“Some kids are afraid of the dinosaurs or the butterflies,” the security guard at New York’s American Museum of Natural History told me, “but the whale? No. I’ve never seen anybody afraid of the whale.” He must be new here, I thought, as I gripped the railing with white knuckles and swayed on my feet. The 94-foot-long fiberglass model of a blue whale that hangs in the museum has terrified me since my childhood, and recently I decided to find out why.
I discussed my fears ahead of time with Joy Reidenberg, a comparative anatomist at Mount Sinai, who suggested approaching the whale slowly from an adjoining room. “Take your time,” she said, “and keep a damp cloth handy.”
And that’s exactly what I did. I spent an entire day moving into and around the Hall of Ocean Life, examining the whale from every angle (occasionally hiding behind stuffed tigers to give my nerves a break), noticing my vertigo, my locked knees and my surprisingly good mood.
All in all, what I learned surprised and fascinated me: My body is afraid of the whale, but my mind and heart are not. As the day drew to a close, I bought a whale-shaped cookie in the museum’s food court, waved goodbye to the giant whale on the ceiling, and headed, exhausted and relieved, back to Penn Station.
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