2017 RADIUS Fellows Retreat

RADIUS Fellows Retreat 2017 - group discussion

On February 4 my RADIUS 2017 Fellows cohort braved the blizzard to arrive at Camp Alexandra for our program’s opening retreat. This was a chance for us to unplug from our daily lives, get to know eachother and work on setting some personal goals for our time in the Fellows program.

Once we were assembled it didn’t take long for us to skip to the good stuff: who am I? How did I get here? What difficult decisions have I made in my life? Each exercise throughout the weekend was an opportunity to reflect on our experience by sharing it with others.

I really enjoyed getting to know people and appreciated how the tasks we were asked to do were very purposefully meant to get us to explore different ways of telling our stories than many of us are probably used to. The more conversations I had, the more I realized that there are a lot of similarities between us. It might be a bad breakup, or getting fired from a job, or something as random as having a crippled waterfowl as a childhood pet. So rarely in everyday life do we get the chance to focus on other people for long enough to discover the things we have in common.

I was surprised to learn that two thirds of our group identified as introverts. It definitely didn’t feel like it. The lodge was humming with energy and early on we were already having conversations about how well the group gelled and what kinds of wizardry must have taken place in the selection process to make that happen.

But perhaps this was just because we’d spent a long time at the outset coming to a consensus about community guidelines that would enable us to be an open and supportive group. The list we arrived at was rather extensive and emerged out of deep discussions about listening well, showing respect for others’ viewpoints, creating space, expressing radical candour, and hugging consentually.

RADIUS Fellows Retreat 2017 - walking outside at Crescent Beach

One of the hardest exercises for me during the retreat was the “super social vision portal” where you have to beam yourself one year into the future and then talk about all of the things that you have accomplished in that time. Being forced to articulate my goals in terms of tangible accomplishments was hard, but it was a good exercise because it forces you to work back from that point to start mapping out how to get there. And more importantly, voicing those goals to another person forces you to think seriously about committing to them.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the retreat was the creative talent in the room. The suggestion on Saturday evening that we should have a talent show was met with near universal awkward rejection, and many in our group opted to try out a rap workshop with Nigel instead. From there things morphed organically into a singalong and Pictionary. There are some seriously talented people in this group.

After the retreat I’m really looking forward to the rest of the program. I’m glad to be part of such a great group of people with so many exciting plans. The retreat was a reminder that though the world has a lot of huge problems that need to be fixed, none of us has the sole responsibility to fix everything. When we are isolated, it is so easy to feel defeated by the enormity of the task. But when you connect with others who are motivated and passionate about what they do, you realize that everyone is doing their bit to make things better. Creating allies lightens the load.

RADIUS Fellows Retreat 2017 - group singalong

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Darning Socks

socks with darned heels

For my first mending project I wanted to try my hand at darning socks. These ones had large holes in the heels so they were good candidates.

Darning socks fell out of favour when cheap, machine-knit socks came onto the market and it became more cost effective to throw out holey socks than to fix them. Certainly it would have been more cost-effective to replace these socks, which were cheap Christmas gift socks that I have very little attachment to. It took me a couple hours to fix them. But I enjoyed learning a new skill and there’s something about hand-sewing that I find very absorbing in a meditative way.

The most basic darning stitch results in a firm, inflexible fabric. That’s where the darning egg comes in. It stretches your stitches out pre-emptively so that they won’t end up too tight. It makes the mend look lumpy and weird but the result is surprisingly comfortable.

close-up of darned sock heels

My stitching is a bit rough. I initially made the rows too far apart and that meant that there were gaps in the woven fabric that I later closed in with a new layer of stitching. In future I’d probably think a bit more about where I’m sticking my needle to prevent that from happening. Also, as I was working on this I started to get kind of bored with a plain 1×1 weave, especially when so much more is possible. One week I might just try out doing a sampler of cool patterns instead.

But at the rate I go through socks, these are sure to be the first of many, so I’ll have lots of chance to perfect my technique.

Should you want to also try mending socks there are many tutorials available on the internet. I used this one. I don’t have a darning egg so I used a lightbulb instead, which worked well. You can’t get incandescent lightbulbs in Canada anymore, but you can get LED ones with an incandescent shape at IKEA.

sock darning progress shot

I’m repairing a thing a week in 2017. You can see all the posts about this project here.

Make Do and Mend

Make Do and Mend IWM PST 14925 ©Imperial War Museum
Make Do and Mend
IWM PST 14925 ©Imperial War Museum

I’ve decided to take up a year-long project in which I take some time each week to mend or fix something. I have a number of reasons, the main one being that I have a lot of things right now that need relatively simple repairs that would make them more usable. I dislike throwing things away, and I need to curb my spending a bit, so making the things that I have last longer makes sense.

It will also be a way to develop some new skills and engage with some of the thoughts that I’ve been having about the unustainability of our consumer economy and the value and benefits (if any) of performing anachronistic manual tasks. Our current model for the creation and distribution of goods requires a massive input of resources and the exploitation of cheap labour often working in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. One of the easiest ways to decrease your environmental footprint is to just buy less things.

The other reason is that I experience real difficulty in committig to long-term personal projects and I’d like to force myself to be more disciplined in following through with them. I allow busyness and paid work to push my own personal projects into the margins and the result is that I have a list of things that I want to accomplish with a perpetual deadline of someday. Without committing to regular deadlines that won’t change.

I get tired sometimes of making things, at least, making things for the sake of making things. Do I really need more things in my life? Sometimes the answer is no.

I have a list of things right now in my mending pile but not enough to last the whole year. One thing I’ve noticed though is that after committing to this project I’m starting to notice more and more things that aren’t quite right in some way that I’ve just subconsciously chosen to tolerate. So they’re getting added to the list.

I’ll be tagging all the posts related to this project with #52mends so please follow along.

Mr. Toupe

Rocky Point Park, winter

It’s that time of year again! Everywhere you look there are ads reminding you to feel guilty about all the fun you had during the holiday season.

New Years is a really crappy time to take up running. It’s cold, wet and miserable, demanding a ridiculous amount of commitment so it’s no small surprise that most people quit within a few weeks of starting.

I grew up in a public park, which was an excellent stage to view this in action. Every year at the beginning of January we would see people out in droves, braving the rain, wind and cold, walking, jogging or something similar. Most were nowhere to be found by February. We’d place bets to see who would last the longest, and often we’d be right.

So one year quite a while back it began like any other. Every day we were visited by a gradually declining population of would-be runners. In their midst was a man who we began to refer to as Mr. Toupe. He was morbidly obese and shuffled down the sidewalk with great difficulty, the sweat pouring out from underneath his artificial hairpiece.

At the beginning of the year it seemed more likely that his attempts at running would cause him to keel over and die than lose weight.

But day after day he returned. And as people began to drop out, he persisted. His shuffling became walking and then jogging. Gradually he began to lose weight. Contrary to all expectations, by the end of the year he was jogging around with ease, at a very normal looking weight.

Every year around this time I think about him.

A hairpiece tip to you, Mr. Toupe. I hope that wherever you are you are still your goal weight.

Good things about 2016: Cycling

Stonehenge, on a bicycle

2016 has been an undeniably shitty year in many respects, but some things were not so bad. I’m challenging myself to write about a few of them.

For me, 2016 was the year that I finally got over my fear of cycling on the road. I rode my bike over 700 km and went all sorts of cool places, including up the River Lea, to Stonehenge, to a castle with bitchy tea room ladies and the bird sanctuary at Rainham Marshes. I’m very much indebted to the lovely people that work at the London Cycling Campaign for the incredibly subsidized road cycling lessons and a lot of the awesome cycling infrastructure around London. Had my life not been in such disarray this past year I probably would have cycled a lot more.

I can thank a government-subsidized program for turning me onto cycling this year. I’m so used to being not quite poor enough, and of the wrong kind of demographic to participate in these kinds of things in Canada, so I was genuinely surprised that I was able to sign up for an introductory cycling program. There was no minimum requirement or criteria that I had to fulfill. All I had to do was show up.

They lure you in with the promise of a £10 bike.

For £10 you get the use of a bike for a month along with a lock and accessories, such as a helmet, hi-vis vest and lights. You also get a membership with the London Cycling Campaign and are enrolled into their liability insurance group plan. As part of this program you have to keep a diary about how much you used the bike and check in regularly with the people running the program.

The idea behind this program is that you take people who are not currently cycling and you give them the chance to cycle with minimal investment on their part. But also that you make sure they are doing it with the right kind of equipment to get started: a bicycle of reasonable quality that is in good working condition, so they won’t have any mechanical problems, that is the correct size for their height so they will not feel particularly uncomfortable. And they set you up with all of the accessories that help keep you safe as well.

I think this is a really important bit. How often have you tried out a new hobby and skimped on the supplies, getting the cheapest ones that you can find, or getting something second-hand that might not work properly. On the one hand, it makes sense. Why invest a lot of money into something that you might not ultimately like or decide to pursue for the longer term? On the other hand, when you approach it this way, you’re adding an extra barrier to your own success and enjoyment of that activity. You add the frustration of dealing with inadequate equipment to the inevitable setbacks that come from being a beginner. So this kind of program sets you up on the right foot to really decide whether you would like to continue cycling after the trial is over.

As part of the program you also have the option of taking two one-to-one cycling lessons at no additional cost. That’s really the reason why I signed up in the first place. I could have probably bought a bicycle for myself but the real thing that was keeping me from doing so was the fact that I was very nervous about riding on the road, especially in London where the roads are narrow and the drivers are a bit crazy.

The lessons were just what I needed to get over that and help me develop the confidence to ride on the road by myself. They tailor them to your level, wherever you are at. And since I’m not from the UK, it was very helpful to have someone go through all of the rules of the road. If someone hadn’t done this for me I probably would have gotten myself killed at some point.

After the month is through, you have the option of giving your bike back or buying it at a discounted rate which works out to be about £100 below MRSP. I bought mine and couldn’t be happier with it. Seriously, why didn’t I get a bike earlier?

I’d been considering getting a bike taking some cycling lessons but it wasn’t until I saw the ad for £10 bicycles that I finally did it. It was a great program and I hope the government keeps funding it.

2016

Icy pond

As seems to be the case these days, I’ve left this blog alone for too long for much of what I was going to say to have much relevance anymore. I’ve been busy, but also I’ve felt that 2016 is a year when so many things have happened so quickly that there has barely been enough time to react to them. It was a year when change was constant and the only constant was a sense of overwhelm.

A few years ago I left my job because I’d begun to feel stagnant. I could not have imagined the impact that would have on my life, and the things that that would set in motion. It started a period of my life that has been full of many interesting and rewarding experiences on the one hand, and compounding uncertainty on the other.

Since then I have not lived in any one place for a period of more than six months. Stability in my employment has been illusory. I survived a merger at work only to lose my job due to tightening visa rules which ultimately meant that I had to leave the UK at short notice. On coming back to Vancouver I made the jump from working full-time to freelancing, which is great for flexibility, but not great for certainty. Lots of things I’d previously taken for granted as stable have not been, and the pace of change feels like it’s been accelerating to the point where I feel like everything in my life is just one big game of wait and see.

I remember being in the UK during Brexit and hearing people say that years of history had been squeezed into just a few days. I wondered why everyone was singling out Brexit. This whole year has been like that in life, in politics, in pretty much everything. Living through Brexit innoculated me to the bewilderment and shock of a Drumpf victory, though I’m no less concerned and anxious about it than anyone else I know. This year I’ve like life had taken a turn toward the surreal. The US election was confirmation that things really are worse than a lot of people thought. The federal government’s greenlighting of the Trans Moutain pipeline project and its disappointing approach to electoral reform have rubbed salt into the wound. I’m taking comfort in the fact that many around me are using the events of this year as a rallying cry to take positive action. It really blunts the edge of what would have been a sharp despair. So much piled on all at once, and a lot of it not very good.

I’ve always found it funny how much emphasis people put on the end of the year. A lot of the significance we ascribe to it is arbitrary. And yet I get sucked into it as much as the next person, with plans and hopes and resolutions. It’s not even over yet but a few weeks ago I started going through the checklist that I do at the end of the year, trying to reconcile and evaluate everything so I can start fresh next year. I guess I hit a point where I thought I’d had enough and it was time to move on.

Uncertainty and politics aside, I’m cautiously optimistic about next year. I have some plans I’m excited about that I will share in due course. 2016 was a year of uncertainty and great destabilization. My hunch is that that in 2017 that uncertainty will bring opportunities that I haven’t imagined yet.

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Madrid

flamenco performance madrid

Because of my delayed flight I’d missed the chance to get a sense of the terrain I was travelling through so I was looking forward to the drive to Madrid. But the terrain was pretty monotonous. The land is covered almost exclusively with olive plantations. Olives for hours, and no other sign of life. No birds, no animals, no people, just the occasional massive billboard bull.

The bus I was on apparently had wifi, but it didn’t work well. The onboard entertainment system had a genuinely terrible selection of music and a bunch of films that were mostly in Spanish with no subtitles. I ended up watching Amelia, because it was the only one they had in English, but it lacked sufficient emotional depth for me to feel invested in.

So I stared out the window and reminded myself of how big the world is. It’s easy to forget that in the UK where everything is so dense and close together. Elsewhere, there is so much empty space. Driving always puts me in a pensive mood.

After Granada, Madrid felt big and unfriendly. I wasn’t there long enough to really get a sense of the city and it seemed like there was a lot less opportunity to interact with people beyond transactional stuff, like buying a meal. Even that wasn’t a particularly friendly experience. Serving staff spoke English but they weren’t all that enthused about having to help out and at every place I ate I had significantly slower service than the people around me. At one point I stumbled upon a weird restaurant that had cheap sandwiches and was inexplicably filled with nuns in groups of threes but I couldn’t figure out how to order food so I left.

One night I went to see a tabla flamenco show on the recommendation of a friend and out of a desire to keep up my quota of watching dance shows. It was interesting, but very touristy, not the sort of thing that I would normally do. I enjoyed the performance but at these sorts of encounters I always find it more interesting to pay attention to the meta experience of being there, watching the watchers and trying to figure out what about the encounter made it feel inauthentic.

Madrid made me feel like there were things happening and I wasn’t really a part of them. Perhaps I was missing having a high vantage point to look down from. In my accommodation I slept without covers and the noise of the traffic, garbage pickup and road maintenance continued on until 4am forcing me to dig out my earplugs to get some sleep.

Lost Rivers

Lee Valley mill

I started writing this post before I left the UK and then abandoned it because I got busy and a lot of other things seemed more pressing. But the recent rediscovery of the HMS Terror and last year’s discovery of the HMS Erebus reminded me of it.

Shortly before I left the UK I was cycling down a road that I’d been down numerous times. I’m not entirely sure what tipped me off that day but suddenly I recognized that it was a canal. It made sense: the road’s location in a trough, the bridges that crossed it, the occasional bullwark here and there in locations that were nowhere near the river. All of the pieces just clicked together and I understood.

I googled it to find out more about the route and ended up at Paul Talling’s London’s Lost Rivers where I spent a few hours reading. There are many watercourses that feed into London, but they tend to disappear in urban areas, and over time many have been forgotten.

There are clues though. First off there is the shape of the city itself. The weird shapes of city blocks and routes that streets take is a product of people in the past working far more within the constraints of geography than we would do now. A river would have posed more of an obstacle to be built around rather than over. Rivers also form handy boundaries between different boroughs, so you find that some bits of the city are curiously less connected to adjacent bits.

This historic geography is also embedded in place names. The names of streets, ditches, drains, and pubs often give clues as to the former routes of waterways. Long after they’ve disappeared from view and long after the original industries such as mills or ferries are gone their names remain. Though many things have passed out of people’s memories and lived experience, the names of things are clues that can be traced back to help you discover hundreds of years of local history. The names are intimately connected to the places they describe.

In Canada we have a lot of places that are named after so many other places. The names are completely decontextualized and lack the relationships between one another that existed in the places where the names were first used. It’s not something that I really noticed before I travelled a bit around the UK but now those names seem strange. Not only that… but you will see the same set of names in Australia, South Africa and other Commonwealth countries, making just as much sense as they do anywhere else they don’t really belong. Every colony has a Victoria, a London, a Halifax. That’s colonialism for you.

It’s not merely the physical control of territory but also the control of history and narrative. By renaming everything in sight, colonists severed our connection to our land’s pre-colonial past. Naming things after the ‘old country’ says, as we’ve often said in so many narratives, that history starts now. History starts when we got here, when we ‘discovered’ this place, when we colonized it and gave it new names. Whatever happened before this happened is not merely irrelevant, by erasing names we try to make it so that history it never existed in the first place.

Reading through a fascinating account of rediscovering the routes of lost rivers made me sad to have grown up in a place that was colonized. No doubt the societies that were here first have names for everything, and those names hold a lot of knowledge. But that knowledge, and the cultural and language skills to decode it is not something I’ve ever really been exposed to.

Why am I thinking about this now? Because the recent rediscovery of the ships from the Franklin expedition happened thanks to indigenous knowledge. Inuit hunters knew where Terror was years before anyone else did because they spend a lot of time in the area and know it intimately. The Erebus was found in an area that was literally called by the Inuit “the boat sunk here” or “the big boat is here.” And sure, we laugh about it but it’s the sort of thing that should make people hang their heads in shame.

Just think of what else we might discover if we actually took the time to recognize these people as the owners and stewards of this land.