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Post image for How to sit in a chair and drink tea

First, slow down, like you’ve just turned off the highway into a quiet neighborhood. Normal rat-race speed is unsuitable for what we’re about to do. Hurrying through the process of relaxing defeats its purpose.

This experience is all about decelerating. Take a breath if you have to, or if you wish to.

Take out your tools. Kettle. Cup. A mesh infuser if you’re using one.

Your supplies — the consumables — will be two of nature’s simplest creations: water and leaves. Loose tea is best but a teabag will do.

Choose your leaves. Chai. Rooibos. Ceylon. Oolong. Yerba mate. This is a personal decision and I won’t make a suggestion. Depending on the plant you choose here, you may be embarking on a mild drug experience. If you’re running low, on either quantity or variety, here is a wonderful source.

Run water into the kettle, feeling its growing weight, and take a moment to smile at your fortune if you did not have to leave the house to do so.

Turn on the heat. Put your tea into your cup.

You will now confront one of modern society’s ever-present dangers, which is the risk of distraction we face whenever nothing interesting happens for a few minutes. Your muscle memory will suggest something, maybe slipping your smartphone out, maybe leaning over the computer chair to surf Reddit, maybe straightening something on the counter. Worst of all, you may start talking to yourself in your head.

Stay where you are. You’re making tea. It’s tempting to think of the next two minutes of kettle-heating time as something in the way, something you want to get to the end of, like an unmemorable stretch of parking lot you have to cross to get from your car to your destination.

Your impulse might be to self-entertain. Opt instead to do something simple and self-contained, like stretching or looking out the window. If you’re game, just stand beside the stove. Let time just hang there, without making you feel like you should be somewhere else.

Whatever you end up doing for that two minutes, if you stay with it, your simple experience of standing or window-looking will seem to grow in intensity, until your whole world begins whistling and rattling.

Don’t rush here. A boiling kettle is not a crisis. To make sure you’re not reacting, watch it exhale steam for a few seconds. Observe how the world stays together. Let your pulse return to normal, then take it off.

Pour your water into the cup. Set the kettle aside. Heat off. Read More

Post image for How much does it cost to be you?

Now that I’ve installed snow tires, my car has only four things wrong with it. The passenger-side lock is misbehaving since someone tried to screwdriver it open this summer. The throttle sticks for a moment when the automatic transmission shifts to second gear. The heat takes twenty minutes to come on, and the suspension is creaking now.

I don’t know how much each will cost, but I figure if I’m lucky I can fix one item with each of my next four paychecks, if I tighten in other areas.

This is a pretty normal financial position for me. My life, the way I live it, is affordable, except when unpredictable expenses overlap. Just a little bit more income, say 10% more, would theoretically stop this from happening. But I’ve been thinking that for years, and my income is nearly double what it was seven years ago.

Parkinson’s Law is mostly responsible for this. We have an almost automatic tendency to increase our standard of living the moment our income increases. If you’re like most people, when your pay increases by another $500 a month, the first thing you decide is what additional $500-per-month thing you can now afford to enjoy, which is the same as deciding what additional $500-per-month expense you now wish to take on.

Every time that happens, your financial situation doesn’t really change, even as you climb through tax brackets. Ephemeral details of your life — what you are wearing, where you are eating, the sleekness of your furniture — do change, but the feeling of your financial situation doesn’t, and it is this feeling that determines whether your financial situation feels stretched, or ample.

That ample feeling comes, al least partly, from space. Ideally there would be space between what you earn and the cost of your lifestyle. If you have space, the thought of an unexpected expense doesn’t have the power to worry you, because normal life (for you) costs less than you have to spend on it, and so incidentals don’t put you in the red. On most of the occasions where life costs more than you expect, it still costs less than you have.

Space is an interesting asset in that it doesn’t actually cost money. It only requires that you leave a portion unspent. The returns on this zero-net-cost investment are considerable. It can make the difference between carrying a daily feeling of abundance and carrying a daily feeling of not-enough.

I’m convinced that a single middle-classer who makes $45,000 a year, and whose lifestyle costs $40,000 a year, is necessarily going to feel more day-to-day abundance than an upper-middle-classer who makes $100,000 and whose lifestyle costs every bit of that.

Read More

Post image for On being under the influence at Ikea

Last month my city became a real city. After a two-year gestation period, a field on the outskirts of Winnipeg gave birth to an Ikea.

Those who already live in Ikea cities may not comprehend the significance of this event, but to my people it is a very big deal. I had not been into an Ikea since I was a child being dragged into one, but since reaching the age where one begins to value furniture (26?) it has taken on an enigmatic quality for me, and I know I’m not alone. At 32 I’m finally living in a home that feels like one, and I’ve been experiencing a powerful domestic urge to assemble a coherent decorative scheme around me. How our values change.

During the summer months I monitored the store’s construction whenever I drove by. At first it was hard to tell anything was being built at all. The site was just concrete piles and trailers. In the Fall, climbing over the tops of the small city of construction site offices, a gleaming blue rectangle emerged, unfolding panel by panel at an alarming rate.

I imagined crane operators working from concise sets instructions that diagram the entire facility’s construction with foolproof arrows — wall “B” into slot “EE” — and every joint tightened with a great Allen key.

Two weeks ago it was done, and seven hundred thousand thrift-minded (but aesthetically sensitive) Winnipeggers descended on it.

I avoided the insanity of the first weekend, thinking I might even wait until after Christmas to outfit my home, aware that until I was ready it was best not to know what I was missing.

With winter here and a friend coming for the weekend from Calgary — a city to which Ikea is old hat — I find myself in immediate need of a presentable doormat (I’ve been using a corrugated plastic board that has my fantasy football league’s draft results on it.) So I get in the car and head to the box store hell that lies west of Linden Woods.

On the way there I decide to make it a quick operation and grab a passable mat at one of the now-empty homeware stores across the highway, saving my Ikea adventure for another time. But as I begin my drive home I notice that the deadening quiet inside Home Outfitters has left me with the feeling you get when you know everyone else is at a party. I find myself changing lanes and I know I am on my way to Ikea.


The vast parking lot is nearly full, and so I park at the very back, beside the base of a sign so enormous I would have guessed it was a neighboring microwave tower. It’s visible for (without exaggeration) miles, and it would not surprise me if it were now Manitoba’s highest building. On top of a white tubular steel tower sits a three-faced logo, the whole of which gives the impression, perhaps only accidentally, of a giant middle finger that simultaneously faces Wal-Mart, Jysk, and HomeSense.

The great rectangle of the store itself is so uniformly blue and featureless that it’s difficult to gauge its size from a distance. From my car, the yellow letters on its broad side could be eight feet tall or forty feet tall. My walk takes far longer than I thought it would. It is perhaps the largest parking lot I have ever crossed and the blue wall looms larger with each step.

The entrance is a great revolving door, maybe thirty feet across. It moves the people, not the other way around, swallowing about a dozen people per third of a revolution. I am swallowed along with a large Chinese family, and the door turns so slowly that for almost ten full seconds we are completely sealed in plexiglass. Some of the children begin to cry.  Read More

Post image for What love is not

Love is not what the movies and hit songs tell us it is.

Love doesn’t hurt. If it hurts it’s something else. Fear. Attachment. Idolatry. Addiction. Possessiveness.

Nobody’s heart aches out of love. In pop culture, love gets conflated with desire all the time. From childhood we learn you can like something, or you can love it, as if it’s only different degrees of the same thing.

Love is all selflessness. It’s the opposite of need and attachment. To an individual it’s a sensation of allowing, rather than seeking. Letting go, rather than grasping.

Love is subtle and silent and delicate, and in its beginnings it can be drowned out easily by attachment, lust and fear. Love must have space, and force is what crowds it out. Love is powerful but it isn’t forceful.

Desire is simple and often reckless. We need to manage it carefully to avoid causing harm. Desire is the intention to change something, to reject what it is in favor of what it could be — something better, more secure, more pleasing. Love is the intention to let that thing be for its own sake.

A lot of us grow up thinking that to love is simply to want very badly. It’s hard to be sensitive to love when you’re overrun by desire. Love isn’t something that can be done badly, if it’s love at all. Desire can happen at the same time as love, but it’s not the same thing.

Jealousy isn’t love, nor is it evidence of love. Jealousy is fear. Love doesn’t drive people mad, it drives them sane. Desire, in its different forms, can drive people to do anything. Love never drives people to kill or steal or cheat or worry.  Read More

Not voting is an interesting experiment.

Having voted in every election since I turned eighteen, two years ago I opted out of two in a row — a civic election and a federal one — to see how it felt to know that what I did on election day didn’t matter.

A few months earlier, it had been pointed out to me by a well-spoken smartypants that my voting had never influenced public policy in any way. Removing my vote from the totals would have resulted in the same results — the same government, the same policies — in every election I’d ever voted in.

I kind of knew that, but I didn’t quite grasp what it meant. It meant that if I believe having some influence on society is important, I can’t possibly rely on my vote to do that. But voting still somehow conferred a feeling of involvement, of participation in the shaping of society. So I did it anyway, even though the math shows that if I had chosen to clean behind my stove each election day instead of voting, society would have progressed the exact same way, while the state of my kitchen would have improved considerably.

The following election I stayed home, to be sure I knew how it felt to choose to be only a spectator. I had a creeping feeling that I always had been. I didn’t clean my kitchen.

It feels bad, if you’ve never tried it. It sent me into a bit of a cynical spell on the whole matter of electoral politics, and I wrote about it here: If the election really mattered to you, you’d do more than vote. I think my logic is still solid, but I do regret the antagonistic tone of it. The comment section contains some pretty rich arguments, if you like arguments.

I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to approach the next election where I live, but I will vote. I’m pretty sure I’m always going to vote now, for someone, even if it’s just to enjoy the walk to the polling station. I still believe that in order to be involved in the electoral process in a meaningful, consequential way, a person has to do much more than vote. I can’t vote for our next president tomorrow because I’m Canadian.

There may be other reasons to vote, even if you understand that your chances of influencing the outcome of the presidential election are much smaller than your chances of dying in a car accident on the way to the poll. For some people, voting time serves as a reminder to re-familiarize themselves with the big issues and personalities in the news, by researching platforms and watching debates. It also feels good, it really does. It feels good to talk about. It feels good to find people who think the same way about something as you do. It feels good to see the whole populace (or maybe half) appear care about the same thing.  Read More

Post image for Steal this post!

As usual, at first there was nothing, then I sat down with some coffee for a few hours, and then there was something : a collection of words that might give you a good idea or teach you to do something. It wasn’t always brilliant, but I made it myself and I hoped you like it. As of today I’ve done this 250 times for this website.

When it’s done I click publish and set it free. Within a few seconds it’s in a thousand places. On a bench in Prospect Park, looking up from someone’s Android. Glowing on a white-blue iPad screen in a midwest dorm room. Waiting behind an envelope icon in some accountant’s Outlook, in Brisbane. Any stranger who finds it can beam it someone else a few minutes later, anywhere they want.

I like that this can happen. This is the future. It has never been easier to find the like-minded, to broadcast your personality, to click with a kindred mind in another city or on another continent, to find an audience for your creative thing you do. I love that I live now and not some other time.

As a consumer of creative works, it’s also easier than ever to find what you value, at least of the type that comes in the form of words, images, sounds, or anything else than can fit through a cable or shoot through the airwaves. Information is a boring word for it, but that’s what it is, and a lot of it has real value to us.

Today’s free flow of information also means it’s harder than ever to retain control of what you create. That seems like it would almost defeat the possibility of actually selling your work, given that anyone can find information on the web and have their way with it. People who create digital products today have to deal with an issue that the brick-and-mortar era never did. You can’t tie anything down, and everything you offer can be duplicated, by anyone, anywhere. You can’t lock up when you leave the shop at night. Once they’re on the internet, your wares are up for grabs.

It’s easier than ever to steal. You can lift someone else’s words, songs, pictures and tell people they are yours. Or, at least, you can neglect to tell people they aren’t yours.  Read More

Post image for Why big changes are so big

My last six weeks of being 31 years old were glorious. Easy and beautiful. I had been a pessimist since I was a kid (most of that time without realizing it) and then in late August, something clicked and I no longer saw things in terms of their downsides. It was dramatic and almost effortless and I can’t fully explain how it happened. I just got used to thinking about what I want, and catching myself whenever I started thinking about what I don’t want. It worked.

It wasn’t mania or self-delusion, just a clean, consistent sense that at any moment life is good enough to smile about, and it’s only getting better. My surroundings looked the same but felt different. It was a very different mental landscape, which happened to make much more sense than the one I was used to.

My six-week cruise in a state of near-effortless optimism ran aground somewhere around last Wednesday. There were several factors. The weather changed. Indian summer became cold and nasty overnight. I was stuck in a small town again, which tends to make me a bit loopy.

But it was hubris that sunk me. Optimism felt self-sustaining, and so I kept up cruising speed, even while I eased up on my vigilance around cultivating positive expectations and weeding out negative ones. I steamed on with the smugness of the Titanic’s captain. Unsinkable! I thought. I fell asleep in a deck chair with a smile on my face and a cigar burning in my hand.  Read More

Post image for It’s the tone, not the content

The car was skidding sideways now, for me in slow motion, and I remember having time to decide what to do. I felt the wheels beneath me leave the road’s edge, into the air above the ditch and I knew we were dead. Time stretched even wider, and I put my hands calmly over my face and waited.

There was no impact, just silence and softness and the feeling of tiny bits of glass scattering over the backs of my hands. It felt good.


I don’t talk about the meaning of dreams here much because it’s one of those topics that seems to attract over-reaching interpretations. Dream dictionaries rattle off one-to-one meanings as if they could possibly be the same for everyone. Dreaming about a lizard means you have anxiety about your libido, didn’t you know? Somehow it’s not supposed to matter who you are.

Not that what we dream about can’t tell us anything about what’s happening in our lives, even if we’re not conscious of it while we’re awake. They give us pretty strong clues sometimes, if a little general. We tend to dream about what we’ve been thinking about during waking life. This can include hopes and anxieties that only happen in the background normally, and which come to light when we’re asleep.

As random as they seem to be, if you look at what you tend to dream about over time you can get an idea of what might be occupying your subconscious in your day-to-day life, even over years. I’ve had thousands of dreams and certain specific themes and images have recurred consistently for long stretches of my life:

It’s the first day of school and I don’t know where my class is.

There is an exciting field trip about to happen and I miss the bus or it gets canceled.

My teeth become brittle and crumble in my mouth.

I lose my laptop and my heart’s in my throat until I find it.

I meet my dream girl and she disappears or turns into someone else.

I lose a body part violently, but rather than panic I just get kind of sad that it’s gone.

These aren’t all of them, but it’s amazing to me how consistently these themes have visited me over the last ten or fifteen years. You probably have your own, and looking at my own short list I can’t help but wonder what they have to do with me specifically. Why don’t I dream about laying comfortably on beaches or playing in the Superbowl?

It’s not that all my dreams are anxious or filled with the fear of loss. Some are euphoric, some are horrific. But the overall consistency of emotional themes seems to suggest that when my mind is left to its own, to create an experience without any external sense data defining the world for it — which seems to be the only difference between waking life and dreaming — that world is usually an anxious one.  Read More

Post image for Man’s search for meaning, and cell phone reception

The sun had sunk below the treeline and I was parked alone on a gravel approach, facing a field of dead sunflowers. I had just sped five miles out of the dead-zone town I was staying in, and finally I had mobile data again. As I watched my smartphone screen, two days of emails flooded into my inbox and I felt a physical ecstasy, a squirt of serotonin or dopamine or whatever it is that the body releases when an addict scores.

The rush was so conspicuous that when I was done checking my email I couldn’t help but reflect on how badly I’ve come to depend on invisible wireless networks for my senses of control and connectedness and possibility. I knew that my current situation — stuck working for four days in a town with no phone or internet — was bearable to me only because I knew it was temporary.

My employer had sent me and my assistant to a map-dot called Glenboro, two hours from the city. Accommodations had been set up for us at a green and white 55-dollar motel right on the highway. After we checked in, I jokingly referred to it as a “one-star hotel” — the one star being for, if anyone asked, “No visible mice,” but during breakfast on the last day I had to retract even that star.

I am a city person and have known that for a long time. Small country towns give me existential crises. They make me crave two things: my home city’s tap water, and a feeling of meaning to what I’m doing. I don’t know quite why. In small towns I feel aimless and self-conscious and disoriented, like I’m moving too fast and expecting too much. Maybe I am, and small towns make me confront that. Or maybe I just don’t like them.

Maybe because I was without telecommunications, my sphere of awareness filled with small-town minutae and it was almost too much sometimes. On our first day, this existential daze was settling over me when we finally stopped circling and settled on a place to eat lunch. It was a hotel-bar-restaurant but at least two of the three of those appeared to be permanently closed. The restaurant door was open but there was no other indication that anyone was there. We sat anyway.

We waited for quite a while, mostly staring, before one of us decided to make things happen. My assistant leaned into the door beside the till and called “Hello,” as if he were standing at the mouth of a cave. Nobody answered and he sat down again. Eventually a server appeared carrying two menus and a baby, and disappeared again for a long time.

During that long time it grew impossible to sit still and so I figured going to the bathroom might be slightly more interesting than sitting and staring. So I ventured into the cave, and looked for a bathroom, and I found one, but it didn’t look public. There was a bathtub and fish-pattern shower curtain. The toilet appeared to be unflushed but I would later learn that’s just what the town’s water looks like. At eye-level above the toilet tank there was an embroidered wall-craft that said “Nobody notices what I do around here until I don’t do it.” Below that was one that said “Jesus died for me.” Suddenly I felt like a remorseful burglar and retreated to the dining room.  Read More

Post image for The Law of Attraction, for science-heads and Secret-haters

Five or six years ago the Law of Attraction was presented to the masses in the form of a bad film. The LoA isn’t new and wasn’t new to me when I’d first heard about The Secret. Napoleon Hill was talking about how to Think and Grow Rich in the thirties, and there’s talk of the principle all the way back to before Christ.

I think when I first heard about The Secret I had recently finished Think and Grow Rich, and the afterglow had just worn off and I hadn’t really run with it. So much about the movie turned me off: the presumptuous title, the self-important wax seal motif, the whole new age vibe of it. So I never watched it, and I think its existence alone killed any urge I had to makes something out of Napoleon Hill’s take on it.

Somehow, planets had been aligning in such a way that I found myself in front of it last week. A flu/food poisoning combo had me incapacitated in front of a television, and the film was recommended to me at a time I was doped up on Neo Citron and very vulnerable.

It was really exactly like I’d expected. Terrifically cheesy. It was almost offensive. Actors, in the throes of dazzling positive intentions, shoot CGI shock waves out of their foreheads into the outside world, presumably to fetch them money, girlfriends and tropical vacations.

The action is interrupted frequently by whispered, out-of-context quotes from A-list historical figures such as Ben Franklin, Shakespeare, Emerson and Einstein, none of whom probably would have been too crazy about their posthumous involvement in this project.

But just because The Secret is profoundly cheesy and easy to dismiss, it doesn’t mean the Law of Attraction ought to be tossed out with same bathwater. I did watch it right through and by the end I was interested in the whole Law of Attraction concept again. I saw something in it I didn’t before, and in hindsight I am thankful to have watched it.

There are two basic camps on the LoA issue:

1) Those who believe that the universe (“the outside world”) is bound to do its own thing, as determined by its own internal laws, regardless of what you think about it or intend for it to do.

2) Those who believe that the course of the universe, or at least what any one person experiences of it, is altered by one’s perceptions, by their thoughts about it and their intentions for it.

By default I think most of us fall into the first camp. The world seems pretty stable in the way it works. I had been hoping for riches, fame and uncanny luck my whole life, and whether I got them (I didn’t) seemed to depend on what I did and not what was in my head.

There were too many contradictions for it to make sense. What if two of us were “intending” to win the same one-on-one ping pong match? It didn’t make sense. I used to feel these questions trapped me in camp 1. I couldn’t believe in a subjective universe if I wanted to. I knew better!  Read More

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