DRC national park

I didn’t hear about this until today, perhaps because there’s been so much shocking news this week. But poachers have killed 30 elephants in DR Congo’s Garamba National Park in the last couple of weeks. Outbursts like this are horrifying but not all that rare. There are hundreds of elephants in the park and it’s hard to protect the entire area, so poachers are sometimes able to get inside and kill dozens of elephants, even hundreds, to sell their ivory. According to the article rebel militias and government-backed armies both get in on the action sometimes – so combatants in a war can effectively call a truce to turn their arms against elephants for money.

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Getting in shape

A year ago Sunday I stepped onto a scale for the first time in years. For a long time I’d been unhappy about the shape I was in. I stayed off scales because because I knew I wouldn’t like what I saw.The last time I’d played basketball it was obvious to me that I was slower and got winded quickly. I’d recently bought some baggy sweaters because I didn’t like how I looked or felt in anything I owned. I couldn’t sustained a gym regimen for very long because I would always get bored. Quietly I was pretty sure I was headed for diabetes and some other problems, but I didn’t know what to do.

And then Amber suggested I use a calorie-counting app. That and her excellent cooking were literally all I needed. A year later I’ve lost exactly 24 pounds. If memory serves, I weigh two pounds more than I did when I got my first drivers’ license. I’m happier than I’ve ever been about how I look.

The next challenges are keeping the weight off and getting in better shape. They say it’ll be spring eventually, so we’ll see how that works. For now, I’m surprised and proud of how well things have gone. It’s hard to make changes in your life, and to go from where I was a year ago to where I am now is inspiring.

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Elephant Sanctuary

I’ve blogged a few times about tourism and places you can go to see elephants, and I recommend it to people all the time because it’s life-changing and unique. There is nothing like being around an elephant. But there are other ways to support these grand and threatened animals, and some people might even be uncomfortable with the idea of elephants being put on display.

(I don’t take issue with this with the case of elephants in Thailand. Most of the ENP elephants, for example, were socialized to be around people and wouldn’t be able to fend for themselves. Those factors wouldn’t apply to other elephants.)

So I’ll devote some space to The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. The sanctuary is home to 10 Asian and two African elephants, and they have tons of room to roam across its 2700 acres of land. The sanctuary is a non-profit and its workers rescue elephants who have lived their lives in zoos or circuses and are being “retired” because of their age or health problems. They’ve been at it for a long time, and not I can speak for elephants, but if I were an elephant being sent to this huge place with its tree-covered hills, lake, heated barns, and a gigantic building that can store 35,000 bales of hay – and caregivers who like to do create things like making birthday- and holiday-themed snacks for the elephants – I would think I’d hit the jackpot!

What sets The Elephant Sanctuary apart is that you can’t go there and spend time with the elephants. They do have a volunteer program – demand looks strong – but they make it clear you won’t be feeding or petting the animals. You can be sure you’re helping them, but if that doesn’t call to you, the Sanctuary does accept donations as well. (In fact, you can’t work as a volunteer unless you’re a member.) But that doesn’t mean you can’t connect to the guests. I periodically watch one of their three ele-cams. One shows the Asian habitat, another the African, and the third is trained on the quarantine facility. And even if you hadn’t heard the Sanctuary’s name, you might know one of its stories.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Tarra the elephant and Bella, her best friend who just happened to be a small adorable dog? That happened at the Elephant Sanctuary. Bella passed away in 2011, but Tarra is still there and doing well. She’s around 40, which is about middle-aged for an elephant, and has lived half her life on the Sanctuary grounds.

Or maybe you saw this I-Have-Something-in-My-Eye-Inducing footage of an elephant being freed after lonely years at a zoo? That’s Shirley, an older lady who has been free for 15 years now.

There are so many elephants in need of help, but so many people and places doing right by them. I hope some of the Ringling Bros. elephants are lucky enough to go to a place like this, and with luck it’ll be sooner than 2018.

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Stagger Lee

I’m going to take a minute to ramble about an old blues song here. This isn’t anything like a comprehensive take since there must be dozens of versions if not hundreds. But just from five versions in my iTunes, you can see the song evolve in fascinating ways.

Here’s what stays the same: there’s a guy named… well, I’ll call him Stagger Lee because that looks sort of like a name even though it sounds nothing like one if you think about it. He kills a man named Billy. That’s it. The particulars of the crime, the motive, the who and where and even the when, and his fate – they all change.

In Mississippi John Hurt’s telling (“Stack O’Lee Blues,” 1928), Stagger Lee shoots and kills Billy de Lyons as he pleads for his life. The narrator describes it this way: Billy begged Stagger Lee to spare him because he has two babies and a “lovely” wife. Stagger shows no mercy, saying Billy stole his hat and shootig him to death with a .44. After a lot of humming the narrator re-frames the song as testimony in a trial (at the beginning, he’s pleading with the police). He values the hat at $5, which is $68 today, if you were curious, and his testimony pays off. Stagger Lee is hanged and everyone is glad he’s dead.

Hurt’s version also interests me because it sounds improvised. He hums a lot and sometimes starts his vocals in unusual places. I think Hurt cobbled together his lyrics based on other versions of the song he’d heard in the past, picking what he liked or remembered and changing other parts. So he ends up showing both the songs roots and its ongoing evolution.

Wilson Pickett (also “Stagger Lee,” 1967) adds a whole verse of “dark and stormy night” details: the narrator is out walking when he hears his bulldog bark, and he describes the full moon and the falling leaves. He comes upon Stagger Lee and Billy gambling in the park. He’s close enough to overhear the fight begin: Stagger Lee’s dice come up seven. That’s presented as a fact. What does Billy roll? Well, he “swore” that he threw eight. Is the narrator not sure Billy can be trusted? Does he know that Stagger Lee, for all his other faults, wouldn’t lie? Anyway Billy says he won Stagger Lee’s money and not a hat, but a “brand new Cadillac.” Not that he gets to enjoy them. Stagger Lee leaves, gets his gun, and confronts Billy at a bar with that .44. Billy says he has three children (up from two) and a “very sickly” wife (another sadness upgrade) but he’s swiftly killed. The actual shooting is described in a precise and memorable way: “He shot that boy so fast/the bullet went through Billy/And broke the bartender’s glass.” That appears in several versions of the song I think we’re meant to be outraged by Stagger Lee’s recklessness: he’s so blinded by rage that he can’t even do the decent thing and settle it outside, where he won’t hurt an innocent person.

In case you were confused about the moral of this song, Pickett’s version adds a whole verse warning you about gambling.

Taj Mahal (“Stagger Lee,” 1969) starts with a twist that sort of implies an unreliable narrator: “Could be on a rainy morning/Could be on a rainy night.” That wouldn’t be good testimony, now would it? According to the narrator, Billy says he won Stagger Lee’s money and his “great big” Stetson hat, so either Billy thinks he won their game fair and square or he’s bluffing. His confrontation with Stagger is described as a “great big fight,” which makes it sounds like Billy got his licks in and the contest might’ve been close to even. But all of a sudden Billy is begging for his life on account of his lovely wife and two children again. And the ending is gothic: at the scene of the murder “every foot” you step in Billy’s blood.

In the Dr. John version (“Stack-A-Lee,” 1972), the killer is blown up to mythic proportions, but we also get new details that make him more sympathetic. Billy dies in the very first line, and the police shoot Stagger Lee as he flees the scene. He dies, and the local women celebrate (why? was he just frightening to women, or worse?). And then things get wonderfully weird.

Stagger Lee goes to Hell and is supposed to “identify” Billy’s soul, whatever that means. It’s useless because there’s nothing left of him. Somehow he continues to bully Billy in the afterlife. In fact he’s so mean that the Devil abandons Hell and starts hanging around Earth, saying he wants no part of Stagger Lee. He’s at Greek myth proportions here.

But let’s back up, because something interesting happens earlier in this version. Stagger Lee stumbles into his mother’s house after he’s shot. He then gets a full verse to himself, and it’s the only time he’s not singing about murder. Instead, he cries out in pain:

He said ‘Mother, oh Mother

Won’t you turn me over slow?

I been capped in my left side

With a police .44.’

Does this awful killer live with his mother, maybe because nobody else can stand him? Is he that lonely? Or does she just happen to live near the place he drinks and gambles? That raises some questions about his upbringing. And notice that the weapon he used in several other versions of the song is turned around on him here.

Singers seem less and less taken with Billy and the facts of his death, and more in the sheer badness of Stagger Lee. In the early songs he’s a grouchy murderer with a petty motive. But as he becomes more evil, he becomes more interesting as a character. Writers and listeners wondered why he got that way. And what do they say about villains? They never believe they’re evil. They always have reasons, which means it’s interesting to imagine their viewpoints. If villains are more intriguing than heroes, the mythical, evil Stagger Lee was bound to be explored in new ways. That job fell to one of rock’s great champions of the underdog, The Clash (“Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” 1979).

The Clash version starts with Billy and Stagger Lee gambling. Again it’s implied that Billy might be cheating, and when he’s called on it, he says he’s going to stab Stagger in the back. Stagger Lee shoots Billy dead again, but instead of remarking on the killer’s cruelty, Joe Strummer sings “Stagger Lee come out on top” and asks why Billy would want to cheat. These are questions nobody else asked even when they implied maybe Billy was up to something. Here, he gets what’s coming to him and Stagger Lee is something new: a kind of working class hero, a man who follows a kind of masculine street code that Billy broke: kill if you must, but don’t cheat your brothers. He started as the bad guy in a murder ballad, but here, he’s a hero with justice behind him. He might even be a forerunner to other antiheroes of the street. After all, a man must have a code.

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Elephant vacations

If you’re a traveler who loves elephants, you’ve no doubt thought about a trip to Southeast Asia. The region features plenty of parks and areas where you can spend time with them, and in some places elephant trekking camps proliferate along the roadside. So the problem is not finding the elephants – it’s finding places that treat them well.

Before I get started: I know, I know. It’s exhausting to encounter an unfamiliar issue and find a list of “rules” you’re supposed to follow just to do it right. But the principle here is an important one. The people who run the best elephant facilities have not only devoted their lives to caring for elephants, they’re trying to encourage a cultural shift that will improve the lives of elephants.

My advice is to go someplace you can see elephants being elephants. It’s plenty entertaining, believe me- there’s nothing like watching babies playing with each other or interacting with their mothers and aunts. Elephants have fascinating and complicated social lives, and if you see them in a natural environment, their emotional bonds are unmistakable. It’s very moving, especially since many elephants now living in these venues have been rescued from difficult, painful lives.

Where can you go to do that? The short answer is that the internet will help you do your research and ask questions. For a long answer, here’s what I’ve learned and read.

In 2011 I spent a week at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and I’ve never experienced anything like it. Volunteers do a lot of work around the park and it can be grueling, but it’s satisfying as well. If a week of hanging around and periodically shoveling elephant poop sounds like too much for you, they offer day trips and other short packages. You’ll still get to feed and help bathe an elephant and watch them enjoy themselves. In the years since my visit, ENP has started partnering with nearby camps to help them change over to a more humane business model. That’s brought about new offerings like “Pamper a Pachyderm” and “Sunrise with Paychderms.” Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary also gets rave reviews online. Lonely Planet also has a list of parks and camps that let their elephants be elephants.

In contrast I’d avoid any venue that has elephants performing, painting, giving rides, or that offers “mahout” training. The reasons are twofold: the elephants are put through horrific abuse to make them complaint, as they’re traumatized through isolation, violence, and sleep deprivation until they’re too frightened to disobey humans. And while I am sure some trekking camps and similar places treat their elephants relatively well on a day to day basis, others don’t. It’s hard to know which is which, and elephants shouldn’t be forced to live a working life. Circus footlights can blind them, bullhooks can leave terrible sores, walking on roads can wear out their joints, and carrying tourists can damage their spines.

This may be a lot to keep in mind, but the good news is that it’s 100% possible for you to spend time with elephants in a way that’s fun for you, good for the elephants, and encourages better treatment of these wonderful animals in the future. Elephants may never forget, but you definitely won’t.

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Sheldrick Trust

You can’t go wrong with elephant photos, as the proliferation of “Emergency Elephant” type Twitter accounts attests. These come from the Instagram account of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya. What’s more adorable than a baby elephant being fed from a giant baby bottle? Nothing, that’s what. For almost 40 years the trust has been nurturing orphaned elephants and rhinos and helping them transition back to life in the wild. They report 150 success stories over the years, bringing happy endings to tragic beginnings. Fostering an elephant is inexpensive, which I’ve found to be the case with other charities as well. You can also support a rhino or giraffe.

The way things are going, the need for DSWT’s services – including their anti-poaching work – will be needed ever more urgently over the years to come.

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Ringling Bros.

Great news today as Ringling Bros. says it will stop using elephants in its acts by 2018. While the company says this has nothing to do with all the criticism they’ve absorbed in recent years, just a couple of years ago they made it plain they didn’t want to take this step. It’s a step toward better treatment for animals and a step away from forcing them to perform, confining them in small spaces in zoos, and abusing them and keeping them from living a more natural life. (The issue of forced breeding is also touched on in this story.) And there’s a lot to learn from the tactics that protesters used here: Ringling Bros. cited anti-performing elephant and anti-circus laws in addition to the outcry over the treatment of elephants and their use in the circus. I don’t know much about the company’s home for elephants, which the New York Times calls a “rural, ranchlike property.” There are a lot of important questions: how big is this place? What kind of amenities does it have? Who works there? Will the elephants stay there permanently? Will they be chained up? But this is important progress in improving the treatment of animals.

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February 2015 playlist

2015 02February Mix

This mix has a different feel from any other I’ve made. I think of it as a more sensual, modern R&B mix, although some other styles work their way in there. And I don’t think I’ve ever included so many women’s voices in one of these – the songs on my iTunes are overwhelmingly by male artists. But this one is about evenly split between male and female artists and singers.

Since a lot of my ‘repertoire’ comes from the blues and blues-based rock, I’m glad I was able to break out of my comfort zone and make something different that I still like a lot.

It took a lot of tries before this one came together. The final piece was the Bobby Womack song, which I included for a weird reason: I heard a song in a bar and was sure it was “The Bravest Man in the Universe.” It wasn’t, but once I had the song in mind I realized it would fit perfectly into this mix. I experimented some more and removed a few songs and this finally fit together.

I’m very satisfied with this thing precisely because it was tough to make and forced me to approach the songs in a different way. That’s one of the great things about music: it can challenge us and push us to new places. So listen and enjoy!

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On elephants

I’ve decided I need to bring some focus to my blog. While I’ll continue to talk about music and movies and personal stuff, I’m going to focus more entries on a subject of personal and professional interest to me: elephants. They’re wonderful, feeling animals that are at the center of a lot of urgent, complex economic and environmental issues. Why me? Well, I have some firsthand experience!


This week China banned the important of ivory – a necessary step in the saving of wild elephants, but a step that’s small and not adequate to solve the problem. China is the world’s largest ivory market* and demand has gone through the roof over the last decade. There are a lot of reasons the situation has gotten so bad, including Chinese companies doing more business in Africa, the growing middle class in China, African civil wars and turmoil, and terrorists selling ivory to raise cash. The new rule doesn’t affect China’s domestic ivory trade, which means demand can keep growing – and people will probably keep buying ivory illegally or by going to nearby countries where imports are legal. And you can wait out a one-year ban. There are reasons to doubt China’s commitment here.

*Don’t get smug, Americans. Guess who’s #2.

In the meantime progress is being made on other fronts. Many Chinese ivory consumers don’t understand that elephants are killed for ivory. Some of the education campaigns are very cute. Thailand, another big market, has vowed to ban the trade but hasn’t yet achieved it.

What’s to be done? People have to keep pushing for bans, and the nest of issues that creates demand for ivory – poverty, lack of enforcement, poor environmental development, ignorance of the consequences – have to be addressed. It’s hard to tell people not to poach ivory if they don’t see another way to make money; they’ll treat elephants as a resource until the incentives are changed, and if demand isn’t tackled, anti-poaching measures may only drive up the price of ivory. There needs to be an alternative and that kind of sustained commitment to other countries is a huge challenge. There’s no lack of attention being paid to this issue (charismatic megafauna represent!), which helps. But problems that arise over hundreds of years don’t go away in a hurry and at this rate African elephants don’t have a lot of time.

So at the risk of self-aggrandizing, here’s where I am adding my voice to the chorus of people trying to intervene. Consider this part one of however many it takes.

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The Kings of Summer

I need to be more timely with my movie reviews!

“The Kings of Summer,” is a charming story about three boys coming of age. It makes for an interesting contrast with “We Are the Best!,” which I raved about last month. “The Kings of Summer” is a little more conventional. In fact it works in the great tradition of novels about American boys growing up that I wondered if it was adapted from a book. (It’s not.) The Kings of the movie are troublemaker Joe, his innocent friend Patrick, and almost-alien weirdo Biaggio. Joe and Patrick are fed up with their home lives and Biaggio seems like he could’ve hatched from an egg, so during summer vacation they build a house in a clearing in the woods. They disappear without a word to their families and friends and drop off the grid. It’s a heartless thing to do, but you can empathize with their (minor, teenage) grievances and the movie is carried along with their spirit and their friendship.

And even though the movie makes it clear that Joe’s widowed father (Nick Offerman) is heartbroken and that Patrick’s parents (Megan Mullally and Will Forte) are saddened and confused, the stakes are pretty light – maybe too light. The movie provides a parade of comedian cameos from Kumail Nanjiani, Tony Hale, Hannibal Buress, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Thomas Middleditch. Rajskub and Middleditch are cops, and why isn’t that a TV show?

Once the story is set up, you can guess how it plays out: Joe and Patrick have a falling out over a girl, Joe proves to his father that he’s a man, the adventure in the woods ends, and their friendship will survive. But the movie stumbles coming into the home stretch. After Joe learns the girl he likes is more interested in Patrick, he is a huge jerk to both of them and the movie doesn’t acknowledge it. Joe gets to be heroic and he and Patrick make their peace, but nobody points out that Joe’s been a possessive creep and mistreated two more people who care about him. That wouldn’t stick out so much if the boys were more complex characters, but it casts a pall over the ending.

Despite that wrong note, “The Kings of Summer” is a fun, diverting movie, and for a while it’s a good and complex look at friendship between two boys on the precipice of adulthood. And the cast is great. I’d never seen Offerman play someone other than Ron Swanson, and here he gets to play a wounded, unpleasant flesh-and-blood human being. And yet I like him so much that I felt more sympathy for him than I was probably supposed to. Such are the pitfalls of being playing such a great character.

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