GREAT ANIMAL BOOKS

shardikHappy holidays everyone! Humblest of apologies, again, for being MIA in the blogosphere. Life events and the writing of the novel are to blame. I didn’t realize how much work—wonderful work—writing a novel is. Oh, and life events seem to require a lot of work, too—mostly wonderful work, though with the soccer practices and the jiu-jitsu classes and the walnut cracking seminars, I just never realized how hard it was to raise baby raccoons.

Anyway, since I am writing a novel that centers around animals and is largely told from their point of view, I thought I might share with you some of the animal books—fiction and nonfiction—that have inspired me and influenced me. Click on the titles for links to buy the books. If you know a person who loves animals, or are such a person, you might want to pick one or more of these up as gifts for them, or for yourself.

This year, I’m getting the complete works of Hemingway for the baby raccoons to read. I’m trying to toughen them up.

cat in hatThe Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss

A six-foot tall anthropomorphic cat wearing a red-and-white-striped stovepipe-like hat and a red bowtie—yay! I had a ton of Dr. Seuss books as a kid, and I read them, and gawked at the wonderful illustrations, over and over.

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

A classic and beautiful animal world with wonderful characters. Lovely for children and even adults, and I suggest you seek out the original version with illustrations by E. H. Shephard. What I remember most is the beautiful meditations on friendship and love.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

This is mostly a fantasy involving humans, of course, but it features a lion named Aslan who is an actual deity. Lions deserve no less. This and the Lord of The Rings books were the major reading opuses of my childhood, and I reread both series at least once. I remember imagining that I would name all my future children after the children in this book—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. Now, at my advanced age, I realize that four children is probably a long shot. I’ll probably have to settle for just one. I’ll name him Aslan, of course. (Or Aslanette, if it’s a girl. Of course.)

webCharlotte’s Web by E. B. White

Wonderful story from my early childhood that planted the seed of feeling compassion for animals, and showed me what they really do to pigs on farms. Beautiful and heartbreaking, another timeless classic.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Richard Adams is my hero. I think he writes animals better than anyone—he anthropomorphizes them, and yet he places them in a realistic context. They talk and think and feel, but Adams also is mindful of their animal natures—their heightened senses, their fear of predators, their struggle for survival and for food, their connection to nature. Adams not only conveys a sense of what life is like through an animal’s eyes, but also is able to explore some perhaps more human emotions, and—better yet—to explore the nexus of where human and animal emotions meet. The emotions that we share with animals. All this, without losing the suspension of disbelief and without losing the suspense and joy of a story well-told. Adams is my model with the novel I am writing—this delicate and beautiful balance of anthropomorphism and exploring the inner worlds of animals.

Watership Down is his most famous work, about rabbits fleeing their warren and experiencing a grand adventure, but he has written other books that are just as amazing. A dramatic, emotional, and suspenseful adventure for adults and older children. I reread this recently, and it’s still fantastic.

plagueThe Plague Dogs by Richard Adams

This is a deeper, darker, more intense exploration of animal characters. In this case, it’s a story of two dogs who escape from an animal testing laboratory. Unlike Watership Down, which is told solely from the perspective of animals, there are animal and human characters in this book. There is a powerful message here about the horrors of animal testing. But like all great literature, it’s not preachy, and the message is in the background. In the foreground is the friendship of the two dogs and their desperate journey of escape. There is a beautiful, heartbreaking fox character in the story as well. This is a poignant work meant for adults, and it will stay with you.

Shardik by Richard Adams

This is Richard Adams’ masterpiece, and this and The Plague Dogs are unfairly overlooked. Shardik is a twisting, dramatic, complex, and epic fantasy that is about humans, but I mention it here because there is a bear character in the book that is unforgettable (and is a focal point of the story). The first forty or so pages are a bit challenging, but if you manage to weather them, you will experience an amazing adult adventure. This is the Lord of the Rings for adults. This is a book I will reread.

callThe Call of the Wild by Jack London

Kind of the opposite of Richard Adams. No anthropomorphism here. (Though that’s relative, because as soon as a human presumes to write about what an animal is thinking or feeling, he is anthropomorphizing to some degree.) Gritty, spare, fast-moving yarn about a once-domesticated dog who is forced to be a sled dog in the Yukon, and discovers his ‘wild’ nature.

Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog (nonfiction) by John Grogan

One thing I want to tell you right off the bat is: put the movie out of your mind. I have not seen the movie, and that’s because, based on the trailers and other marketing materials, it appeared to me that Mr. Grogan’s story was Disney-fied and made to become more “precious” than it really is. The book is honest and heartfelt, and it earns every bit of it (no puppy close-up shots necessary). Mr. Grogan is an accomplished and beautiful writer, and anyone who has known the love and friendship of a dog—particularly a “difficult” one—will discover enormous pleasure in this book.

Dewey the Library Cat: a True Story (nonfiction) by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter

Sort of the cat version of Marley and Me. Not written quite as well as Mr. Grogan’s book, but still wonderful and deeply affecting.

CujoCujo by Stephen King

This is an underrated gem by Mr. King, about a family pet Saint Bernard who gets bitten by a bat, slowly gets sick, and eventually goes rabid and terrorizes the family that loves him (and everyone else). The writing from the point of view of the dog as it slowly gets sick and essentially goes crazy, is vivid, perceptive, and skillful.

Simon’s Cat by Simon Tofield

The link is to his website. Mr. Tofield writes books, creates comic strips, games, and even makes animated shorts. I am not singling out a particular work—just do yourself a favor and look over his website. His work is beautiful, funny, and honest and true to what cats are really like.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

This has become one of my favorite books of all time. After I finished it the first time, I read that it was a conscious retelling of Hamlet. I missed that, and it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story one bit. You don’t have to be an animal lover to appreciate how wonderful this book is, either, and to enjoy the gorgeous words Mr. Wroblewski writes. This is essentially a story about humans—a family living in Wisconsin, breeding dogs.

The book is a thriller, it’s also a story about family, love, betrayal, loss, and of course dogs. The bond between humans and dogs is richly explored, and Mr. Wroblewski carefully selects only a few moments to step into the body of a dog. But when he does, the results are stunning. This is a book I will reread.

sawtelle

Some books about animals that I haven’t read yet but want to are Animal Farm (somehow I missed this in school, and it’s at the top of my list), Never Cry Wolf, White Fang, and Traveller—which I just discovered by doing research for this blog post.

Do you have favorite animal books? What am I missing?

pooh

(All book jacket photos from Amazon.com.)

IS MY CAT SICK?

Butch.

Butch.

ME: I’m worried about you, Butch. What’s with you not eating lately?

BUTCH THE CAT: You’re thinking I might be sick.

ME: Yes. Maybe. I can’t tell.

BUTCH: It’s a bitch, I admit. We cats. We play that stuff close to the vest. Kind of hide it. When we’re sick, I mean. Seems like one day, everything’s catnip. Then bam. Deader than Dillinger.

ME: I’d rather you’d stay away from the outdated dead gangster metaphors. Particularly the dead part.

BUTCH: Suit yourself.

ME: I wish you could talk. Imagine if our companion animals could talk. Cats, dogs, guinea pigs, goldfish—

BUTCH: Pigs, snakes, hermit crabs, anteaters…

ME: Yeah. Yes. Though maybe not so much anteaters. If our animals could talk, then we wouldn’t have to worry. We’d know if they were sick or not. If only…

BUTCH: Uh…

ME: Oh yeah. You can talk! Wow, it’s a miracle. So… are you sick?

BUTCH: Not sure. But I might have scurvy. Might, I’m saying.

ME: Really? Cats can get that?

BUTCH: Possibly. If they’re sailors especially.

ME: But you don’t have it, right?

BUTCH: I don’t think so. And I thought about the navy, but decided against it. It was the hats. I’d look ridiculous in a hat like that.

ME: So is anything wrong with you?

BUTCH: It might be a touch of leprosy.

ME: Oh my god. You have leprosy?

BUTCH: Probably not. Well, at least I think not. If my paw falls off in the middle of this conversation, then maybe yes.

ME: I don’t think cats can get leprosy.

BUTCH: But you’re not sure.

ME: No, I’m not.

BUTCH: You’re not sure about a lot of things.

ME: That’s true.

BUTCH: Like you’re probably not sure if you’re really having a conversation with me right now.

ME: That’s true—

BUTCH: Like maybe you’re just a loon. A loon who talks to cats.

ME (brow furrowing): Could be. It’s just I worry about you.

BUTCH: Shit, like you needed to tell me that. Your brain is a fear factory, you got like assembly lines cranking overtime in that flat little head of yours. All kinds of heat and choking fumes—

ME: Assembly lines in my brain?

BUTCH: Don’t interrupt me, I’m on a roll. Like I was saying, you got little kids up in your head, working twenty hours a day, slaving over your panicky thoughts. Child slave labor—I could be wrong—but didn’t they phase that out like a hundred freaking years ago? Might want to give it a break.

ME (sighing): If you tell me you’re alright, maybe I can.

BUTCH: You probably got kittens up there too, in that brain. Working them to death. Sweet little kittens. How could you?

9_3_13 007

ME: Butch. Your health. Are you alright?

BUTCH: So the other day. When you laid down to take your nap. In the late afternoon, the sun just so? The window open, the sparrows talking shit out there. Remember that?

ME: Yes! Yes I do. You jumped on the bed and came to me. You circled me for five minutes, stepped over me, kept poking your nose in my face. I didn’t know what was going on—

BUTCH: Making sure is all. Checking that everything was copacetic—

ME: And then you curled up right next to my chest. You spooned me. For the first time. I’ve had you for six years, and you’ve never ever done that before. That made me so happy.

BUTCH: Yeah, that was nice.

ME: It took so long… I knew you had a rough kittenhood. Why did it take so long for you to curl up with me like that?

BUTCH: You were patient. I’ll give you that.

ME: It was so… amazing. My arm cradling your whole body, like a baby.

BUTCH: Whoa, “baby”?

ME: Like a kitten, I mean.

BUTCH: Better.

ME: Yeah, and your face was tucked into the crook of my elbow. I could feel your cool breath on my skin. And your heartbeat—for the first time I could feel your heartbeat. I felt your energy… your being… sort of flow into me, if you can believe that. And vice versa. It was like our bodies were joined.

BUTCH: Yeah. That was nice. I liked your arm around me, that felt safe.

ME: Maybe it reminded you of the womb or something—

BUTCH: Let’s not get carried away, kay?

ME: Okay. So, please tell me. Is there anything wrong with you? Are you sick?

BUTCH: I think I’m gonna nap on the window sill for a bit. Catch you later.

ME: You’re not going to tell me, are you?

BUTCH: Relax. Go pound like five cups of coffee. For you, that’ll slide you down some. Pull you back from the edge. I probably have a few naps left in me. A few more naps in your arms. If you’re partial to that sort of thing.

ME: Of course! But you know… if you are sick. Now that you can talk, it’s like a fantastic opportunity to let me know—

BUTCH: Yeah, that reminds me. Now that I can talk. We should do something about my name. I think you can do better. We need something with more…. gravity. How about “Hannibal”?

ME: Are you kidding?

BUTCH: I’m as serious as J. Edgar Hoover. Oh. Hey look.

Butch gives me his paw.

BUTCH: My paw didn’t fall off. Guess you can definitely rule out leprosy.

 

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:

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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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