The thing about reality is, it’s hard to pin down.
Monthly Archives: February 2013
Humility is a very practical virtue; it keeps you from descending into certainty.
A report on alien life
At first we thought those were their bodies, with hard sleek exoskeletons of various sizes. The shapes were roughly the same, although variations were plentiful. The larger ones, which we assumed to be adults, were two to three times the length of the smaller ones, with much greater volume. As we began to gather more information, however, we realized the ratios were not quite right, and there were too few intermediate forms for this to be a juvenile/adult distinction. And yet, there were intermediate forms, so we were forced to rule out a larval stage. Quite puzzling.
A few days into our study, one of us noticed one that seemed to have split in half; furthermore its exoskeleton was entirely missing. Was this a beginning stage in reproduction? We were very exited about the prospect of seeing such an event so early in the project, not to mention the opportunity to study the infra-skeletal structure. I was fortunate to be assigned to head up the investigation of this new phenomenon. while the rest of the team continued as before. On the first day of intensive investigations there was a most interesting occurrence; one of the half-entities came further apart.
Needless to say, I was beside myself. Nothing like this had ever happened in the history of these explorations. Furthermore, it appeared that the quarter-entities that resulted had quite differing characteristics: one retained its rigid form, but the other was revealed to be soft and worm-like under enhanced magnification. Further, as magnification was increased, more and more of the worm entities became apparent, and were even seen associated with the larger, singular exoskeletons.
As you can imagine. the next few weeks were a turmoil of activity, as discovery followed discovery. Complete data are coming under separate cover, but here is a summary of the astonishing conclusions to which we came.
1. The “exoskeletons” are not skeletal at all, but are shells. We came to this conclusion because they appear not to move unless associated with a worm entity.
2. It is the worm-like forms that are the real entities, displaying volition and spontaneous motion, although very little outside their shells.
3. The shells are nevertheless useless as protection, as they crumple easily, and exude a reddish liquid that appears deadly for the worms.
We hope to generate a more thorough report within a year upon returning home, which should be soon. We will be leaving Earth orbit as soon as practical.
In Egypt, where almost everything we know, love and hate first began, there is a place called Gizeh, “by the high place, ” in Arabic. Here is where Khufu, son of Seneferu, of the fourth dynasty of kings of Kemet, built his tomb. It was strong and precise, to serve as the home of Khufu, who was Horus while living, and would be Osiris afterwards. People counted on him to be their emissary from the land of the living to the vast and brooding underworld, at least until the next king died.
The living and breathing land of Kemet, the Dark Earth, was but metaphor for the cosmic truth of creation, power, betrayal and redemption that was the real world. Well, not redemption, exactly; more like accommodation. Those Egyptians were practical, if anything. But that story, of sibling rivalry and savage butchery, along with countless others of conspiracy, duplicity and ultimate justice, is for another time. Suffice it to say that in the Egyptian version of eternal truth, when power and glory clash with pragmatism, it’s pragmatism every time.
But this is a personal story, my story. Some years ago, I visited Khufu’s pyramid with a group I was supposed to teach something to. We were allowed inside, and climbed to the so-called king’s chamber. I say so-called, because in spite of elaborate steps to safeguard the room, and the presence of a granite sarcophagus therein, Khufu was really buried in a secret chamber deep below. To no avail, as it turned out, as the tomb was robbed almost immediately. Have I mentioned the Egyptians were pragmatic folk?
It’s a bit unnerving, deep inside a hole burrowed into six million tons of limestone. If you look up to the ceiling of the chamber, you see a great crack extending through the rock from one side to the other. I wouldn’t call it worrying, but it’s not reassuring, either. Our group leader announced that he had arranged for the modern electric lights and ventilation system to be turned off for a few minutes, to allow us to fully savor the experience. He asked us to lie down on the floor, or sit if we preferred; he then donned his nemes ( the royal headwear), grabbed his crook and staff, and lay down inside the sarcophagus. Don’t ask.
The lights went out, and the hum of the great fans slowly stopped. No one spoke; I swear no one even breathed. For – how long? – there was nothing, absolutely nothing. I have never experienced such darkness and silence. Then a remarkable thing happened. Six million tons of enormous, closely fitted limestone blocks ceased to exist. I felt liberated not only from the walls of stone, but the walls of flesh and bone that surrounded me. My body and the vast, trackless universe merged. The stars were invisible to me, of course, but I could feel them, and the long gamma scream of the great black holes, the ancient bones of galaxies.
Someone coughed. The lights haltingly came back on, the ventilation fans scraped to life, and all that rock wearily resumed existence.
Life on the Mississippi
In a dusty, fading memory of a National Geographic of my youth, among the bare-breasted African ladies and stripe-shirted Parisians, there is a sunny picture of a lad on a raft, his toes swirling the Mississippi River. His father had taken him out of school for a year of rafting on that mythic Father of Dreams, if not waters. Why could not I have a father like that, I grieved.
My own father thought peace, not adventure, was the greatest gift. He was born and grew in Latvia, in a forest of kin, as much a part of his place as the oak trees planted for the native sons. A small stone house, a well, three oaks and a horizon of fields. A burial ground nearby sheltered his ancestors on both sides; their names are gone now, weathered away like the wooden crosses that marked their graves. But he was there, where he belonged, in the embrace of family, living and dead.
When I was a boy, I would stand in front of the door of my house, looking outside, wishing and wondering. I think he was like that. Bye and bye, whatever was beyond the fields of oats and rye beckoned, and he answered. In a fit of irrational exuberance, he joined the army.
Not bad, really, at least at first. It was a free country, for that brief period between the great wars, and nothing for soldiers to do but dream of dying under foreign skies, all brave and noble. They certainly had the songs for it. He went off to Riga, to the War College. It was a blast. Bright lights, big city, no way to keep him down on the farm after that. He married a girl with an eighth grade education and a mind that was quicker than a hare chased by two foxes and an alley cat. No slouch himself, he thought she was normal. They had a couple of children. You know that feeling, in a dream, when you’ve climbed to the highest peak to look at the world, and you turn around to discover the mountain has disappeared while you weren’t paying attention?
Russians. Germans, then Russians again. The world was in one of its fits. This part of the story is a haze of half glimpsed hopes and fears, mostly projections on my part. Like one of those stunts on a magician’s stage : a loud noise, a lot of smoke, and when it all clears, everything is different. In a camp in Germany, full of shattered dreams, I was born, much to the chagrin, I’m betting, of my brothers.
The father I knew had had enough adventures, thank you. He had made some promises to God when all else had crumbled; he did his best to see that his children fulfilled them. Keep this in mind when you promise things to God: don’t involve others. Faust probably had a better deal.
These days, I live near the Mississippi, and occasionally, when I drive upriver, I see that kid on the raft in my mind. I’m older now than my father ever got. I hope I’ve done as well as he did.