Monday, September 17, 2012

The Mail Order of Loneliness

I was 18 when my grandparents left the only house I had ever known them to live in.

I grew up with visits to this house overlooking the ocean just outside of Vancouver. I can still recall how the bathroom smelled like Old Spice because of the vintage glass bottles that my grandpa kept on the counter, and how the wallpaper was fuzzy in the fashion of the '70s.

I loved visiting my grandparents. It was always the little things that made the visits so special. Like the old red wagon, a survivor of my mother's childhood, or how there would always be a bowl of pickles at lunchtime.

It fell to me to accompany my mother to pack up the house the summer of 2003. I know I wasn't much help and mostly wandered off on long meandering runs in order to avoid some of the heavier grunt work.

On one of the occasions that I deigned to help with sorting through stuff to keep and stuff to chuck we came upon a gigantic stash of mail order goods. And when I say gigantic I mean decades worth of packages, most of them unopened.

At first I didn't understand why grandpa had spent years ordering junk off of the television. And why when he received the order didn't even open the package. Ripping open envelope after envelope I had an unsought history lesson of what was for sale by cheque or mail order in the '80s.

My aunts and uncles said that grandpa had a problem. That the constant ordering was something akin to an addiction. It hits me hard now, nine years later, that my grandpa was simply lonely. That ordering things that he didn't necessarily want meant that something would come in the mail for him. Something to remind him that he still existed.

Maybe I'm editorializing. My grandpa died just over a year ago so I can't ask him. I'm not sure why I never did in the years after I discovered his secret. Perhaps I felt like I was protecting him, perhaps I just didn't care until he was gone and by then it was too late.

I'm thinking about this now because I just blew a bunch of money on clothing on the internet, a more modern but no less lonely version of my grandfather. I just moved to the small town of Cranbrook for a job. A job I love but in a place that feels, at times, extremely isolating.


At the culmination of each visit my grandparents would stand on the front stoop and wave goodbye until our van slipped out of sight. I've known for years that I'll never have the experience of visiting grandma and grandpa again, but I've never wished so hard that I could send my grandpa a letter.

To let him know that he was never alone.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The problem with Everest

One hundred years ago the summit of Mount Everest was a prize; a prize that was sought after by the world’s greatest mountaineers. Today Mount Everest is a prize that can be bought by anyone for the right price. Listening to the radio today my ears perked up at the mention of the peak, having spent some years of my childhood in Nepal and having trekked up to base camp as a graduation present from my parents three years ago.

A Canadian woman had succumbed to death on Saturday on her descent after summiting. It has been determined that the cause was altitude sickness and exhaustion. Now this is nothing new on Everest. During the 1996 Everest disaster which still to this day has claimed the most lives at one time on Everest Scott Fisher, a renowned climber, told my father that when on the mountain it is not the altitude but your attitude. Fisher died just days later. As a guide I believe he was under terrible pressure to get his clients to the summit and this is just part of the problem that I believe is surrounding the mountain. Clients pay upwards of $40,000 for the chance to say they’ve climbed Everest, meaning that rules are broken to get people to the top, often resulting in death.

What disturbed me the most about this woman’s death was that she trained for the climb by hiking hills around Toronto. Having grown up in British Columbia, and as an experienced alpinist, I wouldn’t even consider that proper training to take on an 11,000 foot peak in the Rockies. Conditions on Everest this weekend were considered “overcrowded,” and this just feels so unacceptable. When I was at base camp I met with climbers who would tell me stories about people who attempt the world’s largest peak without ever having put on cramp-ons before. When did Everest become something that could be bought? Something to be ticked off on hundreds of inexperienced people’s bucket lists? When did the dangers of this mountain become so downplayed? Now Everest while the highest peak in the world is by no means the most dangerous. I believe that prize goes to K2 in Pakistan but does this warrant the peak becoming such a tourist attraction?

Altitude sickness is something that cannot be ignored. Even trekking up to the base camp I monitored my body daily for signs of it. Even at a paltry 18,000 feet the altitude can be deadly. This is where inexperience and pressure lead to fatalities, yet the 200 plus successful summits per year seem to overshadow this problem.

When people hear that I’ve trekked to base camp they either think that I’ve climbed Everest or ask my why I didn’t go all the way. For me it wouldn’t be worth it, and while I will never settle to simply hike around the hills that surround Toronto I will never ever underestimate the dangers that come with mountaineering at 11,000 feet or 29,000. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Life after J-school

Reasons I wanted to become a journalist (in no particular order):

1. I didn't get into law school.

2. I love to write. I just have no ambition without looming deadlines.

3. Nepal.

Reasons I want to still be a journalist after J-school:

1. It's a part of who I am.

I spent part of my childhood in Nepal. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love that country. But part of my love stems from childhood remembrance. I don't remember the adjustment period, the racial slurs, the language barriers. I just remember being happy. Simple. Pure. Joy.

Moving back from Nepal is still to this day the hardest thing I have ever had to do. And for years after I still felt that the way I mourned for my old life was something of a weakness. Something that could be put behind me. Overcome. And I never did.

I sat through a workshop entitled Journalists & Risks last November. The main discussion focused around post traumatic stress disorder and how journalists who go abroad covering war zones, natural disasters etc. are sometimes prone to it. The impact of some of the things and events they experience impact their lives in ways they couldn't possibly have imagined from a lecture hall in university. Journalists don't always realize that there are steps that can be taken to deal with PTSD because they don't always realize that the jobs they are faced with are affecting them in such a way.

My family left Nepal during the first couple years after the outbreak of the civil war. We returned six months after the murder of the entire royal family, when the conflict was engulfing the country and the evidence was seen in the abandoned villages, in the armed soldiers searching our car, in the gunshots heard after dark in the rural village my father, brother and I spent a night in.

This IS the reason I wanted to become a journalist. Because I, along with the rest of the world, didn't understand the situation and for the most part ignored it. I, like other journalists, didn't realize that I had to address what I had seen and what I had experienced in order to move on. But I didn't. And I'm still here, struggling to keep my head above water. Struggling to know what I want to do and how I am going to do it.

"If you haven't been there, then you can't understand it."