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now here you go again

maura @ 10:32 pm

This week I am taking some vacation days, a use ’em or lose ’em kind of situation that so many of us seem to be finding ourselves in here in pandemic season 2. For various reasons we’re not able to go anywhere this week so I’m catching up on sleep and reading, and also trying to get out and about when I can, weather permitting (ugh, the heat, the humidity).

It had been an age, plus the newly-renovated hall of gems and minerals is finally open, so we headed up to the American Museum of Natural History a few days ago. While not unproblematic, as a science and social science nerd I will always count the AMNH among my most favorite museums. I can’t remember when my first visit was, but in graduate school I spent lots of time there as a researcher, using their collections to identify animal bones from the archaeological digs I worked on. The collections of animal bones I was analyzing were from medieval Ireland and 19th century Brooklyn, which meant hanging out with the domesticated animal skeletons on the 5th (?) floor of the museum, each room devoted to a different animal (or closely related species) with drawers full of bones and skins. In the Irish collection I had lots and lots of frog bones to identify, and the folx in the Herpetology Department were so friendly and helpful, in amongst the snakes and amphibians in jars and drawers. And the avian fauna, then (maybe still now?) in the basement — the Brooklyn collection had so many ducks, and wow, duck bones of different species and even genuses are so hard to identify, they all look so similar (and I was much more proficient at mammals, to be fair). There are some things I do still miss about being an archaeologist, but sitting alone in that basement with all of those duck bones is for sure not one of them.

Once the kid was born our AMNH visit frequency increased, unsurprisingly. When he was really little the length of the subway ride meant we usually only could stay at the museum for an hour or so before we hit crankiness or naptime; we got a membership to make the whole thing reasonably affordable, and we’ve kept the membership ever since. When we visit now the echoes of all of our previous visits are there. When he was a toddler we spent lots of time in the old hall of gems and minerals, then with a sort of dark 70s basement vibe, carpeted stairs for toddlers to climb up and down, a few huge rocks to touch, and low cases with the collections visible at toddler level. The dinosaurs, of course, in preschool and elementary school, so much time with them. The Hall of Biodiversity, newly renovated when he was little, still lovely now. The blue whale (right now with a bandaid on one flipper because they’re still giving covid19 vaccines underneath, so cool!) and sitting on the bench to watch the oceans movie, such a soothing place to rest. Meryl Streep explaining cladistics, what more could you ask for?

In North American Forests @ AMNH

Our most recent visit was one million percent worth it, the renovated Hall of Gems and Minerals is fantastic, truly. The displays are terrific, grouping specimens by their chemistry and crystalline structure, plus lots of explanation about geological processes. There are several enormous and frankly stunning items, new to display (I think?) which makes me wonder where they were hiding all these years (though of course I realize that the museum has so many items in storage/for research). It was amazing — I could have looked at the Singing Stone for an hour.

But seeing the new amazingness does make me a little nervous, a tiny bit worried that more renovation might be looming. On the walk from the museum entrance to the minerals we traversed through some of our most favorite spots: North American Forests and the Hall of the New York State Environment. Most of these galleries feature the very classic natural history museum diorama-type displays: a specific location or type of forest, with trees and plants and bugs and birds and other animals, and a description and key. These were also a favorite when the kid was little, trying to find and identify all of the animals like a 3D version of the I Spy books. But they’re also just beautiful. And other cases in those galleries are old-fashioned but also kind of gorgeous, all fabulous fonts and little models of farming in upstate or hibernating chipmunks. The painting I snapped a photo of (above) illustrating the temperature and humidity ranges at different heights in the forest on a rainy day, sunny day, and at night. These galleries aren’t at all flashy, but they still have lots to offer. I hope they stay off the renovation schedule for a good long while, still.

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it’s not for anyone but me

maura @ 10:00 pm

Last weekend we took a short + sweet trip down to the DelMarVa peninsula. After we’d had to cancel our trip to the Baltimore aquarium over Spring Break Gus was bummed, so we checked the calendar and arrived at Brooklyn-Queens Day, otherwise known as the first Thursday in June and a school holiday. We decided to yank him out of school for Friday 6/8 as well and bingo, our quick Spring Break replacement trip was set.

It’s been ages since I visited Baltimore. I spent much of my preteen childhood in and around Philly and I’ve always felt warmly about Baltimore, sort of a sympathetic younger sibling feeling. Like so many Eastern working cities it’s maybe not transitioned as well into the post-industrial age as would be nice. Which is why I can’t completely fault the mallification of the Inner Harbor — as much as it’s not my thing by a long shot, it’s good to see the tourist dollars rolling in.

And in and among the malls there’s good stuff for sure. The aquarium was a good time and holds up well to my memories of long ago. As I sort of feared it’s hard for any aquarium to live up to the touching sharks and wading with rays experience Gus had at the Camden aquarium last year (which I don’t seem to have blagged about, mysteriously). But I still think the Baltimore aquarium has a lovely design, with the moving walkways taking you up up up to the rainforest at the top, letting you look down onto the ray tank further below at each floor.

In the big coral reef tank with the ramps that lead you back down there was not one but two puffer fish, one the biggest I’ve ever seen. I love puffer fish (not just because of The Simpsons) and only just this time realized that the reason they’re so easy to love is that they have big eyes that sort of swivel in their sockets like mammal eyes do, not really flat or fishy at all. So kawaii! All of my pictures came out sort of lame, so instead you can look at this one from a cool aquarium we visited long ago in Auckland, New Zealand:

In the jellies exhibit was a type I’ve never seen before called upside down jellies. They all seem to congregate, flipped over, in a pile on one side of the tank. Occasionally a lone jelly would be swimming around, right-side up, which looked super weird in that context. Some were nearly impossibly small, smaller than a ladybug! They were hard to get a good photo of, what with all the undulating tentacles, but I gave it my best shot:


It was a quick trip and of course Gus wanted to get in as much time swimming in the hotel pool as possible, so other than the aquarium the main thing we did was visit some of the historic ships in the Inner Harbor. First up and coolest by a long shot was a WWII sub. So many levers and switches to flip, dials to turn! Also bunks to lie in (kind of icky). And lots of yelling “fire in the hole!” and “dive, dive!” Only later did Jonathan and I begin to realize how creepy it is to imagine being cooped up on a submarine under all of that water.


We also toured the Chesapeake Lightship, and until then I hadn’t realized that lightships basically anchored themselves to a specific spot off the coast and hung out pretending to be lighthouses. The next day we did the restored Civil War ship USS Constellation, which was a bit less fun and more restored-y, though Gus did like swinging from the hammocks where the sailors slept. We missed the Coast Guard ship (walked by it, but no time), and were able to squeeze in a quick walk through the Knoll Lighthouse, a funky flat kind of lighthouse designed to be out in the ocean rather than on the edge of a land mass. Far fewer stairs to climb, but far lonlier, I’d imagine, too.

Rounding out our tourist experience was chain restaurant food and the waves and waves of red-clad Philadelphia Phillies fans seemingly everywhere we turned. The stadium where the Orioles play is quite close to the harbor, and there was some sort of three-day baseball extravaganza happening while we were there. It was kind of surreal and theme-parky at times, esp. since we as a family are so completely unsportsy. Talk about fish out of water! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

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and then the next thing you know

maura @ 10:16 pm

Oh dear, I seem to have fallen into that beginning-of-the-semester-hole again. I meant to blag all week, really I did, but I was just so tired at night and now that Dollhouse has gotten interesting it was much easier to watch than write.

Last Friday evening I met Jonathan and Gus at the MOMA to see Projects 90, an exhibition by the Chinese artist Song Dong. Since it was just before a holiday weekend I’d hoped the crowds wouldn’t be too bad, even though it was the free Friday night dealie. But it was packed and Gus was crabby, despite the gelato we bought him in the sculpture garden. Sigh, 3rd graders are not so easily bought off, I guess.

Still, Gus was reasonably content to sit in a corner reading while Jonathan and I took turns looking at the exhibit. It was fascinating, totally worth the grumpy kid. The story behind it is that the artist’s mother became somewhat unhinged after his father died, and she took the traditional Chinese thriftyness to a whole new level and refused to throw anything out. She packed it into their tiny house and it spilled out all over their yard. Finally the artist was able to convince his mother to move out of the house and allow him to create an exhibit of all of the stuff, which she then helped him curate.

The result: a wooden-framed house skeleton in the center of a room at MOMA surrounded by neatly arranged stuff: tied bundles of magazines, folded clothing, rows of toothbrushes, scads of plastic bottles, a stack of soap cakes, a pyramid of pill boxes and bottles, furniture, etc. Watch the installation video — it’s mesmerizing (as was the exhibit). Of course the stuff is just recognizable, normal stuff, but as Jonathan said when you actually walk around it all and see the arrangement close-up it’s almost like a model of a city. Here’s the crayons neighborhood, over there is where the shoes live. So cool. And, you know, full of implications for our modern lives and all the stuff we use and whether it’s necessary etc. etc. Sometimes I miss thinking about material culture, so I was really glad we got to see this before it closed.

And then this week, with the busy, and now it’s now. I’ve been doing a bunch of reading about writing lately and last weekend I got all fired up about setting aside time to write on a near-daily basis. But then this week was busy at work (and it was short to begin with) and I ran out of time as usual. I’ve been thinking all week about Song Dong’s mom’s house, just an empty timber frame, as a physical manifestation of my goal: one empty hour to write most days. As ever, the problem is partly my fault and partly not. Not my fault because, well, objectively, it’s busy at the beginning of the semester. But my fault because my list is too long to begin with. And my fault, too, because I tend to fall into the trap of procrastinating writing with other work. Yes, sometimes the other work seems to scream loudly: “pay attention to me!” But it’s rarely truly urgent, and certainly can wait an hour.

I was wondering today whether Anne Lamott would be disappointed in me since I didn’t meet my writing goals this week. But then I thought that she’d probably understand. And she’d probably make me a cup of tea and tell me that next week will be better.

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i’m a robot man

maura @ 11:03 pm

It’s finally summer here and even though it’s not too hot yet my brain has been kind of slow lately. We went on our fabulous midwest vacation last week and though I’m back in the groove at work I’m having trouble shoving myself into a writing frame of mind. Also since it finally decided to stop raining this week I started riding my scooter to work again, which means that I’m more tired than usual at night.

So hi, internets, how’ve you been? I feel like I should have something more interesting to say than that, but sadly I do not.

We had a great time last week. Gus was treated to all manner of grandparental spoilage including go-kart construction, pottery making, junk food eating and late night TV watching. I slept for eight hours EVERY night and spent enough time lying around reading that I think I actually gained a few pounds. We all got to pet adorable baby goats at the zoo.

Jonathan and I also went to Chicago for 2 nights which was a blast. It was fun to see old friends and spend time walking around the city without having to give someone small a piggyback ride. We went to the newly-expanded Art Institute, and though I was a teeny bit disappointed that the Chagall stained glass windows aren’t back up after the renovations it really was lovely. There’s so much space now that lots more of the collection is displayed than before. The Cornell Boxes were among my favorites – so interesting + creepy. We rode my favorite El line and took advantage of our friend’s knowledge of architecture to learn about all of the new buildings. And I stood under the bean and took a picture of us:

(Please note: unless your name is Anne or Tex you are probably not at all interested in this paragraph. Feel free to move along.) On the way into the city we stopped in Hyde Park to eat garbage pizza and drink (strong!) coffee at the Med and wander around campus. The new dorms by the Reg are intensely orange (and not really in a good way) BUT they have the old house names from the now-demolished Woodward, which is kind of cool. And the new GSB building is handsome but kind of pushes Ida Noyes even more to the periphery than it was before.

Mostly I really wanted to ogle the new library construction. Instead of offsite storage they’re building this crazy oval-shaped dome-covered subterranean library next to the Reg. It’ll be closed stacks with automatic book retrieval (read: robots!). I’m calling it the underground robolibrary in my head – you should, too.

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cause the days change at night

maura @ 10:38 pm

Woah, has it really been 2 weeks since my last post? Time flies when there’s teaching teaching teaching and then bam, Spring Break. Now the teaching is over (though Spring Break isn’t quite yet) and I’m a little sad, just like last semester. Curious, it is (see Yoda reference below).

Thanks to the spring non-secular holidays, Gus’s Spring Break was extra-long this year, so we hightailed it to Our Nation’s Capital for a few days to reprise our vacation 2 yrs ago. We even stayed at the same hotel! It was nice to be sort of familiar with everything. And we finally figured out the metro. Such a weird system, with the whole pay when you exit thing and how 2 people can’t use the same card and the fares are different between locations. Duh!

The trip was pretty fun. We did a few new things: Lincoln Memorial, which I found so moving (realized I had never been there), Vietnam War Memorial (ditto), pedal boats in the Tidal Basin to ogle the Jefferson Memorial (tho someone w/short legs was a pedal slacker), and the Museum of American History (which had been closed 2 yrs ago). Gus was tired + crabby for the latter so we let him play his DS while Jonathan ogled Julia Child’s kitchen and I grooved on Within These Walls, a reconstructed historic house with info about 6 families that lived there from the late 18th-mid-20th c. Go, historic house nerds!

We also hit a few of our old faves from last time. The cafeteria of the National Museum of the American Indian has dee-licious food (mmm, fry bread. and fiddlehead ferns!). Maybe one of these days we will have time to visit the rest of the museum, too. And it’s right next door to the Air + Space Museum, which you may have heard is the most visited museum IN THE WORLD, a fact which I could not help myself from mentioning about a jillion times as we slowly swam through the ridiculous crowds of people inside.

Gus reeeeeeally wanted to see the planetarium movie about black holes, so we did. It was narrated by Liam Neeson and I spent the first part of the show feeling really bad for him. But then his voice got all spooky and he told us that many galaxies have black holes at their centers and Gus said “does our galaxy have a black hole?” and I said “uhhhmmm…” and Liam said “there is even a black hole at the center of our own galaxy!” and Gus grabbed my arm so tight it hurt. So Liam Neeson, I am sorry for your loss, but thank you very much for freaking out my child. Stupid black holes.

After that we had to get ice cream, even though it was 50 degrees and raining, because we wanted to drag Gus to the Hirshhorn to see some modern art, which we <3 and he despises (“I hate art!”). The pin book wasn’t on display, but we stumbled (literally, as we had to piggyback Mr. Crabby + Scared of Black Holes throughout the museum) upon a great exhibit of the sculptor Louise Bourgeois’s work. My most favorite of her pieces were the little rooms made up of wire cages or spirals formed by wooden doors joined together with cool furniture and other weird stuff inside, sometimes only visible through a window or via a mirror. Red room (child) was the neatest, with spools of thread and wax hands. Creepy.

Gus was mostly happy just to swim in the hotel pool, eat Frosted Flakes at the free hotel breakfast and watch cable (he discovered Clone Wars on the Cartoon Network — see, there’s the Yoda reference!). It was kind of weird to see real TV (esp. Fox News at breakfast, ugh), but it’s good to experience it every so often if only so we have the chance to engage in what passes for media literacy education in our house. When loud obnoxious kid commercials come on (like a horrible one for a card game called, appropriately enough, Chaotic), Jonathan and I mock it loudly and whine to Gus to buy it for us. He’s also started reading advertising claims to us (from all media): “Mom, is this really the best yogurt you’ve ever tasted?” which is hilarious.

Also one night in a totally hilarious, Bart Simpson moment, Gus called Jonathan “farty fart mcweiner butt.” And we completely blew it by laughing until we cried. Oh well.

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