07/11/2014 03:34 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2014

Ugly Is as Ugly Does

"It's so ugly!" she squealed, burying her face in the puffy shoulder of her friend's coat. They squealed together. It spread like a super-virus among the tween girls who surrounded them.

In her defense, it was not the most attractive preserved carcass of a giant sea squid (Architeuthis dux) that the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History could have presented. If I didn't know any better, I might have thought I'd accidentally wandered into one of the Alien movie franchise displays at Madame Tussaud's in Washington, DC.

In defense of the squid, none of these little girls on their school field trip were going to be winning any "Miss Tween DC" pageant anytime soon. It wasn't their fault; they were simply all at that age of having no idea what to do with their budding womanhood nor their personal grooming habits. Soon, someone was going to have to introduce them to some tritely named deodorant product and an astringent.

I imagined one of these adolescent girls preserved in glass in one of the sprawling halls of this very museum, perused by one of our future descendants, or maybe by the alien race that eventually takes over our planet. "Oh, it's so ugly!" the alien would cry upon seeing the floating thing labeled "LOLol-icus omg-ipod, Female," and then bury its horns in the prehensile arm bud of its friend, horrified by the specimen's oily complexion and awkward fashion choices.

"Well, I think it's beautiful," I said aloud to no one. It was probably wasted on them, but I didn't care. I was uncommonly free of any social responsibility or concern for what others thought of me. I was solo today in my DC adventure; I was visiting a friend who was previously engaged for the day. I had spent the morning in the sculpture park by the ice skating rink in the Capital Mall, marveling at the beauty of life and feeling very full of myself for it. I had come upon the museum and stumbled in, lured by the promise of dinosaur and butterfly exhibits--two of my favorite things.

Dinosaurs are both fascinating and innocuous to me; I cannot help but imagine having been on the earth at the same time as these magnificent beasts. It is easy to do because they have become extinct and taken the danger with them. Frolicking in a live butterfly exhibit poses no danger save the risk of inadvertently proclaiming just how gay I actually am. I enjoyed both in turn that day after observing the girls and the giant squid.

I had my "picture" "taken" with a "dinosaur" (the green screen process leaves me at a loss for which word to place in irony quotes), and I listened to an elderly museum volunteer explain the life cycle of the lunar moth. (My God, that poor thing doesn't even have a mouth! Once it's out of the cocoon it just starts starving to death (now, that's an eating disorder to rival any teenage girl's). But I had an unsettled feeling in me that I just couldn't shake. Had we been elsewhere in this museum, in another hall, I might have buried my face in the puffy shoulder of one of my friends. I mean, if any of my friends had actually been there wearing a puffy coat.

I think I've figured out what that feeling was: discomfort from confronting my own hypocrisy. Some things make me squeal and squirm irrationally, too. Things that I wish I could perceive as a beautiful part of this vast universe, but rather seem to me proof that evil exists, and its pastime is making things that scare the crap out of me.

Take, for instance, scorpions. I mean, no matter how you look at it, scorpions are disgusting. Like they are the depths of ugliness. I'm sorry, but where is your head? You're all legs, torso, arms, claws, legs, and, yes, a very distinctly horrifying tail. But WHERE IS YOUR HEAD? Your nasty poisonous claw arms come right out of your neck? Seriously, get it together.

I make my way cautiously toward the Live Insect Zoo, fairly certain that the addition of the word "zoo" will make this experience no less horrifying. I'm on a mission. I have a vendetta to settle. I will face this fear head on. I will not cower from something that I don't understand, something that I fear (with some valid reasons), something that is, yes, another intricate part of this thing called Creation. Whether dinosaur or butterfly, squid or scorpion, extinct or alive-and-well in front of me, each creature deserves to be admired as the beautiful part of the Tree of Life that it is. I will find you, Scorpion Fiend, and I will find you beautiful.

And suddenly I wish I had a girlfriend's puffy shoulder to bury my face in. I'm staring through the glass at this monster no larger than my pinky finger, sitting peacefully on the sand, barely discernible from the little rocks scattered about its lair, atomic compared to the beast from the sea whose beauty I proclaimed earlier. The scorpion lies still, drawn into itself, its claws tucked under its non-head, its evil tailed curled into its hind-whatever, almost as if it were asleep. And the only thing echoing through my head is "IT'S SO UGLY! OH MY GOD IN HEAVEN, IT'S SO UGLY!"

It's beautiful, my calm inner voice convinces. It's beautiful.


That's absurd. It can't escape.


The sound of giggling and squealing breaks me from my trance. I look up to see the mob of girls I encountered earlier reacting to finding themselves in the Live Insect Zoo. They take turns pretending to have just noticed where they are and outdo their friends' freaked reactions. They point at the glass cages lining the walls, finding a new horror in each one.

I look back down into the scorpion's lair. I can't tell if it has moved. But for a moment, I think it's looking at me, studying me with its non-eyes in its non-head.

I slip out of the exhibit, wondering if the insects are looking back at us through the glass, trying not to be terrified. I wonder if they, too, are trying to find us beautiful.