|When the crew misbehaves, they have to walk Rob.|
If Keith Richards did some major weight lifting before taking a job as Santa’s bodyguard, I imagine you’d get Rob Flanders. It’s easy to snag your eyes on the flaming red goatee; it’s that unruly crimson twist that gives Flanders his crazed North Pole Workshop quality. Some of his tattoos cross that Polite Society Tattoo Threshold—the clavicle—and accordingly broadcast an aspect of his relationship with the world. I think I spy an inky loon at his ear, and I wonder what it might be telling him. Depending on the circumstances, this unusual character may be dropping fresh coffee on your doorstep, or shouting at you in a boat. (In case you're short on time, let me give directions. If you care about coffee, keep reading. If you don’t, but think you might care about “dragon boats,” scroll down to the part that says “Dragon Boat Section.”)
You may not recognize the name “Rob Flanders.” The name is his Clark Kent. The world knows him as the face of the Rudy Baggs Coffee Company. Flanders is a professional coffee roaster by day, and a dragon boat coach and paddler… also by day. At night, he claims to sleep, although I’m inclined not to believe him on this.
It helps to be familiar with the work of William Gibson if you visit Rob Flanders. I guess it’s OK if you’ve missed Gibson and just seen Blade Runner. For the uninitiated, Gibson’s work was instrumental in inventing the genre of “cyberpunk.” William Gibson novels feature gritty protagonists; they present conceivable technology interspersed with a toolbox-and-grease aesthetic. The fictional societies therein are heavily influenced by traditional and modern Asian culture. And Gibson loves old men with true grit and hearts of gold. So forgive me for fancying myself a Gibson character when I enter Flanders’s East Lansing home.
The generously-windowed room where we will spend over two hours talking is awash in pleasant sandalwood. The air is thick with the sounds of harp and soft synths. As I get to know Rob, I realize this is not for my benefit, but rather his routine approach to the day. The space is simple and serene. But there are iPads in the temple. Photos of Gandhi, MLK, and other peaceful warriors watch over two paddle-training devices, called ergs. The ergs and the iPads look conspicuously “techno” in this tattooed man’s room of quiet contemplation. It’s validating to see that the bookshelf, which hosts many works on meditation and health, is indeed also home to a copy of Gibson's Neuromancer.
Rob: Coffee, for me, is such a social drink. What’s interesting about it is it’s the second most highly traded commodity in the world, next to oil. And like tea, people will sit down over a cup of coffee, and that’s what it’s about for me. I think my journey has been such that I’ve been a whirlwind and a tornado through some lives, over the years. And I’ve come to learn the power of an open heart with somebody. Accepting my wrongs and theirs. That’s what coffee is for me. I want to have world class, fresh-roasted coffee in people’s homes, where they are with people they love and care about. And whether it’s just a Saturday morning cup of coffee over nothing, or those really so intensely human times of “I love you,” or “I’m cheating on you with the neighbor,” you know?
Greg: Nothing like a good cup of coffee to fix that.
Rob: That’s what it is for me. This may sound trite, but it really is about the love. It’s always about the love.
Rob mentions love enough to convince me that it really is about the love for him. To bolster his street cred: I first met Rob years ago at an open “class” on coffee that he was teaching pro bono, complete with samples. He doled out coffee and coffee history from behind his bar with equal flourish. If Rob was running for office on a platform of roasting “for the love of the game,” he’d be tough competition. The second time I visited his (now closed) shop, he lent me a novel he thought may be to my taste, which I promptly took, did not read, and have not returned to this day. I remind him of those coffee classes, while omitting the book thing.
He informs me that he just did one of his Dr. Coffee classes at the Soup Spoon Cafe. The Soup Spoon has been the exclusive commercial outlet for his microroasted masterwork since his own shop closed. He loves that the Soup Spoon has a bar just like his shop did, because he loves the incidental mingling that happens when people drink coffee in parallel.
G: There’s a social aspect with a lot beverages, but what is it about coffee that makes it more of a transcendent thing for you? I guess there’s the caffeine…
Rob: I’m not sure that there is one, really. When you ask that question, I think of my early coffee days of drinking swill. And just loving it! I didn’t even know what it was. I’m almost thinking that there was a heart connection with that experience. It was with coffee for me, but it could be with tea for somebody else. I think what’s happened, really as a result of Starbucks, is… they presented good coffee to the world. We’re starting to get it in 2014. We’re not quite there yet. We’re the vestiges of a blue collar community here. (Laughs.) I think with the food revolution going on, tastings, Food Network, all that stuff, coffee is just so perfect for that. What do you want, you can pretty much find it in coffee.
G: I need to open myself to coffee. Every time I’ve forced myself through a door, I’ve become glad later. Whether it’s beer, music, or climate, I’ve come to enjoy a lot of things that seemed abrasive to me at first blush. There’s philosophical wisdom in it, I just haven’t put the time in. So it’s exciting for me, because I’m coming at coffee from a neophyte’s perspective.
R: Well, there’s a really fun way to do that. I call it becoming a Doctor of Coffeeology. It starts with Coffee 101. Then 201 is a “cupping class.” Which is...people who buy coffee, green bean brokers, even some mid-size roasters are doing this now, going to the regions and deciding how they want their coffee dried, and how they want the package to be sent to them. There’s a specific process they go through to taste it and compare their options, and it’s called “cupping.” You get the different palate characteristics this way. Doing that in that format, you can get three or four coffees, and say “Wow! There IS blueberry in that one. Oh my gosh, that one has a little chocolatey taste, or (mimes spitting).”
G: I think that’s exciting, especially if you know those distinctions exist, but you've never been able to ferret them out. I bet it’s exciting the first time the truths dawn on you. Probably not unlike that movie with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper where he puts on the glasses and suddenly he can see everyone’s real face, and they’re all skeletal and horrifying. Maybe that’s a weird analogy.
R: No, it works.
G: What made you decide to start roasting coffee?
R (Laughs.) Well, like many a good adventure, it started with a lie. I told somebody one time that I loved “expresso.” I didn’t even have the name right. This person bought me one of those $39.95 steamers—they call them espresso machines, but they’re not really. I loved it. It was a blast. I didn’t drink the espresso—I mean you couldn’t, it’s just horrible. But with enough froth milk, it’s really cool, right? And then I learned that there is an internet, right? So I thought maybe they had real expresso machines, still calling it “expresso.” So I spent more on one than I did my vacuum cleaner and I was just having a ball with it, making lattes and cappuccinos. Then I found out that you home roast coffee. I bought a home roaster.
I was listening to "The Splendid Table" and they had a green bean broker, and he was talking about how they don’t drink the same coffee we drink, right? He talked about how they don’t take the roast as high as what’s done commercially. I thought that sounded like fun. So I bought a roaster and started roasting coffee. I developed an espresso blend, and people said, “This is so good! You need to sell this.” That was in the mid 90s. I thought the world was coming to end in a few years anyway, so I was heading for the woods. (Laughs.)
G: I heard coffee beans were supposed to explode on midnight of Y2K.
R: (Laughs.) I know. I was so disappointed. But that was the genesis of it.
G: So you home deliver. That ranks you among elite company, like the Postal Service. Why deliver?
Rob: Coffee, once roasted in whole bean form, becomes stale in 7-10 days. So stale coffee is bitter in the cup. Ask a coffee drinker, and 99% will say, “Yes, I’ve had a bitter cup of coffee.” That’s because it’s stale. So that goes back to the integrity. It goes back to the love, too! You know, I want you to have nothing but the best. Of EVERYTHING in your life. Everything! I want you to have your wildest, biggest, unbelievable dream! I want you to have it!
G: Wow, thanks!
Rob: I know! Yes, of course! (Looks hard at the Buddha head sitting on the snowy ground.) And...coffee fits into that. That’s coffee that you can have. I’m really particular about the freshness of the coffee. Like Nick Gavrilides, the owner of the Soup Spoon, he buys my coffee for his home. And he’ll have 2 bags sitting on his desk. And I am just beside myself. You know? Here’s a guy whose palate is probably a hundred times for sophisticated than mine will ever be. (Sighs.) But because I’m crazy, my coffee is gonna be better than anybody’s who is out on the market. It’s just going to be. If you want stale coffee, go buy some. If you want fresh coffee, you better talk to me.
G: Can I put that as the caption under your picture?
R: Absolutely! Absolutely! One thing I really like about Foods For Living is that their coffee is dated. Some of it sits there a bit long because people don’t know the simple fact about freshness. But Foods For Living is giving them the tools. And that’s what makes Coffee 101 so fun. It’s a big, big picture of coffee, but you need that. We probably know more about gasoline on the world scale than coffee, but coffee is more intimate.
G: Unless you’re an arsonist.
R: You’re right, I don’t know you.
People often describe Rob as “intense,” even “spastic.” But nothing could be further from my experience of sitting in his sunroom. The experience is actually closer to talking with a yogi in the waiting room of a spa. He is passionate, certainly, but his intensity seems channeled into simply enjoying the austere beauty of this snowy morning. We watch a squirrel perch itself atop the yard’s lone decoration—a head of Buddha at the base of an oak—and agree that he (Buddha) probably wouldn’t mind.
R: There’s something mystical about it. And I don’t drink that much coffee. The coffee I drink is good, so I don’t need a ton.
G: Entertain this: If you're trying to judge its merits, or think about any transcendent aspects, do you think the fact that coffee also contains a powerful stimulant skews things? It’s kind of like saying, “Gosh, I love tequila! Every time I’m drinking it, I think ‘this is the best thing I’ve ever had!’”
R: Well, I think there’s a an aspect of that, but I don’t rob 7-11s on coffee.
G: You stick to QD, because you like local.
|I'm sorry, sir, the North Pole is closed for tonight.|
R: Exactly, I’m all about local! I do think there’s an aspect of that judgement skewing, but because of the quality of the coffee...the arabica is higher quality, it’s grown at higher altitude, takes longer to mature...it’s classier, but it has less caffeine. One of the things that I have heard over and over from my coffee club members is, “I'm drinking less coffee.” If it was the stimulant effect, they’d be drinking more, right? It’s counterintuitive. Maybe that’s part of who we are as creatures. When we get fulfilled, I mean...you can only get fulfilled. You can’t get fulfilled more.
(The way Rob says “fulfilled” make this seem like a cosmic truth.)
G: Once your cup runneth over, you just have a big mess on the table.
R: Yeah, right!
G: I like being stimulated, but I don't want to break handcuffs and jump out the hospital window, you know?
R: See, that's right where I want to be.
I’ve always been suspicious of the morning, even as I adored it. Morning holds the day’s promise, but I attribute this primarily to lighting and caffeine. Call me a cynic. But I’ve always thought it was beautiful to imagine my fellow humans launched into consciousness yet again, never entirely certain of what we should be doing on this earth today, but certain that getting collectively tweaked out on delicious liquid ambition is a good start. Being in Rob’s sunroom promotes this sort of reflection. I explain this.
R: I don’t think coffee is at the center of that. I think it’s the experience of the morning. A new day. Most of the time it’s filled with hope and promise. There are plenty of days that it’s, you know, filled with terror.
We spend some time essentially laughing through our tears.
G: Right, that’s always rumbling beneath the surface.
R: I know I wake up in terror, I’m accustomed to that. That’s also part of our experience.
G: Nothing wrong with a bit of terror. It’s like bitterness: I like IPAs, dark chocolate, Severus Snape. Everything in moderation.
DRAGON BOAT SECTION
G: Let’s talk about the bizarre nexus of your two identities in the semi-public eye. You’re the coffee guy and the dragon boat guy. I don't know a lot about the sport, except that it sounds like how you might get to that island where Bruce Lee fought Jim Kelly. How’d you get started with that?
R: Years ago there was a woman in town named Laurel Winkle, and a guy named Mike Price, who is the head of the Lansing Sports Authority. They put together the Capitol City Dragon Boat Race. My boy was working for the T shirt company, RetroDuck, at the time. I saw this dragon boat race, and I thought, "I bet they need T Shirts." So we made the call based on that. So we walked out of there, and my son said, “You know, dad, the best time to win these races is the first year, before they bring in the ringers.” So I put a team together.
Here’s a similarity for me between coffee and dragon boating. It goes back to the love. So I got people that I know and love into this boat and we won the whole thing. People were telling me, “Thats the best weekend I ever had. I got to see my spouse in a totally different light. It was amazing.” I hear transformational statements from people who spent one day together. One day! People get in there and say “I’m in a Chinese dragon boat!” It’s something they’ve never done before, and they suck it up! Can you imagine getting 20 people to do the exact same thing at the exact same time? Come on, man. You could change the world doing that. Right? That’s what excited me about it. Part of it, too, is that it’s a challenging sport. Very challenging, physically and mentally. Getting 20 people together, and getting them to open, first of all. And develop that intimacy. And then, to be able to get on the water together. So we had so much fun doing that, we went down and joined another team, and eventually, I said, “Let’s buy a boat!” And we threw in some cash. I went to two camps that spring, and brought the boat back. Right now the boat is sleeping.
G: And lo! In the Spring she shall awake?
R: She will awake.
G: The process of building this collective force and will seems like it is also the product. Training isn’t just a means to an end, but also an end in itself. Do you think of it that way? Do you do a lot of training?
R: We train. Through the winter, we train one night a week. We have a personal trainer, and we train each week for an hour and a half. For the first half an hour we do this crazy thing called gyrokinesis. Then we physically train. There are a number people on the team that will come over here. These are dragon boat ergs. They simulate paddling a dragon boat. Some people are putting 2-3 hours in each week, and there’s what they do on their own. If you’ve ever been around runners, and the beautiful energy that’s there? And that’s singles. Wait until you’ve got 25 people on the same team. The energy is... let’s just say that’s “amped.” I’m a stimulant junkie too. I love being over the edge about an arm length.
G: Me too. I used to be on a quiz bowl team. So.
R: Wooooow. You got video?
G: I was on Quizbusters. It’s a matter of public record now.
G: Yes. Bigtime. Anyway, I think a lot of people yearn for that, but as soon as you pick something ideological, sects spring up. If you are doing something totally practical, there can be a shadow of utility over the whole thing. So this is sort of both and neither. I bet this really draws people in.
R: It can. I’m amazed sometimes. This is like the coffee business to me. I'm either on or off. I don't do anything halfway. So picture this: I’m the coach. I dont know anything about this. The people who know about it are in canada. They’re the best in the world. Internationally, the sport is probably 40 years old. I mean, it’s a 2000 year old sport, but you know what I mean. For we folks, 40 years. They have certified coaching classes, so I went to Barry, in Canada, last January, and the guy doing the coaching course happened to be one of Canada’s national coaches.
The cool thing about this sport is it’s gender neutral. They have open boats where anyone can paddle, and they have mixed boats, where you have to have at least 8 of each gender. It’s mostly size neutral too. It can be a challenge for big people, because the boats aren’t very big. And it’s age neutral. I mean, I’m 66 years old. The sport has gained so much popularity that they’ve added what’s called a senior A team, which was 40 to 50 year olds. Well, those people got older. So they formed a senior B team. Well, they got older still. Now there’s a senior C team, 60 and older. So I told this Canadian coach I’d like to try and get to the point where I had the stuff to get through something, so he said, “Come try out for my team.” So I paddled in Canada quite a bit, and I got to paddle in the Canadian national championships. i paddled not only on the 60 to 70 team; I also got to paddle on the 50 year old team.
G: Just based on merit. Impressive. So you’re basically boxing above your weight class. And you got to paddle in the national championships. This is the momentum of success.
R: Yeah. I’m going to be paddling in the World championships in Italy next fall. It’s pretty sexy.
G: It is. I’m glad I’m getting it to you when you’re still small time and I don’t have to schedule with your secretary.
R: Not gonna happen. I like it low to the ground. Nationals and what they call the nations’ worlds next year, these are opportunities for me to leave my intensity here (points to self), instead of taking it out on you in my boat. I mean, the people who are in the boat now, I’m so impressed with them. Because even the training they’re doing, most recreational teams are not doing that. This is what sport teams do. We don’t even have enough paddlers to fill the boat yet. You know? But for some reason, they’ve been drawn in, and I haven't beaten them up too much.
G: So can I say you're actively recruiting?
R: Oh yeah. We want people in the boat, absolutely. We want to fill it. We’d like 20 or 30 people.
G: I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I will, because I’m a dictator. So your ideal candidate has some time to put in, and is already in decent shape, and wants to get there bad enough if they are not. This person is also self-possessed enough to care about success but egoless enough to be part of a team.
R: Oh, there you go. Exactly.
We talk about competition, and levels of commitment, and nature vs nurture. This leads to talk about upbringing, and whether you can ever paddle hard enough to outpace your past.
R: ...I grew up in a family that was very competitive. Nobody ever beat my dad. At an early age, I decided, rather than lose, I’m gonna quit. I spent my whole life...I’ve always had athletic ability, my sons were wrestlers, my daughter was a swimmer, and we’d go to the gym together, and I just kept it up. At some point, in my 50s, I did a fundraiser at my daughter’s high school, a “Tryathalon.” So we started training. I did it, and it was a blast. I’ve always been able to swim. I used to do long distance swimming when I was teenager. I was athletic, as was my dad. and he was fiercely competitive, obviously. So... when It came time to swim during the Tryathalon, it was just like...devastating. So doing these spring Tryathalons was, in a way, continuing to work through my issues with my father, to get over that fear and whatever that was. So I work through all of this, stumbling along, and then I come into this sport. And I realized, at my age, I have an opportunity here. I realized, for my age, I’m pretty good at this! And I’ve only been doing it a little bit. Now I’m going to Italy, hopefully Australia the following year. I think it’ll be an Olympic sport, Dragon boating. Maybe I could be on the coaching staff, or something like that. I’ve got the heart and the head for it.
Rob’s enthusiasm and bracing honesty make me want to get into the boat. And what could be a pretty fluffy interview ends up becoming, for me, a meditation on intentional living.
Rob: Like I said, I want your wildest, craziest, biggest dream to come true. You get in my boat, and and say, “How can this help me?” Because everything happens in the physical first. This is a very dense, thick planet. And we walk around in these crazy forms. And yet that’s not who we really are, right? We’re much bigger. But by doing this, by inhabiting my body, by doing something that’s so hard physically, that my mind tells me I can’t do, I have to move from my head into my heart. It forces me to think through my heart instead of my head. And then Im using my training, every minute of it. It comes back to having a choice. Maybe it’s a product of age. I’m a short-timer. But I’m gonna squeeze the juice out, baby.
G: Now I’m super pumped. I feel like I’m a short timer. I suppose we all are. Maybe that sounds crazy.
R: You are. We all are. And every one of us is afraid to paddle in front of someone else. Every one of us is afraid to learn. But we can do all of it. That brings it back to the love. It brings it back to my responsibility as a coach to create that nest where you know that regardless of what you do, I love you. Done. It’s just done, you can't change that. When you’re on my list, you don’t get off.
To get on Rob's list and/or get in the boat,
or call: (517) five seven five - six five six nine
I’ll see you on the water.