Before and since my teenage years, I’ve found his economy annoying, but it gave rise to what, entirely in hindsight, I recognize as a valuable aid to my ability to reason abstractly. My own spendthriftness of utterance (and any social skills I may have) I learned from my mother.
“Brian. Rule One,” Dad would call parsimoniously, without glancing up from his newspaper. I was left to translate for my uninformed friends: if it shakes the house, don’t do it. Rule One actually made a lot of sense for little boys. It had no loopholes.
Rule Two, which is what had me reminiscing about childhood regulations, had been pretty much ignored at the recent party. Think before you do things. Rule Two was promulgated long before I was of an age to drink, so Dad had never derived the obvious corollary: avoid important decisions while drunk and unable to think. (He would surely have shortened that. “Don’t drink and think,” sounds about right.)
The paper I’d envisioned, in that saki-sodden stupor, involved those whose interests were really multicultural. As in: enticed by cultures that weren’t even human. I’d somehow been egged on in my drunken state to propose a sociological analysis of UFO, pardon the judgmental expression, nuts. There were more than enough Internet chat rooms in which such people congregated for me to easily do a study. The problem wasn’t a lack of raw data, but the probable consequences of publication. The mind reeled at how such a paper would be received by my fellow academics. Yes, a few sociological papers did exist about UFOs and, excuse me while I throw up, Ufologists … but those were by safely tenured faculty. My thesis advisor slash mentor was not yet tenured; my highest priority was not being laughed out of renewal of my paltry fellowship.
Retracting my proposal could only draw more unwelcome attention to myself. Plan B, once panic receded, was the old switcheroo. I’d produce a paper that, while nominally consistent with my mercifully brief emailed abstract (how desperate were they for material?), was largely off the UFO topic. I’d reference the nuts, I decided, far less for what they believed than as a population across which to study the dissemination of ideas. My spirits lifted as the paper took form in my mind’s bloodshot eye: stolid, stilted, unassailably academic and unremittingly boring—as removed as could be from the sensationalism implied by the drunken abstract. With luck, the full paper would be rejected. Even without luck, I was going for something wholly forgettable.
My field and my passion is discourse analysis, a perspective at the intersection of literary studies, history, and traditional sociology. (Dad once made mention of roadkill at said intersection, but I refuse to go there.) The little-green-men believers were as valid a population as any for the study of vocabulary propagation and transformation. That is, I could extract trends and patterns in metaphors, themes, and figures of speech, then extrapolate to the social forces causing and caused by that imagery. Or I could go all simple and mechanical (and, truth be told, more safely dull). That would place the prospective paper in the entirely traditional and non-controversial sociological mainstream of content analysis: categorizing the topics within the text samples.
A few nights spent lurking in chat rooms yielded plenty of themes to be examined. Skinny gray men, it turned out, rather than little green ones. Evolutionary convergence, to explain ET’s humanoid appearance. Alien secrecy. Government cover-ups, usually involving men in black. (Why always men? Sexism among Ufologists could be another paper. I sternly dismissed that thought as an avoidable distraction.) Flying saucers: disk-shaped vehicles, when posturing to sound objective. Solid light—can you say oxymoronic? The ever-popular, if hard to justify, abduction claims. Ridicule factor, a self-fulfilling rationalization for the paucity of credible evidence. Luminous energy display. Arguments among proponents of saucer-borne beings, interdimensional entities, and time travelers.
Harder to process than the patent silliness were the scattered occurrences of logic.
One reason I was thinking of my parents, I knew, was the too-long unacknowledged happy-birthday recording they’d left on my answering machine. Admitting to myself that there was another explanation, I dialed my father’s office.
I’m more than a little bit murky about the types of physics. I didn’t know if what Dad did had any bearing on my problem—but I couldn’t say that it didn’t, or if that which I was pondering related to the even more abstruse arcana he collected on his own time. After a few pleasantries, I cleared my throat. “Say, Dad, are you familiar with Drake’s Equation?”