Innocent in Australia

A Scot down and under in Melbourne

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Vipassana meditation: keep calm and carry gum

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The concept of Noble Silence is fundamental to Vipassana meditation. You don’t talk to anyone for the duration of your stay; you don’t make eye contact; you refrain from singing show tunes in the shower.

By extension, no-one talks or makes eye contact with you. I’ve been to parties in Edinburgh like this, so have no objections in principle.

But this time was different. After being told about the facilities, and reminded we couldn’t leave the site for the next four days, Noble Silence descended. That was in the kitchen block at 7.50pm on Thursday, 10 minutes before the first sitting.

At 7.53pm, in my dorm, I realised I’d left my toothbrush at home. I realised this with my hand, inside my backpack, groping frantically. I had the paste but not the brush.

I rummaged through the bag again. And again. Socks. Panties. But no brush. I drew the curtain across my cubicle and considered suicide. Then I bit my clenched fist, shook it at the gods and mouthed the word Scheiße several times.

My mute dorm-buddies made haste arranging their sleeping bags, toiletries, crack pipes … and there was I, Mr No Brush, twisting in the wind of Woori Yallock.

I sat on the slats of my rudimentary bed, looked at the bare plywood walls, feeling like a prisoner of war …

In the meditation hall, I crossed my legs, wrapped a woolly blanket round my shoulders, back and legs.

Sadly, we didn’t get to see Goenka on VHS, but I was happy to hear him on cassette after three and a half years.

He was the same old Goenka: equanimous as anything, enlightened as bits.

Learn to master your mind, one debilitating leg cramp at a time.

It takes a while to get into it, of course. You breathe in, breathe out, think about your toothbrush, your teeth, your frigging toothbrush …

I would survive the night, but would I make it to Sunday evening? My poor gnashers: I wouldn’t have blamed them if they jumped ship.

I tried controlling my faculties, reminding myself it’s all impermanent, annica, annica … that sensations arise, pass away …

It was Baltic outside the meditation hall – a full moon, clear sky. In the sleeping quarters, the warm smell of my dorm-buddies’ bodies was repulsive and weirdly welcoming.

I thought of the men in Stalag Luft III and other containment camps … my brothers.

In the bathroom unit, I claimed one of four sinks, then sooked a fat blob of Colgate from the tube and tried to swill with it.

This required considerable oral oomph. It was tart; my eyes streamed a beauty.

Passingly satisfied with the fluoride coating, I used my index and middle fingers as a brush.

It was rubbish.

The prisoners at the other sinks brushed as if they’re lives depended on it. One guy in particular thrashed his molars, working up a lather, purging the surface of his tongue.

I watched this in my peripheral vision, while pretending not to, which meant my fellow PoW’s could probably see me too. But as I gagged, I knew we were all gagged: I couldn’t ask for help and they couldn’t slag me off.

Someone banged a gong at 4am on Friday for the first meditation of the day.

It started well. I got some good Anapana in, some decent chill.

We had to focus exclusively on the breath lapping against our philtrums; but in time my gob started mouthing off in my mind’s eye.

Quit your chitter chatter.

I once asked my dentist, post scraping, how long it would take for new plaque to form.

“Hahahahahahahah,” he said, darting a glance at his female assistant, who in retrospect he was probably banging.

“Oh Paul,” he said. “Hahahaha. It’s started already.”

I replayed this scene against the back of my eyelids a few times. It was 18 hours since my last brush, 54 or so to the next one.

My philtrum twitched.

Day one’s objective was simply still the mind. Have you ever stilled the mind? It’s not simple.

You think you’re getting there, but no – off it goes, for a minute, an hour, a month …

As the cranium quietens, you start seeing how these distractions and reactions form. For me, one went something like this:

I felt my shoulders loosening …

… saw a thread getting caught on clothing, drawing the fabric together in tight, little waves …

… thought this was a good analogy for my relaxing shoulders …

… recalled how satisfying it is when you pull the fabric and it straightens out …

 … wondered how I’d put that feeling into words …

… convinced myself this thread-catching happens only in nylon …

… pondered the production and use of synthetic polymers …

… got a sudden mental image of my gran’s navy nylon trousers …

… remembered she had passed away …

… started crying.

It’s true what Moses said: the brain’s a mental organ.

By Friday evening my mouth was a festering moth. I could use a sock to clean my teeth, I thought, a T-shirt but, no …

Escape was an option, however remote. Had I not seen, just that morning, two burly laundry men picking up adult-sized bags of linen and throwing them with abandon into a laundry truck? No, I hadn’t.

Ultimately, you’re responsible for your own liberation.

There was plenty of plywood to shore up a tunnel. I could shake earth from my pajama bottoms before the next sitting.

After my last Vipassana course, I was told someone had tried escaping in the dead of night and was “persuaded” to stay – i.e. caught in the carpark and beaten to a meditative pulp by the volunteer management.

How many others have simply disappeared, “become enlightened”, “transcended”?

Naturally, I’d given the site a pretty good recce in my spare time.

A few acres, fenced in; trees around the perimeter; fields stretching to the horizon across the Yarra Valley. If they sent the rottweilers after me I’d be dead in no time.

Under cover of darkness, I kicked some stones about, edged closer to the site carpark.

There were no guntowers as such, but structures either side of the gate: one was disguised as a prefabricated hut, the other as a moss-laden caravan. If I could make it to the car, anything was possible.

I knew there was a Coles supermarket about three miles east, full of brushes – a hair brush would do, a broom, a lint remover.

When the pre-dawn gong went on Saturday, I squeezed more Colgate into my moosh.

Meditation halls the world over are dark and cold at this time of day, which makes it hard to see people sitting there. You knee them in the head as you pass, and can’t even apologise.

You have to get to your cushion, get your blanket on, your hoodie up, yawn, crack your knuckles, scratch your nuts.

My brain was still engaged with Goenka’s free-ranging discourse from the night before.

Goenka: Observe your sensations …

Brain: Gum disease, swollen tongue …

Goenka: Let go of attachments …

Brain: A brush, a brush, a brush …

Goenka: Focus on your breath …

Brain: Erm …

Goenka: Be happy …

Brain: I can’t …

Each time my tongue tapped furry enamel my desire to escape intensified. At several points my mutinous mind wandered out to the tea tree forest on the site’s western perimeter.

I’d sneaked into it the day before, and cut a path through the trees until seeing signs warning me not to go any further.

I’d stood there for an hour and a half singing Leonard Cohen songs.

The signs were alluding to the fact there was, just a few steps away, a sheer drop to near-certain death down a treacherous gully.

But if I survived I could be up to the supermarket and back in an hour, provided my ankles weren’t broken, the gashes in my bonce not too severe.

Was that Lili Marlene gleaming by the barrack gate?

I’m doing it, I thought, still sitting, knees blow-torch burning – I’m escaping.

No, yes, no, yes, no …

The clunk of the penny dropping, that I’d given the course manager my wallet and phone for “safe keeping”, wasn’t pleasant. It knocked the wind from my sails.

Even if I survived the fall, fought off rabid wallabies and made it into Coles in blood-stained pajama bottoms with bad hair and feral mouth, what was I going to do? Ask them to give me a toothbrush for free? Steal one?

You really miss sugar after a while.

I denied myself honey in my ginger tea for the third night in a row on Saturday … Mr McCavity said no in no uncertain terms.

This bugged me. This bugged me a lot. The drink was the only sustenance permitted between 11.30am and 8.30am the next morning.

That did it. I cracked.

I left the kitchen block and bumbled cautiously though the darkness, arms outstretched. I crossed some rough terrain en route to the course manager’s accomodation.

I climbed some steps. Faint light escaped through a gap in his curtains.

When he opened the door we made eye contact, and I laid the whole thing out straight/ slightly sheepishly:

“A problem … I’ve got a big problem … My teeth … haven’t brushed them … my gums hurt … I need a brush …”

The course manager nodded and bowed slightly. “We sell brushes here on site,” he said. “If you come with me, I’ll get you one.”

Part 2 of 2. Read part one, Vipassana meditation: before you go, here.


Written by Paul Dalgarno

July 22, 2011 at 9:03 am

Scotland’s first day as a better nation (gaun yersel)

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I’ve always been sceptical of people who take pride in their country. Not in the cleanliness of its streets, say, or its flora; that, in itself, isn’t always suspicious.

I mean pride in a notion that’s political and, by definition, subjective.

Having said this, I feel proud of Scotland today: I’m proud of the vessel and all who sail in her.

I’ve been following the #sp11 hashtag on Twitter to almost no avail for much of the last day.

A quirk of living at the far end of Earth is that your social network suffers terribly. The nine-hour time-difference means I spend my days checking and posting on Facebook and Twitter while the lion’s share of people I care most about are tucked up in their beds.

Occasionally, at midday Oz-time, 3am UK-time, I’ll see a little flurry of activity, an old friend getting radge or loved-up on their iPhone. Fine. But that alone can’t sustain you. The rest of the time the UK stream is empty.

Today, walking home from the train station, studying my phone, I was already thinking about Scotland – because of the election, but also because I’d been watching Kirstie and Phil doing a TV show from Loch Fyne yesterday night.

It’s getting cold here now, and dark, and I’m pining more than I thought I would for the light-nights-a-go-go feeling of home.

I was reflecting on the lime-green grass you get in Scotland, versus the dull-green variety here, when I saw the #sp11 Twitter hashtag returning to life. Great, I thought, great.

Suddenly, there was @MalcFlemming giving it: “#FF for @NicolaSturgeon”; there was @RosieMKane giving it: “SNP wins Britain’s got Talent, X Factor and Post Code Challenge”; there was @JimMurphyTalks (oh please, let it be the real Jim Murphy) giving it: “FFS, have held ma boaby better than we’re holdin’ seats :(”.

There were some strong new-morning vibes, and Alasdair Gray-inspired riffing, of which these are just a handful: @STVRoss Garner: “Is that the sun coming up?”; @weesimon: “Off to work in the very first day of a better nation”; and @macdonke: “What a morning, what a country. Everything changes”.

Get a grip. Only joking.

It’s not morning here, but night time and rainy. I’m listening to Radio Scotland’s Election Special on my laptop. At the time of writing the numbers are:

SNP: 55 (estimated 68)

Labour: 26 (worst result since 1921)

Tories: 9  (cough)

Lib Dem: 3 (including Orkney and Shetland)

The worst bit’s not being part of it – all that wild, end-of-the-war snogging on Sauchiehall Street that will define (and this evening create) a generation: sailors kissing nurses, bunting on the streets …

The SNP winning Shettleston? As Jim Murphy would have it: FFS.

You just have to be proud, pull yer pudding at the other side of the planet, enjoy.

A right royal wedding: gniddew layor thgir A

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Hi Will, hi “Commoner” Kate

Know you’re both busy so won’t dilly-dally.

In terms of the republican-royalist debate, I’m neither. I feel vehemently dispassionate about all governing systems until they have some very direct, and very noticeable, impact on me.

If I open the door in my boxers one day to be head-butted in the face by your dad/father-in-law, Charles, or even worse your uncle, “bruiser boy” Andrew, I’m going out on the campaign trail.

Otherwise it’s hot air, ideals that ultimately have to be represented in humans, and humans that can never be ideal (no offence).

The notion of “boycotting” your wedding (i.e. watching repeats of The Mentalist rather than your ceremony on TV) is ridiculous. All the same, if your wedding sucks (as if!), I’ll change the channel or play with my phone.

I’m sure neither of you care. You have already made this clear in several ways, both to myself and my recently-adopted compatriots. You have got things back to front, upside down. How so? Here’s so:

1) You’re getting married at 8pm. Let me repeat this: 8pm. Who gets married at 8pm?

I’ll be at my mother-in-law’s for tea, and hope to be watching your big moment over a bowl of ice-cream while Charlie the labrador (not your dad/father-in-law) licks my leg. Pure pomp, you might say. Then I’ll drive my family home.

I don’t expect to see any street parties or bunting as I do this because it’ll be really dark, not to mention the fact that we’re too tired because:

2) We didn’t get a day off, thanks to the stupid time of your wedding, which rendered redundant any argument for paid leave. We got Anzac Day off, though, which meant a five-day break last weekend, so that was something. But there were no royal weddings, and the TV was pretty poor.

3) It’s autumn. Who gets married in autumn? A spring wedding would have been far more symbolic, far more in keeping with the rejuvenation-of-Britain PR angle your people are milking (quite rightly) for all its worth. Lambs are born in spring, daffodils etc.

Instead, leaves are blowing from trees and the temperature’s hovering miserably in the low 20s.

Anyway, good luck. I’ll be watching, not ­reluctantly.


(PS, should it not be “More Common” Kate).

I am dag, but am I bogan?

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I seem to have drifted into a space where I’m a dag. In some ways this is nice.

Who hasn’t grown up at the opposite end of the world watching twice-daily episodes of Neighbours and not wished they lived in a world where people could say: “you’re such a dag, Mike,” even though you’re name’s not Mike. The point is: you could have been Mike. We all could have been Mike.

But be careful what you crave.

I recently turned round a computer screen to show a woman something I thought was quite funny (a man dressed as a gnome, sitting in a car, pulling a gangsta pose, since you ask).

It was one of those situations where you have to hold on to your titters; where you know, as soon as the other person’s face starts contorting, you’re going to piss yourself.

Then, amid all the frenzied chortling, she said: “You’re such a dag.”

She slapped her knees as she said it. I slapped mine. If we were Swiss we might have slapped our hands together, then our knees and started yodelling. But from that point, for me, things changed.

Something that had never bothered me in all the years of Neighbours-watching snaked up through my body, wrapped itself round my brain and started squeezing; its tongue a forked question: what’s a dag? WTF is a dag?

It struck me that I should ask the woman. And so I did.

“It just means you’re really daggy,” she said, still laughing. “It’s nothing to worry about – I’m a dag too.”

This was comforting, but only to a degree.

I decided to quiz people discreetly. It was like the first time you heard someone on Home and Away calling someone a spunk and had to check they hadn’t actually meant “spunk”, that “spunky” didn’t, by extension, mean covered in jizz. You knew it didn’t – how obscene would that be? – but you needed to be sure.

I had a word in the ear of someone who used to live in the UK and is fluent in Australian and British.

“It’s just like ‘naff’,” he said.

“Oh, right,” I said. “Ha, ha …” Naff?

That’s the problem with questions – people sometimes give you answers.

A man dressed as a gnome, sitting in a car, giving a gangsta pose: naff. Was I naff for reshowing it? Transmitting this man’s japery? Stupid man. Naff bastard gnome.

But could “naff” really be the meaning? The Urban Dictionary’s fine, but you can’t always trust it, so I looked up “dag” in the Oxford Concise Australian Dictionary: “a lock of wool clotted with dung …” Hmn, that’ll be right … Now, what’s this?

Yes: “colloq. An eccentric or noteworthy person; a character (‘he’s a bit of a dag’ ).” Yes, I’d settle for eccentric and noteworthy – but I don’t think that’s what a dag is.

I kind of thought it meant “dafty” or “spoon” – something like that. You’re such a spoon? Yeah, I could live with that. You’re a dafty-pants? Yup, that’s ok.

But could the dictionary have it so terribly wrong? Why not?

I looked up “bogan” and it said: “a gormless person” (versus the Urban Dictionary’s definition: “a hideously repugnant and unintelligent … beast”).

Both seem wrong although, oddly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bogan.

My wife assures me they don’t exist in the numbers they used to; they are the lesser-spotted bogan.

I’ll point to someone – mullet, skin-tight jeans, Sherrin footy balls tattooed on their eyelids – and whisper: “Is that a bogan?”, to which my wife will reply: “no”.

The temptation is to transplant “neds”, so that ned-like people would become bogans.

You don’t see many neds here – sadly, in my opinion – and maybe that’s why you don’t see many bogans.

It’s also used as an adjective. Someone’s choice of clothes can be bogan, as can their hair. If they’re wearing sawn-off shorts, for example, their heaving chest on display, their skin green with rage, they’d be … erm … Hulk bogan …

Apologies: that’s such a daggy thing to say.

You can be daggy and a bogan, incidentally; but I’m not sure a bogan can be spunky, except in the eyes of another bogan, particularly is he/she says something daggy.

I won’t know for sure until I see one.

This brings to mind the old adage: if you can’t spot the bogan at a party, the bogan is you, especially if you’re drinking James Boag’s.

How does this make me feel? Not awesome. Not awesome at all.

Written by Paul Dalgarno

April 27, 2011 at 9:17 am

Google makes me SEO happy

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One of the joys of writing a blog, as opposed to writing on bits of looroll you let the wind rip from your hands as you step from a Portaloo, is the little box on your dashboard – with WordPress at least – that shows the search engine terms people have used en route to finding you, the actual words they tap into Google.

I look at these regularly, searching for hints (over and above Site Stats, that love-hate numbers game of the blogger) that people like what I’m doing, or have at least thought to look for me.

In my case, I’m glad to say there are quite a few instances of people keying in “Paul Dalgarno” (and a not-surpising-because-it-happens-a-lot number looking for “Paul Delgarno”. Sure, I sometimes imagine snapping off the finger that’s typed the erroneous “e” but mostly I kind of like it: it makes me feel Cuban, like Scarface, and hard as nails.)

Some people type “innocent in australia” too, but the vast majority seem to have stumbled on to the site by accident. They’ve come to it blind and grappling.

An awful lot could be described as “miscalleneous” – search engine terms such as “sliding partition”, “mothers and sisters forego food in India”, and the diminutive “buh means”.

Sometimes I try matching the search term to the post, a wonderful game. When I see “craig mclachlan”, for example, I assume the person has ultimately clicked on Go Neighbours, go Yasi, a kind of kamikaze; when I see “adelaide drop dead”  it must have led them to Adelaide you’re drop dead gorgeous

The philosophy behind search engine optimisation involves making your posts, and particularly your headlines, rich in terms people are likely to be looking for anyway.

The first time I really tried to do this was with Oprah Winfrey and the Stanford Who’s Who. I was thinking, of course, that a percentage of people who punched Oprah Winfrey into their search engine of choice would find me, and that I’d become an internet sensation, and that Oprah would invite me on to her show. I had it all planned, you see.

On the day of posting I received the lowest readership figures of my blogging career and, I sincerely hope, my career as a professional writer.

It was a shock to the system. When no-one reads your blog, three things go through your mind:

  1. I’m not getting paid for this.
  2. Everyone hates me.
  3. I’m not getting paid for this and everyone hates me.

Now, some months later, that same post is one of my most-read and, in time, will almost certainly be number one.

Not for the Oprah part but the Stanford Who’s Who. Barely a day goes by without several, sometimes many more than several, searchers stumbling on to my site with search terms such as:  “Stanford Who’s Who Australia is robbing me”; “Who is really behind Stanford’s Who’s Who?; and “Stanford who is who is legitimate”.

In case you haven’t read the post (ya punk!), I don’t endorse the Stanford Who’s Who; in fact I’m highly suspicious of it. But shit, what a goldmine.

As is fecal matter generally. My site is fourth IN THE WORLD, yes, IN  THE WORLD, for the search term “crack the shits” thanks to the post Cracking the shits. I know, I know, stop boasting … pride precedes a fall …

Sometimes I find myself trying to picture the people making the searches and find it helps if I break them into types, a la:

The inquisitor

Many find themselves beached on the shore of the site with questions such as: “are thongs innocent?” (which leads them to this post); or the even more philosophical: “is australia innocent?”

With a certain class of inquisitor – “what happened to the innocent convicts on the first fleet?” or “what is a australia day to write and at least not that long?” – I hope they haven’t taken my account of Australia Day too seriously. I wonder what their teacher might have said (because surely they’re teens trying to plagiarise) if they submitted a carbon copy of the post in question.

The sexually depraved/chronically bored

I feel ambivalent about these searchers. On the one hand, a reader’s a reader; but on the other, it’s a peculiar soul who wants to see a “nude woman in stirrups please”.

Someone else typed in “turboteats”, which I thought I invented in a post about turbo-birthing.

I’m unconcerned that someone out there was searching for “black booty bouncing nude” (for who among us hasn’t?) but am slightly taken aback that they then clicked on a post called Sydney (let’s whisper this), I love you.

I can only hope he/she found what he/she was looking for.

The precarious

I’ve come to think of these searchers as “people in trouble”. Consequently, I feel guilty they’ve wasted time on my site, and only half-hope they’ll become life-long readers.

There are many people in this category, including whoever wrote: “my license was seized in melbourne airport”; and “I’m under snow in scotland”; and the very suspicious: “8.40pm accident heathmont”.

Call me a cynic, but could that have been the person who caused the accident trying to see if it had been reported? And then reading my blog!

The slayer

These are search terms that make me feel glum. Such as: “possible causes of gurgling in throat and coughing up mucus in the elderly.” (Is it too much to hope they had a chuckle reading Kids are plague crow snot goblins that cause man flu?) The same post snared “crow cough and hot head fever in kids” and the charmingly illiterate “plague crow am we good?” Poor things. Sniff.

The silver bullet

These are by far the saddest of all; so sad, in fact, that the category can only handle one search term at a time. Until recently it was “find me friendly anyone in Melbourne” which went some way to breaking my heart. But that was replaced just last week by someone who must then have read the post When will I be famous?: “i want to be famous but i missed my calling.”

Oh, what was your calling, dear reader? Don’t despair.

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