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.

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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

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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.

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.

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