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The following is an excerpt from the book The Why Café: A Story
by John P. Strelecky
Published by
Da Capo Press; April 2006;$12.95US/$16.95CAN; 0-7382-1063-3
Copyright © 2003, 2006 John P. Strelecky


Sometimes when you least expect it, and perhaps most need it, you find yourself in a new place, with new people, and you learn new things. That happened to me one night on a dark, lonely stretch of road. In retrospect, my situation at that moment was symbolic of my life at that time. Just as I was lost on the road, I was lost in life as well, unsure of exactly where I was going or why I was moving in that direction.

I had taken a week off from my job. My goal was to get away from everything associated with work. It wasn't that my job was terrible. Sure, it had its frustrating aspects, but more than anything else was the fact that most days I found myself wondering if there wasn't supposed to be more to life than spending ten to twelve hours per day in a cubicle, working toward a promotion that would probably mean spending twelve to fourteen hours per day working in an office.

During high school I had been preparing for college; in college I prepared for the work world; and since then I had spent my time working my way up in the company where I was employed. Now I was questioning whether the people who helped direct me along those paths were simply repeating to me what someone had repeated to them in their lives.

It wasn't bad advice really, but it wasn't particularly fulfilling advice, either. I felt like I was busy trading my life for money, and it didn't seem like such a good trade. That befuddled state of mind is where I was mentally when I found "The Why Café."

When I've related this story to others, they've used terms like "mystical" and "Twilight Zone-ish." The latter is a reference to an old television program where people would show up in places that at first glance seemed normal, but didn't always end up that way. Sometimes, just for an instant, I catch myself wondering if my experience was real. When that happens, I go into my desk drawer at home and read the inscription on the menu Casey gave me. It reminds me of just how real everything was. I have never tried to retrace my steps and find the café again. Some small part of me likes to believe no matter how real the evening was, even if I could go back to the exact spot where I originally found the café, it wouldn't be there -- that the only reason I found it was because at that moment, on that night, I needed to find it, and for that reason alone it existed.

Maybe someday I will try to go back. Or maybe some night I'll just find myself in front of it again. Then I can go inside and tell Casey, Mike, and Anne, if she is there, how that night in the café changed my life. How the questions they exposed me to have resulted in thoughts and discoveries beyond anything I had imagined before then.

Who knows, perhaps on that night I'll spend the evening talking to someone else who also got lost and wandered into "The Why Café." Or maybe I'll just write a book about my experience, and let that be part of my contribution to what the cafe is all about.


Chapter 10

Casey's question had my mind racing. Does doing what most people are doing help me fulfill my Purpose For Existing? Before I could answer, she spoke again.

"Have you ever seen a green sea turtle, John?"

"A sea turtle?"

"Correct," Casey said, "a sea turtle. In particular, a big green sea turtle, with green splotches on its flippers and head."

"I suppose I've seen pictures of one," I said. "Why?"

"As strange as it may sound," Casey began, "I learned one of my most important life lessons about choosing what things to do each day from a big green sea turtle."

"What did he tell you?" I asked, not at all successful in suppressing my smile.

"Funny," she answered, and smiled back. "He didn't specifically 'tell' me anything, but he taught me a great deal just the same. I was snorkeling off the coast of Hawaii. The day had already been spectacular, in that I had seen a purple spotted eel and an octopus, both of which were new for me. There were also thousands and thousands of fish, representing every color you can imagine, from the most striking neon blue to the deepest shades of red.

"I was about 100 feet away from the beach, and diving down among some large rock structures, when I turned to my right and saw a large green sea turtle swimming next to me. That was the first time I had ever seen one in the wild, so I was ecstatic. I rose to the surface, cleared my snorkel, and floated on top of the water, so I could watch him.

"He was right underneath me when I looked down, and he was swimming away from the shore. I decided I would stay on the surface and just watch him for a while. To my surprise, although he appeared to be moving pretty slowly, sometimes paddling his flippers and other times just floating in the water, I couldn't keep up with him. I was wearing fins, which gave me propulsion power through the water, and didn't have on a buoyancy vest or anything that would slow me down, and yet he kept moving farther from me even though I was trying to keep up.

"After about ten minutes, he lost me. Tired, disappointed, and a little embarrassed that I couldn't keep up with a turtle, I turned back toward the beach and snorkeled to shore.

"The next day I returned to the same spot, with the hope of seeing more turtles. Sure enough, about thirty minutes after walking into the water, I turned to look at a school of tiny black and yellow fish, and there was another green sea turtle. I watched him for a while as he paddled around the coral, and then I tried to follow him as he swam away from the shore. Once again, I was surprised to find I couldn't keep up. When I realized he was pulling ahead of me, I stopped paddling and just floated and watched him. It was at that moment when he taught me the important life lesson."

Casey stopped speaking.

"Casey, you can't just end the story there. What did he teach you?"

She smiled at me. "I thought you were a nonbeliever in green sea turtles being able to tell you something?"

I smiled back. "I'm still doubtful on the 'tell' part, but from the way the story is going, I'm starting to become a believer in the teaching possibilities. What happened next?"

"Well, as I was floating on the surface, I realized that the turtle linked its movements to the movements of the water. When a wave was going toward the shore, and in the face of the turtle, he would float, and paddle just enough to hold his position. When the pull of the wave was back out to the ocean, he would paddle faster, so that he was using the movement of the water to his advantage.

"The turtle never fought the waves, but instead he used them. The reason I had not been able to keep up with him was because I was paddling all the time, no matter which way the water was flowing. At first this was fine, and I was able to stay with him. I even had to slow my paddling sometimes. But the more I battled against the incoming waves, the more tired I became. This meant that when the wave was going out, I didn't have enough energy to take advantage of it.

"As wave after wave came in and went out, I became more and more fatigued and less effective. The turtle kept optimizing his movements with the movements of the water, though, which is why he was able to swim faster than I could."

"Casey," I began, "I think I appreciate a good turtle story . . ." 

"Green sea turtle story," she interrupted me, and smiled.

"Right, green sea turtle story. I think I appreciate a good green sea turtle story as much as the next person. Probably more, actually, since I love the ocean, but I'm not sure I understand how this relates to the way people choose the things that will fill up their days."

"And I had such high hopes for you," she said, and smiled again.

"Okay, okay," I replied. "Give me a minute." I thought through what we had been talking about before the green sea turtle story. Then I began speaking again. "You were saying that once someone knows why they are here -- they know their PFE -- then they can spend their time doing things that fulfill it. You were also saying that people who don't know their PFE also spend their time on lots of things. That's when I deduced that the things they spend their time on are things that don't help them fulfill their PFE."

"So far so reflective, and I think I can sense a major insight just around the corner," she said.

"Yes you can," I replied, and smiled at her entertaining sarcasm. "I think the turtle -- the green sea turtle -- taught you that if you aren't in tune with what you want to do, you can waste your energy on lots of things. Then when opportunities come up to do what you want, you might not have the strength or time to spend on them."

"Very nice," she said. "And I appreciate the catch on the 'green sea turtle' instead of just 'turtle.'" She became more serious. "It was a really big moment for me, definitely one of my 'Aha' moments in life.

"Each day there are so many people trying to persuade you to spend your time and energy on them. Think about your mail. If you were to participate in every activity, sale, and service offering you get notified of, you would have no free time. And that is just the mail. Add on all the people who want to capture your attention for television time, places to eat, travel destinations . . . You can quickly find yourself doing what everyone else is doing, or wants you to do.

"When I got back to the beach after watching the turtle on the second day, I was filled with all of these insights. I sat on my towel and wrote them down in my journal. I realized that in my life, the incoming waves are made up of all the people, activities, and things that are trying to capture my attention, energy, and time but are not associated with my PFE. The outgoing waves are the people, activities, and things that can help me fulfill my PFE. Therefore, the more time and energy I waste on the incoming waves, the less time and energy I have for the outgoing ones.

"Once I had that picture in my head, it really put things in a different perspective. I became much more selective about how much 'paddling' I did, and for what reasons."

"Interesting," I said, reflecting on her story and how I spent most of my time each day. "I see what you meant by learning something from a green sea turtle."

Casey got up from the table. "I thought you might. However, I think I'm keeping you from eating your breakfast. Why don't I let you work on that for a while, and I'll come back in a little bit to see how you're doing."

"Casey, can I borrow a piece of paper and your pen before you go?"

"Sure." She took the pen out of her apron, ripped off a piece of paper from her order pad, and put both of them on the table.

"The answer will surprise you," she said with a wink, as she walked away.

"How do you know -- ?" I started to ask, but she was already on her way to the back of the café.

I started writing figures on the paper. Average life expectancy of seventy-five years . . . twenty-two years old when I graduated college . . . six days per week that I receive mail . . . awake sixteen hours per day . . . twenty minutes each day that I spend on the mail . . . 

When I finished all my computing, I couldn't believe the answer. I did the math again. Same answer.

I realized Casey wasn't kidding about the impact of the incoming wave. If from the time I graduated college until the time I was seventy-five years old, I spent twenty minutes per day opening and looking at mail I really didn't care about, I ended up spending almost an entire year of my life on junk mail.

I rechecked my math a third time. It was true. There were probably fifty-three years of life after college, and if I wasn't careful, I would waste one of them reading solicitations.

"Well?" It was Casey. She had returned from the kitchen, but I was so caught up in my math efforts I didn't notice her.

"You're right," I replied. "I am surprised. Actually, I think I'm beyond surprised and quickly heading to shocked. Do you realize that junk mail alone could eat up an entire year of your life?"

She smiled, "Not all mail is junk mail, John."

"No, I know that, but at least for me the majority of it is. Besides, it's not just the mail. I was sitting here wondering what other incoming wave items are occupying my time and energy every day."

"It can get you thinking," she said. "That's why my time with the green sea turtle made such a big impact on me." She smiled at me, then turned and walked toward the people at the other end of the café.

From The Why Café by John P. Strelecky. Copyright © 2003, 2006 by John P. Strelecky. Reprinted by arrangement with Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group ( ).  All rights reserved.