Thursday, August 28, 2014

Terse verse

    © A. E. P. (Ed) Wall, 17333 Deer Point Drive, Orland Park, IL 60467-7821 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Two heads abetter of one

I’m living a double life. I was talking with my daughter when I noticed how intently I was trying to pay attention. My duplex head was giving half of its focus to our conversation, while the other half was dealing with MSA, the multiple system atrophy that short circuits my attempts to stand more than briefly, or to walk more than a few yards with my rollator.

While one half of my apparatus is happily punching the computer keys or reading a timely mystery novel, another half is occupied by MSA spinoffs, literally a pain in the neck, some hammering on the inside of my skull (who’s trying to get out?), a punch in the shoulder or the sudden weakening of an arm, like a pricked balloon.
It is as though every 24-hour day comes in a 12-hour capsule. Time is always short. Actions often leave no trace.

Why am I telling you this? Partly because I was born this way, a journalist whose story-telling affliction is as old as the hieroglyphics. Partly because the more people know about MSA, a rare and incurable disease, the more likely is support for research. And partly as my excuse for being slow. My chow hound fame was wiped out, like gravy with a napkin, and I’m now the slowest eater at any table. I’m slow to answer letters and sometimes MSA wipes out my memory of a letter that needs answering or a promise made. This is a disease of falling and then getting up again.

Thanks for being one of the reasons to get back up.

     --Notes in an OPCA/MSA Diary

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Losing Robin Williams

Worldwide affection for Robin Williams, his professional success and personal wealth seemed like dreams fulfilled. His apparent suicide before he was old enough for regular Social Security checks was linked to his long-time struggles with depression, along with his misuse of alcohol and other seductive drugs.

The world has changed inside and out during my lifetime, which began when Calvin Coolidge was in the White House. When I was in kindergarten my dad was installing sound systems for movie theaters making the switch from silent films. Crippling diseases have been cured, travel has been reinvented with jet planes and interstate highways, television,  computers  and the Internet are here—but there’s  no cure so far for the deadly afflictions of Robin Williams.

Troublesome in a special way is the visibility of those afflictions, painfully evident, and the lottery effect of treatment for them. Many who apply AA principles in struggles with alcohol and narcotics are winners. Many are not. Nobody has figured out why one person gets a winning ticket and another crashes. Prayer is one response to tragic conditions, and the understanding of prayer may increase right along with the understanding of atoms,  cells and heartbeats. The evolution of spirituality may not be as slow as it seems. I was already in my crib in Jamestown, N.Y., when John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in Tennessee.

Life has evolved since then, conspicuously in the material realm of camera phones and air conditioners, less plainly in the spiritual realm of loving, giving and forgiving. People still kill each other, still let people go to sleep without food, suffer illness without care. Changes are coming. Watch for the time when defects and ailments will be identified at birth, and the sneaky diseases will no longer wait for decades before showing themselves as limps, dimmed eyes, cancers, neurological short circuits or painful disfigurements. They will be healed at birth.  And that will be one answer to prayer.

My own OPCA/MSA has been with me for such a long time that we understand each other, even though we are not friends. It has been a dozen years since I was diagnosed, but the disease was present long before that. When I was 63, as Robin Williams was when he died, I was already using a walking stick. But 12-step programs had no influence on the disease I did not know I had.

Politicians and moms and buyers of aspirin tablets think sometimes that all of the world’s problems would end if each person were given a new house, car and bank account. The unhappy premature departure of everybody’s friend, Robin, reminds us that a person’s security is fundamentally spiritual and less fundamentally material. Men and women of wealth and fame are not immune to suicide or crime.

Thanks to my kids and grandkids, and to friends, I enjoy the sweet life and get to remember most of it. Getting old is one thing, embracing personal evolution makes it more interesting. So far, so good.


Saturday, May 24, 2014

Man Wanted: Ability to walk on water preferred

Chicago newspapers are reminding Catholics that their archbishop, Francis Cardinal George, is a very sick man. He is ready to retire. The search for a new archbishop is on.

The search for a successor to John Cardinal Cody in 1983 was pure theater. With dignified fanfare the church proclaimed that a search had begun, and bishops here and there around the country submitted their resumes. They were  misled. Long before he died, Cardinal Cody told me that Pope John Paul II wanted to make Archbishop Joseph Bernardin a cardinal, and to move him from Cincinnati to Chicago. Cody vigorously resisted a Vatican attempt to appoint Bernardin as Cody’s coadjutor archbishop.

I was working for Cardinal Cody at the time, editing his newspaper, serving on the Archdiocesan Finance Committee and spending several hundred hours interviewing him about the autobiography he wanted me to ghost-write. When Bernardin headed the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington, I was managing editor of The Honolulu Advertiser. Bernardin hired me as director of the National Catholic News Service, and its first editor-in-chief.

We became close friends. I was the first person he called when his Chicago appointment became official, and I wrote the first book about him, The Spirit of Cardinal Bernardin. They say no man is a hero to his valet, but Bernardin remains heroic to me after years as his journalistic valet, even though we split infinites from time to time.

Neither he nor Cody was troubled by the pretense of an open search for the new archbishop of Chicago. Some politics are sacred.

Toward the end of Vatican II Lawrence Cardinal Shehan, the Archbishop of Baltimore, named me editor of The Catholic Review. I had been chairman of the Hawaii Governor’s Committee on Educational Television, and Cardinal Shehan thought he might want to create an educational TV network to serve his archdiocese and the new prep seminary he expected to build. Almost instantly Shehan’s TV plan came apart in the ecclesial earthquake of the mid-1960s, the shifting ground of Catholic certainties as Vatican II wound up. The new seminary was never built.

The certainties go on evaporating. Shehan one morning, upset by the pressures of discontent when Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirmed beliefs many thought were obsolete, said, “Oh to be a bishop in Ireland.” Nobody knew that half a century later the bishops of Ireland would be squirming. The church of Shehan and Cody and Bernardin keeps moving, but nobody know where it is going.

The choice of an enthusiastic Latin American Jesuit of Italian ancestry to be pope somehow stirs expectations of good choices for appointments in Chicago and elsewhere. If you’ve been thinking about prayers for Cardinal George and his successor, this is the time.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Believe it . . . or not

We humans feel superior to other animal and plant life, although we don’t even know whether life exists on distant planets or in different dimensions or in the unimaginable.

The idea of one god in three persons is a heady product of worship, prayer and scholarship. It recognizes god as the starting place, with attributes of a divine parent, child and community.

Humans have a craving for details, especially about themselves. Consider the millions who check their horoscopes before deciding what movie to see, others looking for excitement in séances, reassurance from palm readers and fortune tellers, sense, nonsense and incense.

Inasmuch as nothing is established in fact about god, seekers generally rely on what someone else has said about god, having no recourse to the kind of fact recorded in laboratories and encyclopedias.
There are believers, wonderers and deniers, also known as the faithful, agnostic and atheist. I lack the spontaneous faith of the atheist. There is no proof that there is no god, but atheists accept that claim as a certainty. Does that seem incredible?

Some people scold religion for causing wars, even though most wars are fought by secular governments. The popular cause with the heaviest firepower is democracy. Secular troops, tanks, triggers and torpedoes went to war but failed to establish democracy in Vietnam or Afghanistan, Iraq or parts of Africa. Nobody builds aircraft carriers or missiles with the proceeds of collection plates and begging bowls.
All religions, even atheism, are true to believers. Jesus, his mother and disciples, Moses, Mohammed, the Buddha are teachers to millions and more than teachers to other millions.
Divinity has many descriptions, with physicists and theologians, prophets and pragmatists testing their poetic thesaurus for the meaning of Eternal, Almighty, I Am, Love, Mind, Lord God, Spirit, Creator, Truth.

My work as a journalist gave me interviews with Billy Graham,Roman Catholic cardinals, Zen genius D. T. Suzuki, an Archbishop of Canterbury, a college president who gave me a copy of the Book of Mormon, and conversations with a couple of popes, scholars, rabbis, Episcopal bishops, clergy of many faiths. I respect them all and ponder the generosity of god. There is an abundance of belief.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Justice is in no hurry

American justice is about as good as it gets. It is shaped by centuries of crime and punishment. From earliest times lawbreakers have known they would be punished by confinement, stoning, being drawn and quartered or whipped. Yet they went right on breaking laws, generation after generation.

Governors still go to prison, and so do wealthy leaders of commerce and finance.

Candidates for public office sometimes boast that they are not politicians, but practitioners of business. “After all, the chief business of the American people is business,” according to the fellow who was president when I was born. Business supports government with taxes and influences government by giving money to politicians.

But enforcement of high ethical standards in both business and politics is less than total, as any number of convicted figures in both fields can testify. Politicians and business operators may ensnare themselves in fraud, Ponzi schemes, insider trading, forgery, embezzlement, bribery, cybercrime and anything else that has a dollar sign attached.   

It is said that American taxpayers spend more per year to keep a prisoner locked up than they spend on sending a person to college. Not long ago The Atlantic reported that one year at Princeton cost $37,000 and one year in a New Jersey state prison cost $44,000.

Why do some cops and lawyers break laws? Why do the wealthy steal? Why do spouses stab and shoot each other? Why do some clergy defy the laws of church and state? Why do lawbreakers break the same laws, knowing the penalties, century after century?

Why are penalties for scurrilous behavior so uneven? The government shaped by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson has been made a sponsor of torture and assassination. Across the face of the Supreme Court appear the words Equal Justice Under Law, words which are mocked in Guantanamo.

Nobody knows all of the answers. Criminal studies will have to become less traditional and more scientific to find out. The best way to protect victims of crime may be to find out why the perpetrators perp. Do they get satisfaction from outwitting others? Is the attraction similar to gambling, taking a chance, betting on luck? Are there treatable sexual and emotional issues that draw otherwise ordinary people into creepy acts?

In the cities killings day by day add up quickly, sometimes without the flow of headline ink that makes mass murders so indelible. We grieve for the victims and despise the aggressors, the monsters, and we ponder ways to punish them. That’s the system. From the beginning it has neglected adequate study of criminals to find out why they do it, what’s in it for them, how prevention might be shaped.

In a world of cause and effect we search for causes of cancer and establish causes of polio. The search for cures of physical ailments is properly intense, but it is not matched in intensity by a search for causes that might lead to an easing, if not a cure, of criminal misbehavior.

Humans have the means to do this. But so far, not the will.




Thursday, March 27, 2014

First the competition, then the trophies



            Spring break and other happy inventions have lured family and friends out of town, except for my granddaughter Kristen. Her classes move her closer to her goal to become a physician assistant. A tough grad school program prepares students to “conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, prescribe medications, counsel on preventive health care and…assist in surgery.”

            She was up and out early this morning, but left briskly-brewed coffee to help her grandpa float into the day. It could not have been more mellow in its bright red Liverpool Football Club mug. It is the morning after a 2-1 encounter with Sunderland.

            All of a sudden everybody will be back home. Matt will return to the University of Chicago with three national swim meet trophies. Out in the state of Washington, Jacob and his high school team returned home to Kirkland with first place honors in a mind-boggling robotics competition. The next competition will be for Mike and fellow gymnasts, and not long after that will be his MIT graduation. While all this is going on, Katie prepares to be the fifth Veldman to graduate from Sandburg High School. She’ll follow Dan, now a regional general insurance adjuster, and Kristen into the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

            One reason I believe in God is that I don’t know how else to account for the favors I’ve been granted, especially Sally, my wife of constant memory, our children and their spouses, our grandchildren and my choice kinship with moms, dads, siblings and other in-laws. To believe in God, I might add, is to be hopeful.

            Every once in a while I update you about the progress of the rare disease I first acquired as OPCA, olivopontocerebellar atrophy, a form of parkinsonism. It is now known as MSA, multiple system atrophy, which is easier to spell but otherwise the same thing.

            Less than a month ago I moved out of my condo and into the cheerful home of my daughter and son-in-law, to which they added a sturdy stair riser, a spacious bedroom and bath for the stair riser rider, and plenty of space for my computer and its gadgets. Computers are treasures for folks who seldom leave home. They enable imaginations to go anywhere.

            All the while that I become slower and flimsier, I find that I have more time to be slow and more leisure to be flimsy. Not the best deal, maybe, but a deal. I tell people that I’m dizzy, but that’s because dizzy is the closest word I can think of to describe a complex feeling of being dazed, confused while spinning in a whirligig and occasionally tumbling. Bruises, yes, but nothing broken for the well padded.

            Even headaches  can be taken for granted, but some caution is called for to reduce choking. There are ways to communicate when lips sag into mumbling or the vocal cords freeze up, such as waving arms, rolling eyes or scribbling notes. There are things to do when eyes won’t process printed words for a while, or when a chapter just read vanishes.

            People with incurable diseases are not the only ones who deal with challenges. Everybody does, and everybody has satisfactions . We don’t get to make all the choices.
We don’t always know we’re making them.