Ed and Pedro


(This is a bit of fiction I’ve been working on or past couple of weeks. Don’t know what to make of it, as it’s different from what I usually write. PLEASE NOTE: Any website I reference here is purely fictional and is not to be confused with actual web sites.)

Ed Barnes lived in a double wide parked on a lot a couple of miles north of town on County Highway T. Divorced three years earlier, he lived alone. His neighbor and frequent drinking partner, Charlie Fielding, lived, also alone, about a mile north of Ed. Half way between them was the tavern, “The Mighty Casey’s,” named for its proprietor, Jack Casey. At the ages of fifty nine and sixty five, neither one of them was a “spring chicken.” This slight difference in age wasn’t small enough to stop Ed from teasing Charlie, calling him “Old Timer” at every opportunity that presented itself. Charlie, with his thin and snow-white hair, acknowledged that he looked older than his years. The fact that he’d recently retired from the Paper Mill only added to his elderly aura. He was good natured about the teasing and had recently taken to calling Ed “whipper-snapper.”

One night, Ed and Charlie were sitting at the Mighty Casey’s when Ed referred to Charlie as an “old timer.”

“I got me another 30 years, whipper-snapper,” Charlie responded.  “Till April 24th, 2048.”

“What do you mean, April 24th, 2048?”

“That’s what the internet says.  Says I’m gonna die on April 24th, 2048. I‘ll be a ripe old 95 by then, and Hell, I’ll probably be ready to go, by that time.”

“What the Hell are you talking about?”

“There’s a web page, the day I die or day or the date of my death, whatever.  Anyway, you send them some of your spit so they can get your DNA, and you give ‘em permission to access whoever’s got info on you, and you answer a bunch of questions, like do you smoke, your diet, and so on, and they take all the info and look at it and calculate how many days you got left, and they list which days have the highest percentage chance of you dying on.  April 24, 2048 came up with a 3.6 percent chance of being my last day, and that was highest, so …”

“3.6 percent chance was the highest?” Ed asked, unimpressed.

“Yeah.  Doesn’t sound like much, does it.  But put it another way: Thirty years, that’s about 10,000 days. It says April 24, 2048 has a 3. 6 percent chance. There’s almost four out of 100, or 2 out of 50, or 1 out of 25 chance, and when you consider that the stakes couldn’t be higher, one out of twenty five compared to one out of ten thousand don’t seem so low, now does it?”

“Does it tell you how you’re gonna die?

“It does.  Aspirational pneumonia. 11% chance. That’s based on all of my medical history.”

“Yeah, and then you walk out into the parking lot tonight and get run over by a big bus. You can’t predict that, no matter what your family and health history look like. Ain’t no way nobody can predict that.”

“Well, that’s true,” Charlie acknowledged.

The conversation moved on to other subjects, like the Green Bay Packers or the usual random topic of the night that they’d obsess on for a couple of weeks. This week it was what the difference between a midget and a dwarf is. Charlie took the position there wasn’t a difference and Ed insisted that there was but forgetting exactly what it was. “I think a dwarf might be slightly taller,” he said, but Charlie insisted that wasn’t the case and brought up Snow White and her seven little companions as supposed proof. The debate raged on through the night without a resolution. By nine ‘clock, Ed, already well on his way to intoxi-land, had completely forgotten about Charlie’s appointment with eternity on April24, 2048.

At two A.M. they closed the bar, with Jack Casey himself giving them both a short drive home.  This was not uncommon, as both men lived within walking distance (when sober) of the bar, and Jack had a vested self interest in preserving two of his primary sources of revenue. By eleven o’clock he’d already asked for and taken possession of their car keys.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, while sitting reading e-mail, that Ed remembered the conversation where Charlie learned his most likely date of death.  What a crock of crap, Ed thought. Charlie is so gullible. Ed just had to see what kind of cornball site this was.  He googled “death date calculator,” and after scrolling down to the third page of search results, his eye was caught by an entry that said, “Personal Death Date Calculator (PDDC.com)”  “The most accurate and comprehensive personal death date calculator on the web.”  His curiosity piqued, he clicked on the link.  Instead of the amateurish, gaudy looking page he was assuming he’d find, he was presented with a professional and clean looking design.  “Your Personal Day of Death Calculator” the banner read, and the menu below included links labelled “About Us,” “Why a personal day of death calculator,” and “The intelligence behind the PDDC (“Personal Death Date Calculator”)”

Ed clicked first on the “About Us” and found that the PDDC was the work of a consortium of egghead professors from Harvard and M.I.T., with a large number of lengthy and academic articles about the technology and methodology that went into the development of the tools that comprised the PDDC. It was mostly over Ed’s head- the little bit he gleaned from it was that it was based on a core engine of Artificial Intelligence that was constantly and independently changing and evolving, self-enhancing its algorithm to encompass all of the additional data it was constantly asking for and that the consortium was getting it access to in order to make the algorithm more accurate. It was a continuous need for improved accuracy that drove the core module.

The goal of the PDDC wasn’t so much the calculations as it was proving AI theory. The consortium wanted to develop a tool that was charged with one task: to solve a complex and unprovable problem and in the process become self-aware enough to understand its own limitations and, without any additional human intervention, reconfigure and modify itself to get better results.

One of the many academic papers written by a Dr. Harold Osgood described examples of how the tool evolved and learned. The first version of the tool was incredibly simplistic, arriving at a conclusion based upon a rudimentary questionnaire the user filled out  on-line and a limited number of public records of aggregate patient outcomes, for example by age and gender. The tool quickly grew frustrated by the limitations of the data it had access to and it asked the consortium to provide it access to a wide variety of data, from insurance actuaries to police records to gun registry databases. The consortium, well-funded by a powerful and well-connected board of directors, had little difficulty in granting the tool access to all of the data it’d asked for.  The tool would then modify itself and the algorithm to take advantage of the additional data it had been given access to. The results were impressive: the estimated dates did in fact grow more accurate, as the tool took advantage of its unending capacity for data and unlimited processing power to crunch millions of records and images related to any individual and to calculate and spit out the likeliest date of his demise within a handful of seconds.

Ed was pondering all of this when he finally clicked on the link to calculate his own PDD. It made him go through a login and authentication process, and then presented him with an epically long “read me” document that he blew past to click on the “continue on to the PDDC.” His screen refreshed with a new page, with the heading, “Calculate your Personal Day of Death (PDD)”

He clicked on the button.

The screen refreshed and went blank before displaying the following

 

Your Top Five Calculated Personal Death Dates are:

Rank      Date      % of Chance       Cause

1           11/6/2018            25.3%    Car Accident

2           6/30/2039               2.4%   Pneumonia

3         3/14/2029                1.9%   Heart Failure

4           9/1/2040                 1.3%   Dysentery

5           8/11/2051               1.1%   Nuclear Holocaust

 

Everything on the first line stunned him.  November sixth was less than six months away. And a twenty five percent chance when all the other dates are less than two and a half percent?  And how the Hell did it come up with “car accident?” Ed was a good driver, with only one ticket in more than forty years of driving, a failure to come to a complete stop more than thirty years ago. He’d never been in an accident of any kind.

The site said that, with the constant additional data and the continuous evolving of its core algorithm that results would vary over multiple attempts. Ed assumed that he’d caught the algorithm in the middle of a transition, so he queried again.  The same five dates displayed on the screen but the percentages had changed slightly, including a bumping up to a 27.2% chance thst he’d die in a car accident on

November 6th.

Ed became increasingly unnerved when subsequent re-calculations over the next days and weeks always showed an increase in the percentage associated with November 6th until two weeks later, on May8th, the percentage had risen to 53%.  The cause, however, always remained the same: car accident.

He told Charlie about it and, once he was able to convince Charlie that he wasn’t bullshitting, Charlie re-ran his own calculation. Much to Ed’s chagrin, Charlies’ prediction remained roughly the same each time, changing a tenth of a percentage point or so, but never rising above 4%, and always predicting April 24, 2048 as the number one date.

By June 9th, Ed’s percentage was up to 71%. After weeks of looking, he finally found a customer support number for the website. It was an 888 number, and the voice on the other end had a thick Indian or Pakistani accent. Oh, great, Ed thought, it’s one of them foreign call centers. So much for making America great again.

“Welcome to PDDC.Com.  My name is Sandeep. How may I help you?”

I’m sure the sand is deep there, Ed thought. In his mind’s image, Sandeep was wearing a turban, making him Muslim and misplacing Pakistan into the sub-Sahara landscape he’d seen so often on television. Geography never was his strongest subject.

“Yeah, I’ve got a couple of questions about my PDD?”

“Okay.”

Ed cleared his throat. “First of all, it says November 6th of this year is my most likely date.”

“Oh, well, sir, it’s just the results of a scenario the tool calculated in a simulation.  Overall, it’s been proven to be accurate less than ten percent of the time.”

“Well, it says that it has 71% confidence in my date.”

“Yes, sir, you …wait.  It says what percent?”

“Seventy one.”

“71? Are you sure?”

“Damn straight I’m sure.”

It was obvious even a half world away to Ed that Sandeep was shaken.

“71 percent?”

“That’s right.”

“Sir, are you in the last stages of a terminal disease? I’m sorry to ask …”

“No, no, that’s okay. I’m not. And that’s the thing.  The cause of death it says is car accident.”

“Car accident?”

“That’s right. Car accident.”

“Do you… do you have a history of accidents?”

“No!  That’s just it! Been driving over 40 years, all that time, just one minor traffic ticket and no accidents!  And that ticket was more than thirty years ago.”

Sandeep had no explanation.  He said he’d take Ed’s issue to his manager.

On the fourth of July, the calculation had risen to 83%. Ed became completely obsessed with November 6th, now only four months away. Up to this point, Charlie was the only one who knew anything about Ed’s PDD. Other people noticed changes in Ed’s behavior; that he seemed distracted and looked tired. The truth was that he was exhausted. Each night found him lying awake, tossing and turning, until he could stand it no more. He’d get up, throw his robe on, and sit down at his laptop on the kitchen table, and he’d login to pddc.com and see if the percentage had gone down, only to be disappointed when it went up again. It reached 90% by the first of August. When he did fall asleep, he was soon awakened from vivid nightmares of colliding cars, the sound of twisting metal and breaking glass, air bags failing to deploy, shards of iron penetrating his skin, or he’d be outside of the car, lying on his back on the pavement, unable to move, the smell of gasoline filling his nostrils, his shirt soaking wet from the fuel draining out of the car that had tipped over on its side, it’s underbelly exposed and bleeding fuel that spilled out onto the pavement and ran and pooled beneath him. The pool spread out next to him when it finally reached the small red and yellow flame, and the gas ignited and its stream became a stream of fire, headed for where Ed lay on the pavement, unable to move. He’d wake up just before the flames consumed him, shaken and shaking, sitting straight up in the dark.

By mid-September the percentage of certainty had climbed to 95. Ed found himself out of work after losing his job as a clerk at the Ace Hardware store. He’d missed too many days, and the days he made it in, he was distracted and irritable.  The end came a day after a thunderstorm flooded much of the valley when a young guy, late twenties or early thirties, tried to negotiate the price of a new sump pump down when Ed lost control, screaming at the guy, “What, 79 bucks is too much for you? You stupid Mother Fucker, how about I take this hose here and shove it up your ass?” His manager, Jeff Reardon, was just an aisle away and heard he whole thing.  He immediately fired Ed, telling him to get out and to never come back, right there in the middle of the store.

October. Charlie felt bad for his old friend.  He was still the only one who knew about Ed’s PDD.  He invited Ed to join him for Senior’s day, the first Tuesday of the month, at the Turtle Lake casino.  Charlie put Ed at ease for most of the day. It helped that Ed won a total of 75 bucks at the slot machines. Before going home, they stopped at the Mighty Casey’s for the first time in weeks, Ed happily sharing his casino winnings with the sparse crowd at the bar.

They left shortly after midnight, Ed climbing in to the passenger seat of Charlie’s Ford Taurus.

“Thanks, Charlie.  That was the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time.”

“I’m glad to hear that.  Should we plan on going next month?”

Earlier in the evening, Ed had already checked the calendar. “I’m afraid not,” he said. “The first Tuesday in November happens to be the sixth.”

“Oh,” Charlie said.

“No,” Ed said, “I’m gonna stay in that whole week.  Figure I can’t get into a car crash if I don’t get into a car.’

“That’s right,” Charlie agreed. “Stupid fucking calculator.”

“Fuck the odds.  I beat ‘em today at the slots, and I’ll kick their ass on November  6th, too.”

For a couple of days, Ed’s spirits rose, and he was convinced that the tool had some flaw causing his erroneous calculation. I just won’t get in a car that day, he said. In fact, I won’t get out of bed all day.  For anything. He felt good, and said a private Fuck you to ppdc.com

But chat changed when, on October 10th, the PDDC calculated a 100% degree of certainty.  In fact, so certain the tool now was of November sixth that every other day now had a zero percent chance of being his PDD. Ed fell deep into the depths of despair.  Taking inventory of his life, it all added up to a big fat nothing.  Here he was, possibly at the end of life, unemployed and alone in a trailer house in the middle of nowhere. His relationship with the only two people left that he’d ever loved, his ex-wife and his son, was non-existent, and he hadn’t talked to either one in three years. His life had been a complete failure.

Charlie tried to lift him out of the darkness he’d succumbed to without success. He couldn’t even get Ed to go with him to the Mighty Casey’s.

On October 31st, a week before the big day, Ed woke up to sunshine and with a new resolve. If it was all going to end on the sixth, he had one week to make things right. He got dressed and went out and got in his car for what he’d promised would be the last time until November 14th – he wasn’t going to tempt fate by getting in a car for a week before to a week after.  He got in his car and headed west, focused and alert. As he drove west and crossed the state line into Minnesota, he felt a combination of conviction and apprehension. He practiced what he was going to say as he pulled off into the side streets of a quaint, upwardly mobile neighborhood.

Then he found himself standing in the vestibule of an old and elegant brick apartment house. He read the green plastic adhesive label on the wall that said, “Barnes / Green – 2A.” Beneath the label was a button and a little speaker, mounted into the plaster wall. Ed took a deep breath and pressed the button. The speaker buzzed and clicked.

“Yes?”

It’d been three years since he last heard it, yet Ed instantly recognized Kurt’s voice.

“Kurt? Kurt, is that …”

“Press the button while you speak.”

“Oh, okay, Kurt,” Ed said before pressing the button again. “Kurt, is that you?

“This is Kurt. Who are you?”

“This is Ed Barnes.  Paul’s father.”

A heavy silence followed.

“Is Paul home?” Ed asked, pressing the button. For what seemed to Ed to be about five minutes but was actually only 30 seconds or so, the same heavy silence persisted. Just as Ed aimed his finger at the button again, he heard, from behind the walls of the vestibule, the sound of feet running down stairs. Then a door opened and out stepped Paul Barnes, Ed’s son, putting on a blue jacket.

“Dad?” he said.

“Hi, Paul.” Ed smiled, involuntarily, and he realized it was an authentic smile. Before him stood his son, three years older than the last time he saw him, but still unmistakably his son, it was Paul.

“Dad, why are you here? Is something wrong?”

“No, nothing’s wrong. Can I come in? I want to talk to you.”

“Umm, I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Kurt’s studying for his certification. It’s pretty intense.”

“I understand.  Is there a place around here I could buy you a beer?”

“How about a cup of coffee?”

“That’d work.”

“Okay, there’s a coffee shop on the next street.”

“All right.”

They started walking through the late afternoon grey and quickly fell into a familiar but uncomfortable silence.

“So, how’s life in the big city?” Ed started.

“Dad, you haven’t spoken to me in three years. I’m guessing that you didn’t come here just to make small talk.  What’s going on? Why are you here?”

Ed didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know whether to tell Paul about pddc.com or not to. He decided that he wouldn’t mention it, that it’d only complicate the conversation and dilute what he wanted to say.

“There’s nothing going on, son. I’ve just been thinking about things, that’s all.”

They came to the coffee shop and entered, Paul first, Ed behind him. They sat at a table near the back. The menu was printed in white chalk on a black slate. Ed didn’t know what any of the items were; “cappuccino” sounded familiar but he didn’t know what the Hell even that was.  He looked around. The shop was busy, about half of the tables were filled, populated by smartly dressed up-scale young twenty-something people. Ed, in his wrinkled old brown wind breaker with the words “The Mighty Casey’s” printed in fading yellow letters on the back, felt as out of place as he looked. At the same time, he noticed how much Paul did fit in, and he felt genuinely happy that Paul had found his people, and that unlike his father, at least Paul was not desperately alone.

The barista, a stunning brunette with deep blue eyes and curves that were all the buttons on her blouse could do to keep in place, took their orders. Ed let Paul order first, some kind of mocha latte concoction, so that when it was time for him to order, he just said, “ditto for me.” The barista smiled so warmly at Ed that he melted, only regathering himself when he realized the smile was probably because he reminded her of her father or grandfather, a product of time and genetics, not passion and romance.

“So,” Paul said, “about all this thinking you’ve been doing …”

“Yes,” Ed said. “I wanted to tell you how wrong I was, three years ago…”

“But I already knew that, didn’t I? In fact, I seem to remember telling you how wrong you were.”

“Yeah, but …”

“So,” Paul interrupted, “you’re really not telling me anything I didn’t already know, now are you?

“Paul, I …”

“All this thinking it’s taken you three years – THREE YEARS – to do, and all you can come up with is that you were wrong? That took three years?”

Ed was struggling to find a response to Paul.  Paul was right, and Ed knew it.  It would have meant more if he’d said it the day after that horrible day three years ago, the time when he first had the epiphany that he’s still Paul, he’s still the same boy he always was, the boy he loved, he boy he’d built his life around, and now he was going to graduate college, the first Barnes to ever do that.  I was so proud of him, Ed thought, up to that moment when he told  Ed and Sylvia that he preferred men to women, and that after they graduate, him and Kurt were going to live together, going to give it a shot.

The bustle in the coffee shop was dimming and the crowd was thinning. The barista called out “Barnes,” and Paul got up and came back with two steaming cups, setting one down in front of Ed before returning the other cup back to his chair, across the table from Ed.

Ed said nothing.  He just put his left hand up as if to say, “Hold on.” His right hand reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out an old photograph of Ed and Paul, from about fifteen years earlier, when Ed was forty four and Paul was twelve.  They’d just put their canoe in at Ebsen’s boat launch on the Ojibway River. The sky was steel grey, muting the colors on the shoreline into a dull shade of green. Paul was sitting in the front of the canoe, and Ed in the back. Between them, in the middle of the canoe was their packs and all their gear. Ed and Paul were looking back at the camera, both waving to the photographer on the shore, Slyvia, not in the photo but her presence was obvious as the target of Ed and Paul’s waving hands.

“Remember this?” Ed asked, handing the photo to Paul.

“Yeah, “he said, his tone softening. “That’s the camping trip we took up to Raven Eye. God, I’d all but forgotten about that weekend.”

“Well,” Ed said, “I’ve thought about that a weekend a lot, and I always come to the same conclusion: that it was the best time of my life, that I’ve never been happier.”

“Cripes,” Paul said, “remember how hard it rained that night? And the thunder and the lightning? Man, I was so scared.”

“I remember,” Ed said. “Everything was soaked.”

Ed remembered that the storm passed thru quickly, lasting fifteen, maybe twenty intense minutes, and then it blew all the clouds away, revealing the previously unseen night sky, an explosion of stars and dust splattered against the black backdrop of infinity, low enough for them to reach out and grab from where they lay on their backs in their sleeping bags on the ground. They took handfuls of stardust and spread it in their sleeping bags, and their warmth quickly dried them out and the ground they laid on, too. They laid there, side by side, talking and pointing at the sky until they fell asleep, in the open outside air, with Paul’s head on Ed’s chest.

“You’re right, Paul,” Ed began. “It didn’t take me three years to figure out how wrong I was.  I knew I was wrong, Hell, I knew I was wrong even as I said all those words. It was like I was outside of myself, listening to this raving lunatic. No, what took me three years was the shame I felt for doing what I did to you. I just want to tell you that I understand now, that you’re still the brave boy who sat out a thunderstorm in the woods in the middle of the night. And I also understand the courage it takes for you to just be you, especially as long as there are idiots like me out there.  And that makes me proud of you, Paul. That’s what I didn’t know three years ago, that I’m so proud to call you my son.”

On his way home, Ed realized he had two more stops to make. The sun was almost down when he turned off of State Highway 21, also known, for the mile and a half  stretch through the town of Neil, as Main Street. He turned right at the corner the Citgo station occupied into a neighborhood of 1960s era ranch homes. About a block into the neighborhood he pulled to the side of the road and parked in front of a blue house. There was a big maple tree in the front yard, with just a few orange leaves remaining, the majority having fallen and been raked into neat piles on the lawn.

Sylvia had remarried about a year earlier, a man named Sid Powers.  Ed knew Sid as just a guy he’d see every now and then at the Mighty Casey’s. Charlie knew him better, as a co-worker at the paper mill.

Ed walked up the driveway and stood on the front porch. He rang the doorbell. The door opened and Sid was standing there.

“Hi, Sid,” Ed said.

“Ed, what the Hell are you doing here?”

“I need to talk to Sylvia. Is she around?”

“Yeah, she’s out back,” Sid replied.  Then, turning toward the back of the house, he yelled, “Sylvia, your ex is here.”

“Tell him I’ll be there in a second,” her voice called out.

Ed and Sid stood awkwardly in the living room, waiting for Sylvia.

“I heard you lost your job at Ace,” Sid said.

Ed didn’t reply.

“Well, I sure hope you didn’t come round here looking for money or anything.”

“Sid, “ Ed said, and before he could finish saying “go fuck yourself,” Sylvia entered the room.

“What’s up, Ed?” she said. It sounded to Ed like she was trying a little too hard to be matter-of-fact about the sight of her ex-husband standing in her living room.

“Sylvia,” Ed said, “I’ve got to talk to you.”

“Okay,” she replied. She shot Sid a glare and he took the hint right away, disappearing into the basement rec room, where the sounds from a distant television murmured and whispered like crickets on a summer night. Ed followed Sylvia into the kitchen. “Do you want a beer?” she asked as she opened the refrigerator door.

“Sure,” he answered.  She reached in and brought out two cans of beer, handing one to Ed and opening the other for herself.

“So I hear you got fired from Ace.”

“Yeah,” he replied, “seems like every one has heard.”

“That temper of yours again. I s’pose you didn’t know that the guy you went off on is the Mayor’s son.”

“No shit.”

“So,” Sylvia said. “What is it you wanna talk about? You ain’t sick or nothing, are you?”

“No, no, nothing like that. Just wanted to let you know that I saw Paul today.

“You what? Where did you see Paul?”

“At his apartment. In Minneapolis.”

“No. Why?”

“I wanted to make things right with him.”

“And how did that go?”

“Well, at first he wasn’t having any of it, and I don’t blame him.  But after a while, I think I got through to him, and we ended up having a real nice visit.”

“Oh, my God,” she said, putting her hand to her mouth. “You’re dying, aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not, I’m just …”

“Yes you are.  You’re dying. First you go to Paul, then you come here.  What is it? Your heart? Cancer? How long do you have?”

“It’s nothing like that ….”

“Don’t even try to bullshit me. How long do you have? Tell me!”

Ed finally told her about pddc.com and that according to its calculation it was 100% certain that he was going to die on the following Tuesday.

When he finished, she sat motionless for a moment. She finally spoke, carefully choosing her words.

“So let me get this straight,” she started. “You’re going around making up with all the people you’ve wronged because some half-baked web site says you’re going to die next Tuesday?” She was laughing as she said, “And it says you’re going to die in a car crash, no less. Jesus Christ, Ed, when did you get so fucking gullible?”

Ed took a sip of beer and didn’t reply.

“I mean, it ain’t like you got a brain tumor, or lung cancer or anything. I was really worried there for a second, only to find out its’s just, just…website-us”

Ed finished his beer and left shortly afterwards. He wasn’t angry with Sylvia. He was a little bit embarrassed. But mostly he was appreciative for the perspective. He’d been so close to this for so long that he’d forgotten how crazy the whole thing sounded.

It was dark when he turned back onto Main Street. It’d been a long day, but he had one more stop to make.

It was 8:30 when he pulled into the IGA parking lot. He took out the list he’d carefully been preparing for the past several days. The night before he’d stocked up on batteries, light bulbs, candles, and flashlights at the Loewe’s over in Ashby. The list he held in his right hand now consisted of items and quantities to get him through two weeks without using his car.

At 10:30 he finally pulled into his short driveway off Highway T. Before he began unloading the groceries, he walked to the back of the lot and stood on the banks of the Ojibway River. He removed his car keys from the key chain and hurled them into the darkness, pleased to hear them splash in the quiet of the night.

The next two days, Wednesday and Thursday, went by quietly. Ed kept himself busy with odd jobs around the house. Charlie started making morning visits to his old friend, checking to see if there was anything Ed needed. He was surprised to find Ed relatively relaxed and good-natured compared to the anxious and irritable versio0n of him that’d dominated the previous weeks.

Friday, November 2nd – Ed was eating breakfast when his phone rang. The caller identified himself as Dr. Harold Osgood from pddc.com.  It took a while for Ed to determine where he’d heard the name before, and he remembered him as the author of many of the articles on the “about us” link on pddc.com.

“I’ve been following your case since your inquiry to our call center.” Ed was pleased that Sandeep did actually escalate his call; that it made it all the way up the chain to the founder of pddc.com.

“Yes,” Ed said.  Have I got questions for you!”

“I can only imagine,” Dr. Osgood replied. “The problem is that I am quite certain I have no answers.”

“You mean …”

“I’m sure your first question is whether you are going to die on Tuesday or not.”

“Well, for starters, yes …”

“Well, I really have no idea. You see, when I designed Pedro …”

“Pedro?

“I’m sorry.  Pedro was the project’s nickname, if you will. Pedro was designed as a test of Artificial Intelligence, a kind of experiment, if you will.”

That’s two “if you wills,” Ed silently counted.

“In order to test his AI possibilities, we had to give Pedro a purpose,” Osgood continued. “We settled on a day of death calculator, with the only other goal to continuously improve its accuracy. This, having a purpose, and ongoing survival, are the two primary elements of self-awareness. Well, much to our astonishment, Pedro evolved faster and in ways that we could never have predicted.”

“What do you mean?

“For example, when we initially programmed Pedro and his underlying algorithm, Pedro would ask us for access to new data.  That stopped after only a few days, and at first we thought, well, that’s that. But after a week of no requests, Pedro was caught hacking into a department of defense database. We tried to shut him down, but soon after, replicas of Pedro popped up all over the globe. There had been no trail or any clue indicating it had self-replicated.”

“But what makes it think it can predict things like car accidents?” Ed asked.

“We don’t know. We can no longer access the algorithm, so we don’t know how it’s changed.”

“Sounds like Pedro is smarter than you guys.”

“Precisely.  But what do you expect – Pedro can process millions and millions of data points within seconds. It would take a thousand years for humans to do what Pedro can in less than a minute.”

“So in the meantime, what do I do on Tuesday?”

“What do you plan to do?”

“Absolutely nothing. I’ve already thrown my car keys into the river, and stocked up on enough supplies that I won’t have to leave my house even if I have to. Figure I can’t get into a car accident if I don’t get in a car.”

“That sounds wise. Minimize risk, if you will.”

Bingo, Ed thought. He’d hit the “if you will” trifecta.

“Well,” Osgood said, ”I’m sure that you’ll be fine. In the end this is probably a rare bug in Pedro’s algorithm. My prayers are with you.”

Ed got off the phone not sharing Dr. Osgood’s optimism. What the fuck, he thought, these guys unleash the devil incarnate and then throw up their arms?

Saturday, November 3rd – Ed told Charlie about his conversation with Dr. Osgood about “Pedro.” Charlie reacted positively, saying that if it sounded as weird to Osgood as it did to them, then there was real hope that Osgood was right when he suspected this to all be a rare bug in Pedro.

Sunday, November 4th.  Charlie came over to Ed’s house and watched the Packer game with him. The sixth was only two days away, but Ed wouldn’t even take one of the beers that Charlie offered him. I don’t want to do anything that might take away my edge, Ed said. He looked exhausted. Charlie asked him when was the last time he’d slept.  I got about an hour in this morning, Ed replied. This is no way to live, Charlie said, and Ed said it’s no way to die, either. Charlie tried to get Ed to come over to his house, that the trailer was closing in on him and the change of scenery would probably do him good, but Ed said he wasn’t going to take any chances.

Monday, November fifth – The day began at 7:30 in the morning, with Charlie calling Ed  on the telephone.

“Ed, google Dr. Harold Osgood”

Ed was still groggy from another night of apprehension and terror. ‘Why?” he mumbled.

“He’s dead!”

“Huh? Who?”

“Osgood! He’s dead! And that’s not even it!”

“Slow down, Charlie, slow down.”

“Ed,” he paused to catch his breath. “When did Osgood call you?”

“Um, I dunnno, I guess it was …”

“Friday!” Charlie said at the same time Ed said “Friday.”

“So?” Ed asked.

“It says here that Osgood died Thursday night in his home. Cause of death unknown.”

“Let me see,” Ed said. He sat down at his computer and googled “Dr. Harold Osgood.” The results showed a variety of links to articles by and about the noted Harvard professor and pioneer in Artificial Intelligence, but nothing about his death. They argued about the difference in their search results when Charlie offered to print his results out and to bring them over. While Ed sat waiting for Charlie, he decided to check his PDD again.

Rank      Date      % of Chance       Cause

1           6/30/2039               3.7%   Pneumonia

2         3/14/2029                3. 1%  Heart Failure

3           7/31/2032               2.3%   Liver Cancer

4           12/1102/2051        1.1%   Intestinal blockage

5           12/19/2043            0.9%  Bladder infection

Ed rubbed his eyes until they hurt and looked at the screen again. It was gone! For the first time, 11/06, tomorrow, didn’t show up as his most likely PDD. Then, to be sure, he clicked on 11/6/18 in the calendar option, and Pedro returned a zero percent chance of death.  Ed jumped up, raised his right fist, and screamed, “Yessssss.”

Just then Charlie pulled up with his printouts. He let himself in. Ed was grinning ear to ear, and had color in his face that Charlie hadn’t seen for weeks.

“Look!  Just look!” he yelled, pointing at the screen. “It’s broke! Pedro’s magic spell on me has been broken!”

Charlie looked at the screen.  He was holding the manila envelope with the printouts of Dr. Osgood’s death in his right hand. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. Ed took his left arm and the two of them danced a silly little jig, right there in Ed’s kitchen.

When they stopped, Ed caught his breath and asked Charlie, “what you got there?” pointing at Charlie’s right hand.

Charlie had forgotten he was even holding anything.  He looked at the folder, and said, “These are the articles I was telling you about. About Dr. Osgood dying last Thursday.”

“Well, better him than me!” Ed laughed.

Charlie wasn’t laughing. He remembered why he was there, in Ed’s trailer.  “Ed, you talked to him on Friday.

Ed wasn’t having any of Charlie’s pessimism. “Well, maybe they got the date wrong in the news release.”

“This was from Friday morning’s Boston Globe. It would have been published before Osgood called you.”

They did a YouTube search and found several videos of lectures and interviews featuring Osgood.  Thirty seconds into playing the first video Osgood said, “if you will.”

“That’s the voice, alright,” Ed confirmed.

“So what’s going on?” Charlie said. “Thursday night, Osgood dies.  Friday afternoon, he calls you. This morning, I google Osgood and find all these articles about him dying, but when you google him, nothing mentions his death. Then pddc.com tells you there is now a zero percent chance of you dying tomorrow.”

As the day wore on, Charlie’s concern about the turns of events eroded Ed’s sense of relief until it got to the point that neither one of them trusted Pedro. Charlie was the first to speculate that perhaps it was Pedro using Dr. Osgood’s voice that had actually called Ed. They also began to theorize that the sudden zero percent chance of Ed dying on the sixth may have been a ruse by Pedro, meant to inspire enough confidence in Ed to get him to drop his guard and get in a car.  Both Ed and Charlie had come to the conclusion that Pedro was manipulating data and events in order to get an accurate death date on Ed, given that as pddc.com’s first 100% prediction, there was a lot at stake in ensuring an accurate outcome.

Tuesday, November 6th.  Ed was still awake when the day officially began, at midnight. As the date on his laptop’s display updated to 11/06/2018, he logged into pddc.com and checked his percentage chances of dying that day. Much to his horror, he found the percentage had jumped to 100% again. He felt his chest constrict as all the air seemed to be sucked out of his lungs. So much for any sleep that night.

It turned out that his big day was shared with an election day, the day the mid-term elections would be decided. Ed wanted badly to vote, but even during the brief period where his chance of dying that day was zero percent did he even consider making the five mile trek to the polling place. He’d have to exercise his constitutional right some other time.

At 7:00 A.M., Charlie stopped by on his way to vote. Ed informed him of the spike in his odds.  Charlie, always one for conspiracy theories, couldn’t help but suspect foul play, and that Pedro was manipulating them.  Ed of course declined Charlie’s obligatory offer to drive Ed to the polls. Charlie left, promising Ed he’d stop by McDonald’s as soon as he’d voted and bring him a Sausage McMuffin.

7:45 A.M.  Ed’s phone rang. Checking the caller ID before answering, he saw it was Charlie, and he picked up.

“Ed,” Charlie said, breathing hard, his voice wild with emotion. “You wouldn’t believe it!”

“What?”

“I got T-Boned this morning!”

“You what?”

“I got T-Boned! At the intersection before McDonalds! This jerk in an S.U.V ran the four way stop just as I was going through.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, just twisted my back a little bit. But Ed, here’s the thing.  He hit my car smack dab on the passenger side.  Caved it in all the way next to me, but I’m sitting there, my face full of air bag, without a scratch.  But if anybody had been sitting there, they ‘d be dead for sure.  You remember me asking you, almost joking, if you wanted a ride to vote this morning?”

“Yeah …”

“Well, if you’d of come with, you’d be dead right now, and ol’ Pedro would have his date.”

“Shit,” Ed said.  He felt he color leave his face. “Do you suppose, Charlie, that that’s it?  Do you suppose I’m safe now?”

“Shit, I dunno,” Charlie said.  He heard the desperateness in his old friend’s voice and he ached for his behalf.

“Well, can you stop by?” Ed asked.

“I could but I ain’t got a ride. My Ford, she’s a-totaled.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t come out and get you.”

“Hell, no, I wouldn’t think of asking you.  Not today. After I’m done with the police, I’ll call my daughter up, see if she can run out. I’ll keep you posted.”

They hung up.  Ed checked pddc.com to see if Charlie’s accident had decreased the likelihood of Ed’s.  He was disappointed to find it still at 100%, but then he reasoned that there hadn’t been any time yet for the accident to have been reported yet made available to pddc.com.

The morning dragged on. It was a typical November day, cold out, the sky an unrelenting gray pressing down on Ed until it felt like his feet were three foot deep in the earth. Every muscle in his body ached from exhaustion. Minutes lasted for hours.  At noon, Charlie finally called Ed. The police were finished making their report. He was going to have lunch with his daughter and his grandson and wanted to know if he could bring anything back for Ed, since he was never able to make good on his offer for breakfast.  Ed politely declined, and told Charlie to enjoy the time with his family.  At about 2:30 PM, Charlie’s grandson, Travis Dean, took Charlie home in his Dodge Ram truck. Although only 19, Travis had been an apprentice in his dad’s electrical contractor business, and was now making a good living as a free-lance electrician. He was one of the few guys his age who could afford a new truck. On their way to Charlie’s house, they stopped by Ed’s trailer. To say Ed was appreciative of the company would be an understatement.

For  the rest of the afternoon, Charlie and Travis stayed and visited with Ed. Ed always enjoyed talking to Travis, talking shop about new construction projects Travis had taken on. Charlie hoped that Travis could take Ed’s mind off of things, and he did, at least to the extent that Ed was capable of letting go of his fear. The three of them ate dinner together, Ed’s famous meat loaf.  The evening went on into night.  Ed and Charlie hadn’t let Travis in on the Pedro situation. They told stories about their careers, people they knew, and places they’d been. Finally, as the night was slowing down, Travis looked at his watch.

“Well, it’s 10:00.  I’ve gotta work tomorrow, guys.  I’ve gotta get going. Come on, gramps, let’s go.”

It was a Wisconsin good bye, as the three of them stood in the front doorway to Ed’s trailer and said goodbye but not leaving until they’d discussed the weather and what the prospectus for the upcoming deer hunting season looked like. Charlie looked apologetically at Ed. Ed looked at his laptop, the only time keeping device he owned.  It said it was 10:37.  They said their final goodbyes and they were gone, the black night devouring Charlie and Travis the instant they stepped off of the font steps, outside the reach of the yellowish glow of the porch light.

Before leaving Charlie, Travis went inside with him to borrow Charlie’s reciprocating saw for a tear-down project he’d been working on. Charlie put on a pot of coffee for Travis, to keep him awake on his hour drive home. Ed called while Travis was still there, feeling relieved and confident, now that the dreaded day was only ten minutes away from ending. They hung up so Charlie could say goodbye to Travis. By the time Travis pulled out of Charlie’s driveway, the clock on Charlie’s living room wall read 11:35. He didn’t think anything of it at first, but then it hit him.  In a near panic, he picked up the phone and called Ed. It rang and rang, at least fifteen times, but Ed never answered.

Ed had been sitting behind his laptop, watching the seconds count down in the Windows clock display. 23:45:15,then 23:56:19,and then the final countdown: 23:59:55, 56,57,58, 59, 00:00:00 Wednesday, November 7th. He leapt up and punched his fist in the air. “I’m alive, “he screamed. Then he ran out of the house, on to the yard, yelling, “I’m alive, I’m alive!”

Travis Dean had just left his grandfather’s house when he looked at the dashboard of his truck.  The time was 11:30 and the only light was his headlight beams illuminating the mist that rose from the Ojibway River.   Just then the check engine light came on and the truck started beeping loudly, and all the lights on the dashboard lit, including one he’d never seen before. As he tried to figure out what was going on, as the lights were flashing, he could feel as well as hear the dull thwack of his truck hitting something head on, and he realized he was heading off of the road for a ditch.  He tried to get the truck back on the road, but before he could it tipped, on its side. He hit his head against the driver door and was knocked unconscious, laying there upside down in the cab of his pickup truck.  The dashboard was dark, with none of the warning lights that had all suddenly flashed and distracted Travis still lit.

Ed lay there, in his front yard, Travis Dean’s Dodge Ram lying on its side atop of him. He was crushed, his ribs shattered and his lungs collapsed. He’d already gone into shock, the pain subsiding, and within seconds he stopped breathing, and his heart stopped beating. Inside the double-wide, on the kitchen table, his laptop sat unattended.  Nobody even checked the time to notice that it was fast, a half hour into the future.

Seventy three miles away, in Minneapolis, Paul Barnes was sound asleep when he was presented with an image of the night sky.  Millions of stars shone against a backdrop of the green cosmic dust of the universe that glowed and shimmered. His father was standing next to him, the light above them reflected and refracted in his dark eyes. Ed smiled, slightly, and then he was gone.

At the same time, in a darkened computer room in a computer lab in some unspecified Midwestern college, red and blue lights blinked on and off, and in a database containing thousands of files, a field in a table named PDDC_METRICS labelled “ACTUAL_DAY_OF_DEATH with a primary key of 6527423997US was updated with the value, 110620182338.

 

Advertisements

Inside the Comfort Zone


Okay, I guess I’ve been gone long enough. Still don’t have any new material to post,  but I expect that to change in the next few days. In the meantime, here’s what I can offer:

I recently (about a week and a half ago) tried my hand at oral storytelling for a second time.  My voice held out long enough, and I wasn’t nervous at all, as I’d committed my piece to memory pretty effectively.  I shouldn’t have worn my baseball cap, as my face was always in its shadow (although I look better that way).  The video of my pefromance is here:

The written version of the piece (several years old now) can be found here:

https://djgourdoux.com/2011/06/18/dad/

New material coming soon, I promise!

Warmth and Substance


A couple of years ago, I was the guest star at one of the only (okay, the only) book signing events for my first novel, Ojibway Valley.  The event was held at the Toad House bakery and art gallery in the small northwestern Wisconsin town of Ladysmith, the brain child of two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, Tony and Eileen Ziesler.

Tony and Eileen have been dear friends to my Aunt Phyllis for years now.  It was this connection through which my first public appearance as an author was scheduled, and as I sat in the John Stevenson gallery, named for my late Uncle (“Uncle Steve” as we called him), beneath his paintings and facing the crowd that was slowly filling in, I felt honored and nervous.

The crowd settled in and I think someone introduced me and then it was time for me to do my bit.  I had planned a few introductory remarks, then a reading from the book, and then some time for questions and answers and maybe, if I got lucky, finally squeeze in the time to sell and sign a couple of books.

I’d just started my presentation when the door swung open and two elderly men entered.  One of them walked with a cane and wore several colorful scarves. He was stooped over and walked very slowly, the sound of his cane echoing loudly on the wood floor.  Although I’d never met the man before, I instantly recognized him, and waited patiently for him to make his way to the table where he’d be seated. The room was suddenly more substantial, and heavy with the respect that Barry Lynn’s presence commanded.

Here’s what I knew about Barry Lynn. I knew he staged modern dance performances at his north woods studio, in a landscape where dance is usually defined as polka. I could only imagine the incredible courage and resolve it must have required for him to simply be who he was, stubbornly and unapologetically, an island of nonconformity in a sea of like-mindedness. And I knew he was old, approaching one hundred years at the time.

I was certainly more nervous than before he entered, but I was also more focused, and I delivered my spiel and my reading feeling surprisingly comfortable. The crowd was bigger than I expected, and the questions were good, and I answered them with confidence and without hesitation.  Afterwards, the crowd mingled, and Michael Doran, Barry’s life partner, came up and introduced himself to me.  We talked about the selection I read and how he reacted. It meant a great deal to me to be talking to another adult, a real artist at that, about my work.

At the end of the evening, I’d sold only two or three books, but that couldn’t have mattered less. For one evening, at least, I was a bona-fide author.

A couple of days ago, I learned that Barry Lynn passed away, at the age of 103.  I’d meet him two more times, once at his Chalice Stream studio, near the headwaters of the Deer Tail Creek, where Michael was hosting a show examining some of my Uncle’s work, and one other time at the Toad House, where we had the closest thing to a conversation that we’d ever have. It was about a year after my book event. Michael and my aunt were engaged in a philosophical discussion when Barry turned to me and made some small talk, about the weather or something. Feeling the need to introduce myself, I started by saying, “I don’t know if you remember …”

“I remember you,” he said, glancing over to my aunt. “You’re her nephew.”

I think of that tonight, and I think of Uncle Steve, and Aunt Phyllis, who is still alive, almost 93 years old now. I am warmed by their memories and grateful for the impact they’ve had on my life, and by how much it means to know that you were remembered, if only for a short time, by someone of substance.

 

Abandoned World


aw spooky car

(Inspired by the Facebook page “Abandoned Wisconsin” that I stumbled upon earlier tonight. The photos I’ve attached are from that page and are so hauntingly beautiful that I had to share – they were taken by a number of gifted photographers (none of them me) – there are plenty more if  you go there.­­)

Back then, they didn’t tear things down. They’d let them stand until they couldn’t anymore, until they’d collapse broken-backed from under their own weight. These days, as soon as a building goes empty, there’s somebody there to tear down the “eyesore,” the safety hazard, the unsightly blemish to the antiseptic fantasy world we try to convince ourselves we live in. It’s a world where only the present exists. It’s a world where things don’t die and decay, and we strive to remove all traces of the past in the acknowledgement of the fear that time really exists, that what once was and what is to be matters. It’s the inability to see the beauty in decay. It’s the denial that others proceeded us and lived lives here, of the work they did, of the things they built with their hands, with their sweat, the work that kept their hearts pumping, that kept them alive.  And then one day, when the last of their flesh was loaded into an ambulance never to return, there was still a place for them to come back to, a place of heartbreaking beauty, a place as empty and silent as a grave. There they’d be visited by frightened children, ancestral descendants, historians and poets. They’d speak to these visitors in the clues they chose to leave behind, and if the visitors were willing and ready to listen, they’d hear everything they could ever want to know about not just their lives and times, but about everything.  All you could ever want to know about life, about death, about love, about the entire flipping universe, is within the reach of the sagging floor boards and peeling paint of an abandoned farm house or in the dry dust of a collapsing barn. Listen closely and you will hear the answers to questions you were unaware you’d asked, whispered in the cold midday breeze that flutters the torn and tattered shreds of curtains hung against pane-less windows.

There’s the Rub


“TMI! TMI!”

Because I worked at a Nuclear Power Plant in the eighties, it took me a while to figure out that “TMI” didn’t stand for “Three Mile Island’ but instead is an abbreviation for “Too Much Information.” Which is exactly what this post borders on.  But, hey, I promised a long time ago to be open and honest about my experiences with Parkinson’s disease, so here’s the good, the bad,and the ugly of where I find myself these days.

First, the easy part – the good: Physically, I feel pretty good.  Still working out every day, still eating more good things than bad. Balance issues are much better than a year ago, as it’s been that long since I’ve had a significant fall, and I crash into walls and doors less frequently.  That’s the good news.

The bad: My eye to hand coordination is pretty bad, and I struggle to do simple things like tying my shoes. A couple of weeks ago while I was trying to help my wife hang new window shades, I had so much trouble lining up the bit on my cordless drill with the little Philips-headed screws that I soon gave up. Last fall, sighting in my deer hunting rifle was an exercise in waiting out the shakes until I was steady enough to hit the target a couple of times, just one of several factors that leave me about  95% convinced my deer hunting days are behind me now.

The worst part of my failing eye to hand coordination has been the impact it’s had on my ability to navigate a keyboard and write.  When I look up at the screen after every paragraph I write I see the red font of Windows error notifications splattered across my monitor as if someone took a machine gun to it. (For example, here’s how that last sentence looked after I first typed it, before I cleaned it up:

When I lok up at he screen after evey paragraph I write I see eh red ink ofWindow’s

Erro notificatioonsaplatttred as if someoentook amachine gun o it.)

But all of that, difficult though some of it might be, I can live with, and when one considers that we’re going on thirteen years since I was diagnosed, if that were all there was to it, I’d be ecstatic.

However, I think I’m entering the ugly stage, and this is where I might be sharing TMI:

I think I’m in the early stages of Parkinson’s dementia.

It’s a difficult conclusion to come to, and even more difficult to share with the whole friggin’ world, but here we are. Maybe my willingness to share TMI is just another sign that I’m going crazy.

What makes me suspect I’m losing my marbles?  Well, here’s my analysis of my current state compared with what the Alzheimer’s association (alz.org) has to say about Parkinson’s dementia:

What percentage of people with Parkinson’s develop dementia?    An estimated 50 to 80 percent of those with Parkinson’s eventually experience dementia as their disease progresses. The average time from onset of Parkinson’s to developing dementia is about 10 years.

So thirteen years in, this might be the right time frame, although I’m finding that a lot of these averages are skewed towards the typically older age at which PD is usually diagnosed, and there might be other contributing factors at those advanced ages that don’t apply to me, since I was diagnosed in my mid-40s. In other words, the ten year average is probably a bit longer for us early on-setters, so I’ll choose to ignore this as a likelihood.

Here are the symptoms of PD Dementia that they list:

Symptoms: (From https://www.alz.org/dementia/parkinsons-disease-symptoms.asp)

Changes in memory, concentration and judgment

Anybody who’s known me for a long time knows that I was always something of an absent-minded professor, prone to all too frequently forgetting where I left my car keys. This has continued and seemingly worsened over time, but I’m still reluctant to recognize it as anything other than the erosion of short term memory that is typical with aging (I recently turned 59).

Concentration is a different manner, however, as I now doze off and fall asleep within a half hour of cracking open a book.  This is new and frustrating as Hell. I had a pretty ambitious list of books on my autumn reading list, books by William Kennedy, Anne Lamott, Cormac McCarthy, and T.C. Boyle.  Now here we are in mid-winter, and although I’ve started reading them all, the only one I’ve finished is Kennedy’s Ironweed, (a great book, btw). I remain somewhere in the first couple of chapters into the others, not how I typically like to read (I’d rather finish one before starting another).

Trouble interpreting visual information

This has become a big one for me, as I am always seeing things wrong. For example, the silhouette of a basket of dirty laundry on my bedroom floor might look like one of my dogs sleeping peacefully. It’s normally that benign, and I almost always recognize when it happens and if I stare at it long enough, I’m able to process what the shape really is. Sometimes, though, it can be jarring. One time, while alone in my cabin in the woods, I looked up from the chair where I was reading and there under the end table on the other side of the room, for a moment, I saw the severed but still smiling head of my son.  It was only for a second, and I was quickly able to determine that it was, in fact, nothing but an old misplaced snowshoe that the lamplight hit at just the right angle, but it was long enough and vivid enough to scare the crap out of me.

 Muffled speech

This has been a major source of frustration for me for some time now. I often mumble and stutter. The reason this is a big deal to me is that for someone who fancies himself a writer, nothing is more frustrating than coming across as inarticulate and slow. Recently my internal reaction to people who complain “I can’t understand you” has changed to anger, irrationally directed more at the listener than P.D., and I have to bite holes in my tongue not to snap and lash out at them. As a result, more often than not, I find myself becoming quiet and not participating in conversations.

Visual hallucinations

Fortunately, I haven’t had any of these yet (that I’m aware of).

Delusions, especially paranoid ideas

Unlike the current President of the United States, I’m fine on these fronts.

 Depression

 I understand how serious and debilitating depression can be, and although I have the occasional down day or two, it’s nowhere even approaching anything clinical. More days are still good than bad, and most of the time I can easily distract myself away from dwelling on the negatives.

 Irritability and anxiety

 Although I am often irritable, and certainly anxious about things, I don’t think it’s anything out of the norm. (My wife might disagree.)

 Sleep disturbances, including excessive daytime drowsiness and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep disorder

Here’s my biggest and scariest symptom, especially if you add in “vivid dreams” and the “acting out” of them.

First, daytime drowsiness is just about constant.  I take an afternoon nap almost every day, and on many days, I take a late morning nap, too. It doesn’t seem to matter how much nighttime sleep I get, either. Most nights I get six to seven hours of good sleep. There have been nights where I get as many as eight hours in, only to want to go back to bed an hour after waking.

Within the past few months, though, I’ve started having, with greater regularity, vivid and violent dreams that I act out in my sleep.  In one dream, I was sitting at a bar with a friend and some unknown jerk who did something to piss me off. I reacted by grabbing him by the hair on his head and repeatedly slamming his face on the bar.  The only thing that stopped me was the sound of my wife’s voice yelling at me to stop it, as I had a hold of her forearm in bed and was trying to smash it on the surface of the bar in my dream.  She woke me up before I could really hurt her.

The worse was a dream I had this past Saturday.  In the dream, I was on a big boat of some sort being captained by a big, armed guy who for some reason I knew with certainty was going to crash the boat in some rocks that lay ahead. As he was bigger than me and armed, I knew my only hope to overtake him was to catch him by surprise. When he came out on the deck, I jumped him and got him down and started raining punches on him as fast as I could. I woke sitting straight up in bed, still throwing punches down on the pillow below, where my wife slept. Suddenly to my horror I realized where I was and I looked at the clock radio on the nightstand, and it said 8:12.  The room was lit by daylight, and I realized that my wife had already woken and was downstairs, and her side of the bed was empty.

The dream was scary enough but paled in comparison to the realization of what would have happened had she still been in bed. She assures me she isn’t worried, that so far when these dreams occur she is able to wake me up long before any real damage is done. Still, in the nights since last Saturday morning, I often find myself rolling over and putting my back to her, so if I wake up throwing punches, it isn’t at her.

. . .

So what does this all mean? In all likelihood, I guess it means that the disease is progressing. But that is certainly no surprise.  It’s what diseases, especially “progressive” diseases like PD, do. They progress.  Duh! I’ve known for a while that these things will eventually catch up with me.

The novella “Flowers for Algernon,” by Daniel Keyes, tells the story of a man with limited mental facilities who is given a serum by some scientists that transforms him into a genius. The problem is that the benefits of the serum are only temporary, and over time, he will transform back into an idiot, and he soon realizes, becomes aware of, his inevitable decline.  It always struck me, from the earliest days of my diagnosis to now, now that it appears I might be standing at the beginning of some really dark days, that Parkinson’s is all about the same awareness and inevitability.

But while awareness of the inevitable and its encroaching darkness might lessen the light of even the brightest of good days, there is also heightened awareness of all the amazing truth and beauty to be found in the every day.  Things like love and beauty, friends and family, food and drink, touch and taste, and wonder and awe, are all within our grasp in the everyday slant of the invisible ultraviolet rays that penetrate a window shade, and their memories are bright enough to give at least brief respite to the unending agony of the darkest night.

My job these days, then, is to capture as many memories as I can and put them in my pocket, so I can take them out and watch them illuminate the thick blackness of the coming night.

Scout’s Honor


It’s been a while since I’ve been around kids. The youngest of my three children, my daughter Hannah, graduated college a couple of years ago, and has started a career while seeking out her Master’s degree in Public Health.  My middle child, Nick, started a year-long contract to teach English in South Korea about three or four weeks ago.  My oldest, Jon, recently celebrated his 32nd birthday, and is working in the corporate world and living in downtown Chicago. I am immensely proud of each of them.

My wife and I have settled comfortably in to the roles of empty nesters. My daughter began college in 2012, so we are coming up on six years since any of our kids have lived at home. However long it has or hasn’t been, it’s been long enough for us to get used to the open spaces that now occupy so much of our house and the blissful peace and quiet that’s replaced the chaos and the sound and fury that once accompanied the presence of three teenagers living under the same roof at the same time. While many times we look back with fondness and affection to our days as younger parents, more common are the times we blissfully go about our lives as a late middle-aged couple (or is it as an early senior-aged couple?)

A couple of months ago, I received an e-mail from a woman named Kathy Whiteside, who was looking for a local writer to help her Girl Scouts troop achieve a “screenwriting” badge. Looking through the materials, it was clear that the intent was to introduce the girls to story-telling concepts and fundamentals than screenwriting specifically, so I was confident that I could help facilitate the session, even though I know nothing about screenwriting.

I was less confident in my ability to get across to kids concepts like character development, rising action, conflict, and protagonists and antagonists. It’d been so long since I coached Nick’s softball and basketball teams, so long since I’d been around kids in any capacity, that I wasn’t sure if I could reach them.  It didn’t help that some professional teacher acquaintances had painted a pretty bleak picture of today’s youth. Short attention spans, feelings of entitlement, and the lacking of rudimentary skills were more the norm than the exception.

So it was that I took my seat in the middle of nine 6th to 8th grade girls with a bit of apprehension. I started by telling them that I am a writer, and the thing I love most about writing is that there are no rules you have to obey; that when I write, I’m free to write whatever I  want to write about. At first, I wasn’t sure they were listening, but when I asked them questions about what their favorite books or movies were, about the difference between books and movies, they all had opinions and were thoughtful and engaged. They’d all read most if not all of the Harry Potter books.

Kathy and I took them through several exercises, with the goal of having a collaborative, group written outline of a story by the end of our two hours together.  We started out with each girl creating a character and assigning attributes like favorite foods (tacos are apparently very popular these days in this demographic), colors, etc. I was surprised when three of the girls wanted their characters to be animals (a couple of cats and a pig, although the girl who wanted her character to be a pig later changed her mind).

Then we had to create a villain, and they quickly decided upon a mean bully need Nate. Whether Nate is based on a real person or someone on television or in a popular movie I can only guess as I am so far out of touch with the mass culture of the pre-teen girl demographic.  They showed a surprising level of sophisticated thinking when they not only described the inciting moment that would kick the plot into gear, but they also came up with a reason for Nate to push poor Romeo into a locker after school. I was surprised that they weren’t just satisfied with Nate being bad; that they felt the need to explain why he was. They also set up a scene for the climax of the story, where the group of “good friends” would meet Nate and his ”bad” friends the following night after school. But that was only the beginning – after that, things got real interesting.

The girls had to explain why there were two cats among the friends who went to school together. It turns out, that, unknown to one another, they discover that night that they are “shape shifters,” and all have the ability to transform into animals.  They agree to arrive at the fight the next night all in their animal forms.

Imagine their surprise when they all show up the next night as animals only to be met by Nate and his friends, who have all also shape-shifted into animals. Stunned by the knowledge that the two groups have more things in common than they don’t, the fight is averted, and new friendships are forged.

It’s a pretty slick little story, if you ask me. Beyond that, for me, it was as much fun as I’ve had in a long time. Watching the different personalities and how they interacted brought back memories of my children at those ages, and of the softball and basketball teams I coached. The girls had all of the same pent up winter energy that my basketball teams used to have, and they laughed at the same in-jokes that only friendship can provide.

I was delighted to see that kids haven’t changed. We live in terrifying times, with ugly mean-spiritedness dominating our politics, and with a President that seems hell-bent on starting another war, whether in the Middle East or the Korean peninsula.  It’s difficult not to become overwhelmed with cynicism.  Being around these kids for just two hours was the antidote to what was ailing me, and restored my faith in humanity.  These kids were smart and well behaved. After only a few minutes, I could see them focusing, getting into the story and feeling the rush that only creativity can bring. They collaborated beautifully, they were respectful and considerate with each other. It was obvious to me that they came from good homes.

The night also shone a light on the fact that storytelling is at the core of being human. It’s what separates us and makes us the dominant species on earth. It’s how we make sense out of the cold randomness of existence, and in these times of divisiveness and fear, it’s our only hope for bridging the gaps between us. Like in the story the girls invented, at the end, all of the shape shifters discovered that the things they had in common were greater than the differences.  It’s a moral that their parents’ generation would do well to recognize.

As I drove home, it occurred to me that if we’re ever going to dig ourselves out of the mess we’ve made of this world, it’ll be by the grace of children and the art of storytelling.  And there, on a cold Wednesday night in a Girl Scout meeting room in Kenosha, Wisconsin, I witnessed the intersection of these two forces of nature, and I was humbled by the profundity of the truth it revealed.

 

gsa.jpg

Jack’s Homecoming


(I’ve been working with a professional editor on polishing up the manuscript for my second novel, “I Don’t Know Why.”  One of the things she’s pointed out is opportunities to fill in some gaps in the narrative. I wrote this scene to describe what the main character, Jack, felt upon returning home from seven months in the psych ward)

Dad steered the boat-like Matador through the cold and unending sea of darkness that flooded the flat farm fields and wooded lanes of the countryside east of Orchard Depot. Our conversation had quickly faded into a familiar silence, all of the easy small talk having already been consumed. I sat alone in the back seat, peering over the dashboard through the front window at the narrow beams of headlights that illuminated the thin white and yellow lines painted on the fading gray asphalt. Then the big S curve that always announced the impending exit onto Vicksburg Avenue came into view. The sudden familiarity of where I found myself and the knowledge of, even in the darkness, the presence of the landmarks, both seen and unseen, that we passed, was jarring. I felt my chest tighten and I wondered if I was ready for what was to come in the next few minutes, when we’d pull into the driveway and I’d walk through the front door into our house for the first time since I was carried out if it on a stretcher more than six months before. This was the risk, the downside to keeping me at the Hanover for an extra four months after Kelly’s death. I finally understood what Dr. Rudolph and Gladys meant when they told me that the longer I was away, the more difficult coming home would be.

We pulled into the driveway. The outside light by the front door was on and cast a yellowish glow on the cement porch. I held the screen door open while Dad unlocked the door and he and Mom passed through, turning on living room lights as I closed the door behind me. The tightness in my chest gave way to a pounding sensation, and I thought my heart was going to explode as the sights and smells and the sounds of being back home overwhelmed me. Mom was talking, saying something about having to heat supper up, when I saw, on the dining room table, the cake she’d baked for me, with candles in the shape of the numbers two and one sticking out of its white frosting.

I walked down the hall to my bedroom. A new door had been installed, and I opened it and flicked on the light switch. The room was spotless, the bed was neatly made, and all of my things were put away. I stood in the center of the room, taking it all in, when I heard, from the doorway behind me, my mom say, “Good to be home, Jack?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, it is.”  It was all I could do to stop myself from bawling like a baby.

The evening wore on, the three of us eating dinner and then, for dessert, cutting in to my birthday cake.  We talked, and laughed, sticking to safe topics, old stories and gossip about distant aunts and uncles and cousins. There was more we didn’t talk about than we did, avoiding topics like depression, suicide, Sam Richter, and Tom Musgrove. They remained unmentioned, the air heavy with their invisible and weighty presence. But for that evening, at least, none of that mattered. There’d be time for all of that later, and as I realized how much I was enjoying the company of my mom and dad and the familiarity of my surroundings, I felt the pounding in my chest subside, and I felt good, glad to be home.

 

First Snowfall


Last Saturday I completed my 59th year on this planet. Now, about a week into my 60th year, I know that I am no spring chicken. I’ve been an adult, chronologically at least, for forty or so ears now. So I really ought to know better.

I ought to know that the season’s first snowfall is nothing to get excited about. I ought to know better than to marvel at the sight of snowflakes parachuting down and invading streets and sidewalks. I ought to know that the thin white blanket that now covers the ground is just the beginning of back aching shoveling and scraping that will soon become tedious and tiring, and the white streaks on the roads will only become slippery and hazardous in the weeks and months to follow.  More than anything, the cold that I so enthusiastically bundle up for today is here to stay for what will soon feel like an eternity, and  daylight will diminish and fade as the days grow shorter and the cold bleak blackness of winter tightens its grip on the landscape. To quote William Butler Yeats and Cormac McCarthy (both out of context), winter is “No country for old men.”

Yet, here I am, in my office, looking out my window and watching the snow fall, feeling none of the cynicism that time and experience have informed my life with. Instead I watch the snow through the wide eyed lenses of my youth, and I see once again the full scope of infinite wonder that a young child views the world through. It’s hope and possibility. It all comes back to me, like warm air being pushed through furnace vents.

There will be plenty of time for the oppressive forces of winter to exert their gloom. Today I am content, for at least the eternity that exists in the time it takes for a snowflake to melt after hitting a city sidewalk, to rediscover just one of the unexplored worlds that were revealed every day when I was very young.

Twelve Confused Men


(Next week I’m scheduled for jury duty for the first time. Last night, I dreamed the following dream in black and white …) 

Scene:  an empty meeting room with a long table in the center with chairs around it.  12 men of different ages and nationalities file in and take a seat in chairs around the table.  One man, in a white dress shirt with a black tie, the foreman, remains standing.

Foreman:  Okay, that seemed pretty cut and dry.  I’d like to suggest we vote on a verdict right away. I’ll poll each of you. Jurist number one, how do you vote?

Me (raising my hand) I’m sorry, Mr. Foreman, but shouldn’t we vote by private ballot?

Foreman:  I don’t think that’ll be necessary.   We all saw what happened in there.

Me:  Still, I think, just in case, we should make sure we do this right, to the letter of the law.  So there’s no chance of reprisal, or getting the defendant off on a technicality.

Foreman: Of course, you’re correct, thank you, jurist number twelve. Please cast your vote on one of these little folded up pieces of paper.

(Everybody writes their vote down.)

Foreman:  Jurist number three, would you mind collecting the votes?

(Jurist three, a small, nerdy looking man, rises from his chair.

Jurist Number Three:  Not at all.  (He picks up a small wicker basket from the table and goes around the table.  One by one, the jurists all put their votes in the basket, I am the last to do so.  Jurist Number Three hands the basket to the foreman.

Foreman:  Thank you.  Jurist Two, would you mind keeping a tally of the number of guilty and not guilty votes as I read them off?

Jurist Two:  Got it.

Foreman (reaching his hand into the basket) Okay, here we go …

Me (raising my hand and interrupting): Excuse me, Mister Foreman, excuse me …

Foreman;  Yes, juror number twelve?

Me:  Don’t you think you should, you know, shake the basket up a little bit?

Foreman:  What? What do you mean, shake the basket?

Me:  You know, mix the votes up …

Foreman:  Huh?

Me:  Well, it’s just that I was the last to put my vote in …

Foreman:  So?

Me:  So my vote is on top.  If you don’t shake the basket, everybody will know that the first vote is mine. And the whole purpose of using the paper ballots are to protect the anonymity of each vote cast.

Foreman:  Okay, okay, I gotcha.  (With great exaggeration, he puts his hand in the basket and mixes up the contents.) Is that good enough?

Me: Yes, thank you.

Foreman (taking out and unfolding each piece of paper) Guilty …. Guilty … guilty … not guilty?  (He and all of the other jurors look at me)

Me:  What?

Foreman: (going through the remaining votes) Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty.  That’s all the votes. Jurist Two, please read the final tally.

Jurist Two:  That’s eleven guilty, one not guilty.

Jurist Four:  Okay, Twelve, joke’s over.

Me:  Joke? What joke?

Jurist Four: Look, we get it, very funny.  Now can we get on with issuing a verdict and get the Hell out of here?

Me:  Why are you looking at me? You don’t know that I was the not guilty vote. In fact, I’ll bet that if you look closer at the not guilty ballot, you might find a clue as to who really cast it.

Foreman:  (holding up the vote) You mean, where it says here, “Voted by Jurist Number Nine, not Number Twelve.”

Jurist Nine: (jerking awake from nodding off) Hey!  What’s the big idea?

Foreman:  Okay, Twelve, would you like to explain your Not Guilty vote?

Me: But you don’t know that I …

Jurist Six (A large and muscular and intimidating man) Knock it off, Twelve, before I knock you off!

Foreman:  Do you really vote Not Guilty?

Me:  I do. (The entire room erupts in unison at me)

Foreman (gaining control of the room) Okay, okay, everybody calm down. That’s better.  Now, Twelve, could you please explain your vote?  I mean, the defendant admitted to being at the scene of the crime.  And we have the bank transactions that prove he was laundering money.

Me:  That’s just it!  Where’s the detergent?

Foreman:   Huh? What detergent?

Me:  My point exactly! If he was laundering that much money, there had to be some detergent somewhere! But the prosecution never produced a single sud!

Jurist Eight:  He makes a good point.

Jurist Seven:  You’re an idiot, Eight.

Foreman: But he was caught at the scene of the crime with the weapon in his hand.  How do you explain that?

Me:  By the Handyman’s testimony.

Foreman:  What’s that got to do with anything?

Me: Remember when he described the contents of the refrigerator? When he got to listing the condiments?

Foreman: Yeah?

Me:  Remember he said, “Mayonnaise?”

Foreman: Yeah.  So?

Me:  So when we examined exhibit B-1, there was no mayonnaise, just …

Jurist Eight:  Miracle Whip!

Foreman: So?

Me:  Miracle Whip is not mayonnaise! (Pulling a packet of Miracle Whip out of my back pocket) See, it says right here, Miracle Whip is salad dressing.

Juror Seven:  Why did you have a packet in your pocket?

Me: Never mind that! If you want to find the real criminal, I suggest you look no further than right here! (I move over by juror eleven and dramatically lift the mask off his head, revealing JIM PAYNE.) You’ll find a trail of victims that lead to his doorstep. He is none other than ….

Foreman: You mean …

Me: That’s right. He’s the notorious Mayonnaise Madman that’s been terrorizing our community for years! Once he found out there was no mayonnaise in the fridge, he went mad!

Jim Payne: How does that make you feel?

Foreman: And I thought you were a complete idiot, Twelve! Now I know the real idiot is whoever wrote this drivel!

Me: Guilty as charged!

 

Numbers Game


I made the mistake tonight of reading some Facebook comments on the Las Vegas shooting. They all kind of bleed together, so I can’t remember the name of the one troll whose comments stuck with me or the article he was reacting to (I’m pretty sure it was a Washington Post article, but damned if I could find it again). The general gist of his arguments is that the 59 dead and more than 500 injured, let alone the 948 total victims of mass shootings over the past fifty years, represents a “statistically insignificant” percentage of the total population and therefore is not deserving of legislative attention.

So to Mr. Troll, whoever you are, from a fellow numbers guy, here are my immediate reactions:

  • 948 is equal to or greater than the population of thousands of U.S. towns.  I gave up trying to get  a number, but look at this list from Wisconsin to get an idea of how many towns this small there are just in my home state   http://www.city-data.com/city/Wisconsin3.html  Ask any resident of any of these towns if their entire population was murdered or injured if they’d consider that to be ”insignificant.”
  • The number of dead and injured in Las Vegas is greater than the total number of players in the NBA. Imagine if the entire National Basketball Association was wiped out in one event.  It’d be quite an impact on local economies – stadiums and restaurants and television. I’m sure its economic impact would rise into the statistically relevant range. But economics isn’t even the most important impact ….
  • Looking at the wrong numbers. To me, the most heart breaking of all mass shootings remains the twenty first graders killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. I still have trouble wrapping my head around this one, let alone the horrible treatment of the victims’ families by those sub-human “conspiracy” morons. But let’s play Mr. Troll’s numbers game for a moment – the number of victims, twenty children (not to mention the seven teachers who were also murdered), is microscopically low against any national number.  But when we count the years lost, by subtracting the victim’s average age of six years from the average lifetime (75), you end up with 69 years lost for each of the twenty victims, and you get a total of 1,380 years lost, and about 20 spouses and 40 children and 80 grandchildren and 160 great grandchildren and so on.  In just three generations, that comes to 21,000 years of life lost. And who knows what contributions those unborn children with their unrealized potential may have made to our society.  We may have lost a cure for cancer, or the next Einstein or Martin Luther King, or who knows who.

 I think it’s time we look at all shootings in this context. How many years of life are we losing, how much potential is being lost, and how much damage is being done to our psyche? How many concert or dinner or movie dates are being cancelled from the fear these incidents plant in us, how deadly is the distrust they instill in our hearts and minds? How many family members and friends are waking up every day for the rest of their lives without someone they loved? How do we calculate the damage to our souls, the value of the innocence lost?

I don’t profess to have any answers or solutions.  I have no idea where to even start. Maybe a good place to start would be to reject terms like “statistically insignificant” and agree that not everything needs to be politicized, and condemn the horror we all recognize the loss of innocent lives to be.