Jack in NZ: Adult-Lite

December 5, 2016

“The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free” – Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

“White Male Privilege Squandered on Job at Best Buy” – The Onion

Here it is, the‘What I’ve Learned From Studying Abroad’ post:

One of the major questions we all have to contend with is “What do I do with the time I have on Earth?”. Most people have this question answered for them by circumstance. They’ve got mouths to feed, jobs to work, a mortgage to pay off, external circumstances that keep them locked into their lives.

Ostensibly, the more latitude you have in answering this question, the freer and luckier you are. Which would make me, having had essentially no external circumstances that compelled me to do anything (other than publish an occasional blog and get at least a 55% in each of my classes), incredibly free and lucky.

Being free and lucky really sucks. I wish someone had warned me.

“Hey Guys, we’re gonna give you four months of vacation in a beautiful country halfway around the world where your classes are pass/fail, attendance isn’t taken, course materials are all on Blackboard, and you have your expenses pretty much covered by your parents. Don’t slack off.” wink

What did you think we were going to do in this situation? Go to class?

It was like giving a bunch kids the keys to a candy store and telling them not to eat themselves into obesity.

Which is essentially what I did.

I slept in until 11 every day, skipped all but my mandatory labs, only did homework when I absolutely could not put it off any longer, and went out traveling and drinking on the weekends. And the weekends were from Wednesday to Sunday.

A successful day for me involved not rolling around in bed and playing with my phone for an hour before I got up, going for a run, reading a chapter or two of whatever book I felt like reading, and cooking a good meal. I think my single greatest accomplishment was watching all of Game of Thrones.

And this may sound like the best semester ever, but it was incredibly tedious. Somewhere around 20 minutes into the third consecutive episode, it was no longer fun. It was fun in principle, but in practice it was unfulfilling.

But because it was still way more fun in principle than schoolwork or actually publishing a blog on schedule for once, it was easy to keep doing. Keeping the laptop open was the path of least resistance, and there was no external pressure to push me out of the rut.

For the longest time I’ve railed against this sort of external pressure. Expectations that I attend every class drove me up a wall: “Why not just throw the Powerpoint up online and let me learn the material on my own time?”

These sorts of things didn’t just seem inconvenient; they seemed to insult my maturity, my independence. It was as if the professor wasn’t treating me like an adult.

And they were right to. Because if I’ve learned anything from abroad, it’s that I’m still very much a child.

I took my freedom and ran with it. I was a slave to my lizard brain, letting my dopamine system jerk me around from Youtube video to Youtube video, working only when I had to, not really accomplishing any of my loftier goals I brought into the semester.

Faced with infinite free time, ‘writing for an hour everyday’ became, ‘eh, maybe tomorrow, back to GoT’, ‘staying on top of my classes’ became ‘eh, three days before the final is probably enough time to learn a semester’s worth of material’.

In short, I really screwed myself over.

But I think it was ultimately a good thing. As a result, I’ve got a lot more appreciation for what I used to see as unnecessary structure. I can’t wait to get back to Richmond to wake up for 9am’s every morning, I can’t wait to submit regular homework assignments and take a test every 4-6 weeks.

And I now know that when I’m dumped at freedom and adulthood’s doorstep after graduation, I had better have my act together. Working to slowly wean myself from contrived structure and learning to impose my own will ensure I take full advantage of my freedom and my luck.



Jack in NZ: Alkaline

November 21, 2016

“Don’t feel bad for me. I think I’m, like, so pretty.”

“I am a hot-blooded fire and I am fearless.”

“It’s been a life-altering year. But I guess every year for everyone is a life-altering year.”

– Amy Schumer

After literal weeks of trying to come up with a post-abroad blog post, I’m taking my second copout. I’m still trying to make sense of the whole semester and tie a pretty little literary bow on the whole thing. Rest assured, it’s coming. But in the meantime, I need to publish something. And I’m running out of forms to experiment with. The one, of course, that I haven’t touched, is the blandly positive stereotypical travel blog. I’ve resisted this one all semester, agonizing over my posts, trying as best as I can to make something meaningful that I can be proud of. Now, I relent.

And my goodness was it enjoyable. There’s no literary risk involved, just relating my experience as simply as possible. No flourish, nothing over which to feel self conscious, nothing over which to agonize. It was easy, it was fun, it was positive.

And here I think lies the first lesson I’ve learned while abroad: basic stuff is kind of fun. Polo shirts are comfortable, Ke$ha is talented, Amy Schumer is funny. And more importantly, the people who like these things aren’t suffering from some sort of aesthetic-appreciation affliction, they’re just people, enjoying what life has to offer.

This is the Katy Perry of my blog posts, my Abercrombie, my Kevin Hart. And while any respectable critic would (rightly) dump on it, it’s upbeat and it’s fun and it’s positive, and who wants to disparage that?

Just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean other people can’t enjoy it:

Finals were kind of hard. I had to cram for them in the two days before I took them because I procrastinated studying for basically the entire semester. My first final was for my environmental chemistry class. Because I did pretty well on my course assignments (my labs and homeworks and stuff), I only needed a 28% on the final to pass the class and get credit for the course. The format of the test allocated 20% of the possible points to each of the five sections of the class. Instead of studying all the material, I concentrated on the two sections I had taken notes on at the beginning of the year, because I thought that was a more efficient use of my time. When I got to the exam, I was relieved to see that the questions for those two sections represented what I had studied pretty well. I was even able to do some of the questions in other sections, because the chemistry involved was relatively simple and the problems didn’t require the specific knowledge I neglected while studying. I was confident I got the score I needed, and I even got to leave the exam a little bit early. What a relief!

After I took my environmental chemistry exam, I headed back home to relax for a little bit and have a cup of coffee before diving into the study materials for my conservation biology class. For this test, I needed to get about a 50% to pass, so the stakes were much higher. I studied for a few hours, and mostly concentrated on big picture conservation priorities, as well as something called PVA. PVA stands for population viability analysis, and I knew there was going to be a question about it on the exam, so I studied it extra hard. I went to bed pretty early, so I could get a jump on studying before I took the exam the next afternoon.

The next day I woke up and went to the library. I managed to find a desk, and my friend Amy came to join me. Amy was in the same class as me and we helped each other study. Thanks Amy!

After reviewing our notes for a while, it was time to take the test. Now, I should mention, the university where I studied releases past exams, so students have a rough idea of what the questions will be. Every year the last three questions are pretty much the same (there’s one for each of the major sections of the course), which makes it easy to study for the exam, but the first question has more variation. The previous exams had first questions that were mostly about how to prioritize protected areas for animals. Because we really focused on marine protected areas in class, I was pretty sure that the question would be about them. There were also questions on what to do about specific conservation problems, like an oil spill, or what to do about the endangered yellow-eyed penguin. I thought (because they used the penguin question last year), there was no way they would use it again this year, so I didn’t really study for it.

Boy was that a mistake! When I opened up the exam, the first question was about the cheeky aquatic birds. Oops! Thankfully (because I did a lab report on the big problems facing the species), I was able to do well enough on the question. I also was able to answer the PVA question pretty well, all my studying sure paid off!

The last question was about how to attract local species to a town. I don’t think I did so well on that one. I knew the ‘what to do’, but I don’t think I explained the ‘why to do it’ enough. Hopefully I’ll get a good enough grade to pass!

Finals were pretty stressful, but after I finished I felt so good. I packed up all the stuff in my room, and gave away the things I couldn’t take with me. Then I made a tasty dinner with a steak from my freezer I’d been procrastinating cooking for a few months. It was a great last meal.
Then I bought some nice New Zealand craft beers from my local shop, and went to hang out with the best friends I made while abroad.

We didn’t do very much. I played a game of chess with my friend Noah, and talked with Amy and Sarah. We drank the beers and ate ice cream and had a relaxing time. I left around midnight after hugging them each goodbye and promising to stay in touch. That should be pretty easy with Amy and Sarah because they both go to Richmond. For Noah it will be more difficult, he goes to school up in Boston. We both said we might visit each other’s schools, but we didn’t make any firm plans. I went to bed feeling pretty excited for my trip the next day.

I had to get up really early to catch the airport shuttle, but it was worth it. All my transfers went smoothly and I was on the plane to Singapore in no time.

So long New Zealand! You were OMFG awesome!

Jack in NZ: Regular

October 27, 2016

“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you’re too busy, then you should sit for an hour.” – Unknown

“To be, in a word, unborable…. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish” – David Foster Wallace

“There is a story of a man fleeing a tiger. He came to a precipice and catching hold of a wild vine, swung down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above while below another tiger growled and snapped waiting for him to fall. As he hung there two mice began to gnaw away the vine. Just then he saw a big wild strawberry growing nearby. Reaching out with his free hand he plucked the strawberry. How sweet it tasted!” – Joseph Goldstein


The coffee is lukewarm.

It’s the dregs from yesterday morning my flatmate has left in the pot to condense overnight, my first cup in 72 hours. I spent the previous several days hiking the Kepler Track, staying in huts lacking electrical outlets and precluding the convenient preparation of caffeinated beverages lest a maker with 60-kilometer extension chord in tow be lugged for the duration of the trip. The surface interval has done me good, offered me a gulp of fresh air before plunging back into the caffeinated depths of exam week. The ‘how many shots in a long black?’ and ‘yes I’d like an extra’ surely in my near future, hooked on black ambrosia and a gradual acceleration in life’s pace that will bring me to the exam desk and airplane terminal in two-shakes of a freshly birthed NZ lamb’s tail.


Today marks the beginning of the end. I can practically smell the salty sea air of the Malaysian beach where I will sit and luxuriate in post-finals freedom. I can feel my feet digging into the sand and the equatorial rays on my skin. I can taste the strawberry daiquiri. And the second one. I can hear the waves lapping at the shore and the inoffensive tropical music over the hump that is the next week.

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On Halloween I will sit for my remaining exams. Two days later, I will leave New Zealand for a cheeky jaunt through the South’s of East Asia and Africa. If all goes to plan, this trip will continue to add hours to the time of my life.

But I’ve got a long way to go.

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My first order of business is to dig myself out of the academic hole in which I have wallowed for far too long. Baring a mad scientist tainting the water supply with amphetamines, it seems as though this project will consume most of my remaining time. The odds I go on another backpacking trip are slim, the chances I see the stars at Lake Tekapo dubious. So be it. I may never return to check them off my bucket list, but the experiences I’ve had so far more than compensate.

My second task involves gradually extracting the roots that have begun to take hold. I need to find homes for all the stuff I’ve acquired over the past few months. I’ve got books to read, camping gear to sell, and a cactus in need of adoption. I’ve also got 20-odd liters of homebrew to humanely dispose of, a confounding variable I could probably do without. And of course there are the goodbyes, the U.S. phone numbers, and the hugs to exchange before I can step on the plane.


The flatmate has brewed another pot this morning, leaving a half-cup a few degrees hotter than the previous one. Impossible to resist, I refill my mug.

The law of diminishing returns applies in spades to the bitter liquid; coffee is a crazy new girlfriend, an initial rush of euphoria in exponential decline, creeping resentment brewing with every minute together, a reluctance to break things off given the threat of an unknown but definitely not good subsequent several days and because my goodness is she seductive. A constant teeth gritting of which one can never quite determine the origin concomitant in each study session, bouncing one’s leg up and down to the erratic scribbling of notes, work a means to the end of going home and passing out so you can wake up and do the same thing the next day. It’s perversely enjoyable, finals a sort of free pass to stay up at odd hours and embrace a strung- and stressed-out lifestyle with a clear end in sight.

This week is the climax of my semester. Rather than enjoying the perfect cadence of a contemplative and restful study abroad denouement, I will race toward the finish line. I will ignore the birds in the botanical garden and I will not stop to smell the flowers. I will spend hours in the library and consume tepid cups of methylxanthines and fit in travel planning and friends at the margins. The hectic state of mind is all too familiar, and perhaps unavoidable, but at least I know it’s coming. I will do my damnedest to enjoy it.

The last sludgy sip has been consumed, straggling grinds and all.


Jack in NZ: Work

October 14, 2016

“Work work work work work work” – Robyn Fenty

“You don’t gotta go to work, but you gotta put in work” – Brian Lee

“Work sucks” – Tom DeLonge

I wish the bathroom were further away from my desk. I could use a nice long stroll to put some substantial physical distance between me and the rest of my work. Unfortunately it’s close by. Perhaps I could wander upstairs a few floors, do a lap around the library, hope I bump into a friend and get sucked into conversation. Better judgment prevails and I’m in and out and back at my desk, bladder emptied, legs minimally stretched, mind still resisting the remaining four steps of Dunedin tap water lead concentration data processing. I fidget for several minutes, taking a long drink from my water bottle. I’m not thirsty, but it’s something to do, and ensures I’ll get to repeat my brief walk past a dozen-odd bookcases to the bathroom within the hour. Maybe I’ll pick up a book and page through it for a while. I’m stuck in the history section, and though I’ve never been a big fan of the subject, these are desperate times. The girl at the desk to my left gets up. I take off my watch and put it on the desk next to my computer, adjusting it several times so the band and the flank of my laptop are exactly perpendicular. I look out the window and watch pedestrians walk by. No one greets another as they walk past. Virtually all of them stare down at their phones or turn the other way with deliberately nonchalant motions. I listen to people shuffle and fidget. A page turns. The girl at the desk to my right gets up. Another page turns. Someone about 20 bookcases over coughs, giving another the tacit permission to do the same. The cycle repeats. The cough and throat-clearing wave passes down the row of desks. I participate. Pens click and are set down with varying degrees of noise. There’s a soft clicking and clacking of laptop keyboards amid the sound of cars driving by. A fluorescent light is on the fritz behind me and makes a plinking sound as it stochastically flashes. I believe it’s as close as I’ll get to Chinese water torture, god willing. The girl who left the desk to my right returns. No sign of the other. Perhaps she’s taking a lap. There’s a palpable air of brow furrowing and nail biting and absentminded finger drumming. Two pretty girls walk by with a Bernese mountain dog and half the people near the window turn their heads. I take another sip of water. I remove my glasses and man handle my face to make sure it’s still there. As far as I can tell, it is. I put my glasses back on. I take them off again and clean them. They’re not dirty. A man with a large green umbrella walks by outside. He stops, checks his phone, and goes back the way he came. I clean the small amounts of gunk from under my nails. I swivel side to side in my chair and open my phone, checking each social media app, finding nothing new. I check each of them again.

This is how the past few weeks have gone. I pick at work for several days, like a child pushing peas around his plate so he can please be excused. I resolve to get things done early, then spend hours on YouTube chasing a tireless rabbit down its infinite Internet hole, rationalizing videos like ‘Jon Stewart destroys Bill O’Reilly on his own show’ and ‘Seven times Neil deGrasse Tyson blew our minds’ have some vague educational benefit. Mid-week rolls around with minimal work production, and weekend plans begin to crop up. A glorious light at the end of the tunnel. Mountains, trails, friends, a departure from cyclical procrastination and concerns of studying, the only thing motivating enough to get me to sit down at a library desk for hours on end and claw my way through lab reports and lecture notes. Forty-eight hours of freedom. All that remains between me and a weekend of fun is the Eurydician task that is my lab report. I must not look back.

I can only hope that with 20 days left in my semester abroad I can change my work habits. There are so many things I want to do before I go, and piles of work to complete before I can do them (it’s possible I’ve neglected to take notes on a lecture or 30). With a little effort, I’m sure I’ll be able to. Though perhaps this post is proof negative, I’ve spent an hour on it instead of doing my assignment.

A car horn honks.

The girl to my left returns.

A seagull floats past.

I get up to walk to the bathroom, but I don’t really have to go.

Jack in NZ: Flops

September 29, 2016

14:00; 2.5hrs until Bluff to Oban Ferry leaves; 2hrs until boarding but they’ll probably be flexible; 2hrs 50min drive from Dunners to Bluff; 1hr 50 mins to go; adequate safety margin for rest stop; ferry takes 1hr; getting me to Stewart Island at around 17:30; leaving a few hours of daylight to crank out the first leg of Rakiura; might have to do some hiking in the dark; that’s cool; might spot a kiwi; someone said they come out on the trail at night; campsite is by the beach; might see some there; what’s that song; the popular one; with the ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’?; also night hiking isn’t that bad; kinda fun; no navigational concerns; trail is well marked; have a headlamp; should be fine; do I have everything else?; tent; pad; bag; hiking clothes; sleeping clothes; Closer; binocs for birds; bird book; knife; fork; Chainsmokers; that’s the one; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’; pot; stove; fuel; no pot lid though; that’s fine; use a little more fuel to boil water; have plenty; should be fine; socks; extra socks; extra underwear; book; definitely will have down time for reading; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’; no extra headlamp batteries to read in the dark if they run out; notebook; pen; same deal w.r.t. writing in the dark; probably ok; replaced batteries recently; should be fine; rope; sunscreen; first aid supplies; food; tea; ‘we ain’t ever gettin older’; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’; enough food?; yeah; plenty; should be fine; will be eating a lot; hike is 32km in three days; not bad; done worse; pack is pretty light; solo; should be fine; clear head; chill; meditate; read; write; enjoy outdoors; exercise; did I bring a towel?; yes; definitely; ‘we ain’t ever gettin older’; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’; first night at Maori Beach; like 3hr hike in; might be able to hitch to trailhead; small island; people are friendly according to guidebook; 3hr walk in dark will be kinda cool; also some daylight for walking; next day wake up and do inland portion to North Arm; like 4 or 5 hrs; seafood possibilities there; then hike out next day; ‘we ain’t ever gettin older’; like another 4 or 5 hrs; Allan’s base camp on way to town; hang out; rest; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’; go to town; maybe hit the pub; suss out kayak options; kayak out to Ulva for birds next day; then do some fishing; have rod; will need to get bait or scrounge some mussels or something; should be fine; kayak back to town; night at Allan’s; out early next morning; ferry at 8; need to save phone power for alarm; it’s plugged in now; turn low battery mode on; only use for pictures; should be fine; ‘we ain’t ever gettin older’; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’; I wonder if the same flip flop driving rule applies in New Zealand; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’; ‘we ain’t ever getting…’; no…; no…; I didn’t…; did I?…; yeah; yep; yep; definitely did… [various redacted expletives]… what time is it now?; can’t turn around to get them; would miss the ferry… [various redacted expletives]; well… looks like I’ll be hiking in flip flops… ; … ; …should be fine; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’…


Jack in NZ: Awaroa

September 15, 2016

“I feel that I am pressing my face into the hot sand of a tropical beach. I feel lucky to be alive. I am lucky to be alive! Or is it that I am alive to be lucky?” – Terence McKenna

I’m sitting on a beach in Abel Tasman National Park watching the tide go out. My back rests against an oversized piece of driftwood. There is a solitary sand fly crawling across the left lens of my Ray Bans toward the bridge of my nose. I adjust my sunglasses slightly and the bugger retreats to my hand, preparing to dig in. I squish him a little bit and he gets the message: ‘shoo fly, don’t bother me’.

A man hauling a trailer drives by on an ATV and parks on the edge of the promontory. We exchange friendly nods. He unloads boxes of gear and departs, disappearing behind the curves of the inlet. He returns by boat with several others. They load the gear and head for the Cook Straight, riding the remaining bits of river into the sea.

The tide has been slowly receding all morning, revealing patches of muddy sand and collections of thousands of cockle shells polished green and blue and purple. I take off my shoes and socks, roll up my pants, and wade across a trickling stream to an exposed sandbar where a flock of ducks soaks up the sun and enjoys a seafood feast. The ducks aren’t a fan of me, it seems. I get about 50 feet from a pair before they make a waddling retreat to the opposite shore.


I adjourn to the log, digging my swollen feet into the shoals along the way, letting the clam remains scratch and massage their flea-bitten, calloused skin. The water is refreshingly cold.

I walk to a small side trail flanked by large patches of gorse. The bushes are beginning to flower. Fuzzy green pods are emerging from the plants spikey stalks. Small yellow flowers like miniature orchids pornographically beckon bees that buzz past. The nectar-seekers bumble along, their striped backs alternating between orange and black.

I hear a whooping from one of the bushes that belongs to a California quail. The bird is dusky blue and has a single teardrop feather emerging from its head. He’s an order of magnitude friendlier than the ducks, tolerating five feet of separation before flitting over the trail with his buddies and a chorus of whoops.


I trek back along the trail. It’s interpolated with quail and boot prints. I sit on the log and drink lukewarm green tea out of a Nalgene bottle and watch a petrel float past the Jurassic landscape. The riparian mountains are every shade of green, dotted with palm-sized ferns. I can faintly hear the calls of tuis and the pips of small birds over the trickling of the tide.

It occurs to me that I haven’t experienced solitude like this in a long time. The weeks leading up to mid-semester break were hectic and crammed, with no time to visit the Great Outdoors and relax. Here there is no rush. I feel like I can finally think clearly, so I do. I sit and sip and think and write.


The tide has gone all the way out, it’s time to continue the trek. I walk back to camp and trade smiles with a group of trampers relaxing on the beach. I reach the hut and one of our group members says, “Wow dude, where were you? You were gone for almost four hours”

Another says, “You look really happy right now, man.”

“I am,” I say.



Jack in New Zealand: Damp/Minor Annoyances

August 26, 2016


The Condensation Gods are displeased

They’ve cursed the city of Dunedin with wet air

The humidity permeates our sinuses

Two running nostrils accompany every student

A chorus of sniffles in every class

Panes rendered opaque with dew obscure morning views

Water pools in bathrooms up to ankles after a hot shower

Towels soak up airborne moisture like compressed sponges in a sink

Drying racks exist only notionally

A perpetual wet sheen on every dish

Clotheslines outside a sort of cruel joke

I’m going to track down the speaker producing the intermittent high-pitched whine outside. I’ll search every street in Dunedin if I have to. When I find it I’m going to lock it in a soundproof room. I’m going to play heavy metal music through it at dangerously high volumes until the cone pops. I’m going to mount the remaining housing on the highest point of my flat as a warning to the next speaker that decides to scream at odd-hours of the day.

I’m going to take the heater and set it on high. I’m going to seal it in a box until it gets so hot it melts itself. I’m going to take the box and get on a boat and sail far out to sea. I’m going to tie a cinder block to the box and throw it overboard. I’m going to bring the replacement heater with me. It should see what happens to those that heat improperly.

I’m going to remove the upstairs door and jamb. I’m going to repurpose the glass into a windshield, affix it to a car, and sell the car to the nearest crash test lab. I’m going to take the leftover wood and use it to build a fire, and I’m going to heat the doorknob over it until it’s nice and malleable. I’m going to take a hammer and bang the doorknob into a flat metal plate and I’m going to take that plate and etch “I didn’t close” into it and mount it across from the new door. That should teach the next one to shut.

I’m going to yank the broken burner from the stove. I’m going to uncoil it. I’m going to find all the dull knives in the kitchen and grate each and every one against the rough metal until both burner and cutlery are reduced to bits of mineral dust. I’m going to wait for a windy day, and I’m going to hike to the top of Mount Cook and disperse the dust in every direction.

I’m going to remove every wall from the bathroom. I’m going to take the boards and use them to smash the drywall into gypsum molecules. I’m going to take the gypsum and use it to fertilize an expansive vegetable garden. I’m going to pick the vegetables and I’m going to eat each one angrily. That will teach the walls to collect condensation.

I’m going to dismantle the washing machine screw by screw. I’m going to melt down all the metal components and make myself a baseball bat, and I’m going to smash the remaining plastic to pieces. I’m going to gather all the pieces, take them to a volcano, and throw them into the bubbling magma. I’m going to film the entire process, and I’m going to make the rest of my household appliances watch. Woe to the next one that malfunctions.


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