The Bear in the liquor store


The Bear in the liquor store

In the summer of 1982 I was lucky enough to get a summer job at a liquor store in Rochester, New York, where I was going to school.

One of the most regular regulars was The Russian Bear.[1]On Saturday nights, around ten, Ed would look at his watch and say, “about time for the Bear.”  Soon Boris (the other name we gave him), would heave himself into the liquor store and approach the counter. The Bear was six-foot-four, pale, somewhere in his sixties, weighed around three hundred pounds, had bloodshot eyes, and the kind of accent normally found in mid-sixties James Bond movies. He paid for his vodka by pulling crumpled-up dollar bills out of various pockets, and dropping them, one by one, with disdain, into a little heap on the counter.

Before he would buy anything, the Russian Bear always asked us the question. The same question. It was like questions you hear at academic conferences—designed less to get an answer than to illustrate the sagacity of the asker.

First, Boris would check your credentials:   “You are shtudent, yes?” he would rumble.

And I always said yes, even though I was studying photography and guessed that, to the Bear, a “shtudent” studied, by definition, physics, chemistry, and Slavic languages.

Then he would begin:

“I am wrrriting a buk.” (Long pause, heavy breathing.)

“A two-hundred-pound men is falling. From ten-story buildink. How long it is taking…”  and here the pitch of his voice would rise, and the volume descend, to that of a just-between-us conspiratorial question, “before he is hitting ground?  Thet” and he would thump a shovel-sized hand on the glass counter, “is what I am esking you.”

Ed suspected Boris was ex-KGB, and that his inquiry was less a matter of mathematical theory or literary accuracy, than something more… applied.  It would be dramatic if I could tell you that that was true, or at least that we found out in the end what the real deal was with the Russian Bear. But I never found out. He was probably just a regular guy. Or, as regular a guy as you can be with blood-shot eyes, three hundred pounds of lumbering bulk, a spy-movie Russian accent, and a fixation for accurately determining the trajectory of a two-hundred-pound man “falling” from a ten-story building.

A few weeks ago, when I began working on a blog on museum exhibition development, I recalled the Russian Bear. I’d been reading some bad blogs to see what made them bad, and they reminded me of Boris:

  • pointless
  • self-focused
  • grandiose
  • hypothetical
  • and draped in faux drama to give the impression of depth.
  • (A lot of them are probably also alcohol-fueled, but that’s speculation on my part.)

Like the Bear, they seemed sad and desperate:  the blogger’s attempt at contact with a world that they feel is not listening to them.

At this point, my guess is that your attention is starting to wander. So I will insert this picture. It has nothing to do with my story, but it’s pretty.

If you did feel your interest level dropping, it may be because you sensed that we were moving away from the story, and onto something less interesting:  analysis (a process that almost sounds like a disease; more on this bias later).

Getting back to the Bear, the point of this story is:  I don’t want to be like Boris. I don’t want my blog to be some private, obsessive, little rant. So what will this blog do?

It will have two faces. One is a blog about creating museum exhibitions:  about the kinds of experiences visitors are looking for (as best as we can tell) and about which practices increase or decrease the chances that our visitors will have those kinds of experiences. Except for posts from guest bloggers, it will offer statements that are my opinions, and mine alone. I won’t regularly be citing sources, but should be able to provide you with evidence to support my claims, if you’ve got a beef. I can promise never to just wildly conjecture. At least not without warning. This first face of the blog is also intended to be a conversation. I hope you find something I’ve written interesting enough to respond to. If not, I will begin to feel sad and desperate, and start frequenting the local liquor store, asking the same enigmatic question each time I visit.

The other face of the blog is less theoretical and professional, but more fun. This part of the blog will offer bits of news from the Development Division of the Exhibitions Department at The Field Museum. Mainly photos of unusual stuff we’re working with, like this:

(Did you like that clever transition?  I thought it was a clever transition.)

This scenic backdrop of mountains was created by teens in the Education Department's Digital Planet program, as part of a claymation movie they made about hunting antarctic dinosaurs. Libby and Sarah C. are working with Education to create an exhibition of the teens' work-- Science Behind The Scenes:Teens Take The Field.  Thanks to them, Libby's desk now overlooks Mount Kirkpatrick.

And in the "Oh, by the way, does anyone happen to know x-ray fluorescence chemical analysis?" category, Kate, one of our interns, was in a meeting where the exhibits team was discussing arsenic testing for some of the objects in our World's Columbian Exposition show (stuff from our vaults; pretty cool).  

Kate, a writer and blogger who signed on to assist in Exhibition Development, hesitantly raised her hand and acknowledged that she had, in fact, done this type of analysis in her chemistry coursework on the way to a degree in French.  That's the problem with young people today.  They just can't stick with anything.

More on this show (official title: Opening the Vaults:  Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair) later.  In the meantime, here's a quick shot from one of the team's recent 'shopping trips.'

Finally, in the mid-twentieth century there was a TV program called "Kids Say the Darndest Things,"  ("Darndest," alone reveals its antiquity).  To wrap up this post, a quote from a five-year-old who was participating in a survey about potential titles for our Biomechanics exhibit.  Ashlan showed him, "Biomechanics: How life works" and he said with a cool, knowing expression, "How life works? That's not good... People should know about that already."




[1]Calling out his nationality is in no way intended as a slur to Russia or its people. My grandfather emigrated from there in the 1930s. And Russia is a fabulous place that I hope one day to visit. It has, I assume, no greater a percentage of frightening, burly, red-eyed consumers of alcohol than any other nation.