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.

NIGHT HIKE PART TWO

storm

(photo from Ian)

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

In part one of Night Hike: Your intrepid hero (me) waded through the jungle in a heavy storm with his trusty umbrella and four comrades: Gemma, The Base Leader, Doc Mexico and Doc Ohio, two pre-med guys, Connie in her inadequate low-top sneakers, and Root, the guide and village renaissance man. When we last left our heroes, the guys were idling by a river. The women were way behind and Root had charged into the dark to look for them.

As Root ran by us and was swallowed up in the soggy murk, I looked at Doc Mexico and Doc Ohio. Normally, I would have felt self-conscious and un-manly holding my REI .38 Nerd Special umbrella in the thick of the jungle. But right now we were out in the open by the river, and these two guys were wearing little red riding hoodies that were useless against the skull-thumping rain. At a moment like this I looked like the genius and my umbrella was beautiful, sexy, a close-hugging lover shielding me from the rain.

Doc Mexico played it off but I caught Doc Ohio staring up at my umbrella.

I’m down here, buddy, I wanted to say.

Even so, we were all miserable and the rain did all the talking.

Connie finally limped into sight with Root at her side. He was holding her like he was escorting her down the wedding aisle. Connie had twisted her ankle. It wasn’t serious, but it would slow her way down and make things even more difficult for her.

Gemma and Root huddled, then Gemma broke it to announce that because we were now deep into the hike it would probably just be best if we continued. But she left it up to Connie.

Turn back! I screamed silently for Connie. This was all moving beyond discomfort for me. Fear was cutting me down into little boy-sized chunks. Pre-hike information bubbled to the surface of my memory: It was likely, we were told, that we would encounter snakes.

Jungle snakes. Twisty, squeezy snakes. Poisonous snakes.

I saw myself on my back in the mud, rain stinging my eyes, Gemma telling me to hang on, Root sloshing for help. I felt the two angry needle holes in my leg, venom shooting through me like a heat-seeking missile. There was no help to get. The village was miles away from any hospital.

I’m going to die in the jungle.

snake

(photo from Ian)

Back in reality, Connie vowed to press on. I snapped out of it. Good one, brain, I thought.

Thanks, buddy! Don’t worry, there’s more to come!

With Connie giving in to bravery we faced our first river crossing. Root led the way, sloshing to the middle of the river and pointing out a jagged path of rocks that poked their heads out of the water. Jumping from rock to rock would have been completely unnecessary if we had all just worn fishing boots like Root did, making this the first and probably the last time I would curse the fact that I didn’t own a pair of cheap baby blue rubber boots.

But our hopping and stumbling antics were going to be the number one source of Root’s entertainment for the evening—so it was all for a good reason.

Root flashed big teeth and laughed every time someone slipped or fell into the water. A slight spill would get a chuckle, an ankle-deep fall a guffaw, an ass-over-teacups half-drowning was a belly laugh winner. If you just lost your balance and managed to right yourself, Root practically booed you.

Doc Mexico was the first to fall in. The water was only deep enough to soak his boots and thus make the rest of the hike miserable for him, but Root have him an appreciative chuckle.

Root of course did all he could to offer his hand and assist us in crossing, but it was a little unnerving when you knew that if you fell into the water this would amuse him to no end.

I made it past the first river crossing without incident and was savoring my small victory when we were confronted with the river again, and another crossing.

Soon after that there was another one. And another. I was pretty sure we were just going back and forth over the same river. What was going on here?

Each river crossing was increasingly more difficult, the water higher, the path across less sure. And the drenching rain was making the river an angrier beast.

Through the myriad of crossings, everyone succumbed and stumbled into the water—Root chuckling, guffawing, cackling—except for me. So far I had cheated Root out of his laugh.

At the sixth river crossing Connie was too hobbled to make a real effort at avoiding getting wet. She just sploosh-splooshed across, the water soaking her up to her knees. Thankfully, Root never laughed at Connie.

The terrain away from the river banked steeply upward. Connie had to toddle like a baby trying to balance on the ledge of a skyscraper. Each of us guys would take a turn helping her. I put out my hand to her when it was my turn, but her snail pace was red-lining my frustration.

Doc Ohio stopped suddenly. I looked to where he was focusing his flashlight beam: there was a leech hanging off his shoe. It seemed to bend forward and back like an index finger beckoning me.

My mouth went dry and my old leechmares returned: it was like I could suddenly feel them nuzzling my foot inside my shoe. It felt like there were dozens of them, all entwined together like the tentacles of some giant octospider squatting in the deepest, blackest part of the river.

I checked my boots again—nothing—and my brain muttered to me, Really? Nothing there? I could have sworn there was something sucking the life out of you. Well, better check back in three seconds, because there will be a monster in your boot then for sure.

Remember me?

Remember me? (photo used with permission)

I had to do something. I couldn’t sit with my leech thoughts and I couldn’t help Connie any more and I couldn’t see the end of this cursed hike.

I charged up the mountain, not waiting for anyone. This mountain was steep and treacherous and would have been a trial in dry conditions. Within a few steps I was fighting my way up an escalator headed down.

I got halfway up. Far enough that going back would be a problem. Because by that point my boots were caked with mud so thick it was like I was wearing cow pies. Gravity was going to finger flick me off the mountain.

I slipped and skidded backward. The incline was so steep that I could see no way to stop. I clutched at scrub grass and baby saplings—it was like trying to hold onto cooked spaghetti. My umbrella bounced down the mountain with me, and now I felt useless and ashamed holding it again, like it was some blow-up doll handcuffed to me. It looked like me and the blow-up doll were going to get pitched into the river.

I was finally able to dig in and stop—almost all the way back down at the bottom. The rest of the group smiled weakly at me. They had no idea what happened to me—they were still slowly inching their own way up.

Gemma smiled at me. “This is fun, isn’t it?” she said, without a trace of irony.

I stared at her, mouth open. My hair was painted to my head, my sweatshirt hung off my neck like a comatose beaver, my thin cotton trousers stuck to my legs like wet newspaper. Mud spattered me like a Jackson Pollock painting—one that he pissed on and threw into his closet.

It was finally time. Time to give Gemma and everyone a piece of my mind.

That’s right, buddy, my brain said. Let them have it! A man can only take so much! Hold on a minute, I’m working on a really good string of expletives here, I’ll have them for you in a sec…

I kept my mouth shut.

iphone_June25 013

Doc Mexico shouted out something. He stood next to a tree with bark so thick it appeared to be made of cast iron. His flashlight beam lit up something on the tree.

Someone had finally found a creature on the creature-finding hike.

It was a fat green caterpillar, inching up the tree. Everyone huddled around it, spotlighting it with their flashlights as if it was the lead actor on a Broadway stage. Like many of the bugs in Thailand the caterpillar was a splashy version of its species— it was a plutonium green color and thick as a finger. It had fine rigid hairs that were like baby pine needles and its head bobbed from side to side—as if acknowledging the lights, the star walking the carpet—walking upward, up the tree.

I had no desire to join in the caterpillar adulation. I threw myself at the mountain again. After only a few feet, I stopped. I knew I couldn’t do this alone.

Just above me on the ridge, my flashlight beam caught a rat running by. There was a long list of animals we could potentially encounter on this hike: barking deer, gliding squirrel, giant frog, snake—but “rat” was not on the list. The rat’s coat was like a dirty sponge that couldn’t hold any more water and there was something surreal about the way he scampered from right to left above me: he looked like he was dashing through the rain to catch a bus.

I laughed.

I gave in.

This was fun.

Above me, Root suddenly appeared, his hand out. He had gone ahead and scouted out a way up. He was smiling. He was always smiling. I took his hand.

Root helped me up.

The rain finally stopped right as we reached a shelter that was built for the farmers. A half hour earlier we would have crawled into it like the dying. Now, with the moon grinning down and the stars forming parade columns, we had punched through world-killing fatigue all the way through to exhilaration. Using the shelter at this point would have felt as inappropriate as falling into bed at the finish line of a marathon.

SHELTER SHOT 1

Gemma and Doc Ohio at the shelter. (photo from Doc Mexico)

On the road back Gemma called to me. She had something cupped in her hands. I went to her and she smiled as she opened her hands. A giant frog bounded into my arms. He was the biggest frog I’ve ever seen—almost as big as my hand—and I had him for a fat moment, he was content to sit in the palm of my hand and I could feel the life in him, his warmth and his heartbeat and I felt a flicker of something like ease with me, like trust—before he wriggled away and hopped down the road. He was an escaped Frog Prince for sure.

After a time we were on the bumpy two-lane road that led from civilization into Huay Pakoot. The road that took me into the village for the first time almost a month ago.

Connie limped on the side of the road like a war veteran, Root steadying her. Doc Ohio and Doc Mexico trudged along oblivious to the mosquito bites that would lay them low with Dengue fever in a couple of days.

Night Hike casualty: A volunteer tries Reiki on Doc Mexico, stricken with Dengue fever.

Night Hike casualty: A volunteer tries Reiki on Doc Mexico, stricken with Dengue fever.

The jungle was still, slow to creep back after the bludgeoning of the storm. Little houses leaned out here and there as if testing the air, the porch lights biting gently into the dark and reminding me of my old neighborhood growing up.

There was a game I would play when I was on a street like this, walking alone in the dark in my hometown. The game was about fear and danger and the thrill of being a little boy. When car headlights appeared down the road, I would run off the road and hide… because who or what driving the car—they were looking for me.

They were trying to get me.

I’d hide and hope the car didn’t slow down. I’d hope it went past without spotting me.

Here on a pothole-bombed road in Thailand forty-six years later, car headlights twinkled in the distance. I had trudged ahead of my Night Hike friends, so I was alone on the road.

The headlights became eyeballs, then saucers, then searchlights…

shelter shot 3

(photo from Doc Mexico)

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

NIGHT HIKE PART ONE

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

The South Pole was bitter cold and I endured snow blindness, frostbite, and scurvy. That was all positively dreamy compared to the torments of Night Hike.”

–Sir Ernest Shackleton, famous British explorer

Night Hike? You must be barmy and shite-blighted to even utter those grotty words. Bollocks and meat pies to you and all your kin.”

–Sir Edmund Hillary, famous and more-British explorer

Night Hike is the bane of all explorers everywhere. It will never be conquered. Now if you’ll excuse me, senor, I would like to get back to killing Incas.”

–Francisco Pizarro, famous Spanish explorer, Inca-killer

 

Pizarro: Liked killing Incas. Hated Night Hike.

Pizarro: Liked killing Incas. Hated Night Hike.

I have seen the true face of horror and it’s not, as I once believed, a bulging Marlon Brando rubbing his bald head and muttering “The horror, the horror” in some god-forsaken jungle grotto in Apocalypse Now. Neither is the true face of horror a bleached-white (and even more bulging) Marlon Brando wearing a muumuu and somehow getting out-acted by Val Kilmer on a god-forsaken jungle island in The Island of Dr. Moreau—though that’s getting closer.

The true face of horror is the Brando-less and Kilmer-bare jungle of Night Hike.

Night Hike is a weekly hike for the volunteers of Huay Pakoot, scheduled every Wednesday at eight p.m. after all other daily activities are finished. The reason for a “Night Hike” is that a lot of the denizens of the jungle in Thailand are nocturnal, and so it’s an opportunity to literally bump into some creature you would never normally see during the day: barking deer, gliding squirrels, different types of frogs (many of them giant), civets (a type of small native wild cat), tarantulas (Thai people will fry these up and eat them—I’ll give you a moment to take that in, it took me a moment), river otters, and snakes by the bushel.

I didn’t particularly want to run into a bushel of snakes, but one of the volunteer leaders once saw a male frog trying to mate with another male—and that I did want to see, if only to witness the look of ribbiting embarrassment on the face of a giant buggered frog.

Night Hike had been canceled three times before. Twice because of rain and the third time because our guide had just forgot about it and flaked. I only had one more shot at Night Hike before I left the village.

Don’t worry, the Base Leader Gemma assured me. Next time for sure, rain or shine.

A storm cometh. Who will survive and what will be left of them?

A storm cometh. Who will survive Night Hike and what will be left of them?

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013 started out un-innocently enough when the clouds jumped in and bound and gagged the sun, signaling that today they meant business. Ostensibly rainy season had begun on June 1st, but all that had meant so far was pissing rain contests and most of the time we volunteers had won them—the rain didn’t ever ruin an elephant hike.

I looked up at the sky, dread creeping in, and as the sky darkened so did Gemma’s personality, as she hobbled around on her peg leg and cackled like Captain Bligh about how this time we were going on the hike and nothing was going to stop us. After the Night Hike she insisted that we round the horn of Africa.

By dusk the wind was roughing us up and the thunder was full-throated and barking. I had brought with me to Thailand a rain “poncho”—a heavy blue plastic-vinyl abomination that made me look like a smurf wearing a hoodie—and it worked fine repelling rain, but it also had zero ventilation. The only time I had worn it I had stewed in my own juices, so it was out.

I went with my “normal” hiking garb instead: long pants, sweatshirt over a T-shirt, a bottle of water, a flashlight, and my secret weapon, which might just save the day for me later…

The hike would be led by Root, the village renaissance man. This guy has done everything: he is a farmer, sometime-mahout, Muay Thai martial arts teacher, hunter, soccer player, builder, and tattoo artist. He drinks like a sailor, smokes like a tire fire, and he can take a beating like a crash test dummy—all the pounding from Muay Thai practice has deadened the nerve endings in his skin. He also has time to raise a family, party with the volunteers, and I’m pretty sure he writes a column for Salon.

Besides Gemma and me, the Night Hike party consisted of two guys who were pre-med students, one from Ohio, the other from Mexico, and Connie, who like me was leery of the impending storm. She stalled about whether she would go or not until the very last minute. Gemma worked on Connie, figuring her for the weak link… but I wasn’t so sure. If Connie had backed out, I might have jumped on the scaredy-cat bandwagon.

She didn’t.

On our first step away from the safety of Base Hut a lightning strike lit up the jungle and I looked around at everyone like, “Helloooo? Did anyone notice that old classic harbinger of doom, ‘the lightning strike just as we are setting out’?”

Maybe if I had boomed out as we were leaving, “Well, at least we’ll all make it back alive and absolutely not die in a hideous fashion!”—and then the lightning struck—maybe then they would have gasped and stopped in their tracks and called the whole thing off, like I wanted them to.

But I didn’t say that as we left. I said, “Wait up, I have to take a whiz first.”

iphone_June25 013

Dusk in Thailand often fans itself out like peacock feathers, a regal and rich blue, but tonight it was plucked and smothered by the heavy black of the coming storm. Halfway down the road to Root’s house it began drizzling. I risked tipping my hand early and pulled out the secret weapon from my pack.

It was an umbrella. Sleek and blue and loaded, about six deadly inches of compact canvas and steel from REI. I flicked the button and it parachuted open into its glorious protective canopy.

Everyone stopped. Gemma opened her mouth to say something but I guess thought better of it.

As we approached Root’s house it looked dark and deserted. I was hoping he was out composing a symphony and we could all go home. But after a few minutes he emerged wearing what else but a poncho—it was much thinner than my asbestos suit version—and some old rubber fisherman’s boots. I compared his boots to mine—sturdy and expensive hiking boots—and it looked for sure that I had the edge, and then I remembered that you never ever think you have an “edge” on someone who lives in the village, particularly Root, who also brought along a pad of paper to work on his Broadway play while we were on the hike.

Root is on the right. (photo from Ian)

Root is on the right. (photo from Ian)

This was Connie’s last chance to back out. When I say the last chance for her I mean her and me, since I was the undercover chicken here—if she bowed out I was going to bow much lower and out-er.

By this time the rain had picked up and it was sledgehammering down on us. I peered out from underneath my carpet-bombed umbrella and it was clear that the storm was moving in for an extended stay. This was not dampening Gemma’s enthusiasm and “Doc Mexico” also seemed raring to go. “Doc Ohio” seemed to have some reticence but not enough to say anything.

There was no turning back once Connie stepped out, ready to go. She was wearing a pair of low top sneakers, stylish but I wondered if they would cut it. Root—who spoke only a little broken English—cackled at all of us and I noted that this was yet another harbinger of doom—the cackling guide.

Once again, no one else picked up on this. The fools.

For the first part of the hike we skirted the village, shining our flashlights in the trees and the bushes. Besides walking, shining flashlights in the trees was the main activity of Night Hike—in order to catch the reflected “eye shine” of any animals that might be sitting in the trees, laughing down at the idiots tramping around in the rain.

Ten minutes in and the dirt roads of the village were already drowning. The rain had moved in for good, kicked grandma out and stolen her bed. As we moved out of the village, I looked over my shoulder at the lights now winking out in the distance, and wondered if this would be my last forlorn glimpse of hope and of a dry pair of pants. We clomped off the road and into a clearing dotted with red and orange tents.

A few bald heads poked out of the tent flaps. Apparently we had stumbled upon an encampment of Buddhist monks, all huddling in their little four-man tents, trying to stay dry. Gemma exchanged some words of greeting with them, and as we were edging by the camp I tripped on a tent pole. My heart stopped as I saw the tent shake and shudder and I heard a chorus of monks gasping “Ohhhhhh” as their canvas roof started to cave in on them.

Great, I thought. What kind of kharma is kicking over a tent on four old monks going to get me? My next life I would probably be reincarnated as a coal miner of the Northeast, and some clumsy Pennsylvanian monk would come wandering by and trip over some load-bearing timber, and as the cave roof came down on me I’d think, Well yeah, this kind of sucks—but at least I’m not dying because some idiot American kicked over my tent—that would be really embarrassing.

Thankfully, the tent buckled but didn’t cave in on the monks. I spluttered my apologies and did a lot of bowing, and after the monks all cursed me and my family for the next ten generations, we moved on.

Last stop before the jungle swallowed us up we had to scale a gate made of thin tree trunks, and at this point we should’ve all gotten a whiff of doom approaching—with or without Root’s cackle. The ground around the gate was a swamp and it was increasingly difficult to keep our footing and just stay upright—and this was on level ground with most of us wearing hiking boots that had some teeth.

Connie was wearing sneakers. In this weather it was like wearing roller skates.

Clambering over the shoulder-high gate was slippery and the guys managed to get over with bruised legs and knees. Somehow Connie skated over the blockade. It was slow and treacherous and her sneakers were no help at all.

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As we plunged into the jungle Root cackled again. I asked Gemma what was with the cackling and she said, “I don’t think he’s ever seen anybody use an umbrella in the jungle before.”

Oh yeah—that. Well, I knew it was silly, but so far it was actually pretty effective. At first I had folded up the umbrella, with the thought that the “jungle canopy” would protect me, but after ten umbrella-less minutes with the rain pummeling me and my soaked through-and-through sweatshirt begging for mercy, I once again relied on my umbrella friend to get me through this nightmare.

I considered doubling down on my ridiculousness and pulling out a pipe and puffing on it with my free hand, but I thought better of it. Only because I needed that hand to twirl my mustache.

The rain was relentless as Doc Mexico and Doc Ohio and I skidded down to the edge of the river—our first river crossing. Normally this muddy little stripe of water would be nothing but a dreaming-big creek, but the storm had swollen its size to a river and it looked eager to pull us in.

Across the river Root lit up a cigarette and he looked down and from side to side, his head flashlight beam scouting out a route for us lesser beings to ford across the river. At this point because of her worthless sneakers, Connie had to pick her way carefully. She was trailing us significantly and Gemma had slowed to her pace to help her.

Both of them had fallen behind. They were nowhere in sight.

The river chattered and the jungle’s breath was mossy and heavy. So far we had picked up nothing in our flashlight beams. No animals, anyway. We did pick up several different species of rain, though. Fat rain, thin rain, medium rain… rivulets and sheets and rivers of rain. Deepening, depressing, demoralizing rain. Wet rain.

Minutes ticked away, all of us men staring ahead grimly and not speaking, and still there was no sign of the women.

The skies felt like they had been slashed open and gutted. The downpour was furious, and I felt ashamed that I had not stayed back with the women.

As if reading my thoughts, Root snuffed the cigarette, sloshed through the water, and disappeared into the dark.

SEPARATION ANXIETY

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

Kam Suk and Kam Moon

I started dating my girlfriend in January. Even before our first date I had already been making plans for a couple of grand trips, including the one to Thailand.

On our dates I talked often about the upcoming trips and I was open about my feelings: anticipation, anxiety, fear, excitement. I spilled over like a volcano about to burst and I saw how this girl who I was breathlessly attracted to reacted: supportive and excited for me… then, as we began to fall in love, I felt the trepidation creep in for her.

But the trips were far in the future. That’s how I looked at it. So let’s got on with this romance, kay?

I credit my girlfriend with a lot of strength because she fell in love with me even though that is not how she looked at it. She was thinking more along the lines of “should I actually commit and be vulnerable to this man who will soon disappear for long stretches?”

She brought this up a few times and I spouted some stuff about “living in the moment”—and I believed this at the time. I wasn’t trying to sweep her feelings away, but I knew that these trips—particularly the one to Thailand—would scoop me up, spin, wash and dry me, and burp me out a changed man. A better man. And the relationship would benefit from this.

This intuitive foreknowledge came from such a deep place that I should have grabbed it by the lapels and shook it down for some winning lottery numbers.

Besides, my girlfriend and I had both gone through long stretches of our lives when we had been alone—not in a relationship with anyone—so of course we could both do “alone” standing on our heads, right?

So yeah, during these trips we’d talk on the phone or Skype if we could, no big deal. So what if we didn’t speak to each other a day or two here and there?

That was my thinking.

My girlfriend didn’t see it that way. She made sure we both had Skype, Tango, and Viber installed on our smart phones and laptops. We tested them all out before I left. Then she talked about phone cards and SIM cards, and at that point I pictured myself jamming a screwdriver into my iPhone to install whatever a SIM card was, and I couldn’t see this going any other way than the phone shattering on the ground or blowing up in my face or me accidentally stabbing myself in the eye with the screwdriver.

I emailed the organization I was volunteering with to provide details about what the Internet and phone connection would be like in the village. The evasive response was only that it was “unreliable.” My girlfriend’s opinion was that this was 2013, and you could communicate from anywhere. After talking with a cousin of hers who had lived in Thailand she informed me that these days people climb trees and hang out with monkeys and still talk on their smart phones.

I agreed, while wondering if her cousin was Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall.

Once I finally got to the village, it turned out that I wouldn’t  be climbing a tree to call her, but a mountain.

The village of Huay Pakoot. The middle of nowhere.

The village of Huay Pakoot. The middle of nowhere.

On top of this mountain was the elementary school for the village. This is where the Holy Internet slept, a little Mickey Mouse wireless black box tucked into a dusty corner of a classroom for six to eight-year-old students. The school was the only place where you even had a shot of reaching the outside world—the village was just too remote.

On this fragile little box were pinned the Skyping hopes and Tangoing dreams of the dozens of loved ones of the volunteers, and each day—usually after the morning hikes—almost all of us would make the pilgrimage up the mountain to suck at the teat of the Holy Internet.

Let me draw emphasis to this: I would climb a mountain each day to use the phone.

It was an interesting hike, too—because the climb is more or less gradual until the last quarter mile or so—and then It. Gets. Really. Freaking. Steep.

But at least after the difficult hike I was welcomed to a glorious technological paradise of gold-plated phones, data-humming global connections, and little armies of school children fanning me while I relaxed in a lounge chair chatting lazily with my girlfriend. Dogs licked my phone-free hand.

Or actually, what it was really like: The school kids hopped around me like kangaroos driven mad, screaming at the tops of their lungs as stray dogs barked like hell hounds. I circled around the school yelling “Hello?!”, trying to hold a connection, feeling like I was guarding a match flame fizzling in the middle of a wind tunnel.

The connection was not “unreliable.” It was actually quite reliable. You could rely on it to suck. Getting a good connection was a shock.

iphone 6_10_13 055

The school where the internet lived… and (more frequently) died.

If the spotty service wasn’t interrupted by the wind blowing, me leaning the wrong way, or a gecko sneezing, my girlfriend and I would “talk” on the phone for a half hour or so. If the call didn’t drop—and it would, fifty times in a row, so I would have to redial over and over while handing out tissues to the geckos—I would say something and my girlfriend would hear my words only after a delay of about six seconds (the delay went both ways—I heard her words well after she spoke them as well).

This is the sort of built-in delay radio stations use to bleep out swearing, which I was certainly doing a lot of, but I can’t say that we were conversing all that much. And with the weird delays we were constantly interrupting each other, misunderstanding one another, or reacting to the other person at weird times. It was frustrating.

Worse than frustrating.

I needed to connect with my girlfriend to share what was happening in Thailand. Jungles, elephants, bugs, squat toilets that laughed at me while I tried to figure out a kneel-sit-squat combination that would get the job done without me falling into the toilet—all of these things somehow didn’t seem real, didn’t seem like they were actually happening, until I shared them with her. It’s like having a great story locked in your head. It doesn’t have any impact or meaning until someone reads it—especially if that someone has become your closest friend and partner.

My girlfriend’s need to connect was about something different. And I didn’t grasp it at first. She was upset about missing me from almost the beginning, and at first I took her reactions personally, as my crackerjack deductive reasoning jumped in to help me decipher her feelings: I got it! She’s miserable that I’m having a good time!

 

Volunteer Thom trying to get a connection in a storm. Yeah--that's going to happen.

Volunteer Thom trying to get a connection in a storm. Yeah–that’s going to happen.

A lot of the calls were sad and difficult for both of us—when they were not dropping—until I took a step back and realized that I had no idea what it was like for her 6000 miles away on the other end of crappy wireless connection, and I couldn’t pretend that I did. The next time my deductive reasoning opened his mouth I shot him and fed him to the dogs.

In my best moments on the phone, I gave her the room to express her feelings about me being gone for so long without judgment, without taking them personally, and without trying to fix her.

I hit that mark about 19% of the time. But it was a good 19%.

I later realized it took a lot of courage for my girlfriend to show me her feelings and risk me judging them, or getting defensive.

I missed my girlfriend too, but the separation was more tolerable for me because I was being bombarded with sights and sounds and experiences that were coming so fast that I couldn’t even process them. I would wake up at five in the morning and collapse at nine at night, and everything in between was a blur of snorting elephants, screeching cicadas, groping leeches, strange people and foreign words bouncing around everywhere… and hikes, soccer games, basket weaving, teaching, lectures, and eating rice. Lots of eating rice.

The weekly schedule. There was a lot to do every day.

The weekly schedule. There was a lot to do every day.

After 32 days in Thailand I headed home. I had a ridiculously long 10-hour layover in Seoul, South Korea, and even though we were soon going to see each other in person, we spent much of that time Skyping, Vibering, and Tangoing. I moved into the airport lounge with my laptop so we could text, talk, emoticon, and pixel-grin at each other.

The wireless connection was five out of five bars, a communication nirvana. Dogs licked my hand.

It turns out that my intuition about my trip was rock-solid: this trip did change me, and for the better—not just for myself—but also for the relationship with my girlfriend.

But what I also learned is that by going off to Thailand for 32 long days I had ripped a gaping hole in the relationship—I of course didn’t intend to do this—but that’s what absence can sometimes do to intimacy. The person who stays behind is left scrambling to plug up the breach.

When you’re the one —like my girlfriend—immersed in the “normal” routine of living, those feelings of separation buzz on the surface, and they sting you over and over.

The hard work is done by the person who’s not taking the trip. They’re the ones who have to wrestle with the feelings of abandonment, insignificance, loss, of Holy crap, what if this person goes away and comes back all different? They’re the ones who have to tend the relationship during the separation, to keep their faith and keep things together.

And I know this because I am a spiritual giant and an empathetic superhero.

No.

I know this because just recently my girlfriend went away on a spiritual retreat of her own to Hawaii. It was only for 10 days, not 32, and of course I knew I could do 10 days alone standing on my head.

I was a basket case by the third day.

Canon_June25 004

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.