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The Important Things Are Not Things

Posted on by Scott Ferguson
tall grass prairie, Neal Smith Natl. Wildlife Refuge, Iowa, USA

Tall grass prairie, Neal Smith Natl. Wildlife Refuge, Iowa, USA

A few years ago, when I packed all of my belongings into a 10’ x 10 10’ storage area and prepared to depart for Beijing and a year of travelling, I was reminded of the futility of owning things.

At the time, everything I owned had been loaded into that storage space. Yet the space and the belongings did not say anything about who I am, what I stand for, what I have done, or what I dream about.  Looking at everything stacked into that space struck me in an unexpected way.  As humans, we can be reduced to nothing so easily, yet we allow ourselves to be defined by tangible belongings, though it is not an authentic definition at all.

While visiting nursing homes I observed the elderly residents lived with fewer belongings than I had in my dorm room in college. In life we start with nothing, we accumulate, we are left with nothing.  And, frankly, none of it matters because we aren’t taking stuff with us after we die.

All of our things, our possessions, our “stuff”, are without meaning. I don’t believe material possessions are a measure of success or even an indicator of wealth.  A truly wealthy person has freedom–to choose, to think, to speak, to express themselves fully, to listen, to disagree, to control their own lives, to travel, to inquire, to choose her or his own constraints, to establish a foundation of beliefs—and employs those freedoms in a positive manner.  Intellectual freedom, personal freedom, physical freedom, these provide the basis for a person to be wealthy.

And a wealthy person lives life connected to humanity, to family, to friends, at personal, local, national, and world levels. We are members of communities big and small—a wealthy person recognizes the need to be accountable and contribute at all levels.

The Important Things Are Not Things.

So, what is important to me? Family, friendship, love, kindness, honesty, integrity, forgiveness, freedom, compassion, caring, happiness, acceptance, understanding.

And perhaps these are the same things which bring happiness in my life, too.

Mushrooms panther crk trail GA 2012

Mushrooms on tree along Panther Creek Trail, Georgia, USA

Peace.

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Six Things I Did Not Miss & Two I Did While Travelling For a Year

Posted on by Scott Ferguson

Luang Prabang, Laos

Long term travelling can be exciting and challenging.  One thing that is hard to predict is what you may or may not miss from your daily life back home.  Following are a few things I did NOT miss and a couple I did, as well as three things I continue to miss those wonderful days circling the globe.

Clothes

I packed light and brought few clothes with me.  Of the clothes I did bring, all were items I enjoyed wearing. With such a small selection of clothing from which to choose, each morning I could pick out my clothes for the day in ten seconds.  While it may sound funny, the result was liberating and a simplification of life style.  I didn’t have to think while getting dressed and I enjoyed every result.  Plus, laundry became less time consuming with fewer clothes to wash.  (Click this link to read what I actually packed for 11 months of travelling.)

Cheese & Dairy

Cheese was a staple in my diet before leaving the USA.  Through sheer coincidence a French cheese shop was located three minutes from my Beijing apartment, but my craving for cheese seemed to disappear after living a month in China.  Without consciously choosing, I seemed to stop eating dairy products in general.  My dairy consumption dwindled to eating yoghurt and a carton of milk once a month.

American Foods/Diet

I didn’t miss American foods and dishes in general.  Perhaps one reason my cheese craving disappeared was my focus on local food.  My diet altered considerably, but did not include Western-style dishes.  Local foods were interesting, exciting, and delicious in China, Laos, Thailand, Turkey, Germany, England, and Scotland.  I was open-minded to try new foods, such as tripe, frogs, and haggis all of which were fresh and tasty.  While some of these foods were not typical of my American diet, I reckoned an entire local population couldn’t be wrong about whether something was good; I gave the local foods a try and expanded my palate in the process.  

Driving a Car

For nearly eight months I did not drive a car.  In no way whatsoever did I miss driving a car, repairing a car, buying gas for a car, or sitting in traffic within a car.  Going car-free felt awesome!  Using public transit and walking were my favorite modes of transport.  Of course, when I returned to the USA, I did drive on a long road trip accompanied by my dog.  (If you would like to read about my experiment of living in America without driving a car, click this link.)

Selma, Alabama, USA, near the Pettis Bridge

Selma, Alabama, USA, near the Pettis Bridge

 

Social Media

While in China, I was on the other side of The Great Fire Wall and unable to quickly access social media in the USA.  Getting around the fire was not especially difficult, but I quickly became accustomed to not using social media and rarely made the effort.  The longer I went without using social media, the less desire I had to begin using it again.  By the time I departed China, I’d lost any desire to be in constant contact with people not in my immediate surroundings and I didn’t seem to pick up the social media habit again.  Apologies to my friends, but I felt like my brain was released from a lot of useless noise.

Television

Loud voices from television announcers constantly telling me what to think and implying I should be outraged were not missed, nor were the mediocre acting, thin plot lines, or endless commercials.  Being oblivious to any “reality” shows felt heavenly.  After taking an extended break from television, all programming seemed pretty low in quality regardless of what the critics, or friends, told me when I tried to watch again.  (You can read about my experience of giving up television back in the USA by clicking this link.)

In the mountains above Dali, Yunnan, China

In the mountains above Dali, Yunnan, China

Two Things I Did Miss While Travelling

Some travelers miss nothing during months long journeys and other folks long for all of the comforts of home.  As for me, I missed two things during my travels.

My Dog

The one thing I missed every day was my dog.  He stayed with a trusted long-time friend so I knew he was safe.  Nonetheless, I missed all of the funny things I associated with him–his snoring, tail wagging, and love of tortillas–as well as our daily walks through parks.  I was very happy to road trip around the US with my dog for the last several months of my long term travelling.

My Bed

While travelling, I never missed my bed.  However, the first time I slept in my own bed after 11 months away, I realized I had missed the comfortable feeling of my mattress and the “ultimate sleep experience”.  Zzzzzzzzz …..

Lake Como, Italy

Lake Como, Italy

Three Things I Still Miss About Travelling

Of course there are many things I miss about being out on the road on an extended journey.  The experience never leaves me and my thoughts often return to the excitement I felt venturing around the planet.  Below are three of many things I miss from the time spent on long term travelling.

Daily Adventures

Travelling provides a lot of stimulus.  I awoke each morning with a sense of adventure, never knowing what might happen that day.  This was a wonderful feeling.  I am a person who grows bored with routine and being in the same environment every day.  Every day was an adventure, whether it was small or great, such as becoming lost in Istanbul and exploring new streets or hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge and viewing nature’s powerful beauty with two travelers I met along the trail.  I loved the feeling that anything might happen and feeling a fresh experience lurked just around the corner—perhaps making a new friend, finding a relaxing café, tasting an interesting food.

Minimal Obligations

I had few obligations outside of those related to trip logistics or day-to-day living needs, such as food and housing.  Prior to setting off on my trip, I handled most of my domestic obligations—set up automated monthly payments as necessary, forwarded my mail, leased out my home, took my dog to live with a friend.  There were no work meetings or daily commutes to frustrate my day.  I loved not having anything to worry about. It was a happy feeling to wake up each day and know I would only spend time on things I enjoyed.  For four months I did attend intensive Chinese classes, but that was my only “job” during my travels and I loved learning the language.

New Acquaintances

While travelling I met many local people and many fellow travelers.  Getting to know persons from different backgrounds and cultures was interesting and insightful.  Conversations and situations could be unexpected and stimulating, sometimes even shocking while interacting with local persons.  The experiences could be insightful, shine light on a blind spot, and cause me to examine my ethnocentric beliefs.  Over the years, as I have experienced more and more diverse countries and cultures, I grow ever more confident in my conviction that people are the same all over the world.

How about you, is there anything you think/thought you can/can’t live without while travelling?

Milan, Italy, from the roof of the duomo.

Milan, Italy, from the roof of the duomo.

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Experiments in Living #3: One Trip a Month for a Year!

Posted on by Scott Ferguson
Venice gondola 2015

Venice, Italy

 

At the beginning of 2015 I decided to take an out of town trip every month for at least one weekend. After twelve months, I am happy to report I did it as planned—hurrah!

As always, I tried to adhere to The Art of Travelling. Below are my 2015 destinations and several observations:

January: San Francisco                  July: Iowa
February: Chicago, Iowa              August: Chicago, Atlanta, South Dakota
March: Utah skiing                       September: San Diego
April: Death Valley hiking            October: Italy—World Expo, Milan, Lake Como, Venice
May: Chicago                                November: Indiana, Iowa
June: San Francisco                       December: Iowa

What I Learned

1) Taking a monthly trip is a commitment.
Though I love to travel, completing this year-long objective was not always easy. Typically, I spent 55 to 60 hours each week at work and commuting to work, thus simply to plan the trips became a challenge at times. In fact, twice (in June and September) I had no definitive plans until Thursday night prior to the final weekend of the month. While skipping the travel would have been easy both of those months, I honored my commitment and created a trip. Naturally, those hastily planned travels were as rewarding and enjoyable as the well-planned journeys!

Golden Gate Park Feb 2015

Patio at de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA, USA

2) Life/Work/Travel balance requires prioritization.
My travels used up at least one weekend each month and those weekends are when many persons focus on personal activities such as exercise, yard work, family time, car maintenance, and DIY projects. With 50 less days and nights available to handle daily life activities, knowing my priorities in life came in handy. Basically, if an activity doesn’t fit into my top five priorities, I don’t do it. This makes life a lot easier. Too, I tried to utilize a portion of my commuting time to communicate with family and friends as well as to listen to foreign language CD’s.

along Lake como a

Lake Como, Italy

3) Short-term travelling is a nice break from work.
There’s no doubt, I love long term travelling–in 2012 I took a career break to travel for a year and I look forward to do it again one day. In the meantime, I have a regular day job which means short term travels fit my schedule much easier. Guess what? Short term travel is insightful, fun, relaxing, and still gets me out of my daily environment. Though I visited fewer states and countries than in typical years, I still managed to rack up 50 nights away from home–not too bad! (Note: To sidestep undue stress, I avoided travel on holiday weekends.)

Overall, my 2015 excursions kept me plugged into the excitement of being on the road and exploring. I saw more of my USA, including one National Park, and also managed to visit one country that was new for me—Italy. The travels had a well-rounded mix of urban (San Francisco, Chicago, San Diego, Venice) and natural environments (Utah, Death Valley, South Dakota, Lake Como), educational (museums, visitor centers, World Expo) and entertaining experiences (baseball, football, music), plus well-spent time among friends and with family members on five occasions which was a priority of mine.

May you find rewarding travel experiences in your future!

Milan coffee

Croissant, espresso, and Good Morning! cappuccino, Milan, Italy.

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Chill Out: How I Transform My Perspective at Will

Posted on by Scott Ferguson

When I’m working and feel a need to chill out for a few minutes, I play a slide show loaded with some favorite photos of flowers I’ve taken around the world. The images have an instant impact on my energy. I feel calm, creative, alive, and inspired.
Images with personal meaning are a great way to transform my outlook. Though I use these to chill out and get creative, I think different images could be used to produce various results. Do you use images this way? Which images resonate for you and what feelings are produced?

Bamberg, Germany

Bamberg, Germany

Bamberg, Germany

Bamberg, Germany

Dali, Yunnan, China

Dali, Yunnan, China

Dali, Yunnan, China

Dali, Yunnan, China

Dali, Yunnan, China

Dali, Yunnan, China

Duffus, Scotland

Duffus, Scotland

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Mengla, Yunnan, China

Mengla, Yunnan, China

Nong Kai, Thailand

Nong Kai, Thailand

Stone Mountain, Georgia, USA

Stone Mountain, Georgia, USA

Nottingham, England

Nottingham, England

Weishan, Yunnan, China

Weishan, Yunnan, China

Wurzberg, Germany

Wurzberg, Germany

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Experiments in Living # 2: Living Car Free for Thirty Days

Posted on by Scott Ferguson

Scott Ferguson, Living Car Free for 30 Days

Experiments in Living is an ongoing series of investigations about trying to improve–my life, my self-awareness, my well-being, my freedom to choose. The experiments are about living into my vision of life; they serve as a means to try something new, check out the experience, and choose how to exist in life.  Ultimately, the experiments serve to expand my freedom.

Experiments in which I choose to give up attachments especially increase my sense of liberty because they focus on making conscious choices rather than acting from habit.  (See Experiment 1: Life without Television.)

Experiment 2 was to Go Car-Free for one month.  I gave up driving a vehicle for thirty days.  Alternative transportation had to be used—walk, bicycle, public bus, public train.  Car-pooling was permitted, but only a limited basis and in another person’s car, i.e. if someone invited me to ride along, ‘twas ok.  I did this experiment in 2014 in Atlanta, a city known for long commutes and a shortage of public transport.

Week 1—Car-free!  I began to walk every morning to a coffee shop to work on my projects.  The first couple days were fine, but it seemed to take a long time to arrive.  I focused on where I was going and tried to choose the shortest routes.  While shopping for groceries, I anticipated carrying heavy bags home and curbed my purchases to smaller quantities than typical.  I realized I had stockpiled food for years and wondered, do I really need to keep so much food in my house?

After a few days of travelling on foot, my body adjusted and I looked forward to the walks outside.  My mind adjusted, too.  I relaxed and changed my focus from choosing the shortest route to observing my surroundings and being present in the moment.  The experience reminded me of living in Beijing and walking throughout the city; I liked it. (Read more about my life in Beijing at Beijing Spirit.)

Week 2—What have I begun?  The weather cooled down, but I still enjoyed the walks.  I didn’t think beforehand about an upcoming walk through my neighborhood, it was simply what I did.  The air was fresh, the walking was welcome especially since my dog died a month earlier and I no longer spent one hour per day walking him.  Within fifteen minutes I could walk to my choice of five grocery stores, six coffee shops, dozens of restaurants and cafes, two parks, a post office, and my credit union.  I agreed to meet friends to watch a hockey game at a sports bar 15 miles away and used public transport followed by a walk for the final mile.  In spite of an hour spent travelling, I arrived on time.  Later, a friend dropped me off at the train station.

Week 3—“You’re doing what?”  Friends were surprised to learn I was car-free.  I shopped at the grocery store more frequently than when I had a car to carry purchases; however, I shopped quickly and bought less which made me happy.  By now, I’d grown accustomed to carry groceries home in my book bag along with full bags dangling from my arms –no big deal.  For a weekend trip out of town, I carpooled with a friend living up the street.

Week 4–Adjusting  I had forgotten about driving for the most part.  Driving no longer entered my mind.  To meet friends at locations outside my neighborhood could be challenging, but as long as it was not too late at night and I had time to plan ahead, then it wasn’t an issue.  I became adept at using the public buses and quickly looked up timetables and routes.  To never worry about having the correct fare, I kept my bus card charged with prepaid funds.

Occasionally things didn’t go as planned. One morning I tried to attend a presentation in downtown Atlanta at 8:30 a.m., but I missed my bus, had to wait 22 minutes for the next bus, and arrived 30 minutes late.  Had I driven, I may have arrived on time, though I would have had to find and pay for a parking space.  Life without a car required planning, but life was simplified.

I chose to drive to Florida for several days to meet family members. Driving for nearly five hours, it didn’t feel odd or risky in spite of not having driven for nearly a month.  On my return, I shopped at the grocery store before going home.  I chose to extend the experiment by one week to make up for driving to Florida and back.

Week 5—Car-free is Cool  Another week without a car.  It seemed normal and I didn’t feel like jumping back into the circus of traffic.  Originally, I had planned to buy a new car after a month of going car-free, but instead I decided to extend the experiment for two more months.  Now, I felt more comfortable to ride my bicycle on city streets, though caution was required at all times.

            Month Two—Analytically speaking, I seem to be saving money. In order to move a king-size bed, I rented a Mercedes-Benz cargo van for a day ($30 including free mileage).  Driving the big van felt amusing, but I didn’t miss the car.  A friend from England and I did an urban hike across Atlanta, then returned home via train and bus.  The urban hike exhilarated us and proved insightful for my friend.

We embarked on a road trip through the Southern USA.  Though I reserved a compact-size rental car, I received an intermediate-size car from the rental company.  The bigger car felt enormous, perhaps even gluttonous considering the available space for just two people.

On this driving tour of seven-states-in-seven-days we racked up 1641 miles and burned more than 70 gallons of fuel.  Though intermediate-size vehicle gobbled gas and delivered only 24 miles per gallon, the total cost of the rental car was less than the total cost of driving a personally owned car ($543 vs. $944).

As an aside, we considered to travel by bus for this trip to reduce our carbon footprint. However, the bus took would have taken even longer than the 29 hours we drove and the bus was more expensive.  Hence, we consciously chose not to travel by bus.

Scott Ferguson, Biking, Living Car Free

            Month 3—Physical Benefits  I began to bike further away from my neighborhood as a combined means of exercise and transportation.  My legs became stronger from so much bicycling.  I learned new routes pedaling along tree-lined streets in residential neighborhoods to avoid traffic congested roads.  The steady pace provided time to gage neighborhoods and to notice changes on return rides.  My pants fit a little looser around my waist.  Many middle-income people in Atlanta still didn’t believe it was possible to function without a car.  Granted, I was not commuting 20 miles to the suburbs to work, but even in that case public transport often was available.  Living car-free felt awesome!

            Month 4 to 6—Life is More Calm  I wondered if it might be possible to avoid owning a car forever.  Why should I return to life behind the wheel?  I cringed at the thought of commuting to work through traffic every day.  I still didn’t drive.

Having spent so much time outdoors walking and biking, I easily acclimated to the heat and humidity of summer in Atlanta.   I continued to travel around my neighborhood and the city by foot, bike, bus, and train.  The planning and time required to get somewhere had become second nature.  I used extra travel time at bus stops and aboard public transport to read books, check email, study Chinese, observe other people, and more.

To describe the change in feeling gained by stepping away from the car is difficult.  My life felt less cluttered, less congested, less impacted by others’ actions.  Now, I had created distance apart from people who drive reckless, with a sense of entitlement, or with an apparent belief that their time is more important than mine as they cut me off in traffic.  I no longer jockeyed among those drivers in a constant fight to get ahead.   My life was more calm.

Month 7—Foreign Reminders  During my seventh month, I travelled in Germany, Istanbul, and China.  I learned to drive a Chinese tractor in the countryside of Guangdong province in south China, but otherwise avoided the driver’s seat during this month.  Aboard many forms of public transport I always felt comfortable.  In Germany, I rode city trains, a cross-country bus from Munich to Bielefeld, and a high speed train from Cöln to Munich.  The trains and train stations in Germany were clean and pleasant.  Istanbul had an easy to use train system.  China provided the always wonderful subways and somewhat crowded city buses, but I never can understand anyone’s desire to own a car in Beijing or Guangzhou.

I spent five days as a passenger in a personally owned car while motoring through the beautiful landscape of Inner Mongolia—an area of well-deserved fame for driving tours.  A visit through Inner Mongolia was possible aboard a large tour bus, though for many that would defeat the purpose of the trip and eliminate the freedom to stop and wander at will amongst the scenery.  Only on a road trip did a car seem like a positive asset.

Luang Prabang bikes, Scott FergusonConclusion In the end, the assumed necessity to drive a car is not the reality of life, it is only a mindset.  While alternative transportation may be lacking for those who live in rural areas of America, the choice to reduce the use of a car is always available.  Life without a car—give it a try.  Like me, you may find more freedom with less car.

 

What I Learned

Living in Atlanta without a car is easier than expected.  Previously, I thought this was only possible in cities with bigger subway systems such as Chicago, New York, or Boston.

My life is simplified by walking within my neighborhood.   Without a car, I didn’t rush or feel impatient at red lights; I didn’t think about parking or buying gas.  To walk felt pleasant, preferable to a car, and worth the time; while walking I had time to think, to reflect, and to observe my own neighborhood.

Walking is great exercise, simple to incorporate, and corresponds with my life priorities and joys.  Though I had walked my dog an hour each day for twelve years, the additional time I spent walking to and from the grocery store was different and healthy.  “Health, Fitness, and Well Being” is one of my top five priorities in life and being outdoors is on my list of things I enjoy, so walking fits perfectly into my lifestyle. (You may be interested in my article, Do You Do the Things You Like?)

Giving up the car saves me money and reduces my carbon footprint.  Public transportation costs less than gasoline and maintenance of a car.  Also, each of gallon of gas conserved also kept over 8 kilograms of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

I will continue to walk or bicycle within my neighborhood, but will own a car.  Travelling to meet friends outside my neighborhood in the evening for dinner or entertainment was time consuming and sometimes a bit of a hassle; this is the other reason, along with commuting to work, for me to continue to own a car.  An available car could be tempting to use within my neighborhood, but I find I generally walk or bike if possible.  In fact, nearly every weekend I do not drive at all.

            Life without a car.  Another way to step out of the grind and find freedom.  Peace.

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Three Keys to Maintaining High Performance Or, Three Hundred Nutcrackers & One Tough Nut

Posted on by Scott Ferguson

maintaining high performance

While reading an interview with a dancer in “The Nutcracker” who had performed the lead role of Marya over 300 times, I was struck by her high level of excitement and interest in the character even after so many years and performances. (Do her feet hurt at night, I also wondered.) Now age 26–her first Nutcracker part was at age 12—the dancer had, through the years, performed various roles as a student and professional dancer. What contributes to her motivation to do the same thing over-and over while maintaining her level of quality and not growing bored? How do some musicians sing the same song for decades? After mastering something, how does anyone maintain a high level of performance?

My theory is three factors must be present:

  • enjoyment of what we are doing
  • learning new somethings
  • freedom to go beyond the obvious

 

Enjoyment. To maintain performance, I have to enjoy what I’m doing and have a genuine interest in doing it. Even menial tasks can be appreciated when they are part of a fundamental enjoyment derived from what we do. Fundamental enjoyments might include feeling useful, entertaining, helping others, or making money (some people really are money-motivated). The dancer loves dancing and genuinely loves The Nutcracker. I felt I was helping others while designing urinary catheters and various other products in the medical device industry. I felt useful while working at McDonald’s in high school.

Learning. Somethings to learn might be ideas, techniques, processes, relationships, ways of being, communicating, or thinking—always there is something new to learn no matter how much we know or think we know. Admittedly, sometimes we have to look for something to learn. When I was a grinder slogging through a job and surviving my workplace, I took advantage of an opportunity to learn by observing disastrous managers and decision makers who taught me “how not to do things”. Those learnings by observation contributed to maintaining my high performance.

Freedom. After mastery of anything done repeatedly, there is a need for freedom to create, to explore, to go beyond the surface of what’s done and dig deeper. Perhaps this resembles ownership. The Nutcracker dancer feels she owns the role of Marya and the director gives her freedom to explore that role. Likewise, after cooking 10,000 burgers at McDonald’s, I felt I had some insight on how to make a consistent product with more efficient processes—it wasn’t rocket science. Later, as an engineer working to improve the quality of urinary catheters, it made sense to listen to the hands-on manufacturing employees who had assembled hundreds of thousands of urinary catheters. Even in repetitive tasks, there is space to go deeper. Musicians who sing the same song for decades still find new ways to explore the song.

What do you think? Recall something at which you have been very successful and think for a moment. Were enjoyment, learning, and freedom present? How can we incorporate more enjoyment, learning, and freedom into our daily lives?

Scott Ferguson Finding Freedom in Life

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Raw Pork for Breakfast or, Learning to Live with an Open Mind

Posted on by Scott Ferguson

German Raw Pork - Himmel und Erde

“This dish is called Himmel und Erde which means Heaven and Earth, but I don’t know why,” said my German friend as we ate lunch in Cologne (Köln).

“Hmmm, this is blood sausage, mashed potatoes, and gourmet applesauce. Perhaps the blood of the earth and the taste of heaven?” I suggested.

“Ha, maybe,” she said. “It doesn’t look like the blood sausage I ate as a child at my grandmother’s house.”

“Want to try it?” I asked.

Pause and a silent stare from my friend.

“Go ahead and try it. This is cooked, more or less. Ok, maybe less. But you fed me raw pork for breakfast,” I said.

“Ha, now you think mett is bad German food?”

“No, no, I loved the mett und brötchen, but basically we did spread ground raw pork on bread and eat it. I liked it.”

“I’ll have a small piece of the blood sausage,” she conceded and ate a bite. “Not bad.”

“Want more?” I asked with a smile.

“No.”

Though she didn’t want to eat more than one bite, I did appreciate my friend’s willingness to be open minded, to consider something different, and to try something new. To me, judging food to be unedible without first tasting the food is missing out on an essential part of feeling alive and living free—the ability to explore, to learn, to grow.

We all have preconceptions and cultural conditioning about food. Even my German friend–who was comfortable eating the raw pork we purchased at the meat counter in a supermarket–thought some of the foods I love, such as chicken hearts, are gross. And admittedly there are some foods I don’t wish to taste based on my cultural conditioning. To avoid our preconditioned thoughts takes some work; not only with food, but also with people from other cultures, other races, other religions. At the end of the day we’re all human and conscious thought may be required to overcome our human flaws.. Accepting others and recognizing our own ethnocentrism seems a good step.

Food is an easy place to practice being more open minded. For many years I abhorred the taste of beets. Sure, they had a deceptive appearance which made them look tasty, but to me crunching on a slice of beet tasted like chewing a clod of dirt. While travelling in Australia I learned the Aussies like a slice of “beet root” on their hamburgers and more; I defiantly removed mine and wondered why there wasn’t a tomato on my sandwich—although at the time I wasn’t even a big fan of tomatoes.

Every three or four years, I tried another single bite of beets because they always looked tasty with that enticing purple color, but, no, the flavor of beets was how I imagined a mouthful of peat moss would taste. Then one day a funny thing happened at a Brazilian restaurant while eating lunch with my German and Vietnamese colleagues. The salad bar had beets on offer and a few years had passed since my last sampling of the nasty purple root, so I placed a very small amount on my salad plate. Surprise! I loved the taste of beets.

Did the beets still taste like dirt from the cornfields of Iowa? Absolutely. But after forty years it seems I had learned to enjoy the taste of dirt. Or at least learned to set aside my preconceptions long enough for an unbiased determination. Great discoveries can happen when we explore with an open mind. And not only with food.

Bon appétit! Buen provecho! 好吃!

 

Scott Ferguson - Live with an open mind Scott Ferguson - Trying New Food

 

 

 

 

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Experiments in Living # 1: Life Without Television

Posted on by Scott Ferguson

 Life without Television - Scott Ferguson

“Experiments in Living” is about trying to improve: my lifestyle, my self-awareness, my well-being, my freedom to choose. Experiments in which I choose to give up attachments have especially increased my sense of freedom because they are focused on making conscious choices rather than acting from habit. Giving up mindless behavior frees my time and leads me to live a more full life in which I choose the times to have pure fun, total productivity, or something in between.

Experiment 1 was to give up television in my home for three months. The television was unplugged and placed in another room to make it inconvenient to watch and to remove its glaring presence from my living space. Watching television outside the home was permitted, but only for a specific purpose, such as watching a sports event.

This experiment was originally carried out when I moved into a new home. Television struck me as an incredible waste of time–a squandering of the precious time available to me on this planet–and every year the programming seems to sink to new lows as if in a quest to dumb down the world. My paltry intelligence was insulted and cried for action lest I turn into a brain dead zombie.

Month 1: The first week felt weird as I broke my television habits. Previously, when I left home I would tune the TV to a music channel (salsa or merengue) to entertain my dog. Also, when I arrived home from work I typically relaxed a few minutes by channel surfing and while cooking dinner I played the television in the background where it monotonously shouted, screeched, and beseeched me not to think. Nightly, the insistent voices implored my brain to enter a comatose state. Suddenly, during the first week without TV, quiet entered my home.

The second week was still strange. Sometimes I played music while cooking. I began to read books after dinner. I felt as if I suddenly had a lot of free time which didn’t exist before. The dog did not seem to miss the music channel during the daytime, but I left the radio on a classical music station anyway. The classical station played National Public Radio (NPR) programs in the evening and I began listening to Marketplace and Fresh Air in my home, whereas before I only listened to NPR in my car.

The third week was still strange, but I began to form new habits without television and came up with ways to fill the time. I made phone calls to family and reached out to old friends, took longer dog walks, read more books, worked my way through the stack of National Geographic magazines I had fallen behind on. I had been taking a Spanish class on Saturdays, but not studying much, so I started to study more and to plan a summer trip to Oaxaca and Veracruz, Mexico.

The fourth week, I became comfortable with the quiet. I liked hearing Terry Gross while cooking, but after dinner my quiet home felt relaxing. When the mood struck me I played music. I no longer thought about turning on the TV when I arrived home. My addiction to reruns of bad shows disappeared. The dog did not seem to care one way or the other, but he enjoyed the extra-long walks we now took in the evening.

Month 2: I rarely thought of the TV during the second month and my habit of watching TV died. My interest in television dwindled and when people at work discussed something they saw on TV, I didn’t care about the topic.   Not watching television freed me up to work on other projects, read more books, take longer dog walks, and talk to people on the phone. The quietude allowed me simply . . . to think. The sounds in my head became my own, unpolluted by television voices which used inflection to direct my thinking, used laugh tracks to prompt me to laugh at something which was not funny, used outrage to drag me into a story that was forgettable.

Month 3: I completely forgot about television during the third month. I spent more time outdoors in the evening and cooked dinner while occasionally listening to baseball games on the radio. While on vacation, it didn’t occur to me to turn on the TV in the hotel. My news came from NPR during my commute to work and the daily newspaper which permitted me to select my stories of interest and to read the information in silence.

My third month ended and I didn’t realize it. I had become so accustomed not to watch TV that I completely forgot my three months were complete until I was almost four months into the experiment. After realizing it, I waited a few days and then turned on the television on a Sunday evening. In less than an hour, I was done. Television no longer seemed entertaining and definitely sounded ridiculous. After so many months without marinating in the voices of TV, I couldn’t stomach their sounds.

Since Then: I slowly began to watch a little TV and averaged around two to three hours of TV per week; mostly I watched on Sunday mornings or Sunday evenings. Many weeks, I simply did not watch any television at all. I am still insulted by the manner of speaking used on television and by its use as a tool of misinformation. As of March 2015, I have returned to life without TV and my television at home has not been plugged in for more than four months.

Conclusions

            Television was a waste of my life. Television was a waste of my time, but even more so, watching television was a waste of my life. I have only a limited amount of time on this planet before death and I don’t want to waste it watching TV. Thinking of it in terms of being a life waster made me want to enjoy the newly available hours freed up by not watching television. Now, I appreciate my free-choice hours and feel satisfied by how I choose to spend the time. In contrast, I rarely feel satisfied after watching television and never wish I had more time to spend watching TV.

            The excuse “I don’t have time” disappeared. Without television, plenty of time came available. I studied Spanish, called more friends, talked to my family, and took my dog on longer walks. I have used my evenings for exercise, classes, volunteering, cooking, starting a business, writing, and more.

            I enjoy watching television more now than before. After giving up television, it was funny to watch it once again and to realize the inferiority of the performances as well as to notice the voice inflections of commercial narrators and news organizations attempting to shape my feelings—perhaps even dictate how I should feel. Often, the tone of the voices imply I should feel outraged and under attack. The voices seemed to assume I will never question their content or validity and will never inquire, “Why are they saying this?” Now, when I watch television, it is because I choose to watch television and I choose to watch only content I truly enjoy. Also, I can easily turn it off and walk away.

            My ears gained more sensitivity to sounds. Without all those yelling voices, inflecting tones, and screaming sounds assaulting my ears, I grew accustomed to soft, quiet, peaceful time which made my hearing more sensitive. Not only more sensitive to grating sounds, but more sensitive to notice the sounds in people’s voices when speaking, sounds of music, sounds of nature, and sounds of silence.

            Without television, I have more freedom. I have more choice. Peace.

Giving Up Television

 

 

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Finding Freedom: Languages

Posted on by Scott Ferguson

Scott Ferguson - Finding Freedom in Language - Living Free(Above: Welcome sign in northern Laos.)

I love learning languages.  For me, it is fun, interesting, challenging, and rewarding.   In actuality, I am not a very fast learner of languages.  In the way some people enjoy to play golf or guitar with no intention to become a professional, I plod along with my languages because I enjoy them.  Slowly, I improve.

There is a freedom I gain from learning another language and it’s one of the things I like to do. While travelling, I know I can obtain food, a place to stay, and transportation.  I like to go where the locals go in order to understand a culture.

Of course, at times it can be comical.  Sometimes my precision in the language is lacking–I have boarded wrong buses, given taxi drivers wrong directions, mistakenly ordered fish heads for breakfast, and mixed up way too many verbs to recall.  Once, I became nervous and spoke gibberish inside a bank in Beijing; the poor teller stared at me unsure whether to laugh or cry because she was stuck helping this fool.  Laughing at myself and laughing with others is a good reminder not to take myself too seriously.

The ability to communicate outside of English makes me self-sufficient and gives me confidence in unfamiliar situations.  After not using my French for many years, I felt happy to still be able to read a menu written in French in Switzerland.  I’ve travelled around rural south Mexico and throughout Central American using my Spanish.  And in China, I have travelled thousands of miles and visited over 25 cities as well as rural villages.  The ability to read signs and menus in Chinese definitely helps.

How to Master Chinese
(Above: Stinky Tofu sign jokingly written as Chinese National Soccer Team Tofu.)

Sometimes I have jumped into situations while my language level was quite low, but with time I’ve learned to be confident and know I can make it through most situations.  Simply learning to count in Bahasa allowed me to barter in the markets in Indonesia and Malaysia.  Using Chinese, I exchanged currency on the black market in Laos and having learned to correctly say thank you in Thai rewarded me with a big smile and a glass of tea in Bangkok.

Besides travel freedom, languages have opened up to me many experiences which I couldn’t have had otherwise.  With language, boundaries often melt.  I have talked with peasant farmers in Yunnan, China, danced all night in a barrio of Panama City, Panama, and hiked a volcano with a former guerilla in Guatemala.  People who began as strangers have insisted to pay for my meals in Mexico, Costa Rica, Indonesia, and China because we were able to have simple conversations in their languages.

The ability to help others has been rewarding at times, too.  In London’s Heathrow Airport, I assisted a worried Spanish speaker to find her gate; in Kunming, China, I helped some lost German tourists; and in rural Laos, I translated for a Chinese businessman.  In Atlanta, I have used Spanish on a near daily basis to communicate with friends, co-workers, and contractors, as well as to visit delicious taquerias, cantinas, and restaurants.

Though I have not reviewed the research, learning another language probably is good for my brain, too.  Children learn language by listening and I’ve discovered I learn faster that way, too, instead of always trying to translate inside my head.  Of course, while learning a language, eventually some memorization is required and I’ve regained this ability to memorize (which had evaporated after college).

All in all, learning languages entertains, challenges, and opens up the world with a sense of wonder and freedom.  I didn’t enjoy learning languages until I was an adult, but I am happy to have discovered this joy.

Do you have something you study or practice which helps you feel free?

Scott Ferguson - Language Benefits
(Above: Menu on the wall of a small restaurant in Beijing–it’s all Chinese to me.)

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A Dead Man’s Party in Bangkok

Posted on by Scott Ferguson

bangkok tourist death - kao san road

One night in Bangkok I saw a tourist die on the sidewalk along Khao San Road, a notorious haven of nightlife. He was lying on the ground as I joined the scene. An Australian guy delivered CPR, but eventually stopped, shook his head, and said, “He’s dead.”

“Are you serious?” asked a young guy from New Zealand.

“I’m serious, mate.” And that was the end of the man’s life. A Dutch woman, a new acquaintance of mine, ran to the police station 200 yards away. Continue reading →

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