Something for nothing.

Yesterday, Rob Wilson—one of the lost Intruder technical divers—and I went Dragonfly-sonar searching for a vessel of some sort that we are not certain even exists. We found nothing on the sea bottom but had solidly real conversation from which I believe we both learned. It’s always a positive alchemy of the soul when one can make something out of nothing.

As I continue to attempt to weave 56 years of memory into a cogent pattern, something that makes sense, I realize that it is from the depths of darkness, from the absence of information and light and hope, that “peak experiences” (coined by Maslow; defined here by me) emerge and brand us with surreal truth.

The intensity of my two most peak of experiences still haunt and thrill with life’s ultimate vitality, that of narrowly averted death. Being lost deep inside the Andrea Doria’s First Class dining room, fighting to find an escape was the first, occurring when I was just 21 years old in 1983. The second, in 1991, happened while flying on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger’s first strike into Iraq, a night low-level A-6 Intruder mission where the darkness was interrupted only by ubiquitous tracers and surface-to-air missile plumes.

The common thread of darkness does not escape me, a void of knowledge, certainty, fact or logic.

Yet, as terrifying as each experience was, they are what I identify with the most as “who I fundamentally am (or at least was),” and this memory somehow reassures. From each, I emerged from darkness slightly more insightful.

Gaining “something from nothing” is intuitively sought after in today’s world. But maybe it is only after we stop actively searching for such an experience that it might grace our door.

Ground Hog day all over again…

Parkinson’s disease is complex, difficult to explain, and often unpredictable. My deep brain stimulation surgery of four years ago has bought me time, but as my Parkinson’s symptoms grow in severity, again, it is not any easier dealing with the pervasive misunderstandings of the disease.

Except for permanent bags under my eyes, I look surprisingly good well into my Parkinson’s adventure, but after morning exercise, the day usually turns into an exhausted struggle fighting surprise sleep attacks that make saying a word an arduous chore. Interpreted as laziness or rudeness, extreme fatigue makes interactions with people awkward and unpredictable.

When you look relatively “normal,” people inevitably assume that you feel “normal.” Frankly, I wouldn’t know what “normal” feels like if it jumped up and bit me in the ass. I rarely sleep more than an hour or two in a row, averaging 3-5 hours of sleep nightly. Medication makes me more tired, as does the disease itself, but I’ve learned through experience that If I do not exercise strenuously, physical deterioration and deep depression will follow.

It is incredibly draining, and day after day, year after year, it never stops. The fundamental misunderstanding is that my challenge is not one of time; I’ve got plenty of that. I face an energy problem, a frustrating, bystander’s stupor of intense boredom.

Parkinson’s has brought many positive things into my life, not the least of which is a renewed appreciation for the joy of laughter, especially when the alternative is a painstaking explanation that is unlikely to be read or understood. Now, that, is funny…

Looking within

About this time three years ago and after 18 months of scouring the bottom of Rosario Strait, I discovered the wreckage of Navy A-6 159572, the “Lost Intruder.” Two months later, in October 2015, technical divers positively identified the jet. I was in one of my periods of profound isolation back then, having recovered from Deep Brain Stimulation surgery but still experiencing a panoply of mostly moderated Parkinson’s symptoms, although certain psychological ones were still powerful. Periodic depression was and continues to be the worst.

Learning a lesson once is not enough for most people to incorporate into second nature habits of thought and reflection. For me, it seems learning a lesson a dozen times may be insufficient. I continue to look for answers in the wrong places, to the outside, to others, to things over which I have no control. Which brings me to the fundamental truth discovered over the course of the Lost Intruder experience: happiness and peace can only be found in a lasting way by looking within.

Hoping for something to happen rarely yields a positive outcome, and even when events do unfold in line with wishful expectations, there are often unseen strings attached that swing the eventual outcome back to exactly where you started. There are no shortcuts to a content life, and hope as a life strategy is the quintessential shortcut.

So, where does one place their focus, as a life without hope seems rather, well, hopeless? Hope-less, perhaps, but I’m convinced that it need not be a life of continual despair. So, I set out once again to relearn a Lost Intruder lesson, looking within, prying whatever nuggets of peace I can from a hope-less life.

Boldly going nowhere

Although there is a litany of possible Parkinson’s disease symptoms, ranging from dystonia to insomnia to depression and muscular rigidity, in my experience there is one insidiously consistent effect of the malady: a lingering apathetic malaise. This ennui, characterized by a near universal lack of motivation to do anything, has stuck with me on good days and bad, both before and after DBS surgery, and in times of general happiness and those of deep depression.

Parkinson’s makes virtually everything harder, which certainly doesn’t help. Most of the physical activities that used to be fun either no longer resonate or are outside a comfortable range of movement, at least for any length of time. When it takes tremendous effort just to make it out the door and into the car, this can lead to a self imposed isolation and loneliness. Because it hurts wrists, shoulders, and neck just to hold a book for very long or to work at the computer, one is left with a lot of time pacing the house and reflecting on life.

I’ve come to honor this time as best I can, understanding that there is a life of events, thoughts, and feelings to ponder, not with a dull memory’s illusory command of regret or self-satisfied victory, but with mind’s eye squinting in search of a sliver of insight. In frequent times of extreme boredom, I hold out hope for the permanency of an ever elusive peace, as if merely wishing for an ordered state of affairs from a disordered mind and soul might bring it closer.

Still, I jumble ahead to the circular reflection of a lonely man’s stroll into oblivion, boldly going nowhere.

“Motion’s coming on”

Professional aviation uses high-tech flight simulators to train pilots. From the outside, these boxy contraptions hardly look flight-worthy, mounted on multiple steel hydraulic powered pedestals that move the simulator to mimic flight conditions down to the smallest sensation. Inside, the boxy look is soon forgotten as the flight crew straps in to the perfect replica of an aircraft, including a near 360-degree visual screen.

Signaling the imminent start of a training session, the words, “Motion’s coming on” warns the aircrew as a matter of safety, as the hydraulics are engaged and pilots brace in case a system turn-on hiccup causes an uncommanded violent jerk.

At first, the simulator motion makes it feel like you are sitting on the head of a pin, with the slightest shift in aircraft controls causing an exaggerated effect. But that goes away quickly, and in no time the pilot can almost forget that his total concentration is on a false situation. It’s not uncommon to have a pilot finish a particularly difficult simulator shaking from the very real stress of the fake scenario.

In a way, most lives are spent teeing up on a personal life simulator, precariously balanced on a perch of falsehoods, experiencing all the stress and fear of life without actually living, or the benefit of a warning phrase like, “motion’s coming on.”

It might take the epiphany of tragedy to see past the facade of convention. The sensation is not comfortable, the realization that the Emperor has no clothes, that the underpinnings of entire lives have been held up by false gods of materialism.

Living a simulated existence can be comfortable for a while, but we all must eventually face the simple reality of death. This is just a humble reminder that life’s “motion is on.”

Creative wonder

Over the past three months, I’ve had the opportunity to travel and speak about my experiences of self-discovery and the lost Intruder. At each venue, invariably a stranger will seek advice on how to tailor my personal lessons to their lives, to learn the secret in overcoming long-term adversity.

There is no secret, and there is no overcoming.

Trying to deny a place for life’s hardships, the inevitable setbacks and heartbreaks, clever attempts to circumvent the universe’s trials are doomed to failure. Life is hard. It is also complicated beyond science, philosophy, technology, and perhaps even religion. We will never understand all the “whats” that confront us, never mind the “whys.” But that’s okay. Acknowledging this simple insight, accepting it deeply until it courses within us with each beat of the heart, might be the closest we can come to a cure for life.

Faith is a wondrous word: the peaceful incarnation of commonality we share with our surroundings. Yes, there is unfathomable pain and hardship in the world, only some of which is within our power to alleviate. We will all die, and we will never eliminate despair, never subdue humanity’s dark side of feeling.

It is that which defines our basest nature that also allows for the best in people, that fosters the kindness in a stranger’s eyes in passing, the sharing of a moment between two terrestrial creatures striving for insight into celestial questions. Pondering the meaning of a sunset in a lighthearted, shared marvel transforms the rawness inside us, shaping it into a powerful reality with all humanity’s soulful perfections and flaws.

Perhaps it is our job to navigate these inevitable detours until arriving at a vista of loveliness, the beautiful fullness of another amid the alchemy of creative wonder.

Gifted a Life Ring–Farewell to Eric

Eric did not come empty-handed when he pulled his full-sized pickup truck into my driveway late last spring. As I approached the driver’s side door, he abruptly floored the accelerator, causing the big V-8 to thunder in neutral, what I would only begin to understand much later was a frustrated fist-shake at the world.

Grinding the bare stub of a cigarette into the floorboard with shaking hands, he brushed my outstretched palm aside as he gave me a big hug. I hugged him back, after all, we had seen a lot, shared a lot, together more than a quarter century earlier, when we were both charged with the electric stupidity of youth that passes for fearlessness. Eric and I had flown together during our first six-month deployment on the USS Ranger to the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. He filled my arms with gifts, and we walked into the house.

Unshaven, with stubble encircling an otherwise bald head, Eric’s eyes darted furtively behind wire glasses. Eric looked like shit, I thought, as I slowly made sense of the jumbled bits and pieces of our phone conversations over the past several days. Eric was either nearing a nervous breakdown, or experiencing some sort of manic episode, I couldn’t tell what exactly, but he was in bad shape.

And then, abruptly, he wasn’t, and it was steady as she goes, and my old bombardier/navigator was back: confident, razor sharp, intently asking, “how are you doing, Petey,” the awkward nickname he would use to try and get a rise out of me. For the next four hours, we visited as he transited the disconnected states of his tormented life, a topic to which I am not wholly unfamiliar. Alternating tales started in fact that slowly began to stray from reality, and hysterical references to “pilot candy” and various close ones on the aircraft carrier that I knew to be true, it became clear that the same old Eric was in there, especially when he spoke of his love for his children. We shared more than a few laughs, hugs, and tears before it was time for him to leave.

It was only as Eric was getting ready to leave that I took stock of his gifts. Six Asian specialty beers, a mini toy fishing pole, three packs of Starbursts (“pilot candy” to give me a boost of energy to land the jet safely after a long night of flying). A beautiful photo of a Hawaiian sunset ready to be framed was also there, several small American flags, the kind waved at parades, and finally one huge, ship-sized orange life ring, much too big to use on my boat. After a final hug and “I love you, brother” uttered by both of us, I told him to come visit anytime.

He never did.

Last Sunday evening, Eric took his own life. I won’t pretend to understand the why, other than the obvious: the relentless attacks by demons of who knows what origin became too much for him to bear. What I do know, however, is that Eric—adoring father, caring friend, and life observer of uncommon insight and wisdom was in there, dealing as best he could with a terribly cruel and uncaring world. I will remember Eric as always kind.

May you find peace at last, old friend.