Saturday, February 6, 2010

Tea and Coffee

Today on the radio I heard a song about the decadent pick-up scene on tour after a rock concert. It includes these lyrics:

I’m just sipping on chamomile,
Watching boys and girls and the sex appeal.

I will be uncool enough to admit that I really like this line; I have several times listened to the entirety of the rather silly song just to hear it repeated in the chorus. It paints an image that is very familiar and very appealing to me: surrounded by lasciviousness, the singer is removed, her beverage a dowdy contrast to the flirtatious behavior around her.

This image makes me think about how I feel when I drink tea, which is something I do a lot—in fact, something I am doing right this very moment, and most of the moments I write this blog, which I usually do at a tea shop. It is fitting to drink tea while writing essays. Tea is about laying low, distance, contemplation. It is not aggressive; it is subtle and civilized. It is the drink of countries with kings and queens, or emperors, a drink that calls for a Zen garden to be designed around it, for a polite mid-afternoon snack to bear its name. It is the drink of calm tradition, of order and reason.

In the song, the singer is drinking herbal tea, which is not even really tea—this is the ultimate in contemplative detachment, not even an actual drug, just herbs steeped in water.

I drink tea every day, many times a day: strong black tea in the morning, astringent herbal teas throughout the day, grassy green tea at night when I need to keep working. Almost all of it is thin and light, neutral hot water stained so slightly with a tinge of vegetation.

The coffee I used to drink each morning was completely different. I would slap myself awake with its bitterness, like a scalding hot shower, the only thing sharp enough to cut through the haze of sleep. If you are addicted to coffee, it tastes like something you need. It has the richness of a blood tonic, thick and dark like beet juice, like a hot cup of bitter, slightly poisonous blood.

Tea is quiet about everything, including its cultural significance; it is easy to forget that it exists. Coffee, on the other hand, screams its significance with a voice as shrill as its harsh, bitter flavor. It is an icon, as overloaded with cultural meaning as chocolate and whiskey and wine. It represents the mind’s power to manipulate the body, to defy the body’s needs to for sleep and calmness and rest. It magnifies stress instead of relieving it. The fact that it is bad for us gives it a sense of nonconformity—and yet it is the sanctioned fuel that powers our culture of overwork, the one drug our employers will give us for free.

I stopped drinking coffee almost three years ago. My office-mate at work coincidentally stopped around the same time. But before that, she used to set her coffee maker to have a pot brewing as we walked in the door in the morning. I remember how the smell would hit us as we walked into the little office, how we would grab our cups and sink into our chairs and stare at our computers and groan, “Mmm, coffee.”

Now when I walk into the office, it smells like the little pots of tea she brews on the small industrial desk we use as a beverage cart. Often the office is steamy with lavender from her Earl Grey. I drink strong English Breakfast from tea bags. Everything is calm and manageable. We still need to drug ourselves into wakefulness and workfulness, but now we do so in a way that, we reason, is healthy, full of antioxidants, possibly prolonging our lives and keeping us from getting colds and infections—possibly. We are civilized, and we have grown up.


sondra said...

Guess what--coffee is now good for you, too:

I love both coffee and tea, even though I usually drink decaf varieties to avoid the physiological addiction.

The psychological addiction is just as strong, though--as I'll rediscover soon when I give up both again for Lent. (Re: an earlier blog--I think ascetism definitely has its benefits, esp. when it's short-term and directed toward a particular end, like Lent.)

Karin Spirn said...

I figured coffee had to be good for you; anything that weird that people have consumed for centuries has to be good for something.

You're giving up DECAF for Lent? You're really the aescetic's aescetic, aren't you?

You know I'm not Christian, but maybe I'll give up those fat-free decaf cappuccinos I sometimes treat myself to when I'm not too embarrassed to order them.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Melinda said...

I'm an avid coffee drinker, but I like a nice spot of tea in the afternoon. In fact, I may make one right now...but really I should run out to replace the coffee pot I just broke. I will need that tomorrow.

Have you ever read that book A History of the World in Six Glasses? Tea is discussed at great length.

Karin Spirn said...

I've heard of that book but haven't read it. Maybe I should; I find tea and coffee pretty interesting, for some reason more so than wine and beer and soda (and I don't know what the 6th beverage is...I wonder).

Melinda said...

It's interesting that you knew that one of the drinks was soda. The other one is rum.

Karin Spirn said...

I wasn't sure how I knew that, either, but then I remembered that I looked the description of the book up on Amazon. It named all the drinks except the rum...hmmm.