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Pete Beidler: The Man Behind the Books
Monday October 15, 2018
Pete Beidler at his home, books nearby; his lovely wife Anne in the background
I first met Pete Beidler at the 2014 HOPE Conference in Bellevue, Washington. Actually, I met Peter the Sweeter Greeter—as the name suggests, we had the most charming welcome that day. Over the next four years, I'd learn that Pete is a man of great wit, friendship, and kindness in all venues, to all people.
I'm grateful to finally ask Pete, of Parkinson Pete's Bookshelves, about his story. Yes, it features Parkinson's—also: travel, family, literature, life, death, and the stuff that weaves us all together. Whatever his title, I know Pete's presence in the NW Parkinson's community opens us continually to the connections we share across life with Parkinson's.
How and when did you learn about the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation?
It was about a decade ago, shortly after Anne and I moved to Seattle from Pennsylvania. My neurologist suggested that I register for the HOPE conference that fall in Seattle and see if I found it useful. I did and I did.
You hold two informal titles in the Northwest Parkinson’s community: “Peter the Sweeter Greeter” and “Parkinson Pete.” How did the first of those come about?
I have been an avid attender of the Yoga for People with Parkinson’s class at Northwest Hospital. When I started attending the class ten years ago, I was puzzled: even though we all had a debilitating [condition] in common, we acted like strangers to each other. I decided to appoint myself the class greeter. I came to class early to set the chairs up. I talked a little to each of my classmates as they came in. “Hi, Rich. Did that old clunker-truck you drive start this morning?” “Bill, did they get that DBS thing adjusted any better?” “Terry, are you going to the HOPE conference next month?”
I think it was Terry Harrigan who first conferred the title on me when she asked me if I would like to volunteer as a greeter at the conference. “All you have to do is smile, and say ‘Welcome to HOPE! Register right over there.’ You’d be Peter the Sweeter Greeter!”
And you called your recent book Parkinson Pete’s Bookshelves: Reviews of Eighty-Nine Books about Parkinson’s Disease.
I’m not sure it was a good idea, but, yes, that was my attempt to convey humorous acceptance of Parkinson’s. I had spent most of a decade denying or fighting my Parkinson’s, but if I was going to write a book about it, I thought I ought to jolly up and call myself Parkinson Pete.
How did you get started on that book?
It started when Executive Director Melissa Tribelhorn asked me to review some of the books in their lending library so that users of the NW Parkinson’s website would know what books were available if they wanted to come in and browse or sign them out.
When I finished writing reviews of these titles, I reviewed the books I had collected for my personal library, then donated the books the NW Parkinson’s library. Then I went online, ordered some more books about Parkinson’s, read them, and reviewed them. I eventually gifted all of my Parkinson’s books to NW Parkinson’s. As a result, they now have in their headquarters on Mercer Island a fairly substantial Parkinson’s reference library. To provide easy access to the reviews, I then decided to gather all of the reviews together as a book that would serve as a kind of summary catalogue of the 89 various books. Parkinson Pete’s Bookshelves can be ordered for $15.95 (ISBN 578-1-60361-2) [check it out here].
89 is a lot of books! What are some of your favorites among those?
I divide the various books among three categories: A, Nonfiction Books by People without Parkinson’s; B, Nonfiction Books by People with Parkinson’s; and C. Novels in which at Least
One Character Has Parkinson’s. The 30 books in category A tend to be by doctors and to be scientific, technical, and treatment-oriented. I found number A10 to be particularly helpful: Parkinson’s Disease for Dummies, by Michele Tagliati, MD, et al. The 36 books in category B tend to be based on lived personal experience with the disease and to be oriented more towards compassion, humor, and sympathetic encouragement. Number B4, Hal Newsome’s H.O.P.E: Four Keys to a Better Life, is still a good place to start. The twenty-three novels in category C are story-narratives with dramatic action, realistic dialogue, engaging descriptions, and memorable characters. I particularly enjoyed number C3, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.
Keep in mind, however, that the purpose of Parkinson Pete’s Bookshelves was emphatically not to present Pete’s own ranking of the books. Its purpose, rather, was to let readers know what was in all of the books so they could select the ones they wanted or needed to read.
How has your career as an English professor shaped the way you read books about Parkinson’s?
Interesting question! I suppose all English professors like to read and tend to trust books as sources of information. But not all books can be trusted. We English teachers train ourselves to read books critically. When I pick up a new book about Parkinson’s, I try to figure out whether I can trust it, or more precisely, what I can trust it for. Does the author seem to do his own research or merely summarize the research of others? Does she explain things clearly and simply? Does he seem to have a rigid thesis to lay on readers? Does she assume that her readers are all Christians? Does he seem to assume that a cure for Parkinson’s will be found soon and that it will work even on people who have had the disease for fifteen years? Does she distrust naturopathic or nutrition-based approaches to the disease? Part of my job as an English teacher was to show my students the cognitive tools that will help them evaluate the books they read. Part of my job as Parkinson Pete is to give readers subtle—and sometimes not-so-subtle—warnings that will help these readers evaluate the 89 books.
Tell us some more about your time as a student and professor of English.
I did my undergraduate work at Earlham College, a small Quaker-affiliated college in Richmond, Indiana, before going on to graduate work and a doctorate at Lehigh University, a small private university in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. For most of the next forty years I taught at Lehigh. I also taught for a year as a visiting professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and as a Fulbright Professor at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China. I had the opportunity to spend two amazing years doing research on contemporary Native American fiction in Arizona, and one year doing research on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Canterbury, England.
Speaking of Chaucer, what first sparked your interest medieval literature? You must have known early on about the special challenges that you would face trying to interest modern American undergraduate students in older literature?
I learned to love Chaucer because I had a wonderful teacher. Chaucer wrote only 600 years ago, not in ancient times [by any means]. He wrote in what is now called Middle English, which looked and sounded a lot like modern English. I suppose there were some “special challenges “ in teaching an undergraduate course on Chaucer, but the “special pleasures” of doing so were far greater. Gladly did I spend many years learning about Chaucer and gladly did I spend many years teaching others what I had learned. Of course, I taught many other subjects, as well. Although my dissertation was on Chaucer, I spent much of my professorial life teaching and doing research on American writers like Henry James, Mark Twain, J. D. Salinger, and Louise Erdrich.
You and your wife Anne are widely traveled as well as widely read. Can you share your perspective on traveling and experiencing different cultures?
Two journeys stand out. Both involved not only Anne and me but also our four children. The first, in the early 1970s, was to Arizona to live on the Hopi Indian reservation for a year. I was on sabbatical, writing a novel set on the reservation. We were able to rent a home there and to enroll the kids, then aged four through nine, in the reservation schools. They were the only white kids in the school system.
The second, a decade later, was a journey to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in western China. I had been offered a one-year position as a Fulbright professor to teach graduate courses in American literature. Anne was hired by the English department to teach composition. Paul (age nineteen) and Kurt (eighteen) lived in the student dormitory and studied Chinese in the university. Gretchen (seventeen) and Nora (fifteen) took correspondence courses from a school in the U.S. That year in China was a transformative experience for all six of us.
You have lived so many different places that I wonder if you ever get confused about where “home” is.
Nope. Seattle is our home now. We moved to Ballard in 2006, shortly after I retired. By then three of our four children lived here. We love Seattle. We love the people, the rivers, the lakes, the Sound, the views, the mountains, the medical resources, the universities, the Seattle Public Libraries, the food, the weather. What’s not to call home?
Besides Parkinson Pete’s Bookshelves, what have you written about Parkinson’s?
I’ve not published much about Parkinson’s—just a few short articles in local newsletters—but I am trying to finish two books now. One is a nonfiction book that I call Parkinson Pete on Living and Dying with Parkinson’s Disease. The other is a novel about an old man with late-stage Parkinson’s. My working title for that one is End Stage. I have no definite plans to publish either book.
Is that first one a sequel to Parkinson Pete’s Bookshelves?
No, not really. Bookshelves is about what lots and lots of other writers say about the disease. My book is more personal. It is about what I, myself, have learned about the disease. I also try to provide information and thoughts on a subject most writers about the disease shy away from: death.
Do you want to tell us more about Parkinson’s and death?
Maybe just a little. The authors of most books about Parkinson’s focus, logically enough, on the early stages of the disease, the first few years after diagnosis. They talk mostly about ways to fight Parkinson’s, to slow it down. They talk about the doctors we can consult, the medicine we can take, the surgeries we can consider, the exercises we can do, the physical therapists we can visit, the support groups we can attend, the positive attitudes we can embrace, the sense of humor we can cultivate, and so on. That stuff is important. I write about such topics in “Part One: Living with Parkinson’s Disease.” But I go on, in “Part Two: Dying with Parkinson’s Disease,” to write about the later stages—the stages that no one much wants to think about.
I discuss in Part Two the importance of accepting death, even welcoming it. I talk about sharing our thoughts about dying with our neurologists, with our principal care physicians, and with key members of our families. I talk about putting in writing our wishes about resuscitation, feeding tubes, and other “heroic” measures. I talk about the ways we can take charge not only of the way we live with Parkinson’s but also the way we die with it.
Do you think your lifetime of teaching and writing helps to shape the way you relate to life with Parkinson’s?
I suppose that Parkinson’s makes teachers of us all as we face the need to explain to our families and friends the new words in our vocabulary: dopamine, tremor, dyskonesia, deep brain stimulation (DBS), levodopa, carbidopa, freezing of gait (FOG). A life of teaching is basically a life of learning. So is a life with Parkinson’s. Every month brings new knowledge, changed experience. Just when you think you have it figured out, it shifts again.
Bette Jane Camp
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