Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Coffee, Fitness & Hip Hop: The Evolution of Dance (in Montclair)

It’s a crisp, bright, spring morning in Montclair, New Jersey. Angel Williams (pictured in the front row on the right) stands in front of the students in her hip-hop class at New York Sports Club. She starts demonstrating a series of moves that evoke the rarefied world of hip-hop glamorama. Suddenly, forty bodies are moving in sync—and it is energizing, enchanting and downright funky. In fact, it is hard to articulate how much fun it is to hip-hop with Angel. The class, in its exuberance, diversity, and intense love of dynamic movement, is in its own way a metaphor for life in Montclair. By way of full disclosure, I will say that I’ve resisted hip-hop dancing, leaving it to people like those in the video posted here (from the hip hop class at NYSC), but it’s been in my world forever and I love to dance---especially when I drink coffee! Today, after several cups of coffee, I went to hip-hop and now there’s no turning back.

Many days, I’ve had the privilege of drinking coffee with Angel and others from the gym after step class or simply during a lull in the day when we’re not writing or painting or teaching or being lawyers or taking care of kids or cooking meals or being corporate executives or having play dates or going to cultural events---because we’re all there in Angel’s class, and many, many of us drink coffee before and/or after we get there.

Of course, we are in good company. People everywhere work out and drink coffee! Many people say that they find it difficult to work out without first fueling up with coffee. They suggest that coffee enhances their motivation, their energy, their endurance, and their enjoyment of physical activity. The impulse to drink coffee before heading to the gym or going out for a run is not purely psychosomatic. In fact, data from well-designed clinical trials and respected researchers suggests that coffee improves exercise-related outcomes and makes it easier to exercise for longer periods of time.

According to toxicologist, James R. Coughlin, M.D., “Coffee…increases alertness, vigilance, and arousal…and reduces fatigue. Caffeine increases the body’s capacity for muscular work and exercise. It also slightly increases your metabolic rate and increases coronary blood flow, as well as the force of cardiac and skeletal muscle contraction.”

The Australian Institute of Sport reports that “there is solid evidence that caffeine enhances endurance and provides a small, but worthwhile enhancement over a range of exercise protocols.” This range includes high-intensity exercise (1 to 5 minutes); prolonged high-intensity exercise (20 to 60 minutes); endurance events (90+ minutes); and ultra endurance events (4 hours).

For one thing coffee is energizing—it changes the perception of fatigue---and helps motivate people to keep exercising until they reach their exercise goals---whether that’s a 5-mile run along the pier, completing a 1-hour kickboxing or hip-hop class, or an ambitious lunchtime work-out on the elliptical machine, rounded off by stretching. For mind-body devotees, coffee aids deeper breathing by relaxing the bronchial smooth muscles and can therefore help gym yogis hold poses for longer intervals.

Note that it doesn’t take a pot of coffee to prepare for a successful work-out; even a single cup of coffee, with a moderate amount of caffeine (50 mg to 80 mg) works. Plus, there’s the mental component. Coffee can definitely help you handle tasks like learning new hip hop moves, putting the entire routine together, and listening as Angel deconstructs the underlying meaning of each move. Some moves reference the Charleston, or a locomotive train, or spiritual ecstasy, or simply shaking your booty. It’s really a beautiful pastiche of intellectual stimulation and physical exhilaration.

Whatever your goals: running, hip hop, a brisk walk in the park, a leisurely walk to your local caf├ęs or museums, kite-flying with your kids, going to the gym for a hard-core, disciplined work out with weights, doing ashtanga yoga, or any other activity, don’t forget to drink coffee. Even one cup will do!

Are you into fitness? How about fitness with a little coffee thrown into the daily routine? I would love to hear about your work-out routines and how coffee makes you feel great every day!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Alma's Coffee Tragedy & Building Community One Cup at a Time

Most of us know what it feels like to be desperate. It's an uncomfortable, breath-stifling feeling that can take hold with an uncomfortable intensity. Henry David Thoreau famously wrote about desperation in "Walden" which was published in 1854. "Most men (and women) live lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation..." He then repeated his sad observation that "Most men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them."

On a day to day basis, there are many ways to overcome a sense of desperation or an uncomfortable feeling that something is not right. One way is through community. There is nothing like sharing coffee to abet any sense of gloom and doom. A well-made cup of coffee, rounded off with edifying and meaningful conversation, can uplift us and prepare us for the tasks at hand. Beautiful, wonderful coffee!

So it came as a surprise during a visit to my friend Alma Schneider's house that it was hard to get a cup of coffee. Alma, Founder of Take Back the Kitchen, has written convincingly about how important it is to know how someone takes their coffee---it signals more than a good memory, but a sense of respect and caring. But on that day, coffee was hard to get. Alma related to me her "coffee tragedy".

Here's how it happened. Until recently, it was possible to to enjoy a nice cup of coffee made in Alma's 4-cup Bialetti. This machine is an icon of Italian design that boasts a stunning profile. It consistently produces a cup of smoothly brewed coffee and a scent that lingers and envelopes Alma's gorgeous kitchen. Unfortunately, one day, a very dear friend burned it while making coffee. "This can't be," Alma and her husband said to each other. But it was. Finally, after four bouts of acute denial, they figured out that that Bilaetti would be no longer...So, there was another Bialetti--a small, 2-cup espresso maker. It just so happened, that when they went to use it, the handle broke. They took it to a local coffee-bean merchant, known for carrying high-end European coffee makers, and it could not be fixed.

So...on to the next option. Alma's Presto percolator, circa 1940's, inherited from her grandmother---a cherished heirloom with a graceful sloping spout. A coffee maker that can make a super-hot robust cup of coffee---for at least 25 to 30 people...Even for coffee-lovers like us (Alma, our friend Dennis, and myself), it was too much. So finally, Alma found the solution. The Melitta fall-back. In this case, a red, molded, elegant sturdy plastic model with rounded edges. Alma put her plastic Melitta on top of a cup and voila---there was coffee. We waited patiently while she boiled the water and finally the coffee--a robust Kirkland Brand brew from Costco---was in front of us. It was perfect. Our coffee desperation was eased and we had a very productive and fun conversation!

Note: Special thanks to Dennis Dawson for photography (without the benefit of a cup of coffee beforehand).