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Striking a chord

June 22nd, 2014

I’m in the thick of it already. Summer vacation chaos. Trying to meet deadlines between beach dates and camping trips. Working to the sounds of Looney Tunes, water fights, and children playing Yahtzee at my kitchen table.

School holidays started two weeks early this year. As though 9 weeks of summer break isn’t long enough for my kids to completely forget everything they’ve learned since September. These bonus vacation weeks come courtesy of a B.C. teachers’ strike that’s been a depressingly long time coming. Here are some facts that influence my position on this whole mess:

• The school system in British Columbia is currently funded $1000 less per student than the national average.

• This province also has the highest rate of child poverty in the country.

• There’s money for all kinds of other things around here. For instance, big sporting events. Big sports arenas. Big pay raises for politicians.

• The B.C. Supreme Court has ruled that the government broke the law the last time they negotiated with teachers.

Before the teachers went on strike last week, my kids’ school managed to squeeze in a music recital. It was a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing end to the school year.

Whenever my frustration and outrage have boiled over this week, I’ve found myself watching this video again.

There’s so much to love about it. The tune. The kids’ energy. The way the song goes off the rails through the middle section and how they manage to pull it back together by the end. The big finish. The visible pride they take in performing something they’ve been working hard on all year.

The way they all work together to create a complex, harmonious arrangement.

It gives me a glimmer of hope that maybe the grown-ups responsible for the public education system in this province will manage to do the same before school starts in September.

Oh please, please let school start in September.

Perhaps it’s time for me to go and re-read this great Rabble post that explains why teacher strikes make British Columbia better.

After that, if anyone needs me, I’ll be right here, self-medicating with freezies and searching frantically for inexpensive mid-August summer camps. 

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Radio road trip

May 7th, 2014

I took a road trip to Bellingham with a freelancer friend last weekend to see one of our radio idols: Ira Glass from WBEZ’s This American Life.

This news earned me a few weird looks in the days preceding the trip.

“You’re driving down to the U.S. to see a radio star?”

“Never heard of him.”

“Oh, that sounds… interesting.”

So when we arrived for the show, it was gratifying to discover that we aren’t alone in our enormous enthusiasm for public radio. The Mount Baker Theatre was absolutely packed.

And Ira, in all his self-deprecating glory, was greeted with hoots and hollers of joy when he came out on stage.

The show started in the pitch dark. All we could see was the glow of a tablet as he strode up and down the stage talking about the unique intimacy of radio storytelling.

When we’re watching video, he said, we tend to be judgey. What a person is wearing, the way they look, the environment they’re in… these things all affect the way we digest what we’re hearing.

“With radio, there are no barriers,” he said. “It just goes right into you.”

The show offered a rawer, more genuine version of Ira Glass than you get to hear on This American Life. For example, he swore. With really bad words, too. It was beautiful.

“I love it when people curse. I love it. I love it!” he said.

He also talked about taking drugs – a very funny story about ecstasy and anxiety that he told to The Guardian newspaper this week, as well.

But most of all he talked about the art and craft of storytelling.

Using humour and surprise in storytelling, he said, is what makes the world seem like a place worth living in. Empathy, too.

“Without empathy, what’s the point of telling any story?” he said.

He wrapped up with some encouragement for the aspiring storytellers in the audience.

Don’t give up, he said, even if your stories don’t initially turn out the way you’d hoped they would. He played a recording of one of his early radio pieces — a dry and incomprehensible report about North American crops… I think — to inspire us all to keep at it.

And for creative people with projects in mind, he finished with this advice:

“Do it now. Don’t wait. Do it now.”

I saw this lovely video of Ira talking about the creative process last year and it has a lot in common with what he shared in Bellingham last weekend.

It was well worth the trip to hear him say it live and in person.

 

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Rubber duckie radio

April 8th, 2014

I recently had the privilege of putting together a story for Greenpeace Canada’s latest podcast, which is out today on iTunes.

My part of the podcast is about phthalates, endocrine disrupting chemicals that are used to soften plastic. I was already familiar with the subject when Greenpeace assigned me the story… I first learned about phthalates when I read a magazine article back in 2008 and realized with horror that the rubber duckies my kids chewed on in the bathtub were potentially toxic. I ended up throwing all of my kids’ squeezable bath toys out in a panic.

Great progress has been made in the regulation of phthalates in products for children since then. It was great to be able to report on an environmental success story and get the truth about toxics in toys. Spoiler alert: I can end my vendetta against the rubber duck.

Producing the story involved the very cool experience of conducting an interview with an expert in Beijing via Skype. But the best part of the assignment was interviewing my daughter at bath time. Recording her squeaky voice telling me all about her favourite bath toys was a hoot. I should interview my kids more often.

I was happy, as well, to get the chance to work for Greenpeace — an organization that started here in Vancouver and whose work I’ve long admired. You can also hear me on one of their earlier podcasts interviewing strangers on the street about the Greenpeace vessel, the Rainbow Warrior.

Long may she sail.

 

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Spring cleaning (and the weight of our stuff)

March 15th, 2014

March break has arrived and signs of spring are everywhere. The rain is warmer. The trees are budding. The out-of-town getaways are booked. And the garage is in desperate need of a cleaning.

It’s bursting at the seams with a winter’s worth of stuff. Every time I go into it, climbing past boxes and bags to get to the car (no idea how we still manage to wedge that in there) it feels like an accusation: what is wrong with you? What is all this stuff and why do you have it?

To be fair, there’s a lot of useful stuff in the garage. It’s useful-but-seldom-needed stuff: camping gear, Christmas decorations, a fondue set, toboggans, suitcases.

It’s the other stuff that stresses me out. The useless-but-can’t-let-it-go stuff. Boxes filled with adorable, too-small kids’ clothes, bins of photographic negatives, old diaries and documents, baby toys, piles of children’s artwork.

And I have so much more of that kind of stuff than I used to. What was once a small storage locker’s worth of useless stuff has expanded into a garage full of it. When you’ve got kids, your stuff seems to multiply exponentially each year. No matter how often we Craigslist outgrown equipment and drop bags off at Goodwill, there always seems to be more stuff than we can handle. And it’s very difficult to let go of.

Because despite the aggravation our stuff causes us, there are real reasons why we hold onto it.

I delved into this subject deeply a couple of years ago, when we moved and temporarily put a bunch of our stuff in storage. The stuff-crammed warehouse where we rented a locker blew my mind. Why do people pay good money to store so much stuff that they clearly don’t really need?

Well for starters, according to neuroscientist and science writer Christian Jarrett, “our possessions become extensions of the self.”

In his article “The Psychology of Stuff and Things“, Jarrett explains that we use our possessions “to signal to ourselves, and others, who we want to be and where we want to belong. And long after we’re gone, they become our legacy. Some might even say our essence lives on in what once we made or owned.”

And our stuff might do even more than define our identities: it may help us cope with existential anxiety. There’s been a lot of research into consumer behaviour over the last 25 years and some of it relates to an area of study called “terror management.” Our stuff, some researchers say, helps us deal with our fear of death.

So as well as being the mainstay of the economy, it seems that acquiring stuff is also the new religion. Doesn’t that mean our stuff is essentially the foundation of modern civilization?

It’s like George Carlin said in this brilliant routine:

“That’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it: trying to find a place for your stuff.”

Our stuff grounds us. And it drags us down. And at least once a year it feels good to lighten the load a little.

Time to head out to the garage with some garbage bags and a shovel.

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Dancing to a different tune

January 31st, 2014

I told a story on the CBC Radio show Definitely Not The Opera this week. It was for an episode that’s all about seeing your parents in a new light.

It’s a tricky maneuver, telling a story about your parents on national radio. Especially when it involves describing how you saw them when you were a child. I’m now a parent myself and can look back and recognize how hard they worked and how little I appreciated their efforts at the time.

That must be part of the joy of becoming a grandparent… knowing that your own offspring are finally going to understand how grateful they ought to be.

Anyway, my story on DNTO is about the first time I saw my parents dance together. They have some moves, see, and the first time I saw them on the dance floor, I realized that they’d had a whole life before me during which they’d had quite a lot of fun.

Thanks for giving up on nights out at jazz clubs in favour of endless chores and exhausting family vacations, Mum and Dad! 

Telling my story on DNTO also made me think about how my own kids see me these days. During the brief moments in between dropping them off at school, trying to meet deadlines, shopping for groceries, doing laundry and desperately trying to make it to extracurricular activities on time, I’m not exactly a barrel of laughs most days.

It’s been a good reminder that when your kids see you having fun, it makes you more human in their eyes. And presumably less of a bossy, errand-running, robotic parental unit. Note to self: loosen up a little.

You can listen to my story about my parents here (my bit starts at around 0:13:45).

Meanwhile, I’ll be thinking up new ways to thank them for all of their hard work. It might be an impossible task, but at least I know I’ve given them one gift they genuinely enjoy: a new dance partner who really knows how to move.

 

 

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