Psychiatrist Norman Doidge wrote a book about neuroplasticity which I read back in college. It advances the thesis that the brain is not a fixed phrenological entity, but is able to reorganize itself when exposed to different stimuli. For example, if you get in a car accident and lose motor control, it's possible through physical therapy to regain various degrees of functionality because the therapy helps the brain rewire, or re-path, the severed neural connections. Often, idiopathic conditions like chronic pain or tinnitus are the result of nerves firing sans external stimuli—and so learning about neuroplasticity gives me some hope.
On page 86 Doidge cites Walter J. Freeman, who "has assembled a number of compelling biological facts that point toward the conclusion that massive neuronal reorganization occurs at two life stages: when we fall in love and when we begin parenting." If true (which seems reasonable to me, given how much our routines change when these events occur), it suggests we can change our brains by changing our routines. This neuroscience is fully in line with McLuhan's media theory.
For my part, I'm not the biggest fan of how my brain works, so I'm constantly looking for ways to change it. I could take magic mushrooms, which have been shown to permanently increase the largely biologically-determined personality trait of Openness, but I'm not quite ready for that yet. Instead, I've decided to go to Hawaii.
After watching Werner Herzog's latest documentary, which has a scene in a rehabilition center for internet addiction, I realized that I have what could be called a content addiction: Facebook, Reddit, Snapchat, YouTube, my phone, news media, books, movies... everything. It pretty much bombards us from angles physical and digital alike—all day, every day. As such, going to a remote island for seven days and doing absolutely nothing aside from walking up and down the beach all day must result in significant neuroplastic change.
So for the next week, I'm going to be in Hawaii. I'm going to be walking up and down Makaha Beach—up and down, up and down, for seven entire days. Waking up when I feel like waking up, eating when I feel like eating, sleeping when I feel like sleeping; there won't be any clocks, my phone's going to be off, hell, I'm not even bringing a single book to read. Just me and the earth.
Just me and the earth?
Okay, I'm going to be staying in a small room (versus camping or sleeping on the ground), and yes, I'm going to be buying groceries with a credit card, but the point of the trip is not to test my ability to survive, it is to minimize the effort required to survive1 and to remove, as much as possible, the numerous distractions we feel more or less compelled to answer in our quotidian lives, be they emails, text messages, the news, phone calls; anything.
And then to write about the whole thing. Off we go.
And we're back! What separates those dots from this sentence are eight days and the mini-travelogue I compiled below:
Walking through a cloud
Ever since I was young, I loved staring at the clouds. Try it out sometime; you can easily spend an entire afternoon laying on a hill and looking upwards. It's the perfect way to forget about life for a while.
One of my favorite parts about Seattle is its cloudscape, which is elevated to the point that it feels spacious outside even when it's overcast. In contrast, Hawaiian clouds are incredibly low. I won't bore you with the meteorological details as to why this is the case because I don't know them myself and am too lazy to look them up for the sake of this paragraph. Nevertheless, they're so low that sometimes they pass right through the island, and as such I was able to fulfill one of my childhood dreams: walking through a cloud.
What does it feel like? Well, imagine a light drizzle, except instead of rain falling on top of you, you're passing through an ambient field of moisture. That is, if you're not walking, you don't feel anything beyond the ambient humidity, but you begin to feel the drops collect on your skin little by little as you move. From an emotional perspective, fulfilling this dream wasn't nearly as satisfying as I thought it would be, and given his curiosity about this at the time, kid Richard would've probably been more disappointed than adult me.
They're all over, and they're vicious!
Let's just say that if that fence weren't there, you wouldn't be reading these words right now because I'd be a bloody carcass. Part of the Oahu culture, at least in the less urban parts, seems to be having a tough dog; "Beware of Dog" signs line the fences. Why this is the case is a mystery (perhaps of interest to an anthropologist), but if the goal is to scare pedestrians and keep their adrenaline levels on edge, then it's working. Which is not promising. Keeping a dog like this doesn't speak to one's toughness; I see it more as an uncontrolled manifestation of passive aggression. You get to make people feel bad without even being there!
Luckily, everything else had only upside.
Thanks to my wonderful host, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a cultural learning center cutting and planting taro.
The center, at Ka'ala Farm, is attended by native Hawaiians and runs educational programs for them to reconnect with their ancestral history. Our guide was a sinewy grandfather-patriarch type with piercing blue eyes, a dark green baseball cap, red t-shirt, white shorts, and sandals. He radiated kindness.
The first thing we did was a family greeting ceremony; girls on the left, boys on the right. He chanted several lines in Hawaiian, a language which due to American colonization through the 19th and early 20th centuries has decayed a significant amount. Some parents and a few kids chanted with him; unfortunately, many people stood silent (whether out of inability or unwillingness I can't tell).
Regardless, whenever he spoke, I noticed the kids were paying with rapt attention. Seeing their visible appetite for this knowledge inspired bubbly feelings inside this one as well. It is a powerful thing to possess, a past. Only a few other experiences are filled with as much awe as finding out where you came from and how you came to be; one that comes to mind is visualizing, for the first time, the scale of the universe and how tiny Earth is in the grand scheme of things.
As we trekked around the mountain, it became apparent that this was a sacred part of the island. The character of the terrain—running streams, lush grass, dense foliage—was altogether different from the (admittedly small selection) of the other parts of Oahu I'd seen. For the ancients to have respected the mountains as gods seems almost natural, given their scale. Just from walking around I felt a sense of peace, something I'd been seeking from the get-go, something which, believe it or not, I don't normally get from sitting on beaches or going on hikes—so I really appreciated this rare opportunity.
As you might anticipate given my post history, exploring the cuisine of any place I visit is not so much a habit as a compulsion.
Raw fish salad, or: major 2015-16 foodie phenomenon.
Here we have diced chunks of ahi tuna with onions green and yellow, chili flakes, a generous dousing of soy sauce, and a miraculous little algae known as limu which, just this month, has been shown to reduce how much cows fart by up to 70% when fed to them. Yep.
By itself the poke is tasty, but I can't help but think one of the reasons it's so popular is dietary, as it contains no carbohydrates, i.e. people can gorge without guilt (or so they tell themselves). Though after a few bites, my tongue began noticing the salt at the expense of everything else. Which I thought might happen, so I made sure to supplement with some furikake-sprinkled rice; this balanced both the flavor and the heft and saved the day.
All in all, I prefer chirashi, which to poke is to me the same as paella to cioppino or macarons to sugar cookies.
As much as my inner Grammar Nazi wants to call it shaved ice, shave ice is what the islanders call it, so that's what it is. And it ain't your everyday snow cone. No, the following dessert was culled from a specialized machine proudly branded ALL THAT ICE.
What's the difference? Remember how snow cones sucked after you finished eating the surface? Not a problem here. Shave ice is shaved from a block of ice, not crushed together. Because each individual piece of ice is super thin, syrups poured on top permeate all the way through. Speaking of syrups, strawberry and lilikoi (passionfruit, but that's what the islanders call it, so that's what it is!) are the perfect combination by complement of their acidic tang. Chewy mochi and bursting lilikoi spheres spice up this dish with their complete opposite textures; whoever thought of this composition was a smart one indeed.
The ice's high surface area is a double-edged sword. Yes, you can take more bites without experiencing brain freeze (and the syrups go deeper), but when you're holding a plate like this with your (warm) hand in 80° weather, you best eat it fast lest it turn into a puddle. Which it will. This problem can also be solved by sharing it with your friend or lover, but...
I didn't actually eat any of this, but the discussion it proposes is intriguing: at what point can a food or food product be called part of a culture's cuisine? It would sound weird to call linguine Mexican or pupusas Chinese, but not nearly as much to call SPAM Hawaiian even though it's manufactured by a company in Minnesota. I suppose in this case we unconsciously gravitate towards "food consumed by people" versus "food created by people," and indeed Hawaiians consume more SPAM per capita than do residents of any other state.
Even if a product isn't created by a culture, it may come to be associated with that culture, as is pizza with New York and the board game Go with Japan. In fact, if a culture adopts a food, it frequently innovates on top of the original. Hawaiians won't be producing their own SPAM any time soon, but they already craft cute fusions such as SPAM musubi and SPAM fried rice. So you see, Hawaii presents an excellent case study of culinary diaspora, albeit one that deserves a much fuller exploration than I possess the ability or desire to conduct in our time with this post.
On the other hand, this is obviously not Hawaiian, but something must be wrong with you if you aren't curious how the number one place on Yelp in a major urban area exceeds its runner-up by almost three times the number of reviews, a fact made even more impressive when you realize the majority of places on the front page already have over a thousand.
Before I dig into this, it's worth noting that any gourmet must first be a gourmand, or someone who is capable of and enjoys eating large quantities of food. Put differently, much like you have to be okay dealing with blood to become a surgeon, being able to stuff yourself like a glutton is a fundamental prerequisite of gastronomic appreciation. As you can see, I've ordered not one but two bowls of udon, a musubi (seaweed-wrapped rice ball) and an inari (fried tofu-wrapped rice ball) where others typically order just a single bowl and perhaps a couple pieces of tempura. Also important is to test the restaurant's capabilities—I advise you adopt the same philosophy whenever you eat—which in my case involved ordering a cold broth and a hot broth instead of two of the same.
Nori flakes, bean sprouts, sesame seeds, and marinated beef line the bowl on the left, while the right, a classic ontama, has little more than its namesake soft-boiled egg. The noodles are thick, soft, and a pleasure to chew through; it's something about the particular blend of wheat and water. Unfortunately, not having spent my life visiting Udon shops, my palate is not nearly as developed as Tampopo's, but I can say these bowls were significantly more flavorful than those of Seattle's U:Don, which I find decent enough already. The dark brown broth on the left hits the tongue with flavors, in order, of sesame, a blend of soy and lemon, and spice; on the right, the light brown does the same with salt, soy, and a sweetness like brown sugar.
The kicker? All the food in the pic came out to $15, which is patently ridiculous in the tourist district of a state notorious for high food prices.
Ask me to name the top five scenes in my life, and this is one of them. Remember how I said I liked watching clouds before? It's infinitely better at night when the full moon is out, when it's bright enough that you can see your shadow on the sand. Yet not so bright as during the day, when you have to close your eyes from time to time. Here, you can lay your back on a towel and stare at the sky forever.
There was a famous artist who said something along the lines of, "I've spent the entirety of my life painting, but one morning I woke up and, upon seeing the sunrise, despaired. What is my work but the palest of imitations of heaven's perfection?" If you can find who said that, I'll give you a present. In any case, never did I feel this more true than the twilight of that Makaha Saturday. The goal of many meditations—and in large part the goal of my trip—is to empty the mind of thoughts, and for perhaps the first time in my life, I didn't have to try to accomplish this; it was as if nature did it for me. Soft gray clouds, gentle breezes, twinkling stars, and oceanic waves swept away layers of socialized consciousness, and I lived in that moment then, really lived.
As I stared at the horizon, that line separating the gradient sky from the midnight ocean, a thought did enter my head: it would be okay if this were the last thing I'd get to see in life.
But alas. On it goes.
On the terms of my original project, the outcome was definitively a failure. Although I did significantly reduce my exposure to content—particularly the news and any phone-accessible, systematically updated web app—I was unsuccessful in immunizing myself from its grasp. I ended up reading a few books in my host's house and rewatching Super Size Me; I relied on Google Maps for the public bus schedule and Yelp for places to eat near me. As I write this, having been deprived for so long (7 days is "so long?" really?), I'm back to my old habits again with more fervor than ever. This is proof enough that I do have a content addiction.
Indeed, the experiment was flawed from the outset, as I didn't control for the walkability of the area, the presence of content in the house, the ease of access to my phone, or a million other things. One oddity that I uncovered ex post facto was my habitual insistence on "designing the experience myself," which crumbled in part due to laziness in planning, but more importantly because it was impossible from the get-go; if you look at the housing component alone, Airbnb had to exist, I had to know what it was, my host had to have registered her house, etc., etc...
I ask: what about me found that acceptable and joining a pre-planned meditation retreat not? In both cases it would be my decision to make, but to execute I'd still need to rely on others and systems; even in camping, self-sufficiency is largely a fiction. With this in mind I now feel perfectly fine about joining an ashram in India for two months, the search for which will inevitably be mediated through my Outsider/Tourist lens (which I've thus—and finally—come to terms with). But you'll have to wait a few years for that post.
Yet—as is often the case in life, a failure in one context can be a wild success in another, and I am happy to report that the trip was exactly that (as evidenced by my travelogue above). If there is a lesson to be learned, it is not to be disappointed in yourself or your ideas, especially when the stakes aren't that high, but to enjoy and ultimately be grateful for the resulting serendipities. Paradoxical though it sounds, it is even possible, even preferable, to plan for their presence. This in itself points towards openness and away from rigidity.
As for my brain changing itself? As I'd predicted, there's no way for me to describe what precise changes occurred, nor even in a general sense. Sorry folks! But that I changed in some way cannot be denied, if only by virtue of the fact that I'm now someone who has consumed Hawaiian shave ice.
I'm not going to research how to camp and have to deal with the hundreds of things camping well involves—which you might accomplish with subconscious ease, but would be a genuine struggle for a complete newbie such as myself. ↩