All Yesterdays

Here’s a fun book that may not be in your library, since it seems hard to get a hold of: All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals by John Conway, C.M. Kosemen, and Darren Naish.

In the brief introduction, the authors argue that the lack of soft tissue found along with skeletal fossils leads illustrators to depict the exteriors of animals as following closely along the bone structure. But, they note, the skeletons of living animals are “effectively invisible” because they are thickly surrounded by muscle, fat, hides, and hair or feathers.

The skeletons of modern birds– owls and parrots, for example– have long, slender neck skeletons, but overlying skin and thick feather coverings obscure these entirely.

So they present their artwork that follows anatomically faithful to the skeleton and then overlaid with speculation about the soft tissues and behavior (just how did male stegosaurus mount females for mating with all the back armor?). And, in a bit of professional self-criticism, the last section of the book includes drawings of living animals as if only partial skeleton fossils were known, showing just how far off our speculation about dinosaurs might be, illustrating two menacing dragon-like swans with their impossibly long necks spearing fish prey “with their long, scythe-like forelimbs.”

The light touch is what makes it an enjoyable, short book to peruse.

State fair

A belated gallery of photos from last Sunday’s trip to the fair.

The graveyard of democracy

Our last sight to see in New York was the National September 11 Memorial, a short walk from our hotel. Once I was there I felt l had already seen all I needed from our 24th floor hotel room window.

If there is a real monument to the terrorist attacks it is at the security control. Our tickets were looked at, scanned, and marked at three separate checkpoints. We had to empty our pockets and take off our belts (shoes could stay on). Officious volunteers ordered us to “move up, use every available space” even though there were 100 yards or more of emptiness through the rope maze behind us. At one juncture in this march, instead of  following the person in front of us to the left we had to turn right into an empty space and buttonhook around to the left. I have no idea why. In other words: the usual ritual humiliation we’ve come to expect when traveling or visiting other landmarks or other exercises in liberty. I wonder if this was lost on the memorial’s boosters.

The memorial comprises a plaza, an unfinished museum, and two giant square drains in the footprints of the old twin towers. Names of the dead victims are engraved into the parapets. The bottoms of the drains are not visible from ground level. I understood the intent of the giant drains: placid sheets of water falling off dramatically into a deep void evoked sudden calamity and great loss. But memorializing the footprints of the two great towers as if they are sacred ground annoyed me. Look up from the memorial into any building now casting shadow onto it: soon it will be filled with people selling hedge funds or credit default swaps or performing other morally ambiguous duties. Around the footprints of the towers, where some may have leaped to their deaths or were otherwise snuffed out by the buildings’ collapse, is now just a pavement plaza trampled by us gawkers.

Trying to turn a financial center into hallowed space is simply a tasteless idea. Unlike a preserved battlefield we can learn nothing about the terrorist attacks by the present condition of the land, expect perhaps that we were so cowed by them that the memorial now lays beyond a phalanx of magnetometers and x-ray machines. The addition of the victims names to the memorial did nothing to humanize the place. The approach, which may have been novel and effective at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, totally fails to connect me with the dead. In the temporary museum nearby, a dusty wallet recovered from the wreckage and displayed in a lucite cube did much more for me emotionally.

The disconnect I felt came from the proximity in time of the memorial’s design and construction to the event itself. Most Civil War monuments, for example, were erected a generation or two later to rally citizens around other national challenges and to remind new generations of the old hardships as those who knew them first-hand died off. Most Americans saw the attacks on television, live and then in repeats for months and years afterwards. We think about September 11. 2001 every time a soldier gets killed in Afghanistan or Iraq, or every time we partially disrobe before flying off to spend Thanksgiving with our families. So are we collectively needy of a memorial? Who does it serve? Isn’t it an expensive guilt trip foisted on us by a small group of extroverted mourners? Can’t I feel the national injury without also sharing in another family’s loss?

The memorial’s excess of sentimentality and its vacuum of meaning made me emotional for the wrong reasons and angry at the wrong people. Visiting the place felt like having our national dignity sucked into a pit of despair. I can’t believe this colossal public grief project has held us up for ten years from putting the World Trade Center back together. Getting the place back to normal quickly would have been the real monument to liberty and democracy.

Escape to New York

Homer: New York is a hellhole. And you know how I feel about hellholes!

Marge: It’s wall-to-wall landmarks! The Williamsburg bridge! Fourth Avenue! Governor’s Island!

“The City of New York Vs. Homer Simpson”

I moved away from New York almost ten years ago and I haven’t been back to visit the city in over five. Much is as I left it, but some has changed. The World Trade Center and its ancillary infrastructure are still being reconstructed. There is more security around town, especially in the Financial District, including cops and closed streets and bollards and French barricades. It appears the security mission there has evolved from counterterrorism to counterrevolution. Zuccotti Park was quiet but there were still some protesters occupying the steps of Federal Hall.

My wife and I, along with her parents, stayed in the Millennium Hilton, the Space Odyssey Monolith style building right across from the World Trade Center. The last time I saw the Millennium Hilton it was closed and covered in dust. From our room we could look down at construction in the World Trade Center plaza and look up at progress on 1 WTC, now the tallest building in New York. In fact, I think we got good deals on the rooms because of the construction noise. Every morning at 8 o’clock the clanking would begin. It was not a place for sleeping late.

Sleeping late wasn’t necessary anyway. Almost everything we visited on this trip I had been to before, though we saw in four days what I had spent many much shorter excursions seeing. In fact, though I got some good photos, I felt like I was re-taking many from my pre-digital camera days (which were not so long ago). The most notable exception was the new National September 11 Memorial—more on that later. The other novelty was a quick stop at Alexander Hamilton’s grave in the Trinity Church cemetery, something that as a nerd I had always meant to visit.

Like every place I’ve lived there are things I miss about New York and things I don’t miss. One thing I miss about New York is that there is so much of it. Its limits are not obvious like they are in other cities. The size and density of New York’s parts obscure each other. In New York I feel like I could wander around forever looking at interesting things without ever leaving or passing the same place twice.

I don’t miss the crowds which in New York have a certain Soylent Green quality. My family and I rediscovered the crowds as soon as we wandered onto the Brooklyn Bridge from the street by way of a creepy staircase. For a bridge that was originally built for pedestrians, there is not a lot of room left there for them. The walk was busy: walkers in one lane, bicyclists in the other, joggers on the broad stripe separating them, and two-way traffic in each. The stretch from Manhattan to the observation deck around the west tower was probably more clogged with tourists anyway.

While on the bridge I had a good, quick reminder of something else I don’t like about New York’s crowds besides their existence: regular outbursts from the insane people among them. An angry cyclist approaching the bridge from Park Row shouted at pedestrians to “go back to the subway and stay off the bridge!” Like a lot of New York’s kooks, this cyclist:

  1. Lived in a crowed city that is completely unfriendly to his lifestyle, yet expected tourists, commuters, and other pedestrians to clear the way for his benefit.
  2. Tried to remedy his problem at once by shouting at random passers-by.

Clearly this man was not getting the mental health care he needed. At around 10,000 people per square mile, such problems of our nation get magnified and focussed in Manhattan.

I had a more energizing experience with the crowds as I ran some errands the morning of our departure. It was rush hour in the financial district and everybody was trudging to work. I pushed my way upstream and across the street to a deli. Aside from the construction workers taking their breaks in the back, the deli was a study in New York fast. I was in and out of there with our breakfast in five minutes. The guy at the counter even talked fast.

There were some good surprises: the renovated Staten Island Ferry terminals looked really nice and seemed actually pleasant. They are shiny and cheerful and modern where they were once unfortunate places you had to pass through before and after you rode the boat. The day’s weather was dismal in spite of the gleaming facilities: rainy, cold, and windy—terrible weather for taking the ferry. The visibility wasn’t too poor, though, and while we could tolerate the conditions we stood on the open deck and took pictures of the Statue of Liberty.

In Midtown we poked around the now-fashionable Rockefeller Center for a while. While the statue of Prometheus is the best-known public artwork there, I never paid much attention to the other installations which, along with the Art Deco buildings, gush the propaganda of progress. Interesting carved stone or metal reliefs decorate the outsides of each building, and the lobby of 30 Rock (or the GE Building, as my mom would call it) has some very cool and epic murals.

Even though it is much younger than either trendy Rockefeller Center, the eternally classy Chrysler Building, way-too-fancy-for-a-train-station Grand Central Terminal, or the monumental Main Branch Library, United Nations Headquarters looked worn and dated. They were doing a lot of construction there while at the same time attempting to hide it. In fact, the complex was disappearing behind a high iron fence (something I don’t recall from previous visits and which appears new), another victim perhaps of security paranoia. The tour we took was pretty lame; our guide was more of an escort who periodically activated our multilingual listening devices with a radio transmitter.

Another place doing a lot of renovation was the American Museum of Natural History. Both the main hall and the room with the whale were closed (though we could see the whale through a doorway from another room). Thank goodness the dinosaur exhibits were still open or I would have simply died. We got in and out of the museum through the adjacent subway, ignoring the jazz musician playing for tips until he helpfully reminded everyone that the B trains don’t run on weekends.