Small Talk

 “So what is it that you do?”

I hate that question. Not because I find it offensive and intrusive. It’s just that, unless the person who asked is a paddler, he won’t understand the answer.

Most people consider the question to be about work—a separate question from what you do for fun. Since paddling has been both my work and play for the last decade, my answer throws people off.

I used to answer truthfully, trying to capture the essence of what we do and why we do it. Explaining what we do isn’t that difficult. Explaining why we do it—not so easy.

The more I try to explain that we paddle for the feeling of focus we get when being tossed around by powerful currents, the sensation of flying when our boats plane out on glassy waves or the blissful state of being when we glide across the mirrored surface of a lake on a misty morning, the more perplexed they become.

It’s around this point that the person regrets asking the question in the first place. Head cocked to one side, staring at you with a squinty gaze and uncomfortable silence are all common signs the person wishes they had chosen instead to talk about the weather, Hollywood celebs or the rising price of gas.

What vexes me the most is that, if I had answered with golf, hock­ey, knitting, soccer, juggling, photography, football, running, biking, playing guitar or dog training—they’d nod and smile.

How is it that smacking a dimpled ball into a tiny cup a few hun­dred yards away makes sense and paddling doesn’t? Trying to keep a hunk of pigskin off the ground while a dozen giants attempt to make you a greasy spot on the grass seems reasonable but getting up to watch the sunrise from my boat is too crazy?

I’ve decided over the years that paddling isn’t just something that can be justly described to the unknowing. It has to be experienced. That’s why I developed a system for dealing with the, So-what-is-it-you-do? question. It’s simple. When someone whose company I enjoy asks, I offer to show them. It’s the best—and maybe only—was for them to truly understand why we do what we do.

For the benefit of all the others, I answer, “I’m a doctor.” My raft guide bullshitting skills allow me to fake it through most situations. Unless, of course, you’re a doctor or familiar with my system.

Dan Caldwell plays doctor on the banks of the Ottawa River. 

This editorial originally appeared in the 2013 Paddling Buyer’s Guide. Download our free iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch App or Android App or read it on your desktop here. 




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