after Tony Hoagland*
They say that you shouldn’t eat while reading, or watching TV, or doing something else—it’s a standard-issue diet recommendation. The idea, I think, is to focus on eating, the sensations of taste and chewing, the changing complex internal gauges of hunger and filledness. Those who eat as a background activity, minor accompaniment to frolicking melody of attention, are doomed to eat too much and get fat. Or, at least, they’re missing out.
In Sinhala you say “burning-belly” to mean that you are hungry.
Chloe from Swarthmore read books about nutrition, new-agey and earnest, with recommendations about mastication and glasses of water at specific temperatures and times. Alex, listening to this litany of handclasped wrinklebrowed scheduling, said,
“If I don’t read while eating, I don’t have time to eat. Or read.”
In this country where I eat kale and onion omelettes and American cheese on toast for breakfast, where I can taste the cow in the tea-milk, where the February morning sun toasts the verandah’s boungainvilleas in the same way that it has since October, I have two choices:
Carry the crockery out to the porch and listen to Party Shuffle, muffled, from inside the apartment as it paces through Air, Afrobeat, Django, Dylan, and Fiddler on the Roof (Original London Cast Recording); watch the restless palms riffle their long fingerfronds until the tea is cold and the crows are eyeing the toastcrusts—
Or, sit in my reading-chair and balance the mug and plate on lap and not-flat armrest, and with awkward left hand hold flat the pages of whatever: history, theory, polemic, fluff, Rushdie.
It’s not that I don’t love the palms and crows, the sun pouring down like hot sticky kithul syrup. Just: eggs go down better with distraction, and eating alone reminds me that there are months upon months of meals still to be cooked and eaten, pages to be read and written. I worry only a little of hypothetical fattening because, book or not, I always clean my plate—not enough to save, too much to throw away.
The danger, if you’re me, is that reading goes on forever and eating only somewhat less long.
*Many thanks to Mark for introducing me to this wonderful poet and Genie for inspiring me to totally rip him off.
this is not a guilt trip
The pleasure of receiving actual physical mail is so great I cannot begin to describe it. Perhaps this indicates that I am a century (or two) behind Today in my tastes, but there is just something electric about receiving envelopes, like little missionaries of love and humor, touched by human hands, written upon by real inky pens, licked by slobbery tongues… or so I imagine that you, the writing public, is literally salivating to send me mail. (not.)
I like how wanton envelopes seem after they’ve been opened. They gape. They yawn. They are used up, finished. I like carrying my mail home unopened from the ICES office, half an hour walking in the hot sun, with the Precious in the bag bumping my hip. I like holding out on those beckoning letters, waiting until after finishing the day’s scheduled crucial tasks, making a cup of tea or Nestomalt and savoring the sunset along with the letter. I have a letter opener but I prefer to lightly abuse my right index finger in picking-open the spitsealed little tease.
Reading is another experience entirely. I don’t think I can describe it in a public forum. Yes, I have a slightly scandalous relationship with mail.
status quo n.
The existing condition or state of affairs.
1. Commonly encountered, experienced, or observed.
2. Regularly or customarily used.
3. In conformity with regular practice or procedure.
so, it's not quite redundant with "usual," but nearly close (sic) ;-)....
Another day of not being hungry. This really is unprecedented. Don't worry, folks, I ate, and plenty. It was just something I had to remember to do, rather than something I constantly thought about and desired, which is the usual status quo.*
The result of not-being-hungry is that I don't really want to cook, so I just eat what's already available. I made fabulous french toast** for Malka this morning (in town after sending her father off to the airport lasternight) and had it with peanut butter--new brand, I'm so sick of Kraft--bananas and kithul palm syrup. It was pleasantly sweet and salty. Then the rest of the day I ate dried fruit (thanks Aunt Leona!) and Craisins (thanks Mom! also a fruit but bears separate mention) and Curd-with-Treacle (thanks Jill!). As Gerrit notes, that sounds absolutely awful. It's not. It's basically thick tart creamy yogurt with maple syrup. Except the yogurt is made from water buffalo milk and the maple syrup is from kithul palms. It sounds better in Sinhala: kiri pani.
So I basically ate sugar, all day. This makes me think of Mina, the five-year-old daughter of the Senior Fulbright couple down the street. This is Yvonne and Judee, the people I lived with when at first I couldn't find an apartment. They are wonderful. Mina is at that stage where food that has any flavor is excruciatingly gross, except for sugar. This kid is a pro at negotiating for sugar on, in, and with every food. She eats rice with sugar, noodles with sugar, mashed potatoes with sugar, water with sugar. When she says, "sugar," lights shine in her cute little five-year-old eyes, and she smiles like she's made of it.
Well, I'm not, and I don't think it's helping the nasty cold. (Also sounds better in Sinhala: hembrissawak.) Tomorrow it's back to broth with four cloves of garlic and a tablespoon of chilli flakes.
*is that redundant? grammar police?
**is french toast French? or is it Belgian like fries?
My kitchen sink, and vicinity, has apparently become the place to hang out if you’re a four-inch slug. I have a mild, disinterested revulsion towards them; as long as they confine their activities to the late evenings what do I care?
I’ve never stared at a slug for three minutes before, nor had such emotional investment in them. I sight one, go away, come back later, note its non-progress, repeat repeat repeat; all the while wishing and hoping it will peacefully move on so that I can wash the damn dishes. I fear that if I were to get dish-soap on one of them it would, like, partially dissolve its body or something a la the effects of salt. Given the choice between intrinsically mobile whole slugs, or semiliquid slug segments, I’ll take the ones that stand a chance of not having to be manually removed.
They’re kind of fascinating actually. They can retract their head bits (antennae and whatnot) and they reach out this longer part of their bodies when on the move. The extended foot is a different color and, apparently, texture, than the main body bits. Maybe I should change the subject of my Fulbright—that would allow the kind of extensive sitting-in-my-apartment at which I truly excel.
In my head, I'm still vegan. Obviously veganism is in the mind and not the mouth, because I have now been consuming all kinds of animal-products for four months. These days I eat dairy, eggs, and fish. Some things I eat with much more regularity and gusto; for example I had a fabulous tuna salad sandwich in Colombo yesterday; daily tea comes with milk of necessity. At the same time, I don't even buy eggs anymore because I don't particularly like eating them. (Except as egg hoppers: thin bowl-shaped crispy crepes with a fried egg in the middle, with chili sambol.) I never cook fish, but when eating out would rather order it than order something 'vegetarian' and cheesey like quiche or lasagna.
Some things just seem more dairy-ful than others: paradoxically, skim milk powder in tea tastes more "milky" to me than full-cream milk powder in tea. Processed cheese slices, like the ones I used today to make a grilled cheese sandwich, barely register (though Tofutti Veggy Slices are much tastier) but the butter I used in the frying pan smelled weird and I wished I wasn't out of margarine. I have NO interest in 'quality' cheeses in the rare event that they are available.
Last summer was the anniversary of six years being vegan. Not strictly; there was always a bite of chocolate mousse lurking around a corner (usually on the end of my mother's fork) against which I was helpless to defend myself. After six years, though, temptation had by and large subsided and only curiosity remained, and not much even of that. I can now say for certain that tastes change dramatically. The foods I crave now, here, are surprisingly banal and un-decadent by nonvegan standards; I swear that I'd kill for some good bbq seitan or homemade hummus. The best would be Tofu By Dave.
I wonder, though, what it will be like in several months to return to my old habits. Will it be kosher (as it were) to say that I'm 'vegan' after however many months eating this stuff? And can I start again with six years' cred, or do I get sent back to 'Go'?
one of my favorite philosophical insights from high school
...the reason being that they're both essentially materialistic doctrines stating that with the right experiential inputs (food, sex, luxury goods) one can be happy. The only difference is that the Epicures were into trying everything in a toddleresque orgy of consumption, and the Stoics were into restricting inputs to the point that even very minimal pleasures would prove blissful. So really Stoicism was a more pragmatic, Yankee way of going about the pursuit of happiness.
The point: yesterday was 'hedonistic,' as some might say; a personal experiment in some form of the above model. Gavin, bless him, had the bright idea of spending the afternoon at Le Kandyan, a posh-ish resorty hotel in the hills above our neighboring villages, for the purposes of lunch, swimming, and Ayurvedic massage. And spend we did.
I've got a minor but tenacious respiratory something--stemming from the cigarette smoke? is that even possible?--and their food is mediocre at best, so lunch was a wash. Rice and curry in tourist hotels usually is because they don't put nearly enough chilies. Gavin noted that when you start demanding more chilies it's because your taste buds have all been killed by massive previous consumption. Given my absent sense of smell, I beg[ged] to differ.
Anyway. The Ayurveda was the point, and the high point, of the whole day. Stress relief can be stressful itself, however. I was fairly anxious because of unknown parameters: what treatments? how expensive? is it colonialist/oppressive? and, most importantly, how naked do I have to be?
Answer: totally. I apologize, gentle reader, if you are uncomfortable with this topic; my discussion shall be brief, oblique, and humorous. I was shocked! I was embarrassed! I spent the first five minutes of the oil massage screamingly worried about jiggly fat in unmentionable regions. After a little while I decided that worrying wouldn't do any good; jiggle I would, no matter how hard I willed the flesh to still itself. The nekkid issue just wouldn't go away, though; every time I had to move (roll over! sit up! lie over here! walk to the herbal-bath-chamber!) I had three seconds of panic. You would think I had grown up in a much more repressive culture.
Overall: surreal, yet ultimately relaxing. The oil had a pleasant herby smell. The massage was soothing rather than, say, deep-muscle; the head massage one of the best parts. I've gotten Ayurvedic head massage before and there's this funny part where they sort of whack you on the top of the skull repeatedly. There was a steam treatment for which I had to lie in a giant slatted wooden bed-with-lid that looked like a combo iron lung/coffin/chafing dish. The masseuse lady kept asking me if it was too hot, and chatting me up in Sinhala, while my head poked out of this ridiculous box and inside piles of herby leaves plastered themselves to my oily skin.
I could visualize, but not actually see, my skin turning pink, then red, as the steam gradually did become hot. It was fun to imagine myself as a sort of scary-surprise-dish in a buffet for giants: over here, rice; there, dhal curry, and down at the end, live par-steamed white girl with herbs chiffonade! Eeks.
The lady finally asked me if I'd had enough and I was utterly confused--aren't they supposed to know when you're, you know, cleansed? Or whatever? When I decided I was cooked through I had a nice little herbal cool-off bath, then a proper shower, then a cup of herbal tea (bathwater? hm) before pouring myself into a poolside chaise for reading/rehydrating/sunsoaking. I must have sweated out at least a quart of water.
As I was applying sunscreen I sent silent apologies to my skin for being so cavalier in substance application. Morning: sunscreen. Noon: oils, herbs, soap, shampoo. After: more sunscreen. But it was good. The verdict: hedonism carries its own stresses.
Subha Nidahas Dawese! (Happy Independence Day!)
The price of travel in Sri Lanka: a point-by-point analysis
Trishaw from Dangolla Junction to Peradeniya Road: Rs 40
Local bus to Kandy: Rs 5
Intercity express from Kandy to Colombo: Rs 120
5 mg Valium: Rs 10
Not arriving in a towering irrational bus-induced rage: you get the idea.
Thanks, MasterCard, for having the most plagiarizable advertising ever.
I believe it reflects on my rather [in]tense mental state that the starting/baseline dosage of Valium makes me merely calm, able to tolerate traffic and bad driving, and not dopey or blissful or tired. I would like to attribute current state to recent events, but as I ponder this, I realize, I’m just that kind of person. Intense. Uptight, you might say.
It’s fun to buy things like that over-the-counter. I was just going to get two or four, but come on, for that price, why not a whole boxful? Not like I’m never taking the Kandy-Colombo bus again!
I am proud of myself for having taken a trip to Colombo, returned in just over 24 hours, not been a spaz and not had a psychotic breakdown. I was really concerned that I not have the (recurring) experience of getting there, being overwhelmed and overhot, feeling frustrated, getting sucked into one waste of time or another (a pointless meeting, whatever), not knowing when I was leaving, not having any purpose in the world, being a generally useless human being, being really, really hot, getting a sunburn…
I went initially for Dharmasena’s farewell party (and to do some errands: vide ultra). He’s the now-former driver for the Fulbright Commission, a wicked funny guy and super helpful, leaving for Maryland next week after getting his in-service visa. Guess how long you have to work for the US State Department to get a special visa? Twenty years. I can’t imagine working for twenty years to get a lousy visa. I mean, being the Commission driver is a good job, but still. So, he’s going to move his family there, find some work, try to put his kids through university, and then retire back here. If anyone knows of any work for a sharp, hilarious, smart guy in Maryland/DC, let me know.
Then I put on my snazzy new shirt, in which I feel like a real person because it’s something I’d wear in public at home, and went to the Bistro with Jill and IndiaDave supposedly for dancing but the cigarette smoke gave me all kinds of optical irritation and so (after sri-nachos) we skedaddled out, on the early side. IndiaDave is great; Jill's year on ISLE and of much amusement to Lankans because he has long blond hair and a huge mountainman beard. Everyone stops on the street to look at him; children want to touch the beard. He is distinguished from RotaryScholarDave, who lived across the street from Jill in my future apartment, and MyDave. I mean that in a non-proprietary sense; just that of all the people I know in Sri Lanka, I'm the only one with ties to the Dave in question.
The next morning I was unable to do three of my four desired errands because, duh, it’s Sri Lankan Independence Day! Post office: closed. Shop to buy some stationery items I need: closed. Mercy Corps office where I was to pick up some info about a project I might work on: yup, closed too. I did drop Jeremy’s precious forgotten phone-charger with his landlady, though, and could just feel my halo shining ever more brightly. Somehow ¾ errands un-done didn’t bother me that much, though I had come to Colombo precisely to do them. Maybe it was the previous day’s 5mg.
Jill and I ran into each other near the bus station and lucky for us! Because we had to wait forever for a bus. Not a lot running on Nidahas Dawese. I had a great chat with a trishaw driver about American Independence Day; I told him we have fireworks, barbecue, and beer. And we sing. He said, in Sri Lanka we have political speeches and a march or a parade, but only ‘crazy people’ go to these. I asked him why he was working, given that everything was closed and no one going much of anywhere, and he said, otherwise I’m just sitting at home, it’s boring. I asked, do you eat special foods for the holiday? Or drink arrack? He laughed. We eat rice, he said dryly, and all the liquor stores are closed. So boring.
Yeesh, it’s late.
By popular request. The day after I took this I spilled baby oil all over this-my-most-favorite-shirt-to-sleep-in. Have devoted several washings to removing said oil. It's coming out, mostly.
Was looking at current and old IDs and photos. I think my looks have really changed since about 2 years ago, though I still look just like my parents. Can't put my finger on what's different. It's not just short hair.
to save the world or to sit in a quiet room alone?
Solution to mental and physical exhaustion, encroaching frustrated-depression, and general sublimated angsty rage: sit in your peaceful, quiet, airy aerie for four days, eat soup and drink hot beverages. Abject sloth saves the day!
Well, not entirely abject sloth. I cleaned the whole apartment very extensively on my first day back. It took a while and was very aerobic and whatnot; I kept thinking of all the conversations I have with Lankans about why I’m not married and why I’m not planning to get married soon. The amount of pleasure I take in housework would certainly give them something to wag in my face on the subject. And really, who doesn’t enjoy the smell of wet clean laundry on the line and a nice orderly home? (I know, I’m digging myself deeper into this particular hole.)
I feel better, though. Somewhat. I still feel disconnected, in limbo: not involved in my research (and unable to reconnect with it right now) and yet unable to contribute to the rebuilding effort—which is where my mind and heart are occupied. My emotional involvement in this is surprisingly deep even though I haven’t been living or working much in the affected areas. Perhaps this event has wrenched me so much because, as Fareed Zakaria argued in his column the week after the tsunami, natural disaster is so massively more disastrous in the third world, where the absence of coherent power structures and general impoverishment of leadership makes it difficult even to deploy huge amounts of resources.
Knowing this country I am sure that in ten years there will still be people living in ‘temporary’ shelters and politicians squabbling over which MP gets to cut the ribbons at the new apartment housing project, which is destined to become a slum anyway, because it’s been planned according to all kinds of cockamamie wrong ideas about how people live in this culture. That’s what really gets me: the people in power are so out of touch with the lives of their constituents, and yet they try to propagandize everything the government does. It makes the Bush Administration look sophisticated: at least they know what Americans want to hear and how to motivate them.
At the risk of making an impolitic comparison: I feel more sad and more frustrated than after September 11. Perhaps with that my attention and energy went directly towards the horrible political aftermath, Iraq Afghanistan and so on down the primrose path. Here my knowledge of the lamentable political history and the real poverty of the people makes it that much harder to feel hopeful. At least with September 11 I had a sense that there were knowledgeable professionals and good intentions hard at work on the two sites and with the survivors and the victims’ families. Of course the tsunamis are magnitudes bigger, in terms of lives and costs and geographical spread, than any other disaster I can think of.
I just don’t want to think about it.
My aunt Steph, who was visiting at the time, wrote a terrific letter/article about her experience here and later reflections on in, in which she noted that we are always living with the knowledge of terrible things happening all around us. It just happens that this one socked me in the gut more than anything ever has before. My earlier sense of ‘my life will never be the same again’ has somewhat faded but not disappeared; what I want is to be around others who are feeling the same things I am. At least half of my desire to work on relief stems from the need to be around other people who are dealing with this same trauma. Ah well.
All this tension manifests in odd oblique ways. I’ve been sleeping really actively; having incredible intense dreams. (All the time, but even more so now.) I have almost no appetite and have to remind myself to eat. If I eat more than a small meal I feel sick to my stomach. I have perfected my FreeCell and Hearts strategies but when I try to sit and read—currently Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar—I get jumpy. Incidentally that book is pretty great. Superficially it’s totally about how straight white men are horrible and historically have ruined everything good about black/African woman-positive culture. But as a polemic it’s fun and well written and has some really clever and funny bits. I’m surprised that it hasn’t been made into a movie, it’s so dripping with charm.
Am beginning to see that it might be a good idea to stay in Kandy and work part-time with one of the projects in the East. That way I can stick with some of my routines and familiar world, and start going back to research. I don’t know if it would be fulltime here though. I don’t think I’m good at doing two things at one time, but maybe now is the time to learn. Besides Ross will be here in a few weeks and then I’ll be all distracted again. A plateful, to be sure.
My year in Sri Lanka was supposed to be all about simplifying, living peacefully and quietly, having time for myself… damn! Real life!