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“What can I get you?” My coworker asked, about to go get coffee.

This was a question I’d been preparing for. Not because I expected her to get me coffee but because I had just moved back to the PNW and recognized the shift to coffee culture. I’d spent the last 10 years in Utah where, instead of coffee, teachers go to drive thru soda shops like Swig and Sodalicious to get their signature soda concoctions. This is because there are several rules in Mormonism that surround what you can eat and drink; most notable is abstaining from alcohol or “hot drinks,” which is interpreted to mean no coffee or tea. It's a nebulous but strict rule – hot chocolate, herbal tea, energy drinks, and caffeinated soda all sneak under the radar of unacceptability (though all but hot chocolate can be contentiously debated). It had been easy to select a drink of choice for the communal soda runs, but outside of the Utah bubble, I needed to learn how to have a coffee order.

“A chai tea latte, please,” I replied.

“Okay a chai…” she said as she wrote it down on a piece of paper.

“Yeah, a chai tea latte,” I repeated verbatim because I didn’t know if there was a difference between what I said and what she did but I knew for sure I didn’t want plain tea.

I was 29 and still didn’t know how to order coffee but I’d done my research. And by research, I mean I asked my sister and her wife what their favorite Starbucks drinks were. They were a safe place to land and also knew that every detail needed to be explained. What’s a reasonable size? How do you pronounce everything? What tastes the least like coffee? It helps to have someone else who knows how little I know because she’s been there too and come out the other side.

The first time I tried coffee I was at a work conference. They had breakfast snacks and those large stainless steel dispensers of coffee and hot water. This is my chance, I thought. I don’t have to make it or even pay for it and I can take as little as I want. I grabbed one of the white mugs from the neat stack on the table and lifted the dispenser lever until I'd filled the cup halfway. I moved down the table to the pitcher of cream and tried to look confident as I poured a little bit in. How much cream do you put in? Is this a 1:1 ratio situation? Also, is this cream or is this milk? I quickly grabbed 5 sugar packets (I know myself) and a stirring stick before retreating to a far table in the room to empty in the sugar. Surely that much would make anything taste good.

But it didn’t. It just tasted like dirty, bitter, slightly acidic water that left a terrible aftertaste. I lasted two sips before I had to abandon ship. Must be an acquired taste, I thought, as I placed my mug on the round serving tray of used dishes.

I’ve always wanted to love coffee, though, mainly for the cozy writing-at-a-coffee-shop vibes. I could see it so clearly – the laptop on the dark-stained wood table, the steam rising from the oversized mug, the clicking of the keys as creativity flowed through me. Coffee feels synonymous with reading and writing; sign me up. There was just that minor detail about hating the taste.

Part of the problem stemmed from growing up only drinking hot chocolate. I associated warm brown drinks with melted chocolate, and I had a hard time getting over the mental hurdle that coffee should taste just as sugary and creamy. Turns out, there are drinks called mochas.

Mochas were the perfect gateway to coffee drinking with that mentality in mind – especially when I made them myself and could control the amount of coffee I added. I started off by adding just a splash of coffee to my hot chocolate. I gradually increased the ratio from essence of coffee to half coffee, half hot chocolate, and found myself recognizing and genuinely liking the taste. Mixing coffee with hot chocolate was even, dare I say, too sweet.

When I met Kaitlyn, she was further along in her coffee journey than me. Our first date was at Starbucks but that was less because I loved drinking coffee then and more because it seemed like the thing to do. Kaitlyn helped me along with branching out my taste, mostly because I could just try sips of her drinks without having to commit to the whole thing, and her drink of choice at the time was chai lattes.

I'd heard of chai tea before and had even heard it described as Christmas in a cup, but my previous experience with trying leaf water made me highly suspicious. Now that I’ve had it in the form of a latte (the only way to drink tea), I can think of no better way to describe the familiar, warm spices. My world was expanding at an exponential rate.

With Kaitlyn’s help I tried regular lattes, then just coffee with creamer. Since I’m no barista, this final step made it so I felt like I could make coffee at home (thanks to one-button Keurig brewing). I learned which mugs are my favorite, found my preferred creamer, and coffee quickly became my favorite part of the morning (that Folger’s jingle was on point) - though I'll admit my coffee to creamer ratio is still significantly larger than Kaitlyn's. Coffee helps accelerate my slow wake-up process just a little bit and was a welcome addition to my morning routine.

Today my go-to drink is a caramel latte or coffee with chocolate and caramel creamer. Maybe it’s because drinking coffee with caramel flavoring instantly takes me back to our rental house in Portland in the early days of my coffee journey. I’d brew a cup of caramel coffee around 10:00 am (those were the days of unemployment) before making my way to my office where I’d write at my desk, in front of the window looking into the yard. It wasn’t writing in a coffee shop – in reality, I don’t want to leave the house in the morning – but the idyllic became the reality.

In general I don’t like routine appointments that require small talk. You’d think it’d be better to see the same person over and over, like maybe you’d get beyond just chatting, but I actually think it makes it worse. Probably because there’s this expectation that I’ll remember what we chatted about from one appointment to the next when honey, I’m just trying to make it through. Haircuts? Absolutely not – I made Kaitlyn learn how to cut mine. Getting your teeth cleaned? A necessary evil but don't even get me started.

Then there’s massages. It's an appointment with a stranger but there isn’t an expectation for conversation, the lights are dim, I can close my eyes, and all I have to do is lay there. I can handle that. And because I like a specific type of pressure, when I find somebody I like I tend to want to go back to them.

The main deterrent of course is the cost, but for our anniversary this past year, Kaitlyn got me a gift card to a place with a subscription plan. I went, loved the massage, and impulsively signed up. It's for my health! Self care! But with current economic times, it's been hard to justify the expensive monthly bill so I decided to simplify and cancel the subscription. To help get in sooner so I didn’t get charged for another month (because of course it had to be done in person), I signed up for a massage with someone new - just the next person who could get me in.

I went in for my appointment and it was all as expected. Massage therapists always have the same questions when you meet them for the first time – where do you want them to focus, are you experiencing any pain, and what do you do for work? When I met Jenny, that's exactly what she asked and I gave my normal answers – focus on my back, I carry my stress in my shoulders, I sit at a computer all day, and my posture sucks. There was the normal room exit where Jenny left and I frantically undressed as quickly as possible before making it to the safety of being under the bedsheet. I know they knock. I know they won’t come in without confirmation. But it still feels like an absolutely necessary precaution.

She came back in, I closed my eyes, relaxed, and enjoyed the just-right pressure (she passed the test).

At least I thought I was relaxed. About 15 minutes in as she was working on my right arm, she wiggled it a little bit before asking, “Are you okay?” It was an odd question. Was I too relaxed? Did she think I was asleep?

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I reassured her.

But her comment a minute later let me know she had thought just the opposite. “Relax,” she encouraged. I tried to tune into my arm – was I accidentally tensing? I didn’t feel like it. Try to be a limp noodle I told myself.

A minute later it was the same. “I feel like you’re trying to help me. Just relax.”

I checked in with myself again and tried to think if there was any tension I could let go of but I just felt normal.

“This is me relaxed,” I said finally, while also internally starting to panic. What do you want from me, Jenny?!

This isn’t the first time someone has commented on my tension. When one massage therapist was working on my arm she said with pure empathy, “Oh, you have so many knots!” Another stated, “You’re tense!” as he started in on my shoulders. I've always taken it as a form of validation – like, yes, that’s why I’m here. Please help. Even my friends have commented on me being tight and I’m convinced it’s the only reason I have any muscles. I’ve always just chalked it up to being an anxious bean.

But today it felt like more than that. Today I felt like there was something downright wrong with me, like I’m clearly the worst patient she’s ever worked on. Like I might have some undiagnosed condition that's causing this involuntary tension. Maybe I should webMD this when I get home.

I wish I could say her commentary ended after the first couple attempts but her urging to re-lax only became more earnest (though less frequent) for the next 40 minutes. And it became all I could think about. Am I meeting her relaxation expectations yet? How can I be more relaxed? Am I letting my head rest in her hands or still tensing my neck? Why can’t I tell what she wants? What does relaxation even feel like anyway? WHAT IF I’VE NEVER ACTUALLY BEEN RELAXED IN MY ENTIRE LIFE?

At one point she asked me randomly, “Is your name Kimberly or Kim?”

“Kim,” I said definitively.

“I was just trying to distract you, but your body knows what I’m doing,” she said.

We were well into the point where I thought we both could just resign ourselves to the fact that I’m a hopeless ball of stress when she said, “just melt into the table.” The words, Jenny. I think we can agree the words aren't working.

Turns out it was her final attempt because the next thing she said was, gloriously, “That concludes the massage.”

She left the room, I commenced the race to get my clothes on and braced myself for the conversation to come when I opened the door.

“How are you feeling?” she asked.

“Great,” I said, deciding the best course of action was to try to ignore what just happened and leave as quickly as possible.

“Wait! Before you go, I want to show you some stretches because you were really tense.”

You don’t say.

She proceeded to have me practice two stretches I’m very familiar with before saying emphatically, “Do those twice a day.”

“Yep. For sure.”

I left, relieved I already cancelled my subscription. Maybe I need to become one of those yoga people, I thought on the drive home, already thinking through if I can ever get a massage again. But...I already know I don't like yoga.

I turned to the next logical alternative.

“How do you feel about becoming a massage therapist?” I asked Kaitlyn when she got off work.

Immediately: “I don’t want to.”

It was worth a shot.

“What if I got really into collecting crystals?” Kaitlyn asked one day. “Or dolls? What if I just wanted to have a display case full of dolls?”

Kaitlyn absolutely loves these types of questions. The What If? questions. The I-know-you-hate-it-but-answer-me-anyway questions.

“What would you do if I told you I’d committed a crime and had been keeping it from you all this time?”

“What if I became addicted to drugs?”

“What would you do if I had to wear diapers?”

“What if I told you I secretly had severe credit card debt?”

Let’s hand it to her, she goes big. And honestly, I’m impressed that every month or so she’s able to come up with some new scenario. But that doesn’t keep me from also really hating these questions. I mean, Kaitlyn’s the stable one – there’s no need for external anxiety kindling. And my responses are always lack luster because I don’t want to play the game. Usually something like, “I don’t know, I’d be sad/shocked” or “I’d take care of you.”

“Come on! You have to give me more than that. Think about it!” Is her immediate reply.

“But I don’t want to think about it.”

Rinse and repeat.

Part of the reason why I think she loves these questions (and also why I don’t) is because she always picks something that will push some kind of button. Like the oldest child that she is, she’s looking for a reaction, and, despite the fact that I rarely give one to the level she’s looking for, she’s persistent. In the case of the crystals and the dolls, Kaitlyn was trying to play off my general hatred of knick-knacks and collectibles. Bells, spoons, figurines, china dishes, nutcrackers, toy cars – I would never need more than one, if any. When someone else looks at a wall of Funko Pops and sees passion and joy, I look at it and see nothing but a graveyard of cash money.

Don’t get me wrong, I make my fair share of frivolous purchases and there are plenty of things I have that I don’t really need. There are even exceptions to the collections rule. As a kid I had Pogs and Pokémon cards, basketball cards and marbles. As an adult, I really like buying physical copies of books and have an unreasonable number of journals. But it turns out, there’s another contradiction to my own rule, and for some reason this one has been so much harder for me to accept. I really love Legos.

Now before you come at me for saying Legos instead of Lego (because surely all of you are enthusiasts), a) it’s a habit and b) recognizing the true plural feels like a personality trait and I’m not quite ready for that level of commitment.

I’ve always liked Legos. We had this big bucket of Duplos growing up and I spent many Saturdays dumping them all onto the floor in our basement to make stuff. Usually that stuff meant building towers, “log cabins”, and my own variation of a laptop and phone to do all my office and reporting work. As I got older I was allowed to play with some of my brothers’ sets like a truck and firefighter ship and I loved all the details. The joy while putting a set together! It’s like unto the high of being a carpenter putting together IKEA furniture. There’s a booklet with pictures of the step-by-step process and everything fits together so neatly. What’s not to love?

But Legos are one of those things you’re just supposed to outgrow, right? Like, as soon as middle school and high school come along, appearances are everything. And in adulthood, who has time and money and interest for Legos?

Well, turns out I do. And with Kaitlyn’s encouragement in any semblance of a hobby, I’m starting to buy sets again. It started with little $10 Brickheadz sets which were a low investment gateway to remind myself, yeah, I still really like these. And then I discovered this typewriter and I absolutely had to. Not that I bought it right away but come Christmas 2020 it was the perfect retail therapy purchase. No regrets.

Lego typewriter

It’s still hard to justify buying them though because the good ones are always hundreds of dollars and I’m a one-and-done put-togetherer. It’s only a couple days of activity and then it gets displayed in my office. It feels so frivolous. But that doesn’t stop me from keeping a mental cart full of them. And this past week, I took the plunge on one that’s been sitting in there for the better part of two years: this Nintendo Entertainment System set. I was motivated by getting my Christmas money, budgeting out how much money I’ll have left with the two trips I want to take this year, and reading an article that they’re going to discontinue the set in 2023. Oh, and moral support from Kaitlyn where I literally told her what to say but still needed the external verbal validation. Baby steps people.

It’s the perfect 90's nostalgia set and between the TV and the gaming system, it’s like two sets in one! There’s a turn handle on the TV that makes the scene cycle through, and it takes every ounce of self-control to not blow on the game cartridge before sliding it in to the gaming system. Seeing how the makers decide to put everything together is clever and watching all the pieces come together is downright satisfying.

Lego Nintendo Entertainment System

“I love that you’ll randomly just chuckle to yourself as you put it together,” Kaitlyn commented as I worked on it on the couch. It was delightful. I rationed out the bags, putting together 2-3 every night until it was done in about a week.

In reality, I know my Lego interests are less weird and more like a typical millennial, DINK (dual income no kids), or just-regular-person-having-fun pastime. But it really has taken me a minute to accept that I still love Legos, and maybe, consequently, take myself just a little less seriously. I guess maybe it’s my turn to start asking Kaitlyn, “What would you do if I filled an entire room with Legos?” How the tables have turned.

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