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.

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

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.

Image by Google Labs FxImage

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.


The Road

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Spoiler Alert: If you plan on reading Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” you might want to save this for another day.

I read “The Road” because the story I am thinking of is a road of sorts. I wanted to see how the author executed the story, but I got way more than I bargained for. I don’t think I could or even want to make a story so dystopian.  

The writing is as elemental and raw as the barren title suggests. The dialog is sparse and repetitive. “Papa, I’m scared.” “I’m sorry.” Over and over again. The man doesn’t even have a name. 

For reasons beyond my comprehension, my son likes to call me Papa. Projecting myself into that world and hearing the word Papa in my head, every frigid, drenched, and blood-chilling moment the boy has to endure is a gut punch. I would hate to look into those eyes and see an ounce of pain. I would have been suicidal if the boy had taken a bullet from his father or eaten a bullet himself. 

Cormac McCarthy never dwells too deep into the past and never explains humanity’s descent into raw survival. He never has to. Father and son trudge in the ashes and the emptiness of what the past has wrought. The past is written in each barren house and city, the destroyed infrastructure, and the wreckage of trucks and boats. The man has one flashback to when his wife surrenders her life to the futility of it and pleads with him to do the same to him and the boy. The past doesn’t need explaining. That isn’t the point. The point is to show us the atrocities of the future if we f**k up the present. It doesn’t matter how we do it.

There is no ticking clock in the book, no deadline to reach because there is no place to go, just south, and only one way to get there: the road. The ticking clock is getting the next can of food before they starve. The ticking clock is knowing that one of their encounters with the bad people will inevitably go wrong.

But the one bullet he saves so the boy won’t have to endure the barbarism of captivity and cannibalism suck one into one horrific and inevitable outcome. The man has sworn that he won’t leave the boy, meaning he won’t leave the boy to be eaten by savages. When the time comes, he will do what he must. But at least while they are alive, the man does what he must to keep them that way, yet yields to the empathetic cries of his son against his better judgment when he can so they can be the good people.

Ultimately, the man can’t look into his son’s eyes and do it. He couldn’t do it when his wife took her life, and she begged him to do it. He couldn’t do it at the end. He passes on the fire to the boy, the fire being nothing more than the will to live, life for life’s sake. The man has given the boy the skills necessary to survive. But what is the point? The story the man tells his son about the good people they have never met is the fire in the boy. It’s the hope that the little boy he saw is alive and well. It’s the hope that they didn’t kill the thief the way the thief would have killed them. It’s the myth of the good people that keeps him going. The boy is the good people and needs to find good people to survive. 

The woods were there before men, and the woods will be there after. Life isn’t about kill or be killed, even under the most brutal conditions. The road is no place to live and no place to grow up. The only reason for a boy to grow up is if he has a couple of kids to play with and a life to live. The point of going on is our empathy and compassion for one another. And it doesn’t hurt to have a shotgun with real ammo to enforce it.

Featured Image by Craiyon.

Vortex Physics

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Spoiler Alert: If you plan on watching the Vortex, you might want to save this for another day.

“So, how do your characters time travel?”
“They use vortex glasses.”
“Vortex glasses? How do they work?”
“First, you put ’em on.”
“I assumed that part. How does the time travel part work?”
“Well, the characters don’t time travel per se. But they see into the past. And can talk to characters still living in the past.”
“Do the characters living in the past have glasses?”
“How could they? In the past, they have yet to be invented.”
“So the present only projects its image into the past. That seems lopsided. What do they talk about?”
“Well, the character in the future could tell the character in the past to go kill Hitler before Hitler kills them.”
“But what if Hitler was an ancestor?”
“Exactly, Then that character would disappear, and the story would end. But my character in the present timelines is the protagonist. So, we can’t have that, now can we? But, now, suppose the protagonist has a conversation with his first wife from the past to correct some evil like her own murder, but the protagonist husband’s second family disappears as a result. The husband would have to figure out what deviation his dead wife caused in the new past and convince her to undo the action that caused the problem while still correcting the original problem of her murder. But the wife from the new past might not be incented to correct it. In this case because she survives her murder but loses her husband.”
“So, her murderer is the villain, and the wife from the past is the antagonist?”
“Exactly. Every time future husband and past wife talk, some important event in the intervening interval changes for the worse. Fixing one unintended consequence results in another. The husband arrives at work to find a new boss because his old boss is dead. Or his best friend isn’t married to the woman he knew as his wife.”
“So the husband knows the true timeline, but all the other characters in his time only know the altered timeline?”
“And the guy that lived the protagonist’s life up to that point is replaced by the guy in the original timeline in the altered present timeline.”
“You got it.”
“So the person the husband would have been in the new present dies every time the timeline changes?”
“The interval version of the protagonist is of no interest to the story. Other than to note that his past wife’s murderer killed various other people, depending on the timeline.”
“So the protagonist is a body snatcher.”
“It’s his body to snatch, isn’t it?”
“Does the wife remember the other timelines?”
“She has no future memories, and her time advances linearly from when she first meets her hologram husband to when she is murdered in the original timeline.”
“So she is timeline blind and the one on the clock?”
“Yes. The husband has no control over the clock. He can’t jump back at arbitrary points in her timeline to undo his and her mistakes.”
“Why not?”
“Vortex physics.”
“Plot-based physics. I assume the other characters have access to these glasses and are also changing timelines?”
“No. That would have been an interesting plot point if I had wanted to make a comedy. If all the time-messaging characters remembered the true timeline, what happens when they all change to an alternate timeline, and nobody has any memory of the current timeline and they somehow meet? All the confusion could have been good for a few laughs.”
“Couldn’t they reorganize themselves from memory into how the true timeline played out and be done with it?”
“Not if some are incapacitated, in prison, or dead. But I only allow the protagonist to time travel, and at one plot-convenient point, his daughter, so I don’t have that problem.”
“Why can’t anyone else time travel?”
“Because it’s not anyone else’s story.”
“Hmm. So, back to my original question. How do the glasses work?”
“They work by augmented reality. For example, if there is enough time-based evidence, the husband detective can see all the evidence at a crime scene and possibly even a reenactment.”
“Where does the wife come in?”
“As part of the augmented reality, but the past is real. That’s the twist.”
“So, the present and the past have to meet at the same place.”
“No. The present has vortex glasses, so they can be wherever they need to be as the plot dictates. The past doesn’t have the vortex glasses, so they must be at the physical place. The wife just shows up.”
“Actually, if you are not seeing the present reality, then the technology would be virtual reality, not augmented reality.”
“Vortex reality, with holodeck-like technology. Each appears as a hologram in the other’s reality.”
“Sure. So how does it end?”
“In the latest present timeline, the husband dies at the hand of the wife’s murderer.”
“So she doesn’t save herself and gets her husband killed?”
“Brutal ending.”
“But then at the synchronized moment.”
“Synchronized moment? What’s that?”
“When something happens in both the past and the present at the same time.”
“You mean like when they meet in the holodeck?”
“No. I mean at the time when she gets murdered and he gets murdered in their respective timelines, simultaneously.”
“What? How can something in the past and the present happen simultaneously?”
“The vortex of course. It happens at the time of the murder and at the time of the anniversary when the wife was killed in the past.”
“I see. It is a convenient point in both storylines. Physics has nothing to do with it. Was there a story-synchronized moment in all the other alternate-timeline leaps to establish this rule?”
“That’s not important, either. Let me finish. Just before the synchronized moment, the husband gets killed by the wife’s murderer. At the synchronized moment, the wife discovers her true murderer from the past and kills him. The husband undies in the present, quite relieved to discover himself undead.”
“The sci-fi version of deus ex machina. So the protagonist remembers the true timeline and all the other time he spends in altered timelines. And he even realizes that he is undead. But none of the other characters do.”
“Right. The vortex glasses get destroyed, and that breaks the cycle. In the final timeline, the husband meets the wife twenty-seven years after she killed her murderer.”
“How does that work out?”
“The alternate earlier self of the husband in the last timeline threw her in jail for killing her would-be murderer, and his daughter despises him because of it.”
“Because the alternate husband didn’t know about his wife’s murder in that timeline?”
“Yes. The wife is quite happy to meet the timeline-jumping husband who saved her life by telling her about her imminent murder in the first place. She is quite relieved to be rid of his alternate, earlier self.”
“So if someone in the past killed Hitler before they were able to kill anyone, they would get thrown in jail as a murderer and no one else would appreciate their sacrifice.”
“Yes. Until the one person who lived and remembers the original timeline returns.”
“I see. He is the only one that can validate his wife’s actions.”
“She waits 27 years for it.”
“Sounds sad. It’s not good enough to do a great deed. One must be appreciated for it.”
“Now you get it.”
“So who made the vortex?”
“Only the vortex knows.”

Remains of the Father’s Day

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Spoiler Alert: If you plan on reading “Remains of the Day,” you may want to save this for another day. 

It’s not my habit to use earbuds while I hike. It defeats the purpose. But I want to finish an audiobook, “The Remains of the Day.” So when my lens cap undoes its clasp and its tether detaches from the body of the camera, and falls to the ground, I don’t hear or notice it. 

I’m a quarter of a mile up the trail when I try to remove the no longer present lens cap from my unprotected lens. It was there when I started, but I could have dropped it anywhere between here and the car. Judging by the empty parking lot and walking on an out-and-back trail, I figure I have a better than 90% chance of finding it on the return trip to the car. There is no one else on this trail to take it. So I let it go, resolving to be mindful not to bang the camera around with its exposed lens and to recover the lens cap on the way back.

I’m not sure what prompted me to pick up the “Remains of the Day,” and I’m not even entirely sure why I continue to read it. The story is about a butler: not a man who works as a butler, but a man who IS a butler. It reads like a handbook for the craft of the butler narrated in the first person. Is there such a word as butlerness, the essence of the position? 

On the other hand, Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing is compelling. I unabashedly acknowledge it qualifies as craft. The cadence, tone, interactions, and meticulous descriptions of thoughts and perceptions are rich, unrelenting, and consistent throughout the book. But is it a story? I am starting to wonder. 

In his ongoing recollections, Mr. Stevens recounts several encounters with Ms. Kenton, who was part of his staff. She caused professional and, in the most subdued of ways, sexual tension between the two. The two servants never once reveal their first names to each other or even to the reader. When they overcome the sticking points in their professional relationship, they share some brief informality together in the evenings passing the time by sipping tea together in the kitchen. Still, he is uncomfortable with it and quickly dispenses with this inappropriate activity at the first opportunity to terminate it. Formality is the protocol of the butler, and the butler is never off duty, even when he is. 

Subdued might be an overstatement. The K-drama thirty-second love stare scene screams sexuality by comparison. In case you are unfamiliar with what that is, the love interests in the K-drama stare into each other’s eyes but never actually kiss, touch, or even exchange words, and later deny that such a moment occurred. When I watch these scenes, my Hollywood brain threatens to explode, demanding satisfaction, shouting at the two, “Shag each other rotten already!” 

The hike slogs on like the book. The trail is seriously overgrown, partly from the super bloom, but also, I suspect, because this trail is low use. It might be especially low use today because it is Father’s Day. All the more reason to hike it. The North and South Clevenger trails are on Route 78, about five miles east of the Wild Animal Park. The South Clevenger Trail is the drier of the two. Both take you up the side of the canyon walls to scenic vistas. The road, the orchards, and the isolated buildings that have claimed the ridgeline are never far from sight. But if you look in the right direction over the rugged terrain, you might think you are in the Nevada desert somewhere.

I use my hiking poles to push aside the overgrowth rather than using them to propel me up the seventy-five-story, two-mile climb. The temperature is in the mid-eighties, and today is one of the few days I’ve worn shorts all year. The starthistles prick at my exposed legs. A starthistle has a pretty yellow flower on a ball-shaped bulb with pointy spines resembling a party favor packaged in a miniaturized medieval mace. Blossoming deerweed with its tiny red and yellow pea flowers grows out over the trail closing in from both sides and sometimes from the top. I duck under overgrown bush mallow pushing through with my hat, hoping I don’t pick up any ticks. There is no relief. The trail is overgrown, brushing against my body and poking at my legs the entire trek.

As I listen to the audiobook, I wonder if the overgrown trail is a metaphor for the density and ponderousness of the book. Or perhaps it is the other way around. The butler, Mr. Stevens, is on a road trip to the English countryside, but his stops are brief interludes for deep dives into his memories of his lifetime of service. The pacing is deliberately slow, and what passes for action is off-camera, so to speak. Mr. Stevens stands just outside the doorway for however long he must in case his services are required, not specifically knowing what transpires within. A butler must be attentive precisely when it is demanded and invisible otherwise. (It sounds like the role of a father.)

The essence of the great butler is dignity. It doesn’t matter that his father is dying or that his master makes a horrible staffing decision or the world is crumbling around its feet with the onset of World War II. Mr. Stevens maintains his dignity, which for a man of servitude, is the opposite of what you or I construe as the execution of the concept. Dignity for a man of service is never giving in to one’s own thoughts and sentiments in the performance of duty. Dignity is staying faithful to your superiors. Dignity for anyone else is maintaining and defending one’s views and opinions in the face of inconvenience and adversity. One butler’s strength is another man’s weakness.

Speaking of adversity, with the heat and the elevation gain, I stop for a drink of water. I take a swig out of my water bottle but notice something floating inside. Upon closer inspection, it’s a drowned spider with its eight articulated legs folded into a point like a cephalopod. It looks a little fuzzy, too, like fungus has already started to attack and decompose it. It reminds me of a sci-fi movie with alien specimens floating in tanks of tarnished water deep in some Area 51 secret bunker or lab. I hope the water I just drank isn’t contaminated enough to kill me. Inside my head, there is not a lot of dignity going on. I share my thoughts with mother nature in a most undignified anti-butler way, “How the f**k did a spider get inside a sealed water bottle?”

I think of a spider on my bathroom sink a few days ago. When I turned on the light, I startled it. It dashed for the cover of my toothbrush but then changed its mind and tried to hide under the toothpaste. It was a speedy, dark brown spider. Usually, I try to catch and release (outside, of course), but this one was too quick, and I didn’t have a suitable container to trap it with. So I smashed the bugger and flushed him. The life of a spider is an uncertain thing. Is this a haunting? A punishment for my failure to set the spider free in the great outdoors? Is the collective spider community conspiring to exact its revenge? 

The hike is only four miles round trip, and even with the heat, I can endure a little thirst. So I press on to the high point and my turn-around point of the trail, marked by a massive white granite rock. As I ascend, Mr. Stevens has finally arrived at the last stop on his six-day trip. Only upon his arrival do we learn that the purpose of the trip is to visit Ms. Kenton, who left her employment some twenty years ago. He reconnects with her, responding with concern for some melancholy remarks she has made in her letter correspondences. Even in an outside-of-work informal context twenty years later, they continue to address one another formally. We discover that Ms. Kenton left the employ to get married and have a family. In the not-so-big-reveal, Ms. Kenton acknowledges at the bus stop just before her departure into eternity that she left because she had feelings for Mr. Kenton. Although Mr. Stevens expresses something like regret, it is clear that he is incapable of love. In his deep memory dives, his one moment of thought for her comes when he pauses outside her room, knowing that he made her cry. He described the paused moment as an eternity but stated it was probably only a few seconds. And then he continues on his way never to otherwise acknowledge the moment to fulfill his most essential duty of supplying the politically-important guests with brandy. 

When I reach the high point of the trail, I’m regretting the shorts, the lack of spider-free water, the heat, the overgrown path, and the missing lens cap. But I can’t complain about the canyon view or catching the tail end of the super bloom. All the late-flowering plants are still putting on a show—swathes of deerweed cover the trail and the sides of the mountains. The corkscrew California Centaury plants and the hairy yellow blossoms of Calochortus weedii poke through the stems of chaparral bushes. White inflorescences cover the chamise bushes like a dusting of snow. I shimmy between a crevice in the great white rock to swallow up the view of the orchard below and the hills beyond. It’s all about me—the anti-butler. 

Mr. Stevens has no I. Zen believes that the self is an illusion and Mr. Stevens intends to prove it. But the Zen master lives for compassion, not for service. The difference is profound. Mr. Stevens stands behind his master, no matter how poor their judgment. He passes on life’s moments of love and grief. Even when he visits Ms. Kenton because of concern for her happiness, the moment would have passed him by if Ms. Kenton did not insist on him escorting her to the bus stop. Compassion and duty are the oil and vinegar of one’s moral compass.

When the book concludes, I want to poke my eyes out with a fork. Nobody could be this tedious and dull. But fortunately, I still need my eyes to navigate my way back to the car. Tiny faded-blue butterflies dart past all the pollen opportunities, too impatient to pose for a picture. A cicada clasps to a stem. I see a tall spike of what I think are golden eardrops and the white-colored version of the ordinarily magenta canchalagua. Canchalagua is the flower with the corkscrew stamens I’ve featured several times on Insta. I even find my lens cap. I’m glad I keep my eyes after all. 

Is it a story? One of my writing books suggests that character-driven is the essence of the story. She complains about meandering and meaningless plot points wandering without an inner purpose. This book is the opposite. It is character-driven without a plot. And the protagonist doesn’t change.  

Only Ms. Kenton changes. She escapes from the prison of servitude to get married and start a family. Ms. Kenton says it took seven years for her to find love in her husband’s familiarity. She expressed moments of uncertainty in her correspondence but declares that they were fleeting, and she has overcome them. But the protagonist is the story. We spend all our time in Mr. Steven’s head, not Ms. Kenton’s. And he never deviates from his butler mindset.

Mr. Stevens offers a pretense of regret. But even his regret is short-sighted and for the wrong thing. He doesn’t regret the lost opportunity for love or a missed life. He regrets that he can no longer serve with the perfection he once commanded, making little but unnoticeable mistakes now and then as his career winds down. There is no change, but that is the genius of it. Mr. Stevens is so trapped that there is no escape. 

In a conversation Mr. Stevens has with a local at his final stop, the man describes the “remains of the day” as the time left in the day, the time after work people enjoy the most, an allegory for Mr. Stevens to live the rest of his life for himself. But remains are also a person’s body after they are dead. I don’t know if a pun was intended, but as far I can tell, Mr. Stevens is already a zombie. Even as he contemplates change, it is not change. He endeavors to learn to banter, insinuating that he is willing to tolerate informality, but only because it might please Mr. Faraday, his current master. There really is no hope for the guy.

As for the remains of my day, I can sometimes relate to the feeling of being invisible. Where are my Father’s Day texts? In the good old days, dads used to get ties. These days, a meme is going out of the way. Mom’s Day rates three in holidays, while Father’s Day rates twenty. But I will stick to the time left in the day definition rather than the zombie definition and aspire to use the remains of my day wisely. A hike was a good start.

Note: My texts came later in the evening, and my daughter spent the previous day working two hours in the backyard weeding the superbloom overgrowth. I was just trying to get into the spirit of the story.

Hiking Butler Art by Craiyon

Talking (Boltzmann) Heads

Reading Time: 3 minutes

If the universe is infinite in time, everything that can happen will happen over and over again.

  • The ergodic hypothesis

In the black void of the entropy-dead universe, a human head spontaneously forms in the void due to quantum fluctuations, with the discordant memories of a pinecone, a tadpole, a moon, and a pocketknife. A fog. A haze. A murky mist. A memory made of random, non-causal fluctuations. The fantasm ends. The head pops out of existence like a morning dream.

Yotillions of years later, or earlier, and countless high entropy heads later, or earlier

In the black void of the entropy-dead universe, a human head spontaneously forms in the void due to quantum fluctuations, with memories of our current universe up to this moment. Or what it thinks are memories up to that moment. Future memories. Past memories. False memories. There is only the void. It is dark, cold, and pressureless. The head explodes. No memories.

Yotillions of years later, or earlier, and countless high entropy heads later, or earlier

In the black void of the entropy-dead universe, a dozen human heads spontaneously form in the void due to quantum fluctuations, each with memories of a different universe. They perceive one another in the umvelt of their existence but do not have a common basis of communication. The creation of each head is a yotillion in one possibility, and the simultaneous creation of each head is at least one in a trillion yotillion, impossible and yet inevitable. The twelve heads have nothing to talk about. They simultaneously express frustration and anger at one other by racing toward each other at high speed, head-butting each other into annihilation.

Yotillions of years later, or earlier, and countless lower entropy mixed multi-verse encounters later, or earlier

In the black void of the entropy-dead universe, a dozen human heads spontaneously form in the void due to quantum fluctuations, each complete with identical memories up to that moment. They chase each other in a circle, each shouting at the one in front of it, “Only I am me.” Free will. Deterministic will. The illusion of will. They are exact copies of one another until one chooses to stop. The others crash into it and disappear in a cosmic flash. No will.

Yotillions of years later, or earlier, and countless lower entropy same-head encounters later, or earlier

In the black void of the entropy-dead universe, a solar system forms with an Earth-type planet orbiting a G-type star about ninety million miles away. The head of a man and woman appear on a tropical sandy beach. The man and woman drink tropical drinks, kiss, and whisper sweet nothings into one another’s ears. At night, despite memories of a thirteen billion-year-old universe filled with stars, planets, and the moon, they discover an empty night sky. It kills the romantic mood of the evening, but without bodies, there isn’t much they can do anyway. With no moon, there are no tides. With no tides, life in the oceans perish. Life on the land dies soon after. Still, the one sun universe takes another trillion years to reach total heat death.

Yotillions of years later, or earlier, and countless lower entropy one-sun systems with beach days (and horrible days and mostly empty eons) later, or earlier

In the black void of the entropy-dead universe, a super-dense, high energy, low entropy clump forms and explodes. Light emerges within a few million years, and galaxies form. Thirteen billion years later, Boltzmann conjectures about brains spontaneously forming in the entropy-dead universe. In one of the rarest fluctuations, a Boltzmann head appears before Boltzmann. The Boltzmann head asks him, “How can we trust our conclusions when they could be a random fluctuation, too?” After Boltzmann recovers from his initial terror at seeing his own floating, talking head, Boltzmann says, “The arrow of time is causal.” With that, the Boltzmann head falls to the ground with a thud like a guillotined prisoner caught in a trap not of its own making. Scientists argue about Boltzmann brains for eons but dismiss them as not how things are. 

The impossible blip into the low-entropy causal universe ends over a trillion years later. 

Yotillions of years later, or earlier, and countless extremely low entropy causal universes later

A multi-verse transcendent observer says, “If you stick around long enough, you’ll see good things. And bad things. But mostly non-sensical things. And lots of reruns.”

Authors Note: After reading “Existencial Physics” by Sabine Hossenfelder. Images by Craiyon

The Glory and The Whale

Reading Time: 4 minutes
  • “Damn Ye Whale,” Captain Ahab.

Spoiler Alert. Watch the K-Drama “The Glory” before reading any of this. It’s worth the sixteen-episode investment. I will wait…

You came back! You made it through the raw, intrigue-filled K-drama. Although the action can be challenging to follow as it meanders in time and memory, and it is rife with coincidence and questions (like how and why does the blinded guy who just got run over by a cement truck manage to walk up several flights of stairs at an unpopulated construction site with unset cement in the middle of the night). The pace is unrelenting, the performances, particularly of the two lead women, are outstanding, and the dialog is piercing and eminently quotable.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and few do it so delayed, dispassionately, and calculated as Moon Dong-eun, waiting eighteen years to exact her revenge after her antagonists had built successful lives worth destroying. The story is more an execution of her crafted revenge jujitsu than an escalation of her attempts to overcome her now grown-up and successful antagonists, who tortured her in high school. She exploits all the cracks in their mean lives, one metaphorical curling iron burn at a time, depriving them of whatever “Glory” they had accumulated. 

Dong-eun pursues the victim’s “Glory.” She says, “Among the things that victims have lost, how many things do you think they can reclaim? It’s just their own glory and honor. Nothing more. Some regain those things through forgiveness, while others regain them through revenge. Only then can they reach the starting point.” Like Captain Ahab, her path is not one of forgiveness but vengeance. Unlike Captain Ahab, revenge is her glory, not her demise. Ahab’s madness destroyed his ship, crew, and himself. Dong-eun redeems her co-victims and co-conspirators, bringing back their honor, even in death. It is her redemption, not her destruction.

Dong-eun doesn’t have the misbelief of a protagonist to battle. She has to hang on to her hatred, not overcome it. She says, “I’d like to stay faithful to my rage and vice.” She doesn’t grow as a character, but that is the point. She has been on the same path for the last eighteen years. Her life stopped at nineteen. She would effectively be nineteen years old if she ever started over and could put the past behind her. But that isn’t her expectation. She says, “I wish to be happy enough that I could die. I want to be happy, just by that much.” That’s a hell of a minimalist starting over point or maybe a foreshadowing of the endpoint, her high school abuse having robbed her of any chance at life. 

The one obstacle Dong-eun has to overcome is her crazy orange-haired mother, Jung Mi-hee. It is Dong-eun’s one emotional outburst in the whole series. Mom has to set Dong-eun’s apartment on fire before Dong-eun can finally take the steps necessary to overcome her mom’s hold over her. 

The psychiatrist diagnosing Jung Mi-hee for commitment writes IED for “Intermittent Explosive Disorder” in his notebook as the mom rages, curses, and shouts incoherently. The same note would apply to any of Dong-eun’s antagonists, to the point where they all act as if having a perpetual psychotic break from reality and each other. There is nothing likable about the five tormenters. They are sadistic and cruel. They are barbaric to their victims and vicious to one another. 

Perhaps the series would have benefited from more toned-down but impactful scenes like Yeon-jin’s (her chief assailant) final weather report to a prison audience rather than her prime-time audience, having completely lost her glory, with a tear streaming down her eye. “Is she crying at the weather?” asks one of her uncomprehending cellmates. Yeon-jin finally knows. It’s her one moment of powerless self-realization. The other moment might have been begging her utterly indifferent mom for recognition in their mutual prison, but her mom was so corrupt it hardly seemed like a punishment. 

What the antagonists overdo in unbridled emotion, Dong-eun makes up for in cold-blooded minimalism, giving only the faintest smile as her tormentors fall, with taunting daggers like, “I hope that in the end, whether I’m in the world or not, your world will be full of me.”

One wonders if there is anything worth starting over for in this world filled with only two kinds of people: past, present, and future victims and their psychotic perpetrators. Once Dong-eun achieves her “Glory,” Dong-eun is about to commit suicide. Is she happy enough to die, or does she have nothing to live for, not even her love interest, go teacher, and “headsman,” Joo Yeo-joeng? 

Yeo-jeong’s mother conveniently shows up on the rooftop of the old school building at the pivotal moment. She talks her down, giving Dong-eun new purpose in assisting Yeo-joeng with his desire for vengeance against his tormenter and killer of his father. Dong-eun finds purpose in plotting another revenge, pursuing it with the same cold, ruthless efficiency as her own revenge, switching roles with her “headsman.” Unlike poor Captain Ahab, whose obsession dragged him to hell’s heart at the bottom of the ocean, Dong-eun’s retribution leads to revenge as a lifestyle choice and maybe another season for the series.

It seems like an odd note to end the series on. But after thinking about it, I warmed up to the ending. Despite Dong-eun’s claims of self-corruption and emptiness, “I don’t plan on being a better person. I’m becoming worse everyday,” she is the moral center of the story. She brings honor to Yoon So-hee in death, finds honor in at least one adult in her childhood (grandma), saves the innocent children and Mrs. Kang, delivers absolution to other victims even if it serves her purpose, and destroys the villains in the most punishing way imaginable. She may be stabbing at her white whale from hell’s heart, but if hell has a moral high ground, Dong-eun has found it.

Dong-eun’s mother and others ignored or stood by while she was tortured and did nothing. But something is changing. Dong-eun told Yoon So-hee, “I was thinking I’m the only victim that mattered.” She acknowledges decency in some adults. Grandma saved her life when Dong-eun was at the depths of her despair after her abuse. She says, “There was a time when I used to think, what if someone had just helped me? If someone, somewhere, had been there for me?” She steps off that ledge because her death will kill someone she cares about. “And when you said we should die in spring you meant that’s when we should bloom.” So maybe she does grow in the end, seeing beyond herself and finally caring for someone, even if she still chooses a path of revenge and not forgiveness. 

“Damn ye whale! And all whales like you.”

Image by craiyon

The Om-Velt of the Desert

Reading Time: 12 minutes

A desert is a place for mysticism in the dancing shadows of a night fire and appreciation of the grandeur of nature on the trail. So what better companions for a desert trip than Anil Seth’s “A New Science of Consciousness,” on audio, and “An Immense World” by Ed Yong? Seth’s book is a journey into the source and meaning of consciousness. Yong’s book explores the strategies employed by living organisms for processing and making sense of the world. The inner world of an organism and the outer world of the environment confront in the desert, where life is harsh and spectacular.

My purpose for the trip was rather mundane compared to the lofty themes of these two books. I wanted to glimpse the super bloom and catch it on my new camera. The camera has become an extension of me, like a third eye or a third arm. When I hike, I see the world in photo ops, looking for scenes and frames, hunting for subject matter, and checking for patterns and lighting. The camera has become a part of my extended umvelt. The camera extends my visual umvelt to see farther, in more detail, and at different frame rates than my eyes alone can see. 

Umvelt is a great word. Yong explains, “Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, and electric and magnetic fields. But every creature can only tap into a small fraction of reality’s fullness. Each is enclosed within its unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world … the umvelt is part of the environment an animal can sense and experience – its perceptual world.”

Umvelt is a great word to think of while blowing sand exfoliates my skin and tries to knock me to the ground and blind me despite a protective pair of glasses. Yong dedicates an entire chapter to the unwanted sense of pain, glosses over internal sensations like balance, and instills a new appreciation for the power of human vision in the animal kingdom. I rendered all these sensations more succinctly in a video clip capturing the fury of gusting wind driving razor grains of sand swirling across dunes and pavement. 

My mind automatically partitions the world into photo-worthy scenes and those that are not. But I still take comfort in the fact that sometimes you just have to be there. The camera doesn’t capture the absence of the snow-covered mountains in the obscuring tan haze of the disturbed desert. Or the white-knuckled driving up the I-8 grade with sand-filled gusts pushing the car from one side of the lane to the other while weaving through the traffic of a tractor-trailer on its side, a trailer ripped from the back of a pickup truck, emergency vehicles, and vehicles stopped to assist or wait it out. 

Still, the desert has much to offer in the way of photo-worthy images, especially in this spring of abundant rain. The super bloom has yet to kick in fully, but pixel flowers are everywhere. Pixel flowers are those tiny pinky fingernail-sized flowers that dot the landscape like a Le Grande Jatte pixel painting. Or larger flowers in the distance yet to overgrow into a matte of continuous color. The browns and greens of the verdant desert still dominate, overwhelming both types of pixel flowers unless you are looking for them. 

I found one early super bloom. At the Imperial Dunes, clusters of violet-hued sand verbena carpeted the sand, broken by patches of light and dark green desert shrubs. Or, as ChatGPT more poetically puts it:

“A tapestry of violets, strewn upon the sand, 
Dotted with desert shrubs, verdant and grand, 
The hues of light and dark, a mesmerizing sight, 
A masterpiece of nature, painted with pure delight.”

Even amid a desert spring blooming with life, the rawness of the desert is a great place to immerse in the determined inspiration of nature. Wrinkled green and light-blue tinted mountains are backdrops for washes of desert shrubs like ocotillo, brittlebush, cholla, and the ubiquitous creosote. A bent barrel cactus grows out of the side of a rock wall before twisting sunward. Cholla gardens sparkle in backlit sunlight while sending prickles up and down my arms at memories of pulling their spines from my hand. Optimistic wildflowers stake out a nook in a crag. A lone shrub somehow pokes out of a mountain of sand. Desert tadpoles take advantage of the brief respite from dryness. Life finds a way.

Seth informed me that life is a boundary. He quotes that the better an organism’s model of the world, the better its ability to navigate and survive it. He defines consciousness as the ability to detect differences between the senses and the prediction and respond to them. Modern biology reduces life to the statistical mechanical principle of minimizing free energy (in the thermodynamic meaning of the phrase) required to align the senses and prediction. Or, as Max puts it, “Life is lazy.”

Lazy is relative. The snow geese I saw at the Sony Bono reserve migrate from the farthest reaches of the Arctic to the saltwater flats of the preserve to minimize the free energy of being a snow goose, one of nature’s many diverse solutions to the free energy problem. Their umvelt may include the ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field to guide it from the Arctic tundra to the Imperial County desert.

The Costa hummingbird flaps its wings at a frantic 50 beats per second. I don’t think lazy is the right word. Focused, lean, or efficient might be better choices.

The fagonbush is another solution to the free energy problem. Is the common fagonbush focused? It’s a small bush I nearly stepped on in a wash while trying to take some landscape pictures of teddy bear cholla, barrel cacti, and ocotillo on a hillside. The inconspicuous shrub must have an umvelt to perceive the sun and dig its roots deep for water. 

Seth cautions me to distinguish carefully between sentience and intelligence. But I will let the AI explain the difference,

“Yes, there is a difference between sentience and intelligence.

Sentience refers to the ability to experience sensations and perceive the world, including emotions, pain, pleasure, and other subjective experiences. Sentient beings are capable of feeling and conscious experience.

On the other hand, intelligence refers to the ability to learn, reason, solve problems, and adapt to new situations. Intelligent beings can understand and process information and use it to make decisions and take action.

While there may be some overlap between sentience and intelligence, they are distinct concepts. For example, some animals, such as dogs or dolphins, may be considered sentient but not necessarily highly intelligent in problem-solving or cognitive abilities. Conversely, some artificial intelligence systems may be highly intelligent but lack any form of sentience or subjective experience.”

In the above AI-written passages, I take some consolation in the fact that I used my grammar AI to correct my concept AI and that, on some occasions, both are wrong. I take issue with the AI’s contention that dolphins are sentient but not highly intelligent. Technically though, the AI is not wrong: you can consider anything to be sentient but not intelligent. I’m sure a few people came to mind when you read that.

Yong and Seth warn against our limited ability to perceive the world as another creature and against our tendency to anthropomorphize. Our biases divert us from other creatures’ sensations and thought processes. But I wonder if Yong and Seth have over-limited themselves to the animal world of motion because neither attributes perception to plants or fungi. Plants may not appear mobile, but I have a picture of a poppy with its flower yet to unfurl in the morning sun. Is it a choice? Plants release secondary chemical compounds when under insect attack that warn other plants. Is this perception, or is it just a reflex? Fungi don’t appear to move, but they can destroy mycelia in some spots while creating it in others, effectively creating motion through growth. Does consciousness require the electric field of a neuron? One SA article informed me that the discharge of a neuron is a side-effect of ion movement. Plants and fungi move ions. Can plants and fungi perceive? Can plants and fungi misperceive? Can they change that misperception in the future? Wouldn’t that be conscious, free-will behavior, as Seth defines it? 

I drive from the desert marsh of Agua Caliente to the outlooks at the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Reserve to the Imperial Dunes near Glamis, viewing the many faces of Imperial County: the Salton Sea, the geothermal plants spewing out vapor from their stacks, the many facets of hay processing from field to piles to storage, and the dunes both as beauty and recreation.

Just like the transitions of driving from one spot to another, my thought processes frame ideas as potential stories. The umvelt and free energy of real and imagined creatures and systems are an excellent basis for the beings of a sci-fi story, including AI entities, remembering that the ChatGPT AI has already warned me about confusing sentience with intelligence. Still, writers must venture where science and AI bots fear to tread. As a writer, I will endeavor to tread, staying within the framework of umvelt and decision, though unafraid to try it out on the universe’s many biological and non-biological possibilities for sentience and free energy minimization.

Seth bursts the bubble on one of my story ideas. He says more recent research has exposed a flaw in the study that claimed a researcher could predict your actions from neuronal patterns in fMRI measurements almost a full second before you are aware of your choice. When I read about the original research, I had the idea that employers could augment their employees’ brains with motivational neuronal work hats. The work hats could replicate the neuronal pattern of a decision to put the thought in their heads to do the corporate work as if they had the idea themselves, so there would be no resistance to the enterprise’s mission. It would be the latest, greatest in workforce motivation. So much for free will, right? But the employees would have their brains back at the end of the day simply by removing the hats. 

In the original study, the researchers only looked at cases where the research subjects decided. But more recent research suggests that the same neuronal patterns also occur when they are about to choose but don’t reach a critical threshold to pull the trigger. Seth makes the comparison with the ring-the-bell carnival game. The original research only focused on cases where the bell rang, e.g., a decision was made. The subsequent analysis included the trials where the puck didn’t reach the bell. Our free will lives to decide another day, so the companies might have to return the hats as yet another failure in workforce motivation. 

With one story lost, another comes to mind. What would it be like to have neural augmentation that enhances our umvelt so I can see infrared with pits like a viper, sense electric fields like a shark or an eel, see circularly polarized light like a mantis shrimp, hear the ultrasonic squeaks of a bat, the subsonic communication of an elephant, or magnetic fields like a migrating bird? It’s one thing to see the ultraviolet translation of a picture in ordinary light. It would be quite another to have that as part of our sensory capability. Instead of asking why our brains are so big, we should ask why they are so small. All that extra processing would come at a steep metabolic price to add in the extra brain processing, but is it one that an advanced civilization can afford? What would it take to integrate our new senses into our existing umvelt?

Seth suggests that consciousness comes from the difference between what our minds predict and our senses report. When the outfielder tracks down a fly ball, he does so by continually trying to correct for being directly in the path of the ball, not by running to a fixed spot determined by physical calculations of force and motion. Free will, or at least our perception of free will, arises from recognizing alternatives. When you realize you could have done something another way, it is your brain’s way of laying down more enlightened processing for the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.

I have always thought that consciousness and learning are intimately intertwined. There is no learning through osmosis. To learn, you must become aware of another way to do something. To become aware means to bring it into your conscious mind. Bringing it into your conscious mind allows you to change the behavior.

Athletes talk about being in “the zone” where they don’t think to perform fluidly. Learning disrupts an unconscious behavior to develop a new model to aspire to. For an athlete, that means slowing down high-performance reaction times. Training minimizes the gap between perception and aspiration, and between awareness and flow. Or, to put it another way, it strives to make a learned behavior automatic, to perform without thinking.

I’m in another kind of zone. The ideas swirl in my head like the desert wind. I have a bottle of soju to fuzzy my awareness and to save some of that free energy while trying to keep warm at the night’s fire. Sitting at the fire, I learned that a bundle of fire burns for about three hours, and I can stretch a bottle of soju for about that time, but not with the mind-altering properties I desired. Next time I will bring two bottles, maybe more. I was striving for much slower response times.

Yong ends his book on a cautionary note. Humans are inadvertently and sometimes advertently destroying the umvelt of the creatures of the natural environment with light pollution that fools moths into dropping dead under a street light, with noise pollution that interrupts interocean whale communication, and even with electric field emitting cables that trick sharks into an attack. Global warming and umvelt destruction are a symptom of a more significant problem: the failure to embrace ourselves as of nature and not apart from it. It’s not hard to appreciate nature in the desert with its rugged mountain, cholla gardens, snow geese in the desert, verbena blooms, and raging sandstorm. Love nature first and let all else follow. 

 So I’ve invented a new word: the Om-Velt. Om comes from the spiritual meditation of om. Velt is a shortening of the word umvelt. Om replaces um, signifying the deep sensory and sentient experience of an organism’s separation from and connection to its environment.

Or, as ChatGPT puts it:

“The “om” part of the word refers to the spiritual practice of chanting “om” in meditation, which has a calming and centering effect on the mind and body. The experience of the “Om-Velt” is a deeply felt, meditative state of awareness.

The “velt” part of the word is a shortened form of “umwelt,” a term coined by biologist Jakob von Uexküll to describe the subjective world of an individual organism. In other words, the “Om-Velt” encompasses an organism’s unique sensory and perceptual experiences as it interacts with its environment.

The concept of “Om-Velt” refers to a state of heightened awareness or consciousness in which an organism is acutely attuned to its surroundings, both as a distinct entity and as part of a larger whole. It suggests a deep appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and a recognition of how their environment shapes an individual’s experience.

Overall, “Om-Velt” captures a profound spiritual and ecological awareness and describes a particular contemplative experience.

And here is the soulless ChatGPT’s poetic take on Om-Velt in the desert:

Amidst the sands of time and space 
A seeker wanders, searching for grace
To feel the Om-Velt’s gentle touch 
And know the world’s sacred clutch.

The sun beats down upon her brow 
But in her heart, she feels somehow 
The desert stretches all around 
A deeper sense, more profound.

She sits upon the burning sand 
And takes a breath, a single strand 
Of serenity that settles in 
And makes her feel the world within.

The wind picks up, a subtle breeze 
That whispers secrets through the trees 
Of cactus and of ancient lore 
Of life that thrives amidst its core.

The Om-Velt brings a sense of awe 
That fills her up and leaves her raw 
With joy and wonder, love and bliss 
She feels her world is part of this.

The sun sets low upon the land 
The sky ablaze, a fiery brand 
Of colors and of shifting light 
That marks the end of day and night.

And at that moment, all is one 
The desert, seeker, setting sun 
Are joined in Om-Velt’s holy glow 
And all is well, as it must flow.

The seeker rises, dusts her clothes 
And knows that in her heart she glows 
With Om-Velt’s gentle, loving light 
That shines forever, day and night.

Author’s Note: ChatGPT wrote that poem in less than a minute. I on the other hand, did not finish those two books in two days. It happened that, coincidently, I finished both during my adventure.”