Short, Pithy and/or Pissy Posts: A new feature

Short, Pithy and/or Pissy Posts is a new feature on this site devoted to well … “Short, Pithy and/or Pissy Posts” about Parkinson’s, gardening or anything really … but uncharacteristically for me, I have to say it in 750 words or less!  It is all explained in the first post which you can find here:  Short, Pithy, and/or Pissy Posts

Have a great weekend!

In the Parkinson’s Garden: Ruminations on Love, Intimacy and Sex

In the Parkinson’s Garden: Ruminations on Love, Intimacy and Sex

Preface

It has been quite some time since my last post. I assure you that I have not been idle, just facing a number of challenges which have required close and careful attention. I have been relearning how to walk after losing this capacity quite suddenly over a period of 4 – 5 days in January 2016. As part of this challenge I had a total replacement of my left knee in late August. I am now a little over two months post surgery and have completed my knee rehabilitation physiotherapy program. I have some things to say about the surgery and the rehab as well as the frustration of losing all capacity to walk and not finding a suitable explanation as to why this should happen. However these are topics for future posts.

The biggest reason for the delay, or should I say hesitancy in making my thoughts public, is the sensitive and tricky nature of the subject matter. While the topic has been bouncing around in my mind for quite some time, personal thoughts about sex, love and intimacy are not something that spills onto the page without some considerable thought – especially because my wife and lover will read it with a most critical eye, and rightfully so (see Note 1.)

OK, you might well ask: “Who in their right mind wants to read a blog post on love, sex, and intimacy through the lens of a 67-year-old male Person with Parkinson’s (PwP.) Already I can hear bleats of protest, if not indignation and outrage, ranging from: “Oh God, No!” “Cover your eyes and ears,” “Spare us!” Yikes!” “Lock up your children,” ”Gross,” “You deviant,” “You pervert” and worse. If these represent the tenor of the thoughts going through your mind, then I sincerely hope that I do not live up (more precisely, down) to your expectations.

To be honest, I do have some reservations about embarking on this journey, mostly because my thoughts on intimacy, sex and love have a much greater probability of being misunderstood than my thoughts on many other topics. Still, I tell myself that I am being honest in my approach and it has never been my intention to write a “tell all story” or an exposé on the sex life of a PwP. Those of you who are expecting a titillating account of sexual encounters (creepy, romantic, or both) or have a prurient interest in the sexual appetites, activities and proclivities of those who suffer from chronic, debilitating disease and find ways to overcome obstacles to intimacy and sexual satisfaction, can look elsewhere.

When I started this post, I wanted to write about how sex, love and intimacy are just as important to Persons with Parkinson’s as they are for so-called “normal” people. More precisely, I wanted to write about a “normal guy with Parkinson’s” who

  • Has dopamine deprivation such that his physiological and the neurological systems are not playing well together;
  • Has so many motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s that his personality, his essential self, disappears into the visual busyness that is Parkinson’s;
  • Has difficulty making his views heard and understood outside of a very small circle of friends and family;
  • Desperately wants to deny that the disease is not only advancing but will eventually render him incapable of activities of daily living and totally dependent on others for care;
  • Wants to live and feel that complex of human feelings and behaviours we have come to associate with intimacy, love and sex.

Let’s be clear. I am quite sure that any talents I possess as a writer or a story teller will not be adequate to the task of explaining the permutations and combinations of love, sex and intimacy along with the almost infinite number of accompanying human emotions. Nevertheless, I shall do my best to begin this conversation in the only way I know how – using a blend of personal experience, critical self-reflection, knowledge (lived and acquired) , and informed awareness of the issues.

[Please note that I have not included any analyses of the tremendous love and support I receive from my family and friends as it is of a different order of love and intimacy.  If anything they should feel relieved by this omission rather than slighted.]

Two particular unrelated events, one hundred years apart, have been instrumental in the formation of my views on intimacy, love and sex, and on my decision to voice them in a public forum.

So, let’s get started shall we?

Eloping: Guns Blazing?

 [Love was smouldering in the gardens and orchards ….]

What better place to begin a search for true love than with a story about true love. The time is 1915; the place is Deerwood – a small Manitoba farming community on the rail line between Altamont and Miami; and the key protagonists are my paternal grandmother, the auburn-haired Maud Moorhouse, her father Henry Moorhouse, and my grandfather, Robert Egerton Marshall, neighbouring farmer and “ne’er do well.”

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Map showing the proximity of the Marshall and Moorhouse farms

I do not recall my grandparents being wildly in love but obviously there was something smouldering on November 23, 1915 when they evaded the pursuit of the bride’s father to elope and marry in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The story of the elopement has always been told in our family with a certain amount of humour – a story about how Maud (20 years old) and “Old” Bob (15 years her senior) had outfoxed Maud’s father and run off to Winnipeg together. It was pretty racy stuff for rural Manitoba in 1915.

In an undated and unpublished manuscript, Not Because of Beginnings, Dr. H. H. Marshall, the first-born child of the eloping couple outlines the facts of the matter.

“On November 23, 1915, Bob drove his horses the long roundabout way to approach the Moorhouse farm from the Deerwood side, which was mostly hidden from view from the house. A deep ravine crossed the south part of the Moorhouse farm and between the Marshall farm and Deerwood. There were no approaches for three miles to the east but the west approaches could all be seen. While her father’s attention was diverted, Maud walked down through the wooded ravine pasture to meet Bob. They then drove to the railway station at Deerwood, where he had bought tickets earlier. The train was on time and they were on it. Father [Henry Moorhouse] was furious when he learned what was happening but he had been delayed some. He took his good team of horses and a shotgun to follow the elopers but he arrived at the station after the train had left. He tried to follow but was left far behind. Bob and Maud traveled to Winnipeg to be married by Rev. Ridd, a minister who had served at Miami. Henry was forced to accept the situation, although he certainly would have fumed and stormed for some time.”

The story has been told and retold many times over the years (and will continue to be) and each telling will be as understated or as overstated as the teller wishes it to be. Undoubtedly, many of the accounts will contain embellishment in keeping with the storyteller’s character and his/her skills at weaving a good tale. The fun may have been in outsmarting father Moorhouse who would be painted as a gruff old bugger with no love for an underachieving neighbouring farmer almost as old as himself. It could be accompanied with appropriate narrative describing the farming economy of the day and Marshall’s poor prospects coinciding with his decidedly very poor agricultural land, barely suitable for pasture, as the backdrop to Marshall’s desire to spend most of his time on horticulture and fruit growing rather than traditional farming. I have heard some say that he was a “damn poor farmer.” The punch line would be that Marshall’s inclinations were correct and his observations that this land would produce excellent produce led him and Maud to some notoriety as innovators in fruit and vegetable growing and other horticultural pursuits. Not to mention that their genes and the environment they created produced their first-born son Henry who would blaze his own path as an innovator in horticulture. The irony would not be missed in the fact that Henry Marshall was named after his maternal grandfather, and young Henry would soften the gruff old man and become Moorhouse’s (only) favourite among the five grandsons Bob and Maud gave him.

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Maud and Bob Marshall with a selection of their produce. Photo: unknown

Or the storyteller might chose to elaborate on the secretive courtship, the ruse, the deception, the chase and the sweet victory of true love in Winnipeg. The collusion and collaboration by those in the know to ensure that the lovers were able to escape the disapproving father required some intricate maneuvering given the communications of the day. The lovers would be trying to leave unobtrusively. Upon learning of the plan Old Moorhouse would run his horses to the sweat trying to beat the lovers to the train, falling just short; guns blazing as the train sped out of sight.

The best stories are ones that are true for the most part but leave the storyteller some leeway to work magic at the edges of the veracity. What is the real story behind the elopement of Bob Marshall and Maud Moorhouse? Who pursued whom before old man Moorhouse pursued them both? Was Maud’s sister, Ethel, a co-conspirator seeing this as her way to avenge her father’s firm  refusal to approve her own potential marriage? Who knows for certain?  I hope I have the opportunity someday to return to these events so important to my family’s history.

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Henry Moorhouse and daughter Ethel c. 1927. Photo courtesy of Western Canadian  Pictorial Index, University of Winnipeg Archives

For now, I can only say with some certainty that there was love smouldering in my family’s gardens and orchards in those years and that realization is part of the impetus for me to reflect on love, sex and intimacy from the warmth and love generated within the confines of our present day Parkinson’s garden.

Okay, that is the first reason for writing this particular blog posting. As always, it is best not to charge ahead too quickly without understanding all of the antecedent reasons for proceeding.

Wife/Caregiver Takes a Lover

[The honourable thing may be to face the music and end the charade; just don’t expect accolades or applause.]

Some months ago I read an article that I can’t seem to get out of my mind. In Australia the wife of a Person with Parkinson’s, revealed through a Christmas missive to friends and family in 2015 that she had taken a lover while still living with, and caring for, her husband.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC.net.au 2016) aired a documentary called The Three of Us: Carer, Husband and Lover which is about … well … about the three of them. The short story is this: Damian, Elaine’s husband, has early onset Parkinson’s and frontotemporal lobe dementia; Elaine, Damian’s wife and ‘carer,’ takes a lover, Trevor; Trevor becomes Damian’s friend, and lives a few blocks away from Elaine and Damian. Elaine and Trevor, it seems, are fine with this arrangement and she reveals all to the world in a Christmas letter – a commonly accepted vehicle for disseminating information – joyful and sorrowful – throughout the Christian world. This function continues even as social media gallops ahead of the Christmas letter curve primarily because the Christmas letter can disguise itself and hitchhike within the links and attachments of social media.

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Christmas letters bring joy and sorrow

I am not sure what to say about Elaine’s letter. Is it a joyful one because Elaine has found happiness and a new love? Is it sorrowful because the marriage between Elaine and Damian has broken down and Elaine has moved intimacy and “romantic love” out … and into another relationship? Is it sorrowful because Parkinson’s and dementia have robbed Elaine and Damian of the opportunity to maintain a ‘real’ marriage (“‘til death do us part”,) with long-term physical and emotional commitment including sex and intimacy? Is it joyful because Elaine has found the wherewithal to carry on as a ‘carer’ fulfilling another commitment in the marriage vows (”in sickness and health”) by providing tender loving care? Is it joyful that Damian and Trevor have established a friendship? Is it joyful for children and/or others in the family who are now freed from the worries of how to provide care for Damian? Or is that sad too?

Interestingly, the hit Netflix series Grace and Frankie has weighed in on the same issue using Alzheimer’s as the disruptive scenario. It is not surprising that mainstream entertainment is latching onto these moral issues as important topics for viewers. After all, millions of people worldwide face this dilemma every day. Grace meets a boyfriend (Phil) from her past. They each have a desire for this relationship to be rekindled when Grace discovers that Phil is still married to Elaine (ironically) who suffers from Alzheimer’s and drifts in and out of reality. Of course, this immediately raises the moral question of whether Grace should date and become a lover to a man still married to, and is caregiver for, his wife – albeit a wife who no longer has her full faculties. Spoiler alert: Grace decides initially that she cannot continue on a path to reunite with the old flame under these circumstances. In a later episode she reconsiders and the relationship continues with a steamy hotel meeting that is interrupted by a call notifying Phil that Elaine is missing. The realities of life with someone with Alzheimer’s hits home and the moral question lays there like ‘a turd on the rug’ as a former colleague of mine used to say. The last I remember Grace is calling the whole thing off … or not.

Wait! The Patient Has a View Too

[Hey! I am inside here, you know.]

Let’s return to the Australian Broadcast Corporation documentary for a minute. Journalist Kirsti Melville takes great care to say that she didn’t expect the husband, Damian, to have a coherent and cogent opinion about the relationship between Elaine and Trevor. However, as the making of the documentary progresses she realized that she was wrong on this score and that she should ask Damian for his views, as he deserved that much respect at least. I personally think that it should have been more than an afterthought but I am relieved that she came to see Damian as a human being affected both by the process and the decision. Quite eloquently, the youngest son expressed his wish that his dad not be “reduced to a list of symptoms,” and Melville seems to have taken that request to heart.

For his part, Damian does seem aware that his relationship with Elaine has changed and that he and Elaine each have a different relationship with Trevor. Damian seems to accept this reality with equanimity in the same way he accepts that his health is deteriorating, that he needs assistance and that life is now better under this new reality than it was previously. Do I sense a hint of relief on everyone’s part here? What if Damian had rejected the new arrangement? Melville concludes the documentary by saying that this is a “gorgeous story.”

As a sentient human being myself, albeit one that has Parkinson’s, the enormity of the sadness I feel whenever I consider the possibility that Anne (my wife and lover) and I would have a relationship other than the one we currently enjoy is so massive that it sends cold turbulence through my emotional self; an icy chill freezes all rational perspective; a numbness deadens sensation in my lips, fingers and hands; and a deafening silence fills a space previously filled with words unnecessary to be said aloud.

It is to be unthinkable, yet it is almost a certainty that Parkinson’s, Lewy Body dementia, old age and worn out body parts, or some combination of those conditions, will upset the apple cart. I am not in the least suggesting infidelity. Rather, I am admitting that changes in physical and mental health bring with them some new rules, and even if a relationship remains emotionally true and intact, it does not remain identical through each moment of time as each year unsympathetically exposes more warts and frailties.

Am I allowed to be sad about these eventualities creeping ever closer into our foreseeable future? Yes, of course. Is Anne allowed to be sad? Yes, of course. But let’s be clear; being sad about the probability of something happening in the indeterminate future is a poor way to live everyday life. It is far better to rejoice in the pleasure of the moment. Uh, oh. Is that too hedonistic? Not for this PwP. I have a pretty good idea about my long-term prognosis and I happily accept any burden hedonism might impose in the short term.

I apologize but unwittingly, I have strayed a little from the main point. Whether we are allowed to be, or should be, sad is not the question. The question is: Are we allowed to move on when (if) a significant change occurs in the conditions within which a relationship lives? That question is not so easy to answer.

On the basis of what you have read so far I wouldn’t blame you for concluding that I think Elaine in Australia is wrong to have taken a lover while caring for her Parkinson’s husband. But to be truthful, I am not sure. What I do know is that I am not qualified to make that judgement. However what I am qualified to do is to ensure that the voice of the person being cared for (the patient, PwP, disabled, person with dementia) is heard and not dismissed as being something other than compos mentis.

No Fighter, Including Muhammad Ali, Ever Went into the Ring Unprepared

[Is thinking too much about bad things a bad thing, or is it just that thinking too much is a bad thing?]

The longer you live with Parkinson’s the more you accept that it is a progressively degenerative disease. It will advance in a predictably unpredictable manner through stages – sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly.  You will feel each new symptom, or worsening of old ones, at the very moment that it occurs. You will choose either to ignore or deny the change but no matter how much you put your head in the sand it will wear you down until you accept the change as the “new normal.”  You are forced to admit grudgingly that Parkinson’s marches on as inevitably and steadfastly as life itself.  You come to understand that Parkinson’s travels incognito for years before it merges with the final steps of life’s journey to reach death, a destination it could not locate on its own.

Oh, there will be “cheerleaders” exhorting you to fight on, to resist, to beat the odds, to delay (or defeat) the advance of Parkinson’s. We all need encouragement to keep active – exercise, cycle, walk, run, swim, box, dance, do physiotherapy, do Pilates, do yoga, sing, play music, write, paint, garden, or do any other activity to keep our minds sharp and our bodies in fine fettle. In combination with diet, medical devices, pharmaceuticals (old and new) medical procedures and surgeries such as DBS (deep brain stimulation) or duodopa intestinal pumps and transdermal delivery systems, physical activity gains a better quality of life for us, over a longer period of time. The problem is: I know that, at the present time at least, I cannot outlive Parkinson’s anymore than I can outlive death, no matter how many cheerleaders there are on the sidelines.

There is a maxim, “We do not die from Parkinson’s but we will die with it” which implies that Parkinson’s is not a cause of death.  While it is largely true, it is not the whole of the matter. There are many symptoms of Parkinson’s which appear to aid and abet death at the very least. For example, The Michael J. Fox Foundation claims “the leading cause of death in Parkinson’s is aspiration pneumonia due to swallowing disorders.”  In addition to dysphagia we could add depression and loss of balance as other factors leading to death. You may have died of a brain injury when your head hit the ground, but the ‘real’ cause of death was that you lost your balance and fell because you have Parkinson’s.

Why does the maxim “We do not die from Parkinson’s but we will die with it” bother me? Aside from the fact that there is a question as to its veracity, it effectively minimizes the onerous path that Parkinson’s can take you along before you die. There is no cure for Parkinson’s, just as there is no cure for death, and I can expect that my body and/or mind will decline significantly along the way because my symptoms will intensify and multiply. Having Parkinson’s places your life at a point closer to death than it would be otherwise. In other words, you have a  shorter life expectancy if you have Parkinson’s.

Many of you will feel that I am being defeatist or depressing (if not depressed.) You would be wrong. If you want to give it the good fight you have to know what you are up against. No fighter, including Muhammad Ali, ever went into the ring unprepared. I am telling you though, that the mental preparation necessary to face the probability of altered personal and intimate relationships is the toughest preparation I have ever had to do, maybe even tougher than facing the physical demands of Parkinson’s itself. The energy and focus it has taken to write this blog post is but a small part of this preparation. There are no blueprints or manuals. The challenges are different for each individual and vary according to stage of disease development.

Of course, many PwP turn to clerics armed with Faith and religious texts or counsellors armed with knowledge from social – psychological studies to provide the  strength to buttress yourself against the physical, social, mental and spiritual turmoil you will face. Choose the approach (or more than one) with which you will be most comfortable as you travel on your journey: Yoga, meditation, Pilates, faith, spirituality, religion, love of family, exercise, or any other of dozens of choices, will give you peace and serenity.

I suspect that only the strongest of relationships are long-term survivors of a Parkinson’s diagnosis. After diagnosis it is not long before work colleagues and other friends drift away but they may well have done so anyway, after the workplace connection is broken by long term disability or retirement.   Outside of personal intimate relationships, the toughest loss to deal with is the loss of “close” friends who will exclude you because … I am not sure why. Perhaps, your interests and/or lifestyles diverge or they may buy into the belief that Parkinson’s is associated with cognitive decline. In the wake of such losses, I comfort myself with the knowledge that very few people keep good friends for a lifetime even in the most ideal circumstances. Still, these are not the relationships with which I am primarily concerned as my thoughts are focussed on relationships involving love, sex and intimacy.

What Does Baseball Have To Do With It?

[Whatever gave me the notion that people would continue to play fair when they fell “out of love” is beyond me.]

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The Major leagues were a long way from our little ball field. Photo: S. Marshall 2015

It might seem trivial at first but when I was a lad of about eight years old, Roy Campanella, star catcher of Major League Baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers (1948 -1958) was one of my heroes. Campanella broke into the major leagues in 1948, one year after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier. Unfortunately, Campanella’s career was cut short by an automobile accident that left him a paraplegic. I thirsted for knowledge about Campanella back in those days but we did not own a television and radio reporting was sporadic in rural areas, although my little transistor radio could pick up faraway ball games on crisp late summer and early autumn evenings after local stations reduced their wattage. Moreover, there was no library in Altamont, Manitoba so my father arranged that I could have borrowing privileges with the University of Manitoba Extension Library from which I could order books to be sent by mail. I recall devouring The Roy Campanella Story by Milton J. Shapiro (1958).

Then about a decade ago I read something about the breakdown of Campanella’s relationship with his second wife that profoundly saddened me. The exact sentence is still fresh in my mind. “Campanella’s wife Ruthie, unable to cope with the loss of physical intimacy imposed by the accident, left him” (see Note 2.)  In other accounts I read that she would leave their home in the evenings flauntingly seeking male companionship. For some reason this repulsed me greatly and even though I knew that Campanella had his own share of infidelities over the years, I had great sympathy for him. I am not going to go into a long discourse on this matter other than to say that I was repulsed by what I perceived as a deliberate and flagrant desire on Ruthie’s part to hurt Campanella, a man who could neither fend for himself nor defend himself. I guess this is a variation of the old idiom “don’t kick someone when they are down” and appeals to some sense of “fair play” – that people should not play “dirty.” Is this an accurate interpretation? Probably not and it probably doesn’t really matter to most people, but that is how I felt when my brain first processed this information.

And Then Ruby’s Feelings Must Be Considered

[this song will not end with Ruby and her man getting back together.]

The perils of love, intimacy and sex as experienced by Ruthie and Roy Campanella was brought sharply back to my memory in the song, Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town written by Mel Tillis and originally recorded by Johnny Darrell in 1967. Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller, George Jones and many others have covered the song but it is Kenny Rogers’ release in 1969 that is accepted as the best version and a blockbuster hit. The original lyrics were about a veteran of the Korean War and his wife, but in the late 1960s people widely believed it to be about the Vietnam War and Rogers’ release of the song was very controversial at the time.

I personally don’t associate the song with either Korea or Vietnam but when I hear those mournful lyrics

It’s hard to love a man whose
Legs are bent and paralyzed
And the wants and the needs of
A woman your age, Ruby, I realize

I cannot help but think of Roy Campanella. Of course Tillis’ lyrics, written for public entertainment and mass consumption, are among the best in a long tradition of ‘hurtin’ country and western music, a mixture of everything good and bad about love and deception. In the end, even the murder of the offending wife is contemplated but that deed cannot be fulfilled leaving … what? … a disabled man helpless; Ruby free to do what she pleases; and a clear indication that this song will not end with Ruby and her man getting back together.

And if I could move, I’d get my gun
And put her in the ground
Oh, Ruby, don’t take your love to town
….
Oh, Ruby, for God’s sake, turn around

In any case, about a year ago I heard Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town and I remarked to some friends that I thought it was a terribly sad song. I relayed my understanding of the situation faced by Ruthie Campanella when Roy was left paralyzed and how she couldn’t cope with the loss of intimacy and sought to fulfill those desires elsewhere. Perhaps I have been too quick to criticize Ruthie (and Ruby in the song) because my comments were met with a sharp retort from a female friend, “For God’s sake, get over it! Why shouldn’t she find someone else?”

OK then. There we have it. Or, do we?

Romantic Love

[Unlikely as you may think it to be, some lads hunger for a tender kiss.]

When and where do boys first become aware of romantic love? I doubt if it is when they begin to read the sports pages or gossip columnist stories about sports heroes such as Roy Campanella or in the top 10 pop hits list of the entertainment section. I am convinced it happens much earlier but be relieved that I am not going to go into a psychological exegesis about memories of being birthed or suckling at my mother’s breast as my first formative moment(s). [I am not sure that I did suckle at her breast for any extended time, as breastfeeding was not in vogue during the 1940s and 1950s in Canada.]

But if birthing and breastfeeding were defining moments, I don’t recall it that way – in fact, I don’t recall that part at all. Rather, my first memory of such a thing called love between two humans – a love that was not a familial love but a love that encompassed intimacy – was the love my Uncle Henry and Aunt Eva had for each other, at least as I witnessed it as a child. Yes, this is the same Henry, first-born child of Robert and Maud Marshall after they eloped in 1915. In retrospect I am convinced that my aunt and uncle had a tenderness and a tangible common understanding of commitment that exceeded the norm for most other relationships – I say this confidently as I reflect on my own 60 plus years of study as a participant observer of human behaviour (non-scientific I grant you but observational data points nonetheless.)

As this is not a “tell all” blog post (it is hardly even a “tell something” post) don’t expect me to go into great intimate detail of my uncle’s and aunt’s lives spent in love, other than to say that there is something about a chance observation of a noon hour kiss on the lips, a genuine tender kiss, neither a peck nor a slobbering, groping tonguing, that left this small boy entranced, longing to know the secret to such an uninhibited demonstration of love. I witnessed this portrayal of affection many times in my formative years when my uncle would arrive home for lunch, having spent the morning in the gardens and greenhouses of the Brandon Experimental Farm. On occasion they were a little more demonstrative and disappeared into their bedroom for some cuddle time. I spent a few weeks each summer at the Experimental Farm with my cousins and the expression of genuine affection between my aunt and uncle never changed over that time. Low key, long term, lasting, love. What I witnessed was neither titillating nor tawdry but it was a powerful introduction to what I believe is the most powerful of human feelings.

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Henry and Eva Marshall Photo credit: unknown

It seems that my remembrances of my aunt’s full bodied gentleness, my uncle’s strong gardening hands, and their lips caressing in a short soft noon time kiss create the ideal segue for me to talk about love in our present day garden.

My Love Affair With Roses

[Thorny as they may be, it is impossible to plant a rose without giving it a hug. See Note 3]

Some might say that the men (and some of the women) in my family loved their gardens and orchards more than they loved their women (or men.) I like to think, somewhat selfishly I suppose, that the quantum of love is equal in each case and this is perfectly in order as long as the love for your human lover is of a magnitude required to sustain the relationship over a lifetime.

This history of love for gardens and orchards in my family may go some distance to explaining why I seem to be having a love affair with roses this past year. It is not entirely surprising that roses should seduce me now. Oh, we have always grown a few roses, mainly those developed by my uncle, Henry Marshall, who was instrumental in developing the Parkland series of roses at the Morden Research Station (see Note 4) but to say that I was crazy in love with roses before this year would be incorrect.

There is no doubt about it; this year is different. I now have a full-blown infatuation, or dare I say, fixation, or maybe obsession, with some specific species and varieties. Under normal circumstances one might interpret such a state of mind as being one of great joy but in the sanctuary of my garden, alone with my innermost reflective thoughts, the joy of being so intimately close to a beautiful rose that her love bites are evident in the sanguineous contrails on my arms, is often tinged with the sadness of knowing that my desires are partly the last ditch efforts of this gardener (the PD Gardener) to experience as completely as possible one of the most sought after perfections of love – roses – before he is no longer capable of the husbandry required for them to flourish and the mental acuity required to bask in the romance and intimacy that they proffer.

Not surprisingly I guess, I have been reflecting mightily upon life and love, especially life and love in a world with Parkinson’s disease, my constant and most abusive companion.   I have come to look to the rose, iconic as it is of love, to override the ravages of Parkinson’s, to perfume the ether for lovers whose wings take them to those lofty heights, to provide the beauty that is in the eye of the beholder. I desire desperately to be in that select category of “lovers” known only to poets, song writers and composers – you know those romantics who make you want to hurl your stomach contents into the shrubbery and who, at the very same time, make your insides come alive with butterflies of anticipation as you sense the presence of a new lover. [The difference between literary excellence and soap opera cheesiness gets a little muddied sometimes.]

It is small wonder then that this is the year of my love affair with roses. For this year I crave reassurance in all matters of love, especially as the staccato ‘rat-a-tat-tat” and “thrum thrum” of the advancing drums of Parkinson’s often obscures mellow intimate tones, and may even cause them to flee. The Parkinson’s drum corps is relentless in exhorting the destruction of the final few neurons capable of dopamine production. It has been a difficult year with many health challenges nipping at my heels at a time when I maybe won’t be kicking up my heels quite so much in the near future. I desperately hope this prediction is not the case and that The PD Gardener has many more years of flirtation with flora of all species.

In my sanctuary, in my garden, I stay the course, gather my strength and turn a deaf ear to Parkinson’s heartless beat. The garden works a therapeutic magic, magic so strong as to suppress temporarily the tide of muscle movement disorder and non-motor symptoms. It grants me peaceful interludes to reflect on my family and good fortune.  In the garden I am mostly a labourer, often a gardener, sometimes a landscaper, occasionally a naturist, once in a blue moon a horticulturalist, frequently a social historian, and always an amateur philosopher.  I know deep in my heart that each role cannot save me, individually or collectively, from Parkinson’s. But these roles, individually and collectively, provide vehicles through which flora in general and roses in particular (at least this year) seduce me into accepting that, even outside the garden, I am loved as much or more than I love.

Having a new desire, a new focus for your attention, is an important part of the seduction.  There are many new roses on the market making a trip to the nursery even more exciting than usual. I find myself hanging around the rose sections of various garden centres, surfing the Internet for new information and photographs, and being distracted anytime I come near a rose. I have relentlessly pursued some varieties, unsuccessfully as it turns out, until my children hooked me up on blind dates.

To be clear, my affections run strictly to shrub and rugosa roses. I have little interest in tea roses or other roses that I consider high maintenance and finicky. And if it is not hardy to our climate (zone 3 or possibly 4 in some isolated micro- environments in our garden,) I don’t have much use for it either. I am not a protective kind of guy when it comes to roses in winter and I leave them to fend for themselves no matter how severe the weather during those months. They live or they die. If they die I am sad of course but I accept no blame – winter is winter and largely beyond our control. Oddly, I do become more protective when it comes to hot weather or arid conditions. I do want the roses to survive heat waves (and we seem to be having more of these periods as the planet heats up.) I will water roses to keep them healthy and to ensure that they bloom profusely.

It is not easy to describe my love affair with roses but let me try by describing some romantic interludes with several “Rosa.”

Rosa x ‘Oscar Peterson’

I had my eye on several young roses but it was Rosa x ‘Oscar Peterson’ who lured me into a tantalizing, thorny and crazy love affair. This newest rose in the Canadian Artists Series is named in honour of jazz great, Oscar Peterson. I know, Oscar Peterson is male and I am not gay so what is the attraction? In my world, roses are always referred to as being female but in fact, roses are hermaphrodite plants i.e., they have both male stamen and female stigma on the same flower. Monoecious plants have separate male and female flowers on the same plant, and Dioecious plants have only one flower, either male or female, on each plant. Consequently feel free to refer to roses as female or male as is your desire.

Rosa x ‘Oscar Peterson’ is not shapely but is an almost compact square at 1.5 meters x 1.5 meters.  Its buds emerge with the colour of Creamsicles (one of my favourite childhood treats) before maturing into pure white blooms with yellow stamens – no less inviting.

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Rosa x Oscar Peterson  Photo: S. Marshall 2016

Oscar Peterson’s developers were clear in their evaluation of the rose that it met the standards of excellence exemplified by Oscar Peterson as a musician and they encapsulated those thoughts as follows:

“Oscar Peterson’s music was seamless, as if it flowed from his fingers like a spring of clear water. Those who understand music know that such perfection is the result of hard work and endless practice.”

“It is fitting that the new ‘Oscar Peterson’ rose has attributes of perfection. Its flawless, deep green foliage acts as a perfect foil for blossoms that appear as if from a never ending floral spring. These glossy leaves are the result of the hard work and patience of generations of breeders who have worked to create roses with superb hardiness, disease resistance and great beauty.”

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“The semi-double flowers begin life in a shade of softest yellow cream, especially in cooler weather. Often the tips of the petals are lightly touched by red. Soon cream turns to glistening bright white and a contrasting boss of golden yellow stamens. The flowers are arranged in sprays, and, like a musician who finishes his set with style, the petals drop cleanly away once the show is over.”

Far be it for me to attempt to wax more poetic than the above passage to explain why this white rose should be named for a Canadian black musician whose music captivates our minds and captures our hearts, rendering us defenseless to resist its charms. The subtlety and simplicity of the melody cavorting with the complexity of the phrasing plays delicately upon our emotions equally as much as it plays with our emotions, lifting us to the very height of hopefulness, far away from the din of despair. Don’t believe me? Listen to Night Train (released in 1962) the landmark album of the Oscar Peterson Trio (Peterson, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dyip9jykZ7o

For me, this is enough said. However, others who are more closely attuned to the sociological phenomena of race, culture and inequality have voiced their view that it is appropriate that the rose named for Peterson is white as it fits his blend of jazz – ‘White’ and not ‘Black.’ Others attribute this white rose faux pas as yet more evidence of a white culture’s ignorance of the racial dynamic.  I fear this horticultural and socio-cultural debate will have to await another occasion – perhaps when another of my favourites, Erroll Garner’s Concert by the Sea, can be introduced into evidence.

Rosa x ‘Emily Carr’

I really must apologize as I intentionally told you a little “white” lie in the previous section – Rosa x ‘Oscar Peterson’ was not my first dalliance in the Canadian Artists series. About three years ago we came upon Rosa x ‘Emily Carr’ with her clusters of deep red blooms calling out for your attention at all hours of the day … and night for that matter. While she is advertised as being wider than she is tall, in our garden she sends up canes 8 feet tall (almost like a climber) on which she proudly displays clusters of  gorgeous blooms continually through the hot and steamy summer.  Surprisingly though she does not rest until a hard frost halts her in her tracks.

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Emily Carr Photo: S. Marshall 2016

“You come into the world alone and you go out of the world alone yet it seems to me you are more alone while living than even going and coming.” ~ Emily Carr

Such a bleak picture to paint. Being alone is a complete package from birth to death and in between. It can be a sad thing but it need not necessarily be so and we often choose to be alone at various times in our lives. Indeed, we are often happy to be alone at those times. Being lonely though is a different matter and is by definition sad as it means the soul is not being nourished. I am not a religious person so I will resist the temptation to speak of faith in a Supreme Being as nourishment, but I know for a fact that the “quiet nothingness” of a loving relationship with another sentient being is indeed nourishment for my soul. [I will elaborate more on “quiet nothingness” later.]

 “Be careful that you do not write or paint anything that is not your own, that you don’t know in your own soul.” ~ Emily Carr

This is a most difficult stricture to follow but I have to say that, even as a want-to-be author, when I do know something in my soul, the words fly off my fingers as if by ordinance finding their place on the page even before meaning, context or content is fully fleshed. Conception and birth occur in one singular flash and there is no room to be alone in that moment of spontaneous combustion, that instance of chemical reaction, that indefinable electrical spark giving life to foggy neurological pulses within our brains.

However, if you have been fortunate enough to know that “quiet nothingness” of love “in your own soul,” you will spend your lifetime searching for ways to express it. I have no intention of competing with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s straight to the point question in Sonnet 43 How do I love thee? (see Appendix A.) Let me count the ways, of course. But that is exactly what knowing love in one’s soul should be. While the letters may fly off my fingers, I still search for words, phrases and punctuation to convey the perfect image for love. I invariably fail as my talents as a writer are woefully inadequate to meet the task. I do not possess otherworldly attributes necessary to paint the page with words that would liberate love from the constraints of a Parkinson’s world where one’s soul, no matter how willing it is to being a host for love, is rarely sought out for that purpose.

Rosa x ‘Hope for Humanity’

It was in a previous quest for a rose to represent Jean Madill, a centenarian from Altamont, Manitoba, that I began to explore the depths of the new roses. “Hope for Humanity” attracted my eye not only for its beauty but for the political statement that she makes – it is uncommon for the names of roses to be overtly political but Dr. H. H. Marshall did not shy away from politics when he named one of his roses, Adelaide Hoodless, an early suffragette and feminist with both conservative and progressive tendencies which was not uncommon for women of her time.

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Rosa x Hope for Humanity   Photo: S. Marshall 2016

Oh, There Were Others, I Confess

[… and they are all named Rosa ….]

I am afraid that there were others on whom I showered my affections and with whom I spent more than a few afternoons cavorting in the dappled shade of the garden; a few mornings frolicking with my toes moist with dew; hypnotized in cold early October by silvery ‘pre-crystalline’ raindrops on leafy vestments; hungering in early summer for the sweet nectar enjoyed by their rotund Apis mellifera lovers but forbidden to me; caressing the softness of their blooms whilst striving (unsuccessfully) to avoid the bloodthirsty thorns protecting their bodies; being intoxicatingly dizzy from the fragrance of forbidden love in the dusk of the day (or perhaps it is intoxicated by their dusky fragrance at any time of the day.) I say this unashamedly as I now admit openly that I have succumbed to their big city, sophisticated, hybridized ways.

Should I name names? I am not going to go into great detail about the attributes of all of these loves, all named Rosa, as it will be too time consuming, but there are several that deserve more attention. See Appendix B for still others.

Rosa x ‘Campfire’

‘Campfire,’ named after a famous painting by renowned Canadian artist Tom Thomson, was released in 2014. The description on the Canadian Artists series website pretty much says it all.

Campfire, the painting , shows a fire burning in front of a tent lit inside by a brilliant yellow light. It is a masterpiece of design and colour. The rose ‘Campfire’ is afire with the same smouldering blend of yellows and reds.

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Rosa x Campfire Photo: S. Marshall 2016

Rosa x ‘Campfire’ shows a profusion of blooms with colours that are both bedazzling and mesmerizing. Of course I am drawn back to my childhood and the many times I stared into the flames of a campfire while camping, at a family “wiener roast” or at the teenage triple X rated (for offensive language, drunkenness, overt attempts at sexual activity however inept, and outright teenage stupidity) version of a wiener roast. No matter the context, you cannot help but be drawn into Campfire’s flames where your desires, excited by the heat, race through your arteries in a desperate attempt to carry oxygen to the “smouldering” coals, freeing any inhibitions. If you place ‘Campfire’ within the context of sex, love and intimacy, its mass of blooms might very well conjure up the word “orgy.”

Rosa x ‘Bill Reid’

Rosa x ‘Bill Reid’ is a rose I longed to acquire because we had no surviving yellow or gold roses in our garden. A small yellow tea rose did not survive the winter a few years ago leaving us without the sunny spectrum. ‘Bill Reid’ is named for a legendary broadcaster, writer, poet, storyteller and communicator who introduced much of the world to the art traditions of the indigenous people of the Northwest Coast.

“His legacies include infusing that tradition with modern ideas and forms of expression, influencing emerging artists, and building lasting bridges between First Nations and other peoples.”

“He combined European jewellery techniques with the Haida art tradition. His passion for Haida art was kindled by a visit to Haida Gwaii in 1954 when he saw a pair of bracelets masterfully engraved by the great master carver and his great-uncle, Charles Edenshaw, after which, to use his own words, “the world was not the same”. For the next 50 years Reid embraced many art forms. His many powerful sculptural masterpieces include The Raven and the First Men, the Haida creation story, and The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, showcased at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. and at the Vancouver International Airport.”

“The Bill Reid rose is reminiscent of the medium the artist Bill Reid often used: gold. The rose itself has a vibrant golden hue, which it retains even under the strong rays of the summer sun. The colour denotes energy, warmth and vitality. And much like the artist, the Bill Reid rose flowers prolifically, more so than other yellow roses. In true Canadian fashion, this rose is hardy to zone 3.”

Needless to say I was thrilled to come across Bill Reid, quite by accident, at the garden centre. In fact, it was early one Monday shortly after opening, and I was at the cash when a supplier for the nursery was unloading a small wagon load of roses. There was Bill Reid, tucked in the back of the wagon, in full golden glory highlighted by the early morning sun. I asked if it was for sale and was told yes but it hadn’t been priced yet. I was unconcerned about the cost as I was smitten with it from first sight and after the business dealings were completed I whistled my way home excited by the knowledge that I would soon hug Bill Reid and position him in a suitable sunny spot.

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Rosa x Bill Reid      Photo S. Marshall

Every once in awhile there are love affairs that remind you that the course of young love does not always run smoothly and that you should be cautious, especially in the early stages. So it was with Bill Reid. It was not long before I noticed some vile critters inhabiting Bill’s foliage and blooms. They looked very much like the Japanese beetles that have a voracious appetite for soft rose petals. Immediately I began the ugly process of picking the beetles off and depositing them in a solution of detergent and water. As I write this, I have quite a horrific soupy mess in that container. My objective is to contain the invasion although I have discovered that the beetles also love Canna leaves and Lythrum flowers. After several days my picking finally slowed down but I am realistic enough to know that an infestation will be avoided only if my neighbours are as diligent as I am in harvesting the little buggers (a word my father would definitely use in this circumstance.) To make matters worse the Japanese beetles dine on some 200 different species of plants. I will make every effort to avoid using pesticides.

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Japanese Beetle   Photo: Wikipedia

The meeting and courtship of Bill Reid was quick, easy and intense. However, as is often the case, inattention to certain health matters may strain the relationship in the short term if not in the long term.

Rosa x ‘Marshall’s Peace Garden’

Rosa x ‘Marshall’s Peace Garden’ is a ‘sport’ of the popular Morden Blush, bred by Dr. H. H. Marshall and a favourite of ours for many years. I am counting on Marshall’s Peace Garden to capture my heart and make me blush with its abundant creamy white flowers and glossy foliage on a tiny 2 ft. x 2 ft. frame. I am told that it has a wonderful fragrance but as I have Parkinson’s most of my sense of smell disappeared long ago. Listed as hardy to zone 2 there should be no winter-kill problems in our area.

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Rosa x Marshall’s Peace Garden          Photo: S. Marshall 2016

My particular affinity for Peace Garden stems from the fact that it is named in honour of my uncle Henry who was a member of the Board and Horticultural Planning Committee of the International Peace Garden (see Note 6.) Peace Garden was propagated by Terry Roszko, Canada, circa 2000 and introduced commercially in Canada by Jeffries Nurseries Ltd. in 2012 as Marshall’s Peace Garden Rose. In fact, the specimen that I planted just this morning was a gift from my daughter and her partner who made a side trip to Jeffries Nurseries while visiting family in Manitoba, carefully bringing Peace Garden’s spiky fullness as carry on luggage on their flight home. I had been trying to source Peace Garden locally without success. When my daughter and her partner surprised me by introducing Peace Garden on a blind date if you will, the excitement of meeting this unexpected and beautiful rose was palpable.

Sex, Love and Intimacy

[Put sex, love and intimacy together in one human relationship and ....]

OK, enough with the roses. Back to the main topic. Many people are too shy, inhibited or embarrassed to talk openly about sex, love and intimacy, preferring to keep such information close to their vests or perhaps close to their hearts? Others succumb to a commonly held societal belief that these emotions and thoughts are “dirty” and not to be discussed “in polite company.” Still others would allow that only researchers with a PhD in psychology and a specialization in sexuality be permitted to explore these basic elements of human instinct, analyzing and discussing it in ‘academic – speak.’ Heaven forbid we should actually feel something.

Sex, love, and intimacy are three of the most important words in the language of relationships but I suspect that they are three words often shunted to the sidelines because, when spoken aloud, these words cause us to be awkward and self-conscious about what we perceive to be personal and private matters. Yet, love, intimacy and sex make sense only in the context of a relationship between at least two individuals so absolute privacy is automatically abandoned upon the necessary formation of a single dyad (sounds like an oxymoron.) In other words, by definition, there is always someone else who has inside information on your love life, your comfort level with intimacy, and your sexual proclivities. So, let’s not get too hung up on an argument that personal and private matters are … well… personal and private, belonging only to ourselves as individuals.

It is also the case that love, intimacy, sex are often compartmentalized and treated each unto itself as a separate concept, with separate meanings and a separate set of feelings … and sometimes they are distinct. Language, being the primary vehicle for discourse among humans, must possess a certain precision that enhances understanding. But surely that does not mean that we must always drill down in a reductionist way to the most infinitesimal element. Having said that, while it is true that a convincing argument can be made that love, intimacy and sex can be defined individually, it is only when these three powerful human emotions and behaviours are put together in a ‘mash up,’ as younger folk say these days, that the truth is revealed. They are really individual recognizable segments of something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Regular readers will recognize this as a recurring theme in my posts – society is greater than the sum of its parts. I blame it on Emile Durkheim and my training in sociological theory.

Let’s complicate things just a little more by adding that in today’s world much emphasis is placed on the use of “clear language” in an attempt to cut away the superfluous, to enhance communication so that ideas can be discussed with equal precision among all participants irrespective of class and other social or economic divisions. I understand the necessity for clear language in many situations but I don’t subscribe to the “clear language is always better” approach. I believe that it takes many levels of discourse to understand the complexities of life. Oh sure, sometimes language is frustratingly complex, unnecessarily obtuse, and gratuitously verbose but a living language will evolve both to smooth out the rough edges of precision and to give precision to the softness of fuzzy articulation. The aggregation of several meanings into one concept or construct is one such smoothing technique which allows language to reach precision through a higher level of discourse.

Let me illustrate it this way: put love, intimacy and sexuality together in one package in the entertainment industry and you have a blockbuster hit rocketing to the top of the charts – “number one with a bullet” as DeeJays used to say. It will hit the jackpot, be a winner, a jewel, and ‘toadilly awesome.’ It will also, most likely, be fiction. But put love, intimacy and sex together in one human relationship and … well … (thinking … thinking … thinking)… there are no words …. and it (the love, the intimacy and the sex, individually and collectively) will inevitably be real –  often sought, rarely realized.

I know, you are thinking, “The PD Gardener is off on one of his tangents again, spouting off about things of which he knows nothing.”  Hmmmm … maybe, maybe not.   Stay with me to find out if I can tie up this seeming stream of consciousness with a pretty bow.

Love is “Quiet Nothingness”

[ … a life free of drama …]

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Image from Wikipedia

Obviously I am not the first to have contemplated the complexity of sex, love and intimacy and the importance it plays in our lives. Cheryl Saban has a series of short posts on the topic that are worthwhile reading. I am not going to summarize her thoughts but I will draw your attention to a couple of specific observations. The first of which is that she is writing from a woman’s perspective when she observes that a female’s sex drive is more than just survival instinct.

“As a species, our sex drive is a survival instinct. But as a female, your sex drive is obviously more than an instinctual need; it’s wrapped up in feelings of comfort, love, companionship, excitement, naughtiness and hope.”

Well, I have news for you; these feelings are not reserved for females alone. Still, I suspect that in my early, more macho male life, my desires and emotions were not anchored in this approach. I had a process of maturing to go through, including a divorce and a somewhat painful but finally fruitful search for my – Gawd, I can’t believe I am going to say this – “soulmate.” As much as it pains me, I will leave the forgoing sentence in tact as “soulmate” does have meaning in romantic discourse to most people and that is that common understanding I wish to convey here. But there is more. In fact, what I was searching for and what I found was a relationship where love, intimacy and sexuality are in a state of ‘quiet nothingness.’ [Okay, I am counting on you not to shout “drivel” and hit the escape key to exit this nonsense. Please bear with me.]

Do not take this literally to mean that sex, love and intimacy are nothing because it is impossible to conceive of “nothing” unless we also acknowledge the existence of “something.” Put differently, we can approach a state of “nothing” but we cannot achieve a state of “nothing”.  To approach “nothing,” “something” is minimized or simplified to its most basic ‘somethingness’. I like to think of it as an expensive sound system with a complicated soundboard where all the elements of great sound are captured but everything is turned to its minimal reading. We hear nothing but the lights are lit and flashing. Intimacy, love and sex are in “quiet nothingness,” simmering, occasionally showing energy genuine to each element but always at the ready to arouse positive emotion. The simplification and minimization means that the relationship is held in tact with little work. Achieving this state of “quiet nothingness” is to achieve a state of togetherness of two minds and bodies, perhaps analogous to Zen. A key descriptive phrase for me is “free of drama.” I have been truly fortunate in that I know first-hand what that state of mind and body feels like … but it can be fleeting if one is not careful.

It is no secret that the soundboard controls the eruption of displays of energy from time to time.  When such energy is incorporated into the structure of the music for example – as a bridge, a chorus, refrain, verse, coda (or in any other creative way)  – the music and the sound can approach such perfection that only a highly trained ear can detect the subtleties defining it as otherwise. It is the same with the “quiet nothingness” of love … flying low in stealth mode beneath the radar … lethal in its efforts to target and destroy thoughts and behaviours that inhibit intimacy, and … complicit in bringing to life a sexuality  which would be declared illegal by those who have not experienced “quiet nothingness.”

Parkinson’s is a Troubled Dance of Rationality and Irrationality

[“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself ….”]

Parkinson’s is such a complex of motor and non-motor symptoms that in its early stages we often overlook symptoms related to our psychological well being e.g., it increases anxiety and stress, plays with our emotions and leads us towards feelings of depression and sometimes despair. So we begin a troubled dance between rational and irrational thought especially when it comes to love and intimacy.

I reason (rationally and correctly I believe) that the further I travel along the Parkinson’s road, the greater the probability that the usual nasty features of Parkinson’s including Lewy Body dementia will compromise my ability to sustain an intimate relationship.  How tragic that would be! But let me be clear: as I write this there is no tragedy in my life and each day is replete with reaffirmation of my love for Anne and her love for me. Still, even the most serene individuals have anxieties and are susceptible to irrational thinking from time to time. Parkinson’s provides sustenance for those anxieties, keeping them on a slow burn until fear and insecurity blows them out of proportion.

Fortunately most anxieties are relatively minor and can be handled effectively with planning and successful experience e.g., anxiety about how Parkinson’s will behave when traveling or when attending a special event. Other fears are more serious e.g., a fear that your Parkinson’s creates an unbearable burden for your spouse, partner and/or lover leading to a tragic end to an intimate loving relationship. In matters of the heart the emotional roller coaster of Parkinson’s can entice you into jumping too quickly and erroneously to that conclusion. In fact, insecurities may spawn unacceptable jealous behaviours that put enormous strain on intimate relationships, perhaps to the point of breakdown.

You might ask the question: Why would a PwP want to destroy happiness and contentment and replace it with a tragic heartbreaking ending?  Rationally, there are no compelling reasons to do so but when you are trapped in the world of irrationality where Parkie lives, fear can become an almost crippling burden, and if we are not careful, it can become a self- fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps Sir Francis Bacon was correct when he wrote “Nothing is terrible except fear itself”) or maybe we should attribute it to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, who said in his first inauguration address on Saturday, March 4, 1933

“… let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Parkinson’s disease is a fearsome thing. It can strip you of every dignity at a moment’s notice if you are not attentive to your medical, pharmaceutical, psychological. dietary and physical regimes. It is not stretching it to say that Parkinson’s plays a wicked game of chicken with you in your social relationships. It dares you to consider that it has not diminished you. Maintaining your mental strength in the face of such a challenge is extremely difficult because you notice and feel any newly acquired Parkinson’s symptoms so acutely that you are certain the unreasonable demands of your Parkinson’s are denying your spouse, lover, partner a full and complete life. The threat to the viability of your relationship is real and you take full ownership of that ‘failure’ because it is your Parkinson’s disease that is responsible.

Not only is the PwP responsible for the burden but the onus and indeed the impetus is on that same PwP to “free” her/his lover so that s/he may leave the relationship (or any part thereof) to pursue a full and more complete life elsewhere, maybe with someone else. Voilà, guilt free extraction from a life of burden for which you ‘did not sign up.’ Okay, maybe there is some guilt but it is ameliorated by a complex of rationale and justifications. These fears and insecurities are real to a PwP … well, they are real to me anyway.

Facing a life with Parkinson’s alone is extremely difficult. Facing those travails as a couple in an intimate relationship or as a family can make the journey more tolerable but it also means that the path may grow bumpy if one of more of those individuals go outside the understandings of the others. If the commitment is love and the understanding is that love is sexual, intimate and forever, and one individual no longer accepts this commitment, the whole deal goes sour – sometimes very quickly.

I am in a loving relationship and I would never say that my lover should end it because I have Parkinson’s. Why would I be so foolish? We have a love that is exquisitely painted, as if the muse was in full control; a love with great swaths of colour and texture like fields of lupins strewn in purposeful abandonment by Mother Nature; a love brushed into place with the precision of computer technology and the creativity of the Group of Seven.

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Mother Nature’s portrait of a field of Lupins   Photo: S. Marshall 2014

It is true that Anne does provide care for me … but she does not identify herself as my caregiver nor do I want to reflect her role back to her as that of being a caregiver. Anne is my wife and lover. It is also true that I thank her every day for her support … but I am most thankful that we share a love that is not rooted in caregiving. My greatest task is to return her love by projecting myself as her husband, lover, friend and not as her patient or worse, as her burden. Maintaining and strengthening relationships is much easier if one can avoid using pathos as the glue that holds the relationship together.

Relationships and Adversity

Okay, so far so good, but the bad news is that “quiet nothingness” is not impermeable and there are many threats to its fabric e.g., a diagnosis of a terminal or chronic disease not only changes how you perceive yourself but how others perceive you. This certainly has been my experience after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease – a progressive neuro-degenerative disease for which there is no cure. Oh, there are medical, pharmaceutical, physiotherapeutic, psychological, and exercise/movement programs designed to enhance quality of life but inevitably your life will take a path that you would not choose if you had a choice. The rules of the game for relationships may change and the potential for increased tension and stress increases along with a concomitant likelihood that “drama” will result.

When a relationship is under stress you might think that the survival instinct would kick in to override any “soft” emotional feelings, but that is not what happened to me. By the time of my diagnosis of Parkinson’s, I was in my mid – 60s and procreation was far behind me. I already had four perfect daughters in a perfectly blended family.

When I attempt to isolate the key factors contributing to my emotional well being, I am hard pressed to come up with any that are more important than feelings of self-worth. You see, Parkinson’s robs you of your sense of self-worth; it diminishes you. Like a thief in the night it silently robs you of your ability to be the strong one in a relationship. Ironically and wickedly, that same attack on self – worth robs you, as a person in need, of the ability to accept assistance and care, and you can lash out at those who care the most; those who love us; those with whom we have intimate relationships.

If you do have an illness though, life and relationships can change drastically. Karl Robb sums it up this way,

“Realize that an illness can either help bring you and your partner closer together or push you further apart, depending upon how well you are able to cope with challenges and the strength of your bond, prior to illness.”

I am not as charitable as Robb in that I don’t think that Parkinson’s brings many people closer together, at least not in the long term. There is no cure.  It is progressively degenerative and it will advance in both the number and severity of the symptoms.  No matter what some people say, you cannot delay its onslaught forever. It will catch up to you, one way or another.

Indeed, my perception is that if you and your partner didn’t get along well before your diagnosis, it is a good bet you won’t get along any better after diagnosis and certainly not after nasty symptoms or side effects of the drugs begin to rear their ugly heads – dementia, dyskinesia (exaggerated involuntary muscle movements which are often the side effect of the drugs,) cramping, difficulty swallowing, loss of balance resulting in falls with injuries, incontinence, constipation, rigidity, Bradykinesia (slowness), decreased sexual desire and increased sexual dysfunction, hallucinations, violent lashing out during vivid dreams, and loss of the ability to conduct activities of daily living, to name but a few. None of these symptoms are known to increase the likelihood of developing an intimate relationship if there is no prior history of such a relationship between individuals. Parkinson’s works against you every step of the way.

The Importance of Intimacy

[As we slide closer to each other, my lover whispers provocatively, “… and she felt the gardener’s work roughened hands on her skin …”]

When Parkinson’s destroys intimacy in a relationship, it wins. You slip from being lovers to being caregiver and patient, a misstep (in my view) that changes how each person perceives the other person and in the end destroys any sense of self-worth a PwP has remaining. Once the non-PwP in the relationship believes that intimacy, love, sex (and sexuality) are no longer important in the relationship, the gig is up. I hasten to point out however that the same is true if a PwP is no longer is invested in maintaining an intimate relationship with her/his partner.

Cheryl Saban describes succinctly just how important romantic intimacy is.

“Romantic intimacy and the idyll of two people bonded in love, that most sacrosanct of emotional states, is something most of us desire and in fact, need. Love is a crucial part of our lives, connected as it is to our sense of well-being and worth. The blend of love and sex requires commitment, a special type of chemistry between the two of you, and an ability to build intimacy.”

Intimacy is a word that is both innocuous and intimidating. At first glance, it seems to be something less than ‘love’ but upon closer examination it is a keystone in the foundation of close relationships. Being intimate with someone, while not the same as being in love, is something we are likely to experience with very few others in a lifetime … if we are so fortunate.

Jonathan Lenbuck in “How does sex differ from intimacy,” defines sex and intimacy in ways that I find very helpful to understand the role Parkinson’s plays in relationships.

“Intimacy is at the heart of a strong relationship. Intimacy is about knowing someone deeply and being able to be completely free in that person’s presence. It is an emotional state that is often reserved for just one person.”

“Being intimate with your partner requires you to be open and honest with him or her, and it is from this state of intimacy that great sex grows. This can sometimes be a hurdle in a relationship.”

Undoubtedly, young onset PwP are at a time in their lives when dating and sexual relationships occupy proportionally greater space in day-to-day relationships compared to those of us who are diagnosed in our 60s and heading into our 70s. A reduction in the amount of time, effort, money, etc. put into a sexual relationships is likely for those 60 years of age and older, but don’t ever fall into the trap of believing that it occupies no space in those relationships. On the contrary, love, intimacy and sex may be more central to living a healthy life with Parkinson’s (is that an oxymoron?) than we think. Hopefully some of us have found a relationship that satisfies our physical and emotional selves. I was going to say that some are patiently waiting for such a relationship but it is more likely that they have given up the quest, giving in to impatience rather than patience, resigning themselves to never finding this nirvana. Some are living in relationships devoid of love and intimacy (and probably sex) but do not take measures to change. Some of us live a bittersweet existence with memories of the ecstasy of being in love and the heartache of a life gone too soon.

Pay Attention

[Be careful, the rules can change…]

Parkinson’s changes the rules of intimacy. The inability to show emotion (particularly laughter) through facial expression, (the “mask “associated with Parkinson’s) can change the dynamic of a relationship which relies upon knowing and almost invisible facial cues and eye contact. Involuntary muscle movements can make even simple loving actions such as hand holding or cuddling impossible or so difficult as to be frustrating for both you and your partner. The excitement of close sexual contact – so thrilling and rewarding in the prime of your life – is often turned cruelly against you, as if your Adrenalin has been turned on to hyper speed, increasing debilitating involuntary muscle movements and rendering both intimacy and sexual gratification unattainable. Such frustration can exacerbate issues of erectile and sexual dysfunction already prevalent in Parkinson’s.

Changes in self-perception and how others see you can spark a destructive mutually reinforcing downward spiral (the more your self-worth is diminished the more you engage in behaviours that reinforce that self-image and the more you project a picture of low self-esteem to others which in turn contributes to others behaving differently towards you and on … and on.)

No matter the stage of the progression of Parkinson’s, any couple in an intimate relationship will face the almost ever-changing challenge of maintaining a relationship that provides food for the emotional self. The European Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (EPDF) has an excellent article on intimacy, sex and sensuality.

“If you are in an intimate relationship then you will both probably experience some difficulties regarding intimacy, sex and sensuality. These can be associated with anatomical, physiological, biological, medical and psychological factors, all of which can impact on self-esteem, quality of life, mood and relationships.”

In no uncertain terms, the EPDF alerts us to potential dangers and urges us to pay attention to intimacy, sex and love because they impact on our sense of self – worth and our ability to combat Parkinson’s, to the extent that we can combat it.

img_0006

It may appear beautiful but it is quite frozen and dead  Photo: S.Marshall

Some may argue that intimacy can be based on caregiving. Perhaps, but that intimacy is of a different nature – in fact, it is nurture. Nurturing can be intimate but it is not the whole of an intimate relationship – the “quiet nothingness.” The step from sexual intimacy to caregiving intimacy is a large one. Once one stops desiring a partner sexually, perceptions on both sides of the relationship equation are turned – probably irrevocably forever. At this point it matters not whether your mother/father, your sister/brother, your wife/husband, or a paid caregiver from a public not-for-profit or a private for-profit agency is caring for you. The intimacy is gone – and you just can’t get it back.

Conclusion

[We carry these desires with us to death, illness or not]

If you think that Persons with Parkinson’s (PwP) are not sentient, sexual, sensual human beings then disabuse yourself of that notion immediately, especially if you are the significant other of such a person. I am entering the “early elderly” – a stage of life where I do not wish others to deny my right to desire love and intimacy. If you think that we don’t have such desires, you diminish us as human beings.

If you have accepted “cargiving” as the only meaningful relationship that you share with your PwP partner, then at least understand what that means for each of you. As a PwP, I would be grateful for the care, but I would saddened immensely more by the loss of love and intimacy – you see, that loss transforms care giving into an obligation and therefore a burden.  It is likely that by the time this transformation took place, I would be incapable of doing anything about it, other than to look quite pathetic and therefore even more expendable in emotional terms, making the situation all the more catastrophic and tragic.

Finally, I may have Parkinson’s disease but I am not looking for a caregiver, I am looking for love.

AFTERWORD

[You never promised me a rose garden …”]

This has been a story of family, love, sex, intimacy, fidelity, roses, Parkinson’s (the rational and the irrational) and its ravages, self-worth and relationship survival. I hope it has provided some insight into what a PwP … well this one at least, thinks about these matters.

Ever since I began my affair with the roses this past summer, my lover is fond of saying, “ you never promised me a rose garden but I should have known better because I am married to The PD Gardener.” My comment is that The PD Gardener (both the gardener and the Parkinson’s disease) was residing within me when we met, courted and married but Parkinson’s only stepped out of the shadows recently. The rose garden though is a family characteristic. In many ways it is a family heirloom. It came with me but I did not create it.  Roses are my link to the past, my anchor in the present, and my guide to the future with the additional benefit of being an iconic gift to my lover.

stan-anne-sept-2015-1

The PD Gardener and his lover 2015

I sometimes joke that the irrational thinking arising from Parkinson’s gives me only one fundamental concern. Anne has a brother and a sister and each of them has been married three times. This is the second marriage for both Anne and me.  My concern is that Anne may wish to marry a third time to catch up to the family average (it’s a joke remember.) Of course, there is every likelihood that Anne will outlive me and she may well marry again after I have left this mortal coil. Let it be known that with whatever ego that Parkinson’s has not stripped from me, I do fantasize that I am her one and only great love … but I know that our “quiet nothingness” does not include unreasonable strictures that exceed the bounds of my lifetime.

My most fervent desire is that our relationship continues on in “quiet nothingness” – love, intimacy, sex, all with no drama. However, if there is to be drama let it be with my caregiver and not with my lover.

The path through this blog has been circuitous as usual: from the elopement of my grandparents to a PwP’s wife taking on a lover; from baseball to country and western hurtin’ music; from love affairs with roses to the many ruminations of a PwP on love, sex, and intimacy; from fear to insecurity to trouble to “quiet nothingness;” and much more.  I began this journey with ruminations on love, sex and intimacy. It ends as a love letter, a love letter that reveals my deepest fears and codifies my unwavering love and commitment to provide nourishment for an intimacy my lover and I will share over our years together.

NOTES

  1. Geez, two paragraphs into a posting about love, sex, intimacy and Parkinson’s and I am already bringing down the mood with a “Note.” Sorry about that but I find it necessary to provide some context and juxtaposition for these concepts and to advise that these words are always presented “in no particular order” throughout this text.  Sex is the “hard” word in the triumvirate and intimacy and love are the “soft” words. Sex can be reduced to the enactment of basal instinct while intimacy and love rest in the innermost niches of our secure selves (when all is right.) Love is virtually impossible to measure – according to MarsBands.com there are over 97 million love songs in the world. Intimacy is often secretive and may be intimidating. Sex can be either a dominant feature or a silent partner and sometimes masquerades as “sexuality,” a seductress embodying desire and lust. In any case, rarely are all three found in perfect harmony within a single human soul. Such harmony is contingent upon the degree of equilibrium (and disequilibrium) created by these three powerful human forces as they sing together – either in harmony or discordantly as the moment commands. Mastering the harmony, the contentment, and the equilibrium is one of our greatest challenges to ensuring that a soul is at peace.When communication between two individuals is sufficiently advanced to articulate such contentment, [I bet you are thinking that I will say “two souls become one” but nope – too sappy, done at too many times at too many weddings] then tranquillity and quietude subsumes all tempests in human emotion, whether in a teapot or on stormy, high seas. There is no need for these souls to be lashed to the mast; they are free yet secure against the buffeting of dark forces within our psyche and free of any temptation to follow the song of the Sirens (female and male.)
  2. Encyclopedia.com, Notable Sports Figures | 2004 | Belfiore, Michael copyright 2004 The Gale Group, Inc.
  3. It is impossible (for me at least) to plant a rose without giving it a hug. As I lower the root ball into the already watered hole, I reach around her to ensure that she has the proper orientation and that I can reach the excavated dirt on all sides in order to scoop in handfuls around the rose’s roots. I hand tamp it firmly into place and placing my hands on top of the soil near the base of the union, I give it a final firm caress and press the soil snugly around her. In the summertime, I am most often in the garden in a short sleeve T-shirt.   The result is predictable. I look down at my arms to discover (once again as I never seem  to learn) that my rose has decided to object to the cuddling, if not the coddling, and has bitten me in several places, severe enough to draw blood, running down my arms in streams, drying and sticking to my hair as it as it flows, giving it crime scene worthiness as an image. More than once I have emerged from the rose garden to shouts of “Don’t you get mud and blood all over the house!” And later I am treated to sighs of resignation as my lover states the obvious, “I am married to the PD Gardener. What did I expect?” For my part, I continue to hug my roses as necessary throughout their existence and my arms get punctured and leak blood occasionally. [Did I mention that I hate long sleeve heavy work shirts?]
  4. The Winnipeg Free Press notes that “Marshall, cross-breeding with wild roses he dug out of ditches, oversaw the introduction of over 40 new rose varieties, including the Parkland series.” The rose development program of the Morden Research Station was privatized in 2008 and is now operated by the Canadian Landscape Nursery Association.
  5. Creamsicles were one of my favourite treats when I was a child. Vanilla ice cream on a flat stick with flavoured ice on the outside. My favourite flavour was orange and for a long time I believed there was only one flavour but there are others including blue raspberry, lime, grape, cherry and blueberry. Nevertheless, I still think there should only be orange.
  6. The International Peace Garden was dedicated on July 14, 1932 in front of some 50,000 persons.  A cairn is inscribed with a “promise of peace:”

cairn-peace-garden

“To God in His Glory

We two nations dedicate this garden and pledge ourselves that as long as men shall live we will not take up arms against one another.”

7. “Robin Williams’ Widow Pens Emotional Essay About the Comedian’s Final Days – ABC News – abcn.ws/2di34WH via @ABC

APPENDICES

Appendix A

How do I love thee (Sonnet 43)

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

~Elizabeth Barrette Browning

Appendix B

Here are some more “Rosa” who have captured my eye over the years. They are scattered throughout our garden. I am afraid I will have to wait for a later post to wax poetic about their qualities.

fireglow

Morden Fireglow  Photo: S. Marshall

prairie-joy-img_7160

Prairie Joy  Photo: S. Marshall

blush

Morden Blush  Photo: S. Marshall

belle

Morden Belle  Photo: S. Marshall

centennial

Morden Centennial  Photo:   S. Marshall

img_6135

Morden Amorette  Photo: S.Marshall

REFERENCES AND RESOURCES

Anapol, Deborah, Ph.D. “What Is Love, and What Isn’t?” from Love Without Limits Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/love-without-limits/201111/what-is-love-and-what-isnt

Australian Broadcasting Corporation http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/earshot/the-three-of-u­­­s-carer-husband-and-lover/7566610

Birth Psychology https://birthpsychology.com/journals/volume-2-issue-4/significance-birth-memories

Canadian Artists Roses http://www.canadianartistsroses.com/en/roses.html

Canadian Geographic http://www.canadiangeographic.com/wildlife-nature/?path=english/species/honeybee

Deeth Williams Wall http://www.dww.com/articles/canadian-designs-morden-%E2%80%9Cparkland%E2%80%9D-roses

Encyclopedia.com http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Roy_Campanella.aspx

European Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, “Intimacy, Sex and Sensuality,” updated June 2015. http://www.epda.eu.com/sl/pd-info/living-well/intimacy-sex-and-sensuality/

Gardening.about.com http://gardening.about.com/od/gardenproblems/a/Japanese_Beetle.htm

http://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Creatures/Sirens/sirens.html

International Peace Garden http://www.peacegarden.com/index.html

Lenbuck, Jonathan, “How does sex differ from intimacy,” World Psychology http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/04/26/how-does-sex-differ-from-intimacy/

http://lyrics.wikia.co/wiki/Johnny_Darrell:Ruby,_Don’t_Take_Your_Love_To_Town

Manitoba Agriculture Hall of Fame biography of H.H. Marshall http://www.dirtytshirt.net/ahof/ahofmember/marshall-henry-heard/

Mars Bands.com http://www.marsbands.com/2011/10/97-million-and-counting/

Marshall, H. H. Not Because of Beginnings, undated and unpublished manuscript

Michael J. Fox Foundation, FoxFeed Blog, “Swallowing and Parkinson’s Disease,” posted by Michelle Ciucci, November 05, 2013. https://www.michaeljfox.org/foundation/news-detail.php?swallowing-and-parkinson-disease

Oak Leaf Gardening http://www.oakleafgardening.com/glossary-terms/hermaphrodite-monoecious-dioecious/

Pembina Today http://www.pembinatoday.ca/2010/08/09/famed-rose-program-leaving-morden

Poets.org https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/elizabeth-barrett-browning

Robb, Karl “In sickness and in health: Intimacy and Parkinson’s,” National Parkinson Foundation, http://www.parkinson.org/understanding-parkinsons/newly-diagnosed/intimacy-and-parkinsons

Saban, Cheryl, “Sex, Love, Intimacy: Understanding and Enjoying Your Sexuality,” http://www.care2.com/greenliving/sex-love-intimacy-understanding-and-enjoying-your-sexuality.html

Shapiro, Miton J. The Roy Campanella Story, New York: Messner 1958

Sing Out.org http://singout.org/2016/04/11/ruby-dont-take-your-love-to-town/

The Honey Bee Conservancy http://thehoneybeeconservancy.org/2015/09/13/enemies-to-bees-pesticides-and-hybridized-plants/

The Old Farmers’ Almanac http://www.almanac.com/pest/japanese-beetles

Turtle Mountain Star, Newspaper Archive, Rolla North Dakota, May 2, 2011 http://tur.stparchive.com/Archive/TUR/TUR05022011p009.php

Winnipeg Free Press http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/arts-and-life/life/bloom-off-rose-for-morden-breeding-program-100178814.html

© Stan Marshall (The PD Gardener) 2016

LEARNING TO WALK AGAIN … OR … READING BETWEEN THE LINES

Learning To Walk Again … Or … Reading Between The Lines

Author’s foreword

Readers of this blog know that I have been accused of (and admit to) writing extremely long blog posts with content that takes many twists and turns before finally arriving at some evident, or not so evident, conclusion. Now, I am aware that many people neither like, nor read, lengthy posts and they have articulate reasons for their inaction and inattention.

Equally, I am aware that there is a long and honourable tradition among those who love newspapers (and especially among those who impress upon others that they read their broadsheet newspapers from cover to cover,) to read the headline, a few of the sub-heads and first sentence and then move on to the next article. Naturally, they look at the photos – in a kind of reverse approach to how many men say they read Playboy or Penthouse. 

Today, I acquiesce to this reading style by writing in a form to match i.e., this post will consist of one headline with five sub-heads and respective opening sentences mimicking the content many readers would actually read even if the article were thousands of words longer.  I approach this project fearfully as it is a major departure from my usual style and so many words will have to die in the editing process. Read on to see how this works out.

PERSON WITH PARKINSON’S RENDERED IMMOBILE

The PD Gardener, having walked and cycled almost all of his life was understandably shocked at becoming almost completely immobile i.e., not able to walk without assistance, over a very short time span (4 – 5 days.)

IMG_0105

The PD Gardener doing what he does. Photo: Anne Marshall 2014

Looking for answers (in all the wrong places?) 

“Doctor, Doctor, Mister M.D. Can you tell me what’s ailing me? “ (Endnote 1)

and

Knee bone connected to the thigh bone

Thigh bone connected to the hip bone

Hip bone connected to the back bone (Endnote 2)

The above lyrics sing to me as I struggle to understand the crisis that currently engulfs my body and brain but unfortunately the answer seems locked forever in a “song that never ends.” (Endnote 3)

‘Advance’ and ‘progress’ are positive words, aren’t they?

It is a sobering moment when you realize you are ticking off the progress of your new and/or worsening Parkinson’s symptoms on a mental score card of scientifically established, empirical milestones signifying the intractable advance of Parkinson’s.

Symptoms defy explanation say medical specialists

“Appointments with various physicians, surgeons and other health professionals have left us confused and frustrated.”

The new normal 

Physiotherapy, Pilates and exercise show definite promise to lead the way back to a new normal … but why does the new normal feel like walking on bubble wrap?

IMG_2389

Better take provisions if the journey is 1,000 miles like this first mile.  Photo: The PD Gardener 2015

Next step
“It is often said that ‘a journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step’ (end note 4) … but the importance of finding the start line and the correct direction should not be underestimated,” the PD Gardener notes sardonically.

IMG_3159 (1)

Perhaps the answer is just around the corner and down the hill…. Photo: The PD Gardener, 2015

End Notes

  1. “Good Lovin’ “ lyrics by Rudy Clark and Arthur Resnick. Number hit for The Young Rascals 1966.
  1. “Dem Bones” is a spiritual written by James Weldon Johnson circa 1920.
  1. Origin of “This is the song that never ends” or “This is the song that doesn’t end” is unknown but seems to have been made popular by Shari Lewis and Lamp Chop.
  1. Attributed to Lao Tzu, a contemporary of Confucius and a major figure in Chinese philosophy.

© Stan Marshall (The PD Gardener) 2016

In Altamont, Living to be 100 is Old Hat or Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?

Author’s Foreword

hat Thepdgardener IMG_0608

It happens sometimes that people are overlooked. They shouldn’t be but they are. I was looking at some old photos the other day and it occurred to me that in my last blog post I unintentionally neglected another centenarian, a remarkable woman who just happens to be my daughters’ great, great aunt (my ex-wife’s great aunt to be precise.) So it is that Jean Madill joins Jemima (‘Aunt ‘Mime) Wilson, Mary Anne Scoles and Mary Armitage as centenarians I have known.  Jean was not only a contemporary of these three women but she shared that same four-mile geographic proximity to Altamont, Manitoba. The probabilities of a convergence of people (all women in this case) who live to be 100 or more years old within the same locale must be pushing the boundaries of something more than mere coincidence. If living to be 100 years old is getting to be “old hat,” then I would like my old hat to join that select grouping in another 33 years!  It seems a little premature to celebrate that occasion just yet given that I am a Person with Parkinson’s (PwP) and have other health problems… but you never know.

This post has taken me eons to write. I thought it was going to be a quick exercise to correct an oversight but it has turned out to be an excursion into social and health policy on care and care giving for those with chronic conditions. Many of these thoughts were sparked in a round about way by memories of Jean Madill, some were honed with the assistance of my friend Selma Garten and some were rekindled in recent days with the passing of my cousin, Bob Marshall, after a long battle with Parkinson’s and dementia.

But I have to start somewhere so let me give you the lowdown on Jean Madill and how her story relates to the importance of family, ideology and public policy in determining how and where we live out our “golden years.”

Jean Madill

Born: December 14, 1905 in Altamont, Manitoba

Died: November 6, 2006 in Notre Dame de Lourdes, Manitoba (100 years 325 days.)

Father: R. W. (Wes) Madill. Born February 5, 1871 in Ontario. Died: July 3, 1944 in Altamont

Mother: Jane Elizabeth (née Maloney) Madill. Died: June 15, 1955.

 

Jean Madill Sadie Dawson Wilson IMG_1569

Jean Madill (L.)  Sadie Wilson (R.)  In Sadie’s grocery store. Photo: S.Marshall c. 1982

Why have I been thinking about Jean? Is it that she joined that select club of being a woman centenarian who lived in Altamont?  Partly I guess, but that is not the whole of it. Jean was a unique individual who lived a unique life in unique circumstances. To be blunt, she was a character who would have had to be invented if she did not exist in real life. She deserves to be accorded a special place in the recorded annals of Altamont, Manitoba. Unfortunately though, I don’t find much of her in those records.  Maybe I am not looking in the right annals?

Please bear with me while I think this through a bit. You see, I knew Jean mostly during the 25 year period after she turned 50 years of age.  Minor arithmetic will tell you that while I am able to relay some of my own personal memories and thoughts from the time period I knew her best, I can only touch indirectly upon her first 50 years and her final 25 years.  Still,  Jean’s life has me thinking about care for the elderly, disabled, mentally ill and those with chronic health problems.  She provides a springboard for a discussion about the ideology, values, and the evolution in treatment for those with mental health problems and the pressing need in today’s society for care of the elderly with or without chronic health complications.  Prior to retirement my job required me to be knowledgeable about health policy and the politics of health care.  Now, I am a Person with Parkinson’s (PwP) and these matters are much more in my face in a very personal way.

No memories are insignificant 

I feel it is only fair that you should know that my recollections of Jean and others have been processed, filtered and stored in my cerebral cortex waiting for the appropriate stimuli to unlock them.  I am not certain how memories are for others but mine do not flow over my brain like a smooth, soothing stream of healing water.  No, any particular memory making its way through my brain crashes against the folds of my cerebral cortex  and against other memories. The energy released from these collisions is what I call ‘gray energy’ inasmuch as it emanates from the intersection of the gray matter of my brain and the gray areas in my memory.  This ‘gray’ energy has an irradiance and illuminance enabling the “mind’s eye” to detect subliminal images within the darkest recesses of the cerebral cortex.   [Sorry to disappoint you but ‘gray energy’ in this context has nothing to do with the burning of fossil fuels, and ‘subliminal’ has nothing to do with whether you are unknowingly being tempted to buy popcorn at the concession in the movie theater.]

Memories are critical to how I interpret the world and releasing them is sometimes a curious procedure.  Although the process I outline above seems rather ad hoc and perhaps chaotic, I don’t believe that ‘Chaos Theory’ plays any role in the formulation of my beliefs i.e., in my brain there is no equivalent of a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil, creating (or preventing) a hurricane in Texas.  While my heart may flutter from time to time for good reason (perhaps romantic, perhaps physiological) and my dopamine deprived brain will challenge my equilibrium, my perception of the world remains firmly rooted in whether ‘facts’ and memories line up. You see, I don’t believe that my memories, even seemingly insignificant ones, are ad hoc.  Memories surface in a never ending human quest to understand and explain our existence, and in our innate drive to improve our lives (not just individually but also collectively.)

The more memories of Jean Madill rise to the surface, the more I realize that these particular images lead to substantive questions of social policy and social change. How does society care for those who have chronic and long term illnesses?  Who has the financial resources to meet the level of care required –  the state, institutions, communities, families?  Who has the capacity to ensure that the burden of care giving does not weaken and destroy the structure of support around those who need care?   Can a rose with a cloying name assist in understanding the values of a caring society?  What does the stigma of mental illness have to do with anything?  Some of these questions may appear to be unconnected but often the circuitous ‘milk run’ is the best way to see the incredible beauty of the countryside … or if you love train travel you will have the advantage of observing the backbone or the back side (some say backside) of every community.

Altamont 1906 IMG_6001

Altamont 1905   Photo from Memories of Lorne 1880 – 1980.

The photo at the left shows the main street of Altamont in 1905, the year Jean Madill was born. Only the United Church building (white A frame building at left) remains today. The train tracks cross the photo at the bottom.

Children of the 1950s

I will begin my journey with a brief look at children in 1950 rural Manitoba. When I was a child we would tease Jean Madill. I don’t recall it being malicious teasing and there were many occasions when I remember Jean laughing at a trick or two she played on us.  Still, you know how seven and eight year old boys behave sometimes – fuelled by a mixture of underdeveloped (not undeveloped) testosterone, a surfeit of bravado, boundless mostly misdirected and misguided energy, powered by a brain roughly equivalent to that of a chimpanzee, making for unpredictable and borderline acceptable social behaviour.

In the 1950s these chimpanzees … er … children were set loose to run unsupervised up and down the main street in Altamont on a Saturday night, the night when both farm and town families ventured into the stores to shop for groceries, get a haircut, skate or curl in winter, visit with friends and those acquaintances who lived farther away, and for the men to disappear into the Altamont Hotel slaking their chapped lips and dusty Souls with a few drafts of beer, away from the prying eyes of wives and other busy bodies. [Hey, I am just calling it like it was.] In other words, the adults were busy and the chimps … er … children had slipped their minders. A friend of mine used to categorize children as being “rug rats” until they could run and climb at which point they became “yard apes” or “street monkeys.” I guess we were the latter.

Sometimes the street monkeys would hurl taunts at each other and tease anyone who was different or appeared vulnerable.  Animal behaviours can rise to the surface in uncontrolled situations.  Jean Madill was one of the vulnerable and we (I am admitting my culpability here) would race past her chanting

Jean, Jean made a machine

Joe, Joe, made it go

Art, Art blew a fart

And blew the whole damn machine apart.

I guess you have to be in Grade 2 or 3 to appreciate how close this is to genius poetry for a seven-year old … well, a seven-year-old boy anyway.  Obviously, this little rhyme has been around since the 1950’s as I personally recall using it during those years. It was reprised with widespread attention in 1987 as “Zed’s Poem” in Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol. However, the rhyme is a variation of this older version originating in the 1920s.

Gene, Gene, made a machine

Joe, Joe, made it go

Frank, Frank, turned the crank

His mother came and gave him a spank

Sent him over the river bank. (See note 1)

Of course, as we were chanting it directly to our Jean Madill, we always thought the rhyme referred to “Jean, Jean” and not “Gene, Gene.”

Mental illness or mental health?

Why were we teasing Jean Madill?  That is a very good question with a not very good answer, I am afraid. Today, we would probably say that Jean had a mental illness or disability. It may even have a name although I don’t know that it does.  In the 1950s such conditions were described in common parlance as crazy, loony tunes, nuts, crackers, whacko, or some other not very helpful appellate. Not very adult I know, but at what age does adulthood begin? [When do street monkeys become sentient human beings?] As a corollary, is it too much to expect children to be adult? Whatever the answer, it is never too much to ask adults to be adult and the fact that many adults also said these same insensitive things is telling of both the “adults” and the times. Very often, people of that day did not address mental illness openly or compassionately and it was almost impossible to escape the stigma attached to it.

Looking back on it, I do sometimes think that maybe we children were a slight bit more adult than I give us credit for being.   To the best of my recollection, I never heard children say Jean was a “retard,” an “imbecile,” a “moron,” an “idiot,” or a “lunatic.“ Ironically, these were names we reserved for our close friends or those with whom we wanted to be friends, but weren’t.  It turns out that sociologists and criminologists studying deviant behaviour and government social policy experts and administrators had already reserved these names for use in their professional studies. Individuals were placed in “lunatic asylums” or “insane asylums” because they were “criminals,” “dangerous,” “maniacs“ or better yet, all three.  I cannot imagine that any of these descriptors were seriously applied to Jean Madill.  I certainly never saw her this way.

Most likely, we did not call Jean those names because Jean, 45 years older than we were, was not in our cohort.  She was of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. We knew she was “different” but none of us perceived her as a threat. She was a benevolent figure from another dimension in our dramatis personae.  I have to be careful here not to leave the impression that we somehow were “enlightened” and should be applauded. Save your applause.  Consciously we weren’t but underneath our chimp behaviour lay a child’s inherent trust – not always to be relied upon but in this case a good barometer.

I have not read extensively on the subject of mental health but what I have read indicates that “mental health” as a concept was not in vogue at the turn of the 20th Century.   Put another way, mental illness had not yet been re-branded as mental health.  In fact, the first Mental Health Week in Canada was declared only in 1951, a full 46 years after Jean Madill was born. At the time Jean entered this world,radio was still two decades away from being the latest craze and the widespread use and ownership of television sets was even further away. Social media campaigns such as Bell Let’s Talk Day were unheard of and it would be almost fifty years after the first Mental Health Week before the Internet and social media would provide a platform in the struggle to end the stigma of mental illness; to highlight the need for access to care and services; to provide guidance for workplace mental health initiatives; to fund research on treatments and cures; and to support community organizations in their local programs and services.

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The 2016 Bell Let’s Talk Days raised an astonishing $6,295,764.75 from 125,915,295 calls, texts, tweets and shares. Since 2010, the total contribution is approaching $100,000,000 to mental health programs. We should be encouraged by the support this campaign has received but we have to wonder why, more than 110 years after Jean Madill was born, the conversation about mental health remains so difficult and illusive.

The language of mental health

As a child the most charitable thing I recall hearing in relation to Jean Madill’s situation is that she had been studying to be a nurse when she had a “nervous breakdown” (see Note 2.)   I was eight years old and I was not exactly sure what this phrase meant. I am not sure I know even now. I do know that the term is not a medical one and it does not refer to a specific condition. In general, it describes a period of stress (usually temporary) where a person is not able to function normally in daily life. Everything just becomes too overwhelming. (See Note 3)

What is mental health anyway? About 30 years ago some friends were visiting with their precocious five-year-old daughter. Let’s call her Abigail.   Abigail and I had been dispatched to the corner store for some milk and as we walked she started a rather serious conversation about how she was feeling. She suddenly stopped walking, stood back, put her hands on her hips, looked me straight in the eye and announced quite pointedly, “I have had several mental breakdowns, you know.” It took me by surprise and I snorted a little laugh before recovering quickly to say sympathetically, “That’s too bad but I understand that you grow out of them.” Almost immediately she switched to another subject and nothing more was said about her breakdowns. When I relayed this story to her parents later that evening they laughed and explained that “temper tantrums” in their family are referred to as “mental breakdowns.” It seemed reasonable at the time but now it has me wondering where temper tantrums fit in the typologies of disorders in relation to depression or anxiety, and whether ‘tantrums’ could ever constitute an inability to function in daily life, or at least be a symptom of mental illness, an indicator of things to come.

I can only imagine that my own parents and other family members must have wondered about my early childhood behaviour at times. Some of my very earliest memories involve throwing temper tantrums when I didn’t get my way. I recall one occasion when I threw a huge tantrum, a performance worthy of an Oscar – full out crying/wailing, foot stomping, yelling, and screaming. I don’t recall pitching anything but I may have.  To make matters worse we were at my aunt and uncle’s house and I am certain my parents were mortified by my behaviour.  I recall being banished to a quiet room from which I escaped to hide in the car because my parents were going to go into the city and weren’t going to take me!  The forgoing “drama”unfolded but I feel compelled to reserve more specific details for another blog posting – or maybe for the next time I have an opportunity to occupy a therapist’s couch!

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The PD Gardener c. 1952   Photo: R. B. Marshall

My point is that the language of mental illness and mental health is tricky and in Jean’s case categorizing the problem as a “nervous breakdown” seemed carefully designed to project 1) an impression that Jean had been “normal” but had some sort of mental collapse from which she was not able to recover; 2) that she was intelligent and studying to take on a respected and important professional career; and 3) she was to be treated with kindness and respect.  Aside from some teasing and mild harassment by unthinking, uncaring, and unaware chimpanzees/children, I perceive this to be the case but I am certain there were undercurrents through the community that were not as innocuous. You would think that something unsavoury had to have happened in the 100 years of Jean’s life, but if it did, I don’t know what it was.

The changing landscape of mental health

When the Manitoba Asylum at Selkirk, Manitoba was built in 1886, it was the only facility on the Canadian prairies with separate facilities to care for the mentally ill.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone that overcrowding was an issue almost immediately.  As a result, a “Home for Incurables” was established in Portage La Prairie and in 1891 a second asylum opened in Brandon. By 1914 there were about 1,500 patients in the three Manitoba facilities combined. While it is true that more attention was being given to mental illness, care for patients was not well understood and both psychiatry and psychiatric nursing in Manitoba were still at rudimentary stages. The nurses’ residence did not open at the Selkirk Hospital until 1926 and it wasn’t until 1960 that Psychiatric Nursing was established as a separate professional entity in the province. But by 1950 the number of patients in psychiatric hospitals in Canada ballooned to over 66,000.

The distinction between a mental health concern and a mental illness [a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function, see Note 4] was not well understood nor were the wide variety of symptoms and behaviours. People did seem to understand that stress, a traumatic life experience, an abusive relationship, brain damage, chronic medical conditions, or drug an alcohol abuse might cause mental illness.  Even so, there was often disagreement on treatments and availability of treatment was not guaranteed.

Have mental health matters become more clear in a present day world?  I am not sure, as there is a bewildering array of concepts joining the aforementioned “nervous breakdown” and “mental breakdown,” challenging the layperson to keep abreast. Just what are the differences and similarities among concepts such as mental illness, mental disability, mental impairments, mental retardation, learning disability, psychiatric disability, intellectual disability, anxiety disorder, mood disorder, depressive disorder, affective disorder, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), schizophrenia disorder, dysthymia, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, to name a few?  I do understand that specificity in definition is required to advance science but sometimes in the interests of awareness, simplicity works. Mental illness comes in many shades and shapes and when a mental illness interferes with the performance of major life activities, such as learning, working and communicating, etc. it is a disability.  (See Note 5)

So it was that Jean Madill was a young adult in the 1920s with a mental illness/disability. Available facilities for the treatment and care of mental illnesses were nascent and poorly equipped to classify patients, never mind actually treat them.

The changes in the name from “Goal” (sic) [I assume it should be Gaol,] to “Manitoba Asylum”, to “Selkirk Insane Hospital” [1910], to “Selkirk Hospital for Mental Diseases”, to “Selkirk Mental Health Centre”, reflect the changes in attitude, philosophy and function that mark the course of progress in the care and treatment of the mentally ill. (See Note 6)

These name changes coincide with a policy to shift care from institutions to community in the 1950s in an attempt to eliminate or at least soften the negative effects of institutions. New and better medications, approaches that stressed rehabilitation, and a program of foster care for children during the 1950s and 1960s, dramatically reduced patient populations in institutions. Institutions did however pick up the pieces when families and/or communities failed or where the patient was not suitable for placement in the community.

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Genevieve Evangeline (Eva) Marshall   Photo credit and date unknown

[Interestingly, my Aunt Eva Marshall played a key role in many children’s lives as a foster parent during this time period. I recall meeting several of her foster children when I visited with my cousins during summers at the Brandon Experimental Farm. While there was some “drama” from time to time, I do not recall any interaction as being upsetting … or uplifting for that matter. It just was.]

Two cases from the mental hospital grounds: Jessica and the King of Prince Edward Island

In the late 60s and early 70s, I played hockey in Brandon and Selkirk which coincidentally were the locations of mental hospitals in Manitoba.  In Brandon my teammates and I would often go to the grounds of the mental hospital to play soccer, Frisbee, baseball or just hang out on nice warm spring days.  Often, we would encounter staff and “inmates” as we called them from the hospital. I was totally ignorant about almost every dimension of mental illness. I recall being very surprised to encounter the teenage granddaughter (let’s call her Jessica) of some people I knew. I met Jessica on several previous occasions at her grandparents’ house. Apparently she was well known to my friends as someone who was being treated as an outpatient at the Hospital and liked to engage in sex talk.

The few times I saw Jessica on the Hospital grounds we were with our respective groups of friends – all girls in her group, all guys in mine. I recall the encounters as hyper – dramatic, foul – mouthed displays of aggression graphically punctuated with shouted litanies of various sex acts and behaviours.  It was not the innocent, humorous and flirtatious banter between teenage girls and boys intent on striking up friendships and romances or even temporary sexual dalliances. Jessica and her gang never escaped the collective persona of a slut. What was the collective persona of the gang I was with, you ask?  Good question. We were probably closest to a tormentor, willingly providing the stimuli, the mean teasing, and the suggestive contexts for the sluts to hurl the filth that we wanted to hear.  I don’t know if we took Jessica’s gang down to our level or vice-versa but the fact is that we were both at the same low-level level – so far down that no lower level could be achieved without physical contact.  But to my knowledge, no relationships, sexual or otherwise, ever developed between members of our groups. It seems weird but we always parted somewhat amicably as our ‘fuck you’ and ‘fuck off’ goodbyes and other creative invective hurled in both directions were pinned in the air like corsages and boutonniere to be cherished forever as keepsakes.

I was accustomed to crude behaviour as it is the norm among young hockey players but I have to say that these experiences with Jessica and her friends rattled me a little. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a saint by any means but I was fresh off the farm so to speak and had never encountered such explicit behaviour in girls. I suppose Jessica might have been concerned that I would rat her out to her grandparents but I doubt that this was a major issue. She needn’t have been concerned anyway as I didn’t know them well enough to broach this topic, and I can’t imagine what I would have said to her grandparents that would have been helpful to keep the conversation going. “Oh by the way, I saw Jessica on Saturday and she asked me to …. “ I don’t think so! Besides, it has taken 50 years for me to even let it rise to the surface. I never saw Jessica after those few encounters that summer.

In Selkirk, several of my friends worked at the Selkirk Mental Hospital. Sometimes a few of us would go to the manicured green spaces of the Hospital to beat the summer heat. Often we would encounter a friend who was on the grounds working with a patient or two. I don’t have very fond memories of those occasions. From my perspective there was always an element of the unknown, a concern for safety, and there was an undercurrent of ridicule and nastiness of staff and visitors towards patients that sometimes surfaced in ways that were seemingly innocuous, but were anything but innocuous. At the time we thought it was funny to ask one particular patient repeatedly, “What is your name?” And when the patient answered just as predictably and repeatedly, “The King of Prince Edward Island,” we would laugh uproariously. Like small children we, including the patient it seems, never grew weary from the repetition and only stopped when the orderly ordered us to stop. While hospital staff was complicit in these exchanges, to their credit they were the ones who knew to draw the line when our games became too harassing.

I am not sure if either the Selkirk or Brandon Hospitals were options for the Madill family in their search for treatment for Jean. I would be surprised if there were not inquiries and/or consultations. However, I am not privy to this information and while I am interested from both an academic and a personal perspective, these details are not germane to the story I recount today. Suffice to say that by the mid 20th century the paradigm for the delivery of mental health programing had shifted from institutions toward community and family.

The importance of family

The Madills had roots deep in the community going back to the early 1890s.  R.W. “Wes” Madill married Jane Elizabeth Maloney in 1894 and went to Altamont from Austin, Manitoba to manage a retail store owned by his uncle John Sampson.  Wes would buy the business in 1902 and run it for the next 28 years.   On the Maloney family side, Elizabeth’s father, Henry, came to Altamont in 1890 and was Postmaster from 1907 – 1920.  Prominent in business and public service, both families were well known and respected throughout the community.  [Coincidentally, my own father was the Postmaster from 1955 – 1972.]

Those deep roots and the relationships that grew from them would cement Jean’s path in the future. In essence, the family pulled its own ‘safety net’ tightly around Jean such that she was able to live her long life in relative dignity in the same small community where she was born – a claim few others can make.

Jean had three brothers. Clifford married Jessie Skinner; Gordon married Fanny Acaster; and her twin brother Ken married Elsie Snowdon. Her two sisters were Mabel, married to Jim Dean, and Grace who married Jack Shellard. Cliff and Gordon continued to live locally and I recall the others were in contact regularly.  Over the years these siblings, their partners, extended families, and other community members provided a safe haven for Jean – one that permitted her not just ‘to survive’ or ‘to exist’ but ‘to live’ with some form of dignity.

To be blunt, providing care for someone with a long term illness requires considerable financial resources irrespective of whether the care is provided in an institution, the community or by the family.  My understanding is that one source of financial support for Jean was her parent’s estate. Her father, Wes Madill, died July 3, 1944 at age 73 when Jean was 38 years old and she was 49 when her mother, Jane Maloney Madill, died on June 15, 1955.  No one could have guessed that Jean would live to be almost 101 years old, outliving her immediate family members and most of her contemporaries in the community.

The Madill estate included some income-generating property such as the “Madill Block” established on Altamont’s Main Street at the turn the 20th century. Unfortunately the store was destroyed by fire early in the morning of December 3, 1905. The loss of the store and stock was valued at $10,000 and was insured for only $6,700 but Wes continued to operate the store out of the Maccabbee Hall [another interesting topic for a future blog post] until 1907 when a new building was completed. The risk of fire must have been very high in these communities [I plan to explore this theme of fire in future blog posts] as on a Sunday morning in May 1923 fire levelled Madill’s store once again. And, once again Wes Madill operated the store from another property until he could rebuild. The business was finally sold to George Bishop in 1930 but I believe the Madill family retained ownership of the Block.

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Photo showing the Madill Block in early 1950s. Fire would soon destroy the hardware store at the left. Photo: unknown

In the 1950s the Madill Block had two competing grocery stores coexisting side by side on the street level. (I remember my dad telling me that we should patronize each store to an approximate equal amount.) There were also three or four apartments on the second floor. The Block has specific memories for most children of my generation. It certainly does for me. The very first time I watched television was in Orville Bishop’s apartment in the Block. Orville was a bachelor farmer who moved to town and he owned the first and only TV in the community at the time. Along with his farming and bridge playing buddies, he watched hockey on Saturday nights but on Saturday afternoons, Orville’s apartment became the local cinema as his door was open for us to watch Horse Opera.  We huddled around the small black and white screen where Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Zorro, Rin Tin Tin, Wild Bill Hickok, Hopalong Cassidy, Wyatt Earp, The Lone Ranger, Maverick, My Friend Flicka, The Rifleman, Texas Rangers, The Last of the Mohicans, and others were central to our socialization into a culture where good guys wore white hats and bad guys wore black hats – and women played subordinate roles …. and everyone used guns. How did we escape this experience to become enlightened adults? … or did we?  Another topic for another day …. but right now we should return to the key figure in this story.

‘Stick it where?’ money

Jean Madill also lived in an apartment in the Block for quite some time; her small quarters piled high with papers and magazines. She subscribed to one of the Winnipeg papers – I am not sure which one but it was clear later in my life that if you were a Conservative you subscribed to the Winnipeg Free Press and if you were a Liberal you subscribed to the Winnipeg Tribune and maybe the Star Weekly. If you were NDP, you subscribed to the Toronto Star Weekly, and maybe the Tribune. I remember my friend R.W. and I reviewing the results of the Altamont poll after an election. We discovered that three people in the poll had voted NDP. We knew who two of them were but couldn’t place a name beside the third NDP vote. I think I know who it was but without absolute proof, I leave it a mystery. Anyway, I am not sure how much Jean knew about, or cared about, politics but I do know she read the papers – and then kept them in her apartment.

Family members dropped by from time to time to take Jean to a neighbouring community for lunch. She enjoyed such outings but before she returned other family members had swooped down upon her apartment, taken the reams of paper and cleaned up. Her place was nice and tidy again. Jean of course would be mad as a hatter and would curse at everyone involved. She sometimes remembered from one time to the next and would refuse to go for lunch at the next invitation … but mostly she liked to lunch and the ritual would continue – swearing and all. I like to think that she played the game and played her family, but who knows? Whatever the case, her family was doing its best to look after her interests.

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Desolate winter view to the west. Post Office is on right. The “A” frame building is United Church.  Photo: S. Marshall 1982

When Jean began to receive Old Age Security, she enjoyed the freedom of having money over which she had some control. In fact, she occasionally offered money to family members for cleaning her apartment or for inviting her to lunch or dinner. Sometimes she left the money later, under a vase or lamp, upon visiting that person’s home. Of course, family members would not take Jean’s money, and Jean, feeling the power of her independence would retort indignantly, “Well, stick it up your ass then!” Others are in a better position to confirm this story but I understand the money was kept to offset Jean’s unforeseen expenses and/or future needs. The money accumulated and it was commonly known among family and friends as “Stick it up your ass money.”

Cookies and commerce

When a new friend Bruce and his family moved to Altamont from Winnipeg, we played at their apartment and in the hallways of the Block, and Jean would often invite us into her apartment or sometimes a group of kids would knock on Jean’s door. We would crowd in when she answered and stand in a small clump (there were no chairs or couches free of papers or boxes) and she would offer us cookies, or bread with uncoloured margarine the same as Aunt ‘Mime would, except the bread was not as appetizing. In fact, Jean was most often very apologetic as she proffered treats, “I am sorry that I don’t have much to give you but take some of these cookies, they’re going mouldy anyway.”  My recollection is that we always ate what was offered and none of us suffered any negative consequences.

When I was about 10 years old, dad put me to work in the confectionery which was separated from the Post Office by a thin half wall of 2 x 4 studs and plywood with wire mesh to the ceiling. To get from one side to the other you used an interior particleboard door which had no lock. I remember my father laughing after the Post Office had been burgled (it was robbed more than once) that the crooks took time to smash the door down when all they had to do was turn the handle. Before I get side tracked on the history of burglaries in Altamont (fodder for another blog), let’s return to Jean Madill.

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Altamont Post Office, Confectionery and Bus Depot    Photo: unknown

Jean usually made the short walk (about 75 meters) to the Post Office each day to pick up her mail after which she would often purchase a treat in the confectionery. In order to pay, she would search through a big shopping bag pinned to her sweater or coat to retrieve another smaller bag containing a smaller purse, and inside the purse was a small plastic change squeeze. She would dig out her 25 cents for payment and then patiently return any change (yes, change from 25 cents!) to the squeeze purse that was then returned to its assigned space deep inside the succession of bags. Sometimes, there were more bags than at other times and it may not have been the height of fashion but it was a security system that seemed to work, as I don’t recall her ever being burgled.

Squeeze change purse

Squeeze change purse

Fashionista meets the fashion police

Jean was also a bit of a fashionista – maybe a “victim of fashion and accessories” (with a nod to Carol Pope and Rough Trade.) Given the multi – bag design of her purses, you might think that Jean is the classic homeless “bag lady.” You would be wrong.  She did not carry an excessive number of bags, just enough to keep her money safe and she lived in her own place in the Block and in the iconic Altamont Hotel after the Block succumbed to a declining rural economy, losing its tenants, and falling into disrepair and disuse.

Jean was rarely in accordance with fashion trends and charted her own course. She loved interesting clothes and different colours. As I recall she particularly liked to wear leggings, pants, skirts, blouses, sweaters, scarves and jewelry in any combination or number, in colours that were appropriately gaudy and outrageous, incorporating dots, stripes, checks, paisley or any other pattern, the permutations and combinations of which were seemingly limitless. This was haute couture a la Jean Madill.  I am not sure where she purchased her clothes but there has to be a story there. In the end though, the colours per se were not the problem. No, it was her style and the way she wore clothes that led to most of her transgressions with the Altamont fashion police.

In the mid 1960s she caused some consternation when she began to wear maternity tops – much cooler in the summer she reasoned. Fair enough, but generally speaking unless you were pregnant, it was not acceptable to wear maternity clothes, reasoned the local fashion police and others who had influence in her life.

Hott pants

Don’t forget though that this was the late 1960s and early 1970s (I never liked the exactness of defining cultural eras according to the precise numerical value of any decade i.e., 60s or 70s) and “fashion” for teenage girls ranged from headbands to hot pants and ponchos to peasant blouses. I waffle (not the NDP waffle) back and forth as to whether fashion was always a year or two (or ten) behind in rural Manitoba compared to the big centres or if some fashions just bypassed us altogether. In any case, I recall a group of local teenage girls headed “across the line” to Fargo and Grand Forks, North Dakota for a little shopping trip one spring. The teenagers returned with peasant blouses that to the entire world looked just like maternity tops … and they weren’t pregnant … were they? … Well … I am pretty sure they weren’t…. Maybe Jean was ahead of the curve on this fashion trend…?

Fly-fishing

The fashion police worked overtime to watch Jean even as others made fashion faux pas after fashion faux pas. I have to say that the attention was not always unwarranted. Somehow this question arose in Jean’s mind: Is it acceptable for a woman to wear men’s jeans with the fly undone during the summertime?

“A lot cooler,” Jean reasoned, and she was the first to sport this fashion statement on the streets of Altamont.

“Likely true,” the norm setters (if not trend setters) replied, “but it does fly (so to speak) in the face of community standards.”

Jean, I have to agree with them on this one. It doesn’t matter who you are, you don’t go around with your fly unzipped. Why do you think men have developed surreptitious ways of checking to see if the fly is all the way up? And even then we miss it sometimes and have to be reminded by someone who walks up with a big smile on his/her face and says, “What does an airplane do?” That is your clue to surreptitiously place your hand on your belt buckle, let your fingers drop ever so slightly as to sense the openness or ‘closedness’ at the front of your pants. Some people call this manoeuvre “fly fishing.” If it is open, you abruptly execute a pirouette (if you are very adept) or a demi – rond (if you are not so adept) pulling the zipper up as you do so, your whirling body providing diversionary cover for the covert action of nimble fingers. However, if your zipper is closed, someone has played a trick on you. Embarrassing one way but funny the other way, although it is infinitely more embarrassing when they don’t tell you and you walk around for a large portion of the day with your fly wide open as if airing the family jewels. As I grow older and more forgetful, the more important it has become for Anne to take seriously her duty to give me the once up and down every time I come back from the restroom or leave the house. I believe that all men need a zipper monitor. It was recently reinforced to me that if I slip up and don’t zip up, I am left to walk around the Christmas craft show most of the afternoon looking like Baaaad Santa. Remember: “Zip it” is more than just code for “keep your mouth closed.”

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Belt Buckle commemorating Altamont’s Centennial  Photo: The PD Gardener 2016

What can we draw from these observations about fashion? Oh boy, I might find myself in trouble here. I offer some possibilities: 1) Fashion is not fashion for everyone; for one thing it has to be age appropriate. If that is the case, Jean, you are out of luck. You were on the wrong side of the age watershed for clothes that can double as maternity as well as peasant blouses. 2) Perhaps those who had influence over Jean didn’t have the same influence over teenagers. After all, the 1960s is noted for teenage rebelliousness. 3) These teens knew that their parents would disapprove of hot pants so they erred, ironically, on the conservative side by choosing hippie peasant blouses. (Is a ‘conservative hippie’ an oxymoron?) I am not sure it matters much as all the teenage girls were right in style in hot pants a year later anyway. I am glad Jean who was well into her 50s by this time never picked up the hot pants fashion. At least, I never witnessed it. I only wish that some other women of her age group were as sensible. … I am stopping this line of thinking now… in the interests of self-preservation. 4) Finally, we can conclude that the only safe way to ensure you are zipped up is to wear clothes that have no fly, giving whole new meaning to that traditional campfire song (possibly written by Pete Seeger,) “There ain’t no flies on us.” Nevertheless, it does beg the question of whether men can wear jeans that have no fly? I wonder what Jean would think?

‘Jeannie from the Block’

Let’s leave Jean’s jeans and get back to a more serious look at ‘Jeannie from the Block’ (apologies to J. Lo.) I know very little about the ownership and management of the Madill Block. It generated income I am certain but how much I cannot say and it is not a matter of great concern to me. I do believe however that there was a concerted family effort to provide Jean as much independence and the best quality of life possible, and the Block was central to that goal at least in the early days. I am pretty certain though that for a large portion of Jean’s adult life, the resources of the extended family were called upon to meet basic needs. Knowing the Madill family as well as I do assures me that Jean was in good hands.

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The Madill Block in 1982 looks much the same as it did in 1950.  Photo: S. Marshall 1982

If Jean lived in a larger urban setting, would she have fared better? Some will argue that she would have better access to programs that would meet her specific needs. Others will say that family and a close knit rural community was all that Jean needed. Of course, we will never know for certain. Was the reality of her life a success or a disaster? On balance, I would say that it was a success; it certainly wasn’t a disaster. There will never be unanimous agreement on the benefits and shortcomings of rural life but Jean spent most of her almost 101 years living among family and friends in the same small community into which she was born. There are many who will be envious of her achievement. As people approach end of life they often express a desire to return to their families and spend their final years “at home.” You know the saying “It takes a village to raise a child.” Perhaps the parallel credo in this instance is “It took a village to ensure quality of life for Jean.”

Jean’s relationship to others in the community, family or not, was a symbiotic one. In many ways, Jean was an unofficial ambassador for Altamont providing a warm and friendly greeting to all who came within its boundaries. No event held in the community was really ‘official’ until she graced it with her presence. In villages you get used to the fact that everyone knows everyone’s business. That is certainly the case in Altamont but it is not always a bad thing. It meant people were watching out for Jean, and conversely she was watching out for them. And if they weren’t watching out for each other, they were just watching each other. Jean would raise her voice if we children were stepping out of line or if other strange “doings” were in the works. She also tidied up around the village keeping common spaces free of garbage. I believe she was compensated in some manner but I don’t know how much or who paid. I do not believe that she was exploited in this arrangement.

It all seems a little idyllic and idealistic, doesn’t it? Is the secret to providing care for someone with a chronic illness or disability that simple? Family and community to the rescue! Well, not exactly, but before I digress into some political theory, it is time to stop for a moment to smell the roses.

A Rose for Jean

In my previous blog post I recommended a specific rose to represent each of the other three centenarians I have known. Keeping with that theme, Jean Madill deserves an appropriate  rose.  I thought long and hard about which rose I would chose, not just to celebrate her long life but to represent her story.  Inevitably, I gravitated toward the Hope for Humanity Rose developed at the Morden Research Station by Lynn Collicutt in 1984 in the Parkland series and introduced by Agriculture Canada in 1995 in honour of the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the Canadian Red Cross. This compact rose might be overlooked except for clusters of very dark red roses that bloom continuously in the growing season and through which she shouts, “Hey! I am here! I am beautiful!” It is a truism, I suppose, that everyone has detractors and some claim that Hope for Humanity requires extra care and pruning and is therefore “high maintenance.” Some say they hate the name … too cloying, an excess of liberal sentiment that almost makes them gag … but purchase the rose anyway for the beauty of the blooms.

In truth, neither the rose nor Jean Madill is “high maintenance.” All roses do require some regular care and pruning and Jean required familial oversight and a safe haven to thrive … and perhaps a little fashion advice and assistance with housekeeping along the way. Roses bloom with an ethereal beauty that is difficult to capture even with the latest technology. Similarly Jean Madill’s personality, nurtured by family and a caring community, carried a sparkle that shone through the gray of mental illness. 

Hope for Humanity: More than meets the eye

From the moment I first heard it, I was smitten by the phrase “Hope for Humanity.” Some would say my infatuation is just the “bleeding heart liberal” or the “social democrat” in me coming to the surface. Maybe that is the part of me that makes others gag?  Whatever, I do find the name “Hope for Humanity” thought provoking and uplifting.

We forever have Hope – a concept that I find somewhat mushy in the abstract but extremely sharp in its realism. For example, I hope for a cure for Parkinson’s disease. I carry that hope with me always even though it seems a bit vague, more like wishful thinking for something, anything, to happen. Hope is put into sharp focus though when the reality of what the fulfillment of wishes, prayers, and hopes actually means for persons living with Parkinson’s, their spouses, lovers, family, caregivers, and friends. It means a release from a complex of motor and non-motor symptoms that may range from annoying to unbearable, from predictable to unpredictable, from inconvenient to debilitating, from muscle movement irritants to excruciatingly painful cramping, from mildly intrusive anomalies to completely dominating regularities, from optimism to pessimism, and from joy to depression – all on any given day, at any given time, sometimes repeating with a relentless ebb and flow throughout every 24 hour period … forever. I witness that reality in myself and in my Parkie friends every day. When you understand the magnitude, the depth and breadth of this existence and the enormity of the joy that a cure would bring to our hearts, the relief it would bring to our minds, and the release it would bring to our muscles and brains, then Hope is no longer mushy; C’est clair!

Humanity” appears to be a straightforward concept meaning “mankind” or “humanness.” A literal interpretation of “Hope for Humanity” would be that we have “hope for mankind,” a lovely thought in its generality but it leaves too much unsaid for my liking. Ironically, I have to seek the abstract before I can understand the concreteness. Abstractly, humanity embodies qualities such as “benevolence,” “compassion,” “generosity,” “charity,” and “kindness.” You might argue that these are merely synonyms but I maintain that they form a package, reinforcing and strengthening each other to create an invincible mesh, a “social safety net,” the concrete manifestation of the altruism necessary for social and economic security.

“Social safety net”

Please excuse me as I continue my digression from roses per se to reflect on the fact that liberal democracies provide some form of “social safety net” for citizens. The term “social safety net” has many definitions ranging from minimal economic support or welfare (provided by governments, charities, informal social groups, and churches to citizens who have fallen on hard times) to the comprehensive supports provided by the modern “welfare state.” I truly dislike the term “welfare state” and I am in a mild state of shock that I have even raised it here.  I guess I would prefer ”social democratic state” in recognition that social responsibility is at its core.

In a social democratic state, the “social safety net” expands to include universal health care, unemployment insurance, public education and social services, state pension plans such as the Canada Pension Plan (CPP,) among other things. It springs from an ideology of an equal playing field to achieve success and redistribution of wealth occurs primarily through progressive taxation and access to services on the basis of need. My own personal beliefs fall very closely to these ideals. The state has a mandate to provide the structures of economic and social security for its citizens, intervening with various supports where necessary. No one should be left behind. (See Note 7)  It occurs to me that the values of a ”social democratic state” mirror the qualities in our earlier definition of “humanity” e.g., “benevolence,” “compassion,” “generosity,” “charity,” and “kindness.”

It should come as no surprise then that the “Hope for Humanity” rose has a complexity of her own being a hybrid of Prairie Princess, Morden Amorette, Morden Cardinette, R. rugosa and R. arkansana giving it a deep, almost blood red bloom to separate it from the landscape, a hardiness to cold weather, a resistance to disease, and all with a fragrance that does not overwhelm. For me, the heritage of the rose and the intricacies of “Hope” and “Humanity,” confirmed the Hope for Humanity rose as most appropriate to accompany Jean Madill.

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Two blooms on recently acquired Hope for Humanity Rose in our garden.  Photo: The PD Gardener 2016

Is family the answer?

I would not blame you for saying; “The PD Gardener has led us through a small, quite simple maze where the last turn opens into a clearing where all becomes …well … clear.” We could, quite correctly I believe, conclude that mental illness in Manitoba was not well understood at the turn of the 20th century and treatment was primitive within asylums and hospitals. This approach began to show its cracks and by mid-century treatment was shifting to community. Sadly, small communities such as Altamont (population ~200) within the Municipality of Lorne (population ~ 3,000) were unable to provide mental health and disability programs that would aid Jean’s treatment and care. Moreover, she did not have a disability that prevented her from participating in activities of daily living so there was an expectation that she could live with a certain independence outside of an institutional setting.

“Aha!” you say, “Then it is the family’s obligation and duty to care for the family member.”  You conclude that this is a story about how family provided for Jean and all was well. You are correct to a certain degree.  I believe Jean’s family did indeed ride to the rescue – out of love, duty, obligation, responsibility or whatever you might call it –  in the interest of choosing a reasonable option for Jean in a society with few options at the time. The family and many others from the community are to be commended for the role they played in Jean’s integration into community life. Altamont provided the environment Jean Madill needed and with family financial resources, the ‘safety net’ was in place.

Normally, I might be comfortable to let this observation be the end of our discussion but not today because a key question is prodding provocatively at my political core. Does it naturally follow that if we have a mental illness, disability or other chronic condition such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, then family is the preferred social unit for provision of care?

I fear that I have now opened up another can of worms and my moral and political compass must withstand intense interference as I pass through a very dangerous highly charged magnetic field.   My good friend Selma Garten states unequivocally  that the only real safety net for anyone requiring care is family.  Put bluntly, families are reservoirs of love and do not permit family members to be abandoned.  Selma speaks from much experience having cared for parents beginning at a very early age, and for her sister as they grow older. Her thoughts speak volumes to me in that one of the greatest fears I have as a PwP is the fear of abandonment as Parkinson’s advances and takes a greater and greater toll on my body and mind, as well as on the bodies and minds of those I love and who love me.  I don’t believe that this is an unreasonable fear on my part, not because I do not have faith that Anne and my family love me (I believe with all my heart that they do and I return that love unequivocally) but because the crushing weight of the care giving function in terms of time and resources may be just too much for any family to shoulder if a ‘social safety net’ is not in place to enable and assist the family to play its role over an extended period of time.

It is probably safe to say that the ideal scenario has us spending our last years with our families, secure in the knowledge that these years will be the ‘best’ years of our lives.  Equally, I believe  that it is safe to say, “That ain’t going to happen for many of us.”  I say this not because I am depressed ( I am not) or because I do not have confidence in my loved ones, but because the cards are stacked against us as we try to reach the ideal. For families to be the ideal, our society (social, political and economic life) must provide families with the capacity to meet the demand and their mandate. To date, social democratic states have not been able to meet the test of the ideal although they are working to fund and deliver “humanity” in long term care and end of life care.  Institutional care is most often described as cold and impersonal whether provided by the state, charitable organizations, or for profit entities. In 1977 Daniel Jay Baum characterized the nursing home industry as Warehouses for Death to warn us against the institutionalization of care for the elderly. The warning continued the move started in the 1950s and 1960s toward community care – not to be confused with family care. Nevertheless, recently I heard an interview on CBC Radio with Kay Parley, a psychiatric nurse who was also a patient of that era and she claims that the move to community care was not always the best move for patients – that they would have received better treatment in institutionalized settings such as mental hospitals where patients were “pushed to do things” instead of getting treatment under the “medical model” where the focus was on curing and looking after the patient.

Now 40 years later, the warning  about nursing home care is as salient as ever and few would agree that institutional care is to be preferred over care provided by families.  In fact, it is difficult to argue against family values when they are posed as compassionate and progressive ideals in contrast to institutions. But I am about to do just that. You see, the problem is that families most often can’t meet the test either.

If we assume that family is best suited to provide care for those who are mentally ill, it should also be best suited for other critical societal responsibilities. “Home schooling” would be the norm instead of public and/or private systems of daycare, kindergarten and grade school. At the opposite end of the age spectrum, elder care would be a family responsibility and government run care and private, for profit care would be least desirable. However, I have a gut feeling that some people are less likely to situate elder care in the family than they are to situate early childhood education there. Elder care has a different labour intensity and is, considering the cost of medical devices and pharmaceuticals etc., more expensive than childcare and early grade school.  The shorter duration of elder care may offset some of the cost. To be very crass about it, youth represent ‘future value’ and while the chronically ill elderly are ‘treasured’ for past contributions, the cost of care discounts their current value.

I want to be clear that I am not ruling out family as a legitimate option in individual cases. However, I am ruling out family as the primary and most effective provider for a complex set of societal needs e.g., health care, care for the mentally ill and disabled, all levels of education, unemployment assistance, pensions and retirement income, and many other responsibilities.

Even if family values and the family unit were extremely strong in our culture (and I am not sure it is that strong) the tensile strength (See Note 8) of the family cannot be infinite. There is a point at which the ability of the family to withstand stress fails. Oh sure, the strength of each family is different resulting in uncertainty and unpredictability when one or more of its members require care outside of the norm. How a society identifies and deals with situations requiring care are important questions.  Can family be the backbone for all health, and social and economic welfare or, asked slightly differently, can family be the ‘social safety net’ from first report to last resort?

Please bear with me. You see, I can’t get it out of my head that the different types of care required for the wide array of health and mental illnesses alone places huge stress on families. Over the century of Jean Madill’s life, the identification, classification, psychological and psychiatric therapies, drug therapy treatments, and social and education programs changed significantly. These changes were both qualitative and quantitative, and included new and better therapies as well as different locations for the responsibility, administration and delivery of programs. These changes require financial resources and human labour to navigate and implement successfully – resources most families do not possess. In truth, the modern family unit is not designed to accept these obligations on an individual basis never mind on a societal basis

Two critical stressors

Families are never exempt from the stresses of having to care for someone with a chronic condition.  Financial burden is one such stressor and is most acute when the family is not able cover costs of care. This burden is somewhat less if you live in a functioning “social democratic state.” The more complex the care and treatment, the more costly it is. The longer the duration of care, the greater the financial burden. The good news is that if you are very wealthy, maybe you can manage. However, it is likely the threat of bankruptcy or significant loss of wealth is omnipresent. Bankruptcy resulting from the cost of health care is common in the United States even if the family has some type of health insurance. It is not so common in Canada, which has more public and subsidized health care.

Caregiver burden is a second stressor and accrues to family member(s) over time. The longer the family member requires assistance and the more complex the care is, the greater the caregiver burden. However, the good news is that the more responsibility for care is spread across the extended family, the more caregiver burden can be ameliorated for any individual family member.

Today, families are faced with a rapidly increasing incidence of neurological conditions e.g., Alzheimer’s which is a common form of degenerative dementia and Parkinson’s disease where an estimated 50 – 80 percent of Persons with Parkinson’s (PwP) will develop Parkinson’s dementia within ten years of diagnosis. PwP will require increasing levels of care even if there is no dementia present as its advanced symptoms and the side effects of the drugs are extremely debilitating.

Usually a person newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s will have a high degree of physical and mental functionality permitting independence on matters of daily living including continuing to work in many cases. This independence diminishes as the disease advances but the life expectancy of PwP, while shorter than those without Parkinson’s, is still a good long time depending on the efficacy of the pharmaceutical treatments and physiotherapy/exercise programs followed.

While the family will remain at the core of activities of daily living and non-medical care for a lengthy period of time, there will be an increasing reliance on professional support including neurologists, family doctors, nurses, pharmacists, psychologists, psychiatrists, physiotherapists, speech pathologists, social workers, Parkinson’s organizations, exercise coaches, gym instructors, support group volunteers, and a whole raft of others. Many PwP will develop dementia and be forced onto a path of complete dependency. The cost of care and therapies increases almost exponentially as the disease progresses. If there is no extended health insurance coverage, the cost can be crippling for the family.

As Parkinson’s is a progressively degenerative disease, caregiver burden also increases as the disease progresses although not necessarily in a linear relationship with time. It may progress quickly, slowly, or not at all during some intervals, but know this; while it may take a hiatus from time to time, it will inevitably advance.

Along with that inevitability, PwP will eventually require more care than most families are capable of delivering at a cost that is much greater than most families can afford.

Very few families possess the tensile strength to fulfill the needs of family members who have significant health needs. In other words, in general the family is not well suited to be the ‘safety net of last resort.’

Long-term care is a vital component of the Ontario health care system. While most seniors can expect to reside in the community throughout their later years, a significant number will require institutional care to ensure safety and well-being. The need for long-term care services and supports is often greatest for those who are considered the most vulnerable – those who are frail, or have complex health conditions, or psychiatric disorders. (See Note 9)

What is my advice? If you believe that family is your safety net, then accumulate wealth and establish financial stability as quickly as possible and never relinquish it. At the same time get busy with making a large, cohesive, extended family, one that doesn’t suck up all your wealth. I say this tongue in cheek as liberal democracies are trending toward greater inequality between the top earners in the population and everyone else. According to Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives researchers

The richest 1% of earners in Canada accounted for 32% of all income gains between 1997 and 2007. That is four times their share of total income gains during the 1960s (another period of rapid growth) and almost double the share of gains of the 1% during the Roaring Twenties. (See Note 10)

I wish you good luck in making the top 1 percent of earners as not everyone can or will. At the same time the nuclear family is getting smaller not larger.

The average number of children per family decreased from 2.7 in 1961 to 1.9 in 2011. During the same period, the average number of people per family declined from 3.9 in 1961 to 2.9 in 2011. (See Note 11)

I think it is clear that it is not possible for financial and caregiver stressors to be alleviated solely through generation of wealth and increasing family size.  Policies designed to redistribute wealth are essential but run counter to policies of wealth accumulation. Decreasing family size means that care is less likely to be spread across the family. Add to that an unwillingness to sacrifice earning potential i.e., to leave the labour force to provide care, means that caregiver burden will continue.

Finding The Foyer

But have I convinced you that institutions are the best alternative?  Not likely.  As I said earlier, ideally we all would like to be with loved ones until the very end … or put another way, do not want to be abandoned.)  In the end though, our receptivity to, and acceptance of institutional care probably is conditional upon specific circumstances and we must prepare ourselves to make this decision.

I believe that Jean Madill’s family came as close to meeting the tensile strength test as any family has … but Jean lived to be over 100 years old, a wonderful achievement! She outlived most of her immediate family and contemporaries placing considerable responsibility and stress on extended family.  Altamont served as the secondary safety net for most of Jean’s life and certainly played a key role in ensuring that she was able to live out her life in dignity in a personal care home in the neighbouring community of Notre Dame de Lourdes.

The Foyer Notre Dame is an accredited 60-bed personal care home that provides continuous quality client care and service in both official languages. It’s (sic) health care team is composed of physicians, nurses, a social worker, a registered psychiatric nurse, an occupational therapist, a recreation worker, a dietitian and a large support staff. Other services such as foot care, hairdressing, companion and clothing sales are available. Residents may access the spiritual care and guidance of their choice. In addition to these various services, the Foyer also operates an Alzheimer Unit. (See Note 12)

It is tempting to wax poetic and become soft and fuzzy about family values but I caution against romanticizing the role of the family.  Some think the family is, or ought to be, the safety net of last resort but the reality is that it is unlikely to be. Jean’s century long journey to The Foyer highlights the necessity for governmental programming for those who require it. When caregiver burden and financial burden are just too great for families to handle independently, it is time to find the Foyer (not just metaphorically speaking.)

We all need a Foyer in our plans. I trust that if I am compos mentis, I will know when the time is right, for me and for my family, to take appropriate action. If I am not, then I trust my family to help me find The Foyer.

Still you are correct if you think there is a ‘feel good, soft, sweet centre’ to Jean’s story but it is not found in a proof that family is the best avenue for success.  To the contrary, Jean’s case is one of the exceptions and attempts to duplicate her experience, as an example of effective social policy for mental illness, are likely to fail. Membership in family and community is contingent upon relationships and characteristics that are rarely transferable and are almost never duplicated. In other words, we can marvel that it works in one instance but we can know that it will occur only rarely, if ever, in another. It is rather like counting on successive individual mutations every single year to improve your crop yield.

Finally …

Whew! That last section was rather serious, wasn’t it?

Initially, the objective of this post was to include Jean Madill as another remarkable woman from Altamont who lived to celebrate her 100th birthday. I am fortunate to have known her and to know something of her life and circumstance.

I also wanted to address some of the realities of life for those with mental illness and disability, partly through the eyes of someone (me) with minimal awareness and understanding of mental illness never mind the care, treatment and responsibilities for costs. I have exposed my gross ignorance more than once in the previous pages.

As I reflect on my encounters with Jessica and the King of Prince Edward Island, it is clear to me that the stigma of mental illness is incredibly hard to shed because we do not speak of the mental illness or the stigma directly.  Rather,  we camouflage both in euphemisms and stereotypes that mislead us.

I am not defending my own actions or denying culpability on my part in these exchanges but they were enough to make even me (a person who desperately wanted to fit in) feel ill at ease. Any encounters with patients who were allowed to be on the mental hospital grounds were awkward to say the least, partly because we had only the perception of the mentally ill as being “crazy” to inform our expectations and behaviours.  Needless to say, the “crazy” stereotype was (and is) a very poor basis for developing awareness about mental illness … because labelling them “crazy” allowed us to take away their dignity. It is with some degree of consternation that I realize that even the way I have recounted these two stories contributes to the stigma.

I have also used some humorous stories involving Jean Madill in this account. Some may argue that these accounts contribute to the ongoing stigma of mental illness and trivialize both the condition and the lessons to be learned.  My view is that these stories are evidence of ‘humanity’ – perhaps the most valuable contribution that Jean herself brings to this discussion – illustrating that those with mental illness and chronic health conditions have a right to both dignity and quality of life. I have done my best to blend humour with eccentricity in a manner that respects those rights.

One last, less serious, question

Finally, I have one last niggling question: If I live longer, will I know more people who reach 100 years of age i.e., will I know more than the four I have already identified? Hmmm… maybe the probabilities do increase [How is that for using a probability of probabilities hedge?] but I think the more intriguing question is, “Will other people live long enough?” For those who are older than I am right now, I wish you good health so we can party at your 100th birthday and you can party at mine in time! For those who are younger than I am now, I wish you good health so that we can party at my 100th birthday before we both celebrate yours! Of course, I gratefully accept wishes for good health from everyone so that I may fulfil my end of the bargain.

 

Santé! Happy 100th Birthday everyone!

Emojie birthday image

NOTES

  1.  Playground Jungle http://playgroundjungle.com/2011/09/gene-gene-made-a-machine.html
  2. The term ”mental breakdown” seems to be synonymous with “nervous breakdown.”
  3.  Mayo Clinic http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/expert-answers/nervous-breakdown/faq-20057830
  4. Mayo Clinic http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/basics/definition/con-20033813
  5.  Boston College Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation https://cpr.bu.edu/resources/reasonable-accommodations/what-is-psychiatric-disability-and-mental-illness
  6. Selkirk Mental Health Centre History, From “Manitoba Insane Asylum” to “Selkirk Mental Health Centre” http://smhc-archives.com/History%20of%20SMHC.pdf http://smhc-archives.com/History%20of%20SMHC.pdf August 2009.
  7. Some political parties and movements oppose the welfare state and derisively refer to governments that provide extensive state sponsored programs and services as the “nanny state.” These groups want to minimize the role of government in the everyday lives of citizens, leaving those who are on the margins to fend for themselves, and if they fail, so be it.
  8. Defined by Collins English Dictionary as “a measure of the ability of a material to withstand a longitudinal stress, expressed as the greatest stress that the material can stand without breaking.”
  9. Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario
  10. Klein and Yalnizyan 2016
  11. Statistics Canada
  12. Southern Health Regional Health Authority

 

SOURCES

Alzheimer’s Association http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_1973.asp

American Senior Communities, Mental Illness vs Dementia in the Elderly, http://www.ascseniorcare.com/mental-illness-vs-dementia-elderly/

Daniel Jay Baum, Warehouses for Death, Burns and MacEachern Ltd. 1977.

The Beatles, When I’m 64

Bell Let’s Talk Day 2016, http://letstalk.bell.ca/en/

Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario http://ontario.cmha.ca/network/minding-our-elders-mental-health-in-long-term-care/

CBC Radio, Interview of 93-year-old former psychiatric patient and nurse on lessons from LSD, Tuesday June 14, 2016

The Clinique: a monthly abstract of the clinics and of the proceedings of the Clinical Society of the Hahnemann Hospital of Chicago, 1923.

Canadian Rose Society  http://canadianrosesociety.org/CRSMembers/Resources/RosePhotos/ParklandRoses/tabid/71/Default.aspx

Collins English Dictionary

Dutch Growers Saskatoon http://plants.dutchgrowers.ca/11040002/Plant/1333/Hope_for_Humanity_Rose

Diane Franklin, Dementia and Mental Illness: Is Dementia a Psychiatric Disorder? Our Parents, March 26, 2015 https://www.ourparents.com/care-topics/2015/03/26/dementia-and-mental-illness-is-dementia-a-psychiatric-disorder/

Klein, Seth and Armine Yalnizyan, Better is Always Possible: A Federal Plan to Tackle

Poverty and Inequality, CCPA Alternative Federal Budget Technical Paper, February 2016. https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/better-always-possible

Parliament of Canada, Interim Report of The Standing Senate Committee On Social Affairs, Science And Technology Report 1. The Honourable Michael J.L.Kirby, Chair. The Honourable Wilbert Joseph Keon, Deputy Chair. November 2004

Parliament of Canada Mental Health, Mental Illness and Addiction: Overview of Policies and Programs in Canada Report 1 http://www.parl.gc.ca/content/sen/committee/381/soci/rep/report1/repintnov04vol1part3-e.htm

Playground Jungle http://playgroundjungle.com/2011/09/gene-gene-made-a-machine.html

Selkirk Mental Health Centre History, From “Manitoba Insane Asylum” to “Selkirk Mental Health Centre” http://smhc-archives.com/History%20of%20SMHC.pdf http://smhc-archives.com/History%20of%20SMHC.pdf August 2009.

Southern Health Regional Health Authority, Manitoba http://www.southernhealth.ca/healthsite.php?id=147

Southern Health Regional Health Authority, Manitoba, Annual Report, 2014. http://www.southernhealth.ca/data/publications/35/2014-15%20Annual%20Report.pdf

Statistics Canada, Fifty years of families in Canada: 1961 to 2011

Nicole Zahradnik, Minding Our Elders: Mental Health in Long-Term Care
Network, Winter 2007, Ontario, Canadian Mental Health Association, http://ontario.cmha.ca/network/minding-our-elders-mental-health-in-long-term-care/

© Stan Marshall (The PD Gardener) 2016.

IN SEARCH OF THE “STUFF” OF CURLING Part II: The Devil’s Challenge Trophy (“The Old Goat”)

Author’s note: this story has a mix of fiction, fantasy and fact with references to real persons. It is not difficult to recognize the differences. I hope you enjoy it.

hat Thepdgardener IMG_0608

The PD Gardener

In this three-part series we take an excursion back to the mid-20th century small town of Altamont, Manitoba; we search for that illusive “stuff” of curling; we renew acquaintances with Altamont residents from past posts and meet new ones who quickly become fast friends; we meet a new Parkinson’s hero; we learn something about the human capacity to overcome adversity, and the price some may pay to avoid it. Learn the difference between “the Old Buffalo” and “the Old Goat.”

We have a rare insider’s perspective into an epic confrontation at the Altamont Curling Club as told to me by three guys named Scotty, Buster and Phil, who heard it from another guy named Dick. Prepare to read the play-by-play account of this fierce battle on the curling ice, a curling skills match that shapes destiny.  How much is an 8 – Ender (a perfect end) really worth?   And find out what a “Dunbar” and a “double Gordon” are anyway.

In Part I: “Is it all about the soup?” we explored the many and varied aspects of curling in an attempt to develop a theory about curling and to isolate the “stuff” of curling. No easy task. We reviewed Altamont’s successes in both women’s and men’s curling as well as the historical leadership provided by Manitoba generally on matters related to curling. On January 28, 1961 the Altamont curling Club had just won its first O’Grady Challenge Trophy (“The Old Buffalo”) and were celebrating at the Altamont Rink when the Devil made His presence known just before midnight.

Let’s continue” with

IN SEARCH OF THE “STUFF” OF CURLING

Part II: The Devil’s Challenge Trophy (“The Old Goat”)

Okay, some of you are saying, “Come on, PD Gardener! Not another story about the Devil and curling!  Surely, you can do better than that!

Yeah, yeah.  I know that not everyone is W. O. Mitchell and I should be the last one to pretend to be.  Nevertheless, I am pursuing this story line because both the muse and the other voice in my head are adamant that this narrative must be told. In the Altamont Hotel, three guys named Scotty, Buster and Phil told me the story of this strange encounter, and they heard it from Dick Mussell… and Dick was there!  I don’t believe that any of these honourable gentlemen have spoken about the details of this sporting challenge to anyone else. It turns out that I may be the sole Soul on earth who has an accurate account, as all four of these men are now deceased (and I trust, not residing with the Devil.)

I am not quite sure who introduced the Devil to curling but I don’t think that it has been a good thing.  Over the years uncorroborated sightings of the Devil at curling events and venues around the world have been logged at the “Speak of the Devil Hotline” operated out of a diner in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. Reports include sightings at bonspiels in what are believed to be His vacation homes in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota and Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. He is rumoured to hold season tickets to the New Jersey Devils in the NHL and the Manchester United Football Club commonly known as the Red Devils but His boxes rarely show any signs of use. He doesn’t show much interest in the Duke Blue Devils or the Arizona State University Sun Devils either and sends a stand in if some presence is required. He seems to have parted ways with major league baseball’s Tampa Bay team who have unceremoniously dropped the Devil from “Devil Rays” to become simply, “Rays.” There are Tasmanian Devils of course but they are largely unrelated to matters of curling on ice.

In Part I of this series I noted that the clearest, documented report of the Devil’s association with curling comes from the small town of Shelby, Alberta, Canada in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. W.O. Mitchell’s The Black Bonspiel of Willie MacCrimmon captures what has been described as “one Hell of a match” and an “epic confrontation” between the Devil and Willie MacCrimmon in the 1930s. The match featured a Faustian deal between Willie and the Devil – the Devil would help Willie win The Brier (the Canadian Men’s Curling Championship) if Willie agrees to play third forever on the Devil’s rink in Hell. Willie makes a counter proposal – a challenge match for all the marbles. For the record, the Devil’s rink was suitably Devilish with Guy Fawkes shooting lead stones, Judas Iscariot at second and Macbeth as vice-skip.

Since that defeat, the Devil had been keeping a close watch on the curling scene around the country and Altamont, Manitoba caught His eye.  A week long Altamont Bonspiel was held every year in the third week in January. For such a small curling club the bonspiel was well known in southern Manitoba as a ‘spiel where you would have a good time, win or lose, and where some excellent rinks entered to hone their games away from prying eyes. The “A” draw always produced some close matches with stellar shot making on ice that could often be quite tricky. The “B” draw was equally competitive bringing out the best among the second best, so to speak. The “C” and “D” draws, while each was competitive in its own right, featured recreational curlers with a lower quality of skill no matter how you measure it. Still, to win one of these events was a thrill, capping off a great week of curling on the ice and camaraderie off the ice where you made every shot – you even made some you never tried on the ice. I am not saying that curlers tell tall tales but most curlers also fish, if you catch my drift.

Is there really a Devil?

I am not a religious person but I recall many years ago when I was playing hockey in Selkirk, Manitoba, I was invited to attend a meeting of a church council considering the ordination of one of our team’s close community supporters into the Baptist ministry. The candidate presented his desire to be called to the ministry along with his views on various matters of religious and church doctrine. A panel of ministers from other Baptist churches in the area and elders of his own church then grilled him on his knowledge of relevant scriptures and his stated positions on each doctrine.   It was very much like a defending an academic thesis.

One of the questions was “Do you believe there is a Devil?” My friend answered in words to this effect,

Yes, the Devil is real and is at work among us in ways that lead us astray. We must never be so confident as to deny the power of the Devil. For if we underestimate and ignore the Devil we will be defeated. Our challenge is to thwart the Devil’s work and to adhere to and implement the word of God through Jesus.

I recognize that neither the question nor the answer is particularly original or radical in religious and philosophic circles but allow me to expand on these ideas. My friend answered that if you believe in God you must also believe in the Devil. But it doesn’t end there; just as your belief in God is part of your identity, your belief in the Devil must also be part of that same identity. As I said, I am not a religious person and I leave it to you decide whether these ideas are consistent with your own religious beliefs, but for me, the entire concept took on new meaning after I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. I am not going to expound on those ideas here because there are other matters that I wish to explore but I do seem driven to write about Parkinson’s, self-identification and the ability to have quality of life while living with Parkinson’s. Look for a personal view in a future blog post about Parkinson’s and identity.

Where the devil was the Devil?

Truth be known, the Devil had been lurking around the Altamont Rink during the week long bonspiel and the following week in January 1961. It seems there were some “almost sightings” in odd (but not so odd for the Devil) places e.g., at the far back of the Rink there was an unlit “lean to” that passed as a men’s toilet; a place where only men whose streams were still strong and boys with bravado dared to piss. Frozen yellow icefalls reinforced the rotting studs of the thin plywood walls – solid enough in winter but rather spongy in summer – the only protection from the minus 35 degree Fahrenheit temperature and the wind that howled through the passageway from the old lumberyard and Bob Lang’s house (formerly Scott’s) past the end of the Rink, across the creek and out into the Fraser farmland, and every inch of that path was cold as Hell (feeling like minus 45F or lower with the wind.)

“Cold as Hell” – funny phrase that, as I always thought Hell was HOT!  Artificial ice is common place these days and if you don’t care about the energy costs I guess you can curl in Hell, Las Vegas…. anywhere really. However, we know that the Altamont Rink is a natural ice surface with its own peculiarities and curling is restricted to about 3 months maximum. Just time to get your game in shape and then its back to shuffleboard or travel to larger curling clubs in search of higher calibre competition.

It seems the Devil (or someone else?) did frighten some of the local women working the canteen at the bonspiel. You see, there were no real bathrooms for men at the rink at that time and in addition to the back “lean to,” they sought relief by going through the pump shed where the water well was located.  and then through another door into an unlit shed behind the kitchen.  My recollection is that there was no bucket or container to hold human waste and the floor or ground took the effluent. I highly doubt that any woman who unwittingly passed through that area just uttered, “That cheeky devil….”; It was more likely “What the Hell!!!”

There was a small women’s “restroom” between the kitchen and the pump house. I was forbidden to enter this room, ever, so I do not know much about it and I am uncertain if there was an actual place for women to go to the bathroom. In the only glimpse of the inside of the women’s restroom I recall, I saw a wall mirror mounted such that women, teenage girls, and girls too young to wear lipstick and make up, applied their lipstick and makeup.

I was too young at the time to be aware of, or concerned about, sanitation. My recollection is that the men’s so-called toilet areas were totally inadequate and in the one case was far too close to the well. The water from this well was used primarily to flood the ice surface but it was also used to refill a large bucket sitting near the pump with impossibly cold water that quenched our thirst as we skated or played hockey. I recall my lips almost freezing to the edges of the metal ladle, which, if we consider the latent heat held by the water, was perhaps, even below the freezing point. Each runny-nosed kid placed a slobbery mouth on the ladle and drank his or her fill. Some older kids attempted to avert germicidal or viral disaster by drinking with their left hand or from the front of the ladle instead of the sides. In retrospect, I believe such precautions were illusory as protection from the virus of the week. Colds and flu spread like wild fire through our community from time to time.

It is not that the good citizens of this community did not want proper sanitation or were willfully negligent in not providing it. It was very much the case that historical precedent, poverty and inertia, carried these practices forward. I know that some folks from my hometown will be offended mightily by my words here but this is how I remember it in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. It is no reflection on the people who lived there – my family lived there for goodness sake! It is however a reflection on the economy and the ability of that economy to support a population no matter how small. The population was meager and their incomes were meager to match. It was not until later in the 1960s that a grant, I believe, made new restrooms at the rink possible. The facilities did not have flush toilets or running water but it was a Red Letter Day in the community nonetheless; small steps forward.

I realize now that the Devil must have liked to hang out in restrooms, stinky ones, because I think I saw Him myself, behind the Post Office and further behind a shed where my father kept coal for the heater in the Post Office, and a few other building maintenance items. The shed and the Post Office building formed a small closed, secluded, dead end where local men went to relieve themselves if they were too far from home or the hotel. I do not believe that anything nefarious happened in that space as might have happened “in the big city,” but it was very stinky back there.

I recall that the Post Office was robbed one night and the thieves took the safe outside and around into that little stinky spot in their attempt to crack it open. They proceeded to whack it with a sledgehammer until it spilled all of its cash onto the ground – right in the prime restroom traffic and dumping area.  I remember my father laughing his sardonic little laugh, and saying he hoped they enjoyed their dirty money. The Devil probably assisted the robbers that dark night because I am certain that He was there every time I came within a nose breath of that place.

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The Devil lived in the shadows behind that shed… or is that Him by the barrel?  Photo: unknown c. 1954

The Devil is not inherently stupid although He does have His moments where His actions may appear ill advised to say the most, or down right crazy-assed silly to say the least.  Nevertheless, He did not want to repeat the humiliation of losing the deal he attempted to strike with Willie MacCrimmon in the 1930s. He had been biding His time but now the Devil was getting anxious to extract revenge. What began as a slow burn escalated over the intervening 30 years to His being steamed, inflamed, heated, and hot under the collar almost to the boiling point. He wanted to strike while the iron was hot. That is why He made His presence known at the Altamont Rink just before midnight on January 28, 1961. Little did the Altamont curlers know that the Devil was seeking ‘oh so sweet’ revenge, avenging the craftiness of Willie MacCrimmon.  He had already picked out a spot on His trophy shelf, close to the roaring, fiery furnaces of Hell in case He was able to wrest some hardware away from the Altamont do-gooders and have it melted and smelted.

One the Devil’s biggest flaws is that He is terribly vain. The Devil doesn’t see it that way though because vanity for the Devil is a desired trait. It is all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? It took all the will power the Devil could muster to keep low after that fiasco with Willie MacCrimmon. And now He could stand it no longer. Vanity won the day as soon as He learned that Altamont, that little, pipsqueak, curling club in the middle of nowhere, had won “The Old Buffalo.” He was not prepared to suffer any insolence from a band of farmers with manure on their boots and almost broke shopkeepers, curling out of a tin shed they called a “rink” with one sheet of curling ice where you had to duck hockey pucks from the adjoining skating surface every Tuesday and Thursday night and sometimes on Saturday afternoons [This may be a run-on sentence but it is reflective of the run-on thoughts that the Devil was having.] In any case, it was vanity and narrow – mindedness that brought the Devil to Altamont and those same traits allowed him to rejoice and revel in the sheer power he had to disrupt what He deemed to be a gathering of curling impostors.  In doing so, He broke a cardinal rule of the Devil – to make you think He does not exist.

“La plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas.” [The devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.] – Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen.

The Devil tries to be so invisible that you become complacent, begin to believe that you are safe, and believe that He does not exist after all. He may lay dormant for years and then enter through an almost imperceptible rift in your very Being, perhaps a character flaw such as … take your pick … conceit, vanity or pride of which a ‘kind and caring God’ would not approve as each has elements of egotism and maybe even narcissism that may form one of the “seven deadly sins.”

Yet, pride can masquerade as a positive character trait at times, sitting as it does on the cusp of individual achievement. The desire to be successful and being proud of our successes seem to go hand in hand. It does seem though that it is not a great leap from “pride” to “egotism” or “narcissism.” But where is the tipping point from one to another? I don’t think that it is actually necessary to answer this question with any precision. The important point is to acknowledge that there is a tipping point. The Devil watches for those who have no equilibrium on such matters e.g., pride has already slipped into vanity or worse.

OK, OK, I can hear you all shouting, “What the Hell is going on with the Devil when He crashes through the door into the Altamont Rink?”

Well, first of all, He has to crash through the porch door and then the door into the waiting room – two doors, not one. Give an author a little poetic license and the next thing you know he gets the facts wrong….

Back to January 28, 1961 a few minutes before midnight ….

If you recall, the Altamont curlers were about to celebrate their victory over the Wawanesa Curling Club for their very first ever O’Grady Challenge Trophy aka “The Old Buffalo” when the Devil burst with great sound and steam, if not fury, into the Rink.

The Devil looked around the waiting room of the so-called Altamont “Curling Club” and glanced out at the one sheet of natural curling ice and wondered what it was about this place that made His blood run cold. Yes, you read correctly – the Devil’s blood was running cold! He was truly uncomfortable here – except of course in the rink’s stinky restrooms and places that passed for restrooms. The Devil correctly reasoned that not one of the fine upstanding mostly God fearing citizens was going to accompany Himself (the Devil!) to the bathroom. The air in the waiting room should have been redolent to the Devil – a mixture of hockey players’ jersey and jock strap sweat, old skate mustiness, discarded, soiled underwear and snow pants, and manure scraped from bottoms of farm boots. Still, the Devil’s blood did not respond to these fragrances. You see, the lingering aroma of Soul satiating soup – hot bonspiel soup, ironically, made the Devil’s blood continue its downward temperature plunge. His cooling blood was rapidly turning the heat down on the effectiveness of His hissssssing arrival. No self-respecting Devil wants weak sound and fury so He thought it best to issue His challenge and get the Hell out of there before He got a chill – he didn’t mind a fever, but He hated getting a cold.

So, He spat the challenge out in His best Devilish sssssspit. No, the spittoon in the Altamont Hotel would be of no help here.  Gordon Holliston had been the first to speak when the Devil arrived and the Devil preferred not to look Gordon in the eye. Instead He directed His spit at the two Charlies – Charlie McDonald and Charlie Taylor. Both were members of the winning O’Grady Challenge Trophy (“The Old Buffalo”) team and the Devil perceived, rightly or wrongly, that one of them was the manager and the other was the assistant manager.

The Devil’s challenge went something like this:

Chassssss. and Chassssss. [The Devil had to keep as much ssssssteam going as He possibly could because He feared getting cold feet as His blood cooled.]  I, the Devil, hereby challenge the Altamont Curling Club to a curling sssssssskills competition of Dunbarssssss, for “The Old Goat” Trophy and Sssssspoilsssssss, the detailssssss of which are to be negotiated by the two teamssssss, with the match winner to be determined by ssssssunrise, January 29, 1961.

 SSSSSShould I be victorious (The Devil dug down deep and managed to bring up a heartburn heated burp that punctuated the next words,) I will own the SSSSSSoul of the ‘drawmasssssster’ of each and every Altamont Curling Club bonsssssspiel in perpetuity. SSSSSShould the Altamont Curling Club be ssssssuccessssssful, they sssssshall be the duly appointed official home of the “sssssstuff of Curling” in perpetuity. [Note the Curling – at least the Devil has been paying attention.]

[In a smaller voice,] Failure to accept thissssss offer will ressssssult in automatic forfeiture and your credit cardssssss will be debited $666.66 per month plus interest at 666 per cent per annum in perpetuity.

The two Charlies didn’t really need to put their heads together on this one but they did anyway so as not to let the Devil know that they knew they had to accept the challenge. Having played and watched a lot of billiards in their combined days, the two Charlies knew they were snookered. They needed to make a high risk, tricky shot, or even a risky, trick shot to extract the Altamont Curling Club from this matter. And, yes, they heard the small voice part as well (they were just those kind of guys) but no one in Altamont at that time had hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia, which is an irrational fear of the number 666 but they did have a rational fear of usury, money launderers and fly by night crop sprayers.   There was no way they could accept such a penalty even if that would have been a real option because ceding the Soul of the drawmaster of every Altamont bonspiel to the Devil would be a disaster of monstrous proportions. The Devil would win every time! And to top it all off, the “stuff of Curling” was a prize that deserved to be wrested from the grubby hooves of the Devil. It is not clear how He came to be in possession of it anyway – through some scurrilous, Satanic scheme no doubt.

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Not just snookered but behind the 8 ball  Photo: The PD Gardener 2015

In true synchronicity the two Charlies turned to the Devil and, blowing cigarette smoke through their nostrils, said, ”You’re on, Beelzebub!” A chorus of cheers erupted from curlers and onlookers alike along with the “glug glug” of liquids and the “clunk clunk” of paper cups in mid-toast. Let the game begin!

The Devil turned in disgust. Not only had Altamont accepted His challenge but the two Charlies, of all people, had called Him by His least favourite name, Beelzebub, and they pronounced it correctly, Be ¦ el ¦ ze ¦ bub and not Bee ¦ zel ¦ bub. This was a frightening prospect to the Devil.

The timeline was short. There was much to be done. The Devil had disappeared but was replaced by His apparent vice-skip, Darth Vader, to negotiate the details. The Altamont team put Lynwood Graham forward for the same purpose. It was a little difficult to understand Darth Vader – there hadn’t been this much heavy breathing in the Altamont Rink since M and R sneaked in late one evening and … well … never mind. In a very obvious move to distract Lynwood, Vader kept waving his light sabre around, almost decapitating anyone within reach. Finally Lynwood put his corn broom into Vader’s mask, irritating Vader’s hay fever to the point where he just sat down with his puffer. Negotiations re-commenced in earnest and were quickly concluded.

Ordinarily I would relegate the following agreement to an Appendix but it is germane to the story line so it is best to leave it in this text proper.

But first, I am certain that you noticed the word “Dunbars” in the Devil’s Challenge “… a curling sssssskills competition of Dunbarssssss,…” What in Hell is a “Dunbar?” That is a good question but luckily I can tell you precisely because I witnessed its introduction into curling lingo many years ago. Let me explain before we get back to the dreary details of the negotiation of the Challenge. It seems that the Devil did not want to end up on the short end of the score as he had with Willie MacCrimmon. Skills challenges and “skins” games are commonplace in curling today but in 1961 there were far fewer such events, and many were just informal wagers between individual curlers. The Devil reasoned that a skills challenge of “Dunbars” would be just the ticket because He can unleash enormous, stupidly wicked power on command. You’ll see.

Today, it commonplace to hear, HURRRRY! HURRRRY HAAAARD! as a curling rock hurtles down the ice with curlers keeping pace to brush as commanded. The curling slider (a shoe specifically designed to slide) has made it possible for a curler to slip and slide gracefully from one end of the ice to the other in a flash. Even better, the slider has made it possible to stay with a rock thrown at great speed and, as the rock approaches the house, to avoid “burning” the thrown rock or any other rocks close to its path. Such a slider, or reasonable facsimile, is a critical technological innovation and a necessary precursor for the creation of the “Dunbar.” I would call it a Beneficial Innovation if you recall the formula for the “Stuff” of Curling presented earlier.

The ”Dunbar”

Many readers will know that “Dunbar” is a town in East Lothian, Scotland. Without belabouring the point, it is unlikely that this town has anything to do with a curling shot called a “Dunbar.” Rather, the “Dunbar” [always capitalized] was originally coined by a young lad named Ronnie and, I believe, is a colloquialism specific to the Altamont area. I am not sure that it has ever been used outside of that locale and indeed it might now be considered archaic and no longer in use. Ronnie was a couple of years older than me and his strong, lithe body was well coordinated and well suited to the mechanics of throwing the curling rock. In fact, he had a long smooth back swing reminiscent of Saskatchewan’s legendary, Bob “Pee Wee” Pickering, who would bring the rock back in a smooth arc up to almost vertical over his head as he transferred his weight to his sliding left foot and pushed off with his right foot into a graceful delivery of the stone. Pickering was able to throw any type of draw weight or take out weight from this same delivery.   Ronnie was less successful in perfecting draw weight but he certainly could throw a “high hard one” or what he called a “Dunbar”.   In fact, the “Dunbar” was Ronnie’s “go to” shot as he was able to get a great push off from his hack foot and he could slid forever – clear down to the other end of the rink – aided by his slippery city shoes, of course, as very few in Altamont could afford proper curling shoes and sliders.

BobPickering1-748x1024

Bob “Pee Wee” Pickering Photo: Curlsask.ca

Whenever the house was getting crowded with the opponent’s rocks, Ronnie would say “I’ll just throw a Dunbar” which was code for “I’m going to throw the rock so hard and fast that all Hell will break loose” when the rock hits the array of opponent’s rocks. [This may be what the ‘Sociables’ at The Brier mean when they say, “Just huck it.”] When the dust settled, Ronnie hoped that his rock(s) remained and all opposition rocks were blasted clean out of the rings. When Ronnie threw the “Dunbar” all curlers scattered hoping not to be collateral damage as 44 lb. of speeding granite collided with several stationary 44 lb. lumps of granite. The word “finesse” does not come to mind when describing the strategy behind this shot.

The interesting thing about shot making in curling is that the laws of physics apply. I didn’t know this stuff then and I barely understand it now. Curling stones come in matched sets usually and are virtually equal in weight (44 lbs.), height (4.5 inches), circumference (36 inches) and running surface (0.5 inches by 5 inches) to each other. During games, the stones are traveling on close to the same ice surface conditions with some variations depending on the exact spot on the ice. The sides of the sheet will be different than the middle of the ice especially late in the game, as the middle will have had much more use from curlers, rocks and brooms. This just means that the rocks are traveling in an elastic environment.

So consider this:

If Ronnie’s stone hits another stone square on, (an interesting thing to say about round curling stones but “round on” just doesn’t sound right) it will transfer most of its kinetic energy to the hit rock making it move forwards at a similar but somewhat slower speed. Note: when the two stones hit, there is usually a loud noise that means that some energy is lost.  Still, in this case, it is wise to stay out of the path of the stone struck by the “Dunbar.”

However, if the “Dunbar” strikes the stone at an angle pushing it into another stone or stones, the struck stone(s) move forward with less momentum and in a slightly different direction. The more stones involved means that the further along the chain of stones you are, the slower the stones will move.

So what, you say? Well, all of this physics stuff tells us that the promised cataclysmic impact of a “Dunbar” might not materialize. If the struck rock hits one rock and it is the only rock moved out of the rings, then the mission (to cause maximum damage by moving as many opposition stones out of the house as possible) of the “Dunbar” has failed. If the stone hits more than one stone on initial impact and there are many subsequent indirect hits, then the damage to the placement of opposition stones in the rings may be maximized but the danger to participants will have been minimized because the transfer of energy and therefore momentum will be less with each subsequent indirect hit.

But you are not really off the hook if you are looking to save yourself from the experience of a 44 lb. stone striking your feet and legs on a slippery surface causing a fall and a concussion when your head hits the ice surface. The speed of the struck rock may be less and you may have some time to jump out of the way, but if you have no idea about angles then you will be in trouble. It is best to brush up on angles before hand just as you would if you were going to play snooker with a pool shark with money on the rail.

I know that there are many “Dunbar” connections in curling but to my knowledge none were instrumental in the development of the “Dunbar” curling shot.

Robert (Bob) Dunbar and his rink dominated the MCA bonspiel in the 1890s winning the overall and individual trophies more times than I care to document here. In 1901, Dunbar moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, but continued to curl in the MCA bonspiel winning trophies up until 1920. Bob Dunbar’s achievements were recognized with an Honorary Life Membership in the MCA in 1920, and he was inducted into the Manitoba Curling Hall of Fame in 1996. Given his stature within the game, it is surprising that he did not develop the shot that bore his name.

Kathleen Dunbar is from Stony Plains, Alberta and curls with the Leslie Rogers rink of the Saville Sports Centre in Edmonton. They play on the World Tour and are trying to win a berth in the Olympic Games. Cale Dunbar curls in the Westman Super League of Curling, Western Manitoba’s Premier Competitive Curling League. There is no evidence that they or several others named Dunbar can lay claim to the “Dunbar” shot, but if they have proof of provenance, I will gladly concede that point.

Okay, now we know that this “skills” challenge involves curling rocks that will be hurtling down the ice at tremendous speeds – with unknown results waiting at the end. With that in mind let’s get back to the administrator’s dream or nightmare of the “Devil is in the details” agreement between the two teams.

Devil 666 Challenge Agreement between Altamont Curling Club and Idle Rocks are the Devil’s Curling Club

The agreement in a nutshell:

Objective:

To eliminate as many stones as possible from a pre-set array or distribution of 8 rocks in the house, by throwing a “Dunbar.”

Definition of “Dunbar:” A curling rock or stone thrown by the curler as fast and as hard as that curler can throw it.

Scoring:

Each stone left, wholly or partially, in the house will count as one (1) point. Points are counted after each shot.

The team with the lowest combined score (total number stones left in the house) after 3 ends of play is declared the winner.

A perfect game is zero (0) points

An “end” is defined as one shot per team.

If the score is tied after three (3) ends, extra ends will continue with players shooting in reverse order from the first three (3) ends, and alternating the reverse order every (3) three ends thereafter until a winner is determined after a complete end.

Selection of players:

[There was much discussion over the selection of players as each side wanted to put forward their best but each side was understandably reluctant to face the other team’s best. In other words, each team wanted to complicate things a little in order to gain an advantage. Finally, they agreed on a process of player selection that was a strange cross between hockey player draft and jury selection.]

Each team will nominate eight (8) players;

Each team will have three (3) opportunities to challenge one (1) of the opposing team’s nominations making said player ineligible for play, not to exceed a maximum of three (3) players per team;

After each challenge, the team whose player has been challenged shall select one (1) player to be eligible for play.

Order of Selection/Challenge:

The winner of a ‘draw to the button’ contest has the option to select first or to challenge first. Subsequent picks and challenges alternate between teams until three (3) players per team are declared eligible.

Each team shall provide one (1) player to participate in the ‘draw to the button’ contest; said player may be any member of their curling club i.e., they need not be from the list of players nominated for play.

Rules of play:

Each team must indicate the order in which players will shoot prior to the start of play in the first end.

The “house” shall be pre-set with an array of 8 rocks.

Each curler will deliver one shot to eliminate (takeout) as many rocks as possible from the house.

After each shot, the house will be re-set with the identical placement for the next player.

Teams will alternate shots.

The short hand version is that three players from each team, each deliver one rock directed to a specific array of rocks, with the objective to hit as many rocks as they can out of house. After three shots, the team with the lowest aggregate number of rocks remaining in the house is the winner.

[Hey look, this has to be true because I couldn’t just make this ‘stuff’ up, eh?]

Before getting into the actual play during the challenge, I think it might useful to know something more about the teams and each of the curlers nominated. Personally, I am not  placing a wager on the outcome as anything can happen when the Devil is involved but I know that many curling fans do gamble. I am not just talking about buying 50/50 tickets. If gambling is one of your proclivities perhaps treat these next sections as your racing form

Altamont Curling Club Team and Player Nominations

Manager: Charlie McDonald  One of the “two Charlies,” Charlie McDonald was one of those people who always seemed to be around to help others when they needed it. Charlie married Bessie Holliston in 1936 and they lived closer than a curling stone’s throw from the Altamont Rink. Indeed, Bessie’s family donated the land on which the Rink was built. If Charlie was ever needed at the Rink, he could be there in a flash. I recall that Charlie worked for many years at the St. Leon Co-op Garage in Altamont. He also went south into the United States in mid-summer with Vern Ticknor’s threshing crew to “custom combine,” following the harvest north into Canada in September. His role as Manager of the Altamont team stemmed from his ability to keep things organized and to ensure the performers (curlers) had what they needed.

Assistant Manager: Charlie Taylor  The other half of the “two Charlies” farmed mostly in the Deerwood district but was never far from the Altamont sports scene. I don’t recall that Charlie was a great curler but he did play in four matches of the O’Grady Challenge Trophy including the very first challenge in 1961 and had a record of 2 wins and 2 losses overall. His contemporaries often joked that his initials were Cwt which pretty much summed up his physical stature. [Cwt is 100 pounds in U.S. measurement or 45.36 kg (a short hundredweight or cental.) In the British Imperial System Cwt was equal to 110 pounds or 50.80 kg or a quintal.]  He was never shy to voice his views on almost any subject matter. Charlie probably saw his position as being more “Coach” than “Assistant Manager” but not everyone saw it quite that way.

Murray “Moe” Stockford was, and still is, a farmer, musician, athlete, father, devoted husband to his wife June, and conscientious citizen in the community. A quiet, patient man of considerable prowess, skill and abilities making him a valued leader in whichever role he assumed. He came by these traits honestly in that his parents, Frank and Olive Stockford, were talented individuals in their own right and very giving of those talents to the community. You will also remember Olive from her curling success noted in Part I of this series.

[If memory serves me correctly though, Murray had considerably more patience and less of a temper than his father. I do recall Frank and I searching for about half and hour to find a wrench that Frank had pitched wildly into the deep bush when the baler broke down and we were having difficulty making the repair. We did find it and all was right with the world.]

Murray Stockford is one of those men who never swore, or if he did, I never heard him. The worst words he could utter, even in the most trying of circumstances, was “Garrrssshh!” or the less emphatic “Gooosshh!)

Murray’s curling credentials are excellent and at this time he is just on the cusp of more curling success in the O’Grady Challenge Trophy curling. He would eventually participate in 9 of the 11 O’Grady games Altamont played. [The Devil with his prescience factor would know this fact.]

Lynwood Graham was a strong man, quick to the boil but equally quick to the simmer. He was a farmer, devoted family man and committed to serving his community. His grandparents, George and Della, were among the first to homestead in the Altamont area circa 1878 so his identification with the community had long and deep roots. From the Graham’s farmyard at the crest of a low sloping hill you could gaze across fields of grain and the bucolic pastures of the McGillivray and McCaffrey farms to the Stockford farm. The Grahams and Stockfords farmed collaboratively, joining forces particularly at haying and harvesting times.

Lynwood was an excellent curler, skipping his rinks to many victories. He was integral to Altamont’s success in the O’Grady challenges. I remember Lynwood as having a reddish complexion but that may be because I mostly saw him during haying season with the June and July heat and sun beating down on our heads, necks and shoulders.

As I said, Lynwood was a powerful man and could pitch heavy hay bales all day as if they were bales of fluff. (This was before the big round hay bales of today.) We built haystacks in the fields for retrieval later in the fall or over the winter. Building stacks required an architectural mind to match size and hardness of bales to be placed strategically to avoid corner sag or outright collapse of an entire side of the stack and, of course, to minimize spoilage. Lynwood was expert at stack building and I recall that the bales sailed from his powerful arms across the top of the stack landing so close to their appointed spots in the architecture that they only needed to be shuffled into place. Speaking of power, Lynwood once sneezed an extraordinarily powerful sneeze as he was rounding a corner with a load of grain. That sneeze and the attention that it required, coming as it did from his rather prominent nose, blew him clean into the ditch.

Robert (Bob) Dunbar was, in fact, a “ringer”as he was not a member of the Altamont Curling Club at all and was not even alive at the time of this challenge. [Hey! No one ever said the Altamont team were not “resourceful.”]  You met Dunbar briefly earlier in our discussion of the “Dunbar.” His name was submitted in the hope that the Devil would not notice and waste a challenge as Dunbar was a pioneer in the sport of curling.  Born in Nova Scotia he was an all-round athlete who excelled in track and field, ice-skating, and roller-skating. He took up curling with a passion after moving to Winnipeg in the late 1870s. Curling out of the Thistle Curling Club, Dunbar and his rink dominated the MCA bonspiel for man years.

Bob Dunbar, a man ahead of his time, understood the advantages to changing the ergonomics of the curler’s delivery, paving the way for the slide delivery of today. Moreover, his competitiveness led him to be strategically astute using the “take out” game to his advantage. Interestingly, in future years the rules of curling would be changed to ensure more rocks would stay in play curtailing the advantage that the take out game provided. Nevertheless, to my knowledge, this ‘game changer’ never perfected the shot that would bear his name, “a Dunbar,” but he would most certainly have been suited to it.

Neuro de Generative. In most people’s minds Neuro is a relative newcomer to curling but he has in fact been around for a very long time, since 1817 in fact when Dr. James Parkinson identified his characteristics and gave him some prominence. Still, he stayed mostly in the background, waiting for an opportunity to get into a game that wasn’t called “shuffleboard” although he might shuffle when he does get into the game.

At first Neuro is barely noticeable, just hanging around the fringes; his presence identified only by those who have an extremely well developed awareness of their own bodies and minds; sometimes his face shows no emotion as if masked. Many are fooled into thinking that Neuro has no sense of humour as a result. Fleetingly at first but ever so gradually his true nature appears in the boutique versions of neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease,) Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, etc.

Because the average age of curlers in the early years of the sport was somewhere over 50 years old, neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s (or “Shaking Palsy” as it was often called) affected curlers disproportionately – or should I say affected former curlers disproportionately because many gave up playing the sport when their condition worsened. It just became too onerous to wrestle with tremor, involuntary muscle movements, cramping muscles, lack of balance, etc. More recently though, curling, boxing, dance, cycling, and a whole host of other activities are all recommended as they give people living with neurological conditions a reason to move, to exercise. Exercise seems to delay the progression of such diseases. This is good news. But the average age of curlers has been decreasing and unfortunately more younger people are  also contracting neurological diseases which are finding a home in the brains and bodies of what is called the “young onset” group. This is not good news.

Neuro was not a fantastic curler with his shaky, unbalanced delivery and slow, uncoordinated sweeping style, but he rarely missed the broom and never gave up even though the neurons in his brain were dying and robbing him of greater and greater measures of dopamine. By the time he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s over 70 percent of his dopamine producing neurons had already died. There is no cure and his condition will inevitably get worse, although exercise, physiotherapy, diet, good mental health, medical advice from neurologists, pharmaceutical therapies, medical devices, social supports, caregiver support, and the love of family and friends will give him many additional years of enhanced quality of life.

At first, it seems difficult to understand why Neuro de Generative’s name was forwarded in the Altamont nominations. In fact, the Devil Himself loved Neuro because he was subtle, stubborn, tenacious, insidious, debilitating, and yes maybe even a little Soul sucking in his approach. These were all traits valued by the Devil and were music to His ears. The Devil was beside Himself with glee when He saw Neuro’s name on the Altamont list of eligible nominees. Any observer, independent or not, would think that the Altamont team had taken leave of their senses … no… had gone stark raving mad … no, had a death wish!

Neuro de Generative was a complex individual; his personality was multidimensional, and many of his seeming failings were also strengths. He never denied those weaknesses but accepted them as integral to his identity. Most importantly, while it took great concentration and awareness of mind and body, he never allowed the weaknesses to overpower the strengths. It seems odd to say that, doesn’t it? But it is such an accurate depiction of what must happen with any degenerative disease. Neuro was an inspiration that way.

Walter John Wilson was one of seven sons and a daughter born to Jack and Eva (née Lyle) Wilson who were married in 1918. Walter was born in 1921 and like his father was educated in Altamont. He joined the 1st Manitoba Mounted Rifles (MMR) and in 1940 he enlisted with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles “Little Black Devils” under the command of Colonel Jack Bingham from nearby Deerwood, an even smaller community than Altamont if you can believe it. The “Little Black Devils” became one of the most famous monikers in the Commonwealth Armed Forces, earned at the Battle of Fish Creek (Saskatchewan) in 1885 where, a prisoner awed by the sharp shooting militia was heard to say, “the red coats we know, but who are those little black devils?” The name stuck and General Middleton himself referred to the MMR by that sobriquet in official documentation. Soon the nickname was officially recognized, and the devil and motto Hosti Acie Nominati (Named by the Enemy,) has been a source of pride and bragging rights ever since.

[The irony here is just too great for me to pass up a comment. The Battle of Fish Creek is widely believed to have been a major victory for the Métis against General Middleton’s forces forestalling, temporarily at least, Middleton’s advance on Batoche.]

I have no idea whether Walter Wilson was a good curler or not but the Altamont team were familiar with his family and welcomed him to the task. They respected his time with the “Little Black Devils.” The Devil, on the other hand, did not know what to make of Walter’s nomination. Was the Altamont team trying to “buffalo” him, as they were the holders of the O’Grady Trophy?  In any case, the Devil was not uncomfortable with Walter’s nomination.

Bert Marshall, former proprietor of the Altamont Restaurant, Postmaster, Rawleigh Products Salesman, husband to wife Kay, father to one son and two daughters, gardener and amateur horticulturalist, conscientious community citizen, and general all around philosopher, scientist, and busybody. He arrived in Altamont in 1950 with his wife Kay and red haired son to operate the local restaurant, poolroom and barbershop. Being neither good cooks nor willing to stay open six days a week until 9 or 10 at night they sold the restaurant about five years later, bought the building that housed the Post Office, and Bert became the Postmaster succeeding Steve Bishop. Bert continued to barber and began to sell Rawleigh Products and Wawanesa Insurance polices while operating the local bus depot, confectionery and comic book store (and you thought I learned to read at school!)

Altamont Post Office Colleen photo 2014

Former Altamont, Manitoba Post Office  Photo: C. Baumann 2014

It is reported from reliable sources that Bert was not a great curler at the time but he would eventually play on three Altamont teams in the O’Grady Challenge Trophy competition. Their record during that time was not great with one win (against Charleswood) and two losses (against Gilbert Plains and Roland.)

Dick Mussell was not quite the hermit, recluse or even the mountain man that people made him out to be but he was an interesting character who kept to himself most of the time. Living in a tiny ‘shanty’ just west of Altamont he was about 70 years ahead of the “Tiny House” craze that has been sweeping Canada and the U.S. recently. It seems you can’t watch any Home and Garden TV these days without watching an environmentalist, youthful idealist, or newly minted single parent with 2 children and a Labrador dog, search for the perfect “Tiny House” of 280 square feet on a budget of $22,000. Well, Dick lived the tiny house life in the first half of the 20th Century and he did not live as a complete hermit or recluse. A hermit usually has some religious reasons for choosing solitude while a recluse seeks to avoid social interaction and prefers a solitary existence. There is no evidence to suggest that Dick’s lifestyle was chosen to meet religious strictures. While Dick might appear to meet some of the criteria for being a recluse, his social side was never very far from the surface. He did enjoy his weekly ride into town on his horse, Queenie, on

Altamont curlers IMG_5472

Altamont Curlers  Far right is Dick Mussell  Photo: unknown

Saturdays to have Bessie McDonald at the grocery store fill his standing order of groceries, while he joined others to quaff a few beers in the Altamont Hotel.  By the way, this infamous hotel stands today, pretty much as it did in Dick’s day and it is not hard to see why Dick might feel at home there.

But there was one other activity that was sure to draw Dick out of his shanty and away from hunting and trapping, and that was a chance to curl. The photo above shows Dick with other curlers from Altamont. Dick always was protective of his personal space. Note how he is slightly separated from the others. Also, note their brooms – no slap,slap,slap from their straws.  Dick never expressed any fear of the Devil so when consulted about his possible inclusion in the challenge, Dick allowed his name into nomination as one of the eight names on the Altamont list.

 The Devil and Dick?

I have a very significant aside to tell you at this point. There is some evidence that, in his early life, Dick had confronted the Devil. As we know, the Devil cleanses our “cerebral hard drives” after any contact.   By all rights, then, Dick should have no recollection of that encounter. Still, there is a belief that Dick and the Devil had a “devil of a fight” and “all Hell broke loose” leaving the Devil enervated as He battled to overcome Dick’s inherent benevolence and humanity. The Devil’s psyche and energies were spent and drained to such a degree that He was not able to fully expunge Dick’s brain of all recollection. Dick managed to mount Queenie and rode off into the woods. Dick, for his part, could only recall the encounter as if through a frozen ice fog, and these recollections happen only when the temperature reaches -40F or -40C i.e., “when Hell freezes over.” This convergence of the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales is not common but Dick lived in rural Manitoba and it happens more often than you might think. Please note that I cannot make any definitive statement about this theory at this juncture as more research needs to done, and you can’t muck around in Devil “stuff” without financial backing. I just don’t want to sell my Soul to the Devil for this project and, believe me, the Devil would make such a deal in a heartbeat. Enough of that for now and I will update you when I have new information.

The Idle Rocks are the Devil’s Curling Club team and player nominations with brief biography

Manager: The Devil  The Devil is a bad man.  He wants a bad man in charge.  So, the Devil is in charge. Got it?

Assistant Manager: The Devil The Devil is way more bad than just one bad man so He can be assistant bad man in charge too!

Recall that the Devil’s team against Willie MacCrimmon had Guy Fawkes playing lead, Judas Iscariot throwing second stones, and Macbeth at vice – skip. The Devil was not inclined to use any of those losers this time around. He needed a fresh team, a team motivated to win. The Devil checked the availability of several possible choices but many were not available due to previous commitments e.g., Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was busy working with Fidel Castro in Cuba. In any case, the Devil had a niggling feeling that neither Khrushchev nor Castro would provide unqualified support when it counted. Also, He was sure that Nikita had thrown away one of his curling shoes in that display of temper, October 1960, at the United Nations.

In the end, Idle Rocks are the Devil’s Curling Club put forward the following names for players:

The Devil. There is really nothing to be said about this nomination. He is the baddest, bad narcissist and He likes the look of being in charge.

Darth Vader. The Devil believed He could always count on the Dark Side of the Force to be with Him. Who cares if he can curl? The Devil reasoned that Vader’s voice was just crazy, freaky nasty and he had a cooooool light sabre.

Magnus Djävulsson. No one knows much about Magnus although it is rumoured that his family originally emigrated from Iceland to Canada (Winmount, Ontario) in 1870 and bounced to Manitoba in 1875 to settle near Narcisse, Manitoba midway between Gimli and Lundar and close to Arborg which claims the world’s largest curling rock at 4.2 m (13.78 feet) in diameter, 2.1 m (6 ft 10.68 in) tall, and weighing in at 1.5 tonnes. The rock celebrates the historical success of high school curling teams from the area going back to the 1940s.

Magnus’ ancestors were Icelandic on his mother’s side and Swedish on his father’s side. Magnus’ surname, loosely translated, seems to mean son of the Devil. He curled out of several different clubs over the years with varying degrees of success throwing lead or second stones. None of the teams ever came close to winning the Consols, emblematic of the men’s provincial championship.

Although he was a rugged and handsome man, he never married, perhaps because he was terribly vain and couldn’t pass a mirror or window without stopping to check out his reflection. He carried a black rat tail comb in his right back pocket at all times and had perfected its removal and subsequent sweep through his Brylcreemed hair to such a degree that it was often parodied by his friends and fellow curlers. Magnus, lost in his own world, did not seem to care.  An only child, the family lineage in Canada ended with his death in 1970.

Interesting isn’t it that in Greek mythology Narcissus was the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope? He was so beautiful that when he saw his refection in a pool of water, he fell in love with it not realizing that it was just an image. Unable to leave it, he lost the will to live and died. Today, narcissism means a fixation with oneself and one’s appearance. The very fact that Magnus Djävulsson’s family settled in Narcisse signalled that Magnus was damaged goods and the Devil just could not resist adding this depth of vanity and egotism to His list of nominated outcasts.

On the other hand, the daffodil is the common name for the narcissus plant. From the family, Amaryllidaceae, these beautiful flowers pop through the snow shortly after snowdrops and crocus in the spring. They are among my favourites precisely because they are the death knell for winter and indeed, the most common meaning for daffodils is “rebirth”. Some may think that they get a little caught up in their own beauty as they dominate the spring landscape but I feel they are a perfect foil for any early spring snowy Devilishness.

Daffies IMG_1581

Narcissus, common name Daffodil   Photo: The PD Gardener 2014

Johann Faust is the same inquisitive Faust who summoned the Devil in a forest near Wittenberg. The Devil appears as a greyfriar called Mephistopheles and Faust cuts a deal to give Mephistopheles his Soul in exchange for 24 years of service. Faust has a ball for about 16 years and then tries to back out of the deal. The Devil cuts off this notion by producing Helen of Troy with whom Faust takes up a relationship. As the 24 years expire Satan announces Faust’s death and at midnight Faust dies a gruesome death. His eyes are found in his room while his body is found in the courtyard. If the Devil got Faust’s Soul, then Faust will play with Him in this curling challenge.

Robert Johnson, an American blues singer, songwriter and guitarist is said to have followed in Faust’s footsteps by selling his Soul to the Devil in return for success and recognition in the music industry. He never lived to see this recognition but his music, recorded largely in the mid – 1930s, has been a major influence on several generations of musicians after his death, attributed to poisoning at the age of 27. Perhaps, the Devil already has his Soul.

Severus Snape, devotee of the “Dark Arts” in Harry Potter. Even though it seems that Snape redeems himself and forms a strong bond with Dumbledore and carries out Dumbledore’s own request to be killed, Snape’s motives are largely unclear. Did Dumbledor sell his Soul to the Devil? Did Snape? Was Snape a double agent? What does the Devil know that we don’t? No matter, the Devil wrote Snape’s name on His list.

Rumplestiltskin seems a strange choice but he was a natural from the Devil’s point of view. “Rum-pie,” as the Devil called him, has the technology to turn straw into gold and the Devil’s challenge to the Altamont curlers was taking place during the hay day (so to speak) of the corn or straw broom in curling. The Devil was always looking for an edge in the strangest of places.

Bernie “Broom Broom” GeoFreeZone (pronounced Gee – off – ree – on with a silent “Z.”) Bernie’s main claim to fame is that he is an acknowledged leader in curling technological innovation. He began his career in the mid – 1830s by working on a project to “pebble” the ice surface diminishing friction by reducing the area of direct contact between the stone’s running surface and the ice surface. Pebbling the ice is a very important aspect of the game today as it allows sweepers to make a difference in the rock’s speed and amount of curl.

“Broom Broom” also has been influential in some rules and regulations changes. He was a consultant to a group assessing the impact of the “Guard Free Zone” on the “hitting game” where equally skilled teams could just exchange hit and peel (roll out) strategies keeping scores low and last rock only meant something in the first end.

Currently, ”Broom Broom” has been working on new type of curling broom called the “Devil’s Paint Brush” which has a feathery material of bright colours that allows for greater control over the behaviour of the rock by the sweepers. It does not contain waterproofed fabric, “stiffening” inserts or directional fabric. “Broom Broom” and his principal financial backer, Devil to Pay Inc., are claiming that their broom has been unfairly caught up in a ban of new brooms under the directional fabric broom ban of 2016.  GeoFreeZone is also a principal in the popular hairpiece firm, Devil Toupee Inc., a subsidiary of Devil to Pay Inc. Devil Toupee, not so coincidentally, provides hair to make many brands of curling brooms. “Broom Broom” is both vertically integrated and horizontally diversified in his personal portfolio.

But can GeoFreeZone curl? Who knows for sure? He hangs around the same places (curling clubs) as the elite curlers, but then so do a lot of other folks. If the Devil has to call on him, will he be able to deliver, so to speak? It remains to be seen whether “Broom Broom” can master the “Dunbar”, a shot he had absolutely no input into creating. He just never frequented those small bonspiels where the curling club did not have a private bar to run his personal tab. Actually, most of those clubs had no bar at all and drinks were dispensed from brown paper bags or silver flasks won in some other bonspiel. Nevertheless, the Devil trusted Bernie because Bernie idolized his adopted namesake Bernie Madoff. Bernie never liked “Broom Broom” as a nickname but his full legal name was Gladwynn Wynn Geoffrey GeoFreeZone (with a silent Z) and he didn’t much like that either, so he opted for the more informal moniker “Bernie” in order to cultivate comfortable conversation with his clients. Bernie was successful in keeping “Broom Broom,” his image for marketing curling equipment quite separate from “Bernie,” his image as financier for innovation among elite curlers, operating from 17th floor offices on Bay St.

Challenges and selections: The teams are formed

In true curling fashion they had a draw to the button contest between the two mangers with the winner having the choice to challenge first or second. So, it was Charlie McDonald against the Devil. The Devil won and surprise, surprise, elected to challenge first which meant the Altamont team would select first in the first selection round.

The round by round results are below:

Devil Challenge 1: Bob Dunbar.

The Altamont ruse worked in that it left other good Altamont players to be selected.  Bob Dunbar was rejected by the Devil because Dunbar was just too much of a pioneer, quick to learn and understand change and quick to adapt his strategy accordingly. The risk was too great for the Devil to take.

Altamont Challenge 1: Severus Snape

Well another surprise, surprise! The Altamont team announced they were challenging Severus Snape. It seems that their collective fear of snakes was greater than their collective fear of the Devil. So Snape was kicked to the boards.

Altamont Select 1: Lynwood Graham.

The Devil was furious as He began to realize what had happened. But the rules specified no appeals, just the way the Devil wanted it when He was dealing for Souls. The Devil had wanted to reject Lynwood mostly because the challenge involved throwing a “Dunbar” and Lynwood might just be too strong for the Devil’s liking.

Devil Select 1: Darth Vader

Holy Light Sabre! Everyone was betting that the Devil would protect Himself. Perhaps, He was overconfident that the opposing team would never dare to challenge Him and protected Darth Vader instead.

Devil Challenge 2: Murray “ Moe” Stockford

The Devil just could not afford to have the Graham – Stockford connection working against Him, so He challenged and eliminated Murray “Moe” Stockford. The fact is that when the Devil reviewed Murray’s biography, he was rejected immediately as not having a Soul that was consonant with the Devil’s raison d’être.

Altamont challenge 2: The Devil!

Hey, the Altamont Team did it! The Devil is out!

Altamont Select 2: Walter Wilson

You might surmise that the Devil would not mind the inclusion of someone from the RWR “Little Black Devils” and you are right. The Devil allowed a little smile when Walter’s name was called. Nevertheless, the Altamont team was also content with the selection

Devil Select 2: Magnus Djävulsson.

The Devil’s tail was switching all over the place as it betrayed his vexation with the process. But He needed a real curler on His team so he picked Magnus Djävulsson.  Magnus was very surprised when he was notified but he was a competitor and would do his best when his time to shoot arrived.

Devil Challenge 3: Dick Mussell

As indicated earlier, the Devil and Dick had unfinished business but the Devil was not willing to finish it in this Challenge and opted to keep Dick on the sidelines.

Altamont Challenge 3: Bernie “Broom Broom” GeoFreeZone (pronounced Gee – off – ree – on with a silent “Z.”)

The Altamont team could not in all conscience allow themselves to be contaminated by the slime left in “Broom Broom’s” wake even if they were competing against him.

Altamont Select 3: Neuro de Generative

This announcement was to everyone’s total shock, surprise and stupefaction! The Devil grew worried that the Altamont team was pulling a fast one on Him. These rubes, these hayseeds, these bumpkins, these hillbillies had better watch themselves.

Devil Select 3: Robert Johnson

The Devil took great pleasure in announcing that Robert Johnson would be on the His rink as He fully expected that Johnson would write and sing a ballad about this historic confrontation, chronicling the victory of a team He was beginning to call “The Satanic” in a sink or swim attempt at re-branding.

Recap of the final team members

Idle Rocks are the Devil’s Curling Club: Darth Vader, Magnus Djävulsson, Robert Johnson. Sweepers: Rumplestiltskin and Johann Faust.

Altamont Curling Club: Lynwood Graham, Walter Wilson, Neuro de Generative. Sweepers: Bert Marshall and Charlie Taylor.

The stones would be delivered from the far end of the sheet so that spectators would have the best view of the house from the bleachers set up behind the glass.

Challenge sells out (or maybe someone sells out?)

As happens in small towns, there is not much that stays a secret for very long and word leaked out about the Devil’s challenge. The good citizens began to converge on the small rink, jamming the waiting room, standing on the skating ice and the walkway between the skating rink and the curling ice. A few children escaped their beds and clambered up onto the rafters above the skating rink. Once they were within the boundaries of the Rink they could not leave until the challenge was over. None of the spectators would remember anything.

The Altamont team was beginning to be concerned for the health and safety of the ordinary, non-curling population, especially the children, but they also welcomed all the support they could get. Besides, Bessie McDonald already had three teenagers, Cliff, Diane, and Margaret selling tickets to those who had already entered or who wanted to enter. Perhaps, they would make enough for a new coffee urn and a soup pot for the Rink’s kitchen.

Bessie and her brother, Gordon Holliston, were settled into their customary seats in the second row of the waiting room bleachers. Jim Sharp, a carpenter/handyman and frequent visitor to Altamont, was passing by and brought a strong odour of beer, cigar smoke and garlic to the affair. Gordon Lowry along with Howard and Dora Andrews also had coveted bleacher seats.

The curling ice was almost ready for play. Young George Friesen shepherded the sheepskin up the sheet and back. At each end he exuberantly swept gray detritus from its woolly surface, proof that the ice surface was now clean. Charlie Taylor grabbed the pebble can and proceeded to lay the pebble down, cigarette hanging from his lower lip as he moved backward down the ice, carefully distributing the fine spray of water droplets from a dented and beat up cylinder of water with an equally dented and beat up sprinkle head. Charlie’s ability to keep that cigarette stuck to his lower lip always amazed me. That, and the ability to keep about an inch of ash on the end of the cigarette and always make it to an ashtray or suitable spot to place one nicotine stained finger on the cigarette to tap the ash off.

Ashtrays, usually tobacco cans, were placed strategically at each end of the curling ice and along its sides. These ash cans are important curling infrastructure as cigarette and cigar ash is not conducive to a smooth and continuous motion of a curling rock. In fact, it can sometimes have disastrous results. Bob Weeks in Curling Etcetera records an instance in the 1936 Brier where Manitoba curling great Ken Watson gave his lead, Charlie Kerr, a cigar to smoke before the game. Charlie smoked it during the game and by this I mean that it very seldom left his mouth even while sweeping. [This would have just made me want to gag.] The Watson rink was counting five when the sixth stone was stopped in its tracks by an ash, falling from Kerr’s cigar, as he was sweeping. When the end was over, Watson counted seven but it could have been eight if not for the cigar ash.

In any case, Charlie Taylor was either oblivious to the possible consequences of a cigarette ash falling to the ice surface or was supremely confident that the cigarette ash had enough structural integrity to remain on the end of his cigarette until he reached the end of the sheet and the pebble was finished. It did not fall until Charlie tapped it into an ash can. Charlie was always confident if nothing else.

It’s game on

The Devil won the right to challenge or select first so the Altamont team would have the right to decide to shoot first or last. A small wave of disbelief rattled the Rink’s tin roof as Charlie McDonald announced that the Altamont team had elected to shoot first. What the …?  Well, it had been a night for surprises and it continued to be.

I am not privy to the logic behind the respective strategies for the selection of players or the order of play. I can only speculate that Altamont was counting on Lynwood Graham to blaze the way with a fantastic, blistering, blast creating so much anger and consternation among the Devil’s accomplices that they would become disoriented and screw up, to use the mild technical term. The Devil, in turn, wanted Darth Vader and whatever force Vader had on the Dark Side, to be with Him on the last shot.

Curling set array 3 IMG_0181

Set array of rocks. Bottom is back of the house

In the meantime, Howard Andrews and Magnus Djävulsson threw eight stones from the far hack into the house at the home end of the ice producing the array of rocks that each curler would face in turn (see diagram.)

[ … Time passes … ]

Years of research have taught me that it is not unusual for significant amounts of time, money, or other things to go missing in challenges or events involving the Devil.  Whether it is the 18 minutes missing from the Watergate tapes, missing millions of dollars thought to have been paid to US lobbyists by Sri Lanka, or missing and misplaced principal residences for Canadian Senators, the pattern is there.

So it was with this challenge. The competition began and the first four stones were delivered – two for Altamont (by Lynwood Graham and Walter Wilson) and Two for the Devil (by Magnus Djävulsson and Robert Johnson)– with no details surviving aside from the score.

I apologize but there is nothing that I can do to retrieve additional details – short of selling my Soul to the Devil, that is.

Stan Mascots 2 IMG_0561

The PD Gardener at work researching the Devil   Photo: G. Bialkoski 2016

So, what’s happening?

We pick it up after the 2nd end with the score at Devil 3 and Altamont 4. In other words, the Devil’s team has left three stones in the rings and Altamont has left 4 stones in the house. The Devil is in the lead by one stone as low aggregate score wins. Only last rock for each team remains. Neuro de Generative will throw last rock for Altamont and Darth Vader will throw for the Devil – an interesting match up in and of itself.

Wait!!! What is Bert Marshall doing?

I hesitate to raise this matter but I feel that I must, in the interest of full disclosure, tell you that my father is the Bert Marshall referenced in this story. Regrettably and with some trepidation, I also disclose that I have uncovered some evidence that Bert Marshall was seen huddling with the Devil at the conclusion of the 2nd end. Only two or three individuals know of this clandestine meeting and I guess I could use my curling corn broom to sweep it under the rug but it is likely better to come clean about the “huddle” to maintain my personal integrity.

I am still picking through a mountain of misinformation and working with a medium (not a Tim Horton’s medium) to channel Dick Mussell who may have some foggy memory that may clarify the matter. At this point I have the following snippets of conversation as told by someone from the Devil’s side who claims to have observed the meeting and heard the informal conversation which took place under the bleachers. [Geez, you would think they could have found a better place.]

“…. the Devil situated himself quite close to Bert and whispered, “If you give me an idea I use, I will make it worth your while….”

Bert took out his handkerchief and blew his nose because … well because that is what he always does. Bert looked off to the side and whispered, “I always wanted to score an 8- Ender….”

What the heck was that all about and why would Bert huddle with the Devil without taking a third party to witness and corroborate any discussion or agreement? It also begs a second question with a potentially more explosive answer. Did Bert Marshall (my father) sell his Soul to the Devil (or worse yet, sell out the Altamont team) for an 8 – Ender? Does the man pictured below seem like he knows curling perfection is in his future?

Raleigh man 1963 IMG_3952

Bert Marshall, 2 years after the Devil’s Challenge  Photo: Unknown

I am still trying to reconstruct these events and reach a definitive conclusion but at this time I am not in a position to address my findings without some independent peer evaluation and corroboration of my research. [No! – that doesn’t mean we are looking for an insane Parkie storyteller!] I will update you as soon as new information is available.

de Generative delivers Altamont’s last stone

Altamont Curling Club supporters shuddered when they realized that their last “Dunbar” rock (the Devil’s team had the hammer or last rock) would be thrown by none other than Neuro de Generative, a curler who

  • Had a bad case of the “shakes” at the best of times;
  • Had more times when he was “off” than when he was “on” but when he was “on” he was really “on!”
  • Was unpredictable as to when he would be “on” or “off.”
  • Often went onto the ice surface and “froze” even when the weather was quite mild;
  • Needed a pat on the behind from a teammate’s broom in order to get moving again;
  • Had to seek the bathroom quickly and often when he was “off;”
  • Sometimes was sapped of all strength and found it impossible to throw the curling rock such that it crossed the hog line never mind reached the house for a take out;
  • Sometimes was so uncoordinated when sweeping that they called for him to be not just “off” but “right off!”
  • Moved very slowly at times making it impossible for him to keep pace with a rock thrown with any speed;
  • Was often so rigid that he could not sit comfortably in the hack to deliver the rock;
  • Sometimes fell into the path of rocks, “burning” them while trying to tiptoe slide through rocks in the house while sweeping;
  • Could not smell ”burned” rocks – or the coffee that he overcooked on the old pot belly stove;
  • And the list goes on … and on – but often “off.”

To put this into perspective, the year is 1961 and nobody really understood Neuro’s condition as a treatable medical one.  Levodopa, the gold standard for treatment of Parkinson’s disease, was not developed until the late 1960s and the brand name drug, Sinemet (levodopa/carbidopa,) was not in widespread use until the 1970s.

In 1961, this was just the way Neuro was and, to be honest, most of the other curlers had the same things happen to them more than once – sometimes as part of the aging process but more often from a love of the more liquid part of the game.

So, what happened when Neuro threw his rock?  The following account is pieced together from Dick Mussell’s recollection as told to those three guys, Scotty, Buster and Phil, who told it to me quite some time ago. Sorry, there were no handy video cameras or telecasts of the games back then. This is the best we have. I can only say that, for my part, I am recounting the facts of the events exactly as they were described to me in the mid-1970s. In order to make it more understandable to the generations who have grown up with live play-by-play of sports (thank you Curt Gowdy and ABC’s Wide World of Sports – “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,”) let’s listen to how the legendary Cactus Jack Wells, and elite curler and broadcaster/colour commentator, Bob Picken, might have called the play-by-play.

DEVL 666 Radio play-by-play of the final stones

The broadcast leads with a verse of “Devil or Angel,” The Clovers 1956 original pop hit playing in the background. [Note: Bobby Vee covered this tune in 1960 taking it to the top of the charts once again and it was fresh on all minds, even curlers’ minds, in 1961.

Network Announcer: DEVL 666 Radio now takes you to Cactus Jack Wells and Bob Picken at the Altamont Rink for a real treat – The Devil vs Altamont in a winner take all, no holds barred, Devil may care, hotter than Hades, curling shoot off….

Cactus Jack: Well, it turned out nice again, didn’t it?

Bob Picken: It sure did Jack and it is such a privilege to be invited to the historic Altamont Rink to witness this unusual curling challenge. As you know, space is limited and people are having a devil of a time finding tickets even though it was put together very quickly.

Cactus Jack: Right you are, Bob. I am often high in the Winnipeg Arena and Bomber Stadium – hmmm, perhaps I should phrase that differently – but we are really up in the rafters here at the Altamont Rink!

Bob Picken: Yes we are, and we have ice level seats!

To be continued:

Next time:  The last rocks are thrown in the thrilling conclusion to one of the greatest curling confrontations ever!  Can the Altamont Curling Club keep the Devil from capturing the Soul of the draw master of the Altamont Bonspiel?  Will the Altamont Curling Club keep the “stuff of Curling” safe from contamination by the Devil, and how will we know what “stuff” is, even if they do?

There seems to be a lot of pressure on the Altamont curlers, don’t you think?  So,let’s put some pressure on the Devil:  Can the Devil avoid eternal embarrassment by not losing to this team of hicks curling out of a tin shack?

Whose side is Bert Marshall on and does it make any difference anyway? And, what is a double Gordon?

The answers to these questions and more in the third and last installment of

IN SEARCH OF THE “STUFF” OF CURLING  

Part III: Down to last rocks; The Devil made them do it

APPENDICES FOR PART II

Appendix A: The Devil and His tricks

This appendix is a caution to disabuse you of any notion that you enter into an encounter with the Devil on an equal footing. The Devil knows that the human foot with five somewhat flexible toes, an arch and hinging ankle, while it has some flaws, is superior to the Devil’s cloven hoof. Therefore He reasons it is only fair that He have some “advantages” (He does not object to calling these “tricks” as His perspective is totally different on these matters) to offset the footing differences. You can decide if they are offsetting factors or if the cloven hoof is inferior at all to human feet when it comes to curling.

Devil Trick #1. When the Devil does show himself in person, He wipes your cerebral hard drive clean which means that neither the Altamont curlers nor anyone else present will remember anything of that particular meeting and any subsequent curling competition where the Devil is present.

Devil Trick #2. The Devil had been following the challenges for “The Old Buffalo”, the O’Grady Challenge Trophy. In fact, He set His DVR “Devil Vision Recorder” (roughly equivalent to today’s Personal Video Recorder or PVR) to alert him and to record the matches. He had predetermined that Altamont, a southern Manitoba curling crazy community with a population of approximately 120 Souls; members in good standing of the Manitoba Curling Association (MCA) since 1929; [which mattered to the Devil greatly because He wanted the Curling gurus to provide their stamp of legitimacy on His inevitable victory] would be prime candidates for the Devil’s bait as a number of very good curlers in Altamont had ambitions to be even better.

Devil Trick #3. The Devil has the remarkable ability to suck the totality of information on any subject including both the science and art of curling from any knowledge source (a human brain usually) that enters “The Devil’s Triangle”, more commonly known as “The Bermuda Triangle.” Given the propensity for Canadians (even curlers) to go south for a few weeks each year to escape the coldest days of winter, it has not been difficult for the Devil to find such a brain passing through His triangle as Florida, Bermuda and Puerto Rico form the triangle’s apexes.   It is true that the Devil does need to find a new brain every few years to update His app to the latest in curling strategy and advances in equipment. The most recent version is D.v. 20.15. Remember, the Devil’s abilities to acquire knowledge this way long pre-date the “mind melds“ of Star Trek or the magic of Harry Potter. I won’t spend any more time on this brief explanation other than to say that the Devil’s skill and knowledge is restricted only by the intelligence of the last human brain to pass though the Triangle.

In present day terms, the travel itineraries of 2016 Brier Champion Kevin Koe of Alberta, Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Labrador, Brad Jacobs of Northern Ontario, Mike McEwen of Manitoba, Glenn Howard of Ontario or Pat Simmons of Team Canada would be of interest to the Devil as they are curling strategic geniuses as well as technical and tactical magicians of the highest order – perfect for updating His curling app. All of these gentlemen skipped their respective teams in the 2016 Brier.

In 1961, travel was more limited than today and it not likely that as many top-flight curlers would travel through the Devil’s Triangle. There certainly were many great men’s curlers in that time: Ernie Richardson and his brothers from Saskatchewan, Garnet Campbell from Saskatchewan, Hec Gervais (the big potato farmer) from Alberta, Ab Gowanlock from Glenboro Manitoba, Matt Baldwin from Alberta, Billy Walsh from Manitoba and Ken Watson from Manitoba to name but a few.

And, of course, women curlers in Canada are equally skilled and knowledgeable such that 2016 Scotties Champion Chelsea Carey of Alberta, Jennifer Jones of Manitoba, Kerri Einarson of Manitoba, Jenn Hanna of Ontario, Krista McCarville of Northern Ontario, and Rachel Homan of Ontario and any of their respective team members could provide important updates. The history of women’s curling is rich with talent and who knows if any of these names passed through the Devil’s Triangle: Colleen Jones from Nova Scotia, Vera Pezer, Sandra Peterson and Sandra Schmirler from Saskatchewan, Marilyn Bodogh of Ontario, Lindsay Sparkes and Lindsay Moore from British Columbia, to name but a few.

Collectively their knowledge and experience is, to be blunt, massively massive.

Devil Trick #4. The Devil has what is known as a “prescience factor” of ten (10) i.e., He can foretell future events (up to ten years out) albeit somewhat vaguely but with sufficient sharpness to be able to hedge His bets.

Devil Trick #5: The Devil can intervene in a timeline, from time to time, so to speak. He can pass a temporary, temporal measure where time zones can be “held in abeyance” for short periods. In this case, Manitoba is on Central Standard Time (CST) and that can be converted to Central Suspended Time (CST) with no one really noticing in the short term.

[Note: for those who believe in God, Alberta may be on Celestial Standard Time (CST) as suggested in The Black Bonspiel of Willie MacCrimmon. God alone must initiate any intervention into Celesial Time while the Devil can initiate Suspended Time. It is commonly known that Saskatchewan does not change to “Savings” time so it stands alone as a province where time cannot be suspended. Newfoundland and Labrador is suspended by an extra half-hour no matter what happens. It is not clear whether God has anything to do with “timing” in Newfoundland and Labrador and Saskatchewan.]

Sources:

Bonspiel! The History of Curling in Canada http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/curling/

Curl Manitoba O’Grady Trophy History http://www.curlmanitoba.org/ogrady-history#.VrDXRCkof9M

http://curlsask.ca/

http://honouredmembers.sportmanitoba.ca/inductee.php?id=262&criteria_sort=name

Bob Weeks, Curling Etcetera, J. Wiley and Sons, 2008.

W. O. Mitchell, The Black Bonspiel of Willie MacCrimmon, McClelland and Stewart, 1993

http://www.worldcurling.org/history-of-curling

©Stan Marshall (The PD Gardener)

From Aliases and Handles to Sobriquets and Zambonis: Nicknames, Parkinson’s, Gardens and More

From Aliases and Handles to Sobriquets and Zambonis: Nicknames, Parkinson’s, Gardens and More

Caution: This blog post is rated 18A suitable for viewing by persons 18 years of age and older. May contain coarse language and mature themes.

Caveat: As always, this blog is based on real situations with real people. Be aware though that some accounts herein may be altered or embellished for effect and names changed to maintain confidentiality.

Introduction

For some time now and for some odd reason unbeknownst (a word I rarely use) to me, I have been thinking about nicknames. Nicknames are inherently interesting as they often have a humorous side or hold a hidden meaning that lets you in on something private or personal about that individual’s character or upbringing, or perhaps something about their social, economic or cultural class. Anyway, the more I thought about nicknames, the more I wanted to write about nicknames. But the more I wanted to put my thoughts into words the more I realized that I have too many thoughts about nicknames – much like Antonio Salieri’s criticism that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operas had “too many notes.” Nonsense of course, but it does mean that I have to organize my thoughts in some logical, if not pleasing, manner such that it makes sense. I can’t promise you the masterful equivalent of an opera such as Mozart (or Salieri for that matter) would have produced, but I do promise you a ramble through the world of nicknames – with a few detours of course to explore themes and thoughts about Parkinson’s, gardening and human nature.

I sometimes think nicknames are the tumbleweeds of nomenclature – they are odd things, very common but often misunderstood, rarely cultivated purposefully or hybridized, and they are quite seedy and prolific. There are cases where exuberant fathers bestow a nickname on a son (in particular) at birth in a vain attempt (or desperate hope) that the little boy will emulate, and become, a sports hero, or perhaps a child prodigy in classical music. But mostly nicknames grow up around you, not very pretty, and seemingly unnoticed until loosed to the wind by a voice or pen, freeing dried stalks to stumble, bumble and tumble across the cultural landscape until social relations provides a barrier with the right conditions for a nickname to germinate and stick in the collective mind of any given community.

Before I go much further, I have to say that getting started on a blog about nicknames has been quite fun but surprisingly, it has also presented its challenges. It should be pretty straightforward, right?  Well, wrong. I have lived long enough to know that I shouldn’t proceed to the writing stage of a project without doing some background research so that I don’t make a total fool of myself. [Note: I have long since given up the goal of not making a “fool” of myself but I draw the line at “total fool” which, as a category, encompasses both the completeness of one’s failure and the ‘laughability’ quotient associated with one’s name.]

What exactly is a nickname?

Most definitions of ‘nickname’ encompass the following: an informal, perhaps humourous, name given to a person in addition to his/her real name. OK, so far, so good but hilariously I think that definition is succinct only in the broadest possible way! When additional sharpness is applied to the focus we can see that nicknames often are descriptive of a person’s physical characteristics, personality, skills, talents, or abilities. It may include specificity of geographical location, or at least some hint of it. There may be an event or events (humourous or serious) behind its genesis. The nickname may be widely known and public or it may be held secretively and privately within specific groups or among small numbers of individuals. Nicknames may endure for a lifetime or may exist only fleetingly. Individuals may have more than one nickname over a lifetime and may have more than one nickname at the same time. Some individuals may have had none – but I suspect they are lying.

Superstan IMG_5437

Is this my nickname or my alter ago?  Graphics by CUPE Communications

Most people want to be called by their first name given at birth. Put another way, I believe that most people don’t respond well to someone yelling, “Hey you, get over here! Or, “You, in the black coat, you’re next.” Of course, generally speaking they will also accept to be called by their more officious last names with appropriate modifier e.g., “Ms. Mills, how much is that painting?” Ms., Mrs. and Mr. are commonly used with last names in such cases, and the use of a last name without one of these titles is decidedly less formal e.g., “Mr. Marshall, you are next” as compared to ”Marshall, you are next” unless of course, your first name is Marshall.

As a young lad I sometimes heard the words “I saw that Marshall kid there” when adults were discussing some trouble-making involving children in our small town. Trust me, they were not saying this out of formality and respect. My red hair usually singled me out in any group and I was more likely to hear, “I saw Carrot Top (or Red) there,” establishing my earliest memories of nicknames applied to me. I recall these words one day when I was caught, along with several friends, as we threw stones at the topmost window of a grain elevator. It as a long way up for a 7 or 8 year old but we were rewarded with the sound of tinkling glass, signalling “success.” The whack of my father’s razor strap (I have referred to this dreaded instrument in previous posts) across my behind later that day signaled the “failure” part of my action. Still, I remember feeling some pride (and my father obviously also felt this same sense of pride although misplaced perhaps) as I heard father talking with other fathers about how impressive it was that I had an arm strong enough to reach that window, never mind still have enough velocity on the throw to break the glass at that height. This was an early lesson that there is often bitter with the better, or not all is what it seems, or sometimes compliments come from the craziest of angles.

I also believe that, for the most part, people are happy with their names. I guess we have to be as, ordinarily, we have no control over what we are called. And to change a name requires special dispensation from the state. A name is given to us even before we can speak or think beyond a baby’s thought and is inscribed formally to meet the legal requirements of the responsible political entity within which you live. Informally, we often have a name attributed to us to describe a character trait or some other defining feature. Nicknames fall into this category. At some point(s) a name someone gives to us sticks and is forever contained with quotation marks within our given names, e.g., Herman “Babe” Ruth in baseball or Maurice ”Rocket” Richard in hockey, or Rex “Sexy Rexy” Harrington in Canadian ballet.

Lord knows, communities where I grew up were, and are, populated by people with nicknames like “Skull,” “Boog,” “Weasel,” “Pokey,” “Spud,” “Graser,” “Gruesome,” “Scotty,” “The Old Gardener,” “Jughead” or “Jug,” “Big Bill,” “Jake,” “Red,” “Carrot Top,” “Chuckles McGurk,” “Buster” ”Rubber Boot,” “Aunt ‘Mime,” “Birdie,“ “Helena but my friends call me Helen”and many, many others. Still, when I read local histories and accounts, people in those communities are hardly ever referred to by their nicknames even though many would have responded to those names each and every day. Why is that? Maybe historians are just too formal when they put pencil to paper or when their brain waves are translated into digital pulses. But storytellers shouldn’t be reticent to name nicknames, should they? In fact, it is much better if they aren’t. I am a storyteller first and foremost, and a firsthand observer of the myriad processes of life (that just means I am alive and cogent.) Storytelling is simply my way of packaging life in an understandable and hopefully entertaining form. I don’t have space today to weave in all the humanness contained in the nicknames above, or in the many others referenced elsewhere in this post, but rest assured that these informal monikers have stories to tell and tell them they will in future posts. But for today, here is what I have to offer about nicknames and some of the people who have them.

How nicknames happen

As a teenager I played hockey with a fellow named Neil who was from Wawota, Saskatchewan. Not surprisingly I guess, we called him “Wawota” … that is until he was goofing around one day just before practice while the ice resurfacing machine was finishing up the final flood. Chasing an errant puck he ran smack into its side causing the rest of us to crack up in riotous hoots of uncontrolled laughter, sticks smacking in approval on the ice, while a few of us acted out a series of impromptu on-ice copycat performances of the “move” complete with our best imitation of former Montreal Canadiens’ great broadcaster, Danny Gallivan, doing the play by play, to wit; “Wawota takes the Zamboni into the corner without an iota of trepidation.”

Zamboni IMG_5457

“Zamboni”

Neil was unhurt but in that single moment his nickname changed immediately and spontaneously to “Zamboni,” after the iconic ice-resurfacing machine. I have no recollection as to whether it was an actual brand name Zamboni but Neil’s new nickname was sealed for the remainder of that hockey season. Did the nickname stick? I have no idea as I never saw nor heard from him after that one year. It doesn’t really matter though as this is a perfect example of, not just a nickname, but also one process through which nicknames are assigned. [Of course, the most important outcome of this event was that we were prohibited absolutely from being on the ice at the same time as the Zamboni proving once again that humans, especially teenage boys, need to be protected from themselves.]

What is not a nickname?

Sometimes we can understand a concept or idea better if we look at it in the negative. What is it not? For me, a nickname most definitely is not a shortened form of your given name e.g., Stan is not a nickname for Stanley and Flo is not a nickname for Florence. On the other hand, some short forms are tantalizingly close to being the real deal e.g., Stosh as a nickname for Stan and Flossie as a nickname for Florence. Do they pass a threshold that imbues qualitatively new information? Does it really matter, you ask? Good question. Yes, I think it does matter because nicknames not only identify us to others but we ourselves are influenced in our self-identification and self-perception by our nicknames, especially those that we carry for long periods of our lives. This theory is reinforced by fairly convincing research on the impact of nicknames on learning success among children. I am not going to attempt to detail it here but positive nicknames are associated with positive self-image and success, and negative nicknames are associated more negatively in these aspects.

Let’s return though to the question of Stosh and Flossie. I think that “Stosh” in the North American context is a nickname especially if your given name is not ‘Stanislav’, which locates your ancestry firmly in Eastern Europe. By the same token, Flossie is really just a diminutive of Florence and not a nickname. Feel free to disagree as a few debates in this literature would liven it up a bit.

Stage names or legal name changes are not nicknames surely. In my view these new names replace wholly and completely the original name or are sufficient to disguise or obscure both public and private eyes to the legal name of an individual in order to render their birth name inoperative. The world of entertainment is filled with individuals who are not known by their original legal names e.g. (with birth names in parentheses) Marilyn Munroe (Norma Jean Mortensen,) Cary Grant (Archibald Alexander Leach,) Stevie Wonder (Steveland Judkins,) Anne Rice (Howard Allen O’Brien,) Shania Twain (Eileen Regina Edwards,) Fred Astaire (Frederick Austerlitz,) Ginger Rogers (Virginia Katherine McMath,) Truman Capote (Truman Streckfus Persons,) Judy Garland (Frances Gumm,) Rock Hudson (Leroy Harold Scherer, Jr.,) Meg Ryan (Margaret Mary Emily Anne Hyra,) and Woody Allen (Allen Konigsberg.)

Pet names of affection also, I believe, do not qualify as nicknames either so “Honeybuns,” “Snookum”, “Pumpkin,” “Ma Petite Choux,” “Cookie,” “Biscuit,” “Sweet Pea” and a myriad of others are all on the illegitimate list primarily because their intimate private nature means that only one person ever calls the other by that name. That means that context is everything in pet names of affection. By the same token, mean (nasty or bad) pet names or “terms of endearment” should not be classified as nicknames either, right? Or should they? I understand that Sally Struthers was a rather chubby young girl and family members called her “Packy,” short for “Pachyderm.” Apparently Richard Burton called Elizabeth Taylor “Fats” when they were lovers. I can imagine it did not always go over well with the glamorous star of the silver screen.   Are these nicknames? I guess you could make the case for Struthers, more so than Elizabeth Taylor, as more than one person in Struthers’ family called her by that name. However, I doubt that anyone other than Sir Richard Burton ever called Elizabeth Taylor ‘Fats.’  On the other hand, let’s face it, there will always be some grey areas or areas of confusion where context may be everything. I admit that these types of names and the social interactions that spawn them intrigue me greatly and are worthy of someone’s studious attention.

Nicknames and Parkinson’s

Let’s consider Persons with Parkinson’s (PwP) for a moment. Given that the majority of PwP are diagnosed after the age of 60, if they have lasting nicknames at all, these names are likely to have been forged and well cemented long before diagnosis and are unlikely to stem from the disease itself. For those with early onset Parkinson’s there is a greater possibility that nicknames are connected in some way to Parkinson’s but the probability of that happening is unknown, and pre-existing nicknames are likely to prevail.

Still, it makes some logical sense that some PwP will have nicknames related to this insidious disease i.e., a name that is a variation of Parkinson’s or describes one of its distinctive characteristics to wit “Shaky,” “Parkie,” “Parky,” “Parkyman,” “Parky lady,” “Parky woman.” I follow a friend on Twitter whose husband has Parkinson’s and she is known in the Twitterverse as “Parkywife.” When you think about it, “Parkinson’s” should be a natural root from which a nickname would sprout and a natural hook on which a nickname would hang. But to be quite honest with you, I haven’t come across very many PwP who have such nicknames. The reason may well be that Parkinson’s is such a negative force that we do not much wish to be identified with it, or to be identified by it – and that is what nicknames do.

One problem with pre-existing nicknames for PwP is that they actually may be antithetical, inconsistent or incongruent with a new life with Parkinson’s e.g., it is difficult to reconcile the old “Swifty” MacMillan with his new Parkinson’s gait or “Steady Eddie” Olsen with his soup spilling hand tremor at the dinner table. Although it is not always the case, it is often a sign of disrespect, especially to elders, to assign a negative nickname to someone who is disabled or suffering obviously from a debilitating disease. Would it ever be the case that “Swifty” would have his nickname changed to “Shuffles” or “Steady Eddie” to have his nickname changed to “Sloppy Eddie,” or perhaps, if he is a father he could be “Sloppy Poppy?” In the world I live in, such changes are not likely. Still, depending on the cultural, economic, political, demographic or ideological grouping to which you belong, degrees of affection or meanness can vary considerably and nicknames are susceptible to these forces.

Inappropriate and hurtful nicknames

I have to admit that I survived childhood and my foolhardy teenage years relatively unscathed in all aspects of my being, due more to good fortune than to good sense. Youthful eyes and ears are often ignorant about what they see and hear and when that information is transmitted to a youthful brain, it can sometimes spill out in unfortunate ways. Of course, there are worse nicknames than “Shuffles” or “Sloppy,” for a person with Parkinson’s, but the point is that if it is born of meanness or maliciousness, the PwP should be spared that slight, and accorded respect. At the very least (or should it be most?) you should not be defined in the eyes of others by a disability or illness especially with a derogatory or demeaning nickname. Believe me, you do lose some respect when people learn you have Parkinson’s or watch you struggle with your Parky body and brain. By the way, losing respect for those people in return does not even the matter up but this is a topic for another time. Here’s a little story to illustrate the meanness factor in some nicknames.

When I was a child there was a retired farmer and his wife in my community and they were ‘the salt of the earth’ as the saying goes. To my knowledge they harmed no one, were caring and loving parents and grandparents, were friends to everyone, participated to the betterment of everyone in community, church and social affairs, were unselfish in watching over the children of their neighbours. They deserved to be treated with respect – the kind of respect that is not undermined by behind the back uncharitable comments.  It was determined by persons unknown that the wife was not very good looking and, for as far back as I can reach into my childhood memory, she was called derisively, behind her, her husband’s and her family’s collective backs, by the epithet: “Beaut” or sometimes “Ol’ Beaut.” Please recall that the ignorance of youth is not only a blessing at times, it is also a curse and as children we did not know the meaning of the word “epithet“ and we accepted that “Ol’ Beaut” or “Beaut” was indeed the name we should use when referring to her. The tragedy of course is that we ended up using that nickname in front of her, her husband, her children and her grandchildren who were about my age at the time. The children’s rhyme of “Sticks and stones may break my bones/But names will never hurt me” comes to mind as the first line of defense we used to ward off name-calling. The problem is that, as we discussed earlier, nicknames are more than school yard name-calling, they are identifiers in life i.e., calling someone “scuzzy” is one thing but naming them “Scuzzy” is quite another. In the world of psychological hurt, this difference is meaningful.

But the story does not end there. The farmer and his wife had a daughter who married a fellow from a neighbouring district. For better or for worse as they say, they eked out a living on a small parcel of farmland for many years. But rural life was changing. The small quarter section family farm was giving way to agribusiness. Corporate family farms and Hutterite Colonies began buying up the land of farmers who could not adapt to changing grain, animal and produce markets. While this development was not sudden and stretched over a couple of decades, it was nonetheless inexorable in its march. Many farmers were blind to the inevitable as they viewed their futures through the prisms of whiskey and beer bottle bottoms and in the confines of the ‘still safe from intruding women’ men-only hotels that typified small towns across the prairies. The daughter did her level best to farm the conjugal farmland but it was a losing battle. Her husband succumbed to alcoholism and became more and more a hindrance than a help. Somewhere along this path (I am not sure that it really matters when) he acquired the nickname “Wacker.” I am uncertain as to the genesis of this name but it is the name that we children called him to his face and to others – including in front of the farmer and his wife (the aforementioned “Ol’ Beaut”) whose daughter married “Wacker.” As you can see, layers of insensitivity and subtle meanness can pile up over generations. It wasn’t until years later that I learned his real name. Perhaps, as children, we could be excused from such a continuous display of disrespect, but we cannot be excused if we persist in such behaviour well after we should know better. My words here are not intended as an apologia but rather as a supplicatus that no one, child or adult, should find such malicious nicknaming acceptable

Sometimes the default setting is defective

This brings to mind another occasion when I was embarrassed and betrayed by both my mouth and brain – my brain for not remembering and my mouth for engaging before my brain sent the signal to keep closed. Let’s be clear these failures cannot be placed at the feet of my usual whipping boy, Parkinson’s. If it had been due to Parkinson’s my mouth would have engaged several moments after my brain deemed it appropriate and in fact, the point of the conversation would have moved on long before the mouth uttered a word. No, in this case my mouth was clearly ahead of my brain and my brain was not loaded with the correct data.

In my early 20s I was hanging out one day with a young lad from my hometown at a friend’s place in Winnipeg. I was five or six years older and at that age, five or six years, while not quite a generational gap, is a considerable difference. On top of that, I had not been living at home for a couple of years. Suffice it to say that I barely knew this fellow and knew even less about his life and his likes or dislikes. I really have no recollection as to the primary reason for our being together on this particular day – maybe there was no reason other than the cosmic forces teaching me another life lesson, albeit a minor one – or, come to think about it, maybe not that minor as I remember it these 45 years later like it was yesterday.

Someone came to the door and it was necessary for me to make introductions. I know most of us have been in this situation – we have to introduce someone and we cannot for the life of us remember her/his name. Your mind is a total blank, either scrolling pointlessly and finding no memory of anything resembling a name, or freezing with the cursor stuck, unresponsive to any prodding. Either way, a familiar panic sets in – you are caught out. This day my brain opted for the default – not a good default, but a default nonetheless, put there by a programmer who didn’t fully understand social niceties. Thinking back, it could have worked, it might have worked, but it didn’t work. My brain says to my mouth, “You know his nickname, call him that.”

“… And this is …. um … Gruesome,” I say with some relief. Relief though immediately turns to regret – both are five-letter words but not anywhere close in meaning. I see the young lad’s face fall in disappointment. Clearly this name was not one that he had chosen for himself, and it may well have been bestowed upon him in a mean spirited way. To his credit and showing great maturity, he says calmly, “Actually, It’s Danny, and I am pleased to meet you.”

Shaping your identity

Now, there are worse nicknames than Gruesome, but no matter, the lesson is the same. You should make it a point to know those around you, not just because it is the polite thing to do, but because in that moment of introduction you have a responsibility in a real life process of perception and self-perception, and the formation and perpetuation of identity. In some senses, our self-perception is shaped by how others see us, the looking glass self.   I have no way of knowing for certain but I greatly doubt if Danny was harmed significantly by my inappropriate and awkward introduction and it may well be that I was impacted to a larger degree, given that it has been burned into my memory bank. Still, make no mistake; nicknames are a weird wild card in this process of identity creation.

Social Media

In this era of ‘social media’ (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) we are always giving ourselves names that are not the ones we were given at birth. I reference many of these social media names in other sections of this blog. For example, the alter ego writing this blog is “The PD Gardener.” I wager that if not for social media and the practice of selecting one’s own ‘handle,’ no one would have ever in a million years called me “The PD Gardener” as a nickname. In fact, “The PD Gardener” is more so a ‘nom de plume,’ a pen name, pseudonym, or an alias, creating a vague cloak of anonymity without being truly anonymous, than it is a nickname. Pen names of course are not unusual and were often adopted for good reason. Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot to ensure her work was taken seriously and Samuel Langhorne Clemens used Mark Twain as an alias. There is a richness to pen names that needs to be explored but that is not for me, at least not today.

To get a better handle (pun intended) on the development of nicknames, we have to understand that these names and the naming conventions on which they are based are not solely creatures of today’s social media. Rather, they are built on both established traditions and evolving practices in communications and maybe even an indication of the democratization of communications. [Uh, oh I feel like I am in a Sociology of Communications class.]

Shortwave Radio

Shortwave radio surged in importance in the early 1900s, replacing long distance communication using transoceanic cables and long wave transmission. Amateur radio took off as a recreational pastime with each operator having an individual ‘call sign.’ Prior to 1913 only the initials of the radio operator were required for a licence but a series of international protocols since then have evolved into the current standardized call signs. Most call signs in Canada are assigned by Industry Canada and start with the letter “V” followed by various digits indicating the province or territory. You often see these call signs on personalized licence plates of Ham radio operators. While there is some leeway for individuals to select call signs from those available, the signs themselves are formulated under strict government regulation. I am not going to go into detail but if you are interested you can visit the Industry Canada website at http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/smt-gst.nsf/eng/h_sf01709.html

CB Radio (Breaker, Breaker)

If you had a CB radio in the 1950s and 1960s the chances are you heard something like this: “Breaker one-niner, Come in Thermos Bottle” (request for the driver of a chemical tanker to communicate on channel 19) or “Breaker one-niner, Kojak with a Kodak, I-10 Taco Town,” (communicating a warning on channel 19 that there is a radar speed trap on I-10 near San Antonio, Texas.)

This language is a cultural marker of a major development in communications in the mid – 1940s, the widespread use of CB radios especially in the trucking industry. Truckers selected their own “handles” and their ability to tailor their names was unlimited. “Papa Smurf,” “Billy The Kid,” “The Southern Shaker,” ”Bandit,” “Bedroom Bandit,” “Lead Foot Lady of Interstate 80” are legendary ‘handles’ and there are tens of thousands of others from the last 50 years that were popular and recognizable especially in the continental United States, Canada and Mexico. Police were called “Smokeys” and truckers were forever passing on information over their CB radios as to the locations of speed traps or load limit spot checks and how to avoid them. By the way, this function of the CB radio is now largely obsolete with the development of modern interactive GPS apps through which drivers can submit information on speed traps and red light cameras at intersections. In fact, I have such an app on my cell phone.

Summary of Essential Elements of a Nickname

What does this brief history of names in different modes of communication tell us about nicknames? I think there are three specific things to note: (1) ham radio handles are not nicknames but are alphanumeric codes under government regulation signifying province or territory. (2) CB radio ‘handles’ are analogous to nicknames on the one hand in that they are ascribed to an individual in place of a legal name(s) but, on the other hand, they do not meet a key test of a nickname in that they are conferred upon one’s own self and not ascribed by a third party or parties. Even if the ‘handle’ is descriptive of a specific characteristic of the individual it cannot be a true nickname unless conferred by a third party. (3) Handles in social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and email accounts, etc. are not nicknames but are self-ascribed names in an attempt to ensure some anonymity or secretiveness. But, as always, there may be exceptions or gray areas. Let’s follow up on that later shall we?

The number of nicknames is prodigious

As I was kicking around my initial ideas about nicknames, I became obsessed with asking people about nicknames and I began to assemble a list (a very, very long list.) Just think of the number of people with nicknames that you know personally and then add all those who are public and newsworthy figures. The numbers add up very quickly. Sports personalities alone occupy a massive amount of storage space in human memory banks. How many gigabytes or terabytes? No one really knows for certain but historic and current sports figures are immortalized there with names like “Shoeless” Joe Jackson the disgraced outfielder for the infamous scandal plagued 1919 Chicago White Sox (a team interestingly enough with its own nickname, the “Black Sox;”) or Rusty “Le Grand Orange” Staub of the now defunct Montreal Expos (still my favourite baseball team;) Maurice “Rocket” Richard and his younger brother Henri “Pocket Rocket” Richard of the Montreal Canadiens in hockey; Michael “Air” Jordan or Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain in basketball; Jack “The Golden Bear” Nicklaus or “Slammin’” Sammy Snead in golf; and Ricardo Alonso “Pancho” Gonzalez or John “The Brat” McEnroe in tennis, to name only a very few.

The sheer volume of nicknames in sports is prodigious – so prodigious in fact that I was sent scrambling to the dictionary to find out just how prodigious prodigious can be. Fittingly, prodigious is elastic and can expand to any size depending on the parameters set. In other words, the number of nicknames for sports personalities is prodigious now but can, and will, expand to an even greater prodigious size in the future. I see no end to it. The capacity for nicknames for athletes is infinitely prodigious.  In fact, as if to underscore the point, some athletes have the dubious honour of having more than one nickname active at any given time. Patrick Kane, star right winger of the Chicago Blackhawks has at least 11 nicknames including: “Kaner,” “Jonny’s boy,” “The Doctor,” “Peekaboo,” “20-Cent,” “Lil’ Peekaboo,” “Peeks,” “Dr. Kane,” “Showtime,” “Pattycakes,” and “He Came He Saw He Kanequered.” Arguably some of these are stretches as legitimate everyday nicknames, but undoubtedly some do meet the strict test I have set for the legitimacy of a nickname – describing character of the individual as accorded and used by a third party.

Nicknames for women in a gendered world

Okay fair enough you say, but are there any limiting parameters? The keen observer will have noticed long before now that most of my examples have been from the male world. I have done this purposefully as I perceive that there are significant gender differences in the world of nicknames. It seems to be true generally that women don’t engage in public rituals to confer a nickname on someone; don’t use nicknames in conversation with others; and they are not favourable towards having their nicknames, should they have one, publicly displayed. Still women do have nicknames. Let’s have a brief look at some names (nick or not) given to some famous women.

In the world of entertainment Jennifer Lopez is “J. Lo,” Katherine Hepburn was also known as “First Lady of Cinema,” “Kate,” and “The Great Kate;” Bette Midler is the “Divine Miss M.” Comedian Mary Walsh is a pioneer in hard-hitting Canadian political comedy and satire to the point where her alter ego ”Marg Delahunty: Warrior Princess” may well be her nickname.

Many female political figures also have nicknames. Time Magazine’s 2015 Person of the Year is German Chancellor, Angela “Mutti” Merkel, who is widely accepted as the most powerful woman in the world and the de facto leader of the European Union. “Mutti” is German for Mommy, Mama, or Mom. Not surprisingly, other strong women in politics have also been accorded significant nicknames e.g., Golda Meir was known as the “Iron Lady of Israeli Politics” long before Margaret Thatcher acquired the “Iron Lady” label in the UK. [Note: I am not passing judgment upon their politics here. I may well do that in future blog posts as I do have some strong views.]

First Ladies in the United States have often had nicknames. “Lady Bird” Johnson used this name allegedly given to her as a baby by a nursemaid. Mary Geneva Eisenhower was nicknamed “Maimie.” Dorothea Madison was called “Dolley” by all but there has been some discussion about whether this was an official name, and Helen Herron Taft was nicknamed “Nellie.” Lucy Webb Hayes, wife of President Rutherford Hayes was widely known as “Lemonade Lucy” as she was a supporter of the Temperance movement and served non-alcoholic drinks at the White House.

In Canada our first and only female Prime Minister, Avril Phædra Douglas Campbell nicknamed herself “Kim” as a teenager. And the nickname stuck perhaps making this an exception to my general rule that a nickname must be accorded by a third party or parties. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in Canada who would be able to identify Kim Campbell correctly by her real name. Famous Canadian political activist and suffragette Nellie “Windy Nellie” McClung lived a short 13 or so miles away from where I grew up and earned her nickname because she was a fiery orator and never at a loss for words. And the “Lady with the Lamp,” Florence Nightingale, forever changed the course of health care setting professional standards and practices for nurses and nursing care.

Nicknames in male Culture

I wager that men have more nicknames than women and are responsible for the act of nicknaming more than women are. Mind you, I have not conducted a scientific meta-analysis of existing peer reviewed and published studies within the esoteric literature of anthroponomastics or anthroponymy (the study of names of human beings including nicknames) although I admit that of all academic endeavours this does seem like a very pleasant diversion from the usual academic stuffiness if one were inclined to be part of the academe.

Nevertheless, I don’t think I am wrong on this one. Males are forever engaged in nicknaming everything and everyone they can. I am not inclined to engage in gratuitous descriptions about the male culture of naming body parts or assigning nicknames based on characteristics of sexual prowess. However, I do not feel it appropriate to skirt this issue without at least making a token foray into male cultural practices by citing two examples from my hockey playing days, for illustrative purposes only.

In this first case, let’s just say that the nickname “Poppycock” is not a reference to a fondness for the famous sweet mixture of candied popcorn, peanuts, pecans, cashews, and chocolate. In fact, I don’t even know if “Poppy” liked sweets but his nickname was more the measure of the man so to speak. Nevertheless, jockstrap size aside, he was short and sturdy and could skate like the wind. He didn’t always know where he was going but he tried to get there quickly. Coach Eddie would quip, “Poppy, you have million dollar legs and a 10 cent head.” There were also suggestions that perhaps the greater part of his hockey brain was housed within the head inside his jock strap rather than the one on his shoulders. [Competitive hockey was not then, nor is now, a game for sensitive souls. I shall blog about this more at a later time.] The Oakland Seals selected Poppy in the amateur draft portion of the 1967 NHL expansion to 12 teams from the original six. It was quite an accomplishment for Poppy. However, he never played in the NHL and kicked around in the minor professional leagues for seven years before hanging them up.

In this second example, the nickname “Job” is not a Biblical reference or a euphemism for a player who was hard working and gets the job done. Not surprisingly, as we are referring to a male cultural environment, it refers to an act of oral sex and the original formulation was “Blow Job” or “BJ,” a variant of this player’s name and initials, and it should come as no surprise that there were several iterations in existence at the same time. I recall his girlfriend being quite puzzled by the nickname and was forever asking him why we called him “Job.” You have to understand that Job was (and probably still is) one of the quietest, unassuming guys I have ever met. The word “nice” just didn’t do justice to his character back then. His shy smile could disarm even the hardest of hearts but on the ice he was a tenacious checker and ruthless in his drive to the net to score. Don’t confuse “quiet and unassuming” with a lack of motivation to succeed and he was a scoring dynamo in his Junior A hockey career. But alas, Job was on the small side at 5’9” and a charitable, even soaking wet, 180 pounds.  Scouts were looking for big and while he had all the tools as a skater, checker, goal scorer, Job was in a tough battle against other expansion draft behemoths of the day. For all but a five game “look see” near the end of his career with the NHL St. Louis Blues in the mid-1970s, he played in the minor leagues.

I hasten to say that there was absolutely nothing that either of these players could have done to avoid being saddled with these monikers. It was more or less spontaneous and as soon as the names hit the dressing room floor, the die was cast and the names stuck – at least within the team for a few seasons. I cannot say whether there was any longevity to the practice but I suspect the nicknames did not have much currency outside of the locker room and died after a short time, unless one or more contemporaries accompanied Job and Poppycock to other playing assignments. Ironically, contemporaries are nasty that way – they bring history with them! I also want to emphasize that, to my knowledge, neither one of them was a “player” in sexual relations with women. Of course, there were many other players whose teenage hormones raged and played the field of available girls to the limit.

While I do feel an almost uncontrollable urge to divulge other nicknames and information from those years of my life, I will leave that for another day as surely the main point to be made here is that male culture produces nicknames formed through the filter of that culture. If that is the dominant culture, then the mass and/or volume of nicknames in that society will reflect that reality. [I am certain there is a PhD thesis here but I am not going to do it.]

Perhaps, it is this dominance of the male culture that sent my family and some friends into paroxysms of laughter at the nickname “Shrimpy,” when I asked them at a family dinner over the Holidays, quite spontaneously and without warning, about nicknames. In fact, “Shrimpy” is a perfectly good example of a nickname and a character in Downton Abby is so named. Nevertheless, it seems that male culture often prevails. I apologize to anyone nicknamed “Shrimpy” for any embarrassment that my family so uncouthly attempts to foist upon him.

The points that need to be underscored from my vantage point are that males are more likely to have a nickname, more likely to address others using a nickname, more likely to attempt to hang a nickname on someone else and more likely to give himself a nickname. I am quite certain that there are equivalencies found in certain elements of female culture, but the probability and the generality of nicknames being more important for men than for women should hold true – according to ‘conventional wisdom’ at least

Critical thinking can make all the difference

Uh, oh, I feel a caveat involving ‘conventional wisdom’ coming on and I must deviate slightly from the main topic in order to explain my thinking and, of course, to absolve myself if I am wrong about any factual statements I make or conclusions I may draw.

The words “conventional wisdom” always remind me of a story told by one of my high school teachers. The message of the story resonated with me at the time and has continued to do so over the last 50 plus years. In fact, when I was teaching at universities or involved in adult education in the community or with workers, I always told this story as a way to underscore the importance of “critical thinking” in almost every aspect of life. Unfortunately, some people have taken “critical thinking” to mean that you criticize or attack other views and opinions to destroy them. My personal experience is that “critical thinking” is a positive activity that clarifies argument and paves the way for progress.

The story goes somewhat like this: A father was telling his daughter that she had things rather easy compared to his own childhood experience. I am sure that we have all heard variations of this story from our own parents and elders. You know, I used to walk six miles to school against the wind, through snow six feet deep, and other such embellishments. The father punctuated this particular assertion by saying, “When I was your age, I had to get up in the morning, do my chores in the barn and then I would go down to the lake, take off my clothes and swim across the lake three times.”

Lake Kawawaymog mist IMG_4543

Early morning pre-swim mist on Lake Kawawaymog   Photo: The PD Gardener 2015

The daughter thought for a few seconds about this latest attempt by her father to impress upon her that she was privileged in her life compared to those in earlier times, and responded very gracefully, “ Father, I am impressed with your work ethic in doing the chores early in the morning. Your parents must have been so grateful for your assistance. And your commitment to exercise by swimming across the lake three times is truly admirable, especially in a time when physical fitness was not as valued or as well organized as it today. You must have been a true role model. But respectfully father, I think it would have been better for you and, probably for everyone else, if you had gone to the lake, taken off your clothes and swum across the lake either two or four times so that you would be back on the same side as your clothes.”

This is a ‘cautionary tale’ and the very simple lesson is that we should never take anything at face value. Always listen carefully to what is being said. Sometimes, we are too quick to accept ideas or things we are told as truth before examining them for factual inadequacies, half – truths and mistakes, or indeed testing the consistency of the internal logic. This caution is for you to be on your toes and to not let me get away with anything. In return I shall do my utmost, as all storytellers do, to portray life events and their meanings accurately while at the same time avoiding detection when I am stretching truth and logic to the limits.

My personal experience with nicknames

Most of us have several nicknames over a lifetime. I had red hair so I was often called “Red” or “Carrot Top” as a child but they didn’t stick with me even into my teen years. “Sidney” was the first nickname I ever had that irritated me. It was bestowed upon me unintentionally in Grade One by Ms. Bennett, a young woman doing her teaching practicum in our small school in Altamont, Manitoba. Undoubtedly the seating chart listed me with my proper first name, Stanley, but when she called upon me, she always said “Sidney” instead of Stanley. This moniker stuck with me for several years, used somewhat derogatorily by a few local children who were not exactly good friends. It’s a funny thing but often nicknames are not short pithy descriptors. Sometimes they evolve into long form substitute names of considerable creativity. Consequently, “Sidney” for some odd reason (by the way, it doesn’t take much of a reason) morphed into “Sidney Slump” and then my status was devalued even more when I became “Sidney Slump from the City Dump.” Today, I am not known as “Sidney” or any of its elongations and thankfully, Sidney “Sid the Kid” Crosby, star center for the Pittsburgh Penguins, has transformed “Sidney” from ignominy into the desirable limelight within my age group.

My wife Anne, the person who knows and understands me best, often (but not always) refers to me by my nom de plume, “The PD Gardener.” As discussed earlier, I believe that a necessary criterion in the definition of a nickname is that it must be ascribed to your person by a third party or parties in place of your birth name. “The PD Gardener” identifies two major elements in my life – Parkinson’s and gardening. It is not the whole of my being it is true, but nicknames never provide a complete identification. In fact, some of them are remarkably devoid of any obvious identifying content e.g., Eldrick “Tiger” Woods while others provide clear clues as to character e.g., Gen. George S. “Ol’ Blood ‘n Guts” Patton. Both serve as nicknames though.

Rebranding T

Sometimes people try to create a nickname because … well just because it is better to have a nickname than not to have one, right? A childhood friend (let’s call him “T”) wanted to be known as “Tiger.” Keep in mind that this was around 1960, well before Eldrick “Tiger” Woods was born (December 30, 1975) and before Dave “Tiger” Williams debuted with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the National Hockey League in 1974. Perhaps, it was a nod to that iconic “Tony the Tiger”(Tastes Grrrreeeaaaattt!) of Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes fame. [Note that “sugar” was still an acceptable modifier in those days.]  I sometimes think that I learned to spell watching Kellogg’s commercials in the 1950s and 1960s – “K-E-double L – O – Double Good Good – Kellogg’s best to you.”

Whatever … let’s get back to our attempt to give T the nickname “Tiger.” Our strategy was to call T “Tiger” at every opportunity, as often as we could, in as many places as we could until others began calling him “Tiger” as well. My recollection is that the strategy was a complete failure. At first, some of us  were too aggressive and every sentence began and ended with the word “Tiger” and it became an endangered species due to overkill.  Some of us did not follow up on our commitment because we mostly forgot to call him Tiger. Some of us wondered who “Tiger” was when it came up.  We were young kids but we could have been old men!  I now recognize this experience as a clear lesson: just repeating something over and over again, does make it true, nor does it mean that everyone will accept it as “real.” And some people will forget anyway. It seems that many politicians, policy makers, communications gurus, and marketing firms have not learned this lesson. The long and the short of it is that “Tiger” did not stick even for the shortest of times.

Perhaps, part of the problem was that we, at the age of 9 or 10, didn’t understand the complexities of “rebranding.” Clearly, our small rural grade school education was quite deficient in teaching us skills we would need to know later in life. As I think about it, I don’t think people ever saw T as a Tiger and we gave them no reason to think of him as a Tiger. If you are going to change the name (or give someone a name) you have to highlight whatever it is that connects the body to the new name, or give the new name some value.  T did not perceive himself to be a tiger in any particular way e.g., personality. He just liked the name. Others did not make that connection either so they did not reflect that image back to him. If they didn’t think of him as a tiger then it was unlikely that he would adopt a self-perception necessary for the nickname to be viable. And T just did not look enough like Tony the Tiger on TV! In the end, T never really had a nickname that I can remember. Maybe he acquired one later in life.

More nicknames for me? Great….

My given name, Stan, was a name that begged to have “The Man” attached to it. I certainly didn’t mind it as it not only rhymed but it embedded seriousness in my existence, eclipsing the “City Dump” assignation. Even in those days, the concept of “You da Man!” was present in the sense that others thought you were more than capable of getting the job done. I was often called “Stan the Man” by my peers as well as by my parent’s generation especially when playing sports. Two particular professional athletes figured largely in the “Stan the Man” phenomenon. In baseball “Stan the Man” Musial played 22 seasons (1941 – 1963) for the St. Louis Cardinals amassing 3,630 hits, 475 home runs and a stunning .331 batting average.

Stanislav “Stan the Man” Mikita was a second influence. Mikita played his entire illustrious 21-year career with the Chicago Blackhawks, debuting in 1958 and leading the Hawks to a Stanley Cup in 1961. I was 12 years old and a huge Chicago fan living vicariously through my heroes, some with interesting nicknames e.g., Bobby “The Golden Jet” Hull, Stan “The Man” or “Stosh” Mikita, Glen “Mr. Goalie” Hall, Al ”Radar” Arbour, Elmer “Moose” Vasko, Kenny “Whip” Wharram, Pierre “The Bantam Bouncer” Pilote, Eddie “Litz” Litzenberger, Eric “Elbows” Nesterenko, Earl “Spider” Balfour, Doug “Diesel” Mohns.] It was the Hawks’ first Stanley Cup since 1938 (23 years) and the next win wasn’t until 2010 (29 years later.) Mikita played in 1,394 games, scoring 1,467 points including 541 goals. He won the Art Ross trophy as Most Valuable Player four times among many other honours.

Sadly, Mikita was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia (LBD) in 2015. Al Arbour, Mikita’s teammate from the 1961 Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and dementia a few years prior to Mikita’s diagnosis. Medically, if dementia occurs prior to, or within, one year of a diagnosis of Parkinson’s symptoms, then it is classified as LBD. If dementia is diagnosed after one year of a diagnosis of Parkinson’s it is classified as Parkinson’s dementia. Lewy bodies are structurally composed of misfolded alpha – synuclein a protein that forms clumps (Lewy bodies) in the brain and contribute to that person developing Parkinson’s. Research is ongoing and there is no clear scientific explanation yet as to how this happens. Still, it is my understanding that all PwP, when autopsied after death, show evidence of Lewy bodies in their brains..

“Stan the Man” came and went as my nickname a few times over the years but in total it did not stick with me for long. Still, it is humbling to share even briefly this name with such legends as Stan Musial and Stan Mikita, although I would rather that neither Mikita nor myself (nor Al Arbour) had Parkinson’s or Lewy Body Dementia.

Coincidentally, Stan Mikita was born in 1940 in Sokolce, Czechoslovakia to Slovak parents as Stanislav Guoth. Stanislav is a common name for Slovaks, Poles (Stanislaw,) Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians and others in Eastern Europe.   In my early 20s, I lived and worked in Winnipeg, which has significant Polish and Ukrainian populations in its north end and I was often called, and answered to, the nickname “Stanislav” or its diminutives “Stach”, “Stosh,” “Stasio” or “Stasiu.” I am not entirely certain how this name game got started but I worked in various places near the north end e.g., the CPR Weston Shops and the Anthes Western Foundry where many Poles and Ukrainians worked. Earlier, I observed that nicknames sometimes outgrow their diminutive stature.   This happened to me when my new nickname was elongated to Stosiu Mendowski – a relatively uncommon family name with Polish roots. In my case, this name is a completely fictional one foisted upon me by my pub-crawling, drinking buddies who were, ironically, largely of Mennonite heritage. I believe that there are people in Winnipeg who never knew my legal name and are convinced that I was, indeed, Stosiu Mendowski. While I did nothing to promote my nickname overtly, neither did I do anything to disabuse anyone of its veracity. It just seemed that under the circumstances of too many beers, too much whiskey and occasionally sketchy company in north end hotels, the idea to stay relatively anonymous was not a bad strategy.

Don’t get me wrong, there were not a lot of really bad things going on, it is just that often times we were riding the edge of misadventure. I don’t say this proudly but just as a statement of fact. I can spare you the effort of Googling it though; you won’t find Stosiu Mendowski in the long list of aliases attributed to “bad guys” in history. Stosiu was not a crook, thief, murderer, forger, bank robber, white-collar criminal, corrupt politician or senator, mobster, gangster, hood or drug lord. Gangs have been around forever but my “Stosiu period” was mostly in the early 1970s well before the musical and cultural phenomenon known as “gangsta’ rap” was unleashed on an impressionable youth in the early to mid-1980s – so let’s not get confused here!

Fingers Finnegan

Speaking of ‘bad guys’ is there any grouping in society that has more colourful nicknames than gangsters? Names like Al “Scarface” Capone; “Bugsy” Malone; Leonard “Needles” Gianolla; Lester “Baby Face Nelson,” Gillis; Stephanie “Queenie” St. Clair; Opal “Mack Truck” Long; “Ma” Barker; Evelyn “Billie” Frechette; Virginia “The Flamingo” or “Queen of the Gangster Molls” Hill; Gertrude “The Bahama Queen” Lythgoe; Rafela “Miconia” or “The Big Female Kitten” D’Alterio; ” Maria “The Boss of Bosses” or “The Godmother” Licciardi; Sandra Ávila “The Queen of the Pacific” Beltrán;” Jemeker “Queen Pin” Thompson to name a few. Note that nickname notoriety is not reserved for men in gangland, as women are infamous in their own right.

My nicknames never really had that gangster quality and I never associated, at least not knowingly, with mobsters or even small time “hoods.” But that does not mean I did not know some unsavoury types.   Think of a less savoury illegal occupation, one that even hoods and gangsters would look down upon as not having any honour, and you come closer to describing some characters who operated on the periphery of the loose social grouping of friends, acquaintances and accidental encounters with whom I hung out. If the words, “petty thief” came to your mind you are a winner! Petty thieves engage in illegal activity that is more serious than a peccadillo but less serious than a felony and is marked by a certain creepiness that offends.

To illustrate, let’s give this petty thief a fitting but fictitious name: “Fingers” sounds about right; “Fingers” Finnegan. I want to say in advance that I did not witness first hand any of the following events or actions and never benefited from the ‘rewards.’ Nevertheless, Fingers relished telling the stories in a boastful manner that highlighted rather than diminished the sliminess of it all, and made us realize what a warped sense of pride he possessed. Don’t ever mistake ‘hubris’ for ‘bravery’ or ‘blind stupid luck’ for ‘intelligence.” [Hmmm … I hope that he has reformed … or is still a petty thief, because if he is a gangster … or a lawyer … he might come looking for me to exact some compensation (physical or fiscal) for libel or defamation of character. I shall trust that statutory limitations accorded by time and forgetfulness is on my side.]

What follows is an enactment of a typical Finnegan petty crime based on my recollection of stories told by Finnegan himself.   [Apologies for the coarse language but, in fact, his expletives were usually more flagrant than I recount here. He was particularly fond of interspersing the word “fuckin’” in between syllables or words such that “the international unions” became ”the fuckin’ inter fuckin’ national fuckin’ unions.”]

Fingers Finnegan bursts through the door into the kitchen of the main floor apartment in an old, possibly heritage but not yet designated, house on Furby Ave in Winnipeg. It is mid- January 1971 and the air rushes in mimicking its parental cold front that was sweeping down from the Yukon through Cold Lake, Alberta and across the prairies in search of Winnipeg’s infamous Portage and Main. With the temperature falling through the floor at minus 25 F (minus 30 C,) a foggy swirl of ice crystals creates a vacuum leaving Fingers gasping for breath – but cradling a plastic grocery bag across his chest, he was breathless for a reason other than it was a stereotypical winter Winnipeg moment, and the fact that he looked truly frozen wearing only a thin windbreaker hardly worthy of the name. His hands were shaky and fingers numb, unprotected as they were by any form of gloves or mitts. It is a strange thing to treat your major “asset,” the reason for your nickname, with such disregard. His feet fared no better as his “patent” vinyl soled slippery city shoes did their level best to turn his feet into ice blocks. He tries to place the grocery bag carefully on the kitchen table but it lands with a frozen “thunk.” Perhaps out of habit, or because of some misconceived notion of the thermal capacity of cold beer, or because he needs to fortify himself after the evening’s excitement, Fingers grabs a beer from a two-four on the kitchen counter, sticks the top in his mouth and pops the cap off with his teeth. [How the heck do they do that without chipping teeth, I’ll never know.]

A TV is playing in the next room and there are voices of other male occupants.

Two guys sitting in the kitchen, simultaneously: “Close the fuckin’ door, you asshole!”

Finnegan: “Fuuuuccccckkk! That’s what I’m telling you, man, the door didn’t close!”

Finnegan: [Yelling at two guys in the other room]: “Hey! Listen up you freaks! This is the best yet!”

Finnegan continues: “You should have seen it man! She was this close to me!” [He indicates a distance of about 3 feet with his arms.]

Finnegan [now holding court with all occupants:] “I was in the back porch when she came out. Shit, I was so fucking lucky to be behind the door! I just held my breath and door stuck open on the floor. If that door had closed behind her, I would have been fuckin’ face to face with her. Christ, I was soooo luuuuccckkkky! She went over to a freezer, got something out and went back into the house pulling the door behind her. I don’t know how she didn’t see me! I could see her eyes as she walked past and I could smell her perfume. I thought I was fuckin’ dead.” [Emphasis on last two words]

[There is short period of silence as the others take a moment to process Finnegan’s words.]

Finnegan: “I could hear her walking around on the squeaky floor in the kitchen, making supper, I guess. I could hear the TV in the front room and a man yell from upstairs for her to help him with his suit. I wasn’t sure if there was anyone else in the house. I didn’t hear anyone else talking though so I was pretty sure they were alone. I was across the street at the corner store when I saw her get off the bus, knock on the front door and this little weasel opens it and lets her in.”

[Fingers pauses as if for effect. In reality he is just taking a swig from his beer, and chowing down on some unidentified left over food]

Finnegan continues: “Then I heard her going up the stairs. I listened but I didn’t hear anyone else. I opened the back door to the kitchen leaving it stuck open on the porch floor. I needed a quick exit. The fuckin’ wind howled outside but the porch was a good windbreak. My car was running in the back lane.”

[Again Fingers pauses to take a bite and wash it down with beer. It seemed like it might have been the only food he had eaten for awhile. He was skinny as a rail with a pasty white complexion that might have been confused with frostbite given the bitter cold … but it wasn’t. His hair was long, stringy and greasy – and getting greasier each time as he ran his food fingers through it to keep it out of his eyes.]    

Finnegan: “So I went in, looked around, not much to steal, so I looked in the ‘fridge, grabbed a grocery bag and got the fuck out of there. I don’t even remember if I closed the door. Holy shit! My adrenaline was pumpin’ as I skated to the back lane and hightailed it to Arlington.” (Fingers made a point of not stealing in his own neighbourhood.)

Other Guy No. 1 (as if stating a fact): “You’re nuts.”

Other Guy No. 2 (suspiciously): Hey, what’re you eating?

Finnegan (proudly): Turkey! Great, eh? Look….

[Finnegan reaches into the bag on the table and pulls out a large China platter laden with turkey pieces. It seems the platter was responsible for the “thunk” when the grocery bag hit the table and it now sits incongruously among greasy Gondola Pizza boxes, Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets, and Golden Dragon Chinese food containers with beer bottles, half-eaten pizza crusts, and chicken bones strewn about on the floor as if a time traveling feast of Henry VIII and his court had just passed.]

Other Guy No. 3: “You know, you really are fuckin’ nuts!”

Finnegan (as if notching his belt signifying a new kill): “Holy geez, first time I ever stole food right out of the kitchen when people were home!”

Other Guy No. 2: “What if that guy chased you?”

Finnegan: “Oh, I wasn’t fuckin’ worried about that weasel once I reached my car. You see, I stole the fuckin’ battery out of the asshole’s car before I went into the house.”

(Finnegan chuckles a short heh, heh,heh and blows imaginary gun smoke from the end of his right index finger)

Finnegan: That’s why they call me “Fingers.”

Several other guys (simultaneously with same intent but slightly differing words:) “Get that fucking guy outta here!”

I am not sure how to end this digression except to say that while the turkey may have been savoury, the crime was far from it – in fact ‘unsavoury’ may well be an integral descriptor in the definition of petty thief.

Rules for nicknames and legal names

“Rules? In a knife fight? No rules.“ This line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (nice nicknames, eh?) is delivered by Paul Newman’s larger, stronger opponent just before Newman in return, delivers a swift kick to his tender parts. As we have already discovered, the game of nicknaming seems to have a similar set of rules.

It should be obvious when you think of the wide variety and nicknames that are out there that nicknames are not registered with any regulatory authority ensuring codified provenance and ancestry. However, It seems that naming your children is regulated fairly closely in some jurisdictions but less so in others.   In Ontario Canada where I live the only restrictions on parents seem to be that you cannot give them a symbol e.g., @ or a numeral e.g., 8 as a name. However, before we begin to think that this provides complete free rein to parents, the courts can rule on children’s names “in the best interests of the child” when requested to do so.   Nicknames, informal as they are, are not subject to any restrictions.

They regulate dogs’ names, don’t they?

Naming dogs though is regulated, as is the case for most animals where purebred pedigree is important.  The Canadian Kennel Club specifies that a purebred dog’s registered name can only be up a maximum of 30 letters including spaces. The first name must be the name of the kennel into which the puppy is born and the second name usually has some association with the sire or the dam of the litter. Any further name is at the discretion of the owner. Of course the owners seldom call their dogs by any of these names and give them pet names or “nicknames” in addition to the registered name.

With my ex-wife I once co-owned a Tibetan Terrier which we registered as “Harrowdene’s Shah Chiubacca.” His nickname was “Chiui” although I am quite sure that he was unaware of the cleverness of both his registered name and the spelling of his nickname. Keep in mind this was around the time of the original release of Star Wars. No matter, while he wasn’t a particularly smart dog he did live a good long life (18 years) and demonstrated before he left this earth that he had a soul worthy of respect. On the evening he died, a Sunday as I recall, he was being boarded at a kennel. About 9 pm, Anne suddenly told me to call the kennel. I knew this kennel and said that they would not be open and they did not answer the phone after hours.  So I didn’t phone. The next day we learned that Chiui passed away (peacefully in his sleep) overnight. In order to keep myself sane, I tell myself that there was nothing that could have been done to avoid his death. Anne does seem to have a connection with the animal world that few others have and she is one of very few individuals who could ever receive such a communication. I believe his call out to her was simply a farewell to our collective family for the care and love he received over the years.

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Harrowdene’s Shah Chiubacca “Chiui”   Photo: Stan Marshall

Gardens and nicknames

Gardeners know nicknames (and not just Cassandra “Mrs. Greenthumbs” Danz either) as gardens are filled with both scientific rigour and common names. The binomial system of taxonomy for plants uses one Latin name to indicate the genus of the plant and another to indicate the specific name or epithet. For example, Rudbeckia hirta is the Latin scientific name for Black-eyed Susans, which is the common name (or nickname.) There are many nicknames in the garden as gardening is an activity in which all sorts of folks are engaged. You don’t need to know Latin to garden and it is a good thing too because learning the formal Latin scientific names is a challenge for most of us I think – I can remember some but draw a total blank on others. Of course learning the scientific names is a great mental exercise in the ongoing efforts of Parkies and the elderly in general to ward off dementia. (I hate Sudoku and crosswords.) Be careful though, as with humans, there are often many different common names for the same plant and as we shall see, different names for virtual triplets.

Turtleheads (Chelone glabra) are also known as balmony, bitter herb, codhead, fish mouth, shellflower, snakehead, snake mouth, and turtle bloom. It is part of the Figwort family (Scrophulariacea.) In Greek mythology, there was a nymph named Chelone who insulted the gods; in punishment, she was turned into a turtle. The flowers of this plant are said to look like the heads of turtles. Glabra is from the Latin word meaning smooth because of the lack of hairs or texture on the stems and leaves. (Source: US Department of Agriculture Forest Service)

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Turtleheads in boggy part of our garden  Photo: The PD Gardener

Monkshood (Aconitine napellus) of the family Ranunculaceae has many alternate common names including Aconite, Napel, Blue Aconite, Blue Rocket, Casque-de-Jupiter (Cap of Jupiter), Goatsbane, Wolfsbane, Helm, Hex, Odins Hut, Ra-dug-gam’dzim-pa (Tibetan), Thora Quasi Phtora Interitus (Latin, ‘doom’), Trollhat (Nordic.) Source: www.entheology.com. All parts of the Monkshood plant, especially the roots, are poisonous and gloves are advised when handling it. Fortunately, it has a very bitter taste (or so I am told as, not surprisingly, I have never tried it) that alerts one to not ingest it. Monkshood prefers woodland conditions and it grows reasonably well in deep shade under a very old apple tree at the foot of our gardens. It blooms in late fall and we can count on it being in flower on Hallowe’en – a suitably scary time for a scary poisonous plant.

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Monkshood: Handle with Extreme Caution  Photo: The PD Gardener

Orange Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva,) is from the family Xanthorrhoeaceae and is also known widely as Tiger Daylily, Ditch Lily, July Lily, Tawny Daylily, Railroad Daylily, Roadside Daylily, Outhouse Daylily, or Wash House Daylily among others. As they are so common in so many settings that are not formally cultivated, these lilies masquerade as native plants but they are originally from Asia and introduced into North America in the early 1900s. You can always spot an old farmyard long after the house and barn are gone by the colourful patches of “Tiger Daylilies,” a patch of rhubarb, and some lilac shrubs – three organic monuments to the bygone era of homesteading. As you undoubtedly have already noticed, many of their common names are indicative of that history. Today, many consider these Ditch Lilies to be invasive plants threatening the native environment. They do spread quickly through root rhizomes and it is imperative to maintain their boundaries regularly. However, the term invasive is one that is open to interpretation. For an interesting challenge to the dominant view see Ken Thompson, Where Do Camels Belong? Why invasive species aren’t all bad, Greystone Books, 2014.

The Ditch Lilies in our garden serve to remind us of our youth and the flower and vegetable gardens tended by farming wives (primarily) and working folk in cities. In Ontario, they bloom reliably on July 1 and on a daily basis until the end of the month. In some vain attempt to break free of that heritage we do have several hybridized day lilies adding an entirely different dimension to daily daylily life blooming later in the summer. It may be heresy to some but our gardens are a melange of native, non-native, hybridized, and, yes, invasive, varieties of many different plants.

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Common Ditch Lilies or July Lilies   Photo: The PD Gardener

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Fancy Hybrid Daylily 1  Photo: The PD Gardener 2015

 

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Fancy Hybrid Daylily 2  Photo: The PD Gardener 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba,) Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta,) and (huh?) Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida var. Goldstrum) are of the family asteraceae (aster.) These are three of the some 25 species of Rudbeckia in North America. Most people are not going to see many differences in these three plants and they refer to them indiscriminately as Brown-eyed or Black-eyed Susans. Of course, if they were human, triplets might object to being called the identical nickname, wouldn’t they? And if we anthropomorphize (wicked word eh?) a little more, I prefer to call them Brown – eyed Susans as Black – eyed Susans sounds kind of abusive.

Why should we pay attention to differences? Well for one thing, it does assist in designing the type of “look” or “image” you want your garden to project, and the way your garden reproduces itself. I confess that I don’t usually pay much attention to differences in the Rudbeckia as I am mostly concerned with assisting the garden to grow according to its natural plan, intervening as little as possible but intervening nonetheless to ensure that the garden is not choked out with other noxious plants. In other words, I am not trying to recreate an identical garden year after year as much as I am trying to permit natural tendencies in a controlled way. Undoubtedly, this statement will drive the native plant purists to distraction and will endlessly irritate the formal horticulturists because gardens of this type may appear a little “unkempt,” but it is an accurate description of how I garden.

Rudbeckia hirta is commonly called Black-eyed Susan or sometimes gloriosa daisy and is usually grown as an annual, biennial or short-live perennial. It is relatively short (24 inches) and some varieties may be hardy to zone 3 but often it is grown as an annual in northern climes. It is a common native wildflower in many U.S. states. A coarse, hairy, almost weedy plant, it has daisy-like flowers with bright yellow to orange-yellow rays and a dark chocolate-brown center.

Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ was the 1999 Perennial Plant of the Year growing to a height of 18 to 30 inches – a bit shorter than the species Rudbeckia fulgida that grows to 36 inches. It is also commonly called “Brown-eyed Susan” or sometimes “Orange Coneflower” even though its petals are usually yellow and is hardy down to zone 3.

Rudbeckia triloba (Brown-eyed Susans) have a more profuse bloom of smaller on e- two inch flowers and usually have fewer rays per flower as the basal leaves are often three leaflets, and sometimes each of the three also divided (hence the Latin triloba.) Their centres may begin as black and fade to brown. It is a short-lived perennial and hardy to zone 4 and possibly zone 3 under the right growing conditions. .

As I said earlier, I prefer to call them Brown-eyed Susans because Black-eyed Susans seems rather violent, but let’s not get carried away with garden political correctness. Brown-eyed or Black-eyed is good enough for most people. Their golden yellow petals arrayed around a dark centre can lift the darkest of spirits when viewed en masse from a short distance. They are prolific self-seeders so we always have several clumps migrating around the garden from year to year.

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Brown-eyed and Black-eyed Susans migrate around our garden  Photo: The PD Gardener

 

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Rubeckia fulgida “Goldstrumen masse     Photo: The PD Gardener

Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)  is considered to be a weed by most people and would meet a hasty demise at its first sighting in most urban and suburban perennial or vegetable gardens. It is usually found in waste spaces, ditches, roadsides, along railroad rights of way, in gravel soil near, but not too near, swamps and sloughs. It is considered to be a pioneer plant, one of the first to pop up in regeneration after a forest fire for example. It likes direct sunlight and abhors shade. It can grow up to 10 feet tall but in our garden, which has a fair bit of shade, it grows only to 3 – 6 feet at best. Most people think it is an ugly weed with its large furry leaves and a tall spike for a flower head. But unlike Lupins, the small, pretty, yellow florets open only five or six at a time for one day at a time, giving it a decidedly unfinished look, or a look that promises to be something spectacular, but never is.

The mullein is native to most continents but is non-native and considered a weed in North America, New Zealand and Australia . Nevertheless, it is used in a variety of herbal medicines, particularly as an astringent and emollient.  It is categorized as invasive, competing with native plants, but it is far from aggressive. It likes open scrabble gravel soil so it is rarely competition for tended gardens that are far too luxurious and crowded. Still, this biennial will pop up from time to time if the seeds, which require winter dormancy to germinate, find adequate infertile conditions.

The mullein has a wide variety of quite descriptive nicknames (over 40 in English alone by some accounts) including: “cowboy toilet paper,” “Indian rag weed”, “bullicks lungwort”, “Adams-rod”, “hare’s-beard”, “ice-leaf” “woolly mullein”, “velvet mullein”, “blanket mullein”, “beggar’s blanket”, “Moses’ blanket”, “poor man’s blanket”, “Our Lady’s blanket”, “old man’s blanket”, “feltwort” and “flannel”.

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The Common Mullein shows up uninvited once in a while  Photo:  The PD Gardener 2013

Whatever you call it, I don’t mind if one or two show up for a garden party at our place. They arrive uninvited to be sure but they are interesting company and make for great conversation as they mingle with other more high brow guests.   Keep in mind that for the mullein to grow at all in your garden depends on you recognizing the seedlings so that they are not weeded out in any rush to spring clean your garden of weeds. Resist the “tsk, tsk” of the neighbourhood garden purist who sprays and pulls his/her garden and lawn to within an inch of its life. As a matter of principle and in solidarity with all native and non-native plants, I stand in opposition to fanatical or harsh over weeding. Some good friends are lost in that process.

Are sobriquets bouquets of flowers?

I just can’t end this section on gardens without talking about “sobriquets” which just means a descriptive name or epithet – a nickname in other words. However, for the life of me I can’t get it out of my mind that a sobriquet should be a bouquet of flowers for non-drinkers.  Perhaps, “Lemonade Lucy” would have several “sobriquets” on the tables when she served tea at the White House.

However, as I begin this fanciful digression, it occurs to me that “sobriety” has two slightly different but complementary meanings i.e., not being drunk and seriousness. After a cursory review and due consideration of the many features of this particular blog post, I have determined that there are two flowering plants (Azalea and tulips) ideally suited to represent my (incorrect) interpretation:

1) In Victorian times the Azalea was a symbol of temperance.  In fact, even today some flower shops carry an arrangement specifically named “Symbol of Sobriety” and I have seen Alcoholics Anonymous Chapter pins incorporate flowers into their distinctive circle and triangle design. There are many other modern day meanings for the Azalea but I couldn’t let the history re: struggles for sobriety and the connection to the Temperance Movement pass unnoticed in my search for my version of a “sobriquet.”

2) The tulip seems to have been adopted as a symbol of sobriety in its second meaning of seriousness as well. Not surprisingly, it has a connection to the Netherlands (What tulip doesn’t?) but, unexpectedly, it also is central to understanding the “seriousness.”

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Tulips with Cherry Blossoms Photo: The PD Gardener

In 1636 – 1637 “tulipmania” struck the Netherlands. It is widely described as the world’s first financial bubble and subsequent crash as speculators drove tulip bulb contract prices (really a futures market) to incredible heights only to have the markets crash sinking the economy into crisis. I won’t go into details but until that point the Dutch economy was booming and Amsterdam was one of the richest cities in the world. Most analyses are that Dutch society, built on a religious and cultural foundation of Calvinism, reverted to its religious roots to recover from this Golden Age of extravagance and the shock of the tulip crash. In other words, it returned to ‘societal sobriety.’  [There are alternate analyses that suggest that the crisis was not really “mania” driven but a rational response to the government’s intended intervention in the economy where firm contracts would be cancelled, converting them into “options” instead. I leave it to the economists out there to explore or elucidate further.]

This diversion of course isn’t really a diversion. It is merely taking an alternate “scenic route” leading us back to Parkinson’s disease.  In 1981, J.W.S. Van der Wereld, a Dutch horticulturist with Parkinson’s disease, developed a distinctive tulip, red with white-feathered edges on the petals. Van der Wereld named his prized cultivar, the ‘Doctor James Parkinson’ tulip, (Tulipa Doctor James Parkinson) to honour the man who first described this medical condition and to honour the International Year of the Disabled. The Parkinson Disease Foundation (PDF) has been using the tulip as a symbol since the early 1980s. In April 2005 the red tulip was launched as the Worldwide Symbol of Parkinson’s disease at the 9th World Parkinson’s Disease Day Conference in Luxembourg. Parkinson Society Canada, its provincial and regional partners, and many other Parkinson’s organizations worldwide have adopted this prized tulip and it has become their most recognizable symbol whether depicted in realist or stylized form.

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Stylized tulip of Parkinson Canada Pin

Red tulips are normally associated with true love and they have that image for me as well – even though my lover prefers burnt orange. But I also recognize the red with white-feathered petals of the Doctor James Parkinson Tulip as a symbol promoting awareness of PD, the seriousness of PD and the hope we hold for a cure and/or a major medical breakthrough such that PwP have a vastly improved quality of life.

Parkinson’s disease is a very sobering disease and I believe that other than the Grim Reaper himself, or the Devil if you believe in the Devil as my Baptist friend does, it is the most formidable opponent I will face in my lifetime. [I realize that there are other horrific diseases such as ALS, Huntington’s and terminal cancers. I am not in any way diminishing their severity here.]  Parkinson’s is a petty thief much like “Fingers” Finnegan who creeps unknown into your kitchen, bathroom, living room and bedroom, stealing your life in small measures that are not, in and of themselves, felony crimes. Before you realize what is happening, it has become firmly entrenched in your brain, nerves and muscles and will shape the remaining years of your life. Our mission is to delay the petty thief, using all the tools we have at our disposal.  Parkinson’s rarely commits the final act of murder, preferring instead to aid and abet Death in our final days, but is guilty as an accomplice nonetheless.

It is fitting then that my mis-labelled, mis-interpreted, and mal-defined “sobriquet’ should be a bouquet of Doctor James Parkinson roses and a bouquet of Azaleas, together symbolizing a clear head and a serious determination of will to survive.

Conclusion

I have had great fun and amusement romping through fields of nicknames and re-living (for me) a few stories that might be called tangential but I don’t believe they were ever dead ends. Given the rather strict parameters I have placed on the definition of nickname, I regrettably must accept that “The PD Gardener” is not truly a nickname for me as it has not been legitimately ascribed by a third party or parties. But perhaps, with a little more time and more use by others, it will evolve into one. To tell the truth, Anne has called me “Mr. Marshall,” for years. I don’t object to this name as it really is my name with a formal title, but in my mind, “Mr. Marshall” is reserved for my paternal grandfather as my grandmother, for as long as I knew her, referred to him as “Mr. Marshall.”

I hasten to point out that there is no admission of defeat or submission to Parkinson’s in my desired identification as “The PD Gardener.” Parkinson’s does not own me. “The PD Gardener” merely describes my principle characteristics at this time of my life and, wouldn’t you agree, it is infinitely more accurate and appropriate as a nickname than “Sidney Slump from the City Dump?”

Post Script

Arrrrggghh! The nicknames just keep on coming – from everywhere, including drug lords, wrestlers from my youth, cricket players and besieged Canadian Senators: – JoaquinEl Chapo” Guzmán (drug lord,) “Haystacks” Calhoun (wrestling,) “Whipper Billy” Watson (wrestling,) Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon (wrestling,) Lawrence “Larry” Shreve aka “Abdullah the Butcher”(wrestling,) Bret “Hitman” Hart (wrestling,) Shoaib “Rawalpindi Express” Akhtar (cricket,) Edward “Lumpy” Stevens (cricket,) Michael “Pup” Clarke (cricket.)   In Canada, Senator Mike Duffy is on trial for 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust, bribery, and frauds on the government related to inappropriate Senate expenses. The larger than life Senator is often called, somewhat derisively, “Puffy Duffy” by ordinary Canadians although the media hardly ever refers to him that way.

Is there enough storage in my brain to process nicknames ad infinitum? We will need to break psychological barriers to the human understanding of the meaning of “elasticity” in order to fully contemplate the “prodigious” volume of nicknames being created and disseminated each day in a wired and WiFi world.  I am certain I will return to this fertile ground in future blogs.

In the meantime, have look at some of my favourite nicknames in the appendices below

Appendix A: Nicknames (?) and Parkinson’s

These are some names that are commonly used by the Parkinson community in social media. Most are collective nouns, aliases, or nom de plume,

  1. “Parkie” – General nickname for someone with Parkinson’s
  2. “Shaking palsy” – a nickname for Parkinson’s
  3. PWP or PwP – Person with Parkinson’s
    PLwP –Person Living with Parkinson’s
    PD’er – Person with Parkinson’s disease
    YOPI – Young Onset Parkinson’s Individual
    Parkinson’s Peeps
    YOPD – Young Onset Parkinson’s disease
    Parkie D’s
  4. “Perky Parkie” @perkyparkie Alison Smith, Twitter and blogger
  5. “Parky wife” @parkinsonsdis Twitter
  6. “Parkinson’s Humour” @YumaBev Twitter, blogger, author
  7. “The PD Gardener” @pdgardener Twitter, blogger

Appendix B: A Few Lists of my All Time Favourite Nicknames

I have created four lists of my personal favourite nicknames: male and female for sports and non-sports personalities. I have limited myself to ten names in each list. This restriction makes it an extremely difficult exercise. Try it sometime.

My Top 10 All Time Favourite Sports Nicknames (Male)

  1. George Alexander ”Twinkletoes” Selkirk (baseball)
  2. Colin “Mrs. Doubtfire” Montgomery (golf)
  3. Andrew “#Hamburglar” Hammond (hockey)
  4. “Chucky Three Sticks” Charles Howell III (golf)
  5. Willie “Hit’em where they ain’t” Keeler (baseball)
  6. Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins (basketball)
  7. Max “Dipsy Doodle Dandy” Bentley (hockey)
  8. Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins (boxing)
  9. Harold “Red” “The Galloping Ghost” Grange (football)
  10. Marvin “The Human Eraser” Webster (basketball)

My Top 10 All Time Favourite Sports Nicknames (Female)

  1. Michelle “The Big Wiesy” Wie (golf)
  2. Steffi “Fräulein Forehand” Graf (Tennis)
  3. Hayley “Chicken” Wickenheiser – altered from original “Chickenheiser” (hockey)
  4. Paula “The Pink Panther” Creamer (golf)
  5. “Can’t miss Swiss” Martina Hingis (Tennis)
  6. Anastasia “Nastia” Liukin (gymnastics)
  7. Chris “Ice Maiden” Evert (Tennis)
  8. Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino Venancio (mixed martial arts)
  9. Jeanette “The Black Widow” Lee (billiards)
  10. Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias (basketball, baseball, golf, track & field)

My Top 10 All Time Favourite Non-Sports Nicknames (Male)

  1. Charles “The Great Asparagus” De Gaulle
  2. Manfred “The Red Baron,” von Richthofen
  3. George S. “Ol’ Blood and Guts” Patton
  4. Admiral Harold M. “Beauty” Martin USN
  5. Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis
  6. Erwin “The Desert Fox” Rommel
  7. Calvin “Snoop Doggy Dog” Broadus,
  8. David “The Tiny Perfect Mayor” Crombie
  9. “Brangelina” Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie
  10. Abraham “Honest Abe” Lincoln

My Top 10 All Time favourite Non-Sports Nicknames (female)

  1. Opal “Mack Truck” Long
  2. “Lemonade Lucy” Webb Hayes, wife of President Rutherford Hayes.
  3. “Windy Nellie” McClung
  4. Iva Toguri “Tokyo Rose” D’Aquino
  5. Florence “Lady with the Lamp,” Nightingale
  6. Melanie “Scary Spice” Brown
  7. Margaret “The Iron Lady” Thatcher
  8. Virginia “The Flamingo” or “Queen of the Gangster Molls” Hill
  9. Rafela “Miconia” or “The Big Female Kitten” D’Alterio
  10. Emma “Red Emma” Goldman

© Stan Marshall (The PD Gardener)

 

 

Death, Souls, Parkinson’s and other Strangeness

Death, Souls, Parkinson’s and other Strangeness

Preface

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
There’ll be, one child born
In this world
To carry on, to carry on

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?]

Cottage Reading 2015 Photo: S. Marshall

Cottage Reading 2015 Photo: S. Marshall

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!

First Big Fish Photo: R.B. (Bert) Marshall circa 1957

First Big Fish Photo: R.B. (Bert) Marshall circa 1957

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.

The Hitchhiker

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.

My name sliding under the earth into the grave Photo: R. Marshall 2015

That’s my name sliding into the grave   Photo: R. Marshall 2015

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.

Trying to Google that 'Bert guy' on ipad. Photo: A. Marshall

Trying to Google that ‘Bert guy’ on ipad. Photo: A. Marshall

The Sentencing

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.

Mandevilla in early October Photo: S.Marshall 2015

Mandevilla in early October Photo: S.Marshall 2015

Mandevilla sacrifice early October 2015 Photo: S.Marshall

Mandevilla sacrifice late October 2015    Photo: S.Marshall

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?

There is often one last blast of beauty before winter arrives Photo: S. Marshall

There is always one last blast of beauty before winter arrives Photo: S. Marshall

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.

Parky and books IMG_4764

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.

Caveat

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)