Andrew Weiner

Popular Mechanics

IT'S THE NIGHT before the big game, but you'd never guess it. The coach isn't screaming himself hoarse. No one on the team is butting helmets or blasting anthems or even looking nervous. Instead, three players sit around a low table, patiently discussing strategy. Working from a folder marked recon and a whiteboard filled with diagrams, they pore over scouting reports and analyze the probable outcomes of various tactics. One fidgets with a set of safety glasses and chuckles as he defines ideal conditions: " something that never happens. "

On a counter behind them, a pair of glittery pompons rests beneath a chart titled " The Dimensionless Numbers. " The room's atmosphere is somewhere between clubhouse and physics lab: one team member searches for a playbook while another measures tolerances with a set of calipers. Someone slips out to machine a spare part as the team's mascot-in-training weaves drunkenly around the room, learning to maneuver under the weight of a giant dog's head. However, their team isn't called the Huskies or the Terriers, but the Nu-Trons, and tomorrow they'll compete against teams with names like the Rambots, Hyper, and Techno Insanity.

High-school sports were never like this. But they are now, thanks to the United States Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (US FIRST), a competitive robotics league that wants to transform the way Americans think about science and engineering. The program was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, a successful, influential inventor from Long Island who was troubled by the way the sciences were perceived in popular culture. (Kamen's most recent project, a top-secret invention code-named " Ginger, " has provoked some of the most frenzied Internet rumor-mongering of the year.) Any kid could tell you what sneakers Michael Jordan wore, but who could name that year's Nobel Prize winners? How many Americans could name even one top-flight physicist or biologist? The fawning, nonstop veneration of athletes and entertainers not only undermined the prestige of researchers, Kamen thought, but also threatened to drain much-needed brainpower from labs and universities. Kamen and FIRST's other leaders conceived the high-school robotics league as a way to make the sciences alluring to young people by providing an emergency infusion of competitive excitement, thereby changing the culture from the bottom up.

The initial FIRST competition took place in New Hampshire in 1992, with 28 local teams competing. Since then, participation has mushroomed to more than 500 teams and 25,000 students. This year's final was broadcast on ESPN and sold out the 15,000-seat EPCOT Center in Florida. The groundswell of interest has forced people to ask whether lab coats and safety glasses may eventually overtake shoulder pads and cleats as the hallmarks of the high-school elite. Could an army of fired-up kids use remote-controlled robots to dismantle pervasive stereotypes? Could this be the revenge of the nerds?

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Neil Before Me

Rick is sitting in Row F at tonight's Neil Diamond concert. Rick is a CPA who admires Neil Diamond because he sings about "themes you can relate to: love lost, love found, feelings of aloneness, and imaginary friends."

Sue is retired. Sue has seen Neil Diamond three times, but she still breaks out in tears each time he takes the stage. She thinks he's "a great American pop singer who really represents America."

Mike's here with his family. Mike, 30, listens to Tool, Bush, and Hole when he's not listening to Neil Diamond. He calls Diamond "a rebel in blue jeans."

I'm a reporter. My only connection to Neil Diamond up until now is the year I spent driving a car that had only AM radio. But now I'm about to spend an evening at the Worcester Centrum in a sold-out arena with some of the most loyal fans in America. Or, as Neil Diamond prefers to call them, his "friends."

Neil Diamond has many friends. Throw a dart at a globe, and chances are good that Diamond's played where it lands. In the past year he's sold out arenas in London, Montreal, and Rotterdam. More than one million Australians have seen a Neil Diamond concert. Stateside, he's been among the top-grossing solo performers of the past decade, out-earning (among others) Garth Brooks, Billy Joel, and Madonna. Diamond holds the records for consecutive sellout performances at both Madison Square Garden and the LA Forum.

And that's just the live show. In the thirty-some years since he first charted with "Solitary Man," Diamond has moved more than 110 million units -- about one for every 2.5 Americans. During one stretch of his career, eight consecutive LPs went gold. Neil's songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Billy Ray Cyrus, Harry Belafonte, Deep Purple, and Frank Sinatra. He wrote the Monkees' "I'm a Believer"; UB40 would later make a hit of "Red Red Wine," and Urge Overkill's reworking of "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" earned Neil some hipster cred when it appeared on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.

Nonetheless, critical adulation has been sparing, to say the least. To this day, a Neil Diamond concert is treated by music writers as a welcome chance to tee off. The New York Times' Stephen Holden once called Diamond "a shameless, swashbuckling ham who struts about in a frenzy of self-aggrandizement." His image in the eyes of most people is that of a rather sweaty man in an unbuttoned sequined shirt, parading himself around in Sansabelt splendor.

All of this couldn't matter less to the millions of people around the world who continue to adore Neil Diamond, including the nearly 15,000 fans who joined me one December night in Worcester. Those numbers are astonishing, and they add interest to the deeper question: just what exactly is going on with Neil Diamond, anyway?

When Neil Diamond comes to town, you know it. On the drive into Worcester, I stopped counting white limousines after about two dozen. It was his only area appearance, and people came from all over New England. The wait for dinner at Applebee's was two hours long.

The Centrum radiated an aura of excitement. People were eagerly mingling, humming Neil's songs, trading stories. Even the white-limo set was getting into it. The crowd noise crept from an ambient hush to a buzzing, expectant roar as showtime approached. Surveying the arena, I tried to fit the crowd into a demographic. What TV shows did these people watch? What type of products did they buy? I came up empty, and though maybe this just means I'd be a lousy marketing exec, it also suggests that there is no average Neil Diamond fan. The Centrum employees I spoke to seemed to agree. Patty, an usher, put it this way: "His shows aren't like the monster trucks or the Backstreet Boys -- all kinds of people come."

There are bands -- Korn, say -- that appeal to a very self-selecting audience. Skate kids go to shows to be around other skate kids and away from everybody else. Diamond Nation is entirely the opposite: it appears to stretch across national, ideological, and subcultural borders. At one end of the fan spectrum is Tom Smith, a Canadian photographer who counts Diamond's music as one of the chief inspirations behind his own "hopeful world odyssey" -- a trip around the globe by moped. At the other end is a cell of revolutionaries in Chile who, I was told on good authority, listen to Neil while discussing party policy.

Diamond's fans, unlike Phish- and Deadheads, don't collect bootlegs or compare set lists, since performances are largely the same from night to night. Which isn't to say that Diamond Nation lacks dedication. Seated in my row were an exotic dancer, stage name Diamond, and a woman who'd named her daughter Shilo, after Neil's imaginary-friend song. Rick, the CPA, told me how, at his first show, he had a "conversion experience" when the house lights dropped.

As the band ascended the stage, the crowd noise built to genuine rock-concert proportions. The stage layout made it clear that this was going to be something different: in the center of the floor stood a platform two levels high, whose slow circular motion was eerily reminiscent of a rotating restaurant. The show boasted one other unusual feature: double musicians. Two keyboardists kicked things off with a peppy synth vamp right out of the Genesis songbook. Two drummers laid down a 4/4 rock groove, while two guitarists got people up and clapping.

Mesmerized by this mysterious, almost sinister repetition, I practically didn't notice when Diamond trotted on-stage and seized the mike. The first thing he did was pump his fists and exhort the crowd to "get loose." It's hardly an exaggeration to say that Diamond is a consummate showman; what he might lack in vigor he more than makes up for with enthusiasm and a certain rakish brio. Scarcely a minute went by without a grin. His band exhibited a degree of collective perkiness normally reserved for a Richard Simmons infomercial. Everyone on the stage, it seemed, would either have a good time or die trying.

You have to hand it to Neil -- he doesn't look or move like a man nearing 60. Yes, he wore sequins, on a pinstriped shirt that was flashy but plausible. His economical gestures resembled the restrained devil-may-care attitude of Sinatra in his later years. Though at times his presence verged on the bombastic, it never spilled over into arrogance. One recurring motif was a bemused hands-on-hips pose -- somewhere between Michelangelo's David and an NFL referee's offside sign -- that appeared to say, I just can't believe my great good luck.

Whether it's his charisma or his good showmanship, Diamond generates a kind of Mona Lisa effect: no matter where he is on the stage, his eyes seem to be watching you. Each time he'd point toward my section, a number of fans would scream, all independently convinced the gesture had been meant for them. Maybe I was swept up in all this adoration, but I swear I caught him pointing at me.

Of all the dismissive terms attached to Neil Diamond, "crooner" is perhaps the most tenacious. It's also wrong. Diamond has a few ladies'-man moves, but he doesn't adopt the smarmy sex-god persona of Engelbert Humperdinck and his ilk. Women did outnumber men at the Centrum, but men, it turns out, have no problem identifying with the earnest brooding of the Solitary Man, or the melancholy nostalgia of songs like "Brooklyn Roads."

When I met Mike, the Tool fan, he was reminiscing about old times with his buddy Steve. Mike recalled how he'd always wake up to his mother's Neil Diamond records when he was young, and reflected: "[His music] definitely brings me back...It just gets me talking about old times."

If Diamond seems like all things to all fans, that's partly because he's been a lot of things, or tried to be. His influences have ranged from Tin Pan Alley to gospel, from country to his experiences in psychotherapy. Long before Madonna made a career out of makeovers, Diamond was keeping himself relevant by periodically reinventing his stage persona.

Originally Diamond didn't even want to be a singer: his first love was fencing. Upon graduating from Brooklyn's Erasmus High, where he and Barbra Streisand were in the same glee club, Diamond accepted a fencing scholarship. He wrote songs in his spare time, and when the Zorro lifestyle didn't pan out, he began to shop them around. Industry honchos at the legendary Brill Building took note, and Neil soon completed the frog-to-king metamorphosis he would later document in his ballad "I Am...I Said."

Rob Garrett, a Las Vegas-based Neil Diamond impersonator known as "The King of Diamonds," describes the singer's evolution this way: "During the late '60s and early '70s he was this serious, dramatic troubadour, sort of like a poet with a guitar. In the late '70s and early '80s he become a more suave, exciting concert performer who was the epitome of `cool.' In the mid to late '80s, as he was gaining `legendary' status, he lightened up and started to appear more relaxed and confident on-stage, smiling and even joking around a bit with his audience."

Not every reinvention was successful. In the late 1970s, coming off a four-year sabbatical and some intensive therapy, Diamond made an attempt to overhaul his image. He enlisted Robbie Robertson to produce his album Beautiful Noise, and performed a song with the rest of the Band in the Martin Scorsese concert film The Last Waltz. This was not a success. As the Band's drummer Levon Helm would later recount in a memoir, the scene looked as if the group's accountant had been pushed onto the stage. Diamond also auditioned for the role of Lenny Bruce in Lenny and -- take a deep breath -- for the role of Travis Bickle in Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Neil finally did get his Hollywood break, starring as Al Jolson in the 1980 film The Jazz Singer, but it was something of a Pyrrhic victory. The soundtrack album sold more than four million copies, but the film tanked in theaters.

So Diamond decided to keep on keepin' on, and to stick to the role he knew best. Perhaps it's this persistence that's endeared him to tribute bands such as LA's Neilists and San Francisco's Super Diamond. It goes without saying that both groups maintain a certain distance from their subject, but their approach isn't purely ironic. It may be that Diamond's self-consciousness serves a pre-emptive purpose -- how can you really make fun of a guy who rides his Harley in a gang called the Mild Ones?

If going to a Neil Diamond show confers any kind of cachet, it's the hipness that comes with being proudly square. The things that really matter aren't your accessories, but your feelings. Rob Garrett helps put this side of Neil's attraction in perspective. When he performs as Diamond, he explains, he becomes "the non-controversial `good guy' in the sparkly shirt who is everybody's friend...I just know I enjoy singing the most when I can emote, and Neil is a major emoter."

This desire to have one's feelings validated by others is an essential part of Neil's appeal. Particularly during the more reflective songs, the Centrum came to resemble a super-size safe space, a biosphere from which all traces of threat had been pumped out.

The strength of this bond between performer and audience was such that at times the two seemed to merge. When Diamond launched into his first song, "Beautiful Noise," the audience came to its feet, singing as one and dancing together in a kind of slow pogo step. The crowd sang along to most of the tunes, and sometimes this interplay became more intricate. During one number, Neil sang, "Can anybody hear me?" In response, the audience hoisted placards reading YES into the air -- hundreds of them, all apparently homemade. During the ballad "Play Me," Neil traded verses with the audience. We sang, "You are the sun"; he sang, "I am the moon"; we sang, "You are the words"; he sang, "I am the tune." For a moment, we were all part of the same song, seesawing back and forth in an intimate rhythm, arms waving to and fro like undersea grass.

This pas de deux mirrored a certain oscillation I noticed between isolation and community, solitude and belonging. In my notebook I charted songs containing the word "lonely" against songs with the word "friends," and ended up with a half-dozen of each. No one was psychobabbling about recognition or catharsis; people were just grooving. When I asked Rob Garrett how it feels to "be" Neil Diamond on-stage, he replied simply: "It feels damn good to be accepted."

Despite topnotch production values, a Neil Diamond show has very little in the way of special effects. There are no fireworks, fake blood, or upside-down drum solos. Only a little dry ice, and the arena-sized flags that unfurl during "America." That's when Neil, a more natural political animal than Al Gore could ever hope to be, stopped singing to deliver a stump speech about how difference doesn't really matter, since we're "God's children all."

If grade-school musicals are any indication, "America" has become the song most people associate with the European diaspora of the late 19th century. But this conversion of history into entertainment robs the event of any sense of complexity, urgency, or even reality. And though Diamond's "everyone's included" sermon sure sounded nice, the bit about "black and white together" rang a little hollow to my ears -- the only two black people I saw all evening were in the band.

This is the kind of thing that sets the critics off. Sitting in my section was Debby Rosenblatt, a jazz promoter from the Framingham area. Maybe she'd reluctantly accompanied a friend, but whatever her reason for being at the concert, she cut Diamond no slack: "Neil Diamond whips [his audience] into a crazy frenzy for this phony America. It's so shameful, it's pandering to the worst emotions. There are great resources in the American culture for the real thing, but he's not the real thing. He's faker than fake. His girdle epitomizes that -- as the evening wore on, the fact that he was trying to hide the fat in his belly was no longer hideable. He's a sham, he's a clown."

I can't vouch for the girdle, but I think Debby missed the point. Neil's act isn't about being real -- it's about being possible. He projects an authenticity that cuts through the show business. In a culture where products from soft drinks to light trucks are hawked as "the real thing," Diamond conveys the honest sense of never having wanted to be anything but himself -- a sequined, guitar-strumming American man.

The night wore on, but Neil showed no signs of tiring. He'd played more than two hours with only one brief break by the time he hit the opening chords to "Cracklin' Rosie."

This was what people had been waiting for. Tapping into a hidden reserve of energy, the audience outdid its previous efforts, matching Neil word for word as he sang, "We've got all night to set the world right." No one seemed to mind that the song, written on a Native American reservation, is about a drifter riding the night train. Performed live, it grew in meaning to describe exactly what Neil was asking us to do: forget our own troubles, come together, and remake the world. Escapist? More than likely. Utopian? Without a doubt -- this is the song that goes, "Find me a dream that don't ask any questions."

"Cracklin' Rosie" ground to an end, but the crowd didn't want to let it go -- and neither, it turned out, did Neil. He gladly gave the people what they wanted: another rendition of the chorus. And then another false ending. And then another chorus. During this sing-along, the Centrum rocked harder than it would all night. It occurred to me that perhaps what I was witnessing was the spectacle of a collective time machine being kick-started. Or maybe it was just the sound of a big broken record.

It could've been a glitch in the Matrix for all I knew; I was feeling mighty disoriented. Right about that time -- or maybe it was during "I'm a Believer" -- Rick tapped me on the shoulder to ask if I'd been "converted" yet. Neil wouldn't sing "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" until later, but I got the message loud and clear.

Andrew Weiner is still looking for the dream that don't ask any questions. If you've found one, please contact him at

Tour of Babble

Ho! En mia koro, firme kredas mi, ke fine glore venkos ni!oooooooooooooooooooo o zo!

For a long moment the notes of a recorder and an electric piano echo through the room. The audience has just finished singing "Venkos Ni En Gloro." The lyrics translate as "we will finally triumph in glory"; the tune is borrowed from "We Shall Overcome." The classic song of protest has been rewritten as an optimistic ode to the destiny of Esperanto, a "universal language" that almost nobody in America speaks.

The pianist rises, unplugs his instrument, and tells the audience, in Esperanto, that the sing-along is over. People are free to help themselves to tea and cookies. Cultural Evening will resume in a few minutes.

I am here in the Sitting Bull Lodge at Vermont's Okemo ski area, attending the Sixth International Esperanto Weekend. Behind me sits Phil Brewer, a computer programmer from Amherst. Pinned to his collar is a bright green star -- the international symbol for Esperanto. The pockets of his safari vest contain, among other things, an Esperanto-English phrase book and a waterproof walkie-talkie. The other walkie-talkie belongs to Phil's brother Steve, also from Amherst. After the break Steve will deliver a recital of several "hajko" -- Esperanto haiku -- on the themes of autumn, pets, and erotic love.

Despite the optimistic tenor of the anthem we just sang, there are only about 30 people at the Sixth International Esperanto Weekend. They sing with the energy of twice that number, and perhaps their enthusiasm helps explain why, a century after the creation of the world's most popular "synthetic language" and many years after it became clear that Esperanto was not going to sweep the world, people are still proud to pin hopeful green stars to their lapels.

Although I'm not here as a bona fide Esperantist, neither am I here purely as a reporter. About a year ago my interest in this long-lived artificial language overcame any misgivings I might have had, and I enrolled in an Internet correspondence course. Everything went well -- I can now read and write Esperanto passably -- but I had yet to meet an actual Esperanto speaker. So when I got word of the Okemo convention, I all but jumped at the opportunity. At last I'd have the chance to find out who these people were. I was also curious to assess the progress of Esperanto here in the US, where the universal world language is widely presumed to be English.

My invitation came courtesy of Normando Fleury, presidento of the Quebec Esperanto Association, who organized the weekend with help from the Esperanto Society of New England (ESNE). The librarian of a Montreal botanical society, Normando began learning Esperanto in 1979. He was studying in France at the time, and wanted to travel around Europe without having to learn multiple languages.

Right now Normando is standing by the coffee machine, chatting with his family about logistics for the next day's potluck luncheon. As I float by, Normando beckons me over, smiling. He wants to make sure I understood the joke about the pope and the accountant: "Komprendis vi? Jes? Bone, bone."

Like a lot of Esperantists, Normando sees the language as a way to make friends. When asked to describe what he values most about Esperanto, Normando replies (in Esperanto): "It makes it that much easier to befriend people from all over the world."

Certainly the rest of the world is a bit friendlier to Esperanto than New England is. In the weekend's opening talk, speakers recount the stories of their trips to Esperanto congresses in Berlin, the Czech Republic, and St. Louis. Those who had never attended these conventions seem pleasantly surprised to hear the attendance figures, which crept up into four digits.

As the weekend goes on, with all business and all socializing conducted in Esperanto, I find myself fighting off a steadily growing sense of disorientation. Spoken Esperanto sounds eerily familiar, yet just out of reach. The vast majority of words ultimately derive from Latin, and are thus easily recognizable: man is homo, happy kontento, and saliva salivo. Certain properties of Esperanto -- precisely those that make it so easy to learn -- guarantee that it sounds somewhat goofy when spoken. Every word is accented on the second-to-last syllable. This lends an unnaturally regular quality to the rhythm of speech, almost as if people were timing themselves by metronome.

Added to this is the fact that, in a language with an intentionally limited number of word endings (all nouns end in o, all adjectives in a; most Esperantists add an o to their names, and give their home cities as "Amhersto" or "Bostono"), a lot of the words rhyme. Even the most mundane sentences can come out sounding like couplets. The Okemo employees who wander in by accident look very, very confused.

Yet despite its oddness, spoken Esperanto sounds very rational and direct. It's hard to be sarcastic in a language that has no slang, save what one Esperantist described as the "F-verbo." Since few people inflect Esperanto with any kind of accent, it is always comprehensible, if somewhat robotic. Speakers at Okemo pronounce their words carefully, even cautiously: unambiguous communication is clearly their top priority. I end up feeling as if I were attending a church social that had been filmed and overdubbed by a race of unusually sensible aliens.

According to the textbook Esperanto: The World Interlanguage, the need for an international auxiliary language is as old as the Bible.

The story of the Tower of Babel is the paradigm for how the proliferation of languages prevents different peoples from recognizing their common aims. This vexing and persistent difference is commonly termed "the language problem."

The obvious solution -- a universal language -- has occupied the attention of various thinkers throughout the ages, most notably the philosophers Descartes and Leibniz. But none would be successful until the advent of Monsignor Johann Martin Schleyer in 1880. Schleyer, a German priest, composed the language Volapük -- "world speech" -- from roots of English, German, and Latin words. Volapük quickly claimed more than 100,000 converts, only to be undone within a decade by its own complexity -- a single verb potentially could take 505,440 forms. Not even Schleyer, it is said, was able to speak it fluently.

Onto this stage in 1887 strode Dr. L.L. Zamenhof, an oculist and amateur language student from Bialystok, Poland. Writing under the pen name of Doktor Esperanto -- "one who hopes" -- Zamenhof proposed a simpler solution: a language based on Latin and Romance roots, stripped of all but the most essential forms. By relying heavily on affixes, Esperanto could use a smaller core vocabulary: instead of "big" and "small" it used the terms granda and malgranda.

Groups such as the American Philosophical Society and the World Language Club lent their support. By the time of the Paris World's Fair in 1900, more than 300 Esperanto clubs had formed.

When the League of Nations published its "Report on Esperanto" in 1922, it estimated that four million people worldwide had picked up the language. In 1932, more than 2300 Esperanto programs were broadcast via radio. The International Red Cross Conference asked its organizations to encourage Esperanto study as "one of the most powerful means of attaining mutual understanding and cooperation." Attendance at the yearly Universal Congresses averaged more than 5000 delegates in the years before World War II. Esperanto appeared poised to become the global presence its creator had envisioned.

So what happened? Understandably, this is not a topic that Esperantists enjoy talking about. The language does retain a substantial following -- the consensus at Okemo was an estimated two million speakers worldwide, most of them in Europe and China. But it continues to have trouble gaining a foothold in the US.

When questioned, some attendees pointed to America's relative cultural insularity. Others blame the rise of English as a de facto international language in the business world, on the Internet, and in the European Union. Either way, Esperanto lacks the momentum and promise it enjoyed at its peak.

Hoping to learn more about Esperanto in the present tense, I wander over to the book fair. Its four tables display selections from a literature that claims some 10,000 titles. The selection is eclectic: a survey of Esperanto stamps sits next to a volume of love sonnets bearing an illustration from the Kama Sutra. Many of the titles were published in China -- a nation that, as it turns out, has a disproportionately large share of the world's Esperantists. One self-help manual touts its 100 percent success rate in using the language to cure stuttering.

Few of the books seem to have been printed in the United States, or after about 1970. The only recent publications I can find are copies of Green Light, ESNE's thrice-yearly bulletin. In the latest issue, editor Allan Boschen complains about low voter turnout in the society's last election. The office of corresponding secretary is vacant. The current president and vice-president are "provisory," since no one has been willing to accept these roles in a more permanent capacity.

ESNE's primary goal at present is to make Esperanto a language option for schoolchildren across New England. Citing the example of Croatia, where Esperanto is a required subject in many classrooms, Green Light describes this objective as "a major step toward a more peaceable world." To this end, the society's members have established a course at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. A recent agreement with the state's department of education guarantees that enrolling teachers will receive Professional Development Points.

But despite such aspirations, most of those present at Okemo appear relatively uninterested in the politics of synthetic language, or even in the business of politics in general. Mention of the activities of Esperantist communists -- "watermelons," they're called -- is greeted with polite amusement. One attendee recounts her trip to a convention in Cuba without once mentioning the words "embargo" or "Castro."

This apolitical tendency reflects a more general trend in the recent history of Esperanto. Earlier this year a faction of Esperantists moved to have their language adopted as the official language of the European Union. Curiously, though, a majority remained opposed, on the grounds that such a move would have brought the language under the authority of the EU. (Esperanto is currently governed by an elected academy.) According to Phil Brewer, most speakers oppose any sort of external intervention, even if it would guarantee a greater role for the language.

If an insular universal language seems like a paradox, it should. After all, nothing seems further from the internationalist spirit that characterized the early Esperanto movement. But as the weekend progresses, it becomes clearer to me that people didn't go to Okemo to work toward global understanding. They went for the same reason people go to any convention: to be among others who share their interest.

Phil Brewer explains it to me this way: "Some Esperantists are people with an interest in language who've had a hard time learning French or German. But a lot of us are people who like to meet other people but aren't especially good at it. It's sort of like a chess club, or Mensa."

Several attendees speak of having pen pals in exotic places, and one mentions "The Esperanto Passport," a listing of Esperanto-friendly homes in more than 100 nations. One of the more popular book-fair items is a memoir written by a couple who had successfully backpacked around the world speaking only Esperanto.

But on a broad scale, Esperanto has long since stopped being a means to an end. Esperanto is now an end in itself, a leisure pursuit, a hobby. In this respect, Esperantists are not that different from the people who attend Star Trek conventions and speak only Klingon.

If the events of the past century are any indication, there never was much chance that common language alone would be enough to make people get along. After all, Irish Catholics and Protestants both speak English. Normando's wife, Anya, who grew up in Croatia, made this point emphatically when the topic of the former Yugoslavia arose: "The problem there has nothing to do with language."

But in the more limited context of one long weekend, the Esperantists' trademark optimism seems less quixotic. Their prevailing assumption has always been that, underneath all their different beliefs, practices, and languages, people just want to get along. Given the chance, they'll cooperate.

This was noticeably the case at Okemo, where the mood was consistently cheerful and warm. Fluent speakers were respectful of beginners, patiently helping them when they stumbled. Although misunderstandings sometimes did occur, they invariably seemed to end in laughter.

And there's no denying that Esperanto does bring people together. Normando and Anya met at the International Congress of 1979, neither knowing a word of the other's language. As Normando recounted to me the story of their courtship, I started to think that the merits of Esperanto are perhaps better judged locally than globally.

I found my way back to my seat just before the Cultural Evening resumed. Looking around the room once more, I noticed a pair of young lovers and couldn't help but think that Esperanto had brought them together as well. Perhaps in another 20 years they'd be leading a new generation of Esperantists in song. As it turns out, they took the stage to teach us two new dance steps: "rumbo" and "jive-o." The dances were identical to rumba and swing, except for the music -- ABBA's "Waterloo."

The night's last act was also its most moving. Allan Boschen, originally from Montana, took the stage alone to sing his translation of the famous cowboy poem "Beautiful Strawberry Roan." One person joined in quietly, then another, and before long the whole room was awash in the Esperanto version of lyrics such as: "He says git your saddle/I'll give you a chance/On his buckboard we hops/And he drives to the ranch." A spirited group yodel closed out the number. I couldn't tell if we were yodeling in English, French, or Esperanto, but it didn't seem to matter at all.

Andrew Weiner is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. He can be reached at