Fantastical Wolfdog

How to Keep a Human, my first and still most loved book, landed back on my desk with a thump this week. Inside, a handwritten note from the reader who wasn’t. She had tried but found it impossible to focus on what seemed a fantasy, and expressed a dislike for people’s speaking for animals.

Lord Tyee and I share some quality book time.

She might be surprised to know that every one of the five related stories in that book really happened. Notes in the book’s last pages even ask anyone who might have pictures of the high-noon human-and-dogfight in Dawson City to get in touch with me. I assure you that Amaruq and I also really suffered a rodent invasion, spent an October Yukon night outside together, occupied two seats in university classes for a full year (where Amaruq trained a professor or two), and took an anthro course in teepees in the foothills of the Rockies. (Well, okay, I’ll admit to altering that last story a bit: the bear and the elk didn’t actually mix it up with us students, and our real professor was a wonderful, farsighted woman who would never be guilty of cultural misappropriation—but that dogfight, that porcupine hunt, and that attempt to buy Amaruq from me—all were the genuine article.)

I can’t get excited over pure fantasy, either. What inevitably starts a story for me is an event—something that actually happened somewhere on this planet. Once the narrative is rooted in reality, the questions start: what would it be like for this or that participant in the event? It’s just as interesting to imagine what the event would be like for other species as it is to imagine the human elements. It opens the mind and soul to speculate that a wolf might be as lupocentric as we humans are anthropocentric.

My mother read How to Keep a Human and remarked, “You are the best dog I’ve ever read.” Of course, she had known all my wolf dogs over the years in person, including Amaruq—she’d even cooked him Christmas dinner every year—and what she read accorded with what she knew of my “prefurred” companions and shed new light on their inner lives. She meant that the book had made a sincere attempt to get inside the lupo-canine skin and had avoided that heinous sin, anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism is usually defined as the attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena. Why is it a sin (especially since it’s so much fun and besides, everybody does it)? Look no further than the Judaeo-Christian roots of our “Western” culture: the only creatures on the planet believed to have souls are…humans! (And not even all of them, history admonishes us—but I digress.) When you attribute human traits to mere animals, are you not implying that the thing might also have a soul? Shame! Only “Man” was created in God’s image.

It’s so nice to be living in a time when we can all agree that this was bunkum, right? Including the Man part. Nowadays we have scientists reporting that mere monkeys display a sense of justice, elephants hold funerals, gorillas tell jokes in sign language, and wolf packs regulate their birth rate in correlation with how hard the next winter will be. It might just be that the only critter on the planet which “doesn’t have the sense God gave a goose” is…Mankind. Heck, we’re still naming our own species with the word for under half of us!

Chris Knight explored the state of the dreadful sin of anthropomorphism recently in a National Post article (April 17, 2017) entitled “A slate of new films are [sic] exploring our paradoxical relationship to animals — particularly donkeys”.

“At the core of humanity’s relationship with the other inhabitants of Earth is a paradox that will never be fully understood. We need animals. They keep the planet alive. They nourish our souls. They sometimes nourish our bodies too. We love them. We abuse them….

“As a species, we drive creatures to extinction and at the same time rush to save them. We strive to turn them into us (think of the animated film Zootopia), and yet we will never bridge the gulf that separates us. Pereira [one of the donkey-film makers] notes philosophically that we may never know what passes through [the donkey] Gorrión’s mind, but we know that when it rains, it rains for the donkey as well as the man.

“But what, precisely, divides humans from animals? Researchers have found that tool use, language, kindness, cruelty, self-awareness, creativity and even a theory of mind all exist in species beyond our own. The Last Animals [film] has one terrifying suggestion, when the meaning behind the title is revealed. Did you think it referred to the dwindling numbers of wild animals? No. If we cannot save the rest of them, the last animals will be us [sic].”

There’s a rash of new books and films channeled from other species lately, and that, I think is hardly an accident as our species moves the planet closer to disaster. Stories have always been the chief human tool for transmitting culture, and it is high time we added fresh perspectives. If anything can move us to exert ourselves to save our pale blue dot, it may just be the stories told through another species’ senses, told as honestly as writers can.

My un-reader won’t like my next book, Hot Dogs, either, in spite of the fact that my current feral friend, Lord Tyee, who is three quarters’ wolf, is proving to be a formidable mystery writer. Like his predecessors, however, he doesn’t type worth a damn. Good thing his Pack Leader is a ten-fingered human.

How Short It Is!

Lord Tyee curled up in the library.

Two years ago, as I lay, virtually helpless, day after day, in the bed in the library, I would apologize every morning to Lord Tyee. He would come to me for the morning nuzzle and I would wonder if I would ever again be able to climb the stairs to our spacious, comfortable bedroom under the eaves. Too weak even to pull his ears or return his affection except through my voice and eyes, I would pray to survive for at least the rest of his lifetime—because…who the heck would take on a huge, bereaved wolf?

Two years later, my C-Reactive Protein has sunk from 104 to about 6, the red blood counts are all back to normal, the threat of bone or blood cancer has retreated—I’m working on the remaining problems—and Lord Tyee and I are back in our private aerie every night.

He’s not one of those canines who curl up at one’s feet, much less force one to fight for space in the bed. He has a papa-san cushion to himself—sort of a circular mattress five feet in diameter—a little crocheted blanket made for him by an admirer who gravely underestimated his size, and an assortment of beloved stuffies, one of which may spend the night between his paws. From our respective beds, we spend some time looking at each other, sending thoughts and emotions across the small space between us. I try to make my mind as sweet and clean as his.

He loves his bed; not infrequently I catch him splayed out on his back, paws up, or running and growling happily in his REM sleep. Is he in the Dog Park or chasing the kitties and deer I won’t let him chase in our pedestrian days? It’s too endearing for words, when you consider his wild heritage. But then, wolves are all about family and love and play. As Temple Grandin says in her book Animals in Translation, dogs don’t grow up; wolves do. It’s rather sad that this noble being has just one old lady ape in his pack.

My publisher, who is much younger than I, has let me know in no uncertain terms that another Lord Tyee Mystery is wanted, a.s.a.p. And then another one, please. My publisher has a point: large canines don’t last much more than a decade. You wouldn’t know it to see Tyee cavort in the Dog Park, but he turns eight years of age this month. In the nest of his left armpit is lodged an egg-sized lipoma, the kind of thing vets pronounce benign but tell you to keep an eye on.

Life is short. Just when you get to the part where you know how to breathe and really love being alive, things get iffy. There’s no knowing how it all turns out.

One of us will have to do the grieving. Meanwhile, I’ll put on boots, he’ll put on his collar and we’ll go out into the rain to sniff out another secret or two of the wide, wide world.

La Chiripa and the Nervous Birthday Breakdown

I should be happy and light today: (1) My birthday is nicely situated, right at the end of the school year. (2) Either my friends are all liars or I really do not look my age. (3) Apparently I have cheated death for the 14th time. Pretty good going.

Oh, yeah? With loupy canines and goofballs in your life, don’t count on it. (Not to mention slings and arrows of outrageous institutions mired in the last century, but that’s another story….)

The only fly in my birthday ointment is the fact that it just took thirty-one tries to start the car.

Oh, well. I’ll leave it running in the driveway and then take it down to the garage. It probably needs just a tune-up. Simple, I’ll have it back for a birthday of joy and fun.

As I bumped my dear Volvo over the (incompetently installed and twice complained of) letdown that signals the beginning of the driveway, I noticed that Mike had planted six mini conifers a mere foot apart in the wrong place on the boulevard…not to mention that the paving stones were laid three feet beyond where they were supposed to start.

Sigh! That will have to be done over! With supervision, apparently.

I managed to remember NOT to turn off the car, collected the day’s trophies and groceries from the back seat, and inched up the stairs, only to be accosted, before I could reach the front door, by Mike, who was already in full gallop, mid-sentence.

This would not be a problem except that Mike’s sentences are, on average, three hundred and seventy-two words long; nor does he grant one sentence a period before commencing the next, all of which is delivered in the style of stentorian oratory one can hear quite clearly a block or more away.

Sound can be experienced as an assault. Interesting….

Mike wanted me to inspect his handiwork of the day. Immediately rather than later, later being a time when I would have had a chance to set down the stuff I was carrying through the doorway.

“Mike…” I protested. I was drowned out and shepherded around the corner of the house to see Mike’s work on our project, which was supposed to consist of building forms for two little pony walls to extend the patio. Mike had apparently decided that my ninety-year-old house needed a partial new foundation in advance of the creation of any pony walls in its vicinity.  He had the needs of my house all worked out assured me that his plan, involving masses of two-by-fours, plywood and concrete, would eliminate not only musty smells beneath house but forestall any forays currently in contemplation by the local rodent population. He proudly displayed his work of genius while I tried to shut my ears to the excited welcome-home cries of my wolf, tied up in the rear of the property.

Before me yawned a two-foot chasm in the concrete of the sidewalk and a hole two feet deep underneath it, continuing the length of the hoped-for pony wall. Tree roots, probably belonging to my beloved giant conifer weeping softly not twenty feet behind me, had been cruelly cut, doubtless with great effort on Mike’s part.

On a similarly fine June day twenty-six years ago, I stepped into a hole left in a sidewalk, in a single step that in an instant ended my life as I knew it. Much of my present physical impairment is traceable to that day, June 11, 1990. That hole, however, came with insurance. This hole does not, because I can’t afford the house insurance. Bungled as my stepped-into-a-hole case might have been, it still cost the insurer six figures—how would I ever withstand such a judgment if someone got hurt in this hole?

Trying to find a shred of positive feedback for Mike’s strenuous efforts, I failed, utterly. Instead, I protested: “Mike, my brother’s coming to visit tomorrow. It’s my birthday. Then I have to do an interview to get my job back. Since there’s no paycheque, I’m having a sale here to pay the property tax. There will be people all over this yard. You have to go to court tomorrow and you might not come back if thrown in jail, which means I’ll have your pit bull dog to take care of, besides the wolf. Meanwhile your RV is blocking the driveway and this mess is blocking the other side of the house—there’s no way to get to the back of the yard without imperiling life and limb….”

Sometime during this pathetic speech, a great metallic crash announced the liberation of Lord Tyee, the resident wolf, who had just broken through his chain, barely sparing the deck from total downfall. He was all over his inchoate mom—literally. One hundred fifty pounds of bounce, bounce, bounce and lick, lick. lick.

I inspected Lord Tyee’s broken chain. I said, “I am having a nervous breakdown.”

Mike said, “You don’t have to have a nervous breakdown. I’m right. I don’t need no experts to fix this. You’ve got a real problem here.”

“Oh, yes, I do,” I said. “I have a problem. I deserve this nervous breakdown and nobody’s going to stop me.” I uncoupled the broken chain, popped the offending section into my pocket, found the mutt’s leash and said the magic words: “Car-car!”

The hardware clerks examined the broken chain in slack-jawed awe, extending cautious hands respectfully within reach of Lord Tee’s curious nose as they found us a bigger, heavier piece of metal to hold his enthusiasms in check. Back into the car, left running once again in the parking lot.

At home, such as it was (it had not fallen into the hole just yet), Mike was repeating his justification mantra aloud for anyone’s ears as I tied up my beloved jerk of a mutt. I might have said, “Shut up,” to Mike as I stepped back into the still running car, this time aiming for a cold espresso and a consultation with any being saner than myself about what to do next. I bought three more plants, cried a bit, took a deep breath, and headed home. This time I dared to turn off the car. Tomorrow I would take the darned thing to the car doctor.

Thank Dog. Mike the Genius has left for the day. The hole, alas, has not.

I found a tenspot and paid the nearest able-bodied person to fill it back in, minus concrete.

Alas, I opened the birthday mail. A substantial packet from the CRA contained my tax history from 1990 to the present day. Well. A strange present but, after all, it’s traditional to review one’s life on one’s birthday, isn’t it? Even the financial aspect?

In my tax story, all was well until the divorce. In the year the divorce began, however, my beloved spouse took control of everything—our business, our house, our taxes. He even hired someone “to break her legs” should I come back into our office.  The office, i.e., He, failed to pay quarterly instalments, which is what one must do in one’s own business. The tax for that year burgeoned quietly in the CRA’s offices for twelve years of legal proceedings which I was powerless to hurry along. In the end, He largely succeeded in denying me any share of the family assets. By settlement time, thirteen fun-filled years later, the amount had more than tripled to some forty thousand dollars. In the twenty-two years since we parted ways, I have paid over forty-six thousand dollars in interest and penalties!

That’s more than eleven hundred working hours robbed from my life. Eleven hundred hours that did no one any good.

The allegedly loving father stopped paying child support on our daughter’s eighteenth birthday, on the theory that (a) her birthday occurred halfway through that month and (b) the age of majority in the jurisdiction to which we fled for our lives was eighteen, not nineteen as in BC whence the court order originated. Nor did he ever pay a dime toward the education to which she was entitled—two degrees and a profession—and which she still does not have. No, she and her single mom, dispossessed of their past, their health and their rights—these two women somehow managed that.

It’s the divorce that keeps on giving.

Small wonder that house insurance is still unattainable. My birthday gift to myself is the relief of finally paying off the government for the privilege of surviving an agonizing divorce. It is the freedom to acknowledge, publicly and without fear, that my marriage was a seriously bad affair, that my husband, a person I truly loved, ruined my profession, my health, and my place in the community.

Decades ago, on our Mexican honeymoon, I purchased a small, brown, hand-carved wooden bird with metal feet and called her “La Chiripa”—the stroke of luck. Good luck, bad luck—who knows? Years later, when I wrote the second novel of the story inspired by my hopeless marriage, I looked everywhere for La Chiripa, to put her on the book’s cover, but she had flown, apparently, wooden wings and all.  Today, as I stopped in for that much needed espresso, what should catch my eye but a hand-carved brown wooden bird with metal feet! I paid for her without even looking at the price tag.

The stroke of luck has struck again.

La Chiripa’s birthday gift to me is simple: freedom. Freedom to speak, to pass on to young women the cautionary notes about marriage, the song of unlove and renaissance for which I paid so dearly. Freedom to speak, to name the oppressor, even to accuse. Freedom to rise above so called due process, to shake free of servitude, to wing away to a life of one’s own.

The Boiling Frog

I’m blogging about my current bout of illness over at The Law of Love. This is my first post.

 

“Suddenly I found myself in hot water. Boiling water!”

 

It seems like that when illness suddenly strikes you down.

 

I had returned from a once-in-a-lifetime trip Down Under in tiptop shape, nicely tanned and relaxed from the Cook Islands and more than ready to tackle my many projects afresh. After all, the writing of at least nine books awaited me, from ten to ninety per cent complete. Let the postponed year 2015 begin!

 

Granted, the old body had seemed less willing to get up to ten thousand steps a day than in the past. Might as well talk to the doc about that, I decided, once home again. She and I had probably forgotten what the other looked like by now, given the frequency of my visits. Dr. S checked the records: sure enough, it had been ten months. In the cause of good sense, at my age, we might…

 

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Grape Power

A bottle of wine winked at me;
said, “You need me today.
I am from California.
I have an edge and I am on sale.”
I choose to believe its slick green surface;
cradled it “home” with a companion or two
and stacked them all, willy-nilly, in the fridge.
The realtor arrived.
The friend came.
Since they inhabited only one body,
I offered a glass of green glassy wine,
a libation to stories with an edge.
Somewhere between glasses two and three,
a buxom idea joined us; crossed her legs,
seated ever more easily on the third chair.
Clouds lifted; skies sang in azure;
sweet summer shade crept across the patio.
We all smiled:
future and heaven
edged
hesitantly
closer.

Condo

This lovely building,
with its pool and hot-tub, gym and workshop,
pub and crafts room, gardens and fountain,
woods and salmon stream,
Skytrain and City Hall,
arts center, college,
miles of shopping and doctors,
police and politics,
schools and churches, all a mere block away or
even ensconced in the building,
security and all—oh!
How I loathe this lovely building!

The rhodos bloom uptight against their fence,
afraid to drop petal or leaf in the paths
of the masked men gunning away all signs of rot
with black noise drawn from Earth’s sleazy past.
Inside their plastic suits they are safe from thought.
Likely their headphones keep them in step,
block out the beeps and drones and roars
of the whitewashed, whirling dirt-dervish machines,
the phalanx of Progress just behind them.
Inside, the hallways crouch, sibilant as declawed cats—
no wonder the small dogs trot nervously, afraid to sniff
or whine; say anything that might spell d-o-g.
The pools, pockets of liquid poison, lie mostly undisturbed
below their posted rules, graceless , grammarless laws
against most kinds of human behavior.
No one speaks.

But somewhere in the world, even here,
it’s a glorious, sunny day.
I’ll sit on the balcony with tea and a book;
ignore the noise.
Run a finger down the table, cleaned yesterday,
to be sure it’s clean enough.
Black as ink.

I loathe this lovely building.

Broom

My ancient apple tree,
who likely refers to me
as her latest human,
somewhat less elderly than she,
has a sense of humor:
Wherever I have swept,
she drops a small green bomb
or shrugs off a bit of the moss
infesting her trunk, which turns
as gray as foot fungus
the minute it hits the concrete.
“Be nice to me,” I growl,
“and I’ll spray you with that elixir
once again, that stuff that took
twenty years off you, last summer.”
But I don’t mind her meddling
with my morning meditation,
the broom a choir of straw
sussurating over stones.
Broom-making may be a dying art,
for this one announced its imminent demise
after a single season.
At least it’s not plastic:
I can cut up the corpse,
let it contribute its final essence
to the warmth of my winter house.
We may survive.
For now, it sings, soft as any broom,
and in the same human key.
My back yard sounds like Indonesia,
feels like Guatemala,
might be Ecuador,
or anywhere swept clean
of human folly,
anywhere people care
about civilization.

Is Anybody Using This Chair?

“Is anybody using this chair?”
she asks, slim smooth hand
already grasping the thing
by the scruff of its neck.

Of course I am using that chair
at this table for two,
crowded against a friendly wall.
That chair supports
both past and future—
only the present sits empty.
Tony, for one, is due,
my fellow birthday-holder,
the man whose cellphone
remembered to invite me.

This intimate table’s surrounded
by forty sky-happy people I don’t know,
chattering, clattering friends in a future
I may not ever enter.

Have you watched old men or women
converse in a corner
with companions only they can see?
“We save our adulation,” I tell Spence,
“for writers whose characters stay mute—
talk to me later.”
He hands me the leash; kisses my cheek;
signals Grey Dawn to lie at my feet
and heads out the door to tomorrow.
A veil of smoke curls ‘round us both
as Tony slips into the empty seat,
the chair that nobody was using.
His phone lies embedded in hand or in groin—
I can’t tell which—re-telling his life
like a jaded journalist.
Our vaporous talk barely parts the clouds
and his glass disappears
faster than smoke.
I pay; then pace home,
Grey Dawn beside me,
nudging my knees.
“Every birthday,” I tell him,
“every birthday,
I occupy more chairs.”

Ordinary Courage

Receiving somebody’s blog on the nature of direct action, I seem to hear the megaliths of destiny moving around to better positions. I’ve long said that ordinary courage requires witnessing and, for some, telling what was seen. As I contemplate the writing of Pale Criminal, the final book in The Falling Sky Trilogy, the mind keeps straying to drastic actions certain characters might take to deal once and for all with the psychopathy stalking their lives. Naturally. Suddenly I get it: the three stages of ordinary courage needed for the conquest of evil are witnessing, articulation and direct action.

The third level may be required of us if we are to stop idiocy like the Enbridge pipeline. Frightening idea. I realize anew how much I enjoy being alive. How much it takes to risk one’s only life for a cause.

White Birds: dreams for dancers traces the stages of courage symbolically. At first, the victim of abuse is barely even a witness: she becomes disembodied before the abusive act is fully perpetrated on her. In the second, third and fourth dreams, she moves from seeing her disembodiment to recounting her story; from telling the tale to daring to change her form. In the final dream, she moves from shape-shifting to taking the direct action that ends the evil. A warrior may not always be successful in eliminating evil, she learns, but the roles of victims and accommodator are surely insufficient.

In Broken Sleep, chronologically the first book in The Falling Sky Trilogy, Paul and Zack, reluctantly shaken out of the comfort zones of their professions, become witnesses to Jane’s story. Zack, the son of Holocaust survivors, can do no more than witness. Paul, son of a successful survivor of the Greek underground, takes action with compassion. Matt, to appearances the all-round American star of the American Dream, takes action as he sees fit — for your own good, of course. As for Jane, just as no one knows precisely what happened to her father as a POW, neither her friends nor we the readers find it easy to predict what she can or will do.

La Chiripa is all about articulation, the telling of lies that encourage the ongoing evil, and the courage it takes to tell the truth. In Guatemala, that courage is only beginning to break through what is called “El Silencio”, the silence that rules after 42 years of CIA-sponsored violence. The wonder of PIra is that somehow, in spite of — or perhaps because of — her mother’s victimization, the child is fearlessly articulate. That is why readers love her as she carries “La Violencia”, the bigger half of the book. That is also why readers love to hate Matt as he carries “El Silencio”, for in his fearless telling of his actions there is no love, no compassion, no right but his own. He’s his own private CIA, over and over again.

You see, the bad guys will always take action until their evils can stand futile. “All that is necessary for evil to take over the world is for enough good men to do nothing” — or something close to that. We must be alert to the moment when the ordinary courage of witnessing and truth-telling is no longer enough. To the hour of direct action.

Is it any wonder that the prospect of writing Pale Criminal scares the hell out of me?

the morning after WORD

The morning after a book event, the effort required to crank up a writer’s life is simply too great. I take refuge in the simple and mundane…and single-image poetry.

 

six a.m.

At the hour of silver and gray,
before tricky color seeps into the day,
a crimson electric curve cradles the kettle,
a smile of reassurance:
shortly there will be
hot tea.
Humanity persists.