Every cruise ship has a morgue
It's really a practical matter. You have a population of people. Statistically speaking there's a finite probability some fraction of them will drop dead of Ebola virus or an aortic aneurism. A silver-haired retiree will have his heart stop while cramming himself into a stateroom shower. A single woman from Des Moines will slip on a shuffleboard puck and crack open her skull on a deck chair. A newlywed who's never tasted scallops will discover a seafood allergy when her windpipe closes.
Any time you gather a group of people long enough, someone is bound to die. It's just math. The smaller the group, the longer you have to wait. The larger the group, the sooner you'll have a corpse on your hand.
It doesn't matter if you are at a grocery store or running the bulls at Pamplona. The ratios may skew to the high or low side depending on the risks but they're always there.
We were living in Alaska at the time. Juneau is a stop for all of the Alaskan cruise lines. Princess. Royal Caribbean. Norwegian. The blonde haired girl was a newspaper reporter when I first met her. During one of our first dates she announced that she had been doing a piece on the cruise industry and during one of her cruise ship tours the medical officer showed her the vaults.
She said, "And it wasn't small. There were drawers for like, twenty. That I could see."
"Drawers for bodies? They had room for twenty dead people?"
"And they said that there's nearly one per trip."
"Someone dies on every cruise?"
"They don't want that advertised. The doctor told me off the record. You know what we call the people on cruises, right? The newlywed, and the nearly dead."
"In a way every ocean voyage is a crossing of the river Styx."
"That's kind of paranoid."
"Even worse - you take your chances every time you get out of bed and most accidental death happens at home."
"So every house should have a morgue."
"That's the logic."
They fly the small planes between Medford and Portland, Oregon. It's only a 42 minute flight on a Bombardier Q400. Your fare entitles you to a space allotment of square twenty nine by seventeen inches. CIA operators cram rendition captives into a similar space during harsh interrogation. Unlike suspected terrorists, you get one free beer.
I had the window seat and I could tell immediately from the incoming passengers who would occupy the spot next to me. He was wearing cargo shorts and a day-glo yellow shirt and hat for his softball team, the West Linn Mud Owls. The mud owl's giveaway was that his expression turned from one of curious optimism to utter disgust as he saw that the person at the window was his equal in size.
My inner gloom grew with the realization that for the next sixty minutes I would be shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee with this guy. We would accelerate together. Jostle together with turbulence. Our hips would be touching as the plane jolted on touchdown. Random unplanned intimacy.
He sat down gingerly without eye contact and did his best not to press himself against me, but physics and geometry being utterly out of our control, we wound up in contact. While keeping his eyes forward he pulled a bottle of Sierra Mist from a tote bag he'd tried to stash under the seat in front. He opened it and took a drink.
This unremarkable event created a spark in my mind that set off a chain reaction of thought I could not control.
The fire was thus: when I was hospitalized in March, with a condition I now know claims the life of over 60% of the people who come down with it, when at that awful hour God should remove from the clock, three AM, I intuited that my very earthly life force was ebbing and I might slip away to other dimensions, or nothingness. And I became stupifyingly terrified.
I woke and I leaned heavily on the nurse-call-button. The night staff filed into my room and commenced to do nothing.
Instead of taking any sort of nursely medical action, they simply stood and watched. No taking my temperature. No needles. No tweaking my IV drip. No administering oral medication.
Here I was, for the first time conscious of a feeling I'd never encountered - which I now understand was the beginning of my mortal demise - but then seemed only like a horrifying weakness-inducing-pressure, calling in the medical SWAT team, they simply took positions around me, some two feet away, and "observed" me.
I now know this is what they do when they think someone will die and there's nothing they can do about it except make it worse. It felt like I was a six-point buck in someone's crosshairs.
I asked them questions and they answered. But they would do nothing else.
One of the junior trainee nurses seemed concerned - because my blood pressure was rising quickly. She wanted to actually do something. Perform some action.
"Just watch," said the senior nurse.
So four pairs of eyeballs stared at me as if I was about to detonate, exactly like those photos of the gray aliens who abduct book authors from their own beds.
"I have to get out of here," I said, as does everyone in the throes of a massive panic attack.
"We know," came the reply.
"Really. I don't feel so hot," I said, trying to shout over the blood pounding in my ears, but having only the wind in my lungs to croak like a strangled street cat.
"It's ok. Calm down," the lead nurse said, knowing what I didn't: that the acronym for disseminated intravascular coagulation is remembered by the term, "Death is Coming."
"I can't," I said, "calm down."
"Do you like soda?"
The brazen non-sequitur question was a reset button to my spiraling psyche. I froze in its brilliance.
I said, "Yes," because all I could think at that moment was how much I loved soda. The soft drink angels were coming as sure as if I was sitting behind first base at a Yankee's game. But unfortunately for me, the condition which held me in a death grip included a massive blood clot that had completely cut off my stomach. So while I could eat and drink, stuff wouldn't go much farther than my esophagus and the upper part of my stomach. And there it would sit until I applied suction to the nasal-gastric tube coming out my nostril. That would pump my stomach.
To that point, everyone followed the rules plastered on the wall above my hospital bed - NPO. Nothing by mouth.
For four days I drank and ate nothing.
The nurse who asked the question left the other three in the room to stare at me, and returned with a small plastic cup full of ice and a can of Sierra Mist.
The fizzy elixir was the ambrosia of the energy of life itself.
"How much of that can he have?" asked the junior nurse, knowing as did I that any of that soda was just going to sit in my stomach until we pumped it out again.
"As much as he wants," said the first nurse.
I decided to test that. Even though I had never seen Sierra Mist soda before and didn't know what it was I consumed the entire can in less than a minute, and burped and asked for another. Without expression, the nurse left the room and came back with a full can.
For the rest of that evening I paced the empty hospital floor drinking can after can of Sierra Mist, and then having all of it pumped out of my stomach via the stomach tube coming out my nose. And then drinking again. Pumping again. Until the sun rose and I was sure I could see it, and was still attached to the planet.
Anything to avoid slipping back to sleep.
Anything to avoid that horrible reality-dissolving weakness, and the door I saw in my dream-become-real, and the creature standing near it, beckoning me to pass through into the bright white nothingness beyond.
Were it not for a case of Sierra Mist soda and my awesome compulsion to consume it, I'd probably be dead now.
By the way, the journey of life is a plodding through darkness. It's not only a metaphorical darkness: darkness of the soul, darkness of ignorance - but it is an actual dark dimension. There are many doors out of the dark. Many lead to dreams. Many lead to learning. But one leads out, and away from all of this messy life.
We all know what that light is. It's trite and cliche' now. And some day each of us is destined to leave this space and go back into it.
But really, who needs that crap just yet?
And that creature who shepherds you in is legendary. It is Charon. It is Uriel. It is the Ghost of Christmas Future. It is your dead father. A lost child. It is your guardian. It can look like whatever you want. It takes the shape of what you believe. Frankly, I was scared of it, so it didn't seem like anybody I wanted close to me.
In truth, I knew for once and all that it was my angel. Mine and mine alone. And if I wanted to it would seem like my long lost lover, or my BFF.
But as far as I was concerned it wasn't quite my time.
I was rude. I told it to get lost. And it said ok, waved me off with a quick backhand, and I was back in my hospital bed in a state of panic. Then the nurse brought me the soda to glue me to the reality shared by six billion earthlings.
The soda drinking West Linn mud owl had a newspaper. The headline said there was a massive double tornado in Nebraska. It destroyed the whole town of Pilger and killed two people.
"...Including a five-year old," said the headline.
I wondered why the five-year old warranted a slot in the headline slug. Clearly, our sympathies would be raised by the death of the child compared to the loss of the anonymous other individual who met an untimely end during the same storm.
It made me wonder who was the other person. And why was his or her death less noteworthy to me? Should I die at the same time as a child, would my name be expunged from the public record to just be "the other person killed" while someone we liked better met the same fate?
I know the door that unknown second person saw, and the being standing next to it. And they could not deny themselves entry. And their family grieves their passing, as much as the poor parents of the five year old.
It's editing. It's all in the story telling, and we tell ourselves a lot of stories, and consume a lot of stories. The newspaper wanted to tell the story of the five-year old.
"Damned shame," said the softball player shifting in his uncomfortable, barely padded Q400 seat, his shoulder against mine.
"It's life," I said, and he tempered his nasty look with confusion.
So I clarified, "Some of those people go to church every Sunday and they want to know why God lets things like that happen. And the truth is that God lets everything happen."
I don't think he agreed with me, but he nodded anyway. Since we were as close as physically close as brothers sharing a bed, the best move was to keep the peace, and not start an argument.
He took his last swig and capped his empty Sierra Mist bottle and stashed it near his feet.
He told me he had recently read two books. They happened to be the same two books I had just read.
Colson Whitehead was sent to play in the World Series of Poker by a magazine, and he subsequently wrote a book about his experience. John Keel was the paranormal investigator who wrote about Indrid Cold and the Mothman Prophesies. Keel consolidated all of his paranormal experiences into one theory of the universe and published it before he died.
The softball player explained, "Whitehead said that poker players couldn't believe in the divine because where's the logic in an omniscient, omnipotent God who refuses to intervene?"
"I bet those tornado victims can't reconcile that either."
And he said, "Keel thinks the UFO-paranormal phenomenon is a reflection of the human psyche. Believe something strong enough, it becomes true. And that reflection of our belief is completely insane."
"So, then like Hank Moody in that Showtime series, you believe that God either isn't there, or that he hates us?"
He shook his head. "No, we have it all wrong."
And then the idea came to me. Suddenly, I had a great plot for a novel. I thought it was my own private idea until my airplane seat neighbor told it to me directly.
"Look - the prevailing religious theory is that we are the creation of a greater power. Right? Pick a religion. We're the 'children' of God, or the creation of God, or whatever.
"Now, think about creating something. We build computers, right? How far away are we these days from having a computer that becomes alive? Or maybe they're all just always alive. What's the difference between modern computer intelligence than the intelligence of a poodle, or maybe a sandfly? How could you tell the difference? A machine just beat the Turing test. Does that mean it's self-aware? How would we know?"
He continued, "So you have these machines that are actually a life form, only we just don't think of them as 'alive' because we made them and we know we're not God. So there's a difference between machine life and human life. And what's the characteristic of a computer? Well, it's a lot smarter than we are in some spots, and a lot dumber in others. Computers can do amazing calculations and make super inferences much faster and in a much more complete way than any human. Look at the search engines and big data. Look at the computer that parallel parks your Lexus in New York City when you couldn't do it in twelve tries. They find patterns much better than any human. Of course, we know a human programmed the computer so we tend to think we're superior because we came up with the algorithms. But computers these days have code that can self-adapt, and change in unpredictable ways. In that respect they can think faster and better than we can. They're smarter than us.
"But they're also dumber than us. They can't intuit things - they have to reach conclusions based on math or data. They don't just simply create. They have no empathy or ability to wonder, far as we know. So in that respect, we can exist in a universe of information our machines can't reach.
"So why should it be any different with God?" He concluded his last sentence as if it were the punch line to a great joke. He laughed a little, and saw my confusion, and repeated himself that it should be no different between us, and our God.
On Alaska Airlines, when you fly in the very coffin-like Q400, they give you a free beer. I asked for the Ninkase Total Domination IPA. The mud owl agreed and the flight attendant gave us both a plastic cup of beer.
I took a sip and said to him, "Are you saying you think God is dumber than us?"
"In some ways, yes. If you were going to create a machine - why would you make one that was utterly inferior in all ways? What fun is that? What use is that? You build machines to enable things you can't do. Otherwise, why bother?"
"But, God is, like, everywhere. All times, all places. He's got reasons we don't understand."
"Of course we don't understand. Maybe God built us to calculate time better than he can. Maybe he made us to be exactly here, right now, doing this, because we occupy time and space better than Him. Being able to be at a point in time and space instead of everywhere and everywhen. What if He created us so that we could be exactly at a time and a spot and come up with things He can't?"
"Who knows? Does a GPS computer that calculates the route to the grocery store know it's leading people to fresh fruit? Who knows what benefit we provide God by just doing the stuff we're doing? And why would he interfere if it's working? We get blown up by falling meteors or wiped away by hurricanes - and God does nothing about it, because maybe it's supposed to be that way. Maybe it's all working out just great."
"And then God shows up like a UFO?"
"Well, I don't know if it's God himself showing up as an alien, but somebody who had something to do with creating us shows up as something supernatural and does something utterly incomprehensible. We don't know what, or why. But think about it - if you have a computer program running in an infinite loop, wouldn't you do a reset? Kill that process and start another? Would the process that's being stopped know that it's looping and doing nothing useful, or is it happy doing that?"
"That's a real stretch - that these computer programs are alive."
"They're a form of life. Everything that moves is alive. Wind, bugs, everything. Stuff we set in motion is alive. Including programs. Like the wiring in our brains that gives rise to our thoughts. Programs give rise to thought in something, somewhere. That's what this universe is, dude. It's all life."
"So we're both smarter, and dumber than God."
"We can do things God can't do - because that's why he made us. And when he speaks to us, or hits a reset button, or kills a process and starts another, it's like science fiction to us. No one believes it's possible. Or else, it looks like absolutely random death from the sky."
"And it's all for our good?"
"I suppose," said the softball player. "In that we're doing what God wants, I suppose its good for everything."
"And then who's to say our own God isn't created by someone else, with the same impact? That God is smarter and dumber than the thing that created him?"
"Well, someone made these UFOs."
"And Sasquatch, and the Mothman, and Whitley Strieber's gray aliens?"
"It's not all imagination. And it means something."
"Why does it have to mean something? We could be existential about it, and say it's just random crap."
"Because that makes no sense. I'm telling you flat out, it is less likely this life, and this existence is the result of stochastic processes than that it is all guided. In our own universe, the way the math works, your birth - your, personal birth, that it would be you, is so unlikely that it would take multiple birth-death cycles of the universe itself before you'd have the statistical probability of being born. It is very unlikely that any of this should be here."
"On the other hand, there could be millions of universes that grow and die and life never forms. We can only be conscious in the universe in which that unlikely event takes place, so it seems likely."
"That's too fatal. You have to get to the point where you accept that notion of 'purpose' itself, is a thing. Purpose is the true religion. And whether you like it or not, there is purpose."
"Then what is it? What's the meaning to life?"
"Like I said, does a program calculating the gazillionth digit of pi know what it's doing? And if it did, would it have any meaning?"
"So we can never know the purpose?"
"I didn't say that. I just said it's really hard to figure out. But - here's where the faith comes in - here's where you're never going to get any evidence and you just have to go for it - you are here for a reason. It's an important reason, it's not meaningless or it wouldn't exist. It is a purpose and it is a thing. And this universe in which we are placed is the computer that allows us to self adapt to figure things out. In fact, we can reprogram this universe, if we want. I think God would be very interested in seeing where we go with that."
And now my brain was spinning in thought and fire. It always happens to me that way. I'm on a path of thought and someone tosses in a discontinuity. It goes, first 'A', then 'B', and if 'A' and 'B' then 'C'. And I'm following along, and then 'QRSTUVWYZ' gets thrown in, apparently with no explanation, and I'm still back there figuring how to get to 'C' from 'A'.
But it's been explained. I just can't cross the chasm of theory to become enlightened.
I figured if I wrote it down it would become clearer. I figured if I wrote the book it would become an entity unto itself and explain itself to me.
Instead, they told us to get ready for landing. The stewardess collected our remaining service items.
And I wondered why empty plastic beer cups were called "service items" when you're on an airplane, and "trash" when you're at a picnic.
We landed. The plane stopped. I reached down to pull my briefcase out from under my legs and the guy in the cargo shorts and softball team shirt was already gone. I did not see him in the queue of people exiting the front left door. Nor did I see him on the tarmac waiting for his gate-checked bag. Nor in the terminal heading to the parking lot or the baggage claim.
I thought I remembered the flight attendant saying when I boarded that I was next to the only empty seat on an otherwise completely full flight. But I might have imagined that. Maybe I slept though the flight and forgot I'd done that.
Maybe I died in El Camino Hospital last March and all of this is a repetitive dream I can't escape.
Otherwise I have to presume that everything I heard was either mythology, or a dream, or just random neuron firings.
Otherwise like John Keel hypothesized back in the 1970's, I must conclude the angels are utterly insane.
That is not the end even though I want it to be so.
Because I was all alone in Portland, on the road, going to work in Oregon, killing time before I got tired and fell asleep between the stiff white institutional sheets. I ordered the room service and I sat down and started writing the book they asked me to write.
But the computer screen was blank, and my fingers wouldn't move.
The room service girl knocked, then, and came in with the tray. She set it beside my computer and I signed the check. A salad and a coke costs thirty bucks when you get it delivered to your room at the Heathman Hotel. Now that they have the "Fifty Shades of Gray" mommy porn advertising them they're raising the prices on everything. Thank god for corporate discounts and expense accounts.
"What are you writing?" the woman asked when I handed her the black vinyl folio with the signed room bill.
"Oh. Well, when it's done you can get it put in our library. We have a copy of every book ever written here."
"Lots of books are written here?"
"Hundreds," she said. "The library is full of signed first additions. Are you writing a ghost story? We're getting a lot of them these days."
"Sort of. I have this idea about a computer that becomes alive and makes us all realize we're computers created by God, and so then, we're actually smarter than God the same way our computers are smarter than us. But unfortunately, God still has his finger on the power switch."
"Oooh. That's a good idea. Hey, I have something else you can add. Suppose your computer gets a smart enough program to have ESP. And so then the computer becomes psychic and talks to ghosts and starts reprogramming people's spirits in the afterlife dimension."
"An ESP app that makes your cell phone psychic? And then it controls your spirit?"
"Yep," she said. She was glowing now, absolutely radiant. Her smile made me feel like home. My heart slowed and for once in my miserable life I felt like everything was finally going to be ok. Like I could sleep soundly in such a strange place. Like my work was accepted and liked. And so was I.
And I'm going to tell you she disappeared before my eyes, but she actually went out the door and opened it first, which sounds more like what happened, but wasn't.
But I did have my dinner on the room service tray.
When I looked out the peep hole in the door I didn't see her there. And when I opened the door she wasn't in the hallway.
I know that people who have had near death experiences talk about having greater connections to those non-material things like knowledge of the future and guidance but I don't feel any of that.
I just see this door in my mind, and some tall shadowy figure standing beside it, smiling. It's a horror movie smile that melts to the greeting from a friend you haven't seen since fifth grade. It's the chainsaw killer in gray hair and an apron holding a warm apple pie.
It's the alpha and omega. The purser on a cruise ship who slides your drawer closed. The morgue you wind up in, no matter how hard you try to stay away. Only it's decorated in balloons blown up by kindergarteners, and the walls are draped in chintzy paper dime store streamers.
Because it's over, and it's not a tragedy. Your name is on the newspaper headline.
And everyone says you were good to be with.
Carlos Casteneda's Don Juan told him that death followed all warriors, and we are all warriors. Nobody goes AWOL. Death is right over our left shoulder. Our termination. The one truth we can rely on. Our best friend with fangs holds a loaded gun to our temple at all times and inevitably sends us to the white. He's the guy at the door out of the darkness who welcomes you to that eternal Antarctica. And all the nothing becomes something.
Finally, I've seen him. And I know that when it's the right time, I'm going to be very happy that guy is the one handing me a Sierra Mist when we walk through together.
Because this has been great. Really really great.
I'm really thankful. I'm just saying, thanks. Now I got more breathing to do.