Shape-Shifting at the Museum of Natural History: Rough Writers, The Timeliness of Cymbals, and Bad Homophones

Ok, I’m having my usual bit of fun here with disconnected facts. The “Bad Homophones” bit was a teaser, a bait and switch kind of thing…although I’ll bet any non-English-language-speaker misses the bait and still gets hooked by the swerving meanings of our identical phonetic utterances.

What I was really thinking of was: “Rough Riders” and “The Timeliness of Symbols.”

Why?

Perhaps the image gave it away but, if not, check out the New York Times article on January 19, 2022*

Clearly there has been a clashing of cymbals…er, symbols…in the front of the American Museum of Natural History.

The once heroic Rough Riding 26th President being craned off-site a hundred years later as a racist and colonialist. Of course, the two men flanking Roosevelt’s horse could have told everyone as much back in the day before they were being welded to the bronze pedestal….but that was then, this is now. Minds change.

And speaking of Timeliness and rough riders…er, writers… let me lay out the problem as one of my characters saw it in the rough writing of The Door-Man…eight years ago:

            Trifina blames a good deal of it on the mounted statue out front – Theodore Roosevelt – him, and his big-game hunting Ivy League patrician cronies in the Boone and Crockett Club. Once they began underwriting the Museum ­after its bumpy start in 1887 at the old Menagerie where the current Central Park Zoo maintains a lingering memory, Natural History became a kind of victory dance for those holding pride of place in the Tree of Life’s canopy.

            For Roosevelt, it was a class thing. Class Mammalia, to be precise – the Big Animals. They were the ones most worthy of reverent respect because they could teach us about ourselves. Not so much about where we came from, but how to measure our strengths, our capabilities and values, our civility,…our nobility. And in the great wild Primates, we could test our nobility most acutely. After all, there’s nothing more challenging than a creature that looks vaguely like a human being yet can tear it apart, limb from limb. Except, of course, for the primate with a high-powered scope and .458 Winchester Magnum loaded with a slug that can pierce a charging Silverback’s skull and keep traveling right out its asshole to finish off the straggler running behind.

            So, it was decreed. Roosevelt and the other Presbyterian Trustees of the Museum could accept evolution as the Game of Living Things, but only because they believed the Lord had rigged it in their favor. Natural Selection was not just a meandering crap shoot in an indifferent “environment”, it had a direction – upward – “guided” by the human-like hand of Providence toward those made in His image. The Trustees could heed the words of Job inscribed on the bronze plaque in the main hall of the museum – Speak to the Earth and it shall teach thee – because they had no doubt that when the Earth spoke back, it would confirm Man’s “dominion over every living thing that moveth” upon it.

            Then again, Trifina points out, not all of Man. The African gun-bearer who passed up the .458 Winchester Magnum to the President apparently didn’t count. Trifina rolls her eyes whenever she looks at Roosevelt’s shoeless side-kick walking, rump-end of the President’s horse, on the granite plinth in front the Museum. And as for the Native-American walking on the other side of the horse?…he’s just glad to be out of the way, for once, of the bullets that got the Silverback.

            I hear all of Trifina’s complaints about the Museum. In fact, I hear everyone’s complaints about everything. Doormen usually do; it’s part of the job description…

…from The Door-Man, Chapter 3, Bastards

* and speaking of the NY Times, I’m in there today with some Hudson Valley Hideouts, mumbling to Julie Lasky about where I design novels and other things in the Time of Pandemia.

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