Sunday, April 15, 2012

Repaying the Debt #3: Michael J. Fox

“You don't save a place in the rest of your life for it to take over. You just live your life the way you want to, and it assumes the space that it naturally needs.”

You might think that this is someone talking about gaining weight, or planting a tree, or raising a ferret.  But these are the words of Michael J. Fox, and he’s talking about his attitude towards living with Parkinson’s Disease.

Michael J. Fox is an amazing individual.  There.  That’s the way I should have started this post.  Diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s at 30, he was eventually forced to give up a full-time career as a highly successful TV and film actor.  Though he initially struggled with the reality of living as a person with Parkinson’s, he has since allowed it to transform him into something far more inspirational:  someone willing to bravely serve as the public face of the disease, an advocate for all those who suffer from it, and a galvanizing force for advancing and funding the cutting-edge research that will eventually cure it.

I was reminded of Fox’s incredible faith and relentless buoyancy in the face of this grave medical condition by an interview he did with Marlo Thomas (yes, That Girl) which appeared last week on The Huffington Post.  Thomas has begun a series called “Givers,” in which she talks to people whom she considers to be “givers” in their approach to life, as opposed to “takers.”  Her interview with Fox is the first in the series.  I would gladly twist your arm to get you to read the interview.  Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that.

“The key is, I don't assume that I can't do things, I just do them.”

This approach probably explains why Fox has continued to be so active in the face of what can be such a debilitating condition.   It may also explain why he was so successful at such a young age.   By 1987, at 25 years old, Fox was one of the hottest names in Hollywood, with a top-rated TV show and a several hit movies to his credit.  I remember seeing an early episode of the sitcom Family Ties, and immediately identifying with the uptight, sarcastic, scheming, academically driven Alex P. Keaton.    

Through the character of Alex, Fox persuaded me that the first pair of Nikes I bought with my own money would be white leather with the red swoosh because those were the kind he wore.  He also convinced me to make ‘preppy’ my first intentional fashion statement, wearing button down shirts, and knit ties, and parting my hair on the side, like he did.  And I hold him completely responsible for my ill-fated dalliance with rabid political conservatism, with which I became infatuated during my sophomore and junior years in high school (‘84-’85), before I finally figured out the logical consequences of such a course. 

Throughout the 80’s, I saw just about every movie he made (Back to the Future; Teen Wolf; Light of Day; Bright Lights, Big City; The Secret of My Success; Casualties of War).   He was one of three actors (the others being Harrison Ford and Val Kilmer) whose films I would make a point to see no matter what they were about, or how Siskel & Ebert felt about them.  I don’t really know anything about the craft or art of acting, and so I may be talking completely out of my depth here, but I think that the actors I tend to like the most are the ones who aren’t afraid to let some essential part of themselves come out through the characters that they play.  To me, Michael J. Fox had something, an innocent earnestness, maybe, with a kinetic kind of enthusiasm mixed in, that showed up consistently in his work.   It’s those personal qualities, the ones that remain consistent from role to role that I seem to connect with most as a fan, whether it’s Jimmy Stewart, or Henry Fonda, or Tom Hanks.  Michael J. Fox had something like that as an actor. 

“I mean, it was only when I could accept the fact that I had this disease, that I began to think, What haven't I lost? I haven't lost my enthusiasm. I haven't lost my intelligence. I haven't lost my passion for life, my love of my family, my curiosity. And I realized that those things -- unleashed -- are greater in total than that of any kind of illusion of power or control.”  

As much as I admired him as a performer, my regard for the man has been eclipsed by the respect and admiration I have for him now.  If you ever have a chance, check out his book Always Looking Up, which goes into a much more detailed (and funnier) description of his life since learning he had early-onset Parkinson’s.  It provides a great look inside the mind of an implacable optimist, which for me was like discovering a new planet, and it remains a key source of inspiration (and aspiration) of mine.  I hope someday to visit this planet, and perhaps even move there since I know it must be a lot less crowded. 

When he realized that Parkinson’s research was lagging, not due to a lack of ideas or lines of inquiry, but a lack of funding, he began the Michael J. Fox Foundation.  In 12 years, the Foundation has been responsible for funneling 280 million dollars into focused research to help scientists understand, treat, and cure Parkinson’s.  If you have a mind (and if you do, thank God for it), check out the Foundation’s website.   When I did, I learned that April is national Parkinson’s awareness month.  How serendipitous!

In 2006, his support for stem-cell research, which had been highly restricted under the George W. Bush administration, led him into the political arena.  He supported, and campaigned on behalf of, candidates who shared his views on stem-cell research.  In particular, a campaign ad for Claire McCaskill’s senate race in Missouri caused him to become a target of certain Alex P. Keaton types, most famously Rush Limbaugh, who publicly mocked Keaton’s symptoms (actually symptoms created by the medication he takes, and not the disease itself), and accused the former actor of faking them to generate sympathy.  Fox’s response to Limbaugh’s attempts to impugn his integrity reveal something about the character of both men:

“No, no -- really I'm five-foot-four, I've dealt with bullies my whole life.”

“It honestly didn't bother me to have my integrity questioned by someone who doesn't have integrity.”
“The only thing I took exception to was when he mocked the symptoms -- and not for myself, personally, but because I know how touchy the people in our community are about the symptoms, and how hard it is for them to deal with other people's perceptions of their illness. So to have it caricatured and mocked like that bothered me for those in our community.”

“But remember, the bully always appeals to the lowest common denominator. And he won't prevail.”

As someone who, at five-foot-four himself, sees the world from exactly the same level as Fox, let me just say, “Well said, sir.”

If you want to see for yourself what the hullabaloo was all about, here’s a youtube clip of the interview that Thomas references.  

In the clip, which was taken from an interview last month, Fox appeared on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight show, although it’s not Piers Morgan but Donnie Deutsch who does the interview.  Deutsch’s political agenda is none too subtle, which doesn’t interest me, but what does is watching Fox as he watches the Limbaugh rant.  Granted, it’s more than five years after the fact, but it’s still fascinating to see it, in a way, through his eyes.  Another interesting thing is Fox’s take on Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke, which is also summarized in the “Givers” interview: 

“Frankly, I was more offended by Limbaugh's recent attack on [Georgetown law student] Sandra Fluke…I said, ‘You know, I'm a husband to a wife, and the father of daughters, and the son of a mother, and the brother of sisters -- and I just really find this offensive.’"

For the purposes of the above quote only, you can consider me a ditto-head.

Anyone who tends to agree with Limbaugh that Fox was hamming it up for the cameras might want to take a look at this interview with David Letterman from April 2009, nearly three years after the controversial 2006 campaign ad.  

The same constant swaying, the same struggle for control, the same perpetual physical agitation is in evidence throughout his conversation with Letterman.  Admittedly, it is not the easiest thing in the world to watch, although it is a very enriching interview in its own right.

Ironically, in October of 2010 he appeared again on Letterman, this time looking much better.  This interview was a joy to watch, for several reasons.  If I had to pick one interview that best reflects who Fox is, I would pick this one. If you want to watch the whole thing, it runs about fifteen minutes and is posted on youtube in two parts:

 Have I mentioned how much I love youtube? 

Maybe it’s just me, but towards the end of that last interview, I got the feeling that Letterman had no sympathy for Fox’s condition, and I mean that in a good way.  I may be crazy to have thought this, and it’s a terrible thing to say, but also a great compliment, but I felt like Letterman was looking at Fox there toward the end and just kind of emanating this vibe that said, “I’m glad it’s you.  Because of you, something good is going to happen with this disease and someday thousands of people are going to be spared great suffering.  You are the man for this job.”  Letterman doesn’t actually say anything like that, and maybe ultimately it was nothing more than me projecting my own feelings onto Fox, but there was something about the way Letterman spoke and regarded him that somehow inspired me to have that thought in that moment.  If you watch to the end, you can let me know how nuts I am.

Just for contrast, here’s an interview from the early days, when Letterman’s show was on NBC and called Late Night with David Letterman.  

In this interview, Fox is twenty-five, and there to plug his new movie The Secret of My Success.  There he is, really just a kid, a little nervous, perhaps a little awed to be there, and completely oblivious to the life-changing diagnosis he will encounter four short years later.  You can clearly see the person that he was.  It is heartbreaking in a way, but in some inexplicable way, also heartmending.

“But as I say to people all the time -- and at first they don't always believe me -- anything you lose will be replaced by something. You just have to be open to it and not fight it.”

Ultimately, it is Fox’s unfailingly optimistic way of looking at life that staggers me, and forces me to recalibrate my own perspective.  Think of the incredible amount of faith it takes, the pure tensile strength of it, to confront the stark prognosis of Parkinson’s and know, deep down in your gut and in your heart of hearts know that although it has taken from you something that you love (performing), that it will be replaced by something just as great or greater.  That is faith in all of its sublime potency.  As someone watching from the outside, to see that’s exactly what did happen, and to see a life gracefully elevated as a result; well, as I said, it requires a recalibration of perspective.  In my case, more like a never-ending series of them. 

When all is said and done, there are very few people in this world that I truly look up to.  In every case, they are people who make me believe that I can become a better person not because they tell me I can be, or tell me how to be, but because they are doing it.  They are being better than me.  The faith, honesty and integrity with which they live are real, and if you are not blind, you are forced to acknowledge that those things really do exist.  They’re not just ideas that our minds create to comfort ourselves, or to help us bring some sense of order to a nonsensical world.  A character from a book like Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) is not just a fictional portrait of the idea of honest integrity from a writer’s imagination; no, that thing exists in nature, it exists in us.  I believe that’s why we respond to characters like Atticus Finch in stories, and that’s why we respond to people like Michael J. Fox.  And knowing that helps me keep pushing myself to be better, despite my waylaying fears and anxieties and blastedly tenacious doubts.    

That’s what I owe Michael J. Fox for, that and for a whole lot of entertainment and laughter that came from watching him as we were growing up.  Hopefully, someday, I can do more than write a bunch of paltry words that barely seem to scratch the surface.  Hopefully, I can eventually become the man of virtue and integrity, the one that Huckleberry Finn pleaded with me to become when I read Twain’s book, and that other people and characters at various times since have nudged me with reminders to continue becoming.  Characters like Oskar Schindler and Captain John Miller – both courtesy of Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, respectively), Jefferson Smith (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and Atticus Finch, and real people like Jackie Robinson, Pat Tillman, Dr. King and, of course, Michael J. Fox have, at some time or another, played this role in my life. 

Most days, I look at where I am and where I want to be and think that I’m never going to get there.  Too much of the time, I focus on the failures and believe my forward progress would be better measured with the kind of instruments used to mark the annual movement of glaciers.  Too many times, I give in to the easy answers of pessimism.  Too easily, I convince myself I’m not going to make it, and I’m going to let down all those people who inspired me.

Though, now that I think of it, I’ve got one helluva rooting section, don’t I? 

See – I am learning!

P.S.  Speaking of optimism, warm fuzzy feelings, and Marlo Thomas, several years back she put out a collection of songs and stories for kids by various artists with positive, uplifting themes.  The CD is called Thanks & Giving All Year Long, and features performers and musicians like Sheryl Crow, James Earl Jones, Jimmy Buffet (Attitude of Gratitude – love it!), Billy Crystal, Kermit the Frog, Wayne Brady, Rosie Perez, Faith Hill, and Amy Grant, among many others.  If you have kids, it’s a great way to entertain them while you’re driving around town or cleaning the house.  As a bonus, the songs and stories are more than tolerable to adult ears as well.  It’s a favorite at our house.

Finally, a big thanks to my big sister Kristie for introducing us to it.  She gave us the CD as a gift years ago.  We still listen and love it, most especially “Josie’s First Allowance Day.”  Thanks Kris!

Note:  All quotes used in this essay come from Marlo Thomas’ interview with Michael J. Fox published on 4/5/12 in The Huffington Post.


  1. Kevin- I wrote a whole post then couldn't remember my log in, so needless to say here I am trying it again, only this time I logged in first, hahaha!! What I wanted to tell you is that Michael J. Fox has been a hero to me since he was diagnosed. As a kid and young adult I have watched him on TV and the movies and admired his acting capabilities. But you really get to know someone and what they are truly capable of when they acquire a diabilitating disease such as Parkinson's. I remember when I heard he had this disease and saw him the first time when he wasn't medicated and thought oh my Gosh, how awful for him and Tracey Pollen. Then I watched and saw how he used his disease and brought it to everyone's attention. This tribute you wrote about him is so eloquently written and makes my heart swell! Yes, just like the grinch (for visual effects only). You've done a wonderful job.
    And thank you for the kudos. When I first heard that CD I thought I have to get it for all the nephews and nieces (at the that time we had a lot less) because I wanted them to start hearing how good it is to give of yourself to people. Whatever you have to give (not always money). And to know that you still play that CD makes me feel so good to know that the message carries on. Love You & Thank you Kevin!!

    1. Kris - thanks for going through all that trouble (twice) to post your comments. I agree with everything you said about Fox. And no need for the disclaimer - no one would ever think to compare you to the Grinch, except you both have dogs. And as far as I know, you have never tried to tie antlers on any of their heads, so even that's not really an issue. Yes, we love the Marlo Thomas CD, so fear not, the message carries on in our house. Finally, thanks for the kind words big sister, and thanks for reading!

  2. Replies
    1. Amen and Hallelujah! When I was teaching, I had two posters above my whiteboard at the front of the room. One of them said "Don't ever give up" and the other said "Dare to try." I think those two posters pretty much summed up everything I really wanted to teach my kids. The stuff in the textbooks was pretext.

  3. As a person who has experienced living with a loved one dealing with parkinson's disease, I too am grateful to Mr. Fox for dedicating his life to bringing more awareness and money to the cause. It is a heartbreaking disease that robs the person of many of those physical and mental characteristics that make them who they are. My hope is that Mr. Fox is around long enough to see a true resolution to this disease.
    On a side note: Mr. Fox is a recurring character on the current show "The Good Wife." He plays a lawyer who often competes against the main character. He is very good and the subject of him garnering sympathy from the jury because of his disease is a matter discussed openly and often on the show.

    1. "It is a heartbreaking disease that robs the person of many of those physical and mental characteristics that make them who they are."

      Well said. Your loved one was in my thoughts often as I composed this piece.

      I was aware that he was still doing spot appearances on several TV shows in recent years, but I honestly haven't seen "The Good Wife" or much of anything on network TV, although I did get hooked for awhile on Glee when we got Netflix last summer! Oops, I think I've said too much...

  4. One more comment:
    When looking at yourself and wanting to be more like the people you mentioned, it is easy to want for a more "worldly" success in life. I don't want to downplay the accomplishments of those you mention in your article, but it is important to take a step back and evaluate what it is you are really looking for.
    Consider a few young ladies who are very close to you. In their world, you are the one they look to for inspiration, knowledge, love, and even validation. From that perspective, you are exactly what you want to be.

    1. What am I looking for? Wisdom, truth, peace; you know, the little things. While I desire worldly success, I wouldn't say I'm looking for it; if anything, my track record suggests the opposite. If it comes, it will likely have to come as a pleasant side effect.

      And thanks for that part about my girls. It is because I love them so much that I want to constantly be better for them.

  5. Awwww Hutton, so true!!!
    And KLove45 we don't have that cd yet..... but we have a couple birthdays coming up (insert smiley emoticon here)