Monday, December 2, 2013


By Peggy van Hulsteyn and Sasha Mahar

I am convinced that the only escape from the Theater of the Absurd is a sense of humor.  Case in point:
Recently, we attended the World Parkinson Congress in Montreal, Canada.  The event was a vast  melting pot of neurologists and experts, PD patients and their partners.  After three days of non-stop workshops and networking, David and I decided to take a brief foray to romantic, charming Quebec City. We settled into a cozy room in a pleasant hotel in the heart of “Vieux--Quebec.”
In the spirit of gastronomical adventure, I  asked the  handsome and knowledgeable concierge to make reservations at the best French restaurant in town. He did so with aplomb.  After he made the arrangements, we chatted, and I came to learn that he was a hockey coach as well as a bon vivant. This should have given me a clue as to his preference in restaurants.
"Restaurant Pierre" was classically French, he assured me.  It provided a magnificent rack of lamb and Crepes Suzette.  The food was stellar, the ambiance perfect, the champagne was flowing...
If only I could get there!
For when the taxi deposited us at the given address, beneath the carved wood shingle for "Restaurant Pierre", swaying in the brisk autumn breeze, we looked to find the entrance at the top of two flights of very steep stairs--and I in a wheelchair!!

The situation was so absurd that I felt like Alice in one of Lewis Carroll’s maddening conundrums, peering at the door to a magnificent land, but unable to enter. David and I caught each other’s eye and began to laugh. It was frustrating, yes, but tres amusing.

Not to worry--our hosts had everything under control.  Once the maitre’d received news of our arrival, he opened the distant door at the top of the steps to unleash a team of waiters who, presumably, were off-season, hockey players themselves. They swooped down the stairs, grabbed my wheelchair and carried me up.   I was terrified; I was grateful; I was amused.

And suddenly, with a fan fare that only the French could pull off , I was placed at my table.

Breathlessly gazing  upon this beautiful table, shining with silver, wine glasses and candles, David and I started to laugh again, as he observed  “Talk about being carried away by the perfect dining experience!”

“You know, there’s nothing I like better at dinner parties  than a dramatic table setting,”  I piped up, “but  this is the first time that I felt like  the centerpiece!”

At that moment, the entire dining room began to applaud as the waiter poured us champagne ordered by an anonymous customer.

“Bon Apetit,” many of the dining room patrons said in unison.

Even before the splendid rack of lamb and Crepes Suzette graced our table, we knew this was a repast we would never forget!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Confessions of a Wordsmith

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug”
                                                                                                            Mark Twain

Words, to a wordsmith are like paint to an artist. A skilled author can transport us to another time, make us see what the hero sees, hear what the villain hears, smell what the chef has conjured up. This is not a matter of stringing a bunch of words together; it is selecting the one word, the only word, that will do the job. The truly great wordsmiths accomplish all of this while making it look simple. When I read Mark Twain, it makes me want to sit down and write. It is only then that I come to appreciate what a truly magnificent craftsman he was.

I have just completed a book,  YOGA AND PARKINSON’SDISEASE,  filled with 200 pages of words. My tome is about to hit the stands or more accurately be available on Amazon,  Therefore, bring out the bubbly; it’s time to celebrate.   The simple act of having a book published in 2013 is a genuine event, some would say a miracle. Being an author has always taken a great deal of fortitude. It requires working long hours with little (or even no) pay; it entails endless periods of loneliness, of staring into space while trying to find the right word.

Most of the authors I work with write in spite of the difficulty and frustration because they have some important idea they need to convey and know that they must do this in a beautiful, well-crafted way. They obey the basic rules and pay their literary dues. When they complete a chef d’oeuvre they re-write it many times. They show this work to a tried-and-true writers group for analysis and to chosen literate friends for approval. When the final hurdle has been surmounted, they find an agent who agrees to relay their carefully polished tome to an editor at some prestigious Manhattan publishing house. This was, at one time, the way the noble profession of writing was conducted.

In today’s bizarre book market, being an author is either a valiant act of courage or an absurd act of lunacy. It’s a brave new world when Amazon buys The Washington Post. Journalism and the book trade are forever changed and we are not in Kansas anymore.

Suddenly anyone who can pound a computer key is an author. Today if you have written one blog, then voila, you are a writer. It’s a little disconcerting for those of us who were trained in journalism. In today’s market which is far too equalitarian, anyone can be a writer and everyone is. The new motto is: “I blog; therefore, I am.”

In an insightful article in The New Yorker (March 18, 2013), Adam Gropnik discusses today’s market and income for contemporary authors:

“The future of writing in America—or, at least, the future of making a living by writing—seems in doubt as rarely before. Thanks to the Internet, the disproportion between writerly supply and demand, always tricky, has tipped: anyone can write, and everyone does, and beginners are expected to be the last pure philanthropists....... It has never been easier to be a writer; and it has never been harder to be a professional writer.

Writing used to be a craft; now it’s a tweet! 

I saw signs of this computer-dominated New World Order when I taught writing classes at writers conferences. The questions that beginning writing students asked demanded a universe of “instant gratification,”  lots of luck, and not too much work.  Here are the questions I always got from wannabe authors, along with my answers:

Q: Do you write only when you are in the mood?

A: I‘m usually in the mood. I dislike so much of the promotion, the business, the nonsense, of the writing business, but I love the actual act of writing.
       I keep writing because writing saves my life each and every day. It’s the purest therapy available. I think writing has been my greatest medicine in my battle against Parkinson’s disease.  My first neurologist,  Dr. Paul Gordon, thinks a great passion  can  perform miracles.  During a Skype interview for the book I am about to celebrate, he told me that “some of my PD patients have an unbridled passion that over-rides everything. It makes a big difference!  It helps if there is a goal tied in with this passion." 
      I felt privileged to be cited as one of Paul’s examples. “You’re a good example of how this works --with your books, speeches, and deadlines.  Your mind is in good shape."

Q: You are very funny. How many classes do I have to take before you teach me to be funny?

A: If I could teach people to be funny, my name would be Jehovah and I would be booking acts for “The Daily Show.” Honey, I hate to tell you, but you are either funny or you are not. You can dye your hair but not your personality.

Q: How do you choose a publisher? Do you just call up Random House and tell them you want a minimum of $50,000 for your tome?

A: Wait a minute. You are funny. This bit is hilarious.

Q: Did you start writing because you realized it would be a good way to build a website?

A: I started writing as soon as I could hold a pen! I loved the physical act of putting words together on a page and how they would interact with other words.  Words are my tools and paintbrushes. I love the way words dance, glide, shimmer across the page.
      Making a living as a writer is a constant struggle, but the actual act of writing is a pure joy. It always astonishes me how putting the right words in the perfect sequence can bring so much satisfaction. Words are the music of your soul and your completed opus becomes your symphony!

 Favorite words of admired writers are always bouncing around in my head---Sentences that pop to make the book come alive for me.The ‘ah-ha moment of reading.

To wit:

--When F. Scott Fitzgerald says of Daisy and her husband in “The Great Gatsby:

“.........  They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” 

--Or Ernest Hemingway's perfect line to describe the cynicism of the Lost Generation in “The Sun Also Rises:”

“Oh Jake," Brett said, "We could have had such a damned good time together."
. . ... .........   Yes," I said. "Isn't it pretty to think so?”

---Or a small expression Harper Lee uses in “To Kill a Mockingbird” to describe the deep respect for a man who defies an entire town to do what he feels is right -- Atticus Finch, the last good lawyer in fiction:

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'.”

As a humor writer, I appreciate the crisp, clear zing of the master, Mark Twain:

“Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
And nobody can make me smile more than one of the great wits
of all time, Oscar Wilde
“He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.”

“I love hearing my relations abused. It is the only thing that makes me put up with them at all. Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven't got the remotest knowledge of how to live nor the smallest instinct about when to die.” 

I also admire the patter rhymes in Gilbert and Sullivan, the cleverness of a Cole Porter tune, the inventiveness of a brand new language in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

I am constantly searching for the show-stopping sentence that takes my breath away! I like to read them, but I prefer to write them.

So let’s hear it for words, sentences, for paragraphs galore. Let’s celebrate writers and readers, independent book store owners and librarians.   I revere books so I’m thankful for both  Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I applaud quality paperback and E-books. (My book is both)

 The point is I've got a new book coming out and I’m excited!   Cheers!
Peggy's book: Yoga and Parkinson's Disease is being released today, 8/28/13. You can purchase her book on or Collected Works Bookstore.

You can reach Peggy on Facebook or on Twitter at @PeggyvanH

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Kindness of Strangers

I am not a cock-eyed optimist.   No one ever mistakes me for the perpetually cheery novel heroine, Pollyanna. My personality is best typified by my recent election to the post of Grand High Inquisitor in the local chapter of the Oscar Wilde Cynical Society.

And though I try to see the glass as half full, life experience has instructed me to equate skepticism with realism. Recently, I took a trip on board an Amtrak train with an upbeat friend.  As we settled into our Lilliputian sleeping car, which showed signs of former elegance, now faded and shabby, my friend looked around and envisioned the archaic railroad line someday being updated and transformed into a European style bullet train.  Whereas I, listening to the creaking of the car around us, and to the groans and sighs of the engine, concluded that The Little Engine that Could indeed could not, and never would again.

But my seasoned world-weariness and lack of trust in humanity has been sorely tested of late by some amazing acts of random kindness.

The symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are always shifting, and my condition varies greatly day by day.  Often, thanks to my helpful yoga practice, I am as graceful as Grace Kelly.

Then there are other days during which I relate to PD’s guru, the incredible Michael J. Fox, who says that he used to walk the walk and talk the talk.   Now, he confesses, he stumbles the stumble and mumbles the mumble.

On these days, I am ungainly at best. Walking across a room takes resolve, and stairs and doorways are especially daunting passages.  When I’m at home, I make these my writing days, grab some snacks and set up shop in my office.  But when I am traveling, I have no choice but to carry on as best as I can.  And the remarkable thing is that people not only notice my condition, but they try to help improve it.

Just this week, at the San Diego airport, during the hubbub of the 4th of July weekend, countless strangers stopped in the midst of their customary rush to hold doors open for me, extended arms to lead me to my destination, and asked if I needed help.
I was blown away by the amount of aid offered from every direction; it was life-affirming and hopeful, as if the Dalai Lama himself had sprinkled his words of wisdom over the heads of the kindly strangers.

“Compassion and kindness are the only things you really need,” says his Holiness.  And what is shocking to misanthropic me is that so many people are practicing his message.

This isn’t the first time I have been surprised by unexpected courtesy. Last summer when I was standing in a long line in a pharmacy in Avignon, France, an employee noticed my discomfort and quietly brought me a chair.  Later, in allegedly hard-hearted Paris, I encountered many kind hearts and coronets. When I stumbled into a chic bistro, without blinking an eye, the proprietor rushed over, took my arm and seated me at the closest table, removing the “Reserved” sign there and placing it on another table. He checked on me throughout the evening and, after I praised my dinner, even shared the recipes, which were his grandmother’s.

I had become so accustomed to the fast and roughshod ways of our over-complicated world, overflowing with people infected with what the Navajo call the “hurry sickness,” that I am startled by these disruptions to the norm, especially when they happen so often.   Despite my ingrained cautiousness, I find it impossible to ignore what Blanche DuBois dubbed the “kindness of strangers.”

Odd, this wave of benevolence.  But very nice.  Despite myself, it makes me hopeful. Keep it up, and I might have to resign my post at the Cynical Society.

Monday, June 3, 2013


“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

--William Wordsworth

In 1802, over two centuries ago and far before the invention of automobiles, telephones, and photography, let alone Facebook, Twitter and satellite dish TV, Wordsworth was already upset about overly complicated modern life.  What would he have thought of the overpowering world of technology in which we are now engulfed?

A world where, once again, my cell phone has run away from home.

Where my brand new state-of-the art TV has gone on strike.

Where the i-phone ads on TV touting Siri, the Wonder Girl, virtual personal assistant extraordinaire, are complete fantasies.   In commercials, Siri bears close resemblance to the soft-spoken and accommodating computer in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  She can find anything for her boss on TV –coffee shops, linen stores or the next galaxy in a nano-second,

Not the case with my own personal Siri, who, quite frankly, is somewhat of a shrew. This fembot has a real attitude.  Dare to ask her a simple question and you get a chilly rebuff:

“I’m sorry, but I’m not programmed for that question.”

“Well, excuse me!”

 Sometimes I think our expectations of high tech are too high and sometimes I think we should hightail it back to a simpler time before computers and cell phones were the leaders of the free world.

It seems more and more that the innovations that promise to  make my life easier almost always make it more difficult.

Take my television---please, I implore you!

Our gorgeous new TV is a state-of-the-art slender pane of black plasma.  It boasts all the desired credentials: LED, LCD, Blue-Ray, etc., and can play movies the same day they come out at the local movie theatre. The picture itself is exquisite; so crisp it makes real life look out of focus.

Now if only I could only turn it on!!!

Because it requires the use of no less than 6 remote controls to engage it!

Understand this. I am old.

 And I am cranky.

So the last thing I want to do is play musical remotes, guessing which remote does what.

And the days of springing up from the couch and across the room to press an on/off button  are a distant memory.

I don’t even dare to make the trip to stand face to face with my TV, which stands as black, impenetrable and mysterious as the monolith in the opening of 2001: Space Odyssey.

Lest you find me hopeless, be assured that I am not a complete Luddite.  I actually have a website and blog .

And stand back for this--I readily admit that e-mail and caller ID are two of the great innovations of the 21st century. Kudos and knighthoods to the brilliant inventors of these products, which have made my life run more smoothly.

 My needs are simple.  And this puts me at odds with the state-of-the-art.  Because the realm of technology places a premium on complexity. In this age of specialization, it’s a new status symbol to not only possess, but to be savvy in the latest program, social site or gadget.  A cutting edge caste system to sort the haves from the have-nots.

It’s a brave new world all right, and my secret is to frequently abandon it.

TV loses its luster when I sink into a few pages of Jane Austen, where the most high tech object is a quill pen.  And so, when I start to feel that the world is too much with us, I muster the strength to say “Goodbye!” to social media and “Hello!” to the anti social me.

Farewell, Facebook!

Ta ta, Twitter!

Adios, Amazon!

Hello Yoga!

So turn off your gadgets and  turn on the primeval and powerful art of yoga,  --the perfect elixir for these ridiculously over-complicated times!