Cafe Witness

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Kick to the Gut

I was browsing my endless array of bookmarks tonight while avoiding sleep and clicked on Cinemarati, a film site I occasionally visit. A recent post directed readers to The House Next Door, the blog of New York Press film critic Matt Zoller Seitz (among others), describing the need to offer condolences for a "terribly tragic personal loss."

I've never visited The House Next Door, and I dreaded clicking through the link. Inherently, I seek to cope with stress in two ways: by insisting things aren't as bad as they seem and by imagining the worst-case scenario so that it, too, somehow seems more manageable, or that the actual situation is able to pale in comparison to what could have been. I usually do these things immediately and concurrently, so my system is prepared for whatever shock it's been led to expect will happen.

Unfortunately, the worst case scenario is precisely what awaits on the click-through.

It's amazing how profoundly the tragedies of people we don't even know can affect us. It's times like these that remind us we're all human, and we're all alike, and we're all interconnected in some unconscious, root way.

I read the account, and then I read through the long list of condolences, all of which blended together by the end. Somewhere, I was hoping to see even one out of place comment, from some heartless jackass who just doesn't "get" how life works, as a sort of coping method through which the rest of the sympathizers could target their irrational anger / confusion / sadness, but instead I was amazed (and buoyed) to see a litany of support, which is so obviously needed for both Mr. Seitz and his readers.

It wasn't until I nearly reached the end of the comments list that I found the one entry that honestly moved me, the one that went beyond the expected, the one I wish I could have written but can't. It was from a Brazilian reader of The House Next Door, who felt compelled to leave a comment even though English is not his native language. I don't know what moves some people to go beyond the call of duty like that, but it moved me. He even apologized at the end in case he used the wrong phrases, but he needn't worry; his spirit carried the day.

It's a small world, a brief time upon it, and a long line of questions we develop along the way. It's best if we slow down sometimes and just enjoy it, our lives and each other, while we can.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Umbrellas Are Out

The temperature, according to my Widget, is only 68 degrees but it feels at least 5 degrees warmer, and double that if you're in the sun. That can mean only one thing: the umbrellas are out.

All winter long, even during rain and snow, most cafes have put their outdoor seating up day after day. At night, I've heard the baristas wonder aloud why they have to bother with the setup and teardown of a dozen plastic chairs and tables, given the fact that no one in their right mind would ever bother sitting outside in Pittsburgh's wintry conditions. Aesthetics or habit, I suppose; or some deep-seated business theory that passersby won't realize there's a cafe on the block unless signified by snow-covered plastic chairs chained around a wrought-iron table.

But on a day like this, when the sun is out and the forecast calls for more of the same over the next week, it's far easier to get a seat inside a cafe than along the street. Everyone has decided to celebrate the newfound warmth with an iced coffee and a seat in the sun -- or, more precisely, under one of Crazy Mocha's umbrellas, which only come out when prompted by steady sunlight. For the latecomers, the options of sweltering in the sun is still preferable to a cool, well-shaded, air-conditioned seat indoors, so I'll gladly slip inside and observe.

Besides, capris are best observed from as far a distance away as possible. Like the next county.

Friday, April 28, 2006

United 93

I woke to an email this morning from someplace called Motive Entertainment, a company that essentially polls potential audiences for, among other things, films. Today they'd issued a wide release to build awareness for Universal's film United 93, the story of what happened aboard the only hijacked flight on 9/11 that didn't hit its target.

Judging from the wording of their press release, Motive couldn't be a more aptly-named company. First, it cites three blockbuster quotes:

1. Rush Limbaugh, who's usually my first choice for a film review, states (somewhat incomprehensibly, when taken out of context): "I wish this movie had been out two or three years ago."

2. Ebert & Roeper, who declare this "an extraordinary film. The best movie so far this year."

3. Dennis Prager, a conservative columnist who has declared: "I believe it is just about every American's duty to see this film."

The editorial Prager's quote is pulled from, linked prior, also mentions that "we have to win this war more than any since World War II. That's how bad our enemy is." It also lauds the film as being fact-based, rather than "some fictional, politically driven, reality-distorting film by Oliver Stone."

That's right, folks. Because a film about the heroism of the passengers aboard United flight 93 is absolutely NOT politically driven nor reality-distorting. (I won't even dignify the numerous reports from the day of 9/11 itself that indicated flight 93 was shot down by our own Air Force, since, among other things, that would contradict the public myth of what happened that day.)

Motive Entertainment's press release also mentions its own United 93 website, where you can "download free teaching and preaching resources to engage in key issues like, “Why do Islamic terrorists hate America? How should we respond as Americans? As Christians? As Jews? As Muslims?”" Prominently featured on that site's homepage is the question: "Why do they hate America?"

With wording like that, it should come as no surprise that Motive's marketing website also lauds its accomplishments in marketing "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," last year's breakout theological hit, or that the primary angle of its marketing scheme is (surprise!) The Faith Market.

As with most issues relating to politics and religion these days (and really, why bother trying to separate the two?), it doesn't matter what liberals or even moderates think. The agenda has been set by the far right and the rest of us are just playing in its shadow.

However, I will agree with Mr. Prager on one key issue. While box office prognosticators Box Office Prophets, who consistently underestimate the value of "niche" programming, have tabbed "United 93" to pull in $16 million this weekend, I'm siding with Prager, who says:

"Perhaps if "United 93" turns out to be the unforeseen box office success that Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was, the lure of major profits will exert more influence over Hollywood than even Hollywood leftists do."

Hmm. Enough politics and religion to give me a headache and I haven't even left the house yet. Motive Marketing, your methods are true.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Absence of Deadlines

My friend Rachel has been writing a novella (at least, that's how long I expect the finished story will be) for the past year now.

I was there for some of her earliest brainstorming sessions, and I've seen the idea evolve from a series of sketches into a written outline and now into a mostly-finished first draft. It's gone through plenty of changes along the way, including a massive restructuring about midway through the process, but it's always stayed true to the core of her intial idea. Likewise, she's always stayed true to her initial deadline for a rough draft: May 1.

This weekend, she plans on hunkering down at Crazy Mocha and finishing up the final pages of the story (she's writing in chronological order), and then she'll be "done." She'll take a break for a few weeks, then return to the story and begin the editing and rewriting process. In between, she'll do something else, or many other things, to clear her mind from the story she's been telling and the process of telling it. Dedication and caffeine can burn a creative mind out, so a recharge is necessary.

But what happens when the deadlines are lifted?

Every writer's guide suggests setting aside a certain time every day or week to write, just to stay in the flow. Most time management guides stress deadlines and structure as a way to meet your goals. But what happens when your need to complete a certain task has been satisfied and the times comes to... relax?

My mother is also an aspiring writer, and she recently finished the rough draft of her own first novel. She called me the next day, depressed because she has no reason to leave the house, go to her favorite writing place (in her case, an Eat 'n Park restaurant in Erie) and write her characters' stories. This is a woman who finds the most uncanny ways to AVOID writing in the first place (think: changing the color scheme of her apartment twice a year, from the walls to the furniture), and now she was staring down the barrel of an absence of a deadline and she was distraught.

I suggested she go back out to the same place and keep writing, but write something else instead. She seemed content with that advice. The next day she called back to say she'd done so, and sat down with the intention of writing something else entirely, but then she got a few more ideas for the story she'd been working on so she started making more notes for the next draft. She was rejuvenated, giving herself purpose to keep writing, even during her alleged "lull" from the material.

Rachel has said her own lulls have decreased steadily with every story she's written, from 8 months off to 4 months to 2. This time, she's wondering if she'll make it through May before she's aching to return. I have a feeling she'll take as long a break as her creativity needs to recharge and then she'll be back at Crazy Mocha, laptop fired up and sketchbook reopened.

Writers. We're such creatures of habit. If we aren't steadfastly avoiding what we're supposed to be doing, we're categorically unable to leave it alone.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Unwanted Advances in the Business Section

I went to Borders this evening but their cafe was closed. Left to my own devices, I wandered back to the business section, hoping to find something worth perusing in the "web marketing" section that, alas, exists only in my mind.

Instead, I found a book on getting out of debt (hey, topicality!) and paced back and forth for about fifteen minutes while I skimmed the entirety of the volume. (In the interest of fair promotion, the book was "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day", and it was yet another common sense guide to money for people who lack both.)

When I was done, I replaced the book on the shelf and turned to leave when a guy I hadn't previously noticed addressed me directly. "You seemed pretty engrossed in that book," he said. "Anything interesting?"

"A few things," I said, purposely as vague as possible.

This exchange led to a discussion of business books, personal finance management and the merits of paying bills online versus paying them in real space. As I made my move to leave, out came the question: "Have you ever considered starting a side business to bring in some extra money?"

"All the time," I answered.

This led to the long-awaited Pitch to Meet for Lunch at a Later Date So as to Discuss an Important Business Opportunity.

He gave me his business card, took down my email address, and said, "And if you decide it's something you're not interested in, there's no pressure and no time wasted."

Except for the part where I sit through someone's pyramid scheme over lunch and claw at the walls of my mind.

So let's save us both even more time, Mr. Business Section Lurker, and agree that I'm not interested even now.

Unless it's porn.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Neverending Finals Week

It seems Crazy Mocha is forever home to someone studying for a test of some kind. All around me, tables are littered with laptops and heavy textbooks of the medical, business, legal or mathematics persuasions. The occasional artist is interspersed for good measure, but by and large, I feel like I'm always eavesdropping on someone's all-nighter.

As a graduate of art school, I'm semi-fascinated by people who actually choose to study these more mathematical subjects. Statutes of Limitations, compounded interest and capillaries must make some people as giddy as a blank piece of paper and a pen once made me (and still tends to make me, when I'm not behind a deadline). In fact, I hope these people ARE that excited; I hope they're here til midnight slaving over their laptops and their cold coffees and their 30-pound textbooks because the thought of NOT being able to know more about physics or physiology makes them feel as though their lives would be less rich.

Because if the only reason they're studying these subjects -- or anyone's studying any subject -- is because they're hoping for a paycheck at the end of the journey, that seems like a waste of time and energy. I'm sure a handful of these folks would be just as happy designing fashion or running a landscaping business for the rest of their lives, but something -- guilt, society, bills, mom and dad -- has them thinking that a more logical career is the way to go. If only they'd realize following their dreams is the only way they'll be happy -- 401K be damned -- I'm betting one or two of them would be studying Flash textbooks or creative writing guides instead of calculus. Not all of them, because I'm sure some of them are as passionate about politics as some others are about pixels; but a few would be creating rather than cramming.

Or maybe they'd be at home, painting or dancing or making movies in their parking garage. Maybe they'd be making something no one else in the world can make, or will make unless they do it themselves. Then we'd really see something with passion behind it.

(And maybe then I could get a seat in the Crazy Mocha balcony...)

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Gift of Free Wireless

It's been awhile since I posted. This defeats the purpose of a blog, which means I need to get back on the ball. Consider this the re-mount.

I'm back at Crazy Mocha in the South Side Works, which I tend to work from at least 4 days a week. Why? Two words: free wireless.

Telerama provides wireless internet to dozens of hotspots around Pittsburgh, many of them coffee shops. The Crazy Mocha chain and The Beehive (who seem to use another provider) are the only cafes I know of that offer free wireless to their customers; everyone else requires you to be an existing Telerama user. While that's a perfectly sound choice, it seems to me to be a bad business move.

In the 4 days a week (at least) that I'm here, I spend a minimum of $3 per visit (not including tip). That's at least $50 a month, of which I'd presume $45+ is profit. I know that Telerama charges Crazy Mocha $100 a month to enable its customers to access the web for free, as opposed to the $60 or so it charges the hotspots that require a login. That means all it takes to cover the cost of free wireless for everyone are two of me every month.

As a regular, I've noticed dozens of other regulars using the net every time I'm here. I'm pretty sure we're all here for the same reason: free wireless. (Not that the baristas aren't rocking too; we're talking numbers.) Many of these regulars spend more than I do, frequently knocking back cheesecakes or deluxe drinks. If you forced each of them to register as Telerama users, you'd force Crazy Mocha to fight on the same level playing field as Coffee Tree Roasters, Kiva Han and, um, Starbucks (okay, so "level" is a matter of perspective), and then the question becomes: what sets Crazy Mocha apart from the rest of these cafes now that we've removed our defining edge?

Those other establishments are all wonderful, by the way, and each has something special to offer that the others don't. But given a level playing field, who wouldn't go to the closest cafe, rather than trekking several miles away (as I know many people here do) for the free wireless? (In that case, I'd be at Coffee Tree Roasters on Forbes for hours on end every day, which is a ten minute walk as opposed to a 12 minute drive -- thanks, planet.)

So yes, Crazy Mocha is a rocking joint with good coffee, good food, friendly people and a great ambience (and the comfy balcony area). I'm proud to call it my personal cafe.

But I'm also damn glad I can check MySpace all day long for free.