Walking the dog

Two and a half years ago, I was walking the family English Golden Retriever through our rural neighborhood. It had only been a couple of months since my Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) surgery, and I was having difficulty relaxing and reaching a rhythm as my pooch pulled, then abruptly stopped to sniff, jerking the leash painfully against the still tender battery implants in my chest.

I was frustrated. Unable to exercise except for these walks, becoming stir crazy in my house and the inner workings of my mind, I was frozen in will trying to sort out this new under the skin surgical miracle-world of electrodes and wires. I was literally reaching the end of my rope with each tug of the leash.

Approaching the community pond, a familiar form shuffled toward me. It was a large man, disheveled and unshaven with the vaguely menacing air and cautiously furtive manner of one of society’s outcasts. I immediately knew who he was.

I had seen him along the road numerous times over the years on his way to and from visiting a friend, perhaps his only friend in the world, an older lady who lived by the water. He was well known in the community, having sparked an outcry about ten years earlier when it was learned that he was a registered sexual offender.

His crime had been as severe as they came: the rape of an adult woman in another county some 20-30 years ago. He had spent time in prison and was only eventually released under the permanent official labeling of the State’s sexual predator statute. That was all I knew of him.

As one deemed “likely to re-offend,” any community he attempted to reside in—for the rest of his life—would receive law enforcement and neighbor notification of his presence. He had visited the elderly lady for years, occasionally being picked up and evicted by Sheriff’s Deputies after he crossed a legal threshold in his stay that met the criteria for an unreported residence.

Several days earlier, an electrical fire had erupted at the lady’s home in the middle of the night, killing the woman and allowing the man to barely escape with his life. I assumed that he had come back to the ashes to pay his respects before leaving for who knew where.

In the past, I had allowed a distant nod in passing to the man, willing to give him the benefit of the doubt so many years after paying a debt to society that, despite releasing him, still permanently labeled him. It just seemed cruel to technically offer the man a free life, but one with strings attached that guaranteed that he would be rigorously tormented forever.

But to be fair, I knew very little about the circumstances surrounding his earlier conviction. Maybe he deserved a life sentence or worse; maybe not.

“Good morning,” I said, feeling uneasy as he walked out of our upper-middle-class community with nothing but his ragged clothes and a small backpack after losing his only friend in the world.

He surprised me by answering in a strained voice, as if unaccustomed to speaking, “How wonderful it must be to just walk where you like with your dog.”

I replied, suddenly deeply ashamed at how ungrateful I had become, “Yes, it is.” I often think of that man, sometimes wondering what happened to him.

And I ponder his words, marveling at the beauty that can be found in a simple act such as walking the dog: two creatures tenuously connected in a vast and lonely world if only by a leash and the occasional affectionate nuzzle.

Imagination’s key

Intellect, perched smugly secure behind convention’s walls, fragments the soul into scattered pieces, rendering it weak with contrived conflict. We are taught to be one of many, unique in conformity’s perceived choices. Black and white, right and wrong; the options dazzle in simplicity, enticing hungry exploration forward to nowhere, like an airplane soaring west until it arrives where it started.

Words like position and legacy decry and diminish, while only the absence of argument can hint of existence. We enter this world alone, frail, and naked, but with the warm memory of a comfort beyond. Life’s parting gift is learned doubt and unease.

Reason, finite and fleeting, desperately attempts to define us, but imagination unlocks the soul, allowing a glimpse of reality through silent acts of compassion and kindness.

Humility’s legacy

Man’s basest instinct, fueled by ego and pride, goads us in a legacy of “more” as money, power, and fame greedily measure out our spiraling descent. Insecurity is humanity’s collective theme; humility our lonely virtue.

The conflict with self never ends, battling quiet mantras that ring hollow and weak, sabotaged by the competitive urges that seek to derail our chugging climb.

Life’s desperate loneliness casts its broad shadow—invisibility; not mattering; existing without being. Ego homes in on our shared insignificance, bullying the fading light, sputtering the shared flame into ethereal oblivion.

Yet, still, we struggle; we try. And we believe.

The riddle of the Sphinx

When asked, “What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?” Oedipus correctly answers, “Man.”

The mythological Sphinx’s riddle illustrates the physical progress of Man through life in a linear fashion: as a baby, Man walks on all fours; as an adult on two feet; and when elderly with three appendages through the use of a cane.

As I pack two folding canes, not used in almost three years, into my backpack, it strikes me that our trek through life is in some ways substantially more complicated to explain, but far easier to accept, when viewed through a non-physical prism. Physical aging may indicate a progression, but it offers little insight or comfort.

I prefer to think of life as an arc, perhaps even as a full circle, where one dies as one was born: an infant in intellect, yet infinitely wise in spirit and rich in soul.

The two collapsible canes have reclaimed a temporary place in my wardrobe due to the need for an MRI tomorrow, which in turn requires shutting down my pulse-generating batteries for the duration of the exam. I’ve had a nerve issue causing a shooting pain down my leg for over two months, and the MRI is for my lower back.

I have not had the deep brain stimulation units (one on each side of the brain) turned off in about two and a half years. I’m not sure what to expect, particularly since I now take time released Levodopa capsules that were unavailable to me before my 2014 brain surgery. So, I pack the canes next to my DBS controller in the backpack in case I am unable to walk.

The necessity of using two canes—four appendages—to walk aligns the Sphinx’s physical progression in the same circular direction as our spiritual journey: toward a non-judgmental peace with the world last experienced, by me at any rate, as a child.

Three distinct childhood ages come to mind, reverse markers on the journey to awareness: 15, 11, and 5. These are just my personal associations with phases of growth, or decay, depending on how you look at it, and I don’t imagine that the specific ages are important. They are probably different for each of us.

I think of life’s circle reversing for me somewhere around age 45, about ten years ago. Up until that point, I had considered historical knowledge, politic awareness, and keeping up with current events as critical to understanding the world. I had lost any semblance of childhood innocence and acceptance, not realizing that the harder I tried to understand life, the more impossibly complex it became.

So somewhere around age 45, I took a spiritual turn without really knowing it. I began thinking in younger and younger terms, looping back toward a childhood awareness, not yet even sure of why. Currently, I view myself, in spiritual terms, in the vicinity of age 15.

Fifteen was an age of exciting possibility, a world of simplicity and awe of the future. It was also a milestone of when I began dampening my awareness: it was the age when I started to drink. But mostly, 15 was a crossroads where I could still get excited about first love, could enjoy a walk through the woods by myself while simultaneously developing a fierce competitiveness and appetite for adventure.

Today, I try hard to shed my competitive nature while exploring the same intensely real feelings of innocence. Whether the world is a literal illusion, or merely a façade of Man’s ego and insecurities, at age 15 I was still mostly immune to the illusion’s distracting pull.

I look forward to 11, an age of exploration when only the most basic of emotions was important. Money held no sway; power was an empty word.

But most of all, I look forward to becoming 5 again, of looking through the wise eyes of a child bereft of life’s insanities. After 5, I lose sense of who or what I was, of identity, which is a transition that offers a real opportunity for internal peace.

We humans are universally imperfect and constantly changing. As a friend once told me: it’s tough being human. Yes, it is, but that’s okay. For now, this 15-year-old might be back to walking on four legs again, if only for tomorrow.

I look forward to traveling a path of non-judgmental acceptance someday: aware, alive, at peace—and naturally—on all fours.

 

The void

Always threatening, bringing the jagged cliff of despair to the highest grassy meadow, the void hangs like a vulture over carrion. Existential emptiness without meaning, the void is an absence, a lacking, a primal and essential hunger gone unfulfilled. The vacuum leaves nothing but the horror of being, yet not-being; of knowing the I that once was, but is now nowhere. Without love, all ceases.

Victoriously simple in honesty and trust, love’s white shadow overwhelms the void with the warmth of crackling kindling under a rain-soaked bough. The spirit is whole; it knows all is possible.

The love of many is the need; the shared compassion that promises inner peace; a blending beyond this world. But it is the Love of the one, the fulfilled want; the passion, that brings happiness in the now. It is what anchors the soul against the illusion’s gauntlet of nightmarish insanity.

Reflected in equal heat as its award, reciprocity unlocks Love’s door, showering a twin beam of light into the void’s perpetuity of threatening emptiness. To Love for one day, even one hour would not be enough, but it would prove that there is a universal good in this world, even if it is as tenuous as a whisper, or a touch of the hair.

Water

Water floods life with stark alternatives: hope or despair, passion or malaise, thirst or drowning, all as we choose. The same fluttering drop fills the seas while emptying the skies, pushing imagination to explore, pulling it to dare.

Clouds pan across the bright half-moon, thin, then thick, exposing seconds of clarity before blackening in a threatening mass. The clouds grow with our curiosity until finally bursting. The rainy deluge beckons for the warmth of another’s arms.

The river’s turbulent flow strays into calm back eddies, blurring the nexus of good and evil: indifference reigns. The merging streams mock death’s infinity, tempting madness with a brief glimpse of what lies beyond cascading falls.

It is Life’s ultimate addiction, her contradiction, revealing all in a sudden measureless vista, and then, in a timeless moment, the insight is swept away, eroded by nature’s awful power. It is primal terror. And water is also that mysterious, magical love that connects us all in a downpour of vibrant beauty.

On report

It’s been one and a half years since the batteries implanted in my chest were turned on, and new electrical pulses began firing in both sides of my brain, ameliorating the worst of my Parkinson’s physical symptoms. It has been both as I had hoped and feared: the sense of transcendental self-awareness has largely dissolved into memory while my mobility and physical comfort are much improved.

Was it a deal with the devil? Not really, I’m not convinced that the gains and losses are inextricably linked, but there does seem to be a tightly bonded exchange of the two; quid pro quo. Is it insurmountable? I don’t think so; I don’t know.

A pall of apathy guards my mind, seeping and sealing brief breaks of initiative in its walled defense, discriminating in the sentry’s challenge, allowing stealthy passage for depression’s silent horde, only to be repelled again and again by the weary keep.

Parkinson’s quiet siege relies on a triumvirate of sneaky partners in its patiently gradual erosion of battlements: apathy, low energy, mild psychosis, the three working in concert, rolling the giant horse past the mind’s defenses to release depression’s miasma within.

I know this; everyone connected closely to Parkinson’s knows this on some level. But it’s so easy to let that horse keep rolling, its building momentum welcomed for its power and repelled for its substance.

It is tiring being tired; excited for life but cursed to stand by as a watcher, non-engaged and frustratingly boiling in a stillness of indecision. This is where I am.

But that is not to say it is where I will be. If allowed, I see signs of improvement, of engagement, of being normal all around. I can reach out and touch them.

And sometimes I do, and the victory is blindingly abundant in reward; and just as quickly, it is forgotten. That is why I am writing this; to help me remember, to keep focus, and to act.

I know I can do it. Sometimes it pays to put yourself on report so that others might know it too. And now you do.

Cheers,
Pete

Goodbye, USS Ranger

Having served for ten years active duty, including combat, in the United States Navy did not make me eligible for a pension or stipend of any sort. It did not allow for tax free shopping privileges at the on-base Commissary for groceries or the Navy Exchange for sundry goods. It did not provide for medical or dental benefits. It did not even permit access to the Naval Air Station to show my son the few buildings still standing where I used to work.

All that remained to show for a decade of service to my country were boxed up medals, plaques, awards, memories, and the only perk that honestly lasts forever-friendships tempered by the steely combat of a long-misplaced youth.

Eight months ago, I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to turn back the clock a quarter century, if only temporarily. And if only in fantasy. I had a chance to prowl through decks and levels, over knee-knockers, through passageways and up and down ladders, to enter ship’s spaces not seen in more than twenty years. It was in these rooms that the seeds of intense first thoughts on my own mortality were planted. I would step aboard U.S.S. Ranger a final time before she left Puget Sound Navy Shipyard without flags or fanfare, absent the traditional white uniformed sailors manning her rails.

Ranger was being prepared to be towed away, with boilers silent and cold under the perpetual darkness of a forgotten warrior. Ranger was being prepared to be rendered for scrap. For the morning, though, she was ours to share with past comrades in arms, to temporarily join physical reality with memory.

One day and two dozen years earlier, I had launched from Ranger’s deck in the predawn Persian Gulf blackness into the unknowns of first combat. In certain ways, it marked the launch of the rest of my life-I was not the same person after that morning. But that was past, worthy of reflection only when surrounded by old squadron-mates, and not as the topic of a moribund séance in a solitary mind. To have this opportunity presented at such a time in my life bared its teeth at coincidence, challenged life with the stubborn insistence of a young man’s-and an old salt of a warship’s-denial of fate.

Ross Wilhelm, a VA-145 B/N and friend, had called me on the Monday before the tour with the Ranger invitation. The U.S.S. Ranger was decommissioned in 1993. She had fought off the blow torches and junk yard cranes for 22 years. Why scrap her now?

The more I thought about it, though, the more appropriate it seemed to be; everything goes away, everybody dies-that’s just the way things are. Maybe it was better to grapple with this fact in the close combat of reality than to push it off until it could no longer be ignored; before the facts of life intercepted a tired mind’s fantasies in an ambush of truth.

Tugg Thompson was one of those old friends traveling to Bremerton to say goodbye, a friend who fortunately had retired from the navy and still had an identification card and access to navy facilities. We had both been pilots when on active duty, but I would succumb today and sit in the right seat of his silver Accord and let him do the driving onto the navy base.

My son, Jared, sat in back, skipping school for a lesson in history from has-been shipmates, given on a ship that hadn’t sailed in decades. As we drove onto the Keystone Ferry to travel from Whidbey Island to Port Townsend, Tugg’s descriptions of past victories and foibles were unrelenting in their energy; he was a tenacious energizer bunny with a heart as big as his enthusiasm for flight, with every word threatening to spin out of control with a fiery clap of his hands. It would be a lesson for Jared not available in a dozen weeks or years of school.

The ferry rolled in the unseen swell of a wintry, still-dark, pre-dawn, priming our memories and arming our resolve. Once in Port Townsend, it would be a one hour drive to the Bremerton Naval Shipyard, where Ross Wilhelm would meet us for the tour. We would need to be off the Ranger ninety minutes later, as she was slated to leave Bremerton in four weeks for the tow around the Cape of Magellan, and then north to Brownsville, Texas. For a ship to die on dry ground took a great deal of preparation indeed.

A half dozen other squadron mates had opted to regret the invite, stating honestly-if imperfectly-that the event would just be too sad.

This I could not fully understand. I had a vague sense of how a soft melancholy might threaten, but to have tales of the past intrude on the present, to manifest themselves through real, physical emotion?

No. To me, it was a celebration of a long-closed chapter, one so distant through the ravages of time, so alien to today’s reality, that it was difficult to quite believe that the memories were real.

Would it have been better to have Ranger slowly rust away pier-side without urgency or reason? Would it have been happier to know that Ranger, bereft of visitors or mission, would slowly flake into obscurity? Wasn’t the scrap pile just the sort of tidy closure that so many seemed to be searching for in life? Wasn’t this cause to celebrate the past?

My mood was far from sad when we got to Ranger. Walking her passageways was energizing as I eagerly peered into each darkened space for a glimpse of the familiar. The view was not disappointing-it was as if movers had come for her furniture and wall hangings, but left behind everything else unmolested.
Walking the passages, which had always been bare, it looked the same as walking onto the darkened ship after a night of liberty in port: mostly quiet, but with the jarring yells of returned revelers always threatening.

Or, was it more akin to the walk from Mid-rats to the stateroom in the middle of the rolling night, standing the alert 15, heavy flight gear hanging loosely on an uncaring young frame, prepared and eager for the urgency of a surprise launch: something vitally important, a mission. It was both. And it was neither. It was real.

I left Ranger seeing and sharing with Jared far more than expected and feeling pretty damn good, without a hint of sadness. I asked Tugg on the return drive how he felt and he agreed. Memories, as important as they are, must be left in the past. Not only is there no choice in the matter, but if allowed to flow with life’s natural energy, it is better.
Beauty effortlessly comes in many forms; the challenge is to accept beauty on her own terms. Old friendships work that way.

To the graduating class

What defines success? A better question, in my opinion, is “who” defines success? For most of us, the simple answer is “someone else,” someone else defines our goals and ambitions. Call it peer pressure or societal expectations or a parent or role model saying “Go to college, get a job, join the military,” we all get steered in life’s journey to some degree.

Many people, maybe most people, never take control of their own lives. Instead, they allow outside influences to control them. Sometimes we need steering, and life immediately after high school is probably one of those times. But please know that as you build life experience, the power to control your life is in your hands. This is a scary concept because suddenly there is no one else to blame for our perceived failures. But truth is power, so relish your failures, dust yourself off, get up, and try again.

Define your success carefully, because the basis for that definition will largely determine the course of your entire life. Question your definition of success thoroughly and often, because it will probably change to some degree over time. My definition of success changed dramatically when we had children, and it continues to change with life circumstance.

Here are four short pieces of advice to help determine and shape your individual definition of success.

First: Embrace challenge. Some challenges will be chosen, but many will not. Accept that life is not fair, look challenge squarely in the eye, and live with enthusiasm.

Second: Express yourself. Whether if it’s by singing a song, painting a picture, writing a story, or speaking about meaningful things with friends and family, listening to yourself communicate is a wonderful way of determining what rings true and what does not.

Third: Don’t quit. This does not mean never alter course or change strategies. Effort is measured in inches and feet and miles, but success is measured by the will to keep trying.

And finally: Laugh often and loudly. Be true to yourself and be courageous in showing the world who you really are. Thank you.

June 8, 2015, Oak Harbor, Washington.

The “all of us”

Two days ago, I had four medical appointments at Swedish Hospital, the location of my Deep Brain Stimulation surgery in Seattle last November. It was beyond strange to return after two months of no visits, and I found myself fighting various demons of distraction.

In order, the appointments were with my primary neurologist, an MD sleep specialist, the Nurse Practitioner who adjusts my pulse-generator batteries to optimize performance for my Parkinson’s symptoms, and the final appointment was with the surgeon who performed the two procedures.

Sleep is still an issue, but it is vastly improved compared to before the surgeries. I still have a sensation of dyskinesia in the pit of my stomach that awakens me after several hours and requires that I stand up and walk. I might not fall asleep for hours when this occurs, but when I lie down, it is comfortable, the bed is soft, and there is no pain. Still, why not try a sleep specialist; day time fatigue can quickly morph into depression, and it makes it more difficult to counter Parkinson’s rigidity.

The real challenge I face is of memory and transcendence to not only understand the lessons learned in the past few years, but to incorporate them into my much improved physical life as well. Easier said than done. It is shocking how quickly we can forget even the most valuable lessons.

How to fight this, how to push back at this totally expected and anticipated challenge? So far, I can’t say I know the answer, which is in part why I’m writing. My greatest post-surgery fear is of what I’ve come to consider the “threat of the mundane.”

I don’t feel like I’m failing yet, but it certainly doesn’t feel like I’m winning either. The challenge ultimately may have less to do with Parkinson’s, and more to do with life in general. How do I ensure that I’m living the “examined life,” of Socrates, the life active in mind and body, a full life?

I don’t know. It’s an easy proposition on paper, but the seduction of a soft bed, ample food, and no sense of urgency make it difficult in reality. Looking at it in a different way, maybe the surplus of plenty is to the West what the “oil curse” is to the Middle East, and we can all see how well that’s playing out.

Parkinson’s has taught me to keep moving, seek out and accept challenge, and take control of my life. Now, after the surgeries, I consider myself less afflicted by Parkinson’s, and in some ways “Parkinson’s free,” which is nonsense—I realize that it is my destiny to travel down the same spiraling path interrupted by surgery sometime in the future.

It is incredibly tempting to slouch back into old routines and habits. How do I get around this? How do any of us do so? My gut tells me that the answer lies in grit, in perseverance, and I know it is right.

I will be fine and figure it out; just wanted to share, now that I’ve got a problem that is likely common for all of us—how to get the most out of life.

It’s good to back with the “all of us.”