Alien Life

It took mere nanoseconds to ponder everything necessary to determine if there is other life in the universe. Before my brain couple complete “I wonder…” my brain answered back NO! in a most vehement way. I thought to myself, well, okay. I guess I have some pretty strong feelings about that. I guess by my reaction I don’t believe in other life in the universe. I thought about the billions of billions of galaxies holding millions and millions of stars, and the gazillion planets that no doubt orbited around those glowing centers, I thought, gosh, that’s a lot of stars. Irrelevant, but a lot of stars.

You see, we don’t know if any of those planets really has an atmosphere and water and bipedal mammals with deep seated, self-aggrandizing hubris and the intelligence to inflict it. You see, for it to count for me, the so called other life out there needs to look like me and sound like me, or could after appropriate electroshock Pavlovian conditioning. It’s just not going to count if someone yells “Eureka!” and points to a bit of moss or lichen and start slobbering about having found that we’re not alone. In order to consider it life, it has to be a race with something we want and can talk them out of, hopefully in exchange for our paper dollar bills. Especially if we’re buying gold. How are you going to take a lichen to a three martini lunch and get him to sign on the dotted line, eh? Right, I didn’t think so.

It used to be that cosmologists through around expressions like “if we’re alone it would be a waste of space.” Or, the popular “There are so many possible planets it’s hard to imagine there isn’t other life.” These highly scientific statements, which were scientific statements because they were stated by scientists, were highly compelling for the average citizen with self-esteem issues and a gaping hole where their general science class memories used to be. I remember it as clearly as I do Betty Crocker’s Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe using Nestle’ morsels. They said something about the 9th delta or rotation of a certain protein withing a violent primordial environment which was a random occurrence and the result of unusual prevailing solar system conditions.

It’s true. Carl Sagan wrote a whole book justifying why we should believe in extraterrestrial life because it was the same as believing in God. I think that while it’s an interesting theory, it still strikes me as apples and oranges.  As you can see, I have put a lot of thought into this whole no life but ours thing. I have also noticed that our kind of life manifests exactly the descriptive nomenclature as viruses, which occur with great and unrepeated diversity. Humans are just another of the many iterations. But there are other possibilities. Right now, brain scientists are beginning to redefine what reality is, and indicate that our idea of consciousness is actually an hallucination which occurs after the fact. Of course, if everything we know is really an hallucination, then I suppose we can hallucinate little green men.

But not some splotch of chlorophyll staining a rock on some bizarre and unearthly planet across the universe.  There’s just no drama in that.

I’ll Grant You That

Five years ago I had a few realtors sniffing me up and down because I showed some interest in a weird little house on the west side of Overlook Park, between People’s Park and High Bridge Park here in Spokane. The house was made if four parts with little skyways that bobbed and weaved between the sections, connecting them all together. The house was redwood and nestled in the pine trees. The owner wanted to sell the house for just over $300,000, which I thought was kind of exorbitant, what with the train tracks that ran a mere 50 feet from the house. As I was touring it, a train passed by causing every single item on ever visible shelf to vibrate around one another kind of like those old electric hockey games. I actually burst out laughing when the showing realtor made a comment and I couldn’t hear a word she said. In the silence that followed the train’s departure, I said a quick “no thanks.”

But I heard from her again, along with a few others who had heard there might be a live one on the line, and came to see what kind of mortgage they could talk me into. Before they had my social security number or even my full name, I had been offered mortgages of a half million dollars. That’s a pretty good qualification for a $2000/mo network engineer. They even told me they could give me a loan for the down payment, and then said to never mind the down payment. Just sign here, Mr. um, Bob and we’ll put you into that house!  I, of course, realized that my monthly mortgage payment would have been approximately 150% of my monthly income and so I wasn’t enthused about signing up. So they told me that I could have a mortgage with only $500 per month payments and a balloon payment of the entire balance after a mere two years, and that by then, why I could renegotiate my mortgage and take advantage of the appreciated value of the home getting cash back while lowering my payments. That’s when a little angel settled on my shoulder and intoned that something that sounds too good to be true usually is, and so I again declined the most generous offers afforded to me. I was still in my little rental on the 3rd floor of a quaint apartment building 18 months later when everything crashed and go boom, and the very people who were trying to bring me into the fold were complaining that their homes were about to be repossessed.

I did not jump to take advantage of the mortgage boom primarily because of all of the laws I figure are inviolate, that the law of gravity and Murphy’s Law are on a pretty even keel with one another. I don’t trust things that are definitely true and good, no less the things that just sound good. A great example of why I am so mistrusting just came up. The VA offered me a grant for specially adapted housing so I could get into a home of my own that accommodated my handicaps. The way it was phrased to me sure sounded like they would help with acquiring a property and a mortgage for it, and so I started looking into buying a house again. After staring at the five little questions my credit union had placed in an online form, I totally gave up. They were asking me about the price of the property versus the worth of the property, which confused me right off the bat. I figure that if a house is for sale for $170,000 then that should also be the worth of the home. If the worth of the home was less than the asking price, then why would I want to buy an overpriced house? I would demand that the price be lowered to match the worth or I would take my money somewhere else. Then they asked me what the property taxes for the home were. Well, if I haven’t selected the house yet because I was trying to get pre-authorized so I knew for sure how much money I had to spend, then how on earth could I know what the property taxes were?

I called the bank and a polite woman asked me the same questions and I stated my problems with answering, reminding her that I was trying to pre-authorize. She replied that I could just make up a value to get by the form and they could straighten it all out later. Hrmmm. This is not what I wanted to hear. But I went ahead and faked the answers for the form and was then told I could get a loan rate between 3 and 4.5% and showed me what the monthly payment would be and a breakdown of all of the costs associated with the loan. There were about 20 items with associated fees that added up to twenty five grand, which, coincidentally was the down payment they insisted I provide to close the loan.  So I went and checked out the process for using the specially adapted home grant and found out that I apparently needed to buy the house, and then hold up paying for it while the VA would decide whether or not to participate. In other words, they offered what amounted to reimbursement services and being eligible did not necessary mean that I would be given a grant. I guess they misspoke when they put it in writing that I was qualified for the grant and here they were offering it to me. If it makes no sense to you, then welcome to the magical world of the Veterans Administration.

In order to qualify for the price home I was interested in buying, I would need to include the VA grant as a part of my resources. But the VA makes it clear that a vet should not try to encumber the grant, but to get everything all lined up and then apply for the grant we are qualified for.  And they say that hip hop is difficult to fathom. So there I was with the VA’s newly minted Catch 22 on one hand and a bogus-information  based mortgage application in the other, being asked again what the difference between the price and worth was again.  I was in my car and aimed at a bar where I might get drunk when I remembered that I don’t drink. It doesn’t mix well with the menu of drugs I have to take.

I long for the good old days when a guy could get a mortgage by sneezing at the wrong moment. The happy realtors and financiers were all atwitter about how they would do all of the paperwork and leave me to simply pick up the keys to my 1.5 million dollar home.  No wonder no one is buying houses out there. No one can get past the stupid four questions they ask when you request a mortgage, no less navigate the rocky outcroppings of an actual home purchase. I understand why they say only the rich can afford to buy a home in this climate. They’re the only ones who can afford the six or seven lawyers it’s going to take to complete the paperwork. Lawyers live in a world similar to the government, where absolutely nothing makes any sense. They can also lie with a straight face where I would be stuttering and wetting myself.  No, I belong back in the days when a man could tell his banker he’d pay that loan by God and mean it for the most part so long as I had a job. I’m not sure there ever were good old days like that, but I’d like to think so and so we’ll just go with it.

And meanwhile, I think I’ll peruse the Houses for Rent pages on Craigslist.

Super Scooter

When I first got my mobility scooter I was very self-conscious. It felt like everyone was staring at me and I was feeling like I should really take to this better. Then my wife explained that everyone was staring at me. They were, she said, keeping an eye on me because I seemed to have such marginal control yet ran it as fast as it would go everywhere I went. I guess that’s true, but my scooter at full speed makes strolling people wait for me.

My wife is a walker. She’s one of those people you see striding along hiking and running paths, breathing deeply and getting exercise. We tried having me go along with her on walks, but my scooter is so slow that she constantly had to break stride and slow down so we could stay abreast.  I’m not saying that my scooter is all that slow, but if I happened to be driving it in a supermarket when an earthquake struck, the local news would be doing retrospectives on the event by the time I escaped on my trusty steed.

My current scooter looks like a blue lawnmower that someone stuck a captain’s chair on. It’s a Pride Go-Go Chair and it was made as an ultra light duty mobility scooter that was semi-transportable. Which is to say that it can be disassembled into three parts and carried in a car trunk. The heaviest piece being the 60 pound base, what with the wheels and motors included. The chair comes off and the battery pack pops out, and those are the three pieces. It takes two people to get the base into the trunk of a car, and thus my giving it the moniker semi-transportable.  Its four inch diameter wheels make certain that the rider feels every piece of gravel and cigarette butt they roll over, what with them pretty much designed for temporary use while traveling. It would do fine to carry one from their hotel room to the elevator and down to the floor with the restaurant on it, but beyond that, well everything is kind of beyond it.

I figure that there are a lot of people who would benefit from this scooter, but sadly I’m not one of them. The guy at the VA who ordered it for me was trying to help. When he learned that I didn’t have a van or pickup truck to carry a scooter with, he searched for and found a scooter that could be toted in the trunk of my Taurus. He was unaware that the VA program can include a specially adapted vehicle grant that can pay for a portion of a suitable vehicle –and pay to have a lift installed in it. So, he tried to get me a scooter I could carry in my car.  Given the uses I would put a scooter to, it took no time to discover that although I could drive around with it in my trunk, it wasn’t able to take me any of the places my doctor was encouraging me to go.

I always thought that scooters were a pretty simple item. You need help with mobility, you get a scooter. But the thing is, as I learned, there are a number of different kinds of scooters and each has different strengths and weaknesses. The scooter pictured atop this article is my target scooter. It is a heavy duty scooter, also called a personal mobility vehicle. It’s a lot more like an off-road go kart than, say, a Hoveround mobility chair. While its turning radius makes it a bit clumsy for indoor use at home, it will not only take you across a park to fetch your crashed R/C airplane, but it will take you to the park at a sedate ten miles an hour. That’s a fast jog, compared to someone hoofing it. In other words, I can drive it down to my local Home Depot and then peruse the aisles in it. I can drive it a couple of miles over to friends houses, or take it down the riverside trail nearby on the Spokane River. It’s like a 4 wheel quad off road vehicle for those who want a pleasant, smooth ride and don’t intend to jump it over berms.

There are a whole range of mobility scooters, which is the next category. These are a heavier duty mobility chair, and are suitable for use in the home as well as going shopping.  You just don’t want to try to drive the scooter to the store. It would take way too long with a maximum speed of less than 4 miles an hours. Okay, some of the hot ones will do as much as six mph, but you’d better be going downhill. Last is the mobility chair, which is like the Hoveround chair we all see on television commercials. The rise in mobility popularity soared when people found that Medicare would pay for 80% of their desired scooter, and quite often there were ancillary programs that could pick up the balance and make the scooter free for its recipient.  At least one of the more well known scooter purveyors got themselves in hot water with the justice department as they bent the qualification rules to increase their sales, and also were charging higher retail prices to government subsidized buyers than those spending out of pocket. In my case, the VA will get me the scooter and then bill Medicare for the covered portion.

But even though there are three kinds of mobility scooters/chairs, they all come with extra features or accessories to customize them to a rider’s needs. Some have oxygen tank brackets and some have little tasseled sun roofs to protect sensitive skin. Some come with headlights and I wouldn’t be surprised to find one that included a home office computer and GPS. I have seen some pretty surprising add-ons.  But I really look forward to finally having a scooter that will meet my needs, I just wish it was springtime instead of it being fall. Soon the temperature will drop below the tolerance level of my sleight mass body’s internal furnace. Which is to say that I get cold really easily; the picture of health, I have a comfort range that falls between 72 and 76 degrees fahrenheit.

So, right now, before the weather really starts to get testy, I am shopping furiously online for electrically heated snowsuits and stockings. Maybe even gloves. Yeah, gloves too. What with 13 inch knobby tires, I will no doubt be braving the pathways cut by snow plows and honing my ice driving skills to compete with the nursing home crowd that rides the kneeling buses every Wednesday at Wal-Mart. I will be driving the SUV of scooters, so watch it grandma, I’ve got inertia on my side!  (At four thousand bucks I’d better have something!)

I suspect that I will still think that people are staring at me as I drive around on my mobile parole, freeing me from sitting through another falls and winter in front of the television, burning holes in my desktop with my soldering iron because I got distracted by a good part in the book I was also reading. But then, they will be staring at the brutish beast which I will have broken to be my willing steed, a visage of power and strength careening through the canned good section of the supermarket. Drivers of the loaner electric shopping karts will bow to my majesty as I needn’t pause to load my purchases into a car in the parking lot, but can make course for home uninterrupted.  Go ahead and look. I am the Ambulator!

Bernie F.

I had on my black suit, form fitted with a slight flare cut to the leg. My white shirt was starched and I was wearing a prussian blue tie. My shoes were shined and reflected me back at myself when I looked at my toes. I was all dressed up to go to Bernie F’s funeral. I’d known Bernie F for almost 40 years, having met him just before I joined the army. From then on, Bernie F was a part of my life, and a good part of my life in spite of the fact that I never did find out what the F stood for. I assumed it was his last name, but who knows for sure. I asked him his name when we met and he said his name was Bernie F and I took his word for it.

But now Bernie was dead, the victim of a pistachio nut that got lodged in his throat. I’d never known Bernie to be a pistachio eater, and maybe he wasn’t and his inexperience was the reason he inhaled the nut instead of swallowing it. Anyway, all of us from the neighborhood had gathered to say our last goodbyes to Bernie and so we’d filed into the little omni-denominational church that sat on the edge of town, right near the clutch of birch trees that were the only birches for hundreds of miles. It tended to give the church a kind of notoriety, being the only church near the only birch trees. But the undertaker had set Bernie in the church and not under the birches and that was fine with us, what with it raining like cats and dogs.

About 20 of us came to say goodbye, there were the Benoit family, Fred and Myra and their two twin boys, Ermine and Mink. The Dalleys were there too, Mr. and Mrs. both, which was nice since they never did like Bernie. The Purvals were there, the whole clan, so many of them I can’t name, but they filled up eight slots of the twenty what came to the funeral. Then where was Bernie’s mom, who we didn’t know but had come down from one of the cities in one of the other states and I have no idea which or which. I was still taking a nose count when Mink started screaming that Bernie was still alive and how he saw his nose twitch.

That caused us all to rush over to the casket to look at Bernie F, because we had all read oddities in the news and were all aware that the darndest things could happen and this might be one of them. We were all circled around Bernie and just staring at him, nobody saying a word. We looked and then we looked some more. Mink said he swore that he saw Bernie F twitch his nose and Ermine sorta punched him on the arm and called him a liar. Myra reached in and boxed both boys on the ears and told them to mind their being respectful and the boys both looked at their shoes. Then Mink said “did too” and Ermine said “not” and then they were hitting each other again and getting louder when Fred said we’d ought to find out for sure whether Bernie F was dead.

He stepped real close to the casket and reached in and grabbed Bernie’s nose and squeezed it between his thumb and forefinger. He was squeezing pretty hard too, what with how his knuckles were a bit white from the exertion. He gave a good twist to the nose, turning it kind of like the channel changers back on old televisions. When he let go, Bernie F’s nose stayed pointing to 3 o’clock instead of 12. That made it easier for Mrs. Purval, who was holding a compact mirror in front of Bernie’s nose and lips, to see if it would fog up from Bernie breathing. The mirror stayed clear and after we all looked at it for a good couple of minutes, we all started nodding to one another and agreeing that even if her wasn’t dead, he sure as hell wasn’t breathing. Which, of course, was good enough for all of us.

Each of us took a turn standing in front of Bernie F and saying a kind word about him. People allowed as how he always wore pants unlike some of the people in the neighborhood that were known to hang around their front yards in their boxer shorts, and how he was nice enough to be quiet when he came home drunk. The Purvals said they were really happy that he’d been a good enough man not to hit on any of their six daughters which brought nods and ahhh noises from everyone because we finally realized all the Purval kids were girls. I had to think to myself that Bernie F probably never made a pass because no one could tell for sure about those kids.

When everyone had had their say about Bernie F, we all filed out of the church and were heading over to our cars when Ermine asked his dad loudly what would happen to Bernie F now? Just about everyone stopped and looked at each other, then looked at the dust that the undertakers car was leaving as it drove up the road. We could look back at the church and its wide open door and see that Bernie F, still in his casket, was still sitting on saw horses at the front of the church. I mentioned aloud that I didn’t have a shovel with me and sped up my pace to the car. Behind my back I heard all the neighborhood making the same excuse and their footsteps speeding up. Last person out is stuck with the job of seeing Bernie F off to the promised land.

I was the next car behind the undertaker, who, I really thought should be the one to put old Bernie in the ground. After all, I assumed someone had paid him for the job. It was later on at the bar, toasting old Bernie F, that I found out that the undertaker had been given the job by the sheriff of the next county. We didn’t have a sheriff of our own, and so this one would occasionally show up doing sheriffy things like trying to arrest us for driving our rigs drunk. He finally quit that when we kept on just going home and not going to court because we didn’t have a court in our county, in fact, we didn’t really have a county. We all lived on unincorporated land and claimed a township without there really being one. We figured that since we didn’t have running water, electricity garbage or sewer service we didn’t need a government telling us how to use them. So we voted never to vote and it passed unanimously.

I guess someone took care of Bernie because a month or so later one of the Purval kids got hitched to a guy from the city and no one complained about a bad smell or anything. Of course, most of us were all talking about the guy from the city and how he was able to figure out his bride to be was a woman. We’d known that family for a long time now, and we still weren’t sure, even in spite of the Purvals swearing their kids were all girls.

That, of course, reminds me of something I can’t remember and I was going to tell you about it. But since I can’t recall exactly what it was, I’ll tell you later.

Dorothy said, There’s no place …

Well, well, well. Here it is, another Labor Day. Through the weekend many families have flocked to campsites, lake homes, and other recreational spots to make a last grab at summer vacation. Of course, very few of them went very far, what with gas prices so high and airline travel morale so low.  In most places the weather is cooperating by providing sunny skies and warm breezes for this last fling before the chilly breath of fall ebbs the summertime urges. I toyed with many thoughts of taking a vacation, to visit somewhere that had the three elements required to make me smile about where I am: warm turquoise water, warm open sands, and warm sunlight tempered by trade winds. The three warms of paradise.

I mulled over a few spots and began my investigation that would lead to a choice of which one I would go to, taking my first recreational trip since 2006. It was the mental image of a place just like this that kept my spirits at least a little buoyed during those dark days of chemotherapy. I would try to recall the sensation of wading while my feet screamed with the varying discomforts of peripheral neuropathy. In no particular order, the following are the places I chose and the elements that qualified them or disqualified them as my vacation destination.

Hawaii. This was the last place I went, visiting Oahu during October of 2006.  A friend lives there and owns a home right on the beach at Kailua, just across the brackish canal from Lanakai. Since I was there, Barack Obama bought a house there, just a few doors down from my friend,  and the entire island has become one great big no smoking zone.  On my last visit, I spent 80% of my daylight hours on that particular beach, staring at the waves, reading books, and smoking. I have already heard that the presence of the president’s house has put a kind of chill emanating from Secret Service in spite of their attempts to remain innocuous. This makes sense to me, as I never picture or see the Secret Service being all that innocuous. I mean, everyone remembers Clint Eastwood’s role in Line of Fire, just seeing an agent would be enough to remind one that there are a lot of people who are unhappy with the president, some enough to do something foolish. Otherwise, why would they have to protect him? Since the Kailua beach is really the only place I really like in Hawaii, and I can’t smoke there, even though I am trying to quit the habit I really don’t want to do it when I am paying so much to feel relaxed and at peace with the world as I enjoy my days in the sun. Scratch Hawaii.

Florida Keys. Now here is a place of great fascination. Both John D. MacDonald and Paul Levine have written wonderful descriptions of the gateways to the keys, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. Perhaps I could even run into Travis McGee or Jake Lassiter as I moseyed about looking for US 1 to drive on down to the southernmost tip of the US. Maybe not. Stephen King told me about life in the string of islands in his book, Numa Key, and Tom Corcoran lay the real Key West open in his Alex Rutledge books. I had a tremendous number of facts about the Florida Keys, and sadly, the idea of so many dead bodies and random gunfire is kind of put offish when one is considering a place to relax in. Of course, my wife and I both know that there are a lot of bugs in the keys, both those that take flight and those that don’t. They range in size from miniscule, earning the name “noseeums,” to “Oh God, that almost shattered the windshield” gargantuan beetles and even larger moths. It seems that the bulk of information I possess about the Keys is negative, albeit for the inviting way they look as I focus Google Earth on those stepping stones to Cuba and zoom right in. The water has just the right sparkling light blue shade to it, and the photos from Google and Bing images show delectable palms, white sands and cheerful people in colorful albeit brief attire frolicking in fun filled endeavors. What to do, what to do? Actually, I have been there and I have seen and felt the bugs. I was only eight at the time I was there, standing on a beach near Hollywood, Florida. Even with a solid breeze I had been tormented to tears by the sorties of full dark clouds of them all seeking shelter in the corners of my eyes and up my nose. If I opened my mouth to call for my father or mother, they would fly in my mouth. Okay, screw this, the Keys are out. Besides, there’d probably be a hurricane.

Australia. I figured that any place that required $2000 tickets and 28 hours of flight time from Spokane had better be a place we really, really wanted to go. I looked at my wife and said “Hey, we could go to Cairns, Australia and dive on the Great Barrier Reef!”

“I suppose. Yes. We could do that. I guess.” said my wife with all the verve of an undertaker. I looked at her deadpan face. Okay, next destination?

Whoops. There isn’t another on the list. So I take a review of the places I’d just dismissed due to one reason or another, and yep, I still feel the same way I did before, so I figure that perhaps I should set my sights a bit lower. I figured that perhaps Cancun might be nice, but I don’t speak Spanish and I like Mexican food only occasionally, usually centering around Velveeta and Chili without beans and chips to make Nachos, or the ever popular Taco Bell beef taco. Not Taco Time, Taco Bell. There’s a big difference. I didn’t even have to ask my wife how’d she like to eat nothing but Taco Bell for a full week, three times a day, so I went ahead and crossed it off the list. Then I thought that maybe somewhere a bit closer to home would be in order. So I checked out San Diego. Those egotists have the gall to cost the exact same as an equal trip to Hawaii, for crying out loud. I gave them points for not being a no smoking town (pardon the double negative) but it just wasn’t sufficient to make me feel it was worth the expense, what with paying all that and not even getting Don Ho. Plus that, the place isn’t all that different from Cancun; everything nearby had similar sorts of names.

Resigning myself to merely a small change in scenery, I turned to neighboring Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. It’s only 40 minutes to their most famous resort hotel and boatramp, and the hotel had some pretty amazing views of Lake Coeur d’Alene which, I do admit, is highly picturesque. From the resort hotel, it’s a mere hour or so up the highway to Silverwood, the areas theme park boasting a train, a wooden roller coaster and s few of the other attractions found in theme parks.  It’s very nice and all, I guess. Maybe. But even closer to the resort is Wild waters. It’s a waterslide park with a number of slides which are great fun to slide on. Of course, the steep walk back to the crest of the man-made hill that supports the slides is sufficiently aerobic as to summon cardiac arrest and possible stroke. But then, half the medications I take have warning labels that say the same thing. Also, back in the early days when I’d first met the lady I married, she burned like a lobster in boiling water and turned a similar color over most of her fair skin. We washed her over with white vinegar, giving her some relief after the agonizing ride home with the kids all noisy and active in the back seat. Her burn hurt too. As a matter of fact, her primary memory of that day has tunnel-visioned itself to that sole memory, which she speaks of almost every time someone uses the word “sun.” So all in all I figure that a trip to Coeur d’Alene is probably not all that great an idea, but check on their package prices anyway. What is with this? Their prices equal out to what I’d pay to go to, yes, Hawaii. What is it with that figure? Have all of the possible destinations conspired to charge exactly the same in some kind of level playing field agreement? Is NAFTA to blame?

Here it is Labor Day and I am in the back yard, having a coke pop and playing with my Parrot A.R.Drone. In the house, my wife is cooking hamburgers for our dinner. Our choice for a vacation spot, our back yard, appeared to be the best choice in the end. I wouldn’t have to spend six grand of my hard and long saved nest egg, the people nearby all speak english and our street names are regular nouns with no south of the border flair. There are no lines in the kitchen or to the bathroom, and the hospitality is so nice it feels just like home.

And that’s what we want in a vacation, right?

Taking the Fall (the sequel)

I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful, 100 percent.

Meaning, of course, that I saw to it that my wife got her wish to see what it is like to skydive. We got out to Ritzville at 2pm and got her all checked in. However, we had to wait our turn and so it wasn’t until about 4:30 that I watched the airplane scoot down the runway with my wife aboard.  It took another fifteen minutes for the Cessna 182 to claw its way to about 12,000 feet where my wife, attached to a strapping young man named Sergi, tumbled out of the plane. I watched, squinting against the sun as two little dots became two larger dots and then turned into two blossoming parachutes in the sky. One was my wife and Sergi, and the other was Kara, the photographer I hired to take video and stills of my wife’s event.

So much planning and waiting took a mere three minutes to be over with, counting from her departing the plane to her arrival back on the ground. She was one of six different people who were getting their indoctrination to the world of free fall. On the ground, I amused myself by chatting with the parachuting neophytes who were waiting their turn, listening to the apprehensive questions they asked me. They had overheard discussions between my wife and the staff at West Plains and knew I had a couple thousand jumps under my belt. I hated to explain to them that my most recent jump occurred before a couple of them were born. They were all dying to know what it was that caused me to abandon the sport, and I simply explained that I had “hurt myself.” I left it to their imaginations to figure out whatever they chose to believe. It is actually just the weakness in my spine from Multiple Myeloma that keeps me grounded. I don’t dare risk a hard landing. I must admit though, that each time I visit a jump loft and watch jumpers wielding their fabric aircraft about it is hard for me to pass on taking a quick trip of my own. It’s like one of those so near and yet so far things.

Jumping is something I gave up, along with flying, so that I could concentrate my money and time on my growing family. My budget never seemed to be able to accommodate either sport at the same time as feeding, clothing and housing my wife and kids. Society takes a dim view of dad’s who spend their dollars on sporting events rather than the welfare of their kids. I would never admit that in the end I think of myself getting the better deal by choosing the kids over the sport. It’s too much fun laying guilt trips on my seedlings. Now, at the time I figured I could get back into it, the stupid cancer has forced another of those choices on me, and once again I have chosen to take the high road and not be too reckless with my sunset years.

I do have every intention of flying again. I look at that as less risky than negotiating through traffic with my fellow drivers, who I believe to be insane and senseless, and often in my way. So after I get my need for a scooter and a vehicle to carry it, and I get myself situated in a new home, I will once again be ready to take to the skies.  While my medical situation precludes me from flying most aircraft, motor gliders and ultralight aircraft are exempt from proscribing regulations. So it would be a good bet to believe that I will address getting myself an aircraft sometime within the next couple of years. That does, I admit, assume that my condition will not deteriorate further to the point that I have to abandon that idea as well as skydiving.  But I have this attitude that since I haven’t died so far, even in spite of the prognosis’ of a couple of pretty good physicians, that my survival chances are exactly the same as anyone else’s. It’s 50 – 50. No one can guarantee they will live through tomorrow, so everyone has an equal chance at being alive or not.

But for the moment, my wife has joined the membership of an exclusive group, the people who have experienced free fall and parachuting. She now has things to add to the discussions in my family which invariably touch on skydiving, and the tales we tell. I will leave it to her to tell those stories so as not to steal her thunder. So if you wish to hear her exciting verbal renderings of her experience, you will have to ask her about it.

Taking the Fall

Sometimes I forget that I’m a reluctant junkie. I was reminded this morning after having a difficult time getting to sleep the night before. As a result of only getting to sleep as the sun was preparing to rise above the horizon like a prairie dog, I managed to sleep four hours past my morning medication time. When I woke up, my body was having a conniption fit about the lack of morphine it now demands flowing in my bloodstream. Suffice to say I work in a foul mood, each movement a special little torture, each thought irritating the headache camped out behind my eyeballs. My hands were shaking, but I still groped for my medication calendar, which is not a calendar at all but a container with little compartments in which to store routine medications. I flip open the top and empty the pills into my mouth, only to discover the can of Coke on my desk was empty. My mouth only had sufficient saliva to cause the pills to stick to the roof of my mouth and my cheeks, so I hobbled to the bathroom and dented my upper lip on the faucet trying to get a bit of water to wash down the pills. What a great start to the day.

The trip back to my room caused my eyes to water, what with the icepick in my spine, the fire in each of my hips, the aches in my shoulder and, of course, the headache which pulsed with ..well, my pulse. I gingerly put myself on my couch-slash-futon and began the wait for the drugs to kick in, allowing me to again forget my dependency on narcotic levels. Today is an important day and I need to be at my best for it, and so far I was not making a great start. Today is an important day because today is the day that, after long planning and conspiracy, I will throw my wife out of an airplane without a parachute. I have been working this plan for a few weeks, now, finally committing to it by prepaying for the airplane and the assistance I will need to accomplish my premeditated act.

I’m going to do it out near Ritzville, where there isn’t too much besides the scrub brush and dusty ground of the eastern side of Washington’s desert. That’s where West Plains Skydiving operates their business affairs. Today is the day I will strap my wife to a professional skydiver and see her carried out the door and into the slipstream for a 9,000 foot controlled plunge to the earth below. For years now, my wife has listened to my skydiving stories. My son’s skydiving stories. My daughter’s skydiving stories. She has listened to my friends talk about skydiving and looked at hundreds of photographs and seen hours of video. But she has never experienced a fall from great height and now, as a birthday present, she will finally get her chance to know, I mean really know, of what we speak as we share tales. She will be able to share a tale of her own now.

I’m going for the full meal deal here. The professional’s time, equipment rental, airplane ride and general fees will add up to $150. I will spend another $200 on hiring a secondary jumper, festooned with still and video cameras attached to his helmet and held in his hands, to take the fall alongside my wife, filming her short two minute trip. At least I’m hoping it will be two minutes, shorter than that will indicate a lonely drive home. But the other jumper will collect as much camera time as possible and back on the ground, a bored professional will put all of it on a CD of memories, scored with raucous rock and roll music. My wife will have experienced a tandem skydive and have the photographic proof to prove it. I, on the other hand, will very likely take a single photo from the collection to keep as my own touchstone of memory: the look on her face as she realizes that she is literally dangling from a string to a tiny stabilization chute and the ground is so, so far below and there’s no getting back in the plane.

The first time I left an airplane in flight was in the Army. I had completed most of the parachute training at Ft. Benning, GA, and was sent aloft with 106 fellow novices in a C-130 Hercules to execute a side door exit. I have a swirling mass of memories that flood in –had you been watching me type you’d have seen me pause, smile, shake my head and go back to typing. I always smile because I recall that when I got to the ground and pulled the parachute harness from my back, that there was a dusty footprint dead center of the now opened pack flaps of the chute. I had, like many of the guys, been given a motivational assist at the moment I reached the door and saw the nothing I was about to step into. I smile because I recall how the jumpmaster was screeching over the din of the four turbine engines that a jump was not mandatory and we could choose to step aside and ride back with the plane.

Actually a couple of guys did opt out at the last minute, diving to the side of the door as a part of their final steps to the door. Separated from those of us who made the exit, we never saw those guys again. They were quickly absorbed back into the military system for deployment in a less exciting career path. By the time we first timers returned to the barracks, the only remnants of the washouts was an empty bunk with its mattress rolled. None of us would talk much about their departure, save to confirm that they had chosen not to be a part of the colorful history of aerial infantry delivery. The footprint on my back was not a sign of anything except that I had paused in the door way as I leaned out into the wind. The jumpmaster wasn’t really removing my choice, he was ensuring that I didn’t tumble as I exited the aircraft, a situation that could easily cause a tangle of the suspension lines which connected me to the lifesaving circle of nylon that slowed my descent. By the time you get as far into the doorway as I, and others with matching footprints had gotten, it was too late to abort. Inertia alone would carry us and our equipment out the door. I remembered the way it all felt and the sense of real exhilaration and pleasure I felt as I looked at the ground below.

This is the facial expression I hope is caught on my wife’s face. I am hoping it will be a wide eyed, wide mouthed full facial smile and not the scrunched closed eyes and downturned mouth of someone wishing they were anywhere doing anything other than being where they are. That’s about the only two choices and it is important to me that she find the same joy and freedom that my kids and I feel at jumping. I desperately hope that she is not among the 0ne in ten who suffers an unexpected movement of the bowels. Because of the pressure differential, passing gas is a common thing as the plane makes it fast ascent to the 9,000 average jump height. When a little terror is combined with an ill advised late lunching, it can get a bit messy. I say with a certain inexplicable pride that I have never stained my underwear with solids of fluids, and I’m hoping that my wife is a member of the starched and pressed club as she thumps her conclusion to the experience.

The landing will be fun to watch. When to people are connected to each other with the strapping used in tandems, they each have their own balance movements trying to remain erect on landing. These reactions are often out of sync and end up in a two person pig pile in the dirt. Of course, just as often the professional giving her the ride will be properly turned into the wind and the wind maintains a steady level as they near the ground. This will permit a standup landing not unlike stepping down on the bottom step of a stairwell. Dignity remains intact, not like it matters, because dignity is most often secondary to the laughter and pleasure that the drop has produced. There is also a certain bit of relief as well, as one looks at the long way they have come from the heavens to find themselves still safe and whole. On the trip back home, she will be wistful and thinking, hopefully wishing to be able to repeat the experience in the future. Even some who didn’t enjoy the first time look forward to another try. There is something about this sport that is instantly adopted by genetics and becomes a part of you.

Or not.

So I am anticipating the coming event for my own reasons, most of which revolve around my deep desire that she discovers that she liked the jump. It will bring her a little closer to me and mine as we share in a mutual enjoyment.

Competitive Predators

On August 14, 2126, the six mile diameter Swift-Tuttle comet will strike the earth. The collision will cause an extinction event that will likely remove all life from the planet in a lone cataclysmic explosion. Huge sections of the tectonic plates that form our land masses will buckle and be hurled from the planet. Some will be sucked back by gravity creating first a rain of rocks and then a rain of dust that will obscure the sun for a couple of decades. It won’t matter because there won’t be anyone to see that part, or to see whether more of what was planet Earth will add to or create another moon.  There is no question that the collision will occur, and on time. It’s six mile per second speed is constant and its trajectory is established fact.  The explosion will be six billion times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

That’s one hundred and fifteen years hence; it’s merely half of the time our American Republic has existed, crafted by men who had no idea of iPods and Android phones, no less computers and the technologies that let us drive cars as smart as we are –something else I’m pretty sure our founding fathers never imagined.  Since that time, the human animal has invented cars, and invented airplanes, and invented rockets so that not only do we travel to all corners of the planet we live on, we have traveled from it as well. We have put men on the moon, for goodness sake. We have sent remote controlled robots to Mars and people like me built nearly as capable robotic devices in their bedrooms. So. Now that our technology has allowed us to see good old Swift-Tuttle hurling it’s way to causing the end of human destiny, what is it we should do with the intervening 115 short years we have left? If we can wrest all of the technology we have from the couple hundred years since Benjamin Franklin flew kites and titillated the British Court while helping to craft a new nation, what can we do in the century we have remaining?  The question is that not only could we do something, but should we do something?

Wow. What a defeatist question that was!  The thing is, I have been pondering questions of life ever since mine came so close to being lost, and remains still, in fact,  in serious jeopardy.  I think back to Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park asking the same question –in fact, that’s where I got it. We saw what happened when mankind bent life and evolution to its will: we served up a whole cast of characters as hors d’ouvres to animated nightmares with a taste for primates. Of course, if I leave the realms of fantasy and take a look at what our technology has done for us in real life, well, I have to admit that we managed to destroy our climate, poison our waters, and render a huge cast of animal characters extinct. Michael Crichton’s vision of Jurassic Park was actually a lot kinder than reality has been. At least the fictional deaths were quick. But my point here is that regardless of our good intentions, we have crafted a road to hell because we failed to answer the secondary question of whether we can do a thing;  the part where we ask if we should. Then again, with August 2126 hurtling towards us as quickly as the comet, there is validity to asking whether it matters or not.

Let’s say that it does matter. And, what’s more, let’s say that we can muster the technology to extricate human kind from the cosmic bear trap in which our feet are caught. We have a much more difficult task at hand that needs be dealt with before we can move on to technological salvation. We have to learn to cooperate, and before that, to give a damn about our neighbor just as much as we do ourselves. Speaking of wow. Now there’s a task for you. It would appear that over the twin centuries of our nations existence, we have dedicated ourselves to self interest. We have spurts of cooperation here and there, but as with evolution, nothing occurs in a straight graphical line. Like watching graphs of the Dow Jones Industrial Averages, the graph is sawtoothed. And like the Dow, our mutual cooperation has been on a steady downward trend in spite of rallys and spikes.  I remember when my father was orgasmic over the idea that the Dow had hit 1000, and now it flirts with ten times that number. But not for much longer. Like the pyramid scheme it is, the Dow will topple as if blessed by Bernie Madoff. Okay, it was blessed by Bernie Madoff. But then, that’s the point here. An inertia of improvement has been created, but the people that upward curve services is a smaller and smaller portion of world society, such that we have created two separate yet very real realities.

Reality is reality, right?

No, not really. Some of us live in an entirely different world than others. My point is not to discuss the class wars, but instead to chip at a more broad target; I’m pointing my finger at all of us. The billions of individuals who all pretty much share a focus on themselves to the exclusion of everyone else. It’s apparently how we’re made and no one appears, in my perception, to be exempt. Even as I am here pointing out that we have become rather selfish, self serving, and self centered, I am doing what I can to feather my own nest using every tool in my kit. So I am not pointing my finger in the courtroom and yelling “J’accuse! I am merely observing a very real component of the human makeup. And I am wondering if, in its power to divide us as well as propel us, if it will be what delays us in achieving the salvation we desire from space inhabiting assassins.

As I sit here pounding the keyboard of my tablet, nine and a half percent of the country’s workforce is unemployed. Actually, the number is much greater than that because our unemployment figures come from those getting or who’re trying to get unemployment compensation, and/or are requesting public assistance for being unemployed or too underemployed to be able to support themselves. Some people have asserted that as much as a quarter of the country is unemployed.  Then again, it’s not like the rest, the ones who do have a job, are living on easy street. The fact is that over half of the individuals and families here in the US are struggling in a deteriorating work environment. And we are not alone; most of the world is facing economic disaster, and that depressing fact is accompanied by fast shrinking resources. Food and water scarcity is becoming the next big thing rather than a new technological innovation. With things on this shaky course, I don’t think it’s a fool’s errand to consider that perhaps we should force ourselves to start thinking in more cooperative ways in spite of the fierce genetic urge towards self preservation that causes us to be self centered. What appears to be the route to self preservation is actually just the opposite.

If we don’t find a way to become more cooperative, we’re going to be fighting among ourselves right up until the sky illuminates and heralds the arrival of the final solution to all our woes.  But the thing is, if we pause in our efforts to keep ourselves intact, we’ll stop being intact. One only needs to take their eye off the ball for an instant to invite personal catastrophe. There will be someone else right there to exploit the lapse in vigilance and profit from the distraction. If you don’t believe that then I have bridge to Brooklyn I’d like to sell you. Cheap.

It only takes a look at the news to see that exploiting the weaknesses of others is a daily played international sport. The human being is a very competitive animal and a predator besides. So it’s going to take a pretty significant and profound change in human orientation to achieve any kind of secure future.  We need to divest ourselves of labels of borders, parties, and even cliques. We absolutely have to embrace diversity and exploit all of the ideas and brain power that can be mustered and focused on a common good as opposed to the private good we revere now. And talk about defeatist, I don’t think we can do that. In fact, I’m sure of it. History is rife with all of the failed experiments in government and finance, and which are repeated again and again as we fall into the same ruts that current thought demands. We need to find a way to think in terms of everyone else being better, smarter and faster than we as individuals and as long as we continue to canonize so called leaders of government and industry, and canonize ourselves as we do it, we aren’t going to get there. People can’t agree on the simple things so I don’t see them agreeing on this. But something is going to have to change, and it won’t be technology. It needs to be all of us who dedicate our existence to making a totally level playing field that benefits no one greater than someone else.  Everyone needs to be educated, fed, housed and cared for such that no one needs focus on themselves and their own personal need. The same instant one person has more opportunity, human competition will intervene and short circuit humanity again, as it has in the past and still does today.

There are only 42,000 shopping days left before Armagheddon. Better get out there and get what you can, eh?

No kindness unpunished

As both a software developer and a musician, I understand the concept of intellectual property.  While the Internet has done a lot to promote people and their creations, it has also been a devastation to others. I’m not talking about corporate executives snarling that their gravy train has finally left the station. Screw ‘em. They could embrace the internet, drop the high fees and go with volume sales like the other people who successfully converted their businesses to the online market. But I am talking about how the Internet can do what amounts to spiritual damage.

A guy I have never met but is still familiar to me has created a software product that has reasonable utility. It is a method of controlling robots, the primary robot it is aimed at now obsolete and no longer even manufactured. You can still get them on eBay, as one person tires of its somewhat limited scope of utility and moves on to other playthings. Many of us watched as version 1 of this software gave way to version 2 and then 3 and so on, and then stood in line for a long, long time, waiting for version 5. Somewhere along the way, the project stopped being a free gift to those with shared enthusiasm and suddenly became a for profit enterprise. The author wanted to get paid for the after work hours he spent, and he began asking all of his supporters to pay him for his time, claiming that for some reason, his hobby had to become profitable.

As I said at the outset, I fully understand someone wanting to profit from their efforts. So I supported this guy in his endeavors to collect monies to pay him for his time. I didn’t support him with money, I supported him by pointing his project out to a lot of people, and posting about him and his work on a number of the forums I participate in. I know for a fact that I am responsible for five or six of his contributors; they didn’t even know he or his project existed.  As he reported his successful attempts at funding himself though, I watched his loyalty swing towards the people whose names were on the contributors list. Mine is not there, in spite of my supporting efforts. But it wasn’t me I thought of as I read his last missive, which explained that the contributors would get to advise him on further developments, get a more complete version of his product software, and generally get treated better than those whose names did not appear on the money list. As much as I know my support helped him, I also know that others like me did the same. One in particular went so far as to say that he planned to purchase a copy of the so-called “Pro” version when it came out, to support the project. But he had to wait to get money from a distant government dole for his schooling and couldn’t cough up at the moment. But like me, he was out there telling people about the project and helping to generate interest and perhaps donations towards the effort.

I can’t help but see an unfairness in this. Perhaps without the push that this other fella and I did, the project might not have reached its fully funded goals. Yet, in the author’s happily worded thanks for all the help and sent to all of those on his mailing list, I couldn’t help but notice the conspicuous absence of thanks to those who probably did as much or more than he did to promote his project.  The funny part of this is, and I mean that it does strike me as humorous, that I no longer have a personal interest in his project. I have moved on from the tethered world of production robotics into the realms of those I create on my own. What’s more, my computer is starting to get jealous of my various Android devices because I use them for just about everything these days. I am using my tablet right now, in fact. Along with the wireless keyboard I bought for it because I really dislike virtual keyboards and am too clumsy for thumboarding. So in truth, his software won’t run on the systems I use each day, much like the robot, they are rapidly becoming anachronisms in the forward flight of Moore’s Law on technological redoubling. As to the robot in question, I have boxed it up and am getting ready to either sell it on eBay or perhaps give it to my grandson, who is showing a welcome affinity for robots.

I guess my point here is that what happens with the software and its abilities is no longer of much importance to me. But I have to admit that I feel a tinge of irritation at the way that money has become such a forefront issue to the author, and how he has taken for granted the efforts to support him that don’t appear boldly on his bottom line. Of course, there is no real way for the guy to know who it is who has helped him. He could surf the Internet forever and perhaps never locate a post or a comment that mentions him and his project, Google notwithstanding. I’m pretty sure that the people who supported him are not the kind to write to him and say “what about me?” in terms of the perks he is bestowing like a politician on his contributors. Like the politician, he is kow-towing to the money rather than his constituents.  So now, no matter what he does, he is stuck in the proverbial rock and a hard place. He can either forego further profits and continue to hand the full package out for free, or he can step on the people who quietly helped him.  Probably completely unawares, he has placed himself in the category of “them” –as opposed to “us.” He is a profiteer now whether he likes it or not.

While he points out that his project can provide ersatz assistance to those of us with profound handicaps, he has to remember that his product depends on a product that is already obsolete. It will take effort for people to go out and find one of the robots necessary to gain the positive effects for the handicapped that he offers. So I would tend to classify his association with handicapped users as the tiniest fraction of his potential market. I also suspect that the other robots his software supports, that will not perform the aspects he touts for the disabled, will probably see a lot more use than what he’s promoting. I intend to send him a link to this article, not out of anger or cruelty, but to point out what he has done. I think he’s a pretty good guy and didn’t realize the collateral damage created by his rush to reach a funding goal. And, if I happen to decide in my grandson’s favor when it comes to the disposition of the aforementioned robot, I will buy a copy of his Pro software to go along with it, because it will teach the boy something about a few different disciplines in technology.

If push came to shove, I suppose that I would admit that my knowledge of robotics has been improved through the use of his software in the past. And I am one who tries to repay kindness with kindness. As such, I have been very careful in writing this so as not to reveal anything about the author or his product, or even the robot it uses for its greatest features. My aim is to do what he did for me: Pass on a little education. That others too might learn a little something about double edged swords, well, so much the better.