10 hour airport layover teaches me: respect for DFW Ambassadors

DFW Ambassadors are airport information employees well qualified for their customer service jobs.

How often do you think about modern air travel and equate it with kindness, respect, patience, and professionalism? Speak to a few DFW Ambassadors, and you might begin to lean in that direction.

That was my experience when I sought airport information in Dallas-Ft Worth in July of 2018.

airport information display boardIt’s more popular to spread videos of Airlines Behaving Badly and Flight Attendants Gone Rogue, not to mention Passengers Punching Each Other, but that stuff just makes for salacious headlines.

My blog will probably never garner millions of views, in part because I’d prefer to highlight useful DFW airport employees who staff information kiosks and answer questions for average travelers who never go viral. Without a 10 hour layover to attempt to fill with meaningful activity, I probably wouldn’t even have spoken to any of these folks. I’m happy that I did engage with a few. Continue reading

Café notes: Coffee, the Congo, and Lynn Nottage’s play, “Ruined”

I had a great cup of single origin Congo Ituri coffee at the mall last week.

NZ restaurant espresso - 1This is remarkable for several reasons:

  • First, I was at the mall.*
  • Second, I got a great cup of specialty coffee therein.
  • Third, my beautiful pour over arrived with a side order of coincidence.

I simply haven’t the foodie palate or terminology to give you a better explanation for why my cup of coffee was so great, but the barista on duty that day was particularly knowledgeable. He probably prepared my cup with great skill. Certainly the flavor profile of the beans and the roast landed right in the sweet spot for my tastes.

What struck me as I sat down in the café with my cup and opened my library book was the coincidence. Here’s the top of the first page of Lynn Nottage’s play, Ruined, setting the scene:

“ACT ONE, Scene 1: A small mining town. The sounds of the tropical Ituri rain forest. Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The tropical Ituri rain forest? It rang a bell. I went back up to the café counter and read the menu board once more.

That day, the Nordstrom Espresso Bar was offering a Congo Ituri microlot coffee in the light roast** I prefer. Probably why I’d chosen it from amongst several offerings, including a light roast Kona I’ve enjoyed before.

I drink Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pretty often, and regularly select it preferentially, but I haven’t hit upon another African region for beans that’s become a steady favorite. I’ll certainly seek out more Congolese coffees moving forward, however, on the strength of this one notably wonderful cup.

But here are a few painful questions that I can’t answer, all stimulated by the tough subject matter of Nottage’s play that I read while sipping said cup.

  • How sustainable is coffee cultivation in DR Congo?
  • Does coffee cultivation there typically help the Congolese people, and especially the vulnerable women of Congo whose plight is underscored in Ruined? Is it a path helping average people rise above the legacy of the nation’s bloody civil wars?
  • Are major brands like Nordstrom and Starbucks doing enough to support the individual coffee farmer in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Or are these rich corporations paying less than they should for their beans because they’ve got the might to get away with it?

Honestly, I can’t answer any of these questions after a few days of searching.

Coffee is a delight to me. It is one of my daily pleasures, and, yes, a minor addiction. Coffee is also one the world’s most valuable legal commodities, like petroleum or precious metals. It’s big business on the order of tens of billions of dollars per year, and the needs of the coffee plant itself dictate that it be grown in what are often unstable, developing regions.

It can be hard to evaluate for oneself whether a coffee purchase meets one’s personal standards for ethical sales, environmental sustainability, etc.

Thanksgiving Coffee bean package of Ethiopia YirgacheffeThanksgiving Coffee, an artisan roaster I’ve patronized many times, encapsulates best what a consumer like me seeks with their motto: Not Just a Cup, but a Just Cup. I want to drink great coffee, but I’d prefer not to do so on the backs of modern day slaves.

Nottage’s Ruined is not, I should add, a play about coffee. Its setting is a bar/brothel, and beer, whiskey, and Fanta are the beverages I recall from the script. The subject matter is intense, and should be painful to anyone with an interest in social justice. Or to anyone with a heart.

Like other works I’ve read/seen by this playwright, Ruined is a story about women getting by in a world where someone else wields most of the power. It’s a tale of making do with one’s terrible circumstances, and coming to terms with it all as best as one can.

One needn’t look as far as the Congo to find such injustice and resilience, either. We’ve got plenty of it here at home in America. One of the best plays I’ve seen performed this decade was Nottage’s Sweat*** at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Aside from being a masterful work in and of itself, Sweat also inspired an “immersive transmedia” art project This is Reading in Reading, PA, the Rust Belt setting for that tale of struggle.

It can be hard to unravel the threads of thoughtful consumption in an era of broad scale multinational trade. You could give up completely, or simply begin where you can: by asking questions, and by sharing what you learn. My quick research into coffee farming in the Congo led me to more new questions than answers. Yours may yield better fruit.

Where we all benefit is by calling attention to those with less power than ourselves, and making even small efforts to do them good. Our strength increases with numbers; so, too, does our ability to enact positive change.

*The mall is not my natural habitat.

**As I understand it, it is easier to identify the flavorful nuances of a particular bean when the roast is lighter. I think I’m looking for extra complexity in my cup.

It’s a common misconception that dark roast coffee is “stronger” in every way than light. Roasting destroys some of the caffeine in the beans, so breakfast blends are usually a medium roast to maintain their power to perk!

Dark roast coffee has a deeper color, but it isn’t stronger in every sense of the word.

A few days later, I found two distinct Reserve varietals from different regions of the Congo at a local Starbucks with a Clover machine (used for making specialty single brews and not offered at most locations.) I enjoyed a cup of Idjwi Island Reserve, but not quite as much as the Nordstrom Congo Ituri.

But NOT the world’s second most valuable commodity, as you’ll see misstated all over the internet. My brief bit of research suggests that was true back in the 1970’s or so, but hasn’t been factual for quite some time. If you want to read more, try this article.

***And, in what has been my favorite performance in years, I must draw attention to the quiet dignity of actor Carlo Albán who traveled with Sweat from its world premiere at OSF to New York City. He played an often nearly invisible busboy in the play, usually reacting to the “bigger” characters swirling around him, and did it with such a beautiful, aching intensity that I was frankly honored to spend a few hours with him at an OSF dinner later on. I’m not the only one who was similarly affected by Mr. Albán!

Artist Sherrill Roland and his Jumpsuit Project

Today, I read a news story about a young man named Sherrill Roland. As he was about to begin graduate school as a fine arts student, he received a call from a detective with a warrant for his arrest. He was asked to turn himself in for crimes he didn’t commit.

The young man was tried, convicted, and spent 10 months in jail for crimes he didn’t commit. A year later, new evidence proved his innocence.

My reason for sharing this isn’t to repeat or attempt to fully reflect upon the shameful statistics about young black men—even innocent ones—and the American criminal justice system. What I feel compelled to share about this story is how this young, black man chose to respond to what happened to him.

Sherrill Roland is an artist.

He found a way to share his talents with other inmates during his time in jail:

“I drew for other inmates ― portraits of their families that they could send as gifts. … We on the inside did not have anything to give. It is really powerful creating something …, helping them get a gift from someone who can’t obtain one any other way. I was willing to make things as long as they meant something.”

Roland is now sharing his experience of incarceration and its effects with the rest of us via a performance art piece he began as an MFA student: the Jumpsuit Project. He wears an orange prison jumpsuit in public spaces, engaging with his “audience” according to their response to him.
In the article, he said:

“It’s not always about jail itself, but about overcoming things. Sometimes it’s just about getting through a struggle.”

He could have emerged too bitter to speak with us. He might have lashed out or given up in the face of a system willing to jail innocent black men. Instead, Sherrill Roland is making something that means something, including conversation.How many of us can claim to have wrought something so elevated from such base injustice?I hope I’m making a small contribution to Roland’s conversation by sharing it with you.

5 unforgettable films that transcend their stories: the greatest films according to me

I love great films, but my personal identity is not nearly so tied up in “myself as cinema-goer” compared to, say, “myself as voracious reader” or “myself as actor/theatre-patron.”* Still, I enjoy fine art in its varied forms, and I watch movies always hoping for a transcendent experience. Without a doubt, there is a short list of films that speak to me beyond a great story or a pleasant couple of hours passed. These land squarely in the realm of art appreciation, and here are my nominations:

Lawrence of Arabia

Epic, beautiful, brilliantly done; I’m not sure this one needs any justification. I had the pleasure of seeing Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen at an art house cinema. See this one in a theater if you can!

Stand By Me

Without question, I saw this movie at the right time in my life for its maximal impact, but it holds up for my adult self. Youth on a quest, buffeted and baffled by the adult world they will soon join but don’t yet fully understand… It’s all there, and with perhaps the best performances ever achieved by a few of its young stars. The story was believable, the cast succeeded in telling it, the visuals were a perfect complement: this is a great coming of age film.

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

Monty Python Meaning of Life VHSAs I composed this list during a bout of insomnia, I was fretting about the lack of comedies. I’m a funny person (if I do say so myself), and I enjoy watching comedy more than anything else. But, was there a truly great comedy in my history? And then, I remembered The Meaning of Life. Monty Python is always a hoot, but this is the one that wrapped it all up and tied it with a bow.

The Seven Samurai

Another epic; again, I’m almost embarrassed to add my 2¢ and attempt to express why this film is on my list. The camera work is breathtaking. To even imagine such mastery with the limited tools of the 1950’s boggles my mind. Though the setting in Japan is so foreign, the fundamental humanity of the story transcends time and place. Every one of us can empathize with the fearful villagers and the valiant samurai. And then, there is the performance by Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo. It must be listed amongst the best performances of all time. I’ve never seen its equal.

And, finally, perhaps:

The Hours

The Hours is my only hesitation on this list. I loved it. It moved me deeply. I left transformed, and that’s why I’m writing about it today. I saw it fairly recently, and I haven’t returned to this film over a period of years like the others. Sometimes, though, there is an ineffable something about a work of art that latches onto your heart and won’t let go, and that’s what I felt here. In a decade, I’ll read this list and see if it was true love, or a passing fancy. The female leads carried the film in a masterful way, and the intertwining stories magnified each other, reflected and distorted each other, and created a whole greater than their respective parts. It’s rare to find the desperate lows and exultant highs of human experience exposed so well in the one story.

How I selected these titles

I think I demand something epic in the scope of the cinematography to call a film great. Size is a factor—the big screen, being big, seems to call out for spectacle! There is also the shared element of audience in cinema, as in theatre; these are works to be enjoyed in a group, though ideally evoking additional personal response within the communal experience. I want a film to have presence; it should stand out like a star, whether one of quiet dignity or gaudy sparkle.

A compelling story is a given, as are consistent performances by the cast, but I don’t demand a star or individual brilliance from the performers. The film itself should be brilliant to make this list. The movie must create a gorgeous, cohesive whole, impossible to imagine it made differently. It should feel perfectly, wholly itself.

Although the movie, overall, isn’t a favorite, I’m tempted to put Touch of Evil on this list just for the opening scene with the car driving through the town. It is the most agonizing three minutes of film I’ve ever watched. The suspense is brilliant, but the rest of the movie doesn’t stay with me in the same way.

Along similar lines, His Girl Friday and It Happened One Night both come close—very close!—but I think I’m responding as much to the dialog/acting/chemistry as to the film as a work of art, so those belong on a different list, which would also have Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe

What do you think are the greatest films of all time? How do you make that decision? Cinematography? Cast? Story? Musical score? Or something I haven’t thought of here?

*I haven’t been on-stage in years, but, to my core, I see myself as an actor. It is as much who I am as a thing that I do or have done.