(Being the last, and least relevant, in a series of reflections on the 2007 convention of the Atheist Alliance International.)
My arrival at the AAI Convention was marked by a through-the-looking-glass moment as I heard a young woman whisper to a friend: “It’s him!”
I looked up, expecting to see them staring at Dawkins or Harris. Instead, they were staring at mere me. They smiled and held out copies of PBB for me to sign, told me how much they loved the book, etc. It was not entirely unlike me approaching Dawkins or Harris, which made me cringe just a tad. I am not worthy, believe me. Me being on the receiving end of an it’s him calls the whole concept of celebrity into serious question.
The first time I called my kids on the phone from the convention this year, Delaney answered. And she didn’t ask if I had been a fawn-ee; she knows me only as the occasional fawn-er.
And so, when she heard my voice, she immediately asked: “Daddy! Have you talked to The Scientist yet?”
In her mind, the sole reason I had flown 600 miles and spent three days away from her was to see The Scientist — Richard Dawkins. She can be forgiven for thinking this. In retrospect, I’d told her very few things about the convention. I’d said I would talk about my book a bit, I’d be close to the President’s house, and I would see a personal hero of mine, one of the most famous scientists in the world.
“Didn’t you already see him before?” she asked at the time.
Yes, I had. I’ve met Richard Dawkins precisely three times — at the AAI Conventions in 2003, 2005, and 2007. Fortunately, our first meeting in ’03 was captured on videotape, so you can hear what I sounded like as I struggled to express my admiration for his work. You can hear him laughing at me in the clip:
Later in that same convention I mentioned my admiration for Richard’s work to Margaret Downey, who was accompanying him during his visit — and she insisted I join them for lunch. I absolutely refused, feeling I would have nothing to say to him beyond the fawning gestures of fan to star, and that in the attempt (as the video makes clear), I would merely have sprayed him with strained carrots.
I’m completely immune to starstruckedness of the usual kind. I loved Corky the Clown, a local TV station character in the St. Louis of my kidhood. Then Mom took us down to the station during the 1969 Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon…and there was Corky, mugging and clowning for a captive line of petrified children on the sidewalk outside. Anyone who has seen a clown close up will know just how much I longed to put him back in our Magnavox and keep him there. Since then, proximity to the merely famous has never really made my weenie wiggle.
Thanks in part to a three-year job in a hotel in Century City, California during grad school, I rubbed elbows with every imaginable ilk of celebrity and politician of the late 1980s. It was interesting to see them in the flesh, but none of them me swoon. They didn’t move me. In many cases, their celebrity even made me nauseous.
But when I meet someone of genuine accomplishment, someone whose contributions have moved and changed me and millions of others — someone who began as I did, a squinting, squealing, clutching infant, but somehow went on to [insert jawdropping, unprecedented accomplishment here] — well, when I meet someone like that, yes, I swoon.
I remembering packing for that first convention back in 2003, talking to Erin. That was her year to be the five-year-old who watched Daddy pack. “Are you nervous?” she asked. She knew I was giving a speech.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. “But not about my speech.” I told her I was going to meet someone who was very important to me, a scientist who wrote some wonderful books. He was one of my heroes, I said, so I was a little nervous to meet him.
“Don’t be nervous, Daddy,” she said. “I betcha he’s very nice.” But then she wanted to know why he was my hero.
What a great question — and a rare opportunity to be explicit about just what impresses and moves me.
“Well,” I said, “I guess the best way I can say it is that he helped me understand the world better.” Just being famous, or just winning an election, or merely singing or acting well can’t possibly inspire in me the same drooling idiocy I feel whenever I extend my hand to shake Richard’s.
There’s irony here. I know, partly through Richard’s work, how cosmically insignificant we are. I know that we are essentially vehicles for the transportation of DNA from generation to generation, and that we are not fallen angels but trousered apes. It seems silly that a fellow speck of dust can reduce me to Miss Teen South Carolina with a beard.
But that actually gets at the point. I’m inspired by the fact that even though we are trousered apes and cosmic specks, we still manage, on occasion, to rise above our situation and achieve something truly wonderful. Speck Einstein saw that space and time are woven together. Speck Gandhi realized that nonviolence could be more powerful than violence. Speck Darwin explained the kinship of all life. That’s the level of astonished joy that paralyzes my mind and tongue when I meet someone like Richard. I am shaking hands with Huxley and Voltaire and Vonnegut and Epicurus. I’m shaking hands with the best in all of us.
I’ve searched for the perfect metaphor of Richard Dawkins at an atheist convention, something that would capture the odd sense that a being from another realm had crossed into our little world. At last, at this convention, it hit me. If you’ve read Flatland, you will instantly understand: we’re polygons, and he is a sphere, floating through our plane. Unable to communicate with it in any meaningful way, we just stand back and ululate in amazement.
For now, my girls are swooning over Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens and Miley Cyrus. That’s fine, of course. They are practicing the fine art of admiration. Connor’s become more judicious, moving on to JK Rowling, Oprah Winfrey and Richard Branson, and for quite admirable reasons.
My kids are also getting a mild version of the lesson from the other end as they enjoy our family’s (very) marginal flirtation with celebrity. I too would have squealed at the chance to walk into Barnes and Noble and find a book with my family’s picture on the back when I was a kid. Hell, I enjoy it now. but I’m also aware that in that moment is a rare opportunity to get all sorts of messages driven home to my kids about what’s important, and what’s not.