Life without coffee? Pointless

As I write this column, I’m drinking another cup of black coffee.

It’s decaffeinated coffee, so many readers would argue it’s not really coffee. They make a good point.

When my doctor suggested about 20 years ago or so that I switch to decaf, I thought, “There goes another cherished vice.” And I do miss the taste and effect of “real” coffee. But as with milk, I’ve grown accustomed to the pared-down option. Now, three percent milk tastes cloying, and fully caffeinated coffee seems particularly strong.

Not that I mind. When I’m at a meeting, I’m always grateful if there’s no decaf available. It means I have to “settle” for the real thing, and I’m always glad to do so. But a couple cups of regular coffee are enough for me at a single sitting.

That wasn’t the case back in the day. 

When I was a senior in high school, my folks introduced me to coffee. They taught me to drink it black, pointing out that if I got used to it without cream and/or sugar, it would be cheaper and less of a hassle, as well as probably more healthy.

I’m glad they did so. I gradually came to enjoy the rousing effect of strong and bitter black coffee. In college, it got me through pre-exam all-night study sessions and research paper deadlines. Unlike most classmates, I relied on coffee as my drink of choice, and it treated both my grade point and me well through the years.

But if four cups a day were good, eight were better. 

When I came back to the newspaper in Jefferson, where we lived with chronic deadline pressure, coffee became  an intimate companion. 

It wasn’t long before I was up to at least a dozen cups a day.

And they weren’t six-ounce cups. 

Over a period of 45 years, I worked my way through a number of different coffee mugs, none with capacity less than 12 ounces. 

A dozen 12-ounce cups of coffee a day equates to 144 ounces. That’s gross, literally. More than two quarts of hot black caffeine down the hatch every day. 

I didn’t smoke, fortunately. For non-smokers, studies suggest that coffee has no connection to cancer. But there’s research that indicates that just two cups a day increases the incidence of lung cancer by 14 percent among cigarette smokers.

That doesn’t mean there are no downsides from heavy coffee use. 

I inherited a tendency toward gastric reflux from my mother, and on days when I drank a lot of caffeinated coffee I seemed to have reflux problems, presenting usually as heartburn. So Tums or Rolaids became a necessary companion to my coffee mug.

As with any habit, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. 

I preferred my coffee scalding hot, and that aggravated my situation. My reflux grew worse, and I developed heart rhythm irregularities. That’s when my doctor suggested I switch to decaf.

So I did. Kathy and I have two coffee pots, one regular (for her) and the other decaf (for me). We also have a single-cup brewer, so three pots line our kitchen counter.

When I developed a carcinoma in my right lung seven years ago, I was assigned a post-surgery oncologist, who happened to be a friend of the family. I told him one day that I drank decaf coffee, and he responded, “Why?”

Not why was it decaf. Why did I drink it at all, since it has relatively little flavor and produces no desirable alertness benefits.

I explained that at 70 years of age, after more than 50 years of coffee drinking, I was habituated to the brew and found that I relied on it for psychological reasons rather than as a physically stimulating drug. 

He shrugged.

Coffee consumption came from tropical Ethiopia and Sudan in Africa, through Yemen in the 1400s and to Europe and the rest of the world by the 1600s. The coffee break and the coffee shop are deeply embedded in modern culture, in cities and small towns alike. 

Today, coffee is one of the major traded commodities in the world, and the prime economic product of a number of equatorial nations, including several in Central and South America.

They couldn’t thrive without it. 

And, I’m afraid, neither could I.

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