Sunday, September 8, 2013

An Off-and-On exclusive! Speech to Inland Northwest HOPE for Parkinson's Conference on Humor and Parkinson's Disease

More-or-less alive... from Spokane... It's yours truly, talkin' humor and Parkinson's Disease! On the teeny-tiny chance that you are interested, here is the text along with visuals from my presentation September 7 in Spokane, Wa.

Thank you for having me. When I looked at the program I saw that every speaker here was a doctor, or at least could dance. Except one.  So, why am I qualified  to stand up here and talk to you? Let me cite the ultimate authority, my first grade teacher, Mrs. Bill. It was she who wrote in the comments section of my report card, and I quote "Peter has lots of information he is willing to share."  It’s my mission in life.

I mentioned in a post to a Facebook page for people with Parkinson's Disease that I was working on a comic book about PD. The response from one man was "Too soon!" Really? Too soon for whom?  I am ten years past diagnosis, when do I have permission to laugh? More important, why would I forgo a coping tool as powerful as humor?

I understand the fear that laughter can be inappropriate and may trivialize what is serious and sober. But I reject the idea that it's not OK to joke about serious things. That is a belief that trivializes and misunderstands humor.

There is tremendous precedent for making jokes about the important and serious sides of living. Bill Mauldin drew brilliant cartoons about that lighthearted topic World War II.

(Above, a Mauldin cartoon from WWII. Find a big ol' trove of Mauldin cartoons here )

Did Mauldin trivialize the war? General George Patton thought so. He met with cartoonist and attempted to to intimidate him face-to-face. Luckily for Mauldin, he had a fan who outranked Patton- Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower. Not only did Ike outrank Patton, He also understood humor better than “Old Blood and Guts” According to Ike "A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done."

At its most basic, humor is a tool for getting through the tough parts of life. Like any tool, it can be misused. There is no doubt that humor can be abused in the form of bullying. All of us can remember Rush Limbaugh's mocking of M J  Fox. Pathetic as it is, even this brand of humor is protected by our Constitution. Humor by the strong that targets the weak and wounded is contemptible and needs to be called out as such by others exercising their free speech. Shame on us if we neglect doing this... because life has few pleasures to compare with skewering a pompous ass.

But let's return to the need we have for humor. Humor can do so much for us. Can you name your worst moment with Parkinson’s Disease? For me it was the moment I got my diagnosis. You can cry about it, as I did then, or you can laugh about it, as I can now. Below is an animated video I did as part of a series on PD. This one is about how the moment of diagnosis feels to the person diagnosed

Part of reconciling myself to that awful moment is gaining the power to laugh about it.

Here is something you don't see every day- a cartoon I did on facial masking in pd. Part of the loss of our ability to move our muscles voluntarily is the inability to express our emotions using the muscles of our faces. This cartoon uses humor to do at least three things. To teach, to comfort and to foster community. All that in a little drawing?

Well I've had reprint requests from professors, pd publications and  support groups worldwide to republish this drawing for just those reasons.

I use humor to explain aspects of pd on my blog "Off and On". Here is a poem published there in April, PD awareness month. It’s also Mathematics Awareness month, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Child Abuse Prevention Month, Confederate History Month, National Safe Digging month, Autism awareness month and more.  So that’s a bunch of stuff to be aware of during April, one of the shortest months.  How to get someones attention for PD? Why  not use poetry? That way you can kill two birds with one stone, because it’s also National Poetry month.

Few things are as comforting as knowing you are not alone in facing your illness. This sense of solidarity can be sealed by the use of humor. When someone else “Gets it” like you do, you know you’ve found a person who likely shares your concerns and way of thinking. That's the idea behind my comic "Flash Molasses". Flash is a superhero whose super feats consist of dealing with the daily activities of life while at the same time coping with Parkinson’s. I've made Flash my alter ego so it's clear that I'm sharing the misery, not mocking it.

This first one is about “urgent bladder” like the header says, this is based on a true story. But please note that if Comtan is one of the drugs you take, (it is part of the pill that goes by the name Stalevo) your urine will likely be orange even if you are adequately hydrated.

(Click to enlarge)

Another sharing of the misery piece here, this is a short animated video about the frustration of waiting for your meds to kick in.

After a few years of blogging about Parkinson’s, people began urging me to write a book about it. I resisted by pointing out that there are tons of good books about PD, and asking people what I had to contribute that was different. Finally, my friend Steve pointed out “You treat Parkinson’s as an adventure.” That seemed like an angle worth looking at. So I wrote one.
The book I am working on tries to comfort and explain with humor,  In fact there was too much humor in the manuscript and the editor asked me to take some out, explaining that it would become tiring to the reader. I did manage to leave quite a bit in chapter two. Ironically this is one of the editor’s favorite chapters.

And here is another use for humor. When the brilliant cartoonist Richard Thompson was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, his friend  Chris Sparks decided to do something about it. Instead of a walk or a pancake feed, Chris decided to use humor. He sold Thompson’s publisher  on the idea of making a tribute book to the cartoonist. The hook was to have other artists draw their versions of the characters from Richard's strip "Cul de Sac". Most of those in the cartooning world revere Richard, and jumped at the chance to contribute.

Around 100 cartoonists, including Bill Amend of Foxtrot, Lynn Johnston, of For Better or For Worse,  and Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes contributed drawings. Long story short: over $100,000 raised for the MJ Fox Foundation for pd research.  you can order the book through Amazon, or look for it at your local bookstore. Here is the piece I did.You will notice the Parkinson’s Disease monster indulges in “Bullying Humor” discussed earlier. It’s like a nasty talk-radio host.

I will close with the idea that humor in itself is good treatment for Parkinson's Disease. we all know our pd is aggravated by stress. What is better than humor for resolving this? It's known biology, laughter releases those feel-good chemicals endorphins that chase stress away, just like exercise can.  I know plenty of pd patients who don't want to exercise. But who doesn't want a good laugh?

Finally,  humor can decrease the power that something or someone has over you. This is why Syrian authorities kidnapped political cartoonist Ali Ferzat and broke his hands. It’s why the caricaturist Daumier was thrown in jail. Twice. Why does this undermining of power work? Because much of the power any force has is the power we give it through our fear. Humor can disarm fear thoroughly and permanently.

Thank you

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