Tag Archives: writing

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.

CVS: A Beacon of Hope in the War on Stupidity

cigarettes

Nasty. Ugly. Dirty. Death. Everyone should associate these words with smoking.

I just saw the announcement that CVS will stop selling cigarettes.

IT’S ABOUT TIME.

Really, this decision is one that should have been made by all major drugstores back in 1964, when the surgeon general finally acknowledged decades of mounting evidence that cigarette-smoking is one of the stupidest, most harmful habits ever conceived by humans. I mean, the irony of selling addictive carcinogens alongside antibiotics and other life-saving drugs is downright emetic. The fact that no major companies made this decision earlier is a testament to a general lack of conscience in the business: Money, not customers’ well-being, has always been sovereign.

On hearing this announcement, my first reaction was to worry that a lot of smokers — people wedded to their “freedom” to be slaves to nicotine — might boycott CVS. Really, though, this worry is unfounded. It was certainly a calculated decision, and I have no doubt that CVS thoroughly analyzed the risks and the benefits of it after determining exactly how many customers they’d lose and how much positive media attention they’d receive.

Regardless of CVS’s underlying motives, this decision is a good thing. What’s important is that people stop smoking. And hopefully, this will be the trigger that sets the dominoes falling, with Walgreens and all other major retailers following suit. Then maybe cigarettes will become rare, and fewer people will be enslaved by nicotine.

But it’s not just retailers who should step up. At some point, I’d also like to see authors and filmmakers break off their romance with the cigarette. The curling wisp of smoke climbing up through the air from the glowing tip of a cigarette has been a staple image, a shorthand for the definition of cool, for as long as novels and films have existed. It still is today, and I think that needs to stop. The image of a cigarette should be shorthand for “dirty,” not “cool.”

Still, this is a very good first step. Perhaps we will actually be able to eradicate smoking within the next generation.

Thank God.

This might also be a good time to look around and see what else needs to be changed. Maybe we can respond better to other hazards than we did to cigarettes. That is, maybe next time it won’t take us a hundred years to bring about the needed change, and we won’t see companies covering up ugly truths that they’ve known about for decades.

One possible candidate for the next issue is sugar. We’re seeing a similar trend of mounting evidence about the negative effects of sugar. And yet, so many of our foods have far more sugar than good taste would suggest they should contain. Obviously, sugar isn’t quite the same as tobacco, and we can’t ban it entirely; but maybe we can bring about a much-needed shift in our culture. It’s demand for sweet foods that fuels businesses’ decision to dump (literally) sickening amounts of sugar into their products — breakfast cereals, snack foods, soft drinks.

I grew accustomed to eating less sugar when I lived in China for five years. Upon returning to the States, I wanted to continue eating foods with less sugar. I still remember how I felt on my first few trips to the grocery after my homecoming. As I pulled products off the shelves to look at the ingredient lists, I was disgusted to see that sugar was in the top three ingredients on just about everything. It was infuriating. There seemed to be no companies who were interested in providing low-sugar products. (And those that were interested only seemed to provide foods that were sickeningly sweetened with artificial alternatives.)

Then I realized the true source of the problem: Consumers tend to choose the foods with the most sugar. The manufacturers are only giving us what we’re asking for. The same was true of smoking. Thus, as with smoking, the impetus for change regarding the amount of sugar in our food will have to come from us — the consumers. Not the government, and not the executives at the food companies.

So I hereby beseech you to join me in demanding that manufacturers produce foods that are lower in sugar.

I actually think that our culture is ripe for a voluntary reduction in sugar. Think about coffee. It’s “cool” to drink coffee black, even though it’s bitter as hell. It’s an acquired taste, and there’s an element of pride in it. The same is true of dark chocolate (though entirely unsweetened cocoa is a frighteningly bitter beast indeed). This sort of trend, combined with people’s growing awareness of the health hazards of high sugar intake, might make a general shift possible.

I could see the same sort of trend happening with soft drinks. In fact, I would like to make a recommendation to Coca Cola: Start marketing an unsweetened line of Coke using the same classic recipe but without 33 grams of sugar in every can. Call it “Coke Pure” instead of Coke Classic. I guarantee you, even if it tastes like charcoal, you’ll see a bunch of hipsters and purists start drinking it and insisting that it tastes better than sweetened soft drinks. Try it. Please.

Anyway, back to cigarettes. Good job, CVS. You’ve given me a spark of hope that maybe we humans actually can avoid destroying ourselves out of sheer greed, stupidity, and intemperance.

We’ve still got a long way to go, though.

Stand with Cathy — The Book

The Stand with Cathy book is now available! Above is a picture of a printed copy. It weighs in at a healthy 5.5 ounces and has dimensions of 5.5-by-8.5-by-9/32 inches, with a total of 126 or 134 or 138 pages (depending on how you count). I quote these numbers for my own amusement. The most important question, of course, is how you can get a copy — because all proceeds will go toward breast cancer research. There are many ways, including the following:

  • To get a copy from us in person for only $5.00, come to West Houston Chinese Church (10638 Hammerly Blvd, Houston, TX 77043) on Sunday, February 5, for the 11:15 am service.* Cathy and I will speak briefly during the service, and books will be available for sale afterward. You can also come on the following two Sundays (February 12 and 19).
  • To order a paperback copy online for $6.99 (plus shipping), click here.
  • To download the Ebook version for Adobe Digital Editions for $5.99, click here. (You can get Adobe Digital Editions for free here.)
  • To get the iBook version from iTunes (for the iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch) for $5.99, click here.
  • To get the Nook version for $5.99, click here, or search for “Stand with Cathy” on your Nook.
  • For a tiny sample of the book, click here.

In case you’re not familiar with our story, this book is an account (from my point of view) of my wife Cathy’s battle with cancer. It’s about how our community came together to sustain us by raising over $65,000 to help pay for Cathy’s treatment and by providing a place for us to stay when we were effectively evicted from our apartment. It is a testimony about the power of love and grace in the midst of hardship.

*All of the author’s profit from the sales of this book will be donated to the “Susan G. Komen for the Cure” foundation for breast cancer research. For each book purchased at West Houston Chinese Church, however, the full price of the book ($5.00) will be donated. (Of course, you are welcome to give more than $5.00.) Remarkably, the church has refused to accept any portion of the proceeds; everything goes to the Komen Foundation. Please note that the official name of the Komen Foundation is “Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” so if you write a check, please make it payable to “Susan G. Komen for the Cure.”

Scientific Writing for Chinese Researchers

Book Cover

Pardon my Chinese, but . . .

从2005年到2007年,我在中科院半导体所从事论文编辑和英语教学的职业。 在这期间,我为想要在国际期刊上发表论文的在校研究生们编辑过好几百篇的论文。 在我编辑这些论文的同时,我也记录下了母语为中文的人的论文中最常出现的英语语法错误。等到我结束在半导体所任教时,我根据这些观察和记录编写了一本书, 名为 Scientific Writing for Chinese Researchers.

写 完这本书的很长时间内,我都不太愿意在美国公开和出版这本书。因为我认为它只适合中国研究生。但是,最近我又重新读了一遍这本书,并在读过之后改变了我的 想法。其实书中有很多写作规则适合任何想要写论文的人。其中更适合中国学生的部分也会对在美国的中国留学生很有帮助。

如果你想要购买本书,请点击这里

Okay, now here’s everything in English:

From 2005 to 2007, I worked as an editor and English teacher at the Institute of Semiconductors, which is a branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. During that time, I edited hundreds upon hundreds of papers that were written by Chinese graduate students who wanted to have their work published in international journals. As I corrected their writing, I kept track of the most common errors that native Chinese speakers make when they write in English, and at the end of my time there I compiled all of my observations into a book: Scientific Writing for Chinese Researchers.

For a long time, I was reluctant to share this with people in America because I felt that the book was only appropriate for graduate students in China. I recently went back and read through it, though, and I’ve changed my mind. Many of the principles are appropriate for anyone who wants to write a paper, and the parts that are specifically for Chinese students will probably be very useful to Chinese graduate students here in America.

The book is available here.