Becky the Cow

“Just squeeze here and aim.”

There’s nothing like milking a cow to turn you off dairy when you’re a kid. Except maybe being expected to drink it when you’re done.

I’ve had such an on-again-off-again relationship with all things dairy. Uncle Herman had a cow named Becky and at ten years old this is just not flattering.

When I was 21 or so, I had strange little bumps that felt like small bones sticking out here and there. Dr. Fred said they were calcium deposits – not dangerous, don’t worry about it. But I thought, if calcium is piling up all over my body, where’s it coming from? The pint of yogurt I eat daily? The block of cheese? Pizza? Lazagna? Grilled cheeses? You can see where this is going. So I went off dairy cold-turkey as a test. The last thing to go was the drop of cream in my coffee. After three months the little bumps were gone and most startling of all, I could breathe through my nose.

I’d never done that before. I was gagging and choking and had to train myself to breathe through my nose. I could smell things I’d never realized that I couldn’t smell before, like cut grass and that fresh rain smell, and My God – the reek of McD’s! I stayed off dairy for about ten or twelve years until the cheese festival in Montreal. It was all gourmet after that.

The idea at the cafe is to bring some of those gourmet cheeses in from Quebec, where the artisanal farmers have been practicing their craft for hundreds of years (really!). In keeping with our efforts to find the best food and beverages, I want to get organic milk and cream for coffee from a local farmer, but it’s tricky shopping for things you don’t want to taste – like milk.

People seem to love Organic Meadow so I contacted them and was redirected to the distributor. And somehow, that crazy idiotic system that forgets that businesses aren’t things, they’re people, has reared it’s ugly head again.

“Hi there, I’m calling from the Heart of the Hammer Cafe to talk about your organic dairy products.”

“Ok, I’ll start with your banking information.”

“No no, I’m just calling to find out about the different products, what they cost, how it works.”

“I need your banking information.”

“I don’t understand. I just want to talk to someone first.”

“And I need your banking information to proceed.”

“Maybe I have the wrong line. Can I talk to someone in the sales department?”

“That’s me-ee!”

“Ok, bye.”

I begin to wonder; am I a cow after all or is something rotten in the state of business?


Can you come out to play?

I imagine there are lots of people like me who learn things the heard way and whine out loud all over the place when things get hard, who start things like cafes and then holler up and down the street for help when they’re out of ideas, resources, energy, batteries…

And then there are people like Sarah. Well, maybe there aren’t, but there’s at least one person like Sarah.

When I met Sarah, I thought, “Hey, I want to be friends with her,” but you know, that’s not easy when you’re all grown up. I mean, how do we say “Can you come out and play?”

I was glad that she came over for wine and cheese on the porch in the freezing cold weather last fall. You know that’s not about the wine. Or the cheese. I was double glad one day at the Hub when her husband said, “Sarah might be interested in working with you at the cafe.” And so she was.

Sarah has this amazing way of working autonomously while somehow also checking in on my obsessions; “Is this how we spread our cream cheese here?” she asks and I wonder what makes her think I am THAT particular, as I glance over her way. “Well, no,” I say, “how ’bout like this,” realizing that maybe I am that particular. And apparently that’s OK with Sarah.

Sarah also takes responsibility for things like the monthly artists, the musicians and the high-up things. “Do you need a tall friend right about now?” she asks as I drag a stool around the cafe, never having felt so short in my life. She writes cheerful messages on the sandwich board and she engages with people in a way that I think is important. Anybody can learn how to make a cappuccino, but the right attitude is hard to teach. Or learn.

After about a month in business as I was struggling to pay for things, like Sarah, she approached me after her shift, after everyone had left. “I need to talk to you about something,” she said, and my lungs seized – Oh my God! Sarah’s leaving – I thought.

“I think we should lower my pay until things pick up,” she said. “Ok,” I replied, a little too stunned for much else.

Then, as I muddled through a month without Sarah while she had to deal with real troubles – life and death troubles – I began to feel like a widow, who first stops cooking meals, then stops shopping, then stops cleaning up, then stops having people over… “Oh, I don’t need to put all that away, it’s just me coming back in the morning” I would tell myself.

When Sarah came back, we started a money conversation, one that isn’t exactly finished yet. About how to pay her. There’s rent, there’s food and there’s her pay, except that there isn’t enough for all three. So I probed around the edges to see at what point she might cut back her hours to like, zero. And I self-consciously advertised that my bling shoes and fru-fru purse were not new; that I am not spending money, that it’s all going into the cafe.

When someone is so understated and they say ‘ouch’, you know that they really mean it. So when Sarah said, “I really think it’s important to get the sign up as soon as possible,” I knew she really meant it, but how? The only thing I could think of was to ask the sign guy to do it for an I*OWE*U. But Sarah-who-isn’t-exactly-getting-paid-yet had another plan. She is putting her tips towards a sign for the cafe. And she’s having a contest for the logo.

I tried to explain to Sarah why it’s so important to have her here; it’s not just about help; it’s not about help who puts up with not getting paid, or reaches tall things or programs the music or donates the fridge or any of those other great things, but because I value her opinion, her input, her values, and if she believes in the cafe, then I believe in the cafe.

“People don’t really need coffee,” she answered. What?! I thought, uncomprehending, alarmed at the dangerous territory we were now getting into. “People don’t really need the world’s best hot chocolate or great bagels,” she said. My heart was racing by this point, what could it mean?

“People need people, and I believe in the cafe as a place for them to meet, I believe in the community. I’m doing this for the community,” she said.

So guess what? “Working at the cafe” IS the grown up version of “Can you come out to play”.

Heart of the Hammer

Heart of the Hammer Cafe: Where arts and letters meet coffee and tea; where neighbours come to visit with thee!

So I am opening this cafe, mostly so I can have a nice spot to hang out in the neighbourhood and also so that our neighbourhood groups can have a place to get together with quality fare. I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of enthusiasm, well-wishing, offers of help, of stuff, of skills and of expertise. I am amazed at how things are just falling into place.

It is not a new idea for me. It has been rattling around in my mind, the business model adjusted from city to city, venue to venue, so that when a few things clicked into place, I just pressed GO. And of course tapped all the people with relevant skills and experience at CSI, in the Hub and especially in the family.

Occasionally someone gets caught up in pointing out all the impossibilities. All the things one ought to do or else. This pointing out of all the pitfalls serves as a platform for I told-you-so when things go wrong. Having gotten inured to this kind of onslaught over the years, I had come to think that maybe I was Master of the Impossible. But now I have a new theory.

I learned to fly a glider before I had ever been in a commercial plane, and in fact, before I even had my drivers license, so my first time above the clouds was a surprise. In a glider, you have no motor. You fly by Visual Flight Regulations, meaning that, you always have to be able to see the ground. Meaning that you don’t fly above the clouds. But one day, I was going for a check flight with Colonel Villeneuve and the tow pilot actually pulled us up through the cloud layer, which was magical… and silent. Somehow, you expect sound from a cloud, like static or soap-bubble popping, but it was like the pause in the movie soundtrack. I held my breath. And then we popped out above it which was… awesome. I actually gasped. Blinding white sunshiny brightness. And the soundtrack resumed.

I think that once you have seen for yourself first hand that it is always, always, always for ever and no matter what a sunny day above the clouds, then it kinda doesn’t matter what goes on below the clouds. It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong or how long it took to get somewhere. After that experience, you have a big picture that helps you to put things into perspective, to keep your eye on the important things. Like family and community and doing things you love to do and helping others to do things. I think that if you focus on the important things it is much easier to succeed.

But now I realize that for some people it is more important to be right than to be successful.