Taking Some Days Off

 

In a recent essay for The New York Times titled “A Day Off From the World,” Jennifer Finney Boylan opens with a passage that must mirror how millions of Americans feel about the current state of politics and POTUS:

This is the story of a day in Maine. It contains no mention of Himself, because He is all we ever talk about now, in these days of the Troubles. Instead, I hope you will allow me to celebrate a few small things, now that so much else has been lost.

What follows is a touching account. A day with loved ones, with good food, with a range of sensory experiences. Time is being cherished. It’s a love letter to those moments that we take for granted in our busy lives.

It was hot for Maine — in the high 80s — and I spent part of the day swimming in the lake. Long Pond is full of rocks, and I banged my knee against one of them as I swam, and said, “Ow!” “Jenny,” said my wife. “Are you O.K.?”

She’d been working in the garden. There she was, surrounded by elfin mountain laurel, Joe Pye weed, penstemon and masterwort.

I was fine. I took a walk down our dirt road. One of my neighbors passed me on an ATV. I tipped my straw hat to him as he went by.

In the afternoon my daughter and her girlfriend and three of her friends arrived, having driven up from Washington, where it was considerably hotter. There was a lot of hugging and kissing. The dogs barked at everybody. Bottles of ale were cracked open.

Boylan’s writing resonates with me on several levels. When I scroll through my Twitter feed, I sometimes end up wanting to palm-slap my forehead if I pay too much attention to Trump’s tweets and the toxic stench emanating from his swamp full of racism, corruption, enablers, and lie after lie after lie after lie. It is stressful thinking too hard about what is going on in Washington. Sometimes I feel hopeless.

But unlike many people, I don’t lack time to step away from the deluge of distressing information or a demanding job. At least for now, I can attempt to celebrate days like Boylan. The small things matter. As does a less frantic pace.

So this is the story of a recent day in New Hampshire.

In the morning, I sat with my dad on the porch. We sipped coffee–mine lightly sweetened with maple syrup–and the breeze almost chilled us. The sun would be brilliant and warm in a few hours. Dad scrolled his Twitter feed and chatted about Him and his latest Troubles, but the conversation shifted towards swimming holes, which we both enjoy.

Later in the morning, I picked blueberries at a local farm during my morning work shift. Some branches, heavy with fruit, bent sharply towards the ground. I checked carefully for purple coloring on the stem-side of the berries–that means they’re still tart. When I dropped the ripe berries into my plastic collection pail, it reminded me of boyhood visits to my parents’ hometown in Michigan. Grandma Gribbs and I would pick blueberries. She said I was best picker around, able to relieve her from laboring too hard for low-hanging fruit.

The farmer then showed me how to drive an old front-loader tractor. My body vibrated from the engine and I nearly ran over a few bushes. I delivered several loads of pruned branches to the northeast corner of the field, adding to an existing pile. On a fall cool night, this will become a bonfire gathering full of laughter, soaring flames, and sips of bourbon.

After nearly four hours, I checked my phone for the first time since work started. Then I left and enjoyed lunch with my wife on the porch. Then I departed for another farm job.

Around 4:00 pm, my legs and arms were caked in soft dirt and sweat from harvesting potatoes. A fellow farmhand had said this was one of his favorite jobs. It reminded him of a treasure hunt. I was hot and dehydrated, but my mind felt at ease. I would soon jump into the Merrimack River and scour my skin with sand to clean up for the drive home. Windows down.  

I’m blessed to be having many days like described above. Full of challenging but often meditative work. Plenty of fresh air. On the move. If these are considered days off from the world, then I’ll surely be taking more days off.  But I’ll continue striving to figure out how to stay abreast of political news and being civically engaged without being glued to the breaking news and hysterics. It’s too easily all-consuming, encroaching on the time we have to be present for little moments that seem inconsequential but can add up to the best kind of living.

 

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On Fixed and Fluid Worldviews: Were You Hoping to Catch a Bullet?

me and abdul 2

With Omani paratrooper instructor Abdul in Al Hamra, Oman

“I heard you got back from traveling,” a local man in New Hampshire said the other day, before explaining about how he’s heard Europe has a bunch of great hiking trails. He seemed to assume that we visited Europe because, after all, could there possibly be any other foreign place that would be safe to explore our there in the big, bad world?

“Sure did,” I replied. “It’s good to be back, but it was an amazing journey. We didn’t go to Europe, but we did go to the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.”  His eyes widened after I mentioned traveling in the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

“What?! Were you hoping to catch a bullet!?” he exclaimed in disbelief.

I mustered up a forced chuckle and told him that by embracing basic vigilance, we felt quite in those places; after all, they are ranked as some of the safest places in the world according to a report from the World Economic Forum, ranking 2nd (UAE) and 4th (Oman).

I didn’t feel like engaging on this topic further, sensing the possibility of a mildly contentious exchange. I instead changed the subject to deer hunting–something we ended up sharing a mutual interest in. I learned that as a dormant bow hunter, I can revive my hobby here in the Granite State on any land that isn’t posted, but that courtesy should rule: it’s best to ask permission.

Our short exchange seemed to encapsulate an argument explained by Thomas Edsall in this New York Times column about political leanings and a fixed or fluid worldview.

People with fixed worldviews tend to be wary about perceived (and real) dangers around them, are more likely to embrace authoritarianism, and prefer stability over social change.

On the other hand, folks like Rebecca and myself embrace a fluid worldview. We don’t see the world as a threatening place, we value openness, and we generally see change as a natural process that can often bring about positive results.

For us, fear rarely manifested itself while on the road. There was some discomfort being subject to a procession of curious and vaguely hostile stares at a local market in Tanzania, far off the tourist circuit. One time, on a bus in the countryside outside of Hanoi, a deranged man threatened me with a long pair of metal scissors because I wouldn’t give him my sunglasses or money. I was prepping for a potentially dangerous physical confrontation for a moment, but fortunately he got off the bus shortly thereafter. These experiences were anomalous–over the course of seven months, we experienced a lion’s share of hospitality, kindness, and curiosity in all six countries.

I wasn’t blind to this strong variance between a fixed and fluid world outlook before the journey, but my awareness of this gap is now heightened. Rampant bipartisanship is deeply rooted in a conflicting set of values, and on more than one occasion during our journey I commented to Rebecca that it’d be incredibly unlikely that we’d meet traveling Americans who supported Trump.

One commonality shared among the people we interacted with was their utter confusion and disdain for our President. Fortunately, not one person we encountered conflated us being Americans with supporting Trump. Traveling in four countries with a plurality or majority of Muslim citizens made it more likely, perhaps, that this could have occurred.  People in most countries also expressed justified fear of visiting America due to its obsession with guns.

I suspect that most people who have followed this journey see the world in a similar vein as we do. And while I wouldn’t go anywhere, I feel even more confident and comfortable to embrace future adventures in places where millions of Americans would be fearful of catching a bullet.

 

Hello Carbs, Goodbye Control!

“A breakfast bowl with chia, organic pumpkin seeds, AND sheep’s milk delivered here in high-tech containers that enhance its nutrients ALL the way from New Zealand?! I’ll take that one!,” I exclaimed, wide-eyed and completely in awe of the menu choices spread before me. Paul and I were in a San Francisco cafe, enjoying one last visit with family before we hopped on a plane to Tbilisi, Georgia.

Ever since leaving Kentucky, we had been bouncing around for a few weeks visiting friends and family, making it difficult to maintain a consistent, healthy diet. I figured that this one breakfast bowl would surely make up for the late-night hamburger and chili cheese fries run I had made in my hometown of Portsmouth, NH, along with the uptick in alcohol consumption that accompanies reuniting with old friends. With every spoonful of the chilled, creamy concoction, I imagined the cells in my body were exploding with pink unicorns representing health and goodness.

Welcome to Georgia – Land of the Carbohydrate

Fast forward one month. Paul and I tuck into a homemade breakfast at a local Georgian winery. The matriarch of the family has proven herself to be a culinary force – we had been gorging ourselves on her traditional Georgian dishes for a few days now. I wait in anticipation for what I know will be arriving at the table in no time – Imeretian Khachapuri – a delectable Promised Land of cheese and bread. The steaming hot pie comes in different regional varieties, and is a staple dish in Georgia.

After an unofficial taste-test that I had been conducting with disturbing vigor, this woman’s Khachapuri won first prize. I wondered what made hers SO delicious, such a perfect combination of fluffiness and gooeyness. I can’t say with absolute certainty, but I am guessing butter has something to do with it. During our stay I caught a glimpse of freshly made Khachapuri emerging from the oven, when I witnessed AN ENTIRE STICK OF BUTTER being slathered lovingly atop the pie, causing it to glisten enticingly in the sunlight. My health radars instantly sounded – I was not sure if I should be eating what felt like a pound of bread, cheese, and butter every day. Fortunately, and probably far too easily, I managed to quiet these concerns. When was the next time I would be in Georgia on a family vineyard indulging in some of the country’s best food? I figured I might as well suck it down and worry about it later.

Both in 2015, when Paul and I traveled in central and eastern Europe for six weeks, and now in Georgia, we have noticed behavioral similarities regarding food and health, mainly that in comparison to the United States, the average citizen seems considerably less obsessive about them.

There are likely many social, cultural, and economic reasons for this. Much of America’s health and wellness industry is dominated by choices that can only be easily accessed by the privileged. In comparison to the United States, Georgia is not a wealthy country. Far less people have the disposable income to spend on products such as gluten-free flour and almond milk, if they even have access to these items in the first place. Other factors could include a population’s perspectives on what it means to be healthy, what food is considered to be healthy, as well as differing beauty ideals.

In the United States, one is bombarded with an onslaught of neverending health and wellness remedies. Fats were bad in the nineties, then it was about calorie counting, followed up by eliminating carbs and increasing protein intake, and today whole foods are in and sugar is out. All of this and our obesity rates still soar, along with the high prevalence of eating disorders. In Georgia, Paul and I have noticed less extremes when it comes to people’s bodies. It’s far less common to see a severely obese person or someone who is rocking emaciated-chic. I have no doubt that both ends of the spectrum exist here, but they don’t seem pervasive.

Embracing the Bread

What I love about traveling is that you have to relinquish control of many ingrained beliefs, including those about food, or you are going to drive yourself crazy. This is particularly true in Georgia, where carbohydrates, salt, and meat are culinary heavyweights. You can manage to avoid them, but it takes some effort and you may end up offending a gracious Georgian host who has spent the last two hours toiling over her signature meat Khinkali (pork dumplings with soup broth). Also, it would be a grave mistake, because the food here is immensely satisfying and delicious.

For an American woman who is a self-professed exercise junkie and most certainly not immune to societal pressures, this situation could be anxiety-inducing, but I’ve actually found it to be refreshing. It’s hard to ignore the constant barrage of in-your-face nutrition and exercise trends in America, so-much-so that the process of choosing food and trying to enjoy it can seem like a chore. In Georgia, where NOT eating carbohydrates daily would be abnormal, I feel a little more liberated.

In addition, with the alteration in our dietary habits, Paul and I have also observed a change in our bodies. Shockingly, we both seem to have lost body fat. We are perplexed by this phenomenon, but our fairly uneducated guess is it likely can be attributed to a combination of a less sedentary lifestyle, our gym membership, minimal stress, and less preservatives. Then again, this could all be a grand delusion that we are feeding ourselves. I’m not asking too many questions; I’m going with it.

A Smorgasbord of Satisfaction

To be honest, I think I have reached a peak of carb-consumption while in Georgia that I may never again attain. The other day I picked up two loaves of piping hot bread baked in a tone (a tandoor-style oven) and realized I had absentmindedly eaten half a loaf while walking back to our apartment. My vitamin levels may not be optimal right now, but my happiness sure is!

Paul and I have nine days remaining in Georgia and then we are off to Dubai. In all likelihood, I will probably try to reduce my carb consumption and up my vegetable intake once we leave. I am almost positive that when we finally get back to the States, I will revert back to smoothies, salads, and whole foods, I am a middle class American white woman, after all. For now, I am going to savor our last days eating authentic Georgian food, including these ubiquitous and cheap bread-oriented snacks.

Lobiani

Lobiani

This is my absolute favorite breaded delight – smashed kidney bean filling wrapped in a buttery bread pocket. I refer to it as a Georgian burrito, and it fulfills my occasional craving for Mexican food, which is nonexistent in this country.

Adjarian Khachapuri

Exhibit A: Enough said. 

Khachapuri

Buttery bread with mashed potatoes and a hot dog (aka, the Double Carb Whammy)

Sausage_bread

The title says it all. Genius!