On Existentialism and Eastlink

It’s a weird time. For whatever reason, my nerves are heightened, senses sharpened.  I don’t know if it’s that we’re now in the second year of the pandemic or some kind of mid-life crisis, but I’m starting to see things a little differently.  It began, somewhat unexpectedly, on Eastlink.  Generally speaking, I’m not one for experiencing a philosophical flashpoint whilst charging down a major commuter expressway, but it wasn’t something I chose.  Rather, it seemed to choose me.

I was driving to my brother’s when I saw it: a large flashing sign hanging above the road.  In no uncertain terms, it explained that the right lane was strictly for overtaking and that, if not overtaking, you should remain in the left lane. The message was put clearly and with great economy.  Namely, venture into the right hand lane only if you plan to overtake. Otherwise, remain in the left lane.  At this particular point of Eastlink, there are three lanes.  Whilst the purpose of lanes one and three had been made crystal clear, the circumstances under which you were permitted to utilize lane number two were a mystery.

 That’s not to say that lane two was empty. Far from it.  There were all kinds of vehicles traversing the no-purpose lane, unaware of their status as visitors to a world without status or recognition. They were, in effect, cruising along in an existential no-man’s land, oblivious to the consequences. From the safety of the left lane, I wanted to sound my horn as a warning, but it was no use.  These people were using the supernatural mystery lane and nothing would change their minds.

 Given this absence of clarity, there ought to be warning.  Perhaps a road sign that reads ‘Warning: Existential Crisis Ahead’.  Usually such signs are accompanied by a stick figure of some sort to ram the point home.  I feel that those responsible for creating these stick figures often fail to get the level of recognition they so richly deserve.  Within the genre of ‘road sign stick figures’ I’m quite fond of ‘beware of falling rocks’.  I’m not sure how best to signify a spiritual flashpoint of this kind – perhaps a stick figure modeled on Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ would do the trick.

 It’s not the only challenge to the time, space and the cosmos that’s been troubling me this week.  In between avoiding paranormal lane-changes, I’ve also been thinking about the bin in the kitchen a lot.  Maybe too much.  When I empty the bin, it remains empty for a day at most.  Ninety percent of the time it appears full, even as further rubbish is added.  This shouldn’t be possible.  If the rate of input remains pretty much consistent, then this should simply not be so.  Obviously, some of this waste is being transported to another dimension – possibly the second lane of Eastlink – where it bides its time, waiting for bin night.

Keen for answers, I decided to try and Google my way out of my conundrum.  In short order, I found myself on YouTube watching cat videos; when it occurred to me that people stopped referring to the internet as ‘the information superhighway’ probably about the same time as cat videos took over. Or, alternatively, the information superhighway has three lanes and they couldn’t figure out what the second lane was for and abandoned the idea altogether. 

But YouTube is a strange, mysterious place that is yet to be touched by the rules of western civilization.  It was whilst I was there that I discovered ‘reaction’ videos.  A reaction video is where someone films themselves listening to or watching something for the first time.  We, the viewer, then get to watch them react.  As best  I can tell, no formal qualification is necessary.  Note; to date no-one has created a video of themselves reacting to a book they’re reading for the first time – presumably nobody’s interested in watching a reaction to ‘A Remembrance of Things Past’ by Marcel Proust.   Or it’s not considered an efficient use of time.  Not only do people make these videos; people generate income by making these videos.  

You can guess what happens next.  These overseas video correspondents are bombarded with requests to react to things that – whilst incredibly popular here – are unknown in other countries.  So it is that people end up reacting to Cold Chisel and John Farnham songs. Some presenters were clearly taken aback by the work of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.  The video of some dude in Florida reacting to ‘This Is Serious Mum’ is not one I’ll soon forget.

Forget ever understanding how Eastlink works. Instead, I need to start filming reaction videos.  And since it pays to specialize, my plan is to film myself reacting to other people’s reaction videos.  Or, better yet, film myself reacting to footage of people driving in the second lane of Eastlink.  To ensure that it goes viral, I’ll superimpose some footage of a kitten. With those crucial ingredients in place, success is all but guaranteed.  Or maybe I should forget it completely and take these ill-conceived ideas and throw them in the bin that, although it appears full, won’t need emptying for another three or four days.  It might be just me, but I suspect the last few weeks of social isolation have taken their toll(way).  I’ll wait it out in the second lane.

The Reverse Oscar Wilde Puppet Vortex

It started with my nephew.  Without warning, he started making puppets.  I’m not talking about a sock with a couple of buttons sewn on, but beautiful puppets that would make Jim Henson weep with envy.  One is named ‘Terrence’ and he performed a puppet show that included fielding questions from the audience.  It was quite brilliant. Within moments, I was flooded with nostalgia and my right arm went bolt upright as a matter of instinct.  That’s because I know a thing or two about puppet shows – for I was a teenage puppeteer.

I couldn’t tell you how it happened.  I had no instinct whatsoever for needlecraft, design or costuming and none of the skills normally associated with puppetry.  I didn’t even own a black skivvy and was way too young to cultivate an effective goatee.  If you were designing a puppeteer from scratch, I would be more of a cautionary tale rather than a blueprint.  But despite my shortcomings being both bountiful and profound, I built my own puppet.

He was made of foam with blue material stretched across the frame; the end result was something that resembled a disaffected Smurf.  The stitching was uneven meaning that the foam was pulled in various directions resulting in a head that would likely frighten small children.  It’s fair to say that making a puppet that terrifies children means you’re alienating pretty much your entire potential audience.  Having  not worked out my design in advance, I was now forced to make the best I could out of the twisted puppetry wreckage in front of me.  I glued on some white carpet around the head, made some glasses out of wire and called him ‘Grandpa’.

Despite his hideous appearance that terrified old and young alike, ‘Grandpa’ was quite the hit.  Our youth group would perform puppet shows which, in reality, meant kneeling on the floor with your arm above your head for extended periods of time until you thought it was about to fall off at the elbow.  It was common that, mid show, due to severe arm-fatigue, Grandpa would start to become quite limp until he was pretty much hanging on the curtain, not moving very much, prompting the other more spritely puppets to question whether Grandpa had experienced some kind of medical episode.  In reality, I think they were just jealous.

At some point during my teenage years, I made the obvious transition from puppetry to rock and roll, and left Grandpa behind.  For those who might suggest that music and puppetry are not necessarily mutually exclusive – as One Direction so ably demonstrated – I can only say that I tried once to strum a Maton guitar whilst holding Grandpa and the results were not so much musical as they were flat-out disastrous.  I put Grandpa aside and for the past thirty years he’s been gathering dust.  Until now.

My father is strongly of the view that I should present my puppet to my nephew.  I’m reluctant; the simple fact is that my nine year old nephew is making  puppets that are greatly superior to anything I managed conjure up as a teenager.  I shouldn’t care, but the truth is that I’m not ready to receive constructive criticism on my needlecraft from a nine year old.  But my father was determined, and shoved a box containing the mortal remains of Grandpa in my direction.

Time has not been kind to my puppet.  I would have thought there was no greater depth for Grandpa to plumb, but I now stood corrected as I gazed upon what was left of my puppet.  Then it struck me – when I constructed ‘Grandpa’, my father was the age I am now.  In the intervening years, my father has gradually become more and more like the puppet.  Just as Dorian Gray had a portrait ageing in an attic; here, my father was catching up to Grandpa. It was kind of a reverse Oscar Wilde effect.  Then it occurred to me – perhaps that was the reason he’d kept it all these years.  That, somehow, my father and the puppet were inextricably linked.

No matter what I did, it felt like the eyes of the puppet were following me as I moved around the house. In quiet moments alone, I think that  I’ve heard the voice of my father before I spin around to see the puppet lying on the dining room table, it’s dead eyes staring at me.  Eventually, I surrendered and put the puppet on my hand.  It was amazing how natural it felt.  But then it started to speak; telling me that it had a bundle of newspaper clippings and a carton of eggs in the car and that I should make sure I took time to collect them.  It’s my father that’s speaking.  In a sharp turn for the worse, I think I may have started speaking back…

I’m not sure when I’ll be handing over ‘Grandpa’ to my nephew.  What his puppet, ‘Terrence’, will make of Grandpa is anyone’s guess, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Grandpa was about to find himself on the wrong end of a fairly nasty hazing ritual.  He may deserve it.

And so it is that the term ‘Master of the Puppets’ is not only the name of a Metallica album but a title passed on from one generation of my family to the next.  For me, I’m happy to hand both the title and the puppet over to my nephew.  My arm, however, is now stuck permanently above my head.  This could be awkward.

From Pandemic To Pan-Pipes: Haven’t We Suffered Enough?

I didn’t need to be asked twice.  As soon as it was announced that I was eligible to receive a vaccination, I was on to the hotline to make a booking.  As was every other member of Generation X, it seemed, resulting in a complete annihilation of the phone system.  Often, people complain about how long they were on hold – for the first three days of trying, I couldn’t get to ‘hold’.  Instead, I was unceremoniously dumped, with the encouragement to try again at a later time.  Then, on day three, everything changed. 

On day three, I made it to ‘hold’.  Which, I feel, is the telephonic equivalent to reaching the base camp of Mount Everest. There’s still plenty of climbing to be done, but at least you’re somewhere.  Having overcome the seemingly impossible hurdle of ‘getting to hold’, I now had to face the next challenge to my sanity – hold music.

What better way to soothe the jangled nerves of a frazzled public than with hold music?  And, given most of  the callers were Gen-Xers who came of age in the grunge era, what better way to relax them than with pan pipes? On a loop that plays over and over again, possibly for hours.  

This was thoughtless.  The least they could have done was to supply pan-pipe versions of classic grunge era songs.  Had the pan-pipes been performing a version of ‘Rooster’ by Alice in Chains, it would have been okay.  Instead, it was all weirdly mystical and filled me with an overwhelming urge to climb Hanging Rock.  Apparently, the ‘pan’ in ‘pandemic’ is actually short for ‘pan-pipe’. Who knew?

After forty minutes, I was sucked out of the third circle of hold without warning and delivered to an operator whom immediately asked me for my name.  Still reeling from the after-effects of forty minutes of pan-pipe music, I instinctively answered ‘Miranda’ before correcting myself.   After a minute or so of niceties, the operator asked me where I wanted to be vaccinated.  In a panic, I answered, ‘the arm, if possible’. All the images on TV had been of dignitaries presenting their biceps for vaccination, but maybe this was just for show and that, in actual fact, the needle went somewhere far less photogenic.  This put ‘vaccine hesitancy’ in a whole new light.

Turns out the ‘where’ was geographic rather than anatomical.  I had a choice of Prahran, Springvale or Cranbourne.  I was booked to appear at the Cranbourne Golf Course. I was surprised by the venue. I was also a little concerned – I hadn’t played golf in over twenty years always had an awful short game. I instantly imagined arriving only to be informed that there were only a few remaining doses left, the recipients of which would be determined by way of a playoff.  I wouldn’t stand a chance.  I confirmed the venue, but forgot to ask which hole.

I now had about eight days on which to work on my putting.  However, having been informed that  I would need to go to the golf course, I began to have doubts as to whether this was, in fact, correct.  My sister had been vaccinated in Cranbourne, but had gone to the local Turf Club, rather than the Golf Club.  Golf and racing are completely different sports; there really ought not be any confusion.

To be sure, I rang the hotline again.  This time, I sat on hold listening to what I was certain was a pan-pipe rendition of ‘Spoonman’ originally performed by Soundgarden, courtesy of the Pakenham Pan-Pipe Ensemble.  As the pan-pipes weaved their particular magic, I was suddenly wrenched from ‘on hold’ and delivered, shaken and a little disoriented, to a waiting operator.  I was told that the call may be monitored for coaching and quality purposes.  It seemed ironic that people who use pan-pipes for hold music should be concerned with quality.  

I quickly confirmed that I had a booking and that I’d been given the wrong venue in the first instance.  Throwing my five iron to the floor in disappointment, I was informed that I should, indeed, be heading to the Turf Club.  I decided to dress like a jockey in order to blend in. I’ve never really been to a turf club before, and I’d hate to stick out.  Granted, it’s rare for a jockey to be over six feet tall, but you’ve got to make an effort.

Arriving at the car park, there were dozens and dozens of people my age locking their cars, donning their masks and heading for the entrance.  Those without a mask were drinking coffee.  It says a lot about Melbourne’s love affair with coffee that drinking a flat white is a recognised exception to a public health order. 

As I approached the entrance, it occurred to me that this was the pandemic’s version of the Big Day Out.  Doubtless, the Pakenham Pan-Pipe Ensemble would be headlining the Main Stage, tearing the roof of with their version of ‘Enter Sandman’.  The whole thing ran like clockwork. I’d say it was like a well-oiled machine, but I’m yet to encounter a piece of machinery as awesome as the vaccination centre at Cranbourne.  The staff were, frankly, impeccable. I’m supposed to rest but, for some reason, I feel an uncontrollable urge to listen to pan-pipes.  Getting vaccinated felt like a tangible step out of the pandemic.  I can’t wait for the next one. 

A Total Lack of Selfie Awareness

Once upon a time, people rarely photographed themselves.  If they did, it was a complicated process that required buttons and timers and the kind of coordination and planning ordinarily reserved for launches of a space shuttle.  But what was once an oddity is now ubiquitous.  People photograph themselves all the time, perhaps more than anything else.  But for those of us who grew up pointing a camera at objects other than ourselves, this is a challenge.

I get it.  Being able to take your own photo rather than pester bystanders is clearly part of human evolution.  This kind of ‘selfie-sufficiency’ is to be applauded if not celebrated.  But there’s a generation now who are probably under the impression that allphotos are self-taken as opposed to taken by experts.

When I was growing up, a ‘selfie’ was something you painted on a canvas and took about eight months. For those of us devoid of any artistic abilities whatsoever, this was a fruitless waste of time. Invariably, the results were little more than a gigantic smudge.  Mind you, this smudge did look a lot like my passport photo, but I prefer to think that my efforts were unrepresentative rather than the more depressing possibility that they are eerily accurate.

These days, they teach you how to take a selfie before you hit high school.  Right after Phys Ed.  Young people are total black belts in selfie-taking.  Having completed my education in the pre-selfie era, my lack training is fully evident.  Not that I haven’t noticed that there are several skills you need to master the art of the selfie.  One is sucking in your cheeks (easy enough).  The one is the arm thrust where you stick your arm out so the camera is just the right distance from your face.  

The random arm extension can be either harmless or have near fatal consequences, as I was to discover when one person enthusiastically extended her arm whilst she was seated and I was standing in near proximity aboard a shuttle bus at an airport.  Had I been able to speak after the resulting impact, I surely would have asked what value there was in taking a selfie whilst in a crowded shuttle bus. 

Cocking your head to the side to achieve the most flattering angle is also a big one.  Nobody looks straight on.  Nobody.  Nothing will sooner reveal your selfie ineptitude that having your head on an even keel. To improve my results, I’ve tried cocking my head to the side to find a more flattering angle but I’m not sure any such angle exists.  After several attempts, the angle I was using had become so extreme that all that was left was the curve of my neck and part of an ear.  By the end, I was almost horizontal.  

Once, photos were taken either by your parents or trained professionals.  They lurked at shopping centres and we lived in constant fear that one of our parental overlords would decide that an impromptu portrait might be a good idea. Against a light blue background, you would be required to stare off to the side, hand elegantly placed on the shoulder of a sibling.  Were it not for lockdown, I’d be heading down to the nearest shopping centre to get one of these.  I refuse to accept that a ‘selfie’ can’t be outsourced.

Having to take a selfie has busted a number of myths for me.  Previously, I thought that the reason my eyes were always closed in photographs was because the photographer and I were never in synch.  Selfies have taught me that this is not the case. Even having eliminated the photographer from the equation, I still manage to produce photos with my eyes closed, albeit on a more flattering angle.  It’s as though pushing the button to take the picture and closing my eyes are two actions that are inextricably linked.

The results were awful. Despite the fact that these were photos, they bore an uncanny resemblance to a Picasso painting. Things were not, anatomically speaking, where they should have been.  I contemplated using an old trick favoured by ageing movie stars and rubbing some Vaseline on the lens, before deciding the five hundred gram jar I had was unlikely to be up to the job.  

Then I got desperate.  I decided that I might get a better result if the snap was more candid and unexpected.  I can only say that it’s very difficult to catch yourself off guard when taking a selfie.  I’d walk into rooms only to be startled by the sight of my own arm leaping out of nowhere before an explosion of light.  The results landed somewhere between alarmed and the kind of photo you might see of a celebrity immediately as they’re released from prison.

At a certain point, you’ve got to concede.  From the thirteen thousand or so attempts, I selected two that appeared almost semi-human and not very Picasso-like at all.  They are, of course, set against a blue screen that I improvised using a bed sheet and I’m staring off the side in the middle distance, one hand hovering over an invisible shoulder.  Sometimes you’ve got to stick with what you know.  You can agree or disagree with this approach.  But at least you get the picture.