Thursday 8 February 2018

I Should Have Been A Cowboy

My 6th birthday party, when I still thought I could become a cowboy
Sipping wine one spring evening, I gazed across the verandah of my apartment to the dark velvet water of Sydney Harbour, and said, “I have something in my blood.”
      My mother, convinced since birth that I would soon expire from misadventure or dreadful illness, looked at me as if her fears had finally been legitimised, “What sort of thing?”
     Realizing she was taking a mental inventory of all the blood-born diseases she could remember, I clarified, “I mean, I have itchy feet.”
     Although anatomically sloppy, it was the best description I could come up with for the grinding tension in my chest. Here I was, on my scenic verandah, in my comfortable apartment, with my secure job, and all I could think was, What am I doing here? When I could be out there?
     Then, quickly, before my mother could envision some terminal form of tinea, I elaborated,  “I need to find a frontier.”
     Her fears of my having contracted a deadly disease gave way to recognition of a greater threat; the threat of me going away.              
    “Why do you need a frontier?”
    “I need a challenge.”
    She thought on this for a few moments before diagnosing and simultaneously offering a veiled judgment of my affliction. “Your father always had itchy feet.”
   My birth father boarded in his Bell helicopter when I was eight, took off on an extended trip around Queensland and the red center and - not deliberately but by manner of emotional negligence as far as my mother was concerned - flew largely from our lives.

When I was growing up, I wished I had been born a century earlier. I could have had a horse, like the boy star of Rin Tin Tin, and spent my days galloping around the wild west. Or maybe I could have been an Indian (who also had horses). In fact, I would have liked to be born into just about any society who cohabited with horses and rode them daily. This was before I realized how minimally women were represented in any of the more adventurous exploits on the silver screen. Flipper's two companions were boys, as were the protagonists of my favourite novels by Willard Price. Gosh, even Pinocchio was male. I certainly would not have thrived on baking, doing chores around the home, or needlework, and I loathed wearing dresses. No, I decided, it would be much better had I been born a boy.

There was a family story (possibly apocryphal) that my parents had predicted, expected, and indeed prepared for their firstborn to be a son; even going to the lengths of christening me “Bryan” before I arrived. My early toys certainly had a masculine influence; a battery operated jeep, a Mechano set, and a pair of tiny desert boots that I assumed were gifted in preparation for me to join my father on one of his Central Australian expeditions.
    Unable to do anything about my misfortune in being born a girl, I decided to ignore the fact. I insisted on having my hair cut very short and wore only shorts and trousers. My favourite bedtime stories were of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. I dressed as Batman, or The Lone Ranger, galloped around astride my broomstick “horse”, shooting my cap pistol at imaginary outlaws, and loathed dolls and dresses. What an exciting life! Adventures were to be had at any time of day by simply donning my hand-crafted Astro Boy pendant, yelling, “Shazam!” and flying around the backyard chasing bumble bee villains with my bamboo Ray Gun.

I did eventually come to terms with, and finally embrace, my feminine reality, but adventure  became more elusive as I grew into a responsible adult and, finally, a mature woman. I tried to write my own; spending hours at the typewriter keyboard, conjuring attractive protagonists in dire situations. I tried to vicariously enjoy other peoples’ adventures through books and films. But something happens inside us when we morph from child to adult, and make-believe is no longer good enough. The adventures have to be real, the danger tangible, with fear you can taste, that yield wordly treasures you can actually feel. And they have to be your own.

Considering the fact that most of us don’t live in a galaxy far, far away, make a living in forests inhabited by bears and mountain lions, or traverse the jungles that cradle King Solomon’s Mine, adventures are not exactly a part of our day-to-day lives.

    Or are they?

What was the greatest adventure of your life to date? Was it one you sought out and pursued? Or did it sneak up when you weren’t looking? Did you leap into it feet first or were you dragged kicking and screaming? And what was the prize at the end? 
    After almost five decades of trying, with some grand adventures and some sad mishaps, some prizes and some failures, I can now reflect on the fundamental things that transform life’s everyday events into captivating and magical experiences.

Tuesday 6 February 2018

How to Find an Adventure

You can't buy an adventure. Not a proper, personalised one that you will remember forever. You can buy a pre-made experience; a safari in Africa, or a cruise to the Antarctic; but the chances are that the real adventure will happen on the way to the airport, or while you are waiting in a line somewhere. Not the type of adventure that makes for a good photo book, but the type that changes you in some way, and has an influence over what comes next.
    It took my cat, Miss Binks, to teach me this.

Miss Binks, the sage. 
At the time, my partner and I were living in Sydney's inner-west. Newtown was slowly, messily evolving from a suburb of migrants and vagrants to a colorful, multicultural hub. We lived in a narrow Victorian terrace with original sandstone walls, and shared the street with an ageing Greek couple and their schizophrenic son, an artists' collective in a crumbling mansion at the top of the street, and a homeless Mission at the bottom. A Chinese family lived on the right and a Maltese bus driver on the left. Next to him, an alcoholic pensioner whom we rarely saw. Two doors further down, an extended Samoan family sang harmoniously on Sunday afternoons
    This was a rich environment for social and cultural interaction, but my partner and I were not social people. In fact, the thing I feared most (apart from drowning in an enclosed space) was making small talk with strangers. Richard and I were focused on our careers, and neither of us felt any need to expand either our social or cultural horizons, and hence we kept largely to ourselves.
    Our disdain for company, however, only extended as far as the human race, so during the early years of our relationship we acquired a dog, an axolotl, several frogs, three cats and three horses. The dog had been rehomed prior to our move to Newtown and the horses lived on a farm at Camden, leaving our genetically blended household ruled by the triumvirate of felines, a volatile state of affairs on a constant knife-edge of diplomacy.

Fleeting moment of harmony captured using an extremely fast shutter speed.
 We did, for a short while allow the cats free range of our backyard and, it soon became evident, the neighbours' as well.
     "Your cat is using my herb garden as a toilet," said Maurice, the Maltese bus driver. We let that pass, as many other neighbourhood cats also used his herb garden as a toilet so it didn't seem fair to single ours out. But I felt compelled to action when I caught our silver tabby, Lucky, engaged in a staring contest with a caged canary.
     "Your cat comes to visit my bird all the time," said the four year old Chinese boy from next door. "My bird goes ..." the boy fluttered his hands in a very passable imitation of a small creature in fear of its life. "He doesn't like it." He used that solemn tone with which preschoolers relay anything from the death of their grandmother to the fact that Peppa Pig is inexplicably covered in poo.
     Lucky, Barron and Miss Binks became indoor cats. Or rather, they became cats who lived indoors but spent most of their time plotting about how to get out.
She looks relaxed, but she is just awaiting her chance.
 We were all distracted the night Miss Binks went missing. The Samoans began singing around five. The trouble was, they had begun drinking around mid-day and the singing soon morphed to shouting, then fighting, and the fight naturally spilled out into the street, at which stage the police were called. This, in itself, was nothing particularly unusual; we had cause to call either the police or the ambulance (and occasionally the fire brigade) at least once a month. We watched from our upstairs verandah, and it had a peaceful outcome because as soon as the red and blue lights appeared the warring Samoans forgot their feud and fell to being best mates again. Once the drama was over, we realised that our usually curious cats were absent.
     Rattling the box of fish treats brought Barron and Lucky racing from the enclosed outside courtyard, weaving and shoving in their urgency to get through the cat door first. Miss Binks, however, was not with them. I opened cupboard doors and slid out drawers (she had once spent an entire night amongst the saucepans).
    Our terrace house was long and thin, the kitchen giving way to a small laundry next to a glass door that opened onto our leafy backyard. A wooden fence separated us from the neighbours and a ricketty wooden gate gave access to the street behind, where we rarely went except to take out the garbage. 
    There was no sign of Miss Binks out there, and I could not work out how she would have escaped, but we all know cats are little Ninjas.
    After securing Lucky and Binks upstairs in our bedroom, I opened the back door and rattled the fish treats.
    "Binks! Miss Binks. Come on Binkster!"
    No answering meow, no rustle as she scrambled back over the fence. I could hear Lucky and Barron calling from the bedroom, and the occasional thump as one or another launched himself at the door in the hope that, on this night of nights, it would miraculously open.
    I persisted for ten minutes or so, but elicited nothing else except a faint, "Shut the f*** up!" from beyond the fence.

One or other of the cats had escaped before, and although we imagined the worst, they only stayed away long enough to prove that they were not responding to our requests for them to come home.
    This time was different, though, and Miss Binks did not reappear. When dawn came, I opened the back gate and walked up and down the street. A hollow feeling grew in my stomach as I checked yards and gutters, dreading the thought that I might find a furry tortoiseshell body that had been crushed by a car. 
     By the time I got home, I was in tears.
    "She's gone," I told Richard; the unthinkable conviction having grown stronger and stronger as the morning wore on. "I've looked everywhere."
     "Then we'll just have to go door to door," he replied. Such a simple solution that brought, I have to admit, some trepidation, as the rear street was so inhospitable. The houses were either shuttered or abandoned-looking. It was like another world. Who, or what, might we rouse from behind those peeling doors?

The street behind our house described a dog-leg that backed onto the Princes Highway, one of the busiest and seediest roads of the inner-west. After a road closure at one end, this short cut between two major roads had been cut off, like the oxbow curve of a meandering river. And, like many backwaters, this street had become stagnant and smelly. Formerly glorious ornamental fountains and columns were crumbling and algae-encrusted; sidewalks were decorated with discarded shopping trolleys and the unsavoury leavings from late night patrons of the Newtown Hotel. Walls were covered in graffiti and had boarded up windows. A house number had been chiselled from the sandstone. Opposite, the gate in an ivy-covered fence was secured with a rusty padlock.  Advertising flyers in various stages of biodegradation bristled from the mailbox.
   I traversed the uneven path to number 82, regarded coldly by a brace of flaking concrete flamingos, and was relieved when no-one answered my knock. I told myself that I had not seen the dusty blinds twitch and ignored the chords of Bernard Hermann's "Pyscho" playing in my head.
    I had all but given up by the time I tried 84; a classic workers cottage. A barred window looked straight onto a retaining wall, decorated with waste paper, ferns and tracks of slime where water trickled from the earth. I heard a television playing behind the door as I rang the doorbell then, when it did not work, knocked.
    "Who is it?"
    I had not rehearsed any introduction. "I'm Geraldine. I live in the house behind you. Um, I've lost my cat."
    The door opened far enough to reveal a middle-aged woman in an old dressing gown and slippers, and emit a reek of cigarette smoke. "What sort of cat?"
    "A tortoiseshell, sort of ginger and white. She went missing last night, I thought you might have seen ..."
    "What's going on?" called a male voice from a back room.
   "Some girl," the woman yelled over her shoulder. "Lost her cat!" She turned back to me, "Yes, I've seen her."
    My heart jumped. "Really!" I couldn't believe my good luck. "When did you see her?"
    "This morning."
    "Do you have any idea where she went?"
    "She's here."
    "In your backyard?"
    "No, she's inside the house."
    Considering the fact that it was almost impossible to get the cats back inside our house once they had escaped, I wondered how this feat had been managed.
    "I opened the front door last night to take out some rubbish," the woman explained, "and she rushed straight between my legs! I think she must have been frightened."
    I looked past the woman into the forbidding hallway. Yes, she must have been quite frightened indeed.
    "I don't know where she's gone," the woman continued.
    I was enormously relieved that Miss Binks was still alive, and in the general vicinity, but I didn't quite have her back yet.
    "Do you want to come in?" the woman asked.
    No, I thought.
    "Maybe she'll come to you?"
   "Thank you," I took a deep breath and stepped over the threshold.
    Once inside,  I could smell something lurking beneath the cigarette smoke; rising damp and either sage or sewerage - I couldn't tell which. The terrace was long and skinny, dark doorways opening from the dim hallway. It reminded me of the catacombs of St Paul's basilica.
    The door shut behind me. I had a moment of misgiving. Had this woman really seen Miss Binks? Or were she and her disembodied partner making the most of an opportunity to snatch their next victim?
    But I had a mission; to rescue my cat; which helped me push that fear aside.
    "Binks!" I called hopefully. "Miss Binks. Come on." I looked left. The first room was spartan, with wooden furniture and no real place to hide. I moved further down the hallway and looked up the steps. She could have gone upstairs.
    Where, I thought, would I hide if I were a cat?
    It seemed Miss Binks had suddenly decided she wanted off the street and shot in the first open door she saw. Then, when she realised it was not her door, she would have run to the first dark place she could find.
    I turned from the stairs and looked into the room to the right of the hallway. The drapes were drawn, making it dim and cave like. The lounge and armchairs were upholstered in a dark paisley brocade with fringes almost the the floor. Just the sort of place a frightened cat would take refuge. I remembered those horror movies where the expendable actress stumbles around in dark calling, "Fluffy! Fluffy!" and wondered what else might be hiding in here?
     "I've looked everywhere." I jumped; the woman was standing right behind me and I could feel her breath on my shoulder. "But I can't kneel down - the Arthuritis, you know."
     "Miss Binks," I called. Did I imagine it, or did one of the fringes twitch. "Miss Binks?"
    Then the fringe beneath the corner armchair parted and a white nose emerged. A face followed. Not a vampire, or a pyscho killer, but a feline face with huge green eyes.
    My cat crawled out from the shadows. 
    "Beautiful girl!" It is hard to describe my emotion as she ran to me. I scooped her up with my left hand and grasped her scruff gently with my right. I wasn't going to risk losing her again.
    "I'm so sorry about this," I said to the watching woman, who suddenly seemed less of a threat and more of an ally.
    "Not a problem," she said. "It all makes life more interesting."
    I looked at the little tortoiseshell. Do we really need things to be more interesting? I was happy to leave that dark, dank house and felt some relief that my life was lighter and airier. But for the next ten years, whenever I saw that woman on the footpath, or at her window, we would share a smile and a wave, and I never again felt intimidated by the street behind the fence.
     I returned home with Miss Binks thinking we'd both had quite the morning; entering unknown territory, well outside our comfort zones, with some risk and uncertainty along the way, but with a happy ending. Yes, it did make life more interesting. It would make for a good story one day.
    And if you can tell a story about it, then you've had an adventure, whichever way you look at it.
    I wondered whether Miss Binks' scary outing would make her any more cautious next time but it did not; if anything, she became more curious about what was outside the back door. Curiosity and cats don't mix well, at least that's what we are told, but a little adventure like the one Miss Binks and I had can certainly give you a taste for more.

Am I Turning Into My Mother?

This whole thing began when I looked in the mirror one night and realized I was becoming my mother.
            This isn’t intrinsically a bad thing – she’s a remarkable woman – but for someone who has never felt older than about eighteen, it was disturbing.
            I remembered my elderly grandmother – she must have been close to fifty – as she discussed the march of time.
            Anno domini,” she said sagely, “The years prevail.”
            I was impressed by her grasp of the Latin language until I learned some of it myself.
            After the initial shock of my own imminent senescence, I contemplated my future. For some reason, I imagined myself as a cake. After all the kneading, rising and baking of my youth; the decorating of my adulthood; I was now about to dessicate, and – in this same heartless mirror – watch my icing melt. 
            Oh, crap! I thought. I better get on and have some adventures before I’m past it!
            I was thirty-three.

For years, I wondered what I was doing here, when I could be out there.

But back to my mother for a minute. She was the second of four children, born in England just before "the war". My Australian grandfather and Welsh/English grandmother emigrated to Australia soon after "the war", and bought a house on Sydney's Northern Beaches (half a century before it became one of Sydney's hottest addresses). They shipped their heavy wooden furniture from England and hung a large portrait of a man I always assumed to be my Great Grandfather above one end of a louvered oak dining table. 

Two things came as a surprise to me when I studied Modern History as a young teenager. Firstly, there had been more than one war, and secondly, I was not even distantly related to Winston Churchill. 

As a child, I assumed the subject of this portrait by Arthur Fan was my Great Grandfather.
My mother has always claimed to have been far more traumatised by her forced move to Australia than living through the Blitz on the outskirts of London. And while she is the one who has become famous for her refrain, "I wish you would not go so ... close, deep, high, fast, far out ...", she has been as adventurous as any of us.
     As a new bride in the late 1950s she grew bored of being  a housewife and went door to door until one of the local businesses gave her a job as a receptionist. This was almost unheard of. In the mid-1960s, she and my aunt decided to learn to ski. They drove 350 miles in a blue-green Holden with fins at the back. The very best part of it was that they took me with them. The Australian ski fields were in their infancy, and the ski gear was still made of wood and leather, held together with springs and hooks. But we learned to ski, my Mum and me, in 1964; which was one of the hugest snow seasons on record. I still remember skidding to a halt before a steel door at the bottom of a snow covered ramp, the blizzard snatching at my woollen hat and gloves as I came in from the morning lesson; sliding and falling, picking myself up and sliding and falling again. Then wrestling with spring bindings and leather ski boots before putting sixpence into a vending machine and running up a long hallway to our room, and my bunk bed, with a bar of Cadbury's peppermint chocolate. What fun!

Spirited but not exactly stylish.

Had I realised the challenges my taste for chocolate would present in later life, perhaps I and my mother would have opted for a banana instead, but there was so much we did not know back then. Fortunately my taste for adventure was far more healthy, if no less challenging. And while my mother attributed my need to find a frontier to my father's itchy feet, I suspect she is equally to blame.

Monday 5 February 2018

Whale Dreaming

I have a recurring dream. I dream of a bay. It is a wide bay, with turquoise water, verdant islands and deep blue channels. I am standing on a headland, scanning the ocean for a sign. Often as not, I see nothing, but every so often I am rewarded with a white puff of vapour. A whale's blow. The whales are always elusive, almost out of sight and I never know whether they are going to appear. When they do, I am filled with peace and gratitude, as if they are a gift sent to me by nature. During years of dreaming, my night whales have come closer, sometimes tantalisingly so; close enough that I can look down upon them from the cliff.  
     My next adventure involved turning this dream into reality.
    It was May 11th, 1993 and my parents, my sister and I had trekked to the top of Bangalley Head, on Sydney's northern beaches. We were now camped on a rock ledge overlooking the ocean. It was my birthday, and it was raining. We were armed with one umbrella - under which we now huddled - a barbequed chicken, two pairs of binoculars and a bottle of Seaview champagne.
     This quest on which I had persuaded my family to join me started many years earlier. I read about the Blue Whale when I was no more than five or six years old. I was captivated by the massive, torpedo-shaped animal on his lonely journey through a seemingly empty sea. And I learned that whales were being hunted to extinction. Indeed, it would be another twelve years before Australian whaling ceased. It became my passion to see a whale, but I feared that by the time I grew up and travelled to a place where I might be able to see one, they would all be gone. The best I could hope for was to dream about them.
     And during those early years of dreaming, without me knowing it, the population of Humpback whales migrating along Australia’s coastline slowly increased. Then a colleague at Sydney University told me it was possible to sight them from Sydney’s headlands at the right time of year.
     I had been dragging my family up to Bangalley Head for a couple of years now. But we hadn't yet had much luck and the ritual of setting up camp and waiting for a sighting before opening the champagne was growing old, and in order to pass the time, the other expedition members took matters into their own hands.
     "Oooh, a whale!" my sister cried, pointing out to sea.
    The rest of us sprung to high alert, snatching for the two pairs of binoculars, "Where?"
     "Half way to the horizon."
     "Which direction?"
     "Past the tree ..." this was not helpful, as Bangalley Head was covered in trees. "Past the small tree between the two taller trees. Go out half way, then a little to the left ..."
     Having thus distracted us, Kate grabbed the bottle of champagne from the cool bag and popped the cork. Thereafter we amended the rules to require a confirmed sighting before the champagne could be opened. But in light of the fact that we had not yet managed any legitimate sighting, let alone a confirmed one, the champagne would always eventually be opened; either in commiseration, or to bring good luck next time. For my family, it was as much about being together as it was about the whales. Not so much for me though, and I would continue to scan the oceans until my eyes hurt, or until the light went and it was past time to head home.
     The following year, it was just me and my parents hiking the bush track to our look-out rock, as Kate had moved to England. But this year I had learned that early July was the best month to see the migration, and we finally got both the site and the timing right, because as we negotiated the narrow bush track we heard a helicopter overhead. By the time we reached the lookout the chopper was hovering above the water and, to my absolute astonishment, I saw a huge black tail slapping the sea.
     I cried. My dream had come to life.

Nowadays, you can see whales migrating past pretty much any headland along Australia's east coast between Mallacoota and Cairns. Some people even see them from the Manly Ferry as they traverse Sydney Harbour on the way to work. They are mostly humpback whales, but you can also see southern right whales, pilot whales and - if you are extremely fortunate - orcas. I guess I was lucky that I dreamed of whales, rather than white rhinos or Siberian tigers, which would have been much less likely to migrate past my front door twice a year regardless of how well their population recovered. 
    My brother-in-law, Martyn (a delightful outcome of Kate's journey to England) says I see whales everywhere, including the bath tub. I think he is joking, but other friends have expressed similar sentiment when I yell, "A blow!" and they spend ten minutes watching for the creature to reveal itself again. But sometimes you are just looking in the right direction at the right time, and fortune rewards you. There are no guarantees, though, and that is what captivates me most.
    I have watched whales from Sydney's North Head, South Head, Bondi beach, Kiama, Narooma, Eden, Byron Bay, Surfer's Paradise and Mackay. Not to mention Albany, Margaret River and Fremantle. I have seen whales in so many places not because I travelled there specifically, but because they were the closest vantage points to where I happened to be at the time. Anyone who lives near the ocean can give it a try. And the chances are, while you are waiting, and watching, other people will be drawn to find out what you are looking at.
     "Have you seen any whales?"
     "What sort of whales are they?"
     "Why are they migrating?"
     With a little research, you can become an amateur-expert on whales (or birds, or ocean currents, or whatever it is you are interested in), and those people will leave the headland knowing a little more, and your passion might just rub off on them, and who knows where that might lead? For me, every journey to the headland is an adventure, and every sighting is a reward. I have tried to combine this passion with another, that of watching the full moon rise. One day, I would love to see whales playing in the trail of moonlight that leads to the stars.
    I haven't yet, but maybe you will?

Humpback whales blowing at the entrance to Mackay Harbour, 2016.