North American Contrarian

Telling it like it is… in North America

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How I Manned Up… and Accepted the Vacuum Cleaner

I clearly remember the day I got into my first (and only) fight.  I was 16, and it happened after class in an open field. I have no recollection what started it, I simply remember that it attracted a big crowd, and that in the end I was thankful I didn’t lose teeth.  But I also recall being satisfied that the fight- along with chasing girls and sneaking into bars, was one more defining moment in my quest towards manhood.

It all seems so quaint now.

Fast forward 20 years.  Since then there is home ownership, a 9-5 job and a countless flow of bills that require “urgent” attention.   But these were all expected trappings of grown up life and drilled into me by endless teachers, professors and parents.

On being a man, however, there was scarcely little preparation.  Here, I’m not referring to the ability to fix an engine, build a fence or possess a preternatural knack to barbecue a steak to medium rare (I still struggle with all of these).

08800_pornforwomen36Instead, what I have found is that the greatest challenge to modern male-dom is the anti-archetype.   No one ever prepared me for the vacuum cleaner.

I don’t mean this in the sense that that I am bad at vacuuming and wish I had received more instruction throughout my upbringing.  What I mean is that it took me several years of internal strife to feel comfortable with the idea of Kevin vacuuming. It took even longer to reconcile doing the dishes, and I still struggle to handle my weekly garbage duties.

The older I get, the more I realize this is not a trivial matter.  There are duties that must be done in every home, and someone needs to accept responsibility for life’s most mundane tasks.  Leonard Cohen expressed it best in his song Democracy:

It’s the Homicidal Bitchin’;

That Goes Down in Every Kitchen;

To Determine Who Will Serve and Who Will Eat.

Of course, past generations of men rarely faced this dilemma when male duties were restricted to tasks requiring heavy lifting and power drills.  But as much as I would love to blame my parents and society, this too is not totally fair.

I am the first to accept that we have moved beyond the era where women should carry all the burden of domestic life.  And more than that, the truth is that I like the concept of the guy pitching in around the house.  When I see my (more enlightened) male friends changing diapers and cooking dinner, my honest reaction is: Here is my friend.  I know for a fact he’s straight.  We still play sports together, go out for beers and regularly make lewd comments about women.  Yet, he, somehow is comfortable- even content to voluntarily clear the dishes after the meal and feel no loss of pride.

This impresses me greatly.

But as much as I admire this quality,  when it gets down to the nitty-gritty- to actually scrubbing pots and maneuvering the dust-buster into tight crannies, a sense of real dissonance strikes.  And the fact is that I’m not alone in this feeling.  Numerous studies show that women- even in our modern, “enlightened” age still, disproportionately do the housework.  One study from Cornell University showed that women still do most of the household even when woman works and the man is unemployed. 

You don’t need to be a hardcore feminist to accept that it leaves women with a pretty raw deal.  They earned the right to work, but still do not make the same salary men,  Not only must they endure PMS and labour, they are also expected to be the predominant child minders.  On top of that, they are still the ones we expect will get the mustard stains out of our pants when we run into a hot-dog “challenge”.

It was this realization that led me to take another look at the vacuum.  No, not just look… I decided I would dominate the vacuum like my childhood hero Tony Hawk took on the half-pipe.  I made it a personal mission, every Sunday to get every fleck of dust out from under the bed, and ensure that no speck of grime remained on the baseboards.  I know it’s just vacuuming, and there’s a lot more than that to keeping a home, but it’s a start, one about which my wife is quite pleased.

And, strange as it sounds, accepting the vacuum also had an important side benefit.  It made me realize that, in spite of what I believed growing up, the characteristics we most associate with manliness are the ones that are easy because doing what is expected is almost always the most simple course of action.  Instead, the real test and the most difficult challenge is to act outside of these stereotypes and make our own definitions of who we are.

For me, it started with the vacuum cleaner.


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5 Life Lessons From Cavemen

Mankind has made huge progress since the ancient days when we wandered the earth itinerantly and relied on fickle stars instead of a Tom Tom, or even Google Maps.

url-1Yes, we have discovered great marvels like the George Foreman grill (just imagine how uneven Sabre Tooth Tigre meat would be without convection cooking) and small wonders like toilet paper (I have read much about our fore bearers but have yet to learn how they handled one of mankind’s greatest challenges.)

But before we get overly self congratulatory about our progress, I think it’s worth considering some of the great life lessons from our cavemen brethren.

1) The Tough Mudder, Every Day:

Without the aid of protein shakes or kale, cavemen rarely put on even a pound.  Instead they followed a vigorous exercise regimen, a daily sweat fest that somewhat resembled the tough mudder but with only slightly less opportunity for team bonding between events.  The swivel chair and ergonomic mouse had yet to be invented and our ancestors had little incentive or motivation to sit for eight hours a day.

Vericose viens were exceedingly rare in those days.

2) A Sophisticated Diet Plan:

paleo-diet1 Even before the advent of foie gras, the cavemen’s diet was surprisingly sophisticated.  Everything was locally sourced, organic and free range.  The menu was heavy on meats, berries and other simple grains.  it was a hybrid that would both make Atkins proud while also satisfying Michael Pollan and discerning foodies, all before the advent of the Food Network.

3) Only Keep What You Can Carry:

Cavemen carefully avoided our natural obsession with hoarding in a very simple way.  There were no shortage of great things available for the taking: ornate rocks, carefully chiselled bones and fur coats of every description (granted, yearly subscriptions to Nat Geo were still not available to collect dust in the cave cellar).

But you can just picture a caveman telling his wife “honey, I agree that giant hunk of quartz is a beauty, but I just can’t be running from a wholly mammoth with that thing strapped to my back”.

It was a remarkably effective strategy with the result that cavemen were the original pioneers of the minimalist lifestyle.

 4) Family Comes First:6a00d8341bf7f753ef00e54f3e5bcb8834-800wi

This was not something that little cavemen children learnt during endless reruns of the Cosby Show.   Instead it was engrained from birth that your family was your most important worldly possession.  These people formed the only barrier between you and everything the natural world could throw at you.

Dad was more than they guy who could grant you car privileges on the weekend.  Instead, he was your only defence against some very toothy animals that wanted to add you to the food chain while you slept.

Clearly, this is not a guy you wanted to piss off.

5) Seise Each Day

Before Lululemon brought yoga to the mainstream and Deepak Chopra urged us to awake to a new consciousness, cavemen practiced a brand of new age lifestyle that will go down in the ages.  This was largely for expediency, as our fore bearers had little time to reminisce about the past or look forward to the future.

Indeed, cavemen were the ultimate practitioners of living in the now.  They seized each moment as if it were their last and lived each day to its absolute fullest without the requirement of yoga mats, tie die or Yanni recordings.

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Deadly Encounter with An Australian Melon

Australia is a country famously full of deadly things.

There are the box jellyfish that float surreptitiously through the ocean in the summer months.  This is the world’s most poisonous life-form and an encounter with one of these guys will leave you in what one unlucky person called “the most agonizing pain you could ever possibly imagine”. There are snakes, spiders, marsupials and insects that can bring your life to a cripplingly painful end.

But, as I found out quite accidentally you should also be worried about melons.  Specifically paddymelon, a close cousin of the watermelon, and something that looks so benign you wouldn’t bat an eye if it appeared in your fridge next to the margarine.

IMG_1119I learnt this on a recent trip in the Northern Territory’s red centre, a place I was exploring on a small group tour.  We were visiting Ormiston Gorge located off the Stuart highway that connects the town of Alice Springs with not much else.  The gorge is one of the region’s most visited icons, a deep fissure that cuts precipitously into the West MacDonnell Ranges.

We arrived on a windy afternoon and our guide Dave, an affable Australian who reminded me of a boyscout leader with his neatly pressed clothes and impressive knowledge of the terrain, explained the options for the day.  These included a short jaunt around the gorge’s base or a longer hike that follows its perimeter and returns via the river bed that cuts through its centre.

In all, we were told, the second option was only lightly strenuous and would take just over an hour. As the great majority of my fellow travellers were what Australians refer to as “grey nomads” only three of 18 of us opted for the longer hike and, along with Dave, we set off along a meandering path that hugged the gorge’s edge.


Ormiston Gorge

The scenery along the trail was spectacular. It featured the deep, pastel red colour typical of the red centre.  But, uniquely, given the river that often flows through its centre, the gorge also features verdant plant life: giant ferns, spindly trees and dense shrubs that gave the scene an almost prehistoric feel.

After 45 minutes, the trail began its steep decent into the bowels of the gorge.  Soon we were just above the river bed, a tranquil scene of slowly moving water that passed over a bed of boulders.  We stopped to admire the view before dropping onto the rivers dry edge to begin our walk back to our starting point.

IMG_1132The going was slow as we negotiated the large rocks, and, after about thirty minutes, Dave stopped to point out a basketball-sized melon connected to a weedy rope.  He
pointed it out nonchalantly, more just to break up the walk than out of any real interest.

Being from a country where it’s rare to stumble on an errant melon, I was intrigued.

“Can you eat it?”

“I suppose so” David answered, intrigued at my sudden fascination.  To indulge my interest he cracked it open to reveal a white flesh.

Thinking back now, it lacked many of the characteristics that one would associate with a tasty melon.  It wasn’t juicy, and didn’t have the floral smell typical to edible fruit.  But the exterior.  The exterior was just like a watermelon, with its soft green and white stripes.

If wild blueberries and raspberries are delicious, I figured, a wild watermelon-y type fruit must be sensational.

I bit deeply into the melon.

My reaction was instant.  The flavour of this thing was something between awesomely bitter horseradish and diesel fuel.  I immediately gagged and spit out what was remaining in my mouth.

“Did you actually just eat that thing” a fellow hiker asked with a strange look of incredulousness that someone would willingly ingest a random gourd off the river floor.

“Totally nasty” I replied, still trying to spit out any residue of the awful flavour as we continued our slow progress.


A (highly poisonous) paddy melon

It took about three minutes until a feeling- one that I haven’t had in over 10 years when I similarly but purposely poisoned myself with magic mushrooms, overcame me.  It was the feeling that the world had, in an instant, slipped away and become distorted into a place that resembled but was distinctly different to the one I had inhabited just seconds ago.

Put simply, I quickly realized that I was tripping out on the random, Aussie outback melon.  And, in contrast to the somewhat expected result of eating mushrooms, this was a decidedly scary feeling.

“Uh oh” I said to the group as the world narrowed and I had the distinct feeling that I would soon pass out.

The next few minutes were blurry.  I remember looks of concern, and suggestions that I should dip my face in the river.  I remember a kaleidoscope of colours and a burning dizziness.  But most of all I recall being terrified that my life would soon be over and how could I be so profoundly stupid.

“Moronic Canadian traveller dies after voluntarily ingesting random legume in Australian outback”. 

As I braced myself for the end, I realized that I would have the energy to continue, even if in an altered state.  As we walked, I tried to maintain a
conversation (about what, I can’t remember), but the reality was that I was intently concentrated on just staying conscious.

I do, however, recall feeling of relief when we arrived at the bus.  I flopped onto my seat, which felt like a warm, comfortable hug.  The rest of the group loaded in, and soon the coach trudged out of the gorge.

It was only later in the day, after I came to the slow conclusion this was not the end of my life, that Dave somewhat reluctantly passed me a laminated page with descriptions of the local fauna.

On the bottom left hand corner was a picture of the melon.  The description explained that it was a Paddy Melon, “found mostly in wetlands, likely originated in Africa and resembles a small watermelon, attached to a weedy stem.”

At the end of the paragraph was a final note that left me with a chill that took me days to shake off.

“This melon is known to kill livestock. DO NOT INGEST“.

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The Ultimate, Life Changing Financial Advice

Of all of the financial advice I have read, one piece stands out as the most meaningful.  It’s a one word goal that is deceptive in its simplicity and it changed my life.



For me, starting to save was one of my greatest achievements of the past decade.  The first time I posted a surplus was an incredibly liberating feeling.  Suddenly credit card companies, bill collectors and collection agencies had no reason to call.  It was as though a constant (albeit politically incorrect) game of cowboys and Indians had suddenly ended, the chase was called off and I was free to go my own way.

Similar to exercise routines, or remembering to call grandma every week, the toughest thing about the whole procedure was the first time.  It required change and people, including myself, are loathe to make change.

What surprised me- and despite what I had thought, the act of saving soon became enjoyable in its own right.  It’s noScreenHunter_02-Apr.-12-20.59t the immediate joy I get when the alarm accidentally goes off during the weekend or leftover pizza appears in the fridge after a night at the pub.  Instead, it’s a plodding, long term deal.  It’s more the feeling I get after a good workout or when I happily noticed that 2% milk suddenly tasted like a viscous goo after switching to 1%.  These are good things, that will make me a better person in the long run.

The sad thing is that, in our quest for immediate gratification these pleasures are too easy to overlook.  This is why only 24% of eligible Canadians file an RRSP and we only currently stash away a pathetic 3.9% of our incomes.

Experts often recommend that money be automatically withdrawn from our paycheques to savings, a sort of trickery that forces us to contribute once a month.  And that does work.  But in my humble opinion it also robs us of our greatest weapon to really invest in investing.

url-1My technique is to very consciously and methodically decide how much goes in my account each month.  This is because I actually get off seeing my bank account swell and look forward to helping it along.  I don’t have a specific amount I plan to stash away each month because my strategy is to live as frugally as possible and dump the rest into index funds and ETF’s.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.  Before you begin to save, you are taxi driver with no petrol or a hockey player living in the deep Congo.

It all starts with a very small, though not necessarily intuitive step.  This is, to use an old cliche, to put a few cookies from the jar just out of reach.  To portion even a minuscule amount of your paycheque away from the incredible diversions of modern society towards your greater good.

In short, to begin, you must first follow my best advice.  You must start.

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A Homage to Budget Travel From The Lounge

I’m in the lounge at Pearson Airport.  I’m about to embark on a 20 hour paid trip to Australia, business class all the way.  I am extremely privileged.  But this is not a post about the joys of business travel.

In fact, this is the anti-business class blog; this is a homage to a dying type of travel, the kind I did throughout my 20’s and occasionally, but with less and less frequency in my 30’s. 

The type of travel I’m referring to is where you get off a plane with a limited budget (the smaller the better).  You take the local busses because that’s all you can afford and you eat local food because, ditto, this is the cheapest option.The goal here in this type of travel is extremely simple.  it is to exist in another place.  it is simply to exist.  It’s staying in rat infested, bug crawling, 10$ a day hotels.  It’s having awkward conversations with locals and feeling out of the comfort zone.  It’s not really knowing what the point is, but still recognizing that there is one, and that each day you are growing.  It’s not having a timeline

I don’t often use the word “longingly” but I this is how I recall this type of travel.  I crave it in the way people often talk about a dead lover.  I recognize that I don’t have the time or life position to partake in this type of travel and I might never have it again (unless I achieve my goal of doing the tour d’afrique on my 40th). 

To be frank, that type of travel is the reason I got into the travel business, because I truly think that this type of travel is transformational and it truly bothers me that more people have never truly experienced being unhinged, and simply exist in a different place for the simple pleasure of doing so..

My progression in how I travel has followed a progression: starting on a shoestring travel budget, advancing to moderate and now, working with tourism boards, mostly luxury, flying business, and staying in high end hotels.

But let me end by saying that where I am now is more hollow.  This type of travel results in the same rat race typical to North America, where the point is simply to prove that you are important enough, and have enough money to afford these privileges.  In the end, it ultimately contradicts the entire purpose of travel which is to allow a new place to seep into you and be absorbed by its people, smells, and come back slightly changed. 

And, in spite of all the luxuries of the next 20 hours of my life, the way I used to travel is the only type of travel in which I returned richer than before I left,.

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Shareholders Don’t Give A Fuck

I have a confession to make. As you can likely tell by reading my blog, I aim to take a contrarian approach to life in North America. I aim to expose the dark side of life here and all of its foibles.

But I am also a shareholder, mostly invested in index funds. I own stock in everything. I own the Alberta oil patch, and pieces of Chevron, Shell and BP. I own companies known for their association with dirty money and with criminal activity.

And I don’t give a fuck.

Joe FreshLet me provide some context here. If you were to ask me: do you agree that we should reduce dependence on oil, I would answer, “you’re dam straight: I have my consumption down to almost zero, and rely on my bike as my primary form of transportation.” If you were to ask me about the exploitation underway in Africa I would reply “it’s an affront to human dignity”, adding that I am well aware of the way the oil industry has literally robbed entire African nations of their resource wealth, leaving nothing but devastation in return.

But all that dissolves when I’m watching the stock ticker. As hypocritical as it sounds, when these figures tick up, I feel good.

Herein lies the fundamental problem with capitalism as it stands. It’s the disconnect. If people who bought clothes from Joe Fresh and Gap spent time in Bangladesh and met the victims of the building collapse in Rana stocks upPlaza, they would think twice about purchasing sweat shop clothes. If those who bought Nabob travelled to the fincas in Brazil and consorted with exploited coffee workers, they would likely refrain from drinking anything but Fair Trade coffee.

But North Americans are busy people, and we, too have limited resources (both time and money) to investigate every purchase we make, and stock we buy.

I’m not proposing a solution here. And I know a lot of people would argue this point, and say that we should recognize that spending a dollar is like voting for how you the believe the world could be.

But in the end, most of us- myself included- aim to buy low and don’t concern ourselves with the effects. It’s a tragedy, but a reality of the system that, like it or not, we are all a part of.

Now time for me to get back to my stocks- it appears that resources are posting a strong run on the day…

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Five “Musts” For A North American Contrarian

You may think that life as a Contrarian in North America is quite simple.  Let’s face it, there is no shortage of material to choose from and no lack of absurdity to be exposed.  To be a contrarian, you may say, all it takes is a snarky attitude, with a pinch of obstinacy for good measure.  And while these definitely don’t hurt, they are only the start.  Below are five other basic necessities to go from novice to the advanced reaches of contrarianism.

1) A Passport:

imagesIt would be unfair to target this continent before having ventured afield to others.  A true contrarian needs their passport because they understand the value of travel to give a deeper perspective on the place they call home.  Are other continents and places equally absurd?  Of course they are!  I’m sure when a Nigerian guy stays a while in Asia he thinks back to his home and says, damn, that Nigeria is a very odd place. It is only through the act of leaving that a contrarian can make real  judgments about his home.

2) Buckets of Books: images-1

If television is the media of the masses, books are the choice of the intelligent.  How can you truly form an alternative opinion to the mainstream if you consume the same material as everyone else?  Books are the fuel that brings fire to a contrarian arguments.  It is through the slow, methodical study of facts and arguments that the contrarian truly hones their craft.

3) A Bike:

Can a North American Contrarian drive a car?  Of course they can!  This is not an exercise in deprivation and life in North America is built around the great American (though now more likely, Asian) automobile.  The distinction here is that the contrarian is open to other forms of transport and uses them wherever possible.

Two feet are a good start and public transport will do in a pinch.  But for its incredibly efficiency, nothing beats a bike.  Bikes are free to park, fun, fast and very low maintenance.   For those who simply cannot give up their combustible engine, scooters are almost as bike47efficient.  My little Yamaha Vino 125 is in it’s 8th year and purrs around the city on $4 a fill-up .

The point is that a contrarian does not buy the myth that a car is a birthright which defines his identity, but is in fact a machine that results in more debt and poorer health.

nb: an important clarification.  The bike I’m referring is not an “accessory.”  Buying a $2,000 single speed is only slightly less ridiculous than buying an SUV.  A utilitarian, easy to fix bike with lots of gears, purchased on Kijiji is what I am referring to.

4) Less of Everything:

Week_1_Less_is_More-300x300In a world that prizes consumption above all else, this one could be the most important credo for the aspiring contrarian.  The odds here are truly stacked against us.  We are told that to be truly happy we need more of everything: be it bigger portions, automobiles or flat screen TV’s.  More stuff and bigger homes to hold said stuff.

I’m not a minimalist and I am truly in awe of the the many advances we have made in technology.  But when I do make a purchase, it is only after careful consideration.  Will this item truly make my life better?  Is the money spend now worth robbing my future self?  In some cases, the answer is yes.  But time and time again, after some careful thought, I come to a resounding no.

5) A Healthy Dose of Cynicism

Simply put, being a true contrarian requires different way of looking at the world.  It’s not about rejecting everything.  It’s not choosing a side, be it urlright vs. left or vegetarian vs. meat eater.  There is no club to join, or fashion movement to follow.

Instead it’s about approaching the world with a healthy dose of cynicism and making informed decisions based on information and careful consideration.

Above all else, being a contrarian is about waking up and being conscious in a place where so many are content to automatically accept everything presented as the absolute truth.