Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Gundy, Gundy.....gone?

There's a place called Gundy, near Scone in NSW's Hunter Valley, where there's an unusual search underway, reminiscent of days gone by.  But we'll come back to that.

At Doomben last Saturday, lightly-raced 3 year old bay gelding Turnitup won the Grand Prix Stakes, which is considered THE lead-up race to the Queensland Derby.  Nothing unusual there, horses win races all the time, it's what races are for.  Also, he was more or less favourite, with good lead-up form, so again, no surprise.  But back when he was but a wee foal, he was never expected to be anything special, just like the 8 or so previous foals his dam had proudly brought forth.

But something had changed.  Sires so often get all the glory in the amateur punters' psyche, and why not - they're rock stars rocking out with their cocks out several times a day covering a book of mares not even Errol Flynn could have contemplated and naturally, with thousands of progeny, there will be standouts.  A thoroughbred brood mare of course can only have so many foals in her lifetime.  To so many amateur (and professionals who should know better) punters and wannabe breeders, they look not much further than the sire's pedigree,  thinking that the potent semen of a hotshot stallion will find comfortable purchase and flourish in the receptacle provided.  Of course, real breeders know better, and the art and science of breeding is indeed a majestic tapestry of wonders.  But when a mare has been through a few different sires, and none of the progeny is much good, well.....there are several paths retired broodmares can go on, not all happy ones.

The season prior to Turnitup's propitious birth, a colt (now gelding) oddly named Coroner was eased from his dam's loins, and turned out to be a little bit of a slow starter - a city winner in Queensland; no superstar as yet, but a 'handy type' as they say. Coroner, and the following year Turnitup, are by a sire called Dane Shadow.  Dane Shadow is not exactly a superstar stallion, but with more recent developments he's getting a good reputation as a great 'improver' of second-tier mares.

Dane Shadow

The stud operation that held our mare is near Gundy, and they also breed polo ponies.  This is not exactly a scientific operation like thoroughbred breeding, and if I were to be a kept horse, I think being one of these guys would be a good way to go.  They roam in a herd of 100 or so mares (with 4 attentive stallions) across over 1200 hectares of woodland in the Hunter, untroubled by man except for an annual roundup when foals who are ready are weaned off and assessed as polo pony material, or other fates.  And every so often, a thoroughbred mare (polo ponies tend to be thoroughbreds) who is healthy and well but not making great strides on the track with her offspring is released at the gate to the Big Paddock and finds her way - presumably - with the herd.  Sure beats becoming pet food, and this is what became of Turnitup's dam.  Freedom with the big herd.

It takes a few years to tell if a racehorse is going to be much good, you see.  Also, it can take time to discover the right genetic 'nick' (a term breeders use to describe a sort of synergistic pattern of ancestral influences in a mating) for any given mare or stallion.  Suddenly with Turnitup showing such winning ways against very good opposition and Coroner definitely not a complete dud either, well, it looked like they'd found a really good one with our mare. And her value went from pretty much zero to Rather A Lot Thanks Very Much.

But there's just one problem - they can't find her.  Teams of riders have been out, searched the whole area, all of that - nothing.  As if she's just vanished, or something.  Now a Man From Snowy River-style muster is underway, with a reward offered to the lucky person who can find the prodigal mare.

I just think that's a gorgeous story.

Oh, her name?  No Finding.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mountain Lion...?

This is the story of a song - a song without words.

Sometimes music just comes to a person, or it may be dragged out screaming in a protracted birth process, or it may emerge into human agency any number of ways.  Sometimes it happens in a night, in response to something, between two people.  This is such a story.

Thanksgiving time, 1994, California.  I'm travelling with my guitar partner, friend and composer Tim Andrew, his wife Beatriz, and 9yo daughter Anna Maria, on a musical odyssey taking in the US, Mexico, Spain and the UK.  We'd been staying with friends in LA, but what with Thanksgiving being such a fraught and frazzling time for most American families we took a week or two's road trip northwards.  It's amazing the places you find.  Just over the Golden Gate bridge from San Francisco is the happy hill-and-bayside enclave township of Sausalito, home of wealthy and artistic types and many touristy things.  We most decidedly did not travel as tourists, except in those moments necessary to amuse and placate our headstrong young fellow-travelling lass.  But Sausalito is also home to a stupendously excellent Youth Hostel place, in the buildings of a former US Army hospital from WWII. It's now called Marin Headlands Hostel.

We stayed in this building. You can imagine our little hire care parked right there, if you like.

There used to be many of these sorts of buildings placed around a U-shaped shallow wooded valley, floored with a great expanse of meadowy grass, but judging from recent photos all but the main buildings are now gone.  Must be a nightmare trying to keep those old wooden buildings in good repair in the damp environs.  As you can see, there is some sort of cypress in front of the building, and there is a belt of these running around in front of where the 'U' of buildings once stood, but the vegetation behind is what was really interesting to us.

The story goes (and I have no clue as to its veracity) that when the US Army commissioned the buildings originally, they wanted some decent camouflage from the air, and asked for fast-growing tree species to be planted.  California has a long history of using Australian eucalypts, seeing as they grow so well, and they chose to plant a small forest of varied eucalypts, including many Eucalyptus diversicolor, the majestic Karri of Australia's Southwest - our own local 'cathedral' forest trees from home.  The climates are certainly very similar, but I always wondered if the original planters really appreciated just how large Karris tend to become.  There was a belt of Karris and other large eucalypts (there are 700-odd species, and I'm only good at identifying a relative handful, sorry) right up to the ridgeline, so a probably a couple of hundred metres deep, and they were well matured, I'm guessing then 50 or 60 years old.

This is from the closed end of the 'U', looking back towards the main building.  You can't see the extent of the plantings beyond the cypresses or the slopes either side here, but that hill in the distance gives you an indication of the terrain.

We arrived to find we had the place pretty much to ourselves, what a blessed peace!  It is more hotel-y than hostel-y so I had a room of my own, and the Andrews shared a nice family one.  We headed out for supplies and a look around Sausalito (apologies for lack of actual photos - I just don't have any left these days).  On arriving back we discovered the entire huge kitchen had been taken over by a loud and happily boisterous mob - some kind of Chinese Christian group gathering, and every available horizontal surface was being used by someone making wontons, or chopping vegetables, or whatever.  I think that's what we ended up eating too.  Later on, things quietened down considerably.  As evening fell, Tim and I took a walk to get some nature-contact time (he's a tree hugging nature spiritualist type like me).

It should be noted that at this stage in our journey that we were not smoking.  You know, smoking.  We only really bothered to score once in LA because we were hanging with fairly 'unconnected' straight law-abiding types.  Making that score is definitely the subject of another hair-raising anecdote, however.  I'm pretty sure none of that stash remained for our Thanksgiving trip.  I was drinking a bit those days, but was definitely not drunk, and nor was Tim.

The moon was still not risen, and in any case there was scattered cloud but peeks through into that peculiarly northern hemispherical sky, as Tim and I made our way up into the darkening wood.  There was something surreal about it all - knowing with certainty where on the planet we were, yet feeling the particular snap of a eucalypt twig beneath your feet, the smell of trees of a homeland on the other side of the world, and of course the hyper-sense frisson you get in the dark of night if unfamiliar forest.  We'd made our way maybe halfway to thew top of the ridge, with a vague intention of getting to the top for the view beyond, when there was a sound in the woods.  An animal sound.

Now my instinctive reaction of course was 'kangaroo', but obviously
"That wouldn't have been a kangaroo, really, would it?" I say, or something very like that.  Tim had been thinking just the same thing.

Whatever this large Thing was, it was between us and the only known safety, the hostel now well over 100 metres below.  It's not hard to gauge direction of sound, especially sounds like that of a limb of some description being placed carefully, quietly, yet snapping a twig regardless as weight was applied.  But distance is a harder to estimate. The Thing was moving to the left, slowly.  We would go right, slowly.

Rather concentrates the mind, the certain knowledge that you are a guest in the home of large carnivorous mammalian predators but having no idea what exactly is out there.  Might just be a deer, but could it be a bear?  Do they have bears here?  Whatever, we're not talking about it, as foolishly our instinct is to try and out-animal this animal, with our inferior senses and knowledge of place.  There were large warm-blooded breathing sounds also, maddeningly unidentifable. So we're moving as quietly and deliberately as possible, also trying not to startle or provoke the Thing.  Did I mention it was just a little unsettling?  After a little while, it became apparent we were being circled.

It took ages.  We'd move a little, wait, listen, move a little more, wait, listen, and I'm sure that the Beast would time much of its movements for when we moved to, the better to muffle its sound.  This is the feeling of being hunted, whether that was taking place or not.

I am reminded as I write now of the joke doing the rounds roughly around that time when Bill and Hillary Clinton are hiking in the mountains somewhere and are confronted with a hungry bear.  Hillary sits down, opens her backpack and hastily puts on her running shoes. Bill says
"Hillary, surely you don't think we can outrun that thing." and Hillary calmly replies
"Maybe not Bill, but I figure I just have to outrun YOU."

I didn't have such thoughts at the time though.  Eventually, as we counter-circle the Thing, always heading downward and counter-clockwise, we got between It and the beneficent light of civilization.  Well, the car park anyway, and were able to make a straight and more hasty, if cautious retreat.  By the time we came out into the open space of the car park we were in a semi-run, I think.

A little later in the evening, we reconvened in the massive common lounge space and set up in guitar space.  It's a brilliant thing, guitar space.  You just need two chairs, two two people, two guitars (in our case the flamenco variety) and instantly the magic space is invoked.  Into this space we breathe our still-buzzing spirits, exultant from the close contact with a great scary unknown of nature, bathed with the majesty of a predator's attentions, yet well alive to tell the tale. Tim shows me a little thing, a riff he's been playing with. I am inspired to respond with another little thing that complements.  You can see where this is going, and we throw back and forth, mostly wordlessly, for an hour or more, until.....there it is.  Rarely has such an odd, underivative, whole piece of music come so easily and fully into being.  I don't think the piece ever really changed from that night on, keeping its little quirks and eccentricities.  It always stayed as a guitar duo too, never really felt like it wanted anything else going on. Maybe it's not the greatest track on the albums (how would I know anyway, I'm way too close to judge), or the most representative, but it is the most rooted in a Tim-and-I moment, and for that I thank it.

Of course, we did discuss what it may have been, this Beast.

The next morning we get our gear together to pack into the little Chrysler Neon hire car and within 10 metres you gt the first hit.  The most profoundly huge and eye-watering tom-cat piss smell I have ever experienced, as evidenced also by the huge (and quite high up) spray marks all over the front tyre.  The locals tell us they're there.

We called it Mountain Lion, and you can hear it here:
(You may need Quicktime to play, if your browser hasn't already sorted it for you, then you can get it fast and free HERE)


Sunday, May 15, 2011

My Prom Night. I think......

The end-of-school Prom night is one of those things like Halloween trick-or-treat that we seem to have largely imported from the US, and like Halloween, only really do half-heartedly in comparison.  When I endured my rite of passage it was called a 'Formal', presumably referring to 'formal attire', but these days I think they call it simply a School Ball.

(ASIDE): I'm writing this because somehow I ended up daring a friend to write about the high school prom she was having flashbacks to by proposing an "I'll blog you mine if you blog me yours" sort of thing.  Nice the different ways you can be a little harmlessly flirty on the interwebs, isn't it?  Nice too that I haven't lost the knack of unthinkingly committing myself to uncomfortable things for my personal betterment by sabotaging my more habitual cautionary mechanisms.  It is unusual to be blogging on a topic that did not spontaneously enter my mind as such.  I have no idea how this will go....

It's also worth noting that I remember very little about the actual night itself.

1987, year with perhaps one of the shittiest all-time Top 40 lists ever; THE Number one was Kylie Minogue's version of Locomotion, and it was the year Rick Astley first told everyone he was Never Gonna Give You Up.  The fluorescent colours of a couple of years earlier had toned down just a tad, men were by now completely comfortable with hair products, the New Wave was already getting old and the shoulder pads were starting to recede, but just a little.  Water-wave taffeta was the choice of fabric for every Formal and bridesmaid's dress in the land, so if you listened carefully on Friday nights in the suburbs the silky swish-swooshing of nervous ballgoers doing the final touches to their makeup could be heard over the usual din of televisions, dogs and tinnies being cracked..  

My high school was a fairly progressive (yet Catholic) school nestled in bushland at the edges of a market-garden and residential suburb on the Northern Beaches peninsula of Sydney.  The school had an interesting and relevant history in that only three years prior to my starting there, it was an all-girls school.  Then they introduced the first lot of boys just in Year 7, then again the following year and so on, so when I started there were two years of boys above me, but girls all the way up to Year 12.  Change is often slow, with the effect that in my year, the ratio of boys to girls was still something like 1:2.  As Year 10 rolled by and some boys left for trades (but virtually no girls) the disparity rose, so for those of us fellows interested in the fairer sex it was a well-stocked playground indeed.

Let's face it, Proms are all about the date, really, aren't they?

I had a girlfriend in high school.  Well, one major one anyway.  She joined our school late in the piece, maybe Year 10, and lived just around the corner from me.  I found myself a tad smitten and would walk the extra half-kilometre to go past her house and use a different bus stop just to get close to her, using whatever charm and guile a 15 year-old guy could to woo this lovely blondie large-boned lass, Sarah.  Eventually it worked.  We were a little on-again-off-again (but mostly on) pretty much from then on for the duration.  We were actually sort of in an off-phase by the time the Formal came around, and I now can't recall who she actually went with.  It wasn't me, but I remember having a photo taken with her there.  Things were weird and confusing then, so excuse me if I can't quite nail it all down.  I have never had a straightforward or regular relationship life, even to this day.

I  had another sort-of girlfriend by that time, my first experience of a 'younger woman', in that she was in the year below me at school.  Also the larger-framed variety (this was a pattern I had for a while there) with deep golden cascades of ringlets, who was also worryingly the daughter of a local Police sergeant.  Her name was Collette.

See the thing is, I was in a really nihilistic frame of mind during all of this time.  Lots of little things and events combined and contributed over the years.  I used to be a pretty good and smart student, until probably Year 9 or so when I could no longer bear the feeling of futility from the whole conformity and socialisation thing, and really just ran out of ability to be interested in an abstract future over a concrete present I guess.  I was then and still am reasonably intellectually able, and had learned early in life how to be a good learner, so just turning up seemed enough to get decent enough grades.  But as we neared the end of the final year, it became increasingly apparent that I would not magically arse my way into the sort of grades I might have perhaps achieved had I in fact applied myself, as they say.  Then a big blow - halfway through that year it was deemed (I've mentioned this elsewhere) that my family and I would be moving to the other side of the world (well, continent, but it might as well have been) at years' end, so all my previous notions of a continuity of friendships, social life and all that were sent sailing out a very high window.  I was still as vain, egotistical, arrogant and insecure as any other almost-18-year-old, but with a hefty dose of really not caring what transpired.....I'd soon be gone.

Collette and I weren't hugely together as a couple, partly as inter-year romances (romances at all, really) were very much verboten at school, and because I was busily twanging as many strings on that particular bow as I could.  Apart from my school-based social circle, I had an outside one of sorts, and at this time I was seeing a lot of a particular person, who once had been at my school, but had since left.  Estelle and I had a really lovely relationship, a deep-felt mateship thing, relatively unsullied by any untoward sexual tension.  We went places together as a sort of mutually-protective duo, who both easily managed to pass for over-18, and hung out in her bedroom playing music and discussing frustrations in love, etcetera.  We were getting er, closer over time, and may have ended up in a more 'friends with benefits' scenario of it weren't for a key morsel of information dropped by both her mother and mine, separately, coincidentally, on the same night.  We'd each been speaking of the other at home, and in my case I mentioned Estelle's last name, when my mum asked what Estelle's mother's name was.....and said "oh, you two are cousins then!"  Something distant, like fourth cousins, but enough to make our next meeting rather, well, awkward.  Not as if this was redneck backwoods country.

Estelle had a deep and abiding thing for the older brother of a friend of mine, and when that failed to bear much fruit, she went for my friend (who saw through this as a ploy to get back with his brother and who was in any case otherwise occupied) and then discovered that both of them would be at my Formal.  My friend Jordan with his date (from outside of school) and big (like, 6 ft 5 as I recall) brother Kimberley with a girl from our year.  Estelle asked me if I'd take her to the Formal.

Collette also expected to be asked, and in fact I was just about to do so.  Luckily, Collete was canny, flexible (she had actually trained in dance :-) and not terribly possessive of me.  Plus, she had what may have been a detective's daughter's taste for intrigue.  She was very creative at manipulating her parents to have more time with me, for example.  So very naturally, I just asked my erstwhile currently off-again girlfriend Sarah (we separated the last time due to some territorial matters, namely me getting caught out in a rather public fashion with her best friend, also called Sarah, followed by girlfriend Sarah's retaliation; weekending at a male friend of mine's house - kids, eh??) what I should do. After all, we were still good buddies. We had in the past each been key in certain social evolutionary developments at my school, like multiple earrings for girls, jewellery for boys, not actually getting expelled for kissing one's significant other in a car outside of school grounds (we did have our school uniforms on, the shame!) and relationship 'outing' rights in general.  She suggested I take them both.  Estelle, Collette, and both Sarahs were actually delighted to be in cahoots with such a scheme.

I planned it very carefully, this I remember well.  There was a finite number of tickets, but it was clear given the enormous disparity in gender numbers and the fact that not everyone felt compelled to produce a 'date' for the night that there would be some spare.  But each person could only buy two.  I didn't have very good gaydar back then really.  Well I did for guys, but not so much for girls.  I only worked it out many years later,that these two special friends who planned just to go together were most likely closer than average friends.  One of them kindly allowed me to buy her a ticket for a pretend date.  I basically made sure no-one knew until it was too late to do anything about it, and although I can't specifically recall, had doubtless readied a whole series of well-rehearsed denials of any impropriety and justifications on wholesome, moral and righteous grounds - some of which I must have successfully deployed on my surely-complicit parents (I wonder what their recollections might entail) in any case, such was my MO then, as it still sometimes is now.

I wish I could remember the arrival scene a little better now, but I think I was so wound up with anticipation and possibly fear (of ridicule, of failure to be cool, of whatever really) that all I can bring back now is entering the nightclub (we'd booked one whole floor to ourselves) with a comely young woman on each arm, some flashbulbs going off, catching my reflection once in a mirrored pillar or something and getting a mighty egotistical charge, and then the three of us dispersing to our preferred missions for the night.  I recall Estelle spending much time flitting and flirting about the dancefloor with the brothers Brebach (Jordan & Kimberley), Collette mainly hanging with the other girls from her year brought as dates and me trying to be cool with the few male friends I had who were essentially dateless.  I had my picture taken with Sarah (Sarah the First, that is,) in a royal blue water-wave taffeta thing which clashed horribly with the coral bow tie I had accessorised my dinner suit and fine-striped black shirt with, the better to match Colette's rather fetchingly cut coral (wait for it) water-wave taffeta gown.  Estelle wore something black, like always.  Maybe I had a picture with Collette as well.  I suspect the pictures are either long gone or buried in a box somewhere at my mother's house.

There was an after-party, and I was actually really pleased to be invited, because it was at a Cool Person's house, where alcoholic beverages (etc) would be served openly by Understanding Parents, and as Estelle had by this stage lucked out, had her Teary Catharsis and Gotten Over Those Scumbag Brothers For Good she came too.  Plus, Collette had promised the Detective Sergeant to be home etc etc.

Maybe if I'd stayed in the state, stayed in touch with schoolie types I'd remember more.  After all, it's the practicing of memories, the retelling that keeps them vital and fresh.  It probably also warps them more over time - it's well proven by now that a great deal of what we believe to be incontrovertible historical fact we just actually make up.  Anyone in a life partnership for more than a few years will attest to this - to the faultiness of their partner's memory.

What did it all mean?  At the time, it seemed pretty important, an antidote to the stress of study (I did in fact cram a few weeks before exams, the only such study I have ever really done in my life) and an opportunity to put a definitive stamp on one's social standing and persona - to create some closure on the fraught world of teen social politics and identity creation.

When Amber (my challenging friend) first called my bluff and said yes to my dare, I squirmed.  Just thinking about who I was back in that time really creeped me....so I had to find out why.  And I think it's because the overwhelming feeling then was anxiety, something that comes to a head in exams and mass social rituals, and it's a feeling that still rears itself every now and then today.  It's a place I don't like to go, unsurprisingly.  For me, anxiety is characterised by being trapped in a loop of the same thoughts going around and around, and they're all questions to which there are no answers: "What if this, what if that......"  Doing mental laps, as my PE teacher once drolly observed.  It's why I can't access the prom arrival moment very clearly, the paralysis of anxiety forcing out all sensory input.  

Still, I'm glad I went.  I'm glad I was true to my nature anyway, and took two girls, regardless of how that might make me look to my adult self (or to you, dear reader).  I'm glad I can still remember parts of it at least.

Thanks Amber, and thank you, for reading.

PS, if I do unearth photos, I'll edit them in, and be sure to share.