Sunday, October 21, 2012


Even the airport runways look beautiful right now, here in Montreal, as the late afternoon sun gilds them against a backdrop of dark clouds, and a fat solid-looking vibrant rainbow stands anchored in the richly green grass on the far side of the tarmac.  Mother Nature sure can surprise us, especially in places where she feels quite absent. Suddenly there it is - remarkable light, or startling thunder or ethereal mist - and we’re reminded that we are not in an entirely manufactured landscape and that beauty is always possible.

Sometimes we need reminding, so that we have eyes to see it. Other times we’re hit over the head with it, as I was a few minutes ago with that incredible rainbow pillar.

I’ve been in Montreal for two days now, courtesy Random Hosue Canada, on book tour. I’ve spoked to radio hosts, mostly in studio, and most of them were well prepared and interesting to talk to. I’ve done a TV interview too, with an impeccably prepared interviewer. And I’ve made some recipes from the Burma book and had lovely animated long conversations with print media people of various kinds. Today I was at Appetite for Books, a cookbook store in Westmount, talking about BURMA, answering questions, and signing books.  

Now as I get on the plane, I am trying to look forward, and get my head clear, for tomorrow I am scheduled to speak at the International Festival of Authors, a great honour.  I am on with two writers, all of us writing about travel but in very different ways. A clear head is needed between now and then, for I still haven’t decied what I will read tomorrow. My friend Robin wrote to tell me which story she thought I should include. And others have come up as candidates. But it’s still an open questions... and perhaps only when I get there tomorrow will I finally decide.

It feels like a rather more serious version of that restaurant situation, when I’m eating with a friend or more and can’t bring myself to decide what to order. When that happens I ask to go last ordering. Then I grab a decision out of the air at the last minute. What is this kind of indecisiveness? And what makes a decision crystallise? I’m not talking about life decisions here, so much as relatively simple either-or decisions.

I find the food-order-decision-in-a-restaurant situation the easiest to explore, probably because of it’s familiarity, but also I suppose because it is so essentially trivial or at least without deep or difficult consequences. So why not pick arbitrarily? Why wait for inspiration or decisiveness to strike when it surely would be just as easy to opt for one of the menu choices arbitrarily?

I think it’s because a decision is a chance to exercise power, in a small way. We hate to waste those moments, for we don’t always have that pleasureable sense that it’s up to us, that we are in charge; when we have that decision-point feeling there’s a surge of energy, a sense that we have an opportunity to get it right, and that if and when we do we’ll feel extra satisfaction.  

Once I’ve opted for my food order, I settle calmly, and then when it comes I look again, at the options, the dishes my companions ordered, and I can’t stop myself assessing whether I optimised, whether I am delighted by the result of my choice.

Is this all about intuition? Is it really about trying to match our inner needs? 

Perhaps each decision point is a place for small anxiety, as we have the chance to make the perfect choice but also the possibility that our choice will be merely OK and not ideal. 

I’ve had several times of high stress when I’ve been indecisive about what to wear, I mean seriously indecisive, so that I found the process of getting dressed very stressful. I guess it was anxiety. And that small decision, that one-day commitment, was the closest easiest thing for the anxiety to attach to.

But now, when I think about a food order in a restaurant, am I talking about the same kind of thing? Or is it that anticipation of unformed or inchoate or multi-possibility pleasure is more satisfying than anticipation of a defined or limited one? Is it just that I want to prolong the sense of possibility, the richness of choice? 

All right, so I don’t have an answer. But does this discussion help at all with understanding why I haven’t yet been able to decide what story or text I will read at the International festival of Authors tomorrow?

Well I did decide in the end which stories to read, but only a few minutes before it was time to go out and speak and read. Suddenly I felt clear and was able to eliminate a number of my “possibles”. I didn;t ask Rachel Joyce or Arno Kopecki, the two wonderful authors who read in the travel section with me, if they had experienced the same difficulty deciding. That’s a question you can ask, the next time you go to a reading...

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