Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour In Search Of
About John Hodgman's TED Talk
Humorist John Hodgman tells a story about aliens, physics, time, space and the way they all contribute to a sweet, perfect memory of falling in love.
About John Hodgman
You may know John Hodgman as the PC in Apple's PC vs. Mac ads, or as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart's Resident Expert. He's also the author of The Areas of My Expertise, which provides vital and completely fake details on the great lobster conspiracy, hobos, nine U.S. presidents who had hooks for hands, and how to win a fight; the followup More Information Than You Require; and That Is All.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Next up - John, can you introduce yourself, please?
JOHN HODGMAN: My name is John Hodgman.
HODGMAN: Do you need more?
RAZ: No, that's great.
HODGMAN: I mean, that should be explanatory to all of humanity.
RAZ: So you're a writer, a humorist - is humorist weird? Is it, like, a weird word?
HODGMAN: No, not at all.
RAZ: It just sounds like, you know...
HODGMAN: Being a humorist is much easier than being a comedian, which is also what I am sometimes. A humorist does not need to produce laughter. A humorist just needs to produce wry chuckles among the arched eyebrow set.
RAZ: How to cook an owl, 700 hobo names, nine presidents who had hooks for hands - these are just a few of the subjects John Hodgman covers in his book trilogy of "Complete World Knowledge," but one of his favorite subjects is the idea of alien abduction.
HODGMAN: May I just say, I think I understand why there is a pervasive phenomena of people describing the same alien abduction experience, of being visited in the middle of the night by strange beings who need to perform operations on us.
HODGMAN: Most humans have worn diapers as children, and most humans had them changed in the middle of the night.
RAZ: John Hodgman's "Complete World Knowledge," we should mention, is not necessarily true, but his story about searching for life from another planet is. And we'll hear it in just a minute. I'm Guy Raz, and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, "In Search Of." And the thing about searching, whether it's for aliens or for a giant squid, is that sometimes the search is really just about waiting, which is what writer John Hodgman's search was about, too. His search - or actually, his wait - is really a story that you kind of have to hear in full. So we're going to play it now, front to back, and then we'll talk to John after. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
HODGMAN: In the summer of 1950, Enrico Fermi, the Italian-American physicist and atomic-pile builder, went to lunch at Los Alamos National Laboratory and joined some colleagues there and asked them a question; where is everybody? This confused his colleagues, obviously because they were sitting right there with him. And then he had to clarify that he wasn't talking about them, he was talking about the space aliens. You see, this was only a few years after the supposed flying saucer crash at Roswell, New Mexico. And even though that turned out to be nothing, nothing at all...
HODGMAN: ...Still, America had gone saucer-mad, even famous scientists who were eating lunch. Fermi's reasoning, if I may paraphrase badly, is that the universe is so vast that it stands to reason, there should be other intelligent life out there. And the universe is so old that unless we were the very first civilization ever to evolve, we should have some evidence of their existence by now. And yet, to the best of our knowledge, we are alone. Where is everybody, asked Fermi, and his colleagues had no answer. Fermi then went on with the same blunt logic to disprove fairies, Sasquatch, God, the possibility of love. And thereafter, as you know, Enrico Fermi ate alone.
HODGMAN: Now, I am not a scientist. However, with respect, I might point out two possibilities that Enrico Fermi perhaps did not consider. One is that the aliens might be very far away. Perhaps, I daresay, even on other planets.
HODGMAN: The other possibility is, perhaps, Enrico Fermi himself was an alien.
HODGMAN: Think about it. Isn't a little convenient that in the midst of the World War, out of nowhere, suddenly an Italian scientist showed up with an amazing, new technology that would transform everything in the world and darken our history of the human species forever after? And isn't it a little strange that he required no payment for this, that he asked for only one thing - a gift of two healthy sperm whales? That's not true. But it is strange.
HODGMAN: For it is given in certain UFO-ology or UFOlogy circles that the aliens are already here and have been for millennia, that they have walked among us in disguise, observed us, guiding our evolution from ape to man - if you believe in that sort of thing - and occasionally kidnapping us in their flying saucers and taking us away to have sex with us in pyramids.
HODGMAN: It's a difficult theory to discount, I think you'll agree.
HODGMAN: For even in my own life, there are memories I have that are difficult to explain, happenings that are so odd and unaccountably weird, that it is difficult to imagine they were not the result of prolonged and frequent contact with aliens throughout my life. For how else will you explain the amazing and absolutely true close encounters that I had and will describe to you now? Encounter one - Ocean City, New Jersey, 1980. This was the summer when the special edition of "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" was released, and I went on vacation with my parents to the Jersey shore. Within 12 hours, I was horribly sunburned, just like Richard Dreyfuss in the movie.
HODGMAN: And so I spent the rest of the vacation largely sitting outside our little rental house at night, the sidewalk still warm from the sun, watching the skies for UFOs. What did I see - stars, satellites, blinking airplanes - typical sky junk. Occasionally, kids would come and join me and watch, but their necks soon got sore, and they would go off to the boardwalk to play video games and mingle with humans. I was pretty good at the video games. I was not very good at the other part, so I stayed, alone with the cosmos. And that's when it happened. An elderly couple came walking down the street. I would say they were in their late 70s. And I would say that they were on a date because he was wearing a very neat, little suit with a yellow tie - a brown suit, and she was wearing a cardigan because it was now fully night, now, and a chill was coming in off the ocean. I remember, for some reason, that they were exactly the same height. And then they stopped, and the man turned to me and said, what are you looking for, flying saucers?
HODGMAN: You have to admit, that's a pretty boss piece of detective work for an old man on a date. But what was stranger still - and even I realized it at the time as a 9-year-old child - was that they stopped at all, that this old man would interrupt his moonlight stroll with his sweetheart with the precise reason of making fun of a child. Oh, he said, little green men. And then his girlfriend joined in, too. There's no such thing as space men, she said. There's no such thing. And then they both laughed, ha, ha, ha. I looked around. The street was entirely empty. I had stopped hearing the sound of the ocean. It was as though time had stopped. I did not know why they were teasing me. I looked into their strangely angry faces, and I remember wondering, are they wearing rubber masks?
HODGMAN: And what would be behind those rubber masks if they were? And they turned at once and walked away. The old man reached out his knobbly claw for the woman's hand and found it and left me alone. Now, you could describe this as a simple misunderstanding, a strange encounter among humans. Maybe it was swamp gas, but...
HODGMAN: ...I know what I saw. Close encounter two, Brookline, Massachusetts, 1984. I went to see the movie "Dune," and a girl talked to me. Now, on its face...
HODGMAN: This is impossible on its face, I realize. But it is absolutely true. It was opening night, naturally. I went with my friend Tim McGonigal (ph), who sat on my left. On my right was the girl in question. She had long, curly black hair, a blue jean jacket. I remember she had some sort of injury to her ankle - an ACE Bandage, and she had crutches. She didn't go to my school. I didn't know her name, and I never will. She was sitting with someone who I presume was her mother, and they were talking about the novel "Dune." They were both big fans, mother and daughter - very unusual. They were talking about how their favorite characters were the giant sandworms. And then it got stranger. That's when she turned to me and said, are you looking forward to seeing the movie?
HODGMAN: First of all, I was embarrassed because I had not read the novel "Dune" at that time. I was merely a connoisseur of movies featuring desert planets, as I still am. But it was also the tone of how she asked the question, apropos of nothing, like she didn't even care about the answer, as though she just wanted to talk to me. I did not know what to say. I said, yes. I did not even turn my head. The movie began. I need not remind you that this was David Lynch's version of "Dune," in which all the characters were sexy and deformed at the same time.
HODGMAN: When the movie ended, everyone seemed very happy to get up and get out of the theater as soon as possible, except for the girl. As I walked out, her pace slowed - perhaps it was the crutches. But it seemed...
HODGMAN: It seemed as though she might want to talk to me again. When I say it out loud, it sounds so ridiculous that I can only come to the conclusion that it was what, in the alien abductee community they call a screen memory, a ridiculous false recollection designed by the brain to cover up some trauma, say of being kidnapped and flown off to a sex pyramid.
HODGMAN: And so I sure am glad I did not slow down to talk to her. I sure am glad I never saw her again. Close encounter three - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1989. In the late - mid-to-late '80s, the novelist Whitley Strieber wrote a book called "Communion" in which he described his own lifelong experience as being abducted by aliens. And he also described the phenomenon known in this community as lost time, where Whitley Strieber would suddenly become aware that he could not remember the previous 10 minutes or the previous 10 hours or the previous 10 days and would come to the conclusion that that was when the aliens were taking him and giving him rectal probes.
HODGMAN: This book became, naturally, an enormous best-seller. And it was so successful that they made into a movie. And in 1989, the way I remember it, I was in Philadelphia visiting my girlfriend. And we decided, apropos of nothing, to go see this movie. And the way I remember it, the movie featured these details - one - Whitley Strieber was was played by Christopher Walken. Two - the alien was played by a rubber puppet. Three - there was a surprisingly long sequence of the film in which the rubber puppet gives Christopher Walken a rectal probe. Does something seem strange about this to you - something odd, something off, something wrong with this picture? Think about it - yes - the answer is I had a girlfriend. What?
HODGMAN: How did this happen? When did this happen? I remember walking out of the theater and becoming suddenly aware of this fact as we walked hand in hand and pondering these very same questions. And to this day, I have no answer for you. Close encounter four - the Algarve, Portugal, 1991. Some years later, I and this woman - we'll call her Katherine Fletcher (ph)....
HODGMAN: ...Went traveling through the south of Portugal together. We stayed in old, crumbling, walled cities in tiny, little hotels, and we would climb up to the roof and drink Vinho Verde and watch the sunset and play checkers. What? Did we do this really? Does anyone do this? Not in my life. For what it's worth, we went to Sagres, which was considered at the time to be the end of the world, and there I was chased by a pack of feral dogs in the dock. And the lead dog bit me on the ass, requiring me to go to a strange Portuguese clinic and receive an ass shot. Make of that what you will.
HODGMAN: Our last day in Portugal, we were in the district capital of Faro and Katherine decided that she wanted to go to the beach one last time. Now Faro is a bustling little city, and to get to the beach, she explained, you would have to take a bus and then a boat, and did I want to come with? But I was exhausted and dog-bitten, and so I said no. I remember what she looked like before she left. The freckles had grown and multiplied on her face and shoulders, clustering into a kind of a tan - a tan - we were both tan. Is this true? Her eyes were extra bright and extra blue as a result. She was smiling. She was a single woman about to go alone into a country, not even speaking the language, to travel alone by bus and boat to go to a beach she did not know or had never seen. I loved her and then she went out into that strange alien land. It took me some time to come to my senses. I had my own lost time moment where I woke up and suddenly realized it was very late in the day, almost dinnertime, and she had not come back. Nervous, I went down to the street to look for her. Now, I did not speak Portuguese. I did not know where the beach was. I could not call her on a cell phone because this was 1991 and the aliens had not given us that technology yet.
HODGMAN: I realized that the day would only have two possible outcomes; either Kathryn would come back to the hotel or she would never come back to the hotel. And so I sat down to wait. I did not watch the skies but the very end of the street where the buses and cars and pedestrians and little scooters were moving along. And I watched those constellations shift, hoping that they would part and I would see her face. It was at that moment, in that very small town of 30,000 or so that I truly appreciated the vastness of the universe and the searching we might do in it. And that's when the Liberians came along - five young men all laughing, happy, traveling together, coming back to this hotel where they were staying. One of them was named Joseph and he asked me what was I doing, and I explained. And he said don't worry, he was sure that Katherine would be safe. But he did not seem so very sure for he sat down to wait with me. And for the next two hours, they all waited with me, taking turns going up to their room, coming back, telling me jokes, distracting me. Two hours, they gave me a message - we are not alone. And then in the middle of a sentence, at the very birth of twilight, I turned and looked down the street, the stars aligned and she came back. She was smiling, she did not understand why I was so worried, neither did the Liberians, though there was a huge amount of relief in their laughter as they clapped us on the back and went back up to their room and left us alone in the street holding hands. An event like this leaves a scar on the memory, much like a piece of alien technology that has been inserted into your buttocks by a Portuguese doctor.
HODGMAN: And even now, a decade and a half later, even now that we are married, I look for her still whenever she is not in the room. And even though I think you'll agree it is probable that during the time she was away she was kidnapped and replaced by an alien clone, I love her and wait for her still. Thank you for your kind attention.
RAZ: That's writer and humorist John Hodgman on the TED stage. John, are you - you are still with us, right?
HODGMAN: Yes, I have not been taken away by aliens. That would be a fun ending to this radio appearance.
RAZ: Yeah. So this started out as a story about a search for aliens and it kind of ends as a story about searching for love, and really the love part, for you, seemed the more improbable one.
HODGMAN: Right and, you know, in many ways it's not a story about searching for love. It's a story about waiting. And the fact is that for humanity, waiting for aliens is equally as improbable, but that doesn't mean you don't sit out on the steps and wait and hope.
RAZ: So after listening to your story and then the other people that we heard from earlier talking about searching, I wonder if the thing that propels the search is, like, not knowing.
HODGMAN: Not knowing is a very hard thing for the human mind to tolerate. And, you know, that really was the lesson that I understood in Portugal at the end. You can contemplate the stars, literally, for your entire life, but you don't understand the true size of the world until someone you care about is out there in it and you don't know where. That is when the universe really feels big. And when they come back, it feels good.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU CAME FROM OUTER SPACE")
THE KIRBY STONE FOUR: (Singing) I'll never forget that fabulous thrill, that wonderful day the earth stood still. You appeared in the halo of heavenly light. Were you real?
Really real or just a meteorite?
RAZ: By the way, Jon Hodgman and his wife Katherine celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary last year. John's got another great TED Talk at ted.com. He's got a great podcast. You can find it at maximumfun.org, it's called Judge John Hodgman. Thanks for listening to our show this week on searching. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Brent Bachman, Megan Cain, Sanaz Meshkinpour and Neva Grant. I'm Guy Raz and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading here at on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU CAME FROM OUTER SPACE")
THE KIRBY STONE FOUR: (Singing) You left without a trace. I guess you couldn't stand the pace. What magic did you bring from - wherever did you spring from? You fascinating thing from outer space.
Nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one - blast off. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.