The Life of a Marshmallow

It was on a drive from Cabo San Lucas to Todos Santos that we made the decision.  We had been deliberating for a month, weighing the pros and cons, imagining every possibility and implication.  Our collective subconscious had been mulling over the issues in the background, suddenly presenting dramatic scenarios to our conscious minds at inopportune times.  But on this drive the Sonoran Desert surrounded us.  Saguaro cacti with bent arms beckoned us to delve a deeper.  The mountains of the Sierra de la Laguna with their verdant hillsides and pure blue backdrop whispered, stay…stay .

Sierra de la Laguna - a good reason to stay another year in Mexico
Sierra de la Laguna Mountain Range – a good reason to stay another year in Mexico

The decision was not an easy one.  Fiona’s mother was going to join us on the Pacific Crossing in April and had taken time off work and made other preparations especially for this adventure.  Staying in Mexico also means another year away from the comforts of home and friends and family.  Every time we hear an event notification on our phone there is a very real possibility that another baby has been born, and we are missing it.  When we do return, we are excited about our future plans of building a house, or pioneering in the remoteness of Northern British Columbia.  We’d like to start our own family.  We’re running out of money.  And there is the passive social pressure to get back to a normal looking way of life; children, mortgage, sushi restaurants, Saturday morning yoga, jobs…

There is a famous psychological study called the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.  It was conducted in the 1970s and was based around a simple task.  A child was placed in a room with a researcher, a marshmallow and a large clock.  The researchers offered the child the marshmallow and said that he/she could eat the marshmallow now, or wait an additional 15 minutes and receive a second marshmallow.  The researcher then placed the marshmallow in the middle of the table and left the room.  The real study occurred over the next three decades in which the researchers followed the lives of the participants and correlated events in their lives to the decision they made regarding the marshmallow.

Marshmallow experiment
The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

Children who eviscerated the first marshmallow within seconds of the researcher leaving the room didn’t fare as well in the rest of their lives as the children who waited for the second marshmallow.  Those who waited for the second marshmallow reported increased success throughout their lives, including; higher SAT scores, education levels, lower body mass indices, longer lasting relationships and higher income levels.  There was another group of kids who licked the first marshmallow, took little imperceptible chunks of it or put it in their mouths and held if for the entire 15 minutes until the researcher returned.  They overwhelmingly became lawyers.

While we obviously didn’t participate in the study, we can look back to what we think our characters were as children and make a guess as to how we would have responded.  Fiona and I, without hesitation, both think we would have waited for the second marshmallow.  Not because we wanted two marshmallows, I’ve never had much of a taste for marshmallows, but because we would have thought that was what we were supposed to do.

So we decided to stay another year in Mexico.  The pressure, to which we were so youthfully subject, is certainly pushing for us to not stay.  Perhaps it is for this reason that it feels like we’ve taken the first marshmallow; like we are immediately gratifying the fun we are having in Mexico, that perhaps we are blinded by what is directly in front of us to the exclusion of future and greater pleasures.    Or maybe, it’s the second marshmallow; that rushing through this trip to get to the other exciting possibilities in our future is the immediate gratification.

Or maybe the marshmallow study is stupid.  Maybe one part of the problem is that we think the rest of our lives are determined by the one decision that we make right now.  And the other part of the problem is that we think the totality of life can be measured by a few key metrics; that happiness exists somewhere between how much money you make, how swank your neighbourhood is, and your ability to stay in an unfulfilling relationship.  The upshot of the marshmallow fallacy is that happiness is a destination one aspires to and that each decision along the way will determine whether you get there or not.  Both are over-simplifying the complexity of the human mind and the world in which we live.  It’s like spuriously correlating the hem lines of dresses to the height of telephone poles in Australia and then deciding based on this to move to Melbourne.

Telephone poles in Australia
Telephone poles in Australia

It is difficult at times to distinguish between what we want and what we think the rest of the world wants.  An important development is determining our own metrics of success.

For me, the metrics of a successful life are:

  • Do I have a goat?
  • How often do I know what day it is?
  • How clean is the kitchen?
  • Am I behaving in a kind and sympathetic manner?

The metrics above are symbolic of a lifestyle that I know I enjoy.  To have a goat means that we have land on which a goat can live, that we are in a stable enough situation to look after a goat and that we have other animals besides, like a dog and a couple of ducks.  I also love goats, I think they are fascinating and intelligent creatures and I harmonize with their inclination to climb the nearest high-point of land.  Not knowing what day it is means that we have somewhat removed ourselves from a view of the world governed by an economic system that prizes the accumulation of wealth; it is symbolic of stepping outside of, what some might term, ‘the rat race.’  A clean kitchen means we have time and space to enjoy our food and its aftermath.  And for me, kindness is the highest virtue.  If I am feeling kind, then I know that my brain is not crowded with the worries and anxieties that a less fulfilling life usually produces.

Joshua Slocum, the first person to sail solo around the world, had a goat for part of his voyage.  It was given to him by a friend, in part for companionship and there was some thought he could use its milk.  The goat proceeded to eat all his rope, which was made of Sisal, and his charts for the South China Sea, to which they were headed.  It was a real concern that the goat’s appetite would eventually lead to the sinking of his ship ‘The Spray,’ and so Slocum put it out when they reached the next landfall.  So goats and boats don’t apparently mix.  So we can’t have a goat.

Joshua Slocum
Joshua Slocum

Yesterday, Fiona and I debated for 10 minutes what day it was.  We had to go back in our memory almost a week until we got to a day that we definitely knew to be a Thursday then work forward from there, recounting events and allocating them to specific days, until we arrived at the conclusion that it was Tuesday.  It was actually Wednesday.  The kitchen is spotless.  We have no enemies.  Three out of four.

But more than anything, metrics aside, there is a feeling of calmness.  We can enjoy the present moment without the sense of anticipation hanging over our heads of what we should be doing next.  It is amazing how we seek escape from the stresses of our lives only to find that we bring them with us.  We travel with our baggage, both literally and figuratively.  And it takes time to divest oneself of the mode of behavior to which we have become so accustomed, the mode that has been determined for us by life metrics that might not apply.

So staying in Mexico another year means a lot more than simply gallivanting about for another 12 months.  It means exercising our independence and our ability to craft a life for ourselves that we enjoy on our own terms.  It means picking up the first marshmallow and making ghost-gum, because that is what marshmallows are really good for.


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  1. Matt Ireland
    February 25, 2016

    Loved this one. Lots to ponder each and everyday.


  2. March 11, 2016

    Wow…very evocative writing and absolutely on point for how we’re feeling. The money hasn’t run out yet but the Med is expensive. That said, we are not as close to living in the moment as you given that we’re still in a marina and the days of the week are well know…also our kitchen is a mess. Miss seeing you guys – hope our paths cross at sea eventually…

  3. Ginger Souders-Mason & Steve Mason
    April 28, 2016

    It was exciting to see your article in “Good Old Boat.” What was more exciting was to know the two of you had successfully gone so far in your journey. After our days in Boat Harbor, BC weathering the storms we were concerned about the two of you. Steve was in Puerto Vallarta and left March 19th on board “Seaward” (a youth sailing training ship in San Francisco Bay during the summer) to bring her back to SF.. We leave SF May 10th to return to Sea Jay in Canada for a summer of sailing. We wish you both safe journey..

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