The (Thermo)Dynamics of Life in SF

So you want to write hard science fiction.   You want to write stories that are consistent with science as we know it today, and perhaps you also want to locate your stories away from the earth—perhaps far from the earth.  If you know what that story is, and you know the science you need to write it, close your browser window and do it now.  You owe it to your readers, and you owe it to yourself.

If, however, you’re stuck in a rut, you may need to try something different to get inspired.  If, like me, you haven’t finished a story in four months (with or without a health concern to justify that situation), you may need to do some research.  In that frame of mind, let’s talk about what your off-world setting requires to support life.

PressurePhase diagram of water, derived from diagram at University of Arizona

The chemistry of life requires a liquid medium to transport chemicals within the living body.  In our neck of the woods, that means water[1].  The need for liquid water, however, puts a hard limit on the locations where water-based life could develop[2].

At any pressure lower than 6.117 millibars (the triple point of water), liquid water can’t exist.  Instead, it sublimates directly from a solid state to a gaseous one.  For comparison, one earth atmosphere is 1013 millibars.  Mars, with its surface pressure of 6.36 millibars, has just barely enough atmosphere to sustain liquid water.  The tiny Jovian moon Europa can sustain liquid water because its icy crust holds things down. Most small planets, however, especially small rocky ones, cannot support liquid water, and you’ll have to work hard to justify the presence of living organisms there.

What this means for world building is that you probably need a world with either underground seas or a mass large enough to keep your atmospheric pressure up above the triple point of water.  Size isn’t the only factor—Venus, which is smaller than Earth, has a surface pressure 92 times ours—but it’s something to consider.

ThermometerTemperature

A related question is the temperature range required for life.  Assuming the need for liquid water, biological processes need a local (internal) temperature between 0°C and 100°C at a “typical” earth atmospheric pressure[3]. Traditionally, this is interpreted to mean that your planet needs to be in the “Goldilocks” Habitability Zone, neither too hot nor too cold.  Earth is in this zone, mostly because it’s the right distance from our sun, but there are other factors, including geological heating or atmospheric collection and reflection of heat, which can modify this range.

If you’re designing a brand new world for your SF story, you probably want to give it goldilocks habitability.  If the star is red or orange, your planet will be close to its sun, and may even be tidally locked.  If you have a blue-white supergiant, the planet will be farther away, and the sun may perhaps appear smaller.  If other factors affect your world’s temperature, like insulation from thick clouds or tidal heating from the gas giant it happens to be orbiting, these factors will affect the descriptions in your story, and you’d best think them through in advance.  There is a lot of room for creativity here, but it’s a lot of work, too.

Energy

NASA-false-color-sun-image

Pressure and temperature, however, are really just expressions of a bigger need for all living things, and that is energy. Life requires energy to overcome the limits imposed by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that entropy (disorder) in a system will always increase.  Living things are massively more ordered than the universe at large, so we can only survive by creating disorder somewhere else.  Generally this implies a transfer of energy from a state in which it is concentrated to one where it is dispersed.

Nearly all of the energy available to living things on earth comes from stars, and I don’t simply mean solar energy.  Coal, gas, and oil come from the bodies of plants and animals, which themselves can trace their source of energy back to the sun.  Wind energy comes from the sun, and even geothermal energy comes from the decay of radioactive isotopes forged in the core of a long-past supernova.  The only energy source I can think of that isn’t indirectly solar is tidal energy, and tides get their energy from the same force of gravity that drives fusion in our sun.

When writing SF about life on other planets, it may be useful to ask where the energy comes from, and how it travels through your world to enable the processes of life.  It isn’t enough to have a static, warm world for life to exist; we need a dynamic one with an external source of energy that life can tap to survive.  This may sound hard, but we’re talking about hard SF here, and I think the most interesting story ideas can be born when a creative mind tries to wrap itself around a difficult issue.


[1] There may be life based on liquids other than water, but its chemistry would be far different from ours.  As a polar molecule, water readily dissolves ions that non-polar solvents like liquid methane or nitrogen could not.
[2] Yes, there are bacteria at the South Pole, where the temperature peaks around -17°C. Even if these bacteria are biologically active (and the American Society for Microbiology asserts that they can’t be), these bacteria were imports from warmer climes.
[3] At higher pressures, water stays liquid longer, so a hot super-earth might conceivably have liquid oceans. Unfortunately, the energy that makes it hotter might also cause water vapor to escape, leading to a water-deprived atmosphere like the one on Venus.
Photo credits:  Triple point diagram derived from a lecture at the University of Arizona chemistry department.  Thermometer by User:Gringer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. False-color image of the sun from NASA via Wikimedia Commons.

Scientific World Building

In hard science fiction, many authors choose to describe characters who come from (or journey to) worlds surrounding distant stars.  In the early days of science fiction, authors often chose stars whose names were well known:  Sirius[1], Alpha Centauri[2], Arcturus[3], Betelgeuse[4], Altair[5], and the like.  As scientific knowledge has expanded, however, writers have needed to increase the level of detail with which they research stars for their planets.  Fortunately, we have the internet to help us with this research.  Here a a few things to consider (and links you can use) when siting your next habitable planet.

Starting Point

There are billions of stars in our galaxy, but most people only know of a few. How can we learn about some of the others from which we might select? One source of data is Hipparcos, a satellite launched in 1989 by the European Space Agency. During its five years in orbit, Hipparcos collected data on more than one hundred thousand stars. This data is freely availalble online, and some sites provide the ability to search the Hipparcos database for stars in a particular region of the sky.

If you would rather start with known planets, that data is available online, too.  The University of Puerto Rico, Arecibo has an interesting database of known exoplanets, including some information on potentially habitable planets.  The SIMBAD catalog is another useful tool for researching known stars — once you know the name of a star from Hipparcos, you can get its name in other catalogs, to do further research.

Spectral Class

stars by spectral class

The most readily visible attribute of a distant star is its color. Decades ago, this information was used to group stars into spectral classes. Although golden-age SF writers seem to favor the brightest stars in the sky, writers in the 70’s and 80’s more frequently selected yellow (G-class) stars like our own sun. Alpha Centauri A, and Tau Ceti have been popular choices, though both are problematic for other reasons (see below).

For those with a background in chemistry, spectral class raises some interesting questions about the impact on life.  M-class stars produce less ultraviolet (UV) light than our sun does.  How would this effect photosynthesis?  A, B, and O-class stars produce far more energetic X-rays and gamma rays than our sun.  How would this affect mutation rates?  This sort of thing could be fodder for some interesting stories, I think.

Multiple Star Systems

While Alpha Centari A is a nice yellow star, it still has problems due to the proximity of its partner star, Alpha Centauri B. Centauri B is a K1-class star, which makes it somewhat smaller than our sun, and it orbits at a distance between 11 and 30AU from Centauri A. When the stars are close to one another, there is a significant chance that B’s gravity might disrupt the orbit of any planets in the habitable range of A. Even if this didn’t happen, there is also the concern that the periodic approach of B might heat up a planet in the habitable zone, making life unpleasant.

Personally, I try to avoid star systems with multiple stars — the “safe” ones probably have the partner so far away that they look like nothing more than a bright star — but some really great stories have been born from smart people thinking about life on a planet with more than one sun.

Variability

Even if you want to choose a solitary, ordinary yellow (G) or orange (K) star, there are a lot of choices available.  How do you decide?  A good place to start might be HabCat, a list of stars on the PHL site listing the stars they consider most likely to harbor habitable planets. One of the key characteristics in this decision-making process is a star’s variability: our sun is pretty stable, but some stars grow brighter or dimmer on an irregular basis. Planets near a variable star are at high risk of freezing or burning up.  Once again, it could make for an interesting setting for your story.

Metallicity

One assumption behind the HabCat list is that a star needs to have a certain amount of heavy, metallic elements nearby for rocky planets like earth to form.  We can’t necessarily see these planets yet, but we can measure the amount of metals in a star by looking at its spectral lines.  Tau Ceti and another nearby star, Epsilon Eridani, both seem to be metal-deficient.

More recent studies of Epsilon Eridani seem to indicate that it has at least one large rocky planet orbiting there, so the lack of metallicity for dim stars may not be as prohibitive as once was thought.  If you’re designing a world, however, you might want to consider what it would mean for life if (for example) potassium, calcium, or iron were hard to come by.

Proximity

If your story includes space travel to a distant star, you will either need to imagine faster-than-light travel or take into account the massive distances involved.  As it happens, parallax data from the Hipparcos database can be used to calculate how far away a given star might be.  For example, a star like HD-113576, with a parallax of 112.8 milliarcseconds, is 28.9 light years distant.  HD-17511, however, has a parallax of only 10, which places it 326 light years away.  If you’re travelling at “only” 9/10ths the speed of light, that can make a difference.

Takeaway

If there is one thing I learned from browsing Hipparcos, there are a lot of stars out there that might support life. With a little bit of work, we can go beyond the traditional choices and place our planets around real stars where no writer has gone before.

[1] Voltaire, in his early SF tale Micromegas, describes his protagonist as having come from Sirius.  Larry Niven’s planet Jinx is also located there.
[2] Philip K. Dick (Clans of the Alphane Moon), Arthur C. Clarke (The Songs of Distant Earth), and Larry Niven (Wunderland in his Known Space stories) all placed habitable planets around Alpha Centauri.
[3] Arcturus is featured as a planet name in Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and David Lindsay placed his planet Tormance there in his novel A Voyage to Arcturus.  You may debate whether or not Asimov intended Arcturus the planet to orbit the star of the same name, however.
[4] Much of Planet of the Apes takes place in a planet near Betelgeuse.
[5] SF classic Forbidden Planet takes place on Altair IV, and colonies near Altair feature in several Star Trek episodes.

Religious Issues

Thanksgiving is at its core a religious holiday. Since I grew up in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, it is also a deeply held tradition in my family, even for family members whose beliefs differ greatly from my own. This has led me to ruminate heavily on the nature of religious differences in general, and Massachusetts religion in particular.
pilgrim-soxComputer geeks have a somewhat different perspective on “religion” than other people, I suspect.  For me, a topic is “religious” if involves a deeply held belief on which rational, well-meaning people may disagree.  This doesn’t imply that everyone is “correct” in their beliefs (which would be a logical contradiction), but instead a difference of emotional responses cause us to disagree.

Consider, for example, the choice of a UNIX line editor.  I use vi (actually vim, since I’m on Linux most of the time these days).  Many people, especially those who went to MIT, favor Emacs or one of its many variants.  I could give any number of reasons why I fell vi is the better choice:

  • Emacs has an embedded LISP interpreter in it.  I despise LISP.
  • Emacs is big, and uses more resources than vi.  I like my software lean.
  • Emacs tries to do everything, but vi is an editor and nothing more.  I prefer single-purpose apps.
  • Older Unix systems had vi built-in, so I didn’t have to load additional programs before I could use it.

The truth of the matter, though, is that I learned vi in an age when Sun and IBM were still battling over where to put the Control key on their keyboards, but the Escape key was reliably located in the top-left corner on all computer systems.[1] Working in Emacs was uncomfortable to me, so I never got past the fundamentals (and have forgotten most of those).  I have friends who are dedicated emacs users, and I think they’re wrong, but I don’t tell them they can’t use it.

As a resident of upstate New York, I also list “major league baseball” as a religious issues.  I have many friends who are Yankee fans.  Unlike far too many fans in Boston or New York City proper, none of us has verbally (or physically) abused a member of the other fandom.   Regarding all things Sox and Yankees, I hold the same line as I do for the captain himself, Derek Jeter.

Jeter will someday join the Hall of Fame, and deservedly so, but not for his prowess at shortstop.  His many Golden Glove awards are a function of his presence in the biggest media market in the world, and the affection millions of New York fans hold for him.  If you call Jeter a great defensive ballplayer, I will say that you are wrong.  I will also uphold your right to hold that opinion, if you think that “good hands” is more important than “gets to the ball”.

The vast majority of the Turner clan are Unitarian, and do not believe that Jesus Christ is God.  This has caused some conflict at Thanksgiving dinners past, when I chose to pray the way I do, in Jesus’ name. My earthly father, though himself a Unitarian, supports my right to pray the way I do, because it’s what I believe.  He understands that I can state my case, and he can his, and neither one of us can browbeat the other to conform.

He understands that it’s a religious issue.

[1] Digital Equipment Corp didn’t put an Escape key on their VT terminals, but there was a configuration setting that allowed you to make the backquote key transmit that character.  Since I touch type, that was sufficient.

Into the Wind

From a scientific pespective, sailing is one of the most peculiar modes of transportation ever invented. Powered entirely by the wind, a sailing ship is able to move in a direction contrary to the one in which that very wind is headed. It derives from a balance of forces, some of which you can’t even see.[1]Sloop Reliance on a close reach
Consider the case where a captain wishes to take his ship to a harbor in the west, but the wind is blowing towards the east.[2]  If he were facing directly into the wind, it would blow him backwards, away from his goal. By facing to the southwest, however, he places his sail at a diagonal to the wind. The wind pressing on this sail tries to push it east, but is opposed by the keel underneath, pressing on the water through which it flows. The only way that ship can move is in the direction it is facing, and so it does.

After a while, however, you find that the ship is headed south of the target, and your southwest progress isn’t getting you any closer to the goal. At this point (or sooner, if you run out of open water), the captain turns to the northwest.  Each stretch of diagonal sailing is called a “tack”.  No single tack can carry the ship to its intended goal, but taken in sum, she will eventually reach port.

The same principle is true in a well-drafted scene. As an author, we want to bring our protagonist from point A to point B. The antagonist opposes this goal, and introduces conflict. Through the twists and turns of your plot, you tack, carrying the reader ever closer to the end of the tale. And the ever-changing view is what makes your story interesting.

This may, in fact, be the one time when it’s a good idea for your story to be tacky.

[1]Photograph of Sloop Reliance from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID det.4a15401 via Wikimedia Commons.
[2]This is a bit of an oversimplification.  Depending on the wind, nearby coastal obstructions, and the need for speed, the captain may choose anywhere from a close hauled point of sail (as close as you can go to facing into the wind without stalling out) and a beam reach (which gains you no progress upwind, but may give you lateral room for another tack), but in general one will select a close reach, which is somewhere in between. As a metaphor, however, I find it sufficient.

A Curse Re-Moved

Josh was a curse to every sports team he had ever liked. Not that he was much of a sports fan. At first, he was the exact opposite. They never would have known he was a curse if he hadn’t been such a geek for math and science.

The first hint of his curse came when Josh was eleven, and his father signed him up for little league. He was assigned to the Tigers. They gave him a shirt and hat with the team logo on it. Mr. Bryant, their coach, called the team together before their first game.

“Boys,” he said, “we’re here to learn baseball and to have a good time. We want everyone to learn and have a good time, so everybody plays on this team.”

Josh had a strong arm, so Mr. Bryant let him play third base. In the first inning, a ball bounced off his glove towards the mound. Nick Wilson, who was pitching, stepped on it and twisted his ankle. He couldn’t play again for three weeks. The Tigers lost, 4-3.Fenway Park At-Bat

“Winning would have been more fun,” said Mr. Bryant’s son, Tommy.

“You can learn a lot from losing, too,” said Mr. Bryant.

The day before their second game, Mr. Bryant worked on batting with them.

“You’re all good batters,” he said. “Let’s see if we can have everyone get a hit tomorrow night.”

In that game, the Tigers were shut out. Josh got on base when he was hit by a pitch, but the batter behind him hit into a double play. They lost, 7-0.

“Even the best hitters get out most of the time,” said Mr. Bryant.

Before the third game, Mr. Bryant said, “Every one of you get out there and do your best.”

Vinnie Cepeda and Tommy Bryant were both doing their best when they ran into each other while chasing down a fly ball. Tommy broke his glasses, and the batter got an inside-the-park home run. The Tigers lost, 4-1.

On the day of their fourth game, the sky was dark with clouds.

“I hope it doesn’t rain,” said Mr. Bryant.

It didn’t rain. In the bottom of the first inning, the Tigers scored three runs, taking a two-run lead. All the boys were excited, and then it started to hail. The hailstones were big, and they dented the cars in the parking lot. Josh was batting at the time, and a hailstone cracked his batting helmet.  They called off the game.

“I hope they can get the dents out of my car,” said Mr. Bryant.

The rest of the season was just as bad. Every boy on the team had talent, and everyone played hard, but they just couldn’t seem to win. Sometimes the wind would change direction just when an outfielder was trying to track a fly ball, and he would miss it. Routine ground balls would take a funny hop and skip through a player’s legs. Star second baseman Ted Archer threw past the outstretched glove of the first baseman, twice, in a single inning. It was unreal.

The curse wasn’t limited to his own team, either. When Josh was there, opposing-team batters who didn’t have a hit all season would suddenly go 3-for-4 with two doubles, and their fielders would make spectacular diving catches all over the park. Once, with the bases loaded and no one out, the Padres’ shortstop turned a sure-thing base hit into an unassisted triple play. The Tigers lost that game, 5-4.

The next year, Josh proved that he didn’t need to be playing the game to curse a team he loved. Five lost games into the season, Josh sprained his ankle in a skateboarding accident, and had to stay home. The Tigers won their next three games. The streak ended when Josh came to watch from the stands. Ace pitcher Jimmy Cronin took a line drive in the shoulder in that game, and was done for the season. The Tigers lost, naturally. When the season ended, Josh quit playing baseball.  He decided to watch sports, instead.

The next fall, his big brother Jeremy moved up to the varsity football squad. Josh was excited to see his brother play for the Wildcats, who had won the state championship the year before. With Josh in the stands, though, they lost nine games that year. Their one victory was in November, when Josh had a bad case of strep throat and had to stay home. Jeremy caught two touchdowns in that game. He came home and told his little brother about it.

“Why can’t you play like that when I’m there to see it?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Jeremy replied. “Maybe you’re cursed.”

Jeremy had only meant it as a joke, but it set Josh to thinking. He decided to test it with an experiment.
Always more of a reader than an athlete, Josh surprised everyone in the family by becoming a sports fan. Lacrosse, field hockey, volleyball, even golf – Josh would watch them all. Wherever he went, the person or team he was cheering for would lose. Josh kept careful notes of every game in a notebook he carried with him.

Jeremy, who didn’t really believe that his brother was cursed, was helped by his brother’s busy schedule. Playing with just his parents in the stands, he became a star. Three years later, he earned a football scholarship and went to Springfield College to study sports medicine.

Josh, for his own part, had learned a lot from his experiments. For one thing, he learned that his curse didn’t work over television. If he watched the game from home, sometimes the team he cheered for would win, and sometimes not. If he was there in person, though, they lost every time.

He also learned that it really was the team he cheered for, not the team he came to see. One year, he started attending football games for their rival, Brockton High, just to cheer for the team they were playing against that week. Brockton went undefeated that season. Things didn’t change much at college, either. His favorite teams changed, but they kept on losing. And then, in 2008, it happened.

Jeremy, who was working that year as an assistant trainer for the New England Patriots, managed to buy two tickets to the Super Bowl, and gave them to his father. Josh didn’t think it was a good idea, but hey, it was the Super Bowl, and the Patriots were undefeated. They flew out to Phoenix, prepared to see history being made.

Well, you know what happened. Patriots’ cornerback Asante Samuel missed an interception that would have won the game. Giants’ wide receiver David Tyree made that spectacular catch off his helmet to keep going after fourth and long, and then Plaxico Burress caught the winning touchdown pass. They sure saw history, just not the history they had expected.

Later that year, Josh came over to his brother’s apartment to apologize. His sister, Jennifer, was there, too.

“I’m sorry I made the Patriot’s lose,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” asked Jeremy.

“I’m cursed, just like you said I was.”

“You told him he was cursed?” asked Jennifer.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Jeremy. “There’s no such thing as a curse, and if there was, it wouldn’t be Josh.”

“I can prove it,” said Josh, and he pulled out his little notebook. He had been to more than 200 different games, every one a loss for the team he supported. Nobody could argue with evidence like that.

“That’s bad,” said Jeremy.

“Maybe you should stop watching sports,” said Jennifer.

“Don’t you think I’ve tried?” asked Josh. “Once I convinced myself that there really was a curse, I wanted to stop, but life is just so boring if I can’t go to a game now and then.”

“Can’t you watch from home?” she asked.

“It’s just not the same.”

Jeremy had to agree with his brother about that, but he wanted to know how bad it really was.

“Josh, you remember what happened to the Red Sox last summer?”

“How can I forget it?” he replied. “We had more players on the disabled list than most teams had players.”

“Did you go to any of those games?”

“Only about twenty, why?”

Jeremy groaned. If he didn’t do something, they wouldn’t see another sports championship, ever.

“Little brother,” he said, “we need to move you to a different city.”

“Do you think I can find a job somewhere else?”

“With your math skills, no problem,” said Jennifer.

“The big question,” said Jeremy, “is which team is going to get cursed. Do you have a favorite sport these days?”

“I like them all, but baseball is really my favorite.”

“How about moving to New York?” said Jennifer. “Maybe you could become a Mets’ fan.”

“After what they did to us in the ’86 World Series, I guess they deserve it,” said Jeremy.

“It’s too risky,” said Josh.

“What do you mean?”

“I might be tempted to go to a Yankees’ game.”

“And what’s wrong with that?”

“The team I cheer for always loses.”

Jennifer opened her mouth to protest, then closed it again. Curse or no curse, there was no way she would ever ask her brother to become a Yankees’ fan.

“Then it’s agreed,” said Jeremy. “Josh can’t move to New York. But I think you had a good idea, Jenny. We need to send Josh some place that has a National League team, so he won’t be as tempted to cheer for the Sox.”

“We also need to find a home team that he’d be willing to cheer for,” Jennifer added. “Do you really like baseball best, even after all those tragic games in little league?”

“Definitely,” said Josh. “It’s the math. You know, batting averages, ERA, all that stuff. Still, if I’m going to move, I want to cheer for a quality team, one with history.”

Jeremy’s eyes went wide. “I have just the place for you,” he said.

Two weeks later, Jeremy and Jennifer moved their brother to Chicago. He got a job doing math for one of the big insurance companies, and he really likes it. To top it off, Chicago is heaven for anyone who loves sports.

Sometimes, Josh goes to see the Bulls, or the Bears, or even the Blackhawks. He loves them all, and baseball more than any of them. Every year, Jeremy and Jennifer get together to buy him a block of baseball tickets for his birthday – eight different home games in July and August. They even fly out to join him when they can.

Wrigley field is still the most beautiful field in baseball, and the fans there are some of the best in sports. Josh has such a great time, he doesn’t even seem to mind that the Cubs lose every game he goes to see.

Maybe that’s why none of the other fans have noticed, either.

Hardwood Gaming

A friend once told me that it is not so much the big events that our children will remember as they grow, but the longstanding traditions.  For me, the best-held tradition is without question Sunday dinner. I don’t mean the meal, though my food preferences still lean towards the New England style I grew up with.  I refer instead to the hour or two of family time I had each week before that meal was served.cribbage

Every Sunday after church, my grandfather came over for dinner.  I don’t recall what my siblings did during those hours, but he and I spent them playing games.  Occasionally it was checkers or something else, but mostly I recall cribbage.  Unless you’re a Red Sox fan, you probably haven’t even seen a cribbage board, but we played endless matches.  As I grew older, I was even able to win some.  And I my head still resounds with the count.

Fifteen-two, fifteen-four, fifteen-six, and a pair is eight.  Fifteen-two, fifteen-four, fifteen-six, fifteen-eight, and a double-double run of sixteen makes twenty-four.  The occasional fifteen-two and let your voice fall.  And once, in all those games, twenty-eight, a single-point short of the perfect hand.  I remember dumping a pair into my grandfather’s final crib in the hope that I could count out before he ever got to see them, knowing that as dealer he was guaranteed at least one point for last card.  It was strategy.  It was probability.

It was relationship.

My children grew up a hundred miles or more from their grandparents, and we never made Sunday dinner a tradition. Sandwiched between homework and the press of outside commitments, even our family supper hour is rushed.   And we stopped playing games back when Arthur and Candy Land grew old.  Is it because they feel unfairly challenged?  I don’t know, but I’m confident they could beat me today if they had taken up the challenge in their youth, as I did.

It’s too bad Minecraft graphics make me feel nauseous, because that might be the best way to interact with the next generation these days.

Exercise Beyond Futility

Frank used to be an engineer, like me.  Mechanical.  He worked at the Arsenal years ago, where they built that “bunker buster” bomb that helped win the first Gulf War.  The one where we were the good guys, defending Kuwait from aggression.  He told me his story as we walked the treadmills at cardiac rehab.

It’s what we do at rehab, swap stories.  There are a lot of stories in that room, earned during the active lives of men decades older than I.  Those who aren’t talkers usually have their wives in the waiting room, and I hear stories from them.  I learn how this one had a double bypass; that one, congestive heart failure.  We talk about treatments, and medications, and side effects.  I talk about my stent, and they marvel at how quickly a man can return to full activity after a heart attack these days.  “You look so good,” they say, and I thank them.  What else can I do?

Because I don’t feel so good, some days, and it never feels like full activity.  The nurse said I could push it this week, and I made it up to 4.3 miles per hour for half of my twenty minutes on the treadmill.  4.3 used to be my resting pace, for times when I couldn’t run any farther.  These days, I don’t run at all, and I haven’t even mowed the lawn myself in a month and a half..  I used to get up early on my days off to write; today, I get up early to take my meds, and stay up because I refuse to let my body stop me, even if my efforts lead to no more than a dozen words.

The restrictions placed upon me by the world seem worse by far than those imposed by my body.  I needed a doctor’s note just to return to my desk job, and now I find I will need a second note before they will let me travel by air for a customer meeting.  I monitor my eating of salt, of fats, of cholesterol, not because my blood pressure or cholesterol levels were high before my heart attack, but because people I love will worry if I don’t.  And I take my meds twice a day, every day, without fail, knowing my body will warn me if I forget, because I feel pretty good if I forget.  My heart rate is suppressed, my blood pressure low, and I feel best when they let me drive them back up through exercise.Piper_Super_Cub_N158FJ_02

I am pounding away on the exercise bike when Frank walks up to tell me about his loss.  He used to be a private pilot, he said. The Arsenal had a fleet of planes at its disposal, and they let their Aviation club borrow them for the cost of fuel and maintenance.  Frank describes them for me:  Cessna’s and a Piper Super Cub, and other planes whose names I don’t recognize.  Frank loved to fly, but they won’t let him do it any more. After his heart attack, they wouldn’t let him renew his license.  That seems deeply sad to me, but Frank seems happy just to share his story with me.  And I’m glad he can be happy.

At the same time, I’m not Frank. He is retired, and if he wants to sit and talk, or read, or watch TV, he can do so at his leisure.  I have a job, and a mortgage to pay, and two kids to put through college.  I have twenty years before I get to where he stands today, and stories to write before I get there.  So I’ll write my dozen words, and a dozen more after that.  I’ll go to rehab and work until I can run again.  I’ll work until I can mow the lawn, and shovel snow in the winter, and hike the Adirondacks with my wife.  And I’ll get that second doctor’s note.

I’m going to fly.

Photo “Piper Super Cub N158FJ” by Ad Meskens (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons