Saturday, December 4, 2010

the Philadelphia experiment

Once upon a time -or, in August- I discovered that there were a bunch of exhibits happening in Philadelphia that I desperately wanted to see, as well as other historical and scientific sites that interested me, and began to plan a trip. When my husband and I realized that he would be bored out of his skull if he came with me, we decided I should ask my nerd friend Farrah to come with me instead. My friend Farrah is basically exactly the same person as I am, except that she plays roller derby, and her hair is longer (now). We get excited about the same ridiculous science news and laugh at the same obscure references and appreciate the same nerdlicious humor. And so after some wrangling and finagling, off to Philadelphia we went!

Day One
Fucking traffic. It's a six hour trip under normal conditions but route 81 was an absolute clusterfuck which scarred me for the remainder of the trip. Apparently, to my recollection, a tractor trailer driver was distracted by his cell phone or some other electronic gadget and managed to overturn his truck and block the entire southbound side. So we were detoured off the interstate onto a one-lane-per-side road that got back on the interstate by way of a stop sign intersection. It. Took. Three. Fucking. Hours. I wanted to murder everyone. All I could think about was how much awesome nerd stuff we were missing as the minutes slipped by...
It was agony, and for the rest of the month any time I saw taillights lighting up ahead of me I would let loose a barrage of obscenity topped only by longshoremen and real housewives. Finally, though, we made it to Pennsylvania and found the signs for "Central Phila."

Our first stop was the Dialogues with Darwin Exhibit at the American Philosophical Society Museum -an exhibit of writings and sketches related to evolution and Charles Darwin, as well as a plethora of copies of "On the Origin of Species" in myriad languages.
According to the museum page, "Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection has produced more spirited dialogue than any other scientific idea in modern history. The APS Museum’s Dialogues with Darwin exhibition continues the conversation." Part of how they did this was by providing post-it notes and pens for people to record their thoughts on the exhibit, and on evolution and Charles Darwin, too. Unsurprisingly, many of them were dismissive of evolution or thought it was dumb or boring (so is your mom), some of them praised the exhibit and the science, and some even invoked the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Also unsurprisingly, the majority of the anti-evolution post-its were rife with misspellings and bad grammar and just plain had teh stoopid. Anecdotally, I've noticed that in an argument between pro-science and anti-science or between religionists and atheists (or between breeders and the child-free), you can often tell which side a person is on just by the way their words are spelled and their responses are worded...

Next, we drove through a whole mess of one-way streets and questionable neighborhoods to get to the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site. Poe lived in many houses over several years during his Philadelphia tenure (1837 to 1844) but this is the only one which still survives. And survives barely. The floors are uneven, the interior walls need plastering, it is unfurnished and sad and gloomy -and wholly Poe-appropriate. Spiders in the basement, suspicious characters on the sidewalk, and (a CD of) Christopher Walken reading "The Raven" in the sitting room. Ahhh, glorious.

We were hoping to make one or two more stops that day but, because of the traffic jam and because for whatever reason everything smart in Philadelphia is closed by 5p (and doesn't open until 10a -seriously, what is that about?!), we decided to just head to the hostel and get an early start in the morning.

We'd contemplated using Orbilocity or Traveltube or something to find a cheap hotel in Philadelphia, but there is no guarantee as to what hotel you are getting when you use a site like that, requiring a lot more trust than I'm comfortable with. We figured we could count ourselves lucky with a city-center hotel for around $100 a night, not counting overnight parking, but then Farrah suggested a hostel. Of course, visions of slaughter and abduction danced in my head, but the hostel in question, Chamounix Mansion International Youth Hostel, belongs to Hostelling International and they were very knowledgeable on the phone on top of having a very comprehensive internet site. And you can't really beat $20 per person per night. The hostel supplies sheets, a pillow and blanket (and no bed bugs, at the time!), towels are available for an extra charge, and there is a TV/VCR, an internet-connected computer, a kitchen full of dishes, pots and pans for cooking as well as refrigerators to store your food. There are several lovely sitting rooms with couches and arm chairs, and a wide expanse of lawn perfect for live-action role-playing -as evidenced by the well-behaved foam-sword-wielding hordes from Epic Adventures.
The hostel was comfortable and climate-controlled, and we got a lot of reading done at night and while waiting for the hostel to unlock its doors in the morning.

Day Two
We arrived early at the Mütter Museum, having navigated our way through the ridiculous mess of one-way streets and traffic circles that is Philadelphia. It was everything we'd dreamed of and more! Disturbingly informative, indeed. So many specimens (specimi?), so much gross fascination, so much Soap Lady... My only regret was not using up minutes on my pre-paid cell by calling all the numbers in the cases and getting an extra dose of geek...

On to the Academy of Natural Sciences (connecting people to nature since 1812)! Therein we toured the Dino Hall. Hooray for dinos! And the Outside In space -it's not just for kids anymore!! Okay, well maybe it is but we totally acted like we were kids. Madagascar hissing cockroaches, axolotls, vinegaroon, snakes, bunneh, rat, cow bird, fossils, shells, giant freaking crab, bees... And then the Butterflies! exhibit (that we totally didn't sneak into...); and finally, one of the big reasons I wanted to go to Philly in the first place, the Creatures of the Abyss exhibit. So much nerdawesome. So highly recommended. And also where, when discussing bio-luminescence, I coined the phrase "Evolution: it's like magic, only better 'cause it's real." Woot!

Then, 'twas lunch time. We'd brought some snacky food and road treats and didn't plan on spending a whole lot on meals -it was a nerdcation, after all, not a foodcation- but Farrah remembered hearing about a vegetarian cheesesteak place and had iPodTouched it the night before, so we decided to try to find that for lunch. When in Philly, after all -especially since I'd never had a Philly cheesesteak.
Sadly, the place was closed. But we did find a corner pizza shop with a parking space nearby and something like $1 slices, so we stuffed our faces for a few bucks, and the sweet lady behind the counter dragged a table outside for us so we could eat in the 95° weather instead of the 110° pizzeria and she even filled up our reusable water bottles for us! Twice!
And so, alas, I still have never had a Philly cheesesteak, vegetarian or otherwise. Or perhaps not alas. They look kind of gross...

Finally, our last stop was Eastern State Penitentiary. It's a ruin now but when it opened in 1829 as part of a controversial movement to change the behavior of inmates through "confinement in solitude with labor," it quickly became one of the most expensive and most copied buildings in the young United States. It is estimated that more than 300 prisons worldwide are based on the Penitentiary's wagon-wheel, or "radial" floor plan.
Unfortunately, it wasn't the season for the haunted prison tours, but we each got an audio tour and ambled around at our own pace for hours as Steve Buscemi recited history and anecdotes into our ears.
It was still about 95° but luckily most of the prison has a roof still, so we were able to spend a long time wandering and learning, even though it was blazing hot.

And then we were on the road again, heading back north to Rochester after a whirlwind of awesome geeky awesomness.

Farrah and I have already decided that if (when!) we get back to Philadelphia, not only will we probably have to go to all of these places again, but also the Franklin Institute, the Free Library of Philadelphia (though I did get some Free Library bookmarks when we were at Eastern State, and passed some of them on to my nephew, too, when he was in need of placeholders for his readings), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (especially the Rodin Museum), the Philadelphia Zoo, Adventure Aquarium (in Camden NJ) and Longwood Gardens (in Kennett Square PA). Just so's you know.

PS: You can see a photo tour of our glorious trip if you're friends with me on The Face.

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