Saturday, February 1, 2014


It’s been a long time since I posted here. In between I’ve had a lovely intense week in Chiang Mai and up in the hills near Fang, with a crew of six fun and congenial people doing cultural immersion through food. Now I’m in Rangoon. The crows are cawing outside and dawn is lighting things up  in a pearly way.

Last night as my flight was coming in to land in Rangoon, there was a thick dark edge of night at the horizon, and above it a limpid pale blue remnant of the day washed with streaks of tender pink. The new moon lay on her back in a pale curve, already fuller that the new-year sliver of two nights ago. It was a minute or two only, that glimpse, and then darkness fell as we landed.

Reality on the ground was a reminder of how much change there’s been in Burma in the last five years. Traffic here gets thicker and more predictably impossible each time I come. Travel times across the city have doubled and tripled. The heavy traffic is a consequence of the government having lifted taxes on cars so they are affordable to many more people. And that in turn is a sign of the improvement in quality of life for many in central Burma since late 2011, as well as a cause of new and greater stress for taxi drivers and other less affluent people: those who must commute in the ancient crowded busses here.

I’ve been thinking about time, its elasticity and its relentless march too, in my/our daily lives.

Cooking sessions with Fern’s mother Khun Mae, who is a brilliant home cook from a village near Fang in northern Thailand, are always a reminder that traditional methods of food preparation do not allow for shortcuts. It takes the time it takes to reduce the ingredients for a curry paste to the necessary even texture using a mortar and pestle, or to chop meat to an even fine texture for laap or meatballs, using a knife in each hand rat-tat-tat-tat-tat. When I was in rural Senegal long ago I had an immersing lesson in just how long it takes to clean rice of its husks in a mortar, or to reduce millet to fine flour in a mortar. There are no shortcuts there. And any attempt to skimp on care results in wastefulness: the food is not good or it is inedible or indigestible. And the cook’s job is to make best use of the food resources she has.

This is why Rachel Laudan, food historian and analytical thinker about food, is so forceful in reminding us that modern equipment and food processing is a blessing, for it has relieved many (mostly women) of the burden of hours of daily labour. (See her terrific recent book Cuisine and Empire.) Her great example, presented at an IACP food history mini-conference in Mississippi some years ago, was the hours that women in Mexico had to spend every day kneeling and grinding with a metate in order to produce enough masa for the household. Now there are simple machines that do that work. And the women thus have some hours available to do other things, like earning money outside the home for example. That in turn enables them to pay for schooling for their children. And so on…

So how much time do we have freed up, in our machine-assisted world? And how do we use it?

That’s the other cluster of questions my thoughts on “time” have been circling round. I’m not happy with what I see myself doing sometimes. The clear spaces of open time that I need in order to daydream, have fresh thoughts, and write are often eroded by my lingering on this laptop of mine, trailing after this story or that, or rechecking the Twitter feed or my email or (less compulsively) my Facebook pages.

It happened again last night, as I was headed for bed, tired from a week of intense immersethrough work. Instead of getting deep into my book (a pleasure I’d had on the plane), I messed around on the computer reading articles I found linked on Twitter, and I also got caught up in the very seductive form of Scrabble called Playing with Words that is now on my Samsung phone. Time slid by and soon it was well after one in the morning.

It was fun, don’t get me wrong. Two of my concurrent Scrabble games were with my kid Dom, who beat me and then started two more matches with me. He’s on the other side of the world in Toronto and it was a fun way of being in touch. Time sped by without my noticing, ran away downhill, leaving me high and dry and overtire. And a part of me felt pretty stupid for having fallen down the rabbit hole once again.

But playing word games, reading interesting articles, and catching up with news elsewhere are all fun and absorbing pleasures, and let’s agree that pleasure is a wonderful part of life. How lucky to have the time for it! Why do I spoil it by whining and regretting after the fact? How silly.

I guess it’s my mother’s voice from long ago echoing in me, critical of my “wasting time”.  She died in her mid-fifties, far too young, so perhaps somewhere in her bones was a deep knowledge that life is short and time is precious. But in fact I’m sure she got the reflex from her judgmental father, and passed it on.

It’s an attitude that casts a sort of calvinistic pall over wanton time-frivolity.

And so I conclude that there’s a balance to look for here on this "spending time," attitudes to time, impatience-with-long-tasks front. I think it comes down to this: I need to try to be present to the moment and in the moment.

On the one hand that means putting in the necessary time, without rushing or trying to shortcut it, to do whatever job I am doing (hideous vacuuming for example, or taxes) properly and thoroughly, however tedious. Of course it’s a good idea to think ahead and see if there are ways of simplifying or shortening or lightening the task. But once embarked on it, I need to just settle in to doing it well and completely.

And on the other hand, when it’s time for fun, it’s time for fun. And to second-guess and spoil that pleasure by after-regret is to waste it. Right?

That leaves me with a motto/note-to-self something like this: Whatever you take on, whatever you spend time on, do it well and whole-heartedly, and without regret.

Easier said than done, as always!

1 comment:

justme said...

I hear you with the getting caught up with getting seduced by the siren of technology. A new iPad came with my new car, and I was torn between saying no and getting some useful money instead, or saying yes and dealing with a new outlet for my OCD to emerge. If one is curious, one spends ages following threads on the web, finding out all sorts of useful stuff - only to be forgotten in a day. Or spending hours on the couch playing Boggle. Luckily Tommy will come and ask to be played with, reminding me life and the living are out there, waiting, and won't wait forever. Glad there's someone out there who feels the same way!