Field Notes for Space

My linguistics adviser in college had a thought-experiment she would set up to help us understand the fundamental difficulty of learning language without a point of reference. “Imagine,” she would say, “that an alien was sitting outside the window of our classroom in an invisible spaceship and watching us. What would they think?”

The point of exercise was primarily to teach a classroom full of word-loving freshman who were surprised to realize they had picked a science major how to see the limitations of what one can conclusively know given a particular data set. I got the point, eventually, but what really stuck with me (aside from the plethora of inexplicably disturbing sample sentences like “The cookie ate the girl”) was the image of an alien in an invisible spaceship watching me…all the time.

You know me, right? I’m the one whose black-and-white portrait is printed tidily in the margin s.v. “paranoid” in any dictionary printed after 2002. Being raised in the church, it wasn’t much of a stretch to talk myself into buying a fantasy that claimed that my every move was being observed and judged by an intellectually superior being whose presence could only be inferred by obscure clues, like the creak of the trees in the wind. Or the strangely reflected light from a passing vehicle. My personal alien doctoral candidate in “human studies” has been with me off and on for the last eight years, so I imagine she’s picked up a bit of the language and the customs, though less than you might think without the ability to trigger feedback, an sometimes I think about my life and wonder what her observation journal might look like.

Day 2741

> Subject and mate abandoned small fuzzy offspring. Prepared food and water quantities suggest trip length of perhaps a week? Articles of clothing suggest less.

> Subjects moved metal box north for several hours. Estimated energy intake exceeds normal rate. Perhaps such transportation consumes more energy than the sitting they seem to be doing?

> Purpose of visit seems to be moving some objects between dwelling and box. Some items were left at the dwelling, but subjects left with some of their original belongings as well as a larger quantity of items. Perhaps this is a trade relationship in which subjects have the upper hand?

> Eating seems to be an important part of these trade relationships–subjects consumed energy-rich food all but incessantly as they continued along their trade route. Subjects seem to have three major trade partners, all of whom seem to place an extremely high value on the commodities offered by subjects. In one case, subjects seemed to trade nothing but information for copious amounts of food and a glass jar.

> This type of trade route seems to coincide most often with an increase in the use of the word “holiday.” There seems to be some connection to religion for many of these events, although that seems to be contested. From what little I believe I have decoded from their “internet,” holidays are seen as either “holy days” (days with specific religious significance) or instances of a majority religion trying to sanctify an ancient tradition of consuming extra food-energy.

> The value of the increased consumption of food is unclear. Transportation along the trade route does not seem to require an increased output of energy. Subjects do not seem to be preparing for incubation of offspring either, as small fuzzy adopted offspring seem to meet any instinctive drive subjects might have to raise young. May need to collect subject for further tests to determine how the food energy is used.

An alien might have some difficulty interpreting the reason for the exhausting, food-soaked ritual of travel and visiting that constitutes a holiday weekend. I sometimes have a hard time understanding it, especially when I look back and ask myself why eating three homemade whoopie pies in one day really seemed like a good idea. No, wait, it didn’t seem like a good idea. As long as I had a bite of one of those in my mouth, more seemed like an awesome idea. And every minute with our siblings, parents, and nephews (step, in-laws, and blood all included) made every hour of the trip worth repeating again and again.

Fortunately, though I’m not sure my alien doctoral candidate has enough worked out to understand this yet, one of the items we acquired from one of our generous trading partners (current exchange rate: our time = their time + lots of goodies) was a diet book.