You Are What You Read

After finishing university with its routine of “required” reading I moved to London to work at a music magazine. To my sheer delight I was surrounded by, inundated with, magazines. All the monthlies I couldn’t afford arrived on subscription: Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Vogue, Details, plus Rolling Stone and a weekly dose of high-gloss, low-IQ celebrity fare from OK! and Hello. Plus unlimited access to Q, Mojo, Mixmag, and Arena which were produced in the offices around me.

With that journalistic goldmine to hand, I got out of the habit of reading actual books. The only two that made the trip from Philly to London were my dog-eared Franny & Zooey and a signed copy of Trainspotting, sentimental relics of my teenage years. Occasionally I borrowed a beach-read from my flatmate, but for the most part I read in 50 to 1500 word chunks of magazine-speak. A couple years later my company launched the future publishing phenomena that was Closer and Grazia, to join Heat in the ranks of the half-million-plus selling women’s weeklies. They were as were as brightly-wrapped as the contents of the office Cadbury Roses tin, and twice as addictive.

Books were passé. They were demanding and required concentration. Why bother when I could get instant fix on every page of Closer? At some point I said, half-joking, that I’d forgotten how to read: “Gossip magazines are turning me illiterate.” It wasn’t far off the truth. My attention span and love of words – honed over 17 years of serious reading – had fallen apart. My exposure to new ideas and information, and my ability to absorb and analyse, was being chipped away by a diet of mental junk food that bloated my mind with vapid nonsense. Realising that I had fallen into the mental equivalent of Supersize Me, I made a conscious decision to read more books.

It was like swapping chips for carrot sticks. Sure, it was good for me, but I had to work at reading books. There was a rhythm and a discipline to engaging with a long piece of text that I had lost. The shiny weeklies winked and pleaded: read me instead. I started rationing: Vanity Fair and Vogue once a month; Grazia or Closer as a Friday treat. Gradually, the diet of full paragraphs and polysyllabic words got easier to digest.

My main excuse for junk reading was the plea of many fast-food fiends: “I don’t have the time/money/energy to get something nutritious.” Turns out that, as with food, cheap and good-for-you is easy to come by if you know what you want and plan ahead. Thanks to Kindle, I have an accessible, wide-ranging selection of books perpetually to hand. But an e-reader is no more necessary to good literary fare than one of those prepared-meals delivery services is to a good diet. The best and most intriguing source of books is charity or second-hand shops. Unlike Amazon, which overwhelms with options and makes you wait for delivery, they offer an instant fix. Browsing the shelves you can snap up everything from the latest best-sellers to arcane anthropological tomes. Second-hand shops gifted me Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, Henry James’s The Aspern Papers and Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington. They’ve introduced me to Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Mead, Anton Chekhov, Alice Walker, and Kurt Vonnegut. My handbag currently contains Hard Travelin’, Kenneth Allsop’s brilliant history of the migrant American workforce, purchased for £1.40 in a Marie Curie shop.

Accustomed, once again, to a feast of words and ideas, I happily turn my nose up at Metro and the gimcrack lure of Closer and its cousins. I still subscribe to Vogue, and occasionally spend an hour perusing magazines at Waterstone’s, but my compulsion to keep up with the Brangelina marriage saga, or to find out who has cellulite/forgot her mascara/fired her nanny is gone. Quitting junk food does a body good – and the same is doubly true of the mind.

Charity Shop Finder (UK)
London Book Swap
Oxfam Bookshop Finder (UK)

Family On Bikes – Semi-Charmed Life

The continuing adventures of the Family on Bikes. For the story so far read Week 1 – One Revolution at a Time, Week 2 – Sticking Together? and Week 3 – Decisions, decisions

“We led a charmed life,” Nancy says of the dozen years that passed between leaving Albuquerque and returning to Boise in 2005. The couple’s first international teaching post was in Alexandra, Egypt, for two years. Then they moved to Ethiopia, fell in love with the country and chose to have children there. Twins Davy and Daryl were born in the United States but they made the thirty-five hour flight to Africa aged just six weeks. It was the just the first of many excursions. Before the boys were born John and Nancy spent school holidays cycling in countries like Mali, Zimbabwe, Israel, and Yemen; afterwards, little changed. Davy and Daryl celebrated birthdays in Thailand and Vietnam. They crawled up Mount Sinai before they could walk. “Travelling with them was easy. We never worried about what we couldn’t do.”

In 2002 they took another post, teaching in Taiwan. After two years Nancy’s doctor told her she had “smoker’s lungs”. Concerned about the “horrendous” pollution’s impact on the boys, Nancy and John talked about moving back to the US. Reversing out of the life they’d chosen was harder than getting in, however. Due to hiring schedules going Stateside would mean several months of being unsettled and unemployed. “It is easy to move out of a country,” Nancy says. “But very hard to move back. Emotionally, there is that aspect of ‘we’re jet-setting around the world.’ We were living a life that so many people envied. It was glamorous and exotic. Did we really want to leave that?”

Despite nagging unease they decided to cling to continue on to Malaysia. What Nancy calls “the worst six months of my life,” followed. From the moment they landed everything that could go wrong did. Shortly before the school year began Nancy’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. Nancy wanted desperately to be in Boise but felt bound by her commitment to the school. Guilt-stricken and unhappy, she struggled to cope with a litany of troubles. Their household goods didn’t arrive as expected. Her classroom assignment came through late, leaving her no time to prepare. Daryl fell on the playground and broke his arm then came down with a mystery illness that took weeks to diagnose. “It was chaos at school and chaos at home.” Not surprisingly, Nancy fell ill with a virus that kept her out of the classroom till Christmas. Over the holiday the family took off for a much-needed break in Burma. It was there they got news of a catastrophic tsunami. Though physically safe, they had friends across the tsunami zone; it felt very close to home.

All the optimism and guts that carried Nancy and her family across years and continents seemed to evaporate: “We had lived a charmed existence for so long. The world was our oyster. Everything was good. Everything worked. Then all of a sudden it came crashing down. Our personal lives were in chaos; the world was in chaos. I wanted stability. I needed to come home.”

Creative Writing Ibiza

I have a bad habit of writing letters and never mailing them. It isn’t that I forget, it’s that my writer’s anxiety gets in the way. Usually it takes a number of discarded pages to finish a letter then, the minute the envelope is sealed, I start obsessing. Does that paragraph on the second page read exactly right? Will he or she understand what I meant when I said…? What if they read that and think…? Sometimes I rip open the envelope, re-read, correct, and double check. Other times, I tuck it away somewhere and guiltily forget about it.

As a writer, my joy in communication often gets ensnarled in my delicate ego. It isn’t enough to say something honestly, I want to say it perfectly. This is, I fear, a professional snare that threatens to stop me being as fully loving and human as I should be. What is…

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Best Vegan Food – InSpiral Review

Brown paper packages are exciting and a little mysterious, redolent of old-fashioned gifts shipped by post. The neat, brown bags lining the shelves of InSpiral Café in Camden, with their tantalising labels and peek-a-boo windows, are especially reminiscent of presents because you can’t tell by looking quite what to expect of the contents. What on earth are “Reishi Crackits”? How do I approach “Raw Superfood Granola”? And isn’t “baobab” as in “Baobab and Onion raw dehydrated kale chips” a bulbous-looking tree?

Fortunately the best way to tackle these questions is to yield to my childlike urge to rip into the (biodegradable, sustainably produced) brown wrapping and devour the contents. Reishi is a mushroom, by the way, and such a potent immune-booster that hospitals give it to HIV and cancer patients. Crackits are InSpiral’s wholefood alternative to grain-based crackers. Made with almonds, a blend of seeds including sunflower, flax and chia, vegetables (carrot, courgette, onion) and seasonings they are dehydrated into satisfyingly nutty, crunchy sheets that are compulsively munchable. I crumble some over salad to add texture; they are equally delicious as the base for an open-faced Crackit sandwich of avocado and tomato slathered with tahini and a sprinkling of chilli flakes.

The kale chips are even more addictive. Neither baked nor fried, these dehydrated crisps are manna for anyone with a savoury tooth – and yummy enough to make me consider buying a food dehydrator and attempting a DIY version. They come in four flavours, each with a distinctive superfood twist. I try “Baobab and Onion” which is satisfyingly onion-y and provides a hit of calcium, iron and antioxidants; “Cheesie Purple Corn” offers all the umami deliciousness of cheese without having ever been near a cow.

Raw Superfood Granola is also a better-than-the-real-thing experience. I scoffed a bag of the “Chocolatey” flavour (there is also “Loveberry”, featuring raspberries, strawberries and gojiberries; and “Banana Greeny” which combines bananas with spirulina and wheatgrass) almost without pause. It is tasty with (non-dairy) milk but really, too delicious to be a mere cereal. I like it crumbled it over frozen smoothies or sprinkled on fruit salad. Straight out of the bag, it is a satisfying alternative to an afternoon dip in the biscuit tin.

One thing I note is the absence of “nutrition information” on the bags. With their abundance of seeds, nuts and protein-rich grains the granola and Crackits are not “low calorie”. But they remind me that calorie counting was invented after we started eating processed rubbish. When people ate simply and out of necessity, food was appreciated as a source of energy and vitality, not viewed as an enemy. The real gift in the brown paper wrappers is that InSpiral goodies make it easy and pleasurable to think of food in a more natural, wholesome way.

Browse and purchase a full range of InSpiral products – including superfoods, raw chocolate truffles and herbal elixirs – at their website.

InSpiral Café review

Best Veggie Breakfasts

A beetroot smoothie I concocted in my freezing Glasgow kitchen last winter has just been selected by the Vegetarian Cookery School (@vegcs on Twitter) as one of ten finalists in its Best Veggie Breakfasts competition.

This week is National Vegetarian Week (21-27 May) and to celebrate we held a competition to find the Best Vegetarian Breakfast Recipe. The entries are in and we were so amazed by your creative veggie breakfasts that we’ve chosen 10 finalists… We love her use of beets and avocado to create a slightly sweet but nutritious filling morning smoothie.

ImageWhat a delicious surprise!

 

Family On Bikes – Decisions, Decisions

Welcome back to week three of the ongoing adventures of the Family On Bikes. Click through to read Week 1 – One Revolution at a Time and Week 2 – Sticking Together.

Looking at all they’ve accomplished, it is hard to believe that John ever balked at teaching abroad; or that Nancy refused, even briefly, to consider taking the boys out of school. It goes to show how fast and hard habit strikes, and how quickly it can strangle a person’s sense of possibility. One of the defining strengths of the Vogel’s relationship is that they are braver together. When Nancy put her foot down and said it was time to move and find a way to be together all John had to do was say “no” and the door would have closed. Maybe she would have gone to teach abroad without him; or stayed in Albuquerque warring with her discontents. But there would have been a limit – however faint – on the scope of the future.

Contrary to what many people believe, to be daring is a decision, not an accident of personality. “The vast majority of people aren’t making conscious choices,” Nancy says. “They’re just keeping up with the Joneses.” She had the courage to conceive of a different life because she had already seen and experienced such a thing.

Mexico City

Nancy can pinpoint the moment her world turned from monochrome to Technicolor. When she was 15 her parents, who were from Minnesota via North Dakota, made the surprising decision to go on a family holiday to Mexico City. They had lived in Boise, Idaho since Nancy was eight and her primary exposure to other cultures was National Geographic magazine. Innocent of the wider world, she admits: “It literally never occurred to me that people lived differently.” Then they went to Mexico. A smoggy cauldron crammed with more than twenty million souls, its capital city was so alien that Nancy’s voice is still laced with awe at the recollection.

Instead of modest Lutheran churches people worshipped in a cathedral that was sinking beneath the weight of its towering dome and sad-faced icons. Instead of well-kept suburban streets they walked along thoroughfares jammed with rattletrap buses, hustling vendors and ferocious little taxis. Stunned by the rich, anarchic world that existed beyond her imagination Nancy went back to Boise full of unformed but urgent curiosity. An ad for the Peace Corps gave her an idea: “I’m going to do that when I finish university,” she vowed. And she did. Two years in the Peace Corps setting up special education programmes in Honduras lead to seven months of solo travel around South America, which inspired her to return to the US and work on a Navajo reservation. Then she took a sabbatical to tour India by bike and met John.

So by the time the couple hit what looked like a personal and professional impasse they already had done a great deal of the legwork that goes into making a life-altering decision. They knew what it was like to be foreign; they had cultivated persistence, self-sufficiency, and patience; they had taken risks together and overcome challenges; they had chosen experience over material goods; they’d camped in the rain, eaten out of tin cans and mended flat tyres. Despite John’s reflexive “no” their joint experience held the possibility of a “yes.”

Family On Bikes – Sticking Together?


This week’s installment of the Family on Bikes saga. For last week’s click here.

This wasn’t the first time the Nancy and John had come to the edge of a major decision and found themselves looking from opposite viewpoints. Before the boys were born their relationship had hit an impasse. Nancy felt she had two options: “I could go and get a divorce, or we could change our situation.”

Their situation was a common enough one among working couples: they just didn’t see each other. Nancy taught at an Albuquerque elementary school, waking up at 5AM to ride her bicycle to work and returning in the late afternoon after John left to teach evening classes. By the time he got home she was asleep. With no time to talk or plan, weekends drifted past. Months turned into two years. Nancy made a decision: if they were to stay married they needed to be together.

Being together was the whole basis of their relationship. They had met when Nancy was on the verge of a year-long solo bike tour of India. Her parents, perhaps regretting certain holiday decisions, begged her to find a travel buddy. As a gesture, Nancy put a ‘companion wanted’ ad in a travel magazine. Meanwhile, a young man in Albuquerque was placing a near-identical ad in the same issue, on behalf of his roommate. So John and Nancy got in touch and, after an hour of conversation, arranged to fly to Pakistan together. Six months into their two-wheeler tour of South Asia they were engaged. At the end of the year they flew back to the United States, married, and moved to Albuquerque.

After two routine-bitten years, it looked like the storybook romance wasn’t going to survive the prosaic facts of married life. Nancy was down to one idea: apply for work as a couple, teaching at an international school.

John thought she was nuts: “We’re Americans. That means we live in America.”

This was not a line of argument to faze Nancy, who spent two years straight out of college working for the Peace Corps in Honduras. “I’m going to look for an international job,” Nancy said. “You can come with me, or you can stay.”