C is for Chargers. Poor team! Wait forget that... Poor us! Why do we stay fans for..for...this? Forty-three years, one championship -- and that was in the AFL!
  • C is for Chargers. Poor team! Wait forget that... Poor us! Why do we stay fans for..for...this? Forty-three years, one championship -- and that was in the AFL!
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AIRPORT

Drive the 5 from downtown and — boom! — just overhead, an aircraft with a bloated belly screams. Wheels down, tilting for landing, 50 yards between plane and road. Or how about having to yell on cell phones in Golden Hill, then pausing as jet engines roar past? That roughly sums up the essence of the San Diego airport: it's our downtown airport, not an abstract method of arrival or escape tucked away in the outskirts. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh made San Diego the starting point for the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight. The Dutch Flat airfield boasted a flat dirt strip (eventually the world's first lighted runway), an unassuming shack of a control tower, the original aviation radio, and a lone passenger terminal that looked like an airplane hangar.

Today, 15 million people jet through our good city's veritable hub, the busiest single-runway commercial airport in the United States, Lindbergh Field.

BORDER TOWN

Ever heard Mexico's national anthem on the radio at midnight? Noticed the strange yellow road signs in our county that depict a family holding hands, ducking and running? Tried to drive north and gotten stuck in traffic at a peculiar patrol station?

Whatever else San Diego may be, it's also a border town.

Border towns are either last refuges or first respites, depending on which side of the border you're from. With frontier status comes a special civic duty — guardianship — a source of both pride and alarm. The identity of a city is alternately clarified and confused by the way it sits along the edge of what it is not.

Our sister city, Tijuana, dates from around 1830. Once just part of a large cattle ranch, it did not become a municipality until 1917, the same year that San Diego banned cabaret dancing and nightclubs. Hmmm.

Nowadays there is something of a symmetry to the relationship. The folks from the south come here, as they long have, for better-paying jobs, finer merchandise, and safer opportunities. We head down there for cheap health care, cheap pharmaceuticals, cheap shopping, and cheap fun. (For "cheap" one might substitute "risky.")

We can cross into Mexico in 20 seconds flat. Returning might take the better part of a hot afternoon.

CHARGERS


(a play in one act)

  • Dramatis Personae:
  • KENT, a Chargers fan
  • BLUTO, a Raiders fan
  • RADIO ANNOUNCER

Setting: Qualcomm Stadium Parking Lot. Thousands of parked cars and trucks with their tailgates down. Tents set up, grills churning smoke; groups of people talking, slugging beer, and tossing footballs.

The scene: KENT, wearing a blue and gold argyle sweater, stands in line at a Porta Potti. BLUTO files in behind him, holding an old transistor radio up to his ear. BLUTO's bearded face is painted black. He wears a silver cape over an official Raiders jersey. Black weightlifter pants are tucked into his point silver boots. On his head is a black-and-silver bandana.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, does anyone else feel the way I do about the Chargers? (BLUTO snorts and suppresses a laugh. KENT notices BLUTO behind him and shifts uneasily from foot to foot.) Poor team! Wait forget that... Poor us! Why do we stay fans for..for...this? Forty-three years, one championship -- and that was in the AFL! Now we've suffered through 34 years in the NFL, with only ten division titles, on esince 1994. Twelve playoff appearances, but only one since 1995. What is this team? The Bolts or the Dolts? (BLUTO says, "Uh, Dolts?" and laughs loudly.) The San Diego Chargers boast futility like few other teams in the National Football League. (KENT glances around and tries to inch away from the situation brewing behind him.)

BLUTO: You got a problem? What you lookin' at?

KENT: (sotto voce) If I ignore him maybe he'll leave me alone.

BLUTO: What's-a matta? Can't talk smack when you a fan a da worst team in da league?

KENT: Hey. Hey now.That's enough, buddy. Let's see who's talking after the game.

BLUTO: (scoffs) You dink you'll have somedin' ta talk about aftah da game?

KENT: Well, that's why they play 'em, right? We'll just see.

BLUTO: (mockingly) Oooh. Dat's touching. You still believe.

DR. SEUSS

Of all the grand places that Dr. Seuss went,

Not Dartmouth nor York nor the city of Ghent,

Not Whoville nor Frewn nor Pelustilagoya

Was better to Seuss than the town of La Jolla.

He lived here for years in a tower and wrote

Animation and stories and books of vast note.

He spoke for the trees and the air and the beaches

And made up new creatures like Grinches and Sneetches

And Gacks and Loraxes and Nizzards and Yooks

And Ooblecks and Flunnels and Fibbels and Zooks

And Foo-Foo the Snoo and Hinkle-Horn Honkers

And Gussets and Guffs and Humpf-Humpf-a-Dumpfers.

One century ago, just this past year,

Ted Geisel was born without too much fanfare.

But now we have festivals and wide celebrations

Where people toast "Seuss" and sip tipsy libations.

EXPENSIVE

Space, energy, time, you name it: San Diegans are hard pressed to afford it. A modest, boxy house with no yard in La Jolla costs the same as an estate sprawling across numberless acres in upstate Connecticut. Gas runs 35 cents a gallon higher in San Diego than in Oklahoma City. A #1 Value Meal at a McDonald's in Iowa City costs $1.60 less than it does on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach.

One might point out that San Diegans get paid more than most Americans do, but a median income 14 percent above the national average hardly makes up for a cost of living index 40 percent higher than normal.

And why is this the case? Two words: sunshine, baby. Perfect weather. Never too hot, never too cold. We all want to live here, and we'll pay an arm and half a leg to do it.

FISH TACOS

In 1996 they were dished out downtown to the party faithful swarming around Bob Dole at the Republican National Convention. Perhaps the politicos had been hipped to the city's famed dish the year before, when San Diego mayor Susan Golding had to send muchos fish tacos to her San Francisco peer to pay off a losing bet on our beloved Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. The Padres roll them out at every home game.

For locals, it's no mystery how fish tacos came to be the signature fare of San Diego. Fish tacos were a staple of Baja cuisine many years before Ralph Rubio, a business major at San Diego State, first got a whiff of them while on spring break in 1974. Rubio was so smitten by the delicacy that he coaxed a recipe out of a friendly Mexican vendor named Carlos. After a few years spent perfecting his taco technique, Rubio opened his own restaurant.

And the rest is part of local, political, business, sports, and culinary history.

GATED COMMUNITIES

See Johnny. Johnny lives cleanly and safely. Not a care and not a worry. To visit Johnny, you can't just drop by unannounced; you'll have to call first. And on your way, make sure to say "hi" to the friendly security guard!

The streets inside Johnny's community are spotless. Children of the same race and the same economic class play together in the green yards. That's Johnny's house on the left, a beige prefab luxury residence with gables, a garage, brass lamps, and green bushes, next door to beige prefab luxury residences with gables, garages, brass lamps, and green bushes the same.

The yards are green and the bushes are green and the lawns and trees and roadsides at Johnny's are green, green, green. Yet everyone in the vicinity lives maintenance-free because the residents pay hefty monthly fees for screened immigrant workers to care for their gated community.

Johnny's green back yard extends to a high concrete barrier. From inside, Johnny's parents will insist that they're not elitist, antisocial, or exclusionary. Over the barrier lies the rest of the messy world: the traffic and crime and the people with poor values and salaries. Johnny's parents explain that the barrier provides opportunity and safety.

Johnny lives without a care and scarcely worries. Let's go! Let's call ahead and visit Johnny. We can sit by his pool and sip virgin daiquiris.

HEALTHY

It must be something in the sunlight. Or is it the wheatgrass? Pilates? Private trainers? Bottled water?

Many an involuntary guttural grunt, low lengthy whistle, or exaggerated "da-a-a-amn" have I instinctively expressed at the spectacle of the San Diego physique. So much exposed and bronzed and blonde and toned. I admit I cast a warmer eye as pretty girls pass by.

Mellow sunshine lines our features differently, lightens one's visible mood. Elsewhere in our beloved country, so many people make themselves uglier by chronic frowning. Happily, hardly anyone in healthy San Diego suffers from the scowls...

INTERSTATES

Back where I'm from, you take I-95 North all the way, or exit to I-91, then I-90 East, and in an hour you'll hit the suburbs of Boston. Those vital, congested highways all have four lanes in New England, maybe six at most, nothing terribly super about them.

Then I moved out here and heard folks mentioning "the 15" and "the 8" and "the 805 South." Excuse me, the 5? The five what? Are all other 5s simply fives, one 5, a 5, this 5, just any old 5? There are plenty of eights, but the one that's a highway is the 8?

Yes, these great western thoroughfares often do swell to eight lanes, even ten. But are we saying that the sheer width of the highways on this side of the U.S. warrants a "the"?

Regardless, in our San Diego vernacular, western interstates have earned the article of exclusivity, a distinction, like the mark of royalty.

JUAN RODRÍGUEZ CABRILLO

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was the first white man to set foot on the California coast. Sailing from his home in Guatemala on behalf of the Spanish crown, he sought riches and a fabled route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

On September 28, 1542, Cabrillo reached "a very good enclosed port," which he named "San Miguel." Sixty years later, Sebastian Vizcaíno would land here and rename the bay and the town that had emerged around it in honor of a Spanish Franciscan, San Diego de Alcalá. Though Cabrillo discovered little gold and no interoceanic link in his voyages of exploration, he helped expand the reach of the Spanish Empire and he established vital trade routes. And surely Cabrillo took solace in his pretty consolation prize.

Today, one of the oldest lighthouses on the West Coast stands in a park in Point Loma bearing Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo's name.

KATE SESSIONS

San Diego possesses an astonishing range of flowers, trees, and vegetation, hardly any of it indigenous. The poinsettias, the junipers, the queen palms, the pepper trees: all had to be brought to this browned and yellowed land and nurtured.

One of the most instrumental people to undertake the greening of San Diego was the ever-industrious Kate Sessions. Owner of a flower shop and numerous nurseries, Sessions cofounded the San Diego Floral Association in 1906. As the supervisor of agriculture for the city schools, she planted gardens throughout the city that provided San Diego's children an opportunity to learn the basics of plant identification and horticulture.

But Balboa Park is where Kate Sessions truly made her mark. Named "City Gardener" in 1892, she leased land in what was then called "City Park" for a nursery. In exchange for the city's largesse, she agreed to plant one hundred trees a year in the park over a decade and provide three hundred more to distribute throughout the city. A tree that she planted with her own hands can be found on the southwest corner of First and Walnut.

The "Mother of Balboa Park" died March 24, 1940, at the age of 82. A statue of Sessions stands in the park as a tribute to her life and work.

LACK OF INDOOR CULTURE

Be honest. Who here reads? I'm not talking magazines or websites or CD-ROMs or newspapers; I mean poetry, novels, philosophy, "real" books. And who pursues the parlor arts of rhetoric and conversation? How many San Diegans play musical instruments or seriously engage in painting or sculpture?

Okay, lots of locals are into the arts, I know. But I've met fewer artistic types in San Diego than anywhere else I've ever lived. (I know we may want to defend ourselves against this possibly ridiculous charge and cite various statistics regarding the performing arts and local Nobelists, but, really, can we defend even a large minority of this fair city?) It seems that for every artist here, for every scholar, thinker, and reader, there are five or ten shallow, superficial, sun bum nonintellectuals.

I guess that's the price of living in a place that's a popular tourist attraction. San Diego is a destination on top of a settlement. And the people who've landed here and stayed seem to be taller, blonder, richer, healthier, sillier, and more artificial than the Americans who landed elsewhere. In general.

And that's to say nothing of the price exacted on a person when he or she grows up in paradise. Why travel elsewhere, when everything's perfect right here? Few of San Diego's children see much beyond San Diego, which means that each new generation experiences less of the world than the last.

So surfing beats Sartre; beaches outshine Beethoven; and it's jogging, not Giacometti. I guess that's what we get for being simmered in endless summer.

MISSIONS

San Diego was the birthplace of California, home to the first Catholic mission on the West Coast. When I first came here, I too was on a mission. To build a better life, to convert San Diego from a town into a hometown, to make of this place a haven that could sustain me. When the Catholic missionaries came to San Diego, they wanted the natives to believe in their god.

"Mission" comes from the same root word as "missile." Both are "sent" things, and both are generally violent. Unlike a missile, a mission claims to hold the thing it is sent to destroy in high regard; a mission claims that it will make things better.

Father Junípero Serra was the first missionary to bring Catholicism to California. He was 5´2´´, asthmatic, and he suffered from a chronic sore on his leg. The Native Americans, too holistic and gentle and attuned to nature's cycles, were not generally receptive to the teachings of Serra and the other friars. Perhaps they had their own sense of mission. Of course, that didn't matter. Missionaries, especially Catholic ones, are nothing if not persistent.

San Diego's been good to me, but I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything. For my two cents, I say weigh the options, arrive at personal decisions, make your own missions.

NAVY

Lieutenant Commander Patrick McNally, a San Diegan for the past three years, is stationed with the Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet in Coronado.

Q: What does it mean to say that San Diego is a "Navy Town"?

PM: To some extent, the Navy has shaped the identity of San Diego. A lot of Navy people bring their families here to live, like I did, so we have a lot of new and old Navy families living here. And there's all the tradition. You know, the Navy's been here for almost 100 years. You look through some of those old Navy books, and you find out that this is where they did some of the first flights in Naval aviation. And you know, all during World War II, this was a real hub for producing Naval officers. There's such a tradition here as far as the Navy goes, you know, along with Norfolk, Virginia, which is maybe the only other city that can compete with San Diego as a Navy town. So I think a lot of people think of San Diego that way, as being a Navy town, and that's something San Diego can be very proud of.

Q: Do you think being a Navy town makes us safer? Or does it make us more of a target?

PM: I think all cities are targets, to some extent. But I don't know if having the Navy here makes us safer, or less of a target. I do think it's nice to have all these assets here, no doubt about that.

OCEAN

Out here, the ocean's on the wrong side. East is west and west is east; it's all reversed. I was weaned on an Atlantic orientation, and, four years removed from my first day in San Diego, I still drive miles in the wrong direction. And what's with this ocean's name? The waves here are huge, anything but pacific! Pretty ironic.

I have a friend who believes in something he calls "ocean deprivation." He says people who live away from an ocean suffer even if they don't know it. He insists that humanity needs to replenish itself from time to time in the seas from which it was born. But I've never felt much of a need for the ocean: I prefer inland water. Unfortunately, of San Diego's 22 lakes, all 22 are man-made. And the rivers are more like creeks, or turgid mudflats.

And yet. One of these days, I want you to take a field trip. Check out the ocean from the Torrey Pines Gliderport above Black's Beach. Open up your awe and just gape at the oceanic vastness; marvel at how that magnitude of water lolls and sprawls and never stops moving. Then drive down into Pacific Beach and head west on Law Street, from Ingraham Avenue over toward the very extremity of the United States. Watch how the ocean seems to rise up in front of you to swallow the road. It's uncanny. From here you can really tell: San Diego is the end of the line, the westernmost, the westest.

PETCO PARK

Take me downtown to the ballgame / Take me downtown to the crowd / Although there'll be traffic and I can't park, / I'll stay there till long after dark...

I lived for a little while in Denver, Colorado, back before they built Coors Field downtown. That ballpark changed the face of Denver. Where once had been low rents, empty lots, and extensive warehouses, now there are shops and stores and prime real estate. A friend of mine tells me the same thing happened in Seattle when they built Safeco Field. (A much better name than "Petco Park." I don't care how beautiful our stadium is, how do you compete for respect and championships when you play at a place called "Petco"?)

For the past three years, I've been envisioning the benefits to Gaslamp businesses, the profits that would come from having 30,000 people descend upon downtown 81 times a year. I've been telling anyone who will listen, "Just you watch. When that stadium goes in, it's going to change everything."

But San Diego's downtown isn't taking to baseball quite as well as I thought it would. Seems the problem might be the city's infrastructure: the streets weren't laid out on a scale that easily accommodates our considerable modern expansions.

So how do we overcome the fact that Petco Park rests geographically at the bottommost point of a long, slow taper? Where will we put the necessary escape roads and parking lots?

QUALITY OF LIFE

Serves 1.2 million plus

* 365 days of perfect weather

* 1 extremely low crime rate

* 34,260 acres of open space

* 1 dash each of mountains, deserts, coastline, and canyons

* 1 international border

* 30+ unique neighborhoods

* 3 regional parks

* 70 miles of beaches

* 52 recreation centers

* 13 municipal swimming pools

* 36 libraries

* 26 hospitals

* 3 professional sports teams

* 48 accredited colleges and universities

* 8+ major destination attractions

* 200 motion picture screens

* 10+ annual music and stage festivals

* 50+ museums and art galleries

Directions: combine these ingredients liberally in a broad space and enjoy!

RACEHORSES

Each local racing season, or meeting, I shall play the ponies precisely four times in old Del Mar. Whenever I speak of the races, I shall say "the ponies." On each occasion I go to the ponies, I shall battle heavy traffic and park far away and pay a nominal fee to do so. I shall be present for most of the posts on the days I attend, but never for all of them. I shall bet $1 key trifectas, or key superfectas whenever they're available. My gambling choices shall be guided by means of a secret formula. At the ponies, I shall drink water only and eat perhaps popcorn or an unsalted pretzel. I shall wear my sandals and an unusual hat. I shall watch each race from a different vantage point. Each wager I shall tender with a different track worker until I win, at which time I shall bet with that luck-provider again. On race days, I shall speak more courteously than normal to anyone who speaks to me. Please note that I do not need to do any of these things to assure that I am victorious. I do not need to do any of these things because I am not the least bit superstitious.

S...

This city is so "S," it's the essence of "S"; San Diego is "S" to a tee. Our S is for sunshine, surfing, and sand. S is for Sea World. Every once in a while, S is for the Super Bowl. S is for Scripps. S is the squawk of seagulls. It's the seals, both native and Naval. Scuba is a specific S in San Diego. So is snorkeling. Swimming. S is the first half of S.D., where it signifies the Spanish word for "Saint." S might as well stand for "Sunday," since every day seems like Sunday in S.D. For San Diegans, S can be Southwest. S can suggest the sea itself. S is also for seismology. For superficiality, sort of...okay, S is for "shallow but sightly." For Santa Anas. For statistical supremacy. It's for sovereign. Or "spectacle, natural." For sanative, which susses as "able to restore health." S is for steady. From sunup to sundown, in splendid sundresses, some señoritas sport sunblock or sunscreen, sunning under sunbursts and sunbeams, seeking suntans not sunburns. S is the safe haven situated in SoCal specifically for me. (Or so it seems, sometimes.) S stands for something to see. S is surely for sanctuary.

TRAFFIC

In fits and starts, we're free to stall. Us in our abutting Echoes, Quests, and Legends. In Accents, Frontiers, Accords, and Expeditions. Jammed across America.

Look at those people in their cars enduring glacial traffic. Singing out loud, talking on cell phones, primping in mirrors, or staring straight ahead, pretending they don't know you're looking at them. Then here we are, finally, at the "front" of the traffic jam, all of a sudden it just opened up -- speeding again -- and we look around and wonder, what caused the congestion? What ghost or demon casts a spell there? What on earth were we stopping for?

UV RAYS

Ultraviolet light is the invisible radiation that is naturally produced by the sun. It's what excites the pigment in our skin and makes it darken.

We live in a place where there are, on average, over 320 sunny days per year. More UV radiation penetrates the San Diego skin than the hides of any other Americans.

So how's this for superfluous? The San Diego phone book offers 74 listings for local tanning salons! That's definitely refrigerators-for-Eskimos territory.

I called a few tanning establishments and asked them why people use salons when the real thing is so close at hand. Apparently, a major attraction lies in the fact that a tanning bed is a much more controlled environment than the great outdoors. "Most of my tanners do not tan outdoors," declared one salon proprietor. "I'd say way less than half, maybe a quarter or a third of my tanners, and those would be mostly the younger ones. When people have a job, and they work 9 to 5, they can't go out to the beach all the time."

"You know, you go out to the beach," said another sun vendor, "and you're eventually going to get sunburned or overexposed. It's just a matter of when."

I'm having visions of an eventual UVrise and UVset, of future days bright with purified UVshine.

VACATION

The Birnbaums of Boston, Massachusetts, have been vacationing in San Diego every summer for the past 12 years. Robert, 61, a corporate lawyer, spoke to me recently about how he and his family (Claudia, 55, Harold, 22, and Alice, 20) came to San Diego for the first time and why they've continued coming back.

"We first started looking for a place to vacation other than New England after we spent two weeks in an expensive beach house in Cape Cod and it rained every day. The first place we picked was Malibu, but Malibu lacks amenities for visitors. It's not really a tourist destination. And also, the surf is pretty formidable at Zuma Beach, and there was some pollution in the Santa Monica Harbor.

"We started thinking of where else we might go. And I remembered that I'd gone to a legal convention at the Del Coronado, and while I was there I came up and looked at La Jolla. And when we were looking for a better place to go, we found the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, and then its sister outfit, the Sea Lodge.

"San Diego has everything, really. It has good weather; it has manageable surf; there are wonderful restaurants in La Jolla, like Tapenade, which is a big attraction, and the whole San Diego area is reasonably sophisticated, so that you're not in the middle of nowhere the way you are in the Caribbean, or, in my opinion, in most places where you go to the beach. Usually, near the beach you're in a cultural wasteland. But here, there are good bookstores; in fact, I think Warwick's is one of the best bookstores I've ever been to. We've been to art exhibits in Balboa Park, and there's the theater, and, if one were so inclined, I know there's major-league baseball, and other things as well. So in the off-chance that there is a bad day, weather-wise, there are plenty of other things to do here.

"You know, my son, even though he's just graduated from college and started to work, is already talking about what we're going to do next summer in La Jolla. It's been a wonderful way to keep the family doing things together; they all like it so well that I don't have to beg. They're happy to join us for a vacation in San Diego."

WHO KNEW?

San Diego is the seventh-largest city in the U.S. It was once "Air Capital of the West." Balboa Park, the largest urban cultural park in the country, is also the second-oldest city park in America. Torrey pines don't grow anywhere else in the world. Twenty-two endangered plant and animal species subsist in San Diego County. San Diego receives fewer than ten inches of rain per year, on average. In 1964, with the aerospace industry in decline, Time magazine dubbed San Diego "Bust Town, U.S.A." In light of the number of active, outdoorsy people who live here, Sports Illustrated named San Diego "Sportstown U.S.A." San Diego boasts over 100 golf courses (about half of them public). San Diego has hosted three Super Bowls. The San Diego Zoo is home to the only pandas in the United States and the world's largest collection of parrots. San Diego's official nickname is "America's Finest City." San Diego has the highest concentration of Nobel laureates in the world, with 14 prizewinners having called our city home. The Hotel del Coronado is the largest wooden structure in the United States. San Diego has 184,000 miles of fiber-optic cable in the ground, the most in the country. The official flower of San Diego is the carnation, and the official motto is "Semper Vigilans," which means "ever vigilant." The top four industries here are technology, communications, tourism, and defense.

XANADU

In San Diego did all of us, a stately pleasurable life decree, where Santa Ana, the warming wind, did roam, through canyons measureless to man, down to a sunny sea. So thousands of acres of irrigated, and so, fertile, ground, with bungalows and chalets were girdled round, and here were gardens bright with automatic sprinkler systems, where blossomed many transplanted trees...

San Diego inspires me to make a Mad Lib of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's opium dream of a lyric. I've never lived anywhere closer to perfect than this old town right here, For I on Chino Farms avocados now feed, and drink the soy milk of paradise.

YELLOW

San Diego's true green is yellow. The only hue she holds. Beyond the bounds of irrigation, outside the landscaped landscape, and deep into the indigenous, all you'll see is brittle pallid hints and shades of yellow yellow yellow. How we've greened this yellow so thoroughly is testament to persistence, evidence of expense, a product of the mission we preach to the dry San Diego County earth: come, be green.

ZOO

I'm not among those who are troubled by animals in captivity. From what I've read and observed, confined animals seem to live far better lives, on the whole, than their brethren in the wild. Abundant food, warmth, medical attention, not to mention the lack of predators: treated like sovereigns, zoo creatures are the true royalty of the animal kingdom.

Among the world's zoos, San Diego's menagerie is one of the oldest and is often proclaimed to be the very best. On the sprawling grounds of the zoo's 100 acres, some 4000 animals and 6500 plants live and thrive.

The zoo reminds us of our place in the Great Chain of Being. If you want to learn about your humanness, then I'd recommend the Absolutely Apes exhibit, a brilliant juxtaposition of orangutans and siamang monkeys. Orangutans are big and slow and strong, and the siamangs are small and fantastically quick. It's high entertainment to stand behind the glass enclosure and watch the two races of mammals play-fighting for food, attention, blankets, and branch space, like a spoiled bunch of very hairy and very athletic children at a playground.

But don't pass up more subtle, meditative pleasures. There is a small greenhouse to the left of the main entrance that features an exhibit of hummingbirds. (Attend to this: go on a cool weekday afternoon during the school year, when there is a greater likelihood of relative quiet.)

As big as your thumb, a hummingbird is hardly of this earth, but rather a vibrating flit of pure spirit, almost unhindered by the ponderous weight of a physical body. (I've often imagined that hummingbirds float into the sky when they die.)

One of them might flutter up to your face and hover inquisitively -- a gentle confrontation of heavenly and earthbound -- a moment of absolution: the captive angel accepting my too-human confession, releasing me with the whir of its little wings.

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