Personal strategies learned the hard way for others afflicted with Young-Onset Parkinson’s

“Just the facts, Ma’am” – first, some background on Parkinson’s.

Being a progressive disease simply means that the illness becomes progressively worse over time. Add the word “incurable” and it’s easy to see why a person with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) might have an occasional dark moment.

Parkinson’s is an “incurable, progressive, neurological disease.” Almost all you need to know in three easy words. Let me add a fourth.

Transition – a person with PD is always in transition. Always.

PD relentlessly eats at one’s body and mind, not with imagined or self-induced symptoms, but with the real, measurable physiological depletion of a person’s Dopamine producing capability. Dopamine regulates muscle control throughout the body and also impacts mood.

Levodopa – essentially the pill form of Dopamine – is hands-down the most effective medication to alleviate PD’s symptoms. The proper dosage, however, is critical: too little and the symptoms will not be reduced; too much causes the writhing, loopy, physically exhausting body movements of dyskinesia that make it difficult to function, communicate, or even think clearly.

Levodopa loses efficacy in the treatment Parkinson’s as the disease progresses; e.g. more must be taken today to produce the same positive results of six or twelve months ago. Determining the proper dose and interval between doses is a never-ending task trying to catch the “sweet spot” of nearly normal. As levodopa becomes less effective, the margin between too much and too little narrows until eventually it is gone. That is why PD always wins in the end.

Depression of varying severity is a hallmark of Parkinson’s. PD depression is not a by-product of the constant wear on the body and loss of hope for the future, although many afflicted with Parkinson’s have some of that too, but instead it is a separate physiological entity; it is a real physical symptom. Please go to this link for more info:
http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2012/11/28/parkinsons-health-depression-study/1731641/

But that doesn’t mean that depression can’t be overcome, at least for the majority of the time, by a patient accepting complete responsibility and control of their treatment and taking advantage of periodic moments of relative calm to formulate a strategy to counter PD’s insidious effects. To do so requires creative and proactive responses to PD’s progression every step of the way, doing whatever it takes to tweak medication dosage and timing until something works.

My neurologist is great, but she – like everyone else who does not have PD – doesn’t have a clue on a personal level what it actually feels like to experience PD symptoms. You simply can’t know without experiencing the disease.

My neurologist appointments used to involve a series of questions to try and decipher what was working, what wasn’t, and how best to tweak the meds. This information went through the multiple filters of my best description of a symptom and her attempts to understand how the medications impacted these symptoms. I quickly realized that a more responsive and empowering approach would be to “cut out the middle man” and take control of my own medications. My neurologist is supportive of this strategy, which I greatly appreciate.

This is not to say that my neurologist isn’t a key part of my overall strategy to counter PD symptoms; I rely totally on her advice regarding the safe limits of each medication and whether there are other options to try. But beyond this, all dosage and timing of pills taken are one hundred percent in my control. If a drug regimen begins to prove ineffective, I don’t have to wait for a Doctor’s appointment; instead, I adjust until I find something that does work.

This approach would appear to be obviously advantageous, but in my experience very few PD patients want this responsibility (this is only an anecdotal guess on my part and I could actually be far from the mark). Empowerment is good. Personal lesson learned #1:

Take personal control of your medication regimen.

The second lesson is to step up to each challenge Parkinson’s presents, while looking the facts square in the eye and acknowledging that at the end of the day the disease will eventually win. Keep fighting. Although you will not win the war, you can win individual battles; you can win “small victories.” The sense of accomplishment from these victories can help one handle the pain, fatigue, depression, and disorienting, exhausting dyskinesia.

Try to take on normal challenges accepted in the past, even if this means being in the public eye, a factor that will almost certainly increase stress and aggravate your PD symptoms. Parkinson’s causes anxiety, which causes stress. Stress in Parkinson’s patients usually significantly increases their symptoms. My advice is to do it anyway.

For me, accepting this type challenge acts as a way to go head-to-head with PD on the disease’s home field. It’s a way to push back. It might be difficult at times, even painful, but when such a challenge is met, it turns a small victory into a very big one.

Here are some personal examples. I still serve on the local school board, often run public meetings, and have given two graduation speeches (a third one is coming up in June) to about 5,000 people. I also occasionally have the opportunity to present on scuba diving and writing to at times hundreds of strangers in different parts of the country. Just traveling to these locales can be a physical challenge.

It is not easy. I always have second thoughts before such events, I’m always scared and stressed, and so far, I have always followed through anyway, usually with my walking canes nearby. But guess what – so far, I have never had to use them: just as it was prior to PD, the bigger the challenge, the greater the reward.

Tackling these challenges has given me the confidence to keep diving, but only with a carefully thought out plan to counter symptoms. I’ve found that the more I dive the easier it becomes, and that I’m capable of far more challenging dives than I thought possible even four years ago.

Parkinson’s eliminates many individual choices over time – it feels great to push back at PD on the disease’s own terms and win. It’s a big victory. Personal lesson learned #2:

Step up to new challenges.

Next lesson: exercise relentlessly and creatively adapt your routine as needed. If an exercise becomes problematic immediately flex to a different one. I’ve had to do this so far with running (I had been an avid runner since about age 15), the elliptical machine, and weight lifting. My current exercises are Hot Yoga (modified as needed), the stationary bike, stair climber, hiking, and when all else fails simply walking or doing leg exercises while lying down. Personal lesson learned #3:

Exercise is the key to mobility and a positive attitude: move!

Let me try to tie it all together with a personal example. About four months ago my body began to make a fairly dramatic shift toward the bad. For the past two years my transitions from “off” (too much or too little levodopa) to “on” (the sweet spot) and back were reasonably predictable. My “off” symptoms of greatest concern are extremely forceful muscle contractions in my right ankle and right wrist, causing pain and making it impossible to walk unaided.

To counter I nearly always have two canes nearby (they are collapsible and kept in a back pack) to avoid getting stuck as it can take up to an hour or longer for an additional dose of levodopa to take effect. When periodic wrist pain is too great to use the canes, I also have collapsible crutches.

Some other “off” symptoms include: joint pain, tremor, deep fatigue, loss of balance, sleep attacks, an extreme free-floating anxiety that comes on without warning, and periods of depression. None of these are fun, but the muscle contractions potentially pose the greatest risk to my immediate physical being (i.e. unable to walk and becoming stranded or causing major injury to ankle or wrist).

For a very long time, my PD symptoms were fairly well controlled with relatively predictable doses of levodopa. My other five daily medications remain quite stable, but these are not nearly as effective as levodopa.

Several months ago this regimen no longer worked, not by a little, but by a whole lot. There seemed to be a constant swing between being over or under dosed.

There was no warning: one day the regimen of the past two years worked just fine, and seemingly the next I could not find the “sweet spot” of balance. Being in constant transition between the two physical states of over or under dosed is very, very difficult, tiring, painful, and confusing.

It took me several months, but I think that I’ve discovered a new workable levodopa strategy for this next round. I now cut most of my levodopa pills in halves and quarters, and in the last month I’ve developed a written plan through trial and error. The plan requires 15 specific times during the day and night when I take a pill or pills of different dosage. I’ve got about 15 minutes leeway on either side to make it work, all other things being equal. But all things are never equal.

Feeling ill, being excessively fatigued, working out too little or too much, hunger, or getting cold all impact proper levodopa dosage levels and times significantly. It’s not an exact science, and it requires constant real-time adjustments.

What have not changed are my overarching strategic commitments in countering PD.

I still exercise 6-7 days a week. I’m still on the school board. I travel to Chicago in two weeks to give presentations on the Andrea Doria at the Our World Underwater dive expo. This routine of challenge keeps me motivated and positive, not all the time, but most of the time.

One last bit of advice: if you have PD, consider making it widely known. This helps fend off misunderstandings down the line when one exhibits inexplicable behavior, whether it’s at the local supermarket, an official function, or a friendly get together.

It would probably be impossible to keep PD a long-term secret anyway. It goes back to controlling what you can; I would prefer that people find out that I have PD on my terms. Parkinson’s leaves no choice in most facets of life: it’s liberating to take control over those aspects of your life that you can.

And when all else fails, laugh often and loudly.

Cheers,
Pete

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Empty

Pain is nothing,
Generality of convention,
Relative term, sentence,
Omnipresence,
It’s real.

To feel,
Prickle, tingle, ache,
Unobserved trick,
Saturated wick,
No course.

Full remorse,
Acts unfulfilled,
Dreams left floating,
Death’s ill gloating,
To wait.

The bait,
Life’s solemn promise,
Passion’s blitz,
Temptation’s glitz,
No. It’s done.

The rabbit’s run.

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Tilting at Windmills: Limitations of the professional aviation safety model in sport diving

In 1985 I joined the Navy. After a 14 week stint at Aviation Officer Candidate School (“An Officer and a Gentleman”), I began pilot training.

Military life was a different world in all sorts of ways (I still fold my “skivvies” in a 6” X 6” square, but at least I no longer iron them), and the changes in routine ranged from confusing, to frustrating, and occasionally even to the welcome.

Naval Aviation’s attitude toward safety fell into the welcome category, and it was immediately apparent to me that sport diving could benefit from some of the lessons learned operating from the carrier deck.

But, as the saying goes, “The devil is in the details,” and I had to wonder which aspects of Naval Aviation’s methodical “systems” approach to safety were transferrable to sport diving, and which were not. What appeared at first glance as an easy task in 1985 became more complex with each passing year.

Naval Aviation’s safety program permeates every aspect of both training and actual operations; it is not open to negotiation. In contrast, it was clear to me that for practical purposes a single, cohesive “dive community” did not even exist.

Each dive certification agency at the time (and maybe still?) was in active competition for new students, there was little standardization, and recreational divers lacked a common goal or purpose.

Because the Navy’s rapid training cycle did not allow for the accumulation of significant experience (experience being the single greatest contributing factor to proficiency, in my opinion) prior to operational deployment, the training system had to pick up the slack from day one.

No such sophisticated safety system exists or probably can exist in sport diving, where the primary incentive for participation is recreation.

It was still puzzling, however, why so few individual components of Naval Aviation’s successful safety program had translated effectively to diving. It appeared that even the most fundamental of safety lessons learned by the Navy, such as the disciplined use of briefing checklists, had not been widely adopted outside of the military.

There’s a saying in Naval Aviation: “You need a plan to deviate from…” Without a baseline of coordinated expectations prior to a flight, a reasoned response to the inevitable surprises that crop up is impossible, especially if limited in experience.

With that in mind, I saw an obvious place to start. It seemed a no-brainer to me that a reasonably thorough briefing before a dive would be an obviously worthwhile safety enhancement for virtually every diver.

In 2004, I decided to mass produce a dive safety briefing checklist based on my experience flying A-6 Intruder carrier attack jets. The goal was to create a short, easy to use checklist that would take an experienced buddy team of sport or technical divers a nominal 30 minutes to brief the first time it was used, and then perhaps 15 minutes to review prior to subsequent dives.

The checklist was purposefully short because it was assumed that a truly comprehensive “Naval Aviation style” brief (minimum of one hour; as long as four hours for a complex strike – this does not include planning time) would meet resistance from participants in a sport motivated primarily by a desire to have fun. Whether “fun” was defined as a relaxed tropical dive on a shallow reef or a deep, highly complex wreck or cave penetration was moot. In the final analysis, sport divers share no common mission other than to have a widely varied definition of “fun.”

The checklist served as a briefing tool between dive team members as well as with surface support personnel to clearly define basic responsibilities and procedures utilized in the most common aspects of open-circuit diving. Briefing examples included such varied items as an in-depth discussion of each diver’s gear configuration and the plan for transferring an incapacitated diver from the water back into the boat.

The briefing checklist was a total failure.

Granted, it was designed for function over glitz. Printed in black and white on a hard, durable two-sided plastic card with rewritable blank spaces, it was not especially pretty. It certainly did not fit in with gear purchased by divers who cared about the color of their fins.

But I believe the failure was due to more than a lack of curb appeal. I had grossly underestimated the average diver’s willingness to slow down the “fun” long enough with what could be perceived as a 15 to 30 minute “downer” of a brief talking about all the things that could go wrong.

There was an obvious conclusion to draw: an honest understanding and desire for a culture of safety simply did not exist in diving as was enjoyed by professional aviation. Thorough briefings provide pilots with the “warm and fuzzy” of being truly prepared for any contingency. Sport divers seemed to consider a thorough briefing checklist alarmist at best and overall a nuisance of limited value.

This story serves as an illustration of the fundamental difference between diving and professional aviation that makes it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to incorporate the central beneficial feature of an aviation safety program into sport diving: the structural ability to develop a professional culture – or “system” – of safety.

Please do not misunderstand; there are definitely transferrable practices and procedures in professional aviation that have been or will be (and most definitely should be) adapted to diving. My point is that the limitations of utilizing an aviation safety model in total are significant and probably insurmountable.

Not recognizing this fact could conceivably lead to misplaced confidence, complacency, and potentially new, unforeseen types of mishaps to begin to develop in diving. The law of unintended consequences comes to mind.

Here’s an example.

Required aviation skills such as maintaining adequate situational awareness, or “SA,” serve as an example of a developed aptitude that might only be possible to widely implement in an organization that possesses a culture – or system – of professional safety.

SA as a practical skill can be thought of as a pilot’s mental picture of the location and attitude of his or her aircraft and all surrounding aircraft in three dimensions, the status of an aircraft’s mechanical systems, the aircraft’s progress along a navigation plan, weather considerations, communication requirements and status within the cockpit and with all outside players (for example air traffic control or other jets in a strike package), and other mission-specific considerations such as enemy threats, all updated constantly in real time.

Finally, this cumulative awareness needs to be preserved while flying an aircraft under extreme stress due to mission requirements (i.e. getting shot at) or system failure (e.g. engine fire).

When an emergency arises, none of the above listed SA components can be automatically jettisoned to accommodate a pilot’s mental capacity to handle the new situation. When a pilot is overwhelmed by new information and rapidly changing circumstances, an automatic prioritization process of identifying and disregarding the least important input at that particular point in time must occur.

“Task saturation” is the technical term for this feeling of being totally overwhelmed, of literally drowning in a sea of inputs (the sensation can initially make even breathing difficult), secure in the unsettling, deeply seated understanding that multiple complex decisions need to be made right now, and that choosing the wrong course of action will likely lead to your death or that of someone else in the flight.

There are numerous catchy phrases for task saturation, such as making room in a pilot’s “bucket” (i.e. head) for surprise decisions and tasks.

Seamless delegation and prioritization of the tasks required for mission completion, first, and survival, second, are routinely practiced by Navy pilots in extremely complex simulator sessions and during actual training flights.

A true safety system ensures that every pilot spends a significant amount of time in scheduled, recurring training with a “full bucket.”

When task saturation then occurs in the real world, as it inevitably will, the pressure of being overwhelmed is mitigated by lots of intense practice spent in this regime. Experiencing the sensation of a “full bucket” in a life and death situation is certainly still stressful, but it definitely does not come as a surprise, and it is in fact a familiar feeling.

Having the opportunity to spend time with a “full bucket” is not fun, and many pilots would probably skip the training if given the choice, that is, until they encounter a real-life situation where their “bucket over-flow-eth.” But they are not given the choice.

Many aspiring pilots wash out because they simply “can’t hack it”: they do not possess the “right stuff” to get the job done. The only way to know this for certain is through rigorous, highly complex simulations followed by closely monitored – and at times extremely dangerous – actual flights.

There’s another Naval Aviation saying, a bit hackneyed, but applicable all the same: “The more you train in peace, the less you bleed in war.”

And when all is said and done, despite hugely expensive, mandated recurring practice and testing in complex simulators, “Loss of SA” is still a frequent causal factor for many Naval Aviation mishaps.

Virtually no determined sport divers need fear being barred from diving altogether because he or she is unwilling or unable to adapt to a model approach to safety.

Operating within the unyielding confines of a true safety system offers other advantages as well. Professional aviation’s success in not making the same mistakes twice is well established. This is made possible by the requirement to document every incident and disseminate this detailed information to a centralized body for future training improvements, with the process being guaranteed by a system of strict accountability enforced by an established chain of command, either military or civilian.

DAN does a phenomenal job as a limited central clearing house for sport diving mishap summaries. Could you imagine how busy DAN would be if every sport diving incident, big and small, was required to be reported?

Now add in what if every recreational diver were required to read every single report in a timely fashion, prior to every single diver being thoroughly trained in any new procedures or policies introduced as a result of lessons learned from the mishap?

It is this type of uniformity that allows for the existence of a highly complex, but common and intuitively understood, language that reinforces a culture of safety in Naval Aviation and serves to self perpetuate these lessons as one of many intrinsic feedback loops.

A true safety system is structurally organized to constantly and automatically learn and improve.

In my opinion, the extreme demands of system standardization, training, and tested, consistent performance at the highest level, all overseen by a clearly defined and empowered chain of command with actual clout, can be described, but must be experienced to be truly appreciated.

This is in essence what produces a culture of professionalism in safety. These are the components that enable the development of a true “safety system.”

It’s my guess that the vast majority of divers do not have direct, actual experience participating in a relentlessly demanding organization such as professional aviation, and particularly military flying with its more evolved concept of allowable levels of risk.

This is the salient point: it is the entirety of many complex pieces that allow the professional aviation system to be so safe. In my opinion, a “system,” or culture of professional safety, as experienced in aviation simply does not and cannot exist in a sport conducted at the end of the day for enjoyment and lacking a chain of command, common mission or purpose, vast funding, and standards which preclude participation by a large number of aspirants.

There is much to be gained by divers in studying aviation safety practices, but as every pilot knows, complacency is the greatest danger. I would encourage sport divers to utilize the individual pieces of professional aviation practice that prove useful to safety, but also to recognize that these are but small components of the overall system and subject to significant limitations.

For diving to adopt a true safety system with the fidelity of professional aviation would require rules and resources that would defeat the purpose of the sport: to enable the average person to enjoy the underwater environment.

But that’s just my opinion; I’d love to hear yours…

The author was a Navy carrier pilot for a decade, spent another ten years flying for United Airlines, and holds a University of Washington Masters in Strategic Planning for Critical Infrastructure, a graduate program heavily reliant on systems theory and risk management.

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Proof of life

At the fold of the sky and infinite sea,
Stooped and beholden in search of the key,
Hunting out clues to a purposeful puzzle,
The Scribner intently refuses the muzzle,

Dead eager to act and driven past reason,
Fueled by passionate opposite seasons,
No job truly done or ultimate truth,
Bent to the run of misspending of youth,

Why take the risk in leading the pack,
Making brisk haste and breaking at back?
Why choose the path less tattered and worn,
Tempting her wrath while earning her scorn?

She offers no point or trophy or wealth,
No Saints to anoint or promise of health,
But only one way to scratch at her itch,
Proof in the end that “Ain’t life a bitch.”

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Walking the road; saying goodbye to the VW bus

According to the radio, the VW bus – or mini-van or Vanagon, depending on one’s era – will no longer be built anywhere in the world. Brazil, the last manufacturing hold out, recently announced that they were ceasing production of their version, the “kombi.” Along with a host of others mourners worldwide, I feel a unique association with this oddly functional vehicle that came to define special chapters in my life.

My “lost but not forgotten” VW era spanned the entire 1970s, but it was the first several years of that turbulent decade in particular that hold vivid and powerful memories for me.

Disco had not really taken off yet and brandished its confusing mélange of Disco Duck (Billboard’s #1 hit single October 16, 1976), the Brothers Gibb (“Bee Gees”), and Barry White, all singing together in radio dis-harmony.

The Cold War was in full swing with clearly identifiable lines of alliance, if not transparent actual battle fields between proxy wars and elaborate espionage rings. There were no personal computers or Internet, and 8-track tapes, records, and phones constrained by monstrously long cords were status quo.

My parents didn’t have much money (Dad was a social studies teacher and Mom had just finished a degree as a Librarian), but they felt unfulfilled by the “Leave it to Beaver” attempts at community and connection on Long Island. They packed up the family in 1970 and we moved to Athens where my father could teach at the American Community School (ACS).

After just two years and not ready to leave, the tenure system recalled my father to New York. Two years satisfied the requirements for another leave of absence and in 1974, when I was 12, the family moved back to Greece for a second overseas stint, this time for four years.

A VW bus would be waiting for us, a required piece of equipment for a family of six with the travel “bug” (bad VW joke aside). The rotted-out floor boards by the sliding door and under the accelerator gave character to the bus, and I never ceased to be amazed at how a bad clutch could be easily bypassed with the starter engaged in first gear and some aggressive shifting (learned by watching my father).

I changed my first flat on the VW (and my second, and third, etc…) and also developed a shrewd imagination when loading the thing with far more than it should have been able to carry. I suspect that my spatial orientation skills were first learned packing the VW, an ability to fit shape to hole that served me well in my flying career.

We had acquired the car in a swap with a teaching friend in a similar tenure rotation situation, but on an opposite cycle from us. We had left our VW half of the bargain in Long Island for his family’s use.

We had done things differently on our first move to Athens in 1970. During that ordeal we had shipped over our VW, one of the two involved in the 1974 swap, which was an expensive and difficult process. We had made the best of it by camping from Athens to Scotland on our return to the States before sending the bus on its uncertain way by ship.

Our bus was a stock model and did not have any of the camper options such as a pop up top. My parents spent time and money modifying it so that in the event it rained and we were unable to pitch our tent, all six of us could theoretically sleep in crammed splendor inside the amazing vehicle.

It started raining in Salzburg, Austria and didn’t stop until after crossing the English Channel when the hovercraft came to rest in Dover.

Those first two years in Athens, living under the rule of a military Junta unhesitating in its use of force for coercion, were lively and we all learned a lot. And we went everywhere in that bus; and I mean everywhere.

During the weekends we would explore the countryside or coast, looking for long forgotten ruins of antiquity and a place to relax. During longer breaks from school and the summer, we would drive the VW through the mountains, her four straining, air-cooled cylinders struggling valiantly and always successfully to make the next ridge. Those were my favorite trips.

As mid-day approached, we would look for a stand of olive trees to make a shady picnic area. The bus would be parked on a narrow shoulder with right tires trampling the wildly fragrant sage and thyme growing free. With the famous “emergency brake” set, lunch was served: fresh bread, bought at the last village passed, still warm from the bakery and slathered in butter and whatever fresh produce had been on sale at the market.

I didn’t have much patience with sitting still once done eating. The scorching sun broke open the natural fragrance of the surrounding fields’ spices, including oregano, and the cicada proffered a steady background percussion that quickly put the rest of the family to sleep. As for me, adventure beckoned.

The moment my food was gone, I would ask for permission to walk ahead, to scout out what lay around the next bend and beyond. At ten years old, it was just me walking for perhaps an hour to ninety minutes as my parents took siestas and my sisters and brothers joined them or played by the bus.

Each turn and twist triggered my imagination, and with good reason. Occasionally I would run across a small hunk of hand-finished, but time-worn marble, hidden in the overgrown weeds on the side of the road. I would try to envision what sort of people had put it there and why, one thousand – almost two thousand, maybe – years ago. The winding, steep dirt roads usually running a sheer cliff’s edge had been broadened and graded, but were often essentially the same paths used by travelers for millennia.

Very rarely a vehicle would pass during that time, usually a bus full of local villagers going to or from a market or on a visit to relatives. I would step far back into the brush to avoid being run over by the bus bursting with silent men and yakking “Ya-Yas” – grandmothers inevitably wearing mourning black from head to toe – turned the hairpins with axle springs squealing and dirt and dust flying in the sun’s dry heat.

With imagination fired by hard-back comic book stories of Tin-Tin published in Scandinavia, but written in English, I would sally forth onto the roadway encountering pirates, wild animals, you name it.

I relished the freedom and the sheer excitement of what lay around the next corners of road and imagination. Those walks instilled in me a trust in the future and an adolescent lust for adventure still with me today.

It seems at times that I spend my life trying to replicate that feeling, walking ahead and forging the trail until that VW would finally turn the corner and come into view behind me, my parents letting out long sighs of relief at catching site of me. As worried as they would get, they never said no to my walks, and I am incredibly thankful to this day for that trust.

It was a different world in every respect: my age, the state of international affairs, my family, even my definitions of responsibility, freedom, and adventure. They were wonderful and wondrous times, a pastel of life framed by the old familiar metallic rattle of our VW bus.

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Breathe life

Life’s simple gift unexpected,
Age’s reward overdue,
No fanfare of Angels’ direction,
Package bequeathed with a clue.

No need to be hidden in secret,
Transparent of motive or strife,
A baby’s first lesson from daddy,
Look up; raise head; breathe life.

Learned over and over and over,
First ball sails over the fence,
A lesson repeated with patience,
Obscured by nothing but sense.

Daughter is nature’s fine teacher,
Her message clouded in fear,
A trust reserved only for daddy,
A tender wiping of tear.

“Tread to avoid going under,”
“Stroke to have fun and rejoice,”
Belief buoys her flounder,
With eyes raised upward and moist.

Two children so full of good purpose,
Carefully minding the path,
Bookends to daddy’s confusion,
Proof of original wrath.

Time brings stooped retribution,
Dark eyes cast slim on the ground,
Guilty of living and dying,
Guilty of making no sound.

Meaning eludes with persistence,
Neck is pulled lower and down,
Nature’s silent reprisal,
A curse of perpetual frown.

Ordained by fate’s ugly minions,
Or life would seem to appear,
Brow draws lower and lower,
An old man’s purchase of fear.

Two children who never surrender,
Kinder in thought and in act,
Taller in spirit and caring,
Two children recalling a pact.

Two children pull eyes to the heavens,
Cut tie to the ground like a knife,
Two children teaching their daddy,
Look up; raise head; breathe life.

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Effortless proficiency

Increasingly effective use of cognition is essentially proportional to effort until thought travels to the hidden back side of reasoning’s circle where effort mysteriously vanishes. What seconds earlier took tremendous concentration and effort suddenly flows with unimpeded focus even while the complexity of the task increases significantly.

Or, does this phenomenon occur exactly because the task’s level of difficulty increases significantly?

Few of us are fortunate enough to have experienced this remarkable transition point where ultra-performance becomes second nature and automatic. Fewer still are able to call upon this extreme level of alert acuity and skill at will.

The central control for this nirvana of effectiveness is no doubt buried deep in the psyche as some sort of evolved survival response.

For most of us living in the confusion of post-modern society (well, I never left, at any rate), this apex of proficiency is usually arrived at through a sharply defined medium that allows for a quick and predictable break through. Incredibly intense meditation might get one there, or a dangerous task, hobby, or job where the operator in question is both well experienced and under extreme pressure to perform at the highest possible level.

Professional athletes are often ultra-performers, but—in my opinion—serve as simplistic, one-dimensional cartoons of the greater meaning and potential that this learned skill has to offer. Playing a game for money, fame, and/or a superficial sense of glory offers little or no lasting reward, again, in my opinion.

It’s not enough to just perform at the level of effortless proficiency to truly understand and leverage the power of this state. Other parameters must be satisfied:
• the activity must require extraordinary personal risk;
• the challenge must be an individual’s choice; and
• the endeavor must be accomplished for a greater good.

I’ve been both fortunate and cursed with catching brief glimpses of this higher state, and these few instances have left me floundering for a way to replicate the experience’s essence. Each of my personal incidents have occurred flying in the Navy, largely due to the third requirement that the endeavor be accomplished for a greater good.

While I’ve had very close calls diving, the ensuing heightened awareness was strictly due to a desire for self-preservation; only my life was at stake. Performance was raised, but not nearly to the same level for me as when flying off the aircraft carrier.

In Naval Aviation, “mission” is everything, not letting down your buddies is a close second, and somewhere in distant third is one’s life. Put the three together and it’s amazing what the body and mind can do making high “G” turns at 480 knots, 200 feet above the ground in the fog, with several thousand folks trying to kill you with bullets and missiles.

To be able to transfer this “in the zone” flight perfection to an on demand talent that transcends any task might just be our next evolutionary leap forward. Or it might just be the outline of a bad war story. I would love to know the reflections, thoughts, and experiences of others on this subject.

Cheers,

Pete

A quick note regarding Peter Hunt’s professional credentials:

I am not a formally trained scientist or philosopher. I do, however, visit a neurologist every three months, and I did stay at a Holiday Inn Select after drinking too much one evening in the not too distant past.

 

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No need to panic

The Internet was out this morning. So was the phone and cable. Only in these exceedingly rare moments of blissful disconnection (once the initial panic subsides) do I seem able to connect with the only person that matters, or at least the first person that should matter–me.

Without an occasional, honest attempt at self-reflection, it’s easy to automatically lead in reality what self-reflection consistently points to as the most probable reality: a pathetic life of utter incoherence.

Personally, speaking in this moment of blissful disconnection (albeit a forced labor of inner peace as I glance down at the Internet connection icon—again), I’m not too concerned about the incoherent part. What could I possibly do to introduce a common line of understanding or meaning to mankind, aside from becoming another Sunday morning for-profit prophet? It’s the pathetic thing that worries me.

What if I flail in my efforts (images of a panicked drowning)? What if I rock-steady plod down the dead-wrong path? Both seem pathetic, but not nearly as pathetic as the third recurring nightmare: what if I give up trying?

Trying what, one would surely ask (and don’t call me Shirley)?

Even though I know deep down that my “quest” (images of Monty Python’s Life of Brian aside) is extraordinarily unlikely to yield any lasting life altering principles, paradoxically, that has nothing to do with trying. How will I learn more of what I don’t know that I don’t know if I don’t at least keep trying?

And so, the well-worn path toward perceived enlightenment spider-webs with exponential incoherence into utter confusion. Pathetic.

Thank God (or Tony Robbins, whatever); the Internet icon stops me cold from spiraling further into pathetic incoherence (maybe…). Time to quit wasting time and get on with the day, you know, to get cracking at giving “it” a try: after all, it’s the manly (and womanly) thing to do.

Note
Please be advised that this was written earlier and the internet, phone, and cable are all operational. There is no need to panic.

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Ghosts of the corridor

To be unseen, everywhere an outsider, at home only with ghosts abandoned long ago in the deepest recesses of secret holds.

Time is the difference, bringing closer the once imagined, but now understood to be real spirits that prowl the wreck’s darkened corridors.

No season’s spring of introduction, no cocoon of warm transition. There is no learning or knowing; only existing. Hello spirits and thank you for the kindness of acknowledgement.

It is life’s inevitable disease: identity betrayed; a tainted aura, not worthy of analysis or action. The lack of decision suffocates in finality.

Fight or flight, instinct demands with a hollow ring, but nature’s indifference serves proof for the young to act with the crushable weight of ambivalence.

Life still breathes deeply, as a billion accepted incomprehensibles surround us without frustration or curiosity: a flower, a butterfly.

The flash of a neuron brings the transition from achingly different to the devastating vacuum of invisibility, because what cannot be seen does not exist.

Hello ghosts of the corridor; hello my old, new friends.

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Keeping it real

Have you ever attempted to count the number of times over the course of a day when asked, “How are you?”

I haven’t yet, but I think I will tomorrow. Why?

Most everyone rely on a canned response to this nicety of civilized interaction. For example, you walk into a store and are greeted full on with a loud and courteous:

“Good morning! How are you today?”

To which most would reply, “Fine! And you?”

“Fine” is the coward’s answer.

It is commonly assumed that the depth of the question is non-existent. It is not really a question at all, but an acknowledgement of a daily mind-numbing convention that should shame us all in our superficiality.

I was fortunate enough to have this truism of an uncaring life identified to me as a child, and I’ve tried to adhere to my father’s simple advice to counter this bad habit:

“If you ask someone how they are,” my father would demand of my shaping morality, “then look into their eyes and mean it.”

If you don’t mean it, then don’t ask the question, my Dad would go on to say.

Again, if you are going to ask, then mean it. If not, then a simple “Good morning” should accomplish your goal.

And my advice: ask the question sincerely and wait for the answer.

A daily societal ritual has developed into a formula for isolation: the sequestration of honest emotion into silos, and the abrogation of any attempt at a truly sophisticated and connected (i.e. meaningful) conversation.

It is the ultimate small talk, and small talk is for small people.

(Although there are those who propose by their actions that small talk is the most noble of gases. I would suggest that the lightness of the noble gas helium should be forsaken for the greater weight and warming power of the noble gas argon. Helium provides for the cheap thrill; argon is a choice of comfort and security.

Breathing more helium may give a diver a clear head with which to plan one’s battle, but the properties of argon simply keep a diver warm. At the end of the day, spiritual warmth is what matters most; that is, if you are willing to share.)

To continue in dishonesty is a waste of life’s offer – not promise – of time and the squandering of one of life’s few opportunities to connect with a stranger. And it should make us all angry with ourselves for playing the game.

And it is not a little thing.

When the perceived world no longer expects an honest or heartfelt answer to a simple question, that is not being polite; that is being rude in a manner that coarsens the heart and turns our daily lives into a pointless video game.

And we all have the opportunity to change this travesty of omission virtually every day. Take a chance tomorrow; live a little, please listen to strangers. Take a chance and care.

If you are indeed sincere, I guarantee that you will be surprised and even inspired by the answers of you fellow spirit-beings.

Cheers,
Peter

 

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