Saturday, April 16, 2011

Life with Mikey

Mikey has a big crush on Jamie.  Or at the very least he likes her a lot.  The only wrinkle in the story of these two star-crossed lovers is the fact that Mikey is a three-feet tall, big, beautiful King penguin and Jamie is a five-and-a-half-foot tall human. 

But the story of their relationship starts long before they actually fell in love…when Jamie was in high school.  Jamie’s mom raised her all on her own.  Jamie talks almost reverently, in hushed tones, about how she made such a great life possible for them despite being a single mom.  As a single mom now myself, I know it isn’t easy to provide such a wonderful life as Jamie describes what her mom gave her. 

In order to accomplish it all, there were sacrifices to be made.  With this in mind, they went lots of places and had a lot of fun, and this dynamic duo was a frugal pair.  Jamie proudly told me about it in bits and pieces as we worked together spreading good karma for the phone company and finally, the power behind she and Mikey’s love story came tumbling out while we enjoyed a too-perfect day together whale-watching.    

We motored out of Roche Harbor, in the heart of the San Juan Islands, an archipelago that straddles Washington and British Columbia.  A breeze fingered through our hair on this picturesque summer afternoon while we trolled for orca whales.  This warm season brings orca together for a clan gathering of sorts. Fishing for salmon and hunting for seals is good around the islands this time of year.  Whale babies are born in the shelter of coves and bays, and lots of love is shared among the pods of orcas as they join up to make one super pod, eat to their hearts content (on good years), broaden their gene pools and further the future of their species. 

As a result of this massive orca family reunion, tourists like me, and Jamie and thousands of others flocked like sheep in order to witness this annual love-fest. During college, I remembered that Jamie worked at Sea World in San Antonio, TX.  Armed with her knowledge of orca I knew that she could teach me a few things that weren’t on the regular tour about whales as well as enjoying the sea and sights around us. 

Everything Jamie learned in four years of working at Sea World was condensed, organized and card-catalogued efficiently into her brain.  Not surprisingly, Jamie has a teacher’s soul.  As you know, with teachers, everything has a place and must be in place, properly, thank you.  

Jamie often laughs with us, her colleagues, about the fact that no matter what the event, Jamie is always on top of the last detail.  We march to her orders like a dutiful classroom of kids.  On more than one occasion I’ve given her the all-too-plentiful advice that she should change professions and get paid to boss small children around, preferably in second or third grade.  She is a perfect benevolent dictator. 

To which she replies often that teachers do not get paid enough to earn a proper living, and so she chose the marketing profession.  I am one of those free-spirited, creative types.  I think that we are to become whatever our mission is, to connect with our soul and learn what that mission actually is.  However, Jamie decided that teaching wasn’t for her, so she chose to apply her great attention to detail, organization and logical sequence in the marketing department of our phone company.  We were kindly blessed with Jamie at our organization. 

So on a warm-breeze summer afternoon, Jamie and I sat amid all this splendor spying yachts in the harbor and letting our eyes drink in the incredible beauty of the Pacific Northwest.  It was one of those kind of days where trying to describe the sound of gray-blue water lapping against a boat or the exhale of Orca blow holes close by was woefully inadequate to the emotions raising the plum line in my soul.  Simply put, I was full of joy and wonder at the grace of life around me.

At the time we were slathering mayo onto bread poised perfectly atop our laps while making assembly-line turkey and cheese sandwiches.  On this whale-watching trip lunch didn’t come with the package even though the trip crossed lunch hour.  So we improvised, purchasing sandwich fixins’ at the market. 

Bending over to my task, I dutifully slather the bread with mayonnaise and, next on the conveyor belt Jamie is applying the turkey slices.   We took a break in the action and ponder the direction of true North and then returned to the task at hand, when Jamie opened the door to her world to tell me about herself.  I pause, looking for fairy dust and sparkles, holding my breath because I know this is a glimpse into the sacred, special part of what makes her, “Jamie.”  

She began rather benignly by pointing out parts of the Orca anatomy and their coloring that make them unique to one another. The “saddle” is a grey patch between the dorsal fin and the tail that is different for every whale.  Marine biologists use this patch as well as the whale’s dorsal fin, which is also unique to each whale, to identify specific members of a pod, as a whale family is called. 

As she got comfortable in her teacher’s role I only wanted to learn more.  Her gift of teaching was played out as she relayed to me everything she’d learned as a summer camp counselor at Sea World.  By this time, we’re now enjoying our sandwiches and Jamie carefully chooses her words and explained that growing up outside Saint Louis, MO, of course Jamie and her mom visited Sea World. 

Something about that place must have moved her, inspired her.  Seeing sea mammals in a land-locked place, listening to the sounds they make when they breach for air or just simply because they can, feeling water spray down as part of the hundreds of gallons displaced whenever whales splash back into their domain.  It’s hard to pin-point any one thing.  Jamie still holds that magical moment close to her chest.  That is her personal joy. 

Finally, though, that inspiration found a calling. “I kept surfing the Internet, not really sure what I was looking for and then I found a Sea World summer camp in San Antonio, Texas.”

After that, Jamie was bitten by the Sea World bug.  Throughout college, she spent every summer there playing camp counselor-big-sister-teacher to kids staying overnight as well as day-trippers.  While she joined the many others who were awestruck by Orca whales, Jamie’s heart was taken by the penguins.  And, in particular, Jamie loved the King penguins.  It seemed that one of them returned her admiration. 

All penguins are playful and attached to their zookeepers.  I didn’t know that when Jamie told me.  I thought they hung around for food and then turned their attentions back to one another.  However, I was woefully wrong and she patiently explained that they consider humans part of their flock and will become very attached to one or more of those taking care of them.  Over the four years that Jamie was a camp counselor, she regularly brought children in for ‘hands-on’ time with penguins.  As a result, she got to know almost all of “her” penguins by name and could recognize them as they could her. 

At Sea World in Saint Louis, they boasted a healthy and robust family of King penguins. They are aptly named. They grow to about three feet tall and weigh an average ranging from 50 to near 100 pounds.  With this size comes quite a bit of gumption and they are particularly engaging. 

Jamie laughs when she tells me about how the birds use their wings (which look like flippers and are actually used like them) when they walk up behind people and administer a healthy “whack” behind their knees, causing their legs to buckle.  Those and other antics can only be described as higher thought.  Jamie explains that she felt like the penguins actually laughed whenever a zookeeper was brought to his or her knees.  That’s just funny stuff, you know.  “The stooges,” a.k.a. Larry, Curly, Moe and Shep would be proud. Physical humor ranks just above body noises in hilarity.

So, Jamie, like anyone, had her favorites among the penguins.  Mikey was a pretty great penguin as they go, but Jamie abided by the rules of never getting too close, as they are pretty skittish and are not meant to be someone’s pet.  So, one day, Jamie was seated in the exhibit, with her small group of children sitting in a crescent-moon shape across from her.  Jamie, looking at the children, didn’t notice Mikey addling up next to her, but the kids could see him.  She talked, he inched closer.  She talked some more, he got up and scooted within a few webbed footfalls.  The kids started pointing and guffawing.

“I thought they might be laughing at a couple of the penguins showing off, but no, they were amazed at how Mikey was trying to get as close as possible,” Jamie explains.  “So I told him it was okay, he could come closer, and he did.”

Mikey sided right up next to her, and wheedled himself alongside her.  Then, he leaned against her with his head actually resting gently on her shoulder.  I can just imagine him gazing lovingly up at her!  By this time all the kids were laughing.  I’m sure if Jamie and Mikey were both penguins, the penguins in the flock would have been calling out in sing-song voices:  two little love birds sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.  Or, if Jamie had been a fellow camper and Mikey was human, the kids would have sung the same.

And so Jamie, the ever-practical, the efficient-Mary-Poppins in so many ways was completely, unabashedly undone by Mikey’s display of affection.  He touched her heart, inspired her, igniting a well-spring of joy on that day.  Fireworks exploded so brightly that even more than a decade later Jamie still beams as she tells the story. 

On that summer sunny day, with the tourist boat bobbing and the orcas blow-holing and the people beaming from it all, we enjoyed a quiet time after her story.  It seemed poignant to me, how far away she was from her work at Sea World that brought her so much joy and a sense of purpose. 

Two weeks later, while driving down to a phone company event in Sweet Home, Oregon, one of my colleagues called me on my cell phone.  I’m always grateful for the calls, as they break up the monotony of a long drive.  At the time our phone company spanned 38,000 square-miles in Washington and Oregon, some of the most remote communities in the contiguous U.S.  Despite being fully awake and using a hands-free cell phone, I almost drove off the road when my colleague blurted out, “Jamie just sent an email and she’s resigned from her position.”

“Jamie has a new job?  Where is she going?” I amaze myself at being able to choke out a discernable sentence.

“She’s got a job at a hospital conglomerate where she will coordinate marketing events and community education.” 

Ah, bliss.  I thought.  Not quite back to Sea World, but definitely close to her teacher’s soul.  Someday, maybe, she’ll find her way “upstream” just like steelhead spawning and return to Sea World.  In the meantime, she’s on her way there.  Life is a journey, not a sprint, and we are the sum total of the experiences we gain along the road.  Someday, that blessed, blissful someday, she’ll have a lot to share with the penguins. 

However, if Sea World is interested now, then I can arrange an informational interview.  Jamie and her King penguin family need to get back together again sooner than later. 

I caught up with Jamie recently.  It’s been a couple years since we spoke last and much has changed in her world.  As a new mother, she and her husband are celebrating milestones like the baby’s first smile.  She’s also moved on from hospital marketing and education.  If you can believe it, she’s now working for a pet food company, marketing their specialty veterinary line of foods!  It’s awesome! I cracked up!  It really is too perfect!

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