When there are no children in the house, it is easy to forget to visit zoos and aquaria and natural history museums.
And should you remember to go to one of those places, you have to adjust to not being preoccupied with who might be hungry, or sleepy, or needing the restroom, and with rushing to appreciate what a child has discovered.
You can take your time and free-associate.
When I had a child at home, we visited the Marine Science Center in Newport, on the Oregon Coast. This is a branch of the State University system, and has windowed enclosures where you can behold fish in something like their native habitat . . . and sea anemones and other animals that look like plants . . . and pet an octopus.
Yesterday, we aging parents visited a newer establishment in the same city: the Oregon Coast Aquarium, largely because I'd never been there.
When the season changes to one with longer days, we'll have to go back to Newport and visit both establishments, one after the other.
And instead of driving three-hours each way, we'll rent a musty oceanside cabin and see and smell more of the Coast.
We might even get up to Tillamook where we can buy a ten-pound loaf of kosher cheddar cheese.
I really like Newport. You can walk among the piers and look at the fishing boats. You can walk across the stupendous Yaquina Bay Bridge. You can visit the two marine life "museums" [mouseion – seat of the muses]. You can have the pleasure of finding a genuine fishing gear shop among the waterfront storefronts that over time have morphed from sources for nets and sailmaker's awls to sources of tasteless T-shirts and glass balls. You can sit in the sun at a waterfront cafe and listen to the sea lions barking.
The Aquarium, being relatively new, partakes of advanced ideas in display. For example, there is a manmade well of ocean and in the middle of that is an acrylic tunnel for humans to walk through. So there you are with sharks and sturgeons and rockfish and rays swimming over you and under you and on both sides of you.
Since the fish require an undersea environment, they appear through the eight-inches of acrylic as dark figures in a dark darkness. You become acutely aware of, say, a leopard shark when it swims up to the tunnel and passes you on its way back to black.
Visitors like to take flash photos into this darkness.
I wonder if they get fabulous illuminations of iridescent fish scales and giant fish eyes, or murky renditions of acrylic lamina.
I wandered from exhibit to exhibit, taking lots of time to study the anaconda and the iguanas and the jellyfish and the giant 13-foot Japanese crabs and the crabs that resemble piles of sand and the animals that look like plants and one thought kept resurfacing in my head: "God has quite a sense of humor".
The jellyfish exhibit, in particular, grabs you with the first printed sentence: 'A jellyfish has no lungs, no heart, and no brain.'
What they do have is four systems: a digestive system, a reproductive system, a defensive system, and a propulsion system. That's it.
The absolute basics.
At the other end of the equipment scale is the iguana.
I find iguanas really unattractive but fascinating. They seem to have lots of spare parts - frills around their heads and translucent pouches along their jaws and extremely complex legs and feet. I would like to keep an iguana to look at.
I wonder if they respond to humans - like Franklin, the domesticated turtle our friends have.
I believe iguanas are commonly kept as pets in Mexico - but I don't know that that implies that iguanas are personable.
I think my granddaughter would be tickled pink if her granny kept an iguana . . .
Torah says humans are paramount creations, with responsibility for and hence dominion over animals. Not that we should bestride the world like so many colossi; but that we have powers of reflection and appreciation and compassion and invention to employ.
It helps to visit jellyfish and piranhas to measure the differences between them and us.
The colorful little fish in the aquarium in the pediatrician's waiting room circle the waters with their mouths open, testing every mote of dust to see if it is food.
Is this reflex or fear of scarcity or true hunger or boredom?
Small fish troll for plankton, big fish for small fish, pirhanas for anything, shore birds for eggs and garbage.
At the Oregon Aquarium, the signs on the exhibits and the film on marsh habitat and who eats whom confirm it's all about food.
On fast days and when a season of yomtov surrounds a Shabbos and when I didn't want to eat because I was ill, I become acutely aware of how much it's all about food - growing it, buying it, preserving it, preparing it, consuming it, composting and cleaning up and putting away the dishes.
Most of every week, I'd guess.
Swimming in circles.
On this road trip to Newport, look at what we have –admirable and despicable- that jellyfish haven't: airplanes and autos and signs with written language on them and concrete and heart attacks and emphysema and commerce and taxes.
We swim in circles ever alert to food, but that's not all we do.
Mnēmē is the muse of memory.
I heartily recommend taking your adult self to aquatic and zoologic seats of the muses to visit Mnēmē, the mezuzah of human spirit.