Recently in The Lawrence Hall of Hilarity Category


Way back in October, on the opening day of our elephant exhibit, a couple came in with their two-year-old son. To honor the pachyderms, the little boy was wearing a miniature elephant costume, complete with ears and trunk. It was so cute that visitors and employees alike were actually taking pictures next to the little boy, as if he were part of the exhibit itself. When college-age female staffers looked at the elephant boy, you could actually hear their biological clocks begin to tick. Though I am no elephant, I will not soon forget the boy and his cuteness.


Sunday was the very last day for our museum's exhibit on elephants. On Saturday, a middle-aged elephant enthusiast came in. He was also dressed in a handmade elephant garment. He had a floppy hat with elephant ears, a gray jacket with attached tail, and stuffed elephants dangling from his belt. Gray greasepaint covered his face and arms.

Probably, this guy was 40, 45 years old. He came in at 11:30 am, and had to be shooed out ten minutes after the museum closed, at 5 pm. He asked about what museums the elephant exhibit was moving to next, in hopes of following it, like some kind of perverse pachyderm verison of a Deadhead.

Our museum often hires experts in a field to come into the museum. Costumed adults are not an uncommon sight, given the frequency of guest lectures and small theatrical events. Just in the past month, we have had jugglers on stilts, dancers in traditional South Asian costumes, and clowns in full makeup. Still, by some primitive instinct, even the smallest children knew that this man was not to be approached. Nobody took pictures of him. No one even made eye contact.

I wonder what dark path led this man to become what he is today. I imagine long rides on the school bus, sitting alone reading Kipling, the Just So Stories his only comfort from the other children's disdain. Home alone after school, eating peanuts and watching "Dumbo" over and over, weeping uncontrollably during the "Baby of Mine" song. Later in life, lonely strolls around the zoo, alternately frightening and confusing female visitors with awkward double entendres about trunks. Finally one day deciding to sew a tail on his favorite gray jacket, "just to see how it would look in the mirror."

He's had sex in that elephant outfit. You know, I know it, and Gunther Gebel-Williams probably knew it, too.

1. Elephants and Continents

Last Sunday, December 29, I was working at the Front Desk of a local science museum. As has become the custom here at our museum, a guy didn't show up for work monitoring the Elephant exhibit, so I went back to relieve his co-worker for her lunch break. I told one story, and then hung around for questions. Normally there are some children, particularly boys aged 4-6, that have a lot to get off their chests about elephants, or lions, or that they really did know there was a giraffe in the bag but they just didn't say it and they knew it in their minds. Today, however, an adult had a burning question.

He came up to me with a worried expression. "Hey, do you work here?" he asked. When I told him I did, he got right down to business.

"OK. I heard this from someone, and I want to know if it's true. I heard that African elephants have ears shaped like Africa, and Indian elephants have ears shaped like India. You know, because of where they're from. Is that true?"

No, I told him.

"They kinda look like the continent."

I said it didn't seem to make sense, this idea that the ear shape was due to the continent the elephants lived on.

"Well, OK, maybe not. Hey, are Asian elephants smarter than African elephants?"

I was tempted to tell him that Asian elephants were better at math, but that the SAT was specially biased against African elephants. I refrained. Then he told me about a circus elephant that went mad. And another elephant in a zoo that attacked a zookeeper once.

I was telling him about how much food elephants consumed on an average day when the man's young son approached. "OK, OK, you told us enough!" he shouted, pulling at his father's arm. It actually hurt my feelings a little.

2. Sweatpants and peanut butter cups

A few weeks ago, one of our many employees named Sally approached me and asked if we had information on volunteering at the Hall. A few minutes later, she returned, this time requesting employment information on behalf of a visitor.

I thought little of it until half an hour later, when I went to check the doors at closing time. I found Sally looking vaguely terrified, trapped in conversation with an enormous woman clutching a can of root beer and a bag of Reese's peanut butter cups. The woman's eye twitched as she rambled on about her love of elephants and children, and her desire to get a job where she could have kids do arts and crafts. Every 45 seconds or so, she unwrapped another peanut butter cup and tossed it into her mouth, without a pause.

I tried to explain the hiring process for museum employment, and gently guide her towards the exit, but she would have none of that. She became very agitated when I told her that many jobs were designated for Cal students, spraying root beer and flecks of chocolate out of the side of her mouth. The rage faded quickly, and she spent the next few minutes outlining her plan for a storytelling station in the shape of an elephant that she would build and maintain near the lobby. Repeatedly, she affirmed her fervent love for elephants, and her dismay that the exhibit would close in early January.

After ten minutes, and 15-20 peanut butter cups, she was nearly out the door. I had turned to resume my sweep, when she let out a cry.

"Hey! Hey!"

I spun back to face her.

She pointed to my khaki pants. "Do you have to wear those to work here? Because, I have a little bit of a tummy," she said, chuckling. "It'd be ok if I wore sweatpants sometimes, right?"

I nodded weakly, and ushered her through the door. According to my co-worker, she waved at the wooly mammoth in the lobby for a few minutes before finally shuffling away.

3. Thaumatropes for Christ

At the Idea Lab , visitors are given the opportunity to try out a variety of science-related activities, from making tops out of plastic lids, to using tangrams, to making tiny helicopters out of paper. One such activity, called thaumatropes, involves drawing on two index cards, then taping them together with a straw in between. When spun, the two pictures seem to combine and become one image. For example, one display model has a goldish on one side, and an empty fishbowl on the other. Spin it, and the fish is inside the bowl. It works due to a phenomenon called "persistence of vision" where your brain retains an after-image temporarily - basically the same effect that make flip books work.

On Wednesday, there was a group visit from the Valley Christian School. At the Ideal Lab, one instructor made a thaumatrope that had "I God" on one side, and a large heart on the other. She was showing her creation to whoever would pay attention, and loudly exclaiming that she'd found the perfect low-cost Sunday School activity. When the school group was leaving, the teacher was clutching another one which appeared at a glance to have Jesus on one side, and a cross on the other. Spin the thaumatrope and see the crucifixion! The only way that could be topped is if Jonathan Edwards himself came to the museum, drew sinners on one card, and the open hand of an angry God on the other.



Since I work at the Front Desk of a local science museum, I don't meet everyone who works in the museum. There's distinct cliques of Front Desk folks, store employees, exhibit monitors, and lab assistants. Front Deskers and the exhibit monitors seem to interact most of all, while students from the Bilogy Lab are mistrusted. There's just something unsettling about a group that chooses to work with chinchillas, rather than human beings.

The result of this is that there are people I see multiple times every week as they enter and exit the building, but I never actually talk to them, or even learn their names. I sometimes spend idle time at the desk idly speculating on why the bandanna-wearing Asian girl from the Biology Lab is so serious, or if the art school girl from exhibits makes her own clothing. I also make up secret nicknames for people, most of which are shared only with myself.

Recently, this breathtaking Chinese girl was hired as an artist's assistant. Even though I'd mostly only caught glimpses of her, it was enough that I dubbed her the CGAME, in the vein of David Foster Wallace's "PGOAT" (Prettiest Girl Of All Time) in Infinite Jest. "CGAME" stands for "Cutest Girl Amongst Museum Employees." Anyway, for weeks, she'd stroll through the lobby, and I'd think "CGAME" and smile, both at her enormous cuteness and my equally enormous cleverness. Once I said it out loud by accident, and I had to explain to a befuddled co-worker what I was muttering.

Said befuddled co-worker was there when I actually met the CGAME last Friday while moving Math Around the World to a new location. Her name is Karen, and she is both cuter and and shorter up close. She's also not very good at lifting up enormous Hex boards, though the "Delta" formation she made with Trading Towers, Game Sticks, and Shongo Networks was a thing of beauty. Yesterday in the Museum Cafe, she told me she was a PEIS major, that she hoped to work at the museum full-time, and that she liked the way my voice sounded over the intercom. She also cuts her sandwiches into smaller pieces with a knife and fork before eating them.

So I gave a phone number to a girl for the first time in God knows when. I hope she calls. I wish I knew how to punt.

vignettes from LHS


1. The Finger

Last night, I managed to slice the index finger of my right hand fairly badly, resulting in a disturbing amount of blood and a big band-aid. It also swelled up around the second knuckle, rendering said finger mostly useless. Thankfully, working at the Front Desk of the Lawrence Hall of Science does not require much in the way of fine motor skill. Taking money, transferring phone calls, giving directions - not brain surgery. Even when I have to give directions to the exhibit on brain surgery, it's still quite doable.

On the other hand, having a gimpy finger has made me aware of how automatic and unconscious many of these physical tasks are. I reopened the cut early in the day doing reflexive, finger-endangering cash register-related tasks. So to avoid further injury, I have been curling the index finger toward the palm, keeping it out of the way, and using other fingers to handle money and directions. There's been no more blood, no more pain, but around 3 pm, I realized I've unintentionally given the finger to at least 80% of the people that came in in the past two hours. They may have gotten the wrong impression from my tough-guy gesturing.

"Where's the restroom?"
"At the bottom of the stairs." Jerkoff.

"Do you have any dinosaurs?"
"No, our main exhibit today is on elephants." I got your dinosaurs right here!

"Hi, I forgot my membership card. Can you look me up on the computer?"
"Sure, no problem." Ya piece of shit.

"That looks like a nasty cut on your finger."
"Fuck you." Fuck you.

Better the kids learn it here instead of on the streets, right?

2. Try Again

The elephant exhibit has generally received positive feedback from our members. I think most children have a fondness for enormous animals, whether they're dinosaurs, elephants, or whales. Elephants are herbivores, which cuts down on the amount of kill scenes, fake blood, and screaming hysterical children.

Nonetheless, not everyone is pleased. Here is the text of a recent comment card we received. I wish I could have scanned it, so as to capture the furious penstrokes and intense rage emanating from said card:

The elephant exhibit was the worst I've seen in 6 years. The emphasis on death, skeletons & evolution is just so limiting to the vast aspects of elephants. My children could hardly wait to leave after 8 minutes. Try again.

Why's there always gotta be visitors hatin' on evolution, anyway?

3. No shirt, no shoes, you know the drill

A family of five came into LHS around 2:15. The youngest child, a girl who appeared to be about 2 1/2, stood apart from her family, arms folded and face scowling. After paying for admission, the moms of the family said, "OK Maddy, ask him."

Little Maddy withdrew her lower lip slightly and queried, "Do you hafta wear a shirt inside?"

Her Moms, standing behind Maddy, nodded her head slightly.

Probably, the museum has a policy on both shirts and shoes, vis-a-vis service, but I still felt like I was selling little Maddy out by requiring a shirt. Why not let her roam amongst the elephants, free from her itchy shirt? She's got her whole life to wear the uniform of "Joe Starbucks" or "Sally Cell Phone." Who am I to break her flow?

Anyway, I solemnly informed her that only babies were allowed to go shirtless in the museum. Her preschool mind quickly calculated: "Only babies are shirtless in the museum. I am not a baby. Ergo..." So she got a baby seal stamp on her hand instead. Blue. It matched her shirt. Everyone was happy. Especially Joe Starbucks, wherever he was.

!si estas paredes podrian hablar!

The Lawrence Hall of Science's current exhibit is called If These Walls Could Talk." It's not about abortion or lesbian couples (which might disappoint the science-minded father who nonetheless wants to see Ellen Degeneres and Sharon Stone make out), but rather about architecture. Visitors can learn about earthquake-proof buildings, build computer models of doghouses, and discover at the importance of carbon monoxide detectors through the magic of theater. Also, there's an extensive display on demolition, which includes continuously looping footage of a high-rise building collapsing.

One note about the Lawrence Hall of Science: Since only a small number of the museum displays are created in-house, LHS gets most of its major exhibits on loan from other science museums around the country. This requires major exhibits to be arranged well in advance (18 months - 2 years, in some cases). Usually, this is no big deal: there might be a few new findings, but current thinking on dinosaurs probably won't change much from month to month. Occasionally, events happen that cast exhibits in a wholly new light. When LHS contracted for If These Walls Could Talk from the Science Museum of Minnesota, they had no idea that 9/11 would make all the demolition stuff so unsettling.

So, they added a small display, to the far right of the exhibit, entitled "What Did the World Trade Center Mean To You?" Visitors, usually children, can fill out little white cards with (non-racist) sentiments as to how the WTC affected their lives. Presented for your perusal are a sampling of the statements considered worthy of showcasing in a sort of WTC card photo album thing at the display:

One boy acknowledged it was a sad event, but insisted he "knew that Ismoa Bin Laden did not do it."

Another child wrote that, while he really liked the World Trade Center, "the people that blew it up probably didn't."

A girl named Jennifer was "scared because I thought Asoma Bin Laden was after me!"

Not all the cards were from children - one grown-up wrote a long and pretentious account of seeing the towers out of the airplane window while flying cross-country, which concluded with a comment of the irony in "the same vehicle that afforded me a view of those towers proving to be the means of their undoing."

One girl was hit close to home: "I am sad that it happened on my dog's birthday."

Unintentionally symbolic misspelling: "The WTC flat like a home to me."

Finally, one Berkeley visitor wanted to remind everyone that people from "OVER 80 COUNTRIES!!! died," so people shouldn't be using the crisis as "a platform for rampant nationalism! Don't we have enough of that??" At some point in the last month, another visitor has removed the card from its place and scrawled "you are an idiot" across the bottom, then crudely shoved the card back in place.

Only two weeks left for this exhibit. Admission free for Cal students and employees or if Sean is working.

lawrence hall name fun


My co-worker Stacy is leaving the Lawrence Hall of Science at the end of this week, bringing an end to an era. It's not that remarkable of an era, but it's an era all the same, and Stacy is a very pleasant person to work with. Stacy is sweet, reads and discusses interesting things, and is absolutely adorable. She also joins the illustrious pantheon of Front Desk employees with transcendentally amusing names. She goes by Stacy, but her real first name is Nhu (pronounced NOO). Her old boyfriend had the last name of Ho, setting up a potential married name worthy of Snoop Dogg, but they broke up.

I don't mean to disparage anyone's name - in Vietnamese, Stacy's name translates to "flower that blooms at midnight" - but many of them are a great deal funnier in English. My Korean co-worker has a name that translates to "prince of stars," but in English, it's just "Soon," leading to lots of amusing confusion, especially when he's late.

I don't know if Ai's name translates to anything interesting in Japanese, but it's pronounced like "eye." Misunderstandings abound. Example:

Supervisor: Thanks for counting out, Sean.
Sean: No problem.
Supervisor: Who's going to sweep the upper level for visitors?
Sean: Oh, Ai will.
Supervisor: Sean, you don't have to do that - you counted out, after all. But, if you insist, go right ahead.

Example #2:

(Crowd of visitors waiting to pay admission. Ai returns to the desk from a break)
Sean: (to second person in line) Ai can help you over there. (points to stylish Japanese girl waiting attentively)
Customer: Great! (walks halfway towards Ai. Glances back at Sean expectantly. Dejectedly returns to the line.)

It's very difficult for us to talk about her without sounding like rednecks. Ai is late today. Ai is on a break. Ai is the purtiest girl in the whole wide world, fer sure!

There is a Romanian girl at the front Desk named Brandusa, but she really deserves her own separate entry later.

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