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.”

A new day

The progression of Parkinson’s is similar to the concept of “boiling a frog”: life’s natural coping mechanism—time—tends to mask the true weight of the illness from the afflicted. Now imagine if the emotional distortion of time did not exist; what if one could instantaneously transit the full range of Parkinson’s most debilitating symptoms accumulated over a decade, and then with a literal push of a button set back the clock ten or more years with almost no indication of having the disease?

This is not only possible, but it becomes the extant reality for thousands of patients with Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders who undergo successful Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) surgery. I am now one of them.

The past six weeks have been an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual rollercoaster that defies description. In the simplest terms, I have experienced every degree of capability and every symptom of Parkinson’s accrued over ten long years during the thirty days following brain surgery. But that’s not all: at the end of this rollercoaster is a button that allows the actual disease to vanish or return instantly when pushed.

Please let me explain. DBS consists minimally of two surgeries: the first is brain surgery to implant two wire leads deep within the brain. The patient is awake during this three hour procedure so that the proper placement can be assured by judging the relief of symptoms when a small amount of test current is applied. It is, shall we say, “uncomfortable,” but it goes by incredibly quickly.

The patient spends one night in the neurological intensive care unit with some people who are truly hurting, and then is discharged the next morning if recovering well. The ICU stay alone is worthwhile: it is a humbling opportunity to readjusts one’s perspective.

The second surgery occurs six days later. The wire leads left from the first surgery coiled under the scalp are unwound, and then run beneath the skin in the neck and torso to two pulse generating batteries (each 2” across) implanted below the clavicles. This one was a bit more painful, but when considering that it was the second major surgery in less than a week, not too bad. I was back home twelve hours after leaving, and that includes the 2.5 hour drive each direction.

I slept in a chair for about a week. The four incisions, which have yet to fully heal, make feather pillows feel like they are sharp, dry clay.

Immediately following the brain surgery, I experienced the “honeymoon effect,” and for about four days did not show any Parkinson’s symptoms whatsoever. The symptoms slowly came back, and within weeks I had transited the entirety of the disease’s effects since diagnosis.

It was a “Flowers for Algernon” period, physical disorienting and mentally confusing. For a time, I had great difficulty not in knowing who I was, but in knowing how I was.

Five weeks after the first surgery, I returned to the hospital to turn on the pulse generators and begin to optimize the various electrical parameters to deal most effectively with the most egregious symptoms.

I had stopped taking my medications twelve hours earlier to provide a realistic template for the implants, and I could only walk into the hospital with the aid of crutches. My eyes were dreary, it felt as though there was a sock in my mouth, and I was incredibly fatigued. The car ride down had been extremely painful.

The Nurse Practitioner turned on the pulse generators and tried the first setting. It helped a bit. She kept trying new parameters and thirty minutes later, I was bright eyed and walking down hall, swinging my arms, and with only a barely perceptible limp—and still no medication. Last Tuesday, I went in again for a fine tuning. The results are amazing.

I have cut my Sinemet—the medication with the only ingredient that clearly works, levodopa—in half. I have stopped taking Azilect, Requip, and Comtan, and I feel great. I can drive any time of day or night now, I’ve been working out again, and my mind is slowly catching up with my body. I go back to the hospital for a final tune up this Tuesday.

A part of the tune up process, which is done by a Nurse Practitioner (ARNP), a truly incredible person gifted with a sharp mind, highly technical ability, and compassion surpassed by none I have ever met, is to turn off the pulse generators momentarily as we try a new base line parameter.

It is probably shocking to watch: the change is immediate and severe. My right hand immediately trembles uncontrollably, both legs kick out repeatedly in dyskinesia, and I can’t sit still. But the most frightening thing to watch is my face, as my eyes become clouded, my mind fuzzy, and I hunch over as though there is a hundred pound weight on the back of my neck. It becomes difficult to breathe.

Invariably the Nurse Practitioner apologizes when we must turn off the pulse generators, and invariably I am confused, but touched, by the apology. This is my favorite part of the appointments.

Instantly, I am transported back to the painful, heavy load of an existence developed over ten years. And just as quickly, in the time it takes to take a deep breath, I am back to the “old” Peter again, sitting straight, eyes wide and full of energy.

I never want to forget both feelings, even though I’d prefer to spend my life in the “power on” state. I am fortunate beyond words for so many things, not the least of which is the ever present reminder of how difficult life can be.

When undergoing the extensive pre-screening for DBS, I was asked by the surgeon how would I determine if the surgery was a success. I answered, “If I am marginally better in any way for one day, then I will consider the surgery a success.”

How lucky can a guy get? I guess I know the answer.

When life moves fast

I was introduced to the concept of “Pretenders” and “Contenders” in 1985 by Master Gunnery Sergeant Bearup, United States Marine Corps, while attending Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS) in Pensacola, Florida. He had been assigned to AOCS as the Chief Drill Instructor just a week prior to our graduation and commissioning as Ensigns in the United States Navy.

AOCS was a physically and mentally intense fourteen week training program that was, in the final analysis, all “pretend.” The academics, the brutal exercise sessions, the calculated abuse, were all conducted in a carefully controlled environment (although we didn’t know it at the time) to build stress to near real world levels with the goal of teaching us how to survive as Navy pilots and flight officers.

Still, everyone took AOCS extremely seriously.

There was one essential component of the training that enabled AOCS to rise above its contrived roots of pretense and challenge us to be true “Contenders”: the drill instructors.

My drill instructor, like all of the tightly screened noncommissioned officers selected for AOCS duty, lived in a world of “locked up” discipline that verged on religion. In fourteen weeks, my assessment of Staff Sergeant Gerhardt, United States Marine Corps, went from brutal sadist to mentor and hero, even though his actions were remarkably consistent throughout the experience. I was the one who changed.

Two images from the experience stay fresh in my mind, each associated with a lesson learned on my final day at AOCS that I am only now really coming to appreciate.

The first is that of Staff Sergeant Gerhardt’s enigmatic expression as I hand him the traditional silver dollar to convey my thanks for his training.

Eyes as serious as death; an almost undetectable curl at the edge of lip, perhaps representing a grudging nod to life’s penchant for irony; and an aura of absolute respect absent the tiniest hint of the disdainful snarl offered by the same man just a week earlier.

The image moves; it is alive, and my drill instructor is ageless. Staff Sergeant Gerhardt, United States Marine Corps, exercises reality’s cautious deliberation with a single hand, raised in the perfect edge of a salute. His fingers quiver in muscular tension as the salute reaches its apex, and with the barest acknowledgement of a descent, the hand disappears as if a magician’s trick.

It took me decades to truly understand that Staff Sergeant Gerhardt was not saluting me that day 29 years ago. Certainly, he was paying respect to the new rank, but there was more to it – he was saluting my accomplishment. He was honoring my perseverance in making it through AOCS.

He was saluting the person that I now knew I could be.

Instead of honoring a one dimensional snapshot of fleeting achievement, he was saluting the human potential that resides in all of us as we rise to challenge.

It wasn’t until very recently that I was able to broaden my understanding of the second AOCS image to its rightful importance. The scene is from within the AOCS barracks.

With no fanfare and no one to witness it, Master Gunnery Sergeant Bearup calls our class to form up in the hallway.

Master Gunnery Sergeant Bearup has been here before. The last time he walked these halls, it was with the same sense of noble urgency. Then, he faced the inevitable statistical horrors of Vietnam. Many of the young men that took a similar printed card from him during that tour did not return alive.
He walks up to us slowly, hands us each a small card, and looking me square in the eye asks without inflection, “Which will it be?”

I remember looking down at that card for the first of what would be many times in my life, in reflection if not always in reality. It read:

“In life, there are Pretenders, and there are Contenders. The question is – which are you?”

It is only now, at a not-so-spry 52 years of age that I begin to feel comfortable tackling the question. The honest truth is that I’ve been both Pretender and Contender at different points in my life, but as Staff Sergeant Gerhardt’s salute taught me, what one has done in the past is not what is important; what matters is how you resolve to live every day of your life, starting right now.

The past six months has been challenging to me in unprecedented ways. I initiated an on-the-water/underwater research project with the intent of writing about the experience in my next book. The short summary is that there is plenty to write about.

One of the unforeseen lessons from the experience was the degree to which I was still connected to an identity that I honestly thought had been left behind years earlier. Suffice it to say that I took on challenges that I would not have considered five years ago, and I got beat up pretty good and in the traditional sense failed to meet some of them, a few by a very long shot.

My Parkinson’s grew dramatically worse during the same six months, and I did my best to hide my near-constant pain. Each Parkinson’s transition – and there are now as many as a dozen a day – was accompanied by a wave of deep futility, a sensation of running in deep, immovable sand, of fighting a losing battle with a desperately urgent outcome in the balance. Unimaginably powerful ennui became my daily companion, a listlessness that is almost impossible to shake.

I would show up at my boat for often 10 hours of non-stop concentrated effort, fighting wiggles, painfully deep muscle contortions, debilitating fatigue, and surprise anxiety attacks of dizzying intensity.

And as I dragged my reluctant body home in absolute exhaustion, I would marvel at how lucky I truly was, because unlike most people I know (I’m fairly certain), I was honestly and soulfully happy: occasionally embarrassed for my short comings and difficult to explain changing limitations, but happy.

I was also tired, hungry, proud, scared, and many other states, but as I took on each new challenge – most of which were tasks I had given up all hope of ever tackling again four or five years ago – and succeeded in some and failed miserably in others, I realized a fundamental truth carelessly tossed aside as a child: winning or losing really doesn’t matter so long as you did your level best and never quit.

Parkinson’s disease is a sneaky son of a bitch, but I had endured, persevered, relentlessly refused to quit until the small victories were stacked high all around me, even though I was the only one who could see them.

And then, PD’s churlish specter found a chink in my armor. I had faced surprise attacks before, but none as cleverly devastating as this.

In the final several weeks of the project’s research, the tight quarters, stress, and risks of varying sorts combined in a crescendo of pressure and circumstance that allowed me to finally see clearly the fiendishly cruel nature of my adversary.

I knew that my symptoms had grown to the point of distraction, but it was not clear to me what that really meant until I saw for myself. I had been placing a GoPro video camera at different spots on the boat to jog my memory and help fill out detail in the coming winter when I actually started to write. I watched the videos.

It was immediately evident that my symptoms no longer just affected me; they had a direct and immediate impact on everyone around me. My nervous shuffle made everyone on edge; my gloomy struggle back from dystonia would bring everyone down, even my light-hearted wiggles made it difficult to look in my direction. I was a visual train wreck of distraction. And to top it off, my voice became so soft and muffled that is was virtually impossible to understand me at times.

I saw the video and it was painfully obvious that these were legitimate complaints: it is damn hard to be around me. This is not an indictment of anyone, it is simply a fact. Parkinson’s had found a way in.

Parkinson’s has attacked me in a highly vulnerable spot: it is attempting to isolate me, to push away those around me and eliminate the relationships that make life what it is. And for now, it might be winning.

For the first time since my diagnoses, I am very concerned. I am also emboldened. I have learned tricks to get around past attacks, and I will learn new ones to beat PD’s latest end run.

Twenty-nine years later, here’s my answer: I am a Contender.

Happiness: on considering self

Some dates and annual events are particularly well suited to marking the passage of time and the accompanying growth or decay of the human spirit. There was a time when I was so anxious to believe in my self-worth that I would create holiday catalogues of personal achievement and tangible wealth with videos that exploited and miss-used my children’s images to showcase what a good and successful person I was (ps. It was not long ago, and I’ll probably slip back into this not-as-bad-as-it-sounds habit in the future).

My futile attempts to inject a 21st century version of Calvinism into my hollow existence do not bother or embarrass me today in the least, this part of my life merely “was” and probably still “is” to some degree, but now I am aware. Am I any more enlightened or empathetic or good today versus back then? Who knows, but far more importantly, who cares? No one: and that is the way it should be.

As I sat down at my desk at 2:15 am to write this, unable to sleep any longer after only two hours because of my painfully stiffening muscles, I experienced no resentment, sadness, or angst. Near-violent dyskinesia made it take 50 minutes to type this far – not “write,” but simply connect fingers to key board correctly – this morning’s thoughts could fill dozens of pages without pause (time to get “Dragon”?).

In my well-worn visualization of you, dear reader, working up an errant emotion that society would gleefully approve in response to my self-description, my only identifiable feeling is one of mild frustration at my inability to effectively communicate that I am – for what is very likely the first time in my life – truly happy.

True happiness: the stuff of legend, the utterly human yet desperately elusive state that money can‘t buy, found only after no longer pursued. Not to worry; I have no intention of launching into a self-help diatribe, but I would like to try and explain, if for no other reason than to shut up the misplaced bemoaning of the many people who I am so fortunate to consider friends (first rule of Peter’s happiness formula – insult readers boldly and often: last rule too).

I would like to pass on some simple observations and musings that might explain this apparently inexplicable condition. The recurring event that triggered this realization was the third annual white rafting trip of a group of friends who – for the most part – are not those closest to me, but from a different social universe from my normal low brow associates (fair warning was given…).

Looking back at GoPro river video from three years ago, it is readily apparent that I have changed considerably. Most people have difficulty looking beyond the physical, however. What is harder to see is that the change is – at the end of the day – overwhelmingly for the positive. Finally, I think (several meanings here) that I might actually understand the timeless truism of the Socratic paradox: “I know only one thing: that I know nothing.”

It is, in my opinion, not a quantifiably oriented sentence; the meaning does not lie in how much or how little one knows. The meaning steers to the neutral acceptance that not only are we humans wildly ignorant, but that that’s not only okay, but once embraced it can settle one’s world-view of life into a more simple and digestible form. Meaning does not reside on a distant plane, but is in front of us all, most obviously to me in the words of children and young adults, those less corrupted by “higher” thinking.

During the 2.5 hour trip home from rafting, my son, another young man, and I engaged in one of the most enjoyable conversations of my life. My son drove, as I was fairly seriously “off,” for the duration as I transited three of my personal Parkinson state’s: the jagged twist of an hour’s worth of a writhy, mumbling and soft-spoken dyskinesia of optimism interrupted by the gloomy descent to dystonia inaction and just as quickly (maybe 7, 8 minutes due to adroit pill popping) back to dyskinesia. Good times.

One of the difficult to see positives of the last three years is that I have extremely little concern for what other people think about my opinion or me. I do have great concern for trying to understand the truth even when the truth is ultimately unobtainable. Routinely having people stare at you in public with generally neutral to negative expressions is a wonderful way to get over skin-deep impressions. I have never been very good at suffering fools gladly, but now I can suffer them without frustration.

Shallow conversations hold no interest for me, which is why I often resort to irritatingly goofy jokes when I sense one coming, which unfortunately in our society seems to be most conversations. But it’s not all sunshine and roses: I’ve also developed a horrible tendency toward condescension (or more likely, I’ve always had it, but can now see it). At times, I am unbearable, even to me.

Here are the conclusions from the drive home. Please understand that for me, the happiness came first; I’m just trying to understand its source.

1. The most basic source of motivation for virtually everyone resides in a tribal need to belong which at its inner core is based on personal insecurities.

2. The ability to develop true ownership of one’s identity devoid of external influence is probably a person’s most empowering attribute.

3. It is all okay, even – especially – when it is not. Work hard to accept the unacceptably unchangeable.

4. Go further if you want, but there is no real need: Understand, grow, and accept that you know nothing, in fact, revel in it. Be happy.