11 January 2007

The Sad Travails Of A Sybaritic Existence

There's such a thing as "high class problems," and if you don't know what I mean, picture the rich lady who complains that, "It's so hard to find good domestic help," or try shedding a tear for the wealthy businessman who's out of sorts because he had to fly in business rather than first class en route to his Tahitian holiday.

I'm very conscious that when I complain about things, as I too often do, I risk coming across in much the same way, and yet I don't always seem to be able to stop myself. The trouble is that everything is relative, and if someone's lucky enough not to have any major issues troubling him - for instance, having to trek miles through ice and snow to a crappy minimum wage job just to keep body and soul together, or suffering from a crippling illness or experiencing a tragic death in the family - it seems to be human nature to find fault even with whatever good fortune one is enjoying.

But there's a perverse streak to it, too, that comes in the form of wanting to remind people, even though you know it might annoy them, that you're having such a good time that you're reduced to having to search for the most Lilliputian problems to complain about. Just this morning, for example, noticing that some people on my favorite message board were talking about the first snow of the season, I just had to point out that it was 86 degrees (30C) here, and that I was on my way to the beach.

So yes, I know I'm very fortunate to be spending this time in the sun, with very little to trouble my mind other than which of Sydney's 50-some beaches to frolic at or which of its 500-some cafes to dine at, but never fear; my Catholic heritage and phlegmatic family tradition still gives me plenty to brood about. Perhaps we will all be washed out to sea by a tsunami, or giant man-eating crocodiles will invade Sydney Harbour, or my bank will make a clerical error and deposit all my money into the account of my arch-enemy.

I think I may be safe on that last count, at least, as for the first time I can remember, I don't seem to have an arch-enemy. Well, not that I know of, anyway. Nevertheless, to keep myself from stressing about major catastrophes like the aforementioned, I seem to spend an inordinate time getting wound up over any number of small things, of which I intend to list a few. Don't hate me, believe me, these are real problems. Just not very big ones, granted, but we all follow our own particular road to perdition, as the nuns always used to remind me.

So, let's start with:
1) Smokers at the beach. Now don't get me wrong. I don't think all smokers should be taken out and summarily shot, even if the thought has crossed my mind. Some of my fondest friends are smokers, and even though I cringe every time they light up another coffin nail, I still cherish them, and my sadness and frustration is mostly the result of seeing them committing suicide on the installment plan.

But after another day spent dodging clouds of toxic fumes wafted my way by self-obsessed bozos who think the perfect way to enjoy nature is to stink it up, I'm having a hard time being patient. Picture this: a perfect day by the seaside, the intoxicating smells of water, sand, trees and the less blatantly smelly brands of suntan oil all gliding gently on the zephyr-like breeze, and then some jerk flops down next to you and lights up his own personal stink bomb to blot it all out. I mean, if I were less inhibited, I'd walk over and fart in his face and see how he likes it. On the other hand, given the habitues of some Sydney beaches, he might...

And then, when (the first of many) fags is done, what does he (or she, don't want to be unfair to one gender) do with it? Why, stubs it out in the sand and leaves it there, as though the whole beach were his or her personal ashtray. What are these people thinking? That sand has magical qualities that cause cigarette butts to instantly vaporise? Or that people enjoy lounging around in a field of stinky butts that will take approximately 10,000 years to fully decompose and/or get swept out to sea to provide dinner for the already seriously poisoned fish stock?

I hear that in Santa Monica they've actually banned smoking on the beach, but here I'd at least settle for smoking and non-smoking sections. Oh, and by the way, this whole smoking thing is arousing a new level of homophobia I didn't think myself capable of, because gay guys, who make up a third to half the population at an average Sydney beach (and considerably more than that at others) seem to smoke at about ten times the rate of the general population. And not just smoke, but chain smoke, neurotically, compulsively, flamboyantly.

The same guys who devote endless amounts of time to attaining perfect hair, bodies, clothes and personal fragrances then proceed to blow it all by lighting up and instantly devaluing their appearance, their body odor, and most bystanders' estimates of their intelligence. Barring the courage to employ my fart-in-the-face technique, I'd at least like to have the nerve to tell them, "Way to stink up the beach, buster," but even that seems a little combative, especially when dealing with people twice my size and half my age. But if you hear news of me being found floating face down in Sydney Harbour, you'll know that my annoyance finally got the better of my trepidation.

2) No internet access at the beach. Okay, that's a bit of a joke (sort of), but though I don't really need to log on while sunbathing, I'm very cross about the rather primitive state of the internet in the otherwise progressive and modern country of Australia. It's like it's 1995 or something and we've barely advanced beyond having to pay AOL by the minute for a creepy-crawly modem-based connection.

As New Yorkers will know, if you've got a laptop with a wireless card, you can log on practically anywhere in the city, typically by "borrowing" your neighbour's connection (true, sometimes you have to balance on the edge of the bathtub because that's the only place in the apartment it reaches, but basically, the internet is where it should be, i.e., everywhere.

Not so in Sydney. Wireless exists, yes, but almost everyone who has it jealously puts a password on it so nobody can jump on it, and while many cafes also have it, you'll pay through the nose for using it. Then there's my flatmate/landlord, in almost every respect a modern, enlightened 21st century man, who indeed has broadband wired into the apartment. But, enlightened and modern as he may be, he recoils with fear at the notion of our sharing this connection because, "It might mix up our systems," much as you would expect a South Sea islander to fear his soul being stolen by an unauthorised photo. The cost of paying by the hour to use an internet cafe across town almost negates the eminently reasonable rent he's charging me, but on the other hand, it does get me out of the house. Which perhaps was his idea in the first place...

3) Public transport. This is a perennial one with me, and will no doubt soon get a post of its own (tentatively titled: "Sydney To Public Transport Users: Drop Dead"). And indeed, faithful readers will have heard me complain about public transport in virtually every city I've ever visited.

That being said, Sydney is no worse than most American cities (New York being a prominent exception). In fact, it's on about a par with San Francisco, possessing an occasionally useful railroad and wildly unreliable buses. It's just that for this completely pedestrian (as in, you'd often be better off walking) service, they charge fares nearly as high as those in London, which are by far the highest in the world. Result: nearly everyone drives private automobiles, Sydney is gradually being turned into Los Angeles, and sad losers like myself who actually feel both a duty and a personal inclination to use public transport end up consuming two hours to make a trip that a selfish but practical motorist could do in 20 minutes. Luckily I've got a lot of time on my hands, much of which I apparently use to compile lists of grievances like this one.

4) Poisonous flora and fauna. It's well known that Australia is home to some of the nastiest and most venomous creatures on the planet. Fortunately, many of them can't afford Sydney rents, and some of them, like the man-eating crocodiles, prefer the climate way up north. But there are still spiders that can kill a man in three seconds by breathing on him, and dingoes that snatch babies, and sting rays that can slip right through the shark nets and lay waste even to mighty crocodile hunters. Somehow I've managed to avoid all these perils (so far), but yesterday, while dashing frantically to catch one of those rare and infernal buses to the beach (this one goes once an hour, and if you miss it, well, no doubt it's not important because you're just a sad unemployed loser who actually takes the bus, ha ha ha), I took a shorcut through some seemingly pleasant ornamental palms, only to find a three-inch spike protruding from the palm of my hand.

Apparently the stalks of these things are lined with such spikes, the better to discourage... what, I guess to stop some of Australia's other vile creatures from eating them, but honestly, I had no such intentions. Nevertheless, there I was, looking as though I was out to acquire my own personal stigmata, and when I pulled said spike from its lodging place, a deep pool of dark, venous blood came welling up to the surface. At least it looked like very healthy blood; I found that vaguely reassuring.

And had I ever been inclined to doubt the effectiveness of acupuncture, let me note that this spike had been driven deep into a major acupuncture point, and not only did this greatly enhance the painful effect, it also very nearly paralysed my hand. A day and a half later, I'm still typing with considerable effort. So either acupuncture is real or that vicious palm tree went straight for a major nerve synapse and came close to severing it. By the way, the bus ended up not leaving for another ten minutes, which gave me plenty of time to mop up blood from my paralysed hand, so there's a bright side to everything, right?

5) The exorbitant cost of sunscreen. In addition to being home to innumerable pests and pestilences, Australia is also the skin cancer capital of the world. Sunscreen, and copious amounts of it, is absolutely essential for its predominantly Anglo-Celtic inhabitants, they of the pasty and delicate complexions. Being of the Anglo-Celtic persuasion myself, I get through at least two large (200g) tubes of it a week. Holy cow, I just calculated: that ends up equalling nearly a pound of sunscreen! No, must be a different sort of gram... Or maybe not... Anyway, for one of those tubes, you're likely to get stuck paying between $15 and $20 Australian. Even converting to US dollars, that's at least 25 bucks a week just to keep your face or other epidermal attachments from falling off.

Worth noting, too, is that much of this sunscreen is imported from thousands of miles away, as in, from the US of A. Um, you'd think that coming from one of the sunniest places on earth, some enterprising Aussie might take it upon himself to produce some cheaper, homegrown sunscreen? Why, the next thing you'll be assuming that Australia would also be a pioneer in the use of solar energy, but fat chance of that; instead the government proposes to tackle global warming by rolling out a huge nuclear power programme that will come on line oh, about 20 years or so from now, by which time most of Australia may well have dried up and blown away.

And speaking of dried up and blown away, most of Australia has been suffering from a terrible drought for years now. Not Sydney. It rains all the time here, more than it does in London or San Francisco or even Seattle, for crying out loud. But we're suffering from a disastrous water shortage. Why is that? Because, as the English Water Board once memorably put it when people rightly asked, "How can you call this a drought when it's been raining for three weeks?" it's the wrong kind of rain.

Namely, it falls on the city instead of on the dams and reservoirs out to the west. Now, it's been doing this for at least 150 years, and probably longer than that, long enough, anyway, that you'd think the authorities might have figured out by now that the dams and reservoirs (or rainwater collectors) need to be put somewhere else. But of course you'd be wrong: instead they're proposing to build a horrendously expensive and polluting Israeli-style desalination plant, as if we were living in a bloody desert. But hey, lots of jobs for the boys, at least if said boys have the right connections in the state Labor Party.

6) Naked people who shouldn't be. A couple of my favourite beaches are "clothing optional." Unfortunately, the wrong people are being allowed to exercise that option. Those who are genuinely fit and attractive, who, even if you're not an outright perv, you wouldn't mind seeing a bit more of, invariably cloak themselves in both modesty and less than revealing swimwear. While those whose private bits you'd rather not even contemplate, let alone have dangling in your face, are eager not only to let it all hang out, but to parade up and down the beach flaunting it like so many pleased peacocks.

The Catholics having sufficiently inculcated me with guilt and shame (and aware that, being of a certain age, I myself may be numbered among those who the general public would prefer to observe with clothes on, I rarely participate in the public nudity myself. But I'm just wondering if there isn't some way the city or state could make that sort of discretion mandatory?

All right, I'll think I'll leave this splenetic venting of genernal dyspepsia for now; if you've read this far, congratulations, and if you've done so without wanting to strangle me, mister, you're a better man than I. By the way, that picture at the top is where I spend many of my days thinking up these complaints for you. If you're still managing to find a soft spot in your heart for me, allow me to suggest that the soft spot may actually be in your head.


Amy said...

I wouldn't call myself modest or delicate when it comes to nudity, meaning that I've seen my fair share of it and could usually care less. However, nude beaches would really get to me. Fact is, I can count on one hand the people I'd actually like to see naked and I can pretty much guarentee that none of them would be on that beach. I don't even care about the age or physical fitness of nude people...It's really just a matter of me never wanting to see that much of people I don't know. I mean, I rarely want to talk to people I don't know.

As for your other complaints, I guess I'm blessed with apathy. Well, except for the sun block thing. That's just insane.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear on the whole naked people who shouldn't be thingy. I guess we can just avert our eyes?