Thoughts on the terrible consequences of my appetite

1. When I was in junior high, I used to wish that something would happen to me that would make me too sad to eat. 

I'd read about women who were too sad to eat. Or too sick. I was never too anything to eat.

2. When I was a child, all the women I knew were on a diet at one time or another. My babysitter ate grapefruit and cottage cheese for months and never got any smaller. My teachers were drinking tea to fill up. No one ever ran, then, to lose weight. Which is what they all wanted: to lose weight. No one wanted to be stronger or healthier or happier. 

3. My first diet was over the summer before the fourth grade. All of my girl friends marveled at how great I looked when I came back to school. (In the fourth grade.) My school picture that year has a wide mouthed smile. By fifth grade, I was fat again. I am slumped in that picture. My smile is close-mouthed. To me, I look like I am apologizing with my whole body.

Fourth grade to fifth grade

Fourth grade to fifth grade

4. I remember looking for a very long time, over several months, at this photograph of a "teen" model--it was an ad for clothes in Teen Vogue or the like, one of those fake European brands, all pastels and white, Venezia maybe--who I secretly thought I looked like, a little, in the face. I wished so hard that I could wake up and have her body, too. 

5. As a child, if I got new clothes, they were husky or "extra large." But I also got hand-me-downs from adult women, friends of my mother's. By the fifth grade I could wear the jeans of a grown woman. They were of course, far too long, so I had to roll them up. But in time, they too would cut into my soft, terrible stomach.

6. The insults and slights were legion. From the third grade into my thirties. I took them all in. I absorbed the opinions of others and believed them true. In time, no one had to tell me. I knew what I was. 

7. My junior year of high school, I had to take a P.E. class, and so I signed up for aerobics, because by then, Jane Fonda and Kathy Smith had convinced women that happiness was not grapefruit and cottage cheese flavored. It was not a flavor at all, in fact, but a sound: 4/4 time and Robert Palmer singing "All she wants to do is dance." I look at my prom pictures and think, I looked great. But I don't remember if I thought that I did. There were no plus-sized clothes for high school girls when I was in high school. Usually, I hid under the baggiest mens jeans and old man blazers I could find at thrift stores. I may have been relieved that the dress fit at all--but that's not the same as happy.

8. My mother eschewed all fat in any food for a year once, while I was in high school. We went shopping together, after, so she could buy a dress for a cruise or award dinner at work. She bought a red, fitted shiny number with one shoulder strap and a ruffle at the knee. It was a size 8, and she was ecstatic. She looked great.

But then the regular cheese and milk came back into the house. I stopped going to aerobics the second my GPA didn't count on it. I suspect (and fear) that deep down, I am a person who will always hate her body, so I maintain a body that is easy to hate.

9. In college I wore dresses so that I wouldn't feel breathless and squeezed in half all day. I did a lot of walking then, and lived with a vegetarian. I learned new recipes and got tighter, more compact. I started to shake my ass when I walked. I started to get attention from guys who weren't just into fat girls. I met a man who wanted to marry me--I remember once, in his car, he went on a rant about how he thought fat people were gross and lazy. I remember thinking, He doesn't think I'm fat! And then, But, he will find out someday that I am.  We married, and I stopped walking everywhere, because he had a car. I ate crawfish etouffe and beignets. I got even fatter than I'd been before. 

I left him, for a lot of reasons, not just the part about living in fear that I disgusted him.

10. I started walking again. Eventually, The Gap came out with boyfriend jeans. Around that time, I began to lose a lot of weight (again). Between the low rise jeans and the "regular" size, it was a revelation in comfort. I realized that I had never had pants that didn't cut into my stomach. 

11. Roxane Gay recently wrote, "My body is wildly undisciplined and I deny myself nearly everything I desire." I read that sentence over and over, feeling the same longing that I'd looked at that young model with--she of the dark eyebrows and light hair and bow mouth, but also the straight body that did not balloon out in all the wrong places. YES. I DO THIS, TOO, I thought. As though admitting it would fix me. 

12. Several years ago, I lost around 50 pounds by eating better and running, and have kept most of them off--though ten or fifteen will perhaps always hang over me like a sword of Damocles. I live in fear of my body. (Exercise is an entirely different subject with which I am uncomfortable. This is about food.)

13. When I was at my smallest, I was treated very differently. I started a new job, and my coworkers wanted to take me out. They wanted me to come hiking with them. They wanted to go out for drinks. They wanted to talk over lunch about their terrible girlfriends or boyfriends. They wanted to help me stock the boxes on the top shelves, and help me close down the department so we could all leave together. Some of that was my confidence. Some of that was not. 

14. I am still not thin, but now people don't believe I was ever big. You look fine, they say. I can't even imagine that, they say. I imagine it every single morning when I wake up. And every single time I put food into my mouth. I have no idea how to stop. 

Voice memos

On long drives, I talk to myself in the car and play terrible and not-terrible music with equal gusto. Only people who love me would ever go on a long drive with me on purpose.

During one particular trip--Laramie to Ucross for the first time (and then back during a night time storm)--I recorded some of my internal monologue as voice memos on my phone. I don't usually talk like a voice memo, usually just in a string of disconnected exclamations. But I tried to say what I was thinking as I thought it. 

This sort of thing that is important for fostering humility. I mean, even Kerouac didn't sound like Kerouac when he was actually on the road, I bet. I'm sure he had more than a few double-rainbow moments which ended up scratched out in the margins of his mind.

Anyway, maybe this is against the culture of curated thoughts that are edited and styled into tweets and status updates. This is my mouth falling open. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not cool.

This was last August. It's a five hour drive each way. Here are nearly all of the memos transcribed.

1. (Liz Phair singing “And when I asked for a separate room”) Oh my god. So. A white-gray horse, laying down on its side not moving, near the fence, by the side of the road. Chestnut and black horse, both standing over it (“But if I’d have known how that would sound to you…”) not looking down, not looking at each other, just, like sentinels. Which is the second horse that I’ve seen on the side of the road. The first one was giving birth, saw the colt take its first step. On the way back from Arizona. That’s all.

2. Red-tailed hawk. Uh. Lots of pronghorns. Um, rolling rolling rolling. Snow fences. (slide guitar) Not having to take my foot off the fucking brake for miles and miles. About to hit some sort of little town. (Langhorne Slim singing “Whether I’m right, whether I’m wrong”) The hawk was sunning on a piece of sandstone. It’s pretty amazing. So far so good.  … It’s Rock River, with the Longhorn motel and restaurant and uh… a really nice park? Holiday park, in fact. Annnd, now we’re done.

3. Giant wind turbines and the landscape in the background goes from green sage to slate to medium blue to pale blue like torn paper layers. On the other side, the snow fences are golden in the sunrise. Uh. Sloping up to gray rocky cliffs—brown gray, lots of shrubs. Um. It’s been a very dry, dry summer, so everything is, everything is yellow-gold. And so many pronghorn! Lots and lots of beautiful antlers. And little harems.

4. Flock of magpies, eating a fucking dead rabbit. (Bon Jovi “SHOT THROUGH THE HEART”) The last two didn’t fly away until a second before I would’ve rode… driven right over them. Also, like, a rusty orange dock-looking weed on the side of the road? Tall, flame-like, and lots of tall sunflowers, possibly Jerusalem artichokes? I’ll have to look it up, later. Looks like I’m coming to a town—all of a sudden there are are cliffs and rocks in the distance (“You promised me heaven but put me through hell”) they’re all very pale.

5. Look up what kind of hawk it is with a white base at the tail. Um. All the rest dark. [Note: probably a Rough-legged hawk]

6. [REDACTED] (Modest Mouse in the background)

7. The trees are in stark contrast. It seems that I’m driving into weather, but I don’t know if that’s true. The sky is slate gray and the greens are bright (“Alright don’t worry we’ll all float on, alright don’t worry”). But it’s getting darker, while it’s also getting lighter behind me, so maybe they’ll be some rain soon. Keep seeing magpies on the side of the road, eating the ground squirrels that dash across recklessly. Spotted yellow… maybe tansy? Surprising dearth of raptors, though. The magpies seem to be doing all the clean-up work. No vultures. Just three hawks or eagles? That last one might have been an eagle. The houses are few and far between. The cows are black or red or creamy white. (“Alright don’t worry we’ll all float on okay”) Very few horses. A lot more sage grass-sage brush, with uh, yellow grass, short, between range, between shortly cropped rangeland. And I just saw a giant red… jutting rock formation that may be Chugwater? I’m not sure. Um. And uh. A beautiful small black and white bird just flew across the road (“Everything that keeps us together is falling apart”) I don’t know what it was. Lots of slate gray and white. Maybe a warbler? Seemed big. (“Going out to find blindspots and he’ll do it.”)

8. Look up “Sand Creek Massacre Trail” because I have been following it the whole damn time.

9. Just saw a flock of wild turkeys in somebody’s front yard. Uh driving from Buffalo to Ucross now and it’s just lovely. Trees and scrub and uh with mountains, ha, uh all around. I’m kind of excited.

10. Totally driving into a lightning storm. It appears to be over Casper perhaps? And there was just a bolt of lightning that didn’t reach the ground? Or there are clouds between me and it… and I cannot see. But. It flashed in the middle of the sky, a little abbreviated line. And now for some fucking Motley Crüe. (Dr. Feelgood starts up)

11. It’s a fucking mountain! It’s a ridge! A giant mountain ridge that’s between me and the storm—that’s why I couldn’t see the whole bolt! But it’s perfectly hidden in the blue haze of all this fucking smoke! The closer I get, it’s now starting to loom up, uh. A slightly darker blue, with pale blue below it… Maybe fog? Or clouds? I’m not sure. Uh but it’s pretty amazing. That’s all. 

#MyWritingProcess (a tour hack)

First of all, I was originally invited to participate in this grand round robin by the gracious and tenacious Kelly Sundberg. However, the chain unraveled upstream from her (as these chains are wont to do). But I decided to participate anyway because I liked the questions. I liked the idea of making myself sit my ass down to answer them.

You should go check out Kelly over at Apology Not Accepted, where she writes about being a witness to and a victim and a survivor of domestic violence. 

* * *

Second, my writing process terrifies me. When I showed up for our first meeting "as a big group" in my MFA program--it was a huge secret success (I mean, not to my Facebook friends, but to the rest of the cohort, who I was hoping to impress). I had been turned down by all the schools I applied to the year before, and I had gotten in to U Wyoming's fully funded program off the waitlist. I was convinced I was secretly a fraud and would be found out any minute. 

At that meeting, our program director said "If you feel like a fraud right now, you aren't alone," and "You have the next two years to figure out how you fuck yourself." She said other beautiful and eloquent things, but that is the thing I thought about most for the next two and a half years--because some weeks it felt like all I was learning. Here's what I now know for absolute sure: I fuck myself with distractions and I fuck myself with self criticism.

I beat myself up like it is my job. When I came to our (kind, generous) director a year and a half after that first meeting, and broke down in her office, it was because I was a terrible writer and I was so afraid that I'd wasted everyone's time.

"Because," I wailed, "for weeks, all I've wanted to do is knit sweaters and roast vegetables."

She said, "Why don't you then?"

"Because I have been trying for months to find a way to write every day and I can't because I am so lazy and unfocused and I have always been like this and... I just suck at life."

Because we are told over and over and over that the good writers find a way to write every single day. And I have never been able to do that--except for this one experiment where I blogged every day for a year. See how I use words like never even though they don't apply? That's what my (wise, patient) director noted.

She said, "Why don't you let your cohort worry about your work ethic for a couple of weeks? Any one of them will tell you all about how hard you work. You don't even have to believe it, just let them hold that opinion of you, for you. Go knit and roast beets. The work will be there when you get back."


It's not like I was cured. But I knit a great sweater and got my thesis done. She and my advisor nominated it for an award, later. Plus, most of it has been published. Even I can't say it wasn't an expression of good, dutiful effort. 

I still don't usually believe that I am not lazy, but I am trying to acknowledge that my laziness appears to express itself in mysterious ways that often only I am capable of discerning. I pass for hard-working, in other words.

* * * 

Man. You'd think I forgot about the questions altogether. I DID NOT.

1. What am I working on?

A non-fiction book about vultures. It combines travel, memoir, science and mythology to tell stories about birds that disgust us.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

For one, I am not sure what needs to happen. Too many books about ecological horrorshows are certain. And, I mean, someone needs to be. But I think we also need to wonder and question and mull stuff over, too. There are multiple sides to every natural wonder's predicament. 

Also, while I love birds and I love travel--I am not a professional at either. This gives me room to stand next to my readers, rather than over them at a mahogany podium with a powerpoint full of footnotes. I am figuring this stuff out as I go. That keeps the reader and me on the edge, a bit. But not any actual edges, because I am really not fond of heights.

Also, I'm not afraid to get lyric. This may become a problem when I try to sell the manuscript--but it's not really something I can help. I write like I talk: excitedly and often before I've thought something all the way through. This means I must stay open to the possibility that I'm wrong.

3. Why do I write what I do?

More than anything, I love the natural world. I ache for it in ways I don't quite understand. Just knowing there are owls outside right now calms this mania in my chest by an infinitesimal degree. The frogs singing, another degree. The wind through the winter-dried grasses trying to stand up, one more. Eventually, it all comes together and I can breathe a little easier; I feel less alone in the universe. Some people get this feeling from going to church or looking up at the stars and seeing God. For me, it is the exact mosaic of stones shoved to the side of the road by the traffic; the clay embankment carved in lesser and lesser depths by a stream; the outline of a cirrus, and the hues in its depths; a birdsong, hard to identify.

When I write, nearly every time I write, I am trying to explain this longing for comfort. I am trying to describe watching one bird take flight one day, and the way the image of its strong back reverberated in my brain bell for weeks. How it made me think about every time I'd tried anything. How it made me wish for a moment, even though I am a grown ass woman with car insurance and surge protectors and a chain for my reading glasses, that I could fly.

I enjoy my house and would quickly say that I need some of the comforts of civilization, too--but it's the fact of the outside, its existence in all its myriad shapes and forms and wonders, that keeps me thinking. Which keeps me going.  

4. How does my writing process work? 

Fuck if I know; see above.

I don't write every day. I think in words every day, however. Sometimes I tweet lines as they come to me, often using the #cnftweet tag. Some of these tweets are single toes-in-the-water of something bigger, sometimes they are just passing thoughts.

But when I do finally sit down, it is because something has been building in my chest cavity for days or weeks or months. It comes out over an hour or two, or three days--in a jumbled shitty rush. And then I spend a few days or weeks revising it until I can read it out loud without stumbling.

Then, I usually try to submit it somewhere. This makes me stop picking at it for a bit. Those first subs rarely work out--but they enforce a break, some time to think, on my part. Submittable serves as back brakes for my mania in that sense. 

The trouble with this (non) process is that it works way better for standalone essays than it does for a whole book. So the book is inching in fits and starts and crumbs and balls of paper. I will have to do something different, I'm afraid, if I want to finish it. I'm almost positive. But I'm not sure what, yet, or how. 

On good days, I know it will come to me eventually.

On bad days, I like to cry it out and eat M & Ms.

I used to hate my process. It embarrassed me. But that ain't gonna make it shape itself up.

So this is me, showing my process off in a bikini. I'm trying to love it more. I mean me.

* * * *

And now to pass the torch. Two of my own chain links fell out of interest or time for this project, but luckily for you and me both, Brian Oliu was still game. You can read his post in the coming days... Here's why you should catch up with anything you've missed in the meantime: 

Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey & has taught at the University of Alabama since receiving his M.F.A. in 2009. His work has been anthologized in Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 2, 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction, & has been twice selected as a Notable Essay in the Best American Essays series. He is the author of So You Know It's Me, a collection of Craigslist Missed Connections, & Level End, a series of lyric essays about videogame Boss Battles. His newest book, Leave Luck To Heaven, an ode to 8-bit videogames, was released by Uncanny Valley Press.

You can check out his words and news and track suits here: BRIANOLIU.COM

This weekend I will enjoy everything and not think about the terrifying future

For starters, I'm going to read a zombie book.

Zone One
By Colson Whitehead

To hear the author, Colson Whitehead, talk about Zone One, head on over to THE place to find book trailers and interviews and other interesting bookish treats, Book Reels

I'm also going to go on at least one and possibly two hikes.

I am going to bake a batch of almond and cranberry muffins.

And I am going to knit on my Dream of the 90s purple shrug.

The work will continue on Monday like it does for regular people. I love my dream of being a full-time writer, and I am working hard all the time to achieve it. But sometimes I need to give myself out loud permission to take a break. 

How NOT to get that residency you were going to apply for...

I've been working at an artists residency for nearly two months now, as an intern. We just finished accepting all of the applications for the upcoming Fall season, and bundled them off to our jurors. I've learned some things throughout this process, and I thought I'd share them.

NOTE: These are all my own overly-opinionated musings. They neither represent my employer, nor do they predict what will happen to anyone who has applied this year--it's in the jurors hands. Additionally, none of these examples describe specific applications. They are amalgams, chimeras, and are only based on actual events, like Law & Order.

I already knew many of these things, having been a hiring manager/slush reader before. It's amazing how transferable some knowledge is. Anyway, while these address residency applications, they apply to all sorts of applications, like grants or jobs. The bottom line is to demonstrate just as much conscientiousness as you expect attention. In other words, there are ways to distinguish oneself that have unintended consequences. For example:

  1. Write a 37-page CV. Unless you are a performance artist, and your CV doubles as your work sample, be real. Maybe you have really done 37 pages worth of stuff--but does the residency selection jury need to know that you were on seven different Student Affairs committees? Or that you once worked for Staples and had three different job titles? There's probably a way to customize that impressive piece of pulp-to-be down to a more manageable size, say 8-10 pages. Six, if you're really good.
  2. Be unprofessional and or ask unprofessional people to recommend you.
    • Dear creatives, Your twitter profile is not what anyone means when they ask if you have a website. Also, if you feel the urge to use a font anywhere on your application whose name begins with a B, D, F, L, R, or S, squash that urge like a poisonous spider in your bed. That list is not exhaustive, use a font that is unlikely to offend the eye. Your work sample should be where you get to live your life out loud, not official forms or informative documents.
    • Dear recommenders of creatives, Two sentences, scrawled nearly illegibly on a napkin and or sent as a forward from the email asking you to recommend a person, does not constitute a recommendation. Letterhead, salutations, full, and complete sentences. Just like you ask your students to do for you.
  3. Staple things in the order that makes sense to you. Okay, this really only annoys the lowliest of the staff--like say, the interns and admins--but unless the application says to staple things, don't. Maybe we have to make copies or re-collate in the order that makes sense to us, or separate pages among the jurors. Who knows? What is not fun is unstapling the 4 staples you used to consecutively attach the several small bundles of your application into one large bundle. When in doubt, call and ask. We probably won't even remember your name. Plus by the time we tear out all those staples and restaple the documents into a useful configuration--your beautiful triple weight paper CV will look like hell. Also, don't use triple weight paper for your CV, or that grainy gray stuff that looks terrible copied--this is the future, and the future is white printer paper.
  4. IGNORE THE DIRECTIONS. Oh man. Why is everyone always so bad at reading the directions? Teachers joke about how it is on the damn syllabus. Apparently this is a anti-skill people learn early and then continue to hone throughout their lives. When, for example, the directions say "All materials for online applications must be submitted online," and you wondered to yourself, "Can my professor, who thinks it's still 1999, fax her letter?" Before you just go ahead and tell your professor to do that, because you are king or queen of the universe and your wonderments become law, ask yourself, "Is this question already answered clearly in the instructions?" Don't send 4 letters of recommendation if the application only asks for 3. Don't send a 30 page writing sample, or 25 slides (SLIDES? WHO ARE YOU, EDWEARD MUYBRIDGE?--the instructions said to send a CD) when the application asks for 20 pages or 15 images.
  5. Only follow the instructions that you feel should apply to you. Take the above example. If, instead of wondering, you think "Surely this doesn't apply to me, since I ... ANY SITUATION AT ALL" then put a rubber band on your wrist that you can snap the next time you think such a thing. Instructions apply to everyone, unless they include clearly conditional phrases, such as "unless" or "in the event that." Don't assume that you are a special case, or you may become one before you even get to the second round, if you know what I mean.
  6. Wait until the last minute, and then need a lot of help. Please, if you really want to make an impression, wait until the day before the application window closes to call/email with a long list of questions and requests for special treatment. We love that. Especially questions that require research and follow up. We will be singing your name in the halls. We were probably just sitting around bored, anyway, and you were probably the only person who waited until the last minute. We are probably not angrily unstapling your stuff, now, and cursing you under our breath.

All that said, if you follow instructions, are prepared (and failing that, kind), if you ask early if you need to ask often... then the people handling your application will do anything they possibly can to get you the best shot at a residency. They love artists and writers and musicians. They want nothing more than to give everyone the gift of time. And if you do get the golden ticket, those same people will welcome you with open arms, and they will probably put you in the nice room with the good view, instead of the other room, which of course is also nice because they're all nice, except for the very slight draft/amorous frogs in the pond out back/snorer next door.

Why I will not be applying for an #AmtrakResidency

I was excited, too, when I saw Alexander Chee's story about his offhand remark that resulted in a sweet train ride--during which he was free to write or revise, stare out the window as the country rolled by, or nibble on free food, delivered at appropriate intervals, to his "suite." I mean, who wouldn't want that?

[PS, there's a TL;DR at the bottom, if you're that sort.]

I even tweeted at Amtrak, immediately afterward. I am supposed to do some research in Florida and Virginia--and have no idea in the world how I will finance either, but there's a train between them. How perfect would that be? I could even write up my notes from one while on the way to the other--hard to do when driving your own car down the highway.

Except, that's not what's on offer here.

I'm not even talking about the terrible item #6 in the terms & condition of the application which Amtrak has totally not at all remedied in any legal way (or the ominous paragraph that precedes six, which not everyone is even noting--but which essentially alleviates any of Amtrak's liability if Amtrak's marketing team just happens to produces copy that is similar or identical to what you sent them).

When was the last time a residency application asked for your Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram links?

Instead of your writing being the most important part of your Amtrak application, your analytics will be. How many friends, how many retweets: what is your reach potential? Good lord--maybe even...your effing Klout scores?! (At least someone will be looking at those, I guess.)

You will be judged not on your ability to move people with your writing, but on your ability to sell people on the idea of train travel. They will look at your profile pictures, the comments that have been left on your posts--are you exciting and do you instantiate conversation? Are you... marketable?  Will your selfies be good for the brand, or bad for the brand ifyougetwhatimean? Is your network a valuable market?

Can you work for Amtrak for five days--with only room and board for pay? They have already received over 8,000 applications.

But real residencies provide the gift of time because they support artists and writers--even though that support almost never makes them any money. Amtrak is providing twenty-four  $900 train tickets so that it can mine two dozen social media portfolios for new creative copy.

And an army of writers are so starved for even just five days of time to write without cost--that to many, this looks like a good deal. Damn, it looked like a good deal to me, at first too, so I get it. It's been a really hard winter, you know?

But, seriously. If Amtrak had a job posting for a creative writer to join its marketing team, you know, with an actual salary and benefits--that would be worth applying to. Instead, all they have to do is shell out around $21,000 and they get twenty-four brand-new on-the-job trying-to-impress-the-boss publicists. Unlike actual creative employees, who are traditionally a pain in the ass. And if this lark doesn't really increase revenue, they can just drop it. Unlike an actual employee, who they'd have to go to the trouble of firing.

And UP TO NINE HUNDRED DOLLARS for a trip that will last on average 5 days? This is guaranteed to fail, because that rent is too damn high. This program will only underscore just how out of reach train travel has become for most people. Yes, there's the ambiance of the rattling cars and the movie of the landscape that rolls by like old film--but that sort of thing appeals to a very particular type of person (artists) who are not usually the type to have a grand lying around for one week's worth of one-way travel. I mean, if you can afford the train, why on earth wouldn't you fly and spend the extra money by the hotel pool?

TL; DR: Other companies will co-opt your social media skills for actual compensation. Search them out, instead.

A long day in the car and at the vet's

We left with a vulture who needed to have a wing amputated. Dropped him off at vet 1 (in private practice at South Africa's only veterinary school), then drove 3 hours to pick up a vulture with a broken wing and a "brain damaged" martial eagle that had been hit by a car. The latter bird ended up being a snake eagle (which probably explains his behavioral issues--martials are fierce and aggressive, snake eagles are extremely passive around and afraid of people). We dropped the eagle off back at Vulpro and picked up broken leg vulture 2 from last week and took her and the new broken wing back to vet 2.

Right away the vet had doubts about the sweet broken leg bird. She was wheezing a lot more, had not gained much strength, and the X-rays showed infection in her lungs. She was not well enough for the leg surgery, and so she was euthanized.

The broken wing was successfully amputated, but had more infection inside the bone than we originally saw--birds have hollow bones, and mud was caked in at the exposed break. It took the doctor awhile to clean out the dead tissue. The bird's breathing stopped momentarily during the hour-plus surgery, but started again after a bit of manual oxygen.

After surgery, he was very slow to revive. It took over an hour, IV fluids, and some TLC before he woke up. Our fingers are crossed that he'll be good in the morning.

Some notes:
Several widow birds dancing over the grass.
A chameleon saved from the middle of the road.
A caracal at the vet's that mewled like a house cat (and growled like a cougar).
Also at the vet's, a tiny nyala fawn that I wanted to put in my purse.
The McDs chicken ranch tastes alright--except the ranch is totally weird.

Notes on the restaurant & vet

Today we cut up a cow for the birds: back legs to the breeding colony, front legs and head to the rehabbing capes & lappets, middle, for the restaurant. Also took two birds in for leg X-rays (sustained while children grabbed at them to "rescue" them from traditional medicine practitioners--snatching the birds for the reward has become cottage industry), treated another for a crop infection.

Have I mentioned that I'm not too hungry lately?

Also, sorry in advance to the people I'm sitting next to on the plane back.

Exactly what we're afraid of

The deep down disgust that a rotten, mostly-eaten cow carcass inspires is instinctual. It's like jumping at a snake--something from deep down & back in our animal minds. Maggots are repulsive. And watching a flock chickens slurp them up from the hosed-down sludge from three cows in the back of a pickup, frankly makes me not want to eat chicken. Even if the chicks are cure as hell.

But vultures aren't just what they eat. I smelled the back feathers of one today, PJ, a hand-reared Cape vulture. He didn't smell rotten at all. He pecked at my boot grommets an tried desperately to unzip all my zippers. Another bird de-handled the water bucket and pranced around the enclosure proudly carrying it high in the air, all of his compadres following behind.

I'm still being a bit beaten down by jet lag, so that's it for now. Tomorrow I go to the vet to watch a wing amputation--always the very last resort, as it sentences the bird to life behind a barred door, without parole.

Vulpro, Wednesday

Some notes on arrival:
-In the area, besides amazing birds like ibises and storks and of course vultures (!!!!), there are brown hyenas, leopards, kudu, duikers, klipspringers, and "lots of snakes." None of this should worry me.

-My room has a motion alarm, inside two locked gates. My alarm is separate from the house system. It has been suggested that if I am on my own, I not be outside the second gate after dark. There are five large dogs on the grounds, shepherd & malamute mixes. This is all due to common (?) armed & violent home invasions. The man who drove me here said that in Botswana they don't hurt you when they rob, like they do here. He said there were two reasons for this. One, Botswana has capital punishment. Two, "our history with apartheid--the blacks feel the whites have left them out, taken all of their power. Please know that maybe I'm not using the right words, but you understand?"

-Tomorrow and for the next few days, I'll follow a volunteer as she waters the birds and cleans the carcasses from the vulture restaurant. Normally hyenas would clean up the bones--but not on the rescue center's grounds. I'll be able to enter the enclosures once the birds know me a bit. (!!!!)

-I will likely see at least three soft releases and an unknown number of rescued birds brought in.

-I'm still exhausted. Also, mosquitoes.

New Year's eve in South Africa

I didn't think I'd make it. I was so damn tired yesterday afternoon (see also: 2 day flight), that I crashed out at 5pm. But the fireworks woke me up at 11:20. I bought a can of Black Label from the front desk and went to sit on a stone terrace overlooking the city. 

There were hoots and hollers and music coming from around the neighborhood--all private homes surrounded by spiked gates and razor wire. Even in this nice neighborhood. I felt like I was about the have some sort of momentous revelation about my life--but I was still groggy from my death-like sleep.

Around the house (I could see about 240 degrees) there were small fireworks explosions in several directions. At about 5 minutes til, the family that owns this hostel came up to the terrace with a bottle of champagne, I had two glasses. We toasted the New Year at the approximate time, judging by the yelling and fireworks. I forgot most of my pre-revelation. 

Then I went back to bed. 

Maybe it doesn't sound that exciting--but it was lovely. This morning, I woke up at 5:30 because the birds were louder than the fireworks. Hooting, buzzing, scratchy calls, shrieks, and lilted whistles, trills, and warbles. So fantastic. I ID'd a few--bright yellow, orange, iridescent blacks. I hope I get to see a widowbird. The streets are thick with pest-myna birds. 

I've written several postcards and will mail them before heading out into the country this afternoon. 

I can't believe that I forgot my binoculars. (HOW DID I FORGET BINOCULARS?) I also took a picture of my breakfast this morning, but the network out here is so bad that I blew several Kbs trying (and failing) to post it to Instagram. I may try again from the airport this afternoon, where I'll be meeting the shuttle to Hartbeetspoort. By tonight, I will be in the country... hanging out with Cape vultures. 

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope to write again soon.

Day One: Johannesburg

Man. The two toughest things to figure out overseas: toilets and internet. At least so far, the toilets have been totally expected and intuitive. 

It has proven to be prohibitively expensive for me to get internet out of town. In town, I'm using a crazy old computer in 30 minute increments for 20 Rands. There are about eleventy pop-ups on every page I open. 

So far: I needed help to unlock my room and turn on the computer. The desk guy probably thinks that I'm mentally challenged. WINNING.

But! Peter Mundy's publisher is driving to my hostel in an hour and a half to deliver a copy of Vultures of the World. I won't get to meet Mundy himself (heartbreaking!) but we've been exchanging emails and he is very supportive, if terse. 

It's warm and beautiful. The grounds here at the Backpackers Ritz are full of weird birds I need to identify, and skinks. 

I'll buy another 30 minutes tomorrow--and give an update after New Year's... but otherwise, the posts will be quick and few until I am back to wireless land. Postcards, however, have been procured (plus stamps) and those will be free-flowing. 


Today: Frankfurt airport

It's like Paris all over again, and I have no money. I blew some stashed dollars to hide out in a lounge and stretch out (sort of) and snore (probably). And also eat free biscotti and drink coke light. The lighting is soft & soothing in here. There's an open bar which I should've taken better advantage of.

On the plane, I met Aymon, a Nubian from Northern Sudan. He just finished his MBA with an enviro focus. I said, "What do you want to do now?" He said, "Business!" And I said, "But what does that mean?"

I never found out because it was his turn for the bathroom and on that three row plane, we never met again.


Everyone is posting their real and fake and big and little New Year's Resolutions. I'm going to start small, and resolve to stay open to experiences for the next 30 days.

It turns out a hotspot (or "dongle") is around $150 at the airport. I may not have Internet at Vulpro, as a result. I'll see if the prices are better at Tambo airport. Onward!


The worst adventure story ever...

...starts in an airport. That's the first rule of travel writing.

And yet, that is where almost all of my adventure stories start. So, either my adventures are terrible, or my stories about them are terrible, or more likely... that's a crummy rule.

I feel like I've addressed this dumb rule and my propensity to break it every time I fly somewhere. Am I the only one who's feeling déja vu here? It could also be the smell of Panda Express that is enveloping gate A 43--which will forever be the smell of the University of Wyoming's union. And also my office.

I've been thinking about travel vs home lately. Because I've been planning this trip and packing my home for the last week. But I've been thinking about both for most of my time in Laramie. I knew my time there would be temporary, and I had as one of my MFA goals as much world travel as possible.

Specifically, I've been trying to figure out why travel is more important for me than establishing a home--I pine for a base to which I can reliably return, but not more than I pine for the next trip. I haven't even left Denver and I've already started planning for a way to get to India and Mongolia. It's not a new drive--I tried to go to Morocco as an exchange student in high school (other acceptable locations included Greece or Egypt, I seem to remember), and then to Italy during my undergrad. I wanted to see other things. I value seeing things more than most things. It often takes what I've seen a long time to percolate into a piece of writing, but that never diminishes the memory of having seen.

I still haven't written anything satisfactory about New Zealand, about the 3,000 year old trees. About the tuis, the invisible kiwis. In part because that trip was hard.

All travel is hard, is the thing. I absolutely lost my shit in Paris in June. And in Whangamomona in January. In Spain, I was distressed, but never lost it, while in the Canaries, I bowed out of New Year's Eve festivities to stay home and recoup my wits. It is exhausting to not speak the language, to have expectations thrown out the window, to miss trains, and to misunderstand the price. But Parisian escargot was amazing. The sounds of birds all day and night on the North island. Paella. The Mediterranean. I knew someone who said that in this day and age one might as well stay home--everything can be streamed, someone else has taken better pictures that you can download, and there aren't any lines at the airport in your living room. That guy has no idea what a bearded vulture smells like. He will never know how it feels to buy a joint in Amsterdam (the thrill of a 19-year old buying booze overseas). He will not know the peace and satisfaction of a perfectly packed travel bag, or a notebook that just fits in your passport pouch with a small pen.

I am still not good at traveling. I miss so much. I still race to get to the wrong things sometimes. I get impatient and disappointed in a way that I find disappointing. I feel like there is a kind of travel-zen I need to practice. But I'm getting better at it.

One of the keys is getting to the airport early. I got here just before 1 for a 5 pm boarding time. Crazy? I got a chair massage, had a bloody mary, and made good progress on my newest sock. I only got bugged when a TSA agent nearly threw my laptop on the ground by shoving a bunch of bins down the belt. I'm planning on sleeping some on the plane to Frankfurt. I will spend nearly one-fifth of my trip time in airports--it should be good time.

It's nice to sit after two days of packing and moving, too.

I have thoughts on home too, but it seems ill-advised to wax philosophically about home on the brink of travel. For now I'm going to kick back and look out the window at the blue Denver sky. I'm going to knit my sock and dream of Cape vultures and the Magaliesburg mountains. I'm going to try and enjoy the next day and a half of airplanes and airports.



The enemy of my enemy

I am my own worst enemy. I always have been--except for a brief stint in the seventh grade when that bully-girl Nikki was my enemy. In retrospect, she probably had a crush on me and turned aggressive when I failed to love her. I had no idea, and even if I'd known, I'd have had no idea, you know? These things happen.

But otherwise, it's me.

I've internalized all of the negative talk I've ever heard about myself: I don't have any feelings, I'm frigid, I'm too stubborn to know what's good for me, I have terrible taste in music, clothes, books, movies, other people, I am gullible, selfish, lazy, willful, preoccupied with all of the wrong things. I think about these things and the people who said them to me all the time. I am the over-sensitive little boy in Down at the Dinghy.

I know that none of these things are true. I can point to empirical evidence that disputes every one of those things--but here's the thing that I can't disprove: I often give the impression that I'm a total wreck, because I often feel like a total wreck.

I often feel like I am hanging on by a thread, even if (experience has shown this time and time again) everything will work out, I will get done what I need to, I almost always reach the goals I set for myself, and I do, in fact, know what I'm doing when it comes to taking reasonable care of myself and those I care about.

And yet. To get my shit done, I always have to run myself to this same crazy brink. My most productive time is spent staring over an edge of my own creation, working like mad. Panic-stricken that I will fail to meet my obligations. Guilt-ridden that I will let down everyone who has helped me. Frantic to tackle all of the things before the world turns back into the pumpkin of abject failure. I cannot manage my time or my finances or my self-talk without fear. I admit it.

Everything (and one) I know assures me that this is not healthy and must be fixed. But everything (and one) also says that I will be the happiest if I can just learn to harness whatever I consider my weaknesses to be. So... I need to learn to run on my dis-ease? Because I would like to be the happiest. I really would. I would like to know how this madness can somehow be converted into nourishment. What a metabolism that would be.

In the meantime, right, I will just keep making my way. I will continue to do it my way, as it is the way I can always see, even in the dark. I get how some of my weaknesses are gifts. Stubbornness, for example, is a gift, as is terrible taste. After all, no one is ever in line for my tickets, and the thing I want is almost never sold out.


Yesterday I was able to sit for several hours and just draw. It was frustrating and wonderful at the same time. Our drawing workshop of sorts, was led by Katrina Van Grouw, artist and author of The Unfeathered Bird (note: you should buy this book, but if you do using this link, I will make a few cents).

Frustrating, because I used to be able to make my hand do what I wanted--and wonderful, because O! the luxury of just sitting and looking and moving my hand and not-thinking. I write and read, because I cannot imagine any other way to spend my time. But, I do the other things I do, like knit, cook, draw, practice yoga, run--all to keep from flying apart into a million panicked, crazy pieces.  

The less time in the day I can devote to those things that comfort me, the more likely I am to rail against the universe and cry randomly. Sometimes it's easy to know a thing and still forget it, is I guess what I'm saying.

The drawings that came out of the workshop weren't great works of art, but that's beside the point. I loved the shiny silver smudges along the the skin of my hand, loved the sound of the graphite scraping off slowly in arcs.

I've also gotten a few acceptances in the recent past, which I hope to share news of soon. Until then, I'm going to re-arrange my schedule a bit to make sure I can get in that good stuff more as the semester draws to a frantic, harried close.  

New digs

I've moved the blog to Squarespace. Still arranging everything just so, but this will be the place for the next two years or so. Let me know what you think.

Driving is different from riding

In the morning, I get to take a left turn at Albuquerque. Driving is stressful for me. As a result, I eat poorly on the road, play the music too loud, and get into weird pissing contests with other drivers. I get the crappy food and music, but I don't know why that last one happens.

Part of it must be a deep-rooted sense of injustice. I think: Aggressive drivers should not be able to push other drivers around! They should be sanctioned or reprimanded, or at the very least be made to understand how their jerky behavior impacts others. Not like I'm some avenging freeway angel or anything--I think I just want to stand up to car bullies. But, that can be dangerous. And when I'm full of soylent green from a truckstop and my synapses feel all bare and ungrounded, I forget. And when I forget, what's really going on (a road trip, not grade-school recess all over again), I slip into outrage too easily. And then I am on the offensive. What a silly spiral.

When I checked into this fancy pants Motel 6, an AARP member (he asked for the discount when he checked in after me) held the door for me and said, "You kept passing me." I chuckled, amiably, I hope. He didn't seem pissed off--but as I walked away, it occurred to me that he might be. Was I an asshole out there to him?  I imagined how I'd've felt if he were any one of the esteemed septuagenarians who have shared their knowledge (or homes) with me in the last year. How mortified would I have been to have accidentally (or, more honestly: unintentionally) been a road ass to Paul J or John W, for example? Ugh. And then, shouldn't everyone be worth the same respect until they've demonstrated that they don't deserve it? Double ugh.

Tomorrow, in any case, I will try to channel Bugs, rather than Daffy. I'll try to have more empathy, if kindness isn't yet possible.



At the zoo-oo-oo / At the zoo-oo-oo



This morning, I got to meet two new species of African vultures and hang out in and around their exhibit at the Phoenix zoo. Their senior keeper is fantastic and will be a great help in the future. Man, I sure hope someone pays me for this job, someday.

For the gallery, click here: Africa via Phoenix