In Antarctica I saw penguins wandering hundreds of miles from their only source of food, the ice edge. Having used up all their energy reserves to explore, they had no hope for return. Wandering is a penguin suicide mission.
I wonder if they know it.
My home is in the lee of the Santa Cruz mountains. We have a county park at the end of our block. It is a pastoral hillside with a clearing that in the spring is green with tall grass, and in the summer is mown to a yellow stubble by workers on tractors. The rolling hills are covered in spruce and oak. There are a couple redwoods. I walk my dog there every evening, so I am getting to know the place very well.
In our local park there are some park benches. There is also a tombstone. There are words engraved on each of the benches. These are memorials to the dead. The tombstone also has writing, which is a memorial. Sure.
The bench by the park gate says: "In Loving Memory of Tim O. Nobody Loved These Hills More than Him"
The bench in the middle says, "Rick K : 1930 - 1995 The greatest patron of these hills."
The one farthest from the entrance has the words: "For William H. The greatest friend to these hills"
The tombstone is a white circular stone with an inscription to Rick K., with his birth and death year. It is usually covered by fresh flowers. There is a small wooden cross stuck in the ground near the stone circle.
As we were walking my dog around the park last night I asked the blonde haired girl, "So, who do you think is winning?"
"Battle for park loving-ship supremacy."
"Loving-ship? That's not a word. Speak a language I understand."
"Well, for you monolinguistic types, what I'm wondering is: who is really the greatest dead friend to the park? I think Rick's urn is here, plus he has a bench."
"Rick, Tim, or William? Each bench says he's the biggest lover of this park. I'm going to sponsor a grudge match."
"Full-contact, ultimate, winner take all."
"Are you talking about..."
"Los Gatos dead guy grudge match."
"I don't think so."
"Three park lovers go in, one comes out. Fight to the death. We may have to amend the rules as they're already dead, but fundamentally, someone needs to rise to the top of this heap. Tim and William have one bench each, but Rick's got a bench and a possible burial spot and they're putting more shit over on that side of the field. He's flanking."
"I don't think it's Rick that's doing it."
"One day we'll be walking the dog and we'll step across carbonized patches where two of the park benches used to be. And I think Rick K. is going to come out on top as the truest lover of these hills."
"It's probably going to be hard for me to tell when you completely lose your mind. I mean, the difference between then and now probably won't be that noticeable."
"When I'm totally gone you can park me at Walmart and tell me I live there. I'll greet people all day and nobody will know the better."
"You think those Walmart greeters never go home?"
"You think they actually have homes? Where do you think the nursing homes put people who can't pay?"
This is what we talk about when we walk the dog.
This is what passes for real life for some people.
When I first went to Antarctica a really cute lab assistant offered to sleep with me. At the time, I was starry-eyed about Antarctica and also I was married. We were in a jamesway building way out in the middle of nowhere, and only the two of us were awake. So the whole thing pretty much went unnoticed by everyone, including me. Because I was so not expecting it, her proposal evaded me until the very last moment when I basically had to decide whether to go back to her tent with her or down to the hut where my two old-guy colleagues were snoring away.
I went to the snoring guy hut.
As it turns out with such things we will tend to revise history to suit our needs, and this cute lab assistant now has her PhD and is going off to work somewhere important, though she has kept me on her emailing list and occasionally I hear from her and I think of things that might have been, and repeatedly count the disasters I evaded by going to the red snoring hut that night.
Though when we talk, it stands now there was never was any such proposition, and how could I have imagined something like that. I think facts are generally on my side, though nothing is ever certain. The cute lab assistant had many evening guests that year, which caused her not to be invited back to the ice in subsequent years. I did go back in several subsequent years, which means that if I was making a nuisance of myself by sleeping with the post docs, nobody ever was wise to it.
Or it wasn't happening, which is my version of truth.
And she was so cute, in fact, that all icemen presumed any so propositioned heterosexual would necessarily capitulate. Thus I earned the theory of my colleagues that I was gay. However, upon kindly rejecting the advances of the equally cute men on the station, I earned the title of "Saint".
Thus, my radio call sign became "Saint Joe", and it stuck with me for my five ice deployments.
If I went to the ice now, though, I would need a different radio name.
"I need to get you back to Alaska," I say to the blonde haired girl. Summertime California dog walks are very difficult for her. She's a polar girl and summers in the lee of the Santa Cruz mountains can be toasty.
"But first, you need to finish what you're doing here."
"Yes," I say. "I need to finish this exploration. Then maybe we'll go back to the ice."
"But not today."
Every day we get farther and farther from the ice edge.