Driving is a hard bargain.

At times it’s easy to forget that I like learning. I know that seems like the dumbest, most backwards sentence you could read outside of POTUS’ twitter, but there’s something in it. We live in a world overflowing with information. It’s almost harder to be wilfully obstinate than it is to update and grow intellectually. Maybe with everything shoved in our face, it’s about being more discerning, choosing what to take in and what to ignore. Still, opportunities to understand everything outside of ourselves abound if we look or keep our ears open. I even got one last night for the low, low cost of $17.

It was late and we’d just finished watching Vampire Clay at TIFF’s Midnight Madness. We could’ve risked the beloved Vomit Comet, but getting an Uber was so much easier. We all piled in and set off. On the way home, I noticed something for the first time. The taxi in front of us had two license plates. One being the usual Ontario plate. The other was a much smaller Toronto plate. Here’s an example. I asked the driver what the smaller plate was. He told me that they were specific plates for registered Toronto taxi cabs. I figured that kind of made sense. Like it was giving assurance to passengers that they were with a registered cab or something. Plus the city would no doubt rake in tax credits (tax-i credits?). He laughed and said I had no idea. That those little cabs went for upwards of $85,000.

I paused. Huh? $85,000? Was that a cost that could be amortised over a number of years, or had to be paid up front? Up front, he said. I thought about it. Drivers in Toronto were often immigrants. Would they be forced to drop all of this money on a license just to be able to get a job? How would they pay it back? How much did they have to earn a week just to break even, let alone start making money? Exactly, he said. Or else they sometimes had it leased to them by the company. Maybe $1000 month or something. So they had to pay $1000 a month for the license? Then they had to pay the company for franchising and all the taxi gear (light, meter, etc)? How did they make money? It was hard, the driver told me. It was a corrupt industry that was cruel to the people at the bottom. Why were licenses so expensive then? I asked. He told me that the city works out how many taxis are needed and creates new licenses accordingly. They may put out 400 licenses or so annually for $6000, but the majority of the licenses are owned by people who made a bunch of pseudonyms and bought out a ton. Plus when new licenses went up for grabs, those who owned many licenses already would likely buy up a bunch more so they could lease or artificially inflate the price. It was basically ticket scalping applied to a different market.

I was shocked. Why did people continue to buy into the taxi market then, if it was like some kind of mob protection racket? Because people didn’t know anything else, the driver said. Or they’d invested so much that pulling out seemed like a waste of what they’d already put in. Good ol’ sunken cost fallacy. There was also a mass market vs local market mentality, he said. Uber was this big Wallmart style corporation. You know how in small towns all those local stores got killed by Wallmart? Uber was threatening the same thing. But if the local stores were leaving the local people worse off, then what was the point in sticking to their guns? Wouldn’t it make more sense to let that local industry die and have the larger corporations fight it out if it meant fairer wages for those at the bottom? That immigrants weren’t being taken advantage of? Letting them choose their own hours? Not having to pay into some cruel system that used them?

Who knows? He answered. But why else did I think he drove for Uber?

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Counterpoint: The world is a genuinely shitty place for many, many people.

In a truly unexpected turn of events, it was harder returning to Toronto than I thought. Emotionally, that is. It’s not like I got held up at customs for excessive contraband suppositories or anything. It was strange, because I genuinely love this city. Toronto has a capacity to surprise me. It often takes a lot to deal with living in a busy city, but Toronto often gives more than it takes. So after all that fellation, what’s my deal? I’ve had one large gripe, with no idea how to structure it. I’ve been searching for a way to lay it out that doesn’t make me sound whiny, entitled, or privileged to the brim. It’s been hard to succinctly state it and still come off as a reasonable person. So instead I’m gonna own that fact that I often live in a cartoon world of whimsy and barrel through it. Here goes.

People in Toronto don’t smile.

It sucks, and makes a wonderful city feel oppressive and unfriendly. You can see how this reads, right? Straight white cis dude upset that his path isn’t paved with yellow bricks? I expect people to smile because it makes me feel better? I’m expecting strangers, irrespective of the machinations of their life, to cast off their frowns and bring my Toontown fantasy land into reality? To serve my interests because I don’t want to admit that there’s darkness, inequality and suffering in these streets? Or am I just one more dick in a landfill of bros telling women they should smile more?

I’m not an idiot, I get how this sounds.

It’s such a contrast from Portland, where almost everyone I smiled at on the street would smile back. If I saw someone heading out of a cafe, I’d smile and they’d nod or wave. Drivers that stopped so I could cross the road would smile at me. People walking past would wish me a good day. Kids would beam at everyone who crossed their paths. It was unreal. The more smiles I’d see, the more I’d give, until we were all swapping sunshine and joy like Oddbodz cards. There was this alluring small town charm that was impossible to resist. Would you stand in the way of strangers spreading happiness?

In Toronto if you smile people automatically assume ill intent. It’s a time poor city and everyone’s in a hurry. If you’re smiling and making eye contact, it probably means you want something from them. They’re late for a very important date and you could be an unwelcome distraction that digs them in deeper. Or you could be a legitimate threat in a physical or emotional manner. I’m by no means mitigating this. Just because I rarely have to put up with harassment, that doesn’t change that fact that it’s rampant. If I smile at a child, parents often assume I’m bad news. Like I want to molest their kid instead of just thinking kids are funny and cute sometimes. If I smile at a woman, I’m sure it triggers a response built up over years of encountering unwelcome encounters. If I smile at a guy, I dunno, he thinks I’m into him, which makes me unwanted detritus. If I smile at most anyone they think I’m unstable in some fashion.

Please understand, my disappointment isn’t with the people who don’t reciprocate. It’s a systemic issue. The structure of our society tells us that we need to be cautious of those around us. That people have the capacity to harm or threaten us. That if we’re not vigilant we’ll be punished for our carelessness. We’ve been enculturated into a mentality of fear that tells us not to let our guard down. It sucks. I don’t know how to let people know that I’m harmless, that I come bearing no ill will. I wish there were a way to salve those rampant worries and culture of defensive behaviour. I wish that Toronto’s denizens had good reason to assume the best rather than the worst. Most of all I wish that people wouldn’t have to feel the way they do, because mostly it’s likely a learned response to past shitty experiences. I want to let go of all of this and smile, but Toronto isn’t giving me much reason to.

Can’t everyone just chill out and buy a coke?

It’s hard to tread water when Hell has an undertow.

I’ve got nothing to write about right now. It’s not that there’s nothing to write about. I’ve hardly exhausted the world’s supply of topics in four and a half years. I probably exhausted my supply of topics several years back, but I guess I learned a thing or two from WaterWise in Standard Three and Four about treading water. It’s not that nothing’s happening around the globe, because there’s always something going on. The problem is that I know what’s going on and I don’t have the wherewithal to elucidate anything poignant on the subject (wait, that’s what this project is about???? -ed).

I just watched the Vice News Tonight Charlottesville special and it’s sapped at me. It’s horrifying, brutal and as one speaker so adroitly calls it, appalling. To think that this rhetoric has resurfaced in 2017 when we should instead all have robot butlers and makerbots. Watching the linked video filled me with an unfamiliar feeling. Pure rage. I’m not an angry person. My default negative emotion is sadness and the concept of directing hostility towards other people feels bizarre when I could just beat up on myself instead. Seeing these white supremacy scum grossly disregarding the rights and freedoms of others filled me with a white hot fury. Hearing them spout ignorant hate made me tremble with blinding emotion. All kinds of violent fantasies ran through my head in an instant. A desire to cause pain, draw blood, to see them suffer. I’m the opposite of a violent person. That part of my brain is usually reserved for obscure facts about early 90s animation. These people are cartoon villains flushed into reality. Humans are complex, nuanced creatures and they all seem like two dimensional caricatures. My inability to do anything tangible makes me feel helpless. A surge of energy and emotion put to waste. No number of rants could do anything but blow off steam. Others are doing it better.

Outside of that, I don’t know what to talk about. I mentioned WaterWise earlier. WaterWise was pretty great. We were in Standard Three and Four (so around nine to ten years of age). We’d all pack into a bus and travel up to the Birkenhead Wharf to learn about water safety. They’d divide us up by knowledge levels and teach us accordingly. We learned all about sailing conditions, how to react to the sea when it was choppy, safe. We’d do bombs off the jetty. We learned about kayaks and how to kayak safely. We’d get into kayaks and paddle around the marina. They taught us all manner of knots and how to use each of them. We learned sailing in these little Optimist dinghies. First technique, then practical. We’d move the keel, keep the sail taught. We were shown how to duck underneath the boom (and those who didn’t listen suffered the consequences on their own).

Living in New Zealand, water safety was imperative. It’s a small country surrounded on all sides (and in the middle of the two islands) by water. Beaches and lakes are everywhere. My home city is an isthmus (a word that I get no end of joy typing). Summers were spent on the sand, aside creeks or lakes. While it wasn’t common for all families to own boats (definitely a class thing), what kid didn’t boogie board at least? The education system had realised the importance of a safety initiative and had folded it into the curriculum accordingly.

While I hope Charlotteville is the end of it, I’m not that naive. People will continue to hate, to push their desires over the needs and rights of others. I’d thought that history had made a point of openly condemning the Nazi regime, but apparently the message didn’t stick for all. If we’re looking to move forward as a species, we’re gonna need to move forward together. I’m sure humanity is fucked for good, but on the off chance that we’ll survive our own arrogance, we can’t get there by climbing bodies.

If we can though, I sure hope they’re the Nazi ones.

Does it have to be arrogance if I’m Onan it?

It’s that time of year again. Tough Mudder is a mere five days away. I’m on the last leg of prep and those legs are predictably sore. For several months now I’ve been training hard. I’ve sworn off alcohol and bread (not through any anti-yeast sentiment, I’m just aware of how I love to overindulge in those two delectable consumables). I’ve been training hard at the gym, working through dedicated upper and lower body split days. Three times a week I’ve gone for lunchtime runs along the waterfront. It’s been sweaty and taxing, but I’ve seen tangible results.

Was all of this necessary to complete the course? Not in the least. Some of my team members last year crossed the finish line with zero training under their belts. All the hard tack I’ve been devoting each week could easily be seen as overkill. Without putting in the extra yards I could likely still zip through the event without dying halfway through. In previous years however, I’ve been thankful for the extra grit in the tank. Instead of slogging up and down the mountain, I’ve bounced through with the gusto of the Energizer Bunny on coke. It’s turned an endurance race into a celebration of my body’s capabilities. Instead of thanking the fates for my survival, I can thank my limbs, muscles, heart and mind for pulling me through each day with aplomb.

The event has become less of an annual task, and more emblematic of how I tie my own self-worth to discipline. Seeing my body change, feeling renewed energy and acknowledging the strength of my resolve brings me pride. Amongst the multitude of challenges that’re out of my control, I’m emboldened to rediscover each year that not all of them are. As someone who’s struggled with issues of body image and associated feelings of inadequacy, this provides me with fuel to see the best in myself.

At this point, five days away, it’s more important than ever to practice self-love. Masturbatory as this entry is, I mean compassion, rather than anything titillating. I’m not gonna be hitting any new peaks over the next couple of days. The benefits of pushing hard are by far outweighed by the risk of injury. For the rest of the week, I’m focusing on tapering down. Any workouts will be focused more on keeping myself limber. Maybe a short run on Wednesday. Mobility and stretching will be a priority. I’m gonna be eating well and aiming for eight hours of sleep per night. Cutting down the caffeine and quaffing down my greens. With the end in sight, it’s so important that I get there safely with respect for my body.

Feeling present in my skin has given me a vitality I treasure. I’m content when I look in the mirror and give thanks rather than seeking flaws. I feel confidence resonating through my core and that in itself is worth all of the effort. Tough Mudder may still be a few days away, but I’m happy to linger in this for as long as it lasts.

Hard to take it personally.

I’m using this occasion primarily as a chance to try out my fancy new bluetooth keyboard. Right now I’m waiting on the subway platform. While I’m a massive fan of Swift Key, it’s doing wonders to fuck up my typing here. It auto spaces after a full stop and corrects any non-standard words I try to type. It’s a work in progress.

I was thinking earlier how technically being a “foreigner” here in Canada hasn’t ceased to create strange little scenes from time to time. People remember me. I guess that should be expected enough. The Kiwi accent sticks out amongst all the Canucks. I was sitting at a cafe this morning having breakfast and I heard someone call out “Leon. Leon.” There were kids around. I assumed my parents weren’t the only people in the world to think that Leon was a nifty name (my life experiences aren’t THAT far from that hypothesis). I turned around and an older woman was looking straight at me. “Hey Leon, you’re ‘x’s cousin from New Zealand, right?” She and her husband had met me at a BBQ with my extended family. I couldn’t remember them, but with respect for my 20, my inability to recall doesn’t negate that life happened. We chatted briefly, before she let me get back to my parfait and coffee. Someone at another table overheard that I was from down under. “Where abouts in NZ are you from?” She asked. “Auckland” I replied. “Oh” she said “I have a cousin in Dunedin who’s having a baby.” I had nothing urgent to get to, so we chatted.

I say that we chatted, but more so she asked questions and I answered. It’s not that her line of questioning was unwelcome or overly personal, but that I figured the conversation was more for her than me. It happens, you get used to it. When someone hears that you’re a Kiwi and it spawns chatter, there’s always a reason. They knew/know someone from there, they visited/are visiting. There’s some personal connection they have and you become a conduit for that. It’s not about you personally, rather you’re a stand in for them to have purpose to re-engage a part of their life. Am I making sense? These conversations have nothing to do with you and everything to do with what you can be to them. It doesn’t happen all the time, so I don’t get worked up about it.

Accent privilege both giveth and taketh. People are genuinely pretty friendly when I speak. It makes it easy to reciprocate. Attractive people here are more likely to talk to me here than back home. When it happens though, it’s mildly impersonal. I look at it two ways. It gives me a chance to get to know those who might not otherwise give me the time of day. Weirdly at times it feels oddly infantalising, they’re amazed when I have a personality and know things, as if that would’ve been impossible for someone from such a “simple” country. I know that my heritage has little to do with who I am, they don’t. It also feels a bit disheartening sometimes, that people expect me to be some stereotype. It’s far from identical, but probably not 100% dissimilar to what attractive people experience when people chat to them for no reason other than their attractiveness. You realise that people’s motives are sometimes downright transparent. If that’s mutual, fantastic. Otherwise it can make you feel lonely and strangely worthless. If your value to others is tied up in a factor that’s outside your control, then how can you rightfully take credit for it? If this is all people are gonna see in you, how much are you actually contributing?

Like I said, it’s an occasional happenstance and the accent opens more doors than it closes. It helps make me memorable and generally greases the wheels of my everyday life. The ceiling and floor alike are both pretty high, so I can’t complain too much. Altogether it’s just a bit weird that four years in, while I feel at home for the most part, occasionally a few words can make me feel like I’m not.

You know, like being asked where in Australia I’m from.

You know something? I used that middle urinal and I felt like a god.

At improv yesterday we were learning about status and our teacher told us something interesting. She said that status is a choice. It’s not something that can be taken from us, it can only be volunteered. She said to imagine status as some kind of liquid within us. We wake up each day with it filled to the brim. Countless interactions throughout the day allow us to tip out or refill that status, depending on our response. When our status is lowered, that’s a choice we’ve made. It went deeper, but let’s keep things pretty simple.

Status exists on two poles; high and low. Those poles each have tiers to them. The highest is happiness, then anger and lastly sadness. Status is also largely a concept that we buy into societally. We’ve decided that attributes such as wealth, power and attractiveness dictate our status. We see those who possess these traits as opinion leaders or somehow more capable than those without. It sucks, but when you think of high status, what image comes to your mind? Is it a tall white dude wearing a nice blue suit getting into his Mercedes? Society is all kinds of biased. It’s sexist, racist, ableist and, well, facist too. It’s systematically drilled into us a certain image of status and over time we’ve chosen to accept that.

I started to think about the way I roam the world and how I exchange status. A lot of the time in public, I aim to be as considerate as possible. This can involve stepping out of the way on the footpath, standing on public transport, making myself as small as I can to let people through. I’m not a tiny person or physically unimposing, but I’m aware of how I could be perceived as thus. I’m conscious that as a dude, I tread upon a mountain of privilege every day and I intentionally try not to take it for granted. I know that if I didn’t go out of my way to consider others, it’d seem like I was any other white dude imposing himself upon the world. That sounds shit in my book, so I try to mitigate it. I try to lower my status to even the playing field. Whether this works, I have no idea. Most people tend to find me pretty non-threatening, so maybe I’m on track.

Our teacher said something else. She said that the difference between confidence and arrogance involves whether or not you ever choose to willingly lower your status. If you refuse to ever yield status, you come off as an asshole. Cocky and unfriendly. People will resent that you seem to put yourself above them. I thought about this and wondered what balance I could strike to raise my status without trampling on others. I often joke about what the world must seem like to a confident person (doing power moves like pissing in the middle urinal of three), but it’s not like I don’t have that option in front of me. Recently I’ve been trying small tricks to see if they’ll help. I’ve been checking my posture more regularly. An upright chest with neutral spine, shoulders back, pelvis tilted forwards. I’ve been trying to smile more often in a fake it till you make it kind of fashion. If I do move aside or let someone through, I do it with a smile. Happiness is a status move, whether intentional or not. I’ve been heeding another lesson learned in improv- that it’s okay to pause before responding. You don’t need to always have an answer right away. Taking a second to consider isn’t a sign of weakness. It shows you’re thinking about the right answer.

Status is a privilege and it’s also a choice. It’s weird to think that I had a say in this all along.

Sounds choice to me.

Beetloaf? How would anyone ever figure that out?

I was listening to a playlist and David Bowie’s “Heroes” came on. It’s a great song, obviously. This ain’t no hot take. It’s not like you were in doubt about Bowie’s discography until I came down from on high and anointed it with my blessing. Oh, Leon thinks it’s a sweet jam? I better slide this one into my A rotation tout de suite. Bowie don’t need my help. Also, having passed into the pale, he’s beyond my reach.

It got me thinking, when did I get into Bowie? It was likely after hearing a bunch of his stuff on Radio Hauraki. I was 20 or so, working part time at a party store. Despite his legendary status in the rock canon, I didn’t know his stuff intimately. I liked that “Ziggy Stardust” one, but knew piss-all outside of that. I downloaded the rest of the Spiders from Mars album and soaked it in. Then Diamond Dogs. My appreciation of Bowie never passed into true idolatry. Since listening more intently, I’ve always thought he was great, but didn’t get sucked into the orbit of his mythos. I think I missed the boat, his contemporary relevance having happened before my time.

Then Bowie passed away and, well, nothing much changed. I still think he’s pretty great, but even more so than my own appreciation of his work, I love how his music and persona inspired so many. The pop cultural sphere was overflowing with tributes and it was hard to escape (not that I’d care to) from his pervasive oeuvre. Watching interviews where he clearly thought in a manner that was beyond his time, knowing that he constantly championed new and emerging artists only increased my admiration.

I noticed all the furore after his death (partly sparked by his late game release of Blackstar and the oddly prescient “Lazurus”) and wondered, cynically, if any artists had considered faking their death for the sweet, sweet tributes. I thought back to Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, how the boost to their discography rotations must’ve aided their estates. In poker you’ve gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. For an established, but fading artist (like Kenny Rogers himself), could it be time to cash out and escape to serene seclusion? Set up getaway plans, have lawyers plot everything out, then disappear leaving only grim fiction of your demise in your wake.

How hard would it be to fake your identity, buy a small plot of land and enjoy the quiet life somewhere outside of public scrutiny? You could chop wood and portage, whittle and play the fiddle. Plus other shit that country people do day in day out. How am I supposed to know? I’ve never shoved my arm up a cow’s butt. Royals and residuals lining your coffers, leaving the rest of your days unencumbered by the need to perform for others. For someone who’d lived in the public eye, wouldn’t that be idyllic? Meatloaf would do anything for love, would he fake his death? C’mon dude, it shouldn’t be hard to create some plant-based persona and find the sweet bliss of obscurity. Kill your public persona and live for yourself, not for anyone else. Then if you need a huge cash infusion, re-emerge from the grave like a Bat Out of Hell.

What are you waiting for? Your career has written itself to this moment.