Do you have a favorite animal in the wild? Mine, hands-down, is the elephant. Known for intelligence, fascinating behavior, methods of communicating and complex social structure, elephants captivate and scare me a little, too. They’re big – the African elephant is the largest living land mammal – and totally impressive. Their muscular trunk serves as a nose or an extra hand or foot, a means of signaling or a tool for gathering food, water, dusting, even digging. This long trunk permits an elephant to reach as high as 23 feet while at the same time pick berries or caress a baby elephant or companion. This trunk can twist and coil, tearing down acacia branches and large trees or fighting.
Elephant tusks are elongated incisors with about one-third hidden in the skull. Both male and female African elephants have tusks, although among Asian elephants, only males have them. Elephants favor one tusk over the other, using the favored tusk more often as a tool, thus shortening it with constant wear.
Elephants spend most of the day eating (some 16 hours), drinking bathing, dusting, wallowing, playing and resting (about three-to-five hours). Because an elephant digests only 40 percent of what it eats, it needs tremendous amounts of vegetation and 30 - 50 gallons of water a day. They eat a strictly vegetarian diet
The African elephant’s ears are more than twice as large as the Asian elephant’s and have a different shape, often described as similar to a map of Africa.
In Botswana, in the Okavango Delta with my second husband, John, I encountered elephants up close on more than one occasion and describe these events in my memoir, Banged-Up Heart: sighting two young male elephants within seven feet of our vehicle; being awakened one morning by the ear-splitting sounds of an angry bull elephant a few feet from our cabin; walking with three elephants “tamed” by an eccentric Oregonian who encouraged us to caress the smooth breast of the female elephant beside us; and dining al fresco when an elephant behind us places her gigantic trunk between us.
When owner Dorothy Massey offered me a Reading/Signing at Collected Works, I was euphoric. Reading at Collected Works, Santa Fe’s #1 independent bookstore, would be a dream come true. But what parts of my 300-page memoir would I read?
“You need a program,” said editor Morgan Farley, who suggested I take a look at some author videos on YouTube. I clicked on a YouTube of one author who impressed me because she looked and sounded spontaneous. Much to my surprise, I found when clicking onto her other YouTube videos that she’d repeated the same “program” time after time. Heartened by the idea that I might put together a reading I could use more than once, I selected passages that followed my story line without revealing the ending.
For a practice reading in front of Morgan, I copied pages from a pdf of my book. Squinting to read without my glasses and rushing through the passages, I could see the disappointment in Morgan’s face. “You have time,” she said, “to make this good. I’ve heard you read before; I know you can do it. You can find a recording machine at Best Buy for $100. Get one and listen to yourself.”
Over the next few days, I made a few decisions:
For the next few mornings, I practiced my patter aloud during 30-minute treadmill sessions. I wanted to memorize it so that I could look up and out at the audience except when looking down to read the passages. In the afternoons, when nobody was around, I’d tape myself. Eventually, I was satisfied with my reading, my voice inflections and pauses. (Morgan, a poet who reads beautifully, was a great help with this.)
And then there was the question of using a microphone. At Collected Works, I would be on a small stage, a platform three giant steps above the main floor. One afternoon, about a week before my reading, Dorothy arranged for one of her staff to set up the microphone so I could test the sound and determine how close I needed to be to the mouthpiece. She offered a music stand onto which I’d drop my pages as I read.
The day of my reading, I awoke feeling a little nervous but as ready as I could be. That evening, before an audience of 115, I learned that my initial concerns, subsequent decisions and practice paid off.
I'm Shirley Melis. You may know me as Shirley M. Nagelschmidt, Shirley M. Bessey and now, Shirley M. Hirsch. Each reflects a particular phase of my life. Banged-Up Heart is a slice of my life's journey and in telling my story, I'm giving voice to my long silent "M" by reclaiming my maiden name, Shirley Melis.