In memoriam

I lost my grandmother last week.

I had intended to give this eulogy at her memorial service, happening now, as I post this. Had my bags packed and was ready to go. Literally as I passed through the automatic doors into the air conditioning of Miami International Airport, my flight back was cancelled. This is the worst part of being half a country away. Since I can’t be there with everyone, this is what I would have said today:

Hi everyone. My name is Daniel. I’m the first son of the first daughter of Charlene Potter, or Nanny as we all called her. I was her first grandchild. I love being here at Marion Springs, where Nanny taught for so many years. It’s the perfect place to hold this service. She used to take us out here on weekends and over the summer. Pack as many cousins into the back of her Jeep as she could and turn us loose with the keys to the gym equipment closet. Or we’d be outside, behind the school where the wetlands she created was, next to the teepee that was also her idea, to watch tadpoles skim through the water. I have a lot of fond memories of being here.

Almost 6 weeks ago, my wife and I had our first child, a girl, Nanny’s ninth great grandchild. The newest of the bunch (at least as of the last time I checked). It’d been so long since I’d been able to come home that I’m not sure that Nanny ever knew we were expecting. I wish she could have met our little girl.

My daughter will know her though. Nanny will be a presence in our home for as long as I still have breath. I will tell her:

All of my memories of Nanny are comforting. Infused with the smell of fresh grass, moist earth, or hot food. She taught me how to listen to animals and plants and hear their languages for what they were on their own terms. Almost all my memories of Nanny are fun too. I can’t recall Nanny ever making me do anything that I didn’t want to do. Not that she was perfect.

Once, on a vacation, I asked her for sunblock. She said, “I have this.” It was a brown bottle of sun tan oil, which I applied, not thinking about it. I spent the rest of the trip as red as a lobster.

She thought that the cup holders in her Corolla were the right shape for wine glasses, full of cheap red.

She liked her music loud. Really loud.

She slipped too much brandy in the holiday sangria.

She overfed and under-trained her dogs, leading to some of the worst canine behavior you’ve ever seen.

She was too beautiful for her own good. Or for that of any of her numerous, hopeless admirers.

Nanny was a trickster. Mischievous. You can see it in the earliest family photos of her. Tight lipped little smile like she’s always hiding a secret behind her teeth. But speaking of family photos, it is impossible to talk about Nanny without mentioning her sisters.

I’ll tell my daughter about how impossibly lucky I was to be raised in a family led by strong, independent women. Women who were smart and caring and resilient. The kind of women you can look up to, as so many did. Who could fall for the wrong men and then persevere as single mothers to raise this beautiful, diverse, loving family. A family that is led now by a second trio of sisters. A family I see as a model for how the world should be. A family my child can be so very proud of.

Nanny and her sisters were Baldwin City to me. They were home. They made me want to go to college and then to be a teacher. They taught me how to care for the Earth and love every living thing in it. It was Nanny’s house that I always wanted to stay. There I got sleep more peacefully than nearly anywhere else. I only have three recurring dreams as an adult, but perhaps the most common is the one where the whole world is falling apart outside, but I’m in Nanny’s house and as long as I am there I am safe.

Looking at those old pictures of her and her sisters, it’s easy to see how each had their own character right from the beginning. Aunt Alice, who my daughter is named for, the brains; Aunt Mary, the heart; and Nanny, well, Nanny was the trouble.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that their father, from whom we all get our Osage ancestry, had three daughters. Like the crops, the three sisters, that were so essential to Native peoples across the continent.

Aunt Alice, the corn: firstborn and shooting straight up. Erect, prim, reaching for the sun. She’s the role model for the others to follow. Maybe a little too perfect in her achievements. Her stem grows strong as if anticipating how it’ll be needed for her younger sister. Aunt Mary: the bean. The second sister is flexible, adaptable. Beans have heart-shaped leaves, out on full display, low to the ground. The first sister has already claimed the sky and so it’s those leaves that is the middle child’s focus. They fan out, climbing up the first sister’s stalk to gird it from high winds, gathering light to turn into nitrogen to nourish the soil from which all three grow.

And then we come to the baby sister, Nanny: the squash. Last to be planted, she crawls all over the ground, extending wherever she pleases. The two oldest have already taken care of all the essentials, and so the baby has no need to prove anything to anyone. She does whatever she damn well pleases. Her leaves can be bristly, prickly. A little abrasive perhaps when need be.

I will tell my daughter to take inspiration from all three. To stand tall and straight and proud. To be loving and nurturing to those around you. To be fun and strong and unencumbered.

The Osage origin story tells of how we were once sky people who came down to Earth to make a new home. It follows that when we pass on, our spirits return to the heavens. There, in the night sky, you can find new, bright stars that are your loved ones looking down, watching over you.

When she starts staying up late, I’ll tell my daughter about how Nanny taught me the constellations. Maybe we’ll put a telescope in our bedroom like she had. I’ll point up and say, look, there, that one maybe. She’s up there, staying with us always. That’s her, flying across the night sky, free and clear. And she loves you so much.

I love Nanny. I wish I could have spent more time with her, but I know how lucky I have been to have had her in my life. If you miss her like I do, look to the sky tonight. Look for the brightest star and you’ll recognize her.

And if you want to feel her smile, go ahead and quote her favorite movie to her.

“I wish I could say something classy and inspirational, but that just wouldn’t be our style. Pain heals, chicks dig scars, glory lasts forever.” Shane Falco, The Replacements

“Secondhand” is Pushcart Nominated

Humbled and grateful to announce that “Secondhand” has been selected by New Letters as a Pushcart Prize Nominee. I am so happy this little essay got a chance. The support of Christie Hodgen, Ashley Wann, and the rest of the editorial team was invaluable throughout the process.

To read my essay and the other nominees from this fine journal, check out NewLetters.org.

“Secondhand” in New Letters

As noted in earlier posts, my essay, “Secondhand,” was recently published in New Letters. Since publication in the print journal, we’ve worked together to make the full text available online. You can now read the essay here: Secondhand. It was important to me that this piece, in particular, be made as easily accessible as possible.

Additionally, as a follow-up to the essay, New Letters has a Special Feature wherein I answer some questions elaborating on the context and craft of the piece. It also includes some of my photography from our return trip to Vietnam with my father, John Musgrave. The feature can be found here: Getting Ahold of the Heart.

Lastly, in not-my-writing-news, my father’s memoir is now available for preorder. I recommend it for a whole host of reasons, perhaps most of all because it’s a really good book that has important things to tell us all about war and the costs we pay to wage it. The Education of Corporal John Musgrave.

Dole Institute Program– Youtube link

Thank you to all who tuned in live to view the program “Marines Return to Vietnam” via the Dole Institute of Politics. Given 2020, and my father’s allergic reaction to modern technology, this was the first time I got to ‘see’ my father since December (2019).

For anyone who may have missed the program or who wants to view it again and/or share it with others, the Dole Institute has created a permanent recording of it on their Youtube channel. I have embedded the video below or you can visit the link directly at: Marines Return to Vietnam (on Youtube).

As always, if you would like to read more about John Musgrave, get updates about his upcoming memoir (third quarter 2021), or contact him, visit his personal site at JohnMusgraveVeteran.com.

Dole Institute Panel Discussion- “Marines Return to Vietnam”

John Musgrave at Con Thien, 2018

This Thursday, Sept 10, I’ll be part of a panel discussion about the trip I took with my father, John Musgrave, for his first return to Vietnam in over 50 years. The program can be accessed and watched live at 3:00 CST via the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at KU. It will also be made available via their Youtube Channel to view asynchronously. Though the talk will be moderated, we’ll also be taking questions from the live-stream. I don’t anticipate speaking much, but a selection of my photographs from the trip will be part of the presentation.

The talk is well timed, as I have a short narrative nonfiction piece coming out in the Summer 2020 Issue of New Letters (arriving soon). The piece, “Secondhand,” is about the ways being raised by a combat veteran influenced me both explicitly and subconsciously. It focuses on three periods of my life when the interaction between his past and my future felt most tangible. And, perhaps also, most dire.

If you get a chance, stop by the stream and ask a question. I assure you you will not be disappointed, though you may experience deep emotions.

New Site Section- Ape Resources

For this site, I’ve tried to keep my writing and primatology lives distinct except where they overlap in my prose. However, every so often I get a heavy dose of brand new visitors who have stumbled on one of my stories (usually ape-related) out in the wild.

No Machine just led a flood of new visitors here over the past 48 hours. While I might be a little too late to catch that particular wave, I want to ensure that this site is ready for any future ones. It’s a fault of mine that I have not been confident enough in my writing to believe that it would resonate with so wide an audience for so long after its publication date. But here we are, years after I sent that little story into the world, and people are still reading and sharing. I’m encouraged and inspired by my readers who continue to gift me their time and attention.

But my writing is just one step. If you’re inclined, I invite you to take another (or two) with me. I have created a separate page of this site where you can, if moved, find worthy primatological organizations to support. If you enjoyed my story— any of them— and are interested in the nonhuman people I describe, or just apes in general, please visit the Ape Resources tab of this site. The apes and animals I write about deserve every ounce of support I can send their way.

To the readers: Thank you for reading. Thank you for caring. Continue to do good and be well.

New Essay Forthcoming…

Some time ago– perhaps an embarrassing amount– I mentioned I was preparing to move my desk half-way across the country. Well, mission accomplished. The side-effects of this (new job, new environment, new pandemic, etc) didn’t exactly spur my writing efforts.

That said…

I am happy to announce that I have a new essay forthcoming in New Letters literary journal. While the publication date isn’t set in stone yet, the current hope is the September 2020 issue.

This piece consolidates a lot of my thinking since visiting Vietnam with my father. I am still at work on drafting these thoughts and more into a book-length project in collaboration with my father. My hope is that it could become a supplement– sequel is the wrong word– to his upcoming memoir (coming in early 2021 if things stay as planned, so be on the lookout).

Hope you are all hanging in there. Be well. Do good.

UMSL Alumni Spotlight

Sandwiched between a 48-hr form rejection and a 328 day form rejection, this little alumni spotlight came out from one of my various Alma Maters. When I noted the context of its publication on Social Media, sort of half humble-bragging my butt off, they threw my own words right back at me.

“That’s part of the game. If I could give any young writers advice, I’d say, ‘Just dive in, just do it, take your lumps.'”

I stand by that quote and also all my lumps. Do as I say AND as I do. Shoot your shot, writers. Always.

To see the full piece and hear about some of my new goings ons, check it out here: https://blogs.umsl.edu/news/2019/07/29/dan-musgrave/

An Iceland Writers Retreat Post

If I’m being totally honest, I certainly didn’t expect the most memorable experiences of my Iceland Writers Retreat to occur indoors. In my defense, the reasoning seemed obvious at the time — it’s the “I” of IWR — but I still hesitate to admit it now. I was so impressed with the sharp minds and incredible writers at IWR that I don’t want to embody the quip, so often misattributed to Twain, about what happens when fools open their mouths. And yet, here we are.

GeysirThe promise of the Icelandic landscape initially drew me in. In part, this can be attributed to the total dearth of photographs of hotel conference rooms in Iceland’s tourism adverts. Though, probably more of it has to do with the fact that I am only semi-domesticated. That I feel so much more myself with grass underfoot and foliage overhead in place of carpet and fluorescents. I’m happy to say that this part of me was not left wanting as we traveled the Golden Circle on my first day of the retreat. From Geysir to Gullfoss and Thingvellir, my eyes (and camera) feasted. And then, each clear night thereafter, I got to watch the northern lights dance until my toes threatened to secede from my feet…Read the full post.


It has been an active 2019. Mostly from the “life” standpoint. On the writing front, the only thing worth reporting is that I’m preparing to move my desk halfway across the country.

Above is a little teaser for a small retrospective post about my excellent time at Icelandwritersretreat.com with a couple of my photos for good measure. Check it out.

 

January Events

And so begins a new year. This household rang in the event by working on various Powerpoints or story drafts until about 10 PM and then headed to bed like the responsible adults we pretend to be in front of our parents’ friends. (I was still reading by the time the totally unnecessary fireworks went off. So, you know, I’m not a total square…)

This month is a busy one. My show, Convergence: Challenging Anthropocentrism opens on the 4th. Details for the reception can be found at Convergence: Opening. If you’re in the neighborhood for Tulsa’s First Friday, come on down and chat me and my co-curator up. For those that can’t make it, the exhibition will be up all month long. There will also be some cool programming after MLK Day. Such as:

Animal People— Lecture I will give a lecture on how my work with apes, and my education by animals, led me to writing. Science just couldn’t encompass all the truths I found in nature.

HumanNature— Photography and Writing Workshop For those who would like a more active event, I’ll also be leading a workshop wherein we explore the urban landscape and the ways nature rebels against our efforts to exile it from our human centers. Through photography, we will train presence, which will then be used to generate short written pieces questioning the human/nature binary.

Mural Design and Creation— Yatika Starr Fields My co-curator, Yatika, will be leading a mural workshop throughout the week. He, along with participants, will create a permanent mural exploring the themes of the show. Join in on this collaborative work and leave a (literal) lasting mark on the McKeon Center for Creativity.

The Development of Complex Tool Use Among Chimpanzees— Lastly, perhaps the real treat of the whole month, join us for a lecture with the smart, incredible, illustrious, beautiful, [superlative] [superlative] [superlative] Stephanie Musgrave to discuss her research on the development and transmission of chimpanzee tool use in Central Africa. I’m biased but I can’t recommend enough letting this woman learn you something.