Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Horns-a plenty

This piece on my elk battle was originally published in Reader's Digest in 2001. However, I am going back to do another residency at Banff this September 2016  so I am blogging it.  I think it is worth republishing since there is never enough known about rutting. 


I’ve never been a good student.  Whatever is happening in the front of the class usually fails to captivate my attention.    On the plane I’m the type that never listens to the disaster routine that the stewardess regurgitates about all the different ways you could die and the heroic ways the person at the emergency exit could save you. Instead I read the En Route magazine and wait for the drinks trolley.
True to form at the orientation lecture at the Banff School for the Arts, high in the Alberta Rockies, where I’d gone to take a mystery writing course,  I tuned out the forest ranger who dressed like a Canadian Mountie in a pointed hat and high boots.  Instead I checked out the anthropological differences between the mystery writers and the poetry writers. The Elmore Leonard wannnabes were muscular, smoked filter less cigarettes, wore tight black pants, had short spiky hair and red lipstick. The poetry writers were wan with Botticelli hair, wore wire rimmed glasses, ironed blouses (where did they find them), baggy pants, and no  makeup.  The New York writer beside me was also happy to ignore the lecture on “The Emergency Measures in the Event of a Bear or Elk attack” and regale me with her mystery plot about  a lap dancer who kills men with pelvic thrusts. 

Instead of listening to the content of the lecture we focused on the form.  As this giant blonde Albertan told us about the annual rutting of the elk, the New Yorker said she wouldn’t mind mounting the Mountie, or locking horns with that Nelson Eddy of the new millennium.  She said she had a weakness for men who wore pointed hats and tagged horns.
As those around us diligently wrote down what to do when faced with an elk, of course those in the poetry section used fountain pens, we giggled uncontrollably saying that for sure these guys had seen one too many episodes of wild kingdom.  We agreed that men in charge had to have a “Beware Schtick”.  It’s part of “the territorial imperative”. Translated it means, “Hey man, we are in the know. This is our turf.”  In New York it’s Central park at night and taking a cab to Harlem and here in Alberta it’s bear and elk.  Men are here to tell you what’s dangerous and the women are here to be scared.  But as the New Yorker said, it had its appeal. She said it got to “the inner gatherer” in her.  I agreed they didn’t make those coonskin Davy Crocket caps for nothing. It’s all part of the collective unconscious.  
She found elk a tad more frightening than I did for all I could imagine were those guys who called themselves benevolent, wore Wall Mart suits had flushed faces and  folded their arms across  their chests and then flapped their hands in greeting to one another.  I think they had a secret handshake and horns on their hats. (Wasn’t the father on Happy Days an Elk?) Actually they are sort of scary when you think about it.  Would you rather run onto a two or a four- legged elk in the forest?      

The muscular Mountie, or as the woman from Vancouver in my class referred to him as the “I’m Game Warden”, earnestly regaled us with how important elk horns have become to the Alberta economy. According to studies at the University of Alberta, testosterone  increases at least fivefold when men take ground up  E.V.A., or Elk Velvet Antler for the initiated. Women may take it as well since it does not increase testosterone, but only enhances oestrogen. I guess that means they don’t grow horns. One can only imagine what women do with more oestrogen: freeze more casseroles, laugh harder at men’s jokes, begin to find Tom Jones even more  attractive, buy a Victoria’s Secret preferred customer card?
 I always wondered why all those elk and deer horns were such a big deal. I don’t know why people scoff at Freud when what he says about sexual motivation seems to be fool-proof.  I should have known when even our bicycle courier at work wears one of those silly hats with turquoise felt elk horns sprouting from the crown that sex, in the form of male virility, was behind the whole thing.  People that live in the Rockies have elk horns mounted on the front of  their car grills  the same way the MTV’s on the east coast  have Black fly bug screens.  Over every fireplace the doe-eyed elk follows your gaze and no matter from what angle you look at him, he appears to be gazing back at you, silently begging you to get over this dorky velvet horn thing and get him down off the wall.
The next morning I was leaving my forest cabin and lo and behold there were three giant elk that had to weigh around 1000 lbs. and have a five-foot antler span.   I decided even though they were blocking the way I’d just motor between them.  However, as I stepped forward they closed rank.  I inched ahead.  One began scraping his hoof on the pine needled forest floor.  I wondered what that meant.  I thought it had a Hemingway ring of   “I’m ready to take you on little lady since these Rockies are my turf.”  It was one of those classic I’m charging numbers. At least that’s what bulls in the cartoons used to do when smoke came out of their noses and ears.  Weren’t all those horny quadrupeds in the same genus if not same species?  One lowered his head so his antlers were parallel to the ground and, more importantly, perpendicular to my heart. 

I racked my brain. ( As opposed to the elk who had a rack on his brain).  Now what had that Mountie told us to do?  I hadn’t listened--story of my life. There was something about a phone number.  I backed into the door and checked the automatic dial . There it was – “elk  911". I pressed the number and my adrenalin stopped pumping as the familiar voice of our favourite Game Warden said ,  “Elk 911.  How may I help you?”  I explained my situation. “Oh that’s our old boy Donnie.  He’s kickin’ up his heels for the spring calving.  Just likes to show off for the girls. You should see him in rutting season. He really goes to town.”  After explaining that I was an angry, hungry and trapped Homo Sapien, he suggested I should hold up a large broom on the top of my head and then I should balance a hat on top of that and walk out and face the elk.  In turn, the elk, would think I had a large rack, become intimidated and would disperse.   Fearing that the kind warden was retaliating for our rude behaviour at orientation night, I enquired  “Are you serious?” In a tone of one who had dealt with the doubting Thomas from the East on more than one occasion he said,  “Trust me”.
What were my options? I held the broom handle on top of my head with a blue jays cap precariously balanced on the top of the pole and stomped out on the front porch and strode confidently, far more confidently than a I felt, down the porch stairs. Now I know elk aren’t rocket scientists, never having grazed in the Harvard yard, but were they dumb enough to fall for this? If an elk came out of the forest with a pen and pencil, even though I’m blonde, I am quite sure I would not have mistaken him for a writer.  

But lo and behold the elk took one look at my new horns and tore away as though my rack compared to no other.  I had an antler span of well over five feet and they knew it.  Take that you velvet antlered single digit I.Q’d cowards.   I confidently strode down the forest path and past a large group of music students from England who were on their way to breakfast.  Naturally I looked a bit odd so I explained to the gaggle that I had to balance a broom stick on my head with a baseball cap swinging from the top of that to ward off  the elk that were following me.  However, when I looked around there were no elk.   They had run off into the mountains. Being English  they said they understood perfectly, and quickly excused themselves and rushed ahead. 
Thinking I had put elk behind me, I went to class to begin an exercise in researching for accuracy in plot details.  Our teacher suggested we work in pairs. My partner was a writer from Calgary who is currently writing a mystery story set  in Banff  with elk  as the main focus.  I wondered what kind of messuages was this?  Who was the detective-- Bullwinkle? She patiently explained that the killer   makes his murders appear  to have been perpetrated by an elk gone wild.   Sensing my scepticism, the elk- murder- writer told our group that there have been a plethora of human elk conflicts. In fact it was pointed out in Research Links, the Parks Canada periodical, that there were seventy-five incidents reported in Banff alone in 1991 up from three in 1987. The most current statistics suggest that the fatalities have now doubled.  Last year a Japanese tourist was actually impaled while taking a picture outside of the Banff Springs Hotel.         The elk murder woman asked me If I’d go with her at dawn, to hear the cry of the elk as it looks for it’s mate.  Apparently they make an unearthly cry as though it were their last breath.  She wanted to hear it so she could write about it in her murder description.  I was writing a Freudian Murder mystery--what was I going to do-- take an excursion into her psyche, I petulantly thought as I trooped through the pre-dawn forest on her elk excursion.

Even in April we had to wear full winter gear-- even though by noon you could wear shorts a tee shirt. I guess that’s what they mean by mountain air.  The first night nothing happened, the next nothing.  Now I was getting too tired to write, but Donnie had become my Moby Dick.  I, the Ahab from the east, was determined to find him.  Up again at 5:00 a.m., stalking  and finally we heard the unmistakable bellow.  Elk-mystery-woman was ecstatic. It sounded as though someone was dying, literally being turned inside out.  It sounded primordially eery and somehow gut wrenching, actually perfect as a murder mystery sound. I had to hand it to elk-murder-mystery-woman on the sound score. Was it a cow that had lost her young?  Or the bull looking for someone to make his breakfast and tidy up his horns.    The echo of the mountains threw us off.  We kept losing the sound and finally we came upon it in it’s final desperate heave. There, doubled over a stump retching, was one of the British high school music students.  He looked up green at the gills and said between heaves in a proper British chirp,  “ I seem to be tossing my cookies on my way home from a rather protracted evening”. As an explanation for why we were stalking a drunken teenager at dawn, I offered,  “Sorry, I thought you were an elk.”

Friday, October 2, 2015

Bullying in Montreal

Today I gave a talk about my book, Too Close to the Falls, at a CEJEP  (College) in Montreal, which was populated mostly by students from other countries. The students were very taken by my chapter on bullying called Anthony McDougall.  The gist of the story is in Catholic school in grade four Anthony bullied me and no one would help. I asked my parents for help and they said, turn to the principal. The principal said to pray (didn’t work), my mother said to invite Anthony to lunch and make him a friend (Insane).  Roy, the delivery car driver at my dad’s store, told me to hit Anthony with something sharp when he lease expected it. (worked like a charm). 

I was explaining to the students that in a memoir you have to explain different realities. In the bullying chapter there were three realities: my parents democratic view, the catholic church, and The rough and tumble world of Roy.  Juxtaposing realities is inherently exciting, loaded with inner conflict and is a good technique to use in a memoir.

I then asked the students if they had any conflicting realities they had to juggle.  To open them up I said I assumed they had to keep several balls in the air since their parents were from one culture and Canada had another culture.

A smattering follows of what I was told. I used their voices because they were so succinct.
-- I am from Rwanda. My brother was a child soldier and I had to get away from him by swimming a river.  The rebels killed my parents and now my uncle who was a rebel, lives in Canada.  Thanksgiving does not work at my house.
-- I am from Afghanistan and the Taliban bullied our family and my father was killed in the town square for a reason we never understood. Now in Canada my mother does not ever want me to talk to anyone outside of our family.  That is paranoid so I just don’t tell her I go out with friends who are not relatives.  

When I went to have a  coffee in the school cafeteria after the talk, some students from the class joined me and more stories poured out. These were too personal to say in the full classroom.
--My mother and I were raped in the same room by some Serbian soldiers.  We left the scene silently and never talked about it. When I got to Canada I learned that you were supposed to talk about trauma or bullying. I tried to bring up what happened to us, but my mother hit me and said it never happened. She said if our father knew of it he would leave us. I have to balance the two cultures.  I am learning to do it but it is hard.

 A boy whose father and brother were killed in Afghanistan and who fled to Pakistan alone at 16 said, “War is just bullying on a large scale.”  He said he fantasizes every day about attacking those who killed his relatives.

After an hour of stories I left Montreal feeling that being bullied by a boy who pulled my hair out was fairly minor in the world of ‘bullying’.  One thing I was glad about was that the Anthony McDougall story touched so much within these students that they carry around every day.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Heebie- Geebies


Three years ago I was hit by a hay bailer and had a full body whiplash and a blown out knee.  I got sick of limping and decided to go bionic with a new knee.
I was told that the surgery is only successful if you are aggressive with the physiotherapy.  Every day you build up scar tissue and every day you have to break it down so you don’t get a stiff leg.  It is very painful and you must take these small pink pills for the pain called morphine.
  One guy in our physio class had a history of addictions so he couldn’t take the morphine for the bending and stretching so he regularly screamed and passed out from pain.  As the rest of us walked around him while he lay splayed out cold on the floor, we thanked God that we could take our tiny pink pills.
Being an over achiever in small and unimportant situations, I made really quick progress, so I decided to cut back on the painkillers.  I woke up pre dawn huddled in a corner of my bedroom with severe nausea, vomiting, heart palpitations, sweating and uncontrollable weeping. (The last time I wept was twenty-one years ago when I mistakenly erased my contact list.) This crying was because I felt like every synapse in my brain was on fire. If I tried to think of even the most mundane thing, flames leapt out of that thought and singed whatever idea resided next to it.
 I went back to my surgeon and told him what hell I was going through.  He said casually, “Sounds like the hebbie-jeebies to me.” “What?” I asked. He said, “Don’t you know the signs of morphine withdrawal?”  I said “Who do I look like, Billie Holiday?”  He said, “Who’s he?” 
It is not often an “addiction” to morphine drops in your lap so I gave it careful scrutiny. I, unlike a lot of scientific researchers, had a chance to study the whole phenomenon from the inside out.
 I am a gregarious person. I love meeting new people and getting together with friends.  Yet under the morphine, I had no desire to talk to anyone.  I lost the to and fro of conversation. But more than that, I didn’t care about people at all. People who were my best friends seemed like mere acquaintances. It was as though I was at a cocktail party stuck in a boring conversation and had no way to extricate myself.
Another change was time slowed down. Spontaneity had left through the back door and didn’t carry me through conversations. Now I could see myself at the table with other people and hear all the inane things I said. Socializing for an hour was as much work as being in a one-hour play performance and I would come home and sleep of two hours after any interactions.
Morphine kills your appetite. I read there are no fat morphine addicts. I could munch on a prune, which seemed as big as a turkey to me, for two days before I finished it. I lost 22 pounds over two months. (When I complained to my friend about all I’d been through she said, “You lost 20 pounds and you’re complaining? Shut up!”)
I never worried about the future.  I didn’t even think about my book tour coming up in a month. When I got emails about author events, I thought everyone was being obsessive (a month translated to ten years) and pressed delete.
So morphine had done several things to me. It took away all desire to be with others and I never planned for the future. These were previously two of my most enjoyable activities. I was now in a medically induced solitary confinement. 
I now totally understand why some people would crave Morphine. They may have had toxic parents and then gone on to have unsatisfactory adult relationships. These relationships hurt but we are social animals so they keep going back for more pain.
  On Morphine you are not a social animal.  You really don’t need anyone.  So all the people who used to hurt you are no longer important.  Morphine slammed your social needs door shut and you don’t have to let them hurt you anymore. The best part is you are not lonely.  Suddenly all the pain stops.  
The future for this kind of person, who has troubled relationships, is often limited. They are faced with futures yawning in front of them that are filled with all kinds of woes. Morphine takes care of the problem because there is only the present.
 The two things that tortured them, relationships and the future, are gone. And the divine part of it all is that you don’t miss any of it.
I have no desire to stay on this drug now that the pain in my knee has subsided.  I look forward to wanting to be with people again and getting back to planning my future. It is not that I am not an “addictive personality”; it is that I don’t need or even want the few qualities that morphine offers me. It was a bad fit.
One person’s high is another person’s downer depending on need. If they had a pill that would trim my troubles I’d be the first addict lined up to mainline it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


When you travel, a lot funny things happen on airplanes. We are all crammed together and you get a chance to see the dynamics of other families minus their ‘indoor voices’ and in public manners. Airlines are so annoying now and air travel has been so stripped of its former glamour (I remember in the 50’s my mother bought an outfit for the plane.) that people are not on their best behaviour. All the indignities of taking your shoes and belts off and your belongings rifled through, and the snaking lineups, slowly strip away the defenses you usually keep reserve for public decorum known as civilized behaviour.
Last week I returned from Mexico and a tourist would not force her screaming two year old to wear her seat belt for takeoff. The flight attendant tried to get her to comply, then the pilot came out, then a big wig from the airport came aboard and told her she was holding up the plane and for safety reasons the belt had to be done up for takeoff. We were now into our second hour on the tarmac. I found it interesting that no one on the plane yelled at the woman or even addressed her. They only glared at her. People grumbled to each other but not to her. Finally she had to de-board with her now sleeping child and the ground crew had to find her luggage and get it out of the plane. Literally dozens of people missed their connecting flights in Houston. We had to run for ours. The whole episode was not the least bit amusing, but only another example of how parenting has totally gone to hell in a hand basket.  When that toddler grows up along with her cohort, the book Lord of the Flies, will look like a utopia.
Three weeks later I had another incident on a plane, which was far more amusing and in many ways was the opposite of the first incident. The first incident was where the child controlled the mother to an absurd degree and this latter incident was again an interesting incident of child-parent control. A woman with her two teenage children was in front of me in line at the counter where I was checking in.  She wanted to get three seats together for herself, her seventeen-year-old son, who was visiting Harvard, as she told the flight employee, and her thirteen-year-old daughter. The clerk said there was a hefty fee to change seats at this late date since she already had hers assigned on line. The mother gladly paid the fee so everyone could sit together. The daughter said nothing and was wired and up to all kinds of gadgets and the son said, “It is an hour and a half flight, don’t pay to get seats together. We can sit on our own.” The mother insisted they sit together. The son who was a head taller than his mother and clearly shaved and was clearly desperate to fly the coup in the fall, said again, “I don’t care what you say, I am keeping my original seat.”
She said “Just do this for me.”
He said, “No.” and the daughter couldn’t hear a thing and she was swaying to the music she was listening to as she texted on her phone.
We all boarded for Toronto and the woman said we couldn’t leave because her son wasn’t in his seat. They called his name. There was no response. Finally he was located in the back of the plane and was told to sit in the seat his mother had paid for. He refused. Again, just like in Mexico, we sat on the runway. 
They flight attendant talked to the mother and then went to the back of the plane and talked to the son as he sat slouching in his seat and sulking. Then the pilot came out and talked to the mother and again she said son was visiting Harvard. The hearty Midwestern pilot, who clearly prided himself on having man to man chats, talked to the son who told him to “butt out and fly the plane” since that was his job.
Then the called someone from the airport. This time he didn’t look as official as the Mexican airport boss.  He came on board wearing an orange glow-in-the-dark vest, heard the whole story, including the Harvard bit for the third time, and then he said in a heavy southy accent to the stewardess, ‘Move this puppy off the tarmac. We got backup. The plane isn’t full. Both seats are empty and I don’t give a shit where this kid sits as long as he wears his seatbelt." Then he turned to the mother and said, “What do you want him to wear a diaper for Christ’s sake?” Then he hollered from the front of the plane to the back, where the boy was seated, “See ya next year in Boston when you’re on your own,” waved and got off the plane. We all took flight.