Category Archives: Java Jolt

Java Jolt – Encore Presentation


Billboard - Clines Corners, NM

Why Coffee Shops Boost Brainpower

(Hint: It’s not the caffeine.)

When you visit your neighborhood coffee shop to jump-start your brain, the jolt isn’t just from the java. Turns out it’s the noise! A study in the Journal of Consumer Research tested participants at 50 decibels, which was a bit too quiet; 85 decibels, too noisy; and 70 decibels – the gentle buzz experienced at a hot-beverage purveyor – is just right. The results confirm what many creatives, freelancers and home-based workers have long experienced: Exiting your normal routine is a better way to juice up your creativity and productivity than hunkering down all by your lonesome and trying to power through a problem.

— Mary Vinnedge  Success magazine

This piece was originally posted when I launched the blog in April 2015. I want to encore it because a generous reader introduced me to a website that offers ambient noise from coffee shops, which endorses for the results of the study cited.

Take a ride on the noise machine and see if it generates some caffeine-free creativity! Or just sidles up as your companion while browsing through Mocha Muse.

If you wish to play the coffee shop sounds anytime you visit, go the Home page: “Welcome to Mocha Muse Coffee Shop!” In the last paragraph, click on the link “ambient enhancer.” You’ll have to control the decibel level, but, see if you can create the right buzz for reading and/or writing. And please let me know how it works for you!

With very special mocha thanks, and, a frothy heart on top to: Tom Rains!!!

Java Jolt – Chock Full O’ Memories


One of the most alluring mysteries of my life continues to be my maternal grandfather, Papa B.

I hope that I never solve his enigma; I want him to inspire my imagination as I grow old.

Here’s a little vignette that introduces my fascination with his aura of being:



Every Thanksgiving I am most thankful for the memories of my grandfather, Papa Ballard. I can see him arriving on the Amtrak train from Newark, New Jersey. Stepping out onto the unsheltered concrete platform in Trenton.

He was a short, thin Irish man with hollowed features. His face wore a serious, “living-elsewhere” expression like the shadow of a leprechaun. In his left hand he carried his luggage. In his right hand he carried a cardboard box with a pliable white plastic handle. Inside nested a 24-pound turkey.

This was his annual contribution of our family gatherings. His employer gave a large frozen turkey to each company member as a holiday gift. And, Papa B., not having a built-in family, traveled south to share his plucked wealth with us.

He spent the four-day weekend with my parents, brother, and me. He and my grandmother, Toot, were still married. It was their encore marriage. A second chance that appeared reluctant because they chose to live in separate cities. I don’t know that they ever saw or talked with each other except during the most festive holidays when Papa B. grew tired of living alone and ventured off by train. This being the urban horse of inner city dwellers in the early 1960’s.

When I hugged Papa B. at the station, he smelled of damp wool that had inhaled tobacco smoke and captured it like a spider in its web of fibers. His voice was raspy and congested. He always seemed to be overwhelmed by the display of children’s affection. He couldn’t hold a hug for too long. He had to release and step back. Compose himself. Then greet my father with a handshake. My mother, his beloved daughter “Skibus,” was the only person who received a full-length hug.

My brother and I adored Papa B. Mostly because he was quiet and mysterious. Later, I learned that he had abandoned Toot and their two children and run off to California for a while. He also served time in prison for embezzling state money while serving as Tax Collector. But before I knew the details of his criminal past, I was enchanted by his aloofness. I think we all were, but only we children were brave enough to admit it.

Papa B.’s first stop once inside our house was to unpack his small black satchel in whatever room had been designated the guest room for that weekend. People would double-up in bedrooms, or someone would sleep on the sofa, just to accommodate our special guest.

I would creep upstairs and tiptoe around corners, just to peek in and observe the ritual. The hanging of button-down cotton shirts and dark pleated trousers on wire coat hangers. Then, the queuing of personal items along the bathroom sink counter: a toothbrush in a plastic traveling case, toothpaste, a hand razor and shaving cream.

On hands and knees, I watched his brown oxfords with skinny laces and punched-leather toes, crisscross the carpeted hallway. When the feet descended the stairs, I jumped to attention. Once his footsteps reached the end of the hallway, I snuck down the stairs. Sliding along the banister so I could step on the thickest edge of carpet. Silent as a stalking cat, I entered the family room. Then watched Papa B. settle into the corner of the sofa, next to the end table with the reading lamp.

He would pull his reading glasses out of his shirt pocket and place them on the table. From another pocket, he would pull a pack of cigarettes and arrange them next to the amber crackle-glass ashtray. The Newark Star Ledger posed in his lap like a rolling pin. Papa B. removed the paper’s rubber band garter much like my mother unrolled her stockings and slid them down her slender legs.

He unfurled the snuggly clinging paper. Smoothed out the wrinkles with his long, filigree fingers.

Before he had time to begin reading, my mother served him a glass of Irish whiskey. She set it down on the altar of reading materials. It was a short glass, with two ice cubes. It reminded me of the communion chalice at church. Polished and waiting on its hand-embroidered cloth. Waiting for the end of the sermon when the pastor would raise it in his right hand and accuse it of being the blood of Christ. Then he drank the blood and called for the elders to serve sewing-thimble glasses of wine to each congregation member squirming in the wooden pews.

I would wait for my grandfather to mount his reading glasses on his long bumpy nose. Then light a cigarette and begin reading the front page news.

The whiskey glass would stand still, ice slowly melting into its clear liquid existence. By page three – the local news – Papa B. would raise the glass and sip. So softly that it looked like he was kissing a glass lip.

He would read and sip and smoke for a couple of hours. Not wanting to talk. Just wanting to ingest.

When my mother called us all to the dining room table, we took our assigned seats. Bowed our heads for grace. Toasted to our health with the tinkling of crystal wine and water glasses.

My father carved the turkey with the electric carving knife. I chose the white breast meat. Papa B. chose the leg with its moist dark meat. He helped himself to scalloped oysters – a favorite casserole that my mother prepared for her father only on this day each year.

After biting into its toasted Saltine cracker crumb topping, his shoulders slumped. He sighed. He seemed to relax and crawl out of his cocoon.

He began to talk. To talk of all the information he had been accumulating: stories about Newark. Stories from around the world. Historical facts.

Papa B. was a human encyclopedia. I loved to listen to his husky voice as it spoke like an ancient teacher. Like someone who knew more than a few dark secrets of knowledge.

Java Jolt – Chock Full O’ Memories


Java Jolt - An Out-of-Tune Life

When I was growing up in the 1950s, radio was the Queen of Media. Especially in my family.

My parents didn’t even buy a television until the late 50s, so, I’m deeply in-tuned to the waves of radio frequency.

So much so, in fact, that I consider it religion within my secular upbringing.

Here’s a little memory of my mother’s kitchen cathedral belching out its radio religion:

Vintage Radio

Every Sunday night at dinnertime, my mother tuned the radio to WOR AM 710 on-the-dial. She blared the preaching of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, broadcast live from Grace Cathedral Church in New York City.

We chewed pot roast and potatoes in rhythm to Norman’s power of positive thinking. My father claimed indigestion and left the table early. My brother and I had to remain until our plates were clean. We were, after all, eating on behalf of all the starving children in India. Norman wasn’t interested in feeding the poor, however. He was focused upon increasing the wealth and well-being of the world’s wealthiest people. Something seemed askew to me in the theology. Religion and business were married. The electrical charges of thoughts were reversed. Could this be healthy? Ethical? Possible? I wondered.

I recall something dingy in the kitchen lighting on Sunday evenings that never existed on other nights. The light was amber – almost sulfurous. It bore a heavy, sickening weight. It lessened my appetite. I used to think that it was the dread of Monday morning and the return to work and school that I was feeling, but, now I wonder if the radio waves carried a power of acidity – a fog of pollutants – into our kitchen each week.

I much preferred the special Sundays when the immediate relatives would gather for supper at either Toot’s house (my maternal grandmother), or, our house. We would eat roast leg-of-lamb with pan-roasted potatoes and a dollop of mint jelly on the side. There would be salad and green beans almandine. Pillsbury bake-‘n-serve crescent rolls. And dessert. Usually a fruit pie or strawberry shortcake.

These suppers were served at 2:00 PM. Daylight was always present. And even if the kinfolk were feuding, the air was light.

I loved these occasions, especially at Toot’s, because my father couldn’t excuse himself for a football game. And my mother did not have command over the kitchen, so she was forced to relax. We four became equal. And the dining room was so elegant, with antique furniture and lace tablecloths and gleaming silver service sets. It was aglow with the history of love.

Somewhere in between church and daily life was the magic I craved. I vowed to search for it: the place that warded off the bogey men of Sunday nights and the bellowing of Norman. The place that balanced leather and lace.

Java Jolt – Chock Full O’ Memories


Java Jolt - An Out-of-Tune Life

The first family tragedy that chiseled my character occurred when I was four years old.

The two grandmothers were recruited to assist. One lived locally in New Jersey; the other hopped aboard the Silver Meteor train up from Florida.

They collided at my childhood home, debating how best to care for me while my parents were virtually absent.

Toot, my maternal grandmother, won the match. She became my primary caretaker: walking me to Parkway Elementary on the first day of kindergarten, all the while teaching me to love bird notes and read tree leaves.

She instilled a love for the feel of yarn sliding through my finger-furrows, for doing needlepoint and embroidery. She taught me to cherish books in an active way: to read, to rummage the dictionary for meanings, to write words into sentences of expression.

Professionally, she was a junior high school English teacher turned science teacher, so, academics and children’s minds were electrically connected for her. She was, therefore, the perfect mentor for a lonely little girl who felt confused and abandoned.

Toot coaxed to life so many passions that live within me even today. For this, I’ll love her always.

One dream that we shared, though, neither one of us found a way to achieve.

We each wanted to sing.

We each failed miserably at matching vocal cord to musical note.

We each lived outside the precision of the musical staff. We lived, somehow, according to our own mathematical graph of pitch with respect to time and tempo. Although, I believe to this day that Toot was quietly convinced that she sang on key:


An Out-of-Tune Life


I hear Toot’s singing voice in my memory. The one she used in church. In the safety of a large congregation of Presbytery. The wavering silk thread of a soprano quivering like uncertain hands pulling the silk from the worm’s cocoon in the bend of a mulberry tree.

I allow myself to imagine an ideal of existence in which words and song might alter the course the events. Out of such moments, springs hope.

I hear a remote doxology:

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow;

Praise Him, all creatures here below;

Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host:

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.


This short hymn. An expression of praise to God was of some value to Toot, and, what I extracted from these moments of interchange was of value for myself.

The church we attended was old and cold and settled in its ways of worship. It had the scent of a funeral rite, but, I felt more connected to my grandmother than to God or church.

I loved to recite the Lord’s Prayer; to chant the response after the Reverend offered the call to sing the doxology.

My faith was somehow built into an ancestry that spoke during those rituals.

I don’t know what to make of my early childhood religious experiences, but, they were not wrapped in a denomination or contained within a building or held captive in the words of a book.

They followed a person. A woman. A blood elder.

Portrait of Toot as a Young Woman

Portrait of Toot as a Young Woman

I may say that, for me, God was first found inside the upright spine and the vibrating strings plucked from an out-of-tune voice that ached to be celebrated as beautiful.

This set my own wavering voice free. Along with my questioning mind and seeking heart.

I was safe inside that out-of-tune life. And may be forevermore.