Sunday, May 17, 2015

When mind and brain get together



          Life began at 40 when I was in typing class. The goal was to finger a 40-words-a-minute rhythm, the minimum needed to pass the first semester. Years later I sat in front of my rugged Underwood, pounding out the succession of short takes expected from a reporter at the rewrite desk.

          Typing may have been the most useful class I took in public school. It was useful in English, history, journalism and drama classes, especially in doing homework, and it raised me from the fast index finger category to touch typing. I could look at my notes, and didn’t have to look at the keyboard. Thirteen was my lucky year.

          It was many years before multiple system atrophy started a different rhythm in those fingers. MSA lives and works in the brain, where it can twitch a finger away from an intended key, or turn feet loose to slide off a sidewalk or trip on the invisible. This is the same MSA that short circuits the brain’s wiring system and routes lots of thoughts to a dead letter orifice.

          Many of us who’ve been diagnosed with MSA, or who are caregivers, trade information with each other via email. This morning I began writing an email to a friend: I love BBC's offerings during the late night via Chicago's public broadcast station. They make

          What? What do they make? The word was suddenly misty, but I wrote down the first word that came to mind. Anchovy. It couldn’t be anchovy. It didn’t make sense. Another word popped up, amnesia. No, not amnesia. I worked at it, thinking about it, and that’s when the notion of “sleepless” came to mind. So I looked up sleepless in my Merriam-Webster and there it was: insomnia. I’d been trying to write this: I love BBC's offerings during the late night via Chicago's public broadcast station. They make insomnia almost desirable.

          You don’t need a brain disease for that. Anybody can forget a word now and then. MSA folks just do it more often, shooting mental blanks at a vanishing target.

          Nor do you need a brain warp to believe that there’s a reason for such things as MSA, beginning with the acquiescence of the Eternal,  James Moffatt’s favored name for God in his translation of the Bible. Maybe you prefer God, or Divine Mind or even Higher Power or something else that evokes the creative energy of loving, unseen parents. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to name God. Some never speak the holy name.

          No matter how deserved a punishment might be, sickness is not a punishment. If people were born so they can be tormented, with agents counterfeiting the ID of angels and a favored saint standing guard at the pearly gates of Guantanamo, the creator would need prayers for healing. We trust that human intelligence will lead to cures for MSA and other incurable diseases of this century, just as other cures have been celebrated in the past. The miracles come after mind and brain get together.  

           

Monday, May 11, 2015

The man who came to breakfast, lunch and dinner


              I checked out the boarding area for my flight from Paris to Strasbourg. I found the right gate, but there was no plane in sight. Then I spotted a tiny commuter plane underneath the boarding gate. It was a long time ago when tight security meant that nobody was allowed on board while carrying a burning cigarette. Keeping your shoes on was de rigueur, even in Paris, in the 1960s.

              I had just started to use my grandpa’s walking stick for balance because stairways and aisles began going one way while my feet went another. I didn’t have any idea that this new lurching was the calling card of a neurological disorder that’s now called MSA, multiple system atrophy.

              In those times of jolly travel nobody challenged my walking sticks, including one with a lead weight embedded inside its head. When it revealed itself on a scanner, security folks heard my explanation and shooed me on.

              It wasn’t the lead-headed walking stick that got me in trouble in Strasbourg. It was my careless wave to a uniformed fellow to help me get my luggage to a taxi. It was careless because the uniform was not, as I thought, being worn by a skycap. It was worn by a customs inspector who showed me how dutifully a visitor’s bags can be examined, one thing after another. The inspector was not a cousin, and he saw in me the family attributes a Hatfield spots in McCoys.

              My grandpa’s walking stick was a gift to him from my dad, and both would have laughed at my French faux pas. Family members are quick to laugh when a cousin qualifies for America’s Funniest Home Videos, and just as quick to reach out with helping hands when help is needed.

              More than a year ago my daughter and son-in-law, Marie and Mark Veldman, invited me to move in with them. My MSA symptoms were showing off, I was living alone and my 90th birthday was coming up. The invitation was dandy for me, but absorbing the closest, most talented, most loving, most healthy and most agreeable relative into the home of a married couple with children is not without jangled moments. Marie and Mark were not, as you know, dealing with the closest, most talented, most loving, most healthy and most agreeable person. But all those adjectives apply to them; they have made my time with them a happy rehearsal for what the Eternal has in store.

              They do my shopping, fix my meals, handle my errands, make sure that my clothes are clean, mail my letters and do just about everything that gets done for me here in this house. They’ve already done such things for their five children, Dan, Kristen, Michael, Matt and Katie. The things they do as physicians for countless patients impact the lives of people and families, too.


              Over on the California coast my son John and his wife, Pam Heyda, are a kind of golden gate to me. Up near Seattle my son David and his wife, Toni, and their son Jacob, are rocks of reassurance. I wish everyone were as lucky as I am. I probably don’t have to tell you that I love them all, even third cousins and beyond. They are why MSA doesn’t matter.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

So much to share






The death of an African American man stirred up a lot of violence in 1968. It was a year of destructive anger following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. How could looting and burning and tear gas return to the streets of Baltimore in 2015 in the name of still-unresolved civil rights issues? I was at the Palm Sunday Mass at a predominantly African-American church in Baltimore during that 1968 upheaval. My wife and daughter and sons and I attended Mass there once a month, but on the morning of the riots it seemed like a good idea for me to go by myself. I was surprised when the pastor told me, that morning after Mass, not to return.

Lawrence Cardinal Shehan appointed me to represent him in a quickly-formed group of community leaders who were to work for the integration of people and justice. I was jarred when an African American college president scolded white committee members for not acknowledging a casual, inherited racism of our own. It was a flash of enlightning. His thunder helped me understand his anger, and why he said Baltimore’s riots of 1968 might not be the last.
I guess it should not be a surprise that racism still dominates the national conversation. This conversation is usually between groups, rather than one person talking with another. It is often confrontational. We’ll never understand each other without continuing the kind of conversations that have led white presidents, judges and legislators to wipe out the shame of legal segregation. The white abolitionists of an earlier era did not give up. My hometown, Jamestown, N.Y., displays history markers celebrating the underground railroad. One of my first boyhood fascinations was with the musket a relative had carried in the Union army. The melting pot image of America was celebrated when I was in school. Today’s emphasis is often on diversity, on differences.

Ralph Waldo Emerson knew how to advocate Self Reliance, one of his most famous 19th century essays, while asserting society’s responsibility to abolish slavery. Strong individuals working together produce democratic freedom. Independence is more than separation.

When Sally and I moved to Hawaii in the 1950s we were thrilled by the reality of the aloha spirit. There were instances of unfair treatment of people, but even the racists tended to get along. One of my It Could Only Happen in Hawaii experiences came when I was editor of the daily newspaper in Hilo, the Tribune-Herald. I wrote a piece disagreeing with some handbills that were being passed out. The author, who was black, sued me. My news editor was Chinese-American. My attorney was Filipino-American. The judge was Japanese-American. The injunction was denied.

I didn’t know that it would get even better, as it did when I became part of a Japanese-American Big Island family.

People hold on to pride in their race or nationality, maybe their religion or their team. It can be done by excluding everyone who is different, what's known as a Confederate way of life. Pride is more satisfying when it invites people to know each other. That's where respect begins. A country club, professional organization or a business that excludes people because their skin doesn't match repeats the errors of segregation.

A few days before demonstrators swarmed into the streets of Baltimore, there was a different kind of public demonstration in Chicago. A sensitive news story about the funeral of a beloved American cardinal described the Mass as “plain and simple.” Nine living American cardinals were there to mourn the death of Francis Cardinal George, OMI, archbishop of Chicago. So were hundreds of bishops and priests. So was an orchestra joined with Holy Name Cathedral’s pipe organ. In the front pews were seated, for a couple of hours, the governor of Illinois, the mayor of Chicago and other public figures.

At the time of another cardinal’s funeral in that place, I was joined in a queue working toward the cathedral entrance by an energetic young priest named Fr. Donald Wuerl. At another time he came to our home for dinner. My daughter, in college at the time, told me afterward that she had never talked with a priest who was so enthusiastic about his calling and so obviously devoted to priesthood. He was back for the funeral of Cardinal George, but this time he was also a cardinal, the Archbishop of Washington, D.C. I was at home, watching the ceremonies on television, thanks to the detailed coverage provided by Chicago’s ABC Channel 7.

I knew Cardinal George only with the cooperation of the U.S. Postal Service. He was generous in writing letters. I read his books and his memorable columns in the Catholic New World, and he even read some of my things. An absorbing appreciation of George, the man and the cardinal, was written by Dolores Madlener, columnist and staff writer for the Catholic New World.
George seemed less enthusiastic about changes in the church than Pope Francis. George expected Catholics to form themselves within the boundaries of Catechism and Canon Law, not expecting the church to redefine any of those boundaries.

In the front row at Cardinal George’s funeral sat the Jewish mayor of Chicago. At that ceremony for a white Catholic there were clerics and laity, some Protestant, some Orthodox, some Catholic. Some who were there or sharing on TV may have  been Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist or of another faith  At the celebration of the life of an unmarried man there were nuns, professional women, moms. There were married men, gay men and lesbian women. It was a community of prayer. One God listened. Three Persons, one God.

There were starkly different kinds of demonstration in two great American cities, and most of the participants were together because of their love for victims.

  


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What was the co-pilot thinking?


          If you’re tuned in to one of the on-camera commentators, you may have been told why a young  co-pilot crashed a Germanwings plane with 150 persons aboard. Maybe you’ve been told what he thought about while passengers screamed, sealed in the huge aircraft behind him.

          Of course nobody really knows what Andreas Lubitz was thinking. Commentators tell us what they think he was thinking. They depend on memory, instincts and good intentions to provide swift oral locomotion.

          It is said that Lubitz consulted professionals for treatment of mental ailments, including suicidal tendencies, but no doctor unstrung his tangled mind or spotted the danger to others. Commentators who never met Lubitz, and never heard of him before the crash, fascinate us with stories and speculation about it, their own and the speculation of others.

          We want the commentators to fill in the blanks for us. We know that disturbed minds are never more determined than when they tuck their secrets away, hidden from psychiatrists, spouses, parents, siblings and friends. Lubitz may have spent his last hour with his secrets, without a thought for the plane and passengers.

          Mark Twain lets us peer into the mind of Tom Sawyer, and we know what he’s up to. But Tom doesn’t know. It hasn’t happened to him yet. Paul in his letter to the Romans says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” He considers this further in Romans 7:15-20, NRSV, concluding that “if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

          The psychiatrists, the teachers of pilots and other professionals are not examining patients and clients in order to spot sin. That’s more elusive than cancer and more controversial than life support issues. They are looking for mental disorders that may be what Paul, in earlier times, called sin.

          Lubitz will never be confused with the co-pilot described by Robert Lee Scott Jr. in his 1945 wartime book and movie, “God is My Co-pilot.” Nor can anyone be confused about the frantic prayers addressed to that eternal co-pilot by passengers and crew hurtling toward a sudden end.

          Lubitz is being examined in absentia. Who will probe the minds of the passengers?


           

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Why the 90s are cool



The distance from one base to another in major league baseball, measured in feet:  90.

The time played in soccer, in minutes: 90.

Some of us this week celebrate birthdays measured in years: 90.

When I tell you this, you may ask, what is my angle?  My angle, in degrees: 90.

It is nice to be 90 because at 90 it is nice to be.

You don’t have to be quite 90 to remember the Burma Shave signs along the two-lane highways, spaced one after another with a few jaunty words on each one. If the Creed were on a Burma Shave sign it could look like this:

A speck in the eye
a tear on the speck.
God in the sky,
Satan in heck.
Love in a flicker,
ash in a flash,
Life even quicker,
a hundred-year dash.

What makes a 90th birthday memorable is the number of children (John Wall and his wife Pamela Heyda, Marie Veldman and her husband Mark, David Wall and his wife Toni), grandchildren (Jacob Wall and Dan, Kristen, Michael, Matthew and Katie Veldman) and other kinfolk, along with friends from school days and friends from now and all the friends in between. The mystery is not why writers think anybody wants to read about their birthdays. The mystery is why anybody does read them.

In the 294 days remaining until New Year’s you may want to ponder that question. Maybe a reader is attracted by the fact that my March 12 birthday is shared with W. H. R. Rivers, an English neurologist and psychiatrist, whose birth in 1864 helped establish the use of three initials instead of a first name. On that date in 1947, Mitt Romney was born. Just a year after my birth in Jamestown, N.Y., George Ariyoshi was born, destined to become the third elected governor of Hawaii. There should be lots of coincidences in our horoscopes.

The thing is, as more and more people have drifted away from faith in God, people have drifted away from astrology. The willingness of obstetricians to schedule delivery on particular times and days has diminished some of the astrological mystery, and then there’s NASA.

My first job on a newspaper included getting the syndicated horoscope column properly marked up for a Linotype operator. Would a teenager consider scrambling the astrological predictions, running the Pisces forecasts under the Virgo sign perhaps? Maybe.

But there’s no maybe about the splendor or the suffering of life. For me there is no maybe about the splendor of God as creative mind, or the suffering of God as love, or the presence of God as spirit. And, as soon as yours arrives, a happy birthday to you.

[To be continued March 2025]

  

 



Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Kids who melt lead



Kids who melt lead

Whatever happened was quickly forgotten. But it triggered a new memory that hung around for a lifetime. It sent a four-year-old boy into loud and tearful rage as he curled up in his bed. His father bent over him and the boy sniffled the words, “I wish I was dead.”

The young father yanked a blanket across the child’s face, blocking his nostrils and mouth and giving him a moment of breathless terror. “That’s what it feels like to die,” said the father.

It was a teaching moment for the dad, who never gave it another thought. It was different for the boy, and I never forgot it. My dad loved me, never handed out slaps or spankings or any kind of physical punishment again. What I remember a lifetime later is not the slaps I didn’t get, but 60 seconds of tough love gone haywire.

My dad and mom had lost two children in infancy, and then an incurable disease took my adopted brother when he was five and I was three. Three children were dead, and then my dad heard his one surviving child wish he were dead.

The Great Depression was getting started. My dad had been a popular pipe organist in Jamestown, N.Y., movie houses during the silent film era. When sound pictures were invented he had to find other projects. Installing a theater sound system had taken us 104 miles from Jamestown to Coudersport. I remember deferring a few meals.

My mom was around 20 years old, having been married on her 15th birthday.

Life was pretty good, most of the time. When I was four I entered Rose Crane’s kindergarten, developing a quick crush on an older woman, age six. What I wanted most in kindergarten was to learn how to read, so I could understand what was printed in the little balloons in comic strips. My grandpa, once a farmer and then a streetcar motorman back in Jamestown, read the daily newspaper from the front page weather report to the last obit and classified ad. I knew that he knew things I would know if I could read.

Those Depression years were tough for neighbors who used to ask my grandpa whether they could pick dandelion leaves from his lawn for food, and my classmates who were seldom warm in the winter, and a woman distraught when she was caught taking a few dollars from church to buy shoes for her kids.

I think I had just turned seven when I moved in with my grandparents, then in their 70s, in Celoron, a suburb of Jamestown. It became famous for one of its 700 residents, Lucille Ball.  My mom went to work as a live-in housekeeper in Jamestown and my dad sold Hammond organs in Buffalo, 60 miles away.
Parental love sometimes took form in games and toys, many of them great fun, but mightily scowled upon today. There was a toy wood burner, shaped like a soldering iron. A kid lucky enough to have one just plugged it in until the tip became hot enough to burn wood. Then the kid could burn pictures into sheets of wood. After I plugged in my lead soldier toy, a little pot of lead was heated until the lead melted. Then I poured the molten lead into tiny molds to make soldiers. The chemistry set offered truly special possibilities.

Dwight Eisenhower once said that when he was a child his family was poor, but didn’t know it. I didn’t know it. The reason I’m thinking about this today is that my 90th birthday is, like one of those silent movies, a coming attraction. My children and grandchildren and friends provide nifty energy that makes life good, and they remind me of unacknowledged and usually unknown boosts from my parents, George and Doris. My mom lived with my wife and me when she turned 90, so I know that the heart grows fonder even if it’s growing fainter.

When I was a kid attending Saturday matinees at the Palace Theatre there was often an amateur show onstage, and it seemed to me there usually was at least one female contestant singing, “Ah, sweet mystery of life…” I knew that life was mysterious even before that. It is still a mystery, and still sweet.
  


Friday, January 30, 2015

Always Time for Healing



Published in Sharing: A Journal of Christian Healing, January/February 2015.

I’ve been asking God why on earth I’m here. In the huge mass of uncounted and unaccountable created beings, why me? God is eternal love, a constant presence, creative mind, everyone’s father and mother, giver of all life.

So why, one March day in I92S, did God give me life and turn me loose? God is the great healer, and still God allows fevers, fractures, wounds and burns to challenge medical scientists. God is the great provider, yet there’s homelessness, hunger and wretched poverty.

Maybe it has something to do with God’s vocation as eternal mentor and teacher, patiently waiting for learners to appreciate God’s texting. The password to all knowledge is Christ.

Now, after more than 32,000 days of this life, I ask God why all the fuss? I think with thanks of the prayers and purpose people have given me. Why have they done this?

God, who doesn’t need a wristwatch or even a calendar in the realm of timelessness, let me wait a long time before answering my question.

God has given me almost 33,000 days so far, and let me discover that the most important one of all is always today. Always time for a healing. I was not created for spiritual or intellectual triumphs.

Having abandoned the rib method, God used me as a factor in the birth of three remarkable children and six grandchildren, also remarkable. God needs each one of them, and that’s why they’re remarkable. They give, with their spouses, meaning to my years.

There’s a different and equally satisfying experience for those who are not parents, by choice or not by choice. Not everyone becomes a parent, but everybody starts out as a child, and according to words millions revere, each one is a child of God.

 A.E.P (Ed) Wall is a Life Member of the International Order of St. Luke, which publishes Sharing magazine. "Sharing is an interdenominational, international magazine of Christian healing, dedicated to the healing of body, soul and spirit." Melissa Velasco is Editor/Art Director. Publication office is P.O. Box 780909, San Antonio, TX 78278-0909.
Reprints require written permission from Sharing magazine at sharing@orderofstluke.org.