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DAY 161: Pulling a complex trapeze move

8 Feb


THE bad news is that Mum and I haven’t spoken since our snarky email exchange about whether or not I have a legitimate fear of heights (if you were me, would you have blurted out that someone who has a Condition Red panic attack at the sight of a slightly enclosed space ought to be less scathing? I think you would); the good news is I’ve mastered a new twisty move on the trapeze.

After piking on the last two lessons, I turn up to today’s class with dragging feet and a face like a smacked arse.

Always keen to cash in on my own misfortune, last week I interviewed a specialist about the best and worst way to tackle phobias for a newspaper article. The worst, he said, is ‘flooding’ – essentially throwing yourself in at the deep end, like taking a trapeze course. Armed with this knowledge, I just know today’s going to be a shocker.

“Only focus on the clips,” the instructor says when I explain I’m liable to faceplant the floor if I have to look down and fit the harness. His permanently benign expression helps a bit.

Weirdly, this time around atop the platform I’m not sweaty and dizzy, and can concentrate on what I’m doing, even though there’s always a death grip involved. I pull off the usual swings and then decide to go for a new one, launching off with crossed arms, spinning around, swapping hands and trying to avoid smacking back into the platform. There’s a bit of a shriek when I let go at the wrong time and go swimming across the crash pad, but the next time I land on my feet, and the next. Wahoo!

Whatever it was I had, I’m hoping it’s peaked.

Keeper? Seeing that I was hanging onto a pole at the top of the platform at the time, I’m not sure if the instructor’s advice to wee on your hands to heal blisters was a joke or not. Better safe than sorry.

DAY 144: Gouging eyes and kicking groins

22 Jan

I’VE only been in one street brawl, with some dude my boyfriend totally failed to hit.

I stepped in, the dude punched me back, and after a bit of a surprised pause we just took turns whaling at each other outside Camden Town station, like it was some bizarre courting dance. In the end, I won the taxi cab of contention, although I had a bit of help by that point.

Anyway, turns out I was punching all wrong, so the guy must’ve been being polite. After today’s contact combat marathon, I know how to use all parts of my hand for maximum impact, and how to use someone’s head like a bowling ball.

Krav Maga focuses on the ‘soft bits’ of an opponent’s body: chiefly groin, eyes and throat, and teaches you to steam straight through the target, so that if you’re doing it properly, when you withdraw your arm you should have eyeballs stuck to the ends of your fingers and a trachea dangling off your wrist.

Over four hours I’m hit and kicked so hard and relentlessly on the pad I’m holding by a series of damp and deadly serious male students, that it’s a bit like being attacked. I have to keep reminding myself I’m not being attacked. Although, I am. We’re told that as well as mastering these moves, we should turn anything we can into a weapon (stabbing with a biro is “completely legal,” our instructor says with some glee) and employ simple cunning – the instructor mimics begging for her life while delivering a swift kick to the nuts.

A formidable woman, she explains that she’s been stomped in many street brawls (must ask her where she lives), and has even been stomped since she became a black belt at various martial arts – because her training amounted to nothing when she failed to raise more aggression than her attackers.

To this end we’re told to find our “inner aggression”. This could have turned into an awful drama class assignment, but as it happens the couple next to me have been stroking each others backs and sharing the odd kiss throughout the morning’s kicking and punching, so by focusing on that I muster the necessary rage.

Keeper? Need a bit more wrestling time, I think. (Cracks knuckles)

DAY 138: Training for a Chinese lion dance

16 Jan

I'm working up to this.

OUTSIDE the Chinese Youth Society of Melbourne clubhouse in eastern suburb Laburnum, barrel-chested patriarch Bill tests my biceps and gives a friendly snort. I’m here to train with his squad of lion dancers, who are gearing up for the Chinese New Year performance in Chinatown, but he seems to be implying I have a ways to go.

Inside, around 30 members dressed in muscle shirts and pants are leaning against walls and gasping. They’ve just been on a sprint around the neighbourhood in the searing hot sun, and the pain’s only just begun.

While they’re recovering, I have a nose around the clubhouse, which is decked out with banners, newspaper clippings about processions, and photos of footy teams through the decades, not to mention a stonking collection of traditional weaponry. The club’s been going since 1968, so almost everyone here’s grown up with it and can drop in and out. There’s no shortage of older souls to keep a rambunctious, lost young kid out of trouble.

Everyone present today is training to be a lion dancer, but separate troops who perform as dragon dancers and unicorn dancers also train here. There’s rarely any swapping of allegiances, much like you’re born into barracking for just one footy team. As well as the traditional performance for the Chinese New Year, the club might be paid to come out by a shop or restaurant that’s opening, to scare away evil spirits (hence also the banging of drums and letting off of firecrackers). It’s complex stuff and you really need to be comitted (Bill’s son Derrick even has the logo tattooed on him). You also need to be really, really, like really, fit.

Hung Kuen is the martial art of choice here, and the members practise it when they’re not focusing on a performance. Back in China the two principles are sometimes combined – rival lion dancer clubs will fight each other in the street, in costume.

After the push-ups, sit-ups and jumps, we work through the various stances needed to operate a lion: ‘horse’, ‘golden chicken leg’, ‘dragonfly touches water’. It’s all about keeping a centre of gravity to maintain balance on various limbs for aeons. My host, Huy, reckons I look more like a crane than a dragonfly, but given that he can’t stop yawning from “lack of oxygen to the head” and keeps surreptitiously balancing his leg on the gym equipment behind him, I don’t think I’ve got anything to worry about.

Then it’s outside into the blazing heat for a variety of hip-swivelling kicks. Everyone’s dripping with sweat, and personally, I look like I’m an inspector from the Ministry of Silly Walks

The 7kg lion heads are made of papier-mâché and bamboo, with a string operating eyelashes and ears. To animate the mouth you need to balance the head on your arms so that you have a hand free. As the performer’s sight is limited, clowns tumble alongside the lion so that their feet are always in the peripheral vision.

The drums start up and suddenly all the stances we’ve run through make sense, as the stronger members take up the costumes and run the motions into a fluid, thigh-punishing dance.

While the musicians practise their percussion outside, there are about six lions on the go in the clubhouse, including a pink and white one… for the ladies. Australian local Kate has risen through the ranks and is busting a gut leaping and crouching at the head of one lion, alongside considerably more muscle-bound guys.

The dance involves accepting an offering made by a shopkeeper or restaurant proprietor, giving it a good chew, then spitting it out. An offering might be a lettuce, orange, live eel, or – rather inconveniently for the dancers, who end up quite bloodied – live crab. Sometimes there’s beer, which gets sprayed around liberally. Whatever the offering, if you end up splattered with it, that’s really good luck.

There’s a ranking system here – one to three stripes, followed by a flower – and the three-stripers are concentrating on leaping atop platforms of varying heights, in a death-defying fashion. The tail performers lift the head dancers onto their legs and shoulders and they land by rolling together on the floor. It’s brutal stuff, and any misses – particularly involving steel platforms – will be remembered for weeks to come.

Huy and I decide to sit this part out. And next to the meat pie table and sausage sizzle seems as good a place as any to sit.

The CYSM crew in action.

Keeper? Verrry tempted to beg them to adopt me. And will definitely practise the ‘horse’ stance in the privacy of my own home.

DAY 133: Putting my life in the hands of weak-wristed amateurs

11 Jan

I’M determined to thrash my vertigo into submission, so I’ve signed myself up for a load of trapeze and aerial rope tomfoolery over the next few months.

Instead of hoisting us atop a platform and screaming GO! like the last place, this school coaches you in everything from working out, to throwing shapes, to take offs, to landing. Seems sensible.

On the static trapeze we work through pikes, hocks, hangs and beats, in what’s supposed to be a fluid motion – and probably would be if you were cursed with short, stumpy legs. For the lithe-limbed, it’s quite difficult not to entirely flip oneself over when asked merely to hover upside down in the air.

At the last school there were hoards of acrospunks coaching a big class, but this time there are five girls and one acrodude, whose arms aren’t quite built up enough for my liking. We’re not doing catches this week though, so I won’t worry about it now.

Last time, we swung about over a big rig, but this time it’s a ‘Petit Volant’, which basically means you’re trying to land on your feet on a crash pad instead of on your arse on a net. More worryingly, the girls in the class are expected to hold each other’s weight atop the platform and trust each other to let go/not wobble at pertinent times. Between us there are two cases of vertigo, two of myopia, and one of unbelievable stupidity, but these kinks are presumably hammered out over time.

Keeper: Yep, working on those developing those calluses before I attempt moves like “rear-mount”, “suicide” and “reverse suicide”.

DAY 121: Going fishing

30 Dec

A DRIVER’S licence might be an elusive beast, but it turns out any chump can secure a fishing licence, so I do.

After buying a $6, 48-hour one from Lorne’s information centre, I hire a rod and bait, and listen intently to the complicated instructions from the chap, which go along the lines of “fner fner fner fner fner, fner fner fner, fner fner fner fner fner and be careful of the hooks.”

Luckily, fishing turns out to be a lot less hi-tech than expected, and Clare and I manage to just stick the bait, hooks and line together with guesswork and a lot of unhooking of hooks from fingers.

The actual fishing commences on Lorne pier, with a latte in one hand, handbag in the other, and rod balanced awkwardly between the knees. Every time the tide pulls the line taut, I reel it in and people flock over at all the excitement.

“You’re drawing a crowd and that’s not what you want,” mutters Clare as I reel in my sardine.

But it’s hard not to just keep taking a little look… Ye gods! There’s a bloody massive upside down crab the size of a dinner plate stuck to the end of my line, and it’s not looking happy. “I can’t get it up!” I yell to the pier (fishing is a fount of innuendo), and the crab smartens up and lets go before we can get any photographic evidence.

A nearby pro tips me off: “You need to come here at six in the morning, there’s nothing around these times. There’s a big calamari down here, but that’s about it.”

The thought of pulling up a big calamari: maximum squealage.

Keeper? Yep. Hooked.

A little number somebody left at the end of the pier.

DAY 118: Squalling in the surf

27 Dec

WELL, I guess I can kiss my eyelash extensions goodbye. Any hopes of not getting too pounded in the 8am surf are quickly thwarted by the first pulverising double waves here at Lorne Bay.

Our instructor, Sam, has a zinced nose and bouncy blond curls, like he’s just walked straight off the set of Home and Away. He runs us through the art of getting to one’s feet. Easy.

On the 9ft board I slide straight off the deck in kneeling position. These are slippery little buggers, aren’t they? On the 10ft board I get to my feet but the beast swings sideways in a rip and I fall off. Repeat x 100.

The pie and giant coffee I’ve just downed aren’t sitting too good, what with all this gasping and gulping. In an hour and 20 minutes I manage to stagger to my feet for all of three seconds; and that’s debatable. At best I’m stepping on and stepping off, really.

This leaves plenty of time to: get tangled in leg rope, get smashed repeatedly in the face, get slam dunked into my board. FUCK THIS SHIT.

Forty minutes early, I wade back to shore on ice block feet and throw in the towel. Wower, wowser, wowser.

“You English are useless at everything,” Sam quips as I wrestle myself out of my wetsuit, adding darkly: “Except cricket.”

Yeah, evs. Seriously, when it’s his time of month he can tell me that. And he can try and stay upright on his board with severely diminished motor skills, too. See, not so easy is it?

Keeper? I’ll be back. Not here; too embarrassing.

I KNOW you want to see how cold my foot was.

DAY 103: Like a flying pretzel

12 Dec

WHEN I first came to Australia and clapped eyes on an ibis, skidding over in a puddle and tumbling into a bin, I knew I had found my totem animal.

While awkward, ungainly and a little brown around the tail on land, in flight the ibis is a majestic bird; and so it is that I find myself signing up at the Sydney Trapeze School, which offers a two-hour lesson for the wet-behind-the-ears, for just $60.

Our class today numbers nine girls and one guy. I look down the row and appraise my ranking. I’m here with Stacey and Laura, who are looking too sure of themselves for my liking, but my friend Kate, I’m pleased to note, has turned up in tight jeans and a dead-eyed hangover that looks to be bordering on The Fear. One down, eight to go.

The fresh meat are shown the ropes by a trio of swarthy acrobats with muscle shirts and smirks. They aloofly corral and saddle us up with the safety gear, stopping just short of a branding iron.

I get up the 8m-high wobbly ladder as fast as possible, like Basil Fawlty having a fit. Once atop the platform, you’re efficiently manhandled into position by one porn star-looking dude, while another barks orders from below. It would be an incredibly hot scenario if you weren’t looking so incredibly foolish.

Heave ho.

“Stop sticking your arse out,” I’m told for the millionth time by the man holding my entire weight with one overdeveloped bicep. I lean into space and grope onto the bar. Surely there’s been some mist-ARGH!

“Knee hang!” another acro-spunk screams disorientatingly as I whisk past him. On my first attempt, I get my limbs tangled up in a snarl of ropes so that I’m flying through the air like a human pretzel, before I’m told to call this one a day. I flip myself off the netting, back onto the ground, to polite applause.

Back in the queue of baby birds, those that have already had a go compare tremoring hands. We’re having mixed results in the air. A few have the fluid, practiced movements of gymnasts and take to it naturally; others don’t listen to direction and try and follow their instincts as to when to change position. One girl thrashes and screams in fury each time she screws up, like Maria Sharapova launching a bum serve.

On my second go, I hook my legs over the bar and flip upside down at great speed, screaming “Bollocks!” as I wend my merry way. On the upswing I see the bloke up top grinning down at me, upside down. This is fun.

This move I'm pulling's too sophisticated for most catchers.

An hour and a half in, the ante is upped dramatically when instructor Jesse takes his shirt off and flips himself onto the opposing trapeze. We powder ourselves with chalk while Tom lines us up on safe ground and gets us all to grip his sizeable forearms to make sure we can remember how to use our opposable thumbs.

Everyone’s gone quiet, contemplating their impending catch, or lack of, but determination suddenly seems to run down Kate in rivulets. Even though she is an English, and only accustomed to gymnastics with a vodka in her hand, she plumbs some primal depths of coordination. We watch her ascend the ladder in awe. “She’s going to do it,” ripples down the line.

Sure enough, just as I reach the top of the ladder, Kate is launching herself forth, executing each manoeuvre perfectly before Jesse grabs her arms. They make one arc together, before he hurls her down into the net like Mr Darcy, Heathcliff and Mick Dundee combined.

Kate in full flight.

We all gasp. The bitch! I momentarily forget my fear of heights, watching from the platform, but she totally puts me off my stroke.

“Hup!” the guy holding onto me yells. I contemplate the meaning of “hup” for a second and then jump off the platform. To perform a catch, you need to hook your legs up on first sweep and have your arms stretched out over your head on the second, or the moment’s passed. I’m not as aerodynamic as I’d hoped. “NO CATCH!” comes the humiliating yell.

Back on the ground, I grab Kate, who’s glassy-eyed and actually quivering.

“Probably a good thing I fucked it up,” I whisper. “I think I would have had an [word removed to prevent future regret].”

“Didn’t you hear me scream?” she returns. And pads off aimlessly.

Keeper? Realistically, the acro-spunks would have guffawed about our flailing limbs and dampening sweatpants as soon as we were out of earshot, but nevertheless, we’re all going back for seconds.

DAY 96: Paddle-boarding through deadly jellyfish

5 Dec

WARNING: Some crowing follows.

IT takes a few minutes of idly staring at a flotilla of jellyfish the size of dinner plates while enjoying a fag on St Kilda Pier to click that I’m about to be in amongst these foul gelatinous beasties. Extra incentive not to fall off, I suppose.

“The wind’s at 16 knots,” our guide observes as we gather on the beach. “You’ll probably get chucked into the pier a lot.”

I’m the only person who accepts a lifejacket (the others are blokes who’ve turned up in schmick new rashies), because while I can swim as good as any English, rips are strangely drawn to me. Also, I have visions of being swept out to sea like my brother was on a lilo one year. Dad was furious: he’d only just bought the lilo from a petrol station.

After a quick tutorial that’s delivered in a thick French accent and largely carried off by the wind, we carry our boards into the shallows and kneel in the centre of them with our legs apart. Paddling out a few metres, we get to our feet, always looking ahead at where we want to be going so as not to lose balance.

From hereon in there’s a cacophony of splats, as the menfolk hit the water heavily, stagger back onto their knees, rock back and forth alarmingly in a crouching position and fall in again. It’s embarrassing. I feel for them, I really do. Clearly all my pillion riding has paid off, as ironically it turns out I’m the only person who doesn’t need a lifejacket. How do you like that? I could have kept my makeup on.

An hour in, a small crowd has gathered merrily on the pier and the men have crimson faces of thunder as I punt around them in a devil-may-care fashion. Look, I wouldn’t fancy my chances in surf any rougher than Port Phillip Bay, but still, I’d like to think I earn the admiration of all around – in fact, I’m quite surprised no one has come up behind me in a fit of jealousy and shoved me in.

Keeper? Bloody love it mate. You may see me paddling sedately down the Yarra in the next few weeks.


DAY 81: Losing in the National Klop Championships

20 Nov

What's everyone laughing at?

DIDN’T rank too highly in this wee log-hurling sport invented by woodsmen on the Finnish-Russian border (allegedly), but better luck next year, eh?

DAY 52: Introducing conker fighting to Strayans

22 Oct

THIS is a noble British tradition that has been having children’s eyes out for centuries. I got Mum to send me a few deadly specimens without customs noticing.