27 November 2007

Heathens Take Manhattan: Part IV: My Generation

One of the best parts of my weekend in New York, and something I've just barely touched on so far, was getting to meet, and hang out with some of my fellow student activists from around the globe*. CFI flew a whole slew of us out and, sadly, I didn't get to spend a lot of time with everyone, but the ones I did get to know were awesome-- way more awesome, in fact, than those of you who aren’t them. Sorry, but it had to be said.

When I flew in on Thursday, Sarah was the only other out-of-towner around, so I gave her a call and she very easily directed me from airport to bus to subway to hostel. This girl had been in town all of two hours longer than me and she was walking around like a pro. All weekend, she was the one person who always knew how to get from point A to point B . . . I'm pretty sure that's her mutant power.

Sarah, being both a good traveler and a vegan, came equipped with a list of vegan friendly restaurants that we'd be near. Without her, it's entirely possible that I would have starved on the streets of New York. Actually, I take that back, without her, I would have never found my way to the streets of New York and would have starved sitting in LaGuardia, mulling over a map and trying to figure out just what the hell a "borough" is.

And then there was Alon. Alon met up with Sarah and me to see The Drowsy Chaperone (which he hated and Sarah and I enjoyed). Alon lives in New York, though he's originally from Micronesia. I'm not sure there's much I can say about Alon that isn't already destined to be in the history books . . . Let me just throw this little fact at you: The guy is 17 years old and a grad student in mathematics** at Columbia. He's a living encyclopedia. Just don't ask him to figure out how much you're supposed to tip . . . because he will-- to the eighth decimal point.

Roy, from UCLA, is also a little tyke with a big brain. Roy is awesome-- even though he's also a math dork. He and Nidia (also awesome, also a math dork, only she has pink hair which Roy does not) both showed up at the hostel just as Sarah and I were heading out for breakfast Friday morning so the four of us ended up doing the city together. In Central Park we found a long division problem that someone had written in the dirt. All three of my companions stopped and marveled as if it were a hieroglyph found on the side of a mountain. I think they were actually more impressed with the dirt long division than they were with most of the things we saw at the MOMA. Math dorks are funny that way.

Somewhere along the way we picked up Ben (the George Harrison of math dorks) and Shalini (who is half my age and twice my IQ) and I found myself in the unenviable position of being the sole English major in a pack of math dorks.

We all made our way to the Natural History Museum where, after much struggle, we finally caught up with Alon again. Let me tell you, if you're going to go to the Natural History Museum, the way to do it is with a bunch of Freethinking math dorks. Freethinking math dorks with cameras, to be precise.

Now, rarely am I the smartest person in the room but I'm also not often the dumbest guy in the room. Hanging out with Sarah, Roy, Nidia, Ben, Shalini and Alon, I was, without question, the dumbest guy in the room. That experience was not to be alleviated all weekend until the flight back to Grand Rapids***.

At the conference I met a stunning number of new awesome people: the awesome Canadian foursome, Mara (another theatre kid!), Kristine (my fellow Overflow Room Bouncer), Chris (the revolutionary), Lucia (the Dawkins dork), Sean and Brett (our own little Okies), Byung (good ol' B), Roger (all the way from Edinburgh), Blake (who is just about the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet), and Tommy and Alex and Vikkey and Lisa and literally dozens of my brilliant (for Chris' sake, I won't say "bright"), and enthusiastic peers.

When you look at the Freethought movement, whether it’s CFI Michigan or any other group, it doesn't take a math dork to see that the average age is, well, closer to Paul Kurtz than it is to Alon and Shalini. Being at this conference and seeing so many young people who are dedicated to the cause and chomping at the bit to take on the world, made my little heretic heart pump with joy****.

This is a group of young people who absolutely defy the stereotype of the lazy, apathetic, self-absorbed idiots that our generation is so often clapped with. For the first time, at this conference, I felt really . . . hopeful, I guess, for the younger generation. When you compare the voter turn out for 18-25 year olds in the last election with the same age group thirty years ago, it’s fairly devastating. But that weekend in New York showed me that some of us haven’t given up. Most of the students I met were people who had taken the initiative to lead or, in many cases, start organizations at their schools. That’s no small feat. Adding that workload on to the already daunting tasks of school and work is a fairly quixotic endeavor and it’s so encouraging seeing so many Rationalist dreamers take it on.

As we parted ways on Sunday afternoon, I felt the same kind of feelings I had experienced years earlier when leaving church camp—only, instead of being filled with the Holy Spirit I was filled with a sense of community and purpose. We hugged all of our new BFF’s good-bye and vowed that we’d keep in touch. And I hope we do. I hope this new community we created over a long weekend in New York does have a lasting impact. I hope that as the new friends I made rise to fame and become the new voices of secular values that they remember me and, most importantly, give me expensive presents that they purchase with the advances from their book deals.

I totally promise to do the same when I strike it rich.

*Okay, mostly just the U.S. and Canada***** but Roger is from Ireland so, at the very least, there was transcontinental representation.

**I'm sure it's not just 'mathematics,’ but every time he started to explain what he studies my brain shut down and the Lollipop Guild song started playing in my head-- that's what happens when people talk math to me.

***Even my flight to Chicago was packed with Rhodes Scholars. The flight attendant was writing a dissertation on "Being and Nothingness" as she served drinks.

****Well, actually it was just blood. But it was joyous and freshly optimistic blood.

*****Which is a Native American term meaning: “Country that is much like America only with Socialism, better health care, gay marriage, and funny accents.”


Roy said...

Y'know, I still have around 90 conference pics to upload...final projects are killing me.

So a few things, EXCELLENT POST first of all. But here are a few facts to check:
-Alon is 19, not 17...although I believe I'm forgetting some sort of joke here, right?
-Shalini is not a math dork per se...she's a biology (or was that microbiology) and economics major with a minor in religious studies (ahhh, too many subjects!)
-Last, your last '*****' is not in the body of the text but you have this: *****Which is a Native American term meaning: “Country that is much like America only with Socialism, better health care, gay marriage, and funny accents.”
So I'm assuming somewhere in the post you missed a '*****.'

Fletcher said...

Yes, yes, Alon is not actually 17, nor is he from Micronesia. And while Shalini is not a math dork, it should be noted that is really is 17.

As far as ***** goes, that's actually a footnote from within the first footnote.

Brett said...

I think Dave payed everybody such nice compliments, especially me and Sean. Being called an "Okie" is the best compliment you can pay somebody ya know.

Roy said...

What is an "okie" aside from being some sort of ultimate compliment?

Brett said...

I guess people outside of this part of the country don't realize that "okie" is a disparaging and derogatory term.

Fletcher said...

I didn't mean it to disparage, for what its worth . . .

Sarah said...

Why am I just now reading this?

Nicely done! I just relived several moments. Sigh. I miss everyone.