The good, the sad, and the writhy

The old saying to “try to find the good in everything” may be cliché, but in my opinion it’s damn good advice as well. I find myself relying on it increasingly frequently as my Parkinson’s progresses; one can learn a lot about people and their interactions—I believe that’s called sociology—if in an uncomfortable situation.

The alternative is to believe, as Jerry Seinfeld put it, that “people: they’re the worst.” To default to an automatic interpretation that refuses to look beyond a facial expression for understanding invariably leads to seeing only the bad in folks, and let me tell you, that “is no way to go through life” (a final Hollywood quote: Dean Wormer, Animal House, minus the “fat, drunk, and stupid” part).

Please let me explain.

My wife, Laurie, and I just returned from dinner at our small town’s (population about 30,000) finest restaurant. Of course, we were purposefully underdressed and we sat at the bar, but we ate the same great food all the same. The bar happens to adjoin the grill where the chef prepares the meals with dramatic flair and where most of the wait staff congregates and–well–waits.

I was fairly normal, okay, normal for me, when we walked in, but I soon hit a familiar daily ritual when my body began the rhythmic writhing and rolling of dyskinesia. If unfamiliar with the term or look, think Michael J. Fox when at the worst of his involuntary motions and facial expressions. It’s not inherently painful, and with great effort it can be minimized temporarily, but never truly controlled.

In the best case one wears the look on their face of great effort being expended while sitting and appearing to fidget under the influence of one too many drinks. Then I had a drink, my desire and ability to control it diminished, and I went to half throttle in my control efforts. After all, we are eating out and paying a bunch of money to relax (and avoid cooking dinner), and expending tremendous effort for 60 minutes is definitely not relaxing.

Here’s where the fun observations start. Waiter one, our primary server, a 30ish guy with premature grey or white hair, looks at us with obvious confusion—as all in the small restaurant do—but also with a barely discernable touch of mistrust or disdain or something clearly negative, at least clearly negative to the practiced observer (i.e. me). His look eventually softens almost imperceptibly by the time he sees his tip (20%), but the base emotion is still evident.

Pan left to a young, blond waitress, who has a completely different reaction. The confusion in her look leaves so quickly that I barely notice it, and it is replaced by one of those truly rare looks of automatic acceptance and warmth. Her words to us are no different from those of our primary waiter (she seems to anticipate our next request and interacts with us as much as our main waiter), but the tone and look in her eyes are a world apart.

And lest you think me simply susceptible to the wiles of a pretty face, Laurie agrees with my assessment.

As learned from countless such dyskinesia impressions, I realize almost immediately that she is one of the rare ones: she either has a close friend or relative with a movement disorder, or is of such extraordinary empathy that she keys in automatically to the essential differences between a drunken threat and someone with a movement disorder.

Two people, identical information, initial confusion by both which is never actually answered (i.e. I didn’t tell them I had Parkinson’s), and two responses as far apart as can be imagined.

Back to finding the good in everything: everyone who noticed us in the restaurant, in other words; everyone, had reactions I noticed somewhere between these two extremes. None of them were ill intended, they were first, involuntary reactions to a common visual scene.

Here is what I learned tonight (mostly learned again, but reinforced): don’t judge a person by their first reaction to any situation that is potentially stressful. These waiters had to serve me, it was their job, and they did not know for certain if I was an axe murderer on brief hiatus for a bite to eat or something they simply did not understand.

I say “something” purposefully because that was the most difficult lesson for me to first accept long ago. When people don’t understand your basic make-up, they instinctually revert to the modern rendition of “fight or flight” as evolved by “civil” society. As a practical matter this means ignoring the person. Initially, long ago, this brought me more pain than I care to remember. Now I understand why they act this way and I try to ignore them.

I look back in my life and realize that I’ve seen this disparity in reaction before: every time a friend or family member has died (and there were a lot in the friend category in the Navy), the reactions of other friends and family members has spanned the same variety of expressed emotion, but usually with extremely odd twists due to the intrinsic discomfort of the situation. I tried not to judge those folks on the spot back then out of some intuitive feeling that it simply wasn’t fair, and now—through my experiences—I know that I was right.

Human nature is a wonderful tool to get at the good in all of us. I honestly don’t feel any differently about our two waiters this evening; after all, I don’t know a thing about them. But I do know emphatically that I do not know.

I left the restaurant as I always try to do: maybe swaying, staggering, and a visual mess, but at least I know that that lopsided expression on my face is a smile and that I just had a great time.


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