Being Alien: An Essay in Progress

Today, while doing my morning exercises, I clicked through Netflix and ended up watching “First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon.” It’s a fascinating documentary about an anthropologist’s first interaction with one of the isolated tribes of the region. But my interest wasn’t only intellectual. I was curious about how the tribe Daniel and I had once met might have fared. (To read a bit about our experience in the Amazon, please go to a lighthearted piece I did for Lawrence Schoen’s Eating Authors.)

According to “First Contact,” an Amazon region of about 30,000 square miles (spread across the border between Brazil and Peru) is home to the majority of “uncontacted” people in the planet. Uncontacted means that we have no records of any interaction between them and the outside modern world. However, many (if not most) have been watching us for a long time. Read More

Tell Me Your Story

According to rumor, Mr. Rogers carried this quote from the author Mary Lou Kownacki in his wallet: “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love, once you’ve heard their story.” Whether or not he did, it’s a lovely thought that reflects an important pillar of my life’s work.

We all judge strangers based on our initial impression of them. Their physical appearance. Their smile or frown or vacant stare. What they are wearing. How they carry themselves or the sound of their voice. It’s a natural instinctive reaction to new stimuli that I suppose helped our ancestors when we were hunter/gatherers, when new encounters could lead to life or death decisions.

Though we have evolved since then, modern life is Read More

Slang: The Secret Handshake that Separates “Us” from “Them”

Shalom Salam by Sally Wiener GrottaOkay, I admit it, I’m acrynomically challenged. It seems that new abbreviations appear daily on my twitter feed, in emails, even in articles of magazines that I think of as mainstream (i.e. written in “commonly accepted” English). And I’m sent scurrying to Google to try to find the newest definitions for acronyms that didn’t exist or meant something entirely different the last time I looked.

Language has always been the dividing line between “insiders” and “outsiders.” In one story in the Bible, how a person pronounced the word “shibboleth” determined whether a sentry would kill him or let him pass. So it has been through the centuries. Words and accents have determined what tribe will accept you, whether it’s social class, professional standing or “belonging” to a certain group, gang or tribe. But it seems to me that it’s gotten worse in this digital age.

Of course, language is a living, malleable thing, always changing. The slang of the 1920s is now considered either passé or has been integrated into college curriculum for English Lit 101. As an author, I enjoy Read More

Black & White: Are Social Networks Divided Along Racial Lines?

Black_and_White_on_Facebook A fellow author whom I respect said to me today, “Despite everything, whenever I imagine a character who hasn’t been fully described in a book, I see him or her as a Caucasian.”

That set me wondering. Is that a touch of racism that he’s admitting to? Or is it simply human nature, to imagine people as being like ourselves?

Then, he went even further. He asked me to look at my social networks, at the profile pictures associated with the thousands of “friends” and “likes” of my various pages and profiles.

I was surprised. Among my social network connections who have an actual photograph rather than an avatar or symbol for their profile pic, the vast majority are white or pale skinned. Not that it’s all vanilla, but the handful of Blacks, Asians and such were so sparse that they seemed to be the exceptions that defined a rule.

My friend’s explanation for it is that we have become more and more tribal as a culture and a country, that everyone tends Read More