What happened to dreaming small?

CAREER, LIFE

Ireland is just over there my grandfather said to me as we stood on the shores of the Atlantic, when I was about six years old. I strained my eyes but hard as I tried I could not see Ireland, just an expanse of water and thin blue line where ocean met sky.

As a child, the “end of summer” always seemed just as far away. If June was the shore, September was land on the other side – and an ocean of time and space lay between now and then.

To fill this mass of time I took on what I call “small challenges”.

One of my favorites, and in retrospect most ridiculous, was the Pogo Stick Challenge of 1999. I’d gotten one for Christmas and enlisted my good friend and neighbor Annabeth to join me in the challenge of reaching 1500 consecutive hops. In the heat of August, using a toy that had rusted over the winter months, this took some perseverance. But all summer long we worked on our goal, stopping only to refuel on cookies and lemonade.

Bounce. Creak. Bounce. Creak. At the end of August I finally hit the magic number – 1500 HOPS! We shrieked and clapped and moved on to a much quieter hobby – making jewelry. I’m sure the neighbors were thankful.

Two summers later, when I was 11, my challenge was writing a book of poems. Looking back, I’m amazed at my productivity before self-criticism got in the way. I’d wake up in the morning and write a poem in my notebook, then type it up on the old Dell after lunch. At the end of the summer I printed out all my poems, brought them to school to be bound and considered myself “published”.

I always dreaded running in gym class, so the summer I turned 13 my challenge was to build endurance. It started as two laps around the block that became three, four and five. I liked the way running toned my body and decided to pair exercise with a diet. At our Labor Day barbecue I refused to eat dessert, and my “small challenge” turned into an obsession that grew cancerously through fall and winter and spring.

That summer I realized it’s possible to take challenges too seriously, self-improvement too far.

Wonderful as they were – summer has always been my favorite season – they’d never again be vast as an ocean. Future summers were filled with reading lists, sports practices and college applications. Read 10 books! Learn to code! Write five short stories! Small challenges got bigger and I started feeling guilt for everything I hadn’t accomplished, rather than pride in what I had.

Now, as a young professional in New York City, summer months aren’t technically different from any other part of the year. I am working five days a week and time is limited. But I still associate the period from June to August with self-reflection and goal-setting. The thing is, because there’s so little time, every challenge feels like it should have some greater purpose. If your friend is going back to school for a Masters degree, you don’t want to be working towards the mid-20s equivalent of pogo sticking. In this city, there are no isolated goals, only goals that help you become a more successful version of yourself.

What happened to small challenges, of taking on random endeavors simply for one’s own enjoyment? Is it possible to do something entirely for you and not for your Instagram?

I’ll always be ambitious. But in a city that constantly shouts think big! dream big! I want to go back to dreaming small, just for one summer.


Image of Atlantic Ocean by jfleischmann

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Tell me about the world

CREATIVE WRITING, FAMILY

All summer I’d watch the cool blue light from our neighbor’s mosquito catcher, hanging ten feet from my bedroom window. It glowed mystically, the stillness of night punctuated only by the occasional zap and a small voice beside me.

“Tell me about the world,” she would say.

Genevieve asked this question almost every night. She was six and I was twelve. We shared a room and a bed for a year while our house was renovated – at first I protested the arrangement but soon enjoyed the company.

“What do you want to know?” I turned to face her but she was nothing more than a vague outline of gray against black. I could sense her pupils dilating, absorbing the wisps of light drifting in from between the blinds.

“Oh, I don’t know, how about black holes and supernovas and stuff. Black holes especially.”

My mother started up the stairs and we ceased talking until the clunk of her shoes had faded down the hall. If she caught us we’d be scolded for staying up too late, but that was part of the thrill.

“Well, black holes aren’t exactly in the world, Genevieve. They’re not in the earth. And shhh. Be quieter.”

“What do you mean?’” Genevieve asked. “We can’t go to black holes, even if we wanted to?”

Thinking about black holes stretched my mind to its limit so I did not answer. Instead we fell silent and I could sense her struggling to come to terms with this information.

Isn’t the world everything? What can be bigger than the world? If black holes aren’t in the world, then where are they?

This is how most of our nights went. Silence followed by questions followed by more silence, both of our imaginations spinning as quickly as the fan above our heads.

“Why are animals different colors?” Genevieve asked me after awhile, her eyes bright in the dark.

“Because they’re from different places, “I said. “Doves are white because they come from the moon, and and there it’s all snowy and cold. Crows are black because they come from the sun and their feathers got burned by the fire. And peacocks used to fly by the stars, which makes their blue-green wings shine.”

“Oh,” said Genevieve. “I never knew that.”

Outside our room the mosquitoes buzzed and zapped, buzzed and zapped. It never occurred to me that they were dying and Genevieve never asked. To us, this was just the sound of summer the way rain is the sound of spring.

Sharing a bed with Genevieve, I discovered my passion for storytelling. I had the chance to create a world for my younger sister, as if the six years I had over her somehow made me the authority on things time can’t even measure. Some nights we talked for what felt like forever. But exhaustion always caught up to us and the silences got longer, the air soon filled with ideas, like disturbed dust, settling slowly into our dreams.

Thirteen years have passed since we lay side-by-side, whispering in that four-poster bed. In less than a month, the little girl will go off to college. She’ll study biology and chemistry and physics, learning the true, scientific reasons for why things work the way they do.

But her curiosity for the world will never wane, and she’ll find answers only create more questions. These questions will grow and multiply, buzzing during wake and sleep, swarming invisibly like mosquitoes on a summer night.

Why iced coffee costs more

FOOD & DRINK

I read an interesting article today on Grubstreet about why iced coffee costs more.

Broken down into a few major points:

1. Unlike bodegas and diners which just add ice to their hot java, better coffee shops use a cold-brew method to make iced coffee. But cold-brewing (steeping grounds in room temperature filtered water for 12-24 hours) requires more coffee. In the end, a cold brew uses 62 cents worth of coffee and a hot cup uses about 35 cents.

2. THE  CUPS. Those clear plastic cups that sweat on a hot summer day? They’re more expensive than the paper ones. Paper cups cost about six cents while the plastic ones can go up to 12 cents a pop.

3. Straws. Customers might think nothing of grabbing one of the hundreds of straws sitting in a dispenser, each of which cost one to two cents. But that adds up when you’re selling a lot of coffee.

4. Napkins. The aforementioned sweaty plastic cup means customers will grab a handful of napkins on their way out to grip the cold drink. And usually more than they really need (I’m guilty of that.)

5. Renting an ice machine costs $12/day. But if the ice machine breaks? Ice bags en masse from Gristedes, and they’re not cheap!

The good news for coffee shop owners? Hot coffee goes bad in about 30 minutes, but the cold-brewed concentrate can last up to a week. More bang for your buck…just don’t tell the customers.

So there you have it. All variables considered, iced coffee costs about 80 cents more than a comparable cup of hot.

It’s a summer survival tool that’s well worth the markup.

In June, in January…

CREATIVE WRITING

Sometimes exposure to one environment gets me thinking about the opposite of that environment. It’s strange, really. It’s the beginning of summer and I’m sitting here thinking about winter. Come winter and I’ll be thinking about summer. And not even in the sense that I’m longing for that season – I am definitely not longing for winter- just pondering it. If I’m spending time in a city I’ll imagine dusty country roads. If I’m out in the Midwest I’ll close my eyes each night to city lights. (Maybe that’s from longing.)

I guess it makes sense. As a creative writer, I write best from experience, but even better when I have some distance from that experience. Still, doesn’t it seem contradictory to remove oneself from the environment your writing pictures, develops, scrutinizes? I don’t like the idea, but I guess I have time to figure out what works best for me.

I mentioned in a previous post that the poet I’m most inspired by is Ted Kooser, former Poet Laureate. One of his poems I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is called “In January.” I love the way Kooser develops atmosphere in this poem, creating shapes and sounds from intangible things like light and age.

In January

Only one cell in the frozen hive of night
is lit, or so it seems to us:
this Vietnamese café, with its oily light,
its odors whose colorful shapes are like flowers.
Laughter and talking, the tick of chopsticks.
Beyond the glass, the wintry city
creaks like an ancient wooden bridge.
A great wind rushes under all of us.
The bigger the window, the more it trembles.

 

Lights and Fireflies

CREATIVE WRITING, LIFE

Tonight I almost tripped over a firefly.

Well, not exactly. I was out for a run and it was around 9 at night. By that time, nearly the only light in my suburban neighborhood comes from scattered lampposts and the flickering of televisions in living room windows. Which means it’s hard to see uneven sidewalks elevated by tree roots, especially if you’re distracted by the first firefly of the season.

Every year I look forward to that first firefly – it’s as if the illuminated case holds within it all the wonders of childhood summer: dripping popsicles and ice cream cones, late night sprinklers, playing out in the streets and watching thunderstorms from my bedroom window. My birthday.

But now it’s a different kind of summer, because for first time in years I’m totally and completely free. And of course, this may be my last summer in that sense.

Having just graduated from college, I’ve been struggling to accept that sense of freedom, since my previous life was defined by never being free. I can’t accept summer for what it is, an open in-between period when it’s acceptable to spend hours shopping or tanning at the pool. I can’t accept that I should relax. (But should I?)  

Apparently, there’s no need to power walk to the pantry just to get a handful of crackers and get back to work. I can sleep in if I want to, and accompanying my mother on a long trip to the grocery store will make no difference in my plans for the day, and will certainly not set me back from the nonexistent pile of work I still need to get done.

Because my goals — write more often, keep up with the news, spend more time with my family — are all rather vague “self-improvement” goals that do not have a set timeline. But I have this irrational fear that by letting down my guard, by not filling my free days with something like the antithesis of relaxation, I’ll lose the drive that powered me through my college years.

As I continued my run tonight, which itself had been an escape from my too-relaxing book and movie, I realized this summer is so unlike “real life” that it’s hard to define what my ideal summer would even be. By the time I made my way back up the road, careful to watch for tree roots, the fireflies had retreated to wherever they go between dusk and dawn.

I opened the door to my house, greeted by central air and the possibility of spending the rest of my night doing whatever I feel like.

It’s summer and I’m not sure what that will mean.