Manifest Destiny
(August 1993)

This is another true story.

Washington, D.C- repository of American knowledge and culture.

My friend Gonzo and I began our day of cultured pursuits in the Hirshhorn Museum of modern and contemporary art. After wandering through several exhibits, we failed to appreciate most of the art, which seemed rather simplistic to my untrained eye. Were the other patrons simply more cultured than us? Gonzo and I stood musing a large black canvas with a single yellow stripe. Nearby, a solid brown painting hung on the same white wall. Between these two large canvases, a lone patch of wall about the same size retained no art-apparently, a painting had been removed. Well, we too could be aesthetes. Gonzo and I stood in front of the wall, thoughtfully contemplating the blank space. I furrowed my eyebrows and, ever so slightly, nodded approvingly. Gonzo pensively stroked his goatee. Apparently, we were onto something; yes, true art connoisseurs. A passing highbrow couple observed us. Not to be taken for mere dilettantes, they stopped and gazed upon the blank wall. In turn, this bemused a small group of patrons, who stopped to figure it out for themselves. Clearly, the masterful work symbolized the emptiness of nothing-definitely, a Zen metaphor. We had found an ability to appreciate the deeper meaning of art. We finished our tour of the Hirshhorn Museum, instilled with awe and wonder. Everything had meaning.

Inspired and enlightened, we walked a short distance across the mall to the revered and venerated Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. We had established the profundity of a blank wall; had that prepared us to hang with the scientific big dogs? Would we be able to grasp the import of their work? We decided to take on the cerebral challenge of an extensive exhibit that chronicled the natural history of the planet-life's saga compressed into a self-guided, three-hour tour that occupied several large rooms on the first floor. We began our chronological journey-following the arrows of the painted pathway on the floor-with the creation of the earth itself, 4.6 billion years ago (4,599,997,999 B.C.).

From the earth's birth, we read about the long, lifeless years of the Precambrian Era. The earth's elements fought for supremacy. Continents broke up and reunited. Gonzo and I took a few steps and catapulted four billion years to the Paleozoic Era-the origin of life. We learned that 600 million years ago, a primordial soup of lipids and proteins birthed the first living organisms: algae and an explosion of marine invertebrates. In light of my recent art revelation, I pondered the implications of the exhibit. These spineless critters were not mere blobs; they established the very foundations of life! These pioneers were the architects of destiny for all living organisms, ultimately charting the course for evolution's greatest feat, humanity! Alas, we had not yet come to that part of the tour.

An hour into the tour, we had advanced along the path to the Mesozoic Era, 345 million years ago. The first amphibians had ventured onto land and the first reptiles appeared, precursors of dinosaurs that would appear 150 million years later. We gazed with wonder upon reconstructed fossils of stegosaurus, triceratops, and other famed Jurassic giants that ruled the earth for the next 50 million years. However, what had they accomplished in that time? By the start of the Cenozoic Era, 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs were extinct! Time did not pause for wistful reflection, and neither did we.

Two hours into the tour, we had traveled through several rooms and epochs, including the Pliocene, which gave rise to the primitive, ape-like ancestors of modern humans 7 million years ago. Time impatiently forged ahead to the Ice Age, 2.5 million years ago; the first humans had appeared! We studied an exhibit of Neanderthals-primitive, but natural history's proudest accomplishment at that time. Several steps later, Cro Magnon man made his glorious entrance. We fondly looked upon an exhibit of our cave-dwelling ancestors next to woolly mammoths, mastadons, giant sloths, and saber-toothed tigers. Time would not reward these forgotten creatures; none were destined to share our greatness.

We observed wax figures of a Native American family, depicted in their teepee a few hundred years ago. Progress marched onward ruthlessly. We continued past life on the African savannah-stuffed antelopes, zebras, and wildebeests-until we stood before a somewhat dated exhibit depicting a contemporary American family. The wax figures sat serenely in their living room watching television, oblivious to the voyeurs nearby. The kids sat mesmerized in front of the tube. The proud dad sported garish plaid pants and a polyester, button-down shirt with an oversized collar. For the special occasion, mom had selected a vintage go-go dress, white and pink striped. Alas, this was not the crowning achievement of evolution. We had not traveled 4.6 billion years for this; mercifully, the path continued. We wondered what greatness awaited us… the planets, the stars? With bated breath, we followed the path to our destiny; there was nowhere else to go but back through time. I stood incredulously before our ultimate destination, as did Charlton Heston in the dramatic conclusion of "Planet of the Apes." "Nooooo!!!" We had come to a dead end at the toilets.

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