In the Dark of 3:00 AM

28 May 2010

It’s been ten years since I had the cancer cut out.  Here’s something I wrote while the incision was still nice and pink.  Let’s call it my Anniversary Special.

So I got in my licks, didn’t I?

Happily, we didn’t (haven’t?) lose the house.  Just before we were about to default on the mortgage, I got a consulting gig down in Bellevue at a firm I’ve known since the late 1970s.  I wangled a modest base and a respectable override on sales but it won’t make us rich and it won’t let me pay off the mortgage.  Quite honestly, it’s like I’m starting all over again.  That being the case, maybe I can build something out of it – all over again.

About a week later, Jo’s fishing expedition paid off.  She was put on the clock to do some support and help desk work by an old colleague of hers.  Unlike our sorry foray into the passing fad called Hoteling, this dude’s software business involves banks.  As long as he doesn’t stub his toe, Jo should have a job.

With the money both of us are making now, we can get by – and as the future is an imponderable, maybe a shot at the brass ring will emerge once again.  Time will tell.  However, the fear, depression and rage are all gone now and that’s good.  I actually find myself enjoying life again.

As for the cancer, I am only half way to the 5-year anniversary; that day where my doctor can say the magic word “cured” – six more PSA tests are needed.   At a Christmas party not long ago, the conversation turned to health issues and people began to recount the things that were wrong with them.  When my turn came, I said I would give a list of things that are right as it is far shorter (ha, ha, ha).

If ever there were a time when the admonition to take things a day at a time would apply, this would have to be it.  Perhaps, though, that’s the whole point of the exercise.  But nights can be a problem.  I often wake up in the wee small hours with numbers running through my head.  It goes like this: “I’m 61 now and I’ve lived here for 14 years.  That means in 14 more years, I’ll be 75.  And look at this: Jo and I have been married for 25 years and in 25 more, I’ll be 86.  Only Grandma Wid made it past 86 – and she was out of her mind with strokes.  Twenty five years ago, I had no grey hairs and I could deadlift 385 pounds at the gym.  Twenty five years from now – if I am still alive – I’ll be shriveled, feeble, forgetful, deaf and using a walker.  Which means I won’t be able to live here even if I’ve paid off the mortgage.  I’ll be packed off to a dotary where I can crap in my bed and die.”

In the dark of 3:00 AM, this numbers game plays on until I can stand it no more and finally sit up in bed.  Blinking away the sleep, I look out the window across the Snohomish River Valley and to the Cascade foothills beyond.  I see some silver lights twinkling in the old Cadmann quarry on the other side of Highway 203.  The faintly mephitic odor peculiar to nighttime comes drifting in through the Lanai door.

Nighttime has taken on an unwholesome quality and in response, I have opted to leave on a night light.  I look at my hand in the dim effulgence and I almost can’t say that it’s mine.  I’ll touch my face – is this me?  Better yet, who is me? I hear Jo’s soft snoring coming from her bedroom and though I’ve been married to her for over thirty years, I wonder how she has any connection to me.  I think about opening her door a bit and looking in but I don’t; I’m apprehensive about what I might see.

I lay there, hoping to doze.

Some nights I think I can hear Dad’s old Seth Thomas clock ticking away.  The trouble is, it’s down in the livingroom, way on the other side of the house.  With my bad ears, I shouldn’t be able to hear it.

On nights when I get up for whizz call, I’ll catch my reflection in the bathroom mirror and give a start.  Who are you, old man?  Hair akimbo, beard all mussed, chest and belly sagging like sacks full of wet cement, the apparition surely can’t be me.

If I have to put a name to it, I feel like a haint come to haunt its former life; it goes from room-to-room, looking everything over and trying to remember what it all meant.

I feel anxious.

Then the open lanai door brings in the sound of some sort of machine.  Ah: It’s a motorcyclist going through the gears.  He just left the stop sign on 164th and is heading south on Broadway.  Normality begins to return.

I arise and don my robe; I want no more of bed for a while.

Out on the deck, I look to the sky and all its myriad stars and try to shake off the disturbing mind games that have me dreading bedtime these days. Toots, my cat, comes out to keep me company.  A short meow tells me she wants to be picked up and held.  Hoisted aloft, she puts her paws across my shoulder, hooks her claws lightly onto my robe and begins to purr.  Ah, contact with another living being.  I begin to feel less like a ghost.

“Come on, Toots.”  I carry her with me down the deck towards the kitchen’s door, “Let’s get something to eat.”  As we come in, Moe, our older cat, gives a grunt of recognition as he gets up from his pet pad, an electrically heated pillow placed by the Liani where he now spends most of his nights.  I put down some snacks for the cats, pop in some toast for me and pour a glass of milk.  Hot toast in hand, I settle in for an hour or so of switching between CNN, Fox News and the History Channel.

In half an hour or so the night dreads will have passed and it’ll be safe to grab Toots and head back to bed.

I really would like to join Jo, but in these last few years, we have not been able to go to bed at the same time: I am zonked by 9:30 while Jo keeps going until 1 or 2 in the morning.  Also, Jo likes the room as cold as a tomb while I prefer some warmth.  And besides, I thrash a good bit.  So we have evolved into different sleeping rooms.  If I were to join her now, I’d just awaken her and she’d have trouble dropping off again.  I’ll let her sleep.

Sleep?  Yes, but what is sleep?  Where does one go when one goes to sleep?  Are you still who you are when you are awake?  Or maybe you – the spirit, the consciousness, the persona, … whatever – is like the software in your family computer.  Maybe going to sleep is like clicking Start / Shut down / Hibernate: all running programs are written to the hard drive and stored and the power goes off.  When the power is again turned on, i.e., when one awakens, the programs are reloaded into RAM and everything is as it was.  The implication here is that I am nothing but an artifact of my brain; that I am not, well …  Real.  Just a low-voltage current buzzing in a bio-electric device that’s no more “alive” than my PC and the copy of WordPerfect on which I write my twaddle.  Well, I certainly have to Deep Six this idea before I climb back into bed.

“Come on, cat, let’s go,” I say as I scoop Toots from the sofa and head to the bedroom.  Tomorrow will just have to take care of itself.

Thankfully, Toots like to snuggle.

Riding the Asymptote

23 May 2010

The latest issue of The Economist, my favorite magazine (or “newspaper” as it calls itself) carried a feature on water’s looming scarcity and outlined some cockamamie scheme to drain the Great Lakes, sending the water south to replenish exhausted aquifers and maybe pump some into tankers headed for benighted parts of the world.  It also, again, calls for an increase in the human population — especially here in the US.

Are they nuts?  Sadly, yes — at least when it comes to the human population.  The editorial board of The Economist, along with many other economists and churchmen, feel the greatest economic good can be obtained by having the greatest possible population. Of course a moment’s consideration reveals this to be arrant nonsense. Any country with a population that incontinently reproduces ends up with a thin scum of bloated fat cats floating on a vast sea of paupers. Then comes the revolution where the fat cats are put in labor camps, but there will still be too many people so humanity will end up with famine, pestilence and war. Recall Europe before the Black Death where you had a smattering of wealthy aristocrats living off a populations of serfs. After the Black Death cleaned house, there was a terrific labor shortage. Not only did the rich have to do work themselves, but the former serfs could be picky and demand more money for their toils. The playing field, you could say, was leveled.

When I was born sixty-eight years ago, America had 134,859,553 souls.  As of mid-May, it now has over 309,334,709 (  That’s more than double.  And don’t we know it. This cancer-like growth is felt from restrictions on entering national parks to interminable commutes to the sprouting of big-box stores to oil spills to suppressed wages. Out here in western Washington, the press of population says the metropolitan counties will eventually be paved over from Puget Sound to the Cascade Crest and the only flowing water to be seen will come out of a garden hose.  Oh, and don’t forget about the increasing tax burdens for roads, schools and whatnot. And of course, wages will be even more depressed.

As for the planet in general, it now has 6,822,734,271 people aboard.  By 2100, if things keep on as they are, it will have over 10,000,000,000; almost double what it is today. Our numbers will be such that we’ll be living like insects in a hive. We could drain the Great Lakes and there still won’t be enough water to go around.  We could plant crops in every part of the earth that’s not solid rock and we still couldn’t feed everyone.  We will have ruined the earth in extracting its resources and still there won’t be enough goodies to satisfy everyone.

It’s a geometric progression, folks. Each new mouth will cost evermore to feed, and each additional resource will cost evermore to extract. Clearly, we are riding the asymptote. At some point, the energy to glean one more morsel of food will exceed humankind’s ability to obtain it.

What’s to be done? We could try what Red China has done: Deploy the minions to scout for unauthorized babies, and when found, grasp them by their little heels and dash out their brains on a convenient rock.

Humm, no; that won’t work.

Oh, wait a minute: How about carpeting the undeveloped world with neutron bombs?  This will decrease the surplus population, that’s for sure, and leave almost everything else unmolested.

Nah, bad idea.

Ah, but I kept reading and on page 81 of its 22 May 2010 issue, The Economist pointed they way to solve overpopulation. It seems that a couple of mad scientists have created life. Yes!  Just like God! Oh, to be sure it’s not The Blob; their prodigiousity is a simple bacterium, one that seems to cause something like the clap. Not much you say? Well, their little bug does the thing that defines life: It reproduces.

The fellows built this chimera by taking bits from one organisms’ DNA and combined them with bits of DNA they cooked-up in their laboratory, creating a new genetic code that has no natural ancestor. They stuffed this new code into an enucleated cell and, presto-changeo, a new species.  The implication is that by having a parts bin of genes and chromosomes — some man-made  — you can assemble them in novel ways. Say a buffalo with the head of a dog. The possibilities, the scientists assure us, are limitless.

Now while The Economist and others see man-made creatures as simply new ways to despoil the earth and make money, I perceive them to be our saviors. Let’s say you start off with the bird flu virus (H5N1), which is transmissible by air and is highly contagious and infectious, and make three modifications to its genome. The first change is making H5N1 infect humans. Second, add to the H5N1 a souped-up gene resembling the one in the mumps virus that causes mumps to “go down” on human males, a condition called Orchitis,which can render the victim sterile.  Such a virus will easily infect a human male and when it does, it will go on a search-and-destroy mission, frying his nuts. Before the mumps vaccine came along, my uncle and two of by chums got the mumps and they had no kids. Third, they need to make this nut-killer temperature sensitive.  As birds have an average body temperature of 105F, our boys could set the new virus to fall apart at, say, 100F.  That way the new H5N1-based bug cannot infect, and kill-off, all the birds.

Naturally, a vaccine will have to be developed on a parallel track; after all, we don’t want the human population to fall too far. Say to about where it was in 1700 — a little less than one billion.

There will be some socio-economic problems here. Let’s address each:

  • In most societies, men see the number of children they father as representing their masculinity. Such men uniformly blame their females when children are not forthcoming. Well, with his testicles all messed up, who then can he fault?  Lots of these dudes will flame out. We must be prepared to provide extensive psychotherapy for these men.
  • Women, released for the burden of ceaseless child-bearing will find new empowerment. It’s possible that, world-wide, human civilization might drift toward matriarchy.
  • Old people will have to work until they drop off their perches; there simply won’t be enough young people paying into Social Security and other plans like it.
  • Wars will no longer be fought as there simply won’t be enough cannon fodder to sustain them.
  • The skies will clear, the oceans will heal and the land will recover.
  • With the supply of meat machines drastically reduced, automation will burgeon in the workplace. Stoop-labor and grinding toil will be things of the past.

Oh, true, with the supply of children curtailed, we may miss out on another Einstein (this is a favorite wheeze of writers at The Economist and other such journals), but we may also miss out on another Stalin. Not a bad trade-off, if you ask me.