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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The Barber Shop Cost of Living Index

During our first week in Tbilisi back in September, I got a haircut for four lari–or about $1.60. This was a win. The small hair salon, tucked in a cavernous space below street level in the Vera neighborhood (go to this area if you visit Tbilisi), proved quite the steal, despite the fact no employees spoke English. And my Georgian was limited to thank you, you’re welcome, and no (ara). Before the trim, I pulled out my phone and showed the barber a picture of myself with shorter hair. Thank you, iPhone. I figured ara might come in handy if the buzzcut to my receding hairline was somehow butchered. No problems emerged.

In Sharjah, UAE, I experienced my first local haircut for 10 dirhams, or $2.80. This was a steep increase from my Tbilisi trim, but still cheap enough to excite the pennypincher in me. But no beard trim yet.

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In the midst of a perfectly fine cut in Sharjah, UAE.

That would be my next step in local barber exploration, when a shop in Oman groomed me better than I’ve ever been groomed. Rebecca quickly approved of my newfound appreciation for beard and general personal upkeep, as it but part of my enthusiasm was due to an unexpected head massage and about three layers of creams, salves, and cleansing solutions applied to my face.

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Feeling pretty good about myself after this grooming in Muscat, Oman. A 45 minute beard trim, massage, clean…the works, for about seven bucks.

Then a few weeks ago, back in Dubai, I took the elevator down from the 45th floor Sheraton Grand Hotel apartment so generously loaned to us on a quest for a fresh cut. I walked through the lobby of the adjacent building, knowing a barber shop was on the first floor. I was not impressed.

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A peek through the window at the “hip” barbershop in downtown Dubai. Not for me!

For 155 dirham (about $40) I could get a haircut and beard tune up in this “artisanal” shearing shop. Heck no. I’d like this journey to extend as long as possible; finding cheap haircuts is one simple way to extend our funds. Another alternative is to return to my “Grizzly Adams” look, which I’d gladly do. I know someone, however, who will nix this idea.

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Borderline too-bushy-of-a-beard for Rebecca. But I see her smiling…

After bypassing the overpriced joint, I left the building and walked northwest towards the Persian Gulf, where you soon enter a more modest and older neighborhood. The towers lining Sheikh Zayed Road loomed behind me. And a pronounced shift was occurring, leaving the insulated opulence of glass towers for the bustle of more modest commerce. Small businesses wedged side by side, the smell of chicken shawarma, perfumes, and exhaust mixing in the air. No 40 dollar haircuts to be found, that’s for sure.

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Within this block, I had my choice of three barbers. The skyscraper back left in the background is the Sheraton Grand Hotel, where I started my walking barbershop journey.

I knew I’d have my pick of barber shops as they seem to be everywhere in the Muslim world. If you’re wandering in a local or older neighborhood, you will have options. I settled for a branch of the Al Sayan Gents Saloon and got a perfectly suitable haircut and beard trip for 20 dirham (5-6 bucks).  

This lighthearted tale about haircuts and beard trims relates to greater questions many of us face: What is the cost of living in various locales? Can we live the lives we’d like to given varying expenditures? What do we sacrifice and gain when choosing between places?

For us, choosing to live in a place that will demand two full time jobs just to simply cover rent or mortgage is beginning to feel especially absurd. Being exposed to a range of possibility of where and how you can live is certainly part of it. And it’s already tempting to dream about choosing a place from our journey (maybe we haven’t been there yet) that will allow us a lifestyle with less stress and more adventure, in addition to time to pursue hobbies, volunteer work, long visits with family, whatever….

Expatistan is an interesting site–folks living in cities around the world submit prices for commodities, housing, transportation, and other costs. Below, you can see the information you’ll receive if you compare places. Dubai, our last home base, is twice as expensive as our current base, but that was seriously offset by free housing.

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Expatistan will also give you more specific breakdowns and examples of costs within each category.

In the meanwhile, I’ve yet to find a barber in Tanzania, but the time will come:).

Working To Live Is Worth A Try

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We try to work enough to pay the travel bills and little more. Here’s one remote “office” we utilized in Oman.

We wake up, and I make some coffee in a French press. We skim the news online, which is sometimes curtailed if the daily barrage of American political madness is too much. We play with Mrs. Norris the cat. I usually drink two cups of coffee and enjoy a light breakfast. I step outside on the balcony to check the forecast, then we settle into our respective workplaces on the large brown sectional couch in my aunt Jane’s Dubai apartment. Depending on what remote work assignments we have, we take care of a few hours of focused work–at least we try. And after a late morning workout, we do whatever we want.

We are working to live rather than living to work. I don’t know how long this can feasibly last, but for now it’s sparking plenty of reflection, possibility, and gratitude.

I know this isn’t commonplace and our current situation comes from a serious place of privilege, as our employment status isn’t a matter of survival and realizing our basic needs. But it also emerged after dealing with fertility challenges in our quest to start a family and also some bold moves–jettisoning half of our belongings, renting our home out, quitting our full time jobs, and embarking on a journey with no itinerary. We had very comfortable lives in Louisville, a small, vibrant, and affordable city. Great friends, good jobs, and benefits.

After all, once you get into the American work grind as an educated professional, everything feels like default. There’s no obvious “opt” out clause: You’re going to work at least forty hours a week, likely having a mortgage or rent payment that requires both you and your partner work full time. Hopefully squirreling money into retirement accounts. The relentless march towards upgrading homes, cars, and toasters.

It has always felt like bullshit to me, at least to an extent.

I don’t like the idea of a constant striving and material accumulation, with the possibility of free time, adventure, or even following a passion being reserved for some distant future, during which old age and other inevitabilities make it less likely to realize these dreams. As Rolf Potts encourages in Vagabonding, you can “take control of your circumstances instead of passively waiting for them to decide your fate.”

Accordingly, I’ve always admired those bold enough to live off the grid, embrace minimalism, or leave desk jobs to become organic farmers, among other lifestyle choices. Even the tiny house movement has some appeal to me, though this escapist fantasy comes with plenty of challenges.

I certainly don’t begrudge anyone on a default “American Dream” path–had we gotten pregnant and had a two-year old child right now, I’d probably put health insurance, future college and retirement accounts on a higher pedestal. Due to our love for travel, I suspect we’d be considering what it might look like to live abroad, even with a growing family, but who knows? There are long term world travelers with kids out there, and that’s awesome.

While it’s highly possible that we’ll reinsert ourselves back into a version of the “grind” sooner rather than later, traveling has opened up new thinking about what it could look like when we settle again more permanently. Will we both try to have full time jobs? Since we own barely any furniture, would we really want a large apartment or home and the cost/stress of filling it up? Do we desire the flexibility that being self-employed allows?

And I’m not sure that my reentry to the workforce be as a classroom teacher. It’s tough to avoid feeling overworked, overburdened, and overcommitted as a public school educator, and I was always cognizant of a work-life balance–whatever that means. A few years ago, I blogged about the idea that being busy is a badge of honor for so many Americans, often manifesting itself, perhaps, as a form of humble bragging, a way of showing off of how many plans, family obligations, work e-mails, and dinner parties one manages to cram into a hectic schedule.

Yet ironically, many professional Americans actually have more leisure time than they think. “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” Tim Krieder writes.

I’ll pass, thank you.

Can you imagine what your life would be like if you weren’t so busy? What would it look like if you cut your work hours in half? Where would you have to live in order for this to be feasible? How would you spend your time? What choices would you now be able to make and what would you sacrifice? If you jettisoned more than half of your belongings, what would you dispose of and what would you keep?

Almost four months into our travels, we are nearly even, finance-wise, chipping away on various remote projects in order to sustain our temporarily nomadic lifestyle. For the first time in my adult life, I’m not worried about stacks of bills. Or sifting through mail. We’re never busy in the way modern life often saturates us with “to-do” lists. I’m not trying to save money for my retirement fund or for the down payment on a bigger house that I’ll have to put more stuff in to make it look presentable. We are, however, making some kickass deposits into our experience account.

I find great joy in recollecting and retelling poignant experiences stumbled upon or planned while on the road. Meeting the local vintner and sharing many glasses of wine in a Slovenian village, as he smiled and scrolled on my Google maps app trying to locate his home. Playing Bananagrams with the proprietor at a bed and breakfast in a holler at the edge of the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky. Zooming on a motorbike up a hill on Thailand’s Koh Mook island, with the final treat a delightful family-run restaurant and the best green curry I’ve ever had. And the list goes on…