It was a little after 1:00 AM when Penn, with Rufus’ help, finished the paper from Hell. Even before he began the assignment, Penn loathed epidemiology. Although he effortlessly understood context he learned in his other classes, he struggled with this particular course, often forgetting the difference between incidence and prevalence. Sometimes he had difficulty grasping the epidemiological triad, which modeled the causation of infectious disease. Analyzing at risk populations? Using statistical methods to interpret data? He was lost.*
The task at hand was to analyze factors that might predispose an at-risk population to an acute or chronic disease. He originally thought he would write about the contributing factors for type 2 diabetes mellitus among the Pima North American Indians, but nearly every other student chose the same population and condition. Penn decided to look at cancers that occurred among veterans exposed to Gulf War burn pits. His advisor was impressed but told Penn that this subject would be more appropriate for doctoral-level research. Finally he came up with yet another topic, exploring a relationship between direct exposure to coal dust in a community in which there had been a working mine and the prevalence of lung cancer in a rural area. Penn’s advisor was thrilled but unfortunately, Penn had grown disinterested and lost his enthusiasm. He had an outline and a few paragraphs written, but from there he avoided working on the paper.
Rufus approached the topic from a data-driven perspective. He told Penn that he needed to look at all of the variables first to see if there might be multiple risk factors. Was age a consideration? Years of working in the mines? What percentage of the rural coal miners smoked tobacco and/or cannabis at the present day or when they were actively working in the mines? He explained to Penn that while the assignment was to look at only one factor, he should mention in the paper that these could be confounding variables.
They spent the previous evening munching on pizza, chips, and beef jerky and depleting Penn’s supply of beer and cola while working on the paper. Once Penn got started, he got into a zone in which he was laser-focused on his work. While Penn was working, Rufus said he was playing games on his phone when in fact he was watching roller coaster videos. He only stopped when Penn needed help with statistics.
Finally, Penn finished his paper. Rufus read through it and thought it was good, although he advised his friend to read it one more time to make sure it didn’t need clarification or a little more work. Before he headed home, Rufus told Penn that he had an adventure planned and he should be ready to leave before noon.
Penn slept blissfully. He had pleasant dreams, no nightmares, and he felt remarkably refreshed when he awoke. He finally understood what Rufus always said about feeling satisfied, even euphoric, when he finished a task. All along, Penn thought Rufus could be a little boring because of the attention and sheer energy he put into his work. It was a thrill to invest so much of himself into a project, maybe akin to the adrenaline rush of an extreme roller coaster. Hmmm…
All Rufus had told him was to wear cargo shorts or pants so he could carry his wallet and phone and not lose them. Rufus picked him up at 11:00 AM and didn’t tell him where they were going. Penn was gobsmacked when they drove into the parking lot of California’s Great America. “But you hate amusement rides!” he exclaimed.
“I’m going to give it a try,” Rufus replied. “The other day, when I finished the software project, I realized that it was a huge thrill for me. Perhaps not as dramatic as Drop Tower but exciting nonetheless.”
The first stop was Gold Striker, a coaster that consistently named one of the top ten wooden coasters. “You can do this, man,” Rufus muttered to himself. “You do Bayesian statistics for fun. Linear, nonlinear regression, easy peasy. You can conquer this coaster.” And he did.
The guys hit Orbit, Tiki Twirl, and Gold Striker again. Then they stopped for lunch. Rufus ate sparingly. He wasn’t used to thrill rides the way Penn was, and he didn’t want to overeat before going on any more coasters. Rufus had two tacos while Penn gorged himself on four! After they ate, they walked around the park, trying to figure out what rides they might take next. They decided on Delirium, Demon, Drop Tower, and the Grizzly, another wooden roller coaster. They rode the Railblazer, a single rail coaster, and two floorless coasters, Patriot and Flight Deck. For the last ride of the day, they opted to go to the water park ride. There they found Whitewater Falls, in which a boat of 20 riders ascended a waterfall, then sent water all over the riders and observers when the boat descended. When they were done, Rufus asked Penn to take a picture of him soaked with water. He planned to send it to Ellowyne, and he wondered if she went swimming that day. If only he knew…
*Many apologies for the research jargon. I spent five long years in graduate school and occasionally I like to flex my academic muscles. However, I’m in complete agreement with Penn that statistics is a tough subject! I also share Rufus’ distaste for extreme rides but it’s moot because I have neck and back problems. Couldn’t go on those rides anyway!