Jay Johnson ’55
Retired business magazine editor
This profile originally appeared in Bowdoin magazine, Vol. 74, No. 3, Spring 2003
The following is adapted from a letter by Jay Johnson '55, New York City resident, retired business magazine editor, painter, and author of Aspects of Living with Parkinson's.
A new sense of calm filled me during my first days at Bowdoin. Maybe it was the tall dark pines, the ivy-covered walls of the old red brick dorms or the teachers and students that made me feel so welcome. Within a short time, I knew I wanted to write. After the first awkward attempts, I began what was to be a long journey to master the craft. I had to leave Bowdoin when my father suddenly died, and join the Army to get the necessary funds to continue my education. Those two years gave me a lot to write about. I like Woody Allen's blithe remark: "I don't mind death. I just don't want to be there when it happens."
In August of 1990, I fell from a six-foot ladder photographing an automotive store in Phoenix for a business magazine. Two and a half years later, at the age of 59, I was diagnosed as having the makings of the mischievous Parkinson's disease. For years, a cure has confounded the experts. The aim of my book Aspects of Living With Parkinson's is to show what it can mean to affirm life and combat the misery of getting a bad hand. I would say that in spite of dealing with this disease for more than ten years, it's good to be alive. At times I still have the suspicion that it's one big joke that will end with one mighty guffaw, and then I can return to a healthy and somewhat normal life.
At least 1.5 million Americans have this disease and 60,000 more are diagnosed with it annually. I write about conventional and unconventional ways to treat Parkinson's; what minerals and vitamins to take and what foods to eat, because despite inevitable degeneration, the new diet helps. At the beginning, one can count on such things as diets helping, especially in the first year, but eventually this good luck dwindles. Massages, tai chi, and stretching exercises help. So do long walks. Swimming daily, though, seems the most important.
In the last four years, confining conditions often aroused a sensation of claustrophobia, causing me to freeze, stumble, and fall. Slowly I have learned of ways to minimize these occasions but as times goes on, my balance often fails me.
Until two years ago, I still worked as a business magazine editor and never declared I had Parkinson's. I assumed everyone knew it from the way I moved, particularly when they saw me struggling like a contortionist to slip my arm into the sleeve of my coat. Retired now, my world is shrinking. Small things take on particular significance. I have taken up painting, which I practice in my routine almost every day.
After swimming, usually in pre-noon hours, I often sit on a bench by the East River, painting boats and workaday barges going by. Observing the different qualities of light by the river on any given day revives my spirits. The New York bus system, another favorite studio, allows me to paint many different people. As a painter, I am also an explorer discovering something new. My first one-man show will take place in a New York Public Library this September.
It has recently been claimed that Parkinson's or the medicine taken to overcome its influence unmasks creative tendencies in the individual. For instance, my painting and writing have decidedly flourished as a result of my having Parkinson's; for this I happen to be, strangely enough, quite grateful.
Mr. Johnson has received acknowledgements for his book, but is still on the lookout for either an agent or a publisher.- Lauren M. Whaley '03