What Not to Do

The variety of International No signs that one encounters whilst gypsying across the planet has always delighted me. It’s nice that we humans can universally communicate what NOT to do. Helpful reminders and hints for handling potentially confusing situations.

Some of these can be very practical, as well as serving a common public good, as we see here plastered on the inside of the backseat window of a taxi in Bangkok, Thailand.

Or here, at the beginning of a trailhead at Pancake Creek, Queensland Australia.

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Of course, I assumed they meant ‘No Landcruisers’ on the trail, and understandably so. Luckily I drive a Jeep.

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Sometimes these signs serve to inform you of norms you may not be familiar with. Here we learn about Quantas’s strict ‘No Furby” policy on board a flight from Melbourne to Perth, Australia.

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Then there are the signs that seem too far down the line of common sense to even warrant a sign at all. These are the signs that indicate an extraordinary lack of intelligence and/or judgement in that very spot, sometime in the recent past. Note the slight beer gut and trucker cap on the subject in our next dazzling example, brought to us from a wildlife reserve in Philip Island, Australia.

This Koala believes that sign was long overdue.

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And then sometimes you’ll question the safety of the place you find yourself in, because again you reflect that there was an original reason this sign was put here. This, at the entrance of a beachfront cocktail bar in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, advises patrons to please leave their handguns, grenades, knifes and most of all, cameras outside. The true beauty being, if any of the first three rules get broken, the fourth ensures that there will be no evidence to review. No quirky facebook moment happening here.

And we end today’s odyssey back in another taxi in Bangkok Thailand, where much like Cambodia we are requested to leave our weapons at the door, but here we also have a silent visual reminder to please not breed or attempt to practice such behaviour while underway. Any guesses what the message is for the symbol on the left?

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In Thailand, the water buffalo (Kwhai) is considered to be completely clueless, and therefore the term is used as an adorable nickname for idiots. So what we have here is a request to refrain from being too stupid while on the way to your chosen destination. Which is, in my view, the ultimate International No sign, and if it were followed more often, many more of these signs could be rendered useless and eradicated. However, truth be told, I myself have broken a few of these rules seen here. (Definitely NOT the one regarding Koalas, I promise.) But that’s all in a day’s work of being an adventure hound.

The Window Seat

A warm summer’s day, just outside Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

If you ever have the unfortunate experience of sitting next to me on an airplane, let me apologize in advance. I’ll need to have the window seat, and I get up frequently to nurse an overactive and jittery bladder. I’ll be wiping the sweat from my palms onto my pants whilst my legs bounce at an alarmingly rapid and out of sync beat. I’ll make nervous inane chit chat upon take-off, prolonged turbulence, and landing. I may ask you to hold my hand. I’ll draw on the in-flight magazines. I’ll write notes to the cabin crew on the motion sickness bags. On long flights I’ll watch the same movie 2-3 times. If you’re really unlucky, I might quietly cry unexpectedly. I’ll drink as much wine as I can get my hands on, and if I’m cut off, I’ll attempt to persuade you to buy it for me. So now you know what you’re in for, and it’s too late to change seats.

Normanton River, Karumba, Far North Queensland Australia

Moorings on the Parramatta River, Sydney, Australia

Moorings on the Parramatta River, Sydney, Australia

As for the cabin crew; I’ll be the one who is white in the face. I’ll be the one who ritualistically touches the outside of the vessel before boarding for some unknown reason. I’ll be looking to you for comfort, support and possibly sympathy. You’ll ask me how I’m doing as you scan over my ticket, expecting me to say ‘fine’ and move on to my seat, but I’ll reply with the truth: ‘oh, I’m just terrified’. I’ll be the one with correct change jingling in my hand for 10 minutes before you and your drink cart reach my seat, I can already taste the fermented grapes. I’ll be the one attempting to buy two bottles of Sauv Blanc at once, claiming vehemently that I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just scared, and yes, I know it’s only 7am! I’ll be overly excited when the food comes, welcoming the distraction it provides far more than its flavor. I’ll be judging the safety of the flight on your demeanor, so please don’t look nervous, scared or upset in any way while on duty. Your job cripples me with fear and, because of that, you fascinate me.

The long and winding road.  {Sydney, Australia}

The long and winding road. {Sydney, Australia}

Bay Bridge, San Francisco CA

Bay Bridge, San Francisco CA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And finally, to my intense irrational fear of flight; I’ll be the one making the choices around here. Legion, are the opportunities and adventures I would miss out on if I let this silly behaviour stop me from following my path. I’ll be the one hopping around the world exploring, the one living my risks. I’ll be the one splendouring at the bird’s eye view with white knuckles from the window seat.

 

Sydney Harbour entrance

Sydney Harbour entrance

Coming in for a landing, Sydney CBD

Coming in for a landing, Sydney CBD

Sun halo over Maui, HI

Cairns, Queensland Australia

Silhouette of Sydney Harbour

Silhouette of Sydney Harbour

Opera House, Harbour Bridge,  North Sydney

Opera House, Harbour Bridge, North Sydney

Southport, Queensland Australia

Southport, Queensland Australia

Gateway Bridge, Brisbane, Australia

Gateway Bridge, Brisbane, Australia

Rainbow over Western Australia

Downtown San Francisco, Trans America Building

Downtown San Francisco, Trans America Building

Honolulu / Waikiki, Oahu, HI

Honolulu / Waikiki, Oahu, HI

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco CA

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco CA

Oahu, HI

Normanton Cemetary, Far North Queensland, Australia

Mornington Island, Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia

Mornington Island, Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia

Mining outside Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

The Valley Isle, Maui HI

The Valley Isle, Maui HI

HC&S Sugar Cane processing plant, Maui HI

Wailuku / Kahului area, Maui HI

Olowalu, – Honoapiilani Hwy, Maui, HI

Prop flight out of Cairns, Australia

Prop flight out of Cairns, Australia

New South Wales, Australia

Pure Outback, Far North Queensland, Australia

Hawkesbury River, New South Wales, Australia

Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia

Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Chao Praya River flowing into the Gulf of Thailand

New South Wales, Australia

New South Wales

A line drawn in the sand… New South Wales, Australia

Cairns, Australia

Cairns, Queensland

Waterways in Queensland, Australia

Waterways in Queensland, Australia

Cairns, Queensland

Highways near Bangkok, Thailand

Queensland, Australia

Queensland, Australia

Please; No Furbies on the aircraft!

Please; No Furbies on the aircraft!

From one of my MANY bathroom breaks!

From one of my MANY bathroom breaks!

Sometimes you need not conquer fears, but merely have a distraction from them long enough to get the job done.

 

High Seas Isolation Poetry

hoktaheen

Isolation has many faces, and it was the summer of 2010 that I became closely acquainted with the various facets of solitude that being trapped at the ends of the earth generously provides. Anchored at Hoktaheen Cove on the western side of a tiny uninhabited piece of land called Yakobi Island in South East Alaska, our little planet gently sways with the swell coming in from the almighty Pacific Ocean. Our only protection from the limitless surging of the void is a small group of granite outcroppings. Our only neighbors: a small fleet of commercial fishing boats and a lonely group of resident bald eagles.

Map of Southeast Alaska

The contract will last for three weeks, and we will serve as the tender for the fleet. Our grey and dismal days consist of waiting for boats to show up to offload their catch to us, totaling 3-5 hours per day of ice cold back breaking work. The rest of the day and night we’re ‘on call’ and therefore cannot afford time to explore our empty yet enchanting surroundings. Under these circumstances the mind wanders an inner landscape without purpose or destination.

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As time grinds to a halt, you marvel at the untouched beauty of this raw, natural, and unfamiliar world. You struggle to stay busy, but there isn’t enough work to be done and there isn’t much that needs your attention. The silence quickly becomes deafening. Out here the only sounds are the hum of the engines and the waves slapping the shore, which abandon your senses as they morph into white noise. On those off moments when the skipper cuts the engines the true silence is indeed startling.

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Exiled from society, you gain insight into the true meaning of distance. With no communication to the outside world save your VHF radio, the bare bones of your psyche begin to manifest without warning. You gain a new understanding and appreciation for the social interactions that you so desperately crave. Patience becomes a sly and mysterious virtue.

The physicality of being at sea for long periods of time is the easy part; it’s the complexity of the mental burn that will bite you every time if you don’t keep it in check. You read. You write. You spend far too much time thinking. The less stimuli the outside world provides, the more your mind has to pick up the slack. Without the opportunity to pursue your desires, you will need to alter your desires to fit the circumstance. {The following pieces were written at Hoktaheen Cove}

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Tiny lights reflect off the edge of the world
And shine upon you
The gentle caress of the surge
Tinkering of rain drops
Empty is the void
How the engine roars
The smoke rises and fades
As do I

Tidbits of visions cascade
Downward
Static is blinding
The universe knows
No shame
Must I?

Red beetles float in a gutter of the mind
Whirling and gurgling out of control
With happy little smiles
And antennae
And guilt

Golden daffodils dance upon the fire
Radiant dew drops cleanse
The dream envelopes
Crushing everything in its path
Even you

Rotten rings of boredom defy
Tender morsels left untouched
Quivering motion absorbs us all
Replenished reborn anew

Shadowy eyes go dormant
Floundering in the mist
Time erects forgotten moments
Isolation breeds in the rafters
A sweet lingering contempt

The eagle never lands as
We turn to dust
In the eyes of strangers
A world of lost souls
Devouring selfish desires
The wound bled
Leaks a timid stale remorse

Our yellow brick road
Is lined with icy white devils
We laugh with them
As we purchase overpriced
One way tickets

The fire fades into obscurity
Onward ever marching
To failed oblivion

Bleak forgiveness of an open shackle
Chains rusted with frivolity
The surface boasts many faces
Obscuring the same mistaken identity
All paths lead here in time

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Undermining the Status Quo: Wendy O Williams

I’ve been called ‘weird’ or ‘crazy’ since I was quite young. These labels are indeed true; I am ‘weird’ and ‘crazy’ and ‘different’ by society’s standards… A self-proclaimed individualist with an innate drive to pursue ‘impossible’ dreams even if that means going against the grain to get there, and it always does. It can be very difficult to find a female mentor or role model that reflects this nature. A strong woman that isn’t being objectified or neglected, a woman who is neither the Madonna nor the whore… Years ago I stumbled upon the band the Plasmatics, and was blown away with what I found. The singer, Wendy O Williams, was like no other woman I’d ever heard of. She was, and continues to be, an inspiration to anyone who wants to colour outside the lines.

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I used to publish a fanzine based on underground entertainment and I tracked down Wendy’s life partner and creator of the Plasmatics, Rod Swenson in 2008 for an interview, in order to run a feature commemorating 10 years since her death in 1998. The following is an excerpt of that interview.

KILLDREN (K): Wendy’s life is characterised as a radical one, a life worth living, with no apologies. Most people are scared to live like that, why wasn’t she?

ROD SWENSON (RS): ‘Why was Wendy the way she was?’, or completely fearless in the face of things that most people are utterly scared of is honestly completely beyond me. It’s just the way she was and it was one of the most remarkable things about her that had a flip side to it too. Because while things that would utterly terrify the ‘ordinary person’ were just things that gave her comfort and security, it was things that would give the ordinary person comfort (such as social conformity, ‘fitting in’, etc.) that made her utterly uncomfortable or feel threatened. Putting the nature/nurture or genes vs. culture thing aside as insoluble (lots of people raised in the kind of repressive, conformist, small-town environment she was, with alcoholic parents don’t become Wendy O Williams) the answer to the question, whatever the origin of it, can be given in a different way. In short, she was threatened by the shallow conformist, materialist, sexist, racist (etc.) culture because she had a deep understanding of where this would lead, both for individuals and the planet itself, and understanding this she felt threatened all the time by it. It wasn’t something merely intellectual for her. She felt it down to the centre of her being. Given this, confronting the status quo, going against the grain was something that made her feel not only alive (and often ecstatic) but grounded, centred in a way that not many people really ever know.

K: How did she maintain her radical lifestyle and where did it take her?

RS: Wendy, growing up in a small conservative town in western upstate New York (“Anytown anywhere” she used to call it) by her own account, had a very hard time fitting in and, by her own account, was in a constant battle with the repressive, stagnant environment around her. She was spontaneous, creative, and (to me) the most healthy attitude towards wanting to be free, feel free, and celebrate what, to her, was the beauty of the natural world. But she found her natural enthusiasm, exuberance and inquisitiveness squashed and threatening to the narrow conformist, “uptight” world around her and she was in trouble from the time she was little. She told, with some pride, in hindsight, of getting thrown out of Girl Scouts for “having too much fun”, as a teenager being arrested for swimming nude at a secluded pond she’d go to in the woods, of doing distracting things in school, which she hated for being completely boring and teaching irrelevant things about which she had no interest. Her parents, both heavy drinkers (alcoholics by Wendy’s account, and one of the reasons she never drank), found her too much to deal with and tried to have her medicated or “turned into a zombie” (she’d say) so she could fit in with the rest of the people in ‘small town USA’. She refused to give in, always believing that there was an ‘authentic’ (rather than a ‘dead phony’) way to live, and was determined to find it, or die trying. She often told people she’d rather be dead than live the petrified, conformist life of status quo. So before she graduated from high school she set out into the world with barely enough to live a week on. It was daring, risky, and in many ways against all odds. During the next some years she set out on a search for ‘authenticity’, looking for the place, the activity, where she could be true to herself, not some sexist consumerist conformist view dictated by what she viewed as a world bent on its own destruction (of individuality, human rights, of the environment). During this time she hitchhiked across the country and ended up living in a tent in Boulder Colorado (when it was a counter-culture hub, before becoming packed with yuppies) selling things she made on the street, lived in an abandoned, beached, boat in Florida where she worked as a lifeguard, and again sold hand-made things. She travelled through Europe where she worked as a macrobiotic cook in London, and finally as a dancer in a travelling circus troupe. Then, feeling the urge to come to New York, she ended up at the Port Authority Bus Terminal with enough money to pay no more than two nights in a flop house. She found an open copy of Leo Shull’s Show Business Weekly on the bus terminal floor. It was open to an ad for ‘experimental performers’ for an experimental theatre I was running in Times Square. She applied for the job and, as she would tell me later, from the minute we met she knew she had found what she was looking for. “It was like I’d arrived on a different planet” she’d say. You see, I was an utter counter-culture, radicalist too, bent on finding authenticity, challenging the status quo and rejecting the mores of the world in almost the identical way she did. She’d never encountered anything like that, and neither had I. What began then was a 22 year relationship that would see us, less than 2 years later, launching the Plasmatics and her very visible public career.

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K: Why do you think she was so against mediocrity and where do you think her conviction came from?

RS: I think it’s because she saw it as so stifling, as a kind of ‘living death’… (I would later write lyrics for a number of our songs on this theme e.g., ‘Living Dead’ [Beyond the Valley of 1984, released 1981] “You sold your life in the discount store… you watch TV, you don’t want any more… you got ideas, in your head, they won’t happen, you’re the living dead…” AND later the song “You’re a Zombie” from Maggots: The album in 1987… “You’re a zombie, honey, we done consumed your brain, do you feel the difference, or is it still the same… now you’re a fascist robot like you were before, we can press your buttons and have a robot war”). It was just the way she perceived the world in a completely straightforward way. She could see right through things, she needed to be doing things. She was an activist to the core of her being, and as her life/career shows, she put herself on the line (or across it) time and time again, risking otherwise more profitable career moves (like pandering to the way people wanted women to ‘sing’ for radio), risking her life literally in some of the performance art that we did (videos etc.), and even her freedom with her willingness to be arrested if it came to that. She was an utter breath of fresh air.

Wendy3

K: How would you describe the lifestyle the two of you lived together? What was Wendy really like?

RS: The lifestyle we lived was far from ‘normal’ (in the sense of statistically average compared to most other people), in almost every sense. A lot of what she and I did then is a lot more commonplace now, such as weight training, or not eating meat, or not smoking or even drinking (sound boring to some people? It wasn’t, I promise you!), but in those days when we went to a gym and worked out with free weights, she was usually the only woman in the gym. She was a radical animal rights activist too, speaking out against factory farming and lab testing of cosmetic companies on animals whenever she had the chance. She found the cosmetic companies disgusting in every sense, particularly the testing of cosmetics on animals in what amounted to forced torture. She was against the powerful (whether corporate, or the wealthy, or for whatever reason) bullying or ripping off the underdog, and animals to her were in the category of abused things. But back to the ‘normal’ thing: in those days women with muscles were not considered ‘feminine’, but she thought this was garbage, part of the way the social structure or norms or tastes are manufactured to keep women weak, or let men be dominant. So, her daily routine always had a lot of strenuous physical exercise built in, partly because she needed to be in great shape to do the very physical shows and videos, she did, and partly because it was a way of releasing steam itself… steam (or rage) generated by looking around and seeing what was going on in the world. Then our diet too, both for reasons of staying in great shape, feeling really good even doing and confronting very difficult and stressful things, and also from an ecological or philosophical standpoint (like not poisoning the earth, or factory farming animals), was something that would have stood out. Both of us had stopped eating meat before we met each other and from that point on we went through various kinds of food programs, including a raw food diet at which time we naturally grew a lot of food right in the loft where we lived (that was also ‘Plasmatics World Headquarters’) in what is now known as Tribeca in NYC.

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K: How did Wendy discover, develop and maintain her vocal style?

RS: Part of her (and our) goals was that she wanted to sing in a way very different than women were singing then, or supposed to sing. She could hear what she wanted to do in her head, and so could I. We wrote songs of a certain type, not only that said certain things but that had a certain attitude that was her. She didn’t want to sound ‘pretty’ and she didn’t want to be ‘decorative’ in her singing, her look, or anything else. By and large she wanted to be in your face, aggressive, and ‘heavy’. Of course, she had attitude par none, but the quality of her voice, especially as it developed over the years, was really special. I loved the sound of her voice. The record companies were forever saying, you know, can’t you just give us something ‘pretty’, or something for radio, or something that wasn’t so political, and most importantly didn’t sound so ‘tough’ or strong? “In your fucking dreams!” said Wendy, “How about when Hell freezes over?” She was called in the early days (by the media) “The Queen of Punk” to later being dubbed the “High Priestess of Metal”. The power in her voice, her trademark screams, and the great throaty sound of her voice came from hours of rehearsing. By the time we recorded Coup D’Etat in Germany in 1982, she was determined to become ‘the heaviest female singer of all time’. In any case, her vocal chords were so stretched and shredded by then we thought she’d have to undergo an operation to have the nodes repaired. Fortunately when we got back to NY, she started working with the amazing Anne Ruckert. Anne helped her develop a set of very specific warm up exercises that kept her from damaging her vocal chords any further, even with the kind of very physical singing she did.

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K: What were Wendy’s views on sexuality and femininity?

RS: Well, Wendy was very sexual, or should I say ‘physical’ and her sexuality was a part of that. But she thought this was just another area where there was a huge (sexist) double standard between women and men. She thought this was demeaning to women. Women were supposed to either repress their sexuality or else somehow be sexual but only as objects of accessories for men. You still see this today, and saw it a lot back then, like the male rock band hires a bunch of models wearing skimpy outfits, who slobber all over them. Wendy used to refer to this as women ‘being used as coffee tables’, in other words as stage props. What was ground breaking with Wendy was that she was not afraid to be sexual, and as feminist writer Maria Raha has put it was ‘in control of her own sexuality’. This was pretty much unheard of and of course, as Raha and others have pointed out, the male establishment found it very threatening. Conservative (male) America ‘had castration anxiety’ as Chris Knowles of Classic Rock put it, when they saw Wendy wielding a chainsaw on stage during a much publicised TV appearance in the early 80’s. Her view of femininity, to underscore further, was not one which subscribed to the idea that to be feminine meant being passive or weak… just the opposite. And it didn’t mean smiling all the time either; it meant show anger when it was warranted. OF course, she was a fashion pioneer way, way ahead of her time. When, as the first woman ever on nationwide TV with a Mohawk, she was asked why she did it, she said “I’m saying ‘Fuck You!’ to the cosmetic companies.”

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K: What was Wendy’s idea of freedom? How did it compare to the commonly-accepted perception of freedom?

RS: Wendy’s idea was a beautifully simple idea which holds the belief grounded in the idea of tolerance, individuality, variety, and human and civil rights. Equality of people, but not based on everyone being forced (by social pressure or otherwise) to conform to some kind of a statistical norm (in physics a state that would be equivalent to equilibrium or ‘death’) but being able to seek, think, feel, and reach their potential. The idea of ‘freedom’ she didn’t subscribe to, the kind of Orwellian inverted doublespeak that many people don’t seem to be able to discriminate against are ideas like ‘free trade’ as used by proponents of unfettered globalization which actually involves (or gives) the power elite, multinational corporations and their agents the ‘freedom’ to enslave and impoverish the rest of the world (destroy the common resources like clean air, water and so on that should be free and available for all living things) towards the end of their own profit and greed. The fetish to simply acquire wealth and own things, is not the sign of a free person and furthermore involves the effective enslavement of others to achieve.

K: In your opinion, what was her perception of the world before her death, and did she die defeated, vindicated, or neither?

RS: Both, I would say. In one sense she achieved what she believed in and went searching for, with all the risks associated with it. When she was younger in that small town she grew up in, and set out with so very little, searching to break out of the banality, lethargy, and conformity that was the landscape of her youth (and America) at that time, she looked to live an authentic life in the face of great odds. I think there is no doubt she achieved this, a remarkable thing to do against all odds and a thing, in my view, very few people ever achieve. And what’s more, she knew it, and expressed this to me before she died, although I knew it anyway, it was so indubitable. In this case she was, in her rejection of the conformity, consumerism, banality and complicity of the statistically ‘normal’ life, I would say completely vindicated. On the other hand both of us were revolutionaries in the sense of wanting to help effect, and see a real change in, the trajectory of mass culture, the dominant Western worldview with its shallow consumerism and materialism that has the future of humanity, possibly life itself and the planet in a chokehold. It is fair to say that that never happened, in fact it had gotten way worse by the time she died [1998], and has gotten worse since then. A lot of our work [Plasmatics] was predictive, the songs warnings and premonitions about thigns we saw in the future with their Orwellian, fascistic, environmentally devastating, and robotic de-humanization of people who don’t even seem to know it’s happening , these things have all come true and then some. In this sense, if you imagine that part of Wendy’s raison d’etre was bringing a wake-up call, in that sense I would think you could say that she thought she was defeated. She was not optimistic about the direction people’s consciousness en masse had, and was taking.

K: How can we honour Wendy and her spirit?

RS: Short answer: Enjoy, and celebrate her work. Slightly longer answer: Reject consumerism, conformity, learn to think critically, celebrate diversity and variability. Undermine the status quo!

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This is how I honour her:

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A Tiny Amputation

As the shrill hum of industrial machinery grinds the day away, its chorus is silenced by a single abrupt CRUNCH! Confused and startled, I looked down, and to this day I’m still not 100% sure of what I saw. Perhaps an ultra-brief, Nanosecond glimpse of the colour white. I knew it was exposed bone, I knew it was bad, and knew I needed help.

Unfamiliar words exploded out of my mouth, announcing over and over: They’re OFF! With both arms raised above my head, I found a clear place to sit as my co-workers circled around me. All eyes fall on me with a glassy and desperate look. They tell me to ‘breathe’…. Bolts of white hot electric pain erupt through my fingertips. They tell me to ‘let it out’… The hysteria and volume of my own voice terrifies me as a single lonely word; “FUCK”, rips out of my lungs.

In first aid training, it’s advised that you shouldn’t stare at your own injury in order to stay calm and avoid going into shock, which turns out to be an easy rule to follow. I couldn’t bring myself to look and had no curiosity for what might meet my gaze. The blinding pain is more input than I can handle and with the slightest movement, I sense pieces of flesh loosely dangling off my right middle finger. Wrong. Unnatural. Raw primal terror.

My legs begin to warm up, starting with my toes, moving up through calves, through the thighs as the morphine soaks in and dulls the moment. “It looks like a horror movie in here!” says the first responding EMT. Completely immersed in a world of pure obliterating pain, I hadn’t yet noticed the blood splattered all over my clothes, and the pools that had formed on the floor beside me… more blood than I ever cared to see.

Twenty four hours pass by, being pulled in and out of consciousness at the hospital and then I’m delivered to my parent’s house, wrapped in gauze, with splints up to my elbows giving me a grotesque Barbie doll range of movement. Sitting on mother’s bed, replaying in my mind the moment when the doctors told me what had to be ‘amputated’ (what a repulsive word) and for the first time on this journey a spontaneous wave of tears cascades down my face. No sobbing, just empty. Crushed. Defeated.

Twenty four years old, I’m now living at home again, being literally hand fed by my parents, having my teeth brushed by my parents, being chaperoned in the bathroom and wiped by my parents. It was a good encounter with true ‘humiliation’. For the first few days, you occupy the mind with simple things, like trying to feed yourself without the use of your hands. The trick is to be resourceful and experiment. When you finally get that first small bite of food in your own mouth, a great sense of accomplishment sneaks in, and the recovery gradually unfolds.

Slowly you find yourself adapting at a reasonable rate, making unorthodox movements in order to accomplish tasks that you had never given two thoughts to. The simple routine things you do from day to day. Not being able to use my hands gave me a deep appreciation for just how valuable these appendages are, and the livelihood that they’re designed to provide. There were so many things I had always taken for granted without even knowing it.

Leaving the house for the first time was weird. I really felt like people were starting at me. And that’s partly because they were. My forearm-length plastic splints were held together with 3 inch wide strips of fluorescent pink Velcro that I’d chosen at the hospital. It hurt and made me uncomfortable when people stared, especially little kids, but after a while I reluctantly learned that the truth is; humans are curious, and when they’re curious, they stare… It’s nothing personal.

The way people react to my injury was, and continues to be, a mixed bag. My parents were gutted, my friends supportive, and strangers would say the darnedest things. “You’ll never be able to touch your boyfriend with that hand again” was a classic gem courtesy of the merch guy working a Circle Jerks show at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz. Later I wished I could’ve been witty and said something rude back, but I had nothing to say, and no desire to waste my breath. I was already so embarrassed that this happened, and dreadfully ashamed of the way my hands looked. Society creates constant pressure for a young woman to ‘be pretty’ and with my mutilated hands, I felt like a real monster. It was a difficult and humbling encounter with my vanity and personal identity.

In the months prior to the accident, like many people, I wished for more time and money in order to properly pursue my other passions. Now, out of a job, I had plenty of time and a reasonable amount of money from worker’s compensation, but I was stuck at home healing and realising I should’ve been more careful with what I wished for! However, the physical trauma was the easy part, always having a visual aid to see the progress being made, wounds heal, stitches come out, and it feels empowering overcoming the obstacles, and ‘getting better’.

When the wounds finished healing, things shifted a bit, and depression began to sneak in. Fingers don’t just grow back. They offered to make me prosthetic fingers at the hospital. They also offered to amputate two of my toes and attach them to my stumps, which I quietly declined. I wanted to get used to this change, I didn’t want to cover it up no matter how ‘ugly’ my new hands were. Grappling with the weight of this being my new reality for the rest of my life, the mental healing was the aspect of recovery that caught me off guard. For a long time, I genuinely thought I was ‘broken’, and finally I realised that my body had changed, but I hadn’t; I’m still me. This experience forced me to reflect and look inwards to understand the concept of impermanence and the philosophical difference between ‘me’ and ‘my body’.

I got bored of telling people the story of what happened to my hand and found myself making up all sorts of tall tales, just so I wouldn’t have to recite a that same old story that brought up a lot of darkness for me… again… At first I remember wondering ‘why me’? I childishly thought I’d been singled out and punished for something… I felt alone, like no one could possibly relate with what I’m going through. It didn’t take long to realise that everybody goes through hard times and, in that way, virtually anyone can relate to tragedy and adversity. I was on a self-centred rollercoaster ride with my ego.

I‘d planned to make a career of cabinetry. I loved the work and the creativity of the trade. After the injury, I couldn’t force myself to go back, the passion was gone. Not only did I lose parts of my body, but I lost the path I was on as well. I felt as if something was turning me in a different direction, and I shouldn’t go backwards. So I’ve made a point to travel the world, hunting for unique experiences and learning as much as I can along the way.

When I visited Cambodia for the first time I learned that land mines are a real problem there, and lot of people have suffered terrible injuries due to these UXO’s. Upon arrival in Angkor Wat, I came across a band of men sitting on the ground playing traditional music. As I drew closer I noticed their injuries and a sign near the band explaining in English the nature of their plight.

The sign set my mind in motion; how lucky I was, how small my injury is in the general scope of things; and I felt a pure respect for the way that these men have adapted to their injuries. When tragedy finds us sometimes the only things you can control and change is our own perspective. We either learn from these episodes in our lives and find acceptance, or get devoured by them.


Having my fingers amputated changed my life, my perspective on things, my direction and my drive, and although it hasn’t been easy I’ve made a strong effort to turn this experience into fuel for the fire. Over 6 years later, as corny as it sounds; I can genuinely say I feel fortunate I have the opportunity to learn from this injury and, even if I could, I wouldn’t change any of it.

Separation

Journey

Strength

Growth

Warrior

Wholeness

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A Water Fight in The Land of Smiles

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As the Sun God peeks over the smog-filled horizon, my senses are aroused in a surge of excitement. Today’s goal has been set; walk from my apartment on Soi 21/1, to the end of Sukhumvit Soi 77 and back again. A simple goal, it would take less than an hour from start to finish and provide a chance to passively observe the day’s festivities. The camera, the phone, the passport and the wallet will all stay at home during this adventure, in a place where they’ll be safe. Soi 21/1 was a small street and, at midday, I encountered only a few children patrolling the area on their bicycles, armed to the teeth with brightly coloured water guns and ready to soak anything that moved.

Soi 21/1 spills out onto Sukhumvit 77, a main thoroughfare in a section of town called On Nut, which hangs on the outskirts of an overflowing City of Angels, known as Bangkok. At the intersection an 8 year-old, with a mischievous gleam in his eye, sprints toward me holding a bowl of water with my name on it. It’s the middle of the hot season and the inevitable splash of water comes as a welcome relief, however I realise a drastic mistake I’ve made… I’ve just joined the world’s largest water fight and I’m completely unarmed!

The sidewalks on both sides are dotted with fifty gallon rubbish bins full of water. Some of which are filled with dreaded ice water. Long hoses attached to every available spigot, aim indiscriminately at all who pass by. Water comes at you from all angles, as the onslaught begins. Strangers approach with powders and pastes made of coloured chalk that they exuberantly rub on your face. It somehow feels like we’re all friends. Traffic on the street is crawling along, and just ahead, I spot a black truck hauling a rubbish bin full of water in the back and half a dozen kids brandishing water guns, dousing people as the truck drives by. As I walk past the truck, now stopped at a traffic light, the whole family beckons me to join them.

Slightly confused by the invitation, I hop in the back of the truck and I’m handed a plastic bowl to use to splash the crowd as we drive by. As we inch along, the kids and I frantically toss water at our well-armed opponents. Having the higher ground and a mobile base, we have an obvious advantage and manage to do a fair amount of drenching, and amidst the wild laughter I begin to wonder just how long it had been since I had a water fight. Finally we reached the end of Soi 77 and, as much as I want to continue on this lively ride, I stick to the original goal, high-five the kids and hop out.

The slippery journey back to the apartment begins. On the corner, in the open air market, a few dozen people huddle together trying to inhale a quick bowl of food before someone dumps more water on them. As cars drive by, people are pouring buckets of water on their windshields, temporarily blinding the drivers.  Horns honk incessantly. Wild dogs roam the streets delighted at the abundance of food and water. Weaving through this crowd takes a bit of finesse, and a bit of luck. By now people have set their own territory for the day and are settling in. Beer is a wonderful addition to the equation and it’s not long before I have a cold one in my hand.

An intricately carved wooden archway is the gateway to a small side street to my left. Down the street, is a handmade plywood stage with some teenagers belting out a half Thai / half English version of Paradise City by Guns N Roses. Magnetically, I gravitate toward the stage. A crowd of people welcome me and body-language-signal me to join them. After a few more songs, the band quits playing for a moment, walks over and has a few drinks with us. These kids are true blue rockers, and the guitarist hands me a book of lyrics for all the songs they know how to play, and motions for me to pick a song. It was a pleasant surprise to find that these young kids knew a lot older stuff like UFO and early Scorpions, so I picked ‘Rock Bottom’ and ‘Black Out’. Their eyes light up at these choices, beers are downed and they pull me up on stage to sing with them. We drink for hours, my new friends and I, we sing, we scream, we rock. Music proving itself, once again, to be a true international language.

Between libations, one of the teenagers who can speak a tiny scratch of English enthusiastically tells me a local ghost story. Just down that very street is a Wat, a temple that serves as the resting place of the angry spirit of Mae Nak. She, and her unborn child, died tragically and her spirit sought vengeance on the local community. This spirit was responsible for a lot of destructive hauntings throughout the years. If you see the spirit, you’d better run as she will stretch out her arms to grab and kill you. Many people don’t even like talking about the spirit. I inwardly hope that Mae Nak has found peace and is enjoying herself today, along with the rest of us.

The sun begins to fade away and my double vision is on the verge of tripling. I thank my crew, and start the hike back to the apartment. The streets are completely saturated. Small rivers coated with debris meander down the gutters on either side of the street, the piles of rubbish are immense, the smells are indescribable, and stray dogs are doing their very best to clean up everything edible. Laughter echoes down the street and its network of alleys. As the sun slips away, the fluorescent lights that line the streets flicker on, giving the entire scene an over-exposed, otherworldly look.

Happily negotiating my way through the elbow to elbow chaos, I arrive at the turn to Soi 21/1 and am greeted by the dozen motorcycle-taxi drivers who normally wait here to grab fares. We see each other every day as I walk by to and from daily adventures. They often take me to my destination for a small fee and it’s my absolute favourite way to navigate the insanity of Bangkok. Today, it’s as if we are old friends. They sit on the pavement, crowded around a piece of cardboard that has some markings drawn on it. They use folded beer bottle caps as pieces. I have no idea what this game is, but we sit and drink whiskey until my double vision has quadrupled. We don’t know each other’s names, we can’t speak each other’s language, and it truly doesn’t matter.

The Thai New Year’s celebration of Songkran is pure exhilarating fun, a fascinating experience quite different to anything I have witnessed before or since. Traditionally, it is a time to visit with family and friends, to participate in the local community events, to visit temples and to reflect on life; a time for cleansing and renewal. Like all celebrations, it’s a chance for people to come together. And what began as a blessing of good fortune using holy water has morphed and escalated to an enormous nationwide water fight, most likely due to the fact that it happens at the peak of the hot season in April, and provides reprive from the sweltering and overbearing heat and humidity.

Songkran helped me to remember a bit of my own childhood that somehow I had forgotten… Who doesn’t love a good water fight? Growing up in California, it was one of my favourite summer pastimes. As you grow up, you seem to gradually lose out on the simple joys, like that of a good ole-fashioned water fight. Songkran allows a chance for everyone to awaken their inner rambunctious child, let go, and have some wet and wild fun. It absolutely warmed my heart seeing people of all ages joining in this celebration, and the fact that so many people went out of their way to include me, a foreigner, in their festivities is something I’m quite thankful for.

As I walked the streets on that first day, I literally could not believe that this was even allowed to happen. Immediately I chuckled to myself as I imagined the many ways in which this mega-water fight would never fly in The States. The government would shut it down in a matter of hours, it would be complete bedlam, and probably end up in a lot of injuries and even more arrests. That kind of fun, on a nationwide scale, over the course of 3-5 days, would never be allowed in my home country. Too many liabilities and potential lawsuits. It would be a bureaucratic nightmare!

The following year, I was lucky enough to find myself back in Thailand, and I had a strategy on the first day of Songkran. We were going to a party on the far side of town and we decided to make a game of it; to see how far we could make it without getting soaked. We stealthily crept down back alleys, hid behind structures, and even followed some of the underground khlongs to our destination. 

khlong walkingThings were going so well, and we managed to make it almost to the destination, when just one small block from the party we were ambushed by a pack of wild children wielding buckets of ice water. You can guess who they targeted… and everyone got a good chuckle out of me being soaked while the others were bone dry…

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Once at the party, I am immediately rewarded for being the only target, with a bellyful of laughter and a large glass of Sangsom and Cola. As the group destroys an ample supply of whiskey, we raid the fridge and cram just about everything onto a small ceramic grill. We teach the locals about the beauty of bacon-wrapped pineapple. They share with us squid-flavoured chips. Not exactly a fair trade in my book, but it’s really the thought that counts. The time comes for another booze run and I volunteer to run to the corner shop, where the shop owner and her entire family sit outside blasting Thai rock music, drinking the shop’s supply. This is not a tourist section of town and as much as this custom is still new to me, I’m certain that they were just as amazed with me as I was with them! They pour me drinks and we dance and laugh until my group sends a scout to find me.
waterfight2Living in Thailand had many challenges, one of which was constantly feeling like an outsider. I couldn’t have stuck out more if I tried, as I’m much taller than the average Thai, and with blonde hair and covered in tattoos, and it was impossible to ‘blend in’. But, it was moments like this where I felt an overwhelming acceptance that made up for all the times that I felt like a circus freak. Songkran gave me a chance to participate in the culture and expand my understanding of this foreign land that I was in.

It also gave me a chance to marvel at the concept of ‘time’. According to the Thai Solar Calendar, which uses the Buddhist era, instead of the Christian era, the year I moved there was 2553 BE. The thought had never even crossed my mind that there are different ways to calculate time, and I realised that any day can be new year’s day, and that the year can be any number, so long as we all agree to it. In that way, we really are masters of our own reality. I had never been anywhere that didn’t use the Gregorian calendar (and in fact, I didn’t even know that was the name of the calendar used in the western world until I looked it up). I marvelled at how with the Thai calendar, holidays are calculated using celestial movements and therefore change slightly from year to year, vs. the Gregorian calendar which has been constructed in a more rigid format in order to enable conformity and place holidays at convenient times.

What else did I learn from that giant water-fight? No matter how different we may think we are, humans have basic commonalities and, as viewed from that perspective, we are indeed all brothers and sisters. Despite language and cultural barriers or generation gaps, we can all share in a moment of celebration together if we take the time to participate in the world around us and keep an open and tolerant mind. It’s fantastic and amazing just how much we can communicate without the use of words. Oh yeah, and don’t go to a water fight without a water gun!

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Sometimes, I See You in My Reflection

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I can attribute a large part of my inherent wanderlust to one of the most influential and inspiring women I’ve ever known; my grandmother Virginia Wyatt – ‘Gram’. From an early age, she took me all over the world; Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, England, France, all over America and the list goes on. Gram gave me the childhood that she could’ve never possibly dreamed of for herself. She always had a reason for travelling, something that she wanted to learn about, or to teach others about, or simply to see something with her own eyes and to experience for herself. She opened up the world to me, peeled back the veneer of things just enough to peak my curiosity. Instead of answers, she gave me questions. She taught me how to travel, how to be inquisitive, and for that I will always be in her debt.

Gram was heavily into genealogy, and a devout Mormon. She brought me on many trips with the sole purpose of tracking down her family and my grandfather’s ancestry. One of my favourite memories takes place in an ornate church somewhere in England when I was 9 years old. We were there looking for records that would illuminate my grandfather’s heritage. She mentioned his last name to the local priest, who in turn became quiet and a bit pale. I remember at the time thinking that we were in some kind of trouble. The priest showed us to the church’s records and quickly told us the story; apparently one of my grandfather’s ancestors had broken all the stained glass windows in that very church sometime in the distant past, and had quite the reputation of being a no-good rapscallion! (The look of disapproval and embarrassment in Gram’s eyes was, in hind sight, pretty amusing.) We had travelled all this way to find out that Gram was married to the ancestor of a blasphemer! As a child these stories don’t interest you much at the time but, as you grow older you realise that they have somehow managed to hang around in your memory bank. Sometimes, when you search, you find the unexpected.

One night, on that same trip, we were resting in our hotel in Paddington Square, London. My front teeth were loose and I ended up twisting and twisting until one of them finally popped out of the socket. I happily showed my grandmother my treasure while tonguing the freshly made bloody gap, but then immediately the mood changed… We were in England… How would the Tooth Fairy EVER find me here?! Queue the water works; this was a serious matter to a young, admittedly, spoiled brat! Gram sat me down and assured me that the Tooth Fairy would find me. She explained to me that the Tooth Fairy visits children all over the world and that she would have no trouble finding my tooth and leaving me a token in return. Later that night, Gram woke me up out of a deep sleep, pointing to a small object floating in the room. “There she is! Do you see her? There’s the Tooth Fairy!” To this day I have no idea what the object was, or if there was really something there at all, but, Gram had the power to make a child believe in anything no matter how fanciful. She had the ability to spin wild tales which would exercise and strengthen the imagination. That night, I literally SAW the Tooth Fairy! She was wearing a blue dress and had flown in through the open window and was floating there before my eyes. Sometimes, it’s ok to believe.

A few nights later, as we rested from the day’s journeys, Gram was flicking through the channels on the ‘tele’ and stopped to watch a program about the mission to the moon. The program was a BBC production, and I noticed almost immediately the difference in tone of the reporting. No, it wasn’t the accent that was so incredibly different; it was the way that the story was told… from a different point of view… without the usual American slant. I don’t remember all that much about the program, but I did have one of my first real epiphanies of my life: America doesn’t own the moon just because we put a flag there. Until that point, I guess I had always assumed that the moon belonged to America! Again, at the time, this train of thought seemed rather arbitrary, but looking back on it, I realise just how much that taught me. It helped me understand that there is a whole world out there full of untold stories, full of different perspectives and lifestyles. It helped me see beyond the nationalism and propaganda of America and realise that there is more to the world that just the comings and goings of the U.S.A… Sometimes, the world does not revolve around you.

Over two decades later, as I sit on a boat in Australia about to embark on a journey north to the tropics, I’ll take this opportunity now to say the things that I never got a chance to tell you: For giving me a gift that no money can buy, that no one can take away, that cannot diminish or fade, I thank you Gram. For opening my eyes to things I’d never dreamed of; for loving me unconditionally, I thank you Gram. Someday, somewhere, sometime, I know we will travel together again.