Animal Kingdom

animal

As I child, I poured through the pages of encyclopedias for fun. I was endlessly fascinated with words themselves, with their variable origins and meanings. Crisp letters here and silent, hidden letters there. Synonyms and homonyms, syllables and participles. I was amazed by the very structure of them. Even as a young child, I had an incredible sense of understanding that not only would I never know all of the words in my own language, but that there were hundreds of other languages out there, each with words that could never translate into mine. This realization left me awestruck.

I remember being similarly overwhelmed by the vast kingdom of animals out there. As animals evolved in different environments, they adapted with skills and shifts in their very biological chemistries in order to survive. A spot, a ruffle, a horn, a tuft, or a pouch generally meant a completely different species. Turtles could be painted, box, or snapping; trout could be rainbow, brown, or brook; owls could be white-plumed, tiny and burrowing, or fierce and screeching. In every biosphere, there were creatures that dug deep into earth and trees, those that flew above and stretched their wings to the sky, those that nibbled on the green growing grass, and those that fed on all. The circle of life, from bottom feeder to great predator, in every realm from desert to ocean to cave. And it all adapted around water, and sun. I could flip through a book full of butterflies and look at the hundreds of wing pattern variations, and wonder for days at how they all happened that way and where they came from.

When I first became aware of the super powers animals contained, my brain was arrested with the sheer possibility of it all. Chameleons camouflaged, monarch butterflies flew the length of the world in a span of generations, and cicadas slept for years at a time. Squirrels foraged using cheek pouches to carry extra, spider monkeys had tails that could be used liked hands, and camels could go for days without water. And the more obscure the animal, the more I was fascinated by them. There were sword-billed hummingbirds, binturongs that smelled like buttered popcorn, and bizarre red-lipped batfish that lurked on the ocean floor.

My love for heroes began shortly after that. Not surprisingly, the majority of them seemed to be based on animals and their abilities. Batman, Penguin, and Catwoman. Spider-Man and Ant-Man. Wolverine. Ninja Turtles. Black Panther, Cheetah, Killer Croc. And, as always, the more obscure the character, the more I rejoiced in them: the Beetle, the Vulture, Kangaroo, Leap-Frog, Puma, Squirrel Girl, the Mandrill, the White Rabbit, the Owl, and the Walrus. From there, I found myself creating my own heroes and villains, with their own animal powers. It was so easy, as there were so many to choose from. The electric eel, the angler-fish, the goblin shark, the monitor, the ocelot, the maned wolf, the mosquito, the starfish, the capybara, the ibex. It was as if the possibilities were endless. My ideas filled entire notebooks.

Since having children of my own, my love of animals has been reawakened. My sons J (9) and A (6) are endlessly asking questions about animals. We pick up educational videos on them and talk about the special skills of each. We discuss endangered species, habitats, and species diversity. They make me think and learn even more. A year or so ago, we started playing a game initially called Farm, then Farm and Zoo, then Farm and Zoo and Aquarium. Now we just call it the Animal Kingdom. We began collecting animal toys, little plastic figurines, realistic in their detail, and we began arranging them by habitat. It started with the obvious, pigs, cows, and horses, then diversified into black bears, Siberian tigers, and timberwolves. We have adventures with the creatures, and the human characters who come to visit them with nefarious plots.

Lately, though, the game has turned more complex, as the denizens of the Animal Kingdom continue to grow. The boyfriend and I have been giving the boys new animals every other weekend or so, creatures to add to the ranks, and it’s almost as we are having a contest to see who can go the most obscure. We don’t just hand the boys the animals, we take time to learn about the creatures together, we draw pictures, and we have active conversations. Three weekends ago, I gave the boys a wombat and a wallaby; the next weekend, Mike gave them a reticulated giraffe and a gharial; I followed that up with a cassowary and a rhinocerous hornbill. We fully admit that it is we, the adults, who are the most obsessed at this point, but I find myself planning out how I can teach the boys about the pygmy hippopotamus, the giant anteater, the pangolin, and the kudu in the following few months, and it fills me with joy.

This weekend, I took a solo trip to New Mexico. With a few hours to kill between the landing of the plane and the check-in time for my hotel, I took myself to the zoo. I wandered, a grown man in love with animals again, and I watched with fascination, still amazed at the variance and complexity. The baby chimpanzee wrapped itself in a blanket and turned somersaults for several minutes while its win sibling cuddled tightly with a grandmother chimp in the corner. The polar bear danced back and forth in a repeated rhythm, taking a measured number of steps, sticking out its tongue, turning around to march back to the front, then repeating all over again. The baby American alligators huddled on top of each other in a pile at the corner of the pool. The warthog inhaled its pile of vegetables with its great hinged jaws, reminding me of a muppet. The peacock startled me with its loud guffaw of a song, shouting across the zoo for all to hear.

Inspired, I left the zoo, sat down at my computer to blog about animals, and promptly logged into Amazon to mail order more creatures for the Animal Kingdom. The orders were for my kids, I told myself again. But, frankly, they were more for me, and for the little boy version of myself that flipped through encyclopedias to take notes.

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Published

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I clicked ‘Publish’ on the final edit of my book, and then sat back, tempted to slam my laptop closed.

I expected a rush of elation. I wanted to rip my shirt open, incredible Hulk style, and smash my fist down on the ground in triumph. Instead, I felt my heart rate increase. I was nervous, and I felt an ache inside. It felt a little like exhaustion, and a little like heartbreak. Why?

I thought my book might be ready for publication about one week prior. Nervous that it would come out with typos or mistakes, I asked a few key people to give it one last look over, and I did one more myself. I quickly realized it wasn’t ready. Instead of publishing then, I gave the book a final edit. I pored over pages of vulnerable material, right from my heart space, cutting out paragraphs, deleting references, and combing over it line by line in order to make the book more effective, more readable.

I spent days, moving from one makeshift workstation to another. I would read a chapter at my kitchen table with a cup of coffee, then lay down on the floor in front of the fire place for the next chapter, then move to the hot tub for the third, propping my computer up on a towel placed on the folded back covering to keep it dry. I went through the book a full time, then again. I trimmed the book from 300 pages to 230, then had friends give it another read through. I saw the book shift from something dense and overly done to something succinct, smart, sharp, and wonderful.

Yet publishing felt so sudden, so jagged. Needing to chat with someone who understood, I messaged my writer friend, Meg.

Meg, I did it. I published.

Chad, that is huge! You did it! How do you feel?

Weird. Numb. My brain is empty. I feel purged, yet proud. I’m anxious and confused, yet accomplished and powerful. 

I’ve been there and I understand. It’s weird, right? What’s going through your mind?

Ugh. Everything. Will anyone read it? What if no one reads it? Oh my God, what if someone actually reads it! Is it as good as I think it is? Did I price it too high? I priced it too high. I’m so proud of this! Did I say too much? Did I say enough? Will it resonate with anyone? 

Chad, that’s normal. You basically just gave birth to a child. Stay calm and focused. This is all so good. And it’s going to be amazing. 

I’d been talking about writing a book for years. Something I, um, talk about in my book. I remember all the conversations I’ve had with those who read my blog about how they’d love to read a book by me. I thought of my mother saying she knew I’d write a book one day, with my best friend where he told me to make a book happen. I did it. And it felt amazing.

But there is something about a blog entry. You just type it up and click publish, and then people read it or they don’t. It feels like a journal entry, and it doesn’t even bother me if there is a typo or two. But a book, a book has promise and potential. It has permanency. It’s an entirely different caliber. It feels… amazing. Frightening.

I once published a comic book, the Mushroom Murders. It took me years to get it finished, coordinating with busy artists who also shared my passion for the book. Four years, actually. Then I had to work with a small press publishing company to help me market the book. I paid around $5000, a charge that went on my credit card, to print the book, and several boxes of product arrived at my home. I spent years selling it at conventions, in stores, to friends, and on Amazon. It got amazing reviews. And now, the final few hundred copies occupy dusty cardboard boxes in my storage room. I didn’t want that experience again.

This time, I printed my book per order, through an organization called CreateSpace. It markets the book through Amazon. No initial costs on my part. The book is printed per order. If only one copy is ordered, only one will ever be printed. Will it sell one, none, dozens, hundreds? Will anyone care? And because CreateSpace is the one to list the book, I don’t see until days or weeks later if any orders have taken place, or how many total. There are no little messages that indicate when a sale has happened. Not knowing if it is selling fills me with a different kind of confusion.

I had to shut my computer down and take the night off. I saw a movie. I grabbed a drink with friends. My boyfriend ket gripping my arm, squeezing, reminding me that things were fine, it was going to be okay. I breathed, calming myself. Writing didn’t usually feel this way. Such a weird stew of emotional ingredients behind all of this.

Well, I did it. I wrote a book. I designed a cover, edited it, and put it out there for the public. Years of life experience. Dozens of hours writing. A finely honed talent (I hoped others would agree). A stirring, powerful, and inspirational message. It could be… well, this could change my life. Or it could wind up in a box in my storage room, untouched within a few years.

Regardless, I did it. I accomplished one of my lifelong goals. I have no idea what might happen next, if anything. I’m powerful, vulnerable, and strong, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

And, in order to sort out my feelings, I decided to write a blog. About the vulnerability of writing and publishing. And maybe that tells me more than anything.