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is like model trains.
My first encounter with instant coffee was in 2020, the year of many things but most importantly a camping trip. Ill-fated but with a lot of character, this camping trip stuck around in memory much longer than a pleasanter camping trip might have done. Three friends and I spontaneously packed several Turkish rugs, about six hundred books, two tents, and a Monopoly Deal deck into a variety of non-camping-friendly vehicles and drove to a Wisconsin state park where we were immediately ticketed for not having a parking pass. Parking pass acquired, we set up our Turkish rugs in the middle of the forest.
The purpose of the trip was ostensibly to sort an art-history library that my bookseller friend had acquired on a trip to California. There was a distinct sense, though, that all of us were just along for the ride (including the bookseller friend), especially when we began to realize that no one there really knew the first thing about camping—I’m not sure whether it was the butter and ice melting together and coating everything in the cooler with a thin layer of slime or the raccoons getting into the trash bags we left on the ground that initially tipped us off that we were a bit out of our depth. (The boys throwing rocks at the raccoons every night confirmed it.)
The trip included surprisingly good food coming out of the butter-slimed cooler, hiking around the woods, getting swarmed constantly by bugs, and someone semi-accidentally finishing a whiskey bottle. Another thing the trip included was lots of instant coffee.
Instant coffee isn’t really like coffee; I worked at a hipster coffee shop after college and retained the opinions that the hipster coffee shop imparted. But when I tried instant coffee, I found it compelling. It’s like a combination of instant hot chocolate packets and pure, panic-inducing caffeine, slightly thickened because of its powdered consistency. It reminds you of coffee but it isn’t coffee—it’s its own thing.
I felt the same way about the Mexican food that they served in the cafeteria when I left California for Michigan. The tacos weren’t tacos, served in floppy white flour tortillas and doused in canned black olives and shredded cheddar cheese; but they reminded you of tacos. The oranges weren’t oranges, but sometimes if you were feeling homesick or overwhelmed you could still peel and eat an orange, slowly, as if the smell alone would bring you back to your childhood, to playing among the rotting oranges under the fruit trees and looking for smudge pots in the orchards when the weather got cold.
I love instant coffee in a way I don’t love regular coffee. It’s unaffected; it’s strictly utilitarian; it suggests that perhaps you are like other people after all, perhaps there isn’t such a gap between you and backpackers or soldiers from some bygone age. It jolts you back down to earth in a way that regular coffee tends to catapult me, at least, into a galaxy of abstraction.
Model trains are also nothing like trains. When I was a kid we used to go to a children’s museum with a huge train table—what seemed at the time like miles and miles of trains, going up over hills and into tunnels, little human figures and tiny buildings scattered along the green powdered grass. My favorite ride at Disneyland as a child was always the Peter Pan ride, and my favorite part of that was the moment your little floating boat goes over a tiny miniature London, with the lights twinkling down below. I loved—and love—the real thing, too, looking down from a plane to the tiny, organized cities below, from a distance at which everything seems to make sense.
In real life, trains are often chaotic, and I don’t like London. I used to live along the United Kingdom’s train system, which was wonderful, but never did a train trip go off without a hitch—a train would be delayed, you would miss your next train, they would be remodeling the station and you’d read the wrong sign. You have to engage with real trains viscerally, ready to run for your connection or field a bachelorette party stumbling from the next car over.
Model trains take you up a level of abstraction. They remind you of trains, of what you love about trains—the idea of ordered train tables, the idea of whizzing along to your destination through countryside refracted into something that makes sense when you rush by it quickly, categorizing the things you see into woods, ocean, forest, hills, towns, lakes. Model trains let you take part in this categorization in its most perfect form. You can make the train do exactly what you want it to, run precisely along the track you expect it to, forever. Your model train will never be late. It will never cause an accident or run behind schedule. If it breaks, you will be able to fix it yourself in a way that never happens with real trains. It will always have the order that we associate with trains but hardly ever experience from trains.
Coffee is an ideal that instant coffee never lives up to; model trains are an ideal that real trains never live up to. But at the same time, they both inch us in the direction of appreciating reality by transposing it. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton suggests a similar theory about fairy tales: “These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” Sometimes letting go of the real thing and focusing on the tiny version, or the version with many shortcomings, doesn’t just renew our interest in the real thing; it gives us yet another thing to wonder at.
In my own fairy tale, maybe the rivers will run with instant coffee.
Come back in two weeks: to find out why the Elkhart County Fire Department is like the Titanic.
In honor of: an offensively snowy March, here’s an article on light therapy lamps.