10 August 2010

Always Looking Up The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist by Michael J. Fox

Fox wrote his first book, Lucky Man, in 2001. This is another refletive look at his life, a decade later. The title is a bit of a joke and also a personal statement. It declares that fact that he feels he is an uncurable optimist but also pokes fun at the fact that his stature tends to make it a necessity for him to do so!

Fox's writing style is friendly. Reading it is like listening to him thoughtfully consider his life's experiences. He is open and honest. He doesn't appear to believe he has all the answers but he does attempt to work with what he has to make life all that it can be.

Diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 1991, his story can't be written without considering how it affects him and his family. This book is set up in four separate chronologically ordered parts:

Work, Politics, Faith, Family

In "Work" he explores the experiences of his career over the past decade or so. He made a conscious decision to retire before he allowed his health to ruin his career. By choosing to step into an early retirement he was able to do it on his terms and is still able to choose to step back into acting for isolated periods of time, again, on his own terms. Choosing retirement has allowed him to focus on life and living well. Parkinson's has insinuated itself into his life in such a way that it has not only caused him to step away from acting, it has, in a way, become his career. Parkinson's affects not only a person's ability to move or not move, it also affects a person's ability to show emotion. Being an actor with Parkinson's Disease means having to work with and around his medications to find the moments which will allow him to do what he has always done best, entertain.

In "Politics" he explores the impact that politics and policy have had in his life. In an effort to raise funds and inspire further research toward a cure for Parkinson's Disease he created the Michael J. Fox Foundation in 2000. This portion of the book explores his role in the foundation; it also does a good job of explaining his well-thought-out support of stem cell research. In fact, I believe it spoke to me more clearly and thoughtfully than anything on the subject has.

Fox hopes to be clearly understood. He is no expert on Parkinson's Disease; he has been afflicted with it but has also been blessed with many resources which may be used to find a cure more quickly than otherwise. He appears to believe that "to whom much is given, much is expected."

He says "I acknowledge the fact that my own views are subjective. I have a stake in this argument that some may fairly say disqualifies me from giving both sides of the argument equal weight. You yourself may have thoughtfully considered the issue and arrived at the conclusion that embryonic stem cell research is wrong and that, at the very least, it is not something you want the government to support. As frustrated as we in the patient community are with impediments to progress put in place by George W. Bush, so too are you frustrated that we, the proponents, just don't get it, that we're missing the bigger picture. In that way, we two can empathize with each other, while not agreeing. This is why I brought into the political arena my concerns and my hopes that this work can produce cures and treatments, not to shame or ridicule those who disagree with me, and not to use the bully pulpit of celebrity to drown out anyone elsee's voice. The opposite is true. What we want is a conversation."

To sum up Fox's view regarding the use of stem cells in researach I will let him speak for himself, as he does in this book:

"Mr. Bush favors a ban on stem cell research, one aide said, 'because of his pro-life views.' Yet stem cell research has nothing to do with abortion... (It) uses undifferentiated cells extracted from embryos just a few days old - embryos produced during in vitro fertilization... Currently, more than 100,000 embryos are frozen in storage. Most of these microscopic clumps of cells are destined to be destroyed - ending any potential for life... Support for stem-cell research comes not just from pro-choice Democrats like Al Gore but also from Republicans who have concluded, in the words of former Senator Bob Dole, that supporting such researc is 'the pro-life position to take.' ... One hopes that between now and next Tuesday, Mr. Bush will explain to those of us with debilitating diseases - indeed, to all of us - why it is more pro-life to throw away stem cells than to put them to work saving lives."

Being presented with the argument in that form gives me pause. Previously I have expressed that I felt the use of stem cells from embryos was wrong. I don't feel it is any less wrong, however, to discard the cells in denial of the fact that they were created and do, indeed, exist, with the potential of becoming human beings if placed into a woman's uterus. Has science done us a dis-service? In the effort to provide childless couples with babies, an abundance of embryos are being created, in numbers too great for use. When these embryos are adopted or used by their natural parents for in vitro fertilization, the babies are known as "Snowflake Babies." Destroying those embryos does not seem a morally acceptable choice. But it is right to sacrifice them to possibly improve the health and lives of innumerable people?

I just don't know. I do not, though, think the issue is as simple as I did before reading this book. It isn't a simple issue. It warrants further debate and consideration I believe.

Later in the book Fox notes that eventually "the President would allow the research to continue. While certainly good news on its surface, key elements of the new policy were troubling and raised yellow flags, if not red ones quite yet. Qualifications limited all researchers to only sixty existing self-replicating colonies of stem cells, known as 'cell lines.'" This sounds like good news for those promoting stem cell research. Actually, the number of cell lines is disputable. Some have been tainted by non-human proteins used in other research, typically those of mice. Many of the cell lines are also privately owned and the owners may be reticent to share that which they may claim as their property. Fox does not delve much deeper into the science or terminology than this. It is my recommendation that anyone who wishes to learn even more about the science of cells in the laboratory read the well written book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" which I recently reviewed.

Fox goes on to note that "Commonly overshadowed by the dispute over embryonic stem cells is the near-consensus on the fundamentals. We agree on the ethical guidelines; we are against egg farming, against human reproductive cloning, and emphatically for Snowflake Babies. Our sole dissagreement hinges on our opposition to destroying frozen embroys that could be used in research to save lives."

"Faith" explains his belief that faith is synonymous with hope, directly related to the optimism that he carries throughout life. With regard to formal religion though, Fox hasn't quite found one that suits him. While choosing to raise their children in Tracy's faith, as Jews, he fits in there but is not a "consistent and obedient disciple of any one big 'F' Faith." He describes himself as "too blessed to be strictly agnostic, I have come to adhere to an ethical code informed by the major monotheistic disciplines: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,' 'Judge not lest ye yourself be judged,' and at least a half dozen of the Commandments. "

In "Family" Fox describes events that have affected his nuclear and extended family over the recent decade. He and his wife, Tracy, even decided to have a fourth child, knowing that he would be more present for this baby's young life than he was when their three odler children were born. Ultimately, he explains that he and his wife "give more to each other than Parkinson's could ever take away." His book explores his family's loss of his oldest sister, Karen, to whom this book is dediated, and who for years struggled with epilepsy. He speaks of strong and lasting friendships with Robin Williams, Lance Armstrong and Muhammad Ali, among others. His love of each of their four children runs deep. He devotes a small section of his writing to describe each of the kids and their natural inclinations and talents. The description of their youngest daughter, Esme, brought to mind, for me, the young girl Anna about whom the book Mr. God This is Anna was written as well as our own free-spirited daughter who is currently four years old.

Fox uses this quote in his book: "A short actor stands on a box, but a short movie star has everyone else stand in a ditch." Fox may be short but he is not the type of man who needs to make others smaller than himself in order to stand tall. Ultimately, he has earned my respect and maintains it through his thoughtfulness in his actions.


  1. I saw this book on sale in Borders last week. I picked it up and put it down 3 times before deciding not to buy it. I may have to go pick it up again - and buy it this time.

    Did you by any chance read Lucky Man?

  2. Yes, I read Lucky Man in April 2005. I don't recall, but have recorded that I also listened to it on Audio CD. I rated it 4.5* out of 5. I recall really enjoying it. Fox was an important part of the culutre of the 80s when I was growing into adulthood. I especially enjoyed reading about the filming of the Back to the Future series of films.


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