Take It: HMNS shopping trips rival Liam Neeson’s shakedown

May is upon us, which means it is time for stocking up on mosquito repellent and sunscreen, flip flops and floppy hats, bathing suits and beach towels. For the education staff at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, it also meanstake it heavy lifting and preparing for the emotional gauntlet that is summer camp shopping. Julia does the bulk of the mass ordering, but there are some things we just have to go to a brick-and-mortar store to get. So off to the store we go! Usually three or four hours at a time.

Generally, when we get to the store we take it. We take it all. Just like Liam Neeson.

The most common quantity on a shopping list is “all of them.”shopping list

We are like a plague of locusts, actively demolishing orderly displays of stock, leaving only a husk behind. If you are the unfortunate person who comes behind us looking for just one single solitary bottle of green food coloring, I’m sorry. Because I took them all.

before

Inventory before HMNS hits…

after

…and after.

On this particular trip, we start in what we affectionately refer to as, “bathroom.”  This is all the stuff that you might keep in your medicine cabinet, make-up drawer or shower. It’s a fairly small section in our shopping adventures, but it almost fills a basket by itself. “Bathroom” is a weird mixture of heavy items and small items. They have a tendency to sneak out through the holes in the bottom of the basket if you aren’t keeping an eye on them.

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We need all the cotton balls!

That white box? It’s an entire container of cotton balls. Why? Because we need them all.

After about an hour, in which Julia and I cover “bathroom,” “appliances,” and “party” (and I’d like to point out that it’s always a party in our department), we take a short break and check the list before heading to “craft” and “office.” There is no lunch break until the basket is full. Once we reach the point of having to carefully place items so they won’t fall out of the basket, trailing behind us like breadcrumbs, we decide it’s time to stop for lunch.

With special permission from Josh, the assistant manager, and promises from the clerks that no one will try to put our treasures away, we drop our first basket near the front and head for a quick “strategy meeting” (which is actually code for lunch), which allows Julia to double-check the list. Again. For the fourth time.

“I don’t know who you are.  I don’t know what you want. But if you are looking for Raisinets, I can tell you they don’t have any.”

Our summer camp uniform shirts are navy blue. This also happens to be the uniform shirt color for employees at one of our frequented summer camp shopping spots. This coincidence combined with the fact that our shopping basket is always filled with nonsense, and plenty of it, ensures that we will be confused with store employees at least once during any excursion. I have discovered that it is often easier for everyone if I can just tell the confused shopper where the item they are looking for is located. Due to the fact that we often need so very many weird things of specific shapes and sizes, I can almost always tell them if the store has it in stock and where to find it.

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When customers come up to me asking where they can find an item, I just tell them; I know where almost all of it is, anyway.

On this trip, we are asked twice to lend a helping hand. The first time, it’s a guy looking for reading glasses (usually across from the pharmacy window), and the second is a corporate stocker looking for her product placement (Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids – on the bottom shelf next to gum). We have been asked to locate anything and everything including, but not limited to, powdered sugar, colored ping pong balls, decorative masking tape, Abuelita chocolate, and picture-hanging supplies. (In this particular instance I recommend 3M Velcro strips, at the very end of the hardware aisle.)

My favorite case of mistaken identity happens while shopping with Sahil. He and I have spent many a summer’s day at the store shopping for 12-inch yellow balloons (with birthday party supplies) and Cheez Whiz (usually in the cold cheese section, which is weird because it doesn’t actually need to be refrigerated). Usually when shopping, we make a list by section – garage, craft, clothing, etc. – and then divide and conquer with one of us on aisle 10 and the other on aisle 11. Because Sahil is so very nice and polite, I have come around the corner more than once, turning slowly because my basket is so full, and see him helping a customer reach an item on the top shelf or discussing the merits of the three coolers in front of them.

On one particular occasion, we’re short on time, so Sahil‘s concentrating on the list in front of him, determining what we have left to find, when a customer comes up and asks him for the location of the honey, which stumps him. Honey isn’t something we’ve purchased before, so Sahil politely tells the customer that he doesn’t actually know where the honey is located. He apologizes and goes back to his list. The customer insists he help her, but he again tells her he doesn’t know where the honey is. He suggests it might be in the breakfast aisle, maybe with syrup, and again goes back to his list. The customer, feeling she’s been ignored, reports him to the store manager who then comes to chew Sahil out, the “unhelpful store employee.”

Oh, summer camp

“But what I do have is a very particular set of skills… Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare to people like you.”

dr mariotetrisWhen I was a child, my mom and dad purchased Nintendo Game Boys for my brother and I from a neighbor at a garage sale. I had two games I played regularly, Dr. Mario and Tetris. I was super good at both. We weren’t allowed to play our Game Boys a lot, but they were encouraged on road trips. I would play one of those two games for miles and miles, laying on the floorboard in the back of the sedan so my older brother could have the bench seat. Despite what my mom said, playing these games did not rot my brains out, though I do remember on more than one occasion, at the end of a long day of driving, dreaming of dropping pills and “tetrominoes.”

What seemed a pointless game for children has turned into a useful and particular skill as an adult.

I don’t love shopping. Never have. This combined with my Type A personality traits and the fact that shopping carts can only hold so much means that I have turned camp shopping into a game of sorts: Tetris – Museum Edition.

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Tetris: Museum Edition

When filling a cart, one should start with heavy and square items on the bottom, filling the gaps as the occasion arises. Hydrogen peroxide, for example, leaves just enough of a gap in the basket that you can tuck in your petroleum jelly to fill the space. When you have established a base layer, it’s time to start building side walls. These are the ramparts, allowing you to generate volume in the basket without an avalanche of Q-tips. Finally, top off your basket with bags of things to cement all the layers together. Generally, heavy bags work best, such as bags of candy, but use what you can. Once your basket can’t safely hold another item, it’s time to head to the check-out.

I’d just like to apologize to any check-out clerk that has ever helped me during summer camp shopping. They see us coming, with our two or three carts packed to the rafters, and the audible sigh can be heard three lanes over. We try not to be too irritating, but we know we are. The standard speech to the clerk goes something like this, “Hello (insert name here). We are making a tax-exempt purchase today. Whenever possible, we will put like items together for ease of counting. My colleague has gone to get an empty basket to help you out.”

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Car Tetris…

Inevitably when we check out, we end up with way more output than we had input due to my mad Tetris skills. On this particular trip, we have a one-to-two ratio of pre-check out baskets to post-checkout baskets, which I kind of consider a failure on my part. I think I could’ve done better. In my defense, this is just the first shopping trip of the season, and I haven’t stretched.

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…showing my particular set of skills.

Next comes car Tetris, where you take all of your goodies out to your vehicle of choice and build a mountain of things. As with the cart, you must start with the square and heavy items, then slowly build up to the items that can be crushed or smashed. On more than one occasion, I set my heights a little too high and have to pack stuff around my shopping companion. Today, the four baskets of treasure fit quite nicely into Julia’s back seat.  According to Julia’s Instagram, #wehadmoreroom.

The final stretch of any shopping trip is reverse Tetris, where the supply vehicle is met at the loading dock by all the worker bees, and we unload and sort the treasure. Depending on the trip, this could go a number of ways. We could sort by camp requests, by storage area, by weight, by refrigeration needs, and so on. Today’s trip?  We sort by storage location because, starting next week, we have INTERNS coming and we don’t want to deprive them of the opportunity to figure out where all this stuff goes!

unloading 1

Reverse Tetris begins…

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…and game over. Now time to let the interns sort it out.

“If you have a case of glow-in-the-dark paint in the back, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you and I will bother you repeatedly.”

One of the trickier parts of camp shopping is when we need it, we need it now. If the store is out of stock, you go to another store. If that store doesn’t have it, you try at another place. On the hard-to-find items, we try to buy ahead or find a place we can order them, but that doesn’t always work, particularly if we are looking for a specific item for a specific purpose. Occasionally, even when there is a source for an item, we will run short and it becomes an emergency thereby causing us to hoard said item for years. I remember with dismay the Button Magnet Shortage of 2010 and the Silver Tinsel Crisis of 2008. Those were dark times… Dark times indeed.

Because there is a limited amount of time and a limited number of places, we have learned to be persistent. We ask questions. We know you have it in stock in the back… Please go look… And the poor clerk that runs into our brand of crazy, usually doesn’t understand our request.

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HMNS camp shopping isn’t for the faint of heart.

“How many do you want?”

All of them.

“But there’s like 50.”

Yes. All of them.

This style of shopping takes a minute to get used to and isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of muscle. And, once the summer has ended, you have to transition back to your normal life. Sahil, former shopping partner and current Outreach presenter, has fallen victim to this trap more than once. While at the store with his mom shopping for a big family dinner, he was sent off to get enough refried beans to feed 12 people. He returned with 12 cans.  His mother was not amused.

Our persistence usually pays off and, at the end of the day, we return victorious with the last carnivorous plant in town (or whatever the item might be).

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Saltwater SWAT team: Top 5 fascinating shark hunting techniques

I’ve been entranced by sharks since I was a little kid. From the first time I saw Jaws, I was hooked (pun intended). There are so many aspects of a shark’s physiology I admire, but my favorite point of fascination is probably the variety of hunting techniques they use to capture their prey. Though most of my friends are aware of my sharktastic obsession, others are surprised because I’m, well, a vegetarian. Yes, I’m a vegetarian with an intense interest and, dare I say, admiration for this aquatic carnivore’s feeding habits. This animal’s intelligence, grace, stealth, and prowess are unparalleled on land (except maybe when J.J. Watt is playing for the Texans). When people hear the word “shark,” they typically picture mindless killing machines, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. Sharks have highly adapted hunting strategies that have been honed over millions of years to make them one of the most efficient predators on the planet. Here is my own personal countdown of the most fascinating shark hunting methodologies.

mako shark

Mako shark, Isurus oxyrinchus.

Photo credit.

5. Mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus): Mako sharks are one of only a few shark species that are technically endothermic meaning they are able to maintain a fairly high internal body temperature roughly seven to 10 degrees above that of the water around them. This high body temperature gives them the energy they need to maintain a constant swimming speed of up to 35 miles per hour and bursts of speed of up to 70 miles per hour. The symmetry of their caudal fin also helps them maintain these high speeds. Due to this unique adaptation, Mako sharks are the fastest shark species out there making them a lethal predator. Though they’ll eat a number of different oceanic species including cephalopods, dolphins, and sea turtles, they can also chase down some of the fastest schooling fish in the sea like tuna and swordfish.

whale shark

Whale shark, Rinchodon typus.

Photo credit.

4. Whale shark (Rinchodon typus): Whale sharks get bragging rights as the largest fish species in the world. And while they can grow more than 40 feet in length, their food of choice is plankton. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, the largest fish species in the world feeds on tiny plankton. As a filter feeder, they swim through the ocean with their mouths wide open to filter out these delicious little morsels and any other small fish that make the mistake of getting in the way. Getting out of the way isn’t always the easiest feat though, since a whale shark’s mouth can open to almost five feet wide!

3. Bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas): The bull shark is definitely a contender when it comes to most fascinating hunting techniques. One of the main reasons for this is its increased territory and hunting ground; it’s one of the few shark species known to habitually hunt in freshwater. When it comes to hunting, bull sharks get their name from their use of a technique known as the bump and bite. Bull sharks will use their body weight to propel themselves into their prey to stun or even kill it. Then, before the prey has a chance to recover, the bull shark attacks. Their unique ability to adapt to freshwater environments means they also have a wide range of prey from sloths to cows to hippos! They are extremely territorial, so they are one of the most common offenders when it comes to shark attacks on humans. Rule of thumb: if you’re in a murky body of water and you feel a hard bump, maybe get out of the water for a bit.

Bull shark

Bull shark, Carcharhinus leucas.

Photo credit.

2. Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias): Of course, I had to include the famous great white shark. Great whites are probably the most well-known shark, because they have the best agent. Or maybe it’s because almost any movie about a killer shark stars the great white. While many of these Hollywood depictions have led the general public to believe these animals kill without discrimination, they are actually exceptionally precise and calculating hunters. Great white sharks utilize two hunting practices that, when put together, make them an aquatic force to be reckoned with. The first, known as spyhopping, is predominantly seen in marine mammals like dolphins and whales.

Spyhopping is when an animal brings its head above the water’s surface to take a look at their prey. The great white shark is one of the only shark species that we know of that to utilize this technique. After their recon mission, great white sharks travel below the surface to wait for the opportune moment to seize their prey. To capture fast-moving marine mammals (their favorite blubbery snack), great white sharks travel at incredible speeds and explode through the surface of the water. This practice is called breaching, and it’s most impressive when you consider the size of these predators. Great white sharks can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and burst out of the water at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. Some can even reach heights of 10 feet above the water’s surface! It’s a fairly rare occurrence, because it takes considerable energy to propel these animalistic torpedoes out of the water.

 

1. Thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus): By far, my favorite hunting technique of any animal. For decades, fishermen claimed that these sharks used their caudal fin to hunt. They would consistently find thresher sharks caught in their hooks; however, the sharks weren’t hooked by the mouth, they were hooked by their tail fin. Their conclusion was that the unusual shape of this shark’s tail fin was a prominent and integral part of its hunting technique, though they weren’t sure how. Thresher sharks are easy to identify, since they have a highly elongated upper lobe on their caudal fin. This caudal fin can sometimes make up two thirds of the shark’s body length. It has only been throughout the last few decades that researchers have come to witness their amazing hunting technique in the wild. Thresher sharks can actually use their caudal fin like a whip to stun their prey before going in for the kill. It’s a truly remarkable hunting strategy that you have to see to believe!

Don’t forget to stop by the museum’s Shark! exhibition this summer to get a chance to learn even more about these amazing animals. You can track sharks, learn about how researchers tag and study great whites, and touch live epaulette carpet sharks and white-spotted bamboo sharks at our touch tanks, open through Sept. 7.

Still not enough saltwater for you? Drop by the brand-new Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology, opening this Friday, May 22.

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Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 5/18-5/24

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week! 

Bronze Head with Gold Mask copy
Behind-the-Scenes Tours
Tuesday, May 19
6:30 p.m. 
Samurai: The Way of the Warrior
Witness the exquisite objects related to the legendary Samurai warriors of Japan in the special exhibition Samurai: The Way of the Warrior. Museum master docents will lead you through the collection that includes full suits of armor, helmets, swords, sword-hilts, and saddles, as well as exquisite objects intended for more personal use such as lacquered writing boxes, incense trays and foldable chairs.

China’s Lost Civilization
Tour the stunning display of ancient jades, bone, pottery, elephant tusks and monumental bronzes that were discovered in Sanxingdui, China by construction workers. This after-hour tour of China’s Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui is led by HMNS master docents.

Opening of Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology 
Friday, May 22
The Texas coast is a natural treasure to many Texans, but few know about its ecologic and economic importance. The new Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology will show visitors how a healthy environment is paramount to maintaining and sustaining a healthy economy. 

Opening of Secret Ocean 3D
Friday, May 22
Filmed over 3 years in vibrant marine environments from the Bahamas to Fiji, the first 3D theater film directed by Jean-Michel Cousteau provides a compelling breakthrough look at a secret world within the ocean that is perhaps the biggest story of all-that the smallest life in the sea is the mightiest force on which we all depend. 

Opening of Fate of the Maya
Friday, May 22
Explore ancient Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Palenque; experiencing the elegance and power of these great Maya cities. Watch astronomers observing the heavens to predict the future. Then visit lagoons and sink holes to discover what destroyed this advanced civilization — a fate that still threatens great urban centers around the world. It’s a beautiful story for those who love to explore ancient civilizations and discover lessons carved in silt and stone.

 

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James Washington: Being Natural

Discovery Guide James Washington, III, better known at the Houston Museum of Natural Science as “Jurassic James,” has made a career out of going above and beyond the call of duty.

“[My bosses] say, ‘You have your responsibilities. Make sure those are done, but then do whatever you want to do’,” he said. “So of course, me being me, I kept adding things to my job description.”

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James Washington shows off his collection of model dinosaurs, which he has been compiling since he was a young boy. They have since been repurposed into a wildly successful training regimen for HMNS employees.

Five years ago, Washington was tutoring Geology at Lone Star College when his students were offered extra credit for visiting the Cullen Hall of Gems & Minerals at HMNS. He volunteered to spend his Saturdays giving free tours for his students and made an impression on museum staff in the process.

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Washington explains the properties of the mineral pyrite by comparing several examples with other similar minerals.

“The guy who interviewed me was like, ‘You look familiar.’ I told him I did a tour here last weekend for some students. So, they hired me on in front-line visitor services,” Washington said.

Washington could do it all and was quickly promoted into the concierge program before becoming one of the first of the museum’s full-time Discovery Tour Guides. He continued to do extra work that was technically someone else’s job, scheduling tours and handling requests, eventually earning a promotion to Concierge Lead.

But where Washington really found his calling was with training and teaching. It’s what he calls, “the best part of my job.”

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Washington stands before the extensive whiteboard diagrams he drew to model the prehistoric Paleozoic and Mesozoic oceans.

Over the years, Washington has collected fossils, artifacts, and model animals and dinosaurs. Beginning in the fall of 2014, much of that collection made its way to the HMNS basement into a special training classroom Washington developed for the concierge program.

Since that time, the classroom has expanded from one room to three and has grown to cover more topics including geology, paleontology, and more. An entire counter is filled with colorful plastic dinosaur models, a long row of folding tables models the evolution of numerous animal species, and the walls are covered in dry-erase drawings of volcanoes, oceanic layers, and prehistoric reptile anatomy. It’s the end-result of years of hard work.

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Washington hand-drew and colored this 20-foot-long poster board modeling the evolution of life over time, completing the display with models from his personal collection.

“I just kept bringing more and more stuff in and reorganizing. This is not in my job description; I’m only supposed to do tour scheduling, but I end up doing two Adult Education classes and now some home-school classes in the fall,” Washington said.

“Every once in a while, I feel sorry for whoever replaces me,” he added with a grin.

Washington has always wanted to be a science teacher, specifically at the university-level, but for now, his work at the museum allows him to explore the depths of a variety of subjects.

“I like learning about ancient history and earth science and biology and animals and I don’t want to commit to learning just one of those concepts forever. The museum facilitates that. I can learn everything I want and apply it,” Washington said.

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Geologic specimens Washington collected over the years on various digs and field excursions cover this counter in the Museum’s basement.

The first step towards that goal is completing college and earning a bachelor’s degree, and Washington works hard to balance a full-time job with a full-time course load. Between working five days a week and a class schedule that begins at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 8:30 p.m. on his days off, it’s no wonder that he jokes, “I don’t sleep.”

 

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Washington demonstrates the differences between two versions of Tyrannosaurus rex that appeared in two different Jurassic Park films to show how human understanding of prehistoric life has changed over time.

Washington was always interested in dinosaurs and loved visiting the museum as a kid. He says he puts the museum on a pedestal, so much so that when he first applied, he remembered thinking, “I could never work at the museum. This is the Museum of Natural Science.”

Today, coming up on four years as an employee, Washington is thankful for the opportunities afforded him. He still can’t believe he works here.

“I look at what the Museum has given to me. I am talking to their guests about science. I am being sent out to give talks about fossils. I am doing Skype tours of this place, and I’m just a little kid from Houston,” Washington said. “It’s just really neat that they have entrusted me to do all of these things. It’s a real honor.”

Children and adults alike love accompanying “Jurassic James” on his tours. Visit the museum today, and take one for yourself!

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