On Certain Saturdays

Occasionally, when the weather isn’t prohibitive, I walk to a café about two miles from my house. It’s good exercise—and usually boring as hell. The route I take brings me by a small camper, maybe only 15 feet long and not very tall. I’d imagined it was for sleeping only—no stove or toilet, like some have. On one Saturday, while I was walking by the trailer I saw a man in his forties, and what I assume was his teenaged son, unlatch the back wall of the trailer and set it down, revealing two dirt bikes. As they wheeled the two four-stroke motorcycles out of the trailer and onto the front lawn, a melancholy feeling swept over me. I wanted to abort my health walk and start a conversation with the father figure. I had a thousand questions for him and many tales from my youth I wanted to impart. Even if I’d had the nerve to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger, and he was friendly enough to reciprocate, he would get tired of all my questions and my “When I was into dirt bikes…” stories. Still, the feeling hung with me like a dull ache for many days following the encounter.

First thing the following Monday morning, I emailed someone at work who I knew was a dirt bike enthusiast about some of the changes in the dirt bike world over the last few years. “Ben,” I’ll call him, was happy to fill me in on the details, though, being younger than me, he could not fill me in on all 30 years that I have been away from the sport; in fact, his emails took on a kind of anxious tone when I kept the email correspondence going far beyond his own interest. (Perhaps it was a good idea I kept walking the other day.)

Ben helped me understand why these two dirt bikes I saw, which clearly were racing bikes, replete with number plates, had four-stroke engines—when I followed the sport the four-stroke engine was relegated almost exclusively to the street due to the engine’s weight and poor, low-end performance. California’s green legislation, Ben told me, has hurt the two-stroke motorcycle owners. One can ride a four-stroke dirt bike (also known as a “thumper” because of the low-pitch sound that it makes) year round compared to two-stroke bikes, which can only be ridden when air quality permits; this is determined by the Air Quality Index (AQI). This translates into two-stroke bikers can’t ride on public land during the warm weather months. Also, if for some reason air quality is poor during the cool months, they may not be able to operate their bikes on those days either.

I was a true wannabe dirt biker when I was a kid. For the year or two that he competed, my father was an accomplished novice racer, winning trophies in Enduro, Hare and Hounds (Scrambles), and Hillclimbing competitions. He didn’t like Motocross—what I believe to be the coolest and most exiting motor sport in the world—because “you just go around in circles.” Typically self-effacing, he would come home from a race with a huge trophy, walk directly into the garage, and throw it up in the attic, never to be seen (at least by him) again. I used to go up in that crawl space, set up his trophies—which included awards in auto and boat racing—like a shrine. I couldn’t understand how someone could actually win something like a trophy (and some of them where big, from big events), then just chuck it like an ugly dish won from a coin toss at the State Fair.

In my near 50 years, I have never won a trophy; the closest things I have are the numerous certificates a State employee receives for training. I feel so special when I receive the decoration on multipurpose printer paper and see the blank line where I am supposed to enter my own name, for sleeping through a class on “Professionalism in the Workplace.” Some of my father’s trophies have his name etched on gold plaques.

Though my father was not an expert rider, he occasionally raced with accomplished professional riders like Hall of Fame inductee Dick Mann, who is featured on the 1974 Bruce Brown film On Any Sunday; though my dad admits he couldn’t keep up with the legend. I saw the Brown film with my dad when it first came out and then again just a few weeks ago after all these feelings of longing hit me on that street where I saw those two dirt bikes. I think my dad had hopes that his two sons would ride with him, but when he brought a little 50cc Honda mini bike home that fateful day, we were petrified of the little thing.

Later, when I grew out of my fear of falling and, to some extent, my fear of my father, I asked him for a 125cc Honda Elsinore. By that time, he was no longer interested in dirt bikes; he now ran around in the dirt with a dune buggy. I guess he didn’t want to spend the money on a new bike for me since he sold his last bike, or maybe he thought I was just all talk. He later bought me a 70cc Honda. I don’t recall what happened to that bike. However, I do remember riding that bike and my mom’s old 90cc Hodaka, but he only took me out to an OHV park a couple of times to ride it. I usually went out to the gravel pit (now William B. Pond Park at the East end of Arden Way in Carmichael) and played around there.

Similar to how I watched the Oakland Athletics when I was playing little league, I kept up with the professional racing side of the sport, subscribing to Dirt Bike magazine. I had my favorite riders, just as fans of baseball have their favorite players and teams. Only a Motocross maven like me would call it an honor to be clocked by Brad Lackey’s handlebars when we went to Livermore to see an International Motocross. It didn’t feel like an “honor” at first—more as as if I had just walked into Barry Bonds’ wheelhouse as he was swinging for the Bay. I saw all the leaders go by—Swedes, Fins, Belgians, and Germans, then I leaned over to get a better look and Lackey came in close with his lime-green Kawasaki. The next thing I knew I was grabbing my arm and trying not to faint.

I would have loved to get the future World Champion’s autograph next to the big bruise; alas, it would have faded away much as the bruise did. What paled in comparison to the Lackey bruise was the bruise I received by a line-drive foul ball in a 1972 ALCS game at the Oakland Coliseum. I don’t even remember the batter’s name. Who cares who that Baltimore Oriole player was; I got a black, blue, purple, and sickly yellow bruise by Brad Lackey! I would later get 500cc World Champion Roger DeCoster’s signature on a cool 8×10 glossy of him on his Suzuki when I saw him at Carmichael Honda a few months after the race, but I misplaced it. If I ever find it, I will probably also rediscover the banquet program with the autographs of the future 1972-74 World Series Champions; yes, I had a dynasty on a 1968 fund-raiser program and I misplaced it.

In my correspondence with Ben, he also told me about Monkey Butt!, the book written by Dirt Bike magazine’s first editor, Rick Sieman. (The title comes from a condition, the author states, where a person has been riding dirt bikes for so long that his rear end starts to look like a monkey’s ass.) The next day, Ben came down with his worn copy of Sieman’s book. I didn’t ask to borrow the book and felt somewhat awkward taking it, but after I started reading it, I was transfixed. Monkey Butt! is poorly written, poorly edited (if edited at all) and—for someone like me who experienced this subculture (albeit from the cheap seats) some thirty years ago—a blast of a read, typos and all.

The book is a collection of very short essays that range from the whimsical to the outrageous to the occasionally poignant. Sieman is not an accomplished writer; his style is provincial at best, but what better voice for this subject? A friend once told me I was a fool to read Dirt Bike, he told me Cycle World was a better-written and more serious motorcycle magazine. In retrospect, he was correct, but that wasn’t the point—Cycle World was more like the Establishment: proper, sober, and shiny—like a chrome stock fender. Dirt Bike was the Counterculture: irreverent, funny, and as gritty as a Carlsbad berm.

Sieman captures the excitement of experiencing a brand new pastime much like the Bruce Brown film so beautifully celebrates. However, Sieman’s book goes back to the dusty alleys where street bike enthusiasts would tinker with top-heavy, ill-handling road bikes that were stripped down for racing in the desert. The book chronicles the rise of a different kind of motorcycle club dedicated to dirt and desert racing, documenting the synergy of this movement with the evolution of the two-cycle dirt bike to meet these hungry new enthusiasts’ demand of lighter, faster machines. Just like in surfing—which was gathering momentum at the same time—southern California became the Mecca for the dirt and desert racing subculture. In typical American style, dirt bike racing became an “American sport,” despite Europe’s legitimate claim to the pastime. Monkey Butt! is a remembrance of this discovery.

While the first half of the book focuses on the early, developing years, the second half is mainly about the battle between off-road bikers and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the other “eco-nazis,” as Sieman calls them. This part is where my love for the dirt bike runs smack into my liberal politics. Still, Sieman puts up a strong argument for desert racing, claiming that the ecosystem of the Mojave Desert, just to name one, is always in a state of change:

“One sandstorm in the Mojave can move millions of tons of sand and dirt over hundreds of miles. One flash flood can tear away the base of a mountain. How can this compare with a set of tire tracks over shifting sands? If all the dirt bikes in America got together and rode around in a circle for a month at a spot in the Mojave, one sandstorm could wipe out every evidence of them having been there. Overnight.”

Still, I know there are other arguments that support the abolishment of desert racing, such as the endangerment of the Mojave Desert Tortoise and other wildlife, but that does not stop developers from creating fire roads, mines, and other types of development that do just as much damage. If Sieman is very critical of the BLM, he equally doles out harsh words about the American Motorcycle Association. He believes they have been impotent against these powers and act like a puppet for Japanese motorcycle corporations who do not support the very people who buy, ride, and race motorcycles because they want to avoid making waves in the U.S.

Reading the book only exasperated my longing for a time I never truly experienced first-hand. I was more like a third-string high school football player, permanently pined for the season, watching my teammates win the State Championship. With each story in the book, I recall names and events that I knew of, but because of either my age or my situation, I was always on the outside looking in.

My last bike was a 125cc Yamaha Enduro DT-1, but I never rode it in the dirt—it was my ride to and from high school for a couple of years. When I got my first car, I was already deep into listening to and writing about rock music and movies, and lost interest in the dirt-racing scene. I never returned to the dirt bike world. Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, and Bob Dylan had replaced Joel Roberts, Roger DeCoster, and Dick Mann in my personal pantheon.

The years went by and I only heard bits of news of the dirt biking world: There’s this thing called Supercross, kind of a combination of motocross and, I don’t know, football? Anyway, it takes place in a stadium where you have an assigned seat as though you’re at a football or baseball game. Hell, that’s no fun; you can’t freely walk around the track to the best berm or the starting line or finish line, where you are inches away from your hero and his handlebars. Ironically, Dirt Bike was instrumental in organizing the first Supercross: the Superbowl of Motocross held in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1974. Then there’s the latest thing that I’ve seen on TV, Freestyle Motocross (or FMX) where riders take dirt bikes and try to do daring, artistic moves way up in the air. It looks more dangerous than Motocross, but it still is kind of lame; the whole thing flies in the face of real Motocross, where you want to get as little air as possible. Also, FMX is not a race, but rather something contestants are judged on—like figure skating. Anyway, I guess this old fart is out of it.

On another Saturday walk, I find myself spying on the dirt bike family getting ready for the races. I have my mobile phone to my ear, as though I’m talking to someone, and I stare through my dark shades at the father and son checking out their bikes. The trailer door is down and is now a ramp. (Oh, the trailer is more spacious than I thought, and the amenities!) The father starts one of the bikes. It has an electric starter. Hmm, that seems kind of sissy compared to the old kick-starting method in my day. They look over at me standing in the middle of the street, “talking” to someone on my mobile phone, and then father says something to his son that I can’t hear over the thumper’s pulse. Perhaps they are wondering if I am some kind of wannabe. They don’t know half the story.

Loose Cannons and Gun Control

One winter when I was a teenager, my father, brother, my brother’s friend (I’ll call him “Bob”), and I took up pheasant hunting. I am not sure how this came about. I think my father’s fishing buddy had suggested hunting. It was an interesting venture, but I am sure I never want to do it again. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed hunting for fowl to an extent, but as the season went on, some things developed that confirmed to me that I didn’t want to be around guns.

Before we could go blasting away at the birds, we needed to take a gun safety class. One of the things the instructor taught us was that even when everyone in a hunting party knows that a shotgun is empty, it is rude to point that gun at someone. While this seemed like a very reasonable thing, Bob took this piece of gun etiquette to a ridiculous level. Whenever one of us was cleaning our gun and had the barrel removed from the stock and firing mechanism, Bob would absolutely freak out if you pointed the empty barrel at him. Turning the business end on you and the back end towards him would net the same response, and even having the disconnected barrel on the table with one end pointing in his direction would send Bob under the table yelling, “Stop it!”

Bob’s hypersensitive attitude aside, gun etiquette and safety is nothing to joke about. On one occasion, we invited another kid from the neighborhood (I’ll call him “Chris”) to go skeet shooting with us. At the time, the pheasants were illusive, and the only thing we enjoyed shooting were clay pigeons. My dad bought a little clay pigeon shooter and a few cases of clay pigeons for us to practice on. The clay pigeon shooter was like a spring-loaded, side-arm catapult that acted like a Frisbee flinger. The clay pigeons looked like small soup bowls turned upside down, and shot into the air by the shooter. We had a lot of fun shooting clay pigeons, but for all the power that clay pigeon shooter had, we wanted to try our hand at real skeet shooting – where the targets were fired from a farther distance, at a faster speed, and the direction was unknown to the shotgun operator. So, we loaded up our shotguns, ammo, and neighbor Chris and went out to the range.

I believe some of us could have died that day on the range. Chris, who had absolutely no experience with firearms, couldn’t understand the concept of keeping his shotgun barrel pointed down. He kept it level, and whenever the range employee tried to teach him something, Chris would turn to him with his shotgun pointing wherever he was looking. Each time, he swiveled past my brother, Bob, and me we would scatter, yelling at Chris to point the barrel downward. Even though he didn’t have a shell in the chamber, we were well trained, to avoid the muzzle. Then the guy from the range – red-faced and frustrated – would pull the barrel down and range-ward, took a deep breath, and told him not to point a weapon at anyone. Then he’d give Chris a shell and tell him to load the gun but not close the chamber. Chris didn’t hear the second part and closed the chamber. As all of us screamed at him to keep the chamber open, he swung around, pointing the shotgun at all of us once again. All that needed to happen was for him to slip up and squeeze the trigger, and some/all of us would have been worm food. The range employee caught the swinging barrel and told him to point it towards the range and the skeet shooting commenced. When Chris’ turn was over, we all sighed with relief; someone took the shotgun from him, and the potential for catastrophe ended. Still, he wasn’t the only one who was dangerous with a firearm.

A short time later, a kid I went to high school with (I’ll call him “Paul”) received a shotgun around the same time we started getting into hunting. It turned out to be a foolish decision by his parents. Paul wasn’t an emotionally unbalanced kid, just a little too squirrelly to handle the responsibilities of owning a shotgun. We heard tales of him discharging his weapon in his backyard, and the first and last time I ever visited him at his home, he had the gun down from the rack in the front room and was pointing it at things like a vase, the TV, a window. His oblivious parents got him a shell press for Christmas with enough empty shell casings, shot, primer caps, and gunpowder to light up Carmichael.

Paul would tell us stories at school of how he would modify shells to create a bigger bang – chalking the casing with as much powder as possible and adding some heavy-gauge shot so he could see just how much damage he could do firing at some poor, defenseless 2×4 or one of his sister’s “missing” dolls. No question, this was scary stuff, but it’s all good. Squirrelly Paul finally ran out of powder and, on a dull-gray day with nothing better to do, Paul took one of his casings, installed a primer cap in it, put the casing in a table vice, pumped up his Daisy BB gun real powerful-like and then started taking shots at the primer cap from across his father’s workbench. When he finally hit the cap, it blew up, launching the cap across the workbench, lodging in Paul’s forearm. His father, hearing the screams, came out and saw the damage his son had done and finally had enough of Paul’s mischief. Rumor has it that before he dismantled Paul’s pyrotechnics lab, he took out a pair of needle-nose pliers from his tool kit and pulled the burning cap out of Paul’s arm – no doctor, no numbing agent, just one fed-up dad taking care of his mischievous son. I occasionally see Paul. He appears to be a nice, calm, responsible person, his Ted Kaczynski days behind him.

Our own experience with shotguns turned out less eventful than some of my acquaintances.’ Absolutely no funny business with the shotguns and, aside from a whole mess of shattered clay pigeons, we shot only two pheasants in all our outings, and that happened in one day. (See picture of this humble blogger holding the two lucky birdies.) We would have bagged a few more over the season, but accompanying us were the two most undisciplined German Shorthaired Pointers known to the hunting world. We would be walking an alfalfa field early in the morning, skunked as usual. Then a jackrabbit would dart across the field, and the two “trained” dogs would take off after it barking up a storm. Straight ahead, but just out of range of our guns, a bunch of pheasants would flush – pheasants that would have been game if the dogs were knew anything of their breeding.

When we did get the two birds, no one really knew who got them – we all shot at once. When we landed one of them, it was still flopping around…and it was at that moment I lost my taste for hunting. I don’t know why I’m such a sissy when it comes to killing mammals and most critters larger than a pot roast; I can kill spiders, flies, and other pests, but I just have a thing about larger animals. I guess it’s kind of an anthropomorphic thing – it is closer to a human. This, of course, doesn’t stop me from telling ranchers to go ahead and slaughter them steer. I’m waiting for my steak. I guess I haven’t thought this out thoroughly. A guy I work with has a picture of himself and a dead deer he presumably killed – the proud hunter holding the buck by the antlers. I don’t know why I have a problem with that kind of stuff; I don’t mind venison – especially jerky! Anyway, I used to wish that I shot wide that day, but only God knows. This incident didn’t stop me from finishing-out the season; I just wished I didn’t have to shoot again. In fact, I didn’t.

Getting up at 5 AM on a winter morning was tough for me, even though I was a teenager, but at least we were walking these fields. Duck hunting is something completely different. With pheasant, quail, dove, or turkey hunting, you are always moving; with duck hunting, you are standing still in waist-deep freezing water. I tried duck hunting one time. My neighbor Pat invited me when he found out that I hunted pheasant. He told me about how much more enjoyable it was than pheasant or quail hunting, which he also did.

On one very cold winter morning, we parked his truck and walked to a blind he said he used quite often. Pat let me borrow a pair of waiters. They were excessively big, but Pat told me since I wouldn’t be walking around much, it didn’t really matter. What mattered to him was the orange shotgun safety patch I had my mom sew on my hunting vest. I figured I needed to add some flair to the otherwise drab apparel, and the patch I got for completing the class was all I had. Pat said the bright orange in the patch is visible to fowl and may cause ducks to stay out of shooting distance; he also thought the patch was straight-up gay, which in retrospect he was right. I couldn’t help but comment on how cold the water was. Pat reminded me in an annoyed whisper to be quiet, but I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering. Some time later, I let out a small chuckle when I noticed the floating bubbles in the water were actually thin slices of ice. Pat shot me a mean stare, then looked at my patch again and rolled his eyes.

After not seeing one duck in range for over an hour, Pat left the blind for a while, telling me that he may know of a better location where the ducks may not be flying so high. When he returned with what looked like an instant case of herpes, I asked him what happened to his face. He nonchalantly told me that he had been “rained on,” as if it was something all duck hunters experience from time to time. If the freezing cold weather, immobility, and the fact that ice slices were conspiring to create a skating rink around us wasn’t bad enough, this “rained on” crap was too much. But what was I supposed to do? He had the keys to the truck. Later, I found out that being hit by shot falling from the sky does not hurt or cause shot herpes (my term) – Pat must have caught spray from a discharged shotgun leveled. If he would have been any closer to the center of the spray, he might’ve been seriously injured, and I would have got to ride with him in an ambulance with a heater and warm blankets!

After spending three hours in a giant glass of iced tea, Pat called it quits. On the way home, Pat stopped at A&W for lunch. While the sun was up, my wet jeans were ensuring that even if it hit 80 degrees that day, I still would be miserable until I shed my denim. When Pat ordered a root beer with his lunch, I told him he was crazy. It was at this time that Pat introduced me to the concept of “Reverse Chemistry.” He told me that Eskimos often eat chunks of ice to keep warm. “You see,” he explained, “when the ice hits your system, your body melts the ice and warms the water and, ultimately, your body.” So I ordered a root beer, too. A word to the wise: If you think slamming down an ice-cold A&W Root Beer is going to make your frozen nuts drop again, think again. I sat there in his unheated truck, my teeth chattering through a Teen Burger and a side of calcium deposits, breathing to myself, “Come back, duck blind, all is forgiven!”

Of the few gun tales I have to tell, this last one is the shortest…and darkest. It is also, praise the Lord, the only one of which I do not have firsthand experience. Daniel was an early childhood friend of a friend. Though he lived just around the block, I lost touch with him in my early teens. In his 20s, Daniel became a member of the National Rifle Association. He was also trying to recover from PCP poisoning. I know very little about what happened to him other than he must have smoked pot laced with the pesticide and was later arrested while having a reaction to the drug. After his loving parents had taken him in and tried to help him recover from this very serious problem, he had another reaction that led him to gun down both his parents. His last act as a free man was to call the Sheriff’s Department and inform them of what he had just done.

By the time Daniel murdered his parents, I was completely out of the hunting thing. I remember thinking to myself when the news broke, “Whatever happened to our shotguns?” My guess is, we sold them. With all the gun violence happening in this country over the last 30 years I can see why there are people who want to control the manufacturing, purchasing, and use of firearms. While I have never felt that we should ban weapons used for gaming, I do believe we need to remove handguns and automatic weapons from the market. As for hunting weapons owned by not-so-stable people like Daniel, we need to be far more thorough in our screening and maintenance of gun ownership records. I know this sounds like a red-tape nightmare, but there must be a way to do this effectively. There is something far more important at stake than protecting free enterprise and our “right to bear arms.” I think Daniel’s case is a good argument for that. As for the other loose cannons I’ve been lucky enough to dodge, I haven’t seen a reasonable gun control proposal yet that can keep you safe from the lunacy of puberty.

In God I Trust (even if others are having second thoughts)

I was in my weekly Bible survey group talking about some recent news when one of the members of the group showed me the new one-dollar coin. I never had seen it before, nor had I even heard about the controversy surrounding it. The U.S. Mint has relegated some of the markings common to U.S. coinage to the rim: the year of the coin, the “E PLURIBUS UNUM” motto, and the “IN GOD WE TRUST” motto. Normally, our group does not spend time talking about politics, and that always has been a blessing to me since I have always felt like I was the only liberal in the room of older men who receive their political instruction from Rush Limbaugh.
The news of this coin design, however, fired up the group and sidelined the Scriptures for longer than most worldly issues have in the past. “They are trying to minimize God,” one man cried. “The edges of coins naturally wear down, so they are hoping that the word ‘God’ will wear down, as well.” “They are ashamed of God.” Most of the comments bordered on the hysterical, and whenever the innocuous “they” word is thrown around, any kind of intelligent discourse seems to be sucked out of the room. As usual, I held my tongue, quietly writing down on one of my Scripture-memory index cards a reminder to investigate this later. These few words are my thoughts on this matter.
While I have always felt sorry for Michael Newdow for being so hell-bent (eh-hum) on wanting the word “God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, I still think he has a point. I personally feel that removing the word “God” from things like currency, pledges, and oaths is not such a terrible thing. Conversely, I feel that this movement is a sign of the times – and that is a bad thing. If popular sentiment is calling for a change in our government, then I am usually for it, especially if it is fighting against one of those “tyranny of the majority” kinds of things. However, I am against a government that is so religious that it legislates religious canons (like many Islamic nations); but like my Christian brothers, I realize that fewer people believe in the Judeo-Christian God and more specifically Jesus Christ, and that is truly depressing.
Removing the word “God” from things like currency, pledges, and oaths only would set things back to the way that they were about fifty years ago – ironically, back to the time that so many of my Bible survey brothers pine over – “the good ole days.” For instance, many do not know that the government added the word “God” to the Pledge of Allegiance during the Cold War; the pledge had existed for 60 years without the word “God” in it. The motto “In God We Trust” has a similar history; however, listening to people like my brothers in the Bible survey, you would think the Anti-Christ had moved into their neighborhood.
You may have noticed that I carefully have written “God” throughout this tiny post, making sure that I preface each one with “the word” when applicable. You see, I believe that God is in everything, whether or not man decides to give Him the credit.
God will survive any government, even the current one where a supposedly “godly” president tells so many lies and places greed in front of brotherly love. Still, I have no illusions about Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, just as I had none about Bill Clinton – as my old hero I.F. Stone said so often, “all governments lie,” and that includes idealistic politicians who run them.
So exorcize the word “God” from all of these worldly things and still, money – that is often the root of evil – will continue to be the medium of exchange; pledges – which often are broken – will still be chanted; and oaths – that are lied upon – will still be taken, if not so help God, then so help your secular-humanist Huggy Bear. It all ends up business as usual or, as King Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

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.

Faith, Liberals, and Biscuits

I had just sat down with my second-helping of eggs and sausage and a really good biscuit when I heard one of my brothers in Christos exclaim “God bless President Bush! We are so fortunate to have a godly man in the White House. Can you imagine how bad off we would be if Hillary becomes our next president?” Suddenly, the eggs and sausage didn’t look so good. The biscuit was still wonderful. I’m not one to lose my appetite for biscuits over something someone has said across the dinner table.

Every January I make the pilgrimage to Santa Nella, California for the annual Faithful Men’s Conference. Since 2001 we have been meeting here at “The Oasis of I-5” for speeches, prayers, hymns, fellowship, not to mention breaking bread. Faithful Men is sponsored by the IFCA International, which stands for Independent Fundamental Churches of America. Since I placed my trust in Jesus Christ I would never go back to the lukewarm churches I attended when I was a child and later when I was courting my wife and attended church with her because she wanted to go and I didn’t want to be without her.

The thing is I have been a liberal far longer than I have been a Christian. Now there are plenty of churches out there where the pews, as well as pulpits, are filled with liberals, but I have found that most churches do not believe in the literal interpretation of the Word of God. I think whenever man says “Well the books of Job and Jonah are only allegories and shouldn’t be taken literally” then you’ve got flawed humans telling other flawed humans what God really meant: a faith based on human interpretation – scary.
Since a true fundamentalist will leave politics out of sermons, theology, Bible studies, prayer meetings, etc., I can attends these functions, like Faithful Men, and worship my God without feeling like I am at a Republican Party fund raiser – which has as much appeal to me as being cast into the Lake of Fire.
It’s the road trip conversations – where there’s nowhere to go but out the door into a tuck and roll on the Interstate; the comments in the dinning area, and the discussions between speakers when we are not studying God’s word where I wonder if anyone will see my ACLU membership card when I open my wallet to leave a tip; those are the trying times for this left-winger. “Hey, you know that Berkeley church group that made it out here? Did you know many of them belong to a Young Republican’s group right on campus? Praise the Lord, there’s some straight arrows at ‘Bezerkeley’ after all.” Or “Bill’s son died in Iraq. You know, it really gets my dander up to see all those Democrat congressmen criticizing President Bush.” [One nice thing about these men is that they never cuss, even if their choice of words seems hopelessly corny.]
Of course there are some political subjects that are so deeply woven into Christian theology that they cannot be avoided even in serious study: abortion rights and Gay/Lesbian rights, to name only two. Nobody here has asked me how I feel about Rowe vs. Wade; I quietly eat my biscuit.