Spots of Time

August 26, 2003

Televised Regrets

This week’s column was scheduled to be on my recent experience in a sensory depravation floatation tank – a story that is more than halfway written at this very moment. However, instead of being able to finish it, I’m finding myself turning around in my chair every two minutes and staring at the television, alternating between stunned amazement, extreme sympathy and abject horror.

The subject of my attention is “Australian Idol – The Bad, The Mad and the Ugly,” a “special” showing highlights of "reject" audition tapes from thousands of young Aussie hopefuls wanting to be the next singing sensation. Hypnotized by the painfully horrible singing, unbelievable outfits and stinging judges commentary, my flatmates and are physically unable to avert our eyes. While Rick is laughing his ass off, I’m cringing each time I see another poor kid baring his soul and being ripped to shreds – even if his voice does make me want to run for the hills.

Torn between my looming deadline and the train wreck happening behind me, I finally abandoned my floatation tank storyline in favor of musings about that which was currently keeping my attention – Australian television.

When I first came to Australia I was intrigued by the diversity of Australian television. Unlike American TV, where 99.9% of the programming is “Made in the USA,” much of Australian television is imported from the US and the UK. Initially I found it refreshing. Not only was I learning about Aussie programming, I was also getting a taste of the UK – and, as a bonus, could still see some of my favorite shows from back home.

Unfortunately, my interest soon waned. Try as I might, I could not find myself drawn to even one of the Aussie television programs. “Neighbors,” an evening soap that launched the careers of both Kylie Minogue and Natalie Imbrulia, was dull and predictable. “Home and Away” another evening serial, was full incredibly bad actors and actresses. My hopes hung on “The Secret Life of US” for a while – in vain. As popular now as Melrose Place was during its heyday, I found it poorly written and completely dull. Try as I might – and I did watch it weekly for a month – I could not get interested in any of the characters or storylines. And, the same goes for dozens of other programs I sampled throughout my 9 months in the country.

In all fairness, I should explain that between work and travel, I only average, at best, a few hours of television per week – and mostly out of the corner of my eye while someone else has it on in the background. As such, my cursory study of Aussie television is not really a fair assessment of the industry. Other people will tell you "The Footy Show" is hilarious, that "McCloud's Daughters" is wonderful or that I just haven't watched the right programs. And, maybe they are right. Still, one would think that the odds were in my favor to find at least one show that captured my attention. Unfortunately not. But then the British surprised me.

Truthfully, I had planned to give all the British programs a miss right away – like most Americans, I find that I just don’t “get” most British television humor – at least those that I had seen in the US (can any one say “Benny Hill?”). Though there were a few exceptions - programs like Absolutely Fabulous and Monty Python spring to mind - I wasn't really a fan of much programming from the UK.

But, then I got lucky. Randomly one evening I started watching a British import entitled “The Kumars at No. 42!” A combination sitcom and talk show, the program focuses on the Kumar family, an upper class Indian family living in the UK. The adult son, Sanjeev is desperate to move out of his parent’s house, but his family has built him a television studio in their backyard where he hosts his own talk show – “Sanjeev!” All guests coming on his show (real people from the non-sitcom world) must pass through the house and the questioning of Sanjeev’s parents and racy grandma – always in character – before coming on to his show. But they aren’t safe there – all three sit on the couch next to the interviewee and interviewer and provide a running commentary – much to Sanjeev’s dismay.

While it sounds bizarre, I found it really very funny – and completely unique in concept. The Aussies already have their own version – “Greeks on the Roof” and the US is not far behind. Turns out NBC recently shelled out $6 million dollars for the rights to the concept of “No. 42.” I’m very curious to see how the American’s do this one. I’m picturing Kato Kaylan hosting a talk show from OJ’s pool house, with real guests being interviewed while on floaties in the water.

But, I digress.

Turning my attention back to the “Australian Idol” special I found it hard to laugh along with my flatmates – as horribly funny as some of the auditions were to those not intimately involved with the contestants. Some of it was the scathing judges commentary – everything from “That voice should come with a government warning” to “Between the two of you there is not enough talent for even one of you (regarding twins)” to “The only good thing I can say about him is this – at least he isn’t a twin.” More than one contestant broke down in tears, either immediately or after they left the judges view.

But the bigger issue for me was that the “reject” audition tapes were being shown at all. While some of the auditions were clearly jokes or bets being fulfilled, most of the kids auditioning were very serious about wanting to be taken seriously – and crushed when they realized their dreams of singing were not going to come true. And now, to add insult to injury, their failure was being broadcast all across the country. Well, to me that just seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.

But maybe that is because I am too close to this particular situation. Maybe it is because not only can I sympathize with these kids, but I can empathize with them as well.

You see, about five years ago, on a whim and much younger and dumber than I am today, I decided to submit an audition tape to “The Real World” on MTV. I had forgotten all about it until I started watching the special. I’m quite sure I didn’t read the fine print in the application form, and I’m guessing that somewhere in the bottom, in really tiny 8-point type, is a sentence that explains that all tapes are the property of MTV – for use as they see fit – in perpetuity.

I’m dreading the day - when and if it ever arrives – that my tape finds the light of day. Sure, I’m not singing on it, and I know that whatever I wore isn’t even close to as hideous as some of the clothes I’ve just seen. However, watching the auditions for Australian Idol, broadcast nationwide, with side commentary from both the judges and the contestants, all I know is this – I WANT MY TAPE BACK.

Um, I don’t suppose anyone knows someone at MTV that might be able to go on a reconnaissance mission for me? Please? Anyone?

August 19, 2003

Saturn's Return

I'd like to tell you that I threw my back out skydiving. I'd like to tell you I threw my back out adventure kayaking. But, as I recently read that writers are meant to tell the truth, I have no choice but to admit to you that I hurt myself by trying to apply sunscreen to the hard to reach places on my back. I realize lame doesn't begin to describe it.

Salvation came in the form of a tie-dyed wearing, holistic masseuse named Renee. She and her daughter, Indigo, had been walking along just a block from the hostel when the desk clerk rang her mobile. You see, I was in Rainbow Beach, population 900, a town without a bank or a traffic light, much less a doctor or a chiropractor. In no position to be picky, I gladly accepted her services.

Minutes later I was lying on her massage table. "Melanie," she asked, starting to work on my back, "Have you been under a lot of stress lately?" I know it sounds like a joke - a traveler on a perpetual vacation being under stress - but really, it is possible. Except, I didn't think I was under a lot of stress, so I said no. "Hmmm," she said, kneading my back. "Are you the type of person who takes on other people's issues?" I admitted that I had a tendency to get wrapped up in other people's issues, mostly familial, but I didn't think that was the cause of my aching back. Then she asked me how old I was. When I told her 29 she got quiet for a while, then said, "You know, this might be due to your Saturn Return." My what? "Your Saturn Return - it usually hits around age 28/29." Oh, well sure, that totally explains it. HUH?

I should probably explain that while I tell people I'm from San Francisco, California, where words like "life force," "Saturn Return," and "cosmic energy" can be part of every day speech, my roots are Midwestern Indiana, where people eat red meat and potatoes, think vegetarians are a deviant subculture, and shake their heads when people from California say things like, "put it out to the universe and the universe will provide." After five years in California I was pretty hip to most of the spacey stuff, even subscribed to some of it - however, "Saturn Return" was not part of my vocabulary - yet.

Renee told me that a person's "Saturn Return" was a time of angst and frustration, and of working out of one's issues. She said it was a time to find what in your life made you happy and to grab it with both hands. It was also a time that tested you - and the choices made during this time in one's life would indicate what one could expect for the next 29 years of life. Great - so what she was saying was that everything I was dealing with now in my life had to be sorted out or I would face 29 more years of uncertainty and confusion - no pressure there. Thanks Renee. I could feel my back tighten just thinking about it!

When I got back to my hostel my back was still sore, but better. I decided to spend the next few days taking it easy and doing as little physical activity as possible. The relaxation, while good for my muscles, allowed my mind to spin wildly out of control. My head was a jumble of confusion - Was my back injury a sign for me to slow down and think about things instead of just pushing forward with what I had been doing? What did Saturn's Return have to do with it? What was it that made me happy? And, if I didn't find it before Saturn completed its cycle, would the next 29 years of my life be miserable? I needed more information.

An Internet search provided me with the necessary background on Saturn Return (thank you Google!). According to a variety of astrologically-themed Web sites "Saturn Return is the period in one's life between the ages of approximately 27 and 30 years of age when the planet Saturn completes its first cycle through your birth chart and returns to the spot it occupied when you were born." Great - but what did that have to do with my back and my life, other than being mildly interesting?

Apparently, one's Saturn Return coincides with (or causes - depending on your perspective) a time of reevaluation of your life - a time "when people turn inward and reflect on their individual destiny...examine true needs and desires and the role you want to play on the world's stage." In the Web sites I perused, I found a person's Saturn Return described as everything from "a time of self meeting self" to "one of the most important times in your life" to "a necessary period of consolidation when you must retreat from the distractions of the outer world and focus on yourself at your most fundamental level."

Interesting. On the one hand, I was intrigued. I would be lying if I said that the years from 27 to present were all sunshine and roses. In fact, I considered 27 and 28 to be among the hardest years in my life to date. Yet, I wasn't totally ready to believe that my frustration and confusion was due to the planet Saturn's tour through the birth signs and its return to the position it inhabited when I was born. Was this "astrological coming of age" really due to a far off planet, or just a coincidence?

A couple of years ago, when I was traveling in Cuba, a friend and I were discussing the meaning of life, as you do when traveling, and determined that every one of our friends, in their late 20s, were going through a "change" - a difficult period in their life when they were questioning what they were doing, where they were going, and who they were with. I can't remember what my friend called it, but we chalked it up to being a "quarter life crisis" - a buzz phrase at the time.

I had totally forgotten about that conversation, until Renee brought up Saturn's Return.

Now, lying on the beach, physically immobile but mentally running a marathon, I was thinking about it again. Looking at my life, and that of my friends, I realized that the late 20s are a time of great change for most of us. In my life specifically, I have seen friends get married, have children, go to grad school, move to new cities, change careers, or go on extended travels - all in their late 20's. They have all "chosen" paths - many times, paths that a few years earlier seemed unthinkable or totally contrary to their personalities. Was this all a big coincidence?

The Web sites all said that a person's Saturn Return was "the astrological equivalent of becoming an adult - marking the end of youth and the beginning of the productive adult years." And, funny thing, at least for me, this past year I've suddenly felt quite grown up. Everything I am doing is on my terms. I feel, for the first time, responsible for my own destiny. And, while incredibly exciting and freeing - it also scares the shit out of me.

I can't tell you if the thoughts and feelings I have been experiencing, the questions, the challenges and the confusion about my place in this crazy world - I can't tell you if its all part of my Saturn Return or just part of growing up. Truthfully, I just don't believe strongly enough in the concept - that the cycle of a planet has that much control over my life. But, I also can't tell you that learning about this astrological phenomenon hasn't made me look back over the past few years of my life and think - "hmmmm, I wonder?"

All I know is that the past few years have been challenging and wonderful and hard and lonely and crazy and beautiful - all at the same time. And, for some reason, a time when I've done more than ever before to make a conscious effort to take control and responsibility for my life - whatever the final outcome.

Interestingly enough, the last Web site I looked at with regards to Saturn Return said this:

"Saturn Return is one of the most crucial turning points you ever experience, when you assume the greatest responsibility of all: responsibility for your own life."

Though I still won't admit to being a full believer, at least I can feel confident that in terms of the cosmos, I've got my bases covered.

August 12, 2003

Talk To Strangers

I noticed him right away. Standing across the street from me and waiting for the same downtown traffic light to turn green. His oversized arms were effortlessly carrying an enormous swag (a canvas outdoor sleeping bag and tent all rolled into one) and a duffle to match. His huge back dwarfed the tiny daypack he was carrying, making it look child-sized. He was wearing worn blue jeans, a tall hat and a belt buckle that shone in the sun. I was sure this man had not worn a suit to work a day in his life.

He strode across the street to the bus stop, dropped his gear to the ground on either side of him, swung one leg over the swag and sat down. Elbows to knees, hands hanging freely, he surveyed the cosmopolitan clutter around him through a sun burnt face and squinted eyes. He looked exactly like my picture of a true Aussie outback bloke. Which made me wonder - what was he doing in downtown Perth? Who was he? Why was he here? And, most importantly, where was he going?

"Don't talk to strangers." It's not something that children instinctively know, so parents and other tall people are constantly reminding them of it. If you have ever watched two little ones eye each other across a crowd of grown-up knees, you see the natural curiosity that draws children (humans) together. When one is five years old its easy to walk up to another five year old and say "Hi." Odds are, you'll be running around the playground moments later, best of friends. But, the older you get the harder it becomes - then one day you realize it's no longer adults that are telling you not to talk to strangers - its the voice inside your own head.

I crossed the street, still watching the stranger. I walked within two feet of where he was sitting, hesitated a fraction of a second, and then kept walking. I walked for about two blocks, telling myself to go back and talk to him and then almost immediately talking myself out of it. Then I remembered a tale that a travel columnist friend of mine had written several weeks earlier - the basic premise being that travelers should approach travel like a travel writer - ask questions, be curious, follow up on your thoughts. I stopped walking, took a deep breath, turned around and walked back.

"Excuse me, can I take your picture?" I said, fully expecting him to say no. This wasn't the opening was hoping for, but that was what popped out.

"Sure," he said smiling easily. "What for?"

Hugely relieved, but not wanting to look foolish, I hesitated. Then I decided what the hell - one of the great things about traveling is knowing that if you really make a fool of yourself it doesn't matter because you'll be moving on soon enough.

"Because you look exactly like what I thought an Australian outback man would look like before I got to Australia." I said hesitantly. He laughed - one of those giant belly laughs - and that made me start to laugh too.

"I'm Roy," he said, as we shook hands and introduced ourselves. "Where are you from?"

"San Francisco - you?"

"Alice Springs."

After I took his picture, I asked him where he was going. "Heli-mustering cattle up north for a month," he replied. Heli-mustering? "It's like herding cattle - but you bring them in with a helicopter instead of a horse - a Robinson 22 from America to be exact." A Robinson 22? And, so began our conversation.

The next thing I knew, I was learning all about heli-mustering from a man that - up until a few moments before - had been a complete and total stranger.

Roy worked for a heli-muster company out in Alice Spring and was frequently "loaned out" to large ranches in various parts of Australia. His job? To fly a tiny one-man helicopter around a large ranch and bring in mobs of cattle - anywhere from 300-3500 cattle. Days can be long - 12-14 hours - and the work is hard. "You don't stop to eat until you're done so sometimes all you've got in you in a cup of coffee," he said. And, since ranches in Australia are so large, it sometimes takes several days to muster all the cattle.

Where do you sleep, I asked, even though I already knew the answer. "This here's me bed for the month," he said, slapping the swag on its side. He pointed to his duffle and said it held his work clothes for the next month - up to three months if need be. Heli-mustering is seasonal work, he told me, so he was frequently on the road. When I asked about his family, he said he had a wife back in Alice Springs - but it sounded like a new arrangement. "It's a lot easier when you're single - I've been home 6 months of the last 18," he said.

After a while, the conversation had run its course and I figured Roy's bus would be coming soon. I stood up to go, saying "Roy, its been great talking to you." He agreed and we parted ways. I thought a lot about Roy and his life as I continued my walk toward the water. How different it was from my own. Yet, it had been so easy for us to talk to each other. After the initial awkwardness - which was mostly on my part - the conversation had flowed freely. I think Roy was pretty jazzed that someone was interested enough in his life to ask so many questions. And I was thrilled that he was willing to answer them.

The more I travel, the more I realize that traveling is about the people. You can go to a beautiful place and leave disappointed if your interactions with the people - travelers, locals, whatever - is unfulfilling. Or, you can go to an average place, meet some wonderful people, and leave raving about your experience.

Traveling around Australia these past 9 months, I have found that I usually meet more travelers than locals. Backpackers are catered to so comprehensively, that unless you make a conscious effort to talk to locals or just non-backpackers, you won't get the chance. And that is a huge mistake. The core of any country, any culture, any place - is its people. Not the people that come to see the country on a two week or ten month escapism holiday, but the people who live there day in and day out - like Roy - because it is their reality.

As James Mitchener wrote, "If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home."

I heartily agree...so don't forget to talk to strangers.

August 05, 2003

Swimming With The Fishes

The cold, salty water shocked me. The waves were choppy and I had trouble keeping my head above the surface. Why was I surprised? I had 20 kilos of scuba gear strapped to my back and waist - I certainly wasn't going to bob like a cork. I felt like a gangster in 1930s Chicago who just snitched on Al Capone and whose payment was cement booties and a one-way trip to the bottom of Lake Michigan. Except I voluntarily paid for this privilege. My sanity was definitely in question.

"Learn to scuba dive in the beautiful Great Barrier Reef!" the brochure had said, tempting me with pictures of tanned men and women smiling benevolently beneath a bright sunny sky. Pictures of candy colored fish swimming around gorgeous coral formations. The sky and sea a beautiful warm blue. After a few weeks in chilly Sydney I needed no arm twisting - sign me up and take me away!

Still struggling in the swirling water, I switched to my snorkel - like I learned in the warm, waveless and shallow dive center pool. I promptly swallowed a mouthful of saltwater. Coughing, I spit out the snorkel in time to see my instructor signal it was time to go down.
I inserted the regulator into my mouth and stuck my masked face in the water. All I could see was a murky blue bottomless expanse of ocean. This was not in the brochure.

Most of the group was already underwater, so I forced another shallow breath and followed the masses down. Releasing all the air in my BCD (air vest), I slowly sank down into the dark, cold waters of the Great Barrier Reef. A meter or two underwater my brain woke up in a panic - this was a mistake - a HUGE terrible mistake. God had given me lungs that breathed air for a reason. If he had meant me to breath underwater I would have been born with gills. Water was leaking into my mask, I was sucking on my regulator like a woman possessed. Suddenly, it became clear. If I kept going, this was going to be my last earthly vision - masked humans pretending to be fish.

Self-preservation instinct kicked in as I wildly signaled to my instructor, Joe, that I was not doing ok. Without waiting for his response I kicked up to the surface. I wrenched the mask and regulator from my face and began gasping for air. Within seconds, Joe was by my side.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"GASP! Water...mask leaking...salty...GASP!...cold...can't do it...COUGH!"

He grabbed me by the shoulders, inflating my BCD so I could float unassisted and put his face inches from mine. In all honestly, I can't remember exactly what he said, but something to the effect of "calm down...it is just salt water...we can fix your mask...breathe...you ARE ok...you CAN do this."

I stared into his calm eyes with panic in mine. Something in the sound of his voice - sympathetic, yet using the slightly amused tone normally reserved for children scared of monsters in their closets - calmed me down. I don't know how. At that moment I decided that maybe I wasn't going to die. That MAYBE I would consider going back under the surface of the water.

I put my regulator back into my mouth and adjusted my mask I CAN do this, I thought. At least once. If I hate it, I never have to go back in. Realizing I had control of the situation, I signaled - rather unconvincingly - that I was ready to go down.

Five minutes later I was under several meters of water and concentrating with all my might to keep breathing regularly. The number one most important rule of scuba diving is to never hold your breath - to keep breathing evenly and slowly. The best I could do was suck air in and out like Darth Vader with an asthma problem. Breathe in...bubbles out....breathe in...bubbles out. Every few minutes, Joe would turn to me and flash me the "Ok? Ok!" signal - which I would dishonestly return, terror in my eyes.

Breathe in...bubbles out....breathe in...bubbles out...suddenly a brightly colored fish darted in front of me, looked me in the eye, then swam off. Cool! Look at that fish, I wonder what kin...SHIT! Breathe in...bubbles out...breathe in...bubbles out. Concentrate idiot!

But, the damage had been done - I'd glimpsed a taste of the wonders of the underwater world. And, even though I wasn't ready to admit it then, I wanted to see more.

Two days later I was a PADI certified diver. I'd made 7 more dives, including one creepy crawly night dive (another story completely!), seen multiple sharks, three sea turtles, and hundreds of parrotfish, damsel fish, and butterfly fish - not to mention dozens of different types of coral, giant clams and sea stars. On our first dive sans instructor I was even chosen to lead our graduated group of three.

To be honest, I'm not sure what got me in the water the second time. Maybe it was being afraid to look foolish in front of my group. Maybe it was because we'd already had two people drop out of our group and I didn't want to be another. Maybe it was the type-A inside me refusing to give up. Maybe it was because I had paid good money to learn how to swim with the fishes. I don't know. But, after that second dive, I realized that maybe - just maybe - I could get through the course. And, maybe - just maybe - I would actually be able to enjoy it.

In life I usually maintain a philosophy of trying almost anything at least once. After all, how else will you know if you like it? Scuba diving taught me that sometimes you have to try something more than once - or twice - to really give it a fair chance. That first impressions, while often unfamiliar and scary, aren't always the impressions that stick with you.

It is too soon to tell what I will remember most from this scuba education adventure. But, I can almost guarantee that it won't be choppy water or leaky masks or swallowing salt water.

On one of our final dives, my two buddies and I hired a digital camera to take photos underwater. For 30 minutes we swam around the Great Barrier Reef - turning somersaults, chasing fish and taking silly pictures of each other underwater. It wasn't until we climbed back aboard the boat that I realized I hadn't once worried about breathing regularly or choaking on water. I had been completely mesmerized by the water, the animals, the coral and the moment. I was just swimming with the fishes.