The Not-So Lost Art of Being a Kid

My family and I recently returned from a trip to Ireland.  It was the first time we had undertaken a vacation all together since I was a reckless little boy (although some members of my family would dispute that this has changed). Those carefree times were little Patrick’s glory days, filled predominately with tree climbing, various ill-advised entrepreneurial ventures (i.e. selling sand at the beach), elaborate building projects, and a major obsession of mine for many years, attempting to perform a front flip and land on my feet. You will note the choice of word: attempting. Alas, despite hours spent launching myself head-over-heels into snow banks – the process was significantly more painful in the summer months – I was never able to master the skill (except of course for that one, glorious, time when I set up a series of mattress launch pads and just barely managed it – but that didn’t really count, what can I say, I’m a purist).

Outdoor education poster boy

My mother was particularly intrigued with this unique passion of mine, perhaps because it reminded her of her own youth. Always up for a challenge, she enlisted my expertise in teaching her the lost art of being a kid. We entitled these sessions “Kid Lessons” and I was quite thrilled to have a captive audience to pass on what I did best: living carefree, finding unabashed joy in things that were mundane for adults, and above all, my accumulated wealth of knowledge in the front flip department. Sadly, my mom was also never destined to complete the front flip, despite what I recall now as a fairly impressive attempt or two during a snowy walk through the neighbourhood one evening.

At the time, I loved the attention of being able to instruct an adult in my esoteric interests and was made to feel listened to and important. When I look back now, I can better understand my mom’s desire to see the world through the eyes of a child. While I thought she wanted coaching in various acrobatic manoeuvres, what she really wanted was a bit more abstract: time with her son, a break from grown-up worries, and a reminder to enjoy the simple things.

Like how to stuff your face with beets – in style.

While in Ireland, we happened to be staying in the popular surfing town of Lahinch on the west coast. With the temperature soaring into the mid-teens, the prospect of getting in the water, much less enjoying oneself once in, seemed like a far-off possibility. But while my dad and sister discussed the various circumstances in which they would consider going for a swim (i.e. when hell freezes over), Mom and I caught each others knowing glances and I knew there was no stopping her. My mom has a particular weak spot for swimming in oceans, and, living smack in the middle of Ontario, the opportunity rarely presents itself. Shivering already in my sweater and rain jacket, I knew I was going in as well. It seems my ‘lessons’ had worked.

Not your typical beach weather

We ended up spending two afternoons together enjoying the waves, her on a body board and me surfing (well, trying to surf). Despite the ominous weather, and with the help of wetsuits, we were both pretty convinced that we were actually warmer in the water than out of it in our jackets. Those few hours were by far some of the highlights of the trip, it had been months since I had laughed so much. In a wonderful way, we were able to have another “Kid Lesson” together, both equally sharing in a sense of awe for the ocean as we forgot all about our grown-up worries.

So thanks mom for giving me a “Kid Lesson” of my own!

Library Life


At the risk of sounding dorky, there are many great things about the library here at Edinburgh University. Among them is the great pleasure I derive from walking between the unlit stacks of books, my motion triggering the lighting such that I feel rather omnipotent as previously dark sections are successively brightened as I approach, as if under my command. Despite the library typically being a place of quiet restraint, shushing librarians and, well, the general sense that life has been put on hold, I have always found libraries to be not only a terrific venue for people watching, but also, once you attune yourself to the habitat, a place rife with the drama of living.

Can’t find the library? This massive sign should help. Photo:

From befriending your cubicle neighbour in order to ask them to watch your laptop while you go to the toilet (a practice, that while always restoring my faith in humanity, is certainly questionable from a risk management perspective), to trying to hold back laughter as you watch a fellow sleep-deprived student literally unloading their wheelie suitcase full of books as they prepare for a day of scholarly pursuits, the library is a veritable hub of hilarity, spontaneity, and sometimes major awkwardness.

My most recent embarrassing encounters have involved inadvertent footsie with an unsuspecting business student, and a rather slapstick incident where a buckle on my backpack became unknowingly tangled in the window blind and I proceeded (at a brisk pace) for about 2 metres before the string became taught and I was jerked backwards as the blind made a terrible crashing noise that caught me as much as everyone else on the floor completely off guard.

But my recent faux pas pale in comparison with an incident last fall. My friend Ruari and I were studiously at work in the education library one evening when we were interrupted by the usual announcement that “the library would be closing in half and hour so please sign out any materials you need now.” We continued reading as we were, quite studiously, going to stay until closing. It would have been quite easy to throw in the towel at this point, as the announcements continued every 10 minutes, but we stuck it out with the intention of staying until closing in order to finish whatever it was we were working on. At 9:50pm, we decided to call it quits and packed up our bags, descending the stairs and making for the exit, pleased with ourselves for a good evening of work. It wasn’t until we reached the first set of doors that we realised there was a problem. We were locked in, and there was nobody in sight. Peering through the locked doors, we were confronted with yet another set of locked doors with a metal grate covering the only known exit. We looked at each other with a mix of ‘is this hilarious or is this terrible?’ expressions and then promptly decided that it was hilarious and began laughing openly. It was at this moment that we were confronted by a rather frightened security guard who demanded to know why we were trespassing in the building after hours. Unwittingly, I continued to laugh and smile as I pointed out to the now irate guard that it was still 10 minutes to closing time, a fact that did little to calm the person who held the keys to our freedom. In fact, he pointed out that since I was laughing I must “think it’s a joke and that I will call the police.” That kind offer was sufficient for me to no longer see the humorous bright side of the ridiculous situation and I promptly apologised and promised to never tarry in future evenings at the library, mumbling under my breath that it still wasn’t 10pm yet, even after this lengthy conversation. Luckily, he realised that we were harmless (if hapless) and released us from our nerdy prison.

But aside from the various social shenanigans that occur at the library, a more academic reason for my appreciation of the library is its uncannily large selection of Canadian books, particularly the size of its Canadian literature section (of which I am visiting quite frequently these days as I write my dissertation). With a few exceptions, I have been consistently delighted to find my search results yielding a surprising number of holdings, especially of books I consider to not exactly be modern bestsellers (ie. 19th century pioneer stories). But I also suppose that my being surprised and pleased at finding a Canadian section at the library of a major university is in fact itself quite a stereotypically ‘Canadian’ response. Who am I kidding, Canadians are proud and a little bit surprised to see themselves included in an atlas. “Oh look eh! They had room for us!” My humble cultural stereotypes aside, there is nothing that will stop that delightfully satisfying feeling I get when I find that obscure 1850 text written near Rice Lake, Peterborough, Ontario, sitting metres away from me on the third floor stacks. And the best part? I get to create light from the blackness as I walk through the aisle.

P.S Speaking of Canada and stereotypes, check out this Poem for Canada written by a Canada-loving Brit.

Some Canadians pleased to be graciously included in the Olympics

Packing Procrastination

Nothing clears the mind quite like the realisation that you have a dwindling number of hours in which to cram everything you will need for two weeks into what once seemed to be a gigantic backpack. 

I bet there’s still room for a bottle of wine or three

The OE class’ year-end expedition is finally upon us, you see, and despite beginning preparations (ostensibly…) in September, it is abundantly clear that the last 24 hours before setting off is when the real work gets done.

Packing for any trip can be an illuminating experience. Sifting through your worldly belongings prior to departure, I submit, can be quite existential. In essence, you are finally forced to actually decide things (“ok, Mr. Chocolate Bar and Madam Toilet Paper: this bag’s only big enough for one of you…”). Gone is the time when you can idly plan and think in optimistic generalities; packing time is crunch time, and one must be ruthless in order to succeed.

But the ultimate question for philosophizing travellers, those who ponder every pound and consider every kilogram, is perhaps best summed up by the most basic of concerns, one that has dogged every restless nomad throughout the centuries…

“How many underwear do I bring?”

Too many and you will be mocked by your fellow travellers for being what my proudly-non-outdoorsy sister calls a “glamper,” too few and, well… I think everyone’s mother has warned them about that. Perhaps a bit cruelly, life has dictated that the precise situations in which one would have a paucity of underpants (namely, on an expedition of some sort) are exactly the times when one would be most likely to both soil them during some sort of traumatic event, and then subsequently be found by strangers who would no doubt judge you for your lack of basic hygiene.

But I digress.

Catch you in two weeks!

All aboard the elitist train! Wait, no…

I’m writing this post from a train. ‘But Patrick,’ you say, ‘you are way too cheap to pay 4 pounds for something as frivolous as mobile internet?!’ This is very true, dear reader, however I am not paying for this internet (at least directly). While I may be quite a penny-pincher, when given the chance this afternoon to upgrade to First Class on my train down to Oxford for 15 pounds, I characteristically hummed and hawed, and then jumped at the chance.

Again, you say, ‘Patrick! That doesn’t sound like something a man who has been regularly wearing the same pair of trousers since he was 16 would do!’ And I would agree. But you see, sometimes it is just worth it. Especially if the following conditions apply:

1. You are travelling on one of the busiest days of the year, an occasion which apparently prompts public intoxication at noon.

2. The majority of the passengers in your car are in costume as vaguely retro football players, complete with headband and short shorts.

3. Said fellow passengers are screaming and quickly draining the two cases of beer they have brought with them.

And so my decision was made. Now, as I smoke a cigar and enjoy the caviar that was flown in by helicopter, I finally have the civilized chance to relax, unwind, and compulsively check Facebook and email, as if I were at home. It’s really the simple luxuries that count the most.

But what’s that I hear? There’s a baby starting to cry in this car…and oh no…it seems some of my fellow posh passengers also appear to be intoxicated and rather loud. I exchange eye-rolling glances with my fellow sober bourgeoisie (it’s hard with all the champagne bottles everywhere) and make my best judgemental shushing noises (I’ve honed this skill with plenty of time in the library), but to no avail. I mean really, how much does a man have to pay to enjoy some peace and quiet on his upgraded Student Discount Off-Peak Supersaver Fare?

And so I snubbed my nose, put away my New Yorker magazine, and ventured into the on-board shop to see what complimentary treats awaited consuming for such VIPs as myself. Presented with a bruised apple and a sheepish apology, I returned to my seat, all illusions of decadent first class train travel now thoroughly quashed.

The only thing "First Class" was the seat cover

But my brush with the upper class was far from over. One of my weekend activities was to attend the 158th Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race on the River Thames in London, a spectacle not unfamiliar with charges of snobbery. Indeed, the event was replete with couples picnicking on checkered tablecloths featuring cheese platters, fine cutlery and elegant wine, academic-jock types in their college blazers and crested ties, and of course, highly overpriced concession food (£6.50 for some meat on a bun).

The first half of the storied rowing race was unremarkable, but excitement soon came –  one might say with a splash – when a self-professed protestor interrupted the neck and neck race by swimming directly in front of the Oxford boat, you can read about it here. Apparently, this man was protesting “elitism.” Fair enough, I suppose, when for many people the words ‘Oxford’ or ‘Cambridge’ are essentially synonymous with the striking class differences in British society. But what you quickly realise (once you have sobered up from the port at formal hall dinners…) is that while these top universities may indeed be symbols of elitism in society, they are nevertheless peopled by kind, interesting, fun, hard-working men and women, a great portion of whom are not from particularly privileged upbringings.

If we give this ‘protestor’ the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is attempting to work towards creating a more equal society, spoiling the race for a group of hardworking student-athletes is certainly not helping matters, rather, it can help to entrench the view that people are one-dimensional stereotypes. Ruining a free, open to the public, amateur sporting event to protest a perceived symbol of an ambiguous term in a remarkably uncreative (and dangerous) manner seems a little bit ridiculous to me. But maybe I’m biased now, us First Class train passengers stick together.

A month in 7 pictures (and 2 videos)

The unfortunate irony about a blog focused on adventures and travel is that the more these things occur, the less time I have to write about them! So, since it has been a busy month for adventuring (resulting in a quiet month for writing) here is a brief selection of some of the things I have been up to:

Finding romantic caves on Arthur’s Seat 

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A mountain of schoolwork

Greetings, readers. You may have noticed it has been quite some time now since my last post. I would like to say that there is a tremendously good excuse for this delay (i.e. I was terribly sick *cough cough,* my internets broke *sputter sputter* – yes that’s the sound of the internet breaking, or perhaps an ice cream truck was parked outside of my flat for the past week *yum yum*) but alas, it was simply because things have been a little stressful in the ivory towers of Outdoor Ed here in Edinburgh.

Even as a young child, workweek productivity slammed to a halt when Patrick got a taste of 'the frozen drug.'

Photo:Stuff by Cher

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First World Problems: Travel Complaints

Travelling, whether to an exotic once-in-a-lifetime destination, or simply as part of a routine commute, often exposes us to uncertainty, adventure, and terrible, disgusting bathrooms.

Luckily for me, (and most certainly for you, the reader) my post today contains no sordid tales of toilet trauma. Rather, it takes a look at the ubiquitous “travel horror story” (providing easy party anecdotes since, um, Noah?).

And then we totally got stuck on top of a mountain! Did I mention the rotting corpses?!

Photo:Wikimedia Commons

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Part Two of my Pacific Coast bike adventure…now available!

A story of one man’s quest to bike across a country, reaffirm his faith in humanity, and cure his father’s mental illness. All with an incredibly sore bum. You can now check out the story of my (mostly) solo bike ride from San Francisco to the Mexican border (featuring my dad!) over at Lesley Carter’s blog.

Zen and the art of fairy hunting

Mysteries, legends, myths, and even the odd unabashedly made-up story are all important tools in an outdoor educator’s repertoire. I have long known the value of a good, ridiculous, story to maintain the attention of young people, to kill time, or to simply have some fun.

I swear I was making that stuff up about the monsters. Go to bed.

Indeed, last night while staying at an outdoor centre in Strathyre, and facing the prospect of two electronics-deprived teenagers with not even a pack of cards in sight, Stevie (the Mobex staff member) and I successfully fended off boredom for upwards of three hours using a variety of tried-and-true tricks and games that all involve attention to detail, careful storytelling, and a generous portion of flat-out deception.

I bet you guys didn’t know that Stevie and I have actually known each other since we were little kids,” I begin as I settle into the classic opening line of the game Black Magic. “In fact, we know each other sooo well that we can actually read each other’s minds…do you want to see?” And thus begin the lies.

Thou shalt not bear false witness… unless tricking a child.

Photo:Wikimedia Commons

But mystery and deception have a greater purpose than entertainment, I believe. One of the main reasons for our trip to Strathyre was to film a short movie that the kids, um, planned, about fairies.  Our set could not have been picked better by a Hollywood director, the famous land of the fairies featured in Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies on Doon Hill in Aberfoyle.

Creepiness: This way.

Before heading up, Stevie gave us the whole story about the fairies that live on the hill, including fun biographical details such as: how they like to murder people, and the purpose of the big tree on the top (to store souls). We were also warned that if we tripped on the way up, the fairies didn’t want us there, and if we tripped on the way down, the fairies didn’t want us to leave. With my senses (and imagination) fully engaged, I followed Stevie and the boys up the slippery path to the top of the hill. Not 100 metres from the start of the trail, I stepped on a slick stump and properly wiped out. This was no innocuous stumble over a fairy, this was the fairies constructing ramparts and trenches to keep me out.

Apparently I didn’t meet the dress code.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Not only did my trek up to the fairy hideout start out ominously, I was also tasked enthusiastically by the kids with the role of, and I quote “The guy who gets killed first.” As such, I had to steal something from the multitudes of offerings to the fairies and loudly proclaim my disbelief in their existence.

If the fairies don’t get me, the weirdos who put this stuff here surely will.

But as I walked back down the hill, clutching my ill-gotten prize and furtively glancing about in the bushes, I noticed that in addition to a) the afternoon flying by and b) being entertained for the better part of two hours, I was also paying much greater attention to my surroundings. Because of my heightened awareness, I found myself noticing small things and really seeing the beauty that was around me. So perhaps a bit of fantasy, mystery, and deception is all that’s needed to stay in the moment. Fairies or not, the real mystery is more to do with our own ability to notice the beauty in the mundane.

Not that fairies aren’t real, of course 😉

What helps you to stay in the moment? Where do you see beauty in the mundane?