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The Lost Art of Staring Into Space

July 11th, 2014

Freelancers never take vacations. The ones at my house don’t, anyway. My husband and I, both freelancers, haven’t taken a non-working vacation together since our honeymoon ten years ago.

He’s spent Christmas vacations in Alberta working on his laptop at the dining room table. I spent evenings on last summer’s trip to Nelson, BC scheduling tweets and blog posts in the bedroom of our rented cottage. A few years ago, we left our kids with their grandparents and went on a romantic weekend getaway to Salt Spring Island. Inspired by the atmosphere of the artsy B&B we stayed at, we spent the whole second day of our trip working on a couple of long-neglected creative projects.

Back-to-back, in total silence.

It was great.

But it’s not just us. I polled my freelance network about their vacation habits last month and received the following responses:

“On my first week of vacation, last week, I jumped head first into 3 freelance projects and a new website!”


“What’s a vacation? For that matter what is a weekend? Haven’t had a non-working vacation since I went full-time freelance seven years ago.”


“I actually never take a vacation or break with no work at all, but I don’t mind. A partial shut-down is all I need.”

A “partial shut-down” is all I’ve had for the past ten years, too. And for the most part I’ve been fine with that. I, like most freelancers, am not big on “real” vacations for several reasons.

First of all, they’re difficult to organize. Freelancers hate to turn down work, and it can be hard to time deadlines to neatly coincide with a scheduled vacation.

Secondly, freelancers don’t get paid holiday time. If we take vacations, we don’t get a paycheque.

Third, we freelancers are able to spread out our relaxation time throughout the year – a Tuesday afternoon at the fairground here, a mid-week day at the beach there – so we never feel as desperate for a full-on break as 9-to-5ers do.

Finally, and I’m speaking only for the members of my own household now, when you enjoy what you do for a living, vacations become less of a priority.

So after a decade of “partial shut-downs” it was disconcerting for my husband and me when we had to take a “real” vacation last month. My mother-in-law hit a milestone birthday and asked the whole family to come and help her celebrate it.

In Varadero, Cuba.

Having heard that internet access would be expensive and extremely unreliable, I decided, for once, to give up on the idea of doing any blogging or social media work.

But I didn’t give up on the idea of work altogether. I figured without internet access maybe I’d have time to spend on a few creative projects. I thought I’d be able to work for an hour or so each day on story pitches or new ideas. But it didn’t happen.

With the temperature above 30 degrees and the humidity at 85%, my brain slid quickly into a state of total sloth. I found myself sitting on a deck chair poolside most afternoons, staring into space, with a drink in my hand and a closed book on my lap.

Remember staring into space? I’d almost forgotten all about it.

It didn’t take long to come back to me, though. Without the infinite scroll of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram to keep it busy, my brain quickly remembered how to do nothing again. And since I wasn’t even able to access the endless info-gush, my low-level sense of anxiety about trying to keep up dissipated.

Turns out it feels really good to unplug completely once in a while. And if that’s not enough to convince my freelance friends to try it, how about this nugget: according to recent research, boredom spurs creativity.

Taking a few days off work to stare into space recharges your batteries and refreshes your energy. And it provides opportunities for inspiration to surface from deeply buried corners of your brain.

Not that that happened to me. Mostly all I thought about was which of the hotel bars mixed the best mojitos.

But my mind is quieter after a week without a constant flow of information. My thoughts feel less fractured. It made me realize that I should unplug regularly and give my tightly coiled brain a chance to ease up a bit.

Ideally in a location with views like this:

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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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