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PROLOGUE - POLIO
I remember little of that long ago September.
Well, I have started this book. I could have started it with different words, a different thought, but then I would not be living in this universe. If I had chosen a different thought, I would be living in another universe. A billion possible thoughts, a billion possible universes.
Quantum physics tells us these other universes may actually exist.
I remember little of that long ago September. My first fourth grade year started after Labor Day. It lasted three days. A year and a half later, I entered the Shriners' School for the Handicapped. Here I completed an abbreviated, second fourth grade year.
Pain is not something we remember well, but it keeps us from noticing anything else. The rest of that September was pain. My temperature was high, perhaps 103 degrees. I don't remember being nauseated, but that may have been from lack of eating. I vaguely remember bottles of glucose, suspended, with the cloudy liquid running down a long rubber tube, maybe into my arm. I endured an extreme headache while the back of my neck ached – except the word “ached” means a dull pain and this pain was definitely not dull. My only escape was sleep.
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I knew I was in the hospital, but was too sick to care. I had been to the hospital before, at a time when the slightest sore throat meant your tonsils had to come out. A doctor's gloved hand had pushed me against a cold, hard table. The light was blindingly bright, accenting his white coat and mask. I could not escape his other hand, which held something tied to a long hose. It was black and round and designed to cover my face. Fear, Suffocation, Blackness. Later, Ice Cream.
I learned that doctors are monsters and hospitals are full of white coated monsters and their many assistants. I would have forgotten these invaluable lessons, but thankfully, someone took me back to the hospital.
Now the monsters were telling me I had polio. When I finally escaped, I knew it was perfectly rational to flee in panic, to avoid even thinking about the monsters. I vowed to never let them or their friends near again. Yet, today, I must periodically visit ominous offices full of white coated monsters. I must beg a monster for slips of paper, embossed with his magical RX seal.
Polio is like a very bad flu that lasts for three weeks. Then you deal with the damage.
When I felt better, they told me I was in “Isolation Hospital”, an aptly named place for mainly kids. These were the dangerous, the contagious. I had never been dangerous before. A lot would happen to me in the next few months, but the important thing was the pain was gone.
. . . .
My mother was different. She had a job, at Sears, as a buyer's assistant. She was gone all day, it was just me and my grandmother.
My mother was different. She was divorced. I only knew of one other person who was divorced and he was divorced from my mother and had died. My mother would leave me, to go to work. I knew she would always come back. Once, smiling, with ice cream, for my sore throat. Now, every night while I was in Isolation Hospital.
. . . .
I realized I was in an iron lung, a very strange contraption. It was primarily a metal tube, approximately six feet long and four feet in diameter. I don't remember much about how the iron lung was supported, but I do know the tube was horizontal and could be rolled around the room. It looked a lot like a one man submarine with portholes on the side. One end was permanently covered with a heavy rubber, airtight membrane. A motor was attached that moved this membrane in and out – the speed of the motor was set to exactly mimic human breathing. The other end of the tube was also covered, with an airtight metal disk. This disk could be better described as like a trash can lid.
This lid was not actually airtight, but only conditionally airtight. It had a hole in the center, a hole designed large enough to get your head through. On one side, the outside part of the lid, was a supporting pillar. Attached to the other side was a bed. This entire section of the iron lung (pillar, lid, bed) was on wheels. To “close the lid”, this section, with my head on the pillar, neck in the hole, and body on the bed, was rolled into the tube. A collar around my neck – I remember it as tough and sponge-like – made the inside of the lung airtight.
As the air pressure inside the iron lung fell and rose, air flowed into and out of my lungs.
There was a mirror above my head. I could see nurses and others gathered around the lung. The portholes let the nurses see the bed inside and also let them move bed covering - and do things I didn't want them to do. There was also a support above my head. An open book could be laid on this and I could read a couple of pages. Then I would have to ask someone to turn the page.
I could get a finger under the sponge collar (otherwise I would have been strangled). I could maybe scratch my chin.
Nothing makes your nose itch like not being able to scratch it.
The iron lung could be opened and closed when necessary. This was regularly necessary for the insertion and removal of the cold metal bedpan. My shyness made this excruciating, but there was worse.
When you spend extensive time in bed, constipation becomes a painful problem. Sometimes the solution was a massive nurse holding your nose and sticking a spoonful of milk of magnesia down your throat. Or there was the enema. All this took place as the world watched. To me, any pain was multiplied a hundred times by the embarrassment.
. . . .
I have childhood dragons – memories from long ago that may be based on facts. Maybe these dragons are monsters, maybe they are friends. They will affect me forever. You also have dragons.
One of my dragons, one of my claims to fame, was, of course my battle with polio. This was a time when I was young and facing death, a challenge that most young people do not have to endure. When the danger of immediate annihilation retreated, I found it easy and reasonable to reject other, less important, negative emotions, “only” caused by people. I decided not believe in these kinds of emotions – after all, as many have said, “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you”.
Boy, was I wrong!
. . . .
In addition to iron lungs, Isolation Hospital was proud of a number of other weird contraptions. I found all of these more or less disagreeable to experience (although one was very much like a carnival ride – I never much cared for carnival rides).
The first was what I called a chest vest. It was thick and attached to your chest by nylon straps tied around your back – you wore it very much like a vest – hence my name chest vest. There was a large, clear marine vinyl hose attached to the front of the vest. This hose ran to an air pump and electric motor – the whole purpose of this gadget was to increase and decrease pressure periodically on your chest – to help you breathe. I used it for a short time after my escape from the iron lung. I don't think it was as efficient. It was a short term nuisance that was drastically better than the iron lung.
I soon graduated to the carnival like rocking bed. This was a full size bed that could be rotated by a motor. First, my head would be up while my feet were down. Then my feet would be up while my head would be down. The speed was synchronized with my breathing – when my head was down, my stomach and other internal organs pushed on my diaphragm and forced air out of my lungs, when my head was up, these same organs pulled on my diaphragm and air was drawn in. The rocking bed was not very efficient. I didn't think about it at the time, but organs above the diaphragm, like your heart, weigh almost as much as those below and cancel most of the affect. I don't remember getting seasick on the bed, but I was always glad when the session was over.
. . . .
Life is complex and connected. I would like to understand. Is my battle with polio relevant? Can it help me understand?
Almost two decades after polio, I would find myself in the business world, working for IBM. The company motto was “Think”. Much later still, I would take this corporate admonition to ridiculous extremes. I felt you could not think too much, be too logical. Today, I will begrudgingly speculate that once again I was wrong.
Life is complex. I remember it not at all. I was three, or four, or five – months or days – I don't remember. Things happened. If different things had happened, maybe the monster would have never come.
. . . .
I had always hated wool. A shirt with any wool in it made my skin itch. Even when I was still in the iron lung, a nurse would roll a strange looking enclosed tub into my room. Strips of wool and gallons of water were heated together in this tub, until the water was boiling. The escaping steam had an obnoxious order.
Polio causes affected muscles to spasm and tighten – like a night-time charley horse. After squeezing most of the boiling water from the malodorous wool, the nurse would wrap the rags around my legs and arms. The heat was intense and I feared permanent damage. For what seemed like forever, until the wool cooled, heat penetrated and relaxed my spasming muscles. I do not remember painful muscles, only the damp, hot, itchy, smelly wool clinging to my skin.
. . . .
It must have been just after Christmas, the Slinky, a metal spring-like toy that can “walk” down stairs, a likely present from my mother. She would have never given it to me if she had recognized the danger.
I had never been made to go to bed, but the routines of a hospital are different. The long hallway outside my room was dark and deserted except for a single nurse, vaguely visible, at her far away station. The whole wing was dimly lighted, but not pitch black. All the young patients were assumed to be sleeping.
I thought I had spunk. No one could tell me when to go to sleep. Looking back, the term “spoiled brat” seems more appropriate.
Spunky, spoiled, whatever, that night I was bored. The lamp by my bed was off, but plugged into a dual electrical outlet. The second outlet was empty. I wondered what would happen if I stuck my Slinky into this outlet?
I first had to pull the metal spiral apart and bend one end slightly – this end could then be inserted into the empty socket. I was stupid, but not that stupid. I used two sticks, two wooden spoons, two non conducting somethings to maneuver the Slinky into fateful contact.
There was a blinding flash. A noise, shorter and not as loud as thunder. The loud smell of electrical smoke. Total Darkness. Far away shouting. Then flashlights and talking outside my door. After an eternity, the lights returned. Hiding under my covers, I dreaded discovery and condemnation. When it finally seemed my deed might go undetected, I fell asleep, safe.
. . . .
Can a single thought determine our destiny?
I was watching the TV news in the late summer of my polio year. I am convinced I remember it well. A story about the polio epidemic, about a sick kid who couldn't even lift his arm above his head.
I thought, lifting my arm, “that could never happen to me, it is so easy”. A month later, I could not lift my arm above my head.
God had taught me not to be arrogant. I probably cannot blame God for the other things I learned.
. . . .
Polio weakens muscle cells by damaging the controlling nerves from the brain. In my case, most of the damage was to the right side of my body. Almost all of the muscle cells in my shoulder were paralyzed. Paralyzed cells die and are removed from the body. Fortunately, only some of my leg muscles were affected. My right calf muscle, for example, was smaller and shorter than the left. Enter one of the assistant monsters, the physical therapist.
Being smaller and shorter, my calf pulled more strongly on my heel (through the Achilles tendon) than was normal. This in turn pulled my toes down. I don't remember it, but walking at that time must have involved tip-toeing on my right foot.
I endured daily physical therapy sessions, designed to stretch and strengthen surviving muscle tissue. For my foot, this meant that the therapist held my heal firmly in his hand and using his forearm, pushed my toes upward, toward my head. This action caused my Achilles tendon to pull and stretch my calf. To give the devil his due, after many sessions, I could stand and walk, more or less normally.
At these physical therapy sessions, the muscle in the back of my leg, above the knee, was also stretched. The therapist would, while I lay on my back, put my foot on the top of his shoulder and, holding my knee so it could not flex, rotate my leg up, toward my head.
Did I mention that stretching muscles causes extreme pain?
The muscle strengthening part of my therapy sessions was similar to what athletes face in their training, neither more or less unpleasant. I could not make the muscle I had lost strong, but I could make the muscle I had left stronger. One unusual routine involved the muscle at the base of my thumb; this muscle is essential to a hearty handshake. To strengthen this muscle, repeat the following many times: touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of your little finger, forming a circle. Push the tips together as hard as you can while maintaining the circle.
. . . .
Mothers are important. My mother was important. She was always there, or if she wasn't, I knew she would come back.
Science was also important to me, both before and after polio. It was fact based. There were lots of facts, but if I just learned them all, I could understand the world, the whole universe. I could be in control.
Science, like my mother, deserted me. Like my mother, it eventually returned. But when science came back, it was not smiling. It was grotesque.
. . . .
When I left the hospital, my right leg was weak. I was on crutches. I believe I could have walked without them, but I don't know. I don't remember.
I visited the physical therapist regularly and performed muscle strengthening routines religiously. No matter how much I tried, I could never do a push-up or a chin-up, my shoulder and arm were too weak. I saw great athletes do push-ups and chin-ups using one arm, but I could never accomplish this. Perhaps I had lost some muscle in my left arm too.
When it was time for me to return to regular school, the question of whether I should enter the fifth grade or repeat the fourth grade came up (my two fourth grades together only totaled half a year). I hated school, but somewhere I had gotten the idea that it was important – not from my mother, she was the daughter of a former coal miner and was indifferent to the value of an education. I did not want to spend an extra year in school and my good grades made it my mother's choice. When I made my desires known, in my usual spoiled brat way, she let me decide.
Regular school included physical education (PE). For me, this was extremely embarrassing and dangerous. I passionately dreaded and feared PE. The only thing I feared more was not going to PE and being seen as different – me the kid who desired uniqueness and didn't care what people thought feared being noticed, judged, being different.
Being fair was important to me. Apparently much more important to me than to most people. If I didn't want people to judge me, I should not judge them. I resolved to never judge. Without realizing it, I had once again decided to do the impossible, to live my life as if I didn't live in this universe.
I was the worst kid at things like the previously mentioned chin-ups and pull-ups, as well as the related rope climb. I was the slowest runner. Despite all this, there was an instance when I received public praise from a coach as someone who never gave up and always tried his hardest. Ironically, my coach's praise was a source of extreme embarrassment and much misery.
Tumbling was dangerous and I knew it. You had to run across a pad, put both hands down, temporarily supporting your body, then duck your head and roll onto your back. My arm could not support my body. On each tumble, I was like an airliner landing. My right landing gear always collapsed on touchdown. I don't know how I kept from breaking my neck.
This was a time when mothers, especially my mother, took no part in school activities. All decisions were mine and this seemed normal. You might think my mother didn't love me, but then how do you explain that, for the six months I was in the hospital, she arrived every day right after work and remained until the 9 pm curfew?
During this time, many things happened that made me miserable. Some of these things happened because people did not know I had had polio. Other things happened because people did know I had had polio.
At some point PE ended. At some point I stopped visiting the physical therapist. My crutches were gone. Physically, I was much closer to normal. Mentally, I was weird, but took comfort in believing that everyone is weird.
. . . .
Having polio changed me. I was lucky that the effects were great enough to protect me from a future military draft that maimed and killed many. The physical effects, when compared to what others suffered, were minor. The emotional effects of the monsters were huge.
When the monsters retreated, I decided not believe in emotional effects. As I said earlier, “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you”. I wouldn't care if people laughed or made fun or criticized. Only much later, when it was too late, did I learned that words can indeed hurt you, that your brain can be physically changed by emotion and stress. The thoughts you have and how these thoughts make you feel may endure for the rest of your life.
I was one God fearing kid. After all, He had zapped me when I was arrogant. But I was still spoiled. I still did not like authority and God was the ultimate authority figure. I didn't think I liked God. The thought that He could read minds made me very uncomfortable.
. . . .
When I was young, I found great comfort in a single phrase. I would always try my best, be persistent, never give up. I prayed less after my Grandfather died and I never recited the Serenity Prayer (God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference). Looking back, I think I lacked wisdom. I would never admit that the unchangeable could not be changed and would struggle much too long. When I finally had to admit defeat, saying “I don't care” would make me feel better. Soon, for good or ill,I would undertake a new task.
If you can maintain an “I don't care” attitude, you will have a happy, carefree life. Unfortunately, maintaining this attitude is impossible. Bad things will happen – things so bad that you can never say “I don't care”. Even today, I still struggle not to think of these things. This is the part of the happy universe I have constructed that is most vulnerable to cold hard facts.
It doesn't help that “bad”, like every other descriptive word, is nebulous, relative, like jello. A hunter may celebrate and share a good meal after shooting Bambi's mother. To Bambi, bad does not begin to describe the tragedy.
. . . .
If life was not complex, a childhood filled with monsters and dragons would be a horrible, dreary place. That is not how I remember my childhood.
My father died when I was five, almost six. I remember a scene from his funeral. He and my mother had already divorced. I remember him as a nice man who occasionally visited and took me places. I was sorry he died, but did not, then or now, think of it as a major tragedy. No one knows how long term exposure to a loving father might have changed me, for good or ill.
Shortly before the monster came the second time, my mother remarried. My mother and I had been living with my grandparents.
I didn't like my step-father. I don't believe my feelings had anything to do with my mother. I was not jealous and knew my mother's life was hers and she should be happy. In some ways, I was wise beyond my years. In other ways, I was as dumb as a post.
When my mother asked me if I wanted to move or stay with my grandparents, I instantly decided to stay.
Both before and after polio, my evenings were full of things kids liked. I loved science and studied bugs and stars. With my friends, I played the sport of the season. My fondest memories were weekends on the farm. Often with a visiting friend, with the farm at the center, I would explore the world.
My step-father was a weekend alcoholic – he never missed work, but, at night and on weekends, he consumed many quart bottles of beer. He avoided me and I avoided him, but his addiction was the source of hours of entertainment.
The farm was bordered on the back by a railroad and bisected by a creek. A railroad trestle spanned the waterway. My friends and I would retrieve boxes of empty beer bottles and carry them to the trestle. Tossing a bottle into the moving water, we would throw railroad rocks from between the ties at the target, hoping to break it before it disappeared downstream. I hoped to exhaust the supply of bottles, but never did.
. . . .
Thinking long and hard about science, life, reality, and God, as well as a number of other subjects that are apparently not related, but in fact are, can physically change your brain. I like to believe that my brain has been changed so that I can glimpse truths that our most renowned scientists and other authority figures miss.
My fear and dislike of the monster has made me feel that all experts are handicapped, bound by fallacious conventional wisdom. I can find support for this in history. Only a few hundred years ago, the experts said the earth was the center of the universe.
. . . .
I never thought of my mother as dumb. She was the smart one in the family. Something happened, however, when I was in my early teens, that made me wonder.
My mother, at a late age, had decided she wanted to drive. In preparation for her driving test, we decided to take the family sedan, a 1950 black, two door Ford for a spin. Seat belts were not part of this picture. We, in this case, were my mother driving, my grandfather riding shotgun, and me in the backseat.
Mother looked both ways and carefully pulled out onto the rural road in front of our house. The drive itself were uneventful and eventually led back to our farm. When we returned, my grandfather said “turn into the driveway”.
Our Ford took out the mailbox, somehow spanned a small ditch, and stopped in our front yard. My grandfather, in shock, asked my mother why she had not used the brakes, had not slowed down.
Mother tearfully explained “I didn't know how. I thought brakes were only for stopping”.
. . . .
I want God to be my friend. I want God to be the rarest of friends, one that is eternally trustworthy. I do not want God to be an authority figure, a monster. Does God care what I want?
. . . .
Maybe time and size do not exist. Maybe quantum physics is gibberish. Maybe God is everywhere. Anyone can make these kinds of assertions, but I will look for proof.
. . . .
Cold hard facts have assailed the universe that I began constructing even before the monster appeared. I live in this universe – it has kept me reasonably happy. I suspect that facts also attack your universe. As time has passed, things have happened – my mother died, 9-11, things too personal to mention. All screamed “life is not fair”. I don't care. I will ignore or deny unfairness and always struggle to make things fair.
If you are a young mathematical prodigy whom I inspire to dream of timeless equations, remember me as you accept many prizes. It is only fair.
If you are a university adviser, suggesting topics for a mathematical thesis, acknowledge me if you use my ideas. It is only fair.
If you are the man who has found God and you are being congratulated by the Supreme Being himself, you can forget about me. I am sure He will know of me.
If you are the woman who finally proves that God does not exist, mention me. It is only fair.
I have been told that life is not fair.
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