Monthly Archives: March 2013

True Grit and More-Whoreness

The Atlantic had a great article last week on how

American News Consumers Have Gained the World but Lost Their Backyards.

The title pretty much sums it up – the Internet gives us information on everything ever invented, said, created and done everywhere in the world throughout all of known and recorded time, and gives it to us more or less instantly, but it’s at the expense of local knowledge.

My first thought was, “who cares?” My local paper growing up wasn’t exactly known for its Pulitzer-quality journalism, and I can’t say I miss the updates on adolescent artists and mediocre athletes.  There are more important, I’ve often found myself thinking as I open up O Golbo or El Pais or Haaretz or Al Jazeera, more weighty things to worry about in this world than the installation of five-dozen parking meters in downtown Ventura.

But you have to concede Connor Friedersdorff’s point: “As a curious person who enjoys learning about the world, the rich store of readily available information about Cyprus thrills me, but it does very little to help me better fulfill my civic obligations.”

A case in this point: a good friend of mine’s mom was running for city council last year, and I asked him in September what he thought her chances were in the upcoming November election, and he looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “That election was in June. She lost.”

“Huh,” I said, and proceeded to talk about Colombian politics and the Portuguese financial crisis.

Friedersdorff’s article was about journalism and civics, but I think it points to something bigger than that, as well:

Rootlessness and more-whoreness.

Which are symptoms of the same affliction.

During a work breakfast last week, I heard John Krist, a longtime journalist and current CEO of the Farm Bureau, give an update on the state of agriculture in Ventura County. There was some milestone news, as the County dipped under 100,000 acres of farmland for the first time in agricultural history; some good news, as prices for major crops (lemons, berries, greens) rose for the third consecutive year; and a whole bunch of depressing news about drought and soil quality and labor shortages and parasites and increased regulations.

Krist brought his prodigious storytelling ability to bear on his presentation, and I was so captivated by the way he talked about “his growers” and “our agricultural history” and “our responsibility to the land” that I felt by the end like we were descendants of the Trasks and Hamiltons, engaged in an epic battle not for land but for the identity of our little corner of the world and the survival of its legacy.

My blood was stirred.

Tom McGuane said in Some Horses that he was determined not to be “one of those writers with soft hands.”

My best friend growing up moved out to an avocado and citrus ranch when we were in eighth grade, and it changed his life. He determined to become a farmer, but I mostly treated his new ranch as my big giant playground. The romance and importance of agriculture wasn’t completely lost on me, but I was much more interested in the surfing/beachtown aspects of my hometown than its agricultural history.

Still, I am a son of the West, and I’ve always been drawn to the Steinbecks and the Londons and the McGuanes of the American literary landscape, and one of the abandoned narrative strands of my novel was from the pov of an avocado farmer, so this resurgence of interest in ag during Krist’s lecture wasn’t exactly out of character.

But coupled with that Atlantic piece, it really made me think. In particular, Krist’s comments about how he spends his days talking to farmers – “that’s what I do, is talk to people,” he said – caused me to daydream about all these farmers’ lives, how interesting their challenges and failures and successes are, what great stories their lives could make. And I thought, you know, I’m missing all this. I care more about Cyprus and Panama and Myanmar and South Africa than I do about where I come from and where I live.

I’m so busy longing for the romance of St. Petersburg and the Loire Valley that I’m overlooking the real human drama of Sherman Oaks and Ventura County.

Jack London was “a better man than any of us,”
says Frank Miller in
Raymond Carver’s “Where I’m Calling From.”

And then I thought, no, that’s not entirely true. I try to care about those other, foreign places more, I pretend to care, I think it’s more important that I care about them.

That last’s the thing.

Thinking that something is more interesting simply because it’s happening somewhere else has been the story of my life. It’s led me to travel to some pretty amazing places and do some pretty fun things and meet some really great people, but it’s also been the cornerstone of my discontent.

And I think my discontent is no uncommon thing, but rather a symptom of an underlying national condition. I think our – “our” being “us Americans'” – obsession with information and preference for international news over the local stuff (except for those scensters who are überlocal) is part and parcel of our more-whoreness, our willingness to do anything, sacrifice anything, up to and including our peace of mind, for more. More info. More cool. More interest. More weight. More meaning. More beauty. More money. More history. More books. More respect (read: fame).

I’ve realized for quite some time that I can either long for something I’m unlikely to experience and that, were I to actually experience it, would very likely be far from what I’d built up and expected, or I can look for the interest and (dare I say) wonder in what’s going on in my backyard.

But that’s not always so easy to practice.

“If you’re in trouble, or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.”
Said Steinbeck this one time.

I’ve been fed that more-whoreness from a Matrix-like feeding tube for so many years I don’t even recognize it as contagion. Of course I want something different and more interesting and more exciting that costs more money and that’s gonna give me more satisfaction. I’m American, goddamnit, I deserve the best. I’m also hopelessly romantic and relatively privileged, which has all but done away with any semblance of the true grit that used to go along with American exceptionalism and compensate for the arrogance of that good ole I-want-it-I’ma-take-it-ism.

So what do you do?

Bring the focus in from an epic sweeping shot of the world to something a little closer. Not quite as close as the navel – though lord knows I gaze at that often enough (in these pages no less!) – but maybe down to street view.

And as in writing, so in life.

I’ve had some big life changes recently (more on it next time, les prometo) and have been able to put in a lot of hours at the writing desk and those two things remind me to quit dreaming ridiculous dreams and realize that I’m living a pretty amazing life and that I already have everything I need.

That not only am I finding the roots I have, but growing new ones.

That I AM DOING what I always wanted to do.

That it’s enough.

And that enough is the new  black.


What’s your local scene?

How do you balance staying-local-growing-roots and your desire for EVERYTHING-IN-THE-WORLD-AT-ONCE?  


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Channel That

I was driving back to my quiet little seaside hometown the other day, and I caught myself thinking, “phew, that was a crazy six weeks,” as if they were a period in my life that had ended and I was heading back to a quiet little seaside life.


But no, those crazy six weeks are my life now.

Two things about this:

One – it’s not that crazy.

Two – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To qualify Two: sure, if I could have book contracts instead of an 8-5 and a place in Malibu and a pied-à-terre in NYC and another in Milan with toilets made out of solid gold instead of a two-bedroom apartment in the San Fernando Valley, I’d probably go ahead and have it that way, but let’s be reasonable.

And as far as One goes, I don’t really want to complain because I’m not working multiple jobs, I’m not broke, I’m not a single mom, I’m not at all lonely, I’m not unhealthy-and-uninsured, I’m not disenfranchised or powerless or oppressed or any of those those legitimately difficult things so many people deal with everyday – most of whom do so with much more equanimity and grace than I muster in the face of, say, two long workdays back-to-back.

That being said, this is my life and these things are my parameters and within that and those, I’m feeling a little stressed out.

I’m a (secular) Buddhist and someone who’s trying to live a quieter and more conscious life, both of which counsel gratitude and perspective, so I work on those things when and how I can – and believe me, I know how much I have to be glad about and grateful for – and I try to reverse or at least slow the entropic tendency of my life and mind and universe.


You should sit in meditation twenty minutes every day,
unless you’re too busy.
Then you should sit for an hour.

But I’m also a writer, and at the risk of sounding trite, I think writers thrive on neurosis and chaos and, as my friend Laura Bassett put it, “strife and uneasiness.”

This also needs a qualification – writers’ characters thrive on neurosis. And that’s a distinction many authors fail to make and/or maintain.

About a decade ago, I was talking with Stephen Railton about American authors’ propensity for debauchery, dissipation and just general bad behavior – in particular, we were talking about Faulkner’s tenure at UVa and how rumor had it that any night of the week, you could find the man drunk somewhere in Albermarle County – and Prof. Railton said, “it makes you wonder, do you have to be that fucked up to make good literature?”

He didn’t mean intoxicated-fucked-up – which they got, plenty, but with how hard those dissolute men worked and the quality of what they produced, you hardly call them lushes – so much as maladjusted-fucked-up. But I certainly equated one with the other while kind of just hoping (okay okay assuming, arrogant bastard that I was) that the quality work would come without the hard work.

But it turns out I’m not interested in staying intoxicated for forty fifty sixty years while I try to write, and now that I’m, let’s say, less concerned with intoxication than I used to be, two things have happened: I’m less interested in maladjustment, and the work is getting better.

One last qualification, this one on “less interested.” I’m less interested in being maladjusted, but more interested in investigating maladjustment and using maladjustment. Which is what brings me to the crux of this post/thought:

How do you stand close to the (ring of?chaos fire without getting burned?

It’s like that Modest Mouse song, “Bukowski,” where Isaac Brock is saying that “…every night turns out to be a little bit more like Bukowski and yeah, I know, he’s a pretty good read, but God, who’d wanna be…such an asshole?”


The simple answer is



Put it to good use.

See it, watch it, breathe it in, but stay on that jetty while the storm is surging.

And yeah, sure, that’s what I try to do, but how that actually works, how you take the stress of moving to a new town and commuting longer and finding new friends and maintaining old friendships and starting a blog and navigating the crazystupid world of social networking and finishing a novel and trying to sell stories and working out and reading and cooking and foodshopping and doing my taxes (jesus I need to do my taxes!) and meditating and doing the other things I do on top of generally freaking out about the state of the state nation world not to even mention my place in the fucking COSmos at large – how you take that stuff, and instead of letting it bowl you over, jiu-jistu that shit into a character and let that character do something decently productive with it, is what I’m interested in.

Which I guess is what the process is all about. Which is why it takes forever, I guess, and why there’s no guarantee it’ll work well or at all.

Which is why Faulkner said The Sound and the Fury was a failure.*

Zulfikar Ghose was talking about this the other night when I went and saw him at the Fowles Center.** Not about Faulkner, but that the main motivation to write is – HAS TO BE – the simple desire to create something that didn’t exist before, to convey some sense about the world as precisely as we can. “We simply create, and we see what happens.” All method or whatever else people read into creative work after the fact is secondary.

Like with everything, just do the work. Don’t worry about how you’re going to do it, just do it. Worry about how you did it and what it means later. If you worry about that at all.

But the question remains:

How do you separate layer upon layer of life’s crazy-ass chaff from that sweet, sweet wheat?

Yeah, I mean you.

Whether you’re creative or not, it doesn’t matter – we all de-stress and refocus somehow.

So tell me – how do you keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs?

Hopper pretty much was a pair of ragged claws
scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

*Saideth Faulkner: “[The Sound and the Fury] began with the picture of the little girl’s muddy drawers, climbing that tree to look in the parlor window with her brothers that didn’t have the courage to climb the tree waiting to see what she saw. And I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed, and I tried myself, the fourth section, to tell what happened, and I still failed.”     – from the UVA Faulkner treasure trove 

** Karen Tei Yamashita is coming! Karen Tei Yamashita is coming! April 15th. You should totally be there. (I know I know, the flyer on the site says April 22 but it’s wrong.)

Hat tip to the badass HuffPoQuill-wielding

Laura Bassett for giving me the advice, title, and general notion for this post.

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Motivate This

I had some bad news the other day.

Well, “bad” is a little dramatic, it was more like kind-of-disappointing news.

I applied to this fellowship last fall and found out last Wednesday I didn’t get it. I didn’t realize until I got the email how much I’d been looking forward to it – counting on it, really. And while it’s a good lesson in not putting too many eggs in one basket, and not counting the chickens that may hatch outta those eggs before they actually do so, and managing expectations and yadda yadda yadda, it still bummed me out.

You have two choices when faced with rejection and disappointment, right – you can bitch and moan and feel sorry for yourself, or you can dig in and redouble your efforts. And of course I sat in the former for a few hours, spiraling down into despair and what’s-the-point-anyway-I-knew-I-sucked-at-this-to-begin-with-fuckit. But then I went ahead and moved into the latter and wrote wrote wrote too far into the night too many nights in a row, and reorganized my approach to submitting stories, and tried to figure out how I can squeeze a few more hours of writing out of the week. I was determined to not be dissuaded.

But it was my girlfriend who really turned my headspace around, and talked to me about not just avoiding the blues, but actively using rejection as motivation.

Erin’s a contrarian, in the very best sense of the term.‡ While she has great faith in the basic goodness of people, she also thinks in general they’re pretty dumb, and thinks that just because something is generally held in high esteem doesn’t automatically mean it’s estimable. In fact, she’s suspicious of general renown as a sign that people aren’t thinking very clearly – that is to say, independently – about whatever it is they all think is so great. Once her mind’s made up that something’s worthy of her respect, her devotion and loyalty are second to none and she defends her tastes fiercely, but her initial response to most things is a healthy dose of skepticism.

Thus, her attitude towards said fellowship was, “You know what? Fuck those people.”

UVa after the fire.
Not where I didn’t get the fellowship from.

“Sure, everyone says that ______ is a great and fancy place, but so what? What do you actually know about that program? It could totally suck. At the very least it’s not going to automatically make you a good or a better or a successful writer. How many people who’ve gotten this fellowship go on to be famous authors? Or even writers who just make a living writing?”

When I told her I didn’t recognize more than half a dozen of the illustrious institution’s 60+ years worth of alumni, she said, “See? And think how many more amazing writers that you do know and who do make a living writing applied and didn’t go there.

“And you know what else?” she went on, “most of them were probably pissed off, too. And they probably used that as motivation, and years later were like, ‘Oh hi, remember when you didn’t like my writing? Well here’s my Booker Prize, how do you like that shit?'”

And she went on in that vein until I was fired up enough to fight Mike Tyson.*


A couple things that Erin brought up have stuck with me, and I wanted to write about them and maybe even get your thoughts on them.

Erin is from Long Island. She grew up on New York gangsta rap, and like the several million people who also grew up on hip-hop in and around the NY metro area (and plenty who didn’t), she loves Jay-Z.

And Jay-Z, in the off-off-off chance you didn’t know, didn’t exactly have doors thrown open to him or opportunities handed to him. He built doors and made opportunities, and built his reputation on being the kind of man that did that, and built songs on rhymes about how haters gonna hate but ain’t gonna stop him taking over the world (I paraphrase).

And now that he’s one of the baddest badasses on the planet and kind of has taken over, he raps about how fucking good it feels to show up all those doubters and haters. Because he didn’t get or need anyone’s permission and because he did it his way (he even covered that Anka song made famous by Sinatra to make his point).

That’s the kind of thing that Erin turns to for inspiration. Stuff like:

When Drake says, “thanks to all the haters / I know G4 pilots on a first name basis” and “everyone who doubted me is asking for forgiveness” and “point the biggest skeptic out, I’ll make him a believer.”

Or when Jay says, “When I was born, it was sworn, I was never gon’ be shit / Had to pull the opposite out this bitch.”

Or when Lil’Wayne says, “confidence is a stain they can’t wipe off.” (Or whenever he’s talking about being a Martian and getting back to his spaceship – Erin loves Martians.)

It’s how her parents raised her – you can do whatever you want, rules and especially ceilings (glass or otherwise) are made to be broken, “No” is not an acceptable answer, you don’t need the world’s permission or its trappings or its clubs† to succeed – and she took it to heart and applies that ethos every day.

And this was the language she used to tell me, “You don’t need them anyway.”

and “This will make you work harder.”

and “Rejection is good for the soul.”


I might not be quite as hardcore as Erin is (and I don’t really want to be a Martian), but I also grew up on the music of men who said – and even screamed, sometimes – a nice round “fuck you” to whoever was purporting to stand in their way: Rancid.


Tim Armstrong especially embodied for me a kind of modern-day Jack Kerouac/Johnny Cash/Walt Whitman type of concrete-jungle roustabouting troubadour. I wanted his itinerant life and I wanted to experience as much as he had to and understand the world as well as he did. Rancid saw through everything that I thought was wrong with the world, and taught me about a whole slate of other wrong things I had no idea about. Bradley Nowell said that he knew what he knew “because of KRS-One,” and that’s how I felt about Rancid for a long, long time. And one of the biggest things they saw wrong with the world was this idea people had about them that they were trash because of where they came from – the broken down and abandoned East Bay.

Tim doin an acoustic ‘East Bay Night’

This doesn’t map onto my experience exactly – Ventura’s hardly the Richmond Annex – but it struck a chord. I wanted to be something more than what I saw around me, and I needed that drive to have a chip on its shoulder:

“You don’t want me? Then I don’t need you.”

I felt this way for years as a kid, and I felt that way in college, and I felt that way in New York, and I felt that way in grad school, and I still feel that way in a lot of situations. It’s a defense mechanism, obviously, and sometimes it’s detrimental, sure. But a mentor of mine said, when I told him about the fellowship, “Aw, you’re upset – how cute that you’re still not old enough to understand that life is one long succession of disappointments,” and I figure shit, maybe a little defense is necessary every once in a while.

That attitude and that feeling is what I go back to, too, and why I’ve spent the last week balling down the 101 blasting Life Won’t Wait on repeat.

But, as much as it’s important to me to bare down and go my own way, and as much as writing is a solitary pursuit, it’s important to remember that I can’t and don’t do it all on my own.


Jay-Z and Tim Armstrong spent their lives taking a very strong stance against a lot of things and people and groups and cultures and even society as a whole, but they also stood with people and relied on (and some would argue helped create) subcultures and local societies. I can’t really speak to the crews that Shawn Carter leaned on to survive the Marcy projects and make it out of Bed-Stuy to become the Jay-Z he is today, but I do know that the punk subculture can be a very supportive subculture indeed.

Nevermind that I didn’t have the same experiences or the same reasons to feel the way Tim Lars Matt Brett and a whole subculture of disaffected punks did. Fact is I did feel lonely, disconnected, castaway in the same way Tim wrote about, and I did connect to punk rock.

Rancid and a handful of other punk bands – Bad Religion, Bad Brains, Black Flag, to name a few at the start of the alphabet – were the soundtrack to my lonely teenage angst, and both fueled the fires of loneliness and soothed the burns from them, gave me solace for not having a crew of my choosing and perpetuated my desire to break free of those imposed upon me.

But I never joined the subculture, never did much of anything but stew in my disconnection and disaffection, blaring Let’s Go! on the tapedeck of my Dad’s pickup as I schlepped from workout to school to workout, wondering what the hell was going on in my life and in the world.

I took part in a lot of things as a kid – sports, mostly – and while I participated in those communities that I was given, internally I disdained them. On the other hand, I didn’t belong in the punk scene, or the surf scene or the stoner scene or the jock scene or whatever other scenes I danced around the edges of. I came to think of myself as an outsider, and tried to embrace that stance as a free spirit, a wild child (full of grace, savior of the human race) that couldn’t be constrained by the people and the structures imposed on me.

But in reality, I took a lot of strength from them and did really well within them, and once the structure and the communities fell away, I floundered. Big time.

So I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do now that a pre-packaged community of writers I was counting on with that fellowship won’t be handed to me. And I realized that I have no idea how to do this. I’ve never done it before. I had one friend growing up, really. Then college and a college sports team, then grad school. I never saw a group of people and, thinking “I want to be a part of that,” went and made myself a part of it. I thought that plenty of times – more times than I can count, for sure – but never did anything about it. So when I think about finding a group to be a part of, it’s sort of baffling and extremely intimidating.

“The internet, idiot!” people have said to me, as I imagine you’re thinking now.

But there’s just way too much. There are something like three dozen fiction writers meet up groups in the SFV on that one meetup-dot-com site and I haven’t even tried looking in actual LA-LA yet. So I’m going to start wandering around bookstores and going to nerdy booky writery events and do the exact opposite of what I like to do, namely stick my hand out and talk to random people and say, “Hi, I’m a writer. Let’s do something together.”

This is the story of my childhood.
I mean, it never snowed in SoCal, but still, this is it.

The whole idea makes my skin crawl. It makes me feel like a kid on the edge of the sandbox, dying to jump in and Tonka-truck it up but incapable of moving a muscle.

I’m gonna try to stop looking at life like a seven-year-old, and instead go boldly forth with the idea that if I pursue or maybe even create a version of the kind of society I think I want, then maybe I’ll actually have a crew of like-minded individuals facing the same trials and tribulations and striving to do the same kinds of things.

I oughta quit now before this descends any further into a full-blown Stuart Smalley mirror session.

Who or what inspires and motivates you?

Who do you read / listen to / turn to when you need to brush your shoulders off?

Who’s in your community? How did you find it? How do you contribute to it?


‡I know not everyone thinks that ‘contrarian’ has any good senses at all, let alone a ‘very best sense’ as I say about it above, but in my lexical compendium it’s a synonym for “[one who is] awake,” and like Tina Fey quotes Amy Poehler in Bossypants as saying, “I don’t fucking care if you don’t like it.”

*That’s a figure of speech. I never was in a fistfight, not once ever, I’m not that punk, okay? And besides what am I, an idiot? I wouldn’t fight Tyson.

† My friend Unk sees the world (the business world, at least) as a collection of frats being all fratty at the big gigantic frat party that is life – and has about as much respect for the whole thing as you’d expect. I’ve got a whole post waiting in the wings of my mind about this so stay tuned and follow At The Wellhead and sign up for alerts!

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Elephants! Elephants! Elephants!

If you like elephants, you’ll be happy to know that the Thai government has

officially pledged to end the ivory trade within its borders.

Manah, being coy outside Huay Pakoot

This is great news (provided this legislative process gets carried out and leads to effective laws), because Thailand has been for quite some time one of the largest world markets for ivory, including African ivory, for which, because their tusks are larger, many more African elephants are slaughtered (and their babies culled and sold) than Asian elephants. Under current laws, limited ivory trading is not illegal, but it is, at least in spirit, heavily regulated to small quantities at a time. There is no regulation, however, on the trade of ivory for religious or traditional purposes, meaning that in practice, you can ship however many tons of ivory you want so long as you slap a label on it that says, for instance, “For Monastery.” This is known as the “Thai Loophole,” and it aids and abets the poaching of elephants all over central and southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

But while this latest decree may be cause for cautious optimism, it hardly spells the end of the trials facing the world’s biggest pachyderm.

Elephants in Thailand are still tortured and sold on the open market every day.

And nowadays, it’s primarily done for the edification of Western tourists. Babies are brought in from Burma/Myanmar and other points north, and sold to private collectors and zoos all over the world, and to tourist camps all over Southeast Asia.

A brief history lesson.

“People,” or some approximation thereof, have been in the area of the world that is now called Thailand for roughly 40,000 years. When in course of hominid events homo sapiens first teamed up with the Elephantidae family (as opposed to strictly hunting them, as our various homo relatives did) is unknown, but guesses range from 10,000 to as far back as 30,000 years, i.e., ever since humans figured out how to develop tools (stone, back then) that would allow them to employ such massive animals for transportation, construction and agricultural uses.

See? Super mythical.

Which is what elephants were always used for, and have always been, to the present day. There’s a saying in Thai (or so I’m told, as I don’t speak it) that “Thailand was built on the back of the elephant,” and indeed Thai culture and the elephant seem inextricably linked. Thai in general are extremely proud of their history and they believe that the elephant was instrumental in creating and sustaining that history, and they pay the image of the elephant due homage in their historical and spiritual myths.

The actual elephant, however, has always just been treated like a big ole ox. 

In fact, under the law, they might as well be. They’re officially categorized as livestock, meaning the same regulations apply to them as to cattle and pigs and chickens. And oxen.

But they’re not run-of-the-mill livestock. They’re incredibly intelligent and emotionally advanced, and probably because of this, they suffer greatly the vagaries of captivity. Those are probably also the reasons people like them so much and feel, after even the briefest interaction with them, a close bond.

And what “captivity” entails these days can be misleading. 

By 1986, Asian elephants were on the IUCN’s red or “endangered” list, meaning 5% or less of their “original” population (since when people started counting them) is left. After the Thai logging industry was dissolved and outlawed in 1989, what was left of them – which still amounted to tens of thousands of elephants – were suddenly out of work. Over the previous century, their natural habitat had been destroyed by about 90%, so it wasn’t as if they could just be turned out to pasture. Many owners, unsure what to do with their elephants and unable to support their voracious appetites, either killed their elephants or let them become strays.

At the same time, Western tourism to Thailand was really starting to pick up (which was likely one of the reasons the country both felt pressure and could afford to “do the right thing” and outlaw logging). Thai elephant owners saw an opportunity to give Westerners that up-close-and-personal experience that so many of them were willing to pay quite handsomely for, so they built camps, taught their intelligent and quick-study elephants some tricks, and elephant tourism was born.

Nowadays, the vast majority of elephants in Thailand live and work in tourist camps all over the country, many of which, in response to market demands, have done away with their hoops of fire and soccer balls and claim to be “sanctuaries” or “eco-tourism” spots that offer “natural elephant experiences.” These places run the gamut from horrible-horrible conditions to pretty darn nice ones, and while they’re probably better off here than wandering the streets, the fundamental conditions that comprise their captivity are extraordinarily unnatural.

Elephants are nomadic and prefer to have hundreds of miles in which to roam around, and instead are kept in corrals and stalls and enclosures ranging from a few feet to a few acres. Elephants have complex nutritional needs and will eat and self-medicate from a variety of more than 100 different plants, whereas they usually get grain and, if they’re lucky, fruit in the camps.

Worst of all, though, they all go through what is known as phajaan, or “The Crush.”

The Crush is a process of breaking an elephant that goes back thousands of years. In short, a baby elephant is taken from its mother, crammed into a tight shoot that inhibits movement, and tortured until its spirit is completely broken.

And when I say “tortured,” I mean poked, prodded, cut, burned, beaten. I mean red-hot pokers inserted into the flesh, into the soles of the foot, into the ears and nostrils and mouth. I mean beating and starvation and dehydration that lasts for days on end, that takes a baby elephant to the brink of death.

I mean this:

Phajaan – The Crush – in all its glory.
(Not my pic)

And this:

Nat Geo video.
(Not my pic)

And this: video and links to more.
(Not my pic)

It ain’t pretty, and every single elephant in captivity has gone through it. Even those at the lushest, nicest, most beautiful and clean and relaxing and pleasing-to-look-and-be-at elephant eco-sanctuaries.

It’s a practice that’s complicated by culture. It offends our (or at least my) sensitive modern Western sensibilities, but it’s considered a necessary and not by any means evil practice in Thailand that goes back probably to the very inception of our domestication of elephants – ten thousand plus years.  How else, the logic goes, are you going to get an animal that will grow to 5,000 pounds to respect you, unless you break it first?

The answer from animal behaviorists in the West is, “Simple! Positive reinforcement! We’ve been using it for years on animals as big as horses!” To which Thai mahouts – elephant handlers – shake their collective heads and go back to making sure their elephants don’t kill any tourists, using the only tools they know how to use:

This is a bullhook.
(Not mine.)

My girlfriend and I were such tourists just a couple months ago. We spent the week around New Years at the GVI (Global Vision International) Thailand Elephant project in Huay Pakoot, which is between four and ten hours (depending on Thai traffic and the reliability of your particular Thai vehicle) north of Chiang Mai. It was great, you should go, the people are wonderful, it’s gorgeous.

What makes GVI a little different than the vast majority of elephant tourism spots is that their mission is to get elephants out of tourist camps and back into a semi-natural life.

This might sound easy enough, but in practice it is hard to do.

Elephants in tourist camps make their owners money. Huay Pakoot, where we were put up by a family in their spare room, is comprised of about 80 families, mostly all of whom are members of the Karen tribe, one of the six Hill Tribe peoples flung out across northern Thailand and Burma/Myanmar. Between those 80 families, the villagers of Huay Pakoot own 60 elephants. Up until three years ago, when GVI started the program there, all of those elephants were working in tourist camps, making their owners pretty decent money – for some of them, that’s the only income they have, and all the income they really have the opportunity to make. The challenge facing GVI is to make it economically feasible for people to bring their elephants back and not lose much if any money. GVI does this by charging people for the pleasure of staying in the village and participating in the daily routine maintenance of the elephant rehabilitation program.

Huay Pakoot1

View from host family’s house — Erin saying hello — Public school

And what a pleasure it is. Really and truly.

That maintenance includes health checks and behavior observation. Basically, you hike out to wherever the elephants are, watch them for a couple hours and head back. Health checks are the only opportunity you get to get close to them – you check in their ears, look into their (big brown beautiful) eyes, look at their feet and toenails, poke at their poop (with a stick, mind) – and otherwise they’re just trying to live a relatively carefree life. They have several hundred acres to roam around in, and they have access to as many different kinds of forage food they need.

It’s an experiment in alternate, responsible elephant tourism, a totally different kind of sustainability. They’ve managed to bring five elephants back so far, and have started a community-run version/branch that has brought two others back, as well.

And it’s great. And I hope it catches on.

But according to the GVI staff members, there are only six – SIX! – places in all of Thailand that are doing this kind of responsible alternative elephant tourism.

And only one – ONE! – woman who is actually attempting to raise baby elephants from birth in semi-captivity using positive reinforcement. This woman, Sangduen Chailert, called Lek, is the only Thai voice speaking out above a whisper against phajaan and calling for a new paradigm in the treatment and training of elephants. As a woman in a male-dominated industry in a rather conservative culture, she faces a ton of criticism for calling into question a tradition that is centuries, perhaps millenia, old. The only reason this criticism isn’t sharper or more dangerous than it is is because a huge number of her would-be criticizers simply dismiss her – and the idea that these massive animals can be trusted is they’re not broken – out of hand.

Mario (the Italo-Thai baby) and his mom, slacking their thirst.

Elephants grow even slower than humans, their gestation is 22 months (!) and they don’t reach physical maturity until their early twenties. Everything is big about them, including their mood swings, and males especially can be extremely volatile in their periods of musth, even after having gone through phajaan. So the jury on how an elephant reacts to positive reinforcement training will be out for at least a couple decades, even on the small handful of elephants Lek is currently training that way, let alone on a large enough sample of elephants to convince old school, traditional mahouts that it’s an acceptable way to keep an elephant docile enough to interact with humans.

Of course, the obvious answer is inherent in that last sentence – keep humans and elephants separated. Maybe we’ve outgrown our partnership. Or at least the kind of hierarchical partnership we used to have.

But that’s not really realistic. People want their pics with elephants, and want to ride elephants, and want to bathe them and feed them and pet them. I get it.

And not everyone has the time to spend a week or two or four in some remote sanctuary, or the interest or the money to do so. I totally get that, too.

But if you’re thinking about going to Thailand, and thinking about seeing some elephants there, think about doing it in a responsible way. While it may be too late to save any of the elephants you’re likely to see from having gone through phajaan, every dollar or baht you spend at a tourist camp keeps that practice going in the future, and every dollar or baht you spend at a real, legitimate sanctuary helps move the industry – butterfly wingflap by butterfly wingflap – towards responsible sustainability.

Babies frolicking in the wild.
(They do that in Huay Pakoot thanks to GVI)

Plus, it helps spread the word. I had no idea this action went on until I started looking into last summer before we went to Thailand, and not a clue about its gnarly extent until we were there learning about all this action, passing tourist camps on the beach and then living amongst people who were trying to change things.

And you can get the word out even if you never go to Thailand. Read up and share what you learn.

If you have any questions or comments, write ’em down here or email me. 

(cuz he’s rad)