Thursday, August 13, 2015

My mom, dancer and sleuth

One day when my mom was in her 90s she looked at the bearded guy standing next to her and asked, “How old are you?”

I said, “Mom, I’m 70.”

That was 20 years ago. It was one of the times she said that we had switched roles and she had become the child needing care. I had heard this comment many times. My mother had a talent for repeating herself day after day and year after year. It is a notoriously inheritable talent. I thought, but did not say, that elderly folks whose strength shrinks while their health needs explode are not like children. Children grow up, becoming less dependent as they get older.

My mom was generous and friendly. She loved to dance and she was a garden club enthusiast. She was a department store sleuth, a nightmare for shoplifters. Later, in her 70s, she dispatched trucks for charity pickups. She outlived three husbands. Her cooking was pretty good even during World War 2 food rationing when her specialty was boiled beef heart.

Her daughter-in-law, Sally, Sally’s brother Frank, church friends and neighbors took her to visit doctors, to lunch, to the hair salon, and talked with her. She was 95 when she died as quietly as the sleeping child she thought she had become.

Now that I’m 90 years old, my skin resembles a relief map of Hawaii, volcanoes and beaches included. My days are busy. I spend part of the day putting my socks on. I spend more of it changing my clothes, which wakes up one or two muscles, former muscles and jagged joints.

But first there’s steaming coffee brewed and delivered by my daughter or son-in-law or a grandchild. My meals are prepared, my mail sorted, my fabrics laundered, my Amazon packages brought indoors. I’m supported all the time by sons and daughters-in-law and by my grandson out West, with visits, emails, phone calls and whatever. Friends know that my slights and slips are unintentional, and they are giving of friendship while forgiving of faults.

I don’t like to boast about my disease, but it is almost probably rarer than anything you may have. It inspired the movie “Honey I Shrunk My Brain.” I was originally diagnosed with olivopontocerebellar atrophy, but it became so popular as a computer password that the name was changed to multiple system atrophy. It strikes its victims in a variety of ways. There is no cure. I can still push my rollator the distance from our front door to the curbside mail box. I leave the house to see the doc or the dentist. The floors and sidewalks are swaying everywhere.

Family and friends are gifts from the Eternal, a dizzily cheerful thought.

Doris Olmstead Wall Matas Veytia, 95, is in her wheelchair enjoying Easter 1999 with, from left, Katie and Dr. Marie Veldman, Sally Wall, Dan and Kristen Veldman, Great Grandma herself, then Matt, Mike and Dr. Mark Veldman. Grandson John Wall and his wife Pam Heyda, and grandson David Wall, his wife Toni and their son Jacob, were at home, thousands of miles to the west.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The world can use a body shop

Along with the joys of being a Christian there are some painful distractions. Jesus himself knew torture by agents of government long before there was an American lawyer to declare it legal. Many have observed that being a Christian is not easy. It is worth the effort, but few of us stick to it. (I’m a late-comer myself.)

              For generations we’ve tossed drunks out of our churches. Need help in overcoming an addiction that’s destroying your life and your family? Visit Alcoholics Anonymous, where you’ll receive the love of the whole A.A. congregation. You won’t be shunned in the name of a church.

              Christians know something about the behavior we call sin. Every day we ask God to forgive us our sins the way we forgive the sins of others. Maybe that’s why we need so many tranquilizers to swallow, sip or inhale.

              We could forgive, but instead we revoke memberships and shun the weak. We have opportunities to help ease a recovering alcoholic back into the community, and we look away. We hear about children starved for food and appreciation, and we muffle the thought before it makes us more uncomfortable.

We could, you're probably thinking, stop writing like the town scold and become more cheerfully focused.

              Human sexuality has been a preoccupation of religion from the time the first cell split with an unmentionable purpose. It is written into traditions and scriptures of early centuries
              There has been some reconsideration of divorce and remarriage, and reconsideration of marriage itself. Sexual misconduct is a feature of the information society. What’s factual about what’s sexual has not changed. Nor has the voice  of compassion, recorded in John’s gospel, cautioning those quick to throw stones to ponder their hypocrisy.

              Schools and religions have handled it as though it is one of the costs of doing business. Now they back away from their long-standing  influence over a topic history knows to be elusive. Maybe they are relieved to have human sexuality become simply secular, something to ponder or pander. Maybe courts and commissions will find out what makes a person become a sexual monster, preying on children, mangling bodies and leaving dents in the conscience of the world.

               When I was in a class for Christian doctrine teachers more than 60 years ago a priest said that, in confession, sexual predators commonly expressed regret and promised to stop. But they came back, again and again. Someone asked what the church was doing about this. The teacher shrugged his shoulders.

              Hey, this is the way it looks to me. I am not the teacher. I am not the priest. I’m the one the lifeguard is trying to save, but I’m down here at the bottom of the pool. All he sees is some bubbles.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Is it a lifetime pass, or the pass to a lifetime?

              Jim O’Neill and I were walking past the Trevi fountain on our way to the Rome bureau of the National Catholic News Service, now called the Catholic News Service. It was my first Rome trip there since my appointment as director and editor in chief. Jim, the bureau chief, was telling me about visiting a friend in a Roman hospital.

              So I asked Jim, “Where do you go for treatment when you get sick?”

              “To the TWA ticket counter,” he said with a smile.

              TWA was the airline of choice for many American bishops, and for some folks who worked for the bishops. Like me. I have a life membership card for the TWA Ambassador Club, along with another for Pan American. I thought they would be good for my life, not the airlines’ lives.

              Life is a gift from God, according to preachers and poets. All of us are created equal, according to patriots and philosophers. Life is a gift that keeps on giving, prompting some to ask What gives?

              One day I read an article in Catholic Mind, a magazine published for many years by Jesuits in New York. The author was Bishop John Wright of Worcester, Massachusetts. I wrote him a note about his article, he replied, and eventually I went to work on the Worcester Telegram copy desk. That was a long time ago.

              About the time Sally and I left Worcester for Honolulu, Bishop Wright left to become the Bishop of Pittsburgh. Our friendship flourished. When our first son was born in Hawaii we named him John Wright Wall. It was at the bishop’s home in Pittsburgh, years later, that I met a gifted young priest, Donald Wuerl, newly-chosen secretary to the bishop.

              Wright became a cardinal when he was named prefect of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of the Clergy, and Wuerl became a cardinal decades later after he was named Archbishop of Washington. It really is a small world.

              Honolulu was the center of the world for lots of transplants like Sally and me, with three children born in Hawaii. I was managing editor of the morning newspaper, the Honolulu Advertiser, when a long-time friend asked me to meet secretly with him in Washington’s Watergate hotel. Bishop Joseph Bernardin was general secretary of the  conference of U.S. bishops when he invited me to become head of the news service with two major objectives. The news service budget was blotched in red ink, and losses were mounting as clients cancelled their orders. Objective number one was to regain the lost clients and pull the budget into black ink.

The news service prepared bundles of mimeographed news reports each day for mailing to clients. My job, objective number two, was to find a way to send the daily news report to clients everywhere via leased wire. The service had been negotiating with a domestic news agency that was better than nothing, but it was an answer to prayer when negotiations began with Reuters instead. Our contract gave us hours of transmission to anyplace in the world served by the giant news agency, plus the guarantee that news reports written by our correspondents would be wired to us in Washington within 20 minutes of being presented at any Reuters office. It was a suspenseful time for me, because Bernardin had told me I had to make all of the decisions and be responsible for the consequences.

              I don’t suppose that left you in much suspense, but in case it did, both objectives were met. I kept my job, not aware that an incurable neurological disease was already sampling some of my brain cells. Bernardin departed to become Archbishop of Cincinnati and eventually the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago. And I wrote a book about him.

              That neurological disease was eventually given a name, olivopontocerebellar atrophy or OPCA, later renamed multiple system atrophy (MSA). Somebody told me there can be as many as 100 billion neurons in the brain, and the brain controls thinking, memory, talking, walking. Anyone with MSA may be subject to zoom-speed dizziness, sudden falls, shocking headaches, gagging, distorted vision and so on – and not necessarily be aware of it.

              Awkward behavior is part of the package. I’m glad I have friends who overlook promises I forget to keep, and conversations that skid right through my neurons, sliding out through my pores, never to be remembered. Friends know that MSA and arthritis coexist, gout is part of it, sometimes a shirt is easy to button, sometimes touch typing is still possible. The give and take of friendship, the giving and forgiving, is part of the mystery. Friendship is medicinal, prescribed by the usual folks, like Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Francis of Assisi, the other Francis in Rome.

              A few years ago I gave up my drivers license because I could see highways swaying like hula dancers, and other dizzy distractions of MSA. One of these days MSA will revoke my touch typing license and etch my dizziness into the hard drive. After I stopped driving I had my pick of what to do next, read some lively murder mysteries, listen to music accumulating on my i-pod, buy things from Amazon, watch movies on TV, notice all the stars I never heard of who have become famous since James Cagney, Mae West, Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead, whatever.

              Slowing myself down on my two active  computers is as simple as deleting more commercial emails without reading them, enjoying hours of Jamestown photos and other Internet nostalgia, and savoring endless action via online newspapers, broadcasters, social scans and such. Everything gets older, including the bottled grains of Scotland and jokes via email. People get older and the luckiest of them are nudged, nagged and nurtured by family and friends. Thanks, nudgers. Thanks nurturers. Thanks naggers. Thanks proofreaders.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Why pray?

             So, how come someone with a disease called incurable prays for healing?

              Why am I a life member of the International Order of St. Luke the Physician, a worldwide healing ministry, even though I still have multiple system atrophy a dozen years after my neurologist diagnosed it? Good questions.

              Someday medical specialists will find out what MSA and other rare diseases are, but they are semi-mysteries today, much like prayer and the Eternal.
              Physicians and theologians have examined healings of the sick at Lourdes and in other places and circumstances. Sometimes science seems to be in remission along with the sickness, but science keeps at it.

              Prayers for healing have something to do with overcoming MSA, but that’s just part of it. Prayers reach out for healing of cynicism in politics and business, healing of greed and murder, healing of warfare and person-to-person nastiness. Prayers embrace family, friends and others who are not friends.

              The consequences of prayer are often, maybe usually, overlooked. People tend to define healing in terms of perfection. Either the disease is gone or it isn’t. But this is not the way it works. Most gains in reality are incremental, not instantaneous as in magic
              Paul the apostle writes in his second letter to the Corinthians that his prayers did not succeed in relieving him from a “thorn in the flesh,” but he kept on praying. Who knows what was healed in Paul’s life and in the lives of his friends? Luke the physician, close friend of Paul, may have been one of the beneficiaries even as he prayed for his own health and clarity.

              Some modern Christians hesitate before repeating an ancient affirmation, beginning “I believe in God…” They may pause before they acknowledge the Eternal, necessarily described in the relatively primitive language of many religious texts. There simply were no words to express concepts awaiting discovery. A limited vocabulary, at a time when few persons were able to read and write, was made to serve. The prose of scripture was expressed in poetry, the language of the mystics. It may be condensed into one word. Amen.

Opinions expressed in this essay are my own and do not necessarily reflect opinions of other persons, publications or organizations.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Ouch! Confession of a barefoot writer

            All kind of things were going on. Frank Sinatra made his singing debut, Finland surrendered to the invading Soviets and Benito Mussolini joined his buddy Adolph Hitler in going to war against Britain and France. It was a lively year, 1940, and the U.S. census folks counted more than 131 million Americans. That included nearly 13 million African Americans.

            In 1940 I heard a talk by a middle-aged Georgia teacher who smiled a lot when she talked about growing up in the heart of the old Confederacy. She was born about 30 years after Sherman’s Union Army burned Atlanta, which 1940 moviegoers were watching in blazing Technicolor.  “Gone with the Wind” swept the Academy Awards.

            This lady, who began absorbing racism with her first breath, and didn’t seem to know it, was an up-front volunteer when the needy of any race needed anything. In her talk she described a visit to Tuskegee with a group of white teachers, invited to lunch at the famous black school in Alabama. The white guests were seated, she said, while the black hosts remained standing. “They knew their place,” she said.

            Of course they knew their place, but it took decades for many Americans to recognize that dismal place. Union soldiers by the thousands had given everything they had to destroy slavery; their victory was diluted by racial segregation, a dissimulation invented by the defeated. Many remember the signs marking “white” and “colored” drinking fountains and rest rooms, laws requiring separate seating in buses and, the greatest scandal of all, in churches. Blacks did not often make it into newspaper stories, except an occasional piece by a police reporter. A major newspaper declined to identify any black woman as married; there were no Mrs. John Smiths—just Jane Smith—in stories about black citizens.

            I admit a certain bias. I’m a life member of NAACP. I’m also a life member of the USA. I believe in what they both stand for, but I do not agree with everything either one does. It is easy to be a card-carrying automaton, allowing the outfit to make all the decisions, and lots of people carry those cards. Judgments are swift and impersonal.

I make another admission. I’m writing this while hosting gout in one entire foot. Occasional gout visits are part of the mystery of multiple system atrophy (MSA).  Just because the writer is barefoot he is not Gandhi. Gandhi spun with a wheel. This writer just spins.

            Now consider the case of Rachel Dolezal in Spokane, Washington, a nifty city in one of the most beautiful parts of the country, home to Gonzaga University and a lot more. Maybe you, too, were lucky enough to be there for Expo ’74. Rachel was president of the NAACP chapter. Her long-time claim to be African American was challenged by her parents, then by others who did not know her and had never seen her. Here was an opportunity to extend an arm of comfort to a troubled person, of trying to understand a woman’s need and confusion. But critics scolded her, sent her back to where she came from.

            We Christians do that in our churches. We commonly pray for the Eternal to forgive us in precisely the way we forgive others, a state of mind and heart demonstrated so powerfully by African American Christians following the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina. But we do not always respond in the way of Jesus and his Charleston disciples.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Is that macaroni under your scalp?

I had the great American brain food for dinner, macaroni and cheese. You know, the tasty dish that looks like the brains that illustrate magazine articles like “The Pea Diet for a Pea Brain.”

A momentary slippage of the brain cells makes people laugh at each other, no matter how hard they try to keep a straight face. There wouldn’t be any “America’s Funniest Home Videos” without prats in free fall.

Anybody who laughs too soon risks realizing, too late to call back the comic decibels, that the lady who slipped on the ice is a pregnant impoverished amputee recovering from a brutal mugging.

Reaction will be as quick as a scared cat and as lingering as a cat-o’-nine-tails, especially if a cell phone lens took it all in for sharing on the Internet, where rush to judgment goes supersonic. Some of us remember public school lessons about the shame of intolerance, and the Statue of Liberty as a welcoming symbol of a nation united, a melting pot won by Americans in the Revolution, the Civil War, the World War and more.

Americans had a right to think what they wanted to think, even when almost everybody thought they were wrong. There was a tolerance for bad jokes. Sally and I once moved into a circle of folks who assumed we shared their non-Roman religions. We heard lots of anti-Catholic jokes, and we laughed to ourselves about dumb jokes, dumbly told. That was tolerance, letting people exercise their right to make fools of themselves, while looking for ways to defrost their fears and prejudice. By the way, Sally and I knew more, and better, anti-Catholic jokes than any of our prejudiced pals.

That was a long time ago. The emphasis on national unity has become an emphasis on diversity. The tolerance of diverse ideas, cultures and lifestyles has yielded to insistence that nobody be allowed to say anything that offends another.

When I was a kid we had not yet fought World War II, and we had not lost wars in Asia and the Middle East. The population was about 123 million when I was a first-grader in 1930. Since then it has grown by nearly 200 million. In 1930 there were no TV programs, no jet airliners, my only encounter with air conditioning was at the movies, high speed communication was via Western Union telegraph and its boys on bicycles. People admired cops, even as a Jamestown  Sunday School teacher kept boys as attentive as disciples when he talked about the exciting sins of John Dillinger and other Most Wanted headliners.

Doctors worked hard, but didn’t know a whole lot about curing diseases. No hearts or kidneys were replaced and medical offices had ashtrays. Kids in art classes made ashtrays for their dads. When adults chatted while children could hear they spelled c-a-n-c-e-r and other scary words.

I’ve lived during the most interesting 90 years the planet has known. Have you noticed how interesting the people are?  

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Rocking with grandma, a rock of ages

            Take a look at grandma’s rocking chair, handcrafted by her grandpa when the first Johnson –Andrew–was president. A collector might pay thousands for that chair and its memories, but there’s no bidding for grandma. Elderly chairs can be worth a lot of money, but elderly people are harder to invoice.

            Priceless antiquities in Syria and Iraq are damaged and destroyed by the Islamic State, works of art and architecture already ancient when Columbus cast off. The loss of the old and irreplaceable saddens and enrages people everywhere, even as it forever denies youths from now on an encounter with their ancestors. Age is everything, highly valued in auction rooms, even as people are massacred along with the artifacts. It can seem that to some persons, venerable columns and statues are more valuable than the people who live in their shadows.

            The other day I received an email with photos of famous women and men of the theater, close-ups of their familiar faces at ages 70, 80 and more. The sender invited me to look at the pictures, then look in the mirror. That was a nifty idea, but when I looked in the mirror for wrinkles I found that I have grown dimmer. A dim and foggy face looked back at me. Whom should I see first—the ophthalmologist or the dermatologist? Whom is a word used by retired editors and others of that sort.

            Some things are valued because of their age, including people, except maybe when they are being surveyed. One reason why some online pollsters get folks to tell their age up front is to spare themselves the trouble of reading responses from the elderly.

            In his latest book, “The Stranger,” Harlan Coben introduces his readers to a lawyer who specializes in eminent domain cases. The Supreme Court has allowed governments huge leeway in their seizure of private property for public purposes, but when I read the eminent domain reference in Coben’s novel I thought it could describe MSA at work. Multiple System Atrophy exercises a sort of eminent domain on the bodies of its hosts, as I noted when I looked into that mirror. As the poetic scholars of the King James Bible wrote in First Corinthians, seeing through a glass, darkly, is nothing new.

            Drinking through a glass, even lightly, is another matter. When I was given hiring and firing responsibilities at a daily newspaper I was told that many personnel issues would involve drinking, that journalists who favored foamy drinks and peppermint candies seldom got over it. I was disappointed that the alcoholics I talked with were sometimes shunned by their churches. While some churches were tossing these folks out of their congregations, Alcoholics Anonymous was taking them in, praying with them, giving them hope.

            The kind of eminent domain MSA invokes is a seizure of a patient’s property one piece at a time. It seizes the brain, then uses it to break up the rhythm of walking. It extends its domain into the swallowing apparatus, sometimes like waterboarding the patient, sometimes fiddling with the vocal cords. Then it grabs the control tower and trips its victims, causing falls. MSA applies eminent domain wherever it chooses, from aches at the top of the head to twitches at the end of the big toe.

            MSA pokes around in the brain, but most of its damage is physical. Patients tend to keep their identity intact, to avoid or defer dementia. G. K. Chesterton, a friend of George Bernard Shaw and wiser, said this a long time ago: "The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman.”

            There’s talk about recognizing Chesterton, a convert to the Catholic Church, as a saint. This is astonishing, not because Chesterton is being considered for sainthood, but that a journalist is being considered.

            The fictional crime-solving Father Brown entertains on television, which had not been invented when Chesterton wrote the stories. The saint-makers know who wrote the Father Brown books, even as they argue about authorship of ancient books, how much of them is fact, how much fiction, how much the words of a journalist who liked to write mysteries.

            Old merges with new. Families probe the Internet for information about ancestors they never knew they had. One generation births babies, and adopts them. Another generation sits babies. Tom Brokaw called people of the World War II era the Greatest Generation. We who arrived between 1925 and 1942 comprise the Silent Generation. A demographer at the Census Bureau said that the “oldest old” are 85 or older, while more Americans than ever are in their 90s.

            Some folks get agitated as they move upward in the generation scale. They worry about old age because, of course, they haven’t been there before, and don’t know exactly what to expect beyond the menu of personal disasters laid out on TV screens. Some worry about a future in Hell, even though there’s no evidence anybody has ever been in a hell that has a capital h.

            Others may see old age as the normal living of life, and see life as a largely unknown adventure, maybe like a first trip to Hawaii, London or Melbourne, Australia. You know what they say about that: Bon voyage.