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Spectres of Yore | Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Like most people, I sometimes catch myself thinking about what life - mine and others - would be like if I had made different decisions. I don't do so with regret or disappointment, but with genuine curiosity. There exists a theory that there are infinite other universes, and that new ones are created every instant with every possible outcome or decision branching out into a new universe or dimension of existence. This intrigues me, because somewhere out there could be multiple versions of me that never decided to get on that plane, never took that class, or never got that job. I would like to meet those alternate "me"s, talk to them, see how they are doing. I wonder whether future versions of myself would want to thank me, yell at me, or warn me. And what would I have to say to past versions of myself? What advice or warnings could I possibly give them without knowing what all the alternatives could be? This, of course, all boils down to the same armchair-philosopher question, the "Would you have done anything differently?" motivational posters that office workers hang in their cubicles. However, it remains a difficult question to answer.

The concept of regret is one I continuously try to distance myself from, as it is arguably the most useless emotion bestowed upon us by whichever cosmic entity you choose to believe - or not - in. Unlike fear, anger or greed, it doesn't motivate us. It doesn't provide the comfort and warmth that love or friendship do, nor can we learn from it the way we learn from pain or pleasure. All that regret can teach us is that we want to avoid it, because the emotional drain it can cause us is amplified by the fact that we cannot change the thing we are regretting - it's in the past. Until time ceases to be linear for us humans, that means that we are stuck regretting something that we can never change. That's an awfully unappealing prospect to most folks, but it's difficult to just flip a switch and decide to stop regretting something, at least it is for me. We use tired expressions like "Hindsight is 20/20" to make up for decisions which, in retrospect, may not have always been in our best interests or that of others. "It was the best I could do with the information I had at the time", we try telling ourselves. We conveniently forget that we are looking at our past selves through rose-colored glasses, and that we could indeed have maybe done things differently. We don't call our hindsight 20/20 except when we think we've made a mistake. It's never something we say about the good choices we've made in life.

Working for a private company is still relatively new to me. I've spent the better part of my adult life in non-profit, community organizing and sustainable development circles, often working on my own, learning to navigate the muddy waters of the NGO space to obtain funding for feel-good projects as means in themselves. Oftentimes, that meant flying around the world to speak at ritzy conferences telling folks about all the great work we're doing, and then listening to them talk about all the great work they were doing. Now, I'm not saying that we didn't do good work, or that we did it for the wrong reasons. In the midst of all this, I know that my work has had long-reaching benefits to many people, most of whom I will never meet, and some of whom aren't born yet. I don't regret any of the choices I made during those years. But it took me a long, long time - too long, perhaps - to understand that the motivations most people have are rather selfish, even when the work they're doing seems utterly selfless. And it took me even longer to accept that that's OK. Some of the wealthiest people I know are products of that non-profit world, which seems quite contradictory when you consider that the projects they worked so tirelessly on always had an important social and wealth equity component. But regardless of how they earned their wealth, the wheels they help set in motion go a long way into making the world a better place. The end result is net positive, and that's all I can really ask for.

In private industry, however, there's little of that hypocrisy. Companies exist to sell products, generate revenue and be better than their competitors, and to do so, they have to be efficient, lean, innovative and customer-focused. They have to build relationships and make things that people want. Terms like "reputation management" and "key performance indicators" are new to me as a non-profit guy, seeing as how the concept that I would ever make anything that did not return more than I invested was a non-starter. It's been about a year-and-a-half since I've been working for this company, and for another couple of years before that I was in government - federal government - which, surprisingly, did not turn out to be radically different than one big, huge, massive, company, albeit a worryingly dysfunctional one. Like the left-right split in politics, both government work and private industry have one thing in common - all the people there are working together towards a common goal, and we all want the same end result. Problem is, not everyone has the same idea of how to get there.

When I moved back to Montreal almost two years ago, I lived right by the Quartier des Spectacles. I was only supposed to be there temporarily as I was expected to head back to Saskatoon to continue on as public communications officer in the governement. I'd found a nice sublet right by the Guy-Favreau complex where I worked, and was able to walk to work in 15 minutes or so. In the mornings I'd walk Ryu over to Carré St-Louis where we'd inevitably run into other dogs. After playtime I'd bring him back home and head to work. Sometimes, we'd walk up St-Laurent where he'd be accosted by all the scantily-clad clubbing girls from Laval or the West Island who were on the Main to party. I didn't get accosted quite as much as he did. It was all a great arrangement, but soon the cute Taiwanese girl I'd subletted the apartment from would be returning from out East, so I had to find something else. I briefly considered asking her out, partly because she was adorable but also partly because I really liked that apartment. Not wanting to do things for the wrong reasons any more, I decided to look for something else, and ended up moving into a gorgeous Verdun apartment with a friend of mine.

It's around that time that I got introduced to boardgaming. I'd always been an avid video gamer, and I loved strategy games (realtime and turn-based), or anything where I had to compute outcomes, extrapolate results or pit strategies against one another. While I was away, my friends had discovered the world of boardgames, and upon my return, I got sucked in pretty seriously too. The thing about boardgaming is that it combines the fun, challenging, interesting mechanics of weighing your decisions like in a strategy video game, along with the not-sitting-alone-in-front-of-your-computer-screen-like-an-antisocial-hermit angle of being in the same room as your friends. I don't take it as seriously or as competitively as some of my friends do, but it's hard to imagine myself turning down an evening of gaming, drinking and hanging out with friends in favor of going to a bar or a movie or something. Like everything else I get into, I got into boardgaming hardcore, and I already have a sizeable collection of games. It's not a problem if you don't admit it, as they say.

Dogs don't experience regret or disappointment, at least we think they don't. Watch a dog or dogs playing and you'll witness the purest example of "living in the moment", as the concepts of past and future don't occur in a dog's psyche in the same way as in a human's. While Ryu loved the city, the crowds, the new people, scents, tastes and sounds - as did I - he was really, obviously happy when I decided on a change of pace and came out to the Eastern Townships. We had briefly lived in Lake Brome / Knowlton a few years ago, and as my black SAAB bolted down Highway 10, he knew where we heading back to - open fields where he could run and play and roll around and get kicked in the face by horses again. Trouble was, our first pad in Sherbrooke was an apartment in a "seedier" (relatively speaking, keep in mind) part of town. On the bright side, it came with a pet-loving roomate and two sociable cats that I was magically unallergic to. I stayed there for about 6 weeks or so, enjoying my time with my roommate Melanie who was kind enough to help me explore that part of Shebrooke, all 4 blocks of it.

I came across the house I'm currently living in the way I do most great things in my life - providence. The girl I had started to date - there always seems to be a girl involved, doesn't there? - lived here, and after we decided that maybe we were, um, "ill-suited to be lifelong romantic partners" due to "irreconcilable differencs", I managed to take over her lease as she was leaving to buy a house. It wasn't quite "Hey, let's break-up, but do you mind if I move in before July 1st?", but she wasn't overly impressed. In the end, though, things worked out for the best, and I've quickly grown to think of this tiny little waterfront house and huge swath of land as home. That's not a statement I make lightly, being a nomad by nature. This is one of the most relaxing, slow-paced places I've ever lived. Ryu has all the land he wants to run around and be a dog in. I don't need to worry about my loud motorcycle waking up the neighbors. And, most importantly, I can ride it to work over the hills, a sort of mini Tail Of the Dragon every morning. It doesn't hurt either that the company I work for makes the sorts of toys that you can just ride all over the place (water, snow, road, trail), I have lots of opportunities to let loose and just go out riding whenever I feel like it, on the road or elsewhere.

Speaking about motorcycles, there's an old saying that goes "You'll never see a motorcycle parked in front of a psychiatrist's office". I'd tend to agree. Everyone's got their own manner of self-medicating their psychological imbalances, and mine are riding motorcycles, playing with animals, photography, gaming, and writing. There's something inherently visceral about riding that non-riders will never understand. The openness, freedom and connection to the road are all overused clichés when it comes to describing the feeling of riding an open-air vehicle on the road, but they are still accurate. You're unhindered by a glass-and-metal cage, you're just out there. It's you vs. the laws of physics, every time. For most of us, it's not the danger, or the lifestyle, or the speed or anything like that. It just makes sense, on a beautiful day, that we should not be stuck inside a car, after being stuck inside a house and before being stuck inside an office. We need to be "out". A bike - along with a morning run - gives that to me. I could picture myself getting on just fine without most of the possessions I have today, but it's difficult for me to imagine being without a motorcycle to wind around the hills every now and then on a sunny day.

The one thing I do miss the most about Montreal is the food. Arguably the best food city in North America, I sometimes find myself daydreaming about that next upcoming weekend when I'll be heading back, ensuring to carefully planmy trip around the meals I'll be having. First, I get all the "eating at family and friends" plans sorted out, at which point I'm free to decide what restaurants I need to get my fill of again before the weekend is over all too quickly, and I'm heading back to the Eastern Townships. I'm not meaning to say that the food is not good here, mind you - just that the choice of what you can get is as limited as you'd expect from a small town with less diverse population than a city of four million souls from different parts of the globe. Maybe I'll treat myself to Au Pied de Cochon or Joe Beef if I'm feeling deserving of reward, or maybe I'll stick with the comfort food that brings back warm memories, like Marathon or Tandoori. Either way, when it comes to food, I definitely don't want to have any regrets. I hope all the alternate versions of me feel the same way.