Nondescript habiliments

The news media seem to love reasons. The stock market doesn’t just go up or down; it “reacts” to some military action or strike or weather condition. Sometimes it “ignores” a major news story.

Elections, media pundits would have us believe, are won or lost based not on politics and character and record but on a single incident.

George McGovern supposedly lost in 1972 because his initial running mate admitted to treatment for depression. And then there was New York Mayor John Lindsay, defeated by a snowstorm in March of 1969.

Between two and four inches of snow fell in the borough of Queens. The snowplows didn’t clear the streets fast enough. The local residents were outraged! Old-timers still remember it clearly.

There’s just one problem. Lindsay was reelected that year (and never ran for a third term).

I haven’t polled all eight million of us, but as best I can tell, ALL New Yorkers love snow. A Queens newspaper did a then-and-now comparison three years ago between 1969 and 1999. The big issue in 1969 was said to be too much snow; in 1999 it was “Where’s the snow?”

My neighborhood, the upper west side of Manhattan, probably loves snow more than any other in the city. We’ve got plenty of food stores and eateries, so we won’t starve (I’ve yet to have any restaurant refuse delivery due to any meteorological horror). We’ve got two major subway lines (impervious to the elements) with stations every few blocks. And we’re sandwiched between two beautiful parks with plenty of sledding hills and cross-country ski trails.

The weather has been VERY strange recently. Yesterday, the LOW temperature in New York was 45 degrees Fahrenheit. In a few days, according to the weather prediction in today’s New York Times, we’ll probably break the record high temperature. But, somehow, it got cold enough to snow on Saturday night (and — sigh — warm enough to melt the next day).

Central Park was packed on Sunday. There were sledders on everything that passed for a hill. Elsewhere, there were skiers. There were dozens of snow creatures (most well decorated). We saw one large snow roll — the beginning of a snowman? — its path rendered clearly visible by the grass it uncovered.

If there had been just a little bit more snow, we’d have gone sledding.

Instead, we went to the zoo. Central Park’s zoo creatures seem to love the snow, too. We watched the snow monkeys being fed (fruits and vegetables frozen in ice hurled to their island or into the water nearby, where the leader of the pack likes to fish). But we REALLY came to see an indoor group.

Some years ago, we got out of a taxi at the entrance to the Physics Department at the University of Bristol in England. I was dressed in my usual Birkenstock sandals. It being summer, I was wearing hot-pepper shorts instead of hot-pepper pants, and my brown hair and beard were at hot-weather length. We were both wearing penguin tee shirts, mine stretched by my larger belly.

We entered the building. Before we could even approach the reception desk, the guard said, “Ah! You must be here to see Professor Barham.”

Indeed we were, but how did he know?

We were asked to wait in the professor’s office. We looked around and saw what one might expect to see in the office of a polymer physicist.

Then someone entered the room.

He was wearing Birkenstock sandals (same style and color as mine), shorts, and a penguin tee shirt stretched across his non-flat belly. He had brown hair and a beard. We stared at one another for a moment. He was wearing socks; I wasn’t.

That was when we first met Peter Barham. Like me, he is married to someone whose favorite animal is the penguin.

(Mine is the moose. On our living room wall there is a spectacular multicolored rug depicting a penguin kissing a delighted moose. It was designed by my wife’s foster sister and woven by the sample department of the company that made the rug in the Oval Office. The sample makers were so thrilled to be making the whole thing for once that they went all out. It is in every sense a work of art).

I had been researching a trip to Antarctica and came across the journal of the Barhams’ attempted trip (their ship was blocked by too much ice). So I called to see if we could visit, and (Surprise!) we hit it off right away. How could we help liking a gourmet chef who ended the meal with strawberry ice cream made fresh at the table with a little liquid nitrogen poured right into the mixture as the coolant? His avocation is the physics of food.

Our trip to the icy continent went fine, and the Barhams decided to come to New York to see our photos. I wanted to do something special for them, so I contacted a friend at the Bronx Zoo to see if he could arrange for a meeting with the penguin keeper in Central Park.

Each New York borough has at least one zoo; there are two in Central Park. We also have quite a few urban penguins: Africans at the New York Aquarium at Coney Island, Magellanics in the Bronx, and gentoos and chinstraps in Central Park.

It’s a misconception that penguins live in the wild only in Antarctica.

In fact, of the 16-18 species (depending on how one counts), only one, the Emperor, breeds exclusively there. The Galapagos penguin makes it all the way to the equator.

African penguins wander the beaches of the suburbs of Cape Town. New York weather is no problem for them or their relatives the Magellanics, so they stay outdoors. Our summers would be a bit warm for the gentoos and chinstraps, however, so they’re kept indoors.

For a time, we would stop by the zoo almost daily in the spring and summer to check out the breeding activity. The Central Park Wildlife Center has been very successful at breeding gentoos. Based on the numbers we saw this Sunday, it appears they’ve found what makes the chinstraps happy, too. We even got to know some of the birds by name (their wing bands are color coded). Terry and Georgie were our favorite couple (not even the keepers were sure which was male and which female).

Our Bronx zoo friend said he’d arranged everything. We were to meet the head of the Central Park zoo on a Sunday morning, and she would introduce us to the penguin keeper.

Sure enough, at the appointed hour, we all met at the zoo entrance. We were taken to see the penguin keeper. He seemed interested in our photos of gentoos and chinstraps in the wild, but he also seemed slightly distracted. “Well,” he said, “shall we go in now?” Go in?

He opened the hatch to the penguin enclosure. We dipped our shoes into a pan of disinfectant and walked onto the rocks covered with slippery penguin guano, a deep pool of cold water inches away. Our ears were assaulted with a cacophony of calls. Our noses were assaulted with the powerful odor of digested fish. And Barbara Barham was literally assaulted; a gentoo decided to peck at her leg.

It was just like Antarctica! We were in heaven. Barbara treasured her black-&-blue bruises and showed them off when she returned to England.

The penguins got used to us very quickly. But I’m not sure what the zoo visitors on the other side of the glass made of the strange group of people dressed in mufti.

“Mufti,” it might be worth noting, is not only a term for ordinary clothes (as opposed to, say, a zookeeper’s uniform). It’s also a term for a form of religious judge, an interpreter of Islamic law.

I imagine that all religions have a range of interpretations. Some Christians believe they are required to hold poisonous snakes. Some Jews believe they must not trim their sideburns. And then there’s clothing.

Some North American visitors to Afghanistan more than 30 years ago reported being shocked at how scantily clad some of the women were. I don’t think there was any more skin revealed than in London or New York, but it was probably comparable.

Of course, that changed when the Taliban came to power (if not before).

The most visible change when the Taliban LEFT power was that some women chose not to wear burkhas, the head-to-toe tents that had been mandatory for Afghan Muslim women in the Taliban interpretation of religious law.

Reporters who were in Baghdad before the Gulf War also noticed a change when they returned to that city recently. On their earlier visits, they noticed most women in modern western dress and only a few covered from head to toe. Now it’s the other way around.

In an interview in the Hindustan Times in September, Mahbooba Mufti, a Kashmir politician and daughter of Mufti Muhammad Sayeed (a former government minister), said, “I feel wearing a burkha or using a veil is a good thing. It is part of the Islamic way of life, and shows the respect Islam accords to women.” But she added, “It has to be a matter of personal choice.”

Saudi Arabian women are required to wear abayas, long black gowns. A chador or something similar covers the head and most of the face.

Until Saturday, U.S. military women stationed in Saudi Arabia were required to wear abayas whenever they left their bases. They were also forbidden to drive. Military men had to take them where they wanted to go and were instructed, if questioned, to say they were married.

At the same time, the U.S. State Department ordered American women working for them in Saudi Arabia NOT to wear abayas while on the job.

They were simply to dress conservatively, as did former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when she visited the kingdom.

Perhaps you saw the story on “60 Minutes” this week. Lieutenant Colonel Martha McSally, our highest-ranking female fighter pilot, tried to change the policy through channels. When that failed, she sued.

The New York Times story on the subject today says the military abaya policy has now been made a recommendation, rather than a requirement, thanks to pressure from five Republican senators. U.S. military women are still prohibited from driving and from being unaccompanied by a male off base. Colonel McSally’s lawsuit, therefore, which seeks no monetary damages, is still wending its way through the legal system.

U.S. military men may drive and wander about unaccompanied. They may wear jeans and need not don the ghutra, the traditional Saudi male headdress, held in place by a cord called an agal.

The Central Park penguin species are named for head coverings.

Chinstraps appear to be wearing hat straps across their chins, in the old British military style. Gentoo is an old term for Hindu. Those penguins have wide white markings on the tops of their heads, supposedly suggesting turbans.

Chinstraps and gentoos are two members of the genus Pygoscelis (rump-legged). The third is the Adelie penguin, named for the wife of a French explorer. It’s one of the least seen of all penguins, even though it is the only one that truly looks like the classic penguin — all black except for a white front — a small man dressed in evening wear. It’s too hot in New York for Adelies.

It seems too hot (and dry) now for ALL of us. Even children remember more snow than we’ve had this year. I can remember a LOT more. When I took ferries in the winter, they used to crash through ice floes. I can remember walking a little way out onto the ice of the briny Hudson River as a kid.

In the old days, we’ve read, the Hudson used to freeze completely over, thickly enough that refreshment stands could be built mid-river on the ice. They served those walking from shore to shore. That’s pretty impressive for such salty and turbulent water.

I wonder what the weather was like on January 13, 1928. That’s when General Electric demonstrated television transmission in Schenectady, a colder part of New York State.

The next day the Boston Post screamed (incorrectly) in a huge front-page headline, “SEE OVER RADIO FOR FIRST TIME.” The accompanying story suggested that everyone appearing on television in the future would surely emulate the Adelie penguin and don only evening wear, “for what performer would dare appear before his vast unseen audience in nondescript habiliments?”



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