Sunday, September 23, 2018
Most everyone who reads my verbal offal knows that back in August I spent several days in the hospital because of a heart issue. Of the four days I was being treated, three of them were in cardiac ICU and as anyone can guess that meant I had numerous medical tests, several procedures, and was under constant care by highly trained medical personnel. None of the medical care I got was cheap and as expected the bills started rolling in last week. The good news in all this is that I have above average health insurance coverage so, unlike a lot of other folks, my family and I are not looking at bankruptcy because of my heart issues.
After receiving these bills, I spent about an hour on the phone with the billing department trying to arrange a payment plan which satisfied my creditors without reducing my family to living off bread and water until we fully bought back my soul. Don't freak out, this is not some half-assed attempt at establishing a crowdsource fund to pay off my bills. My purpose here is to describe my conversation with the nice lady in the billing department and how, when you consider the alternatives, I'm one of the lucky ones when it comes to surviving the American healthcare system.
As with nearly all business conversations that occur over the phone, initially it was a ballet of cordiality between the billing lady and myself. She voiced the correct amount of concern over my resent troubles and offered her sympathies and hopes that my situation was corrected. Where things went sideways was when I told her the purpose of my call was to arrange a payment plan on this bill that didn't totally disrupt my family's life as we paid it back.
With the niceties over, the billing lady's initial response was to offer me a discount rate if I immediately paid off the entire bill. As I said earlier, my health insurance is above average and paid off the majority of the costs incurred during my hospital stay. But that still left a nice chunk of out of pocket charges I would have to pay. Without divulging way too much information this discount for immediate payment was a bit of a joke. Long story short, it would still cause a major disruption in the normal monthly financial patterns of family life.
So, the billing lady and I wheeled and dealed until we both came to a payment plan that didn't cripple my household but paid off my bills. As our discussion drew to a close, this is where the thin veneer of the billing lady's civility and concern was rubbed away showing her true nature, which was nothing more than a glorified loan shark. Her final statement to me essentially said, “We're here to serve you but don't for a minute screw with us and miss a payment.” After hanging up, I literally breathed a sigh of relief because my family and I could make those payments. My thoughts quickly went to other folks who can't pay and who will ultimately lose most, if not everything they have worked a lifetime to save or build.
One of the most pathetic things you can see in the United States is a donation jar setup in a store or some other place of business to help some unfortunate person pay their medical bills. You've probably seen these type of appeals for charity, there will be a note attached to the jar which shows a picture of the person in need along with and explanation of the illness they suffering from. Such donation jars are sad when the person in need is an adult, but it gets seriously tragic when they are setup for a child. All other advanced Western countries have healthcare systems that look after their less advantaged citizens. Are these socialized medical systems perfect and without abuse? Hell no, but they are lightyears better than leaving huge segments of the population to go bankrupt or to go without any medical care.
Only here in the glorious United States will elected leaders, and a good part of the population, cheer for the establishment of some bullshit “Space Force” that will cost billions while millions of people do not have adequate healthcare. Of course, the huge irony in all this is the population that cheers on the establishment of another branch of the Armed Forces overwhelmingly turns away in disgust at the idea of government run healthcare. Like I wrote, my family and are good in the long run. We'll have to skip a few trips to Olive Garden and stay off the Amazon website for a couple of months but we'll be okay.
Its just that you do not have to look hard to find examples of people who will not be okay because of medical bills. The most tragic thing in all this is how when you look at the situation on the most basic level a lot of folks simply do not give a damn that fellow Americans suffer greatly at the hands of a callous and inefficient healthcare system. That is until something goes wrong and it is them who face the options of losing everything or letting a loved one die.
Sunday, September 16, 2018
The boy gently placed his toy sailboat in the water and let the afternoon breeze fill the sails and push it towards the First Landing statue in the center of the lake. It was the boy's one true possession and he watched it with concern hoping it did not capsize or hit any of the other craft moving through the lake waters.
Once the onboard artificial intelligence chip sensed it had reached the proper speed and detected a strong enough updraft, the rigging and sails reconfigured turning it into a glider. As the craft gained altitude, the boy took control of it using the neural interface wired inside his brain. Feeling the interface take hold, the boy stood next the lake with his eyes closed and his arm stretched out letting the glider became an extension of his own body. Only then was the boy able to forget his concerns and feel free and at peace. Still though, in the back of his mind he remembered that he only had a year left before coming of age and being apprenticed to some profession.
Looking through the glider's sensors, all of First Landing Park sprawled out beneath him, with it green grass, trees, monuments, decorative fountains, and people enjoying a peaceful afternoon. Beyond the park was the city with its towers encircled by what looked like graceful ribbons that made up the transportation network that connected the city to itself and the rest of the planet. Occasionally, the boy would catch sight of one of the sleek modules attached to one the ribbons taking people to their destinations.
As the boy turned the glider back towards his location, he caught sight of a strange person standing close to him. The boy felt no fear, peacekeeper 'bots would come to his rescue if they detected a disturbance or he called out. This person though was nothing like he had ever see before. Part of its head and its right arm gleamed in the sunlight. With his curiosity growing, the boy disengaged the link to the glider allowing the AI to bring it back to the lake. As his vision returned, that was when the boy realized there was a Martian standing a couple of meters away from him.
For well over a thousand years after the invention of a practical faster-than-light drive Humankind traveled among the stars exploring and colonizing the habitable planets they found. Early in these journeys, humans discovered that while life was abundant wherever they traveled, it rarely evolved passed simple creatures and analogs to chlorophyll-based plant life. The few times humans found planets with complex ecosystems similar to Earth, they were wise enough to leave them alone except for building space stations in orbit or bases on their moons to study them. Needless to say, with complex life rare, humans never once encountered any other intelligent species.
That all changed when the Wisps came out of the void and started attacking human worlds and the starships that tied their civilization together. By that time in human development, conflicts were rare so at first the Wisps ran roughshod through settled space. Many humans colonies in the early stages of development were easily wiped out, while the more established worlds fought off the attackers for awhile.
But the Wisps were relentless and after several decades were finally able to mount an assault on Earth itself. They obliterated everything in Humanity's home star system from the giant orbital habitats, to the cities scattered about on Luna, Mars, the Jovian moons, and Titan. But their greatest wrath fell on Earth itself. They sterilized the surface of the planet killing all five billion of its human inhabitants and everything else that lived. Then with the few survivors on Mars and Titan expecting the Wisps to return and cleanup what they missed, the aliens disappeared from not only the home system but all of human space.
The damage was done though, the survivors on Mars and Titan spent centuries just trying to survive. For the rest of human settled space, the situation was just as bleak. Hundreds of worlds fell headlong into a new dark age once again unleashing the worst aspects of Homo sapien behavior.
“Who are you young man?” The Martian asked.
“My name is Michel Cor,” the boy answered unafraid since the arrival of the Martian starship was the most exciting to happen to hos world in decades. While the ship remained in orbit, its crew were instant celebrities everywhere they went, despite the sheer alienness of their appearance. Since Michel had never seen a Martian closeup, he openly stared at the man.
Half of his skull had been replaced with a cybernetic interface that only vaguely conformed to what a human face was supposed to look like. Michel studied the seam where the organic skull and the cybernetic addition met, it was abrupt but looked like a perfect meshing of the two. The designers and engineers went as far as to make the artificial side of the Martian's nose a match in shape to the biological. However, the Martian's mouth was not designed as well, the biological portion had full expressive movement, while the artificial side had much less. It was the Martian's cybernetic eye that intrigued Michel, it glowed red and protruded outward providing space for other types of sensors. Michel could only imagine what sights and information it provided for those possessing such technology.
Michel then remembered from school that the Martians were not just enhanced cyborgs, but that their very minds had been merged with a type of artificial intelligent forever removing them from true humanity. Among the different human worlds, it was whispered that these enhanced beings had the ability to predict events by seeing all possible futures. That they had other abilities that transcended normal human comprehension.
Such concepts were a bit too abstract for Michel to truly appreciate, it was the Martian's right arm that fascinated him. Because while the silver appendage looked human enough, it could morph into hundreds of different tools and even weapons. The Martians were not about to let the Wisps get a second chance at driving humanity extinct.
“I was impressed with the control you had over your sail glider. You have a natural talent with the way you anticipated the changes in wind patterns beyond the lake.” The Martian said with the organic half of his face trying to smile.
“Thank you, Citizen...” Michel said beginning to address the Martian in the proper custom of his world before thinking better of it.
“My name is Jonas Harper,” the Martian said enjoying the boy's momentary confusion. “But you can call me Jonas.” He added not wanting to cause the boy any possible discomfort.
“Jonas Harper?” Michel asked more to himself than his new companion. To the boy the name sounded clumsy, weird, even bizarre.
“Yes, it is an ancient name used all the way back to when humans lived just on Earth.” Jonas said. “With the destruction of Earth, we Martians carry the weight of human history so our society works hard to stay connected with the past.”
“Have you ever been to Earth?” Michel asked.
“Once when I was a boy,” Jonas said, “before I accepted the burden of my new consciousness.”
“Is it true you restored life to the surface?”
“Yes, we used much of the same technology there that we used here on Sonora.”
Michel's homeworld was never supposed to be colonized. While the air was breathable, the first explorers to Sonora had determined there was not enough water on the planet to justify any attempt at settlement. So the world was cataloged and promptly forgotten about, that is until the Wisps bombarded several relatively nearby colonies.
A damaged civilian starship entered the Sonoran system looking for any rocky world to land and make repairs. The rediscovery of a semi-habitable planet in such desperate times was looked upon as a blessing by both the crew and passengers. The Wisps had already bombarded their planet and were still attacking any ships they found,so they quickly decided to stay on Sonora permanently. Unfortunately, other starships with better historical records or star charts began arriving a few years later looking for a refuge as well. Within a couple of decades the reason Sonora was never colonized became apparent with the emerging cities often fighting each other over water and usable soil. When a joint Mars/Titan expedition found the planet again three hundred years later the small Sonoran human civilization was on the verge of collapse.
Seeing the situation, the Martian vessel, equipped with planetary engineering equipment, stayed behind and began a twenty-year project to reshape the entire world. Several hundred comets were taken from the outer reaches of the star system to create oceans for Sonora. While that was going on, the Martians built massive land crawling machines that prepped the surface soil for terrestrial-based plant life. The final touches were the planting of rapid growing grasses and trees that turned the Sonora into a virtual copy of Earth.
When the Martian ship finally departed, Sonora had a unified government whose leaders decided their purpose was to make their world a major interstellar power. Part of that plan was to increase the planetary population as quickly as possible, so the human creches were established. Places where humans are grown in breeding pods and raised to adulthood by android caregivers. This allowed Sonora to go from a population of twenty-million at rediscovery to over three-billion in two centuries. To the normal human-raised citizens of Sonora, their world is a paradise but to Michel and all the others born in the creches it was a burden.
“I would love to see the homeworld,” Michel said more to himself than to the visitor. The Sonoran government was officially a democratic meritocracy. A place where the rights of the citizenry superseded the government's interests and prospective leaders had to prove their stability and rationality before being allowed to run for elected office. But to the creche-born, these ideals didn't really apply to them. For those like Michel, the government had their lives planned out until the age they could retire. Most would be assigned to the unsettled regions of the planet while a lucky few might find themselves living in one of the orbital habitats mining the asteroids for metals or building the shipyards where future Sonoran starships would be constructed.
“Such a possibility could be worked out,” Jonas Harper said to the boy. “My ship is returning to Mars and we have empty berths for lower crewmen. The duty would be difficult, but upon reaching Mars you would be accepted to our service academy.”
“Would I have to be augmented like you to join?” Michel asked pointing to his skull.
“No, augmentation is only for those who freely choose. We do not force any individual to go against their will or desires. An individual normally serves ten-standard years before Fleet Command approaches them about the possibility.”
Michel stood there in the park looking at the Martian considering his options. An unplanned life of adventure where he was allowed to make his own choices. Or one where he spent his life running a supply outpost or an agricultural station out in the wilderness.
“I'll go,” Michel told the Martian. “I need to go tell the creche manager. She will consider me a runaway if I'm not back by nightfall.”
“No need young Michel, I have already alerted everyone involved. We can leave now and be on my ship in time for dinner.”
Michel had never been allowed on one of the transport modules other citizens used. As creche-born, past experience had shown there was too big a chance young ones like him would use it to disappear. Sitting next the Martian, he enjoyed the looks all the normal born folks were giving him.
For the Martian, his thoughts were flung in a thousand different directions. While the Sonoran government had dreams of becoming a major power in interstellar affairs, they had absolutely no idea about the bigger galactic picture. In fairness, most human worlds were willfully trying to forget about the Wisps. They were happy to pursue their singular dreams at the expense of their overall futures. Mars remembered what they had done to Earth and the other worlds that only now were beginning to recover.
Above all else though, what took precedence in all other considerations for Mars was that they knew the Wisps would one day return. Young Michel didn't know it but the vast collective consciousness that was the Martian ship and crew saw something in him that could mean the ultimate survival of the species. So Jonas had no real issue taking Michel from one planned life and placing him in another. It wasn't like he would be the only one.
Sunday, September 9, 2018
For the obvious selfish and foolish reasons, I had begun to convince myself the South Carolina coast just might avoid any issues this hurricane season. This hurricane season thankfully seemed a bust with few Atlantic storms forming and those that did quickly fizzling out. Well, much to my chagrin, I got up yesterday morning, made a cup of crappy decaf coffee, and turned on the television to learn Hurricane Florence appears to have the South Carolina coast dead in its sights.
For the survivors of Hurricane Maria, my complaints about what may happen in the coming days are most definitely the highest form of whining. But such is human nature when the delicate balance of normal demands and daily concerns of life are threatened by a much worse outside force. What is slightly funny for me on a strictly personal level is whenever I use to voice my trepidation on what may happen, like the possible damage an approaching hurricane might cause, some jackleg douche invariably tries to offer up a “glass half full” scenario. Such people like to offer trite statements at how adversity could pull people together to work for the common good, or some other feel good crap. I would consider such a possibility in more enlightened portions of the country or world, but here in Red State suburbia, I highly doubt it. Personally, I often believe these seemingly civilized suburbanites are just a few missed meals away from eating each other.
Whatever the case, Dragonwife, my lovely and smart spouse is heading to the local Costco today to pick up a respectable amount of bottled water and canned goods as a precaution. If Florence does decide to smack South Carolina, even indirectly, my work will certainly demand I stay on-site to help maintain continued safe and steady operation. So, I wish everyone within Hurricane Florence's possible path destruction the best of luck. Here's a couple of required Buffett tunes to think about in the coming days.
Friday, August 31, 2018
Driving home from work a few mornings back, my chief goal was to get cleaned up, eat a quick breakfast, and go straight to bed. The main reason I felt an urgency to get my daily routine done quickly was because it had been steadily raining since midnight and the weather report was giving every indication it would stay that way for several more hours. Nothing helps a weary night-shift worker get to sleep like dark clouds and steady rain in the morning. The only problem was the clever little gas gauge on my car's dashboard was flashing a warning light saying I was getting dangerously low on fuel. The last thing I wanted to do was stop and get gas, but at that very moment I was approaching one of the better convenience stores in the area and decided to get the chore out of the way.
By better convenience store, I mean one that is clean, has well maintained gas pumps, and more importantly is on the opposite side of town from where I live. Few things bother me more in the morning than having to carry on socially-obligated small talk with one of the locals who really doesn't like me but knows my wife or one of my kids. Being that the normal people were heading out to work at that time, past experience has taught me that on my side of town there was a better than average chance of encountering one of those creatures.
So, I turn off the highway and pull under the shelter providing cover for the gas pumps. I go through the motions of navigating the touch screen on the gas pump choosing my method of payment along with declining both to have my car washed at the on-site automated facility and the offer on a new zero-interest credit card. After getting those slightly irritating issues out of the way, I insert the nozzle in the tank and lean against the side of my car waiting for it to fill.
There were four or five other customers under the shelter with me doing the same, all obviously preoccupied with their own morning agendas. Like I wrote, bone-weary people such as myself are not looking for conversations so I was enjoying quiet anonymity and the sound of the rain. At some point though I began hearing a low roar off in the distance, one whose intensity grew so quickly it overwhelmed the sound of the steady rain. It was easy to discern the direction of the noise, it was coming from the western side of the highway.
Frankly, the noise sort of reminded me of a low flying jet fighter. Back during my air defense days in the army, we'd have training sessions where we tracked aircraft flying extremely low to the ground. Those training sessions happened in the deserts of New Mexico, such a thing occurring down a usually well traveled highway in South Carolina was ridiculous. Whatever the case, I began looking in the direction the noise was coming from figuring it would pass my location soon enough.
Except that the noise, only grew louder with no source in sight. As the seconds ticked by my curiosity grew as well, so much I began to feel an illogical trepidation. This noise was now officially weird and on the way to slightly bizarre. Just when I began to believe the source of the noise would never appear that's when it came into view.
It was one of those new Dodge Challenger sports cars and while my days of interest in such vehicles are long past, it was blindingly obvious that the driver had the engine red lined. In fact, it wouldn't have surprised me to see the engine explode in the couple of seconds it was in my view. I'm terrible at guessing the speed of moving cars but that Challenger was easily pushing over one-hundred miles an hour, probably far more. Whatever its true speed, that car was going so fast down the highway it had a long misty tail produced from the rain flowing around the body. Once out of view, while the pitch of the Challenger's engine change as it passed my location, the driver hadn't eased off on pushing the car to its extreme limits.
“An unmarked cop car?” The person at the pump in front of me asked aloud.
“Probably,” I responded, “but I didn't see any flashing lights.”
South Carolina cops love unmarked police cars, so much that once while driving near Charleston, I saw the Highway Patrol had turned a nondescript, certified mom-type Chevrolet minivan into such a cop car. I was traveling west on I-26 and saw these thin, horizontal flashing blue lights on the lower left and right side of the van's back window, which was stopped on the side of the road. The strange part came with the, “My son is an honor student” bumper sticker stuck between the two flashing lights.
Traffic was backed up, so everyone was going slow allowing me to see the gray uniform of a Highway Patrolman exit the vehicle and almost goosestep to the driver side window of the car he pulled over. As I passed the driver's side of the van, it was then that I noticed it lacked all identifying decals. All things considered, if a minivan pulled up behind me flashing blue light from behind its grill, I'm not sure I would believe it was a real cop car.
Whatever the case, given the safe assumption the Dodge Challenger was an unmarked cop car responding silently to some pretty bad shit, I expected to see other law enforcement types follow in its wake. Which was sort of what happened, not thirty seconds after the mysterious speeder burned pass us, a deputy sheriff vehicle lazily pulled into the convenience store parking. The one problem though was this law enforcement vehicle came from the opposite direction the Challenger was traveling. It goes without saying there was simply no way that deputy could have missed seeing, and hearing, the speedster as it continued down the highway.
The deputy sheriff, a guy so young I would have bet money he was only a few years out of high school, casually strolled into the convenience store seemingly oblivious to the world around him. Looking through the store's huge windows, I watched this young Barney Fife walk to the Krispy Kreme donuts display and stare longingly at the offerings. If a cop's future career success can be discerned by his profession's stereotypical worship of donuts, this kid would make county sheriff before his thirtieth birthday. Despite it all, it was a safe assumption that the Dodge Challenger was a law enforcement vehicle on its way to something dangerous. For whatever reason though, the powers that be saw fit not to invite young Barney to the party.
This posed a huge question, on the off chance the driver of the Challenger was just another of the many deluded A-holes of this area pushing his expensive toy to it limits, why hadn't young Barney done his public safety duty and gone after him? It was a question that I wouldn't ever get an answer. With my gas tank finally filled, I drove off for home with my ultimate destination being my warm bed.
Sunday, August 26, 2018
Putting the bitterness and inherent divisiveness of politics aside for the moment, I have to clearly state that John McCain was a genuine American hero and patriot. I am not saying he was perfect or that I ever really agreed with his political positions. The truth of the matter is that back in 2008 when McCain was the Republican nominee for president I cringed at the thought of him handling the financial meltdown should he win the election. And to be honest, I thought the man had lost his marbles picking Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Despite the fact that I couldn't ever support Senator McCain's positions on most issues, I never for a minute doubted that he always had the best interests of the United States as his ultimate goal. Politics is a dirty game that at times forces good people to say and do things that they would otherwise refuse to take part. The best we can hope for in democracies like ours is that the people elect decent men and women who can come together and forge a compromise that ultimately advances everyone's' interests. I honestly believe John McCain the vast majority of the time was one of those decent people.
Now it's easy to scoff at politicians of all stripes and yes, elected office does seem to attract the lowest common denominator types looking for an easy way to gain power and influence. But in John McCain's case, no one can question his devotion to the United States given what he endured as a prisoner of war. Did he come from a privileged background? Yes, in a way since being the son and grandson of U.S. Navy admirals surely wasn't a hindrance to personal achievement. But the thing no one can deny was that he honorably served his country, whereas many children of powerful people just live off their trust funds or skate by doing as little as possible avoiding danger and commitment at all costs.
No, I didn't agree with John McCain on a lot of things. I personally feel some of his positions were backwards and outright dangerous given the world we live. But the thing is I believe that if a person agrees with any elected official one-hundred percent of the time they very much need to reexamine their way of thinking. John McCain was just a man, prone to mistakes like us all. But he was a good man who truly loved his country and will very much be missed.
Sunday, August 19, 2018
After recuperating from my cardiac adventures, I went back to work last week, on day shift no less. The temporary reassignment was something my boss wanted. At first I was hesitant, but a couple of hours into my first day back last Monday, I quickly realized it was a good idea. It took me at least to last Wednesday to find my groove again. Upon returning home and after getting cleaned up I pretty much crashed on the couch until it was time to go to bed. So, what that means is that I don't really have anything to write about other than my encounter with the MRI machine during the time I was a patient in the hospital.
Magnetic Resonance Imagining is one of those technologies that would border on magic to anyone from the early Twentieth century and before. Sure, they had X-ray machines back then, which were wonders in their own era. But X-ray images never approached the level of detail and information a MRI can provide. The only problem with MRI's is that they are not as flexible or as easily deployable as the much older X-ray machines.
Essentially, MRI's to me look like a huge, glossy plastic barrel with a narrow center. Throw in a futuristic table, which slides the patient laying on top into that narrow center and that describes nearly all of those machines. Even with the advantages offered by MRI's, problems begin to emerge as soon as anyone comes close to to them.
The first being the overwhelmingly strong magnetic fields an energized unit produces. I've heard horror stories about careless orderlies rolling metal beds or stretchers into the room where the MRI's magnetic field “grabs” them after it is activated and causes some major destruction. The second issue come into play when the patient has some sort of metal implant in their body. Let's just say when that is somehow overlooked and the patient is placed inside the unit, and the magnets are energized, things can get messy really fast.
My encounter with the MRI machine revolved around a completely different type of problem. See, I'm a big guy and the center of the machine where they insert the patient is quite small. Yes, that means claustrophobia, something that for me usually involved around the feeling of being overwhelmed in a large and loud crowd.
The cardiologists working on me wanted a detailed map of the problem cells causing my heart to race uncontrollably. Such information would allow them to home in on those nasty buggers and literally kill them with small electric shocks. So, I was wheeled down to the MRI and placed on the table. As that is happening, the technician is telling me I can't move during the procedure and that I would have to hold my breath periodically.
Everything is good to go up until the technician starts telling me how cramped and confining the inside of the machine will be. I'm okay up until the point she starts telling me about how I might react once I am slid into the center of the machine. She pretty much hit every raw point that could trigger my latent claustrophobia in the space of twenty seconds. Of course, never having a MRI scan before all her words were pretty abstract concepts up until I was actually laying inside the machine.
Long story short, I lasted about fifteen seconds before I started squeezing the hell out of the little plastic ball on the end of long a cord which signaled to the technician I was in full panic mode. Even though I knew everything was okay and that just a foot away from the top of my head was the other opening on the back end of the MRI, I felt entombed.
Personally, I think the one aspect that really got to me was that the opening was so confining. My shoulders and arms were pressing tightly against the inside of the opening. What didn't help at all was that my nose was just an inch or two from the top of the opening. Truthfully, thinking about it now still bothers me quite a bit.
Luckily, the technician slide me out quickly and was able to give me medication that more than tamed my claustrophobia. The procedure then went on as planned, which lasted about an hour. Once it was over, the MRI technician did try to put a positive spin on my record breaking panic attack once I was out of the machine. Apparently, other patients panic much later during the procedure, which forces an abort and them having to do it all over again later. Somehow, I found that information small comfort.
Sunday, August 12, 2018
The lesson every sane human being who has the privilege to go on a vacation in these near feudal times should understand is that a bad day at the beach beats the living hell out of a good day at work. As dogmas go, it's far simpler than most, if not all religious or philosophical tenets that force people to jump through complicated hypocritical hoops and twist themselves into self-deceiving pretzels. Life began in the seas and while our amphibian ancestors crawled out of the salty waters and began the conquest of dry land are now calcified fossils, we hairless primates still have some sort of instinctual connection with the ocean.
Now it is true that this connection is stronger in some and weaker in others. One of the most bizarre statements I ever heard spoken was some dude telling me that salt water made him feel dirty. That he preferred swimming in fresh water lakes and ponds. Yeah, I adhere to the idea that we all have to true to our basic nature but I couldn't help but feel a bit of disgust at that individual.
My connection to the ocean first developed on the shores of Pawleys Island, South Carolina back in the late 1960's. While not really able to swim, kids my age would slowly go deeper into the water until it was up to our necks and we bobbed like corks in the gentle swells with our toes only occasionally touching the sandy bottom. Given the fear and paranoia the movie Jaws spawned a few years later, by all rights at least one or two of my fellow kindergarten age adventurers and myself should have ended up as a snack for some shark.
During those strangely backwards and progressive times, our parents didn't have a clue as of our actual whereabouts. They were hanging out on shore drinking themselves into a early afternoon stupor. They were satisfied in the knowledge that their children were somewhere in a half mile radius of their beach chairs and beer laden coolers. This wasn't child abuse or neglect, parents simply didn't feel the need to hover over their kids like overprotective angels. It was a different time, whether such parental behaviors were better or worse is a debate outside this scope of this story. No, there were absolutely no professional lifeguards anywhere to be seen back then, it was strictly swim at your own risk. Somehow over the years though, us kids learned the nature of currents, and waves along with avoiding jelly fish and knowing to get the out of the water if someone started bleeding.
I still retain a fondness for Pawleys Island, even though it lost most of what made it special for me due to the relentless encroachment of real estate developers. The south end of Pawleys Island once had an isolated feel, with the quite nearby mainland devoid of any of the gross McMansions that began popping up in the 1990's. The beaches I get to mostly these days are those off Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. A place that is far more developed and frankly pretentious than the permanent residents of Pawleys could hope to achieve, despite their best efforts. But being true to my central beliefs, it's still a beach and you have to work really hard to not enjoy the sun, sand, and ocean.
Last month I was doing just that, we were staying at Disney's Hilton Head Island Resort with my wife and I spending the day on the beach. It was mid-morning and after both of us had spent some time in the ocean she had gone back to sit under our rented umbrella and read a magazine. I decided to stay in the ocean and continue to float on my back and relax in the calm and cool waters.
Given the public location and that it was summertime, several groups of people were nearby me as I floated idly on the water. One was a large family throwing what looked to be a Nerf football to each other. There was also a relatively young couple with the wife/girlfriend quite pregnant. No expert here, but having already seen her on the beach earlier, I would have guessed she was seven to eight months along. The husband/boyfriend and her were playing quite closely with each other in the water making me uncomfortable given my relative nearness and overactive imagination.
So to solve the possible issue of seeming like I might be intruding on either group, I turned myself around so that I was looking out at the horizon. Quite frankly it was a brilliant move, not only was it now clear that I was not eavesdropping on either group but it promoted a sense of solitude in an otherwise crowded shore. Here's where things start to get sort of weird.
Being that I was further out in the water than anyone else in sight, from my point of view the universe had narrowed down to two distinct infinite planes with the ocean and sky meeting at the horizon. Adding to this psychedelic effect, the sky that day was cloudless and the ocean was so calm the shore resembled more a slightly disturbed pool with no real waves. Now throw in my ability/talent to ignore most of the crap human beings say to each other and I became a bit transdimensional floating in the placid waters leaving the normal space-time continuum.
Relaxing while playing with such a mindset, my imagination tripped out jumping from idea to idea, all pretty weird. During this indeterminate time, I remembered a science fiction short story from the 1980's that involved a crewman on a U.S. bomber. Blown out of his plane by attacking enemy aircraft as intense lightning flashed in nearby clouds, he finds himself falling between two infinite planes. This character, a theoretical physics major in college before the war, figures the intense lightening ripped a hole in local space-time casting him out of the normal universe. While he falls, the main character remembers several lectures he had with his favorite professor on fringe physics.
As science fictions stories went, it was okay. No huge revelations on the human experience or the nature of the universe. The dude eventually “falls” into the other dimensional plane with time then reversing and him rejoining his damage aircraft which comes back together. Once back at his duty station inside the bomber, the main character shrugs off the entire episode as a combat-induced hallucination.
The bomber lands safely back at the airbase with the flight crew heading off to the officers' club to get heavily drunk. The only thing big reveal of the story comes as all the other guys on the bomber crew notice the main character, someone who they have lived and worked closely with for years, is now right-handed. As opposed to the person they always saw using his left hand for everything. Yeah, nothing really earth shattering, unless you have lived and worked with someone for such a long time that they know you intimately and can anticipate most of their actions.
After chuckling at remembering that story, my mind drifted off to other subjects. Funny thing happened after that, since I was staring off at the horizon and relaxing for so long, I either dozed off or entered a semi-hypnotic state where I wasn't really conscious. I liken the semi-hypnotic idea to the story I've heard about cross-continent highways down in Australia. When those highways were built they made them close to absolutely straight given the continuous flat terrain. What I've heard is that you can go for hours without a curve, a dip, or hill to break the monotony. Combine that with the low volume sounds of tires rolling on the highway and it reported drivers can become hypnotized to the point that they can fly off the road if they encounter something that changes the path of the highway.
Whatever the case, something eventually shook me out of my stupor. I didn't look at my watch before turning away from the other people in the water. But my best guess was that I had zoned out from reality for about thirty minutes. That's when I got a bit of a shock when I turned and faced the beach.
The structures in the back ground and the array of people occupying the shoreline with tents and umbrellas were totally different. Looking around in the water near me, the family throwing the Nerf football and the pregnant couple were gone. A completely different group of people were now in the places they once occupied.
For a couple of seconds I was having a full-fledged and certified Keanu Reeves' “WHOA” moment. I simply didn't know where in the hell I was located. Of course, my bizarre mind quickly thought about that science fiction story I remembered earlier while floating and staring off at the horizon stuck between two the ocean and the sky. The question as to whether I had somehow slipped the bounds of normal space-time and entered a different dimensional floated around in my head during that brief time. This left me with an intense eerie feeling of unease that I mostly blame on being out in the sun too long.
After those disorienting few seconds, that small piece that is my rational brain kicked in to reconnect me with reality. Remembering one of the first things I learned about the ocean shore, despite the seemingly placid ocean, there was still enough of a current to take me down a significant stretch of beach. Feeling slightly ashamed, I shook off the majority of the eerie feeling and began walking back to the shore.
Still being morning, the near talcum white beach sand of Hilton Head had not heated up significantly yet. This allowed me to divert to an already open tiki bar located at another resort instead of returning directly to the rented umbrella my wife and I shared. Yes, the tiki bar's philosophy was summed up on the sign mounted on a pole supporting the thatched roof that read: “It's always five o'clock somewhere.” For me though, nothing washes away internal embarrassment and the feeling that you may have slipped into another dimension like that reassuring potion made up of tequila and margarita mix.
“It's awful early for a margarita,” my wife said as I plopped into the chair next her. This bit of spousal semi-disapproval didn't stop her from gesturing that she wanted a sip or two or what really turned out to be a small gulp.
“Don't judge me,” I quipped taking back my expensive, morning alcoholic treat. Just to totally make certain I was in the right dimension though, I had to ask her one thing. “I've been right-handed for the entire time you've known me, right?”
“Since the day we meet at the Jimmy Buffett concert.” She said in a totally incurious manner never taking her eyes off the magazine she was reading. No, she didn't inquire as to why I would ask such a weird question, That's when I realized I was still safely in my home universe.