Their Brochures Seem Nice …

The process of settling down and starting a family is often referred to as “putting down roots.”   Roots are the part of a tree that is buried underground.   Roots in human terms usually refers to those relatives who are buried underground, our ancestors who came before us.  One of the reasons we bury our loved ones is to remind future generations of where they came from, who came before them.  

This leads me to a question that I rarely ask myself, but when I do, I never come up with a satisfactory answer.  It’s something that I really should resolve before too long.   The question is this:  where do I want to be buried?

First, to be clear, wherever I end up being buried, I’d prefer that it not happen until I am indisputably dead.  Please, make sure that no voodoo witch doctor has put me under a temporary spell, or worse, that I am not the victim of some administrative foul-up and buried alive, while some dead guy keeps getting my monthly AARP magazine.   I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a simple double check.   It can be as easy as having me fog a mirror, or pinching my arm, or showing me a photo of Megan Fox. 

Once it’s been verified that I am indeed dead, the question remains:  where should I be buried?  Like planning a new business, determining a final resting place comes down to three things:  location, location and location.   I’d like to be in a shaded and dry spot – I’d prefer not to be in a flood plain, for example.  I’d also like for it to be relatively quiet  – there is nothing I hate more than the sound of interstate traffic whizzing by.   Not that it is going to keep me awake or anything.  Most importantly, I’d like to be buried where family and friends can visit me, where there is at least someone familiar with the name on my headstone.   I’d rather not be buried with anonymous people who are complete strangers – I’m afraid that in death, I will be just as self conscious and shy as I was in life, and it’ll take too much out of my eternal afterlife getting to know the strangers in the plots next to me.   In fact, with my luck, I’ll probably end up buried next to an insurance salesman. 

So, just as my daughter is searching for the right college, I need to determine the right cemetery.  Like college, I’ll have to make sure I can afford the fees and meet the entrance criteria, which usually consists of being dead, while many of the better cemeteries also demand affiliation with a religion.  I do not belong to any church.   In addition, any hopes of an athletic scholarship are unlikely, because one, I am not much of an athlete, and two, most cemeteries have cut basketball from their programs.  So the list of eligible cemeteries has narrowed to a few candidates.

The first option would be the Gourdoux family plot in the Saint Francis of Assisi cemetery overlooking the Chippewa River in the northwestern Wisconsin community once known as Flambeau.  This would make sense because it is where many of my ancestors are buried, starting with my Great Grandfather, Alex Gourdoux,  who came from France to settle in the area in the late 1860s.  My grandparents and many of my other relatives are buried within the reach of the late afternoon shadows cast by the family marker.  This is some of the prime real estate in the entire cemetery, under a massive old oak tree and a stone’s throw from the church.  The problem is that in order to qualify for this location, you have to be Catholic, which is why my Mom is buried on the other end of the cemetery, in the non-Catholic section, where she waits for my Dad to join her under the headstone with their names, with the date of my Dad’s death waiting to be filled in.  

Despite being non-Catholics, Flambeau makes sense for my Mom and Dad’s final resting place.  It is only a couple of miles from where my Dad grew up, and about a mile away from where they first met on a New Year’s Eve in 1950 or 1951, and just down the road from where they lived for the last 12 years of my Mom’s life.    It would make some sense for me to be buried somewhere near my Mom and Dad, because before I was anything else I was their son.

The problem is that I never really lived in the Flambeau area.  We lived in Chetek, about 20 miles away, the first two years of my life, before moving to Milwaukee in 1960, and then moving to the small town of Union Grove in Southeastern Wisconsin in 1962.  As picturesque a location as the Flambeau cemetery is, it somehow doesn’t seem right to be buried in a community that you never really lived in.  

That would leave as the next option the Union Grove cemetery, in the town I lived in from the ages three to 18, and again from the ages 21 to 22.  This would make sense as it is the place where I grew up.  

The problem with Union Grove is that I moved out for good when I got married in 1981.  My parents left in 1983 when my Dad retired, and slowly the remaining Gourdouxs left, too, the last ones about ten years ago.  Not a single Gourdoux is buried in Union Grove, and it wouldn’t make sense for me to be the first.  It’s been thirty years since I left, and I have long lost contact with anyone who might still live there.   Once upon a time, it was home, but not anymore,

In 1984, my wife and I moved to Pleasant Prairie, where we still live.  Over the years, we have added on to the house, and we raised our children here.  It has been everything one could ask for in a home.

Pleasant Prairie, though, like a lot of  21st century suburban communities, is what they refer to as a “bedroom community”, meaning that most of its residents commute to  work outside of town.   This has been true for me, as for 24 of the 27 years we’ve lived here I worked in Illinois, and the other three years I worked in Milwaukee.  This means that most of the friends I’ve made over the years have been co-workers who don’t live in Pleasant Prairie.  While for years I was involved in the community as a youth league coach and met many wonderful parents, few lasting friendships have been made. 

Being a “bedroom community”, Pleasant Prairie is largely comprised of housing developments and an industrial park.  There is no downtown, and most shopping is either done in Kenosha or Illinois or at the outlet malls that have been installed near I-94 to cater to Chicago and Milwaukee shoppers.   Instead of neighborhoods, there are subdivisions.  We live on a one-way street that was one of the earliest housing developments in the town, having been converted from farms about sixty years ago, but it really isn’t much different from the modern subdivisions that proliferated and consumed most of the remaining farmland in the 1990s.

One thing the village planners seemed to have overlooked, when approving all of the new subdivisions, was what to do with all of these people when they die.  I am unaware of a public cemetery anywhere in Pleasant Prairie   Designed for workers who drive great lengths to their jobs every day, apparently it is expected that when dead, they make one last commute to wherever their final resting place might be.

So the issue remains unresolved.  It strikes me that, as society becomes more mobile and families are more spread out, I am probably one of many who have the same question.   The old you get buried where you lived paradigm seems like it was designed for a simpler time.   Everything seems to be more complex these days, even death, and the simple concept of leaving behind a marker to be remembered by, to prove to future generations that you were once here, is no exception. 

Maybe the answer lies in technology.  Maybe I could be buried on the internet, dead but on line in a virtual grave in a virtual cemetery.    This way, not only could acquaintances from all stages of my life easily visit me, but the 1,000th visitor could win a free weekend in Vegas.

It turns out my life had meaning after all.

My Part in the Downfall

For a few years now, I have been hearing and reading about generation Y, people born after 1980, and the complaints from my generation, the baby boomers, that this new generation isn’t willing to work hard, and expects to be pampered and treated as “special”.  Much of the blame for this is placed on people like me, people who coached this generation in youth and recreation league sports, where everybody got to play and winning wasn’t emphasized.   Apparently, people like me drove the competitive will out of these young minds and replaced it with the namby-pamby “oh, well, at least I tried hard.  I’m still special!”

I coached co-ed recreation league softball and boys basketball for most of the years my sons were growing up.  I have always loved sports, and played little league baseball as a child.  I was too small (I was basically a year younger than most of my classmates) to go out for football and not good enough to make the middle and high school basketball teams, but I played back yard and pick up games with other neighborhood kids every chance I got.    I became a rabid sports fan and developed a life time love for all three games. 

Early on in my sons’ lives, I noticed that, at least in my little corner of suburbia, the landscape of childhood had significantly changed.   In the post urban sprawl spread of real estate development of 1990s suburbia, neighborhoods as defined in my childhood were a thing of the past.  Kids no longer found other kids in nearby backyards and began playing together.   Instead, with neighbors further away, with technology like gaming and the internet driving kids inside more often, with parents working more hours and obsessively worrying about sexual predators, playtime had to be carefully scheduled and coordinated.  Kids had to be driven to and picked up from their friends houses.  As a result, spontaneity was largely removed, and kids had fewer opportunities to explore places and discover new friends than when I was a kid.

The largest casualty of this was the backyard or driveway pickup game.   With so many logistical factors to coordinate, getting enough kids for a game together on short notice became impossible.  Organized sports became the only way kids could play baseball or softball or basketball.

 There were two types of organized sports kids could choose from – competitive and non-competitive.   The competitive options included traveling teams, which have grown to become a unique phenomenon, and little league.  Little league wasn’t as demanding as the travelling teams, but you had to try out to make a team.

The non-competitive leagues were run by the village or the local Y.  Everybody who signed up was guaranteed a roster spot, and there were minimum playing rules to ensure that everybody played.  It wasn’t as namby-pamby as many of the critics like to exaggerate.  Score was kept, each game had a winner and a loser, and standings and season ending championship tournaments were usually tracked.   As someone who loved sports, and wasn’t good enough to make most of the teams I tried out for as a child, the non-competitive leagues were an attractive option for my boys.  We signed them up and I quickly became involved in coaching, first as an assistant  on my oldest son’s softball team, then as the head coach of my second son’s softball and basketball teams.

Going into coaching, I knew all of the different strategies and philosophies that I thought would make a great coach, and what my teams may have lacked in talent or skill would be made up for by my brilliant tactical approach to the game.  This dream lasted about as long as it took the ink to dry on my coaching sign-up form.  I soon realized that not only were these little kids with short attention spans, but that many of them had never played the game before. 

In basketball, for example, instead of implementing post or perimeter offenses or zone defenses, my time was spent trying to figure out which player could dribble the ball past the half court line, and trying to explain that unlike volleyball, you don’t have to slap and swat at the ball, you can actually catch it, or trying to convince a kid that he can’t catch a pass or get a rebound or play defense with his hands inside his shirt (this last example was made more frustrating by the fact that the kid with his hands in his shirt was my own son, Nick.)

So our weekly practices were exercises in riot control.  First and second grade boys who had been cooped up in their homes in the cold winter months were suddenly let loose in a gymnasium with about 10 other boys and a bouncing ball – their energies were as broad as their attention spans were narrow.  The chaos would be paused at the end of the session, only to be picked up where it left off on the Saturday morning games, where despite all my shouting they would still dribble into the corner and the other nine players on the court would follow, as if magnetized to the ball. 

But every now and then something amazing would happen – the ball would actually travel airborne in the general direction of the basket.  Even more amazingly, three or four times a game, it would actually go in!  The kids would jump up and down and scream, which they pretty much did all the time anyway, while in the stands, the proud Mother and Father would beam, the Mother thinking how cute my little Billy looks, while the Father began silent deliberations on Duke or North Carolina. 

Co-ed softball was even more of a challenge.   There was the second grade girl who practiced her ballet during games in the outfield.  There were the missed throws that resulted in extra bases that resulted in more missed throws.  There were fly balls that bonked outfielders on the head.   There was one of my all-time favorite players who, for reasons that will forever remain unexplained, always travelled with a portable DVD player and a copy of the film “Ghostbusters”, which he’d watch over and over while sitting on the bench between innings or waiting his turn to bat.

In both sports, in both practices and games, there was an abundance of short attention spans, confusion, frustration, and general mayhem.    And I grew to love every minute of it.   They were not only as fun as a barrel of monkeys; they actually were a barrel of monkeys.  Once I realized they were never going to comprehend a pick and roll or a suicide squeeze, I had to determine what if any value any of us, players and coaches, could get out the experience.   In time, I realized that they were just kids, and like the girls in the Cyndi Lauper song, they just wanted to have fun. 

This then became my mission – I wanted every kid on my teams to have fun.  On the surface, nothing seems easier, because kids are built for having fun.  Fun is the only reason for existence that a child has.  But after spending some time with my teams, I quickly realized and remembered that it’s not that simple.   Some kids weren’t as good as others, some weren’t as smart, some were small, some were overweight, some lacked social skills, and some came from difficult family situations.   It became apparent that for some of these kids, fun was a rare experience if not an alien concept.   

My strength was a sense of humor that isn’t as well developed as I’d like to think it is – in other words, it remains at about a fifth grade level.  This may make me come across as juvenile and sophomoric in the adult world, but it served me very well with children.   I found that the one thing that would at least momentarily hold their attention was my potential for goofiness.  They may not have listened when I tried to explain which base to throw to from the outfield, but if they thought they might hear me say something stupid, they were a rapt and attentive audience.  I think that all kids, for a myriad of reasons, love hearing adults say really stupid things.  Once I realized this, it became my secret weapon.  I’d say enough stupid things to get their attention, and then, every once in a while, I’d slip in some coaching.   They’d remember verbatim every stupid thing I’d say, while maybe 25% of the coaching seeped through – but hey, that was progress.

Knowing now how to get at least a minimum of their attention, and knowing how much they enjoyed the stupid things that I said (and did), I realized an amazing thing.   The kids would all listen to me and laugh at me together.  A really good player might be sitting on the bench next to a really bad player, and they’d both be laughing at me.   They may have had nothing else in common, but they shared the common experience of being sentenced to listen to my corny silliness.  The year would always begin with separate cliques of kids from the same schools or the same neighborhoods, groups of familiar faces unfamiliar to the other groups of familiar faces.  There would always be a kid or two alone on the outside.  My job became to break down these groups and meld them all together into a team, a team that may or may not have won many games, but a team, and all that means.   Above all else, I loved watching those early season cliques dissolve, and I loved it when the good players would cheer on or try to buck up the bad players, and even more, when the cool kids found something interesting in one of the un-cool kids. 

I coached for I think eleven years, until Nick was out of high school.  Over the years, I actually had some teams that were good enough to win championships.  I also had teams that failed to win a game.   The one consistent thing was, I believe, despite the fact that no statistics were kept, and regardless of our won-loss record, every year my teams lead the league in laughter.  

Every year, I’d watch these collections of kids become a team, and that is what these leagues were all about.  I don’t mean to imply that I was a brilliant motivator or supremely skilled in developing young people.   Most of the other coaches were just as effective, using their own methods and skill.  It was the structure of the leagues and their mission that everybody gets a chance to play and learn the game that allowed teams to develop.  More than that, it was the kids themselves.  Adults have a tendency to take credit for too much; that these kids were able to overcome their own differences and preconceptions is ultimately a tribute to the open-mindedness that young children still possess.  It’s adults who close these minds with fear and suspicion and distrust. 

Now these kids, whose minds I helped fill with unreasonable feelings of self-worth, are young adults starting their careers.  We keep hearing how demanding they are and how they expect to be treated as if they are something special.  They apparently believe the “everybody is a winner, everybody is special” philosophy learned in our sports leagues.  Baby boomers have difficulty understanding this, thinking, I’m not special, I’m lucky to have a job, and if I have to work 60 hours a week to keep it, then that’s what I’ll do.  What makes these kids think they are so special?

Maybe the generation Y kids will continue to insist they are special.  Maybe they won’t stand for their jobs being outsourced.   Maybe they’ll feel the job is lucky to have them.  Maybe they won’t put up with all the crap the baby boomers assumed was owed to their bosses.

One topical book refers to this generational difference as “Hard America” vs “Soft America”;  that the baby boomers of “Hard America” are driven by competition and accountability, while the “Soft America” of generation Y, having been coddled all these years, is inherently weaker, and needs the protection of government regulation.  I’d argue that this is ridiculous and short sighted.  “Hard America” may be driven by competition and accountability, but anyone who has ever had to suffer the obnoxiousness of an overly competitive family member who sulks and pumps his chest through games of Trivial Pursuit or Pictionary knows that weakness and insecurity lie not far below their surface.  It is this weakness, this fear of failure that has allowed this generation to take the world’s strongest economy and slowly destroy it.  Where families were once headed by a single wage earner, now two or more family members work two or more jobs and still struggle to make ends meet.  The competitive win at all costs mentality has been exploited, and as a result, we work harder for lower relative wages with fewer benefits.   The people who run the corporations love this, while everybody else suffers.

The values taught to “Soft America” place value on the individual and his contribution to the team.  Ask anyone who has ever been a manager who they want on their team, the overly competitive and aggressive ladder climber, or the good team player.   If members of generation Y truly believe that they are special, then there may be hope that they will demand the simple respect that the baby boomers have given away.  They may be the only hope to fix what we, their parents (who instilled these values in the first place), have destroyed.   

(P.S. – my time as a coach was all volunteer, so, unlike those pesky teachers, my contribution to poisoning young minds was at least tax-free)

Heaven and Hell


One of my favorite photographs is of my wife, Debbie, sitting at the kitchen table in our apartment on 18th Avenue.    I took it about a month after we were married.   In it, she is smiling broadly, and her smile expresses such pure and simple happiness that it has never failed to put a smile on my face. 

That was thirty years ago now, and we were just taking the first steps in our shared journey to a destination unknown.    She is older now but to me even more beautiful.  The same deep green eyes that lit up that photo still brightly shine, but now with the added depth of Motherhood and 30 years of loving and being loved.  I wonder if it is because I am so in love with her and have lost any pretense of objectivity that I don’t see the same lines and wear on her face that I see on mine when I look in the mirror.  Whatever it is, I see her how I see her, and I am still moved to tears when I watch her sleep.

I never planned to love anyone as intensely as I love my wife.  I can’t imagine what I’d do without her.  We’ve come so far on this journey, the whole time never straying from each other’s side.

But now we are slowly approaching the dark days that will be the late stages of Parkinson’s disease, and, even though it’s still a ways off, I ask myself, do I want to subject her to this?  To seeing her partner, the man she loves, become a hollow shell.   To seeing her soul mate growing sick and weak and incapacitated.   To becoming my care giver and being forced to spend her remaining good days in the darkness of my bad days.

I am faced with a dilemma:  I love her so much, I can’t imagine what the good days let alone the bad days would be like without her.   At the same time, I can’t bear the thought of her having to take care of me, feeding and cleaning me, bearing witness to my fading dignity.   Eventually I’ll become enough of a burden to test even the strength of our union, and it’ll only be natural for the love she’s felt for me to fade and be replaced by bitterness and resentment directed toward the unrecognizable figure I will become.

So I try not to dwell on these things.  I usually push them out of my mind.  The answer to my dilemma is to not waste good time thinking about the bad times that lie ahead, but rather focus my energies on appreciating the good days still left.  Most of the time, this isn’t difficult to do.  But there are constant reminders of Parkinson’s presence and the inevitable speculation of how fast the disease is progressing.

I’m a creature of habit.  Whenever I leave the house, for example, I ritualistically check my back pocket for my wallet, my front left pocket for my phone, my front right pocket for my keys, and my shirt pocket for my reading glasses.  This morning, while up at my cabin, I was working on pulling some ancient wire fence out of the woods when at some point my glasses fell out of my shirt pocket.  The underbrush and dead leaves were thick enough that after thirty unsuccessful minutes of raking and looking through the weeds, I gave up.  My Dad was working at his workbench in my garage, and we were due at my Aunt’s house for lunch.  I told him we’d have to leave early enough to swing by Ladysmith and buy myself a new pair of glasses.  I went inside and cleaned myself up, changed my clothes, and my Dad and I headed out in my Prius.

Right at the outer limits of the town of Bruce, on Highway 40 just south of Highway 8, I realized that my left pocket was empty and that I had forgotten my phone at the cabin.  At the same moment, the speed limit  changed from 55 to 35, and a rare cop, a State Trooper, caught me before I saw the reduced speed limit sign and pulled me over.  As he got out of his car, I reached for my back pocket, and realized I had left my wallet, where I keep my driver’s license, at the cabin.  In the more than 35 years of driving, it was the first time I had ever left without my license.  It was of course my luck that this event coincided with the unlikely circumstance of a rare State Trooper pulling me over.

The State Trooper leaned into my window and explained that, even after I had seen him and started slowing down, he had me clocked at 45 miles per hour, 10 over the speed limit.  He asked to see my license, and I explained I had just changed pants and left my wallet in my other pair.  He then, since I didn’t have any identification, gave me a pad and paper and asked me to write my name down.  Now I was really starting to panic, as Parkinson’s has left my handwriting completely illegible.  I tried my best and handed it to him.

“I can’t read that”, he coldly stated.

“Sorry, it’s the best I can do”, I replied, then mumbled something about having Parkinson’s disease.  He asked me to spell my name, and as I did, he wrote it down, and went back to his car.  My Dad and I sat, waiting for whatever would happen.

He came back and gave me a $10 warning ticket for driving without a license.  He was the epitome of class and professionalism, an extremely likeable guy, who could sense that, with my 85 year old Father at my side, I probably wasn’t much of a threat to society.  He could have with very good reason made things miserable for me, but instead, he was kind and friendly and understanding.  I thanked him; we turned around and got my license and phone, and made it to my Aunt’s just in time.

When I returned to my cabin to get my license and phone, I found them in the pockets of my other pair of pants in the dirty laundry hamper.  Not only did I forget to obey my normal leaving the house ritual of searching my pockets, I had neglected my other ritual of emptying my pockets out when I take off my pants.  It was another example of what has been an increasing pattern of absent-mindedness and lapses in concentration, and it leaves me wonder if my short term memory is going, and if these are the first indications of the dementia that often accompanies Parkinson’s disease.   Then I remind myself that I am 52 years old, and forgetfulness is a normal part of growing older, and I shouldn’t panic just yet.

But this is the curse of Parkinson’s.  Its path is unpredictable, and its scope is impossibly broad.  Everything from autonomic to intellectual functions are potentially impacted, making you wonder every time a bite of food goes down the wrong pipe if it’s the well known Parkinson’s effect on the swallowing mechanism, or every time I misplace my glasses or wallet if it’s a sign of impending Parkinson’s related dementia.   The curse of Parkinson’s is, when you boil it down, the curse of heightened awareness.  You become acutely aware of every little sign of the inevitable decline that you know waits for you, and are constantly reminded that you are fading away.

It’s easy to get lost in the darkness of this curse.   Once diagnosed, the darkness is always there, and you can never completely step out of its shadows.   You know that Hell awaits you, and as time goes on, more and more of that Hell is revealed to you.  I have come to believe that Hell is for the living, not the dead, visible in the suffering that we must all endure.

Depression and anxiety and emotional incontinence are frequent symptoms associated with Parkinson’s, and there are many scholarly articles out there that discuss whether these are neurological effects of the disease or reactions to stress, and there are studies underway trying to link these symptoms with the dementia that often occurs with P.D. I don’t know if it is neurological in nature or not, but I believe the root cause of all of these symptoms is heightened awareness.   I know that I have suffered from depression and anxiety and, with a newfound tendency to get weepy eyed over the corniest of stimuli, have become emotionally incontinent as well.

 The amazing thing, and I sincerely believe this, is that the heightened awareness I’ve experienced hasn’t been limited to the existential evidence of my eventual deterioration.  I have also become more aware of my surroundings than ever before.   If Parkinson’s has convinced me that Hell is here on earth, it has also convinced me that Heaven is here, too, and is in fact constantly within our reach.  I have become more aware and appreciative of every day wonders, the seemingly small things that we too often ignore or take for granted.   The feeling of the warm summer breeze on my face, the reflection of blue skies and white clouds on the glassy mirror of a still lake, the smell of freshly baked bread as it is taken out of the oven, the laughter of my children, the sound of my wife breathing and the feel of her sleeping body against me in the black dark of night, the warmth of the midday sun through my home office window on a Wednesday afternoon, the poetry of grace and speed and pure joy expressed by my dog, Max, as he runs free in our back yard, chasing birds, the shadows cast by late summer afternoon trees, the explosion of stars scattered against the northern Wisconsin sky above my cabin, the light of the lamp against its pine paneled walls, Van Morrison singing “Dweller on the Threshold”, my wife’s smile.  I find myself more aware than ever that I am alive, and as I weaken and diminish physically, my ability to see and feel love, truth and beauty has been enhanced.

Buddhists believe that “to live is to suffer”, and I think this is true.  We all have to deal with pain and loss.  Only through love can we ease the pain of our suffering, and only by recognizing ourselves in the eyes of others can we love.   These simple concepts are as easily overlooked as they are understood.  That it took Parkinson’s disease to crystallize them for me shows how blinded by preoccupation I had become.

To have Parkinson’s is to appreciate what you once took for granted, and to see what you once were too busy to see.  I hate the thought of what Parkinson’s will put my wife through.  At the same time, Parkinson’s has made me aware of just how deeply I love her, and how much I treasure the time, good or bad, that we spend together.