Buoyancy (Chapter 3) “Hapa Girl DNA” by M. Talmage Moorehead

I’m standing on the spine of the South Jetty as the tide goes out. I’m far enough from the shore that I won’t be able to swim in if I have second thoughts about suicide.

To the west the ocean horizon is cloudless but vague in the pre-dawn twilight. To the south the beach stretches on forever and the inland hills merge with a blue-gray hydrocarbon haze. The waves below are immature things that belch up abruptly from the black depths and spit white foam across the dark volcanic boulders that form the steep sides of the jetty.

I keep starting to write in my buoyancy journal. In my head, of course. Everything’s there. Every word I’ve ever read or written, the reams of base-pair sequences from work, and every detail of every day I’ve breathed air since I was 23 months old.

When things get me down I make a list of the reasons why they shouldn’t.

First off, I shouldn’t feel bad about what I’m doing here because I’m defending James. That’s honorable. Second, I won’t be lying in a hospital bed with tubes in my veins and everyone feeling guilty for not dropping everything and sitting bored stiff with me until I die.

My buoyancy lists are never long, but they’re powerful against depression. I read them slowly, one word at a time, over and over until my subconscious mind, the big math wizard who hardly speaks English, understands. And I feel better. It’s like magic. I want you to try it.

I’m going to leave my boots on, I guess. But I really love these things. They’re size five, extra wide. Hard to find. I better take them off so someone else can use them.

I almost forgot, Ojiichan’s chopsticks are still in my hair. They’re antiques, engraved with the Japanese character for poison – I don’t know why. I pull them out of my hair, take off my boots and then lay the chopsticks sideways across the toes. I hope no one steps on them.

It’s fifteen feet down to the busy water – surging and receding. I’m not afraid of heights, but I’ve always been chicken about jumping off high-dives. It’s the falling. I hate that feeling. Plus I’m a terrible swimmer. My body is too dense. I’m not all that skinny, so it really doesn’t make sense.

OK, just go. Jump in.

My knees are bent. This is it.

I’m holding my breath… Not sure why I’d be doing that. It’s kind of the opposite of why I’m here.

Now I’m over-thinking.

A truck’s coming on Jetty Road. I should do this before it gets here.

Come on, Johanna. Now!

It’s not a truck, it’s a Hummer. No, it can’t be Maxwell.

I told James about him last week. A guy I met at work. A child psychologist who deals exclusively with depressed kids. Once or twice a month Maxwell shows up at work as early as I do and corners me for small talk.

I suck at small talk.

“How ’bout those Seahawks!”

Forget it.

How ’bout Max Planck? Energy only comes in small digital packets: Planck’s constant. If that’s not weird to you – if that doesn’t turn your world upside-down, I’m afraid we’re different.

Earth: Eggheads and Jocks.

Maxwell’s both. So is James in his own way. I’m just an egghead. Though I do push weights and use the treadmill. And I can lift a tall stack of books, let me tell you.

Talmage thinks I do too much telling and not enough showing. Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt my feelings.

The sky is neuromancer-gray now, light enough to show the color of the Hummer which is Army Green. That means it is him. It’s fricking Maxwell Mason. Doing a hundred miles an hour on that tiny road. His life’s probably in more danger than mine at the moment.

Slow down, Max!

It’s a pretty straight road. No traffic at all since that Harley. Max should be fine.

No, I don’t believe that either.

He’s slowing down a little. This is good. Now he’s skidding through the parking lot. This is bad. Dust everywhere. His front tires bunny hop a log and finally he stops.

Man, this is going to be embarrassing if I don’t even have the nerve to jump. People are going to say I was trying to get attention. I hate it when people say that about girls who try to kill themselves and fail.

Nobody’s going to say that about me.

I jump.

I take a breath on the way down and feel like a hypocrite for it.

For a split second it’s good to hit the water because it stops that lost-viscera feeling of falling. But under the water the world is black and colder than anything I’ve ever felt.

My arms and legs are kicking on their own. I try to stop them but they won’t stop. I try to make myself breath water but my head is pounding with the cold. It’s like a cluster headache or a good poke in the skull with a screwdriver. I can’t think of much else.

My head breaks the surface. The jetty rocks are three feet away and covered with white barnacles and brown mussels that look like dead incisors. I move away from them, not wanting to be a shredded mess at my funeral.

My arms are weakening from the cold. I finally make them stop paddling, and then force my legs to stop flailing.

I sink.

I blow all my air out and prepare to inhale. The salt water will flow into my lungs. Osmosis will do terrible things to my red cells. My coughing and gag reflexes will be overwhelmed.

I want to breathe. The desire is growing with every heartbeat. It’s just that I don’t want to breathe water.

Yes, breathe water.

Something grabs my arm and pulls. I’m on my back looking up at the sky with an arm across my chest. It’s a thick arm with Maxwell’s watch on the wrist. I gasp for air and it fills my lungs with the greatest joy I’ve ever known.

There’s a surface beneath us. It rises and lifts us out of the water. I’m on hands and knees looking over the edge of a round, silent thing that’s exactly the color of the sky and the texture of the stingray I touched at Maui Ocean Center on my ninth birthday. A circular opening appears beside me and a female voice with the vaguest Indian accent says, “Come inside quickly, both of you. I’ve never been so worried in my life.” A human hand reaches out and touches the skin on my left forearm and rubs it briskly. “You must be freezing. Let’s get you warmed up.” I lean over the edge of the opening and look down to see her face. I’m startled. It’s Mahani Teave, the renowned concert pianist of Easter Island.

Mahani Teave

My first thought, stupid as this sounds, is to ask for her autograph. I own all Mahani’s CD’s. She’s amazing. I’m a pianist myself.

The pictures on her CD’s flash by and I make comparisons. This girl’s freckles are in the wrong places.

“Who are you?” I ask and start coughing so loud and hard I can’t hear her answer.

M. Talmage Moorehead


If you want, please read this story from page one (beginning with Johanna’s unorthodox prologue). It starts here.

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Brittle Beliefs (Chapter 2) “Hapa Girl DNA” by M. Talmage Moorehead


I’m breaking the speed limit in the Prius, heading for the South Jetty to drown myself, but I need to say goodbye to someone first.

I push James icon on my phone and pull up in front of a vacant lot beside the house I used to rent in Astoria. The Prius engine dies automatically. James’ phone is ringing.

A skanky black cat trots up and jumps on my hood. His nails click as he lands. He walks silently toward me leaving smudgy footprints.

Jame’s voice comes through the car speakers, “Yeah.”

I set my phone in a cup holder. “Someone’s trying to kidnap you. Grab your keys and get out of the house. Run to the car. Drive to the police station fast as you can. ”

“For reals?”

“Yeah, I’m not kidding! Go. Hurry! I’ll stay on the line.”

“Got to find my keys,” he says.

I open the glove box. Two cans of cat food are left. I’ll open both.

“On the floor by the foot of your bed.”

“Won’t be there.”

“Just go look. Hurry!”

I open my window, put my arm out in the usual way and the proud little thing marches up my arm, rubs his matted fur against my face as he climbs down to my lap and curls up.

“Herpes, you little tramp.” I sneeze. When he first came to my patio door demanding attention I had no idea I was allergic. First it was just itchy eyes.

I open both cans of cat food with an old round-bladed device I remember from childhood when it was shiny and had a place in my mother’s kitchen. I dump the catfood into a plastic bowl that’s usually sliding around on the seat beside me. Smells like fish. Herpes springs to his feet and begins that delicate gobbling technique. His ribs are showing again. Poor little thing, out here starving. “I’m sorry I can’t feed you again,” I tell him. “I won’t be coming around anymore.”

I try to pet him but he doesn’t allows distractions while he’s eating.

He has a worn leather collar with a dangling ring that must have held a happy tag with his real name on it. Once. I wonder who he was.

He finishes the whole pile of food before I’m ready to say goodbye, then steps back into my lap to let me pet him. Three times is all. Then he jumps out, lands confidently on the road and looks up at me.

“Goodbye, sweetheart,” I tell him. “I wish I could…”

A van rumbles by and scares him away.

I put the two empty cans in a plastic grocery bag, twist it tight, tie a knot and set it on the seat beside the bowl. Someone else will have to take it to the trash.

“Good call,” James says. “They were right by the end of my bed. It’s spooky how you do that.”

“It’s just luck,” I tell him. But lately I wonder. This time it was an image of his keys. Sometimes there’s no image, just a wordless thought. “Get in your car. Hurry!”

I hear his feet on the old wooden floor at Grandfather’s house. Actually we called him, “Ojiichan,” not Grandfather, but it means the same. The door of the old Ford slams. Low pitch. The starter churns.

The sun isn’t up yet. Jetty Road looks empty as I make a right turn onto it.

“Yo,” James says. “You there?”

“Yeah. Drive straight to the cop station. You know the way?”

“Take a wild guess,” he says.

He was arrested for underage drinking in front of Starbucks not long ago. In broad daylight.

“I’m not saying you’re a moron, James, but now that you mention it…. God, I love you.”

“Ditto, but no need to get all… Whatever. Hey, I never-one knew they kidnap teenagers. You sure about all this?”

“Yeah.” I wake up a few neurons with a neurofeedback technique I learned in a research lab at Yale. They kept asking me if I’d ever been hit in the head. No. I can make an EEG trace jump at will. I learned it with electrodes pasted on my head, staring at squiggly lines on a monitor. Trial and error, bottom-up science not the mythical top-down BS they preach.

Neurofeedback wakes you up like coffee, but some people have memory loss. I should be so lucky.

“Keep an eye on the road behind you,” I tell him. “Somebody could be following.”

My peripheral vision is strange now. The trees… swishing past on both sides of the road. They grab my attention as if they were in the center of my field of vision.

“Nothing’s behind me,” James says.

I ease off the Prius’ gas pedal, pass a crow on the dotted line and watch it hop away in the rearview mirror, wings our angelic. Tough immune systems, those little guys, eating roadkill and living to tell the story.

“The kidnappers are Frameshift goons,” I say to James. “That’s my theory. They’re trying to recruit me.”

“Like into the Army?”

“Same idea.” Should I tell him? Not while he’s driving. “You shouldn’t drive and talk on a cellphone, you know. Under normal conditions, I mean.”

“Pot calling da kine black.”

“No, I got a hands-free setup. Matter of fact, I’m driving right now. To the South Jetty.”

“Some of us drive Ojiichan’s old Ford, you know.”

A motorcycle’s coming at me in the other lane. One loud headlight. It passes with the infrasound of an old Harley. The wide back tire, long chrome pipes slanting up. I wanted to ride one of the old beasts before I died. My legs wouldn’t be long enough though. I bet.

“What’s the South Jetty?” James asks.

I shouldn’t have brought it up. “It’s a rock wall that goes out between the ocean and the place where the Columbia River dumps in. South side. When are you moving in with the Hadano’s? That was supposed to happen three months ago.”

“I don’t know, pretty soon,” he says. “But you don’t have to worry about it. I told the social worker I’m living there now. Mrs. Hadano backed me up.” James shifts into Mrs. Hadano’s voice: “Yes, James is moved in already. Part of da family.”

“The Hadano’s are rare people,” I tell him. “Don’t make them lie for you.” I hate to nag. “How close are you getting to the police station?”

“I’m looking for a place to park,” he says. “Holy Smokes. There’s this Haole dude in a rental car. Following me, I think. I’ll find out.”

“What type of car?”

“Yeah, he’s tailing for reals. I turned up an alley and he’s coming behind me. Driving that thing you drive. The Prepuce.”

Prius, James. “Lucky thing. OK, when you get out of the alley, turn right, go 20 feet, stop and put it in reverse. You’re going to ram him the instant you see him. Go for his right front tire. Mess it up so it can’t move when he turns the wheel. Then drive away as soon as you can.”

“That’ll ruin my car.”

“No it won’t. The Ford’s a tank compared to a Prius.”

“You better be right.” He takes a deep breath. “I got it in reverse. Here’s the dude’s bumper.”

“Floor it!”

There’s a crunch and the sound of glass.

“No prob,” James says. “I’m driving away.”

“Good man.”

“The dude’s running after me on foot.” James laughs.

“When you get to the cop station, don’t park, just drive up close to the front door, jump out, leave the car and run inside. Fast as you can.”

“Do they let you park out front? I don’t need another ticket.”

“Use your head, James! Kidnappers are killers. Do exactly what I tell you, for God’s sake!”

“I was just asking.”

He gets quiet. Any expression of anger was off-limits in our family. It didn’t matter if you were saving someone’s life or destroying the ozone, anger meant you were wrong. You got silent treatment.

“Where are you?” I ask. “Talk to me.”

“Side of the road, basically. In front of the cop building. I’m leaving the car, like you said.”

The car door slams with memories of Ojiichan, the first Buddhist Priest on Oahu. I took his alter back to Okinawa after he died. That was the first I’d heard of his fame in Japan. The Buddhists called him, “One of The Five.” I don’t speak Japanese and my translator didn’t speak much English, so I couldn’t figure out who “The Five” were. But it’s an interesting coincidence that our ancestor, the great Samurai, Musashi, wrote The Book of Five Rings.

“I’m inside,” James says. “There’s this lady here, but she don’t look like a cop.”

“Hand her the phone, I need to talk to her.”

I hear a woman saying she’s busy. She tells him to take a seat. Here it is. That feeling. I’m telling you, I want to reach through this phone and strangle her. What’s wrong with me?

“She’s too busy,” James says.

“Tell her somebody’s trying to kidnap you.”

He does, and she gets on the line. “This young man tells me he’s the victim of a kidnapping attempt and you’re his older sister. Is this information correct?”

“Yes.” I give her my name and the highlights, trying not to sound like the teenager I still am. She agrees to keep him in a safe place until a police officer can talk to him. That’s all she can guarantee.

A squirrel darts out into the road ahead of me and I swerve to miss it. I shouldn’t be doing seventy on this narrow road.

The phone reception gets sketchy as I drive into a dirt parking lot near the South Jetty. Logs outline the perimeter. A dirt slope leads down to the river beach ahead of me. I could drive down there and get stuck, but I’ll park. Save somebody the headache of pulling my car up the slope when they figure out it was the dead girl’s ride.

James gets back on the phone. “Hey.”

“Listen, I’ve got leukemia.”

“You mean…”

“Cancer of the blood,” I tell him. “Odds are, it’s going to kill me in a month or two. But you need to understand, the kidnappers are after me, not so much you. They only want you so they can force me to work for them. But I’m not doing it. I haven’t got long to live anyway, so…”

“What the hell are you saying?”

“If I kill myself, I won’t have to work for those people. I can’t stand what they’re doing to the world. I won’t be part of it.”

“This can’t be happening.”

“Listen, James. None of this is about you. If we’re lucky, they’ll leave you alone once I’m gone. You won’t be valuable to them when I’m in heaven.”

“You can’t kill yourself. You can’t do that.”

“I’m dying one way or the other.”

“They must have drugs. People get rid of cancer all the time.”

“Not M5b. The stats are dismal. The chemo makes you sick as a zombie. Your hair falls out. I’m not doing it.”

“But you got to try.”

“No. You need to try. Try not to get depressed when I’m gone. Try to find something to believe in so you’ll be a decent influence on the world when you’re famous. All this stuff about no God, no good, no evil. Forget it. It’s bull. You’ve got to believe in something. Something that’s not so brittle it breaks when the aliens land.”

“What?” He gasps.

“Atheism and fundamentalism are brittle. They’re both going to break… when the facts come down.”

“I can’t believe this.” He’s on the edge of tears. I know the sound.

“You’ve got heavy responsibility on your shoulders. Listen to me. Nobody has more influence than a rock star. Nobody in this world. You were born to be famous. You’re like John Lennon. You’re a genius with melody, James. Literally a genius.” I’ve never been able to convince him of that. “You’ve always made me so proud. Everything you write. And you got the singing voice to match.”

“You can’t…”

“I’ll be listening to your stuff. And watching you – from the moon, I think.”

“The moon?” He’s crying now. Normally he cries over great songs and sad movies, not real disasters. Disasters make him stronger than most people. Usually.

“Who’s going to be the only friend I ever had, Johanna? Who’s going to make sure I don’t party all the time? Who’s going to bail me out… of jail next time?” My phone goes dead.

I try to call him, but a battery icon flashes for a second then disappears. The phone was plugged in all night. I look at it in my mind and see 100% at the top, above the old woman’s number.

This close to the Jetty, I’m starting to feel a little hesitant about suicide. James and I didn’t even get to say goodbye. It’s cruel.

I remember Ojiichan saying that our existence isn’t real. Get rid of all attachments and nothing can hurt you.

I hear a Sabbath School teacher reading from a little pink Bible, “All things work together for good to them that love the Lord.”

But I never was able to become a true fundamentalist. Not quite. I came close for a while but… whatever. I’ve always felt a little jealous of those people. It’s like the UFO club. I want to believe but those things just don’t show up for me.

I’ve got the jitters. I’m going to breathe water, that’s all. It’s the least embarrassing way to do this, and to be honest, I’m more afraid of embarrassment than drowning. It’s a Japanese thing, I think. Completely genetic.

I get out of the Prius, face the cold salt wind and walk toward the tall, curving breakwater. Its beauty is gone today. I put it side by side with a mental image from the last time I was here. The sun was up, but otherwise the images match.

I was standing right… here.

I wonder if beauty is still there when you can’t see it.

M. Talmage Moorehead

If you want, you can read this story from page one (beginning with Johanna’s chapter 0). It starts here.

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Competition (Chapter 1) “Happa Girl DNA” by M. Talmage Moorehead

My phone is blasting Skullcage from my lab coat near my pillow. I’ve been spending nights in my Prius at the Beach in Astoria since Grandfather died. There wasn’t money enough for the house plus keeping James in Hawaii with his new shrink. This new guy’s actually helping my brother with his depression. It’s the miracle I’ve been searching for.

Talmage wants me to tell you this like a story, so take a look up through the glass of the hatchback at the stars while I find the phone. We don’t want this novel rejected in The First Fifty Pages for lack of a visual scene… or because I’m “breaking the fourth wall.” I bet there’s a rule against that somewhere.

Check out Orion’s belt in my Universe. It looks nothing like the arrangement of the three Egyptian Pyramids, but I have a warm feeling for the man who thought of the idea: Robert Bauval. That’s him in the picture.


I trust his eyes and the way he speaks, because he reminds me of an Arabian geneticist who always has my back at work. She speaks her mind and curses Dr. Drummond for publishing my research as if he were the original thinker and inventor.

Academics eat their young. But the people out there doing my brand of genetics probably know where Drummond’s breakthroughs are coming from. He was totally obscure before my name showed up behind his.

My phone shows 4:11 AM and a Hawaiian number (808) that I don’t recognize. It could be James on a friend’s phone. Now I’m seeing James dead on the side of the road with a cop calling the next of kin.

I have to stop jumping to worse-case-scenarios. It’s part of a rare condition I’m blessed with – perfect autobiographical recall. Depression is part of it, too, but it comes later in life. It probably has no relation to my other condition – M5.

The call is from a boy claiming that he’s kidnapped James.

Oh, brother. I’m just going to hang up.

James has highschool friends now, all of them older. My prank caller was probably one of them. They’re different. They say they hate capitalism but actually they hate the overwhelming sense of unfair competition that the adults bury them in at the concentration camps called schools. Life on Earth is tough, but birds and bears get a chance to relax and imagine their own importance while kids have their noses rubbed in the armpits of superior competitors all their waking hours. Giving everyone A’s and trophies convinces them they need handouts to make up for their mediocrity and inferiority. The lies only make the adults feel better, they don’t hide or change the reality of unfair competition.

And don’t tell me it’s fair. I know better. It’s completely unfair because of people like me. I remember everything I see and hear. My brain does complex calculus at the subconscious level. I don’t even know where the answers come from sometimes. And this stuff barely scratches the surface.

James’ new rock band has no name, but he’s always recorded under the banner of Skullcage. He’s the main act everywhere he goes. I’m so freaking proud of him I could pop! He plays all the instruments, sings, and writes incredible songs full of tormented screaming, beautiful melodies and guitars that sound like they’re speaking a language – trying to talk.

His CD’s make you feel confident… unless you worry about him killing himself, which I often do.

You’d never know he’s chronically depressed if you met him. He’s funny, dominant, and full of life. He makes everybody laugh and feel important. You wouldn’t believe all the people who think of him as their best friend. But only one person is…


There’s a barge coming out of the mouth of the Columbia River to the north. Its lights are all that’s visible. Plus there’s the traction beam of a UFO aimed at the deck. I’m kidding, but what is it? Somebody on a higher deck with a floodlight, maybe.

I’m getting out for a better look.

The waves are slow closeouts tonight, scooting up the long level beach in parallel terraces, white and hissing at the full moon.

But I ask you, what are the freaking odds that the moon would spin at exactly the rate necessary to keep one face aiming at the Earth at all times? We’re talking two balls rotating freely and one orbiting the other. What myth of science will explain who put the extra weight on the side closest to us?

If only the brain-dead and the economists believe that unlimited growth works on a finite planet, who killed the space program, and why?

There’s more going on here than meets the eye. I wish I could talk to Gorden Cooper https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvPR8T1o3Dc and Edgar Michell https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7AAJ34_NMcI.

Astronauts have a broad perspective. They’re brave enough to face death and even public humiliation.

They’ve seen all of Earth in one glance – our crucible of survival with two opposing teams: the competitors and the rise-above-it types. But the spectators, where are they?

You don’t set up a game of this magnitude unless you’re planning to sit and watch.

That’s why the moon faces us. It holds the box seats.

The traction beam above the barge went out before I could tell what it was. I’m cold in this breeze so I’m getting back into the car and pulling the hatchback down.

My ringtone blasts again, “Give to me a dirty heart filled with all the darkness of the world. I’m taking all the dull sh*t in and burning up inside within, it’s true. I hate you.”

James wrote this and recorded it on cheap gear when he was eleven. It was a prayer. I could cry… his little face and his little high voice and that huge drum set all around him.

And that melody.

My phone shows the same caller. I answer, and I was wrong. It’s not a high school boy. It’s an old woman.

“I’ve kidnapped James,” she says.

My heart stops and starts. I try to catch my breath.

She tells me to get on a flight from Portland to Oahu at 10:00 this morning. Gives me the flight number and says I’ll meet a guy named Del at the terminal.

I manage to plead. “Let me talk to James so he doesn’t freak out.”

“Well,” she says, “I don’t actually have him yet. I’ve sent a boy to fetch him.”

“You don’t have him? Can you call your boy and tell him to forget James? Please? We can work this out without him. I’ll do whatever you want. Just leave him out of it.”

“Take down my number, dear, and call me if there’s trouble. Traffic or anything. Have you got a pen?”

“Your number’s on my phone.”

“It is?” She hisses at someone.

“What do you want with James?”

“The fourth dimension,” she mumbles. “We want to test him. You wouldn’t understand and you need to catch your flight.”

This could be Frameshift Corp. I criticize genetically modified organisms in every lecture at Oregon Health and Science University. GMO’s are the grim reaper of genetic diversity, one of the things between us and extinction. “Ma’am, I can’t let this happen. This kind of emotional trauma could send James back into depression. He’s starting to sound normal, finally.”

“Normal. That’s interesting,” the woman says.

“I’m pretty sure you’re with Frameshift, so you’re talking genetics, not string theory. Your fourth dimension is time. You’ve probably got base-pairs lined up for a mile, looking fine on paper. But something’s killing the host. I’ll bet it’s a timing issue.”

I pause and she groans, but doesn’t speak.

“I’m right, then. Listen, whoever you are, you need me. I’ve got seventeen layering techniques that double as time-sequencers. If one of them doesn’t fix the problem, I’ll find something else that does. You can take my words to the bank.”

“My goodness,” she says. “I don’t often get goose-bumps. Perhaps we should test you.”

“Don’t insult me. You’re familiar with my work. All you need to do is forget James, and I’ll come work for you. Legitimately. I’ll sign a stinking contract. Nobody has to be kidnapped.”

A shooting star streaks away from the earth and barely registers as going the wrong way.

“But Ma’am, I’m telling you, if you scare James or bother him in any way, I’ll make sure Frameshift destroys you. Think about it. Once I’m inside, it won’t be two days before your CEO knows he needs me more than you.”

“You insist I’m with Frameshift, but…”

“Screw this, Ma’am. Tell your thugs to look for my body in the ocean beside the South Jetty in Astoria.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m going to drown myself. I’ll be dead in twenty-five minutes. You won’t need James when I’m gone.”

I hang up with a racing pulse.

Maybe I should have mentioned that my second condition, M5, is acute monocytic leukemia. Diagnosed three days ago at Kaiser. I haven’t told anyone yet. I’m supposed to start chemo tomorrow, but M5 doesn’t respond well. It takes you out in a month, sometimes. I’m just thankful I found the new shrink for James.

James is going to be OK. That’s all that matters now.

M. Talmage Moorehead


If you want, you can read this in-progress story as a “one page” scrolling document from page one (beginning with Johanna’s unorthodox chapter zero). It starts here. I don’t know, she thinks the zero is under-appreciated, I guess.

If you like my fiction and want to be notified when each of my novels is done (possibly before Andromeda hits us) please join my list here. (No spam or sharing of your address at all.)

By the way, if you like my stuff, please email my URL (www.storiform.com) your best friend. Or your geekiest friend, if that’s a different person, which I’d tend to doubt.

Thanks, I appreciate your generous support.


Johanna (Chapter 0) “Hapa Girl DNA” by M. Talmage Moorehead

“The scientists who have developed the case for intelligent design have begun to overcome the prejudice against their ideas and have published their work in peer-reviewed scientific journals, books, conference volumes and anthologies.” — Stephen Meyer, PhD, Signature in the Cell


I’m Johanna Fujiwara, Ph.D.

Years ago, I inspired Talmage to write fiction. He tries to think of me as a character he created. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I look a little like the artist, Promise Tamang Phan, the way she’s painted herself in this video. Actually I’m not as pretty as she, but try telling that to Talmage. My legs are short for my height and my calves are too thick. I call them “daikon ashi” which means “white-radish legs.” Short legs run in my family on my Dad’s side, but they skipped my little brother. Well, he’s big now. Sixteen.

Unless you’re a theoretical physicist, I don’t expect you to believe this, and if you are, you might disagree all the more, but beyond the Universe lie similar Universes, potentially an infinite number, though the heavens aren’t crowded.

As a result, virtually everything that could happen does happen somewhere.

That includes me and every detail of my life.

True, I can’t prove that in a laboratory, but I’m hardly ever wrong. It’s a matter of record.

What’s unusual, I guess, is the fact that I’ve figured out enough to sense what my “coincidental” writer is thinking and feeling. I know when he’s trying to pretend I’m not real. And when he’s honest with himself, he knows I know.

I choose to think of myself as antifragile, a girl with plenty to gain and little to lose. Believe it or not, this quality is the basic human condition. You have it. Antifragility is the difference between biological and supra-biological minds, assuming they exist. There’s decent evidence. I think our ability to gain from many small failures is the reason they’ve come here, assuming they have.

In veiled crafts.


The nature of identity is elusive. Talmage thinks the girl he’s been writing about all these years has always been me because his feelings never change for her.

Could be. But I know this – the seeds of love and meaning are free will and identity. I’m barely nineteen, but I can tell this applies beyond spacetime and the “God of Spinoza.”

Past the sub-infinite hosts of Universes, there’s reality outside of space and time. In third grade I was sent to the principal’s office for talking about it. They said we don’t talk religion in public school.

I couldn’t understand what was religious about it…

Light travels outside of time, but inside of space.

Einstein’s time dilation gives us a number divided by zero when anything moves at the speed of light. If you avoid the myopic logic of mathematicians who apply our internal speed limit to regions beyond…

Dividing by zero yields infinity. Inertial frameworks become irrelevant.

Which means a “wristwatch” on the ground goes infinitely fast compared to a “wristwatch” on a photon.

“Infinitely fast” means that the entire history of the Universe goes by in an instant when you move at the speed of light. Even if you’re a photon of light yourself, or some other fundamental wave-particle.

Hence the irrelevance of time to the diffraction pattern of light crossing slits, one photon at a time. (Here’s a video of that.)

Physicists in your universe think photons and their class have a separate reality. That’s adorable, but wave-particles don’t contain mind, they’re composed of mind. Literally. From a photon’s perspective, all history happens in a moment – in one Planck time.

So when photons, from our perspective, go through slits in single file, things are different to them. They see themselves as all passing through together, bumping shoulders and interfering with each other to give a diffraction pattern that would be supernatural if time were uniform and it were impossible to go outside of it.

My physics teacher told me to shut up when I mentioned this in class. He mumbled it through his teeth, but everyone heard. A red-headed guy behind me said, “Yeah, please!”

School’s no place for critical thinking. They hate it. They love their own dogmas.

From the center of a black hole and the mind of a photon, all history is an infinite holographic snapshot where time means nothing to the diffraction pattern of slit experiments. From there, our unpredictable decisions are known. But it’s not “foreknowledge” because the “fore” of foreknowledge is relative to the observer. One person’s foreknowledge is another’s “after” knowledge, depending on which side of the spacetime horizon you occupy.

That means free will is not an illusion! Please believe me. This point is crucial for your happiness.

Light is “outside of time” or independent of it. But we see light so it’s not “outside of space.”

Dark matter is protomatter that sits virtually outside of space. Its only detectable property from our side is gravity, yet it shapes and positions the galaxies, so it’s “inside of time.” (Here’s a video on that.)

When I was an undergrad, a journal rejected a paper I wrote on dark matter. The editor didn’t mention my paper in his rejection. I was simply not a Ph.D., therefore my paper, my brain, my soul, my existence were unfit for his journal: “Welcome to the cult, Johanna.”

Albert Einstein’s first four papers of 1905 would be similarly unfit for today’s journals. Forget the “miracle year” for space, time, matter and energy. Einstein wouldn’t have had the credentials for these elite morons we’re dealing with today.

The human mind lies partly inside and partly outside of space and time. Miss this, and materialistic determinism will swallow you whole, leaving you convinced that you have no freedom. No choices in anything. You’re a machine with a future set in stone, sweetened by a sprinkle of chance and the “illusion of consciousness” with its “false sense” of free will.

Not a happy place, but it’s the ditch into which our educated subculture has fallen. Call it science, but it’s not. It’s an emotion-based philosophy that, combined with the effects of modern wheat, brings us an ugly stat: 30% of college students are depressed.

The neurons that brought puritanical fundamentalism to the United States have now embraced materialistic determinism and made it the new religion of meaninglessness.

It’s a strange religion that excludes the mind. The fundamental assumption is that matter and energy exist on their own, but nothing else does. All minds are derived from the material world which is mindless, therefore our minds have no reality. The evidence from quantum mechanics has to be ignored to maintain their assumption, but that’s no problem for these zealots. A mindless universe is assumed with the confidence of a Baptist preacher.

I argued this with a brilliant atheist over coffee at Starbucks. It probably wasn’t a date, but he asked to meet me there, so maybe it was – my first date, in fact. When we landed on neo-Darwinism and he saw that I could argue intelligently against it from genetics he hadn’t read, he remembered he’d forgotten something and had to leave.

“We should do this again,” he said.

We never did. He was handsome, if that matters.

The mechanics of the mind lie within space and time (in and around the brain) but free will exists outside of space. By residing outside of space, free will inserts itself as an untouched cause into the web of destiny that fills the material, pool-table Universe.

By residing inside of time, free will remains relevant to history as it unfolds at various changing rates within spacetime.

I haven’t seen where identity lies. Talmage hopes it’s like free will: outside of space but inside of time. That way I’ll always be the same girl, Johanna, no matter what changes.

I think he’s right. I think someday we’ll meet for coffee, because, despite separation, my Universe is remarkably similar to yours. I don’t know why.

I was born in Castle Medical Center on Oahu, Hawaii – one of the few things I can’t remember.

Eleven great years later I killed my brother’s therapy animal, Moody. I wish I could forget the whole thing. I have recurring fight dreams about it. Nightmares, really.

Moody was a chimpanzee. Mom and Daddy were out. I was the sitter. What could possibly go wrong?

James was in his bedroom playing with Moody, pretending to snatch off Moody’s nose and then show it to him. Moody always played along and seemed to tolerated it well, but this time I think James punched the little guy’s face during the nose theft.

I didn’t see that part, but I heard a noise and got up to see what was going on.

Moody’s face was unlike anything I’d seen in real life. It was twisted in rage and looked like a monster. He attacked James, threw him against the wall, denting the plaster. He grabbed James again, threw him to the floor like a rag, jumped on his chest and bit his nose. Pulses of my brother’s blood squirted into the air. Moody spun around and glared at me, then grabbed James’ genitals and tried to pull them off. James screamed like he was dying, and something cold landed inside me. I felt it in my chest as I charged at Moody, shot my right arm around his neck as fast as a cobra, then locked a triangle with my left arm. I pushed my face against the back of his head to protect my eyes from his fingers, held my breath and squeezed with all my strength.

I don’t know how I knew that move. I never watched MMA. I’d never heard of a rear naked choke. I don’t see how it could have been me, honestly.

I was so angry my brain changed perspectives. It sounds crazy, I know, but I swear I was looking down at the three of us from above our heads.

I didn’t loosen my grip for the longest time.

James started yelling at me to stop, but I wouldn’t. Moody went limp, but I kept the choke on him with every bit of force I had. I felt as if I hated Moody and everything about him. But I loved him. We all did.

Finally my muscles couldn’t squeeze for another second. I relaxed my arms but still wouldn’t let go. I was afraid he would spring up and kill us. As I finally started releasing him, he slumped forward and I dropped him face first on the floor. He lay there like one of James’ stuffed animals.

There’s a saying that if you murder someone, you’ll always feel like an outsider looking in on humanity.

It’s true. Even if you murder someone who’s not considered human. Even if it starts out with you trying to save your little brother’s life.

In the emergency room, my scalp needed stitches. Most of my hair was gone. Pulled out, roots and all. I looked like a boy for the longest time. Girls around the island shaved their heads to honor me, Mom said.

One of the ER doctors told my mom that Moody must have been sick. A heart condition, probably, because there was no way a little girl could strangle a healthy adolescent chimpanzee. The doctor said an ape’s muscles are way stronger gram-for-gram than a human’s. The genetic code is identical, but parts of our code are now inverted, as if deliberately taken off-line. Nature does strange things, he said, no curiosity in his voice. None at all. I just don’t get that. I hope I never do.

But really, Moody was healthy. He was stronger by far than anyone else I’ve dealt with.

The truth is, I had an unfair advantage. I’m a descendant of Miyamoto Musashi, the Samurai. The legend.

No one knew. I didn’t. Growing up in Hawaii, I was a “hapa girl.” Hapa means “half” in Hawaiian.

I’m half Japanese, and I thought I was half white – until I got to the University of Hawaii.

At UH I discovered how badly some people are offended if you’re half Jewish and you think that makes you half white.

It happened in front of the biochemistry class. We had to pronounce our names for the professor. I was in the second row. When my turn came, I stood with my back to most of the class.

“I’m Johanna Fujiwara,” I said, and stood tall, proud to be the class prodigy.

He peered at me over the tops of his reading glasses. “You must be hapa,” he said warmly. “Your name’s Japanese, what’s the other half?”

“White,” I said.

He chuckled. “Can you be less specific? Scottish, Irish, Dutch… what?”

“My mother’s Jewish,” I said.

The warmth left him. “Jews aren’t white,” he growled, but caught himself and forced a smile. “You’d almost think some of them were. Makes you wonder. Well, young lady, clearly you’ve got a lot to learn. Have a seat.” The guys behind me laughed.

I felt flushed and humiliated. How was it possible that I didn’t even know my own racial composition? I stuck my tongue out at the professor, just the tiniest bit, but it was enough to notice.

“She stuck her tongue out!” a guy in the first row said, and howled. The whole class laughed at me, professor and all.

I buried my head in my arms wishing I could disappear or hit replay, go back and lie about being half Jewish. In fact, I did hit replay a hundred times that day in my head, but nothing ever changes when you do that.

Three weeks later I ruined the curve on the first test. I always do that in the tougher classes, but this time I felt good about it. Glad to redeem myself and show them how much I really knew.

The professor had the usual tough choice. He could give one A with the next highest grade a C -, flunking the rest of the class, he could make the next test ten times easier, or he could throw my scores out and redo the curve.

On the first test he gave me the only A, and told the class to buckle down. I guess he was proud of his tough reputation. Proud to routinely flunk a bunch of depressed students, thinking that cruelty somehow helped him make his way in the Universe.

After the second test he changed his tune. He said that I was an “outlier.” He isolated my score.

Then he said there was no reason to think of “this ten-year old kid” as a cut-throat.

He damn well knew my name, Johanna Fujiwara. But he wouldn’t say it.

He did say that he didn’t want to hear the term, “cut-throat” applied to “this poor little girl.”

The class cheered. Their grades would be recalculated and catapulted up several notches. They wanted to know if this new fairness would be applied to the first test retrospectively.

“Yeah, I supposed so,” the professor said, giving in.

I’d never been called a cut-throat before that day, but afterwards I heard it a lot. They shortened it to, “the throat,” as in, “The throat’s taking P-chem from Thompson. Better go with Bobst.”

You know, if you find the right phrase, you can dehumanize anyone. Ask Viktor Frankl. He said he found meaning in his suffering at Auschwitz, and everyone can find the meaning of their own lives if they search.

To me, life’s meaning starts by convincing your subconscious mind that it has a free will. For college students, that’s a tall order, but here’s the deal:

You get up off your butt and do something small and deliberate for yourself right now, and work up to doing these simple things all through every day. Instead of looking around the room for your next move, or letting something on your computer screen decide your next activity for you, close your eyes and think: What will I do next? Make the decision, then do it immediately.

Eventually it starts to feel natural to allow your world to fit you, rather than allowing your world to manipulate you and steal your free will. That’s depressing to your subconscious mind who begins to feel imprisoned in your skull.

I graduated number one in my class – just two years after seeing my one and only glimpse of antisemitism. I guess that’s what it was.

But I’m not Japanese or Jewish inside. I’m hapa. To me, “hapa” doesn’t mean “half” anything, it means fully human.

That’s my highest goal, anyway, to be fully human, no longer outside looking in at the real people.

M. Talmage Moorehead

If you’d like to read this story without clicking in and out of the chapters and fighting their reverse order, it starts here as a “single-page” scrolling document.

If you want to join my reading group and be notified when each of my novels is done (possibly before the next ice age), that’s here. (No spam or sharing of your info – ever.) You can also download a brief nonfiction e-book I wrote, the title is something like, Writing a Meaningful Page-turner. I should change that and make a book cover. Whatever.


By the way, if you like my stuff, please email my blog address to someone: http://www.storiform.com.

Thank you, I appreciate your help.


Main Characters are Two People

Olmec six feet high found in jungleAt times, my protagonist lacks the third dimension. Today, I found out why.

In her book, The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, PhD, suggests that our prefrontal cortex’s ability to say, “I will,” “I won’t,” and “I want” separates us from the animals.

It’s as if there were two people inside each of us, she says – one who wants to be thin and one who wants a donut.

To bring a character to life, it may be essential to include the thing that this brilliant PhD health psychologist from Stanford considers the defining human trait: self-control.

Every living, breathing, leading fictional character contains two different people who are fighting for control. It’s an internal war.

Like everything real, the level of internal conflict falls naturally into a bell-shaped curve.

Heroes will often be outliers in their area of strength, of course…

Johanna, for instance, doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice herself for her autistic brother (he’s fighting depression in the latest version, actually).

But when it comes to other things, she needs to struggle more than I want her to.

Sometimes she needs to lose a battle against herself.

In “Writing Two Things for Magic,” I noted that the human mind finds euphoria in following two different things at the same time, such as two simultaneous melodies in a song (like a descant).

In creating characters, the same principle applies.

We find magic and euphoria in a character who brings both of their inner fighters to the war. One wants immediate gratification, the other wants a tougher goal…

It reminds me of what I’m doing right now. Part of me wants to surf the internet and check my email, another part wants to become a successful independent writer.

Enough surfing for now?

By the way, you might want to check out The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, PhD. So far it seems like it could be a life-changing book.

M. Talmage Moorehead

My current in-progress version of Johanna’s novel (written by her from another universe) is kind of different. If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” it may be a fun read. In this version, Johanna is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.

It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas and partly because it’s fun to try new things.

But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.

So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 10,000 word file will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)

Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell your best and hopefully weirdest friend about my blog (www.storiform.com). Thanks! I appreciate your thoughtfulness.


Never Bore the Writer

270662_1829890468352_8172929_n“One of the biggest sins of writing is to bore your reader – with language, with plot, and with character.” (From Ann Hood’s book, Creating Character Emotions.)

I gave up fundamentalism a few days after 9-11-2001, but we can still talk “sin” if you want.

The biggest sin in fiction writing is against yourself, the writer. It happens when you put fear of the reader ahead of the excitement of creating.

If your guiding light is a creative-writing professor shaming you and saying not to become a “whore” by writing for a broad and “average” readership, you’re sinning against yourself, the writer, a human being who needs food, shelter, love and common sense.

If your primary concern is an editor’s passing fancy rather than your own, you will bore yourself with stories that don’t tell your own painful truth.

If the “average” reader is a taskmaster to you, you’ll still be writing to please a critic, and putting your soul to sleep. Fortunately, the average reader is very much on your side, listening with care and wanting your story to be the best.

Writer’s block comes when you fear boring the reader more than boring yourself.

My characters want to talk and talk until they all agree. I’m constantly trying to coax them into doing things that involve conflict so my beloved two readers (wife and daughter) will not be bored. But this is a mistake because it means that my story is not worthy of my readers. This hollow feeling shows that sinning against my readers by boring them seems worse to me than boring myself.

That’s messed up. I’m not going to do it anymore.

Is it any wonder that day after day I sit down to write, but instead check my email, surf the web, write a blog entry, re-read and edit my first few chapters, and fail to create new story content?

I’ve never been a proponent of selfishness, but it’s obvious that I’ll never finish anything creative if the process is boring me into avoidance.

So I’ve got to put myself as a writer ahead of my readers where boredom is concerned.

That’s going to mean more telling than showing, sometimes.

It’s going to mean too much talking.

It’s going to mean too much real content – the stuff you find in non-fiction books.

And it’s going to mean writing in first person, even though my viewpoint character, Johanna, is a beautiful genius girl and I’ll never know what it’s like to be any of those things.

M. Talmage Moorehead

If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” my in-progress novel may be a fun read. The protagonist, Johanna, is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.

It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas and partly because it’s fun to try new things.

But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.

So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 10,000 word file will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)

Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell your best and hopefully weirdest friend about my blog (www.storiform.com). Thanks! I appreciate your thoughtfulness.


Why We Must Write


My son the psychologist-in-training tells me that there are five things that have been “proven” via evidence-based analysis to improve happiness.

1. Writing a daily journal.

2. Writing down three good things that happened every day.

3. Meditation.

4. Physical exercise.

5. Random acts of kindness.

I think it’s interesting that the first two have to do with writing. My son tells me that the first one, keeping a journal, applies to anything you’re creating that becomes part of the physical world. It could be writing and recording songs, writing fiction or non-fiction, even things like painting, where you put something of yourself into the physical world.

“Meditation,” according to my son, actually means practicing anything that keeps you in the moment. This might even apply to playing basketball, a thing that I wouldn’t have placed into the meditation category at all. But he says that it keeps you from ruminating about past uncomfortable conversations, embarrassments and disappointments, and keeps you from worrying about future difficulties…

For me, basketball keeps me in the moment better than traditional meditation does, at least what little I’ve experienced of sitting quietly and trying to silence my mind. And writing fiction works better than basketball.

It seems that writing can take care of several things on the short list of happiness promoters.

Writing my novel keeps me in the moment. If I’ve got big worries, I don’t want to write. I can’t. But if I can make myself start writing, most worries shrink to a manageable size for as long as I keep submerged in my characters. And when I’m done, I feel like I’ve accomplished something that sort of transcends the worries.

For me, writing fiction is also like journaling because I’m putting something of myself into ‘print’ and making it part of the physical world.  The ciberworld, maybe, but I do hold out hope of taking the world by storm with my amazing best-seller, or at least finding my way into the vanity press, which, as you know, seems to be reaching readers quite effectively of late, and deserves a less pejorative title, in my humble and yet infallible opinion.

Vanity press? Nah. How about “reality press”?

Unless writers can be kept ignorant of the nuts and bolts of true self-publishing (as opposed to the pseudo self-publishing rip-off conglomerate that masquerades as numerous small independents) – self publishing is the future.

Then there’s this blog you’re reading, in which I’m giving you the best encouragement and advice about writing that I possibly can, just for the joy of possibly helping someone. That’s sort of a random act of kindness, you might say… Assuming my views are worthwhile rather than counterproductive, a debatable issue in light of my disagreement with many of the traditional writing tips of the how-to fiction writing world.

Then there’s the writing down of three good things that happen every day. That seems to involve writing – if you take it literally, as my son insists you should.  (Rather than just thinking of three things, you know?)

Here’s just a thought on that. My strong belief in God as well as my background in Christian Fundamentalism (the “fundamentalism” part of which I’ve thrown over) has given me a long tradition of thanking God profusely for most every good little or big thing that has happened to me. This habit, for reasons that could be debated endlessly, has never seemed to affect my happiness one way or the other. I’m sure it was my fault. But writing down three good things every day without putting them into any religious context has helped. Dunno why the difference.

OK, I’m a foolish Christian. What’s new?

The bottom line is this: if you want to be happy and you’re one of the lucky few who can put two sentences together and feel great about it, you owe it to yourself to keep plugging away at your story and your blog. You’ll be happier.

Don’t let up for anything short of an asteroid. Not even a hemorrhoid.


Don’t worry whether or not you’ve got readers in copious quantities, or a boatload of native talent dripping from your fingers. Just keep putting part of yourself into the physical world of words on paper (or robo paper, whatever). There is inherent value in doing what we’re doing, regardless of ears (ear-regardless? No such word. Hello?)

Anyway, stop checking your email and surfing the net. Get back to your story, umkay?

Be happy, dammit!

“Do it now! Get to da Choppa!”

M. Talmage Moorehead

For a FREE download of my new e-book, Writing Meaningful Page-Turners, opt into my list: Click HereThe book takes a look at why we are more than storytellers, and how lucky we are to be inside the most influential group on Earth. The last chapter talks about how to meet a viewpoint character who will add a new dimension of meaning and fun to your life. Yes, I’m talking about Johanna Fujiwara! My Hapa Girl protagonist. If you haven’t met someone like her in your own writing, you have a wonderful experience coming!

Click Here for a FREE download of Writing Meaningful Page-Turners.

If you’d like to read my in-progress novel, Hapa Girl DNA from page 1, it’s here.

Manslaughter’s Gray Lesson

A main character’s motivation should not be black-and-white. In life there’s denial and inner conflict to the extent that it can be difficult to know your own motivation at times.

You think your grandmother’s doctor is an uncaring jerk, out for money. The President of the United States has backed you in a speech, saying that doctors remove legs unnecessarily for the money.

Only a criminal sociopath assaults someone, cripples them for life and steals their money, but the President says doctors do it. That makes doctors, surgeons at least, an official group of violent criminals. It’s now officially OK to dislike them as a group (another PC-passable prejudice) and sue them as often as possible. Grandma’s evil doctor deserves whatever she gets.

You’ll sue her.

Sure, Grandma liked her doc at one point. But the doc failed to notice that the oxygen tank had been turned off. Oxygen is a medication, a doctor’s responsibility.

She killed Grandma!

Of course, there’s the fact that the oxygen was physically turned off by your nephew who was visiting. That kid is totally undisciplined. His parents are too enlightened to ruin his self-esteem with the ignorant abuse we once called “raising kids.” You remember saying to your husband, “That kid’s parents killed Grandma.”

But that was before the lawyer mentioned a law suit. Big money.

Wait, this is not about money for you. It’s a matter of principle. You’d sue that quack even if you knew you’d lose and be forced to sell your home to cover lawyer’s fees.

Well, maybe not. Bankruptcy and homelessness are extreme.

Anyway, the lawyer says it’s a slam dunk, and the negligent doctor should pay for grandma’s funeral, at least. If there’s extra money, you’ll give it to charity – if your husband agrees.

But his job, selling insurance, is shaky now that the government competes with him. How can a salesman compete with a government monopoly that’s giving away his product? And Washington doesn’t have to turn a profit?

But everyone has an equal right to medical care because it’s a life-and-death issue. Like food, water and a place to sleep. Of course, if Washington is really going broke they won’t be able to keep giving things away forever. But they can’t go broke. They’re too big to go broke. But didn’t Rome go broke? Isn’t Greece going broke? No, that’s political nonsense. Greece is tiny anyway.

If there’s extra money after the lawsuit, you and your husband will talk about charity then.

A year later you win the case and wonder if you sued for the right reasons. To be honest, you’re not sure.

Motivation, like most everything in the universe, can be plotted like dots on a bell-shaped curve.

Dots on the left are less selfish decisions. Dots on the right become progressively more selfish. The vertical axis keeps track of the number of dots (decisions) with each degree of selfishness. Most fall near the middle…

Near the comet in this upside-down photograph of a night sky over mountains.


You married your spouse because she was lovable, smart, great looking and didn’t yell. This was selfish. But her good genes will be passed along to your kids. That’s unselfish. Of course, you hope to be proud of your kids, that’s selfish. But maybe that pride will be good for them, that’s unselfish.

Motivation is gray. Its color should be just as central to fiction writers as it is to the law.

You slug a guy in the face for insulting your husband in a bar. To your horror, the guy dies. The DA doesn’t go after murder, just voluntary manslaughter.

The next day, you’re driving below the speed limit, not using a cell phone, when a kid runs out in front of your car to show his friends how brave he is. You almost stop in time, but no, the poor boy dies. The charge is involuntary manslaughter, not voluntary. Certainly not murder.

The doctor who failed to keep a child away from grandma’s oxygen tank? There was a strikingly similar case (R v Adomako) in which the doctor was convicted of “criminally negligent manslaughter.”

And rightly so. Anyone so money-grubbing and evil as to become a doctor (a professional criminal by Presidential assertion, after all) should be expected to detect the absence of oxygen (not) coming from a tank that was turned off by a child. The doc must have been sleeping through her four years of college, four years of medical school, four years of residency and two years of fellowship. Obviously fourteen years of education and training never taught her the first thing about parenting… other people’s kids.

In writing fiction we take pains to make things real and emotionally true.

I go over passages of dialogue trying to hear how my protagonist would actually sound – trying to put myself in her moment. I look at the courtroom through her eyes wanting to feel what she feels. And why does her head hurt? What worries her the most this morning? But…

None of this can counteract the cardboard effect of black-and-white motivation – all good or all bad, homogeneously selfish or 100% unselfish.

When a real hero gets behind the underdog she does it for mixed reasons. Sure, she cares deeply about victims. But helping them brings a euphoric rush that makes her neglect her husband, kids and goldfish. That’s interesting, messy and real.

To help readers know the truth of her motivation, it helps to show the depth of her inner conflict:

She admits to herself (and to the reader, especially if it’s a first-person story) that the recent “heroic” behavior of hers – donating a kidney to the woman who stole her husband – is, at some level, a selfish reaction to the looming question inside, “Am I a good person?” After what she did in high school to that special-needs boy, the question haunts her. Plus, just today in court she ruined a country doctor’s life by winning a case that deep down she hoped to lose. “I mean, what did the woman do wrong?” she asks herself now that the court battle is over.

It would also help her become a genuine hero if she has a sharply contrasting but complex antagonist who admits to hating children and all fuzzy animals (cardboard stuff), but also scoffs at the rumor that he helped incite the ’47 Lymean uprising and organized the Steen’s polar invasion that saved all those Danes from the torture slabs.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Butchering the Stars


Here are a few paragraphs of a best seller.

The Fault In Our Stars

by John Green

…Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.) But my mom believed I required treatment, so she took me to see my Regular Doctor Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my meds should be adjusted and also I should attend a weekly Support Group.

This Support Group featured a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying.

The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell. It met every Wednesday in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church shaped like a cross. We all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.

I noticed this because Patrick, the Support Group Leader and only person over eighteen in the room, talked about the heart of Jesus every freaking meeting, all about how we, as young cancer survivors, were sitting right in Christ’s very sacred heart and whatever.

So here’s how it went in God’s heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story—how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn’t die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master’s degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life.

Here’s a link to John Green’s web sitehttp://johngreenbooks.com/

The reason I posted this is because it grips me and pulls me in but lacks a certain polished sound that I sometimes foolishly try to create. The way Green’s story is written excites me, partly because I’m not a gifted poet or a writer with naturally beautiful language.

I’m not saying I could write something this good. The content of this story would be at least impossible for me to match. And also it would be difficult for me to write anything this raw-sounding because I’ve been brainwashed into over-editing my work until it sounds sterile.

For instance, here is what I would lamely do with one of John Green’s fantastic paragraphs. (Forgive me Mr. Green, your way is infinitely better than what I’m about to do.)

[Like cancer, d]Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. [In a way, a]Almost everything is, really.) But m[M]y mom believed I required [needed] treatment, so she took me to see my R[r]egular D[d]octor[,]Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical major depression, and that therefore [needed adjustment of] my meds should be adjusted[,] and also I should attend a weekly S[s]upport G[g]roup.

Just for clarity’s sake, here again is Green’s outstanding paragraph as it was before I butchered it (by following the rules and advice I’ve learned in school and from “how-to” books on writing fiction).

Quoting John Green again…

Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.) But my mom believed I required treatment, so she took me to see my Regular Doctor Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my meds should be adjusted and also I should attend a weekly Support Group.”

I ask forgiveness again for the butcher job above, but I hope it was useful to other writers. It certainly was an eye-opener to me – with all my devilish word-editing habits that crush the “voice” of the viewpoint character and bleed the excitement out of my fiction, at times.

I guess the worst thing I did (above) to Green’s paragraph was to obscure the sense that it was written, literally written, by a young person who was more concerned with cancer and dying than with writing schoolish prose.

You might try this: Copy an important paragraph from a best-seller and pretend it’s something you wrote long ago. Edit “yourself.” Study the damage you’ve done, if any.

Then, if you’re like me, you’ll feel sheepish and realize that you’ve learned something from a successful professional with a writing career in the real world.

M. Talmage Moorehead