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.
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?” “Yes.” “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?” “Yeah.” “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.”
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.
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
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.
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.”
Spoiler Alert. Watch Hellbound before reading this. It’s a six-episode investment, somewhere between a long movie and a short series in length, currently on Netflix at the time of this post.
You came back! You made it through the hellbound incinerations, live cremation, and infanticide. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of the horror genre, and the movie has some genuinely appalling scenes. I chose to watch it because I was impressed with Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan, ostensibly a zombie movie with a clever ending, but ultimately a film about sacrifice for others (not of others). I’m not a fan of the zombie genre either, but the movie came highly recommended, and I was not disappointed. So I took a chance on Hellbound.
An unwritten rule of monster movies is to progressively reveal the monster, saving the full power and horror until the big confrontation at the movie’s climax. But in the opening scene of Hellbound, the agents of hell fully reveal themselves. They burn their victim to a smoking crisp after a chase scene down the city’s crowded streets in broad daylight with plenty of gratuitous collateral damage, necessary for sheer entertainment value and unambiguously revealing the hellbound threat to the populace at large. Throughout the movie, the modus operandi of the agents of hell remains consistent: An angel in the form of a large face appears and issues a decree of the time of death. The monsters show up at the appropriate time, wreak mayhem, and a bloody, burning demise to the decreed victim. The demons never change in form or capability. Only the venue and the victim change.
In the first three episodes, knowledge of the attacks circulates through social media and the news. Jeong Jin-Soo rises to power and orchestrates the rise of New Truth, the religious cult that imparts moral significance to the decrees. As the high priest of the New Truth, Jeong Jin-Soo puts his practitioners on a mission to expose the wrongdoings of the condemned, hoping to discover the misdeeds that led to his undisclosed decree to hell as an innocent child. Ultimately, he knows the attacks have no meaning but believes humanity is better off with the illusion of meaning rather than the anxiety of not understanding that afflicted his life. New Truth grows in power using the street justice of the fanatical Arrowheads, dedicated to exposing and shaming the decreed, watching the final judgment dispatched dispassionately behind faceless masks. Jin Kyeong-hoon, dressed like something out of a Mad Max movie, incites the fanaticism of the Arrowheads through his rant casts on the internet. The Arrowheads beat lawyer Min Hyejin to within an inch of her life for the crime of opposing the new order, and New Truth defeats detective Jin Kyeong-hoon, who chooses not to expose the truth of Jeong Jin-Soo’s unrevealed decree and hellbound death. Following the rules of progressive disclosure, Yeon Sang-ho’s monsters of sanctimonious self-righteousness and fanaticism start to reveal themselves.
In the last three episodes, we jump forward five years to the indoctrination of New Truth into society. Jeong Jin-Soo has left his legacy in the incompetent hands of the buffoonish mob leader who understands power but not purpose. The New Truth has little to do with factual truth. New Truth uses the police to enforce their moral authority, only employing the Arrowheads as a last resort. New Truth exposes or manufactures the sins of the condemned and wrecks the lives of all those associated with them. Yeon Sang-ho’s twin monsters are in plain sight with the names New Truth and Arrowheads.
Min Hyejin returns to lead an insurgency. She spent the last five years doing martial arts training so she could kick some monster ass and concealing decrees and hellbound executions to protect the families and friends of the condemned. In possibly the most hellish scene, New Truth live incinerates one of Min Hyejin’s co-conspirators in a crematorium oven. When an angel delivers a hellbound decree to an infant, everything comes to a head. New Truth stops at nothing to protect their moral authority, attempting to conceal the hellbound execution of the undeniably innocent victim. Min Hyejin convinces the parents of the doomed baby to broadcast the performance on social media, using the reformed fanatic Jin Kyeong-hoon’s help and equipment. Jin Kyeong-hoon joined the insurgency when he received a decree of hellbound death, which coincidently will occur five minutes after the baby. But once a fanatic, always a fanatic. New Truth convinces him that the divine has given him the sacred task of ensuring the baby’s death before his own to make it look like the monsters were only after him, thereby preserving their moral authority. Using logic only available to fanatics, he believes that god has ordered him to hell to save heaven, and killing the baby before the monsters arrive is the only reasonable course of action.
In the final chaotic scene, the progressive disclosure comes to its peak. The full power of the monsters is on display. All the human and hellish nightmares combine for the final battle to kill the decreed infant. Min Hyejin and the parents combat Jin Kyeong-hoon and the hellbound monsters to save the infant while the residents and the world stand silently in judgment, neither fleeing nor helping.
Finally, Yeon Sang-ho slays the beasts as appropriate for any decent monster movie. Miraculously, the self-sacrificing parents prevail at the cost of their own lives, finally revealing the Real Truth to the world. The demons dispatch Jin Kyeong-hoon to the underworld. Sanctimonious self-righteousness, fanaticism, and indifference are the monsters. To paraphrase the dialog, “The Hellbound attacks are no different than the randomness of any natural disaster. The affairs of humans are the business of humans.” Moral judgment doesn’t come from the divine. Incineration by natural disasters is a tragedy. Incineration of humans by humans, infanticide, and just making people’s lives miserable are the horrific crimes.
The monsters are gone, at least for the moment, but I hope Yeon Sang-ho doesn’t make a sequel to Hellbound. He has taken on monsters, superheroes, and zombies. His sequel should turn another staid subgenre of fantasy on its head. How about vampires?
Spoiler Alert. Watch My Mister before reading any of this. It’s worth the sixteen-hour+ investment. I will wait.
… You came back! You made it through the slow-moving, depressing series I sent you off to watch. It’s not your typical K-drama with some crazy premise like time travel, alternate worlds, or dead spirits that can’t make it to the real afterlife because of a grudge. My Mister has none of this. It is set in an ordinary neighborhood, with ordinary people, with normal if not downright mundane lives. Realism pervades the story in the community, the workplace, the hangouts, the subway, the buses, and the homes.
While there is plenty of drama at the executive level with principals jockeying for power, the work itself has almost no consequence. It’s simply a device to extol the virtues and showcase the integrity of Dong-hoon. He cares about the integrity of the work and the people that work for and with him. For example, when the drone fails, Dong-hoon, the senior manager at the site, puts himself at risk by climbing up the water tower to take the necessary pictures to analyze the structure.
The story is barely alive as the two protagonists, Lee Ji-an and Dong-hoon, stand apart waiting for the subway to arrive, sit apart, or are uncomfortably squeezed together at rush-hour congestion. They never walk side-by-side down the road where they split off into their respective neighborhoods. Lee Ji-an spends more time staring at the ground than any other character. Sometimes, my Hollywood brain wants to scream at them to say something, say anything to each other.
Shame on me for those moments of weakness. I watch K-dramas because they break the mainstream mold, not despite it. And nothing breaks that mold better than My Mister. No brains splattered, plot twists sure, but not every thirty seconds like we have the attention span of a one-year-old, no witty and triumphant repartee while slaying people that so obviously deserve to die.
My Mister is an exercise in everyday life rather than an escape from it. Sang-hoon says with all seriousness, “My one and only goal is to leave the house and drink.” Dong-hoon video records his exceptional talent for his son, which consists of dumping shot glasses full of soju into beer glasses lined up to make somaek.
What is not ordinary is Dong-hoon’s integrity. He is a moral superhero. He never maligns anyone or does anyone wrong throughout the whole story. He has no moral chink in his armor. His behavior is impeccable from start to finish. If he has a flaw, it is his flawlessness. He protects the dignity of those he knows are hurting or hurting him and consequently hurts himself more. He doesn’t confront Yoon-hee when he knows she is cheating on him but tries to persuade Do Yun to dump her to maintain her dignity. He doesn’t bring up the subject of Gyumduk, his one-time best friend to Jung-hee, Gyumduk’s spurned lover, even though he misses him, which he ultimately acknowledges with the one-word response, yes, which for him is a tsunami of talk and emotion. He carries grandma up the stairs and fights Lee Ji-an’s tormenter. He gets up for a lady on the subway even though he is injured and hurting.
He is a knight in shiny armor, but he hates his life. To his family, he is the winner of the group, the only brother with a real job, and a beautiful, loving, and successful wife. In reality, he is stuck as a low-level manager subservient to his one-time subordinate turned CEO, who also is having an affair with his wife. He lives within walls of his own making, and it’s not entirely clear if Yoon-hee’s infidelity is one of the causes or one of the symptoms.
Lee Ji-an is no moral slouch either. Even though she is willing to throw two full-time employees under the bus for a manipulative and fearful boss, she does it to pay off a manufactured debt from the vengeful Lee Kwang-il and care for her disabled grandmother Lee Bong-ae. Her empathy towards her assailant, Kwang-il, inspires his compassion, the last piece of the puzzle required to put Do-Yun away for good. But I think Ji-an’s superpower is her ability to read and understand people’s motives far beyond the capabilities of even an older adult. She plays a CEO, an attorney, and even the entire corporate staff of Saman E&C. But if Dong-Hoon has walls, Lee Ji-an’s walls have walls.
Lee Ji-an’s omnipresent wiretap and round-the-clock monitoring penetrate Dong-Hoon’s walls, albeit without his permission or knowledge. There is nothing she doesn’t know about him, and it is all absolutely genuine because he doesn’t know that she is watching over him. Dong-Hoon’s impeccable morality breaks down Lee Ji-an’s walls, always supporting her, even after his understanding of her transgressions escalates. So the dual protagonists dance this tango throughout the plot, slowly bringing the light to Lee Ji-an’s face and life to Dong-hoon’s day.
They become more intertwined in each other’s lives, and both intuit the absolute necessity of the other, becoming not lovers and far more than drinking buddies or colleagues or acquaintances. They become friends.
And that is what I think is the point of this story. The story is a recipe for being happy in a world of friends. I think the hypothesis of the movie comes from grandma when she signs, “If you think about it, each interpersonal relationship is quite fascinating and precious. You must repay them. Live a happy life. That’s how you can repay the people in your life.” The most important symbol in the movie comes at the very end when after everything they have done for one another, Dong-Hoon and Lee Ji-an shake hands. They become happy, not for themselves, but because they owe it to the other.
In romantic relationships, we say, “You make me happy.” Or if you are less fortunate, maybe you say, “You don’t.” The burden is on each person to make the other happy as if love is some mutually beneficial monetary transaction. The story has something to say about this arrangement. As much as my Hollywood brain demands a romance, it was never in the cards. First, note the age difference. Dong-hoon is a 48-year-old man. Jee Li-an is a 21-year-old woman.
Second, note the lack of one single, successful romantic relationship in the whole story. Not one. Dong-hoon and Yoon-hee’s marriage is in tatters from the very beginning. She cheats with the person he hates the most. “Why him?” Dong asks. “Why him of all people?” Because Do-Yun manipulates people to get what he wants. He dates married women because “You can trust a married person to keep a secret.” Yoon-hee chooses romance over family and friends. She wants the one, and she wants to be special. She buys into the mutually reciprocal nuclear relationship that Do-Yun represents. The nukes end up doing what nukes do when she discovers that Do-Yun’s interest in her isn’t entirely so mutual. A romantic relationship places the burden of happiness on the other person. Grandma’s friendship places the burden on your obligation to your friends. Even though Dong-hoon and Yoon-hee make their peace, they never get back together romantically, and she leaves Korea to be with their son in America.
In the relationship between Sang-hoon and Ae-ryun, they went the other way. Sang-hoon hangs on to the thought, but there is nothing between them throughout the story. Ae-ryun keeps the family but gives up the romantic relationship. She still shows up for a beer at the bar and drinks with all of them. Sang-hoon sleeps on the floor with his brother in his mother’s house while Ae-ryun has moved into her place.
Jung-hee wears the long-dead relationship with the Buddhist monk, Gyumduk, like cement water shoes. Jung-hee has wasted her adult life commiserating over him. She fakes happiness and independence with her night walks to her place, which is the bar she just left but never actually leaves. Everyone sees through it. She finally emancipates herself and her friends when everyone at the bar is allowed to say his name without her breaking down in remorseful tears or an unconscious stupor. He makes his peace with her, but they never reconcile. His only barrier to happiness is that he didn’t have the strength to stop by and see her after the breakup. It only takes him twenty-some-odd years and punishing meditation for getting it right.
The most bizarre relationship of all is Ki-hoon and Yoo-ra. Yoo-ra bases the relationship on Ki-hoon’s admission that he took out his inadequacies on her, making her feel good to see him as the failure instead of herself. Ki-hoon shows compassion for her in brief but generally unrewarded spurts. The best line between them is when Ki-hoon says, “I love you.” She responds, “That doesn’t help.” As much as I wanted to scream at the TV to make their relationship happen, in the end, I would have yelled at the writer if he had done it any other way.
And that’s it for the relationships. Bong-ae (Li-an’s grandmother) and Yo-soon (the mom) have no husbands. Choon-dae (the trashman) has no wife. No one in the office has a relationship on display. No one in the neighborhood drags their wives along to the soccer games or the bar.
The story creates intimacy among the characters through daily consumption of alcohol, by sharing the anxiety and frustration of friends, reveling in their successes as if they were their own, taking up arms at the sight of a bloody comrade, and sometimes even making extraordinary gestures, like when Sang-hoon uses up all his money to give grandma a decent funeral. Despite all their bickering and disappointments, they have genuine intimacy and decency towards one another.
The romantic realm is filled with demands, deceit, disappointment, and failed expectations. The boy doesn’t get the girl, and not every story has to be a love story. So, in the end, the story’s recipe for happiness is through friendship earned through intimacy and decency. For every action of decency, you owe a debt of happiness. And I find that entirely refreshing and useful.
In the interest of research of an idea for a next book using Intelliphants (GMO elephants) to explore volitional evolution from the perspective of the created, I decided to read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein to see if the Frankenstein monster offered any insights into the plight of the volitionally created. To my horror, I discovered the book has no monster. No Frankenstein. At least not in any way that I think of it.
To be sure, Victor Frankenstein spreads two years imbuing life into an assemblage of body parts. One brief passage in the book ”shows” the eight-foot-tall monster. But even that passage isn’t a description of the monster, but of Victor’s perception of it in light of concluding his arduous and obsessive effort to the exclusion of all interaction with anything outside his toils. “The beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” Once the creation comes to life, the dream vanishes and he perceives his work as a monster having ignored the life and lives already around him. Only then are the monster’s eyes described as “colorless” and “lifeless.” The monster in the book is guilt, as a result of the obsessing pursuit of his goal to the exclusion of all else. He ignores his family and friends and health and rest. Only upon completion, does he realize the emptiness of the now ugly accomplishment, the eight-foot-tall monster in the room. Almost as quickly as the monster appears in the story, it disappears into an abstraction that exists as guilt in Victor Frankenstein’s mind.
In the one passage in the middle of the story where Victor drops back into the outer frame of the story (more on this in a second) to moralize, he says, A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a clear and peaceful mind, and never to allow a passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule.” He goes on to conclude that this unexamined pursuit has underlied many of the miseries of the world at large.
The story is framed, or at least started, by a sequence of letters of a man, Robert Walton, to his beloved sister, Margaret. The letters express the regret of her absence to pursuing his passion to understand the magnetic mysteries of the North Pole. He suffers for want of a true friend. Robert Walton is on the same literal path as Victor Frankenstein when they meet, but as we discover in the later narration, the same life path as well.
As far-fetched as it sounds, it makes sense that Walton and Frankenstein find one another on the broken ice of the Arctic ocean and become close friends. In hindsight, the apparition of a man sledding across the ice pack is the monster, though the monster is only glimpsed briefly, which I now interpret to mean that Victor can never shake the memory of damage and the guilt caused by his obsessive pursuit. After they become close friends, Victor Frankenstein shares his story with Robert Walton that until now he has kept secret, it being too late for him but might have “some benefit” for Robert Walton. “You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did, and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine had.”
Back to Victor’s narrative, the monster briefly makes a third appearance in Victor’s hometown after Victor has recovered enough to return to his home, escaping from Victor’s pursuit by climbing over impassable terrain and a tall mountain. As a plot device, this appearance so far from the monster’s original manifestation in both place and time is entirely coincidental and inconvenient. But as a metaphor meaning he can’t capture and control the huge guilt associated with his earlier behavior, it works perfectly.
The monster kills Victor’s younger brother, William, and indirectly his innocent cousin, Justine, who is blamed for the death of William, though by plot, all of this is discovered by implication. It is really Victor’s internal monster that kills the innocent. The proof of Justine’s death is a locket of the dead mother taken from William and mysteriously placed with Justine. In other words, Victor Frankenstein’s monster is that he should have helped his younger brother who lost his mom instead of placing the burden on Justine, an innocent child. For Victor Frankenstein, this monster is big and overpowering and can never be completely erased from the Arctic recesses of his mind.
For me, the monster is a monster of a different nature than what I am looking for. I am not disappointed in the read by any stretch of the imagination, just shocked that after all these years of Hollywood and Halloween translating a metaphorical monster into a real one, there is no Frankenstein.