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!