Friday, November 18, 2011

Testing, Testing

Where do Today and Yesterday meet?

In a museum.

Please Don't Eat the Paintings

So . . . I just got in from exploring the brand new Natural History Museum of Utah with Dad and the Little Ones. Excellently done. I highly recommend. (Don't leave just as a football game's getting out, though.) At this museum, I saw many beautiful and fascinating things. The building itself was beautiful and fascinating. It did involve some right angles, but you really had to look hard to spot them. It looks like they gave the architect a pencil and a straight edge and instructed, "Go nuts." The result is a hypnotic network of lines going every which-way, keeping your eye constantly moving as you explore the space.

In a hole in the ground there lived a tech-savvy, post-modernist hobbit who loved skewonky angles.

They had a super-awesome ant farm (yaay ants!) and a station where you could build a building and then knock it down with a precisely recreated historic Utah earthquake. Our eighteen-inch two-story parking garage twisted like a corkscrew and then crumpled. Guess we should have left the stabilizer thing on there. Also of note were the erosion displays, which involved much playing in silt and blowing of sand; excellent presentations on prehistoric craft skills that drew on the talents of local Utah artists and craftsmen; and smell-based exhibits. Yes, smell! Push the button and see what this thing smells like! Talk about interactive education. But what I really wanted to mention was the skeletons.

Skeletons are the major draw of any natural history museum; rocks are fun, but bring on the dinosaurs. Dinosaur bones have personality. There's a triceratops in the Metropolitan Museum of Natural History that is a particular friend of mine, because we had our picture taken together when I was four. We've stayed in touch since; I always stop by to say hi whenever I'm in New York. As you might expect, the UMNH has a stellar exhibit of fossils, this being Utah and all. The walkway winds down past the recent, tar-pit-era creatures (mammoths, saber-toothed cats, giant sloths and enormous mutant beavers of DOOM) and under and through the allosauroses and brontosauruses and every other kind of -sauruses (except thesauruses; they don't fossilize well) and your velociraptors and your utahraptors and a whole wall of sculls of things related to triceratopses and some dinosaur with giant, sythe-like, human-slicing claws that looks terrifying until you realize its head is so small it couldn't eat a chicken.

I am, by and large, an urban girl. I live most of my life in the heart of a major US city—not a huge one, but big enough to host the Olympic games and direct flights to Tokyo. I don't encounter predators a whole lot. (I mean, predators that could eat me. Of course there's the cat, but that's not what I mean.) I mean something that makes you feel like an ambulatory flank steak with delusions of grandeur when it looks at you. There are the great cats at the Hogle Zoo, but there are fences and super-thick windows involved, and usually they look too bored to care if you're edible or not. In Minnesota, I've encountered a wolf or two at the Wolf Center in Ely, but again, fence. Besides, I've got the common sense to know that a wolf isn't going to bother to eat me unless I do something abysmally stupid, like remove everything else that it could possibly eat from its environment. Not that anyone's ever tried that before.

The point is that I'm very, very used to being the top predator in my own environment. That's what makes wandering among dinosaur skeletons so deliciously unnerving. Because somewhere in the very back of every human brain, right there just inside the nape of your neck, is this little bit of dormant programming that recognizes the size, the build, the teeth of that dinosaur and kicks to life with an important little chemical alert message. This creature is going to eat you. You will experience a brief crunching sensation and then death. It also provides helpful instructions, like Back away slowly and don't break eye contact. This will enable you to live aprox. 23 more seconds than you would otherwise have achieved. Have a nice day. So I ease around the skeletons in my slow, careful, swinging museum-gait, not drawing any attention to myself, keeping my eyes on that dang allosaur until the last possible moment.

You may experience severe bleeding. This is a normal side effect. Please do not be alarmed.

I feel like encountering these enormous predatory things (or even non-predatory things; I'd end up just as dead if that doom-beaver decided it wanted to gnaw on a tree I happened to be standing in front of at the time) is like the test of the emergency broadcast system. You know, the one they used to do on TV that went BEEEEEEEEEEEP. Or the first-Wednesday-at-one-p.m. test of the tornado sirens, a Minnesota ritual for as long as I can remember. (Pray a tornado never hits Minnesota at one p.m. on a first Wednesday.) This prehistoric episode is a test of my brain's ability to recognize and react to predation, something I've never actually dealt with in real life and probably never will. But that little prickle of fear as I look up . . . and up . . . and UP . . . at a dinosaur skeleton assures me that when and if such a day ever comes, I'm going to be ready. Well, ready to live twenty-three seconds longer, at least.


  1. Oooh! We'll have to put that on our list of things to do next time we're in Utah. (Whenever that may be....) I have a little dinosaur fan. (Now, if they had dinosaurs and dragons, she'd really be in heaven!)

  2. aaaaaaaaaaand this is why we're best friends.