Thursday, December 29, 2016

That Was Christmas, That Was

Ho Ho Ho!
Will This Day Never End?

The house seemed very sad, small and quiet this year with no Stevieling in it.

We barely managed to get the tree up the week before Christmas, and there was a very definite lack of Xmas Atmos about the place. Hell, even this post is almost a week late to press.

This year the annual family congregation at the In-Laws' place was cancelled in favor of doing it on Boxing Day instead, so Xmas Eve was a bit "meh".

Christmas morning we made a Skype connection with the Stevieling and Mr Stevieling the sig-nother. That was nice but not at all the same as having our daughter at home. In the afternoon we departed for the Mrs Steviemom's house for Christmas Dinner, made by Mrs Stevie and served to Mrs Steviemom at home.

Last year I nearly went mad from their insistence on watching Christopher Reeve in Time After Time which the Mrs Steviemom thinks is the best movie ever made and I regard as one step worse than dental surgery on the Voluntary Entertainment Desirability Scale. I had formulated a plan though: This year I provided Mrs Stevie with a copy of Noises Off which is a Christopher Reeve film I actually like. The Mrs Steviemom would have Christopher Reeve to gawk at, I would have a movie I could enjoy. We could actually sit through this one together. What could go wrong?

I'll tell you what.

The Mrs Steviemom decided to invite a guest, that's what.

Now my mother in law has managed to cast off every single person she has been friends with over her entire life over the course of the last couple of years, typically because they are "losing it" (her words). This woman she has cultivated, to the bafflement of the family. The lady was one of the nurses for my father in law last year, but not the one they had the longest.

But over the course of the afternoon it became apparent why the Mrs Steviemom likes her - she echoes back everything the Mrs Steviemon ventures an opinion on, and does so at the top of her not inconsiderable voice. The Mrs Steviemom is bombastic and opinionated, and also extremely hard of hearing. This lady was the perfect conversational foil (in the Mrs Steviemom's view).

My take-away was a little different.

By the second hour my tinitus was going great guns on account of my eardrums being given the sort of workout normally reserved for the deck crew of an aircraft carrier launching fighter jets or those who have to stand outside and push the plunger when the dynamite has been put in all the little holes in the quarry's workface.

The conversation ranged over many topics: Those with whom they were both acquainted who were sick, those who had died, those who had succumbed to Alzheimer's.

The lady was also wetly coughing fit to bust a lung on a regular schedule, each time ending the racking and hacking with a jaunty "I should go to the emergency room". When I offered to run her there she said "Oh no, it isn't that bad and I'm sure I'm well past the stage where I can give it to anyone". Ten minutes would pass and the whole pantomime would be repeated hack-for-hack, word-for-word.

I haven't had so much fun since my leg went septic.

We did a facetime link with my mother, using my iPad and that of my sister who was visiting the nursing home. The Steviemum didn't really "get" how the camera in the iPad worked and so ended up giving us views of the ceiling and the wall behind her a lot of the time. Still, it was nice to be able to have even that little remote contact.

Eventually the day let out a tortured scream and collapsed under the weight of its own suck and we went home.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Christmas Story

At this time of year I am minded of the fact that when the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve stretches between weekends, British people do the sensible thing and take the week off to make merry.

And so it was a few years ago in 198_, during just such a week, a group of fun-loving pals decided to hold one big party and just move it each day. Much merry-making was done, wassailing and wenching and I don't know what-all else, including an hysterically funny tale at my own expense1 which I'm not going to relate. Not when the tale of Mark's Christmas Car Fiasco is right there waiting to provide a convenient distraction.

It was about three days into the party and we were all waking up on the floor of a spacious terraced house2, making noises about getting a shower and changing clothes and brushing teeth and acquiring more booze for round four. Mark lived about five miles or so across town, in a small village still at that point not part of the sprawl of the city itself, and announced he was going to nip home for a bit. He had turned up, to the general disgust of all, in a white Austin 1100 which he was restoring in order to sell on.

To get there he would drive through one of the older, busier parts of the city, then out into a spacious suburb made up of retirement communities and apartment complexes. At one point he would pass an old people's home set on a high embankment on the "bar" of a traffic-light controlled T junction with a bus stop set opposite the "leg" of the T.

It was a picturesque drive, as such things go, and there were sections in which he would be able to give his car maximum wellie, and glory in the joy of being alive and mobile in Merrie Englande at Christmas, even if it was in an Austin 1100. The road that passed the old people's home was an ideal stretch, apart from the need to cope with the traffic lights and the occasional would-be confused bus passenger wandering around into play. Clearly in the mood to indulge himself in Mercury's Domain he floored the accelerator and rocketed out of the drive into the early afternoon.

A couple of hours passed, by which time we had reconvened for coffee and bullshirt, and we had fallen to wondering where our good friend Mark was. In these days of cell phones and Skype we would simply call or text him and cause an horrific traffic accident, but that was not possible in 198_, when the state of the electronic art was the CD. Phones were still tethered to the wall in them days.

Eventually Mark pulled up in his rusty steed outside the house. I say "pulled up" but he actually engaged in a slow speed crash into a frozen pile of snow-covered tarmac set at the roadside where it had been left by some road repair crew the week before. "Eye-eye" we all said internally, for we all knew the signs of the aftermath of one of Mark's "episodes", and a round or two of what would now be called "Tarantino swivel-eye" was indulged in. Shortly after that Mark entered the house and, after a brief stop for a drink, regaled us with the events of his trip that had come close to killing a number of innocent old age pensioners minding their own business at a bus stop.

It seems Mark had left the party house, driving up the driveway and deciding to use the aforementioned pile of frozen, snow-covered tarmac to perform an ad-hoc Dukes of Hazard style jump out of the sheer joy of having woken up from an heroic amount of libation the night before3. The car had performed a satifying leap and he had driven home without incident.

It was on the return leg, as he approached the traffic lights at high speed, observed by a small crowd of disapproving pensioners from the old people's home who were waiting for a bus into town, when events became more interesting in the Chinese sense of the term.

Unknown to our hero, the jump stunt had damaged the car quite badly. The 1100 design has the engine, transmission, brake master cylinder/brake fluid reservoir and front wheels on a sub-frame, a sort of sled, with the rear wheels on a second sub-frame holding up the back of the car. There is no chassis. The strength of the car comes from the body shell itself, what is called in the trade a "monocoque". It is crucial in such designs that the body shell be sound, solid all the way through, owing to the stresses of acceleration and braking.

When the car had crashed to the ground, the rusty floor pan had cracked across most of its width. As Mark had driven home the car had been slowly stretching9. Every time he accelerated, the front subframe had been pulled forward against the weight and inertia of the unpowered back of the car, and the car had gotten a tiny bit longer as the crack got a tiny bit wider (and longer too). The increased sound of the road noise would no doubt have been drowned out by the volume of the Christmas Music belting out of the radio.

On the trip back the car was doing Warp Factor Zoom when the stretching finally reached the point where the hand brake cables - which tethered the handbrake lever on one side of the crack to the cams that pushed on the brake shoes on the other side of the crack - pulled the rear brakes on. The increased drag stretched the car and pulled the brakes on harder, and the rear wheels locked up, to the consternation of the driver. The car, subjected to even more pull from the rear wheels, stretched a bit more and the hydraulic brake pipes, connecting the brake mechanism in the rear of the car to the actuating piston and fluid reserves at the front, decided enough was enough and pulled out of both rear wheel cylinders, disconnecting both rear wheels from the braking system and allowing the brake fluid to squirt out uselessly when the pedal was pushed. Then the brake cables, tensioned beyond their designed capabilities, and the only thing now holding the car in anything approaching its designed length, snapped, releasing the brakes and allowing the car to continue on its way unmolested by Newton's Third Law.

Now even in those days a car's hydraulic system was cross-connected so that the loss of pressure in one pipe would not compromise the ability of the driver to slow and eventually stop his deathtrap on wheels. The brakes on the 1100 were connected so that in the event of a catastrophic wheel cylinder/pipe failure, the opposite wheel and its kitty-corner mate at the other end of the car worked fine, providing (in theory) symmetrical braking and saving the day. Loss of the right rear hydraulic brake and the front left may fail but the left front and right rear will work as the driver madly stamps on the brake pedal10 and optionally screams like a little girl in sheer terror. We've all been there.

But the genius of Mark's situation was that he had engineered events such that both circuits had been torn to shreds simultaneously, something the car designers probably envisioned as only happening after running over a landmine or driving into a combine harvester's thrashy bits, neither of which the car had been engineered to survive, it being targeted at the suburban family rather than the post apocalyptic needs of Mad Max.

The upshot was that Mark's car became a ballistic road meteor just as the lights at the T junction turned red.

Mark's situation was made worse by someone having the nerve to actually pull out and turn left into his path, assuming that the mere presence of the red light on the main route would be reason enough for our hero to stop his vehicle in accordance with the law of the land and the relevant bits of The Highway Code.

Mark thought fast. If he ran the red light he would crash into the car now slowing to a halt in mid-turn so that the driver could wonder why Mark was not reducing speed with the best view. The only option was to drive up the pavement (US: Sidewalk) and up the embankment so as to miss the bus stop and the crowd of tut-tutting, “young people, drive like lunatics, thrashing's too good for 'em” muttering old people standing in and around the little shelter, then rejoin the more acceptable to the eyes of the law route on the other side of the traffic lights.

So that's what he did.

Now when Mark was telling this story he dwelt mostly on how he avoided driving over pensioners and didn't technically shoot the red light since he went around it and how he was really the hero of the day and like that.

His audience, annoyingly for him, focused entirely on what this must have looked like to the said pensioners, who must have seen it as a mad sod, possibly crazed by Christmas Spirit, deciding to simply ignore the red light and damn the consequences. We found this scenario highly entertaining and vamped on the theme for some minutes in humorous old person voices.

Mark was indignant, and then even more so when we stopped laughing long enough to remember that this had happened four and a half miles away, that Mark had continued to drive the remainder of the journey with no brakes whatsoever through a complex and dense part of the town road system, and took him to task for that with much use of unkind and hurtful words and speculation as to what was filling the space between his ears with the consensus being "air".

To this day, when I'm feeling low I cheer myself up by contemplating the exact moment when Mark's seeming mastery of his fate had turned in less than an eyeblink to immanent mortal danger and terror.11

Image of Austin 1100 sourced from and believed to be in the public domain.

  1. Involving my running around naked and failing to hide in a wardrobe from enraged people looking for their daughter, on whom I never laid a finger I might add, and I don't want to talk about that any more
  2. Except me, 'cos I brought an air bed c/w bedding, quilt etc so I could kip in style
  3. It was either this night or one after, or possibly one before but definitely in this house that I first heard Japan's Gentlemen Take Polaroids while under the influence of an equally heroic amount of libation which focused my mind wonderfully and caused me to fall in love with the album4
  4. Which, by a curious coincidence is almost exactly how I came to fall in love with the Yes album Fragile5
  5. By an even more curious coincidence while at a party at Mark's parents' house one Christmas about eight years previously6
  6. Though the brain focusing agent in that case was almost certainly Bulmers Special Cellar cider7
  7. Which at another party at Mark's parents' house caused me to vomit copiously into their Gas Miser gas fire8
  8. While it was lit
  9. Or, to be more accurate, bending, but the effect was the same - the front and rear sub-frames were getting further apart
  10. Typically the fault is not discovered until "a situation" is immanent
  11. This is how it usually happens to me. I believe I've mentioned the uncontrolled maximum acceleration into rush hour works traffic throttle failure fiasco of death and the realization that the cross road is in fact a T junction, we are on the leg of the T and the brakes aren't working because the car is currently airborne debacle of doom before.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

A Christmas Carol

It is a little-known slander, completely unsupported by any facts whatsoever, that Bing Crosby once had a flirtation with "flower power" in the early sixties, and for a period of about six months he kept a spacious, under-furnished apartment in "The Haight" where many of the legendary figures of the day could be found lounging on stinking scatter-cushions and spouting the sort of dribble that would mature in the fullness of time into the babble that is New-Age Philosophy.

The central feature of this den of iniquity was an enormous water pipe, custom built out of motorcycle parts and glassware lifted from a selection of the best-equipped university chemistry laboratories. This gigantic water-pipe (amusingly referred to by Cosby in "The Road To Hong-Kong" in one of the musical scenes) had no fewer than two dozen flexible pipes of luxuriant length, enabling a happening of hippies to enjoy their favourite smoking mixture together without the unsanitary sharing of pipe stems. It seems that if you needed a hookah in those days, "The Bingster"'s Place was where it was all at (man).

These gatherings would always devolve into an orgy of a sort most unsavoury to us in these more moral (and disease-infested) times, and Bing's Pad was, predictably, the most popular venue in the entire state of California. Busloads of young, acne-scarred men would descend on the place in the endless quest for a very earnest, stoned and accommodating young lady in a kaftan and little else (usually going by the name "Galadriel" but that is a phenomenon for another tale).

It was at the frenzied Thursday Night jam session and think-in that the virulent red Da-Glo™ knitted pantaloons - so popular for about a month in the summer of '63 - had their genesis, and it is rumoured that the Pet Rock was invented in a marathon brainstorming session fueled by some particularly fine Moroccan Gold. The first Whole Earth Catalog was conceived one Wednesday after the washer on the hot tap in the bathroom broke. Everyone was so badly wasted that instead of fixing the faucet or calling a plumber, they invented a whole new way of buying taps.

The Weight was written at Bing's place, and the great man is believed to have contributed the verse about Crazy Chester although he denied it strenuously and shot the last person who asked him about it.

Of course, these things didn't last. Bing came to his senses (literally by some accounts) after the disastrous failure of "A Night At Bing's", the seminal live triple album, a joint-venture between Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young & Crosby, Steppenwolf and The Grateful Dead. Once the dream died, it died fast and Bing unloaded the apartment and all its fixtures so fast everyone's heads stopped spinning.

Today, the building houses the last of the great "head shops", Haight Miles High, offering modern and antique "scene" materials, clothing, and hairstyling attuned to the modern flowerchild. As the owner, Galadriel, says: "What is the point in filling your hair with flowers if the underlying cut looks like you did it with a weed-whacker? The hair must accent and compliment the floral and crystal inclusions so that the final result is a holistic statement of wellbeing and harmony with the Earth-Mother."

Indeed, her own hair is a cascade of delicate flowers, highlighted with well-shaped amethysts and cairngorms all resting on a most pleasingly feathered coiffure, although she points out that that particular styling is quite expensive and says that she mostly ends up just weaving flowers into the customer's finished haircut. Over the years she has come up with a signature style featuring asymmetric placement of strings of flowers that is attractive, long-lasting and above all cheap. It is extremely popular with the younger hippies.

One can also purchase those eye-blinding knitted pantaloons as Galadriel and her life-partner Catweazle hand-make them to the same patterns, using the same ancient, mandala-encrusted knitting machine that the originals were made on in '62. In point of fact, the only downside to visiting the place is that Catweazle, a British Ex-pat, insists on wearing the damn things. They are available in more colours today since the march of time has brought with it newer, brighter and less cancer-causing dyes, but Catweazle, like many who weren't actually there the first time around, is a traditionalist and wears only the red ones as they are "more authentic". Be warned, wear shades.

Pride of place in the large window display is given over to the Brobdingnagian water-pipe that once graced Bing's apartment, and it is a magnificent sight indeed, worth the visit on its own.

I shall be writing these notes up into a more rounded article for The Fingerlake Morning Examiner under my nom-de-plume "Biro", and plan to headline it: Bing's Bong, Cherry Neon Thighs, Uneven Herbal Hair Stringing.