Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Falling into habits

I like eating half a toasted bagel with cream cheese on top for breakfast. The first time I had that was when I was living in San Francisco after graduating from UCSB, and working for a temporary employment agency on a long-term assignment as the receptionist at the Baker, Knapp and Tubbs furniture showroom on Jackson Square. Whenever I would get downtown early in the morning by bus or trolley from my apartment on Ninth Avenue in the Sunset, I would have a few extra minutes for a breakfast treat in a coffee shop before work started. One morning I felt prompted to order half a toasted bagel that came topped with not just a schmeer, but a huge, immoderate slab of cream cheese. I am not sure I had ever tasted cream cheese before, more than once or twice in my whole life. It was so delicious it became an occasional morning habit (not that I could afford it often), and I have liked it ever since.

Similar thing happened when my Dreamboat and I moved to the Washington, D.C. area. This was before we had children, and I was working at a place north of Dupont Circle. We would go to work together each morning, driving from our townhouse to the Vienna station at the end of the Orange Line of the Metro. We would park our car there for the day, and ride the Metro to work, but he got off at Foggy Bottom. I rode further and changed to a Red Line train at Metro Center, and then I would take the alarmingly long and tall escalator up to street level and would walk several blocks to where I worked. Commuting with my sweetie, I had ample free time before my workday started, so after escaping the Metro I would stop in at a coffee shop. I'd order coffee and an almond croissant (filled with almond paste and topped with slivered almonds), and I would sit there and eat and sip and compose and design little newsletters of our new life in Washington D.C. to send to our family and friends. Now every time I see almond croissants I think of that period of my life. That was in 1989, just before there were Starbucks coffee places everywhere. Another era.

Speaking of croissants, that reminds me of when my Dreamboat and I went for a week to the Virgin Islands on December 31, 1988, to celebrate his earning his Ph.D. We flew to the island of St. Thomas and then took a ferry to the island of St. John. It was New Year’s Eve when we arrived and the ferry was decorated with aluminum pie plates and other rustic and handmade holiday festoons. We stayed in one of the canvas and concrete cubicles near the beach at Virgin Islands National Park on St. John. We ate our meals in an open-air commons.

It was my first time off the North American continent, and everything seemed exotic and foreign to me (cars driving on the wrong side of the road, wild donkeys wandering through the mangroves, etc.). We soon fell into a self-constructed routine of having croissants and jam for our breakfast, at the picnic tables under the commons' shelter, where local feral cats would come by looking for crumbs. I learned then how under the most unusual and foreign circumstances humans will invariably begin to manufacture and retreat into routines and the familiar to make themselves feel less at sea. We did the same in Manly, Australia when we were staying there for another conference in 2000, too: ended up looking forward to our routine of morning croissants and coffee at the same place on the Corso each morning. In Manly there were antic magpies begging for crumbs instead of cats. But our habit (good croissants & coffee = comfort) remained the same.

Now I am sure the success of any large-scale innovation or colonization (whether of the New World or of extra-terrestrial planets) always depends on the colonists being able to construct some such small routines and habits to keep themselves sane and courageous. I have new respect for the Sons of Liberty and those who backed them when they threw that British tea overboard in Boston Harbor.

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