IN SEARCH OF THE “STUFF” OF CURLING Part I: Is it all about the soup?

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Ducats to the 2016 Tim Horton’s Brier

IN SEARCH OF THE “STUFF” OF CURLING

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 of 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. Find out how much an 8 – Ender (a perfect end) is worth. And find out what a “Dunbar” and a “double Gordon” are anyway

So let’s begin:

PART I: IS IT ALL ABOUT THE SOUP?

Where in the world are you?

Assume someone kidnapped you, put a blindfold over your eyes and took you to a place where you could hear men or women shouting,

“I’m inside … right on it …. Hard … Hard for line, hard, HAAAAAARD … no, no, no …. whoa… right off, riiiiigggggghhhtttt off … clean, clean … weight only … leave it, leave it …. Now! … HARD! BURY IT!! … Great work!… (softly) Geez, it really dives at the end, eh?”

The answer is that you could be in any one of several different countries and the language and accents of those participating would be key to your answer. Many of you will have identified the fact that you are witnessing a curling match and therefore you could be in the UK, Scotland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, USA, Switzerland, China, Germany, Canada, Japan, or South Korea. The “eh?” at the end is one clue which would lead you to identify the country as Canada. Oh, by the way,  we maybe have a few kidnappings but I don’t think we are renowned for it.

But, let’s face it; the whole of Canada is engaged at some level in the sport of curling and your location is likely somewhere within its predominantly frozen borders – and as we shall see, it would be a good bet that you are in Manitoba. No matter if it is a pick up game, a club game, a game in one of the hundreds of bonspiels held each year, a game in the provincial playoffs, a game in the Brier or the Scotties, or in a challenge match, Manitobans take curling seriously and play it with equal amounts of passion at every level. Any equality in skill or talent between or among these various categories is purely coincidental even though the delusion of equality exists within the minds of participants in each and every game, especially at the lower levels.

The Tim Horton’s Brier, the Canadian championship in men’s curling, is being held March 5 – 13, 2016 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, a place where our children were born and a place we now call home. Still, curling for me has roots in another place that I call, with equal certainty, my hometown – Altamont, Manitoba – a place whose population never warranted the designation ‘town,’ and is closer to a hamlet than a village. My earliest memories are of the Altamont Rink, built in 1919, where generations of children learned to skate and play hockey indoors – remarkable for the day. They also experienced something to which many other children in much wealthier towns and neighbourhoods’ were never exposed, never mind learned, and that was curling: the “roaring game,” “chess on ice”, the grand old game” a game for which the word “stuff” must have been invented. You see, our fortuity was not just learning how to curl but gaining a first hand understanding and appreciation of the “stuff “of curling.

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Even Parky of The World Parkinson Congress 2016 is going to The Brier

Curling: Not really so much a primer as words of advice

“Bonspiel,” funny word that, eh? Oh, the dictionary definition is straightforward enough. It means, quite simply, a “curling tournament” and The Brier is just another bonspiel in a way. Of course, if you don’t know what “curling” is, then you are at a distinct disadvantage in understanding any of these terms. Nevertheless, I am pretty certain that most readers of this particular blog will have anywhere from a passing familiarity with curling and bonspiels to an expert understanding of the application and interpretation of the rules and strategy, coupled with a mastery of the skills and techniques necessary to vanquish at least an equivalent level of opponent. If you have such an intimate relationship with rocks and brooms, then by definition you have extensive experience with … uh … well … the experience.

To those of you for whom ‘curling’ and ‘bonspiels’ are foreign territories, don’t despair, and for heavens sake, don’t stop reading! This blog requires neither an expert understanding of the game nor of the details of a bonspiel. This information will be spoon-fed to you here as necessary as we proceed. Trust me on this one – it is entirely possible to overthink the subject matter resulting in confusion and frustration. Think of me as your trusty tour guide who will not let you get into trouble – good grief, we are not mountain climbing where one misplaced step, one faulty placement of a piton, or one wrong choice in the type of crampon, may mean disaster. [By the way, apparently crampon type shoes were once used in curling – great health and safety equipment to avoid slips and falls but the damage to the ice surface played havoc with shot making after the first few ends.]  Assuming you don’t use crampons on the curling ice or fail to grasp the fundamental tenet that curling is a sport for gentlewomen and gentlemen where full (or even partial) body contact is expressly prohibited, the biggest mistake you will ever make in curling is failing to buy your opponent, should you lose, a drink in the lounge after the match.

I once curled in a league at the University of Western Ontario with several “eggheads” who thought that it was so much fun that they couldn’t wait to go to the library to borrow a book on how to curl. Resist this temptation with every fibre of your being! You should never read a serious book (one that explains the rules or is a “how to” book) on curling until you have a minimum of three years “on-ice” experience or five years “behind the glass.” Playing the game and/or observing the game are infinitely preferable to reading about the mechanics of the game in a book. For goodness sake, rent a sheet of ice; throw a few rocks. That will be the most fun and you will learn much more about the game in an hour than you will in a year reading about the harvesting and transforming of boulders of granite into curling stones (called ‘rocks’ in North America). It is interesting mind you, but you won’t know an “in turn” from an “out turn”, the “hack” from a “hacker”, the “hog line” from a “clothes line” or the “house button” from your “belly button” after reading the geological details and relative merits of blue\gray granite and red\brown granite of Trefor in North Wales or the blue hone granite and common green granite of Ailsa Craig, an island in the Firth of Clyde off the coast of Scotland.

I can hear every reader right now saying, “Hey, I thought you said we didn’t have to know any of those things?” Right now, you don’t. Be patient, all in good time.

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Not curling rocks

If you must do extra-curricular reading (and I know some of you just can’t help it) then you are encouraged to read books such as The Back Bonspiel and Willie MacCrimmon by W. O. Mitchell, books that use curling as “the medium for the message” to quote (or misquote?) Marshall McLuhan. If curling is a medium and the book itself is a medium, then is this an example of a ‘medium within a medium’ – a double medium? Sounds like a coffee order at Tim Horton’s and why shouldn’t it? Tim Horton’s has sponsored the Brier since 2005 and has been curlers’ coffee of choice for much longer.

Of course, reading blogs such as this one is also perfectly acceptable as the salty, spicy, sweet centre of curling is the feature item on this blog post’s menu rather than the rehashing of rules, regulations and regalia. Although to ‘give the Devil His due,’ or to ‘play Devil’s advocate,’ there are a few matters in this blog where the ‘Devil is in the details.’ We will address these in due course and some not until Part II or III.

Hey! My dad once scored an 8 – Ender!

Is there a better way to understand the specifics of curling than to examine what a perfect score on any given end means and what it looks like? Each team gets eight shots per end. The maximum number of rocks that can count is eight. It does not take a genius to figure out that if you have eight rocks closer to the centre “button” than your opponent does, then you score eight – a perfect score for that end, an 8 – Ender!

On February 14, 1978 Bert Marshall and his rink scored an 8-Ender in club play at the Cudworth, Saskatchewan Curling Club. This is an extraordinary happening. You might think that a hole in one in golf or a perfect score in bowling is the equivalent but golf and bowling differ in that those events rely solely on one individual’s skill, expertise and execution of the shot(s). [I once scored a hole in one at our annual golf tournament and even a bad goalie would have made that save.] In golf, your opponent is not actively trying to knock your ball away from the hole or in bowling to protect the pins. And, of course, in curling you are reliant on three other members of your own team to be perfect, or put more starkly, to not screw up.

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No cell phones or cameras Napkin sketch of 8 – Ender  by Bert Marshall

A perfect game for a pitcher in baseball may be closer to scoring an 8 –Ender. No hits, no runs, no walks, no runners on base, 27 batters, 27 outs over the game. This is quite a feat and rarely accomplished. The odds of throwing a perfect game in professional baseball are about 1 in 18,192. There have been only 23 perfect games in 135 years and over 200,000 games played in the major leagues. No pitcher has ever thrown more than one.

The odds of scoring an 8 – Ender in curling are difficult to calculate. Until very recently, there were no professional leagues but there are tens of thousands of sanctioned curling games played in clubs across Canada each year. I have seen estimates that the odds are in the magnitude of 1 in 12,000 and would be much, much higher among those who are curling in the cash leagues.

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Re-creation of Bert Marshall’s 8 – Ender

I used to tease my father that he must have been playing against a very bad foursome of curlers if they allowed an 8 – Ender. But I have to admit that if the strategy of the end dictated a draw game (trying to place rocks in the rings and not trying to knock your opponent’s out) by either team then an 8 – Ender is entirely possible. I don’t know the precise shot by shot details of how they accomplished it, but accomplish it they did. In 1978 there were no smart phones with cameras to capture the excitement so my father sketched it out on a napkin that I have today along with a trophy awarded by Canada Dry.

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Canada Dry 8 – ender Club Trophy is tough to obtain

Hey! My mother curled too!

Women are curlers in every respect that men are curlers but, as with every other sport in the world (think hockey, soccer, baseball, golf, etc.) women’s participation is discounted compared to men’s participation as being of lesser quality or skill, etc. and devalued accordingly when it comes to professional compensation and in assessing the significance of the sport in society. Curling is no exception although I believe that the elite levels have made some progress in relative terms but it is by no means close to equal in absolute terms.

Nevertheless, one of the things you need to know is that challenges are common in curling and in 1972 Saskatchewan’s Vera Pezer, Canadian Ladies’ Champion, challenged Orest Meleschuk of Manitoba, reigning Canadian and World Men’s Champion, to a game that was televised on CBC.  Pezer won the game 4 – 3 to highlight the fact that good curlers are good curlers irrespective of gender. On the other side of the ledger, Randy Ferby with several Brier victories defeated Jennifer Jones, Canadian Ladies’ Champion, handily in a “skins” challenge where the teams compete for “skins” worth different dollar values in each end e.g., a “skin” could be won by stealing a point in the end. Cash money is obviously the motivator in this competition.

The battle between the sexes in curling will continue. Is this a good thing? Probably, as it broadens women’s participation generally but the structural segregation into men’s and women’s curling competitions at the national and international levels – the ones that pave the way for entry into more lucrative money bonspiels, endorsements, and fame – continues.

There are many mixed leagues throughout Canada where two men and two women make up each team, throwing alternately. Mixed curling is every bit as competitive as men’s curling and women’s curling is, no matter the level, but much as women’s curling is discounted, mixed curling is discounted. Even more interesting though is the fact that very few women ever skip the mixed teams and only one woman (Shannon Kleibrink of Saskatchewan) has ever skipped a mixed team to a Canadian championship. “Mixed Doubles” curling with one woman and one man on each team just did not exist in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It came into popularity around 2005 but it is not germane to our conversation here so I will leave it for the time being.

Over the years a few Ladies’ teams from Altamont distinguished themselves in the MCA Ladies’ Bonspiel in Winnipeg. I don’t have a complete record of all accomplishments, far from it, but it is notable that Mrs. F. Stockford (as her name was reported in the February 19, 1944 edition of the Winnipeg Tribune) of Altamont was the winner of the prestigious Birks Dingwall Trophy emblematic, I believe, of the winner of the third flight. The Tribune lamented that the trophy was leaving the city and going to a rural entry. “Olive” was Mrs. F.’s given name and to my knowledge that is what everyone called her. Olive’s winning rink included Mrs. W. P. Reeve, Miss H. Snowden and Mrs. B. (Birdie) Fraser.

Olive, her husband Frank and their extended family, had a very significant influence on community and culture in many other ways but I shall wait for another occasion to highlight those contributions. Suffice to say that Olive was quite a curler in the 1940s and she was the mother of Murray “Moe” Stockford who was to be an integral part of the Altamont O’Grady Challenge legacy of the 1960s. We shall hear more about that later.

Mrs. F. E. Milligan of Altamont is the skip of another rink listed as a former winner of the Hudson Bay Company Trophy (1945.) I have no further details at this time on this victory or the individuals who curled on this team.

As I recall, in Altamont at the recreation level, women often shared the ice with men, as it was more important to play the game rather than to forfeit because there were not enough players. The rule of the day was a “curler was a curler was a curler” with the proviso of course that it was a woman playing in place of a man and not a man playing in place of a woman in a “ladies’” game. Interesting that, eh?

My mother curled in the Altamont Ladies’ and mixed leagues when they had them, and often in the Ladies’ Bonspiel when we children were not too burdensome (not sure quite when that was…) Women usually had their own curling events and these “traditions” persist to this very day at both elite and club level play. It is also noteworthy that the events for women are usually identified as “Ladies’” and not “Women’s” or “Girls,’” although sometimes in a nod to the Scots, they are called “Lassies.’” I suppose that is a half step forward but full gender equality still seems a long way off in the world of curling. Nevertheless, the competition is always fierce and fun. Perhaps, the “stuff” of curling has something to do with those facts.

My mother continued to curl after moving away from Altamont. Recently, I came across a clipping in the March 4, 1976 edition of the Wakaw Recorder in Saskatchewan where she and her teammates merited attention as winners of the A event in the “Ladies’ Closed Spiel.” At the time my parents were living in Cudworth, Saskatchewan and this victory was two years prior to my father’s scoring the 8 – Ender chronicled earlier in this posting.

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Back L – R     Kay Marshall,  Twyla Wiebe      Front L – R  Rita Dzendzielowski,  Karen Hessdorfer

To sum up, curling is a sport enjoyed by both women and men and is immensely competitive irrespective of level of skill. Historically, gender has played a large role in the sport in that the “value” attributed to the competition or the game is higher if men are playing than if women are playing. There is some tempering of this bias in mixed curling but a strong correlation between males and leadership positions remains. Still, the fact is that women and men had, and are having, one Hell of a good time curling no matter the level of skill and ability. This is a consequence of the “stuff” of curling – the “stuff” for which we are searching.   Oh, gendered inequality is a negative factor but the real question is, does the positive “stuff” outweigh the negative “stuff?”

Sweet wines and potato vodka

My parents seldom drank alcohol and they never served wine with any meal. If there was ever wine in the house, it came with someone else. Who buys, brings and drinks Mogen David and Manischewitz, anyway? As I reflect on this I am amused by the role albeit minor these sweet wines that fill Seder cups at Passover played in Altamont’s culture during my early teenage years. There was no one of Jewish religion within 50 miles and the call for kosher wine at our place was probably never heard. Still, Mogen David and Manischewitz did pass the threshold of our house. Maybe, this predilection was linked to a love for the Concord grape from which these wines were made. My paternal grandparents grew Concords in their orchard but I highly doubt that they made any wine from those grapes. Perhaps, it was just because these wines were sweet and more palatable than the homemade dandelion or chokecherry wines served up by nearby Hutterite and French Canadian populations. Whatever it was, I know for certain that the rich tradition of these wines in the celebration of a such a gut-wrenching occasion as Passover within Jewish culture was lost on us young fuzzy cheeked gentiles who opted for Mogen David or Manischewitz as our very first choice in wine.

As an aside, I must tell you that my father, (and this is very unlike my father,) made (or obtained) some homemade potato vodka when I was about 10 or 12 years old. Occasionally we would visit the root cellar and we would take a swig from an old brown crock jug. I never liked the taste but I always took a small sip. Without a word of a lie, I never considered the juxtaposition of this information with the facts of the preceding paragraph, until now. Kosher potato vodka such as Chopin is often consumed during Jewish Passover celebrations. Now, I am certain that the potato vodka in our root cellar was not kosher, but it does remind me of a saying that a friend of mine often uses – “not far from the shtetl,” meaning that some people, no matter where or how they live, are not far removed from the small towns/farms of their roots or ancestors. Entirely by coincidence I am sure, we gentiles from Altamont who grew up with Mogen David, Manischewitz and potato vodka, are not ”far from the shtetl.

The first hard liquor or spirits I ever remember being in our house was a bottle of Gilbey’s Lemon Gin Collins that appeared in our refrigerator one time during the Altamont Ladies’ Bonspiel. After a game my mother, her teammates and a few others gathered at our house for a drink. I don’t recall everyone who was there or who was the skip but I know that Flo Jenkins, our neighbour across the back lane, and Terri Bourrier, a very nice lady from north of Altamont, were part of the team. I say this not to cast any aspersions on Flo or Terri, far from it, but to mollify myself somewhat that my memory can at least recollect two people other than my mother who participated that day. I can say with some certainty that they were having a good time – curling has that quality, you know. [By the way, the design of the Gilbey’s bottle and label circa 1960 looks very much the same as it does today. Some things never change.] This too, is part of the “stuff” of curling.

I know, I have been inundating you merrily with a variety of seemingly useless facts all in the name of searching for something called “stuff” and it occurs to me that maybe this whole idea needs some elucidation. Here, I am trying to project an air of confidence that I can actually provide that clarity. Let’s try ….

Curling is all about the “stuff”

One of the first things you learn about curling and bonspiels is that the best parts have absolutely nothing to do with the rules, regulations, skills and technique … or even winning or losing for that matter. For the most part, unless you are an elite curler, the less attention paid to these aspects the better. No, it is the “je ne sait quoi” of curling that we have to understand – that “sumthin’, sumthin’” that it has, the atmosphere, the ambiance, the culture, the lifestyle, the character, the flavour, the tone, the feeling, the ethos, the values, the ideology, the mindset, the spirit, the mores, the community – that really matters. Hmmm …. Not too clear yet, is it?

Many years ago, Judith, the mother of my children, and I were moving to London, Ontario, and her Great Aunt Jean who lived in Altamont was telling us that there were other relatives living in the London area and remarked, “Well, I guess you will be seeing them around at the curling rink.”  It was not until years later that I came to realize that Great Aunt Jean did not have a parochial and naïve view of the relative sizes of communities and cities as I often intimated in my telling of the tale.  In fact, Great Aunt Jean’s comment was magnificently insightful and is essential to understanding the “stuff” of curling.  She understood intuitively that everyone in a   given community would inevitably and inexorably be drawn to the curling rink.  More on this stuff of “stuff” later.

Is the “stuff” of curling similar to the “stuff of life?” Ah, that technical term, “stuff of life,” thrown about as if it adds some deep meaning to our existence as living breathing human beings. Most philosophers or commentators probably would say this is merely another way of expressing the “essence” of life.

Movie buffs and space junkies can identify with the 1983 Oscar winning movie, The Right Stuff, celebrating the heroics of the Mercury 7 astronauts and their daring approach to the space program. Sam Shepard played Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier and a shining example of “The Right Stuff,” even before Mercury 7 was launched into space. OK, let’s not get too hung up on semantics here but suffice to say at this point that “stuff” has both meaning and, dare I say, “gravitas” aside from being associated with DNA and genetics.

OK, maybe we should just ditch “life” (figuratively only) for a minute. Let’s think of “stuff” as something that makes … well … anything … including, but not limited to, a concept, a construct, a thing, a physical structure, a geological formation, a galaxy, a thought, or a feeling, greater than the sum of its parts?  Anne, my ballet-dancing lover, is fond of saying that great dance performances are so ephemeral and ethereal that the beauty and delicateness of its entirety cannot be captured on film or even recalled perfectly by one’s mind. It is interesting that the human brain, exquisite and accurate as it is in capturing such sentience in the first instance, does not have the capacity to summon a precise replica of what existed in that brief moment of lived experience. It is as if the expenditure of energy in the performance diminishes the capacity of those who witness it to re-create it, no matter how acute their senses were in the initial viewing.  The combinations and permutations of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing along with other more ambiguous factors such as mood, ambiance, etc. of that one instance, are too great to calculate and too great to replicate. We are left wondering: what is the “stuff” that makes the hairs of your arms prickle when you witness an event for which there are no superlatives sufficient to describe its effect?

Sociologist Emile Durheim maintained that society was greater than the sum of its parts. I happen to ascribe to that theory as well. What is it that makes society come alive? Maybe it is human social interaction or spirituality? My view is that neither of these adequately describes “stuff” although the latter may be closer to it.

So, I return to my question: What is the “stuff” that makes curling greater than the sum of ice, brooms, rocks/stones, etc.? Is it merely the fact that humans play this game? Perhaps, but not likely. Do rules and regulations give the game life?  You are permitted to laugh uproariously at this suggestion.  It is my own view that curling has a reach (an attraction or pull, if you will) that is not attributable to the hard infrastructure with which the game is played, the formal code that governs every element of the play, or the informal code that governs both on ice and off ice behaviours.

Curling is a social sport and a competitive game where strategy, tactics, skill and talent combined with the odd piece of good or bad fortune contribute to the final outcome and most importantly to the enjoyment of those who play. I am certain that those of you who curl can add one or to additional features of the game to round out your list of things that define curling. Still it is my contention that the number of items in curling is of no consequence; the “stuff” of curling is virtually indescribable and is more than the sum of its parts. Moreover, we have not yet developed the necessary capacity to prove its existence. The “stuff” of curling exists now only in theory and not as observable data proving its existence.

Toward a theory of “stuff”

Please bear with me as I am going to venture into some perilous territory of theory here but it is essential to understanding “stuff.” I can’t really bring myself to call it “stuff theory” and I know that many will just say “stuff theory!”

As I write this, the scientific world is abuzz with formal announcements of the observable detection of “gravitational waves” (for the first time ever) confirming the existence of “black holes” and Einstein’s theory of General Relativity postulated almost exactly one hundred years ago. Gravitational waves are ripples that squeeze and stretch the fabric of space and time. Their detection makes it possible to observe cataclysmic events in the universe e.g., the merger of black holes or the formation of neutron stars or “zombie stars,”a massive star that runs out of fuel and explodes in a supernova but hasn’t yet collapsed sufficiently to form a black hole.” This news is being hailed as a new way of seeing the universe.

It may seem ridiculous to some, but my hypothesis is that there is a social gravitational field around curling that equates to the “stuff” of curling we are seeking. This ”stuff” is a cumulative product of events and social interaction going back to the early to mid-16th century at least. The “Stirling stone,” dated 1511 and found in Scotland, is believed to be the oldest known hard evidence of curling as a sport. By the mid-16th century Flemish artists e.g., Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow and Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, began to depict curling on frozen ponds. Around the same time, John McQuhin, a notary in Paisley, Scotland, recorded a curling challenge between John Sclater, a monk in Paisley Abbey, and Gavin Hamilton, a representative of the Abbot. We can think of these events as the equivalent of the “big bang” but for curling – the birth of a game that humans would take intimately into their Souls. The importance of the Sclater “challenge” and its proximity to the centre of this “big bang” of curling will become evident later, but I am getting a little ahead of myself. For now, just be content to know that the gravitational waves from these events will enlighten us as to what the “stuff” of curling really is.

For those of you who want to engage in a more abstract theoretical discussion on the “stuff” of curling, please see Appendix A: Towards a theory of the “Stuff” of Curling.

For those whose time is more valuable, consider this: Much like gravity, curling is not evident until it gives us a reason to be aware of its presence. The popular story is that Sir Isaac Newton “discovered” gravity when an apple fell on his head. We know that this story is not entirely true and it is a good thing too because we now know that we don’t have to wait until a curling rock falls on someone’s head to know about curling. Just walk the streets of any city, town, village or hamlet in Canada after September 1st and before May 1st, and listen to people – you will discover that curling is Canadian cultural and social gravitational glue.

Okay, to be honest we still have not nailed down, in a precise manner, the “stuff” of curling. So we must forge ahead by observing people and human behaviour in events that make the curling world spin on its axis, keeping our “stuff” together, and in orbit.

Bonspiels and other “stuff”

We had a quick look at bonspiels in an earlier section but let’s return to them again as a great place to identify “stuff.”

When I was a young lad “bonspiel week” in Altamont was possibly the most exciting week of the year, rivaling Christmas in fact. The skating ice was converted into three additional sheets of glossy curling surfaces to augment the one permanent sheet on the other side of the boards and a walkway. The Altamont Bonspiel lured a variety of curlers to spend a large part of the week in Altamont. I believe they were guaranteed four games for their entry fee so it was a bit of a commitment but one the curlers happily accepted. Rinks from Altamont and environs entered of course as well as family and friends from across the province. There are always several rinks from other communities mostly made up of grain farmers who had flexible schedules and few work commitments in the winter. There were also several rinks, smitten in previous years by the hospitality, ambiance and atmosphere of the whole community, and the ‘competitive non-competitive’ duality of the bonspiel itself who returned to re-create the experience. I am not sure if they were captivated by its charm or captured by an invisible yet palpable quantity that is the “stuff” of curling. The “stuff” of curling was, for some reason, more evident, more salient, and more undeniable at the Altamont Bonspiel than it was in other places.

 

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Altamont Rink built 1919

As you can see from the photo above the Altamont Rink is a small (if you were inclined to be charitable, you would say “intimate”) venue. The smallness does not detract from the charm or from the game itself. In some ways it amplifies it. In the days (mid-1950s to 1980s) before brushes became the predominant tool for sweeping [damn those Scots and Canadian Junior Champion Paul Gowsell,] and after the days (ending in late 1940s and early 1950s) when curling brooms looked like old kitchen brooms wielded by housewives Hell bent on saving their pies cooling on window ledges from scheming children like Huck Finn, the corn broom ruled the day. It’s distinctive slap, slap, slap could be heard outside almost a block away from the rink, as young strong arms and legs put every ounce of muscle into coaxing the rock into the correct spot. The low ceiling in a small rink, 32 curlers on the ice with 8 – 10 of them sweeping at any given time, and 4 – 6 others shouting instructions to sweep harder (HAAAARRRRDDDD!) or not at all (RIGHT OFF!) made for bedlam except … except when the sweepers developed rhythms intensifying loudness but softening discordance, lulling the observer into a short lived reverie of drumming and drill sergeants. It is in these moments where you begin to glimpse the “stuff” of curling.

In April 1991 the CBC, accurately in my view, captured the centrality of curling and the Altamont Rink to the collective Soul of this small community.  Indeed, I doubt if anyone who has ever spent an hour in the Rink has not been touched by the “stuff” (material and spiritual) that resides there.  Have a look at this footage from the CBC Archives:

http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/a-curling-community

These images triggered many memories for me and I shall return to the Altamont Rink on several occasions in Parts II and III of this series. Suffice to say that there is more to this “stuff” than meets the eye, as the old saw goes.

Most of us (young or old) could not afford fancy curling brooms.  I retrieved my own prized corn broom from the garbage can where it had been deposited unceremoniously by an unknown curler. To some it was a broken down castoff but to me it was as close as I would get to the real deal – and it was free!  The corn straw still had enough structural integrity and I had enough upper body, arm and leg power to make it slap so that I was not embarrassed. Older boys often had the trademark Blackjack broom made with inverted corn straw in the centre or the Rink Rat made from artificial fabrics. They could wield these brooms with the best of them, their slapping almost defying the sound barrier.

One of the less endearing qualities of the corn broom is that it left a lot of “trash” (broken straws) on the ice. If you weren’t diligent about keeping the ice clean, a rock could pick up a small piece of straw under the running surface causing it to lose speed or curl more dramatically than expected.  Of course, after the brush became popular some rinks took advantage of the ability to use either broom and switched back and forth depending on the outcome they sought. I recall that my ‘reclaimed’ broom left a lot of trash whether I wanted it to or not. I am not convinced that the corn broom helped me much as a curler but that is likely more a comment on my ability than anything else. These observations are not simply idle musings but serve as a good reminder that some “stuff” in curling is unintentional and perhaps even accidental.

Traditionally, the weather during bonspiel week was extremely cold except, of course, for those years which had the equally traditional “January thaw.” Most people don’t like it when traditions change like that, but as a raconteur, I can tell you that it comes in handy to have it any way you like. I can remember as many years when it was bone-chillingly cold as years that were ice melting warm. In the cold years, the sales of soup and coffee from the kitchen were up and the sales of cold non-alcoholic drinks were down with the reverse being true in the warm years. Sales of hot dogs, hamburgers, fries (chips to us), and hot turkey sandwiches remained steady irrespective of weather.

The “informal” consumption of alcoholic beverages remained stable and occurred mostly at the far end of the curling sheet, dispensed orally, directly from bottles hidden in any convenient hole or crack in the end wall, and shielded from public view by any number of complicit curlers huddling together. The raison d’etre of a huddle in curling is very different from that in Canadian and American football. Most bonspiels have formal and/or informal locations where one can seek out an appropriate libation at any time of the day or night. They may have names such as The Brier Patch, The Curler’s Rest, the Lizard Lounge, Three Sheets to the Wind, Shot in the Dark, Draw One, Extra End, or The Hog Line.

Bonspiels in my day were week long ‘spiels with 64 rinks in the draw. Gordon Lowry and his son Ron (called “Ronnie” by many back then and 55 years later probably still is by some) were most often the draw masters and each of them was beyond reproach in their setting of the draw. In any case, I choose to believe that there were no “seeded” rinks in those days and it was left to chance as to whether top rinks might meet each other in the early draws. Still the final draw for the championship title was always thrilling and featured excellent curling.

At some point in my early adult life, the weekend bonspiel with draws starting Friday evening and continuing around the clock until a winner was declared on Sunday afternoon became wildly popular. They did not require taking time off work during weekdays. And some baby boomers were prepared to curl and party all weekend long. I speak from experience when I say that strategic thinking and the execution of delicate curling shots takes on an entirely different dimension at 3 or 4 a.m. after a few hours of “discussing” the intricacies of the “roaring game” with your own team and/or with many friends (new and old) in the comfort of the Altamont Hotel or another cozy abode near the curling rink.  Let’s just say that, under certain conditions, the capacity of the human mind to be deluded into thinking that the body can perform feats beyond that intended by the Supreme Being’s blueprint, is infinite. And, even if infinity cannot be multiplied, it is multiplied exponentially by the sum of the quantity of spirits consumed and the hours of sleep deprivation suffered. The probabilities of predicting the winners of a weekend ‘spiel increased significantly if you had observable empirical data on a) skill level, b) degree of tiredness at 3 a.m. and c) number of “huddles” conducted at the far end of the rink.

Is it all about the soup?

It is the week long bonspiels that I remember most fondly. My sisters and I were allowed at least once during that week to have supper at the rink. This meal was a major treat for us as we rarely went to restaurants or had meals away from home outside of those at the homes of our grandparents, uncles and aunts. I can’t speak for my sisters but I loved the homemade soup that the ladies made at the rink – lots of meat, veggies, and flavour.

At home I would only eat our mother’s soup under great howling protest. It used to drive mother crazy. I don’t know what it was about her soup but it didn’t pass the bonspiel test. I know it bothered her all her life as not that many years ago, I mentioned it to her and she knew exactly what I was saying. Well, you know what mom, your passing hasn’t changed my mind, and your soup still doesn’t make the grade. Wherever you are, I hope that you are not making soup. I also happen to know that mom hated making soup so if she has a choice; she isn’t making any right now. If she had only done that when she was alive, it would have been a win-win situation for the both of us.

As the week wore on and the bonspiel came to a close, we kids looked forward to that moment when we would flood onto the hard, glassy smooth curling ice, reclaiming it for skaters and hockey players. It was the true test of whether your skates were sharp enough. When I was very young, they seldom were sharp and I recall the roundness of my blades slipping and sliding without ever getting the true feel of the “edge” that I would grow to love as a hockey player.

My final thought on bonspiel week is that soup has to be an essential ingredient in the”stuff of curling.” However, soup alone cannot be the sole ingredient because if it was, then it would be called the “soup of curling.”

What do you do when you can’t watch the grass grow?

Late winter or early spring, depending on how you measure it, always brought the Manitoba men’s curling finals, played at some esteemed establishment as the Granite Curling Club in Winnipeg.  Then, as it is now, it was a very big deal to make the finals, “The British Consuls,” so named after a brand of cigarette made by the Macdonald Tobacco Company, the original sponsor of “The Brier,” the Canadian Men’s Curling Championship. When you won the Brier, you were it; the best; the absolute undisputed best curling team in Canada. There were no other contenders. Unlike today where there is a professional tour, a series of cash bonspiels and skins games, the Olympic trials where a team wins the right to represent Canada at the Olympics, and a Team Canada that gets to play in The Brier, without winning a spot through the provincial play downs, by virtue of having won the previous year’s Brier.

Sometimes when I am asked how important curling was (and is) in the culture of Manitoba, I just tell them that the problem with Manitoba in the winter is that you can’t watch the grass grow. So what do you do? Listen to curling on the radio, of course! When I was a kid they did broadcast important curling games on the radio. This always prompts some quizzical looks and I then explain that it has a long history and tell them how that is done.

The early broadcast history is a bit unclear, but I believe that the CBC National Radio Network’s Bill Good did the play by play of the final game of the Brier nationally for the first time in 1946. In Winnipeg, “Cactus” Jack Wells of CJRC broadcast curling in the late 1950s and early 1960s and sports caster Bob Picken (who was an elite curler in his own right) would pick up those duties with CJOB beginning in the mid-1960s. The history is long and deep even without going into the television broadcasts.

I recall going to the drug store in Swan Lake with my dad to pick up some antibiotics as my sister Geraldine had an ear infection. It was in early spring 1958 I believe, and we had the radio tuned to CJRC Winnipeg. We were just on the far edges of the radio signal in Swan Lake and it faded in and out depending on where we were in the dips and rises on Highway 23. Amazingly though, the reception was quite good in front of the Swan Lake garage where the car ended up sitting, not because it was close to the drug store (few people called them pharmacies then), but because our car had a flat tire and our spare was not really functional. In fact, it too was flat. It seems that we were perpetually on the edge of mishap both where the rubber hits the road and where the power train engages for propulsion.

I don’t recall how long it took for the tire repair but I do recall it was a beautiful sunny, relatively warm day and I sat in the car listening to a radio broadcast of a game in the men’s curling championship of Manitoba. So what if my sister was screaming, driving my mother to distraction because the antibiotics had not yet arrived.

Braunstein shocks curling establishment

I don’t really remember which game of the Manitoba Men’s Championship it was, but let’s assume it was the final game and veteran broadcaster and member of the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame, Cactus Jack Wells, was calling the play-by-play solo. It would sound something like this:

“Well, it turned out nice again, didn’t it? [This was Cactus Jack’s signature opening line for any broadcast] …

“… And Stan Topalloffski’s [It was really Topolniski but Cactus Jack was infamous for mispronouncing names] rock stops fully buried just biting the back 8-foot behind Brownsteen’s [really Braunstein’s] rock, at ten o’clock. Tallaopski [Topolniski] also has a long guard just inside the hog line but not really in play.   We are in an extra end folks with the score tied 11 -11. If Brownstem [Braunstein] can draw the 8-foot with this last rock, he and his rink will become the youngest ever to capture the Consols, the championship of Manitoba. These youngsters certainly have set the curling establishment on its ear. Skip Terry is just 16, his brother Ray at third is 17, second man Ray Turnbull is the old man at 18, and lead Jack Van de Mond [Van Hellemond] is 16. Their average age doesn’t add up to a 2 – 4 of beer.”

“Braunstern [Braunstein] settles into the hack to deliver the final stone. It’s on its way with Turnbull and Van Mond [Van Hellemond] sweeping gently as it crosses the mid-way point.”

[You can hear the sound of brooms slapping lightly]

“The weight looks good as it crosses the hog line and Ray Braunstern [Braunstein] calls the sweepers off. […Pause…] Braunstem [Braunstein] has done it! His rock stops fully in the 8 foot. We have just witnessed history in the making folks! The young lads defeat a veteran, the curling plumber, Stan Topolinski [Topolniski] of Transcona 12 – 11 in an extra end.” [It was the 13th end as all games were played as regulation 12 end games in those days.]

Cactus Jack Continues: “The youngster, Brownstein [Braunstein], has accomplished what seemed unthinkable – a junior rink capturing the Manitoba British Consols emblematic of the men’s curling championship of Manitoba. “

Cactus Jack pauses briefly, either for effect or to take a drink, and continues: “And now the 64 dollar question is whether this young rink will be allowed to represent Manitoba at the Macdonald’s Brier in Victoria, B.C.?  The lads [at this point Cactus Jack has seemingly given up on pronunciation] are junior members at the Granite Curling Club and the regulations stipulate that only senior members can represent the province at the Brier.”

Cactus Jack’s question was a real one – and the answer had implications far beyond just finding a quick fix for the age and senior membership requirement.

Braunstein: “The Jackie Robinson of Jewish Curling”

Well, it turns out that Terry Braunstein’s victory in 1958 was more than a triumph of youth over experienced veterans; it was more than just solidifying Manitoba’s place as a “hot bed of curling;” it was a triumph that helped pave the way for Jews in previously forbidden territory. This little talked about side bar on the Terry Braunstein story stems from the fact that until the late 1950s, Jews weren’t allowed memberships in the curling establishment’s most prestigious clubs. In response to this deep-seated anti-Semitism, Jews followed the established pattern set in other cases of segregation. Many of those groups formed their own clubs, organizations, and even entire leagues if you think about the Negro League in baseball. In curling, Jews formed the Maple Leaf Curling Club (1933) in Winnipeg and the Menorah Curling Club (1947) in Edmonton.

Elie Dolgin in Tablet (February 10, 2014) writes about the role Terry Braunstein’s heroics had in smashing through anti-Semitic barriers in curling in the 1950s and 1960s.

If there was ever a Jackie Robinson of Jewish curling, it was Terry Braunstein. Braunstein started curling at the Maple Leaf. But as a teenager, he also played at the Granite Curling Club, the oldest and most established club in Manitoba—which at the time had no Jewish members. In March 1958, Braunstein and his younger brother Ron—both still junior competitors—beat out adult teams to win the Manitoba provincial title, with Terry playing skip. The next fall, the Braunsteins were granted full adult membership at the Granite. Other Jews soon followed.

The official granting of full adult membership of the Braunstein’s may have happened the next fall but young Terry and Ray Braunstein, Ray Turnbull and Jack Van Hellemond had to become adult members of the Granite Club in order to compete at the Brier so immediate action was necessary. In Ray Turnbull’s words, “So overnight, they kind of made us senior members. They had an emergency meeting of the club people and made us full members and away we went to the brier.”

Ken Neuman, 75, a dentist in Vancouver who curled with the Braunsteins in the early 1960s confirms the anti-Semitic nature of the curling establishment at that time. “When we went to curl there (at the Granite Club) we were made to feel a little uncomfortable … but after a couple of years, there wasn’t any of that [anti-Semitism] visible.”

We are left wondering what might have been the case if a) Terry Braunstein had not upset the apple cart by winning the men’s curling championship in Manitoba as a Junior member of one of the most prestigious clubs in Winnipeg; b) the entire Braunstein rink had not needed to be senior members in the Granite Club to participate in the Macdonald’s Brier in Victoria, B.C.; c) Ray Turnball had not been a member of Braunstein’s rink; d) Ray Turnball’s father had not been a member of the Granite Curling Club; and e) if the Granite Curling Club had not held the emergency overnight meeting [I would wager that Turnball’s father was instrumental in this effort] to make Braunstein and his rink senior members in good standing to meet the requirements for the young foursome to go to the Brier. Without the convergence of these facts, it is quite likely that anti-Semitism would have continued for a longer period than it did in Winnipeg curling circles.

Elie Dolgin’s comparison of Terry Braunstein to Jackie Robinson, however much of a stretch it may seem at first, is indeed a good one. Robinson always wanted his talent and skill as a baseball player to be recognized equally along side the talents and skills of others in a world where these abilities are valued. It was a different kind of politics. In Braunstein’s case, the skill and talent of these young players carried them into the winner’s circle such that their achievement and therefor entitlement could not be denied by anti-Semitic practices or politics within the curling club establishment. As with Robinson, it was not just good fortune and a matter of the right people being in the right place at the right time, the Braunstein rink had to prove they were worthy by establishing their place among the very best in their sport. And that they did!

But we are left with an interesting question: did the Braunstein rink have the right “stuff” or was it the “stuff” of curling itself that made the difference, or even more daringly, did the Braunstein “stuff” merely add its weight to the ever growing “stuff” of Curling to carry curling forward?

Manitoba is a hot bed of curling

Altamont was (and probably still is) a microcosm of a broader phenomenon in Manitoba and that is the creation and perpetuation of Manitoba as a hot bed of curling for both men and women. Hmm … that sounds fun! Anyway, it is fun but it is also highly competitive. The sport at the elite level is not for the feint of heart. Outwardly, it is a game of gentlemen and gentlewomen but in its belly, the fires of competition rage keeping the “stuff” of curling alive.

Men’s Canadian champions

The Brier is the most sought after championship for men in curling in large part because it is so very difficult to get into the provincial playoffs, never mind win that playoff giving you the privilege to face the incredibly strong rinks from the provinces and territories in the struggle for the Brier trophy. A Brier victory propels you to the World Championships. In men’s curling, Manitoba has won 27 Briers and finished as in the top 3 teams 55 times, the most of any province since its inception in 1927. Alberta is only one victory behind with 26 wins and has finished in the top 3 places, 52 times. As if to punctuate the pervasiveness of curling in Canada, the Brier has been staged in 31 different cities and at least once in every province. Only Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and the three Territories have yet to win a Brier. The 2016 Brier is in Ottawa, March 5 – 13 and we have tickets to the last five draws!

Since 1927 the Brier has had only four major sponsors: Macdonald Tobacco Co., Labatt’s Breweries, Nokia, and Tim Horton’s.

1927 – 1979             Macdonald’s Brier

1980 – 2000            Labatt Brier

2001 – 2004            Nokia Brier

2005 – present       Tim Horton’s Brier

So sponsorship of the men’s championship of the “Roaring Game” has rested with the major producers/sellers of tobacco, alcohol, cellphones, and coffee with donuts. This lineage may help explain the addictive quality of the “stuff” of curling.

Men’s world champions

Canadian men’s teams have dominated the world championships with 50 finishes in the top three and winning 34 of those times. Sweden is far behind with seven wins and 21 top three finishes. Alberta has by far led the way with 11 victorious teams representing Canada. Ontario is next with 7 and Manitoba has 6 victories which is still enviable.

Women’s Canadian champions

Women have contributed greatly to Manitoba’s claim to be the hottest hot bed of curling, finishing in the top 3 teams in 29 national championships and winning it 9 times. Saskatchewan has more victories with 11 but have fewer top three finishes with 24. As I write this post, Alberta is the current champion (2016.) Nevertheless, as if to underscore the discounted nature of women’s curling in general, the Canadian Ladies’ Curling Championship has had more difficulty finding a committed major sponsor. Both the name and sponsorship has changed several times since 1961 and for six of those years the Canadian Ladies’ Curling Association assumed the sponsorship itself, as outlined below:

1961 – 67       Diamond D Championship (Dominion Stores)

1968 – 71       Canadian Ladies’ Curling Assoc. Championship

1972 – 79      Macdonald Lassies Championship (Macdonald Tobacco)

1980 – 81      Canadian Ladies’ Curling Assoc. Championship

1982 – 2006 Scott Tournament of Hearts (Scott Paper)

2007 – 2016 Scotties Tournament of Hearts (Scott Paper)

Women’s world champions

Canada has dominated women’s curling at the world level winning the championship 15 times and finishing in the top three 32 times. Sweden is a distant second with 8 wins and 23 top three finishes. Rinks from Saskatchewan and BC have won the women’s world championships four times each. Ontario has won it three times while Manitoba and Nova Scotia have each won it twice. Manitoba’s performance here is but a small chink in Manitoba’s claim to “hot bed of curling” status.

Rich tradition of curling in Altamont

Altamont has a rich tradition of curling with both men’s and ladies’ teams distinguishing themselves over the years. I have already noted that Olive Stockford and her rink won the Birks Dingwall Trophy at the MCA Bonspiel in 1944 and Mrs. F. E. Milligan won the Hudson Bay Company Trophy in 1945. I don’t have a complete record of all accomplishments for the ladies, far from it.

There were many good men’s curlers over the years as well and I know that many rinks made trips (some annually) to participate in the MCA Bonspiel in Winnipeg. My father went once or twice but it was difficult for him to get away from Post Office duties and quite frankly our family could not afford the cost.  I do not have any record of Altamont men’s rinks being as successful as the women at the MCA ‘spiel but the men certainly did have some success in challenge trophy competitions.

The O’Grady Challenge Trophy (“The Old Buffalo”)

Colonel J. W. deCourcey O’Grady, then President of the Manitoba Curling Association (MCA), established a trophy in 1908 “to encourage good will and promote curling matches between affiliated clubs in the Association.” Officially named the O’Grady Challenge Trophy, it is most often called “The Old Buffalo” derived from the figure that stands in defiant attitude on the trophy.  As it turns out this nickname is incorrect for those who care because the figure on the trophy is of a bison rather than a buffalo but this is a common mistake. The trophy has been open to challenge continuously since the Granite Curling Club won the inaugural challenge match against the Kenora, Ontario Curling Club (some Ontario and Saskatchewan clubs have been affiliated to Manitoba over the years) at the Annual MCA Bonspiel, March 2, 1908.

The thing about the O’Grady Trophy is that any club affiliated to the MCA is eligible to enter two teams in the competition with the winner having the most total points in a round robin competition.  The winner can hold the Trophy for seven days but it is open to challenge after that time.

For about a decade (1961 – 1971) the small community of Altamont was in the thick of the O’Grady Trophy challenges. January 28, 1961 marks the first time Altamont won “The Old Buffalo.” They defeated two teams from Wawanesa, Manitoba in the aggregate points round robin match. March 4, 1971 marks the last time Altamont played for the trophy and they lost the round robin to Roland, Manitoba. In all, they won “The Old Buffalo” four out of the six times they challenged but they were never successful in defending the trophy against a challenger so the trophy only ever rested briefly in the hands of one of the smallest curling clubs within the MCA.  Altamont’s overall record was four wins and seven losses.  Not the best, but still, it is a very good record for a ”hamlet” generously estimated to have a population of 120 in the 1960s and today is considerably below 75. The Altamont Curling Club has been a faithful and continuous MCA member since 1929.

It all began just before midnight ….

What I recount for you from here on may seem fantastical but I have been assured that ceteris paribus it is an authentic story.

It was mere minutes before midnight on January 28, 1961 and the Altamont Curling Club had just successfully wrested the O’Grady Challenge Cup from Wawanesa by an aggregate score of 31 -10.  Most of the members of the two winning Altamont rinks, and a few other folks who always hang out at the Rink, were at the Altamont Rink (yeah, I know… a “rink” is an arena and in curling it is also a “team”) for a small informal “after hours” celebration, admiring “The Old Buffalo.”

[In fact, any drinking of spirits or beer at any time in the Altamont Rink was “after hours” because there was no liquor license – no need for one – as there was no bar. Is this ‘circular reasoning?’]

The members of the winning Altamont rinks were Lynwood Graham, Murray Stockford, Percy Simpson, Jim Simpson, Charlie McDonald, Gordon Holliston, Herbie Rackham and Charlie Taylor.

Please see Appendix B for a complete list of O’Grady Challenge Trophy games played by the Altamont Curling Club including the names of the Altamont curlers.

What in the Devil ….?

Now, I believe we all know that the Devil loves to curl. He especially loves challenge matches like His infamous showdown with Willie MacCrimmon in Shelby, Alberta in 1939, so aptly chronicled by W. O. Mitchell in The Black Bonspiel of Willie MacCrimmon.  Well, to tell the truth, the Devil is not keen on having that story broadcast too widely as Willie MacCrimmon and three guys named Charlie Brown outsmarted ol’Cloutie. Ever since then though, the Devil had been keeping a low profile in the curling community, partly because He was still furious about the outcome with Willie and partly because He was biding His time, waiting for the right opportunity to extract revenge.

[For a note on grammar in relation to the Devil, please see Appendix C]

When “The Old Buffalo” arrived in Altamont with its single sheet of curling ice exuding the very “stuff” of curling, the Devil’s old-fashioned radar and his new  – fangled GPS (He was testing a very early prototype of Global Positioning of Satan) both pinged very loudly. In fact, the pinging was so irritatingly loud and insistent that the Devil could suppress neither the headache it was giving Him nor the impulse to show Himself.

Crown Royal IMG_5602

So it was that just before midnight on January 28, 1961, the Devil burst through the door of the Altamont Rink, a cloud of steam hissing around Him as the North Wind’s cold snowy breath melted in the wake of His advance. The waiting room and its jubilant occupants were illuminated by a pulsing red-hot glow. Scanning the room the Devil’s laser red eyes narrowly missed cutting through the bottle of Crown Royal in the centre of the card table, instead burning a hole in the velvet bag and, regrettably, slicing some of the filled paper cups lined up alongside.

Of those present, a voice carrying the authority of heritage and lineage, a descendant of one the first settlers to migrate (1884) from Merrickville, Ontario to Mussellboro (later renamed Altamont,) was the first to respond to the intrusion. That voice belonged to none other than Gordon Holliston, speaking as clearly and firmly as he could, “Nnnow … now… now…. see here … see here … dddon’t… don’t you… don’t you …”

To be Continued….

NEXT POST: Part II of THE “STUFF” OF CURLING, “The Devil’s Challenge: “The Old Goat””
Learn more about: The Devil’s challenge and how the Altamont team responds; Who the good guys are and who the bad guys are (Does the Devil have friends?;) What a “Dunbar” is; Where the Devil hangs out when He is in town; Meet a Parkinson’s hero (or a hero who has Parkinson’s) with an unlikely name; and much more…. (yes, it is still about curling….)

APPENDICES

Appendix A: Towards a theory of the “stuff” of curling

Below you will find the early musings of one individual on a theory, or parts of a theory, about the “stuff of curling.” In it, curling is analogous to a star around which a community or (communities) orbit. Much like the Sun and the planets, curling has a gravitational field holding key elements in check yet allowing other minor players occasionally to enter into, and sometimes escape, its gravitational pull.

The “stuff” of curling is the sum of Good Gravitational forces at the Societal (capital CCurling), the club (capital C – Curling level,) the informal recreational and pick up (small c – curling) level and Beneficial Innovation minus the sum of Evil Gravitational Forces at these same levels and Disruptive Innovation, expressed mathematically as follows:

∑ (GGFC+ GGFCn + GGFcn + BIn) – ∑ (EGFC + EGFCn + EGFcn + DIn) = 0

Where

GGFC is Good Gravitational Forces in Curling (Societal Culture level)

GGFC is Good Gravitational Forces Curling (Club and formal recreational level)

GGFc is Good Gravitational Forces curling (pick up and informal recreational level)

EGFC is Evil Gravitational Forces in Curling at Societal Culture level

EGFCn is Evil Gravitational Force Curling (Club and formal recreational level)

EGFcn is Evil Gravitational Force curling (pick up and informal recreational level)

DI is Disruptive Innovation

BI is Beneficial Innovation

[You always knew that curling was going to end up as a case of “Good vs Evil” didn’t you?  The author toyed with the idea of identifying “Good” as “Positive” and “Evil” as “Negative” but rejected those  assignations as too unwieldy in a world where everyone knows the difference between “Good” and “Evil.” It will be interesting to see how the Trump for President campaign plays out on this score … but that is not my primary (pun intended) purpose here -although Curling  trumps Trump.]

Back to our summation equation; If the resulting number is zero, it signifies that Good and Evil in the game are in balance. If the result is positive, good is triumphing over evil and if negative, evil is winning out.

The “stuff” of Curling is actually everything that is contained in each bracketed term.  I can hear your bleats of derision now: “You idiot,” you say, “that just means that “stuff” is everything and everything is “stuff.””  My response is a somewhat sheepish, “You are sort of correct, but the important part is that the equation is in balance if Good and Evil are in dynamic harmony.”  If the sum is not zero indicating an imbalance then something is truly wrong with your “stuff” and measures should be taken to deal with it.

The sociologists and political scientists among you will shoot me down by saying that this is a structural functionalist theory  as espoused by Talcott Parsons and other apologists for the status quo in social and political behaviour. In other words, change is not possible unless conflict occurs and the equation on the “stuff of curling” does not allow for conflict or change.

Again, my response is that you are sort of correct but I must point out that this equation is not an equation that generates change or conflict, nor is it intended to be. It is merely an equation which monitors those features in Curling, Curling and curling and assesses the relative strengths of each and possible responses to avoid an obvious damaging out – of – balance situation.

As a case in point, consider the use of directional brooms and directional sweeping. New fabrics and new techniques in applying the fabrics to brooms are making it possible for sweepers to direct, or lead, the rock in ways that have been unthinkable until now.  In the short term, these brooms have been banned from most elite level competitions. As such, they are a disruptive innovation which tips the competitive component of curling away from fairness. Something must happen on the other side of the equation if competitiveness is to remain as a central component of the sport. In fact, banning the brooms serves that purpose in the short term. But what about the long term?  The long term is the vision for the sport. Does the current “stuff” of curling (including beneficial and disruptive innovations) keep Curling, Curling and curling at the centre of the gravitational field ensuring its survival?

Let’s return to the gravitational force issue by thinking about social groupings such as community. Societies are made up of many different communities and these communities are held in orbits around the centre of society by an invisible yet palpable force analogous to a gravitational field. Each community in the orbit has its own gravitational pull as Earth does in our solar system. In fact, curling is a community and has this type of gravitational field, as do the curling clubs within curling’s orbit. Think of curling writ large as the Earth, the curling clubs as planets, and other recreational and informal curling events, happenings, etc. as moons, asteroids, etc. Just make sure you envision bodies orbiting around bodies orbiting around bodies. The number of orbits and bodies can be infinite but usually is self-limiting at some point. Each body has a social gravitational field, the strength of which may vary according to the relative proximity of events or the relative importance of the game(s) or activity at that specific point in time. Your own individual orbit or the orbit of any social grouping to which you belong may touch tangentially or may indeed coincide with the orbits of other social groupings, for periods of time. In either case, once you are subject to the social gravitational field of a social grouping, you are not master over it. Once you are within its field, it is extremely difficult to escape.

Consider curling. When you belong to a curling club you most definitely will feel curling’s social gravitational pull, especially the pull of the club to which you belong. But ironically you can be subject to the pull of curling’s gravitational field even though you are not a member of any curling club, as the gravitational pull of curling exists at more than one level.

Much like gravity, Curling is not evident until it gives us a reason to be aware of its presence. It is commonly said that Newton “discovered” gravity when an apple fell on his head. Fortunately we don’t have to wait until a curling rock falls on our head to know about Curling. Just walk the streets of any city, town, village or hamlet in Canada after September 1st and listen to people – you will discover that Curling is Canadian cultural and social gravitational glue.

Appendix B: O’Grady Challenge Trophy (“The Old Buffalo”)

Game#   Date             Holder           Challenger

500    01/28/61   Wawanesa 10        W- Altamont 31                                                             Altamont curlers: Charlie Mcdonald, Percy Simpson, Gordon Holliston, Murray Stockford, Jim Simpson, Herb Rackham, Charlie Taylor, Lynwood Graham

501    02/04/61     Altamont 16              W- Glenboro 24
Altamont curlers: Percy Simpson, Murray Stockford, Jim Simpson, Herb Rackham, Charlie Taylor, Lynwood Graham, Eugene Kehler, Ron Lowry

520    03/23/62     Pembina 12              W – Altamont 23                                                         Altamont curlers: Murray Stockford, Lynwood Graham, Charlie Taylor, Ron Lowry, John Rankin, Jim Scott, Cliff Holliston, Irwin Madill

521    01/02/63      Altamont 16              W – Mather 18                                                           Altamont curlers: Murray Stockford, Charlie Taylor, Lynwood Graham, Ron Lowry, John Rankin, Jim Scott, Cliff Holliston, Irwin Madill

538    02/22/64      Sperling 8                 W – Altamont 18                                                    Altamont curlers: Murray Stockford, Herb Rackham, Ron Lowry, John Rankin, Irwin Madill, Howard Andrews, Frank Stockford, Vern Ticknor

539    02/29/64      Altamont 12             W – Glenboro 22
Altamont curlers: Herb Rackham, John Rankin, Irwin Madill, Howard Andrews, Vern Ticknor, Allan Ticknor, Arnie Zilkey, Dale Adams

559    01/21/67      W – Roland 22                  Altamont 17                                                    Altamont curlers: Murray Stockford, Lynwood Graham, John Rankin, Irwin Madill, Norman King, Jim Wilson, Ed Picton, Real Labossiere

581    03/12/68      W – Gilbert Plains 17       Altamont 15
Altamont curlers: Murray Stockford, Lynwood Graham, John Rankin, Norman King, Alan Crampton, Bert Marshall, Bud Grogan, Fred Bourrier

582    03/13/68      Altamont 15             W – Miami 21                                                            Altamont curlers: Murray Stockford, Lynwood Graham, John Rankin, Norman King, Alan Crampton, Bud Grogan, Fred Bourrier, Howard Andrews

631     02/27/71      Charleswood 11       W – Altamont 19
Altamont curlers: Murray Stockford, Lynwood Graham, John Rankin, Alan Crampton, Bert Marshall, Bud Grogan, Howard Andrews, Alex Grenier

632     03/04/71      Altamont 17             W – Roland 21
Altamont curlers: Lynwood Graham, John Rankin, Alan Crampton, Bert Marshall, Bud Grogan, Howard Andrews, Alex Grenier, George Friesen

Information provided courtesy of the Manitoba Curling Association (MCA)

Appendix C: A note on grammar and the Devil

To satisfy the curious and to appease, at least partially, those who are offended by any perceived undue “respect” accorded to the Devil in the accounts recorded above, be advised that throughout this document, Devil has a capital “D” as does any pronoun attributable to the Devil e.g., He and His. The capitalization is not to denote spiritual equivalency with God but to denote that the Devil has power(s) not accorded to mere mortals. Further, it is assumed that the Devil is male unless someone cares to make the case otherwise.

REFERENCES AND SOURCES

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

http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/a-curling-community

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

Elie Dolgin, “What’s the Jewish Equivalent of a Jamaican Bobsledder? Maybe an Israeli Curler,” Tablet, February 10, 2014

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

Bob Weekes, Curling Etcetera, Wiley, 2008

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

© Stan Marshall (The PD Gardener)

COMING SOON! A THREE PART SERIES: IN SEARCH OF THE “STUFF” OF CURLING

 

COMING SOON!

Part I: Is it all about the soup?” of a three part series, IN SEARCH OF THE “STUFF” OF CURLING

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 will have a rare insider’s perspective of 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. Find out how much an 8 – ender (a perfect end) is worth. And find out what a “Dunbar” and  a “double Gordon” are anyway.

8 ender revised IMG_0170

A re-creation of actual 8 – ender scored by Bert Marshall in 1978. See original napkin sketch in Part I of blog post coming soon

And much more!

Watch for Part I: “Is it all about the Soup?” of a three part series, In Search of the “Stuff” of Curling, coming in March 2016!

 

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)

 

 

Santa’s List: A Story of Naughty and Nice

Santa’s List: A Story of Naughty and Nice

Preface

An old storyteller once told me that story telling is equal parts art, magic, truth and bullshit. The trouble is he was telling me a story at the time and I am not sure which part he was engaged in at that particular moment. He also told me that the best stories are ones in which your audience can see themselves. To be sure, the story I am about to tell has all these elements and while most events are based on real people and situations, the story should be considered to be pure fiction. If you recognize yourself in these pages it is either because I want you to be recognized, or because it is pure coincidence. If others recognize you, it is pure coincidence.

As with all my blog entries, there is a Parkinson’s connection and this version is no exception. This Holiday Season remember to give to organizations who are fighting for a world without Parkinson’s and for a better world for those living with Parkinson’s. Thank you for your generosity.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

And I do hope you enjoy this story.

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American Bittersweet Early December 2015  Photo: S. Marshall

The Story Begins with Santa

When my children were a lot younger, I used to entertain them, and to be truthful I would entertain myself as well, by telling stories that I made up as I went along. (Some say I still do.) The stories often had the same basic structure and perhaps some similar detailed content, and some returned over the years much as a dear old friend returns, slightly older, slightly wiser, but still fresh from the experience and joy of living and of being remembered fondly.

One such story is about Christmas and all this naughty and nice stuff of which Santa seems to be preoccupied – a little too much if you ask me. But then, no one really asked me and who am I to intervene, or I daresay interfere, in the all-important duties of Santa Claus? I do sometimes wonder though – who wrote the job description and duties for Santa? Undoubtedly, it included such elements as the following (these are not intended to be either exhaustive or exclusive):

  • Coordinate innumerable Elves in a humane, jolly, environmentally friendly sweatshop producing toys, gadgets, clothes and all manner of i-products, useful and otherwise, with varying degrees of quality and durability applied randomly across all products;
  • Provide husbandry for reindeer, those delicate and sensitive animals who are prone to taking time out to play “silly reindeer games” and must be educated on fundamental principals of human rights such as no discrimination against others on the basis of physical characteristics. These reindeer will be called on for only one night’s work per year but must be taught how to fly. Ensure that one reindeer has a bright red nose which is neither a consequence of environmental contamination and/or pollution, nor over consumption of alcohol;
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    Nope, these funny reindeer are never gonna fly!  Photo: Courtesy Reindeer Flight School North Pole

     

  • Possess a valid Type “BRS” driver’s license [this is a big one] for a big red sleigh pulled by a nine-reindeer hitch, and loaded to overflowing with toys and goodies for boys and girls across the world. A road test and a written test are required. Driving skills must include the following abilities: to land on all types of rooftops covered or not with snow; to direct said reindeer to swerve unexpectedly to avoid all manner of obstacles and orbiting space debris re-entering the earth’s atmosphere after being launched into space decades ago; to direct said reindeer in such a manner as to ensure not only that the aforementioned overflowing presents do not to fall from the sleigh but that, in mid-air, they follow the sleigh in a smooth graceful arc that is so pleasing to the eye that a charge of reckless driving could never be upheld in any court [where do you find a jury of 12 peers for Santa anyway?]; navigate the reindeer and sleigh through mountain passes and forests of trees, through a maze of chimneys, over seemingly vacant and barren tundra and verdant grasslands without benefit of compass or GPS. [As an aside: we know from family experience that in the rainy season a GPS may take you along a road that is technically on a cartographer’s map and in the GPS program but in reality is covered with water and inhabited by ducks! If you purchase a new car that can drive on its own and is guided by GPS, you may wish to re-think whether you can afford to take a nap when traveling;]
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Do you trust your GPS to take you down this road? Photo: S. Marshall 2014

  • Climb down chimneys even if there isn’t one;
  • Climb back up the same existent or non-existent chimney, especially after consuming the items in the two points immediately below;
  • Eat, or otherwise discreetly dispose of, tonnes of “snacks,” primarily chocolate chip cookies but may also include ham sandwiches, blood sausage, vegemite with crackers, cheese and/or tofu, among other delicacies;
  • Drink, or otherwise discreetly dispose of, milk, coffee, tea, beer, scotch, apple cider and other fluids as required;
  • Be able to convince all Scrooges, Grinch and other doubters that you are the “real” Santa Claus and not a mall santa. [No, this is not typo – mall santas are not entitled to use a capital “S” in their name – consequently they are always “santa.”] Further, you must be able to address all questions as to your true identity with a twinkle of your eye and the laying of a finger aside your nose [isn’t this the sign for something else? Rude perhaps?] – all within the flash of a momentary moment, maybe even a fast, quick, speedy, micro-momentary nano-moment delivered at warp speed. Well, I am sure that you get the point; and
  • Other duties as required.
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Some landings are trickier than others. St.John’s,NL  Photo: S.Marshall 2015

The Naughty and Nice List (The List)

Well, back to the story – or is this the story? Anyway, a few hours before Christmas Eve Day, back in 1963 I think, Ratfink Elf, Clerk (pronounced Clark) of the Naughty and Nice List, hereinafter referred to as “The List,” called Santa on his new touch-tone phone from the big red sleigh in Santa’s workshop. To be clear, in 1963 there were no mobile cell phones, as we know them today. Oh, there were some fully automated car phones in Sweden but Santa discouraged their inclusion on Christmas lists as they weighed a hernia – producing 40 kg (88 lbs.) and Santa didn’t want to risk a scandal by plying his reindeer team, and himself, with enough steroids to slog that sac full of mobile phones around the world through the snow. Not to mention that Santa was under serious scrutiny from Christmas Doping Control (CDC) because of some anonymous complaints in 1799 that the white stuff around Santa’s nose when he returned from Christmas Eve duties was not just confectioner’s sugar or cake frosting. It didn’t help that Dunder and Blixem were AWOL in January 1829 only to be discovered in a field of interesting foliage in Jamaica a week later. After ten months suspension and rehabilitation, and when they were no longer flying 10 meters higher than the other reindeer, they returned to the team under their new names Donder and Blitzen. No one was fooled really.

But back to mobile phones for a minute, the USSR was ahead in this game as motorists in Moscow had a fully functioning equivalent mobile phone system in 1963 whereas in the United States only a small area around Brewster, Kansas could make the same claim. Mysteriously, the private company offering the service was shut down shortly thereafter and never reopened. There has been much speculation that the company was shut down by (take your pick:) (1) The Feds – the US government trying to break up a corporate monopoly that would inhibit the democratization of the American populace. (2) The Reds – the USSR trying to break up a capitalist victory that would open the floodgates for unlimited sales of cell phones in the future contributing to the democratization of all citizens of the world. (3) Big Red – Santa trying to break up a massive assault by the world population on the regulatory agency responsible for restricting the weight of cargo entering and leaving North Pole airspace, thereby overturning the limits on the size and weight of Santa’s sac – against Santa’s wishes. His back really was killing him.

It is difficult to ascertain the precise reason, as each possibility is plausible. Plausible possibilities are the bane of those of us who believe in reason. To reason a reason with too many plausible possibilities is to risk signifying impossibility and implausibility that surely leads us to a conjuncture beyond which we cannot pass or is impassable or impermeable. If the impermeable is permanent, the secret may well go to someone’s grave – and it is increasingly looking like it will be my grave if I keep up this line of reasoning much longer. In order to avoid my own untimely demise then, I shall not belabour this point except to say that we will never know just how close the “Big Red” option was to the truth.

What do Puffins Have to Do with It?

Once read, all letters and requests made to Santa by any means or mode of communication, and all information specific to the “naughtiness” or “niceness” of any of Santa’s true believers (children mostly but not limited to children) are sealed until 00:01 a.m. local time on December 26 each year when they are shredded, along with transcripts of the most outrageous political speeches of the year. [In 2015 the award for such speeches goes to Donald Trump.] The resulting shredded paper is re-purposed as nesting material on the most remote nesting grounds of the Fraticula arctica or Arctic puffins in Labrador and Iceland. As yet, the most determined minds have not been able to reconstitute even a small shred of Santa’s naughty or nice list once it mixes with puffin guano. [And you liked puffins just because they are colourful, cute little birds that fly funnily.] Guano generation for puffins is essential under the Santa Naughty and Nice List Privacy Protection Act (SNNLPPA) passed as companion legislation to the Creation of Santa Act (CSA.)

Puffin Nesting ground IMG_3332

Puffin Nesting Ground 2015             Photo: S. Marshall

Oh, you should also know that only paper originals of The List, labouriously hand written by Scribe Elf in meticulous cursive, exist. No electronic versions of The List are ever made, as Santa is well aware, from some nasty personal experience, that anything posted to the Internet can never be totally erased from the Internet. Consequently computers, miraculously, are not a large part of the equation in this particular story. Nevertheless, on other matters, Santa and the Elves get to try everything before it hits the mass market, as it is essential that they stay ahead of the curve. That is why they had a touch-tone mobile phone in the big red sleigh.

Breaking: Everyone is “Naughty” in Southern Manitoba Town

Ratfink Elf was the Clerk (pronounced Clark) in charge of making The List and checking it twice, in order to find out who was naughty and nice. Oh, you want to know why Ratfink was calling Santa on that particular morning in 1963? Well, it seems that Ratfink and all his little ratfinks noticed that there was a small town in southern Manitoba where no one was on the “nice” side of the ledger and everyone was on the “naughty” side of the ledger.

[Note: This particular community (herein after referred to as Community A) shall remain anonymous in order to protect the guilty. It appears there are no innocents to protect, but quite frankly, I am concerned that those who are “naughty” will overtly exercise some “naughtiness” on my person as crude retaliatory justice. Now, there are certain “naughty” behaviours that are permissible and pass through the “naughtiness” screen insomuch as they meet select hedonistic criteria without being self-indulgent. There is a fine line to such a distinction and I am not opposed to such endeavours, but if one does not have administrative control, it is a risky business, as they say. It is sometimes best to be cautious. So, despite protestations from those who seek more openness and freedom of information, the name of this small town remains concealed, never to be revealed, as the recorded details of these events have long since met the guano of the Atlantic puffins.]

But can you imagine?! In 1963, in this small Santa fearing community there were no names on the nice side of the ledger – NONE! How could this happen? What did it mean? Would Santa and his team of reindeer simply fly past these houses – leaving all the cookies, sandwiches, sausages and other delectable foods to go uneaten and all the milk, beer and scotch to go sour, skunky and … well … aged!  Not bloody likely! Santa was furious! Something had to be done! And of course there was the small fact that the naughty Santa believers must be rescued from the most important consequence of their behaviour – they would receive no presents from Santa. Santa not only called immediately for an Inquiry, but he called for an immediate Inquiry.

President Claus

While you might think that Santa was the top dog in the administration of Santa’s North Pole (which may, or may not, be located at true magnetic North,) others are quick to point out that this queer, quirky and quixotic Elf is really an unelected, traditional, figurehead who often weighed in with views and opinions but whose vote did not count because … well … because he did not have a vote. The only thing worse than not voting is not having a vote. Still, Santa was not without a certain amount of influence and he took the matter to Mrs. Claus (sorry, still quite traditional on the Ms. vs Mrs. matter at the North Pole and it is likely to remain that way until Barbie is no longer in production as the most popular doll in requests to Santa.) Mrs. Claus did wield real power though as she was elected as President by the Elves to oversee all matters of “Santaness” and “Elfness” at the North Pole and on foreign territory when Santa traveled abroad. The Elves elected Mrs. Claus as President because they realized that Santa had a fatal flaw. He could be bribed easily with delicious and delectable deliciousnesses – and children learn about this flaw very early in life, hence their unfailing devotion to the rituals of Christmas Eve.

Santa IMG_2635

Santa reacts to “naughty news” from southern Manitoba

The ad hoc Santa Inquiry Into Naughty and Nice (SINN)

President (Mrs.) Claus received the petition for an Inquiry from Santa and appointed a select few of her trusty advisors to form an ad hoc Inquiry Into Naughty and Nice (SINN) with instructions to assemble at 3 a.m. on December 24. There is no better way to find out if your advisors are trusty or not than to call a meeting at 3 a.m. on December 24. But true to their loyalty and pledge the trusty advisors arrived at the appointed time and place – in the garden green house which Santa never visited because he was allergic to holly, ivy, mistletoe and other such greenery.

Christmas cactii Dec 15 IMG_5313

Santa is allergic to Christmas Cactus in his greenhouse.  Photo: Santa’s Horticultural Elves (SHE) 2015

Trusty Advisors Arrive

The first Advisor to arrive in the green house was Constitution Elf.  Con, as she was called, was the acknowledged expert on all matters related to the constitution and by-laws of the North Pole and territorial adjuncts. Con rarely stepped outside the strict boundaries of constitutional law and the word(s) “notwithstanding” were seldom far from her lips. Next to arrive was Litigation Elf (he was often called Lit, not as a short form, but because he had a fondness for scotch.) He preferred though to be addressed by his full name, Litigation.)  Litigation was frightfully concerned, voicing as he entered that the North Pole would be sued for ‘failure to deliver’ and he was already recommending a counter suit asking for costs as a result of the damage that Santa’s reputation would sustain, and for costs to recover expenditures on the over production of Christmas presents because the good citizens of Community A did not array themselves randomly around the mean of niceness on the Santa niceness scale.

Next to arrive was Goodwill Elf who only responds to the nickname “Goodie” which means she spends most of her time responding because “goodie” is a word you hear often around Santa.  Goodie, as you might guess, is an expert in building goodwill within organizations and she has many diplomas and advanced degrees in Human Resource Management with specialties in Elf Relations. Spinner, the Communications Elf, was right behind Goodie. Originally, her nickname was “Commie” but that was changed to “Spinster” in 1919 and later changed to “Spinner” in order to divert a backlash from older single women after a campaign and petition led by Helen Gurley Brown and backed by the ghost of Nellie McClung. In more recent years, after 1963 when this current incident happened, Spinner obtained her doctorate and became “Spin Doctor” although most Elves still call her Spinner.

There was a ten-minute lag before a Christmas bell choir dramatically announced the arrival of Archive Elf by pealing out a version of Good King Wenceslas, the popular carol written in 1853 about the Feast of Stephen held on the day following Christmas. [Perhaps my favourite carol of all time.] Archive Elf was affectionately known as “Dusty” but his full given name was Archival Recherche Classificus Heritage Elf or ARCH Elf.  ARCH Elf was also an acknowledged expert in quantitative and qualitative research with advanced degrees in statistics and research methodologies that made him a particularly valuable addition to the Inquiry.

So it was that President Claus (Mrs. Claus to most people and Elves) convened an emergency in-camera meeting of the ad hoc Santa Inquiry Into Naughty and Nice (SINN). With five voting member Elves in attendance, recommendations would carry the weight of a decree and be implemented immediately. Note: the President only votes in the case of a tie and abstentions are not permitted under Santal Law.

Inquiry Calls Evidence from Clerk (pronounced Clark) of Naughty and Nice List

The Elves settled into their chairs at a large round table decorated like a Christmas wreath with the words “Peace, Love, Joy, Happiness, Truth” emblazoned on a ribbon across the centre. Mugs of hot chocolate sat steaming at one end of the table and bars of chocolate were laid out in decorative style at the other end for those who wanted something a little stiffer. President Claus had her own mug of unidentifiable liquid, constantly refilled by an attentive attendant Elf. Idle chatter and the jingling of bells subsided as the President lowered the Candy Cane Sceptre to open the inquiry.

Only one witness was called and Ratfink Elf slinked obsequiously into the room trying to enter quietly but succeeding only in being an obtrusive, oleaginous, odious and subservient sycophant. Strong words but Ratfink was not well liked, a condition he inherited from his father, Snitch. Ratfink’s proper name was Squealor Contemptuous Scab Elf. Word has it that his mother left shortly after his birth to work for that Pagan variant of Christmas – All Hallows’ Eve or Hallowe’en – preferring to consort with that band of bad actors and clowns rather than to divulge that she was the birth mother of Ratfink.

Still, Ratfink played a huge role in sustaining Santa and all the good things for which Santa stands. The Naughty and Nice portfolio had only been entrusted to two individuals ever – Ratfink and his father, Snitch. The mandate of the Clerk (pronounced Clark) of the Naughty and Nice List was to ensure by whatever means necessary that all believers in Santa behaved properly such  that the word “nice” would be penciled in (and it was always in pencil so that it could be erased) beside their names on Christmas Eve, signalling to Santa to pilot the reindeer to their homes and to squiggle down their chimneys leaving not so much as an ash or a smudge of soot on the carpet while depositing toys, socks and pyjamas for happy girls and boys – although I have to say that if you didn’t get any toys and only got socks and pyjamas, you were not as happy as when you did get toys and candy. And after “Hoovering” in the thoughtful “snacks” left beside the tree, Santa would leave so quietly that even nosy old curmudgeons and hyped up hipsters did not notice the trace elements of cookie crumbs, scotch and garlic in the cold night air.

I am told that there was an air of anticipation as Ratfink took the stand. But however much as I would like to provide the transcripts of this meeting I am prevented from doing so, because it was, after all, an in camera meeting and there are no transcripts or minutes. And all personal notes and/or supporting documents (if any) were gathered at the meeting’s conclusion and have long since been shredded and are now covered with puffin guano in accordance with the dictates I discussed earlier. The only surviving document is one outlining the decision and the sole recommendation of the Inquiry, preserved for eternity as proof that justice was done. But I am getting ahead of myself.

This incident and Inquiry happened in1963 – 52 years ago. While some memories may have faded, some resolves have also been weakened as individuals approach the new realities of their mortality or immortality, as may be the case. The punishment of excommunication from benign servitude in Santa’s sweatshop and release from the cosy – covered hand of President (Mrs.) Claus, may no longer carry the same frightening consequences it once did. Still, it has taken 52 years to piece together a few telling details. Many of these pieces are inferences that are likely accurate but are not accompanied by concrete proof. They are gleaned from 52 years of my keeping eyes and ears open, along with diligent sleuthing including learning several dialects of reindeer and Elf.

The very fact that we know the Elf members of the Inquiry and their roles tells us a great deal. Not to mention the fact that we know the identity of the one and only Elf called to the stand to give evidence. Ratfink’s evidence was succinct. Naughtiness it seemed prevailed in Community A. Ratfink recited from memory a lengthy list of behaviours that were serious enough to keep the individual(s) off the “nice” side of the ledger. Ratfink took a full four hours without a break to present the evidence. The Elf members circulated freely to refill their hot chocolate and to avail themselves of the chocolate bars and double chocolate chip cookies that arrived just before the attendant Elves were banished from the greenhouse.   Despite the early hour not one chocolate-fuelled Elf dozed off during Ratfink’s uninterrupted soliloquy. To conclude his testimony, Ratfink tabled his conclusion: There was not one Santa believer in Community A who qualified to have the coveted Santa stamp of approval on the “nice” side of The List. What were the chances of that?

The Precedent and the Probabilities

Well, funny you should ask about the probabilities of this occurrence. In the subsequent discussion ARCH Elf reported that he had searched the archives at ELF warp speed (faster than current day Google searches and 100 times more accurate) and determined that this specific situation had been encountered only one other time in the recorded history of The List. The community in question was not named nor was the exact year divulged, but it is widely believed to be a small community with a population of four (two couples according to Russia’s long form census) in Siberia. It seems that a hunter trapped some weasels that had fleas and brought a couple of the pelts into his bedroom to provide warmth for him and his wife. The bedding became contaminated with fleas. When the neighboring hunter also became a host for fleas a short time later, an argument ensued as to how and when he was exposed to the fleas. Suffice to say that the outcome was nasty and the aforementioned community of four no longer exists (according to Russia’s long form census.) Police reports and criminal records were not introduced into evidence so it is not known if this argument escalated to the level of a “domestic” or whether it was simply a mutual agreement to disband the small community. It matters not. The end result was that Santa bypassed those two couples that Christmas as the charge of “naughty” as directed by Snitch Elf (Ratfink’s father) was applied. Neither couple sought to appeal.

In terms of probabilities, ARCH Elf worked out that a naughty – only list would occur once in every 200 billion times in a community of Santa believers. The larger the population the higher the odds (perhaps as high as 1 in a trillion) that not one individual would make the “nice” list on Christmas Eve. Such is the persuasive effect of Santa’s admonishment to be “good for goodness sake” and the lure of being on his “nice” list. And of course the odds against it happening twice in recorded history would be higher still.

But, what we do know is that this specific situation was not unprecedented and gave the Inquiry something of a benchmark for their deliberations. The transgressions, on the face of it, seemed serious enough to warrant the mandated penalty – no presents from Santa because they were naughty. The task then was to determine if the transgressions now in question were of the same ilk. [Apparently, when President Claus asked this question, a herd of 10,000 elk misunderstood and began to snort and move en masse across the tundra in the direction of Elk City, Oklahoma. Disaster was narrowly averted when President Claus was able to reach Wildlife Manager Elf to head the elk off at The Pas. That’s right, The Pas, Manitoba, not “the pass” as you might have guessed.]

Well, I am sure that you are dying to know whether the transgressions in this current case are comparable to the only previously known case. Again, we can make some educated guesses based on personal interviews and conversations with well-placed individuals and reputable sources, that the transgressions cited included some, or maybe all, or maybe none of the examples that follow here. No matter, at the very least the following serve as sample examples of behaviour that could condemn someone to the naughty list.

Sample Example 1 – Borgward GmbH Isabella Combi

A young lad and four of his buddies were out cruising early one Saturday summer evening. It was the kind of evening you don’t usually have in Manitoba – extremely hot but a dry heat, thankfully. Nevertheless, the sun hung on the western horizon refusing to set. The thermometer outside the local garage showed 99 degrees Fahrenheit and it was well past the dinner (or supper in those parts) hour. Adding to the kiln – like temperature was the fact that the car’s heating system was stuck in the “on” position and the fan was churning out a blast of air more suitable for roasting pigs than for cooling kids. The boys sat in extreme discomfort with wet armpits and T-shirt backs stuck to the ‘real vinyl’ seat covers. About an hour later the RCMP who patrolled the rural roads in those parts, pulled along side the car and signalled to the driver to pull over. The conversation apparently went something like this:

Teenage driver: Hello officer. Everything OK?

RCMP officer: May I see your driver’s license and vehicle registration?

Teenage driver: Of course. We weren’t really doing anything wrong, eh?

RCMP officer: And just what did you think you were doing?

Teenage driver: We were just trying to cool the car off.

RCMP officer: Oh. And how were you trying to do that?

Teenage driver: We decided to drive down the highway backward eh? With the doors open to catch some cooler air – to funnel it into the car, eh? You see, the heater is stuck on “on” and we are cooking in here.

RCMP officer: I see. And what isn’t wrong about that?

Teenage driver [with pretensions of being a lawyer or possibly just a smartass]: Well, we weren’t speeding, eh?

RCMP officer: That’s true, but you were driving down the wrong side of the road.

Teenage driver [perhaps not showing the best judgment possible for someone with pretensions to be a lawyer]: I am not sure about that as we had a big debate about which side of the road you should drive along if you are going backward, eh? We decided that the correct side is the side where the front of the vehicle is facing the same direction as the fronts of all the other automobiles in that lane,eh?  [Perhaps, the fundamentals of traffic flow evaded our young teenage driver.]

RCMP officer: I see. Interesting logic. I still haven’t seen your vehicle registration and what kind of car is this anyway?

Teenage driver: (proudly) It’s a 1955 Borgward GmbH Isabella Combi.

[Hoots of laughter from the other teenage passengers]

RCMP officer: I see. And who is the registered owner of this vehicle?

Teenage driver: My grandmother, eh?

[More hoots of laughter]

RCMP officer: And does she know you have the vehicle?

Teenage driver: Damn straight!  She asked us to see if we could find a way to cool the car off because the heater is stuck on “on,” eh?

Borgward

1955 Borgward GmbH Isabella Combi  Photo: http://www.HistoryofCars.com

 

RCMP officer: Have you boys been drinking? Do you have any alcohol in the car?

Teenage driver and passengers [in unison]: No way!

RCMP officer: Please get out of the vehicle so that I can have a look.

[Teenage driver and passengers fall out in two heaps – one on each side of the 2- door Borgward. There is much jostling and arm punching but nothing that is greater than what would occur if they were just standing in line at school. Teenage boy awkwardness and clumsiness is evident no matter what the social situation. It did not change here.]

There is really no need to go into much more detail. No alcohol was found. The teenage driver had not been drinking, nor had any of the passengers. No other illicit drugs were found. The RCMP officer gave the teenage driver a warning about driving more safely and carefully such that the lives of others are not endangered. No damage had been done as the highway was traveled infrequently – in fact, not one car passed in either direction during this entire spot check.

So, a verbal warning was given and no ticket was issued. Yet, Ratfink Elf found this sufficient to place the teenage driver in the naughty category on The List. But the most important aspect of this action is that the teenage driver must still have been a believer in Santa – at 16 years of age! As you recall you have to believe in Santa to even be eligible for inclusion on The List. Wow! If this information ever got out, his cool reputation would be shattered. Good thing these matters are always held in strictest confidence and destroyed in the interests of protecting privacy.

Sample Example 2: Sunflower Projectiles

Southern Manitoba is known to have prime agricultural land. Ever since the water began flowing north from the Mississippi watershed to Lake Winnipeg, the Red River has flooded regularly spilling water and depositing rich loam across the floor of the Red River valley. Apparently, it still does with some frightening regularity – but that is a story for another time. As is the creation of the Manitoba escarpment, two ridges of gravel, sand, and less desirable soil left in moraines as Glacial Lake Agassiz receded.

The rich agricultural land means that there are few sights as beautiful as the fields of sunflowers stretching across the Manitoba prairie, their heads following the great deity with undivided attention each moment of each day. Heads held high, they display their flower parts shamelessly and are rewarded when pollination begins a process to pack their heads full. Geez, this sounds like over the top horrible writing! And it is! What I really want to say is that when you grow sunflowers you get lots, and lots, and lots of sunflower seeds.

Sunflowers have many uses including as food, and oil used to cook food. It has medicinal and therapeutic properties used in aromatherapy treatments and beauty products. The hulls make great fire logs and other imitation wood products. Of course, the sunflower is also sought after for its inherent beauty as an ornamental flower. One of our daughters is particularly partial to sunflowers and I can’t blame her. I am certain there are many other uses that I have not mentioned.

But it is the recreational use of sunflower seeds that provided Ratfink Elf with another reason to tag many young boys as naughty. Seeds are roasted, bagged and sold as confection. Boys learn at a very early age to stuff a handful of sunflower seeds in their maw, cheeks puffing out like chipmunks, and using teeth, tongue, lips and cheeks they extract the seed from the hull, chew and swallow the tender part, and at the very same time transfer the remaining hull to a firing station on the tongue at the front of the mouth where air expelled from these youthful lungs propels the hull to great distances and with great force. Such talent! All boys and many girls become experts in the art of eating sunflower seeds.

Well, eating sunflower seeds is not a crime, is it? No, but spitting sunflower seeds on the floor, on the sidewalk or out the window of moving vehicles may be. Many communities have ordinances or by – laws against spitting in public. Some by-laws were enacted because spitting has a “negative impact on the enjoyment of public spaces” and some because spitting (now included with urination and defecation) constitutes a significant “health risk and a nuisance” whether on public or private property. Such local laws are not uncommon. But, is discarding the hulls of the sunflower really spitting? Maybe it is akin to throwing away the wrapper from a candy bar? It is easy to see the flaw in this argument as the emission of sunflower seed hulls from the mouths of its aficionados now becomes littering which is also not permitted and subject to attendant fines. Still, my experience is that spitting sunflower hulls is more likely to be tolerated than discarding candy bar wrappers is.

My father, who was a store owner in a small town in southern Manitoba, despised the practice of spitting sunflower hulls. All manner of the citizenry spat hulls on the floor of his store and on the sidewalk in front where older retired farmers and other gents often sat on a bench and chairs he provided, to pass time and the gossip of the day. How the toothless ones managed to extract the seeds from the hulls still remains a mystery to me. Nevertheless, my father continued to sell sunflower seeds as a confection in his store. Perhaps he conducted a cost – benefit analysis?

Father's store Manitoba IMG_4393

Post Office, Bus Stop and Confectionery  Altamont, Manitoba  Photo: Unknown

Accommodations to the practice were sometimes made. For example, the “Visitor’s” benches in local hockey rinks were often covered in much the same manner as dugouts are covered in baseball stadiums. It was commonplace, at least in my day, for the hometown fans of the “Royals” or the “Maroons” to spit sunflower hulls at the visiting teams. Some hometown fanatics had remarkable accuracy combined with good velocity and their mouths were like the magazines of repeating rifles – you were usually ducking a constant barrage. The canopies over the visitors’ bench were invaluable protection.

To be fair, I myself have been guilty of, although not formally charged with, spitting sunflower hulls in various prohibited places. I have also witnessed some egregious cases where all available floor space in an automobile and a rented house was covered with sunflower hulls. I am certain that these were accompanied to the floor by a spray of spittle from the sunflower connoisseur.

Undoubtedly, there were many in the community who contravened the restrictions on spitting (or littering) and Ratfink Elf who adopted a very black and white approach to his job, did not hesitate to pencil “naughty” beside their names on The List.

Sample Example 3: Paint by Numbers

Most often we are born into a ready-made, can’t change it, family. [I recognize that this is not always the case, but I will not deal with those matters at this time.] Families have their upsides and their downsides. On the upside, you learn who you are dealing with after a very short period of time and you learn that, despite internal bickering, families usually stick together. In fact, I have witnessed two brothers (X and Y) turn on a well-meaning individual Z who sided with X in a fight against Y. Lesson: never assist either brother when they are fighting because they both are likely to turn their anger on you. The reason for the fight matters not. But for those who are curious, the fight in this instance was over a girl and took place outside a dance hall and involved the considerable consumption of alcohol. For the record, the girl did not go home with either brother and neither did she accompany the intervener Z. Lesson: generally speaking, stay out of fights if you wish to win the girl.

I recognize that the above situation is gender specific and I am sure there are situations that speak to women more effectively. I am not going to go there, as that would take me farther into a digression than I am prepared to go at the moment.

The relationship between brothers and sisters is an interesting one and it is usually qualitatively different depending on age order in the family. I cannot address every situation but for girls, older brothers are often the bane of their existence. Oh, brothers can be nice from time to time, usually when they are older and come to your assistance when you need some muscle. But older brothers often play a role that my father noted was akin to that of a “promoter” in boxing or wrestling. In fact, my father used to call me “the promoter.” I would create a situation, cause some conflict between my two younger sisters such that they would fight, and I would just stand back and watch the fireworks. And I guess I was forever teasing and tormenting them, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes I think, just by my very existence.

Sometimes though, a sister just has to extract revenge. This story actually happened to me. One Christmas, or maybe it was on my birthday, I received a “paint by numbers“ kit. You know the kind – a line drawing of a winter wonderland or mountains or a Kirk by a brook or some such idyllic scene along with numbered paint pots. You use the paint from the numbered pots to fill in the corresponding numbered area on the canvas. Every paint by numbers painting I have ever seen looked ghastly and mine were even ghastlier (look my dictionary says that there is such a word although I think there shouldn’t be.) The canvas I was working on was no exception. The paint was applied too thickly in most places, a little like mortar, and I re-drew the pre-drawn lines carelessly. I was going to say with careless abandon but that implies some creative artistry at work and there was none. I failed to follow the rules as to the order in which the paint should be applied, causing some smeary sections. The brush was often not cleaned or even wiped resulting in even more imperfections. Painting by the open window and electric fan caused a dusty quality that may have enhanced the prairie landscape but did nothing for the snowbound mountain pass. In short, if there were prizes awarded for paint by number paintings, my canvas was not going to receive one – ever, ever, ever.

View from Sleigh IMG_0929

Early morning view from Santa’s sleigh would make great painting or puzzle.  Photo courtesy of Santa’s personal collection

My wife, who is skilled and extremely talented at painting as both craft and creative art, will laugh at my mercifully brief foray into paint by numbers. It was mercifully short because my sister helped to kick it to the sidelines by coming brazenly into my room, while I was present if you can believe it, and swiping her hands across the still wet canvas. I was furious! My work of art was destroyed! I would need an art restorer to return it to pristine condition. In retrospect, I realize that I was furious because my sister, the second oldest child, displayed no fear of her big brother and willfully carried out this act of vandalism as a symbol of her freedom and a statement that I would do her no harm – of course, that might have been because she knew that dad would kill me if I did. No matter the reasoning, she was correct and she extracted a small amount of revenge for my brotherly teasing and torturing in that moment, which interestingly, we both recall vividly.

I guess in the eyes of Ratfink Elf we had each committed an act or acts that were “naughty” and should be codified as such. But were they enough to warrant no gifts from Santa?

Sample Example 4: You Don’t Grow Old, You Just Lose Your Audience

Ratfink Elf recounted the case of the elderly grandfather who liked to tell off colour jokes at family gatherings. He would rise ceremoniously during a lull in the conversation at the dinner table to take the stage as he had done so often at the Legion, leading his comrades in arms in ribald songs and questionable humour. His family respected his position as patriarch and as long as he could be interrupted in time to avoid the obvious racist jokes, the dinner was considered a success. Were a few jokes enough to deny admission to the Nice ledger of The List? Ratfink Elf thought so.

Sample Example 5: Dog Eats House

Ratfink stooped to a new low in his determination to ensure that absolutely no one from Community A would be visited by Santa and that the vapour trail of Santa’s sleigh would show no descent to earth at those coordinates. A furry dog, left alone one afternoon in the family home in early December, was tempted by the most delicious smell of gingerbread in the kitchen.  The dog knew from experience that certain delectable baked goods were sometimes available there, as the previous year the family pet lost a few points by scoffing down a dozen Chelsea buns. So it came to be that the structural components of an entire ginger bread house mysteriously disappeared that afternoon.   Fortunately however, the family made two houses and one house survived the catastrophe. The dog explained to those who understand dog that “a sinkhole opened up” in the table and swallowed “a bunch of stuff.” Gingerbread crumbs, sparkles and sprinkles clung to the dog’s muzzle amid protestations that “I don’t even know what a gingerbread house is anyway!”   I am fairly certain that if dogs have any memory longer than the last tree sniff, this dog had some bad dreams about this particularly spicy gingerbread given the unusual eagerness to go to outside to “do business” during the following week. Perhaps, the pet was saved from even greater discomfort and possibly a trip to the veterinarian because its paws just couldn’t reach that last house. Ratfink had no sympathy and gave the dog a “naughty” grade.

Ginger Bread dog IMG_3129

Could this dog have eaten a ginger bread house?

Sample Example 6: Sandy and the Burnt Toast

Sandy (short for Alexander I am told) lived alone after his wife Maggie (short for Margaret I am told) died. They had no children and Sandy’s inner contentment was diminished greatly upon her passing. He sought the comfort of other elderly gentlemen in the community, some were bachelors and others were married with wives still alive. He did not seek female companionship – maybe because he felt a loyalty and love for his dear departed Maggie, or maybe because it was just too painful to have to set aside his many happy memories in order to forge adventures and good times with someone new. Just as we have difficulty packing up and putting cherished memorabilia into storage, or selling it, or giving it to charitable re-use and recycle shops when we downsize, Sandy had great difficulty reorganizing his mind to free up additional space – some would say that he flat out refused to so.

The relationship between Sandy and Maggie had been a very traditional one with a very traditional, gendered division of labour. Maggie did all of the cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping and anything else that could be categorized as a ‘household duty.’ She never worked outside of the home and was devoted and loyal to Sandy as her Prince. Each weekday afternoon she disappeared into the living room with a cup of tea sweetened with several spoonfuls of sugar and Carnation evaporated milk [where was there room for the tea?] to indulge in her favourite relaxations, watching the ABC soap opera General Hospital on KCND, a semi – independent station and forerunner of CKND, broadcasting into southern Manitoba from Pembina, North Dakota, and in the evening she never missed Front Page Challenge on CBC television. Sandy always teased her that she secretly had a crush on Fred Davis.

Gr Bill IMG_5346

“Sandy”               Photo: Unknown

Grandma H IMG_5355

“Maggie” with ever present cuppa tea              Photo: Unknown

Sandy in return brought home the bacon and always held steady full time employment – he had never been laid off or otherwise lost his job, even during the bleakest of times in the ‘dirty thirties.’ He did change places of employment several times over the years but always to better their situation. Maggie never questioned his judgement on these matters and he was always right. Sandy was meticulous in the way he maintained their home and other property. He applied fresh paint to the house and outbuildings on a regular pre-determined schedule. He washed and polished the car with turtle wax every Sunday in the driveway. He entrusted Otto, the mechanic down the street, with all oil changes, maintenance and repairs on their car to be completed on schedule. There was genuine love in the relationship between Sandy and Maggie and it didn’t take open displays of affection to know that they were both complicit in its forging.

It is hard to know if the dementia or the Parkinson’s appeared first. In the 1960’s not much attention was paid to the difference. “Shaking palsy” was fairly common among the elderly and general practitioners in rural communities seldom made the distinction between ‘essential tremour’ and Parkinson’s disease no matter how good their bedside manner. And, of course, some attributed any cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s. Today, the diagnosis undoubtedly would be Lewy body dementia if cognitive impairment was diagnosed within a year of a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Those nasty Lewy bodies are congregations of a misfolded protein, alpha-synuclein, in the substantia nigra region of the brain resulting in a depletion of dopamine causing Parkinson’s and dementia. You can have dementia without Parkinson’s, Parkinson’s without dementia, or both Parkinson’s and dementia.

Over fifty years of scientific research and debate on the existence and role of Prions in general and misfolded alpha – synuclein in particular has led us to our present day understanding of the characteristics of Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. But Sandy’s rural general practitioner had no way of knowing any of this. And quite frankly it didn’t much matter. He developed a tremour in one hand. He was forgetful and couldn’t remember names of even close friends at times. He dozed off one time while making his lunch, burning the water dry as he boiled eggs only to be awakened by a neighbour who was alerted by the burning rotten egg smell. After that, friends would often drop in on him at meal times. But new unanticipated concerns kept popping up.

Increasingly, Sandy had difficulty with executive functioning. Executive functioning does not necessarily mean making decisions on millions of dollars for a project in a high tech corporation. Rather, for most people it just means trying to make good decisions in the most routine matters of everyday life, being able to process information in order to solve problems. For Sandy this meant processing the information that the toast was burning and deciding to turn off the toaster. The trouble is that he decided to turn the toaster off by using the kitchen shears to cut the still plugged in electrical cord. The resultant release of electrical energy at the interface of wire and shears threw the lightweight Sandy clear across the room leaving him in a dazed heap with the shears scorched and in need of sharpening. A passer-by heard the loud ‘bang,” entered Sandy’s house, called the local police officer (there was only one,) and tended to Sandy’s mercifully few immediate medical needs.

The threshold had been crossed though and a small group consisting of a neighbour, a comrade from the Legion, and a member of Sandy’s church did what members of small communities have been doing forever. They took Sandy in and provided for his short-term needs until they could reach a member of his family to develop a long-term plan. For the purposes of this story the details of that plan matter not. Rest assured that Sandy lived the remainder of his life surrounded by loving family in a caring environment. He was fortunate.

What does matter though is that when that ratfink, Ratfink Elf, came to Sandy’s name on The List (Sandy had returned to the fold of Santa believers shortly after Maggie died) he wrote Sandy up for “careless endangerment – behaviour which placed both himself and his community at mortal risk.” It was a very serious charge and Ratfink felt it was his responsibility to interpret the letter of law.

Sample Example 7: “trompe l’oreille

Parents, ever wonder just when is the exact moment that a play date for your children went wrong – thankfully not horribly wrong, but wrong nonetheless? It may have been when the mother of a sweet and innocent five-year old girl decided to let her daughter play at the house of a neighbouring mommy and her two young daughters. Or it may have been when the hosting mommy decided that she could keep adequate tabs on the girls while she was busy with other chores elsewhere in the house. Or it may have been that moment when the host father arrived home and discovered that not all was what it seemed and the children fled for their lives, at least as they perceived it.

You see, it was a time before home computers and the Internet, cable TV, game boys and video games. Television reception was only as good as your antennae and even at that, there was precious little to watch as the three available channels carried few programs which would captivate the imaginations of five-year-old girls for long. Oh, colouring books and crayons were popular enough and many dwellings were decorated with early cave-girl and cave-boy pictographs drawn crudely on wallpapered and painted walls with crayons that defied the description “washable.” Most adults knew it best to keep pencils and pens out of the hands of these budding artists if you wanted to avoid them making an indelible impression.

Bear in mind it was also a time when there was no kindergarten in this small community and work for women consisted mostly of childrearing, and household chores of cooking and cleaning; providing emotional support for all family members no matter what the situation or crisis; being responsible for financial and administrative duties to keep the family in food and clothing even in times of weak revenue; being the glue that held the extended family together through thick and thin and across the miles of prairie separating its various members; being the family’s lifeline to the community and social coordinator as required; and, working at one of more paid employment opportunities to “augment” the family income. In short, women with families were extremely busy – doing every thing from childbearing to darning socks to working “on the line” at the “egg factory.”

It is not exactly clear what was happening on this particular day but the host mommy made a decision to trust her auditory capacities and instincts as she multi-tasked elsewhere in the house. What she heard were joyful and pleasant sounds. The children were having a great time amusing themselves with boxes, bottles, jars and pots and pans from the cupboards and utensils from the drawers. It was not uncommon for children to play in this manner. It seems the host mommy became quite absorbed in whatever she was doing and the time slipped away with her ears still satisfied that everything was OK in the kitchen.

But sometimes not all is what it seems. What seemed to be innocent play with household pantry items and pots and pans turned out to be the auditory equivalent of a trompe l’oeil – a trompe l’oreille? The children were engaged in advanced culinary activities that they had not yet witnessed on cooking shows on television. But it was abundantly clear to them that in order for any goodness to happen in the kitchen some ingredients had to be emptied from their boxes and mixed with other ingredients. This is a variation of the old saw – you have to break an egg to make an omelette. I am not certain that these children actually broke any eggs but they did begin to experiment with a new recipe and culinary style by emptying several boxes of different cereals on the floor. Flour was next on the list and a white cloud swooshed across the room turning the faces of the would-be chefs a ghostly white. The resulting mixture still did not have that …. certain something, something, necessary to qualify as haute cuisine so home preserved garlic dill pickles, bread and butter pickles and gherkins landed on the floor with satisfying splats.   Peanut butter, chocolate syrup, corn syrup, orange juice and milk were added liberally to the dry ingredients. (Always add wet to dry ingredients my mother said.) Using the floor as a mixing bowl, the girls proceeded to stir vigorously with wooden spoons in a manner that they had seen their mothers do so often. What a pity that cell phone cameras were not yet invented, as the scene was priceless. Children covered head to toe in flour, baking powder, cereal and syrup; ponytails and pigtails sticky and askew but held somewhat in place with pretty ribbons and barrettes. It was a glorious sight – sweet smiles all around – until the reverie was burst by the entrance of … [drum roll] … the FATHER!

The host father it seems arrived home expecting his lunch of chicken noodle soup, egg salad sandwiches, tea and a lemon square only to find the kitchen concoction instead. As he came through the back porch, the screen door slammed behind him (in those days all screen doors slammed.) The children, possessing remarkable sixth sense, sensed that perhaps this scene was not one to which they wanted to be associated. Before the father even entered the kitchen, all sticky fingers and toes fled to the nearest bedroom, diving like ground squirrels under the bed. It took a few seconds for the father’s brain to process exactly what he was seeing in the kitchen, but when it registered a loud “WHAT THE ….!” thundered through the air.   He caught some movement out of the corner of his eye and following the trail of syrup and cereal, reached under the bed and grasped the ankle of the first culprit he could reach. It happened to be the sweet little girl from the family next door. She was the last under the bed and consequently was the first to be pulled out. She received a sharp smack across the backside, which sent both her and her two accomplices into screams and tears. The sound of three wailing children cut through the walls like an air raid siren causing the oblivious mother to jump up from her work and run to the kitchen arriving only a second or two ahead of the mother of the sweet little girl from next door. After the dust had settled so to speak, and the kitchen concoction was scrubbed off all surfaces, smiles returned to the adults’ faces as they began to realize that this was one for the books.

Ratfink Elf thought so too and booked the host mother for being inattentive, the host father for paddling the sweet little girl on her behind, and the children for wilful naughty behaviour. He reasoned that because they fled when they heard the father coming home, they clearly knew what they were doing was naughty at the very least and probably egregious. Of course, Ratfink did not stop to think about whether the children understood the meaning of ‘wilful’ or ‘egregious’, never mind ‘naughty.’ Oh well … ‘naughty’ was checked beside each of their names just the same.

Santa Inquiry Tables Findings and Recommendation

President Claus and the Elf members of the Inquiry sat patiently and respectfully through Ratfink’s long explanation. There was no bobbing and jerking of heads, both tell tale signs of someone desperately staving off boredom and sleep. None of the bells at the tips of the Elf hats was ever in danger of dipping into the eggnog. Most telling however was the fact that the eggnog was not spiked! Brains were clearly engaged and engaged clearly. The level of attentiveness over the four hours was unprecedented in the history of Santal Inquiries. Even so, the Inquiry Elves took no notes and asked no questions of clarification.

At this point I think we need to refresh our memories on the reason for this Inquiry.  Ratfink Elf, the Clerk (pronounced Clark) responsible for maintaining Santa’s Naughty and Nice List (The List,) reported to Santa that with only hours left before Christmas Eve, a small town in southern Manitoba (Community A) did not have one person on the nice list which meant that Santa would not make any visits to believers there. Santa called for the Inquiry to ensure that there was no mistake in this report from the Clerk (pronounced Clark).

I am certain you want to know what the Inquiry found and what recommendation it made. Remember, earlier I said there was only one recommendation.

Findings: The Inquiry found that Ratfink Elf had erred on several points of Santal Constitutional law re: jurisdiction to wit the criminal and civil codes of member nations of the Santa Convention Regulating Administrative Punishment (SCRAP,) rendering the prohibition of Santa’s Christmas Eve visit to Community A as null and void, notwithstanding that several individuals of Community A would remain on the naughty list as charged.

Recommendation: Santa should visit Community A in his usual fashion distributing presents to a list revised by Ratfink to meet reasonable definitions of ”naughty” and “nice,” and approved by President (Mrs.) Claus.

President (Mrs.) Claus IMG_0178

President (Mrs.) Claus on vacation in unidentified location after Inquiry Photo courtesy North Pole Archives

The recommendation was implemented with the force of a decree. Ratfink Elf was miffed that his assessments were not upheld in total but was satisfied that he was successful in having so many assessments upheld. It was a clear vindication of the necessary existence of his position as Clerk (pronounced Clark) of the Naughty and Nice List.

In layperson’s terms, the song “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” has it right.  Santa is concerned with “naughty” and “nice” – that’s the list he checks twice. Oh, he knows if you have been “bad” or “good” but that is a matter for a different jurisdiction. The word “naughty” denotes mild disobedience while the word ”bad” denotes something that is unsatisfactory, unacceptable, negligent or unwelcome and is not the responsibility of Santal law but the responsibility of other jurisdictions with advanced civil and criminal codes. The capacity for the Clerk (pronounced Clark) to recommend and for Santa to take action is subject to these jurisdictional realities. Santal law is neither criminal nor civil, it turns out.

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Santa came! He came!

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town: “The Boss” Takes the Stage

This story should not end without a rendition of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie wrote this seasonal smash hit in 1934. It was first performed on the Eddie Cantor show and it shot to the top of the charts. It has been recorded innumerable times by artists such as Perry Como, The Four Seasons, Bing Crosby, The Beach Boys, Lou Rawls, The Carpenters, Neil Diamond, George Strait, The Supremes, and Andrea Bocelli, to name but a few.

But by far my personal favourite performances of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town are by Bruce Springsteen. His rock version has become a staple in his playlist for concerts all over the world. No matter the time of year, fans often come prepared with Santa hats and Christmas cards to throw on stage giving Springsteen (and sometimes the E Street Band) the whimsical boost necessary to live up to their trademark high-energy performance with Springsteen exhorting the crowd to sing along. The audience responds in kind in anticipation of Santa’s arrival – even if it may be months until Christmas Eve. There are two Springsteen versions that are particular favourites of mine, partly because both feature the big man Clarence Clemons on saxophone and bass vocals, and partly because 31 years separates the performances. Have a listen by clicking on the links below:

1. A young Bruce Springsteen performs Santa Claus is Coming to Town 1978.09.20, Capitol Theatre, Passaic, N.J. from “Live in Passaic – September 20th 1978” (JEMS Archive-Brucevideos).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsDieLwIaaw

 

  1. It’s 31 years later and a more mature, high energy (in my opinion) Springsteen performs Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town with the E Street Band – Live at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, New York 2009-11-22.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2NhmrootkY

There are many other Springsteen versions of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town out there and it fun to watch and listen to them all.

  1. Bonus: And, of course another Springsteen classic is Merry Christmas Baby, which always puts me into the rock and roll spirit of Christmas. The Buffalo 2009 version is here

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B803AXVYzeE

NOTE: Bruce Springsteen is a long time supporter of the Light of Day Foundation fighting Parkinson’s disease. Springsteen has appeared as a “surprise” guest 11 times over the 15 years of Benefit Concerts organized by Bob Benjamin, an artistic manager and music industry veteran who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1996.

© Stan Marshall (The PD Gardener) 2015, with the exception of Bruce Springsteen performances and photographs as noted.

Who’s in the Red Velvet Suit?

Who’s in the Red Velvet Suit?

Preface

I usually write about Parkinson’s and gardening in the context of my own life, past, present and what I think is the future. When you have Parkinson’s it is easy to forget that there was a time when your cares were, in most ways, less weighty.  We should not let those times disappear from our memory banks. What follows is a story that I have often thought about while I am in the garden, or when I wish to push Parkinson’s to the background.  While not obvious, it is a story that provides me with the mental nourishment I need to meet the challenges ahead. But mostly, it is a story about Christmas and a place I know. I hope you enjoy it.

Have a very Merry Christmas! Very Best Wishes to you, your loved ones and your community for safe and Happy Holidays!

The Red Velvet Suit

From the moment he burst through the doors into the steamy, smoke – filled hall, [hard to believe but they smoked everywhere in the 1950s] the game was on. Who was he? We had only about 12 minutes to make a positive identification before he disappeared out those same doors trailing his merriment into the frosty, snow-covered landscape of a typical Manitoba winter night. Crisp and clear – with a just hint of barley made into beer wafting from the local hotel two doors up the street.

The game was an informal one devised and perpetuated by children between the ages of 8 and 11; children who were pretty certain that Santa Claus was not real but who were nonetheless not quite ready to jettison a belief in Santa because their imaginations had not yet been sullied by adult thoughts and reasoning. These children still harbored private thoughts that there just might be a Santa and, if there was, they did not want to be caught amongst the disbelievers. Still, they played the game: who was behind the bushy white beard, the twinkling eyes, the big round voice matching the big round tummy, inside the red velvet suit with the white fur trim?   The goal was quite simple: expose Santa as a fraud by making a positive identification of the imposter.   In retrospect, I am not certain why the heck we would want to do that, but such is the way of the world. If it exists, we strive to expose its most fundamental elements for all to see, breaking down the mysteries.

The community hall was crammed to the rafters. Even the balcony (sometimes referred to as the “Choir Loft”) over the entrance was stuffed to overflowing. Most chairs had people’s bums in them already and those that didn’t had hats, scarves, or programs placed in such a manner as to reserve the seat for someone who was still making their way through the snow bank lined streets after finishing some urgent last minute task.  The time was circa 1955 – 1960. The immediate “town” was really a hamlet at best but no one ever referred to it as such. The town was Altamont and the population was 120 people and five dogs with an equal number of cats. I know the population figure because my dad and I sat one evening when I was quite young and counted each person who lived within the official confines of the town limits.

But, as we know, the definition of “community” does not necessarily correspond to geographical boundaries as determined by government officials and cartographers. Families who lived on farms and in areas that were more rural than Altamont (hard to imagine) also formed an integral part of an ever-shifting community. The political boundaries of the school district were important in this determination and changed with many amalgamations over the years. Each amalgamation marked a death knell for some communities and the birth of a few new ones. In any case, at this time, even a radius of seven miles (yes, this was before we went metric) would double the population at least – if one were estimating the number of people who might cram themselves into the community hall or if one were guessing who might be inside the red velvet suit with white fur trim.

[As a side note: this post is not the appropriate place to engage in a discussion or debate about rights for minority schools, whether based on religion or language. These matters really go back to the famous “Manitoba Schools Question” which dominated Manitoba politics from 1870 when the Manitoba Act created the Province and on into the early 1900’s. The importance of this debate continues to this very day and should be required reading and study if one is to understand the development of Manitoba community and culture. I will say no more about it here.]

Altamont MB Street Map

Altamont MB Street Map

You have my apologies for that short digression. Regular readers will be used to it and undoubtedly we will take a few other sidetracks as we proceed.

I played the “Guess who is Santa game” along with the rest when I turned of age – that age when children, especially boys, morph from cute inquisitiveness to obnoxious know-it-all, hiding behind a barrage of questions meant to reinforce already formed opinions, without a concern as to whether it was right or wrong. All games have rules, even if the only rule is that there are no rules. The one rule for this game was that you are not permitted to touch Santa in any way.

I suspect that Christmas concerts were integral to the fabric of Altamont as a community however it was defined.   As a child, I didn’t pay much attention to the fabric of anything – except if that fabric was part of a sport’s uniform. In particular, I was hockey crazy and was a fan of the Chicago Black Hawks back in the “Original Six” days of the NHL and I recall being greatly disappointed when Santa gave me a Toronto Maple Leaf sweater for Christmas one year. I am quite certain this actually happened to me – or maybe I have just internalized The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier as the quintessential trauma of many Canadian boys who grew up despising the Leafs – or maybe this is the reason I despise the Leafs.   Kids from the surrounding francophone communities were steadfast fans of the Montreal Canadien and sported the red of les habitants (The Habs.) There was a lot of support for the blue of the Toronto Maple Leafs (although not from me) and a smattering of support for the Detroit Red Wings with their stylized red wing of course.

I do recall that we were unable to afford coordinated team uniforms on the first teams for which I played. We were forced to take to the ice as a rag tag bunch with sweaters from various teams. The reds of the Habs, the Black Hawks and the Red Wings more or less defined what could be called a team. I stood out like a sore thumb with my blue Leafs sweater but thankfully a few of the other kids had hand-me-down sweaters of non-NHL teams from older brothers who played for teams in other communities.   In the end we were predominately red with a smattering of green and orange and, of course, I had the blue Leafs sweater. We identified our team as being anyone with a colour that wasn’t the colour of the opposing team whose sweaters were generally provided courtesy of a local community organization.

Of course, we had no idea that we were a rag tag bunch. In order to ice a team of nine players we recruited from farm families and communities such as St. Lupicin and Deerwood.  Not only were we small in numbers, we often were also small in size as some of our players were younger brothers or friends far below the age category we were playing in. We wouldn’t have been able to field a team otherwise.

Our coaches, (I’ll call them Winston and Leon because those are their real names,) were both farmers living outside the strict geographical boundaries of Altamont but who were nonetheless selfless in their long-standing commitment to coach us through the various age groupings. I still remember their calm demeanour and patience as we took every aspect of the game, and every development within the game, as being the most important thing that had ever happened to us. We hit the ice with the enthusiasm of an NHL team and we played every game as if it were the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. It was competitive. We played to win, as did every other team. This was not a league where they did not keep track of the score. Even in games of shinny each kid silently kept track of the score, until at last, with our mothers and fathers hollering at us to come off the ice for dinner, someone would shout, “Next goal wins” and the real battle was on.

I do know that the kids (and adults) from the other towns would laugh when our small contingent of seemingly unlikely hockey players would take to the ice wearing our collection of mismatched, mostly hand me down, hockey jerseys. But I also know that our uniforms were all that they could laugh at because we most often defeated them on the ice, sometimes handily, even though their communities were much larger than ours. Eventually, we did get uniforms but that is a story for another day when I address the good ol’days (and the not so good ol’days) of my hockey career in a future blog about hockey and small towns.

My apologies, but I always get carried away when I talk about hockey (and gardening), so I must return to the topic at hand – the annual Christmas Concert. The “Holiday Concert” had not yet arrived on the scene and, to my knowledge, there were no non-Christians living in my community. Christmas it was and the concert was the product of the collective effort of the teaching staff and the pupils of the Altamont School, grades 1 – 12.   Yes, a four room school. The first room held Grades 1 -3. The second room had grades 4 – 6. The third room grades 7-9, and the fourth room had grades 10 – 12.   The number of students per room was inversely proportional to grade level. Many years, there were no students in grade 12. The good ol’school days will also be a topic of a future blog so they are given short shrift here. I mention them now only as a reminder that the teachers hired were under considerable pressure to make their pupils, the children of the community, look good in whatever performance they appeared, no matter how difficult or inept these children were in real life – on any dimension you can imagine.

The teachers were generally not from the community i.e., they did not grow up there so they had no knowledge as to the particular weave of the community fabric. Inevitably, this led not to “great” performances, but “safe” performances. Best to stick to the tried and true, and not venture into the unknown. The obligatory “pageant” was performed primarily by the lower grades with a few upper students covering off the adult roles of Joseph and Mary (virginal or not), the Innkeeper, etc. There was the odd occasion where animals were introduced into the performance, usually someone’s dog and ended unsuccessfully with the owner scrambling to keep the dog from eating the gifts of the Magi. Who knew that gold, frankincense, and myrrh were so tasty? And it always looked a little weird when one of the Magi (or worse yet, Joseph) repeatedly had to swat the dog’s nose away from his crotch. Dogs are funny that way.

On one occasion, I recall Mr. T. being convinced that we would be able to pull the pageant off with some stellar narration from yours truly – what with my mellow 12-year-old tones and all. We rehearsed it a few times but there were concerns that I could not be heard from the back of the hall. Projection I have learned is key to a career in the theatre. One of my friends volunteered that they had a “sound system,” which would solve this problem. So, we tried it. Yes, that seemed to be just the ticket, as they say, and a speaker was placed in the balcony at the opposite end of the hall from the stage.  As a last minute instruction, Mr. T. directed me to hold the microphone close to my mouth so that those in the front seats do not hear my voice from the front, in addition to my slightly delayed voice from the rear of the hall. Who knew that our small community hall would have the same acoustic issues as Yankee Stadium when the national anthem is sung?

I was situated stage right in full view of the audience, and I began my narration, the microphone held as close to my mouth as possible without it sounding like Darth Vader (who wasn’t invented yet) or a creepy obscene telephone caller (who was invented then and flourished because it was before caller ID.) The pageant was a particularly long one by pageant standards and we were pushing the attention span tolerance limits even without any added complications. But complications there were. Someone (I swear it was not my responsibility) failed to switch on the toggle that activated the amplifier at the back of the hall. I wondered why the audience in the far reaches seemed restless and disengaged, not giving this serious subject matter the attention to which it surely was due. As well, the audience in the front rows seemed a little irritated and there was much talking and eye rolling. But like a trooper in the spirit of the theatre I soldiered on, finally reaching the end at which there was thunderous applause signaling a collective “Thank God, that’s over!”

It was only later, but before the end of the concert, that I learned that the amplifier had not worked. The audience at the back could not hear a word I was saying. Those at the front could only hear “mumble, mumble” as I spoke.  If you fast-forward some 55 years to the present day, I routinely hear the following words from my wife, Anne, “Good Lord man, stop mumbling through your beard. I can’t hear a word you are saying!” To which I, just as routinely, reply, “If you weren’t so deaf, you would hear me just fine!” But in my head I hear, “If you had a hearing aid, you would hear me just fine … but you probably wouldn’t turn the damn amplifier on!”

Choirs were always thought to be a safe bet for a concert so many grades sang a variety of Carols and Christmas songs ignoring the fact that choirs are generally a vehicle to blend many voices into one beautiful vocal instrument – and not a vehicle to highlight a beautiful voice at the expense of one voice, or several voices, whose efforts brought cringes before they were rewarded with polite applause from the ever understanding audience of parents and grandparents. Of course, classmates are rarely so polite and poor performances often form part of the schoolyard banter for years in the future. “He sounded like Stubby the cat when ol’ Wacker backed over his tail.” Or worse yet, and this was well before the Vanilla Ice scandal, “do you know that Ms. B. told him to lip sync the words?” If this applied to you, you undoubtedly are carrying the scars to this very day. I know I am. Such singing misadventures were brought into even sharper relief when the very fine Altamont Choir conducted by the talented Ms. Belva (not the Ms. B. above) would favour concert goers with a few old standards like “Little Drummer Boy” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” performed just before a blast of frigid air announced Santa’s presence in the hall.  Needless to say, I was not in that choir, lip syncing or not.

Comedy was another option but there were so many things to avoid. Drunken Santas are never a good idea – likely to invoke a few images of the town drunk or perhaps drunks (c’mon, every town had at least one,) who sometimes adopted the persona of Santa (irrespective of the time of year) in their more lugubrious moments. I personally have seen what I believe to be the tracks of Santa’s sleigh in the fresh snow on Christmas morning leading directly from the local watering hole and ending abruptly at the first telephone pole, located ironically in front of the community hall where just hours earlier Santa had thrilled everyone in the village with his appearance. It is not widely known but Santa’s sleigh can magically transform itself into many things (Santa was on top of transformer technology) and one local village vehicle sported a rather nasty dent in the front fender and hood for years. It was never repaired to my knowledge. But I have no firm proof that said vehicle was once Santa’s sleigh.

A scene from a lighthearted play was sometimes tolerated even though it inevitably led to cases of overacting – [loudly: “who is that knocking at the door?” Followed by a loud “Knock Knock”.] Or underacting when the darling little six year old would look out into the audience like a deer caught in the headlights and realizing she couldn’t find her mother, would start crying. This would in turn generate some over-reacting by the mother in an attempt to salvage the moment. If this were a boy, he would make up for his momentary acting faux pas not by crying but by throwing around a few items from the set before exiting stage gauche, so to speak. And finally, words to live by, never rely on a dog not to pee.

But back to the case at hand. Who was that in the red velvet suit? From the moment Santa burst through those doors, he was under scrutiny. Did he have glasses? Of course he did. Everyone knows Santa has glasses – those little round kind or maybe the little square kind. Did Santa have boots? Of course, he did, he’s Santa. But wait. Those boots were often not the typical big black Santa boots. Sometimes they were black but they were those four-buckle kind, overshoes, the ones you coveted as a kid because you could leave the four buckles undone and walk around with the buckles flopping, making a buckley-metallic kind of noise until they wore out and the buckles fell off, always leaving each boot with a different number of buckles, but never just one. It was acknowledged that Santa just might wear such boots in our community. But could we determine who was in the suit from this footwear? There were many men in the immediate environs who had never grown up to the point of properly buckling their boots before they ventured outside. If they were only half – grown up, they buckled only the bottom two buckles and not the top two. But it proves nothing about who was in the red velvet suit unless you can make a positive identification. It would not be possible from this evidence.

Sometimes the boots were brown with a single strap – much like a watchstrap – to fasten at the top. This narrowed the possibilities considerably as fewer men wore that style. These men tended to be more practical, or cheap as these boots cost less – well maybe practical and cheap are the same thing in this case. Much to my chagrin this was the style of boot that I was forced to wear all of my youth, until I could afford to buy my own four buckle boots – so that I could jangle around losing my buckles – for about a year when they too went out of style.

Of course, there were toe rubbers. Wait! I apologize. I am just joshing you. Santa would never wear toe rubbers! Not then! Not now! No more shall be said about this digression.

What if the person in the red suit was … gasp … a woman? What if she is really Saint Nicola, Kristen Kringle, Mère Noelle, Old Woman Christmas, Grandmother Frost, or Mother Christmas? Well, you get the idea. There were a few occasions when the names of some ladies in town were mentioned as being a possibility to be the one who “manned” the red suit. Some had the little round glasses. For some their voices had that husky and jolly quality, either from being at the North Pole a lot or from hanging around in smoky bars.  To say that there were several women in the broader reaches of the Greater Altamont Area (the GAA) who might carry themselves with the same stature and comportment as Santa would be uncharitable, so I will only say that many women were more matronly, or more muscular and big boned. Still, in those days, I could not imagine any woman in the GAA who could do justice to the high black boots with the white fur trim around the top in the same way that the real Santa does.  If Santa was really a “she,” it should make our task much easier as it increased the probability that we could make a positive identification in spite of the fact that it increased the population of the pool from which we had to choose. Surely we would be able to spot a woman in the red velvet suit, wouldn’t we?  The very thought that Santa could be a woman was, I think, just too radical for our young minds in the late 1950s. We could never envisage Mrs. Cleaver as Santa in the Leave it to Beaver culture we lived in. There was no strong female role model in My Three Sons, while Lassie and My Friend Flicka did not inspire our hopes for the ascendance of any humans, male or female, to the exalted position of Santa. And, just when Donna Reed and Shelley Fabares were sexing up the TV listings, surely I would have noticed if the boots became a bit more feminine and were … say … no longer black? If queried on this opinion today, I may feel differently. But it is not today with which we are concerned. Who was in the red velvet suit in those formative years of my life?

Surely Santa's boots were never like this!!!

Surely Santa’s boots were never like this!!!

To recap, we unconsciously, if not consciously, relegated the idea that Santa was a woman to the scrap heap of impossible ideas. Hey look, I am just sayin’ that the 1950s were that way.

There was always such a mad crush around Santa when he arrived, and his movements were unpredictable. Many times he entered through the main doors but sometimes he entered through the kitchen behind the stage where, it was understandable, he was provided refreshment after his long trip from the North Pole. Other times, he sneaked in the opposite side of the hall behind the giant Christmas tree. It is widely thought that he lingered behind that tree observing all the children (and some particular adults) in his final determination as to whether they had been naughty or nice. In the case of the adults, naughty and nice sometimes overlapped and the judgment scale could tip either way.

There were always a few helpers (not Elves …. we didn’t really believe in Elves) who handed out little brown paper bags tied with red or green ribbon containing Christmas goodies such as gum drops, licorice all-sorts, humbugs, jaw breakers, life savers, candy canes and butterscotch. Oh there were always a few peanuts, as a kind of filler, but no one counted those as candy and indeed discounted them as being leftovers from Halloween. Invariably a bag would break and the scramble would be on as little ones flung themselves under foot to grab an extra lemon drop.

A path through the crowd magically opened as Santa rolled in on his hearty “Ho Ho Ho” and he stopped only briefly to pat a few of us on our wide-eyed heads, and to look a few of my compatriot non-believers directly in the eye, as a kind of cheerful challenge for them to identify him as being someone other that the real deal, the genuine Santa. Even though we planned to observe everything we possibly could in an attempt to expose this fraudster, the madness of the moment, the craziness of Christmas let loose a wave of pent up thoughts and emotions: Christmas really is almost here. The Concert was Santa’s dress rehearsal for his solo performance on Christmas Eve.

Even when some of the older children (boys in particular) were able to report in after Saint Nick’s departure with some “hard facts” that they had gleaned from those few frenzied flashes of his face as he passed, or the observance of articles of clothing that are perhaps not regulation Santa issue vestments, the cracks began to appear in the case. Those brown boots are just like Georges’ boots,” one boy said. Another said, “yeah, but they didn’t really fit very well so I think they switched boots. Besides he didn’t have an accent.” Another offered that he thought Gordon was in the red velvet suit. This was quickly countered with the fact that Gordon was too short and this Santa had no evidence of an arthritic hip. “Maybe it was the other Gordon,” said the first boy. “No, I saw him going into the hotel only moments before Santa’s arrival in the hall,” called a voice from the back. Frantic now, other suggestions were shouted out. It was Frank. It was Lorne. It was the other Lorne. It was Bert. It was Charlie. It was the other Charlie. No, it was the other, other Charlie. “Well, it was Flo,” one timid younger girl piped up. All eyes turned to her and then rolled in unison as they explained that Santa could not be a woman. Enough said. Each possibility was thrown equally into doubt by contradicting evidence – some from eyewitnesses, some factual differences in appearance or other distinguishing features, some circumstantial.

There is much debate in philosophy about the scientific method and whether we can ever prove anything to be true. It does make for interesting and stimulating reading but it is hardly Christmas story material so I will not engage in a lengthy discourse about it here. Suffice to say that one approach, proposed by philosopher Karl Popper, is that we can only prove something to not be true. For example, even if we have only ever seen white swans, it does not mean that all swans are white. However, if we ever see just one swan that is black, an initial hypothesis that all swans are white is not valid. Similarly, if we say that all Santas are real, we need to find only one Santa that is a fake in order for the first statement to be disproved. Seems easy enough, right?   All we had to do was unmask our Santa to disprove the assertion that all Santas are real. Sure, but the catch is that finding one fake Santa does not prove that there is no real Santa. It just means that all Santa’s are not real.

But what was the case with our Santa? Would we ever know if it was the real Santa Claus in the red velvet suit or if it was an imposter? If he (or she) was not the real Santa, we needed a positive identification as to who in our community was masquerading as Old Saint Nick. Now, I doubt that we ever thought of our game in terms of the scientific method, and I am certain that our methodology was greatly flawed, but we were determined, at the very least, to prove that our Santa was not real. That was what the game was all about.   But, as Robbie Burns wrote in his poem To a Mouse, in 1786 “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]”

And the awry part started with a fact that distracted us greatly. Santa always left a gift for each of us under the tree –perhaps hidden amongst the branches or deftly tucked around the back barely visible from any angle. The presents were not there before Santa arrived, but were there after Santa left. Clearly, Santa had worked his magic in the few short minutes of confusion and excitement when he was in the hall. Or perhaps, time was momentarily suspended keeping us spellbound as he emptied his great sack of presents.

IMG_1269 - 2As I indicated earlier, I was a hockey crazy kid and the only thing I really wanted was a hockey stick. Oh, how I hoped that there would be a stick just like the sticks I fondled and coveted in Herbie’s hardware store. I know that I checked the tree when we first arrived in the hall and there was no evidence of a stick, or anything else for me. I was a bit concerned. It is not that easy to hide a hockey stick and I didn’t think I had been bad. Well, there was that garden incident that I wrote about in a previous post, but surely Santa had gotten past that?

When Santa rushed out of the hall with a great swoosh and disappeared into the crisp dark night, the game of trying to determine who was in the red velvet suit disappeared with him. Everyone’s attentions were now firmly fixed on the tree and the many presents glittering under the Christmas lights. I remember the smell of the branches and my fingers being sticky from pinesap as I searched for my gift. [Not the only time my fingers were sticky I’ll wager.] And there it was, leaning up against the back wall, barely visible through the branches – a Sherwood hockey stick, just like the ones in Herbie’s store, with my name on it. The “L” on the shaft meant that it was a stick for a left-handed shooter, like me, so there was a small curvature of the blade to the right in order to better cradle and control the puck.  This was in the days before Bobby Hull and others introduced and perfected the giant curved blades that drastically changed the game, so much so that rules and regulations were introduced to restrict the degree of curvature and allow goaltenders to breath a collective sigh of relief.

But there it was, my stick. I grabbed it without thinking and turned to show my father and mother. The stick had not yet been shortened to its proper length and the butt end was sticking out a long way above the point where I grasped it. In turning, I accidently hit Herbie, the hardware store owner, smack in the face and knocked his little square lens glasses clean off. [Hmm … little square lens glasses? Could it be?] In any case, I think that was my first high sticking penalty. Maybe it serves Herbie right for selling such lethal weapons in his hardware store.

To my knowledge no one was able to identify Santa as anyone other than the jolly old Elf he claimed to be even if we didn’t really believe in Elves. It is a fact of human nature that as we grow older nostalgia grows incrementally stronger, and with nostalgia comes a desire not to break the bonds, the glue, that holds happy memories together. A little known fact is that nostalgia for matters of Christmas begins about age 12, the same age that children begin to profess that they are no longer children. The first great test for those who wish to leave childhood behind is that they must not engage in any activity that would cast any doubt upon Santa’s existence. Whether Santa is real or myth or mirage is no longer of any consequence. The solidification of childhood memories as nostalgia obviates the need for further empirical investigation. Put more bluntly, they don’t care anymore – leaving the game to those who enjoy pursuing the unattainable – preferring instead to revel in memories of Christmas past; the enjoyment of Christmas present; and the anticipation of Christmas future.

The Real Santa and me circa 1955   Photo: unknown

The Real Santa and me circa 1955 Photo: unknown

As I stick handled my way home that night, my father and mother maintained a respectful distance with my sister Geraldine safely tucked into the sleigh under a tonne of blankets. My youngest sister Colleen existed only as a distant star adding sparkle to the snow and our night. I had nothing on my mind but hockey, and Santa, and the snowflakes glinting under the streetlights, and hockey, and the frost on the snow, and how I wished I had a puck, and Santa, and hockey…. Secure in my world where only Santa would wear the red velvet suit with the white fur trim and black boots.  And because he had a funny, one of a kind, uniform, he had to be on my team!

Copyright The PD Gardener (Stan Marshall) 2014

How Miss Myrna Got My Dollar Or I Hate Fundraising But Do It Anyway

I have a love/hate relationship with fundraising. No wait, let’s face it, I actually hate fundraising. But there are lots of people who are brilliant at it and thank God they are. Without them many worthy causes would not have sufficient funds to conduct research, or develop and deliver valuable services and programs.

I worked for years in an organization that received many requests each day to support a wide variety of causes. Each applicant carefully tailored their request to show why their work would benefit our organizational goals and were deserving of our financial support. I was charged with making recommendations on our allocations. Most causes were worthy and I hated to turn anyone away completely. Decisions revolved primarily around how to divide a finite amount of money among an ever growing group of applicants, keeping not only the applicants who were our allies happy but also keeping my superiors happy as they had preferences among the applicants.  Diplomacy combined with ruthlessness in appropriate measures was essential to divide the pie successfully. And success often meant you pleased no one, irrespective of the size of the pie.  I never felt entirely comfortable in this role.

Now I am on the other side of the equation, asking friends, relatives, former work colleagues, neighbours, Twitter buddies, and complete strangers to support a cause about which I have become passionate – Parkinson’s disease.  You see, I have PD. There is no cure. It is a degenerative neurological disease which, in all likelihood, will get worse over the course of my lifetime and ultimately will render me incapable of independent movement and decision-making. Nevertheless, my request for assistance is not made for narrow personal gain. Rather, it is a plea to support a multi-faceted approach focusing on cause, cure and care. We must find the cause of Parkinson’s in order to prevent future cases; we must find a cure for those already afflicted; and we must advocate for and establish conditions for care so that Persons with Parkinson’s (PwP), their families and caregivers can survive the many challenges of this debilitating disease.  No one should face a future of Parkinson’s disease without organizational support and resources.

Parkinson's SuperWalk, Ottawa, Lakeside Gardens September 6, 2014

Parkinson SuperWalk, Ottawa, Lakeside Gardens September 6, 2014

I am certain that there are many reasons why people give money to favourite charities and organizations. Undoubtedly understanding philanthropy and the use of various techniques, strategies and technologies to increase giving is a science. And we employ professional fundraisers to maximize our return on investment such that good works can be accomplished effectively and efficiently. The world of fundraising and charitable work is filled with noble causes populated with good souls of enormous talent and skill who guide organizations to ever greater heights with each passing year. And yet the need is ever greater with each passing year.  At this point, a pessimist would just pull the blanket up over her/his head in an attempt to shut out both light and sound.  An optimist would (and should) revel in the advances made in each passing year. While we have not found a cure for Parkinson’s, no one can say that we have not made significant advances which make living with Parkinson’s more tolerable for PwP and their families/caregivers. Yes, I know that these advances are not enough and there is still great suffering for those afflicted.

I suspect that charitable organizations in small communities are reliant upon (or are part of) local faith and not-for-profit philanthropic organizations primarily supported by good, solid upstanding citizens who can rightly be called philanthropists and give generously from their own good fortune to those more in need. Who gives and why they give is undoubtedly one of the most important questions addressed by those who study philanthropy.

As always, I am not an expert in what I am about to say and the usual caveats apply.  But I shall forge ahead, sometimes careening from one idea to another much like a Parkie bouncing off walls while walking through a narrow hallway when the meds have worn off. While I may not proceed with style, grace, alacrity, or certainty of direction, rest assured that I proceed with great purpose. Consider the following:

Fundraising in small towns in the 1950s took many forms. Charitable works were carried out in several ways: by faith groups (called “churches” in those days) and their respective auxiliaries; by not-for-profit organizations who held meetings in secret, with secret codes of conduct, secret handshakes and greetings, but raised money very publicly to support highly visible projects; by individuals who gave selflessly and generously to worthy causes eschewing any public recognition; by families who suffered great loss in the untimely deaths of loved ones and wished to spare others a similar fate; by those who adhered to the belief that community is greater than the sum of the individuals within it and was a place of shared responsibility for its overall health and well being; and by those who learned that love is a powerful motivator converting personal tragedy into positive energy extending the force of life of their loved ones long past their deaths through charitable foundations and events.

In the small rural Manitoba town where I grew up, entertainment was where you found it. I often tell my children that the only toy I ever had was a stick with a nail in it. This is closer to the truth than I usually care to admit.  In the days before HBO and Netflix, entertainment sometimes found us when small troupes of singers, magicians and storytellers with pet skunks would pass through, booking the local hall for an evening before moving on to the next lucky town – spiriting out as many precious dollars as they could from the community before anyone asked for their money back, leaving behind only detritus for the hall caretaker to clear away.

But sometimes community-minded organizations, churches, and local businesses would coordinate to host a talent show – a loosely formed excuse to raise money for charity and showcase local talent. The night’s lineup could include the likes of: poets and poetry readers, tap dancers, folk singers, country and western groups, the wanna be rock band making its first appearance outside of an old barn, the local choir, a humorous skit about an operating room performed behind a curtain in silhouette à la Groucho Marx, and an emcee with a suitable patter of corny but clean jokes and enough brainpower to engage in witty repartee with the hecklers in the audience. The winners were selected by a panel of three individuals representing, somehow simultaneously, both the diversity and the commonality of the community. In other words, no one could complain about the results … and, at the same time, everyone could complain about the results if they wanted to do so. Few ever did. Small monetary awards signified success for the top three acts. The show relied on voluntary labour and donated goods, and, after a few small expenses, the proceeds went to local charities, and the good will stayed within the community.

Canadian one dollar bill 1954. Every dollar counts

In 1959 the Canadian one dollar bill was equivalent to $8.19 in 2014. Every dollar counts.

When I was about 10 years old, I recall being given a whole dollar to attend one such show – many story tellers would say “a crisp new dollar bill”, but mine was neither crisp nor new.  It was decidedly limp, worn, and slightly torn with illegible writing on one side. This dollar had not lingered long in any one pocket and it was not to linger long in mine. The Canadian loonie was far off in the distant future and this particular rag dollar was to retain a visage more akin to a rag than something shiny and collectable. My dollar was to pay for my entry and treats for the evening. The cost of admission was pegged at whatever people felt comfortable to give, knowing proceeds were being distributed to charity.  The dollar bill was all I had, and the most I had ever had in my own pocket at one time.  Filled with anticipation and excitement, I went to the community hall. This shy redheaded boy hesitantly approached the door and opened it slowly to peer inside. It was not yet dark outside and I could only make out dark shapes as my pupils struggled to adjust and process the information to spur my forward advance.

OMG!  Well, this acronym wasn’t in use in 1959, but I think I thought something equivalent to that as my eyes landed on the person who was selling tickets at the table just inside. It was Miss Myrna! – the teenage daughter of the school principal, and she was, from my recollection, very beautiful and extremely intimidating, rendering me incapable of both speech and rational thought. Miss Myrna, gorgeous senior in high school and me, grade 5 introvert – hardly a fair match in any interaction.

Miss Myrna was beautiful and mysterious  Photo: S. Marshall

Miss Myrna was beautiful and mysterious                           Photo: S. Marshall

I edged forward, aided by a push from someone behind who was annoyed at my reticence to enter.  I slowly proffered my ratty dollar bill. Miss Myrna took the bill gingerly between thumb and forefinger and asked how much I would like to pay for my entry fee.  Little did I know that I would parallel Stephen Leacock’s classic story of My Financial Career when I stumbled over my words and muttered, almost beneath my breath, “one dollar”. Miss Myrna smiled at me oh so sweetly and the dollar bill was now being caressed in her hands with a newly found fondness – or at least I thought so.  She asked, “Are you sure? That is an awful lot of money.” Whatever neurons were firing in my brain at that moment were not sufficient to overturn the previous decision.  Dry mouthed, I nodded. The decision was now confirmed – my full and only dollar was committed to go to charity and my evening was to be celebrated without any treats from the concession.  But I did feel good – good that I sacrificed as much as I was able to sacrifice for those who needed the dollar more than I did.  My consolation was that maybe, just maybe, Miss Myrna would judge me as a worthwhile soul and not an irritating, stinky, grade 5 toad.

In truth, I do not know what Miss Myrna thought about those few moments of interaction, if she thought about them at all.  My own recollection is that she did smile at me sweetly if not approvingly, or maybe it was approvingly if not sweetly – it is hard for a ten year old to tell the difference – several times during the evening as the talent performed. Two old time fiddlers – one of French Canadian heritage and one of Irish Ottawa Valley background – fought it out for first and second places with a series of jigs, reels, waltzes and a schottische thrown in for good measure.  Each was brought back for an encore presentation and they wrapped it up with a friendly fiddle duet. The crowd lapped it up. Third place went to two young highland lassies deftly performing a sword dance, much to the irritation of the youngsters in the crowd who cheered raucously for the newly formed rock and roll barn band.  Older folks in the audience were quite disgusted by this youthful, rebellious exuberance.

Over the coming days, I basked in the memory of Miss Myrna’s warm smile and reflected upon the complexities of charitable giving. I sometimes still do. Did I only donate that dollar because I was a young tadpole incapable of any meaningful interaction with a member of the opposite sex; because I was under the spell of a beautiful older woman; because I knew deep within my value system that the dollar was far better off in the treasury of the charity than in my own pocket where it would soon be converted into candy with limited use as currency; or because all humans are born with some notion of altruism which can be nurtured and directed towards enhancing the greater good of any community. Perhaps, it need not matter. The important point was that the dollar was given and this transaction was worthy of the needs of all concerned.

In today’s world, should we give to anyone who comes knocking on our door, calling our phone, or contacting us via the internet? When we give, are we all just tricked by pretty voices, pretty faces, sad stories, bad choices, hopeful prayers, slick players, and fancy lines for fundraising times?  Of course not. Giving, done freely within one’s means, without expectation of immediate selfish return, often carries the potential to accomplish more than intended, unbeknownst to either the giver or recipient.

When Anne and I announced our intention to marry and issued invitations to our wedding (the second marriage for each of us) there were discussions about wedding gifts and whether we should accept any at all. Neither of us had any need for traditional wedding gifts involving household goods, and we certainly did not need money.  We also knew that most of our friends and relatives would not be comfortable in attending without some form of gift. That is just the way they are. We thought about donations to charities but discounted it as being too impersonal for most even if it would be the most altruistic.  Sorry to disappoint, but altruism does not always win out – in the short term at least.

To make a long story short, we decided that for those who felt compelled to bring a gift, a small gift certificate to a local garden centre or nursery would suffice. Many guests did avail themselves of that option and various “‘gardens’ within the garden” began to unfold. The photo below is one perspective on this garden which has brought great joy to our lives over the past 18 years, and will continue to do so for many more. One of our children opted to be married against this backdrop five years ago. All of our children and our closest friends understand how much this garden means to our overall health and well being – particularly mine as I make my way through life with Parkinson’s.  Anne revels in the sheer riotous and often ridiculous madness of the colours, and the unpredictable yet ultimately perfectly chosen juxtaposition of colour and form upon which Mother Nature has deemed it suitable to place her signature.  The garden is my classroom – for matters agricultural, horticultural, political, sociological, philosophical, and spiritual. The lessons, not always immediately apparent, do reveal themselves ultimately with enough tactile and cerebral prodding.  It is a classroom whose doors never close.

Many gardens make up the garden

Many gardens make up the garden.  August 2014      Photo: S. Marshall

These few gifts given to us on our wedding day have blossomed into a profusion of colours, shapes, scents [even if the Parkie doesn’t smell them so well any more] and memories which nurture and guide our souls through the rhythms and “stuff of life” as my father would say. Giving is most often like that. It has benefits far beyond any human capacity to calculate the permutations.

So, did Miss Myrna unfairly take advantage of a young lad who stayed pretty much a ” country bumpkin” most of his life?  I think not. The lad, even at such a young age, wanted to impress – not always a good quality but not the worst by any stretch. There was no firm expectation of quid pro quo on either side.  The money was given and received in good faith, and put towards good charitable works by the local faith groups. The lad discovered that basic human interactions often contain lessons for later, and greater, life decisions.

Since I began writing The PD Gardener Blog about one year ago, it has received over  1,200 views in 32 different countries.  No matter where you live, I ask that you exercise the altruistic tendency of basic human nature (even if it may be tinged a little bit by a desire to impress) and support Parkinson’s SuperWalk 2014 by clicking on the link below to donate and/or join my team, The PD Gardener.

Help sow seeds in the many gardens that must flourish in order to subdue Parkinson’s and to support research, advocacy, policy development, services and programs.  And remember, giving, like gardening, is always worth the effort.

http://donate.parkinson.ca/site/TR/SuperWalk2014/EO_superwalk?px=1017712&pg=personal&fr_id=1155

Thank you!

Stan Marshall aka The PD Gardener

 

‘Car Trouble’ or Who was in the Boot with Parkinson’s?

It is a rare occasion indeed when Ottawa, Ontario (at the confluence of the Rideau, Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers) is mentioned in the same breath as Lake Kawawaymog near South River/Algonquin Park in Ontario, and the Assiniboine River near Treherne, Manitoba. The straight line distance between Lake Kawawaymog and Treherne is approximately 1,502 kilometers (934 miles.) The straight line distance between Ottawa and Treherne is approximately 1783 km (1108 miles.)  Interestingly, a straight line from Ottawa to Treherne runs almost directly through Lake Kawawaymog.

 Photo: AFMarshall

Lake Kawawaymog                                                             Photo: Anne F Marshall

Other than having this interesting geographical juxtaposition, their waters never intermingle directly, but a strange thing happened last week. A time – space continuum was breached, as my thoughts traveled to our immediate destination (Lake Kawawaymog) and kept on traveling straight to Trehere not only across 1783 km but also back through 57 years of temporal space. No, I was not hallucinating because I have Parkinson’s disease and although Parkinson’s was along for the ride, it just wasn’t driving as usual. And yes, the levels of all bottles in my stash of scotch remained constant so there is no blame to be directed there.

A = Ottawa B = Lake Kawawaymog C = Treherne

A = Ottawa
B = Lake Kawawaymog
C = Treherne

Please bear with me. I can explain but you will have to be prepared for a somewhat circuitous route.

Anne and I were embarking on a relatively short journey (51/2 hours or so) from our home in Ottawa to Anne’s sister (Wendy’s) and brother-in-law (Ger’s) cottage on Lake Kawawaymog. My own sister (Ger) and brother-in-law (Terry) were accompanying us as we were to drop them off en route at Terry’s sister’s place. Regular readers probably realize that I do not often reveal names beyond my immediate family on the grounds that some of them are, in fact, innocent. But in this case, in order to avoid confusion, I need to note that both my sister and my wife’s sister’s husband respond to the name “Ger”, one being Geraldine, and the other Gerald or Gerry. Fortunately for us they seldom are in the same room together, but they are included in many sometimes confusing conversations.

On Highway 17, some twenty minutes west of the City of Ottawa boundary, our trusty hybrid vehicle (make, model and year withheld to avoid any possible litigation) decided to pack it in. In the old days when a vehicle died it just stopped running, or made some horrible grinding, mechanical noise. In this case, when I kicked the accelerator to pass a slower vehicle in front of us and to avoid a faster vehicle which was intent on riding up our rear end, the hybrid cried out electronically with a cacophony of bells and whistles, and a plea for us to “pull over and stop safely” appeared in bold text across the dash in front of me. Further attempts to rouse the engine and transmission to their respective tasks went unheeded. We slowed and coasted to a stop on the gravel apron.

We sat in disbelief for a moment and then I did what every human is programmed to do – reboot. I again started the car, put it in gear and pushed carefully on the accelerator. Toying with us, the hybrid got back up to speed, but then quickly relapsed into ‘I ain’t going nowhere mode.’ The four of us sat somewhat stunned as the realization that our routine trip was going to be anything but routine.

While we gathered our wits, I did have some fear that this situation would trigger an attack of Parkinson’s tremors and accompanying pain in my left foot and leg. I do suffer from persistent pain but it had been largely under control on this trip barely registering a 2 or 3 on my 10 point scale. And stress, even of the most innocuous sort, usually precipitates such responses. I need not have worried. It didn’t develop. But more on that later.

‘Car trouble’. Those words rolled around in my brain with a familiarity which surprised me. When I was a very young boy, ‘car trouble’ followed us around like the black cloud over Joe Btfsplk’s head in L’il Abner. In the late 1940s and early 1950s my parent’s traveled the highways and byways of Manitoba in at least two different Austin Healey cars. And funny little cars they were. Turn signals were not yet in common use on many vehicles and hand signals were an obligatory part of the highway driving code. Winter was always chilling as wind and snow blew in the driver’s side window onto whichever poor child had the misfortune to have the rear left seat.   Then came a breakthrough which sealed the Austin’s comical fate in my mind forever – electric turn signals emanating from between the posts of the front and rear doors on each side. Controlled manually from inside the net effect was that of little illuminated rabbit ears popping up and jutting out with each turn, and popping down when the turn was complete. I do recall that my father hated it when I would reach out of the back window and try to keep the ears from popping out. Fortunately, he could not swat me as I was in the seat right behind him and he never swore so I escaped immediate wrath. And he mostly forgot such things by the time we reached our destination.

I recall my mother being in perpetual fear of breakdown especially on rainy days and on muddy roads, or during bone chilling minus 30C winter days. These are fears she carries with her to this very day.  In winter, we children traveled under the warmth and weight of several itchy khaki blankets courtesy of my grandfather and my dad, and the military. To be fair to Austin Healey, ‘car trouble’ included getting stuck in snow or mud, dead batteries in the middle of winter as well as a variety of mechanical concerns ranging from inoperative windshield wipers, to frozen heating systems with no defrost, to holes in the gas tank from the pounding of gravel from the roads. A good road had gravel; a bad road had mud; both were dangerous. There were precious few paved roads.

But, back on the apron of Highway 17 we were waiting for the tow truck to arrive to carry the hybrid away in an inglorious fashion, when the memory of a leaking gas tank on the old Austin flashed through my mind. I am not sure why, but maybe it was because it was also at the beginning of small exciting trip for me. I was a young lad of about eight. My dad and I were off on a day trip to go fishing in the Assiniboine River near Treherne, Manitoba.  We rarely fished in the Assiniboine in those days, preferring to fish in the smaller Pembina River which ran closer to home. [This was before the days of torrential summer rains which flood large sections of Manitoba. How about that? I think I have lived long enough to document climate change in my oral histories!]  Anyway, the fish in both rivers were mostly Northern Pike which we called “jackfish.” In summer, the river was warm and the fish sluggish and mushy. As you can imagine, sluggish, mushy fish taste like sluggish, mushy fish. The thrill was in the catching not the eating.

Nevertheless, Dad and I were returning to the great meandering Assiniboine because a month or so earlier we had been fishing off a shoal on the shallow side of the river, casting our lures into the deeper waters eroding the far bank, when my lure was struck with a heavy hit from something large. It almost ripped the rod from my hands and the rapid retreat of whatever was on the other end caused the handles on the reel to rap painfully on my knuckles. As an eight-year old, I had no concept of how to skillfully play a fish for landing. The fish (I assume it was a fish and not some Assiniboine version of Ogopogo – Lake Manitoba’s answer to the Loch Ness Monster,) came back towards me just as rapidly and I cranked in the line. The fish then turned to make a second desperate escape bid neatly snapping the taut line, making off with my favourite red and white spinner and dashing my hopes of landing a really big one. If I were telling this to you in person, I would punctuate the story at this point with my arms stretched out widely.

So, we were returning to the Assiniboine, somewhere west of the bridge on PTH (Provincial Trunk Highway) 242 and east of the bridge on Highway 34 in search of the “big one that got away.” I am not certain which bridge was called the “new bridge” and who knows, they maybe call it the “new bridge” to this day, some 57 years later, such is the unique passage of time on the prairies. Only we never made it – car trouble.

Somewhere north of Notre Dame de Lourdes, we let it slip away. [Funny, these words evoke some notion of a Canadian version of “Me and Bobby McGee.”] Anyway, dad noticed that the gas gauge was going south faster than the old Austin was going north. A quick stop for dad to peer beneath the car, dust still billowing behind us and over our heads. The verdict: a small puncture in the gas tank. A new problem; never had this before. What to do? Perhaps it was too far to return to our home in Altamont? Besides, we both held out hope that it could be repaired and we could continue on our expedition. I also think my dad didn’t want to disappoint me. Dads are often like that.

It was a Sunday. I know this because my dad only ever had full days off on Sundays. So we continued on towards a nearby farm. We pulled into the yard and into an open shop (a wood frame building as it was in the days before there were many steel Quonset huts.) I don’t recall much other than the farmer was nice (they usually are) and wore the obligatory coveralls of the day. The floor of the shop was a combo of concrete and dirt – hard to know where one started and the other ended – both covered with oily, greasy substances accompanied by that distinctive petrol smell. My dad and the farmer quickly discussed the particulars of the situation and jacked the car up with a hand jack. Yep, closer examination confirmed the original diagnosis – a small puncture in the gas tank. I recall my father not being happy about the quality of the steel of the tank and the fact that there did not appear to be any protective shield for the gas tank.

What to do? There was a discussion about possibly welding the hole. Thank God this option was discarded quickly! A search for something to plug the hole ensued: rolled up paper – nope; rolled up cardboard – nope; small twigs – nope; some form of glue found in the shop – nope; gum chewed to a sticky mess by an eight-year old boy – nope. Combinations of the above – nope. Other materials were undoubtedly employed as potential solutions but none succeeded in stemming the slow leak.

A decision was made to top up the tank and turn for home, disappointed that the day would end without a fish, or even a fish story.  My father, being the methodical man he was, scratched out a rough equation in an attempt to determine the optimal speed to drive to be most efficient such that the amount of gas used by the motor minus the rate of leakage did not decline past zero i.e., we would not run out gas before we reached our home destination. All without speeding the poor Austin into the ditch or attracting the attention of the RCMP who patrolled those roads. I fear this mathematical learning opportunity was largely lost on me. We reached home safely and the “big one” got away once again. It was an anti-climax that the tank was repaired by sending it to Winnipeg. From that day forward, it always had an additional protective shield deflecting any gravel that would spit up from the roadbed.

Meanwhile, back on Highway 17 modern technology was working exactly as intended. Using our two cell phones we called roadside assistance covered courtesy of Ger’s CAA card. [Note to self: get one.] A tow truck and taxi were dispatched to our location. After a short cell phone conversation with the service department, the hybrid was towed to the dealership for repairs. We searched the internet on our cell phones for the closest car rental agency, determined car availability and had the taxi deliver us and our luggage to that exact location. A replacement car was secured. Phone calls and texts to those at our respective destinations were made, took time for lunch, and we were back on the road with only a two hour delay.

No one panicked – not even Parky.  My Parkinson’s remained remarkably in check – no exacerbated tremor or pain for that time period or for the remainder of the day. Amazing! Modern technology, money of course, and the presence of mind of my brilliant sister to have a roadside assistance card, took most of the guess work out of this crisis.

Maybe … but my past experience is that if Parky has an opportunity to screw things up, it will. So I am still left with the burning question: why didn’t my Parkinson’s act up and make life unbearable for me, if not for others? It could just be the reduced stress as noted above, or it could just be luck as Parkinson’s often is unpredictable with a mind of it’s own. I actually think that on this trip Parkinson’s was in the “boot” along with the luggage. As a kid I always laughed when the old timers referred to the trunk as the “boot” and the hood as the “bonnet.” The Austin had a boot, and a bonnet.  Our current car trouble was under the bonnet and Parky was discretely packed away in the boot.

Upon further reflection though, I am coming to realize it is also likely that I am developing (with a lot of help and encouragement) skills in implementing certain techniques and practices to diminish the impact of Parkinson’s – to keep it in the boot so to speak. For example,

(1) I have been reviewing for quite some time The Pain Toolkits produced by Peter Moore whom I follow on Twitter @paintoolkit2 and his website http://www.paintoolkit.org/  The toolkits and Peter’s encouragement on Twitter have been instrumental in my attempts to be in control.

(2) I switched my physiotherapy approach to LSVT BIG and PWR (Parkinson’s Wellness Recovery) at Action Potential Rehabilitation http://actionpotentialrehab.net/ where my physiotherapist is Sue Goodridge. Even though I have only had a few weeks under this program I already feel that I am gaining a better understanding of both the mechanics and the theory of physiotherapy as applied to Parkinson’s. Such things as movement, flexibility, coordination and balance are among the keys to a better quality of life. Even simple exercises such as “splaying my toes” remind my feet and brain that my toes are intended to move that way. For too long my brain was sending signals to my feet and toes that they should remain immobile in some futile attempt to avoid or lessen pain. In fact the opposite – more movement – is required. Movement and exercise are critical for persons with Parkinson’s.

(3) My physio, Sue, aside from having all the skills and qualifications of a physiotherapist, is quite expert in chronic and persistent pain. She has pointed me in a direction of “mindfulness meditation” as a way to approach stress-related persistent pain and to deal with muscle movement disorder. I am discovering that pain management is greatly enhanced when we have an ability to focus, or re-focus, the brain away from the problem. This is somewhat of a surprise to me as I have never been an adherent of meditation per se although I have long practiced what I jokingly refer to as “mind over matter trickery” to overcome both pain and tremor when I want to go to sleep. Of course, it may just be that I am exhausted …

Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way an expert in any of the above areas. I have only just begun this particular journey.  We shall see where it takes me and I shall be blogging from time to time about these experiences and adventures.  So far, I feel that there is real improvement and that my optimism is warranted.

That being said, none of these programs, techniques or practices is as important to me as the love, encouragement, understanding and support of Anne, our four daughters and their respective husbands/partners. They are the fuel for the engine that keeps my old chassis moving – even if the bonnet and boot are too large.

All of this rambling has been my usual long winded way of saying that I escaped what should have been a very stressful day as Parkinson’s was relegated to the ‘boot’ in the ‘car trouble’ affair. It was a pleasant drive with Ger and Terry to their destination, and good food, drink and stimulating conversation with Wendy and Ger made for a relaxing time when we reached our cottage destination.

But, I have to tell you a secret. Parkinson’s was not alone in the boot. My dad and his mother Maud (my grandmother) were also in the boot. I am pretty sure they had never been held captive in the boot when they were alive, and I am also pretty sure that this was not an imposition for their souls and/or spirits at this time. Nevertheless, our vehicle was carrying two of the three children born to Kathleen and Bert, our mother and father. Perhaps, our father provided prudence to my sister Ger to purchase the roadside assistance card; our grandmother Maud was in the boot to keep Parkinson’s under her stern and intimidating watch (you met her in earlier posts); and my dad also would not have wanted our mother who hated car trouble to worry – she is still living and so could not be in the boot but she was likely huffing at Bethany where she lives in Middle Lake, Saskatchewan.

How do I know they were with us? We were close to Terry’s sister’s where we were to drop Terry and Ger before we continued on to the cottage. Turning a corner, a field of naturalized lupines appeared on the left side. Struck by such beauty I braked abruptly (no one behind thank goodness,) and jumped out of the car to snap a few shots with my iphone – chalk another one up for technology.  At that point I knew that we were accompanied by someone who loved the passengers in this vehicle, who understood intrinsically the beauty of such a sight, and knew that I love lupines!

Photo: S. Marshall

Lupines!                                                                                                   Photo: S. Marshall

As always, my experiences leave me with a bit of a mystery or intrigue that raises questions, sometimes philosophical. In this case, both my grandmother and my dad were colourblind! Not a life threatening condition to be sure but how could they fully know what they were seeing?

What you see when you are colourblind.  Source: Coblis Colorblindness  Simulator  Photo: S. Marshall

What you might see if you were colourblind.  Source: Coblis Colorblindness Simulator                                                               Photo: S. Marshall

Surely if they hadn’t experienced the full visual effect, they could not know that the striking natural beauty of the lupines would literally stop us in our tracks, sending a signal to us that all was well. But think about it. They were horticulturists by nature and experience, and their love and appreciation of Nature allowed them to transcend this disorder of being colourblind. I try everyday to use my dopamine assisted brain to transcend a neurological disorder called Parkinson’s to alleviate pain and tremor.  And you know, it often works.

I can only conclude that on this particular day, Parkinson’s did not stand a chance.

 

Parkinson’s: Was it me, the pesticides or Diefenbaker?

You know, I didn’t plan much of my life. What I mean is that most of my life seems to have just happened to me.  I was there obviously, but it was as if I was swept along with the current and occasionally I would thrust an oar into the water to change direction – maybe out to sea, maybe into choppy waters, or maybe into a safe harbor.  In retrospect, maybe I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to what was happening. The question is: should I have been paying more attention and taken a more active role in setting the trajectory for my body and soul?

Would my life be different (better?) if I had formulated a grand plan or blueprint for living my life with measureable goals of achievement?  I have talked to many people who have such an orientation. Their life’s path and goals can be either detailed or general but they are never in doubt that when the final tally of their life’s work (existence) is counted, that it will be called a “success.”  Most argue that humans can control or shape their own destinies through their talents, skills, and abilities, and hard work, good judgment, and good decision-making can always be credited for success.  And conversely, if you are not a success, then you must not have the necessary skills or, more likely, you have screwed up somewhere along the way, by exercising bad judgment, bad decision-making or not working hard enough.

Curbside Tansy: Good planning, bad planning, no planning?  Photo: S. Marshall

Curbside Tansy: Good planning, bad planning, no planning? Photo: S. Marshall

I am not convinced that I can look back over my life with such certainty and proclaim that the trajectory I have followed has been purposeful to the point that I can claim to be its author either way. I certainly don’t feel as if I had a vision and worked successfully to realize that vision.  Undoubtedly, some would say that is a terribly sad thing to admit as the word “failure” carries such a heavy burden. Rest assured, I do not feel as if my life, in any respect, has been a failure.  It is just that I did not set the course alone and was not always aware of the destination.  But, as authors usually say, “I am indebted to all who made this work possible but any errors and omissions are my responsibilities alone….”  Very few say, “I took a laissez faire approach to this work and this is the way it turned out….”

I also do not think that I am a fatalist: someone who thinks that “fate” pre-determines life’s chances, direction and outcome.  This doesn’t really fit all that well with a previous post about the long shadow of the gardener where I outline the gardener’s role in intervening in the course of Nature and the role that humans play in successfully altering certain aspects of diseases and conditions affecting and afflicting the human condition.  While we do not have a cure for Parkinson’s, we most certainly do mitigate its symptoms through the use of pharmaceuticals and we alter its intensity through Deep Brain Stimulation and delay its progression through exercise. So, I am not a fatalist but neither am I in the camp where humans can absolutely control their own destiny.  Could it be that I am unknowingly floating along with one oar occasionally dipping into the water so that I am going in circles only sporadically rather than all the time?  Hmmm … that is an intriguing thought at least.

I can pretty much tell you with certainty that no one plans to have Parkinson’s Disease.  But I have it.  Does this mean that I have screwed up somewhere along the away?  Did I miss a cue where I could have jabbed my oar into the water more forcefully to change course?  Does it mean that I am a failure – perhaps weak of mind, weak of body, or that I used poor or bad judgment along the way? Is having Parkinson’s Disease an individual failing or weakness?  Is it similar to smoking and its relationship to lung cancer where we can point to the smoker and say self-righteously that they should not have smoked; they should have known better; and now they are paying the price.

Perhaps, I should have washed my fruits and vegetables more diligently over the course of my lifetime to ensure that I was not ingesting harmful chemicals used in agriculture. Perhaps, it goes back to my parents and grandparents as they grew many of those fruits and vegetables on the farm and in small town gardens using pesticides predominant in the 1950s and 1960s (and maybe unwittingly exposing themselves and their families to unnecessarily high levels.) These decades have been coined the “Golden Age of Pesticides” led by that miracle chemical DDT which gained credibility for its effectiveness in WWII.  A whole host of products were developed – pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, bactericides, miticides, rodenticides, nematicides, and fungicides – attacking pests, insects, fungus, weeds and other organisms which threatened the production of the world’s food resources. We know now that this was unhealthy but do we know that any of these chemicals cause (or caused) Parkinson’s?

Some nasty products inherited from previous owner.  Photo: S. Marshall

Some nasty products inherited from the previous owner of our house.   Photo: S. Marshall

While the relationship between pesticides and Parkinson’s is under greater and greater scrutiny, at the moment there is no scientific proof that the relationship is anything more than a correlation.  Interestingly, I did grow up in Manitoba where persons with Parkinson’s are overrepresented compared to the Canadian population.  One might surmise that Manitoba would be the ideal crucible for Parkinson’s with exposures to pesticides in the production of grains and market garden produce.  But I did not grow up on the Red River Valley flood plain, which had the highest concentration of pesticide use.  I grew up on the Manitoba escarpment formed by the shores of receding glacial Lake Agassiz.  A University of Manitoba research paper indicates that the incidence of Parkinson’s is higher along the escarpment than elsewhere in the province.  But, as usual, there are some complicating factors inasmuch as the area also has high levels of cadmium and arsenic compounds which places well water at risk of contamination through erosion and runoff.  I remember my father talking about possible arsenic contamination in our wells when I was a child in the 1950s.  Everyone in our rural location was on well water.

The present always links to the past of course, but the equation is never linear.  I guess there is no shortage of areas for me to research, contemplate and on which to opine.  I grow more like my father every day.

It is neither for personal gain nor ideological correctness that I encourage research on the relationship between Parkinson’s and pesticides.  I am sure that many would like to pin Parkinson’s on corporate greed, malicious actions of misinformation or withholding of information, and malfeasance in the application of these products.  There is litigation underway currently in at least one instance involving flight attendants on the matter of the use of pesticides on aircraft and the incidence of Parkinson’s among flight attendants.  Believe me, I am very supportive of these legal claims, but I am resigned to the fact that the most likely outcome of litigation is a settlement to those affected if the case meets what I call the “Erin Brockovich threshold” where the evidence is weighty enough to tip the corporations into a settlement.  It is true that settlements flowing from litigation provide a monetary marker that some level of justice has been reached, and a confirmation that pain and suffering has monetary value.  Indeed, some corporate behaviours will have been changed for the better in the process.  But the primary question of cause and effect remains unanswered.

The current thinking is that some genetic formations are responsive to an environmental trigger for Parkinson’s and pesticides may provide that environmental trigger in some, but not all, instances.  Still, while we are pretty certain that not all cases of PD are the consequence of exposure to pesticides, these findings provide encouragement that we may be closer to finding the cause and a cure.  I can only hope that is the case.

As much as I would like to shift the blame for my having Parkinson’s to pesticides or some other external factor, let’s return for a moment to the assumption that I have some control over my own destiny.  A slightly revised formulation of my question would be:  is Parkinson’s a consequence of having lived a “bad” life?

I am sure that you will excuse me if I approach this question in my usual unorthodox manner by asking:  Did the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker have anything to do with my having Parkinson’s?  John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister of Canada from June 21, 1957, to April 22, 1963.  I was 8 years old when Diefenbaker was elected Prime Minister and I remember vividly being enthralled with this character.  I would listen to his voice quavering through the radio (we didn’t have a television yet) and I could imagine his lips (which had the odd quality of being thin skinned but plump at the same time, with the lower lip often in the pouting position) on the verge of launching a spray of spittle as he castigated then opposition leader Lester B. Pearson of the Liberals on some matter of policy or perhaps, personal, difference.   Diefenbaker was always fodder for political cartoonists but it was particularly so in his later years when his jowls would hang down below his chin, shaking in indignation at his critics both within and outside the Conservative Party.

[I am not going to expound on Diefenbaker’s record as a politician, as it is not germane to any argument that I am going to make here, other than to make a personal observation that his achievements make him look like a freakin’ socialist compared to our current Conservative Prime Minister.  Sorry, I couldn’t resist.]

At any rate a corollary question has to be asked.  Did Diefenbaker himself have Parkinson’s Disease?  Remember, this was a time when there was little research and little medical thinking on the nature or prevalence of PD.  One biographer, Phillip Buckner, says that Diefenbaker had a “nervous habit of shaking his jowls which led to rumours that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease….” Of course an accusation of PD was designed to discredit Diefenbaker and cast doubt on his ability to lead a government.  On June 7, 2001 (22 years after Diefenbaker’s death,) the University of Saskatchewan took an unusual step to issue a press release, announcing research concluding that Diefenbaker did not suffer from Parkinson’s but had “essential tremor,” thus protecting, posthumously, his intellectual integrity and mental capacity to lead a Canadian national government.

OK, so what is all this about Diefenbaker?  The majority of you (a) weren’t even born when Diefenbaker was prime minister; (b) aren’t interested in historical political figures; (c) are apolitical; (d) live in another country; and e) think I have gone off my rocker.  These facts would indicate that I have gone in this direction pretty much to satisfy myself.  Could it be that I am now just beginning to understand that my recipe for blogging is one part self-indulgence on behalf of the writer, one part indulgence from the reader, and one part curiosity from both the writer and the reader as to whether any worthwhile windows on the writer’s soul will be opened if we continue?  I am not sure if you like this recipe, but as with any recipe, you should try it at least once – preferably not half-baked.

In spite of my early fascination with Diefenbaker, I was never a convert to his political vision and for years I openly made light of – no, I openly made fun of the possibility that Diefenbaker had Parkinson’s.  I would impersonate his voice and try to form a shake of my jowls (hidden beneath my beard!) in the most exaggerated manner possible with my lips quivering wetly and indignantly, “Ppppparkinson’s? Rrrriiiidicuulousss!”  It might have fit the atmosphere and political flavor of the moment and I recall that others and I laughed uproariously (more or less, depending on the amount of libation already consumed) at this totally inappropriate and spurious ad hominem attack.

So, I am left sometimes wondering:  am I now paying the price for some pretty stupid things I said about John G. Diefenbaker?  This is not the only stupid thing I have ever done in my life (my children will be surprised that I admit this,) but maybe it is the one thing that has floated to the top of some pond of scum that constitutes the totality of my failings, and the life I now live is matched to the chemical characteristics of that signature scum.

Sometimes the path and destination are not entirely clear. Photo: S. Marshall

Sometimes the path and destination are not entirely clear. Photo: S. Marshall

I haven’t made a study of how people rationalize life’s existence and condition, nor do I plan to do so.  Nevertheless, I would very surprised if any of us who have Parkinson’s doesn’t ask the question: why me?  [I am sure this is common for those who have other debilitating or life threatening conditions.]  And we begin to assess our life in ways that would offer an explanation.  There are, of course, many answers and many paths to follow in the quest for an answer.  Genetics? Pesticides? Other environmental factors?  God’s will?  The answer that makes sense to us as individuals provides the sustenance for our survival.  We need to understand and rationalize our existence, the condition of our existence, and the conditions placed upon our existence.  Not easy stuff to think about and not easy stuff to live.  Hopefully, each of us will find a path and an answer that allows for loving and caring relationships in our families and in our communities. I am exceedingly fortunate to have found such unequivocal love with Anne and all of our children.  But we must also, in our external relationships, free ourselves of bitterness and animosity to those who find different paths with different answers – whether existential or spiritual.

As I review these thoughts,  I am reminded that in a previous post, we flew perilously close to a philosophical sun without melting our wings; today I have taken us perilously close to religious concepts where we might conceivably burn up totally.  I have steered purposefully away from using words, concepts or constructs such as Heaven and Hell, sin and salvation.  Those ideas are undoubtedly on the path for many and are already part of the answer for many.  Are they part of mine?  They haven’t been to date. This is as far as I am prepared to go on this subject at the moment as it is quite foreign terrain for me.  Undoubtedly, I will wander there in future posts.

The only thing I am willing to concede is that I don’t for a minute think that John G. Diefenbaker would assign Parkinson’s Disease in an act of retribution from the Beyond.  But then, have I been speaking “literally” or “figuratively?”  Is Diefenbaker the personification of God?  I bet that he’s never been called that!  Although Dalton Camp may have called him the Devil!  (I hope this statement sends at least some of you scrambling for your Canadian political history books….)

So, why me?  It is not Diefenbaker’s doing.  I don’t believe it is because I led a “bad” life. Is it not fruitless to add up the totalities of one’s failures and successes to pass judgment on your life’s worth?  Anyway, isn’t that someone else’s job?  The jury is still out on the role of pesticides. And who knows whether I could have taken decisive action during my lifetime to change the course of my personal history with Parkinson’s?

Maybe the best answers are really questions: a) who knows (shrug)?  b) if gardens were planned like lives, would we have invented pesticides? and c) if lives were planned like gardens, would we have invented pesticides?

Bad Judgment: Letting The PD Gardener have the camera when his meds have worn off. Phota: S. Marshall

Bad Judgment: Letting The PD Gardener have the camera when his meds have worn off.       Photo: S. Marshall

In the Parkinson’s Garden: Ali, Michael J., and me

I am not sure what led me to consider writing a piece on humour and Parkinson’s Disease (PD.) On the surface, there does not seem to be much funny about Parkinson’s. I am not a particularly funny guy and I do not see myself as a humourist. My children may think I am funny (bless them) or more likely, that I have a weird sense of humour and that I am funny/strange (hey, in a good way.) Other than a few impromptu occasions when I played “Stanta” at the office Holiday lunch where I improvised a few in-house comments, I have avoided putting my mind to comedic endeavours. I do not write jokes, nor do I tell jokes particularly well. In fact, I barely remember any of the jokes I have heard over the past 60+ years and there have been tens of thousands of them.

Yet, here I am, sitting at the keyboard intent on writing about humour and Parkinson’s. Others have tackled this and done a far better job of it than I am likely to do (see Yuma Bev at http://www.parkinsonshumor.blogspot.com.) Perhaps, I am being deluded by dementia often associated with PD or maybe I have a propensity to achieve failure. Am I rising to the level of my own incompetence? [Oops, I almost typed “incontinence” instead of “incompetence.” That may well seep into my blog at some point, but not quite yet.]

Undoubtedly, a sense of humour is both learned and inherited. My father had a wry sense of humour and there are others in the extended family (living and dead) that I consider to have somewhat quirky outlooks on life. I confess though that the humour of the latter never developed much after their demise, but interestingly, the richness of their life stories did. Funny that.

Before I go too far, I think it is important to distinguish between humour and comedy. At the risk of appearing a bit “researchy,” and you know that I try to avoid rigourous research in this blog as much as possible, (some of my professors have told me I tried to do that in my academic work as well,) it is sometimes necessary to interject some sociological order into all universes. Dick Gregory, renowned American comedian and civil rights activist, described humour as everyday situations that happened in everyday life and relayed to others in informal settings. By contrast, comedy was paid work where individuals were divided into audience and performer – and the performer better have his/her comedic timing down pat.  With that in mind, I think that I am contemplating humour as opposed to comedy in this piece. But I do have PD and may appear to be confused, even if I am not.  Please read on to find out for certain.

I do not remember my paternal grandmother (Maud) well but my most explicit memories of her are from my childhood and teen years. (For the record, she was every bit the horticulturist that my grandfather was and I shall explore her talents more in later posts.) She always seemed to be a stern, straight-laced person, not particularly the cuddly type. Maybe being the mother of five sons had something to do with that. Nevertheless, I knew her to have quite a soft side. She was not above pulling one’s leg with some exaggeration or story of life. But she had one serious downfall – when she was engaged in some tomfoolery, she had an undeniable twinkle in her eyes. You only had to look at her straight on to learn whether what she was saying or doing was fact or fiction.

Maud "Granny" Marshall

Maud “Granny” Marshall   Photo: unknown

I inherited that same trait and it has proved to be my downfall on many occasions as I tried to pull off some spoof or other, or even, dare I say it, lie about something. My maternal grandfather (“Grampa Bill”) also possessed a well-developed sense of humour with no ability to conceal it so I am doubly cursed with this weakness. Those who know this fact quickly find me out in any ploy.  Genetically speaking, both sides of the family ganged up on me – for humour at least, and who knows about the PD?

Personifying Dick Gregory’s juxtaposition of humour with comedy, Grampa Bill also established himself as a performer – not so much paid as rewarded – in various social settings such as Legion Halls and gatherings of army buddies. He maintained a constant patter of jokes coupled with a long playlist of old standards and comedic ditties played on an old squeezebox. I did not inherit this latter talent but can only surmise that some residual features of it still percolate through my personality from time to time.

My children have grown accustomed to my (often) sad attempts at humour although it does create some genuinely funny and absurd conversations where we riff off one another with bad puns and malapropisms.  It is particularly fun in this electronic age of text messaging. They speak openly in front of me, as if I am not present, of their personal concerns about having my sense of humour. I am afraid that they have good reason but at least they have some early warning.  My greatest wish is that they inherit my sense of humour such as it is … and not any genetic propensity for Parkinson’s.

Humour can be learned to an extent but it can’t be forced. If you have ever witnessed someone who is unfunny trying to be funny, you know that it must come from deep inside the genetic code. I can hear my ancestors as I start into a conversation that has some potential to be funny. Hmmm … psychosis and hallucinations (both visual and auditory) are routinely part of the lives of approximately 25% of PwP, usually later in the progress of the disease.  There are several potential triggers for hallucinations but these are best left to another time. This is an aspect of PD that has not visited me yet. I am not sure it ever will but I can’t say that I am looking forward to it if it does.  Still, I don’t think that retrieving sub-conscious memories of past relatives constitute hallucinations but … I shall have to be careful about what I say here ….

What I am about to write now would shock my grandmother and I doubt that there would be a twinkle in her eye – more likely she would have some sharp words uttered through pursed thin lips. Nevertheless, I shall charge ahead in some perceived need to edify myself about the fact that comedy and humour may take different forms even if the situation is essentially the same.

Consider the following scenario: you find yourself (assuming you are male) between Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox at the urinals at a baseball game. (If you are female, make any assumptions you wish.) By the way, I have taken the fundamental premise of this scenario from a real joke circulating on the Internet.

A comedian or comedy writer is likely the one who thought up this scenario and in its telling will add some quick repartee about having to be careful with all that shaking going on (Parkinson’s you know, wink, wink.) Regardless of how much beer or other liquid has been consumed by any of the parties involved, the interaction (and the joke) is over quickly.

Others will also have contemplated this scenario but will have presaged it with considerable verbiage around never having met Muhammad Ali and being disappointed that the only celebrity in sight at the game played in Los Angeles has been Michael J. Fox who was almost overlooked, as he was so short. The writer opines that he paid a bundle for the tickets because he wanted to see some celebrities. Late in the game he makes a trip to the bathroom and, lo and behold, he sees Muhammad Ali and is so overcome with excitement that he extends his hand to shake Ali’s while he is at the urinal. Of course this is a dodgy proposition at the best of times. The comic then clumsily mutters something about being glad he did not end up between Ali and Fox.  [shakey, Parkinson’s, yada yada.]  The joke ends up in essentially the same place.

However, let’s assume that you are a PwP and further assume that you have a sense of humour.  PD humour is largely self-deprecating and based on our personal, lived experience.  It transpires that you actually do end up, by pure happenstance, at the urinals in a real life situation between Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali. Wow! The humour is in the account of the meeting. After all, whom do you pretend not to glance at first? Add your own Parkinson’s shakiness into the equation and suddenly Ali and Fox have something to fear as well. Further, the fact that Muhammad Ali is 6 ft. 3 in. and Michael J. Fox is 5 ft. 4 in. provides all kinds of potential for quips about being drenched from head to toe, etc.  But what separates this PwP account of the meeting at the urinals from others is that it is experiential and the humour flows from that fact. There may well have been an exchange between Ali and Fox as they know one another; and you, yourself, may have participated in the exchange. The humour is in the telling of a true story, but with just enough embellishment to make the listener check to see if there is a twinkle in your eye … or not.

But there is nothing funny about Parkinson’s Disease, is there?  It is a disease to be feared and among the last words you ever want to hear from a neurologist are, “you have Parkinson’s.”  However, my neurologist did say to me recently, “you have six months left.”  It turned out that he was referring to how long my current prescription for L-dopa would last. I never really thought I only had six months left to live, but it was funny to hear it, as he said it. Why is that?

But what are you going to do, when life deals you a lousy hand? Oh you know, there are all the usual motivational sayings and/or lyrics from uplifting songs: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” “Just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.” “Dig down deep and fight back.” They don’t really work for me.

I am not trying to downplay the importance of motivational and inspirational sayings, or soul-strengthening passages from the texts of various religions. They are important to each of us in how we face PD and its intractable march to destroy our brains and bodies. For me, humour has its own inspiration and is more than a coping mechanism; it is one of the essential ingredients for quality of life and survival.

I have great admiration for the Michael J Fox show and everyone involved with it. It is difficult to write Parkinson’s humor – too obvious and it appears that you are mocking those who have PD – too subtle and only those who know the details of Parkinson’s will get it. There is a need to strike a balance between the two.  As a PwP, I truly appreciate the subtle humour that makes me feel I am an “insider,” privy to information that only very few others have. But then again, I want some things to be really obvious, front and centre; to raise the profile of PD, providing education and awareness to the ravages of this very unfunny disease; to drive home the points that more research and funding is required to find a cure; to impress that economic, social and health policy need to be aligned to provide quality of life so that dignity is not the final victim of PD.

Do I think that the Michael J. Fox Show is the best comedy show on TV? No, but I do laugh out loud more than three times each week which is better than the bar I set for many other shows.

So, what if I met Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali in my garden? Ha!  That is a scenario even more unlikely than my meeting them at the urinals. But if I did meet them in my garden, we would hear Anne shrieking: “ Watch where you guys are treading! There are tender young seedlings under there you know!” I have heard this admonition many, many times as I lurch around the garden like Young Frankenstein when my meds are wearing off.  Intellectually, I know what is happening and I look down in a sort of “out of body” experience to see my feet heading wherever they feel like, while my mind is stepping as delicately as possible. I have come to enjoy “lurching”, at which I am getting ever better.  If you haven’t tried it, maybe you should. It is good exercise with those long strides that force you to concentrate to avoid pitching head over teakettle into the shrubbery.

The challenge of the garden wall   photo: S. Marshall

The challenge of the garden wall    Photo: S. Marshall

I often find myself focusing on the 8-inch garden wall in front of me as if I were about to attack the balance beam at an international gymnastics competition. If I can reach it without damaging some baby brown-eyed Susan’s, I will have exited the garden with minimal damage. Wait, don’t they grow like weeds anyway? Why am I so concerned about them? I tell myself to hell with the brown-eyed Susan’s – just get one foot on the wall and then step down to the path without gaining any extra momentum. If I lose the battle of agility to the one of speed, I will end up crossing the path, crashing through the Monarda (Marshall’s Delight no less) and pitching into the Rosa Rugosa. What follows will be the ignominy of a cross-examination as to why I smell vaguely of spicy herbal tea, have scratches all over my hands and arms, and rose petals in my hair.  

It is at this point that I call on “Brother John” (Anne’s brother) as a role model for balance success.  I am much indebted to Brother John for a classic image of him raising his arms in triumph as he executed a perfect landing, after launching himself from his sitting position on the couch to a standing position directly in front of the couch. With that portrait of success etched into my dopamine deprived brain, I initiate a long graceful stride to the wall and then a split second later, another one to the path with my arms high in the air in the victory position – the audience roaring its approval and the announcer shouting, “Wow!  He really stuck that landing.” I don’t believe it until I check myself for rose thorns and/or blood trickling down my bare arms.  

I do sometimes fantasize that Ali, Michael J. and I are in the garden. I am pretty sure this is a fantasy and not a hallucination.  The collateral damage would be considerable but it would be the best and probably funniest day of my life! Ali would be bobbing and weaving, playing rope-a-dope against the fence with his head just visible among the Joe Pye weed, Jerusalem Artichoke, and Rudbeckia quoting poetry: “… float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” appropriate for any self respecting perennial garden. Michael J. would be channeling Alex Keaton, vainly waving his arms about in the shorter brown-eyed Susan’s and Echinacea to convince us that this waste of space could be put to better use as a condo development. Or perhaps MJF would provide a private re-enactment of Marty McFly and the famous guitar performance of “Johnny B Good” in Back to the Future, only this time from the “Gardens.”  In any case, seedlings and full-grown plants stand directly in harm’s path.

 

Is Ali bobbing and weaving with Joe Pye, Jerusalem Artichoke and Rudbeckia?  Photo: S. Marshall

Is Ali bobbing and weaving with Joe Pye among the Jerusalem Artichoke and Rudbeckia? Photo: S. Marshall

But back to reality. My response to Anne’s shrieks to step carefully is invariably the same, “if you want a gardener with PD to clean up this mess of weeds, you have to expect some collateral damage! I am not called The PD Gardener for nothing, you know.”  That, along with a well-timed diversionary question about the new peony in a bed I haven’t yet tramped across, usually buys me enough time to escape the scene of the carnage.

There is much more to be said about humour, gardens and Parkinson’s, and all the permutations and combinations cannot be addressed in one post. I was going to say “short post” but you would snicker at that characterization. I shall return in future ramblings to chat about the Parkinson’s world, from the inside out.

In the meantime, I have learned that gardens, for the most part, recover from unintentional Parkinson’s invasions. And the benefit to a PwP for having the opportunity “to trod” in such gardens is immeasurable. Any sacrifices the flora has made are returned more than a hundred fold to the maintenance of a healthy PwP outlook on life. I have also learned that finding humour in what we are and what we do is critical to understanding that, while not everything in life is what we would wish, when one is in the garden, alone or with loved ones and friends, life is damn near perfect.   

Maneuvering in this garden is a challenge!  Photo: S. Marshall

This garden would be perfect if I hadn’t stepped on the seedlings!   Photo: S. Marshall

Parkinson’s and the Gardener’s Shadow

Every year about this time, I begin to look out at the frozen tundra of our garden and wimper, “everything’s dead ….”

 

"Everything's dead ..." Photo: S. Marshall

“Everything’s dead … ” Photo: S. Marshall

But the magic always returns in the spring with snowdrops and crocus shoots emerging even before the snow and ice have fully receded. I marvel at the resilience of the flora that survives in the Ottawa Valley.  In the gardening parlance of plant hardiness zones, we are mostly in zone 3 but plants hardy to zone 4 and 5 often survive in specific microclimates. 

I don’t know why I am surprised, because I grew up in the even harsher climate of the Manitoba prairie where zone 2 would be the order of the day with some zone 3 locations.  And my family in The Pas, Manitoba and Humboldt, Saskatchewan (in sub-arctic zones) would snort at any suggestion that the Ottawa climate is “harsh” compared to what they live through.  Nevertheless, they do try to rationalize their choice to continue living in such a climate by citing the old saw that theirs is a “dry” cold, and therefore they are not really that cold.  However, anyway you slice it, the mean annual temperature of The Pas – 0.3 C (31.5 F) compared to Ottawa 6 C (42.8 F) tells the story.  Ottawa is cold and The Pas is damn cold – ‘nuff said.

It is small wonder that humans have spent considerable effort to overcome their environment by developing a variety of shelter options and energy uses to provide protection from the cold, and heat in other parts of the world. Of course, there is considerable evidence that we have not been effective stewards of planet earth in our efforts to protect the very environment we are protecting ourselves from, so to speak. I will not address that issue today but, rest assured, it will return to these pages in the future. It is too important to ignore.

There are many who would avow that nature should always be allowed to take her own course without human intervention.  Of course, this idea, unfettered and taken at its extreme, cannot be achieved. It would mean that humans could never intervene in the course of nature in order to better the human condition, or indeed to survive. Humans have always sought to “tame” nature, to “overcome” nature, to “improve upon” nature, to “protect” them from nature’s wrath as well as to “benefit” from nature’s bounty. 

There are countless theses and dissertations written in disciplines as varied as engineering, philosophy, environmental science, sociology, psychology, architecture, and literature to name but a few, exploring the relationship that humans have with nature. I don’t plan to engage in an academic exercise of outlining all of the issues and conducting some sort of meta-analysis by formulating hypotheses and reaching conclusions – believe me, I am as thankful for this as you are. My observations are, as usual, anecdotal and unscientific but hopefully thought provoking.  

It is important to understand that the gardener always will tinker in the garden and always will intervene to alter the course of nature, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. And sometimes just to show that we can. It was reported recently that a man in Chidham, West Sussex in the UK has successfully grafted 250 varieties of apples onto one tree over the course of some 24 years. Don’t believe me? Google it.  

Upon reading that account, I was reminded of my watching, as a young child, my paternal grandfather (Bob) grafting what seemed to me to be twigs onto various types of trees in his orchard.  He meticulously demonstrated how to prune the spear being grafted at a precise angle to be inserted into an incision in a branch of the receiving tree. It would be bound with twine or a piece of bark and covered with a type of rooting hormone and gum to cover the tender incision.  I am told he was successful in grafting more tender varieties of apples onto hardier rootstock and even produced some apricots in a climate not favourable to such tender fruits in southern Manitoba.

That is a fine memory indeed but do you know what I really remember?  I remember my grandfather’s hands as he manipulated his old pocketknife (sharpened on a foot powered treadle grinder in the farm shop) in a gentle but firm procedure. I remember his thick thumbs and fingers, seemingly incapable of such dexterity, being more than adequate to slip the young scion into the incision for the graft. Those fingers had often used that same pocketknife to cut a slice of apple, proffered to me with pride, from one of the many varieties grown in the orchard on his farm. And amazingly, even though Parkinson’s has diminished my sense of smell considerably, the crisp scent of that apple still tingles in my olfactory lobe. Tart and clean.

Not even sure what kind of apples these are.  Must get my pocket knife. Photo: S.Marshall

Not even sure what kind of apples these are. Must get my pocket knife. Photo: S.Marshall

But more than that, I remember those same thumbs and fingers on my father’s hands as he tended his flowers and vegetables in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. A short growing season, but loam rich soil and many hours of sunshine made for a fast transition from spring planting to fall harvest. Dad also had a pocketknife which he used to cut into various fruits and seeds in his efforts to provide an education on gardening (if not horticulture) to a mostly unreceptive teenager – me. I watched his hands grow old in the garden, in his workshop, and in his efforts to keep his mind sharp by filling out every crossword and Sudoku puzzle he could find, in pen. 

Today, I look down to see those same thumbs and fingers on my own hands as I deadhead spent flowers, root out troublesome weeds, and dig with an old spade to move, remove, or replace various perennials. But there is no pocketknife in my hands. The era of security checks at airports have diminished their numbers, although I am pretty sure that I have one or two tucked away in my ‘odds and sods’ drawers (yes, more than one drawer.) However, unlike my father’s or grandfather’s, my hands often shake and my fingers fumble to meet the task at hand. Parkinson’s is never far away if it is not immediately present.

But I am not disturbed by my inadequacies. Rather, I am heartened that I had the great fortune to witness those hands fly across three generations with a destiny to toil in a vocation (for my grandfather) and an avocation (for my father and me) to assist nature in creating beauty, joy and satisfaction.

Humans have long put their own stamp on ‘gardens,’ witness the many and varied formal and informal garden types neatly categorized within a nationalist typology: English, French, Japanese, Dutch, Korean, Spanish, Persian, Chinese, Italian, etc. All are created with plants and hardscape endemic to their namesake nations, if not to their immediate environs. But most have unmistakable human influences that, while artificial, are evidence of efforts to “improve” upon nature. I was reminded of this during a short walk we took recently in the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa.

William Lyon Mackenzie King was Prime Minister of Canada for a remarkable 22 years in total during the years 1921 – 1948 and developed a country retreat at Kingsmere north of Ottawa in Quebec. He bequeathed that estate to the people of Canada and, among other things, the public is welcome to view his attempts at creating “ruins” on the property. He salvaged portions of buildings and landmarks being demolished in Ottawa and relocated them to Kingsmere. It is widely known that Mackenzie King was quirky to say the least, and some may think that these “ruins” are folly but most visitors would likely agree that they are creative enhancements to nature’s already established beauty.

Does this ruin the View? Photo: S. Marshall

Does this ruin the view? Photo: S. Marshall

Still, anyone who gardens knows that nature is not always beneficent and we sometimes intervene deliberately with the intention of altering the trajectory of a phenomenon that is harmful. On a very small scale, I am trying to root out some very invasive vinca minor (periwinkle) that is threatening to take over and choke an entire bed of hostas and other innocent victims. Periwinkle, in its place, is a very fine, hardy ground cover that can thrive in considerable shade and has a lovely, small flower (periwinkle of course.) Unchecked, it wants to take over the world.

Vinca minor (periwinkle) would like to take over the world. Photo: S. Marshall

Vinca minor (periwinkle) would like to take over the world. Photo: S. Marshall

Whether I like it or not, I have Parkinson’s Disease, a natural phenomenon with no known cure. It is neurologically invasive.  Many organizations are working diligently and relentlessly to fund and conduct scientific research to achieve a cure. Success would mean a monumental change in the course of history for millions of Persons with Parkinson’s (PwP) and their families, and for those who are at risk for Parkinson’s. I do not expect to benefit personally from this work. The time frame is too short; the disease is too advanced. No matter, it is critical to continue to pursue a cure. Scientists, Parkinson’s support groups, fundraising organizations, fundraisers, caregivers, family members of PwP, individuals and philanthropists are all in agreement that a cure is our primary goal. But there are at least three corollary ‘meantimes.’

In the first ‘meantime’, we continue to use the gold standard of levodopa along with an array of other pharmaceuticals to keep the disease in check and to help us remain upright in a never-ending struggle to defy the inevitable.  Chemical assistance works to a certain degree but there are long-term and short-term side effects, and drugs do wear off. 

In the second ‘meantime’ we pursue strategies to alter the functioning of the brain.  For example, Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) is an invasive brain surgery that has brought relief to many PwP.  I am privileged to have met someone recently who had DBS although at the time of this writing he has yet to have the stimulus unit fine-tuned to its final settings. Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to witness the improvement in his tremor even without the full effect. It was also a pleasure to witness the genuine excitement and relief that he and his spouse exhibited throughout a lengthy process of being accepted, having the surgery, and in the immediate post-surgery period. I am confident that the next time we meet they will be wildly satisfied with the outcome.

There is also hope that a newer, less invasive ultrasound brain procedure will be as effective as DBS by focusing ultrasound waves on a specific part of the brain killing the cells causing the tremor. This procedure requires neither invasive surgery nor a general anesthetic and holds great promise to alleviate some symptoms and provide a much improved quality of life for PwP and their families. 

I am under no illusion that DBS or ultrasound is a “cure.” They are not. Some of the more problematic characteristics of Parkinson’s are decreased but not totally eliminated.  Most patients receiving the treatment still require drugs such as levodopa but usually in much reduced quantities. DBS or ultrasound is not for everyone. In my own case, I do have considerable tremour when the medication wears off but my major concern is cramping and pain in my legs and feet. I am not sure that these can be changed through these procedures.

Other research seeking to unlock the genetic code of PD is underway and may well lead to the discovery of ‘markers’ allowing for earlier identification and treatment. All scientific research must continue.

It would be an understatement to say that PwP, families and caregivers are praying that a cure can be found. Those of us in our mid-sixties or older know the likelihood of a cure within our lifetimes is exceedingly slim. Perhaps those with early onset Parkinson’s will see the development of a cure. Realistically, that would be my greatest wish and the best possible outcome.

In the third ‘meantime’, we must focus on other measures such as exercise to delay the progression of Parkinson’s and to alleviate some of its immediate effects.  The October 2013 World Parkinson’s Congress in Montreal brought together research scientists, physicians, PwP and their families, caregivers, therapists, health and social work professions, health policy analysts, fundraising organizations, advocates, and many others from around the world to inform, discuss, analyze and make recommendations.  I did not attend but followed the congress on various websites and Twitter postings.

At the time I did not know many PwP personally but still the excitement about the Congress was palpable, driven by a sense that all players in the Parkinson’s equation would meet on common ground to share critical information to make a quantum leap towards enhanced quality of life for PwP and their families, and a cure.

The concept of exercise – moving our bodies in some deliberate physical manner for at least 30 minutes each day – was pervasive at the Congress. It is beneficial to those facing a wide variety of physical and mental illnesses. Parkinson’s is one of those.  I am not fooling myself into thinking that exercise can cure any disease but it appears that its greatest benefit is to delay the progression of some of the most problematic symptoms e.g., rigidity, stiffness, slowing of gait, feelings of weakness, imbalance, etc.  As long as these can be delayed, changed, or improved, exercise is a good prescription. There is even a very good campaign in the UK to have physicians prescribe exercise as per guidance issued to the National Health Service by the UK National Institute of Health and Care Excellence. (See Exercise Works! http://www.exercise-works.org/.)

Exercise for PwP can take a wide variety of forms with walking, Nordic pole walking, cycling, running, x-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, aerobic exercises, rowing, Pilates, yoga, dance, Tai Chi, and boxing being among the most popular.  The National Ballet School in Canada and the Mark Morris Dance Group for PD in New York have specific ballet and dance classes for PwP.  Each type of exercise has its adherents and specific selling points – cardiovascular, flexibility, balance, strength, concentration, etc.  Nevertheless, they are all in agreement, exercise is critical to physical and mental health in PD and to delaying the disease.  (Nevertheless, Anne and I do have a good chortle when we imagine me doing arabesques or pirouettes. Don’t underestimate the importance of laughter in the medicine cabinet.)

Rather than ballet, I have been developing a regimen of cardiovascular training using a NordicTrack machine, some light weight training with free weights, along with aggressive gardening (attacking weeds and invasive plants with vigour.)  Coupled with good nutrition and eating habits, I lost over 35 pounds since January 2013 and I feel better. Or at least I did until recently when I seem to have developed some issues with sciatica and/or right hip. My neurologist is clear it is not PD related so I continue to explore the problem with other doctors. This new development, while somewhat painful, has me very much frustrated that I am not able to continue my regular exercise routine. I take this frustration to be further anecdotal proof of the thesis that exercise is beneficial as it has a negative consequence when withdrawn. I am currently awaiting results from x-rays and will be seeking further medical attention in the coming weeks.  Stay tuned.  

You know, I have always thought that I was ‘progressive’ but I didn’t really want to have progressive aging along with a progressive neurodegenerative disease – both incurable by the way.  In any case, it is sometimes difficult to discern which symptoms are related to PD and which are just related to getting older. PD itself is a series of ups and downs, good days and bad days. Growing old just adds to the fun! Ain’t life just peachy that way?

I once told a student that he should always write something to signal that his paper has a conclusion, or is coming to a conclusion. His next paper succinctly intoned: “Here comes the end.” So, take heart, the end (of this post only!) is near.

Today, we have drifted perilously close to some heated philosophical debates about humans and nature without having ventured so near as to melt our wings. We will need those wings for other flights into the worlds of Parkinson’s and gardens, as they do meet regularly but mysteriously.

Just as every gardener casts a long shadow and a watchful eye over the garden in the belief that we can improve on nature, every person touched by Parkinson’s tries to cast a shadow over this hated disease to alter its natural course.

I leave you with these questions: Can humans partner with Nature on an equal basis to create beauty? Can humans win the struggle with Nature to eradicate the ugly?

The gardener's shadow is omnipresent. Photo: S. Marshall

The gardener’s shadow is omnipresent. Photo: S. Marshall