About Erik Dolson

Erik Dolson is a writer living in Oregon

Where to start…?

Dawn in my Treehouse feels warm, secure, and surreal. A mile away, wind generators roar with the pulsing beat of helicopter blades from a neighbor’s marijuana field fending off frost. I hear the fridge humming and the coffee pot clicking with heat while sending a fat burbling steaming stream into the glass carafe.

My ears also ring from damage by 427 inch motors howling too close, or the squall of a 4-cylinder diesel engine inches from my head in the confined space beneath the cockpit of the boat. Or maybe from chainsaws while cutting up firewood decades ago. Or rock concerts from decades before that.

Or maybe my ears just echo with waves of compressed time. It’s that kind of morning.

It’s good to be back in the Treehouse. No, it’s not really a treehouse, but the living room on the high second floor is mostly windows that look out into green branches of juniper and pine on a hilltop surrounded by mountains. It feels to me like a treehouse so that’s what I call it. The outside is built of rusting steel, the inside done in golds and yellows and copper. I was cold when I built it a decade ago so I built it warm in fact and in feel.

It’s been almost a year since Irish and I took the boat north to Victoria, spent most of the winter there, then on to Alaska and back. An intense, at times frightening, awe-inspiring, cold, frustrating, rewarding, year. The boat now sits on her buoy, rotating on twice-a-day tides, drawing one and one-half amps an hour from an 800 hour battery bank.

I need to get some solar panels so that I don’t kill the batteries. But to do that I need a place to put the panels, and so I need to build the hard-top, which I’ve designed and redesigned and then redesigned, but to install the hard top I need to move the boom up eight inches, which means I need to get the sail cut …

The coffee pot just beeped three times to tell me it’s done keeping the coffee hot and if I want another cup, I’d better get a move on. That’s a good reminder about being in the moment, this moment, here in the Treehouse.

Alaska was tough on Irish, but she was tougher. She not only had to deal with the fear of being on the boat that tried to kill her last December and took her right eye, but then had to leave the Alaska trip for follow-up medical visits back in Oregon. While she was gone there were two different female crew members on board she had never met and no way to communicate assurances and all that. It was tough. Then the push back to Friday Harbor, almost a thousand miles, to see my daughters off to Japan.

Social Security denied her application for benefits. Parkinson’s, Fibromyalgia, nor the loss of an eye and inability to read did not convince the agency that Irish was disabled. They assert she should continue as a project manager running multi-person teams developing assessment data for America’s students. They understand neither her condition nor her work, or don’t care.

There were times I didn’t think Irish would make it on the boat. When she didn’t seem to remember that she was not supposed to get off the boat while it was moving. When she set the fender too high and we hit the dock — a depth perception problem from having only one eye. When she couldn’t see the log we hit that took out our water speed gauge, the result of seeing through a cloud of what she called her “starlings,” the mass of floaters in her good eye.

She’d been complaining of seeing spots. We had the eye examined in May before leaving, didn’t get many answers but some assurances they would fade with time. The eye was examined again in July when Irish was in Portland for an eye “realignment.” Again, nothing serious.

But Irish was concerned enough when we got back that she moved an appointment set for the end of October up to the middle of September. Good thing. “Cobblestones” at the edge of the retina. Cloudiness around the optic nerve. “So much different than July!” said her doctor, who then referred us to another doctor, who then referred us to a third, all in the same day. Glad we were at Casey Eye Institute where there were many experts.

The chance was only .05 percent that her body would try to reject her good eye after the damage from the fall, but that’s the most likely explanation of what’s going on. They’re going to rule out TB and other diseases that could be the cause of inflammation, but it seems that rejection is most probable. Now she has eye-drops, next week huge doses of systemic steroids, then immune-suppressant drugs probably for a lifetime.

No tears, no panic. We’re both probably in a state of shock. But this could change a few things. We’ll be doing a few calendared events a little sooner. A birthday-present trip to New Orleans may be celebrated a little earlier than planned.

But right now, she can still see and is on a couch not far from this chair. Outside some birds are loudly cheering the 30 pounds of feed I hung in the juniper below the huge windows that let warm sun pour into this room. I’ll ask Irish if I can get her another cup on my way to the coffee pot.

 

IT’s here.

Let’s dispense with some hair-splitting right up front. What follows lumps “machine learning” and “cognitive computing” and “artificial intelligence” and “advanced robotics” into one box that from here on shall be referred to as “Intelligent Technology,” or “IT.”

IT includes self-driving cars, robots building those cars, computerized doctors, advanced game-playing algorithms, Amazon or Google or Apple or Facebook centers that parse “big data … all of it. All of IT. (more…)

Soon smarter than us

Three articles in the last couple of weeks didn’t shine quite enough attention on Artificial Intelligence.

Sandisk announced a 400 gigbit microsd memory card for your phone. Huawei announced a new processor chip for phones that features a “neural processing unit,” or NPU. The Economist newspaper has a couple of stories, one about AI being able to determine sexual orientation (straight or gay) from photographs, another about AI’s ability to determine not just who you are, but your mood, even your politics. (more…)

Fear 3

Irish talks about fear. She fell, crushed half her face and lost her right eye. Of course she’s afraid of going back on the boat. No job and savings wiped out by divorce, she fears medical bills, as do many in much better shape. She fears for our relationship.

After losing her job, the day before she fell, she asked me if I “could still love an unemployed miscreant.”  Her question was not out of the blue. This isn’t the first time Irish and I had gotten together.

We had connected on a dating site years ago, and met for dinner. We talked and laughed for three hours and closed the restaurant, but I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere: she’s conservative and I’m liberal, she lived with two adult sons and three dogs in a rented house 150 miles away from where I lived, I was on my way out of the country for weeks or months … and I intended to buy a sailboat and head for adventure.

After our date, I hugged her goodnight. She seemed so tiny and frail in my arms. That was that, because I wanted to be a gentleman.

A month or two later, after I returned from my trip, we had plans for a second date. While I was gone, the country went on daylight savings but I had not reset the clock in my truck. She called.

“Where are you?”

“On my way, but still early.”

“Um, no, you’re late.”

“It’s only 2:30, we’re meeting at 3 …

“It’s 3:30.”

“Oh no!” I said, when I realized what happened. “Please wait for me. We’ll get everything on the appetizer menu, and anything you want for dinner, I’m not that far away … please?”

She found that endearing, she waited, and we had another wonderful, four-hour conversation. That’s when she told me about her Parkinson’s Disease, and her fibromyalgia, and migraines and spinal fusion after she fell and cracked vertebrae in her neck …

It was full disclosure.

But the person you tell these things needs to know what you’re talking about, and I didn’t really have a clue.

We didn’t kiss after that date, either. While I could see a wonderful friendship, I still didn’t think it would evolve into romance, and I was trying to be a gentleman.

We had a third date. We kissed, and discovered we had what she called “kiss compatibility.” I still remember the first time I felt her fingertips on my skin.

Then I bailed out.

As she was planning our fourth date, and talking about when I could meet her best friend, and her sons. I was reading about Parkinson’s Disease and fibromyalgia and brooding on “two adult sons at home, three dogs, part-time job, a disabling disease that at some point will require constant care and then kill her…”

Just how does all this fit onto a sailboat headed to Fiji? The sailboat dream had been my refuge for decades, had prevented me from making horrible life compromises that I was otherwise willing to make for all the wrong reasons, had “kept me afloat” in more ways than one.

I knew I was falling for her, but we did not have the same future lined up, and I thought it was better not to get too much farther down the road of romance or the damage would be awful.

Three dates and out, I thought was being a gentleman.

But I could not stop musing on the way she said simply, “Hey” when she texted or called me or answered the phone when I called. That was really weird. Just the simple, drama free, glad to hear from you, “Hey.” It took a while, but I checked back in, just saying “hey.”

Predictably and justifiably, Irish responded, “What the hell do you want?” or something like that. “You made me feel I was unlovable because of my Parkinson’s.”

“It was because I could fall in love with you that Parkinson’s scared me away,” I told her.

“We don’t know what and how the Parkinson’s will progress,” she told me. “Many things could happen.”

After a while, she agreed to fourth date. We’ve been together since. So, she’s not being unreasonable to fear for our relationship. I’ve had a few fears of my own.

After she fell, I spent the first night in the hospital pacing and waiting for her to come out of surgery. I spent the next night on the couch in her recovery room listening to hospital sounds and nurses who came in every two hours to administer pain meds and antibiotics, check her pulse, oxygen, etc.

I was far beyond tired by the next day after two nights without sleep and drinking far too many cups of coffee and cans of ginger ale. The caffeine and sugar were no longer keeping me alert, but had morphed into agitation.

“Can you love an unemployed miscreant, with only one eye?” Irish mumbled the question from her damaged mouth. She remembers being desperately afraid of my answer while knowing that then and there I could not answer “No.” I gave her a kiss, a squeeze. I don’t remember what I said.

“You told me something I needed to hear, that I hoped was true,” she said later.

But when I left the hospital to shower, and buy a sweatshirt and T-shirt to replace ones they cut off her in the emergency room, her fear burrowed into me and became mine: ugly, self-absorbed, anguish-ladened fear that seemed match, drop for drop, the cold, soaking, wind-driven rain that pounded the streets of Victoria.

I was once afraid of flying, so I bought an old plane and became a (mediocre) pilot. I love to travel to far-away places where English is rarely spoken with absolutely no clue what I’m going to do after the first night. I drive a race car at 160 mph through blind corners inches away from other cars.

At an age when many are looking forward to a lounge chair and afternoon of televised football (that I never cared much about before the Seahawks), I bought a sailboat. I’d never really sailed before, but the plan was to take it to Alaska for a shakedown this summer and then on to south, maybe even New Zealand.

I’m an adrenalin junkie. That’s not unusual for someone of my background. I’m also “a runner.” The closer I become to someone, the more I love them, the greater the danger I will fear my own vulnerability and run, sometimes for a pretext so flimsy it’s obvious I’m running from fear. It’s my inheritance.

Two days after Irish fell I set foot again on the boat and looked to see where she fell.The wood rail where she struck had no sign of the impact, but it was so much harder than her delicate cheek, nose, skull, and eye. There were spots of blood on the deck and I wondered which held fragments of her burst and missing cornea.

Sleepless, feeling helpless, I growled through clenched teeth at the boat.

“Why!? Why?!? You jealous bitch, why did you do this to her!?”

Cold and indifferent, the boat declined to answer.

I knew I was being foolish, that the boat had done nothing, the boat was an inanimate object, that the fall was an accident, a misstep, a bad decision in footwear, a breaking of Boating Rule #1 to always keep a hand for yourself, hold on to something when moving about.

But I was irrational, anger was setting in, even as I know better than most that all anger has its roots in fear. All the fears that chased me away from Irish the first time returned, with a vengeance for their exile. Almost as quickly as I had boarded the boat, I showered off the sleepless hospital night and headed out into rain pelting downtown Victoria and I walked, looking for something to look for so I did not have to go back to the hospital quite yet.

I blamed Parkinson’s for the fall, not the stupid heavy socks. I howled at myself for ignoring my earlier “knowledge” of the inevitability of Irish’s immobilization, I cried that that she would be helpless unless I helped her, that the sailboat was now gone, adventure a thing of memory, that I was about to become … be … immobilized, encased in my own fat and bound by chains of duty.

And then, St. Francis showed up in the form of a prayer I remembered vaguely from countless meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. It wasn’t like I didn’t bring my own host of disabilities to this relationship, after all.

“… Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace!

That where there is hatred, I may bring love.

That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.

That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.

That where there is error, I may bring truth.

That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.

That where there is despair, I may bring hope.

That where there are shadows, I may bring light.

That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.

To understand, than to be understood.

To love, than to be loved.

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.”

Why this prayer? Unlike Irish, I’m no Catholic and some would say I’m not even a Christian. That’s okay, I’ve long thought of myself as a Taoist and I’ve been known to debate the definition of God, wherever She may dwell.

But the prayer brought quick, deep relief. It seemed I saw through the words and into the meaning of how, and why, St. Francis sought to comfort than be comforted. Then I heard Irish speak.

“I don’t want anything from you that is not given with a glad heart,” she said to me. She had told me once that she taught her boys this lesson, and I heard it as plainly as if she were standing beside me, as if the narcotics that bound her to bed in the hospital had given her the gift of teleportation.

I didn’t know the future. I didn’t need to know. Two miles away lay a woman I loved in a hospital bed, terribly injured. I had not only the duty but a deep desire to be there with her, make sure that she had a ginger ale if she wanted a sip, pain medication if she was hurting, to comfort her if she was frightened, as she was sure to be.

The memory of the sound of her face hitting the coaming on the boat makes me shudder, and always will, but I wanted to be there. I still am.

We’re planning to take the boat to Alaska in June. It’s been about eight weeks since Irish fell on Foxy, our boat.  We are on the ferry now, on our way back to Victoria. In two hours we’ll be back on board, for the first time for Irish, after many misgivings for me.

But it’s time.

Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.

Piling on

Irish’s father died last Saturday. We’ll drive from the mountains to the valley tomorrow, pick up her sons in Eugene, and then head to the Oregon coast where the service will be held the next day.

So much for 2017 making up for last year. The girl didn’t have enough on her plate over the last six weeks? Parkinson’s, losing her job over Thanksgiving, four days later the fall that nearly took her life and did take her eye? Surgery days before Christmas, and before the middle of January, her father dies.

I don’t know if I could have withstood all she’s been hammered with over the last eight weeks, but not once, in the year we’ve been together, have I heard her say, “Why me?” Though she has sworn at times at how this glorious adventure together keeps getting interrupted, she seems to have no sense of entitlement. On one of our earliest dates, she said “Why not me?” with characteristic toughness, and a shrug.

His death was not sudden. He was 91, and needed oxygen to get from his chair to the dinner table. But the 6 a.m. phone call from her brother, informing Irish of her father’s death, hit her hard. She was close to her dad. They talked by phone every Sunday, and snippets I could hear were full of gentleness, love and concern.

I could also tell there wasn’t a whole lot of time. For her birthday I surprised Irish with a trip down to southern California in November to spend a weekend with him. She’d also wanted me to meet him, and him to meet me. I did not let my awful fear of commitment get in the way.

When we met, her father was irascible, funny, frustrated and frustrating, gentle and appreciative, a lover of football and as far as I can tell, a true hero. I link to his obituary here, because I think it’s important for people to read about what America was, compared to how it seems today. I was humbled and grateful to share time with him.

Not a surprise. He’s her dad.

Facebook

At the root of our “being,” just below consciousness and mostly hidden from us, pre-spoken emotions and urges guide our behaviors. As individuals we share many if not most of these, though where we fall on any one scale may be different from one to another.

You may have one glass of wine and be content, but your brother’s seven are not nearly enough.

You may be happy to sit quietly with a book while your sister must go out to a movie to allay a slight anxiety at not being “with people.” Or you may stay home because of a slight anxiety of being out in a crowd.

You may be still married after decades to your high school sweetheart, while a brother’s series of broken relationships paint a picture of him, not his partners.

The emotions and responses to these situations, some learned and some epigenetically triggered, lie on wiring that evolved over the millennia to promote the success of various strands of our DNA. But evolution is complicated, and responses harmful to the individual may be beneficial to the family, the band, the tribe, or society over time.

Addictions do not create something new. They operate on mechanisms that evolved to guide our behavior: dopamine and endorphin splashes in our brain that once required discovery of a full berry bush, or the sharing of spoils of the hunt, or the grooming of a mate or family member, can now be triggered by the point of a needle, flick of flame to nicotine or crack, the flicker of a screen filled with Facebook.

Our responses are not completely our “own.” They precede thought and word, lie at deeper levels of behavior where we are marionettes, our strings the promise of reward. We alter this only when we are quiet, aware, detached, intentional.