May 2014

The freedom of lists

by Steve Brock on May 29, 2014

Packing Checklist

 

Sometimes you’ll have the most fun when you start by doing the least fun kinds of things.

I just read this article: “How to have a hassle-free trip” by Christopher Elliot, special to the Seattle Times in the NW Traveler section, May 25, 2014. Here’s part of it:

“The smartest travelers plan ahead and have a fondness for checklists. Did you pack the right clothes? Remember all the power cords? Your passport?

Lists are your friends. Smart travelers know when to wing it and when not to. Sure, your friends and family might poke fun at you for keeping a list for everything, but they’ll thank you when you’re the only one with a power adapter in France. Travelers who keep lists are far less likely to get into trouble on the road.”

Oh so true.

Planning and list taking seem like what I do at work. My vacation or leisure travel is intended to get me as far from work as a pork chop is from a kosher meal. But here’s one of the many paradoxes of travel: The better you plan the more freedom you’ll have to play on your trip. Put more time in up front and you have less to deal with when you’re on your journey.

Lists work the same way. I love David Allen’s book, Getting Things DONE. Ostensibly, it is about productivity. But it is also about creativity, meaning, the more productive you are at getting your tasks done, the more time and mental space you’ll have for the more important creative ideas. And one of the keys to this is making lists. Get things down on paper and you don’t have to use up precious short-term memory worrying about them. Or better, get things down to a routine and you hardly have to give them a second thought.

For business travel, I will lug the same carry-on bag for an overnight trip that I use for a month’s worth of travel. Do I need all that space for a single change of clothes and overnight toiletries? Nope. But everything I need for travel is in that bag. I have a separate shaving kit I keep in it along with a back-up change of clothes, extra phone/camera chargers, an umbrella, vitamins and snacks – even laundry packets, sewing kit and a clothes line (which I’ve never used on a business trip…yet) are in there. Sure, I probably lug around a few extra pounds every trip, but I never have to worry about forgetting something. And that’s the key.

You may not need to keep a bag all set to go like I do if you’re only traveling a few times a year. But you can still keep lists. If you have to rely on your memory for items on a trip, you won’t be free to enjoy the experiences. Moreover, you’re likely to forget an essential. So as uptight as it may seem to some of you “just go for it” travelers, I tell you this: Lists and habits can be liberating. They actually add to, not take away from, your freedom.

In one of those quirky serendipitous moments reading a book that has nothing to do with travel, I came across this off-hand line in The Mystery of Christ by Robert Farrar Capon p. 119. He’s a priest counseling a woman through the grieving process following the loss of her husband. He suggests she try a certain experiment where she has to mentally pack up some misgivings she has and leave them alone. Here’s part of his advice to her:

“…This is a game, for heaven’s sake. And, like all games, it has to be taken seriously or it’s no fun. Either you go by the rules, or you’re not playing at all.”

We think of fun as fun, not serious. But sometimes the most fun comes when we take some aspects of life seriously. Like playing by the rules.

Or keeping lists.

Now go make that list.

Then forget about it and have some fun.

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Travel and trust – Part 2

by Steve Brock on May 21, 2014

Delft MusiciansWhen I was a kid, my brother offered me an intriguing experiment. He claimed he could pull a hair from my head without me feeling it. Being the gullible younger brother, I said, “No way,” but let him proceed. He grasped a single strand, tugged gently saying, “That’s the one. Feel it?” “Yep,” I replied. “OK. Here I go. On the count of three you won’t feel me pull it out. One. Two. Three!”

On “Three,” he slammed his other hand down hard on my head. Despite the near concussion and my anger at his deception, I had to admit it was a pretty clever ruse. Painful. But clever.

Pickpocketing works on the same principle: Distract your target and mask a smaller movement and pressure (the removal of the wallet…or phone) with a larger one (e.g. bumping into the target or say, saddling up right next to him in a friendly photo pose. Just as an example, of course).

So there I am in Delft. I’ve listened to the Serbian musicians play, chatted and laughed with them, taken their photo as they took mine – side-by-side with their leader (third from the left in the photo above). Then, as I walk away, I realize my smart phone is missing.

What would you think at that moment? Maybe your thoughts might run something like this (if you would ever actually admit these to anyone):

  1. Don’t panic.
  2. When did I last use my phone?
  3. Double check all my pockets, etc.
  4. Could it be? Did they really steal my phone?
  5. No way.
  6. Way. Or at least a possibility.
  7. They’re from Serbia. Serbia is in that region where the Roma (gypsies) live, right? Aren’t they known for stealing things and doing scams?
  8. Don’t think like that. That’s profiling, stereotyping and all sorts of other bad things. But…
  9. When did I last use my phone? In the car for navigation. Could I have left it there? Please, oh please, God let it be there…

And off I walk as fast as I can back to the car.

On the way I think about going back to where the group was performing. But what will I say to them if I do?

“Hi there, fellas. Say, you didn’t by chance steal my phone did you? And if so, could I have it back? No hard feelings. Love your music.”

I’m saved from that by finding they’ve all dispersed…which only furthers my suspicion. All except one. He’s sitting not far from where the group had been playing. He’s casually talking to his wife or girlfriend. He sees me and waves in an ever-so-friendly manner.

Either he’s really milking this scam or he’s as innocent as he seems. I wave back in a half-hearted manner trying to look like either I know what’s going on or I’m just in a rush to meet up with my family. I hurry on, feeling even more awkward about the whole thing.

It takes me almost 20 anxious minutes to get back to my car. All the way there, I’m praying to find the phone, praying for forgiveness for my judgmental thinking, praying not to be so stupid in the future.

I get to the car.

Not only is the phone there, it’s sitting on the console between the front seats where I left it when using it for navigation. Right there where, ironically, anyone could have seen it, busted the window and stolen it.

I want to run back. Find my Serbian friends (they’re friends again, of course, not suspects now) and apologize for something I could never really explain to them without insult and embarrassment.

So I don’t. I simply wander back to where I’m to meet my wife and son. As I go, I think about several lessons from this experience.

First, always be vigilant when you travel. Keep track of your valuables like your phone. Always.

Second, be careful but extend grace. I won’t make some Pollyannaish pronouncement to just trust everyone everywhere. There are people out there that do prey on us tourists. You do have to be careful. But wariness is a tricky thing. The more protective we become, the more it shapes how we respond to people in general, even if they haven’t earned our distrust. We close ourselves off to the very people we’d often like to meet.

Interestingly, the more we do the first point – be vigilant – the easier it is to do the second point – extend grace. When we know where our stuff is, we have less to worry about. Even better, the less we’re lugging around with us, the less we need to protect.

Each situation will be different. Sometimes wariness is the right response. But for me, I will try to err on the side of trust. What I found is that you lose more than your phone when you stop trusting people. You lose a little bit of your own humanity.

I can’t afford to lose that.

 

Read Part 1 if you haven’t yet.

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Travel and trust – Part 1

by Steve Brock on May 9, 2014

Delft Building and Bicycles

On the afternoon and evening we were killing time waiting in Delft in the Netherlands, we did something every family should do when traveling together for an extended period.

We split up.

No matter how well you get along, it’s good to go your own way occasionally and get a small break from each other. My wife and son went shopping for some of Delft’s famed blue and white porcelain. I took off to explore.

Traveling solo opens a world that isn’t available to you even when you’re with just one other person. You’re more approachable, even vulnerable. That can be very positive since you have encounters you’d miss otherwise. But it can also put you in situations where you wish you had some back-up…

As I wandered around the main square taking pictures of the interesting buildings such as the one above or the numerous canals such as the one below, I came across a beautiful sound.

Delft CanalAs I turned the corner, I beheld a group of street musicians, a half dozen playing while a few others and what appeared to be their wives or girlfriends sat in their midst enjoying the music as well.

I’d never heard music like this – exactly in this style – before. It sounded like a cross between the band in the bar scene of the original Star Wars movie and Jewish Klezmer music. Led by a lively, uplifting clarinet, the music was both complex with the various instruments weaving their sounds together, but almost childlike in its simple, catchy melodies.

I paused to listen and watch, then lingered in the general vicinity ostensibly taking photos, but mostly enjoying the music. I passed through an entryway into a nearby garden area where I discovered a lovely park and sculpture made from the shards of Delft pottery such as the bench below. All the while, I could still hear the music.

Delft China BenchI decided to reward these musicians, so I dug out all the change I had, a substantial amount in heft but totaling barely a euro (about $1.30). Still, it was something.

I held the coins in my hand as I returned to where the musicians were, but by now, they were wrapping up and bundling away their instruments. As I approached, the leader of the group came over and, shrewdly surmising my intent, held out his hand. “You like our music?” he said in halting English. “Very much,” I replied pouring what now seemed like a paltry amount of change into his hand. He didn’t seem to care about the monetary value so much as my appreciation.

Soon, the entire band was around me, all smiles as I told them how I’d never heard music like that and how good they were.

They told me they were from Serbia and, of course, they wondered about my country. So we talked and they held up their various instruments; clarinet, violin, small guitar, tambourine/drum, accordion and others. Soon, one of the members was gesturing with his cell phone for me to stand with their leader (who did all the talking) for a photo. The leader wrapped his arm around me and there we stood for the photo like two old friends. And for that moment, that’s what it felt like we were.

By now, they were all packed up and so we said our goodbyes. I wandered off toward a canal and they dispersed. As I walked, I mused over these small moments and brief encounters you have on trips, ones that usually only happen when you’re on your own.

What a great experience I thought. Then I reached into my pocket for my smart phone to check the time.

It wasn’t there…

To be continued…

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