Saturday, October 28, 2006

Captured by Aliens

In this book, Joel Achenbach goes looking for aliens. Captured by Aliens is a survey of the science of space exploration and an earnest attempt to uncover any evidence (a clue, a hint, a sliver, a slim hope!) of extraterrestrial life. The attempt is vain, but Achenbach leaves no stone unturned. Eventually he even reaches the point of exploring (briefly) the concept of God. There's your extraterrestrial life.

From a scientific point of view, the search for life in outer space comes up empty. What Achenbach does find is a bunch of human beings who are strongly invested in the idea of alien life forms. Very likely, these people are banding together and creating mythologies about space creatures because they are human, and because they are alienated from the larger culture.

Humans are social animals. We are hard-wired to form kin groups and affinity groups, age-based groups and mutual benefit societies. We can't help ourselves. At the same time, we have an awareness of our individual existence, and for some of us that individuality is so fragile, or so satisfying, that we avoid the group experience, or it avoids us. Sometimes our modern post-industrial society makes it difficult for people to create meaningful communities. Kurt Vonnegut, in his novel Slapstick, refers to people who "have had to believe all their lives that they were perhaps sent to the wrong Universe..." That goes a long way towards explaining the alien-o-philes. Captured by Aliens quotes a member of the Heaven's Gate suicide cult: "Maybe they're crazy for all I know. But I don't have any choice but to go for it, because I've been on this planet for thirty-one years and there's nothing here for me." (p. 211) Hi ho. (as Vonnegut would say...)

What's a little ironic is that, although Achenbach makes it clear that he is humoring the pseudo-scientific folks without being tempted to their point of view, he is very sympathetic to them, acknowledging that they are engaged in the same sort of search that he is, just with different rules. And they recognize him, too. It's really not surprising to find that some of the UFO-believers become convinced that the author is one of them, that he is an alien himself. In effect, he is "captured" by "aliens" in the course of writing the book. (But he escapes and lives to tell the tale, luckily for us.)

Fast forward a few years, to the birth of the Achenblog. The blog has collected, nay, captured a seemingly diverse accumulation of individuals. Looking for the common thread is tricky. People describe themselves as gnomes, geeks, nerds, mutants. Apparently the group contains a disproportionate number of high school valedictorians, and a relative dearth of prom queens and football team captains. If you want to fit in there, a sense of humor is essential--but it can be warped, or dark, or goofy. It's all right if you have memorized Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride. A community has formed, albeit a fluid one with ever-changing participants. It's an artificial extended family, very much in the spirit of the ones Vonnegut imagined in Slapstick ("Lonesome No More!" is that book's subtitle) This time it's Achenbach who has captured the aliens, or at least the alienated.

Test your alienation level here:

Here are my scores:
Meaninglessness = 5
Cultural Estrangement = 23
Powerlessness = 10
Normlessness = 13
Estrangement from Work = 12
Social Isolation = 16

Scores from 5 to 11 could be considered "low,"
from 12 to 18 "moderate,"
and from 19 to 25 "high."


...and another thing:

Jonathan Franzen says being a nerd/geek/mutant is not the only path to alienation; there's also the literary route. Here he quotes Stanford professor Shirley Brice Heath:

"...the social isolate--the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him. This is very, very difficult to uncover in an interview. People don't like to admit that they were social isolates as children. What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. But that world, then is a world you can't share with the people around you--because it's imaginary. And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read. Though they aren't present, they become your community."

Franzen expands on this idea: "...simply being a 'social isolate' as a child does not...doom you to bad breath and poor party skills as an adult. In fact, it can make you hypersocial. It's just that at some point you'll begin to feel a gnawing, almost remorseful need to be alone and do some reading--to reconnect to that community.

"...readers of the social-isolate variety are much more likely to become writers than those of the modeled-habit variety. If writing was the medium of communication within the community of childhood, it makes sense that when writers grow up they continue to find writing vital to their sense of connectedness. What's perceived as the antisocial nature of 'substantive' authors, whether it's James Joyce's exile or J.D. Salinger's reclusion, derives in large part from the social isolation that's necessary for inhabiting an imagined world."

How to be Alone, pp.77-78

Monday, October 23, 2006

(Wo)Man vs. Nature

I was sleeping soundly, about 2:00 this morning, when I was gradually awakened by a scrabbling sort of noise on the corrugated plastic roof of the sunporch. Assuming it was the neighbor’s cat, with whom we have a running battle of wits, I went over to the porch and rattled the roof to scare him away. Returning to bed, I looked out the window in time to see what looked like a gigantic rat crawling down the side of the house. Not a cat. I repaired to the backyard to investigate. Yep, a big ol’ raccoon, that’s what it was, and I confronted him coming around the corner of the house. Waved my arms. Hissed at him. Stomped my foot. He was completely unfazed. I returned to the house for the flashlight. Raccoons are nocturnal. Light freaks them out, right? No. I shined the flashlight in his eyes and he had no reaction whatsoever. Meanwhile, more rustling in the bushes, now there are two of them. I looked around for rocks to throw; the only one I found was pretty big. I heaved it over in the direction of one of the critters, it landed right next to him with a thud. He nonchalantly turned his head and sniffed it to see if it might be food. So there we were. I wasn’t afraid of these animals. But they weren’t afraid of me, either! They weren’t likely to attack, but I had no urge to attack them, either. I was in my backyard in my nightshirt at 2:00 in the morning, and I felt pretty stupid. Finally I got fed up and ran towards one of them. That had some effect, and with repeated charging rhino tactics I was able to convince them to leave my yard. Belatedly, I thought of the garden hose which had been available to me as a weapon. Next time.

My brave he-man husband slept through the entire drama. He had had a hard weekend, two days of 8 hours working and 5 hours driving. Our feisty little cat woke up when I first went outside, and watched the whole show, with great interest. This morning it was evident that when I came back to bed and went to sleep until the alarm woke me, the kitty must have stayed awake the rest of the night to keep watch—she was completely exhausted this morning, didn’t wake up even when I put food in her dish, and was still sleeping when I left for work.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Kurt Andersen & Co. -- Spy Magazine

Kurt Andersen is from Nebraska. He attended Harvard University, where he was an editor of the Harvard Lampoon. In my mind, this combination means something, although I am still struggling to complete the picture. Johnny Carson was from Nebraska. I always thought that was important.

Back in 1980, Andersen wrote a book called The Real Thing. It's a smart-aleck book, a know-it-all book. He names a category, for instance, Breakfast Cereals, and then tells which is "The Real Thing" of breakfast cereals, the one that most fully exhibits the quintessential qualities of Breakfast Cereal (the answer is: Kellogg's Corn Flakes). Here's a footnote from that chapter: "*Mr. Graham, of cracker fame, was also a fin de si├Ęcle resident of Battle Creek and health-food fanatic. Battle Creek was to cereal what Paris, at the same moment, was to modern art. They get Cezanne, we get Sugar Smacks." But quoting out of context doesn't do Andersen justice. His wonderfully even tone is sustained throughout: he is just on the edge of insufferable but delightfully balances there and never goes over. His photo on the back of the book shows an unsmiling prepster posing, I was certain at the time, outside Boston's Quincy Market. He seemed very familiar and I loved the book, so I sat down and wrote him a letter.

A few weeks later, I received a letter from him. He said he was impressed to get mail from Key West. He said, "Yours was the first appreciative correspondence I received, and it warms me still." And at the end of the letter, he said (apparently in answer to a question I had asked, though I don't remember anything about the letter I wrote) "...And yes, I am writing fiction."

Well, we both went on with our lives, but that book and his letter have traveled with me through all my domiciles and lifestyle changes. I waited 20 years for the promised novel; it was finally published in 1999: Turn of the Century. Bought it. Read it. Not a bad book, nicely futuristic in a moderate way.

One of the projects Andersen did while he was not writing the novel was Spy magazine; his partner in the venture was Graydon Carter, whom I know from Vanity Fair. And now they've written a book about the experience of creating Spy. I started reading the book last night and just got sucked into it and almost never came up for air. It's a fun read--that is, as long as I can forget how irritating these people seem--they are all so clever and so superior; the world exists so they can mock it. But they are, in fact, extremely intelligent and most of their targets are pretty much fair game. The first article that is reproduced in the book is called "Too Thin AND Too Rich" and features hideous photos of skinny socialites and celebrities. What's not to like.

Here's the punchline that I've been making you wait so long for: on page 28, the book discusses how they put together the staff of the magazine. "There were freelance copy editors, headed up by the peerless Joanne Gruber, who got her job by sending a fan letter to Kurt several years earlier, and whose career at Spy would outlast everyone else's; within a year she was managing editor and even before that was the unofficial moral compass of the magazine."

So THAT'S who has been living my REAL LIFE all these years. Joanne Gruber. I won't forget that name.

Seriously, I would have to have more than one life in order to spend one in New York. But publishing...that would be a career I would enjoy. Hey, here I am on the internet--now in the 21st Century, everybody is a publisher, everyone is an author, and unfortunately, I have only myself to look to for copy editing.

This has been a supremely self-indulgent post and I hereby dedicate it to Mr. Kurt Andersen and all his fabulous friends.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The USA versus International Law

I was going through some papers last weekend and came across this historical document: a news release from the Pentagon dated May 6, 2002. The remarks in blue italics are my reactions, which I had scribbled in the margins when I first read it.


Earlier today, this administration announced the president's decision to formally notify the United Nations that the United States will not become a party to International Criminal Court treaty. The U.S. declaration, which was delivered to the secretary general this morning, effectively reverses the previous U.S. government decision to become a signatory.

The ICC's entry into force on July 1st means that our men and women in uniform--as well as current and future U.S. officials--could be at risk of prosecution by the ICC. [Secretary Rumsfeld, along with every other U.S. resident/citizen, is subject to prosecution by U.S. law enforcement, but he doesn't advocate disbanding police/highway patrol/FBI/criminal justice system of the U.S.] We intend to make clear, in several ways, that the United States rejects the jurisdictional claims of the ICC. The United States will regard as illegitimate any attempt by the court or state parties to the treaty to assert the ICC's jurisdiction over American citizens.

The U.S. has a number of serious objections to the ICC--among them, the lack of adequate checks and balances on powers of the ICC prosecutors and judges; the dilution of the U.N. Security Council's authority over international criminal prosecutions; and the lack of an effective mechanism to prevent politicized prosecutions of American servicemembers and officials. [What are the chances that all the other countries in the world are just too stupid to see the ICC's shortcomings?] [Why should U.S. servicemembers have special status?]

These flaws would be of concern at any time, but they are particularly troubling in the midst of a difficult, dangerous war [as defined where?] on terrorism. there is the risk that the ICC could attempt to assert jurisdiction over U.S. servicemembers, as well as civilians, involved in counter-terrorist and other military operations--something we cannot allow. [Why? because you know that those operations will be in violation of the proposed international laws?]

Notwithstanding these objections to the treaty, the United States respects the decision of those nations that have chosen to joint the ICC. But they, in turn, will need to respect our decision not to join the ICC or to place our citizens under the jurisdiction of the court.

Unfortunately, the ICC will not respect the U.S. decision to stay out of the treaty. To the contrary, the ICC provisions claim the authority to detain and try American citizens--U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, as well as current and future officials--even thought the United States has not given its consent to be bound by the treaty. When the ICC treaty enters into force this summer, U.S. citizens will be exposed to the risk of prosecution by a court that is unaccountable to the American people, and that has no obligation to respect the Constitutional rights of our citizens. [The International Criminal Court recognizes the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.] The United States understandably finds that troubling and unacceptable. [The Government of the U.S., that is, including the officials who are contemplating actions that they know to be in violation of international law.]

Clearly the existence of an International Criminal Court, which attempts to claim jurisdiction over our men and women in uniform stationed around the world [This is a problem--what other country has the level of military presence that the U.S. has, worldwide?] will necessarily complicate U.S. military cooperation with countries that are parties to the ICC treaty [dictatorship and "might makes right" is the less complicated way!]--because those countries may now incur a treaty obligation to hand over U.S. nationals to the court, even over U.S. objections. The United States would consider any such action to be illegitimate.

We obviously intend to avoid such actions. Fortunately there may be mechanisms within the treaty by which we can work bilaterally with friends and allies, to the extent they are willing, to prevent the jurisdiction of the treaty and thus avoid complications in our military cooperation. Obviously, countries that have not ratified the treaty would be under no such obligation to cooperate with the court. [U.S. will continue to use its diplomatic influence and military might to work against the ICC treaty.]

By putting U.S. men and women in uniform at risk of politicized prosecutions, the ICC could well create a powerful disincentive for U.S. military engagement in the world. [Maybe those other countries aren't so stupid after all.] If so, it could be a recipe for isolationism--something that would be unfortunate for the world, given that our country is committed to engagement in the world and to contributing to a more peaceful and stable world. [Peace through war? or "The War on Peace?"]

For a strong deterrent, it is critical that the U.S. be leaning forward, not back. We must be ready to defend our people, our interests, and our way of life [...and the best defense is a good offense...] We have an obligation to protect our men and women in uniform from thi court and to preserve America's ability to remain engaged in the world. [i.e., to attack anybody anywhere at any time for any reason, as we see fit] And we intend to do so.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Gina Barreca

Let us now praise strong women...

Joel Achenbach's column in Sunday's Washington Post starts by discussing the recent Newsweek cover story about "Powerful Women" and then goes on to Arianna Huffington's latest book, Becoming Fearless, which is aimed at helping women reach their potential and be more powerful.

Since Joel has covered those two, I will approach this subject with reference to Gina Barreca, a professor of English literature and feminist studies; a woman with a very strong personality and presence. Gina came to my attention as a co-writer with Gene Weingarten--he contacted her with the intent of ridiculing her and making her look stupid because she was an "expert" on feminist studies and humor. He thought those two subjects were incompatible, and he challenged her to see who could be funnier in print. That's his specialty, writing humor, not hers, but she was funnier than he was every time. They went on to write a book together, and I saw them last year at the Miami Book Fair. They were both funny, but Gina was by far the more impressive--she is beautiful, brilliant, bold and witty. I couldn't take my eyes off of her.

I bought Barreca's book Babes in Boyland and read it this summer. It's a memoir about what it was like to be one of the first female students at Dartmouth College. Here's what it was like, at first:

"Classes begin, and once again Good Girl Gina sits up front. The American lit. professor appears to be a bulky, middle-aged, heavy-set, tweedy, standard-issue type. Wire-rim glasses perched on a long patrician nose, sparse white hair, broad chest, and deep voice all add to the sense that he's straight out of central casting. Gina feels this is what college is all about.

"Then the professor opens his mouth.

"He announces at the start, "My name is MANN, I am teaching a book about a sperm whale named Moby Dick. anybody who has a
problem with that can leave right now. I have been teaching here for thirty years and I am not about to change my ways because there might suddenly be in my classroom a delicate flower whose feminine sensibilities I might offend." He pauses, and walks over to a large, beefy guy in the first row and puts his hand on the young man's shoulder. "And I'm not referring only to Pemberton here, either, although he is known to be sensitive."

"Applause breaks out, whoops and hollers...

"Gina buries herself as far as possible into her seat. How can you be a Good Girl in a place that doesn't want any kind of girl whatsoever?"

Barreca was from a working class family in Brooklyn; being female wasn't the only, or even the most difficult, barrier she faced. But it was the trait that she found could be turned to her advantage, the one that she finally derived her identity from. She has a great voice. Here is what she wrote recently when she found that her column was being dropped from the Hartford Courant: "Long Cool Woman in a Pink Slip" It ends, "I hope I won't be out of circulation long." And I'm sure she won't.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Nothing to Say

I have been trying to post at least once a week--last year I posted every day for a long time; how did I do that?

I had nothing in particular to say today, and it struck me that the main purpose of a blog is that when you have nothing to say, you have someplace to say it.

It's a quiet Saturday. I've been in the house most of the day, only venturing out on a walk to Walmart to buy ribbons for a project. The weather is lovely, in the low 80's and sunny. I've been straightening up closets and so I had to look at all my photo albums. I'm not very good about putting photos in albums, so it didn't take long. Most of my pictures are in boxes.

All the highlights are there, though. The milestones, the trips, the loved ones. Pictures are good.

I'm extremely unmotivated. Now the question is, will this non-blog be enough to satisfy my one-a-week requirement, or will I still feel like I didn't blog yet this week?

Here's an interesting article about how hard it can be to make ends meet on $150,000 a year. We do love to read about other people's money and especially other people's money problems, don't we? I'm sure it's human nature.