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Got Rituals?

Whenever I tell people that I have never once consumed a bottle of beer in my entire life, I am met with shock and incredulity. It seems no one can fathom that I have never, ever pushed down a pint, funneled from a keg or even chased a shot of tequila with a Budweiser or a Corona or a Stella Artois. But I haven’t. I grew up in a household that was voluntarily void of alcohol and spirits (unless you include Maneschewitz, but I don’t) and I simply never developed a taste for beer. In fact, I rather loathe it. I also have a particular disdain for the taste of beer on anyone else. Which, as a teenager growing up in a suburb rife with raucous football parties, made for difficulties.

My parents were more the type that drank coffee, at least my mother was. Every morning she would put up a big pot and when it was brewed, she would pour herself a cup in her favorite Corning Ware mug. But it was the pot that she brewed her coffee in that captivated me. It too was of the Corning Ware brand, but this pot had three blue periwinkle flowers centered on the lower half of the front of the pot, and for some reason, I thought they were beautiful and magical and fascinating. It was my favorite thing in our kitchen.

My mother drank her coffee black. Back then, she smoked cigarettes and often her friends from the neighborhood would sit in our orange vinyl breakfast nook and talk. Or rather they would gossip. They would chat about who had recently bought a new car or a fur coat or who was taking a vacation or a mistress or some new pill that had just come on the market. At eight years old, I was fascinated with my mother’s girlfriends: to me, they were magnificently glamorous with their brightly painted nails and tightly pulled faces and billowing wisps of smoke, and I would sit in the kitchen, off by myself, and pretend I wasn’t listening when in fact I wasn’t missing a word.

One day, one of my mother’s friends, Daphne, the brassy and most confident woman in the group, invited me to join them in the breakfast nook. I was surprised by this overture and suddenly shy. But the women all urged me over and made a place for me at the table. Then they did the unthinkable: they poured me a cup of coffee. My mother objected, but the ladies insisted and compromised by filling the mug to the tippy top with milk. I hesitated for a moment before I took a sip, and as my mouth approached the now lukewarm liquid, I inhaled the pungent aroma and fantasized that I had a cigarette languidly hanging out of a fabulously manicured hand and a cute pair of black cat glasses perched on my nose. The minute I tasted the coffee I knew I was fooling myself, I knew even before I sipped it that I wouldn’t like the bitter, acidy taste. I grimaced and swallowed and the worst possible thing happened: the ladies all laughed. “Oh she doesn’t like it,” Daphne declared. “Oh give her some time!” my mother retorted. “Who likes coffee when they’re eight years old?”

It took a long time for me to develop a taste for coffee. Back in college, my friend Linda’s Spanish boyfriend Jorge was convinced that anyone that didn’t drink espresso was uncivilized, and desperate to impress him, Linda and I joined him in a little café to become acquainted with this heady nectar. We both had teeny tiny cups perched in front of us; and at that moment I was convinced that this was tangible evidence of our maturity. I was also optimistic and convinced that what looked like nothing more than two tablespoons of liquid couldn’t possibly distress me too much. But alas, even after adding four packets of sugar, I was incapacitated. The two sips ended up looking like two liters and it took me two hours to finish it off.

I finally fell in love with coffee when I fell in love with Oscar. Oscar was British and beautiful and taught me two things: how to smoke and how to drink coffee. He liked his coffee light and sweet; initially I found it palatable but then began to crave it, and him, more and more. My love affair with coffee AND with love flourished in earnest.

These days I still put sugar in my coffee, but now I prefer it over ice. My mornings mostly start the same way, with a iced grande skim latte and an ultra-light cigarette, and as I slip on my black cat-like glasses I wonder how much I have been shaped by my family and my friends and my partners and their tastes. I think our lives are made up of these bits and pieces of our shared experiences and the rituals and habits we seek and feed not only signal our affiliations, they also help us define who we are, both to ourselves and to each other.

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PUBLISHED ON Dec.02.2007 BY debbie millman
Natalie’s comment is:

This is so lovely Debbie! I have to say that I'm a creature of ritual as well, and more often than not it's my mother's rituals that I discover I've adopted. Even when I protest and say I'm nothing like her, it still makes me feel warm inside when I am having my first morning cigarette or putting a carefully folded hand towel by the basin in the bathroom for guests!

On Dec.02.2007 at 05:54 PM
Stefan G. Bucher’s comment is:

Funny how that works, isn't it? I was introduced to a hideous concoction called "Karo Kinderkaffee" at a birthday party when I was around six years old. Though similar to "Kindertotenlieder" in sound, Kinderkaffee was just decaffeinated coffee, I think. But boy, it sure tasted like Mahler. I've never tried coffee again, except in the form of Frappucinos, where the coffee serves as nothing more than a spunky sidekick to all that delicious, delicious sugar.

By the way, I've never had more than a sip of beer, either. The following exchange happens on ever single first date I go on: "Really? You don't drink beer?" No. "But you're German!" I know. That's why they asked me to leave. [rimshot] But that's neither here nor there.

Thank you for the lovely post, Debbie.

On Dec.02.2007 at 11:53 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

Morning rituals:

After the candle procession to my desk, and the altar boys leave, I turn on my supremely old Mac computer to the trinity of central portraits of Saul Bass, Pablo Picasso and Groucho Marx while reciting from the Latin AIGA handbook.

The gold robes are removed (I am still in my pajamas.) and I sit at my desk before the Machine. The loud music starts: Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries".

Coffee with milk, sugar and a goodly splash of Absinthe arrives in an official Starbucks purple aluminum non-spillable coffee container and work begins promptly at 9:00. Well, 9:28 to be exact.

I read my email:

1.) Another logo is needed by an old associate in my former hometown of New Orleans (now called Atlantis by locals) needed very very very very soon: A drunken pelican for a restaurant in Mandelville, Louisiana (I order another coffee and more Absinthe.) Must get in the mood.

2.) A brief letter to my rep before her yoga class: Can we get paid that job from July? Surely they haven't lost my address again?

3.) I talk to each pencil before commencing to draw. It helps them, I think to know that I must "bring home the bacon" before Friday.

4.) I pet my cat.

On Dec.03.2007 at 09:38 AM
David E.’s comment is:

...but this pot had three blue periwinkle flowers centered on the lower half of the front of the pot

How funny...I didn't even have to click on the link to know what you were talking about. I don't know if my family had the coffee pot (we might have), but we had some stuff with that motif – serving dishes, maybe?

On Dec.03.2007 at 12:20 PM
Jw’s comment is:

Years ago one of my friends achieved a life goal: to prefer black coffee. He slowly weaned himself off the sugar, then the milk, and now likes it straight up.

I thought this odd at the time, but I haven't put sugar in my coffee since 2005, and I find myself wanting to work my way off of the cream now, too. That might take a while, I think.

On Dec.03.2007 at 01:00 PM
KC’s comment is:

What a great post! I think as artists we are all creatures of habit. From the way we compose our work to our morning/nightly rituals. I feel safe and comfortable with my regimen. I guess in an unpredictable world, these habitual pleasures are grounding. Thanks for a great read.

On Dec.03.2007 at 01:24 PM
Kit’s comment is:

I hate beer and I haven't had one in over ten years, but I'm hopelessly addicted to double espressos. Morning is unthinkable without.

Thank you for a wonderful, wonderful post!

On Dec.03.2007 at 01:51 PM
Kit’s comment is:

I hate beer and I haven't had one in over ten years, but I'm hopelessly addicted to double espressos. Morning is unthinkable without.

Thank you for a wonderful, wonderful post!

On Dec.03.2007 at 01:51 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

I share your distaste for beer, although it wasn't always so. I spent my later teenage years drinking quite a lot of beer, and now the labels of my brands Pilsner ("Pil"), Molson Export ("Ex"; with the ship that looks like an armadillo, and Calgary ("Cal"; the buffalo head logo of which I once saw perfectly represented in a patch of ceiling mold), cause such nostalgia that I might, *might* actually drink one if it were put down in front of me.

But it's interesting how adulthood is defined by these ritualistic ingestations. Coffee, beer, tea, scotch, cigarettes ... and the further they get from the sweet, easy flavours the more grown up they are perceived to be. Perhaps the ultimate adult ritual would be the daily imbibing of absinthe.

I never made it that far. Despite the occasional cigarette (which I actually hate the taste of), I take none of the above. My tastes are juvenile: firmly devoted to sugar. I drink Coke and hot chocolate, sweet fruit-flavoured teas, sweet wines, and if they weren't twice as toxic as tobacco, I'd smoke clove cigarettes. I'm such a baby.

On Dec.03.2007 at 02:02 PM
bobestes’s comment is:

I love beer. I want to drink it, brew it, you name it.

On Dec.03.2007 at 05:10 PM
53feet’s comment is:

3 things:

1 i've never had beer from a can. never ever, but i love beer with all of my body. more specifically i love trappist ales.

2 growing up in the south requires most kids to attend many a sunday afternoon lunches. at these lunches you eat on nice china at big tables and you keep your elbows in, sit up straight, and try to make as little noise as possible with the silverware. if you succeed in all that you get coffee milk with your dessert. coffee milk is mostly milk with a little coffee, i loved it. i still drink it with dessert.

3 the ritual i can't live without is meeting my friend, designer, and fellow educator for our weekly burrito at panchero's.

On Dec.03.2007 at 07:19 PM
Inaudible Nonsense’s comment is:

I'm pretty sure that I've rid myself of consistent rituals. At least daily rituals.

Of the ones that I have left. Most of my rituals are around eating out. I have a beverage fetish -- so I always go to the beverage section of the menu first and see what they have. If its something interesting like Grape Soda -- my mind is made up and I'll have a Grilled Cheese with Tomato. Other beverages have other obvious pairings. Lately, though, I've just been having water. So again, there goes that ritual.

I also refuse to order before everyone else has ordered, so that I don't order the same thing as anyone else. I hate being a copycat. But last weekend I ate out for the first time in months, and ordered the same thing as my meal partner. It was freeing, so again, another ritual is gone.

I don't know what this says about me right now. Where I'm at that I have no more rituals, but slowly I've been getting rid of them.

I connect rituals with my family. And know that my parents ate out one night a week when they were first married and always ate at McDonald's. And cleaned the house on Friday nights, so they'd wake up to a clean house on Saturdays.

So perhaps this is my late way of rebelling from all those obsessive patterns of my family.

Really lovely post, though.

On Dec.03.2007 at 08:55 PM
ed mckim’s comment is:

ironically, my morning can't start till i've had a beer.


on a slightly more serious note, i had never liked coffee until earlier this fall. i can't put my finger on exactly when it happened, but i do think it might have been sparked when me and my friend bethany would go and get coffee together when ever we saw each other.

but it's funny to me that i rarely drank coffee when i was killing myself in school, and once i had a lot of time on my hands, i have been drinking coffee more and more often.

On Dec.03.2007 at 09:30 PM
Jim’s comment is:

I also fell in love with coffee while falling in love. (and also falling in love with Louisiana, my home at the time--coffee shops everywhere before Starbucks was a franchise.)

Developed a taste for very dark beer while in grad school trying to keep up with my professors.

My family drank the weakest coffee imaginable (and still does). and they never had alcohol in the house.

But I do like to transfer my coffee to a thermos after it's brewed, just like my grandmother did. I think she didn't want to waste electricity by leaving the pot plugged in.

(and by the way Debbie, that's not really beer they drink at raucous suburban football parties, just a weak imitation.)

On Dec.04.2007 at 02:06 AM
Christina W’s comment is:

I won't drink coffee in the morning (a caffeine withdrawal headache after one week put a cap on that pretty quickly) but I will enjoy a cup late at night, preferably out at a truck stop diner - black of course. I blame it on my first ex-boyfriend. When I was growing up the local gas station/coffee shop was the only place open late on a week night, besides the bar I guess.

My first coffee experience that I remember was similar to Debbie's but somewhat more "country" - I was with a friend on an overnight trail ride, maybe twelve years old, and handed a cup of "cowboy coffee" - basically made by boiling a double handful of coffee grounds in a tin pot over the fire. You didn't want those old boys in hats to laugh at you so we slowly sucked them down. I've always been able to sleep after a late night cup of coffee but I'm sure Julie was up allll night!

I find with freelancing I've developed rituals to keep my day on track, whereas when I was working in an office they were more focused on ways to take a break or get off track for a while.

On Dec.04.2007 at 09:48 AM
JTPuck’s comment is:

Great memory, Debbie. I can remember my mom brewing her pot in a Mr.Coffee that was hung underneath a cabinet next to the kitchen window. She always took her first sip with her eyes closed, a sense of wishful optimism for the day, and I wanted to have that feeling. I must have been 10 or 11 when I had my first cup and mimicked how she took it, with cream and sugar. I know that part of my wishful optimistic outlook on life stems from that cup of coffee. Thanks for sparking the thought.

On Dec.04.2007 at 09:59 AM
ana diosdado’s comment is:

Until about a year ago I didnt drink any kind of alcohol and no one could really believe it, now i still drink only on certain special ocassions but i still dislike beer, my experience with coffe was a little similar but even though i saw my parents drink it and always identified it as an adult thing i never really had the curiosity to try it, i did accidentaly tried it one time at a mcdonals and disliked it because its bitter taste, i really didnt try it again until like my second year in college I started slowly with frapucinos with lots of flavours and tons of sugar, so much sugar i started to worry about repercusions so i started putting every time less and less sugar then started putting less and less flavours(it is expensive), I still cant drink it black it has to have, cream or milk or a small amount of sugar, a exchange experience forced me to start drinking hot coffe(it was freaking cold), but now that i have a job i have started to mimick my parents one cup in the morning routine although still not black, we are all creatures of habit.

On Dec.04.2007 at 01:40 PM
felix’s comment is:

Oh Deb.
Ultra light Cigarettes and Iced Lattes? No wonder you're a diva!

btw- Reading the paper (the Star Ledger, what my wife reads) last week and came across the morning rituals of a 60ld two year old in Newark. She had been rushed to the emergency room after living on a strict diet and Budweiser Tall Boys® and Whopper w/ cheeses®.

I blame whoever redesigned BK's logo :)

On Dec.04.2007 at 03:27 PM
John Foster’s comment is:

Classic wonderful Debbie! I am so full of quirks (and family) it might take me all day to list them out. This is really a beautiful way of looking at ourselves as living breathing histories of when we have been and who we have known.

I did adopt my Grandmother's habit of carrying an extra sweater so that you have it if anyone gets cold - haha.

By the way - pabst blue ribbon should only be consumed from the can and miller high life should only find itself framed in glass (it is the champagne of beers after all.)

On Dec.04.2007 at 06:49 PM
Armin’s comment is:

My grandmother, on my mom's side, who is 91-years-old has drank a Coca-Cola everyday for at least the past 30 years. And Coke in Mexico has even more sugar than here. New Surgeon General's Warning: "A glass of Coca-Cola a day is recommend for anyone above 80-years-old".

I started drinking coffee seriously and routinely on my first month in the U.S., it was the grown up thing to do. And, man, I needed it to get through those busyless hours of working at marchFIRST. Since then, it's been two cups of coffee every morning between 8:00 and 8:30. Until two months ago I always stopped at Starbucks for a grande cup, and the price has slowly gone up from $1.75 to $2.11. These days we brew our own Starbucks coffee at home the office. On the espresso side, I started drinking about a year ago, right before we took a trip to Italy, where I then discovered what a true espresso could achieve. Back in the U.S. I have yet to find a matching espresso, but overall they are still satisfactory. Luckily, a few months after that first trip, we took another one to Italy and I drank two or three a day, knowing that it was a brief window of opportunity to get my fix. Interestingly, the best espresso of that trip was at the gate in the airport coming back.

As far as design rituals... I need my wireless Logitech mouse with me. I have had three versions of it (each gets better) that I have carried from job to job, where everyone made fun of me for having my "special" mouse.

On Dec.04.2007 at 09:29 PM
Spencer Cross’s comment is:

I'm curious how you loathe beer if you've never had one? Am I misunderstanding something?

On Dec.04.2007 at 09:40 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

hi spencer--i wrote that i never consumed an entire bottle of beer, not that i never tasted one.

that being said, i think i loathe the smell of beer as much as or even more than the taste.

ironic, since i love the smell of coffee as much as or even more than the taste, if that is even at all possible.

On Dec.04.2007 at 10:48 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Life without beer? Scandalous!
(Mind you, I'm talking about micro-brewery beer. Bud, Miller, etc. is nothing but beer-flavored carbonated water. Blech!)

Speaking of rituals, beer is the required motivational ritual for me to do the vacuuming/sweeping of my house:
Sweep, sweep, vacuum, vacuum, sweep, sweep, vacuum, vacuum, sweep, sweep...
Hot... Sweaty... Hand reaching for cool, dewy amber bottle of refreshment... Glug, glug, glug... Aaaaaahhhhh... Back at it!
Sweep, sweep, vacuum, vacuum, sweep, sweep, vacuum, vacuum, sweep, sweep...

In the morning, consciousness cannot be properly achieved without two cups of Peets French Roast, with organic Clover cream, thank-you-very-much. Without it, cranky, bitchiness will ensue... Have made late-night emergency trips to the grocery store to avoid early morning ugliness.

Both my wife and I put cream in our coffee, but she adds sugar (or agave nectar) in hers. Occasionally, we will inadvertently grab each others cup. A look of shocked, horror crosses our faces (as if we've both just taken a sip of, like, paint thinner). Blech! (Emergency transfer of cups!) Restorative sip of The Proper Cup o' Joe. All is now right in the Morning Ritual.

And Armin, speaking of espresso... This past summer, we spent six glorious days of our European adventure in Rome, staying in a charming rental apartment near Piazza Navona. The espresso we had while there was AMAZING! No bitterness, and it had the quintessential layer of espresso "creme" on the top (a slight froth on top that can only be achieved with a properly created cup). The reason why the espresso tastes so damn good remains a mystery, and can only be solved by more trips to that lovely city for further investigation.

BTW, I have tried a stout beer with coffee added. It was okay, but... sort of weird. Didn't really work for me.

And finally, I am left wondering about Debbie's interest in wine, champagne, or perhaps a martini?

On Dec.07.2007 at 12:34 AM
Julia’s comment is:

This baby, the microcimbali, makes the most amazing espresso. It's a coffee maker and a work out in one.

As for the coffee to put in it, Baruir, and independent Armenian coffee shop, has an amazing Columbian espresso roast which smells almost as good as it tastes- I'm even drinking it right now.

In terms of mannerisms and rituals, as much as I hated cigarettes, I probably took up smoking because of how cool, calm and collected my father looked smoking... we're both quitters now, as of 7 weeks ago. =]

On Dec.09.2007 at 09:25 AM
Julia’s comment is:

This baby, the microcimbali, makes the most amazing espresso. It's a coffee maker and a work out in one.

As for the coffee to put in it, Baruir, an independent Armenian coffee shop in queens, has an amazing Columbian espresso roast which smells almost as good as it tastes- I'm even drinking it right now.

In terms of mannerisms and rituals, as much as I hated cigarettes, I probably took up smoking because of how cool, calm and collected my father looked smoking... we're both quitters now, as of 7 weeks ago. =]

On Dec.09.2007 at 09:27 AM
Mike’s comment is:

I tend to convince myself of strange (but mostly harmless) things. My most recent theory is relative to coffee. I feel that if I can force myself to never drink coffee at the same time each day, or even skipping days at random, I will never become reliant on it. Take that body, I'm the caffeine captain, you're the boat. I'm not letting you form any habitual needs on my watch.

Then I read this article (and obviously loved it). I am now struck with the realization that in the last month I've completely succumb to this strange daily ritual, even more than if I just drank the damn coffee. I'm addicted to avoiding addiction.

On Dec.10.2007 at 09:37 AM
Shalimar’s comment is:

I find it interesting how a positive experience with something previously viewed as a negative can change your whole perspective on it. Beer for instance, I used to despise it, very much how you do. When I moved to Brooklyn last year, the elevator in the building was out of order, and it was about 110 degrees. Mind you I lived on the 4th floor of a converted warehouse. So after 4 hours of walking boxes up and down stairs, drenched in sweat and feeling like utter hell. My roommate, being the genius that she was, instead of buying bottled water, bought two six packs of Corona. A beer I couldn't despise more. I was so out of it and thirsty, that I did not care. When I took a swig of the ice cold beverage, I couldn't believe how delicious and refreshing I found it to be. And ever since then, I've grown to appreciate good beer. A similar thing has happened with coffee for me recently. Not that this has alot to do with rituals, just found that interesting. Great post by the way.

On Dec.12.2007 at 12:21 AM
Cactus Jones’s comment is:

Theres a stain on my notebook

Where your coffee cup was

And theres ash in the pages

Now Ive got myself lost...

          — squeeze

Happy Holidays to Dear Millman,

and the rest of the Speak Up tribe.
On Dec.19.2007 at 12:31 PM