The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Kickin it with Dawkins

My friend John recently moved back to California (state motto: "once you get over the sticker shock, the pain of the mortgage really sets in"), which by the accounts of anyone who A) knows John, and B) lives in California, is a pretty groovy thing. He contacted me to let me know that he had returned to our state from Indiana (state motto: "why do we need a state motto?"). This resulted in me inviting John to come spend some time in the Bay Area, which he graciously accepted.

It was at this point that another rather excellent fellow that I know, Dave (who, like me, has always lived in California, but has spent time in Southern California - regional motto: "there's something north of San Luis Obispo?"), contacted me to let me know that Richard "fuckin'" Dawkins was going to be speaking in Berkely (legend holds that he was granted the epithet "fuckin'" after a steel cage match in which he went nine rounds pounding on Duane Gish - the fight was over after 30 seconds, but he wouldn't let anyone into the cage to pull Gish out.

For an encore, he took on the entire Watchtower Society single handedly in an incident that the Jehovah's Witnesses now refer to in hushed tones as "the thrashing by the limey"). So, I called John and let him know. John was excited, and this is where the third and fourth people enter the story - another very good guy I know by the name of Aaron (who has lived in California for the second half of his life, but did live in Maine [state motto: "at least we're not Florida"] for a good chunk of his life), and Aaron's fiance Nicole (who is from Iowa - motto: "Not as flat as Kansas!"). John was with Aaron when I told him the news, which caused us to think that Aaron should be invited, which, in turn, led us to think that Aaron should also invite Nicole.

And with the pack complete, we made plans to meet in San Francisco that Saturday (which, for those of you paying attention, was the 8th). Aaron, Nicole, John, and I met in San Francisco in the early afternoon, and proceeded to wander aimlessly without aim (yeah, that's right, I said it). After a short time, we came to Golden Gate Park, and found our way to the remains of the Sutro Baths. Initially, John and I thought that what we saw was the remains of an old fortress (there is more than one dating to the 19th century in the area), but we were wrong - it was in fact the remains of what had previously been the world's largest swimming pool.

Well, that killed a few hours, and we eventually heard from Dave. He and his girlfriend Eva were preparing for dinner, and wanted to join us afterwards. We found out where they were, and realized that we had way too many people in the group and not enough vehicles (in truth, bad planning on my part, since I was organizing everyone except for Dave's participation). So, while the others prepared for the evening ahead, what with the Berkeley and the Dawkins an the lecture and all, I found a place to park my car. Afterwards, we all headed to the local BART station.

BART is an odd thing. Now, I know that Nancy, if she is reading this, will find my awe of BART a bit funny and probably rather quaint. After all, regional trains have been an important part of New York City's culture since the early 20th century, but mass transit of any sort has been a woefully missing part of Californian culture. So, this was my first time in a subway of any kind and, not counting the short one in the Denver International Airport, my first time on a train. It really was amazing to me that this is not more widely favored. It was far more convenient than driving, not to mention a bit faster (and not much more expensive as far as fuel costs go). When we were in the tunnel under the bay, a loud screach was constant, but when we were above ground, it was quiet enough for us to have conversations from across the train's car. Very cool.

And now I sound like a dork.

At any rate, during the course of the train ride, we got to know Eva a bit better, which was very groovy, as I now see what a really great individual she is - Dave has chosen well. Also, this lead to discussions about welding, tattoos, and the different quality of East Coast vs. West Coast subway urine (Nancy, if you're reading, Eva assures me that San Francisco BART urine is fresher and more healthful than New york subway urine).

Well, we got to Berkeley about an hour before the talk. When we entered the building that houses the auditorium, we discovered that a line stretched throughout the entire length of the hallway that formed the building's outer perimiter. Apparently people had begun lining up hours earlier. We were a bit concerned about getting in (Dave especially so), but we took our place at the end of the line (and within minutes the line behind us was outside of the building and winding around the courtyard).

It is often said that the non-religious can not or will not form social groups or provide each other with support and a sense of belonging that religions do. What a load of crap. As evidence I provide things such as James Randi's "The Amazing Meeting", the increasing number of atheist/agnostic social and charitable organizations springing up around the country, and the line we were in on Saturday night.

Everyone with whom I spoke was extremely friendly, and everyone was clearly enjoying the shared experience of waiting for the talk (and we would all later enjoy the talk). Suffice to say that the feeling of community that I remember from those times that I have attended a church was present that evening as well.

After we were in line for about an hour (by the way, if you are going to be in line with a group in Berkeley, send one of the group out to get pizza slices from Blondie's Pizza - trust me on this one), representatives of the student group who were sponsoring the talk came around and handed out tickets. With tickets firmly in hand, the line began to filter into the auditorium.

We quickly found out seats, and saw that Dr. Dawkins, was standing on the stage fiddling with a computer as various student organizers and what appeared to be faculty members from the university milled about to their own mysterious ends on the same stage. Dave looked over at me and said "You know, I'm dissappointed that he's up there already. I had hoped that the theatre would go dark, and the spotlights would focus on the roof of the auditorium, where we'd see him descened form a complex pulley system while wearing a liberace-style cape."

And then Dawkins walked off stage, the lights went low, and Dave got his wish.

Okay, that's not what happened. But what if it had happened that way...

...anyways, back to the story...

After a short bit, Dawkins did walk off stage, the lights did go low, and a spotlight appeared on the stage, where one of the student organizers was standing next to a microphone. Presently, she began to describe her organization (SANE - Students for a Nonreligious Ethos), and then to introduce Richard Dawkins (mysteriously, she omitted any mention of the steel cage match with Duane Gish), who took the stage and began his talk.

His talk was centered on his book "The God Delusion", which has just come out in paperback, and on addressing criticisms he had received for having written the book. I'll not go into the details of the talk - you can easily find and read the book, and similar talks by Dawkins as well as media appearances in which he discusses the same matters are easily accessible on Youtube, as well as other internet sites. What was fascinating to me was the way in which having an author actually speaking about (and reading from) a work will change the way that it is read. I had experienced this in the past, when I would meet or hear talks by researchers, and then find that I was reading their works in a different way than before. In this case, parts of the God Delusion that I found to be offensively shrill (and note that I actually agree with much of what was said in the book, but I found the perceived tone frustrating), when read by the author, came off as being funny, thoughtful, or simply direct, but not shrill. Frankly, I did not much care for the book I read it, but now I think I may re-read it. It's amazing how much information is conveyed by the tone of voice and the cadance of speech, two things that don't come out in print.

At any rate, the talk was really very entertaining, and if you get a chance, I highly recommend taking the opportunity to hear Dawkins speak. The talk ended with a Q&A session that was interesting, though brief.

After the talk, I walked out to a table set up by the Center for Inquiry (a pro-critical thinking think-tank type organization), and discovered that they have just opened a San Francisco office (groovy), and I bought a Richard Dawkins book tour T-shirt (how many biology professors have rockband-style tour t-shirts? Only one that I know of, my friend). I then proceeded outside to see that Dave and Eva were standing, books in hand, to have them signed. Yep, not only did ol' Tricky Dicky Dawkins have a rocktour t-shirt, he also had a line of fans (and there were literally hundreds of people in line) waiting for his autograph.

Again, how many biology professors can claim that?

Well, in honor of Dr. Dawkin's native land, we did our best impression of Brittons and cued in line waiting our turn. Again, the folks around us seemed pretty cool, and everyone was happy to be there. When we finally got up to the front of the line, Dave, Eva, and John got their books signed, and we all got a group photo taken with Doc Dawkins.

Afterwards, we headed out to a bar in Berkeley for some drinks, food, and some conversation. I don't recall the name of the bar, though I do remember that someone had scrawled "Unholy" on the towel dispenser in the men's room. I don't know why. We got to hear what John had been up to, heard more from Eva, and Dave discussed his philosophy on approaching reality (which, considering that we formed them seperately during times where we had limited contact with each other, are bizarrely like my own).

In all, a good night, and I think a good time was had by all.

Part of me feels bad about posting a "what I did with my weekend" blog - I'm sure that many folsk want to hear more about inane government officials and nutty professors and less about my personal life. But, you know, it was a great way to spend a day.


Kay said...

I was already disappointed to have missed this… but now even more so as I would be curious as to what you would have tagged the regional motto for Northern California…

Also, BART is great… but nothing can surpass the joy of the Light Rail!

Nancy said...

Yup, you *do* know Nancy.
And she *was* reading this entry.