How to Enjoy the Museum of Natural History On a Date

I caught up with one of my best friends last week who just returned to the City from a summer spent playing bassoon in a music festival upstate. We’ve known each other since we were children, so ours is a storied friendship. We love going to museums here in the City to catch up (because they’re so walking-and-talking friendly!), so we decided to engage our scientific/anthropological side and went to the Museum of Natural History. Though I had been before, he hadn’t, so we made a plan to hit the Upper West Side of Central Park one sunny afternoon (it also helped he had free passes). As we strolled through the countless exhibit cases of animals, caveman tools, and space rocks, I realized we were creating a template for a fun date*.

*date = a meeting of two people who have an interest in each other whether romantically or just friends

NOTE TO READERS: My friend, Taylor, and I are fairly outgoing and both artists, so not everything we attempted necessarily will be a fun activity for those who are introverted and/or afraid of looking ridiculous. But if you want to walk on the wild side and give all the tourists something to talk about to their friends and family at home, this list, my friends, is for you! We actually did all the following items.

HOW TO ENJOY THE MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

TIP #1: Read every placard in an exaggerated British or Australian accent.

It’s been scientifically proven that you have more fun and sound smarter when you use a British accent (okay I made that part up). Personally, it makes me feel like I’m on a wildlife show or narrating a semi-boring educational video (unless it was about space or volcanos. That shit is cool.) I was forced to watch in seventh grade science. If you read all the exhibit stuff in an accent, it will instantly be less boring and a lot funnier. If you’re really adventurous, I’d suggest also trying the following accents: SCOTTISH, IRISH, RUSSIAN, AUSTRIAN, MIDWESTERN, and SOUTHERN. I can’t promise the last two will make you sound smarter though (I say this as a Midwesterner myself).  We kept trying South African all day, which wound up sounding like our Australian accents.

TIP #2: Pretend you’re shopping in a luxury vintage boutique for furniture/decor.

Taylor and I both picked out multiple items we wanted including 19th century Buddha statues, giant stuffed elephants, kabuki masks, and instruments to ward off evil spirits. Yes, none of these items are for sale, but I’m sure we can find knock-off versions at Pottery Barn, Pier 1 Imports, and Crate & Barrel.  I suggest you talk pretentiously about adding to your “extensive collection” and then ask each other whether you’d prefer to vacation in Majorca or St. Barts this Christmas.

TIP #3: Re-enact your favorite Forbidden Forest scenes from Harry Potter or Lothlorien scenes from Lord of the Rings in the darkened Dzanga-Sangha Rainforest exhibit in the Hall of Biodiversity.

May I suggest…

It’s a classic. And just imagine the screams of the children when you pretend to drink unicorn’s blood.

Or

Because who doesn’t want to be ethereal and mystical like Cate Blanchett?

I also should mention that if you’re on an actual, legitimate date, this is the perfect spot for a quick, quiet makeout sesh.  A lot of kids don’t love this room because it’s a bit creepy being all dark and forest-y and full of a looped soundtrack of forest noises.  Taylor and I didn’t makeout because he’s gay, and I think of him like a brother, but we decided that we’d definitely makeout with Ryan Gosling if we were there on a date with him.

TIP #4: Lie on the floor beneath the giant whale, stare up at the ceiling, and:

Not quite as cute as Willy from the classic 90s film Free Willy

a)Ponder if this is what it feels like to be on acid

b)Debate the possibility of whether or not said giant whale falling from the ceiling would kill you

c)Unsuccessfully try to tell each other the story of Pinocchio and/or Jonah & the Whale

d)Take a short nap

This one is pretty self-explanatory.

TIP #5: Watch the Big Bang presentation narrated by Liam Neeson and then see who can name the most Liam Neeson movies.

I think you’re awesome too, Liam. Please don’t kill me.

You can phone a friend. And by “phone a friend,” I mean it’s more fun when you ask a tourist! Bonus points if you actually do an impression of Liam Neeson.  Also, this movie is short, really cool, and will basically blow your mind with the knowledge of how completely insignificant Earth is in the grand scheme of the universe.  Did I mention Liam Neeson?

TIP #6: Don’t use a map.

I probably should have started with this one, but if you live in the City, you can visit the museum anytime, so be spontaneous and fly by the seat of your pants. I was wearing a skirt, but whatever. Taylor and I didn’t go to every exhibit, we just drifted through places that looked interesting. And if you get lost, by all means ASK the lovely museum security guards. They’re all so friendly and would much rather talk to people than stand up against a wall monitoring patrons’ behavior like they’re elementary school teachers on recess duty.

TIP #7: Stare at the dinosaurs and quote Jurassic Park.

“They DO move in herds.”

TIP #8: Finish the day with coffee and a long stroll through Central Park.

This one is for all of you too scared to do #1-7.  If you did #1-7, this is a good way to maybe share a slightly more serious moment with that special someone and transition back to acting like the semi-responsible adult you want everyone to think you are.  Walking promotes conversation, at least that’s what I’ve learned from watching too many Aaron Sorkin shows and Sex & the City where people walk and talk super fast with each other.

Central Park is classic New York.  You just feel a certain romance in the air whenever you enter its shady, languid presence.

***

As I said earlier, Taylor and I didn’t visit all of the exhibits inside the museum, so the possibilities for future date activities in the American Museum of Natural History are truly endless (and probably endlessly immature)!  Someday, I will write a follow-up date guide to this fantastic, educational spot when we visit it again, because I have some great ideas for the Planetarium (all of them involving either Star Trek, Star Wars, or Ridley Scott movies).

Taylor and I had a wonderful, fun afternoon and managed to catch up in the process.  We also genuinely learned a lot despite all our shenanigans.  I’m looking forward to our next NYC adventure, which I’ll be sure to chronicle so all of you brave-hearted people can actually have real fun on your dates instead of just talking about your likes/dislikes and desperately trying to seem cool while you nibble on sushi at some generic Japanese restaurant in midtown.

Just pretend that’s me instead of Michelle Williams. We’ll always laugh this hard if I’m your lady, Ryan. ALWAYS.

Oh and Ryan Gosling, if you’re looking for me, I’ll be waiting for you in the darkened Hall of Biodiversity with my eyes closed…

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A Dream Deferred

Until I was around twelve years old, I wanted to be a ballerina.  This is not an uncommon dream for many little girls, but I was slightly more serious than most of my ballet slipper-wearing counterparts in the town where I grew up.  I used to check out as many ballet videotapes as I could from my local library while also building my own collection thanks to birthday and Christmas gifts from my parents.  I’d spend hours watching Swan Lake, the Nutcracker (with MacCaulay Culkin riding his post-Home Alone 90s fame to the New York City Ballet…odd choice), Giselle with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova, and my very favorite: Romeo & Juliet starring Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.  I had at least twenty different books about ballet technique from the Ballet Book with Darcey Bussell and the Royal Ballet School to Stories from the Ballet to my favorite which was a tattered copy of A Very Young Dancer by Jill Krementz.  This last book chronicles the life of a ten year old student at the School of American Ballet and her role as Marie in the Nutcracker back in 1976 (hence the tattered cover).

I figured myself a ballet expert by the tender age of seven years old.  Many of my friends didn’t exactly understand my obsession with tights and leotards, dancing princes, and supernatural stories, but I didn’t care.  Whenever a touring company would come through to the University of Missouri, my mother would put me in the car and we’d drive thirty minutes to see my favorite ballets performed live, much to my (and also her) great delight.  I can still remember the way the dancers in the Corps seemed to just float across the stage on pointe with their bourrees in Act II of Giselle.  It was magic.

Though I already possessed a great love of dance at an early age, my parents didn’t enroll me in classes until I was five, wanting to make sure I was truly serious enough to pay attention in class and actually learn the technique.  So at five, I was put into classes at a local studio where I went once a week to learn to dance.  Though it was an all-inclusive studio in terms of styles, we naturally started with ballet.  I learned things quickly and thanks to my intense study of my favorite dancers at home, my technique was better than anyone else in class.  When I was around twelve, my mom enrolled me in a pointe class at a separate dance studio in town, and I soon became accustomed to the blisters, calluses, blood, and agony that is the beauty of dancing on pointe.  I was also extremely tall at twelve, standing a head above most of the other girls in my class.  By the time I graduated high school, I had reached my current height of 5’10”.  Tall for a ballet dancer usually means about 5’7″ and I was well over that by the time I started pointe.

My height wasn’t the first sign my career in the ballet wasn’t meant to be.  I loved dance and with the studying of other styles, I began to love tap and modern.  Oh that first modern class was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  Other interests took over too: acting, singing, playing instruments.  And I kept reading.  The more I read about the ballet dancers I loved so greatly, the more I realized how intense and time-consuming their training truly was.  If I wanted to be a professional ballerina, I should have been in class six days a week for at least 3-4 hours a day at a serious studio in a bigger city.  Dancing is not only a profession but a lifestyle because of its grueling physical exercise coupled with a restrictive, healthy diet.  If you decide to devote your life to ballet, you really don’t have time to do anything beyond that.  I wanted to be free to explore all my artistic avenues, so my ballet dream began dying like Giselle’s weakened heart.

Or Juliet after stabbing herself.  Or the Swan Princess.  You can pretty much take your pick of any of ballet’s heroines.  For the most part, it just doesn’t turn out well.

It was sad giving up my ballet dream.  I know if I had grown up in a bigger city with more studios, I could have had the opportunity to enhance my technique and possibly progress further.  My turnout would be better.  I’d be more flexible.  If I worked hard enough, I could maybe have danced in the corps de ballet of some company somewhere.  But none of that came to pass.  Whenever I’m at Lincoln Center, I look a bit wistfully on the young girls leaving ballet class at the School of American Ballet (the feeder program into the New York City Ballet, which has been my favorite ballet company since birth).  I’m so jealous of their opportunity to study at the place that George Balanchine built, but more than that, it’s like looking at an alternate reality of me.  I could have been one of them in another life if some things had gone differently.  Some of those girls will dance roles I love, some of them will be in the corps, and some of them will turn out like me: pursuing other passions with equal diligence and love as they did dance careers.

I still have such love and respect for the ballet and its dancers even though my little girl dream never turned into a grown up reality.  I think part of me knew I’d never truly become the next Fonteyn or Kirkland or Farrell, but it was fun to pretend that I could.  Perhaps this is why I chose acting instead: because I loved make-believe and fairy tales and I was already so good at pretending.  All the lessons I learned from ballet and studying it (whether in class or on my own at home) can be applied to acting: posture, physicality, composure, elegance, discipline, respect for the art-form.  I’ve always been graceful and had a natural ability for dance, but I think deeper dreams have always existed inside of me, even if I never started unearthing them until I was a little older.

Although I’ll never dance for NYCB or ABT, I still take ballet classes once in awhile at Ailey here in the City.  It feels familiar, like an old friend, when I start my pliés and tendus at the barre.  There is a comfort in the structure of ballet: the barrework, petite allegro, adagio, grande allegro, turns, reverance.  Even the aches and pains afterward feel familiar and not altogether unwelcome.  For a few minutes, I am the realization of my eight year-old self’s dream: I am a ballet dancer in New York City.  It’s not exactly what I had in mind when I was just a little girl in the middle of Missouri dreaming of becoming a ballerina, but it’s close enough.

Running at the Edge of the Cliff

One of my college acting teachers often would encourage us to make bold acting choices.  He’d say, “Make each beat as different from the last as possible.”  That was one of his favorite phrases.  He was trying to get us to find the contrast within each moment and take advantage by committing to it as fully as possible.

His other favorite phrase was “Always run at the edge of the cliff.”

It’s something that has stuck with many of us because of its practical applications not only in acting but also in everyday life.  Running at the edge of the cliff means giving one hundred percent knowing there’s a chance you could either succeed or fall.  Being crazy enough to live (or act) on the edge of danger; the thin line between life and death.

I have been thinking a lot about “running at the edge of the cliff” lately.  It seems as though it’s been a somewhat uneventful summer, but looking back on it, I’m realizing I’ve made a lot of choices.  I don’t know if each choice has been as different from the last as possible the way my acting teacher always preached, but the fact remains I’ve actually MADE choices instead of avoiding them.  It takes guts to make choices but even more guts to make bold ones, and I think I’m reaching a point where some bolder choices will have to be made.  It’s just one of those times when I’m realizing that while I’m still rather young, I’m not getting any younger.  Why am I putting things off?

I can sense I’m standing on a precipice in two areas of my life, and for the first time, I’m actually more excited than scared.  I don’t know what’s going to happen, but that doesn’t bother me; I’m hopeful instead.  It’s certainly different from several months ago when I felt like I couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel whatsoever.  It never ceases to amaze me how much situations and feelings can change in a matter of months.

I’ve been scared of running on that edge, but now I think I’m finally ready to just commit and GO.  I can’t control what happens, but that’s the beauty and danger of living on the edge of things; all things are possible.  I just have to trust myself and my instincts.

On your mark.  Get set.  GO.