Thai’d with Others

and Other Buddhist Truths

On my post Group Travel or Group Therapy two years ago, I shared my trepidations of “Group Travel” when I went on my inaugural group trip to Patagonia. I knew full well the vagaries of Patagonian weather so I was concerned mostly about a tight itinerary that would make me miss what I traveled so far to see. I was also nervous about being with a group of people for three weeks that “drained” me. In the end, my concerns were partly valid. If I were travelling independently, I would have seen what I wanted to see in better weather, but the people I travelled with were stellar, and despite significant geographic chasms, have maintained relationships and even met up with many of them since.

So … when my friend suggested we go to Thailand on a two-week excursion with the same outfit I thought … what could go wrong? Weather here in January is a non-factor, and if I’m with a group of jack-asses – at least I’m with my friend. A risk worth taking.


Near Kanchanaburi



The Tep Bar in Bangkok

I’d always wanted to get to Thailand/Cambodia/Laos/Vietnam for lots of reasons. If food is a major criteria for your travels, then Thailand has got to be on your list. From home cooked meals, to street food, to restaurants – every mouthful was exquisite. I also found the Thai people to be exceptionally friendly and kind. Downtown Bangkok was as busy a place I’d ever been. Buses, trucks, cars, tuk-tuks, bikes and pedestrians competing for space on sidewalks and streets with lines on them that seemed to be nothing more than vague suggestions. No honking horns though. No one shaking their fist at anyone else. No accidents. No one cutting each other off. None of the road rage that would be seen at home with half the traffic.  One of our travel mates who got there early shared the story of him leaving his iPhone in a Tuk-Tuk. When the driver realized it, he chased him until he found him walking on the street to return his phone. He hadn’t even realized he left it! He was stunned and speechless. Making an effort to take care of others (or not) emerged as a theme on this trip.

This particular itinerary had the right mix of adventure: bikingIMG_7601 (through Bangkok, Ayutthaya, and Kanchanaburi); hiking (north of Chiang Mai on a Hilltribe Trek); and then kayaking in the South near Krabi. The guides we had throughout each leg were awesome, especially Lop – our guide that was with us throughout the two weeks. They all taught us a lot about the culture and history of Thailand and Buddhism, in addition to serving us hand and foot 24/7. There are obvious benefits to “being taken” and “being taken care of” on a trip.

Nothing was going to take that experience away, even the group – which was regrettably much different from the Patagonia group. It didn’t take long at all for cliques to form and it also took me no time to figure out who I wanted to avoid and who to hang with, which were all of three people.

On our second evening, the group stayed on a houseboat. It was a beautiful warm evening IMG_7479as the hot sun was sinking behind the hills surrounding the lake. I went in for a swim to wash off the day’s sweat and grime. Hayley from Bermuda jumped in soon after and we struck up a conversation while wading in the cool water. It resumed after dinner and went late into the night. The conversation was easy. It went beyond the typical “where are you from?” “what do you do?” that you have with everybody when you first meet them. We could sit comfortably in silence, with our thoughts, without the need to yap incessently. Your average Buddhist would tell you that to have a life worth living, you must go through suffering. Hayley had been to the dark side of the moon and had emerged from the other side, stronger and wiser. People who have learned hard lessons by tasting the bitter fruit of life, seem to have the most interesting stories to tell. I was somewhat relieved to have made such a nice connection early.

Micheal, an Irishman, took me a while longer to warm up to. He was the token “class clown” that needed to be the centre of attention. A simple guy that would give you a glassy-eyed look whenever you said a word that contained more than three syllables. He would often vocalize what I was thinking and despite my constant suggestions he use his “inside voice” more often, he said what he wanted and didn’t care who heard it. I grew to like him. Truth tellers who are brutally honest with others, seem to be equally considerate and thoughtful when others are in need. IMG_1759He literally lent a hand to others while crossing streams or climbing hills. He bought a cheap hammock for the beach part of our trip. Lots of us used it, but I never once saw him in it. He was the first (of many) in our group to catch a cold. Early in the trip, my own throat became “scratchy”. He asked me when he was making a stop at a pharmacy if I wanted lozenges but I was convinced it was more breathing big city smog in hot humid weather. He came back with lozenges for me anyway. He knew I had a cold before I did.

IMG_7474And then there was my friend Mark. This wasn’t our first rodeo. We had traveled to the Yukon together, Baja with our spouses, and numerous canoe expeditions. When I introduced myself to our group, I joked he was “my bitch” for the trip because somebody had to carry my bags. It took a few days before people concluded we weren’t a “couple”. It didn’t help I suppose when I admitted at our inaugural group meal that I had “eaten” testicles before – and that they were succulent. It was like no one even heard I was talking about a dish of “bull testicles” I once had in Buenos Aires. I was somewhat pleased with myself that I gave people something juicy to chirp about right away.

It’s inevitable that group dynamics play themselves out. Within two days the group fell into two basic camps – Group 1: the complainers and Group 2: the people who complained about the complainers. The fact is, the two groups were pretty much the same with the only exception being Group 2 loved to gossip about people in Group 1, were more self-righteous and obviously not really aware of the concept of “projection”. Psych 101: You spot it, you got it.

No question, Group 1 complaints were pretty rich … so please, allow me this small, yet necessary, cathartic rant.

Our group leader sucks, he’s so wishy washy. He can’t be specific. He’s vague for a reason you moron. He can’t tell exactly when we are going to get there – Thailand has this thing called traffic; there’s 16 of us with different biological needs. There’s 16 people with divergent expectations to manage. “Colder in the mountains” doesn’t mean he knows how cold you will feel.  “Spicy” is subjective. Shit happens. Why do think he’s not being specific?

Why do we have to tip the drivers and guides, don’t they get paid by the company? This from the wife of a guy who was bragging the night before about the Porsche in his driveway. The young German doctor and the Swiss dentist readily agreeing, all happily whipping each other in a lather of complaints. Two weeks in Thailand – hotels, flights, ground transportation between all our destinations, and many meals all included for $2,000. And you pretentious, wealthy – even by Western standards – miserable SOBs are whingeing about a $1 optional tip for a driver or a guide that has fed you, cleaned up after you, has kept you safe, has educated you, and has patiently answered all your inane questions?  Too much.



Where is the nearest KFC? What I’d do for a good burger!  Wow! You have got to be flipping kidding me. You are in Thailand! A Whopper is a better alternative than authentic Thai food?! Gah! One day I might just have enough patience and compassion for the ignorant. Not on this day.

P1010166I’m not a beach person. This being said on perhaps the most spectacular beach I have ever been on in my life, on a hot sunny day, lying prostrate on the finest of fine white sand you will ever put between your toes, with dramatic rocky hills surrounding us and warm equatorial waters to fall into – and also, a solemn place where hundreds died in the 2004 tsunami. If you are not a “beach person” and can’t chill for a day, there’s a rock face over there to climb. With any luck, you’ll plummet to an unceremonious end.

IMG_7600“Just a pile of bricks” is how one imbecile described Ayutthaya, the jaw dropping ruins of the former capital of Siam. A site that some compare to one of the “Wonders of the World”, Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia. Really? Are you kidding me? Just a pile of bricks. Sigh.

“If I have to go in another temple … “ “It’s too hot …” “These mosquitos are killing me …” “It’s smoggy …” “This food is too spicy”…“I’m not shitting in THAT …” “The beds are too hard …” “The beds are too soft …

Travel is a privilege, not a right. You don’t deserve anything. If you want the comforts of home, stay at home!  – Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures

 “You were snoring last night.” This from my roommate – just about every morning.

On and on. It was constant. Now, I already said “if you spot it, you got it” so I have to concede that I had my own issues.  We had a “homestay” as part of our Hilltribe Trek North of Chiang Mai, and we happened to arrive at their “New Year’s Eve”. Lop bought Chinese New Years Eve lanternlanterns to lift into the night sky and fireworks were going off, which created a festive and memorable evening. The problem was, it didn’t end. Throw in barking dogs, crowing chickens, and pigs being slaughtered for the upcoming feast, and you might guess how much sleep I got that night. Not a wink. It didn’t help that I had only three hours sleep the night before as we had to get up at 3am to travel back to Bangkok for our flight to Chiang Mai. When we got to our private beach in the South, we were sleeping in tents (which I much prefer over cheap hotels) and our guides said they had mats for us to sleep on, so I didn’t pack mine. They were about as thick as paper towels. No sleep, added to no sleep. “Adventure” is an overused term. I like Yvon Chouinard’s (founder of Patagonia) defintion – “Adventure only happens when something goes wrong”.  For me, things start to go wrong with sustained sleep deprivation. It was my biggest issue on this trip. And it led to much bigger ones.

Sleep deprivation makes you crazy. You forget things (like people’s names, where you are etc..), imagine irrational thoughts, make horrible choices and everything you are feeling is more intense. The anniversary of the death of my nephew was approaching at the end of this trip and I noticed the heaviness I usually feel on the day was profoundly more intense than it usually was. What Will Your Legacy Be?

Now, I know what you’re thinking dear reader – didn’t you say Mark was complaining about your snoring? Well the only way I can square that hole is when my heavily congested, and increasingly delusional head got to sleep, it would tend to snore


“Hey Mark, where are we going to go next?”

like a rutting moose when it finally reached the blissful state. I’ve slept with many rutting moose in tents, and it ain’t fun, so I can sympathize with Mark – but I couldn’t think of anything I could do to make it better, except get my own room. When I told him I was going to do that in Chiang Mai, he snapped back “don’t do that on my behalf”. Lucky for him (I guess) there was no more rooms available. Things going real smooth with my buddy on this trip.


My early connection with Haley also dissipated as quickly as it came. Not-so-subtle gestures left me wondering (obsessively) about what social scrape I must have created to deserve this Karma. I was at a loss.

The Buddhist principle of Karma is the law that every cause has an effect. Our actions have results.

At one point, I checked in with her to ask her if we were OK. She said that we were and “you need to relax”. I had good reason not to believe her. Michael had earlier quipped “what did you say to Haley”? and Mark had already confirmed my (reliable) intuition. He said  that she thought I was “negative”.  I could label her a bold-faced liar, but she was smart and I got it right away. It makes no sense to process relationships with anyone on a two-week vacation. But for days … I was with a group of people doing nothing but complain in paradise. And I’m negative?! Moi? I resemble that remark! Er, I mean … I resent that remark. Okay, maybe I resemble it too but … if withdrawing from a group that could not appreciate Nirvana when they are in it, you can call me whatever you want.

It’s not that I never slip over to the dark side by myself. Truth be told, I’m a bona fide curmudgeon. (Can you tell?). Though I do not possess the intelligence of a Christopher Hitchens or the humour of Jon Stewart, I do wear the badge honestly. My birthday is the day before National Curmudgeon’s Day! I’m “Grumps” to my granddaughter for god sake!

I also get that curmudgeons are not always great company. Who likes having reality thrown in your face when you’re working so hard on your sunny disposition. But I can tell you, we’re misunderstood as “negative”. If you’re not a writer … or a comedian, … or have some avenue to rant … or Bernie Sanders … the rest of us just shake our head at the blissful and willful ignorance of others, plug in our ear buds and try our best to steer clear. This is our simple coping mechanism to avoid throttling people, or creating other unpleasant scenes in public. Withdraw. The stereotypical reputation of being a “grumpy old man” that simply notices more because they live their lives with their eyes open, is too convenient for those that don’t have the courage to face reality once and a while, or break from conventional thought.

“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.”  – Rollo May

Though we don’t possess much tolerance for ignorance or lack of critical thinking, the god-honest truth is, we care. Perhaps, we care too much. We worry. There was truth in that “you need to relax” comment from wise Haley, but the sorry fact is, curmudgeons have a tough time “relaxing”, especially with others. I’ve tried to “relax” or “meditate”, but my mind usually ends up being as noisy as a room full of kindergarten children. The only thing that makes me relax is my Repressitol prescription, and clearly I forgot to pack it on this trip.

I was certainly becoming irrationally obsessed with the emerging dynamics with my only “friends” on this trip. My much bigger obsession became why I cared? This is a two-week relationship, yet I was consumed by Haley’s “negative” remark. Curmudgeons don’t work hard at being “popular”, and have disdain for those that do.  We prefer being someone’s shot of whiskey, than everyone’s cup of tea.  I don’t do groups well.  I never did. In every group picture that I am in, you will spot me on the outside. Being on the outside is not an unfamiliar place, mostly because I often put myself there. The group may have wanted to vote me “off the island”, but the reality is, I voted myself off.  It got to the point where I just could not speak to anyone. That uneasy feeling of loneliness, only comes to me when I’m in a crowd.


Spot the curmudgeon on the left. It’s early in the trip, I’m smiling

To be clear, Hayley’s sudden cold shoulder was not unlike what I was doing with everyone else. (You spot it, you got it). The difference though is the people I was avoiding, probably didn’t know I was making an effort to avoid them. The magic of not giving a fuck about people you want to avoid, usually works well enough when you’re not being openly unfriendly. Afterall, there were brief moments of one-on-one conversations with others that were nice.  I didn’t make friends on this trip, that’s for certain – but I wasn’t being hostile or rude to anyone. I wasn’t recording people snore and having a laugh with others at their expense. I didn’t slander, tease or gossip about anyone behind their back, or snap at them to their face. 

On the flight from Chiang Mai to Krabi I was sitting next to Dan and Susan, a 60+ year-old couple from California, married for 40 years and still openly affectionate with each other. It hit me then like a ton of Ayutthaya bricks – I missed my wife. One of the few people who understands, and more importantly, accepts me as the curmudgeon I am (well, most of the time). I started to feel a palpable envy that Ruth can no longer go on trips like this with me.

The uninvited gift of sleep deprivation created an emotional vulnerability, which was necessary for me to realize I needed to renew my faith in the 25 years of building a life together with the person that mattered most. All relationships have their ebbs and flows. In the last few years our “nest” emptied, I lost the business that I built for 14 years and was passionate about (InCourage), and serious issues with Ruth’s health have emerged. This I’ve come to know in my advanced years – turbulent waters will capsize your boat if both of you are not working hard at keeping it afloat. “Accepting things as they are” is passive and will have you in the drink in no time. Rather than blaming the wind (and other non-metaphorical things outside my control) for unwanted waves, hard paddling and the long-term focus on the shore has got me through most storms. I reckon Dan and Susan have figured this out but, I needed the reminder.

For too long, I’d been taking the easy way out by feeling sorry for myself for the impact Ruth’s health had on our lives. Playing victim is a breeze. It’s harder, and takes more work and courage to have compassion for the person who is the one suffering. If there is one word that encapsulates Buddhism for me, it is compassion.  The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering, and that includes psychological suffering like loneliness, frustration, fear, disappointment and anger. The appropriate response is compassion for others (or self) – to give comfort, sympathy, and concern.

downloadI learned much about Buddhism I did not know before. To begin with, it’s more a philosophy than a religion. It’s a practice to reflect and spread good karma, not a list of dogmatic rules to obey. Buddhism is developing the “middle path” of wisdom and compassion to seek truth. Your truth. Part of that wisdom can be attained when we better understand ourselves, and only then can we begin to understand others. In fact, unless you live in a vacuum, you can only understand yourself when it is in relation with others. Curmudgeons would prefer to forget we’re “Thai’d” with others all the time. My Noble Truth as a “negative” grumpy ol’ curmudgeon is that I am only interested in the relationships that matter – not the superficial ones that people invest so much time and energy maintaining. 

I’m a “work-in-progress” and abundantly human. I have created my share of social scrapes. I can be negative. From time to time, I have a spectacular ability to offend others. I am a recovering people pleaser. I don’t always know what’s going on, or even know what the hell I’m doing. Even at my “advanced” age, I still have plenty to learn about myself.

For me, travel has enabled my ongoing quest for “truth”, and Thailand was certainly no exception. I’ll get closer to complete enlightenment when I learn to have compassion for those that judge me and all the “the difficult people” that come in and out of my life. But really, I could start, and do better, with those I love.

What an Open Mic Event Taught Me

“Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.” 

~Zelda Fittzgerald

My wife and I were hosting an Open Mic fundraiser in town in April. Some people were leery of attending because they thought they’d be dragged up on to the stage, or the performers will be sub-par. To dispel whatever myths you might have on such an event, I thought I should share an incredibly memorable evening I had with my daughter many years ago.

In her “gap” year, she was participating in an environmental leadership program. At the end of each term, they have a “coffee house” where anybody who attends can sign up to recite a poem, sing a song, play music, act out a skit, or do what they like for five to ten minutes. Margaret was not sure if parents were invited, but she wanted me to attend. At first I was a bit unsure about attending an event that parents were not technically invited to, but since she was so enthusiastic about this program, how could I say no?

When I arrived, Margaret was quick to introduce me to her friends and teachers, and I was quick to realize that, indeed, I was the only parent there. No matter. I was warmly received and did not get the impression from a single soul that I did not belong. So I settled in to a comfy chair with my hot cider, ready for the show to begin.

The first performer was a young woman with a quirky, upbeat demeanor. Her stylish hat and outfit from the used-clothing rack completed the Bohemian look I am sure she was going for. She started playing her guitar well enough, but when she started singing she was so bad, I was convinced she was trying to be funny. Just before I made my conclusion that comedy was the intention and burst out laughing, I took a quick look around. The kids weren’t laughing. In fact, they were incredibly focused on the performance and gave her a resounding applause as the last chord was struck. I joined of course, but honestly, my applause was more relief with its conclusion.

The next performer was also a young woman with a shiny black guitar. She too started to play well and, thankfully, she also had tone. Before I could exhale my sigh of relief, she stumbled on the lyrics. She was so nervous she forgot the lyrics again … and again. Each time going back to the beginning. Constant apologies were part of this performance. It was disjointed and awkward to say the least, and I was embarrassed for her. No worries for the kids though, it was worth an even more resounding applause.

I began to regret my decision to come, and was dreading the next act. Another young woman approached the stage nervously and decided she was going to recite a poem. A poem she wrote herself. In fact, the first poem she had ever written. Earlier that day! As I sank into my chair wistfully wishing there was a good shot of rum in my cider, I braced myself. And this is where my story turns. Her poem was brilliantly crafted and powerful. So powerful, it became difficult for her to recite it. Then it came. The first tears jettisoned past her cheeks until a constant stream dripped from her jaw. She laid it all out there, and had a genuine meltdown in front of her peers. After what seemed to be five minutes (it was likely just one) where the only sound in the room was her sobbing, somebody in the back of the room said clearly – “take your time”. She did. When she managed to finish, the place erupted with a thunderous standing ovation. There was not a dry eye in the place.

It dawned on me in that moment that I was bearing witness to incredible acts of courage. What allowed them to bare their souls and risk standing in front of their peers and share whatever talent and level of skill they had? Where did the members of the audience find the respect and tolerance they gave to each performer after they were done, regardless of how well they performed? How could such young souls have so much compassion for each other to offer all the space to sort out what they needed, when they needed it most?

Every time we witness the courage of others, we wonder if we have it ourselves. As I reflect on that night over ten years ago, I still wonder if I can find the courage to be less judgmental of people and as compassionate as these young people taught me to be that night.  In the end, we respect people for who they really are, not how well they play a part. The courage to be vulnerable is inspirational and engaging to those that can support and “incourage” others. When I sense the authentic being of someone, it inspires trust – and hope. And I learned that night that the performers at a small coffee-house who raised their voices, can give a person all the hope they need.


The Open Mic event in Eden Mills was another smash success. Our friend Suzanne Hnatiw played her fiddle two days after receiving yet another chemotherapy session. No one in the audience knew, but my wife and I knew we were bearing witness to yet another selfless act of kindness.

Sadly, Suzanne passed away last week. When we first heard she had cancer two years ago, we were dumbfounded. You won’t find a person more dedicated to her health than Suzanne, from what she ate to her daily exercise (she was a phys.ed teacher).  No one thought she’d see 2015, in fact her son moved up his wedding to have it in the hospital as they all were expecting an iminent end. But if you knew Suzanne, you knew a person with unparalleled strength and determination that lived her life with no regrets. She was not leaving quietly! Indeed, she turned things around a lived another 18 months with a renewed vigour. But cancer, in it’s most incidious form was still there.  I will miss her terribly. I’ll never forget what she told me when we were together last year.  “I can’t believe how well I sleep at night and how fantastic I feel when I wake up. I’ve never felt so alive”. Those, my friends, are words to live by.



Suzanne at the Eden Mills Open Mic



The Polarity of Progress in Mexico

138 - Version 2

Ruth and I recently embarked on an 8 day circumnavigation of Isla Espiritu Santo, a UNESCO world heritage island off of La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. It’s off the beaten path and a bit of a haul getting there from Toronto, so we decided to fly in and out of Cabos to break up the journey, stay in a decent hotel, eat some good Mexican food, meander aimlessly for a couple of days before heading out to the water and sleeping in tents.

One thing that struck me right away was the cleanliness of San Jose del Cabo. It had an abundance of upscale restaurants and shops, and million dollar properties for sale overlooking the Sea of Cortez. Many people I had spoken to before going who had been there as far back as 20 years ago said how desolate the place was. Not any more. Our consierge at the boutique Casa Natalia (highly recommended) said the transformation of Baja has been full on and has made it almost unrecognizable. She said it wistfully, as if she missed it terribly.

Casa Natalia

Casa Natalia

The Osteria restaurant in San Jose del Cabo

The Osteria in San Jose del Cabo







On our bus ride to La Paz we drove past the (new) resorts of Cabo San Lucas and through the city of San Jose. To my surprise, Home Depot, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dennys and all the other typical American franchises lined the highway. San Jose? Or San Diego? As we approached La Paz, it seemed to take forever to get through what seemed to me, a more typical Mexican town. Lots of people milling about the street with plastic bags lifted with the heat and diesel fumes pouring out of dilapitated trucks. Not such an ideal place to eat al fresco. When we got closer to town, things transformed again to a nice downtown area with great restaurants, a fabulous malecon and outdoor art – and countless new hotels being constructed on the outskirts.

The malecon in La Paz

The malecon in La Paz


IMG_4483Outdoor art on the malecon

This is progress, of sorts. The reality is, the people moving in to the new condos and seaside mansions are not Mexican, they’re Americans who found some good cheap real estate. As investment properties go, some Americans are making good coin here. Is it trickling down to the lives of Mexicans? Obviously, new jobs are being created; there’s more money to line the pockets of local politicians, er I mean improve infrastructure; and an increasing disparity between the lucky few and those “without”.

Americans who are here insist of course that it might take a little while to “trickle down”, but in my experience traveling through the Yucatan a few years ago, the same disparity exists just outside the resort area of the Mayan Riviera – which has been well established and developed many years before Baja.

Day 6 Mexico 208There is little doubt that capitalism creates much wealth, but when you venture into developing nations like Mexico you find out quickly that it doesn’t distribute it very well. It’s not difficult to comprehend why they want to be wealthier, but it’s much harder to imagine that the people I met in the small Mayan village of Ek Balam care much about yoga stretch pants made of seaweed fiber, leaf blowers or electric toothbrushes that have had more apparent research put in to them than the human genome project.

Day 6 Mexico 232Progress is tricky business. We get the impression we’re getting ahead because we can buy more new shiny objects, and bigger houses to store them in. Ronald Wright author of A Short History of Progress, called these  “progress traps”, when we believe we’re “getting ahead”, but in the end that short term gain is just an illusion that is not sustainable. And like it did for the Mayans, it ends badly. Our species seems to be built with short memories and unwilling to learn from history.



Me and Chino



As for the kayak trip, it was stark contrast to the development going on in Baja. Pedro and Chino, our guides for the trip knew profoundly what was going in La Paz, and as environmental stewards, passionate about the natural history of their domicile, even at their young age, are nostagic about the past and upset at where things are going.


The video below is testament to the natural beauty of this place. I’m happy for the sea lions, dolphins, whale sharks, blue boobies, sea turtles and countless other species on land and in the sea we bore witness too. Their little habitat is protected. Despite all the development in town, nothing will change on Isla Espiritu Santo. It is as it was hundreds of years ago, and will remain. There is some comfort knowing there are a few places here on Earth that will be immune from progress. My hope is that one day we’ll learn to be more mindful of the places we choose to live.

A Legacy of Support

My mother-in-law Joan, just passed away at 91 years of age. I could say the first 89 were heathly happy years, as the last couple were surely a challenge for her. But the reality is, Joan faced many hardships in her long life that most of us will never have to face: living in Britain in the heat of WWII, the early loss of her husband and more profoundly, the loss of a son. And yet, she had the strength, courage and grace to know what she had to do in every circumstance of her life and to look at life optimistically. When she became a widow, with the proverbial nest emptying she knew she had to move to a new home. She moved once again when that house become too much space and garden to handle, and then knew enough to move once again to assisted living. Her timing was exquisite. As real estates agents, my wife and I see the opposite too often.  One could use many more superlatives to describe Joan but as matriarch of the Knight family her undying support of each member of the family is the word what stands out the most for me.


Even though I was an extended member of that family I too was the recipient of that support. She became the first investor of my business InCourage, had a keen interest in what was happening and attended many shareholders meetings in person. Before InCourage, I recall being in one of my existential funks and struggling with what to do with my career. I thought I would give motivational speaking a go. My best friend was doing it successfully and hey, I had read a couple of self-help books, so for sure I was qualified! My friend got me a gig and I prepared for weeks. Joan was visiting us for a couple of weeks and asked to read it. At the time, I was quite happy with it, but the truth must be told, it was dreadful babble. I’d be embarrassed to share it now. To give you an idea though, it was entitled “Valuing the Value of our Values”. I’m not sure how I actually pulled it off without getting pulled off the stage but I do remember Joan coming out of the house to the front deck and said it was “jolly good” and encouraged me to keep going with it. Then she corrected my countless grammatical errors.


Which brings up the dark side of Joan. If you had the courage to challenge her to a Scrabble game, you needed to be prepared to back up every word you put down with it’s meaning. Oe – a two toed sloth. Zo – cattle. Spilth – excess from what is split. And if you misspelled something, you’d hear about that too.

Learning from the Master


“What’s that?”

“Er, Gusett”

“What, pray tell is a Gusett?”

“Umm” (caught) “I can’t define it but I’m sure it’s a word”

She gives you that all-knowing look and asks “By gusett, do you mean a triangular piece let into a garment to strengthen or enlarge it?”

“Yes, yes of course that’s what I meant”

“That’s gusset, not gusett. There’s no such word as gusett. Try again.”



She devoured books and the depth of her knowledge of the English vocabularly was like no one I have met. She could finish a crossword before I’d finish reading the clues. Despite her lack of mercy while thrashing me at Scrabble, I knew she still loved me and would give me her unqualified support whenever I needed it. Her support is her legacy and is by no irony – a seven letter word that she would, little doubt, find a triple-word placement for.

Joan at her 90th birthday party



A few years ago we cleared an area around the front of our property. It was unsightly mess created by many Manitoba Maples entwined by grapevine. Then we had to figure out what to do with the land. We figured that it would be a great place for a garden but we had two big issues. First, there really is too much land for just the two of us to grow vegetables and secondly, we are always way too busy at the time of year the garden needs attention.


We approached some of our neighbours in Eden Mills to find if they’d be interested in putting in their own garden on our land – a community garden of sorts. We could share the weeding/watering/tending while each other went away on our respective vacations, and even the crops when it was time to harvest. Issue #1 solved.


Then we thought, why not get some help. World-Wide Organization of Organic Farms (WWOOF) is an organization that matches organic farms with (usually young) travellers who will trade their brawn in exchange for a bed and food. Our daughter was a WWOOFer in New Zealand and vouched for the experience as a traveller that didn’t have much money to travel.


Despite not being a farm, we still qualified to be a host. It’s a bit like an online dating service where we post a profile of our general expectations, an idea of who we are, our accommodations and location, and they tell us where they are from and their experience etc… Either we send a note to them if they look like they could do the work, or they send their profile to us asking to stay. Obviously both parties agree.


Last year, our WOOFers from Germany, Australia and Norway help us clear the land of shoulder height weeds, and establish some garden beds. This year our WOOFers (a couple from the Netherlands) helped us clean up the mess Mother Nature left from the ice storm last year. We lost close to 50 cedar trees and it would have taken me all summer to do it myself. With the help of our WWOOFers it took about two weeks. Issue #2 resolved.


It’s clearly a win-win. The program helps young people travel abroad cheaply and the benefits of hosting WWOOFers are obvious. The benefits we didn’t really count on was the great company, conversation and close relationships we established with each of them.


The Hardest Word

One of my earliest childhood memories was when I was caught munching on a chocolate bar that I shouldn’t have been. It’s not that I wasn’t allowed chocolate. My mother, in her inquisitive ’20 questions’ though, determined that I actually lifted the chocolate bar from the store we visited earlier that day. In fact, it only took two questions. “Where did you get that bar?” and “How did you pay for it?” This was my first clue in my early life that I did not possess the artful skill of deception. I have known since that I am a lousy liar and ought not to ever put myself in a position where that might seem like an option. Without hesitation, she grabbed the bar and marched me “by the ear” back to the store where I had to make a very public apology to the store clerk. It was incredibly difficult to mutter the words “I’m sorry”.


Why is saying sorry so hard? To begin with, you are admitting you were wrong. Surely we all know though, as humans, we are not perfect, and make errors in judgement from time to time. Yet there is something in all of us that prevents us from remembering this fact and it makes it so much harder to make that admission of fallibility. We do not want to be seen as flawed or immoral. It is embarrassing and shameful to expose our dark side, though it is present in everyone.


It is not just the likes of Tiger Woods who needs to say sorry for past indiscretions, institutions have plenty of apologies to make too. When the Pope can’t apologize for obvious sins of the past, what example is he setting? Corporations have plenty to be sorry about too. United Airlines couldn’t say sorry to a musician when they destroyed his $3,000 guitar. It cost them much more than that when he wrote a song that went viral on YouTube. Has Union Carbide (or Dow Chemical who subsequently acquired UC) ever said sorry to the people of Bhopal? I am pretty sure suing women activists from Bhopal who demonstrated and demanded help to clean up the toxic pollution that still covers their community is not an apology. There really are too many examples of WHAT NOT to do when a corporate entity needs to apologize to list here.


Michael McCain the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods re-wrote the textbook of WHAT to do when people were getting sick and dying from tainted meat. He appeared immediately in front of the cameras, before speaking to lawyers, accountants and Public Relations, to take full responsibility, communicate what was being done and … to express regrets. This was no Oscar performance, you could tell by the way he looked he was genuinely distraught. Since then, Maple Leaf has recovered and trust has been regained from people who previously bought their products.


Without sincere apologies, there is no going forward. You are blocked from any success or progress you seek, whether it is in a business or personal relationship, or peace amongst groups of people.


In 2010 I went to the Parihaka Peace Festival at the base of the stunning Mount Taranaki on the western shore of New Zealand. It is mostly a music festival, but it is in the heart of the Taranaki region of Maori country. The Taranaki region is significant because it was the only Maori region that did not sign the treaty the British imposed on the Maori when they ‘settled’ New Zealand over 150 years ago.


For some reason, New Zealand was the last island settled by European marauders. They knew it was there. The French even planted a flag and remained on a tiny peninsula off the South Island. It wasn’t until the British finally arrived and decided that the South Pacific paradise was fine place to farm that Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud, became New Zealand. They promised the Maori their resources and land would be protected from those nasty French who were soon to follow. Though most Maori tribes saw little choice, the Taranaki Maori would have none of it and waged a different way to fight, a non-violent active resistance. They destroyed survey pegs, blocked road construction and ploughed confiscated lands. When the British got fed up, they waged war on them.   Soon enough Parihaka was destroyed and two million acres of land mass was confiscated and given or sold to settlers while Parihaka men were sent to prisons in the South for their belligerence. In 2010, it was the 150th anniversary of that war, and all the sins that typically happen in war. The Taranaki Maori are still bitter, yet want peace and perhaps most importantly, peace-of-mind.


There were workshops at the festival as well and one of them was an entertaining debate on the question “After 150 years, is peace still achievable?” Members of the audience voted the outcome by physically moving to the side after each debater presented their case, which made it interactive and fun. Someone made the point that peace is a ‘state of mind’ and can only come with forgiveness. The counter point was forgiveness can only come if someone asks for it.


After the debate, the audience could ask a question or make a 30 second statement. Many voiced their opinions but it was a decidedly white Scottish man with flaming red hair who moved the audience the most. He prefaced what he said with “though I was not here at the time, on behalf of my forefathers who came here and confiscated your land and brought injustices to your people …” tears welling, voice breaking … “I’m sorry”. This sincere apology was immediately met with a very appreciative and audible murmur of “tena koa”, which means “I hear (or see) you”. It was a powerful moment indeed.


At the most basic level, it is what the Taranaki Maoris want more than anything – a sincere apology from the government. Until then, they will not have peace within themselves and the tensions will continue. It seems so simple, yet so hard to do. Where is the mother of the Prime Minister of New Zealand? It is a comical thought but I can see my mother grabbing him by the ear and hauling him down to Parihaka to tell him to apologize. “Right now”!  


My mother passed away last summer. Obviously I was saddened by her death but it was also a relief she was no longer suffering from the cruel fate of Alzheimer’s. One does not die from Alzheimer disease. The fact is, an accident happened at the care facility she was staying at that resulted in massive internal bleeding and bruising on her body. It caused a stroke that no longer left her with the ability to swallow. She could not be fed intravenously so after ten days, she finally succumbed.


Tragedy enough, but more so considering the long-term care facility did not acknowledge the accident at first. Only until it was proven through persistent questioning and third party opinions, did they confess to how the accident happened. An explanation that was false and misleading. Though an apology came with the confession, it was made to mitigate whatever pending legal measures our family might take. It was an infuriating process for me. If they had quickly taken responsibility for the mistake, explained what measures they were taking to prevent it from happening again – and sincerely said sorry, that would have been the end of it for me. Instead, their denial and subsequent cover-up made a painful situation much worse. My mother deserved much more.


So do the citizens of Bhopal, the Maoris and other native groups around the Globe. When we are wrong, we need to find the courage to say “I am sorry”. And then hope the transgressed have the courage to forgive. Only then, can you both move on.

Facing Our Contradictions

I have been tuned in to contradictions recently. They seem to be everywhere.  For example, I saw an ad on a bulletin board announcing a gardening workshop on planting wildflowers.  Er, how are they wild if we are planting them?  I saw a bumper sticker on the back of a Chrysler that said “Lost your job yet?  Buy a Foreign Car.”  It was parked outside a “big box” store with a solid reputation of their stuff being made elsewhere.  Good chance the gas in the car was foreign too.  A few summers ago, my daughter Alannah and I traveled through British Columbia.  One of our stops was the small idyllic village of Tofino.  We returned home to discover Tofino had run out of water.  Startling for any community but more so considering Tofino is in the middle of the rainforest.  Running out of water in the rainforest is a disturbing contradiction. 


After some honest deliberation, I realized I live with plenty of contradictions myself.  We just built an uber energy efficient and environmentally-friendly straw-bale home.  In the back yard you will find our new electricity-gulping hot tub.  Luckily, our new neighbours in Eden Mills, a small village that’s aiming to be the first carbon-neutral community in North America, are forgiving.  They welcome us with wine, and bring along their bathing suits.  We have a share in a bio-dynamic farm which provides not just organic, but local food.  It tastes especially good with a bold Malbec from Argentina.  I eat good food because good health is important to me.  So is bliss.  Like, when I down a cold beer after a good run.  Like, after a long day canoeing when I’m on a rock warmed by the late day sun beside a calm lake, smoking a cigar.  Like, when I finish a tub of Coffee Haagen Daz before you can say “oh, did you want some?”   Even my values contradict themselves!  Health and Bliss debate daily.  If there is something consistent with me, it’s the fact I can contradict myself at any moment, like I just did in one sentence.


Corporations and lobby groups can be masters of spin and contradiction too.  Clean Coal?  I don’t think so.  How about that tired ol’ chestnut “Our people are our biggest asset” — that is, until we discard them like used kleenex when we catch a fiscal cold.  Laying off people and cutting “discretionary” spending (like training and development) is the first thing to happen in every recession.  I take little comfort with history repeating itself.  In good times, we will defend the virtues of capitalism and the survival of the fittest.  Free market capitalism has become a contradiction when our governments are free to spend taxpayers dollars to subsidize industries that are free to externalize their costs of running their businesses that ultimately citizens pay for. Quite a matrix of contradictions exist everywhere. 

Here’s the rub:  just because I know life is complicated and contradictions exist, does not mean I have to take comfort in them. Fully acknowledging the complexities and vagaries of daily life, I know part of life is to face my contradictions and work out that tension to overcome quandaries.  It is a process that leads to innovation.  Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management writes in his book The Opposable Mind, “We were born with an opposable mind we can use to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension.  We can use that tension to think our way through to a new and superior idea.”  What I am really advocating is for us to keep aware of what is happening, not turning away from the destructive patterns that we can avoid, drawing upon our courage to innovate or at least attempt alternative measures that bring more honour to our “most important assets” and our environment. 


While bail-outs may pacify us in the short-term, innovation is the balm for the long-term.  Begin by forgetting everything you “know” or think you know.  I am not suggesting “unlearning” is easy as our challenges are immense and will be more profound as the days pass.  All the more reason to seriously examine alternatives to make our way through them and move forward – in courage.