Delaney · penguins · people

The High Royal Order of Tinmen, a prologue

happy-feet-penguin_1973889cAntarctica is something Pre-Cambrian in age. The continent, on the whole, is a great thrustal uplift of limestone and sandstone. The continental rock sits atop dead seas, fossilized and regularly sedimented. Ice covers everything.

It’s ironic: Antarctica houses the global majority of freshwater, but it remains a desert. To date, the highest, driest desert in the world. Antarctica’s wonderment extends outward into the Southern Ocean where—as winds warm the seas and polypnas of calm and unfrozen waters form in between measures of pack ice—life blooms in explosions of phytoplankton and krill, great pink and green sub-oceanic clouds hemmed in by circular tides. Heavy salts precipitate into bottom waters. These are waters populated by barnacle-crusted baleen whales, by penguins; and these are waters, by virtue of movement and density, that create convergent lines definitively separating south from north.

In June of 2011, somewhere amid this all, an emperor penguin got lost. Invariably lost. Serendipity doesn’t usually pair well with lostness, but by virtue of this emperor washing ashore two thousand miles off course on a sandy beach in New Zealand, I eventually met Delaney Kelly, one of the great loves of my life. The emperor had crossed the convergence, and somehow so did Delaney and I, albeit through different channels. We would re-converge to become the High Royal Order of Tinmen, a two person battalion of lost and found. This is our story.


job · penguins · people

About Rainbows You Can’t See

I had a great conversation with a mother and daughter outside the Penguin Encounter during a Magellanic feeding. The mother, maybe fifty-something, had lavender-died hair, and the daughter had tattoos of birds flying up past her collarbone and onto her neck. I invited them back to see the penguins at the PE because they were such good convo, and because they talked about having volunteered at the Portland Aquarium in younger years. I love zoo fans, and fans of animals who exhibit their love of winged and other things in permanence on their person.
Later, I received a phone call from the PE gift shop.
“Hello–um–there’s a man here whose daughter is doing a project on penguins. Can someone come see them and answer some questions?”
“I’ll be right out.”
I dig on this stuff.
“Hello. I’m Thom.”
“Dave. I’m a science teacher up in Temecula. Can you answer some questions for my daughter? She’s doing a project. This is her second year in a row talking about penguins.”
“I’m your guy.”
I meet Christina, who is six and has a shirt exclaiming ‘Big Sister.’ ‘Little Sister’ had a likewise shirt and was holding Science Dave’s hand.
“Hello, Christina. Nice to meet you.” (Science Dave walks away with ‘Little Sis’, and I’m left with Mom and Christina).
Christina is shy, and I used to be, too.
“I hear you’re doing a project, Christina? What about?”
“Emper penguins.”
“You came to the right place. Only three zoos have them, and you’d have to fly in a plane to see the all the others. What’re your questions?”
And I sat down on the bench between Christina and her mother, and although Christina made up the questions, Mom had to whisper to her daughter what she wanted to ask.
SMART questions. Kids are incredible.
“Why, Thom, do Emperors have yellow on them?”
I look to Mom briefly.
“How old are you again, Christina?”
“Do you know the rainbow, Christina?”
And she recites the cascading colors, red through to violet.
“Guess what–penguins don’t see very well the top of the rainbow, but they see things we don’t. They see things beyond violet. They see ULTRA-violet. And every yellow feather on an Emperor, every little white fleck on a Gentoo’s head, every Macaroni crest have all this UV glitter and it’s how they see each other and make friends.”
This is all uber-scientific and beyond a six-year old, but Mom types notes into her cell-phone anyway.
“Do you like unicorns, Christina?”
She smiles, “Yes.”
“Well, penguins are unicorns in a way. They see glitter, and they sparkle. We just can’t always see it, but they’re pretty special. Can I get a high-five?”
And Christina slaps my hand.
“Good luck on your project, Friend. You asked really good questions.”
She smiles, probably relieved that she’s done having talked to a stanger who smells of fish and who has ten keys jangling off his belt-loop.
But this kinduv stuff makes my day. Christina, tattooed girl, and lavender-haired Mom: thank you for loving the animals and for showing interest beyond the norm. You make my life.

Cayden · family · home · job · parenting · penguins · Uncategorized

Satori With Shoes On

Cayde wanted to stay home today, and he was specific: WITH DADDY. I walked in on him in the bathroom, lingering over the toilet bowl with a pained expression on his face. He has learned the art of play-acting, and he employs it when he can. Mommy and Daddy are smart though. We cross our arms, and gently call him out when we know, exactly, that he’s not telling the truth.

When he did have the flu, a few weeks back, he was surprised at himself vomiting.

“Why does my throat burn?” he asked.

I explained bile, stomach acid. We all have languages of love, and Cayde and I talk science on the daily. It’s how we sometimes connect.

“Does this mean I’ll have a hole burn through my neck?” he panickedly asked, the fact of ‘acid’ widening his eyes.

“No, no, no. Calm down, Kid. You’re fine. The body’s good at keeping everything in.”
From this exchange, I learned my kid has been faking it all the times he might’ve said, ‘Daddy, I barfed.’

No, Cayde. No you didn’t barf all those times you said you did.

But I forgive you for fibbing.

I dress him for school and he keeps flopping on the bed, play-acting and pretending himself inconsolable.

“Jeezus, Cayde, I CAN’T stay home. And if Mama’s gonna stay home with you, she’s gotta go to school first. She’ll need a sub. Tie your shoes. You HAVE to be there for the morning, THEN Mama can take you home if that’s how it has to be. Please. GET DRESSED.”

I dress Finn, too, in the meanwhile. We like to put him in a neckerchief. People ask if he’s a ‘cowboy’ or conductor’. My neighbor asks this, actually, as we put Finn in the van, today.

“No—it’s just his flare,” we say referring to the double-knotted gingham round his neck. .
The neckerchief is just cute, and frankly it catches the drool.

At work, I’m in between buildings, the Penguin Encounter and the Avian Center. There’s been re-structure recently. I’ve taken care of all manners of feathered things in my career, and now I get to ferry between both places, prepping diets, throwing grain to waterfowl and feeding otherwise penguins beaks with fish. I love it.
But I get stuck today trying to figure out my shift. It’s new to me, although I’ve worked the gamut at SW. I employ hands to help me, I get caught up, and then draw my finger down a prescribed shift sheet in search of the next task.
“Ok—looks like I hafta do med inventory.”
Soldierly, I walk back to the PE and start opening cabinets and eyeing prescription bottles. I write things down. We need this, we need that. A tour files into the building. I smile and wave, ‘Hello.” A little girl starts crying—a terrified cry—and I look up confusedly.
“Hey, could you close that cabinet?” I’m asked.

No one has told me this is a ‘Make-a-Wish Tour.’

I put everything away, quick.

This three year-old girl is crying crying crying.

She has terminal brain cancer. In her mind, where there is no suspension of disbelief, she thought she was walking into a building where she was just going to (and did) meet penguins. She then saw an open cabinet with all those amber bottles lined up, things we dispense to analgesically treat our aged birds.

We’re good at what we do. We’re excellent at what we do, and our new scientific and revolutionary endeavor comes down to the most basic thing: comfort. Our birds live three times longer than they would otherwise. They are comfortable and happy and they are well. They tell us by still laying eggs and singing to us in the doorways. To be a zookeeper is not have our song be defined by the jangling of keys, but to be defined—more accurately—by how we shout, ‘Good night, Kids!’ every night we close the door, and while we look forward to seeing them tomorrow.

This girl: she cried and cried. She thought the bottles were for her.

I tell my boss I’m gonna take a long lunch.

Sometimes I drive home during a lunch break, to terra firma, to my house—only to look around for a few minutes, just to remind myself of my wife and kids—before getting back in the car, driving back to work, and roughing it through the closing hours of my shift.

I call my boss once back home. I ask: “Do you think you can cover the rest of my shift? I need to stay home.”

Turns out the tour went great. I mean, penguins. C’mon.

This girl, her frightened cries—it sincerely haunted me. Finn had his chest cranked open when he was three months old. Doctors fixed his heart, and Finn took his medicine smilingly. He’s alive and is four and is the light of my life.

“I’m ok. It’s ok,” I say as assurance to my boss while I speak on the phone. I am far from unwell, though I’m in tears. I’m uniquely strong; I can handle this. I just need respite for a minute.

“Take care of your family, take care of yourself,” she decides and I hear a guarded smile through the receiver.

You see, I figured something out on the drive back home, and before calling work:

Cayde, who is encyclopedic and sensitive and much too ME, I guess, realized before I did today, that Jan. 30 is my Grandma’s birthday. (She died of cancer a couple of years ago). He wanted to stay home with me today because he wanted to console me, wanted me to console him. It’s why he was play-acting sick

.And I, accidentally, ruined a cancer-stricken girl’s day, by holding a cabinet door open and accidentally exposing her to things that she thought would maybe make her sick again, at least sick to her stomach. And we all need to be comfortable before we go. God, I really fucked that one up, even if by accident.

I know it’s not my fault. Everyone has said so, and I trust them. It hurt, though. A LOT. And it hurt me when I put my kids’ shoes on this morning, saying you HAFTA go to school, and when I couldn’t stay back with him.

Sometimes life is the better school, which you don’t need shoes for.

I’ll go back to work tomorrow, certainly, but life punched me in the eye today and it made tears.

Down syndrome · job · penguins · people

Palomino Penguins and the Extra Chromosome

I was feeding the penguins yesterday—the Magellanics who live outside and receive San Diego sun—and Yoshi was giving me issue.
Yoshi has patchy feathering, which is fine and normal. Some of us have alopecia, some of us get bald spots.
I call Yoshi my ‘palomino penguin.’ She is by accident spotted, and she’s like a gorgeous horse, but with a fussy appetite.
The gulls were posed in vultrine fashion, eyeing my bucket and looking for any ANY dropped fish.
Yoshi—she is a unicorn, something special.
I fed her a fish, apparently the WRONG one, because she flung it over her shoulder in distaste.
A gull swooped in, grabbed the fish off the rockwork, and then, like, nineteen gulls swept in, feathers all stupid and fighting over the scraps.
“Dammit, Yoshi,” I patted her on the head and shook her bill, “You let the terrorists WIN!”
There were a few guests watching as I fed the birds, and I said, “Hello.”
I caught eyes with a gentleman who was there with his wife and son? Grandson?
The kid had an earbud with a trailing cord, thick specs, and a red baseball cap.
The kid also had an extra chromosome.
I shouted from my perch while feeding beaks, “Hello, Sir!” And, pointing, “I, too, have an angel.”
This while the seagulls fought displaying their feathers.

job · penguins · people

Layoffs (Good to See You)

Huge lay-offs today at work. I walked across the park midday, firstly just to walk, but also to see some people I figured I needed to see, or at least touch on the shoulder in consolation. I saw some of my favorite co-workers on the way—the Vet team, the Photographer, my friend Kylene—and it was the kind of day where you’d make eye-contact and brighten slightly.
“Hey! Good to see you!” ‘Good to see you’ meaning: glad you weren’t cut. Glad you’re still here. At the back of our minds we harbor some survivor’s guilt, but glad is glad.
I had to work closing shift today, and closing shift is the shift you don’t want on the worst of days. But, as the brilliant people let go today know (their hall of fame pictures to soon be hung), passion for the animals–the job–demands you clock in and straighten up. Your bosses don’t always wear suits and ties; for those of us with twenty-plus years in the profession, fuck the suits. Our bosses wear feathers and fur and most likely don’t have the opposable thumbs needed to manage a double-Windsor.
You take care of the animals. You think about them when you wake up, you worry about them when you go to bed.
“You have to work holidays?”
“Well—yeah. The penguins still need to be fed.”
Come 6 p.m. tonight, I was last man standing in the Bird Dept., everyone gone for the day, everyone rightly drained. There were still penguin chicks to be fed, though, and a few hours left on my shift. I texted my wife: ‘So done, but gotta push through.’
I sat for a time in an empty plaza just outside the Penguin Encounter, just getting away from the building for a second before closing the exhibit out. All the Christmas lights were still on and in full display. Music was cut for the night, save for Burl Ives still randomly playing from within just one cavernous restroom.
Christmas arrives on the coattails of third financial quarter decisions. Ho-ho-ho. The weather outside is frightful.
I returned inside to pass out the evening medications, syringe-feed the new chicks. You look at the clock, but take the proper time. Stupid me: I always check on eggs I know are hatching. Penguins have this amazing biological imperative to protect their eggs, but sometimes too excitedly, and I know things can go wrong. I coaxed a brooding sire to stand and—dammit, Maraschino to the day—I found a crushed egg.
You need some stability to push out of any situation—right?—and chicks need an intact egg to plant their feet and cap their egg with all the neck muscle they can muster. The egg was crushed. Think of how the glaze can crack on a piece of porcelain—you get this mosaic of fractures and a bunch of broken fragments while all still remains counter-intuitively intact. That was the egg, broken but intact.
The chick was still alive, just wrapped in membrane. Her beak was already begging for food, not sure of her situation and whether she was outside the egg just yet or not. One flipper flapped dumbly, free of its confines.
I pulled the egg downstairs and laid out a towel on the counter. I dumped a canister of instruments looking for a pair of tweezers. Chick was vocalizing, pumping its legs against a broken shell, searching for footing. Piece by piece, I parsed away the shell, held my breath and started peeling off the membrane.
“Please don’t bleed, please don’t bleed, please don’t bleed.”
I freed the chick into my cupped hand, curled and still embryonic, wet and in the shape of its shell. There would have to be hours before it stretched out and lifted its head. You can’t greet the world right away with open eyes and at salute, not always.
The chick bled, but I stopped the bleeding and tucked her into an incubator for the night. In a few hours she was dry and resting peacefully. She was the last thing I checked on tonight before leaving.
I did what all the brilliant people that were let go at SeaWorld today have done, what I learned from them. I checked my animals, I checked my locks, I checked my temps. I closed the door and began worrying.
On the way out, there were all these flashing lights and trucks parked around manholes. Workmen with reels of galvanized cables and blueprints spread out on tables. They’re working on the pipes, I guess, construction vehicles up and down Mission Bay. A SeaWorld truck pulls up, and this guy I thought of randomly—I don’t know his name, but I thought of him randomly because I figure there are night-shift guys being laid off, too, and how is it I’ve worked alongside them for 21 years but don’t know their names—he stopped as I was walking out. He leaned his head out the window.
“Good to see you,” he said.
I stopped and smiled, waved.
“Hey—good to see you, too.”

anxiety · city · cooking · depression · family · favorites · food · home · neighborhood · penguins · wife

How to Make Tomato Soup in the New Year

When dragging in the fire hoses, I knock over a penguin and penguins—being like bowling pins—are easy to knock over. Also like bowling pins, they’re not quick to right themselves. They make instead a display of their frustration with flailing pink feet and wings doing snow-angel things in the ice.


I right the Adelie, tugging on his flipper and setting him upright.

“Get up, Kid. Sorry.”

The Adelie chaws his disagreement, eyes widened and head feathers splayed while I ready the hose.

I like this particular penguin. He certainly doesn’t like me currently, and says so.

I’m not caffeinated enough.

When properly righted, the Adélie stretches to his full length, blue and gleaming-bodied. He defiantly pins his wings to his sides and begins a reprimand. His crural feathers are in disarray when standing on tip-toe, with a head gigantic and eyes big.  The rest of his body is evolutionarily trained to look compact and impenetrable. He’s mad and fisticuff-ready.

The bird chatters a long discontent and I say again, attaching a nozzle to the length of the jacketed hose, “Sorry, Dude.”

Also: “Oh, shut up.”

I’m agitated.

I’m in the penguin exhibit and needing to thaw out the ice that I laid down yesterday for the birds—a few tons of it—needing to erase things down to concrete before laying on more snow. There’s always this process of whitening the exhibit. ‘Rinse-and-repeat’ and ‘do-it-again.’ The birds are goldfish-like, rediscovering the castle every time. They bury their heads in the fresh laid drifts as if the snow were something irretrievably new.

The Adélie’s still mad with white eye-rings dilated. He menacingly snakes his head back and forth in a prolonged and disgruntled filibuster.

The bird’s equal to my boot-stop, somewhere mid-calf, and remains the source of many bruises. A long time ago, he memorized the start of my calf—just north of where the boot ends—and has capitalized on his discovery. He’s a small and angry creature, growling with what sounds like a bone in his throat. His beak is a weapon. My purpled calf can be submitted as evidence. I start the hose and work on thawing the ice.

(It’s said the Inuit tribe has forty different words for forty different types of snow. I appreciate the lexiconical thoroughness. Snow certainly has different forms. There’s ‘aput’ and ‘piqsirpoq’—’pack snow’, ‘drift snow’).

Meanwhile, we have a machine that creates ice for the penguins, a gigantic set-up, with these digital read-outs that analyze conductivity within the briny wellspring, probes that measure salinity and temperature. The snow collects upwards in a large silo before finally being delivered into the exhibit.

The Adélie settles, folds his feathers back upon his ears. Our standoff is temporarily over. I continue thawing the ice and need deal with the snow machine later–more hoses, unfortunately. Always the lugging of things back and forth in this penguin neé goldfish forgetfulness game.

Thawing the ice takes a few hours. It’s time enough to think, which can either be good or bad dependent on ‘aput’ or ‘piqsorpoq’, those specific Inuit words for snow. It could also be good or bad depending on whether or not the pillow was kind the night prior.

My mind wanders. I remember this article I read regarding the fast-melting glaciers, the ice caps that have been disappearing for years. In recent times, the thaw has been more sudden. Everything is in quick-dissolve it seems. The guano-stained snow I’m currently flushing down the drain entertains a currently dumb and nascent parallel.

Bodies and artifacts are unearthed with the glaciers melting, leathery corpses the color and wrinkle of dates.  The bodies are sometimes big as mastodons. Also exhumed are the long-hibernated pathogens—these needling and small things—,which can suddenly aerosolize, becoming renewedly dangerous after eons of rest. Long after we’ve lost immunity.

(Jenn asked me over dinner one night: ‘What happens when it comes back?’ which ruined the cheese course. It was, however, an important question. Things have a way of returning).

While finishing the thaw, the once-buried herringbones collect over the drains. They are later the things penguins will pick at as items of both morbid and culinary interest. Meanwhile, the Adélie is no longer agitated; I lug in the snow hose to blow snow, hopefully to keep things frozen.


The light’s streaming from the east, the sun arcing higher now in the New Year. I’ve always disliked the easterly light. Its shadows cast westward, reliably short beneath the front and east-facing windows. Shadows get stuck in the gable and beneath the plants.

It’s a stubborn circadian thing, my dislike of the morning. I’m not synched up to the dawn. The sunrise to me is exposure, never a new beginning. I prefer the deep and bas-relief a setting sun instead provides. It carves new places to hide comfortably.

When Jenn and I moved in together, there was a particular homesickness that accompanied our living situation. It was our first run at adulting, us trying to afford a futon, a bed, groceries even. There were weeks when the bank account was whittled to $3.95. Less than a fiver to last us until the following Friday. Jenn would often retreat home on the weekends to do laundry in a house peopled by her brothers, her mom and her dad. It was light there most hours. Our apartment, meanwhile, was always dark, even in the daytime. Sandwiched between two neighboring buildings, the apartment was forever in a constant and concrete eclipse. Even the fern died, though I watered it religiously.

The real dark was best, come 6 p.m. or so. Out the front window, the step-stairs disappeared and the next-door lights clicked on, visible only between slats in the fence.

The under-girding of the upstairs balcony partially blocked the front window, so the view was minimal: picket boards, two erstwhile hawthorn shrubs and an anemic bougainvillea snaking its way upward from our doorstep to the second-floor railings.

Nighttime was relief. Always the stereo on and a record spinning, shallots and garlic hitting the pan in my first attempts at cooking. The kitchen was stubbornly ‘Harvest Gold’ though it was 2001.

(I won’t mention the cockroaches–the ones that had made their way into the oven displays, eventually getting stuck there in the little windows, unable to get out, regardless looking comfortable).

Get old enough and you realize there may be only certain intersections of time and geography where you feel comfortable. All this while  your chemistries require accordance to a specific set of spatial and circadian demands.

Is it just me?  I’ve historically disliked 3 pm. I dislike eastern light, too.  Also flat places–those cursedly flat streets with houses graded on the equal. I become agitated, almost agoraphobic, without walk-ups and the cover of trees.

When first looking for a rental house, Jenn increasingly pregnant, Jenn called me at work and said she’d found a place. THE place. It was on Greg Street, and the house was nice enough, but with a pink ceramic bathroom and a screened-in back porch needing repair. The house was on a horribly even street, one block up from where an airliner had crash-landed the year after I was born. The plane: it scraped the street greater than level.

(This is my particular, but historically accurate, embellishment. A PSA airliner crashed and left a memorial plaque on the sidewalk. A friend of mine lived a block east that exact year. Coming home from a shift at the local hospital, she found body parts on her front lawn. Her shift had already been burdened with body parts so the forearm on her porch was something superfluous).

I expressed my particular and neurotic, “No,” a quiet shake of the head, and Jenn cried in frustration because we’d been looking a long time for a house in this neighborhood. It should’ve been a ‘yes’ from me, pink toilet regardless.

We did find a house, though, on Herman Ave., and only a mile up. It had a hundred year-old sycamore overhanging the roof, also a minor walk-up to the front door. There was a gable, and the house was elevated. Had there been a pergola, some florid cover, it would’ve been perfect. In absence of a roseate bathroom,we signed the lease. Eight years later, it remains our home.


Jenn and I switch seats at breakfast. Jesus–this glaring window, the insufferable east light again, and the kids all  ramped up. This was supposed to be the easy and enjoyable part of the day. A Benedict at ‘Great Maple’ before managing a drive through the neighboring hills. North, and slightly east. Finn is wrapped around my neck, Cayde’s something non-stop. There’s also the fact of banging spoons and cutlery on the floor.

Last night, I lost the Great Book Debate. For the nineteenth time, Cayde read ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ in lieu of anything new or substantial. It’s a calorically empty book, and I’m aggravated at myself for being aggravated. Cayde puts down books in speeds I can’t fathom. Cayde’s sometimes like me, other times remarkably not. I’ve gotta stop expecting to see me in him all the damn time.

Shut the fuck up, Thom. Cayde’s Cayde.

(Still, I got him ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ especial and he seemed so excited when I talked it up as much as I did…)

I’m devoting myself fully into hating ‘Wimpy Kid’ while I should instead be enjoying breakfast. There are forkfuls of chèvre-stuffed zucchini blossoms, balsamic tomatoes. Goddamn ‘Wimpy Kid’ and all its stick figure drawings. Now every kids’ book has fifty percent fewer words. I try to focus on the plate in front of me. I’m not doing myself any good.

The potatoes have herbs d’provence and the Benedict is built atop a pop-over, so there is something lavender and airy about the plate, the poached eggs neatly trimmed of their egg-white tails. The tomatoes are roasted properly, but I’m in disagreement with the strawberry reduction.

Cayden, meanwhile, has taken up a coloring book and his crayon is cherry wax-flavored; Finn is tucked into a pancake, and it’s simply got maple syrup, a pat of butter.

I think the pop-over too eggy, the window too bright. On a Saturday morning, this is just way too much grey cloud thinking. Over the top. Arrogant.  Because I find the reduction a quick and neat approximation, not an actual reduction,  my cloud takes on a funneling under-shape. I’m an asshole for judging the line cook. He didn’t reduce the sauce thick enough to properly coat a spoon. Strawberries aren’t even in season.

(There’s only a 180 occupant load currently overspilling the leatherette booths, also the constant and tintinnating sound of forks against plates. The waitress is in training and the coffee–which I’ve had too much of–makes me anxious. I’m sure the line cook has to be hustling back there behind the swinging aluminum doors).

I’m restless. We’re going to look at houses to live in.  I have to switch seats because Finn’s pressing against my face now in his idea of a hug. His breath is something different with new and soft teeth—all puppyish—with his mouth awkwardly open-mawed against my cheekbone and lower-eyelid.

Jenn and I switch seats. I eat my food while the kitchen hastens dishes to the front of the house. I continue to hate eastern light. I continue to be a jerk. I hate myself for this weed of agitation that keeps springing up, this goddamn agitation goddamn.


Tierrasanta translates roughly to ‘Holy Ground.’ It exists back and behind the community where I grew up, on the northeastern slope of Cowle’s Mountain. To be more specific, Tierrasanta lies north of both Cowles’ and Fortuna, nestled in the upper plateaus south of the naval airfields. Tierrasanta overlooks a valley that was long-ago both dairyland and floodplain. It’s now an unwisely-engineered interstate with a parallel and adjunct business district, a thoroughfare lined with big-box outlets and mixed-utility complexes.

There’s a murmuration of birds over the Best Buy. We see this from a ridge at the last town home community we’re both visiting and ranking, and the birds do their thing, approximating the respiration of bellows, seeming to displace air when they needle in tight, the flock reducing itself to a line. Best Buy is neon at ten o’clock in the morning, which is absolutely unnecessary in the daylight.

The townhouses are ok. Nice. The brass tacks about living in San Diego: it’s downright unaffordable. We have monies passed down in that guilty thing we call inheritance; and while we meantime make a decent living ourselves, we still can’t buy 800 sq. ft. in a place we want, and really we don’t want much. It’s a certain brand of obscene. The only available option is to buy a house with a shared wall, and with paid-for maintenance; a shrunken patio as excuse for a backyard; and with communal pathways that approximate a front yard.

It could be convenient, and something you might want as a forty year-old, if unwilling to do the fixer-upper dream and while having a severe adversion to mowing the lawn. It could also be just a bummer, depending on how you convince yourself.

It’s this mid-life compromise, when you ask: does it really come down to this? Peggy Lee singing, ‘Is that all there is?’ while you hope the wall you share with your neighbor involves laundry or the kitchen, not the bedroom because keeping things at half-volume seems an unfortunate concession. To be forty and fucking on the quiet seems something adolescent, not something belonging to a responsible homeowner with a mortgage.

“The walkway’s nice.”

“You don’t have to do maintenance, at least.”

“From here it’s an easy drive to Mira Mesa.”

“All the good food’s there.”

“Yeah, true.”

The birds do their thing over the ‘Best Buy’ and the cottonwoods are grown up enough, also the sycamores. The chapparal is relegated to the valleys, the buckwheat repeating its uninterrupted seven-year bloom.


When I was younger, all the news coming from Tierrasanta involved kids finding live artillery shells while exploring canyons, exploding themselves—just horrible news—and now Tierrasanta is houses upon houses of development, an implosion of living spaces.

We drive around and there are exactly four strip malls: a pizzeria and a Hawaiian BBQ and a haircut store. It makes me weirdly nervous that there are so many houses and so few storefronts. What would it mean to be stranded in a crowd with so few facilities, and so few people you can greet at the counter by name? A guy at the last complex walks out of his garage with a white beard and a cigarette, and he waves amiably.

Jet-washing jets land across the way and I get the growing sense that I don’t want to live here, but I wave back to the white-beard guy. He seems nice.


As a kid, I used to sit on my neighbor’s roof and watch the jets carom over Tierrasanta during practice, the annual air show. At night there were sonic booms, unexplained, because we lived near the airfield and there was the constant and midnight rumbling of secret planes taking off. The B-1’s they wouldn’t tell us about yet. ‘Nighttime planes’, I remember calling them.

(This dream I had. I was in a fuselage, without wings. A metal tube flying low over the ocean, and the ocean below dark save for whitecaps. The whitecaps were in a messy diamond-pattern justfrom the wind’s interference. The ocean was certainly Atlantic, not Pacific. I could tell by nature of its mucky gray-brown color. Suddenly the water threatened the plane, rising, me in a seat trapped. I heard the water hit the undercarriage of the plane in a metallic slap before the pilot finally elevated the fuselage upward. Afterward, there was the sound of an ocean arguing against itself before a welcome subsiding. The plane then rose and rose and while still wingless).


At work, the snow is wet and coming out of the hose all wrong. Too much salt in the brine, else too many clouds on the horizon. The humidity throws everything off when making stuff frozen. The penguins don’t care and just revel in the newfound ice. The Adélies bury their heads in the snow and they’re characters: running, hopping, sliding. They wriggle around in the slush, upsetting the snow before it freezes proper to the concrete. Super-alive, they wave their heads back and forth in agreement with this all.

When I clock out, the snow is messied, and an Adélie barks.

I put my bags down and Jenn looks anxious in the kitchen. She wears an apron, which I never do, wooden spoon in hand. I kiss my kids in turn. Finn tromps up and down in place while exclaiming, “Dah-dee!” He always hugs me from the side; Cayde meanwhile hugs me square in the chest, nowadays too hard, and I have to remind him that I don’t like it when he pile-drives me in the sternum, not exactly.

“Gentle, gentle, Dude.”

I sense something is wrong, though the kitchen smells nice, like garlic or browned butter.

I cock my head.

“You okay, Babe?” and she says she just needs to tell me something, ushering me into the room.

(For the longest time, Jenn couldn’t furrow her brow; currently it’s that biggest tell that she’s lost an admirable amount of weight: that she can now perplex her forehead. It’s also a tell that we’ve grown older together, worries like strata finding places just north above the eyes).

The apron she’s wearing is ‘Hello Kitty’, which is cute. She puts her spoon down.

“Thom, Karina  died last night. In a car accident.”

Karina was the girl who opened the front door when we first looked at this house: a cherubic ten-year old with pretty brown eyes and a hint of belly showing, her shirt having ridden up. “Hi!” she said. Her sister was sleeping in a carrier on the table, blanketed in crochet, and with her nose as big as the divot underneath her nose, that being how disproportionate infants are in their disproportion.


As it would be for years, with Karina smashing her face into the window-screens of the back-rooms: “Hi, Cayde!” “Hi, Finn!” She loved those boys, and her smile was big, her voice bigger. She would hug them with her mantle of dark hair.

The dark eyeliner of her under-lid grew longer and more curlicued as she got older, Amy Winehouse-like, and last I saw of Karina, she borrowed Jenn’s curling iron and fixed her hair in a hurry in the stand-alone laundry-room, the door shut behind her. She said, “Thanks,” and handed me back the iron, still warm.  She ran, ducking down the driveway, secreted by the cover of parked cars, running into the street forever and far away. .


It’s on the news, the tail end of the car distant from the streetlight that separated the front of the car from the back, the chassis otherwise crushed upwards with seats against the ceiling. The news was stupid reporting that the kids were alive when they were checked into the hospital. No, they weren’t. God bless them, no they weren’t. They had no idea what happened.

How will our pulses end, how will they; I get scared they end with spines and teeth and things red-colored.

(I get frightened, really frightened for my kids, and that everything moves in near misses and that collisions are sometimes expected; that things are frozen, then dangerously thawed out; that there are extinctions upon extinctions, but also the not-extinctions, when days go maybe according to plan; when it’s sunny out, when the leaves are in  unfurl or could otherwise be crisped).

Cayden: “Daddy: can you make me some tomato soup?”

It’s a simple request.

“Sure, Bud.”

I harbor my bangs into a messy knot. I concentrate–and this is beyond important—I roast the tomatoes, San Marzanos, with Muscovado sugar and thyme. I caramelize the shallots to a purple-brown, I reduce the stock to half; I chiffonade the basil, make a roux. I add cream, white pepper—everything I can that’s a halfway relevant ingredient—while still pretending this is all basic. Carrots.


“Yes, Cayde.”

(We sit in the nook, which is white and simple, and I’m in love with my kid—something also simple).

“This is the best soup in the world, Daddy. Can you teach me how to make it?”

“Of course, Cayde.”

I say this, knowing I exactly can’t, nor ever won’t. This soup, it’s not simple.

Down syndrome · job · penguins · people


The New Guy is not a new guy, in the sense that he’s done this line of work before–raising penguins that is—which is certainly a strange thing for anyone to have on their resume. New Guy has a decade and a half on me, having raised some of the birds I now give geriatric medications to, back when the penguins were in quarantine and freshly arrived from Cape Crozier; before my arrival, even, into the world. NG is cantankerous to a fault, though he also has a penchant for tossing around rattle-throated niceties on the regular.

Me: Thanks for helping me with that.
NG: Hey–anything for a pal. I’d take a bullet in the head for you.

Me: What’s up, friend?
NG: Aloha, mi simpatico!

(Which is the sort of mashed-up patois that makes NG him).

For lunch, he invariably has yogurt, a piece of fruit, and a cigarette.

NG: I’m gonna go smoke in the ‘Sitting Section’ now.


NG: Well, off to the Leper Colony.

He smokes cheap tobacco while reading the news on his phone. We confer often on’s recent offerings, else what is published on The Daily Beast, Slate, Atlantic, Alternet. He eschews social media but is savvy to the left-leaning politico blogs. We both have grey hair and progressive tendencies, why I’m his chosen simpatico. The guy knows his Sanders; he also know his music, and we relate about—maybe—that Kate Bush song which just came on the radio (The ‘Hounds of Love’ being his Desert Island disc), or The Waterboys’ ‘Life of Sundays.’ His ears prick when there are certain mechanical resonations in the building.

“Hear that? That’s the first three notes of ‘Love Cats.’ Y’know: that Cure song.”

The other day, we were leaving work, and he was singing a ‘Jim Carroll Band’ tune, ‘singing’ being the chosen misnomer for reciting tunelessly: “Those were the people who died, died/ Those were the people who died/ All my friends/ They died.’

“Hey! I love Jim Carroll” I say, punching him on the shoulder. “Didja ever see ‘Basketball Diaries’?

NG was shouldering a khaki backpack and holding an almost pitiable cupcake in his hands. He was off to see his new friend, this elderly woman who, by his definition, walks around like a ‘fucking upside-down ‘J’. He had found her toppled over on the street the other week, walker awry, and with a goose egg forming on her head.
NG: “She was on the sidewalk and everyone was gathered round not doing a goddamn thing. She was saying, ‘Help me up’ so I just helped her up.” NG shrugs at this point in the narrative.

He helped her up, and drove her to the nursing home down the block where, by her estimation, the people running the joint are assholes—them and her goddamn son. No one allows her to smoke despite her at least seven and fiercely independent decades on the planet. Her husband’s already in ashes—why not allow her to ash on these latter and last days, when she’s in a neck brace after back surgery and also a bump-headed curiosity on the sidewalk.

New Guy and her have a pact and sneak smokes in the stairwell. She doesn’t talk much, by his report. But he brings her chocolate and cigarettes, and much-needed company, certainly.

“I liked Basketball Diaries. Think I read the book, too.”

I’m usually the guy who champions the book over the movie, but I admit to not reading the novel; me and NG chat about DeCaprio films and how I prefer his earlier work.

I dunno,” NG drawls, “I’ve never been disappointed too much by recent.”

“Loved Basketball Diaries, and the one where he’s Rimbaud. He grew a jaw, and then I didn’t like his films so much.”

He interjects: “Oh-but then there was that Gilbert Grape crap.”

“I love Gilbert Grape! He was great in that!”

And NG is holding that cupcake and poised to exit work, and I like leaving work with him so we can exchange parting remarks about the RNC and bitch about the middling mammal that is Trump’s hair, as well the lower-echelon crustacean which certainly owns Trump’s brain-stem. We have this thing.

NG owns a truck with Hawaii plates, windows always cranked open to air out the upholstery, I suppose; and before walking out to our respective cars, he voices:

“Gilbert Grape. Proof that any actor can play a ‘TARD.”

A co-worker in the room cackled immediately. “Right?” she encouraged. “So true!”

I considered bristling.

The night before, and in company of a family who also parent a child with Down Syndrome, we discussed the ‘R’ word.

“I can handle ‘retarded,’ was the shrug, ‘Just not retard.’ There being a difference between a watered-down adjective and the direct epithet.

I used to do a great Corky impression years ago. A party trick, when ‘Life Goes On’ was on TV. I would say, smirkedly, after rolling out full-Corky: “I’m going to be cursed with a Down’s kid,” never realizing how awful I was with such tongue-rooted insensitivity, my failed language, the fact that I would have a child with Down Syndrome, and that it would ultimately be so much more a blessing than a curse. I was foolish.

I was a dick.

(Me and the New Guy have grey hair. We are old, him more than me).

‘Tard,” he said. I didn’t correct him, or my co-worker exactly. I’m only corrected by virtue of my own situation, and what I’ve learned in first-person. The words bother me, but I can’t legitimately re-shape anyone else’s lips.

I said: “Please mind my Son.” The only thing I could say. It was not a reprimand, but NG ceased talking, and the laughing stopped.

Me and the NG walked out together and he was still holding the cupcake for his new friend, the broken lady; we were still simpatico. He confessed he was socially retarded. I was convinced he was correct—I didn’t like how he said it at all–but let it be and patted his shoulder good-bye while he left to go give an old lady a pastry while I left to pick up my kid, there ultimately being some kinduv kindness.

job · penguins · people


Conference Room 125 in California’s State Capitol Building is outfitted with ten-foot doors and ornate molding, and there are chairs upholstered in green leather with applied nailhead trim. The framed paintings are oil–not replicas–and only the conference table, by comparison, is something of disappointment. One might expect mahogany but it’s crafted of a more pedestrian wood and sheeted in glass overlay.
We’ve invaded the place, visiting with a menagerie of animals. A Eurasian Eagle Owl holds court, perching with an air of regality on a corner stump.  All day I hear interns and politico handlers make jokes comparing the zoological and political professions. Stumping, handling, the fact of animals as part and parcel to each respective vocation.

Inventory includes: a kinkajou, an opossum, a porcupine, two owls, two penguins, and a bearded dragon. There’s a kangaroo, too, that takes repose in the assembly room, snuffling the  jacquard carpet. She has a joey that’s now so big, its ears and legs don’t fit the pouch anymore. Instead appendages stick out in rakish and adorable angles. The joey’s along for the ride and her mom paws at the carpet as she did the lawn outside the capitol, grubbing in the green threads as she would clumps of grass. The mother roo is so earnest in her affection of people that navigating the office furniture is something both nonchalant and eager; she accepts every bid for attention while carrying around a fulcrumous tail that gives all movement an unexpected grace. Incidentally, kangaroos are the only animal on the planet whose heart rate slows when in motion.

I talk with Speaker Toni Atkins who, briefly, has a kinkajou on her shoulder. She is saved disgrace when the kinkajou’s keeper notices a raised tail and when the keeper—in deft motion—removes the kinkajou by its prehensile extremity, simultaneously palming a sudden and voluminous bowel movement. Animals are what they are. Atkins is preoccupied with the penguin and so doesn’t notice that her dress, perhaps hair, were almost ruined were it not for the keeper’s self-sacrifice. We are guano technicians if nothing else sometimes.

In the executive room, there are more visitors. I’m asked to bring a penguin to the governor’s office, in which case a meeting of the Executive Fellows is interrupted. The gubernatorial conference room features a long farmhouse table, but also sundry dog bowls because Governor Jerry Brown brings his corgis and borgis to work. The table is lined with well-tailored and surprisingly young professionals, shouldered in almost ridiculous fashion round the workings, hunched over papers and wafting a soft cumulus of bergamot and agarwood.

Governor Brown is nonplussed, though he certainly has been disrupted, and he invites the penguin to the table. He exudes a James Caan gruffness and has particularly close-cut hair. The surreality of a sudden penguin in the room deserves remark, and I say as much to the Governor. We then exchange identical wounds, which are not surreal but matter of fact, he having been bitten by his new borgi pup this morning, and me having my wrist reddened by a penguin nip a few hours prior. He shows me his bandaged purlicue, white tape in between the thumb and forefinger.

“You know those puppies, how they have soft teeth.”

The penguin runs up and down the table to much amusement, its tamping feet making their particular slapping sounds, and I hope to God my bird doesn’t shit on any important legislative papers. Instead, the penguin suddenly finds a centerpiece she needs do battle with—a basket of antlers and wicker balls that grabs her attention—and she pecks at it determinedly.

Governor Brown’s borgi trots into the room and we conclude there, feathers and fur in the same room and with the Executive Fellows laughing, cell phone cameras on point.

The day will end with my second time on an airplane in less than twenty-four hours, leaving SMF for SD when in the morning it had been a more alphabetical affair, SD to SMF.

But midday, my colleague Lara and I sit in the shade outside the Capitol Building for a lunch away from the animals and—it being the late spring growing season—the Capitol arboretum is rife with new and verdant leaves, something we both remark as we laconically gnaw our sandwiches. We’re sitting in the welcome shadow of a needle-leaf tree next to a bronze statue commemorating the Sisters of Mercy.

There is the disjoint of buildings surrounding the Capitol: roofs with patinas, also dilapidated gables. In between there are pre-cast concrete facades and curtain walls of reflective glass. It’s an interesting downtown, certainly incommensurate, like how there’s a rusted-out fire escape across from the new and sleek sushi joint. The bicycle racks outside are something also soft-toothed, like Jerry Brown’s borgis.

In the ascent leaving SMF there are fields like geometry outside the window, acres of humus dissected in neat right angles by aqueducts, cruor-browns bordered in cypress green. There are tall tree lines planted to block the wind, just opposite of what we need, we being also a tall thing only up up in an airplane and where wind is necessary. Things wink out of sight once we pass the clouds and when already it is dark.

I’m reading an old book of poetry to pass the time—Sharon Olds—and I’m writing down the words and phrases I find interesting.



‘Taut percale.’

‘The craft of oblivion.’

At 39,000 feet, the pilot announces that we’re at 39,000 feet and I read: ‘He looks at me the way Houdini studied a box to learn the way out, then smiled and let himself be manacled.’

I hate being trapped this high up and in a fuselage. I have leg-room which means I’m nowhere near an exit door, but on the way down and when the avenue lights are acceptably in focus, I feel ok–commensurate–and my penguin calls a quiet ‘hoo.’

job · penguins


Twenty years ago, I punched my first time-card. The clock was a boxy metal affair and aligning the card just so was a mathematic I proved bad at. My time-in/time-out punches were often overlaid in the same cell, and in mimeograph purple; the cards themselves were of the same card-stock you’d find in library card catalogues: manila. Mimeographs and manila card catalogues are all fast-dying things.

Before my SeaWorld job, I worked under the table and got paid in twenties. I wrote essays for my high school English teacher and did research for her in university libraries. There was also that one summer I helped my friend’s dad build a two-hundred foot retaining wall in his backyard and it was the first time I found myself trim after a prolonged and adolescent pudginess.

SeaWorld was my first real job in that FICA was involved and I was cut paychecks on the regular. I made exactly $4.25 an hour. My job involved sweeping popcorn hulls in the varied stadiums, directing people traffic, selling fish in the feeder booths. I loved it, especially retiring to the car at near-midnight on summer nights and when there was a parking lot culture beneath the fireworks. The nights were always salt-air sticky and how many late night/ early mornings I spent talking far past my scheduled shifts with accidental friends when leaning against car hoods. There was a Denny’s down the street which is designed to be the after-hours hangout. The waitresses knew us by our ill-fitted windbreakers and obvious name tags.

I met my future-wife at company orientation. She chose a seat next to me because I looked like someone she’d like to know. (On a serendipitous note, and a story I like to tell, I had a picture of her dad hanging on my wall for most my childhood: he was the athletic trainer for the Chargers when they were at their winningest, and I had a thumbtacked poster of the ’84 Chargers on my bedroom wall).

The lack of responsibility while first understanding responsibility was a great and questionable suspension, like a bridge to nowhere exactly soon. So much fun and abandon, those days.

I worked Park Ops and the Education Department. I worked Employment (I actually ‘hired’ the people who would later be my tutors in Aviculture). When finishing college, I had late-night gigs at Shamu stadium overseeing the killer whales. There were absurd moments I had my typewriter at orca poolside, finishing essays before clocking out at eight o’ clock in the morning and driving up the freeway for a full day of university.I knew all the orcas by their particular respirations. Kasatka was my favorite. I’d lean against the glass with my typewriter and she’d hover above my shoulder, my essays on Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ being THAT interesting. She’d read my writing and, occasionally, she’d spit a squid over the plexi-wall which was either complaint or particular playfulness. She had a habit of sticking her tongue out, curled, and this was her laugh. She talked in an echolocative whisper, which, most people don’t know can in fact be a whisper.

I got the penguin job. Things happen when you’re busy making other plans. This was certainly temporary, I would say.

That was sixteen years ago.

At lunch a number of months ago, we were talking beards, facial hair having only been allowed at SeaWorld a few years back. I grew the first beard of my life because all the guys are supposed to grow one at the Penguin Encounter. It’s just the thing: the Polar Beard. And my beard was red for exactly a year before it’s fast disappearance. My friend, a younger keeper, called me out on my self-chastising, me eschewing my wrinkling eyes, and the fact that my beard is growing in it’s whiteness.

“Dude: it’s iconic,” he said, meaning my beard.

The red has certainly retreated, and the white has claimed all my chin. The left side of my moustache is currently (ant)arctic-frosted and I’m losing color fast.

On and along a PR trip, another friend said: ‘We’re kinduv elder statesmen, now, in our jobs’ which is an interesting bent. I used to sweep up popcorn, but know I have an enviable keep and it’s easy for me to talk keeper talk, there being no stadium chains to pull or people to necessarily be polite to. Globulins, hematocrit, albumin, WBC, You gain sophistication and you lose pigment and penguins are your friends.
You find yourself twenty years later and ask: ‘how did I get here?’ I open the PE door with its solid ch-chunk. Never gets old. Walking into the exhibit, I mean.

Little Man, my favorite penguin, explodes into an ecstatic display once I step onto the ice. You don’t give this up for anything.

I have my favorite animals; I also have all the people I’ve met along the way, and they remain. SeaWorld: thanks for the twenty years, and my wife and the half my life. I’d probably still clock in wrong on the old machines. 1995 and 2015 would probably be transposed on the same line.

anxiety · job · penguins


2016_penguins_LBchicks-teen-yellIt’s chick season at work, which means there’s a number of round-headed kids in the nursery with pencil-necks, wobbly and with after-thoughts of flippers at this point. They’re in varying degrees of smallness reliant upon heat lamps. They topple over easily: clumsy toes, big heads.
Taking care of week-old penguins is both rewarding and terrifying: to dole out meals from syringes in 1cc increments, watching and hoping those wide-open mouths don’t well up, or that bellies don’t decide to be too full, or that sated chicks don’t decide suddenly their house is too hot after a big meal–it’s constant anxiety. You change towels, tip heat lamps just so, adjust the flow of a syringe because a chick may be thrifty, else a lazy feeder.
You wish upon wish you don’t screw this up while the chicks all present differently, curling up into corners after meals, or maybe craning a post-gusto head. They sometimes sigh big as if their houses were too hot, or they may sigh simply because we all sigh big after a satisfying meal.
You write things down, double-guess yourself, read fecals like tea leaves, and adjust that heat-lamp for the eleventh time. Near ten minutes after feeding time, the chicks stop their solicitous wobblings, their muted chirpings, and choose crash-out positions–like finding the perfect post-Bacchanal couch or piece of floor: ‘Hey–I’ll just sleep here, ok? Cool.’
And when you get ten or so kids down for the count with their ridiculous flippers out and their faces mashed into terry-cloth beds, you can breathe. Sortuv. You’ll wait forty-five minutes, and sometimes after you’ve clocked out. You may drive home feeling ok.
Then there’s always 2 a.m. when you jolt awake and worry; then 6 a.m. when you feed your anxiety with a disquieting amount of coffee.
Then: 9 a.m. when you arrive again at work and the kids are all right; still you’ll look ahead to 9 p.m. when—while driving home—you’ll worry again they’re not. It’ll cycle over and over until everyone’s full-grown and the nursery door gets locked for the season.
You’ll inherit a few gray hairs, if not–a new constellation of ulcers. You’ll also get those nights when—while turning the click signal that compasses toward your driveway—you still halfway smile while your brow suggests a frown.