|Death, Souls, Parkinson’s and other Strangeness
I am writing about death today, which means that this post veers wildly and widely across a spectrum of fact, truth, myth, and mystery. What follows is a grab bag of stories and memories along with some scientific and philosophical musings about the very thing we do not want to remember, think about, or recount. Throw in some scientific “facts” and a few life experiences about Parkinson’s and you have a complexity that cannot be dealt with as concisely as you might think. In other words, this is a long piece so make yourself some tea or coffee, a salad and/or a sandwich and set aside some time for a journey that may prove to be funny, enlightening, frustrating or all three. I guarantee it will at least make you think.
Can Parkies talk about death?
Some time ago my friend, Anne, asked me what I was thinking about covering next in my blog. I hesitated before answering because I was thinking of writing about “death” and usually there is no way for a Person with Parkinson’s (PwP) to broach this topic without at least some inferences being drawn. But I hesitated for another reason as well. Anne’s husband Tom Jokinen wrote a very informative and wonderfully humorous book on the funeral industry from a perspective as inside as it can get without it actually coming from inside the casket, the crematorium or the ‘great beyond.’ The title Curtains pretty much says it all, capturing finality but leaving room for a curtain call and perhaps…. an encore?
In any case, part of my hesitation to reveal my thoughts was out of respect for both Anne and Tom who must have had a torrid and intimate relationship with death and dying from the moment Curtains was conceived until it was launched. They had undoubtedly explored death to depths that I cannot fathom. I do not want to convey the impression that I understand death. I don’t and I am concerned that my ignorance may diminish the very concept of death for readers who are far more erudite on the matter than I am. That said, I press on unbidden.
The first thing I need to do is to get one major inference out of the way. We have all thought about death. It is part of life and we have all had death in our lives. It can be painful, physically and emotionally. It can also be a release, or a relief, when death is a vehicle that transports pain and suffering to another plane. It is often assumed that PwP, wracked with the pain and psychological battering that a progressively neurodegenerative disease places on our bodies and psyches, wish to hasten the arrival of death. Ergo any mention of “death,” at any time after diagnosis, sends our loved ones and friends scurrying to find counsellors (psychologists and psychiatrists primarily) to divert us from death’s door. They are always on the alert for early warning signs. We PwP have to love them for their concern, but sometimes “a good cigar is just a good cigar” or “it is what it is.” Discussing death does not mean we crave it. And PwP can be as serious, or as flippant, about death as anyone else. We have that right.
In fact, Scottish comedian and entertainer Billy Connelly recently commented about his own diagnosis of Parkinson’s and the diagnosis and subsequent suicide of his good friend Robin Williams by saying that he is not afraid of dying, “It has never crossed my mind that I am gonna die. What is dying anyway? It is just a light going out?”
What I find most interesting about Connelly’s comment is not that he is unafraid of death but that there is a question mark at the end of the sentence about dying being like a light going out. Well, is it? Is it just like a light going out? And does this imply that it has gone out forever or is it like electricity and can be switched on again? Before I started writing this piece, I was adamant that extinguishing a Life Force is permanent and a Life Force cannot be re-established in its previous material form. When you are dead, you are dead. Seems self-evident. Unless of course, you are a young lad playing “cowboys and Indians” [yes, political incorrectness ran rampant in my youth] or the more politically correct “cops and robbers.” You could be shot dead many times and always experience a miraculous re-birth in your previous body and identity by counting to 20 (or ten if you weren’t old enough to count to 20) or by shouting loudly for all to hear, “you only grazed me!” And the game continued.
It is likely not the best idea in the world to use popular culture as a philosophical foundation to carry you through life, but let’s assume for a crazy minute that you wanted to do that. In 1986 The Smiths song, There is a Light that Never Goes Out, describes being broadsided by a double decker bus as “such a heavenly way to die” and that if a ten-ton truck killed us both then, “To die by your side / Well the pleasure, the privilege is mine” culminating with the final line repeating “There is a light and it never goes out.” So, is there a light or not a light? Does it go out or does it stay on?
But let’s back up a few years before The Smiths to the mid-1960s when the notion of an integral relationship between death and birth was reinforced intentionally or unintentionally by Laura Nyro’s lyrics to And When I Die originally released in 1966 by Peter, Paul and Mary and recorded by Nyro herself in 1967. But it was the cover by Blood, Sweat and Tears that made this song wildly popular when they rode it to Number 2 in the charts in 1969. The opening line professed that “I’m not scared of dying” as preparatory reassurance that all will be well, and the chorus provided comfort that the human race would survive in perpetuity albeit with no population growth. We are replaced when we die although not necessarily in identical materiality or spirituality.
And when I die, and when I’m gone
What more could we ask for? As it turns out, we have already asked for a lot more. It seems that humans have spent inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to understand and explain life and death, and what it means to us. In popular culture there are literally tens of thousands of songs, books, plays, and poems written about death. The one song that hits the top of most lists about death is ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ by Blue Oyster Cult 1976. If we include television programs and social media then the total is pushed nearly to the limits of human comprehension. It is almost too terrifying to think about systematically analyzing death, as it seems to be massively overexposed, overrated and …. misunderstood.
But this brings us back to my friend Anne’s question of what I would write about in this blog and my tentative answer, “death.” Because Anne is a thoughtful and generous person and because of the nature of Tom’s book, not to mention the fact that they were moving and needed to ditch cargo, she offered to drop off a box of books on death and dying. True to her word she arrived a week or so later with a selection of titles I could hardly wait to peruse. Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies instantly made me laugh out loud and was included on my list of books to take to the cottage. I have to confess though that it is quite stodgy and academic. Searching for immortality doesn’t seem to be half as much fun as it could be. I am resisting for the moment the temptation to write a parody.
A book of scripts for the Marx Brothers movies: Monkey Business, Duck Soup, and A Day at the Races, probably met the death criterion on the basis of the introductory note by Ken French which addresses comedy and suicide in Woody Allan as well as the likelihood that the famous Marx Brothers provided comic relief for those suffering the ravages of the Great Depression. Or perhaps it is in the grouping because of this exchange between Mrs. Teasdale and Firefly (Groucho) in Duck Soup:
Firefly: Not that I care but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: (mournful) Why, he’s dead.
Firefly: I’ll bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: (proudly) I was with him to the very end.
Firefly: Huh, no wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: (dramatically) I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Firefly: Oh, I see. Then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.
So, maybe there are some funny bits in there but I have never been a huge fan of the Marx Brothers and there was not much here to make me want to not forget the Marx Brothers. [Interesting double negative, eh?]
Perhaps, I am just not in the mood for slapstick comedy because as I write this, we are mourning the death of Sharon Pickle, a member of my Parkinson’s support group. She passed away suddenly from natural causes, shocking us all, because she was fanatical about looking after herself. She was a wonderful role model who has left us far too soon leaving a huge hole in many communities. Among other things, she was a yogi, a cook, a daycare activist, an outdoors adventurer and a person living with Parkinson’s. I am sure her husband and family are devastated.
It is at times like this when it is so very difficult to have a conversation about life and death that is free of caveats and assurances as to one’s own sanity. But that does not constitute sufficient reason to stay silent. In fact, I feel it would be dishonest if I did not write about death in a blog about living with Parkinson’s disease. I am certain that there are very few PwP who have not considered death in a slightly different light post-diagnosis than they did pre-diagnosis. Doctor assisted death/suicide is now part of our lexicon and when spoken aloud draws nods of affirmation from those in the know. At some point I will blog more specifically about this topic but today is not the day.
Death is creepy generally speaking and we come to it (or it comes to us) in various ways, usually unplanned and unexpected. The fact is that over 70 percent of the dopamine producing neurons in the area of my brain known as the substantia nigra had already died by the time I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The death of these cells happened quietly and without fanfare until my brain began to send mysterious and wrong signals to muscles, and muscles began to send wrong responses back to the brain. Whoa! What’s happening to me? I thought: I must be getting old as my gait slowed to the point where a lady in her 70s with a knee brace passed me on my daily walk; I couldn’t smell my favourite foods or detect when the gas burner on the stove was on but not lit [dangerous!]; I had incontinence and constipation issues; I started to shuffle, stumble and lurch when I walked; I felt kind of low more often; I had trouble with simple movements like rolling over in bed; I developed weird muscle cramps where my toes want to curl up or down, or move independently of any conscious direction from my brain; and pain and peripheral neuropathy became, and remain, my constant companion. There are many other symptoms but the list is already too long and I am sure you get the idea. To be direct: loss of dopamine leads to muscle movement disorders with accompanying non-motor complications.
The fact is that cells in our body are dying all the time but they are replaced constantly for the most part. Not so in the substantia nigra. Death of dopamine producing neurons means we must ply the remaining cells with ever-greater amounts of the gold standard treatment, levodopa that is converted into dopamine in the brain. There are other treatments such as deep brain stimulation (DBS) in which electrodes inserted into the brain provide stimuli to block abnormal nerve signals which cause tremor and other Parkinson’s symptoms; the use of “agonists” such as Azilect taken orally or Rotigotine delivered through a skin patch to bypass the blood brain barrier more effectively – both fool the brain into thinking it has more dopamine than it really has and mitigate fluctuations in wearing off; and a new delivery system called the duodopa pump where dopamine in the form of a gel is pumped directly into the duodenum minimizing “off” periods and dyskinesia. Others are in development. Each of these treatments attempts to mitigate or minimize symptoms of Parkinson’s. None of the treatments are cures or can reverse the progressive degeneration of Parkinson’s. More on this sad fact later.
An important thing to remember is that “death,” is most often thought of, if not actually defined, in the negative i.e., as not life, and for the purposes of the general population, this absence of life is easy to detect mostly because the individual has been officially pronounced as dead by a medical practitioner who is trained to detect and measure signs of life. Mistakes in identifying death in animals are unusual but mistakes in declaring death for the plant kingdom are far more common than for humans. Conversely, we don’t tend to think of “life” as being “not death.” Life has its own positive signs aside from being not dead. I tend to think that life and death are not strictly polar opposites.
Of course this begs the question: if death is to exist, must it be defined in the positive, as something other than “not life?” And, if that is the case, does it reside in the same space life resided e.g., does death just replace life in the human body? Is death “evil?” And finally, is there a Soul? I want to know the answers to these questions but I don’t think that my life’s experiences have provided an adequate foundation to understand death. But, just as there are no two PwP who are identical in their manifestations of Parkinson’s, there are no two individuals who have identical experiences with death. Death is a very broad concept and can range from death of brain cells as in Parkinson’s to the death of pets and plants to the death of friends and loved ones – all multiplied by some factor that captures the combinations and permutations of all living interactions? Crazy? Maybe, but let me explain what probably lights up in a scan of my brain when I think about death.
Do young boys know about death, dying and such things?
As a boy playing in and around the small prairie village of Altamont, Manitoba, I was no stranger to suffering, dying and death. Many a spider lost one or more legs to the merciless and senseless torture of small hands, before being put to death (mercifully?) by a well-placed brick, a solid stomp from a worn no name brand running shoe (black canvas uppers, white rubber soles – no Air Jordans, Nike, Reebok, or New Balance,) or the intense insect frying heat generated by a magnifying glass made of a broken shard from the bottom of an old Coke bottle. Rodents – mostly mice or gophers – were dispatched with somewhat more difficulty in traps designed to maim at the very least and optimally to kill. Delivering the final blow to a gopher might involve such skill and technical expertise as dropping a stone on its head such that one or both of its eyes bugged out of the sockets. Images like this stay with one for a lifetime.
Oh man, am I ever digging myself in deep here! Now I am placing myself in with a class of merciless killers – boys, but killers nonetheless. Whatever happened to those words we so joyfully sang in Sunday school?
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures’ great and small.
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
All Things Bright and Beautiful, 1884 lyrics by Cecil Frances Alexander
And what is a small boy to do when he follows the direction of a respected adult elder to perform a mercy killing of a deformed newborn in the litter of a captive pet animal where that newborn was unlikely to survive; that it would not be able to fend for itself to live, or defend itself from predators to avoid death; that it would likely face bullying and harassment, maybe even resulting in death from its own litter mates or a parent? At least that is what we are told.
Experience with death and dying is an intensely private and personal matter of great complexity. Unpacking it is akin to unraveling a very bad snarl in a fishing line caused by a careless cast of the lure without placing the soft but controlling pressure of the thumb on the reel to keep the line from forming a chaotic mess of nylon as it issued forth. Freeing the gnarl might take a seeming eternity and might not be possible without the aid of a trusty jackknife to cut and discard the offending section and then reattach the remainder of the line to the leader, solving the immediate problem but shortening the line by some immeasurable length. The ease with which the knot could be cast aside and the speed at which the task at hand (fishing) could be resumed was so tempting that the remedy requiring patience was seldom followed, especially by young boys.
So, life and death for young boys was often gnarly, knotted and tangled in a mess of confusing hormones and societal expectations. With little or no concern for consequences, we careened carelessly through nature, wreaking havoc on sub-species. It seemed intuitive that the tangle we created could always be excised and set adrift to float outside our orbit, but doing so also limited our ability to deal with each successive instance.
We most often associate death with the elderly dying. As such, it is something sad, maybe tragic, but part of the natural life cycle. It is when it is unexpected or is encompassed in a disguised form that death frightens us. And we learn to be frightened very early in life – it is germane to our survival. But what frightened me most as a child was that dead was dead. We would be no more. I couldn’t have cared less about a possible afterlife in Hell with the Devil or an afterlife of bliss in Heaven. Maybe my Sunday School and religious upbringing failed me, or I failed it more likely, but what I feared was deadness. Truth be told, as children we didn’t know what it would be like to be dead, and we don’t know that now. What we did know was that we didn’t want to be dead, nor do I now.
Am I making any headway in understanding anything here? Read on if you are inclined to wander through the foggy reaches of my past and the pockmarked surfaces of my memory banks, and find out.
The Old Fisherman
The first time I ever saw a dead human body was at the funeral of Mr. Chas. (Charlie) Simpson. To me he was an old man (in his seventies), a retired farmer who lived with his wife, Edna (fondly known as “Simmie” to all the neighbourhood children,) across the back lane and at the end of the block. He was a kindly gentleman and he was my fishing buddy in a kind of Jake and the Kid sort of way when I was a lad of seven or eight. On many weekend mornings in the Spring (fishing was always better in the Spring before the waters of the Pembina River turned murky, dark and dank in the summer heat and the Jackfish – Northern Pike to the pretentious – turned sluggish and lurked listlessly in a few of the deeper recesses of the river, their flesh soft and unappetizing,) I would rise at dawn to make my way across the lane, lunch bucket filled with peanut butter and banana sandwiches, with my dad’s tackle box and my very own rod and reel at the ready to catch “our limit.” We never ever did catch our limit (8) but there were several occasions when I out fished the old fisherman and returned home proudly to display the catch to my mother. Mother was always suitably effusive in her praise but I knew that secretly she hoped I would be shut out so that she would not have to see the fish, much less filet them. As it turned out, my father always filleted any fish I caught until I was old enough, and skilled enough, to handle the sharp filet knife. The photo below shows me with my first big fish caught off the bridge on Hwy 34 south of the “Four Corners” near Swan Lake. Ever since this time, I am amused by how many people fish from bridges that have signs that say “Do Not Fish From Bridge.” Even my father, ever mindful of the law, ignored the sign because if the best place to fish is off the bridge then you should fish off the bridge!
As I said, Charlie Simpson’s body was the first dead human body I ever saw. I was about nine or ten years old when my father told me that Charlie had died or “passed away,” as is the common euphemism for this event. I don’t remember exactly how it transpired but I recall going to the United Church on the day of Charlie’s funeral with my friend Wayne and slipping quietly into the back pew just before the service began. I believe I was there with my father’s permission if not my mother’s. She seemed a bit more concerned about the effect my attendance might have on me. At any rate, Wayne and I strained our necks to peer through the many mourners who crowded the small church, to glimpse the body of my fishing buddy. It was open casket. No one had warned me about this part of the service. I could just barely see the tip of Charlie’s nose that, from the perspective of a small boy, I had always thought to be uncommonly large. And I could sort of make out his fleshy lips – lips I most often saw caressing his pipe, carefully filled and tamped by tobacco stained fingers, lit with a wooden Eddy match sparked to life under his thumbnail, and capped with an old aluminum lid from a pepper shaker. I witnessed this lighting up ceremony hundreds of times.
However, I had never been witness to funereal rituals. My friend and I did not know what do as the service drew to an end. Without a word between us, in one spontaneous movement we decided to make a run for it out the entrance door. But some kindly and well meaning pallbearer (a farmer no doubt) cut us off in the aisle as he would a pair of skittish calves, arms extended out and down from his sides, hat in one hand, shooing us up the aisle toward Charlie, pasty as he was, in the open casket. One secret of herding cattle you need to know is that they head for daylight, and the only daylight to be seen was past the casket and to the right where a side door left the church. We galloped across in front of Charlie’s casket as fast as our hooves could carry us to the safety of the outdoors, but not before I stole one last, fast look at the fisherman. I saw him, or at least I saw his likeness, his visage … but I knew he wasn’t there. His Spirit, his Soul, his Being, his Life Force, whatever you want to call it, had departed the day he rose from the supper meal he shared with “Simmie”, went to relax on his sofa and passed away peacefully, leaving me only with memories of pleasant times on the river bank, the strike of a fish on a well-cast lure, and the dipping of the bobbin as a fish nibbled the bait. These experiences and occasional contextual remembrances were triggered mostly by the unlikely combination of peanut butter and banana sandwiches eaten with fishy fingers adorned with shiny fish scales.
Fast-forward a few years to a time when I was hitchhiking from Winnipeg to Altamont. [Note: I do not condone hitchhiking now but that is what we did in those days.] In any case, one sunny morning, I was thumbing on Highway 3 just south of Carman, Manitoba, near the cemetery where my maternal grandparents now rest. A hearse from Doyle’s Funeral Chapel was approaching and I thought, what the heck, I will just leave my thumb out. The black Cadillac limousine passed without any indication that it might stop and I turned to trudge on my way. But after a devilishly longish moment, it slowed, coasted without braking to a halt on the gravel shoulder of the highway, and waited patiently for me to catch up.
I opened the front passenger door to speak to the driver dressed in his black formal funeral attire with white shirt and black tie. He let me know that he never stops for hitchhikers but he is making an exception just this one time. I was not sure whether to be encouraged by this declaration as I was at that point reconsidering this unexpected invitation for a ride in a hearse.
He asked me where I was going. I said “Altamont,” and he said, “Well son, this is your lucky day. That’s where I am heading.” It seemed like a good fit so I jumped into the front passenger seat. We exchanged a few pleasantries and I looked a little nervously over my left shoulder and asked if there was anyone riding with us in the back. He replied somewhat mischievously, “Would it make any difference if there was?” Never one to miss an opportunity to be a smart ass, I quipped, “Well, it seems I am riding in the front seat, so it doesn’t much matter to me then, does it?” At that point the driver knew he had me hook, line and sinker to use a well-worn fishing cliché and like any good fisherman, he proceeded to set the hook firmly. “Yes, there is someone riding along with us today” and he let several miles of road pass in silence. As we made the turn onto Highway 23 at Jordan, I couldn’t stand it any longer and I quietly inquired, “so who is in the back?”
“Mrs. Simpson,” he replied. Now, let it be known that Mrs. Simpson was her own person and has her own legacy in our village. My sisters knew her as “Simmie,” the neighbourhood babysitter, surrogate grandmother, baker of delicious cookies and other good things, and I knew her as the wife and then widow of my aforementioned fishing buddy, Charlie.
I sat in silence, slowly contemplating the magnitude of what was occurring. On her last ride, Simmie seemingly had just compelled the driver of this hearse, on official business with corpse in the casket, to ignore company policy and offer a seat to an unidentified, bearded and shaggy haired hitchhiker in the hearse transporting her remains to their shared village where a funeral service would be performed before her final Peace. I maybe should have felt privileged and honoured that “Simmie” was charitable enough to assist me in this small way on my travels, but, at the time, it was mostly a little creepy, and as young men often do, I later made light of the situation publicly rather than fess up to my ignorance on matters relating to life and death – or maybe more appropriately to matters relating to the Soul.
We were now past the small village of Rosebank and coming up upon the cemetery just east of Miami, Manitoba where the remains of my paternal grandparents lay in rest. There is a stone in that plot with my name on it – to commemorate the life of my uncle, my namesake, who was killed in World War II at Ortona, Italy where his life is also commemorated. I have to admit that even to this day it is a little unnerving to see a grave marker with your name on it, especially with such a close connection.
The driver again broke the silence by asking, “Did you know Mrs. Simpson well? As I said, I have never before stopped for anyone when I was carrying the dearly departed.”
I had no immediate answer. I was floating in a reverie created by the smooth ride of the Cadillac and my thoughts of an uncle I would never know – an uncle whose memory and death never failed to bring tears to my father’s eyes.
After another fairly long silence we were passing the corner to Deerwood near where Charlie and Simmie farmed for many years and (would you believe it?) actually rented the farm of my great grandfather Henry Moorhouse from 1928-1932. I summoned the wherewithal to break the reverie of the sumptuous ride to venture, “Yes, I knew her quite well as she lived across the back lane from us when I was a young lad.”
The last few miles flew by and we turned down the road east of Altamont taking us close to the peaceful cemetery where the ashes of my own parents now rest, before turning west to stop in front of the United Church. Just as I looked over to thank our driver (Simmie’s and mine) for the lift, he nodded, smiled and remarked wryly, “I wager that Mrs. Simpson was keeping an eye out for you.” To this day, I am not sure whether the driver knew that her husband Charlie had one glass eye – so they probably both had an eye out for me.
[OK, at this point I give you permission to groan at my most inept, and inappropriate, attempt to incorporate humour as a literary device to bring this anecdote to a conclusion … but it is not quite closed.]
I never saw the funeral driver again as pallbearers and friends of the Simpson family met the hearse at the church and I was distracted by those looking askance at me as I exited from the Cadillac’s passenger door and beat a hasty retreat along Main Street, disappearing into the Post Office building owned by my father. I don’t recall the conversation with my dad about this strange occurrence but I do know that I never went to the funeral service for Simmie even though it was happening at that very moment just a few short steps to the west. It was not out of disrespect that I did not attend, but I already had my moment with Simmie even though I was pretty certain she wasn’t in that shell of a body anyway. It was vacant. She had departed. But I did feel that her Soul was somewhere. But where was that?
Yeah, I know this sounds really hokey, but hokey or not, Mr. and Mrs. Chas. Simpson are playing a central role in my attempt to understand the ‘dead is dead’ philosophy of death. At the moment they are not supporting it.
Where is that Bert Guy Anyway?
I witnessed my own father’s death, his very last breath if that is how we measure end of life. My sister Colleen, my mother and I sat with dad at his hospital bed in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, as his breathing grew more and more shallow. My sister reports that earlier that day a little (and I mean “little” literally) nun appeared as if out of nowhere and sat with dad, rosary in her hands, softly singing, praying. It was calming and peaceful. Almost as quickly as she appeared the little nun disappeared and dad’s breathing continued on its soft downward spiral of shallowness. My sister, a former nurse, remarked that it would not be long. Hospital staff respected our privacy and my mother took one last opportunity to run her hands lovingly over the entirety of my father’s face, cheeks sunken but whiskered, and kissed his non-responsive lips as she whispered that she would next see him with her parents, Bill and Minnie, and her brother Jim (oh, how my mother longed to see her brother in an afterlife.) My parents had not shown a great deal of open, public affection for each other in their lifetimes, and I felt a bit like a voyeur as I witnessed this one last moment of intimacy, a moment that touched me greatly.
With my sister and mother on the left hand side of the bed and me at the foot, my father continued his slow demise until finally his mouth opened and with one last great final gulp of air, his breathing stopped. We spent a brief moment in silence before my sister took my mother to a grieving lounge close by. I stayed behind for a moment, and turned to say what I hoped would be some last, meaningful and profound words to my father. The few words I managed to utter disappeared, incomplete and without meaning, as if into a void, as I realized that I was alone in that hospital room, very alone, spookily alone, alone alone. He was gone. An empty vessel lay where his living body had been. Passed away. Passed on. Crossed over. Died. Dead. Departed. Popped off. Six feet under. Bought the farm. Checked out. Carried out feet first. Carried out in a pine box. Finito. Croaked. Pushing up daisies. Bit the dust. Kicked the bucket. No longer with us. Out of his misery. In a better place. A goner. Toes up. Tits up. Gone to his just reward. Gone to heaven. Deader than a door nail. Met his maker. Joined the heavenly choir. Shuffled off this mortal coil. And the list goes on. Death expressed through euphemism most certainly seems final. Perhaps, ‘dead is dead’ after all?
Years later I made some comment about my father, Bert, to my mother who was by then in the early stages of dementia, and she replied, “Where is that Bert guy anyway? I haven’t seen him around for awhile.” I knew exactly what she meant.
In my early 20s I was living in a student’s Cooperative in a building called The Madison at 210 Evanson St. in Winnipeg. I shared a room with my friend R.W. in what was the old nurses’ residence of the Grace Hospital. Technically, you were supposed to be a student to be entitled to a room and meals – breakfast (make your own), bag lunch (pack your own), and a dinner/supper meal, usually hot and prepared by a cook. Food supplies were provided and left in the basement kitchen area for consumption in the adjoining dining hall. The cooperative was managed and operated by a collective, the structure of which I was not terribly interested in at the time and am only mildly interested in today. The occupancy rate was typically less than one hundred percent so accommodation was usually available to non-students.
The whole political and social environment was … well … quirky to say the least. A mixture of students with left leaning values; students who were still searching for any kind of values and changed them every hour, day or week; students who were students and wanted to be left alone; non-students both employed and unemployed with a similar wide range of values and political orientations; and draft dodgers escaping the reach of Uncle Sam’s army and bringing with them a strange ideological mix of pacifism, democracy, individualism and hippy peace loving into the collective environment of the cooperative.
Meetings of the membership, board and residents were eye openers for me – a young rube from the country. I had never witnessed such process and antics in my life to that point. However, regrettably I have since then, many times! The politics of cooperatives is not always compatible with Marxism, Marxist – Leninism, communism, socialism, social democracy, anarchism or humanitarianism to name but a few political and ideological factions. One thing was clear though: a major point of contention was the ongoing battle to keep the kitchen clean with dishes washed after meals. A weekly rota was posted delineating which floors had responsibilities for each day. The rota was regularly ignored and duties performed haphazardly, if at all. The kitchen area was often filthy but fell just short of rotten food and cockroaches thanks to the diligence of some residents who covered up for laggards by doing the work themselves. It was a classic individual solution to a collective problem, saving the collective from itself.
Let’s be clear here though. I am not saying cooperatives or collectives cannot work. I believe they do but it is not my intent here to convince you of their many merits. What I am saying though is that diversity of political values and lack of commitment to a common vision of a collective social order, coupled with questionable cleanliness habits of youth and others who never matured, spells trouble.
The resulting fireworks at residents’ meetings featured politics as a smokescreen behind which to hide deficiencies and inefficiencies. It was worthy of charging admission. What would start out as an argument about who was supposed to clean up the kitchen and dining area after breakfast often ended up as an argument about who was the most progressive politically. Many a discussion was shut down by such scintillating and scathing commentary as: “I was a socialist before your asshole was the size of a shirt button…. You asshole!” – playing the age/experience card if not the “big assholes are always better than small assholes” card.
Permit me an aside here: Don’t you think that digression is both my best and worst trait? I apologize but the segue into death in the cooperative is not easy as no death actually occurred within the Cooperative at the time that I lived there. However, astute readers will know that The Madison fell on harder times approximately 40 years later in 2007 when police shot and killed a resident who had fatally stabbed another resident and in 2008 a methamphetamine lab was discovered in one of the suites in the building. By that time it seems that a not-for-profit corporation providing low-cost room and board to seniors and people with mental and physical disabilities was running the complex. It had clearly fallen far from the more principled intentions of the Student’s Cooperative.
In my day, the most serious infraction at The Madison was that eggs and pancakes were left to adhere like glue to the frying pans and pots in the kitchen. Hardly enough aggravation to warrant a death sentence. Nevertheless, it was a death sentence indeed that provided the real connection to death – one that has never left me. Let me explain.
R.W. and I developed a routine during times when we were other than gainfully employed. My political, sociological and philosophical education was greatly enhanced during these times and I learned to deliver acerbic, barbed retorts in hot, beery debates in a variety of settings, legitimate and otherwise. Being a little short of cash we scouted out several breweries that provided one or two free beers to patrons who attended their “hospitality” lounges. Labatts, Molson, Carling, O’Keefe, and Pelessier were the major breweries vying for market share at the time. Readers will recognize that much rationalization in the corporate beer sector has taken place since then, and today craft breweries, non-existent in those days except as illegal private home made brew, have created their own market niche. Just a fraction of a percentage point difference in market share translated into $ millions then, just as it does today, and breweries tangled head to head for precious brand loyalty. Corporate representatives descended into many local “beer parlours” buying rounds for the house on crowded, but not too crowded, Saturday afternoons. The representatives were really only supposed to buy one or two rounds but occasionally they became embedded in the clientele along with a local or NHL old-timer hockey hero. In those cases beer flowed freely and frequently and patrons in that particular hotel, or at particular tables in that particular hotel, felt that they had hit the mother lode. Hospitality lounges at the site of the brewery were one of the other marketing ploys. The rooms were open to those who were taking tours of the brewery, businessmen (and they were all men) who had contracts with the brewery, long time employees and retirees who met to have a few draught and shoot the shit with their buddies, and to those of us in the general public who happened to uncover this little secret – a couple of free beers if you played your cards right.
But R.W. and I were never motivated solely by the promise of free beer. No, we were much more civic minded. We would head down to City Hall to catch magistrate’s court at 10:00 a.m. with it’s plethora of parking tickets, moving traffic violations, small claims, offences against property and persons, lawsuits of various types, and liquor and drugs offences. We became friendly with bailiffs so that we would know which magistrates were most likely to hear the most interesting cases, and which magistrate’s docket was not to be missed that morning. Justices Ian Dubienski, Isaac Rice, and Harold Gyles were all on the bench and each had his own way of dealing with not only the alleged offenders but also the lawyers who appeared in their courtrooms. For those who dared to represent themselves without benefit of legal counsel the first lesson usually was that Magistrates were to be addressed as “Your Worship” and not “Your Honour.” Remember this was long before the days when television discovered (some would say created) the attraction of watching reality court shows such as The People’s Court with Judge Joseph Wapner or Judge Judy with Judy Sheindlin. In the Winnipeg courtroom, live and in colour, Judges Dubienski, Gyles and Rice were our judicial role models and they never failed to provide added value to our education.
So it was that I was introduced to the protocols, traditions, and sometimes but not often, the niceties of criminal court, without being charged myself, appearing before the Magistrate in clothes stinking of booze and puke from the previous night. I had the privilege of observing class, race and gender at work in the courtroom pretty much as a ‘fly on the wall’ rather than an active participant, which I am ashamed to admit I could very well have been on many occasions. If I may be permitted a short (and probably bad) allegory to explain, sometimes the difference between being a ‘fly’ and being a ‘cockroach’ is infinitesimally small and separated only by good fortune rather than genetics or good bloodlines. I often reflect upon those courtroom dynamics as I try to understand how institutional and societal inequalities and discrimination are solidified and perpetuated, or sometimes overturned or nudged on a new course. The seemingly ad hoc, informal and somewhat voyeuristic approach R. W. and I took to entertainment shaped and heightened my awareness of social, political and economic relationships in a way that no amount of ‘book – learning’ could ever have done.
But back to free beer – look, while free beer may not have been the prime motivation for our self-directed program of education, it did play a close secondary role – and I recall that the Carling’s Brewery hospitality lounge was often open by 11:30 a.m. and was located at Redwood and Main not far from the City Courts building. If magistrate’s court did not quench our thirst in our quest to understand the nexus of social, economic and political affairs, we hightailed it to Carling’s to plan the afternoon itinerary over a cold draught. We discussed various legal matters from the morning and reviewed any intelligence we had on the afternoon cases at the Court of Queen’s Bench on Broadway Avenue starting at 1:30 p.m. The Court of Queen’s Bench adjudicates the most serious of criminal and civil cases along with family court matters. Needless to say we weren’t ever permitted to observe family court matters and I don’t recall us ever wanting to witness those proceedings. We did however want to observe murder trials and other crimes of fraud or high finance and we scrutinized newspapers and court listings in the Law Courts building to finalize our plan.
If there was nothing of interest at Court of Queen’s Bench we knew there were hot political issues that would make Question Period at the Legislature, virtually across the street from Court of Queen’s Bench on Broadway a more exciting option at 2:00 p.m. In that case we were more likely to seek sustenance at the Labatt’s Brewery right across from the Legislature at Osborne and Broadway. The newly elected Ed Schreyer New Democratic Party government guaranteed lively questions from the opposition to this first social democratic government in Manitoba. We followed provincial politics very closely, studying the machinations of the media and the parties alike. R.W. was ravenous in his desire to study and understand provincial politics. His working class and union background was the perfect breeding ground for political action and analysis. His influence on me in these matters was considerable and I respect and value his views and analysis to this day.
And the socio-political terrain of the time was rich (some would say rife) with politicking, maneuverings, and dissension. The NDP won a victory that was not well accepted by many Manitobans and the divide in the population seemed to run approximately on a diagonal line from the southeast corner of the province through the City of Winnipeg to the northwest corner with everything north of this line voting NDP and everything south voting Conservative or Liberal. But there was no unanimity within the NDP either. Some supporters felt the party was too conservative under Schreyer and that the working class agenda for change had been abandoned. I suppose this group felt their skepticism was warranted when Schreyer accepted to be Canada’s Governor General in 1978 upon the recommendation of then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. The Winnipeg-based socialist magazine Canadian Dimension published a cartoon that had Schreyer saying, “The working class can kiss my ass; I’ve got the Governor General’s job at last.” He later became Canadian High Commissioner to Australia before finishing his rather strange career with an electoral loss for the NDP in the 2006 federal election.
On the other side of the political spectrum within the NDP, Mel Watkins, James Laxer and Robert Laxer led the radical Waffle faction formed in 1969. The only member of this faction to actually hold a seat in the legislature, Cy Gonick, was a strong vocal supporter inside and outside of the Legislature. The normal flow of NDP policy conventions was disrupted as the Waffle caucused, effectively in some cases and not so effectively in others, to have policies calling for an independent socialist Canada adopted. I witnessed this as a delegate of the Fort Rouge NDP to the Convention in 1970 or thereabouts but I was too naïve (still the country bumpkin) to know what was afoot and what was at stake. However, I still recall with awe the moment federal NDP Leader Tommy Douglas entered the ballroom of the Fort Garry Hotel to address delegates. It was electric, and his speech was delivered extemporaneously with such passion that I could not understand how most of the electorate could not understand.
A few short years later, labour leaders led the charge to disband the Waffle and it ceased to exist in any meaningful way beyond 1974. I raise these matters not to argue or analyze either the contributions or the negative impacts of such a nationalist movement with the NDP but to point out that it was a turbulent time within the politics of the left in Manitoba. It gave R.W. and me much to digest, talk about and argue over. I have recently reconnected with R.W. after many years and I suspect we will pick up some of this discussion once again. In retrospect, it is no wonder that we sought out entertainment and enhanced our education in the gallery of the Manitoba legislature watching a political movement seeking its path in unchartered waters. [I will return to other personal stories about my ‘small p’ political life in a future post.]
I guess I had better get back to The Madison and why it has such a prominent place in both my recollection of events involving death and in my attempt to understand what happens to a person’s Soul when one dies.
Consider this: On June 26, 1970 (my 21st birthday coincidentally) a police officer, Detective Ron Houston, was killed near the Stradbrook Hotel in Winnipeg. It was a hotel I frequented often with my friends, as the aforementioned Students’ Cooperative in The Madison was not far away at 210 Evanson St. A certain Thomas (Tom) Shand was also a resident of The Madison and after several days as a fugitive Shand was arrested for the alleged stabbing and murder of Det. Ron Houston. [It was later revealed that a scuffle ensued in the initial attempt to apprehend Shand and Det. Houston’s revolver came free and was used by Shand to fire a shot at Det. Houston. It is not clear that the shot actually hit Det. Houston and the likely cause of death was the stab wounds from the knife that Shand carried to slit screens during his night time forays through residential neighbourhoods.] In the days immediately prior to his arrest, Shand sought refuge with friends who did not live at The Madison and after consultation with a lawyer he was convinced to turn himself in to the RCMP to avoid immediate, rough, retaliatory justice at the hands of the City of Winnipeg Police.
So Tom Shand was known to us – slightly – but known nonetheless, and of course, as soon as the news of his arrest broke, the hallways of The Madison were buzzing with chatter about who knew what? What had happened? And how close were you to Tom Shand? Social and gossip credibility value increased exponentially with frequency and intensity of contact with the alleged killer. One young woman took the prize, as she had been on a date with Shand a short time earlier. To paraphrase her when she learned the news, “Holy fuck, he was in my room!” How close they really were was never fully revealed and it matters not. What does matter is that these events lead to one specific moment in time that is indelibly etched upon my mind.
The death of Det. Houston, tragic though that was, is not the death that is germane to this story. Tom Shand, it was alleged, was skulking that night between two apartment buildings when he was approached by Det. Houston investigating a peeping Tom (yes, no kidding) who was also a rapist. Shand, in his defence, claimed that he had been involved in a poker game that had ended badly and he thought Det, Houston was one of the other players out to rob him of his poker winnings. Interestingly, many of the residents at the Cooperative were more disturbed by the fact that Shand was accused of being a peeping Tom and rapist than with the possibility that he killed a police officer.
The wheels of justice turned quite quickly after Shand’s arrest on June 29, 1970. He was committed to trial with the case to be heard October 5 -15, 1970, Court of Queen’s Bench, Justice John M. Hunt presiding. R.W. and I made a conscious decision to be in the spectator seats for as many trial dates as we could and we exercised much discipline to be there on time. Once or twice we did make eye contact with Shand and occasionally with other acquaintances in the courtroom. I don’t recall any conversation or discussion with any of those individuals. Shand was found guilty and remanded for sentencing on October 10, 1970. Of course we decided we had to be in attendance at the sentencing.
I anticipated that sentencing would be routine and that I would not feel much of anything when it was completed. Boy, was I wrong! I don’t recall most of the preamble or reading of the charge but the words enunciated so clearly by Justice Hunt echo in my mind to this day. “Thomas Shand, you shall be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to a place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you be dead. May God have mercy upon your Soul.” Concise, simple, clear direction that would end a man’s life. I had now witnessed first-hand the threat of death by the state as retribution for the killing of a police officer, a crime which carried the mandatory death sentence.
In finding Shand guilty the jury did not make any recommendation as to clemency and his initial date of execution was set for June 10, 1971, not quite a year from the day he murdered Det. Houston. Predictably, Shand appealed to the Supreme Court putting the execution momentarily on hold. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal on November 30, 1971 and the execution date was rescheduled a second time to March 8, 1972. But Thomas Shand was not hanged as his neck was snatched out of the noose on February 24, 1972 by Order in Council of the government of Pierre Elliot Trudeau commuting his sentence to life imprisonment. Those who favour capital punishment will say that the wheels of justice stopped turning that day. I do not share that view nor do most Canadians. No hanging has occurred in Canada since December 11,1962 when Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin were hanged together at the Don Jail in Toronto. The debate on capital punishment in Canada today is not one that simmers or rages. It merely exists quietly without force or fury.
For his part, Thomas Shand served the mandatory part of his life sentence, was released from prison, and ended his life by hanging himself on November 7, 1985.
For my part, Shand’s sentencing in the hushed Winnipeg courtroom is seared forever in my audio memory as evidence of our capacity to execute (pardon the use of both ‘execute’ and ‘pardon’ in this sentence) unspeakable acts upon our peers. Not so far away from the actions I knew so intimately as a young boy. But no amount of childhood playing at cops and robbers, or desensitization to death by killing bugs or rodents, or watching farm animals being sent to the slaughter, or studying military battles and mourning war dead, prepared me for that moment when a man was sentenced to die, deliberately, purposefully, legally, by the very hand of another human. The sheer enormity of this decision, this threat, this action, overwhelmed me. I was neither friend nor family of Tom Shand. I barely knew him. But in that moment of sentencing both Shand and the State reeked equally of barbarism, and it startled me.
The rational part of my brain wants to reason that Shand had a Soul that was integral to his being until he committed suicide. Thereafter his material body existed only as momentary testimony to the fact that it had one day been inhabited by a Soul. But … there are always more questions than answers. Hadn’t Tom Shand’s Soul had been given an eviction notice when he was sentenced to hang? Or perhaps, arguably, such notice is illegitimate in that it was delivered by a Soulless state? If Tom Shand’s Soul persisted past the time of his death by suicide, where did it go? To rehabilitation perhaps?
Whew! I think it is time to change gears and move on to something else – like – what – more murder?
Murder in the Garden
Death and gardens go hand in glove. Flowers adorn graves. Wreaths are laid against memorials and monuments. Masses of slimy annuals are cruel evidence of an untimely frost. Faces of daisies shine brilliantly until they beg to be deadheaded by the gardener. Early birds catch worms; insects provide fodder for chickadees, robins, nuthatches, woodpeckers, purple martins, and many other birds; and mice and voles are favourite meals for owls, hawks and falcons. In colder climates, tropical bougainvillea and mandevilla are sacrificed as annuals to provide showy colour until the very last second of good weather when they succumb to Jack Frost’s killer bite. Some gardeners go to great extremes to protect tender species of roses and fruit trees by laying them down and burying them under the earth, covered with straw, cheating Mother Nature by intervening in her genetic predetermination that they should die in a zone 3 climate. Plants die providing compost turned into rich humus and bountiful growth in subsequent years. If it is safe to do so, we are encouraged to leave dead trees standing (called a snag) as hosts for insects and dining rooms for woodpeckers. I haven’t counted but I am sure there are thousands of different ways to itemize and examine death in the garden. This does not particularly bother us and we let such events pass with little if any thought, never mind consternation.
I am now confessing that I, along with an unnamed accomplice, conspired to commit murder in the garden. It happened many years ago when our children were much younger and consequently much more impressionable than they are now. I worry about the effect that my actions have had upon them. You see, I was eating a grapefruit one day when I noticed the pip had a small greenish yellow growth emanating from it. I reflected upon my very first school scientific experiment conducted in Miss Mary Armitage’s Grade One class. [Yes, it was Miss and not Ms. in those days and there was no kindergarten – junior, senior or otherwise. I know, I have been greatly disadvantaged as a result.] The experiment was to have a bean germinate by placing it in a jar with a damp tissue. It matters not whether the jar is in light or dark. After a few days, white roots begin to emanate from the bean and a small green leaf emerges from the opposite side. Germination is complete and all we need to do is plant the geminated seed in soil and tend as normal. Since the first steps had already been completed I just shoved the grapefruit seed into some soil in a very small pot and placed it in the kitchen window, watering it occasionally. It grew a few inches that summer, lay dormant for the winter months and continued its upward growth trajectory the following spring.
The tiny grapefruit tree enjoyed the next few years, repeating a cycle of joyful basking in the sun accompanied by new growth and vigour in the summer and a period of virtual dormancy in temperatures not far above freezing causing some of its leaves look slightly sickly. I hasten to point out that we did not coddle the grapefruit. It mustered and stored enough strength in the summer to see it through the long Ottawa winters.
I am not certain as to how any years passed but the grapefruit continued to grow vigorously. It spent the warm weather summers out on our patio enjoying the natural rainwater in its roots and the wind blowing through its leaves. It forced us to free its root bound mass from its too small pot several times, transplanting it each time to a new pot larger than the last. The tree outgrew its spot in the bow window in the kitchen, graduating to a spot on a side table in the family room, before landing in on the floor of our family room next to my favourite easy chair. Each summer we wrestled the taller and leafier tree in a larger and heavier pot through a patio door that had suddenly become too small.
The grapefruit of course never flowered or bore fruit. We made no effort to see if it could, leaving it to its own devices. Nevertheless, there was one occasion when it appeared that it had fruit. I love kumquats and was relaxing in my easy chair enjoying each explosion of orangey tartness as I popped the expensive little fruits into my mouth. I thought it might be fun to stick a few kumquats on the spikes of the grapefruit tree. Yes, they have quite long almost lethal spikes that attacked me on more than one occasion as we ferried the tree to patio and back each year. The kumquats looked as if they belonged. I waited and it wasn’t long before a couple of children took the bait and excitedly announced that the grapefruit tree had baby grapefruit! Of course, it also wasn’t long before they reasoned, smart children as they are, that this was a small joke initiated by their father. They are smart children because they learned very early in life to question everything I said or did. They learned that I was not above stretching the truth or testing their credibility. True or not, I believe it is necessary in life to develop a critical point of view. Never accept anything at face value. It may not be what it seems. The little kumquat/grapefruit joke was one of those occasions. Some children still remember it, somewhat begrudgingly if not fondly.
One spring it became clear that the grapefruit tree had a strong desire to reach its genetically pre-determined height of 40 feet or more. It strained to push its way through the 10-foot ceilings of our family room. Its failure to push a hole in the ceiling resulted in the upper most branches bending back in an attempt to grow with its head upside down. Something had to be done. Cutting a hole in the ceiling was not an option. It was then that my accomplice (still unnamed) and I conspired to murder the grapefruit tree.
After the last chance of frost that spring we moved the grapefruit outside but instead of leaving it on the patio to sunbath, we freed its roots from the still too small pot and placed it in a hole dug situated specifically to ensure maximum sunlight. To say the grapefruit flourished would be an understatement. It was now free to send its branches upwards and outwards as far as it could reach. It was now free to send its roots downwards and outwards as far as they could reach. Freedom is such a …well … freeing feeling. The grapefruit’s leaves were a healthy green not seen before and the branches seemed to wave a heartfelt thank you in the breezes. It was a glorious summer for grapefruit but we knew it would end, and it would not end well.
The grapefruit never really knew what hit it. Murder is often that way – sudden, unsuspected, brutal, and heartless. I watched from the kitchen window as the first hard frost sent the tree into shock. As the days passed, it grew colder and snow drifted through grapefruit’s canopy, its leaves stubbornly refusing to fall. Grapefruit trees are not genetically wired to survive our freezing, bitterly cold climate. I am not sure of the exact time of death for grapefruit but I suspect it was relatively sudden. While I do relish the fact that we were able to give grapefruit one last blast that summer, I feel a distinct sadness that it had to end the way it did – by premeditated cold-sapped murder in the garden by the gardener and his accomplice using the winter’s cold. I wonder if murder is always accompanied by remorse?
Is the Death of Parkinson’s too much to ask?
Parkies are fond of saying, “You don’t die from Parkinson’s but you will die with Parkinson’s.” I am not sure of the origin of this slogan, but It was always one with which I could identify as it helps me understand why Parkinson’s is so insidious. Others such as Kirk Gibson, former major league baseball hero and relatively recently diagnosed PwP, state “It’s (Parkinson’s) not a death sentence. It doesn’t have to be a death sentence. So you start looking at a course of action, and you have to implement it.” Interesting quote from Kirk. The first sentence says that it is not a death sentence. That seems rather definitive, doesn’t it? But then he immediately qualifies it by saying that it doesn’t have to be a death sentence. So it might be a death sentence some of the time but not every time? This may be confusing, or I may be confused, but when you think about Parkinson’s, it is consistent with its insidiousness. It is a long term, chronic (persistent) disease that gets progressively worse. You ought to die from its many symptoms and the increasing severity of those symptoms, but you don’t. Parkinson’s doesn’t even have the decency to kill you.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that I wish Parkinson’s were a deadly disease. I am just saying that the struggle ahead of us is a long one requiring tonnes of willpower, commitment and support to delay the inevitable. But delay it we will with more and better drugs e.g., agonists; better delivery systems for the drugs e.g., duodopa pumps and rotigotine patches; better surgical interventions such as deep brain stimulation (DBS) or non-invasive ultrasound; better exercise and physiotherapy regimes to establish coordination, flexibility and mobility; better technical devices and tools to assist with our postural stability, balance and tremour issues; and continued research and development of neuroplasticity to repair or overcome damaged or forgotten brain – muscle pathways; better therapies to overcome the all too many motor and non-motor symptoms and conditions of Parkinson’s including pain.
As death is the overall general theme of this blog, it may seem self-evident that defeating Parkinson’s necessarily means the death of whatever causes Parkinson’s. Oh, by the way, did I mention that we don’t really know what causes Parkinson’s disease? With that sad truth the road to defeat PD seems infinitely long with many unknown barriers. But there seems to be room for optimism. Many scientists believe that the secret to finding a cure lies in misfolded protein called Prions that do not carry any genetic material. Huh? How can this be? Essentially, scientists believe that Prions can infect, multiply and kill and this is what happens when alpha-synuclein proteins misfold and form clumps of Lewy Bodies in the substantia nigra of the brain resulting in the death of dopamine producing neurons. The resulting dopamine deprived condition is Parkinson’s disease.
So all we have to do is to deal with those nasty misfolded alpha-synuclein proteins. Simple enough, you say? Wait, it seems that we don’t really know why these proteins misfold and after 50 years of research and debate, some scientists are still not convinced that such Prions even exist. Are we a whole lot further ahead? I suppose we are in that science is now focussed on developing a vaccine to kill the misfolded alpha-synuclein as part of a targeted immunotherapy. The Boston Globe, The Beginning of the end? The race for a Parkinson’s cure September 15, 2015 reports that this may be the breakthrough we need. But the most exciting part may be that science has finally turned the corner toward accepting that there are Prion-like diseases that infect, spread and kill. Therefore it should be possible to slow or stop the progress of both motor and non-motor symptoms of PD. This is about as close to saying we are on the road to a cure as damn is to swearing. But why has it taken over 50 years to get to this stage – a stage we think is monumentally ahead of where we were, but still monumentally far away from a cure?
The “stuff” of science is seldom done at breakneck speed. Science plods along for the most part, making small incremental gains that lay the groundwork for other small incremental gains, or sometimes lead to dead ends that are a waste of time and resources. Occasionally there is a breakthrough that sends us light years ahead. Let us hope that the science of Prions is at such a juncture and that the race for a vaccine, and any concomitant financial rewards for such a patent, is the ultimate impetus for success.
Scientific knowledge advances slowly not only because the work of science is most often pedantic and meticulous, but also because it is subject to the forces of politics, the economy, ideology, psychology, and social relations present within society and the scientific community of the time. To understand why Prion science has taken over 50 years to reach a state of “maybe”, read Jay Ingram, Fatal Flaws: How a Misfolded Protein Baffled Scientists and Changed the way we look at the Brain, Harper Collins, 2012. Ingram takes us through the science of Prions from Kuru disease to Creutzfeld-Jakob disease to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) to chronic wasting disease to Alzheimer’s to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to Parkinson’s disease. This book could have just as aptly been entitled, While We Know a Lot, We Don’t Know Nuthin’ Yet.
What does the future hold? As Yogi Berra once said, “It is tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” He is also attributed to be the originator of the more popular truism, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Indeed, predicting the end of Parkinson’s disease is a bit of a mug’s game i.e., it is more likely to end in failure than success. Still, I know some who are adamant that the end is close because there has never been as much research on Parkinson’s in the works as there is now. True, but I fear that it is not the quantity of the research at any given time that is important, it is the capacity to isolate and direct a fatal surgical (or perhaps neuroplastic?) strike at the jugular of the disease.
It’s all about the ‘plasticity’, baby
While many millions of dollars are being expended each year in laboratories around the world to develop pharmaceutical therapies to prevent the development of Parkinson’s, to obviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s, to slow the progression of Parkinson’s, and ultimately to cure Parkinson’s, there is a second approach, neuroplasticity, that warrants discussion.
Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, Viking Penguin 2015 has generated considerable excitement among those seeking non-invasive ways to change and/or heal the brain usually with the application of light, sound, vibration, motion, or electricity.
There are two chapters in this book that are of particular interest to me. The first is on pain and the second is about Parkinson’s disease. As it turns out, I have both. In the first case, a physician (Dr. Michael Moskowitz) uses brain maps of his pain to understand his chronic (persistent) pain. Initially, he focused on the pain in an effort to reduce it but the very processing of that focus resulted in an increase in the intensity of pain because the pain maps enlarge and pain signals are referred to and from other adjacent pain maps. In short, the more the neurons in your brain are activated or trained to fire the more sensitive they become and the more intense the pain becomes. The result is a neuroplastic process called “windup pain” and is described as “plasticity gone wild.”
So, how does one decrease pain if attempts to unlearn pain fail? Ingeniously, he draws three pictures of the brain; the first depicts a brain in acute pain from a specific site on the body; the second drawing is a brain in chronic pain over a larger area; the third shows a brain not receiving any signals of pain and has the smallest area of the three. To make a long scientific story short, whenever he feels pain, he visualizes the three brain maps and determinedly, doggedly, relentlessly imagines the largest area of pain firing in the neurons as shrinking. He tries to “disconnect the network and shrink the map” through visualization techniques. The smaller the area devoted to pain, the less he feels the pain. Moskowitz claims that this is neither pain management nor placebo effect. Rather, it is truly a neuroplasticity technique that reduces pain perhaps to the point of elimination. Seems crazy eh? But, Dr. Maskowitz and others are adamant that it works.
In the Parkinson’s chapter, a South African man, John Pepper, purportedly beats Parkinson’s disease through purposeful or conscious walking. He was diagnosed as early onset and noticed both motor and non-motor symptoms (tremor, lack of coordination, rigidity, constipation, micrographia, freezing, slowness of gait, among others) as early as when he was 30 years old. In his efforts to “normalize” his gait, eliminate his stoop, maximize his arm swing, and lengthen his stride, he considers each movement in explicit detail and moves with concentrated and purposeful precision. He begins to realize that he is controlling his conscious walking with a different part of the brain from the part that controls automatic walking. Doidge postulates that Pepper was “unmasking existing brain circuits that had fallen into disuse” after depletion of dopamine in the substantia nigra rendered automatic movements inoperative, Pepper’s conscious walking technique activates other areas of the brain to bypass this blockage. In this way, old neuropathways that have fallen into disuse can be reactivated and new ones initiated, meaning that many aspects of Parkinson’s can be overcome.
Pepper’s claims were controversial in 2004 and remain controversial to this day. Much is made of whether Pepper’s Parkinson’s was typical or atypical, some sort of variant, etc. I will leave this point and others related to the science behind Pepper’s approach for others to debate. I agree with Doidge that the important instruction from Pepper is that exercise is beneficial in delaying or overcoming Parkinson’s symptoms. Recent studies are adding support to this statement. The big question that remains is whether Pepper’s concentrated, purposive, deliberate, conscious approach to walking constitutes an example of the healing power of a ‘plastic’ brain.
Accounts of brain plasticity, neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to heal itself and reject with finality neurodegenerative disease have me wondering if the death of Parkinson’s disease itself is now possible. Until now, research has focussed on finding the cause and developing a cure alongside pharmaceutical and technical means to alleviate and diminish symptoms and halt advancement. Will we be able to say that death applies to Parkinson’s as much as it apples to every other aspect of life i.e., death to Parkinson’s disease instead of dying with Parkinson’s disease?
If I were a betting man ….
Currently, if I were asked to wager on which approach would bring us closer to nailing the lid on the coffin of Parkinson’s disease, I would gamble that work in the lab with stem cells, Prions and misfolded alpha-synuclein protein has the best chance. Of course, while we may be closer now than we ever have been to that end in the lab, it has taken us over 50 years to reach this point and we are still not certain of the path. Consequently, I seriously doubt that it will happen in my lifetime and I am less certain that it will make a positive medical difference to me personally. Put bluntly, it is too late for me.
On the other hand, if the wager is on which approach will have a better and more immediate payoff for PwP, then I would bet on treatments involving neuroplasticity e.g., physiotherapy, in combination with the development of better drugs, better delivery systems for those drugs (patches, intestinal pumps) and the development of invasive and non-invasive surgical methods such as deep brain stimulation (DBS) and ultrasound. I perceive that these are more likely to have a direct, positive impact on my cohort of PwP and me personally.
What do I fervently wish for? My fondest dream is for science to render Parkinson’s dead through the development of the means to both prevent and cure this insidious disease – a disease that has no Soul but steals Souls with frightening regularity. When it comes to Parkinson’s, mortality is infinitely preferable to immortality. I just what to know what those other life strategies are? The book I rejected as cottage reading is floating back to the top.
The stories recounted here are real and form part of my personal experience. My sole original purpose in telling them was to expose both the complexity and simplicity of death and dying. But wouldn’t you know it; death is funny in that you never know what is simple and what is complex. It is very similar to Parkinson’s disease in this respect.
Any interpretations and observations as to the existence of a Soul, Life Force, Spirit, etc. are strictly my own. I cannot warrant the verity or accuracy of any philosophical or religious reflections that may, or may not, bear resemblance to any organized body of work or thought.
Post Script Script
This could be a Marx Brothers script:
Groucho: (working his eyebrows) Was that a caveat or a cadaver? Has anyone seen an organized body around here… or even a disorganized one?
Zeppo: (Toots his horn)
Groucho (Looking lasciviously at the nearest woman): And, what’s that you say, “Immortality?” I thought you said “immorality” and I am just your man – if I live long enough.
Yogi Berra (hey, how did he get in here?): If you live long enough, it will be “déjà vu all over again.”
Groucho (stealing Yogi’s line): Well then, the future ain’t what it used to be.
Zeppo: (Toots his horn.)
The PD Gardener (now this is getting weird): I never promised you a rose garden…. Wait a minute! I did!
(Groucho works his eyebrows vigorously)
The PD Gardener: I apologize. Earlier, I promised to forget the Marx Brothers. But like bad clichés, they have a way of coming back, and like Parkinson’s they never really die.
(Fade to black)
This is a hastily written post as a very kind article on The PD Gardener written by Louise Rachlis appeared in the June 8 edition of the Ottawa Citizen page C7. I knew it was in the works and that it would contain a reference to my blog, so I thought that perhaps I should have an up-to-date entry here. Of course, things get in the way, and if you have been following my blog at all, you know that it is not a straightforward conversation. There are often many twists and turns, a few dead ends and many questions left unanswered.
Suffice to say that, on the one hand I apologize for not having a current blog post for you to digest. On the hand, I don’t apologize because I have been gardening. The garden exploded with new growth in an accelerated fashion. This Parkie guy had a hard time running to keep up with the pace the plants set. Gardening is, of course, my passion and therapy.
But I have also been doing the equivalent of gardening with Parkinson’s. I have been engaged in a program with my physiotherapists, Sue and Maria, from Action Potential Rehabilitation in an effort to rejuvenate this Parkie’s ability to move with some flexibility in a coordinated and balanced manner. This program starts with LSVT BIG and then challenges me as we move into PWR! It is complemented with twice a week exercise sessions at the Parkinson Society of Eastern Ontario where Dom and Jen put us through our paces and keep us upright and in good physical and mental tone (well, I am working on the physical part anyway.)
These programs provide a mix of sequencing and structured movements specifically designed for persons with Parkinson’s. It pays tremendous dividends in the garden, as I can now work much harder! When you call hard labour “exercise” or “physiotherapy”, it is applauded and encouraged. When you just call it “hard labour” it is to be avoided and replaced with modern technology. In any case, I love this hard labour – whether in the physio clinic, the exercise room or in the garden.
But … there is always a but…. I cannot achieve any goals I set without reliance on pharmaceutical advances. Others may claim they can, but I can’t … or at least not yet. Consequently, I have also been doing some gardening with my drug regimen. Adjustments are always being made. How many L-dopa per day? When to take them? How close to protein ingestion? What agonists to use? And we hope for the best as seldom does each day unfold in the same way as the previous day. I have recently moved to 8 mg of Rotigotine administered through a patch applied each day to one of many rotating sites on my body. It has been an excellent adjustment for me. Don’t get me wrong, it is not perfect and I still have to take levadopa pills but I now have more “on” times than “off” times. Before this it was getting pretty f—ked up.
I am currently reading two books that are providing nourishment for my mind, sustenance for my hopes and fodder for future blog posts and debates. The first, “Where do Camels Belong?” by Ken Thompson challenges us to rethink what we mean by the term “invasive.” Gardeners and environmentalists will either love it or hate it. Watch for references to this book to show up in some of my future blog posts. The second book is “The Brain’s Way of Healing” by Norman Doidge and he challenges us to rethink … well actually to understand and use neuroplasticity to overcome neurological diseases without invasive medical methods. It has a chapter on Parkinson’s that is fairly controversial but deserves to be explored in more detail. In reading these books I have been sowing seeds of intellectual curiosity and cultivating plots where brains heal themselves (a horror story?)
I have also been doing some minor gardening with my family by assisting in the preparation of a family reunion this summer. There are large portions of the family who have never met each other, and some who have never talked to one another for over forty years. There may be historical reasons why these people haven’t talked to one another in such a long time, but there are no good reasons for that to continue. We are looking forward to seeing and hearing what our family tree looks like as we gather near the end of July.
In short, sometimes you just have to garden – and I have been doing that unapologetically in both a figurative and literal sense. I feel all the better for it. Please take a look at the article in the Ottawa Citizen referenced above, read some of my previous entries in this blog, but above all go to my page for SuperWalk 2015 and make a donation to team The PD Gardner at the following link: Team The PD Gardener
Having Parkinson’s disease has made me an “old man” before my time, I am afraid. [And I really am afraid but that is a topic for another time.] Bradykinesia has slowed my stride, altered my gait, and when Parkinson’s is in full attack, makes it painful for anyone to watch me execute even the most simple of movements. I recall being at a breakfast meeting a few years ago, well before any official (or even unofficial) diagnosis of PD, and I was struggling to locate and pull the tab on a small packet of peanut butter when the person sitting beside me (a colleague and a friend) reached over and said brusquely, “Oh for God’s sake, I can’t stand it, just give it to me. I’ll open it.” And she did. I was not offended as I really wanted the peanut butter and it was increasingly looking like I would not be successful in achieving that goal. Other simple things such as the act of pulling on one’s pants (trying to do that easily without losing your balance) are common challenges for us Parkies. I recall hurrying to pull on my tuxedo pants as we were getting ready for my retirement party, stumbling and pulling a hamstring severely enough to cause bruising. I spent most of the party limping around, trying not to admit that I hurt myself dressing! Strangely, getting one’s pants off does not seem to be an issue for me, for some reason. The old saying that “everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time” is meant to equalize the playing field i.e., we all equal at a basic level – except for Parkies, because we often put our pants on “no legs at a time” or “one leg forever at a time.”
Rolling over in bed is still another matter. Most Parkies have difficulty rolling over in bed. I know I did, and still do, so that is why I train and practice this skill in my sessions with my physiotherapists. I kid you not. Not being able to “skooch over” in bed used to drive me crazy and I would regularly complain to Anne, my wife, that I couldn’t believe I was getting so old that I was not able to roll over to get out of bed. At the time, we didn’t know that I had Parkinson’s and it is testament to her patience and understanding (and, I believe, her love for me) that she never actually threw me out of bed during those years. I have heard of other Parkies using silk sheets in order to make it easier to slide along in bed. Having never tried silk sheets, I am not sure if it works, and every time I raise it, Anne just rolls her eyes and says no. Is there some other connotation that I missing here? In any case, I have noticed that when I wear a t-shirt to bed it is much more difficult to roll over and/or reposition myself. Friction holding me back? Sleeping au naturel seems to be the solution, [OK, maybe that is too much information.]
I think I will dedicate a future post to delineating and elaborating on many of these early indicators of my Parkinson’s … but for now, I will only add that rigidity, inflexibility, and coordination challenges have made me less likely to move smoothly or to bend down gracefully to pick up any object from the floor or ground, and a loss of balance has made me walk more unsteadily than I have in the past. That, plus the indisputable fact that I actually am getting older, is culminating in my new persona of “old man.” Note: I hasten to add that my physiotherapists are working very diligently to delay this onset of “old age” and the progression of Parkinson’s, somewhat successfully I believe. I shall write about their heroic efforts in a later blog but for now suffice to say that “old age” is sometimes more of a title than it is a condition.
To illustrate, one of my daughters told me about 15 years ago that the kids on our street call me “old man Marshall,” bestowing upon me, at the then grand old age of 50, the same moniker that children in our village had bestowed on my own father when he was about 40 years old. Further, his initials were R. B. and he used them always, and specifically, to identify himself in any letter or official document. This struck others as unnecessary or maybe pretentious and so, consistent with the dictates of small town humour, he was equally referred to as “Rubber Boot” to elongate the R.B. to a full extension.
My father passed away a few years ago and among his effects were several straight razors, some barber’s scissors and a razor strap, carefully set aside for me by my sisters on the correct assumption that I would most likely want them more than they did. They had been stored at my sister’s place a few thousand kilometres from where I live. I had considered bringing them home with me when I visited a few years’ ago but figured it was not likely that I would be able to take five straight razors as carry-on baggage at the airport. And of course, I have had a full beard since 1969 so I wasn’t really desperate to put them into immediate use.
But these straight razors triggered a series of memories about shaving from my youth. No, these are not memories of me shaving but memories from long before I hit puberty. These memories include observing my maternal grandfather Bill and my father shave, both using straight razors. It was a fascinating experience for a 4 – or 5-year-old boy. Using a brush with brown and white bristles, grandfather would lather the shaving cream until it stood with stiff peaks like meringue my mother would make. Unfailingly he would plop a big daub on the end of my nose and I would laugh and wipe my nose furiously. Sometimes he would use the brush and apply cream to my soft, fuzzy plump cheeks using the dull side of the razor “to shave” my face. The whole process was both intriguing and spellbinding. Who needed television? … We didn’t have one anyway.
Our father worked for many years as a barber and “faced” a lot of bristles on the heads of many “old men” from our village and the surrounding farming community. And you haven’t lived until you have watched a barber’s scissors deftly enter the nostril of an 80-year-old farmer to trim a 2-inch (no metric in those days) long nose hair that has been waving with each heavy breath through a bulbous nose. By that measure then, I guess I have lived. My father’s fingers spread that nostril wide to ensure clean access to the hair without nipping nostril walls that resembled hillsides of clear-cut stumps. As I was only four or five years old I had the perfect angle from the foot of the barber’s hydraulic chair to see clean up both nostrils. And, thank goodness, the nostrils were usually clean except for one or two long remaining fibres.
Snip – the harvest was complete – and the farmer’s lips formed a pucker reaching almost to the tip of his nose before giving way to the quivering walls of his nostrils and, at the same time, engaging the whole of his throat in a massive, loud, reflexive and reverberating response to the tickle of the withdrawal of the scissors. I learned to always jump back to avoid any wet fallout from this ticklish operation or any inadvertent kick from those manure-caked boots. [Hey look, sometimes they cleaned them, and sometimes they didn’t.]
A similar operation was performed on the ears, consigning any long protruding aerial hairs and accompanying shrubbery to the barber shop floor. The sunburned ears with their red veined road maps echoed those on the nose, and both shone in their newfound cleanliness and exposure. A quick trim of the eyebrows and part one of the Saturday night ritual was completed with a flap of the apron sending a cloud of hair and whiskers flying in every direction, and I scrambled to avoid being covered in icky itchiness.
With the hair, nose and ear jobs complete, my father would reattach the apron tightly around the farmer’s neck with a clip, lather up a brush on a cake of shaving soap in cup of warm water and proceed to cover the nape of the patron’s neck and his face with a thick coat of wet foam, being careful not to put too much under the nose to avoid having it sucked up into that enormous cavern. In retrospect I doubt whether anything white had ever been snorted up that nose … but I digress. I note with interest that the extra-clean feel of a straight razor shave of the nape of the neck is a specific hot selling point in modern-day barbershops, and a straight razor shave of the beard is billed as superior tonsorial sensual splendour.
With lightning and frightening speed my father “stropped” the straight razor to an equally frightening sharpness before carefully pulling the skin to the correct tautness that begged to be shaved. My father gripped the razor in a seemingly awkward manner and proceeded to draw it across the skin on the left side of the farmer’s face, removing both shaving cream and whiskers, producing a distinctive “rasp” sound as the still wiry whiskers were cut as close to being under the skin as was physically possible. This was repeated on the right side of the face but with my father now gripping the razor in such a manner as to use an equally awkward-looking “back-handed” stroke until every square inch of the face and neck was harvested of hairs. The denouement included my father taking the farmer’s fleshy nose firmly between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, squeezing it to close the air passages, and pulling it up into the snooty position deftly pulled the straight razor with his right hand down over the philtrum or infranasal depression – that little hollow leading down from the nose to the lip, risking calamity with each gentle stroke. Amazingly, the crevices and crevasses of the leathery face were now visible, free of any unwanted foliage. A hot, steamy towel was retrieved from a heated chrome and glass container and placed over the face, eliciting a sigh of relief from both the farmer … and my dad. A final splash of after shave was applied and the farmer was fit to return to active duty with his wife and family if he had them, and if not, then to the general two-legged and four-legged public with whom he customarily consorted.
Occasionally, the razor did not navigate the folds of the face and neck so cleanly and a spot of blood would appear after the razor’s pass. The bleeding was quickly staunched with a little rub of yellowish astringent powder kept in a small packet on a ledge underneath the mirror behind the chair. With any kind of luck the astringent was all that was necessary as the cut was not a slice but a “nick” in my father’s words. He was embarrassed when such events happened and it showed on his face especially as he turned the patron around in the chair and held a mirror behind so that the full 360-degree effect of the haircut, shave and ear/nose/eyebrow trimming could be viewed. Any little pieces of tissue stuck to the skin to staunch the flow of blood certainly detracted from the professionalism of the job. I recall this happening only two or three times in all the hours of my childhood watching. Still, I watched this work with the same fascination with which people watch reality TV today – hoping for a major mistake.
At the end of these ablutions, the old farmer fished 75 cents out of his rubber squeeze change purse, gave it to my father and thanked him, before rubbing my head with his strong earthy hands and heading out into the cool summer night air. This transaction was my very first exposure to commerce. The old saw “shave and a haircut, two bits” had already been supplanted by “shave and a haircut, six bits” due to inflation, I guess. Individually, the haircut was 45 cents and the shave was 30 cents. Children could get their haircut for 25 cents. This was my first exposure to commerce; and it was, I believe, also my first exposure to “price fixing.”
Have you ever wondered who cuts the barber’s hair in a one-horse town? The answer is: a barber from another one-horse town, of course. In this case, there were three one-horse towns lined up along Highway 23, each with its own barber. Ralph cut hair in Miami (no, not Florida) ‘Bose was the barber in Somerset (no, not England), and my dad barbered in Altamont (no, not California.) In the early years, and in line with all stereotypes, they each ran poolrooms in conjunction with the barbershop. On several occasions, I went with dad to see Ralph or ‘Bose whereupon they cut each other’s hair. Fair trade. However, on one occasion all three were present. Who cut whose hair I don’t recall, but there was discussion about the fair going rate for haircuts. In the car on the way home I learned that in my father’s shop a haircut had gone up in price from 40 cents to 45 cents and a shave had also risen by 5 cents to 35 cents. I have reason to believe that prices in neighbouring communities also increased accordingly, necessitated by changes in the economy and undoubtedly implemented by the “invisible hand of the market.”
Apparently, “old style” or “traditional” barbershops and the straight razor are making a return. I recently saw a local news report highlighting the delights of the close, clean shave of the straight razor, and the soothing, relaxing pampering of hot towels drawing every last bit of tension from your rediscovered baby bottom smooth cheeks. Of course, the cost to achieve this state of nirvana is much higher these days than it was in the mid-1950s. According to the price list of one establishment, a barber cut costs $22 (more if you have long hair.) If you want the full treatment the price increases exponentially: shampoo $8, traditional shave $37, neck shave $10, for a total cost of $77 plus tip. The rate of inflation in Canada from 1950 to 2015 is approximately 785%, or put more succinctly, an eighty-cent shave and a haircut in 1955 would cost $7.11 in 2015 if one considers the effect of inflation alone. I guess the remaining $70 represents value added improvement in technique, atmosphere and attentiveness – the so called “art and science” of the barbering experience. Price fixing or not, our father could never hope to earn a living barbering in the 1950s and 1960s, even as only one of a host of jobs he was doing simultaneously. He left the profession to pursue a more proletarian life as a stationery engineer in a pulp and paper mill.
My father would sometimes make house calls providing tonsorial services to several older gentlemen and ladies in and around the village. Before I was in school [school for us started only in Grade 1 as there was no such thing as kindergarten and I cannot help but think that I have suffered greatly over the years from that significant disadvantage,] I would sometimes accompany him on these visits usually made on Thursday afternoons when our village shops and businesses came to a halt, closed for a half-day’s rest. In many other communities, closing day was Monday but the merchants and business owners along Highway 23 had reached an agreement that a respite on Thursday afternoon was all that was necessary to ensure quality of life for themselves and their families. Of course, no one was open on Sundays as it was the Sabbath, the Lord’s Day of Prayer, and a day of rest to spend with family. But I digress and I shall post some observations on the historical underpinnings of the decline of the Sabbath in small towns at a future time.
While my father rarely violated the strictures of no work on Sundays except perhaps to work in our extensive vegetable gardens or to putter amongst the flower beds, he did allow that he could break the commercial standard on a Thursday afternoon to make a house call to provide a cooling haircut and/or soothing shave to an ailing gentleman who was no longer mobile enough to make the trek to the shop, or to make a senior lady feel more presentable, if not beautiful, by cutting her hair, providing a style or perhaps even a “perm.”
I enjoyed accompanying my father on these calls because not only did I get to see my father’s skill with the scissors and razor, but I got to see the inside of many houses where I would not otherwise be permitted to enter. I won’t bore you here with details of every visit I ever went on (I reserve the right to do that in a later post) but I will take this occasion to talk about one memorable one.
About one-half mile west of our village there was an abandoned farmhouse, probably one of the original homesteads in the area dating back to the 1890s. It looked like its occupants had either left in a hurry or left without means to take their belongings with them. As children, we would walk a gravel road to the point where we turned to tramp across a wheat field and into what was once a farmyard. The three requisite identifiers of any prairie farmyard were present – an out of control crowd of lilac shrubs, a patch of rhubarb and a row of daylilies (common ditch lilies.) Undoubtedly, it was a good house and home when it was built but now it was ramshackle to say the least and we entered gingerly not knowing what might befall us as we entered or, more precisely, what might fall on us as we entered. It had been a two-storey house but much of the second floor had now unceremoniously sagged and slipped onto the first floor. We poked at the hanging bits that looked most precarious to ascertain their structural integrity. Once a path had been determined, and once we convinced ourselves that there were no critters in residence, we entered into a time warp, into history, into the halcyon hay days of the1920s and then beyond, into the soul destroying dust of the “dirty thirties.” We were in amongst the old horsehair furniture – couches and chaise lounges with the leather now badly worn, torn, flea-eaten and weather-beaten. Successive seasons of sun, rain and snow had done its nasty handiwork and the grand times and comfort in those pieces of furniture had long since fled. We felt no urge to rest upon them.
I suspect that anything of antique value, or heading in that direction, had long since been taken by remaining family members or antique scavengers who saw it as their right to enter any property that appeared abandoned and was not locked, to swiftly and silently carry away pieces as surely as crows or magpies scoop up shiny things never to be found again. In the kitchen we discovered that they had not yet realized the future value of old mason jars and there were many shelves … well many broken shelves, with mason jars of preserves still intact. I recall we often wondered whether said contents were edible, daring each other to have a taste. Thank goodness we all had sufficient brains (and cowardice) to resist such foolhardy taunts and not succumb to deadly bravado.
One summer afternoon, I accompanied my father out that way but we were not interested in this old house, surprisingly. Instead, dad turned the Austin Healy off the road a short distance to the east of it and travelled what I can only describe as a footpath – one that was not all that well travelled suggesting that few footfalls ever reached even this short distance from the highway, and even fewer vehicles left impressions of tire treads in the dirt. We proceeded, the grass brushing against the bottom of the car, until it’s sound sounded unsound – if you know what I mean. I was standing on the seat (no seat belts in those days remember) straining to see our destination as the car slowed to a halt. I peered through the windscreen and the dust (grass pollen, spores, dirt) and insects that our car had set flying and fleeing. It was a warm day, cicadas stinging the air, invisible in the trees. At first, my eyes could not adjust to the sharp contrast between light and shade in the sun’s glare, but my father pointed to a small shack, lurking in the deep shadows of the bush, with its distinctive weathered gray siding and shingles so typical of rural poverty. Its front door … well the only door … opened out of the shrubbery and onto the clearing. That was our destination. But who were we to see and why?
My father fetched a small hard – sided black box from the trunk of the car and I knew that a haircut and possibly a shave were in the offing. A sharp rap on the shack door brought the hairy mountain man out into the open. Without a doubt he had heard us approaching as a dog barked on the other side of the door, but he had chosen not to open the door until we summoned. This was the man that we all knew to be Dick Mussell, and I am certain that he was, indeed, Dick Mussell.
The Mussells were among the first settlers in the area and the first local Post Office was located at Mussellboro or Mussellborough in the very early days. According to “The High Mountain: A History of the Altamont, Manitoba District” written by Ms. Beula Swain, and dated September 1973, Mr. Henry Mussell was appointed postmaster at Mussellborough in 1884 and the Post Office was located in his house. I believe that Mussellborough was situated a mile of so east and about a half mile south of the present town site of Altamont. According to Ms. Swain, the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railroad, built in 1889, cut through the hills just to the north of Mussellborough to Altamont where a water tower and a coal shed were built to provide sustenance for the steam locomotives, and a turning wye made it possible for the locomotives to be at the head of the train going each direction. Commerce, no doubt, shifted to Altamont to be close to the railroad, and the rest of Mussellborough went with it. Sadly, I don’t believe there is any marker, plaque or cairn to mark this historic now disappeared village.
The firemen on the steam locomotives quickly learned that their work was cut out for them as they pitched coal and wood into the boilers powering the locomotives up the steady grade from Morris to present day Miami, Manitoba and then up and over the two escarpments known as the Manitoba Escarpment (or Pembina Hills to some), the remnants of the shores of glacial Lake Agassiz. They would achieve the pinnacle, the highest point of land between Morris and Virden, approximately two miles west of Mussellborough, and upon cresting that ridge the trains began an easier downhill run to the western terminus at Virden, Manitoba.
The return trip east to Morris was easier but required great skill from the engineers to keep the cars from spilling their contents in a derailment if speed levels were not controlled. There were a few rail accidents when I was a child and crews would arrive and stay in Altamont, usually in bunk cars parked on the spur lines running past the grain elevators. The section foreman who lived just on the eastern edge of town in a CNR-owned house, would be in charge of the clean up.
I do recall one incident that could have ended very badly, but didn’t. It was, however, an incident that exemplifies the truth that it was all-downhill from there, so to speak. Some empty grain cars were sitting on a spur line near the siding of Deerwood just east of Altamont. The grade from Deerwood east was quite steep through the escarpments and it seems that a howling west wind was responsible for assisting two of these cars to begin journeys independent of any locomotion or human guidance. Perhaps the cars’ brakes were not applied properly through either human error or mechanical failure, and/or the time honoured tradition and requirement that a piece of wood be jammed under the leading edge wheels to prohibit forward movement was ignored, and/or the spur line had inadvertently remained connected to the mainline at the switch. The fact of the matter is that more than one of these possibilities had to be true for the cars to escape custody. [Given present-day rail “accidents”, I sometimes think that while the technology and the magnitude of rail traffic may have changed, not much has really changed in the internal logic of rail movement.] In any case, the two cars, aided by that strong west wind, began a slow creep down the grade. At some point a half-mile or so separated them, doubling the danger quotient of their movement. Slowly they gained momentum passing silently through farmland, before reaching speeds that sent them whistling through level crossings without the required blast of the train whistle, careening perilously around long corners of track snaking through the hills, passing unnoticed through the villages of Miami, Rosebank and Jordan before coasting to a stop somewhere on the other side of Roland, Manitoba.
One can only imagine the consternation of a grain elevator agent discovering that two grain cars had gone AWOL. What to do? Get on the phone, have the telephone operator issue a distress signal (one long continuous ring) on the party lines, calling on everyone to be on the lookout for strange rail cars sailing through their communities. Send a telegram to the CNR to let them know that it would not be wise to deploy any rolling stock on the main line until the rogue cars were back in captivity. Then, proceed along the track, from the uphill side (having learned the principle of gravity from your earliest experiences as a boy trying to pee uphill.) At some point you would catch up.
Today, Twitter, Facebook and other social media would not only have located the cars before the agent had noticed they were missing, but segments of video documenting their ‘hilarious’ ride through the escarpments and a cobbled together compilation would go viral within a few hours. Like storm chasers with cell phones on hands – free, crazy people would monitor sighting reports and speed across the prairie on dusty and rarely travelled back roads hoping to capture that one moment that would make them famous – that moment when they were able to warn someone in imminent danger just in time to save their lives – or, sadly, but maybe better still for fame and notoriety, that moment when several tonnes of rail rolling stock crashes into a busload of corporate sales representatives on a tour organized by a major chemical company showcasing fields treated with 2-4-D or DDT.
In truth, and gladly, the end result was newsworthy only for being uneventful and for the fact that the cars had escaped at all. For me, it was yet further proof of just how sparse the population is across that part of the prairie, and proof that Altamont really was on higher ground. You see, settlers in this area were known to have settled on “The Mountain” and there is documentation that mail was actually addressed to them with that locator. It all seems rather amusing now as, if you know that area of Manitoba, mountains are a creature of “relativity” at best and if you had ever seen the Rockies or even the Laurentians, the idea that there was a mountain anywhere close to Altamont would seem ludicrous. Be that as it may, Altamont was so named because of its location on the mountain.
It is only fitting then that the “high mountain” should have a “mountain man” and Dick Mussell was larger than life to me and seemed to fit that bill. I can only assume that Dick was part of the Mussellborough Mussell lineage and at some point in his life had opted for an alternative lifestyle. On the day dad and I went to visit he sported a long beard with turbulent rivers of gray and white, and the hair on his head was matted like an unshorn sheep. His attire was early coveralls, not the height of fashion.
Dick would venture into town every few weeks on a Saturday to purchase supplies including a sack of flour, some bacon and beans, a few hard candies, and to imbibe some refreshment at the local hotel. It was a men’s only hotel in those days, as women had not yet attained that exalted status of patron of the bar. Without fail a rifle of some sort accompanied Dick. It may have been a .22 calibre but I believe it was often a .30-30 or perhaps a .30 – 06 (thirty ought six as my father would say.) If I proceed with any further descriptions, someone more knowledgeable will cringe and call me to task. Suffice to say that it makes an impression on a small boy when a mountain man complete with a rifle moves into his orbit. I don’t think I had ever seen a rifle before, or a mountain man for that matter.
Even today, I know nothing of guns, as we never had any in our house, although my uncle on the farm had several and knew how to use them. I have personally witnessed the shotgun deaths of several magpies, largely seen as unwanted pests on farms. Other than that, Chuck Connors and The Rifleman is my main frame of reference and, when I was a boy, I could only watch him occasionally on Orville’s TV – the only one in town.
After a few hours in the hotel at the opposite end of town from his shack, Dick would make his way back along the row of stores collecting his purchases along the way. He would then set out on his horse, Queen, who was able to navigate the way back to Dick’s shack no matter the condition of its rider. Things were not always smooth for Dick. Sometimes the older boys would taunt and tease him. He largely ignored them or shot them a frightening caries filled smile. I remember just trying to stay out of the way but also trying to observe everything I possibly could from some safe haven – perhaps from behind the cattle salt blocks in one of the two general stores … we never resisted having a salty lick or two while we were there.
On one Sunday morning, I awoke to an animated conversation between my parents about how there was blood on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant that my parent’s owned. Later I checked and sure enough, there was enough blood to be noticeable but not enough to make anyone overly alarmed. How did it come to be there? And what did it mean? I guess it could have been blood from a kid falling off a bicycle and landing on his/her head precipitating a scalp wound, bleeding “like a stuck pig” as we used to say. But the tenor of the conversation between my parents gave the lie to that notion. Apparently, it was human blood and something nefarious had happened.
When I asked my dad about it, he allowed that there likely had been a botched attempt at robbery. (There were many other robberies in our town in later years and I will deal with them in due course in future posts.) Apparently, one of the teen boys (girls don’t do this stuff,) let’s call him JBG, attempted to bushwhack Dick in highwayman fashion as he was making his way to his shack, believing that Dick was too drunk to defend himself or to know what was happening. I am not sure why JBG thought he could, or should, steal from a mountain man with a gun but for some reason he hadn’t counted on the fact that Dick had a rifle, knew how to use it and use it he did. At a half mile from town, in the late evening, a gunshot would not have registered on anyone’s ears as being trouble.
Late Saturday evening just before closing, JBG showed up at our restaurant asking for a bandage to dress a wound to his lower leg and shin – a wound which JBG claimed was self-inflicted, the result of a screwdriver slipping as he attempted to repair an old car. It was serious enough for blood to form a small puddle on the sidewalk. From the way my father was talking to my mother, it was clear that he did not believe JBG’s story but assisted him with immediate necessary first aid, and advised him to seek further medical treatment. I am not in a position to know if JBG did, or if he didn’t, seek that assistance. As the nearest doctor was 8 miles away and the nearest hospital was 13 miles away, I tend to think he did not.
As for Dick, he had no advantage to be gained from reporting this incident to the police. It is likely he just wanted to keep his solitary existence … well … solitary. I doubt if there was an RCMP investigation (they patrolled rural areas in the province) but how would I know for sure? I was far too young to have been questioned as a suspect and I had witnessed nothing first hand.
For as long as I can remember there was speculation that the old bachelor “gentlemen” in town had thousands of dollars hidden in their shacks – for they all lived in shacks – under the floor boards, in tobacco cans, wrapped in wax paper, buried in dirt cellars, or even sunk into the human excrement under their one- or two-hole outhouses located behind their premises. [The concept of a three-hole outhouse is just hilarious but I have seen a few in my lifetime.] So maybe it is not surprising that Dick became a target.
But let’s return to the particular visit my dad and I made to Dick’s cabin. There had always been lots of rumours about Dick and how he lived. As is often the case there is a kernel of truth in most rumours, but not the whole truth in any of them. There was no well near the shack and no running water save for a small creek flowing a few hundred yards to the downhill side. While the inside of the shack was tidy enough at first glance, the methodology for such tidiness would not have found favour in any book of etiquette or in the Ladies’ Home Journal so popular at the time.
A cast iron skillet, a tin plate and a couple of eating utensils were neatly tucked up on the far side of a small potbellied stove – a perfect spot for the resident dog to lick scraps and grease until the skillet and plate shone ‘clean.’ My father made specific mention of this dishwashing method as we walked back to the car. As I think back on it, the dog did seem to be partial to a spot on the floor where his nose was not too distant from that skillet and plate.
It was rumoured that Dick never bathed. I did not see anything in that one room shack that resembled a bathtub or a place where even a sponge bath could be taken. Now, to be fair, at that time, our own house in town did not have running water but we always had a space where there was a tub that would be filled with water heated on the stove. Dick did not look or smell like he had bathed recently. Perhaps, he washed in the creek? A second part of this particular rumour was that Dick never took off his underwear and that his body hair grew right through the cloth forming a complex knitted interlacing of protection from the severe cold of the winter. It was accepted as fact that once when Dick had to be admitted to hospital for some emergency surgery, his clothes had to be cut from his body for that very reason. But this was early summer. Surely, he would take off his clothes now. But the logic of rumours is often … well … not logical. I had heard others, not just children but adults as well, say that he never ever took off his clothes and made sure that he had his “long John’s” on 24/7 as he believed that “if it keeps the cold out in the winter, it keeps the heat out in the summer.” If one thinks about insulation, one might concede that there could be a kernel of truth in this logic. I am just not sure that the experience of wearing several layers of clothing, all day, every day, such that it became part of your skin, was one that the human psyche could tolerate and resist the natural temptation to rip it off and run free, naked and clean!
Dick did come into town one time wearing full white long john underwear on top of his other clothes. The explanation at the time was that it was hunting season and he didn’t want some city slicker or other idiot (note the logic here: not all idiots were city slickers but all city slickers were idiots) mistaking him for a deer and taking a pot shot at him. He reasoned that white would make him very visible. I know that blaze orange is the current regulatory requirement for hunter camouflage but I am unsure as to whether that was always the case. Perhaps, it used to be white?
Which brings me to another rumour about Dick – that he always was naked inside his shack. Surely this contradicts the first rumour that Dick never took his clothes off! I am not aware of any evidence that the nakedness rumour was… well … the naked truth. Besides, if you can’t be naked inside your own home, where can you be naked? And what is wrong with that? He was most certainly clothed when my father and I visited him but perhaps he was expecting us. In retrospect, there are often untrue rumours about people and situations that are out of the ordinary and Dick clearly had chosen a lifestyle that eschewed the conveniences of modern life, such as it was, in the mid-twentieth century. It may also be the case that the stories were carefully crafted and perpetuated by older generations to illustrate the folly of not following a good, clean, family (if not Christian) life. In other words, ‘bathe and change your underwear or you will end up like Dick Mussel.’ The stories may also have been a way to ensure that we children did not bother the mountain man avoiding any dangers or misunderstandings. The mere thought of seeing a naked Dick in his shack was a fearsome thing and enough to keep us well away. Hmmm … okay, I am taking too many liberties here. I apologize. Suffice to say, there is much sociology already written about the role of rumours in the social construction of reality in everyday life. [Maybe it is time for me to do some serious research and writing on this matter – but not right now.]
In order to properly carry out the required barbering duties, my father suggests that we take a chair outside for better light and asks Dick to heat some water on the stove. There was a small fire going already, making the shack feel a bit like a steamy sauna on an already quite warm early afternoon. Scissors, combs, brushes and razors were revealed upon opening the travel kit. I don’t really remember much about the haircut or the shave, other than a considerable amount of head and facial hair hit the ground revealing the countenance of a hitherto unseen man. There must have been some particular reason for his desire to approach being respectable in appearance but I don’t know what it was. Perhaps, it was merely an annual summer haircut and shave – whether he needed it or not, as my father always said. Funny, but I find myself repeating that saying each time Anne attacks my hair and I trim my beard after an extended period of tonsorial abstinence. Or perhaps there was a funeral to which Dick felt obliged to attend, putting his best face forward.
I have no reason to believe that the Dick Mussell that my father released from the forest of hair was ‘new and improved’ but I am certain that his appearance was drastically changed. Clean and tidy, he probably no longer carried the mysterious aura of a “mountain man.” But for some strange reason, I don’t really remember the details of his clean shaved face and neat haircut at all, nor any of his defining features. I can only surmise that his shorn persona blended into that mass of male respectability that I have known for the majority of my life. In short, while you would think that his new visage would be the one I remember the most vividly, it isn’t. Rather, I remember friendly eyes shining through the shock of hair that extended seamlessly, but wildly, around his head before his hair was cut.
He was supposed to be the mountain man, a frightening example of someone who not only lived an unconventional lifestyle, but one who also personified the words ‘dirty’ and ‘unkempt.’ The word amongst the boys of the village was that everything at Dick’s place smelled like … well … smelled like smells we seldom smelled … the pungency of a wet dog after rolling in fresh manure combined with the eye watering acridity of wood smoke … the appetite repelling stench of meat left too long out of refrigeration … the stomach churning fetor of an abattoir …. Interestingly, I don’t remember any of these smells. Perhaps, Parkinson’s had already seized the olfactory functions of my neurological system? Not likely.
What I do remember is that the furnishings of Dick’s shack were minimalist, rustic, made from available materials, but cosy nonetheless. There was some small talk between Dick and my father but I was focussed on the dog that seemed to be eyeing me warily as I approached. Dick muttered something that was unintelligible to me but caused the dog to settle noticeably as he and I climb on a horsehide throw and several rag quilts that cover what passes for Dick’s bed and living area. It was strangely comforting to be enveloped by the smells of horse, dog, and mountain man and, dare I say, human kindness. It was not an act of human kindness but the smell of human kindness. I am certain that my mother would never understand but in that moment I became less fearful of the fearsome.
Having said all of this, I have to confess that to this day I have little knowledge of the true character of Dick Mussell. What I have told you is as seen through the eyes, heard through the ears, smelled through the nose, and recorded in the brain of a five-year-old child. Dick may well have been a despicable character who deserves condemnation but I have no experience or evidence to suggest that to be true.
I have no recollection of dad ever returning to the shack again to cut Dick’s hair. Somewhat selfishly, I sometimes like to think that the reason for our visit was to impress upon me not to be too quick to judge those with whom I am not familiar; not to let rumour, innuendo and prejudice jaundice my views; to be receptive always to new information and experiences in the formulation of my opinions; and to be charitable in both thought and deed. Have I lived my life by these lessons? No, not always, but it is a good touchstone upon which to ground oneself.
As important as this lesson was, there is another, perhaps even more important practical lesson. Although there was some unintentional bloodletting in the barber chair from the occasional “nick” of the straight razor, I never witnessed anything more serious. But many times in my early childhood my father expounded upon the historical place of barbers in what passed as “medicine” in early days. He would wax on, almost as if he had personal experience, about various medical ‘procedures’ that barbers performed. The red and white barber pole was, after all, symbolic of blood and bandages in a procedure known as “bloodletting” performed by barbers to heal the sick. He often mentioned that barbers used leeches to draw “bad blood” from their clients. I still cringe at the thought of the leeches that used to cling to our legs, arms and torsos when we would swim in the Boyne River or in the pools of the creek at Babcock’s. (Note that leeches are still used in modern medicine to assist in healing wounds.) I wonder if my father didn’t secretly wish he lived in that era so that he could use his barbering implements to full effect. Or perhaps with different opportunities, he would have become a surgeon rather than a barber? Or maybe he would have become a quack doctor … or worse yet, a quack barber? Who knows?
I do know that straight razors are wickedly sharp, lethal, frightening and to be used with extreme caution only by those who are experienced and skilled in the tonsorial arts. I actually have never used one to shave myself nor have I had a straight razor shave of my facial hair. My closest experience is a shave of the nape of my neck that all the old style barbers in the 1970s included in the regular haircut package. Given that I have had a full beard almost continually since about 1970 when I was 21 years old, I have pretty much self-selected myself out of the enjoyment of the adrenalin rush precipitated by a blade so sharp that it shears your whiskers as near to being under the skin as possible such that your skin does not register its passing except as a cooling breeze.
Of course, I am quite certain that any notion that I should take up shaving with a straight razor is now out of the question, and will send ripples of dread up and down the collective spines of those who know me. I can’t think of anything more potentially chillingly calamitous than a Parkie honing a blade to terrifying sharpness with the intent to draw that blade across one’s face and neck just a skin’s width away from one’s jugular. Have no fear; it is not in my plan, straight razor or no, to shave … ever again.
Dateline: January 17, 2015 (Muhammad Ali’s Birthday)
I was always told that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. I am about to tell a story here, or a series of stories really, and I am a little unsure how or where to begin, what the middle should be, how it should end, or even what it all means; so bear with me. In the absence of a better place, I shall begin here:
Muhammad Ali turned 73 years old today and seldom does a day go by without a media report on Ali’s struggle with Parkinson’s and the general state of his health. Lately, the reporting has taken on a kind of morbid “death watch” quality that I personally find distasteful. Ali has struggled long and hard with Parkinson’s, a progressively degenerative neurological disease for which there is no cure. The very fact that Ali has waged this battle, every day, 24/7, for over 30 years elevates him, in my books, to the highest level of heroism to which any human can ascend, even without consideration of the multitude of other attributes and achievements for which he is rightly lauded as a true champion.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, he converted to Islam in the mid-1960s as “Cassius X” before becoming “Muhammad Ali”. As Cassius Clay, he won the 1959 National Golden Gloves Championship and the Rome 1960 Olympic Gold Medal Championship, Light Heavyweight Division. As Muhammad Ali, he won the Heavyweight Boxing Championship of the World an unprecedented and unequalled three times – arguably the greatest boxer of all time; a refreshing change of pace bringing poetry and pizzazz to secretive gyms previously the domain of stogie-smoking promoters and trainers smelling of liniment; an entertainer who understood the value (and place) of showmanship in boxing; a personality so unique that even though Parkinson’s has softened his voice, it cannot muffle its resonance; a man who promoted not only himself but boxing and his community; a devotedly religious man who stood for his principles and went to prison as a draft resister in the Vietnam era – a position only a few others of his stature considered doing; a Person with Parkinson’s (PwP) who, along with his family, is committed to raising awareness and financial support for research to defeat this final and strongest of his many opponents; an athlete who has become a most cherished champion and hero for those of us living with Parkinson’s as we continue our own long march into an unsteady future with a disease which is degenerative, debilitating, and disabling. Parkinson’s disease has no cure and if we don’t die from it, we will most certainly die with it. The very fact that Muhammad Ali resists its finality fuels us in our own unique struggles with Parkinson’s.
Ali was famous for his bravado expressed through poetry, as is evidenced in this excerpt before he won the historic “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman in Kinshasha, Zaire in 1974:
I’ve wrassled with alligators,
I’ve tussled with a whale.
I’ve handcuffed lightning,
And put thunder in jail.
You know I’m bad.
I have murdered a rock,
I injured a stone,
And I hospitalized a brick.
I’m so bad I make medicine sick.
For a video of Ali reciting this poem and other information see Muhammad Ali Biography
I have probably stated the obvious and you are saying, “so what, tell me something that is new.” While I have never been a big fan of boxing, the “sweet science” as it is called, it does seem to form part of the weft in the tapestry that is my life. This may seem inconsequential and maybe random, but I am not a believer in life being purely random. In previous posts I have talked about my life’s trajectory and whether I have had a conscious role in determining that path. The answer is “yes” sometimes and “no” other times, and I am often hard pressed to pin point the exact moment or moments when I have nudged the trajectory in either a positive or negative direction. So what the heck is it about boxing, a sport about which I profess no great understanding and certainly no skill, that is so important?
Perhaps the most simplistic and obvious point is that I share at least one common life experience with Muhammad Ali. We both have Parkinson’s disease. Ali, diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984 or thereabouts (diagnoses of Parkinson’s are notoriously difficult to pin down to an exact date) is 73 years old. I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s three years ago and I am turning 66 this year. As I reflect on the many, many developments and changes in my body, brain, muscles, nerves, tendons, and psyche, I cannot fathom the sheer enormity of strength and determination of Ali’s body, mind and spirit upon which he must call to sustain himself in this bout with a seemingly never ending number of rounds. In many respects, it is nightmarish. In other respects, it is simply the highest testament that can be given to a man who knows, to the end, that his bravado, his showmanship, his celebrity, his strength, his deft footwork and stinging jabs, provide each of us with the determination to continue our own personal battle with Parkinson’s.
Boxing: The Big Boys
When I was growing up in southern Manitoba boxing was not a common sport among children. Parents of the day looked down on it and my generation rushed to embrace peace, love and the “flower power” of the sixties. However, I do know there was an era in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s when boxing had a surge in popularity and matches were promoted in many smaller communities where combatants competed for prize money of $8 for the win. Hardly stratospheric amounts of money – certainly not enough to attract most young men to get into the ring with someone who was determined to knock you out, or at least give you a good whuppin’.
One of my grandfather Bill’s workmates was a man named “Joe.” He had that distinctive broken nose face of a boxer. He was a rugged looking man who always treated me kindly, and who always appeared to be in great physical shape. I know that he fought on many boxing cards around southern Manitoba for little money. By the time I was growing up these boxing events had largely disappeared in rural communities but still continued in the larger centres such as Winnipeg and Brandon.
There is no question that my perception of boxing was forever altered on February 21, 1972 when a friend and I took in a card of four bouts at the Winnipeg Arena. Such a large venue was unusual but it was billed as the beginning of a new era of boxing in Winnipeg. The Canadian Light Heavyweight Championship was on the line in a bout featuring defending champion, Al Sparks, favourite and hometown hero, and the challenger, Toronto fighter Stewart Gray. Little did we know that this evening was to be both an evening to remember and one to forget. It unfolded this way:
In the first preliminary bout Jesse Fagin knocks out Muhamed Kamerick in the second round of a scheduled four rounder. This is Kamerick’s first and only fight … ever. He retires a perfect 1 – 0 – 0. I recall he was introduced as a former heavyweight champion from the Ukraine currently residing in Saskatchewan. In my brief search for biographical information on Kamerick, I was able to corroborate his unbeaten status and determine that he was not from Saskatchewan but from Winnipeg – age unknown, weight unknown, along with a host of other unknowns.
Kamerick looked decidedly out of shape and decidedly out of place – as if he had not seen the inside of a boxing gym or any other kind of gym for quite some time … if ever. His boxing acumen and skills were either very rusty or nonexistent. I rather think that it was the latter. His opponent, Jesse Fagin on the other hand, looked trim and fit and danced rings around Kamerick in the first round landing a few good punches, seemingly at will. Kamerick rarely connected, if at all. Thirty seconds into the second round Kamerick threw a wild roundhouse left hook, which might have appeared to connect with Fagin to fans somewhere in the Winnipeg arena but not from where I was sitting. Fagin went flying backward, arms out as if hit by a Ukrainian thunderbolt, landed on the canvas and was counted out by the referee.
The oddity about Jesse Fagin (5 – 3 – 0 before entering the ring with Kamerick) was that this was his first fight in ten years. His last bout was December 11, 1963 in Weirton, West Virginia where Bobby (Sweet Boy) Warthen (lifetime14 – 18 – 0) knocked him out in the third round of a scheduled eight rounder. And, not surprisingly, his last fight before that was five years earlier (November 1958) when unknown Alex Walker (lifetime 2-0-2) stopped him on a TKO in the first round. Even though Fagin did not have much of a boxing pedigree, it was a more believable pedigree than Kamerick’s, but just marginally so. This night at the fights did not have a very auspicious beginning as they say.
Surely, it would get better.
In the second bout, Nafiz Ahmed (a heavyweight) knocked out Sammy Poe (a middleweight) in the second round of a scheduled four rounder. Ahmed is listed in Boxing Records as hailing from Vancouver, B.C. with a lifetime record of 4 – 4 – 0. Is it coincidence that this would be Ahmed’s last ever bout and, at 41 years old, this would be Poe’s final professional fight? He would end his career with a dismal record of 2 – 5 – 1. Interestingly, Poe’s last fight before facing Ahmed was almost 10 years earlier when he lost on points to Jim Christopher on March 7, 1963. By the way, this is the same Jim Christopher scheduled to face George Chuvalo in the third bout of this Winnipeg card. As you may sense, the coincidences are becoming too frequent to be coincidental.
I recall that the crowd reacted with derision when Poe hit the canvas. It looked like he went down awfully easily. To tell the truth, it looked like he stayed down because he really was not all that interested in getting up. I am not convinced that the blow that felled Poe was a connecting blow. You might venture to say that he was blown over by the wind as the punch sailed by him, but that punch was never traveling fast enough to generate as much as a puff of breeze.
This brings us to the third bout of the evening – one to which we were quite looking forward. Living Canadian boxing legend and icon George Chuvalo would be fighting Jim Christopher. The recorded facts of the fight are that Chuvalo knocked out Christopher in the second round of a scheduled 10 rounder.
However, of much more interest is the back-story, the sidebar story, the behind the scenes story, the under the table story, or whatever this sordid story should be called. This would also be Jim Christopher’s final professional fight and he would retire with a lifetime record of 6 – 23 – 3, hardly an impressive career. Christopher had last fought on December 4, 1969 (over three years earlier) when he lost a unanimous decision to Bill Drover, a respectable fighter from Newfoundland and Labrador in Halifax, Nova Scotia. For whatever reason, Christopher was drawn back into the ring to fight the hard-hitting Chuvalo on February 21, 1972.
Our seats were near an entrance leading to the ring from underneath the stands. We were within earshot of the referees as they left the ring to return to the referees’ dressing room. And boy did we ever let the referee from each of the first two bouts know what we thought – that the whole affair was rigged; that we were cheated out of our money; and that we were disgusted with the way the fights had ended. I knew one of the referees from my hockey playing days where he had been a trainer, and I clearly recall shouting that I thought he was a sellout and that we expected better.
And we were confident that the better was going to start with this third fight – Chuvalo vs Christopher. From the instant that Chuvalo stepped through the ropes and into the ring, we knew we were witnessing one of the true great Canadian fighters. Oh, we also knew that Chuvalo was nearing the end of his great career and that his best days were behind him, but his punches were sharp and crisp, not lazy and round, and sizzled through the air ending with a sharp smack as they connected with their target. I recall trying to imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of those sledgehammer body blows for which Chuvalo was famous. It hurts to even think about it.
This fight with Christopher was to be Chuvalo’s tune up for a May 1, 1972 rematch fight with Muhammad Ali in Vancouver, B.C. (For the record, Chuvalo would lose that rematch with Ali in a unanimous decision in 12 rounds.) But back to the Christopher fight. Some tune up. A few days later Christopher would publicly admit to throwing the fight in the second round claiming he had received a threat prior to the start of the fight. As far as I know, Chuvalo had no knowledge of this situation and was as surprised as the rest of us when Christopher lay down in the second. I have no reason to doubt Chuvalo – he was never going to be tested by a fighter of Christopher’s calibre. Still, it looked and felt unsavoury and dishonest, reeking of corruption, especially in light of the two previous bouts. And in retrospect, it still stinks.
Is it oddly coincidental that of the six fighters in the first three bouts, five of them would never fight again? On the basis of their demonstrated talents and boxing skills, the same five should not have even been in the ring on this particular night.
George Chuvalo’s career is legendary in Canada and we bought tickets partly because this would likely be our only opportunity to see him fight in person. He fought World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali for the title in March 1969. It was a fight that Ali was supposed to win, and he did with a unanimous decision after 15 rounds. Although Ali did outbox Chuvalo in almost every round, Ali never really stunned him. It was in this fight that Chuvalo, a boxer who was never dropped to the canvas in his professional career, solidified his reputation as a boxer who never stopped moving in on an opponent no matter how hard or how fast his opponent’s punches battered his usually puffy and often cut eyebrows and cheeks. In the March 1969 fight, Chuvalo moved like a slowly advancing tank to pound away on Ali’s body with heavy blows. But just as Chuvalo never flinched from Ali’s jabs or left-right combinations, Ali never showed as much as a grimace in acknowledgement that Chuvalo’s strategy was having any effect. Each combatant put on a clinic, highlighting two boxing styles that stood in sharp contrast to each other.
In the end, Ali’s superior boxing style and quick hands were too much for Chuvalo’s grittiness. To his credit, Chuvalo did make attempts in almost every round to mix up his barrage of body punches with some well timed combinations or left jabs to Ali’s head. Chuvalo’s hometown Toronto crowd roared each time in anticipation that their boy would connect and send Ali to the canvas. But Ali was too quick and escaped the barrage, dancing away, or recovered with well-placed jabs, hooks and crosses forcing Chuvalo to give ground. Ali danced and circled for 15 rounds and Chuvalo was not going to catch him this night.
Both fighters weighed in over their ideal fighting weights with Ali at 214.5 pounds and Chuvalo at 216 pounds. Announcers, Al McCann and football star Jim Brown wondered out loud if the stamina of each fighter would be negatively affected by the additional poundage. Each fighter stayed true to his game plan. Ali Danced and weaved. Chuvalo kept going straight ahead, looking to do damage to Ali on the inside. Neither seemed particularly bothered by the extra weight or the length of the fight.
The final scoring had Ali well ahead on points winning all but one or two rounds. In each round, just when Chuvalo seemed to be coming on strong, Ali would recover with a flurry of punches in the final 30 seconds as if to put an exclamation point on the round – emphasizing that the Champ was still in charge, was the aggressor and had won the round. In a few rounds, Ali did seem to toy with Chuvalo but it was not egregious unsportsmanlike behaviour, and certainly not out of character for Ali. Some accounts of the fight allege that the heavy pounding Ali took to the body left the Champ sore and urinating blood for days afterward. But at the conclusion of the fight, the Champ showed no evidence that Chuvalo’s blows hurt him much. It was only in later years that Ali would attest to the heaviness of Chuvalo’s punches.
Chuvalo fought all the best fighters of his time between 1956 and 1978 … and lost to all the best fighters of his time: Zora Folley, Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell, Muhammad Ali (2), Oscar Bonavena, Joe Frazier, Buster Mathis, George Foreman, and Jimmy Ellis. Chuvalo did have his share of wins finishing with a record of 73 wins, 18 losses and 2 draws. His biggest victories were knockouts over American Jerry Quarry and Canadian Yvon Durelle.
Yvon Durelle? Funny that his name should come up. Let’s take a few minutes to talk about Yvon Durelle. Durelle was one of the great Canadian boxers with a lifetime record of 88 wins, 24 losses and 2 draws. Nicknamed ”the Fighting Fisherman” or more popularly “doux” which is French for “soft” or “gentle” by his Acadian friends, he was primarily a middleweight but often fought above his weight class in the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions as he did when he fought George Chuvalo.
But it was Durelle’s light heavyweight championship fight against Archie Moore on December 10, 1958 in Montreal that really made history and solidified Durelle as one of the greats – even though he lost! He was an underdog going into the fight but he knocked the Champion, Moore, down three times in the first round. Current boxing rules would have ended the fight at that point and declared Durelle the winner. Durelle failed to go to a neutral corner after the first knockdown and lost valuable seconds before the count on Moore began. Moore struggled to his feet at the count of nine. Durelle knocked Moore down again in the fifth round but Moore held on, making one of the most incredible comebacks of all time, knocking Durelle out in the 11th round. Durelle lost but his gritty performance, and near victory, elevated him to near cult status in Canada.
I recall hearing a description of the fight. I am unsure as to whether I heard a live blow-by-blow broadcast or whether it was an abridged taped version. In any case, it was extremely thrilling and my nine-year-old sports brain soaked it up.
Years later, a documentary on Durelle’s life indicated that he owed thousands of dollars in back taxes, was almost penniless and running a bar in Baie-Ste-Anne, New Brunswick, where he was charged with murder after shooting a trouble-maker. Defended by Frank McKenna, a young lawyer who was to later become the Premier of New Brunswick, Durelle was found not guilty. But clearly there was a lot of trouble in his life.
My father, who often times could be quite acerbic not to mention opinionated, remarked that this is what happens to boxers. They are exploited in a business where unsavoury characters manage your career, live off your prowess and bilk you of your prize money. He further opined that Durelle was “punch drunk,” and wandering the streets with diminished mental capacity. There is no question that Durelle took many hard right hands, left hooks and jabs to the head over the course of his career. And, undoubtedly, he fought in many unsanctioned matches not counted in his official professional record – perhaps twice as many. But I am not so sure he was “punch drunk.” He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease later in his life. But was it “caused” by boxing?
There is a condition called dementia pugilistica (DP), a variant of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or chronic boxer’s encephalopathy, traumatic boxer’s encephalopathy, boxer’s dementia, chronic traumatic brain injury associated with boxing (CTBI-B), and punch drunk syndrome. In short, it is a neurodegenerative disease affecting boxers, wrestlers and other athletes who suffer concussions.
However, the literature is less than clear as to whether there is a direct relationship between DP/CTE and Parkinson’s. There certainly is considerable speculation that boxing is a “cause” of Parkinson’s (or Parkinsonism) given that boxers such as Ali and Durelle were afflicted with Parkinson’s. But I have seen no conclusive evidence that indicates that boxers are over-represented in the population of persons with Parkinson’s.
I had never heard that phrase, ”punch drunk,” before my father used it. It conjured up an image of a rough and tough looking boxer with that signature nose, broken one too many times, lurching uncontrollably through the streets. Today, I sometimes think of that image as I lurch through stores, along crowded sidewalks, through door jams, up and down stairs, past any and all obstacles in my way, with all the grace of a drunken hippopotamus. I have Parkinson’s disease. I am not “punch drunk.” At least I don’t think that I am.
But let’s return to February 21, 1972 at the Winnipeg Arena. The fourth and final bout of the evening was a scheduled 12 rounder for the Canadian light heavyweight title featuring reigning champion and hometown favourite, Al Sparks. Sparks finished his somewhat short career with a record of 23 – 13 – 1 but held the Canadian light heavyweight title several times and had contended for the British Commonwealth light heavyweight title in 1969 losing on points to Bob Dunlop of Australia in 15 rounds.
Sparks’ opponent is Stewart Gray, a mediocre fighter who finished with a lifetime record of 14 – 14 – 2. Gray’s main claim to fame was as older brother of Clyde Gray, a three-time contender for the world welterweight crown and holder of the Canadian and British Commonwealth welterweight titles at various times. Clyde’s lifetime record was a more than respectable 69 – 10 – 1.
Both Gray and Sparks approached this bout in workmanlike fashion but only Sparks was able to make good solid contact in the early rounds as Gray did not seem to be able to adapt to the southpaw’s style. It was clear that Sparks had done some damage in the sixth round and Gray’s corner, including his brother Clyde, worked feverishly to get Gray into shape to meet the bell in the seventh. Gray walked to the centre of the ring but just stood there with his hands hanging loosely at his sides. He looked confused. I remember the whole thing looked confusing and I didn’t know what I was witnessing exactly as it was so out of context. With the crowd screaming, Sparks approached Gray to engage but seemed puzzled when Gray did not appear to be willing to defend himself. Sparks backed off. The referee, Steven Trojack, made no motion to end the bout, so Sparks moved in with a left hook that put Gray to the canvas and down for the count. Officially, the bout goes into the record books as a knockout for Sparks 24 seconds into the seventh round.
Gray does not recover consciousness in the ring and is taken away by paramedics. Even though he does regain consciousness briefly in hospital, Stewart Gray undergoes emergency surgery and, tragically, dies from head injuries the following day, February 22, 1972.
There is an unproven assertion that Gray had suffered a head injury in a truck accident in advance of the fight and this may have contributed to his death. An investigation into the fight revealed that Gray had not undergone an electroencephalogram that may have detected such an injury and prevented Gray from fighting. But there was no requirement to do so.
What an evening of boxing! It was comedy, then farce, then tragedy.
The first two bouts appeared to have been fixed with knockouts executed in almost comedic fashion. Surely, even the most naïve of boxing fans could not be fooled by these antics. The third bout smelled pretty rotten as well but it was more difficult for fans to accept that there was any shadiness or underhandedness as it was the great George Chuvalo attacking an inferior opponent who had little chance of laying a finger on him. Still, the manner in which the conquered combatant, Jim Christopher, hit the floor strained one’s credulity. Later, Christopher alleged that he was approached by a stranger prior to the fight with a threat that led him to throw the fight with Chuvalo in the second round. There is no evidence that Chuvalo had any knowledge of this development.
Let’s recap. Amazingly, eight fighters went into the ring that night and only Chuvalo and Sparks emerged to ever fight again. Jesse Fagin, Muhamed Kamerick, Sammy Poe, Nafiz Ahmed and Jim Christopher ended their careers on February 21,1972 in the Winnipeg Arena under a shrouds of personal ignominy. Stewart Gray was to die the following day, most likely as a result of injuries sustained in that fight. Al Sparks fought only three more times after the tragic Stewart Gray fight, losing two of them by split decision, before ending his 21 – year career (23 – 13 – 1) with a unanimous decision victory over mediocre George Jerome on November 4, 1977. George Chuvalo fought in only eight more bouts over the next six years, finishing with a TKO victory over the same mediocre George Jerome (13 – 15 – 2 lifetime) for the Canadian heavyweight title on December 11, 1978. Still, Chuvalo chalked up an impressive record of 73 – 18 – 2 over a 20-year career and a reputation as never having been knocked to the canvas even by some of the greatest fighters of his generation.
The Manitoba Boxing and Wrestling Commission issued suspensions to all participants on the card. However, the Commissioners all resigned when they were asked to lift the suspensions while the Manitoba government conducted a judicial inquiry. A new Commission was appointed and the suspensions were lifted on March 1, 1972 in time for Chuvalo to sign a contract to fight Muhammad Ali in the second of their two fights in May 1972. However, Fagin, Kamerick, Poe and Christopher would all have their licenses suspended again after further investigation.
It is a very sad commentary indeed that the death of Stewart Gray provides me with the only evidence that this entire night of boxing was not fixed, rigged, contrived, stacked, set up, framed, thrown, or willfully predetermined to defraud boxing fans of not only their money but their faith that the “sweet science” would determine a victor based on skill, abilities, conditioning and mental as well as physical toughness. The best I can say is that the Sparks vs Gray fight was not fixed. It ended in death. I don’t believe either fighter would have agreed to that outcome.
Boxing: The Little Boys
Grain elevators are probably the most photographed and painted icons of the prairies. Each town, village and hamlet had at least two. The community where I grew up had three. Ogilvie’s was farthest west on the track and was the oldest. At the eastern end was the Federal Grain elevator. It was the newest of the three and I can remember it being built within my lifetime. In between stood the United Grain Growers, often called the “UGG” or more colloquially to us kids, the “United Grain Grabbers.” These elevators had to be maintained and periodically crews would be sent to carry out necessary repairs and paint maintenance.
When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I recall a crew of young men arriving in town to carry out repairs at Ogilvie’s. They most often checked into the local hotel but on this occasion the crew bunked into the office of the elevator for their short stay. As usual, we children were nosing around to see if we could find any interesting “distraction” from the boredom of small town life. For example, on another occasion when the “new” highway was being built, we would go out to the worksite where the Euclid earthmover operators would allow us to sit in a makeshift seat behind their chairs and we would bask in dust and diesel fumes while they scraped the earth from fields and ditches and deposited it to make the road bed. I am certain that our parents were none too pleased and it contravened every health and safety code I am sure, but we loved to do these things and, as children, we really didn’t know better. What an education I had as a child! And, I hasten to add; we were fortunate that no one was hurt!
I am not sure what we expected when we approached the elevator crew at Ogilvie’s early that summer evening. The men on the crew were young, physically fit and had energy to engage in sports after their workday was done. One young lad had two pairs of boxing gloves. I don’t remember what weight or brand they were but they seemed huge, bulky and strange, rendering our thumbs immobile. I was not the youngest present but I was not the oldest either. One of the crew suggested that we should go a few rounds with gloves on, for fun.
We were paired up roughly according to age and size. I was fairly tall and big for my age so I was paired against a boy who was not only older but who was more muscular from working on his parent’s farm. I confess that I was a little flabby, being a town kid and all. The younger boys were anxious to try out the gloves and they were slotted into hastily constructed preliminary bouts. They were, however, long on enthusiasm and short on boxing technique, prowess and style. They came together in the middle of the office floor (all desks and chairs had been pushed to the sides) and immediately began wind milling wildly, whaling on each other with such a flurry and fury that it bore no resemblance to the “sweet science“ of boxing. It was more akin to setting two demented monkeys loose to scream and fight for the last banana. Each match was over within seconds as the victor overpowered the loser through the sheer volume of wildly directed blows landing anywhere and everywhere.
When it came time for the featured main event, me against Ron, both anticipation and expectation ran high that this fight would be worth the price of admission which in this case was … well … nothing … but pride and natural male competitiveness do carry some value. There was no question that each of us would give it our best shot to win. One of the crew members became my handler and worked to lace my hands into the gloves in my “corner” on the far side of the door – giving me advice on boxing technique and strategy as he did so. One of the other young lads was doing the same for Ron in his ”corner” over near the far end of the windows. Each of us had seen some boxing on TV (actually on Orville’s TV as he had the only TV in the community) so we had some notion of the basic premise. The third member of the crew was the official judge and referee.
Gloves laced up and wiped clean, we danced in our corners as introductions were made. I was “Big Red” and Ron was “The Fighting Farmer.” We came together with the referee in the centre of the ring, received official instructions, touched gloves and the fight was on! In the first round we circled each other cautiously, tendering exploratory jabs along with a phantom feint or two. One of the crewmembers commented, “Now this is more like it” giving each of us a little more incentive to deliver a good fight. Neither of us landed any blows that were clear hits and the opening round likely would have been scored as even.
The second round began with each of us being a little more aggressive. Neither of us had great technique but we were able to fend off some fairly dangerous right crosses and left hooks. I think Ron was a little more aggressive than I was in this round and a judge likely would have scored it in his favour. Surprisingly, we were each growing a little weary at this point as neither of us was used to dancing and moving for any extended period of time. It is beyond me how the early bare-knuckle boxers used to go 70 or 80 rounds before finally knocking out their opponent, or succumbing to his blows.
Round three of the scheduled three rounder began. I recall seeing the punch coming but I didn’t expect the end result as Ron hit me with a straight right hand squarely on the chin and sent me flying back towards the door where I stumbled on the doorstep and slipped to one knee. Immediately, the referee jumped in and the fight was over. Ron was declared the winner by TKO at about 20 seconds of the third round. I, of course, like every fighter who has been knocked off his feet, protested that I could go on, and firmly believe to this day, that had I been allowed to continue, I would have vanquished my opponent. Nevertheless, the referee called the fight and my lifetime boxing record was established at 0 – 1 – 0 albeit in a non-sanctioned bout. I was never to lace up the gloves again.
At the time, I took some solace in the fact that I did give a decent account of myself against an older boy who had a clear physical advantage. And, of course, I knew that most other great fighters had lost at least one fight in their careers. Only the great Rocky Marciano went undefeated in the heavyweight division – a perfect 49 – 0 – 0. And I knew I was not the only fighter in town to have a winless record.
As I indicated earlier, the generations prior to mine engaged more formally in boxing as a sport with organized cards for adult “professionals” and school age amateurs alike in many communities, large and small. Now, there were two old geezers in my town, neighbours, who didn’t particularly get along. Names and some details are disguised in this account as rivalries and feuds often remain long in the ground of small communities, like anthrax waiting to infect another generation. I don’t want to be responsible for precipitating a renewed outbreak of hostilities between the families and, more importantly, I don’t want to be caught in any crossfire or become a common enemy upon whom they turn new found wrath. So, let’s call them Y and Ynot.
Y has somewhat effete mannerisms and no one would ever label him as being a man’s man. He worked all his life in an office environment and puttered about his yard, gardening with a delicate touch. When he goes about his business he fusses around a lot before actually getting down to business. Y has a son named Y2 who fancies himself to be a bit of boxer – likely because other children his age are merciless in their teasing about his father. However, Y2 is a string bean and not a very good boxer and I don’t believe he ever recorded a single win.
Ynot is, on the other hand, a self-styled man’s man – a successful farmer who retired to town in order that his son Ynot2 could take over the farm operation. He purchased a lot close to Y and built a new house. Y was not very happy to have a new neighbour and took every opportunity to complain about Ynot’s house and property. There developed a kind of mean low level bickering feud between the two men.
My friends and I were often hired by Ynot to do yardwork or other odd jobs and on those occasions Ynot never missed an opportunity to badmouth Y or any member of Y’s family. In fact, Ynot often cast aspersions on Y’s manhood by saying such things as, “Y only has one ball, ya’ know” or “Y was hiding behind the door when God handed out balls and he only got a leftover deformed ball.” Ynot laughed at Y and made fun of everything that Y did, often mimicking his mannerisms such as the way that Y always dusted off his chair with his handkerchief and placed the hanky delicately upon the seat before sitting just as delicately upon it; or the way Y drove his car without ever looking to the left or the right, or even behind when he backed out of his drive. Admittedly, it was rather frightening to observe Y behind the wheel. In the winter, we children would “bumper shine” or hang onto the bumpers of cars and slide along the snow and ice packed streets, letting go only when the car attained a speed that was too fast for us, or when it turned a corner and we were thrown into the ditch by centrifugal force. This “sport” was decidedly unsafe and I discourage anyone from doing it today. In fact, it was doubly unsafe when Y was driving because the weight of two or three of us bumper shining would cause Y’s car to slow or perhaps spin its tires, stopped on the snow and ice. If the car were close to stopped, Y would quickly hit the clutch and pop the car into reverse, backing up in search of greater traction. I am not sure if Y knew we were hanging on to his bumper and he just didn’t care if he ran over us, or if he was oblivious to our game. All of this just reinforced our perception that Y was not all there and that Ynot’s assertions held some truth.
The boxing story, as I heard it, happened one day in a neighboring community where Y2 was one of the combatants on an organized card. Y decided to attend to cheer on his son. Y arrives at the venue, finds a seat and spends considerable time with his back to the ring, preparing and dusting off both his seat and adjacent seats and then draws a second handkerchief from under his hat to be placed such that his ever broadening derriere can descend upon it, protected from any dust or irritants. But before his backside hits the cloth, there is a great roar from the crowd almost simultaneously with a thudding sound from the ring behind him. Y turns to see Y2 laying flat on his back on the canvas, knocked out cold by his opponent. Y2’s boxing career is over and Y never does see him box. Ynot dines out on this story for years, satisfied that neither Y nor Y2 belong to his club of “real men”.
As I reflect upon this series of events, I am not convinced that men have advanced much past this infantile behaviour. For many years, I thought this story was funny. But throughout those years it was rolling around in my head in ephemeral form and it is now being committed to paper with words that ensure its survival over time, in a form that is not malleable or easily changeable – and now upon re-reading it, I think it is just a sad commentary on human social relations. … Or maybe it is a little bit funny?
Boxing and Parkinson’s
As I mentioned at the outset, the obvious connection between boxing and Parkinson’s disease is through Muhammad Ali. And we discovered that Yvon Durelle, thought to be “punch drunk,” was diagnosed with Parkinson’s before he passed away on January 6, 2007. If we dig further we find that others in the boxing community also had or have Parkinson’s disease. Frederick “Freddie” Roach is a boxing trainer and a former professional boxer. Diagnosed in 2010 he owns the Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles where his client list includes Amir Khan, Manny Pacquiao, Mark Wahlberg, and Georges St. Pierre.
It is becoming more and more evident that exercise and physical fitness are incredibly important to those of us who have Parkinson’s. Living with Parkinson’s means training the body and mind to overcome the barriers that Parkinson’s presents. Strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, concentration, cognition and confidence are all necessary if we are to delay the progress of this disease that robs us of natural abilities we take for granted e.g., walking in a straight line without staggering or falling; turning over in bed (yes, believe it;) or being able to play a musical instrument or ride a bicycle even though you suffer from the stereotypical tremor that haunts most PwP.
It is likely that physical fitness and mental toughness have enabled Muhammad Ali to look Parkinson’s squarely in the eye for all these years. Boxing, ballet, dance of all types, Pilates, cycling, walking, swimming, physical fitness programs, physiotherapy, balance and strength programs, etc. combined with additional cognitive exercises have given many PwP a new lease on life. I personaly find the LSVT BIG program to my liking. We train our bodies and our minds to develop new routines and neurological pathways, and reinforce old ones. So what if I have to relearn most of the choreography each time. It actually becomes easier to relearn it each time. So what if I will never be able to balance on one foot for 60 seconds without holding onto something. But I will, most likely, be able to recover if my balance does waver without falling completely over. So what if I quiver and shake when I am waiting to engage in an activity. Once the activity begins, I am engaged and the Parkinson’s slips to the background providing me with that much sought after feeling of freedom when one is in control of one’s own body. Will this last forever? Not likely. Parkinson’s is, in the end, a most cruel and unforgiving disease. But one thing I know for sure, I want that feeling of freedom and independence to last for as long as I can possibly make it last. And I want to enjoy the ride!
Boxing is one of those sports that keeps PwP moving physically and alert mentally. These folks will never enter a boxing ring to fight a round in earnest but they will find great psychological fulfillment and motivation in imagining that their punches are pummeling Parkinson’s into submission. “Punching Out Parkinson’s” is the rallying cry at Paulie Ayala’s boxing classes at a gym in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. Ayala, a former bantamweight and featherweight world champion, trains 50 PwP from six neurologists during three classes a day, twice a week. Similarly, the Cummings Centre in Montreal provides boxing instruction for PwP as do the PD Gladiators with retired boxer Paul Delgado near Sandy Springs, Georgia. Boxing clubs such as the Rock Steady Boxing Club (Fighting Back Against Parkinson’s) have sprung up across North America catering to both early onset and mature onset Parkinson’s clients.
I have never participated in any formal boxing lessons but I do know that when I take a turn at the speed bag at my physiotherapy clinic, it is great fun, a very vigorous workout, and is enormously cathartic. We need avenues to release the stress and frustrations of Parkinson’s and boxing fits that bill perfectly, and at the same time it enables our bodies and brains to maintain and regenerate neurological pathways.
In a previous post, “In the Parkinson’s Garden: Ali, Michael J. and Me” (see archives December 2013) I fantasize about what it would be like if Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox were to visit me in the garden. Ali, tall and imposing, would be bobbing and weaving between the Jerusalem Artichoke and Joe Pye Weed, occasionally resorting to rope-a-dope tactics along the fence line, the crowd roaring. Michael J. would be riffing on the guitar at the front of the border, crowd roaring.
Yes, these are fantasies and not hallucinations, and they are essential to my mental well being – every bit as much as hammering the heavy bag or matching the rhythm of the speed bag or bobbing and weaving like a butterfly in a valiant attempt to strike the fatal stinging blow to the greatest of our opponents, Parkinson’s disease.
So how do I conclude this meander through my memory banks? I will resist the temptation to reiterate the obvious connections between boxing and Parkinson’s. Instead, based on the facts inscribed on the pages above, and if we accept that life is marked by a certain amount of confusion and disorder infused with measures of comedy and tragedy rendering it close to farce at times, and if we accept that sometimes heroic physical and mental toughness is critical to life, what I want to say can be summed up as follows:
- Life is often messy.
- Boxing can be messy.
- Gardens are never messy.
- Parkinson’s disease is always messy.
- Messiness can be obviated … mostly.
If you have made it this far, treat yourself – exercise your body and your mind. Fight messiness.
Who’s in the Red Velvet Suit?
I usually write about Parkinson’s and gardening in the context of my own life, past, present and what I think is the future. When you have Parkinson’s it is easy to forget that there was a time when your cares were, in most ways, less weighty. We should not let those times disappear from our memory banks. What follows is a story that I have often thought about while I am in the garden, or when I wish to push Parkinson’s to the background. While not obvious, it is a story that provides me with the mental nourishment I need to meet the challenges ahead. But mostly, it is a story about Christmas and a place I know. I hope you enjoy it.
Have a very Merry Christmas! Very Best Wishes to you, your loved ones and your community for safe and Happy Holidays!
The Red Velvet Suit
From the moment he burst through the doors into the steamy, smoke – filled hall, [hard to believe but they smoked everywhere in the 1950s] the game was on. Who was he? We had only about 12 minutes to make a positive identification before he disappeared out those same doors trailing his merriment into the frosty, snow-covered landscape of a typical Manitoba winter night. Crisp and clear – with a just hint of barley made into beer wafting from the local hotel two doors up the street.
The game was an informal one devised and perpetuated by children between the ages of 8 and 11; children who were pretty certain that Santa Claus was not real but who were nonetheless not quite ready to jettison a belief in Santa because their imaginations had not yet been sullied by adult thoughts and reasoning. These children still harbored private thoughts that there just might be a Santa and, if there was, they did not want to be caught amongst the disbelievers. Still, they played the game: who was behind the bushy white beard, the twinkling eyes, the big round voice matching the big round tummy, inside the red velvet suit with the white fur trim? The goal was quite simple: expose Santa as a fraud by making a positive identification of the imposter. In retrospect, I am not certain why the heck we would want to do that, but such is the way of the world. If it exists, we strive to expose its most fundamental elements for all to see, breaking down the mysteries.
The community hall was crammed to the rafters. Even the balcony (sometimes referred to as the “Choir Loft”) over the entrance was stuffed to overflowing. Most chairs had people’s bums in them already and those that didn’t had hats, scarves, or programs placed in such a manner as to reserve the seat for someone who was still making their way through the snow bank lined streets after finishing some urgent last minute task. The time was circa 1955 – 1960. The immediate “town” was really a hamlet at best but no one ever referred to it as such. The town was Altamont and the population was 120 people and five dogs with an equal number of cats. I know the population figure because my dad and I sat one evening when I was quite young and counted each person who lived within the official confines of the town limits.
But, as we know, the definition of “community” does not necessarily correspond to geographical boundaries as determined by government officials and cartographers. Families who lived on farms and in areas that were more rural than Altamont (hard to imagine) also formed an integral part of an ever-shifting community. The political boundaries of the school district were important in this determination and changed with many amalgamations over the years. Each amalgamation marked a death knell for some communities and the birth of a few new ones. In any case, at this time, even a radius of seven miles (yes, this was before we went metric) would double the population at least – if one were estimating the number of people who might cram themselves into the community hall or if one were guessing who might be inside the red velvet suit with white fur trim.
[As a side note: this post is not the appropriate place to engage in a discussion or debate about rights for minority schools, whether based on religion or language. These matters really go back to the famous “Manitoba Schools Question” which dominated Manitoba politics from 1870 when the Manitoba Act created the Province and on into the early 1900’s. The importance of this debate continues to this very day and should be required reading and study if one is to understand the development of Manitoba community and culture. I will say no more about it here.]
You have my apologies for that short digression. Regular readers will be used to it and undoubtedly we will take a few other sidetracks as we proceed.
I played the “Guess who is Santa game” along with the rest when I turned of age – that age when children, especially boys, morph from cute inquisitiveness to obnoxious know-it-all, hiding behind a barrage of questions meant to reinforce already formed opinions, without a concern as to whether it was right or wrong. All games have rules, even if the only rule is that there are no rules. The one rule for this game was that you are not permitted to touch Santa in any way.
I suspect that Christmas concerts were integral to the fabric of Altamont as a community however it was defined. As a child, I didn’t pay much attention to the fabric of anything – except if that fabric was part of a sport’s uniform. In particular, I was hockey crazy and was a fan of the Chicago Black Hawks back in the “Original Six” days of the NHL and I recall being greatly disappointed when Santa gave me a Toronto Maple Leaf sweater for Christmas one year. I am quite certain this actually happened to me – or maybe I have just internalized The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier as the quintessential trauma of many Canadian boys who grew up despising the Leafs – or maybe this is the reason I despise the Leafs. Kids from the surrounding francophone communities were steadfast fans of the Montreal Canadien and sported the red of les habitants (The Habs.) There was a lot of support for the blue of the Toronto Maple Leafs (although not from me) and a smattering of support for the Detroit Red Wings with their stylized red wing of course.
I do recall that we were unable to afford coordinated team uniforms on the first teams for which I played. We were forced to take to the ice as a rag tag bunch with sweaters from various teams. The reds of the Habs, the Black Hawks and the Red Wings more or less defined what could be called a team. I stood out like a sore thumb with my blue Leafs sweater but thankfully a few of the other kids had hand-me-down sweaters of non-NHL teams from older brothers who played for teams in other communities. In the end we were predominately red with a smattering of green and orange and, of course, I had the blue Leafs sweater. We identified our team as being anyone with a colour that wasn’t the colour of the opposing team whose sweaters were generally provided courtesy of a local community organization.
Of course, we had no idea that we were a rag tag bunch. In order to ice a team of nine players we recruited from farm families and communities such as St. Lupicin and Deerwood. Not only were we small in numbers, we often were also small in size as some of our players were younger brothers or friends far below the age category we were playing in. We wouldn’t have been able to field a team otherwise.
Our coaches, (I’ll call them Winston and Leon because those are their real names,) were both farmers living outside the strict geographical boundaries of Altamont but who were nonetheless selfless in their long-standing commitment to coach us through the various age groupings. I still remember their calm demeanour and patience as we took every aspect of the game, and every development within the game, as being the most important thing that had ever happened to us. We hit the ice with the enthusiasm of an NHL team and we played every game as if it were the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. It was competitive. We played to win, as did every other team. This was not a league where they did not keep track of the score. Even in games of shinny each kid silently kept track of the score, until at last, with our mothers and fathers hollering at us to come off the ice for dinner, someone would shout, “Next goal wins” and the real battle was on.
I do know that the kids (and adults) from the other towns would laugh when our small contingent of seemingly unlikely hockey players would take to the ice wearing our collection of mismatched, mostly hand me down, hockey jerseys. But I also know that our uniforms were all that they could laugh at because we most often defeated them on the ice, sometimes handily, even though their communities were much larger than ours. Eventually, we did get uniforms but that is a story for another day when I address the good ol’days (and the not so good ol’days) of my hockey career in a future blog about hockey and small towns.
My apologies, but I always get carried away when I talk about hockey (and gardening), so I must return to the topic at hand – the annual Christmas Concert. The “Holiday Concert” had not yet arrived on the scene and, to my knowledge, there were no non-Christians living in my community. Christmas it was and the concert was the product of the collective effort of the teaching staff and the pupils of the Altamont School, grades 1 – 12. Yes, a four room school. The first room held Grades 1 -3. The second room had grades 4 – 6. The third room grades 7-9, and the fourth room had grades 10 – 12. The number of students per room was inversely proportional to grade level. Many years, there were no students in grade 12. The good ol’school days will also be a topic of a future blog so they are given short shrift here. I mention them now only as a reminder that the teachers hired were under considerable pressure to make their pupils, the children of the community, look good in whatever performance they appeared, no matter how difficult or inept these children were in real life – on any dimension you can imagine.
The teachers were generally not from the community i.e., they did not grow up there so they had no knowledge as to the particular weave of the community fabric. Inevitably, this led not to “great” performances, but “safe” performances. Best to stick to the tried and true, and not venture into the unknown. The obligatory “pageant” was performed primarily by the lower grades with a few upper students covering off the adult roles of Joseph and Mary (virginal or not), the Innkeeper, etc. There was the odd occasion where animals were introduced into the performance, usually someone’s dog and ended unsuccessfully with the owner scrambling to keep the dog from eating the gifts of the Magi. Who knew that gold, frankincense, and myrrh were so tasty? And it always looked a little weird when one of the Magi (or worse yet, Joseph) repeatedly had to swat the dog’s nose away from his crotch. Dogs are funny that way.
On one occasion, I recall Mr. T. being convinced that we would be able to pull the pageant off with some stellar narration from yours truly – what with my mellow 12-year-old tones and all. We rehearsed it a few times but there were concerns that I could not be heard from the back of the hall. Projection I have learned is key to a career in the theatre. One of my friends volunteered that they had a “sound system,” which would solve this problem. So, we tried it. Yes, that seemed to be just the ticket, as they say, and a speaker was placed in the balcony at the opposite end of the hall from the stage. As a last minute instruction, Mr. T. directed me to hold the microphone close to my mouth so that those in the front seats do not hear my voice from the front, in addition to my slightly delayed voice from the rear of the hall. Who knew that our small community hall would have the same acoustic issues as Yankee Stadium when the national anthem is sung?
I was situated stage right in full view of the audience, and I began my narration, the microphone held as close to my mouth as possible without it sounding like Darth Vader (who wasn’t invented yet) or a creepy obscene telephone caller (who was invented then and flourished because it was before caller ID.) The pageant was a particularly long one by pageant standards and we were pushing the attention span tolerance limits even without any added complications. But complications there were. Someone (I swear it was not my responsibility) failed to switch on the toggle that activated the amplifier at the back of the hall. I wondered why the audience in the far reaches seemed restless and disengaged, not giving this serious subject matter the attention to which it surely was due. As well, the audience in the front rows seemed a little irritated and there was much talking and eye rolling. But like a trooper in the spirit of the theatre I soldiered on, finally reaching the end at which there was thunderous applause signaling a collective “Thank God, that’s over!”
It was only later, but before the end of the concert, that I learned that the amplifier had not worked. The audience at the back could not hear a word I was saying. Those at the front could only hear “mumble, mumble” as I spoke. If you fast-forward some 55 years to the present day, I routinely hear the following words from my wife, Anne, “Good Lord man, stop mumbling through your beard. I can’t hear a word you are saying!” To which I, just as routinely, reply, “If you weren’t so deaf, you would hear me just fine!” But in my head I hear, “If you had a hearing aid, you would hear me just fine … but you probably wouldn’t turn the damn amplifier on!”
Choirs were always thought to be a safe bet for a concert so many grades sang a variety of Carols and Christmas songs ignoring the fact that choirs are generally a vehicle to blend many voices into one beautiful vocal instrument – and not a vehicle to highlight a beautiful voice at the expense of one voice, or several voices, whose efforts brought cringes before they were rewarded with polite applause from the ever understanding audience of parents and grandparents. Of course, classmates are rarely so polite and poor performances often form part of the schoolyard banter for years in the future. “He sounded like Stubby the cat when ol’ Wacker backed over his tail.” Or worse yet, and this was well before the Vanilla Ice scandal, “do you know that Ms. B. told him to lip sync the words?” If this applied to you, you undoubtedly are carrying the scars to this very day. I know I am. Such singing misadventures were brought into even sharper relief when the very fine Altamont Choir conducted by the talented Ms. Belva (not the Ms. B. above) would favour concert goers with a few old standards like “Little Drummer Boy” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” performed just before a blast of frigid air announced Santa’s presence in the hall. Needless to say, I was not in that choir, lip syncing or not.
Comedy was another option but there were so many things to avoid. Drunken Santas are never a good idea – likely to invoke a few images of the town drunk or perhaps drunks (c’mon, every town had at least one,) who sometimes adopted the persona of Santa (irrespective of the time of year) in their more lugubrious moments. I personally have seen what I believe to be the tracks of Santa’s sleigh in the fresh snow on Christmas morning leading directly from the local watering hole and ending abruptly at the first telephone pole, located ironically in front of the community hall where just hours earlier Santa had thrilled everyone in the village with his appearance. It is not widely known but Santa’s sleigh can magically transform itself into many things (Santa was on top of transformer technology) and one local village vehicle sported a rather nasty dent in the front fender and hood for years. It was never repaired to my knowledge. But I have no firm proof that said vehicle was once Santa’s sleigh.
A scene from a lighthearted play was sometimes tolerated even though it inevitably led to cases of overacting – [loudly: “who is that knocking at the door?” Followed by a loud “Knock Knock”.] Or underacting when the darling little six year old would look out into the audience like a deer caught in the headlights and realizing she couldn’t find her mother, would start crying. This would in turn generate some over-reacting by the mother in an attempt to salvage the moment. If this were a boy, he would make up for his momentary acting faux pas not by crying but by throwing around a few items from the set before exiting stage gauche, so to speak. And finally, words to live by, never rely on a dog not to pee.
But back to the case at hand. Who was that in the red velvet suit? From the moment Santa burst through those doors, he was under scrutiny. Did he have glasses? Of course he did. Everyone knows Santa has glasses – those little round kind or maybe the little square kind. Did Santa have boots? Of course, he did, he’s Santa. But wait. Those boots were often not the typical big black Santa boots. Sometimes they were black but they were those four-buckle kind, overshoes, the ones you coveted as a kid because you could leave the four buckles undone and walk around with the buckles flopping, making a buckley-metallic kind of noise until they wore out and the buckles fell off, always leaving each boot with a different number of buckles, but never just one. It was acknowledged that Santa just might wear such boots in our community. But could we determine who was in the suit from this footwear? There were many men in the immediate environs who had never grown up to the point of properly buckling their boots before they ventured outside. If they were only half – grown up, they buckled only the bottom two buckles and not the top two. But it proves nothing about who was in the red velvet suit unless you can make a positive identification. It would not be possible from this evidence.
Sometimes the boots were brown with a single strap – much like a watchstrap – to fasten at the top. This narrowed the possibilities considerably as fewer men wore that style. These men tended to be more practical, or cheap as these boots cost less – well maybe practical and cheap are the same thing in this case. Much to my chagrin this was the style of boot that I was forced to wear all of my youth, until I could afford to buy my own four buckle boots – so that I could jangle around losing my buckles – for about a year when they too went out of style.
Of course, there were toe rubbers. Wait! I apologize. I am just joshing you. Santa would never wear toe rubbers! Not then! Not now! No more shall be said about this digression.
What if the person in the red suit was … gasp … a woman? What if she is really Saint Nicola, Kristen Kringle, Mère Noelle, Old Woman Christmas, Grandmother Frost, or Mother Christmas? Well, you get the idea. There were a few occasions when the names of some ladies in town were mentioned as being a possibility to be the one who “manned” the red suit. Some had the little round glasses. For some their voices had that husky and jolly quality, either from being at the North Pole a lot or from hanging around in smoky bars. To say that there were several women in the broader reaches of the Greater Altamont Area (the GAA) who might carry themselves with the same stature and comportment as Santa would be uncharitable, so I will only say that many women were more matronly, or more muscular and big boned. Still, in those days, I could not imagine any woman in the GAA who could do justice to the high black boots with the white fur trim around the top in the same way that the real Santa does. If Santa was really a “she,” it should make our task much easier as it increased the probability that we could make a positive identification in spite of the fact that it increased the population of the pool from which we had to choose. Surely we would be able to spot a woman in the red velvet suit, wouldn’t we? The very thought that Santa could be a woman was, I think, just too radical for our young minds in the late 1950s. We could never envisage Mrs. Cleaver as Santa in the Leave it to Beaver culture we lived in. There was no strong female role model in My Three Sons, while Lassie and My Friend Flicka did not inspire our hopes for the ascendance of any humans, male or female, to the exalted position of Santa. And, just when Donna Reed and Shelley Fabares were sexing up the TV listings, surely I would have noticed if the boots became a bit more feminine and were … say … no longer black? If queried on this opinion today, I may feel differently. But it is not today with which we are concerned. Who was in the red velvet suit in those formative years of my life?
To recap, we unconsciously, if not consciously, relegated the idea that Santa was a woman to the scrap heap of impossible ideas. Hey look, I am just sayin’ that the 1950s were that way.
There was always such a mad crush around Santa when he arrived, and his movements were unpredictable. Many times he entered through the main doors but sometimes he entered through the kitchen behind the stage where, it was understandable, he was provided refreshment after his long trip from the North Pole. Other times, he sneaked in the opposite side of the hall behind the giant Christmas tree. It is widely thought that he lingered behind that tree observing all the children (and some particular adults) in his final determination as to whether they had been naughty or nice. In the case of the adults, naughty and nice sometimes overlapped and the judgment scale could tip either way.
There were always a few helpers (not Elves …. we didn’t really believe in Elves) who handed out little brown paper bags tied with red or green ribbon containing Christmas goodies such as gum drops, licorice all-sorts, humbugs, jaw breakers, life savers, candy canes and butterscotch. Oh there were always a few peanuts, as a kind of filler, but no one counted those as candy and indeed discounted them as being leftovers from Halloween. Invariably a bag would break and the scramble would be on as little ones flung themselves under foot to grab an extra lemon drop.
A path through the crowd magically opened as Santa rolled in on his hearty “Ho Ho Ho” and he stopped only briefly to pat a few of us on our wide-eyed heads, and to look a few of my compatriot non-believers directly in the eye, as a kind of cheerful challenge for them to identify him as being someone other that the real deal, the genuine Santa. Even though we planned to observe everything we possibly could in an attempt to expose this fraudster, the madness of the moment, the craziness of Christmas let loose a wave of pent up thoughts and emotions: Christmas really is almost here. The Concert was Santa’s dress rehearsal for his solo performance on Christmas Eve.
Even when some of the older children (boys in particular) were able to report in after Saint Nick’s departure with some “hard facts” that they had gleaned from those few frenzied flashes of his face as he passed, or the observance of articles of clothing that are perhaps not regulation Santa issue vestments, the cracks began to appear in the case. Those brown boots are just like Georges’ boots,” one boy said. Another said, “yeah, but they didn’t really fit very well so I think they switched boots. Besides he didn’t have an accent.” Another offered that he thought Gordon was in the red velvet suit. This was quickly countered with the fact that Gordon was too short and this Santa had no evidence of an arthritic hip. “Maybe it was the other Gordon,” said the first boy. “No, I saw him going into the hotel only moments before Santa’s arrival in the hall,” called a voice from the back. Frantic now, other suggestions were shouted out. It was Frank. It was Lorne. It was the other Lorne. It was Bert. It was Charlie. It was the other Charlie. No, it was the other, other Charlie. “Well, it was Flo,” one timid younger girl piped up. All eyes turned to her and then rolled in unison as they explained that Santa could not be a woman. Enough said. Each possibility was thrown equally into doubt by contradicting evidence – some from eyewitnesses, some factual differences in appearance or other distinguishing features, some circumstantial.
There is much debate in philosophy about the scientific method and whether we can ever prove anything to be true. It does make for interesting and stimulating reading but it is hardly Christmas story material so I will not engage in a lengthy discourse about it here. Suffice to say that one approach, proposed by philosopher Karl Popper, is that we can only prove something to not be true. For example, even if we have only ever seen white swans, it does not mean that all swans are white. However, if we ever see just one swan that is black, an initial hypothesis that all swans are white is not valid. Similarly, if we say that all Santas are real, we need to find only one Santa that is a fake in order for the first statement to be disproved. Seems easy enough, right? All we had to do was unmask our Santa to disprove the assertion that all Santas are real. Sure, but the catch is that finding one fake Santa does not prove that there is no real Santa. It just means that all Santa’s are not real.
But what was the case with our Santa? Would we ever know if it was the real Santa Claus in the red velvet suit or if it was an imposter? If he (or she) was not the real Santa, we needed a positive identification as to who in our community was masquerading as Old Saint Nick. Now, I doubt that we ever thought of our game in terms of the scientific method, and I am certain that our methodology was greatly flawed, but we were determined, at the very least, to prove that our Santa was not real. That was what the game was all about. But, as Robbie Burns wrote in his poem To a Mouse, in 1786 “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]”
And the awry part started with a fact that distracted us greatly. Santa always left a gift for each of us under the tree –perhaps hidden amongst the branches or deftly tucked around the back barely visible from any angle. The presents were not there before Santa arrived, but were there after Santa left. Clearly, Santa had worked his magic in the few short minutes of confusion and excitement when he was in the hall. Or perhaps, time was momentarily suspended keeping us spellbound as he emptied his great sack of presents.
As I indicated earlier, I was a hockey crazy kid and the only thing I really wanted was a hockey stick. Oh, how I hoped that there would be a stick just like the sticks I fondled and coveted in Herbie’s hardware store. I know that I checked the tree when we first arrived in the hall and there was no evidence of a stick, or anything else for me. I was a bit concerned. It is not that easy to hide a hockey stick and I didn’t think I had been bad. Well, there was that garden incident that I wrote about in a previous post, but surely Santa had gotten past that?
When Santa rushed out of the hall with a great swoosh and disappeared into the crisp dark night, the game of trying to determine who was in the red velvet suit disappeared with him. Everyone’s attentions were now firmly fixed on the tree and the many presents glittering under the Christmas lights. I remember the smell of the branches and my fingers being sticky from pinesap as I searched for my gift. [Not the only time my fingers were sticky I’ll wager.] And there it was, leaning up against the back wall, barely visible through the branches – a Sherwood hockey stick, just like the ones in Herbie’s store, with my name on it. The “L” on the shaft meant that it was a stick for a left-handed shooter, like me, so there was a small curvature of the blade to the right in order to better cradle and control the puck. This was in the days before Bobby Hull and others introduced and perfected the giant curved blades that drastically changed the game, so much so that rules and regulations were introduced to restrict the degree of curvature and allow goaltenders to breath a collective sigh of relief.
But there it was, my stick. I grabbed it without thinking and turned to show my father and mother. The stick had not yet been shortened to its proper length and the butt end was sticking out a long way above the point where I grasped it. In turning, I accidently hit Herbie, the hardware store owner, smack in the face and knocked his little square lens glasses clean off. [Hmm … little square lens glasses? Could it be?] In any case, I think that was my first high sticking penalty. Maybe it serves Herbie right for selling such lethal weapons in his hardware store.
To my knowledge no one was able to identify Santa as anyone other than the jolly old Elf he claimed to be even if we didn’t really believe in Elves. It is a fact of human nature that as we grow older nostalgia grows incrementally stronger, and with nostalgia comes a desire not to break the bonds, the glue, that holds happy memories together. A little known fact is that nostalgia for matters of Christmas begins about age 12, the same age that children begin to profess that they are no longer children. The first great test for those who wish to leave childhood behind is that they must not engage in any activity that would cast any doubt upon Santa’s existence. Whether Santa is real or myth or mirage is no longer of any consequence. The solidification of childhood memories as nostalgia obviates the need for further empirical investigation. Put more bluntly, they don’t care anymore – leaving the game to those who enjoy pursuing the unattainable – preferring instead to revel in memories of Christmas past; the enjoyment of Christmas present; and the anticipation of Christmas future.
As I stick handled my way home that night, my father and mother maintained a respectful distance with my sister Geraldine safely tucked into the sleigh under a tonne of blankets. My youngest sister Colleen existed only as a distant star adding sparkle to the snow and our night. I had nothing on my mind but hockey, and Santa, and the snowflakes glinting under the streetlights, and hockey, and the frost on the snow, and how I wished I had a puck, and Santa, and hockey…. Secure in my world where only Santa would wear the red velvet suit with the white fur trim and black boots. And because he had a funny, one of a kind, uniform, he had to be on my team!
Copyright The PD Gardener (Stan Marshall) 2014
I am often asked whether we have a vegetable garden. We don’t. Our garden is largely perennial flowers with a few annuals interspersed here and there for colour, and a few plants ‘out of our climatic zone’ which we treat as annuals i.e., they either die with the frost or we dig up the tubers to store until the following spring. A few kale are thriving presently because I had an impulse buy at the garden centre when I bought a selection for one of our daughters.
For several years, early in the existence of our current garden, we did have a few tomato plants but they did not thrive in partial shade and we didn’t deem them worthy to supplant more colourful masses of perennial flowers in the borders that were closer to full sun. And I never seemed to find that perfect, sweet beefsteak tomato that I so fondly remember from my youth. Or perhaps the slugs found it before I could get my hands on it? The growing season always seemed to be too something – too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry – and the tomatoes grew too fast and split, or too slow and were little dry tasteless lumps. In any case, I have the utmost admiration for those of you who have told me that you grow the most beautiful, “to die for” sweet tomatoes. I just hope that I am not dying from them. (Much more on this thought later.)
Still, I have become increasingly intrigued by this question of why we have no vegetable garden, especially when many others we know are engaging in significant and well thought out projects of sustainable and organic produce gardening. And my sister and husband in Saskatchewan have always had a substantial vegetable garden that was integral to their farm’s economic base i.e., they grew their own food – remarkable eh? Their children in turn recognize the importance of such agricultural pursuits and assist with the garden on the home farm. Vegetable gardens have been a way of life for generations on farms and in rural communities. Why did I not carry this tradition into my urban existence?
As usual, I began my investigation into such questions by rummaging around in my memory banks for historical antecedents that might provide answers. I had already been rummaging around in that murkiness anyway for clues as to why I now march unsteadily through life with Parkinson’s disease. So it seems only natural to expand the scope a little. I have to say that I am a little surprised at what I am uncovering and it may take some time to assess, analyze and ferret out conclusions or patterns from my ever-diminishing memory banks. This is a long way of saying that my thoughts will undoubtedly be spread out over many blog posts. I apologize to those who are impatient and like to flip to the end of books to reveal the ending avoiding nuances in the plot. And my apologies, of course, to those whose idea of a plot is being able to tweet an idea in exactly 140 characters. They likely have already left the building.
For those who are remain, my musings on Parkinson’s and gardening will stretch far into the future – as I hope will my ability to engage in such activity. While many people do claim to believe in the supernatural, I doubt very much that I will be communicating via Ouija board from the verdant and abundant Great Beyond, free from bindweed and ergot. The best I will be able to do is to leave wisps of memories through which, it is my fondest hope, I will be remembered in the same manner that I am remembering those in my past – if that makes any sense. In the meantime, I will just continue to throw my memories (and attendant feelings) about with reckless abandon as I wade (with the help of Google, I won’t lie here) through gazillions of megabytes of information.
In earlier posts I outlined our family’s lineage and passion for horticulture and perennial gardens. While all of this is true, and there is much more to tell, I have neglected to admit to the details of a family which was also focused on the husbandry of vegetables and fruit as produce for use and sale. I haven’t lied about anything. I just haven’t told you a whole lot of stuff that still needs to be told. Also, I have discovered that it takes time to recall, tell and analyze the stories of a lifetime. In fact, if one did this precisely, it would take a lifetime plus the extra time required to review the “director’s commentary” so to speak. I don’t know about you but I don’t have that much time so I shall endeavour to cut a few corners without, I hope, cheapening the product.
The fact of the matter is that our family always had substantial vegetable gardens. In the village where we grew up (Altamont, Manitoba) we had a sizeable garden on the north side our house where we grew potatoes, corn, peas, carrots, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, egg plant [which we did not really know how to cook in those days (1950s,) and no one called it “Aubergine,”] and always an experiment or two e.g., celery, which weren’t always successful. The celery experiment wasn’t. The one concession to flowers in that garden was a row of snapdragons planted along the front fence. It entertained small children, girls and women all summer long as they pinched open the flowers’ yawning jaws and poked a finger gingerly inside with some merriment. Boys and men deemed snapdragons to be not manly and instead did such things as kick puffball fungus (Calvatia gigantean) in the pastures for fun, spraying great clouds of spores. And, in those days, we certainly never entertained any notion that this fungus could add an earthy, nutty flavour to fare on the dinner table.
A smaller flower garden on the south side of the house behind the rickety old garage was home to delphiniums, peonies, poppies as well as hollyhocks. The hollyhocks, really a biennial plant, seemed to thrive in the scrabble of stoney soil and summer heat against the house. These conditions produced a glorious row of beauty year after year. How I envy those hollyhocks today! Every year I make a valiant, but unsuccessful, attempt to reproduce the hollyhocks of my youth. Thankfully, I have a lover, an artist, who has immortalized them for me on canvas. I also covet the delphiniums but have been unsuccessful in our attempts to have them grace our spaces. Other members of my immediate family can, and do, grow both hollyhocks and delphiniums, so the failure here is a “me” thing and not a generalized family trait. I do so hope that it is the same for Parkinson’s disease.
A second vegetable garden was located behind the store that my father owned and ran for many years. The store was the Post Office, the barbershop, a small confectionery and magazine stand, the bus depot, the hub for my father’s small Rawleigh products distribution business, and the office from which my father sold Wawanesa Insurance policies on vehicles, homes, and crops to residents of Altamont and district. Each of these short occupational identifiers contains many vignettes that I know will float to the surface in subsequent posts to this blog. My mother worked in the Post Office for many years as my father was “on the road” peddling Rawleigh brand products ranging from bag balm to “Kool Aid” and pie filling.
If you were to apply a class analysis to our situation, you would say we were “petite bourgeois” or “middle class.” The fact of the matter is that the vegetable gardens probably were the only thing that lifted our existence out of poverty for most of my childhood life. In our home we had no running water and no sanitation. We had a well that was located under our basement stairs and we used a hand pump at the top of the stairs from which we drank and filled our washbasin or pots to be heated on the stove. We did have electricity so no wood stove in the kitchen. Periodically, the well was cleaned to rid it of worms, and salamanders. Our toilet was a “honey bucket” in the basement that I had the pleasure of emptying when I grew old enough (about 10). It was dumped into a pit at the farthest edge of our property away from the house – a place where, my father believed, the water table and an underground stream did not flow towards our well but away from it. A coal-burning furnace (initially burning bituminous and later adapted to anthracite) in the basement provided heat for the household. An electric furnace later replaced it, mercifully.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not trying to give the impression that we lived in squalor. We didn’t. While it wasn’t an easy existence, our gardens and an orchard on my grandparent’s farm, contributed greatly to our economic base. A gendered division of labour existed with my father tending the gardens and my mother working in the kitchen canning, blanching, and freezing produce. It was hard work and I remember my mother hating some parts of it – especially working late into the evening over a hot stove covered with steaming pots.
My parents struggled to pull our family out of the worst parts of that existence. Ironically, in the end, they accomplished that by throwing off the yoke of this so-called petite bourgeois existence to join the working class when my father retrained as a stationery engineer. One might say we were truly “proletarianized” in Marxist terms; or lost some status in Weberian [Max Weber] terms; or alternatively perhaps, the increased income moved us a few rungs up on the ladder of social mobility according to Canadian sociologist John Porter. This has always left me in a bit of a quandary. Did we succeed or fail? In any case, this story of class change will be the subject of a future bog post, one not yet written – at least not outside of my mind.
But as I was saying, the gardens continued behind this primitive conception of the urban mall – the Post Office. Here we grew potatoes, rows and rows of them, and asparagus! Long rows of asparagus! In my small village, very few people knew about this culinary delight and fewer still grew it purposefully. Those who did revelled in its beauty through their taste buds. At the most tender opportunity, my dad would cut the young spears with his pocket knife and they would be served up slathered with pepper and butter, a white sauce, or a cheese sauce. I know, I know…. my mother was never a great cook, but this was about as good as it could get. As a young lad I thoroughly enjoyed asparagus and continue to do so to this very day, although usually without the sauces. Once the spears began to be too woody (about the time they put them out in the stores where I shop today) dad would let the plants grow to create a great long, green hedge of feathers and seeds. Asparagus eating was over for another year.
Two large patches of rhubarb (one located disturbingly close to the “honey bucket” pit) provided us with rhubarb pies, crumble, and sauce for a good month or more in the spring before their stalks grew woody and became more bitter than tart. Of course, rhubarb provided handy hats for children and we ran about the lawn with the inverted leaves on our heads, stalks sticking upward like giant antennae receiving signals from faraway galaxies – signals that caused our legs to run and jump in the joyous abandonment of a Celtic ritual, halted only when some child fell and cried. Every house on the prairies had a patch of rhubarb. Old homesteads in Manitoba, houses and families long departed, are usually marked by three things: a foundation where the original house stood providing shelter from unbearably cold winters; a patch of common day lilies or “ditch lilies” providing food for the eye in July, “brightening the place up a little”; and rhubarb, providing the perfect blend of tart and sweet in the form of a pie or crumble which, I swear, kept marriages and families together when under other circumstances, they would have crumbled.
In addition to these gardens, we always seemed to receive a share of a large crop of potatoes that spent the summer multiplying in a field at my grandfather’s farm. On a crisp day in the fall, dad and our family, and two or three of his brothers and their families would gather at the farm to harvest the potatoes which had been somewhat gently turned out of the soil with a cultivator drawn by a tractor (and in the early days, a horse.) All kids scattered out across the rows to toss potatoes, large and small, into “gunny sacks” or burlap bags. The bags were then hoisted onto a hay rack drawn through the field by a horse with my Uncle Cecil at the reins.
As an aside, I recall two horses at the farm – one was a broken down racehorse that we children were never allowed to ride. It was skittish and danced with anticipation when it was being prepared for a ride. I only ever saw Uncle Cecil ride that horse and, broken down or not, it seemed to me that it could still fly like the wind. The other horse was a sturdy plow horse – probably a Clydesdale named Major, I think. I have observed that every farm with a plow horse of Clydesdale (particularly,) Belgian, or Percheron blood has, or had, at least one horse, and probably more, named Major. In any case, we were allowed to ride Major and often did take him down into the orchard where he would spend most of his time reaching for apples, while we wrenched the reins trying to get him to go somewhere without apples. Any modern day horse person (of any level of expertise) will cringe at the thought, but we didn’t know what we didn’t know, if you know what I mean. We had a hell of a good time.
But the vegetable gardens of my youth were not always fun and joy. The fields did not require much hand weeding and other maintenance but the town gardens certainly did. We were often sent into the garden to weed every inch of soil that was not inhabited by productive foliage. I remember having to hill the potatoes, a concept I grasped very early in life, as I was wielding a hoe about three feet longer than I was tall. Perhaps, my skills with a hockey stick were initiated by this activity – although I am pretty sure that no one ever described my stick handling abilities as “like hoeing potatoes,” thank goodness.
Pernicious flora was not the only threats in the gardens. Fauna played their nasty roles as well. Potato bugs were common and I recall going up and down the rows, looking under potato leaves where those little black and yellow striped insects (Colorado potato bugs) would be munching away happily. We had to pick them off with our fingers and put them in a tin can. I am not sure what exactly happened to them after that, but I think they were doused with gasoline and set on fire, or sometimes doused with soapy water, a process that I deemed to be preferable but no less lethal. As well, we were expected to crush with our fingers any masses of eggs we discovered under the leaves – a particularly squeamish duty but nevertheless one to which I became enured quickly.
Cutworms were also a problem and we dug around the base of the young plants to unearth the curled up larvae and place them in the can for disposal. Our failure to tend to these duties properly became very evident in a day or so when the leaves would be reduced to stems or the plant was laying on the ground from cutworm damage. These insects also attacked tomato, pepper and eggplants but we had far fewer of those to attend.
Presently, I understand that cutworms are a significant pest for Canola (rapeseed) crops. Canola was not a big cash crop in my youth but it seems that the cutworms were clearly there, waiting for better times. Chemical control for cutworms is made more difficult because of their nocturnal feeding habits and laying under the surface during the day. Insecticides need to make contact with the pest in order to be effective. In addition, cutworms do not feed during molting making it difficult to time chemical application. Consequently, I am uncertain as to whether insecticides were used extensively for cutworm control during my youth. There are other non-chemical means of cutworm management e.g., summerfallowing and delayed seeding – and, of course, sending children into the garden to “harvest” them.
Our vegetable gardens were augmented by many kinds of fruit grown in the orchard and berry patches on my grandparents’ farm. Baskets of apples (eating, baking, crab, jelly,) strawberries, raspberries, watermelon, “muskmelon” [what we call cantaloupe today,] not only reached our table but were sold to others in the community. “You pick it” farms were not yet in vogue. I was often pressed into service to assist my grandmother and my cousins to pick the ripe fruit which was sold by word of mouth to the first callers – some stopping by the farm “on spec” and others calling on the party line telephone which hung on the wall like the future museum piece it was to become, and jangled out the correct number of long and short rings. My grandfather experimented with many fruits and did develop a type of apricot that was hardy enough to produce fruit in the short Manitoba growing season. I remember savouring its somewhat foreign (to me at least) juicy flesh.
I will return to stories of the orchard in future posts. They surface too often in my memories to remain hidden for long. But for now, suffice it to say, that I am pretty certain that these orchards did not produce fruit that was “organically grown.” But again, I do not have firm evidence of the type or extent of chemical use, so any possible impact on my life or that of others cannot be stated or even alleged.
In other posts, I have contemplated the environmental antecedents for my Parkinson’s. I am not an environmental research scientist, and I have no conclusive evidence of environmental factors in my own case. I was far too young to keep records of any kind, never mind accurate records, or to make observations, which would stand the test of scientific methodological rigour. However, one has to wonder whether there is truth in oral history as much as in scientific data gathering. These reflections always make me return to the pesticides (insecticides) in common use during my childhood. DDT always jumps to mind.
Interestingly, a German student, Othmar Zeidler, first synthesized DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) in a purely scientific experiment in 1874. But Zeidler had no idea of its commercial potential and it was not until 1939 when chemist, Dr. Paul Herman Mûller, an employee of the dye-manufacturing firm of J. R. Geigy, S.A of Basel, produced it for commercial use. DDT was used extensively in controlling Colorado potato beetles before it was used for a whole host of other applications. I know that by the late 1950s (I was born in 1949) my father was applying “potato dust” to control those self-same Colorado potato beetles. Was it DDT? I have no conclusive evidence that it was but in all likelihood it was used at some point. Oh, if my father were still alive, the questions I would ask him. His passing predated my diagnosis with Parkinson’s and these questions were not as important to me then as they are now.
By the late 1950s another pesticide Carbaryl (1-naphthyl methylcarbamate) was developed by Union Carbide and touted as a broad-spectrum insecticide. It was sold to American farmers under the chemical name Sevin and is still available today to kill a wide variety of insects. Initially, it was touted as having few after effects and little residue. As a kid in the 1960s I am pretty sure that I remember my Dad using Sevin dust on his potatoes and tomatoes. It has been described as a pesticide and a neurotoxin “which in plain English means that they act on the nervous system of the insect [and humans presumably?]. In insects they scramble nerve impulses causing neurological misfires and ending in paralysis and death.”
If I had to describe my own experience with Parkinson’s and Dystonia, the words “neurological misfires and scrambled nerve impulses” would not be far from my mind. God, I may have to become a chemical engineer and an environmental scientist to sort out my own disease.
As I write this post, I have some fleeting images of a particular episode in the garden – not one of our family’s gardens but some other gardens around the village. I could not have been more than five or six years of age. [It seems that in these last few posts I am regressing into childhood memories in search of … something … I am not sure what.] In any case, I had an accomplice – let’s call him “Z” [not his real initial] in order to protect the guilty, for he was surely guilty, as was I.
Gardens in Altamont hardly ever had fences around them, and when they did, they were often in poor repair and offered no resistance or barrier to anyone who wanted to to gain entry. Such was the case with Mrs. X’s garden, and I believe it was also the case with Mr. X’s garden. Mrs. X and Mr. X had the same name but were not married. They may have been related but I do not believe that any familial relationship was entered into evidence at the time and therefore it is likely irrelevant to the outcome of this case. While I am certain that Mrs. X and Mr. X are quite dead, and that the statute of limitations has long run out on the commission of any crime(s), I have disguised the names of the victims in order to protect myself from any litigation and/or charges from their heirs and/or successors, should they still seek damages or allege slander.
The evidence placed before a panel of two judges (my father and Z’s father) was that a redheaded vandal and an accomplice were spotted wreaking havoc in at least two gardens, and possibly more, at various locations around the community. The redhead and accomplice were observed pulling various vegetation (carrots, peas, corn, cucumbers and potatoes in particular) up by the roots and were frolicking about the garden waving and throwing both vegetation and produce willy-nilly. As I recall, no bite marks were entered into evidence and it did not appear that the perpetrators consumed any carrots, peas, corn, cucumbers or potatoes. Shelled pea pods were indeed found on the ground near the legumes but that was not unusual in any garden in the community as everyone ate fresh peas right out of the pod.
My defense of “being under the influence” and “just having a good time” must have fallen on deaf ears. I also protested that no one identified me by name but only referred to the alleged perpetrator as “that redheaded boy.” I was adamant that just because I was the only redheaded boy of age 5 or 6 in the village did not mean that one from a neighboring town or environs did not sneak into our village intent on destroying gardens, and in the process besmirching my good reputation. It seems this line of defense was not persuasive.
Perhaps, if I had a better lawyer, I might have been able to plea bargain. Maybe Z and I should have reflected on the honesty of George Washington and professed boldly that we could not tell a lie and that we did indeed rip through Mrs. X’s and Mr. X’s gardens like little lethal tornadoes (certainly a grade up from dust devil) wreaking havoc among the fall harvest.
But, as it turns out, Z and I did not stand a chance. The evidence mounted against us at each turn. They had the dirt on us so to speak. The potatoes had eyes and the corn had ears. They saw, they heard and someone told. (I personally think it was the tomatoes who heard it through the grape tomato vine – okay, okay, these bad puns don’t help my case either.)
To make matters worse, it seems the two perpetrators decided that it was such a nice warm day, and if one was going to frolic, one might as well frolic in the manner that true frolicking was meant to be done. So we doffed several items of clothing that were subsequently found at the first garden (Mrs. X’s) and one of the principal scenes of the crime. There is no evidence as to how we got to the second garden, almost all the way across the village, without calls being made to the morality squad (our mothers.) I also have no evidence that these ragamuffins doffed all of their clothing but one might assume that if the punishment is commensurate with the crime that at least one of us met the criterion of being “indecent.”
So, it was determined that Z and I were two peas in a pod, and found guilty with no right to appeal. Sentencing was to be carried out in accordance with local custom where parents both determined and meted out the punishment.
I am about to say something now that is not easily understood in this age of sensitive parenting. It certainly is not meant to vilify or diminish my father in any way (especially in the eyes of my immediate and extended family) or to approve of corporal punishment. I loved my father dearly for reasons most will never know, even though we disagreed on many things over the course of the years we spent on this planet together. He was my earliest and best role model teaching me values and principles I hold dear to this day, and which have guided me almost without fail to good decisions throughout my life. I accept responsibility for any decisions that have failed to meet the standard, inasmuch as I deviated of my own accord from those principles. But some, when they read the following paragraph, will jump to inaccurate conclusions. Sometimes, you have to live a lifetime to be able to calculate the end product of that lifetime. Don’t be too quick to judge.
My father was a barber (among many other occupations as you heard earlier) and when I stepped out of bounds too seriously, I received a few smacks across my behind (always clothed) with the strap he used to sharpen his razors – firmly embedded in my mind as the “razor strop.” This was one of those occasions. Z was “grounded” – whatever that meant for a 6 year old – and he was tied to the kitchen table for a few hours “to each him a lesson.” I recall at the time that I thought that action was more barbaric than the few smacks of the strap on my behind after I received a very stern lecture on the value of property and the importance of gardens for sustenance and survival. My father had a way of ensuring there was always a lesson to be learned – from the behaviour that spawned the punishment – if not from the punishment itself. You can know of the basic laws of physics but if you don’t understand them, it will be a painful life. [Newton’s third law of motion: In a system where no external forces are present, every action force is always opposed by an equal and opposite reaction force.] Sometimes, such laws are parallels for understanding social behaviour.
So what am I to understand from my explorations of the murky depths of the cognitive reaches of my already dopamine deficient brain?
(1) We do not have a veggie garden and I really don’t understand why not. Sorry. The familial history and socialization to vegetable gardening was certainly present throughout my youth. Perhaps, the fact that I would have much rather been playing hockey, baseball or any other sport interfered with the maturation of such ideas. Leaving home when I was 16 to pursue some of those goals undoubtedly caused any thoughts of vegetable gardens to be suppressed. These are all areas which I have not explored in this post and won’t as they are too complex and, remarkably, too sensitive even these 50 years later to lay bare at this time. That time will come in due course.
(2) Perhaps I have a subliminal chemical addiction to vegetables carrying insecticides that attack my neurological system. This addiction may have clouded my judgment such that I deny the purity of environmentally sustainable market garden crops and blindly rely on corporate farming practices to look out for the well being of consumers i.e., corporate farming can provide cheap, accessible food eliminating the need for family or community gardens. If the phrase “sheer folly” were not already coined, surely it would have to be in order to describe these views.
(3) There do seem to be some other potentially mitigating environmental factors in my life re: Parkinson’s, including possible contamination of ground water from sewage [In a previous blog I mentioned my father’s concern about arsenic levels] and possible effects from the coal burning furnaces and the coal stored in our basement. To be fair, I have never read anywhere that coal has any association with Parkinson’s, but you never know.
(4) And lastly, my regression into the past led me to that place where I found myself frolicking nearly naked through a cloud of insecticide infusing my neurological system with the potential to “misfold” the alpha-synuclein protein in such a manner as to promote “misfires and scrambled nerve impulses.” Ah Parkinson’s, my constant companion and nemesis, may ultimately be the key to understanding my entire life.
After Note: “Z” and I were found guilty of vandalism and willful destruction of property but I cannot escape the feeling that we were not the only perpetrators in the veggie garden that fine day. But there was not enough evidence to convict them, and they remain at large.
I have a love/hate relationship with fundraising. No wait, let’s face it, I actually hate fundraising. But there are lots of people who are brilliant at it and thank God they are. Without them many worthy causes would not have sufficient funds to conduct research, or develop and deliver valuable services and programs.
I worked for years in an organization that received many requests each day to support a wide variety of causes. Each applicant carefully tailored their request to show why their work would benefit our organizational goals and were deserving of our financial support. I was charged with making recommendations on our allocations. Most causes were worthy and I hated to turn anyone away completely. Decisions revolved primarily around how to divide a finite amount of money among an ever growing group of applicants, keeping not only the applicants who were our allies happy but also keeping my superiors happy as they had preferences among the applicants. Diplomacy combined with ruthlessness in appropriate measures was essential to divide the pie successfully. And success often meant you pleased no one, irrespective of the size of the pie. I never felt entirely comfortable in this role.
Now I am on the other side of the equation, asking friends, relatives, former work colleagues, neighbours, Twitter buddies, and complete strangers to support a cause about which I have become passionate – Parkinson’s disease. You see, I have PD. There is no cure. It is a degenerative neurological disease which, in all likelihood, will get worse over the course of my lifetime and ultimately will render me incapable of independent movement and decision-making. Nevertheless, my request for assistance is not made for narrow personal gain. Rather, it is a plea to support a multi-faceted approach focusing on cause, cure and care. We must find the cause of Parkinson’s in order to prevent future cases; we must find a cure for those already afflicted; and we must advocate for and establish conditions for care so that Persons with Parkinson’s (PwP), their families and caregivers can survive the many challenges of this debilitating disease. No one should face a future of Parkinson’s disease without organizational support and resources.
I am certain that there are many reasons why people give money to favourite charities and organizations. Undoubtedly understanding philanthropy and the use of various techniques, strategies and technologies to increase giving is a science. And we employ professional fundraisers to maximize our return on investment such that good works can be accomplished effectively and efficiently. The world of fundraising and charitable work is filled with noble causes populated with good souls of enormous talent and skill who guide organizations to ever greater heights with each passing year. And yet the need is ever greater with each passing year. At this point, a pessimist would just pull the blanket up over her/his head in an attempt to shut out both light and sound. An optimist would (and should) revel in the advances made in each passing year. While we have not found a cure for Parkinson’s, no one can say that we have not made significant advances which make living with Parkinson’s more tolerable for PwP and their families/caregivers. Yes, I know that these advances are not enough and there is still great suffering for those afflicted.
I suspect that charitable organizations in small communities are reliant upon (or are part of) local faith and not-for-profit philanthropic organizations primarily supported by good, solid upstanding citizens who can rightly be called philanthropists and give generously from their own good fortune to those more in need. Who gives and why they give is undoubtedly one of the most important questions addressed by those who study philanthropy.
As always, I am not an expert in what I am about to say and the usual caveats apply. But I shall forge ahead, sometimes careening from one idea to another much like a Parkie bouncing off walls while walking through a narrow hallway when the meds have worn off. While I may not proceed with style, grace, alacrity, or certainty of direction, rest assured that I proceed with great purpose. Consider the following:
Fundraising in small towns in the 1950s took many forms. Charitable works were carried out in several ways: by faith groups (called “churches” in those days) and their respective auxiliaries; by not-for-profit organizations who held meetings in secret, with secret codes of conduct, secret handshakes and greetings, but raised money very publicly to support highly visible projects; by individuals who gave selflessly and generously to worthy causes eschewing any public recognition; by families who suffered great loss in the untimely deaths of loved ones and wished to spare others a similar fate; by those who adhered to the belief that community is greater than the sum of the individuals within it and was a place of shared responsibility for its overall health and well being; and by those who learned that love is a powerful motivator converting personal tragedy into positive energy extending the force of life of their loved ones long past their deaths through charitable foundations and events.
In the small rural Manitoba town where I grew up, entertainment was where you found it. I often tell my children that the only toy I ever had was a stick with a nail in it. This is closer to the truth than I usually care to admit. In the days before HBO and Netflix, entertainment sometimes found us when small troupes of singers, magicians and storytellers with pet skunks would pass through, booking the local hall for an evening before moving on to the next lucky town – spiriting out as many precious dollars as they could from the community before anyone asked for their money back, leaving behind only detritus for the hall caretaker to clear away.
But sometimes community-minded organizations, churches, and local businesses would coordinate to host a talent show – a loosely formed excuse to raise money for charity and showcase local talent. The night’s lineup could include the likes of: poets and poetry readers, tap dancers, folk singers, country and western groups, the wanna be rock band making its first appearance outside of an old barn, the local choir, a humorous skit about an operating room performed behind a curtain in silhouette à la Groucho Marx, and an emcee with a suitable patter of corny but clean jokes and enough brainpower to engage in witty repartee with the hecklers in the audience. The winners were selected by a panel of three individuals representing, somehow simultaneously, both the diversity and the commonality of the community. In other words, no one could complain about the results … and, at the same time, everyone could complain about the results if they wanted to do so. Few ever did. Small monetary awards signified success for the top three acts. The show relied on voluntary labour and donated goods, and, after a few small expenses, the proceeds went to local charities, and the good will stayed within the community.
When I was about 10 years old, I recall being given a whole dollar to attend one such show – many story tellers would say “a crisp new dollar bill”, but mine was neither crisp nor new. It was decidedly limp, worn, and slightly torn with illegible writing on one side. This dollar had not lingered long in any one pocket and it was not to linger long in mine. The Canadian loonie was far off in the distant future and this particular rag dollar was to retain a visage more akin to a rag than something shiny and collectable. My dollar was to pay for my entry and treats for the evening. The cost of admission was pegged at whatever people felt comfortable to give, knowing proceeds were being distributed to charity. The dollar bill was all I had, and the most I had ever had in my own pocket at one time. Filled with anticipation and excitement, I went to the community hall. This shy redheaded boy hesitantly approached the door and opened it slowly to peer inside. It was not yet dark outside and I could only make out dark shapes as my pupils struggled to adjust and process the information to spur my forward advance.
OMG! Well, this acronym wasn’t in use in 1959, but I think I thought something equivalent to that as my eyes landed on the person who was selling tickets at the table just inside. It was Miss Myrna! – the teenage daughter of the school principal, and she was, from my recollection, very beautiful and extremely intimidating, rendering me incapable of both speech and rational thought. Miss Myrna, gorgeous senior in high school and me, grade 5 introvert – hardly a fair match in any interaction.
I edged forward, aided by a push from someone behind who was annoyed at my reticence to enter. I slowly proffered my ratty dollar bill. Miss Myrna took the bill gingerly between thumb and forefinger and asked how much I would like to pay for my entry fee. Little did I know that I would parallel Stephen Leacock’s classic story of My Financial Career when I stumbled over my words and muttered, almost beneath my breath, “one dollar”. Miss Myrna smiled at me oh so sweetly and the dollar bill was now being caressed in her hands with a newly found fondness – or at least I thought so. She asked, “Are you sure? That is an awful lot of money.” Whatever neurons were firing in my brain at that moment were not sufficient to overturn the previous decision. Dry mouthed, I nodded. The decision was now confirmed – my full and only dollar was committed to go to charity and my evening was to be celebrated without any treats from the concession. But I did feel good – good that I sacrificed as much as I was able to sacrifice for those who needed the dollar more than I did. My consolation was that maybe, just maybe, Miss Myrna would judge me as a worthwhile soul and not an irritating, stinky, grade 5 toad.
In truth, I do not know what Miss Myrna thought about those few moments of interaction, if she thought about them at all. My own recollection is that she did smile at me sweetly if not approvingly, or maybe it was approvingly if not sweetly – it is hard for a ten year old to tell the difference – several times during the evening as the talent performed. Two old time fiddlers – one of French Canadian heritage and one of Irish Ottawa Valley background – fought it out for first and second places with a series of jigs, reels, waltzes and a schottische thrown in for good measure. Each was brought back for an encore presentation and they wrapped it up with a friendly fiddle duet. The crowd lapped it up. Third place went to two young highland lassies deftly performing a sword dance, much to the irritation of the youngsters in the crowd who cheered raucously for the newly formed rock and roll barn band. Older folks in the audience were quite disgusted by this youthful, rebellious exuberance.
Over the coming days, I basked in the memory of Miss Myrna’s warm smile and reflected upon the complexities of charitable giving. I sometimes still do. Did I only donate that dollar because I was a young tadpole incapable of any meaningful interaction with a member of the opposite sex; because I was under the spell of a beautiful older woman; because I knew deep within my value system that the dollar was far better off in the treasury of the charity than in my own pocket where it would soon be converted into candy with limited use as currency; or because all humans are born with some notion of altruism which can be nurtured and directed towards enhancing the greater good of any community. Perhaps, it need not matter. The important point was that the dollar was given and this transaction was worthy of the needs of all concerned.
In today’s world, should we give to anyone who comes knocking on our door, calling our phone, or contacting us via the internet? When we give, are we all just tricked by pretty voices, pretty faces, sad stories, bad choices, hopeful prayers, slick players, and fancy lines for fundraising times? Of course not. Giving, done freely within one’s means, without expectation of immediate selfish return, often carries the potential to accomplish more than intended, unbeknownst to either the giver or recipient.
When Anne and I announced our intention to marry and issued invitations to our wedding (the second marriage for each of us) there were discussions about wedding gifts and whether we should accept any at all. Neither of us had any need for traditional wedding gifts involving household goods, and we certainly did not need money. We also knew that most of our friends and relatives would not be comfortable in attending without some form of gift. That is just the way they are. We thought about donations to charities but discounted it as being too impersonal for most even if it would be the most altruistic. Sorry to disappoint, but altruism does not always win out – in the short term at least.
To make a long story short, we decided that for those who felt compelled to bring a gift, a small gift certificate to a local garden centre or nursery would suffice. Many guests did avail themselves of that option and various “‘gardens’ within the garden” began to unfold. The photo below is one perspective on this garden which has brought great joy to our lives over the past 18 years, and will continue to do so for many more. One of our children opted to be married against this backdrop five years ago. All of our children and our closest friends understand how much this garden means to our overall health and well being – particularly mine as I make my way through life with Parkinson’s. Anne revels in the sheer riotous and often ridiculous madness of the colours, and the unpredictable yet ultimately perfectly chosen juxtaposition of colour and form upon which Mother Nature has deemed it suitable to place her signature. The garden is my classroom – for matters agricultural, horticultural, political, sociological, philosophical, and spiritual. The lessons, not always immediately apparent, do reveal themselves ultimately with enough tactile and cerebral prodding. It is a classroom whose doors never close.
These few gifts given to us on our wedding day have blossomed into a profusion of colours, shapes, scents [even if the Parkie doesn’t smell them so well any more] and memories which nurture and guide our souls through the rhythms and “stuff of life” as my father would say. Giving is most often like that. It has benefits far beyond any human capacity to calculate the permutations.
So, did Miss Myrna unfairly take advantage of a young lad who stayed pretty much a ” country bumpkin” most of his life? I think not. The lad, even at such a young age, wanted to impress – not always a good quality but not the worst by any stretch. There was no firm expectation of quid pro quo on either side. The money was given and received in good faith, and put towards good charitable works by the local faith groups. The lad discovered that basic human interactions often contain lessons for later, and greater, life decisions.
Since I began writing The PD Gardener Blog about one year ago, it has received over 1,200 views in 32 different countries. No matter where you live, I ask that you exercise the altruistic tendency of basic human nature (even if it may be tinged a little bit by a desire to impress) and support Parkinson’s SuperWalk 2014 by clicking on the link below to donate and/or join my team, The PD Gardener.
Help sow seeds in the many gardens that must flourish in order to subdue Parkinson’s and to support research, advocacy, policy development, services and programs. And remember, giving, like gardening, is always worth the effort.
Stan Marshall aka The PD Gardener