It only took eighteen years of living in Northern California for me to finally get around to visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Yeah, it’s true.
But I finally went for it last weekend. My best girl and me- we was down there anyway for a show, y’see.
As aquariums go, the place is pretty cool, though as a social experiment, place be bein’ an utter catastrophe.
As you step across the threshold into the Monterey Bay Aquarium, cast off any expectation of personal space.
The place was like the New York Stock Exchange just before a major IPO, or a West African border crossing on the day of a coup (regime change!), or a North Carolina supermarket on the day before a major hurricane makes landfall. Chaos, I tell you. Sheer chaos.
But the array of ocean life on display at the aquarium is impressive, particularly the jellyfish area. Who knew there were so many different types of jellyfish? They even had these tiny little near-microscopic jobbies that were so cute you wanted them all to just swim up your nose and bite your brain right off!
I’ll tell you right now, though, the place is kinda short on large sea-dwellers. No big sharks, no whales, no giant squids- though admittedly these creatures would be a challenge to house properly without doubling the size of the joint.
The largest thing we saw was an octopus, waving its suction-equipped tentacles at the crowd- or was it a crowd of exceedingly rude human beings, waving their tentacles at an octopus? Actually, that rings more of a bell.
The only way I could really get a look at the damn thing was by pointing my eyes at the screen of any one of the thirty or so camera phones held up in front of my face at any given moment, waving like tentacles of disrespectful sea kelp, obstructing my actual view of the thing, and utterly disrespecting the ubiquitous “Please- no flash photography” signs posted every five feet around the perimeter. I love humanity.
Which is why you’re just gonna have to take my word for it that there was an octopus.
In addition to losing all recess privileges for the next two weeks, John’s puppet would also have to spend one whole week eating its lunch in the principal’s office (both sentences to be served concurrently). The puppet would report to the cafeteria and go through the lunch line as usual; but as soon as it emerged from the assembly-line serving queue it would be marched humiliatingly across the room, out of the cafeteria, and down the long hallway to Mrs. Moline’s office, tray in hand. It might as well have been made to wear a folding sandwich-board sign reading “I think it’s funny to make old ladies cry.”
How very surprised the little puppet was to learn that not one person in a position of authority gave so much as the tiniest shit about its pleading explanation that it was in fact John who had made him say that terrible thing to Ms. Driscoll; and this, to the puppet’s way of thinking, represented a full-scale breach of the social contract that, even if only implicitly, ostensibly brokers the tenuous peace that allows puppet and lay-folk to co-exist in relative harmony. But there was nary an ear willing to hear, embrace or even consider this argument.
At any rate, though, Mrs. Smith, the office secretary, was nice enough; and the principal, Mrs. Moline, almost never spent any time in her office- at least not during the lunch hour; so it wasn’t like the puppet was doing what anybody could reasonably call “hard time.” Mrs. Smith would talk to the puppet all through the lunch period, never once telling it to be quiet, and even listening, rapt, as it regaled her day after day with colorful tales of deeds of tomfoolery, oblivious irreverence, and puppetry run amok. Throughout the lunch period, students and faculty alike would lean and peer curiously into the principal’s office as they passed by, drawn thither by the reckless ballyhoo of Mrs. Smith’s loud belly-laughs echoing all up and down the hallway. The puppet did not mind in the least having such an enthusiastic and captive audience as Mrs. Smith for the week. There were way worse ways to spend 45 minutes of one’s day, admitted the puppet to itself at one point.
At the end of Friday’s lunch period, the puppet’s sentence in the principal’s office had at last been served in full. Freedom beckoned. The puppet collected its tray and various other lunch-related sundries, and prepared to return to the world of its fellows. The puppet then bid a fond adieu to its one-woman laughing gallery; and as it walked out the door of the office, Mrs. Smith stopped it and said “Don’t tell your mother or your teacher I said this; but this has been by far the most fun and entertaining week I’ve ever had in this office, and I’ve been sitting in this chair for almost twenty years. Now try to behave yourself. Take care, Derek.”
One day John sent his puppet to school with a very specific script in its throat. At the time, John was in the 8th Grade, and the puppet was in the 3rd Grade. During the recess period which followed immediately after lunchtime, the puppet spent some time running around the schoolyard, getting into this and that with its friends, as was its wont; but through it all the puppet never forgot the purpose for which it had been sent to school that day in the first place.
And so it was that, after a time, John’s puppet, accompanied by a few of its mates, went striding boldly right up to Ms. Driscoll, the substitute recess lady (who bore more than a passing resemblance to Alice’s drill-sergeant cousin Emma on The Brady Bunch), promptly reared back like a pitcher going into his windup, then snapped forward like a spring-loaded cord suddenly cut, and loudly bellowed “Guess what I heard about your Momma!!!”, directly into Ms. Driscoll’s instantly shell-shocked face. And just to be abundantly clear about this, the puppet didn’t merely say these words; it didn’t just shrug its shoulders and meekly speak them under its breath- aww hellno. No, the puppet, fully committed to its task, really leaned into it, delivering its message like a cream pie right in the face of this poor, sweet, unsuspecting (and, as it proved, extremely fragile) middle-aged woman. The puppet damn near knocked itself to the ground from the sheer force of its delivery, wobbling like a Weeble in a straw house blasted suddenly to pieces by the determined breath of a hungry wolf. John would have been so proud!! Proud to see his trusty little puppet carrying out its directive with such a high degree of obedience and precision, which only a truly committed puppet can muster.
A moment of utter silence followed, like the deep breath before the plunge that happens just as the rollercoaster train creeps across and crests the apex of that first big hill. This deafening silence, which completely permeated that part of the playground which had been within earshot of the puppet’s brazen exclamation, sucked in and consumed all sound within its range, as if into the vortex of a spinning black hole. The only sound that could be even faintly detected from within this aural dead zone was that of children playing on the far side of the playground, the sound utterly remote, as that, heard from underwater, of kids frolicking around the perimeter of a swimming pool.
Looking as if somebody had just come running up behind her and violently jammed the business end of a ski pole up her ass , Ms. Driscoll stood there stone still, her mouth a tightly-sealed valve of disbelief, her eyes a pair of perfect round dilated circles of incredulity, her eyebrows a pair of sharp-pointed parabolas reaching for the sky like a set of Ronald’s Golden Arches, and her face and neck blown back as if she had just had a scorching-hot blow dryer thrust into her face at full blast. For the poor little eight-year-old puppet, who couldn’t have- shouldn’t have- known any better, the entire space-time continuum came to a screeching halt. All went black.
Once upon a time, way back in the day, my older brother John used to have this toy puppet that he would play with constantly. And boy, did he ever make that puppet say the damnedest things!
As you may know, a puppet will give voice to any words that are put into its mouth by its controlling puppeteer. One particularly good thing about a puppet is, it never questions or contests its barking orders in any way- you just wind it up, pump the words into it, and sit back and watch hilarity ensue. It’s a very good system for self-amusement, it really is.
John’s puppet first came into his life in the middle of the summer of 1973, originally as a gift from God to the entire family; but by, oh, around 1980 or so, John had pretty well co-opted the puppet as his own plaything/whipping boy.
I can’t say for sure whether the magic lay primarily in John’s skill as a puppeteer, or in this particular puppet’s natural aptitude for serving its appointed function as a conduit for John’s words; but whichever it was, John soon learned to wield that puppet like a true, seasoned virtuoso of the art. You just wouldn’t have believed the ventriloquistic mastery with which he would ply his craft- throwing his voice behind this puppet of his and, just like that, infusing it with the very breath of life! Before your very eyes! It sounded exactly as if the words were actually coming out of the puppet itself! Seriously!
Now this puppet must have really wanted John to like it or something; because the thing would just go around trumpeting every little thing John ever told it to say, regardless of the breadth of the array of possible consequences that might arise as a direct result of the issuance of these mandated utterances. The puppet never considered any of this before speaking- absolutely never! I mean- why would it? It was a puppet for god’s sake! For all the good times that John fashioned for himself and his friends through the use of his puppet over the years, I’m not sure that he ever actually respected the thing; but then John didn’t have to. After all, it was his fucking puppet.
Now understand- as long as this puppet did whatever John told it to do, John treated it well enough, I suppose. But anytime the puppet would give him any lip at all, about anything, it would swiftly find itself suffering from any one of the following three fates: 1) suddenly thrown to the floor and quickly imprisoned in an agonizing figure-4 leg lock, one of the most humiliating and utterly inescapable wrestling moves in the trade; 2) using John’s grasping hand as the engine, repeatedly punching itself in the face while being incessantly and maniacally taunted with the question “Why do you keep punching yourself in the face?”; or 3) immediately pinned to the floor and unable to move, while a barrage of disgusting farts was unleashed upon its poor little suffocating face, at point blank range. The only thing that could stem this onslaught of flatulence and afford the puppet even the slightest fighting chance to get up off the floor was for it to first request, repeatedly, sometimes even beg for, the prompt dispatch of additional dollops of vile intestinal gas directly into its face, and then, after a handful of these had been issued, to profusely thank its master for having been given the opportunity to enjoy this face full of rank ass.
And what’s more, the puppet had to sell it, too- it had to make John believe that it meant everything it was saying. If John detected the slightest hint of insincerity in the puppet’s delivery, well… let’s just say the puppet learned pretty quickly how to frame its words convincingly in these situations. When the puppet had finally humbled itself to John’s satisfaction, if it was lucky its torture would end for a time. But as I said, most of the time the puppet just did whatever it was told.
A lot of people think of San Francisco as Northern California; and while the so-called City by the Bay is technically in the northern half of the state, it is only just barely so.
Those who think that California, or at least the “important” parts of California, all lay between the Mexican border and San Francisco are neglecting a chunk of land roughly the size of New England, overlooking thousands of mountains, 1,200 or so miles of rugged coastline, and many if not most of the lushest, greenest rainforests to be found within the Earth’s temperate latitudes.
And for the most part, this is how the majority of the region’s inhabitants would have it. “Let the eyes of the world look clear past us to the further Pacific Northwest, if they will”, a resident of the North Coast might very well say.
Some of the most remote and inaccessible terrain in the lower 48 can be found in California’s northwesternmost counties, namely: Mendocino, Humboldt, Del Norte, Siskiyou, Trinity, Shasta, Tehama, Glenn, Lake, and Napa.
Northwestern California is a domain of misfits, scofflaws, hippies, and hermits who have withdrawn from society, for various reasons- some sociological, some entrepreneurial, and most more personal and less articulable than bears any meaningful analysis in this here forum. The North Coast is also the home of the once-vast Redwood Empire, now a mere shadow of its former self, with 95% of its original expanse logged out and gone forever.
Okay, so where was I? Oh yeah, the heart-warming tale of how the Peanut came to be my son.
So, on December 3rd, 2006, five days after he joined our family, I took Peanut on the first of what would become a virtually uncountable number of hikes; though, thanks to my unforgivable hubris, it very nearly proved his last hike with me.
“Deek, what the hell did you do? In what sheer buffoonery did you engage with this precious little beast?”
Okay, FAIR. I deserve that.
So my friend Sean and I headed up to the back (north) side of the Bay Area’s awesome Mt. Tamalpais (yes, the same one David Crosby wrote a song about on his 1971 solo debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name), with the Pean in tow. Poor bastard had never been on such a series of hairpin turns, a point he drove home with a backseat full of liquified dog-treat puke.
We parked at the Cataract Falls Trailhead, along Bolinas-Fairfax Road, just west of the Alpine Reservoir Dam, and hit the trail.
The Cataract Falls Trail, if you catch it at the right time of year (which early December, incidentally, is most definitely not, due to the typically low water levels at that time of year- low water levels for which, in this case, I would be immeasurably thankful later on ), is easily one of the Bay Area’s most aesthetically rewarding river trails. Over the course of a little under two miles, Cataract Creek plunges more than a thousand vertical feet through a dense redwood canyon, rich with Jurassic ferns and other stunning greenery, around, across, and over various granite benches, in a chain of highly-photogenic waterfalls. It was uphill along the course of these tumbling waters that we set off to climb.
About a half mile into the hike, the trail crosses a narrow wooden footbridge, a crossing utterly non-intimidating for any human being over three feet tall, but far less so for a six-month old hound who still hasn’t even mastered the basic art of ascending and descending stairs. Pean was having NONE of it. So I picked him up, carried him across the bridge, and we were on our way once again.
We climbed alongside the tumbling waters, as filtered rays of sunlight pierced the canopy above, illuminating various choice stands of shrubbery and collecting pools of swirling runoff, and soon reached the top of the falls. All the while Peanut frolicked in this newly-revealed world of his, relishing the cornucopia of interesting and unfamiliar smells all about.
Since, so far, everything had been going so swimmingly, Sean and I decided to press onwards towards the summit of Mt. Tam, turning left onto the High Marsh Trail, which traces a relatively level track across the backside of the mountain, contouring along its northwestern flank.
This is where the fateful hubris took me.
In a catastrophically gross over-interpretation of the level of bonding that had transpired between myself and Peanut over the five days of our co-habitation, I deemed it a legit call to let him off leash for awhile. As soon as the shackles were withdrawn, my furry son exploded into the adjacent meadow in a fit of unbridled excitement heretofore unseen (by me, anyway) in his short life, loosed as he was upon an open wilderness for now only the first time.
For awhile everything was cool, Peanut responding with dutiful immediacy to all summons, treat offer or no. Okay fine, I offered him a treat every time he came to me. Still, though, it all felt right at that point.
Sometime later we turned onto a new trail, climbed a few hundred feet, and came upon a picnic area called Barth’s Retreat, at which, on our approach, we could hear an all-American family enjoying a nice Sunday lunch in the great outdoors. This picnic area boasted a reliable water source; so we were heading straight for it to refill our water bottles, and to let the Pean drink from the through-running creek.
Just as we were walking up to the spigot, the baby of the family let out this blood-curdling scream- not a scream of terror or anguish, mind you, just a young kid being a loud little fucker, as I always was myself (still am).
Regardless of the actual benignity of the child’s scream, however, it was apparently a sound that Peanut had never heard before; and to him it sounded just plain wrong. Thus erupted he into a full-out sprint back in the direction from which we’d come, racing up to the top of a nearby rise in the trail, and on his way out of the immediate vicinity.
Naturally, I gave chase at once, struggling mightily to balance my sudden extreme panic with a sufficiently reassuring “Hey buddy, everything’s fine, it’s not scary, want a treat?” voice of comfort.
It almost seemed like it might just work, as Peanut stopped periodically, turning around and appearing to momentarily consider trusting me, before at last disappearing over the hill and out of my site.
An urgent 45 minutes of comprehensive area-searching came up fruitless; and so I powered up my phone to call my girlfriend Katherine, Peanut’s newly-adopted mother, and my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, as it seemed.
Okay, you’re wondering: So where exactly did this “Peanut” character come from, anyway?
Well, it’s like this. The Peanut was born on May 5, 2006, in or around Hayward, CA, and was soon given the name of Ripley. Now this Ripley was the largest of a litter of 15 puppies- which is hilarious if you see how not huge he is. Seven or eight of his siblings were callously and irresponsibly given away by his mother’s owner, an East Bay dick-head who apparently felt no concern whatsoever for the future well-being of the fruits of his beloved pet’s womb. The remainder of the litter were then scooped up by a good-hearted neighbor, and eventually found a foster home at Klub K-9, a no-dogs-turned-away and no-dogs-put-to-sleep establishment in Sunnyvale, CA, working in partnership with Furry Friends Pet Rescue. Under the care of a guy named Mike, who loves dogs more than anybody else ever could EVER, Ripley and what was left of his birth-clan shacked up for a few months in a space with approximately 35 other dogs, awaiting adoption.
Fast-forward to November. My girlfriend and I have just moved in together; and now we’re ready to get that dog we’ve both been wanting for years, but have delayed getting for all of your standard youngish-adult quasi-selfish reasons. My girlfriend Katherine (you’ll meet her later), would spend her afternoons shirking her workplace duties by perusing the offerings on PetFinder.com, and emailing me links to the beasts that caught her eye. Over a period of a few weeks, a handful of lovely hounds found their way into the running; and it was in the midst of this purgatorial state of dog-consideration that one of the defining moments of my adult life caught me at unawares. It was November 23, 2006.
In the middle of some mid-afternoon data analysis bullshit in which I was engaged at my place of business, I received an email from Katherine, boasting a photograph of the young Ripley (I’d kill to have a copy of that picture now). The second I laid eyes on that photo, it was all over for each and every one of the other dogs on our short-list.
So then, perceiving at once, with the utmost clarity, that this matter was far too urgent to have its resolution entrusted to the slow creepings of the molasses-like hand of regular old email, I promptly picked up the phone and called Katherine at work, dialing and re-dialing repeatedly until she could not ignore me any longer. Once I had her on the line, I declared that, from this moment forth, no other dog was on the table. Every last resource available to us, every ounce of zeal, every plan for the future of our household, was to be bent solely and fully to the task of making this furry little fool ours; and only in the event that we should at some point find that, for whatever reason, this fellow could not become our dog would any of the previous contenders be brought back into play as potentials.
Two days later we went down to Sunnyvale and met Ripley (and his one remaining un-adopted sister); and three days after that, on November 28, 2006, we returned to Sunnyvale to retrieve our new furr-son, for immediate injection into the innermost chambers of our hearts. When we got him home to our flat in San Francisco, he encountered his first ever set of stairs. Suffice it to say, the flummox was ON.
For the first few weeks, we had to carry him up and down the stairs; but soon enough he got it down, and began to convey himself up and down without our assistance. For awhile after that, whenever we’d be walking him around the neighborhood, Peanut would try to run up every set of stairs he passed, apparently thinking: “Oh hey, stairs– I live at the top of those!” And if you’ve ever taken a stroll around just about any neighborhood in San Francisco, you know that there are approximately 15-20 stairways on each side of every block. So this exhaustively-repeated antic was good for some repeated and seriously heartwarming entertainment, to be sure.
Within a couple weeks of adopting him, I started noticing Katherine addressing Ripley as “Peanut”. When I asked her why she was calling him that, all I got was “Because he’s just such a little PEANUT!!”, as if all was made clear by that explanation. Regardless of the presence or absence of any logic behind the decision to call him Peanut, you can’t argue with a heart full of love; and so I too was won over, and Ripley became Peanut (unofficially- his tags still identify him as Ripley).
Okay, at this point I think we’ve known each other long enough that I’m ready for you to meet some of my family members (in descending order of furriness):
This is my son, Peanut; but you can call him Pean if you like. He’ll also answer to Ripley. And buddy. And a bunch of other names far too stupid and ridiculous to disclose here, if anywhere, EVER.
The Pean is 7 1/2 years old; and he is of German/Chinese descent (German Shepherd/Chow Chow). He is a dog’s dog, by all accounts. He had been living with one dude and 35 other dogs for several months when my girlfriend (now wife) and I adopted him; so he’s pretty well socialized with other dogs. It must be said here, though, that he sometimes, by just being himself, rubs other male dogs the wrong way, in much the same way that you would surely piss off some people if you had balls but associated almost exclusively with other guys who’d had theirs removed by concerned loved ones while napping one afternoon. It’s a jealousy thing.
In his interactions with humans, Peanut is a little less predictable. He’s never bitten anybody, though he is one relentless barker, even when familiar folks show up at my house. And though some people take this personally, I always explain to them that he only knows the one word, “Woof”. This term does virtually all of the heavy lifting, when Peanut is dialoguing with others, be they human, canine, or whatever. It’s how he says “Hello”, “I love you”, “Who the hell is that that dare enter this building?”, “I wish that goddamn phone would stop ringing for Chrissakes”, and “Where have you been?- Ohmygod I thought you would never return”, to name a few of his signature lines.
The city where I live, hike, study, play music, and plan trips.
There is never a time when i don’t have at least one trip planned for the upcoming months. I get really antsy and irritable anytime I look ahead a few months and don’t see one or more camping or backpacking trips coming up during that time.
What I’m trying to say here is:
Get OUT there. And do it like you MEAN it. And do it often.