Last night, special friends of Chicago's Field Museum dined under the watchful gaze of Sue, the spectacular Tyrannosaurus rex unveiled with much fanfare earlier this week. I ate cold pizza under the watchful gaze of the 18-inch-high model T. rex sitting on our dining-room table, assembled with little fanfare the previous evening. I'm not complaining. Sue Hendrickson, the field paleontologist who found the eponymous rex, had invited me to come, although she couldn't guarantee that I'd be at her table.
I'd declined Sue's invitation because my plate was already full. I had previously committed to talk about the dinosaur at the Union League Club and then do a dinner-hour reading at a small bookstore. Truth be told, I was also hoping to get to my son's Little League game later in the evening.
The museum's dinner called to mind a gathering that took place in 1853, when Sir Richard Owen, who coined the word "dinosaur," and 20 other leading natural scientists gathered at London's Crystal Palace for a New Year's Eve party. The theme was dinosaurs, and the dinner itself was held inside a huge, life-size model of an Iguanodon—perhaps the first theme restaurant.
The guests enthusiastically sang a playful homage to the dinosaur written by Professor Edward Forbes of the Museum of Practical Geology:
A thousand ages underground
His skeleton had lain,
But now his body's big and round,
And he's himself again!
His bones, like Adam's wrapped in clay,
His ribs of iron stout,
Where is the brute alive today
That dares to turn him out?
Beneath his hide he's got inside
The souls of living men;
Who dare our saurian now deride
With life in him again?
My Union League Club event was well-attended. Then the rains, or more properly, the monsoons, came. Trees down. Roofs off. Streets blocked. Power out in many places. I called the bookstore thinking they might want to cancel the reading. No, it was too late.
These last few days have been heady ones for me. My book was timed to come out at the same time Sue debuted, so I've received numerous requests for interviews. 20/20 did a brief feature earlier this week and will do a complete segment on Wednesday. Movie producers call daily, as do friends and neighbors who tell me, "I saw you on TV."
So, when I showed up at the bookstore and saw that there were only 11 people in attendance, I was disappointed. Make that nine people; two of those waiting to hear me were employees of the store. Sure, the weather was terrible, and sure, most of my friends had said they were coming to another book signing this weekend. But nine people for media giant Steve Fiffer? I was expecting the Sue treatment for myself.
Then I stood back and looked at those who had come. Three dear friends from my old law firm, a law school classmate with whom I'd lost touch over the last few years, a Chicago Tribune editor for whom I'd just completed a project, the wife and son of our family pediatrician, and a couple of Sue aficionados whom I didn't know.
After I read the book's prologue and yesterday's Slate "Diary" entry about the unveiling, our small gathering sat around a table and talked about Sue—her importance to science, her importance to the museum, what the battle for her bones says about our society, the impact her discovery has had on the lives of those who found her.
The hour grew late, but no one—including me—was in a hurry to leave. This wasn't about selling books or basking in the spotlight. It was just a group of people who seemed to have clicked and were enjoying themselves—the kind of dynamic you hope for when giving a dinner party.
I'm sure the event at the Field Museum was wonderful. But I can't imagine having been at a better table than the one I sat at last night.
A hundred brushes he has had
With fast and fleeting fame,
But friendship trumps celebrity
Now he's himself again!