Sunday, July 31, 2011

Grandpa and the Red Apple Adventure

Perched high above the road, the wind cooled my reddening face and tangled my blond bowl-cut hair that I was not quite old enough to be embarrassed by. I was only 5 years old, but I loved riding in my special spot high on top of the carefully loaded apple boxes that had been roped down on the trailer. Every few minutes my Grandpa turned in his seat on the old, underpowered tractor, looked up, smiled and yelled something over his shoulder at me. Then, laughing, he looked forward again to guide the tractor onto the shoulder to allow another vehicle to pass. I could never figure out what he had said. I expect he knew I could not hear him over the wind and the roar of the tractor as it strained under the heavy load at the breakneck speed of 30 mph (50 kph). The usually orchard-bound Massey-Ferguson was unaccustomed to traveling in 5th gear on paved surfaces, as it only made these journeys each year at harvest time.
From the hillside orchard where my family lived with my grandparents it was 3 miles (5kms) to the Vernon Fruit Union packinghouse. There, one box at a time, the family’s harvest of red apples was unloaded onto the platform where they waited to be washed clean of dirt and spray before being graded. While men with sweat stained denim overalls pulled the boxes into the packing house, Grandpa would take me to where older, women would sit on either side of a conveyor belt peering as apples sped by, every now and then pulling one with a scab or odd shape from the parade of fruit. Sometimes he took me to where men nailed tops on new wooden boxes marked “Fancy Spartan Apples” with “Product of Vernon Fruit Union” emblazoned on the end of each box. Occasionally I was lucky enough to see forklifts loading pallets of apple boxes into freight cars on the railway siding alongside the long narrow packinghouse. Everyone was proud of the fact that this Okanagan Valley product was shipped to apple-lovers all around the world.
Despite the obvious truth to the contrary, I felt a part of a critically important chain of commerce. Somehow, when I would be invited along, even if my Mom sometimes did not approve of my precarious placement on top of the loaded trailer, it seemed my Grandpa was offering me a partnership. Somehow, I played a significant, if undefined, role in this red apple business. In those days, what others classified as work was to me adventure. Everyday held endless opportunities for exploration, whether bouncing over furrows in the small orchard, pretending to drive the tractor while balanced on Grandpa’s knee, “helping” him find brown eggs in the chicken coop or trying to squeeze milk from the uncooperative cows in the barn. Everyday was a kaleidoscope of new sights, sounds, tastes and smells. I never remember being bored with Grandpa, or he with me.
Although he never expressed any of this in words, I was accepted, part of a family, loved. I was contributing something just by being myself and spending time with my Grandpa. Only now, 55 years later, do I understand. Now I am the Grandpa. While I have no orchard (the few scrawny apple trees in my backyard being more pathetic than productive), and no tractor except a small John Deere lawnmower, I do have a grandson. And despite my Parkinson’s disease with its tremors and stiffness, never do I feel so accepted, so part of a family, so loved for just being myself than when I am spending time with PJ. And I know now what my Grandpa was saying back then as we took the red apples to town: Life continues to be an adventure through a young boy’s eyes.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Totally Distracted and Running from Reality

He lives life on the edge. Alcohol-fueled, party-going, fascinated with flirtation, his focus is on the fun-filled and the frivolous. Reality is too painful. But the inevitable consequence of living the fast life, the hard life, is that it easily leads to a short, empty life.

She buries herself in the details of retirement. She has a schedule filled with healthy activities, connecting with old friends and keeping her time fully occupied. She diverts any discussion away from the harsh diagnosis, the undeniable movement into a future that offers limitations, disability or worse.

They both have Parkinson's disease. They are both addicted to distraction.

This is a struggle we all face. Who among us has not sought to escape, if only momentarily, from the reality that would otherwise confront and overwhelm us? Who has not from time to time succumbed to meaningless and mundane media in order to avoid the seemingly crushing concerns that surround us?

It may be Parkinson's disease, cancer, deafness, arthritis or just pain that doctors have not been able to explain. It may be poverty, persecution, unemployment or simply loneliness. Reality may be filled with deflated dreams, failure or helplessness. To some degree we all live in a reality that compels us to search out diversions. It is easy to become an addict.
Some addictions are too seriously debilitating distractions while others are to relatively playful pastimes, at least initially. Some who crave distraction inhale/snort/shoot drugs that demonize. Others find food their favorite fetish. Some gamble for gain and excitement. Some smoke to take the edge off. Some drink to sleep more easily. Television, newspapers, Ipods and video games, they all can become the objects of our addiction to distraction.

So what is the reality you are trying to escape, deny or avoid? Mine is easy. I do not want to think about my Parkinsonian tremor that makes it difficult to keep my vehicle's gas pedal steady or hold a cup of coffee in my right hand. It can be downright depressing to think of the future, trapped in a body that will not stop moving, dependent on drugs to make it through the day. As scary as it may be sometimes, it is still a reality to be dealt with. I ignore it at my peril. And for me, distractions are a form of running away, a dangerous dance with denial.
The fact is, I have Parkinson's disease. Ignoring it, running away from it or hiding from it will not change that reality. The more I am distracted the less I deal with its reality. But despite how society has entranced me with distractions, I have a choice.

I am learning.

Reality is better than fakery; harder, but better.

Distractions are seductive, promising freedom from reality, but delivering slavery.

One's ability to come to grips with reality depends on one’s ability to defeat the addiction of distractions.

True resting, recreation and relaxing, even retreating, prepare one for reality. Distractions leave one longing to escape.

Life is too precious, too short and too important to spend it distracted.
It is time to deal with the real world. It is time to diminish distractions.

Monday, July 18, 2011

3 Reasons to Attend Your High School Reunion

Observing the other guest who were entering the large room obviously set up for a party, I felt out of place, as if I had wandered into the wrong event. These people were far too old. I was looking for a crowd of younger friends and acquaintances with whom I had graduated from high school. Some folks I saw here were cleverly disguised by wrinkles, gray hair and expanded waistlines. Others had opted for cosmetic camouflage like a darkened beard, face-altering surgery or a black toupee. For the most part I saw what might have been a retirement party of men and women, many of who evidenced apparently failing eyesight, diminished hearing and an array of other maladies. At first glance they appeared to be strangers, folks I could have stood behind in a Safeway checkout with the barest hint of recognition, saying to myself, "That person looks familiar somehow?"

Surely this was not the Vernon Senior Secondary graduating class of 1970. But, alas, a quick inventory of my own appearance verified that I matched the attributes of this group embarrassingly well. My mousy gray hair, hearing aids, glasses and the Parkinson's disease tremor; it was apparent that I fit. Peering too obviously and too closely at the small print on name tags I soon discovered familiar names, and a laugh or voice betrayed a buried memory. I was in the right place.

"Why had I come?" I asked myself. Sure there were friends there that I had kept up with, most from the Coldstream valley, a small farm and orchard country a few miles from the town of Vernon, British Columbia. A few had even been my classmates from Kindergarten through three years of law school. But I could have visited with them by just taking initiative to meet somewhere sometime. Why come to hear a stale collection of rarely recounted memories best left in the faded pages of the VSS 69/70 yearbook? Why come to learn of fellow students whose lives were train wrecks or sad tales of broken hearts and long-since-buried dreams? I discovered that many had silently answered, “Why bother” and went about their summer days as if the hollow high school years had not happened. But they did. They are a part of our history, a part of who we are right now.

Whether you were a charter member of the ‘in crowd’ or one who suffered the cruelest rejection by peers, high school likely played a critical role in your social persona. Whether you were the academic excellence award winner or one for whom graduation simply meant a permanent parole from structured education, those were important years.  Career paths and choices were etched into the working lives of many during those school days. For some, the seeds of marriage were planted, while others faced a future of frustration with love and its facsimiles.

Why had I come? There were 3 reasons.

1. I wanted to see the connection. Although my high school days were lackluster in all respects, they were formative. Yet I had never explored how my pre-grad life connected to my post-grad experiences. I gained some unexpected insights into how the weaving of that formative fabric related to the clothes I wear today.

2. I was curious. How did my life’s story compare to that of others? How had the drama played out for those fellow grads my poor memory could be coaxed to recall? For too many the light-hearted teenage comedies had quickly switched to the saddest stories of self-destruction. For others the Cinderella had finally fled her humiliation. The prince of fame and fortune had arrived with the glass slipper that fit her waiting foot. She found her fairy tale ending.

3. I discovered I cared. The more I thought about it in the weeks leading up to the high school reunion the more undeniable it became. I hurt for those who daily dealt with tragedy. I mourned the loss of lives that ended too soon.  I applauded those who doggedly pursued success and found it. It seemed that there was more reason to hug, or at least shake hands warmly, despite any past insecurities that prevented such displays.

As I left the room that night I felt both fulfilled and fearful. I had walked through history and listened to the echoes from my high school halls. I was beginning to understand their richness and meaning. But I also knew that if there were a next time to meet there would be fewer of us to share the senior chapters of the books that we are writing. There would be more fresh-faced photos on the memorial wall to mourn.

Why go to your high school reunion? To see yourself comfortably reflected in the eyes that shared your youth. To give the gift of caring and acceptance. That is reason enough.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

It's All About the Ride

Well, not quite. Unless you ride solo (which may be easier in some respects but usually less meaningful), the person you ride with counts for a great deal.
A great motorcycle ride requires fellow riders with some, and preferably all, of certain traits; shared values, common desires/expectations, the ability to lead and follow, the humility to admit error yet the confidence to chart a course and stick with it. I have ridden with some great men, guys who have displayed grace and generosity beyond recounting. These men have made journeying a treasure of shared experiences and sights. But, more importantly, we have shared our hopes and dreams, fears and frustrations, as well as laughter and even tears. In summary, these men shared their hearts with me, and I am enriched as a result. It is indeed a rare gift that I will cherish.
The first part of my recent adventure was shared by some great friends, two of whom, Ben and Steve, are veterans of prior trips and one, Ralph, did remarkably well on this his first real long ride. All were amazingly compatible and enjoyable. But over the last week only two riders remained. I had the privilege of sharing the road, different hotel rooms and every meal with a friend who made those final days of this trip indescribably memorable and enjoyable.
Jim is an unusual man. I mean that in a positive sense. Let me try and describe him. He is completely committed to his faith. Not a single meal goes by without expressing his thankfulness for the food we will share and the many ways we have been blessed. The love of his life, and his best friend, has remained married to him for more than 30 years. He never speaks of her in anything but glowing terms, even when just with the guys. He earnestly seeks to be the best father and grandfather that he can be, recognizing that the role is not always a popularity contest you can win. He is a successful businessman with impeccable integrity. He will not sacrifice his principles for profit, nor will he sacrifice profit for personal ease. He is humbled by his success, and maintains a modest lifestyle, preferring extraordinary generosity.
But what makes Jim unique is his love of "just riding". Every morning he would say, “Isn’t it a great day? And we get to ride again!” Whether the day’s ride is 100 miles or 1000 miles, Jim is overjoyed by the pleasure of it. Smiling, both hands in the air in exaltation, his enthusiasm and exuberance are infectious. It is impossible to ride near Jim without absolutely knowing that this is an opportunity to celebrate living.
We all need a Jim or two in our lives. We all need those who travel with us, companions who share the adventure, come what may. One’s world can easily shrink when adversity strikes. Sometimes those who enjoy the spectacular heights and the sunny days, do not necessarily join in for a friend's slide to the darkened depths. Jim would. And he would still be there when the ride is a harrowing, relentless nightmare of ever deepening shadows shouting, “Let’s ride”.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Anatomy of a Corner

Life at its best is never a straight road. Lived to its full potential, it is an adventure filled with corners, some difficult, some sharp, some long and some deceptive and dangerous. In my experience, it is like riding a motorcycle; each corner can be a rainbow of experiences. Let me share a 30 second verbal video.

Imagine one sunny afternoon you are riding your motorcycle beside a small but fast-flowing river along a smooth-surfaced two-lane highway. You are heading up hill into some low-lying mountains. There are no vehicles near you. Keeping your speed down to the posted limit of 65 mph is difficult. The powerful motor hums beneath your knees. Reined in by cruise control your highway stallion impatiently urges you to give rein to its mechanical muscles. Giving in to its yearning you grasp the throttle tighter and twist it counterclockwise to accelerate. Then you see it, the corner approaching some 200 yards away. Your heart starts beating faster and your senses come alive.

With the visual accuracy of an eagle spotting its prey from far away, you see that the road ahead narrows and swerves right. The river, rushing downhill in a somersaulting panic on one side seems to squeeze the ribbon of asphalt against a sheer rock face driven into the sky by some prehistoric shrug. Instantly you survey everything at once. Your body becomes a receptor of incredible capacity, simultaneously collecting and sending masses of sensory data to your brain. You drop your feet from resting on the highway pegs and place them firmly on the foot pegs under your hips for maximum balance. Your knees, now bent to 90 degrees, press in on the gas tank. A mental checklist of your bike's condition follows your question, "Is my bike ready?"
At 100 yards away the anticipated road sign reads: 45 mph. To an experienced biker that means it is safe under good conditions to make the corner at 65 mph. You do a mental, physical and emotional check first and ask yourself, "Am I up for this?" This is followed in split-second sequence by a scan of the road ahead: the arc and incline of the corner, absence of guardrails, the pavement free of gravel, tar strips, fallen rock, fresh oil or water, and no vehicles anywhere within your peripheral vision. Based on that feedback, you mentally calibrate your safe cornering speed and listen for the engine to match the desired speed. That speed is felt rather than calculated by looking at the speedometer.

Mentally you draw an arching line around the corner with laser-like precision; ideally it runs parallel to the centerline of highway. If all goes well, this trajectory will take you and your motorcycle through the curve and safely out the other side. You lean forward slightly, gripping the throttle firmly, leaving one finger extended over top of the front brake lever as a precaution. Now you anticipate the most critical element to make it through the corner; the lean of the bike. A motorcycle is not steered through a corner, it swoops around it like a plane. In fact, you are pushing down and left on the handlebar, effectively steering away from the right turn direction you would naturally want to go. This is necessary to bring the bike into balance between the opposing forces at play; gravity and centrifugal force. Leaning too far towards the corner or going too slow will result in being pulled into the rock face by gravity. Not leaning enough toward the corner or going too fast can push you off the chosen line into oncoming traffic or, worse, into the river.
Halfway around the corner you are at the point of no return. Whatever may lay ahead in your path may well be unavoidable: a football-sized rock, loose gravel sprayed onto the road from the shoulder, a stalled vehicle or a deer that insists on bounding in front of your speeding motorcycle are just a few of the possibilities. This corner, like every other one, demands hypersensitivity and must occupy 100% of your focused attention. Despite the potential perils, you accelerate slightly as you round the corner to maintain equilibrium between the changing forces at play. This has the effect of catapulting you forward like the last person hurled from a whirling line of skaters or a stone being flung from a sling. Your body feels fully alive as it tingles with exhilaration, as if the last 30 seconds is what you were made for.

Maybe we are made for corners. To some extent, around each bend in the road lies a mystery, a story yet to unfold. It is the corners of one's life that will fill the pages of one's biography. How well do we anticipate and prepare for each turn, deal with the stresses of each curve and, sometimes, just hang on around life's corners?
While Parkinson's disease is not a "corner" I would have chosen, there is a counterintuitive sense of significance to this bend in my life's highway. It is my hope that others facing PD, or other difficulties, will join me in declaring, "Let those corners keep coming!"