Slow Ghosts in the Soft Machine



We live in a state of fear, as represented by the list compiled at phobialistcom.

It’s a long list. Some of the items make sense, like Algophobia, the fear of pain. Some pose a problem more difficult to relate to, like Arachibutyrophobia, the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth.

We all are afraid of something. This blog is about a man named Tark and the thing, not mentioned in the phobia list, that frightened him more than flowers or dust or flutes or bees — loss of awareness and realization — and the disease that brought this on: Alzheimer’s.

Tark’s father had Alzheimer’s, the brain cell killing disease packing a risk factor that doubles every five years after age 65.

The Mind Behind the Eye

When Tark was young he found vintage aircraft from the World War I era fascinating. He collected illustrations and watched newsreel footage of biplanes in action.

Tark’s father was a skilled sketch artist. He would draw pictures of the double-winged aircraft diving in three-point perspective with machine guns blazing.

The son stood next to the father, watching objects take shape and come to life under skilled hands.

Many years later, when Tark’s father was old, Tark’s mother noticed changes in her husband’s behaviour: forgetfulness, mental confusion, and change in personality.

She told Tark, now a grown man with his own family, about this. Tark asked his father to draw a biplane. The old man, too stubborn and proud to admit he had a problem, snatched the pad and pencil from his son.

“I’ll show you, bastard!” the old man shouted.

Tark nodded, he knew this wasn’t his father speaking, it was someone else. A diminished version of the man.

Tark’s father sat down. He set the graphite on the paper. The old man looked up, tears welling in his eyes. In a moment of clear-eyed lucidity, Tark’s father said, “I can’t do it.”

From that moment on, the old man realized he had a problem.

Tark’s father passed away three years later.

Into the Brains of Mice

Years later, Tark approached age sixty-five. Fear of losing awareness compelled the old man to challenge his mind, eat a healthy diet, and exersise on a daily basis.

Other member’s of Tark’s family had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Tark felt the odds were against him and he was powerless to stop the runaway train leaving the tracks on a bridge while it was on fire.

One day, Tark happened to see a documentary about research being done by Cornell University. Scientists bred lab mice to be born with Alzheimer’s. Once the mice were full grown, a piece of their skull was removed and a glass insert put in its place. The mice were put under powerful Photon microscopes. Cameras recorded video of blood flowing through tangled networks of branching veins, arteries, and capillaries.

Tark got on his computer and put in the url of the citizen scientists website: He registered and worked his way through the calibrated video clips designed for new users.

Stall Catchers is a game: the object is to observe blood flow over time through layers of brain tissue, averaging three to four seconds. In the fluid, small dark spots, actual blood cells, move along passages lit up with radium. The object of the game is locate and mark cells that don’t flow.

On the second day Tark logged in, he was given real movies to watch. After thirty minutes, Tark imagined he was a big cat on the African plain, stalking a herd of wildebeests. When he saw a calf, weak and sick, fall out of the herd, he would pounce.

This empowered the old man. He no longer felt helpless. He set goals: daily, short term, and long term. The daily goal being to see how many points he could accumulate in one session. The short term goal was to reach the top seat on then daily boards. The long term was to reach top seat on the main leader board, set up another account, and start from zero.

Good luck, Tark.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, Rage, against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas