Month: January 2018

Starbucks Via Instant – a failing-to-read-the-label odyssey

I generally make a pot of coffee in the morning. I am not particularly loyal to a roast, but tend towards Starbucks or Seattle’s Best brands. Sometimes, if the package is pretty and the price low, I’ll try something else.

I also keep a box of Starbucks Via Instant packs in inventory. Sometimes I don’t want a full pot, don’t feel like doing the work or it’s a busy morning and I won’t have time to leisure over the entire pot, so a Starbucks instant steps up to the cup for me.

This past weekend the shopping list contained the word coffee. I needed to resupply both the ground beans for dripping and the Starbucks Via Instant.

Me, being the antisocial type, and not particularly joyful over the time spent in a grocery store, was rushing.

I had just come from the pickle aisle, where my frustration had been piqued over the lack of Claussen dills, and was speeding down the caffeine-bean aisle.

Starbucks Columbian roast ground? Yep, in the cart, moving on.

Next, the Starbucks instant section with the three usual boxes of instant coffee on display. Ah, but this one is like three times thicker than usual! It must contain many more cute little packets inside. What a deal. In the cart it goes!

Now we move to the current morning. Wednesday, not that it matters. This household was not tack sharp this morning, following a full-moon sleepless night. One might assume I’d be making a full pot of coffee to get things restarted. But no, for reasons I cannot explain, I wanted instant. Perhaps I didn’t want to wait for the preparations and dripping to conclude? I don’t know, we’d need a study to know the darkest answer to this query.

But upon retrieving the new box of Starbucks instant that I had procured on this most-recent shopping extravaganza, I actually read the label: Starbucks Via Instant CAFÉ MOCHA!

It’s fancy hot chocolate!

The ingredients list shows, far down the list, after dried milk, sugar, caribou hoof and unicorn dander, coffee. What I’ve purchased is simply an overly-froufrou instant chocolate milk.

Frustration soon opened the door to curiosity. I have in fact been known to order a café mocha from a Starbucks barista. Sometimes I’m in that mood and I like the bev, so I didn’t open the window preparatory to a hasty jump, but proceeded instead to craft this new-found treat.

From the start, disaster loomed. I found the slit in the foilette package where I was instructed to tear. It tore easily — and with vigor. Such vigor in fact that a tiny powder explosion greeted my face. Fortunately, I was beside my sink, so that debacle was easily put at bay.

Being still un-awake, I failed to use the requisite amount of intelligence and dumped the entire packet into a mug. Dumped. I didn’t pour, I didn’t use any kind of gentle maneuvering whatsoever. I dumped.

Another cloud of dust to the face.

Another damp paper towel.

Another oath quietly uttered.

Okay now, the worst was over. I just needed to add the water.

To the fridge I went where cold, filtered water was on offer. The water slowly filled the mug while the magical Starbuckian recipe floated on top. The powder created a dense life raft atop, sealing off the top of the mug like a sarcophagus. Mr. Science could do an entire episode on the physics and hydrodynamics at play, but I was not amused. It was far too early for any kind of heavy thinking here.

For you see, I hadn’t yet HAD MY COFFEE!

I fetched a spoon and began to stir. Now, I’m no genius by far, but I have stirred a few things in my life. I’ve even used a whisk and a mandolin (that’s another story). And I’m a former trombonist. So while no expert, I am an experienced stirrer.

However, my experience in that area was not evident as I tried to incorporate the powders into the water. Or vice-versa. I stirred. I folded. I swished. I sloshed. I cursed.

After many minutes, and several escaped blobs of wet powder had created dark hut-looking blobs on the counter, I decided that some time in the microwave would get things mixed up.

My normal procedure for Starbucks instant calls for two minutes and thirty seconds of zapping in the ‘wave. So those numerals were touched into the machine and the start button was pressed.

I did some other morning chore while the machine did its business. When it became silent, I opened the door.

I am used to being greeted with steam and some evidence of hotness coming from within. But on this occasion, it appeared that nothing had happened.

I retrieved the cup and found it to be slightly warm. Not hot. And the mix certainly had not become a drinkable potion.

So I put the cup back in and beeped it for another thirty seconds. And another. And yet more. After some weeks a steamy condition existed and I was able to move forward. Or so I thought.

Back to the stirring. And cajoling. And begging. And mixing. And agitating.

Improvements were made in the consistency of the drink, but alas, the powder stuck like mortar to the sides of the cup, the spoon and angrily clung to the bottom like an Exxon sludge.

Evening was approaching so it was long past time to sit down and take a sip.


I cannot describe it as either bad coffee nor bad hot chocolate. It’s just awful. I’ve not personally tasted acrid chemicals, paint strippers or atomic waste since I believe such testing is better left to folks with the proper apparel and training.

But now, I believe I have.


Now, how to get this black cocoa plaster out of my mustache.

I need a drink.

Mr. Grossa: a shop, and life, teacher

Today I am thinking of one of my teachers. Jim Grossa was my high school shop teacher. I don’t know what brought him to mind today in particular, but he left some marks on my squishy and aimless 14-year-old-noggin that are with me to this day.

Mr. Grossa had a degree in Industrial Arts and in my general shop class taught woodworking and metalworking. I of course took the class because I was interested in woodworking. Though I ended up enjoying the metalworking as well, very much to my surprise. For a while I thought a career operating a spot welder would be just the ticket!

The This Old House TV show had just started, but our 30-foot TV aerial rarely was able to pull it in. I had seen a couple of episodes in other people’s houses and was fascinated to see “how” woodworking was done.

The only real exposure I had to seeing woodworking done was the occasional Shopsmith demonstration held at the local mall.

The opportunity to get into an actual woodshop and learn how to make things with wood was really exciting. And in the tiny, poor rural school in Gobles, Michigan, we actually had an excellent shop with good tools.

And a great teacher in Mr. Grossa.

Years temper the memories and my recollection may not be 100%. But I remember the lessons that have stuck with me all of the intervening years.

I remember on the first day of class, comprised almost totally of boys, rowdiness was the order of the day. Grossa (for some reason we rarely used the title Mister – he was just “Grossa”) shouted “Settle down!” over the commotion. He was a tall, thin man, probably not a whole lot older than us, with what would later be known as a Magnum P.I. mustache. The girls thought him handsome and often would stop to watch him walk away down the halls.

He went on to say that he knew some were in the class for an “easy-A” and others were there because they wanted to learn something. “Those of you who want to coast can do that, but be quiet and stay out of the way so those who want to learn can learn and so you don’t get hurt.”

I was in the “I want to learn something” camp.

One of our first lessons, before we were ever turned loose in the shop, was on how to measure.

It may sound way too fundamental, but it’s really important, and Grossa built upon this throughout the semester. But it’s where I had a real problem. Okay, I continue to have a real problem. To this day I have a devil of a time reading a ruler or tape measure.

I pretty easily understood that inches were broken down into quarters, eighths, sixteenths, thirty-seconds and so on. I got that. But seeing and counting those tick marks is a real challenge for me. I have to close one eye, squint with the other, and somehow point to and count the ticks to get a measurement. It sometimes helps if I lift my right foot off the ground and hum the theme to Gilligan’s Island.

Working in my own shop as an adult, I can take my time, do it three, four or eighteen times. But in class, under pressure, I sweated.

My completed checkerboard from shop class.

We had prescribed objects and projects that we had to make. One was a checkerboard. I remember Grossa showing us a sample of what we were going to make and I was terrified. I couldn’t imagine how even to start such a project and was afraid I’d flounder and fail.

But I likewise remember as the lightbulbs began to light up when he showed us the process. It all made sense!

One of the things Grossa taught me on that project was the value of a plan. To this day when I plan a project, it’s sketchy at best. I once took a drawing class at D’Art Center in Norfolk, VA to try to learn a thing or two so I could make better drawings for myself. I had fun and a helpful teacher, but it didn’t stick. My plans continue to be things only I can understand.

At any rate, Grossa said that any project we might want to tackle came down to a plan. Whether it was someone else’s plan or one of our own, the largest, most complex of projects came down to one cut at a time. True with woodworking or any other project or task in life.

Break it down he said, on paper and in your head, into steps small enough to understand and complete. You don’t build the entire project, you build it piece-by-piece.

At my age, that really was profound. And prior to woodshop someone could have used those same words to describe a process, but because it was something I was interested in, and making things with wood was something I truly wanted to master, it made sense, made an impression. It was a lesson made practical.

Having watched several of those Shopsmith demos in the mall, I was the most fascinated by the lathe. I have never been interested in carving, but turning something on the lathe is magical.

My completed bowl from shop class.

There wasn’t time in the class to get very good at the lathe, but I did learn the basics of how the machine worked, how to mount my work (this was before four-jawed chucks came to the world of woodworking – greatly simplifying and speeding up the process of turning wood). I learned about the major lathe chisels and types of cuts.

My lathe was positioned such that I looked out a large west-facing window. I had a view of the woods beyond and truly enjoyed spinning poor dead tree pieces to dust. I ended up making a really awful bowl.

Part of the problem was that my choice of wood was bad. It had lots of open end-grain so no matter what I did, I couldn’t get it smooth. While I wasn’t proud of the project, like I was the chessboard, I cherished it.

The final project for woodshop was a project of our choice. We had to submit the idea and a sketch and get approval from Grossa before beginning work.

Students submitted proposals for toolboxes, bird feeders and bird houses, cutting boards – the types of beginner projects you’d expect.

This is sort of what the loop would have looked like, hanging from a central post.

But my idea was wildly different. I had seen a towel rack that I wanted to make in a store. This rack was intended to hold hand towels in a bathroom. It had a central square post of about 1-1/2” square. On each of the four sides there was a smooth circle with an “arm” that was let into the main post. Hard to imagine what I’m talking about, eh? Well, it is hard to describe. And I drew crude drawings on paper and on the chalkboard to try and explain what the “thing” I wanted to make was.

Grossa was clearly lost – he didn’t understand what I wanted to build. But everything I described sounded like too challenging a project for my skill level. I was insistent that I wanted to make it and Grossa was honest with me: he didn’t fully understand it, he wouldn’t have enough time to really help me refine it; and I needed to “complete” my project in order to complete the class and be graded.

But bit-by-bit, the project evolved. He let me use some really excellent cherry wood from the inventory. Every time I work with cherry, I think of that towel rack. Cherry is beautiful wood, changes color over time and is great to work with.

Grossa regularly consulted with me. And as he’d taught, I had broken the project down into steps. And while he didn’t understand what I saw in my head, he could understand each of my small steps and thus help me to do them.

My project required four mortices to be cut into that main post. A mortice is a fairly advanced cut and, except for identifying it, was not covered in the class. But Grossa spent time with me to show me how to attach morticing chisels to the drill press, how to mark out the cuts, make and refine them with hand chisels.

It was a lot of hard work but in the end my mortices were actually pretty good.

The central post needed some kind of legs to hold it upright. We came up with simple legs with two 45-degree angles cut on them. One angle would sit against the post, the other against the floor. For the sake of time, Grossa suggested I screw them to the post, create counter-sinks and make my own plugs to fill the counter-sinks.

What was he thinking? Heck, what was he saying?! Countersink? Plugs? But he showed me each new process, often doing one and then setting me free to do the rest.

I suppose the fact that he’d show or tell me something and then “leave me to it” was a necessity of helping as many students as possible. But at the time I saw it as his confidence in me. He didn’t need to stand over me. He believed I could do a process, so he could move on to someone else. As a shy kid lacking in anything that looked like confidence, that meant a lot to me.

I’m sure my parents were sick and tired of my regular praise of Mr. Grossa and all of things he knew!

The next challenge was to make the rings that would actually hold the towels. It required a single piece of wood with a round outside, a hole cut from the center and a “tail” that would fit into the mortice cut in the main post.

Again, a lot of sophisticated cuts to make. And again, Grossa helped me with each step. I probably used every tool in the shop to get those things cut. And it took forever. I got right down to the wire and never did the proper finishing. But Grossa encouraged me to finish – do what was required for the class. I could make it prettier on my own at home – he said he was confident I had learned enough to continue.

His confidence in me meant so much! He knew it was important to me and he just assumed I’d keep going on my own, during the summer and in years to come. It wasn’t just about him doing his job for a semester – he was coaching and encouraging me to use and develop a skill and hobby for the rest of my life. He surely was a great success with that.

I completed the project, though it wasn’t finished. I sheepishly took it home on the school bus at the end of the semester. I was embarrassed by it, but proud at the same time. I knew that people looked at that weird contraption and tried to say nice things, or teased me or whatever they would do. But when I looked at it I was proud of what I’d learned.

I had learned how to measure something, rough out raw stock, cut multiple items to the same dimensions, cut mortices, use the jigsaw, tablesaw, sanders, drill press, morticing chisels, hand chisels. So many skills and tools were now real world experiences for me – not dreams or magazine articles. A few months before it had all been unknown and mysterious. But Grossa led me to pursue my passion, and learn things without knowing I was learning them!

I made a lot of mistakes on that towel rack. I got frustrated. Pieces had to be discarded. I had to stop and start. I used some fancy language. But this is where Gross taught me perhaps the most-important thing. I have used this lesson throughout my life for so many things – most of which have nothing to do with woodworking.

When I’d make a mistake and get frustrated he’d tell me that it wasn’t a failure, it was a prototype. A failure was just a lesson, evidence of something you learned. You’d try again, taking what you’d learned from the “prototype”, make changes, maybe make more “prototypes”, but get better each time.

I still got frustrated and upset over my mistakes, but I quickly saw how true his words were! I tried to look at what went wrong, figure out why it went wrong and what I could do to start again. He was always so calm, friendly and positive. He didn’t hover or mother in any way, but I knew he supported me and had confidence in me…which helped me to build a little bit in myself.

Over the years I’ve taken classes and gone to specialty schools for a variety of woodworking skills. I’ve learned about cabinetmaking, woodturning, hand-cut joints, router techniques, finishing. And I’ve built out my own workshop and made hundreds of projects with wood. Without the skills and confidence gained from Mr. Grossa, there is no doubt: I wouldn’t have taken even the first step.

I always want to make nicer projects, more complicated work, items with fewer flaws and errors. But I enjoy the process, I enjoy what I learn from each project. And I have used the lessons and example of Mr. Grossa, my shop teacher, who taught me so much more than measure twice, cut once.


Some examples of the many things I’ve made with wood, thanks to a start from Mr. Grossa. No pictures of prototypes here, just evidence of lessons-learned.

The corner table

The sounds of the city are still here, but the straight-down steady rainfall muted, cleanses them. The buses, the horns, the squealing brakes less annoying through the hum of water hitting the sidewalk, the trash bins, the newsstand, the coffee shop canopy.

Rain now, but stormy weather is predicted to start soon and continue through the night. The thunder will come and as this Saturday morning moves to nighttime, street life will quiet its concert and even the commotion of the city will subside behind the weather.

I’m in my customary spot for a Saturday morning. Hah, but the day doesn’t matter. Since I’ve retired you may find me here any morning. Or afternoon or evening. Before I left my job counseling high school kids for college, this corner table and eclectic, hard and uncomfortable chair, was my vantage point on Saturdays. Now I can, and do, park myself here any time I wish.

I like this place, the owners, Meg and Bea. I like the coffee, the people, the atmosphere. It all agrees with me. And I like to people-watch. I’d say most of the people here are regulars, but Meg and Bea see a lot of new and passerby custom.

Meg and Bea are masters at instantly remembering patrons names. They just as quickly learn their usual orders. I’ve picked up a few names from my corner eavesdropping post. But even without names, I observe, craft make-believe life stories for those passing through. Stories based on the facts I overhear, mixed with my own whimsy.

My interest is piqued when former students come through M&B’s Bean House doors. In many ways my career was filled with the frustration of unfinished business. Around the 10th grade I’d start to get to know students and two years later they’d be on their way. They’d follow or not a plan and path that we’d put together. But more often than not I felt like a parent, but not quite so, sending a young adult into the world, without knowing how it turned out. Did they get that degree in electrical engineering and find a job in San Francisco? Did trade school and apprenticeship work out and lead to a plumbing business of their own? Did they marry, have kids? Did they leave the city? I rarely know.

But here, when I see a former student, even if I don’t remember their name or particulars, the loop is closed. I hear their idle conversation, their coffee order and I get some closure. They’ve made it this far at least. They’re succeeding, or trying.

Sometimes one of us will strike up conversation and I get the real details. We catch up on the intervening years. I’m proud.

It’s coming up on noon and my first cup of coffee has been nursed away. Road traffic is settling down and more people are making their way on foot. The bell over the door is dinging more frequently as folks take the impulse to warm up and dry off inside.

I think I hear the first distant thunder.

Raj catches my eye from behind the counter, mimes pouring coffee. I nod. He brings the pot out front and refills my cup, says he’s got a break coming and will be right back.

Raj is a kid from the neighborhood and has been working here a couple of years. He started in high school and now I guess he’s about 20. He has moved out of his parents and with a roommate rents a place a few blocks off this street. We talk often about his plans for the future.

“Hey, Mister-A, nice day out there, huh?” Raj jokes while pulling out his chair on the other side of my corner table.

“I actually like rainy and stormy weather. As long as I don’t have to be out in it, ha, ha.”

Raj grins and looks outside, takes a draw on his chai.

“I went by the Dev Studio last night.” Raj says, still looking out the window.

“And?” I ask.

“It’s, you know, it’s a lot to learn. The people there are so smart.”

“Did you talk to someone about the financing or classes?” I ask.

“Yes, they gave me a tour and I saw some classes. It’s very intense. They tell me I can do it, but I don’t know. They want my money after all.” Raj says, ever doubting himself, lacking confidence.

“That’s true.” I say. “They’re wanting to make a profit. But remember, we did some research, read stories in the paper and checked reviews online. Students say good things – the training is good and they get jobs. Reputable. I think we can say they’re reputable. The rest would be you – your study.”

“Yeah. Yeah. It’s a lot of money.” Raj says.

“It is. But it’s less than a college degree and for web design, it looks like having specific skills for a job is what gets you in the door. And without that foot in the door, you won’t be able to do what you want.” I try to encourage him.

I want to tell him what to do. It’s the urge I always had to suppress. My job, when I was working, was to, if not make a decision their idea alone, help them walk up to and shake hands with it on their own. So often I think I see the obvious way ahead for a student, but for it to be a success, it has to come from them.

“I think I’m going to sign up for the session-after-next. I’ll sign up. I’ll be in the class. But this will give me a couple of months to get my mind behind it.” He says.

I think he should start right away. I think the very next session starts in a week. But this is progress, so I leave it.

“That’s great, Raj! Do it – you’re moving forward!” I say with real enthusiasm. I raise my cup in toast. His smile is bigger now.

A customer has come in and has asked Raj about an order of ground beans. Raj says goodbye and returns to the counter.

There are usually more people about with their dogs. Especially on a Saturday. Stretching for the humans and the pups. The weather discourages that this day. Never having had a dog I wonder about all of those dogs and their “business.” Do they hold it for good weather or must their owners rush out into the flood and beg and cajole until the dog has relieved itself beside a muddied puddle? I enjoy the dogs, miss them today, but glad they’re not my worry.

The thunder is bigger now. I think thunder is made by lightning, I’m not sure of this. But I see no sparks in the sky. Dark clouds have given the sense that the clock is more advanced than it is. More thunder rattles dishes behind the counter, but no flashes. The intensity of rain has let up…still coming down, a little bit of wind, but not so much water.

Meg and Bea keep the place pretty simple and basic to coffee, tea and some baked things. They do sell beans, mugs, artwork. Bea said they don’t make any money on those other things, but they want to support local artists and give folks something to keep them busy if they’re waiting in line or for their order.

I fear the only time the artwork, and there are some very interesting paintings on display now, get no viewing except when the place is busy. And then the views are harried and impatient. When it’s slow I appreciate them. I should buy something.

It’s starting to feel a little hot in here. Close. The place has filled up. I get up and prop open the door. The substantial awning, normally offering shade to those who use the few sidewalk tables, keeps the rain from menacing us inside.

The cool rush of air is welcome.

As I kick into place the stone used to prop open the door I feel a tiny bit the proprietor. Several appreciative looks angle in my direction.

I re-take my seat, consider another cup of coffee.

The seat is uncomfortable. I wiggle around often to give my slight and bony frame fresh points to rest upon. Very few furnishings in here match. Some chairs are quite comfortable, but they aren’t at my table. I’ll take it upon myself to open a door, but don’t feel the authority to mess with the décor.

I will straighten a piece of artwork, however. I’ve been known to rearrange the mugs display after someone has made a purchase. Perhaps I’m too much busy-body for my friends Meg and Bea.

Two sweetheart teens come in now. They’re holding hands and talking to each other. At the same time. They stand just inside the door and shake like dogs to get the water off. I’ve not seen them before.

They study the chalkboard wall. They point, talk, shake their heads. Shortly, consensus reached, they head over to make their order: two mochas and they’ll share a peanut butter cookie.

I’ve suggested to Meg and Bea on several occasions that they need live music. Strings, maybe.

In the back there’s a corner that would work. They’d lose two tables, but a small platform could be put in.

Room for a guitarist or two. Or maybe someone playing keyboard.

The piped-in music is fine. It varies from okay to good. But live music would be a draw. There are many music students around who would crave the exposure.

Meg suggests the idea could work, but can they afford it: the lost tables and the fee?

Bea thinks perhaps they don’t need to pay, but just offer a tip jar.

I bite my tongue. Artists should be appreciated and respected. Even with a small stipend.

In moments they come to the same idea. I’m pleased.

But they’re not yet convinced. They’d have to audition people. Come up with rules for the style of music that would suit. And they don’t want it to prevent conversation in the shop. It can’t be too loud.

For not the first time, the idea has been discussed, but tabled. I hold out hope.

It’s become late afternoon and the rain has all but stopped. The clouds continue to be angry and thunder booms.

I watch through the front window to see a squirrel scamper from the leaves of a tree to snatch some dropped morsel of food. He quickly inspects what looks like popcorn in his long-clawed fingers before darting back to the tree and his home.

Taking advantage of the lull, in persons and rain, I stand, place my cup and plate in the collection area, give a goodbye nod to those working behind the counter, and take myself home.