Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

The Nature of a Museum

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

So the Cheetah and the False Saber-Toothed Tiger are having a conversation.  What are they saying?

Why, they’re Lion, of course.

Okay, now that you’ve picked yourself up off the floor, let me assure you that everyone is inspired differently at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

For me, it may be dopey jokes (well, actually, almost everything inspires me in that way).  For you and your children there are countless ways to be moved.

Here’s how it worked on a recent Saturday.  Through the auspices of my friend and Museum Trustee Gregg Martin, and under the watchful eye of our most companionable hostess, Desiree, I was once again afforded the opportunity to see the Museum in a very fortunate way.  And this time, it was with my kids.

The highlights?  How about our guide Jesse’s excitement over the ongoing deductive reasoning to figure out what one can only suppose from the fossilized evidence, a process which would make Sherlock Holmes proud.

Take the female saber-toothed tiger (a true one) with the seriously beaten pelvic bone.  What do you think these scientist/detectives came up with from that?  Here’s a clue.  The bone had been broken, undoubtedly deeply affecting its owner.  However… it had healed.  What did that mean?

I’ll tell you.  That other saber-tooths had protected her until she could get better.  That the saber-toothed tiger, previously thought to have been a loner, was, instead, quite social.  Cool, huh?

Or when our second guide, Doyle, took us to the “staging area” for the dinosaur fossils, where we actually touched the serrated edges of a T-Rex’s teeth – teeth that, by the way, would grow anew over and over during that big carnivore’s life.  Like getting a new set of steak knives every month.  For free.

Then Doyle showed us something I never knew existed – the extraordinary and rare fossilized imprint of a dinosaur’s skin.  Can you imagine suddenly knowing what these creatures had covering them?  Instead of merely supposing?

But, for all of its wonders, this Museum wisely knows that everything starts with the young ones.  If you can reach them, you get to the kid in each of us.  And when you watch how your own kids react, it’s the biggest eye-opener of all.

My seven year-old daughter loved the modern-day animal exhibits, from the stuffed white-tailed deer to the red fox (funny, he didn’t look at all like the Fred Sanford I remembered) to the walrus to the raccoons.  Both she and my four year-old son marveled audibly at the huge relaxing polar bear (actually assembled from a donated rug).  They both loved the state-of-the-art touch-screen learning (and playing) displays, and especially the one on which you find and “dig up” dinosaur fossils.

But the biggest “Ooohhh?”  Well, for my daughter, it wasn’t the incredible dinosaur fossils or the taxidermied animals.  Rather, it was the soaring, majestic glass ceiling of the Rotunda, which has been restored to every bit of the beauty it must have had almost a hundred years ago.

And, for my little boy?  Like his sister, he loved the… get this… elevators.  The stunning beaux-artish ones which, until they open, look just like part of the wall.

Which goes to prove one thing.  When you take your family to the Natural History Museum, you’ll see a lot of the kinds of fantastic bones, creatures, and science you expect.  But there’s one beautifully preserved “fossil” you don’t want to miss.

The extraordinary Museum, itself.

All Things Being Equal

Saturday, November 27th, 2010

“In a democratic state, every man is equal to the point of exertion.”  William Saroyan, The Human Comedy

For most of my life as an American citizen, I’ve heard about equality.  Variations on the basic theme of “all men are created equal.”  Well, as a father of five, I can tell you one thing.

All men aren’t created equal.  Every one – every single one – is different from the other.  As much as any two might be alike, might have inherited similar characteristics and been taught important life lessons from an identical source, they’re not created equal.  Not physically.  Not mentally.  Not emotionally.

So, as Saroyan makes sure to point out, the issue is political.  It’s not equality of birthright, it’s equality of opportunity.  Which leads to that which often makes each of us even more unequal – what you do with those opportunities.

Intelligence plays a large part in how that turns out, as does common sense.  But those are simply two more things that are, if you will, God-given.  Either by the facility of your brain or those who form it, it’s certainly not a level playing field.  But one thing is.

Effort.

Or, as Saroyan calls it, “exertion.”  The difference between my older boys, two biological and one step, separated by less than 18 months, is not the gifts they were handed nor the founts from which they learned.  It’s purely and simply how hard each works.  How much each wants what that labor promises.  How much each cares.

Working hard has its own subsets, such as learning how to practice perfectly.  But if you want to make the most of your life, if you want to pursue those dreams each American is told he or she has the right to attempt to attain, if you want to take advantage of the equality granted you by a democratic state, then exert yourself when the other guy wouldn’t.   And do it over and over and over again.

It’s that simple.  And it’s why – for me and my kids – I’m so happy we’re among those lucky few on earth celebrating this particular Thanksgiving.

Millions of Years in the Making

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

I guess you’d categorize it under “once-in-a-lifetime” moments. I was invited by my friend, attorney Gregg Martin, to join him and some folks who run the Los Angeles Natural History Museum for lunch and a private tour. Now, it’s not like I have big bucks to throw around, so it was flattering, to say the least. Maybe it was my smile.

We had an elegant lunch, terrific conversation with Jane, who runs it all, and Luis, who’s the scientist in charge of the entire dinosaur portion, a wonderful backstage tour, and great insights into the diligent and determined work they’re all putting into transforming the museum into a 21st Century destination.

In short, it will be spectacular. But amid all of the fireworks, one little moment stood out.

Right at the beginning, as we were waiting to all gather, Luis suggested we go across the hall for a moment. There, behind glass for most visitors, is a lab in which incoming dinosaur bones are being cleaned and prepared for exhibition. Luis opened the door and took us inside. He stopped before a large, wood-framed rectangle of dried mud, perhaps a foot deep. Much of the dirt had been whisked away, revealing bones upon bones upon bones. Luis pointed out the skulls, and even a row of small, sharp teeth in a jawbone. The theory is that these small dinosaurs had been whisked away in a flood, ultimately piled one upon the other. I’d like to tell you what they’re called, but I’m sorry to say my mind wandered when Luis told us.

But I did notice one startling thing.

As he was describing the jumble of ancient skeletal remains, his finger would often touch them.

Now, when I was younger (long before my website video days!), I was a somewhat assiduous numismatist (coin collector). One thing I learned early on was the effect the oil from a finger could have on copper or silver or bronze. So I told Luis I was surprised that he was actually touching these ancient bones.

He replied exactly as I hoped he would. “Oh, it’s okay. I mean, not for everyone who comes through the museum, but a few of us won’t hurt them. Go ahead and touch them.”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010. I’d driven downtown through traffic, paid eight bucks to park in a packed municipal lot, was perspiring a bit in my sports jacket, had a sore foot from playing basketball on Sunday, was meeting a potential salesperson at The Coffee Bean in a couple of hours, needed to buy gas on the way home… and here I was, reaching out my finger to stroke fossils of animals in exactly the position in which they had died 251 million years ago.

I was gentle, which was good, because the piece I touched was flaky and gave way to the tiniest pressure. I mentioned this to Luis, who said it’s often like that. Just be careful not to break any off.

I had a sudden picture of Jerry Lewis managing to turn everything in the room into dust. And then sneezing. I carefully lifted my hand away. The bones were safe, at least from Claymanosaurus.

Well, as you can imagine, it made an imprint. Not only on my psyche, but physically, through my finger to the nerves to the rest of my body and brain. And there came an instant clarity as to why Luis and his fellow paleontologists seem to harbor everpresent smiles.

I’m just guessing, but maybe it has to do with a tactile connection to creatures from time immemorial. Somehow, just by the briefest of physical bondings, you experience the continuum of a quarter of a billion years.

Which, as we all get older, isn’t exactly a bad thing, I suppose.