What I did on my summer vacation, part 2 of Eighty Gazillion. In which we discover that the person chucking these kids in the River is, in fact, Me.


November 13, 2013 by rebelwithalabelmaker

So, this fall, the Canadian organization Upstream was launched.  If you haven’t heard of it, this video sums it up:

If I have learned one thing from Gary’s Africa stories and the community health class and the people at the department for motor vehicles, it’s that thinking ahead (or thinking about the sources of issues) is a critical skill.  This is, of course, very wise and very true and also it makes me grumpy.  I may be the only person to have seen the video and thought (with my emotions only, of course, not my brain), “Upstream thinking.  What a bad idea.”.

I am not an upstream thinker.  I am distinctly a wave-surfer.  The only thing that keeps me from metaphorical (and occasionally literal) drowning is the flock of upstream thinkers who love me and renew my license plates, which brings me back to the Epic Tale of what I did on my summer vacation.

Summer Visitors were:  Mick Who is in Charge of Logistics, and also Shawn Who Always Makes Good Decisions and Approaches Everything in a Calm and Mature Fashion.  He is not as annoying as I make him sound. Other houseguests were David, my adult stepson, and his wife “Bree”.

Bree was David’s first girlfriend.  Okay, I’m not sure if that’s true – she’s the first one he introduced to us, and then he decided to marry her because either a) we loved her, or b) he loved her, or c) he didn’t ever want to go through introducing another girl to us ever again.  It went something like “pleased to meet you, would you please put on this Hippogriff costume”, which clearly was fine because now they are married.

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Shawn had never been to Saskatoon, which was kind of awkward because we don’t have a lot of touristy stuff to do ever since the increased security on the University Bridge that makes it way harder to climb up the underside of it.  We settled for a trip to Cranberry Flats, which I have never been to and which is holy-crap gorgeous by the way.  We came around a bend in the path, and you could see the whole riverbed.  Actually, you could see pretty much all of Saskatchewan, because that’s what it’s like here.  Flat.  With cranberries.

“This,” I said to Mick, “is the quintessential prairie experience.”

“You know what we should do?” then says me, “We should float home.

Gary immediately started picking holes in my idea because he likes to plan ahead.  He is an upstream thinker, remember, so he likes to get all “blah blah you don’t know how long it will take” and “you have nothing with you that floats”.  I responded that Mick would happily take care of the logistics and sure I knew how long it takes to float home because I used to do it all the time when I was a kid.

Mick nipped out to grab a few supplies, and we were on our way.  Gary, for some reason, elected to drive home with the kids instead of float down the river.  Once we were committed to the experience, I remembered that when I “floated home lots of times” as a kid, I:

  1. didn’t start that far up river
  2. didn’t live that far down river, and
  3. only floated down to where Mom and Dad parked the car, and then we drove home after that.

I proceeded to guide my Summer Visitors into what could potentially be viewed as the Day Trip From Hell except that it lasted, um, well beyond the day.

To begin with, we did not have enough boats.  There were three boats and five people, and only two of us were married to each other.  Shawn Who Almost Always Makes Good Decisions and I had to share a boat.  We did not know each other well enough for this, but that is okay because we know each other very very well now.  I attempted to criticize Mick for this lack of foresight, criticizing his facility with logistics.  Earlier in the visit, I remembered something he didn’t and coined the phrase “Who’s in charge of logistics now, bitch?” to commemorate the occasion.  I attempted to use it again in this situation, but my boat was too crowded for talking and not sinking at the same time.

So after about an hour of eating Oreos (Mick remembered to get enough of those) and thoroughly getting to know Shawn Who Used to Always Make Good Decisions, David looked at me and said, “So, I was thinking that it took us twenty minutes to drive here…” and I said “you are always trying to find excuses to talk about math.” and Shawn said “how well do you know this area?” and I said “are you kidding me?  I’ve lived in Saskatoon all of my life.  I’m telling you, after we get around that bend up there, we’ll be able to see right into the city.”

Which was accurate, but I had not factored in just how far away “that bend over there” can be in Saskatchewan.

We passed the time by watching the Sunset, which was breathtaking but only took a couple of hours.  Then we amused ourselves by singing “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate” for Mick on the grounds that 1) he had never heard it, and 2) he didn’t really know how to paddle and so he couldn’t get away.  I tried to convince him that it was our national anthem, but he was all “Saskatchewan is not a Country”.

“This,” I said to Mick, as we finished the last verse, drifting languidly along under the evening sky, “is the quintessential prairie experience.”

Now, this is the part of the story that was the most fun to live, and is utterly boring to re-tell.  We talked about anything and everything, and marveled at the gorgeous scenery, and got giddier and giddier the longer it took and the more obvious it became that I had no idea what we were doing.  David said “I am just glorying in the unfolding of the magnitude of your wrongness.”

“Which is,” added Bree, talking to Mick, “the quintessential prairie experience”

When we finally rounded the bend and could see the bridges of Saskatoon in the (far) distance, I declared “What is that?  That bridge didn’t used to be there!”

“Seriously,” said Shawn Who Vaguely Remembered What a Good Decision Felt Like, “Do you have any idea where we are?”

At this point, we all noticed the buoys floating in the water, marking off an area that we were headed directly towards.  We immediately took up frantic paddling which worked pretty well until Shawn’s paddle broke and Mick started pirouetting down the stream directly into the marked off space.

You know how everything slows down in the movies during the tense moments?  Well, everything was in slow motion like that.  Of course, it had been in slow motion for several hours already at this point.

After some anxiety and much paddling, we made it to a sandbar.  Only to discover that the path we needed to take went right across the only deep part in the entire Saskatchewan River.  I was nervous about our ability to steer with a broken paddle, and uncertain about the unknown hazard, and the pillars of the bridge.

Hearts sinking, we stood on the sandbar, in a kind of desperate giggling fit at the extent of our hooped-ness, as I continued to attempt to give the impression that I had everything under control and we’d be fine.

“What now?” Mick said, hands on hips, as Bree began to shiver and the stars began glittering out in earnest.

Confidently, I headed towards the edge of the sandbar.  There was a jet ski-er in the water.  Without wondering what kind of crazy person jet-skis in the middle of the night, I waved in a friendly fashion.  He waved back and headed my way.

“Do you have a cell phone?” I asked, when he got close.

“Naw,” he said, “Where you folks headed?”

“Um, Broadway Bridge” I said.

“Shit.” he answered.  “You are gonna be on this river for hours.

After a fit of coughing from Mr. Mathematics and his wife Mrs. Hypothermia, silence fell amongst the I-told-you-so posse.  There was the briefest of pauses, in which the only sound was the lapping of the waves and the hum of the jet ski as the unknown man moved closer.  Then,

“Liz?” said the Jet ski-er.

“Ben?” I answered, squinting in the dark.

“Oh,” I said to everyone, “This is Ben, from Church.”

This,” said Shawn to Mick, “is the quintessential prairie experience.”

It took some work to come up with a way to tow us – Ben’s buddy’s friend had borrowed his rope and returned this other rope that had some knots in it, and we couldn’t figure out how to untie them so he kind of steered with one hand and held the other arm out holding one of the knots and we hoped fervently that we wouldn’t all die.

“Don’t worry,” said Ben, chatting genially, “I’ll have you home in no time–maybe forty five minutes.” at which point there was a cough from the peanut gallery, because they’d heard that before.  Also, because the boats were filling up with water, a problem which we solved by frantically bailing using the empty Oreo container, which worked surprisingly well, despite the agitation from Shawn, and his mutterings of “Who’s in charge of logistics now, bitch”.

Ben, meanwhile, drove like I do … talking animatedly the whole time and barely glancing at what he was doing.  We couldn’t hear what he was saying well, and every time I leaned forward our boat would start to fill with water and Shawn Who Vaguely Remembers What Personal Space Felt Like would grunt and whack me.

We arrived at the base of the bridge, thanked Ben up one side and down the other, and sent Bree ahead to run and find Gary and tell him we were all safe (“I’d never run down Broadway Avenue in the middle of the night in a bikini” Bree later reflected, thinking nostalgically of the good old days of the Hippogriff costume).

Gary was relieved – very very relieved – that we were okay, and we ate a very late supper of The Best Tacos Ever Known To Humankind.

“It’s just,” Gary reflected later, “that the whole thing wasn’t, um, very well planned.”

Here is the thing, though.  That summer, with four houseguests, two kids, and a major move, nothing was well planned.  If we waited for the day when we could plan and coordinate the whole thing, we’d never have done it.  This float trip was exceptionally poorly planned, full of accidents, and also hands down, one of the highlights of the summer.

That’s is the stuff that memories are made of – floating down the river under a breathtaking canopy of endless sunset, giggling madly over the growing realization of our – okay, my – errors.  Singing and yapping and figuring out how to paddle and eating Oreo cookies and dealing with whatever might happen next.  There’s a kind of surrender to it all.

“Don’t worry,” Gary is fond of saying, when crises hit our family, “You’ll find a way to turn this into an adventure.”

Or, as Eric puts it “It’s so boring to travel with Dad because you only get to do what is in the plan and there are no surprise vacations in airport hotels.”

Wave riders, as I think of myself, are not just deficient up streamers.  We are bad at one set of skills and good at another set.  We are the authors of surprise vacations and spontaneous river trips.  We are the ones who turn the bedbugs into an adventure and co-author the “stuck on airplane songs” of the world.  Gary is no good at any of that stuff.

It’s no accident that the crisis-prevention people and the roll-with-it people are not the same people.  “How can I foresee what will happen next and improve it?” is a question that is only partially compatible with “How can I dive deeply and spontaneously into whatever is thrown my way?”

Yes, too much wave-rider thinking can lead to things like poverty and illness.  That said, when surrounded by poverty and illness, wave-rider thinking can be an appropriate response to things that are out of your control.  To surrender and take the good where you can is not a bad thing.

“Why,” I asked my friend Salaash, once, “Don’t the Masai think ahead more–like put rocks in the creek to make it easier to cross with their heavy loads?  Or try new crops, or…”

Salaash paused, then answered thoughtfully.

“In Canada,” he said, “The question is always how to make it better, and how to be more happy.  In my culture, that is not the question.  It is rude to always ask for more and better and try to find ways to change things.  To do this is to be not grateful for life.  When you always work to make it better, you are not working to be happy.  It is better, in Masai culture, to work to be happy.”

I am not arguing that the lack of foresight that often leads to income disparity, environmental catastrophe, and poor health should be glamourized.  I am arguing, though, that from a perspective of privilege it is easy to see “simple lack of foresight” and not look much further.  I think something far more complex is at play, involving a way of setting priorities and viewing the world that allows a person to navigate and live more fully through circumstances that are largely out of their control and filled with twists and painful parts.

Downstream thinking isn’t simply a deficiency.  In addition to being somewhat of a liability, it can also be a critical skill.  The task is not to replace one way of doing things with another, but to create a varied tool box that adapts to whatever is needed in the moment.  And, in order to create that diverse set of tools, we need to honour and understand downstream thinking as the complex and often useful creature that it truly is.

P.S.  I’m not sure, but I think maybe downstream thinking correlates with more community minded cultures…  (and lower socio-economic status)…  It certainly relies on the wisdom of inter-relationships…


5 thoughts on “What I did on my summer vacation, part 2 of Eighty Gazillion. In which we discover that the person chucking these kids in the River is, in fact, Me.

  1. Judith Hazlett says:

    Great blog.

  2. Judith Hazlett says:

    However, I should mention that there are a couple of things I have long wanted to see in/near Saskatoon. There is a Kurelek mural in a church or chapel there, and also there is the Craik Eco-community not too far away.

    • Liz James says:

      I’ve been to both! Although, I confess I don’t remember the Kurelek museum well… it was a class field trip and the only thing I remember is that apparently Kurelek only drank coffee (no food) the whole time he was painting it, and I spent the rest of the lecture trying to figure out how that would work…

  3. buntymcc says:

    Brilliant, as always.

  4. […] Liz James shares a summer adventure—a story about how communities need both upstream thinkers and wave riders. […]

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