INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE CAT SITTER

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Thank you for taking care of my four cats. Please read these instructions carefully at least five times, though ten is preferred and should give you a leg up on my pop phone quizzes.

My four cats are like four extensions of myself. Think of them as my arms and legs. If you forget or fail to follow an instruction, think of your failure as cutting off one of my limbs. So for example if you mistakenly serve my cat Sundance raw food, just picture yourself sawing my left arm off at the shoulder.

The most important thing to remember is that I live in the hills and in case you were wondering THERE ARE PACKS OF RABID CAT-EATING COYOTES OUT THERE. So please remember to KEEP ALL DOORS SHUT AND DEAD-BOLTED. If for some unfathomable reason you manage to screw this one up and let one of my cats out, it’s probably best if you throw yourself to the coyotes right after the cat. Otherwise perhaps picture me sawing off one of your arms.

The alarm code is 0510. That’s Lyle’s birthday—May 10th, 2010, in case you were wondering. A beautiful day for him and for me, so that when you press those buttons on the alarm keypad it’s not just an action that prevents a horn blaring in your ear and cops busting in and throwing you against the wall, it’s also a gesture of honor and adoration. 0510—don’t forget it, you have like 15 seconds to get your ass from the door to the keypad, and make sure you SHUT THE GODDAMNED DOOR FIRST.

If you don’t make it, and the alarm goes off, you have precious seconds before the cops storm the house. The alarm company will call you and ask for your name and password. I hope you know your name. The password is, “Butch of the Hole in the Wall Gang.” I’ll explain what this means in the appendix, but it’s witty and definitely fits his personality, which you would know if you read these instructions ten times like I asked and maybe watched “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” at least twice.

Now I’ll give you brief portraits of my cats which I hope will be helpful:

009PICASSO: Tabby, brown. Friendly, but he has standards, so don’t put on airs or go all high-pitched with the voice. Be earthy and real. Fake it if you have to. You will have to. Favorite toy is a shoelace, which he will chase around. Try to master a quick jiggling wrist snap motion with the shoelace or he may become disinterested. Practice snapping 100 times to the left, take a brief rest, then 100 times to the right. Do this for an hour every day, gradually phasing out the rest period. Say nice things about his paintings.

Lyle sun 1

LYLE: Tabby, orange. Birthday is 05/10, that’s 0-5-1-0. Shy at first, but he will open up gradually, after a breaking in period in which you must grovel on the floor before him. Try to be consistent and still as possible with your floor grovelling—so no bathroom breaks or even kneeling, otherwise this breaking in process must be started over from the beginning. Lyle loves the Halo freeze-dried treats, and when I say “loves,” I mean “goes batshit crazy for.”  I suggest first putting on the welding gloves before offering him a treat. The heavy gauge steel ones—not the light welding ones. Note the severed finger limit of liability clause at the end of this document. Sign it before offering Lyle a treat.

 

9_3_13 009BUTCH: Tuxedo cat, more black than white. My cat psychologist says Butch is the most balanced and stable of my cats. He’s serene but not too sleepy. A born leader and cat-about-town. You can see his profile on EHarmony. Butch can be very Zen, and if you encounter him in a meditative state please do not disturb him. Light a candle and spread some sage around, sprinkle catnip on a pillow and make sure you offer it to him barefoot and with a pure mind, body, and soul. Especially the soul. Don’t make eye contact with him.

008

SUNDANCE: Tuxedo cat, more white than black. Brother to Butch. Sundance is ivory to Butch’s ebony. Redford to Butch’s Newman (This will be on the quiz). Sundance is the shyest of all my cats, so I have been working on socializing him. It is very important that you continue this process, so please set aside a few hours each day to play board games with him. Don’t insult him by breaking out Candyland—he’s too old for that. Chutes and Ladders is okay if he’s in the mood but it’s very important that you let him slide the token down the chute with his paw. It’s his favorite thing about the game. Feel free to say, “Weeee!” in an encouraging voice as he performs this action. If you play Monopoly with him be careful, he’s the only cat I’ve ever seen pull off a railroads- and utilities-owning strategy.

FEEDING:

Feeding times are promptly at 8 am and 8 pm each day. Please, no excuses—stuck in heavy traffic, or “I had to work late,” or “My child got bitten by an anteater!”—there’s just no excuse for not being punctual to feed my cats. I have prepared this detailed food list to assist you in what to feed who, and in what amount:

RAW FOOD:

Picasso:         1 teaspoon at night

Lyle:                1 glob* per feeding

Butch:            1 tablespoon only on Sunday

Sundance:    NO RAW! Feeding raw = sawing off an arm!

 

NEWMAN’S OWN TURKEY FOOD:

Picasso:          Considers this food an insult. Will hate you.

Lyle:                 Nope.

Butch:              Feed him 1/2 can; the Paul Newman half only.

Sundance:      Feed him 1/2 can; Robert Redford half only.

 

ZIWIPEAK CAT FOOD:

Picasso:          Okay, but don’t try to lace it with medication. Will smell it. And hate you.

Lyle:                 Where’s this crap from? New Zealand? Nice try.

Butch:              1/2 can, mashed with lobster fork**

Sundance:      1/2 can, built up into “food mountain”***

 

TIKI CAT FOOD:

Picasso:           You lick it first, I want to see if you’re trying to pull some shit on me again.

Lyle:                  Cool label. But nope.

Butch:               1/2 can, but if I get scared you have to feed it to me under the bed.

Sundance:      If he’s scared, I’m scared. And I won’t eat his portion, so don’t mix them up.

*1 glob is more than 1 tablespoon and less than 1 hunk.
** Fondue fork is acceptable in a pinch, but regular fork is unacceptable and Butch will smell that he’s being served with an unworthy metal and will refuse food and won’t even look at you again.
*** No Devil’s Tower food mountain, that is frightening to cats. Aim for something pleasant and mildly majestic, like something out of the Adirondacks mountain range.

9_3_13 019

 

LITTERBOX SCOOPING:

Look, if the Egyptians can do it, you can do it. The Egyptians revered cats and built pyramids, you know. And mummies—they had mummies! Don’t forget the real tiny pieces of old clumped urine and feces that the scooper sometimes can miss. Buy a pair of Velcro gloves—the sticky Velcro on the outside—and then just sift through the litter with your gloved hands. Those little pieces of filth will find you! Once your gloves are thickly coated with little shit- and piss-balls, you can simply discard them. Or scare your children with them!

IN AN EMERGENCY:

Don’t worry, I won’t blame you. Not to your face, which is what matters. But look, all I’m saying is that the cats were fine when I left. Cat curses are a bitch to remove, so you know—all your hair falls out at the very least, and I’m talking armpit hair as well as head hair.

My veterinarian’s number is 1-888-ohmygodwhatdidyoudotomycats.

If anything happens, call me anytime, day or night. Even something like vomiting a hairball—please take photos of the scene and be able to describe in detail what the cat was doing before and after the regurgitation event, where exactly you were, and what exactly I was thinking when I entrusted you with my cats.

IN CONCLUSION:

I hope you enjoy your time with my cats. Help yourself to anything you want around the house—except the coffee, snacks, computer, blow dryer, or garden rake. Feel free to relax, have a cat or two curl up in your lap, and watch a program on my 60” high definition TV—as long as you pick one of the 27 nature programs I’ve recorded for the cats.

Just remember to keep the goddamned door SHUT AT ALL TIMES.

Picasso plus_Auguest 2013 005

 

THE KILLING OF A GIRAFFE: ONE MONTH LATER

Marius. Photograph by Keld Navntoft/AFP/Getty Images

Marius. Photograph by Keld Navntoft/AFP/Getty Images

When I first heard about the killing of the baby giraffe Marius in the Copenhagen Zoo I thought it was a joke. It seemed like some absurd satire about an evil zookeeper, something I could have seen on Funny or Die: a healthy two year-old giraffe is lured away from the other giraffes by his veterinarian caretaker with a piece of rye bread, only to have his brains blown out, and his lifeless body skinned, sawed into pieces, and fed to the lions. All of this was done in full view of hundreds of people—including a lot of children.

And they filmed it.

So who’s running things over there at the Copenhagen Zoo, Ted Nugent?

No, it’s actually a man named Bengt Holst. His official title is “Director of Research and Conservation.” The “research” involved in this act, according to Holst, was showing children how big the giraffe’s heart was and that a giraffe had the same amount of vertebrae as a human, “and so on.”

The “conservation” part of his title—well, based on his own words, to conserve sometimes you have to not conserve.

I’ve looked over the zoo’s website and I will say that there seems to be a certain consistency between their callous treatment of Marius and their overall philosophy. Their mission statement has only a few mentions of animals, and the language is bloodless, with no mention of animal welfare or ethics except in one example, describing how they are caged: “…high standards and quality regarding the keeping of animals and the standard of animal enclosures… good architecture and design add to the value and quality of the experience.”

They certainly care a lot about their cages. And the “quality of the experience” they are referring to, if the way they dispatched their baby giraffe is any example, is obviously the human one, not the animal one.

The closest their mission statement gets to acknowledging animals as living beings is their last paragraph in their mission statement, “Be actively involved in the international efforts to preserve animal species and habitats and thereby contribute to the conservation of the biodiversity.”

More bloodless language. Keep in mind, the “conservation” zoos supposedly practice always begins with the kidnapping of a wild animal from its natural habitat and its enslavement behind bars—usually for life.

So the Copenhagen Zoo’s mission statement has very few mentions of animals—you know, the point of visiting a zoo—and the section ends with this statement:

All of these activities must be based on science.”

Holst has given many interviews by now. From what I can gauge the “science” involved in the killing of Marius consisted of an autopsy aimed at children so they could learn the “vertebrae” and “big heart” facts—facts which of course the children could have looked up in a book or online, rather than witnessing the assassination of a healthy young giraffe.

Holst has also said that this live killing and dismemberment “helps increase the knowledge about animals but also the knowledge about life and death.” Surely he is not saying that blowing a giraffe’s brains out, carving it up into chunks, and throwing it to the lions is how life and death works in nature?

The other aspect of the “science” Holst refers to, and the key to why Marius was killed, is the breeding programs the zoos utilize.

Since zoos keep so few animals (mainly because of space), the gene pool of the captured animals is very small. Inbreeding has to be avoided—otherwise unhealthy animals could be born.

Some zoos will practice contraception, sparing the animal’s life. Or they’ll sell them to circuses or less savory animal “attractions,” transactions that the zoos try to keep secret since it is known that animals in these other venues have even worse lives than in zoos.

Keep in mind that this is an artificially narrow gene pool created by the zoos themselves—the ones capturing, enslaving, and breeding very small numbers of formerly wild animals.

In the end, many zoos—particularly European ones, but zoos all over the world, including in the United States—will just kill healthy animals for the sake of the standards of the gene pool. The figure in Europe alone is 3000-5000 healthy animals killed per year.

Usually not in the open though.

Zoos are always trying to uphold a compassionate-toward-animals image, because it keeps the families coming to visit and paying their money. This is why the killing of Marius is so startling and revealing.

Many people were outraged after watching the documentary Blackfish, in which we saw the consequences of kidnapping and enslaving an orca whale named Tilikum—how to SeaWorld, the life of the whale and the safety of the trainers who were hurt or even killed by this abused animal seemed to pale in comparison to SeaWorld’s desire to uphold the image of their “fun” theme parksand the desire to make money.

Marius and every other animal confined in zoos are seen no differently. With zoos, instead of whales in bathtubs we have giraffes in prison cells. Tilikum and Marius are products, useful as long as keeping them around makes economic sense. Tilikum has been largely banished from performing (without SeaWorld admitting any wrongdoing or addressing the issues), and Marius was shot because his existence was inconvenient.

When I was a kid I visited zoos on several occasions. What child wouldn’t be excited to see a “wild” animal up close? I think every child visits a zoo with an innocent curiosity and a natural desire to observe and maybe even bond with an animal. Certainly as a child I had the expectation that the veterinarians at the zoo cared for the animals and loved them.

Looking back on these visits, I can’t ever remember one animal that was doing anything but lying down, looking dazed and lethargic. They were never close enough to touch—which is what I was thrilling to do, to touch a “wild” animal—and they sure didn’t seem to want to be touched.

They didn’t look happy at all.

The killing of the baby giraffe Marius might just be a watershed event, in that it exposes the lie that zoos really care about the welfare of animals—Holst himself has said, “we can’t be led by emotion,” in the pursuit of “science.”

Of course Mr. Holst doesn’t want us to use emotion when thinking about animals in zoos. Because emotion leads us to feel compassion, and points us to considerations of ethics and morality.

But even putting emotion aside, does blowing a baby animal’s brains out and sawing the carcass up in front of children even make much common sense? The Copenhagen Zoo is so desperate to justify this cruel act they won’t even admit it was a bonehead move on a public relations level.

For me as a boy of six visiting those zoos years ago, I knew that something wasn’t right with the animals. I couldn’t put my finger on it, I couldn’t articulate it, but I knew.

I am betting most of the children who were at the Copenhagen Zoo that day knew there was something wrong about carving up a baby giraffe and pulling its heart out.

You’re right, Mr. Holst, the children did learn a lot that day.

They learned that zoos are horrible places for animals.

TOWARD NOT EATING ANIMALS

2pigs

From Wikipedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2pigs.jpg
By Titanium22

I got sober from drugs and alcohol in 2000. In the process of recovering I realized that from then on spirituality was going to be an important focus of my life—that it had to be, since the connection to a Higher Power was necessary to keep me sober and alive.

I didn’t realize that recovery would connect me to myself as well, to what was really inside me.

During the early part of my recovery I realized that spirituality could be an open field to play on. I grew up around Catholicism and I didn’t feel like it was that way at all when I was young. I realized that my Higher Power could be one of my own understanding—that I had a lot of room to explore.

So I started exploring. One day I was reading a passage written by a Buddhist monk that was addressed to people of the West. I came across this section where he wrote (I’m paraphrasing):

Can you be a spiritual person if you are participating in the cruelty and suffering of animals by eating them?

This is the first time that it really sunk in that there was a possible connection between spirituality and not eating animals.

Months after I read this passage, I was talking with a friend of mine, and she mentioned that she had become a vegetarian. When I asked what had sparked her conversion, she said it was her cat. Her cat? Yes, she couldn’t look at her cat after eating a plate of meat. She felt guilty.

I thought about my own cats. Through my drinking years, my cats were probably my one shred of connection with anything remotely spiritual. I adopted my cats Bandit and Hooper in 1995.

Bandit on the left, Hooper on the right.

Bandit on the left, Hooper on the right.

Girlfriends came and went, guy friends came and went, cars came and went crashing, my job came… and almost went three times, because I showed up to work drunk or didn’t bother showing up at all.

The one constant was the drinking. And the cats.

No matter how drunk I got I still fed them. No matter how depressed, I played with them. No matter how many times I was hungover and late for work, I was early (and sober) for vet appointments. No matter how many times Bandit had to meow at me to turn that thumping AC/DC off—which I would blast at two in the morning—he seemed to forgive me. My neighbors sure didn’t.

No matter how self-loathing, self-destructive, self-pitying I was… they crawled into my lap, purred, and loved me.

I realized they were not just pets. They were family. And they had carried me through. What love I had to give was given to them. What love I could receive was through them.

What spirituality I had was given to me was through taking care of them.

When I awakened from the nightmare of drugs and alcohol, although it wasn’t in my consciousness, I think deep down I was aware of this bond that had been formed.

What these two little animals had done for me.

As I recovered, grasping for my own image of what a spiritual life would look like, I realized that my empathy for all animals (and humans, for that matter) was deepening. That caring for animals was going to be one of the core principles in this spiritual life I was trying to live now.

I was told that in order to recover from drugs and alcohol I had to have a complete psychic change.

I think this was starting to qualify as one. I think I wanted to become a vegetarian.

But was it even possible to not eat meat? That was the thing. I wasn’t sure. Which, in retrospect, was silly—alcohol was the biggest obsession of my life for almost 20 years and I wasn’t drinking anymore.

For the first time, I thought about what I was eating. I thought about if I even really liked the taste of meat. This is not a silly question. Looking back, I hated the taste of alcohol—all of it, from cheap beer to hundred-dollar-a-bottle whiskey, from my first drink to my last. That’s the truth. People talk about how refreshing beer is or wax poetic about wine—I don’t get it. I drank to get drunk, to wreck myself, and booze was always hard to get down.

Was it the same for meat? I liked a good burger from time to time. I liked pepperoni on pizzas. But did thinking about this stuff make my mouth water? No. The inherent flavor of meat—the taste of the flesh itself—was that something I enjoyed? I didn’t think so. If I ate a steak I wouldn’t enjoy it unless it was doused with spices, external flavorings.

Raw meat absolutely repulsed me. I had a hard time buying it at the grocery store.

I was starting to think it was possible to quit meat—to realize that the flesh itself wasn’t really something I needed or even wanted.

I joined PETA but wasn’t interested in watching any of the graphic videos they sent me. That stuff was too extreme. On the other hand, I was interested in the founder of PETA, Ingrid Newkirk. She was obviously a person who cared deeply about animals, a kindred spirit, and I was interested in what made her decide to do what she was doing. HBO broadcast a documentary on her life and her work called I Am an Animal and I decided I’d try to watch it. I figured I could fast forward through any of the “rough” parts.

One of the images I recall was video of an adult cow in a slaughterhouse. I realized I had never seen what the inside of a slaughterhouse looked like. The cow was terrified as it was shoved out of a door onto the floor of what looked like a warehouse.

From Wikipedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Calf_with_eartag.jpg By Dave Young from Taranaki, New Zealand

From Wikipedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Calf_with_eartag.jpg
By Dave Young from Taranaki, New Zealand

I held my breath. I didn’t fast forward. I couldn’t look away.

The cow was wounded, flailing. It was trying to get to its feet but it couldn’t because the floor was a lake of blood. I could see it screaming.

I saw a monkey held down in a lab. I couldn’t tell what were the monkey’s limbs and what were restraints or electrodes. Its whole body looked stretched out and pinned. The monkey screamed as it was prodded with something.

The other scene I recall was on a mink farm. The face of a tiny, ferret-looking mink was in close-up in the foreground as a man’s boot came into frame. This man stepped on the mink’s skull first with one boot, then brought up the other one. The rodent struggled, the bones of its skull crunching under the man’s boots, blood gushing out of the mink’s nose. The film then cut to a different mink being skinned alive—I could clearly see the animal’s mouth opening to scream with each stab of the knife.

As I watched this… out of me came this sound. It was a howl that shook the room. My cats fled in terror and I could only imagine what my neighbors thought. Nothing that’s come out of my lungs has ever been that loud, lasted that long, or come from so deep a place. Then I burst into tears.

The next day I was a vegetarian. Over time I have become a vegan. I have never looked back, and could not live any other way.

I know now that this was a profound spiritual experience. The only comparable experience I have ever had is my moment of clarity about my alcoholism—a sort of “burning bush” that some, but not all, alcoholics experience. My burning bush was a voice in my head: If you keep drinking, things will get worse.

A simple truth perhaps. One that the whole universe was aware of—I was the last person to find out. But for me it was a thunderclap of wisdom. This was a thing that I knew to the core of my being—it wasn’t just a fact, it was a part of me.

There’s knowing in your head and there’s knowing in your soul. This was knowing in the soul, and this is the same place as my howl for the animals came from. The deepest place there is.

In both of those moments I knew I had to change. That I must.

In both of those moments, I discovered connection again. To a Higher Power, to myself.

And to animals.

I LIKE TO RUB THINGS

Lyle, pre-rubbing.

Lyle, pre-rubbing.

Yes, I am a cat

And yes, I like to rub things.

Yes, this is my calling

And yes, my duty.

Yes, this is the core of my cat-ness

And before I am done

Oh yes!

I will make you tremble

before my rubbing of things.

I rub to leave my perfumed scent

I rub to show up my fellow cats—

Away with you while I rub here!

I rub the book you hold,

And do I not

help you to read it?

I rub the answer

to that question

It’s yes.

I rub couch, chair, and bed.

I rub corners, doorways, and your head.

I rub the dead mouse on the floor

I rub the mailman at the door.

I rub you coming out of the shower

I rub you scrubbing those dishes

I rub you rubbing your girlfriend

That’s some nice rubbing yourself—

I commend you!

I like to rub things

Look there’s the couch

I like to rub things

Look there’s your chin

I like to rub things

Look there’s a poisonous jub jub tree

I like to rub things

thirty-six times each

just to be sure

I like to rub things

Hey what do you have in your hand

Let me ask you one thing

Would it be okay

If I rubbed it?

Look I know there is no money

in this rubbing

but hear me out here

I have a great argument

for rubbing…

(Hold on a second

while I rub this over here.)

Now what was I rubbing?

I am a rubbing fiend

I will leave no surface un-rubbed

I am a rubbing fiend

Get your girlfriend on board

I am a rubbing fiend

And I must be adored.

Do you believe me when I say I rub

for world peace?

Do you believe me when I say I rub

to balance the budget?

Do you believe me when I say I rub

because I love you?

Please now

Rub the answer to me.

Rubbed.

Rubbed.

THE BOBCAT AND THE BLUE JAY

Bobcat. Photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons, Alan Vernon.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bobcat_%28Lynx_rufus%29_portrait.jpg

Bobcat. Photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons, Alan Vernon. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bobcat_%28Lynx_rufus%29_portrait.jpg

It’s been a strange week and for a good chunk of it I’ve had to wrestle with a lot of fear, mostly around the fact that my life looks completely different from what it was last year, and I mean completely. —A good thing, but I’m not playing it safe right now, particularly with regard to my career. I have shifted from a very lucrative job into things that are closer to my heart, and while my intuition tells me very clearly and quietly that I am in the right place, my survivor instinct is screaming bloody murder, and needs something to happen now.

I’m better about pushing through the fear now. I can feel myself fumbling for the way out of my fear even while I’m stuck in the middle of it. It is really like trying to find your way in a dark room, bumping and scraping along and trying not to trip over something and break your neck—knowing that the light switch is there somewhere, you just have to find it. And you will.

Also now when I am stricken by this fear I am still able to keep myself open to the outside world, not switch off like a robot beeping and blinking  down into dumb oblivion—which is what it used to feel like sometimes.

Because I managed to wedge the door open a crack to my senses and my soul, I saw two amazing things in my backyard this week. The first is that I saw a bobcat loitering in my backyard. I spotted him the moment he had taken a drink from a bird bath I have back there. He angled his head up toward the sky and the fur on his throat undulated as the water slid down his gullet. Then he shook his head, sated I guess, and looked around the yard, like, What have we got here?

The status of bobcats in the United States is varied and in my research I can’t even get a clear idea of what it is in California. But they are protected in a limited fashion and just last year a law was passed to prevent their trapping near Joshua Tree National Park—trappers were skulking at the edges of the park (where the bobcats are protected) and luring the bobcats out to kill them for their fur. Most of the research I’ve read says they are stable in California, endangered in other states.

The bobcat figures in Native American mythology, and if you take in the broader mythology of their cousin the lynx, the pool of otherworldly meanings gets very deep indeed. In general the creature is associated with silence, patience, and wisdom. The bobcat is the keeper of knowledge and the guardian of secrets, but he keeps this knowledge to himself.

I have lived in the hills of Hollywood since 2005, and many forms of wildlife are common—deer, coyotes, owls, raccoons, and on—but this is the first bobcat I’ve seen anywhere in California. My best description of them is that they are “a cat-plus”—they look very much like a tabby house cat— tabbies themselves looking like mini-tigers. But bobcats have extra down-turning flares of fur at their jowls… and they’re big. Like “Uh-oh, Fluffy is eating people” big. And of course bobcats are recognizable by their stubby tails—the one in my backyard didn’t show me his until the very end of his visit, when he jumped up on the fence ringing my property and slunk back into the trees.

Photo from Photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons,docentjoyce.   http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bobcat_photo.jpg

Photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons,docentjoyce.
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bobcat_photo.jpg

If that was the high point in my backyard entertainment this week, the low pointor the heart-sinking point—was the day after the bobcat sighting, as I was on my way to refill the bird feeders. As soon as I stepped out into the backyard I saw a puff of feathers flying up in the air. It was like seeing a puff of smoke and listening for the report of the gun, looking around for the sniper.

The sniper was a Western Scrub-Jay, one of at least a pair if not three or four that visit my feeder on a regular basis. I like them because of their royal blue-and-white coloring, like they’re flag bearers for some Nordic country. I also like them because as a kid growing up in Massachusetts I loved watching the northeast blue jays—they were blustery, noisy, with arrowhead-shaped crowns that would fan out like peacock feathers when they got agitated.

The scrub-jay doesn’t have this crown, his head is round, but the one in my backyard was agitated—at me. Because I had just walked in on his attempted assassination of a sparrow.

600px-Aphelocoma_californica_in_Seattle

Western Scrub-Jay. Photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons, Minette Layne.
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aphelocoma_californica_in_Seattle.jpg

The jay squawked at me and I actually turned around, thinking he must be talking to someone behind me. But no, he was telling me to mind my own business, and as I watched he swooped from the hand railing that leads to my upper deck to the wounded sparrow slumped in the grass—which I hadn’t seen at first.

The jay pecked at the sparrow, then flew back to the railing to squawk at me some more. Go away! I’m trying to kill this pipsqueak bird here.

photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons, Alvesgaspar. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Passer_domesticus_April_2009-1.jpg

Sparrow. Photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons, Alvesgaspar.
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Passer_domesticus_April_2009-1.jpg

Look, I know animals kill each other for their own reasons—most of those reasons being: I’m hungry. In the Scrub-Jay’s case, they’ll attack other birds rarely, but it does happen.

I hate seeing any creature killed though, especially anything that is weaker or defenseless. This sparrow was much smaller and seemed to be hurt pretty bad.

So I have the battle in my soul of do I help the bird or do I keep my stupid human mitts off this situation—because as a rule we humans can’t seem to keep our mitts off of anything—that’s why so many animals are suffering.

The jay is not weighted down from any similar inner turmoil. He swoops in and scoops up the sparrow and tries to fly off with him. I guess the sparrow is heavy for him though, because he drops the sparrow near my neighbor’s back door—plunk. He’s only managed to carry him about fifteen feet—and the bullying scrub-jay is perched on the roof staring at the sparrow, staring at me, staring at the sparrow…

I take a few steps and the jay dives down at the sparrow again, and this is the moment that pierced me, that really just got me: the sparrow’s head buried in the dirt, flapping one wing weakly up behind him at the jay stabbing him in the back with his beak… then as the jay flew away again, seeing the sparrow quivering, moving, trying to move… trying to crawl away from his fear and pain… no different from all the images I’ve seen over the years of dying humans in wars or genocides or accidents… the last moment, the last embrace of the earth, the last plea for help from the dying spirit.

I went back in the house, ostensibly to retrieve the scoop for the bird seed. I still couldn’t decide whether to interfere or not. I felt terrible. I felt like I was trying to create a sanctuary for the birds and instead I had built a gladiator arena.

The ancient Egyptians had a hieroglyph of the sparrow. The meaning was “small”, “narrow”, or “bad.” In the Bible, the sparrow represents God’s acknowledgment of minor or seemingly insignificant creatures.

When I came out of the house the jay and the sparrow were gone. Just a few wispy feathers hanging in the air.

GOODBYE THAILAND

perfect portrait

This post is the LAST installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants, until I write the book. I do reserve the right to add a thing or two later. Thanks for reading.

A few days ago I had my first dream about Thailand. I think it was only the first because in the six or so months since I’ve returned it’s all been so close to the surface, the elephants have been in my blood.

Now there is distance. And the elephants have sunk in deeper, into the briny depths of my unconscious. Thus the dream.

In the dream I was going back, doing the Thailand elephant trip all again. But even in the dream there was the awareness that it would be completely different. Most of the people in the dream return trip were different. The elephants were different.

I was different.

iphone_June25 064The dream was bittersweet. Magical, transformative life experiences—first kisses, first loves, first career triumphs, wedding days, births of children—you can’t do any of these a second time.

And you don’t need to. Each one of these experiences opens you up to have the next magical experience. A bigger one, perhaps. The next one your soul yearns for—definitely.

Babies walk 3My farewell week in the village of Huay Pakoot was difficult. The way I am wired is that I have an acute awareness of the impact a soul separation will have on me—I can feel the loss down to the silty sea floor of my soul, where all the scuttled ships, sunken treasure, and creepy-crawly finned things flutter about. But in the moment I am incapable of expressing this feeling, of even coming close to expressing it.

iphone_June 28 098So there’s a lot of awkward hugging and the human thing of trying to “force a moment”—to stand around snapping pictures and yapping “goodbye” to the people and the elephants and my brain already forming phrases that it can’t wait to whip out on people later like “life-changing trip” and “soooo amazing” with my eyes bulging and what feels like clown make-up on—nothing can “sell” the joy of my experiences better than some painted on eyebrows, I guess.

San Jep.Needless to say, these efforts fell short. And added to my gloom when doing my farewells.

This is why I’ve had to write about it. Why I needed to. And though writing has had the advantage of more precision, analysis, and reflection—it too falls short. I don’t like writing this post. It was hard for me to get around to writing it—I put it off because I hate saying goodbye and I’m afraid of not “getting it right”—of not honoring the elephants, the people, and the experiences in the way they deserve.

I woke up from the Thailand dream feeling sad more than anything. I wish I could do the magic a second time. I wish I didn’t have to say goodbye.

Lulu.

Lulu.

The last hike with the baby elephants in Huay Pakoot occurred in the middle of the week. After it was over I wanted a do-over—I just wasn’t prepared to detach yet. I stared at Lulu hoping that sparks would fly between us, I guess. I couldn’t believe I might not ever see the babies again, that I might not know how Lulu turned out.

Goodbye Lulu.

Goodbye Lulu.

The goodbyes to the fellow volunteers was drawn out because most of us had a few days to spend in Chiang Mai before we went our respective ways. Chiang Mai was a lovely, friendly city but there was something off about the few days I spent here with the other volunteers. The connection was different away from the village, away from the everyday activities that we shared in Huay Pakoot.

Have you ever gone to a particularly amazing party—a really brains-blowing bash where everyone gets properly drunk and happy and everyone hooks up and it’s all laughter and camaraderie and all your quarters shots are swishes and you feel like every single person there has just become a best friend?

(photo from Siobhan)

(photo from Siobhan)

Then you wake up in the sun-blasted, brimstone-and-hangover morning—the time when you are good and ready to drag your ass home, and there’s that guy—that guy—who reaches for a warm beer, maybe wedged in one of the couch cushions, and you hear the pop top opening…

Psshhh.

And you think, That’s the sound of someone who doesn’t know when it’s time to go home. The sound of someone trying to do the magic a second time. (With parties, that guy used to be me.)

Hanging out with the other volunteers in Chiang Mai was fun, but it felt like the party was over. And it was.

Before Chiang Mai there was an actual goodbye party at Base Camp. For the most part the party was as great as the party I described above. The best part for me was hanging out with Singto, the lead mahout, for a little while, and saying goodbye to him.

With Singto at the going-away party.

With Singto at the going-away party.

You good friend,” Singto said to me. His huge smile could flip over tractor-trailer trucks. “Here, keep this.”

He handed me his scarf. To keep.

In his world, I just think it was a simple gesture and a gift of friendship. I don’t think he gets the Western definition of the transfer of an article clothing from star to fan. But I sure did.

I worked in Hollywood for 20-plus years and I could care less about Tom Cruise’s autograph or a Sandra Bullock sighting or Robert Downey, Jr.’s gloves that he wore in Ironman 4—Let’s Do the Same Crap Again.

I admire these people as actors and it’s nice that they’re beautiful, but Singto takes care of elephants and has a pipeline to their souls.

To me, he’s a star.

He handed me the scarf and he said this to me (I’m keeping the broken English for accuracy): “Mike… I see you hike with elephant every day. You love elephant. You make good mahout.”

I felt a lump in my throat. I couldn’t talk—I had no words.

Thong Dee on the last day I saw her.

Thong Dee on the last day I saw her.

Saying goodbye to the elephant Thong Dee was difficult, but I guess I was in a better place when it occurred. I didn’t try to force a moment or try to do anything but be present and be with her.

Thong Dee is in her mid-50′s and most likely in the waning years of her life. I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again—even if I try to do the magic a second time.

There was one glorious moment during this last visit with her. She was on top of a ridge foraging and I was standing below her on the steep incline when she shifted and banked over me like the mammoth mother ship she is. She stepped gingerly down the incline, close enough that I could feel her musky breath and I could get one last impression of how huge and yet how quiet an elephant really is.

For once the staff person didn’t chase me away. Generally we are not allowed within a couple of feet of an elephant. Maybe because the staff person knew that this was my last time, and knew that I loved Thong Dee in particular, she didn’t interfere.

Thong Dee halted her descent for a moment, pausing, still. Elephants are slow and deliberate and do everything at their own pace, but even beyond that, there is no creature that I know of that can milk a pause like an elephant—and the last creature you would expect to be at home in a pause. It would be like if you encountered a giant out of some childhood fairytale—a giant holding a big club in a jungle on a hot, still day and you locked eyes with it… Would you expect it to just stand there, throwing a shadow over you like an overcoat? Or would you instead expect it to clomp after you, swinging the club and trying to squish you under its foot?

Thong Dee, all four wrinkly tons of her, just stood there. We locked eyes. She seemed to be mulling me over. There was a pause and then a pause after the pause.

I like to believe there was some language of the soul being transmitted in that moment. The pause was certainly long enough to speak volumes.

And then she trundled off into some heavier brush, and I saw her backside swallowed up by the jungle.

My last glimpse of Thong Dee.

My last glimpse of Thong Dee.

The last amazing thing I saw on the last hike in Thailand was this:

baby birds in bamboo 2

a nest of baby birds.

They were hidden a few feet off the path, huddled in the dark in a hollowed-out bamboo tree.

I know I can’t “do the magic” in Thailand a second time. But now I do get to work with a soul (mine) that has had an elephant-sized expansion—so whatever is next for me will likely be on the big side.

For what this journey has meant to me… I have no words left, except this one:

Goodbye.

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A CONFESSION

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I have a confession to make. I have been living a lie for many months—almost an entire year—but I can’t live with the guilt and shame any more.

I am deeply thankful for all the people who have read this blog and that have subscribed over the past year. I have become quite a blog reader myself over this time, so I know how hard many of you work on yours and I know everyone just has busy lives in general. So I appreciate the support. And for that reason I owe you the truth.

The truth is that it’s not really me that is writing this blog.

The truth is that I am a human being, and a human being of my particular type is not capable of writing a blog. You see, it’s too complicated to figure out and what if what I write sucks and what if people leave negative comments or even worse—no one reads at all. What if when I click on my page all I get is crickets and tumbleweeds or maybe some hell beast with three heads and a long silver tongue and all he does is spit at me.

I am afraid. Too afraid.

So I confess that the real writer of this blog all these months has been my cat Lyle. He’s done a pretty good job, I think. He’s a very good observer of cats, that’s for sure. But I also liked the one he wrote about Dick Cheney. Lyle is very good at satire.

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Lyle, ghostwriter cat.

I also confess that it wasn’t me who took the trip to Thailand to volunteer with elephants. Thailand was too far away and I didn’t speak the language and what if I got Japanese encephalitis and what if I got lost in the jungle and I was wayyyyyy too old to do something like that, for sure.

I was afraid. Too afraid.

So I sent my cat Sundance instead. Sundance got to meet some of the most amazing animals on the planet. When he got back, Sundance meowed at me about the elephants Thong Dee and Mana and Lulu and even about another cat that would follow him around sometimes. Sundance also met some pretty cool humans and he almost got a tattoo but backed out at the last minute.

Mana. Mana and Sundance got along well and even went drinking together.

Mana. Mana and Sundance got along well and even went drinking together.

Sundance brought back a Chang Beer T-shirt for me. When he handed it to me he was shaking his head. “You missed it, dude,” he said. “It was quite an amazing trip.”

Next time,” I said.

Yeah, right,” he said, and, after a month-plus away, returned to his favorite sleeping spot, curled up on the printer.

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Sundance. World traveler. Friend to elephants.

I confess that this year I met a beautiful woman I really liked but what if she thought the things I liked were stupid or that I was ugly or she wondered why I went to the bathroom so much (because I was trying to escape—and yet have a believable cover story)?

I was afraid to ask her for a second date. Too afraid.

So my cat Butch asked her out instead.

Man, what are you thinking?” he said to me as he hung up the phone. “She’s amazing. Oh well—you snooze you lose.”

This girl and my cat Butch have been going steady for many months now. They seem to be doing really well except sometimes when they’re watching a movie in a theater and Butch will suddenly throw up on the floor. I also think she’s a little tired of scooping the litter box after him—she wonders if he’ll ever be mature enough to handle that himself.

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Butch. Ladies’ cat. Can drive a stick.

I confess that in February of 2013 I was in the second decade of the same job—a job I was very grateful for, a job which paid me a lot of money, a job which didn’t match my insides any more.

My insides were to be a writer. Or some of my insides, anyway. I think I have a liver and a couple of kidneys in there too.

I was afraid. Seriously batshit scared.

I stayed in the job.

Thank god! You have to stay in this job forever! You are not capable of making money any other way. It’s okay to be unhappy as long as you’re making money. You’ll die if you leave!”

But my cat Picasso, who was working alongside of me, decided to quit. I guess he wasn’t afraid. He sashayed into my boss’ office and hissed at him.

What about the future? What about the February 2015 mortgage payment?” I asked Picasso.

Buddy, you’re tripping hard,” he said, while cleaning out his desk, packing up the scratching post, and taking one last piss on the carpet.

Picasso. "The hell with all a y'all," he hissed, and stormed out of his job.

Picasso. “The hell with all a y’all,” he hissed, and stormed out of his job.

That was a big move for Picasso. Quitting the job allowed Lyle to start fumbling around with a pen and Sundance to crawl into the window seat on a plane to Thailand. It allowed Butch to learn how to drive so he could take the girl out on dates.

And just so you know it wasn’t always easy for them: Lyle’s first written piece was a barely-readable haiku about choking a bluebird to death. Sundance hid under the bed for the first two days of the Thailand trip. Picasso wasted the first three weeks of his new freedom playing Bejewelled. And Butch for some reason tried to get to second base on only the third date with the girl. Bad kitty.

Thankfully I have all these wonderful cats, who are fearless and are able to live in the moment. Thankfully they’re around to live my dreams and live my life for me.

So before I have to hand this blog back to Lyle (he’s editing this as we go, from his position in my lap) I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season.

I know my cats will have a wonderful one for me.

Oh—and Lyle told me to tell you he’s working on a novel. It’s probably going to have cats in it, and surprisingly a dog too.

I was going to tell you something else but Lyle just hissed at me to delete it. I hate how he rips apart my stuff.

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