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June 2010

As I was sprinting through the cavernous Hong Kong airport toward my gate Sunday afternoon, a deodorant roll-on in my bag cracked and leaked all over my laptop.

The laptop is replaceable, but its contents are not. There may be a way to recover my files, but for the moment it looks like I have lost nearly all of the photos I took over my eight months abroad.

If I did, I will be devastated.

I was so happy to survive my back-to-back 12-hour flights today, arrive in Vancouver and check into a nice hotel room for my final night away. But when I took out my laptop to find it dripping with scented gel, my whole world went black.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Today was supposed to be a day of gratitude. By the end of today I expected to be completely in love with where I was in the world. Everything in its right place.

But it turned awful. Unable to shake my angry thoughts, I knew I needed perspective. I needed to find a place in my head where I could see the bigger picture and really understand that my problem isn’t so bad.

So I took a walk, watching people on the street for somebody clearly worse off. Somebody I wouldn’t trade places with in a million years.

I saw businessmen, bums, cops, shopkeepers, hipsters, ordinary joes and schoolkids. And very quickly I realized that there’s nobody I’d trade with, no matter how complete their photo collection is.

I have so much. Tomorrow I’ll wake up on a warm, comfortable bed, and eventually seat my young, able body on a plane. Then I’ll fly back to my peaceful hometown, greet my wonderful family, and catch up with my amazing friends.

Then I will have my whole life ahead of me.

I lost some sexy travel photos. Big deal. There are people in this very city who lost so much more today. How would I feel if my dumb mistake had cost me an arm today? Somewhere, somebody is dealing with that loss right now. That kind of bad day.

Somebody out there lost his home today.

Somebody else lost his best friend.

Somebody else lost his son or daughter.

Even losing a button off a fancy shirt can ruin the day if we lose perspective.

That’s the way to deal with loss: to be grateful. It’s the last thing you’d think to do, but that’s when gratitude is most powerful.

Gratitude is knowing — really knowing — what you’ve got before it’s gone.

The perfect time to be grateful is when you think you’ve lost something huge.

And that’s because loss can help you understand the incredible fortune of still having every single thing you didn’t lose today.

ship at sea

It’s time to go.

By the time you read this I will be flying from Brisbane back to Auckland, where I’ll tie up some loose ends and have one last ice cream cone. Then I go home.

It’s been eight and a half months since I exchanged final goodbyes with my family at Winnipeg International. Before I disappeared through the security gates, my well-travelled sister hugged me and said, “You’re going to have so much fun.”

I remember thinking “Really?” It’s hard to believe now, but “fun” was not what I was picturing at that moment. That day I was quite nervous about the whole thing — enduring a 17-hour flight, navigating Bangkok’s chaotic streets alone, establishing myself in another country where I didn’t know a soul.

That seems like ages ago.

The gravity of my trip’s ending has been coming down more heavily every day this last few weeks. It’s been a sentimental week, as I seem to be doing everything for the last time: booking the last hostel, buying the last batch of backpacker groceries, confirming my final flight. It really does feel like the end.

It was so much more than fun. I had the time of my life.

Right now Brisbane is grey and rainy and I’m in a 24-hour internet café. I’ve come down with what is hopefully a mild bug, and my head is cloudy. The moment feels very heavy and words are failing me right now. But I’ll just say it feels like the most pivotal chapter of my life is coming to an end.

It doesn’t exactly feel like I’m going back though. My hometown almost seems like a new destination now, because I’ve become a different person.

If I think of how overwhelmed I felt on my first day in Thailand — stepping out of a cab, beyond exhausted, into Khao San Road’s sweltering gauntlet of pushy vendors, trying to look like I didn’t come straight from the airport — it almost seems like that happened to a different person.

It did.

The young man who was so nervous to throw himself into a new country last October is not coming back. He perished sometime between the 4am train to Hua Hin and the ice-cold swim in the Clinton River. I’ve never grown so fast as I have this past nine months. I am calmer, more grateful, more aware. I’m much better able to socialize, to walk into unfamiliar settings without trepidation, to live my life without explaining myself, to bear pain and tedium (thank you kiwifruit industry), to live with few possessions, to flirt (with people and disaster), to try new things on a whim, to be upfront about who I am, and to appreciate whatever I have, wherever I am.

My voice is a bit louder, my posture a bit better. I use words like “mate” and “boardies.” I say “it’s meant to…” instead of “it’s supposed to…”

I am still reeling from the whole thing. Something huge has shifted, and I won’t know exactly what until I’ve spent a bit of time back in Canada. There is so much to talk about, but tonight I’m as dull and dreary as the streets outside.

This is my last post from this side of the planet.

Monday evening, I will be home.

Photo by David Cain

pie chart hell

Few books have been recommended to me so frequently and gushingly as Dubner and Levitt’s Freakonomics. After tracking down a used copy in a musty Brisbane book exchange, I devoured it before lunch the next day.

It really is a compelling book. Its premise is that conventional wisdom is often wrong, because society’s experts use their informational advantage to serve their own interests, rather than to give us the truth. This isn’t because they’re particularly selfish, but simply because they are human beings, and like the rest of us, they operate out of personal incentives.

Armed with this insight, the authors, journalist Stephen Dubner and economist Steven Levitt aim to overturn conventional wisdom by looking at what the data actually indicates. Does capital punishment actually deter criminals? Does going to a good school really increase your kid’s chances of career success? They also scoured public records to answer other burning questions: Why do drug dealers live with their moms? Why are so many babies named Madison these days? (Hint: it has to do with a 1984 Tom Hanks movie.)

How much do parents really matter?

One of the most interesting chapters is on parenting. For decades, child development experts have been giving parents hard-worded do’s and don’ts of child-rearing, often in complete defiance of other experts, or even themselves. Should an infant sleep on his front or back? Is a pacifier an indispensable tool, or a dangerous vice? Is spanking essential for well-disciplined children, or does it teach them to be violent?

When it comes to parenting, the conventional wisdom is all over the map, but it does agree on one very broad point: that parenting technique is the crucial determining factor in the child’s success as an adult. The right parenting choices are what make the difference between bright and bleak futures for the child.

This, at least, seems self-evident, but Dubner and Levitt still questioned it. They analyzed a vast set of data about the parents of children in Chicago’s massive public school system to determine which factors matter and which don’t, as far as the child’s success was concerned. They frame this study as the answer to a provocative question: How much do parents really matter? Read More

swastika in the sidewalk

Today I saw something on the sidewalk that made me stop. Somebody had etched a small swastika in the concrete.

I wouldn’t say it exactly upset me, but it got me genuinely curious… who did that?

Presumably, some kid stumbled across a rare chance to immortalize himself in unguarded wet concrete, and this was his choice. Did he really subscribe to Nazi ideology, or was he just experimenting with shock value?

The sidewalk bordered a park, beside a high school. Did he go to that school? No, he was probably younger. Did he scrawl that symbol in an effort to prove his badness to his friends, or was he alone when he did it?

It couldn’t possibly be a girl.

A rather definite picture of him formed in my head: grade 5 or 6, white, a little bit fat, buzzed brown hair, and his eyebrows come to rest in a scowl. He picked on smaller kids in younger grades sometimes. He hangs around with two kids who are smaller than he is, and they look up to him. He isn’t aware of it, but he speaks with authority when they are around, and at no other time.

I pictured the three of them, crossing the park after school. When they reach the sidewalk, our anti-hero notices the tell-tale dark patch on the sidewalk: freshly poured concrete, and nobody watching. All three are excited, but the two smaller kids wait for the big kid to do something.

He pushes his index finger in, and is disappointed to find it’s been drying for a while — he can’t make a mark. Determined, he grabs a stone, and gouges a vertical line, then crosses it with another. Still not entirely sure what he’s aiming for, he scores the four remaining lines, and sits back to look at it. The other two don’t know what to make of it, and aren’t sure whether to be impressed. But they are most comfortable saying nothing, as is the main kid. The trio gets up and leaves, vaguely disappointed in their first vandalism experience.

That’s when I realized I had become completely carried away by my thoughts. I had sat down, without really noticing, on the slope overlooking the field. I took a photo.

Now, I’ll admit, I’m in the twilight phase of my overseas trip and I do have a lot of spare time on my hands. On a different day I might have just carried on walking. Pretty much anybody would have (although in the photo you can clearly see that somebody has tried to scratch it out — who?) But today, evidently I was affected by what I’d seen. Not distraught, just intensely curious about the moment it appeared there.

In reality, I wasn’t affected by what I’d seen. I was affected by my thoughts. All of that imagery was completely my own work — everything other than the six scratches in the sidewalk. Human motives fascinate me, but if I had not learned to associate that particular symbol with certain human motives, it would have just been a simple little doodle on the sidewalk. The symbol itself is inert. It is not harmful. We react to what we infer from it. So ultimately, I reacted to a part of myself. Read More

skeleton with ball and chain

Today I fired one of my bosses.

Last year I took on a commitment that sounded like a good idea at the time. It didn’t look like a lot of work, and it wasn’t, but I never really got on top of it. It took me a while to realize that I didn’t actually want to do it, but the signs were there from the beginning.

I always came to it with resistance, but kept going because it was temporary, and I don’t like to leave things incomplete. Well today I decided just to pull the plug on it, and I felt such a relief. I didn’t know how much it was weighing on me.

I am quitting David Goes Kiwi. It’s still there, but there will be no more updates. And I feel wonderful about it.

A travel blog really seemed like the right thing to do, but honestly I just never enjoyed writing for it. It was always out of date, and I couldn’t possibly share everything I’ve experienced, or even close. Often I struggled for words, and my posts came off like a budget guidebook. The pictures were much more interesting, but it was always way easier to post them on Facebook. But I didn’t post many on Facebook, because I felt I should post them on DGK first. It really just got in the way of its own purpose: to keep people up to date on my overseas trip.

It’s not a big deal — I’ll be home in a matter of weeks, so I would have had to wrap it up anyway — but the relief I felt today when I finally decided to ditch it was unbelievable. It was something that was only dragging me down, because I just wasn’t willing to make a proper go of it.

Now I can write for Raptitude without that faint, forlorn nagging of my second blog. Guilt, I guess you’d call it. The guilt of not doing a good job of something that was supposedly important.

The hidden cost of commitment

Commitments take more than your time. They quietly take up space in your conscience.

They sneak in there because they often don’t appear to be commitments at all. We usually think of a commitment as an explicit standing agreement between you and somebody else, a promise to do something. But most of our commitments are with ourselves. Something you mean to get fixed. Some goal you mean to get underway. Some situation you mean to put right.

Even if it never made it to any kind of to-do list, if you ever came to the intention to do something about it, your conscience will always sense you’ve left something important unresolved. It won’t always tell you what it is, but it won’t leave you alone. It is the pea to your sleepless princess. Read More

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