During my first year at Yale, I had a problem of sorts. I wasn’t despondent, but I wouldn’t have quite passed as an extra from “That’s Why I Chose Yale,” either. I wanted to be living a life-changing experience here. I knew it was possible — I was surrounded by the makings of it every day — but I wasn’t sure where to turn or what to do.
Now, three years later, I most often describe Yale as a dream. I love it here, and the past years seem to have expanded in the way time always expands when you feel fulfilled and happy and applied. The transformation of my experience came in the glib form of a number: 14 meals.
Since sophomore year, every week I get 14 lunches and dinners with 14 different people. Mostly I eat with friends, but also, importantly, I regularly seek out less safe meals — with people I sort of but don’t really know, and occasionally with complete strangers.
Eating meals with others is something we’re already inclined to do: food and people share a rich, intermingling tradition. Food naturally softens what is otherwise a strikingly direct interaction; “Let’s talk” sounds terribly ominous, but “Wanna get a meal?” is much more the palatable proposition, even though it’s the exact same thing, just with the sentences punctuated by forkfuls of food.
Obviously, getting 14 meals a week with people won’t magically create happiness everlasting. As with these sorts of number gimmicks, 14 meals speaks to something larger: meaningful, honest relationships create a quality of life and happiness. Paradoxically, at Yale, such relationships can prove elusive. We’re surrounded by engaging, good people every day. Sometimes, though, opportunity is least opportune when it seems it should be most, like the water coming out of a fire hose.
Meals represent a commitment to opportunity. Fourteen meals a week, you’ll meet or reconnect with someone. Sometimes the meal will generate a conversation that will challenge you or force you to be more honest with yourself. Sometimes you’ll meet a new friend, a source of yet more meals. Both good conversations and new friends come more frequently as time and meals pass, as you get to know yourself and your interpersonal chemistry better.
When I set up my first 14 meals, it felt slightly artificial, clunky. It was new and strange and took months to assimilate into a proactive meal mindset, but I’m glad I held to it. Looking back, many of the resulting meals have affected my life the way the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can produce a hurricane.
Just over a year ago, on Nov. 18, in the drab kitchen of my off-campus house, I cooked dinner with Mark Sonnenblick ’12, a friend whom I had come to know by pure coincidence as a high school sophomore. We both independently decided to come to Yale, and, much to our surprise, we ended up on the same FOOT trip. We had barely seen each other since the Berkshires, but talking and eating that night reestablished a relationship that I feel lucky to have. I remember talking about finance jobs, parents and much more, but we also talked about an idea of his to write a musical and take it on tour the following summer.
The conversation about Mark’s musical helped inspire 17 Yalies, including Mark, to come to my hometown of Sitka, Alaska last summer. (Mark and three friends wrote their musical, which they later took on tour, in Sitka.) We all had a wonderful time, and owing to a series of increasingly fortunate events inspired by the Sitka summer and the Yalies I shared it with, I’m now taking a semester off, sitting in the considerably less drab kitchen of Mark’s off-campus house writing this piece.
The relationships that have emerged from my 14 meals are far more important than a semester off can ever be, of course. Relationships are really important! For relationships, for conversations with Mark and others, I try to engineer my schedule like a car, so that if I run into a wall, the rest of my schedule yields — problem sets and essays, even — before the 14 meals, just as a car’s crumple zone absorbs and dissipates force away from passengers. (As while driving, I try not to run into walls in the first place.) With a car, with a schedule — it’s important to protect what’s most important.
I’m always excited to eat or spend time with any one of the countless people I care for and respect and admire on our campus. Interactions like these stimulate what is by far the best learning I’ve experienced at Yale. Whether 14, four or 44, the number is irrelevant, but the intent and commitment behind the number are essential. Take advantage!
Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.