1. Fine-tune a universe that supports life forms.
Parameter: Life forms prefer order. The universe, however, tends toward disorder.
2. Take hold of everything that is given to you before you open your eyes, before you even ask the question, “What is there?” This is “you,” and you are your world. You get your own fingerprints, teeth, and heartbeat. So does everyone else. They are the They. Your task: uncover who you are before your heart stops. Find the kingdom.
Parameter: No formal definition of “you” exists that does not presuppose “you” or “your.” You are, mathematically speaking, incomplete. The quest to uncover who you are leads down a hall of mirrors. You get one life.
3. To cash out, skip ahead to Step 12.
4. Dedicate your life to God. Your body will perish but your soul shall be saved. A soul is like a transmission that never burns out. Become one with God.
Parameter: God cannot present Himself as a friend or person but can only make Himself known through absence and withdrawal (Psalm 10:1). He, in fact, is not a He or She, but something that cannot be named. When God takes the form of man He is killed off by man. Looking for God lasts a lifetime, during which you will be taken for a fool or madman. You hear that there is no such thing as a soul, never has been. The soul, people say, was invented by man to enslave man. Though you have dedicated your life to God, there is no guarantee that you will receive everlasting life. Only when you are completely lost to God will you be found (Matthew 16:25).
5. Follow a star. Stars have high cheekbones and populate billboards and LED screens the size of city blocks. One day, their faces will be projected onto low-lying clouds for all the world to see. Stars are treated like gods. Sometimes they cluster together in the form of young men with nice hair who sing songs that are written by old men with no hair. Some stars have oversized bodies and move at improbable speeds. Stadiums are built so that common people can congregate to watch stars collide. The stars will say that everything they make is for you. It has always been all for you and they will never leave you. This act of love is worth being fanatic about. Like God’s love. You will decide that at some point your star must have been touched by God. You will do anything for them, because they have done everything for you. You will kill the president, if you have to. When you see your star stepping out of a car or waiting in customs at the airport you will be so astonished that you will cry from joy. They still do all the regular things that regular people do. This means you have a chance at turning your regular life into something spectacular. You will have to climb over barricades and slip between large men in windbreakers, but if you can get close enough, your star will write their name on your body. One more thing: if you kill a star, you become a star.
Parameter: Behind closed doors, these stars commit unspeakable acts against their families and strangers and sometimes children. They spiral downward as if from the heavens. They were not built to be gods. After the barrage of hearings and reporters and tabloids, all these former stars want is to live out quiet, common lives. All we want is to know what it was like to be touched by God. Some stars are so overwhelmed by the pressure to please us and love us back that they use shotguns and chemicals to revert themselves to stardust. If your star dies, you can always follow a new one.
6. Discover every shortcut in your neighborhood and blaze shortcuts where shortcuts should exist. You will find someone else doing the exact same thing and you can trailblaze together. You are like surveyors who volunteer their time. Time is no object to the two of you. Agree with this associate that you are “friends” and that your friendship will never sink. Create a handshake to legitimate this agreement. Fill a coffee container with tokens of your friendship: a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, one of your Dad’s Cuban cigars, a floppy disk with a copy of the adventure novel you started together, and the two tennis grips that guided you toward a junior doubles championship. Bury the container in your backyard. This container stores the things inside and also time. If your friendship ever sinks, the two of you can unearth the container and rebuild.
Parameter: Your friend experiences degrees of pain and loss that, though you are always there for them, you simply cannot relate to. They still look for shortcuts, but shortcuts through their own pain. This only creates more pain. Your friend recedes from you like headlights in black water. When you go to unearth the capsule that contains the pieces to rebuild your friendship, you discover that men in giant machines had unwittingly dug it up. The men look like you, but forty years older. They tell you they don’t know what happened. The pieces are lost in some scrapyard between here and Bayonne and you must find them.
7. Explore the relics of your home state. They are like giant coffee containers that blast open history. Start at the bottom and zigzag north. Catch a double-feature in Vineland at the state’s last drive-in. The kid with the flashlight who’s leaning against the concession stand is the owner’s son. Ask him about digital projectors and he’ll talk about sunsets. Drive east after midnight and talk to a blackjack dealer named Hoai at the Taj Mahal. He will explain that you can only lose time if you have it. He will tell you to go for broke. He is not talking about blackjack but about the game of history. Leave a chip for Hoai and cash out. Next stop: water park. Follow your poop to the end of the line and surface at a water treatment facility in Princeton. A man named Robert with chlorine eyes will be waiting for you. He is unlike anyone else in Princeton. The pennies in his pocket are green and he will tell you that ninety-nine point nine percent of people have forgotten about him. He will confess that on summer days he swims in the clarifiers and sometimes for dinner he handpicks fish from the mouth of the return pipe. Fish love oxygen too. You’ll never meet someone who loves their job as much as Robert loves his poop factory. Farther east there is another center off the parkway where they used to treat children, not water. The children weren’t treated properly enough to return them downriver, so the center was boarded up. This makes the place especially creepy, but you will break in anyway. You will start to crave these relics. Thirty minutes west off CR-520, there is a psychiatric hospital and another one still an hour north. Convince your old friend to come with you just this once. Infiltrate these places and listen for the voices of orphans and young men and women who lost their minds trying to find God. Encounter yourselves as already dead and time will stand still.
Parameter: You are exposed to varying degrees of magnesium sulfide, asbestos, and poop. You at least once run for your life. You only have one year before these places are demolished, after which point the voices inside migrate or altogether disappear.
8. Search for these voices in prestigious libraries. Study death to prepare for death. Study time to conquer time. Understand that eternity belongs to those who live in the present (Wittgenstein).
Parameter: This search costs upwards of $200,000. Reading for trailheads in big books is not nearly as fun as discovering shortcuts between backyards. Afterward you feel more lost than when you started. Your family and friends find your preoccupation with death unsettling and repeatedly ask you away from your books to see if you want to get lunch or go outside since the weather’s nice. You go with them only if you think it prepares you for death in some way. This overthinking and indecision costs you precious seconds that, over the years, amount to weeks of lost time. All the while your present shrinks because you must work to pay down your debt. When you work, you work against the clock. Time is not simultaneous like your books say. You will not conquer time because you are convinced you have no time. Every day, you wait for the moment your head hits the pillow. Your last thought before falling asleep is always that you’ve done nothing with your life. You will never be prepared for death, though you think about It constantly. Death haunts you like a car with no license plates at the end of your street.
9. Perfect your body, not your mind. Reproduce images of your body that people can use to make more bodies like yours. They will worship your body even after the original disappears.
Parameter: “Perfect” is defined by men and women in tall, skinny buildings and redefined every three weeks. Attempts to perfect your body are limited by molecular sequences inside your cells that you inherited from your parents that they inherited from their parents and so on. You must pay for procedures and supplements to correct these sequences. People with enough money can modify these sequences before birth and therefore seem born perfect. These people are called “models.” You can only be a model for so long before your body starts to deteriorate. People try everything in their power to prevent this deterioration, but it is the original parameter of the universe.
10. Fuck the universe. Create the Force: thirty cans of beer, one handle of vodka, a four-pack of Red Bull, one bottle of Robitussin, and one whole container of Country Time pink lemonade mix. If it’s not pink, it’s not the Force. The Force is like God and like a friend and also like philosophy in that it can take you outside time. You will feel perfect inside your body, which will inspire you to play with other bodies. You will last forever, like a porn star.
Parameter: Depending on your body weight, it takes at least three cups of Force to feel perfect. You will have no recollection of what it felt like to be perfect. The only way to know again is to drink the Force again. Every next time, the required Force quotient increases by one cup. Beyond .20 % BFC, you can no longer get it up and you become ashamed of your body. Beyond .50 %, your heart stops.
11. Fight. Fighting is one solution to Perfection. It is like modeling except you sculpt your body to better destroy it. Ten cups of Force will inspire you to fight almost anything: your girlfriend, well-dressed people eating burritos, street signs. If you fight for God you can take hold of the eternal life to which you were called (Timothy 6:12). This is called the “Good Fight.” You can fight disorderly persons (drunks/crime/war) or disorder itself (fire/natural disasters). Disorder sometimes takes the guise of young men and women waving flags and proclaiming a New World Order.
Parameter: You must fight in uniform. If you fight with no uniform you are a disorderly person, or a “vigilante.” When you finally feel called to fight, you can barely keep your blood pressure down to pass your physical for fire school. Your doctor tells you to cut down on the three S’s: Sodium, Smoking, and Stress. You say, “Yes, doc.” Sodium and smoking are easy to quit. Quitting stress is not so easy. You cannot chill out after someone tells you to chill out. When you fight––insurgency, fire, etc.––your blood pressure only increases. You are exposed to a kind of human radiation that sinks you to the bottom of our condition here on Earth. Some of the same people who fight disorder create disorder (“NJ Fireman Charged in Fatal 1977 Blaze”). You can no longer distinguish between order and disorder. You tell people that the game is rigged, that the parameters must be part of the solution. This revelation occurs to you like a lightning flash. The word for this is “schizophrenia.” People tell you that you now have a disorder. Your friends and family conspire to throw you in one of the loony bins from Step 7 along with people who lost their minds trying to find God, but those places don’t exist anymore. Instead, you must stay at home and swallow pills that suppress the lightning flashes. The pills also make you wet your bed again. On top of everything, your Mom insists on shaving your beard and your beard won’t stop growing back. You get cable television.
12. Let go. Underneath the sink you’ll find bleach and ammonia. Mix these together to create chlorine gas. Relax. People will think that you were cleaning and you made a mistake. Return to stardust.
Parameter: Your body cannot let itself let go. Against all odds, it hangs on, and you wake up the next morning on the bathroom floor. Things suddenly seem clearer. You suspect that all your problems have stemmed from trying to do this alone.
13. Find someone who reminds you that time can be played out beautifully. Tell them your deepest anxieties and the dreams you have for your life on Earth and beyond. Don’t tell them about Step 12. This someone is like a friend and also like God, except you can know their body. They are the antidote to Perfection and to the Force and to high blood pressure. Tell this someone that you love them and that you would lay down your life for them. Between the two of you something will be created that will survive even when your bodies are destroyed.
Parameter: This someone is only a little easier to find than God. If you find them, they remain unknowable. Even when they are in your arms, they gaze back at you as if across an abyss. You wonder why you ever let this stranger into your home.
14. Conceive a child with this someone and upon this child lump all your wisdom. This child will one day conceive a child upon whom they will lump all their wisdom and so on.
Parameter: Conception is still only possible between a male and a female. Until babies can be produced in factories, people will proclaim that the miracle of birth is reserved for man and woman in holy matrimony. This will take time to sort itself out. For now, conception is still as fragile a process as it was in Step 1, when the universe was created. When your child takes form, however, it comes before you are ready. You even consider calling off Step 14. Though nothing so far has prepared you for this, you decide to keep the child. You soon realize that love is not enough to raise a human being, but you compel yourself to get better. The child is a time capsule you must not screw up. You tell the child not to spend too much time looking in the mirror, but they do anyway, and they cry about bad haircuts. You tell them to never try the Force, but they try anyway. You tell them never ever try to time travel using a motor vehicle. They try. They try to destroy the life that you tried so hard to nurture. They forgo any advice and pursue a life that challenges yours in every possible way. One day, they are interested in what you have to say, but you are too tired. You have nothing left to say and it is too late.
15. Teach other people’s children the wisdom of the world. These children will teach other children and so on.
Parameter: Administrators want “results.” Administrators rule over teachers but are not themselves teachers. They get their results by designing curricula that have children write everything down. Writing, however, betrays thinking. Children repeatedly exclaim “Got it” like they’ve arrived somewhere. You must sabotage their ever “getting it” and remind them that there is no arrival except for death. This makes you a total buzzkill, but for some reason your students still follow you around everywhere. Like a star. Teachers, though, cannot be stars. They must be anonymous, like firemen, or priests. You must become an interface that transmits messages but has no message other than its own lack of message. Students come to your office to talk about their grades and they ask you what you want. You tell them you want nothing. They ask you for letters of recommendation so they can do things you could never dream of doing. Writing these letters makes you feel extremely proud but also empty, like all you’ve built are other lives and not your own.
16. Build a house on a little street. The house will become a time capsule, like the drive-in and the casinos and the asylums and the coffee container you once buried with your friend. The bigger the house the more time it will store. When the house begins to store time it becomes a home. Fill the home with objects that you can imbue with your aura. When you die, the home and all its objects will be passed down through every generation and your children’s children and their children will say that you are still inside. You become a “ghost.”
Parameter: You cannot pay cash outright so you must get a mortgage. Your children resent the amount of stuff you’ve accumulated even though all you’re trying to show them is how much you love them and that you have so much love you need to put it in actual, physical things. When the market collapses, you default on your mortgage payments. Your inability to meet these payments is no doubt tied to your urge to buy little things that you can store your love inside. The someone who was supposed to protect you is by now long gone. They have found someone else. A younger, more beautiful family is waiting at your doorstep. They want to build an even bigger house and they have the cash for it. They demolish the time capsule that you tended to for the greater part of your life and even the foundation that it was built upon. There is no footprint to indicate that you were ever there, or that you even tried.
17. Liquidate your assets. The best thing to leave behind is cold, hard cash. Your parents left you money when they died and it more than once got you out of a jam. Men in cold, glass buildings along the highway will tell you that you’re protecting your family’s future. They say let’s talk about a whole life policy so you can hand your love down.
Parameter: Your previous efforts to store love have taxed your body and your insurance company notices this. The sodium, smoking, and stress count against you after all, as well as the dietary supplements you once used to perfect your body and the pills you used to treat the lightning flashes in your head. You pay rated premiums for years, but eventually you can’t afford them and you must cancel the policy. You get to keep your love, but someone else takes your money.
18. Repeat Step 12.
Parameter: Strangers come for you to protect you from yourself. The retired handyman next door is watching the newspapers accumulate on your front walk. The woman with the bulldog notices that your bathroom light has been on all night. The arrival of these strangers in the nick of time reveals a hidden meaning in your life that you may have forgotten.
19. Remember your life. Write to remember. You can write a children’s story or a history of your hometown or a mega-novel or whatever you’d like. You can even finish the adventure novel you and your friend started when you were twelve years old. Write yourself and everything you know and have ever felt into this book. People will find it when you’re gone and they will look for you inside.
Parameter: Words do not contain the things everyone says they do, so you must settle for less. You know that you’re somewhere inside your book, but whenever you show it to someone else, they can’t find you. You decide to be clearer, more honest. Finally someone says that when they read your writing they feel like you’re there in the room with them. You believe you’ve found the solution. One night the smell of burnt plastic fills your apartment. A fireman walks through the door and follows his nose to your bedroom, the same way your friend used to come right in when you were kids. The fireman is followed by more men in full turnouts. They move aside a dresser to uncover an old outlet, but it’s not the source. They paint the walls with infrared and move delicately around your furniture, the little furniture you have. The men scan for heat, but still, no trace. The fire chief tells you he doesn’t know. He also tells you to install more smoke detectors. He looks at you like he’ll be back. You stay up all night thinking about the fire in the walls. You didn’t build this place so you don’t know its secrets, how it was wired. You say screw it and proceed to methodically press your hand against every surface of your apartment, feeling for heat. This process is profoundly intimate and discloses a lost truth about your life. At one point you even cry. You’re sitting on the floor and your palm is against the wall and you cry. No one really knows who you are. You don’t know who you are. You sleep the whole next day. For months, you dream about the fire in the walls. It is the most awful and most beautiful image you’ve ever imagined. It inspires you to finish the book you are writing all your love and wisdom into. All you have left to write is the ending––a perfect, surprising, and at the same time inevitable ending. You start telling people how close you are, which you promised yourself you never would. You forget about the fire in the walls. You go for a run late one night to find your crystal ending in the dark. You do. You’ve never been so clear about anything in your life. You are more confident about this ending than you were about the someone you found and lost years ago. Than the name you gave your first child. When you come back your apartment is engulfed in flames. You run inside to save your pages but you live on the second floor and the stairwell is a torrent of fire. You know you’ll die trying to save the book and that’s not the ending you had in mind. The fire chief is back with his men. They are too late, and you watch the building burn. You’ve felt this before. You almost feel like you were waiting for this to happen, like your whole life has pointed toward this moment. You forget whatever words you wrote down. You can’t even think of the word for “blanket.” Right now you have no language. Everything you’ve learned resolves into the fact that you don’t know. You don’t know why. All you know is that your love’s still safe but it’s stuck inside.
20. Engineer a language that is fireproof. This language should reduce the world to algebra so that it can describe anything and everything: luck, water pressure, blood pressure, schizophrenia, financial markets, even fire. Use this language to transcribe the electrical activity of your body and brain. This electrical language is your soul. Store it in circuit boards along with other souls and hide these circuit boards on the bottom of the ocean where they will be cold and safe. These places are called “farms.” They contain the union of all souls. The farms will keep running even after your heart stops. Whatever life forms come after us will find them. They will know the electrical language and they can have your love.
Parameter: The life forms know our language, but they have discovered a better one. Their language, in fact, is not a language because it is not a system and it does not rely on signs. Their communication is quantum and instantaneous and it is impossible to distinguish these life forms from one another. They are unfamiliar with the concept of order and disorder because they have no such thing as concepts. During lightning storms, they congregate on mountaintops. Sometimes they are the lightning. Eventually, they find our underwater farms. They find them next to the old train cars and mountains of trash that we had dumped at some point. They presume that everything under water must be waste. They have developed techniques to expedite remains and they vaporize our farms and with them all the electrical language inside. At which point you turn to plasma and reach maximum entropy.
21. Quiet, clear.