Alexandra Duncan

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism.


This evening after work I came home and zombie-walked straight into my bedroom, where I passed out for a good 45 minutes before Jeremy and the cat could wake me up. (They both wanted dinner.) I've been out late almost every night this week. No, I haven't been out clubbing or drinking with friends or any of the other activities carefree 20-somethings are supposed to indulge in. Instead, I have possibly the nerdiest excuse for being tired ever: I've been out attending lectures.
On Monday night, Jeremy and I went downtown to see psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker speak at a local independent bookstore. I've been a fan of Pinker ever since we read excerpts from his book, The Language Instinct, in my History of the English Language class at college. I even ordered The Language Instinct several years back, and like the raving, frothing fan girl I am, I brought my copy with me to the store.
Pinker was there promoting his new book, The Stuff of Thought, on Monday evening. We arrived just before 8 p.m., but the store was already trying the patience of the fire code, and a crowd of people had spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of the store. We couldn't hear Pinker from the back of the crowd, so Jeremy and I roamed the streets for a while and read aloud from chapter three of The Language Instinct, which deals with the question of whether our vocabulary and grammatical constructs control our thought processes or vice versa, and whether the careful control of language can be used as a form of brainwashing. Are you beginning to see the depths of my madness now?

The crush of people outside the bookstore thinned out after about 30 minutes, and we were able to stand by the door and listen to the last portion of Pinker's talk. He was in the middle of talking about direct and indirect speech, and why we often perceive direct speech as rudeness, when a neatly dressed man with an unruly wave of gray hair sidled up behind us.

"I guess he's a Harvard professor, right?" he said. His voice was loud enough to make people several feet in front of us turn around. "A Harvard professor. I was thinking he sounded kind of like a teacher. You know, he has that teacher voice, like he's talking down."

"Yeah, well, he's written a lot of books." The young man to our right turned his head and spoke over his shoulder. He had been quietly fuming throughout the outburst. "And you haven't written any."

Jeremy and I gaped at the young man, and the older man turned on his heel and slunk off down the street. We were able to listen to the rest of the speech in peace.

After Pinker finished his speech, we snuck in and got in line so I could have him sign the book I brought with me. I was embarrassed that I hadn't heard the entire speech, and also a little starstruck, so I couldn't think of anything to say when I got up to the table, except, "Thank you so much for speaking tonight." Then I stuck out the book for him to sign, feeling like a complete tool.

"You know, I have a chapter in here on why names become popular," he said when he saw the post-it note where I'd written my name.

"Oh!" I said. Of course I knew that, but I was feeling a little lobotomized at the moment.

"I saw another person with your same name earlier this week," he said, looping his name across the title page. "I guess yours is one of those that's popular for your generation."

"Oh," I said again, too slow to keep the disappointment out of my voice. For most of my life, my name has been relatively unusual, but several years ago, one of those companies that makes slutty Barbie rip-offs gave one of their dolls the same name as me, and then the Trojan company decided to name their new line of prophylactics aimed at women with a name disturbingly similar to my own.

Not me.

I'm obviously still traumatized.

Steven Pinker, bless him, backtracked and smiled at me. "In my generation, it was Steve," he offered. "Everyone was named Steve."

And then I giggled, fully completing my brief, mortifying encounter with one of the smartest, wittiest men alive, and scurried off into the crowd to find Jeremy.

On Tuesday night, I went to my weekly evening class on adolescent literature.

On Wednesday night, we rested.

On Thursday night, we were at it again, this time heading downtown to hear Art Spiegelman give a lecture on the "History of Comix 101."
I was expecting a dour, downbeat evening, partly because this past Thursday was the anniversary of Sept. 11th, and partly because I'd been reading Maus, Spiegelman's Pulitizer Prize-winning account of his parents' survival during the Holocaust. And while Spiegelman acknowledged both and talked about the pain the events had caused him, I was surprised to find he was. . . funny. He was charming and self-deprecating, a good speaker, and he joked with us before beginning his lecture.
"I thought they were finally sending me out into the real American," he told us. "But that was because I hadn't done my homework and didn't realize I was really coming to a suburb of New York."

Spiegelman took us through the origins of comics in the Sunday papers and cheap rags, the comics code of the 1950s, and the underground comics movement of the '70s, to the nearly-respectable art form comics and graphic novels have become today. He wove his own story through the larger history, and gave us something both sweeping and personal to chew over on our way home. It was a good evening.

So, now maybe you understand the full measure of my nerdiness. If not, I'm sure there will be future installments detailing my invigorating evenings out at local lecture halls. Don't miss a minute of the excitement! Stay tuned!

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