Dec 15, 2007

Chapter 3

Being Hank Williams

By Bob Dawson

When tears come down like falling rain
You’ll walk the floor and call my name

--Hank Williams, predicting the future

Cecil the Spastic, formerly known as Cecil the Curr (not his real name; not even his real username) has voiced his objections to Chapter 2.

He says: So I get in my pick-up truck and go to New York City to join a world-class dance studio and learn ballet?

That’s right Cecil. I want to see you in a tutu.

But Cecil says: Why should he have to learn to replicate the movements of other dancers, in a huge studio full of people he does not know, dancing to music he did not choose? As Cecil so eloquently puts it, joining the Bolshoi Ballet is not high on his list of things to do before he dies, although he might be interested in Swan Lake if it involves hunting and fishing. And cold beer.

Cecil, your version of Swan Lake will make you the darling of the critics. Terry Teachout will declare you to have saved Western Civilization. Shoot the swans, roast them on an open fire, drink beer, go fishing, go skinny-dipping in the lake. A whole new post-modern take on traditional ballet. It would do monster box office. Have your agent call my agent. How about we do lunch?

Cecil is one of those internet creatures that the moderators warn you about. He single-handedly caused the meltdown of an internet Parkinson’s group by calling us “spastics”.

The righteous defenders of everybody’s hurt feelings replied with outrage, and soon cranked up to a level of hysteria. Cecil knows how to provoke. He is joking, but he is also serious, at least in the way that Triumph the Insult Dog is serious. “Parkinsonian” sounds like a museum, he said. “Parkie” is much too cute and condescending, "PWP" sounds like an airline and could mean People Without Parkinson's, “PD’ers” is meaningless to anyone who does not know that “PD” stands for Parkinson’s Disease. So Cecil says we should proudly embrace the word “spastic”, just as homosexuals appropriated the word “gay” and Negroes appropriated the word “black”, and the former terms of insult became terms of pride.

Cecil talks about Parkinson’s as an alien, a beast, a spider, a separate entity. It appears to move around. One week, your pillow is completely drenched every night, from saliva, then the drooling stops, and you think you are winning, and then your skin starts falling off. It is probing your defences, it is trying to frighten you.

Cecil tells the story of his friend David, a writer who lived down the road. One of those free-lance editor / writer types, moved out of the city, bought a country house.

The disease caught David like a spider catching a fly in its web, tangling him up, and then injecting him with apathy, paralyzing his will to take action, and then sucking the life out of him. Slowly.

The doctors call it “Parkinson’s Apathy” - the complete lack of desire to do anything at all. Sit in a chair, take the drugs, stare at the wall.

And then it started disconnecting the signals from David’s brain to the muscles he needs to write. He could no longer control his hands, he could no longer hold a pencil, he could no longer type. The writer could no longer write.

So David bought voice recognition software – version 9 of Nuance Dragon Speaking Naturally, the Professional Edition. So that he could dictate to his computer, which would transcribe his spoken words into written words, so the writer could still write.

Parkinson’s watched for some time, and then it made another move: it disconnected the muscles in David’s mouth, the muscles that allow him to move his tongue and shape his lips and blow air through his vocal chords and speak. David’s speech became too slurred and inconsistent for the computer to understand. The beast had outwitted a computer program. And now it had David in a corner, alone and out of touch. The writer who could no longer write. The man of words who could no longer speak.

And then the disease toyed with him for several years, slowly disconnecting more circuits, taking away his ability to walk, to feed himself; even sitting in a chair became impossible.

And then it killed him.

Not directly of course - PD is too cowardly to take you on man-to-man. The beast interfered with the ability to swallow, and he got water in his lungs, so he died of pneumonia.

You know that Creationism idea: when you see a painting, you know that somewhere there must be a painter. We stand in awe of Creation and the Majesty of the Universe and we conclude that there must be a Creator.

Well, Cecil thinks Parkinson’s is the negative version of that. He sees the destruction, he thinks there must be a destructor. He sees he is being robbed, he thinks there must a robber.

He thinks that the disease has its modus operandi. It tests your defences and then develops a plan to kill you. Like everything in nature, it develops patterns, it reacts, it mutates, it survives. It is not a virus or a bacteria, but it is like a computer virus, it re-programs your brain to disconnect from your body. Like a denial-of-service attack on your computer. Is it a hardware breakdown or has the software crashed? What are the incantations to drive out these demons?

Human beings used to be cat food for sabre-tooth tigers. We had to outwit the tigers. Smallpox was a living species that used to kill millions. We fought back and destroyed it. Polio faced our full fury and we beat polio. Parkinson’s must be fought as an enemy, not some “condition” to be placated and tranquilized. Forget the therapy groups. Let’s hunt this beast down and blow it away. That is Cecil’s position.

Cecil has the same disease David had, but he does not have the tremors, the shaking. His hands are perfectly steady, for most activities. Cecil has no problem writing, or typing, or holding a pen.

What the disease did to Cecil is it took away his sense of balance. He cannot tell if he is unbalanced or not, his perception of depth is completely off kilter, and at times he is not sure what is up and what is down. So he falls down easily. So of course, he cannot climb a ladder.

Cecil was a roofer. He spent his entire adult life building and repairing roofs. That’s what he was good at, that’s what he was known for, that’s how he fed his family. And that’s the first thing the beast stole from him.

I told Cecil that PD has many symptoms; but two very common ones - shakey hands and loss of balance, are the norm. In this case they showed up separately in two friends, in the most damaging pattern of distribution, but that is just a coincidence. The fact that the writer could no longer write and the roofer could not longer roof is just a statistically inevitable co-incidence. If they had been airplane pilots, they would have lost their jobs just the same.

I explained to Cecil that it is not an entity, it is an absence. It is not a cancerous growth or a living bacteria, it is an absence, a lack of dopamine and the cells that produce it and the ability to absorb it. Like an absence of water, the water is not planning to kill you, it is simply not there, so you die of thirst.

But that is not how Cecil experiences it. He senses it plotting ways to discourage him, to inject him with Apathy, so it can suck the life out of him. Cecil sees it as a vicious beast, an intelligent predator, and he thinks our response to it should be fierce.

Cecil is a front-line soldier who took a bullet, and whose buddy was captured and killed by the enemy, and so Cecil has seen the beast up close, he knows how powerful it is, and he has formulated two strategies that seem to make the alien hesitate on the battleground:

(1) Do not permit Parkinson’s to inject you with Parkinson’s Apathy.

Make a decision. Force yourself. Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight. Otherwise the creature will paralyze you and eat you. Its single most powerful weapon is its ability to make you give up on everything. Kick its butt. They say you can’t beat PD. But we say we sure as hell can rough it up real bad. If it came here looking for a fight, it came to the right place. They say the beast always wins in the end? Fine. But the beast is going to be missing some fur, let me tell you. The beast is going to wish it had never challenged us to a fight. The day will come when the beast will go the way of the sabre-toothed tiger. Extinct, gone, and forgotten. That day will come.

(2) Be Hank Williams.

Cecil supports our obsession with music, but he deplores our music. He does not like opera, classical music, rock, electric blues, or big band. He likes Hank Williams (Senior). It was his father’s music. He is defensive about Hank, because it is “hill-billy music”. But Leonard Cohen says that Hank Williams is a hundred floors above us in the Tower of Song. The simple perfection of Hank’s songs – so much said in so few words; like Johnny Cash said, he found it very, very easy to be true. Which for most of us is hard. To perceive, understand, and communicate the essence, truthfully, and to live it. Not very, very easy.

Hank Williams, as a teenager, could write clear and simple and evocative songs straight off the top of his head.

It took Leonard Cohen 13 years to change “like a fish on a hook” to “like a worm on a hook” Thirteen years to make that change, because that it is how long it took to see the truth of what it was that had happened. Thirteen years, to realize that he was the worm, not the fish. It makes a big difference, you know. It can create a fair amount of confusion if you can’t straighten that out, especially in a relationship with a passionate woman. But if what you say is true and if it is heartfelt, it will be beautiful and it will strike a chord.

Cecil is a spastic, but he ain’t no ‘tard.

His living room is decorated with posters and photos of Hank Williams. Cecil has the complete works – all the recordings, all the lyrics, hundreds of cover versions. A big stereo system. Powerful speakers.

Cecil does not sit and listen to old recordings of Hank Williams. Cecil becomes Hank Williams.

Air guitar, karaoke, air drums, air fiddle. Cecil gets up and pretends to play the guitar and he wows the non-existent audience, and he thanks them and then goes into the next song, and he swings and sways with his imaginary band, and he sings the songs. In his living room, telling the crowd that it is great to be back in Wichita – during those times Cecil does not have Parkinson’s disease.

Hank Williams drank too much, and smoked too much, and died coughing at the age of 29. But Hank Williams did not have Parkinson’s Disease. And Cecil becomes Hank Williams. And, for the duration of the show, he is cured.

Good to see you again, Hank. Sold out tonight. Standing room only. They love your music Hank. And he tunes his imaginary guitar, (until we got him a real guitar, which he learned to play in a few months), and the curtains open, and the crowd applauds, and the band starts playing and Hank strolls up front and center, strumming, and then he says Howdy, and then Cecil begins to sing, with a voice that is stating facts with emotional force and truthful clarity, as pure as a mountain stream, and you know that he knows exactly what he is talking about:

I’ll be locked here in this cell
Til my body’s just a shell
And my hair turns whiter than snow

The past is a flower, that withers and dies
I’ll wake up tomorrow, with tears in my eyes

I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide its face and cry

Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die?
Like me he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry

Hank Williams

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