Tuesday, October 11, 2016

When a debater becomes a debaser

You only have to change one letter to turn a debater into a debaser. A debaser is a person who lowers quality or character or value, a dedicated pessimist and spoiler. Debate and democracy serve each other.

Debasers throw beer cans at athletes. They shout words once kept on a high shelf, out of reach for the sober. I was 17 when I first heard words of four letters each used conversationally, rolling off the asbestos lips of drill instructors in the different world of 1942. Almost everybody was at war. Men were drafted into military service. Women volunteered for the armed forces and filled all kinds of war production jobs. Gas was rationed, there were no new cars for civilians, food was rationed, book margins were trimmed to save paper, there were blackouts and the horror of receiving a Western Union telegram announcing the loss of a spouse, a child, a sibling, a parent.

Wars continue, but relatively few Americans are part of them. There’s no draft, no war tax, no rationing of gas and food. The country is so great it continues to provide medical care and food for people of any nationality whose lives are impacted by war, tsunami, hurricane, earthquake or flood. But the melting pot country of e pluribus unum developed a medical pot enthusiasm for celebrating differences. That’s part of a process of sharing respect. Not everybody sees it that way. Although nobody anticipated the degradation of politics that erupted in 2016, citizens expect that political sickness will heal itself, as it has in other times of challenge.

I’ve been exposed to a lot of politics. I’ve covered campaign rallies, presidents and governors, written editorials, worked for Hawaii statehood, and loved it all. I spent a few years observing Vatican politics at close range.

Catholic politics is mostly clerical. My time as communications officer for the Episcopal Diocese  in Orlando showed me why so many presidents of the United States have been Episcopalians. The Episcopal Church blends religious and democratic instincts into a denomination of prayers and votes, preaching and politics, generosity in outreach, and lusty singing.

Politics where we work, politics in government, politics in religion, the politics of education and even in family life, is here to stay, along with death and taxes and tax returns.

Back in the 1970’s, when I chaired the salary committee of a printing company, I was alerted by management that health care costs were going to rise very high and very soon. That did not prevent me from picking up an expensive disease called multiple system atrophy, which awaits discovery of a cure by dedicated medical researchers.

Thanks to family and friends I’m receiving better care and kinder comments than even candidates for president. With a firm grip on my rollator I walk from one end of the house to the other as surely as if my head were not full of sloshing oatmeal. I’ve received my share of MSA symptoms, and some of them are cutting into my computer fun. It could be a lot worse. I don’t think I’ll make Christmas cards this year, but I’m going to vote, and I won’t be the only dizzy voter in 2016. I voted for the first Catholic president, the first African-American president and the first Hawaiian president.

And soon another first.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Candidates dizzy? So are some voters

The medical folks say that my rare disease has no cure, and the most promising candidate for president has not yet promised to cure it. The experts say there may be no more than 25,000 of us in the United States. We may not be numerous, but we are dizzy enough to make a valuable voting bloc.

Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) is a homeless ailment that settles itself in the brain like a TV cable company, deciding what its host will see and not see. It gives its victim the diminished animation known as a poker face, but adds a clumsiness that betrays a poker hand. It often wipes out sweating, like an underarm spray that just kept going.

MSA usually appears when a person is in the 50’s. It takes time to diagnose, so there may be some confusion about the precise starting time. One study says that the median survival time after diagnosis is nine years, but another records more than 20 years. If I had my way, both party platforms would call for a higher minimum age.

MSA apparently strikes at random, like the referee at a political debate. It is not contagious and it is not inherited from parents, no matter how goofy they may seem. The doctors say it is progressive. It advances fast in some cases, slowly in others. I am one of the lucky ones, having been labeled slow poke by my mom. Since my diagnosis 14 years ago I’ve become a rollator navigator, learned how to unchoke, how to tumble, how to use the TV captions on all of the shows because all of the performers have started to mumble.

The days slow down, and I enjoy them. The new math is hard to figure, but 24 hours feels like 48, while I spend 24 hours doing what I used to do in 12. I have less time for Facebook and making cards. I’m still here, still in love with family and friends and the Eternal. No big deal. No sweat!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

It was a dandy headline, but then I forgot it

Grandpa William Olmstead reading his newspaper.

I didn’t understand oldness when I was a kid. Nobody around me acted old. My grandpa was up at 3 o’clock every morning to get the first streetcar of the day on the tracks. He was in his youthful 70's and so was my grandma, the one who got up before dawn one Christmas morning so she could do the laundry, hang it up to dry, iron it and put it away. Christmas that year fell on a Monday. Monday was Wash Day and in 1933 Monday was Christmas, both sacred in ways known to my grandma and her neighbors.

It was the Great Depression that had me living with my grandparents in Celoron, N.Y., in 1933, but mental depression may have been a threat to those septuagenarians, all of a sudden having to get an eight-year-old kid off to school every day.

Social Security was still a dream in the mind of an Episcopalian layman, one of 11 who served as president of the United States, and the years of the Great Depression were not notable for pensions generally. Life expectancy for Americans in 1933 was 63.3 years. There weren’t so many elderly, and they were largely invisible. There weren’t many ramps and power wheelchairs to get the disabled out of the house, no wide aisles for shopping or public rest rooms for people with special needs. By 2014 life expectancy had climbed to 78.94, and ways to keep smiling despite disease and disability had climbed with it.

Family and friends, and some strangers, too, have shown me how to enjoy the aging process in ways I could not have imagined. I didn’t try very hard to imagine it when I was young. I was astonished, several decades ago, to be named to the White House Conference on Aging. I didn’t know anything about aging, and I wasn’t ready to learn. If I had looked over my shoulder I would have seen the caisson loaded with dizzy brain cells and wrinkling surfaces . It was getting closer.

Once a journalist, always a journalist, is one of my earliest professional superstitions. It was already taking form in that Celoron house in 1933 when my pal Harold Lind and I produced a neighborhood newspaper, with circulation limited only by the amount of carbon paper at our disposal.  Harold, the smartest boy in school, was killed in the Battle of the Bulge in the war we thought would assure world tranquility.

Those journalism genes have kept my itchy typing fingers turning out occasional reports on the rare, incurable disease called Multiple System Atrophy, once known as Olivopontocerebellar Atrophy. I provide an insider’s view, having been diagnosed several years ago. It is a difficult disease to diagnose, and I probably had it for a while before it was named.  Well, some of my co-workers may have had a short name for it, but they usually were patiently confused.

There aren’t many new symptoms, but the old squishy-head symptoms are more aggressive. They add a feeling of adventure to rising out of a chair, or getting out of bed, or taking a shower. There’s a pill for gout, other pills for other things, the names of which I have forgotten because there is no pill for remembering them. The brakes are on, hidden in the throat, fingers, brain, feet. MSA folks tend to get slower. Now that I’m 91 years old I celebrate the happy fact that I’m slow to stop. It is a good omen, and I wish I could remember to buy a lottery ticket.

Thanks for reading this far. I still read a lot, enjoying the latest John Sandford novel, “Extreme Prey.” This gave me a momentary thought about writing a book to be called “Extreme Pray.” Maybe that notion came from some other current reading of Franciscan Father Richard Rohr and Jesuit Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin during an intermission between mystery/adventure novels on my Kindle Fire. I continue to enjoy the poets, including the vast poetry of the Gospels. May the good news be with you.

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.