When I was about eight years old I saw a show about penguins on PBS. It
was hilarious — they waddled around, acted silly, fell on their faces
and so forth. Then I went to the library and got a book on penguins and
I was hooked. I collected penguin posters, penguin plush toys, penguin
novels, you name it. When I started working at CBS as a child actor I had
to fill out a little bio and the first thing I put down under "Interests"
was "penguins." When I went to Regal Lanes to play video games I would
usually play a couple of rounds of Pengo just out of loyalty.
But for all the facts I memorized and merchandise I accumulated, I never
really understood anything about penguins. They might as well have
been unicorns. That's the way I was with everything back then. My social
studies teacher had us do oral reports every month or so about various
places in the world; I would just rattle off random facts I'd gleaned from
atlases. It never even occurred to me to learn about the local culture,
to try to find out what life was like in the country I was talking about.
I don't know whether that's typical of the way kids that age learn or
whether it was just me and my particular spot on the autistic spectrum.
In any case, for all my childhood expertise on Spheniscidae, the
actual life cycle of the emperor penguin as depicted in March of the
Penguins was new to me. This is not your typical "ha ha look at
the penguins fall down" program of the type I saw many times on PBS back
in the day. Those sorts of hijinks are mainly reserved for the summer.
Once summer's over, the emperor penguins walk seventy miles to their
breeding ground, pair off, mate, and once the female lays an egg and
transfers it to the male for safekeeping, the rest of the winter is a
grim, repetitive affair: the females, starving, walk seventy-plus miles
through the polar winter to the sea, while the males, nearly starving,
huddle together to protect the eggs, and each other, from the ravages of
Antarctic storms. The females gorge on fish and then walk back; the
moment they arrive, the males hand off the chicks and race to the coast
to feed themselves for the first time in over four months. By the time
they return, the females are once again starving, so they head off —
shampoo, rinse, repeat until the ice thaws.
And the thing is, this is happening right now. It's early August,
smack dab in the middle of the Antarctic winter. Spring won't arrive
for a month and a half. As I watched footage of a throng of penguins
getting thrashed by winds of a hundred miles an hour at a temperature
of eighty below, the exact same thing was happening a few thousand
miles away. It still is. As I type this, I am warm, actually a little
too warm, in my townhouse in Massachusetts, while some penguin is getting
pelted by shards of ice in an environment more typical of Mars than the
Earth. If I were rich I could hop into a Hercules 318 aircraft, fly down
to Antarctica and touch that penguin. Its experience of this moment is
no less real than mine.
I've been having some health problems lately and have found myself thinking
along these same lines during the worst moments: "I've felt fine in the past;
I'll presumably feel fine in the future; but for now I am trapped in this
moment of suffering. I can't put it on pause and come back when I'm ready.
I can't skip ahead to when the pain has subsided. Someday this will just be
a memory. But now I am here." Sure enough, here I am typing
this and feeling pretty much fine, separated by time from the suffering of
my past self just as I'm separated by distance from the suffering the penguins
are enduring this very moment. But that moment was real. Similarly, I am
separated by time from the moment of my death — but it too is no less
real, lurking out there in the cold future. I won't be able to put things
on pause or quickly hit rewind; I'll be trapped in that moment too. And that
will be the last one.
March of the Penguins! Feel-good hit of the summer!
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