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.

 

Snapshots of Humanity

 

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The writer in me has always appreciated hearing other people’s stories. When I drove for Lyft a few summers ago, I picked up one passenger after his shift at a suburban AT&T store. He soon told me about his trials attempting to make the Kansas City Chiefs, an NFL team. “I just wasn’t quite good enough,” he admitted. There are plenty of reasons why people don’t drive; I never learned his reason. I dropped him off near a Louisville high school, where he promptly started jogging to the school’s football locker and training room facility.

I also picked up a belligerently drunk man at a Mexican restaurant who admitted that he’d “work” remotely from home the next day, undoubtedly hungover, by activating his work chat window on his laptop with his big toe while sprawled out in bed. He also confessed he was avoiding downtown Louisville because of “all the blacks” who’d be lining the streets for Muhammad Ali’s funeral procession. These two details seemed to speak volumes about him.

To some, both of these accounts might be mundane. But to me, they are snippets of a larger tapestry about who we are–for better or worse. The diversity of human experience is all around us in our hometowns; while traveling, it can be in your face when you’re often surrounded by people whose day-to-day lives and cultures diverge greatly from your own. This post is a visual appreciation of just a few folks we’ve encountered over the past six-plus months. They–and countless others–have enriched our journey, and we’ve been lucky to have many affirming moments through smiles, gestures, and nods even when the language barrier stands tall.

There’s no doubt my general understanding of humanity has been enhanced by this experience, but it’s also humbling to know how many more people and places are out there. So many more stories. So many perspectives. So many more interactions to be had both in our backyards and abroad. While these interactions might only represent slipping into someone else’s shoes and standing still–or perhaps taking a few small steps–I’m not sure there is a better way to gain empathy than by putting in the effort to interact with open-hearted curiosity.