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.

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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.

Happiness is a Warm Paperback

Especially when you wrote it!

Just had to share the smiling faces of my friends at Ooligan Press when they unboxed copies of ELEPHANT SPEAK the other day.

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I can’t speak more highly of their great team. We are exactly five weeks out from launch, and I’m so excited. As a bit of surprise to myself, I’m not all that nervous. I guess I expended all that getting ready for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show in October. Now I’m ready to send my baby out into the world with these, my loyal midwives.

 

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Isn’t this pretty? Many, many thanks to Linda Reifschneider and Janie Chodosh for the pull quotes.

Music To My Ears

For most of my life (coming up on 63 years), I’ve fallen asleep to the sound of a cat’s purr.

There’s been all sorts. The barely-there purr, so faint you have to strain to listen. The gusty burr of an Evenrude outboard badly in need of tuning. The staccato fracture. The snore. The one that ends in a cheery little “chirrup” at the end of each exhalation.

All different, just like those cats who shared their lives with me and lullabye’d me to sleep each night. Most chose to sleep beside my pillow or, after I was married, between our pillows. Some preferred between my feet or knees. Curie liked to spoon, a warm presence whose loss I felt markedly when she died. Tuna wanted to be under the covers. Gypsy preferred to wrap her entire body around my head like a furry hat and, by increments, gently nudge me off the pillow. Ruby now does something similar, laying beside my head rather than around it, but determined to put her body right up against my mouth. Most nights, we settle on me turning over so she can cuddle against the back of my neck.

And always the purr. I can fall asleep to that much easier than I can to the relatively quiet noise of my husband’s CPAP. The purr being levied directly into my ear is definitely louder, but there’s a comfort to it that no machine noise can achieve.

(From top to bottom, left to right: Gil; Arlo;; Indy (top); Duncan; Serendipity, Charles, and Cornelius; Renfield (top); Nell Gwyn; Butch; Barnabas; Frisky (top); Punkin Puss; Callie; Tinkerbelle; Ripley; Yeti; Curie (top); Gypsy; Tuna; and Ruby. (Not shown: Josette, Aristede, and the lovely old man cat we had for only one night, who died courtesy of an inept veterinarian)

The Shadow Years

IMG_0814It’s hard on the heart, watching a pet grow old, but it’s not like I haven’t been here before.

When I was a kid growing up across the span of the late 50’s-70’s, we lived in a rural area where the general consensus was to let one’s pets roam free. I understand now how irresponsible that is, but back then it was everyone did. I don’t remember any of our pets coming home with injuries from fights, but someone shot my first dog, Yogi, a reality I didn’t discover until a misplaced remark from my sister decades later.

Mostly our animals died under car tires. We didn’t live in a densely vehicular area, so it’s always been a bit of a wonder to me that so many perished that way. On one occasion, my best friend at the time (the same David I wrote about the other day) confided to me that my cat had been sitting on the side of the road and he’d seen the driver purposely swerve to hit it. If that’s true (and I have no reason to disbelieve David), I hope that person had a truly shitty life. (Let’s face it; anyone who would do that was probably already having a shitty life.)

In later years, I learned to keep my pets indoors, even the cats. That’s worked well to extend their longevity, but it’s meant we get to watch the slow creep of years steal bits of them away, like watching one’s parents age.

It’s not fun.

Our dog Holly is an 11 1/2 year old Australian shepherd, truly one of the world’s best dogs. (Yeah, I know. We all say that, and it’s true every time.) Shortly before her ninth birthday, she began having seizures and was diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy. Those first few seizures took more out of Ed and I–emotionally speaking–than they did her, I think. They’re not fun to watch, not even after we understood that she had no idea it was happening. We’ve learned the routine of those spells–the pedaling gyration of her limbs, the gaping mouth and barred teeth, the arched back. Jesus, it looks painful, although I’ve been assured by several vets that it’s not. We’ve learned to dispense rectal Valium if the episode exceeds two minutes. We sit by her until she lurches out of it, on her feet, pacingpacingpacing, falling down, running into walls. We do what we can to keep her from hurting herself. Get her outside to defecate (she’ll pee while in seizure, but so far has never voided). Because she’s ravenous afterward, we give her something to eat to replace all those calories burned by the seizure. (Note: Never feed by hand. She can’t differentiate between food and flesh, and those snapping, frenzied gulps hurt.) It takes about an hour before she settles down and sleeps.

Each episode steals away bits of her. She forgets commands. Her sense of hearing goes wonky, and she’ll look away from us when we call, seeking us in the opposite direction even though we’re usually within eyesight.

Her vision is poor to begin with. She lost the use of her left eye when she was eight months old (an ill-considered golf shot by her previous owner coupled with a ball fixated puppy. Don’t curse him; he still feels guilty). Her right eye has cataracts. Her hearing wavers, sometimes good, other times not. Her sleep is often scarily deep (something a vet tech mentioned after an overnight stay for pancreatitis, another gift age has bestowed on her). She snores; the only cute part in any of this.

And now she’s taken to wandering in the night, a disturbing echo of my mother’s dementia-induced meanderings when she lived with us. Not every night, but often enough, I wake repeatedly to the click-click of toenails on the wood floor. Sometimes, she just needs to go out. (Another gift of age: the tiny bladder needing to be relieved in the middle of the night.)

She drinks a lot, and is always hungry. This could be side-effects of the many medications she’s on (phenobarbital and potassium bromide for epilepsy; gabapentin and metacam for arthritis pain; ursodiol and an over-the-counter antacid for pancreatitis; another one, whose name I can’t recall, to keep her from leaking urine), but could also be indicative of a larger issue. She’s losing more hair than usual (no bald spots, but I groom her nearly every day and come away with a pile of hair). She’s tired, not surprising in an 11 year old dog. She pants a lot. Could it be liver or kidney disease, maybe Cushing’s? A trip to the vet is likely in order.

And in the end, of course, it’ll make little difference. We’ll do what we can for her–that’s the bargain we struck when she came to live with us, that we would take the best care of her that we’re able–but in the end time will take her. Then we’ll shoulder the larger responsibility of sharing our lives with her, and let her go, what our friend Jenny (who I still think of as our vet although distance (and Holly’s issues) have made it necessary to find another) calls letting her rest.

And, oh, won’t that be hard?

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Holly in the good old days, with her boyfriend Randy, who taught her how to play

Book Launch Announcement

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For some reason, this shows up as green. The actual cover is in shades of blue.

I’m beyond delighted to post information on the first of what I hope will be many bookstore visits as ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd takes its first steps into the world.

March 4 – BOOK LAUNCH at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR, 7:30 pm.

March 5 – An as yet TBD event, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the zoo.

March 6 – Roundabout Books in Bend, OR, 6 pm.

March 7 – Sunriver Books in Sunriver, OR, 5 pm.

I’m looking forward to meeting all those people out there who love elephants! See you soon!

 

Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Tradeshow

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It’s a wonderful thing

I’m proud and honored to have been chosen to present my book ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd at the “7 Coming-Up Author Showcase” at the recent PNBA Tradeshow held October 6-8 at the Red Lion on the River in Portland, OR.

The event–which rounded out the show, attracting booksellers, librarians, and publisher and sales rep exhibitors–featured seven authors from around the world, representing various genres, speaking for seven minutes on their books, which will appear from now through the Spring of 2020, after which book signings and giveaways took place. Joining me on stage were authors Gretchen Berg (The Operator), DJ Lee (Remote: A Love Story), Jody J. Little (Worse Than Weird), Daniel Mathews (Trees in Trouble), Abigail Hing Wen (Loveboat, Taipei), and Erin Yun (Pippa Park Raises Her Game).

(FYI, ELEPHANT SPEAK is due to be born on March 3, 2020, and will be available from Ooligan Press, as well as through your favorite independent bookseller and other online sites. Please support independent publishing and booksellers.)

(On left, with supportive Project Manager Julie Collins. On right, with Publisher Abbey Gaterud, who talked me off the ledge at least once)

Melissa TalkingSeven minutes isn’t a very long amount of time in which to convey something special about your book, something readers won’t learn by reading it. (On the other hand, seven minutes can seem like forever, as I’m sure you’ve all experienced.) I chose to focus on the evening I first met Roger Henneous. What follows is my talk, as given:

From 1968 to 1998, Roger Henneous cared for the largest captive herd of breeding elephants in North America and he did it right here, in Portland, at what was then called the Washington Park Zoo.

I met Roger in March 1997. He was the Senior Keeper of Elephants and I was a fledgling zoo volunteer drafted to assist in an around-the-clock medical watch on Belle, the herd matriarch. Surgeons from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine had recently excised infected bone and necrotic tissue from her left front foot, the result of pododermatitis, an affliction better known by the evocative name “foot rot,” a chronic disease to which captive elephants are prone. The operation had been risky given Belle’s age, size, anatomy, and other health concerns, but she’d tolerated the procedure surprisingly well and there was every hope for a full recovery.

When I arrived in the elephant barn that night, I found Roger standing with Belle behind the glass of the front exhibit room. Not a big man, he seemed even smaller beside the towering elephant, his bearded face shadowed by the brim of a battered campaign hat. Belle stood in an attitude of deep concentration, her foot wrapped in thick bandage secured with gray duct tape, gently rocking from side to side as she listened to him.

Let me tell you a little about Belle. She was only a few months old when she came to the United States in 1952. She was so tiny that her owner, an animal trainer named Morgan Berry, drove her around in the back of an old Cadillac, the rear seat removed so she could stand with her trunk hanging out the window, waving at people.

Ten years later, in April 1962, Belle made history when she delivered her son Packy. As the first successful elephant birth in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years, the event triggered a media circus. Belle and Packy became instant celebrities and, for the first time, the zoo’s annual attendance soared past the one million mark. Overnight, Portland was transformed from “The City of Roses” to the “The City of Elephants.”

But that was all in the past. What mattered most the night I met Roger, was getting Belle back to her old self.

When he eventually appeared on my side of the exhibit room glass, Roger brusquely introduced himself and offered me one of two metal folding chairs. I settled onto it and he took the other, elbows on knees, hands clasped, his eyes on Belle. He fretted over every elephant in his care, but she was indisputably his favorite, and had been ever since she’d held at bay another elephant determined to kill him.

Time passed. Belle’s constant rocking unnerved me. There were moments when she leaned so far to the right that it seemed she might fall. It was too easy to imagine her great body losing its balance and crashing sideways. Once, in panic, I blurted, “She’s going over!” because it seemed impossible that she could recover from so steep a cant.

“No, she isn’t.” Roger’s voice was gentle despite the grate of smoker’s gravel. My cheeks went hot, embarrassed by my outburst … by my fear that something bad would happen on my watch, or that I’d say or do something ridiculous and make a fool of myself—which, of course, I’d just done. Roger didn’t hold it against me. My obvious concern for Belle’s welfare granted me all manner of forgiveness.

Mid-way through my four-hour shift, Roger excused himself and returned to the exhibit room, lugging a large plastic garbage can with bright green fronds of bamboo sprouting from the top. Belle took what he offered and dropped it on the floor, clearly disinterested. Roger dug deeper into the can, produced an apple, and held it to her mouth. She lipped the fruit, but didn’t eat. He offered a banana, and this she accepted, grinding it into pulp between her immense molars. She refused anything further, so Roger put the can aside, brought out a hose, and allowed her to drink her fill.

Later, he returned to sit by me again. “She’s got no appetite,” he said grimly.

“She ate a little, though,” I pointed out, “because you asked her to.”

He shrugged, reluctant to take credit for anything. Cocking back the brim of his hat, Roger folded his arms across his chest. “Belle and me, we’re like an old married couple,” he said. For the first time that evening, a tiny smile curved the edge of his lips in an expression made up in equal parts of tenderness and exasperation. “We’ve known each other a long time and we respect each other, but neither of us is terribly impressed anymore.”

Some great love affairs never die. So it is with Roger and the elephants. More than twenty years since that night, he remains as enamored as he ever was and, I hope, quietly pleased by the mark he’s left on the field of elephant care. In an era when the standard procedure for dealing with such immense and intelligent animals might involve confinement, abuse, isolation, and starvation, Roger labored to create a compassionate and rewards-based environment grounded in mutual respect. He cared little for the accolades gathered along the way, including the Marlin Perkins Certificate of Excellence. The only thing that mattered was the elephants.

“Abuse is the lazy man’s solution to a problem,” he told me. “Maintaining control is an exercise in intellect. More can be achieved with kindness than with brutality.”

When Roger first arrived at the zoo in 1968, he was just looking for a job working with animals. He’d no particular interest in elephants, and no idea they would soon take over his life, affecting every part of it, ultimately influencing his notions of dedication, determination, empathy, compassion, and family. During his 30 years at the zoo, he inspired both loyalty and consternation among his coworkers, and never stopped moving from the moment his boots hit the ground in the morning until he took them off at night. Along the way, he dispensed common sense, sentimentality, and sarcastic wit. Once asked by supervisors to describe his job, he replied, “Days, weeks, and months of back-breaking labor punctuated by moments of abject terror.” Those who met him, however briefly, walked away with the experience indelibly stamped on their lives.

“I never met a keeper that cared more for his animals than Roger,” said a former coworker. “He was crusty and cantankerous on the outside, but a big soft jelly doughnut on the inside when it came to the elephants. He didn’t romanticize or anthropomorphize, but he loved them for what they were.”

Initially, Roger was reluctant to share his story, uncertain whether he wanted to relive those years, some of which had been indescribably painful. In the end, he chose to proceed not for his own benefit, but for the sake 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.”

Melissa_2Thank you to my “author wrangling” team at Ooligan; to everyone at PNBA; to all the independent booksellers and publishers, librarians and sales reps who work long hours to promote books that might not otherwise come readily to a reader’s hand; and to my fellow writers wherever you are.

 

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We earned this celebration! Denise Morales Soto (Design), Julie Collins (Project Manager), c’est moi, Faith Munoz (Social Media), and Melinda Crouchley (Managing Editor)

 

Going to the Elephants

IMG_2884When I began the first tentative work on my book ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd (Ooligan Press, March 2020), I never anticipated the opportunities it would present over the course of almost five years.

Yup, you read that right; five years from my initial query letter to Roger Henneous asking if he would allow me to tell his story–through months of my then-agent offering the book to big name publishers around the globe–through the disappointment of rejection despite praise and encouragement from many editors–to my agent saying she’d done all she could and was parting ways with me–to my determination to not give up–to at last finding a home at Ooligan Press. Writing is not for the faint of heart, and anyone who thinks the work is easy, or publication guaranteed, is fooling themselves.

Despite the ups and downs, the nights when I tearfully wondered if I had it in me to write the book, let alone see it through to being an actual reality in my hands, I’ve had a wonderful time and gained so many precious experiences and memories. Chief among those is the friendship I’ve developed with Roger Henneous. He and his wife RoseMerrie and their extended family welcomed me into their home and their lives, generously throwing open not only numerous boxes of memorabilia of Roger’s years as Senior Elephant Keeper at the Washington Park Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo), but also their hearts. Every author should feel so encouraged.

ELEPHANT SPEAK involved a great deal of research apart from my interviews with Roger. I hunted down his former colleagues where I could, and they kindly answered my questions. Present-day elephant people–those working in zoos and sanctuaries, those involved in research, and many others whose lives revolve around elephants–as well as people in such diverse areas as city governments, state police, and the Coast Guard, offered information and guidance, and I’ve attempted to acknowledge them all in the back of the book.

And then there’s Bob Lee and his crew of elephant keepers at the Oregon Zoo.

Bob made it possible for Roger to return not just to the zoo, but to the new elephant facility; to get a glimpse behind the scenes and reacquaint himself with his old friends, Sung Surin (aka Shine) and Rose-Tu. (You can read about it here.) During that visit, I half-jokingly inquired whether I might someday job-shadow a keeper. “Sure,” Bob said without missing a beat. “I think we can do that.”

Oh, my!

It was something I couldn’t dare arrange until the book was done, the final edit complete, the manuscript in the capable hands of the folks at Ooligan. Only then did I feel my time was again my own and I could give myself a small vacation. I’d promised Bob I meant to work for my opportunity–I can shovel manure with the best of them and my vegetable-cutting skills are excellent–but if this is work (and I know it is), it’s no wonder the keepers each told me, independent of one another, how much they look forward to coming to work every day.

So, thank you Bob Lee and Pam Starkey, Tarah Bedrossian and Joe Sebastiani and Matt Miles. Thank you, Shine and Rose-Tu. Thank you, Samson and Rosko (aka Samudra) who, in my busyness, I didn’t get pictures of, and Chendra who accepted my offering of a cantaloupe with such delight. Words can’t do my visit justice, so here are the pictures:

 

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Me with Sung Surin (aka Shine)

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Me with Rose-Tu