Wednesday, June 24, 2009

On the Second Floor: Chapter V

Day Three

When I woke up the next morning, I decided that I was in the mood to eat some pancakes. "In the mood" wasn't quite it, but regardless, I had pancakes, and I wanted to eat them. Rolling out of bed once more, I rose to my wobbly feet and ambled into the kitchen, cleaning up the counter space just enough to begin the process.

As usual, there were some hiccups. I made four on the griddle, and because I couldn't be bothered to pay attention, each one came out slightly black on each side. Ordinarily I might toss out the defects and start fresh, but I knew that I was running dangerously low on batter. Better to conserve it, I thought.

But to make matters worse, I found that my butter reserves had similarly dwindled. It took a generous helping of maple syrup to make that breakfast palatable, but it certainly wasn't the least appealing thing I'd ever eaten.

I plopped down on the couch with my breakfast plate balanced on my stomach. Managing the fork with my left hand, I twisted slightly to one side and found the remote control. I flipped on the television, but I had forgotten that I had zero reception from Earth. Five seconds of blaring static was all that I could stand, and I switched it off again. Annoyed, I glanced out the window, at the aliens' tower, and I seethed. How truly on my own I was.

I took my syrup-slathered plate to the sink and let it soak in hot, soapy water, figuring that I'd get around to washing it properly some time in the evening. Then, I consulted my DVD library, ultimately settling on a Discovery Channel documentary on dinosaurs that I'd seen a million times before. I closed the window blinds for better lighting (or poorer?), and put it on.

Watching the brave leallynasaura fight for their survival in the grim Antarctic forests, I lazily twisted and turned on the couch, trying hard not to think about the futility of my condition. I did a few crossword puzzles; I clipped my toenails; I gazed with half-hearted interest as the polar allosaur inflicted cruel disaster on the hapless hypsolophidonts, and I decided that I really didn't want to watch TV that much after all. It was almost noon on the clock, and judging by the light which peeked in through the blinds, the artificial sun was high in the artificial sky.

Well, it was my "habitat," wasn't it? I supposed I'd better start inhabiting it. I opened the blinds; it was a beautiful simulation of a beautiful sunny day. The trees shook slowly in the gentle breeze, and the gleaming tower reflected light into my eyes. Strangely, it didn't hurt. It hadn't occurred to me before, but the light in my little fish bowl was of a very different kind from light of my home world.

So I thought I'd make the most of it. I got dressed and unhooked my stereo from the wall, transporting it to my new front "porch." Within twenty minutes I was set for life; reclining chair, an eight-hundred page biography of Franklin Roosevelt, a fresh pot of iced tea, and five hours of Mozart and Rachmaninov. Why be Shanghaied through space in anything less than perfect comfort? I dove into the book, not particularly concerned with the imminent arrival of my "guest." It was time for Eine kleine Nachtmusik.

Five hours and ten chapters can pass rather quickly, as it turns out. As the last strains of Sergei's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini died down, the CD player made a subtle click, and turned itself off. I set the book down and slumped in my chair. Just where the hell was Dayus? I knew he was watching me, but it sure was creepy not knowing when he'd choose to show himself. What an inconsiderate guest!

Positively bored out of my skull, I stood up, yawned and stretched, and took a walk. One step, two steps, three steps, four, I counted time and tried to burn up as much of it as I could. I started out in the direction of the brook, savoring the sweetness of the air, and wishing it were real.

I came to the stream, and to the tree in which I'd hidden myself two days before. I kept walking; it wasn't a pleasant memory. I began to wonder, just how big was my pen? Could I keep walking forever, finding new landmarks, perhaps generated spontaneously for my benefit? Or maybe it was all some sort of closed spatial loop, and I'd walk right back to where I'd started from.

Nope, I found the wall.After another ten minutes of walking I nearly bumped into it, like one of those painted backdrops on the set of The Wizard of Oz, but infinitely more convincing. So, I thought, even Dayus and his wizards have their limits. And it looks like so do I.

I put my hands in my pockets and turned to follow the yellow brick road back home, except it wasn't really home and I knew it. Home isn't just a set of walls and a bed, it's a place, and I'd utterly lost my place in the universe, all on God's or some capricious devil's whim. But then, who could say? Whether on Earth or aboard Elysia, I was hurtling through empty space at high speed. No, I thought, that's the doctor's perspective. What would he know of something like place?

Just short of the tower, I paused to take a rest. My calves were aching sharply, and I thought how unfit I must be that my legs could not manage so comparatively short a hike. Or maybe I only needed to stretch a bit.

I laid myself down on the soft grass and stared directly at the sterile, harmless sun as it progressed to the horizon of the tiny sky. I stared and stared, but my eyes would not burn. Surely this was a safety feature; I wondered whether the water in the stream was specifically designed to keep me from drowning, too. What a world.

I looked over to the tower. Dayus still hadn't shown up. Those gears had yet to turn. I rose again and paced around the monolith for many, many minutes, and then I stopped. Looking angrily skyward, I shouted to my captor, "Come down here, Dayus! Come down to this place and TALK TO ME!" I stood there fuming, awaiting a response. Hearing none, I blurted out "then let me come up there!"

But no, that was out of the question, wasn't it? I stomped back to my apartment muttering obscenities the whole way. At the porch, I finished the last of the tea that pooled at the bottom of the pot. I began bundling up my things and moving them back inside. If that tall freak wanted to talk to me today, he'd have to find me inside; I sure didn't want to see him.

My mood was heavy, so I put on some music to suit it. Led Zeppelin fit the bill perfectly. I played video games and stewed into the evening, too ticked off even to make dinner. I decided to put off the dishes until morning. If I wanted anything at all, it was Domino's pizza. "Simulate that," I cursed.


Around midnight, I walked outside again, under the light of a waxing moon. I love stargazing; even with little formal knowledge of the constellations, they fired my imagination. Even with all that I had come to know, they still stood for undeniable, incomprehensible infinity. And it took me a little while, but I soon realized that the stars above my head were not merely copies of the patterns I saw from Earth. Neither were these stars randomly distributed, but rather they were whole new constellations, in twisting shapes that I had no names for. "At last," I wondered aloud, "is this something real?" I turned my eyes to the moonlit grass and thought hard, unable to stop, unable to sleep, unable to conclude.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Flag Day: What the Hell?

Today is Flag Day, the day we commemorate the adoption of the Stars and Stripes, Old Glory, the Star-Spangled Banner, the good old Red White and Blue; as created by Betsy Ross, seamstress, patriot, probably a really nice lady. We celebrate flag day by flying that same flag, preferably as high as possible, with as large a flag as possible.

Does this sound familiar to you?

On Veteran's Day, we honor our veterans by flying the flag. On Memorial Day, we honor the fallen by flying the flag. On Independence Day, we honor our nation's founding by flying the flag.

Some people fly the flag every day.

Why, when we have so many good reasons for flying the flag, do we need another day, the sole significance of which is flag-flying?

I like the flag. It's a good flag. It's got good colors, good design, and an easy kind of symbolism that everyone can understand. It's even inspired shameless copy-cats. I'm generally satisfied with the amount of flags I have in my life.

But I really don't see the importance, or even the patriotic significance, of flying a flag for the sake of flying a flag.

So instead of going along with the crowd, I'm going to fly the flag of our Northern Neighbor, Canada. Give the maple leaf some love!

Happy Flag Day!

Saturday, June 13, 2009


First, the very good news: after four years of "hard work," "dedication," and "not screwing around," the History Faculty at the University of Oregon have seen fit to give me a diploma. Actually, they gave me a diploma IOU, with the promise to mail me the real deal in eight to ten weeks. Thus, in the course of a two hour ceremony, I ceased to be David Miller - Student of History and was created Sir David Miller - Right Honorable Bachelor of the Arts Past and Historical. Esquire. Or something. The gown made me feel like a judge. The hat made me feel silly.

One could say a great weight has been lifted, but I don't really see it that way. I never really doubted that I'd walk out of here with my degree in four years, and in many ways "have my degree" translates simply to "don't have to attend or pay for classes anymore." In some respects, my natural paranoia is keeping me from appreciating what I'm sure must be a very momentous occasion; I half expect to be called on some technicality, and have to re-enroll for another term or two to finish a P.E. requirement. If such is the case, I'll be practicing my billiards shot.

What comes next for Sir David? Lacking the handy excuse of ongoing undergraduate studies, I now face a great deal of pressure, both external and (especially) internal to figure out what to do with my life, now that I've got my fancy history degree. I've thought long and hard about it, and I think I have a solid plan.

I'm going to parachute from office towers.

After my third arrest, I'll settle down, marry a supermodel/doctor/librarian/heiress, become a practicing Zoroastrian, write my autobiography (tentative title: Yank the Cord?), and devote my talents to esoteric political causes, oriental cuisine, and modal jazz. I foresee neither difficulties nor complications.

The astute reader will no doubt suspect that I am full of crap. If you should meet him, listen to his counsel, for he is wise.

Anything worth joking about is usually quite serious. The honest truth is that I am dealing with a number of conflicting emotions right now, only some of which are directly related to the transition from college to the "real world." I'm saying goodbye to friends, I'm saying goodbye to a lifestyle, and I'm saying goodbye to a certain degree of stability, one that frankly was never so stable to begin with. Life goes on, never standing still, never budging an inch. Lord knows what anyone's supposed to do with the stuff.

There's so much to look forward to, and so little to be certain of; life is an adventure, in every uplifting, inspiring, and awful sense of the word.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

On the Second Floor: Chapter IV

Day Two

I had plenty of time to prepare for Dayus' return. He might have been a gracious host thus far (and a gracious kidnapper is certainly better than the other kind), but he had made it perfectly clear that I was neither a friend, nor even a "close associate." I was a research specimen, and my pride was finally waking up to that fact.

So when I heard the tower gears turn once more, I was ready. I had books; I took some time to give myself a refresher course on the rights of man. It had been an all-nighter and I was sleepy, but a pot of coffee promised to keep me awake long enough to cite Geneva, so to speak.

After a little while, Dayus jiggled the door handle, but I had locked it. I reclined on the couch, satisfied that these visitations were going to be conducted on my terms. He would request entry, and I would grant it, and insist upon my rights.

There was a soft hum, and then a metallic clack. A moment later the door was open, and Dayus stooped to enter the doorway.

Annoyed, I set my coffee down on the living room table. "On my planet," I said, "it's considered polite to knock on a door, and wait for the person inside to let you in."

The presumptuous doctor took the same seat from the day before, and I thought I could sense something different about his demeanor. "It is probably a wise custom," he said, "if your people have reason to fear strangers."

"You never know what a stranger's intentions are," I said. But no sooner had I made this observation than Dayus had risen to his feet, reached out his hand, and seized my drink. I was speechless as he guzzled the coffee, even spilling a few drops on my carpet. Without a word, he replaced the cup and sat down again.

"You bastard!" I shouted, in my harshest tone, but his face was unmoved. "Just what do you think you're doing!? You took me away, you barged into my house without permission - what gives!?" If his intention was to humiliate me, he succeeded, and I was furious about it.

"Human, you are the first of your kind that has made contact with my kind. But we have met with other races in much the same manner. You are not the first to insist upon your privacy."

I jumped to my feet and glared at him, eye to eye, but he only stared right back. Frustrated, I snatched up my glass and went to the kitchen.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"To get more coffee. If you want some, you can ask me for it."

But he was silent. I poured my drink, then resumed my seat, keeping the glass in hand, lest he should get any funny ideas. Whatever sort of host he was, he was a terrible guest, and I knew that he knew it. I took a sip, and formulated a plan of attack.

"You have some nerve, treating me like a lab rat. I mean, what about my rights?"

"What are your rights?"

"My human rights," I declared; best to get right to it. "My life, my liberty, my property; you may not have killed me, but you've locked me up in here, you've invaded my space, you even stole my damned coffee!"

"Yes," he said, "I have done those things." The significance appeared lost on him.

"Well, on Earth, we have laws and treaties that protect the rights of humans; and now you've gone and broken them!"

He looked a bit less disinterested than before; he fiddled with the strange device again, as he'd done the day before. "So," he said "humans are bound to observe and obey these laws?"

"Exactly," I said, anticipating the next strain of his argument: that he, as a citizen of planet Whatever, was not under the jurisdiction of any human law that he'd ever heard of. "Human laws are universal, and we have thee laws to remind us, and give us recourse when they're violated."

Dayus looked at me with greater interest. "When were these laws written?"

I felt the conversation drifting away from my objective. But I had his attention, and at least that was something. "Well, we've had laws for a long time. But the one's I'm talking about were written a couple of hundred years ago."

"But surely your civilization is older than that."

"Well yeah, much older."

"Then human rights are a recent innovation." He looked quite serious, and I was stuck. I knew where this was going, and I struggled to regain control of the argument.

"Look," I said, "treating other people with decency and respect is something that we all really believe in. But we haven't been able to...formalize it, until recently."

"And now you have achieved this ideal?"

"Well, we...we try to. But sometimes..."

I took a long time in finishing that sentence; I realized that I was at the cusp of condemning the mass of humanity as hypocrites and monsters. He'd said before, I was the first human to make contact, and it hit me then that I was completely blowing the first impression. Whatever I said now, I had to proceed with tact; I chose my words with care.

"Sometimes, I continued, our values don't agree with our nature. And some of us don't really believe in those values anyway." I paused to think. "But those of us who believe in them, we really do! And we're always trying to improve ourselves." I tried to tone down the earnestness, but I was lost at sea.

Dayus adjusted a dial on his recorder again (who knows what other functions it had?), but I'd lost my desire to insist on what I was due. After an admission like that, he couldn't take me seriously. I wouldn't.

But to my surprise, he smiled, almost imperceptibly. "Jonah," he said, "may I have another glass of that drink? It was quite invigorating."

The good doctor was well on his way to driving me mad, and this sudden change in attitude was definitely helping his cause. I got up and poured the rest of the pot into a second glass. Still mystified (and no longer convinced I was not dreaming), I handed the glass to Dayus and sat down again. "Cheers," I said, lost for words.

This time, he sipped the coffee slowly, seeming to savor the flavor, and so for a while we sat quietly together. I found it hard to look at him. Though I'd gotten used to his bizarre anatomy, his face remained beyond my analysis. I'd only hinted at humanity's history of violence and crime; could he possibly understand the whole picture? Somehow, I thought that perhaps he did.

As he finished, he noted that the flavor of the coffee had changed. "Yes," I said, "the one from before had cream in it." Of course, he didn't have any experience with cream, but the answer seemed to satisfy him.

"Jonah," he said, and I started, still unused to hearing him use my name, "I'm sorry if the inconvenience of this expedition has been stressful for you. For the duration of your time with us, we will continue to extend every comfort to you. We request only your patience and your cooperation."

"I...I want to see the rest of your ship. The part where you live." If nothing else, I wanted to voice my most modest demand. Confinement for ten days didn't appeal any more after a tea party.

"I do not believe that would be wise, given your current level of stress."

Figures, I thought.

Dayus stood up from his chair, placing his glass on the table (he did not recognize the coaster for what it was), and turned to open the door again. "Thank you for the coffee, Jonah. I promise that your confinement will not be permanent, regardless of what you may suspect." With that, he was gone.

Leaning my head against my hand, I gulped the rest of my coffee. Of course, I thought, the doctor had been a step ahead of me the whole time. I knew my emotions were being manipulated deliberately; probably all a part of his "research." Stimulants or not, I was exhausted from my all-nighter. I took a nap.

Monday, June 1, 2009

On the Second Floor: Chapter III

Day One

I woke up the next morning the same as I always did; my alarm clock rang at the same leisurely ten-thirty that I was used to. But any illusion I had that the events of the preceding evening were a symphony-induced dream was quickly dispelled. As I opened my bedroom window shades, I saw the strange trees swaying amidst the artificial landscape that my little home had settled in. And there stood the pillar, that impassable bridge to the headquarters of my hosts.

That evening I had been awed, and shocked, and stunned by my fantastic journey, but in the mundane oddity of my surroundings, I began to worry. I slumped against the wall for a long time, not knowing what to do. I didn't even want to eat.

The tall man promised more visits, and the prospect did not improve my mood. When he spoke of Elysia, his ship; when his assistants performed their miraculous maintenance on my apartment; with the sight of boiling stars burning in my mind, the superstitious part of me wondered if this place could be heaven. But I had gone to sleep and woken up. I was still alive.

But I had little doubt, my life was over. Whatever those aliens wanted with me, what purpose would it serve to return me to Earth? The tall man said I might be returned in a year, but he hadn't promised it. Even if he had promised it, why not just lie to me?

Whatever the confused state of my emotions, they focused immediately into fear when I heard the whirring noise, signaling the descent of the pillar. The tall man was returning for more "study," the horrifying specifics of which I could only guess. Every horrifying notion from science fiction stories flashed across my mind - vivisection, brainwashing, God knows what else - and deep inside I felt the sudden impulse to run.

Out the door I ran, and I saw that the pillar was indeed descending. The apartment was not safe; I had to make for the trees. I ran quickly in the direction of the brook. Perhaps, I thought, the sound of flowing water would help to conceal me.

Of the many trees I saw growing along the bank, one in particular was densely covered by broad leaves, and suitable for climbing. I scrambled up the lower branches, but I had not climbed any trees since I was a little boy, and I soon lost my footing. Tumbling to the ground, I landed flat on my back. The whirring of gears and my own throbbing heart set me to climbing again, and at last I reached a sturdy limb midway up the tree trunk. No sooner had I achieved balance than the gears stopped turning. Anticipating a search, and lacking confidence in my hastily-chosen hiding spot, I hardly dared to breathe. But I could not help myself, as my shivering and squirming made even that sturdy branch sway.

I did not suffer the anticipation long. Barely five minutes passed before I heard the tall man's voice, and I nearly fell from my perch when I looked down to see him gazing intently at me.

"Human," he addressed me, "this behavior is rather intriguing. But if you are attempting to hide from me, you should be aware that the advanced detection systems located throughout this habitat cannot be evaded by any means at your disposal." His words hit me like a brick. "Will you come down now?" he asked.

Stunned, I slowly made my way down the trunk, casting occasional wary glances at the tall man, who betrayed no emotion as he watched my descent. With a short hop, my bare feet (I hadn't had a chance to put on any shoes before I fled) met the soft earth of the bank, and I leaned against the tree to catch myself from falling.

"Now," he said, "shall we return to your home?" At the sound of that final word, I lost control, and I vomited on the ground. My host observed dispassionately.

Miserably I returned to the apartment with him, feeling unbelievably foolish for greeting someone, who was surely an eminent scientist, with the contents of my stomach. Moreover, the acidic residue burned my throat, and the taste that lingered in my mouth made me feel genuinely ill. So much for heaven, I thought.

The tall man had to stoop to make it through the doorway. Feeling defeated, as he entered my home without so much as an invitation, I trudged over to the sink. I filled a cup from the tap and gargled (I had to admit, the water I was provided with was quite tasty). Finished, I turned to face my host, but his remarkable height put his face out of view, obstructed as it was by the cabinets hanging over the counter. Awkwardly, I left the kitchen area and joined him in the living room.

The tall man gestured toward the small chair between the door and the window. "Is this a chair?"

At first, the very absurdity of the question led me to consider it a trick, but his face remained as neutral as ever. "Yeah," I said, weakly, "take a seat, if you'd like."

Slowly, he descended into a chair that seemed, if not too small for his slender frame, then too short for his considerable height. Nevertheless, his erect and dignified posture, together with his considerable stature, gave him the appearance of an extraterrestrial Abraham Lincoln. Awed once more, I sat uncomfortably on the sofa.

Not wanting to appear stupid, I did so anyway, asking quickly, "don't they have chairs on your planet?"

He smiled. "Most peoples in the galaxy, and nearly all the ones capable of sitting, employ the use of chairs and couches. However, as you might imagine, they come in a wide variety of shapes."

"I suppose they must." What more could I say than that?

"Now then," he said, "would you explain your behavior this morning? Why would you attempt to hide in a tree, although you knew that you were in no danger?"

"I..." stammering, I glanced at the clock sitting on the table under the window. It was not quite noon, and the "sun" was high in the sky, but was it really mid-day back home? I knew enough physics to figure that, traveling at faster-than-light speeds (as we surely were), I must have been experiencing the passage of time differently from the people on Earth. But how differently?

The questioner awaited an answer, and I cast my eyes downward. "I was scared. I can't explain why. I was scared, and, and, I didn't trust you, so, I decided to hide somewhere you couldn't find me."

"I see," he commented, suddenly adjusting a small device I took to be a digital recorder. "And when you ejected fluid from your mouth, was that an attempt to frighten me away?"

"I, no!" I said, taken aback by the suggestion. "I was just, you know, so nervous, I felt sick." Trying to be as clear as possible, I added "when we, when humans, I mean, when we feel sick, sometimes we spit up the stuff in our stomachs. It's not like, a defense mechanism, I don't think."

"I see," he said once more. Then, casting his eyes around the room and seeing the various objects strewn about, he remarked, "you still seem to be frightened."

"Well, I've never seen anything like you before." I wondered whether that answer, though it seemed reasonable enough to me, would satisfy him. "And we haven't really been introduced."

He looked directly at me. "In my society," he said, "it is customary that names are told only to friends ad very close associates." But his face softened a little as he continued, "but if you would feel more at ease, you may call me Doctor Dayus."

"Thank you," I said, adding softly, "my name is Jonah."

"You are welcome," said the doctor. "Now, would you mind explaining the layout and purpose of your home?"

I was still incredibly nervous. However, I gathered the requisite nerve to give the doctor a brief tour of my apartment, from the kitchen to the bathroom to the bedroom, explaining each small chamber's functions.

Our visit had lasted no more than an hour, but Dr. Dayus informed me that he had other studies to attend to, so today's session would be quite brief. I wondered if others like me were aboard the ship, but I did not ask. With a decidedly business-like farewell, the doctor left my "habitat" and ascended to the skies once more.

With the sun beginning its apex to the "western" horizon, I stood at my porch for a while, gazing at the gentle forest that had been planted there for my "comfort." I was beginning to think of those trees and that meadow as my real habitat, however dehumanizing that term still seemed to be. Feeling perhaps not a little like Adam, I decided to take a walk.

Once more, I found myself by that tree near the babbling brook, but I took no pleasure from it. I noted with some disgust that my vomit remained where I had left it. I could scarcely stand to look at the shameful sight. Reaching under the water, I scooped up a handful of mud. The mud was soft sandy, and lightly colored. I tossed it onto the drying vomit, and did so again and again until no more of it could be seen. Satisfied in part, I went home, hands in my pockets. The fear subsided, leaving only persistent anxiety.