This morning, a Sunday, I went and gave blood at a small church and school in Beach Park, Illinois.  I wasn’t familiar with the location.  As I pulled in, the parking lot was full of activity.  I saw the blood center van parked next to the one of the wings of the building.  There was a group of people walking in a doorway just past the van; I followed them only to find I had entered the church.  I asked an older man wearing black with a white collar where the blood drive was, he very patiently pointed me to a door on the far side of the chapel.  It was only after absorbing his directions that I realized he was the pastor, standing in the doorway to greet his congregation.  Suffice to say, I’m not a regular church-goer, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a house of worship.  I’m wondering, in hind sight, if I should have removed the baseball cap I was wearing.

Following the pastor’s directions, I found my way to the doorway he’d described, which was in the attached school, and upon opening it, I entered another sacred and holy room that I hadn’t been in for years.  I found myself in a school gymnasium, not the huge high school gymnasiums that double as auditoriums, but rather, the small and humble and traditional elementary school gymnasium.  I’ve always loved these places and have fond memories of them, from my own childhood to the times coaching my son’s basketball teams.

It was all recognizable, the folded up three rows of wooden bleachers, the boundary lines and free throw lines and the lanes of the basketball courts marked out on the floor, the rims and nets and backboards, and the darkened scoreboard high on the wall.  I remembered the stale but somehow not unpleasant smell of sweat that hangs in the inadequately ventilated air during a game or a scrimmage.  I could hear the holy sounds that haunt every gymnasium, the echo of a bouncing basketball, the swish when a shot hits nothing but net, and that most sacred sound of all, the sound of stopping and starting tennis shoes squeaking on the floor.

To some, it probably says a lot that a gymnasium has more meaning to me than a chapel.  I would agree, but I think I might draw a different conclusion.  For me, basketball courts and gymnasiums, along with baseball diamonds and backyard football fields, were great places to learn important rules and truths.  I learned about teamwork and sportsmanship (good and bad) and pushing yourself beyond your limitations. I learned about love, the love of the games, and the importance of community, for without other players, there was no way to express that love.  I learned about faith, faith that if thrown to, I could catch that pass, or the faith that an open teammate could make the winning shot.

Most important, they gave me a reason and a place to run and jump and release my pent up energies.  Now, with my physical capabilities in rapid decline, I understand their real value, and that these places provided more nourishment to my soul than sitting in a pew listening to incomprehensible sermons ever could.

Grand Opening

I have electric toenails.

One of the things that seem to be consistent in good writing, whether it is a work of fiction or an essay or whatever, is the importance of a strong opening, something to grab the reader’s attention, to pull them in.   Once you have the reader’s attention, you can do whatever you want.  For example, I don’t really have electric toenails.  I made that up to make my point.

I’ve been collecting good opening lines for some time now and jotting them down in my journal.  Someday I hope to write stories that make use of them.   What follows is a sampling of some of these journal entries – I think you will agree that these are great springboards from which stories could be sprung:

–           The bananas were ripe.

–           He stared into the abyss, deep and cavernous, suddenly aware that he hadn’t brushed his teeth.

–           It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.  The point is, his watch had stopped at a quarter to five.

–          “Father,” he asked of the endless darkness that engulfed him, “do you have any cheese?”

–           The years were not kind to him.  The months, on the other hand, were quite generous, particularly May and October, frequently sharing their pudding.

–          My only regret is that I was wearing tube socks.

–          I can’t wrap my head around the fact that she is gone, probably because my head has no elasticity.

–          She left me as empty as a Republican’s soul.

–          Days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months.  The months, curiously, turned back into days.   Nobody knew quite what to do.

–          How many times do I have to tell you, I don’t know where the Kleenex are!

–          Their relationship was doomed from the beginning – she was a ballerina, and he was a three ringed binder.

I had more, but I spilled some grape juice on my journal, rendering the rest of them unreadable.  That’s okay, though – at least I saved the really good ones!





Same Old Disease, New Friends

(Note:  Names are not shared so that privacy is protected)

Tonight I attended the second get together of a “social group” (for lack of a better term) for professionals with young on-set Parkinson’s disease (I had to miss the first one due to a prior commitment) at a nice Italian restaurant in Waukesha.   The idea of the group came from a guy I met at the Wisconsin Parkinson’s Association symposium last month.  His idea was to bring together young on-set P.D. patients who are or have been professionals in the work place.  This would be different than the support groups many of us are members of, as it targets a more narrow audience, and in that the intent is to hang out and do things together.   The support groups are great and necessary, giving a diverse audience a chance to trade notes and share experiences with the disease, and to pass on vital information about the disease to both patients and care givers.  This group promises to be something a little bit different, as we discussed ideas for future get-togethers like pub crawls, concerts and Brewers games.  The idea is that we get out with people we are comfortable with and do things together.

It was a great night.  I got to meet some very interesting and nice people, all young onset patients (One of the nice things about having PD is that, at age 53, it is one of the last demographics where I am considered young).  There was the former member of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and graduate of Julliard who is looking to writing as an alternative to playing music, there’s the 22 year old student teacher, there’s the former computer programmer who only recently quit working, and the organizer of the group, a director of HR for a Milwaukee architecture firm.  Talking with them, I found I had something in common with each of them besides Parkinson’s, and, here’s the important part, I found them all to be vibrant, positive minded individuals who are looking forward to filling the next chapter in their lives with their passions and interests.

This is so important, because the natural tendency for people with PD, especially us young folks, is to withdraw and become more isolated, to become a slave to the disease and its slow parade of diminishing physical capabilities.  It’s a great thing to be able to get with people of a similar age and background and compare notes about the disease, but it’s even more important and downright inspiring to know that the ability to dream and the will to pursue those dreams perseveres.

I’m coming to the conclusion that there are two vital components to life, two elements that make getting up in the morning worth the trouble, whether you have PD or not.  One is the capacity to dream.  The other is a sense of community, the ability to connect and identify with other humans, and to share and honor their dreams.   Parkinson’s is an insidious little bastard that slowly steals physical capabilities and, if you’re not careful, if you don’t have a community to belong to, it’ll also rob you of your hopes and aspirations.

I look forward to deepening the new friendships I am making and the journeys I hope we will share together. Thanks to the organizers of this group for getting us together.

July 4th

(This is a little scene involving some characters from the novel I am writing.  Don’t know yet if I’ll be able to fit it in or not,  so I’m posting it here)

Fireflies blinked on and off in the front yard as Bernard slipped through the screen door onto the front porch.   It was almost dark, headlights winding down Ojibway Valley Road toward the Mighty Casey’s.   Everybody else was inside, in the family room, silently staring at the television, their minds wandering to wherever their minds took them, numb from the news they were still trying to absorb.  The Fourth of July was the last thing on their mind.

Outside a warm breeze blew from the south.   Bernard had his jacket on but knew it wouldn’t be required as he got to the road and started walking towards the bridge.  The plan was for him to wear his American Legion uniform, being the 50th Fourth of July since the end of World War One.  Bernard was to stand with the other two surviving veterans of the war living in the valley.  But that didn’t seem important anymore.

What was important to Bernard was to trace the steps he had taken fifteen years earlier.  He walked along the road, and before it got to the junction with County Highway H, where the bridge was closed down, where cars were already lined on both sides of the road, where parents sat in lawn chairs along the river bank and on the bridge, where kids ran in the tall grass waving sparklers, the sounds of their shouts and laughter echoing in the warm night air, Bernard, like he did fifteen years earlier, stepped off the road into the quiet shadows cast by the trees and onto the rutted tractor path that led into the rolling hay fields.  He ducked under the barbed wire fence and walked on the path parallel to the highway until it turned to the west and went up hill.   He climbed the hill, feeling a slight tightness in his 73 year old thighs, until he got to the top.  It was almost completely dark as he sat down in the tall grass and looked through the opening in the trees to the river and the bridge and the spot on the far banks where Jack Casey and his crew were getting ready to start the fireworks.

He sat in the weeds, alone in the dark, the warm breeze in his face, his hands clasped around his knees, and watched as the fireworks started to explode.  They lit up the sky, right above him, and they were close enough that they lit up the empty grasses that surrounded him.

“Wow,” his four year old grandson said, and after about the fifth explosion, he added “this is the best place, isn’t it, grandpa?”

He could see his grandson, his little shadow, in the empty red and yellow flashes of light beside him.  He thought of the trenches in the Argonne he’d made it home from, and he thought of the jungles in Vietnam his grandson didn’t, and he remembered the answer he gave fifteen years ago.

“Yes it is,” he replied, “it’s the best place in the whole world.”