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Live, Damn You, Live!

The Saddest Words

My late great-aunt Mary used to quote a line from Maud Muller, a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier:

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

I was reminded of this line of poetry by a conversation I had yesterday afternoon.

“I’m comfortable where I am right now.”

That’s what my friend S. said over beer at the Black Bull. It was in response to my final offer for him to move into the available room in my house.

I’d been stalling the search for a housemate for as long as possible in order to give my good friend S. a chance to think about moving in. I’d rather have S. rather than some stranger because I want someone I both like and trust in the house. I also think that moving into this house would be good for him; it’s beautiful enough to have been featured on the television show Love By Design (yup, I was one of the eligible bachelors on the show) and in Toronto Life magazine. It’s a hub of activity, be it geeky (Peekabooty, plus Paul’s and my consultancies), musical (Paul plays guitar, I play you-know-what, and my musical friend often drop by) or social (impresarios that we are). Its location — an intersection of Chinatown, the student ghetto, Kensington Market, the club district and the “cool” street with the boutiques and bars — is such that you can almost fall out of bed and land where the action is. The landlords will take my lease away from me when they pry it from my cold dead fingers.

S. turned it down, though. He said that the cost of moving would be prohibitively expensive (he lives in a bachelor apartment a 15-minute drive away from me when traffic is light) and that he’d have to reprint all his stationery and business cards (like me, he runs a small consultancy out of his home). His current rent includes utilities; moving into my place would mean a slight rent increase and that utilities would no longer be a fixed cost.

He also said “Besides, after a couple of months, you’d kill me.”

(If you live in that kind of daily fear of going broke over smallish expenses, to kill you might be doing you a favour 😉 )

I’m not mad, nor do I consider his turning down my offer a snub. I think his reasons for not moving in are pretty flimsy excuses, but he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, and I have to respect that.

However, what he said got me thinking.

Could’a, Would’a, Should’a

This isn’t the first time S. has turned down an interesting offer of mine. Three years ago, I offered him a chance to go down to Burning Man. I was renting an RV with two other people and there was still plenty of room for him. He knew of Burning Man and while he thought it might be fun, turned down the chance to go. I went, and came back with photographs and stories about my adventures in the desert, all the cool people I’d met and the fun I had. After seeing the pictures and hearing me go on about Burning Man, he said that perhaps he should’ve gone.

Has something like this happened to you?

There’s a slim chance that there might have existed a very, very fortunate person who’s never had to say “I shouldn’t have passed up that opportunity.” If you’re that person, give yourself a cookie. You’ve earned it.

The rest of us — myself included — have at least one “could’a, should’a, would’a” regret. In most cases, those regrets outweigh the regrets over things we have done.

Here’s one you might find familiar: there are a couple of women whom I’ve filed under “the ones that got away” because in a failure of courage, I didn’t ask them out. A psychologist friend of mine pointed out that this kind of regret is quite common. He also pointed out that most people, upon later reflection, say that getting rejected is far easier to live with than never having approached that other person.

I’ve also had some near misses — moments where I was wavering on the edge of not doing something because it seemed like too much effort to be worth it, it would me look foolish, or that it was too great a risk. I almost gave up trying to play the accordion and I almost didn’t try busking. I almost didn’t make hasty arrangements to fly to Prague to celebrate New Year’s 2000, and when there, I almost didn’t ask the cute Czech czick out on a dinner date. I almost didn’t join the startup company where I had the most exciting and rewarding time of my career to date (it was the riskier choice; my other offer was to work for the tools group of the considerably better-heeled and better-known Chapters Online, then poised to become Canada’s equivalent of Amazon.com). In all those cases, I’m glad that I followed through.

Adventure Minus Risk Equals Disneyland

It’s one of the first lessons they teach you in any “Intro to Business” course: the greater the risk, the greater the reward.

The hard part is determining what an acceptable risk is and dealing with the consequences when the dice don’t come up in your favour.

I took that kind of a risk in late 2000, when I was offered a position in the company’s San Francisco office. It was an opportunity to do what I do best — a mixture of programming and PR, with lots of accordion playing as a job requirement, right in the Bay Area, where a lot of the industry action was. Being in the States would also make it possible for my then-girlfriend, an American, to live in the same city and take our relationship out of the “long-distance” category. While there was much to be gained, there was also much to be lost. It meant leaving a beautiful house in a great neighbourhood in Toronto, a place where I’d already carved out a comfortable niche and gained some notoriety as the Accordion Guy. It meant leaving friends and family. It meant making the biggest move I’d ever made since emigrating from the Philippines for Canada almost 27 years ago. By going, I was betting my career and my personal life.

Things didn’t work out they way I wanted. The girlfriend, having suddenly realized that she had completely moved cross-country into a city she couldn’t stand, left a few hours short of two weeks after arriving. The company’s financial situation worsened, and the San Francisco office was closed as one of the cost-cutting measures. A few months after moving to San Francisco, I was moving back to Toronto, suddenly single and working for a company that was starting to circle the drain. I had gambled and lost.

Still, I’m glad I took that chance. For a short while, I lived within walking distance of the beautiful view of the Bay at the top of the hill on Fillmore. The job gave me a chance to visit both Apple’s and Microsoft’s campuses, something I’ve always wanted to do. I got to talk tech, exchange ideas and just hang out with some of the brightest lights of the industry. I made many new friends in my new city. I joined a band. I tried my hand at stand-up comedy and got invited to do my routine at many other comedy clubs as a result. I got to do a lot of thing I’d been meaning to do. In spite of the fact that it didn’t go according to plan, I know that I would’ve regretted not going more than going.

Blame the accordion

It always comes back to the accordion, doesn’t it?

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while (it turns 6 months old this Saturday, by the way) or have gone through the archives, you know that I often say that the accordion has some mystical reality-bending powers that cause wonderful and unusual things to happen to me.

Of course, I know that it’s just a wooden frame holding metal reeds encased in black plastic, chrome and “mother-of-toilet-seat” keys. It’s just a tool that I’ve learned to use particularly well, both as a musical instrument and as a “social engineering” device. I’m sure I’m using it in ways that weren’t imagined when it was first invented about 150 years ago, in that William Gibson-esque “the street finds its own uses for things” kind of way.

If I hadn’t taken a chance and not turned it into my personal totem, my life would be less interesting and the accordion would be just another musical instrument sitting in a basement, gathering dust and slowly going out of tune.

All the difference

The root of the word decide comes from the Latin verb meaning “to cut off”. Each decision we make cuts off a set of future possibilties; in fact, quantum theory (and at least one Star Trek episode) suggests that each decision we make cuts us off from complete universes.

Sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon has a law named after him. It states that “ninety percent of everything is crap.”

A corollary to that law is that ninety percent of the lucky ten percent who live in a G8 nation are probably just going on with their day-to-day lives, marking time. Birth – school – work – death, punctuated by trips to Blockbuster and package vacations to tourist traps. I’m not suggesting that everyone should run out and lead a thrill-a-minute existence like James Bond or take up naked bungee Russian Roulette. What I am suggesting is that when given a reasonable opportunity to do something out of the ordinary, no matter how small, consider taking it.

I started with a snippet from a poem, so it’s only fitting that end in the same manner. Here’s the last bit of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Choose your roads well, folks.


A special note for S.

Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to move in, nor am I getting on your case for not moving in. All I’m asking is that you try and resist the known and embrace the unknown every now and again. Just remember that you don’t always have to play it safe — stretch a little. You might like it.

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