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Spring 2014
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Getting Around in Oz
A scholar of Soviet history and modern Russia describes life with Parkinson's.
Readers of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories will certainly recall the Tin Woodman, who achieved his entirely metal status by degrees (not academic ones). The sort of accidents endemic to his profession (wood-chopper) resulted in his losing limbs and body parts, which were one after another replaced by an obliging tinsmith living nearby, until the transformation was complete. “Nick Chopper,” as Baum sometimes referred to him, was on balance pleased with his shiny new body. Baum, a sometimes undiscriminating lover of puns, on occasion had the Tin Woodman reflect on what a polished gentleman he had become, or on what a shining example he could be to his friend the Scarecrow.

But there was one serious problem. If caught out in a rain shower, the Tin Woodman could quickly become immobilized. This happened to him several times (Baum wrote rapidly and often repeated himself), and as a little boy I used to empathize with his being caught in the rain and rejoiced when Dorothy or the Scarecrow managed to get him back into the hands of the amiable tinsmith for refurbishing.

When asked what it feels like to have Parkinson’s, I invariably remember my childhood sense of the Tin Woodman’s dilemma. I feel that I too am rusting into immobility. I imagine Nick Chopper trying to get to the tinsmith’s house before the rust is total. I recall my sense of the increased effort he needed, the expenditure of will, what it must have been like, grinding it out. Unfortunately, my restoration to normal activity is not so simple a matter as it was for the famous Tin Woodman, who in Baum’s paradise would again be his dazzling self in a page or two. No—unless stem cell research produces dramatically (and improbably) rapid results, I am going to rust away, although the process can be postponed and I hope will be.

I read a lot of the literature that I find online about Parkinson’s, especially pieces by Oliver Sacks, but I haven’t had much luck finding apposite descriptions of what P.D. is like to live with. Nor, so far at least, have I experienced any of the amazing or sinister side effects from the disease-cum-medication that Sacks describes so enthrallingly. To the relief of my family, I have not become a compulsive gambler.
I do not suddenly spot little children—angelic or demonic—playing on the floor in front of me. On the other hand, much to my regret, I have seen no miraculous development of my musical abilities. I sit down at the piano hopefully, but I still don’t find myself playing the slow movement of Beethoven’s opus 109. Or anything else, for that matter. I sing, but never entertain the idea of charging admission. If anything, my ability to carry a tune has diminished. My dreams remain relentlessly ordinary.
A Gentleman and a Scholar
A Gentleman and a Scholar
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