The Ruining of Stella Maris

on Tuesday, October 30, 2007

On the shores of beautiful Lake Sagatagan, on the land owned by St. John's University in Collegeville, stands a quaint little chapel originally built around 1915 and lovingly restored around 1945. It is very small, only around 500 square feet and is made of field stone and mortar. Inside is a floor made of a locally quarried dark granite. In the center of the floor is a white, six-pointed star set in a circle of reddish stone. It is not used regularly, not officially anyway, but there is a path that circles around the lake that leads to this pretty little house of God and it has been open to the public for as long as I can remember.

When you looked at that chapel, with its uneven fieldstone walls, you could see the work and sweat that went into building it. The stones came from the surrounding fields, gathered by local farmers as they plowed in the spring, and were somehow transported across the lake where they were used by local laborers and monks to build a small testament to their faith. The whole structure was built as a labor of love using all local materials, from the ornate floor to the cross on the bell tower.

All that changed this summer when St. John's decided to renovate
again. The result is an eyesore. They completely covered the field
stone with burnt orange stucco and covered the floor with Italian
marble tile. They built a wall where the main door was and replaced it
with a large, circular window and they added iron frames to all the
windows where I assume stained glass is going to go. Italian marble and stained glass windows suggest one thing to me: a future lock on the door.

What was once a unique landmark now resembles a strip mall. The character and personality of the place has been covered up by an ugly, bland fa├žade. What a shame!

The next time I go to those woods, I won't be walking to the Stella Maris chapel. There's no point anymore.

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Big Wheel Keep on Turnin'

on Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The reality of losing the Meeting Grounds in Sartell is really starting to set in this week. Tuesdays were the days that they would call and place their order and I would roast it. Yet here I sit not roasting coffee for them… or for anyone else.

I seem to do better when someone else is running the show. In the music world it's George or Jeff, they book the gigs and organize the shows, I show up, do my part, collect my pay and go and wait for the next phone call. I am horrible at pimping myself.

The world of business is weighing heavily on my shoulders these days. I know I have a great product, I know that people who drink my coffee for the first time are surprised that coffee can taste so good, but I don't know how to get out there and "sell, sell, sell!"

Today I found out that I am in a bidding war with Bernick's Pepsi to do a fund raiser for Cathedral High School. I have to outbid someone who can bury me in their deep, deep pockets. They're offering shit at bargain basement prices, I am offering far superior gourmet coffee at the lowest price I can afford, but I'm afraid that won't be enough. When organizations are ruled by committee, this is the result. I wish they'd consider who really needs the business in their calculations.

But then on the other hand I got a call from the coffee shop in Apollo High School and they are sending a new convert over to buy a pound or two from me. Maybe I should have opened a specialty coffee retail shop, I seem to do pretty okay business with walk-in customers.

I am reminding myself these days, as my mood darkens, that I am on the Wheel of Life and that sometimes you're on top of the wheel and sometimes you're crushed beneath it. I feel like I'm either there or headed there soon. But the Wheel keeps on turning and Xmas is a-comin', hopefully things will get better by then.

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Jumpin' Punkins!

on Monday, October 22, 2007

I am so doing this for Halloween!

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Amateur Jazz Night

on Saturday, October 20, 2007

We played in Brainerd last night for a Halloween costume dance -- a little early, if you ask me, but there you go. We were contracted by a guy named Dave, he plays the trombone a little and he sings a little, but he's not that good at either.

Jeff, Scott & I got paid to sit there and read charts of mostly jazz standards, with a few 50s rock songs thrown in. 15 couples in costume danced. My favorite costume was a young lady who was about 7 or 8 months pregnant in a form-fitting red evening gown with devil's horns. I really wanted to ask her if she got pregnant just for the costume -- that really shows some Halloween dedication!

Dave is a very amateur performer, but his heart is in the right place and he's very enthusiastic! All night he kept saying that we were "the best in the world!" and that we had played everywhere, from coast to coast. I felt a little like Shinola.

But I digress...

I really felt like a music whore last night. We played such a cheesy gig strictly for the money. And the thing is, I'd do it again! Ultimately, it's like being paid to practice, or maybe it's exactly what it is: a "pick-up gig." I'm a hired gun, paid to go and do the bidding of the guy who holds the wallet.

It's hard to not like Dave, though, he's so gracious and kind throughout, he must have thanked each of us a hundred times and said that he "learned a lot" playing with us. He will never make the "big time" -- neither will I, but he has heart and guts, that's for sure.

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Not Really Good News

on Thursday, October 18, 2007

I got a call on Monday from one of my best customers telling me that she was being forced to close her doors and give up the business. The Meeting Grounds in Sartell is no more as of Tuesday last.

Certainly, this sucks for me because that store was good for around $1000 a month and kissing $12,000 goodbye is no easy thing. But I am more concerned about Joyce, the owner of that particular store.

She's a very nice lady. I always enjoyed talking "small business" with her. We were both very open and honest about how things were going, and I know she was constantly struggling to make ends meet. Yet she always managed to pay her bills and her employees. As usual, it is the business owner who is the last one to get paid and I know that was a source of hardship for her.

I'm really going to miss her.

Band Adventures: Getting Lost & Running Out of Gas

on Monday, October 15, 2007

The variety band I play guitar in had a wedding gig at the Calhoun Beach Club in Minneapolis. The last time I played there was when I was in a college jazz combo back in the 1980s. It was a very nice reception, beautifully decorated with hundreds of votive candles. We even had some crashers from another reception in the same building, I guess they got tired of the DJ. The bride & groom let us quit about 15 minutes early and even tipped us.

"Cool," I thought, "I'll get home earlier than I thought," which was great because my girlfriend was waiting for me back at my house and since our time together is somewhat rare, every minute is valued.

Jeff drove, "I'm pretty sure there's an exit for Excelsior on highway 100, so if we head west we should get there." So off we went. Apparently he got a little confused because we got to France Avenue and he said, "I'm sure there's an exit for France on 100," and he turned left. I'm not very familiar with that part of Minneapolis, so I didn't think anything of his choice.

When we crossed highway 62, the "Crosstown," we realized that something was wrong, it runs east-west and we should have been running parallel to it. We had to backtrack a bit and got on 62 heading west. The next choice was to take highway 100 or go a little farther west and get onto 169, we chose 100 because it was "more fun." I didn't realize until I looked at the map above that highway 100 veers to the northeast before it gets to I-94.

We finally got back on track, but there went our extra time from getting out of the gig early. "No problem," I thought, "I'll still get back before 2 AM," which was when I told Kate I'd be home.

A while later Jeff looked at the gas gauge and said, "Shit! We better stop for gas! Where the hell are we, I haven't been paying attention."

"We just went past Monticello," I said.

"Crap, this gas gauge reads wrong, we might not make it to St. Cloud."

Sure enough, we ran out of gas about two miles out of Hasty. We were able to coast the last mile and at the last minute we all jumped out and pushed the van another few hundred feet to the exit ramp -- within sight of the Marathon station.

Jeff ran off into the dark and came back about fifteen minutes later with a couple of gallons. Richard & I sat waited by the van and agreed that it could have been worse, the van could have been on fire.

We left the cities at midnight. I got home at 2:30 AM.

Hemp for the Future

on Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Recently I was listening to Science Friday on Minnesota Public Radio and heard a show titled "Fuels for the Future." It concentrated on ways to get ethanol from various sources such as corn, switch grass and even algae. Ethanol-based fuels are one possible way to lessen our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels, and should be researched and developed by those of us in the US and throughout the world.

Corn is, in my opinion, just about the worst source for ethanol, even if it is the most researched. In 2007 the US farmed 92.9 million acres of corn, which is the highest it has been since the height of WWII in 1944 when we farmed 95.5 million acres. The best way to grow corn these days is with tons of nitrogen-based fertilizers, what is not used by the plant is washed away by rainfall and irrigation. A majority of that fertilizer makes it way to the Gulf of Mexico and is a direct cause of a 6-7,000 mile square zone that has formed where nothing grows, a "dead zone" roughly the size of New Jersey.

Switchgrass is another alternative mentioned as a source of ethanol, and should be given more attention than corn-based ethanol. Switchgrass requires little or no fertilization and produces ethanol which burns cleaner than corn. I believe that corn is given more attention than switchgrass because of the saturation of corn in the American diet and the fact that major agricultural and chemical companies have invested millions of dollars into research and development of corn that will produce the largest yields. These are the same companies that have very strong financial connections to members of government. Corn seems to be the quickest and easiest road to energy independence, but I believe the environmental cost is far too high.

One logical alternative is continuously overlooked: industrial hemp.

Hemp can produce 10 tons of cellulose per acre every four months. Switchgrass produces 6-8 tons and corn a mere 4 tons, and corn only produces one crop per year. (Source) Refining the hemp biomass brings forth butane, methanol and fuel oil as well as tar and charcoal. Methanol, or "wood alcohol," can be used to power cars and trucks, so can the fuel oil. In fact, the Diesel engine was originally designed to run on lower grade fuel oils, including hemp seed oil - which is mentioned specifically in Rudolph Diesel's papers.

There are other grasses that can be used to produce cellulose-based ethanol, such as poplar, willow, sweetgum and cottonwood, so I am not saying that hemp is the only answer, but no other alternative could produce the amount of energy that hemp could. If you add the fact that hemp can produce much more than just biomass energy, products such as cloth, paper, plastics and even food, and the argument for hemp gets even stronger.

Yet in all my searching, there is no government organization which even mentions hemp, not the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, nor US Department of Energy. The only thing I could find was a US Department of Agriculture report on its possible textile uses.

The only serious consideration of hemp as an energy source I could find was a study published in the UK which I was, unfortunately, unable to access. Reviews and quotes from the source, however, showed it to be in depth and balanced. Its conclusion was that energy from hemp is cheaper to produce than oil, nuclear, wind, solar or even wave technologies.

It is the antiquated anti-marijuana laws originally put in place by Harry Anslinger in the 1930's which are to blame for our ignorance concerning hemp. Although many of his most outrageous claims of violent, murderous drug lust, and his racist propaganda have been discredited, the undertones remain firmly imbedded in American culture.

In the mainstream media marijuana users are portrayed as either Rastafarians or slackers who are too buzzed up to remember their own names, e.g. the "Jeff Spicoli" character played by Sean Penn in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. For some reason we seem to be unable to separate our perception of "pot" from industrial hemp.

It is possible to grow a cannabis plant which produces little or no THC -- less than 1%, which wouldn't get anyone high! There are other useful products which can come from the cultivation of hemp and it could be a tremendous source of biomass energy. It should be at least brought to the same table as corn, switchgrass and the rest, to continue to ignore it is truly an insult to such a versatile and useful plant.

Current Trends in Coffee & Commerce

on Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Well, I've had some time to calm down since my last post. I still don't like the guy in Little Falls, but I'm not sweating losing a small account, despite the fact that they were the ones who called me first (that still bugs me), and as Kate put it, "At least you're not working for a bitch."

I am obviously going to have to reconsider my business plan. Originally we wanted to contact every "mom & pop" coffee shop we could and become their roaster. Unfortunately, things aren't working out like that. It seems to me that the locally-owned coffee shop is becoming more and more rare.

People sure like building new strip malls, instead of finding older buildings. American consumers like things convenient, they want to go to one place and get everything. That's why places like Wal-Mart exist. But even the people who don't want to shop there still want everything centrally located.

So we keep building places where you can shop at many stores, but only park once. Places like that used to be called "downtown," but are now located any place that used to be a vacant lot. Then they charge rent based on the square foot, just like a mall would. Your basic mom & pop shop can't afford that kind of rent so they get a Caribou or a Dunn Brothers or a Starfucks. Locally-owned coffee shops are disappearing like locally-owned hamburger shops did. They won't become completely extinct, but they will become more and more rare.

The result is a different market than I have been dealing with for the the past 15 years and I have to adapt if I'm going to survive.