It's a shame how sometimes it takes tragedy to bring a family closer together, but a recent death gave me a rare opportunity for some father-daughter bonding with my dad.
Our coffee maker died.
One day it was happily churning out what I like to think of as "black gold", the next day its internal hoses experienced some sort of ebola-like melt down, leaving a tarry black sludge on the counter top.
Now, my dad was the one who taught me to like coffee. Any coffee. Any time.
He gave me my first cup of it over breakfast in a burger place. I was a little young but think I was eating solid foods at that point, though I do have some hazy recollection of drinking a mashed up sausage biscuit through the lid of a sippy cup.
"Alex," he told me that day, "there is one thing you will need to succeed in the corporate world."
"An M.B.A.?" I asked.
"A good golf swing?"
"A cute intern and a solid alibi?"
"No, my daughter, the only thing you will need is the ability to drink a bad cup of coffee. For there will be many of them."
A while back, Barnes & Nobles reprinted "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu, due to a fad among executroids who felt that a few phrases like "Warfare is the Tao of deception," and "If wherever the army attacks it is like a whetstone thrown against an egg, it is due to the vacuous and substantial," could take the place of good customer service or a decent business strategy.
Dad never really bought into that, but he did have a bizarre sort of "business feng shui" revolving around coffee. "To grow accustomed to cream and sugar is to present weakness," he would tell me. "You spend all that time just to achieve the right balance, then someone warms up your cup and your chi is totally disrupted. And what if they're out of non-dairy creamer or only have Splenda?"
"Sun Tzu says if you rely on seizing provisions from the enemy, then your foodstuffs will be sufficient." I pointed out.
"Ah, but Sun Tzu also says, 'It is necessary for a general to be tranquil and obscure, upright and self-disciplined'. You cannot achieve this if you are constantly whining for more sugar and fiddling with your creamer cups at the conference table. Learn to drink your coffee black, grasshopper, and to drink old coffee without wincing. In this manner, you will know victory."
The lesson stuck. I learned to drink gourmet coffee, cheap coffee, fresh coffee, burned coffee. When John taught me to drink it iced, I even mastered the art of drinking coffee of any temperature, from piping hot to tepid.
So when the coffee maker broke, my husband missed his morning cup, but I didn't. "This isn't too bad," I commented, scraping that sludgy coffee-and-rubber residue from underneath the appliance and tasting it.
"What, are you freebasing the stuff now? I don't want to find you hanging around outside Starbucks with a spoon and a lighter."
"Oo. Do you think that would really work?"
"I am going," he changed the subject with a glower, "to the store to get a new coffee maker." I have no standards when it comes to actual coffee, so you would think that I'd be content with whatever coffee maker he brought home. Apparently, that's not the case.
By the third day, we knew that we were going to have to separate from the new coffee maker due to irreconcilable differences. "I thought you said you wouldn't smoke the hard stuff anymore," John accused as I came into the kitchen.
"Baby, I'm only drinking it iced, I swear."
"Then what's this?" He pointed at a hot, tarry substance on the bottom of the new coffee pot.
"You didn't get a coffee maker with an automatic off?"
"I guess we need to," he sighed.
Meanwhile, I was filling the pot with water from the sink and swirling it around. Mmm. Instant.
It was only my father who shared my excitement in the search for a good coffee maker. "I want a thermal carafe, Dad," I said as we searched the internet together for my dream coffeemaker. "That way the coffee won't taste burnt if it's more than a day old."
"Look at this one. Stainless steel, thermal carafe, heated reservoir. And it goes from zero to ten cups in under three minutes. Look at that craftsmanship!"
"Look at that price. I'm not spending $150 on a coffee maker."
"But this model would last forever. You could give it to Lillian as a graduation present."
"For that price, I could buy a cheap coffee maker every year and let her make a Homecoming float out of them."
But when we finally found one that satisfied my finicky requirements, Dad was right there with me to try it out. We oooh'd and aaah'd over the features, made snarky comments over potential weak points in design, then gleefully brewed a batch, comparing notes over how the coffee tasted fresh, two hours, and then even four hours later.
"Addicts," my husband shook his head. "Don't look at Mommy and Grandpa, Lillian. It's not a pretty sight."
"Coffee," my father replied sagely, "is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Tao to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed."
My dad is still a genius.
Comments and old batches of coffee to Alex.Queen@gmail.com.
This article first appeared in the November 6, 2004 issue of the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.