Froggy, Froggy, Pollywoggy

About 10:00 on a sunny Saturday morning in 1995, my wife went outside to do some yard work.  Our next door neighbor at the time, Sam Spitz, was out, and commented to my wife, “Boy, you guys were sure up early this  morning.”

 “What do you mean?”, Deb asked.

“Well, I saw Hannah and the dog outside at 5:30” 

This was a revelation to us, as we slept in until almost 9:00 that morning.  Unbeknownst to us, our daughter, about a year old, had gotten up, unlocked the door, and ventured outside, taking with her our dog, Sid.  When she got tired again, she came back in, bringing Sid in with her, and went back to bed, where we found her contentedly sleeping when we woke up.  How long she had been outside remains a mystery, as does how many other times previously she had woke up and decided to go outside.  Suffice to say additional security measures were put in place after that morning.

Hannah is our third and youngest child, preceded by her two brothers,   Jon and Nick.  When my wife was pregnant with her, and when the ultrasound images indicated we were going to have a girl, we heard from more than one expert that girls are easier to raise than boys.  For the first several months, this seemed to be true.  She was the sweetest and calmest baby you could ever ask for.  But then she learned to walk, and all Hell broke loose.  And talk.   And talk, talk, talk.

For the first five or six years of her life she was Hurricane Hannah.  Strong and independent and smart beyond her years, she wore us out.   Despite our attempts to act as “parents”, there was little doubt about who was really running things around our house.   For example, there was the time when Hannah was in pre-school, and fascinated by the aquarium in her class room.  My wife had prepared a quick and easy supper.  After calling several times for her to come to dinner, Hannah finally came to the table.  Quickly surveying the table and the main course of Van De Kamp’s fish sticks, she indignantly put her hands on her hips and confronted her Mother.

 “You killed it, you cooked it, and you expect me to eat it?”  The four year old was demanding an explanation.

 “I didn’t kill it”, my perplexed wife responded.

 “Well, you cooked it!”, she concluded as she left the table.  My wife and I were dumfounded.

 It was at this time that it became clear that the world we all lived in belonged to Hannah and was defined by her heart and her boundless imagination.  She’d let me join in her imagination from time to time.   Most mornings, I’d assume the role of the tireless servant who would serve her breakfast (“You’re oatmeal” I’d announce as I put it on the table in front of her, “is serrrrrrrved”).  When she was little, she wanted to be a schoolteacher, and as I’d walk past her room, she’d be reading to a classroom of her stuffed animals, holding a picture book high up so they could all see.  From time to time, I’d assume the role of principal, calling her into my office to give her some new curriculum.  Sometimes she’d call me in to her classroom to help discipline kids who were misbehaving.   I’d find myself lecturing invisible kids on the evils of throwing staplers at each other or bringing their pet giraffes into the classroom, at which point she’d sigh, “Dad, you’re getting too silly again.”

 I used to call her “Hannah Banana at the Copacabana” and even created my own lyrics to the Barry Manilow classic (!), “Copacabana”, which I used to sing to her all the time.

 Her name was Hannah / she liked bananas / she liked to sing and dance /and step on ants / at the copa,Copacabana./ Hannah Banana at the Copacabana

One day, as she sat on my lap watching television, I was flipping thru the channels when I came upon Barry Manilow himself sitting at a piano.  As if on cue, he started singing the real “Copacabana”, to which Hannah turned to me and said with amazement, “He’s singing the Hannah Banana song!”

The years passed and there was the endless parade of classic Hannah moments, like the time she was angry at her brother Nick and emptied a container of Chinese sweet and sour sauce under his pillow, or the time she drew in bright red crayon over the bathroom walls my wife had just minutes before finished a long weekend wallpapering, or the time up north when she fell into the river (“I forgot about that”), or the many times we’d be awakened by the crashing sound of her falling out of bed in the middle of the night, followed by the faint cry of her voice saying, “I’m all right”, or the time when we moved the couch in the living room to see, on the wall behind it, in tiny print that was her unmistakable hand writing the words, “Jon did it”.  Although she eventually grew out of her precocious youth into a sweet and smart girl, she has remained a vibrant and prodigious life force.  There has never been a dull moment when Hannah’s been around.

Today (September 27th) is her 17th birthday, and she has grown into a lovely young lady who is just starting her senior year.   She is smart and funny and surprisingly mature and level headed. I am very proud of her, and am going to miss her terribly when she goes to college next year.

One night, when she was about three years old, as I tucked her into bed, she said, “good night, froggy!”, to which I replied, “good night, froggy!”   Ever since then, she has been my froggy, and no amount of time and distance will ever change that.



The PD Kid Is Not Alone

I attended the 4th annual Parkinson’s Symposium, sponsored by Froedtert Hospital, today.  It was held in a Waukesha hotel’s conference center.   As I pulled into the parking lot, I wasn’t sure I was in the right location, until I saw the slow migration of men and women doing the PD shuffle from their parked cars to the hotel entrance.  I knew immediately that I was with “my people”, and it occurred to me, as I entered and waited in the long registration line, that it would be a mean but funny joke to yell “fire” in this crowd.  

I’ve been to a few of these now, and find the speakers to almost always be very interesting, and today’s symposium was no exception.   As interesting as it is to hear the scholarly presentations from dedicated professionals, I find the real value in these things is the opportunity to interact with other patients and learn about their experiences.  Today, at my table, I was, as is often the case, the youngest person (at almost 53 years of age, it may be the last demographic where I am considered a “kid”).  What was different about today’s table is that the two men who sat to my left had both had Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) surgery.   This gave me a rare opportunity to trade notes with others who have been through this surreal process.  We all agreed that the pre-op process of clamping the metal frame to the head was possibly the worst part, and they were able to corroborate my experience of, as they screwed the spikes into my head that would hold the frame in place, being able to feel and hear the breaking of skull fragments.   Then there’s the part where they install the electrodes in your brain – while you are awake!   We traded memories of this, like old soldiers trading war stories, with one of the guys telling the scary story of how he almost died from the anesthesia administered to him afterwards, and that in the rush to save him (he was clinically dead for two minutes), they accidently dislodged the electrodes they had just put in, resulting in the surgery having to be re-done.  We traded notes on our neuro-transmitters and their operation and maintenance.  We discussed the differences between my one battery and their two battery systems like we were discussing the differences between six and eight cylinder car engines.

While we were out on break, I ran into a face that looked vaguely familiar.  Looking at his name tag, I recognized him as a nuclear engineer I used to work with at the Zion Nuclear Power Plant, more than 15 years ago.   I went up to him and we talked for a while, with him finally confessing that he didn’t remember me.  That was okay, as it has been a long time – we had a nice chat none the less.  He is about the same age as me, and it turns out he was diagnosed a couple of years before I was, and that he too has had the DBS surgery.  He is now teaching engineering at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.  Like me, his handwriting has become completely illegible, and like me, he is dealing with frequent and debilitating periods of daytime fatigue.  He is wrestling with how much longer he can keep working, just like I had been for the past couple of years before finally throwing in the towel in late March of this year.

We talked for a while in the hallway, until the program began again and it was time to return to our tables.  I said it was nice meeting him again and that I wish it were under different circumstances.  We both agreed that things aren’t as bad as they could be and that there are a lot of worse things we could be afflicted with. 

This is one of the things I’ve learned from attending these conferences.  We PD patients are, for the most part, a pretty resilient group.  When we talk, there isn’t a lot of whining or complaining about our fate – there is more the comparing of notes.   Recognizing, for example, that nearly every PD patient I’ve met has experienced to some degree the same issues with sleep disturbances and daytime fatigue, is somehow very reassuring for me.  I think it is because having Parkinson’s is such an intimate experience – the disease is much more than the impaired motor functions that result in tremors or the shuffling walk or the slurred speech – these are, to borrow a phrase from a Chicago symposium I attended last year, just the tip of the iceberg, the part that’s visible above the water’s surface.  Like an iceberg, about 70% of the Parkinson’s experience lies beneath the surface, and is known only to the patient.   This results in one of the worst symptoms of Parkinson’s – the feeling of isolation.   If for no other reason, the symposiums and conferences and support groups are worth attending for the simple knowledge that you are not alone.

So thanks to all the professionals who put together these events and donate so much of their time, talent and knowledge.   Thanks for your passion and commitment to our rag-tag community of the slow and unsteady.

Dystopia? Better than Dat Topia

(Recently, a friend asked me what movies or books I felt best described either our dystopian or utopian future.  Inspired by her question, I decided to write my own vision of dystopia.   Move over, Huxley and Orwell!  Beware, it is quite graphic and disturbing – read at your own risk!)

In the future, the world will be ruled by a single totalitarian government, and the production or consumption of mayonnaise will be outlawed.  All sandwiches will become dull and depressing, with the use of various types of Dijon mustards proving to be an inadequate substitute. 

This change will be brought about by the rise in power of a political faction within the conservative party known as the Sandwich Fundamentalists.   The Sandwich Fundamentalists believe in the purity of lunch times before the industrial revolution led to the mass production of mayonnaises.   They believe that God intended all lunches to consist of a cold meat and cheese on white or rye bread.  Extreme factions within the movement even call for the elimination of marble rye bread, decrying it as an “unholy mixing of the grains”, however, more moderate voices in the movement will take control and narrow its focus to the banishment of mayonnaise.  Successfully linking the warm and hazy nostalgia for a simpler and bygone age with the pristine lunches of the pre-Hellman’s era (their term for the post world war II years that saw a boom in the mass production of mayonnaises) and economic prosperity, the Sandwich Fundamentalists will begin as a small group lobbying congress on the evils of mayonnaise and grow, in the latter half of the 21st century, into a powerful political machine, backed by the mysterious and reclusive billionaire, Buddy Ebsen (not to be confused with  the star of the popular 70s television show, “Barnaby Jones”, with whom he coincidentally shares a name).   From his hidden Rocky Mountains retreat, Ebsen will quietly and efficiently guide and fund the Sandwich Fundamentalist movement, funding the creation of facilities and therapies to convert the unfortunate souls who have fallen victim to the hideous addiction of what they refer to as “the creamy white devil”.  These facilities will be known as “Mayo Clinics”, where trained professionals will administer the controversial “Cold Turkey” therapy, in which subjects admitting to mayonnaise addiction will be locked in a room and fed nothing but leftover Thanksgiving turkey sandwiches on plain white Wonder bread for a week. 

In the year 2075, at the conclusion of 20 years of worldwide war and famine that will result in Buddy Ebsen being named undisputed leader of the world, all production of mayonnaise will be halted, and the state controlled militia will confiscate all private holdings of mayonnaise.  (After lengthy debate in the Senate, it will be decided that Miracle Whip shall also be outlawed).    Ebsen’s reign of terror will continue for nearly 20 years, until the year 2094, when a mysterious stranger will arrive on the scene.

Leonard Hellman, heir to the Hellman’s mayonnaise fortune, will emerge from the secret underground bunker that his grandparents built in 2073, when it becomes apparent that Ebsen will reach power after the war.   Hellman’s grandparents and parents are both captured and executed in a televised event that signals the end of the progressive lunchtime movement.   Unbeknownst to the world, though, Stuart and Ethel Hellman had secretly conceived a son, Leonard, who was born in the family’s undetected underground bunker.   Through the years, Leonard remains hidden in the bunker, raised by his parent’s parakeet, Polly.   Through Polly, who Stuart and Ethel had painstakingly taught to speak several key phrases,  Leonard learns of his parents empire, and the dark secret that only they knew, the one secret that could bring about the downfall of Ebsen and the Sandwich Fundamentalists  and upend the world order.

On his 21st birthday, in June of 2094, Leonard Hellman and an aging Polly, the parakeet, emerge from his family’s secret underground bunker with a plan.  First, Hellman assumes the identity of Max Baer, strident Sandwich Fundamentalist, and gradually infiltrates the highest ranks of the organization, eventually earning the trust of Ebsen’s inner circle, and then Ebsen himself, who would come to think of Baer as his dim-witted but well intentioned   nephew.  Hellman, as Baer, and Polly establish residence in the Ebsen mansion, alongside other members of Ebsen’s inner circle, including Irene Ryan, who Ebsen refers to as “Granny”, and the lovely Donna Douglas.

One day, as Ebsen is out shooting up some food, Hellman and Polly find, hidden in a secret compartment at the bottom of an empty swimming pool, evidence of the dark secret Hellman’s parents had passed on to them.    In the secret compartment are literally thousands of jars of Hellman’s mayonnaise.  Polly captures the discovery on videotape, and the resulting footage, upon release to the public, brings about Ebsen’s downfall, with him finally revealing that yes, he is in fact the same Buddy Ebsen who was the star of television’s Barnaby Jones, and that, in the year 2095 he is 187 years old, and that his anti-aging secret is the steady application of Hellman’s mayonnaise, which he has used as a moisturizing cream for the past 150 years.  Ebsen unsuccessfully professes his innocence, saying the whole thing was actually a Quinn Martin production, and he is executed. 

Hellman is named leader of the world, and will reign over a period of enlightenment and restoration, where the good of Mayonnaise as not only a delicious sandwich topping but also as a revitalizing and life prolonging skin cream will bring about an age of peace and harmony of the likes the world has never known.


In the photograph, they are in black and white, and they are young and beautiful.    The three are standing in the snow, on what looks like maybe a frozen lake, bundled in their winter coats.  Their smiles convey warmth and love and happiness.  My Dad still has all his hair, and is still thin and muscular, and movie-star handsome.  My Mom, gently leaning on my Dad, is every bit his match, her skin still unwrinkled by time, and thin and mid-twenties young.   My Dad is holding my oldest brother, Mike.  Bundled in his winter coat and hat, he isn’t smiling but looks warm and natural and loved in his Father’s arms.  

They are unaware, standing there in the snow, that the three will eventually become six.  They know nothing about cancer or mental illness or congestive heart disease.   They have no perception of how fast nearly 60 years will pass.  They have no way of knowing that in that time, they will all be gone, and they know nothing of the other three they will leave behind.

They have no way of knowing that nearly 60 years later, on a warm Saturday in September, the photo will be posted on a bulletin board in the dining hall in a senior community in the town of Bruce, Wisconsin.   They can’t conceive the enormity of loss and the depths of emotion that the photo will inspire.

They are just a young family, standing in the snow near their home, having their picture taken.


It was a cold and grey Saturday morning in mid December, 1971, a little more than a month after my 12th birthday.  My sister and I were sitting in the back seat of our green 1969 Ford LTD, my Dad was driving and my Mom was sitting in the front passenger side.  My Mom was nervous and anxious.  We were on our way to Mitchell Field to pick up my oldest brother, Mike, who had just finished the Army’s basic training in Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.  He was coming home on leave.  It’d be the first time we saw him since the last time my Dad drove to the airport, eight weeks earlier, to drop him off.

We had received, in the mail, an official army portrait photo of Mike, all dressed in uniform, very formal, with his hair cut razor thin.  He looked nothing like the thick haired rock and roll fan he went into the army as.  We had received a couple of letters, in the army’s white envelopes with the red and blue trim, and he seemed to be doing well. 

We parked the car and went inside the arrivals area.  We were surprised to see dozens of razor thin haired soldiers, all formally dressed in their uniforms, all resembling the photo we had received.  My Mom was very anxious to see her oldest son, and somehow, she and I split off from my Dad and my Sister, as she aggressively made her way through the sea of uniforms.  Finally, she spotted my brother standing at a ticket counter.  She walked up, me following, and approached him, smiling broadly and saying, “Hi, how are you?”  It was at that point that the confused expression on the soldier’s face confirmed what I had just begun to suspect – it wasn’t Mike.

“I’m fine”, he said cautiously, as I was able to nudge her and say, “Mom, that’s not Mike.”   Embarrassed and flustered, she turned red, and we turned our back on the soldier that wasn’t Mike and towards the mass of uniforms.   It didn’t take us long to find the real Mike, and I had a good laugh when I told him how Mom had mistaken the wrong soldier for him.  My Mom, still red with embarrassment, was a good sport about it, and reluctantly laughed, too.

Then the three of us found my Dad and Jenny, and then we were back in the car, Mike sitting in the back seat with me and my little sister.  We had a nice ride home, with me calling him a “punk”, just like I did in the weeks before he went in the army, picking up where we had left off as if he’d never been gone.   The conversation turned to current events, and my Mom asked him what he thought of the big topic of the day, President Nixon’s recent trip to China, and Mike answered that he didn’t think Nixon was tough enough.  We were all surprised by his answer, as this was the same Mike who had been against the Vietnam War and who had agonized, after being drafted, about going in or defecting to Canada.  He ended up taking advantage of an offer where if he would enlist for a third year, he could serve in Germany, on the front lines of the cold war, and avoid having to go to Vietnam.  Mom and Dad took his response to Nixon and China as evidence that he was growing up.  I silently doubted the sincerity of the answer and suspected that he was telling them what they wanted to hear.   Regardless, I think it was more the site of his son in uniform than the answer to the question that made my Dad proudly beam as he drove.  They spoke of going downtown and having a couple of beers together while Mike was home on leave.   The generation gap that had always stood between them had, at least for the moment, closed.

As we drove home to Union Grove, light snow flurries began to fall, a reminder that Christmas was right around the corner.  Outside it was cold and gray and windy.   Inside the big Ford, we were comfortable and laughing, warmed by the car’s defroster and the knowledge that we were all going home, and that we’d all be together for the holidays.

Rising Star

My first position as a manager in I.T. was in 1991, when I was promoted to group leader in the I.T. department at the Zion Nuclear Power Plant.    It was my first official promotion to a position where I had direct reports.   I’d keep my old responsibilties and was in the same group, but now I had the additional duty of managing the other three members I had been co-workers with.  I was enormously proud of the promotion, and looked forward to being a manager, to being brought in to decision making and strategy setting sessions.  I took the whole thing as evidence that management had finally recognized my unique talents and skills. 

I was named to the position late on a Friday afternoon, and was disappointed when Monday came and went without a chance to exercise my new authority.   Tuesday was going along the same way; nothing had really changed, until late that afternoon. 

I was walking down the hallway on the way back to my cubicle in the I.T. office when I saw my boss and Karen M., the head of the clerical staff, and Dick B, the former Service Director, all huddled in Karen’s office, deep in concentration, with serious expressions on their face.  About the same time I saw them, my boss saw me, and started waving frantically for me to join them.

As I approached the office, I thought, this is it, I’m finally being brought into the inner sanctum of  management.  They need me, they need my expertise to help resolve whatever crisis was brewing.  As I approached the office, my boss quickly opened the door and waved me in, and then shut it behind me.

“You’re just the guy we’re looking for,” he said.  I took note of the somber expressions on Karen and Dick’s faces.

“Shoot”, I said, and waited for the problem, the crisis, that required my special skills and talents.

 “Well”, my boss started, looking around the room, “we’re stuck.   How did the theme song for “The Munsters” go?”

They were all stuck on the theme from “The Adams Family.”  My boss knew that I, with my legendary ability to recall the trivial, would know.  And I did not disappoint.  I “dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dum” ed my way through a couple of bars, much to the impressed delight of Karen and Dick, who both said, “yeah, that’s it!”

“See, I told you Gourdoux would know,” my boss proudly exclaimed. 

It turned out that they really did understand and value my unique talents and skills.

Labor Day

On September 5th, 1985, at about 8:30 P.M., I became a father.   Our first child, our son Jon, was born.

Talk about “Labor Day” – my wife was in labor in the hospital for more than 36 hours before Jon was finally born.  Even then, the doctor had to use forceps, a device that resembled a giant salad tong, to get him out.  But the moment when he finally said “It’s a boy” made it all worth the wait.

I thought I was well prepared and ready to be a father.  I had everything figured out – what rules I’d enforce, what beliefs and principles I’d instill, how fair and balanced I’d be.  Little did I know that you can never be adequately prepared, because, once born,  it turns out that this thing you’ve been obsessing over and reading and theorizing about is alive, and as unpredictable as any other living thing.   Nothing can prepare you for the challenges that await you, and you end up learning a lot more from your child than the other way around.  More than anything, nothing can prepare you for that moment when you look into your child’s eyes for the first time and feel the overwhelming spiritual sonic boom of love, a love so deep and complete that it is frightening.

Now, 26 years later, Jon is a young professional living and working in Minneapolis.   He has, despite my blundering and fumbling learn as I go struggles as a father, turned out to be a hard working and thoughtful man.  I am immensely proud of him, and thoroughly enjoy his company every time I see him.

One thing I do know – I fell in love with him immediately and forever.  I hope he understands this, that ill-advised though some of my actions may have been, they were always undertaken with the best intentions.    The thing about being a father is, it doesn’t end when the child grows up – I am proud of the fact that I will always be Jon’s father, and I hope he understands that I will always there for him.

My wife and I still live in the same house where we raised our children.   Our second son, Nicholas, is beginning his final year of college, while the youngest, our daughter, Hannah, just began her senior year of High School.  Next year at this time, we will officially be empty nesters.

About a year ago, the elderly woman who had always lived in the house across the street from us passed away.  Shortly afterwards, a young couple with a pre-school aged son bought the house and moved in.  Sometimes I see the father, home from work, on his lawn tractor, mowing his grass, with his young son on his lap, the same way that I used to mow my grass, with Jon on my lap.  As I watch them, I become aware that they have no idea what the future will bring, or how fast it will arrive.   They are, like Jon and I were twenty some years ago, lost in the moment, blissfully unaware of how quickly the world is spinning, of how fast the years will pass.   I imagine that the old woman who previously lived in the house used to watch Deb and I and our young children with the same wistful eye.

Times may change, but some things remain constant and perpetual.  People will always fall in love and they will always raise children, and if they are lucky, they will be able to find meaningful work to sustain their growing families.  

This is what we ultimately celebrate on Labor Day – the vital role of work in the perpetuity of love and in the dreaming of better lives for our children.