Ups and Downs

The good news is that I’m healthy at last. I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. I’ve been sick before, but never has anything been so persistent as this last round  of whatever it was. Four weeks it went on. But, you know, even that had an upside – at least I didn’t catch the stomach bug that’s going around (touch wood).

Another good–no, GREAT!–thing that happened is this:


Congratulations to Stacey and Jason at Books & Boos Press, and congratulations to my fellow authors in this project. Well done, us! A ginormous THANK YOU! to everyone who voted for us.

With the new year comes a new round of book submissions via my lovely agent Bonnie Solow. Fingers crossed that we connect with an editor who’ll love and nurture THE MAN WHO LOVED ELEPHANTS. (In case anyone’s interested, I’d prefer one of these two pictures for the cover:

Roger Henneous in 1998. Stephanie Yao Long/Staff


The not-so-great news is that I woke this morning to another story rejection. Not a great thing to see first thing, but I took it on the chin and am determined to get two out to magazines this week, plus work on two more in the pipeline. Also cruising for a new book topic, something narrative nonfiction, if anyone wants to send ideas my way.

Hope this finds  you well. However you plan to spend Inauguration Day, I wish you peace.



I’ve been laying a bit low these past couple of weeks. You’re familiar with the drill: the hoopla of Thanksgiving leading to the crest of the hill you barrel down until you smack into Christmas like the landlady in Kung Fu Hustle sailing into the billboard. (Click the link; you’ll see what I mean.)

Add to this that I’ve been a bit tense … anticipatory, really … because the proposal for The Man Who Loved Elephants had gone out to a few editors before the Christmas publishing holidays. I feel strongly about the quality of this book and its historical value, as well as its hopeful look at the future of elephant conservation.

So far, the editors haven’t agreed with me.

I’ve been writing long enough that I take criticism and rejection on the chin most days. You can’t be an artist or performer of any kind and maintain a fragile ego. The two just don’t go together. Still, receiving five rejections in a single day was a bit … disappointing.

These were not “thanks, but no thanks” rejections. The editors took time to write out their thoughts about the book and give actual reasons for turning it down. This is a courtesy I truly appreciate, though it didn’t make the sting any less.

I’ll be honest – I cried. For about fifteen seconds. Then I heard THAT VOICE rising from the back of my brain. You know the one, the monkey-mind that snatches opportunities like this one to remind you of how worthless you are. I heard her start to open her big mouth, and I said, “Phyllis, shut the hell up.” (Well, I didn’t say hell … And, yes, I’ve given my deprecating inner voice a name so that when I tell her to can it, she knows I’m speaking to her.  It works.) (And, yes, if you want details as to why I’ve done something that on the surface probably sounds wonky, shoot me a message and I’ll tell you.)

Anyway, she did as I asked. And in that silence, I heard myself say, “Screw them.” (No, I didn’t say screw, either). “I’m not giving up.” I gave myself permission to feel my bruises, and then I went to bed. I slept soundly and woke the next morning to plunk myself back at the computer because THAT, dear friends, is what it’s all about.

A Change in Perspective

A bit of good news from my agent as we slide toward the Thanksgiving holiday – she has sent the proposal and manuscript for “The Man Who Loved Elephants” to a handful of editors, with a December 8 deadline. So it begins! This is a very exciting time for me – a bit nerve-wracking, sure, but I have confidence in this book.

Although it’s been a rough year with friend/family illness, two pet deaths, and Holly’s diagnosis of epilepsy and subsequent changes in her personality, I am determined to focus on the blessings I have received. I have much to be grateful for in my life: a terrific husband, a roof over my head, warmth in the cold, food in my belly, a handful of tried-and-true friends (you know who you are), an agent who believes in me, a good friend named Roger who was brave enough to share his story with me and then agree to let me tell it … the list goes on.

Take a moment in this time of unrest to set politics and ideological differences aside and focus on the positives in your life. Send a blast of gratitude into this needy world. It can’t hurt, and it might help. Let reflection and peace take precedence over what time the Black Friday sales start. Refuse to be part of the madness. Instead, be an antidote.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Playing Catch-Up

Ah, those good intentions about blogging regularly. How quickly they can evaporate!

In my defense, it’s been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster around here. Our dear old cat-boy, Tuna, is coming to the end of his road. Our dog, Holly, has developed seizures – a journey which has required two trips to Tufts’ Foster Hospital for Small Animals, first for a neurology consult and then for an MRI and spinal tap (…erg…) to rule out brain tumor, stroke, or infection as the culprit. Happily, all tests came back negative, but that leaves us with the rather ephemeral diagnosis of idiopathic epilepsy. Holly’s eight, a bit old to have this just show up, but we always seem to have animals that bend the rules, as our dear veterinarian Dr. Jenny Gamble can attest. At any rate, as of last night she is on meds (Ka-CHING! these things are expensive!) and time will tell. Still, it’s disheartening to know that no good was going to come out of this no matter when the tests revealed.

In addition to all this, a friend’s mother is battling lung cancer; another friend’s brother is fighting colon cancer, and his mother is recovering from a stroke; a third friend just underwent an abdominal CT scan in a hunt for the cancer that may have returned to haunt her after ten years free of the monster and, well, you get the idea.

There is, however, a bit of rosy glow on the horizon, at least so far as I’m concerned. Today, I’ll be talking with my agent Bonnie Solow to decide when we will begin submitting the proposal and manuscript of The Man Who Loved Elephants to editors. This has been a long and exciting (and occasionally frustrating) road. I’m delighted … excited … terrified. Here goes my baby (our baby, I should say, for the book is as much Roger’s child as it is mine) into the world. I hope it receives a warm welcome.

This Summer’s Elephant-Sized Adventure

I’ve done a bit of traveling over the past year, mostly to the west coast of the U.S., and mostly to Oregon to visit Roger Henneous, who is my dear friend as well as the subject of my latest book, “The Man Who Loved Elephants.” This is him,


photo courtesy of Melissa Henneous Mayes

with his lovely wife RoseMerrie.

For almost 30 years, Roger worked–and worked, and worked, and worked–as Senior Elephant Keeper at the Washington Park Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo). Those who’ve been mislead by romanticism may imagine that a zoo keeper’s life is one of bucolic interaction with the animals he cares for–and there can be some of that–but mostly it’s as Roger once wrote on a job description: “Days, weeks and months of back-breaking labor punctuated by moments of abject terror.”

The elephants were Roger’s friends, but they were also his children. Like children, it was up to him to teach them the rules of life in the barn so as to keep them safe and healthy: “thou shalt do as the keeper asks, thou shalt not knock the keeper down.”

Although the general media sometimes seems bent on having us believe that all zoo keepers are deplorable monsters who torture their animals, this is not the case and Roger is proof of that. “You can make an elephant do one of two things,” he’s fond of saying. “Run away or kill you. But you can get an elephant to do an amazing number of things.” He learned that “elephants are kind of subtle,” so he’d best keep his eyes moving all the time. He learned that they have a sense of humor, but a sound whack from an elephant’s trunk can severely injure a person, so that couldn’t be tolerated. He understood that he couldn’t out-weight them or out-reach them, so he needed to out-think them; to offer them a better deal when they thought mischief was the best course of action.

Although many of the elephants Roger knew have long since passed on, several remain.


“Hanako” courtesy of John Houck

One of these is Hanako, who resides at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wa. Hanako (which means “little flower child”) was a five-year-old youngster when Roger arrived at the Washington Park Zoo, the daughter of Tuy Hoa (pronounced tea-wha) and the bull Thonglaw (pronounced tung-law). It didn’t take him learn to realize that this was an elephant of a different stripe; an animal with a nervous and unpredictable personality. “She was not, thank God, particularly vicious,” Roger stresses, “but she was flighty. It took nothing to set her off and there were times when I never could figure out what had triggered her.” On one occasion, she attempted to kill Roger as he was inspecting her newborn calf.

Hanako’s tendency toward violence led to her being transferred to Point Defiance, where they had in place a “protected contact” system that allowed keepers to care for her without having to be in the enclosure with her. Under protected contact, elephants are trained to present their ears, feet, and trunk through a variety of openings so keepers can inspect them, file their nails, and treat any injuries. The bars of the enclosure are wide enough to accommodate an enormous bristled brush, and this is used to scrub down the elephants.

This summer, I was most fortunate to receive an invitation from John Houck, Deputy Director at Point Defiance (and a former co-worker of Roger’s from the Washington Park


Me listening to John Houck beside the puffin pool, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Photo by Ed Everett

Zoo days) to come visit “the next time you’re out this way.” Along with my husband Ed, Linda Reifschneider, President of Asian Elephant Support, and her associate Cynthia Christison, we received an unexpected and thoroughly enjoyable behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo. Best of all, thanks to the generosity of John Houck and elephant keeper Kate Burrone, we actually got to meet Hanako and her pal Suki!  Not only that, but we got to feed her. The high-point for me, however, was standing beside her and being regarded by her beautiful eye as she took in my scent and figured out who the heck I was. She behaved beautifully and this will forever be one of the high points of my life. Thank you, John and Kate!


Hanako receives her morning bath courtesy of keepers Piper (L) and Kate (R). Photo by Ed Everett


Kate introduces me to Hanako. Photo by Ed Everett