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.






Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Time to strip

This is the morning I’m supposed to strip my bed. The sheets and pillow cases are to go into the sturdy wooden hamper I made in shop class in 1936. Later today the bed and mattress will be hauled to my new address.
I’m not going with it. I’ll spend a few more days here in the condo Sally and I moved into more than a dozen years ago. The bedrooms will have no beds in them, so I’ll get to use the foldaway sofa bed in the family room.
The huge change here happened when Sally left for the hospital and didn’t come back. That was in 2002, not long after Tom became our cat.
Yesterday there was a different kind of change when two brothers came from the monastery to choose hundreds of books for transfer to their Benedictine library. It took me a while to figure out that the great Mind of all creation, the one Paul refers to in his the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians, provided those addictive shelves for nearly a lifetime of pleasure. Now I’m returning them, and there’s pleasure in knowing they won’t get dusty in their new place.
I still have some books on religion, reference books for writers, even some very old Perry Mason hardcovers, but anybody who’s interested in having any of them should get in touch with me very soon. I expect to complete my move into the loving lively home of my daughter and son-in-law within a few days. One of the first things I’ll do is locate fresh sheets for that bed. I can think and change sheets at the same time, so I’ll be thinking how blessed I am by family and friends.
               *Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus. Philippians 2:5.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Still looking for the right words

A high school classmate sent me copies of two little poems I wrote for a school magazine in 1940. They survived the mice for almost three-quarters of a century, and the ink has not peeled off.
What we kids liked most about poems was the sound of them.
            “Shoot if you must this old gray head,
            but spare your country’s flag,” she said.
            John Greenleaf Whittier kept his quill in tune.
            Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered,
            weak and weary…
            While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came
            a tapping,
            As to some one gently rapping…
            Edgar Allen Poe knew tintinnabulation, and how to use it.
The rockets and dive bombers of World War II were thundering across Europe, and the war was spilling over into Africa. The U.S. was legally at peace, but the vibes of blitzkreig were felt everywhere. Pearl Harbor was not far ahead.
That’s why there was a commotion in the press when members of the Jehovah’s Witness denomination, who were conscientious objectors, refused to salute the flag.
While this was happening, the tensions in English class were about infinitives, to split or not to split. And the teacher wanted her kids to write modern verse that did not rhyme, to write in the free and slightly spooky spirit of Orson Wells’ “War of the Worlds” and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” stark and shadowy.
Hence, this verse from a 15-year-old who didn’t know he was just two years short of boot camp.
            Why do we salute that piece of cloth waving in the wind?
            We do not salute a cloth. That is the flag.
            Why do we pledge allegiance to a brightly colored rag?
            We do not pledge allegiance to a brightly colored rag.
            We salute the pioneers, the explorers, the soldiers.
            But they are all dead.
            They are not. They live today:
            The pioneers in aviation.
            The explorers in medicine.
            The soldiers in science—and war.
            We salute them in respect—not worship.
And this to accompany another student’s article about telephones, which had already been discovered by teenagers in 1940.
            Poles. Tall, silent telephone poles.
            But how loudly they speak—
            What a message they carry.
            Poles. Wires.
            Strong, taut wires,
            Poking into stock markets
            In New York. Into the mellowing buildings
            Of San Francisco’s China Town.
            Into the suburban bungalow,
            Tight, slick wires,
            Glistening in the moonlight.
            Death. Fire. Birth. Money. Tragedy.
            This is the story of telephone wires.
And so, after nearly 75 years, we still have wars and we still have telephones. We still have verse-writers, too. Dorothy Parker’s now in e-books that were no more than science fiction when she wrote that men seldom make passes/ at girls who wear glasses. Another quarter century, almost, would pass before Betty Frieden explained in a famous book that feminine vision had nothing to do with spectacles.
They still write verses in high school English classes. Chances are there’s more teen poetry for peace than there was in 1940, and that more verses are written to be sung than recited. Chances are the crafting runs deeper. Teens of the first fully computerized generation have a knowledge breadth unimagined when their grandparents were memorizing dates in schools where the cops were never seen, unless maybe for a safe driving lecture. With that breadth of knowledge comes a reach for depth, and words do the digging.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

It only hurts when I list

Why not? I’ve been asked to do goofier things than list some of the little things a person with multiple system atrophy (MSA) may deal with during a day. These are not the spectacular things, such as falling over in the kitchen and leaving the eggs to keep frying solo.
These are little things that people seldom talk about outside their support groups.

There’s the pain in the back of the neck that pops up when you turn your head, or lift something, or for no apparent reason.

Then there is the frustration trimming fingernails when the thumb’s too weak to click the nail trimmer.

Or dropping a glass of iced tea you thought you were holding securely.

How about the vocal cords acting up during a conversation, like a violin squeaking?

Or choking and gagging that feels a lot like waterboarding, triggered by a drop of moisture or a breath of fresh air.

Maybe speaking to the person whose shadow just moved up beside you and getting no answer because you’re all alone.

Starting to gasp like an old steam locomotive spinning its wheels, then stopping whoever’s starting to call 911.

Walking off the edge of the sidewalk because straight lines are tricky.

Squinting at the TV screen because your headache du jour is distracting, like a wriggle of electric current across your eyebrows.

Little things can annoy, especially if they are mosquitoes or gnats, but they are less annoying than big things, like angry elephants or rolling out of bed and breaking the other hip.

The best thing I can say about this is that nobody actually likes MSA and its incurable misdemeanors, but among the scores of victims I’ve known via the Internet, there are doers, planners and givers, but no whiners. The confidence that medical science will find a cure for this and other diseases is virtually unanimous. Maybe it will be soon, maybe not. Meanwhile, some support research, some pray, some write lists.