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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hummingbirds

Hummingbird.jpg

I woke up in someone else’s house this morning.

It was peaceful and I had the realization that it felt more like home than my home does.

I sat out on the veranda at 6 am, clutching my hot cup of coffee in my hands, and I watched the sun rise over the valley. The house is up in the hills, behind the Capitol Building in Salt Lake City, and offers a beautiful view of the valley for miles and miles around. I looked at long stretching roads toward the south, rolling hills to the east, lights and buildings and distant traffic, clouds and atmosphere.

My heart literally skipped when I looked up to see hummingbirds at the feeder. Two of them. Their wings flapped swiftly, in little blurs, as the birds launched themselves several feet in one direction, then hovered there in the air before launching somewhere else. I watched them for a full 15 minutes, these small and fragile and amazing creatures.

Back inside, I looked at the home itself. Hardwood floors and marble countertops. Soft lighting. Black and white photos of trees in snow on the walls. An espresso machine. Freshly picked lilies on the table. Comfortable chairs with pillows. Wide spaces and high ceilings. Air conditioning. I looked behind me and the hummingbirds were still there, visible with the entire world behind them.

I’m alone here, and that is appropriate. I’m house-sitting for a friend of mine, a man who came out of the closet around the same time as me, a man who also has two children, although his children are much older than mine. A man who fell in love with another man right away, a relationship that lasted two years. And now he was in love again, going on another two years, and he and his boyfriend had moved in together, in this beautiful home in this beautiful place, with hummingbirds and lilies.

In some alternate world, this was my fate. A beautiful home, a partner, a yard and a view, a place for my children to feel grounded and at home when they come over. My path has taken its own turns, though, to an apartment filled with furniture and toys that doesn’t feel like home, like the one before it didn’t and the one before that.

I sat down in one of the chairs, sipped my coffee, and contemplated where I am at in life right now. Things are changing all around me. Of my two best friends, Cole is in love with someone now, and Kurt is gone. My ex-wife has been in a new relationship for over a year. My sons are entering kindergarten and second grade soon, and the younger one is having his fifth birthday in just a few days.

And here I am, feeling more at home in someone else’s home than my own.

It’s a strange realization that I’ve been out of the closet for over five years now, and that I have achieved so much, yet I still haven’t found a home. I’ve lived in 8 different apartments in two different cities in that time span, searching for that grounding, that sense of belonging. But it simply isn’t there yet. I’m grounded in my own skin, that part feels wonderful, but I haven’t found a place to belong yet.

Much remains elusive to me, and it may always be so. Satisfaction, love, financial success, nutrition and fitness, things I continually strive for. My path is my own now. It feels like my own. I enjoy being hungry for more in my life. I enjoy the balance of the pursuit of knowledge and success and raising my children, at least so far. Despite all of that, it’s been a rough and strange year.

I look back at the hummingbirds. One of them is at the feeder now. It looks almost serenely still for several seconds as it drinks, it’s body not moving. But it’s wings… it’s wings are going one hundred miles per hour in order to hold it in place.

Then a huge smile crosses my face as I watch it, and realize maybe it and I are just a little bit alike.

red onion

redonion

This morning, I sliced a red onion. The small circle severed from the whole, maybe an eighth of an inch thick, and lay there on the cutting board. I picked it up in the palm of my hand and looked at the spirals within, purple on the edges and a thick white, stripes spinning into the center vortex. A slice of life, I thought. How complex. How beautiful.

I chopped the slice into small slivers, no bigger than the nail on my pinkie finger, and used the blade to deposit them into the tablespoon of oil that was slowly heating the pan. I saved the last sliver and placed it on my tongue. The savory bitter flavor was soft until I bit into it, releasing the juice of the onion, the essence of all that onion was released in that small piece. It wasn’t unpleasant. It was strong, almost over-powering there on its own. It was delicious.

spinach

I took a handful of fresh spinach leaves out of the bag and tossed them in the pan. I took one leaf between my finger and thumb and pulled it free from the pile. Thin, delicate, I could see the veins of the leaf work from the strong core and stem, delivering nutrients to the rest of the life, but one part of the plant, each centimeter vital to the whole. I popped the leaf in my mouth and chewed on it as I cooked, still mostly tasting onion.

alfalfasprouts

Using two fingers, I pulled a wedge of alfalfa sprouts out of the mass of alfalfa I had in a small bag. They clung there, not wanting to be separated from the rest, holding tight to the collective, and it took a bit of force and tearing to get them free. I rubbed the sprouts together between my fingertips, releasing them into the mixture in the pan. The smell of the cooking onion entered my nose, and I felt my mouth water as my stomach rumbled.

eggs

I used sharp clicks against the countertop to open three separate eggs, and I poured their small universes into the pan individually. The bright yellow yolk reminded me of the sun, life-giving in the vast expanse of sky. The protein-rich source, life-giving, contained in a single shell. The pan was hot now and I used a whisk to blend the ingredients together, swiftly taking the form of scrambled deliciousness.

coffee

I scooped freshly ground coffee, the rich deep smell hit my nose and heightened my senses. I leaned down and took a deep, long smell, among my favorite in the world. As I finished cooking, the coffee brewed, black and strong and rich, into my mug.

I took my breakfast out onto a veranda overlooking the city that enchants me with its history and haunts me with its realities. I savored my coffee and crunched ingredients between my teeth. I sat shirtless, wearing only sweatpants and slippers, and felt the cool breeze against my skin. I closed my eyes and listened to the leaves rustle, the distant motors, the sounds of Rufus Wainwright playing in a house nearby, the dulcet and dripping water of a fountain in the yard next door.

I thought of hummingbirds. I thought of the human spine. I thought of hot water showers with perfect water pressure, and Seattle lake shores, and rhythm, and the arms of my children around my neck. I thought of Kurt. I thought of history. I thought of apples. I thought of taking an hour after breakfast to compose this blog, and wondered who might read it and if they might feel the way I feel now. I thought of having someone to wake up next to. I thought of mountains, and mountaintops, and climbs to get there. I thought of the black sky I went to sleep to an the soft blue it was now. I thought of push-ups, and swimming pools, and comic books, and words on pages.

And then I thought of red onions.

redonion