I don’t want to write about the pandemic, so you get this instead.

fire-123784_1920

Photo by David Mark for Pixabay

I shift closer to the fire, toss on a log, make the sparks fly. It’s my night to sit up with the children that can’t sleep and I’m damned if I’ll do it cold.

I look around the circle at their pale faces made healthy-rosy by the flames. We’re worse-off than some, better than most. It’s a rare day they go with nothing in their bellies.

Back when it all went to shit, lots of people rushed for their money. Don’t know where they thought to spend it. Maybe they figured it would buy them out of this nightmare. Some hoarded and barricaded indoors and turned their backs on those in need, then acted all surprised and hurty-feeling when those others turned their backs on them in turn and let them die in the Beyond.

Me, Gwennie, and Johnny took a wagon to the library. We been friends since way-back and book lovers before that, and it was the hardest job we ever had, saying yea or nay to this book or that, judging whose words would live and whose die, pages turned to pulp by seasons of rain and snow, or burned to ash in a fire lit by some poor jamoke trying to keep warm.

We come first for the books that would get us by physically–the how-tos on gardening and repair and building and putting up food for winter, root-cellaring and the like. We went back again, this time with two wagons, and took favorite novels and a dictionary and such to put aside for those evenings when a body’s soul flickers like a Tink-candle and all but goes out.

I hold my hands to the fire. “What’s it to be, then?” I wait for the shouts, each naming a favorite story. They don’t none of them really care; they just want to be read to. So I read, the cadence of my voice rising and falling, mouse-high or bone-deep depending on the character and what I think they might sound like. The children pillow their heads on arms, old backpacks, each other. One by one, they fall away, asleep, dreaming what I hope are pleasant dreams in this often unpleasant world.

“You’re a good teacher.”

I look up. Mallachy sits across the way, cross-legged tailor fashion. I never saw him arrive, but that’s nothing unusual. He’s a quiet one, but he loves the stories as much as any of them. Next year, when he turns twelve, he’ll take his place among the readers and his turn at the fire, keeping watch against whatever’s out there that wants to extinguish the light.

I shrug in reply.

“No,” he says. “You are. They learn. You make them feel safe.”

I poke the fire. The last thing they are is safe and they know it, which is why so many of them have trouble sleeping. If they feel safe, I’m doing them a disservice. But how long can a body go on, week after month after year, feeling nothing but terrified?

“I don’t want to be too good. Bad has its place.”

He doesn’t say anything, but I can tell he doesn’t understand. I jab the sand with a stick and listen to the distant roar of breakers on the rocks beyond the dunes. One of these days, I’m walking into that surf and not coming out. Maybe tonight, because I don’t know if I can explain it the way Mallachy needs to hear. I can share what another has thought, but coming  up with my own words is a hardship.

“Look, I grew up in a place where children weren’t valued. Then I went off to school and it was more of the same. My first teacher hated kids, you could see it in her eyes. Another one physically segregated the class into the smart kids and the stupid ones. Used those words. And those of us at the stupid tables, well, we knew we weren’t stupid, but live through a year of that sort of ridicule and you come to believe it. Maybe they only hated their jobs and not us, but they certainly didn’t want to do the work of teaching. They’d rather paint us stupid so they wouldn’t have to.”

“You’re not stupid.”

“I know that. But for decades I thought I was. Too much and too many in the world painted it true, telling me over and over, no, you can’t have this good thing you want because you don’t deserve me, you’re this or you’re that and me taking it because I’d been taught it was so, and forgot the real truth hidden inside me.”

He sidles up close to the fire and stares across at me with eyes like a fox. “What changed?”

“Me.” I look past my fingers into the flames, cup my hands to hold the light. “I got mad. Furious. And so damned tired of being told no. I decided they were wrong, that they’d been wrong all along. I didn’t realize they were wrong, and I didn’t believe they were wrong. All that came later. But I made the decision they were wrong and told it to myself every day until I knew it was true.” I glance around at the sleeping children. “What I want for them is a little bit of rage to keep them warm, keep them honest and true to themselves.If I leave them with anything, it’s the knowledge that no one has the right to take the fight out of you.”

Mallachy nods. Between one eye blink and the next, he’s gone, faded back into the shadows. That’s one who sleeps soundly because he believes he has nothing to fear. But these here, they think they do.

I reach out and curl a small hand inside mine. Stretched out behind me, my years feel bigger than the Before, endless, and too damned many yet ahead.

______________

Copyright Melissa Crandall 2020

 

World Tour – The Final Two Days

By the end of our day at the zoo–and walking around Portland, window-shopping and stuffing ourselves with great food–I was more toast than human. We’d planned on driving the three hours of Bend, OR that night, but Ed and I were both so wrung out we opted to spend another night in the City of Roses. Morning had us on the road bright and early, bidding a tearful goodbye to my friend Wendy, who had to head home to Delaware.

If you’ve never driven from Portland to Bend, I heartily encourage you to do so. It’s a windy trek of road, and often a bit congested depending upon the time of year, and one can become caught behind a laboring big rig. However, there are compensations:

mount-69615_1920

Mount Hood, taken by David Mark from Pixabay

You watch Hood from a distance, then begin the climb up its flank. Suddenly, you round a turn in the road and the mountain is right there, in your face: miraculous, immense, ancient, and breathtaking.

mount-hood-701817_1920

By Harry Wegley for Pixabay

Before you know it, you’re over the mountain and heading into the high desert country of eastern Oregon. I had little experience of desert before coming to Bend the first time, a couple of brief visits to Arizona was all. Against all expectation from this water-loving, Scottish-weather sort of girl, I fell in love with the high country. Maybe my love of Westerns fed it, at least in part, but there was something comfortable about the feel of the place against my skin and against my mind. I can’t explain it any clearer than that. I’ve never been in a position to pull the car over and get out to snap some pictures (there’s precious few places wide enough to pull over and the road can be busy), but thanks again to the folks at Pixabay, I can show you what it looks like. (Photos courtesy of ArielJ and Ally Laws.)

Sunriver - Bev & DonSo, we at last landed in Bend, one of my favorite cities, at the home of Don and Bev Henneous (Roger’s brother and sister-in-law) who were generous enough to save us from yet another hotel room. I’ve stayed with them before and it’s always a good time.  Poor Bev had fallen a few days earlier and broken her kneecap which prevented them from attending the big launch event in Portland. But Bev, being Bev, wasn’t about to let something as significantly insignificant as a broken bone deter  her when the events to come were practically in her own backyard.

That evening’s event was held at Roundabout Books, an independent shop in Bend owned by Cassie Clemans. If you’re in the area, go. This is a nifty, nifty bookstore; small, but packed to the gills with so much wonderfulness that I was disappointed I didn’t have time to browse. (That time constraint likely saved my bank account.) Cassie and the other women who run the store were unable to be there, but left the program in the capable hands of their spouses Andy, JD, and Jonathan, who are terrific guys all-around and managed to pack about 40 people into the exhibit space. Because Roger’s hands are quite afflicted with arthritis, his daughter Michelle was thoughtful enough to provide a signature stamp so he could add his name to mine. The audience was engaged, enthusiastic, and so much fun to be with. Plus, their questions were terrific.

(Beginning top left: Roger and me with some of the wonderful crew from Ooligan Books: Vivian Nguyen, Julie Collins, and Emma Wolf; the Roundabout events board; signing the author table; during the presentation; the book display; Roger and me signing books; Roundabout interior; connecting with Roger prior to the event; and Roger gets to sign the table, too.)

Our last event of the World Tour was held at Sunriver Books & Music (Fact, Fiction, and Flights of Fancy) in Sunriver, Oregon. I jokingly say that Deon Stonehouse, who owns the store with her husband Richard, accosted me at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Trade Show last October, but that isn’t far from the truth. I’d no more made my way from the podium after giving my seven-minute presentation, and sat down at the table where I’d be signing ARCs (advance readers copies) when this whirlwind of a woman appeared and breathlessly announced, “Your book is the only reason I came to this!” (What writer doesn’t want to hear that?) She inquired whether I could be induced to come west again to appear at her store and of course I said yes. Now here we were at last, face to face once more, with the added delight of meeting Richard and the rest of the Sunriver Books & Music team (including a German shepherd puppy that near-about stole the show.)

(From top left: the presentation, showing a picture of Roger taken on his last day at the zoo (he always expresses gratitude for those sunglasses, so no one could see his tears in taking leave of his girls); Q&A time; Roger signs books while I get to wear the famous hat (he was a complete chick-magnet); two Sunriver Books interior shots; the after-party with family and friends; the crowd begins to gather; two shots of the book display.)

This crowd gave me some of the best, most thought-provoking and insightful questions, opinions, and observations of the entire trip. We could have easily slipped into a brainstorming session on how best to secure the survival of elephants … which is precisely what Roger hoped the book might do, inspire others to use their resources (mental, physical, financial) to carry the elephants into the future. I could not have been more pleased.

Sunday brought us early to the Portland airport (watching the sun rise over the desert and illuminate Mount Hood is an image I’ll never forget) and a long flight home. There aren’t words enough to thank everyone involved: Roger’s family and friends who came out in force to support him and me; the folks at Powell’s, Bob Lee and his team at the Oregon Zoo, Roundabout, and Sunriver who believe the book has merit (I agree!); and my wonderful crew at Ooligan (with a special shout-out to Abbey Gaterud, Julie Collins, Melinda Crouchley, Vivian Nguyen, and Emma Wolf. Special-special kudos to Sydnee Chelsey and Faith Munoz, who jumped into a car and drove three hours from Portland to Bend with extra books because we were afraid we’d run out).

Particular thanks to the Henneous clan, who welcomed me so warmly into their home and their lives; to Wendy Carofano, who wildly decided to hop a flight and come 3,000 miles just to provide support to a friend; and particularly to my husband Ed Everett, who kept all the loose ends (including this author) from flapping in the wind. I love you all.

And then there’s Roger–muse, mentor, friend, father, ally, and partner on this journey. There’d have been no book without his trust in me, his willingness to tell his story, and his bravery in facing down the dark days of the past. I love and admire him beyond words. We drive each other crazy sometimes, as often happens in the very best of relationships, but we always have each other’s back. I love him immensely, and can’t imagine a world without him in it.

Me and Roger (taken by Bev)

Photo taken by Bev Henneous

Okay, So This is Cool

Belle and RogerA local gentleman I know — Stan Malcom — is an award-winning nature photographer as well as being an entomologist with a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology. He’s been honored with both a species and a genus named for him. Yesterday, I received this from him:

“I think you’ve earned the title Dr. Crandall. Considering your years of data gathering from Roger and other sources, plus the context you’ve developed about elephants and elephant keeping in general, plus the engaging non-fiction prose, plus steering the book through reviews and publication…if that’s not a Doctoral Dissertation, I don’t know what is. Congratulations!”

Thank you, Stan.

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

 

G-L-O-R-I-A

concert-768722_1920

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.

 

 

Red Letter Day

Pink House 2

The Pink House on Plum Island

It wasn’t my intention to be absent from this blog for so long, but I was waylaid by a vestibular migraine, something I’ve experienced most of my life, but was actually diagnosed last April. For those who don’t know (and who would, unless they had them?), vestibular migraines (in my case at least) present with no headache pain, but with debilitating vertigo and motion sensitivity, as well as sensitivity to bright light and sound.

Fun times, no? Decidedly no.

The after effect is bone-deep exhaustion, making it difficult to do much of anything for several days. Again, no fun.

But I’m back on the horse, as they say, and although I’m having some residual minor side-effects, overall I feel pretty well. Well enough, anyway, to announce that yesterday  was amazing.

How so, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.

First came the news that ELEPHANT SPEAK received a wonderful review in Publisher’s Weekly! If you’d like to read it, click here, but be aware that there are spoilers. (And one teensy error. Where “Crandall” shows up about half-way through, substitute “Henneous.”) I’m honored that they felt my book merited a review.

The second bit of news is that I’ve been chosen to be a guest at the Newburyport Literary Festival in Newburyport, MA on April 24-25, 2020. I’m a huge fan of Newburyport and have been visiting there, and on Plum Island, for decades, so I’m really looking forward to spending time in one of my all time favorite places, put in some hours on the beach, and get to know lots of writers and readers. Plus, Newburyport is home to Jabberwocky Books, and they don’t get much better than that. Oh, and let’s not forget the infamous Pink House on Plum Island, long may it stand, and at least one meal at Bob Lobster. (Best fried clams ever.) This is a great honor, and I’m so appreciative.

Spring is shaping up to be busy, but a lot of fun. Stay tuned.

Beach 2

The beach at Plum Island, my heart-home.

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.

part0 (1)

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.

 

part0

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

Shared from the Authors Guild

The Authors Guild is thrilled to report that the House of Representatives passed the CASE Act (H.R. 2426) by an overwhelming vote of 410-6!

We thank our many members who supported the CASE Act and wrote letters and made phone calls to their representatives urging passage, as well as the many other creator associations and allies who worked so hard with us on this legislation.

This is the first legislation in many decades that benefits middle-class creators—a huge part of the American economy that is so often overlooked. In a massive, collective call to action, dozens of creator groups joined together to demand the establishment of a copyright small claims tribunal. Currently, without a lower-cost way to enforce their rights—rights on which their profession and ability to earn a living are based—creators have no practical way to ensure that they are paid when their works are used, despite the fact that their rights are enshrined in the Constitution. The Copyright Act provides only for federal copyright litigation, which these days costs on average almost $400,000 in legal fees and costs, even for a relatively simple claim. Today, full-time authors earn a median annual income of $20,300 and so federal litigation is simply not an option. Tens of thousands of disenfranchised individual and small creators joined together to say “no more!” Their demands for equal access to justice were met with resounding, bipartisan support in the House of Representatives.

As the nation’s oldest and largest professional author association, the Authors Guild has advocated for the establishment of such a copyright small claims tribunal for years; as early as 2006, the Guild testified on the matter before the U.S. Copyright Office. And since the Copyright Office conducted a multi-year study of the issue and released a report in 2013 recommending legislation to create a small claims tribunal, the Authors Guild has been actively involved in crafting and lobbying for the legislation.

According to Executive Director Mary Rasenberger, “A right without a remedy is no right at all. On an individual level, the inability to enforce one’s rights undermines the economic incentive to create new works. On a collective level, it corrodes respect for the rule of law and deprives society of the benefits of creativity.”

“At its core, this is a question of the independent and small content creator’s access to justice. Copyright law should protect all creators, but the unfortunate fact is that it only protects those who can afford the high costs of federal court and legal representation. The CASE Act will change this by providing creators with a voluntary, inexpensive, and streamlined alternative that they can use to protect their rights, their creativity, and their livelihoods.”

The Authors Guild would like to thank the many members of Congress and of the creative community who persevered through this journey and garnered such overwhelming support in the House. At the top of the list are Representatives Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY)—who initiated the legislation (and who we honored at our May 2019 Gala)—and Doug Collins (R-GA) for their leadership in introducing the CASE Act in the House. We also thank the original co-sponsors of H.R. 2426, Representatives Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Hank Johnson (D-GA), Martha Roby (R-AL), Judy Chu (D-CA), Ben Cline (R-VA), Ted Lieu (D-CA), and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), as well as Judy Chu (D-CA), who introduced an earlier version of the bill and has been a fierce supporter. Our appreciation extends to the 142 additional co-sponsors in the House who came on board to support this critical legislation.

As thrilled as we are, we are not at the finish line yet. The Senate must pass the bill, and two Senators have placed hold on the bill: Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rand Paul (R-KY). We still have much work to do to ensure the bill passes in the Senate. When it does, it will be a historic moment for creators, who, despite being the heart and soul of the copyright law, are so often overlooked in its implementation.

We look forward to working with the Senate and other stakeholders as the CASE Act moves to the Senate floor and eventually to the Oval Office.

Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Tradeshow

Book

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.

 

fullsizeoutput_1f5

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:

 

IMG_2888

Me with Sung Surin (aka Shine)

IMG_2885

Me with Rose-Tu