Iced Chai Latte and a talk with Mike
Gloucester, MA. 05.03.23

today i sat in a coffee shop i used to frequent for the first time in months. i've been avoiding it after a terribly ill-advised and ill-fated situationship with a barista there (21st century queer problems), but she was not at the counter as i walked in, slowing my beating heart. i ordered an iced chai and took my seat towards the back of the shop as usual. a man sat across from me, and with him a coffee and chocolate chip muffin sat on the table across from my chai.

we read in silence until it was broken by the approach of another man inquiring about the porche parked out front. something specific, a 1991 model with another 4 letter name as its official title. this title had much meaning to the both of them and very little to me. from what i didn't tune out, their conversation was pleasant, and both men seemed content at the chance to discuss cars. the second man eventually took his leave, wishing the baristas a good day and jingling the bell above the door as he left.

"sorry about that," the older man said.

"no worries!" i replied awkwardly, not expecting him to turn the conversation to me, "always nice to hear friendly conversation."

"so what do you do?" he asked, not closing his book but drawing his eyes up to mine. he sat relaxed, the cover of his book, titled Anthro-Vision, reflected red onto his graying but clean jeans.

"well right now i'm writing," indicating with my eyes to my open laptop. i began feeling insecure about the stickers on it. i stuttered for a moment, unsure how to procede but deciding on "but i work as a suicide prevention educator in schools. what do you do?"

he paused, not answering my question immediately even when he spoke. i felt awkward for even asking, unsure what i should've done or said as i often am.

"i had a conversation recently, with a self-proclaimed "expert" on linked in," he raised his right hand to indicate his suspicion of her claim, "about the terminology shift around suicide. many people are taking offence to the term "committed suicide".

he paused and allowed me to formulate what i had to say next. i certainly am not an expert, and i don't claim to be. i ended up in my role by chance, even though it is work i'm passionate about, i am mostly uneducated. i am aware of this shift in preffered terminology as i am part of the movement largely against it, even if i don't feel particularly strong one way or the other.

"well in my line of work we tend to favor the term "died by suicide." i think the shift is in favor of reframing the act as a crime or something to be looked down upon, no one wants to die by suicide," i stated, rather without depth or conviction. i was aware of how basic my thoughts came across, but this wasn't really something i had ever paid much thought to. i felt very aware of the fact that i often just believe and regurgitate whatever i am told is best.

"in my mind, suicide is a commitment. in the same way you commit to a career, a sport, a partner, you are making a commitment to die. that is a choice you are making, and reframing this terminology is not accurate to the intention of the one dying. they are committing to suicide," he took a sip from his coffee before continuing, "i often tell my daughters and my wife, half jokingly, that if i'm ever to the point that i'm bedridden and drinking oatmeal out of a straw i'll drive that porche into the ocean thelma and louise style."

this was a sentiment i could very much agree with. many of my family members feel the same way, and i know i do as well. death is scary, but at a certain age or mobility it is preferable, and often feels more dignified than dying slowly. it was interesting to hear the point of view from someone who i did agree with. though i don't have a particular issue with the reframing of terminology, i understood his viewpoint and agreed. it made me think about how well meaning but unaware myself and my coworkers can be. i wondered if they felt as strongly as they spoke about the terms we use.

"that makes a lot of sense," i said, "it's all about context."

the man shifted the conversation back to his car.

"the ignition on a porche is on the left, do you know why that is?" i noted his use of the proper german pronunciation of porche, a sign that he was surely aware made him seem rightfully well spoken. i shook my head.

he told me that traditionally they were racing cars, meant to be ran into. the thought process was that you could easily access the shift stick with your right hand while turning the ignition with your left.

"basically, it just made you feel cool," he said with a chuckle. "the real reason though, was that after WWII there was a shortage of copper in Germany. the porche manufacturers realized that by placing the ignition on the left, they could save about a foot of copper connecting it to the engine."

his point, one of many he had throughout our conversation but being the one most easily understood, illustrated how much thought went into everyday design, the things we as consumers take for granted.

"you know, with age you get a lot of time to think. for the first time, we are starting as a society to truly age. i just turned 70, but back when i was growing up, 70 was about as old as you could get," his point was well illustrated by his demeanor, sharp, articulate, and well put together. "all this thinking, it leaves you with a lot of ideas."

"i just answered your question by the way," he said matter-of-factly but not intended as smug, "you asked what i do, and i think. for years i worked as a design consultant, thinking of ways to improve consumer experience and change the way companies design their products."

still unsure of myself but wanting desperately to indicate how much i agreed with him, i nodded my head. this is a concept i think of very often, how everything is connected and every design choice wholly intentional and researched through anthropology. i was grateful for this conversation as it was from someone with a thought process i find enviable.

"it's truly fascinating all the thought that goes into things we take for granted," i said, unsure how to express how strongly i felt without speaking over him. he circled his point back around to how our conversation started, that the terminology we use and the way we speak is so important in how things are framed and thought of. he argued that replacing "committed suicide" to "died by suicide" was for the survivors left, rather than those who died. i agreed with him that it was quite sanitizing, and that it really wasn't an act that deserved the treatment of being palatable.

our conversation continued up until he offered one last piece of advice before letting me get back to my writing.

"read everything, seeking different perspectives is the best way to learn."

he turned back to his book but before he focused again, i had one more question for him. i asked for book recommendations, his list is included at the bottom of the page.

we returned to our laps for a few more minutes before the man sat up.

"have a good day," he said, picking up his coffee and muffin wrapper, "and remember that chocolate chip muffins are a major food group," he winked and left, again jingling the bells above the door as he opened it.

as he stood i noted his stature, rather short and average weight, and i felt hopeful that someday i could be taken seriously and be confident in my arguments as he was.

mike's book recommendations:

Anthro-Vision by Gillian Tett (he didn't explicitly tell me to read this, but the synopsis he gave when asked was quite interesting.)
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
One of Us by Asne Seierstad

go back.