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New and previously published articles from magazines and newspapers around the world.

The Rule of Stephens is coming...

It takes a long time to write a book. It takes a lot of solo hours.

Once, very early in my career, I told an interviewer that the novelists special skill was "being able to sit by oneself in a chair in front of a computer for very, very long periods of time."

That remains basically true, that simplification. But by now I also know that there comes a time when the writing is done and the process moves from solo to communal. Agents and editors get involved. A conversation starts that isn't confined to your brain. A book takes shape, a cover, jacket copy.

It feels like spring. It really does.

The Rule of Stephens is my fourth novel, my fifth work of fiction, and my eight book total if you include my very first one, the anomalous "Internet Handbook for Canadian Lawyers" that I wrote way back in 1997 with M. Drew Jackson for the legal publisher Carswell. Back when people still used Gopher Sites.

And now, number eight: The Rule of Stephens.

The Rule of Stephens. The Rule of Stephens is an axiom holding that the observable universe works in one of two mutually exclusive ways: (1) strictly in accordance with materialist principles such as advanced in the work of Stephen Hawking, or (2) by rules providing for the paranormal aberrations manifest in the work of Stephen King.

It's 2017 at the time of writing. The world has had a bracingly weird quality about it lately. Political and cultural winds blowing in freakish bursts and swirls, direction changes and sudden eddies. Are we still in the land of Hawking, as I have for so long been committed to believing? Or are we slouching our way down the slope a ways, shuffling and stumbling lower into the murky world of King?

Just so happens, my main character has similar questions, arising from the confusing truth that she survived tragedy when by any rational calculation, any reasonable human math, she shouldn't.

"The significance of being a survivor, in the case of Air France 801, for a long time lay in the simple fact that there should have been no survivors."

 

More to come soon...

Posted: Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017 2:49pm
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RIP Paul Walker

Not a lot of RIP Paul Walker posts in my various feeds this morning, despite the Fast and the Furious lead having died a grisly death on Saturday. I guess Walker doesn't have big profile in the literary scene. His films were middle brow. His acting wasn't overly nuanced. So he died in the burning wreck of a Porsche, I can hear the collective consciousness murmuring. Wasn't that kind of in the script?

Maybe. I don't know. Who knows anything about death but the dead? But I did meet Walker once. So I can talk about the guy I met, who surprised me.

I was working for Toro Magazine at the time, Canada's upstart Esquire clone that burned through a few million of a prominent Toronto real estate developors dollars before everybody came to their senses. They sent me to LA to interview him in early 2006, just pre-Flags of Our Fathers. Some PR genius set up the meet at the Peterson Automotive Museum (cars, get it? Fast and the Furious? Like a theme-interview.) We walked around looking at old cars owned by other actors for awhile, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen. Walker was unimpressed because he raced cars himself. He'd piled a GT3 into the wall at Willow Springs the week prior. No big deal because he'd use it as a parts car. (Chilling a bit to note that he was passenger in a GT when he died, but I digress.)

I gave him a break from cars and we found a booth in the deserted museum cafeteria. We got talking and were there for a couple of hours. And a very interesting person emerged: a guy who hated Hollywood, disliked being a public person, and spent half his time plotting an escape from both that he never ultimately made.

You can read the article here and decide for yourself what you think about him. But one part of the interview that didn't make the article sticks with me most. It was the moment Walker realized that I didn't cover Hollywood for a living, that I wasn't part of the machine, and that was the moment he suddenly got very candid.

We were talking about the film he'd just produced called The Death and Life of Bobby Z, staring Walker and Laurence Fishbourne (who Walker hugely admired)...

Walker: Everyone was rock solid. And I just hope to God it comes out all right. Because it was just good people all around. Olivia Wilde is just awesome. She was on OC, she played what’s that Misha Barton… Is that her name?

 

TT: I don’t know.

PW: You’re worse than me. Even I know her name. But I don’t watch any of her shows. You watch TV at all?

TT: Nah.

PW: (Long pause.) Me either. Do you have a TV set up?

TT: Yeah, it's set up...

PW: But you don’t watch it.

TT: No.

PW: You watch movies?

TT: I do watch movies.

PW: (laughs, shakes his head) You’re like me. I don’t know who anybody is. You don't know who anybody is down here. (laughing)

TT: No I don’t know Hollywood at all. I didn't know who you were. I had to look you up.

PW: (really laughing now, long pause) That is awesome!

[At which point Walker started to open up and eventually we get talking about life in Hollywood.]

 

PW:Honestly? I like my job, but I can’t stand the people. I hate LA. It’s misplaced priorities. Everyone’s got their head up their ass. No one gives a shit about anybody. Relationships are disposable. They play like they want to be your friend, but only because you’re the hot piece of ass.

 

TT: I suppose it’s because there’s a ton of money involved.

PW: Sure. Yeah. Wherever there’s money involved it's gonna be like that. In big corporate America it’s probably the same thing. You know they want to be buds with you and shake your hand, but there’s no real loyalty. It’s pro sports. It’s anywhere. And I don’t want to live that life.

TT: But let’s be honest, you're involved.

PW: Yeah but who wants to live that life? You can’t go anywhere without people going hey, hey, this or that. You lose your anonymity.

TT: So what's it like for you walking down Wilshire.

PW: It drives me crazy! It’s bad. I mean you hear these stories about how certain people are such assholes. And there such pricks when it comes to it. And I find myself doing it sometimes. I’m doing the same thing. Earlier today, when somebody came up to me. I’m just eating my damn burger and it’s like I don’t want to be bothered, I’m sorry. I gotta run. I gotta go meet this guy. Dude, I had 25 minutes. I was just down the street. I thought, surely I can just get this and get out. But you want to know why I was late. Because the entire staff of the [burger joint name] had to come out. And I just wanted to go [throws up his hands]. But the only reason I didn’t is because I don’t want to be known as the Dick. That’s the only reason I stayed. But what I wanted to do is go: leave me alone I gotta go! I’m running late, you understand?<!--[if gte mso 9]> 800x600 <![endif]-->It’s such a weird deal. It’s not grounded in anything.

 

TT: Does this underscore your desire to get the fuck out of Dodge?

PW: Yeah. But then no. It’s like: can you have a normal life and still do it? Can you eliminate all the pricks. Can you surround yourself with people you know are good people. Every one of those guys I worked with on Bobby Z? What comes first and foremost? Their families. They’re out there the whole shoot, and they’re not banging the hair stylist and then fucking an extra the next day. There are morals. There’s a morality. You know? But there are still certain days when I really feel, I can’t do it. I can’t do it.

***


RIP Paul Walker. You got away, only not in the way you wanted and no in the way I had hoped you would since our now-long-ago conversation. Peace to the Walker family.

 

 

Posted: Monday, Dec. 2, 2013 11:52am
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Zahed Haftlang's Big Idea

The first time I met Zahed Haftlang was over two years ago, in connection with an article I wrote for Vancouver Magazine called Blood Brothers. That story was one of hope and determination. An Iranian boy soldier during the Iran-Iraq War, Haftlang saved the life of an Iraqi soldier, Nadjah Aboud, on the battlefield. Twenty years later (begging language like "miraculous" and "only in the movies") Haftlang and Aboud met again in Vancouver. They'd both endured years of war, imprisonment, torture, and abuse. And that moment of recognition – both men waiting for counselling at the Vancouver Association for the Survivors of Torture, no less – became a friendship that lasts to this day.

As I wrote in Vancouver Magazine more recently, the double helix of the story is endlessly compelling. And the story has touched many, many people. I’ve been contacted countless times by people wanting to know more. And Haftlang himself has told me that people showed up at his place of work after the first article was published just to pose for pictures with him.  

But it hasn’t all been sunshine and happiness. It perhaps never is for refugees and survivors of torture. Both Haftlang and Aboud carry haunting memories. And Haftlang has struggled to stay employed. He lost his auto-mechanics business in 2012, and is still looking for a job at the moment I’m writing this post.

All that said, Haftlang also isn’t a guy to give up easily. He’s written a memoir with journalist Robert Matas that's looking for a publisher. He’s also planning an incredible walk to the United Nations (yes, from Vancouver to New York City, by foot) to raise awareness of both his story and the world's urgent need to set aside war.

Some would say the idea is quixotic, romantic, idealistic. And it would certainly be easy to dismiss it in that fashion. Only it’s worth bearing in mind that this is a man who has walked exceedingly long distances before. He crossed a good part of Northern Iraq by foot as a boy soldier. And after his release from Iraqi POW camp in 1990, he walked across Iran on his return home. He doesn’t boast about any of this. In fact, when he tells me about those long walks, he shrugs and notes that the weather was good.

Walking to the UN would take over 100 days, and he’s solicited the help of various people to help him. He has a website up now, called Step For Peace, although the donation parts of the site were still under construction at the time of writing. He’s looking for sponsors now to help him finish these things and begin preparing. But he remains determined. And the last time I saw him, on Upper Lonsdale after lunch at a Persian restaurant there, he shook hands with a firmness that speaks to his commitment.

My hope for his future is that there are more “only in the movies” moments.And if you're reading this and can think of a way to help... please visit Step For Peace.

Posted: Friday, May. 3, 2013 9:15am
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1 Ordinary Cook, 35 Impossible Recipes: Outtakes from a week in the culinary trenches

My article about cooking incredibly difficult food from the most insane cookbooks of the year is running over at Cooking Light.

1 Ordinary Cook, 35 Impossible Recipes ("Can a home cook learn anything from the supercompmlicated cookbooks of the world's most celebrated chefs? We asked Timothy Taylor to dive into the deep end and throw some dinner parties for friends.") Marina Dodis shot the pictures for the magazine. Here are some outtakes I shot myself. Random preparations and plates.

11 Madison Park Radicchio and Mango Salad with Basil Gel

Blanched basil leaves

Juiced basil
Set up with agar-agar
Assembly, note re-pureed basil to make gel
A pretty plate. Basil gel necessary? YMMV

NOMA Dinner with Heston Blumenthal dessert, by far the most massive undertaking I've ever attemped in any kitchen, anywhere.

Obsessive planning paid off, in the end. Couldn't have done it by memory.

Beets and blood oranges for the jellieParsley OilApple gel for discsShallots marinating in blueberry juice24 hour oxtail reductionImprovised "dirt" for the NOMA vegetable fieldShocking veggiesPlating the app: Blueberries and OnionsSpectacular dish. Amazing flavours.Plating the vegetable field: mashed potatoes, shocked veggies, top with dirt and carrot greens.Et voila. Oh man. Goo-ood.A hit.Apple discs for the mainApple *gel* discsOxtail, oxtail reduction with verbana leaves, apple garnishOxtail with reduction, apple, sunchokes and crisp verbana leavesBlumenthalian Jelly.

 

 

Posted: Monday, Feb. 18, 2013 12:12pm
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Happy Hunting

Buster, Buster.

A lot of people have been through the loss of a pet. I’ve been through it before. Now, as of this past Tuesday January 29th, I’m going through it again.
 
His name was Buster. He was a Chocolate Labrador. In just under 12 years, he became so involved in the life of my family, that we’re grieving him as if a person had died. How did we get to love this animal so much?
 
You could argue it’s irrational. That it makes no sense to bring these animals into your life knowing they won’t live much past a decade and will break your heart on leaving. You could argue it’s insanity to embed a pet into your daily routine – bringing him with me to work every day, for example, spending almost every hour together when I wasn’t travelling – only to have that routine, that grooved in set of habits, blown apart at the seams when they die.
 
It was cancer. Being a Lab, he didn’t say anything about it, despite what must have been mounting discomfort. He was happy, happy, happy. Then he dropped without saying as much as “ouch”. Into Emerg. Bleeding profusely internally. We could have gone into surgery, removed the offending spleen, which had by that point ruptured. But given how the cancer had spread already inside him, we’d be buying him days or weeks. Win the lottery and he’d live a couple of months.
 
Maybe he would even have been happy for some of that time. But we would have been waiting for the axe of cancer to fall. We would have been waiting for him to go through the whole ordeal again only this time knowing it was the end.
 
We walked around the park outside Animal Emerg. Buses were passing. Routines in progress, unaltered by the implosion of our own.
 
A Lab is a Sporting Breed and Buster was from a sporting line. We never hunted him. We never had him compete at retrieving events. A whole part of his genetics was either wasted or suppressed, depending how you look at it. But he ended up with a job, nevertheless. And after a few years of maybe wondering if he’d gotten into the right family – these were the bouncing-off-the-wall years, from 4 weeks to about 4 years – Buster settled into his job and then never stopped getting better at it.
 
His job was to inspire kindness. I watched him do it, over and over again. On the street. In the park. People would get down into a crouch in front of him and cup his head, look into his eyes. It used to annoy me when strange men kissed him (hey, that’s where I kiss him). But I knew what was going on. He was doing it in our house, 24/7.
 
Buster enacted a Kantian imperative (I suspect he was unaware of this). He inspired kindness in people with whom he came in contact, by merely being who he was.
 
Can we be kind without pets? I’d like to say: of course! Though I’m careful to be so sure. All I’m sure of is that animals give us a chance to practice.
 
You left us far too soon, pal. But you were great at what you did. We let you go now for your good service, with respect and memories. And yes, no question: love.
 
Happy hunting.
 
Posted: Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013 10:35am
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The Way Things Are: Fred Herzog's Art of Observation

First published in Canadian Art Winter 2013

By Timothy Taylor

At 82 years of age, photographer Fred Herzog doesn’t move quite as quickly as he used to. But then, few people ever did. In his younger days, Herzog was the kind of guy who’d jump on his Norton motorcycle after lunch and ride back roads to the top of Mount Baker, 180 kilometres south in Washington state, then motor home in time for supper. “Not always at the speed limit,” he says now, with a sly smile.

When he wasn’t making a literal blur across the landscape—and when he wasn’t working full time as a medical photographer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) or raising his family—he shot pictures on the streets. And rather a lot of pictures, we now know, as a result of a series of high-profile solo shows in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Berlin over the course of just the past five years. Asked to estimate the total number of pictures he’s taken in his life, Herzog will admit to more than 85,000. Of course, those are only the ones he’s kept.

“I suppose I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he says, with a self-deprecating chuckling and a glint of mischief in his eyes. But then, immediately, he’s back to scanning the world around him. “Here,” he says, voice low. “Let’s look up this alley. There are often things here.”

We’re in Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest residential neighbourhood, just east of the downtown core...

To continue reading, please

visit Canadian Art

.

Posted: Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 9:35am

Home Again Home Again Jiggety Jog

I set out to find wild elephants. That was my big idea. I pitched the story that way. I left on the plane with only that in mind.

I got much more.

In a couple months, the article about my trip to the Yunnan Province in southern China will run in EnRoute Magazine. I don't want to give anything away. But let me quickly hit a few of the highlights.

We started in Lijiang, in the long cool shadow of Jade Dragon Snowy Mountain, holy peak of the Naxi people. Yulong, as it's locally known, has never been climbed to its summit, though legend has it that many star-crossed young lovers have lept together to their deaths from its cliffs, diving into the third kingdom to gain acceptance for the love forbidden them in this world.

In Lijiang there are roof cats, who draw wealth and fortune into their mouths.

There's gorgeous food:

And then there are these, which are marble and expensive, or I might have taken some home.

From Lijiang we moved on to Shangrila, where a Tibetan woman named Sanam showed us around. She brought us to the Songzanlin Lamastery.

To the market.

She took us to the house of friends of hers, who sat us down around the blackened stove and gave us fresh yak's milk cheese, yak butter tea and tsampa.

We sat in their living room under amazing carvings.

We said goodbye to Sanam and travelled down into Xishuangbanna. We went to the Mekong, where a woman with a pink umbrella sang by the shoreline.

We went up the river, past a large pagoda on the far shore.

We went into the jungle.

We saw gibbons and hiked past tea terraces.

Later, in town, we ate 1,000 year old eggs and roast chicken at a restaurant where they played MahJong for what appeared to be large amounts of money.

And the elephants. Did I see any?

The whole story runs in EnRoute early next year. Let's just say for now that it ended up being bigger than the animal, that story.

Bigger, and weirdly better, than I could have expected.

 

Posted: Monday, Dec. 10, 2012 1:18pm

Pilgrimage Redux

Gone for a few weeks to China on a gig for EnRoute Magazine. Spotty to nonexistent internet while I'm gone.

Taking: 2 blank notebooks, 5 pens, a knapsack, and zero preparation.

Returning with: 2 full notebooks, a crucially necessary new attitude, and photos of elephants.

Enlightenment is an outside possibility.

Posted: Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 11:21am

Coffee and Coral Snakes: Batesian Mimicry at Work and Play

From Vancouver Magazine Fall Issue 2012

***

Note: I was inspired by the always-fascinating work of Eric Falkenstein (at Falkenblog) in my application of Batesian Mimicry to consumer behaviour.

***

It will have escaped nobody’s notice that Vancouver is a top-ranked city in at least three categories. We’re always high on those “liveable city” lists. We have the most expensive real estate on the continent. And, of course, we’re also among the urban zones most addicted to the roasted seeds of an epigynous berry found on Asian and African shrubs known as coffea Arabica.

Yeah, we love our joe in this town. We’re boffo for coffee. Two Starbucks per intersection never struck us as ridiculous. A friend from Montreal, visiting for the first time in the early 90’s, described his first experience of Robson and Thurlow. “There were a bunch of bikers at this one Starbucks when I entered. I saw them finish their coffees, get on their motorcycles, and then CROSS THE STREET and go into the other one.”
That’s Vancouver in a nutshell or, in this case, a roasted endosperm.
 
Of course, most residents also realize that our relationship with the brown bean hasn’t been static. We weren’t born this way. Don’t anybody try to claim that Jack Khatsahlano greeted our city forefathers with high-altitude, shade-grown juice served out of a Belgian gold plated vacuum coffee siphon. My point being that fine coffee isn’t in our blood. It’s is a choice we’ve made, socially and economically. And as such, it offers a portrait of, if not who we are, then at least who we think we are.
 
I found myself considering all this over the past month as I sampled my way through a list of cafes and fine bean roasters in Vancouver recommended to me by my most ardent coffee-loving friends. But I found it brought into absolutely crystal focus while sitting in boardroom of the Doi Chaang Coffee Company on West Hastings Street downtown. John Darch, the company’s founder and 50% owner (the other 50% is owned, notably, by the Akhi hill tribe in Thailand who farm the beans) had just served me up a cup of their single-estate espresso, which (not to give it away, but…) would prove to be best cup of coffee I drank during this whole experiment, and our conversation had turned to civet coffee.
 
You may have heard about this stuff already. The civet, a svelte mammal whose musky body scent is used in perfumery, also happens to be a bit of a coffee fiend. Only, they eat the fruit. The cherry, as it’s known. What emerges from the other end of the civet then, in due course, is the seed of this fruit – the coffee “bean” – neatly de-fruited by that point and (connoisseurs maintain) enhanced in flavor as only possible by exposure to the enzymes in a civet’s digestive tract. It’s coffee scat, essentially. But what Darch wanted me to understand that Doi Chaang’s particular brand of civet coffee scat was special. Sold at $55 for 50 grams, which works out to $1,100 a kilogram, and carried by both Harrod’s and Dean & DeLucca, Doi Chaang’s civet coffee isn’t made using farmed civets who are inhumanely force-fed coffee cherries and whose poop is then combed for seeds. It’s made by wild Thai civets who rove the coffee plantation nocturnally and voluntarily, eating in the manner and pace of their choosing.
 
“Garbage in, garbage out,” Darch says of other brands. “Our civets are choosing their own cherries. And of course that means they choose only the best!”
 
It’s a great story. (I’ve been telling it ever since.) And perhaps that is the key point here. Coffee these days is very much about having a great (and ideally heartwarming) story. Google up any of the major players in Canadian independent beans these days, in fact - Ethical Bean, Kicking Horse, Salt Spring Coffee, Doi Chaang – and you’ll find such consistency in the stories it’s hard to believe they weren’t centrally coordinated. No, nobody else boasts of having wild Thai civets custom processing beans for them. And I’m not talking about the product being “organic” or “fair trade”, either, which should be considered the bare minimum entry requirements in this field.
 
I’m talking instead about other initiatives intended to humanize these companies to the point that they don’t sound like corporations at all and more like non-profits. These are companies touting projects to build schools in Central America (Ethical Bean), or to recycle coffee grounds and bags (Salt Spring), or to funnel financial support to the Canadian Nature Conservancy and local food banks (Kicking Horse). Doi Chaang, whose founder gave half the company to the Thai tribe where he sources his beans is perhaps only pushing farther down the same virtuous avenue. Did he have to? Not legally. But to make a mark in coffee, it was a very savvy move.
 
“Of course people won’t buy crappy coffee,” he says. “But nobody has a story like ours.”
 
And as if to underscore that point, he describes how sales of Doi Chaang’s coffee “struggled” for the first two years. Not because of quality. Critic Ken Davis, whose ratings in Coffee Review have become the Parker Points™ for the beverage, tells me that Doi Chaang coffee is in the top 10% of coffees he has “cupped”, rating around 89-91, where your typical cup of Starbucks is 83-84, and Folgers instant crystals comes in around 60. No, the struggling was story-related, in the sense that not enough people knew about what Doi Chaang was doing. Sales only exploded following the airing of a Global TV documentary on the company’s “Beyond Fair Trade” partnership with Akhi peoples. In one year sales tripled and haven’t looked back.
 
Which is a curious market feature, when you think about it. We don’t refuse to use Hootsuite unless Ryan Holmes builds a school in Honduras. We don’t boycott Burrowing Owl if they neglect to build their brand around high profile environmental donations. Why then do coffee consumers demand that people in the coffee space go beyond making good juice – and here I mean both wholesalers and retail cafes – and also somehow commit to making the world a happier and more egalitarian place? What the hell is in this stuff other than caffeine, some kind of ethical, high-minded pixie-dust?
 
Doubtful. I think the answer is, in fact, a lot more scientific and less flattering to us individually. It’s Batesian Mimicry at work, folks. Species copy each other, mimicking high value features, like stripes and spots that signal venom and discourage predators. Perhaps the most famous example is the entirely harmless Scarlet King Snake who copies (not perfectly, but pretty well) the markings of the very-poisonous Eastern Coral Snake, securing for itself a protection that it didn’t actually earn.
Consumers do the same thing, in waves, mimicking high value ideas to secure the returns that they have observed other consumers earlier receive. So the first generation of Starbucks users were able to signal to the world a powerful knowledge, positioning them advantageously relative to coffee drinkers who’d come before. Starbucks consumption indicated that you didn’t drink the watery, flavorless, institutional coffee that had prevailed prior in North America. You’d travelled to Europe. You knew the truth about craft and quality and the way coffee really should be done.
 
As status accrued to those early adopters, a billion mimics followed, displaying the logo in obedience to the evolutionary code written within: signal what the successful species signals. The cups proliferated. Competitors to Starbucks responded by darkening their own roasts. Starbucks responded by growing, growing, growing. They became a mega-corporation. They started selling breakfast sandwiches and their “cafes” started smelling like cheese. The line-ups grew. And at some fateful tipping point, the exclusivity of the brand collapsed.
 
Which is exactly what happens to Coral Snake populations when too many Scarlet Kings mimic their markings and dilute the results.
 
Starbucks may still be profitable. (John Darch observes: “Starbucks changed people from being willing to spend 10 cents on coffee to being willing to spend $2 or $3.”) But they’ll never regain what was lost: exclusivity, the trust of consumers that a status message could be reliably communicated by the simple act of holding one of their cups. That business has now passed on to another wave of merchants and consumers who now position themselves advantageously relative to the Starbucks drinkers who’d come before, signalling that they know the truth about craft and quality and the way coffee really should be done. Only in this iteration of the story, importantly distinguished from the Starbucks version that preceded: humanized, small-scale, socially conscious, non-corporate.
 
And still expensive. $3 plus still prevails for an Americano, of which Lloyd Bernhardt of Ethical Bean assures me only $.25 or so is actually the cost of coffee. But for that $2.75, we’re getting back the story that we originally craved, the one that distinguishes people on both sides of the Clover.
 
Has Batesian Mimicry followed? Go read the websites of the major coffee wholesalers and most popular cafés decide for yourself. They all look like Coral Snakes and Scarlet Kings to me. Will there be another bursting of bubbles? A migration of opinion, perhaps very suddenly, away from that which grants status to geeky mustachioed guys in undershirts hunched over pour-over gear and the earnest customers who watch their every move?
 
Count on it.
 
In the meantime, sample yourself from what is on offer, and ask yourself how much of the brand promise is in the story told versus the coffee delivered. Highly subjective, of course. But I can start the ball rolling with my own informal survey. I made a short list of cafes to try based on beans served and recommendations from friends. I asked for small Americano in each case. (Except for the civet coffee, which I made myself at home.) Here are the results. I list them in the order sampled for you to dispute, dismiss, or to use in hand-crafting a coffee-story of your very own.
 
THE ROOMS AND THE BEANS:
 
Elyssian Room on 5th Avenue: A jazzy place with geek-chic baristas and dressy clientele. Seen: red lizard wedge hi-heels. Overheard: “What a beautiful necklace!” The Americano: $3.25. Toffee notes, not burnt or oily, but also not particularly rich. Rating: medium good.
 
Milano on 8th opposite Jonathan Rogers Park: roast their own beans. Spacious, modern room with superb outlook across the park to downtown. Lovely staff. Seen: software dudes. Overheard: “We have to strategize.” The Americano: $2.65. Blech. Watery, barely coffee-flavoured. A dumbfounding let-down given the room and service and number of recommendations. Rating: bad.
 
Kafkas on Main off Broadway: Herkimer beans from Seattle. Serious-coffee vibe: siphons available, tasting flights. Eclectic furniture and clientele. Seen: curated art work on the walls. Overheard: somebody growling over a plucked guitar. The Americano: $3.25. Deep molasses and chocolate-y notes, vegetables too. Rating: interesting juice, would try again.
 
W2: Salt Spring Coffee. Seen: women doing dance gymnastics dangling on bungee cords in the atrium under the Stan Douglas. Overheard: Metric. The Americano: $3.00. Smooth but not heavy or oily, distinct light choco-caramel/tobacco notes. Rating: superior, will return.
 
Nestors, Woodwards. Ethical Bean Coffee. Drip only available. I tried two: Rocket Fuel and Classic. $3.36 for two cups. Sipped standing outside on Abbot Street with the cups balanced on a newspaper box. Seen: ladies cooing over a Labrador puppy. Overheard: garbage truck backing into an alley. The coffee: hmmm. In a phrase: truck-stop two ways. Rocket Fuel burnt and Classic more or less tasteless. Not, one suspects, how Ethical Bean would want their stuff featured. Rating: bad coffee, though kind of right for the time and place.
 
Ethical Bean Express in the Granville Skytrain station: giving EB a second chance, I went to their own outlet. Seen: people in a rush. Overheard: the bowels of the city. The Americano: $2.41. Dark to tarry flavor, very intense. Rating: medium.
 
Matchstick Coffee Roasters at Fraser and Kingsway: roast their own. Aging Brooklyn hipster vibe. Seen: bike hats, grizzly beards, antlers on the wall, subway tiles. Overheard: “Skype me this afternoon.” The Americano: Veering to the black tar end of things, but balanced and rich. Rating: good.
 
Kranky Coffee on East 4th off Main: Kicking Horse beans. Eclectic east side vibe. Seen: old books, blue French country style painted counters, bead curtains. Overheard: Beth Orton. The Americano: $2.85. Some acids and fruit, but also deep oily notes. Rating: medium good.
 
49th Parallel 4th Avenue: roast their own. Seen: counter guy in dirty sleeveless undershirt out of which sprouts copious body hair. Brill cream. Siphon on display, seemingly never used. Overheard: EDM. The Americano: $3.00. Disgusting. Oily, burnt, bitter. Rating: threw it out.
 
Doi Chaang Civet Coffee: made this myself at home according to meticulous instructions found online: bodum, medium grind, 85 degree water. The first cup was weak, without much of a flavor profile. The second, ground finer, steeped longer before the plunge, much stronger. Interesting depth of flavor with no bitterness or oily notes. Way over-priced at $15 a cup for home use, but interesting juice.
 
Doi Chaang Single Estate Espresso: made for me at Doi Chaang’s office by Tanya Jacoboni, the company’s VP Business Development, served without pretense in a mug I think my grandmother used to own. The Americano: rich, balanced, fruit notes, no oiliness or bitterness. Rating: superior coffee.
Posted: Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012 8:48am

A Navy SEAL on the Full Circle of Vengeance

A Facebook friend, Canadian television host Carolyn Weaver, posted a link to a fascinating 60 Minutes episode in which CBS correspondent Scott Pelley interviews "Mark Owen" (pseudonym), a retired Navy SEAL who was in the room when Osama bin Laden was killed in his compound in Abbottobad, Pakistan. Owen has just published a book about his experiences during the raid. It's called No Easy Day.

Although I didn't really have the time (deadlines!) I ended up watching the entire thing, and I'm glad I did. The story may be familiar from its wide coverage in the press at the time it happened. And Owen himself doesn't reveal anything he considers to be secret. So there's no real insight into intelligence operations that preceded the raid or even much about the tactics used by SEALs when the hit the ground on assignments such as this one.

What CBS has done instead - on purpose or by accident - is offer an insight into the psychology of these ultra-elite hand-picked soldiers. Owen isn't cold, exactly. But he is incredibly controlled. In one passage, he describes how the movies get it wrong by always depicting operations like the one in Pakistan as loud and fast. Instead, he tells us, when SEALs do their jobs, they do it slowly and quietly.

"We have a saying," Owen remarks at one point: "Don't run to your own death."

While all that is fascinating, I found watching that I experienced something like mounting dread. Working on a piece about PTSD for Harpers has perhaps put me in this mindset, but I could not help but wonder at the toll his work would ultimately take on Owen.

He betrays very little, it has to be said, until almost his final words of the program. In that moment, he's describing the emotion he experienced in visiting the 9/11 memorial in NYC. Pelley comments: over three thousand people died there. Owen nods. He's well aware of it, of course.

The raid avenged those people, Pelley suggests. And here Owen agrees.

It is a chilling moment. Because we sense that Owen's awareness of the raid as an act of vengeance may not sit with him quite as easily as it appears to sit with Pelley, who makes the comment as if to balance the books, as if to establish that in the wake of the raid, ammends had been made, peace restored.

Owen, to my eye, does not seem so sure. He says instead that he realized in that moment, at the memorial, that it was time for him personally to move on. And then he says the words.

"Full circle," the former Navy SEAL says, with no trace of satisfaction.

How rich, insightful, and devastating is that casual formulation. The full circle, of course, returns us to the site of our departure, as if we had never left. What will Owen do with this understanding? I can't speculate, only to say that it seems to me, in that room, he glimpsed the expediency and (maybe) even the practical necessity of an act that would yet necessarily only perpetuate itself in further violence, further requirements for vengeance, further full circles spinning on up into the unknowable future. Spinning and escalating.

But maybe the more important question is what should we do with that understanding?

 

Posted: Monday, Sep. 10, 2012 10:24am
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