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March 27, 2002
The aerodynamic qualities of a famous German car
Came home yesterday about 7pm and noticed Guan-Ji having a nap. Inspired by his example I then lay down for a few minutes and woke up thirteen hours later. Just did a search on Google for instructors on the art of napping. Couldn't find any in my local area.
Despite the extended nap, I'm exhausted, and now I've got to pack the Kombi and start the long drive to Sydney. Several people have asked why I'm driving to Sydney, as opposed to flying.
What a ridiculous question: Kombis can't fly.
March 29, 2002
Suburban exile at high volume
After what seems like several decades of driving, I have now safely arrived in Sydney. The Kombi was running in tip-top condition, which translates as "slightly above walking pace, while using lots of petrol."
The big excitement of the last few hours was dealing with what might have been a typhoon. There was torrential rain on top of torrential rain. There was so much rain that several cars ahead of me slowed down to walking pace, which meant that after several decades of driving a Kombi, I finally managed to overtake something. It was a fine moment, let me tell you. I'm already thinking about having a commemorative plaque made. Something along the lines of:
Due to the extraordinary weather conditions, and a temperamental car radio, I kept listening to some horrendous commercial radio station because they had regular updates on road and weather conditions. "Road and weather conditions," I remember thinking, "that could come in handy around here." Only after arriving in Sydney did I realise that I'd spent hours listening to road and weather conditions for Ulladulla.
Ulladulla, for those who don't know, is on the Pacific coast, quite close to the Victorian border. The closest I came to Ulladulla on this trip was waking up at home, in Melbourne, yesterday. I may as well have been listening to road and weather conditions for St. Louis, Missouri, or the Sea of Tranquility, the Moon.
I'm staying in Oatmeal with the Lion Princess. She has two children, one of whom is Kahlia. Kahlia is five, on a scale of years, and five thousand, on a scale of decibels. I'm sure she's a lovely child, but I felt obliged to cower outside with my hands over my ears until she went to bed. For a while there I seriously considered retreating to Ulladulla, and checking out the road and weather conditions for myself.
Kahlia also turned out to be a enthusiastic source of cool jokes, such as "why did the cow cross the road?" Answer: "to go to cow class." This produced a reaction of puzzled silence.
So I'm in a kind of suburban exile, but at high volume, and with an endless supply of strange cow-crossing-the-road jokes coming at me. 'Tis good. All things considered, I'd much rather be here than in Ulladulla.
March 31, 2002
Stuff I never knew about notebook protectors
Saturday morning with Stig O. Walsh, founder and honorary chair of the Walsh Prize. We went to the Paddo Market, primarily to have a long, involved conversation about the ideal thickness of leather notebook protectors.
The standard model is relatively thick leather, which Stig regards as less than ideal. In fact, Stig tends to regard the standard model as a kind of disgrace, if not actually a heinous blasphemy, or some kind of sinister, unpleasant joke being carefully aimed at him.
So he'd come to an agreement with the Paddo stallholder to have a Special Edition Walsh ModelTM made, which is exactly the same size and colour as the standard model, but a slightly thinner leather. Walsh, understandably, was delighted with his Special Edition Walsh ModelTM, which is very much in keeping with the nature of Walsh. But after hours of conversation about notebook protectors, I found myself wondering if, in fact, we were both going deranged.
In the end, though, I bought a standard model, as a souvenir of this completely ridiculous conversation. I put it into my jeans pocket, and forgot about it until some time later, when I sat down on it. At that moment, I realised why I should've listened to Stig. The Special Edition Walsh ModelTM is more expensive, but it is sleeker, and it is sexier. And, more to the point, it leaves much less of a bruise on the backside.
Also got to meet Stig O.'s son, Stigson, who's now five days old. He was feeding or sleeping for most of the time I was there, but when he looked up he seemed astonishingly alert and happy. He's looking like an early contender for this year's Walsh Prize, especially in the nepotism division. And Lindy looked serene and calm and gorgeous. Motherhood seems to agree with her, and possibly because it provides her with a convenient reason to opt out of marathon discussions with her husband about notebook protectors.
At some point today I found myself listening to Celtic FM, which was astoundingly amateurish. They had a special phone-in competition to mark the end of daylight saving tonight. All you had to do to win a not-very-valuable prize was ring up and tell them in what direction the clocks were moving.
"Hey," I thought, "that's the worst radio I've heard since listening to Ulladulla's local road and weather conditions yesterday." Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be an unpopular competition. After twenty minutes of trying to get someone, anyone, to ring up and win the prize, the DJ admitted that he'd only had two calls, and both guesses had been wrong. The DJ spoke in a strong Irish accent, not that that's relevant.
Afterwards, on the way to Geri and Houston's wedding, I turned the radio on again. Then I focussed on the draining task of driving an antique Kombi up and down steep hills on the way to South Head, which was surprisingly difficult to find. Only after getting there did I realise that I'd spent half an hour listening to two people converse in a language that I couldn't even recognise, and I hadn't noticed.
One of many highlights of the wedding was an absolutely stunning speech from Julia Zemiro. Julia shared a house with Geri for six years, and spoke with great humour and vulnerability about that time. She revealed a great deal about Geri, but, even better, she was also very revealing about herself.
I've seen Julia perform improvised theatre dozens of times. She's a wonderful improviser: very fast, very flexible, very dazzling. She can speak gibberish better than anyone I've ever seen, and can do an enormous range of characters and accents. And the best thing I've ever seen her do was this speech. For the first time, she didn't hide behind a character. She stood before us and was completely honest about herself. It was spellbinding.
I spent a bit of time talking to Bernard Zuel, of The Sydney Morning Herald, and at some point there I realised that many of the people I know in Melbourne are intriguing failures, and that many of the people I know in Sydney are actually getting paid to do what they love. That seems like a huge difference.
But perhaps Sydney people are more aware of the need to, as it were, sell themselves. People here are much more conscious of the need to market themselves, whereas Melbourne people are simply at some other point on the space-time continuum. And, as a general rule, staying there.
Just before arriving at the wedding, the road swooped down towards South Head, and for the first time on this visit to Sydney, the harbour suddenly came into full view. And just at that moment the rain lifted and the sun came out, and I was hit by the full pyrotechnic beauty of a stunning harbour view. Melbourne, for all the fascination of its intriguing failures, doesn't have anything like that. Maybe I should move back here.
So. I drove 900 kilometres in an antique Kombi to be at the wedding, and it was well worth it. Geri was the first real friend I made in Sydney, and I was very proud to be at her big day. As a wonderful additional bonus, I also finally got to meet Houston. A while back I did some anagrams of "Geri and Houston," and the first one I came up with was "resounding oath," which seemed appropriate at the time, and even more appropriate today.
April 7, 2002
105.7, 98.9, 88.7, 101.5, 103.3, 94.5, 107.5
Some people refuse to believe that an aging Kombi van is capable of driving next door, let alone a return journey of 2,000 kms.
But not only did my Kombi get me home, it also managed the return leg of the journey carrying the additional weight of 28 New Yorkers, a whole pile of books and a notebook protector. And it did so in great style: timeless, classic style. And it did so with speed: timeless, classic, barely adequate amounts of speed.
Somehow in the last ten days I seem to have purchased 46 books. By a curious mathematical coincidence, there were 36 emails were waiting for me when I got back home. 46 and 36 ... these are different numbers. I'm not much of a mathematician, but how likely is that?
Numbers have been on my mind all day, as I tried to listen to JJJ all the way to Melbourne. In Sydney Triple J is broadcast on 105.7, but on the way south its frequency keeps changing, and it becomes hard to follow. There are also gaps in the reception, owing to Australia being quite large. There are numbers available to express Australia's size, which is fortunate, but not for me. As a mathematician, I'm the kind who stands in a deserted stretch of country, pointing to the vastness. As I've often said, binomial equations and parabolic functions are all very well, but sometimes it's much, much easier to point.
Anyway, to get back to the long drive in an old car with a dodgy radio, when I couldn't find JJJ, I had to endure the horror of country radio stations.
What astounds me most about them is their advertising, which appears to have been inspired by Stone Age ideas about hitting other people in the head. Country ads tend to assume that the listener doesn't know anything about anything, and is also deaf. So there's a lot of shouting, and a huge amount of repetition. Initially I listened with great hilarity to men with loud voices yelling about such-and-such a shop in the main street of Benalla, and then I turned the radio off and devoted a moment's silence to the victims of demented, evil advertising.
One last mathematical postscript: 46 books in ten days is an average of 4.6 a day. Yep, that's going to be a tricky number to make snappy jokes about.
So what about this: add up 105.7, 98.9, 88.7, 101.5, 103.3, 94.5 and 107.5. This gives 700.1. Now for the incredible coincidence: this is also a tricky number to make snappy jokes about.
June 5, 2002
The awkward mix of Kombi Vans and traffic lights
Today I went for a half hour drive in A Real Car.TM (A Real CarTM is here defined as "not a Kombi Van.")
It was strange. The half hour drive took eleven minutes.
The only explanation I can put forward for this puzzling state of affairs is that I wasn't driving the Kombi. If I had, it definitely would've taken half an hour. Maybe more.
The Real CarTM had some unfamiliar features. Chief amongst these was an accelerator pedal that actually did something. I put my foot down on it and the car went faster. That's normal, I guess, but what was unfamiliar was that it did so straight away. In a Kombi, the accelerator pedal is mainly there for decoration. It's considered quite acceptable to put your foot on it, but there's no guarantee that anything will actually happen.
So. I'm driving A Real CarTM and then I notice something about the traffic lights. For the first time ever, I got more than one green light in a row. In fact, I got green light after green light. It was all very exciting, but then I started to wonder why this was so unusual.
And then I realised that I'm a Kombi driver. And Kombi drivers are on a different journey from other drivers. We get more time to think. We get to drive around a stylish, slow-moving house, with a sink and a fridge and a comfy bed. And we get to look really cool, even if our cars are decorated in psychedelic colours.
But mainly, owing to the presence of a decorative accelerator pedal, we get to see a lot of red lights.
March 16, 2003
Ich bin ein Phafflebusser
I've been meaning to get to the Port Fairy Folk Festival for many years, and last weekend I finally got there. I took Razza and Mayhem and spent one last weekend pretending to be a hippie.
A crucial part of the operation was my antique Kombi Van, the troop carrier of choice for the Woodstock generation. I was astonished to discover that the Kombi Van, despite being a German car, is not actually called "a Kombi Van" in Germany. Razza, a reliable person of German origin, said that it's called a "VW Bus," which I found shocking and confusing. To further complicate the issue, "VW Bus" is pronounced in a German accent, which means it sounds something like "Fowl-Vee Bus." Try as I might, I found this impossible to say. The closest I could get was "Phafflebus," which Razza assured me was completely wrong.
Undeterred by this, I sought the counsel of Mayhem. She also assured me that I was completely wrong.
I've yet to introduce Great Mayhem, and it's high time I did so. Her parents took the unusual step of naming her after a small village in South Yorkshire. Nestled on the banks of the River Ow, it's only a few miles away from Upper Psychosis, in one direction, and Middling Indifference, in the other. Last year, in a bid to boost tourism, the local council created the Neurotic Trail, which struck a chord with disaffected Londoners, who now visit the area in astonishing numbers and buy t-shirts and postcards. Mayhem keeps up to date with these developments, but doesn't take them personally, which is probably just as well.
Mayhem asked Razza what "Port Fairy" would be in German, and got the delightful answer of "Elvenhaven," which earned her a spontaneous round of applause. Elvenhaven, officially, is only a three or four hour drive from Melbourne, but that's driving a normal car, and a Phafflebus is clearly not a normal car. For a start, it looks like an oversize refrigerator with a bumper bar, and by an extraordinary coincidence, actually is an oversize refrigerator with a bumper bar.
A Phafflebus is capable of moving at almost any speed, but only when it's sitting on top of a more powerful vehicle, such as a road train or a liquid oxygen propelled rocket. Road trains and rockets were unavailable, so we had to plan accordingly. The festival started on a Friday, so we left on a Tuesday. We departed Fitzroy as the sun was coming up, and by the time it was high overhead we'd reached the western edge of Fitzroy.
The relaxed pace of our journey meant that we had plenty of time to fill in, so I suggested playing one of those games that I could win. Both Razza and Mayhem were against this idea, so we compromised and played a game that I could lose.
The game we picked was "translate everything into German." Razza, who's a literary translator, ran out to an early lead, and stayed there for the rest of her life. Mayhem, in second place, put on a surprisingly good show, and I didn't. The problem is that I have a very sophisticated level of incompetence with other languages. This is best illustrated by an interview I gave several years ago:
Is it true you can speak French?
So as we drove along we'd translate our conversation into German. I soon realised that I only knew one word of German, and that was Phafflebus, which wasn't even real German. Eventually I thought to ask what "passenger" was in real German, to discover that it's "fahr gast." This means something like "drive guest," but I was struck by the sound of the words: "far gust." A distant wind. I also liked the word for "Kombi Van driver," which is "Phafflebusfahrer." But then I tried to say it, and nearly crashed into a tree.
So I shortened it. I called myself a Phafflebusser. Razza and Mayhem were Phafflegusters. Together, we were Phafflevolk. We filled the car up with Phafflejuice, and off we went to a volk festival. It took us three days to get there, but I had a new mantra to get me through the journey: Ich bin ein Phafflebusser.
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