12 September 2008

Quakers in the Country: We Go to the City!


Yesterday at six-thirty in the morning we packed everybody up in clean clothes, jumped into the van, and went to the Big City!

We don’t normally go to cities, as they’re too far away and we don’t have much reason to visit them. Until gasoline hit $4.00-plus, I would spend Saturdays at a Farmer’s Market in Columbus, 120 miles to the west. That was a city. But after break-even costs reached $240, we gave that one up. Pittsburgh, though, in Pennsylvania, is only 75 miles the other way. Pennsylvania, in case you didn’t know, is where William Penn founded his colony in the 1680s to give the persecuted Quakers in Britain a chance to go somewhere they wouldn’t be jailed or executed. It’s still there, so I assume the venture must have met with some success.

We went there to attend Pittsburgh Monthly Meeting with a member of our Yearly Meeting who lives in Pittsburgh. He cares for his elderly father and can’t travel often, and we’re planning on going back. (Also, Shawna had a visitation of angels in the meetinghouse, and I want to go see if they’re still there.) And since we were there, we decided to take advantage of the trip and introduce the children to Culture.

Culture is interesting to me, mostly because so many people think that it’s essential, and I tend not to. Museums, symphonies, ballets, all that stuff. Actually, “culture” seems to be just a name for what city people do in their spare time--city recreations are those that either take lots of money (a museum), lots of participants (a symphony orchestra), lots of patrons (successful artists), or all of the above (a baseball team). In the country it’s hard to have “culture,” because the people live farther apart. But then, we have the Milky Way instead. And for a while, we had Art coming to our mailbox, every day. But then he retired, and now Linda brings the mail.

We chose to visit the Carnegie Museum, along with its gigantic Museum of Natural History, and Crystals, and Anthropology. Andrew Carnegie was a 19th century industrialist who made his riches in the steel industry, then late in life donated vast amounts of his money for museums and libraries across the country. Getting religion after you made your pile was common back then. “I plan to repent before I die,” they would say, “but right now getting rich is more important.” My hometown in Oklahoma had a Carnegie Library. Some of them these days have been converted into avant-garde dwellings. Lots of room for books, they say.

But first, Shawna and I had to negotiate the nuts and bolts:

“Who’s going to drive?” she asks.

“You are.”

This is always amusing to me, because my lovely wife not only came late to automobile travel (she’s from Chicago, where cars are still unusual, apparently) but also because she’s a genuine Flat-Lander for whom hills and blue-sky corners mean a white-knuckle ride. We arrived in Pittsburgh after an hour of easy Interstate travel, only to discover construction zones and hills.

“This is worse than Dayton,” she mutters, once again grinding the right wheels into the broken curbstones as she veered away from a threatening orange cone. “Why didn’t you drive?” (She usually covers her eyes when I take the wheel, because I learned to drive in downtown Kuala Lumpur, where speed and daring will get you through anything. If I drive, she mostly keeps her eyes closed.) But eventually we made it to the Museum without incident, with me holding the map and Shawna slowly picking her way through the old industrial city, passed on every side by mystified locals who were wondering whether we really intended to park there in the middle lane.

We walk into the museum and are greeted by a burly security guard in a business suit, who waves cheerfully and begins talking to a small device hidden in his hand. When we arrive at the ticket counter, they’ve already got the quantity discount brochures ready for us.

“Do we want to buy a season ticket?” Shawna asks. For a family of seven to visit the Carnegie Museum costs about $80, without food. For $135, we can go as often as we like, as long as we come back within a year. We buy a season ticket and go inside. This is cheap—I priced Cirque du Soleil at over six hundred dollars per performance. (We’ve never been to it.)

“Where are the dinosaurs?” Starbuck asks. The dinosaurs are very impressive. Lots of gigantic skeletons, some that you can even walk under. One of the biggest ones towers over our head, with a long slender tail that the little sign says might have been used for defense. Popping it like a whip might have caused it to reach supersonic speeds, it reads. This is interesting to me. My Choctaw uncle was a muleskinner, and could crack a fourteen-foot bullwhip over his head with such accuracy that I have watched him flick a single cigarette butt off the ground, over and over, the whip never ceasing its whistling circle round his shoulders. I happen to know from lots of experience in whip repair that any dinosaur that popped its tail like a whip would soon have no tail left long enough to pop. Apparently the paleobiologists never knew any muleskinners. My regard for the museum staff drops a notch.

We move on to the world-famous crystal collection. As an ex-petroleum geologist, I’m a sucker for pretty rocks, so we spend a lot of time in here. “Galena,” I intone solemnly for Number One Son Griffin, pointing my finger at a gray cube the size of a child’s building block. “It’s a lead ore.”

“Rhodochrosite,” I predict confidently, indicating another specimen.

“Kyanite,” I point out next.

“It’s glaucophane,” Devra says, peering closely at the little card.

“Let’s go see the Natural History section now,” I suggest.

The stuffed animals are a big hit with the older kids. Buffalo, musk oxen, polar bears, Eskimos. (The Eskimos aren’t stuffed—just models.) Three year-old Golden ignores the beautiful and painstakingly mounted specimens, as he has discovered “Extreme Animal Video.” Extreme Animal Video is not what you might expect—it consists of a five-foot cube made of painted plywood, from inside of which comes a thin thread of tinny music. Bending over and peering inside through a screen-covered window, I behold a bad dream. Gyrating to the beat of the music, dressed in a child’s shirt and trousers, is a very badly stuffed coyote. Hanging upside down from the ceiling is a stuffed opossum, outfitted in miniature overalls. Over in the corner is a stuffed white-tailed deer, perched on a stool next to a little window, weaving and bobbing to the beat. They are all facing a small television screen on the other side. I avert my eyes. “PETA would go nuts over this,” I whisper to Shawna. But suddenly it gets worse. As I watch, the head of the dancing deer seems to nod, then to flop violently back and forth. Suddenly, to my dismay, it flies off the shoulders of its gaily-dressed mannequin, smacks onto the floor, and lies still, eyes staring up sightlessly. Leaning forward to my own window, I see Golden’s hand retreating through the little window next to the deer’s body, which is now dancing and bobbing headlessly like a children’s nightmare.

“Golden! You just broke the head off that deer!” Golden, of course, stares at me blankly. He doesn’t come to the city much. The first time he ever saw a flush toilet, he and Starbuck stood next to it for thirty minutes, flushing it over and over to see how it worked. A dancing deer was a temptation so obvious it needs no explanation.

“Let’s go find somebody,” I say, and we move away before the children destroy the whole thing. I am not impressed by the childproof nature of Extreme Animal Video. My regard for the staff drops another notch. There’s nobody in sight to confess to, so I make a mental note to tell the next security guard about the damage, and we go visit the dead Egyptians.

Unlike the Eskimos, the Egyptians are really there, and really dead, looking like dried-up old road kills in carefully reconstructed models of genuine excavations. “Look, kids,” I say. “Is that gross or what?”

Paoli says, “We already saw it, Dad.” Old skeletons with dried up skin and tendons are boring. She can always see those at home, where the woods reveal old deer carcasses, or occasional cows and goats, or you name it. No need to pay $80 to see an old dead Egyptian. Maybe if was dressed up and dancing . . .

Then I spot something I recognize. It’s an old Egyptian writing tablet, the kind made from a little slab of wood covered in beeswax. You scratched a few words into the beeswax with a stylus, and it stayed readable as long as you needed it to (or until you left it in the sun). The little piece of wood has two holes on one side, where they would tie loops of cord together to bind a stack of tablets into a primitive book. The little sign explains, “The holes in the tablet are for suspending the tablet for carrying.” That’s not right, I think to myself. Anybody who knows anything about ancient Egyptian bookbinding practices knows that they tied the tablets together, a style imitated later in the leather parchment books called membranae by first-century Hellenistic Jews and the later Romans. My respect for the legacy of old Andrew lessens a bit more.

We spend the entire afternoon at the Carnegie Museum, which in the end totally defeats me by its sheer size and variety. By four o’clock it’s all I can do to stare dumbly at the ancient Sioux horse decorations. “288,000 individual beads,” the push button tells me brightly, “and it weighs 34 pounds.” I don’t even try to verify the math. Later I catch up with all the kids inside the Pueblo Diorama, listening to the recording of old Hopi women explaining how to grind corn. Except then I notice Golden, who has discovered a six-inch-by-six-inch hole in the artificial adobe wall, and is busily attempting to enlarge it into a new entrance to the interior. “Golden!” I shout futilely. He is already inside.

Finally it’s over, and we head to the exit, past the gauntlet that every parent knows lurks in museums, zoos, and galleries of any kind: the Gift Shop.

“Can we buy something? Can we?” The exhausted children come back to life like those other Egyptians, the ones from Hollywood.

“One thing,” says Shawna. I go sit down by the T-shirts, because I know how long it will take.

And it does. Griffin finally chooses a very nice pocket guide to Rocks and Minerals. Devra selects a small Guatemalan bracelet. Paoli ends up with a small glass egg (she will lose it immediately in the car on the way home.) Starbuck finds a small Plexiglas box filled with colored oils and model porpoises. Golden selects a bag of candy. Then he changes his mind for a hat shaped like an alligator’s upper jaw. The he changes his mind again in favor of a small truck.

“Decide now,” says Shawna. The museum gift shop is closing. Finally Golden decides. I’m so tired I don’t even know what it is. We make our way out to the car, the children running ahead in the empty parking garage to get to the best seats first.

“You drive,” says Shawna.

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