Archive for: September, 2003

AMNH: The Crossroads of the World

Sep 23 2003 Published by under Uncategorized

It seems that few people, except terrorists and museum employees, are acutely aware that the entire United Nations General Assembly and "a bunch" of world leaders, including George Bush himself, are coming to my museum this evening. I am not sure why they are coming and no one here is saying much (in spite my nosiness), but I suspect they are coming here to relax, to party and to rebuild relationships strained by months of long-distance squabbles and swagger punctuated by a day spent in heated face-to-face arguments at the UN building.

So today, we all are being asked to leave after a few hours of work. The entire museum is being closed to the public at noon and everyone, from the lowliest grad students to the department curators, must be out of the building by 2pm -- by 5pm if you passed a Secret Service security check! The streets surrounding the museum will be blocked off to all traffic and all subway trains will skip the museum stop starting in the early afternoon.

The entire museum has been crawling with Secret Service agents for more than one week. Since the new school year just began and the tourist season is officially over, this means that there were several days when Secret Service agents obviously out-numbered civilians.

But visiting dignitaries present advantages, too. The entire museum is being cleaned and buffed to a shine that her lofty halls have not seen in decades. Dirt that is older than God is meticulously scrubbed from those places where marble walls meet floors and stairs. Plaster walls are being restored to a glowing white and marble walls and floors mirror everything around them. Child-sized fingerprints, whose owners are now middle-aged, are being wiped from moldings and glass windows on display cases and dioramas. Dust is being vacuumed up with so much zeal that my allergies and asthma have been causing me genuine pain for several days.

As I look around my museum, a place that I think of as my home, I wonder what the visiting politicians and dignitaries will think of this place, this grand (yet small) representation of the biological wonders that once freely roamed our planet? Will they stand in the main entrance and marvel at the mother Barosaurus rearing up to protect her pony-sized offspring from an attacking Tyrannosaurus? Will they wonder what these creatures might have sounded like, what colors they might have decorated themselves with in life? Will these dignitaries hold their breath in mixed wonder and sadness when they see the only, nearly complete, skeleton of the Dodo in the world? Will they try to decide which bones are real and which are reconstructed? Will these visitors' hearts skip a beat, an uncomfortable reminder of ancestral times, when they suddenly come upon the astonishly huge Bengal tiger snarling at them through layers of barely visible glass? Will the politicians gasp when they stand under the life-sized model of the female blue whale diving down upon them from the crystalline ceiling that resembles sparkling ocean waves? Will they search for her belly button as the rest of us do?

Or will our visitors spend all their time in the Planetarium, staring at the imaginary heavens, sipping their wine, pondering escape from our damaged blue planet in search of new worlds to conquer? Or maybe they will look at all these collected natural wonders and see only dollar signs? Will they wonder why we care about these extinct creatures when there are more and more hungry people crowding onto our little planet, needing to be fed and clothed? Will they decide that animals and plants are more convenient when catalogued neatly away in a few of the world's museums, more preferable to living things that are losing the battle to occupy this earth alongside us?

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Bug Love

Sep 10 2003 Published by under Uncategorized

Despite all of my talk about this mysterious "summer" character, she did finally arrive, late, to her own party and I was not even here at the time! According to my sources, summer suddenly appeared one morning late in June, transforming our gentle 50 degree days -- so reminiscent of Seattle -- into a sweltering, humid 95 degree torment. Unlike Seattle, which really has TWO sweet little summers -- the first in May and the second, longer one, in July and August -- NYC has only one summer.

One hot, angry, sweaty summer. One looong summer.

Anyway, as I already mentioned, I was not here when summer showed up. Instead, I was at the Evolution meeting in lovely Chico, California, where I was presenting my lory research data publically for the first time. Thanks to my frequent practice talks that all of my colleagues hated and the six weeks I spent in mortal terror preparing for this Evolution meeting, my presentation was quite a success. Even my advisor was obviously pleased.

When I left New York City to attend this meeting, I was wearing a wool winter coat that was barely warm enough for NYC weather. But upon my return, within mere nanoseconds of deplaning in JFK, I realized that summer had arrived. It was difficult to ignore the sweat running down my face and dripping unceremoniously from the tip of my nose while my clothing clung to me like a straightjacket. Also difficult to ignore was the uncomfortable realization that I was so thirsty that I would kill someone, anyone really, if they dared to deny me a glass of rust-tainted NYC faucet water -- water that I typically reject in disgust.

Yes indeed, summer had arrived. And summer in NYC, like everywhere, is the season for love. Especially bug love. East Coast bug love.

This was the rare summer when I made more entomological discoveries than ornithological ones. This was probably because many arthropods, unlike birds, had the disconcerting habit of popping into my apartment unexpectedly -- especially into my shower -- and introducing themselves, usually in the wee hours when one is not quite sure where the boundaries lie between reality and imagination.

Some of these "buggy" discoveries were simply delightful. For example, it was not so many evenings ago when I saw my very first fireflies slowly rising like twinkling Christmas lights from emerald lawns in front of the museum. Later, I would "capture" several individuals when they willingly stepped from whatever they were clinging to onto my waiting finger where they continued their light show while I marveled at their graceful elegance.

Later this summer, cicadas filled the sweaty days with their circular buzzing love songs, reminding me of a similar chorus produced by the three species of cicadas native to Tokyo who sang for me when I visited six years ago. Finally one morning, thanks to a zealous American Robin who was beating one specimen senseless in front of the museum employees entrance, I finally saw a NYC cicada close up. They looked almost identical to one of their Japanese cousins ... big eyes, large oblong body ... but most amazing were their long transparent wings reticulated with delicate metallic green veins. Lovely.

Of course, not all of my spineless visitors have been so delightful, as some of you who read my reactions to the marching multitudes of pizza-fed German cockroaches and so-called "waterbugs" may recall. But I had made my peace with those monsters after filling the corners of my apartment with "creeping bug bait" and the cracks with Borax, thinking that they were the worst that NYC had to offer and as such, they were more tolerable than nocturnal visits from 12 pound NYC rats.

However, I discovered that NYC's arthropod terrors can exceed the horrors of a few cockroaches and "waterbugs" scrabbling underfoot. I made this discovery this morning, when I encountered a "bug" in my shower that was so big and so horrifying that I had to write a special essay about it to preserve my sanity.

This insect was a centipede that was so huge and terrifying that it has taken me all day to convince myself that I am not being engulfed in thousands of them crawling all over my body. I still have the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it. Apparently, at least a few readers of craigslist found my essay entertaining because it was nominated to be added to the "best of craigslist" archives.

Anyway, I thought I would never ever in my life say this, especially so soon after my first unpleasant NYC winter, but I might possibly be ... just maybe ... eager for the return of winter. Yes, wintertime -- you heard me correctly -- short, icy cold days in a studio apartment with no heat and no running water ... and hopefully, NO BUGS!

Don't worry; after winter returns, I'll complain about it: Probably after a couple showerless days spent wrapped in 12 layers of wool.

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