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Skinny Dipping is Good for the Soul

15 Oct

Our two-week house sitting stint in Coffs Harbour was up and we were on the road. We counted on having berry picking work by now but all the farms we called said it would be another few weeks. The bills were piling up and our spirits were sinking so I couldn’t wait to put our computers away for a few days and disconnect.

We told a family friend that we were heading to the Dorrigo National Park for the weekend and she, looking at my boyfriend’s long hair and bushy unkempt beard, told us about a free camping/commune spot near the national park entrance where we’d find lots of other hippies. She joked that Matt would fit right in the way he looked but that they might try to convert me. I almost showed her the ‘let it be’ and peace/heart sign tattoos I have on either wrist but smiled along instead.

After stopping at the Raleigh Winery for a free tasting and having an amazing cup of tea in the artsy and somewhat retro town of Bellingen, we drove inland on the windy roads past dairy and macadamia farms, looking for this communal haven. The main road forked and a dirt track disappeared into the national park. That had to be it.

At the bottom of the hill a middle-aged man wearing loose hippie pants stood in the road in front of his rusting shack, driving a remote control car with his toddler son (who was only wearing a shirt and who, with his doe-eyes and long curly hair, I assumed was a girl until I saw his little manhood). We rolled down the window and asked what was up the road.

“The meaning of life,” he replied with a smirk, and we chatted for a bit and told him our story. He kindly offered to let us park in front of his home and use his shower and washer machine. He introduced himself as Alek and when I told him mine was Alex he said, “far out…,” in a drawn-out, contemplative way.

We hadn’t found our community but we didn’t need to anymore.

Alek told us about a watering hole and my boyfriend’s eyes lit up. We said our goodbyes, parked near the water and set out to find it. We trekked along the river bank on uneven slippery rocks and through thick, spider-web-laden bush. My boyfriend trekked along like it was nothing while my heart pounded as I tried to keep up with him, my eyes glued to the ground. I asked him to slow down and told him he was stressing me out. I wanted to take in the experience, not panic about keeping up. He slowed down (for him) but again I kept my eyes on my feet, nervous every time a rock wobbled under me as we crossed the river. I felt completely out of my element, like my suburban Orange-County roots were showing, like my love of nature was just an affectation I’d used to impress my farm-raised Australian boyfriend.

But carried on until we hit a dead-end and needed to cross the waist-deep water. I didn’t want to get my running shoes wet and was happy to turn around since it was already getting late, but Matt urged me to jump into his arms so he could carry me across the water. I thought he was kidding until he jumped in and held out his arms. I was a little embarrassed that he’d gone to such lengths but made jokes about him being a super hero carrying me to safety. The whole situation was pretty ridiculous and just minutes later we reached a deeper part of the river crossing where the stones were unreliable and I had no choice but to walk through the water, drenching my socks and joggers though I’d tried my best to avoid it.

When we finally found our watering hole we gaily stripped down to ours joggers and jumped in. We heard animals moving around in the bushes and Matt dove in the water and pretended to be eaten by a crocodile. We laughed about what we’d do if hikers found us there, prancing around a national park with only our shoes on, and joked about how this would make this perfect postcard.

How we’d needed this!

I got out early while Matt swam and took in our picturesque surroundings, breathing in the stillness. The sun started setting so we hurriedly dressed because the prospect of trekking back along the unpredictable river banks in the dark set fire to our feet. Luckily the sky darkened just as we made it back to the road, the van barely in sight. We took our soppy shoes and socks off and settled in for the night. The frogs and crickets sang in the background, the occasional firefly zipped past and all the stresses of our reality: the dwindling funds, the lack of work prospects, the mounting bills, the urge to bite each others’ heads off – slipped away.

Mother Earth has such a profoundly soothing effect on my psyche that I sometimes wonder why I even bother with this modern age at all. But then, everything is better in contrast. You can’t have the yin without the yang.

Entering Our Van in a Kombi Fest

13 Oct

One morning a few months back Matt slid open the van door to grab some juice out of the fridge just as a middle-aged man was walking by. He saw our set-up and excitedly chatted our ears off about all things Volkswagen and reminisced about his days of living in a van. Matt proceeded to give him a tour as I lay in bed trying to hide that fact that I was only wearing a skimpy tee and some panties. He oo’ed and awed over our queen mattress, the solar panel on the roof and our pull out fridge.

“Have you ever entered in a Kombi fest?,” the man asked and then told us about the annual festivals in NSW where Volkswagen Kombi or Transporter owners get together to do a ‘van’ show and compete for titles like “Best Presented” and “Furthest Traveled.” He was convinced that if we entered we’d win something and told us it was a great place to get ideas and meet other van owners. Since the festivals weren’t coming up for another few months we put it in the back of our minds and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago when we were driving down New South Wales’ coast that we remembered to look it up.

We happened to be housesitting in Coffs Harbour, just a few hours north of the annual Old Bar Kombi Fest, which tries to break the record of getting the most Volkswagen vans in one spot, and though we really shouldn’t have, for practical money-related reasons, we made the drive down.

We registered at the very last-minute, drove onto the giant field that early Sunday morning and parked in our assigned spot. Disappointed with how plain our van looked next to the retro brightly colored ones, we knew ours had its beauty on the inside. Admittedly, we weren’t prepared at all – halfway through our drive down we decided to give the van a quick wash and the morning of the event we scrambled to organize all our things so the van looked somewhat presentable. I was so sad that Matt left our ‘love child’, Twiggy, a Bonzi tree that we kept on the dash, in Mackay at his parents’ house. I knew he would have garnered some attention.

We left the van doors open and strolled through the lines of Kombis and Transporters, noting how ours could improve but generally feeling very proud of how functional ours was. People had trailers with beds, pop-tops tents in the roof, tents that attached to the outside and some had sleeping pads in the back, but no one had a queen mattress and they certainly weren’t living in their vans full-time.

When we’d had our fill we walked through the markets, had a beer and some festival food, and listened to the live music. Later that day when they announced the winners we accepted that the van didn’t win because we knew we’d be better prepared next year. And next year, you better believe Twiggy will be on the dash where he belongs.

Australian Wildlife Up Close

21 Sep

The week before I flew back to the states in June, my boyfriend and I had one last road trip from Mackay to Cape Tribulation where the Daintree, the world’s oldest rainforest, and the Great Barrier Reef meet. We stopped at quirky tourist attractions along the way: ordering mango shakes at the Big Mango, stopping for free cheese and yogurt tastings at the Mungalli Creek Biodynamic Dairy, strolling along the Mamu Rainforest canopy walkway and running as fast as we could to see the train as it passed through the Barron Gorge in the Kuranda rainforest village.

My favorite detour, however, was the Billabong Wildlife Sanctuary in Townsville. I was leaving Australia and hadn’t seen a koala yet so I begged my boyfriend to pull over when we saw the giant billboard indicating that the sanctuary was only a few kilometers away. He wasn’t interested in going because growing up in Australia provided him with countless run-ins with kangaroos, crocodiles, koalas, dingoes, cassowaries and other exotic birds, so while he had a ‘lay down’ in the van, I ventured into the park, giddy as a schoolgirl, with my camera in tow and some change to buy animal feed.

Once inside I rushed to catch the last few minutes of the croc show and was shocked to find kangaroos wandering everywhere! Not only were there mamas, papas and joeys all around me, but they were incredibly social and persistent. I would stop to feed one kangaroo and then four would surround me, stand on their back legs and shove their way through.

At one point I had three roos eating out of my hand and my heart completely dropped. Time stood still. I’d been in Australia for three months and admired these animals from afar and just as I was about to leave the country I was face to face with them, locked in a cathartic farewell.

I meditated on the experience. I read all the educational signs, I watched the croc, bird and snake shows. I stood in the background as families got their pictures taken with koalas, living vicariously through them. I took videos of my conversations with birds and practically laid on the ground to film a joey making his way out of his mama’s pouch.

On principle I don’t really like going to zoos. It depresses me to see caged wild animals and the thousands of tourists that keep their captivity in demand. But the Billabong Wildlife Sanctuary is not a zoo. It comprises 25 acres of bushland, is a certified advanced ecotourism destination and is not overrun by tourists. In the center of the park is a lake, which the birds love to fly over, and the animals, with the exception of the wallabies, kangaroos and ducks who roam free, are kept in spacious, fairly open habitats.

The wildlife sanctuary feels like just that – a sanctuary, and you can easily get lost in the experience of connecting with these animals while spending the day learning about them. If you want to experience Australian wildlife up close, I suggest skipping the overpriced and limiting zoos and spending the day at a sanctuary instead.

For more information on the Billabong Wildlife Sanctuary in Townsville, visit their website here.

Angkor Wat: A Mini Photo Essay

6 Mar

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

The main temple grounds.

Dear Blank, Please Blank

11 Nov

(You can buy these cards from Sapling Press through their Etsy page.)

The Thackers Call It A Day

30 Sep

Photo: Alexandra Andersen

For thirty-three years the Thackers have been framing Fullerton’s art, but their mom-and-pop style of customer service has become an art-form in itself. 

They don’t require deposits, they’ve only thought about getting a website, and they rely on word of mouth to fill their framing shop with customers.

And they don’t call them customers.

“We call them patrons because they have supported us all these years. Artists exist because of the patrons that believed in them,” said Jim Thacker.

Ann Thacker studied and taught art, and Jim Thacker had a background in retail merchandising and business. So in 1978, when the a framing and art supply store in the French Village Shopping Center of Downtown Fullerton was for sale, the couple eagerly went into business.

Three years later, they moved their location to 118 E. Amerige and added a small art gallery. But just a year after the shop opened its doors, a drunk driver crashed into their store-front windows, dragging a fire-hydrant with him, and the shop flooded.

“We were calling our neighbors, our church friends, and we were asking everyone to help us take things outside because of the water. But, we were open for business the next day,” said Ann. “That’s what happens when you have a family-owned business.”

The shop became the Village Art Center Custom Picture Framing and Art Gallery in 1993 when the Thackers moved to their third and final location at 529 Harbor Blvd. 

Photo: Alexandra Andersen

Through their decades of business in Fullerton, the Thackers have established a strong presence in the community. They created lasting accounts through relationships with Fullerton College, Biola University, and Beckman Instruments, among others and were involved in the Night in Fullerton event for 12 years.

Their gallery features local artists and has been a stop on the Downtown Fullerton Art Walk since it started last year. However, after much deliberation, the Thackers have decided it’s time to hand over the keys of the Village Art Center to a new owner and prepare for retirement.

“We’re so glad to be able to see the business continue. It would be so sad to lock it up and have the Village Art Center disappear because it’s such a part of Fullerton,” said Jim.

“We’re going to miss the customers because they’re like family to us. We’ve been talking about it for a while though and they’ll come in and say, ‘Oh, you’re still here?’” said Ann.

Alex Ahn, who formerly owned the A J Frame and Art Gallery in Anaheim Hills, has been in business for 10 years and will take over the Village Art Center.

“We know Alex will put his thumbprint on it and he’ll fill another niche. He’s followed trends because the business has become very mechanized but we’re craftsman, and we’re doing it the way it’s always been done,” said Jim.

The Thackers plan to travel and take up square dancing after they officially retire on October 31.

“I’ve always told my customers I want to see Venice before it sinks and maybe see an opera in Paris,” said Jim. “When our kids were little, we’d close up the shop for a week in the summer and put up a sign. No one made a fuss about it, but once the kids grew up we took fewer vacations.”

To say goodbye to their loyal customers and introduce Ahn, the Thackers are holding an open house next weekend which will coincide with the monthly Art Walk. The Village Art Center open house will be open from 6 P.M. to 10 P.M. on Friday and 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. on Saturday

Originally published at Fullerton Stories

Messages on the Wall

8 Dec

You pass it every day without so much as a fleeting thought. It covers freeway passes, it is carved into desks and trees and it lines the walls of bathroom stalls.

Graffiti has become so ubiquitous that its intent is routinely overlooked and its words are seldom viewed as anything more than the defacement of property by careless delinquents. But what are the stories behind these anonymous scribes? Are these words merely written for cheap thrills or is there a deeper expression beyond the surface?

Across Cal State Fullerton’s campus, female students are hiding behind the cloak of anonymity and tagging the walls of the women’s restrooms. The stalls proclaim: “don’t be afraid,” “legalize weed November 2010,” “remember you’re beautiful without him or her” and “good luck on your tests!”

Girls pose the questions: “is casual sex with friends OK at all?”, “how do you go from being boyfriend and girlfriend to just friends?” and “why are guys so dumb?” with a list of reasons from several different participants. One student writes, “if I had to choose between loving you and breathing, I would use my last breath to say I love you” and another confesses, “having depression has ruined me but in some ways, it’s saved me too. I know who I am now.”

“I just have to stop and read it sometimes because it’s interesting. I think it’s way easier to write on a bathroom wall than to go up to someone’s face and talk about it. That’s why this generation is so addicted to Facebook and all the other social networking sites. They don’t know how to have interpersonal communication. There’s a complete lack of face-to-face (interaction),” said Ashley Pillabough, an English major at CSUF.

Anthropology major Breana Cumberland enjoys reading the graffiti and is disappointed when the conversations are painted over. She worries about the people who ask for personal advice. “I feel like they don’t have anyone who they can go to, to talk to. It sucks when people write ‘you’re stupid’ or ‘you’re a bitch.’ It’s like really? Support! Even if it’s from a bathroom wall,” Cumberland said.

However, not all students are as receptive to the graffiti as Pillabough and Cumberland. Freshman Michelle Ruiz said, “I don’t think it’s right. It’s just a waste of time. They’re asking for advice on a bathroom wall. There are things here at school you can go to to get help where you don’t have to vandalize the school.”

What Ruiz refers to are the eight individual counseling sessions that each CSUF student is allotted per academic year. The service is covered by the student health fee but the sessions are remarkably underutilized. According to the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) appointment statistics, of the 68,873 students enrolled at CSUF during the 2009-10 academic year, only 1,162 students visited a counselor using an average of six sessions.

Students may opt for anonymous disclosure rather than seek counseling due to shyness or the lack of a support system but Sapna Chopra, a professor in the master’s program of counseling, believes that it is society’s perception of therapy that prevents people from reaching out.

“Over the past 10 years or so, there has been a real rise in the number of students with serious mental health issues, not just on our campus, but across the country. And sadly, there is still a great deal of shame and stigma for many people to seek help.”

Ya-Shu Liang, a licensed psychologist at the Counseling and Psychological Services (part of the Student Health and Counseling Center) said that the biggest issue she sees CSUF students for, is stress. She urges any student who is considering counseling to try it at least once. Coming here doesn’t mean you have a diagnosis. There are tons of people (who) will never seek help so coming here means that you’re brave enough to talk about it with somebody who might know a little more than your peers. It’s not like your friends and parents are not helpful; it’s the role that they have. They cannot help by having an opinion. They are not really impartial but what a counselor can do is be more objective.”

Nursing major Rachelle Ramiento proposes that the anonymous outpouring of emotions on the restroom walls is just another trend of our generation. Ongoing projects such as Post Secret, where people anonymously share their secrets on homemade postcards and send them to a designated P.O. box, and 1,000 journals, an experiment that attempts to follow 1,000 journals as they travel across the world and continuously change hands, have catapulted the phenomenon of anonymous self-disclosure to fame.

At a time when our means of communication are faster and more accessible than ever, it’s hard to understand how it has led to an emotional disconnection from our peers where, for some, anonymity seems like the only way to have their voices heard. In the 2010 Healthy Minds Survey, 9 percent of CSUF students admitted to seriously thinking about attempting suicide, a statistic higher than that of the number of students who visited CAPS.

Not everyone is comfortable seeing a counselor or sharing their problems with family and friends but anyone can hide behind a pen or a screen name without worrying about being associated with their message. Whether you see graffiti as vandalism or just another mode of expression, it is here to stay. Pay attention to its words and you just might find that there’s a stronger connection between you and your fellow students than you initially thought.

Originally published at The Daily Titan

More Pictures from Messages on the Wall

8 Dec

The Devil and a Comm Week Speaker

10 Nov

Photo: Alexandra Andersen

Mike Sager lives with a crack gang, befriends murderers and attends swinger parties. He hangs with models, politicians and white supremacists. He goes to high school even though he’s old enough to teach the class.

He is a journalist and he is in the pursuit of his next story.

Sager is known for his dark tales of depravity, his gritty exposes of American subcultures and his anthropological take on journalism. Now, the critically acclaimed writer works poolside in his office in La Jolla Calif., putting the finishing touches on his sixth book; the characters are inspired by the subjects he’s been writing about over the past three decades.

A bald Jewish man in his 50s, Sager’s posture emanates east coast confidence and his gentle, smiling eyes clash with his seemingly rough exterior.

His most famous article, “The Devil and John Holmes,” a story about the first male porn star, a drug lord and one of the most gruesome mass murders in Los Angeles’ history is the basis for movies Wonderland and Boogie Nights.

“It was my first big investigative crime story. I didn’t make it lurid. I was mature about sex and I could go into a porn thing and not act like an idiot.”

Following the role of notorious journalist Hunter S. Thompson, of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fame, Sager became the de facto drug correspondent for Rolling Stone and while working at Esquire he developed the celebrity profile format that is still used today, interviewing the likes of Jack Nicholson, Paris Hilton, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro and Snoop Dogg.

But Mike Sager did not always envision a career in journalism and he initially thought that becoming a professional writer was impractical. After graduating from Emory University, he went to Georgetown Law School to become a lawyer but quit after three weeks, knowing all the while that he was denying his true calling in order to have something to fall back on.

“It was Labor Day vacation weekend and I found myself in the parking lot of my apartment building sitting on the hood of my car crying because I was just so unhappy. I knew I didn’t want to do this. So I quit,” Sager said.

The self-proclaimed ‘writer who didn’t have anything to write about’ found journalism in 1978 as a copy boy at the Washington Post under editor Bob Woodward, of Woodward and Bernstein, the famous journalists who helped expose the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s impeachment.

After six years of climbing the ranks, starting out with no journalism training, Sager left the Post to pursue a career in magazines.

“Bob Woodward didn’t really appreciate good writing. The work I do now takes a lot of good investigative work but it doesn’t look like that, it just looks like I’m telling a story. They didn’t get that and over time it became a struggle and the reason I left,” Sager said.

Leaving behind the Ivy League culture of the Post that he never really belonged to, Sager went on to write for Playboy, Rolling Stone, GQ, and Esquire, among others, carving a niche for himself writing hardcore investigative stories, often putting his life on the line and his judgments on hold.

“I have this thing called the theory of originals. You have to be number one in a class of one. You don’t compete. You find what you do better than anybody else,” Sager said.

What Sager could do was use his anthropological approach to temporarily become one with his subjects and see the world through their eyes.

“You see this sometimes on TV, like Diane Sawyer, she’s interviewing hookers and she’ll be like, ‘You did that? For how much?’ And she’s making this face like she just tasted something horrible. Now that’s really going to make her subject feel good right? I’m more like, ‘Cool! What was that like?,” Sager said. “I’m more accepting when I listen. As a reporter, it isn’t about you and your ideas, it’s about them.”

Sager recalls the beginning of his six-year stint at Rolling Stone. The uncomfortable moments that would have frightened or disgusted others didn’t faze him and his ability to turn these scenes into literary pieces is what earned him respect in the industry.

“After seeing a piece I’d written about a pimp in D.C., the guy from Rolling Stone saw my piece in the New York Times about pit bull fighting in Philadelphia. These Puerto Rican kids were hanging the dogs if they lost and it was so degraded. The Rolling Stone editor was like, ‘He can do that ghetto thing,’ so he calls me up.”

Though his career has led him to many unusual adventures, Sager has proven his literary talent through less sensational stories. After Sager left GQ to work at Esquire he was told to write a story about a 90-year-old man.

“I’m Sager, the bald guy. (I’ve) lived with a crack gang, occult, slayer, and you want me to write about a 90-year-old guy? And this is going to be the basis of whether I get another contract? But you know that’s the story people remember more. That finally got me a nomination for the magazine award.”

Since Sager became a father, he’s spent more time working from his home office and focusing on his novels. He hopes that one day he’ll be known as a novelist who occasionally does journalism.

Looking back on his decision to quit law school and follow his true passion for writing, Sager knows he made the right decision.

“What thrills me is this creation,” he said. “If you’re lucky enough to be one of those people who have a calling then you need to try to take advantage of that and do everything you can to service that.”

His first novel, Deviant Behavior, was published in 2008 and the three collections of his articles: Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, Revenge of the Donut Boys and Wounded Warriors, showcase some of his most famous articles throughout his career.

Sager visited Cal State Fullerton last spring to lecture during Comm Week and taught a Creative Writing for Journalists seminar at the University of California, Irvine for four years. He urges all students to find what they are passionate about and to develop it for no other reason than it makes them happy. He warns that ignoring your talents and listening to your doubts can lead to a life of regret.

“Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams because if you don’t, you definitely won’t get them.”

Originally published at The Daily Titan

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