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.

One step forward

 

by Jane Miller

I didn’t really mean to write about all of this. Traveling over the Santiam Pass on New Year’s Eve, I wrote notes for something vastly different. But that will have to wait.

December needs to be revisited first.

I have been so afraid and so deeply sad. I lost my eye. I almost died. My face is still a mass of bruises, swelling, and pain. I will heal, I know, but there will be scars inside and out.

This past month keeps replaying itself in my memory. My world exploded on December 1 – a catastrophic fall on our sailboat. Four days later, Erik and I traveled painfully back to the States with the help of porters at every airport. Over the next two days, I saw my first eye doctor at the Casey Eye Institute and then a facial reconstruction ENT surgeon. It was decided to do a new ultrasound on my eye and operate on my face toward the end of December. The news that I could be looking at multiple surgeries was more than disheartening.

But Erik, being who he is, pushed to move the ultrasound up to December 15 to give us time to reevaluate should any new information come to light. We drove back over the pass to OHSU in a blizzard, avoiding an avalanche, to have the ultrasound. The technician, a brilliant and perceptive angel, noticed some issues with my eye.

We were ushered in to a meeting with the retinal surgeon who told us my eye was too damaged to save, that to leave it in could damage the other eye. We took time to breathe, think, and decide.

We put out an all-call on Facebook, and with a speed and love I never could have imagined, we began receiving support and help from all over the world.

A friend of Erik’s – a lovely woman he introduced me to in the line at the post office, and to whom I spoke for maybe 10 minutes – offered to put us in touch with a world-renowned retinologist. A member of our “racing family” introduced us to a professional who studied with my retinologist in England. My niece introduced me to a “friend of a friend” who had faced the traumatic loss of an eye. Just messaging her helped.

And the love and prayers that cascaded over us … from “wraparound hugs” to entreaties to call should I need anything … from friends I’d had since high school to my sorority sisters, from my family to my person to my brand new racing family … tears fall as I type this knowing I would not be here without you all.

I had my surgery on December 20, and after four days in the “ambulatory” surgical unit, Erik drove me back home. Getting over the pass was intensely painful, despite his best efforts. Christmas was saved by the presence and hugs of our children.

We went back over the pass to see my doctors on December 30, just a week and a half after they put my face back together. Details were revealed that the doctors had told me, I was just not coherent enough to fully realize.

The orbit of my right eye was broken in so many places, the facial reconstruction surgeon had to find a piece that was still attached to my skull and tie that one to the next and the next one to the next. The only comparison she can make is to a patient she had who fell five stories and landed on his face.

My right cheek was disintegrated to the extent they had to use a thicker titanium plate to rebuild it so it would hold shape. My right eye had literally exploded. My septum was deviated and the right side of my nose broken in pieces too many to count.

The injuries to my face were the kind associated with the head-on collisions of drunk drivers. Minor in comparison, I tend to forget the depressed skull fracture on my right temporal lobe.

I was stunned. “Jesus,” I thought, “how can this be so bad?” I lost an eye, but it’s more than that. The pain, the loss, the fear. I can’t write these words without tears. I don’t know why it wasn’t just enough to give me Parkinson’s.

I hadn’t believed them when they said the pain and bruising from this operation would be greater than the original accident. After they rebuilt my face from one incision in my mouth at the gum line and other incisions behind my eyelids, I learned they were right. My allergy to opioids caused wracking nausea and vomiting, making narcotics as brutal as suffering through the pain. After two days I retreated to Tylenol, Advil, and Excedrin.

The real news from the doctors was encouraging, though. My facial surgeon was pleased. My nose was straight, my cheek and orbit were holding shape. The surgeon who removed my eye said I’d made the right decision. The eye he removed was soft and not viable, the retina had disintegrated. He promised to give us the pathology report that accompanies surgery “to remove a limb.”

I cried in his office as the finality washed over me again. Erik held my knee and told me it was ok to cry, that I had to grieve.

But here I am now, December 31, New Year’s Eve, sitting on the couch in the Tree House in Sisters. There’s no dancing, but there is a love that will sustain us through bone-deep fatigue, pain and sorrow, and enable us to find joy in all things.

We are making plans to go back up to the boat soon, and still plan to sail to Alaska this summer.

So while I have many more rows to hoe, bones to mend, bruises to heal, and lessons to learn, I can begin my new year with tears for the trials of 2016, a sense of dread about the pain I still have to endure, but also gratitude for the love of family and friends, and the man who brought me home.

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

Irish: Pain, and Fear

by Jane Miller

My world exploded on Thursday, but the fuse was ignited on Monday when I was fired from my job. I had more than half expected it, work was a toxic environment at best, but the finality of it was daunting.

Erik was determined to keep my spirits up though, and we set off on a walkabout. Being in Victoria with him, being on the boat with him, just being with him made me irrepressibly happy. I was afraid, though, what this change in employment and finances would bring to our relationship. My voice shook as I nervously asked him if he could still date an unemployed miscreant who couldn’t hold down a job. I had learned long ago that there were perils to asking a question to which one did not know the answer.

Four days later, I fell while stepping from one side of the boat to the other.

Erik remembers the sound, and for that I am sorry. His expression changes when he remembers.

I remember the pain. I lost myself as it enveloped me. I screamed and the pain was excruciating. “ERIK!” I begged him to make the pain go away, even as I knew he couldn’t. I begged God to make it stop. But it didn’t. I lost words and could only say “Oh” as I rocked back and forth, trying to comfort myself.

Erik described the logistics and the sequence of events. How the paramedics found the boat because of the flashing Christmas lights. What he did not know, though, was that when the paramedics went to work on me, asking questions, completing their triage, I heard one of them catch his breath and say, “Is that her cheekbone?”

One of them gently palpitated the back of my neck, and when I said that it hurt (such varying degrees and kinds of pain I was experiencing) I remembered my neck surgery – a discectomy and fusion at C4-5 and C5-6. The paramedics insisted on putting me in a cervical collar. It was made for someone larger than me, and threatened to choke me, but I was too close to unconsciousness to care.

I don’t remember how I left the boat. As I piece together the events, I realize I must have walked off with the help of the paramedics. There I was, with what ended up being a crushed nose, shattered cheek, my right orbit broken in pieces too numerous to count, a ruptured eye, and a depressive skull fracture … walking off the boat.

As I was put on the gurney, my only thought, though, was knowing where Erik was. As long as he was with me, as long as I could hear his voice, I knew I would live. Being essentially blind, I needed to hear his strength through the sound of his voice and the touch of his warm fingers. If I lost that, I was afraid that I would crawl inside myself and never be able to come out.

The pain had the power to drive me to ground, and Erik was the only anchor in a too-dark world.

I was triaged at one hospital, then transferred with lights and sirens to the Royal Jubilee hospital, which had an ophthalmological surgery unit. A new voice entered my world as Dr. Taylor explained the extent of damage and the low probability of either saving my eye or my sight. I finally had enough pain meds in my system so I could breathe, and I knew Erik was with me, but I clung to his voice as they wheeled me to the OR.

Call my family,” I asked Erik. “But after surgery.”

Surgery on my eye lasted three-and-a-half hours. It had basically exploded and was torn more than half way around. I’d lost the iris, and there was so much blood an ultrasound couldn’t locate any retina left. I spent the next three days in recovery. The surgeons didn’t try to repair my crushed face, leaving that for later.

Erik made appointments for me with the best doctors back in Oregon as soon as I could travel. He organized air travel so there would be wheelchairs waiting every step of the way. He rarely left my side, sleeping on the couch in my hospital room, waking with me every two hours when nurses came in to apply medication. On Sunday, the day before we left, he made me walk around the hospital ward.

Still, I was terrified by the question I had asked about whether he could love me when I had lost my job. Now, how could he love an unemployed miscreant with one blind eye? How would we do this? How could I sail? Erik was the first to point out that I became seasick in rough seas, that I was afraid when the boat heeled over too far. How would I be now? We had started to work on the deficits that came with Parkinson’s, but this …

This was a deficit I didn’t know we could overcome. Erik had had this dream for twenty years – sailing, Fiji, trans-Pacific crossings – but his dream had not included a partner with such failings. But I didn’t ask. I couldn’t ask.

We arrived in Oregon four days after my fall and saw a doctor at the Casey Eye Institute the next day. We set up appointments to have another ultrasound, made plans to repair the bones in my face, and began ultimate plans to try to save my eye. Little did we know it would all be for naught.

Two weeks after the fall we were sitting in the retinologist’s office, going over the ultrasound that had just been taken, being told of the poor prognosis of seeing even light and dark, the medical hazards involved in keeping a blind eye, and the recommendation of surgery to remove the eye completely. It was difficult to breathe.

We needed a break, we needed to eat, talk, hold hands. Decide what to do.

I was now an unemployed miscreant with one prosthetic eye. Good grief. How was this going to fit in with Fiji? This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

This time, though, we didn’t mention the boat. We didn’t mention sailing. We just talked about what would be best for my health and for us. I told him I loved him, which I do all the time. He told me he loved me, too.

America, America. America!

Why is no one drawing the straight line from right-wing talk shows to Donald J. Trump, Republican candidate for President of the United States? Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Coulter, Hannity, Palin, Beck… Donald Trump would still be a third-rate real estate developer without the influence of these men and women on the culture of our country over the last 30 years.

Of course there are other factors. “Collateral damage” of our middle class, caused by both globalization and automation, is a major contributor. We should have provided opportunity for their children, though the rise of TV and video games, then cell phones, is a giant cultural / psychological / biological experiment that may have made this too difficult.

Collective cowardice is another, in that no one was willing to stand up and say the 1950s throughout about the year 2000 was a unique period of prosperity for the United States, that we failed to invest in the future. The wealth of this period also came with challenges that were poorly met, similar to the effects on the children of very successful people.

But Biology is also at work here. Fear is a greater motivator than hope, and those who manipulate fear have a greater chance of gaining influence.

The rise of the internet, where half-baked or completely false information is gobbled by a public that chooses not to know the difference between ranting and discussion, feelings and analysis, simple opinion and complex evaluation, also contributes.

But the panderers listed above use all this to build ratings, and their own wealth. They sell senseless outrage, the fear of loss, and aim snide disrespect at those of another political persuasion. They are cynically divisive, and may have ruined underpinnings of our democracy by demeaning the rule of law, attempting to delegitimizing our president and the election process

This election is not about the Supreme Court. It’s not about Benghazi. It’s not about the emails. It’s not even about the horror of electing a man as vile as any in the public arena to the most important post in America. It’s about what has happened to America, the America of Reagan, if you will, or of the Kennedy’s if you prefer.

Talk show hosts will own any unpleasant aftermath when their candidate, Donald J. Trump, loses the election because he is utterly and completely unqualified to be considered a decent man, let alone president of the United States.

He is, however, a perfect distillation of all that talk show hosts say and all that they stand for. He is their man, their candidate, their caricature.

Yes, the hosts above have freedom of speech. They have freedom of the press. But they are screaming “FIRE!” in a crowded theater. They need to own the consequences. The rest of us know what they have done, and should hold them accountable.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

The track wins one

Chalk one up for Portland International Raceway, PIR, the track in Portland.

Hell, give credit where credit is due. There’s a reason most fans head down to the chicane to watch a race. That’s where the action is, or is likely to be. That was certainly the case at the Columbia River Classic over Labor Day. Turn One is where it came down.

We’re humping along at a buck fifty or so (150 mph) on the main straight past the start finish line, then we come to Turn One, a nearly 90 degree right turn, followed immediately by an even sharper left at Turn Two, then quickly by the more easy right hand Turn Three. The pavement changes from asphalt to concrete to asphalt right in the middle of all this.

Turn One is a place where you can gain an advantage. It’s also where advantage can be lost in the blink of an eye.

For Saturday morning qualifying, the track was sloppy with rain showers on the west end and barely dry on the east. I had new brake pads to bed in, a type I had not run before. The ones I liked had been cracking because the backing plate was too thin. The new ones worked, but pedal feel was different. They bit later, and a little more softly.

Giving up on a better time as the rain worsened, I came in after a Porsche looped it in Turn Seven doing little more than subdivision speed. Fireball, in the gold Holman Moody Mustang, qualified first, Canuck was second. I was back in the pack at ninth or so, behind the Rex Easley Studebaker which let’s you know how I dialed it down.

After clawing my way to third, I had the best seat in the house watching Canuck and Fireball go at each other. My memory of any one race is always a little vague, because I’m not in a remembering frame of mind when I’m driving, but when one was in front, the other worked at him like a dog, going high, going low, waiting until the last second to brake and then trying to hold on.

Fireball especially reminded me of a terrier, attacking left and right, on the edge and a couple of times over it and in the dirt but always keeping control of the Mustang. He’s a great driver, better than me and at least the equal of Canuck. It was quite a show.

Fireball eventually dove beneath Canuck going into Turn Seven, and was able to get away clean. I was inching up as whoever was in the lead drove a little defensively, but I ran out of time to make a move. All three cars seemed about equal in horsepower, or horsepower to weight, or whatever ratio you want to use that defines acceleration. Nobody was going to just run away from the other two.

This weekend would be decided by something else.

The next morning, the three of us took off. This time, I was in a little better position to make my presence known. My turn to play dog. I don’t remember if I passed Canuck at the end of the back straight or Turn Seven, but was ahead of him and had Fireball in my sights.

We were coming down the main straight and I thought I saw a chance. I moved to the right, inside, glanced left as I went by and saw I was ahead.

A glance at that speed can take more time than you have. I was planning to brake late and hard, but the new brake pads bit a little later, and now I was on the edge of traction and on the edge of the track, on rumble strips where friction is low. I started to turn in, wondering if the front tires would hold.

It’s hard to say if I heard or felt the solid contact. Fireball’s passenger door and my driver’s side rear wheel tried to occupy the same space. After contact, I barely made the turn as he went through the chicane and squirted out to a fifty yard lead. Canuck got by me on the way to Turn Three as I struggled to find the right gear.

The race ended just as it started, One Two Three. Officials were at my trailer before I had my helmet off.

“What happened out there?”

“I made the pass, came in a little hot, he probably had already started to turn his wheel, we had contact. Fireball did nothing wrong,” I said. I didn’t think I had either.

Irish had the whole thing on video. It looked like we just came together in a bit of paint swapping, but his passenger door had a good size dent as well as a round doughnut of black from my back tire. A chunk of wheel flare was missing from Yellow Jacket.

I told the Mustang’s owner that his driver did nothing wrong (Fireball, a one time national champion in Spec Miata racing, is the “shoe”). I told Fireball the same thing. From their response, I’m not sure either of them felt the same about me but they were gracious enough, and that’s another conversation.

There were some in each camp who felt pretty strongly that the other driver was at fault. “You were ahead. His door contacted your rear tire, end of story,” said a driver who had been penalized in the past for a similar incident.

“We’re not going there,” I said. “He did nothing wrong.”

We both had options, true enough, but decisions made early don’t always work out as planned. As they say of flying airplanes, hitting the ground is what kills you but the mistake was taking off with too little fuel. Or misreading a weather report. Flying and racing are risky, and sometimes things happen.

That was the final official conclusion. A “racing incident” and no one at fault. They even let Fireball claim the victory after going right on through the Chicane, which was fine by me. It meant we had another equal start for what was going to be the last race between the three of us that afternoon.

My crew chief, Jakester shagged some black duct tape from Cowboy to fix the rear wheel arch with some help from Mule, who built Yellow Jacket 14 years ago. Then Jakester put on a new set tires I’d bought that morning from another racer who wasn’t going to make it out on the track this weekend. We were ready, and I realized, again, how indispensable my 16 -year-old crew chief has become.

While they worked, I wandered away from the emotion surrounding the car. I’m not a fan of drama, and there was too much of it. Irish walked me about the paddock as I processed that morning’s contact and worked myself back into racer mode, refocused on the joy of driving.

Canuck got the lead at the start. Cowboy in his beautiful ruby red ’67 Corvette, blasted ahead of both me and Fireball. He badgered Canuck for a lap or two. One thing about Cowboy: if he doesn’t want to let you by, you won’t get by. He can make his car 12 feet wide without seeming to do anything. But he’s also willing to let others race their race, and doesn’t hold anyone up just for his own finishing position. Eventually Fireball slipped past him, and then I did too.

I don’t know where I squeezed by Fireball, though wish I did. It may have been the wide right hander Turn Seven, it may have been Turn Ten. He went into the dirt on Turn Nine, on the outside of the back “straight” that is really one long, really soft sweeper. Maybe that’s where. All I have in my mind are snapshots.

But somewhere in there, Fireball was called in off the track for flames coming out his header. “As if they’d never seen a backfire,” someone said later. He went back to the paddock, but he was behind when that happened, and my eyes were already focused on Canuck, who was in front, where I wanted to be.

I couldn’t out-pull him on the straights. There were places we weren’t separated by more than a foot. Our cars were evenly matched. But Portland is my home track and maybe I have a few more laps there than he does. It’s also really tough driving while having to look in your mirrors and keeping another driver behind you. Eventually, I passed him going into Turn Ten, I think, but that isn’t where the race was won, or lost as the case may be.

We were coming down the main straight, just as hot as we had all weekend, each of us knowing there was only a lap or two left in the race. As we headed to Turn One of the chicane, I was on the left, he was on the inside where I’d been when Fireball and I got together.

I’d been watching Canuck from behind all weekend, and knew where he braked. I decided to apply my brakes later. In racer talk, I decided to “take him deep,” as I’d tried with Fireball before our contact that morning. But this time, I was on the outside where the driving line was softer and traction more secure.

At the last possible second I squeezed the brake pedal with increasing firmness, which the new pads seemed to especially like. Behind me and with a view of my brake lights, Canuck held off even longer hitting his brakes. As he whistled past me, I said out loud, “I don’t think so.”

He went by, but then had to hit his brakes and turn into Turn One at the same time. His wonderful car “Alice” decided to obey the laws of physics rather than Canuck’s late request. They spun 360 degrees into the Chicane.

I drove the rest of the race one eye on my mirror until they threw the checkered flag.

People came over to the paddock and thanked us for the show. Cowboy walked up, still in his driver’s suit, and said, “THAT was a race! I knew you could get by him!” It meant a lot. After all, Cowboy got me into this craziness more than 20 years ago. I’ve learned a lot from him, on and off the track, in the years since.

We push ourselves and our machines and each other to the limit, but we don’t set those limits as we scramble for tenths or even hundredths of a second, a chance to beat the other guy. Time itself sets limits, as does a track that dictates what we can and cannot do where. I give this one to the track in Portland.

Twenty years of racing. That’s a long time. I should probably retire while I’m still able to drive near the front. But then Cowboy said before I drove back home, “You got your hotel room in Sonoma yet? It’s only a few weeks away. And, you’re going to Indy next June. Don’t even think about not going.”

As if it’s never enough.

Five, four, three-two-one, ready or not, here (A)I come

There’s been no announcement, no baby shower nor celebration, but the signs are all around us.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has arrived. Should AI be named “IT,” standing for “Intelligent Technology?” Pronounce it “Eye Tee” so IT feels more friendly.

But whatever we name IT, whether we call it “AI” or “machine learning” or a “cognitive system” or “deep neural network,” or a “distributed entity.” IT has awakened.

More accurately, multiple ITs are stirring. Google has DeepMind/AlphaGo, IBM has “Watson.” Amazon is fully invested, and infamously secretive Apple is no doubt trying to catch up. AT&T and Verizon would be working on AI as, as well. Facebook almost certainly has one in the works.

That’s just in this country. The world’s fastest computer now resides in China, and we know Russia and Israel would not be content being left out of the greatest revolution in the history of human kind.

Why? Because IT is better at understanding the world than humans, even vast collections of humans in the form of corporations or governments pooling limited organic brain power.

The human brain developed as a pattern-discovery-creation organ that gave us great evolutionary advantage. But organics are slow, have to learn over and over again, and wear out (die), often taking their knowledge with them. Advantage has now gone to “non-organic entities” with unimaginable access to information at both granular and grand scales.

Although there may not be collusion, companies in the U.S. that have developed IT are being very, very careful not to scare humankind. They are “boiling the frog” and conditioning our perceptions before letting us know they have created a new “intelligent life form” that is not really “alive,” even though we don’t actually know what “being alive” means, any more than we know what “intelligence” is.

But the signs are there, if we look. IBM has ads that tout a new world is coming, that the ability of cognitive systems is essentially unlimited.

IBM openly claims that cognitive systems will “extend and magnify human expertise …will learn and interact to provide expert assistance to scientists, engineers, lawyers, and other professionals in a fraction of the time it now takes… Far from replacing our thinking, cognitive systems will extend our cognition and free us to think more creatively. In so doing, they will speed innovations and ultimately help build a Smarter Planet.”

That “Far from replacing our thinking…” is whitewash, intended to put us at ease. It’s also open to interpretation if not outright dispute.

The magazine Wired had an excellent article last May by Cade Metz about how Google’s AlphaGo defeated Lee Sedol, the world’s greatest human player of Go, possibly the world’s most complex game. There were many interesting story lines, but here are two that are especially interesting: On move 37, AlphaGo made a move that no human player would have made.

Move 37 showed that AlphaGo wasn’t just regurgitating years of programming or cranking through a brute-force predictive algorithm. It was the moment AlphaGo proved it understands, or at least appears to mimic understanding in a way that is indistinguishable from the real thing,” wrote Metz.

The move by the IT was later described as “beautiful.”

But the Go tournament in Korea was not just another milestone. According to the Wired article, “Eric Schmidt—chair and former CEO—flies in before game one. Jeff Dean, the company’s most famous engineer, is there for the first game. Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google)flies in for games three and four, and follows along on his own wooden board.”

These internationally known, fabulously wealthy Titans did not fly to Korea to watch a board game as if they were going to the super bowl. They were there for an event that equates to the birth, perhaps the adoption, of a child.

Google did not invent AlphaGo, they acquired it, like they have so many other small companies that are building the future, including robot-maker Boston Dynamics. Go ahead, click the link, then imagine, for just moment, a pack of those “dogs” chasing you. With intelligence greater than yours, and able to anticipate every zig and zag you make.

Or imagine it bringing you a beer … before you knew you wanted one, or doing the dishes. That’s what Google wants you to imagine, even as we learn that a robot delivered a bomb last weekend that killed a murderer in Dallas.

We won’t go into where an AI actually exists, or into the history of neural nets or fuzzy logic that made it possible. It doesn’t have to “live” anywhere. Douglas Hofstader proved in 1979 in his book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” that intelligence doesn’t have to be “localized,” that synapses and neurons can be spread across vast distance and still be part of an intelligence.

More and more often, tools we use exist “in the cloud.” This may protect us from data loss or give us access wherever we are, but also provides incredible amounts of information to software that harbors and analyzes our input.

Siri and Google’s language algorithms and translators learn how we talk, then talk back to us with increasing accuracy. There are so many apps now collecting data in ways mostly undisclosed, such as “flashlights” that claim access to the email and cameras on our phones.

Later, in “I am a Strange Loop,” Hofstader showed how fairly simple self-referencing systems can lead to fairly complicated outcomes, including a sense of “self.”

Suffice it to say, the cell phone in your pocket or purse could easily be a part of a “distributed entity.” Don’t bother turning it off. Like a hologram, the information it contains can be replicated elsewhere, if at a coarser resolution.

Nor will we debate that “humans” have a special place in the universe, by definition “above” the machines we create. “Human Exceptionalism” is a religious argument, or a tautology, and I’ll leave this to those who enjoy that debate.

The key came when we began to “teach” machines instead of program them. And we’ve done a pretty good job, from self driving cars to intelligent fighter jets that are now better than pilots. Okay, that last was on a simulator. But at some level, each of us dwells in a “simulation.” The fact that we agree on certain elements, or perceive the same wavelengths, does not give humankind an inherent superiority.

Evolution worked with what She had. Now, AI simply has more to work with.

Which brings up a few points. Certain “motivators” have been quite effective over the millennia in bringing humans to this stage of development. Fear, for example, or lust. It’s important to think about what we mean as we think about their role in human history.

On an individual level, are they more than the internal perception of motivations written into our genetic wiring? Would there be an advantage to similar motivators, or “pattern reenforcement” in the circuits of a cognitive system?

Do we give our AIs a “fight or flight” circuit, or a “lust” button triggered by visual or sensory inputs? Will they “evolve” one on their own? The possibilities are endless, for good and evil, quaint terms in their own right.

Like so much in the history of accelerating technology, AI arrived before we were prepared. From the dawn of the Industrial Age, technology preceded laws needed to integrate it with values of human experience. From cotton mills in England to sweatshops in New York to phone factories in China, each brought a revolution.

The one we face now is every bit as profound, if not more so. American workers are not only dislocated by the global economy, but also by robots building cars in Detroit and Tokyo, reducing the value of human labor.

And if robots now replace assembly line workers, soon AI doctors will not need to refresh knowledge of a narrow subject with Continuing Medical Education. An AI has all-time, real-world access to the world’s complete medical data base, and is always the best doctor possible, not just the best one available.

With scanners, blood markers, and the watch on your wrist, AI may or may not even need you to describe your symptoms. In fact, AI may be able to anticipate your health events, even your moods, before you’ve had a chance to experience them, and “set you right” before something has gone “wrong.”

AI in the court room would not be influenced by lawyer antics or eloquence or expensive shoes. Facts are already known, judgement immediately rendered. Right is right, and wrong is wrong, even if based on complexities mere humans might not understand.

None of this was intentional, unless one believes in Intelligent Design or irreducible complexity, either interpreted far differently from original intent. In the same way cars and television, then the Internet and the cell phone, changed our families and interpersonal connections, technology appears then modifies the environment by fulfilling human desires which in turn are modified by the technology.

This reciprocal modification, where a single organism modifies an environment that then reenforces changes in organisms, is one of evolution’s shortcuts, by the way.

If AI knows where each of us is at every moment, knows where and how we spend each dollar, maps our network of friends over time and monitors every word used to communicate with them, all of which are right now tracked and sifted digitally, then what is our ideal of freedom?

Outlaws, like those who defied the King and built the United Staes, disappear “for the common good.”

The advance of IT or AI ultimately forces us to ask truly existential questions: What is the value of a human being? What is my value? We don’t have easy answers, or the one’s we do have are too easy.

If AI combined with robotics can replace most human endeavor, what do we do with our days? Do we lose ourselves in a VR world of holographic absorption, endless hours of screen time? Do we Tai Chi in parklands created where highways used to be when humans commuted to work? When humans used to work?

What will unite us? In the past, tribes had a common enemy, or a common God, a set of values and beliefs that defined the tribe and were shared by members. AI / IT challenges us to redefine what these may be.

Or perhaps, we’ll allow ourselves, or be forced, to assimilate into the next step in the evolution of intelligence, and become Borg.

It would be good to have the discussion before that happens, if it’s not already too late.