Couldn’t post yesterday; internet was down. Sorry about that.
Resurrection on the Isle of the Sacred Cross
Lying on a couch in a cheap condo in the industrial part of Stanford Connecticut. As always, no sunlight penetrated the living room although the balcony caught the early morning light. It was, at the moment, 2:30 PM and dim. I lay there pondering what it would feel like to leap from the balcony to the parking lot below and considering how to make certain that I died and not end up horribly mangled. I already knew how that felt.
I had smoked so many cigarettes that I couldn’t sleep flat on my back. I coughed uncontrollably. I had to sleep sitting up with bolster pillows under my back. I weighed more than 200 pounds. My spine had just been operated on — two disks removed. The neurosurgeon had pulled me aside, told me that I should stop doing drugs. My liver was shot; he showed me the numbers.
I’d been drinking steadily for nearly ten years, heavier and heavier. During that time, I’d been thrown out of medical school and fired from thirteen straight jobs. I’d wrecked cars, stolen from friends, and lived in the streets.
I could see the balcony from the couch of course. Considered how it would feel climbing over the railing. Leaning out and falling headfirst — diving. Lying there on our Bloomingdale couch, humiliated, my skin burned with shame. I could feel a flush that hurt like I’d been flayed. Failure is so demeaning.
The phone rang.
The guy was from Manhattan and was impressed with the resume that I’d sent him. I’d sent out hundreds so I had no idea who he was. Said he wanted to interview me. We set up an appointment for the following day. He was in a University Building at City College. I managed to find the place in time.
When I entered the room with the correct number, it was a lab, not an office. A man at a desk in the corner came over, introduced himself, and asked a little about my lab experience. Then he pointed to a machine on a lab bench and asked if I knew what it was and how to use it. It was an SMA-6 which I had used for years (even help set up at a lab in West Chester where I worked in Med School). I also had lots of experience with the SMA-12. He asked me to set it up and run it and probed a little more, but basically that was it.
“Well,” he said, “you’ve got the job. There’s only one problem.”
“You’ll have to relocate…to the Virgin Islands.”
Hawley was suspicious; she had a well-paying position with Raytheon that made her feel very safe. Finally, she relented, and we moved to St. Croix. I went first; Hawley stayed behind to have plastic surgery on her ears which stuck out and had made her feel awkward all her life. Indeed, she was very shy and quiet and neurotic – suicidal for many years — but beautiful, sensitive, and artistic. I loved her very much.
I had just arrived in Saint Croix and was getting settled in at Rust op Twist. Already working there were two young men as technicians — David and Paul. Every day they went fishing in the late afternoon and brought home supper. Sometimes lobster, sometimes yellowtail snapper, but they always brought home food from the sea. I was excited to get in the water, so on the second day, David took me two miles down the coast to Cane Bay, one of the best dive sites in the entire Caribbean.
I had used mask, snorkel, and fins a few times before, so I wasn’t a novice. Dave had all the gear including a very long, very lethal-looking speargun. Just before we got into the water, he handed me a small rusty speargun about three feet long. “It doesn’t work,” he told me cheerfully. “It’s called an arbalette, and it’s rusted shut. Just in case any ‘big fish’ approach, poke at them with it.” When I asked if they often had problems with “big fish,” he laughed. “Never yet, but you might as well carry something.”
We sat in the shallows and put on our gear, then David swam away, lethal weapon in hand. I set out to explore Cane Bay. About 100 feet out, the bottom started sloping down. Lots of spur and groove formation, those long coral heads that provide home to so many wierd and beautiful creatures. An astonishing world.
When the sloped reached 65 feet in depth, the bottom changed suddenly. A steep drop-off, an undersea cliff actually that plunged straight down for more than two miles. Called the Puerto Rican Trench, it was often used by Russian submarines traveling back and forth to Cuba. We frequently heard metallic noises, electronic pings, and whistles. Approaching the edge of that precipice from high above on the surface was an eerie feeling. Beyond was pitch black, and it made us feel as though we had already hurled ourselves off the cliff and into the void. It frightened me, so I headed back toward shore.
I decided to look for David, so I stood in the water — I let my legs fall and then moved them in a walking motion which keeps you upright with your head out of water. I pushed up my mask to see better. He was about 50 yards from me, and he also stood in the water. But he wasn’t looking up or around. His face was in the water; he was looking down. I put my mask on and swam toward him.
As I approached, I began to make out shadowy figures far away underwater. First David materialized. He hung from the surface, looking down, and he was rotating slowly. His speargun pointed down. Then I saw a vague shape down on the bottom, about 30 feet below. It was swimming casually in a circle beneath David. Suddenly, it shot straight up at him. He pulled his feet up underneath him and began poking downward at the shark that I could now see was bigger than David, at least 10 feet long. The shark angled away from his spear at the last minute and went back to circling.
I saw it make two more attacks as I approached, so I held the arbalette in front of me pathetically extended with both hands. The shark made another pass at David, and, when he poked it away, it veered directly at me. It came fast, at the surface. My goggles broke out of the water, and for an instant I could see his fin extended out of the water coming right at me, just like the movies. Underwater, he aimed dead center on the arbalette. At the last second, he slid to my right. The spear bumped his side. At the same time his single beady, fierce eye was less than two feet from mine. We stared, and then he swung his back half into me, knocking me to the side and scraping the skin off my whole arm. He was gone.
David and I moved quickly to shore. I was bleeding from my arm, and he had a basket full of bloody fish which had probably attracted our friend in the first place.
After I’d been there about a month, there was a party, and I’d gotten drunk and lost my wallet with the credit cards and spent all my cash and ended up driving home with the young daughter of the station manager in the middle and one of lab techs that I was supervising riding shotgun, and the next thing you know we’re all in bed together, and the sun came up, and the kids left, and I’d done it again.
I hated myself. I swore that I would never behave that way again. I felt the worst about Hawley. I had never been disrespectful of our relationship. I made some more vows, berated myself incessantly. (But I didn’t stop drinking.) She arrived in June, and, on that day, I went to a grove of flamboyant trees which were in full flower and gathered five flour sacks full of blossoms with which I covered our bed. I had enough to even make a trail from the front door to the bedroom. For days, we had pollen stains all over us.
The flowers turned out to be prophetic because we both blossomed on St. Croix. Hawley’s surgery had transformed her. She stood differently, spoke differently. She found a position with a printing and graphics firm and on her own time, began producing stunning, stained-glass pieces. She began to dress more boldly – bought herself a bathing suit that turned transparent when wet. We began frequenting nude beaches. For our first Xmas on the island, I had a local artist and fashion designer sew a stunning silk outfit for Hawley that was billowy and transparent. She began to wear it with no bra and tiny bikini panties. And she was really happy and confident — not just about her body, of course.
As for me, the Project Director where I was the chemist was a magical creature named Scott Laurence who saw some kind of potential in me and took me in as his lieutenant. Somehow, he ignored my neuroses, and gently prodded me. His enthusiasm was unbounded, and it spread to me. I found myself drinking less because it was really hard to keep up with Scotty when I was carrying an enormous hangover. We got into the habit of sharing a joint after work and talking about the project, analyzing the data.
Scott Laurence taught me some of the most important lessons of my life. He showed me how to be happy and to use energy in joyous and creative ways. In a serious meeting, for example, Scott would suddenly leap onto the table and begin spouting doggerel. No task frightened him. Scott believed in me when I needed to learn that I was good and capable. I haven’t seen him for years and heard rumors that he died in a diving accident, but I feel him right beside me every day.
I began to have confidence in my ideas and more importantly in my work. I got completely hooked. I didn’t want to get self-destructive – being sloppy about lab techniques, misplacing things, etc. I didn’t want to mess up the data because I became genuinely immersed in the ideas. I forgot to be neurotic and self-absorbed. This time and for the first time, I really cared about the work. Before this I’d been so neurotic and self-absorbed, I’d been unable to get beyond how I felt about everything and what everybody else thought about me and how inadequate everything I’d ever done was. But Scotty loved me. And Hawley was breaking out of her neurotic shell, and she loved me. And I began to feel lovable.
Every night, Hawley and I would sit in our beautiful little cottage at the edge of the sea: she, drawing and fashioning stunning works of art in glass, and me, studying fiercely: biochemical mechanisms underlying photosynthesis, ANOVA, computer electronics, mathematical modeling. I was coming awake and desperate to catch up with Scotty who already had a PhD in Neurology. (As a student at Antioch, he did independent research on cockroach neurons, training them to run mazes. He was set up in the basement of the science building, and sometimes he would drop acid and play his oboe down there with the cockroaches because of the resonance.)
In St Croix, I learned that I had a knack for teaching. As I learned about things, I explained them to others, especially the lab staff. I was famous for using paper towel after paper towel as a kind of portable blackboard. Someone would enter the lab to deliver a sample and would exit two hours later with head spinning. Leaving behind paper towels spread over all the lab surfaces. “Find the story,” I’d say. “Begin at the beginning then follow the middle all the way through to the end.” I took on everything – chemical engineering, photosynthesis, statistics, and computers. In particular, we had an HP 65 programmable calculator that Scotty and I worked 24 – 7. We also had one of the first commercial PCs an HP 2810 – an eight-bit machine. We got so involved that Scott and I bought a HeathKit eight-bit machine with all the instructions and parts, just like the TV that Hawley and I had built in Stanford. I remember laying out all the circuit diagrams and tracing the circuits hour after hour, night after night.
We built the CPU box; it had two windows with 3 red LED numerals for octal code. It used a cassette tape recorder for storage – floppy disks had not yet been invented. One of the engineers helped me make charts of machine codes with octal equivalents. We used the charts to write the programs longhand then code into octal, entered the code painstakingly, and stored the file on tape. I believe the first program added two octal numbers – enter one, press CR, then enter another, then press CR again, and the answer was displayed in octal. I would leave before the monitor was assembled, but I heard later that Scotty used it to start a little business. This episode with the diagrams, the octal, the programmable calculator, and the PC all gave me an excellent foundation for my lifelong interest in computing machines.
For the first time in our lives, Hawley and I were rising out of our neurotic stews and being fulfilled… and happy. During this time, we played a lot of older folk music; she had a pretty good collection. We also sent for the Time-Life Classical Music Series and spent night after night comparing Beethoven’s Symphonies, and reading about the music, pointing out things that we’d notice to one another, then Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Brahms. We also listened to a lot of jazz. The Hamiltons lived on St. Croix – Jimmy had played saxophone with Duke Ellington for 15 years, and Margaret had been Billy Holiday’s pianist. She played two nights a week at a beautiful nightclub overlooking the harbor. Sometimes he’d haul out his sax, and they’d play together. Heart-stopping.
One Sunday, we went, as usual, to another fashionable bar for champagne brunch. All the way there, I dreaded it because we’d get buzzed, and I wouldn’t be able to read what I needed to read and write what I needed to write. Finally, when we were seated, I looked at Hawley’s beautiful nipple thrusting out at me through the silk, and I said, “I think I’m gonna stop drinking for a while.” We decided that plain tonic with lime would be chic enough and tolerable because the sharp flavor would wash the taste of desire for alcohol out of my mouth. And I stopped. Just like that. We continued to be happy.
On St. Croix, Hawley and I were definitely white folks; we had little social contact with local people. But we were cool in the white set, hanging out with artists and lawyers and such. We bought a piece of land – 1 1/2 acres on the top of a ridge 1,000 feet over the Caribbean. Steep cliffs to the beach below. When we bought it (five years of monthly payments), I estimated that it was one of the most beautiful places in the world. We could see Puerto Rico 65 miles away, and hawks rode the thermals 30 feet in front of us. The North Shore of St. Croix is a perennial on the top-ten diving spots in the Caribbean, and that’s what we could see, way down there.
My relationship with Scotty deepened and richened. We couldn’t get enough of each other’s minds. Back and forth we’d go, probing to find out how the creatures in our system worked; we’d pose questions and dig for answers to biological conundra. We would walk down to the project pools, make our rounds scintillating with ideas — back and forth, leading on and deeper. A leap of scales, leap of fields, leap of info, digging deeper, peeling back layer after layer…flying.
One day, for example, about 10 AM, Scott suggested we go up on the ridge to our land. We jumped in the truck, the one with no sides on the bed. As we putted along the beach, bougainvillea towered brazenly on the left. The ridge rose high and steep and from close to the sea. The road snaked along the bottom.
Scott turned up, straight up nearly, rising steeply through switchbacks to the peak 1,000 feet above. A dirt road scraped out of the steepness right along the edge of the ridge peak. Looking out the passenger side straight down to the road now tiny and hair-like, 1,000 feet below. If you meet another vehicle on this road, one party must retreat oh so carefully, to a corner where the shoulder is wide enough to let the other vehicle squeeze past. We finally reached the house site, a rounded rocky spot that dropped off suddenly on three sides. On the right was a tiny pine forest at an impossibly steep angle. The view was overwhelming.
We sat on stones looking out at Puerto Rico. Far below us, the tiny ribbons of beach whitened the edge of the sea. We lit the next joint and began. We started with conversion ratios, percent vegetable protein turned into animal protein in our system. We spoke of metabolic rates, optimized delivery of nutrients. We felt that excess nutrients or excessive surges of nutrients would cause cells to overwork, expending energy to deal with excess nutrients – storing them, deactivating them, and dealing with excess end products from imbalances in nutrients or excess rates of reactions. End products and toxins would build up. We lit the next joint.
So avoid these toxins because cells have to recruit expensive defense mechanisms to counter these threats and it’s sometimes too little, too late. Cells can repair, but sometimes the damage builds up faster than the cell can handle; the cell dies or ages. We decided that, if the goal was to live as long and as well as possible, we should reduce this metabolically-inherent damage to the minimum. We pursued this to its logical end: Eat as little as possible as often as possible. Make each input balanced. Minimize nutrient overloads, maximize efficiency, minimize damage.
This strategy was very attractive to Scott. He had studied and married in an ashram, fasted frequently, and had taken lots of LSD. He immediately began designing meals and even containers for food that he could carry around, and eat on a perfectly timed schedule.
For me, these measures required too much discipline. I chose a somewhat more self-gratifying, easier path. I decided to go to the expense of taking massive doses of vitamin supplements to scavenge those toxins. I chose my discipline in pill form.
We lit another joint and continued. But should we really want to live as long as possible? Is there a set lifespan for Homo sapiens? Cellular clocks exist and establish a set number of generations for certain kinds of cells. On the organism scale, women have a fixed point for senescence, internally regulated by an in-born hormonal feedback system. How to stave off aging?
Men have a different hormonal system than women and different aging pattern. Not timed like menopause in women. In men, testosterone gradually tapers off, taking with it muscle mass, sex drive, male aggression until the whole system peters out. So maybe one could take testosterone supplements in pill form — steroids. Unfortunately they cause lots of unpleasant side effects because sex hormones are in a delicate balance with other hormones. Adding outside testosterone rolls the metabolism way out to the limits. On the rebound, levels get way out of whack in the other direction — dangerous oscillations with dangerous consequences to the body.
So where was I going to find a safe source of a daily fix of testosterone to keep away the blue-hair, shuffleboard blues? And then we found it. The body itself squirts pulses of testosterone into the blood stream with at least two activities — exercise and orgasm. Eureka! As long as one acts young by working out and having sex, one remains young. When one stops these youthful activities, one begins skidding on the slippery slope to senescence.
Now we were getting somewhere. We were laughing and congratulating ourselves there overlooking the Caribbean Sea. A hawk drafted below us and slowly rose till he paused right next to us, his one fierce eye thirty feet away and unblinking. The orgasm, I thought, the perfect idea. Besides the shot of hormone, I would get stress reduction, too. And, of course, a daily shot of pleasure to satisfy my addictive, needy, id-dominated personality — a needed dollop of self-gratification.
Hawley and I decided not to have kids. Neither of us wanted to jeopardize our new-found happiness with children. She developed a cadre of artist friends who were also endowed with exquisite taste. We designed a magnificent house. It was October, and we’d only been on the island 18 months. We had a lot to look forward to.
Then the phone calls from Port Aransas, the Marine Science Center of UT Austin, began. Our project was headed by Dr. Oswald Roels, an autocratic Belgian, brilliant and abrasive, who made lots of enemies in lots of ways. He’d finally been caught emptying the grant accounts of other scientists to fund his own work – our project. The UT Board of Directors asked for explanations. He was arrogant and European. They were good old boys with drawls and fortunes of their own. They fired his ass and pressed charges. We were shutting down. Once again, I was losing my job, but I wasn’t devastated. I was sad about the project, but for the first time, I’d done good work.
Scotty came to me a few days later. He’d pulled some strings and gotten a commitment from UT Austin to let me into a PhD program – Biological Sciences — if I wanted it. The least they could do, he said. And they’ll be so happy they took you; you’re excellent. He’d been training me, and now I was ready for the big leagues. I would work with Jack Myers, known for his incredible experimental precision with nanosecond shutters, single photons of light, and careful analytical reasoning — a legend at UT and world-wide. And we would live in Austin, hippest of southern towns.
I was dazzled. I told Hawley. She shuddered, protested. I was too excited to listen, overwhelming. “I’ll finish in 3 years. You cover us the first six months, then I’ll have work and pay at least my own way. Together we’ll be able to make the payments on the land. Then we’ll go back, and I’ll have earning potential. You can do your art in Austin, Hip-City. You’ll be famous in no time. We’ll grow together in Austin then come back here and build our castle.” She folded, and in a few weeks, we arrived in Austin. It was December 30, and it was sleeting at the airport. We were both wearing sandals.