Sunday, 26 October 2014

A cool sight for hot eyes

The smell of bushfires in the air?

The heat haze hanging over the city?

Overnight temperatures close to 20 degrees Celsius?

Why this spring is beginning to look a lot like summer and it's leaving me hot and bothered.

Overseas dignitaries soon to descend on Brisbane for this year's G20 Summit could be forgiven for thinking a catastrophic event has already befallen the city given the bevy of brown, scorched earth on show.

I know my northern hemisphere friends are dreading the arrival of winter probably as much as I'm am another sizzling summer.

What's to love about summer?  Sleepless warm nights, alarmingly early sunrises, harsh burning sunlight and maybe a heat rash... all before 9am.

But with five months until we can look forward to the next cool change, I've taken refuge in air conditioning and in old photos of wintery landscapes.

If I stand near the open freezer door and let my eyes soak up the cold, I can almost pretend I'm cool.

Don't lie - you would happily trade places with this Japanese snow monkey right now

Best way to sunbake

Hello Kitty - cooler than you right now

This forest is greener than my garden right now


A nice place to sit outside?

Snow AND water - now they're just teasing us

You want to run into these fluffy, white hills don't you?

Even dogs love the cold

Picnic anyone?

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

My life in Excel

"It's got enough boot space to fit your girlfriend and a set of golf clubs," the car salesman reassured me.

Despite never having either of these, nor a need to put both of them in a car boot together, I still bought the Hyundai Excel.

It was 1999 and I was working in Townsville.

After enduring a sweltering tropical summer that had fused together the door seals on my 1980 baby-blue Chrysler Sigma, I determined it was time to get a new car.

I can't confess to be a car nut, but I had looked at a few other cars (remember the Starlet?) before settling on the Excel and have never looked back.

During the past 15 years and 128,000kms together, we've been through quite a lot: changing jobs, changing cities, and moving house a few times.

Sometimes it has been like a Tardis - bigger on the inside than the outside - as I've crammed Ikea flat pack after Ikea flat pack into its spacious interior.  I may not have had room to change gear on the way home but it never complained.

So it is with a tinge of sadness that this week I replaced the Excel with a new car.   While this isn't the end of the road for the Excel (it's going to my teenage niece), it is the end of our ride together.

As I manually lock up the Excel one last time (it doesn't have central locking), I recall eight unique things about my beloved old car.

1.  The cassette player that still pumps out the tunes
I'm pretty chuffed I didn't succumb to pressure around the year 2000 and get a CD player installed. Who's laughing now, hey?  As time has shown, CD players are as redundant as tape players, but at least with tape players you can still connect your iPhone just fine with a special tape and cord.

The "special tape" that connects iPhones iPods

2.  The front door smash
I vividly remember my flatmate knocking on my door one morning and saying I needed to go look at my car.  It was barely a year old and someone had reversed into the drivers' door causing considerable damage.  Thankfully, they left a note and it was all patched up.   Well, almost all patched up.  At the right speed you can hear the wind whistle through the door, and when it rains water drips in.

3.  The "fuck" scratched on the bonnet
One night, some vandal scratched this word in large letters on the bonnet of all the cars in my unit block, including the Excel.  I didn't notice this for a couple of days.  And I couldn't really be bothered getting it fixed so it stayed there for a year or two.   It was always fun to pull up at lights and watch crossing pedestrians do a double take.

4.  The air con that pumps out white smoke
Call it an environmental feature, but if you keep the Excel air con on during long journeys, the cool air is replaced by white smoke reminiscent of a Bond film.  It's not toxic (I don't think), it's just the air con's way of saying "hey, I need a break, crack open a window".
Don't be alarmed if white smoke comes out

5.  The ubiquitous dash crack
It seems every Hyundai Excel has this crack across the dash.  This is actually the second dash in this Excel, but the crack still returned.   Think of it as a sign of authenticity.

Dash crack

6.  The complete lack of safety features
ABS brakes?  Nope.  Side airbags?  Nope.  It's got a seat belt.  What more do you want?

7.  The bits of plastic that fall off
It's a bit unsettling when you go to open the door of your car and the handle falls off, but this is quite common with the Excel.   Perhaps it was intentional - some sort of security device?  My friend, who also had an Excel, had both handles fall off and so had to crawl into the driver's seat from the boot at a shopping centre.
This may or may not fall off

8.  The engine that just won't die
Say what you like about the Excel, but as my mechanic says: "they just don't die".  I took my Excel in for a service every six months and it rarely required any major attention.   It seems the lack of gadgetry is the key to the Excel's longevity; there's not chipboards to corrode or onboard computer to fail.  All the bits of plastic may crack and fall off, but the engine just keeps going.  It still purrs like a cat... ok a cat that smokes a pack a day.

So as the Excel drives off into the sunset and out of my life, I realise I never did test whether the boot could really hold a girlfriend and a set of golf clubs.   It probably could.

It's an Excel and it can do anything.

You be the judge: would this fit a girlfriend and a set of golf clubs?

Sunday, 12 October 2014

A prison with a view

There's a former Alcatraz prisoner in the gift shop on the famous San Francisco prison island signing copies of his new book.

Apparently it's a great read for those who have burning questions about what life inside the prison was like.

But my one burning question is: What were you in for?

Am I in the gift shop with a murderer, rapist or other?

Alcatraz from San Francisco

Then other questions pop into my head.

Am I able to fling this stand of t-shirts over to defend myself?  Will this tower of souvenir mugs make suitable projectile weapons?  And just how strong are these Alcatraz key rings; could they be makeshift knuckle busters?

I'm clearly the only one thinking these things as the line get this prisoner's autograph is getting longer.
Approaching Alcatraz

There's a special irony to the fact that this prisoner, who no doubt longed for the day he would escape Alcatraz, is back here voluntarily making a buck off his experience.

As the saying goes: those who break the rules go to prison, those who break prison rules go to Alcatraz.

Today, Alcatraz has transcended from being a mere former prison to a symbol of captivity and inescapable hell.

View from the inside

The place stopped being a prison in the 1960s, and a couple of decades of degeneration add to the bleak and oppressive atmosphere.

But I'm surprised by what a lovely view it offers of San Francisco, it's bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.  A view that no doubt taunted the prisoners and reminded them of everything they were missing out on.

Inside a cell
The prison itself is also surprisingly small, thanks in part to the fact that the cells are so small, with just enough room for a toilet and bed.   I count about six three-storey rows of cells.  Central skylights above tease the prisoners about what might be happening outside.
Rows of prison cells

The prisoners' only taste of the outdoors was a relatively small, concreted "recreation space" - complete with water views.

The recreation space
Since the prison closed, the island has seen more activity than ever.

An American Indian occupation from 1969 to 1971 turned the spotlight on native rights, while today more than 5,000 people a day visit the Alcatraz as a tourist attraction (that's more than double the number of prisoners who ever spent time here during the decades of its operation as a prison).

You certainly get a sense of its popularity while waiting in the lengthy lines to board to the island ferry and to walk through the prison buildings.

Needless to say, there's a certain Alcatraz allure that keeps people coming... and lining up to talk to its former prisoners.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Discovering myself... at Stefan's 50th anniversary bash

The carpark full of branded cars for spray tan salons was the first hint of the night that was to unfold.

As we approached the Great Hall,  a stray feather had fallen on the carpet, surrounded by a sequin or two.

Finally, it was hard to miss the massive pink boat on the back of the massive pink truck parked by the front steps.

Yes, we had arrived the Stefan 50th Celebration Awards Night.

Stefan's boat at the entrance

For the uninitiated, Stefan is a Brisbane hairdresser, businessman and boat racing enthusiast who founded his own network of hair salons, which are characterised by a bright rainbow over the entrance.

He hit his strides in the 1980s when he, along with his pink race boat and former Expo 88 Skyneedle, epitomised the glamour, fashion and excess of the the decade.

He was beamed into homes with TV ads and infomercials that begged us to ask the question: "Stefan?".

While other '80s businessmen have long gone, often departing amid controversy and debt, Stefan has managed five decades in business and last night he held a big bash to celebrate.

It was surreal to say the least.   Part formal dinner attended by "Queensland identities", and part prom where hordes of 20-something staff from his salons knocked back free booze.

A feast for the senses inside the event
While the event was listed as a black-tie masquerade ball, this was clearly open to interpretation.  

Let's just say there was plenty of fake tans, teased hair and sequins.   Breasts and thighs were also a prominent part of the evening, and not just on the menu.

With some of the Kardashian-wannabes hitting the grog hard like it was Schoolies all over again, early in the night one of the MCs implored the audience to "take it easy" and "keep an eye on your friends".  Judging by those stumbling to the toilets, it was all too little too late.

But this 50th anniversary bash and awards night wasn't just about the staff, with the Queensland Premier, Brisbane and Gold Coast Mayors, and host of other pollies all confessing their love for Stefan.

Premier Campbell Newman professes his love for Stefan

The only notable absentee was Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who was invited but could not attend, instead sending a recorded video message.   Even in his absence, Tony provided the running joke of the night by continually mispronouncing Stefan's name as "Stef-arn".   Poor Tony.  Still, it's not the first time and probably not the last time he'll provide the comical element to an event (watch out G20!).

As the night kicked off, Stefan appeared on stage, as if by magic.    Then there was an awkward minute or two after he realised the pages of his speech were out of order and he proceeded to reorder them... slowly.

Sensing trouble and "dead air", the audio guys pumped out the "Discover yourself" jingle from his 1980s ad.  Check it out below.

Pages sorted, Stefan proceeded to deliver a touching account of his 50 years in business, even bringing with him the box his father made for him to stand on so he could start tending to salon customers at an early age.   Throughout, he punctuated his sentences with his signature words "beautiful" and "amazing".

He also blamed Raquel Welch for starting the '80s' obsession with perms, admitting not everyone can pull it off and that most women really just wanted to be Raquel Welch rather than look like her.

The running sheet

 With the arrival of The X Factor contestant Taylor Henderson, the Stefan staff temporarily abandoned the bar and rushed at the stage screaming.

Taylor Henderson in full flight

More screaming followed the start of the catwalk, where hair design entries from different salons competed for the prize of a trip to Hong Kong.  

There was rainbow hair, and hair with Stefan's face in it, but my favourite was the hair complete with Stefan's Skyneedle.  

The catwalk


Skyneedle hair

After 50 years in business, Stefan sure knows how to put on a party.

While you get the sense that the '80s heydays are behind him, through his salons and charity work, Stefan has attracted a legion of loyal fans, young and old, who are willing to put their hair and their lives in his hands.