Monday, December 22, 2008

How to tell a present

Most every night we put on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and drift off to sleep with it running. A timer turns off the TV after a while. Ulysses has been hearing that theme music, with its signature transition from futuristically, whisperingly quiet to blood-stirringly horn laden (woe betide your sleep if you're only halfway into slumber by the end credits), nearly every night since before he was even born. (Some nights we play Galaxy Quest instead.)

The other night U and I were watching “Parallels,” a final-season episode featuring Lieutenant Commander Worf, the first Kingon to serve in Starfleet. The opening scenes feature a surprise birthday party for him. Mr. Worf is on the cranky side, as a matter of character. He is visibly embarrassed and annoyed as his crew mates lustily sing the rendition of “Happy Birthday” that they've laboriously translated into Klingon in his honor.

“It wasn't easy to translate,” says Counselor Troi to a still-scowling Worf. “There doesn't seem to be a Klingon word for 'jolly,'”

Ulysses was loving it. “Happy birthday, Mr. Worf!” he said. “It's a party!”

Then the birthday cake is brought out. In close-up, a long knife drives into an especially fudgy and moist chocolate-on-chocolate cake. The relative extreme of the visual is needed for later in the story, when the variety of cake is revealed to be a plot point.

Ulysses was delighted by all the chocolateyness. “Cake! He has a birthday cake! Happy birthday, Mr. Worf!” he crowed as the Klingon, still scowling, passes around plates heaped with gooey slabs.

Next come the presents. Data hands Worf a big, flat, beribboned rectangle of shiny wrapping paper. (Everything is metallic in the future.) “A present!” Ulysses said, happily.

Worf tears off the paper to reveal ... “A ... painting,” he says, trying hard to be polite, but unable to conceal his confusion at the inscrutable tangle of bright, abstract shapes. Data explains that it's his expressionist interpretation of a great Klingon battle. “I am honored,” says Worf, but the subtext is unmistakable: “This thing is awful – and I'm stuck with it!”

“That's not a present,” Ulysses said, mirroring Worf's reaction.

“Sure, it's a present from Data,” I said.

“No,” he said, pausing for emphasis. “It's a painting.”

“The present is the painting,” I said. “The painting is a present.”

“That's no present,” he said, shaking his head. He looked closely at me. How could I not see something that was so obvious to both him and Mr. Worf? Didn't I grasp Mr. Worf's reaction on tearing open the wrapping? Couldn't I feel it? Ulysses seemed to be casting about for a way to convey it to me. Finally, he found a way to get it across in terms I should understand.

“That's no present. It's not a toy.”

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