Smashwords interview of Peter Hunt

What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
The prospect of touching a single individual and making a positive difference in his or her understanding of life, especially if they have Parkinson’s disease. I strive to be the best listener possible. This often means traveling with another down their personal path of self-discovery, an always fascinating and sometimes enlightening invitation to view another’s soul. If this sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, please remember that I used to be a Navy carrier combat aviator and commercial airline pilot, as well as a former deep-water shipwreck diver; in other words, one accustomed to life’s harsh perceived realities. But there is so much more out there. By inviting a reader into my story, I might be able to offer a glimpse of possibility and hope for those with incurable disease.

What do you read for pleasure?
Until relatively recently, I read nothing but books on history, politics, and biography/autobiography. Now I look for books that tease the imagination and stir the soul, stories and nonfiction which inspire both deep thought and an unconscious connection of commonality, kindred tales of our society’s generational myths. For me, it is all about trying to understand the experiences of others, be they real or fiction, not to find fixes or cures. There is no cure for life. All we can hope to do, I believe, is to ease another’s path towards a settled, inner peace.

Describe your desk
Moderate clutter with a large, printed sign at the top of the window that says, “Boldly going nowhere.”

Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
Six years of my childhood in the 1970s was spent in Athens, Greece. These were the magical years of spiritual alchemy before I was poisoned by the societal sanctions of adulthood. Anything was possible, and time was immaterial. There was no TV, just ancient ruins along every roadside, spilling over with stories to tell, sparking imaginative travel far beyond the realm of our family VW bus. I miss those days, back before life was overthought. In my opinion, modern society needs to feel a whole lot more, and think a whole lot less.

When did you first start writing?
When I was 38, five years before my Young Onset Parkinson’s diagnosis. In retrospect, I probably had the disease back then, though. Parkinson’s has changed my life for the better in so many ways. Without having contracted the disease (what an odd word, “contracted,” used in this manner), I would likely have gone through a life unexamined, unfulfilled, and never at peace or happy. I see writing, Parkinson’s, and who I am today on the deepest level as so intricately connected as to be unfathomable.

What’s the story behind your latest book?
“The Lost Intruder, The Search for a Missing Navy Jet,” is on the surface about my discovery of a Navy A-6 Intruder that crashed off the shores of Whidbey Island in 1989. The jet was from my squadron; I had flown that specific jet both from the aircraft carrier USS Ranger and ashore from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. But that merely provides structure for the book. The underlying story relates my battle with Parkinson’s disease during the project, and how it transformed me into a more caring and happy person. It is a soulful revel in life’s mysteries, as well as an informative look at Naval Aviation, technical wreck diving, underwater sleuthing, and Deep Brain Stimulation surgery, among other things. Oh yeah, and a page-turning adventure; don’t want to forget about that!

What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Hearing from readers who connect with my experiences and have somehow benefited from them. Four years of research, searching, and writing balances nicely with deeply relating to another human being.

When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
Yoga, exercising, occasionally Scuba diving, some volunteering, and enjoying nature. Thinking a lot followed by doing my best not to think at all.
Published 2018-03-03.

Saying goodbye to Ron Akeson – my final lesson

Death is the great unknown, a fact that if viewed objectively by anyone who enjoys adventure would seem to be a final-days positive, a climax of exploration to cap life’s end with a curious optimism, if not actual excitement.

But—as we all know—the unknown, uncertainty in general, is scary stuff. The reality that death comes to us all may be superficially accepted, but that has little to do with the denial most of us live with every day.

If you have read Setting the Hook, then you are familiar with the name Ron Akeson. I don’t believe that Ron lived in such denial, but rather took the risks of what he was doing underwater seriously and thoughtfully.

Ron Akeson was the owner of the “Adventures Down Under” dive shop in Bellingham, and as my trimix and technical diving instructor in 2000, he played an integral role in bringing my long dormant deep diving skills up to modern standards.

Those astute readers will have noticed the uncomfortable use of past tense in the above sentence. Ron died one week ago, much as he had lived – diving. I honestly believe this, despite the technical medical perspective of death coming days later in a hospital while in an induced coma.

I did not know Ron well. He was a difficult person to get to know, and our conversations in 2000 were almost exclusively about the dive training track. He was an excellent instructor, which really means that he was an open learner, willing to pick up what he could from whoever was able to provide a tid-bit of additional knowledge.

It wasn’t until while at a DEMA (Dive Equipment Manufacturers Association) trade show in Las Vegas, a year and a half ago, that I had my first “real” conversation with Ron. He walked up to me out of the blue and asked real questions and listened intently while I gave what I considered thoughtful, honest answers. Maybe the entire 2000 episode had been a warm up or try-out of some sort before he committed to getting to know me better as a person. The same might be said of my attitude toward him.

That doesn’t mean that I lacked regard for the man, much to the contrary, I admired and respected him greatly. It just seemed that once technical diving was no longer in my future, we had too little in common to keep in touch.

Ron died one week ago during a “routine technical training dive.”

There is a saying in the Navy: “Never go on a routine training mission” because that’s where the overwhelming majority of accidents occur (visualize headlines: “The mishap pilot was on a routine training mission at the time of the accident”). It’s an unsettling truism that holds water for diving as well.

Perhaps it points to the unnerving fact that the vast majority of us will not go out in some blaze of glory, but instead will succumb to some dreary illness or simply life’s tired story’s denouement. What possible meaning can be derived from that?

Although I don’t recall the actual substance of our hour-long conversation in Las Vegas, I clearly and distinctly remember the tone: honest, direct interest and engagement. Ron and I finally connected, if only briefly.

So what is one to take away from this? As Ron was being readied to go off life support in what has to be a sister’s most difficult task imaginable, I was doing chores and thinking about our talk, the tone, trying to figure out the inner core of this amazing individual who I had thoughtlessly brushed aside from my focus fourteen years earlier. I surprised myself with an unplanned, genuine smile.

And that, in my opinion, is the real lesson. It is not in the act of dying that we intercept meaning or obliquely touch upon purpose, but rather through the vibrant, daily connections with other living people that we might catch a peek at life’s essence.

I learned to honestly cherish human connection (again), a lesson as valuable as it is inevitable to be learned and re-learned countless times.

That was Ron Akeson’s final lesson to me.

So I lied a little…

The military was supposed to teach me never to “put myself on report,” not to admit to an error: if an act were truly an egregious offense, you would be caught. Otherwise, getting away with something was fair game. More honest tax payer money wasted on my military education…

If you look back through these blogs to the ancient date of Friday, January 31, 2014 (yes, only two and a half months ago), there is a well-meaning blog with the inspirational heading that reads:

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

Well, mea culpa (it appears Latin is destined to be my second language, maybe my first), again.

It’s not the points made that a now sage-75-days-older-in-life-experience-me takes issue with, but rather the embarrassingly specific examples used in “Pete’s perfect universe.” Here is what it (i.e. “I”) said:

“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.”

Anybody who has taken on real personal challenge knows that it’s not the direct, in your face threat that will get you; it’s the simple things, in this case the statements uttered in apparent total ignorance of life’s recent and not so recent jovial retributions. Here is what happened.

In February, I traveled to the Midwest’s largest Dive/Travel Expo, “Our World Underwater,” to speak on the Andrea Doria. I was scheduled for two separate, 35 minute, no-notes PowerPoint presentations, each slated for the last daytime seminar slot of their respective days, Saturday and Sunday (start time 3:15). I jumped at the opportunity.

I knew this would be a big problem five months earlier when I received the invitation to speak; 3:15 Midwest time – 1:15 pm West Coast time – was my absolute lowest point. On most days, I could barely move for the hour before and after 3:15, but actually believing that snapshots of life hold true five months later – at least if you have Parkinson’s – I replied in the affirmative.

I never mentioned a word about the timing of the event to my gracious Midwest hosts, who would have undoubtedly made other arrangements to accommodate me if they had only known what an intimidatingly exhausting challenge it presented.

Things change with time. So what was the end result?

I spent months attempting to adjust my round the clock medication routine, altered my life style in an attempt to change my severe “down” time by just one or two hours, and actually tried to live “right.” Here’s what happened.

Saturday: I give a reasonable presentation, which is great, because there’s a bunch of world reknowned long time deep wreck divers in the 100 person crowd who are well versed in what the heck they are talking about, as opposed to a long dormant pretender like me. And they are not unkind in their critique, for which I am genuinely and eternally grateful.

Sunday: I hit a wall. Despite not going to the film festival and instead catching an honest 3-4 hours of sleep (pretty much a normal night), I got big-time off mid presentation and literally fell apart. I didn’t quit, but it wasn’t pretty. The good news was that there were only 25 in attendance. The bad news was that they were 25 great people who had paid good money to listen to me, a fact which – all kidding aside – simply awes me, disappoints them, and teaches a good lesson.

The lesson learned was one I thought pretty much nailed down after writing Setting the Hook: Soulful challenges are not static and go the direction that is right, not necessarily the one that is desired.

Why bring this up now? As an aspirant to higher primate decision making skills, I made a call tonight in regard to the first personal challenge listed in above embarrassing quote:

“(I) often run public meetings, and have given two graduation speeches (a third one is coming up in June) to about 5,000 people.”

It became clear to me that my Parkinson’s was a distraction at best during school board meetings and my communication skills (verbal) were getting untenable. I stepped down from the Presidency, but opted to stay on the board (wait for it, here’s where I learn something…) until something else changes to make that a bad idea.

And I feel great. Folks (not that many – it’s a school board meeting, for crying out loud!) got to see how things really are for me, I sort of relaxed and only expended a modicum of energy so as not to freak out too many people, and the meeting was far more effective than if I had been still running things. That was the reason I got involved in the first place, to do good (just like Underdog) and now my place has changed, and that’s all very, very good.

Oh, and did I mention that I’ve got a new challenge? One that involves long hours on the boat with the new sonar two of my best friends gave to me (yeah, I know how to play this…)? Stay tuned, probably no diving for me, but who knows where it will lead…

Life can be a shaky, writhy, pain-in-the-butt, but that’s part of what makes it so good.

My girl

From the “don’t take life too seriously” department.
Dedicated to wreck divers everywhere of all generations.
(Warning: if you lack a sense of humor, in my rarely humble opinion, you are not a true wreck diver and should read no further…)

And there are ships afloat,
and ship’s a-wreck,
Ships without planking,
beyond wooden decks,

Ships so big they fill the sea’s sky,
Wrecks so deep they tempt all to die,
Cluttered passages stacked high with the dead,
Sharpened steel edges eager to shred,

Holds of oblivion dark as the sun,
The lingering brilliance of past flash of gun,
Littered with soulless, pitiless ghosts,
Enticing finned warriors, the most evil of hosts,

The dice are rigged; the game fully stacked,
Zero percentage of emerging intact,
the cocky young warrior pulls into the trap,
a Stygian hell with no help of a map,

The silence roars, blood coursing in ears,
Instinct demanding most primal of fears,
Raise the light slowly with finger on switch,
And with eyes fully open scream, “Gonna make you my bitch!”

With apologies to Ricky Bobby of the movie Talladega Nights for the rough paraphrase of his son – Walker’s – delicate praise of his father, “Dad, you made that grace your bitch.”

Savage simplicity

Growing up for six years in Athens, Greece allowed me to spend a lot of time underwater long before first strapping on a dive tank. Free diving and spear fishing were starkly honest expressions of young adventures in body and spirit. Our family friend – Anastas – taught me how to do both at age ten.

Anastas lived nearby only in the sense that all English-speakers within five miles or so were loosely considered “neighbors” in the sprawling Athenian suburbs. Anastas was a World War Two hero, professional pensioner, and exhibited the obliquely idealized model of Greek manhood upon which the movie “Zorba the Greek” was based.

The first two descriptors of Anastas were never in doubt, and whether or not his consistently strident claim to Zorba’s bona fides was actually true, it certainly could have been true. Anastas overflowed with a passion for living. His favorite expression in self-taught English was “To be in life”: to live in the moment and wrestle the day’s chores with rippling biceps from obscurity with fervent energy as if his very life was dependent upon their completion. And maybe it did; he was in his late seventies at the time.

Move over Homer; Anastas was both actively living and telling his personal “true life” stories to all who would listen and many who wouldn’t (sound familiar?).

With no access to a scuba diving class until our return to New York, my obsessive routine of free diving was pure and free of internal conflict. Hours floating and miles of swimming and submerging tied each summer day into a cohesive package that was never long enough, but also seemed to strangely never end.

There was no option of a wetsuit, weights, gauges, dive bag, or real stringer, and none were missed. Never having experienced these luxuries meant putting them outside my realm of conscious thought. Armed with my trusty olive-oiled Balco double rubber-banded spear gun and a total absence of reluctance to swim to an often distant shore with the catch, my only other companions of gear were a simple mask, fins, basic snorkel and a bathing suit that might as well have been tattooed on.

Early on, my father had pulled me aside and asked that I snorkel closer to shore out of concern that he could not reach me in an emergency. He realized that he would still be compelled to try to affect a rescue, and would probably die in the attempt. I ignored him, never had an emergency, and he seemed to learn to live with the situation.

I relished the unfettered attitude of youthful certainty, a streamlined thought process that flowed effortlessly into a cleanly executed pike before slipping silently in a perfect vertical toward the bottom and my prey. Hiding in a crevice, the small (compared to Pacific Giant standards) octopus would lie still, barely exposing evidence of its presence from a rocky lair. With the bottom sixty feet below, I would repeat and repeat the free dives until the poor mollusk finally gave in and I could shoot to the surface, fighting the tentacles as they wrapped around my arm in an attempt to “bite” me with its sharp beak.

Occasionally the octopus was successful, but more often than not I won. I would reach behind the head, break through a membrane, and literally turn the octopus’s head inside out while aching lungs arched for the surface air. One move of my bare hand and the octopus would be gutted and still, the only evidence of life being the suction marks lining my arm as I broke the surface a few seconds later.

Not a very pleasant image and definitely not the sort of thing I would repeat today, but those were truly different times. We always ate the catch, and the method was taught by Anastas and was sanctioned by common usage. It was pure art in its savage simplicity.

During those years I also learned about human death, having witnessed while snorkeling back to the beach the immediate aftermath of two drownings as the victims were towed ashore. These crudely vital experiences proved to be life lessons so basic yet rarely found in today’s civilized America.

But my real dream was to become an actual scuba diver, with compressed air tanks and all the complicated attachments. At times, the impatient urge could physically hurt; hadn’t I proven myself, put in the time? But a dive class was not available, and it wouldn’t be until I turned seventeen that I became a true, Cousteau-ic diver in 1979.

All those years of free diving were hardly wasted, not in my proficiency as a “real” scuba diver, or as a part of my character. As we turn the corner past middle age, our search for increasingly complicated challenge can bypass the most simple and honest bars of actual achievement. Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it…

I regularly try to remind myself that today’s most basic goal attained is quite likely tomorrow’s crown of reflection and satisfaction. It helps to settle me. After all, it’s always been that way.

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.

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.

Running in sand

Run fast; try to pass quickly, nimbly, but in the recurring multi-dimensional purgatory of the ailment, of my ailment, it is not possible to clear feet of the drag of thousands of emotionless grains of thought, each cognitive morsel bogging down body and soul in mocking slowness, each thought unfulfilled, each unborn image serving only to sharpen the flame beneath frustration’s cauldron.

Stubborn anchors claw, grasp and drag in a toe-hold, steadily and patiently halting clarity and ambition, dooming both to exist without influence. The clutching dregs of ennui deflect the body’s course to a meandering circular shuffle, losing each step forward to two steps sideways.

And I don’t care. Deep within the recesses of my being, I utterly do not care, but even closer to my core is the panicky certainty that I must give a damn, and in the mind’s periphery it becomes – no, it always was – the same indescribably horrible helplessness that a diver experiences with deep water blackout.

Deep-water blackout: When labored breathing is allowed free rein, the pull of the regulator yields insufficient oxygen, and carbon dioxide builds in the horrible cycle of panic until the corner is turned.

Deep-water blackout: Suffocation while breathing; fighting the body for control, desperately needing to move, but knowing that to move now, at the height of incapacity, is to die.

Deep-water blackout: When primal fear harkens to an ancient experience far beyond conscious understanding.

Deep-water blackout: For the diver, losing this battle means death of the worst kind; death by default, death without evidence of a fight.

Deep-water blackout: Nature’s misplaced compassion abates the pain of suffocation and the weight of sleep is seductive and overpowering; the fear of surrender pulls opposite, leaving the diver confused in the middle.

And that is ultimately what kills – hesitating, confused purpose.

When found—if found—the diver appears peaceful in a cruel parody of death’s seduction.

My ailment’s path to life lies opposite deep-water blackout: not moving is death.

So, I straighten my neck and back against the relentless pull, rock back and forth in my Levodopa utopia, and struggle to ignore the suffocation of those who surround me, those who look but do not see; those who question but seek no answers; those impatiently awaiting my peaceful departure.

And I continue to move.

A book with a soul; the writing of Setting the Hook

Self-publishing was not my first choice for Setting the Hook, a Diver’s Return to the Andrea Doria; not by a long shot.

I was fortunate to have had my first nonfiction book, Angles of Attack, an A-6 Intruder Pilot’s War, accepted by a traditional publishing house (Ballantine Books imprint, Random House) in 2002 with modest effort, and I fully expected the same when it came time to circulate the proposal for Setting the Hook.

It was only much later that I came to realize how lucky my first experience in publishing had been.

Only through a series of fortuitous coincidences did that first manuscript find its way into the hands of a reputable agent, an agent who loved the book and aggressively shopped it to the big New York houses. The book was picked up in less than a year and my understanding of the normal publishing experience would be severely skewed for quite a while during my follow on efforts to get other works published.

After Angles of Attack was published, my agent worked Setting the Hook in traditional industry fashion and the manuscript sat idle on my desk while I gave fiction writing a try.

We received multiple “close but no cigar” turn-downs by traditional publishers over the next two years and my agent gradually lost interest in the project. The first draft of my foray into fiction fell flat with my agent (and thankfully so; it was awful), and communications slowed to a stop between us.

Then, in 2005, my life circumstance abruptly changed forever when I was diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease at age 43.

My primary career as an airline pilot was over in an instant due to the loss of my medical clearance to fly commercially. I took on various part time jobs, went to graduate school, and took care of the kids while my wife traveled frequently for her work.

For the next several years I tinkered editorially and stylistically with Setting the Hook, but focused my efforts almost entirely on getting the original version of the manuscript published, first through the few larger houses that did not require an agent, and eventually by unsuccessfully trying to gain new representation.

I lowered my sites. Two verbal acceptances by small independent publishers were rescinded almost immediately for vague reasons that were never fully explained to me (in both situations I’m guessing the editorial patriarch said “yes,” but was overridden by the young heir apparent on the editorial board).

It was only later that I realized how closely my desperate efforts to get virtually anyone to publish Setting the Hook mirrored my handling of the Parkinson’s diagnosis; I was in denial about both.

To be fair, initially it seemed reasonable to deny both problems: medication mitigated most of the Parkinson’s physical symptoms for the first several years of treatment, and the original version of Setting the Hook was a fairly good true adventure story with a smattering of history.

After about four years of not truly examining the underlying meaning of my health situation or Setting the Hook as anything more than an exciting story, I had an epiphany of sorts; the two issues were not simply related, they were the same. Both the story I was telling and the life I was living were shallow, passive observations leading nowhere of substance or value.

I stopped flitting in random directions and began to direct my energy toward producing less heat and more light in understanding both.

Over the course of the next two years I completely rewrote Setting the Hook; not the chronology, structure, or events – they were all fine. I took a hard look inward and gave Setting the Hook the only truly important component of any book: I gave it a soul.

Through the process I came to understand my disease and my life more clearly. I’m still a long, long way from truly knowing myself, or anything, for that matter, but I’m confident that understanding the past is a worthy start.

I do have a point to all this squishy philosophic mumbo-jumbo: the process of re-writing Setting the Hook made my publishing decision easy.

I no longer cared a great deal about achieving the lofty hubris of knighted credibility bestowed by traditional publishing. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still fall back to old, bad habits and patterns, such as subconsciously defining the worth of the book and me as a person in terms of sales or reviews or critiques.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good review and hate a negative one, but I try to catch myself, not lose perspective, and – occasionally – I’m even successful.

I decided that it was pointless to split my focus between improving Setting the Hook and trying to break back into the New York publishing world, which at a minimum would delay the project for years, might go nowhere, and would in no way make the book any better. I was confident in the story and wanted to own the entire publishing process without the concern of an outside editor muddying the creative or marketing waters.

There was no question in my mind when the re-write was complete. I can open Setting the Hook today, a year and a half later, and find nothing of substance that I would change. That did not mean, however, that the copy editing was anywhere near finished, which was my first lesson in self-publishing – despite being my second book, I hadn’t a clue as to the depth of the publishing process.

I re-read word by word, line by line, page by excruciating page the entire book about twenty times making copy edits. My third to last effort yielded about fifty changes; the second to last about twenty; and even the final run through picked up probably five or six errors, things like a stray “em” dash where I had decided to use all “en” dashes for consistency and to resolve pagination issues.

Scrupulously re-reading twenty times a manuscript that had essentially been complete for ten years is not easy work.

Marketing is all on me and it has been daunting, fun, tedious, embarrassing, and endless. At first, nothing seems to gain traction, and then, somewhere between the second and thirtieth independent marketing plan, it suddenly becomes clear that no single effort will ever miraculously gain traction!

Over the past year and a half I have given presentations on early technical diving and the Andrea Doria to as few as five and as many as 150-200 people across the country (fun), done many book signings (embarrassing and tedious), built a reasonable following on Facebook and through a web page (fun and tedious and embarrassing), received eight professional online and print magazine reviews in addition to Kirkus (all of which have been miraculously positive), and many, smaller scale marketing attempts (daunting), with an end result of steady but not particularly earth shattering sales.

Book sales revenue has paid for all my travel expenses over the past 18 months with a bit left over, which is still more than I made going the traditional route and selling 26,000 mass market copies of Angles of Attack. If Setting the Hook never really takes off as a commercial success, I’m just fine with the memories and have absolutely no regrets.

I’ve read that it takes two years of committed marketing if a book is to have any real chance at breaking out. It might be more difficult for non-fiction; I don’t know. I plan on sticking it out with active marketing for this final six months, and then let the chips fall where they may.

I am proud of my latest book, but far more importantly, I honestly believe in Setting the Hook’s value independently of any commercial considerations.