Recently, I attended the 110th Explorers Club Annual Dinner. For the unfamiliar, the Explorers Club is "an international multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to the advancement of field research and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore." And for the laymen (of which the Explorers Club has none), it's an affluent social club consisting of researchers, mathematicians, diplomats, writers, and astronauts.
Every year the Club hosts a black-tie gala at the Waldorf Astoria where the smartest person in the room from every room in the world gathers for a night of pats on the back and dick swinging. It starts with brunch, segues into interviews and photo ops, and ends with a dinner, keynote address, and after-party. But the main reason anyone goes (anyone who isn't part of the club, anyway) is for the reception and cocktail hour that serves some of the best aphrodisiacs and delicacies money can buy (the reception and a seat at the keynote dinner is about $1,200).
As I entered the VIP reception, greeted by the gaping asshole of a rotisserie ostrich, I rubbed shoulders with the smartest people of every room—Ivy League alum, string theorists, and internet tycoons. Among those in attendance: His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck of Bhutan, stratosphere jumper Felix Baumgartner, and Amazon's Jeff Bezos.
Prepared by Gene Rurka, the chairman of the club's exotics committee, on the basis of availability and market price, the food was impressive and revolting. The reception rooms, poorly lit by reddish heat lamps that only served to amplify the gamy smell of whole-roast carcasses, were set up like a bourgeois Golden Corral. But instead of a chocolate fountain there were two muskrats in doggy-style positions, soupy jellyfish, and tarantula skewers. There was grasshopper cheesecake and lamb-brain salad. In the past, Gene has served up Macao monkey, Japanese hornets, and armadillo.
It's an opulent show-and-tell, but what do you expect? What do you feed the man who's planted his feet on all seven continents? More importantly, what do you feed the man who's traversed mainland Antarctica and the moon? You feed him a myriad of dick and balls, and you garnish his martini with an eyeball.
So there I was, drinking a Budweiser and laughing at a guy eating a penis. But, somehow, it just didn't feel right. As the cocktail hour came to a close, we were ushered into the ballroom where a tamer dinner (prepared by the hotel, not the club) was to be served during the awards ceremony and speeches.
The chairman of the club took the stage wearing a space helmet and said some cryptic things about Rolex, which donated a bunch of money to something. He pointed to a couple people, thanked some, toasted others, and then introduced the prince of Bhutan. Language barriers aside, the prince delivered a pretty inspiring speech about his homeland, the happiest country in Asia and the last known Shangri-La.
Next up was a professor who really put things in perspective for me. After a quirky opener in which he tried to sum up string theory in 20 seconds, he posed some questions to the audience.
"If you've climbed any of the seven summits, please stand."
"If you've looked back at Earth from space, please stand."
"If you're an expert in string theory, please stand."
Still seated, it was then that I realized how profoundly out of place I was. No matter how badly I wanted to downplay the event and its patrons, these were the people responsible for changing the world. These were the people who were singlehandedly privatizing American science and ultimately, advancing the human race.
Next, a famous astrophysicist ended his keynote address—which he delivered in real time via satellite from a wheelchair using word-prediction algorithms and speech synthesizers—with something profound: "We have to boldly go where no one has gone before."
I immediately excused myself from my table, passed three pieces of an Apollo F-1 rocket engine, grabbed a swag bag containing a copy of National Geographic, a Rolex golf hat, and one pre-packaged dessert scorpion, and headed for the door.