Poul Mark

Wanted dead or alive, but mostly dead!

This week, I met with Maddie, my newly appointed spiritual advisor. If I am sounding cavalier about this, it is unintended, in fact anything but that! I am astonished that she would actually sign up for the job, given the fact that she has a fair amount of previous unrelated experience with me. Our meetings are not complicated. Essentially I talk, she listens, asks a few timely questions, I fight back tears and emotions as I recall memories. It sounds simple, but in the midst of all of it, I know something profound is at work within me, and I have no words to express my deep gratitude towards this wise woman.

As I recounted much of my story this week (abridged version) one thing became clear to me. I am not a big fan of this guy.


The picture is obviously a grad pic of me in 1987. What do they say, it was the best of times it was the worst of times!

I won’t bore you with the gory details, but nonetheless, my last year of high school was anything but a walk in the park. Graduating with a small handful of people most of whom you have spent your entire life with up to that point. That last year was filled with much upheaval. It culminated a journey spanning twelve years, where for the most part, I was ridiculed for those ears, those goggles and that “howdy doody” hair (just think, now I’d be called a Ginger).

What I am beginning to see is that a tendency of mine began that year. I established a pattern of running and hiding. I would always hide in plain site, but learned, or maybe more accurately, taught myself to adapt, to blend in, to become the person I thought the people around me wanted me to be. And perhaps most importantly, at least at this juncture in my life, I made an effort, albeit a subconscious one, to run from this tormented fellow. Shortly after the photo above was taken, I escaped to Denmark. There, I largely reinvented myself, dumping the cowboy persona, and adopting that of a pipe smoking, clog wearing, bearded hippy.

I will write more on that time later, for I have much to apologize for as a result of that journey, but that is not for today.

Thirty years later, I am find myself confronted with this guy. His awkwardness, his fears, his pain. I am being confronted with his many faults, his many failures, and in the midst of all of that, some amazing relationships too. Even as I write this post, I am confronted with the muted (the best I can do at this point) emotions from that time. While looking for that photo, I found many others, with many people who I rarely think of anymore. Needless to say, it wasn’t a cherry box to rummage through tonight. But it is my box, and it is my history. It is I am sure, like many, a very flawed history. There is laughter to be sure, but there is much loneliness, much confusion, much pain. I think it is probably why I embarked on my “adventure” abroad, and never looked back. I was running from all of that, and also running from the guy pictured above.

Maddie tells me that I need to figure out how to love that guy. I haven’t figured that out yet. Actually I am still (this week in fact) talking about killing that guy off for good. Maybe this isn’t all that odd, I actually don’t know how much of this is a common experience. What I do know is that a pattern began back then, where I developed my chameleon superpower, fuelled by shame, and insecurity. And now, thirty years later, I am realizing that far from discovering a superpower, I built for myself a super prison, walling in my emotions, and effectively (inadvertently) keeping out any beneficial emotions in the process.

So now I have begun to dismantle the immense dam I have spent a lifetime building, brick by brick, slowly, out of fear that dismantling it too fast will result in a full breach; the resulting spill creating chaos and destruction on the dry land downstream. With all of that said, standing on the wall above that dry valley, I think I can make out an old riverbed, longing to have water flowing through it once again. And maybe, just maybe, I can make out the guy above standing down there, smiling, waving, welcoming me home?

On Shame and Vulnerability

I listened to Brené Brown's book Daring Greatly over the past couple of days, I am now onto her book Rising Strong. My former psychologist suggested that I read Daring Greatly two years ago, which I brushed off at the time. Truthfully, had I listened to Julie back then, I might have more of a headstart on the personal work that needs doing now (I am not stubborn at all!). For those of you who aren't familiar with Brené's work, a great introduction to her research on shame and vulnerability can be found in her wildly successful TED talk. I like Brenê, and while I have never met her, I feel like I know her in part, because of how she communicates. I guess one of the benefits of listening to a book, vs reading a book, is that you get to hear the author read their work, which I think imbues it with more gravitas. I like the fact that she swears, she is real, she tells it like it is, and probably most importantly, she makes me squirm.

You might think it odd that I like that she makes me squirm, but in truth, I have always respected those who speak with clarity, who challenge me, who force me to look at myself. I don't suffer fools or small talk very well. I am someone who lives a lot in my own head, and I feels deeply, passionately most people say, but I rarely have a clue as to what I am feeling or how to name or process those emotions. I have worn Teflon most of my life, and for a long time, even was proud of that; I have been labelled a shit disturber, and a bull in a china shop and these are the kind descriptions.

What I am learning from Brown is that shame is a powerful thing, which impacts us early on, and has long-lasting impacts on how we live out our lives. As I have listened to Brené talk for well over twelve hours now, I am slowly realizing how many significant shaming events I endured as a young person. I was mercilessly ridiculed for having red hair (Howdy Doody red hair long before ginger was in style). I wore glasses starting in grade one, had big ears, and was completely awkward. I was punished by my grade one teacher for getting my work done too fast, was thrown down the stairs by bigger kids in grade two, picked up by my ears (literally) by my teacher in grade three for being a smart ass, and the list goes on. This bullying and shaming continued throughout my time in school, even until grade twelve where I was still mocked for my hair colour and appearance. When I look back on my grade twelve grad photo, even I am a bit shocked at how much I look like a complete cowboy nerd. I was so shy, so unsure of myself, so utterly lost. I was selected to travel to Ottawa in grade twelve as a participant in the Forum for Young Canadians. It was quite the honour, only four hundred kids from the entire country were selected, and there were thousands of applicants. I was so excited, and when I got there, that awkward, acneid, weird cowboy nerd was almost univerally rejected by the other attendees in my cohort. Frankly, I hated high school, and couldn't wait to get out of the small community that I grew up in. For as long as I could remember I felt like an outsider.

It wasn't until I spent a year in Denmark after graduating that I started to grow a little self- confidence. The year I spent in Europe after high school was cathartic. I got a chance for a new start, got a chance to be part of a new culture, a completely differnet social mileau. I left for Denmark an awkward cowboy, and came home one year later as abearded, pipe smoking, clog wearing european intellectual (my parents almost didn't recognize me when I came through the airport).

Yet upon entering university later that year, I remember that same lost feeling flooding back, as I  wandered through long hallways at the U of L in what seemed like an endless sea of people who wanted nothing to do with me. But it was in university that I decided (a forceful act of my will) that I was no longer going to be someone who lived on the peripherie, and I forced myself to move out of my protective shell and into what Brown calls the arena. I have made it my goal to live in that arena ever since.

Brené Brown's work leans heavily on a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt in a speech that he gave where he made this statement - 

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I am someone who is pretty risk tolerant (perhaps an understatement) and I have generally thought of myself as someone who has life pretty well put together. Confidence has never been in short supply in my life, or at least that is the mask that I put on most days, the version of myself that most who know me get to see. I think, in retrospect, that my resolve to live in that arean (although I wouldn't have described it as such until recently) forced me to put myself in harms way. In univeristy I got myself elected as the President of the Students Union. In grad school, I got into a pissing match with my supervisor and in protest wrote the LSAT and applied to law school. Upon being accepted, I quit my MA program (despite my wife Michelle's protest) moved to Edmonton and started law school. While I enjoyed much of law school, I quickly discovered that law wasn't what I had envisioned. My articling year was another year of battling an extreme fear and shame culture, topped with a little corruption. 

Actually, looking back, I now see how even the training we receive in law school and in the practice of law, solidifies and galvinizes unhealthy communication practices, competitiveness, us vs them, argue to the death, bully, the list goes on.... and I now see how as part of this journey I am now on, I need to unlearn much of what I acquired during my legal training. 

While I have lived in the arena, for many years, and most recently in the last twelve years, starting and growing my own business, I am beginning to realize that I have done so, mostly with little or no awareness of my own emotional wellbeing throughout. I have had little awareness of how I have used shame, avoidance, and many other unhealthy mechanisms to get through it all. In short, I am beginning to see that despite all of my accomplishments, I have not been living in a very wholehearted manner. It is namely this deficit that I hope to figure out along the way.

Whether you want to read about my journey into wholeheartedness and vulnerabilty, and away from the crippling effects of shame is up to you. I would like to say that I don't care if anyone reads this (me wearing Teflon) but that is simply not true. But I am not writing this so that it will be read widely. But rather, I am writing this, because just like I think and process things verbally, on the fly (I argue with myself and others a lot), I also know that I process things more effectively when I write. Perhaps it is the creative process that Brown talks about, which has a healing effect, I am not completely sure? But what I am sure of is that when I put my thoughts down (on virtual paper) and then publish them, I have to own them, which makes them more real, more powerful; and thus, I will continue to write and publish my thoughts regardless of whether I have an audience in the process. Because at the end of the day, what I am after is transformation, a move towards vulnerability, leaning into the hard truths, so that I can be a better dad, a better husband, a better boss, a better friend, a better member of the human race.

Twenty-Six Years!

Twenty-six years ago today, in hot and dry Lethbridge Alberta, I married a young Michelle Herbig. The year (for those of you not close to a calculator) was 1992 and we were studying at the U of L. I was working part-time as the Assistant Manager of the Student Union's Pub, and Michelle was doing her usual thing of being an "A" student (she always did very well academically). We were young, idealistic, hopeful and in love. I think that we were probably not typical for our tender age, as we both had lived a bit already (I had spent a year in Denmark) and Michelle had travelled internationally as well. While we weren't naive and had plans for continuing our academic careers, we definitely lacked the wisdom that age offers up.

Fast forward to present day, and it all seems like a blur. I have a hard time comprehending where the last 9,490 days went?! (although I definitely remember the event that occurred 5,320 days ago, and am thankful every day for the joy that he brings into our lives). One thing that has changed since that life-changing day, is that we are no longer lacking in the supply of life earned wisdom. 

It is interesting to look back on our life together and see what might have been if we had ended up at the University of Victoria, we would likely be professors. If we hadn't ended up at the University of Calgary, Michelle would likely have less emotional scars and I would never have left in disgust for the Law program at the U of A. But then there would be no Transcend Coffee, and Michelle wouldn't have had the opportunity to affect change within the realm of Children's Services in Alberta.

With that said, upon reflection, today is a significant day. We didn't really celebrate or mark our 25th last year, as Michelle's health simply didn't accommodate that. One year later, things haven't really changed that much. OK, that is actually a misrepresentation. In the past year, we have bought two houses, renovated one, sold another, and moved into a new neighbourhood. But in relation to Michelle's health, things haven't changed, and as a family, we continue to struggle and endure as best as we can, trying to live in community and amongst family and friends despite the challenges. I think this is the thing that is most present in my mind today. My wife despite everything that has been thrown her way continues to endure, and actually, more than endure she stands defiantly against her ailments on behalf of her family. I know she doesn't feel like she is winning, but like in war, sometimes all you can do is hold the line, which is in and of itself a massive accomplishment. 

So on this day when we celebrate twenty-six years of life's journey together, I could list the multitude of attributes that my wife possesses, and list her many achievements, not the least of which is surviving the chaos that I am prone to create. Instead, I want to celebrate her toughness, her ability to endure agonizing and crippling pain and anxiety, her doggedness to continue to produce high-quality work product despite chronic migraines and clinical anxiety. In short, I want to tell the world (OK, LOL, tell the 25 people who will actually read this) how proud that I am of her, and how much I respect her for the way she has lived her life, especially these past few years! Happy Anniversary Babe!

Old dog - new tricks

You would think that I of all people would know better? I have been involved in the coffee industry for over twelve years, and I was reminded yesterday of how easy it is to simply accept poor quality coffee.

I am not talking about poor quality in terms of the bean, as Transcend Coffee, under the direction of Josh Hockin, does an amazing job of sourcing quality coffee. The poor quality I am referring to is the shoddy execution of brewing coffee by yours truly at home. 

While I measure my beans every day (60 grams per 1 litre of water) and brew with water filtered by and Everpur system, I was destroying my daily cuppa Joe via my crappy grinder. I have been using the same Baratza Virtuoso grinder for the past six years and it was doing a terrible job at grinding coffee. Why should this matter so much, you ask? Well I have recounted countless times to many people at our coffee tastings during the past decade the importance of a good grinder at home. And like the shoemaker with holes in his own shoes, I have been guilty of ignoring the negative impact my old grinder was having on the quality of my home brewed coffee. 

This came to light recently as I have been dissatisfied with my coffee experience at home, and then randomly get to drink the same coffee at the cafe, flipping the switch in my brain as to what my problem was. This morning I employed a new grinder, and the results were dramatic! The coffee had life, vibrancy and complexity. The flavours were back. 

So you can teach old dogs new tricks, or at least get them back on track. If you are drinking bad coffee at home and want to learn more about how that could change, reach out, or check out one of the home brewing courses at Transcend Coffee. I should probably do some upgrading myself come to think of it, I have been coasting for too long on skills acquired many moons ago.

Friendship and fires

I am quickly approaching the mid-century mark in my life. I have never been someone who has given much thought to age, and have had good friends who are a lot older or younger than I am. With that admission, my looming 50th birthday definitely has me looking to a horizon which appears to be more downhill than up!

With almost fifty years behind me, I am keenly aware of the fragility of friendship, and the gift that enduring relationships truly are. And with over 18,000 days to reflect on, I am reminded of a quote of CS Lewis who says something along the lines - is their any pleasure on earth as great as a group of friends by a fire? 

Having spent the evening with good (no dear and precious) friends by a fire, I can do nothing but agree with Clive. Having recently moved, to an amazing new (to us) home in a great neighbourhood, one of the things I am most thankful for is that this new home is within walking distance of dear friends. I have always wanted to live in proximity to good friends, and after almost half a century, this is now a reality. Hopefully I do not become a burden or a bother, but I am excited for what this next chapter in our lives has to offer as my dream of neighbourly living comes into focus. As someone who has spent most of their life trying to foster community, I am keenly aware of how difficult this is to do. In a world that is rife with screens and fleeting messages I am thankful for summer nights, smokey fires, glasses of wine, sincere conversations, and dear friends.

CBC Summer Coffee Column

This summer I have the privilege of being a columnist on the CBC Edmonton AM morning show. In addition of being sleep deprived out of fear of not being downtown on time, I am afforded the opportunity to talk with Mark Connolly about some timely topics facing the coffee industry. 

You can listen to the column here

This morning we chatted about the fact that the commodity price of coffee has essentially not changed in the last thirty years. If you look at the New York Stock Exchange price for coffee on July 27, 1999 (this was as far back as I could online), coffee was trading at $0.97 per pound. The price for coffee on the NYSE today is currently at $1.10 as I write this post. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is something shockingly wrong with this picture. How is it possible that the price of green coffee has only appreciated by thirteen cents when the cost of everything else has gone up significantly more - for example, the price of gas in Edmonton was $.51 per litre in 1999 and today is $1.25 per litre. Not only has the price of green coffee not kept pace with general inflation rates, the amount of money flowing back to the vast majority of coffee producers has not changed significantly. A troubling reality is that most coffee farmers globally do not get paid enough at farm gate to cover their cost of production. 

There is much debate around what the true cost of production is for coffee producers, and given the global nature of the industry, and the changing economics from one country to another, this is fair. With that said, it is estimated that an average cost of production is roughly US$2 per pound. The c market price referenced above is not referring to high quality coffee, and most companies do pay price differentials for better quality coffee. However, what is clear is that despite price differentials, fair-trade, and countless other certification programs, a vast majority of coffee growers around the world live in perpetual poverty.

This reality has perpetuated during my entire tenure within this industry. What can we do about it? What can be done? As a consumer, you can begin to ask questions of your favourite coffee provider, you can start to inform yourself about the issues facing the coffee industry globally.

Ask your coffee provider if they know who grows their coffee, how much the farmer gets paid, what percentage of the price they pay goes back to the farmer. You could ask if they know what the FOB (Free on Board) price is for their coffee. If your favourite coffee purveyor can't answer these questions, you may want to start shopping around for one that can. Transparency in the coffee industry is really the best mechanism to ensure that coffee producers start to receive their fair share of the money derived from this global industry.

For more information the World Coffee Research site is a great start.

A link to the WCR Annual Report is located here for your easy access.