slide bars and decision trees

I  dreamed there was a slider bar I could pull to chronologically preview my life, with branching choice paths. The dream focused mainly on the possibilities of childbearing. I could have one kid, and it would happen at the end of this long car trip and it’d be hot and difficult. That one would be a boy, intelligent and possessing integrity, but a bit full of himself. If I went for two, the second would be a girl, and would like me — and having a sibling would keep the eldest from being so selfish. If I went for three, and stopped there, the third would be manic-depressive and would try to kill himself a couple times in high school. But if I went for four, the fourth child would shield (in some nonsensical dream-logic way) her older brother from his demons, and he wouldn’t be depressed. She would go on to become a scientist.

You could drag the slider bar forward and back, and people would move through your vision — yourself, your kids — and your location would change, dictated on the events that spawned in response to your choices. You could skip on into their lives, too, and make the kids central to the story, like how in The Sims you can change POV (and necessarily have to, if your sim of choice dies). That was how I found out that the youngest, if I ended up having her, would become a scientist. The eldest would prosper but die in a fancy boating accident in his 40s or 50s. The third child, if not depressed, became a psychiatrist. If he was depressed, he didn’t, and lived in a very small space with brick walls and no air conditioning. The second child cried the hardest at my funeral, when I grew old, but sometimes she was alone in her car in the parking lot afterward, and sometimes there were people there to comfort her. She led my husband away from the cemetery, always, and his shoulders shook.

It was exhausting. I feel like I got no sleep. I was never deluded, by Doctor Who or Afterlife‘s Heavenly Hindsight Habitat (seen here and described below) or Alia Atreides or anyone else into thinking that that kind of power would be a good thing to have. But even the dreaming of that kind of systematized review is draining and, as you would expect, saddening. You want to make the choices that make everyone happy, but even those can lead to an early death — if the eldest son was humbled by his siblings into being less of a jerk, he came into great wealth, enough to buy a yacht and die on it in stormy seas. If you didn’t have any more kids…well, I don’t know. I don’t remember all of it. But there wasn’t a way to make everyone happy. In that, I suppose, it was an accurate-enough simulation.

Sad, though. It was sad.

Heavenly Hindsight Habitat

One of the nifty perks about Heaven is that you’re freed from all the regrets, guilt, trauma, etc., about the way you lived your life. That doesn’t mean you’re freed from CURIOSITY, though. In the Heavenly Hindsight Habitats, SOULs are given the opportunity to see how their lives would have turned out if they had made different decisions along the way. This is accomplished through a highly-sophisticated melding of virtual reality, quantum mechanics, and divine whimsy, and should not be tried at home without an omniscient being present.



Sorrow steals up on you without warning.

Camping for Fourth of July weekend, surrounded by friends bundled up under many blankets in their separate tents, I came to consciousness crying viciously, because I was warm. Everyone was so cold — my husband included, wrapped tightly in the many layers of blankets we’d brought, that we’d hoped would have been enough — but I was toasty and warm in the unseasonably cool morning, thanks to the sleeping bag insured to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. My mother insisted, a decade ago at an outfitter before a two-month-long trip out West, on getting me the sleeping beg that covered colder temperatures. “But it’s the middle of summer,” I said, trying to curtail her spending. But she thrust it on me anyway, just in case. And here I was ten years later, surrounded by people shivering, and I was warm and safe and if I tried to thank her Mom would have no recollection of the sleeping bag purchase or of where, exactly, I was, or why. I sobbed into the cocoon-like hood of the sleeping bag, and hoped no one else at the campsite heard.

Now, in an AC-less house in the path of the heat dome, I’m wearing one of the many absorbent neck wraps with silly branded names, designed to keep you cool. It works. I was skeptical because I’d tried to use one before, when young. I overheated easily and my mother worried about heat stroke, so she’d bought me one and had me wear it when running around outside. But it was too long, and so it made my shirt wet and chafed, and I didn’t like it. And today, rearranging the water-absorbent crystals around inside their enclosure to go all the way around my neck, I remembered — with the sound, the crunching of the crystals — how Mom had cut open the old neck wrap, and tried to make a new, smaller one for me, but I’d been uninterested. Then the sewing machine broke and the crystals fell to the carpet to be vacuumed up, and it was all a waste. She’d tried to make me this thing to help me and I hadn’t cared, and it was a waste.

And it’s terrible. She tried to help and I was as careless with her generosity as all children are, and I can’t even say sorry now.


Silence is violence, I know, and I am complicit.

For the second time in two weeks a tragedy has unfurled elsewhere in the world as Critical Role aired live — this time, for the first time, in front of a live audience. And, just like last week, the actors on-screen, working, remained unaware of the tragedy while I, observing form home with smartphone in hand, knew of it. And, like last week, I remained, closing my media channels to the tragedy and just…just cocooning myself in someone else’s laughter.

I’m not proud of it.

I’ve written to congresspeople. Signed things. I couldn’t march at the rally in my town — I had to work. But otherwise, I’ve tried. I’ve told the people I know whose thoughts are harmful how they hurt others. How they might change. I’ve boosted signals, worn tokens of solidarity. But I’ve saved no one, doing such things. And when the chance to retreat from a world on fire presented itself, I took it. Twice in a row, now.

Comics say it well, why they do what they do. They speak of laughter as something powerful, empowering. Life-affirming. But then, comics, typically, are speaking from very dark places when they do their work that makes others laugh. Mentally, I feel like they have already paid their dues, whereas I have not. I am not depressed or oppressed. I haven’t been assaulted — not in this country, anyway — or targeted. I haven’t suffered enough to earn a respite from reality.

But, again, I fell asleep in front of Critical Role, dozing in and out (it airs so late, here), never far enough not to follow along. Waking always to laughter, now not only of nine people but of hundreds. I fled there. I fled there. From what? From the hole I helped dig, by not fighting harder? By not convincing my father not to succumb to his nihilistic worldview? By not convincing my sister not to marry a warmongering racist? I’ve done nothing well enough to deserve a chance to escape the results of failure. Nothing right enough.

The AV Club ran an article today about Jon Stewart reuniting, however briefly, with Stephen Colbert, to cover the Republican National Convention. Its final line rang more bells than I wanted to hear:

“Stewart is one of several guests Colbert has lined up for the next two weeks of infighting and political deals (including Oliver), but we doubt many will be as reassuring as seeing the team that once made the world, if not fixed, then at least funny, teaming back up for a minute or two to take the edge off the nightmare we all find ourselves suddenly living in.”

No comic or actor ever claimed to be able to fix the world, but they at least made it bearable. I haven’t even done that. But I continue to take advantage of their offerings, because the alternative is too bleak. And there is no laughter there.

finishing wise man’s fear in a hammock miles from anything

**Spoilers for Wise Man’s Fear**

I know it’s a frame and that of course it weighs heavily as a result. One should care about a story’s frame; one shouldn’t resent when we snap back to it.

But more than the grim realities engulfing the Waystone Inn and its present-day world, the relationship between Bast and Kvothe pains me. Specifically Kvothe’s outburst after the fight against the soldiers. “Do you want a story? Do you want to hear the details? Quit expecting me to be something I’m not.”

Not that anyone’s ever told me that. But I had to stop and think if they had. The people I follow and learn from most loyally never had any need of me like that. No room in their lives for this unasked-for Bast. But my boss came close, once, speaking of her upcoming retirement. She — she on whom everyone relies as a fount of knowledge — said she could feel herself taking less of an interest in new developments; wanting to cede the responsibility to care about them to others. Then she stopped talking, because my face is an open book and she sees everything besides, and she saw my panic plain as day, and laid it aside carefully, like glass. Alzheimer’s runs in her family, too, and I think she grows weary of my little spasms of terror when she forgets things, or describes changes in her character beyond her ken. I’m sorry she keeps seeing my reaction, and I wish I were more opaque.

But that’s beside my point. The things Bast does to try and restore Kvothe’s confidence…I’ve done those things. I ask for stories I’ve heard many times before; questions whose answers are already known to me, to make the speaker feel knowledgable, powerful, in control. I’ve steered policy wonks toward political discussions and away from their decaying families; history buffs toward the deconstruction of famous figures and away from the gaping emptiness of their work lives. I’ve tried, so hard, to stop that downward tumble, or the wallowing at the bottom if already there. I throw out line after line, hoping not to run out of rope.

To see it happen, to see that rescue attempt founder, is crushing. I had to put the book down. More so than any interaction with Denna, or Wil or Sim or even Elodin, that failed attempt to rally Bast’s mentor wrings my guts out. Romance can be rekindled, and new friends made, but when the people from whom you most want to learn — whom you most want to become, in some ways — grow hollow-eyed and think themselves worthless, it hurts. And, being neither friends nor lovers, there is frequently little we can do but flail endlessly toward failed attempts at restoring that which was lost. 

It may be the most powerless kind of love.