Sticks and Stones and Wheat and Bones
Visiting museums as an adult can be a surreal experience, especially traipsing through one so complete as the Museum of Natural History. Here, on thematic display, are all the best parts of your biological, anthropological, geological, and zoological education. From Pleistocene to Plato, from hominids to Hammurabi, the Smithsonian houses a collection of skulls, gemstones, artifacts, and relics that will solidify in your mind how unequivocally stupid you are. Room after room, mobs of children point to items you vaguely remember once learning about, you think, but can no longer summon even a sentence to accurately describe. What you initially believe to be the skeleton of a small monkey turns out to be badger. You were not even in the same Order, let alone Family!
To further our demoralization, the place was teeming with children more knowledgeable on everything than us. Even listening to them correct their ignoramus parents with barely-contained exasperation (e.g., when one balding fat-man called the Allosaurus a T-Rex, or when a mother referenced the Hope Diamond as a “damn fine sapphire”) did little to lift our spirits. Nothing makes you feel worse than being confronted in graphic detail with (a) how much you have forgotten and (b) how little you even knew in the first place.
The wise Owl bucks up in these scenarios to occupo scientia — to seize the knowledge, grip it by its throat, and drain its life-blood as your own. But not us. We opted simply to capture photographs of the sparkly and the macabre, forgetting everything the moment we walked away from the placard. We literally can not tell you one thing we learned today. What differentiates malachite from hematite? No idea. Why were swaddled babies in the 17th century Chesapeake colonies more prone to lethal illness? Don’t ask us. What kinds of antemortem skull wounds were early humans able to survive? Seriously, stop asking. We do not have a clue.
But what we do have are pictures of cherry blossoms in full bloom. They are everywhere and the city is gangbusters for them. The pink-and-white theme is omnipresent and who could blame the urban planners for wanting to embrace such a consummate symbol of Springtime? With the day sunny and bright, we took our shoes off and walked barefoot through the cool grass, smiling at the flowering trees and watching kite-flyers maneuver in the refreshing breeze. It was a day of days and the entire city breathed easily; that is, until there was a drive-by quadruple homicide. Newscasters were quick to point out 2010 has only experienced twenty-four shooting murders thus far, which is supposedly still low from a historical perspective for DC. Understanding absolute vs. relative statistics goes a long way toward helping the skittish traveler feel safe.
Reasonably far from the gun violence (which started, as all great gun violence should, over a bracelet to a girl), we ventured into the Aeronautics and Space Museum. We bought a space suit for our little Owlet and several pounds of space ice-cream — its the dessert of the future — and everywhere we looked, there were rockets and capsules and fighter jets dangling from huge wires. It was like stumbling into the rec room of a titan with a model airplane addiction. Could that really be the Spirit of St. Louis hanging above us? This is actually Skylab? It all seemed a bit much to accept. We snorted in disbelief and spent most of our time in the Early Flight section, where the term “aeroplane” not “airplane” was appropriate and most of the fanciful designs reminded us of Terry Gilliam illustrations. We may or may not have an unhealthy attachment to all things turn-of-the-century.
With a bit of time left in the day, we decided to further abuse our tormented feet and walk twenty city blocks down the Mall to visit Abraham Lincoln’s memorial. There he sat, surrounded by throngs of popcorn and waffle-cone-munching visitors, and looking all the more august because of them. They worship him and he gazes across the duck-filled reflecting pool at Washington’s monument, a gentle smirk on his marble face. On the wall to Lincoln’s right is carved the Gettysburg address. We were transfixed by its eloquence and profound brevity and Writer Owl sighs at the realization he is only playing at becoming a wordsmith. Such is the majesty and tragedy of Lincoln.