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.

iphone_June25 042