Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Jigsaw Puzzle and Three Lessons Learned about Parkinson's Disease

It appeared on the family room coffee table a few days before Christmas. The mystery was born as a jumble of a thousand uniquely-shaped pieces of pressed cardboard. Sure, there was a picture on the box of what it was supposed to look like when completed, but there was no guarantee of the outcome. To make something out of the seeming chaos of colors, shapes and sizes required faith, curiosity and a commitment to complete the task at hand. Regardless of the varying degrees of interest, virtually everyone who entered our family room participated in locating necessary pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. Slowly, after hours of painstaking piece by piece assembly, the perimeter straight edges were all located and put in place. This defined the dimensions and potential for the remaining pieces, the frame within which, assuming all went well, the picture would take shape. Critical though this fundamental step may have been, it was hardly much of a conquest. But that didn't stop those of us present at the time from expressing our common feeling of accomplishment.
From then on, the puzzle became a common compulsion, a mission that recruited one member or another of our extended Christmas time family. From time to time, whether casually or in earnest, friends and family would lean over or kneel beside the table and stare intently at the small colored cardboard cutouts. Even PJ, my three-year-old grandson, got into the act. "I can help with the puzzle, Grandpa", he insisted, picking up pieces at random and attempting to press them indiscriminately into place. Easily bored with the concentration required by the adult distraction he found his own puzzle of some 25 pieces. "See Grandpa, mine is finished", he announced, as if to chide us for our own retarded progress. Of course, we were not driving matchbox trucks and cars over his puzzle as he did over ours, scattering well-placed clumps of emerging images onto the floor and who knows where else.
More than a week after it was begun, the puzzle was finished. Or at least as finished as the remaining pieces would permit. There were three noticeable holes in the completed picture, which we deduced was due to three pieces having gone AWOL with a three-year-old boy. Searching unsuccessfully in every conceivable hiding place, I wondered out loud when, if ever, those missing pieces would reappear in someone's shoe, trapped in the trunk of some hidden toy car, or stuffed into Mr. Potato Head. Regardless, we had gone as far as we could, having spent countless hours striving to place those little puzzle pieces in their perfect places to form the picture on the box lid.

Some might characterize the task of putting together a jigsaw puzzle as senseless behavior; a mundane and meaningless, yet addictive, activity leading to an anticlimactic achievement, after which it would be returned to its former condition and placed in some darkened closet, most likely never to be seen again. A look at the history of jigsaw puzzles suggests otherwise.

The jigsaw puzzle was invented in 1767 by John Spilsbury. It was a wooden map of the world with each country cut out as a separate piece, thereby designed by the English mapmaker for teaching geography to children. The puzzles continue to be used for teaching children and did not catch on with adults as a means of entertainment until more than 100 years later. Over the past week I have begun to see that jigsaws have stayed true to their original purpose and can still teach lessons about life, and about Parkinson's disease. Some things to ponder as we end 2011.

1.      We all start life as a mysterious genetic jumble of potential. Humanly speaking, the final image constructed upon the chromosome limitations we inherit is never known ahead of time. We are a work in progress. In effect, our puzzle is being assembled without a clear picture on the box lid. We must simply do the best with what we have been given, as and when discovered, be it defective dopamine-producing cells or otherwise.

2.      The best way to put together a puzzle is by having the perspective and participation of numerous people, all contributing their concerted, or even casual, efforts towards development of the final product. Some of them may never see much more than the early outline of what we are to become, while others are only present to see the triumphant placement of the final piece. Just as our lives are best constructed by the contributions of many, so too is our perspective on living with Parkinson's disease. Despite the fact that progress may be slow at times, we can be encouraged by the fact that the placement of one "piece" can be enough to allow many others to fall in place.

3.      We are all exposed along life's way to mishaps and mischief, both of which can result in us lacking or losing some apparently needed pieces. As a result, the picture may never be perfectly complete. But the missing pieces, like a diagnosis of PD, are part of our story.  Will it be a bitter one or a better one? Will it tell of resilience or resignation? Those choices are ours.

"More often than not the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is your life will come together in a manner beyond your currently ability to imagine…. The right pieces will come together at the right time. It’ll all work out." Stephen Cox, "The Jigsaw Puzzle of Life".

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Importance of Cribbage at Christmas

"15-2, 15-4, 15-6 and a pair is 8", he announced as he moved his red peg eight holes ahead on the oval track of the cribbage board occupying the table between us. My father-in-law and I play Cribbage most every time we are together. It has become a tradition, as it was when my father was alive. Even before that, I spent many hours learning the niceties of the game from my grandfather, who often tried to "cheat", with a smile and twinkle in his eye, just to see if I was watching him score his points on the board. In my family, board and card games were the staple of every family get-together, especially Christmas. With the popularity of video, computer, iPhone and other electronic distractions, table games have seemingly lost their luster. But, for me, Cribbage still remains the constant; a comforting custom of Christmas.
For those of you who may be uninformed, Cribbage, or "Crib" as it has been shortened to, is a simple card game, requiring some thought, strategy and attention in order to play well, but leaving plenty of opportunity for discussion, joking, poking fun and other male expressions of friendship. The inventor of the game, Sir John Suckling, was a cavalier English poet of the early 1600s. He was appropriately known for his carefree spirit and wit, despite a self-inflicted end to his own life at the age of 33.
My father-in-law, Louis, wears his 82 years extraordinarily well. But 50 years as a stonemason, holding large stones in one hand while shaping them by blows from a heavy stone hammer held in the other in order to place them perfectly in a wall, have taken their toll. While his stonework was often a work of art, he has suffered, as most artists do, from the consequence of long hours perfecting and pursuing his craft. The pain from worn out joints and tired, overworked muscles remind him constantly of the price he has paid for his passion for perfection and hard work, often in the cold or inclement weather. Despite life's pounding which has taken place over more than eight decades, he smiles and laughs at any excuse, but always when he is playing Cribbage.
Despite my own evidences of Parkinson's disease, disabling my skill at shuffling and dealing the cards as quickly as I once did, I enjoy these times immensely. Perhaps it is the game, or the distraction it offers from some pain, troubling symptom or other of life's challenges. Maybe it is the warmth that, wrapped in the friendly banter between us, has grown consistently since he welcomed me into his family some 40 years ago. Despite the fact that the game facilitates competitive rivalry, both of us trying to best the other, moaning about the bad cards that have been dealt, complaining about the luck of the other, or threatening retribution after losing a game, there is a sense of comfortable camaraderie when we play. It feels like sliding one's feet into a well-worn pair of slippers or putting on an old, favorite sweater. It keeps the chill away and warms your heart at the same time.
Perhaps there is some correlation between the "crib" of that first Christmas, and the customary Christmas games of "Crib" that have formed my definition of good, family, Christmas time. There is a sense, despite the apparent lack of any logical relationship, that both cribs communicate that "all is well with the world". Both, if I am honest with you, give me a feeling of well-being, a simple sentiment of "goodwill towards men". In a time when living day-to-day can be demanding, they both offer, to a greater or lesser extent, a place of peace.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

When Failure Is Good

Tonight, year-end deadlines gather and perch in my thoughts, impatient like Hitchcock's "Birds" on nearby power lines, ready to swoop down, sinking their claws of guilt deep into my conscience. Only a few days ago, at least it seems, the year was fresh. But now 2011 has all but disappeared, leaving too much disappointment. How easy it seems to beat ourselves up (and perhaps others) for failure to meet our expectations. Or blame my demon, Parkinson's.
Last night, four of us, good friends for all kinds of reasons, sat for more than four hours in the small and seasonally noisy restaurant. We had enjoyed meals there together before, shared stories, laughter and heartaches, but last night seemed different. It was one of those times when everyone seemed to share a common theme, something that bound us together, as it does much of our generation, without fully recognizing it. We were driven by high expectations. And, more powerfully, we bear the burden of them unfulfilled, at least to some extent. Other patrons, seated nearby, glanced up from time to time and must have struggled to decipher the snippets of intense discussions they had overheard. When we finally surrendered up our table we felt a little lighter, not physically but emotionally, yet the question plagued me. How can we stretch toward the stars, make dreams come true, and pursue the barely possible, without the whiplash, the fatigue and the soul-deep sense of loss and failure?

Perhaps, and this is but my theory, my peers and I, in our thirst for achievement, our naïve race towards frontiers of unimaginable complexity, and our mindless pursuit of plenty, we failed to see that we must ultimately lose all that we had gained. We failed to learn the good of that.

It is in failure that we learn what we're made of.

It is in the simple that we gain depth.

It is through the losing that we recognize true value.

It is in knowing need that teaches us thankfulness.

It is through fear that we experience current.

And it is in sharing them all that we know love and true friendship.

So as the door closes on another year, and I am tempted to do penance for my failures, my promises unkept, and my deepest disappointments, I will not call them failures but simply a prayer for strength and humility so that I might grasp the opportunity to grow and learn. Who knows the tests ahead?  There is room for failure.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Moon and Medical Miracles

Despite being 12 noon, the temperature hovered just above 0°C outside the hospital main entrance. It was Friday. The week was nearly over. I took deep breaths, enjoying the crispness of the air.  I smiled as I remembered the medical miracles of the past five days.
It had been eight o'clock that morning, when I was allowed through the coded-entry door into the special department tucked away in the basement of the hospital. It was right beside the chapel. While the mandatory one-size-fits-all yellow pajamas I wore were neither flattering nor fashionable, they did serve the necessary function better than those notoriously revealing, impossible to tie, hospital gowns. Stripped of metal, including my wedding ring, I had followed nurse Nicole as she explained what was about to happen. I was to lie down on a stretcher, head pointed toward the gaping doughnut hole of the Magnetic Residence Imaging (MRI) machine into which I was to be thrust. Ear plugs were inserted, on top of which were placed snug fitting, industrial-style hearing protection devices. A Velcro strip was used to fasten my head to a frame, which in turn was slid into a "helmet". I looked like a Viking warrior ready for battle or immolation. The MRI tube I was slid into was just wide enough for my shoulders. My only communication from the outside world was accessed by looking directly up into mirrors placed at 45° angles so as to enable me to read a computer monitor.  On the screen appeared Nicole's reassurances like, "Are you okay?". I was tempted to nod.  Over the next 45 minutes or so, the sophisticated MRI equipment that had swallowed me made intermittent sounds like a poorly maintained gravel crusher and a high-powered chainsaw left running at top speed. This explained the hearing protection. After a short break, and time to take my Parkinson's medication, it was back into the enamel culvert for more Kodak moments. Apparently, this high-priced apparatus had the ability to take precision pictures of my dopamine depleted brain.
The week had begun, Monday morning, in the comparative quietness of another technological tunnel. Then it had been a Positron Emission Tomography scanner (PETscan). There, instead of exposing me to very loud sounds, I was injected with radioactive isotopes that were supposedly successful in navigating certain convoluted pathways in my brain. The "tracer" is like a luminescent paint used to highlight aspects of neurological function (or dysfunction in my case). Again, this enabled particularly important photo ops of glowing brain bits.
On Tuesday morning, having just peeled off the round little Band-Aids from the PET scan injection sites on the inside of my left arm, I was privileged to be given supposedly safe dosages of hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoid fever. These vaccinations were delivered with a smile and three stabs, one in the right shoulder muscle and two in the left, followed by three more round Band-Aids. Just a few more appointments, and an indeterminate number of body piercings, and I will be the proud beneficiary of immunity to virtually every disease known to man (except, of course, the one that I have already).
Of course, none of the events explained above are anything other than the necessary consequences of volunteering for studies on people with Parkinson's, and preparing for my round the world trip starting in May 2012 (more details to follow shortly). I am humbled by these medical opportunities, recognizing that few people in the world would have had the high tech treatment in their lifetime that I received this week. We are all prone to complain. Yet, we do so as spoiled children.  In fact, it seems that the more we have, the more we complain about.

Life is full. This weekend I'm going to spend some time outside. Just breathing in that cold December air and marveling at the beautiful full moon I get to enjoy.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

150 Days to the Trip of a Lifetime

It was 1967. The world exposition was in Montréal. And I was there. I had never been so far away. I knew it was 2700 miles (4300 km) from my home, but it was even further from the cultural cocoon that was my apple orchard upbringing. The train trip took more than three days, an adventure on its own. I was sent as a representative of my Coldstream scout troop to demonstrate scouting skills at the Scout Pavilion for a week with several dozen other boys from across Canada. There, for the first time, the small, naïve, simple, rural world of 15-year-old farm boy collided with the metropolitan sophistication and complexity of a world-class city. It was a game changer.
In 2012, there will be a repeat performance. Not in Montréal, as chic and cultured as that great city may be. No, this time the stakes are higher. But just like I did in those months leading up to Expo 67, I find myself consumed with dreams of drama and adventure, encountering the extraordinary and the unexpected, and meeting people of tragedy and mystery. Instead of countries from around the world going to Montréal, I will be going around the world to 15 different countries. Inevitably, it will be a game changer.
Days flash by like cards shuffled into the deck, never to be seen again. A glimpse, a blink, a breath and they are gone. Memories…yes…but even they often burrow their way quickly into the hidden creases of my mind to find a home amongst so many others.  Weeks, months, and even years, fade into the rearview mirrors of our lives, sometimes with little to distinguish one from another. True, each day holds its treasures if I am careful to search, listen, and wait patiently. But sometimes, whether by plan or serendipity, like permanent marker on a whiteboard, someone or something creates indelible marks on our lives. Out of the ordinary, beyond the mundane, or just being at the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time, those times leave us vulnerable, shaken.
Shaken! Literally, that is how Parkinson's disease affects a life. Like an earthquake, it rattles the daily protocol, shatters our plans and perspective and topples all but well-grounded priorities. And struggling through the aftermath of diagnosis you discover what is important: family and friendships that go deeper than disability, plans and purposes that stretch beyond the comfortable, and an awareness of each disappearing day that starts more easily than it ends.

Whether by reason of PD or simply the passage of time, we must see life for what it is: a voyage down a river that picks up speed as it goes. We need not be passive passengers floating mindlessly. We are each given a paddle, and with it we have choices. What shores will we explore? What boats will we hail? Or will we choose to sleep or stare at life from a distance?
150 days from today; May 1, 2012, a new adventure will begin. And in the meantime… Well, I will plan, prepare and pack for the journey. And I will dream of the days ahead.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Mask

The flesh-colored, latex mask felt like a thicker version of the black, plastic masks we wore as kids while playing Zorro, brandishing our homemade swords and shouting, "En garde!" (not knowing the difference between Spanish and French). This one was initially warm and supple as it was laid on my face like a towel at a spa. But as I stared at the ceiling through the eyeholes, the substance hardened and it became clear that the mask did not have disguise as its purpose. Instead of being secured around my head, it was securing my skull to a frame, making it immovable for the one-hour duration of the procedure. The picture of a Frankenstein-like character, strapped to a gurney, came to mind.
This was not the first time I had been brought to this small room tucked away in the basement of the University Hospital. Despite what my amplified tremors might have indicated, I was not afraid. I knew I was in good hands as my head was slid into the "doughnut hole" of the Positron Emission Tomography (PET) machine. Fortunately, I had no fear of closed in spaces. It simply reminded me of being a curious youngster and poking my head in a culvert pipe or an oversized clothes dryer to see what was in there. But, this was no place for claustrophobiacs.
The procedure requirements had started out innocently enough; no food or water for at least eight hours and no Parkinson's disease medication for at least 14 hours. Then there was the mask, a little constraining but quite comfortable actually. The first PET scan was apparently to find out whether I had any brain to work with. Apparently there was enough cerebral functioning left to continue.
Now I am not generally anxious about needles; it is just when someone I don't know wants to poke me with one that I get a little tense. It didn't help much when I was the technician would be shooting a "tracer" into my bloodstream. The image of red-hot tracer bullets fired in the dark didn't really put me at ease. But without even saying, "you will feel a little pinch", the injection was over literally before I knew it. A "tracer" is actually a small amount of radiation attached to a dosage of medication, which is then detectable using the PET scanner. The goal: to find out how my impoverished supply of dopamine would react to different stimuli (in this case, grapefruit juice). All in all, I napped on and off for most of the time, being awoken to receive my "stimuli" through a long tube while the PET scanner was quietly whirring away around my head.
I did not need to be there. I had volunteered to be part of the study dealing with "Treatment Related Compulsive Behaviors and Impulse Control Disorders in Parkinson's disease". Now before you go jumping to conclusions, other than Scrabble, blogging, riding my motorcycle and pursuing adventures along the way, I exhibit no signs of compulsive behaviors or impulse control disorders. However, between 4 and 8% of PD patients receiving long-term treatment develop these complications. For some, it can be devastating. That is why it makes it worthwhile studying this problem.
Since developing Parkinson's disease, my awareness of the need for credible clinical studies has grown exponentially. Given that there is very little risk, participating in this study, and others, is one way I can fight back. It is a contribution I can make to the needs of others, like being a blood donor, an organ donor or just volunteering to help out.
I am looking forward to completing the six session study. Not because I am anxious to have it finished, but because I get to keep my mask. Something to show my grandkids and tell them stories about how I got it. I might even tell them the truth…when they get older.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Problem with Being You

I had mistaken the soprano-like bird calls as coming from small hawks or even smaller songbirds that had failed to migrate south for the winter. The high-pitched cries just did not suit the stern magnificence of the two bald eagles, calling to each other as they circled before landing atop one of the 60 foot trees behind our home. It was a bone chilling, cloudless day, the temperature hovering near freezing, which meant the recent snowfall had become a crusty white layer on the lawn. The surprising sound of the two birds of prey cut across the brittle landscape, crisp and clear. As I listened again, I wondered to myself, "Perhaps they don't need to sound powerful just because they are powerful".  Still, as I stared at these regal hunters surveying their domain, I could not shake the mental image of a muscle-bound warrior with a squeaky voice. 

Bundled against the freezing gusts of wind, I had just completed vacuuming our swimming pool. Odd, I know, but just as the two eagles seemed to ignore November's blustery weather, so does the collection of windblown leaves, sticks and fir needles at the bottom of the pool. It was ironic to me that I was out in the cold maintaining a facility that would not be used again for at least seven months. I wondered if anyone was watching. I felt as out of place as if I had been hanging Christmas lights in the middle of summer.
Life seems full of inconsistencies, scenes that jar our sensibilities, leaving us pondering the puzzle piece that just doesn't fit. That is the way it is with my Parkinson's disease. In many ways I feel as if I am in the prime years of my life. I have been blessed beyond belief with family, friends and stimulating work that is both helpful to others and rewarding. Life seems to have created a springboard of possibilities. But as promising as the picture may look from a distance, closer examination discloses flaws and limitations, faults and pending failure. It is as if there are two Bobs; one ready for the adventures of the next several decades and the other stumbling along day by day, wondering when weakness will prevail.
I live with a type of schizophrenia; a lack of clear definition as to who I really am. The self-portrait seems to be sketched by two artists; one unstintingly optimistic, smiling and ready for anything, while the other is expressionless, frozen in fear of what is yet to be. There is a problem being "me".  Society dictates that, to the maximum extent possible, one should present a singular persona, preferably one that can be put into perspective at a glance. As Ralph Waldo Emerson affirmed, "…consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…", and we all seem to have little minds.  We have a difficult time seeing the strong being weak, the wise lacking answers, the brave showing fear.

As a result, we suffer a lack of integrity, the state of being whole, and complete or undivided. Our self-concept is confused. We have a problem being who we are because we have a problem knowing who we are. The frightening truth is that I am both characters at once and the presence of Parkinson's disease demands a dynamic self-evaluation of who I really am. It is a moving target. It is not limited by who I feel I am, who I am told I am, who I have been or who I want to be. I am a person in process, partly enigma and partly self-evident. I am a collage of the incongruent. I am learning to live with the problem of being who I am.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Built to Fail

Frank and Pete, although they had never met, shared at least one thing, a respect for Classic cars, including Babe, my 1967 Camaro.
Frank is known as "The Alignment Man", literally. I got to know him shortly after struggling into Palm Desert having driven Babe from the rainy weather of British Columbia to the desert sun of Southern California. I figured she'd like it better down there, and I would likely drive her more than I do at home. En route we had lost 3 tires, one each day, due to the age of the rubber (apparently it's illegal for shops to put tires that are more than eight years old on a car). But even after purchasing 4 new white walls, Babe showed a suicidal inclination to veer left hand play "chicken" with oncoming vehicles. That soon led me to Frank's small 3 bay shop at the very back end a rundown, cinder block building in the poorer part of town.
Arriving early, there seemed to be no one around, although all the doors were open. But after a few minutes an old golden Labrador, followed by a tall, muscular man in his mid-60s, carefully stepped down from a circa 1960 RV parked in the corner of the parking lot. It was Frank's home; making for a short walk to work and a convenient and cost-effective security response. Frank walked with a stiff leg, looking every bit the Vietnam vet. It seemed to me that he was surviving in a back eddy of society, still suffering from the war wounds, both physical and emotional. Despite being unimpressed by the tiny, disheveled office that could have qualified for an episode of "Hoarders", I immediately trusted Frank. He clearly knew his classic cars. He seemed almost delighted in taking Babe on a test drive while I minded his shop. On his return he not only described the required fix in detail, but listed other unseen issues that would sometime need attention. After doing what was needed, and charging me a modest amount for the work, I asked him for the name of someone he trusted to check some mechanical issues I had noticed. His answer surprised me. With a redesigned tone he muttered, half to me and half to himself, "All my friends that know old cars are either out of the business or dead".   
Another search led to Pete's Automotive, a going concern on the outskirts of town. Pete was an unassuming man of Mexican descent in his late 50s, who proudly wore his name prominently displayed on his left chest pocket and cap.  He carefully, almost reverently, inspected my car, nodding his head in appreciation at what great shape she was in. Looking at the antifreeze fluid dripping slowly from the undercarriage, he immediately diagnosed a bad frost plug as the culprit. These plugs are built to fail by popping out if freezing occurs, thereby avoiding significant damage to the motor. After inspection, Pete, like Frank had done, identified a list of problems Babe was having. Her brakes were seeping a little brake fluid. The oil sending unit was leaking oil. The alternator was missing the bolt that attached it to the block. The headlights were out of kilter. The list went on. "The car is in great shape," he stated, "but at her age, there are lots of things that can go wrong. They just wear out."
Getting older, even though staying in good shape, means things can go wrong or just plain wear out. If we were cars we would get traded in or relegated to the wrecker's yard. Parkinson's disease is just one thing that seems to hasten certain types of breakdowns. But we are all facing the reality of getting older. In a way, we are built to fail. The question we all answer, intentionally or otherwise, is, "How will we respond?"
I get frustrated with Babe sometimes. At 45 years old, almost 15 years younger than me, she does not perform like she used to. She lacks the modern technology and conveniences that new cars take for granted.  Given her life expectancy, I probably spend more on her than she is actually worth. But despite the clunk her transmission makes when cold, and the wind whistling through the age-stiffened rubber window seals, there is something encouraging about a ride in Babe. She still turns heads. She has a graceful sort of pride. She seems to smile at me and gently say, "I am weathering the challenges of aging. What about you?"

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Tennis Anyone?

I had not played a game of tennis for well over 30 years. But there I stood on court number eight, trying desperately to remember the rules of the game, where to stand at different times in the game, and the sequence of scoring, not to mention etiquette. It seemed like a recipe for certain embarrassment. Certainly, it was prime time for my tremors to shift into high gear. It could've been due to a multitude of causes. The tennis racket in my hand felt unfamiliar, more like one of those hand-held bug zappers than a carefully tuned, graphite "weapon". In addition, despite the sun and cloudless sky, it was chilly to be outside in shorts and a T-shirt. And, of course, there was my Parkinson's disease. These three formed a killer combination.
Beginners in most endeavors are recognized as such and given lots of leeway. But those who return to the game of tennis, even after a significant absence, have nothing to blame, except the typical human frailties of age, injuries or ailments. I had my "trump" excuse ready at hand. Entering the "arena" to meet the remainder of my foursome I had fully intended to blame my anticipated lack of skill, style and tennis knowledge on PD. However, after noting that each of the other three players was at least 10 to 15 years older than I was, I gave up that pretense.
Along with the lack of recent experience at the game, I had also forgotten the importance of having the right clothing. Each of the other players wore perfectly appropriate apparel. Fortunately, it was a cool morning, at least by Palm Desert standards, so I had an excuse for my mismatched wardrobe. If the tennis security patrol had been diligent they would've noticed my laughable attire; an old pair of blue shorts with the word, "NAVY", emblazoned in bright yellow on one leg, a white, long sleeve T-shirt with a totally useless pocket on the left chest, and a wine colored Tiger Woods golf cap to top it all off. Despite white Nike socks, complete with "swoosh", and an ancient, weathered pair of white tennis shoes, I would not have been accused of wearing "tennis whites"!
But my lack of sartorial correctness was nothing compared to the obvious contrast in tennis rackets. Mine was a very recently purchased Walmart "Wilson" special that had come with three tennis balls, two wrist bands and an elasticized headband (supposedly to reduce the risk of sweat dripping into my eyes thereby spoiling a baseline smash). The total I had paid for my "complete tennis needs" lacked a zero when compared with the rackets held by other players for which they paid at least $200 more. It could've been worse. It was a good thing that I had not been able to find my wooden racket that I purchased in 1972.

Now tennis is a strange game with odd rules and peculiar vocabulary. Perhaps this is derived from its upper crust beginnings in 19th century England. The most confusing aspect of the game is scoring. I never understood why scoring the first point equaled 15, the second, 30, the third, 40, and the winning point, "game". Tennis also has the peculiar distinction of being the only circumstance in which "love" means nothing.
Needless to say, my return foray onto a tennis court was not a return to my 20s. Dashing about like one of the frantic rabbits that populate the bushy areas near our complex, I accomplished little in terms of successfully returning the ball over the net. But I did get a good workout, as it appeared that I was the only one doing any sweating. Good thing I had my wristband! I managed to lose, and simultaneously embarrassed my partner, in every game until I was partner with "Ace". Ace was the community ringer who played tennis at the level significantly higher than anyone of his neighbors. He had earned his name honestly. Playing on his side of the net we won more than we lost. It only occurred to me later that, despite my ineffective leaps and lunges, I had rarely touched the ball during any of the games. The typical line shouted by my teammates was, "Good effort!"
When we were finally finished, my fellow players were very kind and did not openly laugh about my rather futile efforts at regaining my former tennis prowess, such that I remember it. Oh well, I got a serious 90 min. workout and actually enjoyed the games. Leaving the court with my partners’ promises of return matches and untrue pleasantries such as, "Good game, Bob", I struggled to disguise the grimacing from my tortured muscles as I headed for home. I would need the next five hours to sleep and recuperate in order to stagger back to the courts for my next tennis humiliation at 4 PM. I wondered aloud how this was doing any good for my Parkinson's disease.

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”?