The Purgatory of Unadorned Coffee

On my way to and from the Seminary, I would pass my friendly neighborhood Kwik Trip at least twice a day. After a few months of that, I got so conditioned to the routine (and to the allure of glorious Kwik Trip) that I just had to turn my car into the parking lot at least one of those times, not necessarily because I wanted anything, but because muscle memory would whisper “this is what we do, Evan.” I couldn’t argue with logic that sound. It was indeed what “we” did, Evan, and if I was going to pull into the parking lot, I might as well park; and if I was going to park, then I might as well get a coffee. It was only right.

Then muscle memory would take over again: I’d snag a 24 oz. cup from the nearest slot, fill it about a third of the way with hot chocolate, dilute that with roughly fourteen ounces of Hazelnut Dream™ coffee (the lightest roast, of course), and drop in a healthy two-second pour of vanilla creamer. Then — oh, then — after making sure no one was watching, I’d cap it all off with a hefty swirl of Kwik Trip’s rib-stickin’ whipped cream which, mind you, is arguably frosting. This I have done no less than seven hundred times in the last three years, and because Kwik Trips only have two layouts, muscle memory could sustain me in just about any corner of the great state of Wisconsin where the blessed store can be found.

When the pandemic landed us all in lockdown last March, my commute back and forth from work didn’t stop, meaning that I was still passing Kwik Trip twice a day, five days a week; only now, customers couldn’t get their own coffee anymore. They had to verbalize their order to an employee, usually in front of a long line of people who had never performed my particular dance with diabetes before, and who certainly wouldn’t be impressed with my individuality when they too were running late for work that morning. I also didn’t trust anyone else to get it right — still don’t — and so I just stopped going to Kwik Trip for a good long while. I’d make coffee at home, but even with the same ingredients going into the cup, it just wasn’t the same. The caffeine had locked me in, but it was the deceptively high doses of sugar that had really been sweeping me off my feet.

If you remember the details of last week’s post, I did promise that I would be drinking all my coffee black for the next six months. I’m one week into this adventure and my word has been kept; but for the sake of drama, I’m going to go ahead and describe the experience so far as “purgatorial.”

I can’t really say it’s been hellish. The one or two cups of black coffee I get each day have been holding the hardcore caffeine withdrawal at bay so far; so no headaches, no moodiness that I couldn’t blame on something else, no terrifying audiovisual hallucinations of demons dancing over my bed at night. Drinking it black has also allowed me to actually appreciate the unique flavors and subtleties of different roasts that would have been swallowed up in sweetness before. On the practical side, I’ve basically cut my sugar intake in half, and I’m projected to save upwards of $366 over the next six months by not stopping at Kwik Trip for “the usual” every day. So, really, it’s been pretty practical and pretty painless.

But it’s also been pretty joyless.

According to the timeless classic “Freshwater Algae of North America: Ecology and Classification,” there are “tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of species” of freshwater algae globally (it’s a page-turner for sure, but luckily that little morsel of knowledge was on page one). Now, surely there’s some hair-splitting going on there — some hot-hot-hot debate over what really constitutes a whole separate species of algae — but there is no doubt a vast variety of color and character amongst our slimy waterbound friends; and it stands to reason that each type of algae would give a unique flavor profile to whatever pond it was floating on. Some algae might give the water a bold taste and a strong nose. Some algae would maybe supplement their own flavor by absorbing the essence of other local aquatic flora. Some algae just might even give the water the faintest hint of sweetness. But in the end, without cream and sugar, it’s just murky pond water, and that’s where I’m at with black coffee.

Don’t get me wrong; the pros still outweigh the cons by a hundred imperial pounds or so, but all the quiet satisfaction of enjoying a nice cup of coffee has been leeched out of my life. When I pass Kwik Trip on my way home, muscle memory still wants to backseat drive for me, but there’s no point in shelling out even two dollars for 24 oz. of hot pond water. If Hannah asks if I want to get coffee on the way home from church, I know that it’s a very thoughtful investment in our relationship, but it’s also a very kind invitation for me to brood over a cup of hot pond water. Every morning, I find that someone has brewed a piping hot pot of pond water in our Cuisinart™, and I ease my way through a mug just to make the day go a little smoother. As it turns out, a spoonful of sugar (or three or four) really does help the medicine go down, but now it’s all medicine.

So, at any rate, I call it “purgatory” because it’s no great punishment, but it’s no reward either. It would be in very poor taste to use the word “purge” when talking about dieting, but I call it “purgatory” because it’s a period of refinement, a time to clear the excess sugar from my diet. And, for all you Reformation Era history buffs out there, I call it “purgatory” because only an indulgence (in sweetened coffee) would get me out of it; I’m sorry for that one. But anyway, I’m Lutheran; what do I know about purgatory?

All those hysterics aside, week one felt hopeful.

I hadn’t stepped on a scale in a few months, but when I did I was happy to find out that I was sitting at 215 pounds. I really thought it was going to be somewhere between 220 and 230, so that was a nice surprise; still a surprise though, because I feel heavier than 215, but that’s the difference between being overweight and being out of shape. I’m both — I’m definitely both — but I’m less of one than I previously thought, I guess. Of the two, losing weight is definitely easier, but that’s a rant for another day.

As for exercise, I started the way I always do: with running. Running is always hard to get back into and only fun once I’ve been at it for a couple months. Even then, “fun” is a strange word for it, but there’s no use bickering with myself over the right adjective while running is still decidedly un-fun. For me though, it seems to be the best ratio of time-invested to calories-burned, and so until the weather stops agreeing with my fingertips, I’ll have to keep at it. My gym membership unfreezes at the end of the month, so at that point I’ll get to throw some weights into the rotation. For now, it’s just running and pushups.

Lastly, even though coffee’s been spoiled for me at the moment, the sharp drop in sugar has left me feeling lighter, more alert, and more motivated to get up and do something. Overall I would say I feel like the energy I have now is more authentic. I feel more “fueled” than “propped-up.” In addition, I’ve got a much better mental grasp on my calorie intake, now that my consistent failure to count my “coffee calories” is actually backed up by the fact that I’m not having more than 5 calories of hot pond water a day.

At the time of writing, Labor Day is tomorrow. It’s looking like a great day to hop on the bike. It’s looking like a great day to do just about anything, really. Maybe I’ll find a nearby pond, somewhere with algae.

Have a great Labor Day, everyone.

Overthinking is better than underthinking, but if it leads you to start a blog for all the mental overflow, it’s time to rethink things.