My Two Million-Year-Old Brain

I didn’t have to go. I could have said no. All the signs were there, telling me not to, yelling, “Danger! Danger!’

A volcano, for God’s sake, about to erupt at any minute the headlines screamed. I bought masks and goggles, and borrowed a Steripen in case water became scarce.

My husband glanced askance at my growing pile of precautions. ‘Are you sure you really want to go?’ he asked. ‘Doesn’t look like much of a holiday to me.’

“I’m going,’ I said. But in my head the voice remained, ‘It’s a sign, pull out now. Don’t go.’

The facilitator of the writing retreat I was attending sent an email. Because we don’t want to put anyone in danger we have decided to relocate the retreat to Australia.

I was incensed. I’m the one who decides to put myself in danger, or not. I didn’t want to go to a writing retreat in Australia. I wanted to go to Bali. Besides the retreat was being held in Sanur, miles away from the widest of the exclusion zones. And the locals needed us. They were suffering because of cancellations and the lack of tourists. We had a moral duty to keep the retreat in Bali. I emailed the facilitator and told her so. But all the time the voice in my head kept saying, ‘See, even someone who spends half her time in Bali thinks this is a bad idea. It’s a sign. Don’t go. Stay home. Stay safe.’

The facilitator changed her mind. The retreat was going ahead in Bali after all. I could tell my husband was disappointed but I was jubilant. Well, most of me was, all except that voice in my head.

The plane refuelled in Darwin, just in case we had to turn back. The stewards told us stories of how they’d been stuck in Bali two years ago because of a volcanic eruption. I thought of my mask and goggles safely packed in my suitcase. Volcanic ash consists of tiny pieces of glass that cut and gouge into eyes and lungs, so the voice in my head kept telling me. ‘It won’t be pretty. You could jump out of the plane now, in Darwin, and catch the next plane back home.’ I didn’t.

The week in Sanur passed without incident. No eruption. No disaster. No ash cloud. But my next stop was Amed, up the north east of Bali, right next to the volcano but just outside the exclusion zone. I was going there to learn to scuba dive. It took me three days to find a driver who’d take me. “Too dangerous,’ ‘Amed is closed,’ No Miss, you can’t go there.’ These were the stories I was told. I emailed the dive school three times for reassurance. Yes, they were open, yes, it was safe, and Amed was suffering because of the lies about it being closed. The small town of 500 people needed me to come and spend my rupiah. The voice in my head disagreed. ‘This is a sign,’ it said. ‘If you go to Amed you will die. If the volcano doesn’t get you the diving will. Breathing underwater? Are you kidding? It’s against nature. You will drown. Your equipment will fail. Your death will be horrible, excruciating, and tragic. Your poor husband. He didn’t want you to come to Bali but here you are and now, against all advice, you’re still going to Amed, you’re still going diving? Idiot. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

A strange thing happened when I arrived in Amed. That very day all volcanic activity decreased; the tremors, the crater steam, the magma readings. They all plummeted. I was disappointed. I’d hoped to feel some tremors at least. Nothing. The volcano was beautiful. I walked along the beach of black volcanic pebbles and was in awe of its pointy, steaming majesty. Here I was, right next to the cause of all the fuss, and it was nothing but a gentle, sleepy giant. (And yes, I took the photo above of Mt Agung.)

The next day I learnt to scuba dive. I breathed underwater. I swam through fluttering clouds of rainbow fish and over magical realms of coral and creatures. I was weightless and buoyant, oblivious to gravity and atmosphere in another world beneath the surface. The voice was in my head the entire time, urging me to stop this foolishness, telling me I’d proved my point after the first dive and didn’t need to continue, that persisting with a second and then a third dive was lunacy, I was just pushing my luck, I would definitely die. After two days of diving I was triumphant and invincible. I was still alive.

The voice in my head didn’t let up, it warned me about the state of the roads, the lack of driving skills of the people using them and the total absence of road rules, the fact that tourists get robbed and thrown out of cars on a regular basis, that my credit card would get skimmed, my passport stolen and I’d have no money, no proof of identity and I’d be left in a desperate state, abandoned and probably injured.

I’d managed to avoid monkeys and the numerous stray dogs that populated every area I visited. The voice had warned me about the very real threat of rabies. Ironically it had also insisted that I not to get a rabies shot, or any other vaccinations. ‘Vaccines don’t work, just look at the flu shot debacle,’ it had told me before I left for Bali. ‘Besides vaccinations are full of crap like mercury and other poisons you don’t want in your body. Avoid them entirely.’ And so I did, and gave every monkey and every dog a very wide berth. Even the dog that came running out of an alley in Ubud, threw itself on the ground in front of me and rolled onto its back wagging its tail begging me to rub its tummy. I missed my funny old dog back home. This dog was so full of joy and fun I laughed out loud but I didn’t touch it. Besides, the voice told me it had probably been trained to do just this by some nefarious person who would be appearing out of that same alley any moment demanding money to feed his funny, loveable dog.

On the fast boat to Nusa Lembongan the voice had me checking for life jackets and devising escape strategies in case of capsize. ‘The lack of legislation and protocols is obvious,’ it told me. ‘Safety standards are non-existent. You’ll have to take care of yourself. Can you imagine being left in the middle of the ocean with no proof of identity and no money? Make sure you keep your passport and credit card close.’

On the island I wanted to see the sights and travel to Nusa Cenigan which was only accessible by scooter across a narrow, yellow bridge. The hotel where I was staying only offered truck tours, which, and here I agreed with the voice, would be a lot safer. The roads were shocking, narrow, pot-holed, rutted and in some places flooded. A vehicle with four wheels was a better bet than the two-wheel variety, especially as there wasn’t a bike helmet to be seen on the island. But I persevered. The young men at the hotel’s recreation centre had a friend who would take me for a scooter tour. All I had to do was pay them the money and they’d arrange it for the next day. I handed over 200,000 rupiah and not even thinking to ask for a receipt, the deal was done.

The next day at the appointed time there was no friend, no scooter and a different young man in the recreation centre knew nothing about the arrangement I’d made.

‘You could take the truck tour,’ he said. ‘There’s one leaving at 11am.’

‘Yes, take the truck tour,’ the voice said. ‘This is a sign. If you’d gone on the back of a scooter you would have died. Remember that Australian girl who fell off the back of a scooter in Bali recently. She died. That could be you. Forget the scooter. Take the truck tour.’

But I had paid 200,000 rupiah. It was the principle of the thing. Although I felt like an idiot for not getting a receipt, I was going to get what I paid for. I marched off to the front office and told them what had happened. Within ten minutes a scooter complete with driver appeared and I was off and away, leaving the voice floundering in my wake. It was a marvellous adventure, rugged, rutted roads and all. The scenic spots were rather ho-hum for a girl from the Sunshine Coast who’s surrounded by exquisite beauty every day of her life, but being on the back of a scooter was a blast especially when we zoomed along a beautifully paved and maintained back road past the mangrove forests. I felt free and victorious. Once again I had triumphed over the nitpicking nay-saying of the voice.

I understand the voice. It’s my two million-year-old brain. That ancient reptilian amygdala that wants to keep me safe. It doesn’t want me to have adventures, it doesn’t even want me to have fun. All it wants is for me to survive and back then, two million years ago, survival was paramount. And no matter how I try to reason with it, it doesn’t understand reason, all it understands is fear, especially in a strange place like Bali, or underwater or on the back of a scooter.

And so heading back home, the over-packed minibus did not roll over in the chaos of Denpasar airport traffic, the plane did not fall out of the sky, and, apart from a case of Bali belly, I arrived into the arms of my loving hubby unscathed and still very much alive. But the voice persisted. ’There’s still the journey up the Bruce Highway,’ it muttered. ‘There could be a massive accident. You know how notorious this highway is. You could still die.’

‘Oh, shut up!’ I said.

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Scrabble Divas Rule

It makes friends of strangers, enemies of friends and binds like-minded souls in a pleasure that cannot be experienced by the uninitiated. Scrabble.

Those who have never owned a well-worn Scrabble set and a much-thumbed Scrabble dictionary may scoff, but the pain and the pleasure of Scrabble cannot be beaten.

Like most people, I’d played as a child, enjoyed it at the time but moved on. That was until I met the Scrabble Queen. I was living in a small country town and she took me under her wing. Every Sunday afternoon I would go around to her place and she would wipe the board with me. Month after month this went on. But as I watched and I learned, she passed on her skills to me and I became powerful. The day I beat her I became worthy of the title of the Scrabble Princess.

The legend grew and people would travel to that small town to take on the Scrabble Queen and the Scrabble Princess. One cocky Sydney journalist thought he would have his way with us using his vast knowledge of verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs. But no.

He left a defeated man, his tail between his legs and our laughter ringing in his ears.

I moved to a bigger town and kept my skills a secret for some time. Sometimes it is best to watch and wait.

Eventually, I found a worthy opponent.

Once again every Sunday we would meet and while her boyfriend cooked us dinner we’d hit the triple scores with everything we had. I taught her tricks I’d learned from the Scrabble Queen and before too long she became a Scrabble Diva to beat the best of them.

Once again I moved on, my Scrabble destiny not quite complete.

It took a while to find an opponent brave enough or foolish enough to take me on. This time I took pity on a poor little Scrabble Tadpole. She reminded me of myself in my younger days. I passed on the skills that had been taught to me by the Scrabble Queen and eventually I bestowed upon her the honour of her very own Scrabble set. But if you challenge her, beware, she has the training of many generations of Scrabble Mistresses. She may toy with you for a while but eventually, she’ll hit you with a seven-letter word on a triple word score that will blow your mind.

These days I play online. I keep in contact with the many Scrabble goddesses I’ve met along the way and we battle it out with each other, thanks to the glory of the internet. But whenever we do get the chance to catch up in person, the Scrabble board gets dusted off and it’s game on. Nothing can beat the clatter of the tiles on their wooden stands, the scribbled scores mounting ever higher on a hastily found piece of paper and the satisfaction of stealing that triple word score, quite literally, from under your opponent’s nose.

Scrabble on!

The Shallow Promise of Your Best Life Ever

The holiday and festive season is over. How do I know? It’s not the suddenly empty beaches or the re-emergence of school crossing guards. It is the plethora of magazine and newspaper lifestyle segments telling us that the good times are over and it’s time to pay for all the excess.

It’s like getting your first credit card statement of the year.

Suddenly, instead of recipes for the perfect chocolate pavlova, the media is full of ways to remove the undesirable poundage that said pavlova has deposited on unsuspecting thighs, waists and chins.

I was tempted for a few seconds by a seductive little detox number that promised to clean up my system, get me into my old jeans and supply me with a fabulous life all within the space of 10 days. However, when I read what I was expected to eat, or more importantly not eat, I came to my senses. I realised that 240 hours of sheer misery was too much to endure, even for the promise of my best life ever at the end of the torture.

Let’s face it. Diets aren’t about reaching your healthy goal weight. Diets are about reaching your goal happiness, your goal size smaller than your best friend, your goal boyfriend, and best of all; your goal envious looks from other people. Diets are about being suddenly slim and glamorous. They’re about swanning around in sports cars and being lusted after by movie stars. Wouldn’t we all be deliriously happy, content and rich if only we were just a little bit slimmer?

I’ve been wading through the lists of sure-fire diets and the swathe of Celebrity Diets. There are only two things that I’ve read that have made any sense. One was a celebrity singer saying that the only way to lose weight was to eat less and exercise more. The other was a celebrity actress telling us not to believe other actresses who say they eat whatever they like and stay stick thin. She said that she, like all the rest of them, was hungry all the time.

This week I’m relishing my morning walks along the near empty, post-holiday beach, not to lose weight but just for the sheer joy of it. And when I see those people who are slimmer than me, I no longer see them as morally superior beings who live incredibly fulfilled and fascinating lives with their perfect life partner. I see them as people who are just a bit hungrier than me.

The Miserable Joy of Eeyore

I’m a year older than I was last week. There’s something about having a birthday that always reminds me of Eeyore. After all, what’s a birthday? Here today, gone tomorrow, as he would say.

Eeyore has always been my favourite of the Winnie-the-Pooh characters. With such lines as, “Good morning Little Piglet. If it is a good morning. Which I doubt. Not that it much matters”, how could you not love him?

On his birthday Eeyore is sardonic, witty and urbane but most of all he is miserable. Eeyore makes us all feel better on our birthdays. He takes on all the pain of ever feeling forgotten or abandoned on what’s supposed to be our special day. He makes even the most monumental loser feel good. No matter how bad things get they’ll always be worse for Eeyore. And that’s a form of comfort.

When I was a kid I was always jealous of my sister’s toy Eeyore. It was a home-made job way before merchandising came to be the market force it is these days. It had character and was well-loved. From an early age my sister and I both knew that Eeyore was the only one who saw the world as it was but still found something worthwhile in it. Even better he expressed his pessimism in no uncertain terms to anyone who’d listen and they still loved him. But most of all he was funny.

I once met a man who used to size people up by finding out who their favourite Winnie-the-Pooh character was. To him it was a reflection of how people viewed the world. Pooh types were optimistic, undemanding and simplistic. Piglets were insecure, needy and eager to please. Owls were quirky, odd and kind of interesting. Tiggers were arrogant and immature. Kangas were often nurses, caring but tired. Roos were wishy-washy. And Rabbit? Who on earth would choose Rabbit as their favourite character? You’d have to be perverse.

Very occasionally you’ll find someone who cites Christopher Robin as their favourite. According to his theory, it shows someone with a marked lack of imagination or a male going through a mid-life crisis.

But when you find another Eeyore you know you’ve found a soul mate. It takes a special type of person to love and appreciate an old grey donkey who pretty much keeps to himself in a damp corner of the 100 Acre Wood.

“I might have known’, said Eeyore. “After all, I have my friends. Somebody spoke to me only yesterday. And it was last week or the week before that Rabbit bumped into me and said ‘Bother!’ The Social Round. Always something going on.”

Thanks Eeyore.

Freedom. Or Perks?

It’s the time of year when we reflect on the past and look forward to the future. I’ve spent part of the past week at the Woodford Folk Festival and, unlike a lot of other festival-goers, for me it’s been a sobering experience.

Often we don’t notice the changes that occur in our everyday lives. The days slip by, the years flow on and we ease gracefully into other states of being. Well, that’s how I perceive it happening for other people. For myself any change is usually accompanied by much clashing and gnashing.

The first Woodford Festival I went to was a tribal experience. I drove up from Sydney with five others in a Kingswood called Gretel. We set up camp in amongst other people’s tent ropes and tarpaulins. I wandered wide-eyed and sleepless for the entire six days. I went to every jam session and danced all night in the Chai Tent. I joined the choir and made lanterns. I entered The Great Band Competition and circled every act in the program. I immersed myself in the Woodford experience and when it was time to resurface I couldn’t even remember my pin number.

My second Woodford Festival was spent as a performer. I played the Big Top and slept in the Performers’ Camp. I hung out in the Green Room and played in a few jams. I wore one of those coveted “access all areas” wristbands and got to watch packed out shows from the space beside the stage.

The next time I went as a radio announcer. It rained the entire time but I didn’t care. I was like a pig in the proverbial and there was plenty of that.  I interviewed as many performers as I could and when they played for me a crowd would gather. It was live radio at its best.

Since then I’ve produced and presented many national broadcasts from Woodford for the ABC. And when I became a published author I spent a couple of Woodfords on stage as a speaker. Every year I’ve had special privileges because of my position as a broadcaster, a performer and an author including parking spots, all-access wristbands, free tickets and speedy entry.

This year all that changed. It was the first year since that first tribal trip to Woodford that I’ve paid for a ticket. No access all areas, no special treatment.  At first I felt free; I had no responsibilities, no burden of care, nobody expected anything of me. I had no deadlines and no particular place to be. For the first time in almost twenty years I could experience the Woodford Folk Festival on my own terms. But when The Hubby and I had to park in the day parking area and catch the shuttle bus along with all the other punters, the reality sunk in and I didn’t like it. The truth is I enjoy being special. I love having perks and privileges. I scowled like a cranky toddler.

‘Don’t they realise who I am?’ I huffed.

‘Don’t you mean, who you were?’ The Hubby replied.

And it’s true. I love the freedom of retirement. Every day I’m grateful that I get to choose what I do, or don’t do. And after a lifetime in the public eye in one form or another, I adore the invisibility of anonymity. But freedom comes at a price. And for me that included the cost of a ticket and experiencing the festival as a mere member of the public.

So would I change anything about that experience? Would I shackle myself back to the burdens and responsibilities of a working life for the sake of a free ticket and more convenient parking?

I have had the experience of attending the Woodford Folk Festival in many different guises, and those roles of musician, broadcaster and speaker have suited me at the time. But times change and we change with them or we are doomed to a life of resentment and regret. Freedom is more important to me now than recognition, prestige and the perks of a media pass (even though, yes, sometimes I miss those perks).

So here’s to looking forward, to a life of freedom and choices based on that freedom. And if I get a bit huffy from time to time because I used to be someone, I hope I remember that I much prefer the someone that I am now.

Happy 2017.

Eat More Cake…and Merry Christmas

The Hubby and I had the conversation we had to have a few weeks ago. About cake. Christmas cake to be precise. You see, one of our lovely neighbours comes around every December selling Lions Christmas cakes. Every year we buy one. In the past we have been known to give them away but last year we ate the whole cake before Christmas even arrived. We love Christmas cake.

This year we decided to buy one and divide it into thirds. We’d keep one-third for ourselves and give the other two-thirds away. Never happened. Once again we ate the whole cake in less than a fortnight, way before Christmas day had a chance to dawn. Did I mention we love Christmas cake?

But for myself, it wasn’t always that way.

 My grandmother used to create amazing Christmas cakes. They were works of art. She would bake the cake months in advance and regularly soak it in brandy. Then as the day grew closer she’d cover it in marzipan and then finally a coat of royal icing with all the trimmings. As a child I’d try to grab a piece with the most icing. The cake and the marzipan always remained on my plate, naked and dishevelled. Back then I hated fruitcake but I loved the icing. Kids! My grandmother must have despaired. If only she was still alive, I’d give her Christmas cakes the respect they deserved.

Granny was a great cook but there was one thing I could never fathom. At Christmas she’d serve up jellied peas. Who in their right minds would put peas in jelly? My mum explained that the jelly was aspic, a kind of savoury jelly, but I was not impressed. However, in retrospect, I can see how devilishly clever my grandmother was. She solved the problem of children and peas with a two-pronged attack. Peas in jelly won’t fall off the fork, plus it makes peas so unattractive to children they won’t want to eat them anyway.  There’s no danger of peas getting squashed into the carpet if no one under 14 is eating them.

I hope you have a joyful Christmas and I also hope that, unlike The Hubby and myself, you have some Christmas cake left to eat on the day. And wherever you are and whoever you’re celebrating Christmas with,  may there be no jellied peas on the menu.

Burning Up

Black Saturday Fires, Victoria 2009. Photo: Jake Valance.

Summer on the Sunshine Coast. It’s hot, it’s windy and the first serious fire of the season saw flames leaping over three stories high through bushland in Mountain Creek. 

All of us who’ve been close to fire never forget it. I remember the heat and darkness of the bushfires that burnt Tasmania to the ground when I was a young child. A huge red sun low in the sky made our home feel like an alien planet. Our house was the last safe refuge at the bottom of Mt. Nelson. The lounge room was full of kids. Their dads were in the smoke battling to save each others’ homes armed with nothing more than wet gunny sacks and garden hoses. The women gathered in our kitchen talking in hushed and worried voices, not knowing whether they’d have a husband or a home to go to that night.

During the 1994 bush fires that circled Sydney, the band I played in was booked to perform at a festival in Byron Bay. We set off up the highway not knowing whether we’d get through or not. Flames were burning along the side of the road, licking at the bitumen. We could feel the heat through the metal and glass of our hired tour van and were acutely aware that we could be trapped by fire at any moment. The highway closed just after we passed through. 

The festival went ahead, with other acts having to be flown in and much borrowing of amplifiers and equipment. It was a relief to be away from the smoke and the big red bushfire sun that cast Sydney is a strange sepia-toned glow.

The highway was open again by the time we headed back to Sydney, five musos on the road, after a successful performance at the festival. Our career was going well and the future looked good. Not for much longer.

Sometimes you can pinpoint the exact moment when you know a relationship is over. It may not end right there and then but eventually it’s the reason the whole balancing act comes tumbling down in ruins. As we drove back towards a fire-devastated Sydney our bass player flicked her cigarette butt out the window. I felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach. I turned to another member of the band just to check what I’d seen. She looked as shocked as I did. It was a single thoughtless act that highlighted a hundred other thoughtless acts. Families had lost their homes, children had lost their pets, others had lost their livelihoods and that cigarette butt, smouldering on the side of the road, could start the horror all over again.

Three months later the band had a new name and a new bass player.

If only a home or a life were that easy to replace.