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No going back

A grasp of history is lacking in today’s world. The pace of change has done it; my home town looks nothing like it did even a decade ago, and provides no link to the past. Going back home is always a sobering experience, just to witness the changes wrought by urban sprawl, social change, and real estate speculation.

I’ve never been a fan of my suburban haunt. While my family had lived there since the 70s, they (justly) rejected the country-club bullshit, preferring a quieter existence in the sticks on the weekends. My friend group was thus comprised of the oddballs, foreign-born typically, who were similarly minded to run as soon as possible after high school. None of us regret it. To this day, apart from some extended family, few contacts are left there.

In twenty years, the town has nearly tripled it’s population. It has spread to the limits of its borders, with a never-ending sprawl of cheap duplexes. Such growth outstripped any plans for public transport investment, and traffic has become chronic. From a sleepy hamlet only forty years before, the town is now a satellite of the big city, becoming itself surrounded by more and more sprawl.

The notion that such growth is even remotely sustainable was brutally shortsighted. The train infrastructure hasn’t been altered since the 1970s, and still runs on diesel electrics. The traffic on the commuter highways is brutal during peak. Potential train routes were hastily occupied by developers. There are few cycle lanes. But worse, there is no character – no decent music, pubs, or sense of community. There is no real reason to be there at all, if not to live an insular existence, commuting elsewhere, completely shut off from your neighbourhood.

Every trip back reconfirms my taste for the city, be it locally or elsewhere. If you’re going to be anonymous, you might as well be entertained.

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A Reverse Migration

If you haven’t visited it before, Beijing can come across like many other big, brash, boomtime Chinese cities. It’s colossal, loud, and hamfisted. The air has the consistency of pea soup, there are cameras everywhere, and enough cops to occupy Paris. This article recently summed up life within the confines of it’s ring roads. I believe it is also a flashpoint for a new trend.

Urban migration is something that defined the 20th century. The technological innovations and centralisation of power meant that employment and opportunity were in far greater supply here, but that wasn’t the only reason. We, collectively, have a desire to be close to the action. We need to see it happen, first-hand, and succeed not just in real terms – but relative ones too, between ourselves.

But there is a limit to this appeal. The larger our cities become, the worse our organisational capacities are. The division, inconvenience and stress of the city dominates Beijing. The already excessive cost of living breeds a generation of renters, far from green spaces, restricted by brutal traffic and cost, to their small, shaded, slice of urban modernity, a screen their only visceral contact with the natural world.

A reformation in values is in the offing. It assigns an individualised value to the term ‘quality of life’, one of your own private making, whereby we can stop regarding the urban jungle as an outright necessity. Aided by technical innovations, mechanisation, and home offices catering to remote locations, it could mean work and wage aren’t sacrificed. A man can dream, anyways.

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Twelve Hours

I recently read proof of something I always suspected. Men, the gruff half of the sandwich, are considerable more prone to nostalgia than women. They will hold and deify past flings with greater fervour, for longer, I suspect as some manner of behavioural evolutionary trait encouraging us to have a crack should we again cross paths.

As a guy, you realise that the common trope of living facing forward means little when you’re down and out. Everyone recolours the past through an updated lens. There isn’t much value in wasting such time in reflection, but if nothing else, it operates as a memory jog.

*

It was the very last day of her Colombian sojourn, prior to heading back to Sao Paolo, university, and graduate work. She was the type of woman who didn’t slap you across the face with overt sexuality, but with movement, the grace of a dancer, fitting oddly in to the slapdash styling of the bar.

Your eye was drawn upwards, from toned, athletic legs, small breasts hiding under her dress, to a pair of big browns. The coquettish lilt of her head. A shy smile, but relentless eye contact. She regarded me across the bar.

Whip-smart. Just completed her doctorate in neuroscience.

Great taste in music. A classic rocker.

Shot rum and drank beer, without an ounce of contrition.

A body that looked twice as good unwrapped and glistening with sweat. We chased the evening until 8am, when she kissed me with her nails wrapped in my chest hair and ran for the airport, leaving me smoking a Winslow in the window. I haven’t seen her since.

*

In reality? The setting, the sex, the sauce, and the momentum likely conspired to push this experience in to its current feted spot in my brain. It’s impossible to know better. Perhaps the true value lies in its recall.

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35000

I hadn’t planned on getting this drunk so early in the flight. The inevitable consequence is you wind up wide awake, with about three hours left, with a mild wine hangover, and a battle with LAX to look forward to.

The first time I crossed this ocean, it was at a pace roughly one-eightieth the one we’re doing now. The surface of the ocean is hidden now under the requisite equatorial overcast, somewhere south of the Solomons, and a succession of squalls has built updrafts that are shaking my red wine strongly enough to require me to chug it, or face decorating the Macbook with cheap American Airlines swill. It was annoying at sea level, too.

I can keep tabs on my old work, a Royal Huisman ketch, via the AIS system, a global yacht positioning service. Private yachts aren’t really required to have it, but it helps keep them noticeable by shipping traffic. She hasn’t left the Med since I left it in Hong Kong, where they shut her down, loaded it onboard a specialised vessel intended to ship yachts long distances, and sailed for Antibes. What a fucking waste – in my haste to cash in, I missed out on what was essentially a two-month paid holiday while they moved the boat, although it would have shat me to no end seeing her loaded up like a shipping container, rather than making the passage the right way. A circumnavigation would have been grand. It’s on me now to finish the trip, one of my life’s goals.

But that year is a great example of how we deify the more adventurous aspects of our youth. It was a good year, a lucrative year, one full of challenges, thrills, and travel. But apart from the transpacific trip and a transit of the South China Sea, we were mostly harbourbound, and yard work was duller than a box factory. The money was good, but only because I had no personal space aboard, no flat of my own, and nowhere to spend it. My mind was going soft for lack of a challenge, keeping me awake at night, relentlessly aware that I was drawing a wage by polishing another man’s toy. Rediscovering proper food, challenging work, regular sex, and inspiring conversation kept me from considering a return in all but my most poverty-driven moments.

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How to Run a Caloric Deficit

Living in a committed relationship tends, in my experience, to make you a bit chunkier. You dine more consistently, you spend fewer hours on your feet or at the pub dancing like a fool. You cook together. All of this is wildly enjoyable, and being in love is fulfilling, ridiculous and fun. I highly recommend it.

But regardless, regaining your proper weight is a one-week affair. No more than that. You just have to be willing to do it properly.

Find a hill. Run to it. Then run up that hill, as many times as you can, as fast as you can.

Hop on your bike. Ride it for forty kilometres, through city streets, acting like a car. Assert your space and yell a lot. When you get to a hill, sprint up, off your seat.

Does your gym have an assault bike? Do ten minutes of intervals, 30 seconds on, 3o off. Then hit the elliptical for ten minutes at a consistent rate.

At peak sprint, your heart rate should start to inch up to 190, or slightly more. While doing a fitness test as a 16-year-old, I hit 212. They told me to stop.

You may develop tunnel vision, as all your blood is occupied elsewhere. Your exhaled breath may have blood in it. You will be completely drenched in sweat. You will become nauseas. If you vomit, have a sip of water, and continue.

Afterwards, stretch, and foam roll your quads, your hip flexors, and your back. Drink at least two litres of water. Eat a protein-heavy meal, with greens, and nothing more. Hard-boiled eggs, lean chicken, or unbreaded fish. Then do the same, every day, for one week. Punish yourself for your intransigence. Exercise drives weight loss only if you possess the drive. But your body will surprise you with what it’s capable of.

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Cross-Country

Aboard a sealed up passenger train, once the sun sets, you might as well be on a flight. The only view, since maybe Goulburn, has been the lights of approaching towns on the railway and the occasional view of a waning moon to the east, barely strong enough to penetrate the reflection of the interior lights.

I’ve been in transit for eleven hours. We should be pulling in to Sydney right now, but a derailed freight train at Junee meant we had to be bussed around the obstruction, to the southbound compatriot of this route at Cootamundra, as its residents did the same to the northbound. One day, two trains, twelve total hours before I’m back in the arms of urban life. Saving coin comes with the odd sacrifice.

I’ve been a city boy my whole life. The pace, proper coffee and diversity of experience make the country a spot of reconciliation with nature, a place to move through, and little more. The romanticism, and cheap real estate, aren’t enough to conquer the lack of pace. But Victoria and New South Wales were colonised as farming destinations, even despite the average fecundity of the interior. The sheer number of tiny, dying towns on this train route, their unused grain elevators and rotting loading platforms dangling rusted booms, evidenced this. The pace of the decline, and a sense of origin, are much more obvious from this antique vantage point.

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Northerning Pt. II

I meant to finish this post nearly a year ago, and completely forgot about it.

Canoe-only lakes, in areas that have been progressive enough to put slot limits on their pickerel and pike fishery, mean the fishing up here is next level. Lake trout hang off the fringes, bass lie in the shallows, pike and pickerel are everywhere. Between this, the nostalgia of finally being back in my home land, and the stunning weather, I could hardly process it all.

I think it’s the lack of a waterway that bothers me the most about Australia. It is insidiously dry. Movement here is dictated by your diesel tanks, by your hardiness, and by your ability to use a road map, like the rest of the world. It has been mapped out. On the water, no one has ever gone the exact same route you have.

There is always that level of uncertainty on the water. Is this channel clear? Has debris floated in? Is the weather soon to change? It’s just enough to offer the sense that you are in charge of your own destiny. No one is leading you. You must make the call, for better or for worse.

These lakes, and areas of the Great Lakes that I have sailed, are remote enough not to be a casual destination for your average hack. Not to say that they require exclusivity – they only require preparedness, and the balls to get there. People who aren’t seeking the coast guard to get them out of trouble. Or roadside assistance.

The freshwater lakes of Ontario are special, and they will always be my spiritual home. I am most excited to see them again in a few short weeks.

 

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Andre

Traveling here, this is medium mode, the same in South America and China. Most of Europe, North America, Australia, the rest of Asia? That’s easy mode.

All right, so where do we find hard mode.

Africa. Africa is hard mode.

*

I met Andre at the Hsipaw train station, in north-east Burma, back in 2011. In a place like this, the absolute dearth of English speakers means you share a bond almost immediately – what else is there to do during a three-hour wait at a rural train station, rather than chat with your compatriot? By then, and surely moreso by now, the train was not the most efficient method of moving through the region. So anyone here is either stuck on romanticism, or simply taking their time. Either way, they’re good company.

Among the traveling crowd, there is the invariable dick-measuring contest when the passports come out. Who has traveled more? Who has been to a war zone? Who has seen this and this…it goes on, but it’s never the real hardcore who partake in these discussions. They don’t do it to brag about it. For them, it’s a lifestyle. Andre was one of these.

He’s in his early forties now. He works a labour job back in the Netherlands, doing stage setup work for events in his area. It is steady work, although he said it took a toll on his body. But with the right work ethic, it funds the remainder of his year. This, he spends anywhere he feels the urge.

When I met him, he had traveled to all but a few countries, less than a dozen. This included three that no longer existed. He had tasted the thrill of constant change, of the true breadth and width of the world, of the invariably stunning variety of people and places that one can find with the right motivation. He didn’t live large, but he lived well.

You wouldn’t find him waiting in line to reach the base camp of Everest, or on a safari, or in a Khao San road hostel in Bangkok. He stuck to the third world, to places where the locals lived, and he adapted, living amongst his world, a traveler, not a visitor.

And he seemed, to all appearances, to be very contented about his lot.

 

 

 

 

 

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Keep Pushing

I’d always assumed that with age, comes a taste for creature comfort. Not the grandiosity of home, two cars and cottages, necessarily – just the basics of home and hearth, and a full fridge. It isn’t a lot to ask, but it’s typically enough to keep you localised.

You aren’t held back by your possessions any more than you are by your mindset. Either one can breed a level of inflexibility in your decision-making, making even the smaller moves in your given day privy to a moment of pause. One is only as free as they decide that they are. But this feeling does tend to magnify with time. I can only imagine how people would react with kids around.

On some days, it does take more to get loose, and just move about the city, doing little more than finding odd coffee shops to work and study. But it’s the most important part of my day. I need that variety, or risk falling in to a trap of constant boredom, looking no further than the screen or the basics of my world around me, without delving further than the walls, word of mouth, or someone else’s writing.

In this early-30s life, I’ve caught myself becoming passive, an observer to my own life. I have looked at the things that I want in life – a family, locational freedom, money for a reasonable crib and to indulge my habits – with the same long-distance view that I’ve held since youth, not with the goal-orientated approach that they require to actually obtain.

The best method of breaking out of this reality? Travel, a fitness kick, a session on the beers with friends. Bounce some ideas around. Break out of the day-to-day mould, and ask yourself, how does one change? On a micro scale, on a macro scale?

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Sydney

I moved north a few months back, to the unofficial capital of the lucky land, for the girl to chase down some contract work in the burgeoning infrastructure environment of NSW. I was in the peak of a post-MA slump, and was working maybe three times weekly, spending entirely too much time at the pub, and while making the most of the summer months, clearly needed a change. For the cash they were offering, what the hell? Travel tends to break me out of slumps, and my liver would love me for it.

I had little prior experience in Sydney, apart from a couple of short weeks at my sister’s house in Bondi back in 2012. It hadn’t left much of an impression – it was too big to learn quickly, the laughable housing insulation meant your winter was spent perpetually cold, and shit was crazy expensive. The harbour was pretty, and everyone raved about the bridge, but it presented an unwelcoming, brash, overtly posh facade to the casual observer, and I didn’t stick around to let these impressions get shifted.

Now, eight months in, it still hasn’t changed. My current home town is a lucrative spot, and there are career opportunities here, but that’s largely where the buck stops. Sydney is an average stop, at best.

It’s massive, nearly five million people stretched out among a sea of suburbs of terrace housing and Cold War-era high rises, all the way to Parramatta upriver, and driving here might be some of the worst in the western world. It’s cramped, aggressive, and utterly confusing – nothing seems to go anywhere purposeful, and it’s mired by half-baked construction projects and tolls. The bike lanes are inches wide, running alongside four-lane roads with parked cars, and you are given absolutely zero room. The gutters that you’re obliged to ride through are also chock full of wheel-catching drains and broken concrete. Meanwhile, you’re obliged to carry around your ID. While on a bicycle. You get a motorist-level fine if you don’t stop fully at a stop sign. Given the traffic here, you’d think there would be some more support for cycling, but they’d rather put you at intentional risk.

Part of the reason for this is the sensation that you’re living in the midst of a pitched class battle. There is zero quarter on offer for anyone starting out with little to their name, and those who would dare not to commute in their AMG Mercs are worthy of no consideration, bordering on disdain. It’s a town built for the elite, something that is reflected by its unbelievable real estate costs, some of the highest in the world. This rush for land, meanwhile, has had the effect of destroying any hint of historical architecture, bulldozed in favour of more and more saleable, modernistic, and horrendously priced units.

The rental culture, as we found out, is governed by a bidding system – the only of its kind in the country – and you are obliged to compete with your fellow bidders for the unit. Typically, an agent will advertise at a cost perhaps 25% south of the value of the unit, to draw a crowd on inspection day. Then, let the bids rain down. Twice, we won bids, only to have the agent simply organise another inspection in the hopes of attracting a higher-roller. We like our current spot just fine, but the coin its costing us would cover a beachfront in South America. And a weekly slab. And probably a lot more, and would have a working elevator and someone to chase loud methheads away.

Out east, the beaches are lovely. Accordingly, they’re packed on the nicer days and weekends, a solid forty minutes in the inevitable traffic, where you are then obliged to pay heinously for parking – if you can find it at all – or even more on the bus. Then you can burn to a crisp, or attempt to battle the aggressive young guns on the surf breaks. I hardly even bother any more. No amount of salt is worth the irritation. Down towards Royal National Park, you can pay $15 for entry and get some solitude, but its an all-day affair to get there, and the amount of release you gain by doing so is somewhat cancelled out by the commute.

But the night life seals it. A good indie music scene, some late-night dive haunts with music and cheap beer and food, is all that would be required to make the situation bearable. It would break up the torpor of the dull days, encourage the sight of a few more sunsets and bring people together in their hatred of the spot. And it’s a non-option. They’ve all fallen victim to knee-jerk, reactionary politics and the screams of the media here, and apart from a couple of widely-spread exceptions, pubs close at twelve midnight, liquor stores at ten. 12 midnight. In a modern country, there is a veritable curfew.

There is nowhere in the world that places such restrictions on its populace. By 1, Newtown, Darling Harbour, and King’s Cross are ghost towns, the windows dull and blank, a few listless cab drivers wandering around, more out of habit than a legitimate hope for fares. The so-called Lockout Laws came in to effect via the state’s legislature after a young man was killed by some idiot’s cheapshot on the sidewalk in the Cross. Truly, it was a tragic situation – the guy was only twenty or so – but they caught the guy and threw the book at him. Apparently, that wasn’t enough.

And did I mention that this occurred at roughly 9pm?

Conspiracy theories have abounded about the true reasoning for such a move, and regardless of the intention, the reality is that dozens of venues have subsequently shut down. In a real estate market as driven as this one – in fact, it’s one of few growth industries – this has become a natural method of encouraging these venues to close, to make way for more high-density housing, less socialising and noise, and ever-fewer low-skill jobs at these venues. But the situation is just so perfectly ‘Sydney’. A primal scream to the youth of the city, to the noisemakers, to the lower class and lower earners, that they are perfectly unwelcome.

 

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