Sunday, September 05, 2004

The Long Goodbye

I finished my work in the lab for the day so I am relaxing as Garrison Keillor spins his tales on National Public Radio while the evening sighs softly outside my office window. Garrison's baritone voice echoes through my soon-to-be-deserted office and out into the great hall where thousands of bird study skins are housed in steel cabinets. The echoes reveal that my ongoing moving efforts are effective, even though I have been carrying my books and papers home a little every day, like an oversized ant, packing only as much as I can haul on the subway each night. But I still have a mountain of junk waiting to be moved. I think I have more papers waiting than I have days remaining. Sigh, another thing to think about.

I like my office. It's the second office I've ever had, and the first I haven't had to share. It's big, bigger than many apartments I've lived in, with high ceilings, a heavy wood door on one side and two very tall windows on the other side. My office windows face east, catching the morning sun as it rises over Central Park. Because several of my Manhattan apartments only provided close-up views of the neighbor's brick walls, I routinely came in to work early every morning to see the sunrises and so I could throw open the windows to hear the dawn chorus of singing birds and insects. In winter, I would sit in my office, bundled up in a fleece jacket with the window open until my fingers froze on the keyboard, watching and listening to the falling snow. On some mornings, Pale Male, the famous Central Park Red-tailed Hawk, would keep me company on the window sill or the air conditioner, leaving his footprints behind in the snow as a silent testimony to his visit. Just after sunup, I can hear the hot dog vendors shouting as they set up their carts on the sidewalks for the day's business, snow, rain or shine.

I clearly remember my first day in this office two years ago. I called my dissertation advisor to tell him about the dark brown woodgrain plaque on the door with my title etched on it in big white letters, [Xxxxxxx] Fellow. It made me feel humbled and awed that I am part of this long fine tradition of research, that I was chosen to be included in this illustrious group of talented people. My dissertation advisor chuckled and said, "They are really pretentious on the east coast, aren't they?"

"But I like it!" I protested, my laughter echoing through my empty office, just as it could now if only I had a reason to laugh.

A ladybug flies into my office, no doubt attracted by the light, and almost crashes into my nose. A few minutes later, I notice her re-folding her gossamer wings under her spotted red shell while standing upside down on the vaulted ceiling, far out of my reach, even if I stood on my desk to reach her. Cicadas click outside my window, too cold (or so I guess) to rev up into full song. Several other insect species sing in high-pitched voices in the distance. I need to ask someone in the entomology department to walk with me into Central Park one night to identify them by song. Why haven't I done that already? Time flies.

I hear the hollow clopping of horses on the avenue beneath my window just now. Like a ghostly vision from Cinderella's story, two white horses with snowy ostrich feathers perched atop their heads appear in the pale yellow circle of a street lamp, pulling a translucent bubble carriage. I can see two people sitting inside the bubble, immobile, like dolls. It's truly amazing, the things that one sees in Manhattan.

One horse tosses his head as he prances along, straining to burst free. Then the gathering gloom swallows the horses and their carriage and the sound of their hooves dies away quickly. A gently fleeing dream.

It is nighttime now. I watched the boxy grey skyscrapers of Manhattan reflect the orange, then pink, rays of the dying sun. Except for red lights blinking in the darkness, many buildings are nearly invisible now, although some are exposed by square yellow suns glowing from their depths, defining an impossibly orderly universe. The skateboarders arrive as they do almost every summer night to thunder across the pavement in front of the museum, banging loudly as they leap up and down the concrete steps. Occasionally one will fall, and then a hush settles down for a few minutes while the victim's companions help him assess his injuries. Some nights, they leave early, after only 20 minutes or so.

And so another day is done. Have I accomplished enough today? Should I work just a little bit longer, try to get one more experiment done? Was it worth it to be in the lab on this fine day? Should I have instead wandered Central Park and looked for birds and bugs and things, or maybe visited the masterpieces in the Met?

I don't know; I only have questions. Lots of questions. I heave my bag of books over my shoulder and pull the door closed behind me. I don't glance over my shoulder at the plaque as I walk away. I need a drink.



© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

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