Monday, September 18, 2006

Tuesdays With Musky



I love, and I mean love, the Alaskan Musk Ox.

As Eloise once said, I am a city child. And, as any city child does, I had my urban mecca, my sacred temple, my secret hideout. It has always been and always will be the source of my greatest thrill and greatest fear, the place where I can be unabashedly five years old again, in the very best way: The Museum of Natural History.

As a child, I just got the biggest kick out of everything about the museum: the animals in their hand-painted tableaus, reminiscent of snowglobes at rest; the long, ornate staircase railings with lions' heads on each end; the cultural exhibits in which carefully crafted dummies representing Native Americans crouched over fires and modeled the latest 17th century fashions with breasts and testes akimbo. My favorite exhibit, bar none, was the Hall of North American Mammals, where my beloved Musk Ox lived, alongside buffalo, wolves, grizzlies, and tamer, smaller animals that offered comic relief, like the skunk or the puffy, Garfield-esque lynx. I cannot explain why the Musk Ox earned my deepest affection. They are large, hairy, horned creatures that look out from their wintry scene with a mix of apathy and misery. If they had a voice, I imagine it would sound just like Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh: Oh, why don't you just keep walking? Nothing to see here. Nobody cares. The curators did a really thorough job, too, as you can see little insects burrowing in the oxes' matted fur. They are not cuddly or sanitary, and yet I treat them like they are my own, secret, dead-alive homely pets. I still to this day have to repress the knowledge that they are taxidermied; if you think about it too much the museum becomes really depressing.

The great thing about the Museum of Natural History is that for every exhibit that sends me into rapture, there's one that scares the living shit out of me. I find that this particular dichotomy makes for a thrilling experience. Take, for example, the Giant Whale of Death that hangs menacingly above the Hall of Ocean Life. As if that hall wasn't scary enough, what with its dark, blurry water scenes teeming with dead otters, the whole time you're walking beneath a massive whale hanging from what appears to be a push pin. The whole set-up just makes you start to question laws of physics and cover your head. Once, my dad's company held a benefit dinner in the Hall of Ocean Life, and all of the tables were right underneath the whale. I couldn't enjoy the bread basket because I was too busy mentally tallying the death count and making up sassy titles that might appear on the next day's cover of The Post. WIPE OUT! and KILLER WHALE! were frontrunners.

A place in the museum that scares me just as much without posing any physical threat is a little nondescript hallway that I like to call the Hall of Rats. It's an exhibit of rodents (the museum generously calls them 'mammals'. Ha!) tacked up to the wall. Granted, they're behind glass, but seriously, anyone with a hammer and some nails could do this at home. I never thought I'd say this, but I think I prefer a live Norway rat to one that's flayed and tacked up for public view, especially right next to the chipmunks. That's just bad form.

Lest you think I'm just taking a random swan dive into nostalgia for my misbegotten youth, I'm writing this because the fine people at 20th Century Fox are finally bringing my childhood playground to life -- they're making a movie about it. Better yet, my editor in chief wants me to do some research and, possibly, writing, for a page-long feature on the exhibits that "come alive" in the film. Oh, man, I am so psyched! I wonder if the whale comes alive in the movie, and if it falls and kills anyone. I guess probably not. My musk ox, I fear, will be passed over once again in favor of the flashier dead mammals, but, if the filmmakers are reading this, I suggest casting Alan Arkin and Will Ferrel. The Musk Ox should save the day by driving away the bloodthirtsy Mesopotamians with a combination of hairy stench and witty repartee.

Don't even tell me that's not totally a brilliant idea, because it is.
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