Kill your darlings

The two rooms in the Renwick Gallery are dimly lit and packed with people, mostly my age and younger, scurrying from one window to the next to shine flashlights through the pane of glass separating these viewers from the gruesome scene on view. The scenes are miniatures, dioramas of unexplained death created more than 60 years ago by Frances Glessner Lee, the founder of forensic science. They’re on display in an art gallery, and in press clippings the curators have tried to emphasize that these are artworks made by a woman using a feminine craft to subvert gender norms (women don’t solve crimes), but as far as I can tell, the visitors huddled around the dioramas are really only interested in solving the mysteries before them.

I do my best to wait patiently as groups of twos and threes block the view of a diorama for five or six minutes so they can point the flashlight at likely clues. They sweep over the meticulous detail in the handmade tiny rocking chair and the mini reproductions of actual newspapers from the 1940s; they flash the light across scaled-down, hand-knit blankets in favor of fake blood. As museum attendees they disregard the whole point of this exhibition—Frances Glessner Lee changed the way people evaluate crime scenes by teaching gumshoes to observe each of these dioramas for 90 minutes at a time, and each of these tiny scenes is carefully constructed, at a cost comparable to building a house at the time—and they focus on finding a solution.

I want to elbow my way past the amateur sleuths and station myself in front of each diorama and drink in all the details with the kind of serious reverence France Glessner Lee deserves. This is because I’m a snob: I generally hate art museums because they never give enough (I think) context for the art on display, and I have cultivated an interest in Frances Glessner Lee’s legacy since I interned almost a decade ago at the house-museum in Chicago where she grew up. The minute I glimpsed her childhood portrait, the dare-you-to-hold-me-back smirk on her face, I was hooked. I finally wrote about her for Lady Science in September, a few weeks before this exhibition opened.

As we climbed the step up to the Renwick, I was struck with a feeling I’ve had only a handful of times before. Last year, when I visited the Morgan Library’s exhibition on Charlotte Bronte, I wandered a gallery of Bronte’s juvenilia, early drafts of Jane Eyre, her writing desk, her dress, in a state of shock that made me grateful I was encountering my literary icon, the guardian angel of my writing life, alone. And several years before that, we saw a production of “The Music Man” at the Kennedy Center over Thanksgiving weekend, with Shirley Jones in a different role than the one she played in the film version. Afterwards, we stood in line for her autograph and I was so star-struck by this person who embodied Marion the Librarian, the woman I’d always aspired to be, that I said literally nothing to her as she autographed the CD I purchased for her to sign, so that she kept glancing at Jen, who stood at a distance to capture the landmark, extremely awkward, moment on camera. My failure to express myself to Shirley Jones haunted me when we met Lydia Davis a few years later, when I mustered a few token sentences as well as the unspoken gratitude that so many of my heroes are dead.

But here’s what I would have said to Frances Glessner Lee, if she were still living. Here’s what I whispered into the darkness surrounding the dioramas that are still used today to train law enforcement on the art of observation: Thank you for saying yes when people told you no. Thank you for using the privilege of your birth to champion science and evidence for the good of people less fortunate than you. Thank you for taking a tiny world, and making it that much bigger.



On Adulting

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a manual for adulting? You know, a book with guidelines for all the tasks and responsibilities that real grown ups have mastered. Where’s the book that explains what an emergency fund is or how far in advance you should send party invitations or what one wears to a job interview or when to plant seedlings in the spring?

It turns out there is such a book (probably one of several options–thanks, Amazon) and a couple coworkers and I are reading it.

The bad news (good news?) is that we’ve already found several errors in this manual. We were surprised to discover that there were things in this book that we knew were patently wrong. Nothing big enough to shake our overall confidence in the text, but just big enough to suggest that we might just have some inkling about how to behave like an adult–at least some of the time.

My friends and coworkers and I are all (or most of us, anyway) guilty of a certain level of imposter syndrome. I catch myself marveling at the fact that I can go to the grocery store and buy whatever I want, or that I have the organizational skills to pay my bills on time, or that I have somehow managed to lead committees of other adults toward the completion of a project. I’m almost always on the lookout for the adultier adults–you know, the ones who have bought houses, had babies, paid off student loans, received promotions.

Recently my partner and I trekked up to New York City. We economized by buying bus tickets instead of pricey train tickets, scoped out possible restaurants, strategized transit routes on an MTA map, made a short list of landmarks to explore, and snagged a hotel deal on Hotwire. We planned ahead, packed light, remembered our phone chargers, wore layers, and checked the weather.

The weekend’s main event was a matinee of one of our favorite shows. Afterward, we caught the subway (read the map and loaded a metro pass all by ourselves!) bound for our hotel. A couple of young adults crammed next to us in the crowded train started chatting with a seasoned New Yorker, who asked where these visitors were from and what their plans for the weekend were. The young Louisianans said they were headed up to the American Museum of Natural History and then to Central Park.

My partner and I exchanged a look. It was close to 4:30 pm on one of the coldest days of the season. The New Yorker, calm and kind man that he was, gently explained that they ought to find out when the museum closed, since most museums close at five or six. Then he counseled them to stay away from the Park.

“Why?” the young guy asked.

“There won’t be anyone around to hear you scream,” the New Yorker said.

As we stepped off the subway and headed on our merry, well-planned, adulting way, my partner and I both released a sigh of relief for the perspective those two young travelers had provided. We weren’t silly enough to travel halfway across the country just to arrive at our destination just before closing time, and we had enough sense to steer clear of Central Park at night.

The next morning, we had breakfast at the café next door to our hotel. We’d dashed through the blinding cold between the hotel lobby and dining room, and a few sips into our first cups of coffee the hostess sat two other hotel guests at the table next to ours. These guys were in t-shirts and they looked like the previous night had done a number on their nervous systems. We couldn’t help overhearing their conversation as they recounted the night’s alcohol fueled and drug induced escapades, and we couldn’t help noticing that one of the guys kept glancing down at the very new and very obvious tattoo on his bare arm as if he expected half the restaurant to herald his excellent taste in what was either some kind of elven musical instrument or the logo of a death metal band.

So, sure, people are at different stages in their adulting careers. Success in adulting might have nothing to do with age and everything to do with practice and perspective. If that’s the case, our weekend in New York provided the opportunity for both. Adulting is about progress and grace and learning to think for yourself—without thinking you’re the center of the universe. You master what you can and make friends with other kinds of adults—the kind that won’t let you wander into a strange deserted park in the middle of winter.

The best part of learning how to be an adult? Knowing I don’t have to do it alone.

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