Eyelashes and Thresholds

A threshold.
A threshold.

In Spanish, the word for a tab on your internet browser is pestaña, which translates to “eyelash,” which I think is the best online language imagery I’ve heard in any language (even though “surfing” and “spam” make for some good ones).

If tabs are eyelashes, then my computer consistently looks like the vending machine full of those green aliens fearing “The Claw” in Toystory. All eyes. There’s no Cyclops here; my computer, and I, are always peering in dozens of directions.

On a given day my “eyelashes” can be looking into plant genetics, latte art competitions, and maps of rural Panama. If someone were to peer over my shoulder and interrogate me about all those open eyelashes, the conversation might go something like this:

 Interrogator: Why are you checking futures market prices?

Me: Coffee.

Interrogator: And Instagram pictures of “mug” shots?

Me: Coffee.

Interrogator: And NPR’s newsfeed?

Me: Coffee.

Interrogator: And bus schedules to Manizales?

Me: Coffee.

Interrogator: And definitions of hybrids and F1 vs. F5 seeds?

Me: Coffee.

Interrogator: And corporate press releases from Germany?

Me: Coffee.

Interrogator: And a Smithsonian African music album?

Me: Coffee.

Interrogator: And soil pH charts?

Me: Coffee.

Interrogator: And Todd Carmichael’s article from Esquire?

Me: Coffee.

Interrogator: And guidelines for measuring carbon footprints?

Me: Coffee.

Interrogator: And container ship specs?

Me: Coffee.

Interrogator: And those Peace Corps project updates?

Me: Coffee.

Interrogator: And the Economics section of a Nicaraguan newspaper?

Me: Coffee.

Interrogator: And Melbourne conference listings and Nice event tickets?

Me: Coffee.

Interrogator: And that Facebook group about grassroots political resistance in the name of land rights?

Me: Coffee.

Is all this stuff at every end of the spectrum- finance, biology, pop culture, gourmet foodie trends, international trade, local politics, global environmental concerns, and personal photo albums all really related to coffee? Yes. Does it all really have anything to do with the black liquid in my cup? Yes. Does it really connect to the bag on the grocery store shelf and the stuff in the pot at the diner? Yes.

How? How do we get from potassium levels in a volcanic mountainside to the closing bell of the exchange to the wet grinds left in the filter every morning?

We blink. As quickly as eyelashes go from opened to closed, coffee crosses thresholds, and at each of these thresholds it is transformed to the point of being unrecognizable from what it previously was.

The process of coffee from “seed to cup” has been explained and illustrated in books and comics and photo series and you tube videos. It’s no mystery how coffee physically transforms from being a seed to a tree to a bean to a drink, but how does it get from being a tree to a commodity? A commodity to a fad? A fad to a livelihood? A grocery staple to a coveted treat? A Petri dish culture to an international event? Where are the thresholds for conceptualizing and experiencing coffee?

They’re tricky to catch. But they tend to lie where coffee changes hands or changes measurements.

When coffee changes hands the transfer is physical. When a container of coffee passes from buyer to seller it, it crosses a threshold of physical transformation different than that when it passes through the depulper. It has literally crossed the threshold into a new space and therefore new ownership. (Most FOB contracts determine this as the moment when the coffee “crosses the ships rail.” The container, swinging in midair from a loading crane, is set on board, and suddenly it’s different. In an instant it changed from being a Colombian export to an American import).

When coffee changes measurements the transfer happens in the blink, somewhere between the eyelashes. Neuroscience tells us we can never look at two things at once; we can only look really quickly back and forth between them. But, no matter how quickly we look, our brains have a limit. That fascinating proof is in the pudding of the experiment where subjects read lines of text on a computer, but as they read the previous lines are changed. And yet the changes are undetectable because during the “between” of looking between one thing and another, we momentarily go blind.

And that’s where coffee changes: during that instant in which we go blind. Coffee can be kilos of grain on a scale. But when we punch those kilos into a formula to yield a price, it comes out on the other side of the equals sign as a tradable commodity. We can look back and forth- really, really quickly- between the number on the scale and the number on the receipt, but we can’t see both at once. While coffee in reality doesn’t cease to be a bunch of grain once we’ve put a futures market price tag on it, we can’t think of it as both at once.

When the sack of coffee physically crosses the threshold from discrete jute sack to indiscrete part of the middleman’s coffee pile, it has crossed the threshold of ownership, and thus become something different. Its value has changed. It will no longer be valued in pesos of pergamino, but in dollars per pound of green beans.

When coffee crosses visible thresholds or blind blinks behind eyelashes its value changes. Sometimes these value changes coincide with changes in form; roasted coffee is valued differently than unroasted coffee because it is in fact different. But other times when the values changes it’s because we blink. The value changes not because the coffee in parchment is actually any different when it’s in the bag strapped to the roof of the Jeep bouncing down the mountain than when it’s in a pile at the coop, but because we assign it a different worth. Those changes in value are purely the product of how we choose to see coffee; and the changes happen as fast as we blink, as fast as that imperceptible blindness.

But even though that blindness is imperceptible it runs deep. It happens so quickly it doesn’t seem like we could be missing that much, but as soon as we dump the coffee into the pile it stops being the result of the intense labor of one farm, one family, one team of workers, and starts being the lucrative plaything of someone else.

The same phenomenon can happen in reverse. When we pull one lot of coffee from one harvest of one farm and roast and cup it all by itself, it stops being part of the commodity playing field and starts being auctioned, prized, and savored. But then the top Cup of Excellence lot could be mixed into the swirling mass of commodity coffee and the market wouldn’t notice. It wouldn’t drive up the price or make any difference at all, even though the actual beans are still physically the same: special-enough-to-be-loved.

Coffee biologically and chemically crosses transformative thresholds in its path from plant to drink, but we also push, pull, drag, dump, coax, cajole, and heave it across mental thresholds of our own design, thresholds that can hold all kinds of implications that we just don’t see at the time of crossing.

 

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