There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The first time Thomas B. Allen was asked to write about sharks, the year was 1963, and Allen was a lowly general-assignment reporter for the New York Daily News, covering stories like the Mad Bomber—a shadowy character who placed small explosives in public phones and under theater seats. The shark opportunity dropped in Allen’s lap because a noted shark scientist, Harold McCormick, realized that putting a book together on the subject required finding someone who could actually write. So he turned to Allen.
A lot has happened to Allen between 1963 and the present day: He went to work for National Geographic, then left to freelance for the magazine and focus on book writing. His book output has been both enormous and alarmingly diverse, in a quintessentially National Geographic fashion: America From Space, Animals of Africa, Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage, Possessed (a study of modern exorcism), The Blue and the Gray (on the Civil War), and a novel, Murder in the Senate, which he co-wrote with then-Sen. William Cohen.
About three years ago, Allen, now 70 and quite the throwback, got an unexpected call from a publishing house that hoped to reprint his 1963 opus, Shadows in the Sea: The Sharks, Skates, and Rays. Allen obliged; better yet, the connection eventually turned into a second book, The Shark Almanac, which is due out next month. “Most of the writing about sharks focuses on the man-eaters,” especially the white shark, or “great white,” as it is more commonly known, Allen says. Allen hoped that if he focused on 200 to 300 lesser-known species, his readers would learn that most sharks aren’t likely to harm humans.
The Shark Almanac is well-timed for a revolution in thinking about the shark, an animal that has survived almost unchanged for 200 million years. For instance, the shark’s defining characteristic—a skeleton made of cartilage rather than bone—is now thought to be a clever way of gaining flexibility and speed, rather than a lesser substitute for real bone. Sharks, which sit precariously atop the oceanic food chain, are now known to live 50 to 60 years, with exceedingly slow reproduction cycles. They therefore need special protections to recover from human slaughter, whether deliberate or inadvertent. Even Peter Benchley—the man whose book Jaws did much to solidify the shark’s status as an enemy of mankind—has recently been doing penance, preaching what Allen calls the “save-the-shark gospel.”
“I had gone shark fishing for the 1963 book, and we’d caught a blue shark off Montauk Point on Long Island,” Allen says. “We immediately cut the head off; I’ve got the jaws in my office. Then, in 1997 or 1998, I was doing a story for the Geographic on the search for the giant squid. A guy on the ship hauled up a blue shark, and one of the guys started to cut its head off. But everybody got a feeling of revulsion about mutilating a shark. In 1963, that was considered standard: ‘It’s a shark?’ people would say. ‘Go kill the sonofabitch.’”—Louis Jacobson
Goes With the Flow
It’s time for Harry Finley’s baby to move out of the basement. Finley opened the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health in his Hyattsville home in August 1994 (“Keeper of the Kotex Codex,” Washington City Paper, 9/30/94), and on weekends over the next four years, about 1,500 visitors came to view his collection of products and advertisements. He closed the museum last summer because he was “exhausted,” he says, but now he’s looking for a new site. He set up a Web page (www.mum.org) full of links and exclamation marks in 1996, but he acknowledges it’s not the same as standing in a room full of maxipads.
His dream museum will have a real menstrual hut, “even if I have to buy it with my own money,” he vows. “I want it on the museum grounds, separate, so you can sit in it and feel what it was like to be exiled for five days.” The first step to getting a site is to gain nonprofit 501(c)(3) status; the IRS has told him his chances are better if an elected official sits on the board of directors. Finley plans to approach U.S. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, the Democrat from Manhattan who sponsored the Tampon Safety and Research Act of 1999, a bill inspired by reports linking dioxin in tampons to cancer and endometriosis. Finley is also negotiating with the Women’s Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, about showing all or part of his collection.
According to the museum’s Web site, the board of directors now includes a handful of academics and several of Finley’s seven cats, including “Visiting Assistant Professor Pam T. Padd (say the name quickly)…Part-Time Pouncer at the Museum of Menstruation.” The 56-year-old former illustrator and portrait painter also draws a comic strip, studies languages and astronomy, and walks five miles to and from his job at the Department of Defense. He doesn’t own a car and has never been married, though he was engaged once years ago.
Finley spends 20 hours a weekend on the Web site—the museum consumed even more time when it was open. Absorbing menstrual information from around the world “increased my understanding of the left, of feminists and lesbians,” he says. “I see how society thinks it’s dirty and associated with sickness.” Empathy is as far as it goes though—you won’t catch Harry Finley personally celebrating the sacred flow. “I realize this is an incorrect attitude, to use the current term, but I don’t find it very appealing….I mean, name one body fluid that is. You’ve got blood, sweat, and tears, and it pretty much goes down from there.”—Virginia Vitzthum