THE VERSATILE BLOGGER AWARD

versatile

I am honored and humbled to announce that I have been nominated by Tazein at transcendingbordersblog for The Versatile Blogger Award. Thank you kindly Tazein, who incidentally has a great blog. Here are the rules:

  1. Display the Award logo on your blog.
  2. Announce your win with a post and thank the blogger that nominated you.
  3. Nominate 15 deserving bloggers with the award.
  4. Link your nominees in the post and let them know of their nomination with a comment on their blog.
  5. Post seven things about yourself.

So here are the seven things about myself:

  1. I was writing since I could hold a pencil, but stopped writing for the most part from my late 20’s until really just this year. Glad to be back doing it!
  2. My writing rebirth was largely spurred by my trip to Thailand volunteering with elephants. I highly recommend volunteering to everyone—you will be repaid many times over.
  3. I love all animals and will always strive to be a voice for them.
  4. I am working on my second novel. (The first was my “learning” novel.)
  5. I love writing short stories as well, and have written a number of them by now.
  6. My previous career was as a a movie trailer editor.
  7. Related to #6—I am a huge movie buff, particularly of ’70’s movies.

Nominations: I am following some great blogs, and it was really hard to choose just 15. When I searched the criteria, I was advised to “consider the quality of the writing, the uniqueness of the subjects covered, the level of love displayed in the words on the virtual page. Or, of course, the quality of the photographs and the level of love displayed in the taking of them.”

Here are my nominations:

  1. Stories from the Belly: While this particular blog is “young,” this writer has been blogging for years and I feel has some very important things to say, particularly regarding the female body.
  2. Heartbound: Thoughts on living a vegan life. Thought-provoking and inspiring.
  3. Errinspelling: Beautiful poetry rich with amazing moments, stories, and humor.
  4. Animals Deserve to Live: Great awareness blog on the plight of animals.
  5. thehumansarah: Her art speaks to me. Simple, beautiful, with an undercurrent of humor.
  6. I Didn’t Have My Glasses On…: She writes about her life in illuminating, inspiring, and often humorous ways and I love her selection of photos.
  7. From an Otherwise Sane Perspective: Versatile blogger featuring poetry, computer/tech blogging, and a funny cartoon series.
  8. The Villainess: Honest, direct, raw writing.
  9. Exposing the Big Game: Thoughtful, fearless, and probing blogger on animal rights.
  10. Stars Rain Sun Moon: Lovely poetry. Wonderful expressions of images and emotions.
  11. Chris Fischer Photography: His photos blow me away. Very talented.
  12. Before I Forget/Stories with No Books: Inspiring, thoughtful, and creative.
  13. Storyshucker: Great storyteller, writes about a wide range of subjects.
  14. Jade’s Jungle: Honest, personal writer’s blog. Inspiring and informative.
  15. Our Compass: Another good and varied animal rights blog.

Congratulations to all the nominees and thank you for inspiring me with your blogs.

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?

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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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EAT THE LEECH TO GAIN ITS COURAGE

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

(photo from Siobhan)

(photo from Siobhan)

THE VOLUNTEERS, PART TWO

As a kid, summer camp is one of your early experiences forming friendships that go deep but don’t stay (geographically) close. You eat, sleep, play sports, tell ghost stories, compare fart blasts (boys camp I am talking about)—a million little things until you wake up one morning, the trees browner, summer’s teeth falling out, the zombie-wraith of school flashing you googly eyes from outside the window—and it’s time for everyone to go home.

And you know even at that innocent age that you will never see the people you went to camp with ever again.

But the good thing is—and you don’t realize this until you’re older—you still carry these friendships inside you. You can take them out and look at them like an old stamp collection that mostly just sleeps under a mountain of dust—but you know you’ll never get rid of those stamps. The colors are faded but still beautiful, and you can feel the edges of your feelings—they’re still there.

I didn’t quite receive the summer camp experience. I was bullied at summer camp from the time I set foot in the tiny bunkhouse. When I think of that time I can hear Dr. McCoy from the old Star Trek series muttering, “He didn’t make it, Jim”—I don’t think I lasted a week.

Watching my mother and grandmother pack up my stuff in front of all these boys that I had desperately tried to fit in with but would never to get to know—I felt like such a loser.

In many ways, the trip to Thailand is just an adult version of summer camp. The volunteers eat, hike, weave baskets, teach English, play games and watch movies—all together. No comparing fart blasts though—except when the elephants do it. Thong Dee wins the farting contests just like she dominates everything else.

This trip is a second chance for me to develop some summer camp-type friendships—but as an adult.

front row l to r: Lisa, Kerri, Tammy. Middle row: Izzy, Phoebe, Jess, Mallory. Back row: Neil, Siobhan, Thom

front row l to r: Lisa, Kerri, Tammy. Middle row: Izzy, Phoebe, Jess, Mallory. Back row: Neil, Siobhan, Thom. (photo from Siobhan)

People like Mallory make it easy. Washing dishes with her with the sun like a comforting hand on my shoulder, I could talk easily with her.

Izzy is from Massachusetts—where I’m from originally—so we have a connection there. She says she aspires to be a “starving artist”—I hope she can just skip the “starving” part. She is constantly writing in a journal and that makes an impression on me—every time I see her I hear this voice say to me, “See what she’s doing? That writing thing… maybe take a whack at that yourself, big boy.”

Lisa. (photo from Mallory)

Lisa. (photo from Mallory)

Lisa has an Irish brogue so substantial that it’s like its own person. Her lips move but I swear the voice is coming from a guy mumbling in her backpack. Her brash personality is abruptly muted at one point when she is sweating the results from college exams. While playing soccer I catch a glimpse of her off by herself, clutching her phone, waiting to get the call about her future.

On hikes Stacey makes me feel like I have the dexterity of the Frankenstein monster, as I clomp behind her dislodging huge boulders that near-miss plowing into her. Some of the volunteers feel big brother-protective of her when she wanders into Chiang Mai and has a dozen guys eying her.

Stacey is on the left, Phoebe on the right.

Stacey is on the left, Phoebe on the right. (photo from Stacey)

l to r: Siobhan, Kerri, Izzy. (photo from Siobhan)

l to r: Siobhan, Kerri, Izzy. (photo from Siobhan)

Siobhan is always exhorting me to “give it a go” no matter what the activity is, like when I wade in among the locals to buy some of their handmade goods. During the woven goods “bazaar,” the villagers present all their handmade goods to the volunteers at Base Hut for an hour or two of frenetic buying and selling.

Siobhan’s voice flutters in my ear like a butterfly about how “your girlfriend would love that” and “that would be great for your Mom” and I nod agreeably as the arm-twisting butterfly has me emptying my wallet. Thanks to Siobhan I am wrestling my suitcase to the death to pack in all the purses, skirts, beads, bags, and necklaces I bought from the villagers.

Phoebe is the only volunteer who unabashedly wants to move in to Huay Pakoot and build her whole life there. She began with an antipathy to teaching and over a few short months has become the teaching expert—she teaches the other teachers. On teaching days when she gathers her stuff to climb up the hill to the school I can see how her eyes come alive and the way she bounces in anticipation—she lives for this. Her bonds with the people in Huay Pakoot are deep and she and Siobhan are even invited to the wedding of a local couple—the only outsiders who are given this honor.

Phoebe in the classroom. (photo from Mallory)

Phoebe in the classroom. (photo from Mallory)

Neil and Jess are like the volunteer royalty. They squat on huge ornate thrones at Base Hut and gnaw on legs of lamb big as tree trunks while new volunteers wash their feet.

Joking.

From left: Phoebe, Siobhan, Ian.

From left: Phoebe, Siobhan, Ian. (photo from Siobhan)

Then there is Thom and Ian, two volunteers who are like characters out of a buddy movie. They are both in their late 20’s, both culturally aware, both smart as whips—and as thin as whips as well. Ian is from London, England, Thom from Brisbane, Australia. They aren’t related, look nothing alike except for their stick-figure frames—and I still think they’re brothers separated at birth.

l to r: Ian, Jordoh (mahout), Thom. (photo from Siobhan)

l to r: Ian, Jordoh (mahout), Thom. (photo from Siobhan)

They love to argue and needle each other. They remind me of a more intellectual version of the Mafia characters De Niro and Pesci used to play, minus the gangsterism and, you know—the shooting people in the face.

Their banter forms the cultural, snark-filled play-by-play of the elephant hikes. When I want to take a break from meditating with the elephants and argue about who is the best James Bond (It’s Sean Connery, of course—although I go to bat for Roger Moore when I think he’s unfairly maligned), I can tune into Thom and Ian.

Thom can strike up a conversation with anyone about anything. On the ride from Chiang Mai when all of us volunteers are strangers, he suggests switching seats halfway through the trip so we can mix with different people and get to know each other faster. It’s a good idea and it works. He can serve and parry chatter with multiple people, like he’s a six-armed tennis player.

Ian is a little quieter than Thom, but what breaks the ice between us is a weird joke that Ian makes on a hike after one of the many stops to to pry a leech off my boot:

Eat the leech,” he says, “to gain its courage.”

This is a joke with its roots in Nerdland, specifically video games, and instantly I perk up, since video games are a passion of mine and definitely have their own language. Hearing Video Game spoken in the jungles of Thailand is like hearing French spoken in a dive bar in Texas. It’s unexpected, wonderful, and possibly dangerous… well, speaking French in Texas is dangerous. An elephant probably won’t pummel you for talking nerdy.

Ian. (photo from Mallory)

Ian. (photo from Mallory)

When we are all asked, as part of a get-to-know-each-other icebreaker, what one person we would pick to be stranded on a deserted island with, most everyone picks the usual suspects—significant other, movie star, world leader. Thom picks Ian without hesitation, like he’s been waiting for the question for weeks. The reason: he just wants Ian to suffer with him.

Ian cracks up with the rest of us. If twenty years went by and you arrived on that desert island with a rescue boat, fireworks exploding and flags waving, shouting “You’re saved!”—I think they would look up briefly, their long beards fluttering… and they’d go back to needling each other.

l to r: Singto (mahout), Thom, Ian.

l to r: Singto (mahout), Thom, Ian. (photo from Ian)

Thom in particular is an open book about his opinions, so it comes out very quickly that he is not a fan of Foster’s beer, which of course has all those commercials in America about how “it’s Australian for beer, mate.”

Thom’s opinion is that it’s rat piss and native Australians—like him—don’t touch the stuff (which is true—it’s not a popular beer in Australia). That’s only mildly interesting. What’s more interesting is that Thom is really sensitive about this. The very thought that the rest of the world would perceive Foster’s beer as even remotely representative of anything truly Australian is a personal affront to him.

So naturally, everyone teases him about it.

I even pile on. When he is moderating the “Quiz,” the weekly trivia contest where all the volunteers compete against each other (Thom and Ian are repeat winners), Thom solicits everyone to come up with a team name. Most everyone takes this opportunity to tweak Thom about the Foster’s thing.

Like the team name I made up was this: “Team Foster’s: the Official Beer of Australia.”

People laughed. But I saw Thom’s reaction—a look more fatigued than hurt, like, Oh, this crap again, har-har—and I recognized it. My heart lurched like it was a tiger locked in a box.

Thom at Base Hut.

Thom at Base Hut.

The passionate opinions coupled with the frayed live wire-sensitivity: I was the same way, particularly when I was Thom’s age.

I was opinionated, passionate, and sensitive. I always wondered why people who professed to like me would poke at my sensitive spots. And I’m still not sure I know why they did it and still do it—maybe because it’s exciting or exhilarating to feel someone storming about something—maybe because feeling deeply is a peak human experience and if you don’t want to bother with it yourself, you can always provoke it in others.

But what I learned from watching Thom is that the people who like you and also tease you don’t do it out of antagonism. There is love there—I just don’t know what type it is—what you call it. Feeling that teasing coming from people you like—if you’re sensitive it can sometimes feels like it will break you.

I let up on the Foster’s stuff with Thom. I knew how he felt, and I discovered a new appreciation for him. It’s actually a great thing to be so passionate. I could also have new compassion for my own sensitivity, which I have felt in the past to be more of a weakness.

I don’t know if the teasing I received in summer camp as a kid compares to anything I ever experienced as an adult, or that it’s even close to what I am talking about with Thom and the Foster’s incident. Walking into that camp years ago at that age I felt like I had glass feet and my heart was huddled under a tissue paper tent. Kids are looking for your soft spots at that age to weaken you—there’s definitely a brinksmanship that fades or at least goes underground as you get older… but obviously I’m not eight any more.

I’ve eaten the eight year-old to gain its courage.

But more importantly, here in Huay Pakoot I finally did get my “summer camp” experience. I’ll carry around this place and these people for the rest of my life.

And maybe some day I’ll visit the deserted island, and beardy Thom and Ian will nod at me… then go back to needling each other.

party

(photo from Siobhan)

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 OMEGA MAN

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

THE VOLUNTEERS, PART ONE

A person like me needs to be tricked into making friends with people. I can’t seem to do it directly.

When meeting a person for the first time, I guess my ego is so concerned with making a good impression that I never register the person’s name the first time I hear it. This puts me at a disadvantage immediately. I’ve considered asking the person if they would slap me after telling me their name, like, “Hi Mike, my name is Joe”—thwack!—across the face. Now I will surely remember Joe.

Beyond that, my natural state is hermit crab-shut. I am not much of a joiner, a Meeter-Upper, Grouponer, or group-anythinger.

When I watched I am Legend, with the solitary guy walking the empty post-apocalyptic streets accompanied only by his dog (although in my opinion the older, better version of this movie is The Omega Man with Charlton Heston), I was not thinking, “Oh, that poor lonely guy”—I was thinking, “Hey, cool—sign me up!” I could talk to the dog and I could shoot the heads off zombies, all by myself. I mean, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

But, I am willing to confront my weaknesses… this is another reason why I jumped head-first into this adventure in Thailand.

I wanted to be tricked.

One of the first people I meet on this trip is Mallory. She has just graduated from college in Vermont before embarking on the volunteering adventure here—this is a common theme for many of the young volunteers. Most of them choose to do this elephant trip as their major “gap year” activity, seeking out a grand adventure before transitioning to adult job, career, or even more higher learning.

At breakfast before the long ride to Huay Pakoot, Mallory asks to sit at my table. We had met briefly at the orientation meeting the night before, but of course I have to ask her name again.

Mallory,” she tells me, and slaps me across the face. She packs a punch—it feels like I’ve just been struck with a very large dead fish, maybe a tuna.

Kidding.

But Mallory seems to set things in motion—she tips the first domino, and they start to topple. Other young volunteers join us at the table, and the hermit crab begins to poke his head out.

Mallory.

Mallory.

Curiosity also trumps shyness with me—this is why it is easy for me to break the ice with the staff running the program—because I am constantly asking them questions.

Gemma is the Base Leader in charge of the rest of the staff, as well as a liaison to the Karen People in the village and the go-to for all the volunteers. She runs the place and participates in all the activities the volunteers do.

On hikes Gemma will stop everyone so she can take eighty pictures of a millipede zigzagging across the jungle floor. That’s one way the friendship with her develops on my end—her passion for bugs, birds, rodents, the entire diverse population of the jungle itself, big and small, insect and elephant—it all rubs off on me. Her enthusiasm is contagious.

Plus with all the things she has to do, all the details big and small, she always has time for asking me, “How you going then, Mike? You alright?” (She’s British—and that’s another thing—since the Brits comprise most of the staff and volunteers, they begin rubbing off on me too, both their accents and their even-keeled natures.)

At a pancake dinner with volunteers and villagers. Gemma is second from the right.

At a pancake dinner with volunteers and villagers. Gemma is second from the right.

Susi, a staff member originally from Paraguay, is similarly passionate about the surroundings, although my connection with her is initially through her facility with Packinyah, the language of the Karen people. For the first week in Huay Pakoot she accompanies me on dinners with my host family.

My family loves Susi because she is a charging bull about learning the language and communicating with them. I scribble down as much as I can while I listen to them chattering in Packinyah and broken English like excited chipmunks.

Susi also has a bombastic, haw-haw-haw laugh. It seesaws from gasping breaths to sledgehammering guffaws, and when I watch her laugh I can see that she holds nothing back—it comes from deep inside her. I have a bit of an explosive laugh too, so I know that laughs like that are contagious. Susi laughs a lot.

Tammy is another staff member, an unflappable Australian who is eager to help always, and she crams as much information about the elephants and the village as I can fit into my cranium.

On one hike while I am taping popsicle sticks into crosses and dousing myself with holy water to ward off the leeches, one of them burrows into Tammy’s ankle. Her foot turns into a blood fountain, and she barely breaks stride.

Kerri is a brand new staff member from Ireland who I share a wild Sung Tao truck ride with when I have to get emergency dental work done in Chiang Mai. During the ride with her I am in the unusual position of answering her questions about what it’s like in Huay Pakoot, since this will be her first time there. It feels good to be the teacher rather than the student for a little while.

All of the staff people are open and seem to genuinely enjoy their jobs. When I am radioactively glowing about an amazing experience that I’ve had on any particular day, they get excited that I am excited.

Eating with the other volunteers at Base Hut.

Eating with the other volunteers at Base Hut.

But in the end, I discovered that the best way to be tricked into making friends is to be thrown into the middle of a jungle with about 20 other people who, like you, don’t know the local language or customs, and are as baffled as you are by bug swarms, leech attacks, 90-degree climbs, perpetually dirty feet, and especially by being five feet away from wandering elephants for large parts of the day.

And don’t forget eating meals together, washing dishes together, and sharing the same squat toilet. And take away the Internet—or even better, put the Internet up at the top of a mountain and make it super-slowww and prone to bailing out, like playing poker with a sea turtle, so you have to actually work at being antisocial—and sooner or later, the wool gets pulled over your eyes. You get tricked into making friends with other people.

When I faltered, Mallory was there to say hi to me… then slap me with a dead fish.

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.

024

THE ELEPHANT POLICE ARE HERE

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

Being the human that I am, I live in my brain a lot. I approach most everything as if it needs to be mastered, figured out.

In Huay Pakoot when I tried basket weaving, I got frustrated when I couldn’t figure it out.

"If I can just slide this... under here... damn it!"

“If I can just slide this… under here… damn it!”

I tried to teach English to the school children, which was difficult because as a teacher I was starting out with a huge disadvantage—I didn’t know their language. How could I teach them the word “dog” when I didn’t know what the word is in Packinyah?

Not only could I not figure out how to teach them—but what if I said something that made them feel insecure or hurt? What if I broke them, like they were little glass ornaments that had slipped out of my hand?

I felt like a giant crocodile wandering around in that classroom, clumsy and dangerous.

At least I had the elephants figured out. By the third week I knew them by name, sight, and personality.

Mana is a ham. She poses for pictures like Marilyn Monroe.

Mana pole dancing pose.

Mana pole dancing pose.

Mario is easily frustrated and he demonstrates the biggest elephant stereotype that I had going into this trip: he actually trumpets—just like an elephant in a Hollywood movie—and he sounds about the same as a movie elephant. Well, except that when the trumpeting sound is 20 feet away from you, and you can see the elephant’s pissed off expression at the same time that your eardrums are being blasted—you know he could beat out a Hollywood elephant for an Oscar.

Baby Bpee Mai is confident, “his own elephant.” If elephants attended kindergarten, he’d be the one the others followed around because he seemed to have all the answers.

The baby Lulu is the opposite–she seems lost in this new world outside of a tourist camp. Her PTSD-like swaying continues even when she’s foraging in the jungle. But she has the most to gain here, and people volunteering after I am gone will surely see the results of her progress.

Thong Dee has gotten into my blood. Hiking into the jungle to see her is like climbing a mountain in Tibet to see the Dalai Lama.

But in week three something happened that made me realize that I had to get out of my brain. This whole trip had become like a puzzle slowly resolving itself—only maybe it wasn’t the kind of puzzle where I had to figure everything out.

On a hike following the elephants Kam Suk and Kam Moon up a steep, brush-boxed mountain, we found a small meadow on flat ground that gave us a respite from the shoulders-denting hike. We relaxed, guzzled water, and watched the elephants have a mud bath.

Kam Suk and Kam Moon.

Kam Suk and Kam Moon.

Kam Suk and Kam Moon are a mother-daughter duo that usually forage by themselves. They generally could care less about us volunteers, so we were all caught off-guard when they drifted closer to us.

There was only one way out of this meadow… we found this out when Kam Suk and Kam Moon blocked it.

The mahouts tried, and failed, to stop them.

The elephants padded toward us in slow motion. With the gray-white mud glazing their skin they looked like elephant statues that had come alive just as they were drying.

We backed up to the edge of the meadow… where we had to stop. I felt the knives of a thorny bush digging into my back.

We’re only allowed to make contact with the elephants when they are chained, locked down.

Kam Suk and Kam Moon were chained, but we couldn’t get far enough away from them, from the radius of the chain. The elephants could still reach us. And there was nowhere for us to go, we were cut off in the meadow. The walls of trees and brush surrounding the clearing were too thick to penetrate.

We got quiet.

These are not tourist camp elephants any more. They aren’t wild exactly, either, but they’re living their lives here way more on their own terms—not on ours, those of humans.

Trapped in this clearing, we were on their terms.

The elephants plodded a few more steps toward us and stopped. They were close enough to touch. I could see a leech attached to Kam Suk’s giant half-moon toenail. It was groping in the air like it was trying to gauge a jump from a cliff.

The elephants’ heavy-lidded stares fell on us as they brandished their trunks like billy clubs.

Kam Moon’s breath was earthy and hot on my face. Her trunk snaked toward me, patted me from my boots to my shoulders, sniffing all the way. Kam Suk worked over another volunteer.

The two of them were frisking us like elephant cops.

We were helpless, pinned down.

I could hear a low, rolling rumbling that sounded like a slumbering dragon.

It was coming from the elephants, but it was impossible to tell which one. Maybe it was both. When elephants make rumbling noises, you feel them more than hear them.

"This thing is loaded."

“This thing is loaded.”

Kam Moon swung her trunk from me to her mother. She nuzzled inside her mother’s mouth, then probed in her ear. With my trailer editor brain, the sight of an elephant trunk glomming onto an ear felt like it needed a cartoon sound effect, so in my head I heard the phhhh-ut sound of an object slamming into a pneumatic tube.

This almost made me laugh.

Then the way Kam Moon was digging in her mother’s ear—it looked like a daughter cleaning out her Mom’s earwax—I half expected her to start pulling some treasures out of there. A ball of elephant earwax would make a good bowling ball—or exercise ball for a giant hamster. With Halloween coming up, you could probably carve a really nice jack-o-lantern out of elephant earwax.

It was a comical moment… and whatever tension there was in us volunteers seemed to dissolve away in the rumbling. People began chattering, laughing, pulling out their cameras. Some of the volunteers touched the elephants back.

I fought the urge to “pet” them myself. I was kind of weird about that—for me, touching an elephant was okay, but petting an elephant like a dog didn’t seem right.

The rolling rumbling sound continued. Were Kam Suk and Kam Moon having a conversation together?

Maybe they were forming their own opinions of us, like I had of them. Maybe they were thinking I was a pain in the ass. Or—most likely—they were just expressing their love for each other.

Maybe I wasn’t here to figure out what they were doing, or figure out anything.

Life in Huay Pakoot was turning out to be a different kind of puzzle, one that didn’t need to be worked.

And anyway, I wasn’t working the elephants, the elephants were clearly working me.

In that moment, I could feel the low-end rumble of the elephants registering inside me.

Deep within.

 

BREAKFAST WITH THE CATS

Bandit on the left, Hooper on the right.

Bandit on the left, Hooper on the right.

Recently I found this video that someone sent me a while ago (re-posted below), and it reminded me of my first two cats, Bandit and Hooper, and how they would wake me in the morning.

I adopted both cats in the days when I was drinking a lot. Bandit was part of a litter of black kittens that was thrown into a dumpster. Luckily the dumpster was behind an animal grooming business, so the kittens’ mewling complaints were heard by the right people. Bandit was my first cat.

Hooper I got at a pet store adoption event, but it took two tries. The first try he purred, nuzzled, and licked me when I petted him—and I chose a beautiful gray kitten with blue eyes over him. The gray kitten didn’t give me anything, no affection, he hardly even acknowledged that I existed on the ride home. He was like a beautiful painting of a kitten. But men are like cats in that I went for the shiny sparkly one over the one that was the best for me.

When I got home there was a message on my answering machine—this was in the 90’s—informing me that I had inadvertently kidnapped the gray kitten. He was supposed to be at the pet store for a grooming, and he got mixed up with the adoption cats. I probably could have ransomed him back, he was that beautiful.

When I returned the gray stunner, Hooper jumped into my arms—to make sure I got the message this time.

When I brought Hooper home to meet Bandit, it was the easiest cat introduction I’ve ever had in my life (and I’ve gone through a few by now). They both liked each other almost immediately. They made a good team.

Based on some information I had, it was likely that Bandit was part of a Hispanic family—until they decided to throw him out. Hooper’s origins were a complete mystery, though he had an odd bent tail that I thought might point to a wild and dangerous time out on the streets.

Of the two of them, Bandit was slightly dominant, but he was laid back about it—the cool, behind-the-scenes leader.

I was an erratic father to the two of them because of the drinking. I had a lot of love to give, but it was stuffed under twenty layers of armor. I was a knight stumbling blindly along, always about to teeter over… and land on a yowling cat.

I was terrible about feeding them breakfast on time, especially on the weekends. My hangovers were like bombed-out buildings, and on some weekends you couldn’t dig me out of the rubble before two o’clock.

Feeding time for the cats was at eight in the morning.

I suspect after the first dozen or so times of me feeding them so starvingly late, they figured something had to be done. Here’s how I imagine it might have went down, with my Mexican-American black cat, Bandit, and my streetwise one, Hooper:

BANDIT: Hooper, my compadre. look at eem. He’s not moving.

HOOPER: Yeah, no shit. He drinks like a fish. Stinks like one, too.

BANDIT: Ohh, compadre… don’t say fish. Please, my friend…

HOOPER: Oh, give me a break. I’m fucking famished too. You know, I’ve been thinking… maybe it’s time to do some serious pooping outside the litter box. Send him a message.

BANDIT: Um… do you mean “thinking”? Thinking outside the box?

HOOPER: No, I mean Cheesing the Mousetrap. Down-Periscoping the Submarine. Warming the Porcelain Globe.

Bandit sits on his haunches, blinking at Hooper.

HOOPER: Trumpeting an Elephant? Chumming the Chocolate Water? Dropping the Ring into Mount Doom?

Bandit blinks…

BANDIT: Ohhhh—pooping. You mean literally pooping.

HOOPER: Well shit, yeah. I mean, what the hell, did you go to cat finishing school or something? I’m from the street, my friend. Look at this tail. Of course I’m literal. I could literally eat a fucking dead horse right now.

BANDIT: Yes compadre, me also… but I don’t think Dropping a Doom Ring would do anything except get us sent to the vet…

HOOPER: Hmm, you’re right about that. Don’t you love how he throws a treat into that cat carrier prison when he tries to get us to the vet? Like that’s gonna fool us. Oh yeah—no thanks, dude. I ain’t going to jail for some Fred Flinstone-looking vitamin shit treat. Seriously, who does he think he’s dealing with?

BANDIT: Yes, yes, compadre… But what we need is a plan… okay… here’s what we’re going to do…

Bandit raises a paw to cover his mouth as he leans in to whisper in Hooper’s ear… Hooper’s eyes widen as he listens to the details…

HOOPER: Yeah… uh-huh… okay… meow, that’s interesting…

Plotting.

Plotting.

And after that meeting, when I was in those dozes that were like drowning in my car at the bottom of the Chappaquiddick River, I would feel this wetness on my ear, like the kiss of an angel…

actually, it would be the wet nose of my cat Hooper, as he tried to gently nudge me awake.

I’d swipe at him—not to hit him or anything, but to force him off the bed—and he would jump down.

Bandit would watch from a high place, like a window jamb or the top of a book shelf. He was the general on the mountain top, while Hooper would launch sorties into the lumpy fortress of my hangover. I imagined Hooper was disgruntled and resentful, assigned the dirty work of stirring me from the deep caverns of my boozy sleep… while Bandit would sit up there and egg him on: “You’re doing great, compadre, doing great… just one more time… don’t worry, my friend, I have your back…”

Generally, it would take five to ten tries. Hooper would wet nose-stamp my skin, paw my scalp, lick his lips in my ear, or—my favorite—my eyes would flutter open to witness the Cat Stare, that peeling metal look that cats share with convicts.

If that didn’t work, then Bandit would basically yank the “fire alarm”: he’d jump up on me and march back and forth over my body crying and yowling, the cat version of cursing a blue streak: “What the fucking-fuck?! Seriously, this shit is old! We’re so hungry we’re crapping mouse toys! My food bowl just laughed at me! Get up, you bastard! I mean, god damn it, what the hell does a cat have to do?”

I still say we should start pooping everywhere,” Hooper would add. “Maybe poop on his head.”

Bandit takes a breath before unleashing another string of obscenities at me.

Bandit takes a breath before unleashing another string of obscenities at me.

Bandit cursed at me like this whenever it took me really, really long to feed him and also when I played AC/DC on the stereo. Anything by them. The first chords would rumble through the speakers and he’d be in my lap, swearing up and down at me. “This godforsaken head-bashing shit again?! Can you please lighten up? I’d give my left paw for some Julio Iglesias. Seriously—turn that shit off!”—And I would.

One night the cat alert duo was pressed into duty in the middle of the night. I stumbled beer-soaked and blind into the apartment at three in the morning and had a sudden urge for a hard-boiled egg. I threw the egg into a saucepan with a few inches of water, blasted the gas flame…

and passed out.

I dreamed of Redwood trees dancing on hardwood floors… John Wayne Gacy clowns tunneling underneath in the crawlspaces… fires in the middle of forests eating witches… smoke from the fires downing birds and bricking up my lungs…

and cats screaming in my ear.

For real.

I woke up with the apartment filled with smoke. I stumbled into the kitchen. The water in the saucepan had long since burned away. The saucepan—it was metal—had scorched black through and through and cracked open. There was a deep greasy bomb blast scar on the ceiling. The egg had undergone a flash-rotting in the intense heat—it looked like the charred fetus of some hell-bound rodent.

And the fire alarm was shouting the neighborhood awake—but I had slept through that.

It was the cats that woke me up.

2 of them on bed

After that I didn’t swipe at Hooper any more when he tried to nudge me awake. I still was late feeding them a lot of times though.

It would go like this: After a few paw bats, nose kisses, and Cat Stares, Hooper would hang it up, slinking off the bed, and Bandit would descend from his perch to take over. At the instant of the tag-team paw slap—that’s when I would get my ass moving.

Now Bandit and Hooper are gone, and with them the best alarm clock I’ve ever had.

The cats I have now don’t wake me up like this. They don’t need to. I’ve stopped drinking. I’m punctual at their feeding times.

BANDIT: Yes, that’s because of us, dumbass. We taught you, compadre.

HOOPER: Damned straight. And we also noticed that you don’t try to pull that stupid throw-the-treat-into-the-carrier crap any more, either.

BANDIT: A-men.

Direct link to the video on the creator’s website is here. Quality is better I think.

A CAT IN ELEPHANT TOWN

At the end of a long day of hiking and other activities in Thailand I would walk home alone. Sometimes it would be prairie wolf late and the other volunteers and the people of the village would be asleep. The air would be like thick glass and the cicadas would be in low throttle, probably fatigued from all the head crashing of the daytime. Sometimes I would walk by Lulu the baby elephant and she would be still. Elephants sleep only four hours a day and I would freeze when I walked by her because I knew this was one of the moments—that she was sleeping only a few feet away even though I couldn’t see her because the night crept out of a dark closet and around us both.

I’ve walked alone many times in life. I had a paper route when I was a boy and I would get up at five in the morning when the dark was still splayed out all over the neighborhood. I’d walk past the graveyard, the crosses spreading their arms in the shadows, past the corner store with the loud hum of the neon sign. I walked that paper route in the winters with the snow robing the trees and I could hear the snowfall. I could hear it sighing in the air and sometimes I would pause, maybe on someone’s porch. I’d sit there in the dark and watch and listen to the little hoof falls of the million snowflakes landing.

In college I wandered the USC campus, on my way home in the middle of the night in an L.A. ghetto, and I was lucky I guess because even the muggers, rapists, and killers would be asleep. I would be buzzed on a few beers so the edges of me would be soft but I still had a back pocket-type of awareness, and there would be a strange city-quiet accompanying me. The sirens, cars, crazy gibbering homeless people all muffled, all the crazy filtered through a wind sock. The city had a rat-eye clarity at three in the morning.

Later, walking in the Thailand jungle, fatigue drooping down the corners of me, a day full of elephants and a night with stars fender bendering in the sky, and in all these times and in all these places there was a danger in that silence. Anything could happen, a snake could swerve into me, a maniac could pogo stick out of my bad dreams and drive a blade into my spine, and the quiet was just like that—coiled violence and heavy breaths, a pirate waiting for you below decks.

In all these moments, of course, I was not alone. In these moments I was walking with divinity. I was holding the ace of spades in my hand.

This guy was my companion for many of my walks:

ace of spades 1

He was a stray from the village. He would dart ahead of me and cut me off at the ankles so I had to stop to pet him.

His coat was such that I didn’t know where the dirt ended and the black spots started. By the end of the trip he would look for me and I for him, even in the daytime. He would walk with me past the elephants, but stop laughing-dead before we reached stray dog territory.

He looks like the ace of spades, don’t you think?

INTERVIEW WITH AN ELEPHANT

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

Speaking out for the first time.

Speaking out for the first time.

In her mid-50’s now, Tong Dee is the matriarch of the man-made elephant herd here in Huay Pakoot. This is despite the fact that, with the recent arrival of Kam Suk, Tong Dee is not even the oldest elephant any more. I have been enamored with Tong Dee since I met her at a banana feeding during my first week in Thailand. I knew right then and there I needed to meet with her and try to conduct my first-ever elephant interview.

I didn’t think the interview was going to happen. When I first approached Tong Dee and asked her who her publicist was, she said, “What’s a publicist?” When I tried to negotiate the terms of the interview, including wardrobe suggestions, she balked. I felt like an elephant of her size would probably look best in a slimming black turtleneck. It worked really well for Sharon Stone. I thought some dangling silver hoop earrings might set off her eyes and jingle pleasantly when she flapped her ears. And I felt the best venue for our interview, and for an elephant of her stature, would be The Chedi Hotel Chiang Mai.

But I knew that being the matriarch, Tong Dee would be calling the shots.

I arrived early for our interview at a mud hole down from a dirt road in the village of Huay Pakoot. Tong Dee showed up only minutes later, naked and without any piercings in her flapping ears. Her size can only really be appreciated up close: she is about 7 feet tall at the shoulders and about 19 feet long, counting her tail. Her weight is a little over 6000 pounds. She carries it well. She has distinctive bowl-shaped cysts on her right flank and right foreleg—but they are benign.

It was late afternoon, the sun at its blazing worst, and Tong Dee sighed as she trundled into the shallow mud hole at the edge of a meadow in the jungle.

Her bearing was dignified but a little tentative, and her trunk wandered all over me, sniffing me a bit warily. Her past as a beast of burden in the logging camps has taken its toll, and her skin hung loosely and was wrinkled and leathery. A wooden bell was clasped around her neck. I guess she was going for an austere look. A look that seemed to say, “Sure, I’m a down-to-earth gal, approachable… but don’t mess with me”—and—“Get that makeup guy away from me before I step on his little head.”

Thong Dee at the mud hole.

Thong Dee at the mud hole.

We exchanged some pleasantries. I blew down her trunk and she snorted back at me. Then without so much as a word she settled into her mud bath, her feet clopping in the dank earth and her trunk spraying thick, cool mud all over her body. As she fielded my questions she constantly slung pies of the stuff onto her flanks and up over her lumpy spine.

ANIMAL GUY: I am honored to have you here, Tong Dee. From the first time I saw you… well, I just knew I had to meet you.

THONG DEE: It’s “Thong Dee”. There’s an “h” in there, though it is silent. You’ve been spelling it wrong for a long while. All these things you’ve been writing about me. Since I am here with you now I will correct you.

I flush red. My first interview with my elephant heroine, and it’s already going off the rails. I am pleased, however, that she’s reading my blog. This despite the fact that elephants, as a general rule, can’t read—though I understand that they do handle the internet well—which is the opposite of my grandmother.

THONG DEE: I can see you’re nervous. It’s okay. Humans make lots of mistakes. So many I could never count and never remember. And I have a very good memory. Well.

ANIMAL GUY: Yes. Yes, okay… thank you… I think. So how long have you been here in this herd at Huay Pakoot?

TD: I don’t know. I don’t count mistakes and I don’t count time. That’s another human thing. I stand with you here. Now. That is “time” for me. When the sun rises, I know it’s time to look for food. When it sets, I know I can rest for a while. That is time. For me, there is no time like you think. There is being. Anyway, I suspect you had the answer even before you asked me.

AG: Three years, I think. You’ve been here three years.

TD: You know the answer then. And yet you still ask it. Curious. I find you creatures endlessly fascinating. Always you are two opposites at once. Well.

Tong Dee's face

AG: Okay, let’s talk about that—your relationship with humans. Maybe talk about you and Patty Sai-ee, your mahout. Mahouts are the trainers and often the owners of elephants, so your perspective would be valuable.

TD: That… that is complicated. Well.

Thong Dee’s eyes stare at me for a moment, then look away. The late afternoon sun is relaxing it’s grip a bit, and some of the mud is drying, turning her skin the color of a gravestone. With the gray-white mud encasing her, she looks like the ghost of an elephant. A brilliant blue butterfly, the color of lapus lazuli, alights briefly on her flank, before fluttering away.

TD: Patty Sai-ee, ah… We are like… how you say… twins. Separate but the same. Our paths—we go together, otherwise we lose our way. There is some love, but it is not even the point. And… ah… there are things between us that are not balanced, it is like… we are on a scale and I am big, I could crush him. But he is human. And because he is human he tips the scale his way always. In nature if there is no balance… ah… I say it like this: he will never be my brother. Well.

Thong Dee sluffs around in the mud, scooping up another trunkful of the stuff. She stops in mid-air, the clump of mud squeezed in her proboscis.

TD: He sees me sometimes in the worst way—the way humans see many things in the world. He needs things: food, shelter… money. I believe he thinks he will not survive unless I am bent to his will. I think it would be easier for him if I was a thing, an object. I would have no feelings and no will and then I would do exactly as he wished. But of course I am not a thing. It’s okay. I am old and he is old and we have grown old together. There is a bond I share with him that cannot break. Well. A storm, you see—it destroys everything. Trees fall, shelters collapse, crops drown. Animals run in terror. But the biggest storm does nothing to our bond. Nothing.

Thong Dee and Patty Sai-ee.

Thong Dee and Patty Sai-ee.

AG: I think I understand…

TD: I would laugh if I knew how. Humans and the intellect. You believe the world is in the brain. Better to take in then to understand. Yes? Understand is all this work, this wheel spinning nowhere. Take in is better. It becomes part of you. Well.

AG: Okay… I am trying. So tell me a little about your past. You came from a logging camp? That must have been hard. Can you tell me a little about it?

TD: That is difficult. I will try. I was different. I was young. Men “trained” me—hah!–for a long time… for many years, to use your meaning. Always with the whip, the club, hovering over me. I was a baby and I was frightened. We were all frightened. They taught us to obey. To drag trees to the river or to the trucks.

As Thong Dee says this, she shifts on her feet. The chain around her right front leg jingles. We both look down at it, startled. It’s a reminder that even now she will be chained down for various reasons. I flush red, feeling shame, like I was the one who put it on her.

TD: As a female, I was forced to push the small trees… ah… logs… I pushed them with my head because I had no tusks. The males could not do this because of the tusks. They were forced to pick up logs, scoop them up. Their tusks sometimes would crack, break under the weight. And all the time my brothers and sisters would fall. Carrying a tree, a fall could be the end. Legs breaking and getting kicked to get up, to carry more. And the screaming. You make me think of it, the sounds of my family screaming. The humans don’t hear it with their ears, but the ground carries it far, the screams. All of us hear and know what is happening.

I sit for the first time, planting myself in the mud. Thong Dee towers over me. Her ears stick straight out from her massive head like flags in a gust of wind. Her tail is up and quivering. I know these are signs of an elephant in distress.

TD: All was black around my heart but I would see the sunrise and feel like all creatures feel upon seeing the sunrise—it would be a new beginning—it would be good this time, this day. But it was never good. The sun never got in through the blackness. I always expected it to, and it never did.

Her sunken eyes glitter at me. She becomes completely still, and I marvel at this. Three tons of nothing happening. A giant holding its breath. I can’t hold her look, shifting my gaze to the chain around her foot. Gray mud drips off a link in the chain. I look back up at her as she lowers her tail. Her ears resume their flapping.

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AG: Let’s focus on perhaps a better story. What it’s like for you now in Huay Pakoot. How do you like it here?

TD: It is good. Better. I have peace here. I feel my time in this old body coming to the end. This is good, to be here at the end. The birds sing to me, the insects whisper to me as I fall asleep. The food is plentiful and good, and a lot of the time I can be slow. That is most important, do you know? To be slow. Do you take that in?

AG: I think so. To be more relaxed.

TD: Yes, I suppose. But it’s more than the absence of work or activity. Everything is in the stillness. Everything. All the senses. All that is inside you, and all that is outside you—all that makes your skin look like a big dead leaf, like mine. Well.

AG: The humans treat you okay here?

TD: Yes. They are impertinent sometimes. They get in the way. The young mahouts especially… I have no patience with them.

AG: Yes, I have heard that. I was told that you have swatted one or two of them with your trunk.

Thong Dee snorts. Her head moves up and down, a slow nod.

TD: They think they can tell me what to do. Babies. Let them live a little. Then perhaps I will listen. If I choose to!

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AG: And what about the other elephants? Do you like them?

TD: It is not… I don’t know. It is not the right question. I am old. I prefer to be alone. Solitude is a treasure and I guard it always. I have taken many steps, had a few litters. My skin is heavy and dry from so many days in the sun, being beaten and driven. It is now my time. I have no anger with others. Kam Suk—maybe a little. She is my age and she has her ways and sometimes they cross with mine. It is okay. For the others I have neither like nor dislike. There is duty with the young ones. Sometimes I will seek them out in the jungle. Follow them. I want them to be safe, to have peace. It is what we want for each other.

AG: Lulu is one of the new babies. She has spent her whole life in a tourist camp, but now she is here. What do you think of her?

TD: She learns. There is sunlight, how you say… ah… hope for her. I followed the babies not long ago. I see her then. She does not hide behind the others like before. I see the play in her. She is a baby and she is… ah… allowed to be a baby for the first time. It makes me glad.

AG: It makes me glad, too.

Thong Dee slowly turns away from me. Sunlight bleeds through the forest in the approaching dusk. The mud is drying up… and with it, perhaps Thong Dee’s patience. I try to get in a last question or two:

AG: So is there anything else you would like to say? Perhaps anything about what it’s like to be an elephant?

TD: Sometime you must teach me laughter. I would use it a lot with you. Well. I do not concern myself with “what it is like.” I have had many sorrows. Some joy and peace—and a hair on my tail’s worth of those things is enough in this world—this world that is dominated by humans. I have survived, and if all goes well I will die in my dreams. Not in a yoke or under a whip. Or from the hot wind of a bullet hitting me. The blackness that was around my heart—as a baby—it is less. Sunlight can come in sometimes. That is enough. That is. Well.

AG: One more thing. I don’t know if you are aware of this, but most of the volunteers who come here think very fondly of you. Me included. You are their favorite elephant. Many of them get tattoos of you…

TD: Tattoos. Yes. I know them, those paintings on the skin. Well. That is a good thing, I suppose. Perhaps one day I will get a tattoo of one of my favorite humans. Perhaps even you.

My eyes widen. One of the most amazing creatures in the world has just paid me the grandest of compliments. Bamboo trees shift and rustle as Thong Dee begins to shuffle back into the jungle, indicating the end of the interview. I call after her:

AG: Wait! Did you really mean that?

She stops. Her mammoth head swings toward me. She raises her trunk so it is level with my head. She sniffs, snorts, and lowers her trunk again. Her eyes blink slowly once. Twice.

TD: Don’t be ridiculous. Seriously, you must teach me how to laugh.

Last day Tong Dee 1