’s his diet. (Makes my sugar-sludge-coffee sound like kale.) He always wears a bandana over his grey/brown hair that runs down his back. He rarely shaves. I hope that paints a vivid enough picture of this character.
“What the f*** you talking about man? You serious? okay, okay! Well let’s see. Whatever the f*** makes you happy I guess. You know. Whatever.”
I personally have some serious doubts as to the happiness of Duke, but maybe Ben and Jerry’s keeps him content.
But the weird thing was that others of a less memorable nature gave similar answers. One young man, who graced the store weekly with his girlfriend, went on and on for twenty minutes about how their can be no collective happiness, and it’s every man for himself. He went on this wild tangant about Jeffery Dalmer being an upstanding fellow because he followed his heart and “those victims knew what they were getting into!” It made absolutely no sense, but was fascinating coming from this clean-cut 18 yo boyfriend. I don’t think the girlfriend liked his answer.
Another dude, late twenties, looked all serious and swiftly said, “Survival!” A customer watching informed me the man was a soldier. I have to admit I wasn’t impressed. Maybe it was his sissy haircut, Hawaiian shirt, or the fact I had just handed him back the bluray copies of I Hate Valentine’s Day, Sex and the City 2, and All About Steve, but I didn’t buy that this fellow driving a Volvo back to his condo for a romantic night of crappy B-chick flicks and cheap wine was trying to survive one day at a time. Then again, I’m not sure I could make through all those films and come out alive.
Another suprise was an older man in overalls who frequented the shop, but never spoke much. He informed me that he had been a pastor for nearly forty years, but his church went bankrupt and he had been working in a factory ever since. He spoke of evangelism and not wasting talent and God’s plan for all of us. I could see sorrow in his eyes, however, guilt or wounded pride or mourning for his previous vocation, I don’t know. But he left smiling. Most of the customers left smiling.
Later on, an elderly woman got real emotion and kept going on about family and keeping kids from hating one another. I sympathized. I love these woman: middle-child moderators who spend their lives feeding their families and building bridges between quarreling siblings and estranged cousins. I think they one of the hardest jobs on earth, because get how very wrong the common answers were. If true meaning was found in personal happiness then, for one thing, very few of us have grasped it. Especially those who share this philosophy.
But no one asked me what my answer would be. I didn’t mind, because I had no idea how to answer, and would hate to be the first one not to say something, though their lack of interest as to my views did surprise me. After much consideration, I’ve decided my best and simplest answer would be “selfless love,” or maybe just agape. Hard to say.
(By the way, no one referenced Monty Python or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Uncultured swine!)