Thursday, March 30, 2006

Fair Trade Coffee and My Dirty Little Secret
It’s about a quarter to eight on a Thursday morning and I am sitting alone in
Temple, a coffee house about a block from where I work. I’ve been to this place only a couple times before and though the location, atmosphere, and coffee is good, I have no really pressing reason to patronize this place for my daily sacrament of java. The fact is there are two other places I can get my coffee that are next door to my office and another that is directly on the way to work – no detour required.

Ambience is not that important since I usually get the coffee to go, but this place is very comfortable – it used to be a bookstore about 15 years ago and hasn’t lost the feeling one gets in an old bookstore -- like you don’t want to leave. I can’t help but feel a little envious though – there’s always a large group of friends or coworkers occupying two or three pulled-together tables nearly every morning, talking about work or play – I’m always alone with nothing to keep me company but this tablet or whatever magazine or book I may have in my bag at the time.

There’s another reason I patronize this specific coffee house: they sell only fair trade coffee. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to buy exclusively from farmer’s markets, co-ops, and boycott products that are owned by companies that have been bought out by belligerent corporations; I don’t have the energy to keep that up. The fact is many nights of the week you’ll find me at the local Starbucks ordering lattes for my family. There – I said it, I feel a lot better now. No longer will I have to wonder if one of my old radical left-wing college buddies will recognize me when I am ordering a Frappuccino.

Since the Seattle-based chain started planting stores in locations near my house I’ve been choosing Starbucks nearly three out of every four times I get coffee in the evenings. Some of the guys at work complain that Starbucks is running independent coffee houses, like this one I’m sitting in, out of business. Though I like individuality and uniqueness of places like Temple, I also enjoy the uniformity, convenience, not to mention the wide selection of espresso drinks Starbucks offers.

Behind the warm tones, selves of shiny travel mugs, and tasteful jazz, folk, and rock music CD racks of the corporate coffee houses of North America lies the dirty back-end of the coffee business most middle-class Americans would rather not know about: the Free-Trade Zones. For that matter they probably wouldn’t want to know that the problem is pervasive – covering hundreds of goods and services North Americans buy everyday. The shirt on your back could have very well been made in some Guatemalan sweat shop. Most of us know about the Kathy Lee Gifford incident and, at times, feel a little self-righteous pointing our finger at the annoying “celebrity” and Wal-Mart icon, but it is pretty hard for just about anyone in North America to escape supporting, in one way or another, the institution of Free-Trade Zones.

The alternative to free trade – at least as far as coffee, tea, and chocolate goes – is fair trade, where producers receive a fair price for their product and work under safer conditions. Also, buyers and producers trade under direct long-term relationships – there’s no middle men to cut into the producers’ profit.

Fair trade coffees are not that easy to find and cost about two dollars more a bag. The fact is fair-trade coffee only represents one to two percent of the specialty coffee market. So if brands like Cloudforest, Peace, and Thanksgiving coffees don’t ring a bell you’re not alone. After a lot of bad press, Starbucks finally came out with a line of fair trade coffees.

Starbucks’ free trade coffees have identical packaging to the fair trade coffees, but without the Fair-Trade Certification seal; in other words: you have to look beyond the text about how Starbucks is giving back to the growers yada, yada, yada and find the seal to get the fair trade coffee. Also, as of this post, the few fair trade coffees they have are in whole-bean form only and good luck trying to get a latte or macchiato using fair trade coffee.

This fair trade verses free trade business hasn’t soured my appetite for Starbucks – only sobered me on the politics of coffee and just about everything else I buy, for that matter. In fact, since I discovered this little coffee house on the way to work I have discovered that nearly half of the independent coffee houses I visit either at work or during off hours use fair trade coffees.

It’s another Thursday morning and I am sitting alone, as usual; this time where the old book store’s windowed display case used to be. I feel better now that I drink fair trade coffee and almost want to stand up, like a model, beckoning pedestrians to come in and try this fair trade coffee. The humiliation I would surely feel would be my penance for my post-meridian excursions into corporate coffee country.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Cracking a Smile
I was walking to work the other day when I ran into one of the women who work in my building. “Smile, it can’t be all that bad.” I give her a perfunctory grin to make her happy. I thought “Man, do I look that serious? I’m not in a bad mood – I haven’t looked at my desk yet.” I run into another fellow employee about fifty feet up the mall who tells me one of her funny one-liners as we pass each other. This time I crack a genuine smile. Then, for the first time ever, for reasons I still don’t know, I attempt to hold that expression. I hold it for a quarter of a mile, passing other fellow workers who smile back at me. I smile all the way into my office building. At the elevator a woman who rarely addresses me smiles and says hello. She addresses me by name and asks how I am doing.

“Hmm, maybe this smiling thing is something I should work on,” I say to myself. But by this time my facial muscles begin to ache, you know, like your legs do on the day after the first ski trip of the season. I have always been told I look too serious. In family pictures there are two faces of me: the candid ones where I look like I belong in a Bergman film and the staged ones where my mom, her arms akimbo, says “Smile, this is [Insert name of any festive occasion].”

Most of the people who know me think I’m a nice guy; maybe a little too self-absorbed at times, but not enough to warrant them thinking that I’m nursing a hemorrhoid or plotting their bloody demise. Then again, I can remember these guys telling people I am a “nice guy” – as if my friends don’t think I did a good enough job conveying that message directly.

I once interviewed for a job I just knew I was going to get. Looking back on the experience now and considering the other applicants, I am not so sure I had this one cinched up. Still, the guy who got the job – someone who worked under me – said he thought he got position because he’s an “easy-going guy.” I should have read into that, but I was too pissed about not getting the position and humiliated that someone under me was chosen. I didn’t smile for weeks. If someone would have told me back then “Smile, it can’t be all that bad” I would have broken a window!

I’ve heard from outside sources (the inside source being my mother) that smiling is good for you – both muscularly and emotionally. There have been scholarly studies done on this. Can you imagine getting a Masters in Smiling? There is even such a thing as “Laughter Yoga.” (Don’t laugh, here’s the URL: Laughter Yoga is supposed to help people with their self-esteem, stress, depression, urges to kill someone, et al by making them laugh and smile. I can just see myself in organic cotton sweats, assuming a yoga pose on my mat surrounded by a bunch of old sour pusses, and requesting to the Master Laugher to put in my Dave Chappell DVD: “Hey fast-forward to the skit about the crack whore. Damn that’s a riot!”

On those rare occasions that I smile or laugh I can also feel a little foolish. I was eating orange chicken at the local Panda Express and reading an article in The New Yorker by David Sedaris. Try attempting to suppress laughter while reading and eating orange chicken and fried rice – it can get messy. I don’t know how many people saw me. I must have looked kind of crazy with the orange sauce dribbling down my chin and the tears rolling down my cheeks. My wife tells me I have a great laugh, if not a tad too loud at times; a rather eccentric friend tells me he hates viewing comedies with me because my cackle drowns-out the actors’ following lines. He says he prefers to watch comedies like “Airplane!,” “Young Frankenstein,” and Marx Brothers films in absolute silence. He says he laughs hours later when he is at home.

I think I’m going to work on my smile. Currently, I’m wearing a stress-induced mask like the local undertaker. It will take some practice to crack the ice. Perhaps I’ll rip some Dave Chappell, Chris Rock, and vintage Firesign Theatre on my MP3 player and walk around the office, earbuds in place, laughing my rear end off.