Mulling it Over

It’s the little things in life I look forward to the most. I know that’s cliché to say, I also know I’ve personally said it many times, but I don’t really care. I’ve always found the small, the mundane, and the surprising moments caught only by us to be the most lasting and impactful. In my life, this is at its most pronounced during the fall. Whether it’s walking down the street in the autumn breeze while listening to the Charlie Brown Halloween soundtrack, watching Baylor football with the window open and a pumpkin-scented candle lit, or sipping fall-flavored lattes in the park as the leaves change colors, it’s the simplest things that give me the loudest joys.

There’s a small coffee shop around the corner from my apartment in Harlem where I’ve made a habit of ordering an iced latte on Saturday mornings. When I take my dog Joey for his morning walk on those weekend mornings, we make our way around the corner and up to the window to order a latte and sometimes a slice of lemon bread. Both are for me as Joey is allowed neither of these simple joys, but upon our return home he does get a sizable cow hoof to gnaw on so the tradeoff is gross but fair. I order my coffee while Joey sniffs around and makes new friends of both the human and canine varieties before we head back to our apartment where he will gnaw on a hoof at the end of the bed and I will sit on the couch with my latte and Gilmore Girls on my TV. It’s an autumn routine that suits us both ideally.

In October, that routine was upended in the most surprising way when during one of my Saturday morning visits, I read a sign on the menu that indicated a new fall flavor was available. Over the past few years, we as a culture have played it pretty fast and loose with all the pumpkin-flavored everythings and while I will gladly accept the position of king of the basic, scarf-wearing, pumpkin-obsessed masses, this sign proclaimed there was an alternative to the now ubiquitous pumpkin-flavored lattes. A Mulled Latte. My Scooby Doo ears perked up and though I wasn’t entirely clear what it was, I ordered one with gusto. “That!” I said far too loudly as I pointed to the sign. “I want to try the Mulled Latte!”

I felt like the real life version of Tom Hanks’ voiceover/email from You’ve Got Mail but rather than ordering a tall, decaf, cappuccino, I ordered a Mulled Latte. Subsequently, living out this You’ve Got Mail moment in my real life in Harlem has become one of the proudest moments of my life and has, as the film said it would, provided me with an absolutely defining sense of self.

Yet even with my Tom Hanksian level of excitement and anticipation, nothing could prepare me for what would happen when I was handed my latte. Upon taking the first sip, I was jettisoned into an autumnal kaleidoscope of bliss. Cinnamon and spices and orange peel and anise and love. It was an iced latte of love and I drank it down like it was Love Potion Number 9.

It was as if my life changed instantly; an addiction that immediately took control of my senses. Every day for the week that followed my life-altering encounter with the wonder that was the Mulled Latte, my mouth watered at the thought of it. I found myself talking about it too. About how it had taken me by surprise and how I couldn’t stop thinking about it. You’d think I was talking about a first date but no, this was far deeper than any first date. This was an autumnal flavor romance that the PSLs of the world could only envy and I counted  down the days until I could get another.

I woke up that following Saturday with gusto. I had a long day of magazine edits ahead of me and the best and most emotionally-efficient way to get started was with my newfound love in a cup. For the record, Joey was looking forward to the visit as well, but he’s easy to please. He just likes to be anywhere I am. So he and I returned to our Saturday coffee shop—he excited to sniff and make friends, me excited for my Mulled Latte—and it was just as revelatory the second time around. Charged and happy, I felt armed to attack my day’s to-do list with fervor.

The following week played out much like the previous and as Joey and I walked up to the window of our Saturday coffee shop—this time Joey was wearing his skeleton onesie for Halloween thus rendering him impossibly adorable and eliciting about a dozen high-pitched “ohmygod he’s so cute” from strangers on the street—I happily ordered my Mulled Latte.

The barista who’d faithfully supplied me with my lattes on the previous Saturdays smiled nervously as she dropped the hammer on my heart. “Don’t hate me, but we are out of the Mulled today.”

Immediately, I let out an involuntary, comically prolonged, sitcom-worthy “Noooooo” as I threw my head back in despair. The barista just stared at me as I grasped the outside counter ledge for support and pulled myself upright again. My disappointment was over-pronounced and palpable, a latte-related sadness that made my spirits feel like they were toppling in on themselves.

Feeling dejected and somewhat victimized by the barista, I reluctantly ordered a stupid ol’ vanilla latte and slowly made my way back to the apartment. I couldn’t stand on the street corner and sulk like I would’ve preferred because Joey prefers the comfort of our apartment over standing on the chilly New York City streets and he’s a bossy little thing. As I watched the most recent season of Schitt’s Creek for the third time, I sipped the vanilla latte with disdain. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch Gilmore Girls, what with the perfect cups of coffee in their hands serving as reminders of the subpar latte in mine.

Okay but Ryan, this is so not a big deal. It’s just a latte.

Is it though? When you’re looking forward to something with the fervor of I for this latte and then it’s subsequently unavailable, you’re not allowed to be disappointed? This was one wallop of a letdown not just about the coffee but about my routine being so supremely disrupted and, in the words of Moaning Myrtle, I was distraught.

Truth be told, I hadn’t enjoyed a single thing I’d eaten that week. I’d had so much on my metaphoric plate that nothing on my actual plate tasted pleasing in the slightest. I was in the final stretch of the magazine I’d created and shepherded for the past eight years and that, compounded by the other writing projects in which I was trying to remain faithfully engaged, left my resting mental state idling somewhere around Threat Level Midnight. I’m not usually a person who considers themselves stressed—that’s not a buzzword I’ve ever really taken to—so this was a new experience for me. I’m more of a can-do, we make time for the things that are important, plot out a to-do list and conquer it one bullet point at a time sort of person. I was still trying to be that person and to the extent I could be, I was, but as the volume of bullet points began to crescendo like a tsunami rising out of the ocean, I started to buckle a little bit.

And you know what would’ve helped?

A Mulled Latte?


Part of what made the past three months feel so top heavy was that throughout most of it, I had to work alone. Writing is a solitary act, editing even more so, and while many writers feel like their characters are in the sidecar, keeping them company for the duration of the journey like Fozzie and Kermit singing “Moving Right Along,” my current writing projects didn’t lend themselves to that. I wasn’t writing fiction with characters living in my head. I was working on journalistic profiles, interviews about people’s lives and artistic pursuits, and there wasn’t a way to do any of that except by being alone in my apartment with Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves playing softly in the background.

I recently heard RuPaul say in an interview, “To do something really amazing, you have to spend a lot of time alone. That’s the biggest sacrifice.” I’ve been a writer for some time now so I’ve known this was true but over the past few months I’ve really had to contend with the reality of it. And to be fair, being alone has never really bothered me. I weigh my alone time with heavy importance whether it’s my reading time on the train in the morning or my writing and editing time in the pockets with which I find to do so. I really don’t mind being alone but after months of such solitary work—and I think Britney said it best—my loneliness was killing me. So when that silly Mulled Latte that had reenergized me to hit that interview edit one more time disappeared, I spiraled. This is akin to Rory finding her perfect study tree on campus and then discovering it had been bogarted by someone else, thus upsetting her once effective and efficient routine.

After a long and irritating week waiting (and complaining), I did get another Mulled Latte on the following Saturday and yes, it was delicious and my world felt right and good and whole again. I’d experienced a momentary record scratch in what had become a sublimely-autumn routine and okay, maybe I’d overreacted just a little. Maybe. But, my brush with panic underscored the importance of the little things that make life feel (or taste) so good. I happened to be in a season of deep aloneness—a season born of necessity to get the job done—but it reinforced to me how the small moments echo the loudest. It also reinforced that I need to calm way down but that’s neither here nor there.

With the autumn season firmly in the rearview—something that really bums me out and I’ve already begun counting down the days until the leaves will start to turn technicolor once more—I have new simple joys like gingerbread lattes, the gloves that make my hands look good, and Joey in his winter sweater to supercharge my Saturday mornings. And I’ve switched to Kacey Musgraves’ Christmas album, A Very Kacey Christmas, to serve as my background muse while I write about simple things like my sock collection, childhood Bible stories, and a latte made of love.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon

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