Radical coffee (A short story)

Radical Coffee

The winter’s chill has just arrived and the first snow flake has fallen. Lola, a slim girl with alabaster skin, a hint of freckles and auburn hair walks into a coffee shop and orders a black brew. She pays and sits at a table for two by a wide window, overlooking the sidewalk. It’s frosty beside the pane, but it doesn’t deter her and she watches the snowflakes silently graze the ground from her window. She stares blankly past the inverted letters on the pane, waiting for her friend to arrive.

Her friend does arrive, a few minutes later, with a clunky purse strung along her backside. Jackie’s grey coat swallows her moderate body and she manages to unclasp a few buttons before walking to the counter and placing an order for a quick chai latte. Caffeine isn’t a part of her diet anymore, but piping hot tea once in a while doesn’t qualify as a grievous sin.

Once Lola’s order is called, she approaches the counter and bumps into Jackie.

“Hey, Jackie.” Lola greets her friend with a short hug before reaching for a cardboard sleeve.

“Lola! Hi! It’s so warm in here! Nice and toasty. Is that your stuff by the window? I’ll be there in just a minute.”

“Yeah, no worries, sounds good.”

The two sit over warm beverages, both inquisitive and pleased to be in each other’s presence once again. Comfortable chatter fills the air.

“How have you been?” Jackie asks as she slips off her petticoat along the chair’s back.

Lola slowly sips her coffee and smiles from across the table.

“It hasn’t been too bad.”

“When did I see you last?”

“Two years ago.”

“That’s crazy!”

It was, indeed. Only two years prior they had graduated from the same college, where their memories mostly consisted of discussing music suggestions, the plight of contemporary art and what junk food they should consume after studying: Oreos, gummy bears, pretzels. They spent many a night in the library, books piled around them, absorbing as much content as humanly possible. Now they lived in separate cities, united by an occasional Facebook post or Instagram like.

Lola looked her usual bit of calm. Her hemp tote bag and head band ensemble were additions that Jackie didn’t remember Lola caring for. It wasn’t her aesthetic. But she did hear that Lola had moved to a farm out of state.

“Lola, did you move to a farm?”

“No, but I was thinking about it, actually. I was in Whole Foods the other day and I came across these thin pamphlets by the produce aisle. They were right next to the seasonal radishes. I picked one up because the image quality was bad but the paper quality was really substantial.”

Graphic designers were notorious with details and Lola was no exception.

“Like think artisan cardstock. I looked closer and I thought it might be vegetable dye, but anyways, I was about to set it down when a small woman with a tie dye scarf and long jean skirt tried to hand me a flower. Her name was Solunam, which she later told me was Latin for tomato. She had placed the pamphlets around the store.”

“You know someone who is named after a tomato plant?” Jackie was trying to drink her chai without allowing her glasses to fog from the steam.

“Well she changed her name after she joined The Farm.”

“The Farm?”

“Yes, The Farm.”

Lola pulls out the pamphlet and starts reading from it. The vegetable dye had smeared a little bit.

“The Farm is a co-operative living arrangement located in an area with a wide expanse of fields. It has four vegetable gardens, each stocked with vegetables locally grown, and one exotic veg patch that has soil from a far away region. There are two cows, six chickens, a collection of goats and at least one yak.”

“The Farm believes in a society that is environmentally sustainable without the help of outside influence. A ventilation and irrigation system runs on solar power energy. All garments—including Solunam’s—were hand sewn. The cotton for garments is made with a loom constructed from an oak tree.”

Jackie was curious at how her friend so eloquently recited the information about a place she had never been to. “This place seems like a utopia. Or an episode from Portlandia.”

“Time,” Lola reads, “when not spent communally caring for the animals and the vegetables, exotic and non-exotic alike, is meant to be enjoyed amongst the sowers.”

“What is a sower?”

Lola looks up from the pamphlet. “The sowers are people who commit to the life-long mission of The Farm,” she responds.

“Activities include food preparation, food cleaning, dish cleaning, mat-less outdoor yoga (so no partition is made between the earth and the body) and hula hooping. The Farm desires to be an area of peace and unity, welcome to all who seek oneness with the earth. The Farm forbades any people who relish in hate, anger, closed mindedness or capitalism.”

Lola finishes reading the pamphlet and sets it gently beside her, slowly rolling the corners as she does so. She looks across the table to Jackie.

“I’m going to check it out with Solunam this weekend. After reading that book about the outrageous amount of sugar placed in processed foods and watching Morgan Spurlock from Supersize Me eat burgers for breakfast, I think I need to get away from it all. There’s too much influence in our lives from outside sources.”

“McDonald’s and a documentary hardly qualify as influence, in your life specifically.” Retorts her friend.

“Jackie I hear what you’re saying, but the food industry is wrought with problems and they’re controlling our bodies with poorly prepared food. Americans are basically addicted to sugar because of it. And I wouldn’t have come to terms with this information if I hadn’t listened to The Farm’s cds on my Walkman.”

It’s a wonder that Lola had found a Walkman in the 21st century, but Jackie learned her friend received one from Solunam after their encounter at the grocery store.

“You know after college I felt I had my whole life ahead of me, and I was really excited to work for the design firm downtown, but the novelty of having my own dishes and paying rent wore off. Sometimes I feel that life is so monotonous and I’m just going to work because society expects me to. Like I’m being controlled by my job and my responsibilities as an adult, which is some sort of mainstream doctrine that everyone buys into. I don’t know, I’m talking a lot, what do you have to say?”

Lola looked a little sheepish, but her cheeks had warmed and the rosy tint lit up her green eyes, which were relaxed. She seemed more confident, somehow. Passion has a way of taking hold of insecurities and making the uncertainty somewhat linear.

“I mean I know what you’re saying, Lola. This place seems to be very inviting and honestly, kind of nice. I bet you could see the stars out there.”

“Yeah, the stars.” She sighed. “The city has so much pollution, I don’t know if it’s the smog or the clouds that block the sky. Man, a star. Who looks up anymore?” Lola had a whimsical smile on her face.

Jackie milled this over her tea.

“Yeah, you know it’s funny that you mentioned leaving town. I wanted to leave mine too. Try something different.”

“Oh?” Lola questioned. The conversation had shifted, indicating the period of when each person took turns performing soliloquies. Lola leaned in to the table and brushed a brown tendril behind her ear.

“Well I was on Facebook trying to figure out if Jack and Jill were still together. Remember them? They lived down the hall from us in college. They had been a thing for years, but I ran into Jill a few weeks ago and she didn’t look the same. I mean she just didn’t look too great, you know. Tired, I guess. No light behind her eyes. I asked how Jack was and she skirted around the question.”

“Jill’s always been a little dodgy” said Lola.

“You’re right, she has. But I just had this feeling. Anywho I went onto her page and it says that she and Jack are still together. I checked the life events and relationship status pages—“

Lola cuts her off “—Good, good work—”

“Yes, thank you. I’m pretty sure they’re still together because he tagged her in this nauseatingly cute photo of them sharing a banana nut muffin at a bakery.”

“Which bakery?”

“Hm I’m not sure, but the banana nut muffin had a turquoise tin around it and then suddenly I thought, wow, I am so alone.

“Oh Jackie, don’t say that. Your time will come.”

“I mean maybe part of me wanted them to split up, because then I wouldn’t feel so pitiful for not getting any swipes on that app.” Jackie looked meek, embarrassed even.

“Jackie it’s a stupid app. And your bio was just emojis. As a joke. No one was going to pick up on the briefcase one anyways. Your soulmate will not make the connection that you’re in law school based on a briefcase emoji.”

“You’re right. But I was on Facebook for a while that night and kept scrolling through my feed and I found this photo of a few clothes hanging on a clothesline, with a machine rifle propped up beside a tree and words in a language I couldn’t place. At first I didn’t notice the gun or think anything of it, because I’m desensitized to media of any form. Honestly I hardly process half the things I see. I think everything is still loading or buffering somewhere back there.”

“Anyway I was scrolling and then the image came up again, and I decided to click it. It took me to this Tumblr that had the same theme. I couldn’t make out a lot except for nice domestic scenes of kitchens, folded laundry, a made bed and an occasional fire in the distance. The feel was very minimalist-rustic. The figures were all covered and wearing black. These images had some English though, so that made it easier to piece the figments together.”

“After a few mindless hours I found this post which praised Allah and mentioned Shri’ia law.”

“Oh so it was a devotion Tumblr?” Lola questioned. Jackie felt that she was rambling again, losing sight of her own story.

“I think so? I was really interested in the images and the posts because they all seemed to have a similar component to them, almost like a formula. The ones that I could read in English contained beautiful poetry. Real deep stuff. Everything was to praise Allah. I figure the posts were by women because of the domestic nature but it took me some time to realize these women had moved to another country to support a Holy War.”

“What?” Lola sputters.

“Yeah they radicalized and moved to Syria to help in ISIS’s reclamation of a nation. And it was all so invigorating. These women are so brave, Lola, to leave their family behind and move.”

“Ah,” says Lola.

“They want to be at the heart of Islam. You know to be in the motherland, their one true home. Online the posts said these girls who had left fell in love with the country and the people when they arrived. They really found what they were looking for over there, I guess. Love and meaning and solace in a place that needed eradication of ideological dogma which, at the time, was not properly taught from the Koran. Their religion had been contaminated and they wanted a world that was worthy of God’s domain.”

“That’s some love story. Don’t get carried away though. You do not live in a Nora Ephron movie.”

“It sounds really liberating, you know?” Said Jackie.

“To leave and find yourself somewhere else. And then to find the people who believe what you do, and just be able to live life with them. Live life with those who fight for what’s right. I was thinking about going.”

“Where?” Lola asked.

“Away, with them.”

“No, why Jackie? Don’t.”

“There are instructions online Lola. Pretty well written. I’ve packed my bags.”

“I doubt you have enough clean laundry to sustain you.”

“Excuse me, please be supportive. I don’t but that’s not of importance. There’s these great tutorials that instruct what to pack, how to get through customs and how to cross the Syrian border illegally. What to wear during the winter months and how to cook for my husband, should I find the man of my dreams. They’re easy-to-follow orders that can lead me to my purpose and fulfilment in life.”

“But do you really believe what they do?”

“That’s not the point, Lola. What they are doing is noble and brave and sacrificial.”

“How do they plan on reclaiming their nation?” asked Lola.

“Mass murder and atrocities. Initially of course. Just to suppress the wrong thinking. Eventually there will be peace.”

“Jackie you would be leaving the comfort of your heated apartment to fight in a Holy War, destroying a country you’ve never been to, with people you don’t know, who practice a religion you may or may fully understand.”

“When you put it that way, it sounds absurd, but I think there’s more to it.” Jackie took off her glasses and rubbed the lenses clean. The steam from the tea finally got to her.

Lola had a good grasp of the concept, and a better grasp of Jackie, and she figured Jackie would lose interest soon. Jackie had a tendency of chasing after things she thought she wanted and stopping right before she acquired them. Lola always admired Jackie’s persistence, her research capabilities in college were very thorough and highly celebrated by professors, something she envied. And Jackie admired Lola’s level headedness. The way she was able to mull over problems and provide insightful advice with clear logic was remarkable to Jackie. Both prized and valued one another for qualities they knew they couldn’t find in themselves. It was a recipe for a fine friendship, an old friendship, with deep roots that now had a footing.

It’s a wonder what sorts of conversations are shared over coffee and tea.


During our time in class I was really struck by the Lennox Lectures and the real world application of communication. Dr. Saltman’s talk on counter-initiatives was very eye opening. Her line of work deals with ISIS and the groups’s militant propaganda that saturates the internet. She and her team, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, try to combat the propaganda with counter-initiatives to stop the fast process of radicalization. In her lecture, she mentioned that because the internet is swamped with propaganda material which targets and supports the growth of movements, what once took six months to radicalize now takes two. This is an alarming rate.

Dr. Saltman said something that also caught me off guard. She said that a good portion of the people who join ISIS after reading online propaganda aren’t religious before converting. The growth of encrypted platforms has made the scale of content online a possible catalyst for conversion.

An example was given of someone who was exposed to fresh produce propaganda rather than ISIS propaganda, and it was found that they would be just as likely to join the first movement as the latter. This idea terrified me. It meant that people were engaged with an idea but not the full meaning of it, or really what the support of an idea might entail. Of course being a proactive vegetable farmer does not compare to the same violent tendencies of pledging allegiance to a militant extremist group, but according to Dr. Saltman’s assertion, they operate under the same mentally. Thus, the mentality of converts, as directed by propaganda might be: If I join these organizations then I will find purpose and meaning away from the noise of life.

It sounds as though movements have similar ideas at their core. For example, once, life was as it should be, but over time society and government have contaminated the purity of the world. Now, that can be fixed through being active in movements that seek to restore order. The invitation to be a part of this change is very attractive and the notion that you could be surrounded by like-minded people who want to better the world doesn’t seem harmful in the least. Strength in numbers is affirming, and it provides a community where people tend to agree with one another.

While the intentions may seem noble, the execution can be disastrous. For example, the rise of ISIS has caused destruction and death to millions of people, globally, in what is a massive Holy War. Women who join ISIS are promised honor and loving husbands who will fight for God. The deaths of their husbands are celebrated in the community with great pride, as they consider it a true sacrifice towards God’s mission.

To think that humanity is that susceptible is a scary thought. Dr. Saltman said that the people who radicalize used to have a stigma associated with them, as if they were outsiders in the first place, but she clarified that converts really are no different than anyone else. They were just exposed to radical propaganda, repeatedly, and they joined a cause that claimed their lives will be fulfilled once they’re active. And I guess that is what propaganda entails; a repeated, one-sided argument that gives little le-way into reason or logic. It doesn’t matter what is being said, or what the message really entails, just that it is heard.

Within Goebbels principles of propaganda, no. 6 lists “to be prepared, propaganda must evoke the interest of an audience and must be transmitted through an attention-getting communications medium.” Online propaganda, through videos, blog posts and images does just that, and they do it effectively.

I wanted to display this concept through a short story with modern rhetoric. Two friends who haven’t seen each other since college graduation, years prior, meet in a coffee shop and catch up on life. One is interested in joining a commune that advertises itself as self-sustainable and the other is contemplating joining ISIS to fight in the Holy War. Both are college educated women living in big cities with decently paying jobs. Neither had expressed interest in these organizations prior to being exposed to propaganda, but both seem passionate and open to the idea.

This story is meant to demonstrate the feelings of acceptance of being involved in a group. It is less about the mission of the organization joined and more about finding meaning and value in life. Finding purpose in life is a universal goal, and propaganda is such a great tool to advertise that an organization has the answer. From the outside, they appear to be productive and ethical. However, with the gritty details purposefully omitted, converts to these institutions are signing up for something different.


Works Cited

Leonard W. Doob (1950) “Goebbels’ principles of propaganda,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 14(3) p/ 426, MD.