Another Saturday night in exurbia. The little woman puts the Trader Joe’s pre-fabricated hors d’oeuvres in the oven, I light a Java-Log–the innovative, hassle-free firewood substitute made from recycled coffee grounds. We’re all set for an evening of natural conviviality with new friends!
“Who are these people again?” my wife asks.
“He’s the president of a huge nanotechnology firm.”
“Isn’t that an oxymoron, like ‘jumbo shrimp’?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m kidding. So a big client?”
“Yes,” I say as I cue fifties jazz on the stereo.
“Should I break out the ‘good’ penguins?”
I have to think for a second. I don’t want to seem too eager, but I do want to impress the guy. “Yes,” I say, “this is a ‘good’ penguin night.”
The penguin, you may have guessed by now, is my totem. Totems are a vestige of our primitive heritage, according to Thorstein Veblen, philandering professor, and who are you to argue with a guy whose office hours were “10-10:05, alternating Mondays”?
I came by penguins as my totem through the same mixture of conscious intent and primal forces as any Eskimo seal-hunter. Primitive peoples choose totems to exemplify some quality for which they wish to be known, usually ferocity; hence those scary-looking faces of animals carved into totem poles and on the helmets of the Seattle Seahawks. In popular lore, the penguin is a genial, bumbling fellow, monogamous (at least on an annual basis) and a good father.
“So nice to meet you! Although I don’t actually listen to him, Con has told me so much about you.”
Grr–that’s how I want to be known!
At the subconscious level, there is the mystic chord of memory in which penguins and rhythm ‘n blues are two complementary notes. I submit as Exhibit A in proof of this proposition “Do the Funky Penguin” by Rufus Thomas.
This song is the last R&B hit to have a Part I and Part II, a common feature of many James Brown singles of the ’60s, which forced teens to stop their spasmodic dancing midway through a 45 rpm record, flip it over and continue on as if nothing had happened. It is also the last of the “funky” animal dances devised by man, stretching back to the primordial ooze of the Funky Chicken. That’s Exhibit B. I rest my case.
One cold February night three decades ago I attended a Battle of the Funky Penguins at the invitation of a tenor sax player I knew. It was Tuesday, a work night, but I braved the cold to enter an alternative universe; a dark but comfortable bar jammed with people wearing penguin costumes, the bands weaving penguin references into jump blues songs. As my buddy Bill Yeats would say, I was changed, changed utterly, like a victim of an alien abduction.
Other people get their totems inadvertently. A woman I know was asked, when she was three, what she wanted as a birthday gift from her grandmother. “Tribaderadops!” said the lisping babe (who turned into another kind of babe as she grew older). “All right, then,” said Granny, “a triceratops you shall have!” Unfortunately for my friend, her grandmother slipped into senility shortly thereafter and continued to give her a triceratops every year for the next decade, at which point the old lady expired, leaving her granddaughter with more dinosaurs than dolls.
For some people, a totem is part of their personal cosmology. William James, the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, was once approached after a lecture by a dotty little old woman who proceeded to explain her theory of the universe. “The earth isn’t suspended in a sea of ether,” she said. “It rests on the back of an enormous turtle.”
“But madam,” James replied patiently, “if the earth rests on a turtle, what does the turtle stand on?”
“Ah,” the woman replied, eager to rebut the objection. “It’s turtles all the way down!”
Having personal totems on display in one’s office projects an air of self-assurance that puts clients at ease. Just yesterday I interviewed a man whose company is about to go into bankruptcy, which would result in massive layoffs and expose his home and life’s savings to claims by angry creditors.
I recount the interview to the best of my recollection:
ANXIOUS MAN: So, if we don’t make payroll–that’s it. The bank’s going to come after me and start foreclosure proceedings on my . . . what are you doing with that wind-up penguin?
ME: Brainstorming. You know, biologists say that our evolutionary ancestors, the apes, were the first animals to use “thinking by indirection” to solve problems. I wind Pengy up and if he goes left, we put you into Chapter 11, if he goes right, we . . .
ANXIOUS MAN: I’ve, uh, gotta go. Can the receptionist validate my parking ticket?
So I’ve got my totem–hope you’ve got yours. Bring it over sometime and we’ll compare notes.
We may even break out the good penguins for you.