Thursday, January 16, 2020

In the ring: fighting Parkinson's with boxing

I became a personal pacifist in 5th grade a split second after my right fist caved in the face of Mark Duncan on the front steps at Julia Ward Howe Elementary School.

So at the age of 13 with blood on my knuckles, I’d renounced violence in front of a building named for the composer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a song that exalts the Lordly unleashing of His terrible swift sword.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!

Mark had the day before spit in my face for reasons I still do not know.

We were in 5th grade so it wasn’t like he’d busted me for hitting on his wife.

That didn’t happen ’til, oh, 6th grade with Mr. Apple, suspiciously alert husband of  Mrs. Apple, my 6th grade teacher.

I just recall a righteous fury as I wiped his hot spit from my befuddled face. In that instant and years before I’d ever watched a single episode of “Mannix,” I fully understood the concept of justifiable homicide. 

It’s a pity I became a pacifist because, clearly, I could have been a world champion pugilist and I hear there’s good scratch in that.

His head snapped back — hell, it nearly snapped off. I thought I’d killed him. I felt oddly apologetic. We never spoke again. If he saw me coming, he’d duck behind locker. I fear my punch severely deformed his psychological composition. On the other hand he probably learned spitting in someone’s face is an unwise tactic when it comes to interpersonal problem solving.

I mention all this now because after 44 years, I’m training for a fight against a foe more consequential than that childhood slobber slinger

I’m fighting Parkinson’s Disease. And I’m kicking its ass!

Uh, not really. See, I gotta be honest. I knew writing that obligatory rah-rah sentence would feel phony.

You don’t beat Parkinson’s. You either come to some sort of accommodation or you surrender to it. To me, it’s like being in one of those old movies where the lawman and the escapee are shackled and on the run for reasons that take about 90 minutes to resolve. 

Doctors describe my status as “slow progressing/high functioning.”

(In fact, I saw my PCP yesterday after I’d started this and he declared I’m in otherwise excellent health. If only …)

I have a noticeable limp and watching me put on a jacket is like watching Houdini trying to escape from one. My left arm is basically useless. It just hangs there like salami in a deli window. I type one-handed with the same hand I once used to devastate a 5th grader spitter. 

They say exercise is a key to slowing symptoms. So, I work out at Planet Fitness about four times a week, but I find terribly boring. Perhaps I should set a goal of looking decent in a Speedo by spring, but that kind of vanity exercise would lead to too many drastic lifestyle changes and I’d miss my Tin Lizzy time spent keeping my body all soft and cuddly.

But experts say one of the best ways to fight symptom progression is to put on boxing gloves and get in the ring. One headline: “Punching Out Parkinson’s Symptoms: How Boxing Helps.”  The story says boxing helps Parkinson’s patients maintain higher levels of function and quality of life than those who engaged in other forms of exercise.

So for three months now I’ve been going once-a-week to Ground Zero martial arts academy on Latrobe’s Main Street. I like owner instructor Jeremy Kosicek in that he’ll spend 30 minutes teaching me how to fight and then spend the next 30 minutes philosophizing with me about the folly of living in a world where so many people are so eager to fight.

I’m very fond of him and thus feel sheepish about my eagerness to corrupt his admirably healthy lifestyle in favor of sitting, boozing and BSing with me in dark taverns, which remains my favorite pastime.

My sessions involve shadow boxing, footwork, balance, rhythm and hitting the heavy bags. It’s very invigorating.

He tells me I’m a natural and that he’ll soon have me ready to pound the crap out any surly assailant.

But it is an ego boost to hear I’m becoming skillful at the most manly of arts.

And the opponent I’d most like to clobber is the one that resides inside my own head. It is patient. Time is on its side. It will win.

It’s up to me to make the most of my time until the final rounds.

You should, of course, be doing the same.

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Saturday, January 11, 2020

Contemplating crime while waiting to say goodbye to our friend Dave at the funeral home

I don’t know what it is about small town funerals that often leads me to think of committing crimes.

Happened yesterday at the visitation for our friend Dave Planinsek, 63. When someone like Dave dies — and there aren’t many like Dave — everyone stops what they’re doing and heads over to pay their respects. 

People stand in line for hours and think about what to say, how to comfort the family and if it’s too soon to call dibs on that fishing rod Dave’ll no longer be needing.

And while they’re thinking these mostly altruistic thoughts, I’m standing there thinking, “Man, now would be a dandy time to stick-up the bank.”

A bank heist would be a cinch when someone like Dave expires in a town like Latrobe. Everyone in town was there to mourn Dave so the rest of town was wide open.

I imagine me running into the empty bank, demanding money, and having the lone teller toss me the keys and saying, “Here you go. Lock up when you’re done,” as she runs out the door in the vain hopes of securing convenient parking.

Of course, there was no convenient parking at Dave’s visitation, thus fulfilling Use All The Crayons! colorful living tip no. 42:

Try and do something each and every day that’ll ensure parking at your funeral will be a real bitch.”

That’s how Dave lived. A retired agent with the state Department of Environmental Protection Agency, he and his wife Cindy are renown for hosting a spring fishing derby on their sylvan property. 

I’d see him every couple days at The Tin Lizzy and was always pleased when he’d sit next to me. The conversation was always insightful, interesting and always circled back to having fun. He’s the only guy I know who could talk for 30 minutes about wild mushrooms native to the Chestnut Ridge and be enlightening instead of excruciating.

Another great thing about Dave: I have no idea about his political leanings. 

If he was a Trump fan, I don’t recall him beating me over the head about it. Likewise, I don’t remember him pulling out a rainbow wig and sashaying around the bar when Megan Rapinoe scored for either the US of A or the LBGQ of T or whatever. 

I do know this: he was a law-and-order guy.

He loved his family, country, the outdoors and people who rolled up their sleeves and worked hard to better his community. 

He was contemptuous of those who felt entitled, those who cut corners, those who felt the rules didn’t apply to them.

So on the day we said goodbye to Dave, Dave would have disdained me.

Because I did something worse than rob a bank.

I cut the line at the funeral home.

I know. It’s the kind of brazen act that could lead to a horizontal sort of visit to that very funeral home.

But the line was so, so, long and the smiling stranger had run out of flattering things to say to me. She’d overheard me talking to some friends and pieced together I’d written the Arnold Palmer book.

“It’s the best book I’ve ever read,” she said with sweet sincerity. I love to hear things like that and am always happy my wife’s not around to logically ask how many books she’s read, if that includes the Bible, and if I’d paid her to say the heresy out loud.

But the line wasn’t moving and the conversation lapsed. Plus, I had to pick up my daughter at the middle school. I’d stood in line for an hour and still had at least another 30 minutes to get to Dave and his grieving family.

I told my friend and he offered an illicit suggestion: Cheat.

“Just skip through that door, down the hall and into the main room.”

He said I could get essential family credit, by just popping in the casket room, signing the book and being seen by the family. From across the room, I could offer a reassuring smile and a solemn nod that says, “I’m here. It’s gonna be okay. Everything’s gonna be fine. Did I mention, ‘I’m here?’”

So what did I do?

What do you think. I took the easy way out! Because t
he easy way isn’t always the right way, but it’s always easy and sometimes that’s all right.

I feel bad I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to a good, kind man whose manner and ethic brightened so many of our lives.

But to be honest I don’t feel that bad.

I’ll instead treasure all those hellos.

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