Emails on purpose

Correspondence with an old friend, triggered by a post i came across on Tony Tjan’s Harvard Business blog:

Dear R–

When i read this i thought of you and me. It’s off some website for venture capitalists, of all things, but the five questions made a lot of sense to me:

These five questions, when asked in the order presented, form an effective diagnostic tool that can provide better guidance to mentees, employees, or generally anyone with whom you are playing the role of a counsellor. Additionally, they can serve as a self-diagnosis of one’s own capabilities and opportunities.

Here are the questions:

1. What is it that you really want to be and do?
2. What are you doing really well that is helping you get there?
3. What are you not doing well that is preventing you from getting there?
4. What will you do differently tomorrow to meet those challenges?
5. How can I help / where do you need the most help?

I hope this morning’s cafe is suitably stocked with beans and babes.

Dear Groggy,
Lots to think about there. Symptom: I’m avoiding thinking about [it]. Hmm, no, not entirely true. That’s what I come to the cafe for. Enlightenment.

I think things are exactly the way they should be. You and I and the world are just as they should be according to everything that’s happened up to this minute. The issue (for me) is change. How to change?

Case in point: I read the five questions first trying to figure what I want to do, be, etc. Struggling. “Gee is that what I really want? Is that going to work? A painter? Do I still, deep down, want to be a drummer in a rock band…?” I can probably do fine without being a drummer at all. But then, what to get passionate about? …

A few minutes later I reread [the questions]. This time I plugged in my life as it is. All my “problems,” difficulties, and weaknesses…. Substitute the first question with “Who is it that you really are?” Then the rest of the questions answer themselves. The first thing that came to mind after that was something that a self-help guru said. I paraphrase: It’s no more difficult to do it the right way than it is to do it the wrong way.

Okay — change the answer to the first question. My impulse, no, need, is to answer with that magical something that will be passionate and wonderful and drive me for the rest of my long and wonderful life. (Which is kind of a cop-out, when you think about it. If something drives me [then] I don’t have to drive myself.) But hey, didn’t we just [make a mutual bet] based on the premise that working hard drives your ass (once you get going), and the inspiration follows. When asked if he only wrote when in the mood or if he really had to work at it, Somerset Maugham responded that he only wrote when inspired. “Fortunately,” he added, “inspiration strikes me at exactly nine a.m. every morning.”)

So the thing is, then, to choose. Chocolate or vanilla? Vanilla or chocolate? It doesn’t really matter. Choose one and go with it. I think choosing = changing. Kinda like my grandma telling me to put a smile on my face. Some work to get it on, but once there it’s awfully hard to ignore. Passion.


Whew — holy tangled web, Batman! I can relate, though; boy, can i relate. For me it all stems from the first question, What is it that you really want to be and do? Once that’s answered, the rest of the questions are just practicalities.

But that first one’s a problematic bastard. First off, it presupposes that there is something you “really want to be and do” — a premise that would not stand up to much historical scrutiny, methinks. It’s a notion that would have arisen along with the Enlightenment and the age of the individual, and individual purpose.

Counter to that, though, is the loose, Zennish notion that we, all of us, already know what we really want to be and do, because it’s built into our bodies. It’s all those things we really get into, where time disappears for us, that we do not because we’re supposed to but for fun, for compulsion, for … just for the doing. (For me, sometimes it’s playing the frame drum; i can go for hours, just lost in it. Sometimes it’s proofreading other people’s writing, which i can get deliciously obsessive about.)

Trouble is, few of those things slot into the professional categories we automatically invoke when thinking of being and doing: We immediately lapse into “job mode,” and then are stymied. The question becomes What job would you like to do?, with the subtext “happily and every day for the rest of your life.” Then suddenly we don’t know anymore. We might be sitting in a puddle making mud pies, perfectly content. Then someone asks the question, and we think, “This is ridiculous. I can’t sit around making mud pies forever. What do i really want to be and do?” Bingo — disconnect! Welcome to the age of bone-deep anxiety and confusion.


Movement—but to where?

I’m off tomorrow (Tuesday) to Tofino for 4 days. Then it’s a house/cat/dogsit in Ucluelet for a week. Then it’s … well, i really don’t know. There’s a standing offer to be “houseboy” for an executive-type gal in Victoria, though neither of us seems to have any idea what that means.

But there are also a handful of Cal 29 sailboats for sale in the region, and having checked one out today for the first time i think one of them may become my future home. Or not. I have trouble making up my mind.

Which is where YOU come in today. This is a good time to test out wordpress’s new user poll feature.

Life in the hands of Google

I am woefully bad at making life decisions. I can waffle for months while opportunities come and go without latching onto any one of them.

Trouble is, i don’t see a decision as saying “yes” to something; i see it as saying “no” to the thousand-and-one alternatives. And i hate the narrowing of possibility. As a guy with no great agenda, who doesn’t see much point to grandiose career and life plans, who prides himself on accepting and enjoying whatever comes along, it’s hard to choose, even when choice is forced upon me.

To wit: my looming return from the summer’s travel. It’s got to come to an end sometime, somewhere. But when? And where? Where to lay up my carcase as the world has its way with me?

Then i hit upon the ancient stratagem of the oracle — that mysterious, evasive entity one consults at turning points in one’s existence. (Wikipedia: An oracle is a person or agency considered to be a source of wise counsel or prophetic opinion; an infallible authority, usually spiritual in nature.) Of course, some superstitious wretch poking at chicken guts in a stinking cave won’t hold a pop-can of credence in the modern world. No, these days who better to consult than the mighty sage, Google?

So i dashed off a quick list of things that are important to me, tacked on the names (one at a time) of the various towns that have appealed to me in the past four months, and plugged it into Google to see how many hits came up — possibly a meaningful indicator of how involved each particular town is with the items of interest. Here’s my first crack:

Google search of zen + bicycle + poetry + green + [town name]

Results (alphabetically):

  • halifax ………… 178,000
  • montreal …….. 860,000
  • ottawa …………. 321,000
  • tofino ……………….. 6,080
  • toronto ………… 203,000
  • ucluelet ……………. 1,130
  • vancouver …….. 175,000
  • victoria ……….1,090,000
  • winnipeg ………. 118,000

You’d think the larger cities (especially Toronto) would have the most hits on any search, simply because of the greater number of computer users and, presumably, web sites. But the results belie that, which makes me think there may be some validity to the technique. I’m surprised.

Of course, small towns stand no chance against cities in this ranking, so i’ll have to refine the method. But preliminary results look, as the scientists say, promising. So far Victoria is a clear leader, with Montreal running second. Stay tuned as Google messes with my life.


I’m wallowing in a funk of self-definition these days, or rather, a funky lack of self-definition. The principal building block of the self, in my culture, is what you fill in the blank with in the sentence “I am a _____.” And i have little these days, and seemingly less day by day, with which i feel i can fill that blank. At times, the most suitable gloss seems to be: I am a blank. Which can leave me feeling rather empty and useless.

Oh, there’s plenty i want to full the blank with, or feel i ought to fill it with. “Writer” is a big one — t’would be great to pontificate to the masses as one’s job, one’s outre (but still respectable) social function, treading those delicious lines between fame and influence and privacy.

Then there’s “environmental activist,” “entrepreneur,” “Zen adept,” “teacher,” “drummer,” “performance poet,” and more. I have yearnings in all these directions, and ability and potential. What i don’t seem to have is the je ne sais quoi — discipline, maybe, or narrowness — to latch onto one of them and hang on long enough to, with luck, establish a blank-filling reputation, if only in my mind. (But then, my mind is every mind, in that i’m the perfect reflection of my surroundings.) So i pick up one of them for a while, when the spirit moves me; but then the spirit moves on and i’m floundering again.

Strangely, the main flounder factor is not so much aimlessness as being restless with the aimlessness — the feeling that life is zooming by and i’m not engaging with it, in the beer-commercial or adventure-race sense (where every moment is jam packed with whole-hearted FUN or riveting ACTION or even simple, bone-deep HAPPINESS).

Bah. Written down, this puling limns its own “solution.” It’s written down right here in the box, compleat:
Simple, no?

Shopping for Godot

Consumer paralysis afflicts me more and more these days. This afternoon i walked miles, from outdoor store to outdoor store along Broadway, seeking the perfect daypack to replace the perfectly good daypack i was carrying from store to store.

The one i’ve got, you see, is just one big bag with shoulder straps attached. No compartments or pockets, and, being a compulsively organized bloke, i like compartments and pockets. Everything in its place.

But i find it near impossible to justify the “upgrade.” Replacing what’s worn out is one thing, but ditching one functional item for another, slightly more functional one is … a wasteful, frivolous, indulgent consumer whim. (Which is, for me, in this day and age, a synonym for “sin.” But that’s another post.)

I know, i know, i could just give the old one away to someone who’ll like it and use it. But buying its replacement would mean one more brand new, nasty, non-biodegradable plastic item has started its inevitable journey to the landfill — needlessly. Aren’t we trying to break that vicious circle? Aren’t humans the most adaptable species on earth? Would it be such a hardship, in comparison with what other people on this planet endure, for me to continue digging items out of my one-compartment daypack?

I must have looked at a hundred packs; fondled two dozen; and gone thoroughly over six. All were pretty good, some were very good, and two were almost perfect for my needs. I even returned to two stores for a second look-and-feel. I could tell the salesmen in both stores were rolling their eyes at my agonizing over a hundred-dollar pack — a trinket, to them. A moral dilemma for me.

It put me in mind of the existentialist Samuel Beckett’s 1949 play, Waiting for Godot, in which … well, here:

THE plot of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is simple to relate. Two tramps are waiting by a sickly looking tree for the arrival of M. Godot. They quarrel, make up, contemplate suicide, try to sleep, eat a carrot and gnaw on some chicken bones. Two other characters appear, a master and a slave, who perform a grotesque scene in the middle of the play. A young boy arrives to say that M. Godot will not come today, but that he will come tomorrow. The play is a development of the title, Waiting for Godot. He does not come and the two tramps resume their vigil by the tree, which between the first and second day has sprouted a few leaves, the only symbol of a possible order in a thoroughly alienated world.

Nothing happens in the play, it takes bloody forever, yet somehow it’s riveting and screamingly funny. (The script, with some pictures, is here.) My consumer expeditions are of the same character, except substitute “feckless, time-wasting and pathetic” for “funny.”

In the end, with the stores on the brink of closing, i decided to make do with the existing pack, and maybe think up some ways i could alleviate some of its inconveniences. I felt better, as though i’d faced down a mighty cultural imperative and come through bowed but victorious. The wanting, though, hasn’t gone away, and there’s no guarantee i won’t be browsing more stores tomorrow.

Friend Caroline sent a message, three days ago:

Buddha was right … we suffer from desire to own, and once we own we suffer from the burden of ownership and fear of loss!