On Falconry and Fantasy

Lift Audiobook Cover

This week I head into the studio to record the audiobook version of Lift that some of you were so wonderful to support. I’m nervous and excited and oddly contemplative about this next step. It certainly isn’t that I expect the book to be incredibly successful in audio, it is more that I am realizing what this book has done to shape my life in the writing and after the publication. For a while I was so crushed by its small readership that I completely missed the force of good it had become in my life.

Jim Butcher (writer of the wonderful Harry Dresden series) wrote a fabulous post on his Live Journal about how writers kill their own dreams. And the subtext is that we somehow completely miss that we are living the dream. My God. How could I have missed that I leveled up? When people ask me, “Really, you have a book published?”  I usually fess up to having published 12 books, but then shrug and quickly add there is no money in it and it’s really no big deal. No big deal. IT’S A BIG FUCKING DEAL. Having a parrot guide that is considered a staple for parrot owners is a big deal. Having a romance novel that finalled for a best first book Holt Medallion is a big deal. Having a memoir that received a starred review in Publishers Weekly is a big fucking deal. I have leveled up over and over in the last twenty years. I’m living the dream and I forget and forget, but something happened this weekend that made that irrefutable.

Twenty years ago I was an undergrad in Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside. I had given up on my Avian Sciences degree because I believe that birds are myth and magic and all the science was killing that for me. I wanted to be a falconer and I didn’t need to take chemistry for that. I didn’t want to be a veterinarian. I wanted to be an author.  I spent the little money I had on falconry books, novels and comic books. It was the early 90s and the story-telling in comics was inspired. I loved the poetry of The Crow, the noir of Frank Miller and no one could tell me that Neil Gaiman’s  Sandman was not literature. I don’t remember, but I am told I held court between classes and gave a treatise so convincing on A Game of You that a friend of mine has given a copy of the graphic novel to every girl he has ever fallen in love with. I learned from Neil Gaiman to embrace that element of myth and magic that can flavor any piece of good writing and I wanted to be an author like him. Neil Gaiman surely would understand how I felt about birds. And fortunately, at UCR no one argued with me about my love of genre as well as literary writing. In fact the first story and poems I had published were in the university’s journal Mosaic -in an issue that included a piece by Ray Bradbury.

Birds & Words

I wasn’t idle about pursuing my dream of being like Neil Gaiman. I somehow wrangled an internship at Image Comics. These were the years when Image had really taken off, a new world order for comic books. I sent a letter offering to do anything necessary – dress like a comic character, bring donuts, wash Rob Liefield’s Dodge Viper. Suprisingly, they offered me an internship doing fan relations that turned into a part time position, but the real pay was in all the free comics and the people I met.  (Having a badge that said I was with Image at the San Diego Comic Con wasn’t bad either. Even if it didn’t get me a date with David Mack.). I read and I wrote and I didn’t break into comics, but I didn’t stop writing.

I also didn’t give up on the birds. I got my falconry license. I flew my first red-tailed hawk. I moved to Florida, trained and presented shows at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the Toledo Zoo, Healesville Sanctuary in Australia and I kept writing. One day Susan Straight, my professor and mentor when I was an undergrad, handed me a stack of papers. I had just returned to UCR to do my Masters in creative writing. The papers were a story I had written in Florida ten years before and had sent to her hoping for notes. She had never gotten to it, but there was a note on it now. “This is a wonderful story. I can’t wait to read what you will write now.” What I wrote was Lift.

Now Lift is going to be an audiobook and this is a circular story too. You see, there wouldn’t be an audiobook if it wasn’t for Neil Gaiman. He is a force to be reckoned with on Twitter and generous with good information, life’s quirky moments and to fans. I learned about Kickstarter from him.  I discovered ACX because he mentioned it and is curating a collection of audiobooks through their program. I put the two together and funded the production of an audiobook that is not only dear to me, but will have distribution. This is the sort of mentorship that can only happen in the Internet age, but it is as warm and wonderful as the one I have cherished with Susan for all those same years. When you hear Neil speak, you are certain he is genuine in his affection for his fans. He has had generous mentors too. It’s not just this though, you see, every now and then Neil replies to one of my Tweets. We’ve tweeted a bit about my audiobook project. And a few days ago we tweeted about how I was attending his show with Amanda Palmer in San Francisco,  he invite me to meet him backstage afterward.  That’s how I ended up in front of him holding a copy of Lift.

“You found your way back,” he said and I opened my arms to offer a hug that he accepted and returned, a good hug, the kind you get from a friend you haven’t seen in a long time. All I could think was, I did. I did find my way back.  And when Neil introduced me as an author to Amanda Palmer, holding up his copy of Lift I nearly burst into tears.  Then he asked me, “If I read this, will I learn all about falconry?”

I had bagged-and-boarded issues of “Death: The High Cost of Living” in my purse to sign. I had my phone on and ready for photos, but finally talking to him in person I found that the hug was all I really wanted. So I didn’t ask for a signature or a photo. I didn’t say, “Your writing means so much to me.” I didn’t say much of anything at all. I just basked and smiled, thanked him. I thought to myself,  No really. This is a big fucking deal.

I haven’t become a best-selling author, but I believe Jim Butcher is right. Only you can kill your dream. I burn a stack of rejections every year, reading them one last time and explaining to the fire why they hurt me and then letting them go. I nurture the dream, but I’m going to stop diminishing the big part of it I already have. I’m going to stop doing that RIGHT NOW. And I hope you will all understand and forgive me for not acting like I was living it all along.

And now, back to work. You see, I have a parrot training book due December 1st, an audiobook to record starting next week and I have a biography/memoir/novella to write about my grandmother and whether or not my grandfather murdered her. The prologue is published over at The Rumpus if you are curious. And if you are wondering how things are going with Irony, the Cooper’s hawk I guess you’ll just have to wait a bit. I’ll get to that eventually too. I plan to do the work and I hope you’ll stick around to find out what another 20 years might bring.

And if it just so happens that you are writer who is getting started, don’t kill your dream. Fight for it. Trust me. You won’t know just how much until you’ve done it, but it is so SO worth the fight.

Isn’t it Ironic?

This blog started as Operation Desert Dove. Those of you who read LIFT will understand why. My first foray into flying falcons was with a Merlin and what I wanted was to hunt doves. I didn’t know a whole lot about pursuing this possibility, but I gave it my all. My merlin, Anza, did indeed catch a dove. Once.  And as I approached, slowly, my glee carefully harnessed, the dove slipped from the falcon’s feet leaving her with a foot-full of feathers and a near-tantrum.

Dove Feathers

I decided I would have a better chance with a peregrine. I did have a better chance, but you also have a better chance of winning the lottery if you buy two tickets instead of one.  Watching Anakin chase doves was the most beautiful breathtaking race I had ever witnessed all the same. He knocked them down. They got back up. In fact, we never actually caught a dove. We switched to ducks.

I buy an upland game stamp every year anyway. It could happen one of these days. It could. What can I say? I believe in miracles. I also believe that bad things happen sometimes and you can’t always stop them.

On Friday night at 2AM, someone busted the driver’s side window to my truck and broke in. My truck is parked 20 feet from my bedroom window, which was open and I heard the glass break, but half-asleep, didn’t put it together. There wasn’t a whole lot to steal– a couple of small things tucked away in my center console. My Maglite in the glove box. The hawkbox and the small tackle box with all my transmitters, bells, clips and emergency equipment making tools behind the driver’s seat.

They took the tackle box.

I put it all together when I heard the door to the truck close. But by the time I jumped out of bed and ran outside, they were running down the street.

I suppose I should have taken the tackle box inside, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s gone. There were bits and pieces in that box that had been with me for 16 years now and they won’t be replaceable.  Whoever stolen them, won’t even be able to sell them. They are simply lost.

And I won’t fly a bird without telemetry. So I can’t fly the hawk until I replace it. Talk about ruining your weekend. I was crushed. I had decided I would not name this Cooper’s hawk until he had caught game on his own. I would let him name himself and was certain that this would happen any day now, any next night. Tonight! But now it wouldn’t happen until I had a transmitter again.

Unfeathered

Then this afternoon I heard a ruckus in the weathering yard and came running. The Coops and the peregrine aren’t exactly friendly and I worry about this. I expected to find something disastrous. To my surprise, the commotion was all about the hawk mantling over a meal. Dirt clod? Stink bug? No.

It was a mourning dove.

Mostly plucked, but a dove all the same. Thank goodness I have my upland game stamp.

Before the BBQ

After recovering from the shock of something so seemingly impossible, I became a falconer again.  I grabbed the lure, garnished it and stepped my bird off for meal on the glove. He had broken in and had essentially cleaned the dove, feathers and entrails gone, the breast intact. In my mind, this was my reward, my earnings, a neatly cleaned dove breast. At last, I would have dove for at the very least an appetizer.

I called my friend Holly to tell her why I couldn’ t take her out hunting with me and to ask the best way to cook a dove. Then I followed her partner/superstar game chef Hank Shaw’s recipe as close as could, but stuffed the dove with rosemary, the only bright fresh spice I had. I served it on a bed of spinach and shared with the neighbors next door. I had never eaten dove and wanted to see my joy mirrored in another face and I wanted to tell the story of the hawk who found a way. My neighbors and I and their two very young sons nibbled on dove and grinned.

Nibbles

  

The falconry gods are hooligans.

They fly you high and drop you, pleased when you break into so many pieces on stone cliff bottoms and crawl away. The pull pranks and laugh in the moments when you are too brazen and bold, believing you are beyond bad luck. They punish you, providing long streaks of bad hunting when you forget game in your vest and become wasteful.

But the falconry gods are touched with humanity, I think, and have a great deal of clout. So every now and then, when the cards are stacks horrendously against you, they cut a deal with nature and give you a gift. They throw a dove in the weathering yard for a young hawk to catch.  If you’re smart, you accept with stunned grace and say “thank you.”

And maybe you find yourself with a hawk named Irony.

Spellbound

The Gloaming

Eight years ago when I started Operation Desert Dove to tell the tale of flying my first falcon, no one was reading and I knew it. I figured a few people would come along for the ride, but I knew I was only going to be speaking to a handful of interested falconers. Those few people would be enough to keep me honest while training my first peregrine and enough of an audience to encourage me to think poetically about the experience. I wanted a record.

~

That was what I wanted and exactly what I got.

I’m by no means famous, but more things have changed than the name of the blog. I have  friends on Facebook and on Twitter and all kinds of people read the blog, not just a few net-savvy literary falconers. I LOVE my audience, but this is no longer a cocktail party, it’s a stage. It’s a stage for all of us, not just me. We’re not talking amongst ourselves anymore. This is wonderful and terrifying and simply different. People keep asking why I’m so mums-the-word about the Cooper’s hawk I’m training, a first for me. It could be another ride just like the peregrine nearly a decade ago. It could be another book and must be full of so many tales. And there are tales indeed, but the truth of it is, I don’t want to share with you.

Weird, huh?

I’m not failing, I’m thriving, but I don’t want to broadcast the intimate details. These precious moments belong to me. I’m sure the experience is changing me in a thousand ways– this wholly different hawk who is all amygdala and no critical thinking, no practicality. We are running wild in the last hours of summer light, a time with which I’ve never been intimate. I flew my hawks in afternoon thermals and my falcons in the crisp air of autumn dawn. The warm and swarming last light of the fading heated months is a new world. And the little accipiter is making me feral.

There is a magic in these hours that I barely want to share. Two nights ago when the Cooper’s hawk was fed, tucked in his transport box after corkscrew flights and touch-and-go promises, I rummaged for the now-warm Tecate can I had tucked in the back of my truck and I popped it open. I stood scratching the dog’s head; swatting mosquitos and watching the orange tones fail as the darkness rose dense from the crops of clover and corn. Sandhill cranes trumpeted their rising and a coyote sang for his earthbound pack. The sounds made the dog and I still, listening for direction and an appropriate exit.

Nightshift Coming

Perhaps it was our stillness that made us invisible to the barn owl that swooped by too fast for me to flinch. She twisted, rose, plummeted and lit into the brush five feet from the truck, lifting with a mouse in her feet, not a sound, a silent slice of the coming night.

I swore under my breath, heart pounding too loud for comfort and then finished my beer in breathless gulps. I was torn between my human wonder and a primal resonance of danger, the perfectly tuned piano string of an accipiter’s sinew. The hours of reacting to the tiny live wire on my glove had slipped my reason from me. I was certain the gloaming had worn away the day, opening a door to the nightshift where none of my party belonged. I had been there just long enough to bear witness and run.

This is hunting with a Cooper’s hawk. I could tell you about training him to a flashlight and regaining him after dark. I could explain how he fought his way back to me far in and at the base of an eight-foot tall crop of feed corn. I could describe to you how I think I eased the aggression and have kept the tips of his tail intact. Or I could tell you about all the little failures, how I pulled out a deck feather, set him loose in the weathering yard, met tiny talons and bled from my shins. Or I could just tell you it’s magic and leave it at that.

In fact, that’s what I think I’ll do.