How Performing Dolphins Can Predict Your Family’s Future
1. A Regrettable Pennypinch
My wife and I were extracting ourselves from the Dolphin Show Pavilion (or whatever it’s called) at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium as the show ended. The audience hesitantly filed out, checking cameras and children, glancing back at the water to catch any unscheduled farewell antics from mankind’s aquatic buddies/captives. This was the main event, in a sense—the pay-extra-for-it ticket option at the entry counter, so I’m sure people wanted to feel very dolphin-saturated and -satiated before they cut loose from the acrobatic geniuses of the sea. I remember feeling less than aglow but basically satisfied, dolphin-wise, and guilty after stealing numerous glances at a nearby woman with a very lovely ear and elegant nose-profile, when I looked at my wife. We decided we were glad that we’d paid the extra ten or twelve bucks apiece to see this part of the aquarium. A stream of kids ran by and I almost started crying then, realizing that, several years earlier, I’d brought my little brother here but passed up the rare chance for farm kids from Missouri to see dolphins. I’d been too cheap.
In the Big Picture this becomes more tragic, if you’re prone to rolling up the Big Picture and beating yourself with it: All of us are born in only one place and one time, with all of human civilization building toward this golden age when marine spectacles are corralled for our edutainment until that fast-approaching day when they—or we—will likely become extinct, not to mention all the minor happenstances governing our own lives that must line up favorably to make such a trip possible: having time, not being tied down by work or school, having gas money, owning a working vehicle, etc. In this case, it was probably the last time my brother and I took a trip together before growing up into separate lives. “You only live once,” as folks would say. At the most.
2. One’s Own Weaknesses
But before this becomes a simple “stop and smell the roses” tale, I’ll jump back 25+ years and dig up the earlier episode. When I was about four, I was taken with my sister to the Great America (Six Flags over Great America?) Theme Park, somewhere in Illinois. My sister was five years older than I was (still is, luckily), so she and my mother were calling all the shots I’m sure, pulling me wherever they went, which would inevitably involve animals. This drew us to an amphitheater where dolphins leapt from the water in splashy, crowd-pleasing parabolic curves. I really remember nothing of it, except for the brightness of the outdoors (I wonder if little kids have any special evolutionary eyeball defenses to offset the need to run around looking up at/for adults) and that my fifteen minutes of fame lunged at me too soon, in a belittling forest of human witnesses.
The dolphin trainers went zipping through the crowd for volunteers, and suddenly I was singled out: Would I like to go help a dolphin do a trick? I looked around. What? No, not by myself.... I was too shy. Could my mom or my sister go with me? No? No, not by myself. I must have been cute enough to draw them in, but of course they had to get the show on the road, not stand around while some little boy struggled to overcome innate shyness in the freight-train glare of audience anticipation. So, the moment passed—they moved on, finding some other shrimp to hold a sardine out, leaving me to years of disappointed admonishment from my sister and mom. They both so wanted me in that smidgen of limelight that I think they formed an unspoken agreement to jibe me into sociability with little reminders of how lame I was, like, “Oh, wouldn’t that have been neat if you would have gotten into that dolphin show?” I know they told the story throughout the land, and it always ended with, “But Chad was too shy to go with them, so he didn’t get to do it.” It’s probably my earliest recollection of failure as a social being—the first in a rich and lengthy tradition.*
3. The Most Charismatic of All Megafauna
So maybe the hype about dolphins is true: maybe they do have the power to show us who we are. In my case, not because I give a particular shit about dolphins or believe them to be magical, spiritual creatures (maybe they are; I’m sure they’re very nice and smart), but because each time I’ve ever been around them, my sibling relationships have been summed up instantly** as if the dolphins were shining some psychic flashlight on us:
My sister, the showpiece of the family, who should have been selected from the dolphin audience and would have jumped at the chance if offered, who could have handily starred successfully in a new TV version of Flipper if given a few pointers, clearly had the social chops to cavort with dolphins. Hanging with such popular creatures requires charisma, which requires confidence and a non-crap attitude; I would be lucky to withstand the company of a hermit crab or a newt or a pigeon or a mudskipper, which is a precise summary of the pets I would have in the ensuing years. Allowing most of them to die or escape on their own biological timeline would eventually cure me of the need to claim a pet of any kind. My sister, on the flip side, has long-standing companionship with horses, great danes and colorful birds. She’s just the kind of person you’d expect to see zipped into a wetsuit handing food to marine mammals in a shower of cheers. I, on the other hand, used to let a scrawny anole crawl around in my hair.
It’s easy to see how people came up with the idea that witches had familiars in animal form, or that Native Americans had animal totems, or even lycanthrope forms. People are drawn to other living things that reflect them or sympathize with them. I believe I’ve seen a Warner Brothers cartoon where people walking their dogs look like those dogs: a beefy construction worker led by a bulldog, a snooty old lady tethered to a French poodle, etc. I think it’s a parallel we all get, and we get the joke when the pet doesn’t fit the owner, like a hugely muscled bruiser carrying a shivering teacup Chihuahua.
While dolphins are generally beyond the sphere of pets, they still operate as totems, radiating oceanic romance, acrobatic speed and agility, and smiles seemingly built right into their faces, not to mention legendary intelligence that lets them interact with people on the level of colleagues. They’re animals of the highest order. They’re also assigned, by some commentaries, credit for therapeutic empathy with humans, especially crippled or retarded ones. I think this is constructed by our culture, but built around the naturally pleasing appearance and role of this animal: they swim as well as sharks, but don’t tend toward eating us; they’re smart as chimps, but don’t throw poop or scratch mangy patches of hair; they’re cute as ducks, but less silly; they’re mammals unbound by any of the landlubber rules of mammaldom.***
4. The Dolphin Crystal Ball has 20/20 Hindsight
Maybe we think dolphins are smart for the same reason one might think my mom is dumb: they usually seem very pleased with things. The capacity to be pleased probably has little to do with raw intelligence, but it is definitely wise to be pleased with things: if an otter will spend much of its time clutching at glossy edibles while splashing about, it might as well feel good doing so. The Dalai Lama has been squeezed out of his own country and he still has the gumption to seem pleased. When my mom says to my brother, “Bubby, don’t you think that girl would make a nice girlfriend for you?” he’s likely to say, “Shut up, you’re dumb.” This is the sort of response that makes us all marvel at my brother’s harshness, and makes me think I failed him somehow—maybe it was when I didn’t buy us tickets to the dolphin show; maybe it was when I left him in dirty diapers while my friends slept over and he got raging diaper rash; maybe it was when I was teaching him the alphabet by making little letter cards (which are still sticking to the inside of my closet door at my parents’ house 20 years later), and I gave up after the letter “E.” Maybe I screwed him up. Or maybe I made him better. Kids are complex machines, and adults are downright inscrutable. Most people would be easier to kill than to change. We are pretty much who we are. That’s why it’s so impressive when someone loses 400 pounds, or gives away all his possessions and hikes to Alaska. What power, to rewrite one’s own identity.
While writing this, I learned that my sister’s new baby will be a dwarf, according to doctors. Suddenly all previous comments about how fat and Bibendum-like this baby is seemed like clues to her proportion problem. While no one in my family is tall, we have no known history of dwarfism, either. It might be fun to blame the air quality in Los Angeles, or terrorists, or Don Rickles, but I knew right away that my sister would think it was karma balancing some kind of vanity scales. My mom confirmed this later, and I decided then that, while karma is a good belief system for society at large (sort of an inescapable Golden Rule that keeps people on good behavior), it falls far short of the truth. If the scales are made to be balanced, they rarely balance in this lifetime, so what’s the point?
The truth is, chance, physics, and biology do it all, and we imagine patterns shaped by karma, or God’s will, or Satan’s trickery, etc. We imagine the dolphins are smiling when the shape of their mouths is likely just hydrodynamic design. We imagine shapes and names for constellations because we like shapes and names. We imagine this daughter will be sad when she can’t reach a cabinet or eclipse the silhouette that says, “You must be taller than this to ride this ride.” We imagine our own weaknesses through the lives of others—weaknesses they may not have.
My mom frets a lot despite seeming pleased, and dolphins still look like they’re smiling when they’re caught in a fishing net. It took me 29 years just to get my first date despite being genetically normal and arguably satisfactory-looking, while being legally blind has been only a minor inconvenience (unless of course it was the glasses that kept me from getting dates, in which case I’m pretty fucking pissed off about that). When this short baby gets older, she may do a dozen things better than any of us—have a miniature horse rodeo or her own small merry-go-round, and so many friends and accomplishments that we’ll say, man, I’m getting sick of that little hot-shot making us look like chumps!
If dogs can sense fear, what can dolphins sense?
*Competing mainly with breaking the grandfather clock my grandfather made, letting my hermit crab die by not watering it, and asking my well-mannered grandma if she farted after hearing her fart, which rather infuriated her.
**in a way I wouldn’t see until years later, of course
*** They also have their shitass tendencies, if you pay close enough attention to nature shows. They’ve been caught on film harrassing lesser creatures, even mauling/killing them for fun (or at least, not for food), like cuttlefish, which they often tear to shreds but do not eat, and I think they sometimes commit what appears to be rape.