I know that my vote in the Midterm Elections is absolutely pivotal. I never believed that before. I voted, mind you, but I didn’t expect my candidates to win — I was pleasantly surprised when, now and then, they did.
How do I know my vote is so important? Because all the forces of heaven and hell are battling over the question of whether I will get home in time to vote in North Carolina’s election.
My wife and I had it all planned out. She was heading to Utah to help oversee and carry out the funeral of her mother, who was released from the burdens of cancer and Alzheimer’s before her suffering grew too great. Even when you know your loved one is better off, it doesn’t prevent you from missing them, from mourning.
So it was hard on me not to be with her — and her siblings, and her dad, who are all important to me. But I had given my word to take part in a space conference this past weekend, which put me in Austin, Texas.
Now, if I had traveled by airplane to Austin, I would be home by now, in plenty of time for the election. But in recent years I have come to detest flying. If I never fly again, it’ll be the right amount of time. The glory of looking out the window and seeing clouds from above can’t compensate for the horrible rituals of security, baggage handling, standing in long lines to do everything.
It’s the standing in line that’s worst. I seem to have inherited the lack of balance that plagued my mother in the last decade of her life. She had a hard time walking from place to place within her own house. Now I’m finding that standing up is actually hard for me. If I stand in one place for too long — i.e., two minutes — I become vertiginous. It feels as if I’m beginning to fall, but if I try to brace myself against this foreseen fall, I actually begin to fall in the opposite direction, because I wasn’t really falling before, but my attempt to prevent a fall tips me the other way.
So I have to be very careful and, yes, as slow as an old man, as I do things like climbing stairs (thanks for the railing!) or walking across a stage. I have to have a lectern to lean on, or I have to speak from a sitting position.
But I get by. I’m trying to find a way to get my walking wind back again; singing, I can’t hold enough breath to get through a musical phrase. It feels like a big step on the way to my final deterioration. This machine I got when I was born was a terrific one, which I underserved and overfed for too many years. I’m reluctant to let go of it.
Here I am now, unwilling to fly. And for the past five years or so, I’ve had a hard time staying awake on a long drive. When I go up to Southern Virginia University (SVU) to teach, it’s a three-hour drive each way. And more and more, I found myself waking up, though I had no memory of even being sleepy. Apparently they were just microsleeps, because I was always still in my lane and I didn’t bump into anything.
But it scared me. I tried to get that elusive thing called “enough sleep,” but the insomnia that plagued me even as a child is still with me, and worse than ever. So the night before I had to drive, I found it impossible to go to sleep till five, six, seven, eight in the morning. It was a good night when I fell asleep around four. Not conducive to staying awake on a drive.
I don’t have that sleeping problem when my wife is with me, because we stay alert with conversation and word games. And also, if I get sleepy, she will drive.
But there’s no way she can afford to lose three days a week accompanying me to Buena Vista, Virginia. Her seminary students expect a class every day.
Because my sleep problems were among the symptoms of my clinical depression, I entered into a program of TMS — Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. It’s a psychiatrist-monitored system in which I sit myself down in a reasonably comfortable chair, an apparatus is pressed against my head, holding it still; and then, with a musical chord, it starts pounding my head with painful blows.
It really is painful, when you start, but I’m a big boy, and after a couple of weeks I was used to it. Now, in fact, I can fall asleep during a session.
But the sensation felt like an elf was on my head, pounding at my head very rapidly. It brought the song “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” from Abbey Road to mind. You know the one: Bang bang Maxwell’s silver hammer can down on her head; bang bang Maxwell’s silver hammer made sure she was dead,” and so on. The Beatles knew about TMS therapy before it was even invented.
TMS did not “cure” my depression — it is not so much cured as controlled, and it can change over time so effective therapies suddenly stop working. But once I started that therapy, I didn’t fall asleep on the road. Period.
Naturally, that meant that Medicare had to declare me unworthy of this “experimental” treatment. Just because it’s working is no reason to continue it. The problem is, they measure the effectiveness by weekly questionnaires, with answers on a scale with four choices, most of which do not resemble anything in my life. But they look at these forms, and if I show too much progress, they discontinue treatment because I’m apparently “all better;” and if I show too little progress, they discontinue treatment because it’s “not working.” If I knew how to answer the questions to keep the therapy going, I’d do it. Instead, I attempt to place my actual conditions within the format they provide. All nonsense, but probably a reasonable standard for judgment.
So when they denied coverage for continuing maintenance of TMS, my wife and I counted our pennies and decided we could pay for it without insurance. But nay-nay, quoth Medicare. Because it was “experimental,” and Medicare had decided I should not receive it, then if my TMS provider gave me therapy anyway, they would lose their ability to work with Medicare on any of their patients. Or so it was explained to me.
But I kept the lingering effects of that therapy through the end of the semester.
Meanwhile, Hyundai came out with a hybrid version of the Santa Fe, the car I’ve driven for several years, and it was blessed with various safety features. First, lane assist. The cameras around the car track the lanes (where they’re actually visible) and if I start to drift from one lane to another, the steering wheel resists the move unless I’m signaling a lane shift. It’s so effective that when you’re on a road with perfectly visible lane lines, you can take your hands off the wheel and the car will negotiate curves easily.
But the safety system doesn’t like it if you do that. You get a message — Get your hands back on the steering wheel! — and it’s wise advice. Because it often happens that you’ll come to a part of the road where one side or the other of the lane is unmarked, or badly marked. The car gets confused. It needs my help.
Maybe it doesn’t, really, but it pretends to. So now and then, I give the car a directional nudge in this direction or that, and it obeys, and I’m fine.
It also has collision avoidance. So if I come up behind another car, my Santa Fe notices it. If I’m on cruise control, which suggests I might not be paying attention to my speed, it slows me down gradually and holds me a certain distance behind the car in front of me. It also brings my speed down to exactly match the other car, so I know I won’t hit him. If he goes below the speed limit, so do I. That used to fry me, but not anymore. I’m old, I’ve gomered out, I should always wear a hat to signal other drivers that there’s an old fart trying to control this car.
So I stay behind the slow car, until the left lane clears, and then I go around the car and it automatically goes back up to my chosen speed. Also, the cruise control shows a number, and you can change it without stopping cruise control — very handy.
When I got the new Santa Fe last March, it really made my commute to SVU much safer. Oddly, even though — or perhaps because — I had these safety features, I did not fall asleep. Problem solved.
We even took a trip to Dallas (for the baptism of a grandchild) and drove there in my new supersafe car. We made it in two days, spelling each other off. However, my wife had to be back in Greensboro on Monday — and I didn’t. So while she flew home (American has a direct flight), I drove. Same roads, same two days. Never fell asleep. My life was going to be good!
This past summer my sleep schedule became: pretty solid sleep for nine or ten hours one night, followed by only two hours of sleep the next night, maybe three the night after — and then back to a ten-hour sleep binge. My days were wiped out. On the short-sleep days I could barely type six words without falling asleep at the keyboard (apparently my heaviest finger is the middle finger of my left (non-dominant) hand, so I’d wake up to a computer screen filled with a continuous stream of the letter “d.” My editors assure me that they will not accept a bunch of iterations of “d” as a novel. Though I think it’s not as scary as “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
My backlog of work kept piling up. I thought through the stories I was working on, so the stories were growing. Except that they didn’t exist on paper — or electronically, either.
This fall I haven’t been teaching. I absolutely HAVE to get writing done — deadlines are pressing and after all, my whole retirement plan has always been “Write Till I Die.” I hadn’t been getting TMS for months, and I thought that if I resumed it, I might get a better sleep schedule. (Please don’t tell me about this or that sleeping potion; I’ve tried all the safe ones, with fair to poor results).
So I resumed TMS, but I’m still in the first couple of weeks, so the effects haven’t kicked in yet. And this week I had to drive to Austin, then to Dallas, then on to Greensboro by way of Shreveport and Atlanta. The conference on Space was cool, though I had no idea why I was there, until they gave me a very nice award.
After the conference, I got up early — six a.m. — and drove to Plano, where I went to church with my daughter and her family, so I could watch the three girls perform in the children’s annual program presented in the adult meeting. Since my granddaughters are completely amazing and delightful (if you knew them, you’d agree) I felt compassion for the parents of kids who knew how to be loud but had no idea of pitch. And yet by the end of the program, I loved all those kids. It was worth attending, though the only kids I knew were my three granddaughters.
After a quick visit with the family after church, I set out for Shreveport. I figured that was a reasonable goal for the first day’s drive. But I started kind of late, and after a while I realized that perhaps I had been too complacent in my trust in my car — I was waking up, and twice I had strayed out of my lane.
My rule is, when you have proof you’re too sleepy to drive, get off the road. Find a place where it’s safe to stop and take a little nap in the car.
So I was looking for a stopping place when I suddenly woke up to see a concrete barrier from the freeway median rush toward the side of my car, hit it, and bounce it out into the other lanes.
Fortunately, no one was in those lanes. I quickly got control of the car, and drove it very very slowly off of I-20 at exit 575. Across the freeway was a Love’s truckstop. I pulled into the parking lot and found an unused parking lot to wait in.
That’s when I realized that everything had gone smoothly UNTIL I started for home, on a schedule that would let me vote on Tuesday.
I immediately thought of the fact that my wife had voted early, because she didn’t know whether she would be home from the funeral visit and didn’t want to miss her chance. I, however, would be home in plenty of time to vote, so I didn’t not do early voting.
And here it is Thursday and the election is Tuesday and the people at the nearby Hyundai dealership haven’t even looked at my car and so I don’t know when they’ll have it ready (if ever). So what was that collision with the median barrier? All my precautions were for nought; the TMS and the car’s lane-assist did not keep me from the crashlet.
If you’re going to have a one-car accident, have the one I just had. Except for a bump on the head (no concussion), I was completely unhurt. When I got out of my car in the Love’s lot, I looked for the damage. The left side mirror had been folded back — which it’s designed to do. I popped it back out and it was fine. Other than that, there was no sign on the car that it had sideswiped a concrete barrier. Not a dent or a bent fender. What was this car made of, rubber?
I called Triple-A and they got my location and said the tow truck should be there in 45 minutes. Forty-five minutes later, my Uber (to drive me to the nearest Hampton Inn) arrived. Really nice driver — especially because he had to sit there in badly-paid Wait Mode till the tow truck came. Meanwhile, he helped me load my luggage from my car into his. I needed the help, what with my lack of balance, my sore shoulder, and my general out-of-shape-itude.
Ten years ago, I would have handled that luggage with ease, and maybe run around the parking lot a couple of times just to loosen up my muscles. (Running is just a memory to me now.) Now I had to lean against a wall to avoid losing my balance and falling over.
Another call to AAA; another promised arrival time; another wait. A third call to Triple-A, more promises, and two hours after my original call, I told my Uber driver we were leaving. I asked the Love’s manager to let me rent a parking place overnight. He said just park it out of the way and there’s no charge. Nice folks there.
My driver took me to Hampton Inn and helped me load out my luggage onto a cart. I tried to make his long wait worth his while, Hampton Inn had a room for me on the ground floor. It’s a nice enough room, but I was hoping to occupy it only for a couple of nights. Now it has been five nights and I still haven’t talked to anybody at the dealership who has looked at my car yet. (They had a backlog of reservations for car service. I understand the need to take care of local customers before the traveler who will never buy a car from them.)
So I’m at the point of choosing between my son-in-law picking me up and taking me home to Plano (a two-hour ride each way for him), leaving most of my luggage at their house and flying home; renting a car at the Shreveport Airport, though I can’t drive home in the rental car because no rental agency has a car that they can let me drop off a thousand miles away; or staying where I am and waiting it out.
Only the plan to inconvenience my son-in-law (though I know him well enough to know he really would not mind) would get me home — on a much-beloathed airplane — in time to vote.
You see how Hell has used all their wiles to keep me from voting, thereby allowing the election of an obnoxious Senate candidate? And yet Heaven kept me from having body damage to the car or to me, and since I’m not within walking distance of anything, I have nothing to do but sit in this motel and wonder when they’re going to clear up their Wi-Fi problems so I don’t have to keep using my Galaxy Flip Z 3 as a hotspot.
Thus heaven and hell vie for control over the election by messing with my life. If I actually thought the book of Job had any reality in it (God making wagers with Satan? Puh-leeze), I’d consider myself lucky that Hell only took advantage of my stupidity in not staying the night in Plano.
I now have to decide if I really believe that my vote is going to matter enough for me to fly home before the election. If Hell wants to block me, I don’t want to take a hundred other passengers with me. But if my abstention causes the wrong candidate to be elected by a single vote, I would be letting down the few angels who know I exist. What a dilemma!
And is my vote really worth the distress of flying in an airplane? Not to mention the cost? We’ll see.
And yes, I realize that my problems are definitely first-world problems, not REAL problems. My decision won’t decide whether somebody eats or has a job. No disease will be cured.
But because these are MY problems, they’re what’s on my mind. And hey, you didn’t have to read through the whole thing if you didn’t want to!
Glad you survived your self-inflicted automobile accident with mostly minor inconvenience. We miss hearing from Uncle Orson on the regular, and happily read the whole thing. Also, don’t worry about voting; I’ll swing by the cemetery on my way and pick up a few stand-ins for you.
Good to hear Uncle Orson is back in the saddle again! I hope we hear more of your entertaining essays!