Category Archives: Writing

Daddy, Are You Dying?

“I can’t see the stars,” I said.

I was talking about the glow-in-the-dark dots on my son’s new space-themed pajamas. He was excited about them, as only a two-year-old could be, and he wanted to show them off to me. But they were invisible to my eyes.

“Why?” he asked.

I thought for a moment. I would probably be able to see them in a few seconds, once my eyes had adjusted to the darkness; but it also occurred to me that my sight just wasn’t as good as it used to be. Eliot’s was better.

“My eyes aren’t as good as yours,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

Once more, I paused.

“Because my eyes are old,” I said at last.

Why are your eyes old?” he asked.

“Because I’m old!” I said.

This time, Eliot was the one who paused. During the silence, I began to make out the stars on his shirt, but I couldn’t see the expression on his face as he looked at me, processing what I’d just told him. When he finally answered, his voice was much quieter and more serious than it had been just moments before.

“You’re dying,” he said.

I stared into the darkness. He was only two. He had seen plants and flowers die, but as far as I knew, he’d had no cause to think about people dying. Had someone told him about the connection between old age and dying, or had he just known? I suddenly had a spooky feeling that perhaps Eliot’s mind was connected to some well of universal truth—a source we all begin life connected to but then lose touch with as we grow out of childhood.

“Daddy, are you dying?” he asked.

“No, buddy,” I said. Not yet.

After we said good night and I closed his bedroom door, I couldn’t get his little voice out of my head. Daddy, are you dying? Just how much did he know?

It wasn’t until the next morning, as I was walking him to the playground, that I would get another hint as to what was going on in his mind.

“Daddy,” he said, “I don’t like you.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you’re old.”

I laughed, even though it actually hurt a little.

“Well,” I said, “when you get old, I will still like you.”

He looked up at me, eyes narrowed.

“No,” he said. “I will still like you.”

A moment later, he was running toward the slide.

Your Dream Lives On

I’m proud to share “Your Dream Lives On,” a new song that I recently completed. You can watch the music video on YouTube (below) or buy the mp3 here.

If you like it, please support my creative endeavors by purchasing the mp3 (It’s only one dollar!):

olenrambow.bandcamp.com

If you want the sheet music, click here to download it.

And here are the lyrics:

She was just a little girl,
Dreamin’ bigger than she knew she should.
She’d seen how cold the world could be
And had in mind to change it if she could.

She said, “I’m gonna sing the song that will save the world.
I’m gonna speak the words that will heal our souls.
I’m gonna light the fire that will burn away the darkness.
I’m gonna lead the march that will make us whole.”

Well, life made her a widow
With a baby boy to bring up on her own.
And she spent all of her energy
Providing for that boy till he left home.

And all too soon, the years had slipped away,
And she lay dying in her bed.
As the tears were streaming down her cheeks,
She looked me in the eye, and then she said:

“I searched so hard but never found
Those healing words. I never sang that song.
I never lit that fire, never led the march,
And now my dream is gone.”

And I told her, “Mama, your dream will never die.
I watched you live your life. You made me who I am.
I heard you sing your song and saw you lead the march.
You lit the fire inside of me, and so your dream lives on.”

“And now I’m gonna sing the song that will save the world.
I’m gonna speak the words that will heal our souls.
I’m gonna light the fire that will burn away the darkness.
I’m gonna lead the march that will make us whole.”

Well, that was forty years ago,
And now it’s time for me to go as well.
As the tears come streaming down my cheeks,
I take my daughter’s hand, and then I say:

“I searched so hard but never found
Those healing words. I never sang that song.
I never lit that fire, never led the march,
And now the dream is gone.”

And she says, “Daddy, your dream will never die.
I watched you live your life. You made me who I am.
I heard you sing your song and saw you lead the march.
You lit the fire inside of me, and so your dream lives on.”

“And now, I’m gonna sing the song that will save the world.
I’m gonna speak the words that will heal our souls.
I’m gonna light the fire that will burn away the darkness.
I’m gonna lead the march that will make us whole.”

“I’m gonna sing the song that will save the world.
I’m gonna speak the words that will heal our souls.
I’m gonna light the fire that will burn away the darkness.
I’m gonna lead the march that will make us whole.”

‘Cause she was just a little girl,
Dreaming bigger than she knew she should.

Life, the Universe, and Everything

matrix

(Click here for the PDF version of this presentation.)

Math is everywhere, hidden in places where we don’t even expect to see it. For example, take a look at the following image:

Slide2

What do you see?

Most people say “music.” People who have studied the piano might recognize this as a piano score. And a true enthusiast might recognize it as the third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

What you’ve probably never thought of before, though, is that a musical score is actually a form of graph. It tells the performer what combination of notes to play at a given moment in time. In other words, it shows sound as a function of time.

In the image below, I’ve added labeled axes to draw attention to this:moonlight_sonata_graph

Now consider a photograph. Below is one of the most spectacular images I found when Googling “photograph.” (Thanks to whoever posted it!) I love how it shows the strings of mucus frozen in time.

tiger_photo

Anyway, a photograph itself is also just a type of graph — and not just metaphorically. In fact, even the way images are produced in our brains is just a way of numerically graphing the intensity and frequency of light that falls on different portions of our retinas. In essence, your retina is the x-y plane and the light is the quantity being graphed.

Below is what the photograph looks like when graphed in three dimensions from different angles, with the colors changed to a different color scale:

tiger_photo_graphs_1

Now here is the same graph when viewed from directly above, so that the tiger is easier to make out:
tiger_photo_graphs_2

Here’s another example of a great photo:
frog_photo

And here it is with the same procedure applied to it. This one works a little better than the tiger because it isn’t filled with little white spots that end up looking like noisy spikes in the graph.frog_photo_graphs_1

Below is the graph when viewed from directly above, just as I did for the tiger. Pretty cool, huh?frog_photo_graphs_2

Now consider something that really seems to have nothing to do with math: a piece of literature. Below is the first paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.
Tale_of_2_cities

It, too, can be considered as a type of graph. It’s a graph that tells the reader what words to speak or think as a function of time:Tale_of_2_cities_graphThere are, of course, many other examples of graphs:

footballstragety

What I’m saying is that anything can be thought of as a kind of graph. Really, though, it’s not just graphs that are so powerful, but numbers themselves. This is because numbers encode information. For example, an entire song can be encoded in a single number. So can a photograph, or even a movie.

What’s particularly fascinating is that physicists now believe that physical reality itself is composed of information. In fact, the universe might even be digital. And since numbers encode information, it is possible that the entire universe could be represented by a single number.

Take a minute to meditate on that.

universe

If that’s true, then there’s only one thing we can conclude…

matrix_drop_math_is_everything

* * * * *

This post is based on a PowerPoint presentation I made for my math students in an attempt to inspire them. Here it is in PDF form:

Math Is Everything (PDF version)

To Become a God (A Short Story)

Jesus

Professor Sid Weaver paused briefly, his finger hovering over a deceptively nondescript button. When pressed, it would send him on what was sure to be the greatest journey ever undertaken by a human, one that would rewrite history. Very soon—or a long time ago, rather—he was going to become an emperor. No, a god.

Maybe I’m Jesus, he thought.

He chuckled. Coming from anyone else, that thought would have been a sure symptom of lunacy. But for Sid, the idea that he might be Christ was no psychotic delusion; it was a very real possibility. He could actually be Jesus—the historical Jesus, not a mere imposter.

Only time will tell.

He laughed a little harder at this second thought, wheezing with delight. It was a marvelous pun. Or maybe it was some other literary device. It didn’t matter; he was a physicist, not a writer. The important point was that Sid’s fate—and the world’s—hinged on time; and time was quite literally in his hands.

The button beneath his fingertip controlled what was, in trite words, a “time machine.” It was nothing like those silly things depicted in novels or films, of course. It wasn’t shaped like a rocket or a shuttle; it didn’t have flashing lights, propellers, or any kind of engine; and it didn’t even move. Rather, it was an assembly of high-voltage field generators that filled the three-story laboratory at Stanford that he shared with his colleague, Ken Phelps.

The government, which had funded the machine’s construction, believed it to be a device for generating and observing microscopic black holes for the purpose of developing a better understanding of the big bang. And indeed, it was capable of doing so. Sid and Ken had published several papers together on the topic. But its true purpose—of which even Ken was unaware—was time travel.

From the beginning, Sid’s plan had been quite simple. He would travel ten thousand years into the past, impress the ancients with his knowledge and technology, and set himself up as the greatest god in all of history. He would introduce them to the magic—and it was magic, truly—of the written alphabet, the internal combustion engine, and the electric power generator.

Of course, it wouldn’t do to remain among troglodytes indefinitely; eventually, he would miss the comforts of modernity. No, Sid’s ultimate goal was to rule the future, not the past. Thus, at the peak of his glory, he would orchestrate his own “ascension” to the spirit world. In reality, of course, he would merely be traveling back through time to his home century—arriving at precisely the moment foretold in the prophecies that he himself would leave behind for his primitive subjects.

That was plan A, at any rate. The other option was to go back and assume the identity of an already-known god—Jesus being the obvious choice. That’s what he would be forced to do if Ken’s theory about the immutability of time turned out to be correct. It was something they had argued about on many occasions. If that was the case, Sid would assume the identity of Jesus, and the Second Coming would be his moment of glory.

He fervently hoped that his first plan worked, though, if for no other reason than the fact that becoming Jesus would require significantly more work. One couldn’t simply show up in ancient Galilee and preach sermons in Aramaic and Hebrew without considerable study and preparation. Learning the culture would be as important as learning the language. Who knew how long such preparations would take? No, his first plan was by far the better option.

Confident in his decision, Sid adjusted the straps of his hiking backpack, double-checked the safety on his AR-15, and pressed the button on the control panel. The time machine’s high-voltage electronics hummed, and within seconds, he felt his body begin to disintegrate.

A moment later—and ten thousand years earlier—Sid was standing in a prairie, surrounded by grass that was nearly as tall as he was. The air was clean and humid, and the ground beneath his feet was solid. Yes. He was on Earth—at the surface. That was important; tracking the Earth’s motion over a period of ten thousand years had been crucial. After all, it would have been a sad end to his grand scheme if he had found himself floating in space, millions of miles and thousands of years from home. Not a good way to die.

Time to get started, he thought.

Choosing a direction, he took his rifle in hand and switched off the safety, reminding himself that he must be prepared at all times. Wild beasts were sure to abound, though perhaps the greatest threat would be humans. He would have to approach them carefully when it was time to make contact. But for now, his first order of business was to set up a camp.

* * * * *

Erg peak through brush and see strange man move at edge of forest. Maybe not man. Maybe monster. Monster-Man wear strange skins, have strangely-cut hair, bare face. Monster-Man wear giant bag on back and carry straight, black branch in hand.

Erg follow Monster-Man at safe distance. Monster-Man come to stop in stupid location near bear den. Monster-Man examine ground in surrounding area, take giant bag off back, and sit down. Monster-Man remove round box from giant bag, hold box to mouth, and tip head back. Perhaps round box contain water, Erg think.

Monster-Man stand up again. Monster-Man put straight, black branch behind back, using flat skin strap. Then Monster-Man begin gather wood. Much time pass, and Monster-Man make big pile of wood. Sun begin to set. Erg grow hungry but continue to watch Monster-Man. Monster-Man sit down again and remove small bag from inside of giant bag. From small bag, Monster-Man remove item and put in mouth. Small bag contain food, Erg realize. Erg stomach growl.

As Erg watch, bear emerge from den. Monster-Man not notice at first, and bear approach Monster-Man from behind. But then bear make noise, and Monster-Man turn to see bear. Monster-Man panic and run backwards. Bear growl and stand on rear legs. Monster-Man fumble straight, black branch off of back. Monster-Man point branch at bear. Bear come down on four legs and run toward Monster-Man.

BANG!

Strange thunder roar. Small flash of light. Bear stop. Bear on ground, not moving. Monster-Man stand, panting, pointing black branch at bear. Bear still not move. Monster-Man look around warily. Perhaps check for other bear.

More time pass, and Monster-Man clear small space on ground and build small stack of wood from big pile. Then Monster-Man remove small box from giant bag and kneel beside stack of wood. Monster-Man open box and take out small stick. Monster-Man move suddenly and stick catch on fire. Erg stare in awe as Monster-Man hold small burning stick at bottom of stack of wood. Fire spread. Fire big now.

Monster-Man now remove sharp, shiny tool from bag and approach bear. Monster-Man kneel beside bear and begin to cut. Erg begin to think as Erg watch Monster-Man. Erg want Monster-Man’s power. Start fire. Kill bear with branch. Erg silently approach Monster-Man from behind. Erg’s heart beat loud and fast. Erg’s fear very strong.

Erg take quiet breath and raise club over head. Erg slam down club on Monster-Man’s head. Monster-Man scream loudly. Monster-Man scramble halfway to feet, turn to look at Erg. Monster-Man’s eyes full of terror. Erg swing club again, crush Monster-Man’s head second time.

Swing club hard! Crush! Crush!

Erg finally stop crushing Monster-Man’s head. Erg look down at Monster-Man. Monster-Man no longer move. Head broken. Blood on ground. Erg now have all of Monster-Man’s tremendous power. Erg celebrate by yelling and jumping so high.

After some time, Erg calm down. Erg examine Monster-Man’s things.

Monster-Man took fire-starter from small box. Where was box? Erg search. Yes. There. Erg pick up box and shake. Box rattle like snake tail. Startled, Erg drop box. Box fall open and small sticks spill out onto ground. Erg pick up one stick and examine it. Stick have small red ball at one end. Maybe fire magic in red ball, Erg think. Erg pick up sticks and put them back in box.

Then Erg turn attention to straight, black branch. Memory of thunder and fire coming out of branch strong in Erg’s mind. Memory of dying bear strong too. Erg pick up branch and examine it. Branch cold to touch in some places. Thin, flat length of animal skin hang from branch. Erg touch small hook on branch. Hook move.

Thunder roar suddenly. Branch jump out of Erg’s hands and land on ground. Erg run away in fear but then stop and turn around. Branch sitting still on ground. Quiet now. Smoke curl upward from end of branch. Erg’s heart beat fast again. Slowly, Erg approach branch.

Erg pick up branch. Erg look at smoke coming from end of branch. Erg notice branch hollow on inside. Erg look inside end of branch. Erg look at small hook again. Erg look inside end of branch and move small hook again.

* * * * *

Ken took his place at the time machine’s controls. He knew where—or when, rather—Sid had gone. Sid may have thought that his plans were secret, but he was far more transparent than he believed. He had given everything away during their debates about the mutability of history. Whereas Sid believed that one could go back and change the past, Ken knew it to be impossible; and so Ken had concocted the superior plan.

It was going to be the biggest irony the world had ever known. Ken knew perfectly well that there was no god. And yet, when he returned to the modern age to fulfill the prophecies, he would convince the world—atheists included—that those fools, the Christians, were right. They were idiots for believing that Jesus would return within their lifetime, but that was exactly what was going to happen. Getting around the crucifixion would be tricky, of course, but he had a plan.

After years of study—carried out within the space of a month, thanks to the time machine—Ken was ready to execute his plan. In time, he would be enjoying his millennial reign. He would likely die in far less than a thousand years, of course—he hadn’t yet found a way to achieve true immortality via time travel—but until then he would be the King of Kings. Ken smiled to himself at the thought.

I am Jesus,” he said in Aramaic.

Then, without hesitation, he pressed the button on the control panel and braced himself for the familiar sensation of disintegration. He had years of work to do yet—one could not build a following overnight, of course—but in the end, it would be worth it. He was going to become a god.

The Window in the Luggage (A Short Story)

Suitcase-black

I wake up. A sense of wrongness twists my gut, but as I look around my bedroom, I see nothing out of place. My clothes and books are strewn about as usual, and there on the floor lies my suitcase, a black Rockland carry-on.

That’s right. Just yesterday, I was relaxing in the beryl waters of Destin.

I realize what’s making me uneasy. The time I spent on the beach is clear in my mind; but I don’t remember coming home. I sift through my memories, searching for the most recent one. The hotel lobby. Rushing to the airport. And then… nothing.

I roll out of bed and stumble over to my suitcase. Up close, I see that it’s green, not black. And it’s not Rockland. I stare for a moment, and it sinks in that this isn’t my bag.

While my mind clumsily processes the situation, my hands move of their own accord. Thumb and forefinger find a zipper and slide it all the way around. Then, with both hands, I open the case and look inside.

I have just enough time to register neat stacks of men’s clothing before the suitcase is gone and I find myself looking through the eyes of an unfamiliar man. I am the man, and I’m talking to a clerk in a store.

“Ohio State?” the clerk asks.

“That’s right,” I say. “Red. With an ‘O’ on it.”

“You realize we’re in Florida, right?”

“Yeah. But my daughter’s graduating from Ohio State, and I’d like a hat.”

“I guess I can order one for you.”

“I’d appreciate that,” I say, reaching for my wallet.

Back in my bedroom, I close the suitcase and stare at it. It’s different now. It’s small and blue, with a cartoon clownfish on it. What’s happening? Even as I think the question, my hands reach out, unbidden, and open the new case.

I’m a little boy.

“Are you ready, Aiden?” my mom asks.

“Yeah.” My chest swells; I’ve packed my own suitcase for the first time.

“Let me see.” Mom opens the Nemo case and examines the contents. “Shorts, shirts, socks, underpants. Good. You’re missing something, though.”

“What?”

“A toothbrush.”

“Doesn’t Grandpa have one?”

Mom laughs. “Yes, but you should bring your own.”

“Oh.”

“Let’s go get it.”

I start to follow after her, but then I’m in my bedroom again, looking down at yet another suitcase. This one is burgundy. I open it, and I’m a… man of God or something. I’m looking in a mirror, fingering a scar over my left eye. I always hated the scar, but it doesn’t matter. I have a higher purpose now.

I close the burgundy case and open a black one. Then another green one. I lose track of how many suitcases I open, how many people I become. And then there it is: a black Rockland. My pulse is a drumbeat in my ears. Hesitantly, I open the case… and I’m myself.

I’m on the flight back from Florida.

On my right, in the aisle seat, is the man from the store, wearing an Ohio State hat. His name is Jim. I chatted with him a minute ago, and he said that he’s on his way to his daughter’s graduation. He turns and sees me staring. Swallowing, I look the other way.

Aiden is looking out the window. I remember talking to him, too. He’s going to visit his grandfather. His mother is in a different row because they couldn’t get seats together. When I offered to give up my seat, Aiden refused. “I’m an independent man,” he said.

I hear a noise and look up. The man with the scar over his eye is opening an overhead compartment. He takes out a package and fumbles with it for a moment. Something is wrong.

An explosion rips through the cabin.

The plane is gone.

Panting, I slam shut my suitcase and look up. I’m in a field, surrounded by fragments of wreckage from a crash that no one could have survived. I see Jim’s red hat lying in a puddle of mud. And just a short distance away, broken and battered, is the little blue suitcase with the clownfish on it. On impulse, I run over and kneel beside it. Hands shaking, I reach for the zipper; but I stop, paralyzed by fear—fear of what I might see, and fear that I’ll see nothing at all.

* * * * *

This story was my entry in another Writer’s Digest‘s “Your Story” competition. The prompt was, “You come home from a relaxing vacation and realize you have the wrong suitcase.” Here’s another version, with an alternate ending:

The Window in the Luggage (Alternate Version)

My Lucky Boy

tootsie roll

“If you can guess what I have in my pocket, you can have it,” I say.

Ethan looks up at me with his sparkling blue eyes. Then he leans toward me, craning his neck, and squints, as if trying to read my mind.

“A dollar!” he says at last.

I draw my hand out of my pocket and give him the dollar.

“Right again, buddy,” I say.

“Yeah!”

I watch as Ethan stuffs the dollar into his own pocket. He’ll never get a chance to spend it, but he’s happy to have won it at least. He’s happy, and right now that’s the only thing that matters.

The Pocket Game, as we call it, is a tradition that my father started on my first day of kindergarten. We were one of those “weird” families that were supported financially by a working mother. Dad stayed at home, except when he was taking me to and from school, or when he had to run some errand. And every day, when he picked me up after school, those were the first words out of his mouth.

“If you can guess what I have in my pocket, you can have it.”

In the beginning, it was always a piece of candy. Then sometimes it was a quarter, or a baseball card. If it was something new that I couldn’t be expected to guess, he would carry it again the next day, and I knew to guess it then. But usually it was candy or money. That moment of truth when I had to guess was always the highlight of my afternoon.

Then one day, after he spoke the challenge as usual, I said, “Dad, I’m too old for that game now.” I don’t remember exactly when that was, but I can still see the disappointment on his face. He reached into his pocket anyway and handed me what had been inside of it. It was a quarter, the last one he ever gave me.

Back then, a quarter was a good amount of money for a kid to win in a guessing game. Accounting for inflation, I figure that a dollar today is worth about what a quarter was then. So that’s what I give my son.

“Let’s go, Dad,” Ethan says.

I realize that I’m just standing there, imagining him outgrowing the game one day too. I blink and start moving.

“Okay.”

Without prompting, Ethan reaches up to take my hand, and we step off the curb and walk out into the parking lot toward our car. We have to go slowly; every step is painful for him. He’d rather walk on his own than let me carry him, though.

“Do you think I can go back to school next week, Dad?” he asks.

“Maybe. You can go back as soon as you get better.”

It’s a lie I’ve grown used to telling, but it hurts me just as much now as it did the first time I told it. I want nothing more than for Ethan to be able to go back to school; but I know it’s not going to happen. His condition is progressing just as the doctors predicted.

One more week, maybe two, is all he has left. All I have left with him. This is probably our last trip to the hospital together. That’s good, I tell myself, because I don’t want him to have to come back here. For him, playing the Pocket Game is the only good thing about these trips.

“I knew it was a dollar this time,” Ethan says. “And I knew it was candy yesterday.”

“I guess you’ve learned to read my mind,” I say.

He shakes his head. “No, I’m just lucky.”

I smile, both at the contradiction in his thoughts and on hearing him call himself lucky.

When we finally reach the car, I withdraw my hand from Ethan’s and fish around in my pocket for the car keys. My fingers brush against the Tootsie Roll that I put there this morning. Tomorrow, I’ll put it in my pocket again, together with a new dollar. I can’t stop my son from dying; but if he leaves this world thinking that he’s a lucky boy, then I’ll feel like I’ve done something right.

* * * * *

This story was my entry in Writer’s Digest‘s “Your Story” competition. The prompt was, “Write a short story, of 750 words or fewer, that begins with the following line of dialogue: ‘If you can guess what I have in my pocket, you can have it.'” You can read the finalist entries here.