Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Backing into a choice parking space


I found a fresh jar of Kava in the alphabetical mover’s carton between Jerky and Lemon juice. I  poured a tall glass halfway full, straight from the cold water faucet, added a generous spoonful of Kava, then some sweetener, stirred it all in a vigorous hurricane style and then added cubes of the final ingredient for iced coffee.

We’ve moved. There are lots of upsides to downsizing. Furniture, clothing, books, electronics went to family, friends and charities by the ton. Ask almost any Veldman, even a Wall or two, about the tonnage, much of it hauled up stairways and down stairways, around and over obstacles fixed in place years ago by determined plumbers and carpenters.

If you were planning ways to downsize from a large home to a smaller one, you might turn out a new home just like this one. Our move took us almost literally from one end of Orland Park to the other. In the big house I used to think that a mild nudge would slide us out of Cook county and into Will county. Our new address is in Orland Park also, but the back door is not many steps from the Palos Park boundary line, maybe 20 minutes closer to Midway Airport.

Marie and Mark, my daughter and son-in-law, have brought the vibes of affection, fun and caring along to this new address. Whether it is the five-pound tail-wagger learning the ways of an invisible fence for dogs, or a  91-year-old grandpa enjoying electronic super-gadgets and health gear only dreamed of by childhood space hero Buck Rogers, everybody thinks this place is dandy. And dandy is the word for Mark and Marie.

Along with moving sofas, there’s the less muscular issue of moving the postal mail. Friends and magazines have to be told. This move came just as my credit card expired and was to be renewed for another three years. Simple, except that all automatic payments of bills via that credit card come to a stop. The new expiration date has to be applied to each one.

I began with my monthly dues to the National Press Club. I emailed my message of change and added that I appreciated the club’s decision some time ago to collect dues monthly instead of yearly. I hardly noticed the modest monthly charge.

That led to a return email from the National Press Club in Washington. I learned that I do not pay any dues to the club, and that’s why I hardly noticed it. After 50 years in the club, a member becomes a Golden Owl and no longer pays dues. Finally, a hooter.

I give a hoot over what happened in Orlando. The horror is immense and the implications are still unwinding. Violence and hatred force their way into cities as hospitable, progressive and charming as Orlando, just as they appear in other unexpected ways and places.

When I was a kid it was common wisdom that a Catholic would never be elected president of the United States, nor would an African American, nor would the candidacy of a woman be taken seriously. Jews were denied rooms in some hotels, home ownership in some neighborhoods and membership in some clubs. Black citizens were subjected to wider restrictions, especially in justice, politics and education. Just as white men and women were active abolitionists during the shame of slavery, white legislators, judges and journalists of my generation fought successfully for civil rights laws. The conscience of a nation was enlarged in a couple of generations, not long in terms of history but each moment was too long for the victims.

I’m no longer that kid who was born during the Coolidge administration, growing up in the Great Depression, coming of age during World War II. The population of the USA was not much more than a third of what it is today. Most of the action in commerce and agriculture seemed to be east of the Mississippi. Radio was big, newspapers were bigger. Television was still a notion awaiting motion. John Dillinger and Al Capone were famous, but crime and drugs seemed tamer than they were to become.

Religion was everywhere, in the Easter Parade, in the Catholic Legion of Decency and the banning of books in Boston, in the serving of fish in Friday school lunches and Bing Crosby crooning Christian music in the movies. The Methodists and others enacted Prohibition for a while, then the country repealed it and the crime it nurtured. The prohibition idea was applied to drugs, but it put huge numbers of prisoners into prisons at great social and monetary cost. It stimulated more crime.

Christians do not seem to be taking religion as seriously any more, in North America and Europe especially. Marriage is more optional. Mosques are being built, but not so many churches or synagogues. I’d like to be around to see how this works out, but I have lived through the most stimulating years in human history, years of invention more than convention.

I’ve been loved and I’ve been hated. I’ve been cheered and despised. I’ve been right and I’ve been wrong. In school I was taught cursive writing and the use of blotters. I took classes in mechanics and woodworking, using methods and tools now in museums, and with the rest of the boys I learned about blueprints while the girls sewed. There’s an invisible cosmic blueprint for goodness, for good impulses, and I think that blueprint is adapted to worship everywhere. So don’t be surprised, if you’re one of my friends of atheist, Jewish, Muslim, Christian or even Republican persuasion, if sometimes you see the blueprint maker in the mind’s eye, or any eye.

In my teens I survived a strep infection because my doctor decided to try something new, called penicillin. Medical knowledge moves on and someday there will be a cure for multiple system atrophy (MSA). Having it has not turned me into a snob, but it is a rare, if not exclusive, disease. Doctors call it progressive. I call it aggressive. It tampers with the brain. It causes dizziness and other distractions, and thanks to my children and their spouses and their children  — John Wall and Pam Heyda, who will arrive here today from San Francisco for a visit; Drs. Marie and Mark Veldman, the outsized downsizers; and David and Toni Wall, who were just here from Seattle for a week — I am spared much of the exasperation of it. But writing becomes physically demanding like rock climbing, so I’ll be downsizing these essays. I used to get paid by the word. Old habits are the toughest. So are old men.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

I'm sorry to be a few years late

You may have heard the plunk, plunk, plunk of my marbles answering the call of gravity. I’ve been losing my marbles ever since I was diagnosed with MSA, known to the public as Multiple System Atrophy and to insiders as Marbles Slipping Away.

Dr. Freud never found a treatment for downsizing, which requires hauling furniture, documents and collectibles out of basements, attics, crawl spaces, closets, garages and sheds, where they were stored decades ago. The person engaged in downsizing decides what to give away, what to throw away and, what to sell and what to keep.

I live and downsize with my daughter and son-in-law. As I sifted through thousands of papers I wondered whether they had reproduced themselves, like a copy machine powered by rabbits.

I recognized a copy of L’Osservatore Romano’s weekly English language edition of January 14, 1991. I had saved it because it included a two-page feature about its editor, Msgr. John Muthig, whose death during a holiday visit to his home in New Jersey was an unexpected shock.

John, a brother in Christ, was a layman when I signed him up for his first newspaper job. It was at The Catholic Review in Baltimore. He was a reporter at what was then called NC, the National Catholic News Service, serving with distinction in the Rome bureau while I was NC director and editor in chief in Washington.
He followed that with two years at the Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations. He flew to Chicago for the wedding of my loving landlords. Later he visited the family in Orlando. We didn’t know it, but it was a goodbye visit of a gifted friend/priest/journalist/diplomat.

A couple of days ago I emailed a long-time friend of John to offer my copy of the Vatican newspaper. She accepted and mentioned blog comments she had left for me in the past.

When I was a kid we all had bags of marbles, including agates, which were maybe twice the size of ordinary marbles. When I read about those comments it was like being sideswiped on the head with a bag of agates. I was humbled—or do I mean humiliated?—to discover scores of comments on my blog, some of them several years old, a couple of them subject to erasure because of vocabulary flaws.

I’ll order a copy of Blogs for Dummies. Meanwhile I offer apologies to you. I’m sorry about my oversight and my undersight. Right now I hear voices. They’re saying Get a move on.

© A. E. P. (Ed) Wall


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

I plan to get dressed before I leave

I have it on good authority (Ecclesiastes 5:15) that I arrived at Jamestown’s Jones Memorial Hospital naked and without even a copy of Aquinas or Augustine. I expect to depart better dressed than that but without Cardinal Newman bound in leather or even a book of coupons for a church lottery.  I'm trying now to give away the last of my books, including such things as sturdy Library of America editions of five Faulkner novels, four American poetry collections, even  couple of Emerson plus Grant's dandy autobiography.

When I told Sister Bernard Lynch, O.P., about the vigorous downsizing in progress here at the home of my daughter and son-in-law, Drs. Marie and Mark Veldman, she gave downsizing her blessing. It keeps us on our toes, she said, something those of us with gout cannot deny.

She spoke also about the value of disposing of things. Jesus is good at this. Nowhere in scripture is Jesus carrying a book bag, steadying a Dell on his lap or locking a suitcase. The man who could have everything paid no excess baggage fees.

Sally and I sold our house in Orlando a few years ago, but we had to give away the memories. Memories that looked like pictures, or clocks, books. or dishes, were swept away in sunny yard sales and too often in trash collection trucks, the storage of last resort.

Then we moved into a new century and a new address, a cheerful condo in suburban Chicago. Even the neighbors were cheerful.

We were proudly downsized when we left Orlando. Gone were drawers full of anonymous keys, forgotten nails and toys for the cat. Gone were boots stored for the next hurricane, which never came, and gone were the mouldy batteries from the same storeroom, chisel-resistant dried-out shoe polish, belts too long or too short, a cuffless suit from World War II. Any smugness we felt came from knowing we had filled our drawers, cabinets and crawl spaces before the hoarders got started.

My grandpa filled cabinets with his collected treasures, Not many collectors could show off a dry coconut brought back to Jamestown after one of the winters he operated a horse car in Palm Beach. He worked at the original Breakers hotel, one of Henry Flagler’s places. It burned down in 1903, a year before my mom was born.

My dad was a collector, too. He filled our dining room with a pipe organ he bought from a church. Now I have my own collections, but the coconuts and pipe organs stop here. So do the memories of William Sheldon Olmstead, horse car driver in Palm Beach and streetcar motorman in Jamestown, enthusiastic reader of newspapers wherever he was. I was allowed to look at them, but I had to leave no creases, tears or smudges.

Now my own collections must expire, the books and the trinkets displayed in my own cabinet. My long experience with the Catholic Church prepares my head to celebrate my multiple system atrophy, to decorate it and absorb its gifts of dizziness, aches and tumbles. My long experience with the Episcopal Church reminds me that the celebration should be dignified.

I don’t think one answer satisfies all. The Eternal allows me three children and six grandchildren, and each one is unique. Talents in music, games, math and politics are not the same. Their purpose and character and good looks are closer to the same.

My own purpose in trying to unload things and memories of things begins in the most ordinary of ways. We’re moving from a big house to a more modest one. I am moving in expectation of simpler management of my life and time to explore some of the hints of what looks like the impossible, a timeless future. I’m embarrassed by the appearance of name-dropping, but the son of God is a mentor.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Getting ready to make a move

David’s t-shirt was boldly lettered Wall University. David, my son; Toni, my daughter-in-law; and Jacob, my grandson flew in from Seattle to celebrate some March birthdays. Jacob turned a tall twenty, while his cousin Matt Veldman turned a tall twenty-two. Doris, my mom, was born 112 years ago. March is the month for my ninety-first, and for the birthdays of Ernie Bennett, Rachel Murphy, Kate Graham and other nifty people.

The t-shirt that began as a family joke had new vibes this time, because Trump University has become a sort of national joke. David and family stayed at Chicago’s Trump Tower two or three times. I was never there, but I did sleep in Trump’s lavish Palm Beach home before he did. His resort began as the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post. Her husband, stockbroker E. F. Hutton, invited me there when I was a young reporter in the 1940s. I still feel my embarrassment when I learned that the butler had unpacked my unsuitable suitcases. Hutton apologized that only a few of the servants had arrived from his New York estate. He was making do with what he called a skeleton staff of 16 instead of the normal 40.

Hutton never ran for president but he did try to buy the U.S. Post Office system. He thought he could make a profit on all those 3-cent stamps. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a noted stamp collector, would not play.

The mail carrier brought me another t-shirt this week. It marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of Chaminade University in Honolulu. I was chairman of the Board of Regents of what was Chaminade College of Honolulu for three years in the early 1960s. I was editor of the daily newspaper on the Big Island when my Chaminade work began. One of the corporate bosses, who thought Catholics were a menace, warned me to attend Chaminade meetings on Oahu at my own expense. Catholics were free to pray, he acknowledged, but Nobody was listening.

What a different world that was. Some feared that if John F. Kennedy were elected president, the pope would be his boss. Some now fear that Donald Trump will be elected and be his own boss.

Before long I’ll be posting a new address. Marie and Mark are taking another step in downsizing. When five kids and their friends were living here, the house and the pool and the gallon jugs of milk didn’t seem so big. We’re going to relocate in another part of Orland Park, to a house that’s just the right size. When I left my condo a couple of years ago I gave away more than a thousand books, and it was no more difficult that having part of my brain amputated. Now I’m relocating a few remaining titles. I wrote The Spirit of Cardinal Bernardin, and it was published in three editions. I contributed a chapter to a book by Candida Lund, chancellor of Dominican University, who awarded me an honorary doctorate long ago, and I was editor in chief of the American Catholic Who’s Who for a while. 

The other day I received a royalty check in the amount of $2.95. The company had sold one copy of my little book about my early experience with OPCA, olivopontocerebellar atrophy, which the medical field found so hard to spell that they changed the name of the disease to multiple system atrophy. It is still incurable, but now it is pronounceable. The Big Wave, my tsunami paperback, sold 40,000 copies and then disappeared.

Most of the books I read these days are on my Kindle. My latest Kindle is called a Fire, and I’m confident Amazon knows why. The Fire is one of the miracles of our times, a sort of sub-miracle inspired by the computer.

Without Fire and Dell and H-P and the like, life would be a cold, not cool, experience for those of us with multiple system atrophy. MSA doesn’t yield readily to a patient’s relationship with computers. It is the mother of typos, and derails a train of thought, word by fading word, before the writer can get to the end of a sentence. Dizziness is a totally inadequate word to describe the swirling brainspin of MSA.

When the next chapter of this benevolent blog appears will depend on when we move, and how much movement MSA will allow at the keyboard. My favorite but elderly desktop computer has crashed. The Dell laptop in front of me now is dandy, but when the desktop died it took my PageMaker with it. Adobe’s last major release of PageMaker was in 2001, when I bought mine from Best Buy. It was a happy choice for 15 years.



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.