We drove up to his residence cottage at the boarding school he attended and waited. Once outside, he walked toward our truck with a book carefully tucked under one arm, I couldn’t make out the title. He wore a crisp plaid shirt and khaki shorts. I can’t remember his shoes, but I imagine a slip-on loafer; the kind one would wear on a sailboat. He looked casual, but not too casual. Confident without pretension. I noticed there was no cell phone in his hand. I’m sure he had one, but it was not affixed to his palm as is so often the norm. He climbed in and we exchanged greetings; this being my first time meeting him, introductory small talk ensued. He spoke with a certain clarity and graciousness that made me think it was not by happenstance, that it mattered to him, and perhaps to his people, that he was a comfortable conversationalist. Some of us are bred into life with great priority placed on refinement, then, as they say... then there’s the rest of us. He was not the rest of us. Within a minute or two he asked Emily what she was currently reading, and she to him. They exchanged book titles, as well as a few they had each recently finished that the other might like. He brought up travel, asking Emily if she had such plans for the summer. Not one for wanderlust, and not one who enjoys talking about herself, she briefly responded then pulled a card from her father’s deck, effortlessly turning the conversation toward her friend. Tell me about your summer plans... oh, wow that’s really interesting... where else have you traveled to recently?
After listening to a lengthy list of destinations around the globe, it became clear that this young man had seen far beyond the Jersey Shore. So I bit. What is your favorite place that you’ve traveled to? “Mongolia,” he tells me. Now, you and I could sit here and make a list of places we thought he’d claim as his favorite, and I’m pretty sure neither of us would guess Mongolia. Really? Mongolia? What brought you there? What did you love so much about it? “Well, as an amateur historian, I was interested in spending time with one of the last remaining nomadic cultures on the planet. My mother is friends with the Deputy Prime Minister of Mongolia, so I first stayed with her for a while to get acclimated, then she connected me with a tribe and I spent a couple of months with them. We traveled by horse and on foot, with thousands of goats under our care (turns out he did have a phone, on which he showed me photos; there were literally thousands of goats). Yurts were set up and disassembled according to our location. I learned the language within a few weeks so I was able to communicate well enough. It was the best time of my life.”
You don't say.
A couple of months prior to this, he shared with Emily and Adam a story about meeting Bill Clinton at Starbucks (when not at boarding school in CT, he shares a hometown with the Clintons in NY), and asked Mr. Clinton if he could have a few minutes of his time, to discuss politics over coffee. “You’ve got balls, kid,” declared our former president, as he obliged. I love this detail because if it had crossed my mind that the story was exaggerated or fabricated, this statement erases any doubt.
Back to this car ride. At some point the conversation switched to him asking me “what I do.” At first I was a little surprised, what with his previous questions relating to literature, travel and history. And being the kind of young person who invites a former president to share conversation over a cup of jo. I don’t know, the question seemed almost pedestrian. Ironically, as the universe so loves to demonstrate, this particular day happened to be within a week of my writing about a new declaration I’d offer up when asked, what do I do. Remember? I promised to respond with, I'm useful. In the moment however, I floundered. Such a disappointment. Flooded with decades of influence suggesting I must claim a professional identity, I delivered my standard reply to the question: “I teach nutrition and cooking classes.” Even though this does not accurately describe what I do for paid work, and even though I kind of loathe hearing the words as they leave my lips, it remains an answer that is easily understood by most, so I’ve used it for years. Besides, the "what do you do" question always seems more like a polite point of conversation than a genuine inquiry; a little creative license with my reply isn’t going to hurt anyone.
So I gave my response and watched as his young face brightened with an excitement more generous than necessary. It surprised me. He talked about how “cool” it was that I did this for a living, and that he recently made a profound discovery about the importance of good health and appreciating life. I asked what inspired such an epiphany, and he told me it was found while listening to Time, by Pink Floyd. Seriously. If this eighteen year old world traveling coffee drinking with a president young man did not have my attention before, he had it now. Because to be equally impassioned about traveling nomadically with thousands of goats and tribal people through Mongolia, to Bill Clinton capitulating into a discussion of foreign policy over coffee at a local Starbucks, to unlocking the value of good health and a good life by way of a Pink Floyd tune... well, it seems this kid is doing alright.
We arrived at our destination and said our goodbyes as he and Emily walked into their class. The entirety of our time together spanned about ten minutes, and it is likely I will never see him again given the countless directions Emily's friends and acquaintances are dispersing to these days. Nonetheless, it was a memorable ten minutes. Even better, it was a precious glimpse into another person's story, which is just about my favorite thing in the world.