Thursday, January 28, 2016

The shuttle explodes

The space shuttle Challenger streaked into the Atlantic sky, then burst into a flaming flash. My wife and I were watching from the lawn in front of our home in Titusville, Florida. We looked in stunned wonder, not wanting to believe what we saw on that 28th day of January, 1986.

The pastor of Holy Spirit Church in the nearby town of Mims, where many space workers worshipped,  asked me to write something to be read at Mass on Sunday. This is it.

From almost any point in our parish --from the lawns in front of our homes, from the windows of classrooms, from the asphalt surface of parking lots —we were able to watch the shuttle Challenger head for a new conquest of space. But just 74 seconds later the conquest exploded before our eyes, the lives of seven very special Americans disintegrated in a horror of flame.

From that moment our parish was not the same, our lawns and classrooms and even our parking lots were not the same, because the words of St. Peter’s First Epistle moved out of the pages of Scripture and into our lives on a chilly January morning: “Do not be surprised, beloved, that a trial by fire is occurring in your midst.”

Our Catholic faith is a religion of the future. We can understand the convictions, scientific and philosophical and perhaps religious, which inspired the seven space heroes to board the Challenger shuttle for a flight into the future. They were explorers for all of us, just as they were neighbors to all of us.

We Christians, blessed by a God of eternal life, know that we have a proper role in the world, a role that encourages us to understand the nature of the universe and to enter into that universe with confidence. We understand that even as we live each day we are dying a bit each day until we reach the final goal, which comes so unexpectedly and never quite in the manner of our own choosing, comes as it did to our neighbors Gregory B. Jarvis, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J. Smith and the shuttle commander Francis “Dick” Scobee.

It is part of our role in this world to respond to God’s many gifts, using those gifts to establish within the world a measure of love, of dignity, of simple goodness. Here where we live and pray, in this part of the world known as the Space Coast, we enjoy a profound sense of the awesome power of the Almighty to engage the men and women of his creation in a course of growth, a course that leads to new horizons. We live life fully because we know that there are great wonders ahead.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

You have a plan? Or a plan to get one?

Elderly people, especially those diagnosed with diseases that do not yet have a cure, often plan for simpler lifestyles. That may begin with extra space in the garage because driving a car is over. Life is said to be simpler without driving to the supermarket, church, doctor’s office, movies, post office or whatever. It is good luck to have numerous relatives and friends who like to drive their relatives and friends.

Progressive diseases are not uncommon in what preachers, comedians and manufacturers of wheelchairs call the golden years. It is said that elderly people sometimes are like children to their own adult children. But children grow and become more active, more independent.

For many elderly there are times of planning to give up the house with the extra bedrooms, and move into a condo. Plans are made for life in a retirement center, or with family, or maybe in a nursing home. Each of these moves is likely to be constricting, a tightening of belts, books, television sets and furniture. Each works best when it doesn’t just happen, but is anticipated.

So it is a sign of more or less normal mental health and self-awareness for someone past 90, with a disease the textbooks call incurable, to think how to make the most of changes ahead. If a person eventually has to spend most of the time in bed, what few things should be at hand? For me that would include the latest version of Amazon’s Kindle/Fire, which is a hand-held library of books, movies and TV shows,  plus email and other electronic treats. In my greed I’d want to have a laptop computer as well.

All kind of fun and all kinds of sorrow pass through our brains on their way to showing up as a smile, a smell, a flavor, a tear, a sound. One reason prayer means so much is that it kindles love and tilts the brain toward the smiling side. My brain is shrinking, my doc says, and my wristwatch hanging loosely says that my arm is shrinking, too. Shrinking brains and shrinking arms need exercise, and exercising even a leaky brain can be even more fun than flexing skinny wrists.

Suppose something about a disease rules out the ordinary use of fingers to strike keys and buttons? Suppose talking becomes difficult or impossible, and swallowing a struggle? Thinking ahead ought to be an adventure, a stretching of the imagination. Finding out how others have handled the same issues offers satisfaction to the planner and those who embrace the planner. It doesn’t hurt to consider the original Planner, the Eternal, who alone knows what it all means.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Silent crash

It was a silent crash again, just like the first time. I was rocked by a computer crash a couple of decades ago. This time I could read the signs; I knew it was coming. But there’s something so radical about a computer crash that the silence is not normal. The machine ought to growl or bark as it chews up years of memory, so the yelling of the user will not be so stark.

Those of us who have been diagnosed with Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) are philosophical about this kind of thing, learning as we do that the joys and debits we save may erase themselves, every trophy a potential atrophy.

All diseases are bullies. Like the armed bullies in current headlines, they remind us that all of our plans are subject to change. A crash could even be for my own good, an intervention by a sort of angelic editor--admittedly a rare description of an editor. Such a supereditor, coming out of his or her (its?) black hole to screen the product, glancing at the million words I wrote for periodicals, books and letters, scrunches a blue pencil through every line. Words a writer inspires an editor retires.

Much of the stuff that was wiped out on my senior computer is still available on the laptop I’m using now, and I think more is stashed away in backup. I’ll check it out. MSA lets me think about one thing at a time, although I still walk and eschew puns at the same time. But it takes me two hours to watch “60 Minutes.”

About this time of the year, when Chicago gets its first snowfall of the season, I have in recent years begun my production of Christmas cards. MSA and its co-conspirator, Arthritis, ruled out handmade holiday cards even before the crash. I believe in Santa Claus as first among seasonal apps, and I wish you a Merry Christmas. Christ gives meaning to everything, even including MSA. Christ gives power to prayer.

This was not always my view. When I was 6, in the second year of the Great Depression, I was shocked to find that Santa had gone wild. His idea of Christmas presents was some new union suits, knickers, long johns with flaps, and a nightgown. I met Santa at the church Christmas celebration, and was reassured when he gave each kid an orange and the thin curlicue candy I still associate with Christmas trees. I did not recognize Santa, who was my costumed grandpa stuffed with a secret pillow.

Nobody, not even Google, knew anything about MSA in those days. Nobody knows enough about it today, but a cure is evolving from research. Pam Bower, Vera James, Philip Fortier, Larry Kellerman and others have generated support for research via The MSA Coalition. I’m one of many who value the work of the volunteers and the professionals who are going to find a cure for the disease I call MSA, or Honey I Shrunk the Brain.

There’s nothing like an incurable, progressive disease to stir thoughts about the dependency of everything that lives. Not a person, not a plant or an insect probing a plant, not even the wind or the water, has a life independent of all life. Anxious patients and generous caregivers tend to ponder, to meditate on, the purpose of the living, loving Eternal.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Catholic New World /
Dolores Madlener with Pope
John Paul II
November 15 - 28, 2015
Dolores Madlener puts down her pen and paper
By Michelle Martin
Staff Writer

The following is an updated version of a story about Dolores Madlener that originally ran on Sept. 28, 2008, on the occasion of Madlener’s 30th anniversary working for the Archdiocese of Chicago’s newspaper. Madlener, 86, retired Nov. 1.

Over the years, she profiled every parish in the archdiocese, spread “benevolent gossip” in Church Clips, introduced readers to dozens of priests and religious in “Five Minutes with Father” and “Conversations with the Consecrated” and spent decades doing the most tedious of jobs, compiling the “Around the Archdiocese” calendar listings.

Her presence in these pages will be greatly missed.

In early September of 1978, Pope John Paul I was in the midst of his 28-day papacy, Cardinal John Cody led the Archdiocese of Chicago and A.E.P. “Ed” Wall, the editor of The Chicago Catholic, as this newspaper was then known, was in need of a secretary.

Dolores Madlener, meanwhile, was working at the American Medical Association headquarters in Chicago.

Madlener, who celebrated her 30th anniversary working for the archdiocesan newspaper on Sept. 11, 2008, said she can thank Father William P. Murphy, then pastor of Queen of Martyrs Parish in Evergreen Park, for pointing her toward the job of editor’s secretary.

“We both thought I’d be a perfect fit, except Father Murphy was never wrong,” said Madlener, who put together the “Around the Archdiocese” events listings, wrote “Church Clips” and “Five Minutes with Father” in every issue.

“I was active in my parish as CCD coordinator at the time. Actually I was involved in my parish since it was founded. Father knew I had good secretarial skills and he knew I took the church seriously.”

Madlener was no stranger to the pages of the paper. She was a loyal subscriber, she said, “and I wrote letters to the editor at the time. Usually complaining.”

Wall evidently agreed with Murphy, because he hired Madlener and even had her coming in after-hours to help out after she gave notice at the AMA.

Madlener noticed the difference immediately.

“We think there’s a bureaucracy in the church, but it was nothing compared to the AMA,” she said. “The ‘hierarchy’ at AMA differed from the hierarchy I found on the fourth floor in the Pastoral Center. It’s really been the people as well as the subject matter that’s kept me here. AMA was so impersonal compared to the archdiocese.”

The waves of young journalists who have worked at the newspaper have kept her young, Madlener said, and each of the six editors — not to mention four archbishops — have made enough changes to keep things fresh.
“As the years went by, I don’t think I’ve ever felt the passing of the time,” she said. “I try to live in the present moment. When I do, it doesn’t feel like 10 years, doesn’t seem like 20 years. It’s like a river, I guess.”

It’s been decades since the Catholic New World editor had a secretary. When Wall moved to Florida after Madlener had been on the job for 10 years, she continued as secretary for a time, handling correspondence and signing her name and title, “secretary to the editor.”

“But I realized with no editor, that position was going to be obsolete,” she said.
So she transferred her skills from the electric typewriter to the newsroom computer system and volunteered to take on the “most tedious job in the newsroom” — putting together “Around the Archdiocese.”

But Madlener did not find it so tedious.

“I had been active in PR in my parish for years,” she said. “I knew how important it was to A&R (Altar and Rosary Society) women to get their card parties and craft fairs in. They were like my sisters ... even though I wished they’d remember to put in the phone number or address so I wouldn’t have to check back.”

Madlener also continued doing secretarial work for successive editors. When Sister of Providence Cathy Campbell came on board, Madlener was taking minutes at an editorial advisory board meeting when the talk turned to perennial worries about circulation. Someone joked that it was too bad the paper couldn’t run a horoscope column, or better yet, a gossip column.

Inspiration struck, and Madlener went home and wrote a prototype of a “benevolent gossip” column, and “Church Clips” was born. It debuted Aug. 5, 1988.

Over the years, Madlener also took on a regular question-and-answer column similar to Chicago newsman Bob Herguth’s “Chicago Profile” column in the Sun-Times. It was similar enough that when she was asked to do “Noteworthy,” Madlener felt like she was imitating, and called Herguth to ask if it was all right to copy his format and say, “By the way, how do you do it?”

“He was very gracious, and said people copy things all the time,” Madlener said. “And he told me how he went about it.”

Later, when Madlener asked Herguth to consider doing a profile on then-assistant editor Mary Claire Gart, he turned the tables and asked to do one of her, instead.

She also profiled each parish in Chicago, in “Parish Pride,” and, in 2007, started a feature to help Catholics get to know their clergy, called “Five Minutes with Father.” This year, that has become “Conversations with the Consecrated” in honor of the Year of Consecrated Life.

“I really think ‘Five Minutes with Father’ is my favorite feature,” she said in 2008. “It’s touched me the most. I always start by asking the priest to lead us in prayer. I’m impressed by their generosity of spirit, to be so open. I hope that by getting to know them better, our readers will be moved to pray even harder for our priests.”

Madlener maintained a close relationship with those readers, many of whom feel as if they know her.

“I just feel about my readers that I know each one of them, one at a time,” she said. “In a social situation, I don’t know NASCAR from ‘Desperate Housewives.’ But if you say what parish you’re from, we can go from there. … I know people by the letters they write to me and the phone calls they make. I especially like when I put something in the column asking, ‘If you’d like a copy of the Angelus, send me a self-addressed stamped envelope.’

“Then I get all these really nice notes from people who share what’s in their hearts. And I write them a note thanking them for subscribing. Without them, where would we be? We’d be writing this in our diary, instead of in a newspaper.”

835 N. Rush St., Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 534-7777

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Waiting for the crash

Once again I’m the caregiver, hugging and holding on while my elderly desktop PC struggles. Sometimes it remembers what computers do, but it often forgets how to do it. It is running out of time. I will miss it because it contains my treasured PageMaker, which I bought about 15 years ago, and other programs too cranky for installation in today’s Windows 10.

Soon I’ll switch to my backup laptop. I’m not at ease using a laptop keyboard with its relatively large space in front of the keys. My first computer was an Apple, a generous gift from Our Sunday Visitor and its associated Noll Printing Company when I retired from their boards around 1983. My son David has it now.

It wasn’t easy to get this old Dell online this morning.After it connected I read in Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac that 11/12/1889 is the birthday of DeWitt Wallace. Wallace and his wife created The Readers Digest, which once sold nearly 30 million copies in 15 languages. When I was in junior high school The Reader’s Digest contained no advertising, and we kids were encouraged by our English teachers to buy a copy each month for 15 cents.

When I was 12 I was teased about my enthusiasm for this magazine. After all, it was not like being a fan of The American Scholar or Foreign Affairs. The Digest provided ideas and funny stories and shortcut books. Heinz condensed soup. The Wallaces condensed books. Someone once wisecracked that the American Catholic bishops ended an annual meeting and headed for their hotel rooms, copies of The Reader’s Digest in hand. If they’d all been carrying The American Scholar, they’d have been rapped as elitists.

I saw a current issue was when I was in my dentist’s waiting room. It was not the magazine of DeWitt Wallace’s time. I haven’t read it in more than half a century, but it was just right when I read it in the 1930s and when I worked for it for half a year in the late 1940s. First came an invitation to have lunch with DeWitt and Lila Acheson Wallace in their Pleasantville, New York, offices. Then they offered me a three-month assignment at a dazzling $500 a month, and I took it.

Everything changes. The magazine that enlivened English classes more than 75 years ago is different from the one that’s published now. My computer doesn’t go back 75 years, but computers age more like faithful dogs and so it is allowed, under the laws of political correctness, to be sentimental about them.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Good luck, good times, and don't forget the password

            It has taken time for me to learn why I am a slow learner, and to discover that’s not all bad. I forget slowly, too. There’s a slow leak in my brain, according to a neurologist who assigned me to tests in a noisy cylinder, tests with needles and even fill-in-the-blanks tests. I didn’t need medical machinery to remind me how many times I had made wrong decisions. Wrong decisions, even when they are made with good intentions, are still wrong. Somebody has to pay, and that’s where the wincing begins.

            It can be a mistake to change jobs and move to an unfamiliar city. How about taking a job that require lots of days out of town? What about promises not kept, games and picnics and holidays missed? Don’t forget careless financial decisions that squeeze family budgets. All of those errors fit on the tiny tip of a titanic iceberg of bad choices. Penitents sometimes think they are their only victims, overlooking the pain to kids, spouses, parents, pals, co-workers, neighbors.

            Most of my friends are Christians, Buddhists or nonbelievers. Anyone may have an agnostic moment because of events or the lack of events, or maybe boredom, but believers have the advantage of knowing they are not alone and that even the most confounded life is worth living. Life is never lived alone. It is awful that lonely people don’t know this. There’s a radiance emanating from each of us that wants to embrace others. Some respond with a radiant radar of their own, but others brace themselves and electrify their fences.

            For years I’ve described the ways a rare and incurable disease has worked its way from a small tingle in my legs to loud jingles here and there. It is called multiple system atrophy, MSA. Symptoms and the speed of their movement are not the same in all patients. I’m lucky enough to be writing this at age 90, more than a dozen years after I was diagnosed and decades after the symptoms began to appear. I started keeping my balance with a walking stick around 1970 and with a rollator by 2005. I acknowledge that I’m lucky, but then again I’d have been luckier not to have any disease at all.

            Then I remember. Life starts with a jolt. Saints have endured torture and painful diseases. Life is nifty in many ways, but life also is tough. Ask Christ Jesus about that.

            But Christ shows us that satisfaction comes from passing on the blessings that come to us, and doing what we can to overcome the bad luck of ourselves and others.

            Did I mention how lucky I am? It is true. I’m lucky that you have read this far. I’m lucky to have been shown that mistakes open the way to corrections, that the mistakes called sins may be forgiven. I’ve reshaped my reading of the Daily Office to fit my shrinking attention span, the length of time I read  before I doze off. Reading all of it would require starting yesterday. And thank God for the Kindle, which recites the Daily Office out loud, so nobody knows when I forget the words.

            It doesn’t matter if I forget the words to my daily reading of fiction. I just finished reading a Western and today I’m starting Patricia Cornwell’s new novel, “Depraved Heart.” I’ll soon know who Dr. Kay Scarpetta is sending to jail or the morgue. Maybe she’ll find that missing cure for MSA.

            Words come and go. My daily reading includes The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune online. The mail carrier brings the New Yorker, America, Esquire, Catholic New World, Commonweal, Sports Illustrated, Scientific American, New York Review, the Progressive and a bunch of additional favorites. MSA makes it a challenge to hold the magazines with flexible fingers, especially Foreign Affairs and other heavy ones, and shrinking type is a bother.

            Life makes time for meditation, especially prayers for victims of disasters, crimes and sickness, appreciation for family and friends, the cooling of global warming.

            Remember the password: Aloha.



Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Remember Aunt Addie

Happy birthday to my Aunt Addie, whose cake would be a fire hazard with its 127 candles. She was born Addie Olmstead in 1888, married Archie Vaughn and loved him intensely. She wanted children, but had none. The last time I talked with her she was about the age I am now, and she said she hoped my children would remember her. After her retirement she became a full time volunteer at her church. A neighbor warned her that she worked too hard in her garden and risked collapsing there, and she replied that she couldn’t think of a better place to collapse than among her flowers. I hope she knows she is remembered.

Another birthday is at hand, and this man will be remembered by a few thousand of his best friends and admirers. The Rt. Rev. John W. Howe, retired Episcopal Bishop of Central Florida, has shown many how to pray. He still does. There will be Happy Birthday prayers for him on November 4.

Sally, my amazing wife, loved her family and was a compulsive do-gooder. She fought back against polio and massive surgery. I used to tease her that it was easy to remember our wedding anniversary because it was five days ahead of the Marine Corps birthday. One of them is 61 years, or maybe 62, and the other is 240 years, both early in November.

Remember the Alamo, Remember the Maine, Remember Mama—and don’t forget to remember Aunt Addie.