A COUPLE OF CAT LISTS

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THE 10 MOST AWESOME THINGS ABOUT HAVING CATS:

  1. Cats, as a general rule, are not needy. They’re independent and interaction with them is often on their terms. This gets you settled with the fact that it’s really not all about you all the time. (Dogs will cause you to mistakenly believe this.) Cats show you how it really is in the world: it’s all about everyone except you. This is a valuable lesson to learn, and will spare you much suffering.
  2. Cats are the most awesome spooners. (With apologies to my girlfriend.)
  3. The cat walk is one of the most awesome things in the world to watch. Cats are actually cool, and it’s who they are, not some put-on. I’m looking at you, Gerard Butler.
  4. You get to live with the cousins of tigers. That’s pretty awesome—appreciate it. This will be at an even higher premium when tigers are driven to extinction, which won’t be long now.

    Lyle.

    Lyle.

  5. A cat purring is one the most awesome sounds in the world. I’ll put it up there with the sounds of rain in the jungle, bird song, a babbling brook, or your doctor saying, “You’re perfectly fine, and this bill is on me.”
  6. You can talk to a cat. I’m serious, try it. They will meow back at you, and once you back and forth with your cats enough you’ll be able to understand what they’re saying. Mine usually tell me to suck it up and stop complaining.
  7. They rub up against you. This expresses love as well as ownership. So cats are the only example of a benevolent dictatorship in the history of everything.

    Picasso.

    Picasso.

  8. You save a life if you adopt one from a shelter or a rescue. My cats Butch and Sundance were part of a cat colony on the streets of Hollywood. Picasso was a stray on the streets near downtown Los Angeles. Lyle was at a kill shelter and was scheduled to be euthanized during Christmas week in 2010 because he had a runny nose. I’m not kidding—a runny nose. (Lyle is the face of this blog, by the way.)Lyle sun 1
  9. Cats are creative muses. I’m convinced of it. If you have a novel trapped in you then you pretty much need a cat napping in the chair within six feet of your keyboard for you to even have a chance of getting it out.
  10. If a cat loves you, you know you’re something special.127

THE 10 MOST NOT SO AWESOME THINGS ABOUT HAVING CATS:

  1. There is no place safe from cat hair. Especially not the underwear drawer. Corollary: your dark clothes will look like they’re all trying to grow beards.
  2. Cats are in no way shape or form anything but carnivores. If you’re a vegan, this will cause you endless confusion and inner turmoil.
  3. Veterinarian trips. Cats will not go quietly and the claws may come out. Stuffing yourself into a suit of armor might help with this. Otherwise you will pay for these unwarranted and undignified kidnappings.
  4. Cats throw up a lot. You’re going to want to rethink buying a house with a lot of carpeting. My carpeted bedroom floor looks like Laos circa 1970.

    Butch.

    Butch.

  5. Cats hide sickness really well. It’s probably the worst holdover trait from their wild ancestors (You know, the “show no vulnerability to survive” thing—the same crap that’s drummed into a lot of young boys). Things will be coasting along like normal and then it’s nightmare time.
  6. Dander balls the size of tumbleweeds.
  7. Cats operate from a state of fear, with rare exceptions. So they don’t sit well with new people or new places. And they’re always ready to run away. The good news is if you operate from a state of fear, your cat will show you how silly it is to live life in this way. (I am talking about myself, of course.)Beautiful Butch
  8. If you get to a place of appreciation of the species, it’s hard to stop acquiring them. I have four. I was not “a cat person” growing up and never intended to get even one.
  9. Scratching furniture. Remember #4 in the “most awesome” list: you get to live with the cousins of tigers. Don’t forget how awesome that is. Move it up to #1 if you want. As far as the scratching, put up a few scratching posts—cats are drawn to them like Gerard Butler to crappy movies. I mean crappy movies to Gerard Butler.
  10. As with any animal, the bond you form with a cat is deep and it’s for life. And their lives are significantly shorter than yours.

    Sundance.

    Sundance.

And the biggest myth about cats I’d like to dispel: the one about cats being ‘aloof’ and not capable of forming a real bond with humans.

It’s real simple: you get what you give with a cat.

One other myth: there’s no such thing as a ‘crazy cat man’—there’s only a ‘crazy cat lady.’

Not true.001

JFK

405px-John_F_Kennedy_Official_Portrait

Every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward—by examining his own attitude towards the possibilities of peace…”

—President John F. Kennedy, excerpt from speech at American University

I believe that the fundamental guiding energy of the universe is love, and that peace is a close second—if it’s not a form of love itself. I believe that when we stand up for animals we stand up for love and peace, and we stand against the destructive, nihilistic forces of the universe—I will not call them “energies” since I believe they are basically the opposite of that, they are more like energy vacuums—those of war and violence, hatred, and greed.

For this reason I believe it is important to honor the slain President John F. Kennedy, a man who ultimately stood for peace and love. He was struck down 50 years ago on November 22, 1963, a dark day for America and for the world, as well as for love and peace.

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Right before President Kennedy was murdered, he delivered a commencement speech at American University that was all about peace and love. Keep in mind that this was delivered at the height of the Cold War, when the “Communist menace” engendered fear, hatred, and paranoia throughout the country, and many in Kennedy’s military and cabinet believed that war with the Soviet Union was inevitable. Here are a couple of excerpts:

What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.”

I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.”

jfk pensive

The Warren Report, the shoddiest, most cynical document of omissions, distortions, and lies in the history of American justice, its day-to-day “investigation” led by one of President Kennedy’s greatest enemies, former head of the C.I.A. Allen Dulles—is somehow all these years later still being propagandized as the truth by the mainstream media machine.

What does this have to do with animals?

I believe that those of us who do stand for love and peace yet turn away when it comes to the truth of what is on our plates, when we close our eyes to what goes on in the factories and laboratories that are shuttered in the dark, desolate corners of our country, where beings of love and innocence are daily brutalized, tortured, and murdered in the millions, their cries of help falling on deaf ears—this is of the same stuff as our looking away from the truth of the Kennedy assassination. In both instances, love and peace are dishonored.

jfk-funeral-procession1

JFK funeral procession, Washington, D.C.

Most of us with common sense and a willingness to pursue the facts know that the assassination of President Kennedy was political and not carried out by a lone nut, and we know that factory farming and laboratory testing is savage and inhumane (not to mention bad for our collective health). Yet to look closer at these truths, to really look, then we have to look at ourselves, we have to look closely at two pillars of our very existence: what we eat and what we believe.

We must open our eyes to the consequences of not confronting violence, hatred, and greed, we must open our eyes to what rushes in to fill the vaccuum left by our apathy and fear: perpetual wars, perpetual need, perpetual division, the bleeding away of our rights, the endless suffering of both humans and animals.

We have to look at what kind of society and what kind of democracy we live in, we have to look at what our lives really mean.

And we begin by looking inward, as President Kennedy says.

I believe to live lives that truly honor love and peace we must do this. There is just no other way.

Riderless horse, JFK funeral procession

“Black Jack,” riderless horse, JFK funeral procession

DICK CHENEY VOLUNTEERS AT A CAT SHELTER

Picasso ornery winner 2

Anything’s Paws-i-ble Cat Sanctuary is a private shelter for stray and rescued cats in the tiny town of Soapville, Wyoming. About 100 cats wander around the drafty converted barn, tabbies and tuxedos and Persians and Maine Coons and on and on.

Ms. Gillooly is 51 and has been running the shelter for over fifteen years. She is plump as a pumpkin and her thinning blond hair is worn in a Mary Tyler Moore haircut from 1974. Her pink-framed bifocals are fastened to a shot bead chain around her neck, and rest on her pink Hello Kitty sweatshirt from 1989. The red bow on the female kitty head in the logo is so faded it looks like a head wound.

Ms. Gillooly is in her office—also overrun with cats—when DICK CHENEY, the former Vice President of the United States of America, enters. He idly brushes fresh cat hair off the lapels of his Brooks Brothers slate-gray suit. His crown of white hair is thinner, his skin is grayer, but all things considered he’s not looking too shabby for a guy who’s had five heart attacks and a heart transplant.

Ms. Gillooly squints suspiciously at the ex-Vice-President like she’s trying to sniff out a bomb.

DICK CHENEY: Good day, madam. I am very much enjoying my brief time at your establishment. And I find your sweatshirt tremendously amusing. “Hello Kitty,” that is a fine and lucrative brand. When we were in Tokyo trying to get the Japanese to squeeze the Chinese a little harder on Kim Jong-il, Lynne insisted we bring back a case of those shirts for the grandchildren.

MS. GILLOOLY: Not all that impressed with the name dropping, sir. I’m sure your friends are all very important. Napoleon is wayyy back in my family tree but you don’t see me invading Russia.

DICK CHENEY: I beg your pardon?

MS. GILLOOLY: Never mind. I have looked over your resume—

DC: You know, hemm… I realize that I left off my stints at Halliburton—

MS. G: I’m unfamiliar with that name. Is that another cat shelter?

DC: Are you serious, madam? It’s one of the largest oilfield service companies—

MS. G: I’m sure that’s very nice for you. I’m sure I can wish in one hand, Harburton stint in the other and we can both see which one fills up first. But what I would like to know is what your interest in cats is.

DC: I assure you madam, I am a serious person. I am very serious about loving cats.

MS. G: So you say, Mr. Cheney. But I am a tad concerned about your sportsman activities.

DC: In what way, madam?

MS. G: Well, Mr. Cheney, hunters are typically not the type of people who volunteer at animal shelters. Hunters kill animals, Mr. Cheney. We try to save them here. I’m not sure if you saw the sign walking in here. But it read “shelter,” not “animal shooting house.”

DC: Madam, if you don’t mind me saying so, you remind me an awful lot of Condi. Hemm… Condoleezza Rice?

MS. G: Was she the name of your cat?

DC: No, madam… she was the National Security Adviser and the—

MS. G (throws up both hands): Don’t need to hear it, sir. I’m sure she’s a lovely person. Did you shoot her in the face too?

Ms. Gillooly looks up, her eyes diamond cutting the ex-Vice President.

MS. G: Thought you could hide that little incident from me, did you?

DC: Madame… no. That was a well-known story, and it brought my poll numbers way down—not that I care, mind you. I have never cared a lick about polls. You see, madam, no matter what the polls say… sometimes a gathering danger must be directly confronted—

MS. G: Was danger gathering on your friend’s face, Mr. Cheney?

DC: You keep interrupting me, madam… that was an accident…

MS. G: Sir, there has been an awful lot of gum flapping in this office today, but very little about cats. This is a place for cats and I need volunteers. I don’t need Harburtons or face shooters, sir. And I don’t need any funny business. Do you follow me, Mr. Cheney? No funny business at all, or you can let the cat door hit you on the way out.

DC: Here, madam. Let me prove it to you.

DICK CHENEY scoops up a puffy black cat wandering by and nestles him in his lap. DICK CHENEY furiously pets the black cat, giving MS. GILLOOLY a cracked grin.

DC: See? Love me the felines.

(to cat; his voice raises about five octaves)

And what’s your name, my little black fellow? Such a wovely wittle boy…

MS. G: That’s Poe.

DC: Aww… little Poe-y Woe-y.

(to Ms. Gillooly)

When I was Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff I had a black cat named Orion. Black cats are beautiful, mysterious creatures. I trained Orion to shit in Kissinger’s shoes. Heh.

MS. G: I’m sure that happened. What’s your stance on scooping out litter boxes, Mr. Cheney?

DC: I believe the cats will, in fact, greet me as a liberator. Of their turds.

MS. G: Okay, I’m just going to come out with it, Mr. Cheney. Let’s just drop our knickers and see where we are, shall we? My grandchildren are frightened of you. They’re six and four, and they have nightmares that you’re under their bed. They think you’re going to eat their hearts out.

DC (smiles crookedly): I only do that to Democrats, Ms. Gillooly—

MS. G: I told you I want no funny business, Mr. Cheney…

The black cat, Poe, bounds out of Dick Cheney’s lap and perches on the desk. The cat squats and licks one paw, keeping one eye on Dick Cheney.

MS. G: A lot of children come through here, Mr. Cheney. They don’t need some bogeyman ex-Vice President scaring the animal crackers out of them.

DC: Madam… I believe in time the children will come to see me as a jubilant clown, if you will. A non-Gacy clown. A firm, joyful, non-homicidal presence in this shelter. Hemm. And I promise you I will preserve, protect, and defend all the cats in this sanctuary.

MS. G: Well… I do believe in giving everyone a fair shake, no matter what their past. I will certainly be fair and square when I make my decision. I will be in touch, Mr. Cheney. On your way out, please tell the other gentleman that’s waiting to come in.

10 MINUTES LATER:

MS. G: I’m sorry, I seem to have misplaced your resume. Who are you again?

AL GORE: Ma’am, I am Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States, and former crusader for the perils of climate change.

MS. G: What? Another ex-Vice President? Is this some funny business? This better be about cats…

AL GORE (unpacking a heavy box): Ma’am. If you give me a moment… I have a really wonderful, illuminating PowerPoint presentation on why I, Al Gore, will be a vocal proponent and dedicated cuddler of your cats.

MS. G: Let’s cut to the chase, Mr. Gore. What’s your stance on scooping out litter boxes?

AL GORE: No fucking way. Get Bush to do that.

BLACK CAT

Bandit pillow

In honor of Halloween and my wonderful black cat Bandit, who passed away two years ago:

I am a black cat

and I know you fear me

I am a black cat

You think I’m bad luck

I am a black cat

Go ahead

blame your whole crappy life

on me.

I prowl down moon-raped avenues

I prowl alongside broom-ridden witches

I prowl under ladders, over sidewalk cracks, on

Friday the thirteenths

And I piss

on four leaf clovers.

That’s what you think

isn’t it?

You humans think I’m the devil

You humans think you know everything

You humans are black cat

black everything

racists.

You humans

can kiss my black cat ass.

I am a black cat

Hear me meow

I am a black cat

Lock up your daughters

and chihuahuas

I am a black cat

I’m coming for you

I am a black cat

will you please adopt me?

I am a black cat

And I know this:

Love always brings

good luck.

Bandit

LIKE TEARS IN RAIN

This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.

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One of my favorite movies is the 1982 Ridley Scott film Blade Runner, with Harrison Ford as a world-weary detective in what is probably the first futuristic noir film ever made.

Blade Runner has one of the best death scene soliloquys in cinema history, delivered by Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, an inhuman “replicant” who is being hunted by Harrison Ford’s character. What’s beautiful about the soliloquy is that Batty has lived a very short life and is not even human, and yet in recounting some of the tiny but glorious moments he has experienced in his brief time, he understands what it is to be truly human. Here’s his last words:

I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like… tears… in rain. Time… to die…”

When it’s my “time… to die…”   here’s a partial list of some of those tiny but glorious moments in Thailand—the ones that will never get their own blog posts—but that have made me grateful I have lived them. These are some of the moments that remind me of what it is to be human, in no particular order:

I learned to cook some Thai dishes from a 14-year-old village girl wearing a Yankees hat while a black kitten the size of my fist nuzzled my belly. The kitten felt as delicate as a little glass ball, so instead of holding her normally I cradled her with the tips of my fingers.

I drank 28 cups of teeth-melting instant coffee—one for each morning I was there. My plan was to relax and enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee before each hike. I never finished one cup—you can’t keep an elephant waiting.

I hit 20 walls on 20 strenuous hikes and I kept going. This means that 20 times I thought I could go not one step further… and I went on hiking for hours after that. On hike number 21, there were no more walls.

I drank tea in the forest out of mahout-crafted bamboo cups that were warm on the inside from the tea and hot on the outside… from the heat generated by the machete steel that had been chewing into the wood only moments before.

drinking tea

I learned a few dozen words in Packinyah, the language spoken by the Karen people here. There is no other part of the world that speaks the language, so the utility of this knowledge is limited. But it’s kind of cool that this is the one place in the world where the word for dog is chewie”—and because of that I will never look at a dog again without thinking of a Wookie.

I walked by water buffaloes (think cows) staring at me with expressions that seemed straight out of Munch’s The Scream painting, cow version… I felt powerless because I couldn’t “save” every one of them.

I awoke in the middle of the night to gunshots reverberating through the jungle. I was told that some of the men of the village hunted deer at this time. I hope they missed. Sometimes they drank rice whiskey before hunting. I thought of a booze-charged errant shot thudding into an elephant.

I sat in the clouds on the edge of a mountain while listening to a gibbon (a type of ape) call, at the same time that I watched a mahout blush as he was asked (and teased) about whether he liked or didn’t like a particular girl. While he stammered to answer the ape whooped from the trees.

I saw trees in the jungle with bark that seemed to have grown outward-jutting spikes. To defend themselves against what?

Canon pix June 15_2013 044

I watched Schindler’s List on a screen fastened to a bamboo wall at Base Hut. One of the trips I took right before this one was to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. On the next day’s hike I couldn’t get the image of the room at Auschwitz filled with human hair out of my head, the thousands of tangled and moldering scalps. I left the hike early—the only time I did that.

I bought thin cheap Thai chocolate bars at a “store” that was really someone’s house in the village. Under the circumstances, in that world, it tasted like expensive French pastry.

I got lost in the village multiple times. One of the times I was set right by the lead mahout Singto, tooling by in his scooter. 20 minutes after that I was lost again and set right by Ian, a volunteer. After another 20 minutes, I had to be set right yet again, by Singto again… tooling by in his scooter the opposite way.

I saw elephants climb and descend mountains, and each time it would take my breath away: the way the elephants step, tentative, testing each foothold, the slow shifting of their weight, the look of concentration on their faces, the startled look when they slip, the flailing if they stumbled… all of these movements and all of these feelings—concentration, determination, fear, surprise, helplessness—were utterly human-like.

I participated in four volunteer “quiz” trivia competitions. My first partner was the Base Leader Gemma. She said to me, “I hope you’re not competitive.” I said, “No, not really.” Meaning: “If we don’t win, I will ask the elephants to bury us, because I will have to kill both of us.” On the fourth quiz I was sure that our team had won. When the final tally came in… I could hear the elephants out back, digging graves.

I used this phrase when conversing with people from the United Kingdom: “Fucking Brits.” It’s a term of endearment cloaked in a hoodie of irritation. The genesis of this phrase was the above-mentioned quiz and getting this random and impossible question from Ian, moderator of the quiz and a Brit: “What is the southernmost active volcano in the world?” He followed that gem with five questions about European football.

Fucking Brits.

I whispered to the baby elephant Lulu at two o’clock in the morning—everyone asleep except for me and her.

Lulu.

Lulu.

I saw songbirds once, just traces of them at a campsite. All that was left of them was wispy piles of blue and red and yellow, like the remains of an assassinated rainbow. The mahouts had shot the birds out of the trees and plucked them to fry them on the campfire. I knew if I told them why I was upset they would look at me like I was a space alien. In that moment I felt like a space alien.

I played poker while clouds of bugs thudded into me so often it was as if it was raining bugs. The “rain droplets” were not your typical droplets, though: sometimes I’d get thwapped with a little flying ant, sometimes I’d get fwumped by a big black beetle that wanted to eat my face. We dealt the face-eating beetles into the poker game. One of the beetles got an inside straight and he swept up the winning pot with ten spindly black legs.

I read one note card written by my girlfriend on each night I was in Thailand. There were 32 personal notes telling me in different ways what I meant to her and how much she missed me. Each day I read one I felt like she was standing right beside me and I could feel myself smiling so big that it hurt my face.

I saw up close what an elephant looks and sounds like when it’s frightened. His ears were out and stiff, his tail up and ramrod-straight, he was snorting and trumpeting as he took a few steps backward uphill. The elephant was scared by a stray dog that was a little bigger than a chihuahua, and the dog was not aggressive in any way. This made me realize that fear can strike down anything.

I fell asleep each night huddled in my little mosquito net with my laptop actually on my lap, watching an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It was my Western civilization comfort food.

And I’ve now seen many elephants up close and I’ve touched them, but even better than that: I have stood still while elephants looked me up and down… and they touched me.

Those are some of my “tears in rain.” Maybe not quite as dramatic as “attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion,” but then that’s just a line in a movie… and I can die knowing an elephant hugged me.

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THE ELEPHANT INSIDE ME

While I was struggling to write my next blog post about my Thailand elephant adventure—a struggle which has been particularly embarrassing since I put the words “part one” in the subheading of last week’s post, and so not having part two ready to go already feels like I have a loaded gun at my head—my girlfriend sent me the photo below:

elephant womb 2

Image of an elephant fetus in a womb. A series of different representations, using ultrasound scans and 4-dimensional scanning technology, have been created for a documentary called Animals in the Womb that will be screened in the UK on Channel 4 over Christmas. (Channel 4/PA)

So imagine this assassin standing behind me, call him “Mr. Part One,” who was mild-mannered and loving humanity a week ago when he was on the page, but now he’s pissy and homicidal because he just wants to hold me to my word and see this “Mr. Part Two” I was promising. His dead fish-finger is on the trigger, the gun barrel is tapping my skull, and he doesn’t care about anything else, like me eating or sleeping or feeding the cats, and he certainly isn’t interested in me getting all googly-eyed over a picture of an elephant floating in a womb.

Like anyone would do with a gun to their head—I tell him to hold on for a second.

Besides the fact that this image is just flat-out cool, there is something that it is illuminating deep inside me, a firecracker spinning and popping down into a warren of green and blue glowing caves that leads to who-knows-where. So I’m going to duck a few hundred shrieking bats and try to see what’s down here inside me.

In a literal sense the photo above is, of course, “just” an elephant. But since in the few pockets of the world where they still roam they’re either vulnerable or endangered—what with poaching, exploitation, habitat destruction, and their own super-long gestation period (two years from conception to birth)—there’s no “just” about even one elephant. Most people reading this will likely never see one except in a photograph. So looking at this image reminds me of how unique and fragile the entire species is. Even a powerful giant like an elephant is vulnerable in the womb—and at this point the entire species is hanging by a thread “in the womb.” Imagine losing such a remarkable creature.

Another facet of the image is that I see a resemblance to a human: look at the head, blot out the trunk and ears and focus on the eye and the mouth: those two features in particular, at this stage in the womb, make me think of a human baby.

Most mammals are born with 90% of their brain weight—they are who they are and know what they know at birth. Humans are born with 28% of their adult brain weight, which reflects what will be a long and complex learning process from birth to adulthood. Elephants are born with 35% of theirs—pretty close to humans—and they learn as they grow just like us.

Also like humans elephants grieve, play, mimic behaviors, learn to use tools, show compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, and even communicate with each other.

We already know about their long memories. They also live about as long as humans: 50-70 years. And, if you happen to die first, and are particularly nice to elephants, like famed conservationist Lawrence Anthony, they might even make the trip to attend your funeral. (The Facebook page describing this incident is here and it has a striking photo of the “funeral procession.”)

When I look at the womb photo I also think of elephant astronauts floating in space. I can’t help it. I imagine them in baggy silver space suits and dark-visored helmets that make them look like they’re all wearing giant-sized Ray Bans. They are treading zero gravity up there, pumping their tree trunk legs, and clenching death ray pistols in their trunks so they can repel space aliens. I could go on with this one.

Looking at the photo again and digging deeper… in the last year or two I’ve spoken to some close friends about how I feel like I’ve been “reborn” just in the past couple of years. So when I look at this image I think of all the garbage dumps, sucking swamps, and blasted-out moonscapes that I’ve walked through to get here. All the alcoholism, workaholism, fear, low self-esteem, people pleasing, all the crap-sandwich years of mostly self-imposed suffering—they’re all fading away like old shitty 70’s polaroids in a cheap flip book that I threw into the trash can.

Now I feel like I am this baby elephant right after birth—wobbly and falling on his ass a lot… and yet with this new gentleness, compassion, and capacity for great strength and power.

My tusks are coming in quite nicely.

I also see in this image the thing I am doing right now, in this moment, with “Mr. Part One” standing behind me with the loaded gun, rolling his yellowy snake eyes at me.

I am writing.

As a boy I was writing almost since the moment I could read. I never learned how to hold a pencil properly—I squeezed the pencil in a caveman grip like I was trying to strangle it—so I would write and write and get big ugly blisters.

I stopped writing in my 20’s when alcoholism and “careerism” got me in their grips. I didn’t write too much more than emails for over twenty years. My career in that time was as a trailer editor, and I wrote some copy for the trailers I cut here and there—mostly out of necessity, to fit what I was cutting.

If I saw a trailer I cut on the big screen I was less impressed with my edits than if the copy I wrote made it to the final version: I’d smile and say to whoever I was with, “I wrote that”—exactly like a six year-old boy would say it.

But copy writing to a writer is like being a champion long distance runner who is shut in a tiny room with a creaky treadmill.

I thought I would die without really writing anything ever again. I was terrified of this—because deep down I knew, I knew that I needed to strangle a pencil again.

You know that expression “the elephant in the room”? Well, the elephant in my womb was the writing… it was always there, and it turns out that I didn’t need to worry about never writing again.

Because you know, that’s a freaking elephant in there, and it has to come out.

So as I perform a judo move on “Mr. Part One”, disarming him, whapping him on the bridge of his nose with the butt of the gun, and telling him “Mr. Part Two” will come out when he’s good and ready…

What I want to know is, do you have an elephant inside of you?

I’d like to hear about it.

THE ISLAND OF MISFIT ELEPHANTS

babies forage

This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.

A lot of people have asked me why I chose to go to Thailand to volunteer with elephants.

The journey to Huay Pakoot began when my black cat Bandit got sick in the summer of 2010. Bandit needed to be monitored closely because of his sickness, and my boss was kind enough to let me take all the time off I needed to nurse him back to health.

My job as a trailer editor was demanding and stressful. I worked an average of 50 pressure-packed hours a week, many times much more. Studio executives hounded me, deadlines barked at me, lunch had to be gulped down, and I felt like a scarecrow propped up and roped down into my chair in front of the computer.

About a week into my “sabbatical,” Bandit was improving daily and it was clear that he would make it. Because he needed less direct care, I found I had some extra time on my hands. So I did something I had considered for a few years but had never done anything about: I volunteered to help some animals—at a cat “sanctuary” that was close enough to my house that I didn’t have to leave Bandit alone for very long.

This was a non-profit rescue organization called “Kitten Rescue” that owned a house where they brought rescued cats in to take care of. Many of the cats were from the streets or from kill shelters. A lot of them had medical conditions or temperaments that made them tough candidates for adoption, so I sometimes called the place, “The Island of Misfit Cats,” after “The Island of Misfit Toys” from the Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

My ego wasn’t crazy about this volunteering idea.

Don’t be hasty here. First of all, this volunteering shit will inconvenience you. You’ve got shit to do, my friend. You’ve been working hard. You’ve got some serious chilling to do in front of the TV. Me time—don’t forget. You need your ME time!

Also, dude, you’re only one person—not like it’s gonna matter if you volunteer or not… you can do it tomorrow if you want. Tomorrow you can think about doing it next week. Next week you can think “okay, tomorrow I’m going to make a phone call for sure”—then you can just forget about it for another two months…

I volunteered for a couple of hours a few days a week. I would sweep, mop, fill food and water dishes, change bedding, clean up vomit. Some of the staff would sheepishly ask me if I would mind cleaning out litter boxes and I never had a problem with it —thinking I got this!— I was coming from a multiple cat household anyway. But at the cat sanctuary I was dealing with a tad more than my four cats at home—about 100 of them, actually, so the litter boxes were like toxic waste dumps.

I would stumble around in a green fog huffing through a gas mask, eyes watering, skin peeling, scraping up pee and poo with a dozen cats hanging off me by their claws, yowling at me…

Not really. I actually didn’t mind cleaning the litter boxes. And the best thing was that I got to hang out with the cats.

Ten minutes into my “shift” on any given day I would have an entourage. The cats would follow me around as I swept or mopped, rubbing up against my legs as I scooped out litter boxes.

If I stopped and sat on the ground to pet one I would be mobbed by the rest of them. They’d crawl into my lap, lie on my legs, form a campfire circle around me. More cats would climb down into the low “branches” of the cat trees that were everywhere and meow at me. They crowded around me like I was the cat Socrates, traveling to see cats around the city, dispensing wisdom, liver treats, and scooping watery poo.

That’s because I had something they desperately wanted. They were starving for it.

Love.

What kind of man helps out cats, anyway? You better check down there, see if you still got two of those dangly things, cause I have my doubts now… What—are you gonna keep doing this? What about me… ME!

Turns out the cats weren’t the only ones needing love.

The work, the stress, the eyes glued to my bank account—my ego me making big problems for me me everywhere—had shut me down—and these cats showed me how shriveled my spirit had become.

With a couple of dozen cat groupies showering me with love–and the love that came from my sick cat who was dependent on me for his very life—together these things caused all this tension I’d been holding in my body to drain away, while my own heart opened up like a half-starved flower.

Volunteering is service and a good definition of service is love directed outward, with no expectation of getting anything in return. But what I discovered is that when you volunteer, you get a return of 100%—and then some—every single time.

But the ego will never get this.

What is this shit? Cat affection, are you freaking kidding me? I didn’t ask for this. I can’t eat it or spend it. Seriously… where’s mine?

In early 2013, I decided to get a little more ambitious. Instead of a twenty-minute drive to the cat sanctuary I decided I could go a little further afield. Somewhere that would frighten me—my ego gets really worked up when I get beyond my little bubble of safety. I had come to a point where I listened very carefully to what my ego had to say about my ideas… and then I did the opposite.

Bandit recovering in 2010. Somehow taking care of him...

Bandit recovering in 2010. Taking care of him…

... led to this.

… led to this.

I Googled “volunteer with tigers” and “volunteer with elephants.” To me these are two of the top ten species of animals on the earth, and because both are disappearing rapidly, it seemed like it was now or never to meet a tiger or an elephant.

I decided I would go with the elephants. The reason is because I already had all this cat energy in my life. Time to change it up, bring in something new.

I checked out different organizations that offered elephant volunteering projects. The filtering process was easy for me because my primary criterion was this: What program was really serving the elephants the best?

There was one that had you take care of your own elephant every day. Sounded great. This included shoveling elephant dung—well I had survived the poisonous green cloud of kitten poo, so I was cool with this—but when I looked closer, I saw that these elephants would spend half the day in tourist camps, performing tricks, doing very un-elephant things. Then half the day they’d be in a small sanctuary where people like me would be helping them.

To me that was like letting a child get beaten every day and then at night you bandage him up, pat him on the back—and send him out the door the next day for another beating. I didn’t want to be part of that.

Other programs had photos of volunteers riding elephants. Even though I hadn’t met any elephants yet, I was pretty sure they weren’t amusement park rides. So those programs were out.

In the end, it came down to two different volunteer organizations with two different elephant programs: one in Cambodia, one in Thailand. They both seemed like good programs, both seemed to put the elephants first.

The one in Cambodia offered a hotel-type accommodation with Western toilet, shower facilities, and bed. You had your own private room in a lodge with other volunteers. There was a village close by that had Internet, stores, and bars.

The one in Thailand offered a squat toilet, pail of water, and a gum wrapper-thin mattress. You had your own room in a local family’s house (“Shit! We gotta learn a foreign language?!” cried my ego). No real stores, no city within miles, the Internet was spotty, and getting to it required a hike up a mountain.

The one in Thailand also required me to do my own FBI background check—on myself. Thankfully no one ever found out about that time in the Arizona desert at three in the morning…

Just kidding. There were deep wounds, but we all made it out alive.

I read reviews of people who had done the Thailand project, and I kept reading quotes like: “exhausting days”… “the hikes are really hard”… and I kept seeing this one: “I wish I had stayed longer.”

The prices were about the same. (And by the way: these were really cheap trips compared to every other foreign trip I’ve ever been on.)

My ego drooled over the one in Cambodia.

But I think you know which one I ended up going with. The organization is Global Vision International.

I have gone on many trips to feed the ego, and they’re usually pretty good. I go out, I eat a lot, I see shows… I get plenty of “me” time. I’m not knocking them.

But this one—the first volunteer service trip that I have taken—is the one that cracked my heart open, the only one that transformed me.

Cracked your whaaa? I’d like to crack your freaking head open. Seriously, where’s my check?

And I can tell you this now: I wish I had stayed longer.

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