Thursday, September 4, 2014
If this sounds crazy it is because some elements of craziness float around in olivopontocerebellar atrophy/multiple system atrophy, which begins to appear in some persons not long after their 50th birthdays. Like many others, I acquired the neurological disease without knowing it. In my mid-50s I had to use a walking stick to keep from tripping and tipping, and I began making a few goofy decisions while holding responsible positions, but doctors failed to identify the disease for many years.
Neurological ailments can move in on anyone, silently at first, and hard to recognize. Even the most responsible officials and leaders can be affected. The very positions they hold may shield them from diagnosis and drape a blanket of privacy over their ailments. Changes in the goals and behavior of a president may be watered down in anybody’s White House. Think of Woodrow Wilson’s stroke and the concealment of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s deteriorating health. Remember Ronald Reagan, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years after he left the White House. His son Ron said he saw early signs of the devastating disease while his dad was president. He recalled that in an interview with ABC and in his book, My Father at 100: A Memoir.
Psychiatrists at Duke University Medical Center wrote, in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, that 49 percent of presidents from 1776 to 1974 were touched by mental ailments. This was reported by Haley Hoffman in Duke’s The Chronicle in 2006. The study of 37 presidents found that 18 suffered mental illness in some form. Depression was the most common ailment.
One problem leads to another, sometimes, and the problem of invisible health issues in government leads to this problem: Questionable claims of mental disease have been used to discredit political figures, even to confine them against their will in mental institutions. Although this was commonly associated with Stalin’s USSR, it is not unknown in the land of waterboarding. Establishing controls for testing and diagnosis may not be possible. Ask Congress to legislate a system of mental examinations? Supply your own punch line to that.
My prejudices have supported Barack Obama ever since , not long after the 2004 Democratic convention, I wrote an Orlando Sentinel op-ed column beginning like this: “When Barack Obama was a schoolboy in Hawaii, I was managing editor of The Honolulu Advertiser, unaware that a major figure of the next century might have been surfing nearby.” That boy, I wrote, had the soul of a Martin Luther King and the heart of an Abraham Lincoln. And by the time I wrote it he had been elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois, serving in Washington alongside Hawaii’s venerable Daniel K. Inouye. Believe it or not, a half-century ago I wrote an editorial proposing Inouye for vice president. I am not singling out Obama in suggesting that all presidents are susceptible to depression, the flu, to anything that might afflict anyone.
There’s no more demanding job than president of the United States, whose every move is disputed by someone — millions of someones — somewhere. In some respects the demands are inhuman, but the president is human no matter what Fox News says.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
Monday, August 18, 2014
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
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
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
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.
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
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.