The Evolution of Truth

When our Quito guide shared at lunch that the Ecuadorian government had used the Galapagos Islands as collateral for a loan from China, my jaw dropped so low I could no longer chew my food. He added, the interest rate was three times what the IMF would have provided. You’re kidding me, right? His blank wistful look told me he wasn’t.

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How could this happen? According to our guide, a good deal of that money flows directly to members of the government that made it happen. It’s not a stretch to imagine a corrupt South American government, but this was a bit over the top to think the Galapagos Islands will one day be in the hands of the Chinese.

After doing some intrepid research when I got back home, I discovered that in 2015 a loan with China was reached to lend Ecuador over $7.5 billion to cope with dropping oil prices. Over 80% of Ecuadorian oil goes to China. This loan brought Chinese financing to 25% of Ecuador’s GDP.  Reasons to worry, especially since there is a “sovereignty immunity waiver” that allows China to seize many of Ecuador’s assets if the country fails to repay the loans.

While all this is true, this is where some facts get stretched. The assets under potential threat is not the Galapagos, it’s just the Amazon where the oil and mineral resources are! So, rest easy Ecuador, the Galapagos archipelago is safe. The Amazon? Maybe not so much.

 

 

The Galapagos Islands is a special place on our planet – not so much for the landscape, more for the diverse wildlife. It’s a truly “wild” place, one that illustrates what our planet could look like if we weren’t so busy plundering it. And to the credit of the Ecuadorian government, they want to keep it that way. If you step onto the soil, you need to be with a guide, stay on the designated paths and don’t even try to pull out a snack! It was almost surreal how close you could get to the wildlife, as they see us as no threat. (If only they knew). I also found it fascinating how so much of the wildlife was endemic to not only the archipelago, but to each island. For example, the Charles Mockingbird is found on only one little island, Floreana. Only 60 of them currently exist.

 

 

The Charles Mockingbird was of course named after Charles Darwin, the British explorer/scientist whose Theory of Evolution was born here. Or was it? The fact is, evolution was not even a glint in Darwin’s eye when he spent time in the Galapagos. It was only years later that his theory “evolved” into his tome “The Origin of Species”. Also, if truth be known, he was not the only one, or even the first, to explore the idea of evolution. Both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace worked independently, and when they shared their theories, Darwin was astounded by how similar it was to his. To Darwin’s credit, he gave Wallace full acknowledgement, but you likely never heard of Alfred Wallace. The whole story of Darwin, the Beagle and Fitzroy contains all sorts of myths and mis-placed facts that continue to this day. Some, like many senior members of the U.S. government – including the Vice-President, like to argue that the Theory of Evolution is still, just a theory.

 

 

There’s indeed a growing trend of playing loose with the facts to support your belief, whatever that might be. We can all have a little giggle when Shaquille O’Neil proclaims that the Earth is flat. The smile fades when so many are ready to agree with him. I get that the former NBA star’s vantage point is undisputedly higher than ours, but … really? Unfortunately, there are more serious facts that people with “special interests” want to dispute. Global warming comes to mind. It doesn’t matter that consensus has been achieved amongst a community of scientists – you know, those people that spend their lives studying these things with the purpose of finding truth. My (financial) interests become my beliefs, my beliefs become my facts.

In our “post-truth era”, truth is as slippery as a Donald Trump on greased stripper pole (sorry for the visual). He can say whatever he wants, despite clear evidence to the contrary. His spokespeople defend “alternative facts” now. And if the “leader of the free world” (we should stop using that expression now) can get away denying vehemently what he had just said one-hour previously on video, this gives everybody licence to do the same. “Fake news” is now anything that is contrary to my beliefs. It’s made it so easy for us to be self-righteously “victimized” by anyone challenging us.

Everybody is entitled to their own opinions but sorry, you aren’t entitled to have your own facts. The world is round(ish). Global warming is happening, and us plunderers are the cause. Evolution has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen. These are just facts. We might not like them but that does not change the fact that they’re facts.

The great promise of social media was to have more facts more widely accessible. Informed citizens no longer had to yield to propaganda, and could organize quickly. While that has happened, it’s shadow has ‘evolved’ into a war of information that aligns with what serves your own personal interests and views. Facebook has become Fakebook.  Through sophisticated algorithms, most of us have no idea that we’ve been drawn into an echo chamber where it’s next to impossible to have your ideas challenged, or be confident what we’re being fed are facts. Critical thinking, remember that concept? Journalism has become not much more than headlines, entertainment, satire and yes, plenty of fake news.

“You can’t believe everything you read on the internet” – Charles Darwin

If your life isn’t consumed by social media, there are a number of other ways we can still participate in the post-truth era. One sure way is to gossip about others, or listen to it. We seem to love talking about other what people have done or said. Don’t bother yourself with the other side of the story, surely the gossiper has got it right. It’s ubiquitous. Spreading juicy “news”, or some iteration of it, is like the conquistadors spreading smallpox throughout South America. It happens fast, and it hurts people who were busy living their lives.

Another way to deflect truth is to cling to misaligned expectations. While expectations and hope are normal and good, it takes a bit more courage to be fully aware of what’s truly going on. It’s not a common ability to adjust expectations as reality is doing jumping jacks in front of your face. It would help those who work hard at being “positive” 24/7  that reminding yourself of what could go wrong is not pessimism. It’s being smart. Those highly evolved humans that manage to align their expectations with reality, rarely get disappointed.

We’ve all met those people whose beliefs become absolute truths. I’ve found it pointless to challenge or debate them as I have no time for people who think they have sovereignty over the truth. A critical thinker is always open to being wrong and to have their beliefs challenged.

Do we really want to know the truth? Can we handle the truth? After all, ignorance is bliss. I wonder about that too. If ignorance were bliss, there would likely be fewer people complaining.

To sort out the confusion, we often look to others to lay it all out for us. The “expert” or guru industry will continue to thrive because their come-on is that they hold the truth (and it usually comes in seven parts). News flash: they don’t. I have discovered that when someone lays claim to “the way” I need to turn around and run the “other way” as quickly as I can.

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” – Andre Gide

Of course, there are universals truths that cannot be debated, such as:

  • One minute after permanently deleting/throwing/burning something, you need it.
  • Mornings would be much easier to handle if they just happened later in the day.
  • If it wasn’t for a last minute nothing would ever get done.
  • The most serious problem is always the one you didn’t anticipate.
  • Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright before you hear them speak.

You get the idea.

When I went to Thailand last year I learned about the Noble Truths of Buddhism. The first Noble Truth being – life is suffering. The Quechuan (natives) of Ecuador know that one, as did the Inca when the Conquistadors pillaged their way of life. The Quechuan, represent a full 25% of the population. Our guide felt the the need to let us know that it was 40%.   The strong Moari culture in New Zealand is just 15%.  First Nations in Canada represent close to 9% of the total population. Not sure why he felt the need to exaggerate, 25% is quite impressive.

 

 

It’s clear though, that the Mestizos are the ones calling the shots.  When Ruth and I were having our 25th anniversary dinner at El Mercado in Cuenca, someone in a wheelchair

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El Presidente

went by our table. He gave me a wink. Um, should I know you? Turns out he was the Vice-President of Ecuador (a few months later he became President). Our guide made it clear to us the next day he would have spat in his soup. According to Rubin, he’s in a wheelchair because the corrupt Vice-President was shot in the back by loan sharks. The official story is he was mugged, robbed and his car taken – after he was shot.  Our guide, as you might have guessed by now, was prone to exaggeration and untruths, from corrupt politicians to the percentage of the world’s orchids in Ecuador.  According to Rubin, 35%.  In fact it’s actually, more like an already impressive 17%.

Some untruths are harmless enough I suppose, others are downright frightening if we want to continue living on this planet.  When nobody cares much about either, we start participating in the telling of lies for our own ends. Before you know it, we’ve all become modern-day nihilistic conquistadors.  Hopefully, for the sake of our kids, mankind has evolved since the mid-1500s when Pizarro and his marauders washed up on shore.

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Our Couer-Age

As acclaimed Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry says, “There is a fine balance between hope and despair.” Every once in a while, I find myself getting wrapped up in existential angst. I wonder what will become of my world, my children’s world. As one corporate ex- ecutive after another gets led away in handcuffs, do we keep buying their products? Will consumers keep demanding lower prices while customer service and product quality erodes? As the polar cap melts away and our biosphere continues to deplete, is it just the scientists that worry? Will taxpayers keep demanding lower taxes while our health care system buckles trying to handle the oncoming rush to the emergency room of middle-aged boomers with clogged arteries from our processed food diet? I reckon one day, there will be a reckoning.

I think about how future generations will describe us in these times. We have graduated from the Newtonian Industrial Age – to what? The Digital Age? While the tools may have changed, business has not really yielded new mindsets from the mechanical and linear thinking of the industrial era. We just expect everything faster now.

Author Ronald Wright goes back to the Stone Age in his book A Short History of Progress, to examine how people and civilizations have wiped themselves out. Victims of their own progress, the Mayan or the Romans or even Easter Islanders did not have the benefit of history that we do. Yet we seem to be making all the same mistakes, only faster and on a global scale.

Jane Jacobs in her book Dark Age Ahead says we have collective amnesia about how Dark Ages come about. They come about when the pillars of community and family, higher education, the practice of science and science-based technology, governmental powers and self-policing by the learned professional become ruined and/or irrelevant.

Dee Hock, former CEO and founder of VISA, wrote Birth of the Chaordic Age, a tumultuous time where the “chaos” will eventually create the new “order”. This is how nature works and how we’ll need to adapt now that we have stopped producing widgets.  It is a dire warning that the chaos is like nothing we have seen and will be unpleasant indeed for those who refuse to see it coming.

If you are celestially inclined, the astral plane suggests that we are now in the Age of Aquarius, a Golden Age where thinking individuals are now making more holistic personal choices about how to show up at a more caring workplace. This “New Age” has not arrived at the workplace for most though. Dilbert is still funny. Shows like Ricky Gervais’ critically acclaimed television series “The Office” wins accolades. The Canadian documentary film “The Corporation” presents a compelling argument that the places we work are, by definition, psychopathic. Do we laugh or cry?

Historians and NYU professors William Strauss and Neil Howe have written a chilling prophesy in The Fourth Turning. They go all the way back to the War of Roses in 1459 to illustrate the historical and disturbing cycle we should have expected in “the oh-oh decade”. Every “turning” is roughly a generation and every Fourth Turning begins with a catalyst – “a startling event that produces a sudden shift of mood. This spark is linked to a specific threat about which society had been fully informed but against which it had left itself poorly protected.” Just another post-9/11 doomsayer? Perhaps, only these words were written four years before 9/11 – and well before Brexit and Donald Trump.

Jean-Paul Sartre the French writer and champion of existential angst, wrote in The Age of Reason about a man obsessed with his freedom to choose. Reason could free us from our institutions, state and religion that we previously considered too sacred to challenge. The story is set in 1938 in the shadow of the Second World War – our previous Fourth Turning.

Satre and these other thinkers have been holding the mirror up for the rest of us. Their despair is balanced with the hope that people will take responsibility and claim their freedom and courage to act. They also do not believe in staying quiet. Neither should we, because there is too much at stake for us all and that reckoning might not be too far away.

Am I getting you down? All these authors are not painting the rosy picture we want of society or the places we work, so we are tempted to quickly disregard them. Sometimes we create our own defence mechanisms to protect us from the anxiety that comes when the balance between hope and despair seems to tilt towards despair. From global warming to nutrition for a hungry planet to terrorism, the issues are all connected in a complex matrix and they are big. And individually, we are so small in comparison. We ask ourselves “Would I have really made a difference?” Storyteller Tom King points out that this is the question we always ask after we have given up.

What enables us to hear the truth and act, despite our anxiety, is courage. It is in these “moments of truth” that we are confronted with choice. We can “tune-out” and become numb, or fill our head with happy-thoughts. We can “tune- in” and wallow in despair. Or we can act on the hope that we have just enough time for our actions to make a difference. The ultimate truth is we are free to make those decisions that test our mettle and make our heart skip a beat – whether it is protesting unjust wars, unsavoury elections, or raising a crazy idea at a business meeting. Although this begins as a solitary and lonely act, it ends up being the very thing that inspires others to follow. The Coeur-Age is my label for today’s times. If we can face our present day realities, it will require sustained courage to address all these issues. And plenty of it.

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.

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Near Kanchanaburi

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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 incessantly. 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 they are in need. IMG_1759He literally lent a hand 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.

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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

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“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 Hayley 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 Hayley”? 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 Hayley, 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 Hayley’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.

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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 given 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’ve been only interested in the relationships that matter – not the superficial ones that people invest so much time and energy maintaining.  The disdain Hayley and Mark had/has for me is not my issue. It’s theirs. Buddhism has taught me to continue to be friendly with them, reach out to them, and even support them.  You are what you love, not what loves you.  That’s a recipe for good Karma.

To be sure, I’m a “work-in-progress” and abundantly human. I am not reserved, I put myself out there, which has left me open to be judged and ridiculed.  It has also 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.

UPDATE:

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.

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Suzanne at the Eden Mills Open Mic

 

 

The Polarity of Progress in Mexico

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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.

 

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Me and Chino

Pedro

Pedro

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.”

UGH!

 

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

WWOOF WWOOF

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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.

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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.

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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.

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