Tag Archives: Philosophy

Love your work

I gave my first public presentation of my fiction since college the other day. Those twenty-five hundred words, on a per-word basis, probably went through more time and revisions than any other work of fiction I’ve written. I even practiced running through it all several times, honing my dramatic delivery. In the end, I stood up in front of an audience of about twenty, and did pretty well. A few folks came to me and said they appreciated my performance.

Why do I feel so empty, then? Well, that’s just it. They basically said they appreciated my performance and left it at that. I didn’t spark any interesting thoughts or conversations. I didn’t evoke any emotions or personal recollections. I didn’t even inspire a thoughtful and incisive criticism. I was hoping for a deep validation, exploration, and celebration of my work, and presenting to this audience was only marginally better than presenting to a brick wall.

Maybe I’ve set you up for this next paragraph. “Of course that was too much to hope for” you may be thinking. Of course you are right. As tiny individuals on a colossal world stage, we put our lives into works that mean the world to us and very little to everyone else. When I play a video game I enjoy myself during and then when it is finished I feel briefly bereft, no longer enjoying my mastery of the fictional world and knowing that now that it’s done, as far as the real world is concerned I may as well have done nothing at all. I had assumed that spending time on a “productive” activity would be different, but naturally it is not. My estimated twelve hours writing a story is the audience’s five minutes, so I’ll always get back a tiny fraction of what I give. This is the plight probably of all artists, also of the frustrated political activist, and the friend who gives too much and receives too little in return.

Next question, “So why bother?” This is a question, perhaps ironically, that I explore in my writing. One theme of The Sympathetic Universe is that the gods have the opposite problem. Rather than being unable to affect any meaningful difference on their world, they are so powerful that everything they accomplish is inherently trivial. They struggle with the fact that, when you are free from all limitations, nothing fundamentally means anything. This is why they hide from their empty divinity in brief human lives fraught with struggle, significance, and purpose. Every time they die and get their immortal memories back they realize again that their exciting, often tragic life was just an insignificant speck in a grand game to distract themselves from the void. The best drama so far in my opinion has come from Ta, the god who refused to admit that the life she experienced meant nothing, and used her near-omnipotent powers to go back in time and illegally alter the universe in which she had lived to better satisfy the needs of the human she had once been. Seem petty? Yeah, when you’re a divine entity, there’s not much else to do.

Ultimately, in The Sympathetic Universe, the gods always go back to being humans because pretending that things matter is addictive in a way that divinity can’t match. The gods envy humanity’s passion just as we envy their ability. We are happiest when we care about things and believe that what we do matters, even if in the end, in a cosmic sense, it will all be for nothing. Just make the most out of your time on this Earth, do what you love, and love what you do. The universe isn’t going to love it for you.

The Sympathetic Universe Part 16

After coming back half-dead from exhaustion and still without Eliza’s phone, Angel’s mood had darkened. Sitting on the green easy chair with her ankle elevated and wrapped in bandages from a first aid kit she’d found in the kitchen, Angel told Gabriel with no small amount of condescension that his “sacrifice” wasn’t virtuous when it only caused trouble for everyone else. He was just being an attention seeking puta.

“On top of that,” Eloy pointed out between mouthfuls of sundried tomato pesto pasta, “stealing people’s ideas is the opposite of virtuous. In my time, it’s called ‘plagiarism,’ and you don’t get any points for it.” Eloy felt sorry for Eliza, who was on double-duty translating everyone’s arguments into French. Even when Destiny told Gabriel her mommy would have put him in time out by now, he calmly informed her that God’s rules were greater even than those of mommies.

In the meantime, Eloy was still wondering about this little girl. Why did Destiny have a two way radio and how did she know how to use it? It didn’t assuage his concerns when he asked her and she said “What’s a wadio?” Angel admitted that she hadn’t seen any two-way radio with Destiny, who eventually admitted that she had left it behind because it kept making “scawy noises.” How had she properly operated a radio that she didn’t even know how to turn off?

Destiny didn’t have the attention span for extended interrogation. When asked where the radio had come from, she started bawling about Mr. Tiger. When asked where she came from, she started bawling about her mommy. When asked if she even knew what decade she was from, she bawled about her mommy and Mr. Tiger.

So, over the next few days Eloy did his best to slowly piece together the story. As Gabriel became thinner and began to spend more and more time sitting unresponsive in the corduroy easy chair, Eloy learned that Destiny’s favorite show was Power Rangers, placing her firmly in the 90’s or later. He learned that Mr. Tiger took the form of a stuffed animal that came to life and talked to her when no one was looking. He still couldn’t figure out what happened on that mountain that let Destiny talk to them.

Angel called a meeting about Gabriel in Eliza and her room. The topic was “Should we force-feed Estupido until he comes to his senses?”

“Estupido” was Angel’s new name for Gabriel, sometimes “Viejo Estupido.”

Angel was in favor, Eliza was against, and Eloy was abstaining, thinking it better not to take a side against either of these women. Destiny was in the common hall with Gabriel, playing with a coloring book from Eliza’s pack that had alarmed Eloy when it said it was for adults, but turned out be full of flowers and abstract patterns that were not inappropriate for Destiny at all.

“I don’t think he likes it here,” Eliza said in Gabriel’s defense, “He doesn’t speak our language; he’s the oldest by forty years; I haven’t seen one meal show up that would be at home where he’s from. Maybe we can figure out how to get the fridge to make something he wants to eat.”

“I have looked that fridge over a few times now,” said Angel, “there’s no knob or anything to adjust to get different food.”

“But maybe it doesn’t work that way,” Eliza said, her tone sounding oddly confident, “Maybe need to think differently. What if it responds to our desires? Maybe we can all… think about Gabriel’s favorite meal and it will show up?”

Angel and Eloy stared at Eliza, who raised her hands. “Look, let’s all just think of the most delicious rice and bean stew that we can imagine. Maybe if we stand by the refrigerator when we do it. It’s nearly lunchtime now.”

So they gathered up Destiny, who was fully on board with Eliza’s “mind reading fridge” scheme, and went to the kitchen. Gabriel was slumped in his chair with his mouth wide open snoring and in no position to be suspicious.

“Ok,” said Eliza, descending to sit cross legged on the kitchen floor, “everyone close your eyes.”

Eloy sat on the counter and closed his eyes.

“Now,” said Eliza, “Imagine you are sitting in front of a wooden bowl in your monastery’s mess hall. The steaming stew in front of you smells of onions, oatmeal, asparagus, and sausage. You dip your spoon in and bring a chunk of sausage to your mouth. It is perfectly spiced pork. You saw the pig slaughtered just today.”

Destiny cried in protest at the image of the slaughtered pig.

“Ok, you didn’t see it slaughtered, but you can tell it’s fresh. Also fresh is the thick slice of barley bread next to it and the whole leg of mutton on a plate besides. You are ready for a feast!”

“You reach out to the pile of roasted turnips and pluck one out. They’re still hot and smell of garlic.”

Eloy peeked and saw Angel’s nose wrinkle at the turnips, but she said nothing.

“The turnip yields easily to your teeth and is packed with juicy flavor. It tastes as if it’s been cooked in the fat from the mutton.”

Eloy had no idea what mutton even was, let alone what it tasted like.

“Ok, everyone,” said Eliza, “just sit with that image for a while.”

Eliza remained silent for a few moments and spoke again. “I am going to open the fridge. Keep thinking of the delicious stew, mutton, bread, and turnips.”

Eloy watched Eliza go to the fridge. She pulled out a red lunch tupperware and, with trepidation, peeled off the top. Eloy couldn’t see what was in the tupperware, but he did see her make a fist pump.

“Everyone,” she announced, “today for lunch we’ll be having turnips, barley bread, and what I believe may be mutton!”

“Ewwww!” Destiny whined.

Eloy watched as Eliza scooped off some turnip and put it in front of Gabriel’s nose. Gabriel sniffed, and opened his eyes. “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”

“Ton déjeuner.”

Gabriel reached out and took the spoon. “D’où est-ce que sa vient?”

“Le réfrigérateur.” Eliza smiled, “Dieu vous aime et… veut que, ah, vous viviez”

Gabriel huffed and gave the spoon back. “Non.”

It took another day of thinking of various medieval dishes, and by the time they had all exhausted taste for ale, barley bread, and mutton, Gabriel was finally convinced that God didn’t want him to fast until he died. He ate all four tupperwares of sausage-tripe stew in one lunch.

It all fit together too easily for Eloy’s liking. It was more than apparent that they were not playing by the rules of their… homes for lack of a better term, but he was beginning to suspect there was more at play.

What were the chances Eliza could have just guessed the nature of the refrigerator? On her first try, no less.

What were the chances that Destiny would just happen to figure out how to operate a two-way radio and then forget?

It might be because of her recent success alone, but Eliza was carrying herself with more confidence lately. She hadn’t patted her shoulder in a while. Eloy had received no hints or visitations at all from his mom that would allow him to accomplish such unlikely feats. Heck, Mom couldn’t even be bothered to stop a hurtling van before putting him in the driver’s seat. Gabriel’s interpretations of his god’s will were so erratic it was more than clear he was not getting any direct channel. Angel had lost Eliza’s phone and nearly killed herself trying to find it again. No divine intervention there. Eloy narrowed his eyes. Trying to intuit the requirements to win this virtue challenge was hard enough on its own. What would he do if Destiny and Eliza were getting help that the rest of them were not?

The Sympathetic Universe Part 15

When light filtered through the windows of the cabin, Eliza began to worry. She stood to do her calisthenics, but when they were done and she had showered off her sweat, the worry came back. When Gabriel came out of his room, sat on one side of the beige loveseat, and asked in French “Eliza, where are the woman and the baby?” she became more worried. Eliza didn’t see any need to get into a fight with Gabriel over his inability or disinterest to learn anyone’s name, so she just shrugged. “I don’t know,” she admitted. She and Gabriel could communicate any concept that could be expressed within the bounds of French I and French II.

Eliza had not slept all night, and struggled to sit up in her overstuffed easy chair. “No sense in waiting on breakfast,” said Gabriel. He stood and moved to the fridge. He came back with no food and a confused look.

Eliza yawned. Seeing that she was not going to ask, Gabriel said, “The meals are four.”

Eliza blinked the fog from her head. She couldn’t believe that Gabriel was complaining about breakfast. “Is that wrong?” she asked after an extended pause.

“We are five,” Gabriel pointed out.

Five was optimistic at this point, Eliza noted with trepidation. “We are three,” she countered.

A look of horror crossed over Gabriel’s face. Eliza didn’t know how to say “as far as I know” so she just shrugged and said “maybe.” Gabriel was not mollified.

“That is not funny,” he said.

“We shouldn’t do anything until everyone is up,” Eliza said, and Gabriel nodded his agreement.

Before Eloy awoke, though, Angel limped into the cabin with a sleeping, dreadlocked child in one arm. “Eliza,” she said, holding Destiny out, “I’m going back for your phone.”

Eliza rushed forward to accept Destiny, and Angel turned and left. Eliza carried Destiny to the empty room and laid her on the bare mattress. She lifted her head and put a pillow underneath. Then she pulled the folded blanket from the end of the bed and draped it over the child. This seemed satisfactory and she returned to the common area.

An hour later, Eloy ambled in, chewing on a piece of french toast from a green tupperware. He sat down in the other easy chair. “Nobody’s eaten breakfast,” he observed, some toast still in his mouth, “do you guys not like french toast?”

“Eloy!” Eliza shouted, causing Eloy to jump, “how many tupperwares were in there?”

“Four,” Eloy said, “there’s always four. What’s your problem?”

Eliza was too tired to keep the condescension out of her voice, “Eloy, how many people are staying at this cabin?”

After a moment’s frustration, understanding dawned on Eloy’s french toast-filled face. “Fuck, Eliza, there’s not enough food!”

Eloy’s gaze became distant. Eliza glared at him as he reached into the tupperware without looking and pulled out another slice of french toast. Then he saw her look and stuffed it back in. He pushed the top back on and rushed back to the kitchen to throw it back in the fridge.

Eloy often looked like he was doing calculations in his head, and when he came back he was doing it again. “Everyone else should eat,” he announced, “I will fast until we have enough food to go around.” He puffed out his chest, inordinately pleased with himself.

Eliza offered him her best “Isn’t that nice,” smile and stood to go to bed. Angel would handle this when she got back.

The sun was high in the sky when Eliza awoke. She couldn’t sleep any more, even though she was hardly any less groggy. She wandered back into the common area to see Eloy rambling about something to Gabriel, who nodded like he always did when he didn’t understand anything that was being said. “How did she know what frequency to set her radio to? How did she even know how to operate a two-way radio?”

Eloy turned when she came in, “Finally, someone who speaks English.”

“Bonjour, Gabriel,” Eliza said, “Comment ça va?”

“Bien merci,” said Gabriel, turning away from Eloy, “et toi?”

“Fatigué” Eliza admitted, “Faim.”

Gabriel laughed, “Va manger.”

“Je vais,” Eliza agreed. She made a point of not looking at Eloy, but she let a grin onto her lips as she walked to the kitchen. He really had walked into that one.

The green breakfast tupperwares were gone, replaced by red lunch tupperwares. Eliza wondered if anyone had actually eaten breakfast, or if all the food besides one slice of french toast had gone completely to waste. She peeled the top off a red container. French fries. Good ones. They were hand cut. She could see the potato skin on some of the edges and big chunks of sea salt. Despite being in the refrigerator they were still hot. She put the tupperware down and washed her hands, then she pushed the fries aside to see what was beneath. A turkey Reuben on seeded rye bread. Eliza’s mouth watered.

The sandwich was cut in two, she noted. It was thick with a generous portion of turkey slathered in thousand island dressing. Even skipping breakfast, she didn’t need to eat the whole thing. Destiny was a little girl, she couldn’t eat that much. She’d seen Gabriel eat. Half the time, he left most of the food untouched. This wasn’t an issue at all.

Eliza brought a plate with half a Reuben and a pile of fries out to the table in the space adjoining the kitchen and common area. The triumphant look on Eloy’s face made her giggle, which perturbed him. “Please enjoy your meal,” he intoned, “I will wait until there is food enough for all.”

Eliza couldn’t keep her attention on Eloy’s ridiculous posturing. Her Reuben was just too good. At first, she thought the french fries needed ketchup, but soon she was appreciating their own inherent salty flavor all the more.

“Oh, man,” Eliza exclaimed, “this is really good. Wow. Do you like Reubens, Eloy?”

“I’m abstaining,” Eloy insisted, “don’t tempt me.”

“You’re missing out,” Eliza cajoled, “this is just half a tupperware. No one needs to go hungry.”

“Oh,” said Eloy.

“The other half is on the counter.”

Eloy stood. He came back from the kitchen with a red tupperware in one hand and an already half-eaten Reuben in the other. “Wow, these are good!”

“Gabriel,” Eliza called, “viens manger! Il y a … uh, beaucoup de … nourriture!”

“Non, merci. Dieu me nourrira.”

Eliza had trouble understanding this. It sounded like he was saying he was going to eat God. “quoi? Tout …” she struggled to think of another way to say that there was plenty of food. “le monde peut manger”

Gabriel struggled to get his point across, “Ah, non, ah, I… ah, not eat food. You eat.”

Eliza looked back at him. “Beaucoup,” she repeated. She pointed at Eloy and her plates and raised one finger, “un … uh, tupperware.”

Gabriel did the sign of the cross and bowed his head. “La vertu exige des sacrifices.”

Eloy put down his french fry, and his face looked calculating again. Then he shook his head, picked it up and popped it into his mouth. Eliza smiled and did the same. She took another fry and looked back at Gabriel. His face was stoic, but he was mumbling prayers under his breath. Eliza took one finger and pushed the fry into her mouth, and biting down, appreciating the crispy, salty crunch. “mmmm,” she groaned closing her eyes, “délicieux.”

The Sympathetic Universe Part 12

Eloy watched the road wind in front of him. Gray trees fell behind in the twilight. When the van did not turn with the road, Eloy realized he was in the driver’s seat and swerved out of the way of a spruce tree, managing to only hit a low branch, which dislodged with a crack. Thankful no one was hurt, Eloy backed up back onto the road and set the van to park.

Eloy examined the damage to the van. The left light was smashed in. Not something he could hope no one would notice. His heart was still pounding in his chest. Just a moment ago, he was about to go to school. Then God disappeared, then he appeared in a van rolling down a mountain hill and crashed it. All in all, a stressful day. He could still feel God’s absence. What was he supposed to do now? A voice in his head would be much appreciated.

It was completely dark now. The blinking red hazard lights showed him the outlines of his hands and the road and not much else. Eloy got back in and turned his lights on. He was gratified to see that the smashed light still worked even if it looked like hell. He checked the fuel gauge. Full. Eloy chuckled, like this van had just visited a fuel station in the middle of the woods. He sighed and tried to puzzle through what was happening. Nothing left to do but continue down the road. He started the van up.

The absence of God made Eloy on edge. The fact that he couldn’t see more than a few yards in front of him on sheer mountain roads would not normally faze him when everything was planned out so that he would do nothing but learn valuable lessons. Before he appeared here, Boden’s voice was rambling about virtue and about running out of time on “this Earth.” He also said that Eloy’s pet theory about God being his mother was wrong. On the other hand, that’s exactly what his mother told him in person, too, so…

“ok,” said Eloy aloud, “virtue.”

The road continued to wind. It was a climb now. Time passed. Eloy had seen no one else on the road. No cars, no signs, nothing. He tried turning the radio on. Static. He turned the dial through the frequencies. Static everywhere. Eloy grit his teeth and slammed on the dashboard. Everywhere had radio! Where the hell was he!? He turned the dial back the other way. More static, until he reached 171.7. A young woman’s voice. “…za Cunningham. I am stranded in the woods seeking assistance. I do not know my coordinates, but I am at a place called ‘camp virtue’ near Endurance Peak. Please send help.” The transmission ended.

“ok,” Eloy said, “camp virtue.”

Then he shrugged. “Endurance Peak.”

Eloy grimaced and raised his hands in surrender before clapping them back onto the wheel when the road made a sharp right. “Keep driving forward,” he muttered, “I guess.”

Eloy left the radio on. He turned the static down and listened to the noises of the night. Crickets made a continuous symphony. An owl hooted. A clicking noise he couldn’t identify. Another bird? The road went on.

In time, Eloy saw a figure waving at the side of the road. Easy as pie. The virtuous thing to do is help. Score one for Eloy. Eloy pulled the car over and rolled his window down.

“What have you got that smug look on for?” snapped the woman. Her black hair framed her scowling face. She looked old, like, 35 or something.

“Excuse me?” Eloy asked, taken aback, “I could have sworn what you said just now was not ‘thank you for helping me.'”

“The fuck is your problem?” the woman shouted, “you think this is a joke?”

Eloy and the woman stared at each other, and the woman shouted, “Did you crash this!? Are you old enough to drive!? Are you planning to tell me what’s going on!?”

“What’s going on!?” screamed Eloy, not sure whether to be angry or terrified, “I don’t know what’s going on!”

But the woman had reached in the window and unlocked his door. Before he knew it, vice-grip strong hands were hauling him out of the van. He braced for impact with the pavement, but, without giving him a chance to escape, the woman laid him gently on the ground. Then she climbed in the driver’s seat.

“Are you stealing my van?” Eloy stammered, vaguely worried about what would happen if he tried to stand up.

“Hey, fuck you.” the woman jabbed a finger down at him from the van. “How dare you. I was in the middle of a presentation. There were executives in that audience. There were power-brokers in that audience. I was going to show everyone what a woman could do. There were little girls in that audience. What happens when a latina who worked her way up from nowhere starts to tell people who have been told all their lives they’re worth nothing – what happens when she’s just about to tell them they can be something, and then she ceases to exist! What kind of message does that send?”

Eloy had no idea what kind of message that would send. He chanced putting his arms under him and pushing up a bit to look at her. “I disappeared in the bus in front of school,” he offered.

“Don’t lie to me,” the woman did not seem as assured as before.

“I really don’t have anything else but that van. Could I at least sit in the back?”

The woman scowled. “You sit in the front,” she said, “so I can keep my eye on you.”

Eloy had to admit that he had been getting tired of driving. He leaned his seat back and yawned. He checked his watch – it was supposed to be 9:00 AM. The darkness was getting to him.

“Hey, what’s your name?” the woman asked.

Eloy shook the sleep from his head, “Eloy.”

“Hm, so you’re God’s chosen.”

Eloy sat upright, “what?”

The light from the headlights illuminated the outline of the woman’s face. “That’s what Eloy means. ‘God’s chosen'”

“Oh.” Eloy was surprised no one had ever told him what his name meant. “God’s Chosen” seemed a little on-the-nose. “What’s your name?”

The woman shrugged, “Angel.”

The van bumped over a large stick on the road. The radio murmured its quiet static.

“Fuck,” said Eloy, “are we gonna run into Jesus next?”

“That’s my Dad.”

Eloy’s face contorted as he mouthed “what?”

Angel chuckled, her mouth stretched painfully wide across her face.

“God is my mom,” Eloy blurted.

“Fuck you,” Angel managed between heaves of laughter.

“No, really.”

“I just see the future,” Angel said, “It’s like dreams, but they tell me what’s going to happen. The visions always tell me no one will believe me if I tell them what I saw, and they never do.”

Eloy doubled over in his seat. He could barely breathe.

Angel continued, “But seriously, your mom? Jesus is just my dad’s name. It’s a common one.”

“I don’t know.” Eloy kept laughing. He couldn’t exactly say what was so funny. Maybe the night had just got to him.

The van continued on through the darkness.


The Sympathetic Universe Part 11

“People always ask me,” said Reverend Boden in his characteristic long-short rhythm, “why does the world have suffering if God is all powerful and all good?”

Eloy blinked and looked down at his iPod. The display said “Red Hot Chili Peppers – Californication.” He rolled his eyes. Knowing his mom, He wouldn’t get to hear anything else through his earbuds until he was through this, so he set his jaw and got comfortable. Hopefully it would be done by the time he got to school and he wouldn’t have to pick it up again on the way back. He didn’t really mind Boden. Dad used to listen to him in the car and Eloy remembered falling asleep to his cadence. “PEOPLE… ALWAYS… ASK- ME- ….. WHY does the WORLD have SUFF-ER-ING if GOD is ALL POW-ER-FUL and ALL GOOD.”

“First I remind them that God is incapable of evil, for what He does is the definition of good. God is good, but more to the point good is God. They often want more than that.” Cue laughter from the congregation.

Eloy rolled his eyes. Mom was really laying it on thick today. He could put up with it. He had to admit he had enjoyed the attention he got after rescuing that old woman from the fire. The first responders were baffled at how he had apparently ambled in and led the woman out by a hand. The old woman, who’s name he had completely forgotten, had told everyone the fire just died down wherever he was about to walk. They didn’t believe her any more than they would believe him that she and her daughter hadn’t existed at all just days before.

“So, I tell them that they need to look beyond this world. We suffer as children when we learn we cannot take a sodapop from the store without paying for it. Our childish minds curse this cruel society that puts sodapop in our reach and then slaps it from our hands for so little reason.”

Eloy yawned and looked over at his busmates. The red-haired girl was hunched over a bulky green and purple copy of The Half-Blood Prince. Eloy guessed it could be any gigantic green and purple hardcover book, seeing as her wild hair blocked his view of most of the cover, but it was hard to imagine what else it could be. He restrained himself from the urge to shout “Snape kills Dumbledore!” She’d probably heard it a hundred times by now.

“But then we grow up and see the greater plan. With experience, we see the wisdom our parents wished to teach us, and the world makes sense again, all the better for the suffering of our youth. That’s what this world is to eternity. It is your soul’s childhood.”

Eloy experimentally turned his iPod off. He may as well save the battery. The sound didn’t stop. On a lark, he took his earbuds out.

“God gives you experiences now,” the reverend’s voice rang clear in his bare ears. Eloy glanced around, but no one else could hear, naturally.

“When my father killed himself, I asked God ‘why, God, what lesson should I learn from this?’ He said nothing, for the lessons of our soul’s childhood are not ones that can be taught, they have to come through living.”

A chill ran over Eloy. He didn’t know the reverend had lost his father, too. He probably didn’t, and this was just his mom using the reverend’s voice to manipulate him. Eloy slouched further. He fished the newspaper clipping out of his backpack. The one with the picture of him leading Wilma Duff out through the roaring flames. The article made no mention that Wilma had ever had a granddaughter.

“Sometimes,” Boden intoned more loudly, “people don’t want to LIST-EN to the voice of God. They drown it out with their petty worldly pride and forget that all of their successes were given to them through His holy grace.”

Eloy knew better than to try to talk to his mom out loud in public when she wasn’t there. He tried to think as loud as he could, “I get it, Mom! Can I please listen to my music now!?”

“God is not your mother, young man,” Boden’s voice snapped. Eloy froze. He felt the blood drain from his face. After a moment, the voice continued preaching, “We are all finite beings. We are all running out of time on this Earth. There comes a time in our lives when we realize those who guided us are gone, and now we have to guide ourselves and perhaps be the guide to others.”

Eloy realized his mouth was hanging open and closed it, “What do you mean, time is running out?” he thought.

The voice started speaking more quickly, “Your virtue is paramount, but the acts on this earth are immaterial. Practice virtue, but don’t expect reward. Virtue for its own sake.”

Eloy’s heart was pumping in his chest. Something very bad was happening, he was sure. The bus stopped at his school, but he stayed rooted to the seat. The reverend was now speaking so quickly that he could barely follow, “Pro-social… greatest need… the first stone… the least of these…”

For ten tense seconds, Eloy listened to sage advice pumped into his ear at light speed, utterly incomprehensible. Then it stopped.

Eloy was shaking. He felt like his heart was either beating at quadruple the normal rate or had stopped beating entirely. The bus was empty. The driver shouted, “Hey, Eloy, you gotta go to school!”

More silence. More than that, Eloy felt a chill. He felt like he had been living all his life under a warm blanket, and now with no warning, he was exposed to the January air.

No, he had been in someone’s arms his whole life, and now he wasn’t.

Now Eloy was on his own.


Steve Duke the bus driver was worried about Eloy. He’d had students who were too frightened of bullies or telling their teacher they hadn’t done the homework and wouldn’t get off the bus, but he had always pegged Eloy as more mature. What did a boy who sauntered casually into burning buildings have to fear at South Davis High school? Steve stood and walked back to Eloy’s seat. Then he scanned all the seats. He got down on his hands and knees and looked underneath them. Then he stood up, pulled off his baseball cap and scratched his head.

“Now where on God’s green earth could that boy have gone?”


The Sympathetic Universe Part 9

“C’mon, Eloy,” said Bert, “I’ve got your ID right here.”

“Cool, thanks!” Eloy took the id, “Hey, man, why does it say I’m 24? Shouldn’t 21 be enough?”

“21 is too exact, yo! It makes ’em suspicious!” Bert spoke with his whole body, throwing his hands in the air, his curly red hair bouncing as he bobbed his pale, freckled face up and down. He shone in the streetlights, like he was glow-in-the-dark.

“I don’t want to get in trouble, dude. My mother will get mad AF if she finds out.” Eloy didn’t want to disappoint Bert. He was literally the coolest friend he had ever gotten to hang out with. Every time someone remotely interesting came his way, he’d go right away again. His Mom nixing the deal was the best outcome. More often, something else even weirder happened. Freddy taught Eloy what “ass” meant in fifth grade, then became mysteriously allergic to his clothes or something. He couldn’t come near without breaking out into hives. Jack suggested he thought graffiti shouldn’t be a crime in middle school, then an hour later, his dad showed up in class and announced his decision to move the whole family to Iceland that afternoon. Wally offered Eloy a joint sophomore year, then just plain vanished. One kid insisted he saw his feet in the bathroom, and then he blinked and they weren’t there. He climbed under the locked door and just saw a half-smoked reefer floating in the bowl. Wally’s parents said they’d never had a child. Eloy felt vaguely guilty for putting Bert in so much danger, but the universe itself seemed to have made a pact with his overprotective mother, and he desperately needed to rebel.

“You’re 24 years old?” the bartender looked Eloy up and down.

“Ha ha, yeah, we get that all the time,” Bert jumped in, “he’ll have a Miller Lite.”

The bartender shrugged and pulled out a pint glass. Eloy’s adrenaline was racing. Was he finally going to get to do something bad? He watched the bartender fill it with frothy beer. Terrified that at any second the beer would disappear, the glass would shatter, or the entire bar would vanish and reappear in Quebec, he grabbed it the moment it hit the table and chugged it down.

It tasted like water. Eloy was underwhelmed. Bert was impressed. “Whoah, you’re a natural!” Bert downed a Coors

“Give me one of those,” Eloy said.

This one was bitter. That’s more like it!

Bert downed another Coors. Eloy had three more. Bert had two more, Eloy chugged another, and Bert followed suit.

“Am I drunk?” Eloy asked after a while.

Bert lifted a finger, swayed back, and jabbed it straight in front of Eloy’s eyes. “You, sir, are the heavyweight champion. Are you sure you’ve never had beer?” The pointing finger became an open hand that pressed against Eloy’s face as Bert used it for support.

“I’ll have another Coors,” said Eloy. The bartender gave it to him and he made as if to drink it, then he put it down. Fuck if his fucking magic mom wasn’t thwarting him again. “Bert, try this,” he said.

Bert guffawed and reached out to accept the beer. Instead, he fell off his stool. His head hit the bar top as he went down. “Fuck,” whispered Eloy.

“I’m ok,” Bert slurred from the floor, “could somebody help me get to the bathroom?”

Eloy didn’t know exactly the right thing to do, so he stayed with Bert while he threw up. So this was the new plan, huh? Just make sure fun things aren’t fun? This situation smacked keenly of the movie he’d just seen where the drunk guy’s friend takes his keys. So this was another learning opportunity, huh, Mom?

“Bert, give me the keys. I’m driving us home. I’ll take an Uber from your place.”

Bert raised his head, his face somehow even paler than before, “Yeah… yeah, man. You’re a good friend.”

Eloy sighed, defeated again.

“Do you think God has a plan for us?” asked Bert in the car.

I think God has a very particular plan for me, because my mom is God. Eloy knew he couldn’t tell anyone that.

“My mom says God just made the universe to run on its own like a big clock. He doesn’t have any particular plan for any of us.”

“I don’t care what your mom thinks, dude. What do you think?”

“You know what I think? I think she’s full of shit. God arranges our lives as learning experiences to prepare us to be better people. God is a micromanaging fuck.”

Bert guffawed, “I take it back what I said about holding your beer. God, maybe I should try Miller Lite.”

Eloy’s wristwatch said it was half past one in the morning. He pushed the door one millimeter at a time. Five seconds in, he heard a voice, “Just open it the rest of the way, Eloy Geoffrey Addison. I promise you won’t get more grounded than you already are.”

Mom didn’t like being called out on her witchcraft. The last time he tried to confront her she said she was going to send him to a psychologist. The next day she acted like nothing had happened. When he brought it up, she even played dumb. It was the only time he’d seen her play dumb, and she was good. You’d think she really had selective amnesia.

When he pressed her she got upset and told him she’d never said it before, but this time she really would send him to a psychologist. After she sent him to his room, she just left him in there for hours until he called down the stairs to complain and she said “I never sent you to your room.” After that, he had just stopped talking to her about it. He couldn’t handle the craziness.

Eloy couldn’t play Gamecube when he was grounded, nor could he visit friends. Mom and Dad were too cheap to buy cable internet and they didn’t like the phone tied up, so internet surfing on the dial-up was out of the question. He sat on the couch watching staticky TV.  As Spiderman, Tobey Maguire rushed into a burning building to save an old woman, only to learn that she was in fact his nemesis, Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin. Adventure ensued. Eloy sighed.

The next day walking to school, Eloy saw a curious sight. One of the houses was on fire. Great billowing flames lit the pre-dawn twilight. He snorted and kept walking. He couldn’t be late for first period.

“Help!” Eloy heard a voice and looked all around to see where it was coming from, “my grandmother’s in there!”

Nobody was saying it. Mom was just using her witchcraft and summoning voices. Eloy kept walking. “Help!” said the voice again. A woman was behind him now, “My grandmother is in there! Can’t you help!?”

Eloy sighed and slouched, “Fine.” He began to trudge toward the fire.

She had better not be Willem Dafoe.

The Sympathetic Universe Part 8

When The Entity reset its universe it noticed that the comet was still arriving in the same location and preventing Ta’s tribe from being attacked. Did The Cousin change the initial conditions? The Entity checked, and they were the same. It was not going to give The Cousin the satisfaction of knowing it had outsmarted it.

The Entity moved into a four-dimensional view, just to see if it could see something else it had missed. The whole path of the comet was according to the rules. It noticed something else, though, at the other end of time. The radioactive wasteland a few short aeons into the development of Sapiens was no more.

Looking more closely, The Entity saw that all of history was different. Some of the patterns worked out the same, but the names and dates were completely different. Now, in this version of the universe, nuclear disaster threatened, but was narrowly averted. It threatened again, and was narrowly averted. It seemed as if by sheer coincidence that sneaky cousin had nudged its universe onto a path where the dominant species just happened to make it through the most dangerous phase of its existence.

It still wasn’t going to tell The Cousin, but maybe it didn’t need to fix this comet issue. Since all the lives were different, it would even open up another batch of stories to live. Human stories were so popular, the one entity per person rule had turned out to be a serious limiting factor. There was always an entity ready to inhabit a mortal.

To limit the pressure on his universe to provide more people for entities to inhabit, The Entity had doubled down on its policy of letting other entities copy its universe and do whatever they liked with their own versions. This led to some very strange spinoff universes. Most common was an entity who wasn’t satisfied with how their life turned out.

Now The Entity had multi-layer rule protection and emergency shutoff mechanisms that stopped the universe and kicked out everyone living a life in it if anyone attempted to make an illegal change. It also identified the guilty party in an automatic mass message to let everyone know whose fault it is that they had abruptly been ejected from their physical journeys. After that, three more entities tried to save their unjustly executed children,  their prematurely perished parents and their cancer-stricken golden retriever respectively. Each was in short order cowed into a meek reassertion of the hand The Entity’s reality had dealt them, and then there were no more violations.

Its punishment scheme seemed so effective that The Entity didn’t even see the need to ban these three entities. However, each one took its offer to make their own universe where things were not quite so random and, well, cruel. Others followed suit. These were so common that they became a class unto themselves. “Guided universes” were ones where the entity on the outside behaved as a closely interested deity, making deliberate tweaks here and there as it saw fit.

For the most part, a guiding entity was satisfied just to help the people close to the mortal whose life it had lived. Occasionally an ambitious guiding entity would instead seek to create a utopia, ending all suffering for everyone within its universe. Some entities questioned the point of this, as these private universes seldom had any entities inhabiting them at all. Did the mortals in these universes even experience anything without entities in them doing the experiencing for them? “Kindness is wasted on an empty body.” became an aphorism among entities attempting to dissuade each other from trying to make utopias.

Why it was so important to so many entities that no one try to care about empty mortals for their own sake was an open question. The entity who created the first physical universe was now known for its obsessive protection of it from tampering and behind its back was called “Leave My Universe Alone,” or Lmua for short. Lmua’s position that consciousness only lay in entities had not even been a position before. It had just been taken for granted. It may well have made entities making their own universes uncomfortable to think that the “empty bodies” they were making actually felt and thought what they looked like they were feeling and thinking. For one thing, it might implicate them in some moral transgression to create such suffering, but for another, even the idea of a finite existence was inherently frightening.

So, an entity guiding a universe to maximize the happiness of its residents was frowned upon and rare. Those who did try it found themselves flummoxed by a human’s unfailing ability to be miserable even in the most pleasant circumstances. Entities that edited their mortals to not do this found they behaved much like entities that edited themselves to be always happy. An entity with an entire universe of satisfied humans laying on their feather mattresses in unending meditative joy can only remain interested for so long. At best, they leave that universe to its blissful stasis and move on to another project.

The most ambitious entities, through trial and error, struggled to make beings that will always be happy, but also will interact with each other in interesting ways, grow, and create art. To this day, they may still be trying to make such a being.

The Sympathetic Universe Part 7

The night was warm, and Ta was out underneath the stars. Ko was spending the evening with the other girls, and Ta was weaving baskets while Da nursed. After a moment, Da let go and looked up. He looked back and hit Ta on her chest with a tiny hand. “What,” asked Ta, “what is it?”

Da pointed up, and there was no mistaking what he wanted Ta to see. A brilliant arc strode across the night sky. It looked as if Ko had found a glowing white paint and drawn it there herself. Ta stared in wonder, Da babbling nonsense and hitting her and pointing and her hands weaving baskets on their own without need for her to even look.

The next day, the mood was different. The chief, always energetic, seemed to have even more of a spring in his step than usual. He shouted to call the tribe for a meeting. “Last night, many of you saw the sign from the Great Crocodile,” he boomed, to shouts and cheers. Ta cheered with them, holding Da’s little arm to show him how to shake it in triumph. Ko seemed to have learned something from her friends the other night – she put her hands to her face and howled like a wolf.

“A brilliant white mammoth tusk in the sky, pointing to the west. The Great Moon Crocodile has spoken – we must move west to the land of the mammoths! More mammoths, more food!”

The crowd’s response to this was mixed. Ta found the Moon Crocodile’s message strange. There were still more than enough mammoths here to feed the whole tribe for moons to come, and she had never seen her baskets so full of nuts and berries since they had moved here. Ko would be sad to leave her rhinoceros painting behind, but she could draw another one.

Over the next week, the tribe traveled west. Ta hated travel because she had to manage the transport of all her baskets and spears. When some got broken or left behind, which they always did, she had to work through the night to replace and fix them. She didn’t interpret the Moon Crocodile’s will, though, and it would not serve anyone well for her to be left behind, so she went along with them.

Eventually, the chief proclaimed that the tribe had arrived at “the land of the mammoths.” Ta didn’t see much difference from where they had left, but Ko drew an antelope on their new cave wall and it felt like home. Ta’s cautious nature helped her live a long and rich life. As Ko and Da grew into productive tribe members themselves, Ta grew to be a village elder, and her sage advice encouraged the tribe to become less nomadic and take advantage of staying in one place at least until the food began to get scarce. There was a scare when Ko came close to her deathbed in childbirth, but, thank the Great Moon Crocodile, surrounded by the love of her family and her friends she had known all her life, she pulled through.

Ta passed away at eighty six years of age surrounded by her great grandchildren and the countless people who she had helped during her long life. From far away outside time and space, The Entity looked on in consternation.

“WHO ALTERED MY UNIVERSE?” The message went out to everyone in the family, tinged with livid rage in a way not describable to one with only human senses. Just imagine that looking at seemingly ordinary text on a page you feel as if you are being screamed at. The text itself looks like it wants to bite your jugular out and leave you to bleed to death on the floor despite looking no different from any other text on your computer. You don’t want to look at it too long for the irrational fear that you might spontaneously combust.

By the time The Entity had noticed the break, over ten million cousins had taken trips through mortal lifetimes, many had taken thousands of trips. It did not go unnoticed, though, that Ta’s life had just happened to be much longer and more fulfilling. In fact, it was when Ta’s murderer complained that he never even got to meet Ta, let alone murder her, that The Entity had first realized something was wrong.

The Entity didn’t get a reply immediately. It doubted anyone had ever received an angry message in such a literal way before, and they probably were in doubt of how, or whether, to respond. It rewound the universe to see why the tribes never met. Here at this moment Ta’s tribe decided to move west for no apparent reason. The Entity took a low-level bird’s eye view of the action when it saw the tribe gathering. One man standing on a rock told them that the Great Moon Crocodile wanted them to go west. He wanted to because of a “sign” from the Crocodile that many had apparently seen last night.

Back up to last night. People are out, they’re looking up. Ok, let’s flip over and see what’s in the sky. A comet. Where did the comet come from? Move to the comet. Rewind, follow the comet’s trajectory, looking for it to wink out of existence or take an unexpected turn. The comet’s origin was when it formed from the meandering gas of the solar system. Then it flies a wide ellipse around the sun, occasionally coming near a planet and swinging into a different path. After a swing around Uranus it heads on its path leading to Earth, where a little over a year and a month later it makes the brilliant display in the sky that leads Ta’s tribe to wander a different direction. Everything looked to be in order except that the comet should not be causing anyone to move west and change the course of prehistory.

“I know you did this,” came an icy message from The Entity. Ta felt a chill wash over her reading it. She had never thought to include feelings in messages before and sent an innocent “did what?” with as much sweetness as she could muster.

“You know what. Now I have to restart the whole universe.” The disgust hung on every word.

“That sounds frustrating,” Ta sympathized, amping up the sweetness until it was like a whole mouthful of honey straight from a beehive.

“They’re going to die no matter what you do, Cousin. You may have lost your senses, but I can just keep restarting the universe as many times as I need to. You’re completely banned from even looking at it.”

Ta didn’t respond. After she figured out that her tribe would respond to a comet, she had taken only twenty-two tries to add an infinitesimal adjustment to one each time it rounded a planet. Enough adjustments later its course was dramatically changed, and her children were saved. When the Entity reset the universe, a set of rules inside its domain but outside of the universe would apply the same adjustments Ta had worked out. If The Entity found and disabled that, there was another one hidden elsewhere. Ta had constructed four hundred and fifty five thousand two hundred and seventy one such automated adjustment mechanisms hidden throughout The Entity.

Beyond that, she would just have to hope that it gave up finding them all and put up with Da living. She could satisfy herself that she had done all she could.

Meanwhile, in Ta’s own personal universe, she enjoyed another warm night under the stars. “Mommy,” asked the nine year old Da, wincing as Ta applied yellowroot to his scraped knee, “Why do bad things happen?”

The mortal Ta had dismissed this question, “The Great Moon Crocodile tests us in this life.” Ta chose to do something different this time. She took Ko’s face in her hands, “Bad things happen because people let them, my sweet baby Da,” she whispered, “Your mother will never let anything bad happen to you.”

The Sympathetic Universe Part 6

It was strange watching her own life play out before her, but Ta experimented with her duplicate universe, playing out possibility after possibility.

Don’t change anything before Da is born. The smallest tweak can prevent a pregnancy or change the children completely. You can’t save them if they don’t exist at all. Obviously, you can’t make a change after Da’s death if you want to do any good, so that limits the realm of possible changes to a span of a few years.

What could save Ta? Would it be simple to engineer the aggressive tribe never running into Ta’s tribe at all? Ta knew the tribe had a shaman that consulted goat bones tossed in the air. She had been surprised to know there was nothing guiding how they fell besides a few simple rules like gravity and momentum.

But what if something did guide them? She couldn’t do anything like moving the bones directly, that would be caught and reversed immediately. However, what if she could change the way they were thrown until a configuration came up that led the shaman to choose a different path?

Something as simple as sneaking a little serotonin out of the shaman’s brain that morning could be enough to slow him down and change how he threw the bones. Then she’d run her universe until she saw him say to go somewhere else, or if he said the same thing, she’d reset, change something else, and hope for the best.

After 100,000 tries, Ta realized that the shaman was a hack. Seemingly no configuration of bones had any effect on his decision.

This was especially frustrating because it was contrary even to his own conscious thought process. No matter where the bones fell he found a different interpretation and was utterly convinced he had divined the will of the spirits. The ultimate conclusion of his interpretation was always the same and, since Ta was now the closest thing to a spirit actually intervening in this universe, always wrong.

As the shaman delivered the decision to move south towards Ta’s tribe for the one hundred thousand and second time, Ta summoned a confluence of electrons above his head and watched a bolt of lightning strike him dead. While the tribe stared in confusion at their wise man’s smoking remains, Ta reset her universe once more.

Ta glowered at the tribe performing its morning ritual for the 100,003rd time. She watched the man who had killed her swiping at his friend with a club. As he had thousands of times before, the friend caught the blow with his own club and pushed her killer down. Her killer tumbled and leapt from the ground back at him, laughing. These guys were always fighting, and they would go on to defeat her tribe with inferior weaponry and kill her and doom her son to premature death once more.

Well, this time they wouldn’t. She summoned a mountain six feet above the tribe and watched it fall and crush them with an earth-shaking thud. As for the real tribe, she would just have to find another way to stop them.

The Sympathetic Universe Part 5

Breaking the rules would be the easy part. Ta understood as well as everyone else that rules were only inviolable to the extent that no one was particularly motivated to violate them. The trick was keeping the break there. If the master of the universe noticed, it would certainly be reversed, and no doubt harder to break again next time.

“It was a singular experience,” Ta told the Entity, “I was utterly convinced by the little system’s world and her motives.”

Without intervention, this is how the story played out after Ta’s death. Ko waited until she realized her mother wasn’t returning, then she ventured out, alternating foraging for sustenance and searching the caves for Da. It wasn’t until a few weeks in that she found Da’s body huddled in the back of a particularly twisted passage, the skin dry and taut beneath her fingers. After that, Ko left and found another tribe who valued her spear-making skills enough to keep her until she died in childbirth several years later.

“Do you think other entities would benefit from this experience?” asked The Entity.

“Yes,” Ta agreed, “I recommend the experience for all.”

In early universes, you couldn’t hide a break. They were so simple, it would be like if she tried to add an extra horn to Ko’s rhinoceros she had drawn on the wall. No one could miss an extra line in a painting made of five or six to begin with, especially if they admired it and rubbed it for luck every day like Ko did.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” asked The Entity.

“Isn’t what beautiful?” Ta asked.

“The immensity of it all. So much feeling in so little space. So many lives beginning and ending. Think of the joys we may not have ever experienced without knowing suffering. To think we could have never known true poignancy.”

“Yes.” said Ta. She manifested a mouth and ground so she could spit on it. The Entity had a painting of one hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion strokes constantly in motion. More importantly, The Entity had already admitted that it couldn’t keep track of it all at once. Ta just needed to make a change that would save her children and then be swallowed up in the chaos unobserved.

The Entity spoke again, “Cousin, there are forty entities who want to be Ko, thirty-six who want to be Da, fifty who have identified another villager in that tribe, a hundred who want to be members of the conquering tribe, and a hundred and fifty who also want to be Ta.”

Ta’s blood ran cold. Even though she didn’t have any blood now, having lived in a body made you experience feelings differently. “No,” she said without thinking.

“You think I should limit it to one entity per person?”

Ta was tempted to say no one else in that section of the universe should get an entity at all, but she knew she couldn’t defend that without giving herself away. She considered the merits of fifty other Tas also vying to save her kids, but thought better of it. Secrecy was paramount. Numbers would not help.

“One entity per person,” Ta agreed.

“I’ll set up a lottery,” said The Entity.

Ta felt empty inside. Despite the eminent sensibility of letting no experience go to waste, the idea that her eternal cousins would draw lots for the experience of murdering her in cold blood and orphaning her children horrified her. What was more – how could she quietly save Da with a hundred entities watching?

Ta created a small reality. She was deep in a cave laying on soft animal furs. dancing flames lighting her and baby Da on her breast. She listened to the soft clatter of Ko throwing and retrieving her spear. She breathed in deeply – the smell of her child’s hair, the fragrance of duck fat dripping onto burning wood. She did not know how to tell her cousin The Entity – it was better here. The concerns of a human were petty and meaningless, but to embrace that emptiness was worse.

Ta watched Ko – it wasn’t really Ko. Ta willed the illusion to switch to practicing her art. To do so betrayed the fakeness of it all and her heart fell into her stomach. As Ko started a circle that would become a mammoth, Ta mulled over her options.

She could forget herself and return to being The Cousin. This was the worst option. Despite everything she knew, abandoning Da to his fate felt fundamentally wrong, a concept alien to Ta before she had been mortal.

She could alter her own feelings and simply choose to be happy. It seemed marginally better to keep the memory of Da and Ko alive if she couldn’t help them. She knew what happened to entities who chose to be happy, though. It seldom worked only partway, and she wouldn’t likely keep much motivation to do anything at all. It felt almost like committing suicide herself.

Ko completed her mammoth. She would never love it like her rhinoceros, but it still made Ta feel at home.

Ta could take The Entity’s offer to copy its universe and make whatever changes she liked to her own version. It would be easy to pretend that her copied Ko and Da were her real children, but she would be saving no one. In the back of her mind, she’d always know it was a lie. One of Ta’s father’s sayings – he was full of sayings that he offered while they wove baskets together – was that the worst lie was that told by the coward to comfort himself.

No – Ta would have to break the Entity’s universe and save her children. She couldn’t do it like she had planned, though – the evil men abruptly fall dead, the tribe’s spears strike true with every thrust, Ko never loses track of Da. None of these would escape the notice of entities watching from outside once and living it a second time. No matter how she managed it, they would certainly notice Ta’s failure to die.

Perhaps, though, she could prevent them from sussing out the reason. If the chain of events leading up to Ta’s botched murder was long and abstruse enough, no one could track down the break and fix it. Then there would be no way to force Ta to die without the Entity either breaking its own rules by changing something else or running the reality over again from scratch. The former would not happen, so she would only have to plan for the latter scenario. All she had to do now was use some trial and error to come up with precisely the right break.

Ta reached out to The Entity. “Dear Cousin, would you mind helping me construct a copy of your lovely universe?”