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.

If you found this interesting, why don't you share it with others?


You can go back, but…Part 2

by Steve Brock on March 18, 2014

Freiburg Baechle (mini-canals)I hadn’t planned on having a Part 2 to the last entry on my return – my re-visit – to Freiburg, Germany. But Cathie’s comment to it triggered a thought worth exploring more.

The question was, can you go back to a place you spent a lot of time in years ago and do so with fresh eyes? In general, I would say yes, given that enough time has gone by and that you’re aware of the need to see things anew.

So why wasn’t I able to do that in Freiburg? Because it wasn’t the place itself that created the nostalgia. It was the people I’d known in that place that made it almost impossible to re-visit the same location in an objective manner.

When we have deep emotional ties to people in a place, that place is forever affected in our thinking. As a sad example, we have some friends who recently lost their infant child. Now, they feel compelled to move from their apartment because just the walls of the building remind them of their departed son.

Some places stick to us like that and remind us of the people we can’t help but associate with the locations. I can’t look at the river in Freiburg and not think of times lying on its bank with friends talking about dreams of the future. Or see a particular street and not recall quiet walks with other friends, discussions that today seem both naively idealistic and yet somehow lacking in my busy “adult” life.

I think of racing with other friends late at night, crisscrossing the many Baechle, the water runnels/mini-channels that line the old streets of Freiburg. Or hanging with German friends in a crowded pub whose owner seemed to have an odd obsession with German punk and, curiously, the music of the American singer Steve Winwood. Or enjoying a piping hot bratwurst on a cold afternoon staring up at the cathedral as a friend shared a more private side of himself than I’d ever known before.

All these people, these memories, are tied to this place. So to see it with fresh eyes is not only difficult, but something I may not be even willing to do. Seeing the place anew – creating new memories – runs the risk of erasing or at least diminishing the old ones.

Memory is such a fickle thing that I’m not sure I’m willing to take that risk. Too much good – too many memories of wonderful friends – are tied to that place. I think the older we get, the more tightly we clasp these memories – nurture and protect them – even as we realize how ephemeral and even unreliable they are.

As someone who constantly harps on living in the present, I find this idea of clinging to memories hard to admit. But I think it’s true and it explains why we can’t – or don’t want to – see some old places in new ways.

How about you? Ever been to a place so connected with friends or family you care about that it is hard to separate the place from those people?

We tend to travel to experience the new. But sometimes we find value in the old as well. How we balance these two desires is one of the joys – and challenges – of traveling…and of being human.

If you found this interesting, why don't you share it with others?

Be the first to comment

You can go back, but…

by Steve Brock on March 5, 2014

Freiburg Cathedral

Let’s revisit the idea of a re-visit, shall we?

A re-visit is when you go back to a place you’ve visited before. Sometimes, that can be rewarding because you see details or new elements of the place you missed the first time. Other times, it can be disappointing because the wonder and novelty you associated with the place the first round no longer exists. It’s like watching a rerun of your favorite show.

Rerun. When’s the last time you heard that term? I can’t recall when I last saw a rerun of a television episode. I don’t watch enough network TV for that to happen nor am I forced to watch reruns because of a lack of other viewing options, what with Netflix, Amazon, iTunes or others. In short, we have so many other new shows available on demand now that we don’t have to go back and watch even old favorites.

But we still do.

Similarly, we often revisit a special place, somehow convincing ourselves that we can still have that original, magical experience.

So, how was that rerun?

I should talk. That form of denial or misplaced hope may explain why last summer we visited the town in Germany where I spent my junior year in college. The city is Freiburg, located in the heart of Germany’s Black Forest. Initially I tried to avoid going back there – I did try – but then my sons thought it would be fun to see where Dad went to school. Oh, why not? What’s the harm? So back to Freiburg I went, family in tow.

As we approached via car driving in from the East, I found myself remembering places and I found the surrounding countryside even more beautiful than I had recalled. Maybe this will be a good experience after all, I mused. But once we got into town, two things happened that reinforce my belief that revisiting certain places may not lead to the most meaningful of experiences.

Freiburg Street

First, the city both had changed and it hadn’t. How’s that for insightful? What I mean is that much of it was familiar. I recognized many of the streets (like the one above) and even the buildings such as the old city gate with the McDonald’s sign on it.

Freiburg Old Gate with McDonalds sign

In the same way, the Muenster, the Romanesque Cathedral in the heart of the city seemed familiar.

Freiburg Cathedral Candles

I have to admit, however, that I never noticed this, uh, well, unusual gargoyle before.

Freiburg cathedral gargoyles

Yet even what I recognized as being the same, wasn’t. Not exactly. For example, many of the walls around the town, once so quaint and historic, were now covered in graffiti. It was like visiting Disneyland and seeing trash all over the place.

Second, I had both changed and hadn’t. So instead of viewing Freiburg with fresh eyes, I came with this bundle of hope and nostalgia, recollections about the place, the people I’d known there and even who I was then and who I am now. The problem was, I couldn’t see the place for its own sake. Instead, I kept making comparisons which rarely comes off well: No one likes to date someone who is always comparing you to their past flame.

Does this mean you should never revisit a place? Of course not. And is Thomas Wolfe correct that “You can’t go home again” meaning you can’t return to the places of your youth to relive them? On that, I’m not so sure. Perhaps you can. But you need to do so with your eyes wide open knowing that those eyes may be seeing much more…or much less…than is actually there.

If you found this interesting, why don't you share it with others?


Remembering what we don’t understand

by Steve Brock January 27, 2014

Why we remember aspects of trips long after the event is a mystery. We don’t have to understand them. But we can reflect and thereby enjoy the trip anew.

Read the full article →

The one less traveled – Part 1

by Steve Brock January 8, 2014

Listening to Robert Frost read his familiar poem changed for me the way I perceived the poem, how I think about travel and how all of us might learn to see beyond the familiar.

Read the full article →

Move and be moved – Part 2

by Steve Brock May 31, 2013

We are most touched by places that we ourselves touch. The impact of a hand print on a wall at the Oklahoma City National Memorial lasts much longer than the print itself.

Read the full article →

Move and be moved – Part 1

by Steve Brock May 23, 2013

An unexpected trip to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum points out how moving unplanned side trips can be if you take the time for them, even on busy business trips.

Read the full article →