Saturday, September 17, 2011

New World Record

Kurt Wallenda once said..."Being on the wire is living, the rest is waiting".

Almost 2 years ago, I took my first flight from Sydney to Canberra. It's a 30 minute flight, 10 minutes of take off, 10 minutes of landing and 10 minutes with the seat belt sign un-illuminated. Yet it is the only flight on which, irregardless of the carrier, you receive a full complimentary snack and (if its after 2 pm) a free alcoholic beverage. If you sit in the wrong spot, your banana loaf and chardonnay arrives at the same time as..."the captain has now turned on the seat belt sign so we kindly ask you to return your tray table to its upright position...". The absurdity of the exercise abounds. It's 10 minutes people. Human beings can routinely survive days without sustenance. Trust me we'll be fine. Of course while it is true that individuals may survive, one look around tells me that the plane is packed with politicians and civil servants commuting to work for a quick junket, and human physiology aside, it is a fact worth noting that such individuals rarely rouse if the word complimentary isn't nigh.

On one of my first such trips I asked for a beer. I'm not actually a huge beer drinker. But my favoured beer in Australia is Pure Blonde and when a woman asks me what I'd like; the temptation not to respond with, "I'd love a tall pure blonde, if you have one, not too frosty though" is too great. Even better is the eye roll from the stewardess who "hasn't heard that one before".

Those that know me will attest that I am a gentle soul with little in the way of criminal intent. However when faced with an absurd situation my initial reaction is to push the envelope just a little further, in an attempt to reveal the underlining insanity of the current condition. It's as they say, what I do.

So on that maiden voyage or shortly after I concocted the scheme of drinking two beers on a trip from Sydney to Canberra. The hypothesis was founded on the assumption that I could find a bubbly sympathetic stewardess that would see the nobility of my pursuit long enough to eschew airline policy and help me with the quest. It is absolutely noble, it would have to be a worlds record. In the physical universe that we occupy I dare say it would be a first. And perhaps like Joe DiMaggio (sorry Don Bradman...token Australian reference) I could establish a mark that while possible to tie would be quite impossible to beat.

I've had enough time to plan all the factors involved. 1. I need a headwind. 2. I have to find Bubbles, an eager to please stewardess with soft spot for middle aged, portly, grey haired men 3. I have to be thirsty. 4. I can't be too full. 5. I have to remember that this is my quest, sometimes my obsessions can be distracted by...hey what's that....

I have in the past been able to put a few of the factors together but last night preparation finally met opportunity. 1. Flight time 39 minutes, good start. 2. I ate 4 pieces of sushi for lunch and we took off at 6 p.m. 3. When asked if I wanted a drink at the airport, I asked for salty pretzels. 4. I was focused / bored out of my mind.

When I reached the place, I met Bubbles. Short, brown haired with a smile as big as the outback. "Enjoy your flight Mr. Rice". ...this could work. More good fortune. As always happens I am seated beside either the biggest (or the second biggest) man on the plane, obviously some air line employees idea of a cruel joke. But just before take off he was reassigned to an empty emergency exit row, motive now met opportunity, as I had an empty seat beside me so the "and one for my seat mate please, he's just in the gentleman's.." line had a chance, not that I felt I needed it with Bubbles in command.

But it's never quite so easy. As we began our accent, the captain informed the cabin that the flight time had been changed to 29 minutes and the wind could create some turbulence. Could this interfere with the in flight service? Civil Servants became restless. I thought I may have to postpone. Then a sight emerged before me, while Bubbles glad handed the high rollers in first class, I caught a glimpse of Angela. Tall, blonde, angular, wearing a bun as tight as my wife's wallet. She actually made a 2 year old stow her teddy bear under the seat in front for take off. Not good.

Once we reached altitude, the drink cart was readied. I was nervous. If this was to be done, data was my friend. As Angela and Bubbles came down the Aisle, I watched the routine.  Rather than continually moving the cart, Angela had devised a plan where she took 6 or 7 snacks in her over sized Nordic mitts and proceeded to leave the cart unattended while she slapped the cookies down on tray tables with one hand and juggled red, whites and lagers on the other.  It routinely took her 10 seconds to accomplish this tour all the while Bubbles was serving one customer at a time, fawning over little babies and flirting with the business men.

It was time for the cart to move. The next destination the cart was placed at was directly beside my aisle, this was the new staging point. Could it be? I got Angela. She looked at me as if to kill, I meekly said 'blonde" she reached down took 3 in her right hand, pounded one on my tray table and popped the top, just with her glare. There was no time to waste, I took my first gulp and it went down easy. As Angela took off to service the back of the plane, I noticed that we were 20 minutes into the flight and the "DING" of the seat belt sign had sounded, it was now or never. As the captain revealed his intent to land the ship, I looked over and noticed that efficient Angela had left the drawer open with at least 20 Pure Blonde brews literally in my lap. It was automatic. I reached I grabbed and it was all over. No one except a curious young onlooker in aisle seat 23A saw the deed, it was done. Or was it. I now had 9 minutes and one and a half beers to go. But that was cut short. Bubbles was on garbage patrol, starting at the front of the cabin she began to collect rubbish and other assorted used personal items from the masses. I had seconds. Second gulp first beer done. Bubbles was at row 7. I channelled my inner frat party,  glug! glug! glug!, holy crap how big are these cans. She's at row 18. If it hadn't been for a toddler in row 20 that smuggled on board a full spaghetti dinner, and proceeded to paint the fuselage, I would have been sunk, but while Bubbles attended to the young family, and searched for a red sauce encrusted rattle which had rolled 4 seats in front, I summoned the courage. I finished with time to spare. As Bubbles came by the cabin, I dumped one can in the bin with my left, came over the top and slam dunked the second with my right. My wink told the whole story. She knew.

The walk from the plane was like a victory lap. The passengers and crew my receiving line. Few will know what was accomplished that night. Pure Blonde Victory, the mark has been set. Still one more challenge to navigate. This is Canberra, no exit bay, it's wobbly stairs, down to the tarmac. The steps shook in the wind, and it was only now that I realized I had drank 2 beers in 2 minutes. I can't say I stuck the landing but there are no style points awarded in this game. It's a 2! put it on the scorecard, or in this case, my signature on the used boarding pass will suffice.

When I arrived home, I regaled my family with my accomplishment. They looked at me with profound sadness and pity. Greatness is always so misunderstood. When one reaches the Holy Grail, what does one do. Blogs about it I suppose.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Vienna Anyone

120 years ago Melbourne was the richest city in the world; the Abu Dhabi of days gone by. Melbourne’s fortune was fuelled not by oil, but by gold. I’m convinced that in another 100 years the next golden city will be fuelled by a supply of fresh water or perhaps something even rarer like common sense. Melbourne is the one place in Australia where I almost forget I’m down under, the Yarra River could be the Chicago or the Thames. The gumtrees disappear, the outback ends and Sydney and Brisbane fade to black. It would seem that Melbourne spent its entire fortune on art. The city is ornate and bejewelled in every un-Australian way you can imagine; for the rest of Australia is decidedly unprepared. Go see the Blue Mountains and there is little by way of description, just look you fool; no amusement parks or Ferris wheels, no pictures of Grandpa in a barrel going over the three sisters, it’s just there to enjoy or drive past, whatever floats your boat.

This weekend in Melbourne a few things became clear to me. For a weekend with my wife in a fancy art series hotel, I’ll do almost anything and if that includes 5 hours of boutique shopping, sipping wine and gulping down over priced coffee – where do I sign up. But my true epiphany came on Sunday when I was prompted to attend the Art Museum of Victoria to see a collection of Viennese art, circa 1880 to 1915. I couldn’t help but think that this period represented a meaningful time in human history as it coincides with Melbourne’s glory days, the origins of the educational system to which I now espouse and perhaps more significantly it perfectly predates the post war period in Europe, the three decades prior to a butchery, the extent of which had never before been seen in the annals of human history. I kept walking around looking at the art, the architecture, the fashions and the style trying to figure out - what were these people thinking.

What I found was a unique take on existentialism. A place and period deeply concerned with objects. An entire gallery of photographs, paintings, sketches and artefacts without one action shot. There was one outdoor painting but it was static, no hint of wind, and not a person within the canvas. There was a huge emphasis and even a dignity conferred to everyday household items. There were chairs festooned with silly bobbles in a style which would have made sitting in one a chore. But never chairs (plural), never a dinner party, just a chair sitting nobly alone in all its “chairness”. And there were tea cups and goblets, geometric architecture, and portraits of the men and women who obviously understood the sanctity of the new modern world. Existentialists believe that only human existence is meaningful, that the world is essentially mad, fundamental truths are never to be believed and the human plight is the only lens with which to exact refuge from an absurd reality. Therefore the emphasis on the here and now, the human struggle either with one’s self (Freud), others (Darwin) or cutlery (Julia Child?) is singularly worth review. I can see the aesthetic nature of Montessori education born in 1907 having been influenced by Vienna; its emphasis on practical life, the nobility of the child and the precision with which the Montessori materials were crafted as characteristic of this period. It’s also not a huge leap to suggest that Art Deco spawned from these Viennese roots, and the jazz music of the early 20th century could have been developed from the composers influenced from this romantic period.

Vienna of the late 19th century was probably one of those intersections of place and time that influenced human history to a greater extent than we think. Like Alexandria of the bc/ad switch, everyone arrived, everyone partied, lots of people thought and the ideas that followed spread around the world like wild fire. I hadn’t really considered it until a September 11th walk around Melbourne put me in a pondering mood. Was it 30 years of Viennese self-indulgence that spurred today’s consumerist society, the one driven by the glorification of objects over ideals. Probably not, more than likely it’s been a gradual perversion of the existentialist paradigm over time as a generation of baby boomers tries to recover from some previously grisly behaviour.

Still I can attest that Melbourne is a good place to hang on a spring afternoon.  My particular take on art has always been closest to Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that “art is a mechanism by which rich people make poor people feel stupid” but obviously something in all that oil on canvas got me thinking. Or it could have been all that cappuccino, we’ll never know.