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The Cambodian Chronicles (Part I)

Amid thunderstorms and choppy dark seas she struggled valiantly to line up her F-14 Tomcat on an unusually steep approach to the American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.  It had been a long slog of a night on a marathon weeks-long mission, discharging precision ordnance in the direction of the evasive Bosnian Serb Army in support of Operation Deliberate Force. This was her third successive landing attempt in an uncooperative Adriatic sea, which pitched and rolled the carrier’s deck unremittingly.

Finally, the Tomcat smacked violently onto the wet metal deck, the tail hook barely grasping the arrestor cable, but just off center causing the jet to crab somewhat, but within normal operational limits. However, the restraint on the ship’s port side suddenly malfunctioned, sheering all four of its large retaining bolts causing the taught cable to slice erratically as the Tomcat dragged it several hundred feet down the rain-soaked surface. Only after coming to an abrupt halt and deplaning did she realize the scale of the collateral damage: Two Navy servicemen were dead, killed instantly when the cable cleaved diagonally across the deck decapitating both of them.

“Oh my goodness,” exclaimed Timothy, “what a tragedy! What a story!” “But wait, there’s more,” Stacey said, sipping her drink intermittently between lengthy episodes. She went on to tell him that after completing a difficult assignment in the Balkans, she retired from the Navy and went on to obtain several marksmanship awards from the National Rifle Association back in the States. The petite blonde then saw success and accomplishment in a creative variety of otherwise impressive endeavors as a horse trainer, an executive movie producer and a singer songwriter with a substantial investment in a recording studio.

Timothy was engrossed from the commencement of the Bosnian conflict and it was only after hearing about her intriguing sources of song writing inspiration, he realized he had not even touched his squash stuffed roasted poblano. Since his unexpected divorce last year he had dated a stack of women; nevertheless trim, attractive Stacey, his twenty-third on-line arranged first date, had the most remarkable life story by far. By. Far.

As Timmy recited his tale in lucid but jumbled detail, we passed power tiller after power tiller—those strange looking two wheel tractors with Peter Fonda style handlebars, awkwardly pulling trailers full of unrecognizable vegetables and rice to some hitherto unseen markets. Our enduring views of the bucolic Cambodian countryside were punctuated only by our driver’s innate need to lean on his horn when we rapidly came up behind anything with wheels. He also honked at stray dogs and wandering cattle, although I sensed a difference in his animal staccato.

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Had I asked a Monk to pose, this’d be it.

Tim and I were traveling together throughout South East Asia for a couple of weeks, catching up on our important life events amid temple and shrine visits and assorted idolatry. He had started yakking about a couple of his twenty-three dates earlier when we left Phnom Penh, but with hopeful grace, I had listened only peripherally as it wasn’t really that interesting. But when he got to Stacey I was all ears.

After the Stacey power-lunch, driving back to his newly purchased home by the Spokane River in Washington, Timmy was oblivious to the changing scenic fall textures all around him as he replayed portions of Stacey’s incredible life story in his mind. What an amazing woman he reflected; she had told him so many profoundly stimulating sagas that he kept overlooking then recollecting whole chapters of her adventurous past, albeit in seemingly randomized sequences.

Following a lovely but lonely dinner for one as the sun set gently on the Spokane River, he ruminated on the day’s events and recalled some of the more dramatic moments—her two failed marriages and recent beastly boyfriend experience. Husband number two had divulged to her late one night that demons commanded him to murder her, causing her to fly the coop, and her recent ex-honey horribilis, who was a disgraced ex-cop, had pulled a knife on her over some trifling squabble during dinner. Then someone stealthily poisoned her two large Great Danes, twice. Nevertheless somehow the dogs, named Rock and Roller managed to survive the rat poison, but it was touch and go apparently. Lying in bed later that night he slowly realized that Tracey hadn’t inquired about him over the overrated stuffed pepper dish: Not a single question, now that he thought about it. Nor had he the opportunity to butt in and ramble about himself during the Stacey Show.

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Like a kitten in a tree, getting up is the easy part.

“That was odd,” I interrupted, “that she wouldn’t want to know anything about you.” We seemed to be now wedged in a dry dusty traffic jam in the middle of nowhere, just north of Lake Tonle Sap on the road to Siem Reap where Toyota Camrys and Lexus Rx300s started outnumbering the trudging tractors. “Yes,” he replied, “I didn’t realize until afterwards that I didn’t get a word in edgeways.” Then he continued, somewhat hesitantly, “and I tried to check her out online and couldn’t corroborate much of anything. She said the pooch poisonings were in the local paper, and you would’ve thought the sailor beheadings would have made the news. Couldn’t find anything on her extensive movie production career either on the IMDb website.” Glancing furtively left and right at the clogging chaos all around us he continued, “The only thing that really checked out was a description of her house—a rental ranch on four acres at the edge of town.”

Recollecting that Stacey had mentioned, between career changes, that she would be out all the next morning taking her poorly pooches, Rock and Roller, to a veterinarian in the next town, the Timster thought that it would be a nice touch to deliver a small floral arrangement while she was gone. Sensing a post first-date inkling of magnetism and knowing roughly where she lived, Timmy thought this’d be a wooing no-brainer.

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At first you think the praying and idolatry isn’t you, but gradually you just get into it.

Six miles out of town and around the leafy winding road he saw the house as accurately described to him less than twenty hours earlier: A long white hacienda on a sprawling flat tree-lined lot just beyond the bridge. “It was worse than the Beverly Hillbillies,” he remarked matter-of-factly, shrugging his shoulders. “The closer I got to the property, the dingier it looked: Dingy as in abandoned. There was an old trailer sitting haphazardly in the brown dirt with old cars and other non collectable objects strewn around, and I had to walk around some automobile that was parked right up at the front door,” he continued. “The screen door at the front of the house was made of plastic that probably used to be clear, and was covered in sun-faded stickers.”

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Tim was always looking for a restroom.

Standing awkwardly between the front door and the old car, Tim momentarily inspected the yellow flower arrangement in his right hand while wondering if he had come to the right house. He squinted at what he thought was an old washed-out NRA sticker when unexpectedly inside, two large dogs bounded to the door snarling raucously. The door immediately swung inward and a large, white haired man filled the doorway and blurted, “What you wantin’?” Unnerved Tim said, “Oh is that Rock and Roller?” nodding in the general direction of the barking bedlam as the unknown white-haired man just glared at him. Tim spluttered, “I brought these, er flowers for um…” as he retreated proficiently, clearing all vehicular obstacles without looking back.

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Sometimes you just come across something novel, and for me it was at the end of a long, hot day in the Angkor Thom temple complex.  With most of the tourists gone, we turned a corner to see two frolicking, dancing, happy Chinese ladies.

As our car passed by the oversized night market and endless tee-shirt stalls, we finally approached our rustic hotel in the center of Siem Reap. Tim said conclusively, “The guy looked like he lived there, and I don’t know if he was the demonized husband or the knife wielding disgraced ex-cop, and I wasn’t waiting to find out. Ten bucks I paid for those flowers,” he went on, “ but a good investment to find out that she’s a fucking nutcase!”

Twenty Nine Years

Twenty Nine Years by Two Worlds Apart

A quote attributed to teen-popster-turned-naughty-girl Miley Cyrus is, “A true friend is someone who is always there during the ups and downs; I actually have a song called True Friend.” Well, she really is a damn good singer and we are all probably pleased to hear about her friend status, though to be fair this quote was from the younger, more innocent Miley and Cyrus. TWA songs can be a tad more sinister and complicated albeit significantly less popular. Sung by the keen folkster fixture Bert Keith, Twenty Nine Years is no exception on a shady scale of surrender and despair.

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While the song generally has a melancholic minor musical progression, Keith’s singing vacillates between contemporary folk and neo progressive rock in some parts. When he is on top of the world he is vaguely reminiscent of that eons-old one-time hot band Marillion from rural Aylesbury in the UK. The instrumentation, seemingly by design, is threadbare—mainly one acoustic guitar, gracelessly strummed in a Cobainesque fashion, some oblivious guy having loads of fun with a cranked-up Rickenbacker bass, and the spotty kid next door on the drums. However, the overall sound is tight, even campy, and while the overused genre is life’s ups and downs, Twenty Nine Years is a fairly big down, but it’s not a downer.

Twenty Nine Years by Two Worlds Apart, with Alex Smith, Bert Keith, and Dragan Stojkovski.

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Rise of the Mangalyaan

Festooned with a dazzling array of technological gadgetry including precision photometers, meticulous mass analyzers, thermal imaging devices, multi-spectral cameras and glitzy gas sensors, a shiny new spacecraft elegantly entered Martian orbit in late September 2014. Intended as a tiny baby step in planning for future interplanetary travel, the first attempt for this rapidly developing democracy is a ship that would likely enthuse my demanding satellite specialist friend, Kevin Ginley, if indeed it is possible to excite him with anything not involving Fairport Convention (the auld English folk band). By most standards, the astronomical mission execution was flawless and it cost less than a run-of-the-mill Adam Sandler B Movie, such as 50 First Dates.

Launched by the Indian Space Research Organization the spacecraft is named Mangalyaan, from the Sanskrit combination of “Mars” and “craft.” So proud is the hopeful Indian nation that, among other things, they commemorated this memorable celestial event by featuring the launch on the new 2,000 Rupee note. Probably, much of the Indian population is not familiar with their country’s new spaceship, and likewise the 2,000 Rupee bill, which at $35, is twice the average daily wage: Comparable to a hypothetical $200 bill in the States. However, since November 8th, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly banned the 500 and 1,000 Rupee denominations, many Indians and others have had to become very familiar with their purple-hued, two-large Mangalyaan. So too have the tourists.

Now, the very popular President Modi was merely following up on one of his tough election promises to carve out a huge black chunk out of India’s economy, which is estimated to be over 20% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). He did this by suddenly delegitimizing the very popular 500 and 1,000 Rupee bills, and on Wednesday November 9th, these were all but worthless: No longer legal tender—as useful as a Zimbabwean Two Billion Dollar note. So that certainly made some inroads into the ill-gotten, under-the-counter, black marketeering crowd. All the Samosa-stained black money stashed away in tatty suitcases inside and outside of the country no longer had value. Brilliant said the pundits; he sure stopped the criminals in their stride.

However, for the rest of us it was a real pain in the arse. Firstly, any 500 and 1,000 bills in our possession were instantaneously worthless, and secondly, legal tender now consisted of scarce 100 Rupee bills and plentiful purple 2,000 Mangalyaans. Certainly it was not Modi’s intention to make everyone go broke, so his plan allowed for folks to go to banks retroactively to deposit or exchange the newly illegalized currency, up to a certain, extremely modest daily stipend. This, in theory, would allow authorities to give traceable credit back to legitimate hard working citizens, and disenfranchise the criminal with ill-gotten dough-filled portmanteaus. Furthermore, folks were allowed to withdraw modest daily amounts of 100 Rupee paper, for which demand now vastly exceeded supply—much like Superbowl tickets.

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Possible indication of nearby ATM.

At this juncture I’d like to point out there are over one billion citizens in India, many of whom now had to go urgently to the banks and ATMs every single day to surrender, exchange or get their hard working hands on cash. For those living in highly organized countries, like Denmark, India may seem disorganized at the best of times: But now there were Justin Bieber lines around hot and sweaty, dusty, dingy blocks for every ATM and Bank of Maharaja. I think lines formed on an inkling that there might be an cash machine around the corner.

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Mahatma Gandhi famously didn’t need much in the way of cash, but I’m sure he’d feel the pain of his fellow citizens.

For touristy types, like moi, it was a novel challenge worthy of a one-season over-hyped reality TV show featuring William Shatner and Henry Winkler. I am somewhat tempted make a poor taste joke about begging in India, but I shall refrain and just say that I had to work really hard to get a few hundred Rups out of the hotel cashier’s tight little mitts. Even then, as a cashed-up, pumped-up traveler I was walking around with a handful of hundreds and two-grand Mangalyaans. That’s like walking around in the States with only quarters and Benjamin Franklins. Try getting an ice cream or a taxi with that and NO ONE has change, so don’t even ask. Perhaps, and only perhaps, if you spend 1900 you can break a Mangalyaan. Also, NO ONE has change. NO. ONE.

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Thinking here that if I only have a 2,000 note I’m going to have to hire this guy for a week.

Now having observed this firsthand, the Indian people were very gracious with an amazingly patient and understanding populous waiting in lines for hours each day for days and days and weeks to come. I can’t image that discipline in the USA—I just read an article about some guy losing it big-time back in the States because his Latte took too long at Starbucks.

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Hoping he appreciates the foreign currency detritus I snuck in the collection box.

So that was how I finished writing up this little adventure on my laptop on an airplane, ending with an ode to overpopulated humanity based on my experiences in Mumbai. Unfortunately, when I next logged on the Internet the story in the Times was all about chaos and near riots in New Delhi. Oh dear.

See the Delhi link here – http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/11/12/world/asia/ap-as-india-currency-chaos.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share

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Magical Mystery Tour

It’s November 9th and my lovely wife and I strangely find ourselves roaming around France looking longingly at real estate: We would’ve first gone to the country of my birth, the United Kingdom, but the folks there too opted for global secession. Evidently, while we endeavored to embrace international progressivism, others have wearied of that social experiment on a grand scale. Bigly.

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Bon Appetit at the Paris Christmas Markets: Susan should be careful as binge eating is commonly associated with depression.

Now, the American people have voted inasmuch as the Electoral College is concerned, and I, for one, respect that as a naturalized American and patriot that loves his foster country dearly. I say often, and you may have heard me remark that America is completely crazy and I love it.  This is once again affirmed emphatically.

Nonetheless, I have sometimes felt these past couple months that I don’t fit in quite as snugly as I had previously thought.  Sort of like showing up to start a new adult evening art class in West Belfast’s Shankhill Road Community Center with a proud collection of pastiche portraits of the Pope.

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The Paris Accord: Condoleances mon ami.

But I can’t say that these latest election results are anything less than a revelation akin to finding out suddenly after all these years that you are merely a host on some tedious, low budget version of West World.

I am wired as an optimist, sometimes to a fault, and therefore maybe, perhaps, who knows, some parts of this won’t be entirely as bad as folks fear. There are some positives; for example, government will function for a period of time, though not as we might want it to.

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The Louvre’s elder statesmen look towards Place de la Concorde, where the frustrated citizens of France removed the heads of their leaders.

As they say, life is like a box of chocolates—you just never know when you are going to accidently sit on them. Though being human, and still having shards of individuality, I find myself presently unable to add anything deeply meaningful to the narrative of this community transmogrification, other than dutiful expression of my personal sorrow for our apparent lack of inclusiveness.

Hopefully I’ve selfishly got it wrong and everyone including my amazing friends, relatives and neighbors who clearly wanted these drastic changes deserve to sit in the driver’s seat for a bit and we’ll see where this mysterious tour bus takes us. Hopefully not too close to the edge.

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The Incredible Hulk: Not one to usually flex his muscles, Alex blows off a little steam this week.

 

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America’s Own Goal

In menacingly tight soccer competitions a winner and loser must be chosen and the game, the championship and the entire league may come down to mere penalty kicks, which, I believe, most would agree is a terrible way to end an extremely athletic and skilled, world-class sporting event. Since the goalkeeper cannot move from the line before the shot has been taken, in all likelihood each imminent penalty will become a goal: Unless there is an error or lack of precision on the part of the kicker. However, and much worse, on occasion the shooter may slice or shank the sphere and miss all seventeen square meters of the net entirely, e.g., think fondly of Baggio, Beckham, and Schweinsteiger, who are forever documented in the annals of history for such highly publicized failures. What could possibly be worse than missing a penalty and losing the championship? Not much you may think, except perhaps for the unequivocal devastation of the humiliating own goal (OG): When you lob the leathered orb into your own net to the shock and absolute derision of your team, your fans, your country, and your mother.

The own goal can heartlessly decide a championship that may otherwise have been won by the more deserving team, with it all coming down to some tiny, momentary lapse in judgment, or lack of communication with fellow players, or an unfortunate deflection from the other team, or the keeper—resulting in a player’s infamous, shameful OG. Firing the ball into your own net hobbles your team to the ultimate success of your competitors: A tactical error that can become a huge strategic misfortune.

This self-inflicted wound may no longer be limited to the confines of the football pitch. Take, for example, the 2016 European Games, where England in a two-four-four formation, led by feisty attackers Farage and Johnson, unexpectedly gunned the globe right into the back of their own net in the 90th minute of the competition. At the final whistle this was an unwarranted crushing defeat for the United Kingdom, with Scotland and Northern Ireland now likely to be traded to another team.

Presently, in 2016’s World Cup, Team USA is dribbling perilously close to its own net with Trump on attack, supported by his devout right-wingers Christie and Giuliani. While receiving plenty of yellow cards and cautions for foul play, the suicide squad has thus far managed to avoid receiving any reds, yet they are perilously close to being sent off for ungentlemanly conduct. Let’s hope Team USA keeps its eyes on the shiny silver prize and not on the Golden One.

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The Book of Kells

Ireland’s indisputable finest national treasure deceivingly looks like a small stack of tatty old hardbacks. But within those tomes is a vibrant and colorful monked-up retelling of the teachings of the Gospel. Written in the eight century, the four calligraphic volumes of the Book of Kells have survived the pillages of Vikings and the wanton destruction of all things considered Catholic by Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads.

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After twelve hundred years, the Kells continue to present their spiritual teachings within the scholarly confines of Dublin’s Trinity College library.

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Dublin’s nearby magnificent castle displays an impressive array of period architecture dating from the twelfth century.

 

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Many rivers including the Liffey and the Dodder greet the Irish Sea at Dublin Bay.

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The Home of Golf

The magnificence of St. Andrews in Scotland is reflected not least through the largest public golf complex in the whole of Europe, and is frequently home to the famous British Open Championship. The charming town also features the oldest university in Scotland, dating all the way back to 1411.

About one hundred years earlier, in 1318, the shrining cathedral of St Andrew was consecrated by none other than King Robert the Bruce, only to be later sacked by a mob of drunken Rangers supporters in the late 1500s. Next door to the cathedral rests the imposing medieval castle, still standing guard against the powerful North Sea after seven or so centuries.

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Notable alumni of the university include Alex Salmond, Kate Middleton, Prince William, John Cleese and Chris Hoy.

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St Andrews Cathedral was Scotland’s largest and most magnificent in its heyday.

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During the Scottish wars of independence the fortified castle changed hands several times.

 

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Precision Pairing

While traveling recently, I found the Manzanita restaurant in the Lake Tahoe Ritz Carlton Hotel to be an entertaining, warm respite for tired and awestruck hikers and skiers. Sitting atop one of the many peaks surrounding the beautiful Lake Tahoe, the restaurant offers great food, drinks, and a preponderance of modern, effective, glass bead-laden fires—a very cozy, smart-but-casual atmosphere.

At these higher-end eateries, I’ve always found recommended food and drink pairings to be a strange concoction. Generally, I usually accepted, without as much as a question, the validity and appropriateness of feast and tipple unions proffered to me. My thinking was that someone, qualified and well-trained, had anticipated my nourishment and imbibing needs, well in advance of my emerging appetite, saving me the trouble and bother of picking from an interminable catalog of permutations and combinations, which might otherwise result in some gastronomic catastrophe or other recipe for disaster. Or worse, social shaming and peer belittlement. For example, should one happen to like Merlot and artichokes, or Chianti and tuna salad and have the audacity and impudence to desire them outside the privacy of one’s own home.

There are, undoubtedly, numerous rational merits to pairing appropriately, such as avoiding potential hangovers or unforgiving acid reflux, but other than circumventing biological imbalance some matching suggestions vex me. Certainly, cuisiniers, culinary artistes and gourmet virtuosos have the ability and skillset to match foods, sauces, preparation methods and beverages for concurrent consumption. In a gallant quest for palatable perfection, Ritz-Carltons use a pre-defined matrix to match foods with wine based on a variety of factors such as sweetness, spices, acidity and bitterness.

Over time, however, while I have in part come to appreciate the aptness of precision pairing, my gut tells me that restaurateurs could perhaps think a bit bigger than mere chow compatibility or other half-baked ideas. Instead of matching drinks to food, why not to other mood modifying stimuli, such as the weather?

Take my old favorite, Scotch, for example, which after many years of personal research, I have come to conclude is best served with rain. Blended whiskies generally tend to go well in light dreary drizzle, while the stronger single malts hold up better in a disheartening deluge. One of my favorite smoother blends, the Famous Grouse, matured in oak casks for six months, is fabulous for the palate when balanced with a somber sprinkle. Best served in a soaking downpour, the trademark of the glorious ten year old Macallan is the misty aftertaste of handpicked sherry seasoned oak. Ultimately though, during a marauding monsoon, I find that there is nothing quite so soothing and aromatic as a sip of full-bodied sixteen year old peaty Lagavulin. Best enjoyed with wellies.

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Contemplating the evening’s potential pairings.

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The Beekeepers

The Beekeepers realized rapidly that they were daunted by the large, complex honeycombed hive of dust-covered canvas encampments, in this particular full-sized colony of over sixty thousand. Sixty five thousand, four hundred and twenty one of these social insects to be exact, all cross-pollinating twenty four seven, to the likes of Billy Idol in the house. Thump, thump, thump, “hey little sister what have you done?” Ambient keyboard swell, thump, thump, thump, and repeat to coda: Day and night humming raucously into the following sunrise.

Not that we had intended to manage busy bees or to produce conventional honey: We had come masquerading as great European twentieth century explorers, presumably along the crisp white linen lines of Dr. Livingstone. But it was not to be, as the first comment on the coordinated attire from a bumbling, dirty looking Italian-ish thirty something extra from Mad Max was, “buon giorno seniors, where are zee bees?” That stung. And so for the duration of the burn my wingmen and I were the keepers of bees. Fantasy names and titles were apparently the norm at the infamous Burning Man as we realized fairly quickly upon making introductions to fellow burners. “Hi I’m Chris,” with a broad smile and hand extended was reciprocated with, “hi I’m Violet Shooting Star.”

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The workers were super friendly, all sixty-some thousand of them, the costumes were amusingly rich and varied and the art structures and thunderdome-esque mutant vehicles were entirely impressive. For a trio of old WASPs wearing all-white safari suits and pith helmets we seemed to get way more attention than we thought deserved. Why would these fabulous-looking, young, post-apocalyptic honeys swarm the Beekeepers? Not because we looked like the Bee-Gees we guessed, but because of our advanced planning and well-organized, coordinated formation. Any drone can sport a yellow jacket, mohawk, kilt, face-paint, doc martens, safety pins, faux fur and other haberdashery, but three pristine white figures contrasted with anarchy gets the nectar. The challenge next year is to create as much buzz.

The Golden Medusa

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Golden Medusa. 2016. Oil on Canvas. 79cm x 99cm.

Beautiful and repulsive, mysterious and menacing, I find jellyfish to be impossibly constructed and hard to fathom. Even Spongebob fears them. Beached, they look like some large ungodly snotter cast asunder for all to see, like the sad remnants of a rotting, over-ripened combination of mangos, shredded Victoria Secrets undergarments, and torn Safeway plastic bags.

However, just below the surface, gently bobbing in our oceans, these lingeriel leftovers appear to glide deliberatively with the grace of angels. When you look a little deeper into the subject you realize that these gelatinous globs are all individually, ever so slightly, different in color, shade, texture, construction and pattern, which amazes me given that they swarm in the millions like some briny, morphing mushroom pea soup. The variations are diminutive but discernable, and this is from a guy who still can’t tell Matt and Ben apart—my six-foot three twin first cousins once removed.

In this medium-sized oil treatment, the cautious diver is shown respectfully avoiding the deadly touch of the Mastigias papua—the Papauan Jellyfish, or as it is known commonly throughout the Indo-Pacific, the Golden Medusa. In an oblique nod to the artist’s hero and luminary, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the aquanaut’s hair drifts chaotically in the ocean current, much like the serpent-laden head of the feared Gorgon, Medusa.