Friday, October 28, 2011

Shaking Is Not Normal!

The shaking began slowly, like a shimmy in the steering wheel when the tires are not properly balanced or the front end is out of alignment. My initial response was to laugh a little (not out loud). "My old car has early onset Parkinson's!" But soon the joke ended as the tremor evolved into a serious shudder as we began to literally bump down the freeway.  It was as if one tire was oblong instead of round.  My friend, Gord, and I, looked at each other.  We knew what it was.

It was past 5 PM on Sunday, day two of our road trip to California. Until that moment my ‘67 Camaro had performed like the true classic she was. We had carefully checked radiator level, engine oil, automatic transmission fluid and tire pressure (even the spare, which had a habit of losing air). We had driven her carefully, averaging 55 to 60 miles an hour.  Every car on the road passed us, but that was fine. We just wanted to enjoy the adventure. Well, the journey, like a good adventure, had just become a little less predictable.
We were 17 miles north of Sacramento. We pulled over onto the shoulder to inspect each of the rare, red striped tires. It was the left rear tire. The tread, despite having little wear, had separated. We surmised that it was likely the heat from highway speeds.  A bulge the size of a large egg had developed in the middle of the tread of the tire. It could go no further without potentially sending us into some guardrail. Pulling out the somewhat leaky spare and the somewhat rusty jack, we soon realized the old-style wheel nut wrench was no match for the pneumatic impact wrench that had tightened the lug nuts. They would not budge.  We could not change the seriously damaged tire. We needed a better tool.
Limping our way to the next freeway exit with a gas station, we tried, in simple English, to explain our predicament to a Punjabi-speaking immigrant employee.  But as the sole attendant he was struggling with a more dangerous issue. While the gas station was open, a blazing beacon of hope, it had no gasoline, only diesel. This was not going over well with prospective customers, the bulk of whom were driving monster, 5 mile per gallon farm trucks, which explained why gas was $4.01 per gallon and why California was in serious financial trouble. Fighting off constant mosquito attacks, we approached everyone who was willing to talk to us in an effort to find a better tool to remove the wheel. Finally, after 15 minutes and an equal number of mosquito bite welts, two Hispanic young men wearing crocodile skin cowboy boots agreed to loan us the crossbar tool we needed. It took a while to find the wrench, as the trunk space in the late-model Mustang convertible was almost completely filled with throbbing speakers.
By the time we reached the next sizable town, Woodland, California, no tire stores were open, it being after 6 PM on a Sunday. We knew that we needed new tires or face the potential of roadside desertion. We did not yet know how difficult finding the right tires would be. Deciding it was safer to stay rather than go on to our planned destination, the ubiquitous Motel 6, at $49 a night, presented itself as the most logical overnight accommodation.

The next morning brought sunshine, but our enthusiasm was dampened immediately at the national chain tire shop where we were told, "These are very rare tires. We will have to order them in and it will take two or three days". We chose to venture back onto the I-5.
It was 3 PM on day three when the familiar shaking began again. We were 15 miles out of Bakersfield California, with time running out on finding a solution to our tire problems. But, after numerous stops, we came upon a kind soul who phoned the owner of a local but out of the way tire shop for us. He, in turn, located, complete with a layer of dust and ample evidence of a spider’s comfortable home, two mismatched, old stock, black wall tires that fit Babe’s 14 inch rims. They must have been the last two in the State of California. We were obviously desperate, traveling through, once-in-a-lifetime customers.  Despite Gord's able negotiation efforts, we doubtless paid too much for something the tire shop was only too glad to be rid of.  Still, we were happy to have them.
By 6 PM we were back on the road, headed towards the Mojave Desert with two new (sort of) tires and one leaky spare.  My tremors (the Parkinson’s variety) were worsening as I considered the ominous information gained about the two remaining, red striped, ready to blow, front tires. What were the chances of another two tires developing a bad bout of STD “separating tread disaster”?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


She could not remember the last time raindrops had slipped carelessly down her sleek sides. She had stayed inside so long, only venturing out when I took her for short junkets on a rare sunny Sunday afternoon. Her recent years had been spent silent, hidden under her blue sheet, no doubt feeling abandoned.  But today was different. Today, mixed with the odour of burning leaves, was a tangible smell of excitement; real adventure awaited her. It was like the good old days. The hours spent exploring country roads or speeding down a freeway. They were simple times.  Carefree times. Classic times, really. 
"Babe" had always sported a soft, shy blue color since she came out of her Flint, Michigan, factory 45 years ago. She was always pretty and desirable, but had spent a good many years as basic transportation, suffering the normal bumps and bruises that come from undersized parking stalls and following trucks too closely.  But over the last 18 years she has become, like most of those who first drove her, semi-retired.   Even so, after some needed body work, new factory-authentic paint and restored interior, Babe must have felt brand new and ready to go. But to protect the classic she had now become she was, something like my daughter's cat, an 'inside car', to be taken outdoors only under ideal conditions.
Taking a road trip to California in a 1967 Camaro, powered by a 250 cubic inch motor, may seem like a trip down memory lane. The only thing is that my memory had managed to blindly glorify the 'good old days'. There have been some changes over the past 45 years.
Modern vehicles may enjoy luxuries such as multi-zoned temperature controls and expensive audio/visual systems, Babe had a simple fan/temperature/defrost control (no air conditioning) that worked best in cooperation with small, triangular, side-vent windows called, inexplicably, "no drafts", a long since outmoded feature. There was no back up warning system or electronics of any kind. The AM radio and windshield washer had not worked for years. The headlights were dimmed by a small, left-foot operated button, if you could find it in the dark. There was no cruise control, right hand mirror, 3-point seat belts (lap belts only), headrests, intermittent wipers (2-speed though!) or dashboard gauges (except for fuel and speed).   But … Babe did have… an ashtray and working cigarette lighter. You never know when they could come in handy.
Despite being in good shape for a classic, things are not the same.  She has to be driven more slowly, fluids checked more often and she does not idle as smoothly as before. Long trips, such as this one to California, are adventures more than comfortable drives, leaving us more fatigued than we had expected.
Babe, who has been in the family for a very long time, has become like me. Slower, movements are accomplished more carefully. Everything takes a little longer.  There are some undefined rattles and Babe shakes some, especially at faster speeds. She is trying her best to be what she once was, but might be better off just enjoying her new place as a classic; still fully functional and capable of more than being left in the spare garage. 
This little road trip will probably take a toll on both Babe and me. But it was worth it. Truly classic.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Halloween, Politics and Parkinson's Disease

Halloween is approaching so elections must be right around the corner.
When I was growing up the nearest city lights, such as they were, could only be seen from my family’s farm as a distant glow in the western sky.  Back then, Halloween was a major event in the lives of my friends. However, we had discovered that no matter how many O Henry bars, red candied apples, caramel popcorn balls or homemade taffy chews you ate that night, you actually lost weight. That was because trick-or-treating was a dark and sometimes dangerous walk between spreadd out houses just to extract a rather small supply of goodies. Long, muddy driveways, small, homemade snacks, dogs with questionable pedigree bounding and barking out of nowhere and, worst of all, no subdivisions, all led to a meager haul. Treats were literally few and far between. Trick-or-treating bore no resemblance to today's chauffer-driven, hundred-houses-in-an-hour, mad excuse for pillaging one's neighborhood on October 31.
However, for we young lads who, whether it was day or night, knew the countryside like the back of our hands, Halloween became an invitation to engage in widespread terrorist treachery; trick and treat. We were like the mujahedin waging an unholy jihad by plundering the easily frightened pilgrims of limited progress. Surprising as it may seem by today's standards, most groups of costumed youngsters werevulnerable, unaccompanied by any phalanx of protective adults. We knew what we wanted and how to get it. We were marauders in a frenzied but fixated state, armed with bandoliers of firecrackers. We launched "cherry bombs", "Tom Thumbs" as well as full packages of "red devils", "canons", and "ladyfingers", fuses lit, in the direction of our quarry. There were none of those “adults only, stand back, careful of your eyes and then say ooooohhhh and aaaaahhhhh" fireworks of today.
The fact that we teenage tyrants were disguised with blackened faces, and dressed in dark clothing when we laid siege, was, in hindsight, probably of questionable benefit. Everyone in our community knew everyone else. Anyone could identify the walk, the voice, the mannerisms and clothing of each member of our gang without much trouble. Nonetheless, we knew that the hapless targeted children were scared and more than willing to drop their bulging pillowcases and run for the nearest porch light. It only took a few of those Robin Hood raids before we could neither eat nor carry more booty. Thereafter, we limited our strategy to high grading each goodie bag. In this way we considered ourselves merciful, leaving the less desirable spoils well within sight of our victims, having only taken only the most sought after chocolate bars and other treats. Shocking juvenile delinquent behavior? Probably. But it all seemed to be part of a game back then. We neither meant nor caused any actual harm. We may have even saved a few trick-or-treaters from a night of terrible tummy aches!
Many of those seeking public office are selfless, community-serving, honest folks, not armed home invaders. But it seems that some politicians who knock on our doors with their hands out are really simply disguised as benefactors, glibly promising to serve the best interests of our communities. They come polling for popularity rather than standing up for principle. It is literally a modern-day trick-or-treat process at times. Those hapless voters who hand out the treats are more likely to avoid the tricks. But like Halloween, elections seem to come once a year. The days leading up to the event are filled with frantic activity in preparation. And when the voting is over, the masks come off, the candy is eaten, and life returns to normal.
Unfortunately, Parkinson's disease, like many other "causes", plays a role in politics. Profile and promotion, the endless appetite for press coverage and photo ops can often drive the plight of PD into the waiting arms of the press and politicos. It seems to me that we, the people with Parkinson's, must avoid being pawns in the game of partisan politicals. I  know, Governments, often under-informed, seem to be necessary partners in funding the pursuit of answers to the Parkinson's puzzle.  But, to continue the metaphor, we must remember that the hype of each Halloween dissipates quickly amidst the pressing priorities of what follows. Then it is the people with Parkinson's who are left, alone and unable to remove their masks.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Un-Thanksgiving

Canadian Thanksgiving and I feel guilty. In fact, it seems like an Un-Thanksgiving.  Far from grateful, my thoughts are caught up in a whirlpool of discouragement and discontent. Life is not turning out as I had envisioned. I was going to grow older but remain healthy and fit. I was going to have energy in abundance and a readiness to take on ever more worthwhile challenges. I would stay strong and independent, caring for others, not others caring for me.
Instead, I have Parkinson's disease, and the "easy part", the first 5-year "honeymoon" phase, is in the past. Between fatigue and trying to keep up with a fast-paced schedule, physical fitness is limited to the occasional breathless walk up the 3 flights of stairs to my office.  An intricate medley of medication has sapped most of what used to be the boundless energy that fueled many fruitful hours of concentration. Instead of striding into an expanding horizon of opportunity, I need to take care to lower my sights to the step immediately in front of me. My 0wn needs, one day, may well outstrip my ability to care for others.
For instance, I used to love long trips by car, driving many hours without feeling any need to stop. Now, even a 10 minute drive has my leg muscles cramping painfully in a fruitless attempt to stop my foot from pulsing the accelerator like a drummer bouncing on the bass drum pedal.  I now prefer others to drive.

And my tremour, ever the insurgent, continuously invades my physical strongholds. My steadiness and dexterity retreat with resentment, having little means to retaliate.

My present circumstances find no metaphor in the sunny Sunday afternoon we had today. And the future seems threatened by lead-belly cloouds looming, ready to make life even more miserable.
But (there always seems to be a "but" doesn't there), just when my recitation of "things gone wrong" had almost eradicated the supposed benefits of a long weekend, I heard two simple words: "Hi, Grandpa". The sparkling eyes and intensely genuine smile had the same affect as a size 11 steel-toed boot planted firmly across the breadth of my lower backside. Perspective was instantly restored. Appreciation replenished. It was Thanksgiving again.
Eyes turned inward I had failed to recognize the beauty of the day, the multicolored leaves gathered in piles on the dew-drenched grass, the motorcyclists snatching the final days of two wheeled autonomy, and young men tossing a football outside a church as if flaunting their freedom, jackets and ties discarded. Stuck in the quicksand of self-pity I had forgotten the history of Thanksgiving. In Canada, the first Thanksgiving was in 1578, a celebration of survival, not of plenty in the harvest. The explorer, Frobisher, had made it back to civilization alive after an unsuccessful attempt to find the Northwest Passage by sailing through ice filled Arctic waters. In America, the 1621 Plymouth feast celebrated a "good harvest", although it was not enough to feed the 102 pilgrims for the winter. Were it not for the Native American population who provided the necessary sustenance, the survival of those pitiful pioneers was in serious doubt.
I have been so accustomed to everything going so well; marriage, family, friends, career, a treasure chest of dreams come true and more. But it seems that true Thanksgiving is spawned by deprivation more than abundance, simplicity rather than success, honest dependency not prideful self-sufficiency. 
Yes, Parkinson's may rob me of my steadiness of hand, leaving instead embarrassing evidence of my impairment. Fatigue may dog my daily steps and pull against the chain of unmet expectations. But, still, what an extraordinary life it is! Where weddings capture love, once lost or left alone in sadness. Where rocking restless babies, gently coaxed to sleep, brings smiles undimmed by fears of danger yet ahead. Where faith in something/someone bigger lends to life the meaning and the courage to go on. Where friends and family give so gladly, and forgive so readily for reasons left unstated. Yes, PD is a thief of grand proportions who would steal my love of words and wisdom, or commandeer my attitude and plunge it into darkness.
But I must choose to hear those words that wakened me today. It took two words to rouse me from that sleep of desperation.  And in the process I was taught to say another two, a truthful "thank you" in my heart, and to my world and anyone who’d listen. I've learned a prayer today. So while I have strength, breath and life to live, let me often pray these two words. Simply, sincerely, "Thank You".

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Crunch Time

It was not yet 6 AM as my associate and I made our way with the commuter traffic with just enough time to comfortably make the 7 AM ferry to Victoria.  The rain streaked out of the darkness through the glare of commuter headlights and sentry-like street lamps before stabbing into my windshield only to be swept away by another swipe of the relentless wiper blades. The turn signal perched on the fender of the truck to my immediate left blinked twice.  On the third flash the dotted white line that separated our lanes disappeared beneath the black truck tires as they intruded with conviction into what had been my territory.  I felt as helpless as Holland in May 1940 when the Nazis rolled over the Dutch border, crushing any opposition and claiming the conquered land as their own.
My body, bracing for impact, went into instant Parkinson-like reaction, my arms and legs stiffened and ached at the same time. Then, like the crushing of an empty Coke can under the heel of a hobnail boot, my front fender crumpled under the invading tire tread.  Reacting, I cranked the wheel back into the point of impact as if to push the truck back into its own lane.  Apparently sensing some trifling challenge to its highway domination the truck seemed to give ground. Momentarily the grinding of plastic, metal and rubber stopped. But then, as if the truck driver had wanted to take a run at my defenceless vehicle, the unwarranted attack resumed.  The pushing match briefly continued.
I don't understand how I managed to avoid being forced over the curb into the waiting embrace of a power pole. But finally the ramming ended and the blue Save-On Disposal bin-hauling truck pulled over. Amazed at the surrender, I surveyed the damage from my driver’s seat, astonished that my midsized Ford was not more seriouslysmashed and still drivable.  The right fender and driver door clearly evidenced the predawn confrontation, and the dislodged side mirror clinging to the car by three wires was a symbol of the closeness of the clash.  I slammed my shoulder against the inside of my door to get out and confront the tyrant trucker.  After three attempts the jammed metal reluctantly gave way and the door opened with a metal-grinding groan.  It was striding toward the driver when it happened, the adrenalin-induced shudder and shaking.  Parkinson’s disease had reasserted its dominating influence, having politely waited until survival was no longer at stake.
The normal tremors were manageable, but under high stress their amplitude increased to 9.5 on the Richter scale.  Getting my licence out of my wallet proved to be an ordeal of dexterity that might have called into question my sobriety were it not before breakfast.  Writing down the information from the offender’s driver’s licence was impossible.  Even using my Blackberry to photograph it instead produced a fuzzy facsimile.
Despite the unplanned early morning “meeting”, we caught the ferry.  Breathing easier I began seeing the day’s events as metaphorical.  PD may not have wheels but it has often seemed relentless in its mission to push me off my path.  It is our persistent commitment to stay on track not the power of the opponent that will prevail.