Together Again - Part Three

Although tomorrow is technically Katherine's last day in the city, it looks like the cold, rainy weather is going to eliminate my plan of taking her to the Chicago Botanic Garden, so I think we'll just have a quiet day together before I take her to the airport. That means that I needed to pack all the rest of our sightseeing into today, and I think I managed to accomplish that fairly well. This time, Justin joined us for the day, not only because I wanted my best friend to meet the man I love (goodness knows she hears enough about him), but because we were planning on seeing museums all day and I wanted to maximize the utility of my museum employee discount by getting as many people as possible in for free.

Our first stop of the day was the Shedd Aquarium, Katherine's only tourism request for her entire visit. (I got to plan everything else and she just trusted my judgment -- that's friendship for you!) The Shedd is currently home to Jellies, an exhibit that focuses on jellyfish, the unusual ways they've evolved into the creatures we know today, the environmental impact caused by the creatures, and of course, their innate beauty. We tried arriving at the aquarium soon after it opened for the day in an effort to avoid its notoriously long lines, but we managed to get completely drenched in the downpour that was going on outside on the way there. I wouldn't recommend starting your day at the aquarium dripping water; it won't give you a greater appreciation for the experience of being under the sea.

Justin, Katherine, and I in front of the Shedd, after our visit when we'd had a chance to dry out a bit.

All three of us were excited to see the Jellies exhibit, but I was beyond perturbed when the ticket saleslady informed that my museum employee privileges would only give us an $8 discount on the price of admission if we wanted to see the special exhibit. If we wanted to see the regular aquarium offerings, it would be free, but to see the jellies would cost us $23 per person. I'm used to paying extra for special exhibits, even with my special discount, but usually the admission to one exhibit costs somewhere between five and ten dollars. Truly, the pricing structure at the Shedd is outrageous.

I've always had a soft spot for sea anemones, ever since I did a project on them in fifth grade and had to make a model of one for school.

Although the Shedd's sea horse collection receives a lot of hype, they only have about four tanks that contain the creatures.

To get the most out of our $23, we walked through the entire aquarium, including the Wild Reef exhibit that technically costs extra but was included with the package we were forced to buy in order to gain admission to Jellies. The building was crawling with school groups on field trips, and it was loud and crowded. I'm pretty much over the entire Shedd experience, having seen it so many times now, but at least I managed to get some better photos of the sea creatures on display than I have in the past. The trick, I think, is to only attempt to photograph the animals that don't move much.

I love the facial expression on this guy.

Finally, we were ready to see the jellyfish. Although the exhibit proved to be much smaller than anyone expected (it only took about ten or fifteen minutes to see the entire thing), the fact that it cost extra to get in meant that it was devoid of rowdy school children and that reprieve almost made it worth the price of admission all on its own. Without a doubt, the jellies were beautiful; each tank was like a slow-moving piece of abstract art. It was mesmerizing to watch them float about in their tanks, getting tangled up with one another and colliding their amorphous, gelatinous bodies together.

Either Japanese or Pacific Northwest Sea Nettles.

Lion's Mane Jellies, which grow to become the largest species of jellyfish on Earth, with tentacles up to 100 feet in length.

Perhaps the most informative portion of the exhibit dealt with the issue of jellyfish "blooms," or rapid proliferations of jellyfish populations in a localized geographic area. Such occurrences can cause havoc by disrupting shipping lanes, killing off fish farms and other aquaculture enterprises, and in one case, clogging the water intake valves at a nuclear power plant, causing a major disruption in energy production that led to political instability in the Philippines in 1999. These blooms are caused by a multitude of causes including overfishing that eliminates jellies' natural predators and climate change. It truly is amazing how interconnected all life on Earth is, and how even one element out of balance, such as jellyfish overpopulation, can cause widespread chaos.

Upside-Down Jellies. Yes, that's actually what the species is called.

Spotted Lagoon Jellies.

My personal favorite, the Flower Hat Jelly. I think the purple stripes and phosphorescent tentacles make this one the prettiest, in my opinion.

At the end of the day, I'm left somewhat torn over whether Jellies was worth the $23 dollars it cost to see it (and without a discount, the average visitor pays $32, or $23 for kids under age 11). Yes, they were beautiful, and made for some great photo ops. I learned lots of things about jellyfish and biodiversity in general that I did not know before. But, as I said, the exhibit was pretty tiny. In spite of all the good things that Jellies had going for it, I couldn't help but feel a bit ripped off. You'll have to make your own decision about whether you think it's worth it to see Jellies for yourself. I'm afraid I can't make a recommendation on this one.

Justin and I in front of the Caribbean Reef, where divers give live shows about reef fauna while feeding the fish.

After the Shedd, the three of us headed over to the Field Museum for a quick lunch at the Corner Bakery, followed by a visit to the two special exhibits the museum is hosting for the summer: The Horse, and Whales: Giants of the Deep. The combination of special exhibits set us back $20 a piece, causing this day to rapidly escalate beyond what I'd expected it to cost for all of us, but at least I was able to save my friends a bit of money, which is better than paying the full admission price at both places. The sky-high ticket prices at the Museum Campus locations is why I usually recommend purchasing a City Pass to out-of-towners who plan to hit more than two museums during a visit to the city.

Katherine and I, posing for the obligatory Sue photo op.

I know I've been fairly critical of the Field the past few years for their dubiously topical exhibits on gold and diamonds, as I didn't feel that they particularly advanced the Field Museum's mission for the "accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, and the preservation and exhibition of objects illustrating art, archaeology, science, and history." However, I felt that both of their current special exhibits were on-target with the kind of presentation I expect from the Field (though both of them are touring exhibitions that originated elsewhere.)

My favorite was The Horse, which explored the evolution of horses through fossil evidence and videos that discussed how different branches of archaeology use their research methodologies to learn about horses in prehistory, and in ancient times. There was also a fascinating anthropological look at how horses and humans have shaped one another, from how humans domesticated and bred horses to fit their needs, to how horses in turn shaped labor, food production, warfare, sport, and entertainment for humans. This portion was punctuated by unusual artifacts that were often presented in a manner that asked the viewer to guess what they were before sliding a window to receive the correct answer. It was a simple, but effective way of fostering audience participation.

Whales: Giants of the Deep drew on a similar balance of fossil evidence, archaeology, and anthropology to create a solid, informative exhibit, however, the show came to Chicago from a museum in New Zealand, and many of the cultural references didn't transfer as well to an American audience. For example, out of deference to the importance of whales in traditional Maori society (New Zealand's indigenous people), the curators of Whales opted to write all the informational panels throughout the exhibit in both English and Maori. While it was a nice gesture, I seriously doubt that many Americans could read the Maori translations, and it seemed like a bit of a waste of space.

Also, in its exploration of the whaling industry, this treatment of the subject focused almost solely on the whaling industry in New Zealand where it was far less extensive and less of an economic force than it was in other parts of the world. Finally, in its anthropological look at the interaction between humans and whales, the exhibit focused almost entirely on the role of whales in Maori creation myths, and images of whales in Maori artwork. It was interesting, to a point, but by the end, I couldn't help but wonder if a more apt title for the show would have been Whales and the Maori. To be honest, I think their national focus was a bit too specific for an international traveling exhibition. You could easily stay home, stream the 2002 film Whale Rider on Netflix, and get get much of the same experience.

We finished with Whales just in time for the museum to close, so we headed out to dinner at Tampopo, a Japanese restaurant that I'd seen ages ago on Check Please! and about which I had read fairly decent reviews. Katherine often laments the lack of decent Japanese food in the small college town where she lives, so I wanted to try to find something that would please her exceptionally well-educated palette after so many years of living in Japan. I was hesitant, having never actually been there before, and the restaurant was definitely a hike from my neighborhood, but the menu was vast and featured many items that aren't especially common in American Japanese restaurants, which pleased Katherine. For my part, I was relieved to find a Japanese dining establishment that doesn't consider sushi to be the end-all-be-all of the cuisine (though I do enjoy sushi, variety is the spice of life). The three of us had a lovely dinner, and I will definitely be going back if I have a reason to be up on the Far North Side.

Even though it was a full day, and we accomplished a lot of tourism in the past three days, I think I was able to strike a good balance of planned activities and unstructured time to merely coexist in the same space and enjoy each others' presence. If there's one thing I've learned from my apparent inability to regularly schedule visits with my best friend, it's that I must value these opportunities to see her while I can. I'm not going to make any more promises to myself about seeing her more often, because it's clear to me now that life will intervene in any plans I try to make. Instead, I'm going to hold the memories from this trip close to my heart, and start looking forward to the next time I get to spend some precious time with Katherine.

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