Posts Tagged ‘travel’

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:

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.


Little places, big stories

August 31st, 2013

Sometimes little places have big stories to tell. Greenwood, the self-described “smallest city in Canada,” is one of them. We stopped there on our way though the British Columbia interior this summer and, like all the best detours, it brought new discoveries and a fresh perspective.

When we pulled off the highway on our way home from Nelson, B.C. earlier this month, we were just looking for an interesting place to stretch our legs. We found that and more at the Greenwood Museum, a quaint, red building packed with eclectic memorabilia. The exhibits were diverse and engaging: tools used in the town’s once-lucrative copper smelter, old hockey equipment, bits of fine china and antique toys.

Most fun of all was the ancient technology — a crank record player, a typewriter, and the town’s old telephone switchboard.

“This place is cool,” said my 8-year-old son. Ah, what joy to hear such words from the lips of your child as you walk through a museum.

After we’d browsed through the remnants of the town’s earliest days, we rounded a corner and came upon a darker chapter.

The closure of the copper smelter turned Greenwood into a ghost town by 1940, but it received an influx of reluctant citizens in 1942 when it became an internment camp for Japanese Canadians during World War II. The empty hotel was turned into housing for approximately 1200 people of Japanese origin from the Vancouver area – mostly Canadian-born – who had had their property confiscated. They were forced to move inland where, the theory went, they would pose less of a threat to the ports of Vancouver.

Fans, dishware, dolls and embroidery filled several large display cases. Documents lined one wall: copies of internment notices sent to “persons of Japanese racial origin,” as well as letters exchanged by the Kelowna Board of Trade and the city clerk of Greenwood. The letter from the Board, sent shortly before the end of the war, suggests deportation as a “permanent solution to the Japanese problem” – a proposal that was rejected by Greenwood’s city clerk in his response.

“They have been law-abiding under very difficult conditions,” said the clerk of Greenwood’s internees.

“Their homes and property were taken from them, many of them lost the savings of a lifetime, and they were herded around, more or less, like cattle. In spite of this, they came to Greenwood and have been cheerfully waiting for the end of the war.”

The clerk was resolute in his view that the internees would be “loyal citizens of Canada” if given the opportunity. The letters offered a window into the conflicting attitudes of the times – an era when racial discrimination was government-sanctioned and prejudice was ingrained through decades of racial friction in Canada.

We learned more about the internment camp at Greenwood later that day. An hour further along the highway we stopped for the night at my husband’s grandmother’s house in Osoyoos. We told her about our museum visit, and were surprised to hear that she knew all about what had gone on in Greenwood during the war.

Her parents, Agnes and George Carlson, owned the general store in Osoyoos and in 1942 were ordered by the government to open a store in Greenwood to supply the internees with food and other necessities.

The internees were given ration books, she told us, and her father set up scales and gave them the responsibility of measuring out their own rations.

“He knew they’d be honest with each other,” she said.

“Not so much as a grain of rice went missing in those years.”

Conditions in Greenwood were primitive, she said. There was no indoor plumbing. So her father helped the men in the internment camp get organized to build a bathhouse so that people would have somewhere to wash. He organized two baseball teams so the few men in the camp would have something to do in their spare time.

Her mother, she said, wanted to offer the internees a way to earn some money, so she set up clothing factories and hired women from the camp to sew clothes to be sold in her store in Osoyoos. She also bought two pieces of embroidery by a master embroiderer who lived in the Greenwood internment camp during those years.

On the wall of the guest bedroom where we stayed that night hung a beautifully embroidered bird in a cherry blossom tree.

Canada has a terrible history of racism and prejudice. British Columbia, in particular, has a long record of racist and white supremacist activity. And although nowadays we like to tout diversity and tolerance as important facets of our national identity, racism still lingers countrywide. Centuries of bigotry have left a bitter legacy in some communities.

Our stop in Greenwood brought to life the injustices I’ve read about in books. But I also saw surprising hints of the tolerance to which our country now aspires —  citizens who accepted diversity at a time before there was public pressure or a government mandate to do so.

For such a small place, it seems Greenwood was open to some big ideas long before their time.


Sand dollars and angel investors

July 30th, 2013

Some friends — far more skilled and talented campers than us — recommended we pitch our tent at Rathtrevor Provincial Park this summer. It was a solid tip: Rathtrevor was well worth the ferry ride to Vancouver Island. In fact it was our first truly successful camping trip. It was certainly more fun than last year’s disastrous expedition.

With immaculate campsites, campfire programs, and a wide, crescent-shaped beach, Rathtrevor is among the best campgrounds in the province. The beach is a beauty. It’s a joy to walk down to it along the sandy forest trail, anticipating the moment when the sharp smell of evergreens gives way to the tang of seaweed.

The tides at Rathtrevor go out for over a kilometre, revealing acres of wet sand scattered with snail shells and sand dollars. It’s a perfect spot for tidepooling and long rambling walks.

We spent two sunny afternoons poking around in shallow pools for sea creatures and two evenings in the outdoor amphitheatre listening to presentations about marine life and habitat preservation.

The kids loved those campfire programs. After dinner (and before toasted marshmallows) we trekked down to a wooded glen with a stream of other campers – many of them already in pajamas – to sit on long wooden benches and learn about nature. Loaded with visual aides, goofy jokes and opportunities for audience participation, the programs were perfectly geared towards children.

I was surprised to learn, though, that the park’s educational programs – the visitor centres and interpretive presentations – no longer receive any funding from the federal government. The bigger surprise was that the funding cuts came over ten years ago, under the last Liberal government.

How have they kept their programs going with no funding? Through donations, gift shops and ice cream sales, mainly. Their situation sounds depressingly precarious.

On our way out of the park on our last morning at Rathtrevor, we visited the Nature House — a little yellow-trimmed cottage filled with taxidermied animals, hand-painted displays and bins of shells and animal bones labelled, invitingly, “please touch!”. After we’d explored the displays, we bought a few trinkets. It was for a good cause, after all. The staff member behind the till explained that the care of the campground has long been contracted out to a private company: RLC Park Services, which maintains Rathtrevor as well as several other campgrounds on the island.

The Nature Houses (there are three scattered along the east coast of the island) raise money to run their programs through donations and sales. Whatever shortfall there is, she said, RLC Park Services covers.

“He pays for it out of his own pocket,” she said of the company’s owner, “because he thinks it’s important.”

Her attitude was one of resignation mixed with resolve.

“We’ll just keep going and stay open as long as we can,” she said.

Interpretive programs like the ones at Rathtrevor enrich our experience of the natural world and educate children about the environment. Now that the government has stepped back from such projects, it’s up to private business owners to decide their fate. It’s a situation I’d find thoroughly depressing if I hadn’t learned about this company, one that’s built on passion and generosity and a desire to go beyond what’s expected.

It’s comforting to know that, although money is tight and the outlook uncertain, Vancouver Island’s parks are in such good hands. 

Camp Whines-A-Lot

August 31st, 2012

So we went camping last week.

We’re really pretty terrible campers.

As comedian Jim Gaffigan would say, we’re what you would call “indoorsy.” Mind you, we do like the outdoors quite a lot. It’s just that when it comes to the end of the day we’re very fond of sleeping in real beds.

But I’ve got happy memories of camping with my family when I was a kid — you know, back in the days when my parents did all the shopping, packing, tent building, open-fire cooking, tent break-down and staggering piles of laundry that come with camping. So I feel an urge to provide the same kinds of wholesome, fresh-air experiences for my own kids.

Last year, we took our very first camping trip to Alice Lake with my sister. It was cut short by a three-year-old with a cough and a deep sense of outrage at being asked to sleep on the ground. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and all that. We returned to the city after one sleepless night.

But the youngest one has grown up a lot over the past year and we felt confident that there’d be no middle-of-the-night screaming this time. My sister even agreed to brave the woods with us again. In fact, we were so confident that we planned this year’s trip with my husband’s grandmother who, at 82, still enjoys driving up logging roads on her own to pitch a tent in the wilderness.

She agreed to slum it with us in a real campground (with real washrooms) for a couple of nights, so we scanned a list of the best campgrounds in B.C. and picked a spot roughly half way between our house and hers: E.C. Manning Provincial Park.

We discovered that Manning Park is beautiful, unspoiled, and really, really chilly. Turns out it’s up a mountain. Maybe the word “alpine” in the description should have tipped me off.

The fact that our four-year-old had woken up the morning we left with a runny nose (and that great-grandma, when she arrived, announced that she had just gotten over a bout of pneumonia) did not bode well for a pleasant night.

And then, right after dinner, it started raining.

It was among the colder, damper nights of sleep I’ve experienced. No middle-of-the-night screaming, though. I’d call that progress.

We decided to stick it out another night (although great-grandma was sent packing with hugs and orders to go home and warm up).

The sun came out, and we recovered from the trauma of the rainy night enough to appreciate the beauty of Lightning Lake.

But the cold set in again after the sun went down and the four-year-old started coughing just after midnight. We were up by 6:30 a.m. dismantling the tent and packing the car.

Before we left, my husband overheard another dad talking to his son outside the beautifully-appointed, solar-powered washrooms.

“So what was your favourite part of camping, son?” the father asked.

With a big, enthusiastic smile the boy replied “going home!”

My husband reported this conversation to the rest of us as we peeled out of Manning Park campground at 8:30 a.m. We drove like there were zombies in our rearview mirror and made it to Hope by 9:30 for coffee and muffins at the Blue Moose Cafe.

But we camped. We really did it. Tents were pitched. Campfires were enjoyed. Marshmallows were toasted. We accomplished our goal. And, best of all, the camping gear has been packed away again for another eleven months.

Next year: Okanagan camping only. Summerland sounds nice and warm.

Maybe we’ll try for three nights.