I am not sure what led me to consider writing a piece on humour and Parkinson’s Disease (PD.) On the surface, there does not seem to be much funny about Parkinson’s. I am not a particularly funny guy and I do not see myself as a humourist. My children may think I am funny (bless them) or more likely, that I have a weird sense of humour and that I am funny/strange (hey, in a good way.) Other than a few impromptu occasions when I played “Stanta” at the office Holiday lunch where I improvised a few in-house comments, I have avoided putting my mind to comedic endeavours. I do not write jokes, nor do I tell jokes particularly well. In fact, I barely remember any of the jokes I have heard over the past 60+ years and there have been tens of thousands of them.
Yet, here I am, sitting at the keyboard intent on writing about humour and Parkinson’s. Others have tackled this and done a far better job of it than I am likely to do (see Yuma Bev at http://www.parkinsonshumor.blogspot.com.) Perhaps, I am being deluded by dementia often associated with PD or maybe I have a propensity to achieve failure. Am I rising to the level of my own incompetence? [Oops, I almost typed “incontinence” instead of “incompetence.” That may well seep into my blog at some point, but not quite yet.]
Undoubtedly, a sense of humour is both learned and inherited. My father had a wry sense of humour and there are others in the extended family (living and dead) that I consider to have somewhat quirky outlooks on life. I confess though that the humour of the latter never developed much after their demise, but interestingly, the richness of their life stories did. Funny that.
Before I go too far, I think it is important to distinguish between humour and comedy. At the risk of appearing a bit “researchy,” and you know that I try to avoid rigourous research in this blog as much as possible, (some of my professors have told me I tried to do that in my academic work as well,) it is sometimes necessary to interject some sociological order into all universes. Dick Gregory, renowned American comedian and civil rights activist, described humour as everyday situations that happened in everyday life and relayed to others in informal settings. By contrast, comedy was paid work where individuals were divided into audience and performer – and the performer better have his/her comedic timing down pat. With that in mind, I think that I am contemplating humour as opposed to comedy in this piece. But I do have PD and may appear to be confused, even if I am not. Please read on to find out for certain.
I do not remember my paternal grandmother (Maud) well but my most explicit memories of her are from my childhood and teen years. (For the record, she was every bit the horticulturist that my grandfather was and I shall explore her talents more in later posts.) She always seemed to be a stern, straight-laced person, not particularly the cuddly type. Maybe being the mother of five sons had something to do with that. Nevertheless, I knew her to have quite a soft side. She was not above pulling one’s leg with some exaggeration or story of life. But she had one serious downfall – when she was engaged in some tomfoolery, she had an undeniable twinkle in her eyes. You only had to look at her straight on to learn whether what she was saying or doing was fact or fiction.
I inherited that same trait and it has proved to be my downfall on many occasions as I tried to pull off some spoof or other, or even, dare I say it, lie about something. My maternal grandfather (“Grampa Bill”) also possessed a well-developed sense of humour with no ability to conceal it so I am doubly cursed with this weakness. Those who know this fact quickly find me out in any ploy. Genetically speaking, both sides of the family ganged up on me – for humour at least, and who knows about the PD?
Personifying Dick Gregory’s juxtaposition of humour with comedy, Grampa Bill also established himself as a performer – not so much paid as rewarded – in various social settings such as Legion Halls and gatherings of army buddies. He maintained a constant patter of jokes coupled with a long playlist of old standards and comedic ditties played on an old squeezebox. I did not inherit this latter talent but can only surmise that some residual features of it still percolate through my personality from time to time.
My children have grown accustomed to my (often) sad attempts at humour although it does create some genuinely funny and absurd conversations where we riff off one another with bad puns and malapropisms. It is particularly fun in this electronic age of text messaging. They speak openly in front of me, as if I am not present, of their personal concerns about having my sense of humour. I am afraid that they have good reason but at least they have some early warning. My greatest wish is that they inherit my sense of humour such as it is … and not any genetic propensity for Parkinson’s.
Humour can be learned to an extent but it can’t be forced. If you have ever witnessed someone who is unfunny trying to be funny, you know that it must come from deep inside the genetic code. I can hear my ancestors as I start into a conversation that has some potential to be funny. Hmmm … psychosis and hallucinations (both visual and auditory) are routinely part of the lives of approximately 25% of PwP, usually later in the progress of the disease. There are several potential triggers for hallucinations but these are best left to another time. This is an aspect of PD that has not visited me yet. I am not sure it ever will but I can’t say that I am looking forward to it if it does. Still, I don’t think that retrieving sub-conscious memories of past relatives constitute hallucinations but … I shall have to be careful about what I say here ….
What I am about to write now would shock my grandmother and I doubt that there would be a twinkle in her eye – more likely she would have some sharp words uttered through pursed thin lips. Nevertheless, I shall charge ahead in some perceived need to edify myself about the fact that comedy and humour may take different forms even if the situation is essentially the same.
Consider the following scenario: you find yourself (assuming you are male) between Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox at the urinals at a baseball game. (If you are female, make any assumptions you wish.) By the way, I have taken the fundamental premise of this scenario from a real joke circulating on the Internet.
A comedian or comedy writer is likely the one who thought up this scenario and in its telling will add some quick repartee about having to be careful with all that shaking going on (Parkinson’s you know, wink, wink.) Regardless of how much beer or other liquid has been consumed by any of the parties involved, the interaction (and the joke) is over quickly.
Others will also have contemplated this scenario but will have presaged it with considerable verbiage around never having met Muhammad Ali and being disappointed that the only celebrity in sight at the game played in Los Angeles has been Michael J. Fox who was almost overlooked, as he was so short. The writer opines that he paid a bundle for the tickets because he wanted to see some celebrities. Late in the game he makes a trip to the bathroom and, lo and behold, he sees Muhammad Ali and is so overcome with excitement that he extends his hand to shake Ali’s while he is at the urinal. Of course this is a dodgy proposition at the best of times. The comic then clumsily mutters something about being glad he did not end up between Ali and Fox. [shakey, Parkinson’s, yada yada.] The joke ends up in essentially the same place.
However, let’s assume that you are a PwP and further assume that you have a sense of humour. PD humour is largely self-deprecating and based on our personal, lived experience. It transpires that you actually do end up, by pure happenstance, at the urinals in a real life situation between Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali. Wow! The humour is in the account of the meeting. After all, whom do you pretend not to glance at first? Add your own Parkinson’s shakiness into the equation and suddenly Ali and Fox have something to fear as well. Further, the fact that Muhammad Ali is 6 ft. 3 in. and Michael J. Fox is 5 ft. 4 in. provides all kinds of potential for quips about being drenched from head to toe, etc. But what separates this PwP account of the meeting at the urinals from others is that it is experiential and the humour flows from that fact. There may well have been an exchange between Ali and Fox as they know one another; and you, yourself, may have participated in the exchange. The humour is in the telling of a true story, but with just enough embellishment to make the listener check to see if there is a twinkle in your eye … or not.
But there is nothing funny about Parkinson’s Disease, is there? It is a disease to be feared and among the last words you ever want to hear from a neurologist are, “you have Parkinson’s.” However, my neurologist did say to me recently, “you have six months left.” It turned out that he was referring to how long my current prescription for L-dopa would last. I never really thought I only had six months left to live, but it was funny to hear it, as he said it. Why is that?
But what are you going to do, when life deals you a lousy hand? Oh you know, there are all the usual motivational sayings and/or lyrics from uplifting songs: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” “Just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.” “Dig down deep and fight back.” They don’t really work for me.
I am not trying to downplay the importance of motivational and inspirational sayings, or soul-strengthening passages from the texts of various religions. They are important to each of us in how we face PD and its intractable march to destroy our brains and bodies. For me, humour has its own inspiration and is more than a coping mechanism; it is one of the essential ingredients for quality of life and survival.
I have great admiration for the Michael J Fox show and everyone involved with it. It is difficult to write Parkinson’s humor – too obvious and it appears that you are mocking those who have PD – too subtle and only those who know the details of Parkinson’s will get it. There is a need to strike a balance between the two. As a PwP, I truly appreciate the subtle humour that makes me feel I am an “insider,” privy to information that only very few others have. But then again, I want some things to be really obvious, front and centre; to raise the profile of PD, providing education and awareness to the ravages of this very unfunny disease; to drive home the points that more research and funding is required to find a cure; to impress that economic, social and health policy need to be aligned to provide quality of life so that dignity is not the final victim of PD.
Do I think that the Michael J. Fox Show is the best comedy show on TV? No, but I do laugh out loud more than three times each week which is better than the bar I set for many other shows.
So, what if I met Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali in my garden? Ha! That is a scenario even more unlikely than my meeting them at the urinals. But if I did meet them in my garden, we would hear Anne shrieking: “ Watch where you guys are treading! There are tender young seedlings under there you know!” I have heard this admonition many, many times as I lurch around the garden like Young Frankenstein when my meds are wearing off. Intellectually, I know what is happening and I look down in a sort of “out of body” experience to see my feet heading wherever they feel like, while my mind is stepping as delicately as possible. I have come to enjoy “lurching”, at which I am getting ever better. If you haven’t tried it, maybe you should. It is good exercise with those long strides that force you to concentrate to avoid pitching head over teakettle into the shrubbery.
I often find myself focusing on the 8-inch garden wall in front of me as if I were about to attack the balance beam at an international gymnastics competition. If I can reach it without damaging some baby brown-eyed Susan’s, I will have exited the garden with minimal damage. Wait, don’t they grow like weeds anyway? Why am I so concerned about them? I tell myself to hell with the brown-eyed Susan’s – just get one foot on the wall and then step down to the path without gaining any extra momentum. If I lose the battle of agility to the one of speed, I will end up crossing the path, crashing through the Monarda (Marshall’s Delight no less) and pitching into the Rosa Rugosa. What follows will be the ignominy of a cross-examination as to why I smell vaguely of spicy herbal tea, have scratches all over my hands and arms, and rose petals in my hair.
It is at this point that I call on “Brother John” (Anne’s brother) as a role model for balance success. I am much indebted to Brother John for a classic image of him raising his arms in triumph as he executed a perfect landing, after launching himself from his sitting position on the couch to a standing position directly in front of the couch. With that portrait of success etched into my dopamine deprived brain, I initiate a long graceful stride to the wall and then a split second later, another one to the path with my arms high in the air in the victory position – the audience roaring its approval and the announcer shouting, “Wow! He really stuck that landing.” I don’t believe it until I check myself for rose thorns and/or blood trickling down my bare arms.
I do sometimes fantasize that Ali, Michael J. and I are in the garden. I am pretty sure this is a fantasy and not a hallucination. The collateral damage would be considerable but it would be the best and probably funniest day of my life! Ali would be bobbing and weaving, playing rope-a-dope against the fence with his head just visible among the Joe Pye weed, Jerusalem Artichoke, and Rudbeckia quoting poetry: “… float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” appropriate for any self respecting perennial garden. Michael J. would be channeling Alex Keaton, vainly waving his arms about in the shorter brown-eyed Susan’s and Echinacea to convince us that this waste of space could be put to better use as a condo development. Or perhaps MJF would provide a private re-enactment of Marty McFly and the famous guitar performance of “Johnny B Good” in Back to the Future, only this time from the “Gardens.” In any case, seedlings and full-grown plants stand directly in harm’s path.
But back to reality. My response to Anne’s shrieks to step carefully is invariably the same, “if you want a gardener with PD to clean up this mess of weeds, you have to expect some collateral damage! I am not called The PD Gardener for nothing, you know.” That, along with a well-timed diversionary question about the new peony in a bed I haven’t yet tramped across, usually buys me enough time to escape the scene of the carnage.
There is much more to be said about humour, gardens and Parkinson’s, and all the permutations and combinations cannot be addressed in one post. I was going to say “short post” but you would snicker at that characterization. I shall return in future ramblings to chat about the Parkinson’s world, from the inside out.
In the meantime, I have learned that gardens, for the most part, recover from unintentional Parkinson’s invasions. And the benefit to a PwP for having the opportunity “to trod” in such gardens is immeasurable. Any sacrifices the flora has made are returned more than a hundred fold to the maintenance of a healthy PwP outlook on life. I have also learned that finding humour in what we are and what we do is critical to understanding that, while not everything in life is what we would wish, when one is in the garden, alone or with loved ones and friends, life is damn near perfect.