Thursday, December 24, 2009

It's a Festivus Miracle!

Yes indeed, in one of my own most noteworthy "Feats of Strength," I actually made a blog post on December 23rd, and only eight days later than I had originally promised! Such is the magic of Festivus.

I'm very pleased with how that last story came out, in terms of expressing the kind of feelings that I meant to express. I wrote The Modern Spirit, in part, to explore what I jokingly call my own childhood insanity. That is to say that when I was a child (and, admittedly, often to this day) I would hold conversations imaginary conversations with people who were not actually there. Sometimes they were "real" people, and sometimes they weren't, but in any case it was always one of my principle methods of thinking. The "imaginary" character in this story is sort of an ageless doppelganger of the main character, which is not the kind of person I would deliberately conjure up for my own imaginary conversations, but I think it made sense for the story I was trying to tell.

I purposefully did a couple of weird things, such as writing a long stretch of dialogue without expressly attributing any of the lines to any particular character. I think it works, though I may have oversold the emphasis by immediately commenting on it afterward, but I think the dialogue, as strange as it is to read, is one of the most essential parts of the story. Whether such gimmicks are in line with anyone else's idea of good writing is of course an open question, but I like it, so there.

Another miracle of sorts happened today, the 24th, so it's not quite a Festivus miracle (though you could certainly call it a feat of strength). I am referring to the passage of a health reform bill in the Senate. It would have been truly miraculous if it had passed with a public insurance option, but it seems that America, as always, is an unrepentant tease. Barring a string of shinobi-style assassinations of Democratic lawmakers, or a military coup, or perhaps a giant asteroid impact, health reform is very probably going to happen, and that makes me a happy guy, especially since no ninja have been sighted in the DC area since at least 1901*.

America will likely reward the Democrats for their Christmas present with some painful losses in the Congressional elections next year. Such is the way of things, so let us be happy we've accomplished what we have, and look forward to improvements down the road, even if we don't know just how far down the road they are.

*Yes, Leon Czolgosz was a ninja. A Polish ninja.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Modern Spirit

Saturdays in springtime are like oases, unspeakably benign, so often taken for granted in spite of all they have to offer for the weary of mind and soul. Days like these are all but synonymous with the flowing of water and the flight of birds, and cool grass under sneakers and toes. Like all such paradises, Saturdays in springtime are made for children, though grownups might hope to approximate its joys through earnest effort. Unfortunately for them, their old dreams no longer fit them, and and their eyes can no longer see what their memories describe; what's lost is lost, and can only be remembered, not recalled.

So it is for children, uncomprehending and uncomplicated, to experience what poets most wish for; to come face to face with the sublime, and call it by its true name. Of course they do not know its true name, only that they love it. In this way they are blessed, or lucky, but they are not yet wise, and the great tragedy of existence is that one cannot be both.

Charles Allen was blessed, or lucky, but especially the latter, because it was a Saturday in springtime and he was by himself. He was in the forest, and of course no one is ever actually alone in a forest, it being filled with animals who lurk in the trees, the grass and the water. Charlie sat in a clearing where all of these things were at hand, and the sounds of frogs and crickets confirmed that the woods were alive, and full of lives.

And although he was alone, Charlie had a companion, who might not have actually been there, or even existed at all. But as far as Charlie could tell, he was there, and to be present implies existence. Still, his "presence" was admittedly a dodgy matter, as he seemed to shift about the scene, silently, without ever actually moving. He could be sitting to Charlie's left, or to his right; he might be standing right in front of him, or he might be somewhere behind him, heard but unseen. Sometimes he rested on a low hanging oak branch, which extended at a shallow angle from the base of the trunk, but more often he did not.

Charlie had never met his companion before, but he didn't question his "presence," as it were. He had appeared as soon as Charlie became alone on that sunny Saturday morning, and they had talked immediately as old friends, each knowing or assuming all of the salient facts about the other. For the companion, it was Charlie's name, his age (eight years, nearly nine), his interests, and various trifling details of his family and social life. As for Charlie, he did not actually know any details, not even his companion's name; it may well be that neither of them actually thought those facts were important, and so they were neither spoken nor assumed.

When they met, Charlie was running by himself along a trail through the forest, and his companion was running beside him, though he sometimes jumped, moving almost like a frog, or a monkey, keeping pace with uncanny agility and ease. They ran through the woods as the sun approached its highest point, and the day was growing steadily warmer; a breeze was picking up, and it caused the leaves to whisper to one another. They had nothing in particular to say, but they said it eagerly, for they burst with the spirit of life, were animated by the forces of nature, and they would not be still, even if they could. The companion, however, did have something to say, or rather to ask.

As Charlie grew tired of running, and the trail took the runners into steep, hilly territory, he slowed to a walk, and glanced back in the direction he had come from. His companion asked, "Why are you running from your father?" and it was a fair question, because his father (not to mention his sister and his brother) was indeed behind them, and Charlie's rapid backward glance could almost have been called fearful. But he was not afraid of being followed.

"I'm not. I just wanted to be by myself."

"But why would you want that?"

"It's more fun like this."

"What a strange thing for a boy your age to want," said the companion, and it might have seemed strange to anyone listening in, although it didn't seem strange to Charlie. The companion himself had the appearance of a boy Charlie's age, though this can easily be overstated. He might have appeared to be eight, nearly nine years old, but he seemed much older; really he seemed to be any number of years, neither very old nor young, but but somehow possessing his age, whereas others simply experienced theirs.

None of this bothered Charlie, who only insisted that it was truly what he wanted. "Besides," he added, "I told them I'd be back soon."

"How soon?"

"I don't know." The pair walked quietly down the path, feeling the warmth of the sun and treasuring each path of leafy shade as it came; it being close to noon, shade was scarce on the trail itself, and Charlie, his mouth dry from running, began to feel thirsty. He'd left his water bottle behind, and now decided he could do without it for a while longer, and drink his fill when he returned to the rest of the group. What he had now was more precious by far than water: solitude, closeness, peace.

His companion walked now to his right, though he had not always been there, and it wasn't clear when he had gotten there. More importantly, Charlie noticed that he was about to brush up against a tangled mass of leaves, and he spoke up urgently, "Look out, poison oak!" His companion, now perceiving the danger, nimbly jumped back, kicking the plant with his toe, but avoiding contact with his legs which, like Charlie's, were bare below the knees. Edging in close for inspection, the pair confirmed the plant's identity, taking care not to touch the leaves.

"Thanks, Charlie. How did you know it was poison oak?"

"I read about it in my nature book. You can tell by the number of leaves," he said, cautiously counting them with one finger, one, two, three. "I only saw it because I was looking for animal tracks in the dirt."

"Did you find any?"

"Well, there's some here on the trail, but I think they're just dog tracks." An animal is an animal, even if it's just a dog, but Charlie was clearly disappointed by what he saw, or didn't see.

"Are you sure they aren't coyote tracks? Coyotes look a lot like dogs, so their tracks probably do too."

"Maybe!" The thought pleased Charlie, and the tracks became coyote tracks, though in others' eyes their identity might remain an open question. In any event, he still wanted to see more interesting tracks; like raccoons, with their spindly fingers and thumbs, or deer, with their dainty cloven hooves, or even the large, deep-set paws of a cougar.

"You know," said the companion, who might well have been reading his mind, "we could probably find more interesting tracks down by the creek." Pointing a short distance ahead, he indicated a small sub-path, leading down the western slope of the hill to a dense grove of trees; the sound of the flowing water was just barely audible over the wind and the whisperings of the leaves. It was naturally quiet, like the silence of the universe swathed in the cumulative murmur of its inhabitants, and punctuated by broken twigs and stomping shoes as the child left the main path.

That is how the boy and his companion found themselves in the clearing that Saturday in springtime. At first they scanned the banks of the creek for tracks, as they had meant to, but they couldn't find anything as exotic as cougars, or even deer. "Perhaps," the companion suggested, "the cougars ate all of the deer, and now they're all gone."

"But where would they go?"

"I don't know."

So thwarted, and perhaps ill-advisedly, the boy took a drink of water from the creek, satisfying his thirst (but suffering the awful taste). He sat all alone in the clearing, resting his mind while his companion offered insights into this and that. For a while he spoke of the clearing, which was ideal, shaded by oak trees which offered even the clumsiest child a perch to climb on. A slight canopy of branches hid the sun but let its light pass, striking the fine, sandy soil as gently as could be. The ambient sounds of the woods were invariable, because they were perfect. They were the products of nature and nothing else. Charlie could hardly have realized it, because he was still preoccupied by the paucity of animal tracks, but he sat at the threshold of the wild world, which waited for him to cross it.

"What a camp site this would make!"

"Do you think people ever come here?"

"They must come here sometimes. It's perfect."

"The dirt is so soft..."

"Do you think we've gone too far?"

"I wouldn't want to stay too long. If I fell asleep, the cougars might come back."

"What's that floating down the creek?"

"Look at the way those branches spread out over the trunk."

"It looks just like a castle. Whose castle is it?"

"Maybe the squirrels? Or maybe it's our now!"

"This root is shaped funny, like a drumstick."

"This whole place is ours; we're the only ones here."

"I like this place better than the lake."

"Do you think they've caught up yet?"

"Look there, in the water!"

"I love these rocks, especially when they're wet."

"I like to see them with the algae growing on the side."

"I like to see them drying in the sun."

"Brrr, it's getting chilly in the wind!"

"I want to go out and climb on the big rock in the middle!"

"I'm going to go sit in the sun."

"I wish there were more clouds out today, shaped like things."

"I just threw some rocks in the water, did you see?"

"Yeah, that was awesome!"

"Where do you think they all come from?"

"They're everywhere, that's just the way it is."

"I thought I saw a deer track in the sand just now, but I think it just looks like one."

"Well you never know. Let's say it is!"

"I wish there were more around here."

"Is that a campfire spot?"

"I guess so. Maybe there were some people here before us."

"Why did they leave? I wouldn't ever want to leave this place."

"I'd like to have a tree house in the castle."

"We could put a roof in, and walls."

"What could we put in there?"

"It's like a house, so we could have chairs, and comic books, and a TV, and we could stay there all day!"

"But what would we eat?"

"I don't know."

"We could go back and get sandwiches."

"Did you hear that!?"

"No, what was it?"

"I think it was a cougar!"

"Maybe it was the others, following us."

"Look there, in the that a cougar?"

"I think it's probably just a rock. See how it's shaped?"

"Ahh....too bad!"

"I can't hear anyone. I think we're all alone."

"There's only boring animals here. Just frogs and bugs!"

"Wouldn't it be cool if we saw a bear?"

"There's no bears here!"

"But wouldn't it be cool?"

"Shut up! There's no bears here!"

"I'll bet one will show up any minute now, and what will we do then?"

"We could hide in the castle, and throw water balloons at him!"

"But we don't have any of those."

"We could hide them in there when we build the tree house."

"Hey look, a red-tailed hawk!"

"I love those birds! Do you think they have any bald eagles around, too?"

"I don't know."

"Where are they, do you think?"

The two of them went on like this for a long time, and it was never clear who was saying what, or what was said when, or when it came to a gradual stop, when Charlie found he was less interested in talking than before. Soon he was merely thinking, and thinking only requires one, but as simple as it was he could hardly think of anything at all. So for many minutes Charlie sat alone, not thinking but waiting for something to change, so that he could move again, or at least talk again. He closed his eyes, and the Earth grew no louder; he wanted to open them again.

"Where are they, do you think?" Charlie turned to his left, seeking answers and solace from his companion.

"I don't know. They might have passed us."

"Won't they come looking for me?"

"Probably. But how will they know where to look?"

Charlie had no idea; regrettably, he had not planned on getting back, because he seldom ever had to make plans for himself. He knew what he should not have done.

"But aren't you glad we did it?"

Charlie spread his hands through the loose, sandy soil, and the grey dust clung to the pale skin between his fingers. It was no good, now that his hands were dirty, but he loved the way it felt, and he wished that the dirt in his own back yard was so fine; or that this could be his new back yard, and his home would be right across the creek, with a little foot bridge; or even in the castle, the tree castle of low-hanging branches and gnarled bark.

Soon the two of them climbed the tree. Charlie climbed as high as he would dare, but his companion rested amongst the very highest leaves, impossible light, held aloft by little more than twigs and air. Even Charlie, however, was able to see quite a distance from his modest vantage. But what he saw was not helpful, only trees and mountains, green but browning in anticipation of summer's heat and dry, dry winds. The companion might have seen the trail, but he was not looking for it. He, who was not really there, was there in his element, unseen, unheard, except by the one who was there.

So there was joy in that tree, even though there was also terror, the subtle, cautious terror felt by children who know they have made a grave mistake, but still believe that their parents, in their wisdom will set everything right. There was no panic, because it was a Saturday in springtime and the trees and water and dust were all beautiful, and Charlie was not alone. But there was terror all the same.

"Why are you afraid?" asked the companion.

"I don't know what to do!"

"We can stay here, in this place."

"No, I can't! They'll never find me here." Charlie looked down, and thought that he might fall; his sneakers slid slightly on the bark, and his fingers dug in, paralyzed as he was. If he were any more frightened, he might have cried, but his companion would not have noticed.

"Do you hear that? The sound the hawk just made? The creek? The rattlesnake? Do you feel that little chill in the wind, and the warmth of the sun, and the way when you're up high, every direction is down, except for up? It's perfect, and you know it, and everything you want is here; why would you ever want to leave it?"

Charlie said nothing, and closed his eyes, unwilling to acknowledge that he agreed. He did not want to leave, any more than he wanted to be left. His dusty fingers ached, as they squeezed tighter and tighter. He opened his eyes, glancing up to see the sun.

His companion was on the ground again, standing near the path. "I think I hear your father, calling your name," he shouted, just as Charlie was thinking that he heard the very same thing; the faint echo of his own name rolling quietly through the grove. "Come on down, let's go!"

The boy gingerly made his way down the branch, until he was low enough to be brave enough to make a jump. He fell, landing on his feet, and kept falling until he was sprawled to the ground, and a big dusty cloud rose up from the dirt to give him its final goodbye. It didn't last long, and Charlie, thoroughly coated in dust, was up on his feet again, and they rushed back in the direction of the main path.

Charlie rushed through thickets and shrubs, because the sub-path had never been properly cleared; it would not have been very difficult to lose his way, if he hadn't remembered to follow the contours of the hill. The tree tops blocked up much of the sun's light, and sticks, twigs, and even thorns threatened his bare shins; he did not even think to check for poison oak. If any animals were around they surely made themselves unseen, because Charlie ran as fast as he could run, making what a squirrel or a cougar would consider a terrible racket. Charlie didn't care for the noise himself, but it couldn't be helped.

He emerged from the woods, dusty and out of breath, his legs nicked with faint scratches from the foliage. Glancing quickly down the path, he saw his father walking toward him, hands cupped around his mouth and shouting Charlie's name, just as he thought that he'd heard. When his father saw him, he stopped yelling, and rushed to meet his son, and the son rushed to do the same; it was the happiest he'd ever been in his entire life.

"Where have you been?" his father asked, and Charlie could only point in the direction of the creek and vaguely, excitedly describe the clearing and the castle. "Never mind," said his father, "everyone's waiting for us at the lake."

The two of them walked down the trail together, exhausted but happy, and while the father was no doubt shaken by thoughts of what might have been, Charlie had already put his anxieties behind him, eagerly anticipating the lake and the soft green grass. They walked together by themselves, without another human soul in sight, and as Charlie left the place that was made just for him, the forest took it back. Saturday passed to Sunday, and springtime passed to summer, and things were never quite the same again.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Good things come to those who wait...

...especially if they live long enough.

So, let's start off with the cold hard truth, and follow it up with a light, optimistic compensation. There's no new story this week (gasp!) I had it in my head that I could finish the one I'm currently working on, but things didn't work out that way. Fortunately, however, I am about halfway through with this new short story, to be posted next Tuesday, the Fifteenth day of this here December, to be very, very specific. It is a sort of fantastic, stylistic piece that might even be called a ghost story, entitled The Modern Spirit. I'm pretty excited about it, and I am eager to share it, but it's not done! Such things deserve all the proper care and consideration that their creators can give them, and furthermore to be protected from prying eyes until they have the proper form.

In other news, I've recently been turned on to Google Wave. Initially, I did not realize exactly what it was; I knew it was being promoted for creative types, but I was not immediately to tell how it was different from Gmail. Shows what I get for not paying close attention; it's actually an ideal tool for online collaboration. As a matter of fact, a good buddy of mine is exploring collaborative possibilities with me right now, using this marvelous technology. I find myself admitting that, while the prospect of huge corporations inserting themselves into the destinies of ordinary people remains a dystopian horror, I really don't mind if it's Google.

Once this collaboration is made, it will probably be posted on one or both of our sites, because we're sharers like that. In the meantime, it should make for an interesting Christmas vacation.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

There's a Civil War Outside My House

Really, there is; a vicious war, fought between ducks and beavers, over who will control the ponds and streams of this fair state for the next year. The losers, it is my understanding, must make do with the lesser ponds and streams of Idaho, until such time as Civil War is invoked again. For the time being, the streets are clogged with bloodied feathers and pelts, and the air rings with the squawking of beaks, and the thumping of flat, fleshy tails. It's really quite noisy, I mean to say.

This is, at any rate, how I visualize the annual UO/OSU football game taking place tonight. The streets are actually clogged with automobiles, a few of them no doubt piloted by ducks and/or beavers of dubious sobriety. The ducks/beavers in this instance are actually people, which probably makes them slightly less dangerous behind the wheel, but that's hardly the point. The point is, Civil War has come to Autzen stadium, and I am trapped in my house.

Which is fine, I supposed. I've got my music, to drown out the dull roar of the stadium (as well as the fuzzy blupt-de-blup of the PA system), I've got my book, I've got my tea, and I've got the game on TV. Yes, the game is taking place literally across the street, and I'm watching it on TV. On low volume, so that it does not clash with the music.

Speaking of music, I've got a semi-interesting program going on, listening to my entire iTunes music library, alphabetically by album, without skipping a single track. This is a very epic endeavor; I've been at it in bursts over five days, and I'm now waist deep in the Beatles Anthology. Why do this? Boredom, you might think. And you're right! But I have rationalizations, too; namely, a desire to look at my collection from a new perspective. I can go a long time without listening to some albums, and that's not fair to anybody.

Of course, my digital album collection, as it stands, comes in at nearly ten days, five hours of continuous tunes. I may be at this for a while.

Pausing the music for a second, I open the window; the roar comes from both the TV and the stadium. It's like talking to yourself on the telephone.

Go Ducks!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Poetry Jam #2

Gather around, however few of you, for the second (long awaited?) installment of poems by myself. Once again, I make no claims with regard to quality, except that I assume I must be getting better at these over time. I've thrown a great many out, rewritten a few that seemed worth it, and dithered, and dithered, and dithered some more, before finally sucking it up and sticking another handful out into the cold, cruel world. I'll stick some commentary down below, for those of you who think auto-analysis is halfway interesting.

Lady, Do You Like the Blues?

Lady, do you like the blues?
Do you like to hear them sung?
Can you overlook the cheap guitars,
And see the lovely, aching hearts?

Will you pay them any mind,
The sad young men who sing them?
Will you take the time to feel their art,
Can you hear it with a feeling heart?

Will You Come?

I don't trust you to feel like I feel,
'Till you answer me true, do you see like I do?
Then I will know that you see like I see,
Do you hear what I see, do you see me this way
Like I see you?

Do I need you?

Will you be there?

If I might love you and you would love me
I don't know what I'd do, I've been feeling so blue,
And if I ask you to make me feel well,
If I give you the call, will you see me at all,

Will you come?

Hello, Anna

Hello Anna, can I meet you after class?
This is one test that I'm never gonna pass,
I'm twenty one, but my voice begins to crack,
And there's nothing anyone can do about that,

Anna, tell me, would you please go out with me?
Now you smile, and your answer I can see,
You say I'm nice, and my offer's very sweet,
But you're seeing someone, and he isn't me

It wouldn't be so bad, but you sit in front of me
And every other day, I look up and I see
Your soft brown hair, and it's speaking to me,
Telling me the lovely things we'll never be

Goodbye, Anna, hope you have a happy life,
I see you go, and you're such a pretty sight,
And now my heart is feeling small and tight,
And my head is spinning, my mind is feeling light

And there's nothing anyone can do about that,
There's nothing that I can do about that.

In the Very Same Way

I don't know why, but it sounds so appropriate
Late at night on a bus,
Though you and I have never met,

But it strikes me, as the lights are tuning out
And the saxophone is playing,
And you are beautiful, in the very same way

You turn your head, you button your coat,
And the saxophone blows,
It is beautiful,
And you are beautiful, in the very same way


It came to a head, on that unassuming day. The weather was mild, and I had very little to say. But so much depended on that day.

That rhyme was not intentional. I'll try to be more careful.

Due dates, deadlines, random settings
Conspire, collude, to drive me crazy
So much depends upon this day,
But why'd it have to be this way?
House guests, hearings, unknown crises
Arise, erode and ignore my needs,
So much is slotted for this day,
Oh, why'd it have to be this way?

Pressure, pressure, f****** pressure,
Not quite enough to make me faster,
Why'd they overload this day,
Oh why'd it have to be this way?

A poem in three parts, two parts put together.

So much done, on this day of reckoning,
So why have I failed to change a thing?


You know that sometimes I need a drink
To get me through the day,
I feel like someone who's on the brink,
Of failing to stay awake

Asleep, you know I'm falling asleep
And it's nobody's fault,
I don't think,
Believe, I think I'm losing myself,
I need someone's help,
I need that drink

I am so heavy, I'm going to fall,
I'll lose my grip on thought,
I feel like someone who's going to sink;
I slowly sip from my straw.


These poems all range from approximately one year to eight months old. Lady, Do You Like the Blues? is actually the oldest one here, and is probably even older than the idea for this website. It's sort of an experimental half-poem, written mainly to test the possibility that I was actually capable of poetry. It's kind of cute.

I actually really like Will You Come?, for reasons that I'm not even sure of myself. Maybe it's good, or maybe I've got to like something I've written or I'll go crazy.

Of all of these, the one I'm most conflicted about is Hello Anna, a poem which is almost completely autobiographical; after going back and forth for a few weeks about asking a girl in my history class out to coffee, I took the plunge, looked a little silly, and got politely shot down. A few days later, I started thinking about a song the Beatles recorded on their first album, Anna (Go to Him), and somehow, a set of words came to me. At the time, I was really proud of it because it came quickly, but it didn't take me long to feel slightly embarrassed by it. But rather than let it stew in my binder forever, I'll put it out in the light with the usual caveats. It's the only poem I've saved two drafts of, and the version here is slightly different from both, as I saw fit to remove one or two of the corniest phrases.

In the Very Same Way was written a short time after I'd downloaded the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack box set, and was, you guessed it, listening to it on the bus. It's a simple poem expressing a very simple idea, but I think the idea is charming, to say nothing of my presentation.

February is barely a poem. Let's just say that February 2009 seemed like an unusually hectic time, and I felt like doing something with it. It also contains a very naughty word, which I've censored here, because I'm a pansy. You know what it is, though.

Lastly, I want to be clear about Drink. The drink is tea. Iced tea, in particular. I love me some iced tea. The poem is about drinking said tea in afternoon classes because by all rights, the afternoon is nap time, dammit. The original draft includes a drawing of a plastic cup containing ice, which I have faithfully reproduced in MS paint. Enjoy!

Friday, November 27, 2009


Thanksgiving has come and gone, a day of national feasting and football (many holidays seem to have a lot to do with football), and also thankfulness, if you're feeling particularly thankful. Maybe you're not, in which case you've still got the feasting and the football. Maybe be thankful for that?

American myth and lore tells us that the First Thanksgiving was a celebration between "The Pilgrims" (better described as Calvinist Seperatists) and the indigenous tribe said Pilgrims relied upon for their very survival. The Pilgrims had a lot to be thankful for: mainly their lives, but also little things like corn, turkey, and cranberry sauce. As for the Indians, the implication seems to be that they were thankful to have some new friends who could improve their land and teach their religion. Or something. Anyway, for the good of Kindergartners everywhere, we make paper turkeys and try not to talk to much about what happened after that first Thanksgiving, because it gets a little grisly.

Much is made of the traditional Thanksgiving feast and its reinforcement of the notion that Americans are fat gluttons, but this observation is not very fair. Americans, after all, did not invent over-eating, particularly as a way of celebrating cultural and/or religious identity. We merely perfected it, and we did it by smothering everything with delicious, delicious gravy. There is no shame in sharing an over-sized meal with family you hardly ever see. It's very, very odd, but not shameful in the least.

In any event, Thanksgiving actually helps to soften one of our most distasteful cultural traits; the shameless consumerism that accompanies the coming of Christmas. Producers of consumer goods and other crap are always trying to move the start of the season up by playing Christmas-themed advertisements and music, but the presence of another major holiday in late November helps to keep a lid on it. Of course, once the meal is over, the lid comes off, and the family gathers their tents, sleeping bags, and machetes, and camps out in front of the nearest Toys R Us to try and take advantage of a 20% sale on God-knows-what.

Black Friday is, of course, every bit as evil and soul-crushing as it sounds. Its corrosive influence is so strong, it is actually trying to kill Thanksgiving, and this is unforgivable. Even my day calendar had a Black Friday reminder inserted between Thursday and Friday, advising me to go out and buy more day calendars. Christmas, you have four weeks to dominate American culture. You don't need more.

So before we plunge headlong into December, let us reflect on Thanksgiving, and be thankful that it comes just when we need it most.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

Here in the United States we have a pair of holidays for honoring the members of our military; Memorial Day in May, and Veterans Day in November (this very day!). If you're like me, preternaturally obsessed with classification and differentiation, you may note that there isn't a whole lot of difference between the two in terms of their intentions; however, that hasn't stopped Americans from making a sort of unofficial distinction. Memorial Day is, of course, enshrined as the unofficial start of summer, bringing beach-going and barbecues into the mix for a more upbeat take on things. Veterans Day, however, is much more solemn affair, a fact a I attribute partly to its name: while "Memorial Day" is vague in its subject, "Veterans Day" puts a face on the date, the face of the nearest neighbor, family member, or friend who put his or her energy in the service of the United States in the most risky, dangerous way.

I believe that it's very right that Veterans Day holds this distinction, in part because it also represents a day that most Americans have probably forgotten about; the Armistice of November 11th, 1918, which brought an end to World War I. That war, which ended ninety one years ago today, was so heinously destructive, and so inane in its cause and origins, that the very fact that it was waged must be considered one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed, and the entire political leadership of the western world bears the guilt for it. The "silver-lining" hopes that it would be The War to End All Wars turned out to be hopes and nothing more, and the treaty of Versailles ended up doing much more harm than good. But the Armistice, at least, represented a momentary return to sanity, when the soldiers who bled would finally be met with some measure of relief.

November 11th was celebrated in America as Armistice Day until 1954, when the powers that be saw fit to honor the veterans of all wars, principally by changing the holiday's name. The decision was fair and inclusive, but it has contributed to the regrettable amnesia that has crept over our national recollection of World War I. There is only one American veteran of that war who is still alive today, Frank Buckles, who is one hundred and six years old. When he is gone, the war, and the Armistice, will belong entirely to history, along with the experiences of all the soldiers who endured machine guns and mustard gas, and clung to survival in muddy trenches.

It was World War I that changed the western consciousness toward war itself, chastising traditional notions of glorious battle with the abject horror of blood and pain. The lessons of the 20th Century have taught us, again and again, that to be an American soldier in a time of war is to endure that horror, to volunteer to face it and, with what strength they have, to overcome it. To be a soldier is a deadly serious profession, and to be a veteran is rightly a position of great honor.

It is right that the day we honor veterans should be November 11th, because soldiers of any nation have seldom endured worse than they did in the Great War. As for the soldiers who fought in that war, they were never better served by their leaders than they were on the day they were told that they need endure no more of it.

Happy Veterans Day, veterans. May you receive all that you deserve.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On the Second Floor, Chapter XIII

The door was large, like the entrance to a mansion in sheer stature. However, it was plainly a working door, scuffed by passing machinery, boxes, and boots. The symbols engraved near the top were mysterious to me, but I deduced that their meaning must be rather mundane: perhaps 'laboratory,' or 'to bridge,' or 'exit.' Maybe they only meant 'door.' Apart from its dimensions (being built as it were for people as tall as Dayus, and their equipment), it was not an especially remarkable door. But it was the only one, the only choice for one who could not turn back. So needless to say, I went through it, more afraid of what I'd left behind than what I might meet on the other side.

The difficult part was figuring out how to open it; the frame and the hinges were obviously there, but I was stalled momentarily by the absence of a knob or handle. After a few fruitless tries at pushing and pulling, the problem solved itself, when my hands found their way to my pockets, and I felt the recorder give a subtle vibration - it was a key, amongst God knows what else. The door opened inward toward me on its hinges, and I stepped back to allow enough room for it to open fully; it moved under its own power, but with no obvious mechanism or motor. Through the door was a hallway, dimly lit yet navigable by sight, proceeding in a straight line for a very considerable distance.

The walls were made of the same chalky material as the door, but in the darker atmosphere they appeared less white than pale grey. They were set wide apart, with a high, vaulted ceiling that echoed with the rubbery thud of my shoes on the tile floor. It was very large, especially for me, but substantial all the same for those who built it, and I could see that it was practical for a laboratory setting. As I walked, doors appeared on both sides, each labeled by inscriptions in the unknown alien alphabet, with no windows (and thank goodness for that, I thought). There were no cameras that I could see, or security of any kind, but I was not fooled. I was soon to be noticed, and likely soon to be apprehended.

And that was alright. The further I walked (and the distance was quite far), the more secure I felt. I could claim diplomatic immunity - they called me a diplomat themselves, didn't they? If Dayus had been seriously hurt by the drugs, it might be a tough sell, but I figured that in some way or another, they needed me. If I was important enough to be dragged unwillingly across outer space, I might just be important enough to escape punishment.

And as the minutes passed, my pace slackened, and it started to seem like I really was that important. Of course they knew what was going on; it was positively idiotic to believe otherwise. But they let me pass anyway, and there was just no point in granting me a false sense of security. There were no sounds except my footsteps in the hall, no other presences at all. I even began to feel bored.

After another five minutes of walking I reached a corner, which connected to a larger hall, more brightly lit by white fluorescent tubes, and furnished with spare columns here and there - smooth octagonal pillars, seamlessly integrated into the ceiling and the floor. The walls were like fine marble in appearance, white with patches and streaks of mottled grey. But the texture was not that of stone, but of steel. The metal was bare, with no sign of paint or pigment, and I knew it was an alloy, a highly advanced type that had never been seen on Earth.

The left hand wall was much like the interior of a classical temple, beautiful but vaguely inert. It was the right hand wall that surprised me most of all; the grey patches in the 'marble,' I soon realized, were not arranged like natural stone. They were shapes, humanoid shapes, arranged in a great mural by a skillful art I could not immediately guess at, as they appeared neither to be painted nor engraved, but rather intrinsic to the substance of the medium.

It was an epic march from right to left, seemingly across space and time. At one end were the forms of what I took to be wild animals, painstakingly detailed with bulging muscles and horns. Interspersed among them were people, wearing very simple clothing but unmistakeably of Dayus' species, with large square heads to show for it. They looked like families at first; I couldn't guess at differences between the sexes, but there were large figures and smaller ones, and the latter I took to be children.

As they advanced across the wall the figures multiplied, and changed in every characteristic. The children diminished in number compared to the adults, who now wore robes and carried staves and swords, and the animals gradually disappeared entirely. The men, and women, presumably, were soon clustered together: first in pairs, then in pairs of pairs, and so on, merging into larger and larger groups, growing steadily denser against the sparse white background space. Some held weapons, others things that might have been tools; in time they all came together as a single massive group. They marched in lock step, or seemed to, though of course each figure stood completely still.

At the far end of the hall was a door built of the same metallic marble, inlaid with radiant, geometric designs and more mysterious letters. The mural came to an end just shy of this door; at the head of the great mass of people was a single man, holding aloft a large staff. While the others faced left, he stood seemingly in opposition, as though he were addressing them, and to his back was a symbol: a set of three circles. There was a large one, with a smaller one set in the center, and an even smaller one set at the apex of the largest. Both the man and the symbol were perplexing, and I could not easily identify them, though they seemed almost like a god and a prophet, or beings from some ancient myth.

As I leisurely analyzed the picture, as though I were only in an art gallery, I heard the door to my left swing open. I turned to see two aliens, taller and more robust than the assistants from days before, wearing sleek black robes and carrying long, unadorned staves. Security had arrived; instinctively, I reached into my coat pocket and drew out my pocket knife. Brandishing the tiny blade, I stood my ground and demanded as they approached, "What do you want?"

"Please remain exactly where you are until the doctor arrives," they answered. The pair stopped their approach after only a few steps, blocking the open door with their weapons. The room on the other side looked much the same as the hallway, but I could not get a good look at its features without passing them.

"Do you know where he is?"

"Yes. He is coming here now."

I waited, my muscles tensing, perhaps unnecessarily, in anticipation. I felt that there was probably no need for violent action; what the moment truly called for was theater, the appearance of strength and preparation. Most of all, I needed to appear like a dangerous man.

In my heart, I was relieved to hear that he was coming. If I had killed Dayus, then cause or no cause it would haunt my conscience forever. But no harm, no foul, as they say; my plan was completely successful, and nothing Dayus did from then on could detract from my victory. I was the captive, and I became the conquering hero, and if no one had been watching, I would have let my knees shake at the thought.

The guards held their positions with impeccable dispassion, entirely unimpressed by my affectation of bravado. They didn't care, and I didn't care, so the three of us stood therein silence, as the sound of echoing footsteps grew louder from behind. I shook out my shoulders and straightened my tie in anticipation of the event, while the guards kept still and focused. I took a few deep breaths, bu tried not to do so obviously.

Dayus turned the corner slowly, entering the marbly hall with a very slight, disconcerting wobble in his gait. Closing the distance between us, he turned his head to the right to view the mural himself. The images that captured my attention so thoroughly were, to him, completely familiar, but they seemed to please him, and his expression softened as he looked over them. I relaxed myself as well, casually swinging the knife in low arcs. The guards looked on, silently.

"That," he said, in a deliberately neutral tone, "was completely unnecessary, Jonah. I told you that you would be allowed to come out today."

"Well," I replied, "I decided that I was coming out, whether I was allowed to or not." I held the knife in a semi-guarded stance, nonchalantly closing the blade, and reopening it, over and over again. "It really wasn't personal. I'm not proud of having tricked you like that, but I would have been ashamed of myself if I made it all the way out here, without having found my own way out."

"How curious that you should feel this way. I thought you had made peace with your role in these proceedings."

"I have. But I'm not going to stick to the script you've written." I took a few short steps toward the doctor, shoring up the bulwark of my conviction. "I'm not going to be 'kept' anywhere. I'm going to help your research, and play ambassador, for as long as you need me to. I'm doing it because I think it's the right thing to do. But it's going to be on my terms, and that's all there is to it."

"You may go," said Dayus, and for a split-second I was confused, but I realized he was speaking to the security team. The pair promptly withdrew from the doorway, and remained totally silent; though they hid their emotions behind a sheer facade of discipline, I still assumed they hated me. I decided to reciprocate this apparent show of good faith, so I clipped the knife closed and returned it to the inside pocket of my coat. I made my point, and I was willing to make my point again if the notion bore repeating, but enough was quite enough for me.

I looked the doctor directly in the eyes. "Do we have an understanding?" I asked?

"Yes we do," he answered, staring back with equal focus, "but further deceptions will surely hamper our working relationship."

"I'm not an expert liar, so I don't expect to fool you twice. But I'd expect an equal amount of honesty and transparency from you, and your associates."

Dayus was looking much like his old self again; the slight distraction in his eyes, which I had taken to be an effect of the sleeping pills, was now gone, and they increasingly looked sharp and attentive. "I believe the most surprising revelation from this incident," he said, "is of your remarkable capacity for pride."

"It'll be a long year with that kind of attitude," I said, "and it's hard enough already."

"I didn't mean it as an insult," he continued. "It's clear enough that you harbor anxieties about the contact between our races. You regard us as frighteningly superior beings, without even knowing the half of our intellectual or technological capabilities. From your perspective, you are a prisoner, not even of people, but of fate and natural forces you could never hope to influence. In your own eyes, you have become insignificant and weak; but in spite of that weakness, you struck me, harder than you would admit that you could. You might have even killed me, though I do doubt that it was your intention. All for pride. And now that you've got your pride, your qualms about cooperation have disappeared, when by all rights you should expect nothing but retaliation. You should know, Jonah - people with pride do well in this universe."

"Well, enough about me," I said, impatiently, wondering if I'd put the knife away too soon. "Let's talk about something else."

"Such as?"

"I don't know. I guess...this mural, for starters. What does it mean?"

"Mean? Well, this is a symbolic representation of the early history of our people."

"It's beautifully made. I'm not quite sure what sort of technique they used to make it." I placed my palm on the wall, trying to perceive some fissure in the metal that could mark the boundary between the light and dark regions, but there was none to be found.

"The white metal is a special alloy that resists the forces of electromagnetism," he explained, "and the darker metal is an iron alloy. The images are created by applying precisely controlled magnetic fields to a molten mixture of the two."

"Fascinating," I said, stepping back to better appreciate the work as a whole. I contemplated silently for a moment, turning the images to narrative in my mind, but the conclusion still seemed too obscure to be definitive. "Dayus," I asked, "what does the circular symbol at the end stand for?"

"That is hydrogen," he said, as though it were a simple matter of fact. Its appearance was, I had to admit, evocative of the nature of the element.

"Ah," I said, "the first element. So, does it represent the sun, or something?" It had occurred to me that the marching people vaguely resembled the style of Egyptian wall paintings, and I wondered if these people's ancestors had been sun worshipers.

"Not exactly," he said. "In our scientific tradition, hydrogen is not considered the first element, but rather, the one element; the hydrogen atom is the simplest incarnation in nature of the atomic form. More precisely, in this image, it stands for the discovery of nuclear energy." He pointed to the penultimate figure, who held aloft his staff, saying "the scientists who first developed this technology are represented by the hero in this spot. The discovery is considered the pivotal point, when the ancient era transitioned to the modern one."

The story was definitely interesting, and it sounded like there was a great deal more of it to tell. But suddenly, a tremor passed through the hall, shaking the floor and knocking me down, taking me completely off guard. Dayus swayed a little with the motion, but appeared otherwise undisturbed. Looks like he's completely recovered, I thought, pushing myself up off the ground.

"I'm sorry," he said, "that vibration is the result of our rapid deceleration to sub-light speed. We have arrived in the vicinity of my planet."

"Good," I said, steadying myself against the wall; I felt a dull ache in my hip, but it wasn't serious. "Now what?"

"If you would, please accompany me to my office, where we will report to the Chief Minister." He set off through the doorway immediately, before I had a chance to respond; I followed, but held back slightly, partly for the sake of appearances (not wishing to look eager or subservient), but also to admire the craftsmanship in the proceeding hallways.

The metallic marble was the dominant mode of decoration throughout the ship, and most of the walls were sparsely adorned with light, naturalistic patterns, in imitation of the inherent beauty of the white stone. As we passed through over a dozen sections, rounding corners and taking jarring detours, I took note of the few that showed highly detailed images. Most of these were landscapes, while a few seemed to depict scenes from history or myth; many featured animals, and it was difficult to tell if they were real creatures, or monsters of ancient legend. The entrance to Dayus' 'office,' at last, was decorated by a monstrous, yet unmistakeably serene face, the visage of what might have been a bear, if bears had longer hair and small, curled horns.

The room was small, about the size of a conventional office room, with a single rounded wall. There were no windows, but there was a flat display screen, much like a wall-hanging plasma television set; it probably measured some forty inches, diagonally. This single extravagance aside, it was bereft of decoration, and neatly kept; it contained only a desk, a cabinet, and a long, high bench for sitting. He sat down there, and invited me to sit to his left. The bench was ideally suited for a person of his proportions, but it was a little high for me; my feet dangled a few inches above the ground, and I found the lack of a back rest uncomfortable. With no support, I did my best sit straight.

"May I have the device you took from me back?" Slightly embarrassed, I dug into my pocket and retrieved the recorder, and placed it in his over-sized hands. Dayus manipulated the device with a few gestures, thereby activating the screen; quite the handy object.

Presently, a second alien appeared on the screen. Like Dayus, his head was square and elongated, but he was stouter, and appeared less tall, with no hair on his scalp. His robe was of a refined blue material, with a grey patch of coarser fabric set on his shoulder like an epaulette. I noticed a small, dark blue replica of the hydrogen symbol prominently embossed on the grey patch, looking like the extraterrestrial equivalent of a politician's lapel pin. He greeted Dayus with a slow, overhead arching gesture, right to left, with his left hand; the doctor immediately returned it. The stout man smiled, and spoke first.

"Welcome home, Doctor. I see that your mission was successful."

"Yes, Chief Minister. This is Jonah, a human from the planet called Earth, acting as ambassador for his people."

Feeling awkward at this juncture, I gave a conventional right handed salute, not wishing to emulate signs I didn't know the meaning of.

"Greetings, human of Earth. I am the Chief Minister of my people, of the planet Etnarus. I trust that your journey has been comfortable?"

"Exceedingly so, sir," I replied. It seemed that 'comfort' was not a peculiar obsession of Dayus' after all.

"Doctor," he continued, shifting his focus away from me once more, "how is the Commander's mission faring?"

"At the time of our parting," said Dayus, "the commander's party had successfully made contact with an influential governmental authority. His impression was such that a peaceful exchange was highly likely."

"Excellent. look forward to your full report upon your arrival."

"Yes, Minister. But if you don't mind my asking now, what new developments have arisen in the rebellion incident?"

Rebellion? That's not right! I'd begun to drift off, but I snapped to attention to hear this news.

"Ah yes," said the minister, his face turning two shades more grave. "I'm not surprised at your concern. It was as we feared; the rebels acquired two nuclear weapons and attempted to use them in the capital city. Fortunately, our security forces were able to recover one; the other detonated at the rebels' base of operations. The situation appears to have stabilized."

"I am glad," said Dayus, smiling faintly. He repeated his saluting gesture, which was then returned by the minister, and said "We will meet you in your office in one hour." The minister nodded in assent, and disappeared from view.

Stunned, I leaned back, nearly losing my balance and tumbling backwards. I quickly recovered and straightened up again, muttering, "So, that's what was hiding behind the curtain."

"What do you mean?" Dayus asked.

"Are you telling me that your planet's in the middle of a civil war?"

"That term," he explained, a bit testily, "implies a more even distribution of power between the opposing forces. This is merely a noisy separatist movement."

Whatever. I put my elbows on the desk, cradling my forehead in my hand as I dreaded the tasks ahead. "I suppose I should have put it together; our people aren't very different at all. And neither are our planets. If I had thought about it critically - if I hadn't idealized you, your world so much - I should have figured out there'd be something like this. It would have been obvious."

"You are concerned about our nuclear weapons?" The notion was probably alien to him, I realized, but he still adopted a neutral tone in asking.

"Not as much as I'm concerned about ours," I said, "but really, what worries me most is when people don't mind using them." I hopped off the bench and began pacing the room slowly, weighing the conflicting perceptions in my mind, searching for amoral priority. "These rebels... what's going to happen to them?"

"The ones who were not killed in the explosion will likely be tried and executed. Does this surprise you?"

"No, I guess it really doesn't," I said, scratching my head with the side of my thumb. "What are they fighting for, anyway?"

"They represent the militant wing of a regional interest group, which opposes the central government," said Dayus. "They are ruthlessly ideological, and cannot be reasoned with. Indeed, they represent a dire threat to our entire civilization."

"Yeah, I guess you really should do something about that," I said, wearily. "But I don't understand why I had to fly a million light years through space to hear about something I see on TV every day."

"Pay it no mind," he said, the terseness of his delivery emphasizing his impatience toward the subject. "Your civilization, and mine, both stand to gain very much from this exchange. Our similarities only reinforce this principle; it is a clear indication that a broad cultural understanding can be reached between us." He too rose from the bench, turning to the cabinet to retrieve what I presumed to be documents relating to the expedition.

I hope that's what those similarities mean, I thought. I stopped pacing and stared at the viewing screen for a while, absent-mindedly playing with my tie and feeling a light, nauseating churn in the depths of my gut. If I really had been dreaming, I was waking up at last. The odds of seeing truth for what it truly was were as remote as ever, even with fully opened eyes, but I tried to accept what enlightenment there was to be had. I didn't like it; things were not as they should have been. What value had the dream been, if reality coldly defied the dreamer's hopes? I leave that question to the philosophers, as I begin to address the more practical question: what happens next? Having only just woken up, I feel so very tired.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

All Hallow's Evening

The world is a confusing place, but one of the nice things about being a little kid is the way things just sort of make sense. Of course, it's not as though kids know something we don't. Rather, they assign great importance to mundane facts in a way that reaffirms their faith in an ordered world. For example, when I was small, I believed it to be highly significant that the last three months of the year each had a high-profile holiday in their final days. December gives us Christmas, the mother of all childhood memory-makers. November gives us Thanksgiving, the most consistently awesome meal of the year. And October gives us Halloween, which is primarily about wearing scary clothes and eating many, many candies. It sure seemed obvious to me that the close connection of those three days was no accident, but a sure sign that the final quarter of the year was one great big celebration of childhood. When you're a kid, that's a very appealing idea.

Skip a bit to adulthood, though, and I have to admit that the day has lost some of its old luster. Mostly, it's because there seems to be a disconnect between the time-honored thematic tradition of Halloween and the way people actually celebrate it. It's really difficult to sell Halloween as a "horror" holiday when people wear costumes that tend toward the goofy. As awesome as it is to see someone walk down the street wearing a very convincing costume of Coach McGuirk, it's just not "scary." It's as though the traditional holiday got thrown into a blender with as many elements of pop culture as could fit in said blender. The result? Halloween is virtually indistinguishable from a cos-play convention, with the notable exception that people at conventions usually stick to the themes of the event. The fact that many school districts these days are explicitly discouraging trick-or-treaters from wearing 'scary' clothes is not helping matters.

So Halloween doesn't really light my fire anymore. This year, in particular, it was mostly overshadowed by the big football game in town (Oregon Ducks vs. USC Trojans), so the evening's festivities were at least as much about the Duck's triumph as the holiday itself. In an ironic way, though, the drunken street-revelry of elated college students gave the holiday a bit of its mojo back, by adding an element of mild danger. The cops were out in force tonight to prevent riots, and they more than had their hands full in doing so. Among the more egregious offenses I witnessed: a minivan full of girls being pulled over for driving the wrong way down a one-way street; a gang of hooligans absconding with a stop sign; and on several occasions, the deafening crack of illegal firecrackers in the streets. By far the most surprising event of the evening, however, was the strange girl who bumped into me on a street corner, and immediately started dancing and grinding with a passion. Scary? Not exactly, but I'm certainly not objecting.

Halloween may not make a lot of sense anymore (especially for someone my age), but it's clearly alive and well as a mixture of goofiness, criminality, and pumpkin pulp splattered on front porches. You just can't keep a good holiday down.

Happy Halloween, Everybody!

Friday, October 30, 2009

The kid in me goes to an art museum.

One of the nicer parts of the University of Oregon campus is the art museum, which overall has a nicely diverse selection of works on display, ranging from ancient artifacts to classical fine art to contemporary abstract horrors. Not having been on campus for a while, I was surprised when a friend of mine tipped me off last night about the museum's latest featured exhibition: Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Art of the Superhero. Greatly excited by the notion, I rushed off this morning to size up the exhibit, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

The majority of the pieces on display are original pencil and ink drawings of covers and pages, the real nitty-gritty of composition, as it were. There are a handful of vintage issues on the floor, including a copy of Superman #1 in very good condition, and a number of paintings, posters, and special commissioned works to add a dash of color to what is otherwise a lot of black and white. I was especially pleased to see the work of Alex Ross out in force, but it would of course have been ridiculous not to include some of his paintings, given his completely unique take on super-hero visuals. There was also plenty of love for Jack Kirby, as is plainly the man's due.

The exhibit is arranged roughly as a visual history of the genre, but while it covers a lot of ground, it's not as comprehensive as it could have been. Most of the important points are covered, but some are notably absent; for example, one piece of handy guide text on the wall explains the political circumstances that led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, the self-censoring body that kept explicit references to drugs, sex, and other naughty things out of the industry. No subsequent text or pieces get into the story of how the stifling atmosphere under the CCA was ultimately dispelled in the wake of this issue of Amazing Spider-man (with help from the Nixon administration, no less). Instead, we simply jump from the largely sanitized Silver Age of the 60's to the gritty, violent, and (sometimes) socially relevant 70's. But while the factual element of the history is patchy (though by no means inaccurate), the visual element is totally satisfactory. Most of the most famous and influential books and artists are represented, including classics (and personal favorites of mine) like Marvels, The Killing Joke, and Watchmen.

There's not a lot of focus on the writing of comics, apart from a corner devoted to the inimitable Alan Moore and the sadly over-imitated Frank Miller. There is a great deal, however, devoted to the examination of themes like race, gender and the perceptions thereof. Writers haven't always been smart about these issues (witness the over-the-top blaxploitation lingo of early Luke Cage comics), but there's some pretty smart essays about them in the reading material on the gallery's big round couch. I didn't read most of them, but the exhibit's open until January third. Presumably, I have some time.

The gallery housing the exhibit has an alcove, which inexplicably holds exactly two small paintings. This section is devoted to the comic book industry's reaction to the terror attacks of 9/11, often cited as a clear demonstration of the cultural relevancy of comics in the 21st century. Overplaying that angle might have been in bad taste, but it's easily the most boring part of the exhibit; setting aside that much space for so few pictures is just a bad call. "Here, Superman plays with children of various ethnicities and builds new towers out of blocks. Here, Superman admires the Real Heroes. Move along." That section could have really been fleshed out more, or at least put in a smaller space.

The most unusual object in the whole show (and thus, my favorite) is a large mixed-media promotional painting for the New Mutants, an X-Men spin-off from the 80's. It's a mad mixture of swirly abstract paint and embedded computer chips, with a handful of the series' characters placed in one corner like an afterthought. Easily the most arty thing in the room, I had half a mind to take it home with me. Getting the wheelbarrow full of money needed to accomplish this task, unfortunately, is slightly impractical for my budget.

I loved the exhibit. I only wish it were bigger, but as it is, it takes about an hour to view and fully appreciate everything there, which is plenty of time to make a point about a much-maligned art form. Super hero comics come alive in vivid colors on a page, but I doubt any true fan of the genre would be disappointed to see the art they loved taken seriously in an academic setting. The exhibit is great for children, too; I feel confident in saying this because I shared the gallery with a pair of hyper-excited eight-year-old boys. Here's hoping that comics don't grow up too much.

Finally, here's a short video, showing some of the pictures on display, along with a little academic commentary by the guest curator of the exhibit.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wrench in the gears

Chapter Thirteen, the dramatic conclusion of On the Second Floor, was supposed to go up this week. It didn't because I realized while I was writing it that I didn't like it.

My writing process typically works like this: first, I get an idea. Once the idea is obtained, the next step is to sit down with pen, paper, and build a setting around that idea. Then, through arcane mysteries known only to druids and amateur writers, I make the idea happen on the page. Once the idea is safely stored in the ink, I wait until update day, whereupon the transcribing/editing phase of the process begins. Sitting down with my manuscript, I type it up on the computer, ruthlessly fussing over punctuation, tense, diction and structure. If all goes well, a reasonably readable short piece finds its way on to the site, and I get to thinking about my next idea.

Well, I've had an idea for how this chapter should go since this whole project began. I developed the idea, by which I mean I idly thought about it every once in a while, in the months since. The problem is, once I had it mostly written down, I no longer liked it. This is not merely self-criticism; the longer I wrote, the more I felt my already dubious craft disintegrate into repetition and tedium. I tried to power through it, but I came to realize that the ending I had conceived was trite, and my attempts to infuse it with emotional weight were hopelessly clumsy.

So I gutted the chapter, keeping a few pages as a springboard, and resolved to think of a better idea. It still adheres to the Big Idea I had at the story's inception, but my new approach is more forthright, and the hope is that it will resolve itself with less melodrama. Forcing a "stunning revelation" into the final scenes of a story is unnatural, and it's an error I really should have seen coming. But I think I have it under control now.

The new, improved Chapter Thirteen should go up on Monday Next, and all will once again be right with the universe.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

WFJ Book Club #2: The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb

This book marks my first substantial introduction to the work of R. Crumb, one of the most brazen and controversial, yet venerable, artists in the world of comics. I know him solely by reputation, and his is perhaps the definition of colorful (though he prefers, to all appearances, the look of black and white in his own work). A product of 60s counterculture and LSD, Crumb has accumulated a high charge of of shock value over his career; he is after all the creator of Fritz the Cat, a strip later adapted into the first X-rated animated film in American history. Let it be said, there are a great many people who no doubt find the presence of Crumb's mark on holy scripture to be blasphemy in and of itself. Surely Crumb knows this, and his illustrations he could never be accused of prudery; however, the end product is a surprisingly modest and thoroughly serious adaptation.

The text of the book is Genesis, down to the very last verse, melded together from several versions. The introduction especially cites Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses as a source, but others, including the King James Version, were used. It also contains footnotes to help explain some of the book's more obscure puns and linguistic tricks, though not anywhere near the scholarly depth found in most conventional versions. The text is rendered in an unmistakeably comic book style, all-caps and with dramatic punctuation - never before has a Bible seen so many exclamation points! Chapter divisions remain in place, but the individual verses are no longer marked in the text (they would only get in the way). Dialog goes in word balloons, where it belongs, but never drops out of its proper place in any given verse, a testament to expert scripting.

The art is where most of the interpretive work is done. Crumb mostly plays it straight, showing literal depictions of what is described in the text. This is where the controversy is born: when the text describes sex, violence, or both, the artist supplies the imagery. Chapter 19, wherein Lot and his daughters commit incest, contains easily the most censorship-baiting imagery in the whole book; but while graphic, in context the pictures are not quite pornographic, and they are not dwelt upon, with only two panels devoted to the sex acts themselves. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah on the previous page, meanwhile, is a full page of charred bodies writhing in agony, as fire rains down upon a horrifying cityscape of destruction.

Crumb's style is devoted to detail, with both background and foreground objects treated to a nearly equal avalanche of tiny pen strokes, all bounded by chaotic, almost squiggly outlines. There are pervasive elements of cartoon style, like emotive backgrounds and surprise lines (because Biblical characters are often surprised), but the book is also obsessively realistic. Extensive research shows in the detailed accuracy of clothing, equipment, and architecture. The end of Chapter 3 even includes realistic Cherubim; not the fat babies of Valentines day cards, but winged lions straight from the mythology of the ancient Near East.

Genesis includes a number of genealogies and "nation tables," exceedingly long lists of people begotten by other people which most readers, myself included, tend to skip. Crumb, however, seizes the opportunity to show off the fruits of his research, with scenes from family and working life, presenting visually what is ultimately the point of these genealogies; the miraculous proliferation of human life. Most of the names listed belong to characters who don't have very much to do in the story, but the pictures bring them to life anyway, providing an important visual bridge from the time of Adam to the time of Noah, and so on to the time of the Patriarchs.

Though the text is not altered, the pictures add a new emotional subtext that reveal the author's interpretation. Facial expressions do an incredible amount of leg work; when Adam blames Eve for feeding him the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, she gives him a subtle, dirty look that speaks volumes about gender politics. When Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him the blessing meant for Esau, the latter's desperate reaction is beautifully enhanced by his wild eyes and tears. Actions are backed up by emotions, which words alone often fail to convey thoroughly.

These pieces never add up to a ham-handed counter-argument against the text, but they do confirm the author's position. When the Bible describes God creating humans twice, it's easy for a true believer to fuse the two events into one in his mind. When Crumb draws the event twice, it becomes an affirmation of the scholarly view that they are, in fact, two separate stories, stitched together by priests into a roughly coherent whole. As Crumb admits in the introduction, he does not believe in Genesis, or any other part of the Bible, as an infallible account of real happenings. For him, Genesis is among the foundational myths of western civilization, and he wants to do the story justice in the modern age.

If Crumb's work has a fault, I must say that its scope is too small. The book ends with the death of Joseph, and the stage clearly set for the events of the book of Exodus. Putting together an entire Bible in this manner would have taken many years of painstaking research (Crumb spent four years alone on this one), but separating Genesis from the rest of the Bible, especially its four companions in the Torah, gives a necessarily incomplete picture of the whole of the Judeo-Christian traditional stories. Exodus especially is among the most dramatic, and well-known, of Biblical books, and so it seems a shame to leave it out.

Like Crumb, I do not accept a literal interpretation of Genesis, but I readily perceive the value of a literal visual representation of it. If the words themselves have value for us today, then the pictures must serve to emphasize the words. This is the real strength of Crumb's work, and the strength of the medium of comics, allowing the artist to cut in both directions at once; to revel in the visual splendor of myth, while supporting a sober and thoughtful subtext.

The last few pages of the book feature commentaries by Crumb on various chapters, including some illuminating examples of how his research influenced his depictions, and his theories on the significance of certain obscure passages. It's a nice bit of amateur scholarship, worth reading for a better understanding of the story proper.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On the Second Floor, Chapter XII

Day Ten

The next morning I lay motionless in my bed for several minutes, checking the extent of my resolve against the magnitude of my task. My artificial environment was so remarkably consistent, one day was just the same as another, and there were no omens, no signs of special importance; but it was important, I reminded myself. It was the last day of school, if school were a bubble of inertia and self-doubt. It was New Year's Eve at the turn of a brand new century.

I got up and performed my Judgment day stretches, knowing I would have to be limber in body and mind. It was a token gesture, and I didn't know the first thing about proper stretches and exercise. What really mattered was focusing my brain, actions synchronizing with intent; preparation for the great unknown. In a moment of peaceful clarity I prayed for success, though niggling doubts of its efficacy remained in my mind.

I rummaged through the cupboard looking for a powerful breakfast, and I settled on honey nut cheerios because there was nothing else to be had. "Grant me the strength of the honey bee," I said, relishing the absurdity of every crunchy spoonful. There was no milk, but the cereal itself provided the necessary sense of fortification. "Lower my cholesterol too, if you can."

Important days call for special attention to one's physical appearance, when 'routine' matters of hygiene pass from quasi-optional to unquestionably essential. So I pulled my electric razor from the drawer and shaved my face, shearing down four days' stubble with ruthless efficiency. Shaving on an irregular basis is a haphazard affair, and I wondered if it made any difference among aliens or not. This is not about what they want, I sternly reminded myself. It was time to make a point.

I went to the closet and donned my people's ceremonial armor: a black, single-breasted business suit, rarely worn but all the stronger for it in my imagination (I come from a long and storied line of professionals). The entire ensemble hung conveniently assembled on a coat hanger, the classiest coat hanger I owned, and I was pleased to see that the fabric bore no prominent wrinkles. The tie, a modest blue pattern to match the shirt and blend with the coat, was a recurring enemy from formal occasions long past; I did my best, and I make no claims to aesthetic excellence in the art of tying ties.

I elected to wear tennis shoes, reasoning that the aliens would never know the difference, and reckoning comfort a higher priority than the strictest formality. My formal dress shoes were only a liability, buried in depths of the closet where they belonged, to the extent that they belonged anywhere within miles of my feet. The tennis shoes were black, and that was qualification enough for the occasion.

It was an outfit fit for a warrior, or a diplomat, or a spy; whichever role I might be called upon to play, the suit evoked a ruthless spirit I could rely upon to make me stronger than myself. The clock struck twelve, and I fiddled with my tie, hoping against hope to tease perfection out of its appearance. Finding none, I settled for less, because a tie is an impossible thing and a man must know his limits. The armor was on, and sufficient to the cause; it was for me then to believe in it, to invest it with strength from my own soul. The suit was invincible.

There was as usual no indication of when Dayus would arrive, but that was no concern of mine. I focused on my own preparations, the most critical element of success. The room was inundated by the music of Wagner, who lent his trademark audacity to a task that required much of it. I washed the dishes from the night before (and admittedly the night before that as well), unsure as I was about when I'd get another chance. The fate of the dome, and the apartment, and my property within it, was all an open question as far as I knew. I brewed the tea, the linchpin of the entire operation, more so even than the tie. The universe expanded and convulsed in wild, explosive waves, unabashedly unpredictable on every conceivable plane, just as it always had and always would; but in the sphere of my senses I was finally in complete control, and more determined than ever to use it to my advantage.

When the tower stirred at last, my preparations were in place. The music, German opera of the highest tradition, was like a transcendental storm, quivering with wind and strings and fearful noise. I read from the works of Ovid, stories of transformations on a multitude of scales. Outside my window, just such a transformation was taking place. As the tower receded, sunk deep in the ground, in its place stood Dayus, eight feet tall and noble, untouchable and unassailable as the pillar itself. He approached the door, and I welcomed him in.

"I notice your clothes are different," he said.

"This is formal clothing. If I'm going to be meeting the big wigs tonight, I want to look my best, don't I?"

"It is good that you take your position so seriously. Now, there are certain matters we must discuss."

"Certainly." I got up to place the Metamorphoses back in its place on the shelf, nestled amongst books of religion, myth, and philosophy.

"I'm sure you are curious about your future living arrangements."

"Yes, actually. Specifically, I want to know what's going to happen to the apartment, and all of my belongings."

"There is a space in my laboratory which is large enough to hold this building," he said. "The simplest option would be to re-transplant the structure to that place for the time being. You could continue dwelling there, if you wished, but your movements will necessarily be limited by laboratory security protocol."

"I can see that getting annoying after a while," I said, wondering at his poor sense of irony.

"I thought perhaps you might think so. Which is why I allocated money in my research budget for the purchase of an apartment in the capital for your use."

"Hold on," I said, eyebrow set to maximum surprise, "you guys have money?"

"It is probably not entirely similar to your conception of currency," he explained, "but money, in some form or another, is used in the overwhelming majority of advanced societies. Does this surprise you?"

"Well, a little." I felt a little foolish and resentful at the question, an emotion I had thought I was through with. "It's just that I never considered the possibility. That's all."

"I would hope this information would comfort you in some way," he said, "to know that the world you are about to enter is not so different from the world you have left."

"Yes, you're right," I said. God forbid it, I thought.

I rose from my seat on the couch and rubbed my face, still burning slightly from the razor. The time was as good as any; "you should drink some tea with me," I said, and he assented.

I retrieved the drink from the refrigerator, a rich Darjeeling blend on ice, and poured it in a pair of tall glasses. I mixed in the appropriate additives for each, shaking the glasses gently for a complete, even distribution, as my guest waited in the living room. The music, which was reduced to a volume more suitable for conversation, grew louder with the silence, asserting itself into the foreground with the absence of talk. I handed Dayus a cup, and he drank.

"This seems to taste different," he observed, "from the last such drink you offered me."

"That's because it's a different pmixture." I took a mouthful from my own cup, savoring the hint of lemon juice and mint that infused it. "Eating and drinking," I said, "are sacred actions in all human cultures, and a variety of preparations serve a variety of purposes."

"Explain," he said, taking another sip.

"Drinking especially," I continued. "Of course, water is essential for daily living, so we have to drink it every day. Water gives life, and that's why it's the prototype - the natural prototype, that is - of the magic potion."

"You ascribe magical properties to these substances?" His skepticism was plain, and not unwarranted, but I had more to say.

"Not in a literal sense, no, though we did just that in ancient times," I replied. "But I think that's still the best word for it - a magic potion." I drank more, leading him onward, and guiding by example. "If magic is a means to transform nature, and natural things, and states, then we have a host of potions to accomplish those changes. Take coffee, for example: usually, we drink it in the morning, when we feel sleepy and dull. The caffeine acts on our nervous system to wake us up, but we don't perceive the chemicals, only the effects; what we feel is a magical transformation of our cognitive states. We drink alcohol for the same reason: mental transformation. Many people drink drugged potions for religious reasons, to commune with the gods." I took another gulp. "Sometimes," I added, "a malevolent person might take another person's drink and poison it. You might call that 'black magic.'"

"And what about tea?" he asked, putting his cup down from yet another sip.

"Well, tea is a stimulant, just like coffee, but it has other chemical properties that give it a relaxing quality. For my money, it's the ideal drink for socializing, and relaxing on a sunny day like this."

"Yes," he murmured, closing his eyes slightly, "I do feel relaxed." Breathing deeply, he seemed at a loss for words. Like a good host, I filled the gap.

"So you see, two people coming together to share a drink, it's an act of friendship and trust. It's a common experience, of spiritual, vital significance."

"Yes, I can see how it is so." Dayus drank again, eyes closed, and I did as well, cherishing the moment. "This music," he said, "it's very...bold."

"You really have to be in the mood for Wagner," I said. "His style is very intense; he's a perfectionist, working on an absurdly big canvass. The man actually invented new musical instruments to make all the sounds he wanted. What it's really good for - what I really like about his music, though - is it sense of purpose."

"Purpose," he said, distractedly.

"Yes," I said, "purpose. It's a quality I admire in an artist, and probably art's greatest contribution to human society. It's the will to overcome self-doubt, to act heroically, boldly; to do what needs to be done." Dayus made no response, and his glass sat three quarters empty on the corner table. I watched as, weakly, he attempted to climb to his feet.

"The spider has a sense of purpose too," I continued, "though it took me a while to see it clearly. I finally figured it out, the difference between my way of doing things, and the spider's." I took a final gulp of tea from my own glass, and swallowed it, instantly feeling refreshed. "The spider has the nerve to pounce when his prey is in the web."

Dayus collapsed, landing mercifully with his head on a couch cushion, and enough sleeping drug in his system to drop a stallion. It had been too easy, but it was only right; just what he deserved for underestimating me. I took his glass and poured the remainder down the sink, rinsing it out quite thoroughly. I turned off the kitchen lights, taking care not to waste electricity, and returned to the living room to frisk his pockets. I took possession of his recording device, which I decided must have other functions, some of which might very well prove useful. Lastly, I grabbed my pocket knife from its place on the corner table, and tucked it in my coat pocket.

Outside, the sun was high and bright, and the air soaked warm with its rays; perfect weather for an afternoon siesta. I saw the elevator platform, a pale disc anchored in a sea of grass, awaiting the return of its sleeping master. I stepped cautiously toward it, and found that its defensive force field had disappeared. Trembling slightly, glancing quickly in all directions, I stepped to the center.

My doubts multiplied. The time for bold action came, and I seized it, but in doing so I felt as though I'd done a terrible wrong. My dishonesty, my treachery was the least of it; the amount of sleeping agent dissolved in that tea was positively criminal. I put so much in to compensate for his great stature, and to ensure success, but it was all guesswork. Dayus' body was different from mine, and there was no telling how his body might metabolize the drug. He'd been breathing when I left, but there was no guarantee that he would continue doing so. Not when he was so different than I; different in every conceivable way.

My gaze turned upwards, and I beheld the black hole. There was the exit, the entrance to the real Elysia, whatever it might look like. The pillar began to rise, uncertainly, as if it took its cues from my own vacillating will, and I crouched in the center, because I was afraid of heights. I rose above the roof; I rose higher, above the tree tops, and saw the whole length of the shadows they cast in the light of the sun. Higher and higher, perhaps a mile up, a gentle breeze kept me rooted in place, for fear I might be blown off and fall.

As my altitude increased, the dimensions of the space seemed to change. I could perceive the curvature of the domed sky more easily, as well as the circular plane of the ground, and even the crease which separated them. I saw the finite course of the brook, its water so clear that I could see the sandy bottom (shallow as it was). Daring even to look straight down, I saw my apartment, looking oddly natural in the artificial landscape. The air was cool, but barely more so than it was on the ground, it was so homogeneous. As I passed even the sun in height (I could see it crawling steadily down the western wall of the sky), the illusory perfection of the environment was nowhere to be seen. The light was scattered and diffuse, and the colors faded from the landscape, to leave the little world benighted, in a sad state of greenish grey.

The black hole grew in size, and what was once little more than a speck in the sky was now clearly large enough for the elevator to pass into. Yet even as I approached, even to within a few yards, there was only impenetrable darkness inside. The frightful gap was my destination, and the security of terra firma was more distant, less comforting with every passing foot. A stray thought crossed my mind, as the darkness engulfed me at last; how beautiful, and relieving, it must look on the way down; to look down and watch the land become real, to see the colors come to life, and escape the all-encompassing shadow.

For a minute it was all dark, even as the elevator ground to a halt. And then the lights - harsh lights, much harsher than my artificial sun - flashed on, nearly knocking me back to my knees. stood, shaking and stumbling, and reached out with my hand to block the worst of the glare. It was a modestly-sized room, uncrowded by boxes or equipment; metallic, but as pearly white as the tower itself when it glistened in the morning, strangely warm in spite of its austerity. Worried that I might be taken down once more, I quickly moved off the platform and stood in a corner, trying desperately to regain my bearings. On the left adjacent wall was the only other exit: a large, chalky door, carved with indecipherable symbols.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On the Second Floor, Chapter XI

Day Nine

"Good Morning, Toto," I said to the spider, who clung to the corner of his tousled web, waiting for his next meal. Toto was a comfort to me, but I had begun to accept that he would very likely die soon. There were no native bugs to sustain him in the dome, and if there were any other stowaways to be found near the apartment, none of them appeared to have been ensnared in his trap.

And yet he lived, for the time being. I have no idea how long a spider can last between meals, but Toto was unquestionably a survivor. Impossibly tiny, ignorant of his ultimate fate, doomed by unavoidable circumstances; starving for the sole reason that it was my window where he'd elected to make his home. Was I responsible for the spider? In some small way I must have been, but I could think of nothing that I could do for him; so for the sake of my conscience I joined him, hoping that when the time came, if it did, we might not be alone.

I sat their that morning, on the grass outside my window, with the sun upon my face and my mind in outer space, as my surroundings seemed more concrete, and more illusory, than they ever had before. I was thinking, but in circles, reaching no significant conclusions but the most obvious ones; namely, what a strange state of affairs had brought this all about, to have brought me so far with nothing to show for it. With all that had been taken from me, I'd been given only stories and intimations to show for it; and only a hungry little spider to share them with.

I brought a book with me, but I only half-read it, being more interested in the idea of reading it, than in actually putting effort into the process. My desires had grown, multiplied beyond what was either possible or reasonable, but even as they did they decentralized, dislocated themselves from one another, and I realized at last that they were no longer a part of myself. I had only one desire now: to be wise and know the truth; to admit to myself all the things that seemed too painful to be true; to accept it, and to own the guilt that was surely mine.

"I don't know what I can do for you," I said to the spider.

I was tired, as usual, but I had slept adequately the night before. It wasn't the lack of sleep that tired me, but the notion that I had never really been awake, and had never put aside the beauty of dreams for the truth of reality. I had stubbornly insisted that they were one and the same, and I was tired from the effort of believing it. And worst of all, I had begun to believe that I might never, ever awaken.

I smiled. "Maybe I can't do anything at all. And maybe that's a sin. If I am incapable it must be because I've made myself that way. If I am powerless, then it's because I've never wanted power. If I am trapped, it's because I will not free myself." And he said nothing.

What was real? The grass, the sun, the beautiful things around me? They had never been real, ever before. The tower? What was real that could not be touched? I forgot them, turned my thoughts within myself, and considered only wordless impulses and indescribable emotions. In my weakness, I nearly fell asleep.

So I hardly noticed when Dayus arrived, though his entrance was accompanied by the typical noise of gears and beams. Until he was standing over me, I did not stir from my position, sprawled on my back like a child. I glanced upwad with a wordless greeting, and pretended again to read my book.

"It's good to see you again," he said. "We have very nearly reached our destination."

"Oh yeah?"

"We will arrive tomorrow evening," he continued, "as time is counted in this dome. When we land in the capital city, however, the local time will be closer to mid-day."

"That's good," I sighed, and rested my book upon my lap, no longer interested in pretending. "I'm tired."

That same look of concern crossed his face; he was warmer now, more personable. Of course, I thought, he's been working hard, doing whatever it is that he does. The journey was at an end, or it almost was, and he could begin to relax, couldn't he? Does he really care about me? Maybe he does, but why should he?

"Have you been unable to sleep?"

"No, I slept fine. I told you, it comes and goes; sometimes I just need a little help."

"Then there is an unknown, underlying cause to your condition. Have you made any effort to understand, or diagnose it?"

"Sort of. But I think I'm beginning to understand why I feel the way I feel now."

I got to my feet, slowly rising as I brushed the damp blades of grass from my legs. "By the way," I said, gesturing to the window, "this is Toto."

Dayus perceived the spider in a moment, then approached the window for a closer look. He had obviously never seen such a creature before, and so was naturally curious; he raised his hand, as though he wanted to touch him, but but I warned him of the spider's bite. Even I didn't know if this one was a poisonous type, but where spiders are concerned, it's always better not to risk it. He lowered his hand.

"I see. And this creature preys upon other creatures of similar size?"

"Yes. Do you see the web here? He waits for something to get stuck to the fibers, and then he pounces."

"What does it do when no prey is forthcoming?"

"Well...hmmm. I guess he starves. But he will keep on waiting, as long as it takes. And you know, on Earth, spiders are everywhere, so I guess it works enough of the time."

"It is fascinating," he said. "I am not a zoologist, but similar creatures are found on my world as well. Such a peculiar strategy, though..."

"It is fascinating," I agreed, "no matter how many times you see it."

"Jonah," he said, as his tone became serious once more, "the next several days will likely be very stressful for you. Are you quite sure you're alright?"

"I guess so," I said, growing ever wearier of his words of warning. "I'm only tired, is all."

"If it is not the lack of sleep that is exhausting you, it may indicate that something is wrong." How grave! I was in the midst of a spiritual crisis, and he thought I was sick. Whatever the substance behind his show of concern, it was almost touching.

"I'm tired of feeling the way I do," I said, putting as best I could my recent thoughts into words. "Every day I'm tired, or bored, or angry, because I'm always waiting. I'm waiting for things to change, to where they're just right, and I can jump in, and shake things up, seize control of my own life. I want to take control, I want to do all of those things. But, I'm too tired to jump."

"You want to wait, just like the spider."

"Huh, I guess I do." I turned to the corner, inspecting the little niche in the windowsill. "How do you do it, little guy? Everything just comes to you, and you just sit there, and cast your net, and take what it catches." What a life! "And nobody criticizes you for it, either! They say your web is beautiful, and nobody minds if you sit in it all day, as long as you keep it tidy, fix it when it's broken... I hope you realize how good your kind has it!"

"I don't believe the creature can understand what you're saying to it."

"I know." How best to explain? "Talking to animals just makes me feel better. They might not understand, or answer back," I said, as I turned my attention back to Toto, "but they hear, and sometimes, I just need to be heard." The spider was more active now, seeming to patrol his web with renewed expectations; perhaps he knew something that I didn't.

How odd we must have looked to Dayus, a man with no qualms about abducting innocent people for science. Could he understand what I said? Could he see himself in the spider's web, as I could? Was he a spider, or a fly?

"...I will not keep you long," he said at last. "I have matters elsewhere that require my attention."

"Big day coming up, eh?"

"Yes. When Elysia left port, there was some cause for anxiety at home. Due to the distances involved, I have not received any news of the situation, and I will not be able to until we decrease to sub-light speeds."

"What kind of anxiety?"

"A mere matter of politics. I am sure nothing has come of it."

"That's weird," I said. "I can barely believe you even have politics."

"But of course we do. I told you so yesterday."

"But your society is so advanced now. With my people, politics is a seriously ugly business, full of liars and cheaters who keep anything real from getting done."

"Politics do not often bring out the best qualities of any people."

"I guess not. But your people must have come far; you said you had a unified world government, right?"

"Yes," he said, "based upon the principles of knowledge, cooperation, and mutual welfare."

"Then whatever it is, couldn't be so bad," I said. "I'd like to see it; if for nothing else, than to be sure it really works."

"Not to worry. Before we left for Earth, I arranged an audience for you with our Chief Minister." My shock was apparent, as he continued, "I know you consider yourself a prisoner here, Jonah, but you will not live as such during your time on my world. You will be the object of study, yes, but you will also be an honored guest. Just as my comrades are our envoys to your governments, so shall you be received as your world's envoy to ours."

I stared blankly, humbled by the impact of his promise. I suppose I always knew this; how many times had he assured me that I had nothing to fear from my captivity? But it was real now, something to believe in. The waiting was almost over, the end fast approached, and a new time was about to begin.

And yet, as we said our goodbyes, and Dayus ascended once more to his celestial stronghold, I knew that it wasn't enough. I would play the ambassador, but neither he nor his Chief Minister would lay their secrets bare to me. So long as I was smaller, weaker, more foolish than they, the skies would be their domain, and the dirt at best my fiefdom. I knew what I would be told: "all that I needed to know," all that they, in their arrogance, believed that I could understand.

Initiative; I needed the initiative. I had it once, or I thought I did, but who knew if it was ever enough? It was certainly not enough to impress them. I had to be desperate, and I was; I had to be crazy, and I wasn't sure if I was or was not. But I knew I wanted to go up there, on my terms, and not theirs. As humanity's envoy to the universe, I could not settle for any less. But as for myself, I could only wonder whether I had it in me, to risk it all for the sake of pride, andpick myself up again if I should fail.

And then what should appear before me but a fly, a common house fly, another little stowaway; zipping to and fro as such creatures are wont to do. Perhaps he was disoriented, perhaps not, but in short order he made a fatal error - he was trapped in the spider's web. As he buzzed and struggled, patient Toto nimbly crept from his corner and began hisritual task, stunning the fly and wrapping him for easy consumption.

What were the odds? What a universe, where even an unfortunate spider could wait his troubles out, and find a meal a million light years from home!

"Toto, you are incredibly wise."