Tuesday, August 30, 2022

From the Archives - Journal for my Younger Daughter


Around the time Lindsay, my second daughter, was born, I started keeping a journal about her life. (I did the same for her older sister, and you can see an excerpt here.) My journal project was inspired by those baby books where you put in footprints, birth size and weight, developmental milestones, etc. Those baby books are typically surpassed only by exercise bikes and crock pots in unfulfilled good intentions. Usually the first couple of pages are diligently filled out, and then the new parents get overwhelmed and the rest of the book is blank. 

I endeavored to do better. The result? A mammoth 400-page document, spanning my daughter’s entire life thus far, which I presented to her when dropping her off at college. Here’s an excerpt, emphasizing episodes I think are funny (but which shouldn’t embarrass my kid, who after all has suffered enough, what with me as her dad).

A note on the text: it’s written in the second person (i.e., “you”) because the journal’s real audience is my daughter. You albertnet readers just get a taste.

(Art in this post is by Lindsay’s Grandma Coral, except one picture by Lindsay.)

September 15, 2004 (age almost-1)

I’d forgotten how messy it is when a baby tries to feed herself. You’ll sit at the high chair happily for twenty minutes or more, grabbing everything on your tray, shoving much of it in your mouth, spitting much of this back out, and dropping a lot. Watermelon is a favorite, as are Cheerios (or “ring shaped oat cereal,” as the parenting books call them), refried beans (cold), little blocks of cheese, pieces of bread, cut-up fruit . . . just about everything except baby food, which you never really took a shine to. I’ll be all stoked at how much you ate, until clean-up time when I discover what looks like at least 90% of it on the floor, in your chair, and in the pouch of your bib (when we manage to get the bib on you, which is seldom). When you’re done you scream and cry throughout the clean-up, just like your sister used to do. Then you want to be held, which is a problem because I don’t want to have to change my outfit in addition to yours.

April 7, 2005 (age 1-½)

When I say, “Where’s your nose?” you grin, grab my finger, and touch your nose with it. Then you touch my nose with it. Then you start moving my hand around to different parts of my head: “That’s my ear,” I’ll say, “and that’s my mouth … that’s my cheek.” It’s not entirely clear how much you’re directing the hand and how much I am; it’s like a Ouija board.

You love throwing things away. Every time I empty the trash I have to watch out. The cat’s dish gets thrown out a lot. You’re just like your mother.

April 3, 2006 (age 2-½)

[Our cat] Misha kept getting on the table during dinner. I admonished her, “Get out of here Misha! Go catch some bugs!” (My point was that she’s supposed to be a hunter, not a scavenger, and yet I wouldn’t encourage her to catch birds.) Well, you and Alexa really liked this utterance. I’m not sure whether you grasped the point or not; you may just have seen it as a stock put-down or something. Anyway, the other day we were getting in the car and you and Alexa had some dispute, perhaps over who got what car seat. With a somewhat self-satisfied air (I think you’d prevailed in the dispute), you said, “Go away, Alexa! Go catch some bugs!” Man, she was pissed ... especially, I think, because your mom and I were laughing at what you said. I think this was your first joke ever, or at least your first joke that actually made somebody laugh out loud. I know plenty of adults who haven’t yet achieved that milestone.

April 11, 2006 (age 2-½)

I was reading No No, Jo to you. It’s about a kitten who’s always making messes by trying to help, and each page ends, “But does Sam [or whoever] thank that kitten? Sam says...” Then you open out a flap that shows the kid reacting to Jo’s mess, saying, “No no, Jo!” The idea is that the child to whom you’re reading the book can provide the chorus, or punch line, for each page. But you weren’t doing it. You’d done it before, but this time you were in a needy, weepy way because you’d just awoken from your nap to find the babysitter was here. You like the sitter okay, but of course you recognized that her presence meant your mom would be leaving. (I would be leaving too, but that’s no big deal for you.) It was tough even getting you to let me read to you to cheer you up. I thought you might be coaxed into helping me say the “No no, Jo!” part, so I prompted you. “What does Sam say?” I asked. “Please?” you whimpered.

April 18, 2006 (age 2-½)

We had Easter at your Grandma Judy’s house up in Oregon. After the egg hunt we had breakfast and then a walk. Your mom was enjoying the walking so much that she asked me to administer the chocolate bunnies to you and Alexa while she and my mom walked some more. This seemed like a fine work detail at first, until I saw the size of the rabbits. They were huge! Probably four inches tall, and solid chocolate. Of course you and your sister were thrilled and started gnawing on them right away. Soon you had chocolate all over your mouth and hands. As your mom was leaving she’d said, “Dana, it’s up to you to keep them from making a mess!” I gave you and Alexa each a paper napkin. I policed the devouring of the chocolate for a long while, maybe fifteen minutes, but man, what a tedious job. At several points I thought of taking the chocolate away because it was just too much, but of course that would be like taking candy from a baby. A lot like that in fact. So I tried to encourage you to save some for later. I gave you each a bag to put your bunny in. You dutifully wrapped the bunny in the napkin and put it in the bag, and then, once the delight of this operation wore off, you took it back out and started gnawing again. Finally I couldn’t bear the tedium, not to mention the ghastliness of it all, any longer and started to pack for our trip home. Your mom returned to discover that you (and/or Alexa) had smeared melted chocolate all over the cream-colored upholstery of one of Grandma Judy’s dining room chairs. Your mom snapped at me, I snapped back at her, my mom was hurt because she’d actually bought the bunnies and they’d cost a lot, and at last we fully appreciated the glory of Christ’s resurrection and the thrilling mystery of the rabbit that lays eggs.

June 7, 2006 (age 2-¾)

You were going to tag along with your mom to your sister’s ballet class, but I got home from work right before they left. Your mom saw an opportunity and changed her plan, leaving you home with me (vs. chasing you around the community center for 45 minutes). Oh, man, you were not happy about this—in fact, you had a complete meltdown. I was so exhausted from work, I went straight to my last-resort solution to the crisis: I put in a video for you, which is a rare treat. Then I put a beer in the freezer (we didn’t have any cold) and set a timer to remind me it was in there, lest it get forgotten and burst. When that timer went off, some 10-15 minutes into your video, you thought I’d set it for you, to limit your video time (a standard practice, but one which frankly hadn’t occurred to me in this instance). To my pleasant surprise, you ejected the tape and brought it to me, without any fuss. After that we seemed to be reconciled. It just goes to show, beer is probably the solution to most parenting difficulties.

September 26, 2006 (age almost-3)

You often use the word “instead” when you’re not actually comparing two options. “I want milk instead,” you’ll say, apropos of nothing. I guess it makes sense, because whenever you propose the having of something you’re also implicitly rejecting the not-having of that thing; i.e., “I want milk instead of no milk,” or “I want milk instead of nothing.” Very philosophical of you.

January 23, 2007 (age 3)

Your mom used code words the other night so you wouldn’t understand an idea she proposed to me. She referred to me as “the paternal guardian” or some such thing. “Call him ‘Daddy,’” you told her. Ah, the power of context (though in this case, for her to refer to me in the third person, when talking to me, should have helped throw you off the scent).

April 4, 2007 (age 3-½)

You call butter “toast,” as in, “I want more toast for my bread.” You call your lacy shawl “my marriage.” You call guinea pigs “bunny pigs.”

April 7, 2008 (age 4-½)

Last night at dinner, you had a bite of your mom’s dinner roll. “I don’t like this,” you said. “It tastes like Play-Doh.” I asked you how you knew what Play-Doh tasted like. You said, quite reasonably and matter-of-factly, “Because of this [roll].” This is a nice example of the logical fallacy of “Petitio Principii,” and you delivered it expertly, even convincingly.

July 16, 2008 (age 4-¾)

I sent in proofs-of-purchase from a cereal box and ordered you and Alexa these “Mommy and me” matching wristwatches (big and small). To my surprise, both you and Alexa wanted the black Hot Wheels watches instead of the pink Barbie ones. They arrived yesterday. They feel like they’re made of rubber. They’re black, with a tire tread texture. I asked if you liked them (and may have asked how you would rate them vs. the Barbie version, I can’t recall). You said, “These are cool. Cool is better than beautiful, because beautiful is just paint.”

August 25, 2008 (age almost-5)

You and Alexa were awake, first thing in the morning, and stayed in your beds, talking. I sneaked the door open, and silently peered in. Alexa asked you, “Lindsay, who’s your favorite person in the whole world?” You replied, “That Otto kid at Dandelion [preschool].” Alexa didn’t like this answer at all; as became evident, she wanted you to say that she was your favorite. She told you you’d hurt her feelings, and lectured you on how family is supposed to be more important than mere friends, but you wouldn’t back down. This discussion repeated itself a week or two later, and this time, though he was still your favorite, you couldn’t even remember Otto’s name. (I reminded you, but you seemed unsure that you’d had this right to begin with.)

December 18, 2008 (age 5)

We bought a new[er] car. I had cautioned you and Alexa to behave during our visit to the dealer, and you and Alexa really did. I had also said, almost as an aside, that it would be better if you didn’t appear too excited about the car, since it wouldn’t help our negotiating leverage for the dealer to know we were in love with it. I was a bit concerned about how excited you and Alexa would be about the built-in booster seats (which really are cool). Not surprisingly, that was the first thing the dealer brought to your and Alexa’s attention. I’m sure he recognized that if he could get you girls jazzed on that feature, we’d have a hard time walking away if he didn’t meet our price—sort of the “threat of tantrum” technique that grocery stores use, stocking every aisle with crappy toys and hoping parents will just bite the bullet and buy them, to lubricate the grocery shopping process.

Well, we all piled in for a test drive, and within minutes you said loudly, “I don’t like this booster!” I asked why not. You replied, again loudly, “It doesn’t have any armrests!” This was going well. The dealer’s implicit “You wouldn’t deprive these delightful children of their beloved built-in boosters, would you?” was being answered with an implicit, “Try me. Your boosters are overrated.” I decided to take a gamble and pretend to try to resolve your misgivings, figuring that you’ve never yet accepted a token bone thrown your way: “But Lindsay, if I weren’t sitting in the middle seat, we could fold down the middle armrest and you’d have that!” You replied, with an irritated don’t-you-patronize-me tone, “I want two armrests! I have two arms, so I want two armrests! I don’t want this booster!” So the booster seats were effectively neutralized as a bargaining tool. Yesssss!

July 22, 2010 (age 6-¾)

Alexa finished a meal recently and instead of taking her plate to the counter, she took it into the dining room. “Alexa, I know you’re licking your plate. Stop that and bring it in here,” I told her. She commented that if nobody sees her, it shouldn’t matter. “God can see you,” I said, just to see what my daughters’ reactions would be. You replied, “Does he care?” This was a departure: at other times, you’d referred to God as a she. I asked, “So God is a he, huh?” You replied, “Yes, God is a he and Goddess is a she.” I asked you who is in charge. You paused for a moment, reflecting, and then said, “They fight a lot.”

June 6, 2011 (age 7-½)

You read more and more picture books by yourself, but with chapter books you still prefer being read to. Right now I’m reading aloud Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now. Every so often I pause and ask you questions to see if you’re catching all the details and subtexts. Yesterday I asked, “Do you think Clarice should have told Betty that she had tickets to the ‘Ruby Redfort’ movie premier, to cheer her up?” You replied, “No, that would make it worse because Betty wouldn’t be able to go—her family is moving away, but she hasn’t told Clarice that yet.” I said, “That’s right, we know something that Clarice doesn’t. And what is that an example of?” Without missing a beat, you replied, “Dramatic irony.” That’s my girl!

July 31, 2011 (age 7-¾)

You and Alexa were complaining about not having enough little Lego dudes to play with. Your mom suggested you make your own little Lego guys out of Lego bricks. Alexa complained, “That’ll never work!” Your mom replied, “Then the Lego set has failed the whole family and we’ll never buy them again.” This infuriated Alexa, who cried, “That’s not funny in the least! We don’t have the right kind of bricks for that!” Always acting in solidarity with your sister, you wailed, in an equally affronted tone, “It’s like trying to do a math problem but you don’t even have a brain!

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Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Ask an Empty Nester

Dear Empty Nester,

I’m about to send my youngest off to college, and the way she’s talking, I doubt I’ll even see her over the summers. It seems she’s gone for good, which I guess is the whole idea. My question is: what should be done with her bedroom? I don’t want to make it into a shrine or anything, but to eliminate all trace of her seems a bit callous. Any suggestions?

Jeannie E, Seattle, WA

Dear Jeannie,

To some degree, this is a matter of real estate: how large is your home? If you lived in a land of giant houses, like, say, Houston, any modification to that room might not be worth the bother. But if your home is typical of Seattle, sounds like you could really use a proper guest room. So you’ll want to make that room attractive to your friends and relatives, which means pulling down the BTS or Monsta X poster, ditching the stuffed animals, upgrading the battered old bumper-sticker-plastered dresser, and if necessary (e.g., if the walls are red or black), repainting.

That being said, if you want to preserve something of your daughter’s essence, in an aesthetically pleasing way, leave her bookshelf exactly as is. Perhaps you have fond memories of seeing her behind this or that book, and after all you probably bought her some of them, especially if your daughter was wise enough to insist you hold on to her favorite children’s picture books. (Note that if your kid doesn’t have a bookshelf full of books to leave behind, you’re a shitty parent and all bets are off.) (Kidding!) (Sort of!) (No seriously, I’m kidding!)

Dear Empty Nester,

My son’s grand European tour dovetailed right into his departure for college, so my husband and I got an early start on our empty nester experience. The main thing I’ve noticed so far is that we’re kind of snippy with each other, especially about—of all things—the perennially low gas gauge in our car. We used to blame our kid for this (and frankly he earned that), but with him gone it’s still going on. My husband swears he doesn’t run out the tank, and while he’s not known to be delusional, I’m sure I’m not the culprit either. Are we losing our minds?

Emily K, Portland, OR

Dear Emily,

This could just be a phase as you adjust to life without your son around. Perhaps both you and your husband are flakier than you think when it comes to filling the tank, having long scapegoated your kid, and now the size of this problem is being exaggerated. You might also reasonably chalk some of this up to sky-high gas prices; maybe you’re getting just a few gallons at a time because you keep finding yourself almost out of gas without a reasonably cheap gas station nearby.

There’s a silver lining here, by the way: at least your son learned to drive! As described in this Wall Street Journal article, a growing number of Gen-Z kids aren’t bothering to learn; in 1983, 46% of 16-year-olds got their driver licenses, whereas in 2014 that had fallen to 24.5%. Don’t get me wrong, cars suck and we should all be biking instead, but knowing how to drive is an inarguably useful skill.

Dear Empty Nester,

It’s been almost a year since we dropped our child (er, adult, I guess) off at college, and when he didn’t even come home for summer break, my wife and I relapsed right into the empty nester funk we’d suffered originally. It might even be worse this time. It’s so bad, my wife is talking about getting a dog. This initially struck me as a really weird, hail-Mary type of notion, but I’m starting to think I’m just crazy enough to try it. What do you think?

Malcolm R, Oakland, CA

Dear Malcolm,

First of all, I am not a dog person, so I am fundamentally unqualified to answer this question, but I’ll give it my best shot anyway.

If you have never had a dog, this seems like a strange time to get one; or, to put it another way, if you’ve lived this long without a dog, do you actually fancy yourself suddenly becoming a dog person? Meanwhile, there are practical things to consider: as an empty nester you now have the opportunity to travel more, but a dog can seriously cramp your style. You should probably interview your dog-owning friends see what you’re getting into.

It also strikes me that a dog would be a questionable replacement for a typical teenaged human, with their moodiness, their tendency to hole up in their room, and their inevitable lack of greeting when you arrive home. In short, it’s likely your departed teen behaved more like a cat. Wouldn’t that be a more realistic surrogate?

Dear Empty Nester,

Why are we called empty nesters, anyway? It’s not like the nest is gone; we parents are still in it, thank you very much!

John S, Ashburn, VA

Dear John,

I wondered the same thing, before learning more about the avian behavior underlying the metaphor. For one thing, as described by Audubon, a bird’s nest exists purely for the eggs and hatchlings, and is then abandoned. If we want to be pedantic about it, the empty nest metaphor isn’t very apt unless the parents sell their home and move.

But it actually gets even more complicated than that. The real power of this metaphor derives from its allusion to brood parasitism, the practice of a bird laying its egg in another bird’s nest, manipulating the creator of that nest (the “host”) into raising its young. Isn’t this how all parents feel, before their nest empties out—as in, “Who are these evil teenagers and where did my sweet little children go?!” (This is related to the concept of “soiling the nest,” wherein—perhaps by biological design—your teenager becomes more and more annoying over time, to make his her departure a relief rather than cause for lament.)

The metaphor of brood parasitism is also a means to understand the guilt you are feeling now: just to get this kid out of your hair, you’ve planted her in a college dorm, making her her RA’s and roommates’ problem. They can try to get her to turn her stereo down, stop slamming doors at night, and not leave piles of laundry all over the floor. Offloading your chick to someone else’s nest feels  downright irresponsible, doesn’t it? Yeah … she learned from the best.

Dear Empty Nester,

This is really weird: although I think I’m coping pretty well with the empty nest (it’s only been a week), I startled myself the other day by calling my husband by our son’s name! Even more surprising, my husband says this was the second time I’ve done it. Am I losing it, or is this a known phenomenon?

Tracy A, Castle Rock, CO

Dear Tracy,

I have not only heard of this, but I did it myself! I wouldn’t read too much into it … just a brain glitch I think, based on your departed kid being on your mind. Perhaps it’s like that game where you tell somebody to say “stop” fifty times in a row, and then you ask him, real quick, “What do you do when you see a green light?” and he answers, “Stop!”

If, on the other hand, you start calling your husband by your ex-boyfriend’s name, then you might have bigger issues, like you’re reverting too far back to your previous life…

Dear Empty Nester,

I am having a disagreement with my wife about how much contact we should have with our son during his first couple weeks at college. She thinks he might be shy about reaching out to us for assistance, but I’m guessing he’ll love the independent feeling and would prefer to be left alone. When it comes to phoning, emailing, or texting a recently fledged kid, how much is too much? Please reply soon … we’re sending him off next week!

Rob S, Council Bluffs, IA

Dear Rob,

This will certainly vary from kid to kid, and based on where yours falls on the spectrum from already independent to totally coddled. I guess I would err on the side of less contact, since there are so many resources available to kids these days, with their parents likely being be a last resort. Remember, when our generation started college there was no Internet; most students lacked cell phones; and there was no Amazon … and yet, we somehow survived.

My younger daughter, a freshly minted college freshman, mentioned recently during an (albeit brief) phone call home that her alarm clock had broken and she had no idea how she’d wake up in time for her first class on Monday. So I suggested she use her (non-smart) cell phone, which surely has an alarm clock feature. She seemed to shrug off this idea, and dropped the subject. Well, the next day I downloaded the owner’s manual and sent her the instructions via email. Shortly after that, I sent her an unrelated email about some college lecture notes from thirty years ago I’d just stumbled across, relating to Nikolai Gogol, a writer we both enjoy.

Well, guess which email my daughter responded to first? Correct: the random one with no practical purpose, about how Gogol was a disgusting little kid, etc. To be fair, my daughter did reply to the alarm clock one too, but only to say she’d figured it out on her own. I have to say, I felt much better about the Gogol email. Her response to it told me she was alive and well and on top of her correspondence, and I didn’t feel like a mother hen. (Frankly, I’m more of a father rooster at heart.)

Dear Empty Nester,

I’m going to be an empty nester soon, along with a few of my friends and neighbors, and at some point someone was talking about silver linings and said something about free stuff. Is there some way to get free stuff out of this deal? I hope it’s not just bumper stickers or ball caps from the university…

Peter L, Albany, CA

Dear Peter,

You’re in luck! It just so happens there’s plenty of free stuff in our community, thanks to parents cleaning out their kids’ rooms. I’m seeing all kinds of perfectly good things dragged out to the curb: desks, chairs, old lamps, a clock radio, a boom box … you get the picture. My wife set out the six or seven stuffed animals our kids didn’t insist on keeping, and they were all taken … even the home-sewn turtle whose head was starting to come off. If you hurry, you might still nab this stereo cabinet (if that’s what it is) though I already scored the little alarm clock:

Dear Empty Nester,

My son, who starts his freshman year in a couple weeks, shocked me the other day by casually mentioning he’d be coming home once a month or so to do his laundry. (His college is only a couple hours away.) Is this a standard behavior? Should I allow it?

Lisa N, Sacramento, CA

Dear Lisa,

Look, this kid has a lot on his plate. He’s got his grades to think about, and making friends besides! I think you should drive out there twice a month, pick up his laundry, and do it for him. And bring him lots of baked goods while you’re at it (cookies, brownies, etc.). And if you really care about him succeeding socially, you should probably do his roommates’ laundry as well. And then write all their papers for them.

Have I made my point? Your son presumably has his tuition and dorm fees covered … he shouldn’t even be asking about laundry.

Dear Empty Nester,

I just have to say it: my youngest is going off to college soon and I’m already feeling pretty down. One way I try to process these kinds of feelings is through art, literature, etc. that goes into the problem Im grappling with. That said, I don’t want to spend a lot of time wallowing in my grief by reading a 400-page novel on the topic. Any recommendations for a good empty nester movie or something?

Aaron W, Minneapolis, MN

Dear Aaron,

I know just the thing: “Bao,” an animated short film from Pixar (available on Amazon Prime Video). There’s a nice interview with the director and the producer here.

Dear Empty Nester,

That bit about brood parasitism being part of the empty nest metaphor ... you totally made that up, didn't you.

Mike R, Sheridan, WY

Dear Mike,

Yeah. I did.

Dear Empty Nester,

I’m getting ready to drive my kid cross-country to drop her off at college, and I completely grasp that this is the intended outcome of her upbringing, that things are going to plan, and that the best case scenario is that she immediately adjusts, thrives socially, and doesn’t give her family a lot of thought. At the same time, I must confess I’d feel heartbroken if she didn’t miss her father and me at least a little. Is there any way for me to tell if she does, or will, and is that even realistic to hope for?

Kaitlin C, Fairfax, CA

Dear Kaitlin,

This is a common question (fielded not so long ago by the columnist College Dad as well). The fact is, you should brace yourself for your daughter to be totally unemotional during the final sendoff (even if you’re crying your eyes out), and pretty blasé in the weeks to come as well. Bear in mind, she’s blasting off into an exciting future, and all her hormones are united in jettisoning her old life with extreme prejudice. You are correct that the best case scenario is a swift and complete detachment.

That said, if your family has a pet, your daughter will surely miss him or her. Pets are much more attractive and cuddly than parents, and never pester the kids for anything but food (which after all is easy and fun to serve up). I also wonder if longing for the family pet is a kid’s way to sublimate homesickness into a more acceptable form.

Our younger daughter’s big goodbye took place last week, and it was predictably brief and offhanded (especially for her). But during her final week at home, she was moved to write a poem about our cat Freya. The poem ponders how little we can understand our cat; how differently she perceives the world; how she likely doesn’t differentiate between dream and recollection; and how little she perceives absence. The poem concludes:

Yet when I’m gone
Perhaps the slightest lack is felt, she’ll start
At one more cold place in the house.
And so I’ve left, within her scattered mind,
A memory of warmth

An Empty Nester is a syndicated journalist whose advice column, “Ask an Empty Nester,” appears in over 0 blogs worldwide.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2022

10 Reasons Keurigs Are Annoying


When I’m staying in a motel and they have a Keurig machine, my first reaction is positive—as in, oh good, it’s not going to be one of those terrible little no-name coffee packets that’s like a giant tea bag and brews a terrible brown liquid that is barely coffee. But then when I actually use the Keurig, I’m reminded of all the ways I find it annoying … and that’s even before number nine on the following list has happened (or when it doesn’t). Here is my top-ten list of why Keurigs are annoying, followed by a little surprise!

Reason #1: the landfill problem, obviously

I just bought Melitta #2 cone filters recently, in a pack of six boxes with 100 filters each. And in doing so, I thought (with a gasp), “Didn’t I just buy 600 of these fairly recently?” Well, it’s not so bad because it was actually last October (and yes, I know this because I bought them from Amazon, so sue me). Besides, these are all non-bleached, brown (aka “whole wheat”) filters, and I composted every one of them after use. So I’m not doing so badly. But imagine what 600 spent K-Cups would look like, dotting a landfill. Pretty depressing.

As documented in this Atlantic article, the inventor of the Keurig machine and its K-Cups now regrets he ever come out with it, and doesn’t use a Keurig himself due to the waste. As of 2015, 13 billion used K-Cups went into landfills every year. As of 2020 the company claimed to finally have a fully recyclable cup, but only if you were willing to separate the plastic, paper, metal, and coffee grounds. As the Atlantic put it, “A Venn diagram would likely show little overlap between people who pay for the ultra-convenience of K-Cups and people who care enough to painstakingly disassemble said cups after use.” Keurig—and this was long overdue—has recently made this process easier but they advise to “check locally” as the cups are “not recyclable in all communities.” I kind of doubt many users bother. And even if they do, recycling still requires energy; it’s never as good as composting. And all this waste is for what? Saving the effort of brewing coffee because it’s so, so hard? Would this product be as popular if it were branded Fisher Price Baby’s First EZ-Brew Coffee Station?

Which brings me to my next reason…

Reason #2: cheesy faux-Euro branding

Keurig sounds European, and it’s supposed to. As in, the idiot-proof operation and wastefulness is okay if it’s European and sophisticated. The full name of the company is Keurig Dr. Pepper, and it was formerly known as the Dr Pepper Snapple Group. So it’s as American as sugary soft drinks and that undrinkably cloying non-tea. Further proof of its heritage is that you can “brew” blueberry, caramel vanilla, and even French-toast flavored beverages, which is as grotesquely American as Starburst “fruit” chews. The Euro name really kind of insults our intelligence, doesn’t it?

Reason #3: large, ugly, single-use appliance

A nice stovetop or electric kettle is compact, looks great, and has multiple uses beyond coffee, such as making tea, pre-heating your thermos, getting a head start soaking a pan or your stovetop … you get the idea. Here’s a picture of the kettle I use (or more specifically, of the one I bought for my brother, and his reaction to it).

Like so many kettles, it’s easy to pour from due to the perfectly designed spout (which, by the way, cools water to the perfect temperature for brewing coffee or tea). It’s a marvel of minimalist engineering.

A Keurig, on the other hand, is totally lame: it’s large, hi-tech-looking, plastic, and does exactly one thing, which is to prepare a single serving of coffee (or artificially flavored offshoot) for one person in one size. Which brings me to…

Reason #4: reinforces self-centered individualism vs. hospitality

Half the time I make coffee, it’s for two. I do pour-over drip coffee so we’re talking two mugs with two cone filters, side by side. (My wife does half-decaf, or else I’d just do a Chemex carafe.) This small act of thoughtfulness is part of why we’re still married after 28 years. And when I have houseguests, rising early and brewing a big batch of coffee for everyone gives me, and them, a simple pleasure. Now imagine you’re somebody’s houseguest and you wake up to the delicious smell of brewing coffee, only to make your way into the kitchen and discover your host only made it for himself. “Keurig’s on the counter,” he says from the next room. You dig through a basket of K-Cups looking for one that isn’t “Vanilla Skyline” or “Maple Sleigh” flavored, and get to work making yourself a cup. Sure, you’re glad to have coffee, but isn’t this so much less gezellig? Needless to say, gone are the days of having somebody come refresh your cup here and there. It’s every man for himself with the Keurig.

Reason #5: leads consumers further down the path of convenience addiction

The Keurig inventor, explaining why he no longer uses the product, concedes that “it’s not like drip coffee is tough to make.” Until about 2008, making coffee the old way was just not a big obstacle for people. But a lot of Americans are fricking lazy, which is why about one in three American homes now has a Keurig machine. Keurig is as guilty as the microwave popcorn industry in this regard. If you train consumers to believe that all manual effort is to be avoided, the Keurig is what you get. If Keurig made food it’d be Cup O’ Noodles.

Reason #6: fewer coffee purveyor options

I was disappointed when I saw that my favorite coffee roaster, Peet’s, had capitulated and started selling their product as K-Cups … but then, Peet’s is pretty mainstream at this point. But what about these smaller roasters who are fair-trade, environmentally focused, all-organic, and probably more responsible in ways I don’t even appreciate? Now they have to compete with a product whose gross waste (see above) is fundamentally incompatible with their brand and operation. I’d rather not give these smaller outfits another disadvantage in trying to survive.

Meanwhile, I’m not an expert on coffee or anything, but I’m assured by all my coffee-aficionado friends that the best cup of coffee comes from beans that were ground to order. In other words, coffee stays fresher when purchased as whole beans. Obviously this isn’t an option with Keurig. They put ground beans in the K-Cups and vacuum seal them with nitrogen, which seems like a less effective (and creepier) freshness strategy.

Reason #7: appeals to male insecurity

This is probably the toughest assertion for me to support, but did it ever seem to you like inserting the K-Cup into the Keurig’s jaws and them shoving them closed is a lot like chambering a bullet in a rifle? Does this remind you of the little magazine of blades in a Gillette Sensor razor? Isn’t it kind of sad that insecure men, when using an idiot-proof product like this, are reassured by these transparent appeals to their masculine vanity? A real man uses a proper double-edged razor and will happily disassemble and troubleshoot his coffee grinder if it ever gets jammed. (And you thought the disposable K-Cups were the only imitation of the so-called “razor and blades model” that Keurig stole from Gillette and their ilk!)

Reason #8: just one word: plastics

As described here, some years ago I searched really hard for a kettle that didn’t have any plastic, because I don’t like the idea of all that heat and all that plastic getting together for my twice-daily coffee ritual. Sure, the links between plastics and health problems are not fully understood, but why take any risk? K-Cups get really hot during brewing. On the off chance this isn’t good for you over time (e.g., over perhaps 700 cups a year), why not play it safe? (I’ll note that my current kettle, made by Chantal, is completely plastic-free. So is my mug. And my spoon.)

Reason #9: isn’t actually foolproof

When a Keurig works right, its operation is very simple: jettison the spent K-Cup (like an empty shell, per #7 above), load and chamber the new one, pour in the water, place the mug, and press the button. But have you ever had this sequence disrupted? I have, quite recently. I discarded the spent K-Cup, slapped the new one in there, poured in the water, and then discovered the Brew button wasn’t lit. The Keurig wasn’t plugged in! Because my wife and I were staying in an old motel with very few electrical outlets, she’d borrowed this outlet to charge her phone. Now what? Well, if this happens to you, here’s what to expect: ten very frustrating minutes from now, you’re going to have water all over your counter, water remaining in the Keurig machine, four wasted K-cups, and two cups of screwed-up coffee—one impossibly strong, the other impossibly weak. Um … somebody refresh my memory as to why traditional brewing is so inconvenient?

Reason #10: eliminates a pleasant ritual

I generally work from home. In the afternoon, usually around three when things have quieted down, I like to take a coffee break. I fill my kettle, start the water heating, and then set about grinding the beans, with a quiet, compact hand-powered burr grinder. This takes a few minutes, almost exactly as long as it takes for the water to boil. Then I place the filter in the pour-over cone, pour in just enough water to wet the beans, and then wait a little less than a minute before proceeding to pour water over the entire cone, slowly moving the kettle spout about in a circular motion per the established best practices of the pour-over method. It’s a calming, mildly absorbing, and pleasant ritual, and it takes some time—meaning I actually get a break from work, which is half the point. Why eliminate this? Is it always better to spend just twenty seconds with your stupid plastic machine, go back to your desk, and then fetch the coffee a couple minutes later? From the standpoint of work-life balance this strikes me as the beverage equivalent of eating a Cup O’ Noodles lunch at your desk while working on that spreadsheet some more. Lame!

And now, the surprise!

I know this has been a pretty negative post, and I also know that that in general we could all use some more positivity in our headspace. With that in mind, I’m thinking of implementing a new conversational rule with close friends and family: if somebody waxes negative, they must then shift gears and make three positive statements, such as things they’re grateful for, etc. This will keep us all from getting down and/or cynical. So, I’m now going to offer my favorite three things about coffee:

  1. It jump-starts my brain in the morning, obviously
  2. It just smells so darn good, whether you’re inhaling the aroma of the beans, the grounds, or the final product
  3. Even people who don’t particularly like coffee (e.g., my kids) enjoy the smell of it brewing, like aromatherapy

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Monday, August 8, 2022

Three Toasters


This is a tale of three toasters. Any resemblance of any characters to real-life persons is, like, duh! Because everything below is true.

The Sunbeam

The Sunbeam was probably not the first toaster my family had growing up. We surely had some boxy, cheap toaster that flung the (usually burnt) toast up in the air like in cartoons. But very early in my childhood, when I was too young to timestamp the memory, my mom bought a Sunbeam. It ran the bread perpendicular to how all other toasters do it, which I always thought was a bit cheeky. It was also the first toaster I ever saw that lowered the bread slowly down, automagically, instead of you pushing down a lever like a cash register key. The toast rose slowly out of it as well. It looked a bit like this:

Like all toasters, it was capable of toasting bread properly under certain conditions. If the brownness setting was set just right and the toaster was cold, you might get a good result, but then the next pair of slices would be underdone because the heat detector mechanism was fooled by the ambient heat of the  rest of the toaster. (At least, that’s always been my theory.) So then, in frustration, you’d put the pale toast back in, and have another go but watching carefully, tediously, and then you move the lever to a darker setting for the next go, and so on (ours being a family of six). At the end, bored and frustrated and distracted, you’d forget to slide the adjuster back to any baseline, so the next time the toaster was used, when it’d be cold, it would of course burn the crap out of the bread. The Sunbeam wasn’t particularly bad in this respect; it’s just that I expected more. When we first got it, and I peered into it and saw the little springy-wire sensor that enabled it to lower the bread to save you the effort of pushing down on anything, I thought maybe this toaster was the special one that would always work right.

In junior high I read Good-bye, Mr. Chips, which took place at an English boarding school. The younger-year students would wait on the upper-year students, which included making their toast. This was before toasters so the bread was put in a little wire thingie and held in the oven (or maybe over some kind of flame, I don’t remember), so it was easy to burn it. The younger-year student would be flogged for burning the toast. The dialogue went something like this:

      “Henshaw, you little oik, you burnt my toast again.”

      “Sorry Rivers, I’ll try harder!”

      “I don’t like burnt toast.”

      “I won’t do it again!”

     “Wrong, oik. ‘I won’t do it again’ suggests you did it deliberately. You should have said ‘shan’t.’”

      [Paddling, cuffing, or ear-twisting ensues]

I didn’t tend to make toast for my older brothers, so they didn’t throttle me for burning it, but there were enough beat-downs in my childhood that I could certainly relate to the book. For much of my life I considered toast something that wasn’t worth the trouble.

But that Sunbeam toaster was built well and just kept turning out toast (burnt or not), decade after decade. So when I was visiting my mom this past week and she offered me an English muffin, I had that pleasant, familiar feeling of a family ritual being continued. Nothing ever changes, and you can go home again. I glanced into the kitchen to see the Sunbeam in action, and was surprised to see my mom toasting the English muffin in the oven, like at a boarding school. Because things do change: her Sunbeam burned up, along with virtually all of her other possessions, in a terrible fire a couple of years ago. For me to have imagined the Sunbeam doing my toast was just a habit, or perhaps some deep-down form of denial, I don’t know.

“Mom, why don’t you buy a new toaster?” I asked (perhaps insensitively). She replied, “I don’t really want a toaster. I don’t like toasters.” I can relate.

The hardware store toaster

One year, when I was in college, my dad almost forgot my birthday. I received no card or gift, but on the day he phoned me up. “I meant to buy you a present but I ran out of time,” he explained. “I was going to buy you a toaster. So let’s do this: go out and buy yourself a toaster, and then let me know how much it cost and I will reimburse you.”

I wasn’t exactly thrilled. I mean, why would he assume that I didn’t have a toaster, unless he knew I never wanted one? And, if he remembered that I had three roommates, why would he assume we didn’t have a toaster among us? And who asks his kid to run an errand for his birthday? This was especially inappropriate because all financial matters between my dad and me were routinely awkward and painful.

So, I wasn’t keen to go buy that toaster. Every time I burned my toast, I reasoned, I’d think about my dad and his ridiculous gifting scheme. So it became the kind of errand that just gets put off. And yet, through sheer weakness, I had some impulse to not let my dad down—some sense  of duty. But where do you buy a toaster? This was decades before Amazon, and I wasn’t about to BART into San Francisco and waste a lot of time wandering around a department store. I decided to ask my roommate M—, who, in addition to being probably the smartest guy I know, owned a toaster oven. I never used it (because I didn’t eat toast and didn’t know how to work the thing anyway) but I was frequently impressed to see M— actually cooking a steak in that bad boy. Unsurprisingly, he proved an excellent resource for my toaster investigation.

“Are you looking for something nice, or just some cheap, crappy thing?” he asked. I replied, “Oh, the cheaper and crappier the better.” He said any hardware store ought to have a cheap, crappy toaster. I worked right down the street from an Ace Hardware, and sure enough, I bought a barebones toaster there for like $8. It looked about like this, but was even cheaper and crappier.

Of course, by this point (two or three weeks after my birthday) it seemed silly to invoice my father for $8, because then when he (inevitably) didn’t manage to actually get over to the Credit Union to do the money transfer (because for some reason he wouldn’t ever write me a check), I’d be all bent out of shape over $8. So, the upshot is that my birthday present was a stupid $8 toaster I didn’t want, that became symbolic of the complicated, perennially strained relationship I had with my father. But don’t worry, this story has a very happy ending.

I’ll need to give some background first. Another roommate, J—, was basically the polar opposite of M—. I should probably try to be kind here but find I cannot: the simple fact was that J— was just a big dumbass. He was a rich kid, the son (he said) of a land developer, though we eventually found out the old man was a gynecologist, which for some reason embarrassed J—. J— loved to not only rock an actual Rolex, but to leave it lying around for us to gawk at and be envious of. And he played Nintendo all the time. It’s basically all he did. And it was always the same game, like he’d rather develop true mastery of one game than to try anything new. This was in the days when video consoles had to be plugged into the TV, which was in the living room, so we all had to witness his endless frustration with the game. He couldn’t go thirty seconds without shouting profanities at the screen. Eventually he’d get fed up and storm off to his room and play “Down In it” by Nine Inch Nails. Now, don’t get me wrong, that’s not a bad song, but it gets old after like the 400th listening. And it boggled my mind that J— could be so simple-minded as to enjoy only this one song, to never want to hear anything else. And he had plenty of music; I once went into his room and counted his CDs, which numbered well over four hundred.

Oh, and when he blasted “Down In It,” it was freaking loud, because he had this giant stereo system, with the four-foot tall speakers with the really fat cables (as though electricity needed a lot of room to travel through). Actually, he had two stereo systems, because an identical one was in our living room. I think he said the systems cost thousands of dollars apiece. We were all permitted to use the living room stereo, but I never did. First of all, I didn’t own any CDs—just tapes, and even though J—’s stereo had a tape deck, it was the short-lived Digital Audio Tape (DAT) format, which never caught on because it was pointless, other than showcasing wealth and a taste for the cutting edge. Plus, I was afraid to go near that stereo. What if I damaged it?

Well, as luck would have it, I did manage to damage it. For some reason one day I needed to move one of those speakers, and I underestimated how heavy it was. I was partly holding it by one of the speaker covers, which couldn’t handle the stress and popped off. Some little plastic fastening bit was broken. Oh, shit! I almost considered wiping it all down to remove my fingerprints. No way was I copping to that—replacement parts for that stereo were way beyond my pay grade.

Needless to say, J— was livid. He was given to very loud orations to begin with, many of them unintentionally comical. For example, he was yelling at his sister on the phone once, due to some complicated matter involving their mom, and boomed, “Obviously it’s gonna take someone with more than half a brain to explain it to her—I already tried!” Another time he rousted me from my room because, for once in his life, he decided the bathroom needed cleaning. Our apartment had two bathrooms and J— and I shared one of them; I did all the cleaning whereas his sole contribution was putting one of those blue dye-infusing doodads in the tank. On this occasion he said, “We’ll do a coin flip. Heads I clean the bathroom, tails you clean the bathroom. Call it.” He flipped the coin and I just stood there. What was there to call? My silence seemed to piss him off. “Dude, you were supposed to call it!” he bellowed. “Try again: heads I clean the bathroom, tails you clean the bathroom. Call it.” He flipped the coin. I said, “Heads.” Now he looked confused, then dumbfounded. I could practically hear the gears mashing in his skull.

If his normal outbursts were annoying, his repeated indignant speech about the broken speaker became insufferable. “Look, you guys, somebody broke my speaker and somebody won’t even admit it. Somebody is lying. I mean, can’t you just admit it? Because here’s the thing: it’s not even the speaker I’m so mad about. It’s the principle of the thing.” He seemed to become addicted to this diatribe because he would trot it out again and again.

And that’s where the toaster comes in. One day, I got a wild hair and decided to actually make some toast. A slice of toast with peanut butter randomly seemed like a good idea. So I chucked the bread in there, pushed down on the little lever, and—nothing. No red-hot filaments, no charring of innocent bread. The toaster was dead as a doorknob. And I was stoked.

I waited until all four of us were together, and a couple girlfriends (including J—’s) for good measure, and then I confronted my roommates: who broke my toaster? Of course nobody fessed up because it’s kind of impossible to use a toaster wrong; it had spontaneously died. Or who knows, maybe it had never worked to begin with, cheap piece of crap that it was. I panned across my roommates, looking each in the eye. “Look, you guys,” I said, “somebody broke my toaster and somebody won’t even admit it. Somebody is lying. I mean, can’t you just admit it? Because here’s the thing: it’s not even the toaster I’m so mad about. It’s the principle of the thing.”

With the precision of a fine Swiss watch, the next step of the ruse clinked perfectly into place. “Yeah, exactly!” J— cried. “It’s just like with my speaker! It’s the principle of the thing!” Two of my roommates completely cracked up, while J— looked utterly nonplussed. As his incomprehension dragged out, I started chuckling too. His girlfriend, who’d heard the speaker harangue several times herself, whispered in his ear, and he stormed out of the room. That was so worth my eight bucks.

The Oster

Once I got married, a toaster was pretty much inevitable. No, we didn’t get one for a wedding present (not having done a bridal registry, which tradition I consider stupid and pointless), but went out and dutifully bought one. It was kind of a piece of crap, a Cuisinart or something (and everyone knows they only make food processors so they’d just slapped their rapidly declining brand on some generic thing). It died young. We got another, probably the same thing, and the only good thing about it was its mirror-like chrome finish, which could lead to the best kind of clowning around, which I managed to get a photo of.

That toaster also died—the sides actually came away from the base, it having been made no better than a Happy Meal box, following which we got yet another toaster which was fricking blue. Who ever heard of a blue toaster? I was starting to get fed up with my participation in this disgusting consumer culture where a never-ending series of poorly made products cycled through my home briefly on their way to a landfill, none of them costing much individually but giving me the vague feeling that if I ever realized how much I’d spent on them over time, I’d be pretty pissed. The days of my mom’s Sunbeam, which lasted like 45 years (and would probably still be going strong if it hadn’t burned up), are long gone. 

I don’t even know what happened to the blue toaster but one day, not so long ago, I was out for a walk with my wife and we came across this little number, which had been put out in someone’s driveway with a “FREE” sign:

I guess “little number” doesn’t really apply because it’s a pretty giant toaster. No more waiting around when two of us want toast at the same time. Plus, when you toast simultaneously instead of serially, you avoid the cycle of pale-and-then-burnt toast I described earlier. Best of all, the slots are long enough to toast a giant slice of San Luis Sourdough in one go, instead of dropping it in vertically, toasting one half, and then flipping it. I’ve come to love big sandwiches on sourdough, mainly because non-whole-grain bread is so notoriously bad for you with its sky-high glycemic index. When my dad was visiting many years ago and I made French toast, which I always make with slices of day-old Acme sweet or sour bâtard, he requested whole grain bread. What’s next? Whole grain croissants? Decaf? Near beer? Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a nice veggie sandwich on whole grain bread, but look at this bad boy:

But I mainly just love that this Oster toaster lasted long enough for somebody to get tired of it … that bodes well. After all, my mom’s most prized kitchen possession, a waffle iron that looked like it was made of sterling silver, she’d gotten at a garage sale. It made the hands-down best waffles I have ever had. It was so old it had a woven cloth cord, and lasted something like fifty years before it started catching fire. Actually, even after that my brother’s family continued to use it anyway for a year or two before, sigh, giving it up. Maybe a second-hand kitchen appliance is a good omen. And even if this Oster doesn’t give me years of decadent use, hey … don’t cost nothin’.

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