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Europe Vacation June 30, 2023

Like millions of others around the globe, when the COVID masks came off I inhaled two lungs full of wanderlust! Our Hawaii vacation in December was initially supposed to be a once-a-decade event, but before we even boarded the plane home I was dreaming of the next one.

Where else can one get around exclusively through public transportation, communicate mostly in English, and find ample green mountains and fields of flowers to photograph? In Europe, of course!

Initially we planned a 2-week vacation for our anniversary, because crossing the Atlantic is expensive and a big to-do. Unfortunately I had work obligations, and I didn't want to leave the cats alone too long. So Sweetie took off first for a week of outdoor adventures in Switzerland, and I joined a week later to sight-see in Belgium and Germany.

Sweetie's Swiss adventures included:

1. A stop in Bern to walk around the UNESCO-designated Altstadt.

Bern rooftops
Bern rooftops, river, and tree-covered hilltops

2. Two days in the car-less mountain town of Mürren to hike and climb the Via Ferrata.

Town at the foot of the mountains in Switzerland
View of Lauterbrunnen valley from Murren, Switzerland
Fox statue in Murren, Switzerland
Flowers in Murren, Switzerland
Sweetie on the Murren Via Ferrata

3. A trip to Zermatt, at the foot of the iconic Matterhorn.

Street in Zermatt, Switzerland
Sweetie on Gornergrat
View from Gornergrat
Horse-drawn carriage in Zermatt, Switzerland
Flowers in Zermatt, Switzerland
View of the Matterhorn from Zermatt, Switzerland

4. A day taking scenic trains from Zermatt to St. Moritz, following the same route as the ridiculously overpriced Glacier Express.

Train windows in Switzerland
Cows grazing in Switzerland
Village at the foot of mountains in Switzerland
Village at the foot of mountains in Switzerland
Village at the foot of mountains in Switzerland
Village at the foot of mountains in Switzerland
Tall train bridge in Switzerland
Village at the foot of mountains in Switzerland
Lake in St. Moritz with view of the town

5. A self-guided walking tour of Luzern.

City on Lake Luzern
Wooden bridge on Lake Luzern
View of Luzern from Hotel Gütsch
Street in Luzern
Lion sculpture in Luzern

6. A train break in Luxembourg, on the way to Brussels.

Bridge to Luxembourg
Entrance to Luxembourg
Grande Duchess Charlotte Memorial in Luxembourg
Nortre-Dame Cathedral in Luxembourg
Interior of Nortre-Dame Cathedral in Luxembourg
Luxembourg train station
Stained glass over timetables in Luxembourg train station

In the meantime, I sewed clothes and bags in preparation for my own adventures.

Sunday, June 18 to Monday, June 19

At 6:30 on Sunday I said goodbye to the cats, locked up, and walked a half hour to the single bus station in town. Though we have an airport 15 minutes from our house, tickets between Redmond and Frankfurt cost a few hundred more each way than between Portland and Frankfurt. So I took the CO Breeze bus to Portland, which cost $60 per ticket instead.

My plane that afternoon took off two hours late. The frustrated captain announced that the plane was on time, the crew was on time, they just needed fresh water and had been waiting for PDX to bring it for hours. Eventually the staff did bring the water, and my first ten hours of hell commenced.

It wasn't hell because anything else went wrong; the trip is simply hell by nature. Ten hours of trying to sleep in a cramped upright seat while people talk too loudly, and crunch on snacks from crinkling bags, and watch movies on bright flashing screens, and you can't use the bathroom without climbing over your neighbors. Each hour of flight took me forward an additional hour in time, so I landed in Frankfurt at 11 am Monday.

I thought I was finally out of hell then. Actually, they'd just dropped me off at the entrance to the next circle down.

The high-speed train to Brussels arrived an hour late. That's okay, I thought, determined to be zen about it. These things happen. Besides, the vending machine gave me free chocolate snacks without asking for payment.

Share chocolate snack from Frankfurt airport train station vending machine

For a minute I wondered if European vending machines operate backwards—the snack drops down first, and then you pay for it? No, that machine was unusually generous. It must have sensed my suffering and wanted to make me feel better.

With a stomach full of free sugar, everything seemed to be back on track...until we reached the next station in Cologne. There the operator announced that the air-conditioning units had broken down in two cars, and everyone in them had to move. Of course, I was in one of those cars. Dozens of grumbling people squeezed themselves into sweltering train hallways, leaning against windows and crouching on hard floors, to wait out the rest of the journey.

Crowded Deutsche Bahn ICE train after AC breakdown

Still, I was determined to be zen. This is an adventure! Disasters always make better stories than, "Everything was perfect."

Then the train stopped moving.

Not only were there technical problems within the train, but there were problems with the signals on the tracks too. With everyone packed into small hot spaces in odd positions, the train sat about 15 minutes away from the next station for 10 minutes, 20, 30... I lost count. A cheer rose up when it limped into the tiny country station of Aachen, where everyone was dumped out and left to their own devices.

For one hour, I commiserated with a young woman from Frankfurt who was flying to visit family in Ghana. She'd planned a 3-hour buffer to get to the Brussels airport, and it was all gone now.

At last, another train arrived 40 minutes late. Okay, I thought, I'll get there a few hours later than usual, but that's fine. Sweetie wasn't going to arrive from Luxembourg until 19:00. Now I'll get there at the same time, and we'll get dinner.

I helped the young woman carry her bags on board. Then, predictably, another announcement: "I am sorry, this train is too full. We cannot move with so many people standing. Please get off if you can."

So off I went yet again, to take an odd series of slow rural trains to Brussels. I finally arrived at 21:00.

At that point, the communication between my body and brain had broken down like the train signals. Was I hungry? Sleepy? No idea! I do know I was capable of walking 30 minutes with my luggage through the cobble-stoned shopping districts of Brussels. It was still light out, very warm and humid, the sidewalks crowded with hip city people speaking French and sipping drinks at bistro tables.

Sweetie was waiting for me outside the hotel, and he whisked me off for dinner at 22:00. I'd traveled 5,100 miles to eat hamburgers and fries with Coca Cola at a New York themed restaurant called Manhattn's Burgers, which was the closest restaurant we could find that was still open at that hour. It was, however, an extremely good burger. I selected the Brooklyn Falafel Burger, which had avocado, tzakiki sauce, and a spicy cheese mixture.

My original plan was to get to Brussels in mid-afternoon, see some sights, and struggle to stay awake until I crashed. With the late dinner, catching up with Sweetie, and dealing with luggage and laundry, the crash happened after 1 am. As it turns out, hell is an excellent remedy for jet lag.

Tuesday, June 20

I planned to spend our wedding anniversary in Belgium's self-styled City of Love, Brugge (or Bruges). But first, we made an obligatory photo stop at Brussels's Grand Place. All I have to say about it is that Belgian nobles must have had a lot of extra gold lying around they didn't have anything better to do with. The other 99.99% of their population must have been perfectly well fed and happy, so why not?

Grand Place in Brussels
Grand Place in Brussels
Grand Place in Brussels

Then we took a train to Brugge. The town is cute and romantic as advertised, but also an extreme tourist trap. On a Tuesday afternoon the streets were packed with guided groups and couples taking selfies. Every other storefront claims it sells the BEST Belgian waffles. Google says there are more than seventy chocolate shops packed in there. I commented to Sweetie that it felt like Disneyland's Main Street.

Of course, we bought two bags of chocolates and took tons of selfies.

View of Brugge from Minnewaterbrug
Climbing roses in Brugge
Horse-drawn carriage in front of a church in Brugge
Couple selfie by a boat tour landing in Brugge
View of Brugge from King's Bridge
Swan with babies in Brugge
Mallomar from chocolate shop in Brugge
Buttery truffle from chocolate shop in Brugge

The weather forecast said rain, but it patiently waited until we reached the very end of the Romantic Hotspots Walk. As soon as Sweetie snapped his last photo from King's Bridge, the light drizzle turned into a torrential storm.

We cinched our raincoats tight and bolted from awning to awning until we found a cafe to duck inside, which was so little I can't find it again on Google Maps. There we fulfilled our responsibility as American tourists to eat Belgian waffles topped with ice cream and drenched in melted chocolate.

Belgian waffles topped with ice cream, strawberries, and chocolate

The heavy rain continued back in Brussels. Our tongues loved the waffles but our stomachs protested they weren't real food, so there was nothing for it but to get drenched on our way to dinner at Roxi. I don't understand a single word of French, but we fumbled our way to alcohol-free cocktails and massive plates of food.

Wednesday, June 21

On Wednesday we said farewell to Belgium and took trains back into Germany, towards the college town of Koblenz. We stopped in Cologne to see the famed Cathedral, which is right outside the main station.

Cologne Cathedral entrance

Koblenz is an interesting city. Most of it is modern and commercial, with lots of cars and an enormous shopping mall. Then you turn the corner, and suddenly you're in 1800.

Street in Koblenz Altstadt
River walk in Koblenz
Fortress across the river in Koblenz
Roses and lavender in Koblenz
Fountain illustrating history of Koblenz

That night we learned how eating out in Germany works. In a word, slooowly.

American restaurants are very concerned with turnover. More free tables means more paying customers. German restaurants, on the other hand, don't seem all that concerned about how much money they make. It takes about as long to get the attention of a waiter to order drinks as it does to complete an entire meal stateside. But we did get those drinks, and lots of tasty food.

Bratwurst and Wiener schnitzel at a restaurant in Koblenz

Thursday, June 22

Thursday was dedicated to a cruise down the Rhine to Bingen, to take photos of the many active castles and ruins along the banks.

The Goethe scenic boat on the Rhine at Bingen
Castle viewed from the Rhine
Town along the Rhine
Town along the Rhine
Castle and town along the Rhine
Castle and town along the Rhine
Castle and town along the Rhine

Castle and terraced vineyards along the Rhine

I discovered on this cruise that I'm very fond of schorle—a mix of sparkling mineral water and fruit juices.

Drinking apfelschorle

The food from the on-board restaurant was terrible, but the views and breeze were nice on the muggy summer day.

After disembarking in Bingen at 15:00, we were supposed to take a simple series of trains through Mainz and Mannheim to Baden-Baden, Germany. As you might guess from the concurrent presence of the words "trains" and "Germany" in that sentence, this was a complete disaster.

You can't assess the health of a system by how awesome it is when everything is peachy keen, but by how well it recovers when things go sideways. In the case of Deutsche Bahn, what happens is chaos.

First, something caused our train to Mainz to dead end at Uhlerborn, which is a station you might film in a movie to illustrate that the characters are hopelessly stranded in the middle of nowhere. I couldn't understand most of the train operator's announcement, but the DB website said something about fireworks. We walked 20 minutes into town to try to find a bus, but we couldn't buy tickets with our Visa cards. We had no choice but to go back and wait at the station, on the dirty concrete, with no WC and only some melted globs of Brugge chocolate for sustenance, until another train to Mainz showed up an hour late.

Then the train to Mannheim suddenly stopped at Worms during a hailstorm. "Continuing is not possible," the operator announced in German. "This train is going back to Mainz."

I asked the Deutsche Bahn staff how to get to Mannheim, expecting there would be alternate routes. "I don't know!" The employee threw his hands up. "Maybe the next train will have the same problem. Maybe not. There are trees on the tracks. I don't know."

Waiting at Worms was uncomfortable, not least because the station's only WC was closed due to vandalism, and we hadn't had access to one since leaving the boat. We considered going back to Mainz to take a long route around the obstructed tracks, but it was already past 19:00 and that would have taken 4-5 hours. Sweetie was optimistic. "I'm sure they're working as fast as they can. We'll take the next train."

The next train came in half an hour, sat in the station hopefully, and was cancelled. The next one came a half hour after that, sat in the station hopefully, and was cancelled. None of the staff knew what was going on. The digital signs were all screwed up. One claimed a train was destined for Mainz but listed an intermediate stop at Mannheim, which made as much geographical sense as saying a plane from Los Angeles would fly over San Diego on the way to San Francisco.

"Nach Mainz oder nach Mannheim?" frustrated Germans demanded.

"I don't know!" the employees wailed. "Maybe first to Mannheim, then to Mainz? I don't know!"

Sweetie and I licked convenience store ice cream bars for dinner as the sun lowered and everything shut down around us, like two bedraggled travelers waiting for Godot.

After 21:00 a train to Mannheim arrived, sat in the station hopefully, and was not cancelled! And the main train station in Mannheim does have a WC.

We arrived in Baden-Baden at 23:30, about 6 hours later than expected. Luckily Baden-Baden is the Waikiki of Germany, where tourists go to relax in spas, spend lots of money on luxury goods, and drink in fancy bars long into the night. The buses continue running until midnight, so we were able to catch one to the hotel and get a little rest before our Great Black Forest Adventure.

Friday, June 23

Baden-Baden is on the northern edge of Schwarzwald, or the Black Forest region. The two highlights I'd selected for us were to hike part of the Panorama Trail and to visit the Roman bath ruins. The bath ruins have very limited hours, so they had to wait until the next morning.

Because it was a hot day that threatened rain, I picked a section of the trail that went through the dense forest, rather than the parts that went up high for views of the valley.

Panoramaweg path in Baden-Baden
Digitalis in Schwarzwald
Mossy tree stump in Schwarzwald
Sweetie on overgrown path in Schwarzwald
Panoramaweg path in Baden-Baden
Pink blossoms on tree in Schwarzwald

The plants in the Black Forest are very happy. Too happy, in fact. Underbrush had grown over the path in many sections, and the estimated 2-hour hike to Geroldsauer Waterfall turned into a 5-hour session of voluntary trail maintenance.

The stuff I'm attacking is stinging nettle, and it is vicious. Supposedly the leaves are nutritious and medicinal, but if the needles on the stems touch your bare skin, it feels like carelessly burning yourself on a hot cookie sheet. If we'd been wearing thick jeans, coats and gloves, it wouldn't have been a problem, but because it was such a hot day I was in thin yoga pants and Sweetie in shorts. On the bright side, the effects of stinging nettle are temporary and went away after an hour or so.

On the journey to the waterfall, I felt like a fairy tale character travelling through the woods and stumbling on magical huts in clearings. Sadly, no ageless witches appeared to offer me a slice of gingerbread.

Hut on road in Schwarzwald

The waterfall itself was underwhelming. The area is beautiful, and if it were near my house I'd happily walk the loop every day. But as a destination, the best I can say is it did indeed have water that was falling. From about 1/30th the height of Multnomah Falls, which is what we Oregonians envision when we hear "waterfall."

River under foot bridge at Geroldsauer waterfall
River at Geroldsauer waterfall
Geroldsauer waterfall

By this point I was exhausted, starving, whiny, and very badly needed to find a toilet. To my delight, signs pointed to a nearby grill called Waldgaststätte Bütthof, where the meat is abundant, the drinks are cold and bubbly, and the WC is free to customers!

As we were in the Black Forest, we had to try the Black Forest cake. It tasted more like red velvet than chocolate and was covered with plain whipped cream, with very sour cherries in the middle. I usually think desserts are too sweet and could use half the sugar, but this cake could have used double.

Black Forest cake from the Waldgastaette Buetthof

The buses to that area ran infrequently, so we made the trek back to town by foot, taking a shorter but less attractive route past houses and hotels. In all we walked 17 km or about 10 miles, and we had just enough energy left to find ice cream for dinner again.

Saturday, June 24

In the morning we visited the ruins, where we had the authentic experience of sweating in ancient Roman fire-heated baths. The heating for the modern-day baths above cranked up the temperature to probably the mid-90s Fahrenheit. I learned interesting things about architecture from the included audio tour, but I was glad to escape outside to cool off after 45 minutes. Photos weren't allowed, but they wouldn't have turned out well anyway in such a small, dark place.

From Baden-Baden we took a short train (without incident!) to Heidelberg, a destination I selected for its convenient proximity to Frankfurt airport. Like Koblenz, it's a college town, and most of it is a modern city. Unfortunately it's not the good type of modern. Lots of ugly highways, commercial construction projects, and vast boulevards with missing sidewalks and no trees. Cutting through it to the Altstadt was like walking down the infamous stroads of America—all glaring sun and gasoline fumes.

But the Altstadt is cute, and very busy on a Saturday night. Students and tourists conversed over group dinners on the cobblestoned streets, enjoyed an open-air concert, studied on garden benches surrounded by masses of blooms, and lounged on blankets on the grass by the river. If I were a photographer for Heidelberg University's website, I'd be having a field day.

Heidelberg Altstadt

We hiked up to Philosopher's Walk, which offers impressive views over the river and town beyond. From there, you can't see any of the ugly modern parts—only the romantic castle and quaint old buildings. The name stems from its supposed popularity with academics and other smart people who would walk and talk about smart things. Sweetie and I mostly talked about photo compositions and where the heck that loud concert music was coming from, but we did make sure to squeeze in a few sentences about Socrates at the end.

On bridge to Philosopher's Walk in Heidelberg
View from Philosopher's Walk in Heidelberg

Along the path is also a wooden play structure for children. Naturally, I climbed it.

Climbing play structure on Philosopher's Walk
Climbing play structure on Philosopher's Walk

Sunday, June 24

On Sunday I took the train to Frankfurt airport and returned home to the cats and to work the next day. Sweetie stayed to fit in one more "must-do" tourist attraction: Neuschwanstein Castle, which famously inspired the Disney castle. Like in the Roman bath ruins, photos weren't allowed inside.

Neuschwanstein from below
Neuschwanstein courtyard
Selfie at Neuschwanstein

Now we're back together stateside and have finally stopped waking up at 2 am. The trip was a great experience, but I think it will take me about a year to recover the energy for another one. Or at least a month or two...

Thoughts on Narcissism and Constructed Personal Realities June 27, 2023

Last week I traveled to Germany and Belgium. I'll post photos when I recover the energy to go through them all, but right now my body still thinks the appropriate time to wake up and start the day is 2 am.

On the long flight over, I watched a miniseries I'd downloaded to my phone through my public library's Hoopla subscription: Deadwater Fell. I knew nothing about it except that it was a drama and starred David Tennant, so it must be good. And it was.

Tom Kendrick, played by Tennant, is a seemingly kind physician with a seemingly perfect life. A beautiful wife named Kate, three delightful young daughters, a loving friendship with the family across the street. Then one night, Kate and the girls die in a tragic fire...but it turns out they were already dead from poisoning. The girls were padlocked inside the room, with Kate lying outside in the hall holding the key. In the final scene of episode one, Tom wakes up in the hospital and asks, "What did she do?"

The show seems to reveal the cracks in the family dynamic caused by Kate's post-partum depression. The audience sees her erratic outbursts during nice picnics on the beach. A bout of reckless driving in which she lost her temper at the girls in the backseat and caused a serious accident. Scenes of her buying the padlock; snapping at her sweet mother-in-law; and drunkenly sobbing, "I don't want to feel like this anymore" while ever-patient Tom tucks her into bed and soothes her like a young child.

The underlying truth, of course, is that Tom is a covert narcissist who strategically broke Kate down to maintain absolute control over his family. Whenever Kate made close female friends, Tom would destroy the relationships by having affairs with them. To ensure Kate would never find support, he confided his "concerns" about her mental state to everyone in town. He'd touch her buttons in public until she reacted, then shake his head and say to others, "I can't deal with her when she's like this." When Kate worked up the courage to leave him and take the girls, Tom asked her to buy the padlock and calmly murdered them all.

When I arrived home this weekend, I read articles and watched videos about narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). When people say "narcissist" colloquially, they tend to mean someone is generally arrogant and selfish. Clinically, narcissists have at least five of nine diagnostic criteria (from Duke University):

  • Sense of self-importance
  • Preoccupation with power, beauty, or success
  • Entitled
  • Can only be around people who are important or special
  • Interpersonally exploitative for their own gain
  • Arrogant
  • Lack empathy
  • Must be admired
  • Envious of others or believe that others are envious of them

There are two types of NPD, covert and overt. Overt NPD is what most people think a narcissist would be: very obviously self-absorbed, loud, charming, and controlling. A charismatic bull in a china shop. But in the more insidious form, people with covert NPD present as humble and self-sacrificing. They employ passive aggressive mind games to get what they want.

A relationship with a person with NPD will generally have two stages: idealization and devaluation.

In the first stage, a narcissist will put a person on a pedestal and "love bomb" them to secure their affection. They'll be so apparently honest and open, so sensitive and generous, so vulnerable and pitiable, that the victim will happily do everything in their power to give the narcissist the attention and praise they deserve.

Then when the narcissist gets bored or threatened (for example, by the victim asking for a bit of reciprocity in the relationship), they'll suddenly transform from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. They'll explode in violent rages. They'll throw hurtful accusations around. They'll treat the same person they expressed undying devotion to with contempt, sneer at their pain, and abandon them for days or weeks.

How could somebody act like this? To a healthy functioning adult, it's unfathomable. They must see they're hurting others and ultimately themselves, right? Why don't they stop? And the most incomprehensible part is that none of the dizzyingly complex manipulation seems to be deliberate. The narcissist seems to be a good person. They appear intelligent and insightful. They can say all the right things about ethics, social justice, and mental health. But then out of the blue, they say things so nasty and do things so devious, normal people couldn't imagine them.

In essence, a person with NPD has the emotional maturity of a six-year-old. Due to various potential reasons, including traumatic experiences and abusive parenting, they repress their emotions and don't develop the skill to self-reflect.

Most young children learn how to recognize what's going on in their bodies when they're angry or sad, and how to communicate that in productive ways. We use our words. We don't bite or hit our friends. We say, "I feel..." and "I'm sorry."

A narcissist, however, stops growing before they reach that point. They get stuck in the perpetual state of a preschooler who demands ice cream and throws a screaming, kicking, fist-pounding tantrum when they don't get it.

This is crazy to witness when you encounter a person with NPD, because they appear to be fully developed adults. Sexually, intellectually, language-processing-wise, they might be. But inside, they have no comprehension of what's going on in their own brains. They can't regulate their emotions, so they act out impulsively to expel their feelings onto others.

The paradox is: narcissists have inflated and fragile egos because they have no real sense of self. It's completely made-up in a perfect image, like the fantasy of a child wearing a bed sheet as a superhero cape. They have a pathological need to control and protect that image. Any tiny challenge to their carefully crafted identity will be perceived as an unjust attack against them.

Most fascinating to me, narcissists create a distorted personal reality that's completely illogical to everyone else, because they can't see all the information we do.

When we feel something that indicates a change in internal state, like our forehead crinkles and our mouths turn down, healthy adults will quickly analyze the current context to identify what caused it. Let's say: I'm eating dinner with my spouse, this chicken is dry, I'm tired, and I had an unpleasant day at work. When our spouses ask, "What's wrong?" we'll say, "Ugh, today was just one dumpster fire after another."

Now imagine you're blind to anything going on inside of yourself. When you're upset, you can only see: I'm eating dinner with my spouse, and this chicken is dry. Therefore, the only possible source of your unhappiness is your spouse and their terrible cooking skills. If they ask, "What's wrong?" you might snap, "You could have at least tried to make something new for once. I hate chicken. I've always hated chicken, but you never bothered to ask. You don't even care what I like, do you?"

Naturally, when the only perceptible causes of negative emotions come from outside of you, you will always be the victim of a cruel, cruel world. Every issue is somebody else's fault. Every consequence of your actions is somebody else's problem. They're too sensitive, too selfish, too weak to deal with it, and how dare they put the responsibility for their feelings on you. Why are they being so mean when you've been nothing but nice and tolerated so much? You deserve better.

A real-life example of all of these traits is the United States' most famous overt narcissist, Donald Trump. In his mind, he is perfect and could do no wrong. Everyone adores him, and anyone who criticizes him is out to get him. He's "a very stable genius." Any investigation into his criminal activities is a witch hunt. Any political loss is a deep-state conspiracy against him. Any challenge to his baseless assertions triggers a toddler-level meltdown. While the world watched in shock as his supporters violently attacked the Capitol, he watched in delight, because he was going to get the absolute power he wanted and deserved.

While Donald Trump and Tennant's Tom Kendrick are extreme examples of narcissism, many fictional characters have narcissistic traits to a certain degree. Villains like Anakin Skywalker, certainly, but also some heroes like Jay Gatsby. In fact, every human has many of these traits as young children and retain a few of them as we age. Everyone gets a little jealous of people who have more money or friends, a little preoccupied with our looks, a little bit manipulative at work to get that raise or promotion.

And every single one of us crafts a personal reality that is not, and cannot be, 100% representative of the objective universe. For most people, our realities adjust as we encounter new information. For people with narcissistic tendencies and others with immature mindsets, sadly, their realities get frozen. They employ mental somersaults to keep them that way. When people who want to believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election are faced with facts to the contrary, they'll ignore the lack of evidence of widespread fraud and latch on to logic with the infallibility of a Jenga tower, like, "Trump was winning and suddenly all these blue votes appeared, so there was something fishy going on," and "I didn't vote for Biden, and none of my friends did either, so he must have cheated."

Character development guides and worksheets tend to build an imaginary person from specifics into a whole, like: What is their name? What are their physical traits? Where did they grow up? What do they want? What do they fear? What's their biggest flaw? And so on.

While these can help for brainstorming, I think the question to keep in mind for a consistent, cohesive character is: What is their reality? And how tightly do they cling to it?

For example, if we just play Mad Libs with character worksheets, you might end up with something like:

  • Name: Madison or "Maddie"
  • She's 18, athletic, and has curly black hair.
  • She grew up in a small town in northern California.
  • She dreams of becoming a journalist for the New York Times.
  • She's afraid of spiders.
  • She's a little too frank and sometimes doesn't think before she speaks.

So we seem to have shaped a person, but it's like an online dating profile: just a collection of vague unconnected traits. None of this will drive her story or inform how she interacts with others.

Now, what is her reality?

Maddie has an idealistic outlook informed by her protected small-town upbringing in progressive northern California. She believes people are essentially good and do bad things only because they're ignorant or misinformed. She's certain that if she exposes hard truths in viral articles, people will be energized to act and the world will change.

Now we can start to see what kind of choices this young woman would make when faced with challenges, what kind of people she would gravitate towards or come into conflict with, and so on. For example, a young person like this would be vulnerable to being used, because she couldn't fathom that people who share her views could have bad intentions. She'd have difficulty coping when she goes to college to become an investigative journalist and change the world, only to run up against discouraging professors, vicious personal attacks from readers, and pranks from mean girls she angered by putting her foot in her mouth.

We can also concoct the allies and villains of her story by considering what kinds of realities would mesh with or clash with our heroine's.

Maddie's roommate grew up in Indianapolis and has a strong pride in her identity as a Hoosier. Her upbringing was superior because girls in Indiana don't wear makeup and have good values, unlike those superficial party girls from bad states like California. But she's not mean-spirited. She'll be humbled to meet people from different backgrounds, and ashamed to realize how judgemental she's been.

A young man in Maddie's class project group is witty and kind, but cynical. He grew up with Reddit trolls and Twitter bullies. He's convinced that people are essentially selfish jerks who will never change. To protect himself from bitter disappointment, he will strongly resist getting his hopes up that people could be decent.

The mean girl down the hall believes she's the heroine of this story. She is the most attractive, most intelligent, nicest person in the room. All men would prefer her over their girlfriends, who are fatter than she is and a lot less fun than she is. If another woman becomes the center of attention, she's a threat who must be swiftly eradicated. Because, as Mom and Dad taught her so well, a person's worth as a human being is determined by how externally successful they appear compared to everyone else.

That gets to the essence of a character much faster, I think, than eye color and hobbies and that single disastrous event in their past that haunts them to this day. (How many people have one of those?)

Hawaii Vacation December 13, 2022

Last week, Sweetie and I visited Hawaii for our first substantial vacation in twelve years! We came back with sunburns, souvenirs, and 3450 photos and video clips. As tempting as it is to share all of them—because every photo taken in Hawaii is stunning, especially with a shiny new Sony A6400—I've selected only the important highlights below.

Sunday, December 4: Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head State Park

Though we were scheduled to arrive in Oahu at noon on Saturday and spend the afternoon on the beach, with airport delays we reached our hotel late in the evening. Fortunately the time difference worked in our favor, so I woke up early the next morning and rushed down to the water to capture the sunrise. When stepping through the front doors I braced myself for cold wind, but I was shocked to get a face full of warm, humid air instead.

Waikiki Beach
Waikiki Beach

After a breakfast of pastries and pineapples, we walked two miles to the Diamond Head state park. On the way we discovered something no one mentions about Hawaii: there are chickens everywhere! Not domesticated chickens kept for eggs and meat, but unusually small wild ones walking around in public like pigeons. We found a hen foraging with her fluffy yellow chicks right along the sidewalk.

Wild Chicken and Chicks

The climb up the Diamond Head crater was hot and sweaty, but it rewarded us with amazing views of the island. The water off the cost of Oahu is the purest, brightest turquoise I've ever seen in nature.

Diamond Head Top View
Diamond Head, Tamara

In the afternoon we took a ride on a submarine operated by Atlantis Adventures. Sadly photos from a submarine don't turn out well. The tour guide explained the water above filters out the color red, so everything looks like a muted, shadowy blue. Nature videographers make their footage look vibrant by adding artificial light, the cheaters. But the boat ride out to the sub was very photogenic, with rainbows appearing over Waikiki as we sailed back in.

Tamara entering the submarine
Tamara in the submarine
Tamara on the boat
Rainbow over Waikiki Hotels and Diamond Head

We closed out the day with a swim. We didn't bring the camera, but Sweetie took some impressive pictures of the sunset on his phone.

Tamara wading into the ocean
Waikiki sunset

Monday, December 5: Circle Island Tour and Polynesian Cultural Center

We caught a Roberts Hawaii tour bus at 7 on Monday for an all-day adventure to the other side of the island. The driver narrated as he took us up the east coast, then north through the center with stops at scenic overlooks.

Oahu Beach from Tour Bus
Blowhole Scenic Area
Circle Tour Scenic Stop
Circle Tour Scenic Stop

According to the driver, there are so many interesting-looking chickens like this guy wandering around because a few decades ago, hurricanes destroyed most of Oahu's coops and launched the birds hither and yon.

Wild Rooster

The bus made an obligatory stop at the Dole plantation—a popular attraction with tasty ice cream, but which I couldn't fully enjoy knowing who the Doles were and the unsavory things they did to native and Asian immigrant peoples in the late 1800s. I did enjoy seeing this tiny blue-eyed kitty in the bushes, though.

Small Siamese cat in the bushes

The bus dropped us off at the Polynesian Cultural Center at lunchtime. The overpriced food trucks were forgettable, but I was impressed by the hibiscus bushes in full bloom in December. All of my flowering perennials died back in October, and I won't see them again until next July.

Hibiscus at Polynesian Cultural Center

The Polynesian Cultural Center is run by the Church of Latter Day Saints, which I didn't know when booking the tickets. Most of the staff are BYU students who came from Fiji, Tonga, Aotearoa, and other countries to study. A man-made river runs through the center of the park, surrounded by the "islands" where the staff put on shows and lead educational activities.

Polynesian Cultural Center

At the islands we learned how to make coconut oil, twirl a fire baton, spin poi balls and play Maori stick games. Here's me attempting to follow along in a brief Tahitian dance lesson.

Polynesian Cultural Center Tahitian Dance Lesson

The day ended with a luau and big finale dance show. Thanks to a surprise tropical storm we we looked like drowned rats at the luau, and no recording was allowed at the show. However, I can show you this delicious alcohol-free pina colada served in a hollowed-out pineapple with an orchid on a toothpick on top. We got to keep the wooden straws!

Pineapple drink

Tuesday, December 6: Zipline and Horseback Ride

Sweetie convinced me to sign up for a zipline and horseback ride package, which were also on the North Shore near the Polynesian Cultural Center. We had to catch a Honolulu city bus at 6 am to get there by 8:30, which was a little stressful, but I was impressed they have a regular and reliable bus line that covers the whole island like that. Over here in Central Oregon, you need to own a car just to obtain groceries.

Riding the ziplines was terrifying at first, but after a few rides I trusted the hardware enough to let go with one hand. Then two.

CLIMB Works Zipline
CLIMB Works Zipline, Upside Down

After hamburgers we caught the bus to the Gunstock Ranch, where we enjoyed a pleasant slow walk up a scenic hill on a pair of very well-behaved horses. I learned quickly to just let mine do whatever he wanted to do, with only a gentle lift of the reins now and again when he got distracted by delicious green grass.

Gunstock Ranch Horseback Ride

Wednesday, December 7: Iolani Palace and Ala Moana Center

In the morning we visited the Iolani Palace, home of the last monarchs of Hawaii. It's similar to other large Victorian houses I've seen, like the Pittock mansion in Portland and the Newport Mansions in Rhode Island, since the king was trying to impress the same European aristocrats that the Vanderbilts were. (A fan of monarchies, I am not. I got myself on the volunteer tour guide's Problem Child list by asking loudly where the money for those amazing jewels and golden servingware came from.)

Golden servingware
Diamond butterfly brooch

1800s tax dollars at work.

After an unexciting jaunt to the laundromat, we went to the Ala Moana Center for a late lunch of fancy Korean corn dogs and bubble teas. As I said in the beginning, this post documents the most important highlights of the trip.

Tamara eating Korean corn dogs

Thursday, December 8: Daniel K. Inouye Highway

We flew to the Big Island on Thursday morning and rented a car, then immediately used it to attempt to see lava from the erupting Mauna Loa volcano. Unluckily for us, the lava flow from the last active fissure had basically ended the day before we arrived, and the feds don't want anyone to get close enough to see anything. We could barely see faint steam from the eruption by driving very slowly past the viewing area. You'll have to click to the full image to see the wisps at the peak.

Mauna Loa Erupting

We did find a pretty scenic pull-off along the highway, though, with trees and groundcovers growing stubbornly through the lava rock. We learned later at the Volcanoes National Park that the tree with succulent-like leaves and red flowers is an Ohi'a, and the flowers are called leihua.

Daniel K. Inouye Highway, Scenic Area
Daniel K. Inouye Highway, Scenic Area with Ohi'a Tree

Friday, December 9: Volcanoes National Park

We stayed for two nights at the Volcano Village Lodge, which has two-person cabins in the rainforest. When I saw the phrase "in the rainforest" in reviews, I imagined they meant some tropical trees and ferns grow around the edge of the property. No, they meant in the rainforest.

Volcano Village Lodge, Hale Kilauea

Volcano Village Lodge Pond

This is Gino, the Lodge's resident cat. He likes to sit in the parking lot and greet the guests.


Despite its looks, this rainforest gets cold in December. A tree took out a power line on our first evening there, so between 5 and 9 pm we huddled under the bed covers with flashlights, no internet, and no running water. But as soon as we had the magic of electricity again, the cabin was cozy and luxurious compared to our basic 19th-floor hotel room in Honolulu.

On Oahu, we thought we'd over-packed for the trip. With nights so warm women strolled around the shops in bikini tops and breezy coverups, what were we going to do with our heavy jeans and fleece jackets? But at the high elevations of the Big Island, visitors to the Volcanoes National Park were shivering in their puffy hooded coats. At the overlook for Kilauea, which has been low-key erupting continuously since 1983, the freezing winds were strong enough to knock over a small child.

Kilauea Overlook
Sweetie at Kilauea Overlook
Tamara at Kilauea Overlook

After coming back down, standing directly in the hot steam heated by the lava below was sooo nice.

Steam Vents

We followed the Kilauea Iki trail down to the crust of the lava lake, which formed during a massive eruption in the 1950s. The little white and pink flowers growing in the rocky wasteland are bamboo orchids, and more Ohi'a trees are doing their best to establish there too.

Sweetie on Kilauea Iki trail
Bamboo Orchids on Kilauea lava lake
Kilaea lava lake
Tamara on Kilauea lava lake

After climbing back up the other side of the crater, the path leads to the Thurston Lava Tube, then back to the Visitor Center with views back down. The whole loop was about 6 miles for us, and would have been shorter if we'd known to park further east.

Thurston Lava Tube
Kilauea Iki trail overlook
Kilauea Iki trail, crater overlook

Saturday, December 10: More Volcanoes and Black & Green Sand Beaches

We went back to the park in the morning to take some quick snaps of sights we'd missed the day before: the Devastation Trail and the Sulphur Banks. Sweetie was disappointed the "Devastation" has recovered so well since the '50s, there's only a brief stretch that still looks dead. The sulphur banks look cool, but we needed to wear N95s because of the unhealthy gases.

Devastation Trail
Steam at Sulpher Banks
Sulpher Banks mineral deposits

Then we drove south to the Black Sand Beach, which was as advertised.

Tamara at Black Sand Beach
Sweetie at Black Sand Beach
Black Sand Beach
Black sand

Ten or so sea turtles were sunning and bathing on the shore, protected from harassment by a barrier. The distance was no problem for our shiny new camera, though.

Turtles on Black Sand Beach
Sea Turtle at Black Sand Beach

One of the employees at the Lodge recommended we visit the Green Sand Beach as well. So the plan was to make a quick stop to see it, then head up to Kailua-Kona for a dinner reservation before flying home. What the employee didn't mention is the beach is two miles away from the parking lot as the crow flies, along an extremely rocky, windy, challenging non-path. We were determined to see that sand, so we cancelled the reservation and forged ahead. And we made it!

Sweetie at Green Sand Beach

The sand isn't "green" like you'd imagine from the name, but we couldn't come up with a better name for it. It's green-tinted brown, but what's interesting about it is the sparkle rather than the color. When the sunlight hits it, it looks like ground-up pyrite.

Glittering sand

Since this was our last beach before leaving, I ran around like a little kid and tried to take cool pictures, but the seawater splashed the lens.

Tamara at Green Sand Beach
Ocean at Green Sand Beach, with splashed lens

Then it was time to leave to catch our plane. Hawaii is a windy, windy island. Green sand got in our eyes, our hair, all over our arms and legs. I found some hiding in my ears a day later.

Ascent from Green Sand Beach
Walking back from Green Sand Beach

Monday, December 12: Home at last!

We flew from Kona to Seattle at 10 pm on Saturday, but a snowstorm in Oregon foiled our final flight. We finally made it back to home, sweet home the next morning. Now, back to our regularly scheduled winter.

Snow-covered home in Oregon