World Tour, Part Two

Powells PresentationBy the time my Powell event began, we were 130 strong (or more). Staff had to bring in more chairs, and even then there were people standing in the back. I was delighted that so many came out to wish the book Happy Birthday and learn about Portland’s elephants and the man that cared for them all those years. Thank you.

For those who are interested, here’s a copy of the talk I gave, minus any extemporaneous remarks. (The words in bold is where I showed a particular slide, and I’ll include those here as well.)

Belle and RogerBack in March 1997, I spent several hours in the Oregon Zoo elephant barn with senior keeper Roger Henneous and a remarkable animal named Belle. She was recuperating from surgery and I was one of several volunteers assigned to keep an eye on her for the next few days.

The barn was quiet when I arrived; no clang of hydraulic doors opening and closing, no chatter or bustle of visitors or staff; everyone gone home for the night except the man dressed in keeper brown, wearing a battered campaign hat, who stood beside the elephant in the front exhibit room, her left front foot wrapped in thick bandage secured with gray duct tape.

I watched for several minutes, until Roger noticed me and came out to introduce himself. Belle turned away, face to the wall, and rocked from side to side. I could sense she was in pain, but so was Roger; it was clear on his face, though it was a different sort of pain from hers, one that had nothing to do with surgery and everything to do with his heart.

Several days earlier, Belle had undergone a procedure to remove necrotic tissue and infected bone brought on by pododermatitis, the technical term for what elephant keepers graphically call “foot rot,” a condition to which captive elephants are prone. Zoo personnel came together with several local businesses to convert an area of the barn into HS.Belle.1.be.2-22a surgical suite complete with a sling to help lift and position Belle during the operation, and a team of surgeons from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine had generously donated their services. Belle’s prognosis was good, but guarded. A procedure such as this was a rare thing, and no one, not even the doctors, could guess its outcome.

Roger was gruff, gravel-voiced, and disinclined to 3 - Belle1conversation, so we sat in silence as time passed. Belle continued to shift from side to side, an unnerving thing to watch when you aren’t familiar with elephants. At times, she leaned so far to the right that I was afraid she’d keel over. Roger assured me she wouldn’t fall, but I perched nervously on the front edge of my chair ready to jump up if she did. What did I expect to do? Catch her?

Two hours into my shift, Roger excused himself and disappeared into the back area of the barn. He emerged in the exhibit room carrying a large plastic garbage can with fronds of bamboo sprouting from the top. He offered a stalk to Belle. She accepted it, moved it around in her mouth, and dropped it on the floor. He next offered a banana, then some hay. Nothing seemed to tempt her. Finally, she ate an apple, bits of pulp dropping from her lips, but refused anything else. Roger put the can away, brought out a hose, and waited while Belle drank her fill.

When he rejoined me, his expression was glum. “She’s got no appetite,” he said.

“But she ate a little,” I replied, “because you asked her to.”

Roger shrugged, unwilling to take credit for that minor success. He thumbed back the brim of his hat. “Belle and me, we’re like an old married couple,” he said. An unexpectedly sweet smile curved his lips. “We respect each other,” he added. “But neither of us is terribly impressed anymore.” He chuckled. “Although she did save my life once.”

The name Belle means little to zoo visitors these days, but for decades she was a fixture 4 - Packyin the elephant barn, a matriarch famous for the birth of her son, Packy.  As the first successful elephant birth in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years, Packy’s arrival generated a frenzy of interest and ushered in the era that transformed Portland from the “City of Roses” to the “City of Elephants.” The zoo received hundreds of phone calls, telegrams, and bouquets of flowers, even baby bibs and blankets. Zoo Director Jack Marks fainted while telephoning the momentous news, and LIFE Magazine devoted an unprecedented 11 pages to the event. The crowds that descended on the zoo broke every attendance record. By the end of that year, more than one million people from around the world had visited the celebrated newcomer and his mother.

5 - Roger's rookie year - Les Barker, RH, Denny Robbins, Wes Peterson, Gordon Noyes, Harold Meeker, Paul Pentz, Dale Brooks - CopyThese days, no one remembers Roger either, though he carried his own brand of celebrity back then, serving up caustic wit and homespun wisdom in equal measure to anyone that wandered within earshot. (That’s him, second from the left, during his rookie year.) He was unfailingly polite around children, choosing his words carefully so as to not swear in front of them, and completely the opposite with the reporters who dropped by the zoo whenever there was a slow news day hoping for a colorful remark. Roger was always happy to oblige. His Midwestern work ethic made him a legend among keepers, and he alternately delighted his coworkers or drove them insane. And there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for his elephants.

Roger Henneous in 1998. Stephanie Yao Long/StaffFor 30 years Roger devoted most of his waking hours to caring for what became the largest and most successful breeding herd of elephants in North America. Sometimes as many as 11 animals tested the seams of the old barn. To give you an idea of what that means to a zoo keeper on a fundamental level, a single healthy adult elephant can produce 250-300 pounds of manure every 24 hours. Multiply that by 11 animals, and we’re talking a ton and a half of excrement needing to be shoveled and hauled away every single day.

What many people don’t appreciate is that there’s more to elephant care than food, 7 - Roger weighing elephantwater, and shoveling. Elephants need to be scrubbed to loosen dry skin, and weighed to keep them from straying into obesity. Particular attention must be paid to their feet, which require, among other things, the regular trimming and shaping of toenails and removal of debris they pick up while walking. Some elephants require medication or physical therapy. In Roger’s time, a few even needed to be rescued when tomfoolery, a misstep, or an argument in the herd caused an elephant to tumble into the dry moat that surrounded the yard back in those days.

8 - Tamba falls in moat

Zoo visitors are generally a bit starry-eyed about the so-called “glamour” of being a keeper, so they often don’t realize there’s a degree of danger to the job. Any animal can have a bad day, and elephants are no exception. Roger survived being kicked, shoved, and swatted with trunks. He earned bruises, scrapes, broken bones, and even one or two close calls with the Grim Reaper, but he never once considered giving up on his elephants. In an era when the standard procedure for dealing with these uncommonly intelligent and potentially dangerous animals might include confinement, physical abuse, isolation, and starvation, Roger chose instead to create a compassionate and rewards-based environment grounded in mutual respect that continues to this day.

10 - Belle situp with RogerMore can be achieved with kindness than with brutality,” he told me. “Abuse is the lazy man’s solution to a problem. Maintaining control is an exercise in intellect.” Barn rules required that he carry a bull hook or ankus, the traditional tool used by elephant keepers, but more often than not Roger got chewed out for misplacing his or purposely leaving it behind. He told me, “The less an ankus is used, the better for both elephant and keeper, because not using it forces you to work harder at communication.”

After that night in the barn Roger and I crossed paths once more, briefly, but the experience of being with him and Belle never left me. Eighteen years later, I finally tracked him down to ask if I could tell his story. He didn’t remember me, and wasn’t sure he wanted to relive those years, some of which were indescribably painful. But it meant a lot to him that I’d known Belle, however briefly, during that anxious time in their lives. In the end, Roger agreed to share his story not for his own sake, but because of the animals he loved. “I don’t much care if anyone remembers me once I’m gone,” he said. “But I’d like it if they remembered the elephants.”

11 - Samudra, Lily, Rose-Tu, Chendra, ShineThe Oregon Zoo herd is smaller these days, but the accommodations have vastly improved and the dedication of its keepers is just as strong. Miraculously, two of Roger’s original elephant friends are still there. Sung-Surin, better known as Shine, born in 1982 and shown here on the far right, is herd matriarch just like her grandmother Belle. Rose-Tu, in the middle, whose rare birth as one of a set of twins Roger witnessed in 1994, is the successful mother in the herd. Her children, Samudra and Lily, on the far left, are fourth generation elephants whose lineage can be traced all the way back to their great-grandmother Rosy, who in 1953 became Portland’s first elephant.

Samudra meets SamsonToday, there are five elephants in the herd—females Shine, Rose-Tu, and Chendra, second from the right, and males Samudra and Samson. Sadly, on November 29, 2018, Lily died unexpectedly from Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus or EEHV, a swift-acting and deadly disease that resides latent in all elephants, but for reasons unknown may suddenly become active. Research is underway to develop a vaccine, but until then keepers everywhere remain vigilant, ready to battle for the lives of the elephants they love. Disease, however, isn’t the only threat that elephants face.

Two hundred years ago, the population of wild Asian elephants was estimated at around 200,000. Today the count places it at around 35,000 or less. Dense vegetation, difficult terrain, and outmoded survey techniques make an accurate census difficult, but the indisputable fact remains that elephant populations are in steady decline worldwide. The three greatest threats to their continued existence are habitat loss, inter-species conflict, and predation. The root cause of all three is us.

But we also have the potential to be the elephants’ salvation. I’m not talking just about keepers and scientists, but all of us. No one can do everything, but each of us can do something to help elephants survive into the next century. For instance, we can purchase elephant-friendly products and avoid buying items that contain palm oil, ivory, or elephant parts. We can contribute to organizations like Asian Elephant Support, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, and the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation which has released over 100 former working elephants into three forest sanctuaries in Thailand to live, breed, and raise their young without interference from humans.

13 - Belle and Roger 3Over 50 years ago, Roger Henneous pledged his life to the survival of elephants. To this day, he remains dedicated to their preservation. “We have to do something,” he told me. “To try and fail is forgivable, but to be so indifferent that you never try is immoral.”

 

Roger Henneous

Roger reacquaints with Rose-Tu after 20 years apart.

 

World Tour, Part One

Okay, so maybe not the entire world, but let’s not get too picky here. I did cross an entire continent for these events, and it’s a grand thing I’m a morning person, because I usually have to get up at something like o-dark-stupidly early to catch a flight to Oregon. This trip turned out to be far more civilized, with a departure time of 10 am. What luxury! Usually, I’m up at 2 in order to eat, shower, and drive to the airport because I’m one of those obsessive people who doesn’t like to challenge the notion of being there two hours before flight time because God knows I MIGHT MISS THE FLIGHT!!!!!!!! (I’ve been known to arrive at the airport as much as three hours in advance of my flight if I’m not sure of how to get to the airport. Also, I don’t much like to drive in the dark–blame my cataracts–so that’s an added thing.)

I heard that. Shut up.

We left Hartford on time and landed in Chicago without incident. (That’s what you want on a flight, isn’t it? No incidents. The lady sitting next to me as a tad on the bitchy side–she griped at the edge of my jacket straying over onto her section of seat–and then talked about nothing but her family, although I hadn’t said a word to engage her in conversation. Turn-around in The Windy City was brief (just under an hour, during which I fielded a series of emails regarding an additional television appearance to promote the book and my appearance at Powells) and then we were on our way again. I spent this longer leg of the flight trying to read, failing abysmally at Sudoku, and working on my presentation.

Portland, Oregon at last! Oh, frabjous day, callooh callay! (As Lewis Carroll put it.) Ed, my brilliant husband and chief member of what he called my entourage, made our  hotel reservation for literally minutes from the airport, so a quick drive deposited us at Hampton Inn. Ten minutes later, we joined company with one of my oldest and dearest friends, my heart-sister Wendy Carofano, who I’ve known since seventh grade. She flew all the way from Delaware to offer moral support and serve as my “roadie.” How’s that for devotion?

We met up with Michelle Henneous for dinner and then called it an early night because the next day was

SHOWTIME!

We arrived at television station KATU for their morning show, Portland AM Northwest, and were directed to the Green Room where we met the other guests and generally hung out talking and sharing news until it was time for each of us to be outfitted with a remote microphone and take our turn in the hot-seat with show host Helen Raptis.  (That’s me with Wendy on the left, and with Ed on the right.) If you’d like to watch my segment, just click here.

I’d never done a television interview before, but Helen and her crew made the entire process a breeze. I wasn’t the least bit nervous, probably because I’ve been immersed in this subject for five years. What was there to be afraid of?

Once we were through, we had a few hours lag time before returning for the KATU afternoon program, Portland Afternoon Live, so we tooled around Portland. We grabbed lunch at a small but amazing salad place (kale! Yes!) and made a brief visit to Powell’s City of Books where I saw ELEPHANT SPEAK on a store bookshelf for the first time, Powells Shelf Presencequite a thrill I must say. Wendy immediately went into sales mode with a gentleman who was looking at it, and the next thing I knew, he was asking me to sign his copy.

Back we went to KATU’s Green Room for my afternoon piece. (Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a link to that on their website, but the interview was much the same as the morning one.)

By the time we left the studio I was … how shall I put this? … I believe toast is the correct word. Some of it was due to travel the day before, but the greater part of my fatigue was because I am, at heart, an introvert. I have to work very hard to engage with people, particularly strangers, and find it difficult to be “on” for protracted lengths of time. We had several hours to spare before the evening book launch (!!!) at Powell’s, so I opted to return to the hotel, climb under the covers, and close my eyes. I didn’t sleep, but did rest some, and spent part of that time zoning out with the new Godzilla movie.

Ed chose an awesome Italian restaurant called Allora, at 504 NW 9th Avenue. Wendy went exotic with rabbit ragu, and Ed had cioppino (a seafood stew), but I opted for down-home, stick to your ribs goodness with their house-made polpette (essentially spaghetti and meatballs). Wine and panna cotta rounded out the meal, and by the time we arrived at Powell’s, I was raring to go.

Let me tell you a bit about Powell’s City of Books, the ultimate book mecca for anyone who loves the written word. They’re the largest independent bookstore in the world and have been serving the city of Portland since 1971. They employ over 530 people in five area stores (and Powells.com) and their book inventory (take a deep breath) exceeds two million volumes. (The main store takes up an entire city block.)

To quote in part from their website, “Powell’s roots began in Chicago, where Michael Powell opened his first bookstore in 1970 … Michael’s dad, Walter Powell, a retired painting contractor, worked one summer in the Chicago store. He so enjoyed his experience that upon returning to Portland he opened his own used bookstore. Walter swamped his original location by buying every marketable used book that came through the door, finally pushing the whole operation into a former car dealership on Northwest Burnside … In 1979, Michael joined Walter in Portland, creating a bookstore with a unique recipe that, though viewed as unorthodox, worked: used and new, hardcover and paperback, all on the same shelf; open 365 days a year; and staffed by knowledgeable and dedicated booklovers. Four decades later, Powell’s Books is a cornerstone of the community and continues to operate as a third-generation family-owned business with Emily Powell at the helm. Says Emily: “My grandfather taught me that our job is to connect the writer’s voice with the reader’s ear and not let our egos get in between. My father taught me not only the love of the book itself but also how to love the business of bookselling.”

Powells Event BoardSmall wonder that walking through the door left me feeling like I’d just come home. (I’m there in the small print, on the left, fourth from the top.)

And what a time it was! The Powell’s staff was energetic, engaging, and serious about their work. They had me set up in no time, and I watched is something like disbelief as the crowd gathered … and gathered … and gathered … until more chairs had to be brought in. And with that, I began. (More to follow tomorrow)

Powells - 130 strong

130 strong. I was blown away

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March Events

As the ELEPHANT SPEAK launch date approaches, I thought I’d give everyone a run down for the month of March (so far):

March 4 – KATU “Afternoon Live” appearance (to air between 2-3 pm)

BOOK LAUNCH – Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside Street, Portland, OR                      at 7:30 pm.

March 5 – Elephant Lands Keeper Talk – Oregon Zoo, 4001 SW Canyon Road, Portland, OR                    at 12:30 pm. Book signing to follow at Gift Shop.

March 6 – Roundabout Books – 900 NW Mt. Washington Drive #110, Bend, OR at 6:00 pm.

March 7 – Sunriver Books – 57100 Beaver Drive, Bldg. 25C, Sunriver, OR at 5:00 pm

March 14 – Bank Square Books, 53 West Main Street, Mystic, CT from 1-3 pm.

part0

 

“What the hell is THAT?”

smartphone-1987212_1920Ah, those famous words that greet the first sight of gray hair, facial lines (doesn’t that sound evah-so much nicer than wrinkles?), butt or boob drop, a thickening waist … oh, heck, add to the list on your own. We all have our demons. (That goes for you men as well; I’m not just talking about women here, although that’s what I’ll focus on since I am one…or was the last time I checked.)

Can’t  say I’m bothered by graying hair, although the first truly black strand that came out during a shower made me do a double-take. I’ve been blonde of one shade or another all my life. (I say it that way not because I’ve dyed my hair–I haven’t–but because I was born a tow-head, but my hair has decidedly darkened over time. Funny old world. When I was a kid, I badly wanted to be brunette like my mother and sisters–I thought it would be a way to fit in.)

See? Big difference.

Baby Writer              Graduation 1975            IMG_5663

Maybe I’m not bothered by the gray because there’s not that much of it (or so says the woman that cuts my hair). At this point, I’ve no intention of coloring it, and I rather hope that I’ll wind up with a great mane of silver or white hair. Guess we’ll see.

As for wrinkles (oops! ‘scuse me, facial lines) I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have them. Sure, I likely didn’t as a child, but by my teenage years (and all  that angst) I certainly did. Mom was forever telling me to stop frowning. “I’m not,” I’d say. “I’m concentrating.” It was all the same to her. But, yeah, it left me with two permanent upright marks between my eyebrows that she constantly tried to smooth out with the ball of her thumb. (Really, Ma?) Rough times of one sort and another bestowed the horizontal lines across my forehead that ain’t nevah gonna go ‘way now, sugah. Whatever. I’ve spent nearly 63 years living in my face. It’s bound to show it. And, anyway, I rather like the look of a lived-in face, mine as well as other people’s. There are stories in those lines, and stories are what make people interesting.

(Case in point: Take my former Coast Guard cadets–adoptees all into our household–now grown and experienced officers. Seasoned. Aged. They’re no longer the fresh-faced eighteen-year-olds we first met, scared and uncertain by the road they’d chosen to pursue. Now they’re approaching middle-age. They’ve braved bad seas, drug busts, and those much scarier rites of passage called matrimony, divorce, and parenthood. I loved their young adult faces, but the ones they carry now–ah! Those speak of Life, and I mean it with a capital “L” and emphasis.)

Butt and boob drop? Well, I’ve never had much in the way of breasts. (Boob is such a stupid word; I bet some man coined it first.) Always been small, something I regretted before I wised up and stopped buying into the societal party line. (A friend’s boyfriend once derided me for being “concave.” I’ve also received such endearments as “You’d have a perfect shape if only your breasts were bigger” (that one from my mother, if you can believe it) and “You’d be so much more attractive if only your breasts were bigger.”) News flash, folks–my breasts aren’t anyone’s frigging business.

As for the butt, well, suffice to say that I caught a sideways view of myself in the bathroom mirror after a shower and only one thought that arrowed through my brain:  “Oh, my God, I have Mom’s ass.”

Again, whatever. You get the gist.

Here’s the thing. see. I grew up knowing I wasn’t beautiful, wasn’t even pretty. It was said to me often enough, pointed out by family, that even if I hadn’t believed it at first, I certainly came to. (A guy I spent way too much time with years ago told me, “You’re not the best looking girl in the world, but you have a good heart.” Another–who’d actually expressed a desire to date me, said, “There’s nothing wrong with you that can’t be fixed with braces and contact lenses.” Gee. Thanks. I am overwhelmed.)

I wasn’t taught to think well of myself, and so I didn’t. And I was mistrustful of the rare individual who suggested I might, actually, not be all that hideous. What was wrong with them that they couldn’t see it? What did they really want from me?

I remember the day I decided I actually sort of like my face, that it’s not a bad old fizzog. Talk about a cocktail of epiphany and relief. Because if you can find peace in your own skin, what the rest of the world thinks and says in its arrogance and thoughtless stupidity (or rancor and general meanness), doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. Don’t let it matter.

Do Tell

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Image by Gerhard Gellinger from Pixabay

T’other day, it were pourin’ down when the turkeys came from the woods–single-file, bunched, single-file, bunched–like one of them wire slink toys kids like to make march down the stairs. It were a miserable rain, what the olders call a “wet rain,” and by that they ain’t bein’ stupid or smarty-pants sarcastic. What they mean is rain that does more than wet you on the outside; it gets you from the inside, too. How’s rain make wet on the inside something that’s already pretty sloppy once you cut past the skin bag that holds us together? Why, it’s the chill. That chill, it don’t sink into you, it digs into you, like fingers. It burrows in like chiggers. It chews its way deep inside and wraps around your bones until you can’t get warm for nothin’.

I wondered if the turkeys felt the same chill as me. They don’t have the luxury of a home fire when the outdoors is cemetery cold. Oh, they can roost, but roostin’ don’t fill an empty belly and they’re all about belly-fillin’ which suits me just fine. They rake the forest duff, all those fallen leaves and twigs and whatnot, spyin’ out bugs, worms, ticks, and whatever else they call food. It’s a hard life, bein’ outdoors in all seasons. They’re welcome to whatever they can find, most ‘specially them ticks.

So it’s rainin’ steady, sometimes gentle, what we call a “soaker,” but more often drumming down in lines so thick you can see ’em, but not past ’em, like a curtain of gray wet, what I’ve heard call a “goat-drowner,” and here come the turkeys. I’d like to say I can tell ’em apart, but that’d be a lie. They’re pretty much of a size until spring when the toms do their Thanksgiving impression and puff out all plump and gorgeous like they know it, bronzy-green, tails erect and fan-spread, chest feathers fluffed, wings rattled half-open to display the white bars, naked heads flushed scarlet and blue. Gobble-gobble-gobble! If you never heard it, you should. It’s one of them sounds everyone should hear at least once in their life.

In between spates of Biblical flooding, they spreads out across the yard, each to its own, hunting-pecking. Then the rain comes, flash-flood quick. They freeze, bodies hunched and bunched, each like a single fist of feathers. Water subdues their colors ’til you half expect to see it run down their legs and puddle on the ground. There’s a line of lighter feathers that runs up their backs from tail to neck, splitting them in half. It’s murky in the wet half-light, like cream with a bit of mud mixed in.

Meleagris gallopavo silvestris. I only know that because I looked it up. Makes me wish I’d named the biggest male “Silvester” or “Pavo,” but he’s been “Barry White” ever since I first heard his sultry, deep-throated, come-hither call last spring. This boy, he’s all about one thing. But today I learned a big mistake. I thought the flock was him and eight hens, but I’m wrong. How wrong will depend on my ability to count next time they come through. I’ve been wondering about these spiny-hairy beards that hang down a turkey’s chest and it turns out only the males have them, which means a good portion of Barry’s harem is made up of other males. Not only that, but I read that males and females mostly travel separately except when it comes time to breed. Now I understand why we didn’t see any poults (chicks) taggin’ along last spring.

I also understand that what I really know about turkeys could be stuffed in a sack the size of a walnut and have space left over. That’s okay. With luck, I got time to learn.

Breathing the Past

I don’t know where the old tin came from. Maybe it held cookies once upon a time, a gift to my parents. I suspect it was found in the old house when they first moved in. (A lot of things were left behind by the previous owner(s), much of it junk, but a few treasures like the full-sized pedestal mirror I still have, a handful of antique clothes irons (the sort that needs to be heated on the stove before using), a quilting frame, and old ice skates that tied on to one’s boots.)

My mom was a great one for keeping tins and reusing them; it was the Yankee in her. In our home, the adage “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” was a rule to live by. An old toffee tin held bobby pins and those plastic picks to secure curlers. A large rectangular cookie tin held the curlers themselves. There was one for paperclips, one for rubber bands, one for spare bobbins for her sewing machine.

And one for my crayons.

I started drawing at an early age, and Mom encouraged it; partly for the artistic aspect, I suppose, but mostly because it kept me quiet and out of her hair. Give me enough paper and that collection of crayons and I would entertain myself for hours, and I became a purist early on. It must be Crayolas! None of those cheap crayons with their anemic colors, thank you very much! I wanted vibrancy! Ardor! Passion!

Back then, color names were sensible and understandable, none of today’s “Macaroni and Cheese,” “Neon Carrot,” “Inch Worm,” and “Timberwolf.” Instead, we had “Turquoise Blue,” “Violet,” “Melon,” and “Red Orange.” And, heck, we didn’t need names, we knew what they were, and what we wanted when we drew.

“We” here means me and my bestie, David Micklas, who I recently reconnected with (and wrote about) after something like 50 years apart. Dave and I mostly made Christmas cards together, four-square folded 8 1/2 x 11 paper drawn with reindeer, holly, snowmen, candy canes, fireplaces with stockings, trees…whatever images personified Christmas for us. I remember he also drew a lot of cars, which didn’t particular interest me, and I drew far too many horses, which likely didn’t interest him, but what was important was the act of creation and the fact that we were doing it together, often in silence, but also punctuated by bits of the sort of conversation experienced by only the very best of friends.

One year, Mom brought home a Christmas-themed coloring book, and I was over the moon! There was something special about that book – the line drawings inside were intricate, not childish, and I spent hours pouring over it, coloring in each one just so, endeavoring to stay within the lines, to create on the page what I imagined in my head. I loved that book and was sad when I’d filled it with color cover to cover. Mom hung on to it for years afterward, but it eventually went into the trash when she and Dad moved house. In fairness, she did ask if I wanted it, but I said no. I wish now I hadn’t.

Though I no longer have that much-loved book, I do still have the tin of crayons. A few are more modern, bits of color purchased for my nephews, now grown, who used the tin after I’d left my parents house. But some of the crayons are from when I was a kid. Like me, they’re a bit old and battered, their paper torn, some of them worn away to a nub. “Salmon.” “Yellow Green.” “Gray.” The coveted “Silver” and “Gold” we saved for Christmas. And precious few reds and greens, those having been sacrificed long ago to the holiday.

Every so often, I take the tin down from the shelf in my office where it lives just to lift the lid, bend down, and inhale that unique, heady odor; a big breath of the past.

G-L-O-R-I-A

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Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I don’t listen to music while I write, mostly because it distracts me. Let a song come on that I know and like, and my head veers away from the work like a train shunted onto a different track. I prefer things quiet, the only sounds the drumbeat of rain on the roof, birdsong (including the gurgling gobble of Barry White and the Turkettes), or the whispered voice of the wind.

It’s a different story when I lack … not inspiration, per se, but the OOMPH  to set things in motion; those days when that traitorous voice inside says things like “Hey, loser, why are you even attempting this? You don’t have the talent or the skill, and we both know it. Give up, give up, give up…”

I ran into that voice quite a bit while working on ELEPHANT SPEAK. Several times, reduced to tears, I nearly gave up. Who was I trying to fool? What made me think I had what it takes to finish a book like this, let alone see it all the way to publication. That inner voice told me I was spot-on, that continuing was ridiculous. Pack it in. Not only that, pack in all my other writing as well, donate my reference books, get rid of the computer.

GIVE. UP.

Fortunately, that other little voice in my head spoke up. It reminded me of my successes, gave me confidence, and imparted the means to turn my insecurity around and give me the energy and drive to put my butt in the chair and do my time.

How?

It gave me Gloria Estefan.

Obviously, I’ve known about Gloria for a long time. We’re contemporaries (she’s six months younger than me), and while I was slogging through the tail-end of high school, she was making music with Miami Sound Machine. If I’d realized back then that we were the same age, I’d’ve shot myself in despair of ever doing anything with my life.  (Overly-dramatic, you say? Me? Well, yes, sometimes, and I was a teenager after all. If that isn’t the time in your life for a hefty dose of sturm topped with a dollop of drang, when is?)

Gloria’s hovered at the back of my mind all these years, occasionally eliciting a bit of finger-tapping and singalong in the car, and that was about it until the direst of writing days. That’s when I rediscovered “Get On Your Feet.”

See what I mean? (And if you didn’t watch the link, go back and do so.) I defy anyone to not be energized by that vitality. It’s more than the words of the song, it’s the emotion behind her voice: Gloria believes you can do what you set out to do. And I realized so did I.

So I did.