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Monday, August 10, 2009

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Allegheny Cemetery

Allegheny Cemetery

Here are some lyrics I wrote on the evening (in August 2006) I found out about my mother's death:

Gentle soul
May you lie in the arms of your father who loves you
These few ragged minutes we are apart
I'll wait for you the way you did for me
Every wish that is not for love is vanity
Take my pen and pledge this for me
You are the arc of every story
The only life thats ever been
We all touched what you touched
We all saw what you saw
And all the kindness in your heart
Is why we'll hope for evermore.

You do what you can to get through grief, even when getting through it seems impossible. Musicians, artists, writers grasp onto the implements of expression - thats how we know we are still holding on, by the scratch and rustle, every day leaving marks. 'Now' waits behind the grief stricken like a warm engine, its presence insistent but impersonal. For a long while, nothing seems real.

I have been reminded of grief's journey by the deaths, in the last two weeks, of two elderly men, fathers of people who I know, one in Pittsburgh, the other in Melbourne. The week before these events, my own father appeared strongly in my dreams, an unusual occurrence, and my mother too.

So last week, by the light of the strawberry moon, I went for a walk in Allegheny Cemetery with the intention of doing a little ritual, to give thanks for being alive, ask for help for the grieving, and say hi to Mum and Dad.

Allegheny Cemetery is one of America's oldest and largest cemeteries and surely one of the world's most breathtakingly beautiful tributes to mortality. As far as the eye can see, there are stone monuments flung out amongst the the lush hills and oaks and maples, like a sculpture park. Some display the wealth of Pittsburgh's deceased elite, family surnames like Baum and Vandergrift hammered into soaring columns and white marble pillars. The private mausoleums of great families line many of the cemetery roads, like small Greek temples. Their wrought iron gates appear to have been shut decades ago and never reopened. At the other extreme, there are the hundreds of small grey gravestones of the 19th century poor, so weathered with time that all that is barely legible is the date of death, sometimes not even that. My favorites figures are the angels - soaring in various poses of elevated feeling, eternally caring underneath the grime and oxidisation of age, never forgetting the names of the long gone people they hover over. I wander down the heavily wooded paths of Allegheny Cemetery every day (as does Tanya), and it has become my sacred place, my sanctuary.

My new buddy John accompanied me. He too felt the need to say hello to his mum who died of cancer a few years ago, and to make some wishes for the summer ahead. The cemetery revealed its night beauty: gold headstone inscriptions winking in the moonlight, immense pillars and statues looming even taller than in the day, palely glowing, fireflies sparkling and moving fast through the silhouettes of trees. It felt like walking through a mysterious ancient city.

After we found a nice high spot with views of the city, I laid out my Tibetan prayer rug and a handful of objects of significance, including some things belonging to Mum and Grandma. We said our private prayers, then ended up chatting about far less spiritual matters such as camera lenses (John is a highly gifted photographer around town and also columnist for the local gay mag Out) and also the old favorite, how to scrape together a living from creative projects. I had had several LBIs (Latest Big Ideas) which all stood a chance of making money, but was finding it hard to summon the energy to push them ahead. As we walked back to 45th St under the pulsing moon, I asked whoever was listening, for good measure, for a bit of help on the abundance front.

Death defying adventures

One thing you can say about the thought of death (and its handmaiden, the life-threatening illness) is they can lead you on some adventures. My adventures began in Melbourne only days after the initial breast cancer diagnosis, spinning me round-eyed into the worlds of 'healers' who try to push death away using sometimes the most startling of means.

Jeff was a 'vibrational healer' who also used 'color therapy'. I must have seen Jeff very early on in the cancer diagnosis (January 2007) as he was quick to offer the opinion that I didn't have cancer. Not really. It was some kind of energetic malfunction, but he could help jimmy it all back into place. Our session consisted of my lying down in his comfortable suburban lounge room with many large rocks (crystals) placed on my body. Jeff shook and rattled a variety of Tibetan instruments over my (hopefully steadily recharging) energy field, scaring the bejeebers out of me every now and then when he bonged one of his Tibetan singing bowls. After the session, I felt exactly the same, but Jeff pressed a small patch of purple paper into my hand and told me to wear it on my person for several weeks. That should do the trick. Upon leaving, I admired Jeff's collection of singing bowls, and he told me repeatedly I looked "biologically very young". That remark alone I thought made the $60 fee worthwhile.

I also found myself sitting in what felt like a psychiatrists' office with Carmel, a 'medical intuitive' and healer who dressed more like a successful real estate businesswoman than a shaman. Perhaps it was because we were both (silently) put off by each other's shoes (my pale blue runners, her canary yellow leather pumps) that Carmel's intuition about my condition was less than spot on. She pronounced that surgery would find that cancer had spread to my lymph nodes - but after the operation a few days later, we found, to my enormous relief, that it hadn't. She also glared at me and indicated that I had anger issues which I needed to let go of. I didn't feel that great about handing over dosh to Carmel as I slumped out of her office, more shaken than when I went in.

In mid 2007, I undertook Reiki sessions to help with healing from months of radiotherapy treatments. I was fortunate enough to meet Grant - a particularly gifted practitioner. Grant seemed to have acquired extraordinary powers due to having almost died from testicular cancer. He had strong friends in high places - a couple of weeks before he was given his shock diagnosis, he was paralysed on his way to the lavatory one night by a white light that embraced him and held him close for some time. Then the cancer diagnoses came, with metastases in his lungs, back. At one time he was so weakened by the chemo, he couldn't get out of his hospital bed. He told me he used to try and stay awake as much as possible because he was so afraid that he would not wake up if he fell asleep. But he pulled through. He was glowing with health now, and gratefully credits his cancer experience with having "woken him up" to his soul's destiny. Which was to become a healer, a Reiki master. I found Grant's story all the more remarkable because his day job was as a policeman. When I asked him if his colleagues knew about his double-life, he laughed and said no, they wouldn't understand.

Grant was one of those practitioners who could sense things about your body/ energy field without you saying anything. For example, he would say "your kidneys are hurting today" when all I'd done is just say hello and lay down - and he would be right. He was developing the ability the sense internal organs with his hands. His powerful friends were also on hand to help him out - on a couple of occasions, when Grant took his hands away from one part of my body, and moved onto another part, the sensation of two hands pressing down remained. I had the very strong sense of another presence in the room, that his hands were moving inside the hands of another body - another being. Later, he told me that he often called on Isis to help with healing. I was very grateful she decided to drop in on me.

Grant said to me on a couple of occasions - "Your heart is all in pieces, its completely shattered. I'm trying to put it back together". I reflected that it was not everyday a law enforcement officer offered to put your heart back together....

Back then, I didn't need memento moris to remind me of the shortness of life and the miracle of existence. But now, two and a half years later, on the other side of the world, as my life is in the process of being reconstructed from the ground up, I find myself grateful that Allegheny Cemetery has taken over the roles of both mortality reminder, and healer. In a gentler way. And its free.

The banjo: the "happiest sound in the world"

The short promotional films that Tanya, Scott and I did for CitiParks are now being shown around Pittsburgh's many beautiful parks at their outdoor movie screenings over the next few months (Tanya has put them up on her YouTube channel here). And as spring ripens into summer, I am trying to get basic life infrastructure rebuilt. First and foremost, a car must be purchased, so I am better set up for work opportunities and I can actually acquire and lug musical equipment around again. And the second purchasing priority, I have decided, is a banjo.

According to the Pittsburgh Banjo Club, the banjo is not only "America's Native Instrument" it is also, "the happiest sound in the world". They may well have a point. One of my favorite albums of recent years is William Elliot Whitmore's "Hymns for the Hopeless" all raw banjo-based punk-bluegrass meditations on death. Despite all the lyrics about watching true love get interred in "boxes of pine", and losing the will to live, the album never fails to get me in a toe tapping mood and puts a grin on my face every time I hear it. It must be the banjo. I intend to learn it.

With the beautiful weather, both Tanya and I are itching to hit the road again. Tanya and Scott are hoping to make a few short trips and explore more of south west Pennsylvania. John and I have also started to plan a big road trip for August. An Americana music road trip. The trip will involve going into the heartland of bluegrass territory - the Appalachians, through West Virginia, down through Kentucky, into Tennessee and country music heartland, Nashville, Dollywood!, back up home through the back roads of North Carolina (home of the Moog synthesiser) and Virginia. John will document the musicians and the landscape with photos and video, I'll be the geek with the digital Zoom recorder and the notebook. And just like a line out of 'Oh Suzannah!' written by Stephen Foster, one of Pittsburgh's most famous sons, who is buried Allegheny Cemetery, I fully intend to travel across the South with " a banjo on my knee":-)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Working on the Warrior movie (Part 2)

by Nicole Skeltys

Week two on the set of the Warrior movie

Last week, I brought down to the set of the Warrior movie a nice fat book called "Pennsylvania Spirituals" by Don Yoder (1961). I was working on Warrior as a full-time extra, my main duties consisting of cheering wildly as part of a large pretend audience to an MMA tournament set in Atlantic City.

My full-time status could have been more accurately described as a "total life elimination" status - an average of 15 hour days, 6 days a week on set - barely enough time left over to get home and get some sleep before the pre-dawn alarm shrieked my brain into consciousness again. This was followed minutes later by a run down Butler St to catch the extras' shuttle which hurtled from the Strip district to the Petersen Events Center, a half hour wait in line to be issued with my payroll slip, then collapsing in the corner of the 'dressing room' (a bit of floor draped with curtains) waiting to be called down to the ring-side for the day's screaming duties. Most of an extra's time consists of just sitting/lying around, waiting for shots to be re-set, so I had ample opportunity to read five books last week, which I counted as a perk of an otherwise totally perkless job.

In between the "spritzing" of fighters (spraying them with water to simulate sweat), fake tattoo touch-ups and lots of rehearsals (to get, for example, the exact right velocity of a mouth guard being spat from the mouth in response to a fist being smashed into said orifice), myself and many other extras quietly read our books.

I started week two with Yoder's book, which began by suggesting Pennsylvania has a much more interesting influence on Americana music history than I suspect even most Americans would realise. Yoder explores his idea that "the Negro Spiritual and the Pennsylvania Spiritual..are twin sisters, developing side by side at first and then only later maturing into distinctive types". Yoder is eager to build on on earlier ethnomusicological research which shows the transfer of the 18th century British evangelical song from New England to the "Southern Uplands" - Kentucky, Tennessee, Western Virginia and then to the "Negro, who made the spiritual, once borrowed, into something expressive of his own soul". He wants to stake out Pennsylvania as having a central place in the early development of this uniquely American and vastly influential musical form.

Yoder digs with relish through early 1800s accounts of Pennsylvania "camp- meeting" evangelical Methodist services which were attended by dirt poor white rural folk and "Negroes" - who were "free" unlike their Southern cousins. Being free didn't mean you weren't segregated from the whites by partitions or required to sit in designated areas behind the preacher man. But it did mean that you could drown the whites out with ecstatic shouts and chorusing over the service, and keep up the "tide of enthusiasm" after the service had ended, long into the night after the whites had crawled back into their tents and were trying to sleep.

The early American spiritual completely shocked British and European visitors, with its gushing emotionalism, crude folk-song repetitions, spontaneous made-up bits of verse, shouting, convulsions and general "hysteria". A British visitor to the Ebenezer Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1817 noted that both the "African" and white parishioners suffered from the same "extreme degree of fanatical violence in their religious exercises". Despite the rich musical tradition generated by their black and white (Pennsylvania Dutch) "religious folk-song" singing ancestors, official historians from the United Brethren, Evangelical and Church of God had (at least up to the 1960s) completely ignored its legacy. Largely because all those violations of established hymn structures, and ignorance of nicely arranged middle-class organ music (largely the preserve of urban churches), meant the spiritual was identified as the religious outpouring of the poorest of the poor, the illiterate, the barely shod. And it was damned by association.

Its no wonder then that America was the birthplace of that dirty irreverent shaking to music and spirit called rock and roll, and soul.

And how American that the rock and roll spirit (and the entertainment industry that latched onto it) would eventually reverse church history. The spiritual legacy in America has secured the quivering, fire-breathing, shouting and singing teleevangelist his mass appeal, and handed to his corporate religious empire the keys to the New Jerusalem. His rival churches, following more conservative forms of worship, watch as their parishioners (and economic base) slowly die off and are not replaced.

I was really warming to Yoder's history last Wednesday morning and flicking away the yellowed Carnegie library book pages with some enthusiasm when The Devil (in the form of one of the senior production assistants) marched around the ringside and shouted at everyone that all our books were now confiscated - we had to take all our reading material and put it away from set, in our 'dressing rooms' or wherever. Why? Someone said they thought that when viewing one of the rushes yesterday, the director noticed that one of the extras - instead of jumping up and down wildly and passionately imploring Tommy to beat the *** out of his opponent- was still sitting, head buried in a tome.

Whatever the reason, little did they know how this removal of our only perk would encourage many of us to openly rebel, only days later.

The Black Friday Showdown

Books I would have read by now and could write about had they not been confiscated:

. Sheila Rowbothom's "A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the United States"
."Coal Dust on the Fiddle: Songs and Stories of the Bituminous Industry in Pennsylvania" by George Korson
."The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality" by Brian Greene

But instead, for the rest of Wednesday and all Thursday, myself and all the other extras sat through 14-15 hours worth of boxing takes with nothing to distract us except our cell phones (on silent) and each other. There was even a rumor going around that none of us were allowed to stretch out on the stadium seats anymore for the occasional back-pain relief, as this potentially delayed getting people in position for new audience hysteria scenes. A lot of us, deeply fatigued already although it was only week two of a four week shoot, slumped submissively in our seats and blinked blankly up into the bright stadium lights for hours on end, like cows in a holding pen.

My new buddy Dan, a 50 year old long-haired heavy metal fan, who dropped me home of an evening in his crimson Chevy touring van (complete with stuffed devil doll passengers and a silver skull-head gear stick), showed a spectacular deterioration in motivation over this two week period, ending in the Black Friday Showdown.

On the first day of shooting, Dan was sitting a few seats from me and was taking every opportunity to jump up and run to the ringside and punch his arms in the air, for hours on end. In between takes, he would chat to me and any other woman who would talk to him. He told me repeatedly how much fun he was having.

By day three, he was not jumping up to the front quite as much. But he was still "having fun". By day six, he was not jumping up at all.

The following week, Dan was given a couple of days off by one of the PAs. But by Thursday, he was no longer even concerned about sitting in his usual seat, or wearing the Tap-Out sweatshirt handed out by the costume department. With nothing to do now for hours on end, he took to just finding corners of the stadium and just sitting there, no sign of air punching anymore.

On Friday, part-time extras poured in excitedly to make up extra bulk for wide-shot crowd scenes. Our numbers swelled to 700-800. Glamor-struck part-timers fussed with make-up, giggled with girlfriends and gingerly stepped in stilettos all over the half-sleeping full-timers who were, as usual, passed out all over the floor of the 'dressing room'.

Black Friday commenced at 6.30 am.

By 6.30 pm there was still no sign of a wrap. Agitated murmurings began, particularly from the part-timers who had expected their working day to end after 12 hours. Not a chance.

By 9.30pm, the groaning and complaining in the room was widespread and audible. All the extras had had enough. Some of us craving dinner and a decent sleep tried to escape up the stadium stairs to the exit signs, but we were trapped. Most of us relied on the shuttle to take us back to the Strip district car-park - the PAs glared at us and told us to "get back in there", the shoot was "nowhere near done", the shuttles weren't going anywhere. We retreated back in. A lot of the part-timers were in a state of shock - some of them just ran away, others staggered back in incredulously.

It was almost 11.00pm, and everyone was still in their seats, exhorted to cheer for Tommy, as usual. This was the final straw for Dan. He slouched deeper into his seat, with no intention to punch the air, clap or show any fake excitement whatsoever. One of the PAs noticed him and the following exchange ensued:

PA: Hey, you have to move over here with the rest of the crowd.
Dan: I'm not going anywhere.
PA: You have to do what I say.
Dan: I don't take any f** orders from anyone
PA: Man, you are SACKED.
Dan: You can't sack me COS I ALREADY QUIT!!!

Dan then stormed out of the stadium; but kindly waited for me on the steps of the Petersen Center, to give me a final lift home after the shuttle dropped us off in the Strip district somewhere close to midnight. We cruised home to the overwrought metal strains of Ronnie James Dio reminding men that women always let them down. As I staggered up the back steps to the apartment, my body implored me not to go in the next day (please oh please) or indeed any of the days after that.

Mid-morning Saturday found me horizontal in my bed and not on the floor of the 'dressing room'. Although I knew I was letting Nick down, I just couldn't be a full-time extra on his film anymore, I just didn't have the true grit needed to make the grade. I too could not be sacked because I had quit.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Working on the Warrior movie

by Nicole Skeltys

My life as an extra on an action movie ( so far)

Although I haven't actually met Nick Nolte yet, or for that matter even clapped eyes on him, I now feel closer to Nick than any other Hollywood actor I've never met. And thats all of them.

I'm working as an extra on Nick's latest movie Warrior. This is apparently Nick Nolte's third movie in Pittsburgh, after Lorenzo's Oil and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

I don't think the latter flick ever made it to Australian cinemas, or maybe it did and I just didn't have the insight two years ago to realize my destiny was one day going to be profoundly bound up with this wonderful town. And thus I may have passed it over in favor of spending another $7.00 on hiring out another tranche of Classic Albums DVDs from the local VideoEzy. This series, which was popular in Australia and the UK, documents the making of no less than 32 "classic" albums from Elvis Presley's Elvis Presley (1956) through to Nirvana's Nevermind (1991). The episodes I have seen in this series have always swept me away, jellyfish-like, into a sea of yearning to produce such an historic artifact myself - a feat I did indeed try to pull off with my Melbourne psychedelic country band Dust's last album Songs (2007). Recorded on no budget in my backyard shed, using scratched up old Neil Young vinyl as audio engineering reference material, the album features great dollops of hopeless nostalgic aspiration wedged into every note. But the sad fact is, the conditions of production - both economic (ie the pop music industry) and cultural (the way people think about and relate to music) - have changed so much since any of the "classic albums" were produced, that the day of the popularly acclaimed '"classic album" is long gone. I'd put Radiohead's landmark Kid A (2000) as the last one to reach out to a respectable sized audience, but really great, passionate, innovative music is simply not allowed out of its niche markets anymore, internet or otherwise, to penetrate the consciousness of the average Jo(eline).

But I digress.

Nolte plays an ex-Vietnam vet. retired mill worker and recovering alcoholic named Paddy, who raised his boys - Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton) as competitive wrestlers. To cut a not very long story even shorter, due to twists of fate and fortune, both sons end up having to fight each other for high stakes ($5m): at Sparta, a 16-man, single-elimination Mixed Marshall Arts (MMA) tournament set in Atlantic City but being staged at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh with real fighters as well as stunt doubles.

The cast also includes Jennifer Morrison ("Star Trek," "House") as Tess, and local pro wrestler Kurt Angle as a Russian named Koba.

I'm a full-time member of 'Sparta Core', which is the 190 strong bunch of extras who turn up to fill up the seats around the ringside each day. I was not chosen to be a 'specialty' extra, which means posing as a security guard, or photographer, or journalist, or paramedic, or part of a fighter posse. I missed out on being special in large part because the only special roles for women at an event like Sparta are as ring-girls (a position apparently nabbed by a Pitt-Greensburg junior who auditioned in a bright orange bikini) and "hot babes" who get to wear the slinkiest of frocks in the front rows and shiver uncontrollably for hours in the stadium air-conditioning.

My role is the humblest of all, that of 'general fan', and my job is simply to sit with other general fans, scream my head off, clap wildly and jump up and down at intervals indicated by one of the many production assistants (PAs) through their megaphones. I am required to perform thus for a minimum of 12 hours each day, 6 days a week. After a week on the job, its become clear that the average working day is in fact 15 hours, and that doesn't include the getting up (often as early as 5.00am) getting there and getting back, which adds another couple of hours.

By the end of the first week, I had figured out that the most useful attributes for an extra were as follows:

  • no central nervous system
  • a gold fish-like brain (ie finding the same actions interesting, no matter how often repeated)
  • no skeletal structure
  • lots of friends with nothing better to do than be an extra too
  • a goat-like digestive system (ie can successfully ingest and excrete trash at any hour)

I lacked all of the above. For the first week, I sat for hours on end, watching the same fight scenes set up and re-shot repeatedly, my eyelids constantly dragged shut by the gravity produced by pre-dawn awakenings. Unlike many of my fellow general fans (about a third of whom seemed to be U of Pitt students on summer break), I had no buddies to insult or share drinking stories with. I found myself on more than one occasion placed next to a genuine wannabe champion boxer, one of whom explained to me that he was prepared to suffer brain damage and slurred speech as long as "the money made it worthwhile".

Like the frail elderly confined to nursing homes, the only bodily pleasure I had to look forward to each day was food break ( 'breakfast' at 7.00, 'lunch' at 3.00, dinner non-existent). But what was on offer was largely junk food, and by day three the periodic dietary assault of snack bars, white bread sandwiches, chips, cookies and popcorn produced an immense gridlock in my innards which by late afternoon left me prone on the backrows of the stadium seating, like a beached pufferfish. This would occasionally attract the disapproval of the production assistants (PAs) who would eventually notice me and urge me to get up, get jiggy with it, and show my enthusiasm for the champs on set.

I must note for the record though, that the whole vibe of the shoot is very friendly and the PAs are doing an incredible job. They are at the shoot before the extras turn up and they are there after we leave, thus providing them with probably no more than four hours sleep a night. How they manage to keep concentrating and being polite I don't know, I would be as friendly as a wounded bull if I was them.

There are upsides to this job though. In less than a week, in the waiting around that comprises most of an extra's day, I have mowed my way through the following books:

  • a fat biography of Einstein by Walter Isaacson (lovely, recommended)
  • a history of Pennsylvanian music written in the '30s (dull)
  • a history of bluegrass music in New York and Eastern Pennsylvania (the bits about the banjo were good)
  • The Road, a post-apocalyptic novel by Cormac McCarthy - converted to a movie, some of which was shot in Pittsburgh, due for release in October (depressing)
  • Panic - edited by Michael Lewis, a collection of essays about the last 20 years of periodic hysteria in financial markets, starting with Black October (1987) and ending with the sub-prime mortgage global wipe-out. If you ever suspected Wall St and dependent financial markets to be no more rational or socially useful than teens on crack then this book will make you feel vindicated. No less for the fact that most of its contributors are either trader insiders, internationally respected economics policy advisors, or long-standing financial rag/ NY times journalists. Not just highly recommended, I'd say put this book in the 'compulsory reading if you want to know what the *** is going on with your economy and lets face it, your own future livelihood' category.

I took today off to arm-wrestle with the Department of Social Security (6 months since I first applied, but still no sign of that magic SS number so I can actually get paid), to work with Tanya and Scott finishing off our drafts of the Grandview Scenic Byway Park's promotional films (due for screening at all the outdoor cinemas in Pittsburgh's parks throughout summer), and to cook up three days worth of fresh vegetable based dishes to take with me to the Warrior shoot. I have realised that by simply bringing my own food and avoiding everything on offer except apples and peanuts, my quality of life on this movie shoot is greatly improved. I am even starting to get used to it and even enjoy it - a meditative-like state of zonked can be achieved for days on end without having to pay expensive retreat fees to stay at a Western version of a Tibetan gompa.

And my latest book to read, in amongst all the testosterone charged grunts, thumps and whumps and constant exhortations to reverential cheering? Sheila Rowbothom's A Century of Women: A History of Women in Britain and the United States. Somehow, I don't see this tome being made into an action -packed genre movie anytime soon:-)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Pittsburgh - The Hawaii of the Mid-Atlantic

by Nicole Skeltys

Hot tubs and city parks

After only three days back in Pittsburgh, I found myself sitting in an frothy outdoor hot-tub on Mt Washington, framed by stunning views of the city. Bedecked with lurid plastic leis, with a handsome young gentleman by my side, I quaffed a strawberry daiquiri and cracked jokes to camera about how Pittsburgh was internationally famous as the Hawaii of the Mid-Atlantic. You would not normally find this activity listed in a job description. Unless, of course, you wrote that job description yourself. In November last year, Tanya and I were commissioned to write and shoot a short series of films for the Mt Washington Community Development Corporation promoting their new regional park - the Grandview Scenic Byway Park. I managed to include a hot-tub scene in the storyboard, which goes to show anything is possible when you put your mind to it.

While the journey from Melbourne to Pittsburgh was an aerial marathon that left my body clock thoroughly mangled, it was nevertheless a relief to get back to the USA and put my antipodean hospital holiday behind me. MOFO (the giant uterine fibroid that took me medical hostage when I got to Australia) seems to be finally giving up its civil war on my nether regions. And Pittsburgh now looks glorious in full spring mode, worthy of a Shakespearean sonnet - complete with waving daffodils, courting red robins (one of whom has made a nest on our kitchen door) and streets splashed with blossoming pear trees and redbuds.

Tanya and I are now working hard to finish off these films in time for our deadline of 1 June: they will be screened at the outdoor cinema events held throughout summer in the city's parks. Scott has also joined us to help with shooting and animations, and we now even have a (working) name for our little multimedia team: Cheek Productions.


The week after I got back, I decided to get involved with local politics and try and make a civic contribution to my adopted home. I had spent years involved with the Green Party in Australia, and felt the need to get involved with environmental and social justice campaigning again. I volunteered to help out with the Peduto primaries campaign and, later in the year, do what I can to help his reelection to Council. Quite apart from being a 100% nice guy, Bill has an impressive track record on local green issues, a completely sensible approach to cleaning up local government finances and rorts, and an impeccable record on helping disadvantaged constituents.

Last weekend, I found myself stuffing envelopes in the Peduto headquarters in Shadyside, a mail-out for a fundraising night at the Center for the Arts. Thus began my education in local American politics, Pennsylvania style. I learnt, for example, that voters are almost drowned with democratic options - here you can vote directly for a mess of positions that in Australia are neatly taken care of by bureaucratic and political appointments: Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, Coronor, School Director, District Judge, to name but a few (but not dog-catcher - I checked). Apparently voter turn out for these elections is "dismal". I have a long way to go to figure out how this town ticks politically, but at least I have made a start.

Peduto, on the other hand, running for the position of Councilman for City Council District 8, has so much popular support that his one Democrat rival for the position recently dropped out of the primaries race. The campaign is now about voter eduction and empowerment, or "building the base" as Bill calls it.

After envelope stuffing, I continued to further the cause of base building by heading down to Cappys, a bar on Walnut St, Shadyside, where once a month Bill hosts a night of VJing where he plays people's favorite YouTube clips for a $5 donation. All proceeds go to a changing range of worthy community groups. Last Saturday, Friends of the Urban Forest were the beneficiaries. This group encourages the planting and protection of Pittsburgh's city trees. I got chatting to some of the members while Cappys filled up and images of giant Cookie Monsters with death metal voices and two year old evangelical preachers flickered over the big screens. To my delight, at one point someone requested an old Parliament-Funkadelic clip, and I got to revel again in seeing an aging Garry "Starchild" Shider prance around stage wearing nothing but diapers.

As midnight came and went, the urban foresters decided to drop into Lawrenceville's once a year 'Art All Night' celebration and I tagged along - particularly pleased to get a lift back to my suburb given I had otherwise no idea how I was going to get home. 'Art All Night' proved impressive - hundreds of artworks by local established and amateur artists arranged in large warehouse spaces not far from the riverside. Despite the wee hours, the event was still packed and garage bands thrashed away. At one of the community tables, I noticed a considerable number of brochures for local neighborhood community and arts groups (such as Construction Junction which recyles old refrigerators by encouraging artists to decorate them then turn them into arthouse kegs!) The diversity indicated Pittsburgh's capacity for healthy grassroots innovation, albeit mostly at the single issue and small scale art enterprise level.

After about an hour, I left the still milling art crowd and started to make my way home down Butler St. As I shuffled along I ruminated on something one of the urban foresters had told me, that "there wasn't much eco-raver or hippy culture in Pittsburgh", which I was disappointed (although not really surprised) to hear. My Melbourne group household would often refer to ourselves as 'hippies', despite the fact I don't think any of us actually own a tie-dyed T-shirt (although Roland did look really good in a large fluffy pink top hat I once found in an op shop). The term 'hippy' functioned as a kind of shorthand for our identification with greenie/ collectivist values and lifestyles (not to mention old school techno parties in forest settings).

But just when I was having my "I miss hippies" moment of sadness, a bike wobbled up beside me, and I caught a flash of rainbow tie-dyed T-shirt, sandles, long hair and scraggy beard. "Hey, Thunderbirds is a great bar! Why don't you come inside and let me buy you a drink?". I found myself staring at what looked to me like a bonafide aging alternative lifestyler sporting a big grin, so I said "Sure" and we headed into the bar. As Ed introduced himself and bought me a screwdriver, I fairly quickly realised that looks can be deceptive: Ed quickly explained he had been "drinking all day", happily lived off "hamburgers, they're the best food you could possibly want" and, despite my probing, seemed to have no idea about local organic farms or ecology groups. Nevertheless it was fun to chew the (factory farmed) fat for a while. However, Ed eventually brought the conversation around to how "hot" Australian women were and that I was no exception. That was my cue to thank Ed for his generosity and continue my shuffle down home to 45th St under the milky warm night sky.

My future role in a martial arts action flick

Once my jetlag wore off, I started to apply my newly cleared mind in earnest to the fairly substantial problem of how I was going to survive for the duration of my three year artists' work visa in America. My nights were now (once again) punctuated with brainstorming sessions with Tanya, exploring ideas for creative enterprises that might bring us in some cash.

Late one restless night late last week, I had a Eureka moment and hatched an idea for a music project that might - just might - attract the interest of a few local sponsors. It was a project I would feel completely passionate about and had the potential to bring a lot of joy to people involved with it, myself included. It was my Latest Big Idea. I hastily scribbled out the proposal, crunched the numbers and nervously sent a draft off to Charlie for comment.

A couple of days later I fired off an email applying for the job of an extra in a Nick Nolte martial arts action movie called Warrior which is about to commence shooting in Pittsburgh. Within minutes, the phone rang and one of the casting crew was putting my name down on the full-time extras list, requiring my presence on set for 5-6 days a week for 4 weeks starting 11 May. While the pay is minimal and the hours long, nevertheless its an income, and the opportunity to see how a medium budget (by American standards) mainstream film is slammed together.

And who knows - maybe I will be 'discovered' and I will find myself playing character female bit parts in future B-grade movies (chain-smoking school canteen mom, hot roller derby coach, love-lorn ferris wheel assistant at a Pennsylvania county fair) or best of all, both Tanya and I could star as The Jilted Brides, a faded glamor girl duo playing dim old Southern saloons in a cool remake of Easy Rider from a girl's perspective directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring the ghost of Heath Ledger.

Well, at least I can dream:-)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Melbourne (Part 3): Tales from two hospitals

by Nicole Skeltys

The Bliss Button

A friend of mine who worked in the drug addiction field told me ages ago about a very simple series of medical research experiments where rats (rattus norvegicus strain) were given two buttons to push with two distinct outcomes: one button gave them food, the other gave them doses of cocaine. If the survival instinct is as hard-wired as popular versions of Darwinism would have us all believe, then you'd think that the rats, way back in the traffic jam on the evolutionary turnpike, would prefer to chow down on some rodent nutrients. This would enable them to bulk up and continue to cane it past other muroids, and even eventually give the bird to homo sapiens, against which they apparently currently hold the number two spot in the 'most successful mammal' race.

But no. Faced with a choice between life and bliss, the rodents chose bliss. Over and over again, they jabbed their snouts against the cocaine button and forgot all about dinner. And breakfast. And lunch. Eventually, they moved on to that rat disco in the sky.

I related strongly to those lab rats when I was wheeled back into my hospital room after the uterine fibroid embolisation operation. This is whats called a 'day procedure' which starts with a 90 minute suite of pelvic pokings and manoeveurs under local anaesthetic, and ends with wobbling patients trying to follow the 'exit' signs, 24 hours later.

Wheeled into my hospital room after the procedure, I was shown a device which looked a bit like a TV remote only it was hooked up to a drip. I was told that if I hit the green button, I would be given doses of morphine. But not to worry, they were controlled transmissions so I couldn't overdose, no matter how many times I hit 'play'. The local anaesthetic was wearing off fast. Even before the nurse had left the room, I started to jab at the 'morphine play' button.

For the rest of the afternoon and all that night, I lay semi-conscious with no more mobility or motivation than a potato. My only foray out of my heavily doped reverie was courtesy of the pre-programmed blood pressure machine, which mechanically tightened its velcro grip on my arm and squeezed me out into some kind of hospital gown awareness at hourly intervals. I had (perhaps recklessly) agreed to be part of a pain control research project, so when my eyes slit open as my upper arm lost feeling, I would then behold a lady research assistant with a quiet lisp leaning over, handing me a pen and asking me gently to rate my pain on a graph. I remember looking very hard at the paper, trying to understand what was going on, then looking pathetically at the assistant as her hand hovered anxiously over the long black line. "There'" I said, gesturing as much with my snout as my hand. She reached over and obligingly did a smart cross right about where 'eight' was in relation to 'ten'.

I kept snouting to 'eight' for what seemed like a long time. I hit 'play' for hours with total abandon. I got as high as a kite. At one point, I remember my surgeon and his team swimming into my field of vision, asking me questions, and I more or less just grinned. When the pain eventually started to lessen after several hours, I pointed to the camera next to my bed and asked one of the nurses to take a photo of me toasting the bliss button with my medicine cup. When she looked startled, I explained "I'm supposed to be on holidays, so I better take some happy snaps of my adventures."

By the time I was due for discharge from The Alfred the next day, I had not eaten for 48 hours and I had successfully self-medicated myself into a glowing, spongy blob. But I realised then no matter how high I got, the tracks of the operation still throbbed away with varying intensity. The morphine certainly dulled the pain, but only up to a point; after that, all it did was separate the thinking and the feeling parts of me. As Kerry came, gripped my arm, guided me towards the elevators, then down to her utility truck in the carpark, I said "This is what its like to be a junkie!". She laughed, but I was serious. As we slowly nosed through Punt Rd traffic on our way to my favorite Vietnamese eaterie in Richmond, I looked up at the pale blue Melbourne sky and thought this is how the world can be so beautiful and serene in its touch, while in the distance you can always feel the wounds.

Emergency roadside assistance

My GP prescribed some opiate based painkillers to help me through the next few days, a brand I remembered fondly from the last time I was recovering from an operation to remove an alien growth - my breast cancer tumor of 2 years ago. The tablets gave an optimistic shine to everything, so much so that in a couple of days, I felt well enough to contact Graeme and Eugenie - who have acted towards me over the years with the support and kindness of adopted parents - and said I was finally going to make it up to Canberra to see them. As luck would have it (or synchronicity again), their son Alex was in Melbourne and was driving up that Tuesday, a week after my operation, and I could get a lift with him.

As we pulled up outside Graeme and Eugenie's two storey townhouse that night, I felt a knot of apprehension form in my stomache. I knew that Graeme was still very disabled from his massive stroke five months ago, was confined to a wheelchair and needed 24 hour assistance with all personal care and living tasks, which was provided largely by Eugenie - who was now as much a nurse as a wife. When Alex and I bustled into the loungeroom with our baggage and Thai take-away, I saw a figure with thinning grey hair stooped over in a wheelchair and my heart missed a beat. I bent down and gave him a hug and kiss. To my relief, Graeme looked pretty much the way he had always looked, a man with a sturdy frame and kindly, intelligent eyes. The big difference was, though, his arm hung lifeless in a sling, and when he saw me, he didn't smile.

Later, Eugenie explained that one of the many side-effects of a right brain stroke was that you lost the ability to register facial expressions, and your ability to express your own emotions with facial movement and rising and falling vocal inflections was also lost. This was one of the many things that Graeme was having to learn all over again. Over the next few days, I also realised that my old dear friend could indeed return to his former animated and witty self, but that these periods were often cut short by the chronic fatigue that accompanied the stroke. Graeme would suddenly become very quiet and then start to nod off in his chair, or sometimes he'd gently ask Eugenie to help him back into bed.

After a few days of hanging out in the loungeroom, broken only by trips to physiotherapy and medical appointments, I think all of us felt a heaviness building in the air. At one point Graeme looked at me over the dining room table and said in a voice that carried the shadows of many nights waking up and lying still for hours "If I thought I was never going to improve beyond how I am now, I'd rather die."

I just nodded and glanced over at Eugenie. We understood. Graeme may be on powerful anti-depressants, but the prospect of a life where you can't even get yourself out of bed in the morning, where even the most basic of independent living tasks was beyond you, a life of infant-like dependency on another human being - who wouldn't feel betrayed by their mortal coil, who wouldn't want to shake it off? I understood, but my heart grew so very heavy with that understanding.

We decided to break the routine by making a trip to Mt Darragh, a beautiful part of the Snowy Mountains range where Graeme and Eugenie had bought a plot of land several years ago. They had almost finished building their dream home there, what was to be their retirement house, when Graeme suddenly collapsed to the floor one night in early October and for the next five months, the center of their lives was dramatically relocated to the wards and rehabilitation units of Canberra hospital. Somehow, through all of this, Eugenie had had the presence of mind and fortitude to take over the remote supervision of the final stages of building, and the house had finally been completed. Graeme had been there once since his release from hospital, and they both found the beauty and deep quiet of the land spiritually healing. It was a two and a half hour drive to the property, but we were all keen to go.

The trip down was uneventful, and Graeme chatted amiably all the way down, his spirits already lifted at the prospect of seeing their gorgeous patch of nature again. However, when we finally got there and helped Graeme into the bare loungeroom to look at the view, he quickly grew quiet - even more quiet than usual. After a while he said weakly "I don't feel well. I need to lie down." Both Eugenie and I felt alarm - there was no furniture in the house, nowhere to lie down except in the car. We took Graeme back out to the Subaru, Eugenie all the time probing for symptoms, asking Graeme if we should take him to the local hospital about 20k away. He just kept repeating that he wanted to lie down, and after Eugenie had placed him back in the front seat and tilted it back, Graeme quickly fell asleep. We wandered slowly back to the house.

Eugenie and I ate our sandwiches on the front patio and stared out over the silent eucalyptus covered ranges, undulating from deep green to misty blue in the distance. As we talked, we were both acutely aware that Graeme was missing out on the very healing wilderness experience he craved. The situation felt hopeless. I felt a sense of crisis in the air.

Suddenly a sound came from the car. It was the mobile phone, which Eugenie had left in the car - we were both startled as reception was so patchy out here. Eugenie ran over to the car and reached inside to grab the phone. As she walked back to the house, I could hear her puzzled conversation: "Roadside emergency assistance?? No, I didn't place a call for help- who is this? RACQ? I'm sorry, but you have the wrong number, I'm not even in Queensland, this is a Victorian number!" She hung up and looked up at me with surprise - "That is so odd - why would the Royal Automobile Club of Queensland think I called for help? And I can see by the missed calls that they've tried at least 3 times to reach me!"

At that moment, I got goosebumps and chills down my spine. On the drive down, I had thought about my deceased parents, as I often did. How I had always felt that they had something to do with Graeme and Eugenie reaching out to me like I was family, given they were no longer around on earth to provide that kind of protection anymore themselves; and I wondered vaguely what they would think now, when my adopted family was struggling to keep going. Mum and Dad had lived in Queensland, I grew up there. The fact that the bizarre offer of emergency roadside assistance came from Queensland, when Graeme was so unwell in our car, struck me like a call from heaven. No doubt I was still under the sway of the synchronicity book I had recently finished reading, and all the other coincidences I had been experiencing over the last 3 weeks, and no doubt I very much wanted to believe in guidance from the beyond, but the call filled me with a strong sense that help was on its way.

When Graeme woke up, he felt much better, and even started to apologise for "mucking up the afternoon". We shushed him, enormously relieved that he was ok. and bundled the wheelchair and commode back into the car. The drive back to Canberra into the fading light of the afternoon was spectacular - the sunsets in the high country of Australia are amazing, a fresco of saturated gold, pink and purple clouds swirling across ultramarine - the acid trip skies make up for the parched monochrome of the scrub and pastures that crawl underneath them. Graeme and Eugenie chatted all the way home, and I realised with another small chill, that I had dreamt this scene earlier, I had seen this sunset in a vivid dream a week ago.

The journey to Mt Darragh felt like a turning point. For the remainder of my trip, Graeme's mood seemed, on the whole, to have improved. On the last day before I had to leave, Graeme and I spent the afternoon absorbed in doing Tarot spreads, a passion we both shared. That evening over dinner, I asked Eugenie if she'd like her cards read but she said no, she only liked to consult the cards "When I am feeling optimistic. I'm afraid I am not feeling so optimistic right now." Graeme turned to her then and urged: "Now love. We have to push on. Make the best of the situation. Onwards and upwards, right?"

Wisdom McNuggets

A couple of days after the fibroid operation, I had decided that I was going to be alright. MOFO would surely shrink and stop frigging around with my innards. Surely I could go back to the States and not worry about needing any further medical attention. I hopped onto the internet, found an amazingly cheap flight to LAX on 15 April, booked it; booked another getting me to Pittsburgh, arriving early hours 16th. There. Done. No going back now. I eagerly emailed Tanya with the news. T wrote back excitedly, enormously relieved to hear I was indeed coming back and that I felt confident I would be fighting fit again soon.

How could I not go back, when I knew there were so many good people egging me on? Scott told me that he and T had done a little candlelight ritual and prayer the night before the operation. I was extremely touched. His parents and Granny, devout Christians who lived in Butler, just north of Pittsburgh, were also praying for me. Our 45th St neighbors, Tim and Jim, sent healing energy my way (Tim is a reiki practitioner). Americans I don't know sent kind responses to the last blog post. Charlie called on the morning of the procedure to wish me well. While I will miss my friends in Australia terribly, the tug to go back to the US, to Pittsburgh in particular is still strong. Made so much stronger by the empathy and support of Tanya, who has kept the faith that "opportunities will present themselves, we'll be ok!" - and our small, but growing, circle of warm-hearted American buddies.

A couple of days ago, my faith that MOFO would eventually cease to engage in lower abdominal delinquency got its first boost. The MRI showed the fibroid - creepily, by far the biggest object in my lower body - completely sapped of blood, upon which it had been feeding and growing, vampire like, for goodness knows how long. My handsomely bearded interventional radiologist looked up from the lurid 3D image on his MacBook that we had both been craning over, and announced that the operation had been "perfect". He leaned back in his office chair and explained that I could expect to get symptom relief from organ pressures in about 4 weeks, and after that there was every likelihood that MOFO would continue to slowly wither for up to a year. He stood up, and we shook hands: "Good luck in Pittsburgh" he smiled, and then added in an accent more suggestive of a bloke from the bush than a well-heeled 4th Avenue specialist "Cheerio then!"

That night I started cleaning up my backyard studio, getting ready to vacate again, this time for good. I peeled off all the wall posters, most of them advertising events I had played at, or CDs I had released over the years. I stared at my old analogue synthesisers, all stacked up in a pile now, getting ready for their transfer to live with their uncle Byron, a super-nice guy with whom I had written TV and other scores over the years. Byron would give them the love and attention they deserved. Still, I felt a wave of sadness and nostalgia. All the intense times we had shared, how closely their circuit boards had listened to my yearnings and channeled them mysteriously into unique sounds. And this room had borne witness to the hatching of so many creative projects over the last seven years, the last, and perhaps the craziest, The Jilted Brides album and subsequent adventures.

On one part of the wall near my workstation, I had pinned up various motivational images and texts, something I had done shortly after I had received my cancer diagnosis two years earlier. One of those was a photocopy of the summary pages from "The Secret", a 'positive thinking' book that was then just starting to explode in popularity around the world, and which several friends had urged me to read. As I peeled off the pages, I now cringed at some of the New Age exhortations - reduced to statements so simple and often so fantastical that they were very hard to take seriously "You attract what you think about." "See the good things in people and you will get more of them." "The mind can heal the body". But at the time, I didn't want philosophical treatises or a full, balanced meal of cognitive therapy mixed with oncology research statistics. I wanted wisdom McNuggets, easily digested globs of hope, deep fried in magic. Something that would convince my brain that everything was going to be ok as quickly as non-complex carbohydrates would convert into a sugar rush.

Back at Mt Darragh, I had shared a wisdom McNugget with Graeme. He grew more and more quiet as we stared out at the property he could see but was currently unable to walk around. I instinctively kissed him on the head and grabbed his hand. "Everything is going to be ok" I had said, with some force. "Things unfold at their own pace, often not at the pace we would like, but at the right pace. I know it will take a long time, but you will pull through this." Graeme squeezed my hand. "I know" he said, but with an expression I found hard to read. "I know everything will be ok".

Monday, March 16, 2009

Melbourne (Part 2): Synchronicities

by Nicole Skeltys

Cosmic saloons and dangerous strangers

The last fairly hastily posted blog was about T and I returning to Melbourne, to sell or stow our few remaining possessions, catch up with loved ones, then return to Pittsburgh to quickly resume our film work there and other commitments. As I write this, T has safely flown back to Pittsburgh - after a whirlwind trip featuring her brief stay in my studio/ storage space, frantically turfing out her stuff like a crab hurling sand balls out of its beach hole, then racing up to see her Mum and buddies in Sydney, then back on the impossibly long flight to America. But I am delayed here in Melbourne - the discovery of a giant growth in in my womb which has been causing me an increasing number of ailments has pinned me here like a specimen in a medical display case, my life suddenly frozen.

The fibroid feels to me like "The Monster from the Id!'"- the unforgettable cry from Dr Morbius from '50s sci-fi classic film 'Forbidden Planet'. Towards the end of the film, Dr Morbius finally named the malevolent psycho-sexual force that was destroying the hope of his new planetary utopia, which otherwise had been looking very promising with his lovely daughter floating around silvery new blinking machines and Robby the Robot wrestling happily with bakelite knobs. Similarly, the giant fibroid (the size of a 5 month fetus) - or MOFO to call it by its emotionally correct name - has been the unexpected twist that has thrown into doubt my return date to Pittsburgh.

Before I posted the last blurb, I edited out a few phrases which I felt were a little too grandiose to leave in: one of those was feeling that I was in someone else's plot, that my life (or indeed, any individual's life) was being scribbled from 'the beyond', part of a cosmic soap opera complete with cliffhangers, created for The Great Whatever's own amusement.

This was no intellectual speculation, or poetic metaphor, but a feeling that first kicked open the saloon doors of my consciousness about a decade ago and occupied it for days, holding my gaze with the confidence of a dangerous stranger who knew more about me than I did. I spent days radically adrift from my 'normal' sense of self, experiencing my thoughts as part of a greater, infinitely mysterious, consciousness which was being broadcast as 'my experience'. A little while later, I tried to capture some of this 'cosmic saloon' encounter in some lyrics for an early country truckin' song for my band Dust called '111.0':

"Am I once forgotten, now remembered?
Am I something found then cast away?
All I know is the moment I am driving through
A frequency that soon will fade away..".

I posted the last blog very late at night, and the next morning I started sorting out my book collection, deciding which books I would give to my friend Paul who was starting up a second hand bookshop in Northcote, hoping of course I would still be eventually leaving Australia again. One of the first books that emerged from the pile was by a Californian psychotherapist Robert H. Hopcke which sported the title "There Are No Accidents!: Synchronicity and the Stories of Our Lives". It was a present for my brother Kim, who had leant it back to me to read, but I had put it aside and forgotten all about it in the rush to leave for America in May last year. I opened it up and read the following words:

"What if I - or you - were a character in a story?... What if what we experience as our life was indeed a work of fiction? How would we know? How could we know?...Synchronistic events - meaningful coincidences - make us acknowledge that there may well be more to our story than we think, and that everything, even things that may seem frightening or part of the narrative structure of our lives."

I closed it and held in my hands for quite a while, as I turned and looked out the glass patio doors that separated our lounge room from the leafy, lazily dappled sidewalks of Clarence Street. I decided it was probably a very good time for me to read this book.

Everyday magic

There's no doubt that Tanya and I regularly look for signs and magic in our everyday lives, trying to work out the meaning of why this happened versus that, what we are 'meant' to bring to someone's life, what they are 'meant' to bring to us. "Am I following the spiritual clues correctly, am I on the right path?"

We are not alone, a lot of our friends think this way too - and as I have made my way through story after story in Hopcke's book over the last week or so, its pretty clear that this 'magical thinking' is not the preserve of New Age crystal gazers or Calvinist determinists, but something close to a basic human instinct - a version of the 'religious' impulse that William James so rigorously described and defended in his brave psycho-philosophical treatise 'The Varieties of Religious Experience'. Synchronicities - defined as 'meaningful coincidences' - hold powerful sway over our hearts and minds precisely because they suggest there is more out there than is dreamt of in Western survivalist/ rationalist philosophy. And we need to believe that: well, at least T and I do for sure.

For example when T and I first decided our destinies were intertwined, and we finished off our Jilted Brides album in a frenzied few weeks in January 2008 as a kind of offering to the cosmos, something that might act as a passport to a better future, I found (through coincidence of course) a highly gifted artist - Kuba Fiedorowicz - to create the artwork for the CD we had produced. Neither Tanya nor I had met Kuba until well after 'Larceny of Love' had been finished. Kuba listened to the music, looked at photos of us, then told us he had an image we 'might be interested in'. Several months earlier, he had painted a picture, a semi-medieval, mystical face of a full lipped, beautiful blonde bride. Then for some reason, a few weeks after that, he had added a second bride, a thinner faced woman with long reddish hair. T and I looked at the painting and we gasped: it was us. It seemed Kuba had seen our images and painted us as brides before we had met him, even before we had thought of ourselves as brides; even before we had got together as a musical/ creative duo. Kuba's dual bride image is now stamped on our CD, its our icon.

Now that I am once again facing an unexpected health challenge and my soul once again feels like a bunny in the headlights, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that in the last two weeks an awful lot of 'coincidences' have occurred, starting with my accidently picking up of Hopcke's book and reading my own phrases there. As they say in Pittsburgh (in another context altogether) "Here we go....!"

Synchronicity Central

A day after I got the MOFO confirmation, I was sitting on the couch of one of my oldest friends Kerry with whom I was staying; Kerry and I are very close, like the sister I never had. She slammed the front door, and walked into the lounge, having just visited the doctors to see what the mysterious pains in her pelvis were that had started around the same time as mine (ie a few weeks ago). She told me that she too had fibroids; not a single super-sized womb eater like mine, but a malevolent swarm: "dozens of them - Its a jungle in there!". I stood up and we hugged each other. I'd had a feeling that she was (freakily) suffering from exactly the same problem as me. We laughed ruefully in disbelief. "Well, " I said. "At least that means we can help each other through this journey together."

"Yes possum", she sighed. Then with her usual great sense of humor and resilience added. "Its FTF mate: Fight The Fibroid. We've got our own club!"

One of Hopcke's descriptions of synchronicities is when one unrelated event after another seems to reinforce a message or theme: the fact that I now had a buddy to share the research and medical system navigation was the first sign that dealing with a serious health problem was not going to be as traumatic as it could have been. The second signs were the ease and swiftness with which I was able to get tests and see specialists for advice - to the astonishment of my doctor, Jeff, who was sure I would be waiting weeks to see anyone at all, let alone get any treatment. It was Jeff's certainty, based on the experience of other patients, that I'd be stuck in Australia for months unless I could afford treatment in the private hospital system that got me feeling like Job: a petulant God was asking me to sacrifice my greatest object of value, my first-born - my vintage Roland System 700 synthesizer - to pay for my health and ticket back to America!

Ten days ago, however, it became clear that Old Testament testing and judgement was not to be visited upon me just yet. A gynecologist was quickly found and visited (her receptionist cried: "You've got the same birthday as me - what a coincidence!").

By last Tuesday I was sitting in the office of the head interventional radiologist at The Alfred, one of our best public hospitals. I'd called on the Friday to get advice and here I was three days later being assessed. He convinced me that a procedure called uterine fibroid embolisation was definitely worth trying, because it would probably alleviate my symptoms by shrinking MOFO to a less megalithic shape, and it was a "low intervention" procedure: in and out of hospital in 24 hours, about 10 days recovery. The alternative was major surgery - hysterectomy or myectomy. "You don't want to go there unless you absolutely have to, they are serious procedures of last resort." After asking me with some surprise "Why do you have to rush back to Pittsburgh?", he finally picked up the phone and said "Well, let's see what we can do. What about doing the procedure next week?". My heart leapt - so soon!! And in the public hospital (i.e. free healthcare) system! As we left the office, he grinned at me through his handsome salt and pepper beard with easy Australian humor: "I hope next Tuesday is soon enough for ya?". It certainly was!

The last few days have been a coincidence pandemic.

On Wednesday I am driving down to meet my old pal Tim Patterson for lunch - Tim ( a film editor) and I last worked together when I did some remixes for 'The Secret': the production team for this international 'power of attraction' movement is based in Melbourne, and Rhonda Byrne, its guru, is an Aussie chick, with a background in TV advertising. On my way to lunch, in a kind of daze, I suddenly thought: 'Hey, I should be alert to synchronicities'. No sooner had I thought this, than I looked up and saw a truck in front of me sporting a sticker with the company name of "Patterson". When I got to the restaurant, I waited for a long time but Tim did not show. I sipped my wine and went into a reverie again: I started to think about whether I should talk about Tanya having some precognitive dreams in the next blog. No sooner had this thought entered my mind, than a young woman at the table next to me started to tell her dining companion about a psychic lady a mutual friend of theirs had seen last year: "She made all these predictions about her having a baby, the size of it, hair color, and everything, and she wasn't even pregnant! But you know, within a year, it all came true!"

I got up (Tim did not show), drove back to the studio and started writing a piece about mental illness and bi-polar in particular. The last book I read before I left Pittsburgh was a memoir called 'Scattershot' by David Lovelace who was not only bi-polar himself but who came from a family where everyone (except his sister) had turned out to be bi-polar too. In his at once absorbing, horrifying and exhilarating account of life as a 'manic depressive', he briefly sites statistics that 'about 1% of the population' is clinically bi-polar. That statistic jumped out at me as implausabile, as I count amongst my current and former close friends, about half a dozen people so diagnosed. I started to jot down some notes about that, and also how some mental illness bleeds in and out of psychic phenonema and mystical experience. Then I hopped on a tram going down Lygon St into the city, and met a former work colleague for dinner. After I rattled off my two minute pot-boiler digest of my American adventures to date, we turned to her situation. She started by explaining that her holiday house investment had gone pear-shaped recently due to the fact that her husband's brother, one of their coinvestors, was bi-polar, and he had gone off his medication and was starting to turn their lives upside down with a prolonged manic episode...

Finally last night, holed up in my studio/bedroom, I was frantically trying to finish off some music for the Grandview Scenic Byway Park films that Tanya and I were working on in Pittsburgh. For one section, I pillaged some of my back catalogue, an old funky acid track called 'Authority Over the Fish' which I had not thought of, let alone listened to, for years: but it seemed to fit a particular action sequence very well. After I had finished editing it, I saw my Gmail blinking. I had been sent a message via Facebook. A friend of Tanya's who I didn't know, had befriended me, and part of his introductory message was a fond reminiscence of '90s Australian techno-acid favorites, including a track he'd heard on the radio a few times and taped it because it had this wicked psycho-acid bass line, brass stabs and funny sample about someone having authority over the fish....

Tomorrow I go in for a procedure that may or may not help me get better, and get me back to America. One of the most frequent ways I seek consolation and guidance is by laying out Tarot spreads, or flipping over other kinds of divination cards - most often alone in my room, intensely wanting some kind of conversation with my destiny, with the Great Whatever. T makes me feel good by flattering me on my knack with the cards; certainly since the three years that I have began studying and consulting them seriously, and periodically recording results, I have managed to give myself (and others) goosebumps with the seeming accuracy of what falls in front of me - and not just 'wishful thinking' at all, but warning messages which eerily come to pass. So tonight, as a way to finish this blog on synchronicity, what could be more appropriate than my asking the Tarot about the outcome of my operation? So, once again, here we go...

'Page of Wands'; Meanings: new beginnings on a creative level, ideas still forming but with much potential; a message of a new things to come; great promise and hope...