Sep 012018

I went to the American Museum of Natural History in NY the other day and was shocked at how bad it was.

As a kid I went all the time, and some of the bits I remembered fondly (the dinosaurs, the blue whale) are still there, looking impressive.  But now that I’m an adult and should be better able to appreciate a museum, I found myself unable to appreciate this one.

Part of the problem stems from how much was the same.  It may be no exaggeration to say I have not set foot in the place since the 1980s.  But it may also be no exaggeration to say that many of the exhibits look like they haven’t been touched since the 1980s either.  The older ones are not only looking ragged from age (lots of lights were out in the exhibits) but they are also extremely dated in their presentation.  It was often hard to figure out what we were looking at, and even when there were words, they were frustratingly unclear (“The bowl just above”?  Just above what?).

Worse, descriptions they had were often awkwardly paternalistic in tone.  Museum practices have evolved in the intervening thirty years or so, yet quite a few of the exhibits have not.  Particularly in the exhibits for the peoples of the world, they bordered on offensive, but even to the extent that they weren’t, they still were often jarringly over-simplistic.  Great swaths of land, myriad different peoples, and thousands of years of humanity were all lumped together in some of these rooms, and yet somehow we were supposed to learn something from these exhibits.  We could not figure out what.  The room on Central American peoples wasn’t quite as bad as some of the others (and appeared to have been a bit more recently done) but the African one was worse than useless.  On one wall we found an undated map (in fact most objects on display in the museum were undated) purporting to show where in Africa various tribes lived, but it was obviously incomplete, did not reflect the habit of people to travel into other tribes’ regions, and in fact was actually more a map of governed regions than actually a map of tribes, as it was labeled.  Given that genocidal acts have arisen over tribal tensions, the map (and many other aspects of the exhibit) seemed to constitute educational malpractice in its utter failure to provide actual illumination.

Of course, I’m actually not sure why, in a museum about natural history, it had even bothered to have exhibits on peoples when it would never have the space to do them justice.  But even in the exhibits on actual animals, which would seem to be in the museum’s wheelhouse, the incomplete nature of the exhibits was conspicuous.  True, there were a lot of oceanic specimens, all sort of hung on the wall in an overwhelming way.  But I was interested in African birds, having actually been to Africa and seen some rather spectacular birds there.  But these specimens were nowhere to be seen.  Surely the museum’s collections themselves are not so limited, but there was little rhyme or reason to many of the exhibits explaining why the limited number of items presented were important for us to see at all, let alone more important than all the many items we could not see.

Even some of the more recently redone exhibits, like the dinosaur ones, suffered similar problems.  Although they were generally much better, they still tended to leave visitors with more questions than answers.  In one room, for instance, there is a gigantic dinosaur, which is a quite recent discovery.  The curators made a point of saying that they were only able to find 84 actual fossils, and the rest of the dinosaur was constructed by making models of what they guessed was missing.  Great, but it would have been nice to know which were the 84 actual bones and which were the guesses.  (This dinosaur also had noticeably long vertebrae in the neck, but if there was any description explaining why anywhere in the room it was not equally noticeable.)

The museum was so bad that it got to the point that when we were looking at the map, trying to decide what to see next, the decision really became what to allow ourselves to be disappointed by next.  And every time we managed to learn an actual, insightful fact we pointedly celebrated the rare feat it represented.  To be fair, we didn’t have time to get to every exhibit.  But by the time we left, we had lost interest in trying to.

It’s always hard to visit beloved places from one’s childhood, because it’s always hard for reality to live up to a romanticized memory.  But this museum didn’t disappoint because it fell short of nostalgic expectation; it disappointed because it fell short of the educational standards we ought to be able to expect from our museums.  The American Museum of Natural History is supposed to be a world class museum.  But I’ve been to world class museums around the world, and this one isn’t.  It certainly charges admission prices as though it is, although – and I appreciated this – you can pay your own price, which certainly helps make the education a museum like this is supposed to provide more accessible.  But any price is too high when that educational value turns out to be so surprisingly illusory.  Especially with its add-on fees for special exhibits (maybe they were actually educational?) it seemed far more like a tourist trap instead of the institute for learning it is supposed to be.

Nov 302017

All the revelations about inappropriate sexual behavior among so many of the country’s male entertainment and political figures got me thinking about how even as a swim teacher, where we necessarily had to wear next to nothing, we were still able to behave professionally.

And that reminded me of this post I wrote back in law school in response to a poorly-reasoned decision by Judge Kozinski, where he justified needlessly sexualized dresscodes, inequitably burdensome on women, with a throw-away line rooted in an incorrect assumption about what swim teachers wear.

As someone who taught swimming lessons for over twenty years, including up through law school and even a few years thereafter, I decided I was qualified to write the following post disabuse him, and anyone else, of such a view.

Strategic planning, empathy, tailoring one’s communication appropriately for one’s audience: these are all things that any swimming teacher and litigator must be able to do. Think convincing a jury is tough? Try getting a stubborn four year old to put his face in the water…

It also now seems that my alternate career has prepared me for significant constitutional inquiry as well. Note the question recently posed by Judge Kozinski in the en banc hearing of Jespersen v. Harrah’s:

“What if you employed swim [instructors] and you required they wear bathing suits? … I think it’s probably true that women’s bathing suits are more expensive.”

Well as it happens I can tell him a thing or two about that, having been a swimming teacher every summer (save three) since 1989. Continue reading »

Jun 252017

I had to do something really hard yesterday: I had to give up my car. I’m sure you are thinking, “What’s the big deal?” People get rid of cars all the time. The circle of life for automobile ownership is barely longer than that of a fruit fly, so why should this be hard?

Because I’m not one of those people. When I bought my car, new, I fully intended to drive it into the ground. And, basically, I did – nearly 23 years later.  Which is what made it so hard, because in getting rid of the car I was basically divorcing myself from one of my oldest and closest relationships. I have family relationships that aren’t even as old. Or as close. Or who have been nearly as good to me. Continue reading »

Apr 152017

I have often disagreed with your party’s positions, but I usually could tell what they were. Although there were always some exceptions, there was a general coherence to them. You were the Sam the Eagles of American governance, statesmen above all else, and champions of a steady hand on the tiller of America, even when progress might perhaps have required a somewhat freer one.

That is not who you are now. You have put a mercurial, war-mongering clown at the head of your party, installed him in the White House, and are now standing silently by as he is aided and abetted by a team that, with rare exception, is at best incompetent if not also purposefully bent on undermining every institution that has protected the American people for generations. Far from being the conservative play, by letting his intemperate and frequently lawless behavior go unchecked you have been enabling the dissolution of every bit of stability – economic, political, and, perhaps worst of all, diplomatic – the nation and its security depends on. Stability that your own party has proudly claimed to have worked so hard to build.

While there are some among your ranks who appear to be gleeful for the GOP to suddenly be unshackled from the norms of decency, diplomacy, and competency, I have to believe that they are the minority. But as long as the majority is frozen in paralyzed impotence, the minority is redefining who you are, and who this country gets to be. Continue reading »

Apr 112017

Dear United:

I write this letter as someone who has been a rather loyal United customer to date and would generally wish to remain so. I want to make clear at the outset, however, that this loyalty does not allow me to exonerate you of the serious concerns raised by your appalling treatment of Dr. Dao both on your flight and in your subsequent correspondence with employees. Both – and in many ways the latter especially – give me great pause and make me wonder if I can continue to patronize this airline. Unhappily, due to consolidation and other market failures, I may not actually have much choice: the best airline for me is one that offers plenty of direct transcontinental routes out of SFO and a global alliance I can use my resulting frequent flier miles on. Unfortunately, your closest competitors can only meet some of these needs, and thus any threat to take my business elsewhere is generally an idle one.

However, one of the reasons that I became a United customer in the first place, and have remained one more or less happily up to now, is that I like your airline. Flying another carrier always feels like visiting a stranger, whereas I’m used to the operational rhythm of how United works and how it works for me. I like liking it, and I want others to like it too, even if for no other reason than that your success helps improve my own travel experience (more routes, more flights, more amenities, etc.).

But your behavior this week, as well as on some other some other recent occasions, has made it difficult to recommend you, and that is no good for either of us. When passengers have to fly you begrudgingly it is unpleasant for everyone. For us, it makes us impatient, inflexible, and defensive, and thus for your employees, the same. We are all much better off when everyone can be proud to choose United, and that’s what the rest of this open letter is intended to make sure we all can be. Continue reading »

Jan 022017

I knew when I applied to UC Berkeley that I wanted to major in mass communications. It was not a major that you could simply sign up for, however; one had to apply.

The following is the bulk of my application essay that I found while looking through old papers recently. Given the current discussions about the role of the 5th Estate in public affairs it seemed as relevant as ever — even though it was written in 1993…
Continue reading »

Jun 072016

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve gone back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth some more about whom I would vote for in the California primary today. It is in many ways an awful choice to have to make, choosing between two such supremely qualified candidates. On the other hand, it is also the best possible choice to have to make, to have one’s electoral cup runneth over with two such excellent choices. Given the way they complement, and the way they differ, I wish they were the principle choice for the general election in November.

But I have to make a choice today, and I’ve chosen to go with Clinton. It’s hard because there is so much I like about Sanders: I like that he has forced a public dialog about wealth distribution in the United States and championed having the fundamental underpinnings of modern American life – in particular health and college education – available to all. I like that he has been able to move the needle as far as he has as an outsider, and, indeed, that he has challenged the status quo that tends to benefit political insiders at the expense of important policy values carried by outsiders. I like him as a man, and as a refreshingly ordinary man for whom intense attention does not appear to have caused him to internalize his own celebrity. And, as a Jewish person in America, I like that he has been able to open doors I was not convinced were open to other Jewish people aspiring to serve the country in such an office.

Identity politics are not the basis by which I generally like to make political decisions, however. Choosing the “X” candidate without any other inquiry into the candidate’s qualification is not likely to lead to good governance. And in this primary they are of little utility to me in any direct way anyway, because while on the one hand I’m Jewish, on the other hand I’m also a woman. Either way my purely demographic interests are advanced regardless of which candidate wins.

At the same time, one of the reasons diversity is an important value is because everyone is both shaped and inherently limited by their own lived experience. Problems and solutions will go unseen when they fall into blindspots, which is why it is good to have a diversity of perspectives represented. And I was starting to see a problem.
Continue reading »

Mar 132016

When I was a young reader I used to read Nancy Drew mysteries. And they scared me: I couldn’t take the suspense, so I often found myself flipping to the back of the book, checking out the last page, just to know that somehow the good guys were going to come through ok. Once I knew that, I could enjoy letting the rest of the book unfold.

I find myself in this election wishing I could flip to the back of the book just to know if it’s true that everything will be ok. Continue reading »