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Germ Bag

Penguin Flyover

By Suz Redfearn | Posted 7/4/2001

Suz is taking a bye week right now. But that's no reason not to go ahead and read this oldie but goodie, penned in the summer of 1999, known as The Summer of the Penguin.

It was one of the worst days in recent memory.

I leave the office for five freaking minutes, and what happens? My editor brings in penguins.

Yes, penguins. Black and white aquatic bird life. Rolly polly and innocent-looking. The cutest things on the planet. The kind you see waddling around on makeshift islands at the zoo and diving into tanks; the kind you don't see in an office setting -- at least not the kind I get to see in an office setting.

Because on this day, during this one hour, I was down the road with my feet up in stirrups at the gynecologist. Yes, a Pap smear is important, but out-of-context penguins, I would argue, are far more important.

"Suz! You missed the penguins!" my coworkers squealed upon my return. "You, of all people, missing the penguins!"

Seems our editor had a pal come by, and this pal just happened to be a PR person for Sea World in Orlando, and she just happened to have two live penguins in tow. Apparently, the little beasts wandered around the office for a half hour, tapping their beaks on aqua-colored computer towers, interacting with cooing reporters and editors, and pooping on the burbur carpet -- twice. When I learned about it all, I froze and the blood drained from my face. People closed in around me.

"They have 75 feathers per square inch! The most feathers of any living creature!" said one beaming employee, looking like he'd just been injected with morphine.

The normally cynical staff was so enchanted by the diversion, their eyes were spinning around in their heads. Even the most manly and removed among them gushed like freaks, unable to stop spilling their new Sea World penguin facts all over my cubicle.

"They respond affectionately to soft but high-pitched noises!" swooned one of the starry-eyed.

I was shattered. The unfairness of it all swirled around my head like mad bees. The bees were soon replaced with bad thoughts. I sit in that stinking cubicle behind that stinking IMac churning out those stinking articles sometimes 50 hours a week. I give my soul to this place and day after day it's the same thing: Nothing unexpected ever happens to break the monotony and boost morale. Ever! I work hard. I deserve a diversion. I deserve penguins!

Pure, unadulterated, uncut anguish swam over me. Not only had I missed some unexpected fun; I'd missed an event that I can only imagine was the height of surreal and goofy. These are things I live for.

Oh dear God, I muttered. I hung my head, defeated.

But luckily for my overall mental health, before my unconscious could say "Hey chief, don't forget you were a psyche minor," Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's stages of grief came back to me. Then they rolled up their sleeves and went to work helping me avoid total mental crumble.

First came denial.

"There were not any penguins here," I said, facial muscles quivering. "All of you stop it. Just stop it. This is not right."

"I took pictures," piped the staff photographer, hurrying past. "You'll be the first with copies."

And as the sea of coworkers continued filling the stale office air with enthusiastic penguin facts and figures, I saw denial didn't make any sense. I might be delusional and paranoid, but I couldn't imagine all these very busy folks getting together and spending a half hour doing penguin research on the Internet just to send me into a spiral of doom. They just don't have that kind of free time. And they weren't that weird.

With denial behind me, it was time for anger. First, I blamed destiny. "Cruel Fortuna," I cried out to myself in internally. "Thou hath cursed me!"

Then I found a more rational target for my anger: my editor, the one with the Sea World connection.

"Kent!" I half-snarled, half-whined. "You invited a penguin lady here? You knew penguins were coming? Why in god's name didn't you warn me?"

Poor Kent cowered and said he had no idea real penguins were coming. His chum had just said, "See you at 3 -- and I'll bring Mr. Penguin!" Kent, however, thought that meant she'd have in tow a goofball guy tottering around in a penguin suit gurgling, "Hello boys and girls!" to us weather-beaten reporters. Knowing that, I was upset Kent didn't warn me to stay out of the office.

But as it turned out, it was two live penguins -- which sent an immediate wave of alarm through Kent, since our publisher was ever-so sensitive about staining up the expensive carpet in our new office. Hell, Kent himself had spilled Coke by the mail slots a week earlier and gotten publicly humiliated because of it. Politically, he couldn't afford penguin turds now.

I still wanted to blame him, but couldn't. That would have been irrational. I'm not beyond irrational, but I do want to keep my job. And besides, it was time for the next stage of grief: bargaining.

"If," I postulated frantically to myself, "I promise to turn every story in on time for the next six weeks, maybe some supernatural forces will allow me to go back in time. Just for an hour. That's all it will take. An hour. And then I can follow the penguins around cooing with the others."

It sounded like a good plan. But I couldn't figure out how to get it going.

So then came Plan B: Immediate good karma. "Ok, maybe if I clean my desk off, and sign up for all these Chamber luncheons they want us to go to, and turn in my photo assignments early for next week, I will effectively send out powerful magnetic energy into the universe, and the penguin lady -- thinking she left behind her can of air freshener -- will be sucked back to our office with said penguins. Then, fulfillment and joy will be mine."

Just then, Kent hurried over to my desk with the name and number of the hotel where the penguin lady was staying. The penguins would be there, too, he said, spending the night in the bathtub. Oh, there is a god, I sighed.

But at that moment, in came a flood of calls, interviews I needed for my stories that week -- which were all due the next day. The stinking calls kept coming until well past quittin' time, and then I was left having to sit there late writing my stories. This helped usher in the depression stage of grief.

I sulked. I pined. I experienced low energy and loss of appetite (didn't eat the granola bar at my desk). Hobbies that used to bring me pleasure (writing copious e-mail and biting my nails) didn't seem to matter anymore. I taunted myself with images of the two cuddly creatures waddling from one end of the office to the other, veering off into various people's offices, nuzzling garbage cans and reporters' legs. I became lost in painful fantasies about what their various characteristics and idiosyncrasies might be.

Oh, I thought about calling the penguin lady. But, when I finished up at 9 p.m., I resolved that 1) it was probably too late, and 2) she'd surely think I was grade- A freak. "Lady, you don't know me, but I missed seeing the penguins this afternoon, and I really have to be with them now."

In a burst of impulsiveness at 9:03, though, I started rooting around for the little piece of paper with her whereabouts on it, suddenly thinking things like: you only live once, man. But of course, I couldn't find the paper and by that time, Kent had gone home.

So then it was time for the fifth and final stage of grief: acceptance -- graceful, quiet acceptance. I have lived a very full live without penguins, I told myself. I will continue to do so. And with that, the needle-covered blanket of anxiety lifted and I was whole again. I had moved through the proper stages and they had done their job.

A few days later, when the photographer developed the penguin pictures -- including one in which a real live penguin stands contemplating a stuffed penguin from off of somebody's desk -- I was not filled with sorrow and longing. I was O.K. with it. I was able to feel happy for my coworkers, pleased that they'd gotten to experience such a thing.

Yes, it's true that I now notice penguins everywhere, where before I saw none. Just the other day, I realized there's a nice picture of one attached to my key chain. I think my nephew put it there. And friends and loved ones now seem to be pointing out pretty penguin motifs all over the city, the region, the country.

None of that makes me want to rip anybody's freaking head off with my bare hands and hurl it across traffic. Honest, it doesn't.

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