Nov 13 2008 4:39pm

Small World, Big Feet

Eric Spitznagel is quite a character. He used to walk around Chicago with a haircut to make Prince Valiant envious and a five o’clock shadow that would do Fred Flintstone proud, wearing boxer shorts on the outside of his long johns, and a tie knotted around his neck,over a t-shirt that said “Men Suck.” When we roamed and roomed together, over a decade ago, he would frequently (and loudly) act crazy to amuse himself on long L-train rides, babbling incoherent but friendly absurdities at whatever poor commuter looked most likely to be unsettled while I stood as far away from him as I could and fought down paroxysms of laughter. He worships at the idols of Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen, and Hunter S. Thompson. Since those days, he’s become quite a gonzo journalist in his own right. He’s co-authored an entire book about the cultural impact of Baywatch, penned another on the virtues of junk food, and his latest novel, Fast Forward, is about his brief stint as a screenwriter in the Burbank porn industry. (“Fast Forward” is the industry’s term for dialog.) He is a contributing editor at  The Believer, and a frequent contributor to such magazines as McSweeney’s, Playboy, Harper’s, Monkeybicycle, The Nose and He’s the acknowledged ghost writer for Ron Jeremy’s latest biography. He can be very, very funny, and very, very irreverent.

His also has a knack for pissing people off.

He’s written a piece for Vanity Fair, “Everything’s Bigfoot in Texas,” in which he “infiltrates” the Texas Bigfoot Conference. He hangs the piece on a researcher who claims to know everything from Sasquatch’s top speed, to his exact and very specific diet, to his sexual habits (apparently having observed a gang of Bigfeet at play.)

Drawing on interviews with dozens of eye-witnesses, Fahrenbach went on to say that Bigfoot’s diet is rich in mussels, clams, peacocks, and the “hindquarter” of deer. He insisted that Bigfoots enjoy wrestling, tickle fights, and, most surprisingly, gangbangs.

When quoting people who are this specific about something so unbelievable—tickle fights, really?—it’s hard not to snicker. I confess, I found the piece very funny, though I thought—as many of those who commented online at Vanity Fair did—that it struck a balance between the serious cryptozoologists and the starry-eyed true-believers, between those who tried to bring science to bear on Sasquatch’s trail and those who were off their rocker.

Eric says:

At least during the first half of this year’s conference, the speakers tried to prove that all Bigfoot researchers aren’t con artists or rednecks who subscribe to the Weekly World News. Most of the morning was devoted to raw data, delivered in a grave monotone by Daryl Colyer, a member of the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy. He rarely used the word Bigfoot, opting instead for vague descriptions like “unlisted primate species” or “unknown, upright hair-covered species.”

And he affords David Paulides, a Bigfoot researcher from Northern California, the opportunity to make this very good point:

...the biggest headlines are for the hoaxes and the people who probably aren’t doing the best kind of research. The guys in the background, who are sitting in the woods and doing the hard work, they aren’t getting the press they deserve.

This sort of media bias is something that is perhaps all too familiar to us in the science fiction field, when the press eschews talking to the eloquent, award-winning author at the science fiction convention in favor of seeking out the fattest and most socially dysfunctional Klingon in the room.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Hard SF writer Mike Brotherton has taken issue with the piece on his blog, in a post entitled, “A Rant about Non-Geek Geek Reporting.” Brotherton spells out his criticism thusly:

Whenever an outsider goes to a conference like this, or a science fiction convention, or an astronomy conference, or a Star Wars premiere, or anything specialized and strange to the public at large, and reports back just what the public wants to hear: the place is full of weirdos who believe weird things, and you can safely ignore them save for a quick laugh.

As the editorial director of the Pyr science fiction and fantasy imprint, I know where he is coming. Mainstream author Barbara Ehrenreich just recommended Ian McDonald’s River of Gods in the July issue of Time magazine, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz told us recently that he reads quite a few of our books (and gave us a killer endorsement for three of our authors and the line as a whole), but that sort of stuff often gets overlooked in favor of the aforementioned fat Klingon.

That being said—have you seen that TV commercial where the (chubby) father buys his (chubby) son a Viking helmet, horns and all, so they can watch football together in matching helms? Geeks are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes, and geek has been the new cool for a long time now. I’m not sure we need to think of ourselves as a disenfranchised minority any more, not when science fiction novels are winning Pulitzer Prizes and ranking on The New York Times bestseller list both.  And I disagree that a Bigfoot conference is analogous to a science fiction convention, in the same way that I think a UFO conference shouldn’t be confused with a science fiction convention either. Not surprisingly, very few science fiction writers that I know put any stock in UFO sightings. Reason—SF writers know a lot about science, Faster Than Light travel, the vast distances involved, the unlikelihood of something biologically similar enough to us to care about Earth making such a journey just to nab a few homo sapiens for the collection, etc... I’m not sure that Ian McDonald and “the foremost expert and collector of Sasquatch hair” really need to be equated.

Brotherton goes on to say:

How about when it comes to geeky but practical science? Us scientists don’t get hit quite so hard by the press, but sometimes, and the attitude is out there in the world at large. A friend of mine had a cousin who overheard a remark by former Vice President Dan Quayle before he addressed the American Astronomical Society some years ago. Quayle, regarding a significant fraction of the country’s best and brightest astronomers said, “They dress badly.”

Brotherton is right that we have a serious anti-science bias in this country, which has lead to the election of George Bush twice, the lack of support for valuable stem cell research, the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools, government mandated misrepresentation of climate change data, and America taking a radical drop in the last decade in the number of people graduating with science and engineering degrees. So I agree with him in principle that the media needs to get behind rationality, science, scientific endeavor, literacy, etc... and get over outdated stereotypes.

But I have to agree with Eric as well when he says:

It was impossible not to smile ... when Paulides made the disturbing revelation that Bigfoot might be drawn to menstruating women, and has been observed digging though garbage cans, looking for used tampons.If they don’t want to be ridiculed by the media, then they should try a little harder not to make it so easy.

 One of the comments on Vanity Fair declared that “Spitznagel manages to combine satire and true affection in this hilarious piece.” That’s my take, but I understand where Brotherton is coming from only too well. So what do you think?

1. harmfulguy
Of the three types of stories that mainstream journalists ever seem to write about subculture groups, Spitznagel's article looks like just another by-the-numbers "funny zoo animals" piece to me.
Mike Brotherton
2. mikebrotherton
Interesting take on my take on Eric's take....

I'm all for science and reason, and know that it is not always strictly applied in cryptozoology, but must every popular piece about geek subcultures always focus on how odd they are? Compared with the rest of the world, societal pressures in the U.S. are overwhelmingly negative about any sort of fringe activity. Well, I ranted enough about this already I think...had my say.
3. Falchion
Sounds like an anti-social jerk. But give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he's just a jerk.
Lou Anders
4. LouAnders
I totally forgot was that when I knew him in Chicago in the early 90s, his nickname was "Sasquatch."
5. Eric Spitznagel
An anti-social jerk? No, I'm pretty sure you're thinking of Gollum. I'm just a jerk with a chip on his shoulder because he wasn't invited to the Bigfoot tickle fight.

I'm surprised nobody mocked me for once wearing a tie around my head and thinking I was clever. Sounds to me like I was a fratboy douchebag.

I know it seems like I'm a big meanie, but I think I treated the Bigfooters pretty fairly, given what I had to work with. You should see what I left out. I didn't mention, for instance, that the German doctor also described how Sasquatch likes to spy on human ladies in the shower. Or the scientist who carefully explained to a 6 year-old girl that "Bigfoot is our friend." Or the guy who told me he'd had his own Bigfoot sighting before eventually admitting that it was just on YouTube.

Overall, though, I think Lou was right on the money. As usual. My only complaint is that he didn't have to point out that I'm roughly as hirsute as a large bipedal ape. Way to overshare, dude. Okay, next time I see you, you owe me a back shavin'.
James Enge
6. JamesEnge
I think I understand the impulse to react against mockery of a geeky group, but I don't see that going on in the Vanity Fair article. If ES just wanted to mock the snot out of Sasquatch-watchers, he needn't have elicited (or included) a skeptical but potentially supportive quote from an editor of Nature.

It's possible that the guys who are projecting their tamponic fantasies onto Bigfoot actually are ridiculous the way people who dress up in Star Wars costumes are ridiculous or anyone riding a private hobby horse in public is ridiculous. But if you don't run your freak flag up the flagpole, how is anyone ever going to salute it?
Lou Anders
7. LouAnders
...if you don't run your freak flag up the flagpole, how is anyone ever going to salute it?

Damn, I am so stealing that quote.

And as for the guy who told me he'd had his own Bigfoot sighting before eventually admitting that it was just on YouTube, man that's hysterical and sad at the same time, and maybe strikes to the heart of why I felt there was a distinction between credible researchers and glass-eyed believers.
Robert Curry
8. Robertgreenman
I loved Eric's article when I read it in VF, and think he really nails the combination of kooks, cranks, scammers...and serious researchers that made up this conference and the "Sasquatch community" at large.

I confess to owning a carved-wood Bigfoot figure, and to reading about the subject for years, but I am not a true beliver, but more a guy who enjoys a Big Mystery in the Big Woods, and doesn't need the mystery solved as either true or false. I'll be just as happy if it all stays a mystery.

Thanks for the article, Eric.
9. Eric Spitznagel
And thank you for the kind words, Robert.

I'm not above a little Bigfoot geekiness myself. My nipples get hard whenever I think of that hairy-knuckled fist coming through the window in "The Legend of Boggy Creek." Or Leonard Nimoy hosting the sphincter-clenching "In Search Of" Bigfoot special. Or my personal favorite, Andre the Giant dressed up in a wookiee suit and fighting with Lee Majors in slow-motion.

I love Bigfoot. I just don't think he likes tickling and tampons. Call me old fashioned.
Robert Curry
10. Robertgreenman
You mean...that wasn't the real thing slo-mo-ing with the Bionic Lee? Sigh.

As for movies, for a while there it seemed like every other feature film or documentary on the SCIFI Channel was about Bigfoot.
11. Eric Spitznagel
I heard rumors at the conference that an upcoming episode of Monsterquest would feature the Texas Sasquatch. So set your Tivos now. Just do a keyword search for "hardcore Bigfoot tickling".

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