austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

It seems the very air I'm breathing

For Sunday we had plans to meet my sister and her husband. This would be another chance for bunny_hugger to meet more of my immediate family, and also a rare chance for me to see my sister, who's remarkably elusive. My parents think they saw more of me, when I was living in Singapore, then they did of my sister, who was living about an hour away.

What to actually do was the subject of intense cross-negotiation, some by e-mail and some by text messages. (Text messages are the only medium my sister acknowledges, to the frustration of my father, whose phone plan does not provide text messages. The charge of an extra quarter per message drives him crazy, but he insists it is somehow impossible to add a messaging plan to his phone.) A complicating factor was my sister's dogs, one of whom as a shelter rescue gets extremely anxious if they're away for too long. For now, ``too long'' is usually about four hours, but the results can be catastrophic if it's too much past that margin. Fortunately her work (doing horse ... things) means she's able to keep the dog with her long enough to let all involved function.

So the proposed activity seemed to me strange: she suggested we take in the Adventure Aquarium, formerly the New Jersey State Aquarium, or as everyone calls it the Camden Aquarium, which opened back in 1992 in that little fad where they thought opening aquariums would somehow fix failed cities. This would be about an hour from my parents' home, the natural place for us to meet up, and that's about an hour from my sister and her husband's place, which would seem to eat up their entire time margin, but they were confident in leaving their dogs alone so bunny_hugger and I decided to accept this as it was.

We drove down there in my parents' Toyota Something since neither my car nor my sister's was really big enough to be comfortable for four people, and we once again relied on the pre-printed Google Maps directions up to the last few turns in Camden where my brother-in-law suddenly started giving precise and efficient turning directions to take us right to the parking lot. It turns out he'd been keeping track of our position and our path on his iPhone, and since he was in the backseat I'd never noticed. I also noticed the parking lot had a flat $10 rate for every type of vehicle and for any length of parking, which left me wondering why they issue and collect tickets. It seems like just charging people as they left the lot would suffice. Possibly it's a scheme to make sure the parking lot doesn't overfill, which based on the size of the lot probably happens easily never.

It was, as I'd mentioned for Saturday, cold. Really cold. Cold enough that later into the exhibits we would learn the penguins were not on display. This happens every year at every facility that handles penguins, as best I can tell, with the possible exception of the Singapore Zoo. I think penguin-handling facilities have a deal with the local media to arrange for taking the penguins off display during a cold snap, so that the TV news and the local news pages can talk about how it's too cold for the penguins, and they get some of the news hole filled, and the zoo gets a little publicity, and the humans receiving the news can feel superior to the local penguin community. Everyone comes out feeling good about themselves, with the possible exception of penguins who feel they're not given the chance to shine in their element. They're probably paid off with all kinds of smelt.

The Aquarium was in some ways a good selection for us, as the various amazing and/or disgusting animals of the sea offer an endless variety of things to watch, and sometimes start to understand, or at least just to touch. There were multiple touch-a-creature exhibits, including a shark who only occasionally went after people's fingers, and some kind of anemone that I didn't touch but bunny_hugger did, and according to Wikipedia there are also touch-a-lobster, touch-a-jellyfish, and touch-a-shrimp exhibits. We also developed a deep sense of sympathy and pity for the poor Aquarium workers whose job consists of telling people that they can touch the shark, if they put their hands in, but don't do naughty things with the animals, and wash your hands off before going on to other exhibits and repeat this for fifty minutes each hour each hour of the day.

But there were disadvantages to it too. bunny_hugger and I are lingerers in museums; we're happy to soak in a single scene for as long as we can stand and it takes some effort to move us along. My sister and her husband are not. Possibly they were influenced by thinking of what their dog would be doing in two hours, but I'm inclined to say they've always been more inclined to see something and move on. From our vantage point, nearly everyone is more inclined to see something and move on. As a result they tended to be at the far end of the room, or in the next exhibit, or two exhibits along, sending me text messages (``Don't bother going outside, the penguins aren't out'', advice we rejected and stepped outside for anyway, although this did mean we got a glimpse of the sea lions) about where they were and receiving estimates of when we might catch up to them.

As any Aquarium worth its capitalization might suggest they had a good bit of shark coverage. Some of this was simple ``interactive'' stuff, such as push-button light-up panels so that kids could discover which parts of the shark caused flatulent noises. There was one kid running back and forth at this display eagerly pressing all the buttons and listening to the flatulent sound. Interactive science for the kiddies can be such a burden sometimes.

Another exhibit was a touch-screen ``build your own shark'' monitor, which bunny_hugger used to select a set of parameters for a shark species which according to the Build This Shark button ... ... ... ... ... apparently was very difficult to build because it didn't seem to be doing anything. Apparently the Build This Shark button didn't respond to touches directly on it, or in the immediate area. We had to do some hunting around the screen to find a spot to touch so it would actually identify what real live shark species her parameters defined.

There was also a little ride experience, a ``shark cage'' cabin where you step inside and the floor plate jolts around in response to video of sharks coming up on and bumping into the caged TV camera. This was pleasant enough even if we got to it long after my brother-in-law and his wife did, but it was frightening to a kid who was on the ride with us. After growing more afraid he finally ducked out through the curtain, it happens just a few seconds before the ride came to an end.

Sharks and the attempt to correct the pop cultural image of them as borderline evil eating machines made up a fair part of the exhibit, I believe by floor space and certainly in my mind. Peter Benchley's apologies for writing Jaws were put on a wall that featured reprinted articles about Jaws, or about the 1916 Shark Attacks which inspired Benchley's book, or posters from the later Jaws movies which were not accompanied by apologies from the people responsible. This was accompanied by a dramatically posed fiberglass shark with teeth wide open and dangling from the ceiling directly in the path of people coming around the turn, delicately taking their message of ``don't be irrationally afraid of sharks'' and shooting it in the foot, then waiting for gangrene to set in, and setting that limb on fire. There was also for the kids a Climb Into The Shark's Mouth statue, with signs all around it saying to not climb on the shark's back. One group of adults was there taking pictures of the kids who were eagerly climbing on the shark's back. I love people.

One further little shark feature that caught me was a display talking about the making of shark's fin soup. What caught me was the description of shark's fin soup as being merely ``controversial'', without going into why it's ``controversial''. I understand and appreciate the desire to put forth a reasonably neutral point of view particularly in the face of ``controversy'', but I think it would have been worth mentioning that the ``controversial'' aspect is that shark's fin soup is made by catching sharks, hacking their dorsal fins off, and tossing the bleeding and mutilated sharks back into the water to die. It felt like they could take a stronger stance than just vaguely reporting that there's something about it that some people might not feel is quite entirely kosher in all respects. (And, yes, I eat meat, and fish, and that results in the deaths of animals as surely as hacking off shark's fins do. I'm trying to cut down, with an eye towards cutting it out entirely, and the mutilation of sharks feels excessively cruel. I grant one could ask how to grade levels of cruelty in this, and I don't know, but it's what I feel.)

The Aquarium wasn't all sharks and shark-related experiences, though. For example, a part of it was devoted to the Rankin-Bass Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for some reason. I don't know why. But they had signs done up in that classic Rankin-Bass style, and prop snowflakes and decorative figures sprinkled around, and concentrated in one corner of the building near the touch-a-shark exhibit. I'm not sure what the connection between Rudolph and sea life is, other than that this drew a lot of attention, and I took pictures too, so whatever the reasoning was worked. Well, except that it didn't draw us in, since we bought our tickets without knowing a thing about the Rudolph connection, but presumably there were some people who went to the Aquarium for the chance to see poster boards explaining the plight of Herbie the Misfit Elf.

There were also some happily familiar touches, as for example a mangrove swamp exhibit. In Singapore I ... didn't actually get out to the real swamps except for my visit to the Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve, but the reconstructions of what mangroves are like were part of the most striking and odoriferous displays at the Zoo and the Night Safari, and this had the scenes and the rainforest humidity down right. You know how potent some things, like a particular scent or the feel of certain heats and humidities on the skin, can be.

The jellyfish exhibits were also impressive things, as they had those weird lights which brought out the features of the jellyfish in striking and weird reliefs. Add in curved windows to the exhibits that distort the appearances within and you got some beautifully distorted, unearthly views of things. Outside one of them a person asked me what the strange alien-spaceship things in there were; he didn't seem satisfied with my pronouncement that they were jellyfish. I promised him they were, and he walked off, nodding, but I doubt he believed me.

Even though bunny_hugger and I lingered, even in the gift shop --- there, in part, trying to find some suitable souvenir, which was hard shopping; they didn't even have something that would make a good Christmas tree ornament or something which could be tucked into the corners of a decorated room --- we were not so far behind my sister and her husband that they had the chance to finish eating at the food court. I went a little out of character for me, actually, at the food court and got a hot pretzel with cheese sauce. I'm not much on pretzels, but that's usually because what's on offer are small, hard, cold pretzels. The fresh-baked kind are a different species.

I'd say that it was at the food court that we really warmed up, communally, partly in talking about the exhibits and more in talking about the animals which bunny_hugger keeps or has known, and those which my sister keeps. When we got into talking about the prank my sister plays on people who want to know what breed her dog is --- she's made up the breed, and only been called on it once at the pet store where she happened to drop the name in front of an American Kennel Club judge who got all Margaret Dumont-y in calling her bluff --- then we'd gotten into making more intimate and personal contacts.

On driving home we had a rough idea where to go, but my brother-in-law pitched in with his iPhone directions so we couldn't get too lost. It happens the natural path took us through the Rutgers University Camden campus, a place I'd never seen except in a feature that the New Brunswick campus's daily paper ran once. (The Camden student government got all huffy about a photo caption, too.) Had it not been the New Year's weekend I would have been tempted to stop in the library there, as there are books in that library I never happen to get around to and I'm far too lazy to request books from afar. Still, and with only one completely missed turn, we got on our way back. In that confusing pattern the Interstate has inflicted on us, the way back looped us around the same part of Interstate just before where we turned off to get to the Aquarium, but by not turning off we were able to get turned around and head back home. It made sense to someone in the Department of Transportation, I'm sure.

Later in the evening we would get the report of just how bad my sister's dogs had been with their long time --- something like seven hours --- left alone. They had been perfect angels.

We enjoyed our last evening together watching the Doctor Who episodes we'd picked up the previous day. The first choice was a black-and-white tale of the Second Doctor, The Seeds Of Death, and sets off with a gimmick so amusing that I'd have to figure it's been done many times in the Who universe. The Tardis appears in a room with elements that just can't be quite reconciled to any specific era; it turns out, it's popped into a history museum of the future. Anyway, in this future world transportation's handled by transmat governed somehow from the Moon, and it gets shut down by pesky aliens, interrupting the critical flow of people and goods through Ottawa and thirteen other cities worldwide. It turns out to be a scheme by the Martian Ice Warriors (remember when Mars had Ice Warriors?) to invade and it comes around to involving covering the sets in foam. I think it's a fungus-based method. Anyway, to spoil things, the Doctor saves the day and the invasion is foiled when they're able to help put together a rocket --- a technology neglected due to its obsolescence in the transmat era --- over the course of a couple days.

Also, bunny_hugger and I admired the spunk of the Martian Ice Warriors for putting together a plan to invade the Earth which could be foiled by rain. (In their defence, by the late 21st century there's good weather control and the Ice Warriors take control of that, so they could have reasonable hopes of not having the invasion called off by a light sprinkle.)

Our second was Castrovalva, the debut episode for the Fifth Doctor and one which bunny_hugger had thought was interesting despite the handicap of starring the Fifth Doctor. In this adventure the Doctor is more than little bit woozy from his fresh regeneration and he needs to find the Zero Room in the Tardis to recover. With that going about as well as finding anything in the Tardis does, the two female companions take the Doctor to the relentlessly peaceful world of Castrovalva so the Doctor can break it. Meanwhile, in a subplot which seems to belong to another series, possibly on ITC, the Master torments Wesley Crusher. A lot of the episode is taken up with the New Doctor figuring out his props and quirks for the events (such as the celery thing which would baffle me in another context), so it felt more than The Seeds Of Death like an episode I didn't quite have the background to appreciate, but I did think the building up of the Castrovalvan mystery and its resolution cleverer than any summary I'd make of it would be.

In addition we tracked down, online, a Companion of the Doctor who'd appeared only in comic strip form, an alien shapeshifter with a preference for taking on the form of a penguin after a failed romance. This pleased us as well as it could be for our final night together this trip.

Trivia: Sir Stamford Fleming's paper on ``Terrestrial Time'' attempted to avoid the politically sensitive question of where to set a prime meridian by instead setting a worldwide clock for the center of the Earth, with 24 time zones given Roman numerals on a special dial on the outside of clock faces, and an inner dial of 24 letters --- omitting J and Z --- to represent the hours, so that a particular time might be, as example, ``M.22''. Source: Time Lord: Sir Stamford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time. Clark Blaise. (And no, I'm not clear on how this avoids the prime meridian issue --- or the International Date Line issue --- either. My sense is Fleming kind of hoped it would be confused out of existence.)

Currently Reading: When Computers Were Human, David Alan Grier.

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