Sunday, September 5, 2010

Past Deadline: The Fine Art of Vacationing

Since having kids (and sometimes even before then), I have approached vacations with a certain amount of dread. There is all the work-related preparation required to actually be able to go, then the fearsome amount of work awaiting one’s return, not to mention the planning and packing required to actually leave the building.

This is especially true when camping or cottaging, I find, as provisions are required that one wouldn’t necessarily need if going on, say, a cruise.

Once you arrive there is a fine art to vacationing properly and I seldom achieve it. I’ve heard it said that the ideal length for a holiday is three weeks: one week to unwind, one to enjoy and one to feel bored enough to return.

Because my holidays tend to be crammed into seven- to 10-day stretches, it tends to go more like this: During the first two or three days I stress about not being able to relax. For the next couple of days I might actually be able to forget about work, but the last few days are usually punctuated by little pesky stabs of worry about what lies in wait for me in my inbox.

Good times.

All that aside, though, having a week to reconnect with nature at a cottage really is a blessing, even if I can’t get my addled brain to rest in the moment for more than a couple of days. I am always reminded how much I truly need a few days in the outdoors to feel “right” again.

I think we all need this more than we realize.

For the better part of a year I have been involved with a children’s program at Murphys Point called Super Kids In Parks, which was designed as a way to get kids like mine off the computer once a week and teach them a thing or two about nature. A kazillion or so studies show a huge disconnect between kids and nature, which is leading to all sorts of nasty things like sleep deprivation, low self-esteem and behavioural problems.

Getting kids outside helps them to understand how the planet works and to identify with the environment. It helps them to solve problems. It’s relaxing. It can be an elixir to some modern woes. It also gets them moving and combating childhood obesity.

As much time as I have spent understanding this and helping to create this program for children so that good people can show them a few things about the outdoors, I often forget that I, too, need to unplug and enjoy the fresh air and catch frogs with the kids and take pictures of critters and even read a book while sitting on a dock.

It’s basic but essential, and so many of us are missing it.

A friend of mine who used to live in the country invited me and the kids over one time to see her new home. It featured woods and water and I breathed it all in. She looked at me and said, “I can see you relaxing even as you stand here.” And it’s true.

Why is it so hard for us to unplug? And what has happened that has made kids favour screen time over outside time? Sometimes I practically need a crowbar to wedge my short people out the door and into the backyard, where they claim there is “nothing to do.” Why don’t they build forts and ride bikes and make “soup” out of pulled-up grass in a mud puddle like we used to?

Of course these are mostly rhetorical questions. Things are different now. Parents have been conditioned to be alarmingly protective and in doing so we run the risk of nurturing a bunch of zombies who shun the outdoors and don’t understand their own environment.

So when I see the way my own kids respond and bloom when we go camping or cottaging, and how they remind me of myself at that age when they’re busy frolicking, it is good.

Now I just need to find a way to make this type of “vacationing” part of our everyday, and maybe we’d all feel more “right.”

Wish me luck.

Published in The Perth Courier, Sept. 2/10.

Past Deadline: Snake Girl

We just spent a marvellous week at a cottage close to home (read: within commuting distance for those who had work-related commitments). The best part was watching the kids’ backs as they ran out the door in the morning, returning only for meals sporadically during the day. The rest of their time was spent frolicking in the lake or patrolling the shoreline looking for beasties.

As a kid, I was a dandy frog/snake/fish/turtle catcher, and I still think it is an important part of growing up to check out critters, learn how to treat them nice and let them go.

So that’s what we did all week.

At this cottage there is a large frog population and all of the kids (including my own) spent the day tracking them down, creating a habitat for them in a cooler, observing them for a while and then letting them go, only to do it all again later. We were also graced by the presence of two northern water snakes. The big one arrived each morning to dine on frogs near our docks, and a littler one would come by in the afternoon to do the same.

Everyone was fascinated by this. A crowd gathered to watch.

And then my daughter, the four-year-old pixie with the blonde hair and big blue eyes, tossed a frog to the big snake and we all watched in amazement as it snapped it up with lightning speed, expanded its jaw and swallowed it whole in two minutes.

We ooohed and aaahed.

I waded in with a camera to take close-up pictures, Girlchild right beside me, while men and women herded their children onto shore. “Isn’t she brave!” they said of Girlchild. She responded, “I’m not afraid of snakes. I’m like my mom!”

Oh, how my heart swelled!

Boychild was in on the action, too, but it wasn’t as noticeable because, well, it’s kind of expected that eight-year-old boys are intrigued by reptiles, amphibians and fish.

Later, Girlchild asked if she could touch the snake, but the critter wasn’t as keen on that idea, and swam away quickly upon approach. That was a good demonstration for those who were a bit nervous around the snakes: as soon as anyone got close or towered above one, it swam in the other direction. We’re bigger than snakes are. They think we might eat them, so they go away.
To repeat the old cliché: They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.

Not only that, what’s the worst that could happen? You’re too big for a northern water snake to eat. It’s only likely to bite you as a defence mechanism if you try to pick it up and, even if it does bite you, it’s non-venomous and would probably feel a bit like a scratch – not even as bad as a horsefly bite.

While some folks still seemed a little uncertain about the whole thing and probably assumed I should be charged with reckless endangerment for letting my young child wander amongst the beasties, I am pleased to report that no one ran screaming from the water and no snakes were hacked to tiny bits during the course of our stay, although they did eat a few frogs. Such is the nature of nature.

Other daily amphibian- and reptile-related activities included swimming past the turtle log several times, wearing goggles and swimming with the fishes (and not in a Sopranos way), discovering the myriad of bread products little fish will eat (graham crackers are a hit), observing how crayfish like to grab at things with their claws and learning the correct way to release fish caught with a rod and reel.

Another delight was watching two adult loons teach two babies how to dive and fish. They spent many hours drifting in the little bay near the cottage – which was very obviously a great fishing ground. Girlchild does a pretty good loon call, too, and could often be heard answering the adults. “The Blonde Loon,” we called her.

Now, if only I could figure out how to install a lake in my backyard, we’d be able to pitch the TV and computer games for sure!

Published in The Perth Courier, Aug. 26/10.