Saturday, November 28, 2015

Life and death at the crossroads

Events continue to cascade in my life. It's been unremitting since May. The pace of change is something to behold.

Most recently I lost my Dad, on the twelfth of November. Out of the blue.

It's not a sad story, it truly isn't. Denis led a very happy full life. For the last six or seven years he was afflicted with progressive memory loss. He was in remarkably good spirits for the most part. That much hadn't changed. I believe his failing memory served to insulate him, to a degree, from his growing frailty and the ever-shrinking sphere of his existence. Then, in a matter of minutes or hours, a stroke took his life. He was eighty-six.

I've had this post on the subject of happiness simmering gently on the back burner for a little over a month. It's high time to publish it before something else happens, like the barbaric,
senseless, hate-fueled killing spree that erupted in Paris a day after my Dad died.

Being happy, really happy, can seem like a stretch at times like this. It's all the more important in this context to consider what it means to be happy, and how to enjoy more happiness.

The best way I can approach the subject of happiness is to ask a question related to riding.

Does pure joy come from riding a motorbike down country roads on warm sunny days?

I expect that many people might agree with that proposition. I expect that many of those same people would be folks who don't ride. Before I became a rider, I might have agreed.

As a driver, I sometimes felt sorry for riders. At the best of times, when I observed a rider, I thought of the risk of running around on two wheels. In the fleeting moments as they passed me, or as I passed them, I thought at times that they must see themselves as rebels, bucking the mainstream, out to prove something to people like me about themselves, suffering the discomfort of a narrow saddle, the onslaught of the elements, the sting of slaying insects with their bare skin, and the solitude of the road. If I gave them any thought at all, that is.

Each time I call these thoughts to mind I think of the same scene.

It's July of 1969. I'm on an epic family road trip headed to Winnipeg in my parents' 1968 Ford LTD with my Dad at the wheel, my Mom and my sisters snoozing in the back seat, and my Dachshund Suzie sound asleep at my feet. The car is a sea blue convertible hardtop with a black vinyl roof.

Some photos of that vacation played at my father's funeral last week.

Somewhere east of Thunder Bay on a section of the Trans-Canada Highway temporarily stripped of its asphalt, we passed a guy riding a cruiser. It had ape hangers and highway pegs. He must have imagined himself as Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. To my untrained eye he looked hot, dusty, and possibly road weary.

Those same kinds of encounters, in rainy weather, elicited sympathetic thoughts. "Poor schmuck, he must be hypothermic... and wetter than a sewer rat". I don't know that I ever couched my thoughts in precisely those terms, but you get the gist of it.

After five years in the saddle (yes, it's been five years), I know better.

If you're following my ramblings lately, you know that I am slowly trying to figure out where the best path to happiness lies, so that when I eventually get moving again, I'll be more likely to set out in the right direction.

My Dad's passing has me feeling like I'm in a small boat cast off from the pier. My eye is now more trained on the horizon than ever before.

I know now that riding is a source of great happiness. I also know that choosing to ride was taking a chance, and that I got here by stepping out of my comfort zone. That's a decent start.

The really interesting thing is, that I now think I am beginning to understand more about happiness. It slowly began to dawn on me the other day. It's quite a bit more scientific than you might expect. It's also at once somewhat complicated, and exquisitely simple.

Thankfully, most of us know happiness. We remember happy times. The question is, how can we be happy more often?

The good news is that happiness doesn't cost much. We can all afford it. In fact, it turns out that wealth is not particularly conducive to happiness.

While this is still a theory, and for that reason I am potentially wrong about some of this, I feel I am on the right path. I am going to share with you the way I see this, to the best of my ability.

Happiness can be elusive. All through the ages, many very smart people failed at finding happiness. Luckily, we have the Internet. We are doubly blessed because, once we had the internet, Tim Berners-Lee kindly gave us the web. Then the web gave us open access to TED. TED is where many smart people go to explain some crazy complicated wonderful stuff to simple folks like me.

Here at the crossroads, in my moments of relative inertia, in the small gaps between the life-changing events that have been blowing past me, I am once more exploring the world of TED. I had discovered TED years ago, pre-riding, pre-iPad, pre-iPhone, way back in the days maybe seven or eight years ago when I began to explore podcasts on my iPod (man, I sure do owe a debt of gratitude to Steve Jobs, rest his soul). Way back then I would sit on the commuter train and for fifty minutes on the way home have my mind blown by TED.

Ironically, I gave that up when I traded the train for a Vespa. God is a woman, and she works in mysterious ways.

Riding has been a huge store of happiness for me. Every time I roll down the driveway, without exception, it's an exercise in joy. Sunny summer days are always fun, but so are overcast days, and, while I have never sought rides in the rain, they have happened, and there has been happiness there too. In fact, rainy weather really serves to point out just how wrong my pre-riding impressions were. I have never felt like a poor schmuck in the rain, much less like a sopping wet sewer rat. In fact I discovered that scooter commuting meant accepting a sizable challenge and mitigating the risk intelligently by being well prepared. As a commuter on two wheels, that meant always having good rain gear on board, and that meant I learned to ride through the rain, generally as dry as a bone, often with a grin on my face.

Stephanie Yue said it best. David is waterproof.

Copyright Stephanie Yue
I'm as happy as a clam on two wheels, even in the rain. In fact when Conchscooter offered me some brand new Frog Togs when the rain began to fall in the Everglades, I politely, and appreciatively, declined his unexpected gallant offer. What's a little rain when you're riding?

Before I go much further, let me say that I am a fairly happy guy. Happily married, happy to have three wonderful kids, generally happy with my life. Yet the fact remains that the happiness I found in riding is exceptional. It expanded my happiness quotient by several hours a day during the riding season.

So what is this happiness? Is riding a special trove of happiness that I stumbled on in a random way? Is there a recipe for happiness? Can I find more of it, in other pursuits?

And that is where TED, riding, my crossroads, and happiness all collide head on. A little like the large Hadron Collider where Tim Berners-Lee invented the web. As a result of the collision, it's possible I am discovering the elementary particles of happiness.

TED is a dedicated channel on our Apple TV box where it is just a few small button presses and clicks away. TED is also available on the web, and as a series of downloadable podcasts in the iTunes store.

Here are a few TED talks I encourage you to watch:
There is a thread of Zen running through the happiness recipe.

Some of the themes I take away from talks are mindfulness, presence, and kindness. If you throw in the courage to try new experiences in spite of the elements of risk, a quest for flow, a dose of stillness, and some artful planning, and if you have the stamina to follow through, I think there is a good chance that you will have found the ingredients for your very own personal recipe for happiness. At least that's the theory I'm working on. As I look back on my five years of riding, I realize that mindfulness, presence, kindness, planning, and taking calculated risks to pursue a dream, are the basic ingredients that led to the amazing happiness I discovered in riding.

I hope to channel as much creative energy as I can muster through that basic formula and see where it takes me.

Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk is a tantalizing view of how that quest might work for me in practice.

If you find yourself apprehensive as you contemplate where you own quest for happiness might lead, consider Lois Pryce. Lois lived in a cubicle at the BBC in London before her quest for happiness changed her life forever. I found Lois' story on ADV. Go and have a look at her web site.

If you want a glimpse into her life, here it is.


If you take my advice and watch the TED talks I recommend, you may find that TED is strangely addictive. One fascinating human experience after another comes tumbling out of TED and explodes in your mind. Fortunately, I don't think there are any terrible consequences, just some time well wasted, and possibly a little lingering inspiration.

If you'll bear with me, and take one more step in my company, and if you have taken my advice so far and done the homework I assigned, then it's time for you to find a gem of a movie entitled About Time. If you're anything like me, you won't get through it without shedding a tear or three, and getting the tiniest lump in your throat. That movie capped my thoughts in the most perfect way.

So there you have it.

I'm still at the crossroads, considering my options , but those talks and that movie are definitely filtering the hazy view of what the future may hold from where I stand today.

Here is the personal recipe I cooked up to help me plot a course.

The tools I will use are:
  • A small Moleskine notebook to serve as a daily journal. In it I will write my progress, including my weight, whether I exercised and meditated, and the answers to the daily questions I will pose. The act of writing is to re-inforce the act of gratitude, and the healthy habits I want to instill in myself.
  • A small pen. I will use the Bullet Space Pen that has been my constant pocket companion for the past fifteen years or so.
Here is my daily routine, from now on:
  • Do a set of exercises to build and maintain basic lower and upper body strength and flexibility.
  • Meditate for ten minutes.
  • Weigh myself and record my weight.
  • Ask myself what four things I am grateful for, and record them in the notebook.
  • Walk ten thousand steps.
  • Each evening record the high points of the day and think about what I might have done to make the day better.
We'll see where the recipe takes me.

29 comments:

  1. A excellent post. Sorry to hear about your dad passing and I would like to offer my condolences to you and your family on the loss. I have been watching the TED talks for quite a while and remember the Lois Pryce talk about vulnerable travel. I read her first book but the African journey. I think it is rare for me to not have a smile when getting on the bike no matter what the weather. Occasionally, I'll see someone looking at me with that "look" you describe and I usually smile and wave. Almost always, I get a smile and a tentative wave back. Having the right gear makes a huge difference when riding through all kinds of weather. Be it rain, snow or blistering heat.

    So the joy does not come from motoring down the road on a sunny, warm day but just from being out doing something. To me, there is just as much enjoyment hiking or x-country skiing, or, in the past, from bicycle touring. At one time, even sailing provided a lot of enjoyment. At least since it was never my boat (no financial commitment). I'm not sure that I would enjoy the kind of around the world adventures that some like Lois Pryce, Tiffany Coates, Steph Jeavons, Sam Manicom or many others do. But traveling around North America definitely interests me. I wanted to travel 40 years ago on my bicycle and the interest has never gone away. To me, seeing new places is what's interesting not necessarily the method of transportation.

    Anyway, great post!

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    1. Richard, I think that's the key. It's pursuing something that is really engaging, whether it's an active or a relatively passive interest. Though I think that something that gets you out and exploring is very fulfilling.

      It may be one of things that is viscerally connected to our nomadic roots. One typically thinks of men as explorers. But lately there sure seem to be a lot of women setting out on epic solo adventures. It's the human spirit to explore.

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  2. Your post gives me a lot to think about along with some excellent links to watch some outstanding speakers. I'll listen to Pico Eyer first followed closely by Lois Pryce. I've read her book, Lois on the Loose, and it was a great story of adventure and courage. Look forward to her speaking.

    As far as happiness goes I think we get tripped up pursuing it as a goal rather than pursing specific things. If happiness comes along great but perhaps the more valuable lesson is to learn to accept whatever is in front of us and move on from there.

    Puzzling stuff and you have put together an excellent accounting of what's on your mind. A really great essay on some of the important things in life.

    And last, I'm sorry about the passing of your father. For me loosing my parents was far more troubling than I realized and it took a long time to fully process the effects. I wish you well as you travel through your own experience. What I do know is that with each, time has left me with wonderful memories of each with little sadness or regret.

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    1. I think that courage is vital. Not necessarily having to put oneself is the way of serious harm, but the courage to venture out in a vulnerable way. I think of Lois Pryce's account of riding her bike into a minefield, or Stephanie Yue's posts where she felt uncomfortably vulnerable, such as her most recent post of riding into Texas, camping out, and in the morning discovering a handful of spent shells next to her tent. And yet they carried on and were far richer for the experience.

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  3. One more thing regarding your personal plans...

    I've been searching for formulas for a very long time and have had mixed success. Each failure can be traced to my own indolence rather than any shortcoming of the plan itself. I'll be watching with great interest what you learn because like you I'm searching for a similar path.

    And I already have a little Moleskine journal!

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    1. Steve, I haven't given up on my devious plan to drag you down to Florida for a few days in the new year.

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  4. Dave,
    Sorry to hear about your Dad but it sounds like he had a great run.

    2nd: You are turning this retirement thing into a job. Relax, retirement peace of mind with come. Just don't but your mind on a closet shelf. Keep it in the fresh air and sometimes in the smog just to remind you what the good times are.

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    1. That's such good advice Ken. I could almost feel the kick in the butt :-)

      I look forward to meeting you one fine day.

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  5. David, my condolences to you and your family.

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    1. Thanks Karen, much appreciated.

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    2. ... You know, you're much too modest. You are an outstanding example of someone who has embraced epic long distance travel on two wheels.

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  6. Our condolences David, on your father's passing. I am sure he moved on knowing he'd been successful at raising a good son.

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    1. Those are very kind words Dom, truly appreciated.

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  7. My condolences David on your Dad's passing.

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  8. David, please accept my condolences on the death of your father. I hope you and your family attain peace of mind again quickly. My own father died at only 76 so you were lucky to have extra time with your dad.

    Your posts have shown us (your readers) how much you observe the details of your various rides with various friends. They are very much upbeat because you don't walk around with a dark cloud over your head. I suspect the future will be much like that, because you make it so.

    About writing in a journal. I tried it but must admit I was not very disciplined about it. The irregularity of my blog posts sort of echoes that. One thing I did do, besides the moleskine, was to buy a real fountain pen. A Waterman. Have it right beside me and just picked it up. I like the size and weight. I don't have a fancy style of writing, in the sense of forming the letters. Still pretty much the way I learned in public school, with some evolution. Cursive, of course, which is not taught anymore, Pity. A few people have remarked it's easy enough to read. But, I've done so little actual writing that my hand feels stiff and the letters are more poorly formed than in many decades. I had to go back and do the strokes and circles exercises assigned back in Grade 4. It has some advantages over typing and dictation.

    Let us know how you progress. You know we hope the best for you.

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    1. Cursive writing is almost a lost art Ed.

      In one of my jobs I was the keeper of minute books running back to 1880. For 67 years, the minutes were hand written by a succession of keepers. The remarkable thing was that the calligraphy was nearly flawless, and in the early books, it was nearly impossible to tell where one writer left off and another began. The minutes were handwritten through to 1947. Over that span of 67 years, beginning at about the turn of the century, you could see that the quality of the calligraphy was deteriorating, and that each successive writer's hand was distinct and the differences were marked. The writing was always very legible, but at the end was completely lacking that calligraphic quality, of black ink applied with a square-nibbed pen, that gives the varying width in the line as the letters are formed, and the very elegant initial capitals, with wonderful swirls.

      Though I was taught calligraphy by nuns, my handwriting became a scrawl resulting from the pressures of taking endless notes in class.

      More lately, like for the past 25 years, I taught myself to type, and never looked back. I can type much, much faster than I can write, and when I take notes with a keyboard, there are typos when I go fast but the good thing is that I can still make out the meaning. Whereas when I scrawl, I spend way too long trying to figure out what the heck I wrote.

      Lately, as I work on my Dad's estate, I am back to taking handwritten notes. I am trying to to slow down and take care with how I form the letters. My handwriting is improving, but it's nothing like the nuns would have remotely approved of.

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  9. Thank you for this David, really... Thank you.

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    1. Peter, there is no end to your kindness.

      I am reading Peter Moore's Vroom by the Sea and am thoroughly enjoying it. Thank you.

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  10. Condolences to you and your family on your father's passing. Hugs from Oregon.

    I think happiness is all relative. What makes one person happy or over the moon, someone else might still be 'meh' about. Many years ago I made a choice to be happy in spite of what life was throwing my way and I try to always adhere to that choice. For some it isn't always so easy.

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    1. Very true Brandy.

      One day, I'll make my way out to Oregon on two wheels and ride with you guys.

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  11. David, my condolences on the death of your father.

    I have to agree with Ken somewhat - don't make retirement a full time job. Personally I have never actually pursued being happy in any planned way. For me, just doing the things I like to do is what brings me joy - whether it's a sunny summer ride, being out in the boat drowning worms (and maybe catching a fish or two), playing a round of golf, just puttering in the shop, or ... it's a long list. However I have the advantage of not having to deal with personal hardship in any of its many manifestations. If I did it would not be so easy I expect.

    Still, lots of food for thought in your post. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks David.

      I agree with your comments and those Ken offered.

      I find the meditation is soothing. I suspect that I will find myself needing it. It helps to put things in perspective and has a calming effect that lasts all day.

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  12. David, I saw the first paragraph of your post in "My Blogs" on Saturday and felt compelled to reach for it at a later time and that time is this evening, sitting on my own, away from home and quiet in a motel room. I wasn't familiar with TED but will take your assignment seriously and promise to learn more. Lois almost feels like a riding friend; I've worn out both of her books that were obtained (and autographed) when she spoke at a local Women on Wheels sponsored presentation. As my buddy looked over at me and said that evening, "she's quite a gal."

    My sympathies over your dad's passing. Mine left us almost exactly 5 years before yours left you and over time I come to appreciate more and more how much he shared and freely gave while expecting almost nothing in return. Riding was just one of many things he opened in my world.

    Happiness? As time goes on, I'm realizing more and more that it surrounds me, all that's necessary on my part is to reach out for it. There's more there than I can even hang on to. The very best of luck to you in getting all of yours organized into a bundle that works.

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    1. It is really a privilege to meet extraordinary people like Lois Pryce.

      Actually, I think they are ordinary people that have done extraordinary things. In that they are inspiring.

      Giving with no expectation of return is really important. My Dad was like that too, and I think that it rubbed off on me.

      I find that people who keep score often feel they are short changed. People who give of themselves without expectation, often seem blessed with an abundance of joy.

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  13. David,

    I am sorry to hear about your dad's passing.

    It has been a bit of a hard time for me this fall/winter and I have been laying low and pretty much off the "electronic crack". I have been contemplating my happiness quotient and status for awhile and have been coming to a few conclusions and that I need to change things up a bit and start thinking more about health physically and mentally and doing things for the betterment of my well being. I have always kept an informal gratitude & kindness journal of sorts, and am also trying to do more physically because my body has been very rebellious with pain and injury. So to that end I have started to walk and my hub & daughter bought me a fitbit to help with my quest of 10,000 steps and yesterday I hit that and am trying to keep motivated. I will probably take you up on your TED suggestions. Take care!

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  14. Shedding poor habits for good ones while extremely desirable, is very hard to do. I suppose, like they say, if it were easy, everybody would be doing it.

    Best of luck pursuing that path. Steve is on the trail too. I suspect that both of you have a nice lead on me.

    We'll see if I can be better at reforming in the new year. For the past two weeks the environment has been more about food and wine, and lounging on couches in between. Such are the holidays. It's a nice problem to have.

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  15. David, my path is the same as yours "food & wine and lounging on couches" It is a winter type thing and I have gone into hibernation mode. I have only hit the 10,000 step mark once, but I keep trying.

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    1. I really need to get a lot thinner and fit.

      I got a gym membership from Susan for Christmas (hint, hint, nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

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The copyright in all text and photographs, except as noted, belongs to David Masse.