Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dressing the Stones

Tomorrow it's time to dress the stanes—something my grannie taught me to do—except in California, the stones are natural outcroppings—remnants of limestone reefs. But sometimes I wonder of some of monoliths got a little help along the way. 

We have a huge limestone outcropping on our hill in Forest Knolls that's like a long tooth sticking out at an angle. You can stand on top of it and stand suspended in space—and it's a long way down as the slope is  steeper than the angle of declination. 

There are also myriad other outcroppings in West Marin that will suffice as Old World Neolithic stones. I will post some images soon.

Bantry, where my grannie was from, is loaded with standing stones, and stone circles. So this urge to dress the stones is a long-standing tradition, if you'll pardon the pun. It's a bit of an obsession, almost like an ancient calling. I can't explain it.


I was relieved to note that they still dress the stones in Scotland. One New Year we dressed an ice age geologic erratic, supposedly a druid judgement rocking stone in that it once rocked in the wind (whether yea or nay, we don't know) called Cloch-na-Ryderik (stone of king Rhy—Derik—Roderik).

Clochoderick on Crossflat Farm Road off the Beith Road (A737), near Castle Semple, in Renfewshire, Scotland, is supposedly the burial place of Rhydderch Hael, King of Strathclyde

The name of the stone tells me Rhydderch was a Briton, not Dalriada Irish. The region is an admixture of the two peoples. Most place names are in Irish, Like Beith—but not who the stone was named after. However, the orthography is Irish: cloch na (rhy)derick. Stone of the king Derick.

The Castle Semple and folly, or hunting tower, and a wooded ring (possible remains of a standing stone circle) all triangluate to suggest there was once an important pre-Celtic Neolithic site here.

Up the road is where the Houston (better known as the Barochan Cross in Paisley Abbey) and the Arthurlie stones were found. How many Neolithic standing stones were converted into crosses?

There are also what looks to be a series of rings (and a possible ringfort) by Skiff Wood above Howood but I couldn't figure out how to get to it. 

But somebody beat us to it and left it a bouquet of holly and red roses at Clochoderick. We left it old silver coins in the cracks and gave it a little uisge beatha—I had to stop Neil from practically drowning the poor stone! Waste of good Glenlivet, I said.

That winter, I dragged Neil all over the place—we founds stones in places where he had explored as a child growing up in Renfrewshire, but had no knowledge of. In those days, trespassing was frowned upon—replete with fines and guns. With Scotland's new land access laws, we trespassed with impunity.

I was pretty excited when we found the Arthurlie Stone in a suburb of Barrhead, there's another standing stone (the Barochan Cross) converted into a cross in the Paisley Abbey—from Houston, Scotland (not TX). There's a few odd stone formations up at Robertson Car Park too. Hard to tell if it's natural nor not. This area was heavily glaciated. Amazing what you can find in aerial view on on GoogleEarth.

We also dressed a (modern/restructured) standing stone monument near Irvine, Ayrshire—sometimes called the Sorlie Stones at the Toll Girdle crossroad, Whether the stones were there before the coal mines decimated the area, and moved, only to be reconstructed when the land was reclaimed, is an arguable point. 

The Toll Girdle /Sorlie Stones (there's the remains of another stone circle nearby in the middle of a housing project which also may have also been called the Sorlie Stones) were reputed to point the way to Paisley Abbey. There's an estate nearby and people were mad for antiquities and follies, so anything is possible. Whether old or new, the stones are magnificent.

That winter I introducing Neil to the ancient Celtic custom of dressing the stones. Red berries, evergreens (holly & mistletoe), whisky, flame/smoke—a candle will do. Perhaps a song or a poem or two—especially after the whisky—which you pour down the back of your own throat after the rock has had its share.

Yes, there were some amazing photos, but some of those pix were lost when my SD card failed (I dropped the SD card on the floor as I was transferring photos). The low resolution back-up photos I took on Neil's Sony HandiCam—were also lost when a hard drive failed. 

But I have hope that I'll find them on some old hard drives someday. I was always backing things up. So it's a matter of finding the time to hunt them down. But the ones on the SD card are gone forever. I even tried recovery software—it only recovered the photos I already had.

Sometimes the memory of the event will just have to do. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Cellular Mania

You know you don't feel good when you're running a tad behind schedule for an artist board meeting in The City, you've repacked your bag, and laptop twice but you can't find your cellphone, thinking you've lost it last night at the play. So you shake down all your dirty laundry (but there's an awful lot of it (purple mountain ranges come to mind) because that pesky virus you picked up last week gave you far too much permission to let things slide). And you're off your vat of morning tea (not a good thing on a clear day) because your gut's protesting overmuch. And a jolt of caffeind would work major wonders right about now. Maybe the second glass of wine last night wasn't such a good idea. Then you tear apart the car and find all kinds of wondrously distracting things (dark chocolate caramels—still edible, BTW, dried cheese, your other reading glasses). You're laying supine on the sidewalk in an Odalesque nude position, in order to peek under the seats (or change a tire). You have enough stuff crammed in your car to go camping, teach an art class, and outfit the Bolinas Freestore. Some of the flotsam finds its way onto the sidewalk and people walking down the street are giving you wider berth than usual. Soon they'll be making you offers. Then as a last ditch effort, you flag down the postman so he can call you on his cell, but it's locked in the mail truck which is a half a block up the street. And so you go into the house to shake down your laundry again, thinking you really, really must do the laundry, wondering if you should call the auditorium. Did you save your ticket from last night (what a great play), so you can tell the cleaner-uppers (now you're sorry for leaving all that garbage), exactly where it fell out of your pocket of the stretch jeans that are too big because the spandex is shot. No need to unbutton them—they slide right off your hips like ghetto-pants if you cram too much in your pockets, like a wallet, keys and cellphone. Forget coins—a pocketful of change is like cement boots at the bottom of the East River—leaving your pants in a puddle around your ankles. Not to mention the fact that they're girl-pants: postage-stamp-sized pockets too shallow to even hold a wallet—what were they thinking? We don't need no stinkin' place to stash our credit cards, keys, or cellphone? And you've been off your fodder lately. Damned virus making you daft as a goldfish—you are reminded of the myriad times you've lost your readers, only to find a few pairs in a cozy herd perched on top of your head. So this is how it begins: 60 is not the new 40. Fuck that cellular decline thing. Just say no. Then it hits you: why not just call your bloody cellphone from the landline? Duh. No shit, Sherlock. But even that concept requires a modicum amount of skillsets which you don't seem to possess this morning, like what your cellphone number is, not the boyfriend's old number, or all your old phone numbers. No GL4s. Nor do you possess your cellphone which has the number safely stashed on it and now it's clear that you'll be officially late for your artist meeting. And you hate the late artist cliché. None dare call it mentalpause. But here you are. Meanwhile, your gut's practicing its warm-up wind instruments for some aerodynamic audition for Cirque du Soleil, and you finally manage to dial your cell number on the fifth-time's-a charm rule. Did you remember to take it off mute? Oops! A faint buzzing sound like an angry beehive or a lilliputian thundering herd of beefaloes eminates from under the bed. Shit! It took a powder during the night and was on the charger all along! (Gawd, would you look at all the dust bunnies under the bed? So, there's where the amethyst earring you got in the real Inverness when you were 19, went!) At least the charger was plugged in. It could've been worse. You could've locked the keys in the car.

You're saving that one the next time.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

California Accent

When I was young, we always honed in on the rare new kids who were from out of state. In those byegone days, midway between the last century and this one, there was no cable TV, there were very few television channels, broadcast stations were local, as was radio. That kept the local accent fairly stable.

So we could acutely hear the regional accent of those who were descendants of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl (often by way of LA). For some reason it was high on our radar. New kids quickly learned to drop their accent and blend in in order to fit in. The playground was a great equalizer of accents. 

Ironically, most of us came from immigrant families, and we learned to code switch. Speak like our playmates in the school yard. Maybe we were mimicking our teachers. But Miss Kolanoski was a Hunkie, so that didn't work.

My parents had a distinctive SF Mission Irish accent (by way of Boston)—but I didn't inherit it because I grew up in West Marin and raised by my Irish grandmother—so my accent is neutrally rural, if anything. I represent an older strain of the Northern California accent. 

I had to unravel my Irish syntax and create American structured sentences in order to fit in. You'd think I would have done well in English, but no, I was a colossal failure. I made up for it by being an avid reader—when I finally learned to read in the 3rd grade. But words I didn't know how to pronounce were given a new—usually dyslexic—twist. 

When I relax, and the Irish musicality creeps back into my voice (but not my sentence structure), most people are positive I'm from the British Isles, not California. I used to be terribly insulted when someone asked if I was from England. 

No! Northern California. 

Funny, you don't sound Californian. 

Really? Because that's where I'm from. 

No surfer dude drawl—another influx accent.

We rarely encountered the deep southern drawl, it was anomaly. Pearlie May's mother was from Lousiana, and Mary Ann's dad was from Georgia. But their accents were contained, isolated. Didn't rub off on us.

So, Dear Reader, how do you pronounce insurance? That's an accentual watershed: do you say INNsurance or inSUREance? Interestingly, many Native Americans also carry some of those broad midwestern nuances in their speech patterns. But it makes sense when you realize how many First Nation tribes were driven into the Oklahoma Territories.

Sometimes people affected that Midwest accent to sound rural or trustworthy. An aww shucks twangy down-on-the farm folksy kind of moment. Redneck bonding. Different than the Midwestern broadcast network accent.

Where did we develop our ear? Old black and white movies on TV. Migrant farm workers. Ma and Pa Joad. Used car dealers, TV commercials. What I think of—when I'm in Bakersfield, for example. Accents we avoided. We called it the California Oakie accent.

Then, during the 1970s, a new influx of accents flooded the Northern California accent matrix, the broad urban nasal sounds of NY or LA. We hated the sound. We mimicked it. Made fun of it.  The invaders prevailed.

Don't even get me started on the 1980s Valley Girl accent of the San Fernando Valley. Again—that too was media-driven. 

Then, massive migrations of Latin American farmworkers brought other accents elements but that took a long time to cross over and meld into the California accent. Then, when California's population doubled—from 15 million to 30 million, overnight—it was a polyglot of languages. Suddenly everybody was moving to California. 

Since California has increasingly become a multicultural state, local and regional accents have also taken on the flavor of immigrant population accents as well. 

So how do you sort it all out? What is a California accent? Is there one? Several? 

I am the Alameda County coordinator for the student Poetry Out Loud project, I successfully coached two Contra Costa County students who placed 2nd and 3rd at the statewide level—and one of the things I've noticed is that I could distinctly 'hear" what regions the kids parents and grandparents were from by the way they pronounced certain key words.

I've seen kids code-switch—one accent is used at home, and another accent at school. I can't imagine coming up with a single definitive accent (or dialect — You, and what army? Sorry, couldn't resist—bad linguist joke). 

So how do we define local accent with code switching and speech acts? People putting on their Sunday best voice versus talking to family at home.

One of the key things I learned from UC Berkeley's Alan Dundes, while collecting folklore—is to never "clean up" the interviewee's speech acts. Stet. As a writer, of course, I want to polish my own writing—but it was interesting to collect folklore while maintaining the authenticity of the subject's linguistic background.

I am acutely aware of regional levels of socio-economic strata accents—for example, when the str combo suddenly became slurred (via inner-city, and rap music movement) and now everybody's slurring str words—even broadcasters. Schtraight. 

Gangsta speak has become everyday speak. No more code switching. Drives me crazy.

'Sup bro?

Such is the power of media. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Take Five, Dave!


If you make a mistake in jazz, you don't give up. You work it into the next line, so it isn't a mistake —Dave Brubeck, 
December 6, 1920 - December 5, 2012
Jazz musician Dave Brubeck thought he was going to be a cowboy when he grew up. He was born and raised on a ranch in Concord, and at age 11, his family moved to a 45,000-acre ranch in the Sierra foothills near Ione, Ca. He could ride and rope with the best of them. But his mother, afraid for his hands, wouldn't let him rope anything older than a yearling. His uncle had lost a finger that way.

While at school, Dave was studying to be a veterinarian, but music led him astray. No matter that he couldn't read sheet music. He memorized everything from Chopin to cowboy songs. One thing led to another.
Brubeck's mother, Elizabeth Ivey, was a classically trained pianist who had studied in London. "When Dave was 4 or 5, he would position himself under the piano while she was playing Chopin," Gloyd said. Because of poor eyesight, Mr. Brubeck had trouble reading (music), and "his mother gave up on trying to teach him." Mr. Brubeck learned by listening, and by the time he was a teenager, he was playing with adults in a local dance band. —SF Gate
Dave's family had a ranch and hotel on the east side of Honey Lake (Amedee). He had numerous relatives including the Gibson/Haley clan of Litchfield, Carol Doyle of the old Doyle Motor etc. His aunt is buried there.  —Tim Purdy

During the late 1950s, Dave used to hang out in North Beach and at the Sausalito Gate Playhouse theater, where my mom was an actress. I met him when I was very young. I thought the opening line to Take Five was like the rhythm of galloping horses. He liked that.


I remember asking my mom what the Off Broadway stage director Skip Rognlien meant when he said, "Take Five everybody!" during a rehearsal—I was still putting two and two together. I wanted to know what that had to do with Dave Brubeck's Take Five. She laughed and said it meant that they could all take a five-minute smoke break. I was disappointed. Dave's music was more exciting.

I was five-going-on-six, precociously collecting numbers. Quartet was four. Fourfivesix! This many? Two hands. She said: "jazz interlude."

Take Five  peaked at #2 on the Top 40 Billboard singles chart in 1961. It was a signature piece for that era. You heard it playing everywhere. Down Bridge Street to Caledonia in Sausalito. Take Five (with Blue Rondo on the B-side) became the best-selling 45 rpm record ever released. But Dave Brubeck had a heart as big as the wide open skies of California. He never forgot his roots. The album cover was signed.

To be viewed in 5/6 time. When I was young, I loved the album art on Brubeck's album cover by S. Neil Fujita, and probably embellished it with crayons. For some reason, I insisted that it was mine, and not my mother's, though the record was hers. It must've held some triggerpoint of memory of my meeting Dave. It was a half-pint's wild west standoff. Reasoning was not going to work. She finally relented, and let me keep it. 







“One of the reasons I believe in jazz, is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same anyplace in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born—or before you’re born—and it’s the last thing you hear.” —Dave Brubeck, NYTimes obit
Dave Brubeck was into collaborating with other musicians and poets. He didn't pull rank or status. My friend Ken Bullock said that there may be a tape—rare as a photo of Khrushchiev's shoe pounding the UN table—somewhere of poet Jack Spicer reading to Brubeck's combo. Herb Caen heard it & said it was good.
The Spicer-Brubeck tape—one of the great missing treasures. From his pre-serial poem period, as in The Collected Books. He was a great reader in those days. For all the wonderful collection of mostly serial poems—again, the real stuff—on PennSound, it lacks his finest extant reading, at the Poetry Center in '57, including great, even eerie readings of "Poem for Bird & Myself," "Imaginary Elegies" & "Psychoanalysis: An Elegy" to a crowd primed to the hilt. Can only begin to imagine what he would've sounded like with Brubeck. —Ken Bullock
Tom Pich photo courtesy of National Endowment for the Arts

After a long interlude indeed, I ran into Dave during the early 1990s, at the Russian River JazzFest—I was on assignment taking photos for The West Sonoma County Paper, and Dave and I got to talking about those days of Beat-Bohemia in the SF Bay Area.

Being painfully shy and also being at odds with being so out in the public as a photojournalist, I broke the ice by way of introduction, by giving Dave an anthology of my student art and poetry from my California Arts Council artist residency at Mark West School in Santa Rosa.

Dve thumbed through it, thoughtful, pausing here and there, then he asked me to read a poem or two (I chose Trevor Yeats—This Body is to Ask), and then he handed it back to me and said, "Now, sign it!" There was no early warning signal for paradigm change. There I was. There we were. Is-ness incarnate.

Because I was a poet-artist-photographer working in the schools, Dave introduced me to the musicians (Bob Dobro (sp?—I can't find a reference to him but I can sing you his song about an ols mattress tag he once knew, "Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law"). The incredibly sweet, Blossom Dearie, and Polish pianist Adam Mankowicz) were interviewing me! Tables turned. What did I know about jazz? Nada.

Not exactly sure what to do, I gave all the jazz musicians poetry books. For some reason, poetry was my ticket to ride. What I didn't know was the role that poetry played in jazz, or repressed nations—like Poland. (Bell learning curve ahead. I later wound up in Russia.)

Dave and I held other held themes in common. He wanted to be a rancher like his father, he grew up on a cattle ranch in Ione; my grand-uncle, Wild Bill Walsh, sold his truck for a bottle of bad whiskey and a good hand of cards in Ione.

Dave wanted to be a veterinarian. As did I. His first love was rodeo roping. I was a fan of All Things Horses—my religion was The Grand National—and rodeo champ Larry Mahan was an idol. But art hogtied us in 30 seconds flat and that was that.

We did not discuss Dave's myriad accolades, we just sat in the warm sun like a couple of cowboys and talked about other things that moved us, as the California hills cradled us, and the long silvered tongue of the Russian River played a riff toward the sea.

Perhaps my editor, Nick Valentine, was disappointed because I didn't mine Dave for pithy quotes. But Dave wanted to blur the boundary between subject and object. I was fine with that.

I found I didn't have the reporter's cold heart, I was no ambulance chaser, after all. The being at-one in the moment was more important than the storyline. Strange meadowlarks, indeed.

I wrote a little story of praise on Dave for The West Sonoma County Paper, and sent the clipping to him. Dave wrote ME a letter (to the editor) in praise of my story and photography. I have it somewhere, along with the photos.

RIP Dave Brubeck, your heart never failed you. Take five, Dave. Take Five.

It's a staccato of horses hooves, pounding an opening heartline to the melody. Trust me, I'm not that intellectual, I suck at math. I never set out to find jazz, but jazz just keeps on finding, and outing me.

YouTube:
Dave Brubeck - Take Five - 1966
Dave Brubeck Quartet - Take Five (Belgium 1964) I love the way he watches Paul Desmond, the alto saxophonist, with such intensity as he plays piano. He's really in the groove zone. His mother, a classical pianist, taught Dave to play the piano—initially she was disappointed that he wanted to play jazz, but came around, in the end. 
1959 The Year that Changed Jazz  BBC4 Documentary This was the year that Time Out swept the charts—it was the biggest-selling LP album, and 45 record single of all time—and it changed the face of jazz forever from frenetic bebop to the freejazz movement. Brubeck helped to desegregate jazz, not the Civil Rights movement. This era also pioneered the jazz idea that First thought is best thought.
Blue Rondo A La Turk - Dave Brubeck  First track from Time Out. The name was derived from 9/8 Turkish rhythms: 2+2+2+3 & 3+3+3.
Take the A Train

OBITS Jazz great Dave Brubeck dies at 91 —LA Times
Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck dead at age 91 —Chicago Tribune
See also the Chicago Sun Times obit
SF Gate obit A lot of new material
An amazing must-read obit By Pat Eaton-Robb —Press Democrat
His Music Gave Jazz New Pop —New York Times Another must-read.
Dave Brubeck Had Strong Bay Area Roots —KQED
NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman's Statement on the Death of National Medal of Arts Recipient and NEA Jazz Master Dave Brubeck —NEA

More webbits:
Dave Brubeck Reflecting on the master jazz pianist and his 'Indian Summer' by Gabe Meline —The Bohemian August, 22, 2007 (Gabe was a student of mine at Mark West School, so Dave Brubeck would've seen Gabe's work in the poetry & art anthology I gave Dave. Small world.)

Magnum Photos Blog @MagnumPhotos Wonderful Brubeck images from the Magnum archive


By way of City Lights—free Spotify playlist and other links: Dave Brubeck Music for Writers —GalleyCat

Celebrating Jazz Pianist Dave Brubeck's 90th Birthday NPR's Terry Gross 1999 interview.

Check out University of the Pacific's Brubeck Institute site—loaded with links. (Dave's alma mater—UoP was then called College of the Pacific. He also attended Mills College, where he built a house in Oakland, that's my town, where I'm writing from now. Mills College is just up the road from me.)

Dave Brubeck.com Random songs—Homecoming (riffs on Jingle Bells meets a boogie woogie version of Chopsticks), What Child is This, etc.

Dave Brubeck —Wilkpedia A little known factoid: Despite the fact that his mother, a concert pianist, taught him music. He wasn't allowed to listen to the radio, only to play music. Dave couldn't read sheet music—he was born cross-eyed, and was nearly expelled from college. After a near-fatal swimming accident in Hawaii, Dave was incapacitated for nearly a year (a neck injury), he then established his quartet—so Take Time and the iconic Take Five (composed by alto saxman, Paul Desmond) were a second lease on life. He also helped to establish Berkeley's Fantasy Record label. He brought jazz to the college circuit. Read Wiki article for his astonishingly long list of accolades.

Dave Brubeck would have been 92, tomorrow, December 6, 2012. Happy Birthday Dave. Takin' some Time Out.


Dave Brubeck, the 2nd jazz musician to ever be featured on the cover of Time Magazine, 1954 —Wiki public domain image


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sitting Deep


We were watching a 2006 YouTube meme of a deaf-mute girl, Stacy Westfall riding at a horse show sans saddle and bridle. It's pretty amazing piece of showmanship given the amount of time she had to work with the horse—only three weeks. (Plus her double handicap.)

The video highlights Stacy's integrity as a rider and a trainer, and her ability to get the horse to trust her. Pure obedience. Being at one with the horse. 

That got me to thinking. It seems I can't observe anything without analyzing it. Where most people would go OMG, OMG! I was analyzing it as a fellow rider. And weighing in. No sentimental claptrap here. 

Then it came to me that the particular skillset required to be an exceptional equestrian or trainer was the power of observation. Phillip (that lover of horses) was vexed that his prize Bucephalus was untamable. Phillip's son, Alexander the Great, noticed that the horse was afraid of his own shadow. So he turned the horse toward the sun, and was able to mount him. In order to be able to read horses, sometimes you just have to turn toward the sun.

The horse the deaf-mute girl's riding is a good, honest hard-working quarterhorse. Babydoll stops true and square on her slides—that makes the quarterhorse justly famous (think of when a cowboy ropes a cow and the horse sits back on its haunches and comes to a screeching halt). Babydoll is evenly spaced on her rollbacks in both directions. (I'll explain that term later). 

Babydoll switches her leads (changes her front legs from left to right at a gallop) like a dream—what we used to call a pushbutton horse. However, it's all done with the shifting of your weight and subtle leg commands, which are dressage signals that date back to before the founding of Rome—no voice commands are needed. 

What the audience also doesn't know, of course, is that the girl using the horse's mane like reins to signal the horse. You can see her gather the mane up like reins, and then pick it up. Those are rein signals. The horse is listening to those commands. Watch her ears.

However, the critical rider in me noted that Stacy's seat was a little off. A seat is how you physically sit on the horse, and balance is critical. Your posture (back) changes depending on the horse's gait. Like leaning into a curve on a bicycle. You can tell that Stacy usually rides in a saddle. No matter, it's all very impressive riding. 

Stacy needs to sit down a little deeper, drop her heels down, keep her toes pointed up and forward, not hanging loose like that, then she'll be truly at one with the horse. You can see she's a little off balance, leaning a little too forward. And if the horse ever decided to turn suddenly, of her own accord... Makes you hold your breath in fear.

Believe it or not, I used to do that sort of thing too—ride sans saddle or bridle. It wasn't particularly difficult if you grew up on horseback and had no saddle to begin with, let alone a foam and canvas saddlepad with hokey stirrups you couldn't trust as the pad would slip around the horse if you put more weight on one side versus the other. Riding at a right angle to the horse at half-mast always concluded with meeting the ground head-on. 

I also have a dent in my skull where my horse misinterpreted one voiceless command. Chiquita, a rescue horse, was my first horse. I spent all my free time on her bony back—she was older than dirt. I had no saddle. 

The siren call to a friend's barn, and she took a shortcut up the other unused driveway at a full gallop and I went sailing straight ahead as she turned right—I was doing a kneeling liberty spread with my knees cradled in the hollow of her withers and backbone (what was I thinking?) We'd done it many times before, but when she did an exit, stage right, well... I was cocky, oversure. Mistake. Talk about crossed wires. I was lucky I didn't get a concussion.

When I was young, I wanted to grow up to be a Lippizanner, or maybe Bucephalus. I knew were every Flying A gas station with the red flying horse was, I could recite Pegasus's lineage.  I knew all the stages of horses from eohippus to equus. I was that kind of horse-crazy for all things horses. 

Horses were my link to the world, to my emotions—my heart. I, who had been pawned off onto my grandmother after my grandfather's death by my mother who wanted to follow her dream of show biz. I was a fragile child but I hid it beneath a tough carapace. I became mute. Horses were my Beatrice, my way out of the seventh ring of hell. They offered me succor and solace. They are the ultimate empaths.

I used to work as a rider for Edie Lehman, at Rafter L Ranches training stable so I rode a lot of horses and Edie gave me lessons that were based on dressage and feeling the horse with your legs—thigh and calf communication to the front of the girth meant one thing, to the back of the girth, to turn or move sideways. 

The heel command was rarely used unless the horse was lazy or not "listening" to your leg commands. It was always a matter of body over voice. Every nuance of leg and shifting of weight, was a specific signal. Watch a dressage horse in action.

True, we used reins and saddle, sometimes the arena wall—especially in practicing rollbacks. I'd gallop full speed straight toward the corrigated wall, and signal with my legs for Bart, a big-boned bay horse from Minnesota, to suddenly switch gears and roll either right or left. It was always harrowing and exciting practicing rollbacks. 

Then, the real test was that I had to do it again for Edie, a rollback in the middle of the arena. No walls to help you. If Bart was lazy, he'd overshoot the mark. That's why we did a lot of wall practice, to teach him to slide into the wall, and rear left or right, twisting over his hind legs that were skidding toward the wall. He was a big horse. 

This is a maneuver better suited for dainty Arabians and chunky quarterhorses quick on their feet, not a Big Mack truck of a horse who stood 16 plus hands tall. But Bart was tough. He survived Minnesota winters. He didn't DO mollycoddling or barns. The first six years he was in California, be never even bothered to grow a winter coat.

 It's funny how dropping your heels and lifting your toes up and parallel improves your seat and balance—not at an angle like that (sure, when we rode our own horses dinkering around on fireroads we all slouched like that) but NEVER in the arena when riding professionally. I guess that's what it is, sitting deep. I like that idea. Sitting deep.




TO see some amazing riders from the Para Olympic dressage team, check out this program. This is what I mean about becoming one with the horse.
Pure Nature Specials S1E17 Whispers of the Horse






Horse Chestnuts

If I hadn't met Sweet Old Bob, if I hadn't gone to Europe for the summer of my 19th year, I would've been Edie Lehman's permanent rider. We were showing quite a bit locally and I was supposed to show horses for Rafter L Ranches at the California State fair in Sacramento.

But first love and Europe beckoned. Edie said, Well, have a nice life. It didn't quite work out that way. But how was I to know?

I was always pretty good rider, having worked my way up via all sorts of sundry ungulates. Donkeys, ponies, Mr. Smits, the runty steer, and any ornery horse that no one else wanted to ride as I didn't have one of my own—so I was the local charity case. 

When I was about 12, my aunt Canice saved Chiquita, a bright bay horse with a long back, long enough for three skinny girls to climb aboard—from the glue factory. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven—no matter that my MOTHER used to ride her as a girl!

Chiquita was originally from the defunct Lagunitas livery stable at Speck McAuliff's—my family used to winter board their horses. Baby Snooks was another livery war veteran who lived down the road. I remember him, but never rode him—we've photos of my mom and aunt with him. Big temperamental fellah. Mean too. Like Brandy, the Tennessee saddlebred.

My grannie said that her father Michael Walsh in Bantry, was something of a horse whisperer. So I guess it ran in the family. Certainly the love of horses ran deep.

In those days, there were few people with horse trailers out in the valley, so the old horses tended to circulate from family to family like old coinage. Or a neighbor needed to borrow a "lawnmower" to mow down the spring grass before it became a fire hazard.

And if the horse decided he liked his new digs better, he often stayed on. That's how I wound up with an extra pony or two. Nobody in town wanted our old horses. No papers, not a prestige kind of thing.

Owning horses was a habit that died harder for some than for others. Old Pete, one of the last cowboys, who used to take care of all those livery horses when my aunts and uncles were kids, out of long habit, kept a strawberry roan in a lean-to on the old railroad bed next to the Tanzis in Lagunitas.

Old Pete'd slouch down on that old roan and ride into Forest Knolls and he could roll a cigarette one-handed. He must've been a rodeo cowboy at one point—he had a showy tooled saddle and bridle with reins trimmed with silver rings.

After the bars closed, the old horse always got him home to his shiny silver slipstream trailer parked in the greasewood behind Speck McAuliff's—why he didn't drink at Speck's was a mystery. But that bar was within waking distance—not that Pete walked much—bis legs were too bowed. Maybe the ride was the thing.

Don't know if the old roan horse had to sleep in his saddle and bridle after he delivered Old Pete to his doorstep after a night on the town or if Pete took care of the horse on auto-pilot. You could say we grew up at the end of an era. Horsecrazy came with the turf.

I used to win all the trick stuff at the local gymkhanas—spear rings with a lance at a full gallop, dollar race—you had to do all these maneuvers bareback with a dollar under your knee. Last one standing sort of thing. Piece a cake for me as I usually rode bareback as I couldn't afford a saddle.

We did slaloms with poles, barrel racing, and other odd things too—keyhole, relay races, Totally forgot about all that stuff. We were insane little kids. No fear.

One year, I got all fired up by the trick riders at the Grand National—my aunt Jane took me the first year, I saved up all my pennies to go each year—getting into as many events as possible. But, one small difference, they use saddles, saddlepads, or circingles for a reason! Something to grab onto. I didn't get that part. Couldn't afford it.

I was working my way up to a full liberty stand at a gallop, sans saddlepad, of course. The horse made an exit, stage right, I went sailing forward. It cut my trick riding career short. Also put a dent in my skull.

Supporting a horse on babysitting money at 25 cents an hour was a tough proposition—as things did go wrong. There was the annual worming, and shoeing—I rarely had enough money for that—my horses often went barefoot. Then you had to buy winter feed—horses couldn't survive on grass year round. It all added up. Colic was a real killer. I was in debt to my veterinarian until I was in my 20s—long after the horse died.

My canny horses had overdeveloped upper lips—practically the same thing as opposable thumbs—they could untie ropes and slip padlock hinges with bolts too. The horses and ponies were regular little Houdinis—especially the ponies. They loved to go on midnight raids. Kept me busy. (At one point I had four ravenous ponies).

They would get into my garbage cans that I had converted into feed bins—that's where I kept the oats and molasses pellets. Nothing excites a horse more than the tiny pitter-patter of oats falling into a bucket.

Even the deer joined in to raid my precious feed stash. Sometimes I'd find all my haybales gotten into during the night, turned into vast swirly nests—with all the grain at the epicenter, gone.

So I wrapped the hay in tarps laden with booby traps and stuck long spike nails in the rims through the garbage cans but the critters would work the nails loose. It was clearly a challenge the were up to.

At least the rattling cans falling over in the middle of the night was an early warning signal. If the horses overate, I'd have to walk them a bit. Luckily nobody ever foundered—they'd get niacin flush sweats from eating too much grain, and became champion fartists from all the excess gas, but at least they didn't explode.

I finally moved the feed to our basement for safekeeping, That worked out swimmingly for a while—even if it meant it was a longer trek to the corral. Until I found a horse had decided to help herself to a little early breakfast. Which meant she had escaped from the corral, and gotten the basement door open. It was a real mess, as she'd broken open several bales of hay and fluffed it all.

Winky the cat loved to perch on Chiquita's back when she was grazing, so he thought this was an unusual opportunity to hang out with his friend. Well, he jumped up on her back, and she KNEW she wasn't supposed to be in the basement, and she started bucking. Busted by the cat.

I nearly peed my pants, I was laughing so hard. Winky was a little perplexed. He'd never been bucked off a horse before—of course, he held on with his claws like a champion bull rider which upped the ante.

I thought the horse was going to kick the basement window out. Shelves on books went flying this way and that as she squealed and took off for the corral with the cat clamped on tighter than a tick, his head weaving like a seasick bobble toy while he was planning his exit. He never dreamed he could travel that fast. It took them a while to patch up their friendship.

What my grannie didn't know was that Chiquita loved coming in the house to say hello and to swipe a drink from the kitchen sink. Or browse the sugar or fruit bowl on the table. So I guess the basement raid was an extension of that. My horse made house calls.

She was a very curious horse, taking it all in. You could just see her gears working. So this is their corral. She walked cautiously, crouched down like a slinky cat. She picked up her hooves funny as if she was walking in a creekbed, as each step resounded like a hollow drum on the tiled floor. Kathump, thump, thump., She kept her head down with her ears splayed, as the ceiling was a little too low for her liking.

One time she popped her head into the front door, saw us on the couch and came in for a visit. She lipped the newspapers on the table, nosed the teapot, cursilory sniffed at the couches, and decided to explore the rest of the house. The bedrooms didn't interest her but the bathroom, like the kitchen, was worthy of deeper exploration. She was on a mission.

It was late summer, we always saved our bathwater to dump it down the toilet as the spring ran low, come August. Of course, she thought that too was for her! That was the culmination of three people's conjoined weekly baths: My grannie, me, and my brother. Very brothy. She took a slurp and realized she couldn't back out. It took some negotiating as the bathroom was the size of a single horse trailer.

I don't think Chiquita quite knew she was a horse. She was very gentle and very curious about how we lived. It could've been because of her advance age, that she was so calm and we could do things with her that you wouldn't dream of doing with an any other horse. Or she was just unusual.

When I think back—she could've freaked out in the bathroom and done some real damage. How would I ever explain why there was a horse stuck in the tub? Or get her out if she broke a leg? No way to get a crane in the bathroom to hoist her out.

There just ain't any amount of creative lying strong enough to ameliorate that one. I eventually got busted when she stepped on the front doorstoop and it tore off. I tried nailing it back on with spikes but it was skewed at an angle.

My old friend, Chiquita eventually died of old age—she must've been 35 or more. She just laid down in the middle of her dinner hay pile and went to sleep. Frost had settled on her during the night, and steam rose from in the morning but she was cold. No breath. No amount of nudging from Winky the cat would rouse her. The glue factory knackers got her after all. I was devastated. 

A neighbor bought me another horse from the Olema Stables. Becky Dart, a bright sorrel penny who was related to Dart Bar and the famous thoroughbred, Three Bars. She had Preakness and Derby winners on both sides. A real hotrod—not like Chiquita.

She was the fastest horse in the San Geronimo Valley, at the quarter mile. We rode like the wind down the old railroad bed in Samuel P. Taylor Park. Always bareback. All that muscles churning under my thighs.

My second horse died the summer before I went to Europe. It would've killed me to have to sell my mare. Selling the ponies was easy—they were such little monsters—always getting out and into trouble. But my mare was like a sister I never had.

Becky Dart was in spring pasture—at a neighbor's field. The Bianchi's. I checked on her after school and she was fine. But I had a hunch something was wrong and went back to check on her after dinner and found her down and sweating. Nothing should've gone wrong, but it did.

Becky Dart (my last horse)—she died of colic—that's how I hooked up as Edie Lehman's rider. She died in Edie's arena—after a long, violent struggle. 

I walked that horse for 18 hours straight, but she'd twisted her colon—most likely it had ruptured, peritonitis had set in, and she was going insane rearing up and throwing herself all over the place. Bashing into walls. Screaming uneathrly cries that tore you asunder. No way to save her. We had to put her down. A long needle to the heart. I couldn't watch. It devastated me.

Working with Edie at the training stables eased the pain and loss a bit. But I never got attached to them—except maybe Namûn, the Arab gelding. When you have so much horse, there's so much more to love. I never wanted to be that close to a horse again. 

Sweet Old Bob was a real SOB, but I didn't yet know it. It would take me nearly seven years to get the lesson right. I vowed to never let a man get between me and my horses again. Besides, horses are always a better ride.


Other horse bits
Sitting Deep
The Little Shits
Helgar the Horrible

Saturday, December 1, 2012