When I moved to Calgary in 1993, I made a bizarre and ill-advised promise to say yes to anything that came my way. That, I reasoned, would show me the path to adventure and enlightenment.
You do not find adventure and enlightenment in Calgary. You will find a population split between the boring and the desperate, between those who are steadily and happily climbing the wealth ladder and those at the bottom, crippled or crazy, who roll around and curse the ladder and the receding Timberland soles above. You may find some good drugs, but for that kind of thing you need a fine nose for situations where a 'no' will save you a lot of pain.
Saying Yes to everything will also lead you into the dank netherworld of network marketing.
I worked at a watch repair at the time. After work I would go to my favourite coffee shop (where Garnet worked) and sit at the bench to read, smoke, drink, write, smoke etcetera. One of the subdirectives of the Yes imperative was: always take someone up on a conversation. I believed at the time that every soul had something worthwhile to share. Calgary showed me otherwise.
Usually the people who sat next to me on the bench were fuzzed-out alcoholics or street people, but on one afternoon a slim man with a short frizz of blond hair and a navy suit took a seat on the bench a couple of chairs down to me.
Hi there, he said. He was one of those people that seemed stretched out: four long limbs and a long neck ball-and-socketed into a long smooth torso. Even the features of his face seemed stretched out, with a slightly receding chin. The effect altogether was charming - you couldn't imagine such a gangly, boyish man being any kind of imposition.
Hi, I responded.
We talked for the next half-hour. I have no idea what we chatted about, but I had the definite feeling that he agreed with me on matters great and trivial. We liked the same books and music, had travelled to the same places, and so forth. When I packed my book and cigarettes up to go, he unfolded an arm and held out his hand for a good hearty shake. I'm Eric Saunders,* he said.
Aidan ______,** I responded.
The next evening my phone rang. It was Eric.
Hey Aidan, he said, I hope you don't mind I looked you up in the phone book. I just had a special feeling about you. There's an opportunity for you to make a lot of money while having a great time, and I want to share it with you. Let's have a cup of coffee and I'll tell you all about it.
Here is the caveat on the Yes Imperative: Say Yes until it costs you more than a cup of coffee.
Yes, I said.
When I got there he had set himself up at a small table in the corner partially obscured by a hanging burlap bag that was supposed to smell of coffee beans but had this weird goaty odour. Eric got to work, drawing sketches, pulling out diagrams, telling me again about the wonderful opportunities that awaited me at WWDB.
WWDB stands for WorldWide DreamBuilders, Eric said. He pointed to a pen sketch of a globe, crowned by the corporate tetragrammaton, on a piece of scrap paper.
But what do you do? And what am I supposed to do?
Once more Eric started to diagram, but I'd sat through this kind of flow-charted come-on before in university.
This is network marketing, right?
Eric looked up from a diagram that, hand to god, described the shape of a pyramid.
Have I told you about the levels you can attain?
A few days later I was sitting in the back of Eric's Honda Civic on the way to a WWDB orientation session, chatting with Eric's wife, who was a partner in World Wide Dream Builders. We were talking politics. Eric and Eric's wife agreed with each other that the NDP were a well-meaning group, but under their left-wing social safety net, it took away your freedom to fail.
Eric got a bit excited by this phrase. He rotated his long head around to repeat himself. You need the freedom to fail, Aidan.
I need the freedom to jump out of a moving car, I thought.
We drove to a building that turned out to be a church hall. The meeting was held in the basement. A smell of baking and spoiled milk clung to the upholstered chairs. The crowd was a mix of young suburban couples, slightly scruffy guys that looked like they'd been given five bucks to attend, and a few like me - young men with rumpled shirts and part-time jobs.
You are going to love the speaker, Eric told me. He's a blast. He's Diamond.***
The Diamond speaker turned out to be a florid-faced man with a silvery razorback mullet and a habit of keeping one hand in his pocket to make his gestures seem more emphatic. I don't quite know how this trick works, but whenever he took his left hand out, you knew that whatever he was about to say - well, it was going to be good.
And it was. He told us all how we could rise up the ranks, make Emerald status, make Diamond status, make hundreds of thousands of dollars. You just had to want it badly enough. You just needed to believe in your own power to make your dreams come true. People clapped at the end.
Eric and his wife dropped me off. They gave me a big cardboard box. Those are some samples of our products, Eric said. They'll give you an idea of what we sell.
I opened the box in my apartment. It was full of Amway products.
I discovered a caveat to the Yes Imperative: Don't sell Amway, whatever else you do. Sell your ass by the hostel if necessary, but don't sell Amway products, and don't sell people on the idea of selling Amway.
I called up Eric the week after and told him that I was giving myself the freedom to fail, and could he come by and pick up his box?
A few months later I saw Eric in the coffee shop at the table by the goaty smelling burlap bag, drawing a rhomboid on a piece of paper and telling some guy with a gigantic wool sweater and woolly blond dreads that he had the power to fulfill his dreams. I watched, just to see if the dreadlocked guy got his hair caught on the bag.
No such luck.
*Clever bastard spent half an hour imitating me and then gave me his full name in the hope that I would unconsciously fall in line and give out my last name.
**And I fell for it.
***Like most of these companies, World Wide relies on a ranking system based on how many people you've pulled in along after you. Like all network marketing schemes, you make much better money by getting people to sell your product than by selling it yourself. Diamond and up members preside over an empire of suckers.