Category Archives: Musings

Six reasons to love coffee

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Gift from a friend who knows me well

I’ve heard it said that the traditional Irish name for whiskey is “the water of life.” With all due respect to whiskey, I don’t think it deserves that name.  I can think of another drink that, in my opinion, is far more life-giving.

That drink is coffee.

I say this not just because coffee is responsible for the daily resurrection of Ginny from the sleep of the dead. It’s for a whole host of reasons, actually.  In ways that are big and small and delicious, coffee has enhanced my life.  And — because I’m on spring break and I have time to systematically ponder these things — I’m going to share them here.

1.  Coffee is proof that God wants us to take pleasure in the senses.  Seriously, is there any more fabulous taste than a really good cup of coffee (in my case, laced with half and half)?  It is one of the few drinks that can render me speechless with delight.  No matter how early the alarm, that first sip makes me actually glad that I am no longer asleep.  That’s some serious magic.

And it’s not just taste, either — the mere smell of coffee is intoxicating.  Even people who don’t drink coffee will speak fondly of the dark, delicious scent of freshly-roasted or -ground beans.  Ahhhh.

2.  Coffee is a good companion for both the alone times and the social times.  I always sneak my cup of coffee back to my bedroom in the morning and close the door.  The kids think I’m getting dressed for the day, and I do, eventually — but first I sit at my prayer desk for a brief session of morning prayer, just me and my coffee and God.  It’s a quiet ritual that gets my day off to a good start.

But coffee has also traditionally and historically been a social beverage.  The first coffeehouse in Paris was a major magnet for the thinkers of the Enlightenment to meet and discuss Big Things with their pals.  Nowadays, we meet friends at Peet’s or Starbucks to catch up over a latte or an espresso.  Growing up, coffee always made an appearance at family dinners; my mom or grandma or aunt would brew a pot and pour mugs to share over the dinner table conversation.  A drink that brings people together and doesn’t result in a barfight: that’s one of the virtues of coffee.

The Coffee Bearer by John  Frederick Lewis

The Coffee Bearer by John Frederick Lewis











3. Coffee is evidence (if such is needed) that I am a grownup.
As a kid, I hated it.  In college, I discovered a taste for it, and there was no going back. It was a rite of passage akin to getting my own checking account.

It also figured prominently in an important college lesson. One morning in the dining hall after staying up most of the night studying for a midterm, I was desperate to wake up.  I thought, in my hazy fog, that drinking two large glasses (not cups, mind: glasses) would make me alert for the test.  In fact, the coffee made me so manic and jittery that it was a struggle to restrain myself from running circles around around the classroom like a cartoon character with puffs of smoke at her heels.  It was a good lesson: Do all things in moderation.  From then on, I drank much less, and enjoyed it much more.

4. Coffee has given my husband a new hobby.  A few years back, looking for a cheaper way to fuel our daily coffee habit, Scott started researching places to purchase beans online.  That led him to websites that talked about roasting your own coffee.  That led him to try roasting beans with a popcorn popper, which led him to set off the smoke alarm, which led him to move the popper to the garage.  That, finally, led him to tell me that he wanted to buy a $300 coffee roasting machine.

“I seem to recall,” I told him, “that we started this whole thing as a way to cut costs.”

He patiently explained that he still had some birthday money left over, and that he had crunched the  numbers and it would start paying for itself within a not-so-distant date, and I gritted my teeth and said okay, and he embarked on a hobby that he loves to this day.  He buys green beans through the mail, and once a week or so he goes out to the garage and roasts. He has experimented with different kinds of beans from different places (my favorite: Ethiopian), and he has a log book where he records it all, and his coffee is hotly (ha! unintentional pun) in demand among our family and friends.  Because believe me, if you think coffee is good, coffee that is freshly-roasted is even better.

So it’s a hobby that has enriched my own life immeasurably.  And now we always have a Christmas gift for those hard-to-shop for folks!  What’s not to love?

5.  Coffee makes the world a little smaller.  I’m of the generation that remembers the commercials with Juan Valdez and his donkey.  As a kid seeing those ads, you knew that the coffee your parents brewed did not grow down the street but in some faraway place called Colombia.  In its own small way, it helped foster a fledgling global consciousness.  And now, with the emergence of the fair trade movement, the purchase of coffee can actively promote better lifestyles for people around the world.  That’s a pretty great thing.

6. It has a really cool and obscure patron saint.  At LA Congress the year after Scott started his roasting hobby, I found this magnet for sale.

St Drogo










I had never heard of Saint Drogo before and frankly I was skeptical, because it sounds like a name invented by someone who has read too much Tolkein.  A little research, however,  proved that he is actually a legitimate Flemish saint of the twelfth century.  He is not only the saint of coffeehouse keepers, but also of deaf people, shepherds, gallstones, and (I quote) “people whom others find repulsive.”  He also apparently had the ability to bilocate, which in his bio is not specifically attributed to coffee consumption but which nonetheless seems like the kind of superpower you’d expect from the drink.

So that’s a sampling of reasons why I love coffee: the water of life, the nectar of the gods, the drink I can’t do without.

Retreat on wheels: Why I need my commute

My fellow commuter (note coffee stains)

My fellow commuter (and source of coffee splashes)

For many, “commute” is a four-letter word.  The daily drive to and from work is a torturous ritual that taxes patience and frays nerves.

Call me crazy, but I am increasingly considering my commute a sort of gift.

First off, I’m lucky in that my commute is only half an hour.  (I should specify that that is only true if I leave the house by 7:06; if I leave at 7:20, I’m toast.  Such is the reality of traffic here in the SF Bay Area).  And I’m lucky that the road I take is — usually — one that keeps moving, without the stop-and-go traffic that makes drivers gnash their teeth.

My commute is also particularly pretty, on a road that takes me through gentle sloping hills.  It’s especially lovely this time of year, when the hills are bright green from the rain.  (In summer and fall, they’re ochre — pretty in its own way, but not as captiviating.)

There are cows grazing, and occasionally horses doing the same.  Every now and then I see deer, usually in a small group.  At times I see a long thin blindingly white heron standing on the slopes absurdly near the road, or I catch a glimpse of a hawk sitting on a low fence, managing to look both hunched and regal at the same time.

There are mornings where I find myself driving into a sunrise that is almost too glorious to be true.  Some mornings, the road is so socked in with fog that a road I know by heart suddenly becomes unknown, unfamiliar; I have to pay close attention to the signs that emerge out of the mist so I don’t miss my exit.  There are also mornings where the freeway itself is clear but mist moves, wraithlike and mysterious, along the wooded hills in the distance.


Commute sky


It is a good thing to start one’s workday with a shot of natural beauty.  It’s like a caffeine boost for the soul.

And I’ve found that the half-hour in the car by myself is a necessary transition for me.  I’m an introvert who lives the life of an extrovert; I am a mom and a teacher, and both of these jobs demand a lot from me.  They require near-constant social interaction, relentless service and a focus on meeting others’ needs.  I love both roles, don’t get me wrong, but as someone who recharges her batteries through solitude, having that half-hour to myself twice a day is a necessary ritual.

I used to listen to the news in the car.  I rarely do now, as I’ve found it just increases my stress level before the day has even started.  Instead, I listen to my own music or to the local classical radio station, which has beautiful music and a morning DJ with one of the most calming voices I’ve ever had the good fortune to hear.

And I let my thoughts go.  They lead me in places that are sometimes predictable and sometimes surprising, and I find myself with new ideas for writing or lesson plans or how to address a problem on my mind.  Sometimes I consciously pray.  Sometimes I  just gather impressions from what I see around me, letting the green hills and oak trees and cows and morning fog sink into my memory, from which — in the way of the writing life — they may emerge again in future.

And I am, in those moments, ever-so-grateful that in my overfull and very social life, I am guaranteed two daily episodes of contemplation and silence, two daily chances to be alone with God and my thoughts.  I always wish for more, but what I have already is a gift.

Maybe that’s the secret to contentment: Looking at our lives and recognizing that God is already giving us what we need, even if it’s disguised as the morning commute.

Coloring books and parenting and prayer


At my local Barnes and Noble the other day, I noticed that an entire display by the door is nothing but adult coloring books.   There were easily fifteen different ones on the shelf, each one offering intricate designs for frazzled adults to sit and color in hopes of restoring their sanity.

Apparently 2015 was the Year of the Adult Coloring Book, a publishing success story that very few saw coming.

But frankly, I — like a lot of moms, probably — figured this one out long ago.  I’ve known for years that sitting at a table with my kids and coloring in outlines, be they of Sesame Street characters or Hot Wheels cars, is a very renewing and positive thing.

A few weeks ago, in fact, the boys and I sat down on a rainy Sunday to color.  We had kids’ coloring books of the robot and cars variety; we had an old Ballet coloring book of mine from days long past (you find all kinds of things when you clean out your desk).  I colored in the picture of the ballet “La Sylphide” as the raindrops fell and the boys and I took turns sharing a box of color pencils.  A good time was had by all.


From a parenting perspective, there is something about coloring with your kids that leads to conversation.  I’ve found that when we are sitting at a table, each with our head bent over a coloring book, conversation seems to go in directions I wouldn’t have expected and could never orchestrate myself.  It’s akin to what parents of teenagers often say about driving; when you are sitting in the car with your kids, they tend to open up, maybe because you’re not looking right at them and that little bit of space makes it easier for them to venture into more difficult topics.  I like that my boys will bring up random subjects over coloring books.  I learn a lot about them when they do.

And for my own self, I find it enjoyable to do something that focuses more on the visual than the verbal.  I adore writing and love playing around with words, but I find it renewing to branch out every now and then.  There’s a school of thought that says that any creative pursuit, even if it’s not the one in which you specialize, helps you as an artist, and I have to agree.  Doing things with pictures makes the words come more easily.

Some might argue that coloring in coloring books is  a watered-down sort of creativity.  I get that argument; coloring someone else’s picture is not as creative as drawing my own.  But I’ve found that isn’t really the point, and that coloring books still shake something loose inside me. There’s actually a prayer analogy here; I like to pray with my own words, and I often do.  But there are times when putting my own feelings (which may be a mystery even to myself)  into words simply makes it harder for me to pray.  Those are times when I turn to the Our Father or the rosary, glad that I can use someone else’s words and free myself from the self-imposed pressure of having to do it all myself.  I let someone else draw the prayer lines and I move within them, some part of me freer for doing so.

So I can’t say I’m surprised by the success of coloring books among the over-twenty set.  It’s a simple pastime that really isn’t simple at all.

Why Moms Love Downton Abbey


From my latest article at

It’s here: the final season of Downton Abbey. I’m going to miss it when it’s gone. This show has brightened my Januaries since its premiere five years ago, letting me slip away from my suburban Silicon Valley existence and immerse myself in a world of tea trays and titled gents.

I’m not alone in my love for this series. It has a broad base of support, appealing to viewers of all kinds. But I happen to think that moms have a particular affinity for the saga of Lord and Lady Grantham, their family, and their servants. I think it appeals to the mom-demographic for a few very specific reasons.

1) We moms harbor fantasies of living like Lady Grantham. I don’t know about you, but I dream of a world where I have breakfast in bed every day, not just on Mother’s Day. I fantasize about being able to ring a bell and have other people bring me anything I need (or, more to the point, anything I want), be it a cup of tea or a freshly-ironed dress. And don’t even get me started about living in a beautiful house that I don’t have to clean myself. Downton Abbey lets us vicariously indulge in a pampered life, one that looks mighty appealing to the modern mom.

2) The show reflects our much-less-glamorous reality. As much as Downton Abbey feeds our fantasies about doing nothing more pressing than deciding what to wear for dinner, it also reflects what our lives really do look like. We moms can relate to the servants who zip around below stairs and behind the scenes, keeping the house running smoothly. We understand the frazzled feelings of Mrs. Patmore as she frantically bangs lids onto pots and tries to get dinner done on time. We all know that feeling of having to drop what we’re doing and help someone else. We don’t answer to the ding of a bell calling us to the drawing room, but we know how it feels to be summoned by the newborn who needs to be fed or the child who desperately needs help with a math problem. Putting others’ wishes above our own? We get that, we moms. We know how it feels to live a life of service.

And when Downton Abbey shows the servants in a rare moment of relaxation, sitting down and reading the paper or enjoying a glass of something in Mrs. Hughes’ office, I almost want to weep with happiness for them. They’ve earned it. We have too, moms, and let’s not feel guilty about occasionally putting our feet up or escaping to a café or the mall for a little time alone. (Even the servants get one afternoon off a week; isn’t it only normal for us to want the same?)

You can read the rest at!

What I owe Alan Rickman


When my radio alarm woke me this morning with the news that actor Alan Rickman had died, I found my thoughts turning to his most memorable role.  It wasn’t the maniacal villain in Die Hard, or the inky-haired Severus Snape, though those are surely the first images that came to mind for many.  I immediately thought of Colonel Brandon in the film Sense and Sensibility.

It’s one of my favorite films.   Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay, did so beautifully, turning Austen’s first novel into a movie that (in my blasphemous opinion) is even more engaging than the novel itself.  And when I saw it the first year after I graduated from college, I liked it so much I saw it three times in the theatre (and countless times on VHS – boy, that really dates me, doesn’t it?).

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Rickman in action.  I’d seen Die Hard, and I’d enjoyed him immensely in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, where he stole every scene he was in (it was one of the first movies I could cite where the villain was way more appealing than the hero).  And I knew that he’d starred in the stage production of the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses; his role in the movie version was played by John Malkovich, who wasn’t bad, but nothing to what I imagine Rickman could have done in that part.

But in Sense and Sensibility, he played a role that opened my twenty-something eyes to a truth about dating that every woman has to learn: Don’t overlook the quiet guys who fly below the radar.  Still waters run deep.  (I should add here that if you haven’t seen S&S, don’t read any further, as I’ll be indulging freely in spoilers.)

In the movie, his character Colonel Brandon loves Marianne (Kate Winslet) instantly.  Remember the first time he sees her, playing the piano and singing?  It’s such a beautifully-filmed scene, catnip for a romantic like me.


But Marianne – like many young women, honestly – doesn’t give him the time of day.  She wants the dashing  hero who sweeps her off her feet.  She finds it, quite literally, in Willoughby, the guy who carries her home when she sprains her ankle and woos her with poetry and knows exactly what to say at all times.  He drives a fast carriage; he’s thrilling and a little dangerous.  She’s nuts about him.  But the romance ends in heartbreak, passionate tears, and an awful social snub at a ball that shows the guy’s true colors once and for all.  (There’s also that bit about him seducing another woman and leaving her alone and pregnant.  He’s just a bad boy all the way.)

But Colonel Brandon is the opposite: he is steady, devoted, ethical.  He cleans up Willoughby’s messes, stands by the woman he jilts (women, I guess), and is at all times courteous and kind.  There’s a great scene where one of the busybodies tries to throw Marianne and Brandon together by suggesting that they play a piano duet.  Marianne immediately says rudely that she doesn’t know any duets, a pointed response mean to show her lack of interest in Brandon.  Rickman’s face falls; he’s felt the snub.  All the same, a second later he pulls out a chair for Marianne as she sits at the table.  A gentleman to the end.

And Rickman’s performance – which is amazingly subtle – makes this good-guy-ness extraordinarily compelling.  (By contrast, when I later read the novel,  I found the character of Brandon very stodgy and dull – a testament to what an actor can do to bring a character to life.)  Even at the age of twenty-two, I felt that Rickman’s Brandon was infinitely more appealing than Willoughby, and far more engaging than Hugh Grant’s genial and adorably tentative Edward.  In the character of Brandon,  Rickman made decency extremely attractive.  With his inimitable voice and his perfectly-modulated expressions, he showed the virtue of a dependable man who does not up-play himself, who can weather disappointments without losing his innate decency, who is willing to ride all night to help the woman he loves, even if she hasn’t yet given him any shred of hope that she returns his interest.  He showed us that those traits – not, God forbid, a smooth-talking insouciance — is what’s really sexy in a man.

Marianne takes a while to figure it out, but by the end, she does.  And maybe what makes the finale of that movie so extra-wonderful, even among Austen movie finales, is that we’re just as thrilled that the guy ends up happy as we are that the heroine ends up happy.  We care about him just as much as we do about her.

So while I, like everyone else on Facebook, mourn the passing of a truly great actor, I’m grateful in a way that goes beyond my appreciation of his talent.  I can’t say this about too many actors, but I think that perhaps he gets some of the credit for the current happiness of my personal life, for helping to sharpen my antennae about what really matters in a man.   As Colonel Brandon, he showed countless young women that the guys who fly below the radar are worth another look. And thanks to the eternal magic of film, he’ll keep on doing so for generations to come.