The personal blog of the cultural ambassador to the newly discovered planet of the Ant-people (the Myrmeiods).

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Very Merry Birthday

I've been working on this party for weeks, and today was finally the day. Do you know how hard it is to throw a planet's first ever birthday party?

As I've mentioned, Dan is curious about Earth. A few weeks ago I mentioned a birthday party, and Dan asked me about it because they don't have birthday parties here. They keep track of their ages, but it's not considered a big deal. This may be a species difference, not a cultural difference, as I don't think any Myrmeoid culture that celebrates birthdays. But Dan decided he wanted one, just to see what it would be like, and we realized that his birthday (or, rather, molt-day--the anniversary of the day he finished pupation) was just a few weeks away.

Everyone was into it--the La'helis, a lot of Dan's friends from other families, Dr. Nades, we invited maybe two hundred people and I think they all showed up. Except that I had to teach everybody what to do. It's not something we normally think about, but a birthday party is a kind of ritual or ceremony. There's the cake, and blowing out candles, and clapping when the candles are blown out, and cutting the cake, and giving wrapped presents, and what wrapping paper is and why....Think of one little detail; you can buy wrapping paper, or you can use newspaper, but you cannot use toilet paper. Why not? You could wrap the toilet paper around and around the item...but I've never seen it done. We have a rule; gifts cannot be wrapped in toilet paper, and even though I've never heard anyone state the rule, I've never once seen it broken. There is so much to explain! I ended up writing and printing up a little manual on all the birthday traditions, what they mean, and what exactly everybody was supposed to do at the party. The result was almost a choreographed performance, but I think we all had fun.

It was a bit strange, watching Myrmeoids act so deliberately human. After I sang the Birthday Song and Dan blew out his candles, everybody clapped. Myrmeoids don't clap. Some ran up and hugged Dan. Myrmeoids don't hug--to express affection, they touch each other with their antenae or groom each other with their tiny tongues. Watching their small, ant-like bodies go through these alien gestures was truly strange. Sometimes they got the ritual charmingly wrong; after cake and ice cream I noticed dozens of people going up to Dan and saying something to him--it was the same something, but it wasn't in either of the Myrmeoid languages I know. It took me a few minutes to realize I was looking at transliterated English; they were all, one at a time, reciting the lyrics to "Happy Birthday." Fortunately, not all two hundred guests did it or we'd still be at the party.

I want to talk about the food. I'm kind of proud of how we managed it. We'd talked about traditional birthday foods, and cake wasn't hard--I adapted a Smith Island cake recipe, since the layers are thin enough that the cake works at the Myrmeoid scale--but Dan had decided he wanted to have pizza. Never mind that this planet has no dairy and no yeast breads, he wanted pizza. I finally talked him out of it on the grounds that I couldn't think of any way to adapt pizza to the very small Myrmeoid mouth. But, denied pizza, he fixed his heart on ice cream. Again, there's the problem of dairy, and the even more serious problem of freezing; no one has freezers here, and of course there is no snow or ice for hundreds of miles.

Finally, it was Dr. Nades who came through. It seems there is a freezer used for research purposes at his college, and he talked some of his colleagues into getting him in (quite against department policy, I might add) so he and another friend could make ice cream. I adapted a dairy-free recipe and gave Dr. Nades descriptions of home ice cream-makers. He designed and built the ice cream-maker, mixed up the batch, and even organized a group of people to fly the ice cream to the party--they used something like a litter with long twine handles. I love the thought of the eminent and dignified Dr. Nades sneaking into the freezer lab in the middle of the night to make ice cream. The stuff was delicious, by the way; the recipe we used ended up tasting a little like almond raspberry.

I'm also really impressed Dan was able to blow out the candles. There were only four of them (I figured 47 candles plus one to grow on and then divided by twelve. They use base 12 around here, not base ten, so this is kind of like using one candle per decade) but one Myrmeoid lung is about the size of two or three kidney beans. They breathe through holes on either side of the abdomen, and the two lungs have no air passage between them, so to blow out a candle Dan had to lift his rear-end sideways to the candle and blow a single tiny lung's worth of air at the flame. Yes, it did look a bit like he was farting the candles out, but no, I didn't laugh. Myrmeoids don't exactly fart, so it would have been too hard to explain. That he got each candle to go out (he did them one at a time) is further testament to the changes his body is going through; he now has a flyer's extraordinary lung power. Right in the middle of an alien birthday party came evidence that he is getting older in a very Myrmeoid way.

We had dessert first, before the ice cream could melt, and then presents. They don't have wrapping paper here (or newspaper or toilet paper), and an extraordinary number of people independently hit on the idea of given Dan flower buds or nuts, or small fruits with a thick peel, on the grounds that these items include their own wrapping. Others gave him wind-chimes or small candies, or pieces of personal jewelry. They have no tradition of personal presents here, and little sense of personal property, so most of the presents were simple, cheap things. The one stand-out gift was a generous coupon card for the hardware store in town, so Dan could get supplies for his beloved machines. I gave him a small Earth globe, about two inches across, so he can carry it, with the topography exaggerated so he can feel the continents and mountain ranges. How did I get such a thing? That was Dr. Nades again; he has friends in the exogeography department. The flyer is useful.

After the presents, the party became a fairly ordinary feast, with plenty of food and alcohol. No, Nades did not get drunk, but Dan got him some wine. You remember what I said about wine being almost impossible to buy.

I think the kids will be demanding birthday parties next; Ka'te is already talking about it. Maybe I should start a catering company for Earth-parties? But I'm really feeling a lot better about myself as ambassador. After stumbling my way through so many science questions over the past few weeks and generally feeling like I don't do anything except hang out with my friends, it occurs to me that not everybody could have done something like this. Not everybody could describe some aspect of our culture that we take for granted clearly, and I did it AND collaborated with an engineer to reinvent an ice cream maker. Not to toot my own horn; I'm not the smartest guy in the room or anything, but I guess I didn't get appointed to this job for nothing.

A funny detail; while Dan was cutting the cake, one of the kids asked me how big a piece I'd eat back home--Dan was cutting pieces about the size of an almond, and generally making my poor cake look like it had been chewed up by mice--so I said "are you kidding? At home I'd eat two cakes myself!" And her antenae spread wider and wider and wider, until they stuck out sideways in total dumbfounded amazement. I had to confess; a cake that size would feed ten or fifteen of us. But the story spread around, and by evening all the kids were giggling about the giants on Earth who can eat cakes the size of houses.

Fi Fie Foe Fum!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Shape of Past and Future

I keep thinking about that snake I saw the other week. I've been in parts of earth that look like this--rural areas with patches of woods--but I've never seen a predator like that there. I mean, coyotes and foxes, but no wolves and mountain lions. Surely a python that big is more the equivalent of a wolf? I've asked about it, and yes, that thing is what they call an apex predator, the baddest beast in the jungle. So why is it here, in this sleepy little farming community?

I've been wracking my brain for a week, trying to think of why this seems so strange to me--just like I've been trying to think of why those chains of flowers look so strange. It's an issue of things about Earth I don't know that I know--but that are recognizably different here. The way moving around feels different, even breathing feels different, because the oxygen concentration is marginally greater than an home, and the planet as a whole is marginally less massive. My first week or two here I kept stumbling around, dropping things, falling over myself, because the gravity was not quite what I expected it to be. I knew enough to have an expectation, but if I hadn't known ahead of time what the difference was, I never would have identified gravity as the thing that was different.

The flowers are still puzzling me, but I think I've got the thing with the snake figured out.

The issue is size; I mentioned how the network of forest corridors they have around here made is possible for them to keep major predators while we lost most of ours? Well, I don't think those networks would have worked if there weren't a large number of very large preserves somewhere around here, and I don't see how a people as purely pragmatic about nature as these people are would summon the political will to protect so much land.

Or, rather, I didn't see it. I talked to Dan, and he explained it to me.

The short version of the tale is that the local people didn't protect the land, the Imperials did, back when this was part of their empire. They had some notion of this continent as an untouched wilderness, millions of local inhabitants notwithstanding, and while they generally sucked the land as dry as they could otherwise, they set aside huge tracts of land as protected wilderness. Actually, there were three separate systems: there were game preserves, for recreational hunting and forestry; there were wilderness preserves, from which no resources were extracted; and there were People's Preserves, for hiking and what-not, since the country people were excluded from the game preserves. And since the country folk were excluded from the game preserves, they did their best to maintain privately held forests for timber extraction and hunting--and as a place to hide from the Imperials in case it came to war. Which, of course, it did. After the revolution, all three Imperial systems were dismantled, but most of the land remained protected, for forestry, hunting, watershed protection, and also for its own sake. The huge amount of forested land is the legacy of four separate systems of land management by two different peoples living in the same country.

Of course, after the revolution, the Imperials didn't leave any more than the British left America after the American revolution. The long generations of colonialism had created a new people, both through simple divergence and through close contact and intermingling with the locals. Sometimes it seems like there are two separate cultures in this country, sometimes it seems like there is just one. For example, even though there are ethnic Imperial families and country families, and there are the two different languages, almost everybody speaks both languages fluently. Dan was raised in an Imperial family, and his name follows Imperial conventions, but his first language was the country language. He learned Imperial at school. The whole thing is complex.

We got the test back, by the way; Dan is, or will be, a male flyer. He is both tickled to death and not surprised; he says he can feel his wings now, feel his body as it will be. It's like how you know where your limbs are, even if you can see them. When humans (and Myrmeiods) lose limbs, we can sometimes continue to feel as though we have them, to feel our bodies that they are supposed to be. Well, Dan can feel his body as it will be. If he covers his antenae with a sheet (like one of us closing our eyes), he can fool himself into believing that he is a flyer already, feel the wings, the smaller legs, the huge thorax and shrunken abdomen. Then he shakes off the sheet and feels the air currents responding to the shape of his actual body--the second post-pupal body he has had for thirty-four years. It no longer feels like him.

But now, at least, he can start looking for jobs, since he can prove to employers that he will have wings. He's not sure yet what he's going to do, but he's thinking he wants to go to sea.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Birds and the Bees.

It's spring, I have belatedly realized. It's been spring for about a month, now. I should have figured it out--I knew the winter solstice had passed and that the days were getting longer, but the weather has been warm, and everything has been green. I hadn't thought about seasons--I think I assumed that this area was tropical, a place with no winter. Actually, we're about at the latitude equivalent of maybe Maryland. Cold is no problem, and the short days slow plant growth, but not by enough to hurt the plants. The problem is that even that slight slowing means that leaves grown in the winter often can't make enough food for the tree to cover the cost of growing the leaf in the first place--not before the leaf is half-eaten by bugs. So the trees stop putting out new leaves for two months. Now, new leaves are coming out, along with a lot of flowers, and the old leaves are being dropped--we've got fall and spring at the same time! They call it the color season.

Would you believe Ka'te explained this to me, about the energy budgets of leaves? She talked someone at the next farm over into lending her a textbook on botany, and even though she's only seven, she's puzzling her way through it and giving mini-lectures on the subject to any adult who will listen.

Incidentally, there's little to no artificial global warming here; this planet is naturally hot. I believe the reason is that no continental mass exists straddling the equator. Warm equatorial water just goes around and around the planet--it never gets diverted towards the poles, so it never cools down. Or something. I probably sound like some kind of idiot, all the things I don't know even about my own planet. I'm starting to forget that there is any expertise at all in relating socially to people who look like ants and talk by touching my fingers, that not everyone could do what I am doing--living in a strange place and learning a new culture all by myself. But I am not by myself--I have Dan and Ka'te, and several other friends I haven't mentioned yet, and even my pet, Jim. I'm starting to seriously need some prop for my ego other than the fact that I spend time with my friends and have two part-time jobs doing manual labor.

Hold on, Dan is here--he just waved hello, he's gotten me to teach him some human gestures, and waving is his favorite. He'd like to try flipping the bird, too, the rudeness of it sort of tickles him, but his forelegs don't rotate at the elbow. He can't turn the back of his forefoot forward. Anyway, he only has two fingers per foot, which generally precludes sticking up the middle one. Maybe I can think up some other manual insult....

I assume he came to talk to me, but he's playing with Jim instead. Jim likes Dan, and leaped from my knee to go wrestle. do do do do, doodling until he's done, do, do, do....

Ok, it's been about two hours. Dan wanted to talk about sex, would you believe it? It seems he's starting to notice female flyers. I said that suggests he's going to be a male flyer, but he said not necessarily--flyer, yes, male, maybe not. Not all flyers are "straight," to use our terminology. The casual way Dan reminded me of this surprised me--there's no word for homosexual in either of the Myrmeoid languages I know, so I had assumed that either there are no gay Myrmeoids or that they are pretty seriously homophobic as a culture. Turns out it's just a complete non-issue. Male and female flyers have almost identical social roles, so nobody cares who they have sex with.

Anyway, male or female, Dan is trying to sort out these new feelings, and none of his friends have sexual feelings, so he can't talk to them. Really--before the last molt, Myrmeoids are sexless in a way that even our children aren't. Their sex organs don't even connect to any bodily opening. I told him he could talk to Nades, but he just giggled; apparently the idea of asking the eminent Dr. Nades about something as inherently private and vulnerable as sexuality is still beyond the pale. Having met Nades, I kind of understand; the guy is intimidating. So, Dan came to me, and we had something of a "guy talk." Which was totally weird, because Dan is as ignorant as a teenager but he's also forty-six years old, and mostly more mature than I am. I didn't really know how to talk to him about it.

Dan's personality is starting to change. He's becoming more driven, more willing to risk, more restless. It's like he looks around him and doesn't see the farm or my house or anything, only the adventures and possibilities out there waiting for him. His body is changing, too--nothing I can see, of course, his exoskelleton hasn't changed, but he's eating more than he ever has before--and in smaller meals. His digestive tract is actually shrinking, making room for reproductive organs and probably the larger heart and lungs of a flyer (all these organs are in the abdomen, by the way, the "tail" end of a Myrmeoid's three-part body. The chest area, or thorax, is all muscle). He won't get the blood test back until next week, but we're sure he's a flyer. The fact that he wants to badly now to be one is itself a sign; two months ago, he didn't care one way or the other. I'm jealous; he's mature enough to actually be able to talk intelligently to girls and he's going to grow wings. When I went through puberty, all I grew was zits.

It's a beautiful day. It feels like spring...I'm going to try to talk somebody into letting me stick my hands in the dirt and do something useful. Everything is growing and moving and buzzing about. I even saw a new animal today--when I walked Dan out to the path I saw this thing hanging from one of the trees, maybe five feet up, snapping at the bees visiting the meadow flowers. At first I thought it was a good-sized snake, maybe four feet long, but the thing has a neck, like the urdles do, so it isn't a snake. Also, it has feathers--bright blue, red, and green feathers. I never cease to be amazed at how alien this place is, and yet how like Earth it is, too. There are no vertebrates with legs on this planet, other than me and the other ambassadors--I've got the best legs of any man in the country, I guess! So, obviously, there are no birds. No legs means no wings, no birds. Yet this brightly-colored feathered snake-thing looked at me and it sang.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Editor's note; this is another guest post by the Myrmeoid ambassador's stationed on Earth.

Happy belated Groundhog Day, though I understand this is an extremely minor holiday for you. Its central superstition (and the fact that none of you denies it is a superstition) reminds us of a similar half-belief among our people—I mean my own country, the Imperial Islands, not my species as a whole.

We have an animal we call a wanderer that nests on the dunes behind the beaches of our islands. They look something like dragonflies, though they are distant relatives of ours, not true insects. Their flyers spend their lives at sea, returning only to breed, and they return at a specific time each year. For some reason, occasionally the wanderers will come in but not land, and there will be no nesting that year on that beach. Our islands are prone to tsunamis, and a belief developed that wanderers fly away because they know there will be a tsunami that year. When the wanderers land, therefor, there is a celebratory feast. Now, it has been scientifically demonstrated that there is no correlation between wanderer landings and tsunami activity, and we now depend on oceanic sensors, not superstition, to warn us of tsunamis. But the practice, if not the belief, persists, and there are still parties when the wanderers land. In fact, just as a single groundhog in Pennsylvania has come to be “the” groundhog for your whole country, even though the length of winter and real groundhog behavior must vary from place to place, a single beach has come to dictate whether people all across the country have the festival, even though wanderer nestings vary from beach to beach.

But none of this is what I wanted to address today. With all due respect to Ambassador Kilmon, we must interject to correct a misunderstanding that may result from his work. He refers to “country folk” and “Imperials” as though these were categorically distinct, the approximate equivalent of racial or ethnic differences. Actually, our kind has no distinct races. I am somewhat familiar with the country where Ambassador Kilmon is posted; I have studied its history, and I have visited it for extended stays on several occasions. I have even had the distinct pleasure of tasting the La’heli’s brandy; it is well-regarded in the region, for good reason. I am in a position to say that the description Ambassador Kilmon has made of the “country folk” is wrong.

That country—its name translates loosely as “the Green Coast Republic,” is, like most developed nations on our planet, a former Imperial colony. Its modern culture owes something both to its Imperial heritage and to the indigenous cultures that predated colonization. Today, the Green Coast, like most of the former colonies, retains some indigenous enclaves in the upper reaches of its larger watersheds, where resource extraction was not profitable until the advent of hot-air balloons. The navigable portions of the watersheds, and the coastal regions, were fully exploited, however. It is not a point of pride, but it is an historical fact; though the vernacular languages of the Green Coast are descended from indigenous languages, and though certain cultural practices are probably indigenous in origin, the indigenous peoples of these areas were either killed or assimilated hundreds of years ago. The uneducated, the poor, and the otherwise disadvantaged continue to identify themselves with these vanished peoples, as do certain more well-to-do families, either out of a misguided admiration of what might be called “the noble savage,” or as an expression of some political anger. Usually, these are rural communities, hence the term “country folk.” There is no basis to the claim that the so-called country-folk actually are indigenous people, because there is a continual flow of people between them and the more main-stream communities sometimes called ethnic Imperials. Disadvantaged youth can grow up to join the mainstream, and mainstream families sometimes produce people who later come to identify with the country people, for whatever reason.

Ambassador Kilmon lives in a community of country folk, a placement that made sense given the need to house him in a rural area away from infrastructure that cannot accommodate his large size. It is understandable that he would pick up the biases and attitudes of his hosts, and interpret these through his own culture’s history of racial and ethnic tension. He is only reporting accurately what he knows.

But the tension he observes is entirely one-sided. Certainly, there is no institutional oppression of the country folk--not that we are above such atrocities; the fact that the indigenous cultures no longer exist to be oppressed does not speak well of our species. Nevertheless, times have changed, and the Green Coast is to be commended particularly for their attempts to bring the remaining indigenous communities the advantages of modern society. Society is not excluding or punishing the country people. On the contrary, every effort is being made to include them. The offspring of poor families have preferential admission at most secondary schools. Primary schools in poor or rural areas are given tax-funded grants to bring their budgets in line with those of schools for the wealthy. If there were some ethical way to prevent these families from simply creating elementary schools within their own communities—a practice which almost inevitably results in passing the same habits and biases on to the next generation—the phenomenon of “country people” might simply go away. If all children received the same early education and the same opportunities, which is the point of compulsory education, then multi-generational poverty would probably cease to exist.

Again, I do not mean to disparage Ambassador Kilmon's work. On the contrary, he is to be commended for leaving his own biases behind to the extent that he has. It cannot be easy for him to relate emotionally to people who must look to him like insects or crustaceans--that he identifies with the La'heli's well enough to form friendships with them and to adopt some of their cultural biases is an indication of his openness to them and his empathy for them. We respect especially his willingness to live alone with almost no contact with others of his kind, something that was necessary given the expense of maintaining even one human--that he is evidently working for his keep was his own idea, and not part of the original plan. We, at least, work in teams of three and have each other--as well as easier communication with the other teams. Your culture has better long-distance communication systems than ours does.

Coincidentally, we also decided to get jobs in order to expand our circle of interaction and offset the cost of our upkeep, though we cannot earn enough to pay the invaluable Mr. Grisholm. We cannot do most human work, because of our size, but we can fly. We are therefor in charge of cleaning and maintenance of ceilings in several public buildings, as well as the U.N. We remove spider webs and dust, and replace lighting fixtures as needed. For this we are paid only a small amount of money, roughly in keeping with what human cleaning teams would be paid to do the same work, but as we do not eat very much, it covers our immediate expenses. Our rent is negligible; our house consists of two bookshelves fixed with their open sides together and access holes drilled through the side at each level. It is amusing that our residence has such humble and prosaic origins, but it works well for us. Our house is inside Mr. Grisholm's apartment.

Writing of our job, I am reminded of a genre of joke we have learned of recently, and I believe I can attempt my own iteration of it;

Q. How many Myrmeoids does it take to change a light-bulb?

A. Three; two to hold the bulb, and one to blog about it.