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Calgary Loft 2

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I’m on the 17th floor again

across the lot from my balcony window

is a 30-story building

and I can see a dozen or so apartments

lit up against the light sky

like little televisions.

One man is turning sausages on a grill

while his wife pours the wine

A teenager has her phone in her hand

a laptop in her lap

and a crime drama on the big screen

but she’s only looking at her phone

A couple is kissing in their bedroom

and then the lights go out

A lonely woman has been staring out her window

at the city for as long as I have. 

I watch them

and all I can think about are 

the zoo exhibits I saw today. 

Each sign gave the animal’s name

listed its diet and mating habits

and whether they were merely at risk in the wild

or critically endangered

because the humans keep taking up more space. 

A rockhopper penguin with yellow-feathered eyes

cried in pleasure as her mate scratched her back with his beak

A red river hog tugged at a metal fixture with his jaws

releasing a stream of water into his mouth

A komodo dragon sprawled over four rocks at one

stretched wide and taking up the maximum amount of space

A baby bactrian camel carelessly watched

as adults chew straw, causing their humps to sway. 

I pretend, projecting each animal exhibit

into each window of the tall building

seeing animals instead of humans. 

It’s entertaining, but really, mostly the same. 

 

In casual conversation today

I told a woman I was from America

she made a disappointed sound by clicking her tongue

and told me how sorry she was

then walked away. 

I think she meant it. 

Seattle Part 9: Far Away Daddy

November, 2014

The day I drove into Seattle, after unpacking my car into my new room, the very first thing I did was call my sons. Given their ages, it wasn’t easy to connect with them via phone, so it had to be over FaceTime. J was 5 and just starting kindergarten. (“Don’t go, Daddy,” still rang in my brain, sparking fresh tears easily). A was 3 and thriving in pre-school. Conversations over the phone tended to be about cartoons, and silly stories. As long as they could see my face and know my voice, I could make them laugh and we would stay connected.

Still, I made a vow to make it much more special than a daily phone call. I would be back to visit every month, I told them. I already had my first trip out planned in just three weeks. My best friend Kurt had already offered to let me stay there with them if I couldn’t afford a hotel. I promised my boys fun adventures. While my first trip back, in October, was fairly routine, the one in November had us booked in a local hotel and seeing sites we had never seen before, and in December I rented a car and took them to Dinosaur, Colorado for an epic weekend.

In addition to our daily calls and my monthly visits, I mailed my sons gifts as well as weekly comic strips. “The Adventures of J!” had my older son going on all kinds of crazy capers with silly endings. He teamed up with princesses and his favorite super heroes, fought ridiculous bad guys, developed super powers, and saw the world. We had a ritual of reading the latest comic strip I had mailed him together over the phone every Sunday night, and after only a few weeks, he began asking about the adventures over the phone, wondering what would happen to his comic strip avatar next. It delighted me to create this continuity in our far-away connections.

A, at 3, had to be entertained differently, and he had always loved animals, so his weekly hand-drawn comic strip became “A’s Amazing Animals!” I started with the letter A, and I drew him in the center of the page surrounded by all of the A animals I could fit. Alligator, Armadillo, Albatross, Aardvark, Army Ant. Each Sunday night, when I called, we would identify the animals together over the phone, and he began compiling a book of each letter that I sent. (Unknowingly, this weekly series for my toddler son would measure my time in Seattle almost perfectly. One letter per week until I landed at Z, ironically the same week I would return from Seattle to Utah).

I talked about my sons non-stop to anyone who would listen. Their pictures lined my bedroom walls. I ached for them. I cried for them. I knew I needed this time for healing, and I felt I deserved that time, but my heart felt torn in two being so far away from them. It was difficult not to dissolve into a ball of shame for my selfishness. I constantly thought about fatherhood and what it meant to me.

I’d had so little example of fathers in my own life. My own dad and squandered my childhood with depression and distance. My stepfather had used fists and angry words when not using fear and manipulation. My older brother had always been a bully. Outside of a few family friends and more distant relatives, the only examples of fatherhood I had were in my local Mormon congregations, and it would take me years to realize how much they emphasized obedience, conformity, and hiding who I was. Thus the ultimate example of fatherhood was a God I grew up believing in, one whose love became conditional upon my ability to be obedient and straight.

Over a period of weeks in Seattle, I explored my role as a father. I was meant to be a dad. I was a good one. My heart melted every time my children called me ‘daddy’. One day, they would be grown men, and I hoped beyond measure that they would view their childhoods with happiness and peace, with supportive and loving parents, and not the way I viewed my own, as one of conditional love, silence in my own skin, and painful growth. I wanted nothing more than for my sons to learn how to be the very best versions of themselves, and to grow up with self-love and confidence.

But I had come about my children dishonestly, in a mixed-orientation marriage where I wasn’t happy. For a time, I berated myself over this. But over time, I grew to view myself with more compassion, and less judgment. I’d done the best I could with what I had at the time. I hadn’t come out yet because I hand’t known how. And so I married, followed the path ahead of me, and that led to two children. I was grateful I had come out while they were young, and I loved them with all of my heart.

My judgment of myself grew less when I began looking at the world around me with a more critical eye. Children born into happy households with authentic parents seemed to be the exception, not the rule. How many kids were born to parents who didn’t yet know what they were doing? The results of teenage pregnancies, or one-night stands, or accidental and unplanned inceptions. More than that, how many kids were born to parents who changed after the births of their children, who grew to struggle with the circumstances of life, or debt, or stress? How many kids saw their parents divorce, how many suffered abuse or violence, how many grew up with different parents entirely? Ultimately, these realizations helped me forgive myself more quickly, forgive myself again. I couldn’t change the origin stories of my sons, the circumstances in which they were brought into the world. But I could make sure I led an honorable life from here forward, and that I continued making them my priority by also making myself a priority.

I might be far away, at least for a time. But I would speak to them every day. I would draw them comic strips, and visit for monthly adventures, and pay my child support in full. The would know, daily, that I loved them exactly as they were.

I might be far away, but I was their daddy still, and they were loved.

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.

My son, the Zookeeper

022024__

Dad, remember how I wanted to be a hunter?

Yeah, buddy.

And I wanted to hunt all over the world and kill just the mean animals that hurt the nice animals?

Yeah, buddy.

And I would live in a hotel for nine million dollars and it would have a swimming pool and you could come and visit me but I’m probably gonna not ever get married cause I will be hunting all the time?

Mm-hmm.

Well, I changed my mind. I don’t want to be a hunter anymore.

Oh?

Yeah, instead I want to be a zookeeper.

Okay, that sounds great.

Cause a hunter has to hurt animals and I don’t want to hurt animals, instead I will give them a nice place to live.

Great.

But I have to figure out how to get the animals to the zoo. How do they do it?

Well, some animals are born in the zoo to their moms and dads who are already in the zoo. Others are captured and moved to the zoo.

Hmm. I like the ones born there the most. I don’t want to capture animals without their permission. Maybe I will travel all over the world and meet animals in the forests and jungles and oceans. And where else should I meet them?

Well, maybe the desert and the rain forest and the grasslands.

What’s a grasslands?

It’s like big green fields where animals like giraffes and zebras live.

Don’t they live in jungles?

No, it’s different.

Okay, well I will go to the grasslands too and I will meet the animals and talk to them and tell them to come and live in my zoo if they want to, and if they do then they can come and live there and we will be friends. I can build really nice cages for them and feed them and they will really like me but sometimes I will stay there all the time and other times I will have to go back to my hotel to sleep and the animals might get really mad and grumpy because I am gone but then I will come back the next day in the morning and cheer them up and they will know that I didn’t leave them and instead just went home to sleep and then we will be friends again.

That sounds great.

And it can be all the different kinds of animals, right?

Right.

Whatever kinds I want?

Right.

I think that sounds really cool.

Me too. Sounds like a lot of work.

I don’t like to work.

I know.

But maybe I will like to work when I’m a grown-up.

Mm-hmm.

And you could come and visit my zoo if you wanted. Even if there are some scary animals you wouldn’t have to be scared because they would still be nice ones or they couldn’t live in my zoo.

Yeah.

And I will have to feed them lots of different things. Like horses eat hay and lizards eat crickets. Or maybe they can eat meal worms. And I will feed the snakes mice. And I will have lots of tigers and mountain lions and I will feed them meat.

Yeah.

And the big fish like whales will have to eat little fish.

Yeah. Where will you get all that food?

I don’t know, at the store maybe.

That will cost a lot of money.

I will have probably nine million dollars at the hotel, remember?

Oh, right. And maybe you can charge people money to come and see your zoo.

Why?

So you can make more money to feed the animals.

But it could be free.

Well, when we go to the zoo, we pay money. Then they use that money to take care of the animals.

Well, I’ll think about it.

Okay.

Lunch was delicious. Can you read me my fortune cookie now?

Sure, hand it to me. It says ‘Maintain good health for that is your wealth.’

That’s dumb. That’s not what it is supposed to say.

Oh? What did you want it to say?

It was supposed to say, ‘hey, it’s okay to change your mind and be a zookeeper for nice animals instead of a hunter for mean ones.’

Oh.

I’m done with lunch. Draw me a dragon now.

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