Imagine, if you will, an alien visitation. What if an alien, an interstellar tourist, landed in the Hudson Valley and all [insert gender-neutral alien pronoun here] had to explain the contemporary state of the human race was a copy of the October issue of Chronogram? Admittedly, this raises all kinds of suspension of disbelief issues, like 1) How is the alien—let's say the alien's name is Qwerty Fizzlemickle and sidestep the pronoun issue—reading the magazine? Does Qwerty have some kind of Babel fish-type translation eyewear, a la Google Glass, that allows Qwerty to read English? 2) How does Qwerty get a copy of the magazine? We don't have any distribution points in any fields in Pine Bush (Communion, anyone?), so are we to believe that Qwerty just walks into Adams Fairacre Farms, buys some groceries for the trip home and picks up a copy of Chronogram on the way out? 2a) The fact that Qwerty is able to find a copy of the magazine at Adams at all, given the velocity at which it flies off the shelves at their locations, may be the most difficult part of this thought experiment to believe.
But I invite you to set all these piffles aside and sit back, relax your mind, and take in an extraterrestrial's view of life in the Hudson Valley, as told to me, via mindmeld by Qwerty Fizzlemickle.
We're still into still lifes.
The last time Qwerty visited Earth was a few hundred years ago. At the time, he noted the impressive painting being done by Flemish masters like Jan Breughel the Elder and Johannes Vermeer—geniuses of light and composition really pushing the Northern Renaissance over the top. To find a still life on the cover of a 21st-century magazine (November Conversation by Eric Forstmann; On the Cover, page 14) is baffling to Qwerty. What is it with humans and painting shadows of furniture?
We're cooperative and generous.
Qwerty is impressed with forward-thinking humans like Julie Bouchet-Horwitz, who runs the Hudson Valley Milk Bank ("Got Breast Milk?," page 42). On a planet that seemingly glorifies violence and does little to stop it (While You Were Sleeping, page 22), it's refreshing to see homespun networks form to provide basic sustenance. Breast milk is the race's most basic need, and one that has nothing to do with any technology more advanced than refrigeration.
We're hung up on gender.
How is it, Qwerty asks, that women only make up only a quarter of the workforce in the tech sector? ("Code-Switching," page 24) What could possibly account for such a disparity on a planet where women make up 51 percent of the population? Perhaps there is some biological differentiator that explains it: Are the men writing code with their penises?
Our medicine is finally catching up to our technology.
Like any highly evolved alien, Qwerty knows that energy—what the Chinese call chi and the yogis call prana—is more than a metaphor. As energy healer Simone Harrari says: "Electricity cannot be seen, but no one questions that it's running through the wiring when we turn on the lights" ("Good Vibrations," page 96). The same is true for all beings. Whether or not you believe in the power of crystals or Reiki or reflexology, it is as Dr. Aruna Bakhru suggests: "All healing is energy healing."
We're growing little sea bugs in tanks so we can eat them.
Humans are a resourceful species, Qwerty notes. Once they overfished their oceans, they just brought the whole operation inside ("A Little Shellfish," page 86). Eco Shrimp Garden in Newburgh is the first indoor shrimp farm in New York State, operated by an exuberant Brazilian, Jean Claude Frajmund, who says things like, "My shrimp are happy!" They might be happy in the water, Qwerty thinks, but after that?
We have bizarre celebrations.
It's unfortunate when you have to retreat and your enemy burns your city. It happens on other planets just like it does on Earth—a universal constant, perhaps. So Qwerty understands the logic behind the British putting a torch to the first capital of New York in 1777. What defies logic to Qwerty is why we so fervently celebrate the victory of our tormentors 200-some-odd years later ("Burning of Kingston," page 108). Qwerty wonders how much of the city gets burned during the reenactment, and how that's decided.
Banks own our homes.
Qwerty can wrap his alien brain around the idea of a mortgage: You live somewhere, you pay rent to a landowner at interest, and eventually you own the house and land ("The Little Bank on the Corner," page 23). Here's the bit Qwerty doesn't get, however: How did the bank get the land in the first place? Did the bank always own the land? Who owned the land to begin with? Did they just start a big bank and start subdividing? How come some people have big parcels of land and others have none? Does the bank decide that, too?
We think we're quite funny.
Stand-up comedy is a bit odd to Qwerty. People hold a voice amplification device and make observations, and/or confessions, and/or outraged pleas for fewer varieties of doughnuts and wait for other humans to laugh. This is all a bit lost on Qwerty, but [alien pronoun] admires the number of people willing to stand at the microphone ("Naked Coffee," page 122). We also seem to think that we can divine the future by tracking the movements of heavenly bodies (Sign-by-Sign, page 124). Where Qwerty comes from, that planetary motion is called traffic, but he appreciates the directions home.