Time Travel through SoCal

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Another installment of the Book A Trip Series

Although we often think of traveling through space and time as an exotic dream or a science fiction story, our minds routinely do this. We travel through the present, plotting the future while constantly remembering the past.

Episodic memory is the ability to recall specific personal experiences from the past. It is a mental time machine triggered by sensory information, including sights, sounds, words, and the memory of particular events. It doesn’t take much to trigger an episodic memory. Conversations, stories, music, and situations all induce our time travel into the past.

Semantic memory is the capability to recall time and experience independent, factual information, like the taxonomy of songbird species in California. Memory, learning, and imagination use the same neural networks. Learning changes memory. We change the person we are just by remembering who we were. Is the self a fleeting memory impossible to truly know? Imagination is a mashup of things we have categorized, playing them out as future experiences. It is time travel to the future.

According to “Why We Remember” by Charan Ranganath, scientists have found that the hippocampus, a small, seahorse-shaped structure deep in the brain, primarily mediates episodic memory. In contrast, semantic memory involves neural networks in the neocortex, the gray matter of the brain. The two memory systems are interdependent. Repeated episodic memories translate into categories in semantic memory, which in turn can trigger episodic memories.

In a shameless plug for the “Book a Trip” series, travel and reading combine all the uses of those neural networks. Travel and reading add to the diversity of our experience and stretch the boundaries of what we can conceive. The brain combines these experiences in new ways. A book and a trip in the present are trips to the past and the future.

ER (previously referred to as GF in other posts) and I traveled through space and time on a Memorial Day weekend trip through Southern California. It takes a violent act of the imagination to picture my car as a DeLorean, but I know you can do it. When we weren’t making episodic memories, we were reliving them. Future episodic memories worthy of remembering are the trophies of travel.

We started the trip listening to Amy Tan’s “The Backyard Bird Chronicles,” a radical departure from her wildly successful book, “Joy Luck Club.” John Muir Law’s “The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling,” inspired her backyard observation and drawings. Interestingly enough, the Laws Guide is on my bookshelf. Isn’t it on everyone’s? Okay. I might be off the beaten path on this one. But consider that I have read one book about a man’s observations of a square meter of ground for a year, “The Forest Unseen,” and another told from the tree’s point of view, “The Overstory.” What can I say? It stands to reason I would have the Laws Guide.

Despite their ubiquity, birds only fuel episodic time travel if you pay close attention to them. From my experiences in wild San Diego, I instantly knew that Amy Tan was from somewhere on the West Coast by her bird list. Through the observations of her backyard feeder, she has become somewhat of a bird expert. I will never mistake a Great Horned Owl hoot for a dove coo, but sadly, for me, a sparrow is a sparrow, and a warbler is a warbler. I have never learned to distinguish the white throat sparrow from the golden-crowned or the lesser goldfinch from the greater. Besides, who are we to judge the value of a goldfinch?

A rare sighting of the black-headed grosbeak for Amy is a distinct memory. It is an exciting event for her, and emotion triggers her brain to learn and remember. It is just another memory added into an undifferentiated clump of birds for the rest of us. Our brains lump the familiar and distinguish the different. The daily commute of one day is indistinguishable from the next. I will never forget that one drive on the AutoBahn at 150 mph. It makes sense. Our brains are filters designed to ignore the mundane and only keep what is important. It is the different that causes problems and what we need to remember to survive in the natural and social worlds.  

Charan says the brain works as designed when you forget where you put your keys, even when holding them in your hand. The links to memory get erased over time, especially with similar, overlapping experiences. His answer to forgetting is to accept it. Your brain is doing what it is supposed to be doing. I have yet to take his advice to heart. I find satisfaction in remembering and frustration in forgetting. It still pisses me off that a memory takes five days to percolate to the surface. If the goal of Jeopardy were to answer as slowly as possible, I would be the grandmaster. His one practical suggestion (that I remember) is to take the quiz before you start learning. It preps the brain for learning by setting it up to look for discrepancies. I always hated quizzes.

I formed episodic bird memories on a late lunch break at Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara. Loons swam just off the pier, which brought back memories of kayaking on Wasson Lake in Minnesota, finding a nest hidden in the grass at the edge of a small island. I didn’t know loons hung out in the salt water, so I learned a new fact to tuck away in my semantic memory. I also had the good luck to spot a surf scoter, a large duck I had not seen before. I would just as soon forget the pigeons scavaging for food at our feet and staining the pier with the remains of their successful foraging. The homeless lady shouting obscenities or the one passed out and face down on the dock amid the heaviest foot traffic, I would prefer to forget. I have entirely too many memories of walking by homeless people.

Amy documents the intelligence of birds, having met her match with persistent blue jays in particular. Birds have the same primitive brains with a hippocampus that we do. Why is it surprising they have episodic memory? The bird and mammal cortexes evolved differently and have different architectures. Bird brains may be tiny but pack two to four times more neurons than mammal brains. A recent article said that crows could caw to four, something previously believed that only humans could do. But why do humans caw to four? The article left me hanging on that point.

Musings over the bird feeder did little for ER’s episodic memory, and even I could only withstand so much backyard observation. So, I surrendered Amy Tan for ER’s playlist. The songs we listened to on the trip fueled the time travel machine. John Cougar Mellencamp sang Hurts So Good, or is it John Cougar? When did he stop thinking that Mellencamp was nerdy and Cougar was pretentious? John Cougar always takes me back to delivering pizzas in subzero weather on the Southside of Chicago for Benny after I graduated from college with a degree in mathematics and physics. Little Pink Houses was the big hit then, and it was his best effort (IMHO).

Blue Oyster Cult sang Godzilla, reminding me of the 70s and high school. Still, no specific memory came to mind besides a quote from a scene in Austin Powers, where one Japanese man screams, “It’s Godzilla.” Another Japanese man corrects him by saying, “Due to copyright laws, it is not Godzilla; it only looks like Godzilla. The punchline of the joke is that the Godzilla in the scene is a plastic facsimile, not Godzilla.

I hadn’t heard the Blue Oyster Cult song Godzilla in a long time, so I enjoyed its replay. I even learned something new about it. One of the verses in the song is:

Rinji news o moshiagemasu
Rinji news o moshiagemasu
Godzil a ga Ginza hoomen e mukatte imasu
Daishkyu hinan shite kudasai
Daishkyu hinan shite kudasai

Translated from Japanese into English by Google gives:

I’ll give you some
I’ll give you some
My grandma is facing the Ginza face
Please give me a hug
Please give me a hug

Go figure. The translation makes no sense whatsoever. Is Grandma staring down the beast, ready to hug it if it chooses to attack? I don’t think she has the same skillset as Mothra. But oh no, there goes Tokyo. Go, go, Godzilla!

But then we wondered, what inspired BOC to pay tribute to Godzilla? Did they wake up one morning inspired by a late-night TV movie with Godzilla battling it out with Mothra and Rodan? Or did they realize that the Godzilla OnlyFans base was underserved?

Not all recollection results in pleasure. I can think of more than a few episodic memories that keep me humble (but I’m not sharing.) If you see me shudder for no particular reason, it was something stupid I did in the third grade.

Overlumping repeated experiences causes pain, too. Honestly, I’m sick of hearing so many overplayed songs from the past, no matter what episodic memories accompany them. I don’t hate the songs; I’m just sick of hearing them. The songs are not good enough to last a lifetime of replaying. Two songs in particular make me want to run from the room: Brown-eyed Girl and Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

We had a lot of time to think and listen, stuck in the gridlock of the 5, then the 405, then the 101. The 101 coming out of LA is the Ventura Highway. Ventura Highway is a song by America, a pretty presumptuous name for any band, let alone one from England. The song wasn’t on the playlist, but the music played in my head, making me time travel to the early 70s, listening to 45s on a turntable in a friend’s basement. Fifty years later, I have this to offer as the start of a rewrite for the undeserved tribute to the unglamorous Ventura Highway:

Ventura Highway, in the gridlocked lanes
Where the smog is thicker
The air is toxic from engine flames,
We’ve stopped again, oh no.

So much for the free wind blowin’ through my hair.

I might have an even nastier verse for the 101 outside San Luis Obispo, where the State Police gave me unwelcome feedback for my fast car. ER claims “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman is the saddest song ever, so I had her read the lyrics to me. Tracy’s protagonist can’t escape the same miserable lives her parents led. The fast car starts as a means of escape from her parent’s dismal lives and ends as a wish to get rid of her partner when he becomes no better than her deadbeat dad. “So take your fast car and keep on driving.”

The Paso Robles bar we bellied up to displayed a John Wayne placard on the wall: “Life is Tough—It’s tougher if you’re stupid.” The quote triggered a memory of the John Wayne movie The Green Berets. I inflicted ER with the movie’s title track, “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” which has eerie parallels to Fast Car. The Green Beret protagonist of the song goes off to die on duty, and his dying wish is for his son to follow in his footsteps. My advice to his kid is to get in that fast car and get the hell out of there. The movie “Green Berets” might be one of the saddest movies ever, but I am using a completely different meaning for the word “sad.” The movie was a propaganda piece for our moral mission in Vietnam. No, seriously.

A young couple band played “Wagon Wheel” in front of the bar to the mischief of 40ish women who were there to celebrate one of their 40th birthdays, if I am to judge by the reading of t-shirts. I propose mischief as the mass noun for partying 40-ish-year-old women. “Wagon Wheel” isn’t one I was familiar with, but it takes ER off to some faraway place and time. I have yet to learn to differentiate the many flavors of Southern music.

According to ER, I didn’t fit the general mold of the bar’s clientele. I lacked the necessary facial hair and didn’t have a glass eye. (Okay, I made that second part up.) Still, I’m afraid I have to disagree. I did fit into the bar, and I offer this as proof. When I pulled up the barstool, the burly guy next to me gave me a hard, welcoming slap to the knee that left me white-eyed. The stuffed boar’s head over John Wayne’s placard gave me a welcoming wink. The mounted cowboy boot next to the boar’s head would have approved but didn’t have a way to express its validation for me. I may get my wink when they mount the stuffed cowboy’s head instead of his boot.

We discovered that the couple to the right of us was on their first Tinder date. We empathetically shared a few tense moments while her date stepped out, wondering if he was ditching her or would return. This date was her sixth attempt at eternal bliss. Her success criteria is a partner who “Sees me, hears me, and validates me.” Those might all be the same thing if you think about it. Or I could be off base on this one. Perhaps she meant it more literally, excluding the blind, the deaf, and the psychopaths from her list of prospects. After five rejections, you shouldn’t be so picky. I would be off her list on all three counts. Not to worry, her date returned.

We met another affable, retired couple from Las Vegas while eating dinner at Paso Terra on the street front patio, splitting an order of paella. I ate the one carrot in the paella dish without sharing. It was the best carrot I’ve ever had. My attempt to order a side of one carrot failed. Sorry ER. The man introduced me to the concept of burning rubber. I was holding my hands over my groin thinking about the friction, but what he meant was spinning the wheels of your race car to generate as much smoke as possible before speeding off for a quarter-mile run. As thrilling as that is, it destroys the tires, so the trick is to buy cheap, one-use disposable tires, should I ever decide to burn my rubber. The conversation had several opportunities to go off the rails along differing political propensities, our new friends lamenting the lack of support for our veterans and taking issue with San Diego’s anti-yoga on-the-beach enforcement and AI technology. ER steered us back to neutral ground, pointing out examples of AI use with health benefits that human practitioners couldn’t provide and our new friend couldn’t refute.

Keeping worldview out of casual dinner conversations with strangers is generally a good idea, especially when their German Shepard is staring at you with bared teeth through the driver seat windshield of their truck. I think worldview is more closely related to semantic memory, which defines the interrelationship between things. In my memory meta-model (MMM), I think of semantic memory as the modeling diagrams I make for software, an ontology of the concepts the software will realize. Sadly, bubble diagrams don’t make for interesting dinner conversation.

Semantic memory is more than memorizing facts. A picnic bench at a viewpoint informed us of a new fact: the Chumash are the first people, which is probably news to many misinformed anthropologists. Those anthropologists will have to rewrite their semantic memories to accommodate this new worldview now that we know the cradle of humanity is in the Figueroa mountains just outside of Santa Barbara on the 154.

Armed with new bird and anthropological knowledge, we attempted to summit the 2,624-foot Cerro Alto Peak. We didn’t see many birds on the trail, the most memorable being the spotted towhee and a couple of vultures. The vultures were keeping a close eye on ER.

We did see quite a few people on the trail. None of them appeared to be Chumash, but how would I know? We jockeyed for position with a family of five up the mountain. Dad added a lot of unnecessary stress to the family’s hike by starting on the wrong trail, chastising his kids when they strayed, losing his glasses, and trying to motivate his three-year-old daughter, who would have preferred to play with the dirt. Dad needed to stop and smell the rose-colored flowers of the hummingbird sages. If he didn’t care for those, he could have chosen the chaparral peas, the silver puffs, the wooly Indian paintbrushes, the wooly blue curls, the scorpionweed, the pipestem clematis, the pink honeysuckle, the white globe lily, or the purple chinese houses. The mountainside was a pollinator’s paradise.

I was worried when the little three-year-old girl passed ER on the trail. (I’m teasing. The kid was riding on her dad’s back.) ER prevailed on the 120-floor ascent to her credit, though I was concerned that I might have to take ER to the ER. We picked a good day for the summit; cloud cover was limited to a fog bank that hung over Pismo Beach in the distance. We had 360-degree views, including Morro Rock, Pismo Beach, and a nearby summit with cell towers. I read that you could see to the Sierras on a perfect day, but haze obscured the view of the distant horizon. After the fact I read, you can see the “Nine Sisters,” volcanic plugs along a fault line. Morrow Rock is one. Looking at the trip pictures, I can see at least one other candidate, but not all of them.

After the hike, we started the long trek back. I took the long way home, driving through the heart of Los Padres National Forest, with impressive big-sky landscapes of layered hills and mountains. A stream-following road reminds me of Colorado. I’ve motorcycled this road before, but my brain forgot to store the video and instead categorized it in my semantic memory under spectacular. Why can’t that episodic memory play over and over in my head instead of the shuddering ones from the third grade? The one downside to the gorgeous scenery was the 30-minute stoplights on a two-lane highway with no crossroads.

And that brings me to the end of our time-traveling adventure. If you remember reading this, you have formed an episodic memory. If you remember the facts about goldfinches, the hippocampus, the hummingbird sage, or the Chumash, you have formed or augmented your semantic memory. And if the article is forgettable, it is not my fault. Your brain is working as designed.

Books referenced:
“Why We Remember” by Charan Ranganath
“The Backyard Bird Chronicles” by Amy Tan

Cartoon Images by ImageFX
All photos are originals

Good Bye Earth

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Spoiler Alert: Don’t read if you want to watch the K-drama “Good Bye Earth.”  My advice is not to have such aspirations. Some of the story doesn’t make sense and isn’t well explained. Most of the characters are flat despite their backstories. And the backdrops had the full moon on the same horizon as the sun. 

“What would you do if you only had 177 days left?” asked GF, because I mentioned that there were only 177 days left until the asteroid impact in the Netflix K-drama “Good Bye Earth” that I was watching. It’s a fair question, but I didn’t have an answer.

In “Good Bye Earth,” things go to hell in bits and pieces. All the evil people hang out at nightclubs and gambling halls, while all the good guys hang out at a church: depravity or kumbaya. Prisoners escape. They abduct children for nefarious purposes. People stop working. Supplies dwindle to nothing. The military holds out, but dwindling ammo limits their effectiveness. A child dies of a fever because there are no antibiotics. You would be lucky to survive long enough to experience the end of days. 

Interestingly, “Good Bye Earth” seems to fall short on reconciliation and long on betrayal for those who abandon others to save themselves. It is short on forgiveness and long on revenge. Why should bad people live to see the end? They need to go now while we have the satisfaction of killing them for what they have done. Rest easy, for revenge is not on my list of things to do. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few people I would like to have kicked in the balls over the years (men and women alike), but I think that kind of satisfaction has to happen in the moment unless some damn white whale has bitten off your leg. 

Doing whatever it takes to survive the last days is the realistic answer, but it misses the intent of her question. Implicit in the 177-day question is the assumption that all hasn’t gone to hell and one still has some agency. It’s a bucket list question about what you’d like to do if you had to decide, with the bucket list on a short leash. Also implicit in the scenario is the futility of a long-term legacy. If the Earth is going bye-bye, there is no need to worry about the world the children will have to live in. There won’t be one. We can burn off a tank or two of gas without any global warming guilt.

So, how would I find gratification if the world only had six months to live?

Our plan for the day was a hike on Ladder Trail in Painted Canyon on BLM land outside Mecca just north of the Salton Sea by way of motorcycles. It was six months since my last ride. The oil line was up to where it should be, but was the oil any good after six months of decay? The front tire looked low. Chris said not to worry. I trusted his judgment. Sunny skies were in the forecast after a few morning clouds. It was supposed to be nice inland but hot in the desert.  

The whole day was weather-diverse. We rode in a fifty-five-degree marine layer that was taking its time burning off. We emerged from the clouds on the S-79 outside Santa Isabel, but it stayed chilly at altitude. That changed quickly as we dropped nearly four thousand feet in altitude to Borrego Springs from fifty-five to eighty-five in less than half an hour. At the first gas stop of the day, we shed layers in front of the fashionable club of Ducati riders. I can’t imagine they planned much more riding in the desert heat wearing their thick black leathers. 

Mecca is a taqueria for hungry travelers who skipped breakfast. It’s also a tiny town on the north side of the Salton Sea.

From Mecca, we drove ten miles on an out-and-back graded dirt road to the Painted Canyon trailhead. The overly cautious sign warned that the road required a four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicle. The road was hard-packed and well-graded, with only a few sandy patches. Deep sand is one of the things I hate the most on a ride. I’ve managed to topple over about five or six times, but never at any significant speed. I watched Chris wobble through one, instinctively extending his legs for balance, which is probably an excellent way to break both legs if it ever came to that. Even the best riders struggle in the sand on heavy bikes that aren’t made for it.

Painted Canyon was a pleasing juxtaposition of color arrangement from the outside with green creosote in the foreground, beige, brown, and red hills, and a blue sky in the back. It’s a maze of trails on the inside. Ladder Trail veered off the main canyon and disappeared into a crack in the wall face. Three short ladders provided access to the slot’s entrance. The slot canyon rivals “The Slot” in Anza-Borrego, with high walls and a path just wide enough so you don’t have to force your way through or turn sideways. The trail emerges onto the roof of the mesa, providing a panoramic view of the canyon and the mountains beyond. Jacinto towers to the west, snow patches still visible on its flanks. 

Once on top, we were exposed to the heat and the sun. My water bottle had leaked over half its contents on the ride out, leaving us to share a half liter of water on a five-mile hike, a cause for concern but nothing we couldn’t handle. At the farthest reach of the hike, we dropped back into the canyon and headed downhill for the trek back. Desert bushes were laden with pollen-saturated yellow catkins. The ocotillo plants had leaves indicating recent rain. Wildflowers proliferated in their sparse desert way. Black and yellow birds scattered too quickly for a photo capture. Every bend seemed like a new picture. We descended to the lower canyon trail using an essential rope and ladder before returning to the trailhead and the road.

Mecca is a taqueria for dehydrated hikers who challenge the desert heat with a pint of water. 

On the ride back through the desert to Borrego Springs, a steady wind blew snaking sand ribbons across the highway. Deep sand is the only thing I hate more than gusting winds on a motorcycle, but gusting winds are potentially more lethal. I’ve been blown five feet by wind gusts before, enough to push you into the oncoming lane or off the road if you are ill-positioned. The winds were strong enough to fatigue my neck muscles but not so strong to knock me off my line. 

We pulled off the desert road to take stock of the weather. Nothing in the forecast prepared us for what we encountered. The blowing wind kicked up a sandy haze over Clark Dry Lake. The marine layer of clouds peered over the mountain wall to the west, which held back their ambition. The dark edge of a black cloud crossed over the desert floor from north to south at about Borrego Springs. The ominous cloud had two cyclonic-looking formations underneath. I’ve never seen a formation quite like it. It reminded me of the final scene in “The Terminator,” when Sarah Conner was standing at a gas station, heading off into the lightning-struck mountains of the Mexican desert. 

As far as I know, these clouds were not harbingers of the apocalypse. I think they were lenticular clouds because of the layering visible at the edge of the front. According to people who keep track of such things, lenticular is from Latin, meaning shaped like a lentil. Take a look at a lentil for yourself. It’s a plausible explanation. The word was first applied to lenses that have the shape of a double-convex lens, curved on both sides.

Lenticular clouds are a standing wave pattern formed when winds blow over a fixed structure like a mountain. As humid air is pushed up and cools, it condenses into a cloud. The cloud dissipates as the air sinks back down and overcorrects by dipping lower than its original path. Layers of hot and cold in the stream give the lenticular cloud the pancake look. I have only seen these clouds in isolation, looking more like a stack of pillows than tornado breeding grounds. I speculate you get this unusual formation when combining a storm front with a standing wave pattern.

We were filling up for the motorcycle ride home at a gas station in Borrego Springs. The marine layer told us we were heading back into the cold, and we geared up. The fifty-two-degree temperatures confirmed our expectations.

What would I do with 177 days left? I want a few more days like this in the 177. With time short, I wouldn’t worry so much about kicking the bucket in a wreck. Kicking the bucket might even be a blessing in an actual apocalypse scenario. My usual thought when I leave the house on the motorcycle is to make it back alive. I wouldn’t have so much to lose if one of those cyclonic cells dropped out of the sky and swept me off to Oz. There is something exhilarating about surviving the ride, witnessing grandeur in the big and the small, and hiking through narrow slots and up and down ladders. I’m not sure it is something you can plan for. Maybe that is the source of the exhilaration. Put a few days on that list where you head out with a minimalist plan and see what happens. Take a pass on the kumbaya and depravity.


Reading Time: 5 minutes

Lisa Cron’s books, “Story or Die” and “Story Genius,” should be right up my alley, as she offers brain science suggestions for improving one’s writing. She has helped me realize why my stories are flat, but her suggestions have blocked me more than empowered me. This piece is to work through my issues. I apologize for the nitpicking. She has two quality books. 

I get hung up on the word misbelief. As Lisa claims, the protagonist has a misbelief that prevents her from achieving her goal. A story revolves around the protagonist’s struggle to relinquish this cherished misbelief in the “aha” moment. The external events that force this transformation are the plot. So what is the problem?

Misbelief makes it sound like the protagonist has the emotional IQ of an idiot. Lisa suggests that the protagonist is a proxy for the audience. In my head, I have formulated this syllogism: If the story’s protagonist is an emotional idiot and a proxy for the reader, then the reader is an idiot. 

My readers are bright and emotionally intelligent. They don’t identify with someone who holds on to stupid beliefs just because that is their backstory. They can argue and defend a mental model but can change their thinking without an existential emotional crisis when presented with new information that improves their understanding. 

In “Story or Die,” she uses the example of a Water is Life ad with a two-minute video about a four-year-old Kenyan boy who doesn’t have access to clean water. The NGO created a video about helping him complete his bucket list to get the waterworks flowing from the potential donor’s tear ducts into the boy’s village. In this example, the implicit protagonist is the viewer who can save the day with a donation. I have a problem with her analysis. Here is Lisa describing the misbelief of the viewer:

“The misbelief: Drinking water is safe and plentiful, and of course, a four-year-old will live a long and full life.”

I don’t believe the problem is naivete. I, for one, as a viewer, know damn well that not everyone has access to clean water, and people, including young children, suffer because of it. It’s not a misbelief. It’s not that I don’t care, either. I know it’s a tragedy, but I have not donated to that cause. My takeaway from brain science is that the brain, above all else, is a filter for extracting meaningful information from noise. Like many other good causes, this one got lost in the noise.

I question her interpretation of brain science. Yes, I have read that we evaluate things emotionally. However, our thinking brains construct scenarios, and our emotional brains assess them. The brain needs the plot to build scenarios as much as it requires the emotion to decide. Those dry, boring facts about the severity of the problem matter to me, maybe because I am a “Logician,” according to Myers-Briggs, a decidedly small minority in their catalog of personality types. 

Why has my brain filtered out this boy and all like him in the past? My brain has evaluated if donating to that four-year-old boy (who, by the way, has already satisfied his bucket list items) will make my life more meaningful than all the other things I do with money to make my life meaningful. That is the basis of my decision, not merely giving in to pathos. 

So, just because you get me to cry and feel miserable doesn’t mean I will donate. As Lisa points out, telling people what to do will cause them to shut down, but on the flip side, a tear-jerking story alone only makes me feel manipulated. 

So, I don’t want to throw away the baby with the bath water because Lisa’s books are powerful writing tools. Here is what Lisa has given me so far (word for word):

  • There is one person (the protagonist, the person who will experience the conflict)
  • With one unavoidable problem (the external conflict)
  • That spurs one internal struggle (misbelief versus truth, the core conflict)
  • Leading to one “aha” moment (the protagonist’s realization, the point your story will make, resulting in the emotion you want your audience to feel)
  • Which allows the protagonist to solve the problem and take action (the transformation).

To progress, I want to change her misbelief and truth into concepts I can write to. I need something else. 

Trust or mistrust is a good thing to build a story around. The internal struggle is evaluating your level of trust and misreading intentions. What could be more valuable to survival than knowing who and what to trust or mistrust? Arguably, our big brains evolved to ferret out the honest people from the psychopaths. In this model of human evolution, art, including storytelling, is a tool for expressing empathy and outing those who lack it. Evolution is not the survival of the fittest; it is the survival of those who cooperate the best. Adapting Lisa’s framework to “trust and mistrust” instead of “truth and misbelief,” a story is about trusting someone when you shouldn’t or not trusting someone when you should. The “aha” moment is the realization that the opposite is true. 

Titanic comes to mind as a story that fits the trust framework rather than the misbelief. Lisa would say Rose’s misbelief is that she has to live as a prisoner of the well-to-do in high society. But that doesn’t hold up. She is looking for an escape from the beginning, contemplating diving off the backend of the ship if that is what it takes. The “aha” moment for that premise comes halfway through the movie when she says, “I know. It doesn’t make any sense. That’s why I trust it.” The movie’s arc isn’t overcoming that misbelief but trusting Jack as the catalyst for her escape. She doesn’t trust herself to do it, but it is not because she has misbelief; she must learn from Jack how to shed her high society shackles. She is briefly tested again with the alleged “Heart of the Ocean” theft but doesn’t succumb. Her training is complete when she peels Jacks’s frozen body off of the wooden bed frame. I don’t think that is an “aha” moment: “See you later Jack. I can go it alone now.” The more significant trust issue is the faith of all those unfortunate people who trusted Titanic. Spoiler alert: the Titanic sinks.

Vulnerability is just another face of trust. It involves revealing something about yourself to someone that could cause harm, whether physical, financial, or emotional. In this model, the story simulates the risk and reward or lack of reward for the reader so the reader can make an informed emotional decision about the value of the revelation. 

Another story model could be finding meaning out of the noise. Story is about meaning. It is the transformation from what gives the protagonist meaning at the start to what provides the protagonist with meaning at the end. Meaningful decisions are about hard choices. When I say hard choices, I mean they are defining. There is no right or wrong choice, misbelief, or truth. I don’t think it is “Story or Die.” It is “Story, or you might as well be Dead Inside.”

Meaning is also about making a difference. How will my donation make a difference in the world, and what reward will I get? The movie About Schmitt comes to mind. A small donation to strangers in a faraway place makes more difference, as revealed by a thankful letter from his donation recipients, than all of his other failed attempts with those close to him. I want my thankful letter, not your manipulative story and endless requests for more money. 

Misbelief, trust, or meaning? Depending on the story, you can choose any of the three, and I’m sure there are many more frameworks to choose from. Think guidelines, not rules.

Ghost of My Shadow

Reading Time: < 1 minute

My shadow was the light that would follow me,
the ghost is emptiness where the shadow used to be.

The apparition is gently opening the door,
finding my shadow doesn’t wait for me anymore.

Stepping on my shadow in the gloom of the night,
its ghost is my memory when the sun shines bright.

My shadow would levitate its food in the air,
the ghost is the story of a feat so rare.

Casts the shadow no longer, yet the ghost is always near,
the mournful presence of moments held dear.

A K-review of a K-drama, My Demon

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Spoiler alert, details including the ending are discussed. This discussion is for reading after you’ve watched or if you never intend to.

I spent 16+ hours with Do Do-Hee and Jeong Gu-wan, so I have to say something about it. They make the perfect couple with all the complications of wealth dating an evil demon while her step-family plots to kill her to keep her from inheriting the family business. My logline: A handsome evil demon becomes the bodyguard and lover of a beautiful CEO.

The drama wallows in sentimentality and sappiness, one-dimensional secondary and tertiary characters, and water-drop sound effects, to say nothing of the manual for demons. How many times can Do-Hee and Gu-wan stare lovingly into each other’s eyes? If someone stared at me like that, I would run for the mirror to see if there was a bear in the cave or worse. And if happiness means I have to brush someone else’s teeth, I want no part of it.

The devil has no horns, and Do-Hee could be doing product placement modeling. In what I believe was a moment of self-reflective but perhaps unintentional candor about the series, Do-Hee’s female employee says, “Don’t you think her bodyguard is unnecessarily handsome?” Her male employee might as well have responded, “Don’t you think our CEO is unnecessarily beautiful?” Especially for a woman who runs a dessert company. This series revolves around the beautiful people and those who serve, aspire, and resent them. In another telling line, when an office worker observes that Jeong is “glowing” in the follow-up to one of those sexless, intimate love scenes found only in K-dramas, the same office girl undercuts his statement with, “He’s always glowing, when is he not?”

For all its shortcomings, it does have its moments. The stars shine, and the writers had some fun with it. For a demon with nearly unlimited powers, Jeong Gu-wan uses it relatively sparingly on annoying people, like exploding an airbag on an annoying driver. He keeps his gruff character throughout, thinly masking his affection for his human companions. He says, “I just want to live eternally as an apex predator who never ages or dies. Is that too much to ask?” The wordplay provides some fun tension to the relationship. Jeong says, “For a demon, as an apex predator, to marry an insignificant human would be like a meat eater marrying a pig.” After a metaphorical explanation involving insects, Do-hee asks, “Are you comparing me to a long-horn beetle?”

I couldn’t help but admire the Tango fight scene. With Jeong’s powers stored in Do-Hee’s wrist, Jeong must hold her arm to use his powers, but the two are initially separated. Do-Hee pepper sprays her way to Jeong, and the dance battle begins
to fight off the gang trying to avenge their dead boss. As the couple tangos away, sidelined combatants twirl their weapons overhead in time with the music while the couple pummels each attacker in turn and in step with the music. Eat your heart out, Jackie Chan.

Pearls of wisdom emerge now and then. “What’s peaceful about marriage? It’s more violent than anything,” says Star Jin, a victim of Jeong’s unrequited love. “Fate is nothing more than a web woven by a myriad of choices of your making,” says God, a street lady living the Oscar the Grouch lifestyle with the dentition to match and wearing a baseball cap with Good missing an o as the lettering in case you weren’t clear who she is. “The words are so sweet, they could give me cavities,” says Do-Hee. And my favorite line, which I hope to use someday, “I wasn’t crying, I was just sweating out of my eyes,” says Jeong, attempting to deflect a display of human emotion.

Maybe the bottom line is, “Humans are each other’s personal hell,” and “Happiness can sometimes be poisonous.” Still, they wrapped up the series nicely, with everyone getting what they deserved, even if it wasn’t what they wanted. The psychopath gets locked up, the mother who overlooked child abuse starts a foundation, Star Jin becomes an angel to an abused child like herself instead of running away to England, Do-hee’s unrequited lover and step-cousin Ling Sang-yi becomes the CEO, Secretary Shin Da-jeong and Park Bok-gyu come out of the (heterosexual) closet to announce their office romance that was secret from no one, and the gang defeated in Tango wars manages to open a legitimate restaurant without scaring all the customers away. Even the dead people of importance got their backstories fixed. All with the oversight and approval of the beautiful couple.

I wonder if making God less than attractive was an attempt to balance out good and beauty or double down on it. Does beauty even trump omnipotence? “Jeong manages to defeat God once. I didn’t know that was possible,” says God after Jeong manages to break one of her rules without suffering the consequences of “a fiery death like a campfire.” No one else’s love is God-defying. The relationship between the seconds, Secretary Shin Da-jeong for Do Do-Hee, and Park Bok-gyu (F**k You) for Jeong Gu-won is outright cartoonish. So I reject that they were going for the love conquers all theme. And when that unavoidable ending comes to pass, when Jeong does, in fact, experience a fiery death like a campfire, God can’t bear to see the beautiful people suffer either and so intervenes Deus ex Machina style to give us the happy ending we want. And, of course, they live happily ever after, or at least as long as a mortal human can live with a demon, Do-hee managing to overlook all the moral dilemmas of living with a benign demon who henceforth only sends people to eternal fire if they deserve it, the scumbag class. A love story, sure, but if the story has any purposeful deeper meaning, it is to expose how much we bend our morality with our beauty bias. The story is a desert so sweet it could give you brain cavities.

Featured Image by ImageFx

Global Worming

Reading Time: < 1 minute

On the lighter side…

Roseanne Roseannadanna: What’s all this I keep hearing about global worming? If worms want to live anywhere on the globe, I say let them. Well, Jane, it just goes to show you, it’s always something — if it ain’t one thing, it’s another.”

Image by GoogleLabs FxImage

The Blue Hills of Africa

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In “The Green Hills of Africa,” Hemingway takes us deep into the back country of Kenya and Tanzania in pursuit of big game, “pursuit and conversation,” “pursuit remembered,” “pursuit and failure,” and “pursuit as happiness.” The book fluctuates between in-the-moment hunting scenes and philosophical sidebars given in conversational pursuit, like the play-by-play and analyst format of the coverage of a modern sporting event. 

Hemingway never uses the phrase or describes the backcountry as green hills, although he once mentions that he saw nothing on the green hillsides when looking to kill a kudu. He does mention the blue hills three times, hence the recast of the title, not the most vivid imagery I’ve ever read, but he is a writer, not a landscape artist.

To improve my writing, I once bought a tool called Hemingway, which rated the complexity of your sentences to simplify and shorten them. That is to make them more Hemingway-esque. Hemingway wouldn’t have scored well with his eponymous tool, at least not with this book, with sentences like:

“Passing the skinner’s tent he showed me the head which looked, body-less and neck-less, the cape of hide hanging loose, wet and heavy from where the base of the skull had been severed from the vertebral column, a very strange and unfortunate kudu.”

The tool would have shortened that to two sentences. That is not even a particularly long sentence compared to many others in the book, but I chose it as a sample because it does strike me as a very Hemingway-esque sentence for another reason. It’s not necessarily short but very raw and visceral. 

He lives the hunter’s ethic, killing in one shot so the animal doesn’t suffer (why shoot in the first place?). He loves to hunt as long as he kills cleanly, but as he demonstrably writes, it doesn’t always work out that way. Or, to use more Hemingway-esque language from a passage where he gut-shot a kudu, the worst thing a hunter could do because the animal escaped but would not live, 

“…they (hyenas) would get him before he died, hamstringing him and pulling his guts out while he was alive.”

Nothing goes to waste if the animal drops dead and the hunting team finds it. The animals are skinned, beheaded, and chopped up for meat. They ate the meat and kept the hides and horns. Hemingway doesn’t kill female animals (does*), either, at least not on purpose. (*Grammarly needs help distinguishing between the noun plural of doe and the verb does.)

Hemingway competes with another member of his hunting party for the trophy head of the largest bull, fill in the blank of the species, rhino, sable, kudu, and so on. Killing the fittest animal contradicts everything Darwin had to say on the subject. It’s hard to read how beautiful and extraordinary the animal is in one sentence and how proud he is to have killed it in the next, rationalizing it all away with, “…they all had to die and my interference with the nightly and the seasonal killing that went on all the time was very minute, and I had no guilty feeling at all.” Of course, we stand at a point in history where all those minute killings add up to one global genocide of just about anything more significant than a coyote.

Before throwing all this behavior on the bin heap of macho, it is worth noting that his wife accompanied him on this expedition and hunted on several of the forays he describes. But I can’t imagine a woman writing this scene where he fights with one of the members of his support team, M’Cola, who forgot to clean the rusty bore of Hemingway’s rifle as promised. We pick up the action where M’Cola sees the rusty gun and realizes he forgot to do his job.

“His face had not changed and I had said nothing but I was full of contempt and there had been indictment, evidence, and condemnation without a word being spoken.”** (**According to Grammarly, Hemingway has as many problems with commas as I do.)

Nothing visibly happened, but the tension between the two men is there because of the silence. It’s a nice piece of emotional minimalism. 

The most disturbing sentence in the book is a bacterial shot to the gut:

“Already I had had one of the diseases and had experienced the necessity of washing a three-inch bit of my large intestine with soap and water and tucking it back where it belonged an unnumbered amount of times a day.”

I think I would have just fed myself to the hyenas.

On one point, I can agree with Hemingway, “Beer is food.” On another, I hope he is wrong, “…what a great advantage an experience of war was to a writer…Writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged.” I’d prefer not to survive a war to become a decent writer, although I understand you can’t get that kind of experience in a writing class.

If you are going to read a Hemingway book, this hunting memoir is probably not his best. It’s a dated piece that I read for particular motivations: 

  • Descriptions of Africa to help me visualize the country for a book idea set in Africa.
  • Examine work by a premiere author.
  • Get into the mindset of a hunter.

It met all my goals. Happy hunting for whatever yours are.

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Book Report on “Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story”

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Or an African Horror Story, as I would retitle it, from the battlefields of the National Parks of Kenya, her life spent treating the collateral damage of the genocide of elephants and rhinoceros and the onslaught of human expansion and global warming on all animals in Kenya. As Daphne puts it, the animals always lose. Here are some online statistics to give you an idea of the numbers.

“In 1500, there were over 25 million elephants in Africa. By 1900, this had fallen to around 10 million; by 1979, it was down to 1.3 million.
There was a rapid decline in population size over the 1970s and 1980s, such that by the mid-1990s, numbers had fallen below 300,000. Over the following decades, conservation efforts across some countries managed to restore populations to over 470,000 in 2008. But increased poaching rates over the past decade have sent numbers back into decline.”
(Source: https://ourworldindata.org/elephant-populations)

Daphne calls her book a memoir, but technically, it is an autobiography, starting with her grandparents, who settled in Kenya before she was born, continuing through two marriages and two daughters, life in the National Parks that her second husband David Sheldrick had a big part in modernizing and protecting, taking her well beyond her retirement age while contributing to the foundation she created in honor of David Sheldrick. She lived and worked in places I remember from my 1983 African trip: Tsavo, Masa Mara, Amboseli, and Mt. Kenya. She moved to Nairobi National Park after her second husband’s death, a smaller park I skipped on the 1983 tour.

It’s a heart-wrenching story with a few successes but many tragic endings. After many failures, Daphne learned how to make a baby formula capable of sustaining orphaned elephant calves. A newborn baby elephant sucks on the mom’s teat every 15 minutes, the poster child of high maintenance. She reared and reintroduced elephants and rhinos to the wild. It takes a decade to successfully reintroduce an elephant to a wild state, a labor of love. Drop a rhino into the wild without helping it establish a territory, and another rhino is likely to kill it as an intruder. One of her reintroduced rhinos helped repopulate rhinos in Tsavo. Some of her elephant orphans went on to give birth and raise calves in the wild, contributing to the rise of that population in the first decade of this millennium.

It’s also a tale of the inner lives of animals, from mongooses and dik-diks to sheep to warthogs to elephants. Daphne learns to read the body language of her wards. Anyone with a pet knows that animals have an inner life, and after reading the book, this applies to elephants in spades, as Daphne watches them grieve, support one another, and make inferences. She recounts stories of elephant memory and intuition. An elephant in the wild for twenty-five years tenderly greets her trainer from age five. Her penned elephants wait at the gate for new arrivals to her orphanage before they arrive without any apparent means of knowing they are en route to their remote location. Daphne belly rubs her way into the trust of rhinos. She learns the personality of the creatures she cares for, even a sheep she uses to befriend and butt heads with an orphaned rhino. It amazes me that it took scientists so long to catch on. See Frans De Waal’s work for more on that.

But despite her most loving efforts, no elephant has ever chosen to stay in a stable, always choosing a more dangerous wilderness existence over a domestic pen. However, on occasion, once-resident elephants returned for medical help or help for offspring, sometimes entrapped in snares, wounded with machete cuts, injured with darts, or suffering the effects of drought, which shuts down lactation. Acknowledging their sentience and intelligence in the context of brutality is what makes this such a heart-wrenching and inspiring story.

Using words like murder instead of poaching would more accurately describe what is going on. Would we tolerate people getting slaughtered for molar extractions or having their noses ground down for some old man’s erection? Maybe. People don’t treat outsiders much better (where an outsider is relative to anyone’s particular point of view). Daphne survived the turbulent times of the end of colonialism in Africa, a less than peaceful process. She recounts tales of a family of her neighbors getting burned alive in their own house and other atrocities. Park Rangers were trained in World War II combat tactics to stop the poaching, but many were killed in the effort, anyway. She survived a lifetime of tragedy and death, both animal and human.

How does she get through it all? Daphne says despite all the tragedy, the dead are at peace and no longer suffer. You have to move forward and help those who can still be helped, focusing on the problems before you and not the tragedies of what has passed. She encourages us to think like elephants who forgive even when they can never forget.

She survived through it all, through two marriages, raising two daughters, and contributing to the knowledge of rearing and reintroducing animals back into the wild, creating the David Sheldrick (2nd Husband) Wildlife Trust that continues its work with orphaned animals, conservation, and community outreach. Her life was a love story told in the context of a still ongoing one-sided war.