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.

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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.”

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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.”

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.


Urban Oasis

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Amidst the towering smokestacks of steel,
Nature’s emergence seems almost surreal.
The rush of traffic, the sound of the wind,
A secret spot, for wildlife to hide in.

The city hums with machines and gears,
As the birds and bees dim in my ears.
The concrete jungle rises tall and proud,
While trees and flowers hold their ground.

Transmission towers with commanding might,
Like ancient oaks in the fading light.
Electric lines stretch to the sun,
Like a spider’s web that cities have spun.

The sun sets behind factory’s walls,
Stars peer through smoking squalls.
A contrast stark, yet somehow the same,
Industry and nature both lay claim.

Nature forges in a world of steel,
Surrounded by slag, melting its heel.
Amidst the chaos, a glimmer of hope,
A chance for nature, a way to cope

Assist by Grammarly AI.


Reading Time: 16 minutes

Author’s Note: See the first in this Astronomical Series: Totality

 Day 1: 220 miles. Escondido to Kelso Dunes

“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Annularity is totality’s brighter cousin in a rare competition where being dimmer is better. We aim to seek annularity in the backcountry of Nevada, an event predicted to occur on October 14th at 9:30 a.m. near Ely, Nevada. I wouldn’t have planned a trip so close in time to a trip I just finished. But a celestial event is on a rigorous schedule that you can’t slip to the right, no matter how skillfully you bargain with the cosmos or Sir Isaac Newton.

It’s already 2:30 p.m. before we launch and 550 miles to Ely. We, a convoy of two motorcycles and a Compact Prius, want to cover 220 miles of it to Kelso Dunes. There is no way to beat LA traffic this late in the afternoon. In Riverside County, the afternoon temperatures hit the low 90s. I’m expecting the cooler temperatures of San Diego County and the higher elevation of the desert. Long underwear is a poor wardrobe choice. The only way to beat the heat is to lane split through the on-again and off-again stalled traffic of the I-15, something I am loathe to do because it is the cause of so many motorcycle accidents, trying to wobble our way through cars and trucks. If the vehicles pay attention, they split like Moses parting the Red Sea. Sometimes, those two fearless classes of motorcyclists, the leather-bound speedsters in crotch rockets and the half-helmeted Harley riders in jean vests blaze through the stopped traffic like a hot knife through butter. I’m just trying not to get killed. 

We fuel up at the Outlet malls in Barstow and wait for our Prius to catch up to us at a Del Taco, which boasts of being the original. A little research uncovers that the first Del Taco was at Yermo, just down the road, and that another Del Taco by Barstow Station is the oldest. But I digress. 

An earthclipse occurs at about 6 p.m., completely dimming and obscuring the Sun and accurately predicted by scientists. We watch the Sun fade over the horizon, which means we will be night riding the hundred-plus miles to the Dunes. Riding up Kelbaker Road north from the I-40, the temperature drops into the upper 50s as we summit. The long underwear is a good choice now. Gearing up and gearing down is the ongoing battle of any long-distance bike ride. The only guideline I can go by is that the next road segment will not correlate with the previous one because of the altitude, the time of day, changing weather conditions, and even traffic conditions.

We head down the dirt road that fronts the Kelso dunes, looking for a spot to camp, a challenging feat in the dark. One that I’m not up to. I see an open area on the side of the road that isn’t marked with a no camping sign. I slow down to see it better in the dark, hit a sandy spot, and drop the bike. It is a slow-motion fall, and I walk off the bike as it goes down—just like old times. 

The campsite is just down the road, though. They’ve added vault toilets since the last time I was here Singing Dunes, a welcome addition as far as I’m concerned. We have a few drinks and finish up the Indian food brought for the ride, but no one is hungry after our snack at Del Taco. We compete on shooting star counts in the Milky Way banded sky. The urban glow of Las Vegas and Los Angeles show on either horizon. After everyone else turns in, I stay up for another hour to work on my nighttime photography skills.

Day 2: 330 miles. Kelso Dunes to Ely, Nevada

“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The morning light illuminates the dunes from the east, making nice shadows on their west sides, perfect for Dune photography. Sand verbana and chinchweed add a lovely purple and yellow color to the landscape. 

The big decision of the morning is whether to drive to Baker or Primm. Baker is closer. We know we have enough gas to make it. Primm will save us nearly an hour if we cut across the Mojave National Preserve, but the gas situation would be precarious. Outside the major cities, gas stations are a precious commodity for those riding on a motorcycle. Take advantage of every opportunity to fuel when gas stations are fifty to seventy-five miles apart.

So, we opt for Primm, turning right at the Kelbaker train depot down the creatively named Kelso-Cima road, which takes you from Kelso to Cima. We keep the speed at a gas-saving 65 mph, which gives us the time to soak in the creosote-lined valleys that lead up to the rugged mountains in mid-distance. As we reach higher elevations, we roll through a Joshua tree forest, a sparse arrangement of spikey-leaved trees where tree neighbors give each other a wide berth. Hole-in-the-wall campground is just twelve miles down the road. I hear its frigid, windy hillsides calling us for a future visit. 

We make it to Primm, not exactly brimming with fuel but enough left to get us there without panic. Primm has an interstate vibe with high-volume gas stations and a motorcycle club blaring out music at top volume. We stutter our way through Vegas, admiring its skyline but not so much its traffic. 

On the Highway 93 turn North into the heartland of Nevada, I ignore my advice never to waste an opportunity to fuel up. The next town on the map is Alamo, about seventy-five miles north. I expect a sign saying, “next services in so many miles,” but I never see it. There is no guarantee that we can gas up there. 

The 93 is a road where, one day, someone said, “We need a route from the I-15 to Alamo.” An engineer took a ruler and drew a line from one place to another. The road skirts the Desert National Wildlife Range on its west side, which has abundant water for an October desert and a veneer of green. We pull into the Visitor Center a few miles short of Alamo. I have to think that Lisa Williams, the ranger in charge, doesn’t see that many people and welcomes our interruption. Lisa advises us to visit a BLM office on the way up to Ely to find a decent place to camp. Why I remember her name, I don’t know, but the imagined isolation of her mid-Nevada outpost piques my interest in the type of person that could endure it. 

We fill up at Alamo and decide to head up the 318 instead of the 93 to Great Basin. It’s already getting late, and we want to avoid wandering around in unknown territory, trying to find a place to camp in the dark. The 318 is a more direct route to Ely, where we must gas up after the 150-mile trip, a road devoid of gas stations.

As we progress, the roadsides become more vibrant, with yellow rabbitbrush (ID not confirmed) lining the road, patches of white grass in matts of red, and a veneer of green. It’s a full spectrum experience. The road cuts through a gorgeous cliff section that comes up to the shoulders and opens into a long basin surrounded by mountains. The beauty of the roadside flowers, the mid-distant green, and the mountain-rimmed horizons astound me. But my riding companion tells me not to be fooled. The remnants of Hurricane Hilary came this way and dumped more water in one day than it usually gets in a year. We witness a second spring, the plants either taking advantage of or fooled by this watery aberration. We are seeing the brochure, not the Nevada we would return to.

In Ely, the register lady at the gas station says to head out of town and pull off at any dirt road. She says they expect tens of thousands of people, a regular Woodstock event, in my estimation. In Ely, or somewhat north of it, we find an ad-hoc campground next to a horse track willing to put us up for the night for a mere sixty dollars cash, a little bit of event gouging in my opinion. Wasn’t Woodstock a free concert? We pitch our tents on the volleyball courts of a local park and set up a kitchen on one of the park picnic benches. Another scientifically-predicted earthclipse obscures the Sun from our view. The temperature drops to an overnight low of thirty degrees. The long day of riding and the cold night send us to an early tent.


“The black dragon swallows the sun, everything is silent; the moon has eclipsed, and the white rabbit has eclipsed.”(黑龙吞日,万籁寂静;月有食色,白兔已蚀

Ancient Chinese Eclipse poem, possibly manufactured by ChatGPT.

In the morning, the worry is the clouds. A thin layer obscures the Sun when we first wake. The Sun is covered but visible. Still, it is not the ideal viewing conditions when a thick band of clouds intervenes between you and annularity. But the clouds drift off, and the moon takes its first bite out of the Sun, a nick in the perfection of its sphericality. The event is on.

The complete unfolding of a solar eclipse is not exactly a horse race, and in the interim between viewings, we discuss the celestial mechanics of a solar eclipse. 

Begin Digression: Fast forward to the story’s future, now my past. The trip resumes at “End Digression.”

As the eclipse progressed, I explained the annular version of the solar eclipse as the difference between apogee and perigee. But later, it occurred to me, what are the odds that apogee and perigee line up precisely at the point where the moon’s orbit crosses the ecliptic? That would be an extraordinary coincidence if solar eclipses depended on that alignment. Why wouldn’t the eclipse occur at some other intersection point of the moon’s orbit with the ecliptic? Spoiler alert: it does. But I’ve never heard anyone describe a thick “ring of fire” or a “thin ring of fire.” And in retrospect, I do not know how close we were to full annularity.  

I waded through at least fifty different online articles, seeking an answer. Either I couldn’t ask the question the right way, or the general understanding of the qualitative mechanics of an eclipse needs to be better understood. I suspect the latter, but I finally hit an article that explained it in a way I understood. I will regurgitate (my understanding) here. 

An eclipse occurs at syzygy, the configuration of the Sun, the Earth, myself, my companions, and the moon in a straight line, like the pieces on a shish kebab skewer. Syzygy has no common etymology with Zzyzx, the exit to nowhere from the I-15 in the Mojave. They don’t even rhyme. But again, I digress.

It took me a while to visualize all the different orbital motions. So, let’s start with the most basic. The ecliptic is the plane of the Earth’s orbit about the Sun. The plane of the moon’s orbit about the Earth is inclined by five degrees with respect to the ecliptic. The nodal line is where the plane of the moon’s orbit and the ecliptic intersect. 

There are two nodal points. The ascending node is when the moon goes from below the ecliptic to above. The descending node is when the moon goes from above the ecliptic to below. And if you follow the path of the October 14th eclipse, it cuts across the Earth from Northwest to Southeast. The April 7th eclipse of 2024 will cut across the Earth from Southwest to Northeast. In the first case, the moon moves from above to below the ecliptic. In the second, the moon is moving from below to above. 

The Earth is at one of the two focus points of the ellipse of the moon’s orbit. When the moon is at perigee, it is closest to the Earth. As a side note, when the full moon corresponds with perigee, it is called a super moon. When the moon is at apogee, it is farthest from the Earth. The line from apogee to perigee is called the apsidal line.

An eclipse can only occur when the nodal line points directly at the Sun, sometimes referred to as the eclipse season. A solar eclipse occurs during a new moon when the new moon crosses the ecliptic in front of the Earth in relation to the Sun, and a lunar eclipse occurs during a full moon when the full moon crosses the ecliptic behind the Earth in relation to the Sun. 

The orientation of the nodal line with respect to the line from the Earth to the Sun changes as the Earth moves around the Sun. In three months, the nodal line will be perpendicular to the line pointing directly from the Earth to the Sun. In three more months, the nodal line will again align with the Sun, but this time with the opposite nodal point facing the Sun. So, you would expect to see an eclipse every six months.

So far, so good? 

Now, we start with the complications. First, the most eclipses recorded in a year is five, not two. One of those extra eclipses is a happenstance of the calendar. The first eclipse of that year occurred in early January, the second in June, and the third in late December. In other words, the eclipses occur every six months, as expected. They happen to fall on the year boundary.

Each of the other two extra eclipses occurred one month apart from another eclipse. I infer that the nodal line orientation had a similar aberration to the calendar in that there is a window for an eclipse of about a month. If the first eclipse occurs at the beginning of that window, the second eclipse occurs at the end. So, occasionally, you can sneak in an extra eclipse in a month. In the record year of five eclipses, this happened twice.

The second complication is that eclipses aren’t on an exact one-year cycle. In other words, the nodal line will not be in the same orientation with respect to the Sun after a complete orbit. In fact, it will be off by 1/18.6 of the Earth’s orbit or about three-quarters of a month per year. The nodal line has an 18.6-year precession. It takes 18.6 years for the nodal line to return to the same orientation at the exact location in the orbit. Ancient astronomers could predict eclipses based on this cycle without knowing celestial mechanics. Good day to you, Mr. Newton.

The third complication is that total and annular eclipses do not necessarily alternate every six months. There is even something called a hybrid eclipse, where the eclipse starts out as totality but ends in annularity.

Now, we can go to the part bugging me, which I could find little about. If the apsidal line is perpendicular to the nodal line at syzygy, the moon would always be at the same distance from the Earth when an eclipse occurs. The focal point is equidistant from the ellipse perpendicular to the apsidal line. If this were always the case, the eclipse would always be the same kind. It would be either annular or total eclipses or even hybrid, but whichever one, it would always be the same. 

If the apsidal line is coincident with the nodal line, we would have both annular and total eclipses separated by six months. On one side of the Earth’s orbit, the apogee would be between the Sun and the Earth, while on the other side of the Earth’s orbit, the perigee would be between the Sun and the Earth. Six months from the annular eclipse of October 14th, there will be a total eclipse on April 7th. 

But this alternation is only sometimes the case. It turns out that the apsidal line also precesses over 8.85 years. See [] for a good graphic showing this. The apsidal line will change with respect to the nodal line so that you wouldn’t expect an exact six-month progression of annular to total eclipse. It reverses after 4.425 years. If a total eclipse occurs in October, 4.425 years later, the annular eclipse will occur in October, not correcting for other factors.

Syzygy, nodal line procession, and apsidal line procession are my deeper, qualitative understanding of the eclipses. I know a lot more than when I started. Regardless of what I know, the fact that I showed up at a time and place predicted to have an annular eclipse, which it did with flawless precision, is a tremendous and tremendously underappreciated accomplishment for astronomy and physics.

End Digression: Return to the story present.

I check the eclipse’s progress every few minutes and snap a picture. The annular eclipse doesn’t viscerally move me like totality. You can’t see it without unique ISO-rated sunglasses. The Earth doesn’t go dark, only a little dim. If you are observant, you might notice that your shadow gets slightly fuzzy, with the two light sources coming from either side of the horns.

Still, watching the moon’s progression covering the Sun is a thrill. I’m not sure if the black dragon eats the Sun or the Sun puts its fiery jaw around the moon, only to find it indigestible and have to regurgitate it. The event culminates when the U of fire becomes the ring of fire, achieving syzygy. Even at this juncture of conjunction, the Sun is far too bright to look at directly. I snap some pictures and put the camera aside to take the time to appreciate what will likely be a once-in-my-lifetime event.

When the ring disappears and the regurgitation starts, the event is over for all except the high-end photographers who want to film the entire end-to-end progression. The Woodstock event is twenty or thirty people watching and photographing from the dirt parking lot beside the racetrack. Most of them pack up their equipment and tents and leave. For me, it’s like a baseball game. You can only go after the last out in the ninth inning. When that last dark node at the edge of the Sun’s perimeter, a black diamond if you will, disappears, it’s time to return to more Earthly pursuits.

Day 3: 200 miles. Ely to BLM land somewhere south of Alamo.

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the sky.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

With the return of full sunlight, the temperature has soared to 50 degrees (sarcasm). I wear most of my warm-weather gear as we head out of town. We plan to procure one of those lakeside campgrounds we saw at the Desert National Wildlife Range, just north of the visitor center we stopped at, taking the long way to Alamo, heading east toward Great Basin National Park on U.S. 50, then following 93 south to Caliente. 


As we turn south onto the 93, we stop for a photo op of Wheeler Peak, the 13,000-foot peak inside Great Basin National Park I climbed six years earlier on my trip to achieve totality. I remember sucking oxygen back then. Six years later, I doubt I have the cardiovascular endurance to summit. I will stick to safer things like driving five hundred and fifty miles back home on a motorcycle through Riverside traffic.

Great Basin is a vast geographic area extending over Nevada, Utah, California, and Oregon. We ride in a basin within the basin that stretches for a hundred miles, lined with distant mountains on either side and lots of cold in the middle. After reaching Pioche, we drop in elevation, and the world becomes a warmer place.


Just after Pioche, we stumble onto Cathedral Gorge State Park, a hidden gem in the heart of Nevada. A scenic overlook provides spectacular views into the weather-eroded gorge and a self-guided walking tour describing the sparse but not barren flora. The namesake feature is a cathedral structure jutting upward from the canyon’s floor. The lengthy gorge has an extended, rippled wall banded with tans and browns, fronting a distant mountain range.

 We stop for gas at Sinclair and food at the J&J fast food restaurant for greasy and unsettling fare. Exiting the town through a narrow canyon and passing more scenic country, we elevate through the picturesque countryside of juniper trees, descend into another basin, and pass on the opportunity to hunt for trilobites. Fool! How often will I get the chance to mine for trilobites? Torschlusspanik. So much to do. So little time.

 Our dreams of a lakeside campsite in the Upper Pahranagat Lake campground evaporated like gasoline on a Nevada highway. In the Paiute language, Pahranagat means “Valley of Shining Water.” I translate it as mocking water because all the campsites were fully occupied, the Visitor Center was closed, and the park was infested with Park Rangers, making a stealth camp impossible. 

 Our leader finds us a stealth site on the other side of the highway, down a dirt road to nowhere, as far as I can tell. We have the place to ourselves, but the price for primitive camping is the open-air, wallless bathrooms. We aren’t the first to camp there but benefit from this arrangement with boards and half-burnt firewood to start a fire. We watch the hillsides paint red in the sunset of another Earthclipse and speculate on the previous owner of a sizable, carnivorous jawbone. After dinner, we start a sizable fire that lasts late into the night, and so does the drinking. The conversations are all a hazy memory. We talked about seeing totality next April and, at some point, decided the benchmark of outdoor experience is how often you’ve taken an outdoor crap. Such is the talk of campfires.

Day 4: 400 miles. Somewhere south of Alamo to Escondido

“…we gotta go and never stop going ‘till we get there.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

There’s not much to say about this day other than I elevated my outdoor ranking leaving more than footprints buried at our primitive campsite. We slog all the miles, fast miles, on the long, straight highways and the I-15, eating at gas-station restaurants and concentrating on negotiating through the post-eclipse traffic. In Riverside, the temps soar to 102, a seventy-degree temperature swing from the freezing temperatures of Ely, still wearing my long underwear. But after a long day, we all make it home safe and sound, and I like to think better for the experience.













Never Been To Spain

Reading Time: 22 minutes

A stream-of-consciousness regurgitation of a trip to the Iberian Peninsula in the “Book a Trip” Series.

“Well, I’ve Never Been to Spain, yeah
But I kinda like the music,
They say the ladies are insane there,
And they sure know how to use it…”
Three Dog Night – Never Been To Spain”


I’ve been to Spain twice but couldn’t stop the “ohrwurm” (a German word literally translating to earworm), despite its lack of relevance, from playing the song in my head or sharing it with those around me. You have to appreciate the contradiction of singing the song while you are in Spain. It’s an interesting thought that the song was playing in my head because we weren’t listening to music, filling a music void like the missing frequencies hissing in my tinnitic ears. Without an externally given purpose, does my head also fill in intentional voids, a kind of existential “omwurm”? Does the brain abhor a vacuum?

I visited Spain and Portugal with family back in the early 80’s. I remember the names of the places we visited because I liked to read maps to know where I was going. Besides the names, I barely remember anything about the sites we visited, aside from an unforgettable trip to Tunis that involved seasickness, pure panic, and a hotel towel turban (I have yet to write this piece, but when I do, you will find the link here,) —and watching a bullfight, which I thought was more of a bull slaughter than a fight no matter how close the matador let the bull get to him. There are two reasons why I remember so little about the destinations apart from the intervening forty years. First, we traveled by tour bus, so much of the experience was sitting on an air-conditioned bus doing whatever we used to do to occupy our brains in the days before cell phones, not having to make any decisions or navigation.

Second, I had no connection to the places. Malaga, Seville, Granada, Lisbon, and Madrid were just names on a map. I want to say I visited Toledo, too, because I have recollections of the bus driving through a gate in a stone wall surrounding a city, and I can’t think of any other place that might be. Without a story, one cathedral or castle is as good as the following, and droning tour guides seldom provide more than dry, disjointed facts. There is nothing wrong with adventure for adventure’s sake except the missed opportunity to appreciate what you see. 

So, to give my latest trip more context, I chose two books: an audible book, “The Alchemist,” and a print book called “In Diamond Square.” I was looking for something to give me a window into what living in that region was like. I prefer a story for its intimacy rather than some overarching historical dissertation of events.

Although “The Alchemist” was initially set in the sheep-farming hills of Andalusia, it was a hero’s journey fantasy book of a boy following his literal dream to find treasure near the pyramids of Egypt. It reads like a self-help book as the boy pursues his “personal legend” on a voyage across the Sahara, offering nuggets of wisdom like, “Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.” In defense of non-allegorical self-help books, most of us don’t have supernatural powers. You might need more than self-help if you start talking to the winds and the sand, and they answer back.

According to the boy’s mentors, “… when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” The ostensible reason for our Portugal destination was something my friend wanted. He wanted to evaluate the Algarve region as a retirement option. I have yet to succumb to retirement planning. So, this journey wasn’t about my “personal legend” but in support of a “personal legend.” I tried to play my role as a part of the conspiring universe to help achieve this dream, but it was DOA. My friend was already thinking of other, closer places by the time we undertook the journey. But, “When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he has never dreamed of when he first made the decision.” Despite the premature conclusion of all personal legends, the currents of the original decision were still strong enough for us to proceed with the trip anyway. 

“In Diamond Square” was somewhat more relevant, set in Barcelona before and after the Spanish Civil War. We visited Placa del Diamant in Barcelona, sitting down for a Damm beer, learning that the only free about the Free Damm was its freedom from alcohol. The square wasn’t much to see: two lime-green city workers hosing down a fenced-in playground with high-powered water guns, a family overseeing the courtyard from their balcony, the graffiti-tagged roll-up steel doors that front most stores, men unloading grain from a truck, a woman disappearing into a door within a door apartment entrance, a few trees, the park benches haphazardly arranged to face the center of the courtyard, and a mother breastfeeding a kid who was old enough to ask. 

In the corner near the patio restaurant is a statue of Natalie, the protagonist of “In Diamond Square,” trapped with her pigeons in the sheet metal matrix with an expression that reminds me of “The Scream.” I’ve never evaluated a statue on its ability to capture the essence of a book, but I thought this effort represented. You be the judge.

Compare the figure to the passage:

“…I put my arms over my face to save me from whatever was about to happen and let out a scream from hell. A scream I must have been carrying deep inside me for years and a little something else ran from my mouth alongside that scream that was so vast it was hard to get out of my throat, like a cockroach made from saliva, and that little something else that had been shut up inside me for so long was my youth that now rushed out screaming something or another…that I’d been forsaken?” 

The imagery of “In Diamond Square” puts you in even the most mundane scenes. One passage is the best description of drizzle I’ve ever read: “Drops of rain played chase on the washing lines and, sometimes, one dripped down and, before it fell, it stretched and stretched because it seemed a huge effort to let go. It had been raining for a week, drizzle, not too heavy or too light, and the low clouds were so full of drizzle they dragged their swollen bellies along the roofs. We watched it rain.” I’d like to see more sculptures trying to capture Merce’s graphic descriptions: the 45-foot-long tapeworm popping its head out of Joe’s mouth that somebody must pull from Joe’s body without leaving any segments to regenerate; the unborn rat fetuses extruding from its mother sliced in half by a trap; or the dove filth that she finds herself imprisoned in. 

Goya Style by Craiyon

Her imagery is as haunting as the Dark Paintings of Goya. Goya appreciation was an unexpected outcome of a checkbox visit to “Museo Nacional del Prado” in Madrid. My appreciation of art runs less than skin deep, but surprisingly, some works grabbed my attention. Goya’s Dark Paintings are both metaphorically and literally dark. The most memorable is the image of Saturn eating his son. Goya portrays Saturn as a wide-eyed, ragged, and fearful god, cannibalizing one of his sons before he can overthrow him, as is prophecized according to Greek and Roman legend, with appropriate name changes. In Greek/Roman mythology, the story ends happily when Zeus/Jupiter grows up to defeat Chronos/Saturn, forcing him to regurgitate all his brothers, happily for the brothers, anyway, assuming they are reasonably undigested. In the Dark Paintings, Goya draws his figures with black eyes accented by their contrasting white sclera in a sea of dark colors as in the “Witches Sabbath” or haunted expressions as in the “Pilgrimage to San Ysidrio.” (I looked those titles up in Wikipedia to remember.) He also did the La Maja Desnuda and La Maja Vestida, two versions of the same woman, the nude one being controversial in its day because the woman doesn’t show any shame in the display of her naked body. I might be confused because I think I only remember the clothed version of the painting, though the article says the two are displayed side-by-side. His works that appeared to be commissioned depictions of royalty were otherwise dull. The other piece that grabbed our attention was the Velázquez painting “Las Meninas.” Las Meninas means hand-maidens, though they represent only two of the eleven characters in the picture. Two are identified as dwarfs, though they look like ugly kids to me. After the visit, I googled this painting, only later discovering that there is a controversy about whether the king and queen in the mirror are watching the painter from the viewer’s viewpoint or are the reflections from the painter’s canvas. 

The museum has its fair share of wall-sized medieval paintings, with seraphs and twisted necks, which I still find disturbing. (My other experience at the Louevre with medieval art, another story also not written up.) We visited a Raphael room to complete my lifelong quest to see the artwork of all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo, and Raphael (wink emoji here). For whatever it says about me, my favorite rendering in the museum was a t-shirt with a flask of beer portrayed on it, saying, “Technically, beer is a solution.”

The Prado has one very out-of-place Picasso that should have been in a room alone because it seemed so out of context with the paintings surrounding it. I subsequently read that Picasso didn’t much care for Goudi, the surrealist architect from Barcelona, though Salvadore Dali did. Salvadore Dali painted the melting clocks called “The Persistence of Memory,” a painting I’ve admired several times in articles and books associated with Einstein’s general relativity. But Goudi is new to me. We visited the Park Guell in Barcelona to see Goudi’s work. I have mixed feelings about it. Walking through the irregular patterns (an oxymoron?) of leaning stone archways and flowery columns was a Seussian experience, but I didn’t care much for the gingerbread houses. I once read that surrealist paintings try to capture faces at different times on the same canvas. That characterization makes sense when looking at the multiple expressions on the same face in a Picasso painting, but I’m unsure how that plays out in surrealistic architecture. There may be something barren and ugly about the straight line. Still, I want architecture to express the pragmatic sciences of metallurgy and physics rather than the whimsicalness of surrealistic art. As impressive as the skyline-dominating Sagrada Familia cathedral is, I’m pretty sure that is not where I would run to ride out an earthquake or weather a storm. 

Unfortunately, we didn’t see the interior of the Sagrada Familia as we failed to book a reservation sufficiently far in advance, as we learned during lunchtime gone bad. Our guide, host, and reason for visiting Barcelona tried to take us to one of her favorite outdoor cafes on the median boulevard strip, but it was closed. We settled for the Plan B Sagrados Cafe restaurant, which served us an undercooked, runny Spanish omelet and a crunchy, undercooked green pepper dish that she disgustedly returned to the kitchen. The server committed a customer service foul by defending the oozing dish as classic. Meanwhile, as we speculated whether Sagrados translated into undercooked food, a sunburnt, pot-bellied, middle-aged man set up his open-air music venue on a park bench next to our table, trying to make a few euros with his singing. And as if channeling the inner thoughts of our distraught hostess, he started singing Elton John’s “Sorry,” pouring great emotion into a line, then pausing like a school kid reading a textbook to look at his phone for the lyrics, then pouring equally great feeling into the next line. 

“It’s sad (So sad),
so sad
It’s a sad,
sad situation
And it’s gettin’ more and more absurd
It’s sad (So sad),
so sad
Why can’t we talk it over?
Oh, it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word.”

I don’t know if there is a German word for when so many things go wrong, the situation becomes so absurd that you can only laugh. But if there isn’t, there should be. I’ve submitted the request by email to Germany. On the upside, “Sorry” replaced “Never Been to Spain” as my “ohrwurm” for a short while, and I came away with the notion that we should all have a minstrel follow us around and channel our mood and thinking into song like Brave Sir Robin in Monte Python’s “The Holy Grail.” I gave our minstrel two euros, not for the quality of the singing, but for his impeccable timing and unwittingly perfect choice of song.

I wasn’t laughing at the Centauro car rental place when we first arrived in Lisbon. We lost the fight to get on the transport bus from the Lisbon airport to the rental car facility. Still, we beat the next bus by taking the thirty-minute walk instead lugging our luggage in the heat over uneven sidewalks and roads so I “didn’t have to end up hating all these people.” I lost another battle with the kiosk machine that issued numbers to queue up to see an agent at the facility. The uncooperative machine demanded a reservation number, which I didn’t have handy. Instead, I only had the confirmation number from Expedia, which the kiosk rejected out of hand. When I tried to ask an agent for help, she chastised me to wait in line like everyone else. I lost more battles to the wireless connection I needed for my laptop to try to log in to the Expedia website. Once I found that, I lost the struggle to find the reservation number. Perhaps the ultimate insult, the Expedia website refuted the existence of my reservation while, at the same time, sending me an email asking me to rate my Centauro experience. Germany never responded to my email either.

Finally, one of the agents showed me the errors of my ways. If you can’t find your reservation number, the kiosk doesn’t print a receipt, but it gives you a number you must remember to see an agent, who will then provide you another number based on the looked-up reservation. The agent tried to put the fear of God in me. Aside from the sixteen-hundred dollar deposit, he threatened me with 250 € payments for every dent as big or bigger than the size of the head of a hammer. I imagined a little person hiding in the rental car’s trunk, taking every opportunity to jump out and pound it with a hammer so Centauro could abscond with my sixteen-hundred dollar deposit. Where is my minstrel now? How about a rousing chorus from “Humans Are Such Easy Prey?”

“It can’t be bargained with.  It can’t be reasoned with.  It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear.  And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

That could be over the top, but it would have channeled my inner vibe. As a side note, I don’t think the AIs or the aliens are out to kill or torture us. They are prankish teenagers who get a kick out of driving frustrated users crazy, like giving peanut butter to a dog. But the three-hour delay wasn’t all bad. GF made friends with a retirement couple that fled to Portugal from the politics of the United States, and we learned how to identify cork trees stripped of their valuable bark, a helpful skill for the car ride to the Algarve.  

Torture is the province of human-to-human interaction, as the “Museo de la Tortura” in Toledo well documents, which we visited, possibly to fill our existential void or to ponder the imponderable. Why do people torture? Is it unbridled hatred? Or sheer perversion? Or just fear and insecurity? Cue the minstrel. He should be singing the sounds of silence in the background with all the anger of Disturbed.

“Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again.”

It’s hard to imagine the line of torture thinking. Someone had to have the thought, I want to crush someone’s skull, then go out and build a device that can do it, and then actually use it on someone. The iron maiden has adjustable spikes. At some point, someone had to realize that skinny people weren’t receiving the full benefits of the spiky garment or fat people wouldn’t fit in it. So they sent it back with new requirements for a one-size-fits-all redesign. Some devices were designed for humiliation, some to extract a confession. Some instruments were designed to inspire fear in those watching the torture, but that was not always the case. The Spanish Inquisition tried to keep a low profile. I bet you weren’t expecting me to mention the Spanish Inquisition, were you? Because nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. 

It would be easy to torture a Millenial: put them in a room without their cell phone or any access to social media. They wouldn’t have to put a pig mask over my head if they wanted to humiliate me. They could tie my hair up in a bun, loop a man purse over my shoulder, and force me into those skinny jeans that taper just above the ankles. 

Torture has evolved into erotica, self-mutilation, and Mad Max movies. On the upside, I have a few new ideas for a GF birthday gift. We passed on the opportunity to visit the “Erotic Museum of Barcelona.” Yes, it exists. But sadly, I don’t have the data to further report on the topic here.


For what it says about us, given Toledo’s rich history, the torture museum was the only attraction we paid to enter. Every cultural center charges something to visit, and getting nickel and dimed to death is annoying. Or is it eurod to death? Nickel and dimes would have been easy. Our guide, hostess, and reason for visiting Madrid suggests that all the exhibits should be free so everyone has the opportunity to learn about the culture, not just those who can afford it. Amen, sister! The effect of monetization of culture warrants more profound thought. When does the culture become a caricature of itself, catering to consumerism rather than vitalism? Does a culture get to bitch about appropriation when they are selling mass marketing their heritage?

Social capital is another essay in itself. I see it as a selfie with the Grand Canyon in the background without turning around to look at it. I see it at all the stores that sell trinkets and pins to cater to the social capital of its purchasers. My hat is off to our two hostesses and guides, who have immersed themselves in the culture, learning the language, living and working in their respective cities, and finding something beyond transactional interaction. A sign of authentic travel is when the reality of isolation and uncertainty replaces the romanticism of the pre-trip, when your thought is, “What the f**k did I get myself into?” Our hostesses are doing better than I am at authentic travel, but we tried for something in between.

I like doing hands-on stuff, following the advice of the adage: I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand. In Barcelona, we attended a cooking class. We learned how to devein shrimp with a toothpick, debeard a mussel after first checking that it is alive, cut onions without crying, and put them all together to make paella in giant paella pans and burners you can buy on Amazon anywhere from 75€ to 5000€. We also socialized with other travelers over Sangria:

  • A young couple of corporate lawyers from Slovakia.
  • Another young couple from Germany, the boy an aspiring farmer from Korea.
  • A crazy lady who solved the problem of getting me to smile for a photograph. “Smile, asshole.” (Side note: I tried it, and it also works on others.)

In the interest of deep appreciation, I aspired to take flamenco and bullfighting classes, but neither panned out. We settled for a Flamenco show in Madrid and a walkabout in the old Bullfighting Ring in Barcelona. Flamenco dancing was not performed by flamingos but by dancers, a cube-shaped bongo player, a guitarist, and a singer. (NOTE: The bongo is cube-shaped, not the bongo player. Technically, it is called a Cajon.) In the intimate setting of a stone-walled cellar, the intricate, pounding footwork dances its way viscerally into your body. By the way, if you’ve never seen the dance of the Flamingo, you should view it on YouTube.

In Portugal, I aspired to do bird-watching at the “Parque Natural da Ria Formosa,” but it turns out birds get up early in the morning, unlike the rest of us. Only city birds like the Egyptian goose, parrots, Eurasian magpies, and sparrows keep to a more humane schedule. We settled on a four-hour afternoon cruise from the port at Olhão to the islands of Culatra and Armona. Cruise is a poor choice of words. It was more like a chug, listening to our guide attempt to shout information over the engine’s noise. In my mind, I saw him yelling at home as if it were an ordinary thing. I asked him if it bothered his wife. She screamed from the background, “I’M OKAY WITH IT.” 

We stopped for a Super Bock and lunch at a patio restaurant in the quaint town of Culatra. Afterward, I made a mad dash across the island, half of the walk down a sidewalk gauntlet of pastel-colored, patioed houses and the other half on a boardwalk that cut across sandy berms to the ocean-facing side of the island. I only had time to dip a foot in the ocean before returning to catch the boat. We stopped for another half-hour at Amona to stroll through the town and back up the beach. I took a quick swim in the cold water against a receding tidal current that I could have used as a resistance swimming pool. In retrospect, I don’t know what gives it the classification Parque, but based on empirical evidence, I would say that it means underdeveloped, sandy islands. The only birds we saw were seagulls. The flamingos are dancing out there somewhere, but I booked us on the wrong tour.

Our one-hour kayaking expedition didn’t quite live up to my expectations either. I envisioned working my way up the coast, photographing rugged rock formations and water entrances to caves. Instead, the outfit restricted movement to a narrow band in front of the town’s beach. The best excitement was watching my friend turn sideways in the wave and get dumped in the sand. Still, getting out on the water for sun and exercise is better than idling the day away. 

Despite the setbacks, the rugged coastline of the Algarve is very much within the scope of my “personal legend,” if I have such a thing, perhaps a pursuit of nature in the daytime rewarded with hanging out on balconies drinking socially at night. (I notice I don’t have too much problem with my anti-social drinking either.) The universe conspired in our favor with the boat ride adventure along the Benagil coastline, highlighted by the famous Bengali cave, a deep ocean swim, tunneling through a small water cave entrance smaller than the boat at the top of the swell, and capped off with a high-speed beaching of the ship. 

Another highlight was standing on Farol do Cabo de São Vicente, the end of the world, the furthest southwest point of Europe. The promontory reminds me of the Irish coastline (although I’ve only seen it in films), with sheer cliffs rising hundreds of feet from protesting waters that crash at its feet. Despite my best efforts at pictures, the landscape is too big. It is one of those spots you have to see for yourself. Another simple pleasure was seeing the ear-to-ear smiles and enthusiasm of a Japanese father and daughter pair conversing with GF in Japanese, offering to take a picture of them together against the dramatic backdrop of the sea cliffs, penetrating a language and personal barrier I couldn’t. Ironically, the connection suggests how isolated you can be in a foreign land. 

The Fortaleza de Sagres is one of the many vantage points for the rugged coastline. The fort hides a significant hike and a great view back to the Cabo. Fishermen drop their lines from the top of the precipice into the Atlantic below, traversing more air than water. Prince Henry the Navigator built the fort in the 15th century to protect the town of Sagres from Barbary pirates, although I don’t see why those pirates wouldn’t just pay a few euros for a meal and Super Bock, like everyone else. The wine and beer were incredibly well-priced relative to any stateside restaurant or bar, typically coming in at under 15€ for a decent bottle and 5€ for a pint. I think I know where the pirates went. We took a picture of the facsimile of Prince Henry for GF’s mom, who trained with him back in the day (wink emoji here).

As much as I tried to minimize my food intake, trying not to come back five or ten pounds heavier, food was a big part of the trip. We found the most authentic meal in Grandola on the ride from Lisbon to the Algarve. The expressway sign suggested food at the Grandola exit. It turned out to be five miles off the highway. We found the Colher De Pau Café-Restaurante, a small, unpresumptuous restaurant that served the blue-jeaned, working men their late afternoon beers. I’m unsure if the restaurant was open, but the mother-daughter team served the one item from the one-item menu: a pork sandwich on plain white bread. It tasted like a tender piece of bacon.

My favorite venue was the Food Temple in Lisbon. After having a panoramic view and a beer at Miradouro de Santa Luzia, we strolled down a dark, narrow alley into an otherwise non-descript cobblestone square with laundry hanging out a window, satellite dishes pointed to the sky, and entrances to modest apartments. However, the outdoor seating was on a stone stairway with tables strategically placed at different tiers. The wood-board tables were custom-fitted to the height of the stairs, with no legs on one end for the higher stair. We dined on olive appetizers and vegetarian entrees and split a bottle of red wine. I asked our waiter what the backstory of the Food Temple was. I tapped into an enthusiasm unparalleled at any restaurant I have ever visited. The other question I asked was how a vegan restaurant can serve butter, but it was some spice spread. The experience was augmented by the performance of the now classic sitar and synthesizer piece, “Take a Shower with a Friend. Save water,” by the immortal Project Mr. Bubble, our first minstrel of the trip. The lyrics and the title are the same. No offense to my good friends, but stinky and dehydrated would be better choices. I’m sure the feeling is mutual. 

The cup of melted chocolate with churro dipping sticks at the Chocolatería San Ginés in Madrid was the most decadent meal, if it can be called a meal. It’s like squeezing the contents of one of those Hershey’s genuine chocolate-flavored syrup bottles into your mouth. I’m unsure if the genuine refers to the syrup or the chocolate flavor; Hershey’s sounds like cheese food to me. But I can’t be a denier, the real stuff was great.

We strolled the streets of Alfama in Lisbon, highlighted by the Elevador de Santa Justa and the views of and from the Castelo de Sao Jorge. We received some of the slowest customer service at one of the outdoor restaurants of the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara. We speculated that our server went on break or the cook was busy raising the cow and growing the barley. The poor customer service is attributed to the lack of tipping. In South Korea, servers perform because that is what they are supposed to do. The tip is in the cost already. It sounds so civilized to me. I could easily live without tips. In Portugal, supposedly the servers don’t perform because they aren’t incented to. People warned us early on in the trip not to expect decent customer service. The difference between the two countries suggests that culture has something to do with it. 

Not all service was poor, of course. I think of the little cafe across from our hotel in Barcelona where the cafe owner gave us a free croissant. GF conversed with him in French, speaking in another foreign tongue, like some James Bond character who speaks any language in any country. The owner suggested ideas for our stay in Madrid, at least that is what James Bond told me. I was pranked twice by a waiter at Tasca 26 in Porches, Portugal. Since I ordered the wine, I sampled the initial pour, swirling for viscosity, sniffing, and tasting as if I knew what I was doing. After I approved, he filled up everyone’s glass but mine and walked away with the bottle, over my immediate protests. Of course it was a joke. Then after dinner, I turned down the offer of a desert port wine, only to get my sampler in a glass the size of a gold fish bowl. It was all in good fun and taken that way.

Some people work for tips or their equivalent. Plenty of decent street musicians perform with their instrument cases open for contributions, including guitarists, violinists, and even celloists. I hope they play for the sheer joy of it, using the tips only to measure their ability. In the Praca do Comercio, we encountered a furry Panda posing with tourists for tips. Straight begging might be better than standing on your feet for hours in the heat in a heavy Panda suit. We later met these critters in the other big cities. I don’t know what Panda says about Lisbon or any other place, but there is a fatal attraction to these photogenic fellows. We speculated that stealing a photo with one of these guys might result in subsequent Panda attacks. Why take a chance? What if they are all interconnected and looking out for one another? After all, it is a networked world, even for Pandas.

Street peddling seems like a hell of a way to make a living, like the small army of Black salesmen ( a description, not a judgment) who unbundle their parachute full of purses and shoes and anything else light enough to carry into squares and plazas of Madrid. I saw them starting with packed parachutes at noon and still selling at ten at night. 

The big cities are not without their homeless and deformities:

  • A man on his knees face to the ground with his cup in supplicant position.
  • A man supine on a busy sidewalk by the train station with no shoes, feet cacked in black dirt, and disgusting toenails.
  • A gypsy woman working her way up the street with a paper cup asking for money.
  • Hambre signs on cardboard.
  • Deformities too gruesome to describe.

And so on. The west coast of America is no stranger to these sights.  

So does my head fill in intentional voids, a kind of existential “omwurm”? In real-time and in the absence of the pursuit of a personal legend, my head fills with all the worst-case scenarios. I try to turn those into humor by finding the most absurd worst case. Bad customer service turns into cooks running out to grow the vegetables and raise the animals. Intimidation at a car rental agency turns into a person hiding in the trunk with a hammer. The misery of working for meager tips in a Panda suit turns into a Panda pursuit. The yelling over a boat motor turns into a scene from the loud family. And so on.

My head should fill itself with gratitude. According to an article, only 5% of the world’s population has been on a plane. I empathetically took two trips via books and took one via jet. I lived the pursuit of a dream of a boy traveling across the Sahara desert and a woman suffering through a half-hearted marriage and the collateral damage of the Spanish Civil War. I saw natural wonders and explored historical yet vibrant cities, putting in over a five-mile-a-day average through trails on the Benagil coast, the cobblestone streets of Barcelona, the historical sites of Lisbon, and the busy streets of Madrid.

I had great times traveling with my girlfriend, socializing with friends on the balcony overlooking the Atlantic, and with surrogate family in the restaurants of Barcelona and Madrid. I sat at countless outdoor restaurants, sharing stories, food, and wine with my companions and crumbs with the sparrows and pigeons. I connected with our Catalan friend, impressed that I read a book about her culture. I had so many tapas they blur into one giant continuous meal, and I could drown in the vat of wine I drank. 

A good metaphor for the trip would be the brilliant fireworks display exploding over the sea cliffs of the Portuguese Atlantic, an unexpected and welcome surprise. Gratitude is something that comes after the fact. Hopefully, this piece fills that void.